Top 40 Albums of 2014

Top 40 Albums of 2014

2014 has been a spectacular year for music.

We’ve heard fantastic new sounds in every genre – from rock and hip-hop to electronic, country and jazz – with a trend toward blurring the artificial lines that keep those styles separate. We’ve been treated with career best efforts from trusted talents while discovering a plethora of fresh voices we’re sure to be following to for years to come.

For our part we’re proud to have launched the world’s first high fidelity streaming service, giving us the privilege to share the music we truly love in the quality the artists intended. And while not everyone agrees (notably #29 on our list), we hope and believe that the transcendent and artistic merit of the LP format will endure in the foreseeable future.

With the dawn of 2015 in sight, the TIDAL Editors have put our heads together and selected our favorite albums from the past year. And don’t miss our separate list of the Best Classical Albums of 2014.

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1. Ben Howard: I Forget Where We Were (Republic)

With I Forget Where We Were, Ben Howard took a lonely swan dive from the temperate perch of his laurels into a dark pool of his own demons. Compared to his widely appealing but less daring debut, British troubadour’s vulnerable follow-up hauntingly explores the shadows of his soul.

It’s a meditative experience, as cathartic as it is saturated with pain, made all the more reflective thanks to the stunningly detail-oriented production. Howard could have played it safe and made a record as pretty pretty but innocuous as Every Kingdom, yet by holding our heads under water, he found something even more gorgeous, real and meaningful.

Howard never loses his sense of melody, and this album thrives in his sheer musicality, be it agile fingerpicking, hammering striking harmonics, or delighting in delayed electric guitar. It’s hardly an easy ride, but it’s eventually a satisfying one. (Consequence of Sound)

As mild as the music might often sound, this is an album that cuts deep. (Rolling Stone)

 

2. Sun Kil Moon: Benji (Caldo Verde)

Mark Kozelek did a pretty swift job in convincing the public he’s a horrible person this fall, but when he released Benji in February, we could only marvel at ultimate sensitivity of this grouchy, middle-aged man trying to “find some poetry to make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning.”

Longtime fans will trace Kozelek’s lyrical genius to his days with the Red House Painters, but 25 years into his career, Benji represents a subtle yet seismic breakthrough in his ability to express tragedy, heartbreak and existential contemplation with such breathless and ostensively benign delivery. For some, Kozelek’s recent antics may understandably sour their experience of his music, but for those willing to close their eyes, the immeasurable humanity contained within Benji is timeless and unshakable.

So while Benji is consumed with death, sadness, mourning, and tragedy, there’s gratitude within all this melancholy and it’s actually Kozelek’s least depressing and most life-affirming record: when faced with an album that exposes so much of the beauty, truth, ugliness, humor, and grace inherent in simply existing in this world, the only response is to go out and live. (Pitchfork)

 

3. The War On Drugs: Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian)

After a painstaking year-long recording process marked by repeated do-overs, Adam Granduciel managed to eclipse the achievements of their former co-leader, Kurt Vile, while producing one of the most brilliant records of the year.

Further exploring the lyrical and aural themes of 2011’s sonically superb breakthrough Slave Ambient, the album is equal parts discouraged and optimistic, troubled and triumphant. It’s shamelessly steeped in its influences – with hefty debts owed to Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty – yet Lost in the Dream is refreshingly sophisticated and completely devoid of irony. This is quintessential heartland-flavored rock, made for a post-modern era trying to push forward while looking backward.

The very best kind of Americana road-trip record, ‘Lost In The Dream’ makes you want to hotwire a Mustang and drive it across the States, blazing through the badlands of Nebraska, up through California’s stunning Big Sur and down through Louisiana swampland, picking up hitchhikers and spending evenings camped out near cornfields with only a bottle of whiskey and some well-thumbed Kerouac for company. (NME)

 

4. Run The Jewels: Run The Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)

On their mighty sophomore album, the tag-team of Killer Mike and El-P comes out swinging with razor sharp rhymes and the best beats of the year. Without falling into the polarizing category of “conscious rap,” Run the Jewels 2 packs a knockout punch of excellent hip-hop, while skillfully proving lewdly worded rap still has the ability to spread wisdom without preaching.

