2014 was a year of high expectations, newcomers, and releases that never came to fruition. A year ago, we were expecting albums from Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Adele, Kanye West, and a whole heap of others, none of which actually dropped. Instead, we got the wonderfully unexpected. 2014 was a year for the lady’s in rap, with Azealia Banks releasing her pristinely eclectic Broke With Expensive Tastes, Iggy Azalea dominating the airwaves with The New Classic, and Nicki Minaj stepping up as a heavy-hitter with the smash singles off of The Pinkprint. And then there were people we never even thought we would even see in 2014; J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive may have well been the rap record of the year, Hozier achieved fame with his smash hit “Take Me to Church” and the gospel sound of his self-titled debut, Cherry Glazerr gave us a sun-drenched garage pop classic, Chet Faker wove a tapestry of musical prowess, D’Angelo emerged from a long hiatus, FKA Twigs came out of nowhere with one of the year’s most weirdly addicting releases, Run the Jewels proved they weren’t a one-off experiment, and St. Vincent became the new face of experimental indie rock. This year was harder to digest than your aunt’s fruitcake, but just like every year, we’ve managed to do it: picked by our loving staff, here are the 14 best records of 2014.
14. FKA Twigs — LP1
Backup dancer turned musician FKA Twigs was yet another wonderful surprise of 2014, and perhaps the most unexpected. With a major label debut that weaves together dreamy, echoing ambient music with her whispered, pitched vocals, FKA Twigs occupies the curious space between the Weeknd and Grimes, a musician as moody as she is energetic, as sensual as she is reserved. “Pendulum” combines some of her best singing with a rattling, jumping backing track that goes from lush to barren in seconds. “Water Me” shows her at her most experimental, looping vocal samples and synths with an almost unnerving intensity. “Two Weeks” is her at her most accessible and most deranged, combining a throbbing synthesizer with lyrics that would be equally appropriate in a bedroom or in a nightmare (“Feel your body closing”/”I can rip it open”). LP1 is an extraordinary debut for one of the most perplexing and intriguing figures in music, and we can only hope her next efforts are as intoxicating as this one.
13. Cherry Glazerr — Haxel Princess
This is the kind of album that will undoubtedly provide soundtracks to summer days. With its lilting beginnings, sweet melodies, and hard candy edges, Haxel Princess is pure garage pop perfection. It’s an album made by teenage girls for teenage girls, complete with hooks with mass appeal and endless energy. Highlights include the title track “Haxel Princess,” the menstrual angst anthem “White’s Not My Colour This Evening” and the confused, sundrenched “Bloody Bandaid” that perfectly encapsulates crushing on cute boys in bands and feeling kinda weird about it. Signed to well known independent label Burger Records, Cherry Glazerr comes straight out of California and is fronted by 18 year old Clementine Creevy. Compared to many label mates such as Fidlar or the Growlers, Cherry Glazerr is a breath of fresh air; Haxel Princess is an album that directly defies much of the beer drenched and fuzz drenched male-dominated garage rock currently coming out of the Sunshine State. Hopefully this album’s distorted power chord realness inspires more girls to pick up guitars and start making the kind of music they want to hear.
12. ALVVAYS — ALVVAYS
You’d think this quintet would be hailing from the Sunshine State, signed to Burger Records, often performing in the sweltering outdoors with a swimsuit-clad audience. Yet this new and upcoming band are from Canada’s capital, although they’ve definitely garnered appeal from their southern neighbours as well.
Alvvays’ debut record was the perfect soundtrack for summer 2014. The band incorporates dreamy, 60s-esque and beachy guitar melodies with 80s-esque drum machines and synthesizers, and both of these sounds combine to leave a perfect space for lead singer Molly Rankin’s longing, incandescent vocals, singing of nostalgia, youth and past love. The album is laced with a kind of melancholy and anguish, both in the music and the lyrics, that can only be accompanied by blue skies and sunshine.
11. Azealia Banks — Broke With Expensive Taste
After almost 3 years in purgatory, trapped with a label that refused to drop her long-awaited debut and after a series of highly public beefs with some of pop’s elite, Azealia Banks finally released Broke With Expensive Taste, and it was everything that thought it could be.
