The Best Metal Albums of 2014

A year after bemoaning the death of progress in heavy metal, it was very encouraging to hear plenty of ideas coming from younger bands, especially in the underground extreme scene. Great ideas, but with plenty of room for improvement, something I’d like to hear developed even more. Metal has been so devoid of interesting ideas lately that it’s been interesting to see critics embrace albums by extreme bands simply for displaying simple dynamics in songwriting. Take Horrendous’s likeable yet sloppy Ecdysis, for instance, one of the year’s most acclaimed extreme metal records. All it’s doing is combining death metal with melodic metal flamboyance in a very similar way that Arsis did a decade ago, albeit in a more slipshod way, but because it’s so dynamically strong, because it capably incorporates good melodies, it’s being hailed as revolutionary. I’ve tried and tried with that album, and find so much there to like, but cannot bring myself to lavish hyperbolic praise on an album that treats vocals like an afterthought, and whose best asset is merely displaying a good grasp of Songwriting 101, something every extreme band should have instead of only a fraction. But you know what? The potential for great things is there. Ideas! I love hearing good ideas in new metal and Horrendous at least deserve a little credit for showing some ambition.

Other bands that showed so much promise but didn’t make my final list include Artificial Brain, Fluisteraars, Morbus Chron, Pyrrhon, Noneuclid, Thantifaxath, and Waldgeflüster. They all have a very good thing going, and I greatly look forward to hearing what they’re all capable of next.

As opposed to other lists posted by publications claiming to highlight the very best metal had to offer but myopically focus on only three subsets of a vast, diverse musical genre, I always take it upon myself to cast as wide a net as possible. Consequently, there’s something for every taste in metal in my top 50. At the same time, there are probably going to be a few titles that’ll make your eyes roll. Old-schoolers might scoff at the growling bands, youngsters might deride the bands that sing. But my view of metal music tries to be all-inclusive. Variety’s a great thing, and if you want to call yourself a metal critic you have to be able to approach every single style of metal and identify what makes a great record, and do so convincingly. So my top 50 sees a lot of styles of heavy metal represented, from mainstream to underground, from melodic to extreme. However, this time around I’ve chosen to leave out those “grey area” albums that might be sonically heavy or have past connections to the metal scene but don’t quite fit under the metal umbrella. As a result you will not find Swans’ To Be Kind, Scott Walker & Sunn O)))’s Soused, Anathema’s Distant Satellites, Alcest’s Shelter, A Pregnant Light’s My Game Doesn’t Have a Name, and Wovenhand’s Refractory Obdurate. All are highly recommended, though.

The two most glaring absences from my list are metalcore and deathcore, two subgenres that are sputtering these days. However, if you ask me, the best metalcore album I’ve heard all year is Wovenwar’s self-titled debut (Metal Blade), a triumphant rebirth by the former members of As I Lay Dying, who shed their attempted murderer of a frontman, hired a guy who can actually sing, and came through with a tremendously enjoyable record. As for deathcore, the most pleasant surprise was Suicide Silence’s You Can’t Stop Me (Nuclear Blast), which sees the band rebound after the death of vocalist Mitch Lucker, hire All Shall Perish’s Eddie Hermida, sharpen the songwriting, and release the best album of their career.

In covering so many subgenres, though, comes a horrible apples/oranges scenario. How do you critically rank a list of 50 albums when the musical styles are so diverse? It’s impossible without letting personal biases factor into it, and that’s not exactly fair. In the end, I came to the realization that it’s pointless to rank a Gridlink album versus Delain, or Diocletian versus Freedom Call. It’s all good. I have one very easy choice for metal album of the year, and 49 others that I highly recommend, so those 49 will be listed alphabetically. Try them all out, even the ones that might be outside your normal comfort zone. If you keep an open mind, you’ll never know what might surprise you.

Before I get to the albums, though, I thought I’d slap together a list of my favourite metal songs of 2014. It’s totally from a personal, instinctual perspective rather than a critical POV, simply the tracks that meant the most to me this past year, the ones that reminded me of why I love this form of music so much.

