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


For our year-end features, we often position our pleasure on grander scales: trends reflecting wider social movement, tastes expanding rather than fragmenting, songs thrusting us into the infinite as we tell clumsy stories about affect and movement. But this year, deep within our echo chambers and technological wombs, nestled within the safe confines of our chat windows and soft-focus browsing, we found it worthwhile to look closer at the nuanced gestures that happened in the music world. For example: How did Dean Blunt’s apparent sleight of hand complicate race, genre, and taste? What did 18+’s quiet step out of anonymity say about the avatar/user continuum? What did it mean when even the most “inauthentic,” hyper-commodified music stars felt like next-door neighbors compared to PC Music’s subtly constructed, impossibly pristine avastars?

While the nuances of our favorites this year exploded with meaning, “figuring it all out” wasn’t the only “point.” Not knowing what to do with our bodies didn’t mean we were being cerebral (White Suns, Scott O))), Sun Araw), and not knowing what to think didn’t mean we couldn’t feel our way through it (Actress, Arca, Beyoncé). Or laugh with it (Kane West), or cry about it (Grouper), or get all horny and pounce somebody because of it (Lotic). Because on this level, the macro is inferred in the micro. I mean, isn’t music just sublimations of violence and cultural recombinations, the playing out of sonic molecules? Isn’t it all technologically, even cosmologically determined? Shit, some of it actually sounded like that (T C F, Objekt, D/P/I). Because zoom far enough in or out, and we start to see how only nuance really discerned the gaze from the glance, the dark web from the abyss, the meshes of voice from the DJ drops, even Flatland from Fazoland and Ghettoville from Babylon, black metal from black metal from black metal. But it was in fact our inability to casually look past nuance and our desire to fetishize difference that seduced us into hearing these stories over and over again, a repetition of ecstasy and movement and rapture that told us everything we already knew but with different frequencies and vibrations.

Besides, the medium has always been the massage, right? And this year, in addition to some Awesome Tapes from America (C L E A N E R S, Magic Eye, Gem Jones), we were particularly “massaged” by the mix format, with artists (E+E, Total Freedom, T C F, Pinch/Mumdance, Jónó Mí Ló, Rabit, Palmistry, etc.) and collectives (Janus, PC Music, DAZED, Bootleg Tapes, DIS Magazine, Manicure) uploading some of this year’s strongest, most memorable music as continuous one-track streams, several of which made this list. Much like the mixtape world (props here to iLoveMakonnen, Lil Herb, Lil B, James Ferraro), the mix format simultaneously laid waste to tired constructions of “new,” “old,” and “original” — some featured only originals, others combined, and still others we couldn’t even tell — while forcing us to (re)listen in more temporally and spatially contingent ways, even prompting us to change the list title this year (OMG!). It was, again, a subtle distinction, but the implications were there nonetheless.

Of course, by reading into nuance, the worry is that we start seeing Jesus in our waffles — pareidolia, or whatever. But our focus on music has always really been a focus on ourselves anyway, which is of course just as nuanced. Sure, our screen obsession is theoretically in part to shake off the baggage imposed on our bodies and to extend our nervous systems into virtual rabbit holes, but we instead often find ourselves immersed in an incomprehensible, hypertextual sea of signs and references, all unstable, ever-changing, and ripe for contextual reassigning. Maybe this is why we tend to isolate ourselves within enclosed systems and feedback loops: it’s just too comforting. But it’s also kinda suffocating, isn’t it? In fact, a metaphorical lack of oxygen is key, because here — where intimacy has become ambient, where we don’t tell time as much as time tells us, where we fondle our smartphones as much as we fondle each other — listening to the nuances in music leads to a different strain of transcendence, not into infinity or even necessarily into music’s materiality, but into our own materiality. And this year, our shared, molecular composition took on increased weight, when one person’s turn of breath was also sadly another person’s last — even for someone who plead for more.

History has generally favored activities that turn uncertainty into knowledge, so what happens when we become uncertain of knowledge itself? This has been our sensorial dance for decades. And as we head further into an era where everything we’ve electrified is now in the process of becoming cognitized, an era that values not our “actual” opinions, but the fact that we desire mediums through which to express them, we still somehow keep going, whether or not we realize that a competition for our senses is already underway.


50
Lil Herb
Welcome to Fazoland

[NLMB]

Is drill dead? The genre often associated with the violent sides of Chicago was a praised movement a year ago. Before January 2014 was over, WorldStarHipHop made The Field and Vice began its eight-part series on what made Chiraq Chiraq. But the kitschy execution of either is sorta besides the point, because it’s difficult, maybe artificial, to tell a story of a place without being sewn in. But it was a stitch that Lil Herb held, and Welcome to Fazoland, as Nick Henderson alluded to in his review, was a hyper-localized walkthrough of a young emcee’s neighborhood, Fazoland. With stories and boasts of trauma and success, Lil Herb showed us the bent monster that crawled around every corner, and we were unsure if we’d have it any other way. Is drill dead? Did crunk ever die? Genres become self-aware and evolve. The question is whether or not the rest keep up with Herb.

