Best of 2014: The Best Albums of 2014

14. Future: Monster (Freebandz)
While the ATLien’s second LP, Honest, hit me at first, it quickly fizzled, leaving me surprisingly cold. As it turns out, Honest wasn’t particularly honest, and the radio-friendly, streamlined artist we were presented lacked much of the drama and the esotericism that made me fall in love with him in the first place. Well, as heartbreak often does, his very public break-up with Ciara drove Future back to his roots, indulging all of his most excessive, experimental tendencies. It’s kind of a mess in places, but it’s exhilarating and heartbreaking in others, reminding us what a singular talent the 30 year-old is.

13. Real Estate: Atlas (Domino)
Another LP, another direct hit from the New Jersey trio. The group’s third album is probably the darkest of their career, as it explores commitment, fatherhood, loss, and burbz lyfe with startling honesty and insight. The rumination on suburban malaise is expertly framed with jangly guitars, flexible bass, and hooky melodies, turning an arduous-sounding experience into a lithe, pleasant one.

12. Tink: Winter’s Diary 2 (self-released)
It’s strange that one of my three favorite artists of 2014 comes this late on the list, but Winter’s Diary 2 feels more like an aperitif for a main course that is still forthcoming. That said, an aperitif from Tink is more substantial than most chefs’ best dish. Though it doesn’t feature her biggest songs of the year, the mixtape is an emotional, powerful statement of intent from a young artist who is strong enough to be vulnerable and secure enough to be insecure. There’s nothing surface-level here; she tells relatable, realistic stories about people, not characters. It’s one of many things that separates her from the rest of the fading pack.

11. YG: My Krazy Life (Def Jam)
A triumphant exercise in storytelling, the young Angelino’s debut album is the kind of masterful concept album that old heads have been telling us don’t get made anymore. YG presents consistently engaging vignettes of his reality with part-time wingman/full-time producer extraordinaire, DJ Mustard, riding shotgun, making sure he always has a dope beat to step to. His versatility is especially impressive, showing himself as a nuanced, multi-faceted person with a strong perspective and a hell of a lot to say.

10. Kyle Bobby Dunn: And The Infinite Sadness (Students of Decay)
The high watermark of a glittering career, the Montreal-based composer tills the kind of raw emotion that is sometimes lacking in the lesser work of the ambient/drone/neo-classical/whatever world. A brilliant LP from start to finish, And the Infinite Sadness washes the listener with vast swaths of sound, moving like the open ocean. Its 19 tracks knit together beautifully without clumsily blending together, resulting in a sum even greater than its affecting, memorable parts.

9. Dan Bodan: Soft (DFA)
After announcing himself with a string of impressive singles, the Berlin-based crooner’s debut feels like a worthy culmination of the fruitful two years that preceded it. Bodan inhabits a unique space, carving out a niche somewhere between art and pop, armed with a sharp lyrical wit and expressive tenor. Stylistically, it feels both timeless and current, as the strong lounge singer/classic troubadour influences are balanced by his sonic experimentation and virile, playful songwriting.

8. Andy Stott: Faith in Strangers (Modern Love)
What a streak the Manchester producer is on. His fourth masterful release in just about three years, Faith in Strangers is a spectacular balancing act between the light of Alison Skidmore’s faraway vocals and the darkness of Stott’s frigid, no-wave production. Over nine engulfing tracks, Stott puts Skidmore’s breathy vocals through the grinder and smears them across misty, minimalistic sonic canvases, resulting in images that are as alluring as they are unsettling.

7. How to Dress Well: What is This Heart? (Weird World)
Another indication that Tom Krell isn’t an artist who will be staying in any one place for long. Krell has crafted three exquisite, distinctly different albums, and What is This Heart? is his most streamlined, clear-eyed statement yet. Don’t get it twisted, it is still challenging and uniquely HTDW, but Krell has largely removed the sonic layers that previously obscured portions of his pop sensibilities, leaving his ambitious songwriting and disarming sentimentality on full display. It’s a brave, affecting statement that is hopefully one of many left by one of the best young artists in music.

6. The Hotelier: Home, Like Noplace Is There (Tiny Engine)
An absolute beast of an album, the Worcester, MA quartet’s debut is an unfiltered exposition on growing up disaffected in one of America’s countless, monolithic suburbs. Like an emo Ordinary People, the disc’s nine tracks are exploding with vibrant melodies, jilted vocals, and stories of kids who lost their way. As a 30 year-old, I have to admit that it’s comforting to know that there are still groups of young people screaming their hearts out in sweaty garages trying to figure out what the fuck any of this means.5. August Alsina: Testimony (Def Jam)
Though he’s still frustratingly underrated, August Alsina is the most interesting young artist in R&B. Simply put, Testimony is a complete album. It is balanced and well-paced, as the New Orleanian’s expressive tenor glides effortlessly between club bangers, ballads, mid-tempo confessionals, and pop tracks with deft touches of gospel, blues, and classic R&B mixed in. Lyrically, he holds nothing back, telling the incredible story that took him from the depths of homelessness to the heights of life in the penthouse. More than anything, it’s consistently engaging and rarely lags, which impressive considering its 17-song length. He’s still probably one bonafide, crossover smash away from really breaking huge, but he’s already made a better album than many of his more successful peers. I’ve got a feeling that breakthrough single is just around the corner.

4. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian)
As complete a personal statement as anything released in 2014, Adam Granduciel’s breakthrough LP harkens back to a day when great albums were celebrated a hell of a lot more than great songs. While Lost in the Dream is full of great songs, it’s strength lies in the collective — the detailed portrait of an artist struggling to find himself in the wake of heartbreak, success, pressure, love, and all the other crazy shit that colors our lives. His personal story may or may not be a noteworthy one, but his ability to translate it into poetic, affecting songs sure is. One of the great songwriters we have.
3. Grouper: Ruins (Kranky)
Ruins is a fitting title for Liz Harris’ gorgeous 10th LP. Recorded in 2011 amongst the majestic ruins of the ancient Portuguese city of Aljezur, the Portland native picks through the ruins of her own failed relationship, giving the listener a rare, stark polaroid of the person behind the otherworldly, enchanting ambient sounds that we’ve fallen in love with. The most directly personal effort of her incredible career, Harris opens up like never before, leaving a post-mortem of a period in her life that is as beautiful as the countryside that inspired it.
2. Burial: Rival Dealer (Hyperdub)
It was impossible to digest the exquisite EP in the two weeks before the end of last year, so Burial’s opus makes it onto this year’s list. Rival Dealer represents one of music’s most shadowy figures opening the blinds like never has before, releasing the three most direct, emotional songs of his career. From the labyrinthine title track to the empowering, “Hiders,” to its masterpiece of a closer, every track on this stylistic U-turn burrows deep into your ribs and implores you to open up your own blinds and let all the light in.1. Sun Kil Moon: Benji (Caldo Verde)
From early February to late December, nothing has really come close to topping Mark Kozelek’s beautiful rumination on love, loss, and what it all means. In recent years, the 47 year old has re-found a rich vein of form, crafting some of the most insightful, strongest albums of his illustrious 20-plus year career. Benji is the best of his splendid second act, filled with penetrating, tender stories of the incredible lives and impossible deaths of the friends, family, and strangers that have touched Kozelek’s heart over the years. It serves to remind us how special, valuable, and precarious each of our lives are, and that it’s fucking imperative to appreciate the ones we have while we are all still here.

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