2014 has been a year of the tragic and the absurd, with the former just about edging it. Israel-Hamas, ISIS, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Robin Williams, Ebola, Malaysia Airlines tragedies (twice!); the list of events that will characterize this year range from the God-awful to the apocalyptic. The most played song of the year, "Happy," seems particularly juxtaposed with all this.
With hard news dominating more so than any in recent memory, these best of end of year lists seem particularly trivial. However, through many of the albums listed here, there is an element of the somber, of quiet desperation. Perhaps it is coincidence. "Pop" music, on the other hand, seems more irrelevant than ever, propped up only by those that keep repeating that Taylor Swift writes her own songs and that One Direction really isn't that bad. It is, and it is not on this list.
Below is a list of ten albums worth checking out from the past 12 months. Sure it's subjective, and probably not as eclectic as others, and there's probably some great obscure record omitted by a Tibetan nose-flutist I'm not cool enough to have heard. Some that just missed the list include Todd Terje's It's Album Time (not played as often since the summer), Benji by Sun Kil Moon (great when a certain mood, that I'm glad I am not in that often) and Mogwai's Rave Tapes if I stared at this final list long enough.
With that said, here is the list of the top ten albums of 2014 to which you should be listening.
11. Temples - Sun Structures
In its late '60s heyday, psychedelic rock was thought to be forward looking, innovative, and unbound. Forty-five years later, it appears trapped in the era from which it was born, offering an accurate a depiction of what "the future" might look like, as say The Jetsons did. However, the likes of Aussie rockers Tame Impala have in recent years led a kind of psych-rock revival, proving there is plenty of life left in the genre.
Endowed with bubble perms, drainpipe trousers, and pouts that tread a fine line between uber cool and gormless, the U.K.'s Temples could be viewed as mere posing pothead pixies that own a couple of Traffic records -- certain to be also rans in this revival.
Its debut, Sun Structures, however, finds new energy in the haze of basement bong smoke, that while shamelessly flaunting its influences (5th Dimension era Byrds, 13th Floor Elevators, and Love certainly among them), contains a lush multi-layered sound scape, guitars that flit effortlessly between electro-glam acid-rock and acoustic camp fire dawdling. It's a sonic soup that is certainly derivative, put in the best possible way.
10. Kelis - Food
One of the most enjoyable albums of 2014 is also one of those that in future years might be labeled "lost classic". While Kelis, who is still remembered by the public at large for bombastic smash "Milkshake," has always been refreshingly idiosyncratic in her work, her new album takes this to new levels.
Food is a saucy smorgasboard of soul, electronic, Afro-Beat and funk. Tracks like "Biscuits n' Gravy," "Friday Fish Fry," and album opener "Jerk Ribs" show the songstress belting out a huskier, lived-in vocal, with a sassy brass backing and that smacks of vintage soul, but with new energy. Kelis continues to forge her own path, and it's fun to follow her.
9. Future Islands - Singles
Future Island frontman Samuel T. Herring wins the award for most compelling onstage performer in 2014, bounding across the stage with the operatic bombast of a man impassioned, while simultaneously gyrating every inch of his body awkwardly -- each spasm perfectly ill timed.
There's an element of everyman about him, like one of disillusioned young men from '60s English kitchen sink dramas -- behind the fragile bravado and chest thumping, not all seems well. Somehow, it works.
Like Herring's on stage persona, Future Islands' soulful '80s synth pop is awkward, unorthodox, can be brittle and cold. However, it is original, authentic, and absolutely absorbing. Their fourth album Singles exudes all of this and then some.
8. Ratking - So It Goes
Ratking shatter the gilded mediocrity of mainstream hip-hop, and with punk-like distain for the status quo, explore the dark underbelly of a post Bloomberg New York.
Amidst the shiny exteriors of million dollar listings, with verbal dexterity, this Harlem based trio assures us that it is still a city of cheap hustlers, hopeless addicts, and police brutality.
Lyrically dense, with beats that flit between woozy synths and jarring reverb, this is a record that demands to be listened to.
7. Caribou - Our Love
EDM's explosion over the past few years in the United States has seen the genre grow bloated and stodgy, corporate, bland, and mind-numbingly predictable. In this suffocating malaise, it's reassuring to know that acts like Caribou are still putting out records that are consistently brilliant.