49
The Body
I Shall Die Here

[RVNG Intl.]

“Alone All the Way,” the second track off The Body’s monstrous collaboration with Bobby Krlic (a.k.a. The Haxan Cloak), opened with a pitch-shifted sample of a man reasoning out his suicide. He weighed his options: end his suffering by hastening to his inevitable death or go on suffering, in turn inflicting that suffering on those around him. As Lee Buford’s punishing drums shattered the quiet unease set by Krlic’s ominous atmospherics, it became clear which option The Body had chosen. On I Shall Die Here, the artists channeled all their pain and disgust with this world into what may be their most brutal statement yet. It was an incredibly imposing listen — from the grim track titles to the chopped-up samples of YouTube torture videos — but there was something undeniably enthralling about it all, with the artists keeping things thoroughly compelling by refusing to relent under their own heavy-handedness. But while the sheer power contained within these songs mostly overwhelmed the listener with dread, it also occasionally gleaned something life-affirming. Because The Body chose not to die by their own hand, the album played more like a brief reprieve from life rather than a complete rejection of it. Sometimes it’s riveting to stare death in the face, if only for a moment.

48
T C F
486669f0e9b8990384108f3d54c6a8f036adeb8bc7108f3d54c6a8f036adeb

[Self-Released]

T C F’s mix might be an example of what will become our generation’s folk music. Then again, maybe not. Maybe it was a Christmas tree on its last gulp of donated water, with its lights glowing helplessly, guided by a human hand in an unwatched room. Maybe it was a long helping of connected solitude, with the old and new of WHATEVER mixed together. Maybe it was the solidarity of solemn estrangement between sent signals, created by a brazen and alone individual, meant for others to be heard and felt. Maybe it was programmed patience, in all of its inhumane humanity. Maybe it was having a conversation with a keypad while another person on the other end was having the conversation with a keypad, and while the two of them both felt something, the distance was too great to allow the experience, let alone any experience, to be completely shared. Maybe it was all of these, and maybe it was none of these. To be sure, though, 486669f0e9b8990384108f3d54c6a8f036adeb8bc7108f3d54c6a8f036adeb is T C F’s. And it is ours, for now. For as long as it lasts. But answers are for tests, and this mix was not a test. It was a broadcast. And it was one of 2014’s finest.

47
Ai Aso
Lone

[Ideologic Organ]

Perhaps a defining characteristic of any given genre is the particular way in which a group of works go about articulating silence, refining its edges; refusing and negotiating silence, a territory one must weave while crossing; a spider’s web. In this regard, folk songs have always sought the quality of being able to transpose space into texture, to fold within a clasp of sound the emptiness of that sky, the distance between these walls. Our case in point is Lone, that gorgeous-sounding live set recorded at the UNIT club in Tokyo. The show was Ai Aso, alone on stage with a microphone, a guitar, and a keyboard. The sound was spectral, hypnotic, minimalist. Subdued chords rippled quietly through silence. Songs whispered, then stuttered, then stopped, losing themselves in the labyrinth of silence, threading new zones of solitude to colonize in the name of tenderness.

46
Ninos Du Brasil
Novos Mistérios

[Hospital]

Rhythm reminds us that there’s no time to waste. The clock is running out, and movement is the only sensible thing. As such, blurbing about Novos Mistérios feels like trying to staple a typhoon to a tree trunk. Its insistent, bombastic percussive roil makes the calendar year in which it was released seem like a dusty discarded cocoon rather than anything to help contextually galvanize it. It’s a record brimming over with beats that seem to tear through crowds, swamplands, brush, tree branches, and tall grass while beckoning for all in earshot to follow. It’s pure rushing forward, stripped of signifiers beyond the traditional carnival instrumentation/arrangement. Sans melody, these tracks relentlessly engage the human body, rendering the listener into one of those automaton flowers from the 80s. As with swimming in the ocean on a choppy day, you can move with the churning waves or allow them to annihilate you. The innate, undeniable thrust of this 35-­minute sprawl is brimming ­over with goosebump-­raising death & life, making Ninos Du Brasil an act well worth keeping an ear out for in our dwindling days to come.

45
Lee Gamble
KOCH

[PAN]

What is the meaning of life? Where did we come from? How did the countless number of galaxies and planets within come to exist? All of these questions and more were deliberately ignored by Lee Gamble, whose 2014 album KOCH maintained a perspective of awesome ignorance, as though enlightenment was just an overrated concept reserved for the mindlessly intellectual. Theories prevailed as to whether the title was a homophonic reference to the word in English slang or just a coincidental inclusion in the unnamed “text that [he’s] writing,” but if you were looking for real mystery, you only had to open your ears to the enclosed, sprawling sonic enigma. The vaguely danceable but admittedly “fucked” rhythms, for instance, were equaled by tracks like “You Concrete,” where deepening synths and deathly sub-bass gave way to a rare vocal sample, which stated in twisted form: “What you’ve got is a whole, miserable… subculture.” It’s possible Gamble meant this sincerely, given the barriers to which his music seems totally oblivious, but the sample otherwise worked as a factor in the album’s astounding heterogeneity. We tried, but such puzzles really do avoid explanation.

