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50. Viet Cong – Cassette
It’s easy to peg Viet Cong’s Cassette EP as simply an act of catharsis. Matt Flegel and Mike Wallace did lose the guitarist for their last band – the abrasive, abstruse Women – when he died in his sleep at the age of 26. That band broke up, not incidentally, after a fight broke out between band members at a show in Victoria, British Columbia.
Sometimes Cassette fits that bill. “Select Your Drone” is chiming post-punk, then charging actual-punk, then early Howard Shore drone: it’s all five stages of grief in seven minutes, though not in the DABDA order everybody always cites.
It’d be a mistake, though – and a boring bit of music-crit haruspicy – to categorize exuberant opener “Throw It Away” as a response to Riemer’s death or the traumatic circumstances of Women’s demise.
Sorry to be tautological, but “Throw It Away” is a great song because it’s a great song, not because of the context in which it was written. Maybe the song is Viet Cong throwing away the past. Or maybe they called it “Throw It Away” because that synth line sounds like a fly ball over an open field. Either way, it helps. – Jordan Pedersen
49. Black Milk – If There’s a Hell Below
It feels like a dying breed: the sample ghoul who hangs out cracking knuckles, eating vinyl for dinner with salt and cognac. Every third auteur has a band now, or bought some maracas, or picked up the bass. Which is dope, but there’s nothing grimy about a new instrument. Curtis Cross, one of a few who would still name an album after a Curtis Mayfield song, gives us hope that future hip-hop won’t stop mining and mucking up the past. Coming off the shroomy crime novel jazz and brittle Detroit memories of No Poison, No Paradise, then the off-handed laser dust loops and debonair Fat Ray reunions of Glitches in the Break, Black Milk again extends his winning streak with If There’s a Hell Below.
Soul sautéed, bass as funky and lost as the devil, electric guitar solos blazing. Milk still raps like himself, but as always that’s not the point. Dude is busy drowning Herbie Hancock’s falsetto under drum roll thunder, garage bopping with Gene Obey in the clouds, rocking with Pete Rock. The cymbals storm, the horns moan until they crack, the outros crack necks. Random Axe reunites to fry fish. “Quarter Water” to “Hell Below” to “Detroit’s New Dance Show” might be the best three-song set of Cross’s career. If there’s a hell below, may it groove this hard. — Tosten Burks
48. Has Lo & Castle – Live Like Your Dead / Zilla Rocca – No Vacation for Murder
Zilla Rocca on his own is prolific, an able rapper and producer who releases projects more frequently than you mange to call your girlfriend. Still, there’s something special about his work with Blurry Drones (who comprised 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers). The Seattle-based producer is the indie rock game Vasco da Gama, and brings his wandering approach effortlessly to his fuzzed out creations. Still—make no mistake—this is never not a rap album, driven by gigantic beats while Zilla and his guests (Roc Marciano, Geechi Suede, Curly Castro, Has-Lo and Open Mike Eagle) tell tales of flaking brickwork, faking surfers and masterless samurai.
If you only caught the excellent “Go to Work,” or singles, “Famished” and “Good Feelings,” great news: it turns out a full length Has-Lo and CASTLE is equally satisfying. Production here is all about barbecue summers just past: swinging bass, woozy synths, stretched soul samples and muffled snares. Has-Lo has been struggling to bust out of the box he created for himself with the excellent, insular In Case I Don’t Make It, but with CASTLE he turns the tide. Take the North Carolinian’s giddy, wacky turn of phrase, match it to Has’s terrific ear for a vocal hook, and you have one of the most focused rap LPs of the year. — Matt Shea
47. Tinashe – Aquarius
Confession time: I honestly couldn’t care less about any of the shit Beyonce said on her last album. Bar a couple of Marvin, Curtis and Stevie Records, I listen to R&B for soul and musicality, either when I want to fuck or I’m frustrated because I can’t. I’m not saying there’s no room for serious commentary… I’m saying that I skip most of this tracks. Try rapping—you can fit more words in.
Tinashe’s Aquarius doesn’t challenge your notion of gender relations or comment on the discovery of the Higgs Boson theory, but it’s easily my favorite R&B record of 2014. The production is spacious and lush, the vocals sweet and vague enough to apply to any romantic situation. When she’s in a good mood, Tinashe is wife material par excellence—the ultimate home girl who’ll have a generation of sad boys pining for her like Aaliyah had me back in ’99. When she’s in a bad mood, shit gets dark. Aquarius’s best moments come courtesy of understated trap/ratchet beats that ground floaty, ethereal synthesizers full of blue notes—in fact the album’s only stumbling points happen when she goes major key.
This review may sound dismissive. It’s not. I simply believe R&B doesn’t need to be “improved” or changed in any way by outsiders to the genre, and that the best stuff operates on a fairly functional basis. Tinashe’s Aquarius is a genre piece, and that’s a good thing. It’s the execution and her talent that allow it to rise above the competition. — Son Raw
46. Gangsta Boo and Beatking – Underground Cassette Tape Music
The speaker-knocking result of two renowned hard-asses combining their vulcanized fury, Underground Cassette Tape doesn’t fuck around. Memphis OG Gangsta Boo and Houston’s father of the year, Beatking, have laced this project with 15 bangers you can suplex #sadboys to. As Torii MacAdams said, it’s both unexpected and awesome to see the Triple Six Mafia’s former first lady catch a deserved second wind as one of the baddest MCs in the game. Props also due to Beatking for assembling top-notch production with a crew of relatively unknown beat chefs.
Underground Cassette Tape Music feels more like a studio album than a random assortment of mix tape tracks, and that’s largely due to the consistently speaker-crumpling beats. The guests are on point too: Paul Wall calls himself Slab God, 8 Ball delivers a brief sermon next to a Pimp C sample, and OJ Da Juiceman slurs sweetly. But it’s the natural chemistry between Beatking and Boo that makes this the de facto anthem for any exotic dancer worth a damn. — Jimmy Ness
45. Cozz – Cozz & Effect
Cozz isn’t worried about subtext. The South Central millennial is immediate and showy: he’s not just riding the bus–he gets “chauffeured on the Metro.” He’s not just happy he survived a perilous childhood, he’s “still standing like I just lost in musical chairs.” The Interscope signee’s debut, Cozz & Effect, is full of those weighted turns of phrase, the kind that the most time-tested gangsta rap is built on. But there’s something fatalistic about Cozz’s record, and it has nothing to do with guns tucked in khakis.
Cody Macc is at an intersection. His raw, youthful energy is, for now, perfectly in balance with a studied craftsmanship. It’s a rarefied space, probably the one a wearied Andre 3000 called “the magic window” when he was pitying his lot in life to Billboard. Some bask in it, assume it will last forever (does Young Thug have to barter with god?). But those gangsta rap tropes weigh heavy on Cozz’s brain, his mortality too real to ignore. So on “Can’t Knock Tha Hustle,” “I’ve been in this hood, dawg, for way too long” comes with a straight face, not a scowl. Cozz & Effect’s best songs–”I Need That”, “You Know Dat”, “Dreams”, “Cody Macc”–play like a desperate stream of consciousness, where the braggadocio and the worry exist to keep oneanother in check. And for the time being, they are. – Paul Thompson
44. DJ Quik – The Midnight Life
DJ Quik doesn’t need your approval. His first album is a classic. The rest of his catalogue is practically unimpeachable. Even the weakest moments have their merits. After twenty plus years behind the boards and the microphone, he’s earned the right to indulge in all artistic whims. The Midnight Life is the product of that uninhibited indulgence.
Banjos, train horns, bongos, and coterie of session players – Quik employs them all to craft some of the most musically challenging suites of 2014 (e.g. “Trapped on the Tracks”, “Puffin Tha Dragon”). As per usual with Quik productions, each has multiple layers of groove. Some instruments are so seamlessly embedded in the background that appreciating each on tracks like “Pet Sematary” requires repeat listens.
While the guest appearances don’t exactly hinder any song, many remain largely unmemorable. They often lack Quik’s depth, maturity, and acerbic heat. Forgettable features notwithstanding, the album bares all the hallmarks of his classics: silky Suga Free collaborations, another “Quik’s Groove”, talkbox and shout outs to Shabby Blue, direct darts aimed at enemies both personal and societal, and enough partying and macking to give listeners balance and options. The Midnight Life may not be a perfect album, but it met Quik’s approval. That’s always been more than enough. — Max Bell
43. Serengeti – Kenny Dennis LP III
There’s no even-stevens in the rap game. You bet big, you win big, and you lose big. These are the mantras that Kenny Dennis—the mustachioed, bratwurst-chomping, Bears-loving alter-ego of Chicago rapper, Serengeti—repeats as he struggles to pick himself back up in “Lose Big,” the low point of this whimsical and poignant album. On Kenny Dennis III, our hero is stuck in a midlife crisis. His brother is a screw-up who’s in too deep as a police informant; his city is being stigmatized in the public eye as a cauldron of gang violence; his once-dorman addiction to Benzedrine is coming back to haunt. Nostalgic for his glory days with the Grimm Teachaz, this working class Chicago striver decides to rekindle his rap career, only to have it derailed by his once faithful friend, Ders (AKA Anders Holm, from Workaholics).
