The Greatest Albums, EPs, and songs of 2014

So, here we are. A lot of music came out this year. Enough that many of my friends and contemporaries have had trouble whittling down their list to 20 or even 10 records. That’s a great problem to have, but my feeling couldn’t be more different. Although I did enjoy a significant chunk of this year’s releases, this particularly list seemed to fall right into place after powering through my backlog of records. My expectation was that the top 8 records, which have each had their spot secure since their release, might be threatened by some of the releases I neglected over the year. I couldn’t have been more wrong, though 2 of the approximately 60 records I listened to in November and December stood out and filled out the list nicely. As with the top 8 records, the songs and singles on this list have all been on heavy rotation since release.

Initially I had some misgivings about how accurately this list reflected what I actually spent the most time listening to in 2014. Now that the list is complete, no such misgivings exist. Hope you find something new to bring you through December and into 2014.

Albums:

m-flo - FUTURE IS WOW

When the duo of Verbal and DJ Taku announced the end of the “loves” series, everyone assumed the era of numerous guest spots and endless collaborations was at an end. Fortunately for us, FUTURE IS WOW is a return to form in many important ways. m-flo’s “EDM” (in the 2010s sense) influenced pop style remains fairly consistent from Square One and NEVEN, but the all-star cast of featured artist has been assembled this time around, bringing us back to 2007’s Cosmicolor. The approach for guest selection is a little different, though, as Verbal and Taku have picked out almost exclusively upcoming talent with a few notable exceptions like SOL from BIGBANG and the queen of Japanese pop music, Ayumi Hamasaki. Just like Minami on Square One and NEVEN, youtube cover artists are well represented in MACO and Matt Cab, who both drew Verbal’s attention through renditions of older m-flo songs.

Lyrically, the album is thematically consistent. It juxtaposes the past and future, and offers catchy lyrics that suggest the potential of the listener. What pop music does best is make us forget our problems and think everything is all right, and FUTURE IS WOW accomplishes this in spades. And, like Katy Perry or Ke$ha, m-flo manages to consistently hint at a greater emotional depth that resides just below the surface.

TVXQ - TENSE

TVXQ are ten year veterans in the Korean pop game, and TENSE puts forward the musical maturity that one expects, but rarely receives, from manufactured mass-oriented pop music. TENSE infuses elements of neo soul, jazz, and swing into a very appealing package. Fans of D'Angelo, Musiq Soulchild, and even Amy Winehouse will find a lot to like here. TENSE incorporates just about every musical instrument played or sampled in Girls’ Generation and BIGBANG singles since forever. As Japanese pop becomes more and more influenced by contemporary 2010s “EDM,” Korean pop seems to be tapping all the veins of 90s American R&B that Japan hasn’t already used up.

Big Contest - Time Will Tell

Hardcore isn’t all recycled NYHC riffs and one-note lyrics… but, admittedly, that is a lot of it. Such a description isn’t an indictment, either. I loathe the garbage bands who strive to be more “modern” and turn their nose up at predecessors, adopting “unconventional” tuning and metallic trappings. I think it’s fair to say there have been no worthwhile hardcore innovations that occurred after 1991 (and that’s being generous), but the finite nature of the genre makes the little adjustments so crucial. Time Will Tell is simple, and clearly the result of individuals who have been listening to good hardcore music for a long time. Records such as these run the risk of sounding a little too scientifically executed, but Big Contest is rough around the edges in all the ways that matter.

Are SOIA riffs used here? Yes, to great effect. Big Contest also nails the lyrical variety hardcore can offer, with songs that range from finger-pointing accusations to happier lyrics that channel the same feeling one might get from one “Crucial Times.” Oh, and, there’s a post-song applause track… a worthwhile hardcore innovation if I ever heard one.

Tercer Mundo - Ser Nosotros Mismos

Since I already delivered my manifesto on how to be a good hardcore band (in short: do what nobody has done before by combining a lot of things people have done before…), one can easily infer why I think Ser Nosotros Mismos is a good record. One more caveat would be that, hardcore music must be REAL. A record that accurately reflects the material conditions of the band members is infinitely more memorable and enjoyable than one that does not. Tercer Mundo is a REAL band. Fast, solid mosh parts, and a real love for their local musical history — Ser Nosotros Mismos pushes all the right buttons.

Cherry Glazerr - Haxel Princess

I’m very attracted to unpretentious lyrics, hence my constant musical diet of pop, radio rap, and hardcore. The more straightforward, the better. In fact, my gold lyrical standard might be the Insted song “From The Start,” filled with earnest self-reference. With Haxel Princess, Cherry Glazerr lyricist Clem eases from the unmoderated earnestness of the band’s earlier material into a more literary songwriting style — which I have to admit I like a little less. Still, there is not much that can diminish the garage-y (I know, I know) excellence of this blown out and dreamy record. Plodding and deliberate, Haxel Princess has moments where it sounds like a more musically evolved sequel to Algebra Suicide’s 1994 release, Tongue Wrestling. Also, the songs are short. All contemporary “indie” bands should aspire to the succinctness of Cherry Glazerr.

Migos - Rich Nigga Timeline

I’m kind of at a loss as to how to describe Rich Nigga Timeline. It’s Migos. Each member of the group drops insane verses using really appealing vocal patterns. If you enjoyed the song “Versace” or The State vs. Radric Davis, you will enjoy this mixtape. What sets Migos apart from other, similar acts is how fast Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff can blast through a verse. Twista, take note. It sounds sick.

