Here it is, folks—my favorite albums of 2014.
I think I should add this disclaimer before I go on any further; though I do listen to tons of music, I am in no way one of those listens-to-everything-that-comes-out types, so this is really a “best of what I’ve taken the time to listen to” list. I will be the first to admit that I am sure I missed something incredible.
I think it has been a very interesting year in music, so I made a point of listening to a lot of new stuff, but some years I get incredibly bored with new music and retreat for months at a time into only 60’s psych records or stoner metal or free jazz or whatever my obsession at the time may be... so take that into account here. One trend I have noticed (in my tastes at least) is that this was a very good year for hip-hop and hip-hop inspired music—from the return of OutKast and D’Angelo to really innovative new stuff by Kendrick Lamar, Shabazz Palaces, Run The Jewels, etc, etc... I have also noticed that my apathy and disinterest in new “psychedelic” and “garage” rock continues to grow, but I think that is mostly because I have listened to and played so damn much of it in years past (Re: The Mole People (my band), The Psychedelic Boogaloo!!! (my old radio show), the endless supply of bands that fit that mold).
Spotify playlist at end of post
10) RF Shannon: Hunting Songs
While many folks this year were digging on your Sturgill Simpsons, your War On Drugses, and even your Tom Pettys, I kept thinking that it is only a matter of time before we have a full-blown New Cosmic Americana Wave and that Austin’s RF Shannon will surely be one of the shining lights of that new era. My friend, Austin-based designer Lauren Dickens, describes them as, “Coming down from a long psychedelic trip at a honky tonk,” and that is about as perfect of a description as I’ve heard.
Stream Hunting Songs on their bandcamp or purchase the vinyl and/or their great split 7" with Jess Williamson (as well as many other outstanding releases from artists from Austin and beyond) on the Punctum Records website.
9) Eno • Hyde: High Life
The fact that Brian Eno can make an album this cool over forty years into his career is an achievement unto its self, but this isn’t just a good-for-an-old-dude record. This is on the level with his classic 70’s and 80’s work... and it feels forward-looking. Eno is not coasting into retirement, folks; the dude that could out-weird David Byrne, Devo, and David Bowie is still a formidable presence in pop. (Also there is a guy named Hyde involved and I should probably look him up.)
8) Roger Sellers: Primitives
Of the many Austin musicians that I have met and had the pleasure of performing with, Roger Sellers might take the honor of being the one “most likely to succeed.” His new album Primitives, released into our sphere from the rapidly expanding universe of Austin’s Punctum Records, is a vibrant soundscape and an engrossing vision-quest into netherworlds near and far. Rotate if you like Animal Collective, Yes, Caribou, Brian Eno.
7) Radioactivity: Radioactivity
Radioactivity came out in late 2013, but I was blissfully unaware of it until early this year. To me it will always be a 2014 album. Radioactivity is the brain-child of Jeff Burke from the 00’s Texas band The Marked Men, who my “punk” friends tell me is an important band that I should be aware of. This is besides the point; Radioactivity are one of those rare bands that makes me ask, “How do they do it?” These songs are so basic and there is really nothing innovative or revolutionary here... it is just power pop at its finest: perfectly constructed songs that get stuck in your head and performances that are so permeated with raw emotion that they demand your gut to wrench.
6) Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal
This is cool indie rock that manages to reference so much other cool, punky-artsy-indie rock from the past (Pavement, Television, The Velvet Underground, etc.) that it’s kind of hard to believe how fresh it sounds. It probably helps that they are incredibly intelligent guys who can skillfully navigate this legacy and that their deep Texas roots allow them to sprinkle a little Americana and blues in there when necessary.
5) St. Vincent: St. Vincent
St. Vincent is St. Vincent fully realized. I am often tempted to say she has gone “full Laurie Anderson” but that isn’t completely accurate. While she is fully embracing her inherent artsy weirdness (and God bless her for it), she is also still a pop hit writing machine and a killer guitarist. So maybe she is more of a David Byrne mixed with Peter Gabriel and Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp and... of course she isn’t any of those dudes. She is completely herself and has achieved the glorious heights of her heroes. Long live Annie Clark.
4) Shabazz Palaces: Lesse Majesty
Speaking truth to power in the midst of a fog of war, racism, and chaos that leaves the truth garbled as it filters through. Seeking the interstellar release of these earthly chains, but being constantly aware of snares all around. Shabazz Palaces is hip hop from the future. Let’s hope other artists answer Ishmael Butler’s call to escort the masses into it.
3) The War On Drugs: Lost In The Dream
At this point I would hope that you would all be aware of the immenseness that is The War On Drugs. Lost In The Dream is their magnum opus—a masterpiece of songwriting, studio technique, and record-nerd scholarship... except not your more common Velvet Underground/college rock-type nerdiness. What's going on here is a deep appreciation of Born In The U.S.A., Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Jeff Lynne, and the often derided 80’s-era Bob Dylan records. Lost In The Dream manages to tap into a feeling many of these records had, this weird loneliness enhanced by the juxtaposition of massive, should-be-corny (and often was on those 80’s records) production and great, classic, American songwriting. The parts taken on their own seem like they would up add up to a cheesy whole, but they don’t—the work as a whole is an immersive, soulful experience that you will surely get lost in.
2) Flying Lotus: You’re Dead!
Maximum Maximalist jazz-fusion-electrofunk about everything, but especially the perhaps biggest question of them all, “What is death?” Equal parts heavy spirituality and goofy exuberance. Steven Ellison seems to embrace the mystery and laugh with the spirits. There’s plenty to think about, but there is also plenty to dance about (having Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg on board helps).
1) D’Angelo & The Vanguard: Black Messiah
It was worth the wait. Just when we needed it D’angelo gives us an album that only he could have made—something simultaneously earthy and spiritual, inclusive and generous while fiercely political, soothing yet rattling, personal and universal, retro and progressive, perfectly loose in its perfection. This is also the closest thing we got this year to a Universal album (except perhaps Lost In The Dream). At times Black Messiah is amazingly poppy and accessible, as in “Really Love,” and at other times it is noisy and aggressive, as in “1000 Deaths,” which is arguably the most avant sounding thing to come from a soul singer since, well, anything off of Voodoo. There are distinct echoes of There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Sign ‘O’ The Times, and What’s Going On but it also feels like a vital, contemporary experience. Maybe that’s because things still need to change.
Here’s a Spotify playlist featuring tracks off of all the above albums (other than RF Shannon because they are not on Spotify) plus some extra tracks by artists that almost made the list (Run The Jewels, Future Islands, Viet Cong, etc.)