This year's Our Love continues a wonderful run the Canadian has been on for over a decade now. His new release is at times brazenly euphoric, overflowing with sumptuous melodies, nagging hooks, and studio wizardry that proves there is still plenty of room for subtlety, creativity and the unexpected in dance music.
6. Gruff Rhys - American Interior
Apparently, Gruff Rhys' fourth solo outing, American Interior, is inspired by an 18th century explorer who tried in vain to find a Welsh-speaking native American tribe along the Missouri (there's an app, film, and book too).
Such a weighty concept may have buried lesser mortals than the Super Furry Animals frontman. Not so here. Like a psychedelic Lewis and Clark, American Interiors takes history, myth, and nationhood and spins them into an engrossing record, full of the same wit and other worldliness of the Super Furries, while weaving a story that is both tragic and bizarre.
5. Real Estate - Atlas
Real Estate's third album Atlas is mouth-wateringly sweet. These are songs from the soul of the suburbs, where sunny melodies mesh with hushed bucolic vocals, creating a sound that is both wistful and buoyant. Occasionally this breezy lightness can bring foreboding clouds in, where the New Jersey natives find angst in the pastoral, and a need to escape the safety of the humdrum for something else. However, at these points it gets intimate rather than maudlin.
4. Beck - Morning Phase
Beck has been pioneering great music for over two decades now. However, his last three albums saw flashes of brilliance, rather than broad strokes, the artist seemingly unable to channel his diverse talents into a truly great record.
This year's Morning Phase is the nearest he's come to brilliance since 2002's Sea Change -- an album it harks back to in its acoustic emphasis, melancholy tone, and creeping, drawn out strings. Mining his past glories produces some gems; "Say Goodbye" is luscious and sparse, "Wave" foreboding and cinematic, and "Morning" is perhaps his strongest vocal yet.
3. Aphex Twin - Syro
The lesser lords and gimmicky court jesters that have been keeping the throne of electronica warm for the 13 years since Richard D. James released anything under the Aphex Twin moniker, can now shuffle off into oblivion.
His new album, Syro, is at times as uncompromising and varied as its decade old predecessor Drukqs, however, it is way more cohesive, less introverted, and essentially more fun.
Even in the midst of middle age, Richard D. James is still capable of an impish ability to surprise, delight, and be playfully sinister. Tracks like "CIRCLONT14 (Shrymoming Mix)" hurtle along with familiar hypersonic pace, a whirr of blips and beeps and brittle bass lines, however, occasionally he'll throw funky drums into the mix, as on "produk 29 (101)", or a deluge of upbeat synths ("PAPAT4 (155) (pineal mix)"), and even a rather sweet, slightly ominous piano solo on album closer "Aisatana." It's quirky, weird, exciting, and so good to have him back.
2. The War On Drugs - Lost in a Dream
This is a great American record that strides across the vastness of the country, absorbing influences on the way. There's Springsteen in here, Dylan, Petty, even a little Bruce Hornsby, but Lost in a Dream transcends its influences to create something that is occasionally brooding, sometimes triumphant, always brilliant.
Euphoric synths, shift effortlessly with propulsive basslines, and unashamedly classic rock guitars and sax. The dust from desert road trips is thick, as main man Adam Granduciel seems to be both running away and running toward something, but with a Kerouac like intensity, he is always moving.
1. St. Vincent - St. Vincent
In her self-titled fourth album, Texas born New Yorker, Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, has created perhaps the nearest thing to a masterpiece 2014 has produced.
Angular funk guitar is interspersed with sparse stuttering beats and jack hammering bass, somehow finding the accessible in the unconventional. On "Every Tear Disappears," she sneers, "Yeah I live on wire/Yeah I been born twice," emphasizing the sense of rebirth and risk-taking that appears frequently on the album.
"Digital Witness" is cluttered and complex, but every sound seems meticulously chosen, creating a polished, infectious alloy of jagged, propulsive marches, jerky rhythms, and vocals that shimmer and howl.
In these 11 tracks, St. Vincent is unafraid to scar its beauty and eloquence with something that is occasionally ugly, unexpected, and always unhinged.