I can’t believe I’m doing this again. The past four years in a row I’ve committed to the exhausting task of putting together a list of my favourite 50 albums of the year, and every year I do it, its futility becomes more and more apparent. In 2013, I spent a solid 20 hours writing up this stupid list, and that’s only talking about the actual list writing. For this truly is a year long exercise in curation, one that constantly threatens to turn my enjoyment of music, an enjoyment which has barely kept me tethered to sanity over the years, into a mere machination of arbitrary numbers and useless scales. “I better check out this album, that would look great in my top 50,” I’ll catch myself saying. “I’m not even gonna bother listening to that, it’s gonna be on everyone else’s lists.” What the fuck is that all about? Has our list driven culture turned my passion for music into yet another narcissistic outlet? Yes, more than likely it has.
2014 kind of sucked for music. There was no discernible defining sound, no massive zeitgeist shifting game changer. There were a bunch of great albums, mounds of okay albums, and a plethora of disappointments. In the aftermath of Yeezus and Beyoncé, hip hop and pop in general’s development has seemed paralyzed, with the majority of artists having no idea how to expand on the absurdly forward thinking nature of those two releases. “Indie rock,” whatever that even means anymore, had a nice little classic rock revival…which it seems to do, like, every year? Electronic music flourished as it always will, but not because of the artists you’d expect it to. It was a scattershot year and my list of favourites follows in that vein, so don’t expect to pull a narrative out of the 50 albums listed below. Pulling together 50 albums I can genuinely say I enjoyed was more of a task than it has ever been in the years since I started actively giving a shit about this sort of thing, especially compared to the powerhouse years that have preceded this one. If you felt the same way, I hope I can offer you at least some sort of musical redemption somewhere along this list. Otherwise, this whole exercise has been utterly pointless. Let’s get to it then!
Phil’s Phav Phifty Twenty Phourteen Edition:
50. Real Estate – Atlas
According to my iTunes, I listened to “Past Lives” 431 times this year.
49. Alcest – Shelter
The album itself is whatever, but the last song “Delivrance” is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.
48. East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
I can’t pin this album down, which is why I keep coming back to it.
47. Mick Jenkins – The Water[s]
Low key Chicago’s newcomer with the most potential.
46. Odonis Odonis – Hard Boiled Soft Boiled
Buzz Records had a huge year and Odonis Odonis’ distinct brand of post-punk had a huge part in that.
45. Adult Jazz – Gist Is
The most fully realized debut record of 2014, there is no precedent to this band.
44. Xiu Xiu – Angel Guts: Red Classroom
Xiu Xiu doesn’t want you as a fan anymore.
43. White Lung – Deep Fantasy
The best feminist AFI album I’ve ever heard.
42. Cheveu – Bum
41. Arca – Xen
More of a mindcaress than the mindfuck of last year’s &&&&&.
40. Ero Guro – It’s OK, I’m not good in social situations either and I haven’t shot up in, like, six months but my friends all think it’s been years
This is Matthew Bankuti’s best album as Ero Guro yet, and that hasn’t slowed him down as rumour has it another full length may yet come to light in 2014 (he told me).
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39. Sunn O))) & Ulver – Terrestrials
Despite the collaborations sounding nothing alike, 2014 proved that Sunn O))) works just as well with other artists as they do operating on their own terms.
38. Thou – Heathen
Thou is the grooviest doom band going right now and Heathen was the best of their 3 (3!) releases this year.
37. The Body with The Haxan Cloak – I Shall Die Here
36. Vessel – Punish, Honey
Eschewing techno convention in favour of his own homemade instruments, this album breathed with swampy life more than any other electronic record this year.
35. Casualties of Cool – Casualties of Cool
Leave it to Devin Townsend to make arguably the only ‘country’ record I’ve ever enjoyed, although Casualties of Cool is the ghost of the genre more than anything.
34. Old Man Gloom – The Ape of God
I’ll admit to only having heard the ‘fake’ version of this album that was sent out to press, but if that supposed ‘sampler’ of the Ape Of God albums are any indication of the quality of the actual releases, then these albums are even better than I think they are.
