List making may be passe and boring, but the process of looking back at the year often provides an interesting perspective on the emerging patterns in culture. Moreover, it is also a way to look back at how your own interests have evolved compared to past years. Think of it as a diary entry, another blog, if that helps, that doubles as a recommendation of what I thought of as some of the best things in 2014.
As always, it was a good year for music, if you knew where to look. Some genres had a slightly less impressive year like hip-hop but they made it up with some really good records. Lo-fi pop continued to emerge as a staple of underground scenes in Los Angeles, London and in different parts of Canada. Spotify dominated some of the big headlines, particularly with Taylor Swift’s much-publicized decision to pull her latest album “1989″ from the site. As much as she wanted, another female pop star captured most of the headlines — for reasons good and bad. And no, it wasn’t Iggy Azealea.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get this started then:
Best Album Cover
Run The Jewels 2 by Run The Jewels
Iconic and indicating the sign of times for both the genre and of much of 2014 in general. RTJ2’s cover might merely be a reworking of their insignia but the modifications are what matters. There was no hiding the fact that RTJ2 dropped during turbulent times of racial unrest following aborted justice and police violence we saw across United States in 2014. Both Killer Mike and El-P were highly vocal about the Michael Brown verdict, their show in Missouri following that resulting in a very emotional speech from the former. The blood seeping from around the bandages represented the wounds of a whole community of people and the lyrics and abrasive beats inside RTJ2 merely complemented that. Burning in the flame of cultural significance, RTJ2 also saw Mike and El-P ascend to the status of a rap superduo, occupying the very throne that OutKast sat on a decade back. The entire genre is playing a catch-up game with these two, who aren’t remotely interested in playing games.
Best Music Video
Digital Witness by St.Vincent
Easy choice on this. Combining a very symmetric Wes Anderson aesthetic with an alien Lynchian one, this video immediately communicates the accessibility of St.Vincent’s music with the eccentricity of her new persona. Even beyond the “Einstein hairdo”, Annie Clark has transformed into a bigger-than-life rockstar persona with this album, as illustrated by her live performances on Letterman. She has embraced the potential she always had as a performer (anybody remember that stagedive at the end of Krokodil, all those years back), evolving from an endearing indie pop artist with a very girl-next-door charm to someone whom you can immediately envision as an eccentric pop star of our era, a Kate Bush & David Byrne hybrid if you will, with a generous dash of Bowie added in. Nothing declared an artist’s transformation as clearly as Digital Witness video did.
Best Live Show
Swans at Warsaw, Brooklyn
New category this year considering I watched almost a dozen shows in the past 4-5 months. There was the overflowing nostalgic delight of Slowdive, the sheer energy of Run The Jewels, the blissful contemplation of Ludovico Einaudi or even the breath-taking performative elements of Nils Frahm but the best show was always going to be something which transcended beyond music.
And, this year, there was little competition in that department.
When I watched Swans at Warsaw, in the Polish part of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I had a long and tiring day. I wasn’t really ready to stand for hours, but this was Swans. The sheer excitement kept me in that crowd. I had brought along ear plugs as it had been recommended, and boy was I glad. As I described in Unwinnable’s Best Music of 2014 list, as great as Swans music is in studio, their post-reunion phase has been trying to capture the sheer intensity and brutality of their live performance. To Be Kind comes to the closest in regard, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Relentless barrage of music that hits your body with massive walls of vibrations that resonate inside you, literally. All this while, Michael Gira floats on stage half in trance by his own music and the other half commanding and guiding the stage and the audience. I’ve honestly never seen a performer have so much grasp and control on his performance and the audience. They were very anti-camera, and when they saw someone take out their phone for extended period of time for video, Gira would point a finger, and you could almost feel the tremor of an angry god. The whole show felt like a ritualistic performance of a demi-god who in his second wind, has discovered the peak of his powers. And it is beautiful.
