The 50 best albums of 2014
So, 2014 – how did you fare?
There’s a sense, articulated on these pages and elsewhere, that it was a vintage year for dance albums. We’d qualify that: two huge Warp records missed the mark, a clutch of debuts from underground stars (Objekt, Arca and Call Super among them) left us somewhat colder than the frothing write-ups elsewhere might suggest, and even the first Theo Parrish LP in yonks fell short. But it was a commendably strong showing overall, with plenty of great records failing to penetrate the Top 50: special mentions to Perc, Beau Wanzer and Hashman Deejay.
There was much talk of a renewed interest in ambient music, and even if there was perhaps a whiff of arbitrary scene-shaping going on, it’s undeniable that plenty of club producers made albums designed for more sedentary or expansive listening – and similarly undeniable that a ruck of great ambient albums saw release. And it was a fitting year to look back and see how much mixtape culture has transformed hip-hop over the last 15 years – big label acts had their weakest showing in years, whereas mixtapes from talented newcomers were as epidemic as they’ve ever been.
As ever, the limits of what constitutes an ‘album’ remain contested – mixtapes, production mixes, mini-albums, limited cassettes and Bandcamp ephemera all feature on the list and, we think, all justify their place. Fire up your blimp, don your ‘You Fucking Hillbillies’ T-shirt, and tuck in – these are our 50 favourite records of the year.
More End of 2014 features:
The 20 best reissues of 2014
The 20 best labels of 2014
The 20 best cassettes of 2014
The 20 best mixtapes of 2014
The 20 best free mixes of 2014
The 20 best videos of 2014
The 20 best album covers of 2014
Has 2014 been the best year for dance albums in recent memory?
Power ambient – the sound of 2014
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50. CHARLES BARABÉ
Insultes (hommage à John Cage)
Unleash the trolls! On Insultes, Quebec musician Barabé collects YouTube comments on a video of John Cage’s 4’33” (“If there really was a God, at 4’32’’, he would have killed every single person in that room”), pipes them through a text-to-speech converter, and sets them to an increasingly frantic long-form synth instrumental. The result is spirited freakout music, cut from similar cloth to LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’ and a piece of Bandcamp flotsam that deserves much greater notice.
Tinashe’s debut album is far better than we ever could have expected to it to be. It’s not without its flaws, certainly – it’s a touch too long for a start – but its as good a selection of silky-smooth (and occasionally quite weird) r’n’b as you’re likely to find. When it hits hardest – ‘Feels Like Vegas’, ‘2 On’, ‘Cold Sweat’ – it’s a solid reminder of just how different she is from her peers. Tinashe might be using a template established by Cassie but she’s a worthy heir to the throne. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes from here.
48. CELESTIAL TRAX
Celestial Trax’s Paroxysm EP was both too short and too slight to qualify for this list, so it falls to this all-originals mix for Mixmag to represent the British-born, Brooklyn-based producer’s impressive year. Underpass atmospherics, reminiscent of vintage Skull Disco, reign supreme, underpinned by neck-snapping, syncopated rhythm tracks. Plenty of grime-leaning producers have mastered the gloom without nailing the beats, but Celestial Trax gets the balance just right.
47. DJ DODGER STADIUM
Friend of Mine
In a year defined by excellent dance albums, America’s best came from Body High co-founders Jerome LOL and Samo Sound Boy under their DJ Dodger Stadium alias. Built upon Chicago house and Detroit techno, the pair crafted a concept record dedicated to their Los Angeles home.
46. FRANK & TONY
You Go Girl
(Scissor & Thread)
‘Nuff passes for “deep house” these days, but Francis Harris and Anthony Collins (AKA Frank & Tony) are the real deal. Matching their dubwise production smarts with the kind of filtered jazzy flourishes that are as essential to the genre as juvenile abuse is to online gaming, the result is something of a spiritual successor to DJ Sprinkles’ phenomenal Midtown 120 Blues.
45. l s d x o x o
w h o r e c o r e
New York producer lsdxoxo mines the US club underground for this ominous full-length, stitching together ‘Ha’ crashes and horror-score melodies, Rihanna samples and livewire loops and enlisting Cakes Da Killa, Rahel and Big Momma along the way. Ravey edits, topical titles (‘*SadEmoji*’) and an album name that doubles as our new favorite genre — what’s not to like?