The imagery might get a little grody, but it never falls into the realm of thoughtlessness…They make enlightenment look cool, and make all the other guys who glamorize ignorance look like fuckboys. They are a modern face of protest and I’m A-OK with that. (Spencer Tweedy, The Talkhouse)

 

5. Swans: To Be Kind (Young God)

30 years into its existence, Swans are an institution within the noisier side of the rock community, but defiant not the kind settling down to rest. To Be Kind shows a side of Michael Gira & Co. that is as uncompromising, brutal and overwhelming as ever, but also more welcoming, accessible and, dare we say, friendly. With two hours of music spread over 10 tracks it goes without saying that To Be Kind really demands your commitment, but for the focused listener, it has a mighty return investment. This is not the album visit for quick aural pleasures, but a complete album experience covering the full emotional spectrum; from heartfelt intimacy to majestic euphoria, it’s an orgasm in sound. This is a tremendous effort from a band that never stops to convert. This is Swans.

In terms of pure sound alone it’s the most organic and forceful Swans have ever sounded. At times it’s hard not to just take a deep breath and marvel at the density – electric guitar and drums, but also dulcimer, lap steel, bells, brass, strings – that they pack into limited sonic space. This sense of unified action in turn heightens the impact of Gira’s lyrics – characteristically enigmatic, mantra-like evocations of sex, God, the body and the ritual dissolving of the self. (The Quietus)

 

6. Flying Lotus: You’re Dead (Warp)

On his fifth LP, Flying Lotus (a.k.a. Steven Ellison) retains his by-now sterling reputation for crafting dynamic and complex electronic music that doesn’t talk down to its listener. Ellison’s sonic inspirations come from a vibrant spectrum of sources, as is evidenced from his guest list, which ranges from Herbie Hancock to Kendrick Lamar.

‘You’re Dead!’ has the stated theme of the one thing every single human has in common, and just about every conceivable style of music is prone to address: the inevitability and condition of death, and how mysterious it really is. (Pitchfork)

 

7. Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore)

Hailing from the town of Little Rock, Arkansas, Pallbearer is one of the most interesting new doom metal bands in years. They hinted at greatness on their debut, Sorrow and Extinction, and the band more than furthers that promise on their second album. Recorded by Billy Anderson (Agalloch, Sleep, Neurosis, Melvins), Foundations of Burden expands their sound to further lengths, moving into an emotionally driven sonic landscape that’s more epic, more vast, and ultimately more glorious and triumphant.

This is perversely life-affirming stuff, translating misery into triumph once again. (Kerrang)

 

8. Jack White: Lazaretto (Third Man)

Since his earliest days as a White Stripe, Jack White has always made music that only Jack White can. On what is only his second record under his own name, the restless rocker, label owner and public eccentric, spins another rock and roll fantasia whose fires are fueled by the lacerations of his recent divorce. It may be less epic than some of his riffs with Meg, but there’s plenty of funk, blues-rooted weirdness that, as its creator, spits in the face of popular trends.

Like Prince or Kanye West, the former White Stripes frontman blurs genres, takes songs in unexpected directions and peppers tracks with extraordinary production flourishes. ‘Lazaretto’ is an adventurous album laced with menace….[White] has channelled his demons to create one of the great break-up albums of recent years. (The Telegraph)

 

9. Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn: Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn (Rounder)

After many years of prominence as banjo players and composers in their own eclectic avenues, the husband and wife team of Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn finally presented their eponymous debut as a duo. This is a front porch banjo and vocal album of new music, Appalachian murder ballads, gospel, chamber and blues; the culmination of a yearlong tour that followed the birth of their son, Juno

Béla Fleck is surely the finest banjo player on the planet, a virtuoso who can switch from bluegrass to classical, jazz and African styles, while his wife, Abigail Washburn, is also an impressive banjo performer, influenced by China as well as Appalachia. Recommended even to those who think they hate banjos. (The Guardian)

 

10. D’Angelo & The Vanguard: Black Messiah (RCA)

On the list of long-awaited albums you never thought you were going to hear, D’Angelo’s comeback was close to the top. Yet out of nowhere, a week and a half before Christmas when every other major release was out and many music publications had already put out their year-end lists, Black Messiah falls from the heavens. Word is that the elusive talent, who hadn’t put out a record since his 2000 masterpiece Voodoo, was simply tired of waiting himself.

