Ethan’s Top Ten Albums of 2014
Before we get into 2014, just had to go back and tweak last year’s rankings. Which probably makes this whole exercise moot. But nevertheless, you let a list breathe for a year and some cream rises while other cream, uh, drops. You know, Dropped Cream.
UPDATED 2013 RANKINGS:
10. Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
9. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
8. Jay Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail
7. Tyler, The Creator – Wolf
6. Drake – Nothing Was the Same
5. Beyoncé – Beyoncé
4. Kanye West – Yeezus
3. Lorde – Pure Heroine
2. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
1. Haim – Days Are Gone
Look at that list. Not a weak album in the bunch. 2013 was the best year for music since 2006 or 2007, when Wayne dropped Da Drought 3. Big names, new names. 2014 wasn’t nearly as strong, as it seems most of the heavy hitters are waiting until 2015 to drop their masterpieces. But the top four albums from 2014 I’d put up against any year in recent memory.
Honorable Mention: Doughboyz Cashout – We Run The City Vol. 4
Last year’s pick of Troy Ave as the voice of hip-hop future didn’t entirely pan out. He had a hit here or there, but nothing like the summer of 2013. Hopefully 2015 will see his major label debut. This year’s voices of the future are Doughboyz Cashout, the best thing to come out of Detroit since J. Dilla. Last year’s “Boss Yo Life Up” was the banger of the year and this year’s follow-up mixtape shows the Doughboyz well on their way to mainstream success. 2015 should be big for the Cashout squad.
10. Charli XCX – Sucker
I’m not a poppy guy. I don’t listen to terrestrial radio. Hardly recognize any artists at an MTV Award Show. I’m old. Old as hell*. (*31.) But Charli XCX isn’t straight pop. She’s more of a kick-in-the-ass rocker like Sleigh Bells. “Sucker” and “Break the Rules” are straight bangers. And I’m a sucker for an English accent.
9. Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots
Blur is one of my all-time favorite bands, and Damon Albarn is one of the most stylistically wide-ranging artists alive. Blur, Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen. A lot of different sounds in one head. Hard to believe it took over twenty years for his solo debut. Though it’s not nearly as strong as his past work, Albarn’s worst is still many other artists’ best. “You & Me” is the standout track, like a chill 90’s-era Blur sound with a tinge of steel drums. Like Blur on vacation; but it’s raining outside, so they had to stay in the hotel and just stare out at the ocean.
8. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
A country singer drinking and doing drugs is nothing new. Willie Nelson probably ate more mushrooms than Mario & Luigi combined. But Sturgill Simpson can belt it out, no matter how many psychotropics are in his system. Like Alan Jackson, George Strait, Dolly Parton belt it out. Like fill a room with the voice of just one man.
Growing up in Maine where there are more country music stations than cows (and more cows than people) you realize early on that country isn’t just good ‘ol boys singin’ about their dead flea-ridden dogs. If Sturgill can change just one of those “I listen to everything except rap and country” people’s minds, he’ll have made the world a better place.
7. YG – My Krazy Life
Like a harder Ice-T-infused version of Good Kid/M.A.A.D. City. The Goofus to Kendrick’s Gallant. Young Gangsta (like, born in the 90’s young) and Mr. Lamar are the future of west coast hip-hop; a genre that hasn’t really existed much in the mainstream since the turn of the century. My Krazy Life & Good Kid/M.A.A.D. City make great companion pieces, actually. Kendrick goes on his adventure and then the next day the realer dude down the street YG goes on his misadventure. “Bicken Back Bein Bool” and “Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)” are the standouts.
6. Future – Honest
“Look Ahead” is the strongest opening track on an album since Haim’s “Falling” last year. Sets the tone for the rest of the album. “Move That Dope” was the song of the summer, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing it. “Benz Friendz” is like late-90’s Outkast brought back to life. “Shit” and “Never Satisfied” would be highlights on any other album, they’re almost overshadowed on this one.