As you’d expect from an album made over three years, Broke With Expensive Tastes is as eclectic as it is entrancing. Opener “Idle Daliah”, starts with a quick, jumping drumline typical of the album, before veering off into a hodge-podge of house, rapid-fire rap, and soft ska melodies. The J.Cole produced “Desperado” marries a haunting howl with some of Banks’ most braggadocio lines (“I be pretty prissy plenty plush and stuff/ You be picky pissy penny crush and crunch”). “Chasing Time” is a crisp, synth-laden pop song that displays Banks’ vocal chops and frighteningly infectious hooks. The album’s highlight remains the one Azealia song that any hip-hop lover knows; “212”. Its almost psychotic vocal shifts, reminiscent of Nicki Minaj, its overt sexuality, and its absurd technical prowess puts this track in a league of its own.
Broke with Expensive Taste is a smorgasbord of an album, a curious blend of punk, house, ska, and funk bound together by Banks’ panache and delivery. It’s almost too weird to work, and it’s certainly too weird for mainstream pop. Nevertheless, if 2014 was the year of the female rapper, Azealia Banks was the ruler of its underground, as anti-authoritarian as she is innovative and as vulgar as she is undeniably charming.
10. Julian Casablancas + The Voidz — Tyranny
Everything you need to know about Tyranny can be learned by listening to “Human Sadness,” an eleven-minute decaying , driving, transforming, and entirely game-changing track. It progresses slowly, painfully breaking down a path through the five stages of grief. It’s modern, it’s classical, it’s muddy, and it’s bright. Soothing sonic landscapes relapse into abrasive synthesizers, breaking at just the right time. In other words, you won’t realize you’ve been sitting in the dark for eleven minutes until the track ends and you’re left staring at a YouTube replay screen, feeling much more afraid than when you began. The best compliment we can give is this: “Human Sadness,” and the rest of Tyranny, does exactly what it was intended to do.
9. J. Cole — 2014 Forest Hills Drive
J. Cole is the Leonardo DiCaprio of hip-hop; the talented but inevitably overshadowed underdog at every awards show, beloved by the people but passed over by the critics. Last year, his sophomore effort Born Sinner didn’t even hold a candle to the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, or Danny Brown, largely because Cole is so fervently devoted to the greats that he often fails to find his own sound. Born Sinner, besides being named after a Notorious B.I.G lyric, was chock full of name drops, countless references to Cole’s idols, and even included a track apologizing to Nas for not being good enough. In the industry, this is what is called dickriding. But on 2014 Forest Hills Drive, we finally see Cole finding his voice as an MC.
The album’s concept– a juxtaposition between Cole’s hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and the lights of Hollywood where he finds himself now– is as captivating as it is cohesive. In “03 Adolescence” we see Cole chasing the shadow of wealth as a high school graduate with lyrical skill that’s far past his prior efforts. “Fire Squad” has Cole responding to Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” with vicious delivery, and “Apparently” has our hometown hero struggling with his faith, his relationships, and the fabric of what he has become. J. Cole isn’t a pioneer or a figurehead or a technical MC; he’s a storyteller, and this is where he shines brightest.
The album has it’s flaws, mostly in its inherent contradictions; Cole seems trapped between the old him and his new reality. And as much as the album tries to distance itself from Cole’s idols, there is the odd tribute, like the 14 minute closer “Note to Self”, an obvious reference to Kanye West’s “Last Call”. But somehow, these flaws make the album seem even more human. Cole paints himself as an underdog in his industry and in life, and you can’t help but cheer for him every step of the way. The real kicker? 2014 Forest Hills Drive sold more records in its first week than any other hip-hop album this year, and it didn’t even need a single.
8. Chet Faker — Built on Glass
Since his debut onto our musical radar via collaborations with Flume and an eclectically dreamy cover of Blackstreet’s 90’s classic, “No Diggity”, Chet Faker has swiftly established himself as a voice worth listening for in electronica, R&B, and whatever may lie in between. The delicate style of his first album demonstrates that Chet Faker, real name Nicholas James Murphey, is an artist who is not easily categorized; Built on Glass navigates a whole sea of styles, genres, and subjects with ease. The demure rhythm of “Release Your Problems” sets the foundation for a progression of songs that are as timid as they are refreshing, gliding into the suddenly energized, catchy waters of “Gold” and “1998”. Sharper turns are taken in the latter half of the album as he experiments with moods that almost feel out-of-character next to the stability of the preceding tracks, but the sense of surprise inspires dancing more than it does confusion, such as in the ups and downs of “Blush”. Built on Glass is Chet’s first full-length step as a musician, and by channeling forces ranging from his soulful vocal power to instrumentals of a very sensitively distorted purity, he has made sure that it is nothing short of a tremendous one. Check out our interview with this nifty Australian right here.
