2014 was a year full of exciting musical achievements and that is something I am thankful for. As music becomes more disposable and less of a treasure, it’s important for the artists who release music to stay innovative and to continue to view their art as a novelty for their audiences.
Last year saw many artists taking care of business. Some gave us their best album to date and some surprised the music world with impromptu releases. Caribou and Flying Lotus both rocked the world with their greatest effort to date and D’Angelo shocked us all by releasing his first album in fifteen years in light of the police activity that happened in Ferguson. FKA Twigs also gave us a stunning debut and house artists reigned as party playlist hogs.
When I look back at 2014, I see it as a year of transition. Not so much filler, but rather a year in which the music paradigm really switched from fueling a business that relies heavily on album sales to a business that now relies on singles alone. Record stores have closed in record numbers and the idea of records no longer exists in the minds of music business executives. It’s sad, but until the ultimate demise, I’m here to celebrate my favorite albums of 2014.
This here list contains albums #10 – 1:
Maybe it’s me, but I’ve been noticing a lot of people starting to ‘like’ Jazz music. Whether they dive into the Jazz legend archives of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and whoever behooves them, or check out new artists like The Bad Plus and Snarky Puppy, it’s kind of cool to know that Jazz is not completely dead.
This especially rings true with the Toronto Jazz trio Badbadnotgood. The young group got their start when Tyler, the Creator joined them for a jam session in their basement after hearing their cover of Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade”. While it wasn’t necessarily a Jazz song, the trio incorporated complex instrumental arrangements that spoke melodies as pronounced as Tyler’s.
Now two albums deep, the group decided to sign with the Innovative Leisure label to release their junior effort comprised only of original compositions. The group hadn’t done this before. But upon first listen, III’s opening track “Triangle” blasts through the speakers like a sonic boom. In it comes an impressive piano solo that shows that the group’s improv dialogue has matured. There’s no more fluff – it’s straight to the point. “Confessions” and “Differently, Still” embrace that same creative effort as well.
Of course, the band is still heavily influenced by hip-hop and have not strayed away from such endeavors. “Can’t Leave The Night” is a dark textured song that resembles that of the band’s previous releases and album covers, for that matter. It’s progressive, yet still maintains a certain mood through its dynamic structure. The beat is a standard 4/4 with a low registered bass that rumbles in the background. Listening to the song, I couldn’t help but think these guys were heavily influenced by James Blake’s keyboard samples and Odd Future’s hype antics.
All in all, the package that BBNG has put together is a solid work of art. It’s thoughtful and shows the group’s ability to gel musically. And if highlights like “Kaleidoscope” and “Hedron” are also an indication of the trio’s growth, we’re in for a real treat, and I’m excited to see where the group takes its talent next.
9. ALL RISE: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller
Out of all of the Jazz records to have come out this year, Jason Moran’s ALL RISE: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller is truly the most enjoyable to listen to. No, I’m not saying Jazz is not pleasurable; if anything, it’s a genre of music that I hold the highest-regard to. What I’m talking about is the joy I feel when listening to Moran’s transforming arrangements of Fats Waller’s music. The album, like its title suggests, is an elegy to the colorful pianist, singer, and entertainer’s most celebrated hits. While most of the tracks Moran chose are from plays written sometime around the 20s to 30s, Moran’s arrangements are such a fresh reduex of Jazz meets hip-hop that if you didn’t know that you were listening to Fats Waller tunes, you’d think you were listening to a more upbeat Robert Glasper.
For me the album shines when I hear tracks like “Yacht Club Swing” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” as those are two of many tracks that Moran and his band The Bandwagon performed in conjunction to skateboarders skating a mini-vert ramp inside the music venue I work at in San Francisco. Something about the city, Fats Waller’s music, and skateboarding all in one made for one of the most memorable experiences ever and Moran’s ALL RISE is a novelty that I can hold onto to keep those memories intact.
ZABA is a heady record. In its 45-minute run length, the English indie rock group takes its listeners through a psychedelic pop journey fueled by tropical percussion and jungle timbres that proves to be one of the most original and captivating to have been released this year.
“Black Mambo” is a track that features tumbling bass lines and dream-like synth melodies that make for a bizarre, yet gorgeous mood. It’s gripping as frontman Dave Bayley plays with space throughout. The album’s highlight “Gooey” comes four tracks in after the playful song “Pools”. “Gooey” is a solid pop song that features strong hooks and intricate songwriting. It’s a dark sexy piece that features electronica elements suitable for a Flying Lotus number, and the deep percussive grooves melts the weird sounds into sonic honeycombs through its dynamics.