There is so much to say about ‘Black Messiah,’ but the most fundamental is that it lives up to its name and fulfills even its most outlandish expectations. It is everything that its makers promised it would be: pathbreaking, surprising, beautiful, funky, shockingly warm, redemptive, an album that treats a long and illustrious musical history with reverence and lovingly pulls it forward…We can talk about how it’s taken 15 years for D’Angelo to make this album; we might also talk about how it’s only taken 15 years for D’Angelo to make this album. (Slate)

 

11. Todd Terje: It’s Album Time (Olsen)

Along with fellow countrymen Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas, Todd Terje has helmed the Norwegian electronica scene that has gained international recognition in recent years. Yet a decade after his first single, “Euro Dance,” and two years after the club hit, “Inspector Norse,” it was just this year that Terje Olsen released his first full-length record, appropriately named It’s Album Time. The DJ, producer and songwriter crafts a playful and colorful collection of disco-inspired numbers, which feel equally appropriate on the dance floor and on the couch with a set of headphones pulled over your head.

While the biggest names in dance music are raging on the blacktop, delivering hard beats to parking lots filled with sweaty festival-goers, Todd Terje is poolside, offering a cabana-ready combination of Patrick Cowley disco synths and Herb Alpert’s Tijuana kitsch. (Rolling Stone)

 

12. The Toure-Raichel Collective: The Paris Session (Cumbancha)

The Touré-Raichel Collective consists of Malian singer and guitarist Vieux Farka Touré and Israeli singer-pianist Idan Raichel. After stumbling into each other at an airport in Berlin in 2008, the two became friends and released their highly acclaimed debut album, The Tel Aviv Session, in 2012. Moving location to France, they continue to mix Malian rhythms with Israeli melodies on this year’s outstanding follow-up, The Paris Session.

‘The Paris Session’ is awash in a jazz, blues, world music mix of guitar, keys, trumpet and flute, flowing triumphant by way of the duo’s encompassing vision of cultural respect and understanding. (Exclaim)

 

13. Ben Watt: Hendra (Unmade Road)

After two decades fronting Everything But The Girl, and ten years as a respected DJ and label head for Buzzin’ Fly, this is Ben Watt’s first solo album in 31 years. Hendra is a stark and bittersweet return from a man in the middle of his life, telling stories about loss, sorrow and memory. Stripped down and thoughtful, the album fully demonstrates Ben Watt’s songwriting craftsmanship. It also features ex-Suede member Bernard Butler and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.

‘Hendra’s’ 10 songs are patient, even reticent creatures. They focus on the ruling subjects of midlife: the loss of loved ones, the ongoing confrontation with the fact that you are the sum of long-ago choices and circumstances, and the idea that fewer changes lie before you than behind. (NPR)

 

14. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)

Modestly billed as “a collection of songs grown in a year of heartbreak, travel, and transformation,” Angel Olsen’s unflinching sophomore LP is a stunning work from a singer-songwriter coming into her own. Her hypnotic voice and confessional lyrics pull you into a trance, while her brooding pace, abbreviated by bombastic spurs of noise, leaves you sitting on the edge of your seat.

For Olsen, there’s profound beauty and uncomfortable truth in the soul-sucking muck of heartbreak and not quite figuring things out…she deftly captures the terrifying dread of being in limbo, stuck in the sludge of a transitional period. But even with the existential doubt, the loneliness, and the angst, there’s still a resilient beacon of hope. (Consequence of Sound)

 

15. GoGo Penguin: v2.0 (Gondwana)

Open-minded Manchester-trio GoGo Penguin is another unit, if not the unit, that defies all categorization. Fusing electronica, rock and classical into their traditional jazz formation, they cite the opposing forces of Aphex Twin, Four Tet, Arvo Pärt and Squarepusher among their influences. v2.0 was nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize.

‘v2.0’ is the sound of a band moving forward—not in leaps and bounds, but in small steps. There’s really no need to jump headlong into the unknown when the foundations set down on Fanfares were so strong. ‘v2.0’ builds on those foundations with style, further establishing GoGo Penguin as one of the most exciting young bands on the contemporary scene. (All About Jazz)

 

16. St. Vincent: St. Vincent (Loma Vista)

Annie Clark bursts out of the door, guns blazing, on her domineering fourth record. No one doubted Clark’s sonic imagination, her bold intellectual songwriting, or her sharp aptitude as a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, but this time around she shows off all of those assets with a resounding confidence that’s downright intimidating. As is evidenced on the cover art, complete with wild silver hair, St. Vincent used her self-titled as a means to reintroduce herself as idol who should be worshipped just as she should be feared.