Rattlesnake by St.Vincent
Disco//Very by Warpaint
50 CENT by Dean Blunt
Can’t Leave the Night by BADBADNOTGOOD
Oxygen by Swans
10) Never Catch Me by Flying Lotus (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
9) Outlier by Spoon
8) Shades of Cool by Lana Del Rey
7) Two Weeks by FKA Twigs
6) Dead City Emily by Marissa Nadler
5) Every Time The Sun Goes Up by Sharon Van Etten
4) Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck) by Run The Jewels (feat Zach De La Rocha)
3) Red Eyes by The War on Drugs
2) Snow Beach by RATKING
1) White Fire by Angel Olsen
Benji by Sun Kil Moon
Warpaint by Warpaint
Syro by Aphex Twin
They Want My Soul by Spoon
Salad Days by Mac DeMarco
St.Vincent by St.Vincent
The Satanist by Behemoth
Morning Phase by Beck
pom pom by Ariel Pink
Black Messiah by D’Angelo and the Vanguard
Pinata by Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
10) You’re Dead! by Flying Lotus
FlyLo is at the height of his powers on You’re Dead! capturing all his diverse influences within space of 38 minutes. As an artist who is influenced by free-form jazz, FlyLo infuses the manic energy into his production and nowhere is it more apparent than on “Never Catch Me” where he is complemented by Kendrick Lamar’s quick rapping and the the fluidity of track structure allowing him to pack in as many ideas into one track as possible. And it’s true for most of You’re Dead!. It’s brimming with quality ideas and has next to no filler.
Best Tracks: Never Catch Me (feat. Kendrick Lamar), Dead Man’s Tetris, Descent into Madness
9) III by BADBADNOTGOOD
This Toronto-based trio came as a surprise to me this year. Their past work has been good but never risen to this level of quality. But on their third effort, they’ve finally mastered the chops of creating experimental downtempo music while allowing their ideas to expand beyond just catchy hooks. The result is an album like III where you can jump from tracks like Kaleidoscope to Never Leave the Night and still feel like it belongs to the same artist. Stamped with their own identity, it’s going to be exciting to see where these people end up next.
Best Tracks: Kaleidoscope, Never Leave the Night, Triangle, Confessions (feat. Leland Whitty)
8) Are We There by Sharon Van Etten
If we’re talking about albums that saw artists carve out their own unique identity, I’d vote for Sharon Van Etten over St.Vincent in a breath. Granted both achieved considerable, but Sharon let her music speak about her evolution more than anything. It’s that kind of a record which towers over her past work in terms of personality and ambition. The ambition here doesn’t come from the expanded instrumentation that she attempted with Tramp but with a focused intimacy on themes of travelling on the road, that feel very much personal. Moreover, her voice reaches new heights of emotion on some of these tracks. It’s the perfect icing for an album that sees a talented artist finally grow into the potential she always had.
Best Tracks: Taking Chances, Our Love, Tarifa, Every Time The Sun Comes Up
This was the best rock album of the year in the traditional sense. Entrenched in heavy psychedelic vibes, Adam Granduciel’s outfit built on the ideas explored in their last album,Slave Ambient and took it greater heights. The album opens with a resounding statement of purpose with Under the Pressure followed by Red Eyes. It’s easily the strongest opening two tracks you’ll find in any album this year. From there, they go from strength to strength even dabbling with a little post-punk in Disappearing. If Kurt Vile made the best neo-psychedelic album of 2013, this year it was TWOD. Philly is clearly a proud city for having such a strong scene producing these fine artists.
Best Tracks: Under the Pressure, Red Eyes, Suffering, Disappearing
6) Black Metal by Dean Blunt
A late addition to the list, this left-of-center experimental lo-fi album from Brit producer/singer is a brilliant, infectious pop record. It trumped Ariel Pink’s record in terms of lo-fi catchiness where Ariel often uses it as a sort of ironic gloss, Blunt uses it to create a strange sense of earnestness. Amid all the nocturnal vibes, Black Metal explores some surprisingly dark themes of violence, alienation and paranoia. The duet tracks between Blunt and Joanne might be the initial highlights due to their immediacy but longer tracks like Forever grow on you on repeat listens.
Best Tracks; LUSH, 50 CENT, 100, FOREVER, X
5) July by Marissa Nadler
Like many music buffs relationship with their favorite folk artist, Marissa and her music are close to my heart. Songs III might possibly be one of my all-time favorite albums and I’ve found something to like in every album she has made. But July is easily her strongest album in years. It sees her rise from the sense of contentment that was growing around the edges of some of her recent work. It also features more lush production thanks to her collaboration with a Scandinavian black metal producer. That gives July a chilly sadness, almost as if the summer months have turned cold. It’s a strong album from start to finish with not a single weak track. And that is classic Marissa Nadler during her Songs III-era and as a fan, I’m glad to see her return back to the peak of her powers.
