Every year at this time, my friend Andy sends out an excitable email asking his most music-crazed friends – sound engineers, clubsters, DJs, me, anyone for whom music is less a casual dalliance and more like lifeblood – to send around their personal lists of the year’s best music, so we can all discover something new and/or gently mock each others’ weird tastes in African banjo disco, kazoo jazz funk or lumberjack doom metal.
And every year, I dive into this venture with an all-consuming fervor, ignoring how I’m no music critic by training and instead opening wide to 30+ years of serious music obsessiveness; couple it to a bottle of Casa Nobles Reposado while blithely ignoring the all the “real” critic’s obvious picks (Run the Jewels, Taylor Swift, War on Drugs, etc), and it’s all sorts of delightful indulgence. See what you think:
10) Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like a Bell
A little bit of Bjork, a whole lot of quirk, but nothing at all to worry about because, despite the Icelandic swoon wrought largely of Nicole Mignis’ soaring, ethereal chime of a voice voice, there’s deep warmth here, coupled to a charming, playful sexiness that makes this record a profoundly pleasurable listen, even as it challenges you to track its idiosyncratic kaleidoscope of blips and chimes, rhythms and pulses.
You’d never guess Hundred Waters is actually from Florida, what with all the shimmery, offbeat symmetry, the clever experimentation, the ebb and flow. Pitchfork called them “post-rock meets freak-folk,” whatever that means. Best not to try and define it, and just listen.
9) Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
It’s amusing that the biggest critical complaint against Del Rey is that she’s a complete fake, that her retro, Lolita-on-opium shtick is all an act, which somehow invalidates any claim she has to talent and expertise. As if every pop act on the market, from Kanye to Beyonce, Taylor Swift to Mumford and Sons aren’t all complete fabrications; custom built, image-honed confections carefully designed to sell mood, feel, fantasy. And of course, records.
Ignore them, forever and always. Ultraviolence is sumptuous artifice indeed, a near pitch-perfect record made so by Del Rey’s skill in evoking mood and atmosphere. It’s addictive and deadly, a gauzy blur of sex, drugs and tragic Hollywood romance, the perfect soundtrack to the movie David Lynch hasn’t made yet, but really should.
8) Tycho – Awake
Shimmer. Chime. Gleam, groove and flicker, sheen and hum and float. These and other good-vibey descriptors verily leap out of the speakers when you crank up to Tycho’s latest, an expertly crafted, vocal-free exercise in dreamy, bright, propulsive techno soundscapes you almost can’t help but like.
It’s true. Awake is a very easy record to fall into, over and over again, which also probably makes it too quick to dismiss, because Tycho (SF’s own Scott Hansen & friends) makes the perfect-soundtrack-to-your-sunset-drive thing sound so effortless.
7) Chet Faker – Built on Glass
Travesty that I don’t see this exceptionally talented, one-of-a-kind indie soul/hip-hop hero on any Top 10 lists (except one, from Australia, Faker’s homeland). Maybe it’s because Faker recorded and released Built on Glass completely independently? Maybe because the entire production is just him and about 17 different decks and drum machines, beat loops and MacBook Pro vocal synthesizers?
Impossible to say. But one thing is certain: Faker – who’s this sort of goofy-looking, instantly likable lumbersexual DJ/bedroom producer (giant beard, hoodies, baggy everything, just him surrounded by a mad scientist’s array of equipment on stage) – makes groovy, mumbly, soulful hip-hop sex music (his breakthrough: a cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” on his first record, Thinking in Textures), infused with bits of house, folk, whisper and moan. Not everything works, but enough does to make you swoon and sing along, every time.
6) Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden
And now for something completely, skull-meltingly, spine-crushingly, get-the-f-k-off-my-lawn different. Here is premium-grade, pure-boiled doom metal, thunderous walls of sound, titanic riffs that make Sabbath proud and put most screechy doom metal posers to shame. Pallbearer’s epic sound is dynamic and thick, the tempos sludge and slide, most tracks clock in at 10 minutes plus and your cute little Bluetooth speakers will be all, OMG WTF.
The best part? Not a single, obnoxious, throat-shredding, bear-caught-in-a-trap scream in sight. Actual singing! In doom metal! What a concept. It’s music to freak out your parents, make your cat cower in the shower and make you want to get a giant skull tattoo on your chest. You know, for fun.
5) Angus & Julia Stone
Everyone f—king loves Angus & Julia Stone, the boundlessly gifted brother/sister duo from Australia. And why not? They’re a downright folk-blues sensation, huge cult following, tons of gorgeous, entrancing songs that break well out of the twee, precious, I’m-so-sad-and-fragile folk mold. Plus, both are ridiculously talented (each has two solo albums of their own), with distinctive, unmistakable voices – he a more relaxed, sexy Dylan and she a more controlled, sexy Joanna Newsome.
