10. YG - My Krazy Life
Though it's early in the year, I'm not really sure what to make of the hip-hop landscape. Undeniably we are currently in a Golden Age, and realistically have been for about three or four years now, but many of the early 2014 releases this year haven't had the staying power of year's past. That said, YG continues the West Coast revival in impressive fashion, blending his unique lyricism with engaging beats to culminate in a record that is a lot more personal than it appears, especially considering the glut of features on the album. There's a surprising amount of reflection on some songs, and enough singles to keep the skits from weighing things down too much. It's not perfect, but it's damned good.
9. The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream
When I make these lists, especially at the beginning, I enjoy looking for potential trends that will define the year. I'm not entirely sure, but it seems highly likely that 2014 is going to come to be defined by the singer/songwriting, which is refreshing because it's been a few years since such dominance in that figure has happened. The personal aspects of loneliness and sadness, ones marked not by solution but rather by discovery, that reverberate throughout the record and take on the form of sweeping songs are easy to get wrapped in, but the strength is in the lyrics, and that's where I feel most at home.
8. Kevin Gates - By Any Means
Here we are again, gazing on a partially troubled album but being in awe of the wide range of topics it's able to cover. The moments of braggadocio are the most striking from Kevin Gates's major label debut, even if they aren't enough to completely forgive the more troubling topics that he tackles in his songs, but it's this uncompromising quality that Gates thrives on even if his bouts with misogyny do not come with the same nuance or awareness that something like Yeezus was able to hit on last year. Gates's tone throughout the album, not poetically or anything but rather the literal way he delivers his lines, commands such attention that it's near impossible to ignore.
7. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib - Pinata
One of the most exciting trends in recent hip-hop (not to say that's where it originated, but it's certainly picked back up in popularity these past years) is the collaboration album. Whether it's two rappers working together or an emcee hooking up with a high profile producer, there's been a recent uptick in these double billings. When you have a beatsmith like Madlib working with you, there's immediately going to be such a huge opportunity for aural continuity that it would be easy for a rapper to squander, but thankfully Freddie Gibbs has the lyrical heft to compliment the work that Madlib put in to the beats. It's been hard to talk about this album without spotting the shadow of Madvillainy, and but for the majority of listening it's easy to forget, which is perhaps the highest compliment that could be paid to this pairing.
6. Frankie Cosmos - Zentropy
I'm not familiar with Frankie Cosmos's discography, and with a slew of EPs and releases that may even surpass the insane output of someone like Lil B I doubt that I'll catch up with all of it even if I only listened to Cosmos exclusively. Still, her latest album breezes through at barely half an hour in length, but in that time she functions almost as a modern day Emily Dickenson. Though her songs are much more straightforward that much of Dickenson's poems, Cosmos uses these incredibly specific experiences to explore much larger ideas and feelings, all complimented by excellent instrumental work. So even if I don't get through all of her releases, I am definitely inspired to check out some more based on the strength of this album.
5. Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Angel Olsen's voice does a lot of heavy lifting on this album. That's not meant to be a shot at the instrumental work that goes on here, but vocally she overpowers everything else on this album. There's this traditional quality to her voice, or perhaps timelessness is a better word to describe the way her powerful sound permeates the album. She conveys so much emotion in every line that it's near impossible not to be bowled over even when the songs get fairly quiet. There are times when the record is almost Fiona Apple-esque in the songwriting and performance, but Olsen establishes her own identity, and it's incredible.
4. Modern Baseball - You're Gonna Miss It All
Genre is such a strange word, even more so in music where artists are constantly blending styles. As such, hearing Modern Baseball referred to as an Emo band (and really the notion that Emo is a genre at all) is slightly confusing because there are just as many elements of pop punk throughout this album that I'm not even sure if they could be simply labeled a singular type of band. The energy that musically pulses throughout You're Gonna Miss It All is instantly catchy, but that never clouds the songwriting or the central themes that the band grapples with. I mean even the title itself, lacking punctuation and clarity, sort of encapsulates this lifelong search for meaning in a fairly unassuming way, which kind of fits perfectly with the music.
3. St. Vincent - St. Vincent
We've now entered the portion of the list where the spots can easily fluctuate. St. Vincent's most recent release, coming off of three fantastic solo albums, have Annie Clark naturally progressing from the sounds of Strange Mercy and expanding them with the type of deceptively heavy lyricism that has come to define her style. She never loses sight of the more playful aspects of language, but they all serve this darker undercurrent (overcurrent?) in a way that is as beautiful to listen to as it is to analyze.
2. Sun Kil Moon - Benji
At times it almost feels like music is all about performance, even the most personal artists have this guarded layer between their songs and themselves, and while I would not be as presumptuous to say that I know Mark Kozelek after listening to Benji probably more than any other album from 2014 it's hard not to feel like I have a sense of him. Every song is so deeply personal, the majority focusing on his family from Ohio and exploring ideas about mortality and humanity through these experiences and people. Kozelek's entire perspective feels so direct, clear, and concise that even with the length so many of the songs on here I constantly find myself spellbound by his writing. It's heartbreaking and illuminating, simultaneously, and it's hard to believe that Benji won't be hanging around this list for the rest of the year.
1. EMA - The Future's Void
It's been three years since EMA's masterful Past Life Martyred Saints, and in that time she hasn't missed a step. I would link to the NPR stream of this album that allowed me to listen to it before composing this list, but I think it will be taken down by Tuesday when The Future's Void officially releases. Regardless, EMA's latest album expands the scope and sound of her previous work in so many ways that I was immediately awestruck by how well realized everything about this album is; how focused on exploring central themes about celebrity, art, technology, and a myriad of other concepts that even leaving behind some of the more directly personal aspects of her previous work isn't a problem because all the majesty of tracks like "California" and "Marked" are still intact, just more concealed. If 2014 is the return of the singer/songwriter figure, EMA certainly leads the pack.
And, as usual, here's a ranked list of everything I have listened to this year:
- EMA - The Future’s Void
- Sun Kil Moon - Benji
- St. Vincent - St. Vincent
- Modern Baseball - You’re Gonna Miss It All
- Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness
- Frankie Cosmos - Zentropy
- Freddie Gibbs and Madlib - Pinata
- Kevin Gates - By Any Means
- The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream
- YG - My Krazy Life
- ScHoolboy Q - Oxymoron
- Marissa Nadler - July
- Willis Earl Beal - A Place That Doesn’t Exist
- Cyhi Da Prynce - Black Hystori Project
- Cloud Nothings - Here And Nowhere Else
- Various Artists - Catch The Throne
- Phantogram - Voices
- Isaish Rashad - Cilvia Demo
- Rick Ross - Mastermind
- Perfect Pussy - Say Yes To Love
- Tacocat - NVM
- Beck - Morning Phase
- Pharrell Williams - G I R L
- Young Money - Rise Of An Empire
Agree? Disagree? Did I miss what is totally the greatest album of the year so far? Let me know below in comments and I'll fix that before the next Quarterly Albums Review! And be on the lookout for the final installment in this series, Best Films, sometime after I get around to seeing Nymphomaniac.
Comments are welcome and, for anyone with a literary mind, I encourage checking out my poetry blog filled with all original works for your reading pleasure.
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© 2014 Richard James Thorne