1. Syro, Aphex Twin / The best thing about the return of Aphex Twin is that he never really left. This year his long-lost Caustic Window LP (from his alias of the same name) found its way to the public through a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. Then in August, a chartreuse balloon with the Aphex logo flew over London. That only meant one thing: Richard D. James was back, and he meant business. In the run up to Syro, he gave more interviews and said more about his music and personal life than I have ever read. Even the packaging is thoughtful: production and promotion costs are laid bare, and every single instrument and piece of equipment used on the album are listed. The absence of his face, especially after such a long break, is a smart choice. He could have relied on his infamous visage to snap public consciousness to attention, but he allows Syro to speak for itself. This transparency is the most surprising thing about the album. This translates to the music as well, an intentional move for James: it’s straightforward, yet still as frenetic and exciting as ever. He stated Syro is composed of his most accessible pieces recorded over the last seven years. (Compare Syro opener “minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix” to the ear-splitting “Ventolin” from 1995.) The fact that any of these tracks could’ve easily fit into his 1990s catalogue sends one important message: his music stands the test of time. Why temper with brilliance? None of these tracks feel like throwaway material, overly esoteric sound experiments, or scraps of fan service. James makes music for himself at his own pace, releasing works when he feels the time is right. He has more than hinted at hundreds of tracks hidden away, as well as newfound energy that could translate into more releases in the near future. Regardless, Syro stands alone as a carefully executed and timeless release by one of music’s greatest talents. It will more than fill the gap between now and his next release.
2. You’re Dead!, Flying Lotus / Is there anyone else alive who can match Steven Ellison in his ability to craft an album as a wholly complete vision of musical cinema? Probably not. As Flying Lotus, his blend of jazz, electronic, and R&B set him apart as a creator of dynamic and powerful compositions that question life, death, and what lies beyond. In “Never Catch Me,” Kendrick Lamar confronts moral questions about existence and his own soul while any eluding concrete answer. (The music video is also a fantastical and bittersweet vignette that confounds and delights.) Ellison has never shied away from the metaphysical, and on You’re Dead! he revels in how overwhelming confronting death can be. That fear translates into an absolutely essential creation that ends with more unanswered questions than when it begins. But maybe that’s how it should be, at least according to FlyLo.
3. Trust, 18+ / I don’t remember the exact moment I happened upon 18+, though I do remember how I felt: entranced, confused, a little bit scared. That was back in 2011 and I still experience those same emotions when I listen to their work. Their YouTube page was an anomaly, with its anonymous and hyperreal, hypersexualized music videos featuring digital babes and an amalgam of seemingly random imagery. Fast forward to 2013, and I finally discover that “Boy” and “Sis” are actually Justin and Samia, actual human beings after all. Their exploration of eroticism is compartmentalized, anxious, yet strangely human. Trust's undulations often hurl the listener into the depths of the Uncanny Valley, a universe in which their music makes perfect sense.
4. Black Messiah, D’Angelo / The same fervor that surrounded Aphex Twin’s Syro also enveloped D’Angelo, whose return proves that waiting - even if that means nearly 15 years - is worth it. Yet this was a different mood entirely. Where Richard D. James gave no hints that he had the intention of releasing new material, D’Angelo whittled away in the studio until he carved out perfection. Fans and critics knew he was working on an album, but no one but the artist himself knew how mind-blowingly brilliant Black Messiah would be. He takes full control, allowing his voice to meander around words and riffing on the guitar or piano as if he simply felt like it mid-song. Some tracks take minutes to arrive to a solid chorus, though the anticipation isn’t uncomfortable at all. In just one example, the rolling “Another Life,” a relationship never materializes still devastates in its gorgeousness. His ability to drop the album months ahead of schedule amid the tension and turmoil surrounding police brutality and racism in Ferguson and beyond is a testament to his talent. He could have kept working away, but he didn’t have to. Black Messiah is a masterpiece.