This album is about how painful it can be to start over. It’s a lesson in how egos and ambitions sour the best experiences, and how personal failings and betrayals bring about missed opportunities (such as that choice battle-of-the-bands gig at the Mall of America). For all the travails Kenny endures, Serengeti presents a character of truly generous spirit— Peter Holslin
42. RiFF RAFF – NEON iCON
NEON iCON iS A TRiUMPH THAT LOOKS iNWARD AT WHAT MATTERS MOST. Riff Raff makes me want to type like that, to follow him, to root for him. His stylization of the letter “i” reads as something more than self-love: It’s a reminder to stop taking yourself so seriously. He compares himself to three-or-four different people during any given song and is tatted head-to-toe with pop-culture iconography. It’s clear that Riff Raff is only competiting with himself and struggles to understand why people waste time trying to chop him down.
NEON iCON glows with party-rock, disco-electro and country tunes that exhibit songwriting, hooks and bars. It consistently undercuts sadness with humor and laughs at other people’s expectations. Riff Raff exists on another level that only a few can reach and only then with the proper quantity of rice that allows them to live in the moment. Let go of any controlling instincts you may have and admire the versace spectacle. — Brad Beatson
41. DJ Dodger Stadium – Friend of Mine
The climax of DJ Dodger Stadium’s Friend of Mine comes roughly fifty seconds into “Sit Down, Satan,” The haze clears. Everything prior exists in a space between “When will things get better?” and “Fuck it, might as well have some fun.” Then in the most warped and unintelligible voice comes a plea to silence the demons. “The Dust” anxiously follows, clouds.
Jerome LOL and Samo Sound Boy have combined to create dance music that invokes nostalgia while sounding timeless. The chants are hypnotic: “Lately I’ve been singing, love songs, by myself”; “It looks like I’m the one who lost”; “Never win, I know you never win.” They’re repetitive without growing stale. Pure wistful joyride music. — Brad Beatson
40. Armand Hammer – Furtive Movements
In late November, three days after a Missouri grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, A.O. Scott published an essay entitled “Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times?” His hand-wringing is probably warranted. Then again, there’s Billy Woods and Elucid, two of the sharpest working American writers, who happen to moonlight as acid-tongue New York rappers.
The duo first linked up during the sessions for the latter’s History Will Absolve Me — as Armand Hammer, they released last year’s skull-rattling RACE MUSIC. The LP was abrasive but engaging, with woods and Elucid ferrying the listener on a cult of personality. furtive movements, their EP-length follow-up, is narrower, quieter, and hits that much harder.
The cover is the car Jordan Davis was shot in–a black kid gunned down by a white man for playing his music too loudly. As woods says, “talk about prescient”. “CRWNS” and its Dennis Green refrain takes up arms against the oppressor with wit and color of rare order. But the funny thing about furtive movements is that its best moment comes when it turns its focus inward: “Touch & Agree” is a pleading letter to woods and Elucid’s younger selves. woods wants to put single moments on infinite loop (“‘04, remain seated after Tim’s fadeaway against the Lakers”); Elucid is pained (“Remember the look on your mother’s face when you left/ She was right, you weren’t ready”). They’re kicking themselves, but maybe they finally figured it out. “Most rappers are fucking idiots/ And nah, that’s not a knock on their brilliance.” – Paul Thompson
39. Future – Honest / Monster
Future’s seventh solo mix tape, Monster, finds the Freebandz boss attempting to claim back the lane he created — one now run by Young Thug, Migos and Rich Homie Quan. With Metro Boomin executive producing the record, the Dungeon Family member raps over premier beats from trap basic’s best beatmakers—and spits his most obnoxious bars to date. Highlights include “Codeine Crazy,” Hardly” and “Throw Away,” where Super Future confesses his infidelity to Ciara while being mad at her for not forgiving his indiscretions.
The strength of his LP Honest is the versatile production and balance of every major emotion: love, happiness, anger, sadness and excitement through 12 tracks. Monster finds Future as Sad Robot; he said on his Tim Westwood interview that the album was on “some fuck shit,” seemingly trying to disgust people with a multitude of outrageous claims. Honest is a victory lap from last year’s success that balances ballads like “Honest” and “I Won” with aggressive bangers like “T-Shirt,” “Covered N Money” and “Move That Dope.” The real Future lies somewhere in between these two projects and showcases a man who thought he had it all, to someone who seems bitter about what he’s lost. — Dan Adu-Gyamfi
38. ScHoolboy Q – Oxymoron
The Interscope in-fighting was a distraction. Forget that some dudes in an office didn’t think enough carpoolers heard “Collard Greens.” Did they not listen to Quincy’s daughter, before Nez and Rio’s cracked piano lick pulled away the curtain? Fuck rap, dad is a gangster.
You thought the system would blunt his edge? That the German-born, South Central L.A.-raised son of two soldiers ever thought a project this threatening was a compromise says more about him than the album. The trademarks—the vicious rhythmic spontaneity, the syrupy slur, the comic sense of tragedy—stand stronger than ever. Brains on doormats, uncles robbing mothers, drive-bys at bedtimes, cockroach cereal. But also pink mustaches, piggybacks for Misses Piggy, noogies, and chicken nuggets. We didn’t need “Studio” or “Hell of a Night”, commercials jarringly punctuating the surrounding weight, to see Quincy have fun. His humor is right there in the fog. Q is drug-addled, angry, regretful, sarcastic, silly, overworked, addicted, famous, full of fatherly dedication. This is less the meticulous narrative precision of Kendrick’s childhood tales, more a pill cocktail of contradiction and reflection, swerving in and out of lucidity. Schoolboy made a chart-topping rap album in 2014 built to be played in moments of weakness and rage: a true oxymoron. – Tosten Burks
37. Ratking – So It Goes
Of the year’s best rap albums, only a few consist of beats primarily made by one producer. Out of that slim selection, Ratking’s So It Goes sounds the most like the time and place in which it was created: New York City in 2014. Madlib made a better album, but he never once spent time in the same recording booth as Gibbs. El-P made a better album, but of course he did.
Sporting Life, the man behind every track on So It Goes, may be the most underrated producer working right now. The best example of his genius is “Remove Ya,” in which he puts the “Dispet Anthem” sample over grime drums and drops in an audio clip of the NYPD’s racist stop and frisk policy in action. That song’s also only grown more relevant in the months since the album’s release, and Hak’s verse is as painful a cry against the boys in blue as the protests that shut down the west side highway.
While Sporting Life is the backbone of Ratking, Wiki is the undeniable centerpiece. He raps like he breathes, constant and effortless. Whether he’s trading lines with his girl on “Puerto Rican Judo” or tearing through verses on “Canal” and “Snow Beach,” his skill and charisma find their way to surface. Hak’s a less “classically good” rapper, but there are some amazing lines that can be extracted from his Dizzee Rascal flow.
Ratking is younger, scrappier, and not quite as fully formed as the other groups that dropped classics this year, but So It Goes stands out for its cohesiveness, its focused effort. It’s the product of three uniquely skilled artists with a shared vision working together at a certain time and specific city. — Will Hagle
36. Amen Dunes – Love
The best records often pummel. They are emotional, affective, the stuff that sticks with you throughout the day. It’s a feeling of heaviness, but less a burden than a constant reminder of its power and hold on you. There’s no record from 2014 that better exemplifies this feeling than Amen Dunes’s Love. Damon McMahon’s project has always been rather insular (the moniker is almost assuredly a solo project.) It’s no coincidence that Love, his first record to feature true collaboration (he recorded with Godspeed You! Black Emperor and solicited contributions from members of Iceage and Colin Stetson) is also his most accessible and evocative. Amen Dunes no longer feels like a “project,” but an assured band conjuring up some of the strongest interpretations of folk music currently available.
There’s a pervasive intimacy throughout Love that lends itself extraordinarily well to Damon McMahon’s voice. His vocals are constantly seeking clarity—the instruments play an antagonistic role: it’s as if voice and instrument are battling for supremacy, but instead of a decisive winner, the result is wonderful harmony. McMahon’s at his finest when he exaggerates his annunciations, particularly on “Spirits Are Parted,” in which he sounds like a male counterpart to Joanna Newsom. It’s best to think of Love as a cohesive whole, less individual songs than contributions to a greater whole. And this is the path McMahon has taken with Love, opening his world up to outside collaborators in an attempt at something grand; something, perhaps, that feels wonderfully heavy. — Will Schube
35. Curren$y – Drive In Theatre
Louisiana rappers are generally known for making music to ride to, but Curren$y’s Drive In Theatre mix tape is better suited for idling. The “Jet Life” school of rhyme—predicated on stoner doctrine and voiced with a lethargic Cajun drawl—will never be mistaken for cinematic, but the 15-track mix tape somehow manages to live up to its ambitious name.
Drive In Theatre approximates the comfort of sitting behind the wheel of a parked car, heat whooshing from the dash vents and smoke trailing from a spliff. Perhaps an insignificant other slumped in the passenger seat. The film being projected on the big screen has no discernible plot, but the score, courtesy of Thelonious Martin, Cardo, Cooking Soul, and several other like-minded producers, is beyond reproach. The beats are somber and spellbinding, in the vein of OutKast’s ATLiens and Nas’s Lost Tapes, though, without the gravity of big ideas or moral dilemmas. The gist is low stakes, the production is high grade, and Curren$y is arguably the most effective game manager that rap has to offer. — Harold Stallworth
34. Keysound – Certified Connections
There’s dancing out of euphoria, and then there’s dancing to escape. I don’t mean metaphorical escape; I mean actual escape, like from a cavern underground. The dancing you do to the tracks on Keysound’s Certified Connections compilation is not the same kind of dancing you do to, say, Disclosure’s “Latch.”
