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  • 12/01/14--10:20: The Out Door: Sonic Rebirth
  • The Out Door: Sonic Rebirth

    In this edition of The Out Door, we explore why Kim Gordon has proven to be the most adventurous member of Sonic Youth since the band's demise, trace multi-instrumentalist Ashley Paul's journey from studying music to busking in the subway, create new instruments with cellist Hildur Gudnadóttir, and explore the pros and cons of technique with three young guitarists: Matthew Mullane, Cam Deas, and Norberto Lobo. (Follow us on Twitter and Tumblr for more experimental music news and info.)


    I: Sonic Rebirth

    Body/Head: Kim Gordon and Bill Nace

    I could have slept until the morning. Not long after the sun went down on a recent late fall Saturday, I fell asleep on the couch, tired from too much work during the week and too much fun during the weekend. But eventually, I rolled over and saw the time. I knew that if I was going to see Body/Head, who had already played one of the best sets I’d seen all year, I’d better stir sooner rather than later. It was a benefit, after all, for women’s healthcare in politically beleaguered North Carolina, and I’d bought two pricey tickets that afternoon.

    Perhaps I should have simply considered the money a donation, though. This set from the typically excellent duo of Kim Gordon and Bill Nace felt perfunctory, as though they too had struggled to rise from an early-evening rest. On the stage of Kings, a mid-sized club in the state’s capital, the pair struggled to lock into a single, unified approach during two short improvisations. At one point, Nace thrashed about at center stage, slinging his guitar against the volume pumping from his amplifier; the action made me think of someone trying to kickstart a particularly cantankerous motorcycle.

    And near set’s end, Gordon left the microphone to push her guitar against a wall at the stage’s rear, slowly pushing it toward the ceiling. It seemed in part like an offering or maybe a way to give the thinning crowd something to see more than a very good band trying and failing to find an inroad into this one-off show. They were both good-faith gestures, I suppose, but neither Nace nor Gordon could make the moment anything more than an instance where the risk of improvised music surpassed the reward.

    I was disappointed, of course, as that couch certainly felt comfortable. In some way, though, watching Body/Head struggle to cohere or compel was a reassuring feeling, evidence of a group that is working out new definitions of how it sounds, functions, and defines itself every time it plugs in its instruments, whether onstage or in a studio. Only eight months earlier, in a grand auditorium in Knoxville, Tennessee, Nace and Gordon dazzled. Their collective volume locked into daring sculptures and then splintered into a dozen irregular shards. Standing in front of ponderous video projections, the pair moved as if they were trapped inside an amoeboid world of their own, communicating in a language that only they understood but that the listener could at least enjoy. With her voice, Gordon seemed to channel the stories of forever-anxious ghosts.

    So, in the last eight months, had Body/Head just gotten bad, somehow slipping out of practice or energy? No, they just tried something that didn’t work. That’s the gamble of experimental music—or at least it should be.

    As surprising as it may seem given the avant bona fides of her former bandmates, Gordon has emerged as the true cutting-edge alumna of Sonic Youth, following her split with longtime husband and collaborator Thurston Moore in 2011. Sure, Moore has continued to piss collaborations with other stars of the avant world, but his two big records—the ones with proper label campaigns, full tours and so on—have been fine-but-functional indie rock bores. Chelsea Light Moving was a mess of ideas united by stand-and-deliver songs, while the most powerful moments of his recent The Best Day sounds like Sonic Youth’s Murray Street, minus the ecstasy of urgency. Steve Shelley has become something of a singer-songwriter timekeeper for hire, and Lee Ranaldo’s pair of records with his band the Dust make you wonder where all that roots-rock came from. (The new one, granted, is better than the last.) It’s as if Moore and Ranaldo required the frisson of sharing a band to push past the cores of their songs, while Gordon was simply waiting for a chance to float free.

    The natural question, of course, is why Gordon has suddenly outstripped the rest of Sonic Youth. Perhaps she’s found a creative chemistry with Nace and a place where the two can try new approaches without the fear of failure, even when their sets fall apart (or never form at all). But that rationale feels thin for several reasons, not least of which is the implication that Moore and Ranaldo, especially, haven’t worked with interesting musicians in the interim. To the contrary, Moore’s current band features Shelley on the drums and My Bloody Valentine multi-instrumentalist Debbie Googe on bass. In the past three years, he’s issued recordings with Loren Connors, Mats Gustafsson, and John Zorn, and jammed with Merzbow and longtime collaborator John Moloney. Ranaldo’s collaborators have included John Medeski and Alan Licht. Such casts and company don’t exactly make you pity either songwriter.

    Rather, in the scattered interviews that she’s given the last few years, Gordon has simply seemed more connected with the currents of the world around her. In a New Yorker feature last year, she dismissed the idea of worrying about studios or equipment configurations, a nod not only to Body/Head’s embrace of the clipped and distorted, but also to more modern and egalitarian modes of making music. A week ahead of that North Carolina show that never took off, she told me that the kind of music Body/Head made mattered now because people’s tastes had broadened due to the technology-aided spread of strange music and art. In an age of instant online access, she added, a stream was no surrogate for high-volume, improvised sound made to suit a certain situation and room. “You can see a clip,” she said, “but it’s not the same as being in the actual place and feeling the sound in your body.” Who has time to stand and deliver folk-rock songs, like Ranaldo, or try to relive past glories, like Moore, when that’s the way you see the world spinning?

    And maybe there’s a delightful bit of revolt against the “girl in a band” assumption Gordon faced for so many years, too. In that same New Yorker piece, Gordon spoke about the range of opportunities that Sonic Youth had afforded her. “Sonic Youth, for better or worse, is/was a machine that carried me along through pregnancy, motherhood, and creative opportunities I never would have achieved on my own,” she said. “I’m grateful and surprised that we were listened to, loved, ignored, and overrated.” But now with Body/Head, she’s going places Sonic Youth never did, unbound by the lack of frontmen and faces surrounding her. “Who made up all the rules in the culture?” she told Elle a few months later, tapping into another current involving Pussy Riot, rebellion, and power. “Men—white male corporate society. So why wouldn’t a woman want to rebel against that?” — Grayson Haver Currin

    Next: Ashley Paul's musical journey from a conservatory to the subway

    II: Ashley Paul: Personal Space

    Photo by Ben Pritchard

    “I’m really protective of the feeling I have when I make music,” says songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ashley Paul. “It’s the only time I can tap into just making something purely for myself.” That sense of intimacy resonates on Paul’s new album, Heat Source, a mesmerizing set of sparse, restrained songs. Using primarily guitar, clarinet, and voice, she crafts patient-to-the-point-of-stasis music, with small sounds that seem to contain entire worlds. Perhaps her skeletal melodies could be fleshed into something bigger and busier, but they’d likely lose much of their tantalizing power.

    “There’s much more space on this album,” Paul explains. “This was a big year of change for me in general—a lot of life changes and feeling very scared. Perhaps making music was the only place where I was calm, and that could be reflected in the music.”

    If music feels like home for Paul—she currently splits time between an apartment in Brooklyn and performances in Europe—that might be because it’s been part of her life for so long. She started playing piano at age 3, then moved to saxophone at 10. “My dad is a really good rhythm guitar player, and I grew up listening to Wes Montgomery and Paul Desmond records with him,” she recalls. “I wanted to play saxophone so I could play with my dad.”

    That desire soon turned into an obsession, as Paul spent much of the next decade dreaming of a life devoted to saxophone—“being the next Paul Desmond,” as she puts it. She enrolled in the jazz saxophone performance program at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and though she completed her degree, she was a bit disillusioned by the experience.

    “I had a lot of teachers pushing me in many directions. There is an idea of perfection on the instrument—they try to tell you what is the right way or the wrong way,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade my training for anything, but letting go of that pressure was a challenge. Everyone who goes through a conservatory education, if they’re going to continue playing music, has to let go of that stress." 

    Paul’s initial way of letting go was to quit music entirely, and she spend a year studying jewelry making in North Carolina. What might seem like a radical turn actually had a connection to her previous pursuits. “Construction is something I’ve always been interested in,” she explains. “In jewelry-making you have to visualize the three-dimensional thing happening before you put it together, so that could be an influence on the way I make music.”

    Photo by Susanna Bolle

    At 22, Paul returned to music by going underground, literally. She moved to New York and busked on sax in the subway, inspired by watching her former classmate Matana Roberts do the same. Camped out at Manhattan's Columbus Circle station, she played two three-hour sets a day, paying her monthly $750 rent with the singles and change she collected. “I used to play a lot of Ornette Coleman songs,” she recalls. “It’s a weird exercise in trying to appeal to people, because no one really wants to be there. But you need them, so that balance of what to play and how to play was a challenge.”

    Pauls’s experience in the subway cemented her commitment to music. “After a year of playing six to eight hours a day, I thought, I can’t give up on this,” she remembers. “I need to sort this out, I need to be playing music.” Turning away from jazz, she returned to the NEC to pursue a graduate degree in Contemporary Improvisation. There she studied and collaborated with Anthony Coleman, a mentor who still influences her creative process.

    “We almost never talked about music, we just did it,” she recalls. That intuitive vibe has since carried over into Paul’s many subsequent partnerships, which include duos with Joe Maneri, Loren Connors, Eli Keszler, and, most recently, Rashad Becker. “When I have to start talking about things I get kind of anxious,” she admits. “It’s a weird challenge for me to be myself . It’s something that I’ve struggled with. I came to finding what I do late in life, and it was a conscious struggle for many years.”

    In the late 2000’s, Paul found a breakthrough in that struggle. Increasingly exposed to more and more types of music, she began picking up new instruments and learned how to record herself. “It all happened at once,” she recalls. “I was trying to make music and I was hearing things, and recording it all on Garage Band. It just opened up a world and I wanted to put it all down myself.”

    With her vistas widened, Paul dove headfirst into songwriting, though to her it wasn’t such a leap from improvisation. “I was always drawn to people who improvise melodies rather than sounds,” she says. “That was always important to me, creating music rather than showing chops.” What did take some adjustment was the idea that she was no longer just a saxophone player. “I still get really nervous playing guitar and singing,” she admits. “If it’s just sax I don’t even think about it because I’ve been playing sax for 25 years, so it’s like another limb.”

    Paul’s openness to new tools and sounds has led her to create solo music that slips sneakily between categories. Parts of Heat Source sound like abstract sound art; others sound like fractured folk music; and yet other sounds like both. “As long as I’ve been putting myself out there as a musician, I’ve never really fit in,” she says. “I don’t know how to define myself. I don’t really feel bound by genres, so it is probably liberating, but it’s also the hardest thing about what I do." 

    Such challenges haven’t slowed Paul down. She’s been quite prolific recently; Heat Source is one of three new releases alongside two cassettes, White Night (on Important offshoot Cassauna) and 12,000 Seconds(on Kudos). All three were recorded over the course of the last year, and see her further mastering every phase of her music, particularly her mostly-improvised lyrics, which she describes as “a kind of outpouring—if I sat too much and thought about what I was writing, it wouldn’t quite fit.”

    Her singing has a nearly subliminal quality, as if she’s whispering directly into your brain. “I am a very harsh critic, and sometimes I’m terrible at singing,” she says with a laugh. “The voice is the only thing I’ll ever record more than once. That’s why I end up with two [vocal takes] on some songs, because I can’t decide between them.”

    Becoming more comfortable with singing and playing other instruments is a work in progress for Paul, but lately she’s embracing it all. She’s now writing songs with an eye toward performing them. Surprisingly, she finds that the personal space she so values when making music is even more accessible when she plays in front of people.

    “It’s easier to get to onstage, because you the lights are on you and everything else is in black, and you are forced to get there,” she says. “It's hard sometimes to achieve that in your living room. Life can be so distracting.” – Marc Masters

    Next: Cellist Hildur Gudnadóttir fashions a new instrument to fit her body

    III: Hildur Guðnadóttir: Body of Cello


    At the age of 32, cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir thinks she has found the project that will last her a lifetime. For years, she struggled with the realities of playing her acoustic instrument in an amplified setting. At times, the tone could be brittle or her dynamic range limited by concerns with feedback and audio engineers who simply didn’t understand her aims.

    But then she met Ómar, a six-string electric variant on a cello that resembles a modernized viola de gamba and gives her a range of notes that stretch from a violin toward a bass. Like a guitar, it has pickups, making it less prone to unintentional feedback and the whims of live technicians. It’s thin, too, meaning she can strap it to her body and move around the stage, now unbound by the sit-and-bow strictures of her classical upbringing. It’s even small and flexible enough that it no longer needs its own seat on an airplane. It fits in her suitcase. (Hear it from a recent show in Japan here.)

    During “Heima”, from her wondrously idyllic and elegiac album Saman for Touch, Guðnadóttir plucks Ómar’s strings and sings softly over the instrument’s rise and fall. The sound suggests a more robust nylon-stringed guitar. Every note refracts into a series of muted reflections, decaying as though being bounced through an echo chamber. Guðnadóttir is actually sending the signal through two grand pianos, ad hoc resonating chambers that give the sounds a phantom feeling.

    Indeed, Ómar is designed to be played with a set of small resonating chambers placed throughout whatever room she plays, so that select frequencies create an immersive audio environment from her cello. In effect, one woman and six strings could approximate the swells and near-silence of an orchestra. It’s the start of a project that has no logical end.

    “It’s like an electroacoustic, surround-sound cello gamba,” Guðnadóttir says from Berlin, laughing at her own unwieldy description. “It embodies everything that fascinates me the most—acoustics, playing instruments, digital processing, movement of sound. Somehow, everything is combined in Ómar. I feel like I’m just starting my lifelong project.”

    Years ago, Guðnadóttir’s friend, the composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, asked her to accompany him live and essentially serve as a one-woman stand-in for a string quartet. The challenges of the task daunted her. She first said it wasn’t possible, but she began working with different ways of replicating and mirroring herself live, including looping pedals but avoiding pre-recorded tracks.

    “A string quartet is obviously violins, cello and bass, so how can one cello be all of those things at once?” she asks. “But now, I can actually be a string quartet myself with this instrument.”

    Ómar is the result of a partnership with Hans Johannson, an Icelandic instrument builder who has been crafting his own designs for three decades. He has even worked to create a “21st century violin,” which restructures the architectural principles of the very instrument itself. He’s the father of Guðnadóttir’s best friend, so he’s been mending her broken cellos for years. They ha discussed the idea—this “surround cello,” they called it—off and on for the better part of a decade. Nearly two years ago, he started building it based on a dialogue of how he thought the instrument could work and how Guðnadóttir hoped it would respond. The results, she says, are groundbreaking on several levels, from the physical design (Ómar is now a piece of luggage) to the integrated hardware (Ómar includes a set of onboard custom audio filters).

    “There’s a lot of electronic surround-sound music, and I’ve done a lot of work where I write music for other people to move around a space,” she says. “But this way of designing acoustic resonators for a single instrument, that’s pretty new.”

    Photo by Rune Kongsro

    Ómar stems from a back-and-forth, and Guðnadóttir is an avid collaborator herself, having worked with Ben Frost, Pan Sonic, Hauschka, the Knife, and Valgeir Sigurdsso. She even tours and records with Stars of the Lid outpost A Winged Victory for the Sullen. That’s merely a sample.

    But the new instrument gives Guðnadóttir greater versatility as a solo artist. A multiplicity of musical voices has been a consistent touchstone of her own work, and Ómar functions as a package of many instruments. The process to get there, though, was stepwise and slow.

    Guðnadóttir began studying cello when she was only six years old, but when she was a teenager, she began joining bands and obsessing over electroacoustic music. When she joined winsome Icelandic art-pop tinkerers múm, she put the cello aside and mostly sang. Later, she relocated to Berlin to study electronic music and programming; for a year, the only sounds she really considered were digital. 

    “When you’re programming, you spend a week writing code, and then another week to get a ‘bleep,’” she says. “It can be a long and tiring process for unfulfilling sounds. So I picked up the cello again. I was so gratified getting instant sound.”

    Guðnadóttir subsequently headed to an isolated cabin in the woods of northern Iceland, where she used a small army of instruments to build her beautiful and filmic solo debut, Mount A. Though the music was remastered and reissued for a 2013 Touch release under her own name, Guðnadóttir originally offered it under the pseudonym “Lost in Hildurness.” She was too timid, she admits, to expose herself and her process in a public setting.

    “It was like getting to know yourself in a way that I’d never experienced, very personal,” she remembers. “I view music mostly as communication, so when I record, I’m communicating to the listener in the future. I felt the need to communicate this, but I was still shy about it. It was scary, like when you’ve been walking around in clothes and suddenly you’re naked.”

    But she’s since shaken off that shyness, as her solo output has become at once increasingly audacious and intimate. The meditative pieces of 2009's Without Sinking were magnetic, pulling you toward the stable center of Guðnadóttir’s long-tone compositions. Some friends, including Jóhann Jóhannsson, lent assistance, but the relationship between Guðnadóttir and her acoustic cello took center stage.

    On Saman, she’s almost completely by herself, though she’s added new tools. There’s the new electric cello, of course, and Guðnadóttir’s own voice, which she intertwines with her instrumental parts as though they’re complementary strands of the same DNA. From the foreboding and deep “Frá” to the mercurially fretful “Torrek,” the moods are deeper. Any hesitation that Guðnadóttir once had with communicating directly has vanished. At once, you see various phases of her past—the cello, the voice, the electronics—colliding into new possibilities. That’s the process that she wants to continue pursuing, likely with the help of her suitcase’s latest necessity, Ómar. 

    “Singing is something that I have done all my life, but what I did on my first two records was to hide the vocals. They’re there to thicken the web of the cello,” she says. “But the vocals are getting onto an equal level with the cello now. The way it’s built, Ómar is becoming like my spinal cord, because he’s really wrapped onto me. And when you’re playing the cello, you’re hugging it, anyway, so you have the resonance in your body. When you’re sitting and playing at the same time, it’s very connected to you as a musician.” — Grayson Haver Currin

    Next: Three exciting young guitarists discuss the trappings of technique

    IV: Hands Have Memory: The Technique of Solo Guitar

    Technique is a tricky thing in any kind of music, but it seems particularly slippery with solo guitar. The format has such a long, rich tradition that finding a new way to play is daunting. Technique can become a crutch—something to fall back on when ideas aren’t coming—but it can also handcuff, paralyzing with the anxiety of influence. How to find a novel approach to what’s been done so often?

    The upside of technique is its power as a springboard. The best players launch from established styles toward uncharted ones, returning to touchstones as needed but never feeling bound to them. This process often includes questioning the term itself. What is technique? Adherence to rules? Expression of personality? Is it creating by overwriting—is it both a pencil and an eraser?

    To help answer those questions, I asked three of today’s most interesting solo guitar players for their takes on technique and how it informs the music they make.

    Matthew Mullane

    Matthew Mullane thinks a lot about technique. For the past four years, while making his new album Hut Variations, “technique and all of its baggage consistently made its way into my working notes,” he says. Mullane sees two meanings in the term technique: What you learn and how you respond to that learning. “I think what is most exciting as a listener, and indeed as a player,” he continues, “is to allow these two techniques to meet—leaving a sonic trace of their incommensurability.”

    The concept behind Hut Variations arises from what Mullane calls “this split in realms of technique… the irreconcilable split between self-cultivation and responsibility to the other.” As he explains, “The first technique is represented in the world left by the person who decamps to the hut. There the hut-dweller spends time cultivating style. If achieved, however, the style-seeker must then reckon with the guilt of incommunicable technique.” 

    Those themes might not be immediately apparent on Hut Variations (released by Vin Du Select Qualitite, the label run by John Fahey biographer Steve Lowenthal).But you can certainly hear the tension between Mullane’s appreciation of traditional forms and his quest to discover something new. He’s capable of dizzyingly quick runs, but what impresses most is his patience—every note sounds purposefully-chosen and drenched in the immediacy of the moment. When Mullane switches from acoustic guitar to electric, his well-considered approach persists, modified to exploit the thickness of amplification.

    Mullane had no formal training, but he did grow up in Northeast Ohio in what he calls “a house of guitars, mostly animated by folk-revival music of the 1960’s at the hands of my parents.” He got an electric guitar at age 9 and was immediately attracted to playing and listening on headphones by himself. “It had a worlding quality—the capacity to create a technical and sonic bubble,” he recalls. “That is really evocative for anyone at that age.”

    In 2011 he made his first album for VDSQ as part of their solo acoustic series, which he describes as “centered on an extended piece using modular motifs as a launching point for improvisation.” The six pieces on Hut Variation are more composed, honed through “exercises in compositional abstraction.” The result is an album for which guitar technique can sometimes mean not even sounding like a guitar. 

    “I think the most interesting "techniques" have emerged from trying to use the guitar as an interface channeling dissimilar objects,” Mullane explains. “This doesn't mean making the guitar "sound like" a piano or a saxophone, but rather interpolating guitar moves with the technical constraints of other objects, instruments and playing scenarios. In this way, the guitar has the capacity to be an instrument of thought. Imagining through the guitar, abstracting its seemingly rote mechanisms as having analogical power, keeps me coming back to it.” (Read the full transcript of our chat with Mullane here).

    Cam Deas

    Like Mullane, Cam Deas sees technique as a two-sided coin. One side is simply about speed—the ability to dole out notes quickly and fill the air with sound. Though he once found this an important part of playing, “This holds no interest for me now,” he says. “It's sport, not music. I cringe every time I see a solo guitarist play almost entirely at breakneck [Leo] Kottke speeds.”

    For Deas, the true value of technique lies in its other side: “total confidence and comfortableness with your instrument.” Here, the goal is to explore the instrument so that speed and prowess take a backseat to expression. “When you're really confident with your technique, you want those notes to sing out and have the space they deserve,” he explains. “When you listen to something like [Derek] Bailey'sBallads or the early Fahey volumes, every note is so perfectly executed it has to have its own space to breathe.”

    Cam Deas: "Quadtych Part One" on Bandcamp

    That kind of confidence abounds on Deas’ 2011 album Quadtych, a fascinating four-part, 70-minute suite that began as free improvisation. But over the course of performing it endlessly—Deas guesses he’s played the suite at least 70 times—Quadtych slowly became more structured, to the point of near-total precision.

    Such musical immersion has been part of Deas’ life since childhood. Growing up in the suburbs of London, he remembers listening to his dad learn Erik Satie pieces on piano. He took classical guitar lessons in grade school, then studied music at the University of Sheffield. But he found himself often battling his teacher; once, when they argued about an assignment, the instructor snapped, “"If you don't like playing Bach, you don't like playing music!"

    Eventually Deas ventured beyond solo guitar to study electronic composition. On his new album, String Studies (released on Alter Stock, the label of Helm’s Luke Younger), he continues that pursuit, processing and manipulating his guitar inside a fascinating, unpredictable sound-field. “I think of it as a musique concrete– the guitar is mainly important in regards to density and pitch, but the actual playing is so minimal as to allow space for the electronics to work appropriately,” he explains. “If you were to hear what I was playing on the guitar on it's own you'd think it was a joke.”

    Though String Studies is more abstract than Deas’ previous guitar-only pieces, he considers it his first narrative work. “I was interested in the movement of narrative and it’s approach to time and the universe,” he says, citing the influence of time-scale-based work of Olivier Messaien and Iannis Xenakis. It will be interesting to see if Deas eventually applies this approach to his solo guitar work – though he plans not to return to that form until he’s reckoned a bit more with technique. “When I'm ready to play solo acoustic guitar again,” he concludes, “it will be when I'm more confident in this area.” (Read the full transcript of our chat with Deas here).

    Norberto Lobo

    Deas and Mullane sound like they could talk about technique forever. By contrast, when I ask Portuguese guitarist Norberto Lobo what the term means to him, he replies with just three sentences: “A set of skills/methods one develops while searching for new possibilities/approaches. New ideas create new techniques, and vice-versa. Hands have memory.”

    “Hands have memory”: three short words that suggest a wealth of ideas. Lobo’s music has a similar effect. The six songs on his new album Fornalha are relatively simple in their basic structures. But Lobo constructs a universe of sound from his potent building blocks.

    Part of that expansiveness comes from Lobo’s knack for making pieces that feel both controlled and open. You get the sense that some serious forethought has gone into every song, yet it also seems Lobo could go any direction at any moment. It turns out composition and improvisation are equal partners in his creative process. “Compositions are like gateways to improvisation, and the other way around too,” he asserts. “Is improvising composing in real time?”

    Like Deas and Mullane, Lobo has been around music since childhood. “One of my earliest memories is my father teaching me how to whistle,” he says. He began playing guitar at age seven, following in the footsteps of older siblings. “I learned from my brothers, some friends, listening to records, seeing lots of gigs,” he says. “I am mostly self-taught, meaning I have a super lazy teacher.”

    Lobo’s self-direction produces music that seems utterly boundless. On Fornhala, he shifts effortlessly from a sawing cycle to a finger-picked hop to a halting ballad. Tones and styles morph even within tracks, suggesting the flow of ideas in his head is a constant waterfall. “I guess most of the time the material chooses a sound for me,” he says. “It's hard, but it's also easy; it’s like a muscle that, if regularly exercised, keeps in good shape.”

    Framing creativity as a muscle suggests that Lobo prioritizes technique, at least as a vessel for expression. But it also seems that his musical workout regimen is more about the journey than the destination. “I don't know if I have "my" sound just yet,” he admits. “I’m still looking for it.” (Read the full transcript of our chat with Lobo here) Marc Masters


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    Staff Lists: The Best Album Covers of 2014

    Visually speaking, musicians are now being pushed to find untraditional entry points into their work, such as interactive online experiences, apps, and sensory installations, not to mention the always evolving live show and its subsequent trail of YouTube videos. But still, the album cover remains a powerful factor in how we make sense of a record—whether it's presented via gatefold vinyl or shrunk all the way down to fit on your smartphone screen. In no particular order, these 20 covers informed and inspired as the lynchpin of their album’s aesthetic ecosystem better than any others we saw year.

    FKA twigs: LP1

    Visual artist Jesse Kanda manipulated and twisted one of the year's most compelling new stars to create the surreal images that line LP1’s packaging; Francis Bacon imitating Margaret Keane in a PC Music fever dream couldn’t have nailed the fluidity and strange beauty of the record any better.

    Amy Kohn: PlexiLusso

    Oslo-based design studio Non-Format made this stunning gatefold LP sleeve and eight-page digipak with photography from Merri Cyr for ambitious NYC songwriter Amy Kohn. The custom typeface may be hard to read, but that’s part of the point—the mystery of the typography and otherworldly photographs conjure an elegantly skewed environment.

    Actress: Ghettoville/Hazyville

    UK studio Inventory designed the artwork for Ghettoville—reportedly the final release from Darren J. Cunningham, aka Actress—as well as the beautiful box set that pairs it with the electronic musician’s first release, Hazyville. The package is a symphony of die-cut shapes, interesting finishes and textures, minimal typography, a 40-page booklet of abstract imagery that deconstructs as you turn the pages, and cover artwork from William Stein.

    clipping.: CLPPNG

    Noise-rap act clipping. smartly tapped illustrator and designer Tim Lahan for their cover, which is an extension of one of Lahan’s many buckets of visual whims: the busted-up chain link fence. If there was an origin story to this cover, it exists within the artist’s risograph-printed booklet Olympic Fencing.

    Elisa Ambrogio: The Immoralist

    Magik Markers’ Elisa Ambrogio wears a Waka Flocka Flame mask  on the cover of her debut solo album. Here’s where we say something about meta culture, appropriation, Ambrogio hiding behind something, the way hip-hop production methods influenced the album… but all that aside: Waka Flocka mask. Pretty good cover!

    Rustie: Green Language

    The second track on Green Language, “A Glimpse”, opens with the intermingling of twinkling water and birdsong, for which this cover is obviously a suitable companion. The carved-out spaciousness within the album accentuates its grand moments so much more, and that connection is what makes this image feel so right.

    Sharon Van Etten: Are We There

    Aside from the literal nature of the title and cover shot, this instantly-timeless image crystallizes riding alongside Van Etten as she breezes through so many intimate and personal moments.

    Feadz: Instant Alpha

    If this cover tells us anything, it’s that Feadz, aka French house producer Fabian Pianta, has been doing a lot of traveling. The collage of plane stubs spelling out his moniker is just a really simple idea executed perfectly.

    Peter Matthew Bauer: Liberation!

    The duotone artwork on Liberation!, by L.A. design studio SEEN, is composed of ashram imagery and hand-set typography (OK, probably not set by hand, but most likely painstakingly set character-by-character in Adobe Illustrator). It manages to avoid a full-on retro finish by getting the small details right and being esoteric enough to feel new.

    St. Vincent: St. Vincent

    Annie Clark expanded her unhinged robotic persona this year, shredding through a captivating live show of choreographed steps and bows, wireless guitars and stage platforms. The Holy Mountain-like cover featuring her unhesitating gaze was the perfect introduction to the next frontier in her shimmering universe.

    Swans: To Be Kind

    Swans leader Michael Gira art directed and designed the cover for To Be Kind, which, depending on which version of the album you have, is one of six baby heads painted by Slash magazine founder Bob Biggs. But no matter which tiny head you’re looking at, when coupled with the epically dark music inside, the cover only adds to Swans’ unsettling grandeur.

    YAITW: When Life Comes to Death

    The tidy black-and-white finish on the cover of North Carolina black metal band YAITW’s fourth album makes the occultish imagery all the more brutal. An incredibly striking photograph by Angela Owens.

    Aphex Twin: Syro

    The artwork for Syro, created by The Designers Republic, is made up of all of the expenses associated with the production and marketing of the album itself—and void of almost any “design.” Sure, it’s minimal and very well-done from a boilerplate layout standpoint, and the limited-edition packaging uses just enough production embellishments to make it feel supreme. But the concept challenges the consumer to continue considering how we purchase music today, and all that goes into it.

    Strange Hands: Realm of Dawn

    Designer Lucas Donaud adorned this LP cover for psych rockers Strange Hands with a colorful and unsettling collage of leather and plushies, and then garnished it with red transparent vinyl and a red transparent cassette for Burger Records.

    Glass Animals: Zaba

    Micah Lidberg charmingly illustrated the darkly verdant and purple water-colored jungle for Zaba, which was art directed by England’s Boat Studio. Glass Animals frontman Dave Bayley created the typography on the cover, which proudly sports a perfectly opulent gold foiled finish.

    Oneohtrix Point Never: Commissions I

    Oneohtrix’s Record Store Day contribution was a collection of some of his recent commissioned pieces, and multi-disciplinarian artist Robert Beatty cultivated this straightforward concept into something as seemingly rigid—while still finding tension and rhythm using very spartan forms. The inner sleeve (right) colored the final falling piece on the die-cut cover, and mirrored the cover’s deconstruction through typography.

    Pharmakon: Bestial Burden

    Margaret Chardiet, aka Pharmakon, wrote her latest album while recovering from surgery; pushing the tension between body and consciousness, the physicality within the noise on Bestial Burden is evident. And while the cover is a very literal interpretation of the album’s inspiration, like last year’s Abandon, it’s a perfect synthesis of stunning and grotesque.

    SBTRKT: Wonder Where We Land

    Long-term SBTRKT collaborator A Hidden Place created the hyperreal cover for Wonder Where We Land—a powerfully colorful image of a mask-donning dog resting in a stoically silver palm. The duo continued to tell this story in the video for “New Dorp. New York”.

    Iceage: Plowing Into the Field of Love

    Iceage took a strong left turn this year, and the cover for Plowing Into the Field of Love expertly embodies the reckless lavishness that they’ve found in their cowpunk sophisticate progression. The gatefold sleeve on the LP houses a small stitched-in lyric sheet, highlighting the elevated presence of singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s howling words.

    Arca: Xen

    Alejandro Ghersi, aka Arca, is close friends with Xen artist Jesse Kanda and their respective warping worlds have seemingly had an effect on one another. The album is cloaked in liquid androgyny and a dark grace that comes from Kanda’s instinctual impression of its gooey grit.


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    Staff Lists: The 20 Best Music Videos of 2014

    Dancing is one of the most well-worn music video tropes, and there's plenty of it on this list. But rather than hewing to typical choreography, picturesque sets, and rhythmic perfection in the Michael Jackson mold, many of the best videos of the year took a more impressionistic route, from the eerie digital twerker at the center of Arca's "Thievery" clip, to FKA twigs flailing over a dead body in "Video Girl", to the freeform explosiveness of Sia's "Chandelier". Even video formalist par excellence Beyoncé got in on the subversion with her (relatively) dressed-down, DIY video for "7/11", which has her getting loose in a messy bedroom.

    Along with all the dancing, the following alphabetical list includes breakout clips from Shamir and Vic Mensa, Rick Ross translated via emoji, heavy-metal LARPing, Anne Hathaway in drag, the ultimate mash-up video, and more.


    2 Many DJsAs Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2

    Director: Glyn Peppiatt

    Twelve years after they helped transformed the term "mash-up" from an action to a genre with their landmark As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2 megamix, 2 Many DJs grant us the opportunity to be dazzled by it all over again through this riotous reanimation of the source albums’ cover art. Certainly, being serenaded by Peaches’ labia while the Velvet Underground & Nico’s unpeeled punk banana pokes out of her hot pants is more fun than reading a list of samples on Wikipedia, no? — Stuart Berman


    Arca: "Thievery"

    Director: Jesse Kanda

    In which Arca’s nude, gender-amorphous alter ego Xen twerks flawlessly within a strobe-lit digital vacuum—a disturbing, irreverent, and wholly original spin on the tone-deaf big butt "trend" the media tried to force feed you this year. — Eric Torres


    Ariel Pink: "Picture Me Gone"

    Director: Grant Singer

    Characters go about their lives behind emotionless, uncanny-valley masks while Ariel Pink lip syncs his corroded heart out. Presumably, it’s about the tragedy of a world that forces us to hide our day-to-day feelings. Also: super creepy. — Evan Minsker


    Azealia Banks: "Chasing Time"

    Director: Marc Klasfeld

    Azealia Banks currently reigns as the fashionable overlord of a parallel universe. When she’s not popping black orbs or relaxing in the buff, she can be seen holding court with her dancers in garb fit for a cyberpunk queen—ponchos! apron belts! breast-baring leotards!—and giving homage to the brazen MCs who wrote the blueprint on feminine badassery. Kim, Missy, Left Eye: This one’s for you. — Zoe Camp


    Beyoncé: "7/11"

    Director: Beyoncé

    With her ecstatically DIY "7/11" video, Beyoncé brings together a host of modern obsessions: GoPros, twerking, kale. Even though the clip is edited to a T, it gives us a glimpse into Bey’s life offstage: a hopeless perfectionist goofing off at her leisure.  — Molly Beauchemin


    Blood Orange: "You're Not Good Enough"

    Director: Gia Coppola

    A great archetypal pop video that ends with Dev Hynes and Gia Coppola exchanging a secret handshake, smiling about what they’ve just created. They should, too—primarily because of the part where Hynes sings into a single flower while staring off into the distance. — Evan Minsker


    Cashmere Cat: "Wedding Bells"

    Director: Peter Marsden

    We’ve all seen the movie trailer where two people meet, have sex, fight, make up, and finally gaze into a breaking ocean, all while Very Dramatic Music ups the emotional ante. But director Peter Marsden and Norwegian producer Cashmere Cat flip things around here, serving up a music video that looks like a trailer—replete with SoundCloud comments ("Cashmere Cat is a girl," "LOL no he’s a guy") standing in for critical hosannas—that’s more enjoyable than most full-length features. — Ryan Dombal


    FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"

    Director: Nabil

    In 2002, Aaliyah posthumously starred in a cinematic adaptation of Anne Rice’s The Queen of the Damned as the first vampire to ever walk the earth. In 2014, Tahliah Barnett honored the late legend’s role by bringing a queen of the shadows into the light, re-envisioning her as sort of a sun goddess—all-powerful, in-control, a giant among mere mortals. — Zoe Camp


    FKA twigs: "Video Girl"

    Director: Kahlil Joseph

    Just a few years ago, twigs was a go-to dancer for cheeseball pop videos. The song "Video Girl" is about those days, when the singer would embarrassingly deny that she was a girl who danced in cheeseball pop videos. And just as her music is a beautiful inversion of what we’re used to hearing on the radio, the "Video Girl" video is a haunted take on your typical pop clip. Yes, twigs dances in it. But instead of being surrounded by pastels and synchronicity and dutiful artifice, she’s in a black-and-white lethal injection chamber, mixing sex and death while straddling a murderer. — Ryan Dombal


    Flying Lotus: "Never Catch Me" [ft. Kendrick Lamar]

    Director: Hiro Murai

    With his album You’re Dead!, Flying Lotus set out to find the "blissful and silly" moments in death. So while a church mourns two children in this video, the kids rise from their coffins with smiles, dance away, and drive off in a hearse. It’s the same old ending, with a new beginning. — Evan Minsker

    Iceage: "The Lord's Favorite"

    Director: Cali Thornhill DeWitt

    Even when these Danes are pouring champagne over their heads in slo-mo, getting shoulder massages from a guy in drag, and beckoning "come here and be gorgeous for me" over power-tripping cowpunk, they aren't commanding glamorous excess as much as they're using small, studied gestures to do something bigger than their limited means. — Jenn Pelly


    Jamie xx: "Sleep Sound"

    Director: Sofia Mattioli and Cherise Payne

    With the help of the Manchester Deaf Centre, directors Sofia Mattioli and Cherise Payne capture a group of hearing-impaired people both young and old in this gorgeous examination of what it means to experience music using little more than your imagination. — Eric Torres


    Jenny Lewis: "Just One of the Guys"

    Director: Jenny Lewis

    The former Rilo Kiley singer and her Hollywood pals (including Anne Hathaway and Kristen Stewart) bro-out in drag, upending stereotypical notions of what women should be doing in their 30s. — Jenn Pelly


    Lykke Li: "No Rest for the Wicked"

    Director: Tarik Saleh

    One shot of Lykke Li in a hairnet is all it takes to establish her no-frills cred in this video, which traces a doomed relationship with a tattooed bad boy who’s run out of town—or something worse—for his so-called wickedness. Low-lit bar dancing, moody strolls through wheat fields, brooding looks passed between haunted hearts—it’s equal parts Brokeback Mountain and Terrence Malick, an uneasy calm before the fall. — Jeremy Gordon


    Mac DeMarco: "Passing Out Pieces"

    Director: Pierce McGarry

    And you thought Kramer’s shower-soaked salad prep was the most revolting display of leafy vegetables in a bathtub… — Stuart Berman


    Mastodon: "High Road"

    Director: Roboshobo

    LARPing is a lot more difficult than it looks. Provided you don’t want to come across as a fugitive wanted for robbing your local Medieval Times, you’ll need to spend hours honing weapons, practicing swordplay, and questing with your fellow geeks at the local park—not to mention dealing with those waiting to kick your butt when you get back to the real world. But as the "High Road" video demonstrates, modern-day adventuring isn’t about bragging rights, or even the chance to relive an epic time long since lost. It’s about believing in yourself and charging head-on towards the spoils that await, all while knowing that your squire—or, at least, your grandpa—will be there to defend your honor when the assholes strike. — Zoe Camp


    Rick Ross: "Sanctified" [ft. Kanye West and Big Sean]

    Director: Jesse Hill

    If you look to this annual list as a time capsule of styles and aesthetics that permeated the preceding year, look no further than Jesse Hill’s emoji-crazed, fan-made video for Rick Ross’ "Sanctified". There’s much to learn from this funny, flawless evocation of humanity’s newest common tongue—for instance, I did not know the eggplant emoji meant "dick" until I watched this masterpiece. — Corban Goble


    Shamir: "On the Regular"

    Director: Anthony Sylvester

    If only all of us could sum up our personalities as succinctly and attractively as Shamir Bailey does in the clip for "On the Regular", which throws bugged-out eyes, big smiles, and brightly-colored balls at the viewer as the rapper/singer shows why—yes, yes—he’s that guy. — Jeremy Gordon


    Sia: "Chandelier"

    Director: Sia and Daniel Askill

    Eleven-year-old Maddie Ziegler takes Sia's "Chandelier" by the horns, executing an inventive dance routine while flowing through an apartment. We never leave the residence, but the delicate visual framing of the choreography makes this video’s world feel just as explosive and liberating as the song that inspired it. — Molly Beauchemin


    Vic Mensa: "Down on My Luck"

    Director: Ben Dickinson

    If Tom Cruise’s underrated 2014 thriller Edge of Tomorrow—in which a dishonored army publicist is thrown into combat only to learn that every time he dies fighting an alien enemy, he is resurrected at the beginning of the day before the fight—is the alien-movie version of Groundhog Day, then Vic Mensa’s "Down on My Luck" video is the partying version. In the clip, Mensa keeps replaying a calamitous club outing, slowly learning from his mistakes—getting drugged, getting punched, responding to a text he shouldn’t have responded to—to earn his final reward: a hard-won spliff at the end of the night. — Corban Goble


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    Staff Lists: The Best of Pitchfork.tv 2014

    From hanging with Mac DeMarco in China, to blissing out with James Blake in Paris, to soaking up DJ Rashad's positivity in Mexico, to rolling along with the War on Drugs in Spain, to ruminating with Sun Kil Moon in Chicago, here are our favorite Pitchfork.tv videos from this year.


    Pepperoni Playboy is a psychedelic 34-minute doc that follows indie wildman Mac DeMarco as he hams it up on tour in China, shows off his home studio, and generally takes part in hijinks of all sorts. Directed by Jon Leone.


    A short film documenting a weekend in the life of late Chicago footwork luminary DJ Rashad and fellow producer DJ Spinn surrounding their performance at the DIY music festival NRMAL in Monterrey, Mexico last March. Less than two months later, Rashad would no longer be with us. Directed by Jim Larson.


    A documentary on this year's Basilica SoundScape arts festival—which took place in September in picturesque Hudson, New York—that features performances from Swans, Deafheaven, Tim Hecker, Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry, White Lung, and more, all intercut with gorgeous of footage the fest's surrounding Hudson Valley. Watch the doc here or through our interactive player. Co-directed by William Colby and Jim Larson.


    The outspoken rapper sounds off on hot-button topics including Guy Fieri's irresistibility, antique furniture, the pitfalls of Snapchat, Sammy Hagar's douchiness, and veganism as part of our irreverent interview show.


    The Baltimore band rips into a cathartic take on their world-beating anthem from this year's Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, Spain.


    A roiling six-and-a-half minute version of War on Drugs' Springsteen-ian single, live from Primavera.


    Mark Kozelek and his band deliver an intense take on this wordy Benji cut at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.


    The reunited band perform "When the Sun Hits", from their classic 1992 album Souvlaki, at this year's Pitchfork Music Festival.


    The New Jersey janglers perform their Days track "It's Real" at a Pitchfork Music Festival after party.


    The brilliant electronic artist mesmerizes in this hour-long, full-set video taken from this year's Pitchfork Music Festival Paris.


    Caribou impress with their atmospheric and propulsive dance tracks in this full-set video from Pitchfork Music Festival Paris.


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    Photo Galleries: The Year in Photos 2014

    Check out some of our favorite portraits and live shots from across the year, spotlighting artists including Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, DJ Rashad, Darkside, Mac DeMarco, How to Dress Well, Girogio Moroder, Icona Pop, Blood Orange, and Janelle Monáe.

    Special thanks to all of the photographers featured in the following gallery: Jessica LehrmanErez AvissarMaria LouceiroEbru YildizTonje ThilesenChris BuckTom SprayPooneh GhanaDavid SampsonErik SanchezSamantha Marble, and Ryan Muir.


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    Staff Lists: The Year in Quotes 2014

    Our annual collection of highlights from the interviews we did this year includes some of the year's most quotable artists—Ariel Pink, St. Vincent, Mac DeMarco, Pussy Riot, and Mark Kozelek, to name a few—offering insight on topics like cultural appropriation, modern female empowerment, the pitfalls of the Internet, navigating the rapidly changing music industry, and what happens when we die. Enjoy!

    "I want to be a good artist.
    If others choose not to be,
    that's their prerogative."

    Photo by Ebru Yildiz

    "There are areas of official life in the United States that are similar to Russia. For example: disbursement of protest, and the way American prisons are run, which is pretty tough."

    Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova


    "I'm glad things are getting better, but I'm going to push and be pissed off until they're perfect. That will probably never happen, but I feel some weird duty nonetheless. Even though I can get married in Seattle, I could go to another country and get the death penalty just for being myself—I'm not making music just for fiancés in Seattle."

    Perfume Genius' Mike Hadreas, on gay rights


    "The whole trend of white girls appropriating black culture was more corny than it was offensive. Trust me, I’m not offended: All the things I’m trying to run away from in my black American experience are all the things that they’re celebrating. So if they fuckin’ want them, have them; if they want to be considered oversexualized and ignorant every time they open their fucking mouth, then fucking take it."

    Azealia Banks

    "It’s not illegal to be an asshole."

    Photo by Grant Singer

    "I don’t have time to be a bitch to people, it’s so unproductive. I know there are so many people out there—fans and artists—who think it’s cool to be a cunt, but you’re so fucking dumb if you think that’s cool."

    Charli XCX


    “Find your scream! Even if you don't release it, find a scream. It's so liberating. You can do anything then. It's like you can fly. It gives you superpowers, to find your female scream and not withhold.”

    Courtney Love


    "A different thing happens when women scream. It's not always seen as powerful and it's not something everyone is attracted to. It's something a lot of people are even repulsed by. I've been told to shut up my entire life. I've always had to be loud, and I've always been scorned for it. So when I got to release that in a noisy setting onstage, and people didn't tell me to shut up—and they were happily applauding me—it was super powerful and satisfying."

    White Lung's Mish Way

    "Everyone on the Internet is sad. Why else would they be on the Internet?"

    "I feel like it's not about the music anymore—it's about how many friends you have on Facebook and your Instagram pictures. I hate that. It's such bad publicity for music and for true artists, and I'll try to fight as hard as I can to not be like that."

    M83's Anthony Gonzalez


    "You get people saying that things in music are bad right now because of Facebook, or Twitter, or EDM, or whatever. But it’s the same as it was 30 years ago: There’s always a lot of bullshit around, but there’s still a certain way of achieving things with no compromise or dilution."

    XL Recordings owner Richard Russell


    "I don’t have Facebook, Twitter, any of it. I don’t even have a smartphone. I write music, I record, I tour, I deposit checks. Fuck everything else."

    Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek


    "It's interesting that most gadgets are called 'iPhone' and 'iPod,' with that 'i' prefix, which is ego. But most creativity is not ego-led—a lot of it comes from the unconscious. So if you’re always checking your email or updating your Instagram profile, you're not just looking out the window, daydreaming. You've got to let the subconscious in—that's my main message to the world. I sound like I've been reading too many self-help books, don't I?"

    Jarvis Cocker


    "The holy grail for a music fan is to hear music from another planet, which has not been influenced by us whatsoever. Or, even better, from lots of different planets. The closest we got to that was before the Internet, when people didn't know of each other's existence. Now, that doesn't really happen."

    Aphex Twin

    "I just like when stuff feels good. 'Happy' feels good."


    Pharrell

    "Music that is 100% happy is terrifying—I would kill myself if I had to play that every night."

    Cloud Nothings' Dylan Baldi


    "People are rapping about killing niggas and selling fucking drugs all day, but it sounds happy—that’s bullshit. That shit’s stressful: You’re not going to make no fucking money, somebody’s going to end up dead, and you’re not going to be able to pay for his funeral because his mom probably don’t fuck with him like that, and he don’t got health insurance. So now you have to do a fucking car wash to pay for somebody’s funeral and bury him in some cheap shit. Where’s that song?"

    Vince Staples

    “I physically work hard on stage to get mouths to drop and to catch people off guard. We come out and people don't really know what to expect—and then we launch into this big music.”

    Photo by Ebru Yildiz

    "Now it seems like there is no culture. The school of fish are all separate. Everybody's just randomized, listening to their own thing in their earbuds. That's going to be the downfall of music, if anything. Nobody enjoys one thing anymore."

    DJ Quik


    “I'm like a small farmer who interacts with people who consume what I make and tend my little patch of ground, and the Spotifys of the world, which are like McDonald’s, are going to make people less aware of how the thing gets made and of its value.”

    David Bazan


    “In reality, it's become a similar life choice to be in the arts and to make music as it is to be a politician or banker at this point. A lot of people are bringing their business models into their music now, and it's starting to show.”

    — Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe


    “In the music industry, it's pretty easy to make an album just because you want to keep going, like, ‘This is the formula.’ But the formula is your life. You have to live your life and you have to live it well—that’s the formula.”

    — Angel Olsen

    “I don't have any tattoos but I've thought about getting Ernie, from Bert and Ernie, on my earlobe. He made a big impression on me as a kid. And I have pretty big earlobes.”


    J Mascis
    Photo by Justin Lapriore

    "When you're young, you want to thrash around to prove that you're working hard. But people in their prime just make everything look effortless. Confidence is like leaning back. It becomes a grand sleight of hand."

    St. Vincent


    “In every person’s life, around 27 to 29 years old, the stars and the planets align themselves to exactly the way they were when you were born. You’re faced with yourself. There’s no running away.”

    Lykke Li


    "When you're an adult, you get hit with pains and you can heal pretty quickly, but you could spend the rest of your life trying to outlive the scars that are left by what you go through in your formative years."

    Todd Edwards


    "There’s obviously a selfishness in playing music in general, and exploiting it, on a certain level, to make a living. There’s guilt over that. There’s this idea, like: Have you done right by the 23-year-old version of yourself that led you to realizing all your fantasies by 33?"

    Fucked Up's Damian Abraham


    "What we get in punk these days is the 'anti-anti': Someone comes up with something, then the next generation is against that, and then the next generation is against that, and then that thing becomes a problem. There's these layers of anti-, and so many of them are just so self-serving. It's not about larger freedom."

    United Nations' Geoff Rickly

    "It's hard to see how much of our social fabric is made up of a radical refusal to love people."

    Photo by Erik Sanchez

    "I've been in love since I was 14; it’s always focused on someone or something and it's always unrequited. It's led to a lot of cheesy lines, but it's the way I am. I want to be romantic, and songs are a good way to do that."

    Tobias Jesso Jr.


    "I'm not teaching motherfuckers how to love."

    Future

    "I feel like humans are a disease. It's a hard thing to communicate in a pop song. I mean, who wants to hear that?"

    Photo by Jeff Elstone

    "I would encourage people to realize that you don't have to panic if you're not part of a mainstream or if you find yourself outside the flow. If it doesn't suit you, don't go along with it. And if you can just come up with something of your own, however minor it is, that's going to be easier to live with when you're at the end of your life."

    Robert Wyatt


    "I'm probably still checked for because I've always been under-the-radar. People still like the underrated artists because once you go super over-the-top, they're like, 'He's not our guy no more, we need him to be underground. We don't want him to have too much recognition.' As funny as it sounds."

    E-40


    “I plan to be the face of the new wave that’s happening. I represent the do-it-yourself people: Let’s just get it, because nobody’s gonna do it for you.”

    iLoveMakonnen

    "Perfectionist? That’s not
    something I am. Fuck that."

    Photo by Danny Cohen

    "Yes, a few of my relatives died from aerosol can explosions. Strange things happen within families in small towns."

    Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek


    “In the end, you are going to die and you will be forgotten. In some ways, it's quite dark. But in other ways, once you deal with that, it's very liberating.”

    Wild Beasts’ Tom Fleming


    "When does any human truly accept death? Is that real? Do people say that to seem noble? Who's really at peace when they die? By the time I can answer that question, I won't be around to tell anybody about it."

    Pharmakon


    "I believe there's more than this—that maybe when we die our brains conjure up some kind of shutdown experience, and that's what people try to sum up as the afterlife. Something else is going to happen and it's going to be crazy and confusing and weird, and we probably won't know what it's all about. It'll just be another place where we’re trying to understand why we exist at all."

    Flying Lotus


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    Staff Lists: The 100 Best Tracks of 2014

    Presenting The 100 Best Tracks of 2014, as voted by our writers and editors. Any track that was released in 2014 or had its greatest impact in the U.S. this year was eligible. 

    Elisa Ambrogio

    “Superstitious”

    Drag City

    100

    "I would do anything for love." That’s a nice sentiment, but it promises too much. Magik Markers’ frontwoman Elisa Ambrogio isn’t expressing her admiration by promising riches or Herculean tasks on her gentle Immoralist opener "Superstitious". Instead, her day-to-day habits and the way she views the world have been altered exponentially by love. Suddenly, this woman who never believed in psychics, the supernatural, astrology, or superstition is checking horoscopes, wishing on stars, avoiding black cats, pulling apart wishbones, and keeping her fingers crossed. Backed by a piano and persistent drone, she asserts that she’s doing it all "to keep you loving me." Even if she second guesses how effective or silly this might be ("it’s all in my head", she sings), she’s got a good thing going. If any small gesture to the universe can help keep that intact, she’s doing it. —Evan Minsker

    Elisa Ambrogio: "Superstitious"

    Steve Gunn

    “Milly's Garden”

    Paradise of Bachelors

    99

    Steve Gunn’s cotton baritone has a casual malleability that lets him morph into whatever his songs need him to be. When you contrast that seemingly effortless shape-shifting with his high-in-the-mix, layered guitar melodies, the words often take a backseat. He's destined to garner the Grateful Dead and John Fahey comparisons while his contemporary and sometime bandmate Kurt Vile gets the classic-rock shoutouts. But Gunn’s Deadhead tendencies are coupled with an ability to turn a phrase in a way that can make his songs sound like instant classics: "Your faith is savage, and your mind is damaged," he sings on the chorus. And those guitars. Try to count how many you hear on this song’s extended jam (a loaded descriptor, but still accurate; this is more than a guitar solo). It’s nearly impossible, yet the whole interlude feels open and uncluttered. Gunn’s playing is as precise as it is circular, always taking us back home before we get sick for it. —Joel Oliphint

    Steve Gunn: "Milly's Garden" (via SoundCloud)

    Merchandise

    “Green Lady”

    4AD

    98

    A fever dream of grandstanding stadium rock, woodblock drum machines, and a turbulent opening passage reminiscent of THX’s infamous, childhood-scarring Deep Note, "Green Lady" marks the completion of Merchandise’s metamorphosis from moody Floridian punks to bona fide New Romantic revivalists. Given the ballad’s lush trappings, a more appropriate title would have been "Green Monster"—every sweep across the fretboard feels monumental, and every chord change the crossing of a chasm (despite the simpering synths). As Carson Cox lies hydrated but agonizing in an insane asylum ("They threw me in the nut house/ Distracting me with coffee and tea"), his titular love—epithetic of absinthe, of course, but also addiction and madness as a whole—remains at large, flaunting her criminal allure against a backdrop of shimmering, simmering guitars. Listening to Merchandise’s '80s-indebted rock, the centuries-seeped tradition of Southern Gothic seems like the last thing on anyone’s mind, and yet, "Green Lady" represents a canon revitalized, a shadowy spectacle of faith and violence captured under an emerald lens. —Zoe Camp

    Merchandise: "Green Lady"

    Copeland

    “Advice to Young Girls” [ft. Actress]

    self-released

    97

    Surely among the most heartening developments of an otherwise dismal 2014 was the continued rise of social media as a gathering spot for long-marginalized groups to make themselves heard. While Inga Copeland's masterful "Advice to Young Girls"—her Because I'm Worth It collaboration with fellow UK deconstructionist Actress—urges young women to slip past their parents and band together in the streets, it's likely that most anybody who's heard the lurching, dimly lit song did so in isolation; that's just how we hear things these days. Besides, Copeland's deadpan vocals and the track's digitized porch-rocker creak don't exactly scream "meatspace"; rather, Copeland's sage entreaties—"there will be all these things," she promises, "for you to discover and claim"—float through the laptop speakers like 140 character-hits of strength and solidarity. The cracked utopia that "Advice" imagines is one in which young women are free to do as they please, to redraw the boundaries of a society that so often seems to be walling them in. Illuminating and impertinent, "Advice to Young Girls" is a rallying cry for this perpetually plugged-in age; Copeland's vision of a street-sweeping girl-gang might not roll down your street anytime soon but, in 2014, it was never more than a hashtag away. —Paul Thompson

    DJ Quik

    “Pet Sematary”

    Mad Science

    96

    Storied L.A. rapper and producer DJ Quik creates detailed, sometimes fussy, and often eccentric music that manages to retain an acute pop sensibility and, more importantly, an incorruptible smoothness—call him hip-hop’s Todd Rundgren. On this year’s The Midnight Life, Quik built beats around banjo licks and train noises that threatened to out-funk his former collaborator Dre, and "Pet Sematary" was a perfect lead single. Its ornate but in-the-pocket production is as silky and flawlessly orchestrated a track as Quik has made since the late '90s, and it boasted one of the best lead-off lines for a rap verse this year: "Now what they want to go cancel Arsenio Hall for?/ Now we got no place to kick it, that's so uncalled for." Hall’s talk show rose to prominence in the early '90s, around the same time that Quik was finding commercial success, and he appeared on "Arsenio" a few times both to rap and DJ; last year—on a newly resurrected version of the show—the rapper announced the release of The Midnight Life. In a song that mostly celebrates living in the present—more focused on the narrative of maintaining than reclaiming glory—the nostalgic line feels poignant; like second-time-loser Arsenio, the perpetually "most underrated" Quik has been declared down for the count more than once, and may now be winding down himself. But as in the case of most of Quik’s work, the complaint is just a point in the rapper’s tangled constellation of talking points (mainly, taunts and come-ons to adversaries, fair-weather fans, and the female population of South Central at large), which are as full of ingenious contradictions as his beats. —Winston Cook-Wilson

    DJ Quik: "Pet Sematary"

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    Cymbals Eat Guitars

    “Jackson”

    Barsuk

    95

    As a lifelong Midwestern boy, I suppose I’ll never really "get" New Jersey. Thankfully, Cymbals Eat Guitars do their best to explain. "Jackson" takes the form of a drive through the Garden State, to the woods, Six Flags, and somewhere called Manalapan—a drive long enough that the Klonopin wears off, the sun goes down, and the ghosts of the sainted dead make their presence known. Joe D'Agostino sings like someone struggling to keep his eyes on the road as the band slowly builds behind him—guitars humming with melancholy, drum fills signaling when to hold hands, phantom harmonies showing he’s not alone. It’s a prom song for the space-sick, a slow dance by car headlights, a living epic whispering "indie rock’s not dead" while screaming into the night. Evil will find you, as D’Agostino senses shadows shuffling among the trees. All he—or anyone—can do is stay moving. You don’t have to be from Jersey to figure that out. —Jeremy Gordon

    Cymbals Eat Guitars: "Jackson"

    Taylor Swift

    “Out of the Woods”

    Big Machine

    94

    Though "Shake It Off" had been uncoiled weeks earlier and cemented Taylor Swift’s somewhat vague "'80s-pop" agenda, the release of "Out of the Woods" was the moment where it all snapped into place. Working with Jack Antonoff of Bleachers and Fun., Swift creates a chant-along that’s Taylor-made for a Reagan-era flick, though I can’t imagine Harry Styles standing on any lawns in Nashville anytime soon. (I feel like Harry Styles doesn’t raise his arms for anyone. For more Harry Styles fanfic, please visit my Tumblr.) On "Out of the Woods", Swift and Antonoff build a monster chorus worth the price of admission, but in the glorious last minute, they deploy all their weapons—from the shuttering drums to the cascading perfection that is Swift’s vocal performance—for 2014’s Best Breakdown. —Corban Goble

    The New Pornographers

    “War on the East Coast”

    Matador / Last Gang

    93

    Dan Bejar has always projected a love/hate attitude toward his hometown of Vancouver. His Destroyer songbook is dotted with withering displays of civic shame ("Well, Vancouver made me, I guess it’s true") and ad hominem attacks on local music-industry institutions ("medium rotation, the shock of the new/ and a memo from Feldman’s saying ‘everything is true!’"), but then he also used the serene black-and-white cover of 2011’s Kaputt as a postcard advertisement for the city’s natural beauty. "War on the East Coast"—the valorous standout on the New Pornographers’ punchy Brill Bruisers—only heightens this ambiguity: "Last night I dreamt/ Vancouver dressed up in the ocean," Bejar begins (echoing the opening line from Sr. Chinarro’s "Babieca", covered on Destroyer’s 2013 Five Spanish SongsEP). But while his delivery makes it hard to tell if this eco-disaster fantasy has instilled him with fear or elation, it’s a vision that demands immediate action, in the form of a pulse-quickening, synth-powered sprint straight outta town. Because for all its apocalyptic intimations, "War on the East Coast" is, at heart, an old-fashioned, swing-from-the-chandeliers, sweep-her-off-her-feet love song—an invitation to savor that romantic, movie-worthy kiss as the world crumbles all around you. —Stuart Berman

    The New Pornographers: "War on the East Coast"

    iLoveMakonnen

    “I Don't Sell Molly No More”

    self-released

    92

    The rise of MDMA in rap lyrics was a funny development—it’s been delightful and silly to hear the most masculine of artists boast about gobbling up a drug whose primary effects include heightened emotional sensitivity and giggling fits. It’s only appropriate, then, that the official molly send-off comes courtesy of the year’s most celebrated rap outsider, a touchy-feely type whose natural state seems like it could be characterized by… well, heightened emotional sensitivity and giggling fits (and a mannequin head ripped from the hair salon where he used to work). "I Don’t Sell Molly No More" sums up iLoveMakonnen’s appeal in a neat little bundle: the Sonny Digital-supplied UFO beat, the simple swag-rap bounce, the whispery and accidental-sounding vocal modulations, the #Based, sing-songy drama-nerdiness—all executed with the flip confidence of a kid happy to poke some fun at the bandwagon-jumping of his molly-popping elders. And like clockwork, Wiz Khalifa and Gucci Mane pulled up to the remix like a couple of bodybuilders in a yoga class, there to help Makonnen wave goodbye to an era. —Carrie Battan

    iLoveMakonnen: "I Don't Sell Molly No More" (via SoundCloud)

    Hundred Waters

    “Murmurs”

    OWSLA

    91

    In one of 2014’s quietest revelations, Gainesville quartet Hundred Waters transcended one of pop music’s most shopworn clichés. An upstart group emerged from nowhere in 2012 with a polished, wholly unique debut record, is subsequently chased by every noteworthy major-indie, chooses instead to take Skrillex’s money…and succeeds on all counts. The Moon Rang Like a Bell expands on the promise of their debut album without sacrificing anything about what made it good. They upgrade their IDM faerie-queene origins to the oddball electro/R&B mainstage of FKA twigs, Purity Ring, and How to Dress Well, in other words, but on "Murmurs", singer/songwriter Nicole Miglis still manages to sneak in the word "thee."