  1. Bastard Sapling, “Lantern at the End of Time”
  2. Triptykon, “Boleskine House”
  3. Judas Priest, “Sword of Damocles”
  4. Goatwhore, “Baring Teeth For Revolt”
  5. Audrey Horne, “Out of the City”
  6. Cannibal Corpse, “Kill or Become”
  7. Equilibrium, “Uns’rer Flöten Klang”
  8. Riot V, “Metal Warrior”
  9. Machine Head, “Game Over”
  10. Midnight, “Prowling Leather”/“No Mercy For Mayhem”


Over the year I put together a rolling Spotify playlist of the best songs I’ve heard in 2014, which you can check out here. I’ll be doing the same in 2015, so feel free to follow it here.

Oh, and lastly and definitely least, the worst metal album of the year is In Flames’ Siren Charms. Shame on you guys.

The Metal Album of the Year:

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Triptykon, Melana Chasmata (Century Media)

The metal world is always a better place when its icons continue to make vital music, but to see a genius like Thomas Gabriel Fischer so creatively inspired over the past decade has been especially rewarding to witness. Celtic Frost’s final album ‘Monotheist’ was a comeback for the ages, a stunning reinvention. Formed in the wake of Celtic Frost’s sudden and sad dissolution, Fischer’s Triptykon continued right where ‘Monotheist’ left off on the monstrous, sprawling ‘Eparistera Daimones’. Expanding on ‘Monotheist’s colossal, churning blend of the brute force of doom metal and the nuance and melody of gothic sounds, the debut was a reassertion of Fischer’s towering influence on an entire genre, a commanding statement that he wasn’t going to let the legacy of his now dead former band cast a shadow over the rest of his career.

Now, eight years removed from that astonishing return, four years after that immensely satisfying transformation and rebranding, the time has come for Fischer and Triptykon to settle in and deliver on what have become some very high expectations. Considering Fischer’s dogged determination to keep his gaze forward and create vital new music, it seems unfair to cart out comparisons to his past work when assessing his new music, but longtime fans will unquestionably find certain parts of the new album particularly rewarding. With its opening squeal of feedback, throttling double-kicks, and primal percussion, ‘Tree Of Suffocating Souls’ focuses more on Fischer’s aggressive side, the band building ferocious momentum. Later on, ‘Breathing’ audaciously evokes Frost’s classic ‘To Mega Therion’ with its multifaceted combination of ornate theatricality and unrelenting speed, Fischer’s snarl sounding its most malevolent in years.

Typical of Fischer’s songwriting, with ugliness often come moments of great beauty, which is where this record’s true strengths lie. The trifecta of “Auroræ”, “Demon Pact”, and “In The Sleep Of Death” form its core, as the music opens up, loosens its tight grip, distortion offset by chiming, gothic-derived notes, Fischer in full Peter Murphy mode, intoning his dark poetry atop slow, murky, yet startlingly graceful arrangements. It’s the majestic ‘Boleskine House’ that keeps beckoning upon repeated listens, however, that juxtaposition of Fischer’s deep voice and sultry female singing working its Leonard Cohen-esque magic. In the end it’s the most fully-realised moment on as close to a flawless album as listeners could hope for, where ugliness, beauty, the colossal, and the seductive coalesce into on spellbinding whole. Spotify

(originally published in Terrorizer magazine)

The rest:

Accept, Blind Rage (Nuclear Blast)
The German legends continued their late-career renaissance with their finest post-reunion album to date, full of piss and vinegar, not to mention those razor-sharp Teutonic metal riffs. Spotify

Agalloch, The Serpent & the Sphere (Profound Lore)
The American greats returned with yet another near-flawless album filled with majestic, mournful melodies and pagan themes that vividly evoke the grandeur of the Pacific Northwest. Spotify

The Atlas Moth, The Old Believer (Profound Lore)
The endlessly fascinating experimental band continued its strange, surreal evolution, its latest album delving into progressive-minded melodies more than ever before. Spotify

Atriarch, An Unending Pathway (Relapse)
The Portland band continues to incorporate swans and Fields of the Nephilim into their blackened doom, singer Lenny Smith cranking up his gothic persona, theatrical, confrontational, and deliciously flamboyant. Spotify