7. Mounties — Thrash Rock Legacy
When I reach middle age, I hope that all the stale classic rock radio stations replace Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” with the hits off Thrash Rock Legacy. 70% of this is my enjoyment of the carefree cadillac-rock that is Thrash Rock Legacy, and 30% of it is desire to never to hear “Livin’ on a Prayer” ever again. Bon Jovi is sucky. Thrash Rock Legacy is not sucky. It’s not a hard choice.
Judging albums on whether or not they’re superior to Bon Jovi’s catalogue would set the bar for this list very, very low. Luckily, these tunes have more going for them. The work of Canadian superpowers Steve Bays, Hawksley Workman, and Ryan Dahle, Thrash Rock Legacy is filled with everything necessary for musical dominance. Sticky riffs, hazy interludes, and a rock-solid style laid groundwork for success the minute the trio stepped out of the studio. A January release of the lead single “Headphones” warmed up the public to their smooth style, and once the temperatures started rising, the album was monopolizing the airwaves. Thrash Rock Legacy was the soundtrack to the summer; “If This Dance Catches On” snuck its way into your head through open car windows and “Tokyo Summer” was quietly present at every beach sunset. We absorbed the melodies just by existing near a radio.
It would be an overstatement to say the album is perfect, as it does begin to feel repetitive in large doses. In its defense, though, Thrash Rock Legacy is undoubtedly made to be taken in quick shots that hit harder than any vodka. One could argue that “Livin’ on a Prayer” should also be experienced in small doses, but the difference is this: I don’t see anyone cringing when Mounties’ debut comes on the radio in 30 years. It’s Thrash Rock Legacy, after all. Legacies are built to last.
6. Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels 2
It’s a common fact that the sophomore album is often the most difficult album to produce and record, due to the high expectations based on the success of the debut effort. In RTJ’s case, the opposite was true. Released a mere year after this hip hop supergroup consisting of weathered underground hiphop anti-hero’s El-P and Killer MIke’s debut, RTJ 2 is a no holds barred hip hop monster, proving itself as being an obvious step forward over the already exceptional opening. The beats are heavier, the lyrics more meaningful, and the rapping more aggressive, but all of it is done with such ease, carelessness and indisputable swagger, with the 2 rappers swapping verses like they’ve been rapping together all their lives. RTJ 2 is an hip hop album that manages to push the genre forward while sounding natural and unforced, something most artists often fail to do, especially on their sophomore record.
5. James Vincent McMorrow — Post Tropical
Irish singer/songwriter James Vincent McMorrow’s first full length release has without question put him on the map, with music critics especially. Since the release of his album, his popularity and notoriety has grown steadily. His change of tune in Post Tropical has people talking and indulging in every track on it.
Despite its mid-winter January release, Post Tropical has a very ambient soulful summer vibe. The duality between McMorrow’s gentle voice with the harsh lyricism, creates a sort of yin and yang relationship between music and word.
Straying from his acoustic folk style of his 2010 album, ‘Early in the Morning’, McMorrow moves more toward a mix between R&B, electronic and synthpop. It’s calm, slow tempo follows a story, with his well sung and well written lyrics. It’s one of those albums you can listen in its entirety without skipping over individual tracks, all the way from the opening track ‘Cavalier’ to the closer ‘Outside, Digging’. He takes you on an airy ride through his gentle voice while hitting listeners with his seriously melancholy lyrics. The album has a sort of enigma to it, which makes you never want to hear the end. If you enjoyed Hozier’s 2014 release of ‘Hozier’, you’ll be sure to love Post Tropical.
4. Parquet Courts — Sunbathing Animal
The mark of a good band is its ability to continuously release great music that manages to stay relevant without having to constantly repeat itself. Sunbathing Animal, Parquet Courts’ sophomore effort, is an excellent embodiment of this. Despite showing little to no changes on the first listen, this album is a more mature, serious and composed record than the group’s previous effort. Although this might not always be a positive thing, in Parquet Courts’ case it shows them keeping the americana tinged nervy post-punk sound that made them so appealing while smoothing out their sound, making for a more coherent, structured and musically intelligent record that conserves the raw energy and spontaneity we have gotten accustomed to from this group. The end product is an excellently produced lp filled with Texas draped driving post-punkish tracks such as highlights “Bodies Made of”, “Sunbathing Animal” and “What Color is Blood” among others, that remind as to why we’ll continue to follow this group for years to come.