    The group sets "Murmurs" in the kind of ice palace pioneered by the Cocteau Twins or Homogenic, but Miglis pitches her voice to a pained upper register that Björk or Elisabeth Fraser never went. It’s a breakup song themed around a missed birthday—images of candles and wishes abound—but the production’s combination of churchly solemnity and far-off, slow-motion industrial clamor suggest something much more universal: the consistent drone of modern life co-existing with timeless cycles of loss and rebirth. Above all, though, is the song's devotion to "thee," that constant, all-too-human desire to view experience through someone else’s eyes. —Eric Harvey

    Hundred Waters: "Murmurs" (via SoundCloud)

    Protomartyr

    “Scum, Rise!”

    Hardly Art

    90

    Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey slurs his words aggressively, perhaps in retaliation for some affront. Building off the maniacal propulsion of four decades’ worth of forebears (from the MC5 all the way through the Stripes), Protomartyr manage to sound somehow meaner and more devil-may-care in their attack, as though the slow-motion death throes of their hometown has abraded their not-quite-garage-rock down to the bone. But those mangled lyrics are crucial, revealing Casey to be a daring and even funny storyteller with an eye for absurdist details (something about the colors of Santa Claus) and a keen understanding of the implications of small acts of defiance. Following a pack of Dickensian urchins as they set fire to the bar where their deadbeat dads drink away their days, he barely even needs to point out the civic allegories of the crime. "Scum, Rise!" plays like a short, sharp anthem for anybody left in Detroit when the lights finally go out. —Grayson Haver Currin

    Protomartyr: "Scum, Rise!" (via SoundCloud)

    Cloud Nothings

    “I'm Not Part of Me”

    Mom & Pop / Hi-Note / Stop Start / Wichita / Hostess / Carpark

    89

    Though these Cleveland indie-rock veterans have given the world plenty of towering monoliths of \m/ in their prolific, five-year career, the ferocious Here and Nowhere Else closer "I’m Not Part of Me" is the best song they’ve ever done. The snarling break-up anthem—"I’m not telling you all I’m going through," Dylan Baldi seethes, again and again—finds the Cloud Nothings frontman wrestling with the impact of a dead relationship, roaring "I FEEL FINE!" as if he can trick his brain into feeling good again. In the year of the so-called "emo revival," "I’m Not Part of Me" produced a deafening pulse. —Corban Goble

    Cloud Nothings: "I'm Not Part of Me" (via SoundCloud)

    Lauryn Hill

    “Black Rage (Sketch)”

    self-released

    88

    There was a time when the killing in a Lauryn Hill song was done softly and figuratively, through the power of music. That time was long ago. In the late 1990s, a false rumor about the singer/songwriter who would become perhaps rap's most gifted recluse supposedly saying she'd rather die than have white people buying her albums spread so widely there's a Snopes.com page dedicated to debunking it. Over the years since the former Fugees member's sole solo studio album, 1998's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, as she has drifted in and out of the public eye, her self-aggrandizing statements and unfortunate habit of showing up late for live shows have continued to divide, in ways that still say more about the culture than about her. When Hill went to prison to serve a three-month sentence for tax evasion in 2013, she opened herself to further miscomprehension by discussing her conviction in terms of slavery, colonialism, and institutionalized racism. It might not have played well in Peoria, but she was bringing up a legacy America has yet to escape, in ways that became tragically obvious this year.

    In the same pre-prison pronouncement, Hill said, "You have to remain focused to cease from rage." In 2012, she had premiered a spoken-word piece titled "Black Rage", which turned the lyrical framework of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" into a prolix litany of the crimes that one group of people have perpetrated against another, and a stinging endorsement of anger as an antidote to fear; in later live versions the interpolation became, like John Coltrane's classic cover, a musical one, as well. When the artist, now known professionally as Ms. Lauryn Hill, shared "Black Rage (Sketch)" in late August, with a call for peace in Missouri, the times had caught up with her song. She once told an interviewer, "If I make music now, it will only be to provide information to my own children," and this sketch, recorded in her living room, benefits by couching its broad social themes in family-like intimacy; her kids' voices can be heard behind her deepening, huskier roar, along with acoustic guitar and a murmuring rhythm. Some will share Hill's fury, some won't, but her unexpurgated message of focused resilience points toward part of what has been missing all along: A mutual understanding.

    To promote a new pay-for-view concert video, Hill recently shared a clip of herself performing the Fugees' "Ready or Not" live in Brooklyn. In the song, as on the original, she raps, "While you're imitating Al Capone/ I'll be Nina Simone." Simone, the subject of a controversial upcoming biopic, prefigured aspects of Hill's career trajectory in her own evolution toward racial confrontation. Simone reportedly warned Martin Luther King Jr., on meeting him, that she wasn't nonviolent. "Not to worry, sister," King responded; she even later insisted upon being called "Doctor Nina Simone." You'd never guess it by the ongoing rounds of backlash against Hill, which prompted Talib Kweli to write an essay defending her this year, but this mere Ms. has yet to go as far in her radicalism as the late legend, who, singing the then-new "Mississippi Goddam" at Carnegie Hall in 1964, blithely informed a mostly white audience, "Oh but this whole country is full of lies/ You're all gonna die and die like flies." But "Black Rage (Sketch)" belongs to that tradition, one of righteous indignation in the face of injustice, speaking to the persecuted wherever they may be, whatever they might look like. And it shows that, for all the actual death and cruelty in the headlines, the sound of music can still be quietly devastating. —Marc Hogan

    Lauryn Hill: "Black Rage (Sketch)" (via SoundCloud)

    Viet Cong

    “Continental Shelf”

    Jagjaguwar

    87

    "Continental Shelf" at first sounds like a full-on submergence into the gothic new wave of three decades ago. A turgid beat grinds under mirroring guitar riffs as voices moan couplets like "Don’t want to face the world/ It’s suffocating." Soon enough, though, things get harder to peg: a dreamy chorus floats atop rolling percussion, ghostly backing coos, and languid lines about fingertips fondling liquid gold.

    That kind of mood melding has become a Viet Cong specialty in their short life so far, but usually the quartet achieves their tonal kaleidoscope at a faster, more krautrock-like clip. (They even managed to rev up the churning engines of Bauhaus’ "Dark Entries" on their debut EP). "Continental Shelf" shows they don’t need speed to navigate feelings; their seemingly innate ability to generate mountains of atmosphere from drenched guitars and echoing vocals is more than enough. Really, it’s mostly the guitars, which ring so densely and thoroughly they seem to live beyond the end of the song, like sirens beckoning you to play it again. —Marc Masters

    Viet Cong: "Continental Shelf" (via SoundCloud)

    Vince Staples

    “Blue Suede”

    Def Jam

    86

    In rap music, mortality rivals sex and smoke for the most common subject, but it’s rare that a vision glints as ominously as Vince Staples’. "Young graves get the bouquets," he growls, referencing the slow singing and flower-bringing on the north side of Long Beach. But instead of mourning the dead, he offers an agnostic prayer that tells you all you need to know. His dreams don’t extend to old age, but just long enough to live past the bouquet-withering.

    The blocks around Staples are a series of battles with a constantly updated casualties list. You either "live or die for the whoopin' or the Crippin". Step on the wrong blue suede shoes and risk a pine box six feet below soil. "Blue Suede" is the updated version of the LBC dramas of Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound—down to the "Bitches Ain’t Shit" icebreaker of its first bars. He hits every classic West Coast gangsta rap signifier from cop killing to cognac. (Of course, he’s only 21, so there’s a Pikachu reference, too.)

    It’s only right that the producer Hagler Tyrant took his name from a champion prizefighter. "Blue Suede" channels the bloodbath synths of "Duel of the Iron Mic" and the bone-crushing low end of "Born to Roll". The rest belongs to Staples, C-Walking on the rooftop for every extra day he gets to live. If Kendrick Lamar is a gangsta rapper in the guise of a conscious rapper, Vince Staples is the inverse: The gangsta by birthright, never given the chance to opt out. All he wanted was the Jordans with the blue suede in ’em; all he got was war. —Jeff Weiss

    Vince Staples: "Blue Suede"

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    Arca

    “Thievery”

    Mute

    85

    "Thievery" surfaces like an alien reggaeton transmission during the second half of Xen, the debut album from Venezuelan-born producer Alejandro Ghersi. While Ghersi's been making a name for himself courtesy of ambitious production work for Kanye West, FKA twigs, and Björk (and an imploded remix of Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie"), Xen is far from a singles record; it's more about multitudes. But while the collection is best experienced as a fractured whole, "Thievery" is the closest you get to a fully breathing takeaway. The collection's named after Ghersi's gender-ambiguous alter ego, and the music itself is fluid and open to different alignments: structures interlock then fall apart before re-engaging in new ways. It sounds like what you'd get by shattering a mirror and creating dance music from its shards, and it moves with an elegant classical bent, each jagged track polished then carefully placed. On the forward-jabbing "Thievery", Ghersi folds dance-music conventions—chopped vocals, chiming pulses, a wobbling pace—into that anti-template, something that disorients like a car skidding sideways across ice. And for all its brainy micro-movements and shifts, you can absolutely locate the groove. —Brandon Stosuy

    Arca: "Thievery" (via SoundCloud)

    Father John Misty

    “Bored in the USA”

    Sub Pop

    84

    Prediction for 2015: The new Father John Misty album, I Love You, Honeybear, is going to inspire rapturous reviews and unreadable think pieces. Even more than FJM’s 2012 debut Fear Fun, Honeybear is a mind-bending amalgam of sublime beauty and potentially polarizing irreverence. It will either profoundly move your soul or profoundly annoy the shit out of you. Or it might do both at the same time. Either way, it is an indelible statement by one of the most interesting singer-songwriters working today.

    "Bored in the USA" embodies the album’s aesthetic: Josh Tillman’s tenor is as lovely singing about ennui and his desire for deliverance from "white Jesus" as it was harmonizing on those Fleet Foxes records approximately 27 years ago. Whereas the Clash were once bored with the USA, Tillman feels displaced inside his own country, a feeling all too familiar this year in the midst of near-weekly national tragedies. But lest he allow his white-liberal earnestness to get out of hand, Tillman undercuts the pathos of "Bored in the USA" with a laugh track, reminding us that this is show business, and he’s only playing a role. This is not to say that the world isn’t in need of saving, only that the possibility of a hero doing the saving for us is an illusion. —Steven Hyden

    Father John Misty: "Bored in the USA" (via SoundCloud)

    Ought

    “Habit”

    Constellation

    83

    Tim Beeler of Montreal’s Ought is theatrical in his words and phrasing, often pressing buttons in a conversational manner. "Is there something you are trying to express, yeah?" is such a loaded, backhanded question, begging its recipient to say something already. "Habit" unfolds like an argument about the intangibility of feelings and the way a divergent group—a city, classes of people, a generation, a band—is galvanized by such inscrutable things via conversations or, more mystically, telepathy. It delves into the shakiness of common ground in a thrilling way. —Vish Khanna

    Ought: "Habit" (via SoundCloud)

    Jessica Pratt

    “Back, Baby”

    Drag City

    82

    Normally, Jessica Pratt's nylon-strung guitar and paper-thin voice bend around dark moments like melted wax and her folk songs get tangled up in the shadows of life they so accurately detail. But not here. Inside the sparse "Back, Baby" is the breezy pop song she plays when the skies are clear, blue, and unconditional. You can tell by that little bluesy bounce in her voice when Pratt sings "When you sa-a-a-id that you want me to believe" and the rhythm of her fingernails strumming throughout. There's practically a beach and a palm tree in the background. She shines a light on that first hint of confidence that comes when you’re just a little bit removed from love, which is why the song flows along such a straight line. Her steady hand makes it a perfectly geometric, bookended with the words: "Sometimes, I pray for the rain." It's just a little pang of wanting someone, in a perfect day of missing someone. —Jeremy Larson

    Jessica Pratt: "Back, Baby" (via SoundCloud)

    Andy Stott

    “Faith in Strangers”

    Modern Love

    81

    Andy Stott’s two EPs from 2011, We Stay Together and Passing Me By, were primordial. The songs didn’t glitter or bounce or swing. They weren’t "hazy" and they certainly weren’t pretty. Instead, they lurched to life. Each one was like a piece of wet cement slowly decaying as it oozed across the greyest landscapes that never existed. The sounds Stott was playing with on those records signified both a step forward and a placeholder, and you had to be in the right mood (sad and/or existentially depressed about the state of the world) to connect with them. That pair of EPs were such daunting listens that it didn’t seem possible for Stott to sustain the momentum (or lack thereof). Sure enough, the LP Luxury Problems came soon after, adding haunting vocals that emerged as forlorn beauty from the muddy dirges he’d been creating.

    Now, here we are with the title track from Faith in Strangers, which is actually upbeat and somewhat positive by Stott’s standards. That is to say, it sounds like a lovelorn comedown at the end of a long night. Drums skitter like bugs, and occasionally a harsh fluorescent zap winds its way through distant vocals, a post-punk bassline, and a fuzzy downtempo loop that is the perfect soundtrack for that period just before dawn, when it’s still pitch black outside, but you have that vaguely uneasy feeling that the sun is about to start rising. "Faith in Strangers" is a logical progression from Stott’s more difficult work; it’s still not an easy listen, but it is a compulsive one. There’s an emotional rush that comes with knowing that Stott is opening the door to let the tiniest bit of light in. I wouldn’t call it happy, exactly, but happiness is all relative anyway. —Sam Hockley-Smith

    Andy Stott: "Faith in Strangers" (via SoundCloud)

    Shellac

    “Dude Incredible”

    Touch and Go

    80

    Does "Dude Incredible", the title track of Shellac’s first album in seven years, owe a debt to Neil Young and Crazy Horse? There’s the chunky, twangy riffage and acidly nasal vocals—and, for a couple of minutes, it doesn’t seem entirely insane to think Steve Albini might bust out a sky-opening guitar solo. Albini’s perversity, though, perseveres. The trio chops that classic-rock chug into splinters, in the same way that Albini’s music since Big Black has always impishly undermined any sense of comfort or decency. Yet there is an odd kind of familiarity to "Dude Incredible": A study in power dynamics of both the musical and sociopolitical kind, the song is a steely echo of everything Albini has accomplished over the past 30 years, compressed into a six-minute tangle of devolved, abrasive post-rock. On the 20th anniversary of their debut album, At Action Park, Shellac put a bow on itself—and it’s made of razor wire. —Jason Heller

    Shellac: "Dude Incredible"

    A Sunny Day in Glasgow

    “In Love With Useless (The Timeless Geometry In The Tradition Of Passing)”

    self-released

    79

    "In Love With Useless (The Timeless Geometry in the Tradition of Passing)" is the stuff Buddhist koans are made of: a song that conveys both weight and weightlessness, floating like a butterfly while punching like a prizefighter. It’s five minutes of alchemized loveliness, a snapshot of an ineffable feeling other bands labor their entire careers to create. Jen Goma’s soaring vocal, which flickers in and out like a radio signal on the fritz, is the secret ingredient, resolving order from chaos where lesser shoegaze acts would be content to aimlessly circle the point. Somewhat cheekily, the band released a lyric video to promote the song, as though these lyrics—hidden among gossamer guitars and harmonies textured into a sensory assault as relentless as time and precise as geometry—could ever be what you're supposed to focus on. Even so, the key to understanding "In Love With Useless" might be one of those lines you would’ve missed had they not spelled it out: "Dreams that were buried coming up," with Goma singing like someone shooting straight into the atmosphere. —Jeremy Gordon

    A Sunny Day in Glasgow: "In Love With Useless (The Timeless Geometry in the Tradition of Passing)" (via SoundCloud)

    Rustie

    “Attak” [ft. Danny Brown]

    Warp

    78

    In the midst of an album that tried a bunch of things and succeeded at enough of them, Rustie's collaboration with Danny Brown stood out by turning what could've been easy rave-tent bait into a crossover antidote. A mutated reflection of what mainstream EDM-rap could've become in more dangerous hands, "Attak" shakes cores thanks to both artists' gravitation towards the mutability of grime's influence. Rustie's beats push familiar tics through rigorous paces, with crowd-pleasing build-ups to trunk-rattle bass and trap-style snare rolls set against a bloodletting, serpentine synth hook. Danny Brown is Danny Brown, which is to say his yelp jukes breathtakingly around doubletime orthodoxy—he switches up emphasis with what seems like every other line and still glides through hitchless, his diatribes personalized ("Used to trap O.T. with the D/ On the Greyhound bus, one pair of jeans") and his craziness focused. The cure for the common banger. —Nate Patrin

    Rustie: "Attak" [ft. Danny Brown] (via SoundCloud)

    Rae Sremmurd

    “No Flex Zone”

    EarDrummers Entertainment

    77

    "No Flex Zone" is less of a song and more of a movement, and the din of its mechanism—"THEY KNOOOOWWWW BETTER"—far outweighs its speculative shortcomings. "No Flex Zone", too, serves as an introduction to Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy, two brothers from Tupelo, Miss., who deliver earwormy, Migosian verses as if they were characters on "Squidbillies" and whose hit anti-stunting song contains a prodigious amount of stunting. ("Won a gold medal, and a gold bezel," "Freak hoes, got several," etc.). With the duo’s Mike-WiLL Made-It-exec-produced album out early next year, remembering the absurdly named Rae Sremmurd—"Drummer’s Ear" backwards, idk—is a worthwhile pursuit in 2015. —Corban Goble

    Rae Sremmurd: "No Flex Zone" (via SoundCloud)

    Röyksopp / Robyn

    “Do It Again”

    Cherrytree / Interscope

    76

    "Do It Again" is the Robyn track we’ve been waiting for since 2010’s synth-pop sad-girl opus, Body Talk. It’s a pulsating behemoth that finds the artist boasting what she does best: reconstructing heartache into universal refrains, all wrapped around a palpable, otherworldly hook crafted by frequent collaborators, Röyksopp. The marrow of Röyksopp and Robyn’s mini-album of the same name, "Do It Again" is, in itself, a neatly-drawn circle that illustrates its own point: repetition provokes addiction, repetition is addiction. In a succinctly symmetrical five minutes, Robyn parses the nuanced cycle of pain and pleasure in the context of an unhealthy relationship, every time reasoning with herself, pleading, "One more time." Ttransparent phrases express the dizzying nature of being caught in a cycle, but as with Robyn classics like "Call Your Girlfriend" and "Dancing on My Own", it’s just another feeling to move past with panache and lots of fist-pumping dance moves. It’s pop jubilation worthy of repetition that promises no pain at all. —Melody Lau

    Röyksopp / Robyn: "Do It Again"

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    Pharmakon

    “Bestial Burden”

    Sacred Bones

    75

    Noise aficionados have long kept up with Margaret Chardiet's work, from her beginnings in the Far Rockaway DIY experimental music scene to her recent triumphs in the press and on tour with Swans, but Bestial Burden marks the zenith of her crossover success. The percolating, howling chaos of "Bestial Burden" sacrifices none of the intensity and calculating horror of her earlier output, yet this album has made her as well known as an aggressive, confrontational noise artist can hope to be. To the ancient Greeks, pharmakós was the ritual sacrifice or exile of a chosen victim, and Chardiet's decision to take on the name of this ancient curse at first seemed to reflect her status as an outsider. But, as her position continues to strengthen and evolve, it seems that the tables have turned: the hunted has become the hunter, and not even the Fates themselves can tell who will be her next victim. —Kim Kelly

    Pharmakon: "Bestial Burden" (via SoundCloud)

    Holly Herndon

    “Chorus”

    Rvng Intl.

    74

    The other side of "Chorus", a 12'' single issued at the start of the year by the globally minded electronic producer Holly Herndon, sounds like an audition tape for the relatively esoteric sound-art label Editions Mego. During "Solo Voice", slivers and snapshots of her voice twist into pointillist spires—chirpy and more musical than the most recent experiments of clear inspiration Florian Hecker, but only by degrees. Even Herndon’s most kinetic work has always seemed as driven by ideas as approachability, and "Solo Voice" is an unabashed expression of the former. Could a disembodied and dissected human voice be built into something new with computers?

    "Chorus" explores a similar line of inquiry. Herndon splits her simple, fetching melody into bits, so that her words seem sung by a cyborg programmed with a speech impediment. Syllables end abruptly, stand alone, and stretch over open space. But Herndon twists those samples of herself around beats that sometimes boom and burst like dubstep and sometimes stutter and sprint like IDM. In the space between the two, Herndon laces a panoply of fragments gathered piecemeal as she browsed online. The result, vividly illustrated in a subsequent video collaboration with Japanese artist Akihiko Taniguchi, blurs the relationship between web and browser, machine and user, data and devourer. Herndon becomes the principal input in a system bigger than herself, and she tries to be altered without being absorbed. It’s a canny reflection on our digital lives, rendered with a physicality that pulls it back into our own mainframe. —Grayson Haver Currin

    Holly Herndon: "Chorus"

    Makthaverskan

    “Asleep”

    Run for Cover

    73

    For about a century now, songwriters have put a lot of emotional stock in dreams. They tell us that we all want someone to be dreaming of us, that we want to see that special someone in our dreams, that we want a dream lover so we don’t have to dream alone. In those songs, being dreamt about is a pure and beautiful expression—a surefire sign of an uncomplicated infatuation. It’s no wonder Maja Milner sounds completely crushed as she belts the devastating truth about what’s running through the mind of the person she loves: "It’s not me you’re dreaming of." The Makthaverskan singer delivers that phrase over and over again, twisting the knife further with each new repetition. The Gothenburg band are responsible for one of the year’s most indelible pop songs about heartache, and while there aren’t many lyrics in "Asleep", the few phrases employed raise the question: Is being slighted in dreams a more devastating blow than an actual breakup? At least Roy Orbison had some beautiful dreams before he woke up to a harsh reality—Milner doesn’t get that kind of reprieve. —Evan Minsker

    Makthaverskan: "Asleep" (via SoundCloud)

    Ty Segall

    “The Singer”

    Drag City

    72

    After three years of releasing music pretty much as he wrote it, Ty Segall allowed himself one full year to record Manipulator, his A-to-Z double-album survey of '70s rock'n'roll. And while the record’s harder-edged material ("Feel", "It’s Over") is as strong as ever, it’s the LP’s softer cuts that saw the largest payout from the extra time and studio polish. On "The Singer", Segall goes glam rock, nailing the theatrical vibe of Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie and Slider-era T. Rex right down to the whispered backing vocals and syrupy string-section hits. It’s a sort of slow and moody spiritual successor to "Goodbye Bread" and a reminder that, if there’s one thing that sets Segall apart from his peers, it’s that he can so easily pivot from amp-exploding heaviness to soft and spaced-out balladry. —Aaron Leitko

    Ty Segall: "The Singer"

    Parquet Courts

    “Sunbathing Animal”

    What's Your Rupture? / Mom & Pop

    71

    "I cannot slow the pace at which I yearn" is how Andrew Savage distills the agony of half-requited love, the particular torment of hanging around someone else’s restaurant job, waiting to see if you might score the kind of post-shift, walk-me-home embrace that makes you feel "more real and alive," if just for a couple minutes. Parquet Courts might play fast and loud (and with a kind of sneering abandon that recalls early Pavement), but "Sunbathing Animal" is still a tender song about admitting that we can’t always control what and who we want. Over a relentless drum beat and some tangled guitar, Savage sounds frustrated by himself more than anything; no one, after all, wants to be this devoted to a person who seems significantly less sure. Still, "Sunbathing Animal" is a cathartic romp—the aural equivalent of banging your head against the wall until it hurts enough to stop. —Amanda Petrusich

    Parquet Courts: "Sunbathing Animal"

    Azealia Banks

    “Chasing Time”

    Prospect Park

    70

    More than anything else, "Chasing Time" feels unencumbered, by your or our or Azealia Banks’ own expectations for what her art should be. Its neon synth chords and stalking, syncopated house beats and half-time chorus are always charming, but remain less remarkable in themselves than for how easily they become swept up in the momentum of Banks' performance. The rapper mostly acquits herself well on Broke With Expensive Taste, but "Chasing Time" is perhaps the only time she sells herself equally as a singer (in truth, perhaps the one time she stumbles upon a melody worth selling): "I’m born to dance in the moonlight," she sighs delightfully in the pre-chorus, her breathy optimism for once as bewitching as her stuttering Lil’ Kim twists on the verses. It could be a startling glimpse of an alternate reality Azealia Banks, one who somehow avoided an endless succession of career-stalling obstacles (many self-imposed) and instead became a pop star bigger than the Igloo Australia she lampoons. Except that, while it plays, that prospect doesn’t seem startling at all. —Tim Finney

    Azealia Banks: "Chasing Time" (via SoundCloud)

    Rich Gang

    “Lifestyle”

    Cash Money / Republic

    69

    Every few years a new artist completely alters the gravitational pull of hip-hop, and in 2014 that person was Young Thug. A rapper who had once seemed happy to refract mainstream rap from the margins suddenly found himself at the culture’s center, which makes "Lifestyle" easily one of the most earned celebratory anthems of the year. Still, it’s a study in contrasts, with menace and exhaustion seeping out of a song that floats on soft piano chords and a synth melody that sounds like a relaxed whistle.

    "Done did a lot of shit just to live this here lifestyle," goes the song’s iconic opening line, and Young Thug sounds concerned only with his own survival. He jumps into bed with 40 women and yawns, telling them that he’s only here to protect his sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and mother. Later he threatens to piss on his underlings while in the same breath relaying a statement told to him directly by God. How could he be more sinister? "I’m on the top of the mountain puffin’ on clouds" he taunts in the chorus, and it’s a line as striking for its imagery as its solitude. It’s immediately preceded by one so quietly seething that it’s unintelligible.

    After a perfectly raspy verse from Rich Homie Quan, it’s the outro from Birdman—who somehow wrangled one of the biggest rap hits of the year out of two guys signed to other labels—that ends the song as it deserves. "Sitting in middle of this ocean… Pacific that is," he drawls, sharpening his Bond villain shtick to its finest point. Of course, it’s easier to digest "Lifestyle" if we pretend not to know how the story ends. —Jordan Sargent

    Rich Gang: "Lifestyle"

    Grouper

    “Clearing”

    Kranky

    68

    Throughout her career as an ambient-minded songwriter, Liz Harris has only occasionally hinted at pop melodies and instrumental clarity. Appropriately for the genre, most of her material has utilized bleary tape drones and vocal obfuscation to evoke new worlds. But after a red herring in the reverb-laden album opener on Ruins, "Clearing" offers newfound focus on more terrestrial, human concerns. Presented with only a midrange piano part as accompaniment, rather than swaths of echoing keyboard lines or distended keyboard explorations, Harris' vocals are largely comprehensible for the first time. 

    Lyrics delving into romantic disaffection ("Maybe you were right when you said I've never been in love") and self-hatred ("It's funny when we fuck up/ No one really has to care") are intimately stripped down, and all the more affecting because they're so plainly stated. As she skulks through the track's downcast five minutes she manages to emphasize simplicity in form and content. It's as if, after years of deliberate abstraction, Harris suddenly, and devastatingly, decided that some of life's most troubling questions are somehow simple enough to be addressed directly. —Colin Joyce

    Grouper: "Holding" (via SoundCloud)

    White Lung

    “Face Down”

    Domino

    67

    If White Lung make fang-bearing music about social ills, "Face Down" is their magnum opus. Singer Mish Way’s unilateral rally cries on the hook—"Ugly dies face down," "The dumb won’t make a sound," and "All the world’s pretend"—betray it as a personal-political manifesto, and her seductively abrasive vocals get punched out with cogent force. Her lyrical daggers resonate because they speak to a deep, self-conscious force with adrenaline-addled accuracy. No one’s hiding behind obscure metaphor here: "You say it's vile/ And you're right." —Molly Beauchemin

    White Lung: "Face Down"

    How to Dress Well

    “Words I Don't Remember”

    self-released

    66

    Memories are made, memories are lost, memories are buried, memories are uncovered, and, if we're lucky, memories are shared. How to Dress Well understands at least that much; since 2010's Love Remains, he has intimated maudlin recollections while evoking our vague memories of classic songs and the moments when they've meant the most to us. And much like an uncovered memory, the singer/songwriter returned this year with newfound clarity and significance with the smoldering "Words I Don't Remember". Over the single's luminescent synth chords and rhythmic R&B bones, Tom Krell sings like he's dictating a letter to a lost love who's just in the other room. He can no longer feel the emotions they once shared, so he asks with quiet conviction, "What is there for me to say but words I can't remember?" He uses the weight of memory and how it can shift to detail his internal drama, and the way it plays out results in nothing less than a near-perfect song. —Patric Fallon

    How to Dress Well: "Words I Don't Remember"

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    Iceage

    “The Lord's Favorite”

    Matador

    65

    "Come here and be gorgeous for me, now," sings Iceage frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt. It’s a casually stated demand. Having traded in the dark pummel of New Brigade and You’re Nothing for a dust kickin’ country-tinged choogle, he sounds as though he’s sitting on the throne of privilege. In the darkness across from a woman in sweat-smeared makeup and white high heels, he stares into her eyes, contemplates hurting her, and declares that he’s God's favorite person. Even if he’s just saying all this stuff while drunk at a strip club, he’s got the hubris and certainty of a mad king. When he notes that "now is the time I should have whatever I desire," that last word is overemphasized with a deep snarl. But while the sentiment here seems to conjure the black-hearted ghost of Joffrey Baratheon, Iceage’s out-of-character cowpunk is one of the band’s more upbeat ventures to date. "It’s about megalomania and love," Rønnenfelt said. Those two things are a dangerous combination, but they’re balanced excellently on "The Lord’s Favorite". You never know when his delusions of grandeur will override his affections. —Evan Minsker

    Iceage: "The Lord's Favorite"

    Leon Vynehall

    “Goodthing”

    3024

    64

    "Goodthing" must be the result of an elaborate heist. A sample this honeyed, a deployment this smooth, surely is the result of modish French cons pilfering Prince Paul's MPC circa 1994, or cracking the code to some heretofore unknown J Dilla storage locker. The point man behind this scheme is quietly ascendant UK producer Leon Vynehall, who uses the sample in question—a clip from Vesta Williams 1986 jam, "Don't Blow a Good Thing"—to propel a stylish, sweet house track, which has become an area of expertise. 

    Vynehall seems to know what he has in this hook, playfully dicing it while surrounding it with niceties like he's arranging cushions on a couch: a gentle hi-hat pattern, billowing pads on the upbeat. The bassline braces, providing crucial support but funky enough not to put on airs. "Goodthing" is rain on a car window: familiar motion, pleasantly obscured focus, a twinge of sadness if you're feeling so inclined. It's a track worth savoring, especially after Vynehall went to the trouble of stealing it for us. —Andrew Gaerig

    Leon Vynehall: "Goodthing"

    Eno/Hyde

    “Return”

    Warp

    63

    If all you care about is the destination, this is not the track for you. "Return" is a song that revels in the journey, where every moment is a small, new arrival. Brian Eno and Underworld’s Karl Hyde have each built careers on music that values the power of repetition and the power of a melody equally, and this is a study in how the two can work together. Its basic rhythm track is just some drums and the same guitar phrase over and over, but the effect is one of remarkable movement, as if through endless rolling fields of cash crops or over waves. Vocals float in this ocean, some singing words and others saying nothing at all, and it all feels right, like it’s taking exactly the amount of time it needs to. The music’s power of illusion is such that the guitar that comes in near the end feels as though it’s ascending when it’s really just repeating a few notes. It’s the kind of thing that can make you feel like you’ve been everywhere by the time it ends. —Joe Tangari

    YG

    “Left, Right”

    Def Jam

    62

    Is YG an album rapper, an artist capable of making great tracks but sincerely focused on big-picture themes and ideas? Or is he a singles rapper who simply strung together so many hits that he ended up with a terrific album? "Left, Right" argues for the latter. It’s all id, a raunchy pop single reminiscent of the best of the Ying Yang Twins, and produced by one of the architects of contemporary hip-hop. DJ Mustard’s work on the track here is both archetypal and unique, his standard, minimalist, staccato G-funk blending well with sudden drops, chants, and handclaps.

    Even if YG isn’t exactly thinking with his brain on "Left, Right", the attitude, humor, and energy that made My Krazy Life such a compelling listen are all on display here. He uses a math joke as a come-on and evinces a sex-positive attitude toward his opposites. He gets City-High-cheeky when the woman defends her work, saying she needs to make money. Most importantly, he has fun, tearing through what could have been an empty genre exercise like it’s a piece of meat and ending up with the sex jam of the year. —Jonah Bromwich

    YG: "Left, Right"

    Perfume Genius

    “Fool”

    Matador

    61

    At the center of "Fool" is one of 2014’s most transfixing musical moments: After two short verses the song’s finger-snapping rhythm falls away, leaving only a quiet keyboard drone and Mike Hadreas’ shivery falsetto, soaring ever higher until it reaches an impassioned crescendo that would sound as natural in a church basilica as in a conventional pop song. This interlude is all the more arresting for being so unanticipated; it’s as if the song had simply cracked in half to reveal a concentrated beam of light radiating from within it. According to Hadreas, the song was informed by the frustrations borne from "situations where I camp it up, make myself into a sort of novelty character to ease things along." And while that adds weight to the spare economy of the song’s lyrics ("I tither and coo/ Like a cartoon"), it does little to prepare you for "Fool"'s sheer expressive force, its complex breadth of emotion, or the remarkable way Hadreas can seem to use his voice to at once reveal his psychic wounds while simultaneously providing a balm to help heal them. —Matthew Murphy

    Perfume Genius: "Fool"

    Ariel Pink

    “Picture Me Gone”

    4AD

    60

    Ariel Pink's got a reputation for sonic anachronism, but it's still kind of wonderful that his most affecting song to date is aHoward Jones-style early-'80s new wave ballad whose lyric includes the terms "iCloud", "selfie" and "Find My iPhone." Sung from the perspective of a father who's telling his children that he has no physical images of his existence to leave them, it has a cute conceit and a melody that swoops and dives like a Polaroid caught in an updraft. But it's also surprisingly rich in subtext: this is a song about eradicating oneself from digital as well as corporeal memory, and Pink's lyrics keep slipping into the pervasive language of marketing. The key line might be one that switches from the first verse to the second, "when I was only 45." You can think of that 45 as middle age, but it might be more fruitful to think of it as the speed of a seven-inch single. Pink belongs to the first generation of musicians in a while whose work barely exists as physical artifacts; can a song that can't be discovered on a battered old record preserve a legacy any more than another selfie in the cloud? —Douglas Wolk

    Ariel Pink: "Picture Me Gone"

    Alvvays

    “Archie, Marry Me”

    Transgressive / Polyvinyl / Royal Mountain

    59

    There’s the timeliness of Alvvays’ "Archie, Marry Me", and then there’s the timelessness of it. The track is a portrait of modern love; combining newfangled romance with the aching roots of traditional unions still firmly planted in singer Molly Rankin’s lovelorn pleas (the lovebird chirping intro also underlines this point). Young lovers may fantasize about marital bliss, but the rigid reality favors lingering student loans over floral arrangements. And while talk of alimony and simply signing some papers may sound mundane and stripped of courtship, Rankin’s sincere yearning convinces us otherwise. Moody guitar riffs glide from contemplative, reflecting her subject’s explicit "contempt for matrimony," to the surf-rock tides rushing into the chorus as if Rankin’s sweet "hey"'s have the power to nullify any existing doubts. This is the maudlin ideal of the 21st century and perhaps the anthem of every twee-as-fuck wedding for years to come. —Melody Lau

    Alvvays: "Archie, Marry Me" (via SoundCloud)

    Against Me!

    “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”

    Total Treble

    58

    From her first words on her first album since she told the world she was a woman, Laura Jane Grace sings like she's unbottling years and years of stress. "Your tells are so obvious," she shouts on the title track to Transgender Dysphoria Blues. "Shoulders too broad for a girl." Addressing herself or someone like her in the second person, she goes down the roster of gender crimes: "You've got no cunt in your strut/ You've got no ass to shake," she sings in what must be the year's most biting couplet. "You want them to see you like they see any other girl/ They just see a faggot/ They hold their breath not to catch the sick."

    Behind her, Against Me! slams down the sort of cowpunk rhythm that crackled across the band's first album, Reinventing Axl Rose, more than 10 years ago. Grace sang about her friends and family with poignancy and compassion then. Over her career, she's slowly turned the lens in on herself, examining the crevices she used to try to ignore. With "Transgender Dysphoria Blues", she's finally screaming what she's been hinting at for years like she doesn't care who hears it. There's nothing like hearing that freedom in her voice. —Sasha Geffen

    Dej Loaf

    “Try Me”

    self-released

    57

    Out with it: did rap suck in 2014? If you’re judging solely by major label retail albums, then yeah, kind of. But why would you? If anything, the dearth of great releases from rap’s heavy hitters leveled the playing field for newcomers, creating a space where the year’s most memorable songs bubbled up from the underground. Still, Drake’s presence was felt, even as he hung back. There was no more effective A&R in 2014, no better diviner of "It"; the abiding power of his co-sign made record deals seem as foregone as cassette tapes.

    Ever since a casual shout-out on Drake’s Instagram sent her career skyward, I’ve struggled to pinpoint exactly what Dej Loaf’s "It" factor entails, though the Detroit MC’s "Try Me" has become a part of my world. Effectively detached from the dominant trends of the year, there’s something ineffable about the song’s appeal. Attempts at synopsis often point out the cognitive dissonance between subject and sound—DDS’s spun-silk beat almost approaches preciousness, a weird juxtaposition against Dej’s free-associative threats to those who mess with her "fomily"—but that’s what you say to sound smart, not why you fold a song into your life.

    I think it’s as simple as earnestness, a trait that’s become embarrassingly quaint in contemporary rap. Maybe it’s Twitter’s tendency to hyperbolize, but it often feels like rap fandoms have separated towards two extremes in recent years: stubborn classicism versus aggressive traptimism. There’s a lot of merit to the latter camp's motives: it's important that street rap and party music receive the same critical focus as more supposedly "serious" works. But taken to its extreme, it can walk an untenable line, rejecting anything so corny as sincere engagement with the world in favor of the proudly frivolous. Were this year’s "Migos > Beatles" memes necessary, or ironic? It can get confusing, and sometimes disillusioning.

    "Try Me" is a cool song, but Dej Loaf isn’t really a "cool rapper." She’s withdrawn, a little nerdy, diaristic, already exhausted. Her rap name comes from a loafer. There is no posturing to "Try Me", which sounds like an escaped inner monologue. Things can be as straightforward as this: all-white outfits are cool, because they make you feel like an untouchable millionaire. Black clothes are cool too, but for other occasions. Sincerity isn't dead. —Meaghan Garvey

    Dej Loaf: "Try Me" (via SoundCloud)

    Migos

    “Fight Night”

    300 Entertainment / Quality Control

    56

    Simplicity is one of hip-hop's most reliable strategies, one rarely wielded as effectively as the Migos-on-igno anthem "Fight Night". The track stood out immediately on the duo's first 2014 mixtape, No Label II, a perfect example of how to make a punchy (no pun, etc.) DJ Mustard rip-off into a Top 40 smash. It worked by upending expectations, shirking the typical Migos formula—from the slower, Zaytoven-style Atlanta production to a thumping uptempo West Coast approach—in a fashion that proved timely, but also purposeful. In its misunderstanding of a pre-existing template, it reached more directly for the pop jugular. Each line was quotable, delivered with the unapologetic confidence of a group willing to say whatever they can get away with. While perhaps not always the best bedroom strategy, "Fight Night" does hit on the mania of lust more directly than anyone else.  —David Drake

    Migos: "Fight Night" (via SoundCloud)

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    Kendrick Lamar

    “i”

    Top Dawg Entertainment

    55

    Kendrick Lamar's mother should be proud. After famously proclaiming himself the King of New York on last year's hotly debated "Control" guest verse, the Compton, California rapper was relatively quiet through the bulk of 2014; leave aside the Drake-shading cypher and the handful of guest verses (let's forget his Imagine Dragons collaboration, firebreathing as it was, too) and "i" was the only proper new Lamar song released as of early December. Like some of the year's other best songs, this deceptively uptempo, familiar-sounding meditation on self-empowerment was undoubtedly timely, but in a way it was all but preordained, and it only continues Lamar's conquest of audiences that aren't as hung up on minute-to-minute trends.

    The "I love myself" refrain picks up on the same part of the zeitgeist that brought us iLoveMakonnen, Lil B's "No Black Person Is Ugly", or the closing "put your love on top" admonition of Beyoncé's late-2014 "Ring Off"; the relevance of the verses, which progress past paranoia to others' visions of urban warfare and finally to an inner war, should also be clear. But Lamar's mom almost foretold the song's uplifting theme on 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d city, urging him to "give back with your words of encouragement" at the end of "Real" (a song where Lamar repeats, "What love got to do with it when you don't love yourself?"). Negative comparisons to Pharrell's escapist "Happy", what's more, amount to backwards compliments for the Lamar song's Isley Brothers-channeling approachability, which somehow makes a strangled scream and multiple mentions of suicide safe for a summer 2015 barbecue. The car horns and future-jazz outro follow through on Lamar's promise to trust his muse as they hint at an even fuller potential. Congrats, Mrs. Lamar, now could you please tell your son's fans what's next? —Marc Hogan

    Kendrick Lamar: "i"

    Spoon

    “Inside Out”

    Loma Vista

    54

    In interviews leading up to the release of They Want My Soul, Spoon frontman Britt Daniel professed his newfound appreciation for Dr. Dre’s 2001—a dated reference for anyone under 30 but a heartening one for an inveterate guitar band who has their formula down so pat I sometimes confuse their newest good record with the good record they put out before it. 

    Never have they seemed less like themselves than on "Inside Out". Part of it’s the hotel-lounge drum loops and sparkling arpeggios of harp, so light they sound carbonated. But it’s also the song’s air of ease: Where the band once used mystery to suggest threat, here it suggests wonder. Twenty years in and it's reasonable to start talking about aging gracefully, but Spoon never sounded like a band that would be around for 20 years and still don’t—they’re too small, too cool, too fixated on the dark parts near the margins. —Mike Powell

    Spoon: "Inside Out" (via SoundCloud)

    Perfect Pussy

    “Interference Fits”

    Captured Tracks

    53

    On "Interference Fits", Meredith Graves’ vocals vie for space beneath the song’s blissfully distorted surface, balancing warmth and dissonance within a patiently unfolding onslaught of noise. The charm comes from the way her words jostle for room amongst the barreling drums and feedback: there’s a sense that what you can't hear is just as important as what you can. Some lyrics, like the emotionally loaded "Since when do we say yes to love?", rear up out of the mix while others remain obscured, and that’s part what makes "Interference Fits" so empowering: Her sheer will to be heard lends a freeing sense of ambivalence to the calamity, and her resolve is tenacious even as she gets drowned out in sound. —Molly Beauchemin

    Perfect Pussy: "Interference Fits" (via SoundCloud)

    Todd Terje

    “Delorean Dynamite”

    Olsen

    52

    "Delorean Dynamite" is the ultimate in flashy nu-disco. It’s big, happy, and self-satisfied. It starts at a low rumble and climbs to almost unbearable altitudes. It sneaks into your garage and then revs the engine, spins the wheels and flips the high beams on and off. It’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from Todd Terje, lover of cartoons, devoted musical emulation and video-form kitsch koans (what is the sound of one classic car selling itself on YouTube?)—a broad, perfectly charted exercise in the slow build on an album that deviated in unlikely ways from this exact formula. Ever the shrewd crowdpleaser, Terje placed the song directly after the significantly pruned "Strandbar", and then made it half of a paired centerpiece with the uncharacteristically sedate ballad "Johnny and Mary"—placement that makes the track’s gentle final minute feel like a drop off a cliff into a warm ocean. Terje’s skill with this kind of heady propulsion is unmatched, and "Delorean Dynamite" is where he reminds us exactly how high he can climb. —Abby Garnett

    Todd Terje: "Delorean Dynamite" (via SoundCloud)

    Owen Pallett

    “I Am Not Afraid”

    Domino / Secret City

    51

    "I Am Not Afraid", the track that kicks off the gorgeous In Conflict, is as much a riddle as it is a song. Those who may have arrived at Owen Pallett’s music by way of his theoretical explications of pop tracks wouldn’t have been surprised at the obvious intelligence of the writing here, or the foreboding and beauty of the music behind it. It would have been more discomfiting to reckon with the intense strangeness of lyrics that seem several worlds away from the crush-love-heartbreak-repeat cycle of the pop music Pallett clearly understands so well.

    Pallett has said that In Conflict is the first of his records on which he tried to write lyrics that were both non-allegorical and autobiographical. But even if the material "I Am Not Afraid" draws upon comes from Pallett’s own life, the song is extraordinarily rich in imagery and metaphor, whether it’s Pallett leaving his "violin unattended in a cab or restaurant" or sharing lyrics like "They told me to chew on a toothpick/ They told me to take a deep breath." These are depictions of anxiety and anger—heady emotions clashing with the record’s central message that its subject is not afraid and salvation may be found in discipline. So while there’s clearly that eponymous conflict in effect here, the idea motivating the song remains fleeting.

    The music of "I Am Not Afraid" is mostly gorgeous as it transitions from violin to piano and back, but it is also strange, and sometimes frightening (a result of Pallett dropping what he calls "black notes"—i.e., the exact wrong note for the melody—into the mix). Accepting the discomfort of the very music here, and accepting the discomfort of the lyrics, becomes both a metaphor and a microcosm of the experience that those born into any of the groups that hold dominion (whites, males, cisgenders) must undertake to reckon with their unearned status. To draw on what Pallett has said directly, this musical and lyrical confusion also functions as a metaphor for his own "displacement and dysphoria." By taking the political and rendering it both personal and deliberately inscrutable, Pallett has managed to confound in the best way possible and create a relatable pop experience for voices that are too often ignored. —Jonah Bromwich

    Taylor Swift

    “Style”

    Big Machine

    50

    Dating back to her earliest records, Taylor Swift’s songs have navigated the familiar tropes of Western romance: Romeo and Juliet, cheerleader versus geek, the shy girl who falls for the rebellious boy, Prince Charming and his white horse. On her shapeshifting new album 1989, "Style" is perhaps one last look at the version of Swift who sees herself in broadly drawn characters—in this instance, a "classic" girl wearing red lipstick who has fallen for a slick-haired, white-teed guy with the "James Dean look" in his eye. But where those early songs were often parables, this one is more of an allegory: Swift dredges up iconic imagery of the American '50s as a way of framing an on-again, off-again relationship so intense that its essence feels infinite.

    But "Style" also seems like a distilled look at a future version of Taylor Swift. Though it is structured like so many of her previous tracks, it’s not her meticulous songwriting that throws you into a headrush. Instead it’s her vocals, tense and restrained, misting emotion in cascading sighs and implied ellipses. But more so it’s the instrumentation from Max Martin and Shellback, which traces a line from Jan Hammer to "Teenage Dream". Swift delivers wallops in small moments, so her producers bust out the heartstoppers: a pre-chorus riff that’s like a car screeching short, then undulating waves of keyboards underneath the hook that feel like the wind blowing through your hair. Most stunning of all is a guitar figure that scribbles its own story of indefinite lust across the night sky. —Jordan Sargent

    Run the Jewels

    “Blockbuster Night Pt. 1”

    Mass Appeal

    49

    Ever since their debut, it's been easy to think of Run the Jewels in terms of sheer mass annihilation, rap Road Warriors tagging together to bring Doomsday Devices on everyone in their path. It doesn't hurt that El-P's beats continue to be so dusty and grimy that they sound like they've been dragged through the Paris-to-Dakar rally; this one's got gravelly molasses bass fuzz built to asphyxiate ears. But the mayhem is run through god-tier one-liners (El: "It's all a joke between mom contractions and coffin fittin’s"; Mike: "I give a fuck if I'm late, tell Satan be patient") and pure technique that makes the most of assonance, internal rhymes, alliteration, and every other trick that lesser MCs try to substitute for personality. Since both El-P and Killer Mike have used their inseparably complementary tendencies to make their personalities the whole point, it's here where all those traits run rampant: They're out for justice (word to Seagal), beholden to knocking down competitors and lifting up allies, bringing out the dead and laughing at the inevitability of joining them. —Nate Patrin 

    Run the Jewels: "Blockbuster Night Part 1" (via SoundCloud)

    Lykke Li

    “Gunshot”

    LL

    48

    Lykke Li’s "Gunshot" is too cathartic to be a sad song and too sad to be a cathartic song. Despite lyrics that suggest an emotional morass of regret over a failed romance, it explodes with an uplift that makes stark and incapacitating heartache sound triumphant. "And the shot goes/ Through my head and back," Li cries on the song’s life-affirming build, an assertion that somehow sounds hopeful in a narrative of despair. The sparse, meandering interludes that punctuate the chorus underscore its unspoken euphoria by way of contrast—and yet, the specificity of the song’s anguish at earlier moments ("I am longing for your poison/ Like a cancer to its prey") tames this feeling. "Gunshot" invokes a rare balance between sorrow and liberating acceptance. —Molly Beauchemin

    Lykke Li: "Gunshot"

    Nils Frahm

    “Says”

    Erased Tapes

    47

    A good part of Nils Frahm’s rise to prominence in the past two years no doubt came from word of mouth surrounding his live shows. Some of my best musical moments have been watching someone’s reaction after taking them to see him for the first time. He’s a composer whose music strives for simplicity and directness even across a multi-part suite, and a talented pianist whose fingers say more than his lovable between-song banter. What I’m getting at here is that Frahm’s music is best heard in the live setting, and that’s why Spaces, a live album, was easily his best record yet.

    While the excellent Spaces, which comprises several different performances, might not totally capture the experience of seeing a Frahm concert, the eight-minute "Says" comes the closest. You can almost see him running between his instruments, setting loops and adding little flourishes to his gradually blooming wall of sound. There’s a particularly great moment about five minutes in, when the rising synth line takes off as if it were finally breaking free, and then it does an upward dance that feels both wounded and victorious. It’s one of those moments on Spaces—and in his concerts—where you figure out that Frahm is no average pianist, nor an average modern classical composer. Instead, he’s a near-genius who makes emotional epics that scale the heights of post-rock with the mere stroke of his fingers. —Andrew Ryce

    Nils Frahm: "Says"

    Mr Twin Sister

    “In the House of Yes”

    Infinite Best / Twin Group

    46

    Overuse of the term "guilty pleasure" has rendered the phrase virtually meaningless; let it be said that drinking alone is one of the few activities that still earns that description. In the past, its musical tributes have emphasized the "guilty" part, coming from grizzled boozehounds like Merle Haggard and George Thorogood who have willingly done hard time and paid hard fines for breaching the social contract. In the spirit of "Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe", Mr Twin Sister’s "In the House of Yes" makes a compelling argument for the "pleasure" principle. It’s a glittery disco wherein Andrea Estella wonders aloud, what would a club night be like without the rude boys on the dance floor, the cover charge, the wait at the door, the ridiculous drink prices, the shitty music, and the struggle to find a cab ride home? It would be pretty fucking awesome, that’s what. Cup in hand, dancing alone in her room, Estella sinks deeper into alcohol’s warm embrace until she hits the floor and wakes up knowing exactly how she got home, who she woke up with and where to get breakfast. All the while, a voice in her head repeats, "You’re the one!"—it doesn’t get any better than this, does it? That’s the lie "In the House of Yes" tells you, and the one that all solo drinkers believe to their ultimate destruction.  So one of the year’s most seductive songs is also one of the most morally corrupt. —Ian Cohen

    Mr Twin Sister: "In the House of Yes" (via SoundCloud)

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    Ariel Pink

    “Put Your Number in My Phone”

    4AD

    45

    Though it mimics '60s sunshine pop and '70s adult-contempo cheese, "Put Your Number in My Phone" reminds me more of something less likely: a joke remix of a Tiger Woods adultery-scandal voicemail. The similarities are eerie: both are about revealing and manipulating personal information; both use actual voicemails as musical motifs; and both explore the blurry line between intimacy and deception. Where Woods begs someone close to him to hide his secrets from the world, Pink begs someone to get close to him while hiding a secret: he has no real intention of reciprocating that intimacy.