The fourteen tracks of mostly instrumental grime on Certified Connections – from a murderers’ row of London’s finest producers – are uniformly sparse and forbidding. Synthesizers do not beautify; they befuddle. Percussive elements are there more to lull you into a false sense of security than they are to establish a rhythm to which you could ostensibly dance.
The provenance of the darkness here isn’t just sonic. Murlo was re-watching Jodorowsky movies while he composed the Vangelis-indebted “Broken Arrow.” Epoch drew inspiration from YouTube videos about early nuclear weapons testing. “That space after the initial flash and before the shockwave, and seeing the mushroom cloud appear in the distance.”
But though their influences are dire, the point, after all, is to dance, and the grooves here are infectious. In that way, the music both strands you in the labyrinth, and provides you with the map of how to get out: cavernous darkness engulfs you, and only your own footwork can save you. – Jordan Pedersen
33. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
Even if you’ve never heard a lick of their music, if you’ve heard of Parquet Courts, you have an idea of what they sound like. The same points are jumped on: “The dream of the 90’s is alive on the Courts!”; “These guys are really pounding the Pavement, huh? LOLOL NAILED IT.” But, as the case is with most music, great execution will trump a novel idea nine times out of ten. Parquet Courts have limited (if any) interest in reinventing the form. Musically, they are (mostly) indebted to the off-center rock ‘n roll of their Clinton-era forebears, but they largely utilize shronking guitars (“Always Back in Town”), breezy, Malkmus-esque guitar lines (“Dear Ramona”), karutrock-in-minature pieces (the instrumental “Up all Night”), and “bash everything” takes on punk rock (the album’s title track) as a backdrop for distinct and fully-formed lyrical voice.
Sunbathing Animal is littered with the stray images caught by the eye of the observant and young of Moleskine notebooks, broken necks, and “the last classic rock band’s last solid record.” Their lyrics detailing the social concerns of being in a band, killing time at friends’ workplaces, and the sensation of bleeding profusely all bend and ebb and flow at a poetic pace, never feeling frivolously wordy or endangering the song by bludgeoning it with words. Even as the words tumble out of Andrew Savage’s mouth on “Sunbathing Animal,” the pacing of the words feels measured and thoughtful.
When bands are described as literary,” usually it’s in a Decemberist-y sort of way, with antiquated pronunciation land five-dollar vocabulary. It ends up feeling like the band thinks they’re above the audience by talking at them instead of talking to them. Parquet Courts succeed because they not only describe the minor heartbreaks and mundane snapshots of the life of young adults, they’re doing it in a way that’s actually connecting emotionally with their audience. The lyricists of 90’s indie-rock—especially the era in which we try to fit Parquet Courts—were mostly tempering their lyricism with ironic distance, but the Courts are about poetically, insightfully, trying to make sense of an era in our lives where hardly anything makes real sense. Sunbathing Animal takes the stoner crises and travels to Bismark, ND of Light Up Gold and bring us something more lived-in, something that really cuts to the core of our aspirations, fears, and bored afternoons. — Martin Douglas
32. Hellfyre Triple Headed Hydra (milo – a toothpaste suburb / Busdriver – Perfect Hair / NoCanDo – Jimmy the Burnout)
Who would have thought that a veteran art-rap weirdo, a freestyle battle champion, a 22-year-old philosophy dropout, and rap’s most scathing satirist would become the most impressively prolific collective in the rap game? Hellfyre Club has redefined what a collective can accomplish and be in the current landscape.
Busdriver hasn’t rehashed an old idea over the course of his eight album solo career. Perfect Hair is a perfect melding of boundary pushing within a pop context. The record’s more of a “rap album” than his previous release, Beau$Eros, but as with anything associated with Bus, any sort of genre tag is a grave disservice to the music being created. “Ego Death” finds Bus running circles around both Aesop and Danny Brown, which is to be expected from the Project Blowed, free-firing menace. “Upsweep,” is the gorgeous platonic ideal of that sing-rap style Bus has been sporting since Drake was in a wheelchair. “Eat Rich” is a skittering, post-Low End Theory cut produced by Kenny Segal, where Bus sings, “I’m so hungry/I could eat the rich.” It’s the sort of overtly-political statement that’s necessary in the ass-backwards world we live in.
milo’s Hellfyre debut, a toothpaste suburb, is likely the best record of 2014 that name drops Jean Genet. He fits nicely in between Busdriver and Nocando, matching Bus’s intellectualism with Nocando’s forthright wit and romanticism. His dexterity is often overshadowed by his lyricism and wordplay, but his rhyme schemes—especially the subtler internal pulsings—make a toothpaste suburb a remarkably assured record, and one of the best offerings rap saw in 2014.
NoCanDo’s transformed from a one-liner specialist into a fine craftsman rapping heartbroken love tales. “Little Green Monsters” is a menacing and angry affair, with a growl backed by glass percussion and hi-hats moving at a million miles a minute. “Did You Know That???” finds him showing off his songwriting chops, boasting a chorus as strong as anything he’s ever penned. “Hellfyre Club Anthem” is exactly that: an ode to the underlying philosophy that keeps this collective primed to rip the rap scene. Nocando raps, “I’m ’bout to loot like the riots are never over/I’m ’bout to turn these Chuck Taylor’s into some leather loafers.” And this seems to be what Hellfyre’s all about: turning whatever’s available into something wonderful, new, eager, opportune, and fresh. — Will Schube
31. Teklife – Next Life
Rashad Harden’s premature death in April left behind not only a flourishing career — one late-blooming outside of Chicago — but more importantly, his son, Chad. Kode9, whose Hyperdub Records released Rashad’s debut album Double Cup, which introduced him to a wider audience, set about releasing a compilation featuring his affiliates, with the proceeds going to the younger Harden. Many of the seminal figures from the classic Planet Mu compilation Bangs & Works have returned for Next Life, most notably footwork’s creator, RP Boo, ghettotech forefather, Traxman, and Teklife figurehead, DJ Spinn. Welcomed into the fold is, most notably, Gan-Man, a Chicago legend in his own right.
Next Life isn’t a somber funeral march but a survey of Chicago juke and footwork, from its cold, grey corners to chopped, disco-y samples. The more polished, soulful sound favored by Rashad on his magnum opus, Double Cup, is well represented, particularly by DJ Manny’s “Harvey Ratchet” and DJs Spinn & Taso’s collaboration, “Burn That Kush.” Listeners even get a sampling of pre-juke/footwork sounds: jungle in particular looms large for DJs Earl & Taye’s “Do This Again” and Boylan’s “He Watching Us.” Chicago has been home to some of the most vibrant dance music scenes in the United States, and though its prodigal son has departed, Next Life shows that the Windy City’s fertile soil will continue birthing and influencing new generations of innovative DJs and producers. — Torii MacAdams
30. Aphex Twin – Syro
Comic book publishers Image put out a great new series this year in Alex + Ada, a sci-fi love story about a lonely twenty-something and his android companion who becomes self aware. Publishing at the same time as Aphex Twin’s Syro was released, it struck me that both could easily be companion pieces. Like Ada, the record is a salient, synthetic beauty that despite being masterfully constructed by its creator appears entirely organic. The way the keyboards bounce, coil and slide so freely make the whole album sound alive, defying all logic that a flesh-and-bone human actually sat down and programmed it to do so. To listen to Syro is, I’d imagine, much like diving into the frenetic consciousness of a sentient being.
Despite the complexity, Syro is perhaps the warmest, most approachable record Richard James has ever made. The squelchy synths are fun to hear. The drums shuffle and ping but never grate, while the ambient textures and skewered vocal loops glide along gracefully. Nothing about the LP is angry or rushed. It may even go down as the real charmer in Aphex Twin’s discography. The one you tell new listeners to take a look at first.
There are plenty of stories of artificially intelligent machines grappling with humanity so Alex + Ada has an air of familiarity to it. Syro, too, doesn’t break much new ground, with constant flashes of eighties and nineties acid house, rave and electro-funk throughout (James is essentially working within the framework which he once helped create). But it sounds nothing less than a fully-funcioning Aphex Twin release—a showcase that, even as nettles into middle age, nobody is quite like James when he’s on point. — Dean Van Nguyen
29. Lil Herb – Welcome to Fazoland
Fazoland. Named for the dearly departed, it is a world of extremes. Million dollar dreams are born out of dungeon-like Section 8 basements. Fight or flight is learned from familiar faces on dead bodies, not Darwin. Stop at one too many red lights in the summer and stop for all eternity. Faith is reserved for family and squad—God left a long time ago. This is not the world of a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Fazoland is Chicago’s East Side, the world of Lil Herb, the most promising rapper to emerge from the drill scene; currently one of the most important rappers from Chicago. As Abe Beame pointed out in his piece a few weeks ago, Herb’s Welcome to Fazoland combines a New York lyricist’s penchant for multi-syllabic bars with the fatalistic ferocity of drill. It’s filled with the knowledge acquired on war-torn corners, more remorse, regret and retaliation than you can process in one sitting.
