Top 50 Albums of 2014

future islands top 50 albums of 201410. Future Islands
Singles (4AD)

Everything you need to know about Future Islands can be found in singer Samuel T. Herring’s passionate eyes. Or his sweet dance moves.Of course, the Baltimore bands synth-pop is pretty great, too. It’s called Singles for a reason; no other album this year had a better balance of hook-loaded songs. Herring’s unique voice, touched-up with the perfect bit of rust, is striking enough to be the easy focal point of Future Islands, but the instrumentation makes it clear that this was a team effort. The rhythm of Singles is driven by firm basslines that can turn out quick little riffs, and Gerrit Welmers’ synth work is utterly aquatic against drums that sound as clear as the light of day. But, really, it’s Herring who grabs the listener immediately. He’s an honest and earnest guy with lots of nice things to say: “She feeds me daily soul / she creeps right to my soul”; “You look like a rose, especially a long way from home”; “Feel safe, grandfather looking over me”; and “She looks like the moon / she says it’s the light.” If you’re looking for a reference point, it’s Beach House. Herring has been lauded for his flamboyant dances, but I can’t blame him. Singles gives me the urge to do exactly the same. – JJM

top 50 albums of 2014 todd terje9. Todd Terje
It’s Album Time (Olsen)

It finally happened. We finally received that long-awaited full-length from one of Norway’s most consistent producers. Not only that, but the album actually met all of the unreasonably high expectations placed upon it. If singles like “Inspector Norse” and “Strandbar” suggested an album of party-ready jams, the resulting album was even more adventurous. It’s an ecstatic, genre blending mix of electro-funk and space disco, but that’s oversimplifying things. Terje even restlessly manages to slip a little Calypso in. Considering the album’s generous use of live instruments alongside soaring analog synths, comparisons to Random Access Memories were inevitable, but It’s Album Time is a far more unwieldy affair. It’s an album that proves that those early singles were no fluke; if anything, they were just a tip of the iceberg. – CK

top 50 songs of 2014 angel olsen8. Angel Olsen
Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)

Angel Olsen has the most beautiful voice in popular music, but it’s not perfect by any standard. Her vocal presentation is simultaneously superhuman yet obviously flawed. Yet single every crack, every airy breath is used as an advantage to her work; a fact proven by the manner in which the singer/songwriter’s coos on stage match those she puts on record. Her songwriting, too — the way she exposes herself; her thoughts, desires and mistakes — is both devastatingly human and mesmerizingly bizarre. Considering all this, it’s no surprise that Burn Your Fire For No Witness had such a heavy impact on critics and fans alike; you could almost say that the record has everything you could hope for from a singer-songwriter. Olsen hits it out of the park on quiet, gloomy solo pieces like “Unfucktheworld” and “White Fire,” only to kick ass with her full band on “Hi-Five” or “Enemy.” But not once does it feel as if Olsen has turned her back on you; the listener is always present, sitting at Angel’s feet as she spills her guts overhead. – ATB

swans top 50 albums of 20147. Swans
To Be Kind (Young God)

This summer, my roommate and I watched a Criterion DVD of Jean Painleve’s silent science films and listened to To Be Kind. For a pretentious whim, it paid off: it’s hard to think of a better companion for Swans’ punishing thirteenth record than black-and-white footage of seahorses strangling one another, microorganisms consuming one another, evidence of nature’s relentless cruelty. To Be Kind embraces this bleakness, breaking down what it means to be human (the emotionless listing of meaningful human moments in “Some Things We Do” is particularly devastating), then recognizes that life is beautiful anyway (have Swans ever recorded a more affirming song than the title track?). No record this year has operated — or delivered — on such a massive, satisfying scale. – SP

top 50 albums of 2014 flying lotus6. Flying Lotus
You’re Dead! (Warp)

Stephen Ellison has a reputation for producing music that sometimes sounds like spacey electro-pop and other times it sounds like jazzy instrumental hip-hop. You’re Dead! stitches all those sounds together beautifully. Ellison didn’t act alone though — instead he had a team of eclectic musical talent helping him piece together Flying Lotus’ fifth studio album. Herbie Hancock, the accomplished jazz-funk keyboardist, can be heard on “Tesla.” Ennio Morricone, composer of hundreds of film scores including the theme of The Good The Bad and The Ugly, lent his sample to “Turtles.” Thundercat is on bass, and of course, Snoop and Kendrick Lamar make key appearances. However, despite the wide range of musical expertise featured throughout, You’re Dead! stays on course as an enthralling concept-driven masterpiece – DP

top 50 songs of 2014 aphex twin5. Aphex Twin
Syro (Warp)