Overall, Bayley and Co. have created a sound that only they can call their own and that’s pretty impressive considering most of the music industry relies on artists who produce disposable tracks that are easily replaceable. Glass Animals are a group that understands the art that they are making and really know how to standout in a world that is so cluttered and blurry. But maybe that’s why the group’s music is so minimal and soulful – It’s just a matter of knowing where you stand in the scheme of things.
7. They Want My Soul
A lot of people believe that rock music is dead and I don’t blame them. But before we can officially claim such a sad statement, let’s not forget that there are a handful of rock bands that are still keeping things interesting. One of those warrior groups is Spoon. While the Austin, Texas rockers have been knocking out hit after hit for years now, Spoon have never sounded so comfortable being a band in their eighth studio album They Want My Soul.
Sure the awkward album artwork featuring a lady’s hand and bright white light in her palm might be an immediate turn off, but the gems are indeed inside that light. While the band added a fifth member for this record, the sound is still as minimal as any rock band can be, and the arrangements and production is quite impeccable. They Want My Soul stays true to the odd Spoon sound, yet pushes them into the headliners at a 10,000 person venue level. It’s big, yet personal. Coy, yet brash. If anything, Daniel Britt and Company have really come to terms with themselves and that’s something we can all admire and cherish.
6. 2014 Forest Hills Drive
What J. Cole has accomplished in his short career is nothing short of impressive. He has joined five other rappers as the only artists of that caliber to top the Billboard 200 with their first three albums, he hangs with some of the biggest rappers in the game from both yester-year and today, and he has been nominated for multiple Grammy’s in multiple categories, so it’s no coincidence that the young rapper put out one of the best records of the year.
Sure J. Cole is not a great rapper nor is 2014 Forest Hills Drive anything less than amazing, but the guy is hungry and Forest Hills is an exemplary vision of just that. While Forest Hills is a genuine effort, I can’t help but think how Cole has taken his influencers’ art to heart. Like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d city, Cole has created a retrospective of the hardships of his adolescence by telling stories that deal with Cole losing his virginity to not having any role models cause “everybody’s a killer”. But unlike Lamar, Cole’s articulation is par at best. Yes, there are moments where Cole shines (i.e. “Wet Dreamz”), but overall, his vernacular ultimately hurts the impressive production Cole has come to master.
Forest Hills features the best production work Cole has done thus far. The beats come flawlessly and provide a solid foundation for Cole to sing about his past. The music is nostalgic just like the stories he sings about and provides a solid juxtaposition to Cole’s raspy vocals. Overall, the album is not the best rap album to have come out, but it’s a true testament to the drive of a young rapper. Cole’s work is nothing less than impressive, but he still has a ways to go in order to be considered a top-notch rapper.
5. Early Riser
When I heard that Taylor Mcferrin was about to release his debut album, I couldn’t have been more anxious to hear what the son of improv master Bobby Mcferrin had been up to. You see, I first heard of Mcferrin’s work when he released the single “A Place In My Heart” back in 2010. At that time, he was not signed to Flying Lotus’ label Brainfeeder and there was little to no knowledge about Mcferrin’s career other than that he was collaborating with Jazz pianist Robert Glasper. So flash forwarding to 2014, Early Riser didn’t necessarily come out of no where, but it was a surprise.
Like the title suggests, Early Riser is a psychedelic album to wake up to. The opening track “Postpartum” is an ethereal track that builds through whispers and airy ambiance, and the track is set to a bpm like that of your heart waking up from a dream. The next song “Degress of Light” is the closest sounding song to the rest of the Brainfeeder catalog. Take Flylo’s beats and add Teebs’ minimalist chimes and you get Mcferrin’s attempt to add a branch on the family tree. Skip ahead a bit and you come across the track “Invisible/Visible”, which features Mcferrin’s father. The track is the slowest and quietest on the album, but its ?uestlove-like drum beat and flow-y Jazz vocals really shine through. As the song progresses, the chill is taken over by a soft Jazz jam that sounds like Bill Evans playing with Chris “Daddy” Dave.
