1. Dead – Young Fathers
With each passing year, it feels like we’re getting closer to saturation point: sounds from the past fall in and out of vogue, classic records are re-issued again and again with meagre ‘bonuses’ and the same big bands rule the festival circuit. Against this backdrop, a three-piece ‘psychedelic hip-hop boyband’ (their words) from Edinburgh quietly released Dead, scooped the Mercury Prize and disappeared cackling into the night. Dead presented that rare thing: an album unlike anything you’ve heard beforehand. Dead is a seamless, dense fusion of hip-hop, electronica, aching acoustic guitars and gospel-type vocal melodies that cut through mediocrity in 35 minutes. From streetsmart pop (‘Get Up’), straight-up terrifying claustrophobia (‘Paying’) to soaring soul (‘Dip’) by way of twinkling beauty (‘Am I Not Your Boy’), Young Fathers took no prisoners and gave us 2014’s best and most essential record.
2. Glass Boys – Fucked Up
Fucked Up have often utilised the symbol of the snake eating its own tail throughout the mesh of religious symbols in their liner notes and, with Glass Boys, the band too have come full circle. Their previous meta-rock opera/battering ram David Comes To Life was a tour-de-force in the intersection between thrash and ambition yet could have very well painted them into a highfalutin corner. With Glass Boys the Canadian five-piece delivered a lean, (relatively) straightforward rock record albeit one coloured with the palette they’ve built up over their journey from straight-up hardcore outfit (using aliases such as ‘Mustard Gas’ and ‘Pink Eyes’) to a critically beloved entity who have opened stadiums supporting Foo Fighters and appeared on network television. Glass Boys turned frontman Damian’s narrative inwards, musing upon their journey from anti-establishment dayjobbers to a band that have made a living from their thrilling punk attack.
Glass Boys’ 10 tracks takes punk’s assault and blends in warm organ hum, beautiful walls of glowing guitar, acoustic flavours and songs that have no time for traditional structures and allows Damian to bloodlet about their newfound privilege, the commodification of cherished sounds and his own perceived vanity. Despite the weight of the subject matter, Glass Boys constantly feels meaningful as the band rally against the pricks in glorious, life-affirming fashion. Glass Boys may warn of the dangers of a rowdy punk group entering the ‘big time’ but Fucked Up have created a record so wonderful that it might just make you and go and start a band, regardless.
3. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Annie Clark has been steadily guiding attention towards her since her debut album Marry Me and just by looking at the cover of her self-titled album you can tell that Queen Clark is ready to see us now. St. Vincent is Annie Clark’s most idiosyncratic album yet, each song bursting with nervous energy and guitar lines that sound they’re like being beamed from the stratosphere; a paranoid dance record that sounds like something that Thomas Pynchon could’ve scripted. Clark’s background is in studying music, yet each of St. Vincent’s tracks are exceptionally fun to listen to as they lead you places you’ve never been before: twisting brass bands into weird shapes on the colossal ‘Digital Witness’; raising a desert disco on ‘Rattlesnake’; moving you into knots during ‘Birth In Reverse’ and sweetly serenading you on the fantastic, Bowie-like ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ and ‘I Prefer Your Love’. The whole album was a unique trip to take and it’s rewarding to see St. Vincent finally greeted as the artist and evil genius she is.
4. Never Hungover Again – Joyce Manor
Joyce Manor are a band who often seem to be at loggerheads with the scene they’ve been shoehorned into: YouTube footage of the band stopping a gig after a stage-diver landed on a girl at one of their shows; their professed hatred of the term ‘pop-punk’; the band’s divisive second full-length Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired. These problems all stem from an expectation placed on them by the wider musical world, and those hoping to keep Joyce Manor under one convenient genre tag will find themselves thwarted again, and they would’ve gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for those meddling kids and their pesky smarts. Each of the imperfect-yet-perfect songs that make up Never Hungover Again’s 19 (!) minutes show a band exuding confidence in their craft, however you want to define it. ‘’Victoria’ and Heart Tattoo’ melt all of the songs you’ve ever crushed on as a teenager into blasts of gleeful giddiness; ‘End of the Summer’ is measured and melancholic; ‘Schley’ reaches a halfway point just to reprise itself in anthemic fashion; ‘The Jerk’ is the best song they’ve ever written. Never Hungover Again is a triumph, however you want to slice it.