Herb’s rapping, which displays make growth from previous efforts, is only elevated by production that hits like a death knell. The bass is unforgiving; the hi-hats skitter like semi-automatics; the funereal choral chants aren’t implied, they sound buried in the background (e.g. “Koolin”). There are also slices of looped soul on “Fight or Flight” and “Still Fucked Up.” The latter is the most honest, vivid and emotive rap song from the Windy City this year. Here and everywhere else, the grit and anger Kendrick Lamar often strains his vocal chords to achieve, projects from Herb’s with an effortlessness that betokens a truly broken young man. For the sake of comparison, Herb is Chicago’s Kevin Gates sans Kermit crooning. Welcome to Fazoland is the sound of him drowning his PTSD with kush and codeine while still strapped in the trenches. Rap isn’t just his road to riches, it is his escape route, the first step towards therapy. — Max Bell
28. Rich Gang – Tha Tour Part I
The Tour Part 1 isn’t a perfect rap record. It’s too lively and inventive to be concerned with anything as boring as perfection. It’s a snapshot of some of rap’s most talented young artists in the midst of a wildly creative period, and that’s way, way more exciting.
At 20 tracks, it’s been called overlong, but I prefer “generous.” Thugger and Quan’s vocal styles complement each other so well that even the record’s lesser cuts are perfectly pleasant, with Quan’s smooth, almost demure baritone grounding Thugger’s more strident moments. They cover a lot of ground in 83 minutes from club-ready joints (“Flava,” “Tell Em (Lies),” to slow rollers (“Freestyle,” “Keep It Goin,”) to one of the straight-up most romantic rap songs ever written (“Milk Marie.”)
It’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny . Thugger’s “she gon’ look over these bitches like terms and conditions” might be the punchline of the year. London On Da Track’s contributions must be acknowledged, too. Charged with the bulk of the production, he laced Thugger and Quan with some of his best work to date, sharp and understated. The man knows how to sample keys.
The Tour Part 1 feels like a truly collaborative effort, the kind that made the Spurs a dynasty. It’s a real whole being more than the sum situation, with each constituent part pushing the others to be better. Close your eyes, listen to Thugger and Quan trading bars and harmonizing on “Tell Em (Lies)” and tell me you don’t see alley-oops. – Adam Wray
27. Chef Raekwon – We Wanna Thank You
The We Wanna Thank You mix tape began its existence modestly. On paper it sounds like Raekwon didn’t do much at all—rapping one verse over a looped piece of an old song, and then letting the rest of that song play though. Except Rae’s great even when he’s not trying too hard, and that old song was Rose Royce’s seminal soul classic “Wishing On A Star.” And so the unexpectedly mighty #tbt weekly series was born.
More entries followed, utilizing other classics like The Isley’s “Footsteps In The Dark” and Tina Marie’s “Ooh La La La.” Each was entertaining. Rae was clearly just having a bit of fun, paying homage to his favorite cook-out music for the benefit of his most devoted fans. But the reaction was immediately favorable, and after some weeks the support for the new installments grew to a cultish movement. Things eventually culminated with the series being packaged as this mix tape. I’m honestly not sure if Rae himself intended for this to happen. I’d like to think the grassroots support encouraged him to put it out.
Ironically, by modern mixtape standards, it could be considered a disappointment or lazy. There are rarely more than 16 bars rapped on any one track and production beyond simple looping (if even that much). But We Wanna Thank You is not about any of that. It’s not even about rap, even though the writing is stylish and vivid, and each track somehow manages to carve out a mini-narrative in just a few lines. What it’s really about are the songs he is going over.
The selections span 30+ years of soul and R&B. When the mix tape is played all the way through, the rapping, as good as it is, ultimately fades into the background. A new dimension is revealed, one much less noticeable when listening to the tracks piecemeal. Rae is not here to rap to us; he’s here to play us these songs. His role in the project, whether intentionally or not, becomes that of a Master of Ceremonies. The verses he adds have no ego, they are just good embellishments to a really great oldies mix he put together for our enjoyment… kind of by accident. — Alex Piyevsky
26. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
The gatefold artwork on the vinyl version of Salad Days depicts Mac DeMarco’s home studio: a cramped room with guitars, keys and piles of recording equipment stashed under a lofted bed. A Grateful Dead flag hangs over his desk; a sticker on the wall reads “Queen of Fart.” DeMarco can be spotted in a mirror on the wall, his eyes wide for the camera and his arms wrapped around a girl wearing a Simpsons t-shirt.
This scene best explains everything intimate and personal about Salad Days. DeMarco has referred to the small space as his own sort of “Chamber of Reflection,” a place where thoughts and emotions are processed and dealt with and great synth lines like the one on that song are apparently made. “Let My Baby Stay” is about that girl in the Simpsons t-shirt, DeMarco’s longtime Canadian girlfriend. The song recalls the dreaminess of early Velvet Underground, DeMarco pleading for America to forgive her illegal immigrant status over a subdued chord progression and soft rhythm that never falters. Otherwise, Salad Days is a riff-driven album, with clean, soft, bluesy guitar work that would make Jerry Garcia proud.
Looking at the gatefold artwork, it’s easier to understand how little personal details like these subtly seeped their way into DeMarco’s songs. It’s another testament to his mastery of intricacy, sense of humor, goofy presence, and songwriting craft.- Will Hagle
25. Warpaint – Warpaint
Earlier in the year, the ladies of Warpaint encountered a little controversy by essentially saying mainstream R&B acts such as Rihanna and Beyonce should sound more like Warpaint. Pretty problematic from a feminist and a race perspective, sure, but there’s plenty of value in subtlety and artfulness. The quartet has never sounded sleeker or more focused than on their sophomore full-length; never have they sounded more resonant or singular. In places they explore sounds that are good enough to carry future albums: The low-rumbling and jazzy, “Go In,” the minimalist-until-the-climax, “Drive,” the quasi-mathy post-punk of “Keep It Healthy” could serve as the whole foundation for future albums if that’s the direction they decided to go in.
Each of the album’s songs have a sophisticated after-dark lilt, the musical equivalent of a resplendent-but-tastefully-furnished, Ace Hotel-modern room with a window overlooking a vast metropolitan area at night. Songs like “Hi” and “Teese” are slow-burning numbers with lingering baselines that crescendo to about half-volume and feel like slinking into a warm, comfortable bed that’s not yours. But not necessarily to sleep. The sexuality within the grooves of Warpaint is by no means overt or acknowledged, but it still should be your top choice for mood music while you’re between the sheets.
Warpaint is seductive without trying to be, ruminative without calling a great deal of attention to it, and sonically vast while using few moving parts. It’s the sound of a band making a big statement as quietly as they can, the sound of a heretofore promising band finally coming into their own and capitalizing on their wealth of promise. — Martin Douglas
24. Big K.R.I.T. – Cadillactica
Let’s be clear, Cadillactica is both a stunning return to form and a fulfillment of the promise we first held for Big K.R.I.T. The key to the album comes on the opener, “Kreation (intro),” and its slickly rapped mantra, “Let’s just take our time.” That’s what the Meridian, Mississippi rapper has done, giving himself an eighteen month break from the mix tape grind, and it’s paid off handsomely. Song for song, this is the strongest collection of music in KRIT’s career. He’s also harnessed a singular charisma.
Check out the videos for “Cadillactica” or “Pay Attention,” two of the strongest cuts on the record. For the first time, he’s packing legit star quality. If you like your cars box-shaped and your slabs smoked just right, this might just be your album of the year. — Matt Shea
23. Mick Jenkins — The Water[s]
The best rap projects are ideally filled with hard-hitting bangers and anthems that are made, as if in a ice tray, with careful attention to their shape. Curling around these blocks on track lists are the introspective and experimental songs about love, loss and laughs.
“Martyrs” set up the scaffolding of Mickolas Cage’s career approximately a year ago and the more cubed, hard corners of “Jerome,” “THC,” “Who Else,” and “Dehydration” helped shape him. Nosaj Thing’s “Fog” was bottled and recast into “514,” a wispy track that, along with “Vibe,” “Shipwrecked,” and the medicine-manned, “Healter,” add the required vapor essence. But this project has liquid. Where else would those cherry stems float?
Songs like “Black Sheep,” Canada Dry,” and “Comfortable,” spill with substance. Lines like “Been around the world enough to know that you will never get rich if you the wrong broke / Can’t live life through a song quote, man,” stain. Long after “The Waters” and “Drink More Water” play, they stay soaked in. These songs are, for lack of a worse word, watery. They’re undetermined until assuming the shape of their receptacle. “Jazz” took the same Yael Naim rendition of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” and made it Pour in a way at A.dD+, The Game and ScHoolboy Q couldn’t. The song is Chicago’s acid rain storm, a year after The Acid Rapper proclaimed the city “Paranoid” of itself (not coincidentally, with Nosaj’s aid).
Water, in its most familiar form, is nothing if not cohesive and reliable—exactly the traits most absent from usual rap releases. The Water[s] is a literal and metaphorical rain dance, a release crafted to squeeze the fluid out of a form that often forgets how to flow. The water reminded someone. — Alex Dwyer
22. Boosie – Life After Death Row
On 2000’s Youngest of da Camp, there’s a song called “Young Niggaz”, where a 17-year-old Lil’ Boosie and his cousin Donkey both make reference to Angola. This, of course, is the Louisiana state penitentiary where Boosie would eventually serve over half a decade behind bars. By the time he was processed, he was the king of Baton Rouge; when he was finally, improbably released this March, he was a cult hero across the country.
