If there’s one common thread among the 20 albums to make my list this year, it’s eclecticism. The emergence of services like Spotify and even YouTube not only make finding a wider gamut of music possible, it also undoubtedly influences those who make the music. Not only do the artists represented here exemplify a wider spectrum of genre than I’ve ever had before, the albums themselves often integrate several styles within their own confines.
In a true testament to the quality of music I discovered this year, this was probably the most difficult year-end ranking I’ve ever had to form, and the gap from top to bottom is probably narrower than any I can remember. I can’t claim to have listened to all of the musics, but I have expanded my field from years past because there was just so much good music out there this year. For your enjoyment:
20) Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2 – Well regarded as solo artists, the styles of Killer Mike and El-P complement each other nicely, and they creatively mix their roles by trading both verses and lines. El-P’s production is also solid, and he adds subtle unexpected twists to his grooves that give them extra motion.
Essential Listening: “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”, “Love Again”
19) M13, 1 Human, Too Human – Bandleader, saxophonist, and composer Aaron McEvers refuses to confine his large jazz ensemble to the genre’s conventions, and as a result, he explores areas most jazz bands will never discover. Dabbling in rock and long-form composition, Human presents a unique and fascinating voice from Chicago’s jazz scene.
Essential Listening: “The Juggernaut”, “1 Human, Too Human”
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18) Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal – For straight-ahead, pure rock ‘n’ roll in 2014, you could do worse than this Brooklyn quartet. Many tracks are propelled by chunky guitar ostinatos and Andrew Savage’s effective punk-adapted Sprechstimme, and it’s a worthy adrenaline rush.
Essential Listening: “Ducking & Dodging”, “Black And White”
17) tUnE-yArDs, Nikki-Nack – To call tUnE-yArDs (which is really the brain child of Merrill Garbus) hip-hop would be a gross oversimplification. Their sound is a fresh and vivid synthesis of many styles, and Garbus builds grooves and crafts songs with a seemingly endless vocabulary of musical (and non-musical) sounds. “Water Fountain” may be the song of the year, but it’s also a great example of how these songs create their own expansive sound worlds within themselves.
Essential Listening: “Water Fountain”, “Sink-O”
16) Asgeir, In the Silence – Part dubstep, part folk, Silence is a gorgeously crafted album that works better than it seemingly should. Icelandic singer/songwriter Asgeir’s songs would not be out of place in arenas around the world (“King and Cross” is a ballad that deserves to be blasted), but the slick, nuanced production allows them to exist in their beautiful natural state and ensures that they are not overcooked.
Essential Listening: “King and Cross”, “In the Silence”
15) TV on the Radio, Seeds – Right from the abrupt start of “Quartz”, TVotR show that the way they’ve coped with the loss of bass player Gerard Smith (who was not replaced as a member) is with upbeat optimism. Like any TV album, Seeds is dominated by clean melodies soaring over dense, brooding beats, but David Sitek’s production has a brighter glare on it than past efforts.
Essential Listening: “Lazerray”, “Seeds”
14) Tweedy, Sukierae – Almost entirely a family affair, Sukirae is basically just Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on vocals/instruments and his son Spencer on drums. The album would not be out of place in Wilco’s catalogue, and Papa Tweedy flexes his songwriting chops with a fine collection of songs rich in Americana and classic rock that aren’t afraid to take an unexpected detour or two.
Essential Listening: “Nobody Dies Anymore”, “Diamond Light Pt. 1”
13) Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness – Indie songstress and St. Louis native Angel Olsen crafts a lovely and haunting album with Witness, an impressive full-length debut release. Both her songwriting and her singing have a spacious, patient wisdom, though energetic tracks like “High & Wild” add nice pacing.
Essential Listening: “White Fire”, “High & Wild”
12) The Bad Plus, The Rite of Spring – The Bad Plus have long been masters at adapting unexpected music for their energetic jazz trio setting, but their take on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has set a new pinnacle. Like all great arrangements, they have synthesized their source material and rendered it into something that is simultaneously fresh and unique, yet it still exists as an homage to the original while still sounding like something from their own collection.
Essential Listening: “Second Part: The Sacrifice: Evocation of the Ancestors / Ritual Action of the Ancestors”, First Part: Adoration of the Earth: Introduction”
11) Flying Lotus, You’re Dead! – Honestly, I’m not sure if Flying Lotus is hip-hop, jazz, or neither, which I’m pretty sure is high praise. The album refreshingly toys with radical shifts of motion, both throughout its duration and within single tracks. FlyLo’s influences are certainly widespread, and Dead! is a schizophrenic journey (most tracks are shorter than three minutes) that transcends genre boundaries and convention at every turn.
Essential Listening: “Never Catch Me”, “Turkey Dog Coma”
10) The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream – The dreamy Americana sounds that permeate throughout Dream sound like Springsteen might if he grew up in Laurel Canyon. Most songs are epic undertakings that build like a lit fuse to a powder keg and play out like extended love letters to the open road.