5. St. Vincent, St. Vincent / Having been a fan since her romantic and lush debut LP in 2007, I’m absolutely blown away at Annie Clark’s runaway success in 2014. St. Vincent is Clark in overdrive, immediately taking off running and never looking back. In her erratic journey she galumphs with a peacock’s pride, taking occasional moments of rest that are overflowing with beauty and refreshing weirdness - “Prince Johnny” and “I Prefer Your Love” - that delight hardcore fans and new listeners alike. Far and away the most critically-acclaimed album on this list, St. Vincent is totally deserving of that praise, as is Clark for her masterful balance of strangeness, accessibility, and pure musical talent.
6. Yellow Memories, Fatima / A sublime debut from Swedish-born Fatima, this album glides along powerful yet restrained emotional vocals and hazy R&B production. In one of the best opening tracks on any release this year (“Do Better”), she showcases wonderful vocals that ride a hefty groove and horn section. There are a few lulls throughout, but a capella tracks like “Sun, Star, Solar” and “Rest in Peace” bring the listener back to earth. Fatima’s maturity and emotional depth are immediately inviting, enveloping the listener like the embrace of a long-lost friend.
7. Faith in Strangers, Andy Stott / If the Silent Hill series is ever made into a stage production, Andy Stott certainly qualifies as a contender to compose the score. Who else could make “Clap your hands!” sound so creepy? That line comes from “Violence,” macabre and menacing from beginning to end. This is an album for utter dystopia, for places where darkness seems inescapable. Yet it isn’t hopeless: “How It Was,” with its crusty and fragmented female breathing, still contains a core of humanity.
8. LP1, FKA twigs / FKA twigs shifted the sexual landscape in 2014 with LP1. Where last year’s EP2 is a voyeuristic peek into an alien world of sensuality, this is a lurid and fully-fledged aural orgasm. It’s such a singular vision, from the production to the album cover itself - easily the most iconic this year. To go from internet obscurity (and then internet fame) to mainstream success with such a vision seems impossible, but her vocals and songwriting tap into something primal that stirs deep-seated emotions. Like her previous efforts,LP1 is almost blinding in its nakedness, bravely displaying itself for the world to see. Its sincerity is hard to stomach, but it’s even harder to look away.
9. Salad Days, Mac DeMarco / Salad Days encapsulates my mood in spring of this year: loose, sunny, contemplative. I listened to it during car rides and walks around the city over and over, and it never lost its luster. “Blue Boy” is one of my favourite songs of 2014; it is sun-baked and warped, but it’s a perfect summation of the bare-bones jangle that sounds like falling asleep in a lazy river mid-afternoon and waking up right as the sun goes down.
10. It’s Album Time, Todd Terje / This album’s critical acclaim astounds me, mostly because Todd Terje successfully translated 1950s lounge pop and 1970s Moroder disco beats into an atmospheric and decidedly 21st-century take on the past. This is modern listening music, though it lies in stark contrast to the dated and dusty lounge fare that informs Terje’s work. The songs are funny, light, and crescendo in the balladic “Johnny and Mary,” featuring Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, before swinging back toward more joyful noise in the album’s latter half.
11. NOTM, Death Grips / If this set of songs, one half of a yet-to-be-released two-part album, can be compared to anything, it’s a sprint. A furious, paranoid, drug-addled race toward nothingness. My jaw hung open for nearly the entirety of my first run-through, if not simply for the fact that someone could make Björk sound more strange and alien than Björk herself. Her vocals are chopped into incomprehensible wails and cries that only add to the deluge of noise - Ride’s vocals and relentless drums - piled upon the listener. Will the second half ever be released? Did Death Grips even break up? Their track record for fucking with their fanbase and critics alike points toward a blurry maybe on both accounts. With the release of “Inanimate Sensation,” the rest of The Powers That B seems to be on its way after all.
12. Vengo, Ana Tijoux / This fall, I attended a lecture focused on the lived experiences of Latina women in the creative arts. There, Ana Tijoux stated, “Justice begins with the body.” She brought up the imagery of surfing as a way to imagine the brown female body navigating the world: waiting, ascending, crashing, beginning again. On Vengo, she collaborates with British-Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour on the hard-hitting “Somos Sur” to tackle colonization, imperialism, and the resilience of repressed peoples around the world. It’s an album about power - not necessarily reclaiming it, but recognizing it within oneself. Listen to “Creo en Ti” and you’ll understand.