I am the DMR
Washington diggers PPU typically stick to funk reissues, but they struck oil with this new collection of brutalised go-go from Maryland ‘local hero’ (read: spirited nobody) Mix-O-Rap. Ostensibly recorded using Edison’s tin foil technique, I Am The DMR is shamelessly groovy, and grotty as hell – the scorched soil where Container, Sensational and Galcher Lustwerk intersect. It’s proved too bloody-minded for some in the office, but those who’ve fallen have tumbled hard.
When Chief Keef, llamas in tow, arrived on the global stage, no one would have predicted that come 2014 a GBE B-teamer like SD would be turning out an album like Truly Blessed, a kaleidoscopic collection of anthemic street pop. SD’s first commercial release tilts between experimental productions (‘Clockwork’), skyscraping singalongs (‘Gossip’, ‘Big Things’), and, occasionally, something between the two (standout ‘Circles’). There are weak moments – the conventional drill tracks lack bite – but for a good 75% of Truly Blessed, SD feels like a genuine star.
42. HR GIGER’S STUDIOLO
HR Giger’s Studiolo
(Pacific City Sound Visions)
Spencer Clark will always be underrated. His music’s just not for everyone, but his contribution to the outer realms of experimental sound (with James Ferraro under the Skaters moniker and on his own) is simply huge. This latest opus is four albums split across two C-90 cassettes (seriously, it’s over three hours long), and trawls through the deepest recesses of Clark’s mind. It’s not new age, it’s not ambient, it’s not industrial – it’s cracked, damaged music piped into our universe from a distant dimension. Don’t think, just play – if you can find a copy that is.
Lownt God Rising
Unlike 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye’s Yeezus hasn’t yet ushered in a new generation of rap. However, one rapper following Kanye’s lead is Chicago’s KIT. The follow-up to last year’s NewWavey, Lownt God Rising is sinister and claustrophobic, due both to KIT’s all-black angst and Supreme Cuts’ woozy production.
40. ANGEL 1
Allegra Bin 1
The world created by restless Vancouver label 1080p proved a pleasure to explore this year, but it was one of 1080’s least leisurely releases that proved its most immediately intriguing, combining filtered blasts of breakbeats with slow dubby chords, swampy rhythms and melodies that are pure computer love.
39. THE CYCLIST
Derry producer Andrew Morrison kept up his spotless track record with a swift successor to last year’s impressive debut Bones In Motion, on which he set out his stall as a purveyor of lo-fi, gauzy and rough-shod analogue techno perfectly billed as “tape throb”. The second instalment stays in the same lane, but Morrison’s compositional chops are sharper still, lending a real timelessness to the blasted bacchanal of ‘Daisy Spirals’, ‘Breathless’ and the dreamy title track. Even better, Flourish also has possibly the best opening two seconds of any album on this list.
38. SUPREME CUTS
We’ve always enjoyed the hazy beatcraft of Chicago duo Supreme Cuts, but with Divine Ecstasy they took a leap that doesn’t always work in the electronic world: enlisting vocalists to breath life into instrumentals. Drawing from contemporary R&B and hip-hop, a wide-range of dance styles (from jungle to footwork and beyond) and old-fashioned pop songwriting, Supreme Cuts presented a personal vision of electronic pop while grasping at the “divine ecstasy” of the album’s title, with a little help from singers like JODY, Mahaut Mondino and Py.
Discogs lists 14 albums and several handfuls of EPs bearing Ekoplekz’s name since 2010, but Unfidelity stands out as the Bristol-based oddball’s most impressive and addictive album yet, melting Ghost Box wibble, dub-techno, classic Warp and more into a gloopy jambalaya that reveals new flourishes with each taste. Speaking to FACT, Ekoplekz downplayed his studio techniques (“I just start plugging things into each other, put a beatbox through an effect and a delay until something sounds interesting”), but rarely do happy accidents feel this assured.
36. SD LAIKA
If That’s Harakiri doesn’t quite follow through with the ritual disembowelment so cheerfully promised, the debut album from Milwaukee’s Peter Runge still delivers a mighty wet slap around the chops, scraping parts from every filthy corner of the club and retooling them as some of the most visceral and heart-stopping miniatures we’ve ever tried and failed to classify. The lairy pulse of grime sets the mood, but Runge sends it all topsy-turvy with percussion wrought from crusty noise and hot breath, screwy melodies thwacked out of crystal flutes and barroom piano and drums that jolt like a defibrillator. There’s not a second wasted.
