In the music industry, 2014 was generally regarded as a down year for music. Not one album reached platinum status (the last being December 2013’s Frozen soundtrack), possibly fueled by the increase in illegally downloaded music and free internet singles available for download via mp3. Barely any of the most prominent artists released albums– those are all coming out in 2015– but there were still many diamonds in the rough. Here, we will take a look at the five best albums that came out this year.
10- Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
At first glance, Parquet Courts probably seems like your typical neo-indie rock band: they live in Brooklyn, despise the big music industry and make music completely separate from the pop scene. What makes the band and their new album special is the clear influences of Bob Dylan-esque vocals and Velvet Underground guitar riffs. From the muted croon on “Raw Milk” to the melodic guitar hook of the seven-minute epic “Instant Disassembly”, Parquet Courts’ junior album showed a big improvement from their previous works.
9- Rich Gang – Tha Tour, Pt. 1
Atlanta rap mogul Birdman (responsible for the rise of Lil Wayne) and his hometown proteges Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug won 2014. Before this year, the only member of the group Rich Gang that had any commercial success was Quan’s “Type of Way” in 2013. In 2014, his counterpart, Young Thug, shocked the music world, bursting onto the scene with lucrative hooks and an interesting wardrobe. Starting with his radio hits “Stoner” and “Danny Glover”, Thug came into his own.
As soon as autumn rolled around, Rich Gang dropped Tha Tour Pt.1, a mixtape that promoted– you guessed it– their upcoming American tour. Complete with Quan’s melodic hooks and Thug’s innovative style, these songs almost have a fun vibe over sweet, energetic trap production from Thug’s main producer, London on da Track. This tape was a successful experiment from Birdman, who tested the limits and found the incredible symbiotic relationship between Quan and Thug. The two naturally work well together, feeding off each other on the tape’s best songs, “Tell Em (Lies)” and “Givenchy”.
8- YG – My Krazy Life
Rap critics have been talking up the revival of west coast gangsta rap recently, and that would not be possible without the unmistakable duo of Compton’s own YG and superstar producer DJ Mustard (who also hails from L.A.) dropping one of the best projects of the last year in March. More important than this album’s smash radio hits– “My Hitta” with Rich Homie Quan and Jeezy or “Who Do You Love” with Drake– was its depth; the album had a plethora of great songs. It could be the west coast anthem and first song on the album “BPT”, or the album’s “love song”, “Do It To Ya”. The entire project reeks of west coast sound with extreme simplicity in the production of DJ Mustard– repetitive drums and overpowering synths. This album was crafted perfectly for YG’s breakout, a lyrical marvel in which the young rapper tells stories of love and the struggle in poor Compton neighborhoods glazed over by violence, robbery and drugs.
7- Benjamin Booker – Benjamin Booker
The 25-year old, New Orleans bred Benjamin Booker was one of the most interesting faces in music this year. Originally attending the University of Florida in hopes of becoming a journalist, Booker discovered his musical talent. After being discovered by indie-rock legend Jack White, one of Booker’s inspirations, released his self-title debut with ATO Records in August. It is impossible to describe Booker’s music in one word; listening to his single “Violent Shiver”, there is a vibe of rock, blues and soul warped by Booker’s harsh voice. Rolling Stone described Booker as sounding like “the Strokes if they’d been suckled on moonshine in a juke joint”.
6- Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait
The revival of west coast hip-hop was not complete until young L.A. rapper and former Odd Future affiliate Vince Staples released an underground EP, Hell Can Wait, to compliment YG’s chart-topping My Krazy Life. The eight song EP– technically Staples’ debut, despite releasing several mixtapes in the past two years– is a seven song, 24-minute statement against police brutality and the hopelessness of growing up in the streets. Staples’ simple bars over chaotic production are deceptively clever, and a testament to the fact that he is wise beyond his years because of where he grew up. In a year where west coast rap delved into newer, different topics, Staples brings us right back to rapping about despair and what it means to wake up every morning hoping you make it through the day. The aptly titled project has changed from a young artist’s debut to an anthem for the urban community in times of turmoil– “Hands Up”, a song about police brutality produced by No I.D. became synonymous with the tension in Ferguson, Missouri.
5- Salad Days – Mac Demarco
Easygoing indie-pop artist Mac Demarco’s coming of age shone through in his second full-length EP, Salad Days. This album is not as much of a transformation for Demarco, but a refinement of his first EP, 2012’s 2. Above his signature soft bass lines and sweet, lazy guitar that came as a result of quarantining himself in a New York apartment chain smoking cigarettes for three months were more introspective lyrics about Mac’s rise to underground fame. This EP sounds like a happy psychedelic journey made in the San Francisco sun in 1967 with a touch of somber tones and a clearer image on life, which is Demarco’s signature touch.
4- Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
2013 was a huge year for hip-hop. Kanye West, Drake, J. Cole, Mac Miller and countless other hip-hop superstars released long-awaited projects. Lost in the shuffle was Run the Jewels– a newly-formed duo of Atlanta’s politically-charged MC Killer Mike and Brooklyn’s progressive producer El-P. Both dangerously close to the age of 40– where most are lucky if they are still in the twilight of their prime– the two dropped a collaboration project aptly titled with the name of their group. After surprisingly making massive waves in the underground hip-hop world, the two began to work on their second project, under no other name than Run the Jewels 2. This project, dropped three days before Halloween, gave the urban music scene exactly what it needed. It was a time when the hottest topic was the tension in Ferguson, and there was no better soundtrack for that situation than a duo that transcends the race bounds with political lyrics from part time-CNN correspondent Killer Mike and raw, table-smashing production from El-P. This album was nearly perfect in sonic quality and was released at the perfect time. The two rap veterans arguably created the most progressive album in all of 2014.
3- FKA Twigs – LP1
2014 was the year of electronic pop. Electronic music group Disclosure landed a single on the radio, Kanye West signed relatively unknown synth-pop artist Kacy Hill to G.O.O.D. Music and FKA Twigs released her third full-length project. An album full of sound experimentation and visual oddities, LP1 is a groundbreaking album for pop music. It’s a saga of sexual angst, drugged-out love and raw forms of beauty all wrapped up into a paranoia of sharp sound effects and electronic drum machines. The album’s concept and experience is summarized best by the album’s cover, a heavily-edited headshot of FKA Twigs (whose real name is Taliah Barnett) made to look like a combination of an unmoving body and a wax figure. LP1 is a dark album with a silver lining that breaks through the foreboding synth tones and drums with Twigs’ falsetto voice and sensitive lyrical content.
2- Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
When two different worlds collide in hip-hop, it can either turn out very good or very disappointing. Thankfully for hip-hop fans, Indiana’s own g-funk rapper Freddie Gibbs and psychedelic west coast producer Madlib came together to produce the most unexpectedly great albums of the year. The two come from completely different crops; Freddie Gibbs grew up in Gary, Indiana and paved his way to underground hip-hop stardom through raw, intricate raps about his history with selling drugs. Widely regarded as one of the most consistent lyricists in hip-hop, “Gangsta Gibbs” tended to gravitate towards bass-heavy beats generated from the midwest. Madlib, born and raised 35 miles west of Los Angeles, made his way to producer stardom by laid-back, boom-bap beats with soul samples, speedy drums, and flighty piano. Madlib, being a few years older than Gibbs, has worked with the cream of the crop– he produced one of the most famous underground hip-hop albums in history with MF Doom, Madvillainy. He has also lived with legendary producer J Dilla and worked with several other big names in hip-hop.
Despite the skepticism surrounding the collaboration between Gibbs and Madlib, Pinata is a perfect juxtaposition between serene, drugged-out beach living and the hard life of the midwest streets. The old piano and soul samples throughout the album make it feel like a scene from a barbershop in the ‘70s until Gibbs signature voice starts riding over the production, talking about doing drugs, selling drugs and falling in love with the wrong people. Complete with guest appearances from both sides of the spectrum (Detroit’s Danny Brown rapping an energetic verse on “High” to L.A.’s Earl Sweatshirt droning over a loopy beat in “Robes”), this a must-listen album for any hardcore hip-hop fan.
1- D’Angelo – Black Messiah
In 2000, after a five year hiatus, 26-year old R&B megastar D’Angelo released one of the most famous albums to this day, neo-soul masterpiece Voodoo. Then, he disappeared from the music scene. In the 14 years since his last album, D’Angelo battled weight, drug and relationship issues along with unfulfilled promises for a new album. As soon as people began to lose hope, D’Angelo announced a European tour for Spring 2015. Still, no music. Then, on December 13th, he released a single under the name of “Sugah Daddy”. The next morning, he announced an upcoming album. That afternoon, he and The Roots’ Questlove had an album listening party in Brooklyn. Then, on the night of December 14th, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah was abruptly released on iTunes. In a stretch of less than 48 hours, the world went from a silent D’Angelo to having a new D’Angelo album for the first time in 14 years.
There was a lot of skepticism surrounding the new album; D’Angelo, now 40, had been more or less out of the music game for 14 years (with the exception of a couple guest appearances) and many began to worry about his album trying to hard to be innovative and gimmicky. Instead, D’Angelo enlisted his old friends Questlove and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and another timeless soul record was produced. Highlighted by the catchy basslines of album opener “Ain’t That Easy” and “Really Love”, which features a minute-long intro complete with spanish guitar riffs. The album feels like a fight between love, lust and a long journey. In the song “Back to the Future (Pt I)”, D’Angelo addresses the questions about his transformation from iconic sex symbol to a reclusive artist with weight issues, crooning “when you’re asking about the shape I’m in / I hope it’s not my abdomen that you’re referring to” over an orchestral track. The album finishes off on a strong note with “Another Life”, an ominously hopeful song that just happens to be the most sonically pleasing track on the entire project.