2014: Favorite 50 Music Releases of 2014

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series


40
Beyoncé
Beyoncé

[Columbia]

Don’t let the rest of this list fool you. 2014 was the year that mainstream pop cracked a one-two sucker punch and left the entire music scene shellshocked and bleeding from the nose. Crashing in unannounced at the very tail end of last year — well after the critics had already locked up the party and started cleaning the place up — Beyoncé kicked the doors open, poured herself a drink, and announced that New Year’s had come early this year. Audacious? Damn right. But why bother to RSVP when you own the place? Unflinchingly confident, viciously sexy, and shockingly human, Beyoncé’s self-titled audio-visual opus rang in 2014 like a sledgehammer, shattering the partition between the mainstream and the “serious music” scene more thoroughly than any album in recent memory. Part feminist treatise, part tabloid tell-all, part euphoric motherhood victory lap, Beyoncé was that rare tour de force of a pop album with the gall to actually speak its mind and say something. Oh, and as for that other album? Sorry Taylor, I’ma let you finish, but Beyoncé didn’t just have the smartest, sexiest, most ambitious pop album of 2014. She reminded us that shaking it off doesn’t have to mean pretending not to care.

39
Sun Araw
Belomancie

[Sun Ark/Drag City]

Terence McKenna once wrote, “Life lived in the absence of the psychedelic experience […] is life trivialized, life denied, life enslaved by the ego.” Although McKenna was most definitely talking specifically about hallucinogenic drugs, this idea can also be applied to psychedelic music. Cameron Stallones, the real-life psyche behind Sun Araw, embodied this abandonment of ego wonderfully with Belomancie. While the record felt like his most personal and intimate release to date, it simultaneously transcended the conscious identity of Sun Araw, as it stumbled upon realms of sound that even Stallones may not have known existed. Improvisation is key to the experience of Sun Araw and here provided a pivotal aspect of the album’s structure (or lack thereof). From drippy drum patterns carelessly creating rhythm to metallic vocals shouting fractured thoughts and nonsensical phrases; from purring primordial synth textures to a genuine revitalization of the electric guitar solo, each and every element of this record is a living, breathing organism with its own brain, its own ego to abandon. Sun Araw arranged these organisms in simple sequences and designs, ultimately allowing them to go their own ways, to wander and get lost beyond the realm of consciousness, to a place where music can become a creature of its own destiny.

38
Objekt
Flatland

[PAN]

Flatland Dynamic Solutions — a division of the German military — developed a series of identical white gramophone records in 1944. All of the records played the same jagged techno, but at the same time. They were a covert means of communication, translating war correspondence into rhythmic pulses. Records tuned into the network were said to be “in the zone,” and through these means, the Germans would coordinate V-2 rocket attacks, striking Allies with a crack of the sound barrier. But the British had created their own record too, one that played at similar frequencies and could even scramble the German signals, rendering communication useless. The serial number of this record was 00000, but the Tommys a - a - affectionately referred to it as their “Objekt.” The Objekt dynamic was simple, but elaborate: passages of intensely dynamic machine-generated sound were layered vertically, so that when played horizontally, individual tracks made intercontinental leaps between breakbeat shrapnel and low-end grooves, from the edge of space beyond the point of impact. Of course, none of this is true, but try to come up with a better explanation for the thrilling and explosive Flatland, an album that was as much a brain workout as it was a booty workout. This album gave experimental music a much-needed night out in Berlin. And it was all about feel, so I wouldn’t get stressed about finding meaning in all of Objekt’s musical digression.

37
James Ferraro
SUKI GIRLZ

[Self-Released]

To a digital native, we are nothing but what our avatars project to the online world. SUKI GIRLZ dispensed of James Ferraro’s questions of his own identity and simply erased himself from the picture altogether: glossy, plastic images of his “Suki Girlz” took his place on a spam-bot Instagram, and all personality disappeared on an equally fake SoundCloud account under the name user703918785. Low-bit and lethargically slow-paced trapcore, SUKI GIRLZ offered a glimpse into the broken, inflated male gaze Ferraro had stewed in for years — albeit in a more confidently realized and consistent manner that befitted his experience in dealing with a skewed “R&B concrete.” But for all this shrouding of anything “real,” Ferraro inconspicuously delivered a gesture of fascinating emptiness. Minimal to the point of near-obsolescence and irritating to the uninitiated by taking his now-characteristic devices to their breaking points, Ferraro overcame any kind of inflated post-Far Side Virtual cheesiness to craft something so painstakingly deflated and bleak that I was no longer left wondering if he’d pulled my leg. I was just content to fade away into the nothingness he left behind.

36
Fear of Men
Loom

[Kanine]

Loom was sharp, pretty, blunt, and bright. We needed all of that this year. Particularly this violent, lost year. The album stood there in its seriousness. It sang us to sleep and kept us awake. Its size was indeterminate. It gave pop music the hermetic breath of death magick, of sex magick, of life music. We have memories to Loom, like we have memories to Early Fragments. Between “Alta” and “Atla,” there were rituals, prayers, and revenges. We smoked familiar sticks of herbs from far away, remembered, half-lying to ourselves. The Fear of Men was the love of life.