35. ROME FORTUNE
Beautiful Pimp II
Following up the acclaimed Beautiful Pimp was never going to be easy. That mixtape dragged Atlanta’s Rome Fortune to another tier, and it worked so well because it covered so much ground, blending urgent trap with melancholy introspection and Rome’s well-trained ear for accessible experimentation. For the sequel, he did something completely different, eschewing the smart patchwork of productions offered on its predecessor in favour a symbiotic back-and-forth between himself and CitoOnTheBeat, who handles production across the entire record. His jazzy flourishes (complemented by vibraphone from Rome’s grandfather) give the album an endearing narrative and a unique sound that perfectly suits Rome’s characteristic voice and tone. There might not be an obvious stand-out single (those of you looking for another ‘Get the Guap’ will be sorely disappointed) but Beautiful Pimp 2 simply ain’t about that – Rome’s attempting something different, and he absolutely nails it.
A cluster of winning 12”s had us salivating for the first full-length from the low-profile Werkdiscs producer, and Shelter didn’t disappoint. Picking up where Actress’s heaving, broken rhythms left off, Moiré spins out into lysergic, late-night territory; snatches of melody come bent and bedraggled, slipping through scuffed drums and lurching this way and that as if the whole caboose were about to come off the rails any second. But while every track offers itself as potential DJ fodder, with echoes of steamy Chicago house bringing the likes of ‘Infinity Shadow’ and ‘Stars’ firmly onto the dance floor, Shelter is just as good company in the comfort of your own headphones, rich in detail to be picked over time and time again.
33. KANE WEST
Kane West, AKA Gus Lobban of dinky J-poppers Kero Kero Bonito, is the Smiffy of the PC Music gang, the well-meaning-doofus with a stupidity that sometimes tilts into brilliance. This set of wonky club music, ostensibly assembled using FruityLoops and sticky back plastic, is this year’s dorkiest rump-shaker – Casiotone jams, overlaid with MIDI gurgles, drum presets and transcripts of Amazon shipping details. Some will dismiss it as yet more PCMus thumb-biting, but few records this year were quite as much fun to listen (or bristle) to.
32. SHABAZZ PALACES
The second album from Digable Planets veteran Ishmael Butler and percussionist/producer Tendai Maraire is, to put it mildly, not mappable on our current charts. A sprawling, sketchy, often mystifying prog-rap voyage to the fringes of hip hop, jazz and soul, Lese Majesty distances the Sub Pop duo further still from the rap mainstream, picking up on the Afrofuturist ventures of travellers past with a playfulness that just about wards off pomposity. Their sonic trademarks return (metallic, almost shoegazey scrapings; African percussion; watery vocal echoes) but in far denser strata than heard on Black Up, as allusive samples of upright bass, sci-fi synths and white noise bleed between the 18 tracks or simply unravel unexpectedly. Discovering an album as freshly confounding as this one is a welcome reminder that there’s always an alternative vision of the future.
31. LEON VYNEHALL
Music for the Uninvited
When David Bronstein, director of Voguing: The Message, heard ‘It’s Just (House of Dupree)’ on his local radio station, he apparently called into the show in tears to say how moved he was by Vynehall’s sampling of ballroom icon Willi Ninja in such a “pure underground art form”, as he put it. Lifting from vogue traditions is risky business, but with Vynehall you always get a sense of the care and patience he puts into every track; samples are never stripped of their soul but instead infused with a subtle freshness and timeless energy. That cut is the highlight from the Brighton producer’s diverse mini-album (more than weighty enough to qualify for our list), which draws from the annals of classic house and techno with flashes of silky keys, plush strings and warm analogue weight to put you straight in the zone.
Gangster Stripper Music 2
Of all the rappers who released mixtapes at a rate of knots this year, BeatKing has undoubtedly been the most reliable (before you scream Young Thug, don’t forget 1017 Thug 2). The self-styled Club God put together two unmissable solo tapes (this one and the unbeatably smoove Pole Sex EP), a collaborative tape with Memphis rap vet Gangsta Boo and a celebration of his hometown Houston vs. Everybody, with each tape managing to wipe the floor with any and all of the competition. The man’s a radio DJ, rapper and an innovative producer, and yet he still found time to body all his peers without even breaking a sweat. Surely BeatKing’s a dead cert for a 2015 breakout.
