2014 was a great year for music. I went to a ton of incredible shows and listened to a bunch of great records, both old and new. Today we’re focusing on the 2014 releases, and although it’s tough to rank ’em, it’s a necessary evil. Here’s the albums I especially enjoyed from 2014, ranked the best I could.
One interesting trend is the plethora of bluegrass-influenced music taking the 20-11 spots, while the top 10 is reserved for more avant-garde releases that I think really broke the mold of their genre(s).
-Chris Tart [Editor-in-chief]
20. String Cheese Incident – Song In My Head
String Cheese Incident have provided me with a ton of epic concerts. Thirty of them to be exact, and many of the tunes from Song In My Head have been shredded to pieces by the sextet at those shows. It was cool to listen to studio versions of a lot of my favorite songs, and the fact that the band had such a great time recording the album is a huge + to cheese-heads everywhere.
19. Trampled By Turtles – Wild Animals
Trampled By Turtles changed gears once again with their seventh (!!) studio album. The opening title-track was a slow, emotionally charged folk tune and set the pace for the most mature album the bluegrass five-piece has recorded. “Are You Behind the Shining Star?” showcases spectacular song-writing and “Western World” picks up the pace for that vintage TBT vibe.
18. The Roots – …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
Questlove and company really shook things up on their 2014 album. It’s a concept record about violence in hip-hop, displayed in some sort of urban broadway spectacle. It isn’t the most classic material from The Roots, but doing something truly fresh in the rap world deserves merit.
17. Railroad Earth – Last of the Outlaws
Railroad Earth is one of the great bands playing American roots music. Last of the Outlaws displayed their ability to write classic bluegrass/folky tunes like “Chasin’ a Rainbow,” “Grandfather Mountain” and “When the Sun Gets in Your Blood,” but also a more epic side of things that reside in the albums core, a 20-minute epic broken up in multiple movements.
16. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
It’s hard to make a full album of electronic music and keep it fresh, but Todd Terje did the damn thing. From tropical disco (“Delorean Dynamite” / “Inspector Norse”) to proggy WTF awesomeness (“Preben Goes To Acapulco” / “Svenk Sas”), the album is definitely one of a kind.
15. Afghan Whigs – Do The Beast
2014 was full of 90s alt-rock revival. Whether it was Neutral Milk Hotel touring around the country or Slowdive reuniting to bring shoegaze back to the masses, a bunch of 90s bands cashed in on the reunion. Afghan Whigs did it too, but released a kick-ass album in the process. Do The Beast tastes like much of their best material, making angsty, grungey rock ‘n’ roll sound incredible in an unsuspecting time.
14. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line
Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins are all virtuoso musicians that have been playing together for years. It’s no wonder their first album since ’05 was almost effortlessly a top release of 2014, as the trio mix pop sensibility with bluegrass and top-notch musicianship. In a year filled with great Americana releases, Nickel Creek’s stands out as a well-calculated more-than-a-reunion album.
13. Greensky Bluegrass – If Sorrows Swim
If Greensky Bluegrass proved one thing with If Sorrows Swim, it’s that they have not had their best days just yet. The best album is likely to be made and the best shows are likely to be played, and with Yonder Mountain String Band losing Jeff Austin this year, Greensky could be the next huge band in string music. We certainly hope so, anyways.
12. Thievery Corporation – Saudade
Saudade is without a doubt the sexiest album of the year. Trading political lyrics and dub/reggae tendencies for bossa-nova influence and love lyrics, Thievery Corporation isn’t asking for a revolution with their newest record. They are begging you, however, to dim the lights down low and chill way out, which is done easily enough with these silky-smooth grooves.
11. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Benji was a lot of things. It was awkward, intense and melancholy, but also somehow beautiful. With a minimalistic approach to folk music and an incredible knack for storytelling, Benji is what happens when someone takes the music Bob Dylan and puts a seriously twisted spin on it.
10. D’Angelo – Black Messiah
When Black Messiah dropped a few days ago, the internet entered a frenzy. It’s been 14 years since the urban crooner released his last album and a ton has changed since “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” was a hit. But that’s all irrelevant to D’Angelo as he melted Cosmic Slop-era Funkadelic with influences of Sly Stone and James Brown. The entire thing jams out in a loose manner, making it an elite album not only for R&B, soul and funk, but music in general.
