As your proud new music editor here at KQED Arts, I'm always eager to share new music that inspires me. Thus, for your perusal, the below compiled list of albums that got me through the year 2014. (And if you really want to dig deep, see my top album lists from the years 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and lo and behold, the entire decade from 2000-2009.)
Here's what was on my turntable in 2014.
1. FKA Twigs – LP1
I listened to this album to be transported to a different world, and it never failed me. What's more, the world to which it transported me kept changing. FKA Twigs is the stage name of Tahliah Barnett, who has been getting just as much press for dating Robert Pattinson as for her music, which I suppose is inevitable. After an EP that yielded the minimalist masterpiece “Water Me,” her debut full-length is such a brilliant mix of compact songwriting and off-kilter sounds that it feels like a foregone conclusion. But really, there's nothing foregone about it. Even after repeat listening, the billowing oscillations of “Two Weeks” or spare rattling of “Pendulum” still emerge through the speakers entirely unexpected; amid all the “weird R&B” in the world, nothing sounds like this album does. Imagine if a pod from the International Space Station landed inside a Gothic cathedral and hooked its circuit board to the organ while a singular figure emerged from the choir to sing about desire and flesh and trust, maybe? When I saw her at the Great American Music Hall in August, she moved like a gazelle, awash in red silk. On LP1, she creates a universe of her own and invites you to settle in.
2. Ben Frost – A U R O R A
After watching the Giants win the World Series on the gigantic Civic Center screen with thousands of other fans in October, and after hugging and high-fiving absolute strangers beneath a hailstorm of bootleg fireworks to the sounds of an impromptu Dixieland band, I walked over to 1015 Folsom and let the terrifying abrasion of Ben Frost's live set wash over me. This is not music you'll be playing at Christmas dinner, folks: A U R O R A would be described as unlistenable noise by most people. But I couldn't help putting it on again and again. Like FKA Twigs, it creates its own idiom, the rules and melodies of which become clearer over time. If nothing else, the album always served me well as a palate-cleanser, a cotton towel shoved through the ears to floss the brain. Beneath the jarring surface, there's a lot of beauty to be had here.
3. EMA – The Future's Void
Back in 1964, Bob Dylan sang about contemporary life—poetically, yes, but remember that he also did so directly, and humorously. As a 14-year-old, I fell in love with his references to Anita Ekberg, Yul Brynner, Elizabeth Taylor and Greasy Kid's Stuff, whatever any of those things were. Now, I think about The Freewheelin' when I listen to The Future's Void. In 2014, Erika M. Anderson was widely said to have written a “post-internet” album, which really just means she spends some of The Future's Void singing about contemporary life, which very naturally includes the internet. (Twenty years from now, a 14-year-old is going to hear it and wonder what a “selfie” is.) As she told me in June, “To make art right now that tries to talk about the landscape in the world, or in America, and not in any way acknowledge the internet? That just seems so unrealistic.” But The Future's Void is, at its heart, a record about privacy, and the concept of self, and the ways modern life conspires to take that away from each and every one of us. I listened to this album to be reminded that Facebook can't take everything.
4. Grouper – Ruins
(Yellow Electric / Kranky)
In 2011, Liz Harris, newly single, took a residency in Portugal and wrote this stunning set of songs. They are fragile things, befitting one's emotions after a breakup. Have you ever been on vacation somewhere, away from your regular life, and taken a walk through a park, and the whole world seems foreign but beautiful, and in one rare moment, you're overcome and say to yourself, "I want this to last"? This album reminds me of those moments. I saw Harris in September, opening for Swans in Portland, playing a wordless sound-collage set. But Ruins has vocals that haven't been so prominent in the mix since her 2008 gem Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, and trying to make out the words takes a backseat to the soft beauty of it all. I turned to this record at night, usually, and thought of love, nature, and old friends.
5. Bleachers – Strange Desire
And just like that, the guitarist for Fun starts another band, and the world has a handful of new catchy-as-hell anthems. Jack Antonoff will probably be tapped as a producer more than a frontman in the coming years, but his royalty checks from Taylor Swift can help fund Bleachers for many years to come, as far as I'm concerned. Antonoff, as your girlfriend will tell you, is dating Lena Dunham, and it's hard to separate the idea of that relationship from these songs, many of which are the sort of excited, joyful songs one writes when they're overcome with new love. I mean, "I Wanna Get Better"—isn't that what most of us feel when someone's given us so much happiness and inspiration? That we want to be the best possible version of ourselves for them in return? I listened to this album on road trips and turned it up loud and enjoyed being alive.
