Every top 20 spot on this list is Thriller. Every year Thriller. Always Thriller. But I digress…
Well, it’s that time of year again. Cue the many pop culture year-end lists that show up all over print and web publications at around the beginning of December (yes, I realize these things start earlier than they should, bear with me). Also cue the many pop-culture year-end think pieces that describe why year-end list-making is a time-honored critical and social tradition that should be upheld.
Although I mostly appreciate the in-depth analysis of pop-culture goings-on, it does tend to get samey year after year. My point with this list in particular is to help you, the reader, discover a great piece of music that you otherwise may have missed in the thousands of albums that are released in a given year. I also hope to avoid the groupthink that occurs when multiple publications shower the same critical accolades on the same group of albums that may not really deserve it. My music taste covers both popular and more esoteric music from a variety of genres, so I hope that you will find this list useful. Without further ado, here are my top records of the year, ranked from 1 to 20!
1. Gazelle Twin – Unflesh
While no record this year was an insta-classic (5 out of 5) in my eyes, this one came insanely close. Note to the easily freaked out: this is some of the craziest, weirdest, creepiest electronica I have ever heard. Working with co-producer Benge, Gazelle Twin (aka Elizabeth Bernholz) creates soundscapes that fill the listener with a palpable sense of awe and dread… in the best possible way. Not only that, but the album’s music and lyrics are permeated with stark social commentary. Comparing the record thematically to Radiohead’s Kid A, PopMatters reviewer Guy Mankowski observes that “on both albums, doubts about technology, particularly with regards to the suppression of natural processes, are portrayed musically”. My personal Album of the Year.
2. Opeth – Pale Communion
Much has been made of this band’s leap out of the progressive death metal genre they helped establish, and into straight-up 70’s-style progressive rock. You’ll find many an Opeth fan in 2014 shaking their head at the band’s new direction, and in particular, the lack of frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt’s famous death metal growls on their two most recent albums. While I can understand the criticism that Opeth are no longer making music that’s original to them, when the results are this good, it nearly doesn’t matter. The musical curveballs thrown at the listener on Pale Communion are just as filled with the same songwriting prowess and invention as their previous albums. Complimenting the natural flow of the album is an absolutely stellar production job from engineer Tom Dalgety (Royal Blood’s self-titled album) and mix engineer Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, and as PT fans know, nearly everything Wilson touches is audiophile ear candy; this may be his best mix yet. If you consider yourself a fan of emotionally poignant and technically audacious rock music of any kind, take a listen to this (especially if you’ve got a great sound system to showcase it).
3. Closure in Moscow – Pink Lemonade
A definite out-of-left-field surprise to anyone who considered themselves a fan of the band’s post-hardcore-styled psychedelic cult jam First Temple, Closure in Moscow throw their previous rulebook completely out the window and construct a semi-concept album filled with theatrical prog tendencies, R&B/soul influences, psychedelic excess and even a chiptune track tacked on to the very end to tie it all up. For daring to alienate their previous audience and the band’s wacky ambition, Pink Lemonade becomes the definition of “glorious mess”.
4. Nothing More – Nothing More
Modern alternative rock with an edge came back this year with a large vengeance. Starset’s Transmissions, Icarus the Owl’s self-titled record, and, to take a more prominent example, Linkin Park’s The Hunting Party each proved that “radio rock” can be made with solid songwriting, technical skill and emotional heart. No album excelled in this vein more this year than Nothing More’s self-titled musical journey, which, in guitarist Mark Vollelunga’s words, represents “the journey from the “ocean floor” to a “funeral pyre”. “As you go through the songs, there’s this “letting go” process that happens,” and I couldn’t agree more. Featuring the dynamically explosive Jonny Hawkins on vocals, Nothing More covers topics from religion (“Christ Copyright”), the media (“Mr. MTV”) and more personal lyrics dealing with the death of the lead singer’s mother to cancer (“God Went North”). All in all, when the genre of rock itself is floundering in the Top 40 mainstream, bands like Nothing More do a great job of keeping it alive and relevant.
5. clipping. – CLPPNG
Industrial hip-hop as a genre is really nothing new. Though it’s become typified in the last few years by albums like Death Grips’ The Money Store and brought to mainstream attention by none other than Kanye West’s Yeezus, its origins as a genre go all the way back to at least the 1980’s. The new style of mixing hard-edged and noise-influenced beats with the boom-bap stylistic traits and lyrical wordplay of hip-hop has only really come to prominence recently because the aforementioned artists in question have added a more pop-influenced approach to writing hooks and verses. Add clipping. to the small number of artists who not only do it well, but chart new territory in the genre’s development. One of the select hip-hop acts to be recently signed to prominent indie label Sub Pop (along with Shabazz Palaces), clipping. impress with a mix of grimy and unsettling beats (“Body & Blood”), musical ingenuity (“Get Up”), and extremely impressive turns of phrase that prove the group is here to stay.
6. Skindred – Kill the Power
One of the few bands that could be considered “nu-metal” that consistently put out quality work is Skindred. Their cross-genre experiments in metal and reggae in addition to hip-hop, pop, electronica and, increasingly, dubstep, means an album of pure fun, dancy and headbanging tunes that you can enjoy equally blasting in the car or with headphones.
7. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
After the interesting detour but slightly unfulfilling Until the Quiet Comes, FlyLo returns with a stunning statement about life, death and the metaphysical spaces in between. Hosting a variety of collaborators including Kendrick Lamar, Herbie Hancock, Snoop Dogg and Kimbra, You’re Dead! demands repeat listens to catch all the nuances and crazy textures going on beneath the surface of Flying Lotus’ musical vision.
