#40: YG – My Krazy Life
It’s something that seems so normal in the post-Kanye era, but it has to be said: mainstream rap hasn’t been very gangsta for a while. Ever since Graduation cleaned 50 Cent’s clock, rappers have been finding inspiration from regular life, relationships, and inner turmoil – or, as the kids like to call it, Drake. The biggest thing to come out of Compton since The Game fumbled the ball back in the mid-00s has been Kendrick Lamar, and his world-conquering good kid m.A.A.d. city album shone a light on the dark side of cross-generational gangbanging and street life. The celebratory party-gangsta album – a mainstay of West Coast rap in the 1990s – has been largely absent. Gangsta life has been relegated to the over-the-top absurdity of Gucci Mane and Rick Ross, or to the grimy, nihilist underworld of Chief Keef and Chicago’s drill scene. Enter YG, who wants to take it back to the days of Snoop, Dre, and Ice Cube. My Krazy Life, which comes across almost like the gritty, in-the-shit companion album to good kid, thumps with that West Coast bottom end and grooves with the same sort of Parliament/Funkadelic inspired sampling that drove Dre’s “G Funk” movement. It’s basically Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ Redux, with more palm trees and more bottom end ass shaking.
#39: Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Killer Mike and EL-P have ridden the hype train since this sequel was announced and only the fuccbois were going to say otherwise. RTJ2 is actually slightly weaker than the original, but this is like saying a cluster bomb doesn’t kill as many as a nuclear explosion. Killer Mike centers himself in violent, paranoid intensity, spouting rapid-fire ticker-tape verses like the proverbial banana clip from the original Run The Jewels. EL-P allows his production to explode outward; the beats slam into the listener with bruising force and explode outward. On their own, they’re each primal forces in the rap game, but together, they’re nearly unstoppable. As an added bonus, killer lead single “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” features a rare, incendiary verse from Zach De La Rocha, which can hopefully only mean good things for future appearances from him.
#38: Iceage – Plowing Into The Field Of Love
New Brigade was a brash young album from a brash young punk band, combining searing new noise with edgy, controversial imagery (including Danish neo-fascist symbols). You’re Nothing doubled down on the noise, devolving now and again into chaos before snapping back into razor-sharp songcraft. Plowing Into The Field Of Love, however, takes a sudden right turn into tuneful songcraft, balancing the sort of harrowing on-the-cliffs-edge sonic disturbance with moments of melody and beauty. “The Lord’s Favourite” is a track that sums up this new tightrope act the best: it stumbles along and nearly crashes on several occasions, but it holds its own internal logic together with spit and shoestrings and delivers a hook that drives right into your living room and takes up residence there. It’s not a knockout album per se, but it sets the band up perfectly to deliver a knockout album next time around.
#37: Black Lips – Underneath The Rainbow
Underneath The Rainbow was produced by Pat Carney and it’s immediately better than the album his own band churned out earlier this year. Black Lips have become extremely adept at this kind of rock and roll: dishevled, slinky garage rock that falls apart into aesthetically pleasing shapes. It’s really not all that much different from what came before but it doesn’t need to be. There’s a thick layer of grime on every track that bleeds debauched authenticity and a scuzzy guitar tone that dials up several decades at once while being beholden to none of them. It’s rock music for people who miss the inebriated swagger the Stones used to bring in their golden days.
#36: Damaged Bug – Hubba Bubba
John Dwyer – the prolific garage-revival madman behind Thee Oh Sees – cannot be contained by just one act. In addition to his Coachwhips work, 2014 adds a new side with Damaged Bug. Hubba Bubba is, at its heart, a love letter to analog synthesizers. Dwyer ditches the guitar in favour of cobbled-together synths whose vintage dates back to the 80s, the wavery sounds of which he marries to staggering beats to create a stoned, pyschadelic electronic pop album. Seemingly not well-received by anyone besides me, it was wilful and deliberately noisy in the sort of way that always seems to appeal to me.
