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RELEVANT’s Top Albums of 2014

You asked for it. You demanded it. And we waited till the last day to deliver it, because we wanted to make sure Beyoncé wasn’t going to drop another eleventh-hour surprise to make everyone look stupid. We also took our time because things like this can’t be rushed, and the creation of lists like these always involves several pots of coffee, several hours of plumbing the depths of Spotify and a few late-night debates about the merits of this band, the lasting appeal of that album and just what constitutes a “Top 10” list.

As always, some very good albums didn’t crack the list (and anything with an explicit sticker doesn’t make the cut—sorry, Run the Jewels 2.) And, as always, a few surprises sneaked in. Will you disagree with a few options? Of course you will, and it is for such occasions that comment sections come in handy. But we’re pretty proud of the list we put together, and listening to it all over now, it’s a great picture of the year in music.

10. Andy Mineo: Never Land

Mineo’s greatest strength isn’t so much his flow as it is his flows—his chameleon-like ability to shift his cadence from track-to-track and even verse-to-verse. On “Death of Me,” he brandishes furious rhymes like a weapon, on “Never Land” he’s quietly introspective, which might be a result of the absurd standards he sets for himself. Case in point, “You Can’t Stop Me,” where he airs his insecurities like laundry. “You a Christian, Andy,” he says, as if lecturing himself in the mirror. “They will never listen, Andy. Plus, well, your pigment, Andy. You don’t got skill, you a gimmick, Andy …Top 10 alive, you will never be mentioned.” Top 10 alive is a lofty goal, but top 10 of the year isn’t a bad start.

9. Flying Lotus: You’re Dead!

You’re Dead! might be more accurately titled You Will Be Dead!, since the great inevitability is the looming specter over Steven Ellison’s latest, wooliest, wildest work. But then, maybe You’re Dead! is meant to be more like the schoolyard bully taunt—the leering threat that maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, you will punch the clock. Ellison tackles this theme through weird, proggy, ambient beats and only occasionally turns the mic over to the likes of Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar (the latter of whom churns out yet another spell-binding verse in a young career full of them). The statement he’s making is a simple one: Life is short, so squeeze every drop of beauty out of it. His album is a testament to that sentiment.

8. John Mark McMillan: Borderland

Borderland starts with a question: “Who are we?” McMillan spends the rest of the album not so much answering that question as exploring its parameters. It’s really an echo of Shakespeare’s “What piece of work is man?” but the Bard didn’t have McMillan’s rock and roll sensibilities to give his question that punch of desperation. McMillan is a far more interesting musician than he’s getting credit for, creating accessible music that nevertheless explores the bounds of sonic possibility. He’s a restless soul, musically, lyrically and spiritually, and that spirit serves the album well. While many of his CCM colleagues are content to make music about refuges, McMillan is haunting the borderlands.

7. FKA Twigs: LP1

Of all the albums on this list, none are more timely than LP1. This music sounds like 2014, even though it references nary a current event. In fact, the songs drift in the insubstantial and barely real, sounding like the feverish musings of someone trapped inside their own head—and, often, not alone there. It’s an album that reflects a generation’s growing distance from each other—and the desperate, unwise moves we occasionally make to bridge the gaps. In that sense, this is futile music, and it sounds like it. The only hope here is Tahliah Debrett Barnett’s voice, somewhere between a trusting whisper and a resigned sigh, anchoring her spiraling world in reality.

6. Taylor Swift: 1989

The world “genius” is thrown around so much that it’s started to lack any real punch. Swift knows that; knows that culture is bored stiff with “starlets,” “pop princesses” and “American sweethearts.” On 1989, she carefully steps around any easy label that might be thrown her way, both completely owning her public persona as a good-natured girl next door and completely subverting it. It’s useless, of course. There’s no mistaking her for anything but a pop star, but she’s the smartest one we’ve got, and maybe the smartest one we’ve ever had. Every song on 1989 is primed for radio domination. Every leaked personal detail is vulnerable without straying from the narrative. Every hook is irresistible. “Genius” is thrown around too much but, hey, can you think of a better word?

5. Noah Gundersen: Ledges

Noah Gundersen seems like one of those guys who bleeds music. He’s probably the one at the party who is always sitting on the couch with his guitar, picking a little ditty, even as the rest of the guests chatter about everything else. He’s only 25 years old, but he seems much older, as if suffused with the music of his ancestors. Indeed, there’s nothing “neo” about his sound—not a song on Ledges would sound out of place around a Gold Rush campfire. The folk explosion has moved on, but Gundersen will be writing songs like this as long as he’s around—exploring the Venn Diagrams of family, God, time, women and his own slippery heart. “Time moves quickly” he sings on the last song on his album, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to him. He sounds like he’s watching it move by from a fixed point, singing about whatever he sees float by.

4. Phantogram: Voices

Both the cover art and the lead music video for Voices feature the band hemmed by starkly contrasted black and white angles that threaten and obscure but never quite drown. It’s a good picture of Voices, which revels in dichotomy and paranoia, but never quite succumbs to them, largely on the strength of Sarah Barthel’s soaring voice. There’s a desperation in her voice that serves bandmate Josh Carter’s static, J Dilla-type beats, upping them from standard R&B flair to true, fist-pumping anthems. But she knows how to tone it down, too. On quiet tracks like “Bill Murray” (which has nothing to do with the actor, unfortunately), she sounds lost and dreamy—and right at home being so. It’s another contrast on an album full of them, but you can’t stop listening to it.