13. WLFGRL, Machine Girl / An explosion of footwork, juke, jungle, and more, WLFGRL is the over-the-top hybrid I’ve been craving. Machine Girl’s ability to play with influences aligns with the absurd craftsmanship of Venetian Snares, but the former is more singular in his focus. The epic “Ginger Glaps” opens with a sinister quote from Resident Evil's Red Queen before mutating into a footwork track dragged through the pits of hell. From start to finish, this album (available on Bandcamp) claws its way through a variety of genres, beginning as one entity and emerging a brand new beast entirely.
14. Run the Jewels 2, Run the Jewels / Run the Jewels refuse to slow down. A year after their first release, they unleashed RTJ2 - possibly the most critically-acclaimed sucker punch thrown in the last few years. This album is white hot energy run rampant in its attitude and production, totally absurd yet totally accessible. Every single song is intentional; there is absolutely no filler, no room for error. Killer Mike and EI-P tag team and brandish their words like knives, aggressive and sharp and totally intimidating. Yet they kick down doors with a smile on their faces, hurling hilarious lyrics like, “You can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks” with no irony intended.
15. I LOVE MAKONNEN EP, iLoveMakonnen / A standout among the new crop of talented rappers online, iLoveMakonnen’s rise is both unexpected and meteoric: a self-titled EP, a remix from Drake, and a place at OVO Sound, founded by Drake himself. Even more intriguing is the fact that iLoveMakonnen’s music is so truly weird in the realm of rap, even in 2014. His voice trails off in any given direction, highlighted by Autotune effects and wiggly production, and elements of glitch music and early 2000s techno amplify the melodrama of his lyrics. It’s an almost baroque effort, which makes the possibility of a full-length release in 2015 an exciting proposition.
16. PC Music x DISown Radio, A. G. Cook, GFOTY, Danny L Harle, Lil Data, Nu New Edition, and Kane West / PC Music gripped the music world in a stronghold of subversive and saccharine glee in 2014, with its divisive sound serving to push debate toward a fever pitch. Is it pop? Is it art? Is it a joke? The amorphous label and creative collective blew listeners a perfectly polished, photo-ready kiss while it dished out equal amounts of critical commentary and genuine appreciation for pop music in the same gesture. This mix for DIS Magazine smashes critique that deems PC Music a movement steeped in disingenuous distaste for the past. Rather, artists like GFOTY construct a frenetic, high-energy landscape to play with the notion of girlishness and teen romance from a psychological standpoint.
17. Say Yes To Love, Perfect Pussy / This album is unapologetic. Its length, at barely over the 20-minute mark, is a testament to that unrelenting fervor. Squealing guitar and powerful drums frame lead singer Meredith Graves’ vocals that scream, “I know I can hurt me far worse than you can hurt me.” As Graves pushes herself deeper into an almost meditative state in a journey toward self-love, the listener must listen with equal focus closely to decipher what she’s confessing. Through the screaming there is a comfort in accepting confusion, a peace that comes with losing oneself in the unknown.
18. Broke With Expensive Taste, Azealia Banks / The Loch Ness of recent rap memory, Azealia Banks’ BWET finally appeared out of thin air this year. After too much time spent fighting with labels, fighting with an endless list of celebrities and fellow musicians on Twitter, and fighting with herself, Banks gave the world something undoubtedly worth the struggle. Many of the tracks are efforts we’ve seen before, but that doesn’t really matter when gems like “Soda” and “Miss Amor” stand out among the great rap and R&B released this year. Her ability to rap over nearly any beat - from skittering glacial trap beats to classic house - makes this album shine, despite its sequencing issues. Even though the pace is off in places, her exploration of so many influences is refreshing and tongue-in-cheek: 1950s bubblegum pop in “Nude Beach a Go-Go” and salsa that injects new life into a rework of her debut recording, “Gimme a Chance.”