35
Dean Blunt
Skin Fade

[Self-Released]

Skin Fade opened with a line from a black activist addressing “the white man,” slyly truncated and repeated to sound both scolding and self-mocking. It was Blunt’s post-post-breakup album, and his gift for inventing new forms was nicely caramelized: “Whip” and “Lush” pulled James Ferraro sass down into a minor key; on “Skin Fade” and “Roll These Trees for the G’s at the Back,” crisp-as-apples beats suddenly gave way, respectively, to a bruised horn sequence and rainy-day Satie piano — like a mood suddenly going dark. Joanne Robertson gave expression to Blunt’s soft id with her chain-smoking-little-girl timbre; she was his Martina Topley-Bird. “Def” closed out the original release with Blunt’s only vocal — clipped lines of bitter pimp poetry delivered with a military bark: “Who’s hot tonight / Whose girl gonna get picked up tonight / It’s just another one / Pull it back for another one / Then I’m gone, gone, gone, gone.” The original mixtape dropped in January and abruptly disappeared. A “Deluxe Edition” came in August, but it had been stepped on with fillers and oddities, and it omitted “Viper,” possibly the most gorgeous four minutes of 2014 — Robertson as Liz Fraser as Deborah Kerr, wailing over church bells and trailing off into a lavender-smoke a cappella ending.

34
White Suns
Totem

[The Flenser]

Having ravaged their way through the noise-rock divide back in 2012, White Suns immolated Sinews’s deft amalgam of electronic noise and guitar-driven dread and emerged sounding mightier and more terrifying on Totem. Gone were the textural explorations (“Fire Sermon,” “Flesh Vault”) and post-hardcore architectures (“Cenote,” “Oath”) of their previous album, superseded by a primal fury that condensed both facets of their sound — electronic noise ruthlessness and punk vehemence — into a seamless juggernaut. From the cataclysmic opener “Priest in the Laboratory,” to the entropic vortex of “Cathexis,” to the abasing trance of “Clairvoyant,” the trio hurled itself headfirst into the abyss. Forget about “the purifying fire of noise” or the abject imagery to which the genre often gravitates. While Sinew inquired on the constraints of the flesh, Totem was the invective of a high priest driven to madness by the desolation of the sancta sanctorum, now razing his way out through the murk, certain that there was a clarity to his frenzy: oblivion liberates. Or, in a more context-appropriate analogy, Totem was our best chance of reaching metanoia in a world where the closest thing to a mystical experience was a wi-fi connection.

33
FKA twigs
LP1

[Young Turks]

º Consider the distance between listener and LP1 is Internet.
º …including, but not exclusive to:
    × Allowing the negative space to clear itself.
    × Importance of self-voice/-comm., as opposed to another’s consciousness.
    × Translator’s interpretation outweighing the originator. #throughglass
º FKA twigs, Haynie, Arca, Volpe, Epworth, Hynes, Compass, and [personnel]: ¬ ¬ Young Turks?
º Embezzlement of creative thought reappropriated by Jesse Kanda.
º Forever, resisting the urge. No. Matter. What.
º …rly, th’oh, Tahliah Barnett.
º Retroactive romance — nearly 30 — fantastic whimsy.
º Can’t a gal shine-block “#Beautiful?”
º “[The exact opposite of what Dean Blunt said].
º EP2 < LP1 < PR < nomination < Robert Pattinson < r€$a£€ va£u€ < IMO
º OBVI SPOILER ALERT: none of LP1 is about love.
    × Connection is clever when I felt it vocally.
    × Notes passed during seventh-grade partner-projects.
º Cover story LULZ, so (Power Play) mention it, professionally.
º Accepting the blend of being and vapidity.

32
Fennesz
Bécs

[Editions Mego]

From composer to listener, music becomes bloated with personalized meanings that interact in space and time. That’s, of course, the personal nature of music: we find ways to make these experiences our own and then find ways to pass them on to future generations — and hopefully the memories therein too. It’s a strange bit of nostalgic projection, but one that’s not concretely tethered. So it was through Bécs that I passed the ghost of the past to the present. The experience I had five years ago watching Christian Fennesz unfurl what is now known as Bécs was given new life this year. Not only was it a story I could tell with a reference point, but it was also an experience I could share with anyone lucky enough to hear its soaring beauty, lost in time. I could provide an exact data point that may or may not be meaningful to others, but the truth is that we shared Bécs through a series of nostalgic projections from all eras. It’s a testament to the skill of Fennesz, who somehow tied up our emotion into his work without us realizing it. How he intercepts our specters, I dare not inquire. I’ll just go back to that moment while still living in these.

31
Kane West
Western Beats

[PC Music]

It’s weird how Western Beats transported me to 7th grade gym class, where I tried not to get a boner as Jock Jams, Volume 2 played over the loudspeaker. After the first thousand listens, impatient ear candy slathered over sexual innocence, inoculating something more epidemic than Ebola. PC Music artists like Kane West achieved the impossible this year, transforming the tropes of dance and pop into the most interesting music of the year. Even if the ideas weren’t as pessimistic as “everything is horrible” and “it’s all been done before,” Kane West somehow crammed every “horrible” (awesome) thing that’s been done before — horns, buzzers, whistles, video game samples, warped vocals, etc. — into one funny, entertaining exhibition of demented house music. Anywhere else, it would’ve made one cringe, but here, songs like “Good Price” reiterated dumb fun in a way no other artist would dare attempt. But don’t worry about “getting it.” Western Beats was playing at some high school kid’s party this year; sex and drugs weren’t allowed, but everyone still got fucked up. Kane West is in our bones now. We should probably go get that checked out.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series


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