Top Albums of the Year 2014: Staff Picks

With wide-reaching arms and hungry ears, each of our writers has compiled his or her top albums of the year, for you to peruse our eclectic, atypical, and only occasionally overlapping tastes. You’d be well-served to check out every single record here.

Vivian Hua – dance, indie, pop, psychedelic, electronic
Troy Micheau – metal, electronic, experimental, ambient
Jason Simpson – pop, soul, electronic, ambient
Ian King – electronic, ambient, instrumental, pop
Peter Woodburn – ambient, metal, garage, indie
Judy Nelson – dance, electronic, indie, pop, hip-hop

Albums of the Year 2014

Judy Nelson’s Picks

Honorable Mentions
Tom Vek – Luck (Moshi Moshi Records)
Believe it or not, I’m just discovering how much I like Tom Vek this year, with the instantly catchy record Luck. He has been a presence in the indie rock scene since 2005, and this is his fourth studio album. Londoner Vek plays a nice convergence of elecro-indie-grunge-rock that is quite in line with what I was in the mood for this Fall.

Little Dragon – Nabuma Rubberband (Because Music)
I have a huge crush on this band, so I will blindly follow them to whatever direction musically they want to go. Out of their three records, this one is taking the longest to grow on me, but I have no doubt that I will fall in love with it upon a few more listens. They have kept their R&B/soul vocals in there, but the electronica backing is a bit heavier. Regardless, all the brilliant ingredients make them my ideal music soulmate. Favorite track right now is “Paris.”

Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty (Sub Pop Records)
This record solidifies my assertion that Shabazz Palaces are one of the most interesting things happening in hip-hop right now. The duo was the famously the first hip-hop group signed to Sub Pop, but they have transcended that association into something both on the fringes and in the mainstream, drawing listeners who wouldn’t normally consider themselves “hip-hop fans.” Their entrancing vocal style is one of the many reasons to check out this record if you haven’t already.

Top Albums of the Year 2014

[5] Zola Jesus – Taiga (Mute Records)
Nika Roza Danilova, otherwise known as Zola Jesus, has always managed to make my year-end list. It was hard to imagine a follow-up to Conatus being as good, but Taiga exceeded expectations. She manages to hit all of the right notes, each song flowing into the next with a stunning amount of grace. Taiga seems to be slightly more radio friendly then her previous albums, but she deserves it, and I’m happy for her success.

[4] Ratking – So It Goes (Hot Charity / XL Recordings)
One of my favorite hip-hop albums of the year comes via a young NYC trio who are barely out of high school. So It Goes is their sophomore album on XL records, and it shows a sharpening of their skills from their debut, Wiki93. What drew me in was their great beat-mixing and top notch sample choices, and I’m not the only one. They managed to attract the attention of a buzzy young indie star this year: King Krule. His guest vocalist track “So Sick Stories” as well as “Snow Beach” are favorites.

[3] SBTRKT – Wonder Where We Land (Young Turks)
I was waiting so long for a follow-up to SBTRKT’s magnificent self-titled debut, that I was bound to love whatever follow-up the British DJ produced. Absence makes the heart grow fonder! Wonder Where We Land is a solid electronica album, despite the lack of a distinguishable single. Like the previous record, there is a similarly great list of high-profile guest stars like Jessie Ware, A$AP Ferg, and Ezra Koenig, as well as SBTRKT’s vocalist standby Sampha. Highlight tracks so far for me are “Higher” and “The Lights,” but I’m pretty sure I’ll feel that way about every track at some point.

[2] Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso (City Slang / Partisan Records)
Out of all of the bands on my list, Sylvan Esso is the only one with a debut. Their self-titled album is so fun and catchy that it almost seems too good to be true. It’s a bright moment in a year of more serious music. Made up of Amelia Meath of the folk band Mountain Man, and producer Nick Sanborn of Megafaun, the duo represents a nice cross-section between pop and electronica, which is often my ideal in modern music.

