Top 25 Albums of 2014

Top 25 Albums of 2014, MSMSMSM SOPHIE Boiler Room LA feature photo

RadioTop25AlbumsBannerThis year was packed with fantastic releases from established artists as well as a few exciting debuts. Before 2015 begins, we want to end the year the right way, by looking back at (and fiendishly listening to) some of our favorite albums. Read on to see our top 25 albums of 2014, as voted by our Radio UTD DJs.

25. Death Grips – The Powers That B, Disc 1: Niggas on the Moon

Death Grips - The Powers That B, Disc 1: Niggas on the Moon album cover

With the release of the first half of what most likely will be their final album, Death Grips have reached their pinnacle. Teaming up with one of the greatest voices of our generation, Björk, they have created a sonic tornado of luscious synths, powerful drums, and Björk’s own voice. The most pleasing aspect of this album is how sonically complex every track is, with layers and layers of sound. This album deserves multiple listens in order to be fully digested. After the weak performance of their previous release, Government Plates, Niggas on the Moon has us on the edge of our seats waiting for the second half of The Powers That B. – Humza Khan

24. Slow Magic – How to Run Away

Slow Magic How To Run Away album coverMasked musician Slow Magic loves the juxtaposition of soft and hard, and it’s never shown more than on his polished major label debut, How to Run Away. His songs mostly drift into being with delicate, hazy synths, processed vocals, and twinkling percussion before building to loud, cathartic releases that all but implore a listener to dance. Standouts “Girls” and “On Yr Side” are blissful and ethereal, respectively, yet they each swell with an intense energy when their choruses hit. He’s found the strange place where chillwave and EDM meet, and it’s a lot of fun. The songs don’t reveal Slow Magic as a unique, distinctive identity, but the mask he wears would imply that’s the point: it’s not about who he is, it’s about enjoying the music no matter who you are. – James Pacifico

23. Lone – Reality Testing

Lone Reality Testing album coverLone has been quietly making a name for his self over the last seven years, with each release becoming more astral in production than the last. His latest release, Reality Testing, perfects the celestial aesthetic of 2012’s Galaxy Garden but trades in the frenzied rave style for dusty broken beats. The energy illuminated from Reality Testing is refreshingly relaxed and warm, with tracks like “Meeker Warm Energy” and “2 Is 8” resembling revitalized The Ummah productions and with “Vengeance Video” harking back to the old school days of soulful Chicago house vibes and classic New Jersey garage drum rhythms. Excellent from beginning to end, Lone delivered a modern electronic masterpiece with Reality Testing that should not go unnoticed. – Aarin-Christopher Brown

22.Doss – Doss [EP]

Doss Doss EP cover

Doss is still fresh to the scene and her self-titled debut EP speaks so softly that it’s no surprise she didn’t make huge waves in 2014. Aside from quiet, though, this four-track album is also assured, well-executed, and deceptively catchy. It’s pretty obviously indebted to 90s trance, with a wealth of different sounds flowing together at once atop fast-paced percussion. Despite the chaos, Doss manages to imbue her songs with a dreamy, featherlight quality, assuring they never overwhelm. Her vocals are hushed and drawn out, furthering the ethereal feel of the songs, especially on the sublime “The Way I Feel”. It’s perfect driving-at-night music, and beyond that serves as an exciting introduction to a promising producer. – James Pacifico

21. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

FlyLo You're Dead! album cover

Even though Steven Ellison takes sounds from so many disparate musical genres, it makes sense that the great-nephew of jazz legends Alice and John Coltrane is so soulful. The electronic musician, also known as Flying Lotus, draws influences from video games, jazz, hip hop, soul, and so much more to craft his lush and psychedelic soundscapes. After his stripped down and soul oriented turn in  2012’s Until the Quiet Comes, FlyLo decided to explore the themes of death and the afterlife through his newest project, You’re Dead!, an album that is his most cohesive, accessible, and immediate yet. From the recognizable whirling synths, jingling bells, and frantic jazz elements in “Tesla” to the more subdued and experimental sounds of songs like “Coronus, the Terminator” and “Turtles”, Flying Lotus takes a step in his most weird and wonderful direction yet. – Yusof Nazari