6. Common – Nobody's Smiling
(ARTium / Def Jam)
I'll be the first to say that Common has made more than a few missteps in the past few years; his output since 2005's Go has been spotty at best, embarrassing at worst. So it's a relief that Nobody's Smiling is so deeply rewarding. Dedicated to South Side Chicago and its ongoing homicide crisis, the record is a thoughtful rebuke to all Fox News commentators who believe, wrongly, that rap music fails to address "black-on-black" crime. What's more, the production is left-field incredible and Common is back to form on the mic. In October, my wife and I were driving home from a show and listening to a mix of modern rap hits on KMEL—"Lifestyle," "We Dem Boyz," "Type of Way"—and she commented at how strange, stunted and yelpy rap music had become. Then the DJ played "The Neighborhood," from this album, and it was like Autotune had never happened.
7. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
(High Top Mountain)
I have been to the mountaintop of mainstream country music, and I have drank from its overproduced, cornball sentimental riches. I have seen the concerts of Miranda Lambert, Trace Adkins, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley and Eric Church, and I have thoroughly enjoyed myself in the Coors-drinking throng. But this year I put the "alt" back into alt-country, and filled myself with this wonderful album by Sturgill Simpson. Though cosmic kickoff track "Turtles All the Way Down" gets most of the attention—and sure, there aren't too many country songs that champion the virtues of DMT and LSD—the whole album's a Nashville banger, with a well-done cover of When In Rome's '80s hit "The Promise" thrown in for good measure. Metamodern Sounds also has a secret weapon in the form of lead guitarist Laur Joamets, who turns his Telecaster into a buzzsaw on a moments' notice. When I saw him at the Fillmore in November, Simpson and his band tore the place up like it was a Kentucky juke joint. Listening to this album reminded me about honesty in country music in 2014.
8. Great Apes – Playland at the Beach
It's no secret that San Francisco is changing, and with great challenges can come great art. Playland at the Beach is a five-song EP by San Francisco punk band Great Apes, and for my money it's the most poetic address yet to the changing face of the city. Each song is "narrated" by a different building—Vesuvio's, City Hall, an apartment building on Valencia—with local landmarks galore and a general tone of betrayal for a city's lost culture. "What the city is essentially becoming is a homogenized, vanilla, adult Disneyland for the rich," Great Apes frontman Brian Moss told me in November, "and with that, you're basically erasing a cultural landscape of artists—or, as I'm referencing in the songs, certain elements of what people might deem as filth, but what's really the raw, human diversity that I believe makes cities great." Great Apes are part of that diversity, in a lineage stretching back to hallowed Mission District band Jawbreaker—whose gravelly vocals and way with words are probably the best-known touchstones for listeners of Playland at the Beach. I played this record while driving through San Francisco and thinking about the city's future.
9. Tree – The @MCTREEG EP
I've had my issues with corporate companies funding artists' careers (behold Green Label Sound, Mountain Dew's record label), but occasionally even I must throw up my arms and concede that sometimes the suits get it right. Tree is a unique Chicago rapper with a gruff voice who straddles old jazz and soul with style and wit; his song "Godlike," which falls over itself in an off-time piano loop, dominated my life for a couple weeks in January. The funny thing is that when I ordered this record, it showed up with a note from Tree himself, sent from his home address. I guess Scion doesn't do mailorder.
10. Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band - Landmarks
Brian Blade is an excellent drummer who plays with jazz greats like Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter. He also records with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Iron & Wine. Straddling these two worlds is his Fellowship Band, and Landmarks is a stunning record of jazz composition, if short on jazz improvisation. Gone are the traditional solos in place of a rich, spiritual sound, and in this, it reminds me of Hank Jones and Charlie Haden's Steal Away. "Shenandoah" is here as a signpost, and Blade's New Orleans upbringing is applied to a swath of other southern sounds. A good Sunday-morning record to play, after Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace.
11. Perfect Pussy – Say Yes to Love
I'll always go for a solid hardcore record with diary-entry lyrics, and Say Yes to Love is no exception. There's nothing groundbreaking going on musically, of course, but singer Meredith Graves' lyrics are so tremendous and, as it goes, very buried in the mix. (When I saw the band in May, Graves told the soundman to simply "make it as loud and horrible as possible.") Though not as in-your-face, Perfect Pussy has a fearlessness reminiscent of riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill; here you can read a long, in-depth conversation between Graves and Bikini Kill's Tobi Vail. I listened to this record for hope, and for strength.