44
Death Grips
niggas on the moon

[Third Worlds]

niggas on the moon, eight shades of stunning camo-print brutalism, fed any doubts we might’ve had about Death Grips’ four-year-old project right back into the wind tunnel. As before, this was not a mercenary sketch of “‘newness,” but a reflection upon its very substance, assembled through sheer velocity from the most unlikely of sources. Yes, Björk, that true great blimp of popular modernism, of “the future” floating high but tethered hard to “Q Magazine’s best albums of the 1990s,” was here less a “found object” than an infinitely flingable thing for the poltergeists known as Death Grips. Uncannily, they seized the stuff around them in a whirling exhibition of repressed chaos; car-jacked grime, warp-drive footwork, voices melting and alloyed, restless glitches from a breathless world. Like any good horror, this came with humor. With Sad Cums and Fed-Ex’d fetishes, Ride rapping and Zach singing, we saw the Death Grips screw-face right on the cusp of pain and laughter. It drew us, in its disembodied glory, to the machines — compressed, stretched, whirring and grinding — in the ghost. And after all that noise, Death Grips sneered at Cage’s 4′33” and gave us 85,248 minutes and 8 seconds of silence, at last count. For a band (conceptual art exhibition?) so endlessly caught in the spiralling demise alluded to by their name, Death Grips reminded us with niggas on the moon — disc one of the powers that b — that the question has always been “What next?” Or precisely, JENNY DEATH WHEN?

43
The Soft Pink Truth
Why Do The Heathen Rage?

[Thrill Jockey]

One of the biggest challenges we have in life is embodying the things that would work against each other. Our inherent juxtapositions cause personal and outer chaos, small facets of the signs and signifiers that make up our person are in constant disagreement. Besides resorting to a method of total abandon, choosing to work these pieces out through artistic appropriation, hyperbole, and whatever methods we’ve learned and hold dear become our best process of sorting out these conflicts. Why Do The Heathen Rage? became greater than its parts by drawing out black metal’s tropes through spaces it never wanted to be dragged through. By taking parts of black metal’s confrontational nature, queer club music, and even humor (the pitch-shifting sad trombones on “Beholding the Throne of Might,” for example), Drew Daniel (Matmos) managed to force together these seemingly disparate elements into a unified statement on the sides both admirable and detestable about black metal. Greater than just trolling the black metal community (which, let’s be honest, isn’t that hard to do), Why Do The Heathen Rage? became a better synthesis of Daniel’s conflicting tastes by way of its frankness and fearlessness.

42
Gem Jones
Admiral Frenchkiss

[Goaty Tapes]

Behold this rare and beautiful bird: a goofball pop-rock cassette of subtle emotional depth and endless replay value. Countless jokey bands spend easy-to-count hours patching together potential earworms, so you would think making a few good songs was as simple as telling a joke. But song and jest, these ancient forms (dating back, according to American historians, to the early 20th century), are still weighed on sacred scales: expectation versus delivered goods. In the best-case scenario, the crafter presses down the “old” and “new” buttons at the same time. It’s a mysterious yet formulaic task, and Gem Jones’s breakout tape Admiral Frenchkiss was summit-level “surprise delivered goods.” Like God Ween Satan: The Oneness or Derry Legend, you can draw the line straight back to The Beatles, meaning bouncy mid-tempos, quavering harmonies, and big choruses. The flourishes and left-turns actually built melodic momentum; the vocals had a remarkable amount of pathos; and the keyboard player knew when to play the tune and when to make the cartoon sound effects. That last part was crucial. A wacky, well-composed, out-of-nowhere tape like this is my poptimism, and when confronted with songs like “Black Lanterns” or “God in U,” I’m reminded just how hard that is to find.

41
Burial Hex
The Hierophant

[Handmade Birds]

The Hierophant was inexplicable, paradoxical, and unreal. It was nothing less than an act of transubstantiation; in fact, it may very well have been several acts. The Hierophant existed beyond the limits of my comprehension and yet pierced through that veil, a lone wanderer gazing down upon a sea of fog. The Hierophant was a treeless forest, a human-shaped pillar of salt, ancient history told in present tense, a potent brew of metaphors expertly mixed. The borders of this record were fearlessly and deliciously undefined, extending far beyond collage or pastiche, to a country I cannot hope to adequately describe. After all, what is sensation, other than a series of imperfect translations? The Hierophant brooked no limpid categorization, and therefore neither will I. It held several meanings, all of them contradictory, all of them correct. It didn’t need to make sense. It didn’t need to mean anything. More than a record, The Hierophant was Major Arcana, so heed its warning or else.

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.