33. Gazelle Twin – Unflesh
Creepy body horror techno that’s more unsettling in its subtlety than Pharmakon is in her brutality.
32. Dean Blunt – Black Metal
Huge shout out to Dean Blunt for being the only artist to make it on to my top 50 for four years in a row now.
31. FKA twigs – LP1
The only true post-Yeezus, post-Beyonce record to come out this year.
30. Young Widows – Easy Pain
Hands down the best guitar tones of 2014.
29. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Olsen’s torch songs kept me warm throughout all of last winter and will likely do the same this year. A vocal timbre to die for.
28. The Bug – Angels & Devils
This album would probably make my top 50 based on it’s guest appearances alone. The way Kevin Martin ties them all together into two distinct, equal halves is what makes this record essential.
27. Perfume Genius – Too Bright
In which Mike Hadreas steps out from behind the piano and gets in all of our faces.
26. Grouper – Ruins
Ruins doesn’t quite pack the emotional devastation as last year’s The Man Who Died In His Boat did for me, but it comes pretty damn close.
25. Greys – If Anything
You’re all grown up boys. After three increasingly promising EPs, Greys’ full length debut makes good on all their promise.
24. Scott Walker & Sunn O))) – Soused
23. Nothing – Guilty of Everything
This album is ‘guilty’ of being awesome. That much is for sure. This album is awesome.
22. Wreck & Reference – Want
A truly original way of looking at heavy music. These guys get it.
21. Boyfrndz – Breeder
A healthy reassurance that quality post-hardcore still exists out there, as difficult as it can be to come by.
20. Kayo Dot – Coffins on Io
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19. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
I didn’t care much for Ms. Del Rey back when she broke onto the scene in 2012. Not for any of the silly reasons like authenticity that everyone else seemed to dislike her for either. I just didn’t like the songs and I found the production to be a bit much. On Ultraviolence however, Del Rey and producer Dan Auerbach just fucking NAIL it. This album feels like the complete realization of everything Del Rey has been trying to achieve thus far, nailing the ‘decaying Hollywood’ aesthetic with a collection of absolutely killer songs to boot. Songs like “Shades of Cool” and “Cruel World” sound like the soundtrack to some bizarro world Bond film where 007 is (finally) played by a woman – probably Lana herself. Ultraviolence is the sound of Del Rey’s self-actualization; pretty impressive considering it’s only her second record so far.
18. White Suns – Totem
Post-noise rock? I thought noise rock was already subversive, but what White Suns have done on Totem makes even your noisiest noise rockers sound like fucking Nickelback. This chaotic, nihilistic beast of an album constantly implodes on itself, usually until there’s nothing left, but vicious squalls of feedback that threaten to turn your remaining cilia to mush. It’s incredibly challenging, but wholly worth suffering through for the catharsis near the end of album highlight “Clairvoyant.” I won’t ruin it for you, but holy shit.
17. Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun
Let’s just admit it: Mastodon is a hard rock band now. A hard rock band with lots of solos and heavy riffs and shit, but the ‘metal’ tag just doesn’t hold up anymore. Sorry purists, but you know it’s true. What’s ALSO true is that Mastodon is probably the best hard rock band on the planet right now. Read my review of Once More ‘Round The Sun here.
16. Helms Alee – Sleepwalking Sailors
Talk about a serious breath of fresh air for heavy music. Anything goes for Helms Alee, as long as it slays. Check out my interview with vocalist/guitarist Ben Verellen here.
15. Jenny Hval & Susanna – Meshes of Voice
The pairing of Jenny Hval & Susanna makes almost too much sense; both are Norwegians with a disquieting take on chamber pop (albeit in their respectively distinct way), and even their voices sound kinda similar. They play into this on Meshes of Voice, an album which is as much about congealing their disparate songwriting techniques as it is about seeking some sort of middle ground for them to work with. The results are some of the best, most haunting tracks in either artist’s already chilling catalogue.