There’s something fantastically cunning about both her art and her persona, and whether that came from a messianic streak or a simple desire to avoid rock’s tired binaries, something strange and wonderful has happened as a result: She has given us a little desperately needed traction in moving past the Women in Rock era. Her dazzler of a new album at least delivers us to the threshold, daring us to imagine a world where female artists are not posited as de facto outsiders. (Spin)

 

17. Toumani Diabaté & Sidiki Diabaté: Toumani & Sidiki (World Circuit)

In a rare father-and-son collaboration, Toumani Diabaté, an African legend widely recognized as one the world’s greatest kora players, recorded an album of duets with his son Sidiki, an emerging star on the same instrument. The imposing set of unaccompanied duets was recorded live with little or no rehearsal and no overdubs at London’s RAK studios. The repertoire is based on a combination of obscure, nearly-forgotten kora pieces and a new look at some Mande classics from Mali.

Whilst much of Toumani’s back catalogue has had a forward-thinking slant, exploring the fusion of traditional Malian music with other genres, from blues to flamenco to free jazz, ‘Toumani & Sidiki’ feels like a freshly unearthed artifact, steeped in the influence of centuries. (The Line of Best Fit)

 

18. Sharon Van Etten: Are We There (Jagjaguwar)

In a year characterized by great albums fueled by heartache, Sharon Van Etten may have written the best breakup line of the year when she delivers the devastatingly consummate line, “I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom.” With track titles like “Your Love is Killing Me,” “I Love You But I’m Lost,” “Our Love,” “Break Me,” you don’t have to hypothesize the source of her gripping songwriting. On her raw and emotionally rich follow-up to Tramp, her Aaron Dessner-produced breakthrough, Van Etten continues her upward trajectory as a transcendent artist in full control of her vast talent, if not her love life.

Van Etten’s fourth album marks the true arrival of a singer who’s been on her way for a long time, and thinking of her as anything less than a career artist is certainly a vast underestimation. (Paste)

 

19. Regina Carter: Southern Comfort (Sony Masterworks)

Southern Comfort finds violinist Regina Carter interpreting traditional Cajun fiddle music, gospel and coal miner’s work songs, in addition to similarly spiced originals. Thematically the album connects with I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (2006), in which she plays her mother’s favorite early jazz standards, and Reverse Thread (2010), which celebrates the traditional African music, re-imagined for violin, accordion, bass, drums and kora.

Regina Carter never misses the mark, continually impressing with her incredible violin skill and thoughtful choice of material. Ultimately, ‘Southern Comfort’ lacks any serious flaws, making it one of the year’s best efforts as of yet. Sophisticated and classy, Carter has a true winner on her hands. (Popmatters)

 

20. Foxygen: …And Star Power (Jagjaguwar)

Expectations were sky high for Sam France and Jonathan Rado in following up 2013’s brilliant We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. What Foxygen’s third album, …And Star Power, lacks in focus and concise editing, it makes up for in epic scale and experimental adventurism with the rich palette of nostalgic influences that have garnered them so much adoration. Some critics docked the album points for occasionally missing the mark in the course of its sprawling 82-minute duration, but few acts in 2014 were more generous or more playful.

The record is indulgent, unhinged, sprawling, funny and sometimes spookily great. (Paste)

 

21. How To Dress Well: What Is This Heart? (Weird World)

On his third proper album Tom Krell sharpens his pen as gorgeous and increasingly dark confessional songwriter. Compared to previous How To Dress Well records, the wispy, atmospheric production has been dialed back to bring Krell’s magnificent R&B flavored voice into ever-clearer focus. The result is the most honest, mature and beautiful album yet from an artist who was never lacking in those categories in the first place.

Much of ‘What Is This Heart?’ explores the relationship between formal, classically arranged music and technology-savvy pop—a fitting parallel to Krell’s emotionally tangled lyrics, but one that also implies curiosity and hopefulness. (Resident Advisor)

 

22. Steve Gunn: Way Out Weather (Paradise of Bachelors)

The Brooklyn-based guitarist has a varied musical past, including collaborations with British legend Michael Chapman, the late Jack Rose, Sun City Girls and Kurt Vile as a member of his the Violators. He surprised many last year after releasing his gentle, singer/songwriter-based album Time Off, a direction he follows into full blossom with the tremendous Way Out Weather. On this way-out musical journey, he angles for something more cosmic, dynamic, and widescreen in sound and sentiment, finding his niche stuck somewhere between 1970s West Coast rock (Grateful Dead, David Crosby), American Primitivism (John Fahey, Robbie Basho) and Ghanaian Highlife. This is a way-out tremendous musical journey.