5. Run the Jewels 2 – Run the Jewels
Killer Mike and El-P’s victory lap Run the Jewels has unfolded into more of a victory marathon, as proven by the brash brilliance of 2014’s follow-up Run the Jewels 2. The subject matter remained pulpy yet human – enemies are slain (or, at the least, DDT’d), corporations are corrupt, sextalk is abound (and ‘Love Again’ flipped this dynamic on its head with a great verse of pure filth from Three 6 Mafia’s Gangsta Boo) – and El-P unleashed another squadron of jittery sub-bass propelled sci-fi beats over which our heroes spat some of the verses of their respective careers. Both Killer Mike’s ATL-style politicised rap and El-P’s complex Ballard-ian verse converge together through Run the Jewels 2 into one brutal style that brings out the best in both of them and this release provided a tour de force (again) in how to give two sterling careers a second (second) wind. Long may they reign.
6. 1989 – Taylor Swift
Whilst ‘journalists’ were busy writing thinkpieces about her exes, Taylor Swift was busy making her final transformation from country-flecked songwriter to (even bigger) global pop star. 1989 is Taylor Swift’s best album yet and the world has acted appropriately, buying it by the truckload and eliminating whatever doubts remains about Swift’s megastar status. Brimming with Swift’s playful, sincere personality, each of 1989‘s songs from huge synth-lead opener ‘Welcome To New York’ (a song as big as its titular city) to the hushed beauty of closer ‘Clean’ sound like they could be singles as big and all-conquering as the Swift’s previous big and all-conquering tracks. The musical palette 1989’s hooks blossom from is more ambitious this time too; gone are the country elements carried up until Red and instead we get the propulsive ‘Hey Mickey’-esque rhythms of ‘Shake It Off’ (my song of the year), the crisp r n’ b 808 of ‘Blank Space’ and the vocal loops that make up the backbone of ‘Out Of the Woods’. Anyone still writing about her lovelife after the straight-up majesty of 1989 are most likely uncomfortable that a woman who writes the bulk of her own work dominated 2014, whilst the rest of us who aren’t as boring saw a colossal talent reach a new level.
7. Honeyblood – Honeyblood
Taking in the brittle venom of post-punk and the gooey melodies of every great guitar-lead pop song of the past few decades, Glasgow duo Honeyblood delivered on the early promise of their initial singles (the unstoppable ‘Killer Bangs’ is reprised here, alongside the sweet, strolling ‘Bud’) with their tremendous self-titled debut. The duo’s simplistic (but never shallow) approach allowed the glorious melodies of ‘No Spare Key’ and ‘Bud’ to rise even further to the forefront. Throughout, relationships are dissected, people are disappointing (and total garbage on stand-out single ‘Super Rat’) and the struggle to keep it together rages on. Despite these choppy waters, every wrong is put to rights through the duo’s musical chops, guitar work and songcraft.
8. Benji – Sun Kil Moon
Mark Kozelek released his most personal and best album with Benji, an hour-long encapsulation of a history of troubles. Kozelek’s outstanding tasteful guitar picking is complimented by Rhodes piano, brass and glorious backing vocals. Amazing songwriting is one thing, but it was Kozelek’s wounded, vulnerable delivery and deeply, deeply personal lyrics that really won (and broke) hearts of those that listened to Benji. The confusion of formative sexual experiences (‘Dogs’); impending family death (‘I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love’); the passing of characters from our history (‘Micheline’); and even a brief round-up Kozelek’s entire life through music and experience (‘I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same’) are all laid bare in difficult clarity. Every second of Benji’s hour is captivating and deserves every accolade it has received (even the oft-used and naff ‘modern classic’ one).
