All these albums are available to listen to on Spotify, or you can download them on the usual download sites and actually give artists you appreciate money so they can keep making music. There’s a good chance you won’t like all of these. That’s totally fine. I just speak for myself. I do hope you like at least just one. Happy New Year!
The prettiest, sexiest, most arrestingly futuristic album of the year. FKA twigs’ stunning “LP1” is meant to be played at night, probably alone. There’s echoing, woozy drum programming and dub-influenced basslines underlying her aching, emotional, often whispered singing. While she might often sound like she’s from another planet, with her sometimes highly processed vocals and total deconstruction of r&b and soul, her songs are about something entirely earthly: the complicated dynamics of sex and romance.
Essential tracks: “Two Weeks,” “Pendulum”
Mike Hadreas made waves with his first two intimate, minimalist albums, but if someone who hadn’t heard him before listened to “Too Bright” first, they’d never have guessed he was anything other than a bold, fierce, fabulous force to be reckoned with. “Too Bright” is a refinement of his vision, as well as a statement of defiance. He’s still quiet and confessional at times (“Don’t Let Them In”), but if there’s a more exciting, anthemic song from 2014 than “Queen,” I haven’t heard it. PJ Harvey fans, take note.
Essential tracks: “Queen,” “Fool”
In a year of unrest in the U.S. — social, political, racial, economic, you name it — Killer Mike and El-P’s “Run the Jewels” provides a soundtrack to the revolution. A dark, blistering blast of searing commentary and articulate anger, that proves that hip hop is today’s most socially relevant musical art form. Thick, artfully messy, sometimes menacing production from El-P and the intense, charismatic presence of rapper Killer Mike are a duo that’s way too dynamic to ignore.
Essential tracks: “Close Your Eyes,” “Blockbuster Night, Part 1”
It’s rare these days to hear an electronic album that works as one cohesive statement; a thematic through-line isn’t really present in most of what’s released as albums today, instead culling from singles and EPs and disparate work. Todd Terje’s “It’s Album Time” is, happily, a statement album through and through. Disco, lounge, retro pop, 80s synths, house and Bryan Ferry all co-exist most harmoniously on the Swedish producer’s first proper album; it’s sleek, sparkling, stylish techno for the avid and casual electronic fan alike.
Essential tracks: “Inspector Norse,” “Leisure Suit Preben”
Mac DeMarco’s “Salad Days”: a cheerful, good-humored, dreamy, sun-dappled, occasionally bleary-eyed, pop-friendly middle finger to just about everything: hipsters, trend-makers, authority in general. But like his soul brothers in Ween, there’s an underlying method to DeMarco’s madness, and a laser sharp intelligence running throughout. Plus, the guitar work is subtly brilliant. A supremely fun, loose, purely enjoyable Sunday morning album.
Essential tracks: “Let Her Go,” “Passing Out Pieces”
13 years since his last proper full-length Aphex Twin album, Richard D. James picked up pretty much where he left off: challenging, weird, often beautiful electronic music that sounds nothing like anyone else but Aphex Twin. Where the aforementioned Terje or “Random Access Memory” Daft Punk look to the past for inspiration, Aphex Twin welcomes our new robot overlords, doing so with jittery, virtuosic aplomb, even making room for some angelic melodies amid the technological carnage.
Essential tracks: Just start with track one
A portrait of an artist in constant transition. Annie Clark, restless and relentlessly gifted guitarist, songwriter and composer, shook off the indie rock trappings that defined her early work and, with her self-titled fourth album, embraced a sound that’s equal parts Bowie, Prince and, well, St. Vincent. Funk, art-rock, 80s new wave, Krautrock and heavy riffage combine in ever-unique ways. Underneath it all? A strange sort of 21st century melancholy.
Essential tracks: “Prince Johnny,” “Digital Witness”
How does this band remain so crazily consistent? The Austin, Texas five piece haven’t put out a bad album in their more than 20-year career, though “They Want My Soul” is their best overall since 2005’s “Gimme Fiction.” Spoon are like the Tom Waits of indie rock — even when they aren’t completely amazing they’re still fantastic. “They Want My Soul” is solid, intelligent, thoughtful, exceptionally tuneful, hip shaking rock n’ roll, made by masters of the craft.
Essential tracks: “Rent I Pay,” “Let Me Be Mine”
While it’s clear these four young Danes owe a huge debt to both early, crazed Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and to the drunken wildman blues of The Gun Club, I, for one, don’t see what’s wrong with that. Yes, it’s derivative. It’s still exciting, energetic music played by an exciting, energetic band, and it’s hard to deny the propulsive, passionate power of the rockabilly-tinged “The Lord’s Favorite,” or the goth rave up “How Many.” Ah, to be 23 and a righteous punk rocker again.
Essential tracks: “The Lord’s Favorite,” “Plowing Into the Field of Love”
Mary Timony is the unsung hero of indie rock. For nearly 25 years she’s played meaty, guitar-centric indie rock in the purest sense of the word, from Helium to her solo work to Wild Flag and beyond. “Rips,” under the moniker Ex Hex, finds Timony in a power trio playing perfect power pop — bouncy, singalong, zippy, riffy rock, easy to dance, pump your fists and shout with. Put this on in the car when you get out of work on Friday. It’ll get your blood flowing.
Essential tracks: “Waterfall,” “Radio On”
Owen Pallett — In Conflict
Joyce Manor — Never Hungover Again
Cloud Nothings — Here And Nowhere Else
Sharon Van Etten — Are We There Yet?
The War on Drugs — Lost in the Dream
Angel Olsen — Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Flying Lotus — You’re Dead!
Taylor Swift – 1989
Jack White – Lazaretto (Thanks to my friend Kyle for pointing out that just about everybody has overlooked this album in their critical roundups. I remember quite liking it when I heard it back in June!)