Babymetal, Babymetal (Toy’s Factory)
The Album That Made Metal Purists Mad was actually the most inventive metal album of the year, blending stylistically manic J-pop with extreme metal in a way no one had ever attempted before. Spotify

Behemoth, The Satanist (Metal Blade)
Now cancer free, Adam “Nergal” Darski returned with a new lease on life and a renewed passion for his music, which yielded a monstrous statement of an album that deserves to catapult Behemoth to metal’s upper tier. Spotify

Blues Pills, Blues Pills (Nuclear Blast)
Just when you thought the trend of Swedish retro heavy rock was running out of steam, Blues Pills came through with one of the more rewarding albums the scene has produced, combining power, blues, and soul. Spotify

The Body & The Haxan Cloak, I Shall Die Here (Rvng)
By collaborating with acclaimed electronic composer/producer Bobby Krlic, The Body found the perfect match, putting together an album that felt fully realized, a highly original take on doom metal unlike anything attempted before. iTunes

Body Count, Manslaughter (Sumerian)
I never figured Ice-T had another great Body Count album in him, but he and his pals exceeded all expectations with a riotous, intense, hugely enjoyable album laced with social commentary and humour. Spotify

Botanist, VI: Flora (Flenser)
Who said you can’t create black metal with hammered dulcimer? The San Francisco band’s fourth album turned out to be their strongest, achieving moments of astonishing beauty and, peculiarly, power. Spotify

Cannibal Corpse, A Skeletal Domain (Metal Blade)
The reliable death metal veterans changed things up with a new producer and came out with all guns blazing on an immensely pleasing album that reinforced the band’s relevance and influence in extreme metal. Spotify

Conan, Blood Eagle (Napalm)
Doom doesn’t get much more primal than this. Conan’s minimalist, highly punishing take on the simplest form of heavy metal reached new levels of brute force on this massive-sounding second album. Spotify

Dawnbringer, Night of the Hammer (Profound Lore)
One of the best metal songwriters of his generation, Chris Black is in prime form on Dawnbringer’s latest, evoking all the best elements of heavy metal on a sombre, introspective concept album. Spotify

Dead Congregation, Promulgation of the Fall (Profound Lore)
There’s not much very groundbreaking in the Greek band’s form of death metal, but this album is one of the more intense, punishing, atmospheric death metal albums I’ve heard in years, somehow making the music feel more foetid than ever. Spotify

Death Penalty, Death Penalty (Rise Above)
Former Cathedral guitarist Gaz Jennings joined forces with members of Belgian band Serpentcult, channeled his inner Witchfinder General fan, and put together an exciting homage to old-school doom and NWOBHM riffs and melodies. Spotify

Decapitated, Blood Mantra (Nuclear Blast)
The innovative Polish death metal band continued its resurrection in the wake of tragedy with an album that not only reinvents their sound but is their most streamlined and accessible work yet. Spotify

Delain, The Human Contradiction (Napalm)
Delain stepped forward to become the best of the many Dutch symphonic metal bands with an album laced with lavish arrangements, pop-infused melodies, and smart lyrics by likeable singer Charlotte Wessels. Spotify

Diocletian, Gesundrian (Osmose)
For the best death metal album of 2014, look no further than this marvel from New Zealand, an astonishing, immaculately conceived and executed record that is as melodic and crystalline as it is dense and impenetrable. Spotify

11Paranoias, Stealing Fire From Heaven (Ritual)
Of the two albums the English band released in 2014, this is the strongest, a rare cohesive jam-oriented album, where doom and psychedelic rock converge into one enthralling, hazily atmospheric opus. Spotify

Emptiness, Nothing But The Whole (Dark Descent)
It was a terrible year for black metal, but this album by the Belgian band was a rare bright spot, a clever, brooding album that combined the genre’s grim, chilly atmosphere with touches of King Crimson and Slint. Spotify

Evergrey, Hymns For the Broken (AFM)
The Swedish band’s latest, woefully overlooked by North American metal writers, is one of the finest combinations of power, melody, and sorrow as you’ll ever hear, laced hooks that find the right balance between bombast and refinement. iTunes