8. The Quitters – Contributing to Erosion
I don’t always care for modern punk bands, but when I do, they surprise me with their accessible yet gracefully executed songwriting, clever lyrics and old-school punk attitude. The Quitters has become one of those bands.
9. Jack White – Lazaretto
Jack White needs no introduction. And whatever you may think of his offhand comments regarding bands that try to copy his style, the fact remains that he reaffirmed his place among rock’s top pantheon with songs that reflected his blues, psychedelic and old-school rock-n’-roll heritage. Plus, White’s production skills remain top-notch, and the CD competes with Opeth for greatest dynamic-range mastering in music this year. An aural, musical and lyrical treasure to behold.
10. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Whether or not Annie Clark’s self-titled fourth album is as good as her standout third album, Strange Mercy, released a few years back, is irrelevant. The fact is that Clark remains a singular musical presence, expanding the boundaries of what we say when we talk about “pop music”. Singles “Digital Witness” and “Birth in Reverse” are just two of the many morsels of joyful eccentricity the listener finds on St. Vincent.
11. Mastodon – Once More ‘Round the Sun
After their 2011 offering The Hunter, some fans left disappointed by that album were left wondering whether the ‘don could recreate the heights of 2009’s Crack the Skye ever again. Their new album, Once More ‘Round the Sun, proves the sludge metal veterans deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with the words “metal greats”. Combining the progressive approach of Skye with the more pop-leaning tendencies of Hunter, Mastodon craft perhaps their most pleasingly accessible body of work to date.
12. Animals as Leaders – The Joy of Motion
Much like Mastodon, AaL had somewhat of a crisis moment with their last album, 2011’s technically brilliant but slightly disappointing Weightless, especially after their 2007 self-titled debut record lit a fire under the entire progressive so-called “djent” movement of metal that we find ourselves in today. However, The Joy of Motion more than makes up for any losses in relevance by featuring frontman/primary songwriter Tosin Abasi at his most instrumentally and emotionally evocative. A few moments on the new record equal or even surpass moments on the self-titled. If you want to get into modern heavy metal, but don’t like obnoxious screamed vocals clouding up the musical prowess of the individual members, definitely give these guys a listen.
13. Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy
A contender for one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful records of 2014, Damien Rice returns with a stunning collection of progressive-inspired folk songs that feel perfect for those warm winter days where the sun is peaking out above the clouds and the snow is just melting off the roof of the cabin. It also features Rick Rubin’s most dynamic-production in more than a decade, which is more than can be said for some of his recent records.
14. Mekong Delta – In a Mirror Darkly
If you’re a fan of Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All-era Metallica, or even if you know about the existence of bands like Dark Angel, you nearly bound to love Mekong Delta. Progressive thrash metal is one of my favorite strains of metal, and Mekong Delta live up to the promise of their genre. High-pitched vocals, crazy drumming and riff after riff after riff keep me coming back to this album again and again. Plus, just when you think it couldn’t get any more awesome, they throw in a massive instrumental, “Inside the Outside of the Inside” (skip to 26:02 in the video).
15. Crying – Get Olde/Second Wind
Pop/rock? Ehh, well, it could be good. Mixing it with 8-bit video game/chiptune synthesizers? You have my attention. Not to mention painfully honest lyricism from frontwoman Elaiza Santos. It all adds up to an experience that, far from making you cry, will make you smile.
16. The Green Seed – Drapetomania
My pick for best throwback old-school rap album of 2014. ‘Nuff said.
17. Alpine Decline – Go Big Shadow City
Hailing all the way from a little town called Beijing, China, I’ve played these guys on my and co-host John Park’s radio show (Castles in the Sky) and they definitely deserve the hype. Hazy and shoegaze-y but with crystal clear production so everything packs that much more of a wallop, Alpine Decline conjure up mental images of the “land of the rising smog” with aplomb (at least, that’s how they called their home nation in the radio liner they sent us).
18. Slough Feg – Digital Resistance
Fears about how much technology is permeating our everyday lives have made many a great album, like the aforementioned Kid A and Unflesh. But many bands don’t seem to have the panache or class to write a great concept album about “the way we live” without writing actual tunes in the process. Cult metallers Slough Feg are here to do just that. With a mix of Deep Purple and Iron Maiden-esque guitar licks and a clean, analog production from frontman Mike Scalzi and engineer Justin Weis, Slough Feg lead the digital resistance in the face of all the technology that gives us joy, yet isolates us at the same time.
19. Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
Much like clipping., Shabazz Palaces are a new Sub Pop signee who put the experimental back in “experimental hip-hop”. Off-kilter beats, offbeat lyrics and off-the-chain messages decrying the current state of mainstream hip-hop make this a hip-hop album to remember.
20. Amaranthe – Massive Addictive
The last album on this list is one of the cheesiest; yet, I have always dug Amaranthe’s mix of power metal, melodeath, and buckets of electronic synthesizers and keyboards, not to mention their super-clean production courtesy of producer/engineer Jacob Hansen. Even with a new harsh vocalist, the band never lets up on their sugary sweet style of metal. Recommended for fans of Japanese band Blood Stain Child (and if you don’t know who they are, look them up, too!).
What were some of your favorite albums from this year? Let us know in the comments! (Unless you say Run the Jewels 2, because you’re oh so unique in that regard )