30
Swans
To Be Kind

[Young God/Mute]

The opening track of To Be Kind, Swans’ third effort since their reconstitution, climaxed with frontman Michael Gira barking “Here, now!” over and over against his bandmates’ cataclysmic din — two words that summed up one of 2014’s grandest listening experiences. The album’s offerings — the haunted blues of “Just a Little Boy;” the constricted funk of “Oxygen;” the tortuous, sensuous crawl toward release that was “She Loves Us” — stifled memory and swept away vain musings on things to come. They left the listener trapped in the here-and-now, distorting that malleable space the way that a vast, empty desert warps the eye’s capacity to judge distance or scale (Did 34 minutes really just go by while we were listening to “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture?”). We who gave ourselves over to Swans found our position in the universe immediately clarified. In the face of their crushing, cyclical grooves, we lost our fear, our anxiety, our aspirations, our ideals. We became, for a glorious two hours, a body, an object to be acted upon. Within To Be Kind’s blessed cacophony, there was no past, no future, nowhere else we had to be. Only here. Only now.

29
Call Super
Suzi Ecto

[Houndstooth]

Originally conceived as a duo, Call Super soon became JR Seaton’s primary moniker for his bizarre techno singles. On Suzi Ecto, however, Seaton allowed himself more room to get lost in shifting weather patterns, harnessing hardware to unhurried effect. His debut album didn’t build as much as it wandered, with burbling synths, skewed analog rhythms, and his father’s clarinet and oboe all crossing paths but never fully congealing. Inspired by late-night conversations with a close friend (who subsequently passed away in January) about the negative effects technology has on humanity, Seaton tried to elucidate those paranoid theories in his music while still seeking connection. He did this by keeping things deliberately ambiguous and crafting music in the liminal zone between dance and ambience, yet he still came out managing to avoid a tag like “ambient techno.” If anything, Suzi Ecto felt like the most adaptable dance record of 2014; slippery enough to dodge shallow genre descriptors and heady backstories, but human enough to allow listeners an emotional response. Whether you heard paranoia or euphoria ultimately depended on your mood that day, which might be why we couldn’t help but keep coming back to its reflecting pool.

28
Aphex Twin
Syro

[Warp]

For the first time, every detail is accounted for: every cent spent or tuned, every mailer sent, each tempo set and shirt printed, each sine and saw and sampler fastidiously charted, a ledger of seemingly personal but largely useless data exposed ungracefully to the world for everyone to finally see. And in turn, the data betrayed us. No configuration of Korg models, compression racks, or promo funds could explain the deeply personal thing that unfolds on Syro, an inscrutable mass of melodies and beats that swing hard from the hips across every wayward melody that someone else reached for but never quite grabbed, gems of electro-funk and jittery jazz and neo-disco and classic drum & bass forged by a passionate perfectionist, grasping their essential nature and how they connect (and dissolve) intuitively and building a network of beautiful, perplexing interpretations on top. Syro was an experiment and an edit, sonic poetry from a long-missed polyglot, a bout of pure inspiration captured carefully over time, a master class in making joy out of machines. Aphex Twin has never had a definitive sound, but if he’s ever had an ethos, it has to be “don’t be boring.” Glad he’s back.

27
Ariel Pink
pom pom

[4AD]

What are you supposed to do when you’ve become someone or something completely different in just a few short years? That’s a hard thing to consider. It doesn’t help that the world has somehow become darker and more fucked up. You had to change: You can’t just fuck around anymore. Someone who you swear is your mirror image is trying to claim supremacy in your little niche, while everyone who once cared for you is turning to frauds who half-ass it. What the fuck are you supposed to do then? Well, going all out helps. But even then, it’s hard to get the words down right. Going all out with your fury and just hoping something sticks might be best. The point is to swing as hard as you can. That’s what music can be, really, especially when you’re trying to reach someone. Yeah, you’re committing acts of violence, for that’s what any song can be. But everyone is violent these days, especially in the form of gossip, shaming, threats, and other verbal assaults. You’re just willing to admit your complicity.

26
Magic Eye
Babylon

[Not Not Fun]

It’s imperfection that makes the most unlikely diamonds the most highly valued treasures of all. At least that’s what I’ve been told. With Babylon, Magic Eye smeared, blurred, and erased any preconceived notion of what pop music might constitute this year and wrapped it in a blistering glow. And yet, with its dazzling melodies, muffled sparkles, and sweeping charm, the Edinburgh trio’s latest release made for a truly intoxicating listen. There were worlds to admire through the imperfect design that each song assumed, a shimmering clutch of diamonds nestled deep within the proverbial rough.

25
Perfume Genius
Too Bright

[Matador]

Indie rock has become passé. It’s long been baptized as a tool of the establishment and has since abandoned any characteristics of independence — economic and aesthetic alike — to which it could once lay claim. In a nutshell, indie rock is pop culture, and pop culture is a dead end. All that’s left of “indie” are clichés from which to draw and a hungry market waiting to dupe the consumer, once again, into believing they’re counter-cultural. So it raises serious questions as to why we, at the end of 2014, should be celebrating an artist on such a roster, who has been appropriated as such and deemed fit for Late Night. Because music is, in the end, never as simple as that; music drives critique, not the other way around. Beyond the logic of the market, there is the illogic of the music; if the former is driven by closure, the latter is living and wild in its openness. I didn’t love Too Bright because of its cultural and market value, but because of the grace that it offered to me as a listener. Here, Mike Hadreas created a space in which rage and healing spilled out in dialectical tandem. He worked in gestures so gentle and fierce that the listener couldn’t help but participate with him, therapeutically. Above all, his queerness seeped through in both its particularity and its universality, toward the hope not just of true identity, but of reconciliation. Too Bright was, as they say, a safe space to be truly human, interdependent — not indie. And our humanity is one thing, fortunately, that even the forces of Late Night can never quite dull.

