Gabriel Riccio's Top Albums of 2014

Not many new records manage to grab my attention enough to take me away from listening to music that came out before I was born - the truth is that I tend to be quite jaded when it comes to new music. Nonethleless, a few great albums come out every year, so here's a few of my favorites from this year. Since I'm not a fan of ranking albums, they're in no particular order:

Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2

RTJ2 is not only my favorite hip-hop record of the year - it's also one of my top three favorite albums released this year. Southern rapper Killer Mike and underground champion El-P are a strange combination - I don't think anyone would have expected these guys to form a duo, but they work together surprisingly well - the interplay between them is flawless. RTJ2 is an incredibly well crafted record that manages to be fun, weighty and moving at the same time. On the production side of things, El-P delivers some of his most stripped down and accessible beats yet - but that's not a bad thing, as it allows the rapping to take the forefront while still enhancing the mood (see the ominous closer "Angel Dusters"). Highlights: the lightning fast rapping on "Oh My Darling, Don't Cry" and "Lie Cheat Steal," Zach de la Rocha's appearance on "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)," and the depressing ruminations of "Crown." The album is free, so there's no excuse not to grab it!
 

Flying Lotus - You're Dead!

I'm always excited to see what Flying Lotus will do next, as every release is unique. His previous album was very laid back, so it should come as no surprise that You're Dead is a very energetic uptempo record. It plays out as a continuous suite of rather short tracks - an exercise in miniatures. His sound is jazzier than ever here, largely thanks to Thundercat's killer jazz bass contributions and lots of electric piano. Herbie Hancock even contributes keyboards to two of the tracks here, and drummer Deantoni Parks (The Mars Volta/Antemasque) also contributes live drums to quite a few tracks. While I would argue that the vocal contributions from Kendrick Lamar, Captain Murphy and Snoop Dogg are the least compelling thing about the record (and seeing such high profile names on strange music like this is surprising), their contributions work well enough and often manage to be quite funny. The album is very diverse and contains a nice mixture of moods - tracks like "Turkey Dog Coma" manage to feel moody and frantic at the same time, which is feat that few artists manage to pull off.

 

Aphex Twin - Syro

Syro may not push any new ground for Aphex Twin, but it is a highly successful comeback album featuring some of his best and most polished material. The album starts on an extremely high note with 'minipops 67 (source field mix) [120.2]', which I've embedded above (yes, all of the song titles are like that). The song features a classic Aphex-style drum and bass groove paired with mysterious and moody music and some humorous vocals. The second song, "XMAS_EVET10 [120] (thanaton3 mix)" is easily the album's best track. This moody 10 minute epic is easily one of the best songs Aphex has ever released, moving through many different sections while retaining an enthralling melancholy mood. The rest of the album can't match this track, but all of it is enjoyable, and a very wide variety of styles are on display here. Only the fifth song, "180db_ [130]," may leave you scratching your head due to its grating repetition. Despite the album's rainy day mood, quite a bit of the material here will inspire vigorous dancing.

 

Scott Walker & SunnO))) - Soused (Editor's Note: Read our review here.)

I got very excited when this record was announced, and it easily met my expections. This album sounds exactly like you'd expect it to sound - it is a perfect synthesis of the styles of both artists. With that said, Scott Walker takes the lead on this album, using Sunn's drones as a backdrop for his songs. The songs here are chilling, featuring Walker's harrowing voice, lyrics and sound effects over a wall of distortion. I dare you to avoid shivering when Scott intones "She's hidden her babies away" next to the shrieking noises in "Herod 2014." The songs here have much more straightforward structures than those on Walker's recent solo albums, making this album strangely more accessible than Bish Bosch or The Drift, but the songs are just as strange and compelling.

 

Earth - Primitive and Deadly

After a string of clean and mellow instrumental records, Earth decided to turn the distortion back on and introduce vocals to their sound. While Earth previously used vocals on Pentastar, that album was much faster stoner rock - this is the first time the band has attempted to integrate vocals into a slow drone. The results are mixed - Mark Lanegan's contributions feel a bit aimless and rambling and somewhat distract from the music, but Rabi Qazi's vocal performance fits like a glove. The riff style here essentially remains the same as on their last five records, keeping that southern flair that gives you the feeling of hallucinating in a desert, but the distortion makes it feel very fresh. I've seen Earth live twice on the tour for this album, and the show is incredible and deeply hypnotic - waves of distortion fill up your entire body. However, their live show is fully instrumental, and this material arguably works even better in that context, as the melody line can distract from the music's hypnotic qualities. But even with vocals, this album will put you in an altered state - I wouldn't recommend listening while driving.

 

Trioscapes - Digital Dream Sequence (Editor's Note: Read our review here.)

I generally dislike the jazz side projects of metal musicians - they usually end up in very sterile music with poor solo phrasing. Trioscapes, however, is different, as they create highly unique and well-executed hard-hitting jazz-metal fusion. The band features Dan Briggs of Between the Buried and Me on bass, but both of this band's records are far better than BTBAM's last record. Digital Dream Sequence is a step up from the band's impressive debut due to the increased variety and manic energy. The brash and aggressive sound displayed here makes for a fun and energetic listen, combining a chunky, distorted bass tone with saxophone squeals, virtuosic drumming, and numerous time signature changes, in addition to a bit of Steve Reich influence. The album only has five songs but it lasts for exactly the right amount of time, despite the fact that the final track is a fifteen minute epic.

 

The Funk Ark - Man is a Monster

I may be biased including this record on my list, as guitarist Greg Loman plays in my band The Gabriel Construct - but this infectious record is just too good. Man is a Monster is easily the band's best record yet, and it showcases a wide expansion of their sound. This deeply psychedelic record is filled with odd time grooves, spacey textures, and a very live feel, and it even features some kickass cover art. Highlight: the two-part composition "Fugue State" and the closer "Tam Tari Ta."

 

Blut Aus Nord - Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry

This is the only metal album to make my list this year. On the whole, I've found metal to be quite stale lately, but this French industrial black metal outfit never stops pushing their sound forwards, this time with the inclusion of live drums, replacing their usual cold drum machine. While the drum machine usually worked perfectly for their sound, it always felt out of place on their melodic Memoria Vetusta series of albums, which evoke beautiful natural scenery. The drum machine may have been the only flaw on their otherwise incredible album Memoria Vetusta II, so I was quite excited to see that the third album in the series featured live drums, and they definitely deliver - this album has a more organic feel than its predecessors, and it truly needed it. Unfortunately, the production suffers a bit for this, and the music doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessor, largely thanks to the fact that it includes far fewer dynamics and clean passages - but it's also a much tighter record, clocking in around 40 minutes. The album's winding melodic riffs are still deeply compelling and atmospheric, making this another solid release from a great band.

 

The following also got quite a few plays from me:

Imogen Heap - Sparks
The Mercury Tree - Countenance
Dead Rider - Chills on Glass
Bohren & Der Club of Gore - Piano Nights (read our review here)
Death Grips - the powers that b, part 1: niggas on the moon
David Binney - Anacapa
XYAX - Ode To The Universe (In Three Parts) EP
Zorbas Crisol - Criollo EP
Travis Orbin - Projects EP
Jute Gyte - Ressentiment