    The parallels may seem trivial, and certainly without the voicemail that reveals Pink’s betrayal, "Put Your Number in My Phone" would simply be well-crafted pop—a deft web of love-letter couplets and sugary melody. But the reality check of a voice wondering why Ariel hasn’t called back gives the song’s sparkle a dark undercurrent. The effect is not unlike the way the plastic sheen on celebrities’ public lives glosses over stickier truths. Pink’s music is always at its best when he’s mixing layers that way, complicating and confusing what at first seems simple, and with "Put Your Number in My Phone" he’s left yet another messy message. —Marc Masters

    Ariel Pink: "Put Your Number in My Phone"

    Angel Olsen

    “Lights Out”

    Jagjaguwar

    44

    Angel Olsen spent most of her year conducting an exquisitely private conversation with herself in front of audiences. "No one's gonna try it for you, darling, no one," she sings plaintively on "Lights Out", from her fiercely enigmatic and still-arresting Burn Your Fire For No Witness. The song, a late moment of piercing clarity, has a drowsy feel, as do the guitars, which speak through the half-yawn of light distortion. "Just when you thought you would turn all your lights out, it shines," she muses, in one long drifting leaf of a melody, keeping the thought alive and following it all the way down to the floor. She lingers lovingly on every phrase, stretching out the words as if she was looking to hide something inside them. The song sounds like a private prayer that Olsen shares with us because she's confident we'll never truly plumb its meaning or crack its surface. Sometimes, all you need is one good thought, strong in your mind. —Jayson Greene

    Angel Olsen: "Lights Out"

    Ariana Grande

    “Love Me Harder” [ft. The Weeknd]

    Republic

    43

    It’s been an art from blues to Britney: the song as extended double entendre, one that can come off either unassailably clean or unspeakably filthy depending on the listener’s life experience and cleanliness of mind (or nearness to a Google searchbox). "Love Me Harder" is sort of the opposite: even when it’s clean it sounds teasingly off, and even when it’s dirty, it sounds so disarmingly spit-shine clean. Much of it’s the premise: pairing a singer who was a babysitter on Nickelodeon less than half a year ago with a singer whose discography contains endless variations on permanently corrupting young ingenues, with no apologies and no inclinations to change that. Even more of it’s the execution: organ peals timed like winks after each line; Grande switching emotional beats like poses, her voice either knowing beyond her years or just polished to sound like it, with no indication as to which; Tesfaye revisiting the sturdy nocturnal electro-house of his Kavinsky collaboration (a sound that’s been fast adopted by the pop trickbook, from megastars to newcomers), leering about his rep and finding a way to describe hardcore porn acts in PG terms. When these tracks fail, they’re the most embarrassing failures an artist can have; when they succeed, the sleight of song can be breathtaking. Here’s to a generation of kids realizing horrifying things in 2020 about their teenage jam—and what lodged it in their mind. —Katherine St. Asaph

    Ariana Grande: "Love Me Harder" [ft. The Weeknd]

    St. Vincent

    “Prince Johnny”

    Loma Vista

    43

    St. Vincent is known for the way she can make a guitar sound like it’s made of rubber stretched to the point of snapping, and she's also known for her brittle funk and unabashed kookiness. "Prince Johnny" isn’t really that kind of song, though. The guitar is reined in but still wickedly effective. Nothing is smeared or off-kilter. It takes a basic beat that could have been funky and makes it the foundation for something lovely and drifting, a song whose beauty belies the conflict and spit in its lyrics. Those lyrics tease you with the huge "whoa-ohs" of the refrain a few times before you actually get there, that makes it more rewarding when you do reach it. Her records contain plenty of choruses that stick in your brain, but this may be the most simple and direct of them all. St. Vincent’s core appeal lies in her eccentricities but she doesn’t actually need to lean on them to make brilliant music. —Joe Tangari

    St. Vincent: "Prince Johnny" (via SoundCloud)

    The War on Drugs

    “An Ocean in Between the Waves”

    Secretly Canadian

    41

    This is a murky song. This is a song about murk. It opens on a "travelin’ man" who is watching someone, presumably a woman, walk toward him in the rain. It’s a stock image out of a film noir, and Adam Granofsky keeps the dark scenery coming. There are wild winds blowin’, black suns risin’, and nail guns blasting through hearts. At no point does any of this clarify the song’s meaning; clarity is in fact Granofksy's elusive femme fatale. What is the protagonist seeking? What exactly does an "ocean in between the waves" signify? Everything? Anything? Nothing?

    "An Ocean in Between the Waves" parallels the confusion Granofsky experienced as he was making it; the title could very well describe the sound in his head that he was chasing and couldn’t pin down. He was the restless protagonist, and that sound was the barely visible figure in the thunderstorm. Like the rest of Lost in the Dream, "An Ocean in Between the Waves" is a questing epic with an uncertain destination. The only way out for Granofsky was to keep moving, to keep grasping in the dark, to keep questing forward. The exhilaration of this song—which Granofsky labored over for months before reworking his original demo at the last moment—is that you can hear him finally catch the wave in the final 90 seconds. When that guitar solo kicks in, it’s like a ray of light cutting through an everlasting night. It’s not clear whether Granofsky will be okay in the end, but at least he’s no longer lost. —Steven Hyden

    Jessie Ware

    “Tough Love”

    PMR / Friends Keep Secrets / Interscope

    40

    Pop music doesn’t really do tough love. Utter heartache? Sure. Total infatuation? Of course. But the twisting formulations that combine feelings of angst and fidelity are somewhat harder to shrink-wrap into three-and-a-half minutes of music. Enter Jessie Ware, whose work thus far is marked by such fraught negotiations of the heart—she wants to believe but, as a level-headed 30-year-old, she also doesn’t want to be fooled.

    So while the newlywed’s uneven second album includes songs called "You & I (Forever)" and "Champagne Kisses", she titled it Tough Love. And its first single is all about the restraint, resilience, and vulnerability that comes along with anything worth keeping. The expert vocalist—who is wholly capable of runs that would make a "Voice" judge weep—ventures to a heretofore unexplored upper register here, forcing her to work for every note. Meanwhile, the interstellar throb of a beat never breaks its orbit, instead finding a home in the stratosphere between heaven and Earth. It’s not an easy place to be, but it’s not a bad place either. —Ryan Dombal

    Jessie Ware: "Tough Love" (via SoundCloud)

    Real Estate

    “Talking Backwards”

    Domino

    39

    Real Estate are defined by their tremendous empathy. It’s the beating heart behind those glossy, clean guitar melodies, the warmth lifting Martin Courtney’s sweet, thin voice. It’s been there since their early recordings; this is the band that spent six minutes asking, "Budweiser? Sprite? Do you feel alright?" on their self-titled 2009 debut, like a benevolent senior helping a freshman bandmate through their first party. They’re all a little older now, and the kindness once reserved for friends is now saved for their partners and families. "Talking Backwards", the lead single from their third album, Atlas, is a song about disconnection framed by another classic Matt Mondanile guitar lead, yearning and yet effortless. The tone is relaxed, the corners are rounded—this is still a Real Estate song, after all. But when Courtney sings, "And the only thing that really matters/ Is the one thing I can’t seem to do," you can tell it’s eating him up inside. That kind of dad-level concern is never going to be cool, but it helps to forge the connection Courtney is trying to salvage, and the result is yet another surprisingly touching song in a discography full of them. —Jamieson Cox

    Real Estate: "Talking Backwards" (via SoundCloud)

    Bobby Shmurda

    “Hot Nigga”

    Epic

    38

    Vine killed the radio star. Exhibit A: 2:17 - 2:22 of Bobby Shmurda’s "Hot Nigga" video. Over a beat snatched from a two year old Lloyd Banks mixtape cut the Brooklyn rapper spits a bleak, unending verse of ever-mounting tension and teenage menace. It’s quiet for song and artist until someone loops up the five second video highlight where the kid tosses his fitted in the air and flops into a loose limbed marionette routine. The beat’s fierce, the dance is hilarious, and the hat never lands. A star is born. "Hot Nigga"’’s video and Vine took it places a hookless New York drill song wouldn’t have made it otherwise, but its unflinching locomotion is really the draw. You hear those air raid sirens, and you are whisked into a maelstrom. Parties across the country exploded into bedlam at the very drop. "Hot Nigga" embodies trap’s power to shut off the mind and speak directly to the body. It’s rap as sledgehammer, as battering ram. —Craig Jenkins

    Charli XCX

    “Boom Clap”

    Atlantic / Asylum / Neon Gold

    37

    The early story on Charli XCX's career was overshadowed by the multi-platinum success of her co-write with Icona Pop, "I Love It", a song that was a world-wide number one and soundtrack to all manner of consumable goods, for what seemed like an entire year. The outsized smash of "I Love It", made the mere multi-year (2011-13) omnipresence of Charli's own "Nuclear Seasons" seem like peanuts, and the media sidestepped that fact, which, at best, was erroneous. (Despite, indisputably, being in an era of music dominated by solo female pop artists, the Top 40 forever presented as a catfight competition as if there can only be girl that wins.) But few seemed to see bigger picture developing: two hits is a trend, two hits that climb and build and stay everywhere for two years—that's a track record. That the success of "Boom Clap" is being painted as a comeback is evidence of how little credence is given her clear ambition and enormous talents as a songwriter. "Boom Clap", with it's slinky electropulse and weak-kneed sensuality, has, unsurprisingly and rightfully, dominated our lives, dancefloors, playlists and shopping experiences since summertime; the song's Fault in Our Stars-driven momentum pushed back the release of Sucker by several months, to allow full cultural saturation—which is fait accompli at this point. Slick but not breezy, sweet but not saccharine, effortless but not the least bit dumb: it's the perfect summer crushbait anthem, always over too soon. —Jessica Hopper

    Charli XCX: "Boom Clap"

    Mac DeMarco

    “Passing Out Pieces”

    Captured Tracks

    36

    Was there a better musical sentiment this year about the mundane wear-and-tear of living life in the public eye than "Passing out pieces of me/ Don’t you know nothing comes free?" With that couplet, punctuating the first single from Mac DeMarco’s second album, he captures the strange emotional toll of a life lived via commercial exchange. Salad Days is an album all about growing up, after all, and "Passing Out Pieces" is the song where the great-grandson of a noteworthy Canadian railway legislator takes stock of his own station in life.

    Often unfairly derided as an ironist who jams MOR classic rock ad nauseum at his live shows, DeMarco’s actually amongst the most earnest of modern male singer-songwriters. He’s also, as one would expect, a dweller—prone to twisting a mundane word until it loses all meaning—and on "Pieces", he steps outside himself and watches his life float by. His vocal is foregrounded to the degree that it makes his conversational tone seem psychedelic, and the production only adds to the woozy folk-rock vibe. Instead of a train barreling off into the distance, the song plays like a carousel—a mega-stoned take on "Gotta Get Up", say—going round and round, while DeMarco adopts the practical pallor of a berobed Harry Nilsson. "There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten," Nilsson sung on that album’s opening track. "We never thought it would end." "Passing Out Pieces" is the song where DeMarco himself catches wind of the end, but isn’t quite ready to stop yet. —Eric Harvey

    Mac DeMarco: "Passing Out Pieces" (via SoundCloud)

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    FKA twigs

    “Pendulum”

    Young Turks

    35

    If you’ve ever watched one of those TV shows where a team of self-appointed experts tries to record the paranormal activity of a house, you already get FKA twigs. Her music flickers in the periphery, barely perceptible. Most of the time it seems less like a planned performance than like something captured, and whenever some element of it—some flutter of voice or strange buckshot of drums—comes to the forefront it vanishes just as fast, leaving you to wonder if it was there at all.

    "Pendulum" is an ice cube of a song: The longer it sits out, the more fragile it seems. There is something seductive about it, but something uncertain too. Is it R&B? It has the shape of R&B and the intimacy of it too, but most of the time it feels too elusive to actually hold. And if R&B is designed to bump, "Pendulum" just shivers. Most of the time it is almost impossible to understand what twigs is singing, though the longing in her voice is clear—not just for the unspecified lover on the other side of the song, but so that she might stay fastened to the ground for just another minute before becoming unstuck again. —Mike Powell

    FKA twigs: "Pendulum"

    Tobias Jesso Jr.

    “True Love”

    self-released

    34

    Tobias Jesso Jr. isn't the first guy to have his heart squashed by Los Angeles. After failing to make it as a pop songwriter, breaking up with his girlfriend, getting hit by a car, and—icing on the cake—moving to to Vancouver to help care for his ailing mother, balloons fell from the ceiling as Jesso became the world's one billionth failed songwriter. So he dusted off his sister's old piano, wrote a few heart-stricken ballads, and posted them to Youtube. What happened next was unlikely: An email to Chet "JR" White (whose band Girls had just broken up) led to a True Panther signing and bam—Jesso's back on his feet, with a debut tiled Goon slated for next year. His breakthrough track, "True Love", is perhaps an even less likely success. About as bald-faced and hopelessly romantic as music in 2014 comes, Jesso calls on the spirits of the underdog singer-songwriters of the '70s (think Randy Newman circa Good Old Boys), nicks the melody from Nelly's "Dilemma" almost wholesale, and delivers one of the best lump-in-your throat choruses of the year. Which isn't to mention that it sounds like a half-tempo version of the saddest '80s sitcom theme song ever recorded. But there's something so worn and natural about it, it's hard to think of it as anything but the purest declaration of the heart. Call up the YouTube video for "True Love", and you'll find a family photograph of Jesso at maybe seven or eight-years-old, looking up at the camera with his fingers poking at a cheap Casio keyboard. It's hard not to believe the kid would make it after all. —Zach Kelly

    Tobias Jesso Jr.: "True Love"

    Ariana Grande

    “Problem” [ft. Iggy Azalea]

    Republic

    33

    Ariana Grande was already on the fast track to pop stardom before the release of her second album, with a #1 debut and top 10 single in her back pocket and developing command of her feathery, agile vocals. What she didn’t have was a claim to any kind of distinct sound. Her reference points—the richness and honey of '90s R&B, the vocal tapestries of doo-wop—were pleasant but obvious, and her voice couldn’t escape comparisons to grand dame/elusive chanteuse Mariah Carey. "Problem", the first single from her sophomore effort, My Everything, marked a simple shift that still managed to flip the script, a small update to her reference points that sent her sound screaming into the present. In came a raucous "Thrift Shop" horn riff, an uncredited Big Sean summoning the spirit of the Ying Yang Twins, and a verse from Iggy Igz. But most important of all was her dominating vocal performance: staccato bursts, smooth hook mastery, fluttering high notes, a near-complete avoidance of hard consonants. The girl who couldn’t escape the past suddenly sounded like the perfect flag-bearer for contemporary pop; half a year later, she’s strung together four top 10 hits and the year’s funniestseries of pictures. No problems in sight. —Jamieson Cox

    Ariana Grande: "Problem" [ft. Iggy Azalea]

    Swans

    “Oxygen”

    Young God / Mute

    32

    Michael Gira turned his 21st-century comeback into a hat-trick with To Be Kind. Swans’ third, overstuffed full-length in the past four years, the album is as meaty and musky as the veteran group has ever been, although the disc’s most visceral moment is given its most atmospheric name: "Oxygen". Gashed open by skronk guitars and stabbed with free-jazz brass-squawk, the song writhes and bleats like a sacrificial offering while Gira performs his ceremonial duties with a howling, apeshit fanaticism. Cajoling, wailing, pleading, urging, ululating, and speaking in tongues, he whips his band to the brink of collapse as pitilessly as James Brown or Iggy Stooge. Gira turned 60 this year; he sounds simultaneously 30 years younger and 3,000 years older. This year saw no shortage of bands peddling less than pleasant noises in the pursuit of unlocking us from logic, but "Oxygen" made it elemental. —Jason Heller

    Swans: "Oxygen"

    Aphex Twin

    “minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]”

    Warp

    31

    Hearing a new Aphex Twin album this year was less of a culture-shock than the comebacks of other '90s legends such as My Bloody Valentine. This isn’t really because Richard D. James has updated his music to sound contemporary, though this lead track from Syro does obscure any acid or jungle timestamps. Rather, it’s because the contemporary still sounds so deeply like him. The mellow "minipops", cleansed of hostile frequencies, is in the pop mode of his classic "Windowlicker", but the sleek pastoral synthesizers and percussive chop could easily be from a Four Tet song. The bells reverberate with Pantha du Prince. The night-stalking bass might have crept out of Booka Shade, and the modulated vocals evoke another long-running act that molds the times instead of following them, Daft Punk. But this twinkling minimalism still has that only-as-James-can-do-it twist. You can hear his inimitable voice—mischievous, hyperactive, a little remote, a little goofy, and sentimental on the sly—in the almost linguistic quality of the chattering instrumental lines. You can hear it in the organic rather than mechanical feel of progression, the economical dynamic shifts, the masterful understatement of ornaments such as the pitch-shifted rill around the 1:20 mark. And you can hear his literal voice more plainly than ever before, as the computerized effects melt away, leaving it bare and vulnerable. This isn’t a return to form, but a reclamation by one of its prime architects. In accelerated modern time, it’s like Beethoven walking into a modern symphony and going, "Still?" —Brian Howe

    Aphex Twin: "minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]"

    A. G. Cook

    “Beautiful”

    PC Music

    30

    Of all the "cute" songs to emerge from PC Music’s reign of musical terror in 2014, "Beautiful" might be the cutest. It’s also the most confrontational. Though A. G. Cook and his many associates have made a dayglo patchwork out of bits and pieces of some of the most unfashionable music around, nothing in their catalog does it quite like "Beautiful". Choosing obnoxious Eurodance as its foundation, this one is built on a frothing rapid of pounding donk notes and gasping chipmunk vocals. It sounds like a rushing trance anthem miniaturized for a children’s TV show. 

    What’s most confrontational about "Beautiful", however, is its earnestness. Where other PC Music songs this year had a whiff of self-awareness, "Beautiful" is pure joy, more about naive puppy love than lust. In a year full of complaints that PC Music could seem like some cynical, ironic exercise in turning bad taste into high concept, "Beautiful" is at least one moment that feels completely exempt. It’s a pastiche, sure, but it’s one so lovingly done that it nails the unique appeal of a sector of music that would never be taken seriously otherwise. And what’s ironic about that? —Andrew Ryce

    A. G. Cook: "Beautiful" (via SoundCloud)

    Spoon

    “Do You”

    Loma Vista

    29

    Spoon frontman Britt Daniel spots the love of his life over a vomit-soaked bag in the waning hours of an otherwise ordinary bar crawl. Slumped over, "half out of a bag" and expelling the contents of his stomach for all the city to see, his eyes meet hers, and a love affair emerges in spite of it all, carried aloft on the contradictory currents of romantic idealization and crushing, even depressing foresight. Indeed, the narrative’s opening upchuck is but a prelude for the greater malaise to follow: the topsy-turvy timbre of the guitars, slowly deflating like old party balloons beneath Daniel's wilting falsetto, is the perfect sonic accompaniment to the song's mounting defeatism. By now, he's enough years and broken hearts behind him to know how most modern relationships pan out (particularly those that start within feet of bars): the passion dwindles, communications cease, monogamy becomes an afterthought, and before long, he’s puking into another bag at another bar. That doesn’t mean Spoon have lost hope—if anything, "Do You" is a plea against rumination, a spirited ode to the Indian Summer in every relationship where "it’s late in October but tar’s still melting in the street." A vital perspective, to be sure—especially as we schlep deeper and deeper into the Tinder age. —Zoe Camp

    Spoon: "Do You" (via SoundCloud)

    Grouper

    “Holding”

    Kranky

    28

    Online communication has fostered an age of unprecedented access, where you can get to know strangers you may never actually meet better than you know your best friends. But it’s also enabled a system of strangely interactive anonymity, in which a user can fully participate in limitless conversations without ever revealing their true identity. In that latter scenario, your best friends can become digital ghosts.

    That’s the way that the music of the very private Liz Harris, particularly her solo output as Grouper, has long felt. Hidden behind a haze of static, tape hiss, and effects stretched atop her vocals and guitar, it was clear that there was always a real person with real feelings and ideas on the other side of the microphone, no matter how much she warded herself with sound. It’s always been telling that Grouper maintains no substantial web presence. On Ruins, a stunning album Harris recorded with an upright piano and a portable four-track in Portugal, she finally steps into admittedly dim light. To that end, there’s no moment more vulnerable and open than "Holding", a sad-and-sweet, seven-minute letter about love, loss and the hellish limbo that lingers between the two. Printed lyrics accompany Ruins, but they’re not necessary, as you can understand Harris’ gentle voice and the way that romance collapses line by poignant line. "We build our own unfolding," she sings at the end of the first verse, that final word sliding away as though into darkness. By song’s close, that process has left her reaching for tatters and ruins: "There’s nothing left to hold to," she sings, faulting and hesitating as she eases her fingers from the piano. The last track before an instrumental epilogue, "Holding" is Harris’ beautiful signature at the end of her own post, a gentle and emotional end to near-anonymity. —Grayson Haver Currin

    Grouper: "Holding" (via SoundCloud)

    Sharon Van Etten

    “Your Love Is Killing Me”

    Jagjaguwar

    27

    At nearly six-and-a-half minutes, "Your Love Is Killing Me" is Sharon Van Etten’s longest song. It’s also arguably her best set of lyrics, her most disarming vocal performance, and certainly the purest distillation of her favorite themes: the depravity of romance and the physical toll of emotional commitment. "Break my legs so I won’t walk to you," she sings over a Morricone guitar. "Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you." It’s a beautiful piece of music that conveys ugly emotions, but there’s a dignity in her self-mutilation, a contradiction that shows just how much she has grown as a singer, as a songwriter, as a musician, and as a producer in the last five years. "Your Love Is Killing Me" is one long, unsettling crescendo of post-rock guitars, military snare drum rolls, and window-smashing piano chords. The song builds and builds, but it never crests; there is no catharsis, no resolution, which would be troubling for any listener if Van Etten’s fraught vibrato didn’t signal someone too self-possessed to put up with any dude’s bullshit for very long. —Stephen M. Deusner

    Sharon Van Etten: "Your Love Is Killing Me" (via SoundCloud)

    Beyoncé

    “Partition”

    Columbia

    26

    Beyoncé hasn’t been a traditional singles artist for years—4, her 2011 opus, didn’t even put anything in the top 10. And when you Beyoncé not only an album into the world but over a dozen songs with prime-time-ready videos, the formula’s bound to be shaken even further. The obvious industry singles—Ryan Tedder collab "XO", erstwhile Katy Perry song "Pretty Hurts", whatever “Standing on the Sun” was supposed to be in the months Before Knowles—floundered; even "Drunk in Love", a bona fide hit that rode the pomp and TV performance circuit to No. 2, seemed more like a populist underdog fighting chart trends than a preordained smash. Yet there were alternatives: 14 songs, all different, yet each personality-packed, like a personality quiz without any of the data-mining malaise—except the sort that produces people’s-choice singles. And the people’s choice, it turns out, was "Partition". If Beyoncé-the-statement was reducible to a single track, this would be it. Jay-Z asserts his presence without actually commandeering the track to rap about breastses and breakfast. Beyoncé thoroughly enjoys her reverie, fetishizing their own celebrity because who else gets to do it? And the track balances no-nonsense hitmaking—the hook’s her most traditionally urban radio-ready since B’Day, the beat roaring from simmer to insatiable and back within seconds—and nonchalant trolling. If you think "Partition" is a load of oversharing in a cab seat, Beyoncé is mocking you via a French Big Lebowski lecture. If you think "Partition" is a big cameras-flashing FEMINIST TRIUMPH, Beyoncé will make you frame that around a goofy Big Lebowski quote, knowing you’ll share it on all platforms anyway. It’s provocative, let’s say; it gets the people going. —Katherine St. Asaph

    Beyoncé: "Partition"

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    Vic Mensa

    “Down on My Luck”

    Virgin EMI

    25

    From its opening notes, which recall the clean, heady transcendence of Inner City's techno classic "Good Life", Vic Mensa's Stefan Ponce-produced "Down on My Luck" is a hip-house record that understands how dance music works. With four-on-the-floor ever-present on Top 40 radio, you'd think more artists outside mainstream pop would move in this direction. All too often, those who do end up pandering to an audience looking for hip-hop's superficial accents. In Chicago hip-hop's competitive environment, Vic had the misfortune of reaching national attention in the wake of Chance the Rapper's breakthrough, and even though he can spit circles around the best rappers in practically any other major urban center, it took a radical new approach to grab a piece of the spotlight. What "Down on My Luck" captures that few hip-house records have before is dance music's very texture and ambiance: the feeling of being at once among a crowd and alone, that cocktail of physical release and emotional vulnerability. Its closest point of comparison might be Kid Cudi's lonely stoner, although where that record set a mood, Vic Mensa constructs a world. The dancefloor offers a push away from comfort and familiarity, a vision of alternate possibilities: witness the song's bridge, its moment of clarity, an offer of escape. —David Drake

    Vic Mensa: "Down on My Luck" (via SoundCloud)

    St. Vincent

    “Digital Witness”

    Loma Vista

    24

    Annie Clark seems like the kind of person who would name her fourth album St. Vincent and then quietly snicker when people referred to it as "self-titled." Since 2007’s debut Marry Me, Clark’s entire aesthetic derives from deep immersion into not just various personae, but into the very idea of persona. When she sung the phrase "I’m not anything" less than a minute into her first album, after all, she repeated the word "any" seven times—shedding its semantic skin and becoming a declaration of principle: "I’m not Annie, Annie, Annie, Annie…" "Digital Witness" is her latest statement of purpose, and it’s her most political yet. Twenty-first century media immersion is the target, and as if coming from Clark’s giant face beaming from the side of a blank building façade in a dystopian near-future, she intones: "I want all of your mind."

    Or perhaps it’s more mundane than that. In 1978, Clark’s erstwhile collaborator and primary influence David Byrne wrote a song about a couple who decided to make their own sitcoms, because their TV reception sucked and nothing good was ever on, anyway. Thirty-six years later, faced with massive, wall-mounted flatscreen monitors showing imagery with higher definition than reality itself, Clark declares, "people turn the TV on it looks just like a window." If watching TV has become more real than the 3D version outside, then what’s to be done with the miniature TVs in our pockets? The chorus, which transforms the verses’ funk-by-Mondrian into something more cathedral-shaped, addresses this via a mini-thinkpiece on selfiehood, contrasting everyday acts shot to be witnessed with the need for (private) confession.

    Though on the surface, Clark asking "What’s the point of even sleeping?" resonates like an out-of-touch crank who still has a flip-phone, it’s more likely that she’s thinking along the lines of a filmmaker who asked a similar question a half-century ago. What if the point of sleeping was to be watched doing so? "We have this feeling that we're being watched, and our psychic response is to make ourselves transparent," Clark explained earlier this year. "The real currency in the future will be privacy." This is true, but it also might be part of an artistic long con for Clark: if average lives enter permanent airplane mode, that means top-notch performers like Clark herself (if not 2014’s most noteworthy digital witnesses) can assume the throne. Watching her mechanistically perfect live performances of "Witness", it’s hard not to think that this is Clark’s goal for this particular St. Vincent mission statement: establishing the artist’s performance as a sacred place. Get back to your seats. —Eric Harvey

    St. Vincent: "Digital Witness" (via SoundCloud)

    Flying Lotus

    “Never Catch Me” [ft. Kendrick Lamar]

    Warp

    23

    A whole universe of sound breaks out and crackles like an electric shock in the speedy "Never Catch Me". There are many reference points, from jazz-tinged drum'n'bass guru Roni Size to the gleeful mania of OutKast’s "B.O.B" to early '90s jazz rap, but the way Kendrick Lamar is used on the track highlights how confident Steven Ellison is with his music. Kendrick’s an important, vital part in it, but still just a part, serving a greater whole, caught up in a rush that makes it feel like you’re a cartoon character grabbing the back of a moving train. It’s hard to imagine anyone else using such ecstatic talent in quite the same way, but the best post-breakout FlyLo music always feels like a partnership of equals, with everyone forging together in the name of increasingly out-there concepts. "Never Catch Me" manages to distill all of that, plus some incredibly virtuosic chops, while never forgetting to make it fun as hell to listen to. —Nick Neyland

    Flying Lotus: "Never Catch Me" [ft. Kendrick Lamar]

    Ex Hex

    “Don't Wanna Lose”

    Merge

    22

    Ex Hex is what happens when a woman bred of D.C. hardcore—Mary Timony, formerly of Helium, Wild Flag, and Autoclave—goes for the shimmy and swagger of 1970s and '80s power pop and glam, compacting the chords and burning down any lingering whiff of the cock-rock era's all-boy-clubhouse. "Don't Wanna Lose" kicks out Rips, this three-piece girl gang's garage-pop gift of a debut LP. It's the most direct and confident song Timony's put to tape, glaring at a man who won't make up his mind—and who knew cold hearts could sound like such joy? 

    This self-empowered song cooly shakes-it-off, so to speak, warding off romantic uncertainty and blue feelings with guitar-slashes deserving of a windmill or four. Just try listening to this—a chorus to holler into a hairbrush, hooky riffs worth air-guitar-ing—with both feet on the ground: "I don't wanna lose your love/ It's in my hand, it's just a question of/ If you're gonna stop messing around/ You better hurry up, don't let me down." "Don't Wanna Lose" puts an unlikely spring in your step—little hurts you can dance away. —Jenn Pelly

    Ex Hex: "Don't Wanna Lose" (via SoundCloud)

    Sophie

    “Lemonade” / “Hard”

    Numbers

    21

    In a year that was all about "disruption" and "frictionlessness"—whether Uber's carjacking of the taxi business or U2's hijacking of our iPhones—the PC Music crew knew a thing or two about both. For an indicator of how they stirred shit up, just see any comments thread related to the collective's work. And did anything sound more efficiently lubricated than PCM associate Sophie's oilslick synth patches or his space-elevator vocals? The mystery producer slid into our 2014 like the tubular yellow water slide of this double-A-sided single's cover art, including a Boiler Room "appearance" where he was represented by a drag proxy. It figures that he'd opt for visceral motifs, like the lascivious chant of "L-l-lemonade," the rubbery rebound of "Hard"; this was bubblegum pop as run through a supercollider, and the most genuinely futuristic sound to come around in ages. —Philip Sherburne

    Sophie: "Lemonade"

    Sophie: "Hard"

    Nicki Minaj

    “Boss Ass Bitch (Remix)” [ft. PTAF]

    self-released

    20

    If there’s anything that makes the Peter Rosenbergs of the world more indignant than sparkly pop music, it’s being on the wrong side of history. Nicki Minaj gets that, which is precisely why she’s such an excellent troll. After spending last year leisurely owning every track on which she deigned to lend a guest verse, she entered 2014 with an agenda, leveraging a toned-down makeover and a string of no-punches-pulled remixes to taunt naysayers into frothy, late-pass concessions of her greatness. Of course, this "return to fundamentals" turned out to be an elaborate set-up for the punchline that was "Anaconda", perhaps her most explicitly girl-oriented single in a catalog full of them.

    The funniest part of this whole scheme, in retrospect, is that all the evidence was hidden in plain sight. Come on: the track that set the tone for all the bandwagon boot-licking was "Boss Ass Bitch", a remix of snappy L.A. trio PTAF’s lowkey-viral hit, on which Nicki’s silver tongue was apparently enough to distract from the fact that she was slandering half of the audience. Her plain-spoken flexes read like an especially misandrist selection from Grapefruit, Yoko Ono’s book of avant-garde instructionals: "Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time/ Let them shine for an hour/ Fuck his best friends, then make them yes-men." (Not to mention, it was a high-water mark for emoji utilization in rap: no combination of words could have been more evocative than that red heart and kissy-face.) It’s likely that many dudes who came around to Nicki early this year have already lost interest, having deduced that The Pinkprint won’t actually be Illmatic With Tits—but it’s too late. The joke’s on them. (That’s Rule 4.) —Meaghan Garvey

    Sun Kil Moon

    “Carissa”

    Caldo Verde

    19

    Mark Kozelek’s Sun Kil Moon project has taken on many shapes since its inception, shrinking from the full band guitar theatrics of 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway through baroque voice-and-guitar on 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises and back to something in the median on this year’s Benji. But the rambling, ripped-from-the-headlines songwriting of recent releases proved the most perplexing development until it snapped into focus on crushing Benji opener "Carissa". The story’s short but wild: Mark gets a call about a second cousin’s peculiar death via exploding aerosol can, remembers an uncle who met a similar demise, and plots a trip back to Ohio to get answers and pay respects. "Carissa" examines the baffling frailty of the human body and the sheer randomness of adversity, but what Kozelek seems to turn over most in his grief-wracked mind is the casual drift of his and Carissa’s trajectories thanks to circumstance (her family, his career) and the unwitting finality of it all: the false notion we carry that the people and places we leave behind lie in wait for our return. —Craig Jenkins

    Panda Bear

    “Mr Noah”

    Domino

    18

    In his solo work and as a member of Animal Collective, Noah Lennox has always had a talent for making strange and out-there sounds register as playful and innocent. Even still, he has his work cut out for him on "Mr Noah", from his upcoming fifth solo LP, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. Where Lennox’s previous solo productions were built by stacking loops like so many Lego bricks, "Mr Noah" somehow ups the ante on density—it's a song so packed with spooky and animalistic electronic squiggles that listening to it is a little like trying to get comfy on a haunted waterbed. Lennox's voice is the only thing providing firm ground. Last year, on Daft Punk's "Doin' It Right", the 36 year-old sang a duet with a vocoder, lending his mellow, personable presence to an album that sought to re-establish live instrumentation in dance music. On "Mr Noah", his multi-tracked harmonies play a similar role, helping to flip a song full of dream-like audio graffiti into something more familiar, comforting, and human. —Aaron Leitko

    Tinashe

    “2 On” [ft. Schoolboy Q]

    RCA

    17

    Tinashe's "2 On" was one of Top 40 pop's most graceful reprieves in 2014. When most every pop genre was engaging in (unfortunate) flirtations with the corniest hallmarks of EDM, the '90s R&B traditionalism  in "2 On" was a familiar, seductive comfort—a rare hit that didn't seek to bludgeon us with tools of Ibiza. The DJ Mustard-produced track is all slinky regulation, mirroring Tinashe's singing, which hardly rises above a post-coital coo. Her voice is smooth, flawless—she's from Aaliyah-school of smoldering, Monica without gymnastic range—but there's a lot of power in her whisper voice. While the lyrics work every cliche of turntness (save for Schoolboy Q's trip downtown), the cool understatement of the rest of the song makes it feel more like a post-party song, a pre-dawn vamp, a fade out of pleasure. It's small, personal, concise; "2 On" succeeds and stands out on the merits of what it doesn't do as much as what it's working with. —Jessica Hopper

    Tinashe: "2 On" [ft. Schoolboy Q] (via SoundCloud)

    Young Thug

    “Stoner”

    1017 / Asylum / Atlantic

    16

    It wasn’t so long ago that being a Young Thug fan felt like you were in on rap’s most rewarding secret. Revelling in the unpredictability of his I Came From Nothing mixtape series, I can honestly admit that, no, I didn’t see his success coming: even at his poppiest, Thug felt way too weird to transcend cult status. Even on his breakthrough release, 2013’s 1017 Thug, the bits that rose to the top were highly tweetable but barely marketable; keep in mind, this was still pre-"Versace", a song that would be used as a punchline by "serious" rap fans as often as it would be celebrated later that year.

    That feels like ages ago. Thug closes 2014 as, if not quite a household name, an unavoidable presence in the rap landscape. A short list of stars who co-opted his once-singular swag this year includes Nicki Minaj, T.I., Gucci Mane, and Lil Wayne (his closest spiritual progenitor, who at this point feels prudish in relation), not to mention the dozens of impressionable ATLiens who’ve practically made his yelps and chirps into its own subgenre. It isn’t that Thug’s succeeded in spite of his quirks: they’ve become the hook. The odder he gets, the more people respond, his endless idiosyncrasies feeding the insatiable demand for clicks that’s come to reshape online media.

    Such a near-sighted focus on the "weirdness" sells Thug short. Of his three major singles this year, each highlighted a distinct facet of his skill set. "Danny Glover" was peak zaniness, probing the outer limits of what constitutes catchiness; "The Blanguage", in collaboration with producer Metro Boomin, presented Thug as a deft lyricist and effective balladeer. But best of all was "Stoner", in which words fell short as descriptors and functioned instead as measurements of rhythm and space. If anything, it made more sense as a grime song than a rap song, with Dun Deal’s spare beat challenging Thug to find new ways to make himself comfortable within it. It struck a precarious balance between restraint and release: an unsure hand could've sent the whole thing toppling. It wasn’t weird—it was masterful. —Meaghan Garvey

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    Lil B

    “No Black Person Is Ugly”

    BasedWorld

    15

    All too often, Lil B's work can be reduced to a joke, a problem with which he can be complicit, delivering every word with a knowing wink. The risk of 2014's "No Black Person Is Ugly" is two-fold: absolute statements suggest hyperbole, an evident exaggeration. (If there was any doubt, the video's title on YouTube sets the expectations for you: "MOST POWERFUL SONG OF THE DECADE?") Yet, rather than undercutting his message, the song's grand gesture is one of pure sincerity. Its Gábor Szabó guitar loop blankets the listener in summery warmth and, in concert with its chorus, produces an "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" for our time, charged with poignancy. At certain moments, B’s words jut out from the song's formal shape, suggesting it may have been freestyled, yet no statement seems any less consciously made than the one before it. Preternaturally in touch with the moment, B hits on the predominant controversies of our time: police brutality, media representation, rape, violence. Like Kendrick Lamar's "i", "No Black Person Is Ugly" treats self-love as a radical panacea for the moment, a method of wrestling with grand antagonisms on a personal level. —David Drake

    QT

    “Hey QT”

    XL

    14

    It’s never been more socially acceptable for music nerds to declare their love for mainstream pop, but what happens when two of dance music’s most innovative new voices team up on a salute to the genre that inches toward parody? "Hey QT" is just one swap of a vocal line away from being a Jock Jam—and that’s precisely the point. On the campy debut single from PC Music boss A. G. Cook and London producer Sophie's XL-signed QT project, epic EDM build-ups and synths designed to elicit clap-alongs are tempered by vocals so high-pitched and British, it’s hard to know what to make of it the first, say, five times you hear "Hey QT". "There’s something I want to say," the "sparkling future pop sensation" at the heart of the fictional QT project repeats. When she finally gets to her point, she just needs to make sure she’s being properly adored, like any burgeoning pop star should be. —Jillian Mapes

    Todd Terje

    “Johnny and Mary” [ft. Bryan Ferry] (Robert Palmer cover)

    Olsen

    13

    We don’t actually know how long Bryan Ferry spent puzzling over his cover of Robert Palmer’s minor 1980 hit "Johnny and Mary" before Todd Terje finally unlocked it for him, but 2014 certainly provided the perfect context in which to revive this riddle about the tragicomedy of male privilege. Mired in the midst of a minor tragicomedy of his own in the form of a fizzy disco smash that utterly refused to die (2012’s "Inspector Norse"), Terje’s perspective on "Johnny and Mary" involved slowing it down by nearly 100 BPM and infusing it with some slow-burning Vangelian pomp. The setting not only proved an ideal backdrop for Ferry’s luxurious, searching performance, it also milked the last bits of pathos out of what was surely Palmer’s finest song. There were too many moments this year where it felt like so many of us lacked, as the song says, a sense of proportion; "Johnny and Mary" made that very sad idea sound sublime. —Mark Pytlik

    Todd Terje: "Johnny and Mary" [ft. Bryan Ferry] (Robert Palmer cover) (via SoundCloud)

    Drake

    “0 to 100 / The Catch Up”

    Young Money / Cash Money / Republic

    12

    Drake's love of all things Wu-Tang Clan permeated last year's Nothing Was the Same, and he continued to wear this influence on his sleeve in 2014. Produced by his in-house squad of beatmakers (Boi-1da, Noah "40" Shebib, and Nineteen85 all get credits on this one), "0 to 100/The Catch Up" captures the dirt-under-the-nails menace of vintage RZA beats, and it's easy to imagine Raekwon et al. firing off poisonous darts in the twisted alleyways of the track's first half, before it switches up to something more familiar and amniotic. Equal parts origin story and myth-building exercise, the song is a quintessential example of Drake's ability to blur the lines between shit-talking and introspection.

    His adenoidal yelp has matured into a formidable snarl, giving his boasts a weight they lacked just a few years ago. He's also become ruthlessly efficient, waiting but two bars to introduce the song's infectious and instantly-memed hook. But for all its bluster, at the heart of the song is an artist too busy stressing over the future to enjoy being at the top. His solution? Keep moving forward, because anything less is moving backwards. Released for free on SoundCloud back in June and now nominated for a Grammy (for Best Rap Song), "0 to 100/The Catch Up" is also a message aimed at Drake's competition, and it couldn't be any clearer: my toss-offs are better than your singles. It's both a boast and a challenge, as well as one hell of a power move. —Renato Pagnani

    Shamir

    “On the Regular”

    XL

    11

    Channeling electronic music and house alongside the free-flowing rhymes of De La Soul, 20-year-old Shamir Bailey’s instantly memorable "On the Regular" has rightfully become his calling card. Following this summer’s Northtown EP and a subsequent signing with XL, Shamir’s latest single merges chiming cowbells, fidgety synths, and a healthy dose of confidence for what is easily 2014’s most joyful kiss-off to the haters. The braggadocio fits the wunderkind well; his switch from swift rapping to a crooning tenor occurs with a new, self-assured swagger here that puts any doubts about his arrival to rest. If Northtown proved that Shamir had talent (see: the slick, Sylvester-indebted disco-funk banger "If It Wasn’t True"), "On the Regular" exposed an effervescent side of the young artist, achieving an experimental sound simply by reveling in his own cheeky, gawky sincerity. —Eric Torres

    Michael Jackson

    “Love Never Felt So Good (Original Version)”

    Epic

    10

    Despite claims of endlessly fruitful archives, Michael Jackson’s forgettable first posthumous album, 2010’s Michael, suggested otherwise. Soon enough, the nagging worry that we would never hear another great unreleased Jackson song ever again began to harden into sad fact. And then: "Love Never Felt So Good". The track was released in three separate versions this year, including a winning, swing-laden disco take and a contemporized Timbaland/Timberlake update, but it’s this spare piano-and-vocal demo put to tape in the first half of 1983 that sounds the most lasting.

    Jackson wrote and recorded the track with Vegas crooner—and onetime child star—Paul Anka, who was attempting a comeback at the time and wanted to place a duet with Michael on his new album. But at the start of '83, Thriller was just starting to become the universe-expanding behemoth we all now know. Realizing a collaboration with an aging lounge act may not be the best career move for the biggest pop phenomenon since the Beatles—in modern terms, this would be a little like Drake suddenly dropping a single with Engelbert Humperdinck—Jackson backed out at the last minute. Given Michael’s artistic trajectory, this also makes sense, because "Love Never Felt So Good" is the sort of unabashedly joyous pop song the singer was trying to grow out of back then. But after decades of paranoia, angst, and dwindling musical returns leading up to his grim 2009 death, the track now sounds like a much-needed respite from the darkness.

    Without any extraneous embellishments, the demo functions as a singing clinic, with Jackson putting enough force through his lungs to make the the hook’s stacked vocals sound three dimensional. Meanwhile, his finger snaps and beat-boxed hi-hats could very well serve as this year’s most swinging percussion. At the end of the song, we hear him coming down to Earth: "All right, that’s fine," he deadpans, ostensibly following a vocal take, not sounding tremendously impressed. In 1983, "Love Never Felt So Good" was another classic-sounding song made by someone hell bent on the future; in 2014, it’s a reminder of why everyone fell in love with Michael Jackson in the first place. —Ryan Dombal

    Future

    “Move That Dope” [ft. Pharrell, Pusha T, and Casino]

    Free Bandz

    9

    Just when Future was on the brink of dissolving into a purple puddle of structureless, cooing R&B, "Move That Dope" arrived to remind you of his eternal street-rapper status. Everyone here raps like a maniac, but it doesn’t really matter who they are or what’s being said—this one’s for the workhorses, not the overthinkers. It’s brawn over brains on a never-ending assembly line powered by the battery-acid lurch of Mike WiLL's twisted take on Salt-N-Pepa’s "Push It". (This is maybe the only major rap single of the year that would have been made actively worse by a Drake verse.) Whip it, push it, work it, move it, harder, better, faster, stronger—the sheer physicality, the just do it quality of "Move That Dope" is so powerful that it’s hard to imagine work getting done any other way. —Carrie Battan

    Future: "Move That Dope" [ft. Pharrell, Pusha T, and Casino] (via SoundCloud)

    Perfume Genius

    “Queen”

    Matador

    8

    There are qualities about Mike Hadreas that make him seem heroic: His songbook takes on themes of trauma and addiction, the body and identity, all in a way that seems designed to protect us—a reminder that we're not alone in our otherness. This year, Hadreas has been selling T-shirts depicting an emasculated Eminem, a proper jab at one of popular music's most problematic living artists. On the shirt, Slim is clad in coral lipstick, just a few shades lighter than the tint Hadreas wore on his watershed "Letterman" performance in October, contorting a slow, sultry sway through "Queen". Indeed, Hadreas' work as Perfume Genius has opened a crucial dialogue over the past half decade. Recall the 2012 incident with his 16-second YouTube ad for Put Your Back N 2 It getting censored for "promoting mature sexual themes" because it featured two shirtless men hugging. As there's no shortage of topless folks on YouTube, the message from Google was clear: it was the queerness that was unsuitable and—as the corporation wrote in a statement—"not family safe."

    And so, should you need convincing, the quaking "Queen" is empirically necessary. "No family is safe/ When I sashay," Hadreas asserts through expressive breaths on the refrain of the year, channeling personal rage into a surreal energy, addressing gay panic—the idea that one's visible otherness as a gay individual makes people uncomfortable, that it’s perceived as a threat to the straight world. Hadreas sounds just as defiant and poetic in 2014 as Patti Smith did in 1975 telling us how Jesus did not die for her sins. And like Smith's earth-shattering subversions of the female archetype, Hadreas' provocations are confident, uncompromising, epic—he appoints himself "queen" and owns the supposed flaws of his sexuality ("cracked, peeling, riddled with disease") with a deviant wink and demonic smirk. One would expect music that is both radically politicized and universal from someone who grew up listening to "a lot of badass feminist music" and who says he's seen Sleater-Kinney at least 13 times.

    His words alone have such inspired power—imagine them publicly broadcast on a marquee in LED lighting, like a Jenny Holzer installation—but "Queen" does not just illuminate the potential of explicit language. It has few aesthetic precedents, though it pushes the borders of pop and avant-gardism in a way Arthur Russell would have appreciated. The cool drag of a drum contribution from PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish morphed the song into what has been aptly described in interviews as "stoner glam." There is a tornado swirling—a deep, booming low-end; abrasive synths rolling into an ecstatic dreamscape; passing clouds made of soul—and Hadreas is at the eye of the storm, a light steadily beaming from the chaos of the world, stepping into the future. 

    "Queen" is a gay anthem, but it also empathizes broadly with all people who biologically have less direct access to the top seats in society. In a year that rendered the world's rampant, widespread injustice so depressingly apparent, what could keep us believing that all this music stuff matters so much? It's songs like "Queen" and the sea changes they summon that give it purpose. The future of pop belongs to people like Hadreas, who will take us forward to new places we didn't know we needed to go. Surrounded by this loud, extreme music, it sounds like nothing can hurt him now. —Jenn Pelly

    Beyoncé

    “***Flawless” [ft. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie]

    Columbia

    7

    Since the surprise-release of Beyoncé last December, everything Queen B has touched turned to gold. Case in point: "***Flawless". Through the sheer force of her awesomeness, Bey willed this deeply political, deeply weird, deeply disjointed collage of song fragments and soundbites into one of the most exciting tracks of the year. Just think about the astonishingly random component parts of this many-headed Hydra: a recording of Beyoncé’s childhood group Girls Tyme losing on "Star Search", a trap banger called "Bow Down", a TED Talk by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and a self-empowerment anthem boasting a meme-inducing catchphrase. (Not to mention Nicki Minaj’s scorched-earth rhymes and Yoncé’s own Elevator-Incident-referencing rap verse on the remix.) Beyoncé’s defiant silhouette standing in front of the word FEMINIST at the MTV Video Music Awards was one of the defining pop music images of 2014. She woke up like this, she’s flawless, she’s a feminist. And, as this track declares, we all can–and should–be all of those things, too. —Amy Phillips

    Run the Jewels

    “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” [ft. Zack De La Rocha]

    Mass Appeal

    6

    "Fashion slave, you protested to get in a fucking lookbook/ Everything I scribble’s like The Anarchist’s Cookbook..." Run the Jewels is a breakneck collision of two experts MCs’ joy of hardheaded rhymes and cutting disdain for the machinery of rap stardom, and Run the Jewels 2 highlight "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" dispenses healthy doses of El-P and Killer Mike’s outsider agitprop with a snarling, shit-eating grin. Mike and El trade rhymes Run-D.M.C. style about all the places the guys who run rap are currently fucking up on the job until the last minute, when Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha, whose voice is sampled in the song’s production, jumps out with an incendiary guest verse riddled with sci-fi and jazz references ("I’m Miles Ahead of you, you can sip my Bitches Brew"), merging three strains of government distrust and dystopic boom bap into one. —Craig Jenkins

    Run the Jewels: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" [ft. Zack De La Rocha] (via SoundCloud)

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    The War on Drugs

    “Red Eyes”

    Secretly Canadian

    5

    Beer commercial rock usually doesn’t mince words; "Red Eyes", on the other hand, purees and liquefies them. After dozens and dozens of listens to War on Drugs’ skyscraping breakthrough, only one vocable has made itself truly discernible and so the meaning had to be derived from context. The tearful title alludes to Adam Granofsky’s well-documented creative and romantic struggles during the making of Lost in the Dream, and so it could be heard as a prayer for resilience during the most troubled of times. The music tells a different story, not just of maintaining, but having blind faith rewarded with triumph on the other side. Granofksy battles through his typically torrential reverb and unyielding rhythms before summoning the escape velocity for a chorus that rockets towards stratospheric heights never thought possible for War on Drugs. And so "Red Eyes" doesn’t soothe so much as soothsay: when that chorus hits now, you’re reminded of how Lost in the Dream took Granofsky from the guy fronting "Kurt Vile’s old band" to a festival-headlining dude in US Weekly and how it became a go-to album for so many others just trying to get out of 2014 with their sanity intact. But the moment before "Red Eyes" lifts off into the unknown, you get that one word of intelligible English: "WOOO!" I’ll drink to that. —Ian Cohen

    The War on Drugs: "Red Eyes" (via SoundCloud)

    Caribou

    “Can't Do Without You”

    Merge

    4

    Marvin Gaye’s 1965 hit "Ain’t That Peculiar" is about being in the fog of love, where it can feel good to hurt, lies sometimes sound like the truth, and tears of joy and tears of pain can be tough to tell apart. A screwed-down vocal sample from that song props up "Can't Do Without You", which also takes on the confusing complexities of relationships, albeit from a different angle. Rather than waxing poetic, Caribou’s Dan Snaith turns form into function; as Gaye’s voice repeats its devotion unabated for nearly four minutes—all while the producer’s homespun psychedelic beats swirl near the precipice of control—the effect turns from heartwarming, to obsessive, to ecstatic. So when Snaith pipes up at the end, he sounds more exasperated than smitten: "And you’re the only thing I think about/ It’s all that I can still do." This is grown-up interdependence moonlighting on the dancefloor—kinda giddy, kinda repetitive, kinda endless. —Ryan Dombal

    Caribou: "Can't Do Without You" (via SoundCloud)

    FKA twigs

    “Two Weeks”

    Young Turks

    3

    "Fuck alternative R&B!" FKA twigs proclaimed, and she was right—if nothing else, for all those wolf-cries of flimsy Aaliyah simulacra that have littered blogs in the 2010s, rendering any legitimate comparisons to the R&B icon hopelessly impotent. But, but—have you seen the "Two Weeks" video? It’s impossible to ignore the Queen of the Damned influences as twigs plays both goddess and courtier, her quiet drama instantly making Kanye’s "moving painting" feel comparatively po-faced. The comparison goes deeper than that, though: on "Two Weeks"—the first time twigs’ pop potential made even remote sense—she redefines "diva" for 2014 and beyond in a way that no one since Aaliyah has done so effectively. In its universe, whispers and screams hold equal power, and attraction is revealed as something far more complicated than a cut-and-dry binary of "hot" versus "not." "Two Weeks" bursts into bloom in the humid space between physicality and sentiment; to call the desire expressed here "lust" feels insufficient, crass even, but emotions alone are all but children’s playthings. "I know it hurts": toying with what exactly "it" entails becomes its own foreplay. When another R&B deity commanded me to bow down, I’d never considered taking it literally; beholding "Two Weeks", I prostrate myself at twigs’ altar, submitting to whatever is yet to come. —Meaghan Garvey

    iLoveMakonnen

    “Club Goin Up on a Tuesday” [ft. Drake]

    self-released

    2

    It works because it’s original. It’s simple. It’s weird. You can sing it—even I can sing it. Is it rap? If you got in a time machine and took it back to 1990, rap fans would look the other way and step over you like street garbage. And who was Makonnen? Maybe a singer. Certainly not a lyricist. Who has ever made so much of the word "choosey," or of a day on which most people just check the mail and think about tomorrow? Like Lil B or Morrissey or thousands of cosmic introverts before him, he presented himself as a poet of the margins, patron saint of the small, adopter of the unwanted. Then there’s the part where he takes psilocybin and someone films him listening to Drake on his track for the first time. He giggles like he’s being tickled. And isn't that the point? The joy? The all? —Mike Powell

    iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday" [ft. Drake]

    Future Islands

    “Seasons (Waiting on You)”

    4AD

    1

    A couple of years ago Future Islands were a tiny indie band on Thrill Jockey, gradually assembling a small but devoted cult. This year they got about as close as an indie rock band can to being a household name. You know what happened in between: a performance on “Late Show With David Letterman”, which found lead singer Sam Herring wilding out and owning the stage with some seriously goofy and committed dancing. Letterman was thunderstruck, and he sensed the gravity of what he’d just witnessed instantly. A meme was born. But while these digital fragments will always cling to this song and are the reason many people heard it, the song itself needed to matter.

    All the pieces, starting with the arrangement and production, fell into place. The new wave of the ’80s was and is often mocked: funny haircuts, too many synthesizers, too much melodrama. But it also happens to the genre that best expresses a certain kind of open-hearted yearning. You can tell that Future Islands bassist William Cashion has listened to his share of Peter Hook, and he understands that his instrument is charged with translating emotion musically, seesawing between the “It’s like this, no, it’s like this” chord changes. The synths hover and sweep like credits could roll at any moment.

    Like the ephemera that surrounds it, “Seasons (Waiting on You)” contains important things that seem in opposition but music, magic stuff that it is, somehow holds together. You can laugh about it and cry about it at the same time, giving in to its hyper-dramatic thrust makes you feel vulnerable and exposed but also gives you power. Herring was born with that growling voice but there’s always one layer where it sounds a little ridiculous, and then underneath that is a deep core of passion.

    The song is a little moment that became a huge one because it expressed something beautiful and recognizable, which is to say it’s quintessential Future Islands. If you ever seen the band live, Herring stalks the stage like a James Brown or a Bruce Springsteen, beating his chest—he simply will not rest until he has personally reached and won over every person in the room. Irony is out the window, even if humor is not. On “Seasons”, he and the band demand human connection, acting as if it’s a matter of life and death, which of course it is. —Mark Richardson

    Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)" (via SoundCloud)


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    Articles: Rave New World Revisited

    Fliers by DB, Mike Szabo, Rebecca Meek; images courtesy of Scotto and DB Burkeman

    “You shall awaken to the nexT generation of  rave culture.” — NASA flyer/motto

    In every era, there seems to always be a beacon of New York nightlife that acts like a lightning rod, its resulting electricity pushing pop culture into the future. For the '90s, that place was NASA—one of the seminal birthplaces not just of contemporary American rave culture and music, but a crucible for those who would impact all aspects of creative expression for years to come. 

    Indeed, going to NASA was a true countercultural experience, shaping the perspectives of those who would go on to reshape pop culture in their own image. NASA took its name from a postmodern pop-art acronym that stood for “Nocturnal Audio Sensory Awakening”—the name playing, naturally, on the rave obsession with all things space-travel-related while reiterating its commitment to higher states of consciousness (via music, or otherwise). The club was started in 1992 by Scott Osman—a.k.a. Scotto, one of the city’s best, most imaginative lighting designers—and DB Burkeman, better known as DB, an ex-pat Londoner, DJ, and then-A&R rep for famed rap label Profile, specializing in the new wave of electronic music known under the rave umbrella. NASA began in the summer, setting up shop Friday nights at Shelter, a storied club space in the then-desolate environs of the Tribeca neighborhood—lasting for just one fateful year, yet seeing its impact for years to come. 

    NASA quickly turned into an institution. While it wasn’t the only party in town inspired by rave culture, headlines often focused on Peter Gatien’s notorious club the Limelight and charismatic Club Kids headed up by that scene’s infamous icon, Michael Alig, who murdered and dismembered a friend during an argument over drugs. But, where The Limelight was ostensibly about drugs and the fabulousity of its patrons, NASA was centered on the music, serving as a temple devoted to evangelizing the vital new electronic and dance-music sounds. Via both its resident spinners—DB, Odi, On-E, Jason Jinx, and especially the great Soul Slinger—and DJs from around the world who were brought in, NASA pursued a music policy unbound by genre. It was the place where evolutions of dance-music genres would be tried out on cutting edge, tastemaker audiences. Various iterations of house, garage, acid house, ambient, hardcore, techno, breakbeat, IDM, jungle, trance, hard house, and drum and bass could be heard there, and it was one of the first U.S. clubs to have a chill-out room. 

    NASA was where U.S. audiences would be first exposed to groundbreaking UK dance music from the likes of Aphex Twin, Primal Scream, The Orb, and Orbital—often by the primary sources that made it. It was where Liam Howlett of The Prodigy would play his earliest American shows, typically accompanied by Richard Russell, also a DJ, producer, and founder of XL Recordings. Moby was also a regular at NASA, either performing live or DJing nearly every week it was open. At the time Moby was an underground artist, still years away from 1999 breakthrough album, Play; NASA was where he’d debut his pioneering rave classics like “Next is the E” and “Thousand.”