The highlight of the album comes just before “Invisible”, however. “Decisions” is a track that features singer/songwriter Emily King on vocals and Mcferrin as the producer. The song is a trippy love song that showcases Mcferrin’s immaculate musicianship. Here, it’s Mcferrin that provides a solid work of art that, at its loudest moment, puts the rest of the record into perspective. King’s vocals match perfectly to the angst and sadness of the song and her raspy whisper compliments the syncopated push and pull of what’s happening behind her. It’s tough to tell where Early Riser puts Mcferrin on the list of top producers, but if it’s any consolation, at least we have the album to hold onto until his next effort.
While the Bay Area music was represented well this year with plenty of artists emerging on the scene by outputting impressive art, the biggest of the bunch was San Francisco’s The Seshen. Their recent release Unravel is an extended playlist consisting of six of their finest songs so far. The title track is high octane and comes at you with so much confidence that turning down the volume on the stereo would be blasphemy. It’s no doubt the band has a lot of creative input to give even though they really have no competition, but we’ll take their gift with a grain of salt anyway. The record as a whole is impressive and full of great tunes that each could come as stand alone songs on their own.
3. You’re Dead!
Flying Lotus’ epic Jazz opera You’re Dead! is really more than any of us could ask for. The record is tantalizing, thrilling, and just about everything (if not more) we would have expected from the Los Angeles based producer.
Throughout the album, we find ourselves immersed in a Jazz-fusion record that takes us on a journey all based on the idea of death. Whether we believe in the afterlife or not, you feel something spiritual from Flylo’s You’re Dead! The album moves quickly from song to song in just minutes (if that), so it’s tough to single out a number on its own, but as a whole, the record works as a complete piece that’s meant to be listened to front to back, and that’s what makes Flylo’s records so incredible.
You’re Dead! is dense and there’s a lot going on. If you take the most complex record you can think of and multiply that by ten, you get You’re Dead! But when you hear it properly, at just 38 minutes long, listening to You’re Dead! makes you feel like you’ve entered a black hole. And when it’s done, you have a difficult time reciting what just happened – It’s that much of a trip. Take Jazz fusion, hip hop, psychedelia, and electronic samples, and you get an album that is as pronounced as the subject matter itself. It’s tough to sit through, but when it’s over, you can’t help but take a deep breath and go right back to the beginning.
2. Our Love
While many bands’ creative juices tend to dehydrate after just a few albums, Canada’s psychedelic artist Dan Snaith (aka Caribou) just gets better and better. On his sixth album, Our Love is a confident record that hits on both the emotional and pleasurable spectrum of music. It’s a record that Snaith produced so that it could be played live and boy, do these guys play it well. After watching Caribou’s performance on Boiler Room, it’s not tough to see how songs like “Can’t Do Without You” and “Our Love” were written to be fan favorite dance floor anthems. The repetitive swirl of “Can’t Do” creates an emotional rollercoaster that ingrains the idea of the hardship it would be to live without the one you love. It’s heady and deep, but works so well. And the pulsating rhythm of “Mars” is a percussive feat with mesmerizing flute samples fit for an arena-sized dance floor.
1. Black Messiah
In light of the national unrest around unprosecuted police officer involved shootings in Ferguson, MO and New York City, the “R&B Jesus” D’Angelo resurrected from the dead after a 14-year hiatus to rush release Black Messiah in order to speak to the times. The release itself was a sure surprise to everyone, but the album itself didn’t come as a sneak attack. It’s a slow-simmering gumbo that’s finally boiled over.
While Black Messiah was coined for release in 2015 as the tracklist was painstakingly compiled over years, D’Angelo’s work comes at us as controlled chaos. It’s not in shambles, but rather ironically as confident as the protesters in the streets. It’s a war cry for the generation – A simple statement of humanism. “It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen,” D’Angelo writes in the liner notes. “Black Messiah is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.” With hints of Funkadelic and Prince, D’Angelo leads his backing band The Vanguard into the heart of the fight and sheds light with Black Messiah in the nick of time.
- Time’s Tale by Jeff Ballard
- Groove Cruise by Jordan Rakei
- I Never Learn by Lykke Li
- Salad Days by Mac Demarco
- Where Will We Go Pt. 1 & 2 by Nick Hakim
- Mean Love by Sinkane
- St. Vincent by St. Vincent
- Rising Son by Takuya Kuroda
- Lost In the Dream by The War On Drugs
- Box Set by William Onyeabor