3. Brooke Fraser: Brutal Romantic

Brooke Fraser is a tough one to pin down, having undergone numerous stylistic overhauls in a decade-spanning career. The one she underwent for this year’s Brutal Romantic was her best yet though, and let’s hope it sticks around. Of all the words that might be used to define the Fraser of the past, “dangerous” isn’t one of them, but it fits like a glove now. On “Psychosocial,” she mews the lyrics out from behind several fuzzy filters, sounding like a predator biding her time before the strike. A giant choir joins her for the chorus, but they’re no match for the evocative power in her voice. And that’s just the first track. The rest of the album deals with the album’s title. “Warmth in the veins, lead in the core,” she murmurs, backed by a series of beautifully ominous horns and strings, before building to the hair-raising zenith “I want to sing over you and into you, that which can’t be unsung.” If anyone can do it, it’s her.

2. D’Angelo: Black Messiah

In 2000, D’Angelo was a sex symbol. He has no one but himself to blame for that (nobody forced that six-pack on him) but he evidently felt like the cat calls and magazine covers were getting in the way of his music, and he all but disappeared for 14 years. That’s a shame, because D is one of his generation’s brightest talents, and Black Messiah is a reminder of his prodigious gift. It’s more than just his voice—although that by itself would earn him a spot—it’s his masterful ability to weave disparate influences into a cohesive whole. Black Messiah is a fusion of funk, soul, new wave and psych-pop, all underwritten with a thin layer of menace and spun into something vital.

It may have taken a decade-and-a-half to throw this together, but it sounds remarkably contemporary. Even more so, given the lyrics. D’Angelo had originally planned on releasing the album in early 2015, but he wisely recognized the vitality of his message in the immediate aftermath of the Ferguson protests. “All we wanted was to talk,” he muses on “Charade.” “Instead we only got outlined in chalk.” The fury of oppression clings to this album like sweat, elevating the work from “excellent” to “important.” On “Prayer,” D’Angelo spins a modern interpretation out of the Lord’s Prayer, pleading for deliverance. “Deliver us from evil, oh yeah,” he sings. “And all this confusion around me.” In a beautiful bit of irony, Black Messiah is both a prayer and an answer to prayer.

1. The War on Drugs: Lost In a Dream

Throughout much of Lost In the Dream, Adam Granduciel’s voice sounds dreamy enough indeed—so hazy and murky it’s difficult to make out. It’s interesting, because he’s drawing most of his inspiration from heartland rockers like Petty and Springsteen, whose voices floated to the top of the mix. But then, The War on Drugs has bigger things on its mind than your dad’s record collection. Granduciel fuses that sound with a new wave aesthetic—something the aforementioned dad-rock superstars have both attempted, to middling results—to create a fresh sound. You can pump your fist and pound cheap beer cans against your head to it, or you can sit back and breathe it in. There are benefits to both.

The lyrics that do slip through deal largely with Granduciel’s struggle with depression—not a frequent topic for arena rock. He sings about his pain and loneliness with lyrics obscure to the point of befuddlement, their object floating so free as to be universal. It sounds like someone talking to themselves on a road trip across the Midwest, and the music certainly provides a suitable soundtrack for such an inner monologue. But then, it’s given to moments of pure, brilliant life too. “Red Eyes” is one of the few songs to feature moments where Granduciel’s voice isn’t obscured by production, and he uses those moments to give wild, quickening yelps. It’s as thrilling as any music got this year.

But such visceral thrills are only half the pleasure of Lost In the Dream. Its true brilliance unveils itself over repeated listenings. Like on “Burning,” where the line “I’m just a burning man, trying to keep the ship from turning over…” is chilling enough without the final word: “again.” Or the melancholy title track, which is anchored in the occasional, welcoming organ chord. Or the album closer, “In Reverse,” which floats like a life raft in an endless sea, until the song finds its own land around the 3:15 mark. That land, like the album, might be a little desolate, but it’s also a reminder that loneliness is not nearly as bad as it’s made out to be.

Honorable Mentions

alt-J: This Is All Yours

The Radiohead comparisons are still a little grand, but give them some time. “Arrival In Nara” proves this band hasn’t even begun to explore its full possibilities.

Caribou: Our Love

13 years into his career, Dan Snaith is making some of his most vital music. It’s sad, it’s happy, it’s romantic, it’s frightening—you had no idea this genre could be this good.

Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams

See Also

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Kye Kye: Fantasize

Fantastical, nothing. Kye Kye’s song are rooted in reality, tying together the seen with unseen in ways none of their peers are.

Damien Rice: My Favourite Faded Fantasy

If we have to wait seven years between Damien Rice releases, then we have to wait. It’s worth it.

Bleachers: Strange Desire

Jack Antonoff has been taking notes to the passes and fails of his day job with Fun. Bleachers sounds like it’s ready to graduate.

Hozier: Hozier

He took people to church, which seems appropriate, given the trajectory of his career.

Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire for No Witness

One of the most accomplished lyricists of her generation churns out an album of haunting poetry. Each song plays like a slow-motion fight, with each word landing like a body blow.

Lecrae: Anomaly

Lecrae might feel like an outsider, but he’s too successful at this point to write him off as a true anomaly. He got where he is the old-fashioned way: with hard word and terrific music.

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