Best Tracks: Drive, 1929, Dead City Emily, Was It A Dream, Fireworks, Nothing in My Heart
4) So It Goes… by RATKING
2014 was not the best year for rap but it was a year which saw quite a few great rap records. Chief among them was the New York based hip-hop trio RATKING’s “So It Goes..”. NYC rap scene hasn’t emerged with such flair and energy as these three do on the album. Capturing the manic energy of the city, they spin their lyrics around problems plaguing it. Wiki’s quick-fire unique style of delivery is a weapon of its own and Sporting Life’s production alternates between being lush, layered to absolutely bonkers. It’s atmospheric and intense without being empty or forced, and in a turbulent year like 2014, it captured the feeling of living in New York City perfectly.
Best Tracks: Canal, Snow Beach, Puerto Rican Judo, Remove Ya, So Sick Stories
3) To Be Kind by Swans
To Be Kind is a booming reminder that Swans aren’t here to fuck around. They may have very well released their strongest album in their 3-decade long career, the two-hour epic, The Seer in 2012. But they returned merely two years later, with an album that amps up the relentless brutality of The Seer by several notches. What it lacks in range, it more than makes up for it in sheer focus. It’s a massive blunt force barraging your ears and somehow Michael Gira & Co still rein in the chaos in a loose structure of sorts. Be it the screeching noise of A Little God in My Hands or the heavy-hitting Oxygen. Even on the 34-minute central epic Bring The Sun/Touissant L’Ouverture, they bring in so many raw ideas including a woodsaw sample and horses neighing. It’s unsettling and relentless, often to the point of exhaustion, but it’s also some of the most sonically powerful music you’ll hear in 2014.
Best Tracks: Screen Shot, Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett), A Little God in My Hands, Oxygen
2) Run the Jewels 2 by Run The Jewels
No album captured the burning sentiment in America in 2014 better than RTJ2. Released around the time of Ferguson protests in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, RTJ2 harnessed the bursting dynamic chemistry between El-P and Killer Mike unlike anything. Revitalizing the hip-hop genre, RTJ2 sees El-P and Killer Mike take the much-deserved throne of the rap superduo. They are exactly at the height of artistic powers that OutKast was a decade ago. Few albums have blown my mind as much as RTJ2 did on the first listen. Ridiculously infectious beats with rapid-fire intemingling of rapping between Mike and El-P as they throw in some of the most burning jibes at the system. It’s boldly unafraid (“Fashion slave, you protested to appear in a fucking lookbook/ Everything I write is like the anarchist cookbook”) while retaining the hip-hop vibe of exaggeration (“walk backwards through a field of dicks”) . It also is not scared of deconstructing the tropes of hip-hop genre in the subversive Love Again. It is not scared of going personal on Crown and All My Life. Like every protester on the streets, RTJ2 was unafraid to let its voice heard, rising from genre tropes into something powerful.
Best Track: Oh My Darling Don’t Cry, Close Your Eyes(And Count to Fuck) (feat. Zach De La Rocha), Lie Cheat Steal, All My Life, Love Again
1) Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen
More than any other medium, music is a sort of a reflection of my own personal evolution. If I chart through my music tastes and how they have changed over the years, you can tell a lot of things about me. Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a beautiful, heart-breaking album about accepting the existential sadness and rising above it, drawing energy from it, despite it. Like every great folk album, it wears its heart on a sleeve and the expanded instrumentation and lo-fi production only add to the sunny, nostalgic vibe on it. But Angel doesn’t wallow in that nostalgia but often rejects it, confronting the purpose and deconstructing her own thought process through the lyrics. Watching her this past month in an intimate live show was a brilliant experience. But even beyond the performance part, the music in her album is rich and layered. At the heart of it all, White Fire stands as the most painfully mature reminder of growing up while carrying the scars of past in form of your own memories. The album is my personal favorite for everything the music represented on my own personal evolution. It served both as a quiet lesson and a signpost, and in 2014, such an anchor to get a grasp on all the changes was what I really needed.
Best Track: White Fire, Hi-Five, Forgiven/Forgotten, Windows, Lights Out, High & Wild