14. Shellac – Dude Incredible
Every six or seven years we are blessed with a Shellac album. The ease and nonchalance surrounding the release of each of these records is something no other band could pull off, but Shellac are nothing if not unique. Dude Incredible is an incredibly distilled piece of rock music, almost like a full length songwriting representation of Steve Albini’s signature production technique; extremely tight and despite its complete lack of frills, superbly quirky. All things considered, this album is probably 2014’s best argument for middle aged white men in rock bands still having some sort of artistic merit (here’s lookin at you, War On Drugs).
13. Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE
For a record…called….LOSE……this album sure…was……a WIN……….check out me making this exact joke again in my review for LOSE here.
12. Every Time I Die – From Parts Unknown
How the hell did they do it? Seriously though? ETID has been a mainstay in the metalcore scene for like 15 years now, making them essentially the last band standing when it comes to the artistically dead genre. They’re pushing their forties and have been touring basically nonstop for the past decade. The music world has in large moved on from the metal and hardcore that dominated the Alternative Press era of the early 2000s, yet ETID continues to sell out shows all over North America. And after 2012’s Ex Lives all encompassing fury seemed to mark a satisfying end for the legendary band, they somehow returned this year with From Parts Unknown, a record heavier and better than basically anything they’ve ever produced. All the odds have been against Every Time I Die from the get go, but they’re the best metalcore band of all time, and they’re more than up to the challenge. Here’s to fifteen more years, boys.
11. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
So about that classic rock revival thing I was talking about earlier that happens like every year in indie rock? Parquet Courts did it the best this year, without question. Personally I can’t stand classic rock, but I absolutely adore Parquet Court’s take on it on Sunbathing Animal. The sounds are familiar, but a little more anxious, a little more nerdy, and on tracks such as the title track, a lot more unhinged than your dad’s favourite bands. Across the record’s 13 tracks, Parquet Courts hit just about every rock n roll touchstone possible, putting their own millenial spin on them until sounds as disconnected as cowpunk and stoner rock sound natural within the Parquet Courts ouevre. Combined with a stellar sense of sequencing, Sunbathing Animal is the year’s most essential rock record.
10. Actress – Ghettoville
Ghettoville sounds like how I feel most of the time; exhausted, jaded, at the end of the rope, but climbing anyway in spite of the awareness of its ultimate futility. Actress’s music has always sounded like the logical end point for most forms of electronic music, yet Ghettoville brings to mind the corpse of the genre; grey, decaying, barren. Rarely is album art so fitting so the music contained within the record; Ghettoville is made up of formless shapes, half baked melodies and ideas that seem to disappear before they have the opportunity to become whole. Often times, as on highlight (if such thing can even really exist in Ghettoville) “Rims”, the music will just give way all together, leaving nothing but a drum loop, and you can almost picture Cunningham staring at his computer screen through a haze of smoke, willing himself to continue and finish the track. Actress has been hinting that Ghettoville will be his last release (under the moniker anyway) and listening to the record, that comes as no surprise, as all these tracks sound as though they’ve already checked out anyway. The call back to his debut Hazyville in the title of this record is incredibly suiting, as Ghettoville sounds most like that than Splazsh or R.I.P, albeit stripped of all colour and emotion. It frames Actress’s discography in a fascinating arc of the artist venturing out into the world hopeful only to end up right back where he started, with all the hard learned lessons painting this ‘home’ in a different, much more dismal light. Ghettoville is a testament to the triumph of defeat, the power that comes with letting it all go.
9. Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron
Oxymoron was a disappointment. Not quite the grand scale, massive failure that some people made it out to be, but it definitely wasn’t the next big hip hop epic that it was supposed to be either. But let’s back up for a second. Oxymoron was the next big release from Top Dawg Entertainment following Kendrick Lamar’s world-crushing good kid, mAAd city, a record which has objectively become a historical classic at this point, regardless of your opinion on it (I feel like I’m one of the few people on the planet without a massive hard-on for the guy….but I get it). GKMC was almost too good, setting an absurdly high precedent for debuts, especially in the TDE camp. From the get go, Oxymoron was being framed as the next GKMC. Is that really fair, though? For one, Q and Kendrick are two very different rappers with very different strengths; GKMC succeeded in large part due to Kendrick’s storytelling ability and character work. Q has different strengths, yet Oxymoron was being judged by the same criteria as GKMC.