Eyehategod, Eyehategod (Housecore)
The New Orleans sludge/doom innovators took 14 years to finish their fifth album, but it finally happened, and it turned out to be as intense and blues-drenched as ever, those Sabbathy riffs offset by Mike IX Williams’ snarled street poetry. Spotify

Foreseen HKI, Helsinki Savagery (20 Buck Spin)
The best thrash metal album of the year captures that sound’s great appeal perfectly, melding metal and rock ‘n’ roll into one speed-riddled, primal, filthy whole. This Finnish band is a revelation. Spotify

Freedom Call, Beyond (SPV)
Yes, morbid extreme metalheads, it’s okay to smile once in a while. These power metalers are the most shamelessly happy metal band out there, and this album is as enormously fun as anything they’ve ever put out. iTunes

Godflesh, A World Lit Only By Fire (Avalanche)
I didn’t think this reunion had a great album in it, but Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green put out a record that channeled all the best elements of the classic Streetcleaner, sounding even more potent and imposing than ever. Spotify

Gridlink, Longhena (Handshake)
The only grindcore album worth giving a damn about in 2014 bursts with so much creativity and imagination, it’s practically awe-inspiring, Takafumi Matsubara’s guitar work intricate, intense, and best of all, playful. Spotify

High Spirits, You Are Here (Hells Headbangers)
In direct contrast to the darker Dawnbringer album, Chris Black lightens the mood with High Spirits, his upbeat melodic heavy metal evoking memories of old Canadian greats Coney Hatch. A geezer-pleasing pleasure. Spotify

Indian, From All Purity (Relapse)
I can’t think of a 2014 metal album more harrowing than this one by the Chicago doom band. Bleak, grating, and downright miserable, it’s a disturbing listen, totally devoid of fun, but exhilaratingly so. Spotify

Iron Savior, Rise of the Hero (AFM)
The German band’s brand of power metal is heavier than most from their country, and that blend of Symphony X-style robustness and Euro melodies makes for a tantalizing combination on this splendid, rousing album. Spotify

Judas Priest, Redeemer of Souls (Epic)
Priest’s first album without KK Downing on guitar turned out to be their finest since Painkiller 24 years ago, the band simplifying, sticking to what it does best, and sounding energetic, passionate, and commanding in the process. Spotify

Krieg, Transient (Candlelight)
Krieg’s latest sees Neill Jameson joining forces with Philadelphia band Esoterica and creating an eclectic album ranging from menacing grooves, to straightforward black metal blasting, to post-punk, vividly evoking inner anxiety and urban decay. Bandcamp

Machine Head, Bloodstone & Diamonds (Nuclear Blast)
There’s a lot to take in on this sprawling, 71-minute album, but Robb Flynn shows incredible focus, crating an ambitious yet very accessible record that plays to his band’s many strengths. This is the album mainstream metal so desperately needed in 2014. Spotify

Mantar, Death By Burning (Svart)
The Metal Archives entry says “sludge metal”, and yeah, that influence is there, but having seen this Finnish duo and heard their marvelous debut, I hear rock ‘n’ roll more than anything, delivered with ferocious energy. Spotify

Marmozets, The Weird and Wonderful (Roadrunner)
The best kept secret among the Revolver/Kerrang crowd, these English youngsters breathe new life into the post-hardcore-leaning side of metal, combining intricate musicianship with some powerhouse singing courtesy Becca Macintyre. A revelation. Spotify

Midnight, No Mercy For Mayhem (Hells Headbangers)
The Venom-meets-Motörhead gimmick hasn’t changed, but Jamie Walters’ approach has, as he displays more musical flash and groove than anyone could have expected. Still as primitive and as blasphemous as ever, this is one of the year’s defining metal albums. Spotify

Mors Principium Est, Dawn of the Fifth Era (AFM)
The Finnish melodic death metal band’s fifth full-length was overshadowed by the At the Gates reunion album, but turned out to be far superior, their contrast of melody and brutality, light and shade, sounding stronger and richer than their overhyped peers. Amazon

Mortals, Cursed To See the Future (Relapse)
What a statement these three Brooklyn women make, combining black metal and sludge to create one of 2014’s most visceral listening experiences, the most potent and imposing album by an all-woman metal band since Mares of Thrace’s The PilgrimageSpotify