12. D'Angelo – Black Messiah
Not that anyone could ever top Beyoncé's surprise album release last year, but I've learned to hold off on these lists until December is mostly spent. And though this album is no Voodoo, D'Angelo's sublime, burbling masterwork, it was exactly what the world needed in early December, post-Eric Garner and Mike Brown, post-#BlackLivesMatter changed to #AllLivesMatter. For me, its predecessor wasn't D'Angelo's previous work, but having spent the day prior to its release taking part in the Millions March along Market Street. Like many, I downloaded it instantly and played it on repeat until 2:30am. Then I woke up and played it again.
13. R.A.C. - Strangers
This arrived as a tip from my wife, who favors synthesized dance music from the decade of Say Anything. This album is pure perfection in that regard, but it's far from your everyday saccharine retro placebo. With a rotating cast of guest singers, from MNDR to Tegan & Sara, Strangers toys with modern life's disconnect ("Tourist") and the superficial vagaries of fame ("Hollywood"). Of course, there's a good old-fashioned ode to driving to the beach, too. The timelessness to these songs lies in their catchy hooks, and they're not likely to grow tired for me anytime soon.
14. Future – Honest
(Freebandz / Epic)
Probably one of the year's biggest surprise moments was the release of T-Pain's Tiny Desk Concert, where he sang classics like "Buy You a Drank" without the effect of Autotune. This makes sense for T-Pain—after all, he expressed sorrow for his reputation's wreckage, and was called out personally by Jay-Z in "Death of Autotune"—but most people still don't understand the software, or how it's used, sparingly, in nearly every recording now. I'm a fan of the way Future uses it, which was a precursor to Yung Thug and Rich Homie Quan's use of it, which is to say it makes their cracking voices sound like they're being struck by lightning. Future has hooks for days, and his music is filled with hope and ambition. When I saw him in July, every song was a singalong.
15. Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again
There's really nothing wrong with being derivative if you do it with enough heart, and though I didn't know what to make of Joyce Manor at first, seeing them at Amoeba in August turned me into a fan. Melodic kitschy mid-tempo pop-punk, yadda yadda yadda, but when you're surrounded by 300 people all singing along more loudly than the band, it's a little bit infectious. (As a plus, singer Barry Johnson has fantastic taste in YouTube videos.) These songs are very short, to the point, and stay in your head for days.
16. Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint
Nicki Minaj put out a string of terrible singles in 2014, and the way to really appreciate this album is to simply delete them. So much of Nicki in 2014 seemed to be a reaction to critics of Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, the best album she's made, who claimed it was "too pop." So thanks to Peter Rosenberg, we got "Only." Trash that song like the garbage it is, along with "Anaconda," and what's left is a personal song cycle that's full of personality, humor, sorrow and cleverness. She's one of the best rappers alive when she's on her game, and call me crazy, but she's a role model for my five year-old daughter. When I saw her in Oakland in 2012, she addressed the young girls in the crowd: "Being a loser is not cool," she said. "Giving your goodies to every Tom, Dick & Harry is not cool. Being intelligent and ambitious is where it’s at. Men are attracted to ambitious women. Ain’t I right, guys?" This is not Nicki's best album as a whole, but there's a lot of bravery on it.
17. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness
A remarkable album that owes as much to early folk like the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention as it does the cosmic American music of Will Oldham, with whom Olsen toured, Burn Your Fire kept finding its way back to my stereo. Filled with mystery and longing, the record is deceptively simple, a trait that attracted advertising companies. In November, Olsen told KQED that she'd turned down a healthy sum for her music to be used in a commercial, "because it’s a crappy company, and it’s going to damage my career." May she reap the rewards twofold for blazing her own trail.
18. James Hoff – Blaster
In the pantheon of weird records, one of my favorites is Disc's Transfer, which was created by smashing CDs, gluing them back together, putting them in a CD player, pressing "play" and recording the skipping blips and glitches. That was 15 years ago. In 2014, New York artist James Hoff infected 808 beats with the Blaster virus, recorded the results, and used them as foundations for new compositions. The results are fabulously askew—your cat will hate it. There's definitely some high art happening here, but it's also just a riot to listen to. As Hoff himself says in this interview, "I don’t want the work’s reception necessarily hinged on'“getting it.'" I like that idea.
