Monday, January 5, 2015 at 08:00AM
It's January 5, and 2014 already feels like ages ago. But before your interest in the year that was wanes completely, please enjoy the playlist above and blurbs for the top ten entries after the jump.
Don't forget to peep the Best Dance Songs and the Best Ambient Albums list, and stay tuned for Reissues and Hip-Hop Songs, both of which will publish later this week.
Click the thumbnails for snippets and full album streams:
25. DJAO - S/T [Dropping Gems]
24. DJ Spoko - War God [Lit City Trax]
23. Joe Howe - EXEP [Sound Pellegrino]
22. Matt Karmil - ---- [PNN]
21. Para One - Bande de Filles OST [Marble]
20. My Panda Shall Fly - Tropical EP [Soundway Records]
19. Strict Face - Marble Isles EP [Tuff Wax Records]
18. Aphex Twin - Syro [Warp Records]
17. Suicideyear - Remembrance [Software Recording Company]
16. Auscultation - S/T [1080p]
15. Paul White - Shaker Notes [R&S Records]
14. Dynooo - These Flaws Are Mine to War With [Glue Moon Records]
13. Young Marco - Biology [ESP Institute]
12. The Cyclist - Flourish [All City]
11. Rustie - Green Language [Warp Records]
10. FKA Twigs - LP1 [Young Turks]
FKA Twigs broke through in 2013 with the exquisite Arca-co-produced EP2, which had inventive, boundary-pushing and highly publicized music videos for three of its four songs. Following up with a full length that lived up to the high bar set by the EP was no small task, but Twigs managed to do more or less that with LP1 in 2014. Although it was released amongst a sea of other notable alternative pop/R&B efforts to have surfaced in recent years (e.g., Tinashe, Majid Jordan, Jhene Aiko, SZA, Kelela, Jessy Lanza, etc.), LP1 stands out as the best of the bunch.
9. Function & Vatican Shadow - Games Have Rules [Hospital Productions]
Vatican Shadow and Function are two focused techno producers who have released a focused ambient-leaning techno record, which they describe as a "dynamic electronic ambient album." Rhythmic elements abound on the majority of these seven tracks. The trademark industrial clamor of Vatican Shadow's solo work is absent here, but there are plenty of punctuated elements to rescue Games Have Rules from the not-always-desirable "drone" label. Ambient techno records seem to pop up every year, but this one stands out for its unique and expertly implemented sound palette.
8. Mr. Mitch - Parallel Memories [Planet Mu Records]
Grime's ethereal side has shown its face here and there throughout the genre's short history. But it truly found its footing in 2014, and "grimegaze"—a word undoubtedly loathsome to some—may become its term of choice. Mr. Mitch may have been the first to release a full length of this strain, and it's a doozy. Unlike much of the genre's 65-ish BPM sameness, Parallel Memories branches out into varying tempos, which give this new strain of grime the workout that it deserves.
7. The Gasman - House [Gasmanmusic]
Since his Planet Mu debut in 2003, The Gasman has released approximately two full lengths per year. He stays busy, and his sound is varied: IDM, breakbeats, drill 'n bass, ambient, modern classical piano, and very straight forward house music, the latter of which fills his 2014 50-run cassette House start to finish. That straightforwardness is exactly what makes the record so damned appealing. It's impossible to tell if Gasman's cheeky, basic sound palette is unabashed tribute, mockery, both or neither. But whatever the intent, House is a wonderful anomaly of throwback house music.
6. Quiltland - Sisto [Astro:Dynamics]
Of the two ambient-centric 2014 albums released by Swedish producer Quiltland, the Sisto cassette seems to be a bit more of a relaxed, pop-leaning affair. It still has the same delicate synth haze of her self-titled LP (her other 2014-released album), but it's peppered with some puzzling surprises. (Case in point: the happy techno outro of "Statuo.") Both albums are largely beatless with rhythmic elements ebbing and flowing. Think of a hazier version of Vangelis' more left-field works, then you're scratching the surface of what Quiltland has to offer.
5. Mica Levi - Under the Skin OST [Milan Records]
It may be unclear just how "electronic" the Under the Skin OST actually is, but it is a vexed sonic masterstroke that is too good a release to not mention. Mica Levi's work here is centered around whirring, atonal strings accompanied by tense synths, drones and spare, distant percussion. It is nothing like her jangly pop work as Micachu, and that's counting both her solo Micachu work as well as her band The Shapes. This score serves as a perfect sinister underbelly for Jonathan Glazer's feature length. The only recent album that springs to mind as a rival in terms of effective tension is The Haxan Cloak's 2013 effort, Excavation.
4. Vaghe Stelle - Sweet Sixteen OST [Astro:Dynamics]
Italian producer Vaghe Stelle's Sweet Sixteen feels like something of a nexus of left-field electronic music. It culls elements of IDM, minimal techno, ambient and broken beat without quite fitting comfortably under any one of those categories. The dancefloor-ready "Artificial Intelligence" chugs and stutters along with some clever synth work and slightly offbeat percussion, while the album's title track could work for some of the LA beat scene's more adventurous heads. "She Sometimes" functions as an ambient track while keeping the smeared busyness of the album's more beat-laden tracks. All in all, Sweet Sixteen has a raucous-but-slick framework with dissonant rhythmic themes to keep things interesting.
3. Dark0 - Sin EP [Lost Codes] / Fate EP [Gobstopper Records]
Simply put, Dark0 is the most exciting thing to happen to grime in years. The best moments of the new ethereal strain of grime, which I touched on above with the Mr. Mitch record, are found on these two EPs. Some might argue that the rhythmic and thematic uniformity maintained throughout most of these songs is too rigid for extended listening, but there's no arguing with how masterfully they're executed. The Sin EP's dark opener, "Chaos," sounds like it could be one of the Hyperdub label's absolute classics. The Fate EP takes a more unexpected platform: deftly performed melodic synth work steeped in unapologetic JRPG nostalgia, which happens to jive quite well with Dark0's trademark skittering beats.
2. A.r.t. Wilson - Overworld [S/R]
My infatuation with the unlikely revival of new age music has been no secret. And in many ways, Overworld, the self-released cassette by Andras Fox under his A.r.t. Wilson side project, offers the most practical listening experience of this musical movement. (More 2014 new age releases can be found on my ambient list.) Fox is better known for dance music, and those rhythmic chops shine through on this subdued release. This is in effect a new age record that can accompany much more than sleeping, meditation or the day spa. While its focus is on restrained healing, it has enough mid-tempo oomph to power your morning commute, work day, road trip, or study session. Fox's direction here is clearly as sincere as it is playful and cheeky.
1. Quiltland - S/T [Astro:Dynamics]
Quiltland's self-titled LP is a monolith of delicate-but-driving vintage new age. Like its sister 2014 release, the #6-ranked Sisto cassette, Quiltland is impossibly dreamy with hypnotizing synth work à la rare Vangelis, celestial vocal washes akin to Julianna Barwick, and an eerily familiar haze like the few jubilant moments in Boards of Canada's catalog. What champions this release over Sisto is its focus. Sisto occasionally drifts into odd pop and techno territories while Quiltland stays grounded in the ethereal for the long haul. Easily the most slept on album of 2014, and it's one that gets better and better with repeated listens, revealing more and more for each extra moment you spend with it.
The more I pour over this album, the more I realize it could have just as easily been number one on my ambient list, but due to the fluctuating rhythmic structure of these songs, I'm glad I left it here.