Instead of looking at all the things Oxymoron wasn’t, like reviewers have been all year, let’s take a look at what it was. No one’s gonna fuck around and say Q is the best technical rapper in the game, but my god, his CHARISMA. Q offers up many different sides of himself on Oxymoron, the trapper, the father, the addict, the redeemer, creating a complex personality portrait for himself. But it’s all done in such an earnest, uniquely Q way that by the time the end of the album rolls around, you really feel like you know the guy. Can you honestly say that about Kendrick? Q also isn’t afraid to just let loose and have some fun, and not in the layered, thematically detached way Kendrick does it either. When turns up, he’s not doing it on behalf of some larger message; he just wants to have a good time. And what’s so wrong with that? Oxymoron was an everyman’s epic, much in the vein of YG’s My Krazy Life, where the personal, and even musical flaws are as much on display as the highlights. And instead of reaching a transcendental conclusion like GKMC, Oxymoron doesn’t offer up any real answers to the questions arisen throughout the record. Instead, Q closes the album with “Break the Bank” and “Man of the Year,” two triumphant tracks which revel on life’s little successes and the contentment of just being here despite of all the hardships and shortcomings you run into along the way. Coupled with a #1 Billboard debut and sales numbers creeping up to 400 000, for a disappointment, Oxymoron was one hell of a success.
8. Andy Stott – Faith In Strangers
I often wondered when listening to Luxury Problems whether or not it was ironic that the problem I had with the album was how luxurious it sounded, as that very well could have been intentional on Stott’s behalf. Never before has ‘pristine’ been such a succint descriptor than with Stott’s 2012 debut. Nothing from that album really stuck out to me, though it was a noticeable step away from his prior work towards something more unique, though still obviously rooted in house and techno like the rest of his work. Stott gave us a hint with the title of his new album that things would be different this time around, but I don’t think anyone was expecting what Faith In Strangers has to offer. Eschewing conventional techno almost completely, each track on Faith In Strangers offers up a unique new take on the greyscale, out of place exoticism displayed on the album’s cover. The titular ‘strangers’ could refer to either us, the audience, willing to accept this bold display of experimentalism, or to musicians of the tropics, of which he’s borrowed vibes, sounds, and a general sense of humidity from. The man’s faith seems to be warranted, as just about everybody agrees that Faith In Strangers is a huge step forward for Stott.
7. Behemoth – The Satanist
Talk about laying it out straight for us. Behemoth didn’t beat around the bush when it came to titling their 10th studio album, but you can’t really blame them considering the circumstances. The Satanist very likely wouldn’t exist without satanism itself, so you can’t blame Nergal and the crew to want to pay tribute. And no you ignorant shits I’m not saying this album was forged out of blood sacrifices and next level hellish incantations (although I’m not entirely discounting such things may have been a part of the recording sessions). Satanism by definition is the worship of one’s self in lieu of a higher power. The big red guy with horns has nothing to do with it. Back in 2010, Nergal, the charismatic frontman (and Polish celebrity??) was diagnosed with leukemia and hospitalized. For a while, it looked bad. But Nergal’s will never faltered, and early 2011, Nergal was discharged from the hospital, eventually making a complete recovery. When’s the last time your religion performed a miracle for you? I’ve mentioned the word ‘triumph’ a lot in this top 50 list, but nowhere is it more applicable than on The Satanist. The record bursts out of the gate blaring the titular horns of “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel” and doesn’t let up the onslaught, eventually reaching the absurdly epic closing march of “O Father O Satan O Sun,” at which point you’ll probably become a convert. I never thought Behemoth or death metal in general could be imbued with such a strong sense of positivity, but when you defeat death itself, all that’s left to do is celebrate.
6. Ariel Pink – pom pom
Check out my review of pom pom here!
5. Iceage – Plowing Into The Field Of Love
I’m getting sick of writing so I’m just going to let the following picture summarize my love for Iceage. I bet you can guess who I am. Elias Ronnefelt is my celebrity crush of the year.