24
Jenny Hval & Susanna
Meshes of Voice

[SusannaSonata]

Like a dream, Jenny Hval and Susanna Wallumrød’s Meshes of Voice doused us in wonder. The celestial rivers of its goddess-brimming world rained milk into our soul-overwhelming thirst, and as we slept in our bone-built bodies, they glazed our eyes with honey like manna glazed the grass. And all the while, an abyssal lake waited to swallow us, a gnashing of teeth threatened to devour us, a darkness hid us from the sun: Athena, Medusa, Aurora, our savior/destroyers. Death-wisdom seemed around every turn. Would the sun rise, if we begged it? Could we cross over to the body’s end? Cataracts of sound poured through us. The seaweed skin we wore slipped off our glacial, skeletal forms. The very walls melted. But it wasn’t until the end when the surreal nightmare yielded its golden clarity. Surrendering to the undulating, caustic, creative waters of the black lake became the only option if dawn were to break. As in all initiations, Meshes of Voice only yielded its mysteries in the plunge to its depths. Your sacrifice was worth its glittering prize: the liberated, egoless, pristine voice.

23
Actress
Ghettoville

[Werkdiscs/Ninja Tune]

Around the time Ghettoville came out, I saw Actress in a gaudy neon-lit club. The sound was oddly low, the set muffled and murky, all of it wholly inexplicable to an audience that didn’t seem to know what it was there to see; long before the end, the floor had cleared, polo-shirted tourists scuttling off to the next room, and with it any remaining possibility of ecstatic release. Critics were only marginally less baffled by Ghettoville itself — but they were wrong. True, Ghettoville was oppressive and weirdly static, tracks more like vignettes than fully formed compositions, developments minimal and subtle. And if you were looking for standardized genre events like “the drop” or a chorus, then Ghettoville was uneventful, maybe even “boring.” But it was in precisely these elements where its contrarian perfection shined through. Ghettoville lived in the detritus of recently deceased civilizations, cheap keyboards, and cathode-ray televisions, humanity a trace left only in gnomic utterances on distant radio waves. It presented a hollowed-out husk of dance music, and among its raw materials of rubble, static, and emptiness, every accumulated piece of junk had value. Every now and then, something gleamed. To have confounded (disappointed?) so many expectations was itself an achievement; to have done so with such evident artfulness even more so.

22
Pharmakon
Bestial Burden

[Sacred Bones]

Bestial Burden willed itself into being. If Margaret Chardiet’s body hadn’t turned on her, we might not have received a successor to last year’s Abandon so soon. What little we knew concerning the writing process was that Chardiet underwent a sudden, necessary, and traumatic surgery and had to cancel a tour. The sound of her contending with this self-destruction was all over the album, from its opening panicked breaths on “Vacuum” to the hoarse, wet coughing fit in “Primitive Struggle.” Chardiet’s throat-shredding, lung-ripping vocals sounded like an involuntary response to the pain she was in, best exemplified at the end of “Intent or Instinct,” where we could make out the phrase “beyond language.” But we didn’t need to know all of its words: the way Chardiet pushed her voice to its limits let us know that the feeling was dire. The lyrics themselves were practically an auto-text-like response, surfacing unconsciously as a result of her situation and filled with dreadful scenarios and disgusting descriptions of feeling helpless against your somatic self. Bestial Burden was a reminder of how we’re all just walking piles of guts, and sometimes the bags holding them in spill onto the table.

21
18+
Trust

[Houndstooth]

We’ve spilled so much digital ink over the theoretical implications of cybermediated sexuality and identity enmeshed in 18+’s brilliant cobbled-from-mixtapes “debut” that there was little left to stress except for just how deep it went. A virtual pharmacological substance, Trust seeped into bodies and situations, altering them at a molecular level through ice-cold minimal R&B amygdal-level processes, flattening the digital/organic divide as it went. Turn it on and all that post-human sex was more throbbing sex and lust, another step toward an ever more fragile identity in a digital-chemical world, not as concept but as an enervating here and now.

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.”

10
iLoveMakonnen
iLoveMakonnen [EP]

[Self-Released]

On paper, iLoveMakonnen might not be the kind of guy Tiny Mix Tapes would typically champion. But a hyperspecific weirdo visionary who bent hip-hop to accommodate his off-kilter warble? That’s different. The iLoveMakonnen EP further congealed hip-hop and R&B into its own amorphous creature — that aforementioned warble frequently occupied both spaces of rapping and singing — but also suctioned even more into its orbit. At points, that narcotized universe felt like a Dean Blunt album for the club, one half-full and not-quite-going-up on a Tuesday. Elsewhere, Makonnen dropped proper names (Brianna, Sarah) like a rap-game Destroyer, chunks of past tumbling in and out with nary an explanation. Yet for all its Atlanta space-case trappings, the EP felt grounded and oddly universal, as if the suburban longing of Golden Age emo had been molded into the context and forms of hip-hop. In his low-key way, iLoveMakonnen pushed hip-hop into a new direction, simply by providing something we never knew we wanted.