[1] Future Islands – Singles (4AD)
This was the year that Future Islands broke, and the younger version of myself would be sad that a band I love so much has hit the “mainstream”, but now I can only be happy for their success. They truly deserve it. Their fourth studio album Singles is aptly named; each of the songs stands out on its own, even if each of them don’t have the success that the actual single “Seasons (Waiting on You)” had (David Letterman, for godsakes!). Like all of their other albums, this is a standout indie rock record that I will continue listening to for many years to come.

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Peter Woodburn’s Picks

Honorable Mentions
Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore Records)
Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal (What’s Your Rupture?)
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (Loose Music)
Sun Kil Moon – Benji (Caldo Verde)

Top Albums of the Year 2014

[5] Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else (Carpark Records)
Cloud Nothings are on a mission to make breakneck rock and roll with punk sensibilities while eschewing the slacker and smelly crowd of the people that normally populate it. Here and Nowhere Else has some of the heaviest riffs of the year, and it might be the album on which Cloud Nothings have finally come into their own. There is a lot of promise in this band, and this album is just the tip of it.

[4] Ben Frost – A U R O R A (Mute Records / Bedroom Community)
Ben Frost, the Australian composer by way of Iceland, might be one of the more interesting individuals making electronic music right now. A U R O R A was written in the DR of Congo and it sounds like it, its dark synths layered with more dark synths and finally peppered with lonely church bells. Frost builds up electronic layers until they all shatter in choruses of bullets and gunfire, making music that is unsettling and engrossing at the same time. A U R O R A is an assault on your human psyche, but it is also one of the more creative albums of the year.

[3] Ty Segall – Manipulator (Drag City)
Ty Segall is as prolific as they come, but Manipulator is his life’s jam. It is the same as many Segall albums, combining the highs of glam rock with the lows of psychedelic rock. This time around, Ty is zeroed in. Manipulator is the natural progression of Segall’s career. Pop overtones are taking a more prominent stage, but never override his love for buzzsaw guitars and shredding chords.

[2] The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian)
The hype was beyond real for this album and listening to Lost in the Dream is like reading a book from an author described as the next Ernest Hemingway. Adam Granduciel has come into his own as a fantastic songwriter, and multiple songs hinge on the power of just one faint chord to take them all from great to fantastic. It is emotional music, and probably one of the better American-rock albums in a while.

[1] Swans – To Be Kind (Young God Records)
Michael Gira and company are back in full force and leaving the rest of the musical world looking like a dystopian wasteland. It seemed like after The Seer was released in 2012 that Swans had reached its apex. To Be Kind builds on the sprawling, crashing world of distortion and relentlessly tears it down with only the fury and precision that someone like Michael Gira can do. It is an emotional slog to make it through the album, but is one of the most satisfying finishes of the year.
>>> Swans – To Be Kind Album Review

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Vivian Hua’s Picks

(In no particular order)

Honorable Mentions
Ty Segall – Manipulator (Drag City)
Manipulator: 17 tracks of “just-as-good-except-maybe-even-better-than-before” Ty Segall material.

Todd Terje – It’s Album Time (Olsen Records)
When listening to It’s Album Time, one feels about as smug as the lounging man on its album cover, because even though it’s an album, it’s one that is damn full of amazing singles. This is sure to be on many a top list, and for good reason.

My Brightest Diamond – This Is My Hand (Asthmatic Kitty)
Chock full of marching band hysterics, percussive theatrics, and modern dance visualizations, This Is My Hand has so many head-scratching moments that even when I’m skeptical at how over-the-top it is, I can’t help but appreciate the quirky decision-making and songwriting mastery.

Woman’s Hour – Conversations (Secretly Canadian)
A record I just keep coming back to again and again, Conversations weaves together ambiguous tales and beautiful monochrome visions which feel just as happy as they are sad, as appropriate for mourning as for silent appreciation.

Elephant – Sky Swimming (Memphis Industries)
With Sky Swimming, Elephant tells the love/hate tale of a former couple turned band members, and it’s album title is perfect; its sonics feel indeed like water in space, or space travel through the underwater depths of the ocean.