4. Perc – The Power & The Glory
It seems indicative of the modern music landscape that the heaviest and most intense record I heard in 2014 was an electronic record. If you’ve been following Perc and his Perc Trax label over the past decade or so, that probably won’t come as all that much of a surprise to you. With his output and his label, Perc has been heralding in a new age of pummeling, confrontational music that still wouldn’t feel out of place in the middle third of a bruising DJ set. The Power and the Glory is the culmination of this ethos, an album full of bangers in the very literal sense of the word. You could dance to this, but don’t be surprised if you end up demolishing whatever premises unfortunate enough to present when you do so.
Electronic music, and the vast expanse of subgenres it comprises, is still relatively young in the grand scheme of music. It took rock music almost 40 years before Tony Iommi played the first power chord steeped in distortion, accidentally creating heavy metal in the process. The Power and the Glory isn’t the first ‘heavy techno’ album, but it certainly is the most definitive, and it only took about 20 years to get to this point to boot. Every year some idiot or another claims that rock n roll is dead, which is nonsense because as long as there are white people, there will be rock music, for better or for worse. The ‘death’ of rock is out of the question; the obsolence of it, however, becomes more apparent as each year goes on, and if artists like Perc are able to co-opt the most extreme forms of the art as well as it’s done on The Power and the Glory, then what’s really the point of all those guitars, anyway? Perc makes heavy, polotical music for a new generation who are more comfortable behind their laptops and on the dancefloor than holding a five-string. Extreme music may evolve, but it will never die.
3. Swans – To Be Kind
Check out my review of To Be Kind here!
2. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
Remember when ASAP Yams declared a few months ago that 2014 was the worst year ever for hip hop music? He wasn’t exactly wrong. Looking at last year’s releases as well as what we can expect in 2015 (new Kanye, Drake, Kendrick, Wayne, Meek, ASAP, Earl, Pusha T, just to mention a few), 2014 sort of felt like an inbetween, layover year. The hip hop album that was supposed to define the year (Oxymoron) fell flat with most people, and other than YG and a few mixtapes from up and comers, the year was mostly devoid of any successful, high profile releases. But sometime in the late spring, in the midst of all this disappointment, there were whispers in the underground amongst the true hip hop heads of a genuine “New Classic.” And while those whispers haven’t really resulted in any sort of mainstream success, they certainly have not died down as the year went on; go on Twitter right now and search ‘pinata album of the year’ and check out the thousands – THOUSANDS – of tweets declaring Freddie Gibbs & Madlib’s collaborative effort to be the hip hop release of the year. At this point, it seems like the only people who don’t agree that it was the best hip hop album of the year are the people who haven’t heard it yet. I myself slept on the album for months, only finally giving it a chance after getting sick of seeing its praise on my TL.
Folks, Piñata is the best rap album of the year, outshining any other release by a mile. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s also a career highlight for the highly coveted producer Madlib, a guy everyone was sure had hit his peak with Madvillainy. A decade removed from that landmark release, Piñata is arguably even better in terms of Madlib’s production, proving to the world that one of the best definitely has still got it, and still deserves his spot at the top. But even more important is what this album is for Freddie Gibbs. Gibbs has been on the scene for years now, releasing potent tracks and decent mixtapes, impressing with his gangster sensibilities, yet never quite finding his footing. Piñata sees Gibbs firmly staking out his own territory in the modern rap landscape, cementing his image as a truly unique, complex gangster in a time where three dimensional characters in hip hop are at an all time high. Gibbs is far from a backpack rapper, yet there’s a depth to the thoughtfulness in the guy’s lyrics that you’ll hear in no other street MC. Take album highlight “Deeper”, itself a complex narrative about love on the streets – when confronted with the man his ex left him for while he was in prison, Gibbs claims ‘I love you but you love him so I never touched him’. Gibbs wields power and restraint in equal measures, and it’s this yin yang of stoicism and brutality which turns Piñata into one of those albums you listen to over and over again. Time will tell if Piñata was a one off fluke for the MC, but something tells me that five years into his career, Freddie Gibbs is just now getting started.