09
Andy Stott
Faith in Strangers

[Modern Love]

What’s the difference between a stranger and a friend? Well, for Andy Stott, it’s faith, and in 2014, Faith in Strangers was that faith, painted in enlightened chillout, agoraphobic ambient, and seismic post-dub. Its sweeps of electronic ether were the moments of dim comprehension that were the closest we came to knowing another person, moments we had no choice but to trust. Its spiky beats were the acts of violence we rained upon that person when our pseudo-knowledge failed. And its pulsing undertow was the irrational hope that kept both of us coming back for seconds. Even worse, Alison Skidmore’s voice lingered over all this damage and time away as the barely-remembered dream of union, the siren that roused us after yet another failure and that riveted us as we coasted toward yet another wreckage.

08
D/P/I
MN.ROY

[Leaving Records]

Nothing in 2014 reflected the age of hyperacceleration more effectively than D/P/I’s MN.ROY, whose glitch patchwork also marked it as a candidate for the most boundary-pushing release in Leaving’s catalog. The hyperacceleration was so severe that the music was ripped apart by its sheer speed, becoming a deconstructed stream of bits and pieces, with rapid glitches and glimmering ambience swirling in the background. Sometimes the music slowed down enough to resemble some actual rhythm and melody, like on the ultra-claustrophobic cut-up techno of “012,” or when it attempted to simulate teenage neuroses with self-loathing statements thrown into the ether. But it was all subservient to MN.ROY’s primary modality, which somehow recreated the stimuli overload of the virtual world through dense distortions and breathtaking cascades of digital noise.

07
Giant Claw
DARK WEB

[Orange Milk/Noumenal Loom]

We could explore Giant Claw’s DARK WEB as the latest entry into the canon of classical compositions performed using modern instrumentation, beginning with Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach. Or we could investigate every sample used in DARK WEB’s eight tracks, waxing philosophical on how these plunderphonic symphonies eroded imposed distinctions between “high” and “low” art. But it’s worth eschewing any critical, musicological, or theoretical analyses of KeithGiant ClawRankin’s already exhaustively dissected sound collage and to instead take the artist’s moniker and album title at face value. Here, we can imagine Giant Claw as a big, sharp, bestial (and perhaps robotic) appendage built to capture and kill prey, while a DARK WEB could be its unlit, sticky net in which said prey was ultimately trapped and consumed. These processes, mercilessly mechanical and insanely ingenuitive by their very biology, were what we marveled at when we experienced Giant Claw’s DARK WEB… that and the decapitated heads of auto-tuned pop singers mummified and wired together forever.

06
Ian William Craig
A Turn of Breath

[Recital]

Before meaning comes, there’ll be A Turn of Breath. Or at least Ian William Craig made us forget the value of meaning till the last of his breath had been transmitted (faultily, heroically) for 44 minutes via outmoded reel-to-reel. That faltering call of an opera singer pulling against tape’s magnetic infidelity channeled Celan’s atemwende (“breathturn”): partially a lonely conversation about the movement of something strange from “already-no-more” to “still-here.” In the persistence of degradation meshed with the presentness of his operatic lungs, Craig’s tesseract of vocal noise pointed to a human creator even as its “pure sound” invited us to forget the origin and to forget the listening-I. Most relaxation scripts don’t call for distortion, but A Turn of Breath’s clicks, hisses, and tape-fucked singing quelled confusion like an analog inoculation. In the album’s most lucid transmission flushes (“Either Or,” “A Slight Grip, a Gentle Hold [Part II]”), Craig gave us paused passage through ourselves toward a forgetting place, where we remembered why we ever hold our breath and why every exhalation has to make a sound, when some of us are not allowed to breathe at all.

05
Kevin Drumm / Jason Lescalleet
The Abyss

[Erstwhile]

A few months back, when I told C Monster (TMT’s Chocolate Grinder editor) that The Abyss was my favorite album of 2014, he probed (justifiably, yet arrestingly): “Why???” Without mulling it over, I promptly responded that “it made me laugh.” Not because it was necessarily funny, but because that was my first response: a guttural, tooth-clipping, spit-on-computer-screen burst of hysteria. Since then, I have been reflecting on this strange and immediate response, meditating on how my insignificant chortle could possibly illuminate infinity. But what I recalled/discovered during this process was that, evolutionarily speaking, laughter isn’t just an expression of bafflement; it’s a survival mechanism. It helps us form deep connections with otherwise extrinsic forms (in this case, a void, an absence of form through which our arbitrary chatter drifts). Perhaps this is why, five months after its release, The Abyss — unfathomable and immeasurable as it is — hasn’t left my mind. It has become a lens through which I live in its towering reflection. I smile more now, knowing that this security I have been reaching out for through my cracks of nervous laughter isn’t an artifact of non-violence; it’s a state of being that comes from a hearty embrace of that which has always been bubbling away like an imminent guffaw, waiting patiently for a subject ripe for immolation.