This album shouldn’t exist. For everything we know about the American criminal justice system, you don’t get dealt Boosie’s hand and walk away from the table. But there he was, on faux-thrones and magazine covers. The songs started coming. On “Crazy” he bragged about racking up baby mamas and taunted rappers with 360 deals. His “Lifestyle” remix was so good it justified its existence. By the time Life After Death Row came out, all Boosie had to do was take a victory lap and 2014 would be his in the history books. Instead, he went for throats.
The rallying cry is the second song, “I’m Coming Home”, wherein Boosie gets the final word with all the fair-weather friends who abandoned him while he rotted in Angola. It’s a recurring theme. From “The Fall”: “Niggas who I fucked with forgot my son’s Jordan size!” Still, the most powerful moments are the ones where Boosie is free. Closer “O Lord” is the most affecting rap song 2014 gave us, from the verses that end “Boosie, what’s wrong?/ Nothing, mama, I just wanna come home” to the empathetic looks at his cell-block neighbors.
When you see that the now-32-year-old Boosie has another song called “Young Niggas”, you expect it to be from a place of authority, a wiser Boosie Boo with DC newcomer Shy Glizzy as his reckless foil. But the first line draws the party lines differently: Boosie’s gleeful “I’m a young nigga!” cuts the interceding 15 years clean in half. He’s home. – Paul Thompson
21. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
In defiance of both Creationists and God herself, Annie Clark proves that evolution is a very real and tangible force in this universe. On her self-titled, fourth solo CD, the Oklahoman continues to unfurl her glorious freak flag that much further. While it’s arguable folly to consider any phase of a musician whose career arc has included stints with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens as “tame,” it should be pointed out that this album follows her “Love This Giant” project with David Byrne, whose impact can be felt here and in her live performances. (Her Dadaistic dance moves of late speak for themselves).
Emotive on every album she’s dropped, this takes the paranoia of “Strange Fruit” and amps the frenetic energy all the way up to 11. Opener “Rattlesnake” is an 80s funk-fest that would get Dam Funk’s foot tapping — recounting a true life, all-nude run-in with a serpent on a friend’s ranch. And that’s to get the ball rolling. While the album was released before the very recent CIA torture revelations and police getting away with murder, St. Vincent does an eerily prescient job of capturing the sense of the walls falling down while the roof remains on fire that 2014 has become. “Digital Witness,” with its refrain of, “what’s the point of even sleeping?/If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/What’s the point of doing anything?” is as apt a description of living in today’s seemingly acceptable Big Brother society as you’re likely to hear. Ms. Clark also lets her guitar chops show a bit more too.
From the crunch of “Regret” to the plaintive, chugging finger work just beneath “Prince Johnny,” St. Vincent is perhaps the most underrated guitarist of her day. Not of “just” women guitarists, but of anyone of any genitalia who dares to shred an axe today. It’s good and right that Annie waited this long into her career before going eponymous on the title front. St. Vincent is a mission statement, building upon the foundation she’s already built for herself. Whether the next metamorphosis goes Species-like or the way of some freakishly colored butterfly, St. Vincent demonstrates that evolution is not to be feared, but rather embraced greedily. — Chris Daly
20. BadBadNotGood – III
On their first two independently released albums, Canadian jazz trio BADBADNOTGOOD had cultivated a burgeoning reputation for making jazz-mashing covers of classic hip-hop instrumentals. As pure novelty, it was a neat party trick that earned BBNG the admiration of fellow outlaw, Tyler,the Creator. But as an expression of their overall musicianship, their covers of Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” or Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo” felt fundamentally limiting in nature. You don’t make Carnegie Hall covering Drake’s “Practice.”
The group’s impressive third LP, III, proves they are more than Girl Talk with a Q-Tip fetish, as BBNG squarely delivers a unified set of original compositions that confidently explores the intersections of jazz, hip-hop and electronica. The Toronto trio are assured in their songwriting, crafting detailed arrangements that explore an impressive musicality and improvisation. Their intricate instrumentation consistently finds new territory to explore on the record, whether it’s the pulsating synth tones on “Can’t Leave The Night” or guess saxophones Leland Whitty’s ornate improvisation on the show-stealer, “Confessions.” BADBADNOTGOOD’s III is concrete evidence that jazz can remain a vital element in American popular music when handled by growing artists with fresh ideas. #listentomorejazz — Doc Zeus
19. Migos – No Label II
With No Label 2, Migos proved “Versace” wouldn’t be their last heater to rock the bando. A sequel to their 2012 mix tape, the gold-obsessed trio stick to their unlicensed guns with more tales from the hood twilight-zone. Delivered in staccato, each line a repeatable phrase for the ADD listener. Migos continue to expand their delivery past rapping in triplets, but anyone familiar with the gonzo hood scholars should expect regular references to Motorola cell phones and infinitely shouted ad-libs.
Quavo & Co. recently added “repeat hit makers” to their trap resume, producing plug-endorsed bangers, “Fight Night” and “Handsome and Wealthy.” The latter shows Migos tiptoeing into melodic hooks, which are also present on the popular “Freak no More” and the Zaytoven produced, “Add It Up.” Of course, it helps that they enlisted a production hit squad including the always-hungry Metro Boomin, 808 mobster Honorable C Note, and frequent collaborator, Phenom Da Don.
Using a hectic schedule modeled after Gucci Mane, who was previously managed by current boss, Coach K, the trio have already released follow up, Rich Nigga Timeline. The quality of the two is comparable, but No Label 2 took them from from luxury garment name-droppers to new Atlanta’s very own John, Paul and George. At 25 tracks long, No Label 2 isn’t designed for a single headphone session, unless you have a superhuman resistance to listener’s fatigue. Instead, condense your favorites into one riot-inducing mix and you’ll have suburban moms tweaking before you can say, “In the trap with two guns like I’m Tomb Raider.” — Jimmy Ness
18. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
You’re Dead! is an odd record—it’s not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be (it’s certainly not the jazz album Lotus marketed it as)—but this mishmash is a welcome left-turn from the typical “song as subservient to whole” mindset attached to Fly Lo’s work. You’re Dead! isn’t catered to a future live show, it’s a work in and of itself. “Coronus, The Terminator” is a gorgeous track—lush, funky, and perhaps the greatest standalone track in Lotus’s canon. “Turtles” turns an old Morricone track into a minute-long soundscape, which, despite it being a ‘soundscape,’ serves a genuine purpose.
As on any album he’s feature on, You’re Dead! would take a significant hit without Thundercat’s ridiculous bass playing. “Never Catch Me” is saved by Thundercat’s latter-half rescue mission. But for all of the aforementioned shortcomings, You’re Dead! remains a staggeringly ambitious work in a year in which even the most acclaimed albums often felt weirdly stale. —Will Schube
17. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
What is it about Scandinavians that makes them so capable of providing the world with relentlessly catchy music? In Todd Terje’s case, the offending song in question is 2012’s “Inspector Norse,” arguably the catchiest track you haven’t heard this decade and a song so excellent that I’m certain that Terje didn’t hesitate to build 2014’s, It’s Album Time, around it.
To Terje’s credit, he never tries too hard to hit the sweet spot he found on “Inspector Norse” anywhere else on the album, since that probably would have resulted in something resembling a Blackberry relaunch. Instead, he “settles” for a series of relatively great disco, house, electronic and faux new-wave tracks, the best of which happens to be the rare cover that improves on its source material, in the form of a dirge-like version of Robert Palmer’s 1980 single, “Johnny and Mary,” featuring the only vocals on the album from ’80s art-rock legend, Brian Ferry. Terje somehow manages to expand his horizons as a producer by limiting his ambitions. — Mobb Deen
16. Mr. Mitch – Parallel Memories
The first time I heard Mr. Mitch’s Denial, I was on the corner of Sherbrooke and Peel on my way back from lunch. I stopped dead in my tracks, sat down on a bench and listened. As a guy who’d gone through a trifecta of breakups, post-hookup drama and unrequited love over the past 6 months, this track was entirely too much for me to handle. I didn’t cry (c’mon son…) but if life came with subtitles, mine would have read *SCREAMS INTERNALLY*.
It takes a lot for me to listen to music that’s willfully, forcefully sad—it messes with my (already fragile) moods and I’ve grown up in a culture that uses music as a sort of psychic armor—Mobb Deep told me there’s a war going on outside and by all accounts, they were right. Mr. Mitch knows this as much as anyone, but he’s also honest enough to admit that underneath Grime’s tough guy bravado, there’s a lot of hurt. It’s that balance of urban energy and uncompromising emotion that makes Parallel Memories so special. The record doesn’t soften Grime so much as expose a latent vulnerability that was already there. The R&G movement and 2014’s cycle of weightless instrumentals are brought up as touch points, but really I’m reminded more of Dizzee Rascal’s sadboy remix to “I Luv U” and the minor key moments on “Boy in the Corner,” records that treated emotional release as the antidote to a culture that’s all too quick to tell boys to “man up.”
