2014 was an incredible year for music in all genres. For whatever reason, it felt like there were more fresh sounding ideas with excellent production, intelligent lyrics and outstanding musicianship than ever before. Maybe we finally cleared the folk implosion wave or cross pollination happened in a different way or the resurgence of vinyl gave rise to better attention to the actual soul of the matter vs the image and bombast.
We look forward to Neil Young’s new mobile FLAC playing device as further proof that quality music is making a comeback.
Regardless it was a great year and we could easily have a list 5 times as long as what’s below.
Special thanks to Tragic Josh, Truffle Jones, Daniel Waters and the MZ writers for their input and ideas towards compiling this list of extraordinary music.
50. Kate Tempest
49. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
Adams erases much of his limp NPR-pledge-driver-friendly Ashes and Fire with this self-titled, post-retirement offering, which manages to bring some rock back into the mix while keeping the songs focused and smart. He’s been a punk, a troubadour, a noodler, a new waver, metal head and general malcontent for some time now, and it’s possible this is the sound of Responsible Adult Ryan Adams. Hard to say with him, given his shapeshifting over the years. But just like the girls you dated in college vs. the one you wound up marrying — sober, married Adams might not be nearly as fun as wasted, angry sideshow Adams — but he’s a hell of lot more compelling and worth keeping around. ~ T
48. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
Sunbathing Animal might tread familiar water in terms of the sound that made Light Up Gold so notable two years ago, but the songs somehow manage to be that much more honed while still lazy, bored and sloppy all at once. More impressive is Parquet Courts’ ability to inhabit a genre so hoary and make it sound so fresh.
47. Nikki Lane – All Or Nothin’
Proving once again that many music journalists have nothing better to do than find holes to stick things in, Nikki Lane’s sophomore release was well-rated but somewhat mis-received as a form of “outlaw country” or other vagaries of the journalistic pen. Though her songs do address things like one night stands and being treated humanely by mouthy significant others, speaking one’s mind and addressing itches that need to be scratched does not an outlaw make.
Instead, what you get in Lane is a songwriter and vocalist who can make you swoon one moment and snap to attention the next, with one foot from each of her wickedly long legs rooted in the past and present, somewhere between Patsy and Neko. Perhaps not being a bro country crossover pop tart hurt Lane in 2014, but the smart money would be wise to bet on her in the long run. All Or Nothin’ indeed.
46. Lights – Little Machines
45. Dillon Francis – Money Sucks, Friends Rule
Can we finally stop pretending a genre that’s somewhere between 35 and 50 years old is new, now and different? Laptop producers renewed possibility with blips, boops and beats well before the millennium, and it’s fair to say the latest facelift has noticeably started to sag. Hence the success of Dillon Francis’ Money Sucks, Friends Rule, which basically sums up the faux-mindset of the EDM cultural zeitgeist while would-be producers and DJs old and new alike make their best last-ditch money grabs. It’s not that Francis has done anything magical here, but he’s done it so well, so much so, that it’s the best realization of an EDM epitaph that’s aired to date. Money Sucks, Friends rule, unless of course, you have no money and your friends suck, in which case, hey — worry about tomorrow, tomorrow, and just dance all night until the sun comes up instead!
44. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
43. Boyfriend – Love Your Boyfriend Vols.1 & 2
Boyfriend has been taking L.A. one square foot at a time, earning rank with the gay community and even bites from the mainstream press, while undoubtedly brewing up that big breakout that’s going to make you wonder a year and a half from now how you missed her all this time. With whip-smart lyrics and a dynamite flow that can match the best of the best out there, this sexually charged, over-educated songstress throws down what it means to be female in western society in a package that entertains “comers” of all genders. ~ Truffle Jones
42. Perfume Genius – Too Bright
41. Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
40. We Were Promised Jetpacks – Unravelling
39. The Barr Brothers – Sleeping Operators
38. Sunni O)))
37. Banks – Goddess
36. Broken Bells – After The Disco
35. Hey Rosetta – Second Sight
34. Porter Robinson – Worlds
Claims that Porter Robinson redefined EDM and/or or invented a new sub-genre with the release of Worlds are laughable at best, but props to this U.S. producer for taking a left turn from the sound that’s been earning his bread at the biggest EDM and mainstream music festivals going. Worlds shimmers, simmers and stuns, winning with dense waves of sound supporting compositions that have not an ounce of fat on them. It stands on its own two feet at a time when the genre as a whole finds itself somewhere in the vicinity of a shark pen with Fonzie on waterskis.