Shit’s heavy, dude. And I’m not just talking about distortion caked on power chords played really slowly (although that can definitely still be applied to Foundations of Burden). Pallbearer play at a broader spectrum of heaviness than most of their peers, willing to flesh ideas and emotions that lie outside of bright, shining white light and gloomy darkness. 2014 was sort of a benchmark year for doom metal, ‘The Year Doom Broke’ some douche bag ‘journalist’ will likely write sometime in the near future. The best bands in the genre were releasing some of their best work (Thou, YOB, The Body) and legions of new doom bands were sprouting up faster than you can say ‘molasses paced’. But it was Pallbearer who bested them all, creating not only the best doom record by far, but the best ‘metal’ album I’ve heard in years. ‘Doom’ seems like an inappropriate title for Pallbearer, who, despite the band name and tendency to drop to staggeringly low BPMs, sound refreshingly optimistic. A lot of the subject matter on Foundations of Burden touches on familiar tropes of religion and mankind’s inherent darkness, but instead of commiserating and lashing out like most metal bands are wont to do, there’s a general tone of acceptance throughout Foundations of Burden. Lyrically, the songs are meant to make you reflect, not react.
Musically, however… good luck not reacting to this shit. As I’ve vaguely mentioned, this album is very warm. Even at it’s heaviest, it’s very tonally inviting, the crushing riffs and chords enveloping you like a blanket instead of smashing you like a boulder. And those riffs. Dear god. Every single riff on this album is the best riff of the year. No exaggeration whatsoever. I saw a tweet somewhere a few months ago saying that it was like Pallbearer must have used alchemy to magically produce all the riffs on this album from some sort of mythic riff well deep inside the earth, and honest to god, that’s what it sounds like. From the album opening lick on “Worlds Apart” to the sobering denouement of “Vanished,” every guitar part is better than the last. The songwriting prowess extends beyond the axe, with the rhythm section keeping the stellar riffs grounded, holding it all together. And the vocals! Brett Campbell makes a case for Best Metal Vocalist on Foundations of Burden, his highly melodic tenor resembling a younger, less fried Ozzy. There are almost as many vocal hooks as there are epic riffs on this album, and in conjunction, the songs absolutely soar. But Foundation of Burden‘s secret weapon isn’t even a member of Pallbearer. Looking at songwriting alone, this album would be metal album of the year, no questions asked. But what puts Foundations of Burden into the league of best albums of 2014 from any genre is Billy Anderson’s production. The amount of space and breathing room given to each instrument on this album is incredible, and insanely vital, considering how important all the interlocking pieces and distinct tones of these pieces are towards creating these monoliths disguising as songs.
There’s been an interesting submovement in metal over the past few years, headed by bands like Torche and Kylesa, where artists attempt to compromise their catchy, populist tendencies with aggro, bruising foundations. ‘Pop metal’ has rightfully gotten a serious amount of flack in the past decade or so, what with it’s numetal/Avenged Sevenfold connotations and whatnot. But there is a serious community out there trying to realize catchy heavy music as artistically viable, and thus far, Foundations of Burden is the most successful attempt at doing so; all the more impressive considering they subverted doom of all subgenres, a notoriously non-user-friendly type of metal. Growing up, I was a ‘metal guy’. I was in a thrash band in high school and I regularly wore Cattle Decapitation t-shirts to class. I was a metal guy. Since leaving high school, my tastes have broadened as I’ve realized the merit of types of music outside of metal, eventually reaching a point where I was barely listening to it anymore. Because let’s face it: when it comes to musical innovation, metal hasn’t exactly been on the forefront lately. Listening to Foundations of Burden feels like a reconciliation of who I was then and who I am now, a bridge spanning the length of the past seven years, an acceptance of who I was and a retroactive acceptance of who I’ve become. Sixteen year old me would get the same level of enjoyment out of this album as twenty four year old me does. Foundations of Burden makes me feel whole in parts I didn’t even know were missing, and that’s why it is my album of the year.
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