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


20
Arca
Xen

[Mute]

After releasing several EPs and a mixtape over the past couple of years, Arca (a.k.a. Alejandro Ghersi) finally released his debut full-length in 2014. Idiosyncratic, adrift, anarchic, and even delightfully inconsistent, Xen still somehow proved to be Arca’s most accessible work thus far. The dark tonality present throughout wasn’t abstruse or cryptic: “Failed” played like an alternative soundtrack for the final credits in Blade Runner; the arpeggios midway through “Bullet Chained” sounded like a postmodern Phantom of the Opera production remixed by a keygen generator; and “Sisters” was reminiscent of dystopian new-age mysticism. The sounds were further grounded by the narrative backdrop implied in Jesse Kanda’s stunning imagery, ranging from the semi-nude, distorted “meta-modern self-projections” to the dark, twisted sexual allure of the videos. And in spite of the album’s loud chimes, glitches, metallic screeches, and exhaling bass pumps, Xen actually seduced the listener through its introverted nature. As if wandering through an alien BDSM club, the immediately disconcerting, outlandish intensity of what we heard was counterbalanced with the introspective yet inaccessible subjectivity of its participants: Shape-shifting bodies that changed position and even gender at every strobe flicker. Muffled and distorted pumping bass sound leaking through the walls. Flashing lights, flashing lights.

19
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Piñata

[Madlib Invazion]

In abstract, Piñata’s promise was twofold: Freddie Gibbs, whose mixtapes always united his warp-speed street life evocations with a batch of half-forgettable beats, could settle in with a pro known above all for his high-quality prolificacy; Madlib, meanwhile, might focus his varied tastes and infinitely branching energies into another coherent full-length statement (cue wistful Madvillainy reverie). And then, there it was. Ah. Piñata surpassed years of hype, and even Gibbs’s own assessment, by backing up its loose blaxsploitative narrative with bar-to-bar mastery from both of its major players. But then again, if we expected “mastery,” how do Madlib’s lush chopped-and-looped R&B edits defy those expectations? If we know Gibbs will never stop going in, how should we react when he goes in once again, rattling off the icy provocations of “Shitsville” or the champion double-time flows of “High” without ever seeming to breathe? The pair itself, with eyes red and hands tucked in pockets, suggested one way to handle the situation: chill out. It was already done. Sink into it for a while. If you peel the sticker off of your physical copy, you’ve already witnessed the maximum extent of the album’s posturing — a boast that, given standout guest features from the likes of Danny Brown, Raekwon, and Earl Sweatshirt, still comes off modest. We ran in circles around the tree. Gibbs and Madlib hung the Piñata, never mentioning what might be inside, and handed us the bat. We should celebrate.

18
Valerio Tricoli
Miseri Lares

[PAN]

I consider it a personal failing that I still haven’t arrived at the combination of words needed to describe what’s so arresting about Valerio Tricoli’s compositional sense. There was something very specific about the way drones, scratches, rips, tears, and thunks all recombined throughout the stereo spectrum on Miseri Lares that made it such a mystifyingly renewable listen, but I haven’t figured out how to convey it. Birkut called Tricoli a “sculptor of sound,” one with an “ear for creating surprise and anxiety,” and, yes, Miseri Lares was a deeply unsettling and occasionally terrifying listen. But it was not made from the sort of darkness or tension one could easily gesture toward with a little bit of shadow, spring reverb, and ghoulish posturing. It sprang — or seemed to spring — from a detailed architectural sense, maybe a blueprint (Miseri Lares means “Wretched House” in Portuguese), one that had been plotted down to the finest levels by a master craftsman. Anyway, for maximum results, try walking in a dark parking garage late at night with this record playing loudly in your headphones. On second thought, maybe don’t do that.

17
Lil B
05 Fuck Em

[Self-Released]

05 Fuck Em might not’ve been Lil B’s most listenable mixtape of the year (that goes to Basedworld Paradise) or his most refined (that goes to Ultimate Bitch). And at 101 songs, it certainly wasn’t his most thematically cohesive (that goes to Hoop World). But when did Lil B ever stake his career on accessibility, refinement, and cohesion? Or better yet: when did we ever stake his career on accessibility, refinement, and cohesion? Being a long-term BasedGod fan necessitates a different value system, where we’re all really just amateurs and finding a “classic” album is besides the point. His significance can be found as much in his music as in his distribution methodologies, where the breakneck delivery pace privileges excess and sensory overload, where failing to process — or to even hear — every song is the name of the game, where the very mundane act of uploading and promoting his mixtapes becomes its own weird, beautiful aesthetic. No release embodied this approach more lovingly, batshit-crazily, and humorously as this surreal behemoth of a mixtape. Jarring in its reach and scattershot in its approach, 05 Fuck Em was delightfully all over the place, and we loved having to schedule it in just to hear it all.

16
Lotic
DAMSEL in DISTRESS

[Janus]

With DAMSEL in DISTRESS, Lotic distilled the shattered fragments of his Berlin club night in a way that was both virtuous and futile. The mix made every attempt to piece a splintered physical experience together through versions of replicated instrumentation: repeated bass-sequencing, contorted grooves, and rubbery percussion. And yet, the response it conjured was as difficult to encapsulate as the broken glass that came crashing down in the opening chapter. The thickest shards were those that remained entrenched, the radio jams that were transformed through their presentation. Under any other circumstance, we would respond to them differently, by virtue of the fact that they were often heard in public spaces. But our emotions were conflicted when recalling a track such as Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” in the context of this mix. The incongruity gave Lotic his “puddle of tears in one corner and a puddle of cum in another,” but it left us in a daze, frightened yet wanting more. That DAMSEL in DISTRESS retained its twisted depiction while feeding a hunger for Lotic’s sensual, spasmodic, and often violent take on club music made it all the more appealing; a guilty pleasure in 2014 if there ever was one.