The Oath, The Oath (Rise Above)
Attracting my attention in 2013 with their demo, signing with Rise Above, releasing an incredible debut album, then breaking up a month later, Linnea Olsson and Johanna Sadonis channeled vintage metal as well as anyone before it all imploded. Spotify

Opeth, Pale Communion (Roadrunner)
Focusing more on progressive rock but never turning his back on metal entirely, the visionary Mikael Åkerfeldt is finally making music that feels true to his vision of what Opeth should be, and the band has never sounded more commanding. Spotify

Pallbearer, Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore)
After a promising debut, it all came together for the Arkansas band on the much-anticipated follow-up, the melancholy doom arrangements forming a solid foundation for some truly inventive vocal melodies on a wonderful record. Spotify

Panopticon, Roads to the North (Bindrune)
The wildly inventive Austin Lunn continued right where the masterpiece Kentucky left off, exploring the rich musical heritage of his homeland while creating some of the finest American black metal of the year. Spotify

Primordial, Where Greater Men Have Fallen (Metal Blade)
It was steady as she goes for the Irish metal masters, sticking to their core sound and creating their usual, reliable bracing music. Only this time, the tone was more impeccable than ever, as was Alan Averill’s commanding vocal delivery. Spotify

Psalm Zero, The Drain (Profound Lore)
Brooklyn musicians Andrew Hock and Charlie Looker took the martial, industrial sounds of Godflesh and the gothic strains of Katatonia and created their own highly unique hybrid, one that marries extremity and atmosphere in tantalizing fashion. Spotify

Riot V, Unleash the Fire (Steamhammer)
The surviving members of Riot took on a couple of new faces, respectfully renamed the band, and came through with one of the best power metal albums of the year, hearkening back to the speed metal glory of the 1988 classic ThundersteelSpotify

Sabaton, Heroes (Nuclear Blast)
It might not feel as inspired as Carolus Rex did a couple years ago, but the latest by the biggest power metal band in the world pushes all the right buttons, loaded with uplifting, war-themed, fist-bangin’ metal anthems. Spotify

Skull Fist, Chasing the Dream (NoiseArt)
Like Cauldron and Striker, Toronto’s Skull Fist channel a quirky chapter in Canadian metal history, where speed metal and high-pitched singing were a perfect match. This is a total throwback to 30 years ago, and gloriously so. Spotify

Sólstafir, Ótta (Season of Mist)
The Icelandic band has turned into quite a cult favourite, and the follow-up to 2011’s breakthrough Svartir Sandar expands the band’s sound even more, blending metal, hard rock, and post-rock, evoking the barren Icelandic landscapes vividly. Spotify

Witch Mountain, Mobile of Angels (Profound Lore)
Although it’s sad that singer Uta Plotkin announced her departure before this album came out, she made one hell of a swan song on this beautiful record, her powerful voice and knack for storytelling meshing beautifully with the band’s blues-based doom sound. Spotify

YOB, Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot)
There’s no doom band in the world as formidable as YOB is right now, and Mike Scheidt channeled everything that is great about his band into what could be the band’s most complete sounding record yet. Its power is astonishing, but so is its delicacy. Spotify

The Best Metal Albums of 2014: Introduction

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“It’s not a swastika, it’s a sun wheel.”

2014 was the year heavy metal got stupid. [Edit: Or should I say, stupider than usual] Looking back on the past 12 months in metal, you want to remember it for all the great music the genre produced, but in a year where it continued to spin its wheels creatively speaking, the music, which should be the one and only thing anyone should be talking about this time of year – or any time for that matter – has been overshadowed by ugliness, to the point where someone like me who follows metal closely can’t help but feel a little bitter.