You couldn’t wish for a more fitting musical soundtrack to the rest of your 2014. (Mojo)

 

23. Clark: Clark (Warp)

In a spectacular year for electronic music, Chris Clark’s apocalyptic self-titled album sticks out. In this dark opus, the world is in a state of chaos, but Clark sits calmly at the center of it, making sure we have something appropriate to dance to. It’s intelligent, layered electronic music you can sink your teeth into, which finds harmonic beauty in the terror of anarchy.

Yes, he makes music that sounds like the end of the world. But he also makes you want to live long enough to see what that will look like. (Pitchfork)

 

24. Perfume Genius: Too Bright (Matador)

On his gorgeously produced third album, Perfume Genius (a.k.a. Mike Hadreas) enriches his already powerful songwriting with resounding force. Dealing with many of his previous autobiographical themes, notably finding his place in society as a gay man, Hadreas reverses his former introverted rhetorical approach with poignant, harshly confrontational lyrics directed at his opponents. It’s a powerful statement, and a beautiful piece of music in its own right.

The album closes with the words, “I don’t need your love / I don’t need you to understand / I need you to listen.” If you’re a musician, that attention is the only thing worth asking for, and on Too Bright, Hadreas’ awe-inspiring, magnificent arrival, he earns it with every note. (NPR)

 

25. Arca: Xen (Mute)

With production credits behind Kanye West, FKA twigs and the next Björk album, Venezuelan-born Alejandro Ghersi is on his way to becoming one of the next big name producers. But rather than smooth out his own sound for maximum appeal, Ghersi’s first LP of his own finds him at his most radical, digitally summoning sounds from an intricate and grotesque world buried deep beneath the crust of the earth. It can be disorienting experience for the passive listener, but out of his jarring dissonance Arca is inventing something satisfyingly new.

‘Xen’ feels less like a narrative arc than an amalgam of two- and three-minute chunks that might work just as well on shuffle. That’s not a criticism. To the contrary: the album’s mazelike shape is an indicator of how much lies beneath the surface…The next few years—his next few years—are going to be interesting. (Pitchfork)

 

26. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Piñata (Madlib Invazion)

Following three EPs over a two and a half year period, the collaboration of Gary, Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs and California beatmaker genius Madlib finally funnelled their assets into a full album, combining gangsta attitude and left-field samples. The album guests contributions from Raekwon, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, Scarface, Danny Brown, Mac Miller and more – or as the duo themselves boasted, “featuring every mother fucker in the rap game worth fucking with.”

As Gangster Rap, ‘Piñata’ is free of conceptual pretense; it’s a slice more than a thesis. It’s also a new benchmark for Gibbs and may end up as a career calling card. If nothing else, it quickly sounds like one of the year’s best. (HipHopDX)

 

27. Real Estate: Atlas (Domino)

Real Estate’s third go-around finds the New Jersey quintet ever-refining their distinctive brand of groovy, layered guitar songs without ever straying from their ephemeral essence. Delicately recorded at Wilco’s Chicago studio, Atlas is a handsome sounding album from a group that was once described as lo-fi. Calling it easy listening has its pejorative associations, but Real Estate has repeatedly demonstrated a sublime knack for crafting mellow, guitar-led tunes that are gratifyingly effortless to get lost in.

‘Atlas’ might seem like an obvious career peak were this not the work of a still-young band that, from the start, has been predisposed toward graceful maturation…The album’s best moments, sound like chance epiphanies born from fraternal jam sessions. It’s a quietly sublime work from a group of musicians who have always insisted they’re just average suburbanites. (Paste)

 

28. Ambrose Akinmusire: The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note)

The New Yorker has called him “a thrilling young trumpeter and astute bandleader who has a unique spark in his playing.” On his new album – which Akinmusire produced himself – he subtly shifts the focus away from those thrilling trumpet solos to his compositions (Akinmusire wrote 12 of the album’s 13 tracks) while still leaving ample room for the band to stretch out and improvise. In addition to his great quintet he brought along guitarist Charles Altura, the OSSO String Quartet, and vocalists Becca Stevens, Theo Bleckmann, and Cold Specks.

