I had settled on my list. I was happy with my list. Then D’Angelo decides to come out of hibernation. While it’s hard to put the significance of Black Messiah into context only a week after its release, it does feel significant, artistically and politically. Where it will eventually shake out is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, it’s easily one of the best of the year. My top 4 could be listed in pretty much any order, but someone had to be first.
Since we’re at the halfway mark of the decade, this seems as good a time as any to take stock. Much like the 2000s, this decade is still lacking a firm identity, characterized by eclecticism instead of a broader, overarching narrative. The bigger stories this year were not necessarily what we were listening to, but how what we were listening to reached us. U2’s unwelcome crowbarring, Beyonce’s verbification, the myriad surprise releases are all small parts of the larger overhaul of our consumption patterns.
2014 was afflicted with a bit of middle-child syndrome, but even an “off” year still has its treasures. We had triumphant comebacks (D’Angelo, Beck, TV on the Radio, Aphex Twin), virtuosic debuts (FKA Twigs, MØ, Ought) and a number of career bests (Perfume Genius, Sharon Van Etten, St. Vincent). There was something for everyone, even if there wasn’t necessarily one thing for everyone. ?
01 Lost in the Dream, by The War on Drugs
02 St. Vincent, by St. Vincent
03 Are We There, by Sharon Van Etten
04 Black Messiah, by D'Angelo and the Vanguard
05 More Than Any Other Day, by Ought
06 Our Love, by Caribou
07 Run The Jewels 2, by Run The Jewels
08 The Hum, by Hookworms
09 They Want My Soul, by Spoon
10 Benji, by Sun Kil Moon
01 "Can’t Do Without You," by Caribou
02 "Seasons (Waiting On You)," by Future Islands
03 "Eyes to the Wind," by The War on Drugs
04 "Do You," by Spoon
05 "Inspector Norse," by Todd Terje
06 "Your Love Is Killing Me," by Sharon Van Etten
07 "Ain’t That Easy," by D’Angelo
08 "Prince Johnny," by St. Vincent
09 "Warning," by Cymbals Eat Guitars
10 "Murmurs," by Hundred Waters
Maybe it is age, but 2014 became the year that the details truly emerged from music for me. It was the little things, rather than the high-octane antics, that stole my attention. Sustained moods, not fleeting emotions, became my auditory prerogative. It was about the journey, and the little steps that amounted to progress towards the destination, that made the difference.
It certainly helped that certain records are associated with particular eras in my experience of 2014. A month of my morning commute in New York was soundtracked by St. Vincent. I climbed the Great Wall of China to LP1 and bargained in Beijing hutongs with Ultraviolence playing in one ear. There were the cold mornings of the polar vortex when Post Tropical accompanied me. None of those records slacked. St. Vincent and LP1 were idiosyncratic, insular worlds from start to finish, taking the listener deep into the minds of their masters, while Ultraviolence and Post Tropical developed a single aesthetic and took it to its zenith. It was these two categories, clarity of the artist’s vision and cohesiveness, which informed my choices.
The devil was in the details for singles as well this year. Mas Ysa’s “Shame,” with its volcanic fury, made an impression early on in the year, but it was the contrast between the full-throated catharsis and the quiet confessions in the bridge, that made the biggest impact. There was the knotted, creeping organic tangle of FKA Twigs’ “Pendulum,” that grew alive with each twist and turn. Mike Hadreas’ sneering hook of “No family is safe when I sashay” on “Queen” decidedly stole the show lyrically in 2014. Even pop saw dexterous finesse, as evidenced by T-Swift’s (ingenious) subtle vocal shift towards derangement on “Blank Space” when she admits to getting “drunk on jealousy.” Yet, it was Hundred Waters, a band born from the decay of dubstep, perhaps the most overloaded genre ever, which mastered the mood for my year. “Murmurs,” with its odd warmth and micro-drops, remains etched into my psyche, associated forevermore with the most gorgeous smog-choked sunset I ever saw from the balcony of the Griffith Observatory. “I wish you would see what I see,” indeed. ?