19. Tzenni, Noura Mint Seymali / Hailing from Mauritania, Noura Mint Seymali’s voice is a vehicle for pure emotion. Tzenni, which translates to “spinning,” sounds exactly like that. One of Mauritania’s premier singers, Noura commands attention with her powerful delivery, and the accompanying instrumentation does the same. It’s a psychedelic affair deeply rooted in West African rhythm and musical tradition, but it’s an experience that transcends that one region alone. Tzenni's extends across space and time like an open hand, inviting you to spin along with it.
20. Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Angel Olsen / Most people likely wouldn’t pick up the deep connection to bluegrass and 1950s country that makes this album so great. That doesn’t really matter, though, because Angel Olsen holds her own as an indie rock wonder. Songs like “Hi-Five” more than hint at the likes of country superstars Patsy Cline and Hank Williams - opening with “I feel so lonesome I could cry” - yet still sound fresh, imbued with a sarcastic bravado not found in the works of her predecessors. Her voice swings through fuzzed out guitar, ringing in your head long after the album is over. This is a palimpsest of sorts, with new material highlighted by a long-lost (but ever-present) background of enticing mid-century twang.
21. Are We There, Sharon Van Etten / Like Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten is a slow-burn heartbreaker. In “Your Love Is Killing Me,” the drowsy opening is punctured by the refrain, “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you.” Her desire for bodily mutilation over the reality of facing another confrontation is a self-determined chant, one sung with a clenched fist. Yet she later sings, “Everybody needs to feel.” Are We There is about the follies of human connection - love, loss, resentment - and the layers of complication that come with it.
22. Do It Again, Röyksopp & Robyn / This is a feat of seamless collaboration: a synergy of talents that makes something better than the sum of its two (extremely talented) halves. Beginning with the 10-minute “Monument,” Do It Again enunciates every word and syllable for emotional effect. Robyn’s voice carries so much within it, hypnotic as it bounces between Röyksopp’s elastic production in the titular “Do It Again.” Songstress and song makers are allowed equal time to shine: the 10-minute “Inside the Idle Hour Club” is an instrumental closer that pulls the listener deeper into their world.
23. Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso / When I first happened upon Mountain Man a few years ago, I never in my life thought Amelia Meath’s Appalachian folk vocals would combine with Nick Sanborn’s electronic chops to make something metropolitan and polished. It is self-contained and sunny, almost to a fault. However, swinging synths and swooping vocals combine both artists’ talents in a birdlike chatter that plays like an eternal summer.
24. Time to Die, Electric Wizard / To quote my own review of Time to Die for The Style Con, “I love Electric Wizard – and metal music overall – for the same reasons I love films by John Waters: intense melodrama, a resistance to the mainstream, and a residual campiness that only comes with these displays of over-the-top theatrics. Electric Wizard is Divine in Pink Flamingos, when asked if blood turns her on, haughtily proclaiming, ‘It does more than turn me on, it makes me cum! And more than the sight of it, I love the taste of it – the taste of hot, freshly killed blood.’ Their music is Divine when she spouts off her political beliefs moments later, yelling, ‘KILL EVERYONE NOW! CONDONE FIRST-DEGREE MURDER! ADVOCATE CANNIBALISM! EAT SHIT! FILTH ARE MY POLITICS! FILTH IS MY LIFE! TAKE WHATEVER YOU LIKE.’” I’ll leave it at that.
25. In the Orbit of Ra, Sun Ra & His Arkestra / The ultimate question when discovering Sun Ra is: Where to start? A restless maestro with close to 200 published albums, his repertoire can seem impossibly daunting. However, this record is the perfect place to begin. His music is kinetic and shifting, unable to stand still for longer than a moment. Here, a diverse collection of beloved songs (“Rocket Number Nine”) are paired with nearly forgotten or outright unreleased works. Deep space squawks (“Afro Black”) morph into tight and laser-focused compositions (“Planet Earth”), both extremes highlighting his ability to conquer nearly any style and mood. Even though it comes from a man who touted himself as an alien, this record is an epic and enjoyable space journey for human ears.