One thing I have always said is that the charming thing about metalheads is that they’re perpetual 15 year-olds, and the worst thing about metalheads is that they’re perpetual 15 year-olds. You have plenty of common sense and decency when you’re 15, but there’s also a heck of a lot of stupid there as well. Sadly in the metal genre in 2014, from top to bottom, from mainstream to underground, from the musicians to the writers covering them, the scale tipped heavily towards the latter. So much stupidity happened this year that if I were to list it all it’d go on and on ad infinitum. One musician tried to have his estranged wife murdered. Another turned out to be one of the most depraved pedophiles you’ll ever hear of. A member of a band whom I greatly respected got into a homophobic flame war with another musician, crossing the line from “mercurial” to “moronic”. Several underground bands addressed accusations of racism with roundabout explanations and lame excuses. Addiction and mental illness convinced some musicians that the stupid thing was the right thing to do, and the end result was fatal in several cases.

And oh, was this year ever sad. Ironically, as metal’s icons age – there was a lot of fretting about the health of everyone from Lemmy to Tony Iommi – all significant deaths in metal consisted of musicians – and in one unbelievably tragic case, a fellow writer – dying well ahead of their time. Personally, the one metal death I had the hardest time getting over was that of Selim Lemouchi, a prodigious, budding genius who created some of the best music of the last decade, but whose recent work made me feel he was coming unglued. His final album was troubling, and I slammed it when I reviewed it, but the potential for great things was always there, something that was hammered home to me to devastating effect when his friends and sister performed the record in its entirety at the Roadburn festival.

Then there’s “metalgate”, a backlash trying to bring gamergate-style harassment to the metal scene by claiming there’s a widespread conspiracy among left-leaning metal writers to strip heavy metal of its edge, of what these “purists” claim it stands for, in the name of political correctness. Of course, this is mostly nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction among certain sad little male metalheads out there who feel threatened by the fact that more and more women are emerging as voices of authority in heavy metal. Of all the shenanigans this year, “metalgate” has been by far the most embarrassing, and if recent weeks are any indication, the “movement”, if you can call it that, has already fizzled.

Yet in a miniscule way I can see where these overgrown children are coming from, in that the fun is being sucked out of heavy metal, the heavy metal I loved 30 years ago, and that’s a very depressing thing to see happen. However, it’s not being perpetrated by a small hive mind of writers and bloggers with a collective agenda, but by so many in the entire genre. If a musician isn’t being an idiot, a writer is getting his or her knickers in a twist about something, a constant cycle of poorly executed provocation in the name of art and bellyaching about hurt feelings. It’s a case where I’m torn right down the middle: I want to tell metal musicians to smarten up, yet at the same time realize the rest of us have to lighten up, too. No, underground metal band, you can’t sing “I am the raping nigger” in a song, ever. On the other hand when you nitpick about every single little thing that offends you, you start to lose touch with what made this music so much fun in the first place. It’s no wonder some people feel alienated by it all. It feels as if we’re all being sucked into a rabbit hole of negativity – yours truly included – and it’s time to get back in touch with what makes heavy metal great to begin with. I suggest we all just count to ten slowly, step away from social media for a little bit, listen to the first W.A.S.P. album, and try our best to start the new year fresh. Have fun. Embrace the wonderful dumbness of heavy metal, but come on, try to avoid being stupid.

Let’s take a flamethrower to 2014, and here’s to a great 2015.

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(image courtesy Chips & Beer)

The 2014 Album of the Year

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FKA Twigs, LP1 (Young Turks)

I had one runaway leader for my 2014 Album of the Year for much of 2014, but one album worked its charms on me in much more subtle fashion, starting this summer, percolating into fall, and by November I couldn’t deny it: for me, it is the obvious choice. When it comes to originality, creativity, ambition, and discipline, no young artist came close to what 26 year-old Tahliah Barnett has pulled off this year. Having facetiously given herself the “formerly known as” acronym after another artist named Twigs threatened litigation, FKA Twigs follows the young auteur example of Grimes, but in a far less flighty way, instead opting for something darker and a lot more mature, meshing sultry, dusky pop hooks with intensely erotic lyrics and best of all, arrangements that strip the music away of all flash and flesh, leaving a bare-bones accompaniment of electronic beats and throbs that pulsate with the emotional power of the words and music.