01 The Moon Rang Like a Bell, by Hundred Waters
02 Z, by SZA
03 No Mythologies to Follow, by MØ
04 St. Vincent, by St. Vincent
05 Too Bright, by Perfume Genius
06 LP1, by FKA Twigs
07 Ultraviolence, by Lana Del Rey
08 Post Tropical, by James Vincent McMorrow
09 Brill Bruisers, by The New Pornographers
10 Broke with Expensive Taste, by Azealia Banks
01 “Murmurs,” by Hundred Waters
02 “Queen,” by Perfume Genius
03 “Shame,” by Mas Ysa
04 “Blank Space,” by Taylor Swift
05 “Pendulum,” by FKA Twigs
06 “i,” by Kendrick Lamar
07 “FROOT,” by Marina and the Diamonds
08 “On The Regular,” by Shamir
09 “Do You,” by Spoon
10 “2 On,” by Tinashe (featuring ScHoolboy Q)
2014 was a weird music year for me. Almost nothing in my top 10 matches the lists of all my favorite websites. In fact, mine will probably be seen as embarrassingly lame. Weezer? Bleachers? La Roux? It looks less like a seasoned music writer's recap of the year's best albums and more like a standard "alternative pop" Pandora playlist. But I promise, if you love catchy melodies and big hooks, but don't enjoy Taylor Swift's album as much as the internet wants you to, these 10 are for you. At the very least, they're for me. They're poppy, but smart; uncool, but endlessly fun.
And the number one pick is something even better: warm, poignant and unique. Beatenberg hail from South Africa, and they've yet to gain acclaim here in the states. Their album isn't on Spotify yet, but trust me: Open up your iTunes for once, dust off the old gift card in your closet, and spend the $9.99. If your 2014, like mine, was missing that one special album with a little more meaning (the void that Vampire Weekend filled last year), perhaps this is what you've been looking for. ?
01 The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg, by Beatenberg
02 Brill Bruisers, by The New Pornographers
03 Be Impressive, by The Griswolds
04 Everything Will Be Alright In The End, by Weezer
05 Let's Go Extinct, by Fanfarlo
06 Singles, by Future Islands
07 Bleachers, by Bleachers
08 We Come From The Same Place, by Allo Darlin
09 Trouble In Paradise, by La Roux
10 Atlas, by Real Estate
01 "Seasons (Waiting On You)," by Future Islands
02 "Myth Of Myself," by Fanfarlo
03 "1000 Seasons," by The Rentals
04 "Beware The Dog," by The Griswolds
05 "Brill Bruisers," by The New Pornographers
06 "Talking Backwards," by Real Estate
07 "Water Fountain," by Tune-Yards
08 "Blue Moon," by Beck
09 "Sanctified," by Kanye West (Rick Ross? This is Kanye's song.)
10 "Sunday Candy," by Chance The Rapper and the Social Experiment
My roommate's face when I took her to see Destruction Unit for the first time. Driving into the Portal along the Colorado River in Moab, Utah, blasting Angel Olsen's "White Fire." Standing between my two best friends watching Naomi Punk play “Rodeo Trash Pit” at Heartland (RIP). "Drunk in Love" playing in a tow truck in the wilderness outside Albuquerque. After the Parquet Courts show telling a girl "your hair is beautiful" and she told me "thanks, great job in the pit." Flying to Detroit and driving four hours to Toronto to arrive at 4:20am and sleeping til 2pm in order to see Perfect Pussy on my birthday. Painting my new house to a playlist that was just Lana Del Rey’s “Cruel World” and Total Control’s “Black Spring” and “Systematic Fuck.” My friend seeing Marshstepper in New York by accident and being so freaked out she changed her flight home to a week earlier (seeing Marshstepper in November and feeling like I was floating off my feet and existing in a different world than my body). Viet Cong closing their SXSW set with "Death" and the sound guy unplugging their instruments as they were playing. A guy writing a haiku for the Washington Post about my dancing to Spray Paint. Being allowed to exist in the same world as Guerilla Toss. Pop artists embracing and professing feminism. Getting my best friend from high school to mosh with me to Pissed Jeans after three gin and tonics. Listening to Pharmakon in Starbucks before work – “I don’t belong here.” Walking down the street singing Perfume Genius's "Queen" and Iceage's "The Lord's Favorite" - "no family is safe when I sashay." The Slint documentary Breadcrumb Trail. Exploding in Sound, Faux Discx, and Ascetic House giving me renewed faith in "labels." Every Vexx show, every Institute show, the Uranium Club demo. That people are still making music that is challenging, emotional, and honest. That I have the resources to find it and see them perform it live.