OG Maco - OG Maco

“U Guessed It” is just the tip of the iceberg for OG Maco. This self-titled mixtape showcases how incredible and diverse Maco can be. When rappers like Waka Flocka spit bars like “when my little brother died I said fuck school,” it’s surprising. This release starts generating that kind of shock, but by the end the expansiveness of Maco’s lyrical wheelhouse is clear. Also, when Maco yells — and he does a lot — it’s energizing as opposed to annoying. That is a rare accomplishment.

Cibo Matto - Hotel Valentine

Cibo Matto’s first real release since 1999, Hotel Valentine is not a phoned in revival. Miho and Yuka still got love for “Latin” music, running their listeners through a variety of tempos, influences, and unique instruments. I lack the musical vocabulary to really give this record its due, but if you were a fan of Cibo Matto in the 90s this is a must listen. If you enjoy engaging, unfamiliar “indie pop,” you’ll get a lot out of this release. It is utterly unlike anything else out there.

Ryan Hemsworth - Alone For the First Time

With Alone For the First Time, Hemsworth is able to evoke the golden age of Dntel and Styrofoam production when they were doing their best work alongside a who’s who of rappers and indie darlings. Hemsworth is far from a copycat, however. In the relatively short seven tracks, hints of Hemsworth’s history working with Shady Blaze is clear. A little bit Figurine, a little bit Hudson Mohawke, and a little bit Toro Y Moi, Alone For the First Time is the most surprisingly good record of the year.

Hideki Kaji - Ice Cream Man

I began this list with a record that makes me feel overwhelming joy, and I’ll end it the same way. Ice Cream Man is upbeatness personified. Incorporating some influence from Shibuya-kei, Kaji makes pop music that brings to mind a sunny, comfortable day at the beach or some shit. Seriously, it sounds badass. A close musical relative to Suneohair, Ice Cream Man is not to be missed.

Honorable Mentions

This year wouldn’t be what it was without some crucial releases that didn’t make the cut. First up, Beyoncé’s self-titled which deserve notice for its ideological orientation. Second, Romeo Santos’s Formula, Vol. 2 which has the honor of making the single-track skit funny again and also being excellent. Third, ILoveMakonnen deserves a shoutout for dropping two of the hottest tracks of the year, “Tuesday”, and “I Don’t Sell Molly No More”. Finally, the YSTK zine comp of Yasutaka Nakata covers is beyond description, but by virtue of being a compilation was withheld from consideration for the proper list.

EPs:

Girls’ Generation-TTS - Holler

Although Holler is only a little shorter than Alone for the First Time, technicality makes it an EP rather than a full album. This is great for me, since it made the formulation of this list incredibly easy whilst adhering to my self-imposed rules. Holler is out of this world, catchy, k-pop. Hearing it for the first time, I couldn’t believe songs this good remained unwritten in 2014. All the pop crap I load on to these lists every year aside, if you don’t like this EP, I question your taste in all things.

Perfume - Cling Cling

A great deal of skepticism accompanied the release of Perfume’s 2013 release Level3 on Astralwerks. Many fans suspected a change in style was a foregone conclusion. However, Cling Cling is arguably more true to form than Level3 was in the first place. Unquestionably, “Ijiwaru na Hello” is a top ten track among their entire discography.

Ty Dolla $ign - Beach House EP

While Sign Language might have been disappointing, nobody should forget the first non-mixtape Beach House came out this year too. Ty Dolla $ign is the most unique R&B act out right now, with lyrics ripped from club raps that completely eschew the normal introspective angle of most singers. Ty pairs his fantastic voice with beats that sound kinda like they were produced by Flying Lotus.

Step Forward - Step Forward

A fast and uncompromising take on youth crew, Step Forward offers further refinement on the familiar sound from their 7" released approximately ten thousand years ago. I’ll sidestep the in-jokes and finger pointing in regards to the long time between releases and just suggest everyone listens to this record.

Jeremih & Shlohmo - No More

The combination of Jeremih and Shlohmo is like nothing else out there. Picking up where artists like The-Dream and The Weeknd left off, two monumental talents elevate the abstract and sensual style of R&B with this collection.

Songs:

Negicco - “Triple! Wonderland”

“Triple! Wonderland” is not only the best song to release this year, bar none, it is also the best song ever written. Mozart, The Beatles, and Youth of Today could only dream of writing songs this spectacularly incredible. There is no song other than this one capable of such an immediate injection of utter joy in an otherwise flat affect. It’s impossible to quantify what makes this song so great, and it’s hard to comment on the lyrics because they are mostly in Japanese. Still, an overwhelming feeling of happiness radiates from this song. In the variation on the chorus, when they sing “don’t be afraid,” a tear falls every time.

Trinidad James - “H.O.M.E.”

This track secured its place as second best song of the year less because of Trinidad James’s contribution and more because of the flawless hook and verse delivered by MAKONNEN.

Ty Dolla $ign - “Work”

This 7 minute opus really takes the listener on a journey. Twista, who I regularly mock, drops a pretty ill verse here.

OG Maco - “U Guessed It”

It is taking all my willpower to pass up the opportunity to make a joke about guessing this song would be on the list.

Chromeo - “Come Alive”

An otherwise unremarkable release, White Women, provided an outstanding single in “Come Alive”.

 
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