Top Ten of 2014

Before I begin with my list of ten favorite albums from 2014, here are a few of the usual caveats.  This is a list of my favorite, most frequently played, records released in 2014. In no way is this an objective list of the year’s best albums. (You won’t find Swans or Scott Walker here. While releasing some of the best albums of this year, or any year, I rarely listened to them in their entirety.) Also, a couple albums were unexpectedly released after I had finished this list. Since their vinyl releases won’t be until next spring, I’m just going to pretend they’re 2015 releases and discuss them next year. (Yes, I’m referring to Luxury, Steve Taylor and D’Angelo.)  And finally, there are some albums I’ve recently purchased that I’m still processing, still trying to get my head around.  (Maybe I’m just being difficult, but I don’t feel like including the Iceage and Protomartyr albums in this list.  Please forgive me, but I’m still trying to figure them out.)

1.  Rising Son / Takuya Kuroda

Rising Son was, by far, the album I listened to the most in 2014. It provided great background music while students worked, and it was excellent for my planning periods. At first, I felt the album was a Xerox of a mid-seventies Roy Ayers or CTI-era Freddie Hubbard record, but then I realized that Kuroda really does bring some strong, memorable hooks.  The drumming also brings it up to date, with Nate Smith playing up to his hip-hop influences and tipping his hat to Questlove on nearly every track.

2.  Hendra / Ben Watt

There’s absolutely nothing new about Ben Watt’s first solo album in 30 years, and that’s the best part. Invoking influences like Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, this could have easily been an exercise in nostalgia, but Watt brings pop hooks and some decent, thoughtful lyrics. The packaging is gorgeous, including a poster for the lyrics. The art is incredible, insulting anyone who’d be content with a download.

3.  Atlas / Real Estate

Believe it or not, I don’t intentionally try to be difficult.   So why have I been so hesitant to admit that I enjoy Real Estate?   I think I’m finally at the point where I’ll admit to liking its last album, but I really, really love Atlas.  It’s one of those rare albums where I imagine the band just walked in, laid down its tracks and left.  (Obviously, bands don’t really do that anymore, but uncluttered arrangements lend themselves to that impression.)

4.  Bécs / Fennesz

Somehow I doubt that Christian Fennesz cares for all the micro-subgenre labels in electronic music.  Sure, he’s influenced by glitch and ambient, but his music feels more alive than that.  Bécs is a great example of how an artist can treat a laptop as an instrument, especially on the tracks “Static Kings” and “Liminality.”  His music allows me space to think, to work and to dream.

5.  Syro / Aphex Twin

As time went on, I felt like I was alone in my love for drukqs, Richard James’ last album as Aphex Twin from 2001.  Sure, it was a bloated double-disc, but I enjoyed all of it: all the weird electronic stuff, the minimalistic piano exercises and experiments with prepared piano.  So obviously I was ecstatic at the promise of a new Aphex Twin record, but I also feared that James might feel pressure to get aggressive and do EDM to be relevant or something. The best part about Syro is that it’s just a continuation of his unique vision to write real songs and make technology groove and breathe. No idea yet where it fits into his canon, but it sure is a great album.

6.  Fortuna / Popstrangers

Apparently nineties indie rock has become the thing to imitate.  And the fact that I’m complaining about that probably means I’m getting old.  Sure, Fortuna sounds like a Deerhunter record, but it feels more cohesive than what Brandon Cox usually delivers.  I’ve been rewarded with how Popstrangers takes its time to develop even the murky songs.  Maybe not the best album of the year, but with many long hours at work, Fortuna just made sense.

7.  Home Everywhere / Medicine

Brad Laner and his band Medicine are like old friends.  Or maybe more like that older brother who schooled me on good music.  (But unlike my real-life stepbrother who introduced me to Dinosaur Jr. and The Cure, Laner hasn’t grown boring with age.)  After nearly two decades apart, the band Medicine reformed in 2013 and released a new album, To the Happy Few, with its trademark mix of psychedelic pop and tape-mangled industrial noise was still in tact.  This year, the band took things a little further, testing listeners’ limits with dense layers and almost too many musical ideas in each verse.  So of course I loved it, especially because it’s on beautiful people vinyl.

8.  You’re Dead / Flying Lotus

Steven Elison has tinkered with jazz on his previous Flying Lotus albums, but You’re Dead finally feels like his first jazz record.  The electronics are still compressed to the point of absurdity, but he uses more live instruments on this album.  Elison’s great success is in creating his most cohesive album.  So much so that it becomes difficult to discern between tracks, at times.  Given the complexity of the arrangements, it’s remarkable how short the album feels.  It’s a mind-trip, but I was quick to start the album over many times this year.

9.  Deep Fantasy / White Lung

Remember when you first listened to “Whirring” by The Joy Formidable and the band ripped off your face for nearly seven minutes straight? That’s kind of the feeling I still get from listening to Deep Fantasy, except that the intensity lasts for the entire album. Heavy, aggressive, melodic and brief.  Just what the doctor ordered.

10.  Into the Lime / The New Mendicants

The New Mendicants feature Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub and Joe Pernice from Pernice Brothers, two of my favorite bands. But I’m not gonna lie, I was a little disappointed when I first listened to Into the Lime. I hoped for big power pop, but the record feels a lot more front porch-ish and acoustic. The vocals are upfront and mostly unaffected, Blake’s acquiescence to role as a background vocalist is frustrating and gone are many lush layers I’d come to expect from either artist.  But the songwriting is great, and I just lived in this album for a couple months. Some of my favorite albums are the frustrating ones, and Into the Lime was the difficult album that grew into a favorite this year.

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