04
Scott Walker + Sunn O)))
Soused

[4AD]

The land of the Missouri River basin stretches forever in that way that only nothing stretches; to sense the unsettling combination of perpetuity, loneliness, and deformed majesty that fills those Great Plains is to feel Soused. In just its first moments Soused chased our giddy anticipation with fleeting wonder that gave way to sustained and immersive dread, Scott Walker assuming the role of defrocked high priest, Sunn O))) his thick plumes of incense smoke. Walker’s initial lamentation/incantation “Never enough” may have been a suspenseful encapsulation of the excess and desolation to follow, a reference to the bottomless debts owed by those sorry souls in Walker’s world, a demand for a few more of his favorite things or just a pact with his collaborators (apparently Sunn O))) brought more amplifiers to the recording sessions than could fit in the studio). To be sure, Soused’s gluttonies for cruelty, pain, disgust, and fear (“acne on a leper”) could shock the faint of heart, but the assortment of evils on offer was just too good not to indulge. And yet the experience provided more than guilty pleasures; here were glimpses at those negative spaces where language’s tattered edges begin to dissolve into endless monotone, the spaces between lullabies and sleep, aspiration and drowning, contrition and absolution. In these bottomless zones, we danced and we prayed, awestruck by their celestial beauty and their exultant depravity.

03
GFOTY
Secret Mix

[PC Music]

GFOTY, a.k.a. Girlfriend of the Year, a.k.a. one of PC Music’s main artillery for their hard-hitting year, delivered one of the label’s most cohesive collections with Secret Mix. Using general “every girl in the club” lyrics and an infantilized demeanor — all of it spastically looped and pitched up — GFOTY took us on a bizarre ride through love, loss, and lust. It felt like a silly game with its bright annoying synths and exaggerated rhythms, but underneath the saccharine veneer was a pain and sorrow that was itself obfuscated by a delivery that felt feigned and overdone. That was the beauty of Secret Mix: it never took itself too seriously while also seeming to comment on pop, female vocals in electronic dance music, and club stereotypes. And yet, even when we were listening to banal earworm pop tropes and teenage vernacular being reduced to an aggressively minimal and subtly experimental palette, GFOTY remained the star. And how could you deny those covers of Céline Dion, Toni Braxton, and Carly Simon?

02
Grouper
Ruins

[Kranky]

A microwave beeped at the end of “Labyrinth,” a single interjection just before Harris played the last chord. It may have been the loudest sound in the song. Why was the microwave beep the part of Ruins that I found most memorable, most devastating? Why did a microwave beep move me more than a lyric like “there’s nothing left to hold to?” or more than a song like “Holding,” with its unassuming meditation on love, awkwardness, geology, navigation, belonging? Why did a microwave beep — an unwanted noise — leave a deeper impact than the hushed sounds of the storm outside? Than the loneliness of Harris’s conversation with her piano? The beep was the Real peeking in. The air that made up the once-was, the reincorporated structure after it fell, the unhinged nature stirring and leaking from virtual space all around her that couldn’t be filtered out, quieted down, or even properly captured with a microphone. The beep was a vulgar reminder of Harris’s lack of control. It was why, when Ruins spat me out on the other side, I found it incredibly easy to forget these songs, as if they were objects encountered along the path of a long walk, but I nonetheless found their mark unerasable.

01
Dean Blunt
Black Metal

[Rough Trade]

Black Metal is a strange album to be vaunted at the top of a music list in 2014. In a year practically begging for catharsis (something TMT writers have never been shy about seeking out), Dean Blunt’s obtuse, lopsided, and subdued album reached none of the heights set by countless previous entries on this list or even those of his own discography. The narrative-concrète transitions that made The Narcissist II and The Redeemer such breathtaking listens were entirely gone, and the heady concepts bubbling in the background prior to release arrived mostly muted. It wasn’t all that clear whether altering a track choice, a vocal delivery, or even a playback speed would have made a significant difference in the sum total of the album’s atmosphere or effect. You could call it Blunt’s anti-climactic sophomore slump, a varied group of style experiments that didn’t quite add up, songs you could either make a case for or toss aside, depending on your mood or whim.

So why did Black Metal end up here at #1? Well for one thing, maybe in 2014 we didn’t really need another slap in the face from art to awaken us to the darkness and anxiety of our times. Maybe we get enough of those reminders already: new real-life horror stories popping up daily; new calls for urgent change and urgent preservation from people we know and respect, with each persuasive viewpoint taking a wider and more balanced consideration of the world than the last; anything the public fitfully deems “important” instantly subject to hyperbolic praise, relentless venom, or total dismissal from one’s optimized newsfeed — the same fate. Maybe what we needed this year was something that just stayed the fuck out of it.