29. SUSANNA / JENNY HVAL
Meshes of Voice
The meeting of two Norwegian experimental music titans, Meshes of Voice isn’t toppled by its conceit. Both Jenny Hval and Susanna Wallumrød have personalities big enough to spill out of any number of solo records, and yet together their voices and ideas seem to blend together seamlessly, just as the title might suggest. Meshes of Voice is dark and beautiful, with traces of songs dragged through a mess of overdrive and swampy ambience. If you only know Susanna from her outstanding cover of ‘Jolene’ a decade ago, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.
28. FREDDIE GIBBS & MADLIB
It’s easily the most traditionalist hip-hop offering in our sights this end-of-year season, but though Piñata is an obvious crowd-pleaser, it’s still anything but middlebrow. Gangster Gibbs is as old school as they come, in the sense that his realness is verified (with the proverbial battle scars to prove it) and he never wastes a syllable – he’s “literally just rapping [his] ass off, rapping like a motherfucker” from start to finish, as he summed it up earlier this year. Whether Madlib draws for Philly soul romance or Italian prog-horror in his typically inspired crate-digging, Gibbs always finds surprising routes through the off-balance beats with his machine-gun delivery and knack for good ol’ fashioned storytelling. All that and a bucket of quality guest appearances, from Earl Sweatshirt to an especially venomous Raekwon, and you’ve got yourself a keeper.
27. KASSEM MOSSE
Snuck out without warning or fanfare, Mosse’s debut album is in some senses a slight disappointment – a grab-bag of familiar Mosse gloss that might as well have arrived as a string of standalone 12”s. But even if it wasn’t the in-at-number-one debut we’d hoped for, Workshop 19 was still a gorgeous collection of supple, dubby house, especially notable for its twinkling ambient passages. And let’s face it, as letdowns go, we had worse.
Young Hot Ebony
If you need an entry point to the sprawling Awful Records catalog, start with Young Hot Ebony. Father’s almost entirely self-produced effort reveals an original character, oversexed and prone to “brash decisions” but entirely self-aware; as he winks on hit ‘Look At Wrist’, “never had to whip a brick but I get the gist.” With Father’s casual, singsong flow and barebones beats, Young Hot Ebony is deceptively catchy no matter how dark the subject matter (‘2 Dead, 6 Wounded’), and he popped wheelies on the zeitgeist all year, asking 2014’s Important Questions: “Why can’t I cry money instead of tears?”
25. VIA APP
More than enough digital ink has been spilt on praising Vancouver imprint 1080p this year, but it’s been well deserved. Just going back to Via App’s outstanding Dangerous Game proves the importance of a label that’s willing to spend man-hours exposing newcomers rather than swagger-jacking at every opportunity. Dangerous Game is maybe 1080p’s most well-pruned statement to date, and that’s down to young Boston producer Dylan Scheer’s innovative and imaginative outlook. It’s dance music at its core, certainly, but Scheer adds elements that elevate her songs so perfectly it ends up being tough to lump her tracks in with those of her peers. Whether it’s the despondent vocal-looping on ‘Lookback Attic’ (reminiscent of both Grouper and early Nite Jewel) or the disturbed chatter of jungle-indebted album closer ‘Fuq Wave Arena’, there’s something addictive about her sound – and this is only her debut.
24. DEAN BLUNT
Still recovering from our obsession with The Redeemer, a straight-up masterpiece and our number one album of 2013, we felt primed to expect anything from the Hype Williams enigma, but signing to Rough Trade and making an indie album hewn from the label’s ’80s pedigree of moany goth, jangle rock and dub was nonetheless not a left turn we could have imagined. Though Blunt’s intentions are never easy to divine, the record can certainly be read as a cheeky detournement of the quintessentially ‘indie’ (i.e. white) tropes associated with his new label, using hollowed drums, soupy Britpop strings and Joanne Robertson’s reverb-laden guitar as the unlikely bed for half-rapped lyrics about “five-oh coming” and “molly water flowing”. As ever, Blunt leaves it up to us to finish the story, resulting in one of the most confounding and impressive releases of the year. Again.