    NASA also served as the East Coast pivot for the various U.S. rave communities. One of the first places in New York to embrace Detroit techno, NASA hosted early gigs from both techno first-wave titans like Kevin Saunderson and second-wavers Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva. NASA also built bridges to the more advanced L.A. rave scene. Lifelong Californian Gary Richards—better known under his DJ moniker, Destructo—played his first East Coast shows at NASA. At the time, Richards worked for Rick Rubin as his dance-music A&R savant, and went on to become a true architect of the current EDM world, starting some of its most popular festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival and HARD.

    NASA’s influence wasn’t limited to New York. NASA the club party was in fact bookended by two tours taking that sound and culture across the U.S. to audiences who had never experienced it before. The first was presciently titled “Rave New World.” “On the bill was Moby, The Prodigy, Richie Hawtin, John Acquaviva and the Plus 8 sound system. The other, put on later in 1993, was the “See the Light” tour featuring Moby, Aphex Twin, Orbital, Utah Saints, DB, and Vapourspace. The final “See the Light” concert, in fact, would prove the last official gasp for NASA—but not the end of the effect it had on a generation. “NASA is like Woodstock—if you can remember it, you weren’t really there,” says Richard Russell. Below, an oral history of the crucial moment that NASA captured in its brief, yet vital existence.

    MOBY: What happened with NASA was bookended by two tours. In 1992, Scotto, my managers, and I put together this tour called “Rave New World”—the first rave tour of the States. 

    SCOTTO: The young Richie Hawtin was great—such a sweetheart. It was Richie’s first real tour as a DJ.

    JOHN ACQUAVIVA: “Rave New World” was a real important marker—an early milestone in electronic music history and culture. 

    SCOTTO: That tour solidified a vision of the rave culture, and planted its seeds across America. It set the tone for everything to come. 

    RICHARD RUSSELL [accompanied The Prodigy on “Rave New World”]: There were two parallel narratives for us in America. On the one hand, we were trying to do something within the traditional music-business system. But when we put out the first Prodigy record through Elektra, it proved very difficult and frustrating—an immediate mismatch. After putting out rave records on small labels, I discovered major labels in the UK and the U.S. alike didn’t understand the culture. But through things like “Rave New World” and NASA, we started meeting people in the States who did get what we were doing.

    SCOTTO: When we did “Rave New World,” nobody knew who The Prodigy was. We had many conversations like, “This is brutal, but if you stick with it and get it right in America, you’ll be huge.”

    MOBY: There were two camps on “Rave New World”: The Prodigy and the North Americans. Everyone got along, but The Prodigy were quite insular. Us North Americans were nerds. None of us really drank, and I was actually straight-edge at the time; I had my first tour-related one-night stand—which meant I made out with someone in a car, and that was as far as it got. It was as un-debauched as a tour could be. We had a couple days off in Arizona, so Richie Hawtin, John Acquaviva, and I rented a car and drove to the Grand Canyon, where we all took a picture with our thumbs up, like the cute, clean-living techno nerds we were. We were so wide-eyed, naïve, and happy. 

    DB: Paul Oakenfold’s Spectrum night at [London club] Heaven really inspired me to be a DJ, and to create a club night called Brilliant in New York. This was six months before NASA began, but it was the same model, with me, Jason Jinx, Soul Slinger, and Moby all spinning the same style of music: acid house, Primal Scream, Stone Roses, hardcore. No one else was playing it then; half a year later, though, New York kids were up for it.

    SCOTTO: I’d been doing lighting in clubs like Red Zone, and I’d gone on tour with Deee-Lite, who were number one with “Groove Is in the Heart.” Through Deee-Lite, I was exposed to acid house’s “Summer of Love” in the UK, with clubs like Haçienda in Manchester, The Fridge in London, and the after-hours warehouse scene. I came back to New York, and settled in as technical director at The Limelight, where my good friend Michael Alig had started Disco 2000; I actually threw the first foam party in New York. In May 1992, I threw the first real rave in Manhattan at The Ritz in the old Studio 54. It was such a small community, and DB hit me up to donate lights for an AIDS benefit he was doing at Webster Hall. I got to hear DB spin there, and liked the style and ear he had, which led to us working together to create NASA.

    DB: The Lifebeat event was really successful, and afterward Scotto said, “I’ve been offered Shelter to throw a party in—do you want to be my partner?” 

    JOHN ACQUAVIVA: Shelter was not posh. 

    MOBY: A very interesting aspect of NASA was it wasn’t a rave held in a warehouse or some illegal space; it was at Shelter—a real club, which somehow proved the best of all possible worlds. Shelter was mainly a club for gay New Yorkers. It didn’t feel like a corporate club; it was run by really well intentioned, non-mercenary club people, security was very gentle, and it had an amazing sound system and lights. Shelter was in Tribeca, on Hubert Street, a weird little side street; at the time, it felt like this dark, exotic part of Manhattan. It was a neighborhood people didn’t really know about; it would take hours to find it, and people would get completely lost going there. It was very labyrinthine, with this long, tunnel-like hallway that emphasized the anticipatory experience as you entered. You’d be a couple blocks away and start seeing likeminded people; then you’d finally get there and see the crowd of people out front. As you started to walk in, you’d begin to hear the music, and the space would slowly reveal itself. It was such a special place. I remember I thinking, “How did we luck into this?” 

    JUNIOR SANCHEZ: Shelter was the magic ingredient—NASA wouldn’t have happened right anywhere else. It was the birth of rave culture in New York City.

    MOBY: I assume I played the first NASA, I would think so. I played there so many times, and if I was in town, went to every single event that I could. 

    SCOTTO: We didn’t serve liquor. Everyone thought I was out of my mind for opening an all-ages club.

    CHLOË SEVIGNY: NASA was a phenomenon that was really for young people. Ninety-eight percent of the kids in there were in high school—I was in high school myself! I started going the summer it opened between my junior and senior year. The guys working the door ended up being my roommates—a perk being I never had to wait in line again.

    JUNIOR SANCHEZ: I was going to raves all the time, like Frankie Bones’ famous Storm Rave parties. But NASA was a weekly—it was like home—and an all-ages club. There was such a youthfulness to it, which made it special, but even older people came there because it was magic  and very, very cutting edge. Every other club had specific rules, but NASA had no rules, no dress code. It was just NASA, and nothing else was like it. 

    CHLOË SEVIGNY: You’d see the same faces every week. NASA wasn’t like, say, a rave on Long Island—it transcended raves. I knew I was experiencing one of the best clubs ever.

    DB: We really struggled at first. NASA lost money for the first six weeks. The kids inside were having a great time, and in time there was enough magic we were all convinced it was going to take. 

    MOBY: At first, we’d get 50 or 60 people; fast forward a year, and we’re doing events for 1,000 people or more. It felt so exciting—this very marginal underground music and culture that was suddenly reaching a much bigger audience. The first year was so idyllic. NASA took the UK acid-house movement, the warm, sunny, friendly rave scene of L.A., and then the gritty deep house and hip-hop of New York, and put it all in one place. The whole U.S. rave scene then had such a gentle, celebratory quality to it. It felt so utopian, like we’d created this benign future. Everything was new: the music was new, the fashion was new, and the drugs were kind of new, too.

    JUNIOR SANCHEZ: What’s amazing about NASA is it only lasted a year, but that year seemed like forever.

    Read Matt Diehl's full oral history of NASA in The Pitchfork Review.


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    Staff Lists: Albums of the Year 2014: Honorable Mention

    This list is chosen by the editors. It's not #51 through #70 in our albums poll, but rather, records we thought were exceptional this year and deserved to be highlighted regardless of where they wound up. This list contains some of the most popular music to appear on our lists and also some of the most obscure; regardless, we think these records were among the most interesting of 2014. 


    Against Me!

    Transgender Dysphoria Blues

    Total Treble

    In high school, Against Me! were the most credible band anyone I knew might know, punk iconoclasts spitting fiery songs about anarchy, DIY, revolution—topics that feel essential when you’re a teen. Well, you can guess what happened next: deals with major labels, seemingly unbounded promise unfulfilled, and parts of a fanbase left behind to cry "sell out!" as the band (which swiftly shed original members) began to re-examine the ethos that brought them here. In 2010, they acknowledged their failures on "I Was a Teenage Anarchist", emphasis on the past tense: "Do you remember/ When you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?" That those lines came on a milquetoast major-label album escaped no one’s attention.

    Then, they found something new to scream about. In 2012, singer Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender, and, to general surprise, pointed out how some of the band’s earlier music had hinted at—but never fully explored—her gender dysphoria. On Transgender Dysphoria Blues, she was free to sing without obfuscation. Grace’s voice has long been one of rock'n'roll’s massively emotive battering rams, and she’s never sounded more unbridled. Against Me! were always best when proffering a firm hand in an uncertain society—their punk songs are love songs, built for comfort in times of crisis. Over blood-churning guitars and galvanizing hooks, Grace gives her love to unnamed trans women bearing the brunt of callous discrimination, and to her wife, Heather, who must navigate this journey along with her. That love might not be enough—Grace knows from experience—but it’s there for the taking, kindling for the fire. "There’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me," Grace sings on "FUCKMYLIFE666", which combines insouciant rebellion—just look at the title—with bracing, poetic uncertainty about this next phase of her life.

    It’s an autobiographical album, not a concept album, insistent and uncompromising, sung by a trans woman for trans listeners without any filtering or translation. That’s genuinely revolutionary, in ways that punk bands simply fixated on anarchy rarely are. So despite the "live fast, die young" history of the genre, Against Me! is a punk band making their most necessary album as they approach 20 years of existence. (The kids I knew in high school never would’ve predicted that.) As Grace told Rolling Stone in 2012, when Transgender Dysphoria Blues was only in the works: "However fierce our band was in the past, imagine me, six foot two, in heels, fucking screaming in someone’s face." Consider that promise finally fulfilled. —Jeremy Gordon

    Against Me!: "FUCKMYLIFE666" (via SoundCloud)

    Lydia Ainsworth

    Right from Real

    Arbutus

    Right from Real, a collection of two EPs released earlier this year, is a revelation of a debut: stunning, fully-formed, suffused with wintry atmosphere, sonically omnivorous yet cohesive. As a female singer-songwriter whose palettes are artpop and synth-pop, the comparisons come fast and inevitable: one-time labelmate Grimes (the comparisons end there), the avant-pop likes of Julia Holter, and, of course, Kate Bush—in particular, and of all things, Bush’s work with the Trio Bulgarka. Yet Ainsworth’s vision is singular. "Candle" is an orchestral piece blown to bits by a backmasked digital gust. (If Ainsworth has a characteristic trick, this is it.) "Moonstone" periodically sounds about to turn into a Purity Ring song at half-speed, but settles as an otherworldly almanac of words and sounds. "Malachite" is the kind of gothy synthpop dozens of more seasoned artists have failed to get this gloriously right. "Take Your Face Off" doesn’t seem like it should work, swooping through cello gloom, R&B melisma, sunsoaked keyboard lines, and twitchy synth lattices, it evokes Tori Amos (in a couple places, Ainsworth channels near-exactly some Amos inflections that aren’t that common), Dawn Richard (another doppelgänger, in her low range and songwriting ambition) and the Art of Noise (directly quoted in the drifty midsection). And, somehow, it all coheres. It’s intricate enough to reward close listening and immediate enough in its pleasures to sound astonishing from listen one; during its best moments, Right from Real is breathtaking in the best way: the way where you didn’t know music could do this. —Katherine St. Asaph

    Lydia Ainsworth: "PSI" (via SoundCloud)

    Bing & Ruth

    Tomorrow Was the Golden Age

    Rvng Intl.

    Tomorrow Was the Golden Age is the crown jewel in an amazing 2014 for New York’s RVNG Intl.—a stellar year where the label looked to the past as well as the future. The most precious record to come out of it seems to exist in some limbo between the two. Classified as "ambient" by default, Bing & Ruth’s first album for the label is hardly electronic. It’s something more old-fashioned than that: the sound of a septet of musicians, directed by pianist David Moore, who exercise a masterful sense of control so serene that it hardly seems human. 

    That’s the trick: They tend to move as one unit rather than individual players, and their compositions develop gradually like small waves lapping at the shore, inching closer and closer to high tide until the whole landscape is blanketed. Using tape delay as their only production flourish, the ensemble blurs the lines between past and present, playing new notes over echoes of the old ones. That kind of technique might sound simplistic, but the massive sense of space lends the album an almost church-like majesty. And, in its own way, Tomorrow Was the Golden Age is a devotional. A collection of wordless hymns written not for religious ends but rather as paeans to the beauty of the wider world itself—a world that looked uglier than ever in 2014—Tomorrow is the sort of powerful record that has the ability to shift your mood, and maybe even your perceptions. —Andrew Ryce

    Bing & Ruth: "The Towns We Love Is Our Town" (via SoundCloud)

    Container

    Adhesive

    Liberation Technologies

    Ren Schofield's carcinogenic techno-noise project Container sounds like a lot of different things, but nothing you'd call conventionally pleasing. On this year's thrillingly nasty Adhesive EP, you get thudding beats locked into slavish motorik rhythms, decked out in all the hallmarks that make the most unforgiving machine music so delectably debilitating. The static-shocked drums sound as if they've been coated in an oxidizing agent, while singed electronic flourishes recall bundles of frayed wires being dunked in chemical waste and various metals screech and scrape against each other. On "Glaze", you can almost make out the sputtering croak of some unholy piece of reanimated hardware repeating the word "demon." But holy shit, does this thing bounce. There's an addictive buoyancy to the tracks that, despite their grating insistency, suggests that Schofield might have created them to actually get people to move. At the same time, he seems like the only guy on earth capable of playing a masonry saw and making it sound funky. Sneak one of Adhesive's four throbbers into a dance mix and, placed ever so delicately, the people will embrace every serrated gesture. Like a hunk of meat barbecued within an inch of its threshold, there's juice and glistening ribbons of fat underneath the scorched, crackling surface. —Zach Kelly

    Container: "Slush" (via SoundCloud)

    Frankie Cosmos

    Zentropy

    Double Double Whammy

    Greta Kline's studio debut as Frankie Cosmos steeps itself in a sort of surface level self-loathing. But despite song titles like "Sad 2" and lyrical assertions that she's "the kind of girl buses splash with rain," the true triumph of Zentropy comes from a sense of wide-eyed innocence and optimism that runs through the record's brief 17-minute runtime. Similar to the several decades of indie pop antecedents that populate the rosters of Slumberland and K Records, guitars shimmer and sputter, drums clatter to life with a lighthearted crackle, and Kline's apparently downcast lyrics turn tongue-in-cheek, offering ways of overcoming in the midst of post-millennial malaise. It's a surprisingly mature sentiment from a songwriter who was only 19 years old at the time of the album's release, especially in an era where void-gazing is popular enough to become a Twitter meme. As she sings on "My I Love You", sometimes you just have to "do what [you] have to do," and Kline has uniquely figured out how to soundtrack that process in a sneakily buoyant way. —Colin Joyce

    Frankie Cosmos: "Birthday Song" (via SoundCloud)

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    Nils Frahm

    Spaces

    Erased Tapes

    Spaces only grew in stature over the course of the year following its late-2013 release. Its humble beginnings, lost in the November deadzone, might have caused it to be overlooked altogether. Instead, it became the type of album that was quietly passed around, gaining word-of-mouth traction for the captivating world Nils Frahm delicately spins around himself. The album perfectly taps into a prevailing interest in minimalism, whether through newer artists such as Bing & Ruth and Bitchin Bajas, or in the cavalcade of reissues such as Light in the Attic’s I Am the Center and RVNG’s Ariel Kalma retrospective. Even two masters of the tradition, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, shared a stage for the first time in over 30 years in 2014—a year that also marked the 50th anniversary of Terry Riley’s pivotal In C. Still, no one sounds quite like Frahm, performing on this most un-live sounding live album, which is executed with a spiritual twinkle that belies its rather earthy circumstances. There are magical properties here, giving Spaces a quality that makes it easy to forget the world outside during its absorbing duration. —Nick Neyland

    Nils Frahm: "Says" (via SoundCloud)

    Future

    Honest

    Epic / A1 / Free Bandz

    On one hand, this was Future's year: Honest was the Atlanta rapper/singer's first true marquee release, his moment to be feted as rap royalty. He made the talk-show and morning show rounds; he had his strongest-ever first-sales week. On the other hand: those first-week sales totaled over 53,000, barely squeaking past Iggy Azalea, whose "Fancy" had yet to blow up. He cheated on Ciara, thereby earning him the white-hot, possibly-lifelong enmity of the hip-hop Internet. Then he made a terrible song called "Pussy Overrated" with Wiz Khalifa.

    All this was complicated further by the fact that, with Honest, he made a diverse, sweeping, and often profoundly affecting stardom bid that was mostly swallowed by the Twitter landfill. He was tender and unguarded on the title track, cooing birds-egg fragile melodies into the song’s margins; he was a superhero on the Amadou & Miriam-sampling warrior's anthem "Look Ahead". He was a power balladeer on "I Be U", one of his most ebullient love songs ever. He was the most forceful and convincing coke rapper on "Move That Dope". (Oh, and on "Benz Frenz (Whatchutola)", he was a member of Aquemini-era OutKast.) The album has mostly disappeared from the conversation, an ignominious fate—and proof that becoming a heavyweight sometimes means you sink like a stone. —Jayson Greene

    M. Geddes Gengras

    Ishi

    Stones Throw / Leaving

    At first blush, M. Geddes Gengras' latest album of modular synthesizer music may not appear terribly complicated; it seems like you might be able to convincingly replicate the title track by taping down a handful of keys and slowly twisting the knobs—any knobs, really. And that's OK: the Los Angeles musician's system-oriented approach to composition often involves setting up parameters he reasonably expects to yield interesting results, and simply walking away. But listen more closely, and the album's three tracks (plus a 44-minute "bonus" cut) turn out to be deeply, even wildly expressive, brimming with pinwheeling polyrhythms and quicksilver timbral shifts and micro-movements that feel as natural as the wind. It might be the most satisfying example of a certain kind of sunburst organ burble since Emeralds' What Happened, and, compared to the freeform sprawl of his collaborative work in LA Vampires, Pocahaunted, and Sun Araw, it's deliciously focused, too. Ambient that's far too dynamic to scan as merely ambient, it's wallpaper music for a liquefied world. —Philip Sherburne

    M. Geddes Gengras: "Passage" (via SoundCloud)

    The Hotelier

    Home, Like Noplace Is There

    Tiny Engines

    An unfortunate side effect of your early 20s is a foolish desire to try to make sense of everything. There’s all this non-degradable waste hanging around your life like your old house, your old school, your old ex-lover—what do you do with all of it? That’s the irony of Home, Like Noplace Is There being corralled into the "emo revival," because it’s an album about how we are not really built to deal with nostalgia or the traumas of the past. The Hotelier do about 36 minutes of amateur punk-rock surgery on several tumorous events that they can’t seem to escape, and it becomes macabre and celebratory in the same shout-chorus. On the priceless "Your Deep Rest", Christian Holden rips these words out of his throat: "I called in sick from your funeral/ Tradition of closure nearly felt impossible." It’s a fictional tale of regret and self-loathing that doubles as the motto for the album: We are not built to handle all this. Holden’s heart is not a load-bearing structure, and all the hospital trips, addictions, psychoses, and suffocating suburban-Massachusetts backdrops are wounds he shouldn’t open up, but does anyway. Most punk is rooted in tearing down the present to make a better future—rightfully, because the Hotelier find out that it’s impossible to try to tear down the past. —Jeremy Larson

    The Hotelier: "The Scope of All This Rebuilding" (via SoundCloud)

    iLoveMakonnen

    iLoveMakonnen EP

    self-released

    Rap has always been a safe haven for weirdos, but 2014 was particularly kind to artists who vibrate on a slightly different frequency than the rest of us. iLoveMakonnen was one such beneficiary, going from YouTube curio to having Drake remix and sign him to his label seemingly overnight. He's been making music for years, but it's only recently that he caught the ear of veteran Atlanta producers like Sonny Digital and Metro Boomin. Makonnen gets their wooziest beats, the kind of tracks that are simultaneously weightless and dense as collapsing stars. There's "Too Much", where Makonnen's theatrical melodrama positions him as the trap game Andrew Lloyd Webber, the rap signifiers providing a frame of reference and helping communicate a loneliness that permeates the entirety of the iLoveMakonnen EP. "Tonight", which shimmers like the northern lights on an alien world, is just a few BPM short of being included on every deep-house DJ set for the next six months. And, of course, there's "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday", which features a hook barely tethered to this terrestrial plane. It might very well be the least testosterone-fueled celebration of Dionysian pleasures I've ever heard. This is Makonnen's secret—he's a sad boy and not just a #sadboy, and his music is an open hand extended to each and every one of us. —Renato Pagnani

    iLoveMakonnen: "Tonight" (via SoundCloud)

    Makthaverskan

    II

    Run for Cover

    Makthaverskan's chest-clearing dream-punk seems to plunk itself right at the intersection between enthusiasm and frustration, where you just come right out and say what you're thinking, however awkwardly it may emerge. II is a beauteous little beast of a record, caught between primal scream and Vaseline-smeared swoon; every emotion's played to the hilt, every instrument surging towards one grand feeling or another. With the vocab of a longshoreman and a windmill-felling voice, singer Maja Milner serves up equal parts invective and longing in the most unambiguous language possible; "fuck you for fucking me when I was 17," she wails on "No Mercy", while, just one song later, she's hoping a "pretty baby" will stay close this time. Forget your subtler emotional shades for a second; the hard-charging Makthaverskan deal solely in black, white, and blood red. And that willingness to go for broke—to say what needs to be said without couching it in metaphor or drowning it in distortion—is what makes II such a thrilling listen. You might flub the name, but you'll remember the feeling. —Paul Thompson

    Makthaverskan: "Asleep" (via SoundCloud)

    Migos

    Rich Nigga Timeline

    Quality Control

    This year, Migos proved to be in it for the long haul. Back in 2013, the hit song and Drake co-sign came so quickly to the Atlanta trio that those unfamiliar with their pre-"Versace" work could understandably wonder if the world would remember the names Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff a year later. But they made sure no one forgot: Rich Nigga Timeline, their second mixtape of 2014, showed impressive growth, if not topically, then at least technically. Their flows felt more locked-in than ever before, but still malleable enough that any line here could easily become a hook for another song. One holdover from last year’s Young Rich Niggas is their goofy bluntness ("she stomped the booty on me like some Timbs"), which is no longer hidden within their now-familiar triplet flow. But no matter what memes they might inspire, these are trap rappers who’ve gotten in fights with concert crowds, had chains snatched, and seen their tour van lined with bullet holes. Those real-world events aren’t their main concern on Rich Nigga Timeline; rather, Migos remain aspirational even in the face of adversity, continuing to view the world through their Versace shades. —David Turner

    Migos: "Hit Em" (via SoundCloud)

    Objekt

    Flatland

    Pan

    TJ Hertz conjures a severe bustle on his debut album, Flatland. The young Berlin-based producer spends 45 minutes contorting his tracks into odd positions, a sadomasochistic yoga with poses like "broken glass" and "chrome." It's techno music—jarring, acrid, tough—but it's techno music that sets aside the normal points of comparison such as factories and engines. Instead it conjures a freshly-minted skyscraper, a monolith of engineering that forces us to consider the specialized knowledge required to erect such a structure as well as the air and skyline it displaces.

    At its most striking, Flatland makes its noise peers sound quaint, like theirs is a steampunk version of what's to come, with all its rivets and corroding metals and 4/4 kick drum patterns having been conceived 200 years ago. The future is instead seamless, frictionless, precise. Devoid of a constant pulse, of familiar tropes (though is that acid I hear on "Ratchet"?), Flatland is a challenging listen. In a year when so many artists seemed skeptical about the role of technology in our lives, Flatland is an album that asks not what machines are doing to us, but what we can do with machines. —Andrew Gaerig

    Objekt: "Ratchet"

    Pallbearer

    Foundations of Burden

    Profound Lore

    Two years ago Pallbearer released Sorrow and Extinction, 2012’s best metal debut, and then decided it wasn’t good enough. Thus came this year’s Foundations of Burden, a record that improves on every facet of Extinction. Brett Campbell’s not only improved as a singer, but also doesn’t bury his voice like he did last time. And the songwriting itself has grown tremendously, in no small part due to bassist Joseph D. Rowland’s insistence on exploring prog’s slicker edge. And Burden boasts lusher production, a denser sonic palette that serves both as a meeting point of the strengths of Extinction (and their buzzed-about 2010 demo), and as a sign that they’ve surpassed their previous work. Combined with lyrics focusing on the darker side of solitude, they’ve slowed down but built upon the cosmic poignancy of Judas Priest’s classic '70s suicide ballad "Beyond the Realms of Death".

    One of the album’s finest moments is its first: the opening lead of "Worlds Apart" screams glory. It’s the Golden Riff basement guitarist stumble through bud and beer to try and write, and it’s the sort of sound Boston’s Tom Scholz would spend months obsessing over, trying to get just right. (With Pallbearer’s professed love of Boston, maybe he’ll get a chance on the next record.) Then again, they’re fine with leaving sliding noises on "The Ghost I Used to Be", a sign that even with all their ambition and skill, they’re still four dudes from Little Rock who are just glad their music’s out there. All the better that it’s being appreciated by an increasingly broad swath of listeners. —Andy O'Connor

    Pallbearer: "The Ghost I Used To Be" (via SoundCloud)

    Protomartyr

    Under Color of Official Right

    Hardly Art

    You've met a greasy loner like Protomartyr lead singer Joe Casey before; he's the guy who makes jaundice seem cool. Under Color of Official Right was easily the mustiest musical object I couldn't keep myself from handling all year, like a mildewing, smutty paperback I picked up in the attic. The guitars, which are so thick they seem to blot out the band's existence entirely, sit like black mold on top of Casey's crude pronouncements, which land somewhere between bark and a belch. Nonetheless, there is a lot of sense in the singer’s ugliness. "What I swallow and what I eat/ I pay it no mind," he drawls, sardonically, on "Want Remover", and this kind of defeated indifference pervades this band’s music like air conditioning. "Overconfidence is a parasite," he spits, repeatedly, on "Bad Advice", but it's difficult to imagine anyone in Protomartyr's world suffering from it. —Jayson Greene

    Protomartyr: "Scum, Rise!" (via SoundCloud)

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    Isaiah Rashad

    Cilvia Demo

    Top Dawg Entertainment

    This year, the California-based rap collective TDE expanded all the way to Tennessee with the release of Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo. The Chattanooga native’s usually understated voice is an easy cloak for the vitality of his music, where recurring references to police violence and racial tension build upon each other. Though Rashad’s still in his early 20s, he projects an assured confidence in asking about the world, religion, or himself. And his willingness to wade into these difficult questions follows the linage of OutKast ("West Savannah") and Scarface ("Brad Jordan"), fellow Southern souls who displayed far more worldly experience than their age would suggest. —David Turner

    Isaiah Rashad: "Brad Jordan" [ft. Michael Da Vinci] (via SoundCloud)

    Ricky Eat Acid

    Three Love Songs

    Orchid Tapes

    So much of ambient music wants to break out of your headphones and roll around a mountain range or a cathedral. Three Love Songs immediately sets itself in a bedroom. Sam Ray prefaces his electronic debut with a tape-hissy spoken word piece that describes lying in bed and hearing someone else walk around downstairs, running their hands along a piano, until eventually a light subsumes the house and that person is all that's left.

    Three Love Songs is a long, slow fever that moves from a bedroom to a car to a front yard. All its settings are small. They're also remarkably intimate; listen close to "In rural virginia" and you'll get to hear a seatbelt slither through its clasp as a radio preacher warns you about God's looming wrath. Other voices surface and recede; even Drake's in a driving loop on the house approximation "In my dreams we're almost touching". They're all specters haunting a room so familiar it can be worn like skin.

    If the body's a house, then love is a ghost that haunts it. Ray's beautiful, understated LP burrows deep to get at the love that swirls in us even when we're lying very still. —Sasha Geffen

    Ricky Eat Acid: "In my dreams we're almost touching" (via Bandcamp)

    Shamir

    Northtown EP

    Godmode

    Nineteen-year-old Shamir Bailey seemed to come from nowhere, even as Northtown had folks rushing to place him in the heritage of Midwest dance. He’s in fact from Las Vegas—a city known more as a culturally stagnant musical retirement village than the epicentre of vitality—and his signing to New York's GODMODE belied the edge that was immediately obvious to anyone staggered by his debut single "If It Wasn't True". Across five tracks, Shamir tilts against cynicism, dredging catharsis out of disappointment. Sometimes, it’s in his crackling vocals, like on the frightened "I'll Never Be Able to Love"; elsewhere, it’s through the stomping "I Know It's a Good Thing" or the let-down pessimism of "Sometimes a Man". Before he'd go on to defiant, snappy self-possession with the late-2014 post-EP single "On the Regular", Northtown presented Shamir as a delicate kid trying to hold it together. This disco-pop upstart might've been a surprise, but from minute one Shamir sounded like he was at home. —Jake Cleland

    Shamir: "If It Wasn't True" (via SoundCloud)

    Sleaford Mods

    Divide and Exit

    Harbinger Sound

    Upon uploading Divide and Exit to iTunes, the default genre that displays is "Blues"—which is as an apt a descriptor as any for Sleaford Mods’ block-rocking bleats. Too steely and mechanistic to be categorized purely as punk, too manic and wired to be hip-hop, and too aggressively artless to qualify as poetry, Divide and Exit is the sound of chronic, cantankerous disappointment, as produced by two forty-something wage slaves who are dispirited by pop culture’s constant repackaging of the past, but who also dread our future—so they opt to put the "resent" in the present. More than just simply declare that modern life is rubbish, motormouth-piece Jason Williamson dumpster-dives through the rubbish of modern life, his venomous verbiage indiscriminately taking down targets like a military firing squad: Twitter, processed cheese, Oasis, coked-out Shoreditch hipsters, currywurst, art displayed in tea shops, Chumbawamba, "swivel servants," Heaven 17, “GG fuckin’ Allin,” middle-class “trainspottists,” Joe Cocker, Nicolas Cage, Thomas the Tank Engine, and that twat Ian who still works in a clothing shop. (Tellingly, the words to Divide and Exit’s songs have yet to turn up en masse on Internet lyric sites, presumably because they’d require a veteran courthouse stenographer to transcribe them.) And even when Williamson’s targets are off, he still hits the bull’s eye: on "Tied Up in Notzz", he derisively proclaims, "It’s 'The Final Countdown' by fookin’ Journey," but it’s a case of mistaken identity that serves as a pointed comment on the interchangeable, faceless nature of the '80s corporate rock that still dominates pub playlists. And even if it’s an actual honest mistake, pity the fool who tries to correct him. —Stuart Berman

    Sleaford Mods: "Tied Up in Nottz" (via SoundCloud)

    Jessie Ware

    Tough Love

    Universal Island / PMR

    After her wisely low-key debut Devotion snuck up on plenty of people in 2012, Jessie Ware took a more immediate path on the charming, poppier Tough Love. The UK singer recruited a roster of big name collaborators (Miguel, Ed Sheeran, Emile Haynie, Dev Hynes) to help her craft a sophomore effort filled with jaunty pop anthems ("Cruel"), slinky R&B confessionals ("Kind of…Sometimes…Maybe"), and requisite torch songs ("Say You Love Me"). Ware’s voice is nothing less than indomitable, and on Tough Love she stretches it even further, from the high-pitched falsetto on the album’s swooning title track to the hymnal ranges it climbs during closer "Desire". Tough Love may be a bit safer than her last record, but Ware's ability to craft a gut punch out of sensual and elegant love songs is still absolutely intact. —Eric Torres

    Jessie Ware: "Tough Love" (via SoundCloud)


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    Staff Lists: The 50 Best Albums of 2014

    Welcome to Pitchfork's list of The 50 Best Albums of 2014. 


    Ben Frost

    A U R O R A

    Mute / Bedroom Community

    50

    Ben Frost puts a lot of thought into his music, technically and conceptually. His song titles and interviews pack his dense, throbbing scrawls with allusions to everything from biochemistry to Ghostbusters. This is somewhat ironic, as the main capacity of his music is to overwhelm rational thought. It registers in the limbs and viscera, not in the mind. On A U R O R A, mostly recorded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Frost mostly jettisons the guitars and classical instruments of prior albums, though standout deep cut "Sola Fide" does sound like a catastrophic collision between chamber music and a rave. Instead, he doubles down on heavy synths and heaving drums courtesy of powerhouses such as Greg Fox (Liturgy), Thor Harris (Swans), and Shahzad Ismaily. The result has a rough but elaborate physical presence—something huge and shuddering running on filthy kerosene, about to snap a belt or throw a bolt and maim the operator. But Frost is never overpowered by his brawny, chaotic material. However strong it is, his will is stronger, and gales of distortion bend to his command with clarity and definition. His prior marquee album, 2009’s By the Throat, was excellent but less single-minded in its pursuit. This is the one that really grabs you and doesn’t let go. —Brian Howe

    Ben Frost: "Venter" (via SoundCloud)

    Mr Twin Sister

    Mr Twin Sister

    Infinite Best / Twin Group

    49

    Lots of indie bands have mined the giddiness and sexual empowerment of the disco era, but few have tapped into the cultural fracture that followed it. The language of identity crisis is all over Mr Twin Sister’s second album, right down to the fact that they added a "Mr" to their name for this self-released sophomore effort (and then named the album after their newly christened selves). Mr Twin Sister is slicker, sexier, a little more concerned with mortality (the band endured a serious van accident in 2013), and the quintet’s lyrics often chase several possible threads: On "Out of the Dark", singer Andrea Estella declares that "I am a woman, but inside I’m a man, and I want to be as gay as I can!" A minute later, she looks back and wonders: "What ever happened to poor, dear me?”

    Mr Twin Sister are also adept at following the trickle-down of commonalities between house, electro, and new wave (especially on "Rude Boy", which suggests a shared lineage with Tom Tom Club’s "Genius of Love"). And like any honest survey of nightlife music, Mr Twin Sister's high highs ("In The House of Yes", "Twelve Angels") are followed quickly by low lows ("Blush", "Crime Scene")—the two sides of the same airy fantasy. —Abby Garnett

    Mr Twin Sister: "Out of the Dark" (via SoundCloud)

    Clark

    Clark

    Warp

    48

    In a year full of social and political upheaval, you have to wonder about the role of electronic music in the grand scheme. Being largely instrumental, the genre isn't exactly primed to deliver clear and direct messages outside of its own context, let alone fiery missives or storm-bringing manifestos for a general populous to rally around. But electronic music can still serve vital purposes during tumultuous times of desperation and discontent. Perhaps most readily, it can provide a much needed escape for our troubled minds, though it can also reflect the boiling unrest within our hearts. Chris Clark's self-titled seventh album, 45 minutes of vivid atmosphere and controlled chaos, managed to do exactly both. —Patric Fallon

    Clark: "Unfurla" (via SoundCloud)

    Shellac

    Dude Incredible

    Touch and Go

    47

    Dude Incredible is an honest representation of gifted musicians playing punk rock together with patient breath and coiled abandon. The bass, drums, guitar, and vocals each end up being showcased on their own at various points on the album, and each might rightly be described as the "lead" instrument; the songs are magnanimous and co-operative because, after more than 20 years of making records together, the seasoned team managing them trusts each other like brothers. The lyrics, often presented in unaffected, tuneful speech or guttural screaming, convey incisive, comedic, and thoughtful ruminations on the following: human interaction and behavior; fighting; vandalism; political machinations and opportunistic/piss-poor leadership; looking at things and being looked at by things; and at least one dispute about the conclusion of an instance of sexual intercourse. To paraphrase a line from the title track, all of Shellac’s records are fit, but some of them are spectacular. Dude Incredible is definitely the latter—a lean batch of nine intriguing, blood-pumping songs that tromp, clatter, and ring out like nothing else ever could. —Vish Khanna

    Ariana Grande

    My Everything

    Republic

    46

    Ariana Grande was unstoppable this year. The former Nickelodeon star conquered the radio, the charts, the tabloids, the TV circuit, and the meme factories, ascending from Victoria Justice/Miranda Cosgrove purgatory to the Katy/Miley/Gaga A-list on the strength of a powerhouse voice and a charmingly goofy off-mic persona. In a single week this fall, she duetted with Little Big Town on the CMA Awards, partnered with Major Lazer on Lorde’s Hunger Games soundtrack, and gyrated with the Weeknd in the "Love Me Harder" video. Girl was everywhere. But what a delight it was having this pint-sized, big-haired, dimple-cheeked, cat-eared, not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman in our lives. My Everything was a time capsule of the year in chart pop: the Max Martin-fueled saxobeat riot of "Problem" (with ubiquitous Iggy Azalea feature), the Zedd-fueled arena-EDM rocket blast of "Break Free", the Ryan Tedder-fueled power ballad "Why Try". There’s even a DJ Mustard nod in the "Hands on Me" breakdown, for maximum 2014-ness. Holding it all together were those octave-leaping pipes, as Ariana carried on the vintage Mariah/Xtina tradition of sharp, streetwise divadom. —Amy Phillips

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    Andy Stott

    Faith in Strangers

    Modern Love

    45

    Faith in Strangers begins with a series of slow, mournful foghorn blasts that faintly resembles Seefeel's great 1995 album Succour, but the sound may as well have come from light years away. It sounds like the intergalactic equivalent of whale song—the indecipherable cries of beings that are beyond us in every sense. Whether sloughing off creaky music-of-the-spheres drones or rubbing your face in filthy, overdriven drum and bass—less breakbeat science than breakbeat slagheap—Stott's latest, bleakest album has a way of making you feel very, very small. But there's a comfort there, too, even if said comfort is just warming one's hands with the embers of a tube amp as it overloads. —Philip Sherburne

    Andy Stott: "Faith in Strangers" (via SoundCloud)

    A Sunny Day in Glasgow

    Sea When Absent

    Lefse

    44

    Cult band returns after four years in hiding, signs to a new label, hires a hotshot producer, molds their unpredictable, sui generis music into four-minute pop songs, and confirms their fans’ worst fears. This is pretty much what happened to A Sunny Day in Glasgow on their wondrous fourth album Sea When Absent, but leave it to these guys to make the same old song completely unrecognizable. This wasn’t about a small group of protective devotees fretting about antiquated ideas of "selling out." Rather, as a band with no established frontperson and no established homebase making genreless music that’s nearly impossible to pull off live, A Sunny Day in Glasgow is a pretty terrible business proposition. So when they earnestly announced their free agency late last year, the greater concern was that they couldn’t be a traditional buzz band with a traditional hit record even if they tried. We’re in luck if they can try harder than they did here; drawing as much from blaring rock and banging hip-hop as their other previous, ill-fitting tags of "shoegaze" or "dream-pop," Sea When Absent is clear-eyed and cloudbursting, seemingly incompatible sounds best described by seemingly contradictory feelings—"incapacitating calm," "frightening infatuation," "aggressive joy." You’ll never get it quite right, but calling Sea When Absent "ordinary" is the only way you’ll get it wrong. —Ian Cohen

    A Sunny Day in Glasgow : "Bye Bye Big Ocean (The End)" (via SoundCloud)

    Madlib / Freddie Gibbs

    Piñata

    Madlib Invazion

    43

    Freddie Gibbs is a technician who folds his words into flows so neat the seams never show—and the success of talents like that often rest on the shoulders of a producer. Retro-leaning beats invite pithy "real hip-hop" barbs; hew too mainstream and you risk landing in limbo with the overqualified, underappreciated Gunplays of the industry. As a promising allegiance with Jeezy’s CTE World label blossomed and ultimately disintegrated, Gibbs charted a new course, teaming with mercurial SoCal producer/multi-instrumentalist Madlib for a slow drip of EPs over three years. Their collaborative full length, Piñata, sees the duo meeting styles halfway, Gibbs’ gruff, despairing storytelling taking flight on his producer’s woozy, stoned instrumentals. Few who’ve followed either artist could have reasonably predicted this union would form or float (Madlib barely makes rap anymore), but it did, and Piñata is a monument to the enduring magic of raw beats and bars. —Craig Jenkins

    Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: "Deeper" (via SoundCloud)

    Owen Pallett

    In Conflict

    Domino / Secret City

    42

    In Conflict's title captures not only its thematic fixations but also its contradictory quality of ominous loveliness, like a lover who wields his beauty as a surgical instrument. Shimmering strings and rippling piano lines are punctuated by hollow, metallic drum beats and disintegrating synthetic rubble, sound giving way to sound like violent weather patterns dissolving into one another. Above and around, Pallett’s preternaturally smooth voice offers a narrative unity of memory, judgment, and regret, the sonorousness of its croon like a floodlight affording no sympathetic shadows in which to hide. Its omniscience feels increasingly cutting as the words and music slide from the nostalgically self-diagnostic ("a copy of The Dispossessed/ Your room a holy mess") through the elegiacally metaphysical ("the terror of the infinite … that it will never come again is what makes our life so sweet") to the erotically specific ("you hooked your pinkies on my jeans"—a snapshot from the best-written sex scene of 2014), like a series of windows glancing upon the irreconcilable "gap between what a man wants and what a man will receive." In Conflict makes for endlessly uncomfortable listening not through ugliness, but through the ceaseless, yearning, searching dissatisfaction of its prettiness, an iron cage as torturous as it is intricately wrought. —Tim Finney

    Leon Vynehall

    Music for the Uninvited

    3024

    41

    British producer Leon Vynehall is relatively young, but his genteel, elegant compositions are marked by a respect for the history and cultural context of his genre and an awareness of the world around him. The title of his first lengthy release, Music for the Uninvited, is a nod to the queer people of color who shaped the genesis of house music, dancing and forming communities to escape the marginalization that pervaded the rest of their lives; his production is studded with well-aged samples, voices from generations gone by speaking from beyond the void. They complement and embody songs that move in unexpected ways, percolating and building before achieving a stately grace. Vynehall’s reverence for the past doesn’t get in the way of his personality, either: he’s shaped by N64 classics and skateboarding tricks, possessed of a quiet confidence. His sense of self and regard for his ancestors form the base from which his vital, brainy music takes flight. —Jamieson Cox

    Leon Vynehall: "It's Just (House of Dupree)" (via SoundCloud)

    Ty Segall

    Manipulator

    Drag City

    40

    In the time it takes you to read this, Ty Segall will have likely written five new songs, if not recorded another full-length album. As one of rock’s most productive and prolific artists, Segall manages to outpace his peers in terms of pure volume and (most of the time) in quality. The breakneck speed at which Segall produced his earlier material was often reflected in the recordings, which frequently rejected polish in favor of rapidly recorded fuzz. In contrast, Manipulator—which boasts 17 tracks written and recorded over a span of 14 months—is the most meticulously crafted thing Segall has ever released, an extended play synthesis of literally everything that he does so well. Though his aesthetic generally remains buried in a dirty garage located someplace in the early '70s, Segall’s knack for whipping up airtight hooks and kooky turns of phrase save his takes on psych-glam-garage-boogie from sounding like overly-serious Jack White-style pastiche. While the album doesn’t scrimp when it comes to serving the amped up scuzz-rawk rippers that fans have come to expect from him, Manipulator gets extra interesting when Segall shows off his more pastoral side. If there’s a problem with Manipulator it’s just that the record is almost too much of a good thing—too many competing vibes corralled into one stall, too many single-worthy tracks in one place fighting for air. —T. Cole Rachel

    Ought

    More Than Any Other Day

    Constellation

    39

    "I think you can find all the elements that you can find in great literature in mundane experiences," Harvey Pekar once said. Though he was a noted jazz man, you can't help but think that he might've liked More Than Any Other Day, the debut from the nervy art-punk Montreal collective Ought. 2% or whole milk? What's the weather like? Are you my friend? More Than Any Other Day is an album full of questions, a lot of them—at least on the surface—seemingly mundane. But, as with Pekar, they're integral parts of the bigger day-to-day quandaries everyone ponders constantly. Do you feel it like I feel it? What's in it for me? Are we lost forever? Ought don't offer many answers, but instead suffer the what-ifs with us (together, today!), all wrapped up in lurching math-rock exercises ("Pleasant Heart"), obtuse Byrne-ian funk ("Around Again"), and good ol’-fashioned punk proselytizing ("Today More Than Any Other Day"). Tim Beeler whispers and rants and crows and sings (the latter only sometimes, and unspectacularly), earning himself a spot alongside Protomartyr's Joe Casey as one of the best everyman frontmen we've got. As Pekar said, "It makes you feel good to know there's other people afflicted like you." —Zach Kelly

    Ought: "Habit" (via SoundCloud)

    Hundred Waters

    The Moon Rang Like A Bell

    OWSLA

    38

    It was already hard enough to classify Hundred Waters’ alchemy of exploratory electronics, conservatory-level chops, and folk earthiness and now we gotta throw "arena rock" into the mix. Their OWSLA debut The Moon Rang Like a Bell had a rollout you'd expect from a bankrolled band bent on world domination, spawning five singles, three gorgeous videos, an all-star remix EP, a record release party/vision quest in the Arizona desert, and a star-crossed, snowed-in tour with Interpol that postponed a Letterman performance. Well, say what you will about Skrillex’s music, but as a label head, he’s not always looking for the big drop.

    Nothing about The Moon Rang Like a Bell ever felt like a push for the breakout hit that would turn Hundred Waters into the "new tUnE-yArDs" or Dirty Projectors or any of the other indie A-listers they were compared to last time out. Instead, they were gentle nudges, reminders of an album that requires patience due to its unusual way of establishing a relationship with the listener. The band shares its most intimate secrets first: you immediately hear Nicole Miglis completely exposed with an a cappella prayer, there’s conspiratory laughter, a scrambled Skype conversation with her partner on "Broken Blue", police sirens ringing outside their downtown Los Angeles apartment during the mesmerizing gospel of "Murmurs". Once they’ve earned your trust, Hundred Waters makes dazzling third, 12th, and 25th impressions, as the confluence of their astounding technical proficiency and boundless sonic scope somehow manages to be subtle. The Moon Rang Like a Bell is a bold, confident album that still plays coy—"I wish you would see what I see," Miglis sings on "Murmurs". But first, she asks to be shown love and if you oblige, Hundred Waters show you their entire world. —Ian Cohen

    Hundred Waters: "Murmurs" (via SoundCloud)

    Perfect Pussy

    Say Yes to Love

    Captured Tracks

    37

    At the poles of Say Yes to Love, two rhythms compete furiously. At one, you've got Garrett Koloski bringing up the drums, shifting tempos and hammering fills like he's escaping an oncoming firestorm. At the other, Meredith Graves pounds her voice into the ground. Between them, squalls of guitars and synthesizers fan each other's flames. No one makes it out in one piece.

    Graves' language takes patience to decode and it's worth it: Her lyrics are the key to sinking this record into your bones. "I have a history of surrender," she declares on "Driver". "I eat stress and I shit blood/ And buddy, I'll tell you, it never gets better." She runs down a list of lies, "lies like I will be protected." On "Interference Fits", she sings, "I met my despair at midday light/ And it was amazing, and I almost cried".

    Say Yes to Love comes with a question mark hanging invisibly at the end of its title, but its reluctance to embrace love unequivocally only strengthens its refusal to accept woundedness as a defining state. Graves sings like a person who's been hurt, again and again, from all angles in a country that systemically dehumanizes women, queers, and anyone else who doesn't play by the status quo. But she sings like she's found power in that hurt. She refuses defeat with every syllable. Say Yes to Love is the sound of someone looking deep inside themselves and realizing what they thought was broken is actually a source of strength—and then making a whole lot of triumphant noise about it. —Sasha Geffen

    Perfect Pussy: "Interference Fits" (via SoundCloud)

    Tinashe

    Aquarius

    RCA

    36

    The sort of slow, churning R&B popularized by Drake and adopted by scores of underground singers and producers around the globe finally delivers its first front-to-back great album with Tinashe’s Aquarius. How did she get it so right? By taking cues from that aesthetic but not letting it define her. The record is submerged in beats that slur and slosh, with Tinashe’s breathy vocals never sinking too deep. This is a decidedly of-the-moment LP, but it succeeds the same way any good R&B album does: with generous songwriting and strong singing. "2 On", one of the finest singles of the year, is instructive in this sense—every part of the song is sung so distinctly that it feels like the choruses of a bunch of tracks were ripped away and fused together.

    It’s easy to let your head swim through Aquarius, but Tinashe announces herself as its centerpiece throughout, from her slight falsetto on the slippery "Feels Like Vegas" to the '90s throwback belter "Thug Cry". And on an album this consistent, it’s fitting that she saves the best for track 16, the flickering piano ballad "Bated Breath", where she unleashes a series of runs on the phrase "all alone" that are as boldly emotional as any other diva’s. Aquarius is the muted thump of Soundcloud dreams, but so much more.  —Jordan Sargent

    Tinashe: "2 On" [ft. Schoolboy Q] (via SoundCloud)

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    Shabazz Palaces

    Lese Majesty

    Sub Pop

    35

    Lese Majesty is Shabazz Palaces getting interstellar, a set of intricate, enigmatic, yet meaningful suites complete with an (initially) impenetrable multidimensional blueprint/map connecting it all in the liner notes. Beneath the visuals, the album contends with a strain of Afrofuturism that puts its faith in finding unities in contradictions and clarity in riddles ("I'm having my cake and I'm eating cake," "facts stated to enhance what is pre-born," "we try to unreproduce six tension intervals"), reconciling structure and formlessness, forethought and spontaneity. Attempting to transcend the physical yet being constantly aware of how that physicality is constantly being threatened is a hell of an undertaking—more apparent this year, though nothing new. Here the state is depicted in hip-hop revelation story "...down 155th in the MCM Snorkel" as "Escaping the bleak, pursuing a feeling/ Pressure pushed them towards the instinct of brilliance." Those unwary peers who lived through those same origins but shrug that brilliant instinct off are damned to the tune of meter-defying breaks and tactile, synthesized bass-church/musique concrète production that turns human language into primordial elements of cosmic influence. It's humbling stuff that urges you to dance but knows full well that, to do so, you'll need to relearn new and better steps. —Nate Patrin

    Shabazz Palaces: "Forerunner Foray" (via SoundCloud)

    Cloud Nothings

    Here and Nowhere Else

    Carpark / Mom & Pop

    34

    If 2012’s Attack on Memory was the moment where Dylan Baldi’s bedroom-project-turned-power-trio first flashed its surprisingly sharp teeth, Here and Nowhere Else is the sound of Cloud Nothings gnawing on flesh and drawing blood, inflicting wounds both physical and psychic. This is an album that begins with a bruising rumble ("Now Hear In") and then, over the course of a breathless eight songs and 32 minutes, just turns more feral and ferocious as it exposes the cruel irony of a relationship’s end: i.e., that it really just marks the start of a whole new round of head games and deceptions. Despite the album’s frenetic, intensifying momentum, the overall feeling is one of crippling dysfunction, best summed up by Baldi’s agitated, laryngitis-inducing howl on "No Thoughts" ("You don’t really seem to care/ And I don’t even talk about it"), where he effectively loses his shit over an ex’s inability to give a shit about him pretending to not give a shit. But remarkably, the more aggressive and unhinged Cloud Nothings get, the sharper Baldi’s melodic instincts become: In its first 100 seconds alone, the closing pop-punk pick-me-up "I’m Not Part of Me" swiftly cycles through two alternate verse/chorus pairings that could each handily support their own stand-alone song. Really, Cloud Nothings’ fourth album could not have been more appropriately titled: Here and Nowhere Else is the most relentlessly single-minded, maniacally focussed indie rock album released this year—a break-up record pitched at breakneck speed, blurring the line between introspection and insanity. —Stuart Berman

    Cloud Nothings: "I'm Not Part of Me" (via SoundCloud)

    Rich Gang

    Tha Tour Part 1

    Cash Money

    33

    Humans are complicated. Young Thug is complicated, Rich Homie Quan is complicated. These are two young black men who hail from Atlanta and rap about everything. It's not just that they cover a wide variety of subject matter that rotates on a song-to-song basis, but that every single song they make seems to touch on their entire spread of thoughts and emotions. In a matter of a seconds, a tender Rich Gang ballad can fill up with seething death threats, or a string of superficial boasts can flip to reveal a moment of absolute vulnerability. Sometimes, they massage these shifts subtly with melodic cues or vocal tics; sometimes, they move about through more traditional means of lyricism. In the middle of "Hate I", a track that is ostensibly about hating to fall in love with pussy, Quan blurts out "I just wanna live" and stretches the last two syllables across three bars. This should be enough to send chills up even the numbest of spines in this terrible world, where the right to be and stay alive is not always granted to young men of Quan’s complexion. But then the other Givenchy drops and his voice cracks and "don’t give no fucks ’bout who I kill" comes out of the speaker, and it’s hard to know what to feel other than still completely crushed.

    Tha Tour Part 1 is Quan and Thug's first collaborative tape and it's the most complete project that either has been involved with to date. It's somber and hilarious and violent and loving and genius and ignorant and refined and sloppy and beautiful and hideous and human. It's everything that great rap music has always been, which is to say it's everything that is everything to those who create and consume it. —Andrew Nosnitsky

    Rich Gang: "Hate I"

    White Lung

    Deep Fantasy

    Domino

    32

    Those blitz speed black metal tremolos, the guitar that never ceases jabbering into every corner of the mix, Mish Way's hoarse roar: White Lung seemed to sprint screaming across the expanse of 2014. The songs on Deep Fantasy move like gusts of wind stretching a sail to ripping point, and listening to the group triggers fight-or-flight feelings of exhilaration and panic. Slow down the blur, however, and you find a Chinese finger trap: These were alt-punk songs stitched together from hundreds of riffs, complicated solos, and sections burned for kindling while Mish Way hollered and gasped about rape culture, body dysmorphia, and life-or-death battles for human dignity. —Jayson Greene

    White Lung: "Down It Goes" (via SoundCloud)

    Taylor Swift

    1989

    Big Machine

    31

    Even in its self-contradictions, 1989 is generous: is there anything more riveting than a Type A person’s "fuck it" phase? Of course the grand acts of big city rebellion on Taylor Swift’s fifth album are hilariously PG: "Oh yeah? You think I’m demure? Well how ‘bout I cut up this shirt?" The entire premise—that 1989 is Swift’s "first official, documented pop album"—rests on a similarly crafty fallacy, that her catalog hasn’t been shaped by whip-smart pop instincts all along. It’s that patented humblebrag pantomime again: "Little ol’ me? A pop star?"

    It’s so perfect, though—that Swift’s big-deal stylistic pivot is, in fact, utterly un-transgressive. In reality, 1989 isn’t such a departure from the glossier moments of Red: conversational but crisp, informed but not steered by Max Martin, yuppie in spite of a preoccupation with social hierarchy. Still, if Swift insists she is now a pop star, let it be known that she does "pop star" better than any of her peers, with the knowing passive-aggression of a student who’d rather quietly carry a group project than tell her classmates they’re doing it all wrong. This strategic coyness can be Swift’s most maddening quality, but on 1989, she owns it unlike ever before, popping the Chandon with a big ol’ wink for all the Crazy Bitches to clink to the douchebags’ toasts. She’s harnessed the power of her all-consuming self-awareness, investing in the meme economy with quivering poker-face, her returns matched only by Drake’s: if they hate, then let ‘em hate, and watch the "basic bitch" think pieces pile up. Is there any doubt she knew full well, on "Blank Space", how uncannily "long list of ex-lovers" sounded like "lonely Starbucks lovers"?

    Those who accuse Swift of ironing out her narratives on 1989 aren’t wrong: those efficiently personal details once stitched into her songwriting have been democratized. But it’s unrealistic to frame this as selling out. (Taylor Swift does not sell out. She sells more.) Maybe, instead, it’s the realization that obsessive mythologizing of past and future is way less fun than having tons of sex and carting your cat around New York City. To be clear: "Global Welcome Ambassador" Swift’s New York is not the city where you buy loosies from the corner bodega, and it is certainly not the city where police murdered Eric Garner in cold blood for allegedly selling them. Swift’s New York involves some tricky camera angles: a close-up of the festive Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, the surrounding protest signs conveniently just out of frame. It would be silly to consider her penthouse view as anything other than what it is: a commercial. But, whoopsy daisy! Wouldn’t you know it? She’s better than everybody at those, too.  —Meaghan Garvey

    Iceage

    Plowing Into the Field of Love

    Matador

    30

    Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, Iceage’s 22-year-old vocalist, has the kind of voice—flustered, careening; part-growl, part-drunken drawl—that sounds as if it were conjured from somewhere deep in his small intestines. On the Danish band’s third LP, a stunning collection of loose, rollicking punk jams, Rønnenfelt sings mostly about being extraordinarily angry: "I don’t care whose house is on fire, as long as I can warm myself at the blaze," he announces in the somersaulting opener "On My Fingers". Rønnenfelt’s mania can be terrifying, but there’s beauty in his rage, too, like on the piano-addled "Against the Moon", in which he sounds defeated and morose, dragged along by a cluster of low, droning horns. What’s most important, though, is that Rønnenfelt’s not sorry, not even a little bit: "Whatever I do, I do not repent," he shrugs. —Amanda Petrusich

    How to Dress Well

    "What Is This Heart?"

