The Most Overlooked Albums of 2014

Max Bell selects his picks for last year's best and unsung.
By    January 5, 2015

Max Bell went by Max B in middle school.

Below is another list to add to the lists that added to the lists. It contains eleven of my favorite records from 2014 that I felt were underrated or overlooked. I’ve written words about them all. Read, listen, and stay wavy.

Zackey Force Funk – Money Green Viper

Four years removed from his first Hit & Run release, Zackey Force Funk had yet to make a funk album. He’d formed Demon Queen with Tobacco and added his freaky falsetto to the sinister synths and translucent grime of their Exorcise Tape, but that was only a fraction of the funk. With this year’s Money Green Viper, he finally made good on his moniker.

One of the most overlooked records of the year, Money Green Viper features suites from rising modern funk producers like XL Middleton and Eddy Funkster. Their co-produced “Press Play” is the best funk song of the year, one that could’ve come out thirty years ago and would still receive rotation at Funkmosphere. Zackey’s Prince styled vocals glide over the rubbery bounce and perfectly placed synths. The rest of the album is weird and worth your time, with crisp percussion, more innovative iterations of groove, and more of Zackey’s distinctive delivery. Whether or not he makes another record like this, Zackey’s made his mark on the modern funk canon.

Hail Mary Mallon – Bestiary 

Hail Mary Mallon are victims of poor timing. Run the Jewels dropped their year-end-list-topping sequel two weeks prior to Mallon’s Bestiary. Serengeti’s Kenny Dennis III dropped the same day. RTJ dominated the rap duo conversation. Serengeti delivered the indie rap concept record that got deeper with every layer of Aeropostale.

Bestiary lies somewhere in the middle. It’s not as politically charged or aggressive as RTJ and it doesn’t adhere to its narrative as closely as Dennis. Instead, Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic attempt to save their local bowling alley with sub-rattling, deftly rapped and absurdist koans, all the while trying to add levity to the lives of those who traded in their Jansport for a Def Jux Twitter handle. DJ Big Wiz’s scratches sew the seams between the modernized booms and baps as Rock and Sonic level up. This is some of the best rapping of Sonic’s career and some of the funniest and least cryptic from Rock.

Allah-Las – Worship the Sun

Garage, psych, and surf rock have been co-opted by every college kid with a guitar and a copy of Elektra’s Nuggets comp for over a decade. At this point, the nostalgic amalgam is to rock what boom-bap is to rap. Seldom few manage to make their reverence feel genuine, to rework rather than wholly rip-off. The Allah-Las are at the front of that thin herd.

Topping their self-titled debut will always prove difficult, but Worship the Sun comes close. A laudable attempt to expand on their sound, this record features more songwriting; more of Miles Michaud’s soothing laid back vocals. Fortunately, this doesn’t detract from the band’s ability to lock in infectious, sun-soaked grooves (e.g. “Ferus Gallery”) at every turn. Their lyrics, drum breaks, and guitar riffs both jangling and lysergic may smack of a bygone era, but the Allah-Las have refashioned them for the modern man once again.

Turquoise Summers – Shades

My favorite modern funk record of the year doesn’t belong to Dam-Funk. (Invite the Light in stores this year.) Instead, the distinction goes to his cousin, Phillip Riddick aka Turquoise Summers. His Shades EP has remained in heavy rotation since it dropped in March.

With each repeat listen, it’s clear that groove runs in the Riddick bloodline. The Dam influence on Shades is inextricable but irrelevant. Analogue suites comprised of silky synth chords and cavernous drums abound, but that doesn’t undermine their efficacy. Really, it’s difficult believe that music so calm and comforting was born out of two tours in Iraq. Then again, maybe it makes sense. Funk soundtracks for PCH sojourns might not be cure-all for PTSD, but they probably help.

100s – IVRY EP

There are a lot of paths you can walk down. No matter the path, few choose glinting Stacy Adams for footwear. 100s did. When your women do all your walking, your perm is more important than arch support.

IVRY, his Fool’s Gold debut and the follow up to Ice Cold Perm, is an impeccable display of pimp rap and a near perfect EP. Too $hort, Suga Free, and their ilk paved the path, but they weren’t capable turning sub-zero raps into silky croons. The EP also features some of the most funky, lush, and cohesive production of the year. It takes an ear and a vision to select varied suites that still somehow all aurally approximate the feeling of draping yourself in velvet that matches the color of your diamond-encrusted cane.

Ultimately, 100s succeeds on IVRY because of an undying commitment character. A half African American and half Jewish kid from Berkeley shouldn’t be rap’s prime candidate for pimp of the year, but he makes you believe. Rap will always be grounded in the real, but it’s also a chance at reinvention. 100s saw the path, followed it, and emerged the third-world mack. Game that bold and cold isn’t game — it’s brilliant.