23. ANGEL OLSEN
Burn Your Fire For No Witness
The Chicago songwriter and Bonnie “Prince” Billy associate made an electrifying (and newly electrified) breakthrough this year with an album that sidelines the folksy arrangements of her debut in favour of a jukebox-tapping swagger drawn from many decades of Americana, and a bundle of memorable lyrics straight from the Leonard Cohen school of lonesome poetry. Still, it’s her tremulous, old-timey voice that’s the key to this album’s ghostly magic, like a shellshocked and sandpapered Emmylou Harris quivering atop frazzled Link Wray guitars, garage rock torch songs and hushed fingerpicking.
Black Light Spiral
“Time to stop dicking around and write some proper fearless rave music,” said Untold of Black Light Spiral, and fearless rave music he gave us. There are sirens There are echo and feedback settings that seem to be set to eternity. Growls that would send Reese and his bassline running to the hills, clipping that would shatter an average mastering engineer’s tea mug and kick drums that could decimate small towns. It’s not clever, it’s not even that much fun, but in terms of gritty, grimy, sweaty, obnoxious, indignant music, no one did it quite like Untold this year.
21. LAWRENCE ENGLISH
Wilderness of Mirrors
Aussie producer Lawrence English isn’t interested in re-inventing the wheel on Wilderness of Mirrors; instead, he hones sounds he’s been experimenting with for years, landing (very purposefully) on the best album of his career. It’s a glorious cacophony of harmony and noise – textures are layered over textures until it’s hard to decipher exactly what you’re hearing. Is it hammered strings or pulsing synths? Deep sine-wave bass or a field recording? From beginning to end, Wilderness of Mirrors is an immersive and deeply visceral listening experience. Whether you want to believe in the ambient revival or power ambient, or whether you think it’s all a load of hokum, Wilderness of Mirrors stands unscathed above all the petty squabbling and internet one-upmanship.
20. THE BUG
Angels & Devils
The Bug has always been Kevin Martin’s most omnivorous alias, and Angels & Devils saw him broaden the remit beyond the usual industrial ragga, drawing on trap and TNGHT-style skronk. Some took umbrage at its bawlers versus brawlers structure, but it’s arguably the album’s secret weapon – sequencing that lures you in, slowly cranks up the drama, then delivers a string of unexpected Sunday punches. While may have haemorrhaged oomph as the months have gone on, Angels & Devils is still a bold achievement, and credibly the best Bug full-length to date.
19. DAVINCHE & KATIE PEARL
R’n’G — the somewhat forgotten rhythm-and-grime movement of the mid-aughts — became a major reference point in the UK underground over the last year. The subgenre’s only proper album came to light this year, and even though grime producer DaVinChe and singer Katie Pearl recorded it back in 2002, it still sounds miles ahead of the competition. Thank DaVinChe for chucking it on Soundcloud – the untitled album is honest, unpretentious, refreshingly youthful and one of the year’s best, no matter what year that may be.
Whatever you say he is, that’s what he’s not. Daniel Martin-McCormick was one of outsider house’s first wave, a hardcore-to-house émigré knocking out rough-as-old-rope club 4×4 when no one gave much of a toss. Now that every man and his two dogs are making scuzzy dance grot, Martin-McCormick has played contrarian again with a gorgeously high-res collection of bright, tactual techno in the Berlin style. There have been more original dance full lengths released this year, but few were as poised, classy and involving; hopefully Endgame won’t be his last.
17. YOUNG THUG & BLOODY JAY
Young Thug’s 2014 was marked by uneven mixtapes of dubious origin (we’re looking at you, Brick Squad), a hit single or two, and a string of loosies pulled from a deep well of rule-breaking creativity (‘Ouch’, ‘Ew Ew Ew’, ‘Strange Things’, and so on). With his career seemingly out of his hands, his best project of the year was the first, Black Portland, a collaborative tape with Bloody Jay. At “just” 11 tracks, Thugger and Jay are alternately menacing and jubilant, but always unhinged. Thug gets more attention (and for good reason), but Jay holds his own and is just as weird, rhyming Jenna Jameson with Antwan Jamison and rapping about Saved By The Bell and R.L. Stine. While ‘4 Eva Bloody’ never became the hit it should have been, ‘Danny Glover’ is included, and when looking back at the year’s most exciting development, “Weird Atlanta” begins here.