Everyone who asked me if I thought punk was dead. Every "guitar music is over" essay. Thinkpieces by men about the perceived inauthenticity of women artists. Every white man given a microphone by music blogs to spout intolerant, sexist, racist, macho posturing bullshit. Every white boy who moshes when no one else is into it. Every hardcore band made up of angry white dudes who thinks they’re hot shit (you’re probably not). The screamingly boring innocuousness of the zeitgeist. PC Music is probably just one guy (you should probably listen to PC Worship instead). The rampant closure of all-ages DIY venues across America (that we only pay attention to the ones in New York). White feminists attempting critique of Beyonce. Everything that sounds the same. Don’t move to Brooklyn. You can do your own thing. ?
01 Television Man, by Naomi Punk
02 More Than Any Other Day, by Ought
03 Plowing Into The Field of Love, by Iceage
04 Content Nausea and Sunbathing Animal, by Parquet Courts
05 Social Rust, PC Worship
06 Bestial Burden, Pharmakon
07 Typical System, Total Control
08 Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Angel Olsen
09 After The End, Merchandise
10 Say Yes to Love, Perfect Pussy
01 "Bunker Buster," by Viet Cong
02 "Giddy Boys," by Institute
03 "Rodeo Trash Pit," by Naomi Punk
04 “Gemini,” by Ought
05 “367 Equalizer,” by Guerilla Toss
06 “Lawman,” by Girl Band
07 “Simony,” by Iceage
08 “Cruel World,” by Lana Del Rey
09 “Begging For Your Life / In the City Light,” by Merchandise
10 “Duckin' and Dodgin',” by Parquet Courts
Each year around this time, I do my best to comb through every year-end music list I can get my hands on (typically from the same handful of publications I read every week, but sometimes from those I barely recognize). I do this because I like discovering what pop culture considers to be definitively good, that is to say: the albums and tracks that, despite their familiarity or origin, seem to thwart opposing viewpoints by showing up on everyone’s list. It’s fascinating to observe how frequently critics tend to blur the lines and expose how meaningless genre classifications can sometimes be. So often, I saw 1989 nestled just a few spots removed from, say, Bestial Burden. While one could be lauded as one of the more transformative pop albums of the past five years, the other could be lauded as one of the most transformative noise albums of all time.
I spend a lot of time reading these lists and digesting the content and scribbling notes and tallying entries that show up more than others and analyzing what all of this data means on a higher level. Why do Taylor Swift and Pharmakon exist on the same list? What does this say about our more philosophical attachment to music? Does it say anything at all?
As you could probably guess, pretty much all of my friends think this type of behavior is nonsensical – pointless, even. And they’re probably right, but consider this: Year-end lists are the best possible avenue we have to explain our musical taste without ever really saying anything specifically. It’s always nice when we do, but most of the time, the lists are way more articulate.
So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to let my top ten lists do the talking. It was a truly fantastic year for music. The War On Drugs made an album I probably won’t ever stop listening to. Shabazz Palaces and Run The Jewels, albeit in totally different ways, delivered degree-of-difficulty hip-hop albums that raised the bar to an almost-impossibly high level. And thanks to ILoveMakonnen, Wednesday mornings are now the fucking devil. Go figure. ?