Red Ferguson – The Ghost Town Sessions

There were few records this year that I played more than Red Ferguson’s Ghost Town Sessions EP. For the sake of comparison, Red Ferguson would probably pop up on Pandora stations for Eraser era Thom Yorke, Atoms for Peace, and/or Darkside. They keep the electronic thump of all the aforementioned, turn Darkside’s blues riffs more rhythmic, and trade Darkside’s expansive psychedelia for something more intimate, something suited for Red Bull Studios rather than Staples Center.

Bryan Gomez’s vocals cuts through every track with a smoothness that borders on sultry. Alex Hasting’s bass lines aren’t built to break speakers, but they’ll stick with you. Lyrically, Red Ferguson has adopted the meaning through mantra approach, often repeating a few phrases until they become embedded in each sparse beat. Really, they’re more adept at paring everything down to the essential than a majority of musicians who pride themselves on minimalism.

The duo is currently working on a new project produced by Paul White, so you’ll undoubtedly hear more from them and more about them soon. In the interim, maybe Pandora will finally get it together and pick up Ghost Town Sessions.

Saba – ComfortZone

ComfortZone is one of the best rap records that didn’t make our Top 50 albums list. “401K” made our Top 50 songs list, so there’s that. And those I talked to for the Chicago rap feature I wrote for RBMA earlier this year all had great things to say about it. Still, I feel like I haven’t heard enough about ComfortZone this year. Maybe that’s because Mick Jenkins and Lil Herb also dropped amazing tapes, maybe not.

Regardless, Saba’s sophomore mixtape remains one of the most musically rich and poignantly rendered portraits of Chicago to emerge this year. He has a deleterious double-time that he tempers with an impeccable ear for melody. More importantly, he uses both to deliver intricate and powerful rhymes. If anyone has the ability to bring this spirit of Bone Thugs to the gritty immediacy that characterizes Chicago in 2014, it’s Saba (see “For Y’all”). I have as much faith in him as I had in Chance after Acid Rap. After innumerable listens, I’m comfortable saying that.

Goat – Commune 

I don’t know much about Goat. They’re from Sweden. They wear masks on stage. They might be my new favorite band. When trying to describe their music, the words “world music” come to mind. Mostly because they’re not from America, they use a variety of percussion instruments, and World Music was the name of their first album. All that being said, their second album and Sub Pop debut, Goat, features the punishing slices of hard and fast psychedelic folk rock that sounds like it was forged in caves and forgotten hinterlands. For those in L.A., this is the kind of stuff you play when running stoned through Topanga Canyon.

Cherry Glazerr – Haxel Princess

My affinity for bread-covered cheese didn’t mean that I would like Cherry Glazerr, their Burger Records debut Haxel Princess, or their song “Grilled Cheese”, but I did – I do. The simplicity of their alternative-dream-pop-punk-psych-rock or something is endearing, comforting. Minimalism is easy, making that minimalism move audiences isn’t. Maybe it’s Clementine Creevy’s voice, the one that sounds like it’s being whispered from the bottom of a bottle. Maybe it’s the band’s ability to approximate the daze of high school afternoons made hazy by the right amount of weed and amplifier feedback. Maybe it’s that each song sounds made for one of the most intimate shows The Smell has ever known. Maybe I don’t know. Maybe that’s the point.

Step Brothers – Lord Steppington

Lord Steppington is the product of two rapper/producers who earned their stripes when sample based boom-bap was de rigueur, when rappers indulged in all whims and worried more about their bars than their brand. The result is a barrage of punishing beats that will make you punch holes through walls and flip like things that flip; lyrics like karate chops so swift they could slice off a nipple. It is Evidence and Alchemist as step kin turned turned stoned rap superheroes. Who else raps about being so high they can communicate with dolphins? Who else counts Roc Marci, Action Bronson, and Scott Caan among their inner sanctum? This album is intentionally hilarious, a reminder that there was a time when rap was as fun as you wanted it to be, more about making your friends crack up than cracking Billboard. Word to Byron G.

Khun Narin – Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band

Few field recordings hit as hard as Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band. Propulsive drums that pound loud enough to fill small villages in the Phetchabun Province are tempered by phin shredding made to melt faces and the digits of the dude engaged in said shredding. This is the kind of stuff made for Madlib that he either never got to or hasn’t let us hear yet. The album’s four songs run as long as most LPs and yet none become boring. These are very rare regional grooves that twist and turn, revealing new subtleties with each listen. They are worth your time, and, if you have the funds, a trip to Thailand to hear and see in person.

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