9. The Hum – Hookworms
After the attention their excellent full-length Pearl Mystic received, Hookworms had to deliver something big and they certainly weren’t going to let this opportunity slip. Not to say that Hookworms are a bunch of careerists; it’s just that the world has taken note of their psychedelic racket and the band have decided to show us what they can really do. A lean and loud 38-minute offering, The Hum used the propulsion that belting opener ‘The Impasse’ provided and lead us on an interconnected journey of Modern Lovers-esque keyboard-assisted punk (‘Radio Tokyo’), slow-building alt-rock perfection (‘On Leaving’) and 2014’s most beautiful song (the slow, deep drone of ‘Off Screen’). The Hum must, and will, be heard.
10. Drone Logic – Daniel Avery
Daniel Avery’s debut album Drone Logic was unlike anything else released in 2014; a dance (if I call it ‘House’ I’ll have to disappear down the foxhole of sub-genres which is a dangerous place to be) album that constantly sounded distorted and disjointed, threading in static, chopped vocals and harsh noise throughout the party. Every sound on Drone Logic was meticulously planned and robotic, yet felt like they could come alive at any second and tear the whole thing down. The album was crafted as a journey, each track blending into the next in synthesis (bringing to mind the pacing and brains of Jon Hopkins’ 2013 masterpiece Immunity) and thus Drone Logic is a bracing treat, from the blistering groove of lead single and title track ‘Drone Logic’ to the twinkling respite of ‘Platform Zero’ to the closing optimistic tone of ‘Knowing We’ll Be Here’. Drone Logic is a unique, fun and audacious ride.
11. Broke With Expensive Taste – Azealia Banks
3 years after Azealia Banks’ all-conquering ‘212’ single (which appears here), 2 after her excellent Fantasea mixtape and after silly amounts of controversy –record deals falling apart et al – Banks’ debut album arrives. And, rare for albums with this much of a media circus parading around them, Broke With Expensive Taste entirely delivers. The hits are rapid-fire: ‘Young Rapunxel’, the elite swagger of ‘Ice Queen’, the colossal – I’m talking Top 40 chart potential here – ‘Chasing Time’ or the sprightly Spanish-rapped, brass-flecked ‘Gimme A Chance’. Broke With Expensive Taste is admittedly disjointed, but more in the way that a Greatest Hits record would be due to the ground covered. If anything, the way that the aforementioned summery horns of ‘Gimme A Chance’ give way to the dark, pulsing Garage throwback ‘Desparado’ just go to demonstrate that Banks is an artist who’s rapid-yet-smooth delivery and strength of personality allow her to turn any beat she’s given to gold.
12. Too Bright – Perfume Genius
Perfume Genius’ (the alias of Mike Hadreas) third release Too Bright could have gone under several similar titles: Too Close, Too Personal, Too Uncomfortable all suit the album just as well as the moniker that was settled on. Whereas Perfume Genius’ previous albums were hardly easy listening (and due to their sparse instrumentation, perhaps even more harrowing), Too Bright projects its pain right at you in full surround sound. ‘Queen’ stood as a triumphant first single, with a lilting whistling hook and grunting backing announcing that a unique type of star had arrived and ‘Fool’ felt like an unearthed (and unhinged) ‘80s synth gem; yet it was the darkness that lurked behind these songs that made them so gripping. The depths were at their most open on ‘My Body’ and ‘I’m A Mother’ which utilized uncomfortably close vocals and warped instrumentation, placing them far closer to something from the Xiu Xiu catalogue than Top 40 fodder. The brightness and darkness were in alchemy throughout Too Bright, making it one of 2014’s most unsettling and most awe-inspiring releases. If you’re in need of any proof that Perfume Genius is a star worth following, watch him and his band storm through ‘Queen’ on Letterman via YouTube.
