- Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
Expanding on the sound of her folksy debut, Angel Olsen’s newest is as exhaustive as a landscape and as specific as a diary entry. Pairing smart, confessional lyricism with a soulful warble not unlike a female Leonard Cohen, Olsen’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness makes an indelible impression on first listen and reveals new layers each time it’s revisited.
- Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else (Carpark Records)
Here and Nowhere Else does little to tinker with the careful balance the band struck with 2012’s masterful Attack on Memory — what it does do is break down the band’s exhilarating alterna-rock ethos to a science. Album closer “I’m Not Part of Me” is one of the year’s best and most enduring pop songs, while “Now Hear In” and “Pattern Walks” make quick work of anyone who thought the band might have lost their ability to shred.
- FKA twigs – LP1 (Young Turks)
British singer-songwriter-producer FKA twigs’ LP1 is less a debut record than a mission statement — a fully realized aesthetic attack on a relatively lacking pop music market. Tightening the songwriting spark of her previous EPs, twigs offers some of the most direct and invigorating pop in recent memory, without pulling back the curtain on her enigmatic persona.
- Aphex Twin – Syro (Warp)
Like most of Aphex Twin’s work, Syro is divisive, a love-it-or-hate-it record if there ever was one. It should be fairly obvious by now which side my bread is buttered on; few records in 2014 came with as many expectations as this one, and for me, Syro checked off every box. Borrowing heavily from Richard D. James’ discography, this long-awaited LP manages to make something fresh and surprising out of the warmly familiar.
- Perfume Genius – Too Bright (Matador)
“No family is safe when I sashay.” So croons Mike Hadreas on Too Bright, the third and best record he’s made under his pseudonym Perfume Genius. Whereas his previous LPs carved out a comfortable space in delicate piano-led art pop, Hadreas’ latest aims for the bleachers, trusting listeners to hang on for moments both more tender and more dissonant than we’ve heard from him. The result is the sort of emotional gravitas most musicians can only dream of.
- Ariel Pink – pom pom (4AD)
It’s almost a shame that pom pom is Ariel Pink’s finest and most immaculately imagined batch of songs ever, since he’s made it his mission to alienate as many listeners as possible through a series of recent PR disasters. All trolling aside, the songs on pom pom speak for themselves; bathed in a distinctly ‘60s psych-rock haze, there’s enough pitch-perfect pop here to instantly overshadow each of the songwriter’s many faux pas.
- Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)
Improving on just about everything that made their first collaboration successful, underground emcees El-P and Killer Mike bring their A-game to each of RTJ2’s tantalizingly short tracks. El’s skeletal, confrontational production fits the duo’s style perfectly, and their chemistry is stronger and more palpable than ever. Each song offers a handful of instant quotables, and the LP maintains a sense of pressing urgency throughout that puts the bulk of this year’s hip-hop to shame.
- Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal (What’s Your Rupture?)
New York foursome Parquet Courts will probably never escape comparisons to Pavement and the Velvet Underground, but that’s only because they’re two of the only bands to have set a precedent for the kind of cerebral, inventive rock at which the band excels. Their debut record Light Up Gold was one hell of a wake-up call, but Sunbathing Animal is smarter, sadder, darker, and just plain better than anything they’ve released so far.
- D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah (RCA)
A long-awaited follow-up record that few expected would ever be released, D’Angelo’s newest ended the year not with a bang, but with a bassline. Black Messiah is even better than fans could have hoped for, a record that recreates Voodoo’s effortless grooviness while amping up the production and injecting a distinctly 2014 message of tolerance and equality. No record this year was fresher, funkier, or more of-the-moment.
- Grouper – Ruins (Kranky)
This is a record that forces you to listen closely, to consider the trickle of rainfall on a window and the beep of a microwave during a power outage as integral a part of the music as anything else. Liz Harris’s music has always commanded singular attention, but Ruins, recorded three years ago during a stint in a small Portuguese town, is at once her most delicate and self-assured work to date. In a year when countless acts strained to make themselves heard, Harris’ quietude spoke volumes.