The Best 50 Albums of 2014 (#10-1)


Of all the figures that founded and leaded the so-called neo-soul movement, which favoured down-to-earth 70s production rather than 90s slickness, D’Angelo has always been the most elusive, coherent and fascinating one. After releasing Brown Sugar in 1995, it had already took him five years to surpass his ground-breaking debut with his sophomore effort and even though Voodoo has steadily become the most celebrated contemporary R&B record of his era, even surpassing classics such as Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997) or Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation (1998), it is pretty hard to understand how such a creative composer, skilful performer and talented producer needed fourteen years to release his third record. After listening to Black Messiah one feels compelled to not only excuse his lengthy exile but also to halt all the furious digital medial landscape around us in order to listen to this truly timeless collection of beautifully crafted, politically conscious and soulfully delivered songs.

.


The long running collaboration between Britt Daniel and Jim Eno has been able to not only turn an underground cult act to one of the most commercially and critically acclaimed US rock acts, but also to produce a fabulous strike of spotless records that showcases a band with the rare ability to balance songwriting with affectation, attention to detail with minimalist values, hooks with experimentation and spontaneity with high production values. They Want My Soul, Spoon’s 2014 offering is no exception: by retreating from the self-consciously lo-fidelity of 2010’s underrated Transference, they have produced the perfect follow-up to their 2007’s opus Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga: bright, booming, catchy and perversely formal.

.


One year ago, who would have guessed that an indie cult band from Baltimore recently signed to 4AD would end being responsible for a) the most memorable live musical moment in the recent history of late-night TV; b) one of the most disseminated musical memes on the Internet; c) what many wouldn’t hesitate to declare this year’s greatest song? If you were a pop music aficionado in 2014, there’s no way you failed to connect with Future Islands genuine and deeply moving music.

.


After releasing two records that were meant to be solo affairs but ended up being the final tumultuous outputs of Red House Painters (1996’s Songs for a Blue Guitar and 2001’s Old Ramon), Mark Kozelek debuted to wide critical acclaim his Sun Kil Moon project with 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway. After a great couple of records, 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises and 2012’s Among the Leaves definitely turned Sun Kil Moon as a moniker for records that were almost entirely written, performed and produced by Kozelek alone. But it’s with this year’s Benji that Mark Kozelek delivers his genuine masterpiece, deepening the autobiographical tone initiated with his previous record and pungently demonstrating a unique ability to turn the most raw and intimate details of his personal life into a fascinating musical journey that, for lack of a better word, one might simply call humanity.

.


St. Vincent is the perfect example of how a gifted and restless musician can make her music rise from indie ranks to mainstream charts. After her beautifully crafted debut introduced herself to the world, her following records managed to keep charting on the Billboard 200: #90 for 2009’s Actor; #19 for 2011’s Strange Mercy and #12 for this year’s eponymous album. Of course, her brilliant and energy-packed live performances have also been a big help in her slow but steady rise to stardom: St. Vincent is a tireless performer and a supremely gifted guitarist and the Web is packed with videos that show her overwhelming persona on stage (her live redemption of Big Black’s “Kerosene” has already become a classic). Nevertheless, it is rather her sophistication and artfulness that really makes her latest album her most cunning and accessible effort yet.

.


Though it might have started as a one-off project, Run the Jewels (the American hip-hop super-duo formed by New York City-based rapper-music producer El-P and Atlanta-based rapper Killer Mike) quickly evolved to become one of the most popular and critically acclaimed urban music projects of the streaming era. After some serious flirting in 2012 (El-P produced Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music album, who later appeared on a track from his Cancer 4 Cure LP), the duo released the following year their self-titled debut as a free digital download mixtape, which instantly became one the most praised hip-hop records of 2013, mostly due to their fast, loud and nasty deliver of witty truths and genuinely affecting wisdom. Aware of their momentum, it took the duo only a year to release the highly anticipated sequel, Run the Jewels 2, this time as a genuine album, that showcases not only their habitual explosive rhymes and beats but also an uncanny attention to detail (sequencing, guest spots and production). It’s also exciting and funny as hell: who needs to wait for next year’s scheduled and surrealistically crowd funded Meow the Jewels when you can enjoy this one monster right now?

.


If her debut, 2009’s Because I Was In Love, was an intimate take of the folk tradition in the vein of Cat Power’s first recordings, 2010’s more band-orientated Epic felt like the beginning of the unveiling of Sharon Van Etten genuine talents, which fully came to fruition on 2012’s career-making Tramp. Her fourth and self-produced record, Are We There, showcases an artist operating in full bliss with tremendous confidence and a paradoxical mixture of gravitas and levity. If it’s true that she’s been growing both as a songwriter and performer with each release, it’s pretty hard to even imagine how Sharon Van Etten will ever top a song like “Your Love Is Killing Me”.

.


Until he was discovered by Animal Collective in 2003, Ariel Pink was one obscure American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and record producer based in Los Angeles, California, highly influenced by the 80s cassette culture and the 90s low-fi movement. After emptying his vault of recordings with a series of limited-edition/low-profile releases, he formed Haunted Graffiti in 2006 and released his first two high-fidelity records on 4AD (2010’s Before Today and 2012’s Mature Themes) which expanded considerably his fanbase and finally generated high praises from fellow musicians and the press. Though pom pom is his first full-length studio album released as Ariel Pink without his band, it is still a collaborative effort with several songs co-written by the legendary eccentric Kim Fowley. The result may be his most divisive record yet: a high-speed rollercoaster ride that flashes through genres with a deep sense of musicianship, sarcasm and humour that brings to mind the legacy of other shaky aesthetic heroes such as Frank Zappa or R. Stevie More. Hate it or love it, one thing is sure: 2014 would have been much more grayer without this one odd freaky ballsy record.

.


As much as talented composer and performer he is, the departure of Kurt Vile from The War on Drugs in 2008 didn’t really changed the band’s take on indie rock: a fine mixture of Dylan/Petty/Springsteen storytelling with guitars that owe as much to My Bloody Valentine as to Sonic Youth. Since day one, Adam Granduciel has always been the frontman and main composer of the band and both 2010’s Future Weather and 2011’s Slave Ambient are nothing less than a pair of great and cohesive records that further cemented his ability to bridge different traditions (classic and indie rock) with two decades in between them. Lost in the Dream, their fourth album, represents nevertheless a tremendous quantum leap for the Philadelphia quintet: an expansive, extremely nuanced and flawless collection of songs that fade into each other in a relentless and dreamy movement.

.


What is really impressive when you listen to the two extended plays or watch any of the dozen of music videos FKA Twigs released as a prologue to her debut full-length is the fact that, although it was rather simple to pinpoint her influences (trip-hop meets post-dubstep), she really managed to create something that sounded and looked absolutely new and unique in today’s effervescing digital media landscape. Her first album, aptly titled LP1, also reunites a great set of talented collaborators such as Clams Casino, Devonté Hynes, Paul Epworth and Jesse Kanda to deliver an even more magnetic, impressionist and cohesive set of songs that is nothing short of the genius of other alien divas such as Björk and Sade. Nobody wondered more and better about sound and vision than she did this year. One can only hope that 2015 will bring us transmediatic experiences as exciting and new as the ones FKA twigs crafted for us this year.

João Pedro da Costa

João Pedro da Costa is a web studies scholar and a music fan.