In this light, the album’s darker moments seem all the more threatening, whether “It Takes Hold of You’s” hyper-glacial atom, “Wandering Glacier’s” cavernous bounce or “Fly Soup’s” distorted ghetto house. These are the sounds that bring about the pain expressed in the album’s softer moments. Parallel Memories is easily the highest profile instrumental grime album yet thats to its Planet Mu release, and it will undoubtedly serve to influence countless producers. It’s important however to remember that this isn’t “emo grime”—it’s music born from a person and a place, not a record that pulls your heartstrings for its own sake. Now pass me the Appleton’s, I need a drink. — Son Raw
15. Chester Watson – Tin Wooki
You know what Guru said about the voice. But to call Chester Watson “monotone” because of his dry vocal tone couldn’t be more reductive. Ostensibly from St. Louis, Watson is really a product of the internet (“blogs say I’m heaven-sent”), bones and capillaries and multisyllabic rhymes and fractured imagery. Sure, there’s a DOOM influence (he says “villain” a handful of times and call himself “Sir Metal Wig”); sure, he sounds a bit like Earl Sweatshirt. But the teenager has mastered tone in a way that eludes his peers–and most of his elders.
Tin Wooki should be an odyssey. Twenty-eight songs. Seventy minutes. Fortunately, this isn’t the indulgent demo you give to your high school cronies. “Will Darkness” is half of a scene from a black-and-white noir. “Monotone Samurai” is the calm after the storm — the third-act come-down. This is focus. Watson, who produces or co-produces half the tracks here, breaks Tin Wooki into discrete parts over and over again, until each ninety-second turn is its own thought, immersive. That Tin Wooki is so well-edited yet retains so much viscerality is a matter that demands its own investigation.
Watson is a preternaturally gifted writer, even when he’s playing with familiar building blocks. The Earl comparisons are driven at least in part by the vocal similarities, but the young rappers share a similar toolbox of flows and phrases that are warped with end rhymes prioritized over coherence. That’s a good thing–what “Sweets” lacks in linearity it more than makes up for in devil-may-care zen. As a pejorative term, Tin Wooki is not an odyssey, long and mangled and impossible to navigate. But to take the term in earnest, the record does usher you on a hazy, delirious trip through the mind of a brilliant eccentric, stopping only to dap up the “Lucifer playing Wii-Fit”. So, semantics. — Paul Thompson
14. Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
Here are two ways to look at black folks and the Sun Ra-inspired idea that space is the place. For one, how can we even begin to look outside of the stratosphere when recent events have reminded us that we can’t even get things right in one country? To counter argue that, perhaps things are so fucked that the only choice is to jump into the stars. The stunning Lese Majesty dropped before Michael Brown and Eric Garner involuntarily became symbols of a long-seeded rage. Still, it makes a damn good argument the the latter might be the correct choice.
While Black Up is told with a socially aware tongue during that flight from Earth to space, Lese Majesty finds Shabazz Palaces playing within the cosmic concatenations surrounding them. The album is divided into suites whose abstract names come off a bit misleading: Suite 1 is “The Phasing Shift,” the middle Suite is “Pleasure Milieu” and the finale is “Murkings on the Oxblood Starway.” But there isn’t much of a science fiction plot or conflict here; any abrasion is smoothed out as the production fluidly makes its way though various feats of alchemy. And it’s all accessible despite mostly sounding of another astral plane. The playful clacks and eccentricities of “#CAKE” make way for a coda that’s a post-Earth cover of “Planet Rock.” The whizzing synths and doohickeys in “Harem Aria” prove two-stepping isn’t restricted by galaxy. Throughout, THEESatisfaction are your goddesses.
What arguably puts Lese Majesty over Black Up is how polychromatic it is. Its influences—whether intensified boom-gap (“…down 155th in the MCM Snorkel”) or Jimi Hendrix by-way-of the avant-garde, “Colluding Oligarchs”—aren’t distant, but rather skillfully stirred and cooked into this intoxicating package. Even though it’s of parts unknown, away from a fragmented nation, this is a package with that mix of enigma and excitement to have an appeal from Calabar, to Montmarte, to Dallas, to Atlanta… — Brian Josephs
13. Ariel Pink – Pom Pom
Is he a pied piper or a pariah? A misogynist or a nymphomaniac? Is he a real-life troll, or does he transform into one whenever a recording device is turned on in his presence? The sometimes-magnetic, sometimes-off-putting perversity of the music of Ariel Pink and its concomitant persona has created some of indie music’s weirdest material for a solid decade, eventually trading up to the green pastures of the genre’s mainstream sector, which over the past decade has largely just become a sea of vanilla pudding.
Ariel Pink albums have always been a hodgepodge of AM Gold melted down and re-sculpted in the form of a gargoyle with enormous breasts. pom pom seems like Pink’s most sex-crazed album of his stellar cluster of records released for 4AD, a prowling celebration of all sorts of sexuality, from awkward nipple-pinching while being given a lap dance (which strip clubs obviously have stringent rules against) on “Black Ballerina” to combining an exotic 80’s pop labyrinth on “Lipstick,” plowing through precious time looking for girls. As always, Pink mines a wide variety of musical motifs in order to get to the thing that’s always on his mind: those sweet lady parts.
There’s always been a very accomplished sense of musicality in Pink’s music, even—or maybe especially— when it sounds like a weird mess. There’s “Dinosaur Carebears,” a carnival of horrors until it segues into coked-out glammy disco. “Sexual Athletics” starts out as a thumping funk track—the kind of song that makes people scream “Aw shit!” and immediately hit the dance floor—before congealing into a glittery, late-50’s jingle riding on an open road. And of course, there’s always Pink’s perverse sense of humor, which includes romantic nostalgia between a 41-year-old man and an 8-year-old girl, a spoken-word interlude where Pink outs himself as The Frog Prince, and a throwaway assertion that he eats raw meat. Just as quickly comes a moment of pure sweetness like “Put Your Number in My Phone.” There’s no way to possibly telegraph what Pink’s going to say, and that’s part of what makes his music so exciting.
In all its sprawl and splendor, its bizarre comedy and disarming sincerity, pom pom might just be the apotheosis of Pink’s decade-plus of recording weird-ass pop music. His persona dares the listener to separate the art from the artist, and the art itself dares the listener to explore this bizarre world of nude beaches, strip clubs, and taco stands buried in memory. — Martin Douglas
12. Kevin Gates – By Any Means
Gates is a rap Terminator. A prolific, skilled lyricist with a gravely Louisiana accent and a can-do, fuck-you attitude. He’s perhaps the most charismatic rapper in the world. When putting my ballot together for the top 25 rap songs of 2014, I asked the Oracle, Jeff Weiss, if the query “Which is the best song on By Any Means?” was answerable with “All of them.” He responded “Basically.” The truth is that, aside from a single, awkward love song (“Go Hard”), By Any Means is an almost flawless album masquerading as a mix tape.
Only a minute into “Wish I Had It,” the opening paean to Gates’s material yearnings—pre-hustling—he makes known that “With Flo Rida, nothin’ in common/I’m not a B.o.B.” That’s not entirely true. Gates is a gifted chorus writer, capable of catchy hooks; the difference between he and Flo Rida is that on either end of Gates’ choruses are verses few can match. Lesser rappers are more widely praised for openness, but Gates raps about his children’s births within three weeks of each other (“Movie”), his descent into criminality (“Can’t Make This Up”), and his oft-professed love for anilingus that’d make Planned Parenthood blanch (“Again”).
When he’s not dealing with heavy subject matter, Gates often reverts to rapping about his favorite pastime:selling drugs. “Arm and Hammer” is Gates at his most brazenly illegal. His trap girl’s at the store and wants to know what Gates needs. The usual: sandwich bags and Arm and Hammer. Gates doesn’t even seem to enjoy the spoils of trapping, just the sport, rapping, “Fuck the club and the mall, right now I’m stacking my cake up/Fuck you hoes, I could jack off, I don’t play break up to make up.” Gates is almost certainly stacking his cake—in addition to a steady stream of tour dates and loosies, Luca Brasi 2 is due out a week from this writing, his sixth full length in three years. Gates is no longer cooking up hard white in a Michelin-starred bando kitchen, but his hustle is evergreen. — Torii MacAdams
11. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste
Every song on this album is a hit. There’s music for any occasion, with songs that blend genres more effectively than Travi$ Scott and with less gravitas than Kanye West. Azealia can do whatever she wants with her voice and it never sounds forced. When she raps she stays in-pocket, allowing each track to power forward without missing a note. Broke With Expensive Taste solidifies Azealia Banks’s position as one of the best musicians in New York City. She could’ve called it The New Classic.
Azealia Banks is young, brilliant, and believes herself to be omniscient. Like so many artists before her, this has led to self-inflicted problems. In the words of her contemporary: “Soon as they like you, make ’em unlike you.” Azealia will continue to be herself. She’ll break the Internet by dubbing that fraud “Igloo Australia” and subsequently Tweet offensive generalizations. She’ll make mistakes, grow, learn, and mess up again. She lived in label purgatory for 3 years, got dropped, then put out a classic. She’s innovative, provocative, creative, inspiring, and anything but cookie-cutter. She will say whatever the fuck is on her mind and deal with the consequences. In other words, she’s a goddamn artist. And in an era where Apple autocorrects “Azealia” to “Azalea,” I’m thankful for that. — Brad Beatson
10. Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait / Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2
It would be disingenuous to mark 2014 as Vince Staples’ breakout year. As the Long Beach native rapped on “Progressive 3,” the choir-fused intro from Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, he’s still “gunning for stardom.” But with the release of his spottily brilliant major label debut, Hell Can Wait, he did at least manage to crawl out from under the imposing shadow of Odd Future, if only in the eyes of diehard fans and year-end critics. Soccer moms would take Vince Staples for an office-supply mogul, not a hard-nosed gangster rapper, but if we’re willing to accept that fame is simply an unlikely byproduct of singularity, then it’s safe to say he’s headed in the right direction.