26. Unflesh, Gazelle Twin / Gazelle Twin’s sophomore album is riddled with paranoia and anxiety, a dissection of the body’s place in a world built to destroy it. Her lyrics do echo The Knife and Fever Ray, though her delivery on this record reminds me of deadpan electro duo ADULT. She harnesses her influences and flips them inside out to reveal their dark underbelly with a twisted and unnerving focus. It’s one of the most challenging titles on this list, but small surprises like the supermarket beeps in “Belly of the Beast” hit closer to home than one might initially think.
27. Xen, Arca / Like its titular cover model, Xen is distorted, grotesque, and completely engrossing. Every second is disquieting, pushing the listener to the edge without restraint. Songs bounce around from deconstructed hardstyle to abstract strings without warning, which can seem worlds away from anything grounded in reality. Yet this isn’t much different from his production for Kanye’s Yeezus. Arca’s refusal to adhere to stylistic formalities or limit himself to one genre allows the space for Xen herself to breathe, even in sputtering, uncomfortable starts. This album is prophetic in its imaginings of a future where total malleability of the self is possible. What that means, we’ll know soon enough.
28. Aquarius, Tinashe / In a subdued debut, Tinashe proves that one doesn’t need to scream to be heard. Many critics compared the production to early Janet Jackson (which is very true) though Tinashe holds her own, breezing through emotional highs and lows with finesse. Her tracks are mixed to flow into each other, and the clever interludes allow the place a huge hit like “2 On” to shine without overpowering other songs. She perfected an album format already thought made perfect by her R&B predecessors, creating a stellar body of work in the process.
29. Because I’m Worth It, Inga Copeland / Inga Copeland leads the #takewhatisyours2k14 movement in “advice to young girls,” chanting, “Face the city / Face the night / The city is yours.” This advice comes with a nearly apathetic delivery, but her voice reveals more as the album trudges forward. “Advice” is the most compelling and straightforward track, but others explore urgency and agency in equally fascinating ways. She paraphrases Wu-Tang Clan to critique capitalism in “DILIGENCE,” and “Inga” leaks murmurs and half-words that hold a mirror up to the name itself, one that’s most likely a moniker for her musical persona. She refuses to compromise - a liberatory move that makes space for music that demands intimate inspection.
30. Dark Arc, Saintseneca / This LP isn’t ranked so highly only because lead singer Zac Little’s voice and songwriting often sound like Joanna Newsom circa 2004 - though that’s a big reason. It’s a quaint album that swells and soars on a solid frame of fiercely personal lyrics and heart-warming harmonies. Many songs grow bigger and bigger as they progress. In “Blood Bath,” it sounds as if the band is recording amid a rumbling earthquake that nearly overtakes them. It’s an unpretentious folk release that weathers gracefully over time.
31. Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Against Me! / The first Against Me! song I heard was “The Ocean” from their 2007 LP New Wave. In it, lead singer Laura Jane Grace confesses, “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman / My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.” This was long before Laura announced her transition to the world, a decision that resulted in this year’s anthemic Transgender Dysphoria Blues. It’s rapid and raw and confessional. Laura details her own fears about her transition, her struggles with dysphoria, and the beauty of embracing her womanhood. Closing track “Black Me Out,” a confrontational hailstorm of imagery and honesty, has been stuck in my head since January.
32. Dream Sequins®, Nmesh / Nmesh pushes the vaporwave genre to its theoretical limits, moving past his contemporaries to produce music that is much more than mere regurgitation or reappropriation. The fact that he samples Anthony Fantano (AKA The Needle Drop, AKA The Internet’s Busiest Music Nerd) on the album’s last track is telling: At once pulling apart corporate culture while also commenting on the critique of music made about corporate culture, and the often mindless, pseudo-historical drivel that comes with the latter. Dream Sequins® is a grab-bag of cultural memories that are smashed together and decontextualized like some Freudian dream sequence. Track 13, “Más Abajo en la Madriguera del Conejo,” is just that: a jumble of radio frequencies that ends with the voice of a kid from a video about Goodnight Moon struggling to explain his dreams.
33. Small Town Heroes, Hurray for the Riff Raff / This album struck a chord in me with its simplicity and heartfelt lyrics. Alynda Lee Segarra and crew capture an authentic, homespun sound that echoes across decades and doesn’t stray far from its stylistic roots. That intentional choice puts the lyrics at the forefront, which are nostalgic, hopeful, and reverential. The bands’s appreciation for old-time country and bluegrass bring an element of restraint to stunners like “The Body Electric” that would otherwise be swallowed up by mainstream rock production.