#35: Grouper – Ruins
Liz Harris has this ambient soundscape thing down pat, so it was somewhat surprising that she chose to follow the gorgeous, flowing The Man Who Died In His Boat with something that can be properly described as “stripped down”. Where her previous releases were progressions in processing atmospherics for fun and profit, Ruins relies more on the natural echoes of her piano and recording spaces, as well as judicious use of the analog sustain pedal of that piano. In addition to the reverb of the drums and piano, she works in frogs, birds, and, on “Holding”, the sound of a breaking thunderstorm. Recorded mostly in southern Portugal, Ruins is a hushed, intimate ambient album, the opposite of a Tim Hecker effort in that it gently swells to fill the space rather than brashly occupying all that space at once.
#34: Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste
Azaelia Banks is one of two albums released in 2014 that followed Beyonce’s lead. Having been screwed around by her label for nearly two years, she ditched Polydor/Interscope and released the album herself, dropping it with no press release and no promo work (a la Beyonce’s last album, released in the last days of 2013). A lot of these tracks (“Yung Rapunxel”, “212”) were released as singles during the major label runaround process, but the tracks that weren’t are just as strong and fill out Ms. Banks’ sound to devastating effect. This is hip hop with a relentlessly old-school vibe, a clattering kitchen-sink affair of pulsing rhythms, fly girl rhyming, and instrumentation that straddles the line between retro and cutting-edge. She also refuses to keep her opinions quiet on Twitter, starting fights with pretty much everyone (including one particularly sharp call-out of Black Culture Appropriation Poster Child Iggy Azalea) and, on Boxing Day, stating that the descendants of prominent slave traders should have their houses burned and their finances seized. She’s a heavily talented ball of controversy and as such she’ll be around for quite a while.
#33: Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
John and Alice Coltrane’s grandnephew dug deeper into his jazz roots on his fifth album. He’s famous for forward-thinking melds of hip hop and electronic sounds that pushes into solidly psychedelic territory, especially on 2010’s breakthrough Cosmogramma. You’re Dead! takes the progressive vibe of those albums and marries them to a shredded vision of hard bop. The album has a flow that works in an even more cohesive manner than his previous work; most of the 19 tracks average under two minutes and only make complete sense when listened to in order. The jazzed-out instrumentals are held together by the longer moments that feature a rich panapoly of guest moments: Kendrick Lamar on “Never Catch Me”, Snoop Dogg on “Dead Man’s Tetris”, Angel Deradoorian on “Siren Song”, and Kimbra on “The Protest”. You’re Dead! is one of the most inventive mainstream takes on the legacy of American jazz in the 21st Century, and the strongest effort yet for Flying Lotus.
#32: FKA Twigs – LP1
LP1 is a minimalist dream, an album that rewrites the idea of “spare” and finds a flourishing, soaring sound within the borders of barely sketched-in bass and snare. Tahliah Barnett, former music video dancer, proves her skills as a euphoric singer whose style evokes both the trip-hop glory days and the best moments of R&B. She spins webs of power and sexual frustration, exuding confidence and vulnerability in equal measures. The album is a balancing act between overt sexual desire and the poetic sentimentality that often sugarcoats that desire, delivered in extremely subtle turns and songs that slowly coalesce into singalong moments. There’s more than a bit of the ghost of Aaliyah on these tracks, and it’s been long enough since her untimely death that that’s perfectly okay.
#31: Ty Segall – Manipulator
Ty Segall – lord and master of the neo-garage rawk movement – has been one thing over the course of his six years of recording history, and that is insanely prolific. While not perhaps at the level of Robert Pollard, he made his name churning out singles and albums not only under his own name (eight in six years) but also under the names of seven other bands. It stands to reason, then, that when it was revealed that it took him fourteen months to write and record Manipulator it was an indication that something special. The result was that the album came across as meticulously crafted, the effect of Segall slowing down and concentrating on the details of each individual song. The sound is nothing different in terms of what he’s done before – last year’s Sleeper was a much bigger deviation in terms of pure sonics – but there’s more to chew on this time around. It’s his longest album to date and his most lush, combining the forceful guitar riffs of 70s vintage with rich psychedelic tones. The decades may go on and it may in fact be the 50th anniversary of an album like The Who Sing My Generation this year, but Manipulator is proof that even though ‘classic rock’ is largely unfashionable, there will always be someone willing to come along and mine it for inspiration.