Essential Listening: “Red Eyes”, “Under the Pressure”
9) Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Intergalactic Beings – Mitchell is one of today’s preeminent jazz flautists, but her creative talents also extend to composition of both jazz and classical music. Beings is a postmodern opus that fuses both together into a mixture that is equally indebted to Eric Dolphy and Gyorgy Ligeti. Fascinatingly, this is not a homogenous blend of melded styles, and the jarring shift from the aleatoric first two tracks to the space funk of “The Ooli Moves” is as awesome as it is unexpected.
Essential Listening: “The Ooli Moves”, “Negotiating Identiy”
8) Beck, Morning Phase – A musical sequel to 2002’s Sea Change, Morning Phase expounds upon the beautiful, melancholy vibes of its predecessor while still creating something unique unto itself. The album uses a surprisingly small sample of instruments, yet it is consistently well orchestrated, allowing every instrumental voice to shine through. Beck’s yearning baritone is a fine complement to this mellow sound world, proving yet again his significant versatility as an artist.
Essential Listening: “Blue Moon”, “Turn Away”
7) The Roots, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin – You would think landing a gig as the house band for a cheesy late night talk show would make a band less productive and less adventurous, but the exact opposite has been true for The Roots. Cousin is the sixth release they’ve issued as a band since joining the airwaves in 2009 (!), and it’s also a new apex for their musical experimentation. Their ambition pays off handsomely, as the blend of their finely honed hip-hop/retro soul sound with contemporary concert music offers something fresh to their impressive canon.
Essential Listening: “Black Rock”, “The Dark (Trinity)”
6) Nickel Creek, A Dotted Line – Nickel Creek missed out on much of the bluegrass craze (this is their first album in nine years), which is unfortunate since they laid much of the foundation for the genre’s place in pop culture. Better late than never, Line puts its imitators to shame by showcasing the trio’s strengths both within the genre as well as their versatility and desire to venture beyond the boundaries of bluegrass. The writing, vocal harmonies, and instrumental playing are all lovely, but tracks like their funky take on Mother Mother’s “Hayloft” show why Nickel Creek are a step ahead of the competition.
Essential Listening: “Hayloft”, “Destination”
5) St. Vincent, St. Vincent – Annie Clark has built herself one of the most fascinating personas in rock as St. Vincent, and this self-titled release has the chops to validate her intrigue. Building off the brass band vibes and disassembled beats cultivated in her recent collaboration with David Byrne, St. Vincent works both as hook-laden groove record as well as a fork-tongued commentary on life in the digital age.
Essential Listening: “Prince Johnny”, “Rattlesnake”
4) Spoon, They Want My Soul – Spoon’s consistently great output has long been their calling card, but Soul elevates itself from their repertoire because of its increased scope of style and sound. The songs here are still driven by stripped down grooves, chunky guitars, and melodic bass, but the addition of synths and a more ambient production vibe are incorporated seamlessly into their signature sound. The songwriting has also reached a career peak here (lead single “Do You” is a great example of incorporating major seventh chords in pop music), and several tracks sublimely balance an optimistic sound with a hint of darkness.
Essential Listening: “Do You”, “Rainy Taxi”
3) Jack White, Lazaretto – It’s easy to take Jack White’s music for granted these days, but Lazaretto shows that he’s still as ambitious of a musician as anyone in rock. Every track on White’s second solo effort is meticulously sculpted, and White’s deceptively layered production showcases his continued curiosity. More than anyone else in rock, White’s music rewards repeated listenings by offering disguised musical gems within just about every song. Several songs are as formally adventurous as anything from White’s catalogue, as well, and the title track is probably the least formally conventional radio song in recent memory.
Essential Listening: “Lazaretto”, “Would You Fight For My Love?”
2) D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah – Being D’Angelo’s first studio in release in 14 years, Black Messiah built itself up to expectations that it couldn’t possibly match. And then it did. Messiah sizzles with propulsive funk grooves, sultry R&B crooning, and N’awlins swagger throughout its substantial running time, and it melds its myriad influences so seamlessly that it takes several listenings to parse through how everything was so intricately crafted. It’s a great workout for mind, body, and soul.
Essential Listening: “Ain’t That Easy”, “The Door”
1) Sleepy Kitty, Projection Room – Wait, who?! This St. Louis duo (via Chicago) may be largely unheralded (though they are Riverfront Times darlings), and there may have been glossier sounding projects out there, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy SK’s sophomore release more than anything else I heard this year. They have a drippy, post-punk sound that is not unlike other contemporary buzz bands, but their compact songwriting and diversity of influences distinguish them from the pack. “Nothing = You,” for example, is one of the most efficient songs I can recall from recent memory – it’s a fully-formed barnburner of a pop tune that blends elements of The Pixies and Spaghetti Western scores, yet it doesn’t even hit two minutes. The consciously raw production of the music is wonderfully enhanced by Paige Brubeck’s pristine voice, which has a commanding drive that recalls Neko Case, Shirley Manson, and Dusty Springfield. Projection Room is a highly listenable classic that never becomes predictable. In a year with so much memorable music, I’m guessing this is what I’ll be coming back to the most in years to come.
Essential Listening: “Nothing = You”, “Don’t You Start”