The past years have seen a number of musical trends. When I first started this blog, I began to notice how influential the push of music bloggers can be. Bands like the XX were largely finding open doors because of this well before sites like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork latched on. One year, it was a kind of lo-fi neo-soul that made a comeback through The Weeknd, Frank Ocean and How to Dress Well. Then there was a year where female DIY artists seemed to be everywhere, like Micachu and Grimes. Then rap mixtapes were getting hot, introducing us to artists like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper. My favorite trend of the past five years was in 2011, when albums like PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake”, Bill Callahan’s “Apocalypse” and Radiohead’s “King of Limbs” were taking nations to task for being institutions of war. However, this year might be the season where clear focus drifted and no singular trend stood out. But still, good music abounds. As much as I dislike ranking and giving stars to music (because music deserves more complexity than that) — below I’ve listed 39 of my favorite tracks with links to hear them (just right click and open a new tab) — followed by my Top 11 selections. I tried to limit too many duplicate artists. Enjoy! — David D. Robbins Jr.
11. Cibo Matto “MFN”
It always feels good to see artists reemerge better than before. Cibo Matto’s thematic “Hotel Valentine” seemed to fall out of the sky. One of best tracks on the album is “MFN” — the nominally less expressive shortening of the words Motherfuckin’ Nature. It’s a song that show just how good Cibo Matto is at blending disparate styles and sounds. That angelic choir sample spreads atop Miho Hatori’s half-sung vocals like sunlight. It’s accented with undulating rhythm changes, intermittent drumming and cool beats.
10. Tei Shi “See Me”
You won’t hear vocals as pretty and lithe as this in any of the other songs released this year. Currently based in Brooklyn (you lucky dogs), Valerie Teicher released this sultry single with its sugarcoated melodies and its wonderful vocal tempo changes. This song is lush, seductive, teasing. We see you, darling. And hear you too. Gorgeous track.
09. Amen Dunes “Splits Are Parted”
Amen Dune’s “Love” is a record some have written off as “too much sameness”. I’ve read so many lists and reviews that have said this about a number of records this year. Too many. It’s such a lame excuse to dismiss an album. It was written about TOPS’ “Picture You Staring” too. Might as well say Portishead sounds the same or Bob Dylan or Prince. It’s the nature of good musicians to begin to sound “like themselves”. Amen Dunes (aka Damon McMahon) has touched hallowed ground on this record and in his track, “Splits Are Parted”. It reminds me of that terra firma folks like Nick Drake and AA Bondy found. “Splits Are Parted” is a dark track, but glows with real passion.
08. Caribou “Can’t Do Without You”
The first single from Dan Snaith’s album, “Our Love”, was the exceedingly catchy “Can’t Do Without You” — an intimate dance track with a really simple twist. It’s a song with the same phrase repeated in a variety of forms: pitch-altered, echoed, roughed-up and then clarified later in the song with better production levels and higher volume. It’s clean and dynamic, building to an explosive closing. When I heard the cacophonous ending it was hard to believe the song originated from such a soft beginning.
07. St. Vincent “Rattlesnake”
This song has the distinction of being about an apparently-true story about Annie Clark facing down a rattler during a naked walk in the Texas desert. Well, if you listen closely to the song, it’s more like she took her naked ass and high-tailed it out of there. I sense some kind of untold hallucinatory experimentation going on here. I mean, really — walking naked in the desert? There’s so much to love about her self-titled release, but this song stands out. More than any of her previous records, her vocals mimic the instrumentation — creating more power — like it’s materializing in double or triple stereo. Maybe it’s Clark’s own unique surround sound. The tempo picks up as she runs from the snake and we get her breathy vocalizations: “Runnin’, runnin’ / Sweatin’, sweatin’ / Rattle behind me / No one will ever find me …” All this happens before she turns up the heat and plays extraterrestrial guitar hero to close out the track. It’s stunning.
06. Sharon Van Etten “Your Love Is Killing Me”
Best ballad of 2014. It’s an old-school homage to do-or-die love. Leave it to SVE to spill herself out raw and honest all over a track: “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you / Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you / Burn my skin so I can’t feel you / Stab my eyes so I can’t see …” It’s the seminal song to a universal feeling everyone’s felt, when you can’t seem to stay away from the person that keeps hurting you the most.
05. D’Angelo “Prayer”
Yeah, this comeback feels really good. D’Angelo’s back without missing a note. “Prayer” is one of the best songs he’s ever written. It’s a soulful invocation that I can’t help but read the soul-singer’s story into: “Soul prayer, soul prayer / Hallowed be thy name / Kingdom come, will be done, oh yeah / I do…the devil on your feet / I know that he will, he will try to stop you / From seeing your days / But you got to pray all the way.” It’s no wonder the record is called “Black Messiah” — because this is D’Angelo’s ultimate second-chance. It’s his resurrection, lifted up by the strength of the best bass beat of 2014, and that beautiful high falsetto.
04. ILoveMakonnen “Wishing You Well”
The lists that feature ILoveMakonnen are all picking the song, “Tuesday”, featuring Drake. But “Wishing You Well” is 10 times as good as that one. It’s a single released a month after the former. Instead of Drake, this is mostly ILoveMakonnen, with the help of Atlanta producer Mike WiLL Made It. This song is unconventional rap and hip-hop, told with a slacker’s vibe. It’s an absurdly rambling story of love that begins in Arizona, spans four states, and features cows, a pet snake and a crashed car — all told in a tender tempo: “I remember that time in Arizona / Your cousin showed us the most love / We was moving outside, we was blooming so fast / We crashed her yellow Corolla / She was mad on her Motorola … / Even though we’re not together / I be wishing you well / I be wishing you well / Cuz I love you forever.”
03. Blonde Redhead “No More Honey”
Say what you will about the record “Barragán” as a whole, but “No More Honey” is as beautiful and gummy as it gets. Kazu Makino’s liquid-smooth vocals glide with the song’s minimalist sway and creaking noises before the jarring chorus, electrified by guttural and sawing guitar. If I checked my media player, it would probably show that I’ve listened to this song as much as any other this year.
02. George Maple “Began To Say”
I think Australian singer George Maple is the best new find this year. I imagine her latest EP, “Vacant Space”, will have producers and artists lining up to work with her. It’s an apropos name for her record because she’s one of the few artists I’ve listened to in 2014 that knows how to make use of silent space. What I mean is she knows all about tension, build-up, wind-down, and creating mood. The singer doesn’t have to be all over the track. Bells and whistles are fine, but set-up can turn a simple sound supreme. “Began To Say” is sexy, soulful and sophisticated — a blend of styles like Jessie Ware with Meshell Ndegeocello. It’s music for the lovelorn in the late-hour half light.
01. Angel Olsen “Unfucktheworld”
I thought this might be the best track I heard all year when I first listened to it back in February. And it still is. It’s so solitary, so simple and so sublime. This song is a lesson that less really can be more. (Perhaps there’s some inspiration in the song title from Lucinda Williams’ 2007 “Unsuffer Me” — the only other song I can recall that uses the preface “un-” to express the desire to change the state of something bad.) In a way, it’s bleak folk — breathy and seriously lo-fi. But what completely floored me was where Olsen takes the song. After the prettily maudlin campfire lyricism about losing dreams, her reason, and living with a broken heart … She had the inventiveness to, mid-song, turn this lo-fi mono-dirge into self-empowered stereo. (Literally, at the 1:12 mark.) This wake of love shifts into a spellbinding song of empowerment (“I am the only one now / I am the only one now / You may not be around”) that can only leave one utterly speechless.