Hell Can Wait guides the listener through neglected corners of Vince’s Long Beach neighborhood, where memory lane runs concurrent with modern plight. The more things change, the more they remain the same: poverty, violence, and addiction prove especially stubborn across the length of the 24-minute EP. Lucid memories of his father’s shortcomings fuel his own appetite for hustling and notoriety. He insists on “killing niggas like [his] daddy did.” Police offers terrorize his community and gangsters follow suit. “Hands Up” and “Blue Suede,” his two most dynamic records to date, appear back-to-back, demonstrating an uncharacteristic feat of range in gratifying jolts of realized potential. At his best, Vince is an absolute beast. — Harold Stallworth
9. YG – My Krazy Life
My Krazy Life isn’t a perfect album, but it’s close. After five years of push backs, bloated mix tapes, mounting buzz and anticipation throughout L.A. and the industry—it had to be. When “My Nigga” dropped at the end of 2013, ratchet reached its apex. The months that followed saw a proliferation of Mustard beats. A few were great, some were good, but many garnered Zoolander comparisons for their “blue steel” similarity. He’d taken the minimalist Bayou bounce of Baton Rouge and NoLA and made it his own too many times. Fortunately, Mustard and a small group of auxiliary producers expounded upon that minimalism on My Krazy Life, incorporating more instrumentation (“Left, Right”) and adding the right amount of G-funk (“Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)”). Their sparse suites were innovative without losing their banging immediacy and spontaneity, reverent without being imitative.
None of the above would’ve mattered if YG didn’t deliver. Ostensibly arranged as a concept album, My Krazy Life is a tour of Bompton. YG proved that little has changed. Gangbanging, poverty, and the consequences of both, remain stark realities. While YG has never been the best writer, he pared every line down to the most essential. His words hit with the directness of a sawed off double barrel. And, like Pac before him, YG tempered all grim narratives with ballads to his bitches and an ode to his mother. In doing so, he proved that the key to a commercially successful gangster rap album is a soft side.
Though Mustard and YG are now making songs with Fergie, My Krazy Life cemented their place among the great west coast rap duos of all time. It is the culmination of five years of work and a lifetime of lessons. They didn’t just bring the west coast back—they brought it to the world. — Max Bell
8. The Bug – Angels & Devils
Despite its bipolar title and seemingly basic concept, the strength of The Bug’s Angels and Devils is all in the blur. It’s true that this is a record with two distinct sides, but the quiet before the storm is often more tense than the downpour itself. Binaries of good and evil, beautiful and ugly, loud and quiet—they’re a distraction. These ideas all exist side-by-side alongside the chaos, violence and paranoia we’ve come to expect. Hope in there too, probably, but you’ll need to dig deep—it’s more likely to be buried in the club-conquering catharsis of the record’s second section than oppressively ominous first-half cuts like “Ascension” and “Pandi.” Then again, the louder songs can be just as anxious after dissection. ‘They’re putting bare shit in our food,’ raps Flowdan on “Dirty,” ‘Snipers on my rooftop,’ he warns on “Fat Mac.”
The album clears up a little in the dance, where it’s difficult to focus on anything but the sheer physicality of the thing. At London’s Corsica Studios, “Function” threatened to bring down the roof after multiple rewinds. Two months later at Krakow’s Hotel Forum, light fixtures were literally falling from the ceiling. This isn’t some exercise in hollow machismo though, as The Bug has created a platform for a variety of astutely picked guests. The uncomfortable MC Ride-assisted “Fuck A Bitch” is balanced by Warrior Queen’s empowering sexual dominance on “Fuck You,” while Miss Red and Gonjasufi sound like sad, kindred spirits on “Mi Lost” and “Save Me,” respectively. All of these vocalists bring something of their own, and while the temptation is to separate angels from devils—reality is never black and white. Kevin Martin understands this, which is precisely the reason why this record is such a success. — Kyle Ellison
7. Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo
Isaiah Rashad’s affiliation with TDE is the reason most people started listening to his music (though not all). I’m sure he’s grateful, and we should be too. But now that we’re familiar with Rashad’s talent, it can feel as if he’s been disadvantaged having been absorbed into Kendrick’s crew so early. The Tennessee native’s surface similarities to the alpha wolf of his new Cali pack — his soft-spoken lyricism and penchant for dazed, dreamy beats — seems to have obscured the qualities that make him unique, that make him ferocious. Take that and the fact that Cilvia Demo was released in late January and it’s not hard to explain why the tape went from an early favorite for album of the year to something of an afterthought on some lists.
Still, sleeping on Isaiah is preposterous: you’re not going to find a more complex or more important track than “Tranquility” on any rap album this year, and the material that surrounds the centerpiece of Cilvia is nearly as strong. “Tranquility” is the eye of the storm, where the conflict of the tape is most beautifully rendered: as Rashad explains it, where he comes from, the options are to either be a Caesar or a Brutus. A person can be righteously ambitious and be destroyed, or they can save their enemies the trouble and self-destruct, committing violence of their own. There are times on the tape where this message is more explicit (“Malcolm, they tackle for belief in the movement”); but the very danger of transcendence is a constant here. That deep fear, not of being inadequate but of being powerful without measure, is a very difficult concept to tackle without resorting to the Marianne Wilson-sourced platitudes that anyone who’s seen Coach Carter is familiar with.
Rashad is not platitudinous. He’s focused on details, and specifically Southern details, not only in his dutiful roll call of Dixie rap heroes past and present on “R.I.P. Kevin Miller,” but in his qualities as a bluesman, as a knowing hedonist, as a troubled man of faith. He’s a raconteur as well; though Isaiah Rashad may have been the rapper who kicked off 2014’s spurt of hypebeast-approved political rap (something that we used to call conscious, unashamedly), he did so by placing stories of injustice in his lived experience. There are no pretensions here. As he says, “ain’t no gettin money on that conscious shit.”
Maybe not money. But there’s something in the fact that Rashad wrote the line “hope they don’t kill you cause you black today,” before Michael Brown was killed, before Eric Garner was killed, before Tamir Rice was killed. He was able and willing to describe a simple truth, a reality that was too easily ignored by too many people for too long. Something that wasn’t talked about as much as it should have been, even in hip-hop. Isaiah Rashad was willing to talk about this and fuck if it made him money. He was willing to talk about his drug habits and his crime habits and his habits with women too. He was willing to talk about anything and to tell the truth about everything. And that’s what he did, fluently and fluidly, over gorgeous, mostly meditative music for fourteen tracks. If you were the unfocused type already, sure, I can see how the pace might put you to sleep. But if you listened closely, the music on Cilvia Demo, was yelling at you, screaming at you, to wake up. — Jonah Bromwich
6. FKA Twigs – LP 1
Just your average “backup dancer from the British countryside who discovered the northwest passage between Sade and Tricky, made a bondage-themed viral video, and became an internationally revered pop star faster you can say alohomora,” story.
In her own way, FKA Twigs is her own charm, unlocking bedroom doors and making hearts hemorrhage. It’s unclear if she’s the savior, the one yearns to be saved, or the indecisive entity bound to pendulum swings. These songs are fluid as water, but sinuous and unpredictable—beholden to an atmosphere and ecology apart from regular earthly concern. They float, gossamer and weightless. The next beat drops and they’re humid as the air inside a vehicle with the windows sealed and sweating.
LP1 is music as mesmerism. One of the West Indian hexes that the RZA once warned about, carnal and ethereal, tantric in its pace and intentions. Twigs is the seductress who will fuck you better, wary enough to keep the lights low until you’ve earned her trust. Reference points include (but are not limited to): Tricky, Sade, Aaliyah, Portishead, The Weeknd, Massive Attack, Little Dragon, Bjork, Ciara, Beyonce and Solange, Kate Bush, James Blake, the xx, Sophie, Tori Amos. The producers list includes Arca, Clams Casino, Dev Hynes, Paul Epworth, and Sampha.
Yet the songs assume forms of their own, closer to elemental states than outstretched analogues. They’re as simple as sex and as complicated as relationships. They’re rooted in fertile soil and completely disembodied. Spells without antidote, sagas that can’t be solved in two weeks. —Jeff Weiss
5. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Cocaine Piñata
Freddie Gibbs’ consistency and versatility generally meant that the majority of his projects prior to Piñata had plenty in common. He made a few concessions to the clubs and radio when he was affiliated with CTE, but for the most part Gangsta Gibbs just made excellent gangsta rap records and put them on excellent gangsta rap albums. Gibbs always had the depth and openness we tend to associate with the greats and his consistency left this long-time listener wondering if there was anywhere else for Gibbs to go on wax.