But while it’s true that Dean Blunt is an “arch conceptualist,” gleefully arranging and suggesting and then disappearing, it’s equally true that his process operates in total opposition to what’s going on in, say, a concept album, where the doors are tightly shut. Black Metal mocked our eagerness to suspend disbelief and find pure truth in cutting metaphors, instead presenting any one of its elements (packaging, genre, instrument, sound) in more or less the same way it appeared in “real life” — its materiality self-evident and indivisible but also a thing of endless permutations, open-ended and multifaceted, illuminating to consider and reconsider in different lights and states of consciousness, enriching to follow the rabbit trail of shifting context and watch mountainous connected truths form in tectonic “friction over the nonfiction.” But it would be absurd — an obscenity — to then turn around and seek resolution as a “final step” to understanding, as if halting that motion entirely were ideal. This sudden turning away in the name of “empathy” would surely be just another tool of the narcissist.

Instead, what could be carried lightly through the album (and beyond) was the modest concept that everything is everything, the words in a book calling for human progression as present as the bottle of Moët anonymously smashed over its reader’s head. Here, Black Metal itself became “just another one” in the multitude yet beautiful in its many reflections of other things, ground to a halt with “no other place to go” yet constantly on the move, zipping past cultural tombstones that were once directional signposts. “70s” drum samples and “80s” guitar samples entwined with “90s” guitar strumming and “00s” microphone clarity, not in an attempt to dissolve boundaries, but to find stronger, wider emotional expressions through seemingly incongruent combinations, disparate musics unhurriedly crossing both sides of this racial dyad in lyrical ellipses, our vocabulary to describe these meetings now sounding like jammed weapons or clammy handwringing.

If the work of the artist is, as Yoko Ono said, to “change the value of things,” and the events of this year kept painfully stacking one on top of another, Black Metal inspired by traveling along a separate axis, refusing to aid in its own constriction, working to “keep it going on” in a fuller dimensionality, scraping the price tags off anything being guarded as private property and slapping them back down where instinct led, with “NOISE” not so hard to imagine now as a form of “COUNTRY,” “ARTIST” returned to the “AUDIENCE,” “TRANSPARENCY” achieved through “OPACITY.”

Full list:

50. Lil Herb - Welcome to Fazoland (NLMB)
49. The Body - I Shall Die Here (RVNG Intl.)
48. T C F - 486669f0e9b8990384108f3d54c6a8f… (Self-Released)
47. Ai Aso - Lone (Ideologic Organ)
46. Ninos Du Brasil - Novos Mistérios (Hospital)
45. Lee Gamble - Koch (PAN)
44. Death Grips - niggas on the moon (Third Worlds)
43. The Soft Pink Truth - Why Do the Heathen Rage? (Thrill Jockey)
42. Gem Jones - Admiral Frenchkiss (Goaty Tapes)
41. Burial Hex - The Hierophant (Handmade Birds)
40. Beyoncé - Beyoncé (Columbia)
39. Sun Araw - Belomancie (Sun Ark/Drag City)
38. Objekt - Flatland (PAN)
37. James Ferraro - SUKI GIRLZ (Self-Released)
36. Fear Of Men - Loom (Kanine)
35. Dean Blunt - Skin Fade (Self-Released)
34. White Suns - Totem (The Flenser)
33. FKA Twigs - LP1 (Young Turks)
32. Fennesz - Bécs (Editions Mego)
31. Kane West - Western Beats (PC Music)
30. Swans - To Be Kind (Young God/Mute)
29. Call Super - Suzi Ecto (Houndstooth)
28. Aphex Twin - Syro (Warp)
27. Ariel Pink - Pom Pom (4AD)
26. Magic Eye - Babylon (Not Not Fun)
25. Perfume Genius - Too Bright (Matador)
24. Jenny Hval & Susanna - Meshes Of Voice (SusannaSonata)
23. Actress - Ghettoville (Werkdiscs/Ninja Tune)
22. Pharmakon - Bestial Burden (Sacred Bones)
21. 18+ - Trust (Houndstooth)
20. Arca - Xen (Mute)
19. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Piñata (Madlib Invazion)
18. Valerio Tricoli - Miseri Lares (PAN)
17. Lil B - 05 Fuck Em (Self-Released)
16. Lotic - DAMSEL in DISTRESS (Janus)
15. PC Music - PC Music x DISown Radio (PC Music/DIS Magazine)
14. Sun Kil Moon - Benji (Caldo Verde)
13. E+E - The Light That You Gave Me To See You (Self-Released)
12. copeland - Because I’m Worth It (Self-Released)
11. C L E A N E R S - Real Raga Shit Vol. 1 (Bootleg Tapes)
10. iLoveMakonnen - iLoveMakonnen EP (Self-Released)
09. Andy Stott - Faith In Strangers (Modern Love)
08. D/P/I - MN.ROY (Leaving)
07. Giant Claw - DARK WEB (Orange Milk/Noumenal Loom)
06. Ian William Craig - A Turn Of Breath (Recital)
05. Kevin Drumm / Jason Lescalleet - The Abyss (Erstwhile)
04. Scott Walker + Sunn O))) - Soused (4AD)
03. GFOTY - Secret Mix (PC Music)
02. Grouper - Ruins (Kranky)
01. Dean Blunt - Black Metal (Rough Trade)

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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