    Domino / Weird World

    29

    Tom Krell’s third album as How to Dress Well is a brave confession. It is radically, exposing-the-fifth-dimension honest. It is perm-era Whitney Houston as a white boy cooing about the power of powerlessness. It is teenage angst simmering into adult anguish. It is Young Thug poring over the sublime with Immanuel Kant. It is emo, R&B, and post-taste pop built for imaginary charts. It is a couple million copies away from a "What Is This Fart?" "Weird Al" parody. It is as serious as Nietzsche’s moustache. It promises to stay before it leaves. It is the tinny on-hold music that makes you want to run away with him forever. It seeks love in a world full of "love." It is a bad dream that feels too real. It respects family enough to tell them the truth. It’s self-help with a brain and blood. It knows death but it doesn’t long for death. It’s hopeful, somehow. —Ryan Dombal

    How to Dress Well: "Repeat Pleasure" (via SoundCloud)

    Pharmakon

    Bestial Burden

    Sacred Bones

    28

    Diamanda Galas once said, "My voice was given to me as an instrument of inspiration for my friends, and a tool of torture and destruction to my enemies." Margaret Chardiet of Pharmakon understands this. But in her world, the enemy is the self. Her grisly album covers (featuring maggots and animal organs), song titles ("Body Betrays Itself"), and frank interviews provide context for her particular take on noise music, but even without all that, it's obvious that this is music about pain.

    There's a mysterious connection between pain and sound: When our bodies experience trauma, we remember buzzes, bells, clicks; we remember our own voices, even when they sound like they come from far away. On her second LP, Chardiet coughs, hacks, spits, and screeches, as metal-on-metal clangs hammer beneath her. It's music about living inside your body and feeling revulsion, but despite the horror, there's also something comforting there, a shared space for raw experience that feels transformative. One of the paradoxical qualities of extreme noise music is that when it reaches a certain volume, you feel utterly alone, cut off from the world. It explains how harsh tones can obliterate thought and become meditative. But if you're wired a certain way, Chardiet's noise music is relatable. She enters a hyper-intense world on Bestial Burden, and you are right there with her. —Mark Richardson

    Pharmakon: "Body Betrays Itself" (via SoundCloud)

    YG

    My Krazy Life

    Def Jam

    27

    YG hails from Compton, California and, like more than a few of his fellow Comptonites, he is what you would call a gangsta rapper. In fact, his debut album My Krazy Life is the first pure gangsta rap album to be released on a major label in many years. (And the way the triple beams have been tipping, it might also be the last.) It meets both the literal definition of the genre—YG boasts constantly about his Blood affiliations—and also the classical one. This is not the all-too-common contemporary sort of braggadocious street rap where death and wealth are used as competitive or stylistic props. This is narrative, panoramic, and consequence-driven hip-hop in the vein of '90s legends like MC Eiht and Spice 1.

    Frighteningly efficient hitmaker DJ Mustard handles the bulk of the production and, as with everything he has thrown to market this year, these are sparse and formulaic party records—four to five notes played with one finger that hang in the air until his ubiquitous Mustard on the beat, hoe! drop summons the 808s. But he saves his best work for the homie here, and fleshes that skeleton out with an appropriately haunting layer of wheezy G-Funk nostalgia. YG maximizes this minimalism with snarling flows and writes in a smart, simple voice that serves pride, drama, and regret in equal doses. That's roughly the path his thinly constructed storyline follows, too, from neighborhood anthems to carefully executed heists to the inevitable sad phone calls to mom from lock-up. Despite its turn-up functionality, My Krazy Life is a tragedy at its core. It's a record about a life from which escape (or even escapism) is not an option, where one's best hope is to live long enough to apologize. —Andrew Nosnitsky

    Ex Hex

    Rips

    Merge

    26

    Another bleary morning, and Mary Timony finds herself with some joker passed out on her floor. This seems to happen a lot; the leadoff track to Ex Hex—Timony's 2005 solo LP, from which her newest band took their name—found Timony stepping over a warm body en route to the Corn Chex and, nine years later, there they are again, sprawled out all over Rips highlight "Waterfall". This is the point where I remind you of Timony's long tenure as a musician, scratch my head over the untimely demise of the one-and-done Wild Flag, or rattle off all the Ford-and-Carter-era classic-rock touchstones to whom Ex Hex raise their denim-encircled fists. But nuts to that: with Rips, Timony, Laura Harris, and Betsy Wright made themselves an all-killer, no-filler power-pop record, the kind that's far too fun to get bogged down with details like "who’s ripping off whom?" or "want me to call you a cab?" Rips is a promise delivered, a dozen songs you swear you’ve heard before but you never quite seem to get sick of. Ex Hex's dispatches from the rock'n'roll frontlines often play like pep talks, urging whoever's listening to forget their good-for-nothing exes, secure themselves a beverage or three, and enjoy the party. While Timony bemoans the cooler-than-thou set on "War Paint", her lifer status lends a certain knowing air to Rips, a sense that she's been to enough of these little shindigs to know just how to get through them without too many cigarette burns in the carpet. And, sure, the uptick in economy on display throughout the lean, mean Rips certainly stands in opposition to Timony's labyrinthine back catalog. But you don't need to know Mary to know Rips rules… although you do need to get the hell off her floor. —Paul Thompson

    Ex Hex: "Don't Wanna Lose" (via SoundCloud)

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    Azealia Banks

    Broke With Expensive Taste

    Prospect Park

    25

    Following endless delays, a highly publicized split with Interscope, and a wealth of divisive Twitter feuds, it was starting to seem more and more likely that Azealia Banks’ long-gestating debut would never emerge from the sealed vault at her former label’s headquarters. And yet, seemingly on a whim this past November, the Harlem rapper posted a link to the album, now released through indie imprint Prospect Park. Coming three long years after "212" and two after Banks’ strong Fantasea mixtape, Broke With Expensive Taste spurred expectations that inevitably fell into two camps: those who eagerly anticipated whatever Banks had been working on for so long, and those whose interest had waned after one too many slapdash singles Banks issued in the interim.

    But the wait was worth it: Broke With Expensive Taste is Banks at her most gleefully propulsive. As the album weaves through '90s house samples, AraabMuzik-assisted trap beats, salsa breakdowns, and glassy synth work from UK producer Lone, it’s up to Banks’ springy, infectious flow to keep it all from falling apart, a feat she carries off with extraordinary ease. The grab-bag approach to genre is a huge part of what made Broke With Expensive Taste such a thrilling, singular listen in 2014, providing a host of new access points into Banks’ music taste. Broke may not be perfect, but it affirmed that Banks’ rapid-fire talent behind the mic is not something to be dismissed. —Eric Torres

    Azealia Banks: "Chasing Time" (via SoundCloud)

    Parquet Courts

    Sunbathing Animal

    What's Your Rupture? / Mom & Pop

    24

    The first of the two albums Parquet Courts released this year is all about being trapped in a home, or exiled from it. It's the particular hell of the touring rock band, or of the cat that someone in that band misses a lot. (Cats, in fact, are evoked all over the record, most notably on the title track, a hardcore blowout that made its first appearance as sheet music—the joke being that its score is mostly just a single chord jackhammered quadruple-fortissimo.) Part of what they're stuck inside is the lineage of bands for whom guitars are devices of chaos, like their inescapable comparison points Pavement and the Velvet Underground; part of what they're stuck outside of is the ability to mean things without referring to and assessing the past. (What they hear on "Instant Disassembly" isn't the "fine, fine music" of the Velvets' "Rock and Roll", it's "the last classic rock band's last solid record"). So they focus their considerable wit and formidable sneers on reference and assessment: if "Ducking & Dodging" is the hundredth killer rewrite of "Keep A-Knockin'", "Vienna II" is the Fall's "In the Park" appearing the second time as farce. —Douglas Wolk

    Parquet Courts: "Instant Disassembly" (via SoundCloud)

    Lykke Li

    I Never Learn

    LL

    23

    Imagine an ad campaign called "Lykke Li Knows"—with respect to Bo Jackson—in which the Swedish singer demonstrates all the ways she knows sadness: the lingering melancholy of coming across a letter from an old lover; the self-directed barbs after realizing that after all this time you still haven't learned any better; the grandiloquent delusion of imagining your feelings as the skies and stars, the natural world raging along with your despair. Lykke Li Knows.

    At the start of her career, Li would talk about being a little bit in love, or how she was too shy, shy, shy to acknowledge her heart. For her third album, I Never Learn, she drops the coyness, trades bouncy beats for acoustic guitars, and stages gloom as epic theater or classic literature, descended from Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. At times, there’s a detachment that gives her a cold strength—then, her voice shifts to pleading and penitent, a reminder that for all her melodramatic unapproachability, she’s only human. Like all great romantics, she has the audacity to love without self-consciousness, regardless of the attendant heartbreak. She reminds us to do the same. —Jeremy Gordon

    Lykke Li: "Gunshot" (via SoundCloud)

    Future Islands

    Singles

    4AD

    22

    It’s an increasingly rare music-business success story: A band from a small city slogs it out on the road playing house shows for a half-decade. Then they sign to a big label, release the best album of their career, deliver a rapturously received performance on a late-night talk show, and suddenly find themselves near the upper echelon of the indie universe. It’s kind of heartwarming. Future Islands’ sound has grown in proportion with their fanbase, and Singles presents a metamorphosis from dinky, basement-show electro-punk to full-blown, florid new romantic synth-pop, born to be heard thundering from the stages of large concert halls and festivals. It’s uplifting self-help music, defiantly uncool, and proudly vulnerable, with spiritually minded lyrics bellowed by a guy who looks like Jack Black and sounds like Dave Gahan and Nick Cave (with a splash of Cookie Monster). Indeed, Samuel T. Herring has emerged as one of the most dynamic frontmen in rock, a larger-than-life physical presence who specializes in the kind of un-self-conscious, awkward movements we all bust out when we’re alone in our homes. He dances like nobody’s watching, but for Future Islands in 2014, everybody was watching. —Amy Phillips

    Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)" (via SoundCloud)

    Brian Eno / Karl Hyde

    High Life

    Warp

    21

    High Life an unusually overt album—all electric guitars, big beats, and clear catharsis. To the album’s benefit, there is evidence of the cherished Eno of the '70s and early '80s: the architect behind some of the most singular art-pop releases of those decades and one of the first rock musicians to introduce gestures from Western-influenced African pop and dance music into post-punk and new wave. Eno and Underworld’s Karl Hyde battle against heavily syncopatedand subtly mutating percussion tracks; the songwriting is understated, but not indulgently so: hypnotic, not soporific. If Eno was threatening to become just that guy phoning in soundscapes and lending Coldplay an air of mysticism, he reclaims his status on High Life as an artist capable of visionary pop. —Winston Cook-Wilson

    Eno • Hyde: "DBF" (via SoundCloud)

    Vince Staples

    Hell Can Wait EP

    Def Jam

    20

    Long Beach, Calif., rapper Vince Staples wasted no time with his debut EP Hell Can Wait. The digital-only release should not confined to earbuds or laptop speakers; it should blast from cars across the country, as people march and flood city streets. The harsh metallic crunch that rings from the opening track "Fire" climaxes in the ear splitting 21-second intro of "Blue Suede", the track where Staples tersely explains the mindset to be black in 2014: "Young graves get the bouquets … Hope I outlive them red roses." The politics of Staples move between the personal nightmares of his father as a petty drug dealer ("Screen Door") to broader disgust for the entire judicial system ("Hands Up"). Though his father’s harmful actions are detested by Staples’ mother, a young Vince directs his hate at the police, who just won’t leave his family alone; he’s frustrated at the crime-ridden world he sees, but sees no solution in trading drive-bys for drive-bys from those in blue uniforms. "Hands up don’t shoot" became the protest motto across the United States in the wake of Ferguson’s protest against the death of Michael Brown but, here, Staples knows the sad truth that skin speaks louder than words, actions or the law. —David Turner

    Sharon Van Etten

    Are We There

    Jagjaguwar

    19

    Sharon Van Etten’s first two albums were made for crying alone and 2012’s "It" album Tramp called for communal displays of emotions, but Are We There turns a corner. Inherent in the album is the reality of Van Etten’s life over the last few years, touring and inching closer towards the nebulous concept of success in modern indie rock. Like anyone who spends the majority of her working life on the road, Van Etten has created coping mechanisms for her "real" life. That comes across in the studio in-jokes behind closing track "Every Time the Sun Comes Up" and the easy R&B grooves that make "Our Love" and "Taking Chances" two of her strongest songs to date. Van Etten’s signature earnestness isn’t exactly in short supply, either; "Your Love Is Killing Me" is the most eloquently written song about "crying uncle" in a relationship. "Afraid of Nothing" possesses the fearlessness of someone who’s seen the world precisely because she pours her heart out; after you do that, what’s so scary about an uncomfortable phone call to the person who knows you best? "A love letter to the road" is a common description for art, but what Sharon Van Etten made is an ode to realizing that we’re never done moving forward. —Jillian Mapes

    Sharon Van Etten: "Every Time the Sun Comes Up" (via SoundCloud)

    Arca

    Xen

    Mute

    18

    If we had to give it a name, 2014 was the Year of the Body. How fitting that in a moment of digital saturation, we now turn our attention to the physical world, particularly the flesh we find ourselves living inside. Arca's album Xen comes at these questions from a more abstracted place; these instrumentals may not speak, but they certainly feel like music about boundaries and space, the instability of borders, the impossibility of locating the "normal," the constant desire for change and the nagging sense of loss that always accompanies it. It conveys all this by treating every unit of music as something to be altered. But Xen remains inviting even with all its experimentation—the album initially sounds "off" in a way that makes you want to listen closer rather than turn away, until you hear music that's alive with possibility. Here, the rules of music are always in the background, but they're kept in the frame to show us the beauty that can happen when they're broken. —Mark Richardson

    Arca: "Thievery" (via SoundCloud)

    Flying Lotus

    You're Dead!

    Warp

    17

    Rarely are a concept album’s objectives stated so cleanly as those of Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! Right from the foreboding drone that launches this terrifying spirit journey, it’s apparent the album title is a briefing. You’re dead. What’s next? Steve Ellison’s fifth opus imagines a trek from frightened denial to acceptance not unlike Argentinian writer/director Gaspar Noé’s offbeat Enter the Void, where a murdered man’s essence floats around the scene of the crime searching for the strength to let go. You’re Dead!’s early race from drone through frenetic bop, fusion, and hip-hop attempts to dramatize the jarring disorientation of a soul shaken loose from its body and, later, the spacious succession of airy grooves leading the way to the final cut "The Protest" feels like a progression toward closure. Ellison sees a freedom in death that the living often don’t: The school children dancing at their own funeral in the gutting clip for the Kendrick Lamar-assisted "Never Catch Me" are no longer bound by mortal constructs like pain and sorrow—they run clear out of the door into the evening sky. —Craig Jenkins

    Flying Lotus: "Coronus, the Terminator" (via SoundCloud)

    St. Vincent

    St. Vincent

    Loma Vista

    16

    The backlash over St. Vincent’s SNL performance back in May had less to do with the quality of her songs than with the demeanor of her performance. Here was A.) a woman B.) wailing on a guitar C.) without resorting to those constipated grimaces that let you know the player is really feeling it, man. Instead, Annie Clark stood nearly stock still on that stage, gesturing in a coded sign language and climactically baby-stepping up and down the stage; she churned out those showily compact riffs while wearing a stoical countenance that hinted at supreme confidence and self-possession. She tore through "Birth in Reverse" and "Digital Witness" as though she were inventing a new language of rock performance.

    This particular mission earned her self-titled fourth album such pejoratives as "pretentious," "cerebral," and "cold," which Clark has the audacity to embrace rather than counter. St. Vincent is a gloriously eccentric album, one that shows off her formidable facility with riffs that turn themselves inside out. If you can get on her wavelength—which isn’t that difficult—this is also a very funny album, as Clark the songwriter makes Big Statements as Big Punchlines. She snorts pieces of the Berlin Wall with a friend and prefers your love to Jesus. An ordinary day in America involves taking out the garbage and masturbating: "I’m still holding for the laugh." It may not be her wildest album (that’s still Strange Mercy), but St. Vincent is certainly the one that is most Annie Clark: giving full rein to all her eccentricities and chuckling to herself at the thought of a popular audience. —Stephen M. Deusner

    St. Vincent: "Digital Witness" (via SoundCloud)

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    Angel Olsen

    Burn Your Fire for No Witness

    Jagjaguwar

    15

    It is hard to imagine Angel Olsen posting on Twitter and not feeling a bit ridiculous. The Midwestern folk singer has spent the better part of her 20s making art dedicated to the notion that solitude is necessary for growth and survival. Burn Your Fire for No Witness—an aphoristic title worth inking to one's skin, if ever there was one—is Olsen's masterwork, taking the pained beauty of her raw 2012 debut Half Way Home and stretching the scope of her sound. You'll hear echoes of Leonard Cohen's dim-lit hypnosis on "White Fire", and the aching ghosts of an old-souled country jukebox in her ecstatic warble, but listen closely and you will learn from Olsen in a way that feels newly classic. Each line is immaculately written. "I feel so much at once that I could scream/ I wish I had the voice of everything," she emotes wildly on the sublime "Stars", and often it seems that she does.

    Individualism as a virtue is not hard to detect. Burn's arc pings from strength in self-reliance, Zen-like therapy, and laughable loneliness to more complex vulnerabilities: forgotten dreams, grave rejection, the impossibility of connecting with a person who is right next to you. The trope of "sadness" has loomed in culture this year, but not always with the dignity, wisdom, and light that is apparent in Olsen's music. The most piercing moments on Burn are born in our racing minds when we're alone with our thoughts, the toll of love that is only imagined, the madness of unspoken obsession: "Here's to thinking that it all meant so much more," "I wish it were the same as it is in my mind," "Thought I felt your heartbeat/ It was just my counting." Listening to this record, stitching her words into the fabric of my life, I've felt time and again that Angel Olsen is decoding my soul, articulating with grace all these feelings that seem completely ineffable. To quote her first great song: "I used to think I was the only one." —Jenn Pelly

    Angel Olsen: "White Fire" (via SoundCloud)

    Real Estate

    Atlas

    Domino

    14

    "This is not the same place I used to know," Martin Courtney sings on the deceptively wistful "Past Lives", "but it still has that same old sound." Atlas has that strange feeling tattooed all over its soft skin; this is the same band that made two reverb-heavy, atmospheric pop albums about suburban idyll, but it’s also not. A bunch of native New Jersey-ites who now mostly shack in Brooklyn, Real Estate have polished their once fuzzy sound into clean, well-detailed structures that sound more "sprawl" than "suburban," and trade stoner-friendly impressions for more pointed confessions. Lead single "Talking Backwards" sounds so obviously like a beatific love song, it’s easy to overlook that it’s actually an anxiety-riddled yelp of frustration.

    Atlas comes from the viewpoint of someone who once spent long afternoons lying around staring at the ceiling but doesn’t really do that anymore, and who maybe knows he never will again. (Courtney and his wife had their first child this year.) More than ever, Courtney’s chord progressions worry at their own moments of sweetness like you might prod at a toothache. "Crime" aches with the disquiet that makes you "toss and turn all night," while Matt Mondanile’s plangent guitar lines vibrate with impossible clarity against the dissonant murk of "The Bend". Feeling grown-up may seem like an extraneous milestone these days (especially if you’re a twentysomething in a band), but the future still gets smaller and creeps closer, and eventually it starts to look more and more like something you already know. Welcome to the eternal melancholy of adulthood. —Abby Garnett

    Real Estate: "Talking Backwards" (via SoundCloud)

    Spoon

    They Want My Soul

    Loma Vista

    13

    For the better part of the last two decades, Britt Daniel has established partial residence for Spoon in a parallel universe very close to our own. If not quite "a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind…both shadow and substance," then it’s about as close as American indie rock gets to it. Spoon often sounds like other bands—as revealed earlier this year, that’s part of their point—but there’s always something a bit different, a bit unsettling. In 2010 Daniel finally gave a name to the emotional and sonic wormhole he’s long located: "The Mystery Zone". That’s the space-time twist that holds "The times that we met/ Before we met," those wobbly, resonant left-handed piano chords and the screams that cut off mid-word. The Mystery Zone is where ghosts linger, where Everything Hits at Once, and what freezes the "walking through the door" climax of "Metal Detektor".

    On the band’s eighth album They Want My Soul, we first enter the Mystery Zone on "Inside Out". After being transported by a sustained, echo-laden organ note that accompanies us to the other side, Daniel tells us what he sees and feels, not unlike Rod Serling introducing a "Twilight Zone" episode: "Time's gone inside out/ Time gets distorted with/ This intense gravity." Now that James Murphy’s retired, Daniel is indie rock’s preeminent sensitive sound-synthesist, and of course "Inside Out" is about trying to understand the laws of attraction: "There’s intense gravity in you/ I’m just your satellite," he mewls, while trippily chewing scenery with far-off echoes, synth washes, and, yes, harp glissandos. In a more conventional setting, Side B rocker "Let Me Be Mine" takes us to the Mystery Zone via his long-held fascination with emotional memory. Daniel begs someone to "auction off what you love/ It will come back sometime." On the sleek punk closer "New York Kiss", a dramatic liplock is "just another place/ a place that your memory owns."

    But why soul? One way to think of the term in the rock realm is as code for "authenticity," and such signifiers are all over the album—"Rent I Pay" and the title track are both fierce, swag-laden diatribes against incorporation into The Machine. But Daniel’s always been interested in the Mystery Zone idea of soul, too—what the Ancient Greeks called our post-mortem "shade in the underworld." When Daniel sings "time keeps on going when/ we got nothing else to give," he's reminding us of exactly this.

    While countless bands wander around in fugue states, repurposing what made them successful without any memory of how or why they got there, Spoon have long turned their success inside out. Daniel and Jim Eno’s ultra-rare combination of inventiveness and consistency situated the band in the "yawn, another great album from these guy"” status way back on 2005’s Gimme Fiction. In the decade hence, epitomized on They Want My Soul, they simply make Spoon Albums that still manage to unsettle our expectations about how indie rock music should sound. Maybe this is Spoon’s greatest trick: the only band to make listeners wonder if they’re the ones in the Mystery Zone, after all. —Eric Harvey

    Spoon: "Inside Out" (via SoundCloud)

    Mac DeMarco

    Salad Days

    Captured Tracks

    12

    "You're no better off living your life than dreaming at night," Mac DeMarco deadpans on "Brother". For a guy you just know still laughs at poop jokes, he really sells the existential despair in a way few may have expected when DeMarco emerged with a half-baked project called Makeout Videotape. There’s always been a slight divide between Mac’s goofball persona and his sweet and salty songs, but Salad Days may very well become known as his big shift. Not only has the production advanced beyond anything that could reasonably be called lo-fi, DeMarco’s third solo album sees him transitioning from semi-nonsensical tracks about cigarette brands to far more personal writing. By opening up, he’s moved beyond a mere aesthetic and a big personality, two qualities that are crucial to breaking through in music these days. DeMarco’s asked to be taken seriously in a way that strives beyond, "Hey, this guy’s like an unwashed Harry Nilsson." Looks like he’s outgrown his slacker title. —Jillian Mapes

    Mac DeMarco: "Brother" (via SoundCloud)

    Perfume Genius

    Too Bright

    Matador

    11

    On the first two Perfume Genius records, Mike Hadreas quietly flirted with greatness, usually in the guise of piano-driven songs operating on a level so desperately intimate that you felt as if you were being let in on some sort of beautiful, albeit harrowing, secret. On Too Bright Hadreas all but destroys any lingering perceptions of weakness or frailty with a record that is, among other things, a kind of treatise on gay panic and the horrors of the body. The album’s centerpiece—the much-heralded "Queen"—is the record’s undisputed banger ("No family is safe when I sashay," he triumphantly declares), but Too Bright shines brightest in it’s weirder moments. "Fool" flirts with finger-snapping doo wop, while "My Body", with it’s whispery "I wear my body like a rotted peach" line, is the most visceral and haunting. Elsewhere the record vacillates between psyched-out, blippy electronica ("Grid", "Longpig") and the kind of staid piano ballads ("No Good", "Don’t Let Them In") that have previously been Hadreas’ stock in trade. Ultimately, it’s an album of extremes, told in the voice of someone righteously coming into their own. Listening to previous Perfume Genius albums often felt like something akin to eavesdropping, but on Too Bright Hadreas has command of the audience. "I don't need your love... I don't need you to understand/ I need you to listen," he sings on "All Along". It’s a line that nicely sums up Too Bright’s modus operandi. Without even trying, Hadreas simultaneously implodes and illuminates gay stereotypes while articulating the feelings a lot of us queer folks didn’t even realize we had been dying to express. The record doesn’t just demand that you stop and listen; it basically implores you to bow the fuck down. —T. Cole Rachel

    Caribou

    Our Love

    Merge / City Slang

    10

    If you didn't know better, you might say Dan Snaith had come home. The mathematics Ph.D. from small-town Canada built a reputation as a talented musical shape-shifter through his evolution from early, humbly cast electronic releases (originally under the name Manitoba) to full-band psychedelic pop, which broadened into the headphones-oriented indie dance of 2010's Swim and even the outright club fare issued under his Daphni alias on 2012's Jiaolong. Rather than veer off in another new direction, Our Love refines that eclectic history and concentrates it on pop's most universal, most personal theme.

    While Our Love's burbling synths, dappled drum grooves, and honeyed falsetto melodies might have come to represent Caribou's comfort zone, what helps drive even the prospective sing-alongs ("Can't Do Without", the title track) is a sense of melancholy and restraint that carry the weight of maturity; this sparingly deployed sophistication is present, too, in Owen Pallett's violin arrangements. When Snaith does step into comparatively new territory (woozy R&B, on Jessy Lanza-fronted "Second Chance"; elements of rap, with the sampled voice on the Daphni-like "Mars"), he retains an analogue warmth distinguishing his brand of romantic moderation from the year's more overtly futuristic minimalists. That the track actually titled "Back Home" happens to be a burst of synth-pop breakup drama just goes to show domestic bliss is anything but low stakes. Snaith may have gone full circle with an album centering around love, but it's no heart-shaped box. —Marc Hogan

    Caribou: "Can't Do Without You" (via SoundCloud)

    Ariel Pink

    Pom Pom

    4AD

    9

    It’s often difficult to comprehend Ariel Pink’s take on life, both in his music and through his troll-like approach to interviews. The sense of confusion was only heightened on Pom Pom—often deliriously so, as he takes one long schizoid dash between styles and ideas, leaving you feeling like a human pinball falling into the drain at its close. It’s not unusual for his interviews to read like he’s at war with himself, appealing to be loved while defending the Westboro Baptist Church. Whether you agree with him or not, his purposeful message-jamming at least reflects the deranged path he treads through this record.

    There’s nothing on Pom Pom Pink hasn’t tried before, but the execution is sharper, wittier, and even more touching than in the past. It’s common to approach a double album with a fear of sprawl lying in wait, but this reads as his most succinct set of songs to date, where whacked-out takes on '80s infomercials and nods to pure pop structure all feel more worked on than before. There are less loose ends leading nowhere, coupled with a greater sense of purpose and drive. Pink may know how to push all our buttons, but he’s also an intelligent songwriter whose work resonates far deeper than the superficial tactics he deploys to promote it. —Nick Neyland

    Todd Terje

    It's Album Time

    Olsen

    8

    Todd Terje has built a career out of the soft-pedal. For example, roughly twice each year I remember that his nom de guerre is a sly, Scandinavian riff on the name of New York house producer Todd Terry. It's in this context that some of the feather-light tracks on his long awaited debut, It's Album Time, feel not like window dressing for the big hits ("Inspector Norse", "Strandbar"), but rather a really gentle laugh track. The giddy adventures of imagined international playboy Preben and the thrift store Tropicalia of "Svensk Sås" are fitting for an album that begins with an explosion and ends with applause: curtains up, crowd hushes, "It's Album Time!" marquee flickers to life.

    The chewy center of this tootsie roll pop is "Johnny and Mary", Terje's collaboration with Bryan Ferry. The song arrives with a heavier heart than the rest of It's Album Time and leaves a sting Terje spends the rest of It's Album Time trying to salve, a reminder as to why we're doing a goofy dance in the first place. But mostly It's Album Time is warm and ebullient and silly. Its festooned giddiness reminds me of Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs", with Terje only too happy to play the hammy, inclusive music man. He writes the songs that make the whole world do little jigs in their kitchen. —Andrew Gaerig

    Todd Terje: "Johnny and Mary" [ft. Bryan Ferry] (Robert Palmer cover) (via SoundCloud)

    Sun Kil Moon

    Benji

    Caldo Verde

    7

    Mark Kozelek is a collage of uncles: Tough one minute, tender the next, filled with wisdom and haunted by regret—the kind of solitary man who seems like he wouldn’t have much to say but when he starts talking can’t seem to shut up.

    If there’s one image that defines Benji, it isn’t of his cousin Carissa getting killed in an aerosol-can fire, or of him punching a childhood classmate who didn’t see it coming, but of him in line at Panera Bread. You’ve seen them there on the highway or next to strip-mall laundromats—they make sandwiches. Their logo is of a woman cradling a loaf of bread like it was a baby. Everything on the menu costs about eight dollars.

    We live in a great age for the diary: the more specific, the more universal; the closer I get to me, the better chance I have at reaching you. In every naked arrangement and half-mumbled line, in every digression from the amazing into the ordinary, Kozelek does the best he can to sneak up on his own life. What’s startling about his stories isn’t how tragic they are, but how easily their tragedies get swept away by everyday trivia, like the movie he saw or what he ordered for lunch. Hidden among the digressions is a quiet reminder that life goes on. Panera: it might not be what defines you, but it is where you go when you need to eat. —Mike Powell

    Sun Kil Moon: "Ben's My Friend"

    Swans

    To Be Kind

    Mute / Young God

    6

    Imagine, for a moment, that you never knew Michael Gira relaunched his powerhouse band Swans five years ago, or that they’d issued two great albums and toured extensively behind them in the interim. Now picture your hypothetical disappointment upon reading that their third such LP, To Be Kind, had cracked the Top 40 in two countries. In what kind of world would Swans, once a syndicate of pure invective and aggression, reunite to play major festivals and ostensibly soften their sound enough to become pop stars? Had Gira rewritten "Failure" to be called "Success"?

    Relax, or actually brace yourself: To Be Kind remained on Billboard’s Top 200 for only two weeks. And the two-disc, two-hour set is one of the most unflinching achievements of Swans’ on-and-off 30-year career. The first album from Swans’ revitalization was intriguing but mostly suggestive of what was to come with The Seer, another two-disc tirade that moved between monolithic jams and sensitive comedowns. But To Be Kind captures the feeling of blunt force trauma that the new Swans have created onstage nightly for the last half-decade. The 34-minute "Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture" is a lashing epic of flung imprecations and sinister throb, coalescing in a coda heavier than most of the year’s best metal. "Oxygen" is a concise browbeater that finds Gira yammering and yelling over squealing saxophone and a rhythm section that treats the word "rhythm" like a punching bag. Bands often talk about struggling to capture their live energy and force in a recording studio. And reunited acts often fight to find the spark and gusto that once made them matter. Just ahead of his 60th birthday, Michael Gira helped Swans do both at once. —Grayson Haver Currin

    Swans: "Oxygen" (Edit) (via SoundCloud)

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    Grouper

    Ruins

    Kranky

    5

    In our oversaturated digital present Grouper's 10th studio album, Ruins, stands out like a close-up whisper in a packed elevator. Recorded in 2011 on a four-track, during an artist residency in the small coastal Portuguese town of Aljezur (population 6,000), these eight songs—four with vocals, two instrumentals, two distended ambient pieces—feature Liz Harris singing along to minimal piano. Her voice is joined by crickets, frogs, rain, a pulsing heartbeat of a drum, and a microwave powering up after she'd lost electricity. It feels like a field recording of someone digging deeper into themselves, someone who keeps playing even after the lights go out.

    Harris has said she composed the material before and after jogs, trips to the beach, and long walks through the ruins of estates and a village, and that she was mostly alone when she did these things. The album is best experienced honoring the solitary way it was composed: it's quiet music that resonates loudly. Headphones bring out smaller details, allowing you into Harris' spare, heartsick lyrics ("Sometimes I wish/ That none of this had happened," "I hear you calling and I want to go straight into the valleys of your arms and disappear there"), but you can also stand back a bit and let the sounds fill the room like an ocean breeze. 

    And these are more than melancholic love songs. Harris has said Ruins is "A nod to that daily walk. Failed structures. Living in the remains of love." She was clearly thinking deeply about someone in particular when she wrote the album, but Ruins is also political music in that it reminds us we can absolutely unplug and live simply if we choose.

    These "failed structures" can take on various forms. There are governments and their systems, yes, and there are also the smaller "tears [that] fall down in patterns on the window" and eventually smear into a whole and evaporate. In the end, the saddest, most vulnerable structure is the human body—none has ever survived forever, or lasted for the ages—but Ruins reminds us how much poetry and beauty can be found in the simplest moments before that inevitable silence. —Brandon Stosuy

    Grouper: "Call Across Rooms" (via SoundCloud)

    Aphex Twin

    Syro

    Warp

    4

    Perhaps no figure in electronic music casts a heavier shadow than Richard D. James. He spent the '90s reinventing himself perpetually, trampling through aliases and existing subgenres—acid house, ambient, drum'n'bass, whatever—and emerging with strange and brilliant derivatives on a near yearly basis. So it came as a surprise (and maybe a slight disappointment) when Syro, his first official album after 13 years of relative reclusiveness, proved to be anything but a surprise. In fact, if you had imagined a new Aphex Twin album in 2004, it probably would've sounded a lot like the one he ended up releasing in 2014. But here's the thing: Despite the incessant projections of his audience, Aphex Twin was never principally about innovation. His discography is merely a running series of genre studies, warped instinctively by a perfectionist with a bizarre creative voice. Syro feels like the logical culmination of these efforts, as the genre he's bending and perfecting this time is the amorphous one that he instinctively spent his career creating: a bubble-and-spazz hybrid of acid squelches, spongecake melodies, and scattershot rhythms.

    He's advanced this form to almost incomprehensibly complex levels, too. Apart from the mecha-Satie digestif "aisatsana [102]", each second of the record is so intricate, so delicately packed with moving parts that it makes just about all of his contemporaries look like amateurs by comparison. But that technical proficiency is a bit of a red herring as well. The real reason Syro works is because the natural joy that defined James' earliest and best works is still very palpable. His voice is his voice. —Andrew Nosnitsky

    The War on Drugs

    Lost in the Dream

    Secretly Canadian

    3

    Lost in the Dream revolves around War on Drugs linchpin Adam Granduciel's personal struggles—with loneliness, depression, death. And the frontman’s weariness and dislocation is articulated not just through words but also the album’s overall sound—a sound that has often been discussed in derisive terms by non-fans averse to a contemporary album calling back to mid-'80s Springsteen, Bryan Adams, and Dire Straits. Which is all fair. But Lost in the Dream’s indebtedness to that era and its production quirks serves a larger purpose. Between, say, 1980 and 1986, heartland rock collided with synth-heavy new wave, and the results could sometimes be awkward. But there's a terrific tension in these sorts of hybrids, a tension that this album exploits to brilliant effect.

    The sound of Lost in the Dream is both "authentic" (guitars, acoustic instruments) and "artificial" (synthesizers, dewy reverb). The guitars have the wet electronic sheen of Talk Talk. Granduciel's voice is often processed to the point of unintelligibility. Drummer Charlie Hall is Klaus Dinger in a straw hat, keeping it steady and regular as the joints hitting the tires on I-80. Yet for all the album’s American-ness, Lost in the Dream has a decidedly across-the-pond tinge, one eye on the highway and one gazing off at the Balearic Islands. It all meshes seamlessly to give these songs of heartbreak and loss a proper context, conveying the feeling of living inside an experience while also feeling like you're floating out there somewhere far away, watching it all happen. —Mark Richardson

    The War on Drugs: "Red Eyes" (via SoundCloud)

    FKA twigs

    LP1

    Young Turks

    2

    FKA twigs’ LP1 reflected the mood of its times. While there’s nothing explicitly about The World here—the centers of action on LP1 are almost entirely corporeal—the themes of this myopically personal album echo social and cultural dramas that ran through the whole of 2014. The emotional morass, the fixed misery, the desperation for recognition, the dignifying power of love and respect, a quest for pleasure that never ebbs—twigs is pleading the modern condition, as well as her own.

    Nevertheless, the quiet, sensual revelations came cooing like they were dispatched in a post-coital haze, doling directions, requests, and a map of her fantasies in percussive coos that are 85% sigh. The album orbits from bed to head and back again, though she’s often alone, giving light to the topography of her needs, nasty or otherwise. Even when she sings of being together, as on “Two Weeks”, it’s only in her brain, distilling a freaky tableau vivant she is trying to put into someone else’s head; it’s certainly the slinkiest zipless fuck 2014 offered. But it’s not some baby-making you-and-me all night long love, it’s very much individuals working towards a connection that they know is doomed.

    And ultimately, at its sinewy, sub-bass-laced heart, LP1 writhes in its doom. The lo-bpm R&B futurism of the production matches the album’s fixed circuit of feeling; it’s airless and without anchor, leaving space for twigs' voice between dense clouds of synthetic boom. It is a testament to her vulnerability and vision that a listen to LP1 puts us into another world—down in the fetid depths of her depression and desire. —Jessica Hopper

    Run the Jewels

    Run the Jewels 2

    Mass Appeal

    1

    This is volume for the voiceless, a silver bullet for the wolves, and a redistribution of sovereignty. It’s venom to immobilize cheaply uniformed imposters, flatulent greedheads, and cynical buffoons perverting the truth on cable news. When institutions lacked authority and insurrection seemed permanently imminent, El-P and Killer Mike hurled 11 grenades, offering redemption through untrammeled rage. If justice remained elusive, retaliation could be had as fast as closing your eyes and counting to fuck.

    On the brimstone tablets of Run the Jewels, destruction is the first commandment. The others are equally timeless: never compromise art for the sake of temporary commerce, protect the purity of your teenaged ideals, never worship false idols, and always smoke the finest medicine. So for 38 minutes, the most scorched-earth tag team since Ax and Smash eviscerate crooked cops and Grand Dragons, spineless politicians and the grandly disappointing competition. It’s the middle finger in rap form, with regional differences resolved through the harmonious alienation of Pimp C’s "fuck the law" and Biggie’s "fuck the world."

    Anger isn’t enough. If you’re going to be a revolutionary banging on your adversaries, your adolescent convictions have to be seared with the wisdom of adulthood. Identifying targets is easy—artful rebellion on the edge of 40 isn’t. But their experience lends authority and accuracy. They’ve seen enough cycles to know that corruption can’t be cleared like clogged arteries. They seek answers that transcend gestures of momentary appeasement. As Mike bellows, you can unmask and depose Donald Sterling, but the "man behind the man behind the man behind the throne" remains anonymous and omnipotent.

    The subversive attitude extends to the production. The nitroglycerin reprisals of Public Enemy and early Ice Cube have been stripped for parts, re-assembled, and converted into lethal infernal machines. This is the modern soundtrack for sedition. Guerilla army rap. Or, in Mike’s estimation: MJG meets the Weathermen. Blast it loud enough and the roaches will wave white flags and the walls will crumble into paste.

    In an era when the great rap group has become an endangered species, Run the Jewels have forged a truly collaborative partnership. This feels like the by-product of two best friends bouncing ideas off each other, buoyed by blunts and the occasional fistful of psilocybin. The effect reminds you of vintage OutKast, two unique and equal talents that became indivisible—accentuating each other’s strengths, curbing each other’s excesses, and finishing each other’s jokes. Despite its Molotov politics, Run the Jewels 2 doubles as a old-fashioned swaggering shit-talking rap record; they flex and banter like they’re openly gunning to be cast in a Pulp Fiction remake.

    It’s been long held that discontent is the first sign of progress in a man or nation, but Killer Mike and El-P have been ornery and irate for far too long to sustain patience. Occasionally, you receive the anti-heroes you need, and this was the year when we realized how right they’ve always been. No other album distilled such unrestrained fury, nor reminded us how frustratingly little has changed. When this record’s truths become unrecognizable, we’ll know that we’ve finally made progress. We can chart our evolution from here. —Jeff Weiss

    Run the Jewels: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" [ft. Zack De La Rocha] (via SoundCloud)


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    Staff Lists: The Year in Music 2014: Contributors' Top 10s

    This week we posted our lists of the Best Albums and Tracks of 2014. Here, we present our contributors' individual Top 10 lists. 


    Molly Beauchemin

    Albums

    1. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    2. Lykke Li: I Never Learn
    3. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    4. Caribou: Our Love
    5. Sam Smith: In the Lonely Hour
    6. TV on the Radio: Seeds
    7. Spoon: They Want My Soul
    8. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire for No Witness
    9. Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love
    10. Ought: More Than Any Other Day

    Tracks

    1. Beyoncé: "***Flawless (Remix)" [ft. Nicki Minaj]
    2. Beyoncé: "Blow"
    3. Beyoncé: "Partition"
    4. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    5. Lykke Li: "Gunshot"
    6. TV on the Radio: "Happy Idiot"
    7. Caribou: "Can't Do Without You"
    8. Sam Smith: "I'm Not the Only One"
    9. Taylor Swift: "Shake It Off"
    10. Spoon: "New York Kiss"

    Stuart Berman

    Albums

    1. Swans: To Be Kind
    2. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    3. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    4. Cloud Nothings: Here and Nowhere Else
    5. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    6. Ought: More Than Any Other Day
    7. Azealia Banks: Broke With Expensive Taste
    8. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything
    9. Sleaford Mods: Divide and Exit
    10. Ex Hex: Rips

    Tracks

    1. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: "Austerity Blues"
    2. Flying Lotus: "Never Catch Me" [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
    3. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    4. Spoon: "Inside Out"
    5. Caribou: "Can't Do Without You"
    6. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    7. Alvvays: "Archie, Marry Me"
    8. Run the Jewels: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" [ft. Zack De La Rocha]
    9. Shamir: "On the Regular"
    10. Black Bananas: "Eve's Child"

    Andy Beta

    Albums

    1. Theo Parrish: American Intelligence
    2. Flying Lotus: You're Dead!
    3. E.E.K.: Live at the Cairo High Cinema Institute
    4. Caetano Veloso: Abraçaço
    5. FKA twigs: LP1
    6. Moodymann: Moodymann
    7. Bing & Ruth: Tomorrow Was the Golden Age
    8. YG: My Krazy Life
    9. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    10. Neneh Cherry: Blank Project

    Tracks

    1. Jack J.: "Something on Your Mind"
    2. Jeremih: "Don't Tell Em"
    3. Theo Parrish: "Blueskies Surprise"
    4. Denaji: "Wuhti (DJ Sotofett's Bhakti Crew Mix)" [ft. Paleo Logos]
    5. Tommy Awards: "Session 1"
    6. Tornado Wallace: "Circadia"
    7. Seven Davis Jr.: "Friends"
    8. Mikael Seifu: "Ruff Tuff"
    9. Museum of Love: "Monotonic (Secret Circuit Mix)"
    10. New York Endless: "Strategies EP"

    Jonah Bromwich

    Albums

    1. DJ Dodger Stadium: Friend of Mine
    2. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    3. Owen Pallett: In Conflict
    4. Caribou: Our Love
    5. Vince Staples: Hell Can Wait EP
    6. Saint Pepsi: Gin City EP
    7. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    8. Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence
    9. Taylor Swift: 1989
    10. Isaiah Rashad: Cilvia Demo

    Tracks

    1. DJ Dodger Stadium: "Love Songs"
    2. Sun Kil Moon: "Jim Wise"
    3. Beyoncé: "Blow"
    4. Caribou: "Can't Do Without You"
    5. Babe Rainbow: "Swept Stairs"
    6. YG: "Bicken Back Being Bool"
    7. Owen Pallett: "I Am Not Afraid"
    8. Copeland: "Advice to Young Girls" [ft. Actress]
    9. Saint Pepsi: "Mr. Wonderful"
    10. Sicko Mobb: "Range Rover"

    Zoe Camp

    Albums

    1. Spoon: They Want My Soul
    2. Swans: To Be Kind
    3. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    4. Cymbals Eat Guitars: LOSE
    5. Fireworks: Oh, Common Life
    6. Earth: Primitive and Deadly
    7. Sunn O))), Scott Walker: Soused
    8. Lykke Li: I Never Learn
    9. Fucked Up: Glass Boys
    10. Modern Baseball: You're Gonna Miss It All

    Tracks

    1. Spoon: "Do You"
    2. Sun Kil Moon: "Carissa"
    3. Future: "Move That Dope" [ft. Pharrell, Pusha T, and Casino]
    4. iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday"
    5. Ariana Grande: "Problem" [ft. Iggy Azalea]
    6. Vic Mensa: "Down on My Luck"
    7. The War on Drugs: "An Ocean in Between the Waves"
    8. Run the Jewels: "Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck) [feat. Zack De La Rocha]"
    9. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    10. Lykke Li: "Gunshot"

    Ian Cohen

    Albums

    1. The Hotelier: Home Like NoPlace Is There
    2. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    3. Cymbals Eat Guitars: LOSE
    4. Joyce Manor: Never Hungover Again
    5. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    6. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    7. Restorations: LP3
    8. Dads: I'll Be the Tornado
    9. How to Dress Well: "What Is This Heart?"
    10. Bombay Bicycle Club: So Long, See You Tomorrow

    Tracks

    1. The Hotelier: "An Introduction to the Album"
    2. Joyce Manor: "Falling in Love Again"
    3. Cloud Nothings: "I'm Not Part of Me"
    4. The War on Drugs: "Red Eyes"
    5. Beach Slang: "Filthy Luck"
    6. Rowdy Rebbel: "Shmoney Dance" [ft. Bobby Shmurda]
    7. Against Me!: "FUCKMYLIFE666"
    8. Future: "Move That Dope" [ft. Pharrell, Pusha T and Casino]
    9. You Blew It!: "Strong Island"
    10. Stitches: "Brick In Yo Face"

    Winston Cook-Wilson

    Albums

    1. Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1
    2. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    3. FKA twigs: LP1
    4. YG: My Krazy Life
    5. Ariel Pink: Pom Pom
    6. Olga Bell: Край
    7. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    8. Lil Boosie: Life After Death Row
    9. DJ Quik: The Midnight Life
    10. Brian Eno, Karl Hyde: High Life

    Tracks

    1. Metro Thuggin: "The Blanguage"
    2. FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"
    3. Ariana Grande: "Problem" [ft. Iggy Azalea]
    4. YG: "Left, Right" [ft. DJ Mustard]
    5. Ariel Pink: "Put Your Number in My Phone"
    6. Swans: "A Little God in My Hands"
    7. Bobby Shmurda: "Hot Nigga"
    8. Sun Kil Moon: "Ben's My Friend"
    9. Kevin Gates: "Movie"
    10. Shy Glizzy: "Funeral"

    Jamieson Cox

    Albums

    1. Mariah Carey: Me. I Am Mariah...the Elusive Chanteuse
    2. Caribou: Our Love
    3. Taylor Swift: 1989
    4. Spoon: They Want My Soul
    5. Ariana Grande: My Everything
    6. Jessie Ware: Tough Love
    7. Perfume Genius: Too Bright
    8. Real Estate: Atlas
    9. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    10. Leon Vynehall: Music for the Uninvited

    Tracks

    1. Ariana Grande: "Break Free" [ft. Zedd]
    2. Mariah Carey: "Dedicated" [ft. Nas]
    3. Caribou: "Can't Do Without You"
    4. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    5. Taylor Swift: "Out of the Woods"
    6. Mr Twin Sister: "In the House of Yes"
    7. Magic!: "Rude (Zedd Remix)"
    8. Real Estate: "Talking Backwards"
    9. Spoon: "Inside Out"
    10. Charli XCX: "Boom Clap"

    Grayson Haver Currin

    Albums

    1. Old Man Gloom: The Ape of God
    2. Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
    3. YOB: Clearing the Path to Ascend
    4. Inter Arma: The Cavern EP
    5. The Weather Station: What Am I Going to Do With Everything I Know
    6. The Soft Pink Truth: Why Do the Heathen Rage?
    7. Tom Carter, Pat Murano: Four Infernal Rivers
    8. Swans: To Be Kind
    9. Doug Paisley: Strong Feelings
    10. Death Blues: Ensemble

    Tracks

    1. Sturgill Simpson: "The Promise"
    2. Susanna & Jenny Hval: "I Have Walked This Body"
    3. Old Man Gloom: "Burden"
    4. The War on Drugs: "Eyes to the Wind"
    5. Steve Gunn: "Milly's Garden"
    6. The Soft Pink Truth: "Ready to Fuck" [ft. Jenn Wasner]
    7. YOB: "Marrow"
    8. Young Widows: "Kerosene Girl"
    9. Run the Jewels: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" [ft. Zack De La Rocha]
    10. Hiss Golden Messenger: "Saturday's Song"

    Stephen M. Deusner

    Albums

    1. Hurray for the Riff Raff: Small Town Heroes
    2. Ex Hex: Rips
    3. Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
    4. Hiss Golden Messenger: Lateness of Dancers
    5. Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love to London
    6. Amy LaVere: Runaway's Diary
    7. Mike Adams at His Honest Weight: Best of Boiler Room Classics
    8. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    9. Shovels & Rope: Swimmin' Time
    10. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2

    Tracks

    1. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    2. Doug Paisley: "Radio Girl"
    3. Jenny Lewis: "Late Bloomer"
    4. Protomartyr: "Scum, Rise!"
    5. Hiss Golden Messenger: "Mahogany Dread"
    6. Old Crow Medicine Show: "Sweet Amarillo"
    7. Marianne Faithfull: "Late Victorian Holocaust"
    8. Ex Hex: "Radio On"
    9. Micah Levi: "Andrew Void"
    10. Hiss Golden Messenger: "Saturday's Song"

    Ryan Dombal

    Albums

    1. How to Dress Well: "What Is This Heart?"
    2. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    3. Spoon: They Want My Soul
    4. Clark: Clark
    5. Mr Twin Sister: Mr Twin Sister
    6. FKA twigs: LP1
    7. DJ Quik: The Midnight Life
    8. Aphex Twin: Syro
    9. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    10. Brian Eno, Karl Hyde: High Life

    Tracks

    1. Caribou: "Can't Do Without You"
    2. Jessie Ware: "Tough Love"
    3. Spoon: "Inside Out"
    4. Michael Jackson: "Love Never Felt So Good (Original Version)"
    5. Run the Jewels: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" [ft. Zack De La Rocha]
    6. How to Dress Well: "Words I Don't Remember"
    7. Nicki Minaj: "Boss Ass Bitch (Remix)"
    8. FKA twigs: "Pendulum"
    9. Alvvays: "Archie, Marry Me"
    10. Sharon Van Etten: "Your Love Is Killing Me"

    David Drake

    Albums

    1. DJ Neptizzle: Ultimate Afrobeats 2014
    2. Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1
    3. Kehlani: Cloud 19
    4. Mr Twin Sister: Mr Twin Sister
    5. Chief Keef: Back From the Dead 2
    6. Theo Parrish: American Intelligence
    7. The Jacka: What Happened to the World
    8. King Louie: Tony
    9. Mick Jenkins: The Water(s)
    10. A-Wax: Pullin' Strings

    Tracks

    1. Rae Sremmurd: "No Type"
    2. Kevin Gates: "Movie"
    3. Lil Kesh: "Shoki (Remix)" [ft. Davido and Olamide]
    4. Chief Keef: "Make It Count"
    5. Vic Spencer: "Profound" [ft. Tree]
    6. Dr. SID: "Surulere" [ft. Don Jazzy]
    7. Moodymann: "Lyke U Use 2" [ft. Andres]
    8. Adrian Marcel: "2AM" [ft. Sage the Gemini]
    9. Speaker Knockerz: "Erica Kane"
    10. Sam Smith: "Restart"

    Patric Fallon

    Albums

    1. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    2. Leon Vynehall: Music for the Uninvited
    3. Grouper: Ruins
    4. Eno & Hyde: High Life
    5. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    6. FKA twigs: LP1
    7. Ought: More Than Any Other Day
    8. Hundred Waters: The Moon Rang Like a Bell
    9. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    10. Aphex Twin: Syro

    Tracks

    1. Eno & Hyde: "Return"
    2. Leon Vynehall: "Butterflies"
    3. Grouper: "Holding"
    4. The War on Drugs: "Red Eyes"
    5. iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday" [ft. Drake]
    6. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    7. How to Dress Well: "Words I Don't Remember"
    8. QT: "Hey QT"
    9. The Hotelier: "An Introduction to the Album"
    10. Ariana Grande: "Love Me Harder" [ft. the Weeknd]

    Tim Finney

    Albums

    1. Taylor Swift: 1989
    2. Owen Pallett: In Conflict
    3. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    4. Gerard Way: Hesitant Alien
    5. Miranda Lambert: Platinum
    6. Mr Twin Sister: Mr Twin Sister
    7. YG: My Krazy Life
    8. Tinashe: Aquarius
    9. Neneh Cherry: Blank Project
    10. DJ Neptizzle: Ultimate Afrobeats 2014

    Tracks

    1. Shift K3y: "Make It Good"
    2. Davido: "Tchelete (Goodlife)" [ft. Mafikizolo]
    3. Taylor Swift: "Style"
    4. Shift K3y: "Touch (Chris Lorenzo Remix)"
    5. Tinashe: "2 On"
    6. Lil Kesh: "Shoki" [ft. Davido and Olamide]
    7. RS4: "Gladiator" [ft. Kadey James]
    8. One Direction: "Steal My Girl"
    9. Kane Law: "Free Your Mind"
    10. Future: "Move That Dope" [ft. Pharrell, Pusha T and Casino]

    Angel Fraden

    Albums

    1. Arca: Xen
    2. D'Angelo: Black Messiah
    3. Ava Luna: Electric Balloon
    4. Adult Jazz: Gist Is
    5. Taylor McFerrin: Early Riser
    6. FKA twigs: LP1
    7. Kindness: Otherness
    8. Flying Lotus: You're Dead!
    9. Azealia Banks: Broke With Expensive Taste
    10. Ratking: So It Goes

    Tracks

    1. Hiatus Kaiyote: "Molasses"
    2. Buscabulla: "Temporal"
    3. A$AP Ferg: "Dope Walk"
    4. Mikael Seifu: "Ruff Tuff"
    5. Melody's Echo Chamber: "Shirim"
    6. Woo Park: "Boom Bap"
    7. Caribou: "Second Chance"
    8. alto palo: "Chagrinning"
    9. Floating Points: "Montparnasse"
    10. BADBADNOTGOOD: "Confessions"

    Andrew Gaerig

    Albums

    1. Kassem Mosse: Workshop 19
    2. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    3. Joey Anderson: After Forever
    4. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    5. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    6. Roman Flügel: Happiness Is Happening
    7. The Hotelier: Home Like NoPlace Is There
    8. Future Islands: Singles
    9. Neneh Cherry: Blank Project
    10. Wolfgang Voigt: Rückverzauberung 9 / Musik Für Kulturinstitutionen

    Tracks

    1. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    2. iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday"
    3. Sun Kil Moon: "Carissa"
    4. Future: "Move That Dope" [ft. Pharrell, Pusha T and Casino]
    5. The Hotelier: "An Introduction to the Album"
    6. Caribou: "Can't Do Without You"
    7. Duke Dumont: "I Got U" [ft. Jax Jones]
    8. Todd Osborn: "5thep"
    9. D'Marc Cantu: "Some Fantasies Are Good"
    10. Meridian Dan: "German Whip"

    Abby Garnett

    Albums

    1. Real Estate: Atlas
    2. Perfume Genius: Too Bright
    3. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    4. Avi Buffalo: At Best Cuckold
    5. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    6. How to Dress Well: "What Is This Heart?"
    7. Iceage: Plowing Into the Field of Love
    8. Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal
    9. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire for No Witness
    10. Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence

    Tracks

    1. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    2. Todd Osborn: "5thep"
    3. Real Estate: "Talking Backwards"
    4. Drake: "0 to 100/The Catch Up"
    5. Taylor Swift: "Blank Space"
    6. Future: "Move That Dope" [ft. Pharrell, Pusha T and Casino]
    7. Migos: "Fight Night"
    8. Panda Bear: "Mr Noah"
    9. Todd Terje: "Delorean Dynamite"
    10. Sharon Van Etten: "Your Love Is Killing Me"

    Meaghan Garvey

    Albums

    1. Doughboyz Cashout: We Run the City 4
    2. FKA twigs: LP1
    3. RiFF RAFF: NEON iCON
    4. Lil Herb: Welcome to Fazoland
    5. Ariana Grande: My Everything
    6. Lee Gamble: KOCH
    7. Sicko Mobb: Super Saiyan Vol. 1
    8. SD: Truly Blessed
    9. Moodymann: Moodymann
    10. Taylor Swift: 1989

    Tracks

    1. Dej Loaf: "Try Me"
    2. Nicki Minaj: "Boss Ass Bitch (Remix)"
    3. ZMoney: "Dope Boy Magic"
    4. FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"
    5. Metro Thuggin: "The Blanguage"
    6. Taylor Swift: "Out of the Woods"
    7. Father: "Nokia" [ft. iLoveMakonnen]
    8. Ariana Grande: "Break Free" [ft. Zedd]
    9. Big Quis: "Feel Good Don't It"
    10. RiFF RAFF: "VIP Pass to My Heart"

    Corban Goble

    Albums

    1. Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
    2. Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1
    3. Taylor Swift: 1989
    4. FKA twigs: LP1
    5. D'Angelo: Black Messiah
    6. Spoon: They Want My Soul
    7. Miranda Lambert: Platinum
    8. Popcaan: Where We Come From
    9. Mariah Carey: Me. I Am Mariah...the Elusive Chanteuse
    10. Charli XCX: Sucker