9. Ghostface Killah – 36 Seasons
A Better Tomorrow isn’t making this list, but Ghostface Killah’s concept record is. Released just a week after the Wu-Tang reunion LP, 36 Seasons is a great hip-hop album. The story is tight, the features are great and the live-band production really ties everything together in a beautiful way.
8. The Budos Band – Burnt Offering
The Budos Band might be the only band that melts heavy metal with 70s soul. The concept sounds gimmicky, but the execution is perfect with this seven-piece ensemble. The riffs are incredible, the baritone sax will make you tremble and the entire thing is just so urgent, sounding like a vintage Bruce Lee chase scene or something.
7. Caribou – Our Love
Our Love wasn’t what I wanted it to be. Upon the first listen, I was unimpressed. But after the album marinated, I realized (on the fourth or fifth listen) that I love the entire thing. Tracks like “Second Chance” get the repeat treatment while “Can’t Do Without You” is the soulful, dance-floor-ready diddy you expect from Dan Snaith.
6. Nels Cline & Julian Lage – Room
Wilco’s Nels Cline and guitar produgy Julan Lage have 32 years between them, but the fact that Julian is less than half Nels’ age doesn’t create a distance between them. These two play effortlessly off eachother in a way that melts jazz, classical and folk inside a guitar-only record. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard before, and could very well be unlike anything you’ve ever heard as well.
5. Badbadnotgood – III
Badbadnotgood did it big with III. Previous efforts saw the band flirting with covers of J Dilla, Gang Starr, Kanye West and James Blake, but their third release proved that these three Toronto kids can write their own tunes as well. It helps that their style is purely their own: a mix of jazz and hip-hop with a gritty aesthetic and fun personality. Very few people can contribute to jazz like these kids did.
4. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
Lost In The Dream is on nearly every year-end list out there, and for good reason. The Philadelphia group melted jams, 80s rock anthems and shiny production together for one of the tastiest albums of the year. The songs are long, well-planned and even better executed. This is the album Apple should have put on our phones.
3. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
The best hip-hop album of the year was the result of an unlikely collaboration. The taste-making beat-master Madlib isn’t the first person you would think of when you hear Freddie Gibbs raw and uncut flow, but somehow the combination works incredibly well. The 17-track album featured Domo Genesis, Earl Sweatshirt, Raekwon, Danny Brown and more for a total slam dunk: no frills, no gimmicks, just real street music.
2. Real Estate – Atlas
Real Estate is another band who seem to have their best days ahead of them. I watched them play their largest headlining show to date at New York City’s Terminal 5, and as I type this I’m just hours away from seeing them play a smaller show in Brooklyn. Their upbeat take on indie rock is complete with a love for the Grateful Dead and a little thing called FUN. Atlas is a prime example of an album that isn’t trying too hard, and it’s critical reception proves you don’t need to.
…and the best album of the year…
1. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead
Without a damn doubt.
You’re Dead did it all. It started out with the most psychedelic progressive jazz that any self-respecting enjoyer of instrument solos could ever want, featuring legend Herbie Hancock alongside new guy Thundercat. It loops in established rappers in Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg to further the artform of hip-hop, and in this case probably just foreshadowing what everyone else in the game will emulate in the next 5-10 years.
It’s also a complete body of work that means more with a full listen. Each song is carefully created and placed to piece together a largely instrumental concept album. The last track on the album is one of the most beautiful beats I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I listened to this like 6x in the first couple days it was released, noticing new bits and pieces each time, which is a true stamp of a classic album.
I absolutely love You’re Dead not only for what it is, but for what I believe it is going to be. With Kendrick performing new songs with Thundercat, and the track has flutes, saxophone solos, and all sorts of weird funky noises on it.
And the entire game decidedly moving in a more musical direction, or at least the stuff I care about seems to be. I can’t wait to see what everyone will create with this type of stuff out there. It’s definitely setting the bar high for 2015.
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