Enter Madlib. The reclusive producer’s presence lent Piñata more sonic cohesion than any other Gibbs project to date. His innate weirdness meant that he provided Gibbs with a dazzling array of beats that he alternately bludgeoned or yielded to, depending on whether he was ripping muthafuckas’ heads off or being more reflective. “Thuggin,” the oldest and one of several highlights scattered through the album, seems to feature a beat that increases in tempo on each new verse and Gibbs doesn’t miss a step. Other personal highlights include the lyrical disembowelment masquerading as a song on “Real,” and “Uno,” a song that essentially makes it clear that Gibbs doesn’t think much of his competition—despite his more complimentary and conciliatory statements in recent interviews. As a matter of fact, the stretch of Piñata starting from the intro to “Broken” is so gully that I’d forgive you for thinking that you were listening to an early Ice Cube album. Gibbs essentially provides you with almost every facet of his personality filtered through Madlib’s genius prism. The only missteps really appear in the form of some sub-par guests—who I imagine just happened to be lurking in the neighborhood while Gibbs was too high to say “nah bruh, I’m good.”
At a minimum, Piñata provides listeners with the sonic equivalent of a great Tarantino flick: brash, impulsive, insolent, manic, harsh and, yes, flawed. As such, while Piñata is arguably the best rap album of 2014, it’s probably better processed as proof of Freddie Gibbs’ elite status and of the possibility that his best work is still ahead of him. — Mobb Deen
4. Caribou – Our Love
It’s a “ship of Theseus” problem: how many pieces of Dan Snaith’s Caribou must change before it is (or isn’t) itself any longer? The name isn’t important. Canadian province or Capreolinae, take your pick. Snaith’s reference points shift and slide like primeval star charts. He began his career making Boards of Canada-esque mood music and rambling electro-analog sound collages that characterized the era. The first two albums under the Caribou moniker were pointed recapitulations of the 60s psychedelia that’s always underlain his sound. The four years since Snaith’s 2010 foray into dance music have seen the influence of big electronic beats pervade just about every popular medium of sonic expression. With the sixth album of such a diverse, decade-plus career, you’d think Snaith would find some new (or, to be more accurate, old) direction to chase down. The great surprise and success of Our Love, then, is that Snaith has doubled down on making emotional dance music and created his strongest album to date.
Anyone who’s seen Caribou tour Our Love knows that this is immense, immensely powerful dance music. Over a decade of sound sculpting has given Snaith considerable range and depth. On record, the warbling, pitchy synths can come off as icy and austere. In a live context, the more recent Caribou music takes on a jammy energy reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem (or, dare I say, Phish?). Experiencing Our Love as a transcendent-like moment aglow in neon lights and radiant energy may be optimal, but it’s hardly necessary.
Less canny musicians could have generated the huge sonic textures and waves of emotion that can overtake a crowd, but Snaith has managed to create his own cohesive statement on a faceted and complicated subject. Our Love is a relaxed and relaxing album experience that also offers weird moments of tension and release. From the gorgeous opener’s almost too-extreme build to the closing track’s off-kilter wobbley-fumble finish, it is far from an ordinary dance album. There are pop-catering moments like the Jessy Lanza-driven “Second Chance”, the footwork-and-flute oddity that is “Mars, and of course the stately title track’s obvious-but-powerful bridge. Still, they swirl in an odd wash of euphoria and distance that feels characteristic of a lived in form of love.
Snaith’s Caribou has frequently changed names, equipment, m.o., and style. It’s this very restlessness that now informs his music. Instead of refining a particular sound or style, Caribou is becoming a better and better organ of expression. After tackling love itself, I’m excited to see what comes next. — B. Michael Payne
3. Slackk – Palm Tree Fire
If you cover grime, unless you happen to be one of the few people who grew up in Wiley’s E3 post code with a personally recorded copy of every Roll Deep Rinse set from 2001 onward on TDK, there’s at least a little anguish about getting it right. By ignoring trap-inflected Lord of the Mics battles, are reviewers dismissing grime’s core urban audience and practitioners or righting commercialization and compromise? By promoting experimental instrumental LPs, are we kick starting a new sound in club music or just gentrifying an old one? WHatever happened to Mr Wong? Will the Slimzos back catalog get re-released in 2015? These are the questions that keep me up at night when I run out of Chocolope Haze.
Thankfully, Slackk’s Palm Tree Fire makes things easy. It’s not from a Londoner (shouts to Liverpool) but from a fan turned practitioner with a fanatical passion for his genre of choice. It’s psychedelic and expansive in its approach to grime as beat music, but never sees the need to ignore its skeletal structure and tempo restrictions, treating them as a strong foundation rather than limitations to be discarded. It’s cinematic—”Wash Your Face in My Sink” is probably the most touching piece of music I’ve heard this year—but it also provided plenty of ammunition for Slackk’s NTS show, particularly when Novelist tore through tracks like “Intercept” and “Millipede.”
It’s also an album that draws from countless internal and external reference points. without ever telegraphing its inspirations. Whereas far too much music this year resembled the Ouroboros consuming itself by feeding off its own genre, Palm Tree Fire mad jazz, Asian folk and ambient music seem like logical touchstones. If an album can be completely faithful to the spirit and attitude of the scene it’s come from while also fearlessly expanding its reach, this is it.
Ultimately, Palm Tree Fire never tries to change or takeaway from the music Slackk loves, only contribute something new to it, a worthy endeavor backed by peerless execution. — Son Raw
2. Open Mike Eagle – Dark Comedy
Dark Comedy is an important statement about the world we live in, but it doesn’t feel like an important statement. There are no full-throated pronouncements on this album, no flourishes of righteous anger or didactic poeticism. Instead, Open Mike Eagle makes his points obliquely. He has a knack for modulating his sing-song delivery, rendering his most aggressive challenges as soothing melodic refrains. And he loves absurdist detail, forging incisive commentary through goofy pronouncements. “You can rap over videos of kittens—it’s the golden age!” Mike Eagle cries in “Golden Age Raps,” underscoring the mix of promise and inanity that has come to define our high-tech existence.
Mike has been rapping seriously for a decade now, and part of the power of Dark Comedy comes from his sensitivity to an economic system that tends to work against outliers and creative types. In “Very Much Money (Ice King Dream),” he enumerates the immense talents of all his superhero friends—”They can fly, run fast, read Portuguese”—and then sighs: “None of us have very much money though.” That’s a sentiment any writer/painter/musician/etc. could relate to. Even more moving is the one-two punch of “Jon Lovitz (Fantasy Booking Yarn)” and “Idaho”: while the first track devises the ultimate fantasy scenario of being offered to play a show “on the fucking moon” (it doesn’t work out, but still…), the second, guided by mournful piano plinks and feverish synth swells, delves into just how lonely and frightening the pursuit of chasing your dreams can get.
With close listens, you’re bound to pick up on the lingering anger, sadness, and frustration contained within Dark Comedy’s quirky, atmospheric vibes. And that tonal complexity is what makes this record so beautiful. Open Mike Eagle is pretty much the opposite of an ideologue. Operating on that “laugh to keep from crying tip,” he tangles with questions of identity, economics and technology not by making bold strokes, but by teasing out contradictions, clowning established ways, and taking the idea of digital innovation to its logical extreme. In the end, he creates a vision of life that’s not only hilarious and weird, but also unnervingly real. — Peter Holslin
1. Run The Jewels – RTJ 2
Killer Mike and El-P won’t let you simply forget about the blood in the streets. While our country has erupted in anger over state-sanctioned murders, the crusading rap duo, Run The Jewels, have emerged as a caustic response to the growing storm. “When you niggas gon’ unite and kill the police, motherfuckers?,” Killer Mike sarcastically posits at one furious moment, on the pair’s ravenous sophomore effort. Run The Jewels 2 is not only the year’s best piece of music, but a haunting signpost of the days we all live in.
As a piece of rap music, Run The Jewels 2 is a blistering 40-minute assault on both the senses and the system. Killer Mike and El-P have never been artists to let mere commercial viability get in the way of a healthy screed, thus, RTJ 2 is as uncompromising as it is thrilling to the listener. El-P’s beats are nearly stripped of any orchestral indulgences, leaving them brutally straight-forward and punishing. Every syllable of every lyric that Mike and El deliver seethes with a frothing intensity of a rabbit pit bull snapping at the listener’s heels. It’s a sonic rabbit punch to the neck of oligarchs, crooked cops, fuckboys and anybody who loves them.
As a moment of the zeitgeist, Run The Jewels 2 is as thrilling as it is resonant. As solo artists, Killer Mike and El-P have long dealt with the ugly undertow beneath the surface of American society. They address real issues brimming in America. RTJ2 is loud and unapologetically furious, deploying a fiercely rapped lyricism that is not only a display of impressive sense of craft, but also of urgency. When El-P and (especially) Killer Mike rap about police brutality or economic injustice, it has a gravitas rarely seen since Public Enemy. There also isn’t a better rapped album all year.
In a year that many rap fans have hyperbolically declared “the worst in history,” Run The Jewels are still standing as the institutions crumble around them. As two men that are rapidly approaching 40, the pair has found their profile and stature expanding to a new generation of fans—who were barely alive when Killer Mike was locked in ATL Dungeon or El-P was traveling the Iron Galaxy. The music industry might be in shambles but hip hop ain’t dead yet, motherfuckers. — Doc Zeus