By SUN STAFF
1. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
Listening to Killer Mike and El-P’s music is a bit strange — they make it quite clear that they do not give a fuck about you. Instead, these guys make music because they love hip-hop; sharing it with fans is just a bonus. So when Run the Jewels 2 dropped in October, it was what the name implied: A rare jewel in a year full of forgettable rap. Exhibiting chemistry and charisma that is virtually unparalleled, Atlanta and Brooklyn were again united in throat slicing aggression, dope beats and engaging social intelligence. From the sexual explicitness of “Love Again” to the politically aware “Early,” every song on RTJ2 is a reminder of the strengths in storytelling and emotion that hip-hop enjoys. Ultimately, RTJ2 established itself as a career defining release without gimmicks: It was just rap, pure and simple.
— Calvin Patten
2. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Faced by death and middle age and lamp shade purchases, Benji finds the narrator ruminating on the inequalities and bad rolls seemingly dealt by life. Generally over nothing but simple acoustic guitar, Kozelek simply opens himself up to anyone willing to listen. From the tragic murder/failed suicide of “Jim Wise” to the lip-quivering sadness of “Micheline” to the explicitly sexual “Dogs,” Benji was an unblinking therapy session — mass produced. The album closes with the jazz hinted “Ben’s my Friend,” possibly the perfect encapsulation of mid-life crisis, as Kozelek overcomes a down period to return to the studio. And thank god he did — Benji is a transcendent record deserving of all the praise it has and will enjoy.
— Calvin Patten
3. Aphex Twin – Syro
The music of Aphex Twin holds no anchor to any time or genre. There are synthesizers in Syro, so we can say Aphex has gone retro, but only in the context of his work, which is always light years ahead or sideways of whatever else is happening in the world of IDM, EDM, pick your capital letters. Syro is more a summation of Aphex’s work prior — joining glitch and ambient, jungle and soul, maximalism and minimalism — than a drastic leap forward, yet there’s still no electronic musician distorting wave patterns with the depth and detail of any song off this album. From the underwater dance party of “minipops 67” to the 10-minute trip around the world of “XMAS_EVET10,” from the luscious funk of “produk 29” to the Satie tenderness of “aisatsana,” Syro cycles through styles with what would be randomness if not for Aphex’s mastery of texture, rhythm, dynamics, progression — you know, music. No album this year rewards repeated listens like it.
— Zachary Zahos
4. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
Lykke Li’s I Never Learn is the breakup album of the decade — not only does it wallow in pure agony on such eviscerating tracks as “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” and “No Rest for the Wicked,” it manages to find self-actualization and meaning in even the bleakest of moods. Li layers her already unfairly affecting vocals and employs a vast range of instrumentation — including a choir, probably a dozen violins and a steel guitar — to create a 33-minute album that somehow packs the emotional punch of the Gone With the Wind overture. 2014’s lonely didn’t have to look far for solace, or for shameless romanticization of their lovelorn sulking. I Never Learn is short, stunning and The Sun’s favorite bummer of the year.
— Kaitlyn Tiffany
5. FKA Twigs – LP1
It’s time to hop on the bandwagon. FKA Twigs (Formerly known as Twigs), is an English singer/dancer/gymnast and a force to be reckoned with on her kickass album, LP1. On it she creates her own brand of slow, creepy, ethereal yet utterly beautiful and soothing R&B that is hard not to listen to again. It is electronic-infused, interestingly arranged, and Twigs’ voice is heartbreaking in the best way. For those just trying to get a feel, start with the more popular tracks “Two Weeks” and “Pendulum.” For those trying to get weird check out the video for her song “Video Girl.” It’ll be worth it. In the latter she talks about being “the girl from the video,” which she is. Before rising to fame on best of 2014 lists and spotlights on sites like Billboard and Spotify, Twigs, also known as Tahliah Debrett Barnett, was a background dancer for artists like Jessie J, Ed Sheeran and Taio Cruz.
— Arielle Cruz
6. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
If there’s one thing to be said about St. Vincent, it’s that Annie Clark seems to have had a shit-ton of fun making it. Disparate sounds coalesce into puzzlingly addictive melodies, from the phased-out hi-hats and slinking synths that lend the paranoia-brewing “Rattlesnake” its ramshackle funk to the squiggly start-stop dialtone insanity that becomes “Bring Me Your Loves.” Every track features at least one left turn, and even when they aren’t huge ones — “Regret,” for instance, sounds like Clark trying to write a breakup track that could fit on Zeppelin IV — St. Vincent’s compositional know-how and lyrical acuity keeps things fresh as always. After the assured adventurousness of St. Vincent, I think Annie Clark is very close to being one of the “heroes on every barstool” she sings so tenderly about
— James Rainis (originally printed Feb. 27, 2014)
7. Caribou – Our Love
Our Love is an ethereal reflection of the best that electronic music has to offer. It’s soothing and trance-y, yet simultaneously brings melodic distinctiveness. Singer Dan Snaith’s wispy falsetto is delicate and satisfying. He juxtaposes airy high notes against deep bass rhythms to create a lounge-like atmosphere. Snaith also brings together diverse instruments to add to the album’s complexity. Though the album picks up its pace at moments, it remains dominantly calm and contemplative. The repetitive instrumentation in conjunction with Snaith’s harmonic vocal lines makes this album a noteworthy musical experiment. Listen to this album and momentarily escape yourself; you may just find yourself in an infinitely pleasing delusion.
— Anita Alur
8. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
In just 45 minutes, FlyLo set out to explore the final moments before we pass on, aided by a bevy of guest acts and a commitment to throwing together a smorgasbord of musical trends. Rarely will you find an album informed in equal part by hard-bop, prog-jazz, hip hop, nu-soul and modern dance music, but Flying Lotus makes it look easy — and sound great. Flying Lotus is, above all else, a mad scientist. You’re Dead!, a Frankenstein-esque assemblage of jazz instrumentation, hip hop rhythms, and electronic textures, is an experiment gone horribly right.
— Sam Bromer (originally printed Oct. 6, 2014)
9. Swans – To Be Kind
Believe it or not, Swans makes great study music. Start with “Screen Shot,” the first track off To Be Kind, and let the slow build of quivering guitar, metronomic kick drum and whispered monosyllables lull you into a state of Zen. But that calm lasts only so long, before the snare head cracks and the guitars unleash a maelstrom of whirring, neighing entropy. The majority of songs on this album proceed in such a fashion, starting if not calm then tame before launching into a soundscape that may just approximate that of Hell. Yet this is not death metal or screamo or anything like that. Michael Gira is enamored with classical music and the avant-garde, so his songs obey a structure endowed to Beethoven, who was also no stranger to thrilling and deafening bombast. The result is two hours of abrasive yet oddly centering music. It’ll be torture for most people, but for me it’s Ritalin.
— Zachary Zahos
10. Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait
With the October release of Hell Can Wait, 21 year-old Vince Staples completed the transition from guest verse rapper to hip-hop heavyweight. Fellow California rappers Schoolboy Q and YG may have received much more attention for their pop influenced ghetto-glamour albums, but it Staples whose raps actually documented life. The seven-track album connected the ills and joys of being poor and black as succinctly as any release since Kendrick. From “Screen Door” detailing the horrors of his father selling drugs out of his house to “Limos” detailing the struggles of relationships where each side is concerned the other is taking advantage, Staples’ tracks are starkly focused and moving. Ultimately highlighted by the cruelly bleak singles “Blue Suede” and “Hands Up,” Hell Can Wait is a tape that celebrates the mere act of surviving.
— Calvin Patten