Self-seriousness lurks in the piano and trumpet delicacies that begin the imagined savior is far easier to paint; all that’s missing is ECM’s famous five-second silence. By album’s end, though, it has developed into an early candidate for the best of 2014. (jazztimes.com)

 

29. Röyksopp: The Inevitable End (Dog Triumph)

Meaningfully called The Inevitable End, Röyksopp initially called this record their last, later clarifying it as their final proper “album” after declaring the death of the LP format. While we could pick some bones with those sentiments, there is no denying that this makes for one hell of a swansong, culminating the Norwegian electronic duo’s globe-conquering supremacy.

This is a stunning record, principally because of its narrative arc and complete cohesion – it’s easy to see why they’re leaving the traditional format if they’ve perfected it. (The Line of Best Fit)

 

30. Caribou: Our Love (Merge)

With his first Caribou LP since 2010′s magnificent Swim, after playing around with EDM under his other pseudonym Daphni, Dan Snaith channels similar sounds while producing his most soulful and personal to date. Our Love is less adventurous compared to previous deviations, but it finds Snaith zeroing in on some essence too wonderful and unique to stray too far from. Guest spots from Owen Pallett and singer Jessy Lanza contribute additional highlights.

It’s always been enjoyable to hear Snaith dive deep into a new passion and emerge with a new record awash in the ecstasy of influence: finely detailed, in love with its inspiration, simply tuneful, and yet thematically complex…This is Snaith’s most overtly personal record to date, one that’s remarkable for its intimacy, openheartedness, and joy derived from basic human connection. (Pitchfork)

 

31. Kiasmos: Kiasmos (Erased Tapes)

Seven years after their initial collaboration, the unlikely duo of Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds and Faroese electronic producer Janus Rasmussen released their first full-length album of magnificent minimalism. Despite their different backgrounds – a classically trained pianist and string player and a synth-armed beatmaker – the two craft gorgeous instrumental landscapes as chilling and expansive as the northern seas they hail from.

If lots of techno and music of that ilk is designed to cajole you onto the dancefloor, then Kiasmos is both its distant cousin and an entirely different creature, curling itself around you, rarely demanding anything more than a little attention, snug as a glove. (Drowned in Sound)

 

32. Robert Ellis: The Lights From The Chemical Plant (New West)

On his second album, Nashville-based singer/songwriter Robert Ellis continues his journey into the depths of country-folk quintessence, ranging from the majestic string-adorned title track to noir pop rock and somber confessionals. This is a tremendous effort from an eclectic and unassuming artist, and Ellis himself has stated that this time he tried to channel everything from songsmiths Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Bill Withers, to free jazz artists like Ornette Coleman.

Ellis broadens his musical reach beyond deadly accurate classic country to often austere arrangements that reflect his small etchings of real life without aggressive genre-coding. (Paste)

 

33. The Bad Plus: The Rite Of Spring (Sony Masterworks)

For almost 15 years The Bad Plus have garnered a well-deserved reputation for pushing the limits on what is expected of a piano-bass-drums jazz trio, creating a distinctive repertoire of inventive original music, along with iconoclastic covers of such divergent artists as Nirvana, Neil Young, Aphex Twin and Ornette Coleman. With The Rite of Spring, the genre-smashing trio takes on one of the most influential and complex works of the 20th century – and succeeds.

Would their punk model work for a Stravinsky cover, with its unique challenges? The answer given by this recording is a resounding yes. (The Wire)

 

34. José James: While You Were Sleeping (Blue Note)

While You Were Sleeping is José James’ fifth studio album (his second for Blue Note), and the follow-up to his widely acclaimed R&B and jazz-steeped No Beginning No End. James is not an artist who seeks to be categorized as he leapfrogs the genre boundaries and implements his elegant fusion of ‘70s soul, ‘90s r&b, chamber jazz, electro/club and rock on an album that quite naturally is framed by Jimi Hendrix and Al Green. It is somewhere between those huge markers he constantly finds new room to play. As James described it is his own words, “It’s a synthesis of everything I love about music. From contemporary artists like Frank Ocean, James Blake, and Junip to groundbreaking artists I grew up with like Nirvana, Radiohead, and Madlib.”