01 Lost in the Dream, by The War on Drugs
02 It's Album Time, by Todd Terje
03 Atlas, by Real Estate
04 Lese Majesty, by Shabazz Palaces
05 After the End, by Merchandise
06 Run the Jewels 2, by Run the Jewels
07 Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, by Sturgill Simpson
08 Benji, by Sun Kil Moon
09 Hell Can Wait EP, by Vince Staples
10 You're Dead!, by Flying Lotus
01 "Eyes to the Wind," by The War on Drugs
02 "Down on my Luck," by Vic Mensa
03 "Tuesday," by ILoveMakonnen (featuring Drake)
04 "Talking Backwards," by Real Estate
05 "Bet," by Tinashe (featuring Dev Hynes)
06 "True Monument," by Merchandise
07 "Chamber of Reflection," by Mac DeMarco
08 "Dawn in Luxor," by Shabazz Palaces
09 "Delorean Dynamite," by Todd Terje
10 "Strange Colores," by Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks
D’Angelo’s eleventh hour decision to release his second masterpiece, at the tail end of 2014, offered this scattershot year the one thing it was previously missing: an anchor, an instant classic, a response to the anger and sadness that has dominated our 24-hour news cycle. Even ripped from this recent historical context, Black Messiah is a technical and sonic marvel and, best of all, the sexiest album we’ve gotten since Beyoncé turned the world upside down over a year ago. (I’ve left Bey off my lists because she’s already received plenty of PMA love.)
This isn’t to say 2014 was ho-hum before D’Angelo (a narrative I’ve fallen prey to). St. Vincent’s bravura self-titled LP easily strode to number two on my albums list in what was a spectacular year for women in music. Taylor Swift found her greatest commercial and critical success with fluorescent flair. Lana Del Rey shamed her harshest critics (me included) by embracing celluloid drama. Lykke Li bared her shattered heart in a collection of power ballads. And Charli XCX shot herself out of a pop-punk Roman candle. The lone debut on my album list is by FKA twigs, whose LP1 is still somewhat indescribable and utterly mesmerizing. As for the fellas, War on Drugs delivered the strongest Dylan record of the 1980s. Beck one-upped Sea Change with a superior, more universal statement. And Spoon reduced a fine twenty-year career into a single sitting.
I approached my songs list with a few self-imposed rules. First, no artist repeats. That’s why Taylor Swift’s “Style” and St. Vincent’s “Severed Crossed Fingers” and D’Angelo’s “Really Love” and Ultraviolence's title track are all absent. Second, as I’ve stated above, no Beyoncé. Hence the exclusion of “XO,” my clear 2014 favorite. Third, I wanted to expand my scope and highlight music that moved me apart from the stuff of playlists. So the opening theme to the blockbuster podcast Serial takes the place of worthy additions such as Future Islands’ “Seasons” and Sia’s “Chandelier.” Nick Thorburn’s jaunty, and now iconic, piano chords brought me (and, I suspect, millions of other listeners) a sense of anticipation equal to the unspooling true-crime investigation they heralded.
Those caveats aside, triumph was the common denominator that united my favorite tracks this past year. The sole exception being “Windows,” a slow burner from Angel Olsen’s uneven but fabulous Burn Your Fire for No Witness. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” — the cathartic outing of Laura Jane Grace, a true trans soul rebel — landed at number one. Coming in at a close second was Perfume Genius, who brought electro-ferocity realness to “Queen.” Madonna returned with her best single in ages, a glorious amalgam of Gloria Gaynor and “Like a Prayer.” Tune-Yards turned riparian rights into a hand-clapping party. Aphex Twin schooled much younger protégés with a master class in buoyant EDM. Kelis channeled her father’s love of music through joyous and sweaty funk. Sleater-Kinney and Panda Bear announced greatness to come soon next year.
May 2015 be just as weak! ?