15
PC Music
PC Music x DISown Radio ft. A. G. Cook, GFOTY, Danny L Harle, Lil Data, Nu New Edition, and Kane West

[PC Music/DIS Magazine]

Desserts work best in small portions. A. G. Cook’s London crew PC Music understands this: their particular brand of sweetener is as much about the taste as the feeling of wanting more. Perhaps with the exception of their ringleader’s mixes and the apparently imminent Hannah Diamond full-length, their release strategy has thus far capitalized on short, intense bursts — sub-three-minute singles and short mixes were the norm. This naturally made the 60-minute DISown Radio mix a bit of an outlier, as Cook and his five wackiest comrades — GFOTY, Danny L Harle, Lil Data, Nu New Edition, and Kane West — wove together a series of blippy transmissions from their cartoony universe into a pink and blue smörgåsbord. From the chant-like “money” repetitions during A. G. Cook’s segment to Kane West’s interpolation of Burial’s “Archangel,” the mix was a glimpse into an entire alternate dimension populated by melting computer chips and uncanny valleys. Angry RA commenters need look no further than this mix for evidence that the PC Music sound had legs far beyond 90s Eurodance revival. Their shiny tendrils could latch on to anything and everything, but it was still undeniable, twisted pop all the way down.

14
Sun Kil Moon
Benji

[Caldo Verde]

At what point does an artist’s work simply become his daily life? Among many other questions, this was one of the major ones raised by the hyperconfessional songs on Benji. Personal details have long been a crucial element of Mark Kozelek’s music, but never have they so consumed the entirety of an album to the point of permeating every musical detail. Each sonic element on Benji served to further frame Kozelek’s uncomfortably detailed narratives, whether it was on the informal blues riffs of “I Love My Dad,” the disorienting overdubbed vocals of “Richard Ramirez Died of Natural Causes,” or the aggressive one-chord riffing on “Dogs.” Forms collapsed and melodies meandered under the weight of both Kozelek’s biography and the futility of trying to make it cohere into more conventional folk structures. This was a very different point at which sincerity became experimental: when it racked traditional song tropes and created a type of confessional where form must yield to memoir in order to work. In the process of the artist’s attempt to musically frame his life, Benji created the singer-songwriter equivalent of a field recording or a documentary. 2014 was the moment when Kozelek’s songwriting fully switched from narrative to moment-by-moment documentation, and it was clearly only the beginning of a new phase in this prolific artist’s career.

13
E+E
The Light That You Gave Me To See You

[Self-Released]

Some say illumination enters on kitten’s feet, quiet and unannounced, that wisdom arrives in the consciousness of the willing prophet reticently. While the illuminations on E+E’s The Light That You Gave Me To See You did flicker with a gentle grace that acknowledged struggle both anatomic and cosmic, the album’s primary narrative was that of epiphany. Elysia Crampton’s debut masterpiece exploded like blue fire emulsifying the bedrock of “Golgotha” — the alleged site of Christ’s crucifixion, the rock where celestial force caused the Temple veil to be torn in two. The conceptual location ominously echoed throughout her vagabondage. Our listening-in had given us the light to see a translucence of identity, a piece of historical rapture, a vision expressing the unknowable sacrament of becoming. Like some of history’s greatest artists, Crampton was a world-builder. Her world shined out of the mud of the past; her world was a flushing toilet signifying resignation, or, the sound of screeching motorcycles expressing our contemporary bedlam.

12
copeland
Because I’m Worth It

[Self-Released]

Because I’m Worth It was an undeniable statement from Inga Copeland, an album of its historical moment: the mugshot cover art, the samples that alternately sounded like the electronic equivalents of a shiny iPhone 6 or a tear gas canister. Three of the opening track’s five minutes featured shrill notes blaring like a riot cop’s LRAD siren. It was dissonant, contradictory, insulting, tearjerking, breathtaking, aggressive, gendered, global. The moments that made up the album streamed like data from a feed, and for every one that we invited, there was another that simply forced its way into our consciousness, trespassing, occupying, refusing to be ignored. Inga’s “Advice to Young Girls,” second track: “Meet your friends on the corner/ Together you’re strong/ Walk the streets/ Face the city/ Face the night/ The city is yours.” Because I’m Worth It didn’t offer any easy answers while refusing to ignore what was going on. It belonged to 2014, the year the fires stopped going out.

11
C L E A N E R S
Real Raga Shit Vol. 1

[Bootleg Tapes]

Here’s a dirty little vacuous truth: a lot of music got made in 2014! By which I mean keyboards got banged, guitars got twanged, producers got laid, and drummers got made fun of, eventually resulting in albums getting “finished” and “released” and “considered critically.” Duh, right? I mean, that’s kinda… how this works? Well, usually. Then there’s stuff like Real Raga Shit Vol. 1. Twin piss-warm streams of warbling tunes, meandering beats, and undigested vocal fragments whose gurgling rhythms and disjunct melodies hiccuped and overlapped like murky, spontaneous rivers of pale pretty sewage through the alleyways of an indifferent city. While the unassuming stream of backwater pop culture, loosely constrained by its mucky banks, swished past our consciousness and out of earshot, it was hard to imagine it as a “thing” that ever got intentionally “made.” It just kinda existed; and therein lay its tremendous power and sense of gravitas. This was sound that couldn’t be figured out but nonetheless needed to be reckoned with. After all, nobody ever looks at a surplus of backwater trickling past them on the asphalt and thinks: “I wonder who’s responsible for this?” All we really think is “Whoa. Shit.”

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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