3. St. Vincent — St. Vincent
The release of Annie Clark’s self titled album St. Vincent marks the birth of a beautiful, musical beast brought down from the heavens. Clark manages to manifest a beautiful complexity in her latest record, wrought through a raw noise she only started to experiment with in her 2012 Krokodil 7’ release.
Unlike most musicians, Clark refuses to present us with a carbon copy of her last work. Each time she releases an album, she surprises her listeners with new sounds in unventured territory. With the release of St. Vincent, there is a clear gradual progression from her debut Marry Me, moving from a softer and more melodic sound to one that is harsher and bolder, while simultaneously staying consistent with her dynamic melodies. But bold is an understatement when using the word to describe St. Vincent. The album is powerful through its guitar tones, synth lines, unyielding vocals, and pristine lyrics and in the messages of Clark’s own personal experiences and her critique of our society. Highlights include the catchy tune of isolation (Am I the only one?) on “Rattlesnake”, the relatable Birth In Reverse and her ode to our obsession with the online world “Digital Witness” (If I can’t show it/ if you can’t see me/What’s the point of doing anything?). It is this energy and power that lands St. Vincent as one of the best albums of 2014.
2. Hozier — Hozier
Hozier was the dark horse of 2014. Riding on the back of the hauntingly enchanting “Take Me to Church”, the Irish folk singer rose to stardom with his dark, gospel-laden narratives of regret, faith, and his battles against his inner demons.
“Take Me to Church” might have ruled the radio, but Hozier is a goldmine of introspection and reflection. The stomp-rock heartbeat of “Arsonist’s Lullaby” combines the echoes of the Irish Troubles with the quiet hum of a gospel choir. “Sedated” opens with a quick, nimble piano line that betrays the song’s theme of addiction. “To Be Alone” is probably the only real love song on the album, but even on it, Hozier sounds tortured. Hozier is both a tearjerker and a spiritual journey, bringing you out stronger on the other side.
Hozier’s weathered, tearful lyricism is the album’s highlight; He did not so much write this album as he arranged paper on a desk and then bled on it. It would be morbid, were it not so musically brilliant. Few singers have gone from relative obscurity to playing the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show in a year, but the reflective beauty of Hozier more than merits his newfound fame.
1. Taylor Swift — 1989
We didn’t believe it either. If you had told me a year ago that Taylor Swift would have released the best album of 2014, I would have laughed in your face and scattered salt to cleanse the air. Our bets were on Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, heck, even Kanye West— none of whom even dropped albums this year. Pop standards who did release albums flopped, both in terms of sales and quality: Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint, for example, didn’t go platinum even after “Anaconda”. We were left waiting for the Big One– an album that would define 2014. And lo and behold, it came from the one and only T.Swizzle.
Trading her country twang– which had long been on the wane– for dreamy, glossy synthesizers and a 1980s aesthetic, Swift ripped up our expectations of her like an ex’s love letters, set them on fire, and then proceeded to write her own. Opening track “Welcome to New York” is as shamelessly poppy as it is fun, showcasing a CHVRCHES-lite synth rhythm and a captivating hook that remains trapped in your hippocampus throughout the day. Single “Shake it Off” has Swift claiming to ignore her haters while simultaneously flipping the bird, and haymaker hit “Blank Space” has her slyly tipping us off that yes, she’s heard your joke about how many exes she has, and she really couldn’t care less. The album peaks at “Clean” an unlikely collaboration between Swift and English ambient songstress Imogen Heap which features the most pristine production of any track on the record– perhaps the year — and pairs it with Swift at her most vulnerable.
It’s unclear if the magic on 1989 is Swift’s new sound, or if it’s merely a one-time experiment. But what this record really accomplishes is that it destroys that image of who you thought Taylor Swift was. Gone is the 15 year old girl with the acoustic guitar; enter the sly, arching pop star with a knack for creating works that are as cohesive as they are catchy. 1989 could a beginning of a new age of Swift, or it could be her artistic peak. But whatever its legacy, it’s earned its spot at the top of our list.