    Tracks

    1. Rich Gang: "Lifestyle"
    2. Taylor Swift: "Blank Space"
    3. Dej Loaf: "Try Me"
    4. Migos: "Fight Night"
    5. Rick Ross: "Sanctified" [ft. Big Sean and Kanye West]
    6. Treasure: "Wonakobo"
    7. Snootie Wild: "Made Me" [ft. K. Camp]
    8. Beyoncé: "Drunk in Love" [ft. Jay Z]
    9. Taylor Swift: "Style"
    10. Rae Sremmurd: "No Type"

    Jeremy Gordon

    Albums

    1. Lykke Li: I Never Learn
    2. Ought: More Than Any Other Day
    3. Ariel Pink: Pom Pom
    4. Real Estate: Atlas
    5. Cymbals Eat Guitars: LOSE
    6. Sharon Van Etten: Are We There
    7. Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues
    8. Perfume Genius: Too Bright
    9. Makthaverskan: II
    10. Future Islands: Singles

    Tracks

    1. Cymbals Eat Guitars: "Jackson"
    2. Ariel Pink: "Put Your Number in My Phone"
    3. Twin Shadow: "To the Top"
    4. Parquet Courts: "Instant Disassembly"
    5. A Sunny Day in Glasgow: "In Love With Useless (The Timeless Passing of Geometry)"
    6. Lykke Li: "Never Gonna Love Again"
    7. Real Estate: "April's Song"
    8. Shamir: "If It Wasn't True"
    9. Eno/Hyde: "Return"
    10. Magic: "Rude (Zedd Remix)"

    Eric Harvey

    Albums

    1. Hundred Waters: The Moon Rang Like a Bell
    2. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    3. Jenny Lewis: The Voyager
    4. Spoon: They Want My Soul
    5. Wye Oak: Shriek
    6. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    7. The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers
    8. White Hinterland: Baby
    9. Mike Adams at His Honest Weight: Best of Boiler Room Classics
    10. Taylor Swift: 1989

    Tracks

    1. Hospitality: "I Miss Your Bones"
    2. Vince Staples: "Hands Up"
    3. Run the Jewels: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" [ft. Zack De La Rocha]
    4. Mac DeMarco: "Passing Out Pieces"
    5. Taylor Swift: "Blank Space"
    6. St. Vincent: "Birth in Reverse"
    7. Schoolboy Q: "Collard Greens" [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
    8. Spoon: "Do You"
    9. Perfume Genius: "Grid"
    10. The New Pornographers: "Marching Orders"

    Jason Heller

    Albums

    1. Pharmakon: Bestial Burden
    2. Failures: Decline and Fall
    3. Raspberry Bulbs: Privacy
    4. Godflesh: A World Lit Only By Fire
    5. DAMA/LIBRA: Claw
    6. Mare Cognitum: Phobos Monolith
    7. Iceage: Plowing Into the Field of Love
    8. Protestant: In Thy Name
    9. Morbus Chron: Sweven
    10. Arctic Flowers: Weaver

    Tracks

    1. Deafheaven: "From the Kettle Onto the Coil"
    2. Iceage: "The Lord's Favorite"
    3. Pharmakon: "Bestial Burden"
    4. Ex Hex: "Don't Wanna Lose"
    5. Protomartyr: "Scum, Rise!"
    6. Against Me!: "Transgender Dysphoria Blues"
    7. Merchandise: "Green Lady"
    8. Inter Arma: "The Cavern"
    9. Shellac: "Dude Incredible"
    10. Swans: "Oxygen"

    Marc Hogan

    Albums

    1. Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence
    2. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    3. Spoon: They Want My Soul
    4. Hundred Waters: The Moon Rang Like a Bell
    5. Grouper: Ruins
    6. Caribou: Our Love
    7. White Lung: Deep Fantasy
    8. Perfume Genius: Too Bright
    9. Allo Darlin': We Come From the Same Place
    10. Azealia Banks: Broke With Expensive Taste

    Tracks

    1. Charli XCX: "Boom Clap"
    2. Shamir: "On the Regular"
    3. Lauryn Hill: "Black Rage (Sketch)"
    4. Kendrick Lamar: "i"
    5. Bully: "Milkman"
    6. Hannah Diamond: "Every Night"
    7. Röyksopp, Robyn: "Do It Again"
    8. Tinashe: "Bet" [ft. Devonté Hynes]
    9. Flying Lotus: "Never Catch Me" [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
    10. Michelle Williams: "Say Yes" [ft. Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland]

    Jessica Hopper

    Albums

    1. Beck: Morning Phase
    2. Tink: Winter's Diary 2
    3. Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
    4. Arca: Xen
    5. Yelle: Complètement fou
    6. Mick Jenkins: The Water(s)
    7. FKA twigs: LP1
    8. The Lemons: Hello We're the Lemons
    9. Karol Conka: Batuk Freak
    10. Zola Jesus: Taiga

    Tracks

    Brian Howe

    Albums

    1. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    2. Aphex Twin: Syro
    3. Sharon Van Etten: Are We There
    4. Ben Frost: A U R O R A
    5. Vashti Bunyan: Heartleap
    6. How to Dress Well: "What Is This Heart?"
    7. Andy Stott: Faith in Strangers
    8. Mas Ysa: Worth
    9. Spoon: They Want My Soul
    10. Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

    Tracks

    1. Sun Kil Moon: "Pray for Newtown"
    2. Sharon Van Etten: "Your Love Is Killing Me"
    3. Sam Smith: "Stay With Me"
    4. Ben Frost: "Venter"
    5. Aphex Twin: "minipops 67 [12.2][source field mix]"
    6. Spoon: "Inside Out"
    7. Caribou: "Back Home"
    8. How to Dress Well: "Repeat Pleasure"
    9. Kendrick Lamar: "i"
    10. Andy Stott: "Faith in Strangers"

    Craig Jenkins

    Albums

    1. Flying Lotus: You're Dead!
    2. Eric Church: The Outsiders
    3. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    4. Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues
    5. Ratking: So It Goes
    6. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    7. Perfume Genius: Too Bright
    8. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: Piñata
    9. Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
    10. Vince Staples: Hell Can Wait EP

    Tracks

    1. Flying Lotus: "Never Catch Me" [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
    2. Willie Nelson: "The Wall"
    3. Stevie Nicks: "The Dealer"
    4. Vince Staples: "Blue Suede"
    5. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    6. Hamilton Leithauser: "Alexandra"
    7. Kevin Drew: "Bullshit Ballad"
    8. The War on Drugs: "Suffering"
    9. Sun Kil Moon: "Carissa"
    10. Chance the Rapper: "Wonderful Everyday: Arthur"

    Colin Joyce

    Albums

    1. Grouper: Ruins
    2. Alex G: DSU
    3. Flying Lotus: You're Dead!
    4. Motion Sickness of Time Travel: Alpha Piscium
    5. Quarterbacks: Quarterboy
    6. Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else
    7. Frankie Cosmos: Zentropy
    8. Dalhous: Will to Be Well?
    9. Ricky Eat Acid: Three Love Songs
    10. Silk Rhodes: Silk Rhodes

    Tracks

    1. Grouper: "Holding"
    2. Quarterbacks: "Center"
    3. Lydia Loveless: "Head"
    4. Alex G: "Harvey"
    5. Jeremih: "Don't Tell 'Em"
    6. QT: "Hey QT"
    7. iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday" [ft. Drake]
    8. Silk Rhodes: "Pain"
    9. Porches: "Leather"
    10. Sophie: "Lemonade"

    Kim Kelly

    Albums

    1. Blut Aus Nord: Memoria Vetusta III - Saturnian Poetry
    2. Thou: Heathen
    3. Nux Vomica: Nux Vomica
    4. Dead Congregation: Promulgation of the Fall
    5. Teitanblood: Death
    6. Old Wainds: Nordraum
    7. Sinmara: Aphotic Womb
    8. Not a Cost: Not a Cost
    9. Electric Wizard: Time to Die
    10. Disemballerina: Undertaker

    Tracks

    1. Beyoncé: "***Flawless"
    2. Thou: "Free Will"
    3. YOB: "Marrow"
    4. Sturgill Simpson: "The Promise"
    5. Inter Arma: "The Cavern"
    6. Pharmakon: "Bestial Burden"
    7. Taylor Swift: "Blank Space"
    8. Old Crow Medicine Show: "Sweet Amarillo"
    9. Willie Nelson: "The Wall"
    10. Pallbearer: "The Ghost I Used to Be"

    Zach Kelly

    Albums

    1. Cymbals Eat Guitars: LOSE
    2. Perfume Genius: Too Bright
    3. White Lung: Deep Fantasy
    4. Container: Adhesive
    5. Protomartyr: Under Color of Official Right
    6. Ought: More Than Any Other Day
    7. Iceage: Plowing Into the Field of Love
    8. Joyce Manor: Never Hungover Again
    9. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    10. Jenny Lewis: The Voyager

    Tracks

    1. Cymbals Eat Guitars: "Chambers"
    2. Future: "Move That Dope" [ft. Pharrell, Pusha T and Casino]
    3. Spoon: "Inside Out"
    4. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    5. Cymbals Eat Guitars: "Warning"
    6. Jenny Lewis: "She's Not Me"
    7. Rich Gang: "Flava"
    8. iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday" [ft. Drake]
    9. Swans: "A Little God in My Hands"
    10. 100s: "Ten Freaky Hoes"

    Vish Khanna

    Albums

    1. Shellac: Dude Incredible
    2. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything
    3. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    4. Ought: More Than Any Other Day
    5. Various Artists: Native North America (Vol. 1)—Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country (1966-1985)
    6. Tanya Tagaq: Animism
    7. Bry Webb: Free Will
    8. Chain & the Gang: Minimum Rock'n'Roll
    9. Fucked Up: Glass Boys
    10. Avec le soleil sortant de sa bouche: Zubberdust!

    Tracks

    1. Shellac: "Dude Incredible"
    2. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: "Austeriy Blues"
    3. Run the Jewels: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" [ft. Zack De La Rocha]
    4. St. Vincent: "Digital Witness"
    5. Michael Feuerstack and Associates: "Friday Night Guard"
    6. John Southworth: "Ode to the Morning Sky"
    7. Mac DeMarco: "Passing Out Pieces"
    8. Kendrick Lamar: "i"
    9. Monomyth: "Pac Ambition"
    10. Parquet Courts: "Bodies"

    Jeremy D. Larson

    Albums

    1. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    2. Ought: More Than Any Other Day
    3. Swans: To Be Kind
    4. Grouper: Ruins
    5. Spoon: They Want My Soul
    6. The Hotelier: Home Like NoPlace Is There
    7. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    8. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    9. FKA twigs: LP1
    10. Owen Pallett: In Conflict

    Tracks

    1. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    2. Sun Kil Moon: "Carissa"
    3. Ought: "Habit"
    4. Jessica Pratt: "Back, Baby"
    5. Swans: "Oxygen"
    6. Iceage: "The Lord's Favorite"
    7. Against Me!: "Transgender Dysphoria Blues"
    8. A Sunny Day in Glasgow: "In Love With Useless (The Timeless Geometry in the Tradition of Passing)"
    9. Perfect Pussy: "Interference Fits"
    10. Grouper: "Holding"

    Melody Lau

    Albums

    1. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    2. Tanya Tagaq: Animism
    3. Owen Pallett: In Conflict
    4. Alvvays: Alvvays
    5. White Lung: Deep Fantasy
    6. Sharon Van Etten: Are We There
    7. FKA twigs: LP1
    8. Bahamas: Bahamas Is Afie
    9. Lykke Li: I Never Learn
    10. Taylor Swift: 1989

    Tracks

    1. Beyoncé: "***Flawless (Remix)" [ft. Nicki Minaj]
    2. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    3. Alvvays: "Archie, Marry Me"
    4. FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"
    5. Taylor Swift: "Blank Space"
    6. St. Vincent: "Digital Witness"
    7. Röyksopp, Robyn: "Do It Again"
    8. Nicki Minaj: "Boss Ass Bitch (Remix)"
    9. Tinashe: "2 On"
    10. Swim Good: "Grand Beach" [ft. S. Carey & Daniela Andrade]

    Aaron Leitko

    Albums

    1. M. Geddes Gengras: Ishi
    2. Ex Hex: Rips
    3. Aphex Twin: Syro
    4. Charles Cohen: A Retrospective
    5. Total Control: Typical System
    6. Chris Forsyth and Solar Motel Band: Intensity Ghost
    7. Juju & Jordash: Clean Cut
    8. Purling Hiss: Weirdon
    9. Jo Johnson: Weaving
    10. Priests: Bodies and Control and Money and Power

    Tracks

    1.  Total Control: "Flesh War"
    2. Juju & Jordash: "Waldorf Salad"
    3. Gala Drop: "Sun Gun"
    4. Ex Hex: "War Paint"
    5. Forma: "Cool Haptics"
    6. Peaking Lights: "Telephone Call"
    7. Pender Street Steppers: "Bubble World"
    8. Roomrunner: "Push Down and Turn"
    9. Two Inch Astronaut: "Foulbrood"
    10. Aphex Twin: "XMAS_EVET10 [120] (thanaton3 mix)"

    Devon Maloney

    Albums

    1. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    2. Sia: 1000 Forms of Fear
    3. FKA twigs: LP1
    4. EMA: The Future's Void
    5. Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues
    6. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    7. Perfume Genius: Too Bright
    8. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire for No Witness
    9. Various Artists: Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1
    10. One Direction: FOUR

    Tracks

    1. Kendrick Lamar: "i"
    2. Nicki Minaj: "Anaconda"
    3. Beyoncé: "***Flawless (Remix)" [ft. Nicki Minaj]
    4. Ariana Grande: "Bang Bang" [ft. Jessie J & Nicki Minaj]
    5. Lorde: "Yellow Flicker Beat"
    6. FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"
    7. Sia: "Big Girls Cry"
    8. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    9. Against Me!: "Transgender Dysphoria Blues"
    10. One Direction: "Girl Almighty"

    Jillian Mapes

    Albums

    1. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire for No Witness
    2. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    3. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    4. EMA: The Future's Void
    5. Mac DeMarco: Salad Days
    6. Spoon: They Want My Soul
    7. Perfume Genius: Too Bright
    8. Charli XCX: Sucker
    9. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    10. Blake Mills: Heigh Ho

    Tracks

    1. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    2. Beyoncé: "***Flawless"
    3. Bleachers: "I Wanna Get Better"
    4. Jennifer Lopez: "I Luh Ya Papi" [ft. French Montana]
    5. Taylor Swift: "Out of the Woods"
    6. Against Me!: "Transgender Dysphoria Blues"
    7. Sia: "Chandelier"
    8. The New Pornographers: "War on the East Coast"
    9. QT: "Hey QT"
    10. Alvvays: "Archie, Marry Me"

    Marc Masters

    Albums

    1. Obnox: Louder Space
    2. Good Willsmith: The Honeymoon Workbook
    3. Gang Wizard: Important Picnic
    4. Amen Dunes: Love
    5. Motion Sickness of Time Travel: Ballades
    6. Helm: The Hollow Organ
    7. Watery Love: Decorative Feeding
    8. Excepter: Familiar
    9. Blank Realm: Grassed Inn
    10. Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band: Intensity Ghost

    Tracks

    1. Purling Hiss: "Forcefield of Solitude"
    2. Amen Dunes: "Lilac in Hand"
    3. Ariel Pink: "White Freckles"
    4. Excepter: "Maids"
    5. Watery Love: "Face the Door"
    6. Gang Wizard: "Dog's Share"
    7. Spider Bags: "Chem Trails"
    8. Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band: "Intensity Ghost"
    9. Mazes: "Salford"
    10. Trash Kit: "Beach Babe"

    Evan Minsker

    Albums

    1. Ex Hex: Rips
    2. Protomartyr: Under Color of Official Right
    3. Mac DeMarco: Salad Days
    4. Total Control: Typical System
    5. Hank Wood & the Hammerheads: Stay Home
    6. Grouper: Ruins
    7. Swans: To Be Kind
    8. Flying Lotus: You're Dead!
    9. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    10. Watery Love: Decorative Feeding

    Tracks

    1. Tobias Jesso Jr.: "True Love"
    2. Amen Dunes: "White Child" 
    3. OBN IIIs: "No Time for the Blues"
    4. QT: "Hey QT"
    5. Mac DeMarco: "Go Easy"
    6. Shamir: "On the Regular"
    7. Ex Hex: "Don't Wanna Lose"
    8. Sleaford Mods: "Tied Up in Nottz"
    9. Jessica Pratt: "Back, Baby"
    10. Sheer Mag: "What You Want"

    Nick Neyland

    Albums

    1. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    2. Ariel Pink: Pom Pom
    3. Swans: To Be Kind
    4. Aphex Twin: Syro
    5. The Body: I Shall Die Here
    6. Actress: Ghettoville
    7. Sleaford Mods: Divide and Exit
    8. Ben Frost: A U R O R A
    9. Flying Lotus: You're Dead!
    10. Richard Dawson: Nothing Important

    Tracks

    1. Todd Terje: "Johnny and Mary" [ft. Bryan Ferry]
    2. Ariel Pink: "Put Your Number in My Phone"
    3. Sleaford Mods: "Tied Up in Nottz"
    4. Sophie: "Hard"
    5. QT: "Hey QT"
    6. Flying Lotus: "Never Catch Me" [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
    7. FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"
    8. A.G. Cook: "Beautiful"
    9. Ought: "Habit"
    10. Girl Band: "Lawman"

    Andrew Nosnitsky

    Albums

    1. Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1
    2. Aphex Twin: Syro
    3. YG: My Krazy Life
    4. Lil Boosie: Life After Death Row
    5. Vince Staples: Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2
    6. Future: Honest
    7. Chief Keef: Back From the Dead 2
    8. Abdul Marshy: El Salvia
    9. Common: Nobody's Smiling

    Tracks

    1. Metro Thuggin: "The Blanguage"
    2. Rich Gang: "Lifestyle"
    3. T.I.: "About the Money" [ft. Young Thug]
    4. Young Thug: "Treasure" [ft. Zuse]
    5. Chief Keef: "Sosa Style"
    6. Kevin Gates: "Posed to Be in Love"
    7. Rae Sremmurd: "No Type"
    8. Nicki Minaj: "Four Door Aventador"
    9. Shy Glizzy: "Awwsome"
    10. Jack Fisher: "Pointless" [ft. Varun Karkhanis]

    Andy O'Connor

    Albums

    1. Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden
    2. Planning For Burial: Desideratum
    3. Thou: Heathen
    4. Gridlink: Longhena
    5. Aphex Twin: Syro
    6. Kayo Dot: Coffins on Io
    7. Blut Aus Nord: Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry
    8. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    9. Impetuous Ritual: Unholy Congregation of Hypocritical Ambivalence
    10. Darkspace: Darkspace III I

    Tracks

    1. Planning For Burial: "Where You Rest Your Head at Night"
    2. Sun Kil Moon: "I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love"
    3. Pallbearer: "The Ghost I Used to Be"
    4. Dreamcrusher: "Memories"
    5. Youth Code: "Consuming Guilt"
    6. Psalm Zero: "In the Dead"
    7. Gridlink: "Constant Autumn"
    8. Wreck and Reference: "Apollo Beneath the Whip"
    9. Thou: "Ode to Physical Pain"
    10. High Spirits: "High Spirits"

    Joel Oliphint

    Albums

    1. Hiss Golden Messenger: Lateness of Dancers
    2. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    3. Doug Paisley: Strong Feelings
    4. Withered Hand: New Gods
    5. Saintseneca: Dark Arc
    6. Strand of Oaks: HEAL
    7. Wussy: Attica!
    8. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    9. Damien Jurado: Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
    10. Spoon: They Want My Soul

    Tracks

    1. Hiss Golden Messenger: "Saturday's Song"
    2. The War on Drugs: "Red Eyes"
    3. Damien Jurado: "Silver Timothy"
    4. Wussy: "Teenage Wasteland"
    5. Strand of Oaks: "Shut In"
    6. Sun Kil Moon: "I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same"
    7. Saintseneca: "Only the Young Die Good"
    8. Doug Paisley: "Until I Find You"
    9. Withered Hand: "Love Over Desire"
    10. Taylor Swift: "Style"

    Renato Pagnani

    Albums

    1. Isaiah Rashad: Cilvia Demo
    2. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: Piñata
    3. Mick Jenkins: The Water(s)
    4. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    5. Jessie Ware: Tough Love
    6. PARTYNEXTDOOR: PARTYNEXTDOOR TWO
    7. Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1
    8. Vince Staples: Hell Can Wait EP
    9. iLoveMakonnen: iLoveMakonnen EP
    10. E-40: The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil, Pt. 4, 5, & 6

    Tracks

    1. Drake: "0 to 100/The Catch Up"
    2. Kiesza: "Hideaway"
    3. iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday"
    4. Vic Mensa: "Down on My Luck"
    5. Rich Gang: "Lifestyle"
    6. MNEK: "Don't Call This Love"
    7. Ariana Grande: "Love Me Harder" [ft. the Weeknd]
    8. Wiz Khalifa: "We Dem Boyz"
    9. Migos: "Fight Night"
    10. Kevin Gates: "Movie"

    Nate Patrin

    Albums

    1. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    2. Flying Lotus: You're Dead!
    3. Isaiah Rashad: Cilvia Demo
    4. Ratking: So It Goes
    5. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: Piñata
    6. Open Mike Eagle: Dark Comedy
    7. Katy B: Little Red
    8. Shabazz Palaces: Lese Majesty
    9. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    10. Various Artists: Hyperdub 10.2

    Tracks

    1. Run the Jewels: "Blockbuster Night Pt. 1"
    2. Action Bronson: "Easy Rider"
    3. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: "Thuggin'"
    4. Isaiah Rashad: "RIP Kevin Miller"
    5. Flying Lotus: "Never Catch Me" [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
    6. Open Mike Eagle: "Doug Stamper (Advice Raps)" [ft. Hannibal Buress]
    7. Bok Bok: "Melba's Call" [ft. Kelela]
    8. Future: "Move That Dope" [ft. Pharrell, Pusha T and Casino]
    9. SZA: "Babylon" [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
    10. Caribou: "Silver"

    Jenn Pelly

    Albums

    1. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire for No Witness
    2. Ex Hex: Rips
    3. Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love
    4. Grouper: Ruins
    5. Merchandise: After the End
    6. White Lung: Deep Fantasy
    7. Radiator Hospital: Torch Song
    8. Good Throb: Fuck Off
    9. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    10. Perfume Genius: Too Bright

    Tracks

    1. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    2. Beyoncé: "***Flawless"
    3. Priests: "And Breeding"
    4. Ex Hex: "How You Got That Girl"
    5. Merchandise: "No You and Me"
    6. Pharmakon: "Bestial Burden"
    7. Taylor Swift: "Style"
    8. Makthaverskan: "Asleep"
    9. Iceage: "How Many"
    10. Copeland: "Advice to Young Girls" [ft. Actress]

    Amy Phillips

    Albums

    1. Taylor Swift: 1989
    2. Future Islands: Singles
    3. La Roux: Trouble in Paradise
    4. Ariana Grande: My Everything
    5. Makthaverskan: II
    6. Lykke Li: I Never Learn
    7. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    8. Tinashe: Aquarius
    9. FKA twigs: LP1
    10. Perfume Genius: Too Bright

    Tracks

    1. Beyoncé: "***Flawless"
    2. Taylor Swift: "Style"
    3. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    4. Ariana Grande: "Problem" [ft. Iggy Azalea]
    5. Kiesza: "Hideaway"
    6. Makthaverskan: "Asleep"
    7. Nicki Minaj: "Boss Ass Bitch (Remix)"
    8. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    9. Charli XCX: "Boom Clap"
    10. Beyoncé: "XO"

    Mark Pytlik

    Albums

    1. Mac DeMarco: Salad Days
    2. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    3. Taylor Swift: 1989
    4. Aphex Twin: Syro
    5. Clark: Clark
    6. Future Islands: Singles
    7. Caribou: Our Love
    8. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: Piñata
    9. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    10. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream

    Tracks

    1. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    2. Todd Terje: "Johnny and Mary" [ft. Bryan Ferry]
    3. Run the Jewels: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" [ft. Zack De La Rocha]
    4. Mac DeMarco: "Goodbye Weekend"
    5. Caribou: "Can't Do Without You"
    6. Vic Mensa: "Down on My Luck"
    7. Taylor Swift: "Shake It Off"
    8. Shamir: "If It Wasn't True"
    9. Aphex Twin: "minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]"
    10. St. Vincent: "Digital Witness (Darkside Remix)"

    T. Cole Rachel

    Albums

    1. Perfume Genius: Too Bright
    2. Real Estate: Atlas
    3. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    4. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    5. Mac DeMarco: Salad Days
    6. Grouper: Ruins
    7. Matteah Baim: Falling Theater
    8. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    9. Caribou: Our Love
    10. Merchandise: After the End

    Tracks

    1. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    2. Real Estate: "Primitive"
    3. Sun Kil Moon: "I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same"
    4. The War on Drugs: "Suffering"
    5. Todd Terje: "Johnny and Mary" [ft. Bryan Ferry]
    6. Mac DeMarco: "Passing Out Pieces"
    7. Beyoncé: "Partition"
    8. Matteah Baim: "Peach Tree"
    9. Alvvays: "Archie, Marry Me"
    10. Caribou: "Our Love"

    Mark Richardson

    Albums

    1. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    2. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    3. Aphex Twin: Syro
    4. Brian Eno, Karl Hyde: High Life
    5. A Sunny Day in Glasgow: Sea When Absent
    6. FKA twigs: LP1
    7. Hundred Waters: The Moon Rang Like a Bell
    8. Vashti Bunyan: Heartleap
    9. Pharmakon: Bestial Burden
    10. Arca: Xen

    Tracks

    1. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    2. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    3. FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"
    4. Alvvays: "Archie, Marry Me"
    5. Michael Jackson: "Love Never Felt So Good (Original Version)"
    6. The War on Drugs: "An Ocean in Between the Waves"
    7. iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday"
    8. Grouper: "Holding"
    9. Tobias Jesso Jr.: "True Love"
    10. Aphex Twin: "minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]"

    Andrew Ryce

    Albums

    1. Francis Harris: Minutes of Sleep
    2. Leon Vynehall: Music for the Uninvited
    3. Bing & Ruth: Tomorrow Was the Golden Age
    4. Taylor Swift: 1989
    5. Dean Blunt: Black Metal
    6. DJ Dodger Stadium: Friend of Mine
    7. Lnrdcroy: Much Less Normal
    8. Perc: The Power and the Glory
    9. Lee Bannon: Alternate / Endings
    10. Tinashe: Aquarius

    Tracks

    1. Sophie: "Lemonade"
    2. Mumdance: "Take Time"
    3. Jacques Greene: "No Excuse"
    4. A.G. Cook: "Beautiful"
    5. iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday" [ft. Drake]
    6. Moleskin: "We Been Ready"
    7. S-Type: "Rosario"
    8. Lnrdcroy: "Sunrise Market"
    9. Lakker: "Mountain Divide"
    10. Josh Wink: "Are You There (Ben Klock Remix)"

    Jordan Sargent

    Albums

    1. D'Angelo: Black Messiah
    2. YG: My Krazy Life
    3. Taylor Swift: 1989
    4. Tinashe: Aquarius
    5. Jessie Ware: Tough Love
    6. FKA twigs: LP1
    7. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    8. Charli XCX: Sucker
    9. Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1
    10. Mariah Carey: Me. I Am Mariah... the Elusive Chanteuse

    Tracks

    1. Rich Gang: "Lifestyle"
    2. Dej Loaf: "Try Me"
    3. Rich Homie Quan: "Walk Thru" [ft. Problem]
    4. Shift K3Y: "Touch"
    5. Tinashe: "2 On"
    6. T.I.: "About the Money" [ft. Young Thug]
    7. Katy Perry: "Birthday"
    8. Chris Brown: "Loyal (East Coast Version)" [ft. Lil Wayne and French Montana]
    9. Taylor Swift: "Style"
    10. Nicki Minaj: "Boss Ass Bitch (Remix)"

    Ryan Schreiber

    Albums

    1. Grouper: Ruins
    2. Caribou: Our Love
    3. FKA twigs: LP1
    4. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    5. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    6. Ariel Pink: Pom Pom
    7. Mac DeMarco: Salad Days
    8. Aphex Twin: Syro
    9. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    10. Arca: Xen

    Tracks

    1. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    2. Grouper: "Holding"
    3. Caribou: "Back Home"
    4. iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday"
    5. The War on Drugs: "Red Eyes"
    6. A.G. Cook: "Beautiful"
    7. Sun Kil Moon: "Carissa"
    8. Ariel Pink: "Dayzed Inn Daydreams"
    9. FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"
    10. Michael Jackson: "Love Never Felt So Good (Original Version)"

    Philip Sherburne

    Albums

    1. Grouper: Ruins
    2. FKA twigs: LP1
    3. Various Artists: PC Music x DISown Radio
    4. Owen Pallett: In Conflict
    5. Theo Parrish: American Intelligence
    6. Jo Johnson: Weaving
    7. Rebolledo: Momento Drive
    8. Andy Stott: Faith in Strangers
    9. Arca: Xen
    10. Gigi Masin: Talk to the Sea

    Tracks

    1. Rebolledo: "Windsurf, Sunburn and Dollar (Extended Raw Version)"
    2. FKA twigs: "Pendulum"
    3. Grouper: "Holding"
    4. Institute: "An Absence"
    5. Sophie: "Lemonade"
    6. Portable: "Surrender"
    7. How to Dress Well: "Repeat Pleasure (A.G. Cook Remix)"
    8. Panda Bear: "Mr Noah"
    9. Gabi: "Koo Koo"
    10. Owen Pallett: "In Conflict"

    Brandon Stosuy

    Albums

    1. Grouper: Ruins
    2. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    3. Swans: To Be Kind
    4. Thou: Heathen
    5. FKA twigs: LP1
    6. Arca: Xen
    7. Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden
    8. Ben Frost: A U R O R A
    9. Yob: Clearing the Path to Ascend
    10. Pharmakon: Bestial Burden

    Tracks

    1. FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"
    2. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    3. Sun Kil Moon: "Carissa"
    4. Run the Jewels: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" [ft. Zack De La Rocha]
    5. Against Me!: "Transgender Dysphoria Blues"
    6. Iceage: "The Lord's Favorite"
    7. Dej Loaf: "Try Me"
    8. White Lung: "Face Down"
    9. Lil B: "No Black Person Is Ugly"
    10. Perfect Pussy: "Interference Fits"

    Matthew Strauss

    Albums

    1. Joyce Manor: Never Hungover Again
    2. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    3. YG: My Krazy Life
    4. Iceage: Plowing Into the Field of Love
    5. Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence
    6. Cloud Nothings: Here and Nowhere Else
    7. How to Dress Well: "What Is This Heart?"
    8. Speedy Ortiz: Real Hair EP
    9. White Lung: Deep Fantasy
    10. GoldLink: The God Complex

    Tracks

    1. Future: "Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)" [ft. André 3000]
    2. Iceage: "The Lord's Favorite"
    3. Run the Jewels: "Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1"
    4. Captain Murphy: "Cosplay"
    5. Ghostface Killah / BADBADNOTGOOD: "Six Degrees" [ft. Danny Brown]
    6. Ty Dolla $ign: "Or Nah (Remix)" [ft. The Weeknd, Wiz Khalifa and DJ Mustard]
    7. Son Lux: "Easy (Switch Screens)" [ft. Lorde]
    8. Ariana Grande: "Best Mistake" [ft. Big Sean]
    9. Wilfred Giroux: "Stronger"
    10. Chumped: "Name That Thing"

    Paul Thompson

    Albums

    1. YG: My Krazy Life
    2. Ex Hex: Rips
    3. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    4. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    5. Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
    6. Tara Jane O'Neil: Where Shine New Lights
    7. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    8. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    9. Ought: More Than Any Other Day
    10. Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band: Intensity Ghost

    Tracks

    1. Nicki Minaj: "Boss Ass Bitch (Remix)"
    2. Ariana Grande: "Problem" [ft. Iggy Azalea]
    3. Pat Finnerty: "Reggae Dog 2: Reflection"
    4. Bobby Shmurda: "Hot Nigga"
    5. Copeland: "Advice to Young Girls" [ft. Actress]
    6. iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday"
    7. tUnE-yArDs: "Water Fountain"
    8. Future: "Move That Dope" [ft. Pharrell, Pusha T and Casino]
    9. Shamir: "On the Regular"
    10. Rae Sremmurd: "No Type"

    Eric Torres

    Albums

    1. Perfume Genius: Too Bright
    2. Cibo Matto: Hotel Valentine
    3. FKA twigs: LP1
    4. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    5. Mr Twin Sister: Mr Twin Sister
    6. Leon Vynehall: Music for the Uninvited
    7. Grouper: Ruins
    8. Flying Lotus: You're Dead!
    9. Shabazz Palaces: Lese Majesty
    10. D'Angelo: Black Messiah

    Tracks

    1. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    2. Mr Twin Sister: "In the House of Yes"
    3. St. Vincent: "Prince Johnny"
    4. Sharon Van Etten: "Your Love Is Killing Me"
    5. FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"
    6. Flying Lotus: "Coronus, the Terminator"
    7. Cibo Matto: "Housekeeping"
    8. Shamir: "On the Regular"
    9. Beyoncé: "Partition"
    10. Tinashe: "2 On"

    David Turner

    Albums

    1. Aphex Twin: Syro
    2. Isaiah Rashad: Cilvia Demo
    3. Father: Young Hot Ebony
    4. Shy Glizzy: Young Jefe
    5. Vince Staples: Hell Can Wait EP
    6. Various Artists: We Invented the Bop
    7. YG: My Krazy Life
    8. iLoveMakonnen: Drink More Water 4
    9. DJ Mustard: 10 Summers
    10. Migos: Rich Nigga Timeline

    Tracks

    1. Rich Gang: "Lifestyle"
    2. Dej Loaf: "Try Me"
    3. Vince Staples: "Blue Suede"
    4. Perfect Pussy: "Interference Fits"
    5. Tinashe: "2 On"
    6. Snootie Wild: "Made Me" [ft. K. Camp]
    7. Adrian Marcel: "2AM" [ft. Sage the Gemini]
    8. Bobby Shmurda: "Hot Nigga"
    9. Aphex Twin: "minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]"
    10. Father: "Look at Wrist" [ft. Makonnen and Key!]

    Jeff Weiss

    Albums

    1. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    2. Open Mike Eagle: Dark Comedy
    3. Slackk: Palm Tree Fire
    4. Caribou: Our Love
    5. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: Piñata
    6. FKA twigs: LP1
    7. Isaiah Rashad: Cilvia Demo
    8. YG: My Krazy Life
    9. Vince Staples: Hell Can Wait EP
    10. Ariel Pink: Pom Pom

    Tracks

    1. Rich Gang: "Lifestyle"
    2. Vince Staples: "Blue Suede"
    3. iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday"
    4. Bobby Shmurda: "Hot Nigga (Reggae Remix)" [ft. Roddy Rebel]
    5. Flying Lotus: "Coronus, the Terminator"
    6. Action Bronson: "Easy Rider"
    7. Migos: "Fight Night"
    8. Rae Sremmurd: "No Type"
    9. Nicki Minaj: "Lookin Ass"
    10. Zhu: "Faded"

    Douglas Wolk

    Albums

    1. tUnE-yArDs: Nikki Nack
    2. Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp: Rotorotor
    3. Swans: To Be Kind
    4. The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers
    5. The Roots: ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
    6. The Budos Band: Burnt Offering
    7. Ex Hex: Rips
    8. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    9. The Juan MacLean: In a Dream
    10. The J.B.'s: These Are the J.B.'s

    Tracks

    1. Against Me!: "Transgender Dysphoria Blues"
    2. Taylor Swift: "Blank Space"
    3. tUnE-yArDs: "Water Fountain"
    4. Beyoncé: "Blow"
    5. Morrissey: "Staircase at the University"
    6. Tegan and Sara: "Everything Is Awesome!!!" [ft. the Lonely Island]
    7. DJ Snake & Lil Jon: "Turn Down for What"
    8. Parquet Courts: "Sunbathing Animal"
    9. Copeland: "Advice to Young Girls" [ft. Actress]
    10. Kendrick Lamar: "i"

    Sydney Yeo

    Albums

    1. Azealia Banks: Broke With Expensive Taste
    2. Jessie Ware: Tough Love
    3. Sharon Van Etten: Are We There
    4. Cloud Nothings: Here and Nowhere Else
    5. Ariana Grande: My Everything
    6. Kimbra: The Golden Echo
    7. How to Dress Well: "What Is This Heart?"
    8. Adult Jazz: Gist Is
    9. Makthaverskan: II
    10. D'Angelo: Black Messiah

    Tracks

    1. Cloud Nothings: "I'm Not Part of Me"
    2. Jessie Ware: "Cruel"
    3. Azealia Banks: "Wallace"
    4. FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"
    5. Caribou: "Can't Do Without You"
    6. Banks: "Warm Water"
    7. Young Fathers: "No Way"
    8. Ava Luna: "Hold U"
    9. Perfect Pussy: "Interference Fits"
    10. Mr Twin Sister: "Out of the Dark"

    Trey Zenker

    Albums

    1. Real Estate: Atlas
    2. Ariel Pink: Pom Pom
    3. Brian Eno, Karl Hyde: High Life
    4. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    5. Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots
    6. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    7. Perfume Genius: Too Bright
    8. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    9. Leonard Cohen: Live in Dublin
    10. Thievery Corporation: Saludad

    Tracks

    1. Todd Terje: "Johnny and Mary" [ft. Bryan Ferry]
    2. Panda Bear: "Boys Latin"
    3. Damon Albarn: "You and Me"
    4. Real Estate: "The Bend"
    5. Tobias Jesso Jr.: "True Love"
    6. Ariel Pink: "Put Your Number in My Phone"
    7. Perfume Genius: "I Decline"
    8. Aphex Twin: "aisatsana [102]"
    9. Sun Kil Moon: "Jim Wise"
    10. Alvvays: "Archie, Marry Me"

    Read our lists of 2014’s Best: Albums | Tracks | Albums of the Year: Honorable Mention | Videos | Album Covers


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  • 12/18/14--13:40: Electric Fling: Tokyo Drift
  • Electric Fling: Tokyo Drift

    A1 “Surfing on Sine Waves (Eye Remix)” 

    Even after living in New York City for a decade—a mere subway ride away from the ever-present glare of Times Square—experiencing the full-sensory spate of Tokyo’s Shibuya-ku for the first time is blinding and deafening: All manner of chirps, digital blips, noise, even blasts of Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! call out from every direction. I find myself in a state similar to that of Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation when landing in Japan, exhausted but open-eyed, agog yet fraught, flooded from every sensory organ and unable to process any of the data—is that really Tommy Lee Jones’ mug glaring out from canned coffee vending machines? Yes, it is.

    Sides of office buildings sing “Happy Birthday” with five-story-high dancing candles; people play fútbol games on rooftops. There are moments in Tokyo when sound feels contemplative and disruptive at once. Amid the hush of Gyoen National Garden, there’s the buzz of an overhead loudspeaker. In a bustling restaurant, new orders are signaled with a digital bird chirp, while pop music assaults passers by outside. Trucks with mounted billboards drive around blaring Japanese rock band Glay; another truck promotes Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways while idling in traffic. And hey, there goes Carl Craig strolling through Shibuya Crossing. 

    Maybe it’s not that surreal to see the Detroit techno godfather on the streets of Tokyo, as Craig is a mentor at this year’s Red Bull Music Academy, the month-long music festival and lecture series which was held in Asia for the first time last month. My first sleep-deprived night involves a trek out to the neighborhood of Negishi, to a venue called Dance Hall, which has all the accouterments of a 1950s jazz club. Onstage is Boredoms ringleader Eye, the Japanese demiurge who has been rather silent the past five years (though he has released a handful of head-swimming mix CDs available only in Japanese record shops). He conducts a circle of 18 Academy students—bleary-eyed yet intent, some in tie dye, hoodies, or dresses—all hunched over their laptops. It’s a slow build of lumbering sine waves that soon makes my face buzz and the posh club quiver in its fixtures.

    Eye in the middle of RBMA's "Chaos Conductor" show

    Having once called Eye’s conducting moves an“amalgam of airport ramp agent, hardcore screamer, and Bugs Bunny,” he is more graceful in his gestures tonight. Spinning on a drummers throne, his hands suggest a long wave goodbye or a quick scribble in the air when they’re not surfing the wind like a child reaching out of a car window. It’s a beautiful noise, even if it only makes the vertigo of my jet lag all the more pronounced.

    And yet back in the hotel, my body resists sleep. I flick through Tokyo TV in the wee hours and find myself being Rickrolled: a station shows photos of Tokyo temples and ports, all soundtracked by Rick Astley’s Greatest Hits.

    B1 “The Larry Levan of Japan”

    It’s hard not to be envious of Japanese record stores. Or rather, to be envious of their cultural reverence for music of all stripes, new and old. While streaming music has become paramount Stateside, the Japanese are still buying CDs. Every music shop I visit while in Tokyo ranges from four to six stories in height, with customers on every level. In the nearby neighborhood of Shinjuku, Japanese record mecca Disk Union has no less than six separate shops, each dedicated to a different genre. In one corner of a six-floor Tower Records, I see an assortment of mix CDs, each highlighting the back catalogs of now-forgotten ‘70s American record imprints. The self-proclaimed “King of Diggers,” DJ Muro, has one set that pays tribute to Brunswick Records, another to Miami’s T.K. Disco. And nearby are mixes that honor two of NYC’s defining disco labels: Salsoul and West End, both mixed by the legendary DJ Nori.

    The man born Norihisa Maekawa is described to me as “the Larry Levan of Japan” by Alex From Tokyo, the respected deep house producer who releases music as Tokyo Black Star with producer Isao Kumano. “New York and Tokyo have been very connected culturally,” Alex tells me. “A couple of disco DJs and fashionistas ended up in NYC in the early ‘80s to experience that legendary nightlife, including Nori.” 

    The next day I meet up with DJ Nori, clad in a backwards ball cap, hoodie, and camouflage jacket. His reverence in Tokyo dance music culture quickly becomes apparent, when a younger Japanese student realizes that Nori is in the same room as him and pays his respects.

    DJ Nori

    “I came to New York City for the first time in 1983 to buy records and watch the DJs and the crowds,” DJ Nori says. A DJ since he was a teenager, he became taken with that “New York Sound” and came over in his early 20s, frequenting such clubs as Paradise Garage, the Palladium, and David Mancuso’s Loft.

    Nori’s favorite club was his first one though: “The Saint was very special—a gay club specializing in disco, boogie, high NRG, and sleaze (the string-laden, decadent, 90 bpm subgenre of disco), all spun by DJ Warren Gluck. It was a very spacey space with a planetarium [dome] and images projected in front of you.” Another formidable influence was experiencing Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage, where Nori became enamored with soul music and the kinetic connection possible between DJ and dancers.

    Nori was also in awe of the cutting-edge sound systems that could be heard at each club, thunderous and crystalline: “In Japan, sound was so-so, but I felt very excited by the sound systems, the lighting, and people.” He believes that, aside from dance culture, the biggest influence of New York on Tokyo nightlife might be the insistence on incredible sound. (In a curious shifting of time, it’s now de rigueur to have sterling sound in Tokyo nightclubs, while most modern New York venues have embarrassingly inadequate systems.)

    He then asks me about New York and what I think about the city’s more restrictive rules concerning dance clubs and culture. I try to blame former mayor Rudy Giuliani and his reinforcement of cabaret laws, and it turns out that Japan has had issues with their own fueiho—anti-dancing—laws recently, which originally date back to the post-war era, when nightclubs were often used as prostitution fronts. Just a few weeks ago, though, these repressive strictures were lifted, and now Nori sees a positive shift ahead. “The club scene here now will have a bright future,” he says.

    B2 “Bleeps of Rage”

    Womb is tucked into a hotel-lined alley, a concrete bunker of a nightclub surrounded by sleeping neighbors. Once deep in the smoky recesses of the club, it reveals 30-foot high ceilings, banks of subwoofers, and a packed dancefloor.

    “Why is no one dancing?” a Japanese girl asks aloud.

    Tonight, the nightclub pays tribute to its distant electronic-music cousin, the video game. It makes a certain kind of sense, because while I revere Japanese artists, be it Keiji Haino or Nobukazu Takemura, the deepest infiltration of Japanese music into Western minds has occurred via video games. How many hours of Koji Kondo’s music did I subconsciously absorb as a child hunched over a Nintendo game console? Earlier in the day, I came acrossa curious byproduct of ‘80s video game covers from the incisive Haruomi Hosono that maniacally recreates the soundtracks to a number of old arcade games like “Dig Dug”, “Mappy”, and “Xevious”. It’s such a straight-faced recreation of those blips and tinny melodies that’s unbearable to hear as an adult (thoughthe 12” remix of “Xevious” is hot).

    Oneohtrix Point Never at RBMA's "Cart Diggers" show

    The Academy has produced a documentary video series featuring these influential video game composers called “Diggin’ in the Carts” and tonight, these old 8- and 16-bit compositions interact with new musicians onstage. Yuzo Koshiro, considered the “king of chiptune music” by 1UP Magazine, has his “Streets of Rage” soundtracks updated in the new century. But with grace notes of house synths, electro-funk, and trance music already in its chips, it doesn’t really need the bigger bass. 

    Oneohtrix Point Never’s Dan Lopatin headlines the night with “Bullet Hell Abstraction IV”, a new piece dedicated to danmaku, the vertical scrolling video games better known as “bullet hell” shoot ‘em ups. Two giant screens scroll levels of the delirious“DoDonPachi DaiOuJou” on either side of the producer as furious frequencies and drill bit drums open the set. Suddenly, I’m reminded of a moment earlier in the day when I briefly stuck my head into an arcade in Shibuya, where Japanese sit in front of row after row of video games and chain smoke, the cumulative din reaching a deafening level.

    As “Bullet Hell Abstraction IV” progresses, more space infiltrates the stuttering noise. Angelic tones, off-kilter melodic fragments, and abrasive frequencies all mingle. The violence becomes as mesmerizing as the game itself, a thing of beauty. At the show’s end, Lopatin beckons off-stage to the Ennio Morricone of danmaku soundtracks, composer Manabu Namiki, who comes out as if from behind the wizard’s curtain, clad in a “Dig Dug” T shirt. He takes a quick bow before the nightclub crowd. And once the video game bleeps are silenced and club music begins to thump, the dancing starts.


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    Staff Lists: Overlooked Mixtapes 2014

    While debates about the value of music took many different shapes this year, free rap mixtapes, as a format, stayed the course. Though few consensus choices reigned over everything, the DatPiff delta gave way to exciting new sounds from all over the country. Here, we examine 22 tapes that might have slipped under the radar but still moved the needle—releases from well-known artists like Ty Dolla $ign, Future, and A$AP Ferg as well as fast-rising voices like BeatKing and Kehlani—in alphabetical order by artist.


    A$AP Ferg
    Ferg Forever
    [RCA/Polo Grounds]



    I'll admit it upfront: Ferg Forever isn't as good as last year's Trap Lord, which continues to get better as time passes. But Ferg remains one of the most compelling new voices in rap, and he spends this tape experimenting. He's never less than engaging, sounding like nothing in this world makes him happier than rapping. The gravitational pull of his personality is massive, even if his production often fails to keep up—check his giddy, spot-on Ol' Dirty Bastard impression/tribute on "Doe-Active", and listen in awe as he attempts to buck the beat off of "Fergsomnia" with a performance that's as unhinged as a broken jaw. But his attention lies elsewhere these days, too, as evidenced by the sobering first verse on "Talk It", where he tries to make some sense of the recent killings of young black men across the country. —Renato Pagnani


    BeatKing
    Gangsta Stripper Music 2
    [self-released]



    To national ears, Texas has become so defined by its DJ Screw-oriented history—now in large part a memory as the final remnants of its physical mixtape trade wash away—that it's become difficult for artists from the state to develop a distinct aesthetic of their own. Houston rapper BeatKing's rise wouldn't have been possible without the Internet, and his willingness to play court jester with its many memes—an attention-grabbing approach that could even result in occasional great music. This year, though, he broke out as a solo artist beyond the trending topics. Succeeded by his Pole Sex EP and a strong collaborative album with Gangsta Boo, Gangsta Stripper Music 2 was the moment his sound really seemed to cohere: the improvised punchlines delivered with a straight face, production that seemed to take up physical space, and strong conceptual songwriting that reflected a glint of the humor that pervades his lyrics. Rude, crude, and undeniably bawdy, BeatKing's barrelling rap style hit without a wink, letting the jokes dawn on you in time delay. —David Drake


    Childish Gambino
    Kauai
    [Glassnote]

    "III. Telegraph Ave. ('Oakland' by Lloyd)", an infectious slice of straight-up R&B from last year's Because the Internet, offered a way forward for Donald Glover's musical project Childish Gambino. Glover uses that template as the foundation for Kauai, the second (and much better) half of his STN MTN / Kauai project. It's a savvy artistic move—Glover has never sounded as comfortable as he does here, revealing the kind of natural gift for songwriting that makes you wonder why he was so insistent on rapping in the first place. Now when he slips into MC mode on "Retro (Rough)", it not only feels earned but actually welcome, something that wasn't the case a mere 12 months ago. But it's the pure pop head-rush of "Sober" and the slick surfaces of "Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good)", which nips at the heels of "Telegraph Ave.", that prove Gambino is finally discovering a voice of his own. —Renato Pagnani


    Doughboyz Cashout
    We Run the City 4
    [CTE]



    Doughboyz Cashout have not updated their official Twitter account in over a year and they presumably do not give a fuck that the fourth installment of their We Run the City series was basically critically ignored this year. The Detroit group is signed to Jeezy’s CTE label, but Jeezy doesn’t show up on the tape, which is made up of 75 minutes of raw but well-crafted humanist hustler music, more indebted to Y2K Mannie Fresh or Beats by the Pound than any of the dominant narratives in 2014 rap. Although, this year did make a pretty strong case for the enduring relevancy of the rap group: Migos and Rae Sremmurd deservedly dominated the radio, and Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan found inspiration in one another as Rich Gang.

    Many of the individual Doughboyz’ solo careers thrived this year, too—Big Quis’ My Turn, full of clever, workmanlike motivational anthems, was a highlight—but they’re at their best together on We Run the City 4. There are definitely hooks here ("Boss the Fuck Up"), and a bounce that sits somewhere between B.G. and YG. But the narratives are the glue, with plainspoken detail that perfectly cuts to the chase: "My plans after high school simple, get scrilla/ My heroes ain’t wear no capes, they’re chinchillas/ Living in a city where a nigga with a job is a nobody, while the dealers treated like gods." Doughboyz are capable of making a crossover hit; with the right push, it could’ve been "My Young Niggaz" with Jeezy and YG, off last year’s CTE comp #ItsThaWorld 2. There’s actually a song by the same title on We Run the City 4, but its completely different, scrapping the DJ Mustard slickness for more Cash Money worship. Fuck a single. —Meaghan Garvey


    Future
    Monster
    [self-released]




    After the refreshing success of the Auto-Tune ballad "Turn on the Lights" and a highly publicized and envied-by-all engagement to Ciara, Future was recast as rap’s Fabio, a masculine heartthrob unafraid to let his guard down in the name of love. Then the R&B love story of our age dissolved, and Future reminded us he’s still the guy who once said, "If that’s your hoe, that’s my hoe, too." The majority of Monster, released in October, finds Future shifting his own narrative back to the perpetually leaning, carnal-driven stoic street-rap fans fell for on early tapes like Streetz Calling and Dirty Sprite. He unapologetically showcases his indulgent narcissism ("Fetti", the title track), but as usual, it’s the rapper’s idiosyncratic and unpredictable approach to writing hooks and verses that keeps the tape from drowning. He floats over "My Savages" while reflecting on success and his incarcerated friends not there to see it in person. And on the arresting second half of the batshit "Throw Away", the tape potentially reveals its true identity as an angry and confused break-up record. —Wesley Case


    Future
    No Sleep
    [self-released]



    Though No Sleep came out in 2013, it spoke to the trends of 2014 perhaps better than any other street mixtape from this year's rap calendar. The project was headlined by Future, but the real star of the tape was a then relatively unknown producer Metro Boomin, who did Future’s ghastly and excellent "Maison Margiela" and "How Can I Not". The tape showcased the young producer and featured lesser-known trap rappers: Casino ("Killin Shit"), Johnny Cinco ("No Choice"), PeeWee Longway ("Sneakin and Geekin"), Shy Glizzy ("Awwsome"). DJs and rappers enjoy boasting that they speak for "the streets", but No Sleep truly encapsulated the many disparate directions of trap rap even before the calendar year turned over. —David Turner


    K Camp
    In Due Time EP
    [Interscope]

    Let’s address the unavoidable first: Atlanta rapper K Camp’s hummable hit "Cut Her Off" bested Chris Brown’s "Loyal" as this year’s ugliest ode to dismissive misogyny, an unendearing accomplishment to say the least. It would be disingenuous to ignore this, just as it would be dishonest not to admit K Camp can write one hell of a catchy song. On In Due Time EP, he does so repeatedly, whether it’s adrenalized instructions to turn up ("Turn Up the Night") or effortless love letters to his sole source of motivation ("Money Baby"). The hope is K Camp will shed the immature attitude toward women fast, while continuing to refine his strong pop-minded sensibilities. "'Cut Her Off' is a great song because it's an emotion, and he's being true about it in that moment,” André 3000 said in an interview this year. K Camp has the melodic half of the battle won, which is enough to keep a skeptical eye on him in 2015. —Wesley Case


    Kari Faux
    Laugh Now, Die Later
    [self-released]

    It is hard to know what will cause an artist to break. The right co-sign, a hit song, and perhaps, in 2014, maybe just a Vine. Recent Los Angeles transplant Kari Faux, who got a boost being featured on Childish Gambino’s STN MTN/Kauai mixtape, is still trying to figure that much out. Laugh Now, Die Later, her brief, sharp, and mostly self-produced mixtape from earlier this summer, features a snarky and wise-cracking personality that feels unique, especially amongst the rap world. She best captures herself in the track "No Small Talk", about refusing to waste one’s time on lesser men and opportunists. The cover of Laugh Now, Die Later even includes a skull emoji in case her middle finger with a wink message was lost in translation. —David Turner


    Kehlani
    Cloud 19
    [self-released]

    This was an undoubtedly great year for R&B; Beyoncé's solo debut, released at the very end of 2013, loomed large, a show of strength and power. At the level of radio, a counter-trend was the demure demeanor of Tinashe, whose Aquarius is one of the year's best R&B records, an encapsulation of long-gestating interest in the coy intrigue of millennial artists like Aaliyah. In an environment like this, an artist who stands against the grain is apt to get lots of attention.

    Nineteen-year-old Kehlani Parrish is a Bay Area singer, dancer, and songwriter for herself and others. Her new and refreshing approach on the remarkably consistent debut tape Cloud 19 is one of bold sincerity and vulnerability. She's said it was a tape about falling in love, and it feels like it, stomach butterflies and all. While her approach is informed by the pop R&B hits of the early '00s, she also grew up a longtime fan of Lauryn Hill and neo-soul, and is in many ways more of a classicist than her peers. Yet her lyrics are written with the honest, upfront, down-to-earth perspective of a kid who has a preternatural understanding of the world her peers are living in. —David Drake


    King Louie
    Tony
    [Lawless]

    Though Chief Keef's explosion drew national attention, people were paying attention to the drill scene before he was a known quantity, and it was King Louie who was at the sound's center. His 2011-era work had a wide sonic range, a musical diversity that contrasted with a nearly single-minded focus on the kinetic behavior of bullets and blurred, brutal punchlines that snapped into place with unexpected rhythm. In many ways, Keef upped the ante, taking a disoriented sound even further into darkness; this year's Tony surged to meet that sound's energy, the beats seething with tactile surfaces and unpredictable motion, while Louie's verses rat-tat-tatted through the storm clouds for a feeling of unsettling, portentous energy. When the album lets a little sun break through near the end ("Ambitions as a Rider") it serves to humanize Louie, to hint at the stories playing out behind the music and let the album's heart show. The city responded in kind, making "To Live & Die In Chicago" its unofficial 2014 anthem, and ultimately garnered the attention of Drake, who has reportedly signed Louie to his OVO imprint. —David Drake


    King Mez
    Long Live the King
    [self-released]

    In the last decade the biggest rap names to emerge from North Carolina have been the duo Little Brother and, on a major scale, J. Cole. Both share a working class consciousness that's not lost on rappers in the state looking to follow their steps. Raleigh's King Mez explores those compassionate depths on Long Live the King. The producer/rapper’s approach is understated—he rarely raises his voice to express these concerns with this community and people. Instead he is comfortable allowing his word to carry his message and sit comfortably in the headphones of his listeners. —David Turner


    Kool John
    Shmop City
    [Shmoplife]



    The Bay Area-based HBK Gang dropped two big debut records this year with Sage the Gemini's Remember Me and Iamsu!'s Sincerely Yours. Along with Kool John's free Shmop City mixtape, it makes a strong argument that the Gang is in some sense the closest to the spirit of hip-hop's Bronx origin stories as any crew working today: party records with slumping beats, copious X-rated sex raps, and funny, arrogant punchlines. Like many Cali rappers these days, Kool John is often drawn to production that flips older Down South or West Coast gangster rap classics and rebuilds them in a Bay style; opener "R.N.S.", for example, is a redux of Juvenile's "Gone Ride With Me". The effect, though, isn't recreating the past as much as building upon it, using familiarity to anchor the unfamiliar. —David Drake


    Lil B
    Hoop Life
    [self-released]



    In a year where Lil B fans insisted he follow through on his hoop dreams, the rapper obliged with Hoop Life, one of the most balanced and fun collections he’s released in years. Running with the basketball theme, he delivers this year’s biggest cross-culture kiss-off—"Fuck KD (Kevin Durant Diss)"—and sketches out an earnest account of his (mostly fictional) ascent to the NBA. While that dream fell short, with Hoop Life, the prospect of Lil B sticking to his day job(s) isn’t so hard to swallow. —Corban Goble


    Lil Herb
    Welcome to Fazoland
    [self-released]



    This was the year "the underground" died its thousandth death, when Vice killed DIY or something. But the underground never really dies, it just evolves—something fundamentally misunderstood by those who declared Chicago drill "over" this year. If anything, Interscope dropping Chief Keef was a blessing: It gave him carte blanche to pursue his increasingly abstract impulses, removing the weight of outside pressure to make whatever a Chief Keef radio hit in 2014 even means.