16. FKA TWIGS
It was almost a given that FKA twigs would deliver the year’s most vital pop album. Splitting the difference between ice-cold R&B, gauzy trip-hop and the experimental electronics of collaborators like Arca, LP1 is often more subtle than her early EPs, but no less arresting. Twigs wields her sexuality like a weapon, aiming both at lovers and herself: tales of passion, devotion, vulnerability and self-discovery demand to be reckoned with. Plus, with a singular vision behind not just her songs but also her videos, artwork and live performance, twigs established herself as the pop artist most likely to follow in the footsteps of Björk.
Damsel in Distress
Berlin’s Janus crew had a very 2014 sort of breakout: a major step-up in creative ambition and profile, built on a range of online mixes-cum-albums, a highly-regarded club night, and a physical release schedule numbering precisely zero. M.E.S.H put out excellent music, but it was Lotic’s mixtape of gothic club nightmares that served as the Janus manifesto. The refixes caught the most notice (his take on ‘Drunk In Love’, reimagined as a coven chant, is exceptional) but the originals were excellent too, from the seagull scrum of ‘Hummingbird’ to ‘Fractures’’ rattle’n’roll. Easy listening? No. Essential listening? Certainly.
14. BING & RUTH
Tomorrow was the Golden Age
Slotting neatly into RVNG Intl’s recent bounty of ambient and new age reissues, the second album from New York classical collective Bing & Ruth demands that you shut the door, the curtains and ideally your eyelids in order to drift off into its billowing surfaces. David Moore leads his players in a gentle ebb and flow around his shimmering piano runs, swaying from ecstasy to melancholy as they alight on major and minor chords before dissolving again; the result is a suite of penetrating, deeply emotional music that nevertheless remains appealingly indeterminate. While we could never condone the phrase “achingly beautiful”, Bing & Ruth make it very hard to resist.
13. VALERIO TRICOLI
When you listen to Miseri Lares, it’s easy to work out just why it took Italian experimentalist Valerio Tricoli a massive seven years to get around to recording and releasing it. There’s not a note wrong on the entire album – everything is perfectly realized and dazzlingly well thought out, but it’s not overdone either. Tricoli has reached a point with his innovative tape set-up where he has the technology totally under control and he can use his machines as any virtuoso would use their chosen instrument. It’s a joy to behold, and whether you’re enthralled by musique concrète techniques or not, Miseri Lares is a bloody masterclass.
12. ARIEL PINK
His 4AD years have seen Ariel Pink devolve from pop genius to part-time troll, but unexpectedly (and in a weird way, unwelcomely), pom pom is his best record in almost a decade. When Pink finally signed to a label with a budget, the dream was that throwing this DIY whizz in a studio would see him soar; instead, albums like Mature Themes felt neutered, if not without their moments. Thankfully, pom pom allows his idiosyncrasies – and, in some cases, his idiocy – to flourish: ‘Four Shadows’ is every bit as wet and wild as Pink Duz Sabbath should sound, ‘One Summer Night’ is the happy ending The Doldrums never received, and ‘Put Your Number In My Phone’ joins the likes of ‘I Wait for Kate’ on Pink’s list of all-time classics.
Speaking to FACT this year, Grouper’s Liz Harris revealed that she used to call Ruins her “adult contemporary album”, and was embarrassed by “how plain the emotional outpouring is … how simple the piano melodies are.” However cloaked by mist Grouper’s past records have been, though, they’ve always felt like uncomfortably intimate snapshots of Harris, and with its unshowy simplicity, Ruins simply takes this to its logical, but special, next step. In that sense, it’s Grouper’s most Grouperish record to date, and at times you feel so close you swear you can hear her floorboards creak.
10. SHINICHI ATOBE
Demdike Stare did the world a massive solid by tracking down Shinichi Atobe. The last – and first – we’d heard of Atobe was 2001’s ‘Ship-Scope’ 12”, which appeared as the Basic Channel-affiliated Chain Reaction label was drawing to a close (if you fancy grabbing a copy, make sure you have a tidy $1000 to spare). Over a decade later we now have a proper album and, shockingly, it was worth the wait – a selection of old and new compositions that serves as a missing link between rugged experimental dub techno and the kind of fathoms-deep house you’d hear on a DJ Sprinkles or Terrence Dixon record.