13. Weird Little Birthday – Happyness
Building on their outstanding self-titled debut EP (also released in 2014), Happyness crafted their own scrappy, beautiful and twisted world on Weird Little Birthday. The three-piece trade in an understated lo-fidelity form of guitar rock, and the warm fuzz that surrounds the production on Weird Little Birthday does little to hide the darkness of the dispatches from singer/guitarist Benji Compston’s head, with songs that match the creativity of the singer’s lyrical output. On the spiky, upbeat ‘Anything I Do Is All Right’ we have images of ‘circus people with furry little brains’; the beautiful, gentle opening song ‘Baby, Jesus (Birthday Boy)’ pleads ‘I’m the motherfucking birthday boy/Don’t steal my thunder Baby Jesus’; whilst ‘Lofts’ is the band’s most accomplished song, laying a story of ‘amphetamine’ and characters ‘unluckier than hell’ over strong, understated bass work that gives way to a soaring finale. There were also bright spots on the temperate, understated ‘Leave The Party’ and ‘Naked Patients’ whilst EP holdover ‘It’s On You’ is uncharacteristically anthemic and winningly so.
14. It’s Album Time – Todd Terje
For a genre that’s meant to make people want to enjoy themselves, the audience and discussion around dance music has become more and more po-faced as the search for the genuine article has been lost amidst 8-hour long Sondcloud mixes and furious online debate. Shunning this hostility, Todd Terje’s debut It’s Album Time was enthusiastic, playful and in a league of its own. Whilst his breakout single, the still-monstrous ‘Inspector Norse’ is included here, it is saved until last and there’s plenty of joy to be had before that grin-inducing closer. The squelchy, propulsive keyboards and bouncy lead melodies of ‘Leisure Suit Preben’, ‘Swing Star Part 2’ and ‘Preben Goes to Acapulco’; ‘Strandbar’ and ‘Delorean Dynamite’ thud by as throwbacks to ‘90s dance music (and sound like leftovers from Wipeout, which is high praise); whilst ‘Svensk Sås’ and ‘Alfonso Muskedunder’ flirted with colourful calypso. Despite the disparate sounds, the thread of Terje’s compositional skills (and the goofy grin you imagine plastered on his face) hold it altogether, creating an infectious and intelligent record. I wrote about this album a while ago and called it ‘sonic confetti’ and I’ll stand by it; it’s the first dance album that has made me think of primary colours in a long time.
15. Rips – Ex Hex
The idea of making a ‘pop’ music seems to be one that the alternative music is growing more and more comfortable with, and Ex Hex took that genre tag and made it their own, distilling all the good bits of ‘70s and ‘80s rock groups like The Cars and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts into the unabashed genius of Rips. The trio that make up Ex Hex – Mary Timothy, Betsy Wright and Laura Harris – have all honed their skills playing in bands like Wild Flag, Fire Tapes and Helium and use their abilities to craft one of the most loveable, fun and catchy albums in recent memory. Guilt and fat-free, Ex Hex’s songs are sure to ignite huge smiles from both those who remember hearing the guitar solo of ‘My Sharona’ for the first time – and will enjoy what sounds like a nod to said solo in the brilliant ending solo to single ‘Hot & Cold’ – and a whole host of younger budding guitarists alike, such is their ability to churn out genius, unpretentious and energetic shredding gems. There’s no doubt that a tonne of articles will rain down from the Internet on ‘the death of guitar music’ in 2015, and that’s because none of those nimrods will have heard Rips.
16. Food – Kelis
Making a departure from the more electronic sounds that she’s more recently become known for, Kelis delivered a soulful, colourful pop album with Food, bringing beams of sunlight into the lives of anyone who picked up a copy. Everything about Food sounds full and alive: the bright brass tones on ‘Jerk Ribs’; the children’s voices that bring ‘Breakfast’ to life; the mellow backing choir on ‘Floyd’; the skittering Afrobeat rhythms of ‘Cobbler’; and all of these tracks had Kelis’ still-stunning voice rising high above them. With this straightforward and warm offering, Kelis released one of the most fun albums of 2014 and re-asserted her position as one of contemporary R n’ B big names through both quality and craft.