Top Albums of the Year 2014

Tom Vek – Luck (Moshi Moshi Records)
Every time Tom Vek releases an album, I hear his singles and watch his music videos, and I think to myself, “This is the type of indie garage rock I can really get behind!” — yet I’ve never given him serious considerations until this year. I don’t know if it’s the disheveled, slurred style of sing-speak, the sometimes charming irreverence, or just the bizarre swagger that resonates with me the most, but godammit, I like it all, and then some!

Peaking Lights – Cosmic Logic (Weird World)
With their latest full-length, Cosmic Logic, Peaking Lights certainly made heads either bob with glee or shake with dismay. For me, the married duo’s bold foray into mega-dancey psych pop territory has been one of their most respectable artistic moves yet. To be fair, some of the lyrics on Cosmic Logic absolutely make me groan — but what keeps coming back into my mind is how playful and light-hearted the record is intended to be. One need only look to its bizarre sonic palette and percussive decisions for proof — and like it or not, at least there’s no record out there that really sounds like it.
>>> Peaking Lights Band Interview: Deciphering Cosmic Logic

Midnight Magic – Vicious Love (Soul Clap Records)
As a long-time fan of Midnight Magic’s, it was a blissful reality that led to my doing projections for them this year at Decibel Festival. Since then, a record I had heard surprisingly little about in the months prior to its release followed me all the way around the globe, with two surprising appearances during a five-day stay in Tokyo. Well, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The band’s ability to ignite a dance party blaze wherever they go, whether on record or live, is something all dance acts can take notes from.

Doomsquad – Kalaboogie (Hand Drawn Dracula)
Kalaboogie is one of those early 2014 releases that I damn near forgot about, until it came to me in a flash pretty recently. A Canadian three-piece of sister:brother:sister, Kalaboogie is all mystic vibes, as filtered through damn near every genre I like, whether that be dance-punk, ambient, psychedelic, techno, noise, or whatever whatever whatever. A dynamic record that really knows how to catch the darkness and the light as it goes through its various life cycles, Kalaboogie begins like a ghostly excursion in the woods, crescendoing halfway with the manic screeching and hollering of “Waka Waka”; it ends with siren’s songs, which sweetly beckon you to fade back into the earth.
>>> Doomsquad – Kalaboogie Album Review

Gardens & Villa – Dunes (Secretly Canadian) // Gardens & Villa – Televisor EP
It seems like a million-and-a-half years since the release of G&V’s record full-length, Dunes. During that period, I’ve seen them perform a dozen times, growing closer and more distant to the record with alternating contradiction, listening like I’ve written a word a hundredfold. In the end, it seems to only make sense to package their fall 2014 Televisor EP together with the full-length for this year-end list, for it is when they are held together that one glimpses the complete story. Televisor bridges the innocence of 2011’s self-titled record with the more mature Dunes, acting as a cement that fills in the hollow gaps, that turns some question marks into periods. Very few records and very few bands are as personally significant to me as G&V have always been — and so it holds appropriate that the mixture of tender loveliness and dystopian jadedness held by this two-record combination reflects what I have felt deeply throughout this ridiculous year of growth and contraction.
>>> Gardens & Villa Band Interview: The Realism Behind Contrasting Experiences

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Ian King’s Picks

[5] Hauschka – Abandoned City (City Slang)
From his home in Düsseldorf, Germany, Volker Bertelmann became fascinated with real life abandoned cities around the world. Composed and played alone on his prepared piano, Bertelmann transformed his daydreams into the singular, beguiling Abandoned City.
>>> Hauschka Interview: The Sonic Topography of No Man’s Land

[4] School of Language – Old Fears (Memphis Industries)
David Brewis is one-half of the brotherly duo (along with Peter Brewis) behind Sunderland, England’s Field Music. His other outlet, School of Language, makes similarly crisp, sophisticated Brit indie, but Old Fears loosens its tie with wiry funk and electronic flourishes.

[3] Hungry Cloud Darkening – Glossy Recall (OffTempo)
Allyson Foster, Nicholas Wilbur, and Paul Benson live in Anacortes, WA, and have all played with Mount Eerie. Spacious yet warm, and without a single note wasted, Glossy Recall is their second album as Hungry Cloud Darkening.