After a fair groundswell of hype in the wake of two fairly good EPs, Barnett exceeded all expectations with the rarest of debut albums, one whose vision was clear and ambitious, yet phenomenally disciplined. Featuring a host of producers, including Kanye West collaborator Arca, Emile Hayne, Devonté Hynes, Clams Casino, and Twigs herself, it’s absolutely remarkable that LP1 is as consistent and economical as it is, but over the course of 40 spellbinding minutes she and her collaborators create a musical environment unlike anything in 2014: minimalist, but at the same time sounding rich and luxurious, making for an intoxicating blend of the murky and the seductive. Dipping its toes in electronic, trip hop, R&B, dream pop, and even dark ambient, LP1 is careful to never fully commit to one style, instead creating a quietly intense musical backdrop against which Twigs sings her confessional, often explicit lyrics. Some have complained that the album sounds like too much of the same thing from start to finish, but she shows extraordinary restraint, displaying a distinct artistic vision for this piece of work, pulling it off with the maturity of someone twice her age. Raw yet warm, nocturnal yet vivid, this is a wildly inventive statement, and as soon as the album ends, you can’t wait to hear what she does next. LP1 is so sharp, immediately creating a distinct, one of a kind mood the way Tricky and Portishead did 20 years ago – I’d even call say this is in the same league as Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside – that you would be hard pressed to find another artist from the past year who even comes close to what Barnett has pulled off. It’s a record that will be talked about for years.

iTunes
Spotify

The complete top 20:

  1. FKA Twigs, LP1 (Young Turks)
  2. Katy B, Little Red (Columbia)
  3. Scott Walker & Sunn O))), Soused (4AD)
  4. Lykke Li, I Never Learn (LL Recordings)
  5. Triptykon, Melana Chasmata (Century Media)
  6. Swans, To Be Kind (Mute/Young God)
  7. Judas Priest, Redeemer of Souls (Epic)
  8. Opeth, Pale Communion (Roadrunner)
  9. Esben and the Witch, A New Nature (Nostromo)
  10. Alvvays, Alvvays (Polyvinyl)
  11. Midnight, No Mercy For Mayhem (Hells Headbangers)
  12. Tove Lo, Queen of the Clouds (Universal)
  13. AC/DC, Rock or Bust (Columbia)
  14. Budos Band, Burnt Offering (Daptone)
  15. St. Vincent, St. Vincent (Republic)
  16. Fucked Up, Glass Boys (Matador)
  17. Drive-By Truckers, English Oceans (ATO)
  18. Goat, Commune (Sub Pop)
  19. Jessie Ware, Tough Love (Universal/Island)
  20. Tanya Tagaq, Animism (Six Shooter)

The 2014 Single of the Year

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Katy B, “Crying For No Reason”

Although it was an admirable top 5 single in the UK, the shimmering ballad “Crying For No Reason” should have catapulted Katy B to Adele-level heights. For me, at the very least, it’s a song that has lingered throughout the entirety of 2014, its power feeling even greater the more the year went on. In more ways than one, as well. Starting off as a standard piano ballad with confessional lyrics (“I never faced all the pain I caused / Now the pain is hitting me full force”) the song launches into a pulsating, gently gliding breakstep beat the rest of the way, just stopping short of morphing into a disco banger, holding back enough to not let the beats overwhelm the emotion. The end result is the best pop single about brutal self-loathing since Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”, a brilliant, perfect song that was a very easy choice for the best single of the year.

iTunes
Spotify

The complete top 20:

  1. Katy B, “Crying For No Reason”
  2. Lykke Li, “No Rest For the Wicked”
  3. Alvvays, “Archie, Marry Me”
  4. Lana Del Rey, “West Coast”
  5. Lykke Li, “Gunshot”
  6. FKA Twigs, “Two Weeks”
  7. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
  8. Tove Lo, “Habits (Stay High)”
  9. Jessie Ware, “Tough Love”
  10. Ariana Grande, “Break Free”
  11. Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”
  12. Azealia Banks, “Chasing Time”
  13. Banks, “Beggin’ For Thread”
  14. Charli XCX, “Break the Rules”
  15. Chvrches, “Dead Air”
  16. Perfect Pussy, “Interference Fits”
  17. Savages, “Fuckers”
  18. Tegan and Sara/TheLonely Island, “Everything is AWESOME!!!”
  19. Zola Jesus, “Dangerous Days”
  20. tUnE-yArDs, “Water Fountain”