09. SICKO MOBB
Super Saiyan Vol. 1
We know, this came out at the tail end of 2013 (at the very end of December), but it feels more current than almost anything else on the list. Sicko Mobb are the nascent bop genre’s bright young hopes, and Super Saiyan Vol.1 is as close as we’ve come so far to a definitive album-length statement from the genre. What separates this from so many other rap mixtapes is its almost manic combustion of influences, from lurching MOR pop to chattering techno and beyond. The two rappers are blessed with the ability to pen hooks so memorable that we challenge you to jam it twice in a night and not wake up with ‘Remember Me’ or ‘Lamborghini Girl’ buzzing around your skull. Now we’re just waiting patiently for the follow-up.
08. MICA LEVI
Under The Skin
Truly innovative and unique contemporary soundtracks are hard to find in the sea of canned orchestras and hastily tracked pastiches, so Mica Levi’s accompaniment to Jonathan Glazer’s bizarre Under the Skin feels like a breath of fresh air. The film itself is no slouch, but Levi’s rattling, often atonal collection of hiccuping rhythms and searing strings works both as an enhancement of Glazer’s excellent visual material and as an album in its own right. References can be made of course – Ligeti, Penderecki, even Takemitsu – but Levi’s treatments are surprising and singular, something she only went and proved further on last month’s mixtape Feeling Romantic Feeling Tropical Feeling Ill.
Where We Come From
After spending a few years becoming dancehall’s biggest post-Vybz Kartel star, Popcaan teamed with Brooklyn Mixpak for his debut album. Best known for unruly party starters, Popcaan proved that he contains multitudes – a thoughtful badman for all seasons. Where We Come From does it all: sober, life-affirming songs like ‘Everything Is Nice’ and ‘Give Thanks’, humble social commentary on ‘The System’ and ‘Ghetto (Tired of Crying)’, sex jams and street bangers (‘Love Yuh Bad’ and ‘Hustle’, respectively). Produced by Mixpak boss Dre Skull, Dubbel Dutch, Kingston’s Anju Blaxx, and Stockholm’s Adde Instrumentals (among others), Where We Come From is a dancehall album for Jamaica and beyond.
My Krazy Life
(Pu$haz Ink / CTE World / Def Jam)
A concept album about the day in the life of a Compton youngin as he lives and tries not to die in LA – sure, Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.a.a.d. City proved that the idea was still viable, but YG’s My Krazy Life made the template his own. With producer-of-the-moment DJ Mustard serving as the Dre to his Snoop, YG – a rapper whose lyricism always seemed beside the point –surprised everyone with a vividly-drawn narrative, aiming for and achieving a spot in the West Coast rap canon. G-funk bedroom jams, gangbanger how-to manuals, ratchet party anthems and even a ‘Dear Mama’ homage – this year YG had something for everyone.
05. LORENZO SENNI
We were big fans of Senni’s 2012 LP Quantum Jelly, a collection of isolated trance lines left to spiral into infinity, and a stand-out amidst a crowd of albums celebrating (or, more often, enucleating) the rave canon. Superimpositions sees the Italian multimedia artist surpass himself: if Quantum Jelly introduced Senni’s building blocks, Superimpositions sees him use them to construct, Minecraft-style, elaborate and unexpected structures. The jittery trance deconstructions are as effective as ever, but in a similar fashion to Actress’s Splazsh, Senni dabbles in other genres: Black Dice crunch on ‘xxx1’; chrome-plated R&B on ‘PointillistiC’; and Boxed-friendly neo-grime on ‘Elegant, and never tiring’. The result is unexpectedly charming, a stunning mix of critical rigour and composition smarts.
04. ANDY STOTT
Faith in Strangers
It can’t have been easy to follow up a body of work so beloved. While Andy Stott’s pioneering EPs We Stay Together and Passed Me By may have been aimed squarely at the heads, Luxury Problems was the true breakout, the record that convinced the swing voters, if you will. With its soft, pulsing 4/4s and cooing vocals it humanized Stott’s noisy, clamorous “knackered house”, and it must have been tough for Stott not return to the same winning formula. Instead, on Faith in Strangers he smashes up the template and starts again, pulling elements from ’80s no-wave and post-punk and emerges, bruised and battered, with a dark, unusual selection of tracks that might prove to be his finest to date.