    And though the national spotlight has gradually drifted away from the Midwest since Keef’s 2012 crossover success, Chicago street rap felt as vital as ever this year. Scene mainstays Katie Got Bandz and Fredo Santana hit new strides, and GBE affiliate SD exceeded expectations on debut album Truly Blessed. But it was Lil Herb’s Welcome to Fazoland, a debut project two years in the making, that breathed new life into the drill subgenre. On the tape, Herb appraises his surroundings, absorbs its pain, and asks questions: Why am I still so drawn to violence, even as I recognize that it hurts the people around me? Why did I talk back to my mother, who had nothing but the best intentions? "Why the cops hot on our block? Man, there’s violence everywhere!" Claims that drill music lacks lyricism are officially put to rest: look no further than the hookless, blistering "4 Minutes of Hell Part 3". And though Herb may not have gotten the shine he deserved this year, his influence looms large: Nicki Minaj’s flow on Pinkprint bonus track "Shanghai" (not to mention "Chi-raq", her collaboration with Herb from earlier this year)? That’s pure Herb homage. —Meaghan Garvey


    Mouse on tha Track
    Air Time
    [self-released]


    From opening cut "Liberation (The Cut)"—a heartfelt concept record about the emancipatory power of cutting off his dreads—it's clear that rapper-producer Mouse on tha Track is doing things a little differently. The Baton Rouge-based artist came to acclaim through his beats for Trill Ent acts like Lil Boosie and Foxx, but the past few years his succession of solo tapes have been some of the most consistent in hip-hop writ large. This summer's Air Time is one of his best full projects to date, with unconventional sound effects, affecting melodies ("Bye Bitch"), and grooves unlike anything you've heard outside Louisiana. With the success of artists like Kevin Gates and Lil Boosie on the national scene, here's hoping the rest of the country acknowledges what real heads already know: Baton Rouge has some of the genre's most potent talent, and Mouse should be recognized among it. —David Drake


    Rome Fortune
    Beautiful Pimp 2
    [self-released]


    Rome Fortune might be the name attached to Beautiful Pimp 2, but its successes belong equally to CitoOnTheBeat, who produced the entire mixtape. His expressive and warm beats sound like he was born and raised in Atlanta and not New Jersey, and they fit Fortune like a pair of well-worn leather gloves. The result is 29 minutes of some of 2014's goopiest production, as if CitoOnTheBeat took a bunch of trap beats and let them roast in a slow-cooker for 12 hours. Fortune sinks into these surroundings, finding open pockets and using pauses, feints, and quick left turns to create an unpredictability that gives his laissez-faire rapping style a deceptive density. He doesn't tell stories or boast so much as spend the tape convincing himself his hard work will pay off; Beautiful Pimp 2 is rap as motivational speaking, generous and all-inclusive. The last words said here: "Do you want to spend your life winning or being miserable?" The morning after I heard that line for the first time, I hit the gym at 6 a.m. —Renato Pagnani


    Shy Glizzy
    Young Jefe
    [self-released]


    In an era when rap co-signs could catapult unknown SoundCloud toilers to the Grammys, Washington, D.C.’s fastest rising rapper Shy Glizzy crafted a star-making turn the old fashioned way, with a Gucci Mane-inspired, appropriately titled street smash called "Awwsome". Before it reached Billboard, the single landed on February's Young Jefe, his strongest project to date. The tape displays the charismatic rapper’s increasingly effective sing-songy flow ("Mula", "Medellin") and penchant for memorable imagery ("I made a snow angel from all the salt you throwin’", Glizzy tells a hater). Most affecting is the reflective tribute to locked-up friends, "Free the Gang", which features the observant detail, "We had some BB guns/ We ain't never used to wrestle." Jefe proves Glizzy didn’t simply catch lightning in a Styrofoam double-cup with "Awwsome". Months later, it—like most of Jefe—feels like a chest-pounding announcement of a promising arrival. —Wesley Case


    Travi$ Scott
    Days Before Rodeo
    [Grand Hustle]

    Though the exact boundaries of Houston rapper and producer Travi$ Scott's skill set are still being determined, know this: His fans fuck with it heavily. On Days Before Rodeo, a mixtape Scott released over the summer, you get a good sense of what he has working for him—dark, hard-snapping beats that work well in these post-Yeezus times and a flow that favors the starry-eyed shapes of Kid Cudi and Kanye's knack for stretching syllables. Songs like "Mamacita" give you a good idea of just why Scott's star has risen so quickly as the sonic elements—the shadowy, pulsing synths, a sample of a guitar screech, drums rattling like an ATM dispensing cash—pile up to deliver something promising. —Corban Goble


    Ty Dolla $ign
    Sign Language
    [self-released]


    "Had her drinking and smoking on the tour bus/ Last year I remembered they ignored us," croons Ty Dolla $ign, the stoned genius responsible for the most fluid and exciting melding of rap and R&B since Drake, on "Lord Knows" from August’s Sign Language. While Ty’s big year will rightfully be remembered for his debut EP’s singles ("Paranoid", "Or Nah"), the 11-track Sign Language shows the accomplished musician’s ability to create a fully formed project meant to be experienced in its entirety. The record establishes its intoxicating insularity with minor-chord progressions, unexpected cameos (Dom Kennedy! Mike Posner! … Ed Sheeran?) and extended outros and interludes that seem to have minds of their own. The topics are familiar for Ty ("Drank N Cranberry", "Missionary", and the all-too-literal "Stretch"), but its his commitment and willingness to travel down these rabbit holes that makes Sign Language an encouraging precursor to Ty’s anticipated debut album, next year’s Free TC. —Wesley Case


    Various Artists
    Lobby Runners
    [self-released]


    Released quietly at the tail of 2013, Lobby Runners was a primer on the freewheeling corner of Atlanta inhabited by Young Thug, Migos, Peewee Longway, and friends, whose degree of influence and amount of fucks to give were inversely proportional this year. Right from the jump, Thug lets you know how weird this thing will get, introducing the tape in a disorientingly crisp fusion of patois, bougie receptionist-speak, and the language of Based World over elevator music, in between hacking coughs: "I want all of you guys to feel free, in the whole wide world, to come join the Lobby Runners. We running round the lobby, RUNNING ROUND THE FUCKIN’ LOBBY! OK. Bye." There’s "YRN", a Migos/Thug "Mario Party" cabana jam more compelling than just about anything on either tape Migos released in 2014. "Ounces" introduces Quavo’s fear of koalas, which he naturally rhymes with "enchiladas." A cute, boppy MPA Duke and Skippa da Flippa song called "Intro" appears in sequence as track 16.

    But novelty aside, this was a tape that housed "Stoner", "Danny Glover", and "Get TF Out My Face", not all of them as premieres but a perfectly curated collection nonetheless. It felt like a tipping point, a scribbled constitution of an Atlanta mini-movement often celebrated for its "weirdness" but defined more by the genuine camaraderie of its members. Thug shined and became a spotlight for his less-acclaimed friends; his Laurel and Hardy routine with Longway on "Loaded" was the perfect entry point for those unfamiliar with the latter (who coined the sweet, evocative "running round the lobby" mantra). Over the course of the year, there would be many permutations of "new Atlanta," "weird Atlanta," or whichever superfluous qualifier you prefer to effectively distinguish trap’s avant-garde from the old people; next year, there will be more. But there was something pure about this movement, even on tracks without much redeeming value beyond friends having fun bouncing ideas off each other. —Meaghan Garvey


    Woop
    Woop Lingo
    [self-released]



    This year Rick Ross snuck out two major label albums to increasingly diminishing returns, but Orlando rapper Woop appears to be on the opposite trajectory. Both occupy an established trap lane, but Woop Lingo demonstrates that Woop knows how to maneuver within it. His high-pitched voice provides him an easy-to-overlook melodic quality that helps songs like "HMC" or "Molly Mudd" linger in one’s mind. The tape boasts known-quantity trap producers like Zaytoven or Sonny Digital, but Woop's nimble verses weave between their plodding beats in a way that few other rappers ever attempt. (He also had one of the best rock videos of 2014 with "Rock Out Woop".) —David Turner


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    The Out Door: Experimental Artists of the Year 2014

    Australian multi-instrumentalist, collaborator, and boundary-pusher Oren Ambarchi and veteran jazz pianist Matthew Shipp are two artists whose constant searching and boundless ambitions have made them perennial leading lights in the international avant-garde. Here, Grayson Haver Currin delves into Ambarchi's restless music, while Marc Masters talks to Shipp about how his style stretched in 2014—and how he thinks jazz itself should change too. (Follow us on Twitter and Tumblr for more experimental music news and info.)

    I: The Many Places of Matthew Shipp


    “How do you practice flexibility? I don’t know,” says Matthew Shipp, speaking on the phone from his home in New York City. “You want your fingerprint on everything but you want the music to mutate on its own, and I don’t think anyone knows how that happens. But there are ways to practice keeping an open mind.”

    This year, Shipp found a new way to open his mind and renew his flexibility: by looking into his past. On his solo album I’ve Been to Many Places, he revisits pieces he had played previously with other musicians, chosen from a wide swath of his three-decade-plus career. The results are shot through with energy and invention. The challenge of interpreting songs from a new angle—including covers of George Gershwin and Roberta Flack tunes—clearly invigorated him.

    “When you replay pieces after not having played them in a while, it triggers things,” Shipp explains. “You refresh yourself about things that you did, ways that you thought, moves that you had at your control a long time ago.”

    Shipp considers the process part of his continuing musical education, and in that regard 2014 was a particularly fruitful year. He also made new album with the Matthew Shipp Trio, his continuing unit with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey. Root of Thingssaw the group expanding their approach while honing their control; there’s a subtle, near-subliminal touch to the album’s hypnotic tunes.

    Shipp and Darius Jones; photo by Peter Gannushkin

    There’s also a subtlety to The Darkseid Recital, a live album Shipp recorded with saxophonist Darius Jones. But here the energy is more unpredictable. Jones’ playing has a suspenseful abandon that spurs Shipp to some dizzying heights. Though the songs feel improvised, “we take an extremely compositional approach to the improvising,” explains Shipp. “We try to define some gesture from the initial attack that becomes the logic of that piece. We evolve it from there, but we stay close to the form of how we identified that initial attack.”

    Add two Ivo Perelman albums in which he served as a sideman, and Shipp’s 2014 tallies as one his most impressive years to date. The ever-evolving pianist focused and stretched many of his considerable artistic strengths. “I’m not saying I’m a musical schizophrenic, but I have a lot of personalities,” he admits. “The challenge is to integrate those into what I would hope is a cohesive meta-personality—and keep many sub parts to that meta-personality.”

    That personality is based on what Shipp often refers to as his musical language. “I guess what I mean by language is the organization of energy fields,” he says. “You’re trying to tell some type of story, and it has a syntax. Can you apply rules to it like a linguist might? Sure. But when I’m playing, I’m just trying to connect with something deep inside myself and put it out there on the keyboard.”

    For Shipp, this playing is just as important when he does it alone as when he’s onstage. Though he doesn't quite rehearse in intense, unending sessions the way he did in his 20s, he still tries to practice every day. “It’s a very important ritual for me—it really gets me close to who I am and what I need to be doing,” he says. “If I miss a few days I start getting really depressed. I feel the need to renew my relationship with the instrument on a daily basis.”

    That relationship began in 1966, when Shipp took up piano at age 5. He was inspired by the liturgical music he heard at the Episcopalian church his family attended in Wilmington, Delaware. By the time he was 12, he knew he wanted to live the rest of his life as a jazz pianist. “I had an uncle who was a pianist, and I used to listen to Chopin with him,” he says. “Then I remember seeing Ahmad Jamal and Nina Simone on TV, and deciding I wanted to be a jazz musician.”

    Photo by Glen Tollington

    Shipp spent stints at the University of Delaware and the New England Conservatory, but in both cases he logged much less time in class than he did practicing piano. Most inspiring was a two-year period of private study with Dennis Sandole, a former mentor to John Coltrane. He recalls being “utterly dedicated” to Sandole’s lessons, working on them 12 to 14 hours a day.

    All the while, Shipp dreamed of moving to New York City. He remembers watching episodes of "The Odd Couple" and walking around downtown Wilmington imagining it was Manhattan. Finally in 1984, at age 23, he headed to New York with the intention of meeting contemporary players such as bassist William Parker. “I actually bumped into William the second day I was here, on 1st Street and 1st Avenue,” Shipp recalls. “I immediately went up and introduced myself and started talking with him.”

    Shipp has since played with Parker countless times in many contexts, but their most famous and longest-lived project together came as members of the David S. WareQuartet. Formed in 1989, the group lasted for 17 years, employing four different drummers in that span to support the core of Ware, Parker, and Shipp. 

    “It seemed like our destiny to be together; it seemed like it was a gift from the gods,” Shipp says. “I didn’t look at it as a sideman gig—it was David’s band, and I was respectful of that, but he gave me a lot of freedom, and it was such an integral part of my life.”

    The Ware Quartet made a wealth of classic recordings, taking post-Coltrane ecstatic jazz to new heights and constructing a sonic signature that made their music instantly recognizable.  “David really wanted that, and made it clear from the beginning that we were dedicated to his vision,” he says. “It wasn’t about being a journeyman; it was about all of us seeing one particular vision to the bitter end. I felt like I was in Led Zeppelin or the Who or something.”

    Shipp’s comparison is apt, since the quartet’s longevity was more akin to the lifespan of rock band than jazz groups. Indeed, the Ware Quartet thrived in a late '90s atmosphere in which jazz figures often commingled with experimental-leaning rock types. Most jazz concerts I attended at that time were full of rock fans, and many fanzines geared toward underground rock—Forced Exposure, Opprobrium, Butt Rag, etc.—devoted significant space to improvised jazz.

    “That was a real alive time in a lot of ways,” Shipp recalls. “We thought we were reinventing jazz for a whole new culture. There might be some truth to that or we might’ve been talking out of our asses, but it was just a really exciting time. We would play with indie rock bands; it worked as a social gathering and it was just utterly, utterly cool.”

    That crossover seems less common today. “In a weird way that ethos is still there,” Shipp says. “But it was a real tangible movement back then and that no longer exists, for many reasons.” For one, he cites electronica and other computer-based music, which siphoned fanzine culture, as did the rise of the Internet and blogs.

    Shipp himself has adapted to electronica as well, recording and touring with Spring Heel Jack, which in turn led him to collaborate with J. Spaceman (aka Jason Pierce of Spiritualized). These excursions have been sponsored primarily by his most supportive label, Thirsty Ear, which he came to via Henry Rollins’ now-defunct 2.13.61 imprint. And those contexts have created new challenges for Shipp.

    “In situations like that I have to give up syncopation, and that’s hard to give up—it’s so basic to who I am and what I do,” he admits. “But that stretches me and makes me look at my own vocabulary in a different way. And there’s joy in finding out you can relate to other types of musicians.” That joy is clear on one of Shipp’s farthest-out efforts for Thirsty Ear, a noisy, uninterrupted 38-minute album by a one-off group with Pierce and Spring Heel Jack’s John Coxon called Black Music Disaster.

    Matthew Shipp Trio; photo by Jon Flanders

    Lately, Shipp has been more focused on traditional jazz scenarios, and 2014 was a rather dark year for that form, at least if you believed the media, as a handful of articles disparaged or outright mocked jazz. Two in particular—a New Yorker“parody” credited to Sonny Rollins (though he had nothing to do with it), and a Washington Posteditorial claiming “jazz isn’t all that great”—rubbed Shipp the wrong way. “The Rollins article—I didn’t find that comical, I thought it was disrespectful. It’s like, Why?” he says. “And the Washington Post article, that was just stupid. That guy is just a moron.”

    “I don’t have a problem with people making fun of jazz because we jazz musicians take ourselves so seriously,” Shipp continues. “But if you’re gonna do that, give us something to think about.” Shipp cites the Twitter account and blog known called Jazz Is the Worst as an example of parody done right. “Whoever does that obviously knows jazz culture,” he says. “There’s some funny stuff there.”

    Shipp himself has used the media to take on jazz, writing reviews for of records by Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett for The Talkhouse. He saw the assignments as chances to fire shots at the current state of the art. “[Jarrett and Corea] have obvious talents or they wouldn’t be where they are, but why in 2014 are they still on covers of magazines?” Shipp asks. “The obvious answer is because the jazz industry is a lazy industry. If jazz can’t create new stars, rather than relying on people who played with Miles Davis in the '70s, then it really does deserve to die.”

    Shipp is outspoken about both the politics of jazz and politics in general, but his stances aren’t an explicit part of his music. “My aesthetic is metaphysical,” he insists. “I’m a human being, so I’m as upset as anybody, and I'm involved with action, whether it’s discussing things on social media or going out on the street. But I don’t deal with those type of things in the music. Besides, I feel the act of playing this music is a political act itself. It’s an act of defiance to do this in this society.”

    What does Shipp mean when he call his aesthetic metaphysical?“I try to create a cosmic landscape—a universe for people to get absorbed or lost in,” he says. “As Sun Ra would say, I’m trying to take pictures of infinity. At one level it’s intuition, but on another level it’s the actual construction of a universe or a realm of thought.”

    Photo by Peter Gannushkin

    Part of this philosophy involves letting go. “I try not to think at allabout the specifics of music when I’m playing,” he explains. “You can study a lot, but when you’re on stage, you try to forget what you know. The art of playing is hopefully a subconscious one where you let nature have its course through the instrument.”

    The music will continue to course through Shipp in 2015. Though he’s discussed the possibility of abandoning recording completely, he already has two releases in the can for next year: a Duke Ellingtontribute record with his trio due in January on Rogue Art, and an album with his chamber trio called The Gospel According to Matthew and Michael on Relative Pitch out in April.

    “I’m always learning and I’m always surprised,” he concludes. “Even if something’s a failure, there are surprises and learning experiences. Anytime you play that’s the case, unless you are phoning it in. I’ve been accused of many things, but I’ve never been accused of phoning it in.”

    –Marc Masters

    Next: The restless ambitions of Oren Ambarchi

    II: Oren Ambarchi: Will Travel for Sound

    Crys Cole and Oren Ambarchi

    For the moment, at least, Oren Ambarchi is at rest.

    A week before Christmas, Ambarchi, at home in Melbourne, Australia, admits that he’s feeling a bit sluggish. He and his partner, the sound artist Crys Cole, entertained friends the previous night, enjoying the holiday season, the warm evening touch of the continent’s young summer, and a rather rare extended span at home. Ambarchi travels as many as nine months out of the year, connecting scattered festival dates and recording sessions in continuous blocks. The strategy limits the number of long, laborious flights he makes in and out of Melbourne and increases his availability.

    That said, he'll be pretty busy with other things for the next eight weeks: This afternoon, his 7-year-old son, Zekie, will get out of school for a break, meaning this might be his last chance to talk about work for a while. “It’s school holidays for about the next two months,” the 45-year-old Ambarchi says with a slow chuckle. “It’s going to be hard to get much of anything done until that's over.”

    But Ambarchi doesn’t seem like the type who’s content with sitting still through summer vacation. In the last few years, he has emerged as one of the most prolific and busy experimental musicians in the world, with his range of projects, styles, and techniques expanding almost as rapidly as his output. Originally a drummer, his reputation now includes work as a focused guitarist, a conjurer of pure and enormous tones, a composer of grand ambitions, an insatiable collaborator, and a noise whiz. He’s relentlessly unsatisfied, too, a performer always looking for an excuse to break the bounds of his repertoire rather than fall into its rut.

    Though he’s known for overpowering experimental music and high-volume pieces that force the listener into a daze, 2012’s Audienceof One began with an earnest pop song. The keening falsetto of Paul Duncan cut James Blake-like figures over subtle strings and electronics. 

    “It’s easy to make dark music, heavy music. I don’t find it that challenging. It’s more challenging for me to make something that’s song-based. I wish I could,” Ambarchi says. “I like the idea of being uncomfortable. I don’t like to do what’s expected all the time.”

    When he scoops his son up this afternoon, the start of the holiday will effectively mark the end of a year in which Ambarchi either released or played vital roles on nearly a dozen records, from his second collaboration with Keiji Haino and Stephen O’Malley as the obliterative power trio Nazoranai to his beautiful, globetrotting epic solo title, Quixotism. He’s recently premiered new commissions by Alvin Lucier and Iancu Dumitrescu, issued his latest trio recording with Haino and Jim O’Rourke on his own Black Truffle imprint, and completed a beguiling collage of field recordings with Cole. He has five albums prepared for 2015 already, including a duo record with O’Rourke and a double-LP performance of the colossal instrumental, “Knots”.

    Jim O'Rourke, Oren Ambarchi, and Keiji Haino

    “I have to pinch myself,” Ambarchi admits of the opportunities his career has begun to generate. “I’m very fortunate to be able to even sit with these people and talk to them. The idea of someone like Alvin Lucier writing a guitar piece for Stephen O’ Malley and me? He’s been such a huge influence on my work for 20 years. To be able to work with the guy and see his methodology but, more, just to be in the room with him, I’m so lucky.”

    The inclusion of luck implies a bit of modesty for someone who seems so dogged in his musical pursuits—especially someone who’s been so obsessed with sound for so much of his life. As a teenager in Sydney, he’d fall asleep listening to records by John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor; to wake him up for school, his dad would simply turn off the stereo. He stumbled into the archives of Impulse! Records as a Jimi Hendrix fanatic. He’d read about connections between the style of Mitch Mitchell, the drummer in the Experience, and Elvin Jones. One day, he found one of the many Coltrane records featuring Jones and took it home on a Hendrix-inspired lark. That’s when he made the decision to say goodbye to his mass of Rolling Stones bootlegs and studio albums. He needed more jazz.

    “I traded them for every Impulse! record I could find,” he says. “I became so into that kind of music, which led to Cecil Taylor and ESP at a pretty young age. All I wanted to do was listen to music. I never left my room.”

    Ambarchi eventually followed that attraction to New York City, where he was a yeshiva student by day and a club-bound teenager by night. He saw Taylor and Charles Gayle, bought as many records as he could afford, haunted the Blue Note and the Knitting Factory. In fact, between those two rooms, he discovered that jazz-based improvisation didn’t have to mean being confined to jazz traditions.

    “I used to see all these jazz guys lined up at the Blue Note on a Monday night. These sax players would be waiting to play one chorus,” he says. “I just didn’t see the point of that. But the experimental world was just so much more open.”

    And in turn, that world opened Ambarchi’s ears to sounds and places he’d never imagined. He saw Haino play at the Knitting Factory in the early '90s, for instance, and stumbled into John Zorn’s wider orbit of eclectic experimenters. An avid record consumer, he purchased a cassette called Eat Shit Noise Music, a bootleg compilation of mysterious Japanese acts issued by an offshoot of RRRecords. When he finally listened back home in Australia, the material blew open his mind.

    “I had to find every record that this tape was from, and it wasn’t easy,” he remembers. “There were only five or six PSF Records releases at this point, and somehow I managed to get them all.” 

    O'Rourke and Ambarchi

    Every two weeks, he would place another order from a distribution company in Osaka. The employees became so familiar with his interests that, when he suggested he might stop by on his way back to Australia from a Stateside tour with Zorn in the early '90s, they suggested that they build a tour for him. He was soon in Japan, partnering with some of the clandestine types who had piqued his interest through Eat Shit Noise Music. Maybe he’s right about that luck.

    “I immediately clicked with the people, the culture, the food, just the enthusiasm for the music,” Ambarchi says. “There was no philosophy or politics. It was just about sound and basking in the glory of noise. It was very ecstatic, and that really resonated with me. All I could think about was how could I get back there, and I’ve been doing that once or twice a year every year.”

    One aspect of Japanese musical culture offers a telling glimpse into Ambarchi’s creative process. After World War II, “jazz kissa” emerged in Japanese cities as a way for listeners to experience the contemporary sounds of records they could not afford from performers who were unlikely to tour the country. Today, some remain as coffee shops or bars, but their real call to visitors is a highly nuanced (if sometimes enormous) record collection. Patrons sit, perhaps sip, and mostly consume records one a time.

    “The guy plays the record, while five people who might be strangers or might be friends nurse a drink and listen to the record at a really loud volume. No one talks. The side finishes, and it’s flipped,” Ambarchi explains, his speech audibly speeding with excitement. “I love going to Japan and doing that; it’s a ritualistic experience. It’s something that’s lost now because of technology or life, but it gives me this energy for the rest of the year.”

    That steady surrender to sound defines Ambarchi’s approach. A perfectionist who admits that he’s distracted for days after a live performance goes badly, he keeps several projects in the works at once and for years at a time. In 2014, he released three records that he’d been pondering and tweaking for the better part of his son’s life. With O’Malley and producer and multi-instrumentalist Randall Dunn, he recorded Shade Themes from Kairos half a decade ago as a working score for a film by Belgian artist Alexis Destoop. They finally revisited the material and finished it, though the process of initially making that music had already helped to fuel 2012’s Audience of One and Sagittarian Domain.

    Likewise, he and Cole made field recordings of their personal lives together while Ambarchi completed a residency outside of Oslo. They’ve been sitting on the tapes for years, slowly turning them into what he calls “a document of how you love this person and you made this record together.” The two-side result is a wondrously warped listen, where tiny moments of candid conversation, makeouts and windy walks outside morph into surreal drones.

    “We push each other to do different things,” he says. “It’s really great to be able to work with someone you love and to be inspired and challenged by your partner.”

    That search for simultaneous challenge and inspiration seems to be at the core of Ambarchi’s discography. It’s what makes him love playing with Haino, who shifts streams every time his trio with Ambarchi and O’Rourke begins to settle into a sound. Likewise, for Ambarchi, recording is a revelatory process where he can unlock something new, something unimagined. When he was making Grapes from the Estate a decade ago, he wanted to stack multiple guitar overdubs recorded at different speeds and in different tunings to two-inch tape and see what they sounded like when played back at one speed. The engineer at Sydney’s Big Jesus Burger studio was so bored he walked out of the sessions. But Ambarchi risked hours on the experiment.

    “When we played what I’d done back, it was otherworldly, much more beautiful than expected,” he says. “It excites you, so you want to keep pushing. It’s like a puzzle, and all of a sudden, there’s this weird element that ties everything together, makes it special. That’s something I’m quite addicted to.”

    That feeling arrived for the new Quixotism, Ambarchi’s first LP on Edition Mego since Sagittarian Domain, with the unlikely addition of Japanese tabla player U-zhaan. Quixotism is an immersive record, the sort of long-playing affair you’d want to hear at complete attention while sitting in a jazz kissa. Strings and synths and drums wrap around a slowly shifting rhythm, like a medical gauze made of sound. 

    Finishing the album turned into a worldwide expedition. More than two years ago, Ambarchi asked German producer Thomas Brinkmann to build a beat that lasted for 50 minutes or more and slowly evolved. He would then build layers around it. It eventually involved sessions with Dunn in Seattle, contributions from former Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlain, the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and British classical and improvisational legend John Tilbury.

    “I think that [lineup] is really perverse,” Ambarchi jokes.

    He wanted to add tabla as a tribute to the late Robert Ashley, too, but the first attempt in Melbourne ended in total failure. He almost gave up, but he knew that, in Tokyo, O’Rourke would know how to fix it. Ambarchi sat on the record for a year and then approached O’Rourke with the idea. At dinner one night, O’Rourke said the best tabla player in Japan lived around the corner. They invited him over, and Quixotism suddenly had its magic piece.

    “He shows up at the studio with eight tablas, and he tuned each tabla to each string of my guitar. I thought, ‘OK, this is some serious shit,’” Ambarchi says. “Everything fell into place, and I knew that it would. I was just waiting for that moment.”   

    –Grayson Haver Currin


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    Staff Lists: 2014 Readers Poll Results

    The Pitchfork/Dissolve Readers Poll features your picks for the best (and worst) in the world of music and film. Below, you'll find the musical half 2014 Readers Poll results, including your choices for Top Albums and Top Tracks, along with Most Underrated and Overrated Albums, Best Videos, Best Album Covers, Best New Artists, Most Disappointing Albums, Best Musician Twitters, and Best Live Acts. Be sure to head to The Dissolve to see the film results. 

    Top 50 Albums

    01. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    The most viciously realized rap album of 2014 also topped our list of The 50 Best Albums of 2014. Listen now on Google Play.

    02. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    The band's most lustrous, intricately detailed, and beautifully rendered record to date. Listen now on Google Play.

    03. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    St. Vincent is in a sense the Platonic ideal of a St. Vincent record, executing with perfect poise everything we already know Annie Clark can do. Listen now on Google Play.

    04. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    While Benji is consumed with death, sadness, and tragedy, there's gratitude within this melancholy, and it’s Mark Kozelek’s most life-affirming record. Listen now on Google Play.

    05. FKA twigs: LP1
    FKA twigs' first full-length is a monumental debut. On a formal level, it takes the kinds of risks that few pop artists, and few "experimental" artists, for that matter, are willing to take these days. Listen now on Google Play.

    06. Mac DeMarco: Salad Days
    Mac DeMarco's second full-length isn’t a departure from its predecessor so much as a richer, increasingly assured refinement. Listen now on Google Play.

    07. Swans: To Be Kind
    Michael Gira seems aware that anticipation for a new Swans album has never been greater, so he’s responded in the best way possible: by producing a record that is every bit The Seer’s equal. Listen now on Google Play.

    08. Flying Lotus: You're Dead!
    Flying Lotus' fifth album has the stated theme of the one thing every single human has in common, and just about every conceivable style of music is prone to address: the inevitability and condition of death, and how mysterious it really is. Listen now on Google Play.

    09. Spoon: They Want My Soul
    Spoon's eighth album is their most booming LP, most resembling a companion piece to 2007's masterwork Ga Ga Ga Ga GaListen now on Google Play.

    10. Caribou: Our Love
    Dan Snaith's sixth album as Caribou is his most overtly personal record to date, one that’s remarkable for its intimacy, openheartedness, and joy derived from basic human connection. Listen now on Google Play.

    11. Aphex Twin: Syro

    Listen now on Google Play.

    12. Real Estate: Atlas

    Listen now on Google Play.

    13. Ariel Pink: Pom Pom

    Listen now on Google Play.

    14. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire for No Witness

    Listen now on Google Play.

    15. Cloud Nothings: Here and Nowhere Else

    Listen now on Google Play.

    16. Todd Terje: It's Album Time

    Listen now on Google Play.

    17. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: Piñata

    Listen now on Google Play.

    18. Perfume Genius: Too Bright

    Listen now on Google Play.

    19. Future Islands: Singles

    Listen now on Google Play.

    20. Sharon Van Etten: Are We There

    Listen now on Google Play.

    21. Iceage: Plowing Into the Field of Love

    Listen now on Google Play.

    22. Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal

    Listen now on Google Play.

    23. Beyoncé: Beyoncé

    Listen now on Google Play.

    24. How to Dress Well: "What Is This Heart?"

    Listen now on Google Play.

    25. Grouper: Ruins

    Listen now on Google Play.

    26. Beck: Morning Phase

    Listen now on Google Play

    27. Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence

    Listen now on Google Play.

    28. Ought: More Than Any Other Day

    Listen now on Google Play.

    29. Ty Segall: Manipulator

    Listen now on Google Play.

    30. Lykke Li: I Never Learn

    Listen now on Google Play

    31. tUnE-yArDs: Nikki Nack

    Listen now on Google Play.

    32. Azealia Banks: Broke With Expensive Taste

    Listen now on Google Play.

    33. Alvvays: Alvvays

    Listen now on Google Play.

    34. Wild Beasts: Present Tense

    Listen now on Google Play.

    35. Death Grips: Niggas on the Moon

    36. A Sunny Day in Glasgow: Sea When Absent

    Listen now on Google Play.

    37. TV on the Radio: Seeds

    Listen now on Google Play.

    38. Shabazz Palaces: Lese Majesty

    Listen now on Google Play.

    39. Hundred Waters: The Moon Rang Like a Bell

    Listen now on Google Play.

    40. Andy Stott: Faith in Strangers

    Listen now on Google Play.

    41. The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers

    Listen now on Google Play.

    42. The Antlers: Familiars

    Listen now on Google Play.

    43. Taylor Swift: 1989

    Listen now on Google Play.

    44. Arca: Xen

    Listen now on Google Play.

    45. Jack White: Lazaretto

    Listen now on Google Play.

    46. Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love

    Listen now on Google Play.

    47. The Hotelier: Home Like NoPlace Is There

    Listen now on Google Play.

    48. Ex Hex: Rips

    Listen now on Google Play.

    49. alt-J: This Is All Yours

    Listen now on Google Play.

    50. Schoolboy Q: Oxymoron

    Listen now on Google Play.

    Most Underrated Album

    01. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: Piñata
    02. Julian Casablancas + the Voidz: Tyranny
    03. Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence
    04. Thom Yorke: Tomorrow's Modern Boxes
    05. Death Grips: Niggas on the Moon
    06. Alvvays: Alvvays
    07. The Hotelier: Home Like NoPlace Is There
    08. Interpol: El Pintor
    09. Alex G: DSU
    10. TV on the Radio: Seeds

    Most Overrated Album

    01. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    02. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    03. FKA twigs: LP1
    04. Ariel Pink: Pom Pom
    05. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    06. Swans: To Be Kind
    07. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    08. Aphex Twin: Syro
    09. Beyoncé: Beyoncé
    10. Taylor Swift: 1989
    11. U2: Songs of Innocence
    12. Mac DeMarco: Salad Days
    13. How to Dress Well: "What Is This Heart?"
    14. alt-J: This Is All Yours
    15. Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence
    16. Flying Lotus: You're Dead!
    17. Real Estate: Atlas
    18. Beck: Morning Phase
    19. Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love
    20. Jack White: Lazaretto

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    Top 50 Songs

    01. FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"
    The key song form twigs' full-length debut is a smoldering expression of lust and longing. Listen now on Google Play.

    02. Flying Lotus: "Never Catch Me" [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
    Perhaps the most impressive thing about this key single is how it integrates Kendrick's voice, retaining his personality but mixing it perfectly into FlyLo's own bent vision. Listen now on Google Play.

    03. Run the Jewels: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)"
    Not only the best track on Run the Jewels' last album, "Close Your Eyes" also marks the surprise return of Zach De La Rocha. Listen now on Google Play.

    04. St. Vincent: "Digital Witness"
    "Digital Witness" is Annie Clark's brilliant deception of how consciousness is shaped by technology. Listen now on Google Play.

    05. Caribou: "Can't Do Without You" Gentle and touching sentiments embedded in a party anthem. Listen now on Google Play.

    06. Perfume Genius: "Queen" One of the most brilliant subversive songs of the year and also Perfume Genius' breakout. Listen now on Google Play.

    07. Mac DeMarco: "Passing Out Pieces" The laconic singer-songwriter on what it's like to give too much. Listen now on Google Play.

    08. Cloud Nothings: "I'm Not Part of Me"
    A trademark blast of confusion and youthful energy from the Cleveland garage-punkners. Listen now on Google Play.

    09. Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
    Pitchfork's all-heart #1 song of the year comes in at #9 for our readers. Listen now on Google Play.

    10. The War on Drugs: "Red Eyes"
    2014's most cathartic moment: Woo! 
    Listen now on Google Play

    11. Run the Jewels: "Blockbuster Night Pt. 1"
    12. Spoon: "Do You"
    13. Sun Kil Moon: "Ben's My Friend"
    14. Aphex Twin: "minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]"
    15. St. Vincent: "Prince Johnny"
    16. Real Estate: "Talking Backwards"
    17. FKA twigs: "Pendulum"
    18. Sia: "Chandelier"
    19. Ariel Pink: "Put Your Number in My Phone"
    20. Swans: "A Little God in My Hands"
    21. iLoveMakonnen: "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday"
    22. Swans: "Oxygen"
    23. Sharon Van Etten: "Your Love Is Killing Me"
    24. Panda Bear: "Mr Noah"
    25. Iceage: "The Lord's Favorite"
    26. Parquet Courts: "Instant Disassembly"
    27. Alvvays: "Archie, Marry Me"
    28. tUnE-yArDs: "Water Fountain"
    29. Angel Olsen: "Hi-Five"
    30. Todd Terje: "Delorean Dynamite"
    31. Mac DeMarco: "Brother"
    32. Ariel Pink: "Black Ballerina"
    33. Ought: "Habit"
    34. Caribou: "Our Love"
    35. Ariel Pink: "Picture Me Gone"
    36. The War on Drugs: "Under the Pressure"
    37. Real Estate: "Crime"
    38. Röyksopp, Robyn: "Do It Again"
    39. Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks: "Little Fang"
    40. Todd Terje: "Johnny and Mary" [ft. Bryan Ferry]
    41. Angel Olsen: "White Fire"
    42. Flying Lotus: "Coronus, the Terminator"
    43. Rustie: "Attak" [ft. Danny Brown]
    44. Father John Misty: "Bored in the USA"
    45. Cloud Nothings: "Psychic Trauma"
    46. How to Dress Well: "Words I Don't Remember"
    47. Kendrick Lamar: "i"
    48. Spoon: "Inside Out"
    49. Sun Kil Moon: "Carissa"
    50. Sophie: "Hard"

    Best Music Video

    01. FKA twigs: "Two Weeks"
    02. Flying Lotus: "Never Catch Me" [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
    03. Sia: "Chandelier"
    04. Mac DeMarco: "Passing Out Pieces"
    05. St. Vincent: "Digital Witness"
    06. Perfume Genius: "Queen"
    07. Beyoncé: "7/11"
    08. FKA twigs: "Video Girl"
    09. Iceage: "The Lord's Favorite"
    10. Ariel Pink: "Picture Me Gone"

    Favorite Album Cover

    01. FKA twigs: LP1
    02. Flying Lotus: You're Dead!
    03. Swans: To Be Kind
    04. St. Vincent: St. Vincent
    05. Caribou: Our Love
    06. Aphex Twin: Syro
    07. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2
    08. Todd Terje: It's Album Time
    09. Sharon Van Etten: Are We There
    10. Spoon: They Want My Soul
    11. Sun Kil Moon: Benji
    12. Iceage: Plowing Into the Field of Love
    13. Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal
    14. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
    15. Arca: Xen
    16. Pharmakon: Bestial Burden
    17. SBTRKT: Wonder Where We Land
    18. Future Islands: Singles
    19. Liars: Mess
    20. Ariel Pink: Pom Pom

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    Best Musician Twitter

    01. Ezra Koenig (@arzE)
    02. Kanye West (@kanyewest)
    03. El-P (@therealelp)
    04. Grimes (@Grimezsz)
    05. Azealia Banks (@AZEALIABANKS)
    06. Tyler, the Creator (@fucktyler)
    07. Lil B (@LILBTHEBASEDGOD)
    08. Killer Mike (@KillerMikeGTO)
    09. St. Vincent (@st_vincent)
    10. Phil Elverum (@PWElverum)

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    0 0

    Show No Mercy: The Best Metal Albums of 2014

    I listened to a lot of metal this year, and these are the albums I liked the most. To shift things up from previous round-ups, I've included my personal Top 25, along with separate selections from Pitchfork's metal contributors. At this point I'm hardly the only person covering metal at the site, so I thought it would be worthwhile letting those other voices have their say.

    I also included a list from Saint Vitus bar's Dave Castillo. I asked Dave, a close friend, to submit something because he's booked hundreds of metal and hardcore shows, and I was curious what stood out the most for someone in that position. Plus, I live in NYC, and his venue has provided a center for the metal scene here: Sometimes it's nice to step away from the laptop and remember the physical spaces that lured me to this world in the first place.

    Speaking of which, I don't usually include books on these lists, but you should check out No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes, an excellent oral history of City Gardens that came out earlier this year. The now-shuttered Trenton venue was important to me as a teenager—I saw a ton of shows there, including the Ramones (my first non-backyard hardcore show), an unexpected Descendents reunion, early Green Day sets, Bad Brains, Butthole Surfers, My Bloody Valentine with Dinosaur, Fugazi, countless hardcore gigs, Gwar (with my frightened kid brother), Skinny Puppy with Pigface and a bunch of goth kids from my college, a few too many ska-punk shows (for unexplained reasons), Shelter somehow, and dozens upon dozens of others.

    That space, and its no-bullshit construction and philosophy, helped shape my life and the way I approached doing shows, and things in general. In 2014, I'm especially interested in these kinds of underdog spots—you've already read enough about CBGB's and the like, and it's worth exploring scenes that existed outside of major urban centers, the locales that held scenes together under one roof. This is one of those, the stories are insane, and the book's a treat.

    Onto the records.



    25. Planning for Burial: Desideratum [The Flenser]

    Planning for Burial is the project of Matawan, NJ's Thom Wasluck. The mix of highly personalized doom, noise pop, and lo-fi post-metal on his second album brings to mind the '90s under-the-pillow noise of Twisted Village regular Luxurious Bags and the quieter, fuzzier work of Justin Broadrick's Jesu. As his moniker suggests, Wasluck goes into darker spaces, dealing with things like depression, loneliness, and jealousy—subjects you'd expect from music that sounds like it was recorded alone in a bedroom. On "Golden", the 16-minute closer, he offers a prime example of how to move from gentle acoustic strums to room-filling noise without hurting anyone's eardrums. It's like he was afraid to wake up his housemates.

    Planning For Burial: "Golden" on Bandcamp



    24. Thantifaxath: Sacred White Noise [Dark Descent]

    On their ambitious, abstracted debut, the hooded Toronto trio play complex black metal that feels like it was recorded in a hall of mirrors—tones are extended and distorted, rhythms shattered and frayed, the overall atmosphere like a twisted carnival. Think a street-punk version of Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Nord or, maybe, a creepier Krallice with a penchant for flights into new classical. For all the layers of atmosphere and technical chops, though, this is immediate, melodic music: It's enjoyable getting lost in Sacred White Noise, then using the surprise hooks to pull you out of the insanity.



    23. Lantlôs: Melting Sun [Prophecy]

    German multi-instrumentalist Markus Siegenhort split vocals with Alcest's Neige on previous Lantlôs records; he goes it alone on album four, a pretty and still very sturdy collection that blends gorgeous, airy post-rock guitars and heavier, molasses drums with Siegenhort's bright, clear voice. Unlike Neige's flimsier recent work, Siegenhort maintains enough grit here (mostly in the drums) to remind you where the project originated. Ultimately, it's kaleidoscopic and progressive dream pop that often does sound like a sun melting.  (Note: Despite the evocative album title, and the mention of post-rock, it sounds nothing like Sunbather.)

    Lantlôs: "Melting Sun I: Azure Chimes"



    22. Wreck & Reference: Want [The Flenser]

    The Los Angeles duo Wreck & Reference use a sampler, drums, and voice to express immense, apocalyptic rage. On Want they sometimes hint at a more fucked up and heavy Xiu Xiu, other times Prurient screaming at a wall, and now and again an elegant Godflesh. You even get what might be best described as "Big Black-esque spoken word." Importantly, though, across these 11 spartan songs, they basically sound like no one else. (Of note: They have an entertaining Twitter feed, if you're into those sorts of things.)
     



    21. Mutilation Rites:Harbinger [Prosthetic]

    On their second album, and first with Ryan Jones (ex-Today Is the Day, and a very good sound man/producer) on bass and second vocals, the gnarled New York band continued finding a way to cram raw black metal with considerably more hooks, swing, and overall compositional know-how than your average Darkthrone worshippers. (Like Jones, drummer Justin Ennis is also an accomplished professional sound person—I figure this is how they manage to play so loud without losing definition.) Where a lot of black metal in 2014 felt rote, Harbinger is more life-affirming than a suffocating collection with song titles like "Suffer the Children" and "Gravitational Collapse" should be.



    20. Atriarch: An Unending Pathway [Relapse]

    The Portland band, fronted by shape-shifting vocalist Lenny Smith (the guy should have his own reality show), play forward-marching death rock that also cycles into doom, black metal, and punk. (There are dark, catchy songs here you could imagine hearing on vintage 120 Minutes.) At one point on their third album, An Unending Pathway, Smith sings: "When I'm dead, bury me here with no casket or trinkets from life/ I’ll decompose into the Earth so the cycle is whole." It's a beautiful sentiment, and, importantly, you know he's not bullshitting.

    Atriarch: "Entropy" on Bandcamp



    19. Teitanblood: Death [Norma Evangelium Diaboli]

    The chaotic Spanish duo Teitanblood's second collection of wall-of-noise blackened death metal (or whatever you decide to label a maelstrom) is satisfyingly overwhelming, but also entirely to the point: each track is akin to an uphill life/death struggle, with all the violent flailing you'd assume comes with that sort of experience. In this context, the occasional Tom G. Warrior-style death grunt rings like an actual death rattle, now and then a thrashy solo surfaces from the clamoring muck like an outstretched hand, and sometimes when a song ends you feel like you're the one who needs that sort of assistance. Honestly, it's difficult imagining the guys playing these shambling, suffocating songs more than once, but it's very enjoyable trying to figure out how they do.

     



    18. Gridlink: Longhena [Handshake Inc]

    Led by the shredded yowl of Jon Chang and Takafumi Matsubara's artfully complex guitar decompositions, the NJ/Tex./Japan grindcore group's swan song, like their previous salvos, found a way to locate a spot between chiseled violence and spit-shine beauty. On Longhena, 14 songs clock in at 22 minutes, but that doesn't mean there isn't time for a pensive ambient string piece amid the complex explosions. For some reason when I think of Longhena, I imagine it being placed somewhere in an art gallery.

     



    17. Krieg: Transient [Candlelight]

    Krieg's Neill Jameson is a prolific NJ-based American black metal lifer, a brainy former record store clerk writer who's made songs about American Psycho's Patrick Bateman and covered the Velvet Underground. He's been around for ages, seemingly always on the periphery. So it was kind of a surprise that his seventh album as Krieg, and first in four years, is a USBM masterpiece, one that comes almost 20 years into his discography. In part this is because Transient feels like a first. There's a punk black'n'roll feel—confirmed by a rollicking cover of Amebix's "Winter"—and an energy that eclipses anything he's done previously. But it's buttressed by his boundless invention—swirling power electronics before a massive hardcore breakdown, boozy post-punk, and, hey, a spoken word piece that pairs his Twilight cohort Thurston Moore with Integrity’s Dwid Hellion. I've booked a few Krieg shows over the years, and remember one time, ages ago, when I paired him with a nascent Liturgy, and watched Jameson down a bottle of honey before the show. That's always informed the way I heard his voice, and how he's figured out what he needs to do to keep things going.



    16. Agalloch: The Serpent & the Sphere [Profound Lore]

    Agalloch's fifth album is the Oregon dark metal group's gentlest—it takes its time with the hushed 10-minute opener and a three-minute classical guitar piece, and remains controlled and unhurried throughout. The record is definitely grand—there are dramatic upswings and echoes and double drumming—but in tone, an often whispering John Haughm and company are pensive, allowing more room for folk and less for blackened whatever. But, of course, when they do decide to howl into the wind, the shivers are even more pronounced, and Serpent suggests an elegant way for these guys to continue mutating around their central conceit for years to come.



    15. Diocletian: Gesundrian [Osmose Productions]

    The long-running New Zealand war metal outfit Diocletian's third full length features what sounds like air raid sirens emerging from the black/death muck of the second to last track "Beast Atop the Trapezoid". It's a calming moment on an otherwise buzzing, blistering assault of a record.

     




    14. Eyehategod: 
    Eyehategod 
    [Housecore]


    The classic New Orleans group's first record in 14 years, which comes after Katrina and various personal tragedies, ranks with the best of their over-driven punked-up sludge blues. It's also the last record to feature drummer Joe LaCaze, who passed away in August of this year, a fact that's hard to grasp when you hear how alive he is on these recordings.

     



    Eyehategod: "Robitussin and Rejection" on SoundCloud.



    13. Inter Arma: The Cavern EP [Relapse]

    Last year Richmond, Virginia's Inter Arma turned heads with their second album, Sky Burial, a collection that offered a gimmick-free mix of doom, Americana, sludge, groove metal, Southern acoustic ambiance, and filthy crust psychedelia. This year they packed all of that, and more, into one 40 minute song that will keep you glued to your stereo from start to finish. A very exciting band who'll hopefully continue with these sorts of curveballs.

     
    Inter Arma: "The Cavern" on Bandcamp



    12. Morbus Chron:Sweven [Century Media]

    The Swedish band's adventurous second collection features 10 songs focusing in one way or another on being stuck in an extended nightmare or astral projection...or something. It's not all that important you decipher that aspect of Sweven—the music's rich enough on its own. The patient, brainy, knotty collection finds the group moving away from their 2011 debut's old-school Autopsy nods to progressive death metal complete with mathy breakdowns, a black metal interlude or two, blazing solos, and tons of atmosphere. Because of the care in these compositions, it's an album best experienced whole, and it's one you can listen to a dozen times a day and continue unpacking. (If you end up being a fan, check out Tribulation from last year's list.)



    11. Primordial: Where Greater Men Have Fallen [Metal Blade]

    On their eighth album, the Irish epic metal band's vocalist/iconic frontman A.A. Nemtheanga chews the vast soundscapes his band lays down behind him. You get eight songs stretching to more than an hour, and he never lags or phones anything in as he intones about Ireland's history, tyrants that oppress the common man, and giving your life for what you love, among other things (hell, there's a song called "Wield Lightning to Split the Sun"). It's a fist-pumping, call-to-arms performance that's made me think of a blackened folk metal Freddie Mercury now and again (why not?). If you at all care about nations and the people working hard to survive in them, this stuff will give you chills.



    10. Dead Congregation: Promulgation of the Fall [Profound Lore]

    The Greek band's second full-length channels the old school death metal of Incantation and Immolation and makes it new. They're not rewriting the book, but they've managed to create another masterpiece of the form. They're a band as technically sick as they are able to create sick atmospheres, and when I saw them live recently, I caught myself staring with my mouth open, a dumfounded witness.

     Dead Congregation: "Promulgation of the Fall" on Bandcamp



    9. Indian: From All Purity [Relapse]

    The Chicago doomed sludge band's fifth record features even more feedback and noise than usual, courtesy of Chicago mainstay, Bloodyminded/Anatomy of Habit's Mark Solotroff. Otherwise they remain as single-mindedly focused (and as blown-out and nihilistic) as ever. On the back of 2011's great Guiltless and this record, I asked the quartet to headline my Show No Mercy showcase at SXSW last year—watching them live was like watching four very focused men beat something until it died.

    Indian: "Directional" on SoundCloud.



    8. Woods of Desolation: As the Stars [Northern Silence Productions]

    Woods of Desolation is the ongoing project of  guitarist/bassist D. and a revolving cast of players. For his excellent third album as WoD, he got help from drummer Vlad (Drudkh) and fellow Australians, bassist Luke Mills (Nazxul, Pestilential Shadows) and vocalist Drohtnung (Old). On paper, the combination of pretty sky-melting guitars and depressive black metal vocals may bring to mind early Alcest and Deafheaven, but this is actually more reminiscent of vintage Katatonia, albeit recorded somewhere deep in the forest and after they somehow got into Explosions in the Sky.

    Woods of Desolation: "This Autumn Light" on Bandcamp



    7. Godflesh: A World Lit Only By Fire [Avalanche]

    The best thing you can say about industrial metal giants Godflesh's first album in 13 years is that it sounds like a record they made more than 20 years ago. On it, Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green returned to their roots—1988’s Godflesh EP, 1989’s Streetcleaner, and 1992’s Pure—and managed to expand upon what they did best without losing any of the original burn.




    6. Blut Aus Nord: Memoria Vetusta III - Saturnian Poetry [Debemur Morti]

    Each year Blut Aus Nord release a record they show up somewhere on my year-end list with a description about how the project of French multi-instrumentalist Vindsval continues pushing boundaries. On his 11th full-length, this one featuring the live drumming of Thorns (Frostmoon Eclipse, Glorior Belli, Deathrow), he returns from the dark ambient and industrial offerings of the 777 trilogy with a proper black metal record—albeit, one clearly from the mind of a guy who's also made dark ambient and industrial albums. Every element, down to the light in the landscape on the cover, is in the right place.



    5. Nux Vomica: Nux Vomica [Relapse]

    For their first record in five years, and first for Relapse, the crusty Portland-via-Baltimore doom band give us three punked-up, politically minded songs that reminded me of the best of Dystopia and Nausea while adding in unexpected elements (the fluttering guitar beauty of "Reeling," the soaring ambient section of "Choked at the Roots") and stretching to 45 minutes. These very catchy, very inspired tracks already have the feel of classic anthems, and when vocalist Just Dave yells "We must resist!" or "We stopped watching the news/ cause we couldn't take it anymore," it's very easy not only to yell along, but to remember that thoughts like this are what got you here initially.

    Nux Vomica: "Sanity Is for the Passive" on Bandcamp



    4. Tombs: Savage Gold [Relapse]

    From intense frontman/band leader Mike Hill and on, the Brooklyn band Tombs is best described as “muscular,” but are otherwise difficult to pin down. The music is precise, heavy, and powerful, and they mix black metal, post-rock, noise rock, straight-up rock, and other elements into a specific, identifiable sound. (Imagine Unsane discovering black metal and copping to an interest in Joy Division.) It’s a style that's buffed to a shine on their third album, Savage Gold, which was recorded and produced by death metal legend Erik Rutan (Hate Eternal, ex-Morbid Angel). There’s a coiled intensity to these 10 songs, and Savage manages to feel both more stripped back and deeper than their also excellent previous work.



    3. YOB: Clearing the Path to Ascend [Neurot]

    The Eugene, Oregon doom band and year-end list-regulars' seventh album consists of four instant classics clocking in at more than an hour. Their humble, shamanistic frontman and guitarist Mike Scheidt, who wrote this material after a divorce and decision to go off antidepressants, reminds me of J Mascis in his off-stage soft-spoken manner and on-stage six-string theatrics. The music itself is the usual blend of psychedelic and stoner rock, blues, and something more blackened, capped by Scheidt's powerful vocals. But this time out, the material feels especially classic (especially closer "Marrow"), and it's clear that Yob truly are one of America's great heavy bands, a group that should be much bigger than they are.


    2. Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden [Profound Lore]

    For their second album, the Arkansas doom band recorded with Billy Anderson, who sat behind the controls for the classic Sleep oeuvre and has recorded seminal works for High on Fire, Melvins, Jawbreaker, and others. In an interview I did with Pallbearer co-founder/co-lyricist/bassist Joseph D. Rowland, he said Anderson told them he's never recorded a band that used so many guitar tracks—an element of Pallbearer's sound that explains the massiveness of Foundations, as well as how they saw Sorrow and Extinction's successes as an opportunity to deepen and strengthen their craft. This is an ambitious record that doesn't feel at all over-worked or stale, and while Extinction holds up beautifully two years later, Foundations is the stronger collection to the point that it almost comes across as demos for this new material. And where Extinction often felt like a solitary album—especially in its focus on death and mortality—Foundations is built for larger communal spaces.



    1. Thou: Heathen [Gilead Media/Vendetta/Howling Mine]

    With their fourth full-length, the first since 2010's great Summit, the prolific Baton Rouge band Thou continue putting out important, enthralling music that combines their DIY approach with sludge, doom, and punk. (It's their fourth LP, but they've released more than 20 records when you count the EPs and splits.) Heathen is painful and raw, but melodic and transportive. There are throat-shredders like the 15-minute opener "Free Will", moody acoustic interludes (one's called "Take Off Your Skin and Dance in Your Bones"), and ghostly female vocals (courtesy of Emily McWilliams),

    On their label's site, they mention that it's recommended if you like "nature, the sensual world, sexual decadence, pain and ecstasy, actively experiencing the present." Summitreminded me of my mother's death, largely because she passed away the year it was released, but also because of the subtle funereal horns and its overall darkness. Heathen, though, for all its intensity, feels to me like an affirmation.

    Thou: "Free Will" on Bandcamp



    Honorable Mention: The Soft Pink Truth: Why Do the Heathen Rage? [Thrill Jockey]

    On Why Do the Heathen Rage?, Matmos' Drew Daniel applies his experimental house project Soft Pink Truth's lusty style to songs by Darkthrone, Venom, Beherit, Mayhem, Hellhammer, and other black metal outfits, incorporating guests like Antony, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, David Serrotte of the Baltimore vogue ball crew House of Revlon, and Locrian’s Terence Hannum. Snippets from gay house classics (and porn) also play a part.

    As Daniel’s made clear in the past, SPT is a queer-focused project, as shown on this LP by his cover of Seth Putnam/Impaled Northern Moonforest’s “Grim and Frostbitten Gay Bar” and artist Mavado Charon’s cover illustration of corpse-painted men fucking and murdering each other. The liner notes feature a piece called “Confessions of a Former Burzum T-Shirt Wearer”, where Daniel talks about what it means to be a gay man as well as a fan of black metal—a genre with a sketchy, violent history that includes the murder of a gay man by Emperor’s Bård “Faust”, as well as the fascism of Burzum’s Varg Vikernes. As Daniel puts it, “Just as blasphemy both affirms and assaults the sacred powers it invokes and inverts, so too this record celebrates black metal and offers queer critique, mockery, and profanation of its ideological morass in equal measure.”