01 Black Messiah, by D’Angelo and the Vanguard
02 St. Vincent, by St. Vincent
03 1989, by Taylor Swift
04 LP1, by FKA twigs
05 Ultraviolence, by Lana Del Rey
06 Lost in the Dream, by War on Drugs
07 Morning Phase, by Beck
08 They Want My Soul, by Spoon
09 I Never Learn, by Lykke Li
10 Sucker, by Charli XCX
01 “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”, by Against Me!
02 “Queen”, by Perfume Genius
03 “Living for Love”, by Madonna
04 “Water Fountain”, by Tune-Yards
05 “Bury Our Friends”, by Sleater-Kinney
06 “Mr Noah”, by Panda Bear
07 “Jerk Ribs”, by Kelis
08 "minipops 67 [120.2]”, by Aphex Twin
09 “Windows”, by Angel Olsen
10 “Bad Dream (Serial Theme)”, by Nick Thorburn
I’m glad PMA is counting Beyoncé as a 2014 release for year-end list purposes, because 2014 was nothing if not a year of being continually jolted out of complacency, on the record and in the streets. It might sound silly to connect the year’s finest chart-pop record (Tay, Imma let you finish, but…) to extramusical events it preceded and bears no superficial connection to, but Beyoncé set the tone for this year (albeit in a more upbeat way than the year probably deserved): arriving out of the blue, any person with any contact with any kind of media found the record inescapable, and it ignited a series of dense, fiery debates about a particular form of oppression in contemporary American society. Towering edifice that it is, Beyoncé’s fifth LP lacks both the scale and the gravity of the major rumbles of discontent that reverberated throughout the U.S. this year, but it’s hard to listen to the miracle that is long-silent D’Angelo’s suddenly released Black Messiah and look back to Beyoncé without feeling like there’s a pattern at work here, one that might have begun 2014 as a marketing gimmick but nevertheless finished up as a cracked and telling reflection of 365 increasingly fraught days.
Each in its own way, I think every record I loved that was released between Beyoncé and Black Messiah was a shock to my system. My favorite piece of 2014 music, Perfect Pussy’s astonishing Say Yes To Love, was (like its companions in feminist punk badassery, White Lung’s Deep Fantasy and Makthaverskan's II) a punk rock superhero of an album, one that reminded me exactly why the genre hasn’t faded away, a shock not just to my system but to the capital-S System. Some of the year’s best music was so violently forceful the listener was unable to ignore it (Run The Jewels 2, A U R O R A, I Shall Die Here). Some of them revealed a hidden, volcanic power in acts that are all too easily taken for granted (Singles, Ruins). A couple (Xen, LP1) disrupted everyday life by introducing an audiovisual aesthetic that, whatever its obvious antecedents, feels rivetingly, exhilaratingly, terrifyingly new and alien: as Pitchfork’s Philip Shelburne wrote in his review of Xen, “something is cresting on the horizon, and while it’s too early to make out the particulars of its shape – this lumbering behemoth…it is getting closer.” As this tough year draws to a close, I wonder if Shelburne was only talking about the latest vogue in post-dubstep production. ?
01 Say Yes To Love, by Perfect Pussy
02 Black Messiah, by D’Angelo and the Vanguard
03 I Shall Die Here, by The Body
04 LP1, by FKA twigs
05 Run the Jewels 2, by Run the Jewels
06 A U R O R A, by Ben Frost
07 Singles, by Future Islands
08 Beyoncé, by Beyoncé
09 Xen, by Arca
10 Ruins, by Grouper
01 “Man of the Year,” by ScHoolboy Q
02 “Trainwreck 1979,” by Death From Above 1979
03 "I Won," by Future (featuring Kanye West)
04 “In my dreams we’re almost touching,” by Ricky Eat Acid
05 “Seasons (Waiting on You),” by Future Islands
06 “North Circular,” by Real Lies
07 “Chorus,” by Holly Herndon
08 “Two Weeks,” by FKA twigs
09 “Digital Witness,” by St. Vincent
10 "Partition," by Beyoncé