17. Piñata – Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Freddie Gibbs has been making (and often self-releasing) music for a decade now, yet it was his second collaborative effort Piñata that has brought him a swathe of new fans. Producer Madlib’s trademark textures provide the perfect frame for Gibbs’ hyperealistic, ugly take on the gangster mythology and the results were gripping. Gibbs himself has described the record to Rappcats as ‘a gangster Blaxploitation film on wax’ and there’s a dramatic, filmic quality to Piñata’s tales of uncomfortable drug use, separated couples and the grimmer side of existence backed by everything from smooth g-funk and female backing vocals to paranoid, stabbing rhythms provided by the legendary Madlib. Gibbs’ blunt lyricism is underlined by his aggressive-yet-proficient flow, meaning that if you don’t hear every word that he spits during Piñata’s duration you certainly feel ‘em. Guest spots from Raekwon, Earl Sweatshirt, Danny Brown, Scarface and the six guests on the huge titular closing track all add even more personality to the album as a whole whilst utilizing the same bleak palette as Gibbs. The yin-and-yang of Gibbs and Madlib make Piñata an improbable match but a wholly inspired and unflinching one, making for one of 2014’s best listens in any genre.
18. At Best Cuckold – Avi Buffalo
Avi Buffalo’s principle songwriter Avi Zahner-Isenberg may have seen his old band leave following their self-titled debut but he didn’t seen any of the spark or songwriting nous that made his band’s debut 2010 album so characterful and enjoyable. 2014’s At Best Cuckold improves further on a winning formula – Avi’s surreal lyrics, lush guitar work and unique high-pitched croon – and delivers a streamlined, elemental listen. Avi’s new band clearly have the chops to back up his unique musical vision, adding gorgeous keyboards, thumping drums, piano runs and measured backing vocals to his roaring/twinkling guitar leads and tales of threatened homicide, dog-eating, lucid dreaming and lovers’ misunderstanding. A direct, lilting and creative record, At Best Cuckold is one-of-a-kind and so much better for it.
19. Deep Fantasy – White Lung
Throughout Deep Fantasy’s 22 minutes, each second feels too important to waste: guitars weave and slice (and are even kinda beautiful at points), drums are unrelenting, bass guitars are pummeled and singer Mish Way deadpans, sings and screams with intensity bubbling behind every delivery, whilst smuggling hook-based songwriting in through the Trojan Horse of the band’s attack. Deep Fantasy utilized plenty of the tropes of metal and hardcore, yet the infectiously raw approach the band deploy should allow fans of any genre to get in on the band’s fantastic racket with the in-the-room production allowing you to basically feel the spittle and sweat the band pour into every moment. Every one of the 10 tracks on Deep Fantasy felt visceral and essential and has introduced an intelligent, passionate hardcore band to the world, and one that stands head and shoulders ahead of many of their contemporaries.
20. WORD O.K – Kool AD
Kool AD’s latest mixtape WORD O.K was less a reinvention and more a demonstration on how good Kool AD is at being Kool AD. Available on a pay-what-you-want basis from his Bandcamp, the spacious, minimal beats and Kool AD’s esoteric lyricism and idiosyncratic flow should ensure quite a few bucks were thrown in Victor Vazquez’s direction. More focussed than his previous ‘area code’ releases but no less creative, WORD O.K opened with two of Kool AD’s best ever songs and kept a high bar throughout. Beats crafted from long-time collaborator Amaze 88 as well as Toro Y Moi (who finds time to spit a tongue-in-cheek verse on throwback track ‘The Front’), Blesone and Issue alongside guest features by Talib, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire and Santos Viera ensured that WORD O.K was the best mixtape you did or didn’t pay for this year.