    It's an album inspired by metal, yes, but it's also a metal album. Sort of. I gave it Honorable Mention because it feels like it deserves its own space. I did the same thing with Liturgy a few years back when they released Aesthethica. Sometimes an album feel too singular to add to a list. At least to me.

    I was also into Cult of Fire'sमृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान (Iron Bonehead) this year. I discovered it in 2014, but it came out last December, so I didn't include it. Here's a track:

    Here are the rest of the lists...

    Zoe Camp

    10. EEL: Endless Fucker LP [Mind Cure/Konton Crasher]

    Who would’ve thought that a bunch of Pittsburgh-based Japanophiles packing would make one of the most enjoyable, hardcore albums of the year? Drawing heavily from pivotal Tokyo punk bands like Lip Cream and Gauze right down to the pronunciation, EEL’s potential status as the nation’s heaviest-leaning weeaboos is redeemed through their clever incorporation of outside elements—like power electronics and freakin’ CHAINSAWS—into one of punk’s frequently-overlooked, massively-underrated variants. 

    EEL: "Low Life // Dead // Violent Anarky // Bars Is Prisons // Who Kill Bum?" on Bandcamp



    9. Orange Goblin: Back From the Abyss [Candlelight]

    A veritable treasure trove of desert jams packed with wacky references to vampire-armed shotguns and enough riffs to make up a whole Guitar Hero game (if they still made Guitar Hero games), Back From the Abyss is the best outing by the bluesy Brits in a decade—as well as an important reminder that stoner rock need not be slothful or soaked in amps to prove its point. 


    Orange Goblin: "Sabbath Hex" on Bandcamp



    8. Mutilation Rites: Harbinger [Prosthetic]

    To the ire of genre purists, flaky listeners, and elitists, Mutilation Rites followed their expansive, uncategorizable 2012 debut with an LP of dense, lengthy cuts sporting star-gazing instrumentals, grunge-seeped outtros, mournful prog, and a mathematician’s trove of polyrhythms—often in the course of a single song. Like the city that spawned them, the Brooklynites refuse to settle on a single musical mindset, thereby producing one of the most engrossing listens of the year.



    7. Stoic Violence: Chained [Deranged/Video Disease]

    Along with their Los Angeles peers Trash Talk, Long Beach’s Stoic Violence offer a venom-drenched rebuttal to anyone claiming that the glory days of southern California hardcore are behind us. Rather than mess with the formula, Chained combines spartan fretwork with lurching, unruly rhythms to evoke the spirits of pretty much every band that’s ever played Fenders Ballroom—the only difference is this time, they know how the stories play out, and see no happy endings. The end result is gnarled, nihilistic and positively nasty.

    Stoic Violence: "Chained" on Bandcamp



    6. Boris: Noise [Sargent House]

    In a crushing act of matrimony, Noise weds Boris’ two most distinct styles: the contemplative post-rock of the Flood era, and the sludgier material which formed the basis for their collaborations with Merzbow. The fusion proves sublime, especially the breathtaking self-effacement of the album's eighteen-minute centerpiece, "Angel", over the span of its eighteen-minute fall from grace.

     




    5. Dead Congregation: Promulgation of the Fall [Profound Lore]

    As an ancient city in a modern world, stuck between the mores of Greek Orthodoxy and the screams of anarchists, Athens’ spirit is rooted in schisms: divides which serve as fulcrums for Greek band Dead Congregation on the fantastic Promulgation of the Fall. Steeped in the shadow-play of '90s death metal, it’s an LP rooted in tradition and infused with modern fury—and one of the most Herculean efforts of the year.


    Dead Congregation: "Promulgation of the Fall" on Bandcamp



    4. Eyehategod: 
    Eyehategod 
    [Housecore]


    The 14 years separating Eyehategod’s self-titled album from its predecessor (2000’s Confederacy of Ruined Lives) were plagued with far more sorrow than anyone should have to endure. From hurricanes, to addiction, to the passing of drummer Joey LaCaze last year (Eyehategod is his last sonic will and testament), the New Orleans’ story took a dark spin in the aughts—and as all that pain looms in the background of Eyehategod's snarled comeback, its presence ultimately encompasses the engine powering some of the band’s filthiest, most thunderous material to date.



    3. Gridlink: Longhena [Handshake Inc]

    Longhena marks the final phase in a full-throttle charge to the event horizon that started over a decade ago, when musicians from New Jersey, Texas, and Japan came together to create, more or less, the musical equivalent of capsaicin: fast-acting, overpowering, and ruthlessly addictive. Over the span of 14 tracks and 22 minutes, Gridlink condense their turbo-speed melodies, choppy riffage, and science fiction-informed ambient noise into a meticulous, frequently beautiful aural assault that’s easily more than the sum of its parts.



    2. YOB: Clearing the Path to Ascend [Neurot]

    Doom has always been a transcendent genre by design, but few albums—within and without that framework—felt as heavy as YOB’s Clearing the Path to Ascend. To be clear, the gravity laden in the album's 10-minute-plus tracks won’t cause any immediate, crushing impact. Its lethality is more metaphysical: slow, wailing progressions which echo across vast, slowly-petrifying soundscapes, making the listener feel smaller in the process. On Clearing the Path, the Portland outfit demonstrate a sense of dynamic mastery of which very few can boast, underscored by impeccable atmospheric details and maybe a little bit of catchiness.



    1. Earth: Primitive and Deadly [Southern Lord]

    By listening to Earth’s latest album, you’re giving the Olympia drone legends full authority to use melody as the greatest source of estrangement, repeating a mournful phrase till it becomes a numbing mantra. Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan and Rose Windows’ Rabia Shaheen Qazi are the first vocalists to contribute to an Earth record in years, and while purists may scoff at the inclusion of vocals, they’re vital to reigniting the shamanic component of the band’s early, ritualistic craft.

    As the name suggests, Primitive and Deadly is a record firmly lodged in the primordial brain (animals run dominant, and half of the album is titled in reference to predatory creatures). Earth’s carnal appetites are insatiable: sex, blood, death, drugs. The cyclical suppression and expression of these appetites shape the tortured framework through which the album works its subtle black magic. Ultimately, it’s a doom meditation for the ages.



    Grayson Haver Currin

    There’s been a prevailing sense of apathy to year-end lists at large in 2014, with critics collectively throwing their hands up at an apparent lack of very big, very important records. But that hasn’t been true in the metal community, where it seems like an army of very varied albums is vying for a few precious spots.

    From black metal to doom metal to records that scrambled or scrapped any such signifiers, this year has offered a wealth of loud riches. A few consensus favorites—like YOB, Pallbearer or the tantalizing combination of Scott Walker and Sunn O)))—have even broken into general year-end ranks. And in particular, I had one hell of a time slimming this list of favorites down to 10 records, a process that entailed cutting great work by Primordial and Mayhem, Wrekmeister Harmonies and Horseback, Coffinworm and Morbus Chron, Pallbearer and Thou.

    But that’s not a problem I mind at all.



    10. Krieg: Transient [Candlelight]

    Remember Blake Judd and how, just a few years ago, his Nachtmystium felt like it might forever alter the popular trajectory of black metal in America? That train has long-since slipped off the tracks, something that Krieg’s Neill Jameson witnessed as a contributor to that band and a member of Judd’s fallen supergroup Twilight. But Transient, maybe the best record ever from his long-running Krieg, offers its own damaged take on that expired promise. "Walk with Them Unnoticed" is a hit waiting in rock radio’s imagined wings, while "Return Fire" seesaws between sheer aggression and the threat of it. Jameson even managed to rope Thurston Moore and Integrity’s Dwid Hellion into the same-spoken word track. It’s kind of incredible.  



    9. Tombs: Savage Gold [Relapse]

    I saw Tombs split a bill with Pallbeaer and Vattnet Viskar at a mid-sized rock club in Chapel Hill on Halloween night. Those circumstances sound exceptional, but the evening was actually disappointing. The sound was too quiet, and the room seemed stiff. While playing at a rather low volume, though, Tombs reminded me just what I loved about Savage Gold, the third and absolute best LP from the Brooklyn band. Though they’d worked through a web of several styles on their previous records, particularly 2011’s lauded Path of Totality, Savage Gold contained a clarity of purpose and a decisiveness that can seem hard to find in these polyglot times. That’s not to say they’ve chosen black metal over post-punk over industrial rock, but instead that they’ve finally been able to mold them all into one shape to call their own. With the volume turned down, I could watch all those parts work simultaneously, without the weight and bluster of the tidal sound I’d expected. 



    8. Blut Aus Nord: Memoria Vetusta III - Saturnian Poetry [Debemur Morti]

    I never should have worried about Blut Aus Nord, right? Between 2011 and 2012, Vindsval released three of my favorite albums of the band’s big discography, a knotty and ecumenical trilogy known as 777. Piling together black metal and harsh noise, industrial rock and synthesizer fanfares, those records had suggested an increasingly grand vision for the old institution. But the trilogy ended, and it seemed likely that Vindsval might make another turn. When Blut Aus Nord’s six-song split with P.H.O.B.O.S. fell a touch flat this summer, I wondered if the upcoming album would hold personal purchase. It did: The third installment of the Memoria Vetusta series, Saturnian Poetry was immediately electrifying. Vindsval recharged the band’s black metal beginnings and added a measure of uncanny accessibility, particularly in the radiant guitars and smeared psychedelic endings. Who knew Vindsval would have this much fun with this much black metal this year? 



    7. Indian: From All Purity [Relapse]

    In the past decade, Chicago’s Indian have offered a fine string of sludge metal records, full of heaving guitars and hammering drums. But this year, they truly arrived with the six-song paroxysm From All Purity, the rare "slow" album that balanced enormity and tone worship with unmitigated power and momentum. Every element seems to be at war with the others, rendering a volume that suggests great machines in battle, but Indian move together in perfect motion, too. The pivotal contributions of noise heavyweight and special guest Mark Solotroff are notable here, too, as he provides the hissing, high-end counterpoints to the band’s low- and mid-range tendency. Between this, Anatomy of Habit and Wrekmeister Harmonies, Indian’s Will Lindsay and Solotroff shared an enormous mutual output in 2014. I hope it continues.

    Indian: "Directional" on SoundCloud.



    6. Slough Feg: Digital Resistance [Metal Blade]

    Who knew that old-guy paranoia could be so magnetic and fun? On Digital Resistance, Mike Scalzi turns a cynical and scared eye toward technology and tapped-in surveillance. The theme sometimes arrives as a straightforward phobia, with Scalzi singing of eyes welded to cell phones and "interfacing clouds, binary brains." At other points, his unease manifests itself through strings of Edgar Allen Poe references and mercenaries lurking in the shadows. Scalzi and Slough Feg guard against the future’s creep with an old-school bevy of inescapable melodies and irrepressible guitar duels. There’s no genre bending and little form advancement—simply hook-driven metal supporting the cries of a worried citizen, shaped meticulously into 10 electrifying songs. Scalzi is so good at this stuff that I sometimes worry he’s the very evil overlord computer program about which he sings. Clever trick, man. 



    5. Impetuous Ritual: Unholy Congregation of Hypocritical Ambivalence [Profound Lore]

    Was there a more daunting and demanding album this year than the second from Impetuous Ritual, the Australian death metal mess-makers that share members with Portal and Grave Upheaval? Like Portal, Impetuous Ritual fucks with time, so that tracks that clock in at three minutes are so dense with layers and distorted by dynamics that it sometimes seems impossible to count past 10 while listening to it. And as with Portal’s best, no matter how often I revisit Unholy Congregation, it feels like I’m hearing it for the first time.

    Impetuous Ritual: "Venality In Worship" on Bandcamp



    4. Inter Arma: The Cavern EP [Relapse]

    I ran my first marathon in November. In the months leading up to the race, I slowly pieced together my ideal playlist for the 26.2-mile autumn jog, considering what might get me motivated, what might move me through the course’s middle and what might guide me toward the end. The Cavern, Inter Arma’s 45-minute, one-song album of escalating intensity and sidewinding styles, became the mix’s core. There was enough power there to drive me through the race’s midsection and more than enough intricacy nested within Inter Arma’s motion to let my mind drift along as my feet moved forward. I tried to ignore the fact that The Cavern was one of metal’s great new "epic death" songs and focus, instead, on its unbound glory.

    Inter Arma: "The Cavern" on Bandcamp



    3. The Soft Pink Truth: Why Do the Heathen Rage? [Thrill Jockey]

    If I had so much trouble whittling this list to just 10 entries, you might wonder, why would I include this trolling bit of electronica from Matmos member Drew Daniel? But why not? On this collection of covers of black metal classics (Venom’s genre-naming jam) and curios (AN’s "Let There Be Ebola Frost") alike, Daniel reveals a deep veneration for the form and an equally deep need to question its endemic beliefs. Daniel knew all along that Why Do the Heathen Rage? would upset people, and he embraced that provocation. But what’s most important and lingering about these takes is their vivid, collective consideration of his relationship as a gay man and a mere person with metal’s sometimes-schoolyard animosity toward outsiders. Daniel, in effect, claims these songs as his own, filtering one part of his musical heritage through his broader intellectual and physical identity. Isn’t that, well, metal?


    2. YOB: Clearing the Path to Ascend [Neurot]

    These four songs felt flat to me the first several times I heard them. In the three years since the last YOB LP, maybe I’d just grown accustomed to Mike Scheidt’s voice in high-flying motion with the powerful Vhöl. But when I stopped listening, certain moments—like when the full band smothers samples of Alan Watts toward the close of "In Our Blood" or when Scheidt’s brilliant, beautiful falsetto leads a stadium-sized charge through the coda of "Marrow"—would suddenly flood my memory. What had initially felt flat, I now understood, was instead a graceful and careful upward curvature, representing the slow and steady liftoff of a nearly 20-year-old enterprise. 



    1. Old Man Gloom: The Ape of God [Profound Lore/Sige]

    I first listened to parts of Old Man Gloom’s The Ape of God in the basement of Chris Bruni, the Profound Lore Records owner who beamed as the early mixes pounded from his office. What I heard was good, but I didn’t realize that it was great until I heard it within the full context of The Ape of God’s two-album, two-hour terrain. As twisted, involved and involving as anything I heard all year, metal or otherwise, these 12 tracks refuse to accept that very much is off limits or uninteresting. They barrel through hardcore monsters, power ahead with harsh noise, crest into post-rock crescendos and snarl through the same irreverent, burly rock that made Harvey Milk matter. Somehow, this unlikely quartet makes it all fit together, as if these surreal crossover combinations were the most obvious mixes in the world. Old Man Gloom disappeared for the better part of a decade, returning in 2012 with the very good No. This, the next phase of their revival, is so emphatic, urgent and open that they could have simply called it Yes

    Old Man Gloom: "The Lash" on Bandcamp

    Jason Heller 

    10. Stoic Violence: Chained [Deranged/Video Disease]

    Lots of records that came out in 2014 reached for the ambitious, the epic, and the profound. Then there’s Chained by Stoic Violence, a seven-song shitstorm of crude, sadistic, punk-throttled hardcore in the hate-ravaged vein of Poison Idea and Negative FX. Keep it stupid, stupid. 

     


    Stoic Violence: "Chained" on Bandcamp




    9. Gas Chamber: Hemorrhaging Light [Iron Lung]

    Speaking of progressive: What the hell are Gas Chamber up to on their debut album, Hemorrhaging Light? Pummeling and malevolent, it’s hardcore to the hilt—except for when it meanders off into interstellar prog micro-jams. It’s jarring, it’s courageous, and it’s unsettlingly beautiful. 

     


    Gas Chamber: "Gypsy" on Bandcamp



    8. Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden [Profound Lore]

    People couldn’t make praise fast enough for Pallbearer this year, as the band’s second album, Foundations of Burden, spurred lots of talk about sensitive, progressive doom. Foundations is all that, but it’s also a crushing work of deep blacks and blinding lights. With songwriting this supple and assured, the sky’s the limit.

     



    7. Okkultokrati: Night Jerks [Fysisk Format]

    Okkultokrati are Norway’s answer to… well, nothing, really. Who else out there is mixing charred noise-punk, semi-industrialized drone, and the melted remnants of whatever black metal records were sitting in dad’s back seat? Night Jerks isn’t just sui generis, it’s elusively, eerily reality-altering.

     




    6. Punch: They Don't Have to Believe [Deathwish Inc]

    Meghan O’Neil, Punch’s incendiary lead singer, left the Bay Area hardcore band with little public explanation this September—and while that’s a bummer for Punch, it doesn’t put a dent in the group’s third (and last?) album, the bruising, consciousness-raising They Don’t Have to Believe.

     


    Punch: "Worth More Than Your Opinion" on Bandcamp



    5. Morbus Chron: Sweven [Century Media]

    The men of Morbus Chron don’t seem to care what might be expected of them, as either Swedes or practitioners of death metal. Sweven breathes, hooks, and flows like any Scandinavian occult-rock group, but it takes that swampy atmosphere and slathers it over harrowing yet pinpoint eruptions of grim resignation.

     




    4. Protestant: In Thy Name [Halo of Flies]

    Milwaukee’s Protestant has been around for a few years now, but something lit a fire under their asses for In Thy Name. While they’ve never slouched, the new album welds together crust, powerviolence, and a sheen of unholy metal; the result is desperate, bloodcurdling abandon.

     


    Protestant: "Vengeance" on Bandcamp



    3. Mare Cognitum: Phobos Monolith [I, Voidhanger]

    Jacob Buczarski has a head full of things, and Mare Cognitum is his method of externalizations. Not that his latest album, Phobos Monolith, draws a clear picture; blurred and murky, it still manages to etch vivid melodies and impeccable composition onto its blackened mystique. 

     

     


    Mare Cognitum: "Weaving the Thread of Transcendence" on Bandcamp




    2. Godflesh: A World Lit Only By Fire [Avalanche]

    Thirteen years isn’t what it used to be—that is, if A World Lit Only by Fire is any indication. After that long of a hiatus, Justin Broadrick and G. C. Green return with one of the most mechanistically vulnerable, hopelessly megalithic albums of Godflesh’s formidable catalog. Austere and rapturously agonizing.

     






    1. Failures: Decline and Fall [Youth Attack!]

    As the former frontman of Charles Bronson, Das Oath, and many others (as well as the head of Youth Attack! Records), Mark McCoy has nothing to prove at this point in his anti-career. Yet he does so anyway with Decline and Fall, the fractured, brutally compressed opus by his current group Failures. Along with guitarist Will Killingsworth (of Orchid, Ampere, etc.), McCoy screeches like a hanged man whose lungs won’t surrender; meanwhile Killingsworth and crew hurl themselves off a cliff and write riffs on the way down.

    Failures: "Replacement" on Bandcamp

    Kim Kelly 

    Best EPs and demos of the year (in no order)

    Keeper: MMXIV [Black Plague/Grimoire]

    Imagine a slightly faster Burning Witch, or a somehow even angrier incarnation of Thou with a harsh electronic edge, and you’re close to what Keeper is hurling out. This might be the heaviest record I’ve heard all year—and it’s been a real heavy year.

     

     


    Keeper: "Hours. Pt 1" on Bandcamp



    Svartidauði: The Synthesis of Whore and Beast EP [Terratur Possessions]

    Their sickening, uncomfortable shifts in tone and tempo may leave a listener gasping, but there’s a certain deranged beauty to be found in Svartidauði ‘s grim, complex odes to chaos. This Icelandic entity has consistently released game-changing, ruthlessly intelligent black metal since its inception back in 2006, but this latest EP is a great stride forward for a band that’s got nowhere to go but up.


    Svartidauði: "Venus Illegitima" on Bandcamp



    Ritual Chamber: The Pits of Tentacled Screams [Nuclear War Now!]

    This demo sounds like it was recorded in the Devil’s asshole—and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Anchored by Numinas (best known for his work in depressive black metal project Krohm), Ritual Chamber ladles out dollops of murky, oppressive death metal in the grand old early Incantation tradition with splashes of Teitanblood and woozy, off-kilter melodies for seasoning; if they’re killing it this hard on a mere demo, imagine what they’ll dish out on an LP!

    Ritual Chamber: "The Dawning of a New Inversion" on Bandcamp



    Sabbatic Goat: Imprecations of Black Chaos [Vault of Dried Bones]

    New Zealand’s extreme metal scene is currently the best on Earth (save, perhaps, for Iceland) and the black/death maniacs behind Sabbatic Goat are some of the younger talents to come up out of the depths of Wellington and wreak apocalyptic havoc upon eardrums around the world. Put quite simply, their 2014 demo fucking rules.

     


    Sabbatic Goat: "Flesh and Might" on Bandcamp



    Act of Impalement: Echoes of Wrath EP [Caligari]

    Act of Impalement effortlessly filters shades of lo-fi black metal and crippling doom through a crunchy, old-school death metal guitar tone, then colors in the gaps with loads of grime and crust. This Nashville band is still young (formed in 2012), but is certainly well on its way towards making some real waves.

     


    Act of Impalement: "Echoes of War" on Bandcamp



    Rippikoulu: Ulvaja EP [Svart]

    Finnish death/doom legends Rippikoulu took one hell of an extended break between this and their last release, 1993’s revered Musta Seremonia demo. Ulvaja marks the band’s first new recorded material since then, and sees the reunited quartet shoehorn three songs into eighteen minutes and trudge confidently through the funeral fog of atmospheric death/doom horror that we’ve been missing for so long.


    Rippikoulu: "Ulvaja" on Bandcamp



    Derketa: Darkness Fades Life EP [Mind Cure]

    It’s high time these underground death metal icons got their due, and this short EP (released on the heels of 2012’s debut-comeback combo record, In Death We Meet) is another tantalizing glimpse into this Steel City institution’s dark future. The Sepultura cover doesn’t hurt, either.

     

     



    Cult of Fire: Čtvrtá Symfonie Ohně EP [Iron Bonehead]

    The Čtvrtá Symfonie Ohně (Fourth Symphony of Fire) EP features two flowing instrumental compositions, "Vàh" and "Vltava", named after rivers in the band’s native Czech Republic and neighboring Slovakia.  Originally composed in 2012 but shelved to make way for मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान, the two tracks showcase earlier stirrings of the diabolical genius that would ultimately manifest on this Czech outfit’s brilliant 2013 opus.

    Cult of Fire: "Vltava" on Bandcamp



    Bleed the Pigs: Overcompensations for Misery EP [self-released]

    Nashville’s Bleed the Pigs is one of the most exciting new grind/sludge/hardcore hybrids I’ve heard in years, and their Overcompensations for Misery EP is one of the angriest, most uninhibited releases in recent memory. It probably helps that they’re raging against institutional—rather than imagined—evil via vocalist Kayla Phillips’ socially-conscious lyrics, and that the bass tone is the ugliest thing this side of Man is the Bastard. Their Nirvana covers EP is fantastic, too.

    Bleed the Pigs: "Black Hole" on Bandcamp



    Yellow Eyes: The Desert Mourns [Sibir]

    NYC black metal squad Yellow Eyes continue to grow and improve by leaps and bounds—no small feat when even your earliest output is as great as theirs. The Desert Mourns is their first of two (!) EPs released this year; Stillicide is more recent, and both are rock-solid, but the haunting, surreal despair of "One Rock for the Wild Dogs" catches hold and won’t let go.



    Yellow Eyes: "The Desert Mourns" on Bandcamp


    Honorable Mentions: Radioactive Vomit: Ratflesh EP, Gg:ull: Waan:Hoon EP, Bölzer: Soma EP, Iron Force: Dungeon Breaker EP, Genocide Pact: Desecration EP

    Andy O'Connor 

    10. Foreseen: Helsinki Savagery [20 Buck Spin]

    Power Trip’s Manifest Decimation might be the hardest crossover record of recent memory, but Finnish mosh maniacs Foreseen have ushered a real contender to that throne with their full-length debut Helsinki Savagery. Remember how much of a beast Paul Baloff was? Imagine a whole band as furious as he was in his Exodus heyday. Foreseen even have a song called "Bonded by United Blood", both a tribute to Baloff (and Agnostic Front’s "United Blood") and a challenge to imitators to...give up, because few could even think of making a record this hard. Dive bombs and whammy squeals constantly clash on one another, as if you’re really riding the lightning. Most bands play fast, but Foreseen imbue Savagery with the right amount of chaos, sounding totally demented while ready for slip-and-sliding on a beer-and-blood soaked dance floor. "Structural Oppression", from last year’s 7'' of the same name, gets a makeover, prettied up and even more ready to slay. When Foreseen hit the States, you better be ready.

    Foreseen: "Bonded By United Blood" on Bandcamp



    9. Wreck & ReferenceWant [The Flenser]

    No band is attempting to reprogram metal like Wreck & Reference, the duo of instrumentalist Felix Skinner and drummer Ignat Frege. As popular music moves away from guitar music (for better or for worse), underground metal may eventually follow suit, and Wreck & Reference are quite ahead of their time. Skinner conjures up waves of doom with his sampler, sounding barely familiar to any sort of doom and totally alienated. "A Glass Cage for an Animal" and "Flies" might work if transcribed to guitar, but what’s the point? Frege is apt at restraint, where the fills he doesn’t hit say as much as the ones he does. By cutting back on business, he lets Skinner engulf himself and the listener in bountiful misery. Want deals with the impossibility and horror of freedom, something Skinner and Frege acknowledge even as they smash through what is possible in metal. They’re begging you to "surrender" on "Apologies", and you better surrender what limits you. Wreck & Reference even offered bits and pieces from Want to sample, bastardize, or mangled as Spill/Fill. How many metal groups would even think to do that?



    8. Darkspace: Darkspace III I [Avantgarde]

    Are Darkspace even human? The Swiss trio seem to be much more comfortable in the void of space than they are on Earth. They only look barely like people, like intergalactic soothsayers warning us of our fiery demise. Darkspace are the leading entities in "space black metal," driven by dark ambient and a lust for the otherworldly and unknown, for well over a decade, and their fourth full-length, Darkspace III I, continues in their warped tradition. They lull you in with Lustmord-like fields of black, then pulverize you with warp-speed explosions of cosmic energy. Occasionally, they will lock in a Ministry-like groove, which can almost be as destructive as their full-on black metal moments. All members contribute vocals, but they’re buried as distant howls. No use speaking to them, your own cries are useless. Make sure no light—none—enters your space while this is on.

    Darkspace: "Dark 4.18" on Bandcamp



    7. Impetuous Ritual: Unholy Congregation of Hypocritical Ambivalence [Profound Lore]

    2014 was an impressive year for death metal, with strong releases from Dead Congregation, Teitanblood, Swallowed, Morbus Chron, and Artificial Brain. Standing above them all is the second record from Impetuous Ritual, Unholy Congregation of Hypocritical Ambivalence. This is death metal interpreted as noise, riffs not caressed by rhythm but subjugated by it. Drums and vocals crawl in the back, but the guitars, looped by possessed hands, are the central instrument of oppression. Leads, as much as they are conjure the recklessness of Hanneman and King, are almost a relief from the maddening rhythms. Other records may be more technical or intricate, others may have a clearer attack, but none are the sheer marathon that this record is. If Hell is a panopticon, this is what would be playing on a constant loop, creating eternal paranoia in the damned. There is no escape.

    Impetuous Ritual: "Venality In Worship" on Bandcamp



    6. Blut Aus Nord: Memoria Vetusta III - Saturnian Poetry [Debemur Morti]

    Blut Aus Nord are the trailblazing act of French Black Metal—no one comes close. Leader Vindsval is without peer; every album he puts under the Blut Aus Nord banner carries its own distinctive sound while sounding like they could only come from him. Memoria Vetusta III - Saturnian Poetry is more of an obvious "black metal" record than some of their other work, especially their warped industrial black metal as of late, but this is not Vindsval returning to any sort of roots. He has traded cybernetic mastery for transcendence into the heavens; Poetry is a blazing ride through the golden skies that adorn its cover. His screech is ever-present, but the chorus vocals really take his performance over the top. Harmonies are seductive and unparalleled; Blut Aus Nord know nothing but glory. Vindsval has given you the reins to the fiery chariot, now run!



    5. Kayo Dot: Coffins on Io [The Flenser]

    When a band makes a record that is not only among their most accomplished, but also more accessible, there are fewer feelings as sweet. Kayo Dot has long been the vessel of Toby Driver’s dense compositions, but on Coffins on Io, he’s fused the sex appeal of Type O Negative and prog’s more refined side with a spacey smoothness. It’s a radical reinterpretation of his main project, but not a simplification. Driver has clearly been influenced by his role as Vaura’s bassist, as he stretches out their gothy hooks into sensual voyages. There’s a great deal more synth on Io, and some of those patterns isolated would themselves make for a night of ecstasy. Imagine listening to the keyboards of "Longtime Disturbance on the Miracle Mile" or "Offramp Cycle, Pattern 22" on a cool beach or a dimly lit master suite. As much as this is a record about space, the grooves on the latter half of "Library Subterranean" are so earthy and freaky, George Clinton would approve. And for those worried that Driver has lost sight of heaviness, the driving guitars and angry saxes of "The Assassination of Adam" will quell such concerns. For the cosmopolitan hesher, who is neither afraid of luxury nor amplifier-driven urges, Io is essential.

    Kayo Dot: "Library Subterranean" on Bandcamp



    4. Gridlink: Longhena [Handshake Inc]

    The first exceptional record of 2014, Gridlink’s Longhena, was also a goodbye, as they broke up prior to its release. Does the opening riff of "Constant Autumn" sound like a farewell? No, it’s so moving and sprightly, and only a dude with dexterity and heart like Takafumi Matsubara could pull it off. Every member delivers the performance of their careers, taking the already dense and intricate grindcore of their first two records, and making those look like rehearsals. The band performs as if they knew—and likely, they did—that this would be their final statement. Jon Chang’s lyrics combine dystopian science fiction with timeless longing. Along with Matsubara’s guitars, Longhena is perhaps the only grindcore record you could call beautiful. It’s over in just over 20 minutes, yet you’ll spend much longer than that unpacking it all. Longhena is a testament to what grindcore can be, and who knows if any band could come close in the future?


     

    3. Thou: Heathen [Gilead Media/Vendetta/Howling Mine]

    Thou live and breathe DIY, preferring to play in all-ages spaces and not being too fond of bar culture. The egalitarianism comes into question, however, because they’re simply better than almost all of their peers, both in punk and in the Louisiana sludge that they model their sound after. Heathen is an elevation above all their other records, which themselves were in a class of their own. Their sludge is more pointed, the post-rock elements are even more delicate, and vocalist Bryan Funck’s tongue is sharper than ever. Really, all of what could be said about Heathen is in the lyrics to the final song, "Ode to Physical Pain". Thou are about embracing pain, not in a macho "what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger" way, but in taking all of your tribulations and making something breathtaking and lasting from it. You’ll have to put in some serious work to get on their level, but they would likely encourage that you attempt to topple them.

    Thou: "Free Will" on Bandcamp



    2. Planning for BurialDesideratum [The Flenser]

    With artists who tend to release material frequently, there’s always at least a couple definitive works, where the creator puts a great deal more effort to say "This is my vision." For Thom Wasluck’s Planning For Burial, it’s his second full-length, Desideratum, his most fully formed work yet. Heartbreaking and affirming all at once, he’s taken the disparate elements of his various tapes and EPs—dreary post-metal, lovesick drone, electric Mark Kozelek depression, and bare-bone clean tones baring so much—and synced them all into five of the most devastating songs he’s recorded. While they all flow next to one another, they’re also suitable for individually repeating on loop, when nothing else will help you cope. "Where You Rest Your Head at Night" is industrial metal stomp given an overdose of pure want. Personally, there have been times this year I’ve listened to that song over and over, its gloominess so infectious. The title track and "29 August 2012" are both perfect for strolling on a cloudy beach, by yourself, wondering where you fucked up. Closer "Golden" kills nostalgia dead, going from barren cleans to ultimate lush noise decay. Even an interlude like "Purple", where a voice text of a nearly-forgotten love is recited, is not for the meek, as it shows how we haven’t quite figured out how to maintain in the face of new communications. This is not a record for everyday listening, but when it hits, you won’t be out of its grip for a long time.

    Planning For Burial: “Where You Rest Your Head At Night” on Bandcamp



    1. Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden [Profound Lore]

    If any of the best metal records have a running thread, it is triumph. Triumph over one’s own expectations and fears, triumph above cancerous cynicism, triumph for progression in metal. Who triumphed most this year? Pallbearer, who are probably used to the deafening praises by now, but are in no way undeserving of them. They may have ditched the purple hues of their past work for reds on Foundations of Burden, but they are the royals at the top of the heap. Billy Anderson, doom sage to Sleep, Witch Mountain, Eyehategod, and Agalloch to name but only a few, gives them a magic touch here, raising everything and reducing nothing. Brett Campbell has been taking lessons from doom sensei Mike Scheidt, hitting the highs while retaining enough grittiness. He floats along with the ghostly riffs, almost womb-like in their hypnotism. Warmth clashes against cold words and wins, though occasionally you can feel a breeze from the despair of the lyrics. You don’t know you’ve needed that opening riff of "Worlds Apart" until you hear it, and you wonder why Pallbearer used to take their time starting records. "The Ghost I Used to Be" dominates alternate-universe Pazz and Jops, where they want the feel bad hit of all seasons. "Ashes" is such a precious reprieve, the "Solitude" for the new generation. In fact, Pallbearer is the doom of this uncertain yet exciting era, where excellence wins, where rising above is the standard, where finally getting that stubborn friend of yours to like a metal record deserves a goddamn Frazetta mural. Can Pallbearer top Burden? The mountains will be bigger, but their boots are tougher.



    David Castillo of Saint Vitus

    Top 15 Albums/EPs/7''s:

    Godflesh: A World Lit Only By Fire
    Eyehategod: Eyehategod
    At the Gates: At War With Reality
    Thantifaxath: Sacred White Noise
    Swans: To Be Kind
    YOB: Clearing the Path to Ascend
    Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden
    Pharmakon: Bestial Burden
    Full of Hell + Merzbow: Full of Hell + Merzbow
    Behemoth: The Satanist
    Indian: From All Purity
    Tombs: Savage Gold
    Young Widows: Easy Pain
    Anatomy of Habit: Ciphers + Axioms
    Occultation: Silence in the Ancestral House
    Youth Code: A Place to Stand EP
    Xibalba/Suburban Scum
    Stonedagger
    Grga
    Uniform


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    Cover Story: Panda Bear: The Wanderer

    All photos shot on location in and around Lisbon, Portugal by Tonje Thilesen

    The sun casts a blanket of stripes over the grass as Noah Lennox leads a small delegation through the botanical gardens in Lisbon's Príncipe Real neighborhood. The air, damp from last night's rain, smells sweet—fig trees, maybe, or loquats. Lennox, in a denim jacket adorned with an Eye of Horus print, doesn't lead the way so much as amble along, with the rest of us—a photographer, her assistant, and me—following gamely in his wake. Nobody talks much. It's peaceful in here, a proper urban oasis. Not that the city itself, with its blue and green tiles, cobblestoned streets, and pastries (my God, its pastries), particularly feels like a thing that needs escaping.

    As the path winds around a small pond, Lennox scuffs his way through the grass and stands against a bamboo thicket at the behest of the photographer. He kicks aside an errant nogueira—a walnut, covered in a yellow-green casing, like a big, spongy lime—and then changes his mind. Stooping over, he gathers up three of them in his hands, straightens up, and tosses them into the air in quick succession, tracing a circle where the sun cuts the shadows into ribbons. 

    Panda Bear is juggling for us. 

    He's pretty good at it, too, complete with a repertoire of tricks. Well, one trick—under-the-leg—that he executes with a lanky sense of ease. He is every bit the picture of a born performer, which is ironic, because the day before, he told me that he doesn't particularly like performing.

    With the exception of the addicts shooting up in the alley across the street, there is nothing rock'n'roll about Noah Lennox's home, a second-floor apartment in a stately building near the top of one of Lisbon's many hills. He pauses at the doorstep, looking down the narrow street: Lined with pink and yellow stucco, daubed in a tangle of graffiti, it feels like a channel carved for the express purpose of funneling light from the waterfront. "This is one of my favorite views," he says.

    The 36-year-old musician lives here with his wife, the fashion designer Fernanda Pereira, and their two kids: a daughter, 9, and a son, 4. There are some toys scattered about the living room, and an empty cardboard box that the kids have turned into a racecar, with pillows for seats. Raymond Scott's Soothing Sounds for Baby sits atop the stereo. 

    The walls must be 18 inches thick—an architectural requirement imposed after a devastating earthquake in 1755 that leveled much of the city—which gives the windowsills the look and feel of a concrete bunker. Still, the prevailing vibe inside is cozy. Between the wooden floorboards, interconnecting rooms, and 12-foot ceilings, it might have the best feng shui of any home I've ever been in. 

    Prepping a pot of coffee, Lennox tells me, "I like big empty spaces—things that aren't visually cluttered." That's surprising, given the ecstatic excess of the music he makes as Panda Bear, with its umpteen layers of vocals and dense thickets of rhythm. 

    Through his solo work and as a member of Animal Collective, he is a representative of that amorphous thing we call American indie at its most ambitious. Yet Lennox is far removed from anything you might call the American indie rock scene; in fact, he hasn't lived in America for a decade.

    So I've come to Lisbon to see what it is about this city that has nurtured such a singular voice and career. The day I arrive, we talk about life overseas; like him, I grew up in the States, but I've lived in Barcelona for almost 10 years; like him, I'm married to a local. I want to know what it’s like to have kids who are natives in the place where you are a foreigner. 

    "You're an alien," he says, without rancor or remorse. "I sort of like being an alien. It's OK with me. Do you get weird looks? Do people notice you? Are you reminded that you're an alien on a daily basis?"

    These are questions, but he also makes them sound a little like points of pride.

    The first day we meet, in the middle of November, it's pouring down rain. We're sitting in a glassed-in restaurant in O Jardim do Príncipe Real, a park just a few blocks from Lennox’s house. Nursing green tea, he's talking about his kids. Specifically, the fact that neither of them are into music or sports, which is a little weird, since those are the two main things that motivate him, besides family.

    "They’re definitely not into my music," he says. "I tried. My son seems to be curious about it, at least. My daughter likes stuff she hears on the radio, but she gets turned off by anything I do. I think she's embarrassed by it.” He says that when he played her “Mr Noah”, the first single from his new album Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, she walked out of the room after 10 seconds, indignant over a lyric about “a dog getting bit.”

    The lyrics to "Mr Noah" are quintessentially Panda Bear—cryptic, densely imagistic, ambiguously druggy, simultaneously self-deprecatory and ecstatic. But the most interesting thing about the song's presentation, at least on a lyric sheet, might be the words "wolf," "bear," and "eagle" that scroll vertically to the left of each stanza, a kind of quasi-acrostic. 

    "I was talking to this healer witch person who lives down the river a little bit," he says. "And she was like, 'You have three spirit animals. The first is a wolf. The second is a bear. And the third is an eagle.' So I set up the song according to that, and I tried to find bits of myself that I thought fit into that template."

    Because I’m human—and because I remember Lennox addressing therapy on his song "Take Pills", which is about getting off antidepressants—I prod him a bit about this “healer witch person.”

    Did she have a specific...

    "... regimen?" Lennox finishes for me. "Sort of. It was periods of meditation, breathing—nothing really kooky. It's good to be reminded about that stuff."

    Was it helpful? 

    "When you're trying to feel better, just going to talk to somebody—just being active at all—helps. Anything that's not just sitting still is helpful."

    The next day, while Lennox is being photographed in his kitchen, I catch sight of a shot of him on the wall, in which he's wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with howling wolves. "I've had that sweatshirt forever,” he says later on. “That's what I was wearing when I met Fern. I still wear it all the time."

    In 2003, Lisbon was the last stop on a European tour for Lennox and his Animal Collective bandmate Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare. It was their first visit to the city, and they'd planned to stay for a few extra days. The night after their gig, Lennox went to see the Finnish house producer Luomo play, and after that, he fell in with a group of strangers. He was wearing the wolf sweatshirt—it might've even been the icebreaker. 

    This story will probably sound familiar to anyone of a certain age and inclination who has washed up in a foreign city for a few days: piling into someone's car; a thwarted nightclub adventure; an improvised plan B in someone else's living room. "I spent the next couple of days with them, and met Fern, and it snowballed," Lennox says. 

    Eight months later, he packed a single bag and quit New York for Lisbon. "It seems like a rash decision now, but I can be like that, not really thinking of consequences. Like, 'This is the right thing to do. I'm gonna do that.'"

    He had been living in Lisbon for about a year when he and Fern got hitched; it wasn't quite two years since they had first met. "We got dressed up and her family was there,” he tells me. “We had to go up to the town where she's from, signed the papers, city hall, that kind of deal. But I didn't have family or friends there. They were all pretty upset at me."

    Did you at least tell anyone you were getting married—your mother? Your bandmates?

    "No," he says, looking down. "I can be aloof in a really bad way about stuff like that—not aware of the etiquette of things. I feel like I'm a bit idiotic socially, I guess."

    "I feel like the point of social media is to reveal more of your life to other people, and my instinct is to go the opposite way."

    An important thing to know about Noah Lennox is that he is a private person—"intensely," as he tells me one afternoon. Six years ago, he made the decision to commit what he calls "Internet suicide": "I killed the Facebook. I have a Twitter, but only to read other people's tweets; management people do social media stuff for me. It's not really my bag. I feel like the point is to reveal more of your life to other people, and my instinct is to go the opposite way."

    At one point, I ask him why he's being forthcoming with me. "I don't like to talk about it, but if you ask me I'll tell you," he says, looking me in the eye. "I don't want to bring it up in conversation, but I'm not going to lie to you."

    Another, and maybe more important, thing to know about Noah Lennox is that he is not a bummer dude.

    At one point, he invites me up to his studio just to listen to music. His screensaver is toggling through all the album covers in his iTunes library when we sit down, and we are momentarily transfixed. "So cool," he says. "So cheesy, though." We watch the covers flip past, like tiles in an old airport arrivals board: There’s Detroit techno producer Omar-S, Sade’s Love Deluxe, Norwegian disco prankster Todd Terje, a Sierra Leone musician with an album called Dead Men Don't Smoke Marijuana, plus Oasis and Deadmau5 (one early Grim Reaper demo was actually dubbed "Deadmaus Thing")—even The Jungle Book soundtrack, which turns out to be a favorite of his.

    You also might never guessLennox's reticence from his own music, which is bright and expansive and, sonically speaking, bursting with technicolor optimism. (Ironically, Lennox is colorblind. Green, blue, grey, certain purples—in his eyes, they have all become untethered from their corners of the spectrum and swim together in an uncertain blur.) It's only once you begin parsing the lyrics that it becomes clear how the music rides the line between joy and doubt, ecstasy and dismay, like a surfer navigating the seam between perfect curl and foam.

    On his 2007 solo breakout Person Pitch, “Bros” had him pleading with his friends back home for space and understanding. Then, four years later, on Tomboy's "Friendship Bracelet", he came to grips with his own distance, noting, "Without notice, I've become someone who's out of reach." On that same album, the father of two went straight to the heart of the question that kept him up at night: "What to do when the things/ That I want don't allow/ For the handful of mouths/ That I'm trying to feed?"

    "There was a lot of anxiety about that kind of stuff then," he says now. "And a lot of that was about working, being a musician, and living a very public career, while being a very private person."

    The tension between doubt and joy is more pronounced than ever on the new album. On "Boys Latin", for instance, he sings of dark clouds descending, but the melody is a feather in an updraft, his voice a prism kissed by light.

    But even when they’re doing some heavy lifting, Lennox's lyrics are imbued with a refreshing lightness of spirit, andeven mischievousness. Take "Tropic of Cancer", a song from the new record that's clearly about his father, who died of brain cancer in 2002—except that it's a world away from the inchoate mourning of his 2004 album, Young Prayer, which was written as a kind of reckoning after the fact. 

    "Overall, that song is about sympathy for disease," he says, "trying to forgive disease, seeing it as just another thing in the universe that's trying to survive." The tone of the track is the opposite of maudlin, its lilting harp and doo-wop vocals just a hair's breadth from kitsch. "I almost feel like I should have a glass of cognac in my hand when I'm singing it," he deadpans, launching into a lounge singer's melancholy croon.

    Lennox was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1978, but his family moved to a leafy section of Baltimore when he was 3. His father was a surgeon; his mother danced ballet, and still does. 

    As a child, Lennox gravitated towards drawing; in high school, he played basketball, until music took over his life. In addition to taking piano lessons, he also joined a choir. "The sound of collections of voices singing separate parts in unison is really powerful to me,” he says.

    As he was on the cusp of teenagedom, his parents bought a Korg 01/W, a workstation synthesizer with a 16-channel sequencer and drum machine. "They bought it for the family, but I was the only one that used it a lot," Lennox says. "You would save stuff onto these floppy discs, and one time my brother accidentally erased a couple of them, and I was so pissed." 

    He moved up to Boston for college, where he wrote and recorded songs on a Tascam Portastudio four-track cassette recorder and fantasized about having a record—complete with barcode, he emphasizes—in the racks at local institution Newbury Comics. “I'm definitely a dreamer,” he chuckles, “but a very conservative dreamer.”

    In 2000, after dropping out of college, Lennox moved in with Portner in New York. While Animal Collective were developing their shared musical language, Lennox and Portner got jobs at East Village record store Other Music, where Lennox worked in the upstairs office, doing mail order and data entry.

    "I was too socially awkward to talk to customers," he continues. "There was one time when they were short-staffed, and I had to work on the floor. But five minutes into it, I was getting yelled at, like, 'C'mon, we're trying to hustle here!'" His voice drops to a whisper, the caricature of a petulant teenager. "It sucked."

    "Noah's self-characterization is not totally off," Josh Madell, Other Music's owner, confirms. "But he was always funny and involved with all of his co-workers. He used to sit at his desk all day cracking jokes and singing along to records—Noah does a dead-on Axl Rose."

    Hanging around Lennox, it soon becomes clear that music comes out of him as naturally as air. Once or twice, while behind the wheel of a car or walking down the street, he starts singing—not quite out loud but not exactly under his breath, either. When this happens, I feel like a birdwatcher in the right place at the right time. I don't say anything. I don’t want to break the spell.

    "Noah's music is actually a really good indicator of his personality, too," Madell continues. "He is so sweet-natured, caring, and sensitive. But on the other hand, he’s always existed on his own plane; he could be dutifully filing LPs while the store burned to the ground."

    Listen to the opening notes of Grim Reaper’s "Sequential Circuits" as the sun rises over Lisbon's hills—the tiled facades throwing off dazzling light—and you kind of get it. Not to fall prey to pathetic fallacy, but once you've been here, you can hear the city in Lennox’s music, though there are no direct references to the native fado that I heard in the taxi from the airport, nor to the Angolan-Portuguese kuduro that has drawn so much recent acclaim. But the light and the air and the space of Lisbon and its surroundings—its seismic history and colonial failures, its broken grey concrete and gleaming azulejo, its ghastly economy and its breathtaking coastline, its junkies and its tourists—inform the shape of Panda Bear's music; they permeate its textures and dictate the wavelength of its frequencies. 

    Taking advantage of the sudden appearance of the sun, Lennox decides to drive out to the Atlantic Ocean.

    Walking to his parking garage, we come across a skinny woman in her 30s, a little worse for the wear, guiding cars into empty parking spots. I have seen her, and several others like her, on most of my trips up this block; in a depressed economy like Portugal's, this is what passes for work for many people. Greeting her in Portuguese, Lennox digs in his pocket and hands her some coins.

    Inside his Volkswagen, he plugs his phone into the car stereo, and we go bouncing over the city's hills accompanied by the mournful foghorn bleats of dark UK producer Andy Stott. The garish Amoreiras Towers loom absurdly over the city, as though a chunk of skyline had fallen out of The Fifth Element and landed on top of Lisbon. "So gnarly," says Lennox, laughing. "It's like a really ugly dog—you kind of love it despite its ugliness."

    We cross an enormous bridge that looks like the Golden Gate, and then it's all short pines and eucalyptus; the single-family houses have peaked roofs and chimneys. It's hard to believe the city is just minutes behind us.

    Lennox and his family used to live on this side of the river, in a house in a gated community that was way too expensive, although it did have a fireplace. They had come seeking peace and quiet, and they found too much of it, eventually heading back to the hustle of Bairro Alto and Príncipe Real.

    Cresting a bluff, the trees change again—suddenly they're shorter and scrubbier, bent over into the wind. And then there's the ocean, sooner than you'd expected to see it. Suddenly all those seagull sounds on Tomboy’s "Alsatian Darn" make more sense, as do all the gradations of light in Panda Bear's music, and the way his vocals seem to float on the wind.

    "I haven't been everywhere,
    but Portugal's my favorite place I've ever been."
     

    Down at the bottom of the bluffs, a sign says "Praia do Americano"—Beach of the American—and we park and stroll down the sandy road, dodging massive puddles. Most of the snack bars are closed for the off-season; many of the houses are boarded up or falling down.

    "This is the ultimate big empty space," he says, laughing. A few surfers splash out in the waves; a pack of wild dogs runs between the dunes. The sand is littered with razor clam shells, and every few paces there's a jellyfish corpse, bigger than an outstretched hand, rubbery and translucent blue.

    "The surfers here aren't very good," he says, watching them flail in the choppy water. "It always makes me feel better to see crappy surfers, like, 'I could do that.'"

    He takes off his shoes and socks, rolls up his khakis, and wades into the ocean. It is, in some ways, a performance; he’s being photographed for this piece. Were there no camera, he probably wouldn't be doing this. But he's game.

    The ocean is a steady dull roar. It fills your head; it erases everything. It's comforting. And in that void, I have Grim Reaper's "Come to Your Senses" running on a loop, with its cryptic hints of artistic failure ("Nope you won't / Ever make that one again") and its triumphant refrain, "It's inside the one and all." 

    I tell him this when he walks back up the sand. "I wrote that just over those cliffs," he says, "maybe a quarter mile away."

    We eat at a nondescript place—Lennox and his wife's secret spot—and it’s one of the best meals I've ever eaten. Clams and shrimp and grilled sargo, or seabream, blackened around the edges, its flesh plump and flaky. Towards the end of lunch, Lennox thanks us for "coming all this way" to see him (though, honestly, that meal alone would have made it all worthwhile). "Thanks for putting up with me," he sort of mumbles. 

    Out of the blue, in response to a question no one asked, he says, "I haven't been everywhere, but Portugal's my favorite place I've ever been."

    Before we drive back, we walk out onto the sand one more time. Way down the beach, fishermen are casting into the surf with enormous long poles, enveloped in a silvery glow; we discuss walking further, but Lennox points out that no matter how close we get, it will probably just look like where we are now. The mist is a trick of the air and the light. In reality, it's all around us already. 


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    Staff Lists: The Most Anticipated Releases of 2015

    Here are 35 prospective records that are keeping our hopes up for music in 2015, including albums we can't believe are happening (Sleater-Kinney! Giorgio Moroder!), albums by living legends (Kanye! Björk!), along with a few promising debuts. We're also looking forward to intriguing and possibly great experiments, like Antony working with Hudson Mohawke and Run the Jewels working with cats. Some of the following alphabetically listed entries have more concrete information than others, but titles, labels, release dates, audio, and video have been included where available. (Browse through even more forthcoming records with our Guide to Upcoming Winter Releases.) Of course, many details below are subject to change, but that's part of the fun, right? 

    Antony

    Antony

    For the better part of two decades, Antony Hegarty has been creating the art and music we need in order to help fix society. Although Antony and the Johnsons' last studio record was 2010's Swanlights, his recent output has been crucial: In addition to the formal release of his film Turning, Antony's 2012 live album Cut the World included a compelling eco-feminist manifesto as well as its radical title track, written for the opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. Now, the singer says he will release an "intensely political" electronic album this year, featuring "tough dance beats" and collaborations with producers like Hudson Mohawke. —Jenn Pelly


    A$AP Rocky

    Based on Rocky’snewesttracks, you get the sense that the New York rapper is content to flourish in his chosen medium: street anthems that also work on the catwalk. (It’s the album that comes free with a pair of $2,200 Balmain leather sweatpants.) Expect something around, say, Paris Fashion Week. —Corban Goble


    Björk

    Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi, aka Arca, took 2014 by storm with his jarring debut album, Xen, and this year he'll return as a co-producer for Björk's as-yet untitled new album, which also features contributions from pitch-black electronic act Haxan Cloak. Arca has previously collaborated with Dean Blunt, FKA twigs, and Kanye—artists who have little in common save for conceptual ambition, a quality Björk certainly has never lacked. —Philip Sherburne

    Chance the Rapper. Photo by Pooneh Ghana.

    Chance the Rapper
    Surf 

    While Chance the Rapper’s forthcomingSurf is technically a follow-up to his amazingAcid Rap mixtape, something like the recent SoundCloud loosie “Wonderful Everyday”—a busy cover of the theme song for PBS’s “Arthur” cartoon—might be a better signpost to follow. Recorded with his live band the Social Experiment, Surf seems bound to stretch Chance’s sound into more experimental and instrumentally florid terrain in 2015. —Corban Goble


    Chromatics
    Dear Tommy 

    [Italians Do It Better]
    February

    How do you follow-up a cinematically scaled 17-track Italo-disco opus that became the go-to fantasy late-night-drive soundtrack for a generation of club-hopping city kids who are too fucked up to get behind the wheel and/or too saddled with bad credit to qualify for a car loan? With another cinematically scaled 17-track Italo-disco opus, naturally. Though Chromatics mastermind Johnny Jewel has recently data-dumped everything from half-hour-long ambient symphonies to covers of ‘50s pop standards (among many other vault-clearing initiatives) onto his SoundCloud page, the tracklist for the upcoming Dear Tommy suggests a certain structural and thematic similarity to 2012’s epic Kill for Love, albeit with the added bonus of an enigmatic, biblically allusive cover shot of a fog-smothered apple to up the prog factor. (Two tracks, “Cherry” and “Camera”, were previewed on 2013’s After Dark 2 compilation, though they’ll reportedly appear in revised form on the new album.) According to Jewel’s Italians Do It Better imprint, Dear Tommy will be out “in time for Valentine’s Day”—in which case, don’t be surprised if you notice an uncommon amount of beautifully aloof newborns come December. —Stuart Berman


    Courtney Barnett

    One of the best new lyricists of 2013 was Courtney Barnett, the Melbourne singer/songwriter whose Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas paired choogling melodies with genuinely funny observations and stories. There aren’t many details on the follow-up just yet, but she’s confirmed that a full-length is coming this year. Barnett says the songs on the new one are darker, although she’s still just “talking about stuff that happens.” That’s good; this songwriter thrives when detailing the mundane. —Evan Minsker

    Deafheaven. Photo by Ebru Yildiz.

    Deafheaven

    George Clarke isn’t entirely happy to be here—a few weeks ago, the Deafheaven frontman wrote on Twitter, “being put on ‘most anticipated albums’ lists when u have 5% of a record written is kinda stressful lol.” But that’s just how it’s going to be for Deafheaven. 2013’s Sunbather wasn’t just the best metal album of that year. It was the most divisive one as well—an arena for splenetic dialogue on metal's aesthetic boundaries. Its pink cover, along with Clarke’s black driving gloves, sparked fashion debates hotter than any since Metallica discovered Andres Serrano and nail polish. And that only stands to escalate whenever Deafheaven drop Sunbather's follow-up—which already boasts a fake leak. —Ian Cohen


    Death Grips
    the powers that b 
    [Harvest]

    February 10 (...supposedly)

    Death Grips' entire existence was essentially a four year-long breakup, so it's easy to shrug at the fact thatthey called it quits in July—and then continued to make new music. The duo claimed "we are now at our best" upon their original “demise” (despite having just released niggas on the moon, by far their weakest release) and then, three months later, announced that they've finished the powers that b, (presumably) their final album (for real this time)... and then put out an instrumental album called Fashion Week just a couple of days ago. Some sources have reported a February 10 release date for powers, though, as with all things Death Grips, the actual truth is most definitely TBD. —Ian Cohen


    Drake

    Though Drake didn’t put out a record last year, he stayed in the picture thanks toa handful of SoundCloud jams, a memorableturn hosting the ESPYs, and otherdeliriously dorky Drake stuff. His next record—which might be called Views From the 6—seems likely to involve the usual suspects, including longtime producer Noah “40” Shebib, and could be out as soon as the spring. —Corban Goble


    Father John Misty
    I Love You, Honeybear 
    [Sub Pop]
    February 10

    Despite ominous predictions, 2012 didn’t bring the end of the world. On the contrary, it heralded the apotheosis of Father John Misty—a figure once known as the Baltimore-born, Seattle-based musician (and longtime Fleet Foxes drummer) Joshua Tillman, cooly transfigured by way of blues, bud, and Big Sur sulking. His new record, I Love You, Honeybear keeps the Don Juan goofiness intact while reaching for epic new heights of sincerity and sonic drama. —Zoe Camp

    Frank Ocean

    So far, Frank Ocean has left a breadcrumb trail of hints as to what his Channel Orange follow-up will look like: mentions of another concept album, an extension of the “beach feel” that permeated Orange, loose quotes about wanting to work with Tame Impala, King Krule, and Danger Mouse. The strongest clue, a warm, two-minute demo posted to his Tumblr called “Memrise”, is perhaps the closest thing to actual proof that the singer is actually making progress on his next LP. Still, that track’s hazy, downcast feel suggests that whatever we end up with will be well worth the wait—not to mention a potential Lil B col