Enough relative obscurity, for chrissakes. The sibs landed producer god Rick Rubin (or rather, he was such a fan, he approached them, and convinced them to record together again) to produce this, their most well-rounded record so far.
Rubin swapped the Stone’s normal hushed, intimate sound for more straight-up rock. It’s off-putting at first, but then those hypnotic melodies shine through and album deepens, becomes richer and better and more. And it doesn’t stop. Which is why everyone loves them in the first place.
4) Benjamin Booker
Come one, what? You don’t know this guy? The kid, the prodigy, the ridiculously young (a wee 25) guitar-slingin’ blues/boogie wonder from NOLA who can wail like Muddy Waters on a bourbon/Adderall bender? Too bad.
Lots of critics pointed out how this record doesn’t sound as good as it should, that Booker’s production team opted for a muddy, lo-fi, muffled sound that buries Booker’s voice in the mix and detracts from the kid’s prodigious talent.
Only partially true. In an age of over-produced, auto-tuned pap, the raw, scratchy sound (produced by Andrija Tokic, who did Alabama Shakes) is actually much of the appeal. Crank up “Always Waiting” or maybe “Wicked Waters,” and get ready to shimmy your ass off.
A delightful, unexpected surprise, this one, coming in late to my attention and then completely captivating it.
Caveat: I’m a sucker for expertly produced, warm-toned, deep house/electronica (no vocals) that doesn’t suddenly leap into random keyboard shrieks or devolve into hideous dub-step, but moves through rich and interesting layers, just enough tonal shifts and textural variety to keep your attention, but not so jarring or invasive to make you reach for the Skip button.
Weirder still: Kiasmos is just a couple of oddball, art school-looking dudes from (again with the) Iceland, each an established producer in his own right but neither quite reaching the exquisite levels of craft they nail here. This is their first full-length collaboration, and it’s damn near perfect.
2) Glass Animals – Zaba
Like Chet Faker, I’m flagrantly aghast that no other Top 10 lists even mention this record. Glass Animals’ eponymous debut is simply the sexiest, grooviest, funkiest, chilliest record of the year and if you’ve never heard this delectably oddball bunch until now, you might assume the same thing my GF did: that the singer must be a soulful, voluptuous black female in a tight, slinky dress, with a R&B pedigree to match.
Wrong. It’s a bunch of skinny white boys from England, making endlessly listenable, trippy-dreamy-woozy music for curious strippers. Who like pillows. And bells. And long, slow, seven-hour orgasms. Dare you to crank up “Gooey” and not immediately want to peel your – or someone’s – pants off.
1) Spoon – They Want My Soul
So goddamn perfect. So scruffy and cool, brash and badass; so desperately craved, too, like premium tequila on a balmy summer night, like a slap upside your exhausted id, a giant middle finger to all the bitchy, tech-addled ennui of the modern era and you’re all, “Oh my God, why can’t more bands make pure, impeccably formed rock n’ roll records like this? How can this band possibly sound so refreshing and spontaneous when they’ve been around since the Clinton administration? Where can I get more?”
Arctic Monkeys nailed this category last year, with the fabulous AM. But Spoon is the hands-down master of the jangly, crackling, soulful post-punk rock groove. More than 20 years into their remarkable career, and somehow They Want My Soul, the band’s 8th, sounds at once like they care more than ever, and also give less of a f-k than ever. And thus is born the perfect rock n’ roll tension, with Britt Daniel, Spoon’s fatally endearing singer, welcoming you to the best party in the ‘hood. No idiots, pop drivel or frat bros allowed.
The Best 30 Tracks of the Year (in no particular order, except for the first half dozen or so, which are all amazing. If anyone has the wherewithal to make a Spotify playlist of all these and send me the URL, I’ll happily link it up).
- Sylvan Esso – Coffee
- Kendrick Lamar – i
- The War on Drugs – Suffering
- Milky Chance – Stolen Dance
- Jamie xx – Sleep Sound
- Sharon Van Etten – Your Love is Killing Me
- Pig&Dan – I Feel Love
- Riccicomoto – Behind Closed Doors
- Thom Yorke – Guess Again!
- Dopamine – Warmth
- Lusine – Arterial
- This Will Destroy You – Invitation
- James Vincent McMorrow – Glacier
- Polica – Smug
- Paolo Nutini – Let Me Down Easy
- Kix – Wheels in Motion
- Ryan Mathiesen – Cop a Feeling
- Elbow – Honey Sun
- Boozoo Bajou – Hirta
- Maya Jane Coles – In Dark, In Day
- The Sad Lovers – I Am…
- Metallica – Ronnie Rising Medley
- Rival Sons – Open My Eyes
- Francis Harris – You Can Always Leave
- Luke Le Loup – Schönefeld
- PNFA – Roots
- Tapesh & Dayne S – How Do I
- Yuri Petrovski – Feel Good
- HTRK – Blue Sunshine
- Deepchord – Luxury 2
Read more here:: The top 10 records (and 30 best tracks) of 2014