This list is by no means definitive, as I can’t listen to everything, as much as I like to try. I’m confident that there are five more albums out released in the past 12 months that would supplant one, if not all of the albums listed below. Maybe. But these are the albums I heard, and that hit me particularly hard, in a good way. Right in the feels.
Album of the Year: “In Return” by Odesza
2014 was a landmark year for the Seattle-based duo Odesza. They released their own album, a consistent string of remixes, hosted a remix contest for their own song, toured heavily on the festival circuit and then on their own, and somehow managed to pop out a couple “No Sleep” mixes along the way. It was great to see them supporting Bonobo as an opener in July, then to see them headline the same venue mere months later.
“In Return” is not their first album, but it’s definitely their first great album, and hopefully a sign of things to come. Read about the otherworldly charm in my review here.
Honorable Mention: “Our Love” by Caribou
Dan Snaith, aka Caribou, is not just a musician. He also holds a doctorate in mathematics, and has clearly found a way to manipulate time. There’s no way “Our Love” is 47 minutes long. It feels like twelve minutes at best, and I want it to be at least four times longer.
He uses a lot of snippets of vocal samples that are either backwards or so heavily effected as to be just sounds and not words. Yet I sing along with them all the same. On “Silver,” the repeating female voice that may or may not be saying, “here we.” I don’t know if that’s what she’s saying, but I sing it with her.
Snaith hasn’t exactly been slouching, either, with touring as a live act and as a DJ, issuing mixes for various blogs, and putting together what wound up the BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix of the Year. Not too shabby for 12 months.
Honorable Mention: “Worlds” by Porter Robinson
At some point in his heavy tour schedule riding the success of “Spitfire” and “Language,” Porter Robinson recognized he was falling into a trap. Tour, release a song, tour some more, release another song, tour even more, drop another song. That’s where most EDM producers are at, and he knew he didn’t want that. He wasn’t sure what he wanted, so he made an unorthodox decision to take some time off.
It was during that hiatus when he came up with the concept for “Worlds,” a tribute to the games and the animation that shaped his youth. It’s easy to recognize the marked change from his previous work to this work, most notably with the inclusion of his own vocals and switching out swooning instrumentals for his heavy, ragey bangers. He took the concept a (giant) step further by designing a stage show that incorporated much of the same animated elements.
Honorable Mention: “Beyonce” by Beyonce vs “Broke With Expensive Taste” by Azealia Banks
On one hand, you have Bey, who expert-level-ninja-dropped her self-titled album overnight, suddenly appearing in the iTunes store. Not only that, but it was also a video album. Not only that, but it was also 66 dirty minutes about cunnilingus. Also, it’s fucking amazing. I know this album technically came out mid-December of last year, but that also meant it got orphaned in end of year lists, as December releases often do.
But let’s be honest, even if the album came out late 2013, she absolutely owned 2014. “Drunk in Love” quickly rose to anthem-status, unavoidable at festivals and remixed into even more filthy versions by The Weeknd and Kanye West. Stylistically, the tone of the album is darker and more brooding than she’s ever been, and it all works. Also worth mentioning in “Pretty Hurts,” co-written by Sia, and the incredible tongue-in-cheek “Rocket,” co-written by everybody.
On the other hand, you have the long-awaited debut from Azealia Banks. Expectations were about as high as her fans’ patience was short: astronomically. In many ways, the wait was worth it. Every time I listen through “Broke,” I find something new I hadn’t heard before, whether it’s a hissy, wobbly crash of a cymbal or a lyrical turn of a phrase.
My one complaint for Banks’ album is that she stretched herself farther than necessary. She’s an impressive vocalist, whether she’s flexing her chops in Cumbia, beach blanket bingo, or just straight out rapping, but it leaves the album feeling like a variety sampler.
Highlights include the rowdy “Heavy Metal and Reflective,” the mash-up of “Ice Princess” and the impressive “212,” where she takes on the accent and vocal mannerisms of a white girl rapping like a white girl. It wasn’t until I heard this song that I realized I’d heard the opposite done (Iggy Azalea, Kreayshawn, even Dessa) all the time, but never the other way around. Of course, Banks winds up sounding better than most rapping white girls, too.
I grouped these two together for a couple reasons. First, the music isn’t really from this past year. Some of Banks’ songs have been out in and in circulation for years. “Beyonce” dropped 12/13/2013, so she falls in the same category. The other reason is their proud flaunting and ownership of their own sexuality. On the surface, it can look a lot like the typical female artist treatment, where their body and looks take a front seat to their artistic merit. With either performer, you can’t separate the two. Their bodies are most definitely theirs, and they are doing exactly what they want with them, when they want, and they are taking no prisoners.