It’s yet to be determined if this is a soundtrack for the afterglow or for a party yet to come, but that doesn’t mean its nuggets aren’t any less relevant now. Groundbreaking? No. But unique for 2014. With enough listens, it might just float you away. ~ Truffle Jones
33. The Provincial Archive – It’s All Shaken Wonder
32. Bahamas – Bahamas Is Afie
31. St. Vincent
30. MØ – No Mythologies To Follow
In a year dense with Tove Los, Charlotte OCs, Bankses and all manner of post-home-recording female vocalists, MØ’s debut is the one that warranted the most return listens. Distinctly international and accomplished without sounding polished, No Mythologies To Follow is a rhythmic yet grounded touchstone for a calendar year notorious for reaching new levels in absurdity. ~ Truffle Jones
29. Spencer Burton – Don’t Let The World See Your Love
28. Ty Segall – Manipulator
Garage rock darling Ty Segall earned high marks for Manipulator this year, which would be easy to dismiss if he didn’t have a quality discography that runs a couple dozen deep behind him (he probably made a new record just now while you were reading this). It doesn’t really matter if he’s channeling 60s psychedelia or Daniel Johnston or none of the above — you’re going to be playing catch up with him for the rest of his career. Might as well get started with Manipulator, easily one of his best. ~ Truffle Jones
27. John Coltrane – Offering: Live at Temple Universityy
Do you know what John Coltrane used to do immediately after his gigs were over? According to biographers — he walked off the stage, and started practicing. Coltrane truly believed that music was the ultimate expression of god and one’s ability to commune with Him therein. He made it his life’s work to do so, and this latest posthumous release demonstrates that devotion exactly. You don’t have to be a jazz fan to appreciate true passion and dedication, especially the kind that can’t be summarized in 140 characters or less. ~ Truffle Jones
26. Vashti Bunyan – Heartleap
25. Deadmau5 – while(1<2)
24. Run the Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Jaime Meline, El-p & Michael “Killer Mike” Render put together a monster out of the gate. Uncompromising, aggressive and beastly. It swings and churns, teetering always on the edge of a downbeat and full to the brim of purpose and confidence. Just awesome. ~ Ighuaran
23. Mo Kenney – In My Dreams
22. Jonathan Boulet – Gubba
21. Caribou – Our Love
20. Brian Eno and Karl Hyde – Someday World
19. Jungle – Jungle
18. Timber Timbre – Hot Dreams
17. Owen Pallett – In Conflict
16. Aphex Twin – Syro
15. Low Roar – 0
14. Perfect Pussy
13. Transistor Soundtrack composed by Darren Korb vocals by Ashley Barrett
“This is the first year we are including a video game soundtrack on our list, but it won’t be the last. SuperGiant Games’ “Transistor” inspires a compelling mix of gin-soaked smoky jazz, dirty nostalgia, glitch and techno and orchestral worry. It’s evocative, exhilarating, and at times, disturbing.” ~ Ighuaran
12. The Afghan Whigs – Do To The Beast
It’s impossible to explain how a critically acclaimed alt rock band from the 90s came back from a 15-year hiatus sounding better than they ever did before, but that’s exactly what Greg Dulli and company have done with this year’s Do To The Beast. You could stack up the best of Dulli’s other projects over the years: Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins and solo songs — and still not have a set that sounds as vital as this does. Then again, The Afghan Whigs were always clever enough to keep their distance from their flannel contemporaries with infusions of R&B and yes — even Jesus Christ Superstar covers. It’s doubtful a new audience will find them with this album, but for those in the know, it will leave them asking, with songs this good — what took so long? ~ Truffle Jones
11. Arms And Sleepers – Swim Team
10. Hozier – Hozier
9. Eagulls – Eagulls
8. S. Carey – Range Of Light
7. Alt-J – This Is All Yours
6. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music
Nashville got its panties up in a wad this year when indie country songsmith and performer Sturgill Simpson had the gall to sing “goddamn” while performing “Living The Dream” on Conan. Nevermind that the word is part of one of his actual lyrics — the industry and bible belt both would have had him change it a la the televised Stones or The Doors 50 years ago.
Proposed censorship aside, Sturgill is deservedly making his mark on music by the merits of his his cheap, quick n’ dirty sophomore offering alone, and not any kind of controversy, perceived or otherwise. Just desserts for a guy who stands more for country than an entire city locked in a footrace seemingly dedicated to contriving the ultimate drunken beachside date rape anthem, one recycled Whitesnake riff at a time.
Yeah, Simpson sounds a bit like Waylon, and he name checks Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, and blends psilocybin-tinged imagery with songs of seeking and internal redemption (or not) — but so what? He made the record he wanted to make, on his dime, on his time, and by his own sweat and toil — and it’s a good’un. His message, your ears. Listen or don’t. Isn’t that what America is supposed to be about? Goddamn. ~ Truffle Jones
5. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
4. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
There are few feuds I enjoy in music more than that of Jack White vs. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. White, who has laudably made a name for himself by ripping off various dead bluesmen, Flat Duo Jets and Tim Burton, seems upset that the Black Keys made their name by ripping off…him? They’ve even warred about where their children go to school and who could have the worst divorce. In the meantime, what hasn’t progressed in either camp is the music — White has consistently released the same tunes under different incarnations for two decades now, and the Bland Keys have become the mainstream go-to for advertisers, soccer moms and cred-seeking music festivals everywhere — much like a latter-day Coldplay.
One realm in which there has been a notable difference, however, is that of producing other artists’ recordings. While White has produced a number of albums outside of his own fare, most of them are by artists and idols that swim in the same pool as White, with his closest thing to an outside-of-the-box producer role being for Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, back in 2004.
Auerbach, on the other hand, has been increasingly producing artists as disparate as Michael Kiwanuka, Bombino and Jesicca Lea Mayfield, with 2014 seeing credits for Ray Lamontagne, Nikki Lane and Lana Del Rey alone.
Enter Del Rey, the closest thing America has to Japanese idoru — wholly fictional, virtual, media-created celebrities with actual followings. A construct of marketing in name and presentation, she went from nothing more than a charting eyebrow-raiser in 2012 to a genuine concern this year with the Auerbach-helmed Ultraviolence.
If Del Rey is indeed a marionette, it’s Auerbach’s studio mastery that brought her to life on Ultraviolence, a deliberately hipster-noir affair that wouldn’t fire on all cylinders without the cinema bred into the songs. Ultraviolence is a slow burner that relies on nuance and art over tunesmithing per se, yet somehow manages to fire across generations to strike chords with the teenage girls who voted yes with their wallets and drove it to debut at number one on the Billboard charts this year with monster post-digital sales. Would that be Dr. Frankenstein’s monster? Ask Auerbach. ~ Truffle Jones