[2] Orcas – Yearling (Morr Music)
Another pairing of innovative musicians, Orcas is the duo of Thomas Meluch (Benoit Pioulard) and Rafael Anton Irisarri (The Sight Below), who together bend arresting melodies through a twilight prism.
>>> Yearling Album Review + Orcas Joint Collarative Interview

Inventions – Inventions (Temporary Residence Ltd)
Matthew Cooper of Eluvium and Mark T. Smith of Explosions in the Sky created an album that is just as heartfelt and exploratory as you would expect their collaboration to be, without it actually sounding quite like you would expect.
>>> Inventions Band Joint Collaborative Interview

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Jason Simpson’s Picks

Honorable Mentions
[10] Cut Hands – Festival of the Dead (Blackest Ever Black)
While Festival of the Dead might be my least favorite Cut Hands statement, to date, that’s kind of like picking your least favorite orgasm, or your least favorite mind-shattering epiphany. William Bennett’s riotous collection of Ghanian beats, synth and noise are a highlight of every year, no matter how much, or how little, of it there may be. Festival of the Dead may be Bennett’s highest profile release as Cut Hands so far, released by the essential Blackest Ever Black droogs, where his electronic trance circles are polished and shined like deadly obsidian. If ever there was a chance for Bennett to cross over (which is unlikely, as he’s a rather divisive figure), this would be it. As most “extreme musics” segue into safety and predictability, it would be a good thing if he did.

[9] Pharmakon – Bestial Burden (Sacred Bones Records)
Pharmakon’s second LP for Sacred Bones gets my vote for my disturbing, and most effective, noise release of the year. Margaret Chardiet came up with the idea for Bestial Burden when one of her internal organs nearly shut down, due to a cyst the size of a grapefruit, requiring immediate surgery. This bodily betrayal, and the disorienting recuperation in the hospital, with an elderly patient sobbing for their children, who never came, set the stage for this biodrama, where Chardiet gives us a guided tour of failing biology. Meaty, fleshy, gurgling… powerful, and with one of the best album covers of the year.

[8] Alberich – Nato-Uniformen (Hospital Productions)
Not entirely an album, per se, but rather gathering all the limited releases from Kris Lapke, sound engineer and producer to the stars for fine purveyors of noise, Hospital Productions. Nato-Uniformem gathers together nearly four-and-a-half of mind-erasing static and sublimating beats, as Lapke recites mantras of paranoia and violence through a laser cheese grater. When it seems that so much is becoming safe and predictable, it is refreshing to find something truly dangerous and menacing. Viva la revolución!

[7] Grouper – Ruins (kranky)
Liz Harris can do no wrong in my world. She seems to come out with an LP nearly every year, and every year, her contributions make my lists. Ruins was particularly special, though, in being both well-realized as well as raw and intimate. In a world full of glossy, slick, scientific marketing campaigns, it is refreshing to hear Grouper’s dark fairytales, sounding like they were scraped right off her reel-to-reel, and cloned into life.

[6] Swans – To Be Kind (Young God Records)
Swans are an anomaly in that they have actually gotten better, since their reformation a couple of years ago. Or maybe we’re just being reminded of how good they always were. Still, their seismic mini-orchestra of battering percussion and body-shattering shamanic lyrics sounded heavier than 99.9% of the metal albums of the year. The fact that they have been getting so widely popular suggests we are living in a new pagan renaissance, and the dark is rising.

Top Albums of the Year 2014

[5] Ben Frost – A U R O R A (Mute Records / Bedroom Community)
It’s almost a shame that there’s always so much good music coming out, as I would’ve liked to have a solid month to only lose myself in Ben Frost’s classical, pyrotechnic drones. For anyone who has ever thrown out a reference to static, unchanging music as a derisive comment, show them A U R O R A, which is, of course, neither static or unchanging. It is, however, as powerful and surging as a mighty river, and shows what can be done when you abandon the prison of standard instruments and notation.