5. Taylor Swift – 1989
Hell, I’m as surprised as you. Like I said, not a pop guy. But Taylor managed to suck me in. It seems like all her palling around with Lorde has rubbed off on her lyrics/melodies. Some tracks sound like Pure Heroine b-sides. “Out of the Woods” is cinematic and sprawling, like a Hunger Games blockbuster trilogy crammed into four minutes of audio. “Shake It Off” & “Blank Space” are straight bangers. Like riding home from a high school party late at night, still high and the whole world is shimmering.
4. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
The War on Drugs (the thing) is bad. The War on Drugs (the band) is good. WoD is like early Springsteen/Petty, singing about lost loves and back roads. Like a homesick Mainer. The perfect road trip soundtrack.
“Burning” could have come straight off Nebraska. 80’s keyboards and a toe-tapping rhythm, following a lengthy brooding intro track. The mountain peak of the album. You can see for miles.
The last track you can hear the waves rushing in like you’re on a rocky Jersey shore after dumping a body for the mob as the sun’s coming up and a new day’s dawning and the credits are rolling. RIP Salvatore. You’re with the fishes now.
3. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
Piñata & RTJ2 were the only future projects from last year’s list that actually came to fruition. Back then it was to be called MadGibbs. Gibbs always felt like he was gonna be another one of those rappers with a long career, but no real standout album; because he was always missing one major ingredient: A producer.
Earl Sweatshirt, the GZA of Odd Future, holds his own with a pair of grizzled veterans on “Robes”. Danny Brown is a happy bouncing cartoon dog on “High”. Raekwon teleports in, straight out of Cuban Linx I on “Bomb”. A full Rae/Madlib collabo LP would be earth-shaking. Closing with a cypher is a throwback to the old school. Gibbs respects his elders, even when he kinda already is one.
Madlib is the greatest living producer since J. Dilla passed, all due respect to RZA, Kanye, El-P, Premier & 9th Wonder. Madvillainy was a vital record in college, and these beats and this MC come damn close.
2. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Annie Clark is just a person. But St. Vincent is a God. On her throne on the album cover is an appropriate place for her to sit, because this album was a proclamation. A rise to power. It was hard not to put this #1. This album and the next one are really more like #1A and #1B.
Her time touring and recording with David Byrne has lent her sound a Talking Heads vibe. Futuristic 80’s, somehow. Haunting vocals and sternum-rattling bass.
I might be biased in putting her this high, because Annie Clark reminds me of a girl I knew back in LA. But she listens to Dilla and makes Talking Heads tunes. What’s not to love? Uncomfortably unconditionally love.
1. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
Sequels are hard. They almost never live up to the original. And the case is no different with Run the Jewels. But the original happened to be so transcendentally incredible that that’s not particularly a problem. An RTJ sequel is still better than most other rap groups’ originals. The Stockton & Malone of hip-hop.
Run the Jewels is what hip-hop should be. Wu-Tang banging beats and Beastie Boys guffawing jokes. A message that isn’t being hammered over your head by a backpacker. A confidence that only comes from a decade-plus in the game.
Boots RT’d me goofin’ about her the day it came out, so I’ll ride for her any day. Zack De La Rocha sounds as angry and vitriolic as in his Rage days. But this album isn’t really about guest appearances. It’s about Jaime & Mike.
This year was really a toss-up between Run the Jewels and St. Vincent for the #1 spot; but I’d feel bad putting RTJ in second place for two consecutive years. Not that they’d give a shit. It’s just a list. Get over yourself, me.
Run the Jewels is the best thing in hip-hop right now. Like mid-90’s Ghost and Rae. Just two pals making good tunes.
Early predictions for Best Album of 2015: Jay Z & Kanye West Watch the Throne II; Run the Jewels RTJ3; Earl Sweatshirt Untitled; Nas Season of Nasir; Q-Tip The Last Zulu; Frank Ocean Untitled; Pusha T King Push; Clipse Untitled; Kanye West Untitled; Ghostface Killah Supreme Clientele Presents… Blue & Cream: The Wally Era; Ghostface Killah & MF DOOM DOOMStarks; Future Future Hendrix and Kendrick Lamar Untitled.