In 2013, Boards of Canada quietly, suddenly reappeared on every IDM fan’s radar after a long absence from any semblance of activity. The results? The insular, paranoid beauty of Tomorrow’s Harvest. There’s some hint of similarity between the Sandison brothers’ isolation and that of Richard D. James, but in reality Aphex Twin has been hiding in plain sight since Drukqs hit shelves in 2001. With occasional live dates here and pseudonymic singles there, we’ve seen glimpses of progression in his work and career. We just didn’t know how far that had gone until Syro was teased and then released this fall. It’s a swirling, gurgling, jittery record, crystalline in beauty (“aisatsana”) and—of all things—fun (“produk 29”), sometimes hitting both extremes in the same song (“minipops 67”). You can hear it twisting Minneapolis synth-funk as well as the glitch music of so many Warp Records contemporaries. Syro finds Aphex Twin making some of the most open and welcoming music of his career, and shows him at a surprising apex of his powers. – AB

spoon top 50 albums of 20144. Spoon
They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)

Hey, maybe a mixed bag is their bag. Spoon’s first release in four years found the Austinites delivering the loosest, sexiest and most, yes, soulful album in the band’s now two-decade long career. Sure, the band’s pop nucleus is still powering matters, especially on the bouncy “Let Me Be Mine,” and on the title cut. But nearly every sound experiment seems to work on They Want My Soul, from the new wave keyboards on “Outlier” and the R&B flourishes on “Knock Knock Knock.” The band rightly put out “Do You,” as the single, but the tight-jeans bulge of the Afghan Whigs-style album opener “The Rent I Pay” will likely sleep its way to the very top of a list of Spoon’s best songs. – SC

top 50 albums of 2014 the war on drugs3. The War on Drugs
Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian)

This isn’t the first time you’ve seen Lost in the Dream in the top five of a list of the Top 50 Albums of 2014, and it probably won’t be the last. But there’s a good reason for that: This is an astonishing document of American music. Lost in the Dream is Dylan, Petty and Bruce, filtered through psychedelic waves of sound and (shoe)gazes into space. I see long windy roads through the countryside on a warm summer day, but I also see worn-down communities in the cold of winter in need of repair. There’s hope, trepidation, and a lot of guitar heroics. The War On Drugs’ KEXP live session drove the fact home even further; this band is incredibly tight. Adam Granduciel saves his vocal and lyrical high mark for final track “In Reverse.” Over picturesque guitar reverb and beautiful piano, Granduciel sings, “I don’t mind you disappearing, ’cause I know you can be found.” He makes an apt point: Lost in the Dream may vanish into the depths of my record collection, but it will always find a way back to the stereo. – JJM

top 50 albums of 2014 st. vincent2. St. Vincent
St. Vincent (Loma Vista)

If each of St. Vincent’s album covers have been largely indicative of the tone awaiting the listener, the self-assured, silver haired Clark sitting on her thrown donning St. Vincent definitely gives light to where her headspace is these days. It’s been a gradual transformation, but at this point, the coyness of her debut Marry Me has been completely stripped away. The album is certainly Clark’s most confident to date as she stridently jumps from one approach to another (a confidence that is definitely earned after the brilliant Strange Mercy). From the Dap Kings’ horn blasts of “Digital Witness” which echoes her work with David Byrne, to the robotic frenzy of “Birth In Reverse” reminiscent of Strange Mercy’s more aggressive side, the album essentially provides the perfect snapshot of her career up until this point. It even comes complete with a classic Clark ballad, the stunning closer “Severed Crossed Fingers.” – CK

top 50 albums of 2014 run the jewels1. Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)

This wasn’t at all a bad year for hip-hop. Of course, you’d be forgiven for thinking so by listening to anything after Run the Jewels 2. The third collaboration between El-P and Killer Mike in as many years found the duo escalating their game rather than taking a victory lap. Though they certainly could have — the lyrical fire between these two could sustain a tossed-off mixtape with one-third the power or momentum — but that’s not Jamie and El’s game. Destroying sound systems, cutting through bullshit and, of course, putting fuckboys in their place is.

They brought some friends along for the party: Zach de la Rocha, who gives his best performance since the ’90s on the booming “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”; Travis Barker, who backs “All Due Respect” with some explosive drum work; and Gangsta Boo, who reminds us that it ain’t no fun unless the ladies get some. As much as this is a star-studded affair, of sorts, little can top the kind of chemistry and synergy that the core duo delivers. Long after the word “real” lost any meaning in hip-hop, Killer Mike and El-P redefine it, shaking off any condescending backpacker pretense and simply serving up some devastating honesty. It comes in two flavors: In throwdowns and punchlines on side one, and with a clear-eyed and skeptical conscience on side two. In a rare moment of teary-eyed emotion in St. Louis, Killer Mike even exposed his own pain and vulnerability outside the badass persona before serving up another 90-minute seat of lyrical beatdowns. Even when they’re at their most enlightened, they’re not politically correct. And at their most introspective, they’re still having the time of their lives. Truth’s truth when denied or not. Punches is thrown until you’re frontless. Oh my. – JT

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