[4] FKA Twigs – LP1 (Young Turks)
FKA Twigs’ hotly anticipated debut LP could be the soundtrack for space, disassociation and distance. If you were voting solely based on timeliness and cultural relevance, LP1 should be album of the year, as the beats are hot and fresh, sterling examples of post-dubstep bassweight — truly cutting edge electronica, while Twigs’ vocals come from half a mile away. This is the sound of looking for real love and connection, but gazing at your phone every fifteen seconds while doing so. It has the same serotonin burnout as The Weeknd, but with a little more hope intact. Plus her voice is just lovely: light and airy and on-point, every time.

[3] Sharon Van Etten – Are We There (Jagjaguwar)
If you’re judging solely based on repeat listenings, and instant induction into personal favorite status, Sharon Van Etten’s record would be the winner for me this year. I listened repetitively as I gathered my thoughts for a review, and after the review was finished, I listened some more. I also had the good grace to see Van Etten on this tour, which further cemented my fondness for this record. And when she sings, “Tell me do you like it,” in a flaming crescendo, this is melodrama I can get behind — that is actually personal and heartfelt, and not just facsimiles of the real thing.

[2] Andy Stott – Faith In Strangers (Modern Love)
Maybe it’s because this came late in the game just last month, but I just can’t get enough of Stott’s beat abstractions and post-industrial ambiance. Faith In Strangers just seems like someplace you’d want to hang out, like an abandoned industrial park, after dark, with halogen lights burning. It also seems to have a stream of optimism flowing through it, which was somewhat absent in the post-Burial dubstep world. We’re starting to acknowledge that there might be a future, we might just not know what it will look like.

[1] Stephen Steinbrink – Arranged Waves (Melodic Records)
If you tally up artistic achievement, personal enjoyment, anticipation, and investment, Stephen Steinbrink’s newest LP, his first as a resident of Olympia, WA. makes this my album of the year. First of all, I got to hear songs from here, in various states of rehearsal and undress, in the months leading up the release date, leaving my breathlessly waiting to get my hands on recorded copies. I also had the privilege of speaking to Stephen a few times around these performances. He is always a gentle, lovely human being, who is fearsomely devoted to his music. With a voice like Truman Capote and fingers like Bill Callahan, Steinbrink’s music is both very soft, and very steely, but always beautiful. Also, the record gets bonus points for members of Lake, who are also sort-of friends of mine, all tallied up to make this my most indispensable recording of 2014.

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Troy Micheau’s Picks

(In no particular order)

Swans – To Be Kind (Young God Records)
It seems that bands are a dying breed these days, and I can’t say that bums me out all that much. It’s 2014; rock n’ roll had its time; let’s move on. That said, there is still something truly awesome about a band the just fucking rips, and the current incarnation of Swans does that and then some and then some more. Onstage, they are incredibly flexible, willing to explore the furthest reaches of every riff or rhythm yet ready to follow main man Michael Gira in what ever direction he takes them. It can be jagged and cacophonous, ambient, spiritual, destructive and beautiful all at once. I mention this because there has generally been a distinction between live Swans and album Swans. Ever since Children of God, their studio output and public persona has revolved around Gira — and for a time Jarboe — with the aforementioned full band qualities left for the stage and their numerous live recordings. All three of the albums they’ve released since reforming a few years back have had more in common with the ensemble pieces than the sample and loop-heavy LPs of yore, but their newest, To Be Kind, is the best representation of the 21st century band version of Gira’s project yet. It has the feel of the old live albums like “Public Castration is a Good Idea” and “Swans Are Dead”, with just enough studio embellishment to really flesh out the vibe. Maybe Gira has finally found a band that he trusts enough to belong to rather than use for the execution of his vision. Whatever the case, it is an awesome example of what a few dudes with drums, guitars, and a lap steel can be in 2014.
>>> Swans – To Be Kind Album Review