20. Lxury – Playground [EP]

Lxury Playground EP coverBritish producer Andy Smith, also known as Lxury, has come a long way since his earlier releases “We Do / J.A.W.S.” on Disclosure’s Method Records last fall.  This year, under the flagship of Greco-Roman, Lxury unleashed to the world his 4-track debut EP, Playground, which is full of playful, glitzy melodies and UK house sensibilities. The title track, “Playground”, features a childish “la-la-la” schoolyard vocal sample with tempo-switching house rhythms while “Raid” chops up a Greek folk song into an infectious loop with a driving bass-line and a frenetic melody. Playground is a solid body of work from the South London newcomer, and with any luck we’ll see more releases in 2015. – Aarin-Christopher Brown

19. Tycho – Awake

Tycho Awake album cover

Chillwave’s native son returned in 2014 with an album full of more relaxing, spacey, fluid electronic tracks.  The album is standard Tycho fare, with themes of nostalgia and childhood backing the warm synth tones and joyous instrumentation. Tycho’s always done exactly what is needed from his records, wrapping you in a warm blanket of sound and making you feel like you’re home, and Awake is no different. – Yusof Nazari

18. SZA – Z

SZA Z album coverAfter SZA officially became the “First Lady of Top Dawg”, all eyes were on her to see if she could deliver in the house that Punch built. What she delivered was Z, a genre-defying, ethereal concoction of minimalist R&B, synthpop, and organic neo soul that fit perfectly with Top Dawg’s hazy hip hop aesthetic. “Babylon”, one of the main highlights of the album, perfectly encapsulates the album’s appeal as it displays SZA’s notable sultry, vulnerable and slightly raspy voice woven with DJ Dahi’s atmospheric production and a dominating supplemental verse from Kendrick Lamar. Without question, SZA delivered an illustrious album with Z and proved that Top Dawg Entertainment is bigger than rap. – Aarin-Christopher Brown

17. Real Estate – Atlas

Real Estate Atlas album cover

Atlas, Real Estate’s third LP, finds the band doing what they do best: providing hazy, flowing surf rock that neither offends nor floats idly by. Lead single “Talking Backwards” trades the suburban nostalgia found throughout the album for biting hopelessness and is likely as aggressive as the band has ever gotten. “Primitive”, the album’s best track, is a beautiful, well-constructed song that is perhaps Real Estate’s best track to date. Atlas may not prove a game changer and it fits nicely into the niche the band has carved out, but it would be a mistake to let the album float by you without giving it the attention it deserves. – Matthew Horton

16. Andy Stott – Faith in Strangers

Andy Stott Faith In Strangers album cover

Faith in Strangers expands Andy Stott’s darkened techno sound to new and wholly fascinating realms. Taking influence from everything from southern hip hop to ambient pop, Stott has made an album that is surprisingly cohesive and wonderfully varied. Its unconventional nature proves that Stott has a knack for making not only music for the body, but the mind as well. – Thomas Patrick Sheehy

15. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2

RTJ RTJ2 album cover

When the stars aligned and brought rapper Killer Mike and rapper/producer El-P together as the supergroup Run the Jewels back in 2013, the hearts and minds of rap lovers everywhere exploded. Upon the release of their debut self-titled album, music critics wrote lengthy articles praising them. Hardcore rap fans gave them their nods and handshakes and fist bumps and whatever else they had to give. It was difficult to imagine that Run the Jewels could come back with an album that sounded as gritty, confident, and revolutionary as their first. That was until Run the Jewels 2 dropped. Any negative preconceptions listeners had were smashed upon the opening lines of the album’s first track, “Jeopardy”. It became apparent that Killer Mike and El-P may have created an album even more gritty, confident, and revolutionary than their first. With Killer Mike’s impeccable flow and wordplay, and El-P’s impressive lyrical skill (and even more impressive production), Run the Jewels 2 has firmly gripped its spot as one of the top rap/hip hop albums of the year — gripped it like a newly stolen gold chain. – Shiloh Wilk

14. DJ Dodger Stadium – Friend of Mine

DJ Dodger Stadium Friend of Mine EP album coverFriend of Mine is full of short, elegant phrases, sharply-drawn pieces of economical wording that hint at vast oceans of ache without lapsing into woe-is-me verbosity. But that’s pretty much all they are. If you string a bunch of phrases like that together, you won’t get a story. You sure as hell won’t get that the album is an L.A.-based emotional epic inspired by John Fante’s Bukowski-influencing 1939 novel Ask the Dust. And yet that’s exactly what DJ Dodger Stadium have done on an album with no spoken passages or guest singers or even real lyrics. These two have found ways to take classic, sweeping, unpretentious house music sounds and used them to build these big emotional crescendos. Friend of Mine is an album that works on its own terms, on some uncanny level, finding an emotional space where the kick drums lock into your heartbeat in more than one way. – Humza Khan

13. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days

Mac Demarco Salad Days album coverBetween releasing an album to critical acclaim, being the subject of a Pitchfork documentary, and featuring prominently at major music festivals, 2014 was surely a banner year for Mac DeMarco. Stylistically walking the line between his previous album 2 and EP Rock and Roll Night Club, though definitely trending toward the former, his second album, Salad Days, finds Mac losing none of his off-kilter personality and song structure, while growing as a lyricist. Gone are the odes to cigarette brands and in their place are endearing love ballads such as “Let My Baby Stay” and a seemingly more mature worldview, perhaps best illustrated in “Brother” and “Blue Boy”, which finds Mac pleading “come down, sweetheart, grow up.” The psychedelic, darker “Passing Out Pieces” deserves to be mentioned with the year’s best tracks and is perhaps DeMarco at his most contemplatively poignant. As great of a year as 2014 was for Mac DeMarco, one can hope it’s only the beginning. – Matthew Horton

12. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness

Angel Olsen Burn Your Fire For No Witness album coverBurn Your Fire for No Witness begins and ends with delicacy. Angel Olsen’s voice is unmistakable, triumphant and fragile. And yet, permeating the album is an unapologetic fierceness. Burn Your Fire for No Witness is certainty a departure from Olsen’s acoustic debut and marks the appearance of a full band, but Olsen’s voice is always first and foremost. If the title is any indication, Burn Your Fire for No Witness is distinctly about solitude, about an inability to truly share experiences with others. This manifests itself mostly through her lyrics of heartbreak and the impossibility of connection, punctuated by reverb pedals and kick drums. Olsen is a lighthouse for those perpetually stuck in their heads. She is narrating your thoughts and fears, offering consolatory high fives in the name of shared loneliness. What’s next for Angel Olsen is unclear, though one thing is certain: once you hear that voice, you will never forget it. – Kassandra Reyes

11. Perfume Genius – Too Bright

Perfume Genius Too Bright album coverThroughout his career under the moniker Perfume Genius, Mike Hadreas has often infused incredibly difficult issues with beautifully constructed, if not soft, pop music. Too Bright, his third LP, finds the music finally matching the lyric content to form his most aggressive and nuanced work to date. Album standout “Queen”, arguably one of the best tracks of the year, is a blistering assault, while tracks like “Too Bright” prove Hadreas hasn’t lost his heartbreakingly delicate touch. No family may be safe when he sashays, but a more confident, provocative Perfume Genius is well worth the cost. – Matthew Horton

10. TOPS – Picture You Staring

TOPS - Picture You Staring album coverSomehow, Montreal’s TOPS take the trashiest moments in music and make them actually rather good. They did it on debut record Tender Opposites, a record that was indebted to the cheesiest elements of the 80s, yet elevated everything into excellence. On their anticipated follow-up they’re digging deeper into the barmy balladry while falling more into their own sound, and it’s a bloody lovely ride to be taken on. Picture You Staring is the product of a band who have found a strong identity with a sound to match. While there’s nothing in any way groundbreaking here, what makes it so interesting is the fact that TOPS don’t just recycle familiar pop tropes, but somehow manage to re-articulate the musical landscape of one decade and revitalize sounds that feel all too familiar. – Humza Khan

9. Les Sins – Michael

Les Sins Michael album coverToro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick has been on the pulse of independent music since the release of his first murky, reverb-laden, “chillwave” album Causers of This back in 2010. Since then, each Toro y Moi release has sounded a little bit different: from 2011’s warm and fuzzy Underneath the Pine to 2013’s more poppy, gritty, and danceable Anything in Return. However, Chaz’s newest release under his dance-producing moniker Les Sins is his most drastically different to date. On Les Sins’ album Michael, Chaz abandons what held all of the Toro y Moi albums together: his voice. Michael is as purely electronic as Chaz has gotten. There are no poppy hooks or guitar lines on Michael — just pulsing bass, distorted vocal samples, and intricate production. Mixing a little bit of the funky sounds of classic Chicago house music with the more refined and powerful sounds of modern EDM, Chaz has created an album that will keep heads bobbing on the dance floor and in the art gallery. And for that, we thank him. – Shiloh Wilk

8. Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like a Bell

Hundred Waters The Moon Rang Like A Bell album coverFlorida natives Hundred Waters‘ sophomore album, The Moon Rang Like a Bell, is an improvement upon their self-titled debut in every way imaginable. Sounding as pretty as ever, they colored their fantastical folk music in deep blue, traded their more traditional folk sounds for quasi-familiar electronic ones, and singer/songwriter Nicole Miglis injected her fables with an affecting humanity that brought this record down to earth. Highlights “Murmurs” and “Xtalk” capitalized on the newfound intimacy and emotional expressiveness, becoming easy songs to truly fall in love with. Perhaps more impressive than the standouts is the fact that there isn’t a weak song present, allowing The Moon Rang Like a Bell to feel like the whole, meaningful piece of art it is. – James Pacifico

7. SOPHIE – “Lemonade” / “Hard” [Single]

SOPHIE Lemonade/Hard [Single] coverWhile electronic music is hardly glamorized for its excess — although its saccharine indulgence was its raison d’être for a while — this amount of it has yet to be actualized. UK producer SOPHIE’s methodical plastic creations require careful listening to fully realise the depth of exploration in waveform synthesis and, simultaneously, ideas central to 21st century pop music. Despite the futuristic synths and high-pitched vocals, “Lemonade” doesn’t sound alien. It’s the opposite, actually: its sparkling rhythm and synthetic production are irritatingly familiar, immediately hinting at turn-of-the-century K- and J-pop alike. “Hard” sends the brain’s symbol-translator region into overdrive with postmodern cultural references echoed by binaural metaphors of both sex appeal (“I just got so hard”) and the structural integrity of familiar objects (“latex gloves” and “platform shoes”). For someone who has curated sounds used in art installations and who thinks pop should be the ultimate form of entertainment as the most fun thing in the room, his direction and statement is being formulated to cater to this. And while striving for “sound[ing] like one morphing, elastic, full-frequency spectrum composition,” it’s undeniable he’s tampering the hybrid of these to tap into a niche slot in contemporary context. – Meer Mustafa

6. Arca – Xen

Arca Xen album coverAlejandro Ghersi’s Xen, his debut full-length album as Arca, is an impressively complex record that initially proves hard to digest. Its shapeshifting compositions are carefully constructed with a classical sensibility, but they’re filled with ugly, contorted synthetic sounds — the “instruments” screech, stab, and groan, suspended in nothingness. But Xen thrives on these interesting relationships between ugly and pretty, chaotic and orderly, masculine and feminine, cold and emotive, and so on. Its 15-song track list is littered with treasures, such as opener “Now You Know”, which is a disorienting, exhilarating anthem that ascends endlessly, its pent-up energy released in fits of cascading percussion. (The song has a music video that suits it perfectly, thanks to Arca’s visual artist collaborator, Jesse Kanda, who’s also responsible for the album cover art.) Despite the immediate bleakness, Arca’s emotional palette is multifaceted, ranging from aggression and hurt (“Thievery”, “Lonely Thugg”) to fondness (“Sisters”) to heartwrenching anguish (“Wound”, with its melodramatic swells of violin). The album is best viewed as an exploration of humanity through inhuman sounds. It may resist the listener at first, but Xen rewards greatly through repeated, attentive listens and reveals itself to be one of the most powerful records of the year. – James Pacifico

5. Mr Twin Sister – Mr Twin Sister

Mr. Twin Sister - Mr. Twin Sister album coverAnytime a band changes their name, the reasons behind it are often frivolous or due to legal issues. Yet in the case of Twin Sister, now sporting a “Mr,” it’s extremely tempting to read a wealth of subtext into the name change. Their self-titled sophomore record is under investigation into both gender and genre. The sound is quite danceable and dense with synths emitting from paisley tinted funk to deep house and pure pop, quite often in the span of a single song. Throughout the record, glimmers of Björk phases and The Knife come up in the constantly shifting surfaces, as well as shades of Prince. It’s obvious that the band has completely reinvented themselves. The record feels like a brave adventure into new frontiers for the band, but there is also a sense of natural expansion that brings it all together. – Humza Khan

4. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

St Vincent St Vincent album coverIf Annie Clark isn’t one of the last great torchbearers for alternative music, then I don’t know who is. With electronic and hip hop music gaining mainstream popularity at an increasing rate, St. Vincent’s music is the greatest case that there’s still some life left in “guitar music”. That doesn’t mean that this eponymously-titled 4th album from the 21st century’s closest parallel to David Byrne is some sort of bastion for classic rock. Thankfully, it’s far from it. Driving hip hop drums, electronic experimentation, and astronomically good guitar shredding all collide together and are reeled in by accessible and beautiful melodies, and the sharpest writing Clark has done since, well, her last beautifully written album, 2011’s Strange Mercy. Songs like “Prince Johnny” and “I Prefer Your Love” touch on the familiar subjects of relationships and love, while also giving these themes life and a breath of fresh air. On the flip side, a thread of postmodern alienation and self-awareness runs through the album, especially on lead singles “Digital Witness” and “Birth in Reverse”. 2014 was St. Vincent’s year, and this album only solidified Clark’s status as one of modern music’s most idiosyncratic and original voices. Let’s hope she keeps on talking. – Yusof Nazari

3. Jamie xx – “Girl” / “Sleep Sound” [Single]

Jamie xx "Girl"/"Sleep" [Single] coverEnglish producer Jamie xx slipped through 2014 relatively quietly, international tour dates notwithstanding. He did, however, release the double A-side single of “Girl” and “Sleep Sound” (as well as the unhinged “All Under One Roof Raving”) and these new songs proved more than enough to elevate the anticipation for his long-awaited debut album to unprecedented heights. “Girl” is a slinky, grooving pop song that shows off Jamie xx’s affinity for playing with space and silence. Its plodding bassline crawls along as the track is bathed in thick swaths of echoing vocals, embodying the excitement of a city coming to life at night. “Sleep Sound” is the even-better second half, representing the silent night, empty streets, and comforting call of rest that follows “Girl”‘s bustling nightlife vibe. An exquisite string intro starts it off, with quiet, feminine calls of “come on” and “yeah” beckoning the listener to enter the world Jamie’s created. The song drifts in and out of focus as its wordless vocal chant bounces along skittering drums. It’s never aimless, though, as it steadily builds to a cathartic end. Put simply, it’s the most gorgeous song I’ve heard. – James Pacifico

2. Caribou – Our Love

Caribou Our Love album coverCaribou‘s fourth album is not for listening to, it’s for journeying through. Our Love is full of love songs that grew up a bit. They messed up. They broke some rules. They have hurt feelings. “Can’t Do Without You” is intoxicating; the obsessive repeated vocal track drives the instrumentation to the brink, where order is hanging on by a single strand of twine. “Silver” eats itself whole in a swirling pit of painful dreams before inexplicably breaking free into the blissful light on the other side. “Our Love” is a shapeshifting beast. Once the tone is set, the patterns take unexpected detours, leaving you lost in an ecstatic maze, with pleasant new surprises at every turn. “Dive” is the key track to Our Love. The swelling bass line swallows anything else that may seem significant. Understanding its dynamics opens the rest of the waves Dan Snaith invites you to swim through and exemplifies his magic, musically and thematically. You may never emerge from it, and if you do you won’t be the same as when you started. They might have some pain, but they are still fighting for love. They never give up. They know that love will set them free. – Daniel Hulsey

1. FKA twigs – LP1

FKA LP1 album cover, Album of the Year, best of 2014

LP1 was the most harrowing, honest, experimental, emotionally affecting, beautiful, and any other “music journalism adjective you can throw out there” album of 2014. There’s no way to mince words here. Tahliah Barnett, a.k.a. FKA twigs, built up a monumental amount of hype with two fantastic and brooding EPs, but nothing could prepare the world for LP1. Expanding on the artist’s experimental electronic and hip hop sounds, and produced by a veritable cornucopia of star producers like Arca, Emile, and Dev Hynes, the production allowed twigs to sing in her beautiful breathy falsetto about sex, love, trust, and, on “Video Girl”, about being a back-up dancer in pop music videos. FKA twigs’ former dancing career isn’t just a throwaway influence on the album either. Every beat, movement, and note is stuffed with such intensity and immediacy, and twigs’ dancing in music videos and live performances only helps further one’s understanding of the album. From the sensual buildup of “Lights On” to the experimental pop tour-de-force that is “Two Weeks”, FKA twigs gets everything right, and then some. The album is all at once beautiful, deformed, honest, and the bravest and most assured debut from an artist that we’ve seen in years, and for all these reasons and more, it’s Radio UTD’s pick for the best album of 2014. – Yusof Nazari

And that’s it! Check out our list of top 25 albums from last year here, and get stoked for more great music in 2015.