19. Marc Ribot Trio – Live at the Village Vanguard
Most know Marc Ribot as The Guy Who Played Guitar on Rain Dogs, and if you've ever heard "Singapore" or "Cemetery Polka," you know he has a knack for playing what sound like wrongish notes, just a tiny bit out of bounds. Eric Dolphy did this, David Rawlings does this, and Albert Ayler did this. It's Ayler we're concerned with here, since Ribot wisely recruited Henry Grimes, Ayler's bassist, to join his group. For this recording, the trio play Ayler's "The Wizard" and "Bells," John Coltrane's "Sun Ship" and "Dearly Beloved," and standards "Old Man River" and "I'm Confessin' That I Love You." There's an intense fire beneath it all, and listening to Ribot's solos unfold is like watching a Pollock painting take form. I listened to this when I needed to enter a different mindset.
20. Taylor Swift – 1989
Because I grew up in the Thriller era, I miss the monoculture. I miss big universal pop moments, like Lionel Richie's halftime show or the "Like a Prayer" premiere. I also sometimes miss big dumb pop music for the sake of big dumb pop music. That's why I cringed at the "Shake it Off" video but eventually relented to 1989. Isn't that what pop music does? Annoys you into submission until you sing along, like a bubble gum commercial jingle? This record doesn't have the personality of Swift's earlier albums—it could have been recorded by anybody with a gazillion-dollar budget—but that's beside the point when you're reaching for a big pop moment.
21. Iceage – Plowing Into the Field of Love
Denmark is a cold place, and when you start a band as a teenager there, it's likely to be a punk band (especially in Copenhagen, with one of the world's longest-running squats). I saw Iceage during this era, and was entranced by the magnetism of lead singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, who used the front rows of the audience alternately as a mattress and punching bag. For their third album, Iceage's malaise is tucked under the surface. A "mature" outing with obvious nods to Nick Cave and even classic country, it's an eerie listen that always made me feel a little more mortal.
22. Sage the Gemini – Remember Me
(HBK / Republic)
Yes, I agree that DJ Mustard got snubbed by the Grammys, but I also laugh at the notion that he created "a new sound." Everyone in the Bay knows where that sound came from, and on Remember Me, Sage the Gemini perfects the very vibe that Mustard routinely dumbs down. (I say this as a genuine fan of "Don't Tell 'Em," "Who Do You Love," "24 Hours" and other Mustard productions.) The most well-known member of Richmond's multi-talented HBK collective, Sage can be playful on the mic or serious, aggressive or understated. It all works over his keen production skills, and the ubiquitous radio hits "Gas Pedal" and "Red Nose" are bound to be played in clubs for the next 10 years. Someday I'll write a treatise about how Bay Area rap has to claw its way to recognition; in the meantime, this album serves as a reminder of our fertile soil.
23. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
After a collaborative album with David Byrne, St. Vincent is Annie Clark's most Talking Heads-esque album to date. It consists largely of compact pop songs, presented slightly off-kilter, with strange rhythms and memorable melodies. Being less expansive and more accessible than predecessor Strange Mercy earned this album some enmity from fans, but it's a thrill to see an artist's vision so clearly realized. Her tour in 2014 was a whirlwind of strobe lighting, choreography and, of course, shredding guitar solos.
24. Bläp Dëli – Whispër Më
Last I heard, Bläp Dëli's Emmett Ross-Cole lived on a family heirloom farm in the middle of a vineyard in Sonoma County, which just goes to show that great electronic music can be created anywhere. This album is full of lush, layered soundscapes that create a cerebral, soulful mood; it could fit in easily alongside Los Angeles' Brainfeeder catalog, or at a Ninja Tune showcase. For me, it works as a late-night soundtrack, full of synthesizers and broken beats. Keep your eye on this guy.
25. Sun Kil Moon - Benji
I listened to this album exactly once, while driving down Highway 101 in Southern California at night, and I'm never going to listen to it again. That's because the experience of listening to it once was perfect, like reading a collection of short stories in a cabin somewhere. Why would I taint it with a repeat? These are sad songs of tragedy, death, exploding aerosol cans, teenage sex, hospital beds, cars and alcohol, sung in stark, straightforward fashion by a low, mumbling voice. Because it's so singular, and so honest, it would be very easy to mock, but the stories are just so incredibly alive and real.