Where its predecessor was in some ways Stott’s pop album, with Alison Skidmore’s vocals providing the backbone, Stott isn’t afraid to reduce them to mere wordless coos this time around, chopping and distorting them around his selection of collapsing rhythms and damaged synth bleeps. It’s challenging stuff, certainly, and lacks the immediacy that pushed Luxury Problems into the hands of so many, but give it a few spins and you’ll begin to see the rewards of being a patient listener.
03. PC MUSIC
PC Music x DISown Radio Mix
(DISown Radio podcast)
Brass tacks time: putting aside the question of whether or not PC Music are indeed the spawn of Abaddon, the DisOWN Mix isn’t really an album. In fact, it’s not even an all-originals affair, with a bunch of 2013 tracks sitting amidst the exclusives. But, then again, net labels – and PC Music in particular – move in such idiosyncratic ways that one has to make judgements about when a mix crosses the threshold from odds’n’sods sesh to full-length statement. As it happens, the DISown Mix had more vision, ambition, humour and internal coherence than most full-lengths that clattered onto our desks this year.
Produced in association with DIS and Red Bull, who ironically referenced throughout, the DISown Mix is a six-part guide to PC Music’s key players. It’s essentially a PC Music manifesto, a carefully crafted ‘meet the crew’ effort and a showcase for label boss A.G. Cook’s soundworld (vaporwave aesthetic; Glass Swords’ sonic palette; heavy doses of Aphex-style facetiousness). It’s a broad church, encompassing Cook’s queasy takes on house and UK garage, GFOTY’s grotesque psychodramas (oddly reminiscent of Natalie Beridze), Danny L Harle’s breezy late ‘90s readymades, and Kane West’s shonky Casio jams. We can already see the armada of furious commenters approaching, but let them rage – no other hour of music fizzed quite so effervescently in 2014.
02. MR MITCH
It’s a time-honoured tradition – an artist who’s settled on a genre that doesn’t quite suit him decides to just do them for once, and stumbles open a unique sound that leads to the best work of his career. Mr. Mitch isn’t a grime stalwart in the same way that the genre’s originals are, but he’s a veteran to most artists who orbit the Boxed night he co-runs, having run a grime label since 2010 and produced beats for the likes of Skepta.
When grime went to war last year, Mitch did the opposite, replying with a series of serene peace dubs that tapped into a previously unexpected corner of a sound traditionally rooted in competition. It’s a sound that evolved on his The Room Where I Belong EP, and has climaxed – so far at least – with Parallel Memories, an album of gooey bliss (‘Sweet Boy Code’), itchy paranoia (‘Intense Faces’), desolation (‘Wandering Glaciers’), turbulence (‘Bullion’) and more; mournful electronica delivered with the simplicity and subtlety of classic 8 and 16-bar grime. It doesn’t open with a bang, and it certainly doesn’t finish with one; when closing track ‘Hot Air’ ends, it feels more like Parallel Memories has simply dissolved.
01. SUN KIL MOON
Another year, another FACT number one pick about heartbreak, isolation and loss – but what different records they are. Our album of 2013 was a hornswoggler – shifty, impressionistic, evasive, occasionally interrupted by moments of penetrating vulnerability. By contrast, Mark Kozelek’s sixth LP as Sun Kil Moon is a radical exercise in bluffness and candour. No hi-jinks, no chasers, just eye-to-eye stories about the tricky art of living, and, more pertinently, of dying. Coming from a younger artist, these songs (all preoccupied in some way or another with death) might have seemed horribly callow; from someone of Kozelek’s vintage and expertise, it’s a heavyweight release – a virtuoso display of emotional lucidity.
Benji is the culmination of a trend in Kozelek’s work towards rambling, unfiltered lyric writing where the mundane and the goofy mingle with the profound. On 2012’s freewheeling Among the Leaves, the technique brought mixed results, but on Benji it’s applied to maximal effect, with personal memories (shooting the shit with his father, a fun evening with Ben Gibbard, news reports about the death of Richard Ramirez) used to telescope universal themes. It’s hard to write about bereavement and mortality without snagging the tripwires of cliché, but these tracks feel first-hand – lived experience, captured with a field recordist’s dispassionate ear for detail. In a sense, the album’s not been well served by its creator, whose 2014 seems to have been defined by a pointless and petty beef – but Benji, unlike so many of its characters, survived.