Panabrite – Pavilion (Immune Recordings)
Consciousness, time, and memory take on non-local physical forms for dream time examination in Seattle synth wizard Norm Chambers’ newest and best record under his Panabrite moniker. Each of its 8 tracks presents an ephemeral structure fixed in the distant corners of our imaginations and framed for our perusal by analog synthesizer sequences and field recordings that reference the best moments of late ’70s and mid-’80s New Age audio transcendence without falling into the gaping fantasy land of Reiki healing fissures that swallowed so many well-meaning astral travelers of yore. Pavilion would count as a success on this account alone, but the fact that it is so memorable and endlessly relistenable earned it a spot on this list of distinguished records. Not to mention that the concept is so clearly audible throughout the album as opposed to some “yeah sure” description concocted during PR brainstorming sessions. Chambers delivers the goods here, and the result has a timeless quality that feels as though it is streaming forth from beyond some fourth wall where we can objectively evaluate the succession of moments, documenting the movement of matter through space in whatever order we wish and at our own damn pace. Start listening to this guy, people. Dude is criminally underrated.
>>> Panabrite – Pavilion Album Review

Lee Gamble – KOCH (PAN)
Techno has always more or less been about calling forth the oracular spirits of the PCB depths to foretell of the coming dystopias through rhythm and vibe, but in the hands of a growing number of soothsayers, the visions have become decidedly more abstract. Where once we had gritty tales of crumbling cities and space epics, we now receive reports from unknowable realms beyond human perception, whose only purpose seems to be stretching our minds and tearing at our feeble understanding of consciousness and being. One such mystic is Lee Gamble, a man whose music resembles audio hallucinations cast against the walls of our three dimensions and reverberated across The Abyss into the strange and loving hands of Daath before cascading down through the 22 paths into our world of matter where, you know, our ears can hear it. In other words, it’s super weird and awesome, and his newest album, Koch, connects the debased forms of minimal body music with psychotropic sound design to produce jams meant for the kind of dance floors where people lose their shit to Dada-esque micro tunings and quantum fluctuations rather than bro-ish bass drops. While there are a lot of people working the fringes of techno these days, I can’t think of any contemporaries with such a singular and defined approach as Lee Gamble. Like legends Autechre, Clark or Apex Twin, you know a track is his within about 1 millisecond of pressing play because the vision evoked is so clearly his, and never has it been displayed as eloquently as it is on Koch.
>>> Lee Gamble – Koch Album Review

Andy Stott – Faith In Strangers (Modern Love)
It’s a special thing witnessing an artist arrive — to watch and listen as they unveil a body of work that stretches the scope of their craft while acknowledging and expanding on everything they’ve done before. 2013’s Luxury Problems is a great listen on its own merits for sure, but as a long time fan of his music, I can’t help but feel a little extra excited for producer Andy Stott to finally shed the genre crutch and deliver something that belongs to him. Stott hasn’t exactly reinvented the wheel here; there are plenty of reference points herein, from Eno to Cocteau Twins, trap and Massive Attack, but the way they’ve been collected and coerced into his universe is truly unique. By ditching the four on the floor format, he has finally allowed the spacious melodies and shimmering metallic synthetics that have come to define his sound to stand front and center. It was a bold move for a producer who made his name crushing dance floors with sub-frequencies that had more in common with the gravitational force of a black hole than typical techno kicks, but it was most certainly worth it. A masterpiece, this one.

Ian William Craig – A Turn of Breath (Recital Program)
I have no idea who Ian William Craig is. “A Turn of Breath” was suggested to me in a Facebook thread a few months back when I was looking for new music, and after a quick listen of the YouTubes, I decided to jump in and Jesuuuus, am I glad I did. Ian William Craig, whoever he is, has unequivocally made the most disarmingly vulnerable and downright beautiful record of 2014, and I won’t take any lip from any heartless Philistine normies who say otherwise. Essentially a hermetic marriage of Antony’s haunting vocals with the grace and tonal characteristics William Basinki’s Disintegration Loops, Craig’s record revolves around his choir boy voice and the layers of analog entropy that threaten to tear it asunder at every turn. But like all good overdrive pedals, plugins and techniques, the distortion and noise serve to highlight the rich harmonic tapestry on display here, filling out the stereo spectrum with all manner of wonderful sounds both present and perceived. They also provide the counterpoint to Craig’s mournful melodies, as if he were a captain going down with his doomed ship. The result is a structurally minimal but emotionally and philosophically complex album, best left for solo headphones sessions and bittersweet rainy days that hurt so good.

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