My personal Top 14 Albums of 2014, as seen first in my weekly Aural Fixations column on Brightest Young Things.
You can also find a playlist featuring all these artists/albums on Spotify.
*D’Angelo – Black Messiah
There is a good chance that this was the best album to be released this year — even if it was out of the blue and right at the last qualifying minute — but it’s impossible to fairly judge this album at the present moment. It gets an asterisk, and at the end of 2015 we can revisit it and decide where between #1 and #4 it belongs.
1. Kishi Bashi – Lighght
Not only have I not seen Kishi Bashi’s wonderful album grace the top spot on any of the other best-of lists I’ve read so far this year, it seems like he’s been tragically and criminally forgotten by a lot of these lists altogether.
But I think that’s our fault, not Mr. Bashi’s.
Back in June when the album came out I wrote, “…while there is a consistent tone with Lighght, he takes on a variety of styles, hinting at sounds that other synth-pop groups have been playing with for years but extrapolating them to expose their true potential.” And I think that may have been why this record flew so far under the radar.
Lighght sounded like a lot of things we already knew and were familiar with, but not enough people took the time to realize that this album’s tracks were consistently more enjoyable, more complex, and ultimately more rewarding versions of all those familiar sounds and musical tropes.
This was Kashi Bashi pulling a Lil Wayne-in-his-prime and proving not only could he do everyone else’s schtick, he could do it better than them. “Philosophize In It!” is the best Shins song we’ve heard in years and “The Ballad of Mr. Steak” should be the nail in the coffin of all the bands trying to sound like Phoenix without sounding too much like Phoenix.
Then, on top of those ultimately superior homages, you also have songs like the romantic ballad “Q&A” and weird musical dalliances like “In Fantasia.” They give depth and context to the rest of the album sure, but they also make it seem like this project, while definitely a pop triumph in its own right, was as much fun to make as it is to listen to.
Kishi Bashi gets the gold.
2. War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
A lot of outlet’s best-of lists are awarding War On Drugs their #1 spot.
I assume this is because they recognize the fact that in a year like 2014, when no album jumps out as the consensus #1, sometimes it’s best to just pick the album that you think will be most defensible if/when scrutinized at a later date. If I didn’t feel the need to remind everyone just how well-crafted Lighght is, I might have even done the same thing.
Because Lost In The Dream is, plainly and simply, a great album.
And like most great albums, it doesn’t try to be. Instead, it feels like something that has always been around just waiting to be discovered. Maybe its because of the obvious Eagles and Bruce influences and our association of those rock acts with something literally and figuratively classic, but Lost In The Dream feels comfortably familiar even as it accomplishes things that feel refreshingly new.
It’s a safe but very defensible selection for this year’s silver medal.
3. Run The Jewels – LP2
Since releasing their sophomore album via one of the only Kickstarters to ever have a Kickstarter started to fund one of its potential rewards — Google “Meow The Jewels” if you’re curious — Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike and El-P have been on one hell of a run.
Not only was their album LP2 a refreshing reminder of how much fun meticulously-crafted, well-delivered hip-hop can be, but when you realize that these hip-hop elders probably never thought they’d see the day when they were selling out venues like 9:30 Club across the country, there’s a strong case to be made that Run The Jewels had the best year of anyone in the industry not named Taylor Swift.
For that, they deserve to wear the bronze medal on those 36-inch chains of theirs.
It also doesn’t hurt that Killer Mike personally endorsed my article: The Darren Wilson Non-Indictment for the Well-Intentioned, Semi-Informed Layperson.
You should read it sometime.
4. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
St. Vincent seems to be another popular choice for a lot of lists and with an album like hers, it’s a completely reasonable choice.
St. Vincent the album is all the adjectives all at once (sexy, beautiful, fierce, vulnerable, robotic, personal), and it feels more and more like Annie Clark might be, as one stoned Bonnarooer once said to me back in 2013, the Mystique to David Byrne’s Magneto.
That is, if Mystique was a guitar god that could hold her own on stage with the likes of Queens of the Stone Age on a nightly basis….
5. Juan Maclean – In A Dream
It’s nice to see that while James Murphy has been spending his days cashing checks from the US Open and Ogilvy to remix tennis data into something musical, the other senior members of DFA are keeping busy with more productive tasks like, ya know, making real albums.
Sure, we knew Juan Maclean — the very talented but under-appreciated little brother of DFA — was going to benefit from picking up Nancy Whang off the waiver wire post-LCD Soundsystem, but this ended up being a match made in heaven. Her signature semi-enthused vocals are exactly what the fastidious Maclean needed to help his sonic adventures feel a bit more anchored, and Maclean seems more prepared than ever to become DFA’s new posterboy.
I mean, it can’t just be coincidence that one of the best songs on this album is called “I’ve Waited For So Long,” right?
6. Future Islands – Singles
Future Islands have got to be the Feel Good Story of 2014.
It just seems like that Letterman performance hit us all in this unique, indescribable way. Maybe seeing such a brazen act of confident individuality was such a shock to our jaded systems that we couldn’t help but have it resonate with us that strongly.
Their album Singles may ironically rely on a few GREAT songs to bolster the more mediocre tracks in the middle, but the fact that they helped an apathetic, uncaring internet feel something real for even just a few minutes (or however long GIFs run for) has got to count for something.
7. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
I made it a point to listen to this album straight through at least 10 different times since it’s been released and I still don’t feel like I’m fully appreciating it for all that it is. Fortunately, this gives me an excuse to keep listening to this album straight through a few more times, all in the name of research.
8. Paolo Nutini – Caustic Love
I think Americans not embracing Paolo Nutini is one of the main reasons Europeans hate us (ya know, besides our imperialistic nature, natural resource hogging, etc).
In the UK, his first two albums went QUINTUPLE PLATINUM and his most recent release, Caustic Love, debuted at the number one spot on the UK charts. Why he hasn’t found the same kind of attention and love on this side of the pond is beyond me, but I defy you to watch the live video for Iron Sky that I included and not feel something tingle deep inside you.
9. TEEN – The Way And Color
At one point during an early iteration of this list, I had TEEN in the #1 slot. In fact, if it wasn’t for Fiancee Mollie doing the thing she’s now legally obligated to do forever and talking some sense into me, I probably would have kept it there too.
It’s just that The Way and Color — especially in the wake of HAIM turning into The Haim Sisters Variety Show — was this smarter, fiercer alternative to that kind of indie-pop sound that has taken over Hype Machine and 40% of all Soundcloud accounts.
Plus it has that 3-song opening punch of “Rose 4 U,” “Not For Long,” and “Tied Up, Tied Down,” which all sound like better versions of songs you already like.
Ultimately, it may not actually be Album of the Year great, but it did do a few things better than anyone else this year. That at least keeps them in the top 10.
10. Bombay Bicycle Club – So Long, See You Tomorrow
Should Bombay Bicycle Club have won the Mercury Prize instead of Young Fathers? Of course.
Bombay Bicycle Club, a former “mid-level band struggling with their limitations in the harsh face of stardom,” put together a gem of a 4th album that somehow took all the glimmers of brilliance from their past work and extrapolated them into a full 10-song album that is enrapturing from front-to-back.
No they’re not as sexy a pick for the Mercury Prize as an up-and-coming Scottish hip-hop trio like Young Fathers, but Bombay Bicycle Club deserves some kind of trophy or cake for what they did with this album (though something tells me the #10 spot on my list isn’t much of a condolence prize).
11. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso rode the Hype Machine wave perfectly this year, proving that early earworm singles like “Hey Mami” and “Coffee” weren’t just flashes in the pan by pumping out a full album last May that officially turned this duo’s side project into not just a full-time gig but one of synth pop’s favorite new acts.
12. St. Paul and the Broken Bones – Half The City
I think I only saw one or two other lists even mention this heartbreaker of an album, and that’s a crying shame.
I lucked into discovering St. Paul and the Broken Bones at Bonnaroo last summer, but the real treat with this band has been discovering the wonderful nuances of their debut LP Half The City the past few months.
That voice — juxtaposed brilliantly with this face — will haunt your dreams, and the Broken Bones backing band is a force to be reckoned with.
13. Typefighter – The End of Everything
I’ve written about Typefighter more times that I can remember, so for this list, I’m going to cite Washington City Paper‘s Matt Cohen:
“D.C. has a legacy of producing rock bands that consistently push the threshold of art and avant-garde, which isn’t a bad thing. But that legacy makes a band like Typefighter—who’s more concerned with perfecting the formula of a perfect pop song than finding the new weirdness—all the more exciting. The band’s debut LP, The End of Everything, is your turn-the-windows-down-and-crank-the-stereo-up album of the year.”
14. Caribou – Our Love
You know how when Rhye’s Woman came out last year and we all immediately recognized that it was doing what many other similar-sounding acts were trying to do, just a lot, lot better? That’s how I feel about Our Love; there are a lot of other people making similar music, but in 2014 no one did it as well throughout an album as Caribou.
- Jack White – Lazaretto
St. Paul and the Broken Bones took Mr. White’s spot. I listened to the two albums back-to-back just to make sure and trust me, this is the right decision.
- Sun Kil Moon – Benji
I might just not have been depressed enough this year to fully appreciate this one. There’s always the long, post-Christmas dredges of winter to catch up though!
- Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
One of the bravest, ‘realest’ albums written in a long time. Musically it may get a bit repetitive, but lyrically and emotionally this album is so far beyond the competition it’s silly.
- Diamond District – March On Washington
The best DC rap album in years, but sadly that doesn’t necessarily make it one of the 14 best albums of the year. Props to The 1978ers’ recent People of Today too.
- Jungle – Jungle
Caribou took their spot. They also need a better live show before I take them seriously enough to give them anything more than an HM (which is like an HJ, only even less satisfying).
- Taylor Swift – 1989
I will fully admit that there are at least 3 perfect songs on this album, but it also contains “Welcome to New York” and there’s nothing great that T-Swift did on 1989 that TEEN didn’t do better on their album.
- Funk Ark – Man Is A Monster
Funk Ark is an afrobeat funk band from Washington DC that is composed of jazz musicians who know what they’re doing. I just stumbled upon their album Man Is A Monster (listen here) a few days before writing this list (thank you Listen Local First’s Best-Of list), but one listen is all you really need to recognize why it deserves to be at least (honorably) mentioned here.
- Tiny Victories – Haunts
I honestly think the track listing and singles choices are almost solely to blame for this album not catching on more, even if it was just as background music to MTV shows and cellphone commercials.
- PHOX – PHOX
They are silly talented and have a great PR machine behind them. You’ll hear more from them soon.