34. Ghettoville, Actress / Allegedly his last effort as Actress, Darren J. Cunningham went out with a muffled bang. His Actress albums are consistently intriguing sound experiments, and Ghettoville is no different. Deconstructed hip hop is slowed down, pulled apart, and made ambient in tracks like “Corner,” which sounds like breakdancing in an underground dungeon.
35. The Pinkprint, Nicki Minaj / Nicki came into her own in 2014. She was virtually everywhere, and her reign of domination led to the release of The Pinkprint, her most confident album to date. Beginning with the vulnerable opening track “All Things Go” that looks at the death of her cousin and her own possible abortion, Nicki’s honesty shines through. It’s a gamble to begin with a trio of slow, introspective songs, but she pulls it off. The album picks up from there, with amazing guest verses from Ariana Grande and Beyoncé, among others. She succeeds in peeling back the layers to reveal parts of herself left unexplored on her previous albums. This is Nicki elevated: a polished and multifaceted rap gem who has rightfully claimed her crown.
36. Burnt Offering, The Budos Band / Another solid effort from the instrumental Daptone group, Burnt Offering isn’t much different from their previous work at all - which is why it’s so great. They don’t need to do anything differently. Fans of their nostalgic funk and soul might be surprised by the cover - no, this isn’t a stoner metal album - but its contents are a wonderful continuation of their previous work. It’s a shade more ominous and foreboding, which simply adds another stylistic facet to their repertoire. This is proto-metal in its most primordial state, songs with their feet still firmly planted on the side of funk but staring into the darkness and discovering something mystical.
37. Clark, Clark / The mounting tension on “Banjo” left me breathless, conjuring the murky likeness of Drexciya at their peak. Similarly, “Petroleum Tinged” glinted with tribute to the stunning Vangelis soundtrack for sci-fi thriller Blade Runner. Both references are documents of worlds in conflict, ripping apart at the seams to reveal dark truths. Clark shines in its ability to take this ominous imagery and spin it into music that is far larger than the equipment used to create it.
38. La Isla Bonita, Deerhoof / Deerhoof’s twelfth LP contains some of their more experimental instrumentation. However, it’s also some of their most carefree to date. They still play with wildly inventive compositions, but this album doesn’t feel as dense or complicated as others they’ve released. Like its title, it’s a loose and languid mix of songs that sound like staring directly into the sun for fun.
39. L’Amour, Lewis / Probably the most left-field release of the year, L’Amouris also one of the most touching. Many of the album’s songs are sung at nearly a whisper, accompanied by guitar, tinkling piano, and glassy synths. A nearly futile search for the infuriatingly elusive Lewis led to many dead ends, until Light in the Attic Records (the label that reissued L’Amour) found Lewis in his native Canada. Randall Wulff was delighted that his music made such a hubbub, but felt more than happy to live his life, royalty- and fame-free. Regardless, this is a haunting and beautiful album that has more than stood the test of time.
40. Bestial Burden, Pharmakon / Most Terrifying Album of 2014 goes to Pharmakon, hands down. Margaret Chiardet makes music that is best described as tortured. Fittingly, she created the album after a major operation that required an organ removal. On “Primitive Struggle” one hears disembodied choking, coughing, and spitting - an ode of sorts to her physical ordeal. In “Body Betrays Itself,” the most brutal track, Chiardet’s gutteral screams rip through a repetitious onslaught of noise. Pharmakon is for fans of Diamanda Galas who crave even more darkness, and for noise lovers who want sounds about the body at its most vulnerable state.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: From Out Here, The Advisory Circle / I Shall Die Here, The Body / Stone by Stone, Ikebe Shakedown / The Soul of All Natural Things, Linda Perhacs / Nabuma Rubberband, Little Dragon / Give the People What They Want, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings / The Lagos Music Station, Somi / In Conflict, Owen Pallet / Badillac, together PANGEA / 1,000 Forms of Fear, Sia