Whatever you want to call the new soul-jazz – a subspecies voracious enough to absorb brooding art-rock, coffeehouse folk and head-trippy electronic music along with jazz and R&B – you’d have a hard time finding a better embodiment of it than José James. (The New York Times)

 

35. Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (High Top Mountain)

Sturgill Simpson digs deep into the treasure chests of country music, and unearths the same gold ores that Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings mined in the 1970s. The former frontman of Sunday Valley established himself as a solo artist in 2013 with High Top Mountain, an album that rightly placed him as one of the best exponents of modern outlaw country. Produced by Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell), this year’s aptly titled follow-up explores ancient roots while emerging as something much more than just another traditionalist. With his old school expression, and miraculously without the aid of a steel guitar, Sturgill Simpson paradoxically proves himself to be one of country music’s most visionary voices.

Picture what Waylon would have sounded like if he had taken Willie’s drugs: This is a record that is equal parts haunted, tender and trippy. (Rolling Stone)

 

36. Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots (Parlophone)

After two decades of masking his mysterious multifaceted magnificence behind Blur, Gorillaz and a slew of other part-time projects and collaborations, this year was the first time Damon Albarn stepped out to be heard under his own name. A culmination of his prolific and aurally varied career, Everyday Robots doesn’t venture into new territories so much as it pleasantly clarifies the essence of an artist who has always separated himself from his art.

Whereas records like ‘Parklife’ and ‘Demon Days’ were like ostentatious theme parks, brimming with ideas, ‘Robots’ is a snow globe, a diorama, the contents of Albarn’s head arranged with fastidious precision: one man’s life at 46. (SPIN)

 

37. Rival Sons: Great Western Valkyrie (Earache)

In the face of an ever-changing, ever-digitizing world, Rival Sons are torchbearers for the modern preservation of unrestrained, southern-flavored rock and roll. It’s tasty, it’s bold and it’s totally confident. In spite a significant lineup change (bassist Dave Beste replaced founding member Robin Everhart), the Southern California quartet have managed to perfectly embody the timeless classic rock zeitgeist.

Fans and critics alike have come to expect the explosive combination of skillful musicianship and precise performances on new Rival Sons material, and ‘Great Western Valkyrie’ does not disappoint. (Blues Rock Review)

 

38. Bohren & Der Club Of Gore: Piano Nights (Ipecac)

Described as “The Melvins jamming with Angelo Badalamenti in a dark dank jazz bar,” this German quartet has combined smoky jazz noir and nocturnal ambience since the mid ‘90s. Piano Nights is their first in five years, and although they’re easily recognizable, this is a band in a constant albeit gradual state of flux. The album is a soundtrack to the night, echoing darkened city streets and inviting us behind the velvet curtains of hidden nightclubs.

‘Piano Nights’ is pastoral and desolate at the same time, seeing beauty through crumbling façades. The music rarely rises above a whisper yet even the silences take on an emphatic air. There is an ambience of mystery and quiet urgency in each of these pieces and the music requires patient listening.” (All About Jazz)

 

39. Lykke Li: I Never Learn (Atlantic)

The third album from the melancholic Swedish pop chanteuse rounds out the trilogy she began with Youth Novels (2008) and Wounded Rhymes (2011), which according to Li is ultimately about with “a woman in her twenties and her search for love and herself.” Appropriately, the album came to life in the shadows of a painful breakup, taking nearly three years to complete while seeking romantic refuge in Los Angeles. Short in length (just over 30 minutes) but infinite in depth, I Never Learn joins the ranks of other cornerstone albums characterized by disillusion and heartbreak, such as Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.

We’re used to breakup albums that assume you just want to crawl into a hole and die, but ‘I Never Learn’ is for the times when heartbreak is so life-affirming that you want to share the feeling with the world. (Pitchfork)

 

40. Trophy Scars: Holy Vacants (Monotreme)

“Ambitious” is a key term in describing the fourth album by Trophy Scars. The New Jersey quartet, centered around vocalist and lyricist Jerry Jones, were already understood as a band transcendent of any genre categorization, but on Holy Vacants they finally evolved into something truly original. Blending psychedelic blues riffs, blue collar Jersey-rock and progressive/post-hardcore, Jones initially worked up the album as a 35-page screenplay: a dramatic cocktail of mythology, ancient religion, and conspiracy theory. It’s a pretty out there narrative, used to tackle a timeless set of themes: the idealization of youth, loss of identity and corruption of innocence.

Trophy Scars are the torchbearers and the inheritors of Springsteen’s crown. Their music is what happens when that fringe darkness that Springsteen always kept slightly off camera is framed in B-movie close-up, smiling and doused in blood. (Sputnik Music)

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