The Best Singles of 2014, #2

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2. Lykke Li, “No Rest For the Wicked”

On an album comprised solely of devastating, downbeat, minimalist exercises in misery, Lykke Li’s “No Rest For the Wicked” is the initial focal point, the one track that ropes the listener in the quickest. Built around a simple, plaintive six-note piano melody, Lykke Li and her longtime collaborator Bjorn Yttling create a lush sound from as few instruments as possible, utilizing thudding, Phil Spector-style tom beats, tambourine, and bass as the foundation for a track that wisely puts her vocals front and center. “I had his heart but I broke it every time,” she sings, that gutwrenching piano melody echoing through listeners’ heads long after.

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The Best Albums of 2014, #2

band012. Katy B, Little Red (Columbia)

The debut album by young Kathleen Brien was good enough to make my runners-up list back in 2011, but as time went on, the more it grew on me, to the point where it was one of my most listened-to albums of 2012. On a Mission was an auspicious first full-length, immersed in London club culture, combining dubstep, garage, drum ‘n’ bass, house, breakbeat, and R&B, which combined with Brien’s warm, appealing singing, created something vibrant and original. A commercial success in the UK and a critical success worldwide, it was more than apparent that she was on the cusp of something big, and she and her array of producers pulled out all the stops on the stupendous follow-up Little Red, led by the Aaliyah EP and the single “5AM”, which placed very high on my 2013 singles list. What makes Little Red such a success is that although it is plenty aware of its desire to be a crossover success, it still remains very true to its dance roots, never for a second feeling like it’s pandering. Instead, it’s a total charmer: bright-eyed, rich, likeable, and surprisingly eloquent.

Perhaps if her label wanted to become that much-desired smash, the album should have pandered a little more, because although it was a chart-topper in the UK its commercial performance stalled by early summer. As a great admirer of Brien’s work, though, I’m glad she and her producers stuck to their original vision of what Little Red should be. And to be honest, she should have hit Adele-level heights based on the strength of the album’s two most “accessible” (by mainstream standards) singles, “Crying For No Reason” and “Still”. A pair of stunning ballads that place the focus on Brien’s vocal strengths, both songs go for the slow burn, showing great restraint instead of bombast, and burst with honesty and vulnerability as a result. The album is even richer than that, however, featuring a wide array of styles, including bonus tracks that make the experience even better, loaded with such bangers as “Hot Like Fire”, “Wicked Love”, and “Sky’s the Limit”. As good as all of that is, the definitive version of the album is the “continuous mix”  bonus CD that comes with the deluxe edition. A smooth, fluid, 65-minute mix that restructures all 17 tracks into a distinct arc that the original album can’t quite match, it transforms Brien’s work into the brilliant, shimmering piece of art that it deserves to be. One of the most rewarding albums I have heard all year, Little Red has stuck with me since February and its appeal hasn’t diminished one bit. It’s a bright, colourful blast of life in what was a very dreary year.

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The Best Singles of 2014, #3

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3. Alvvays, “Archie, Marry Me”

Could this song not start off any more twee? Chirping birds, plaintively strummed guitar strings like some long-lost Bell and Sebastian demo recorded in a garden. But that’s the mood Alvvays sets out to establish on its lush, lo-fi charmer of a debut album, and breakthrough single “Marry Me Archie” absolutely nails it. That opening is just beautiful, completely evocative of 1990s indie rock, and much like Camera Obscura, Molly Rankin displays a knack for wry humour: “You’ve expressed explicitly your contempt for matrimony / You’ve student loans to pay and will not risk the alimony…So, honey, take me by the hand and we can sign some papers / Forget the invitations, floral arrangements and bread makers.” In contrast to Perfect Pussy’s “Interference Fits”, where Meredith Graves expresses concern about the pressure to marry in one’s 20s, Rankin’s protagonist embraces the idea with wit, warmth, and shameless romanticism.

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The Best Albums of 2014, #3

band013. Scott Walker + Sunn O))), Soused (4AD)

The idea of Scott Walker and Sunn O))) collaborating was one that seemed too perfect to even imagine. “Like that partnership would ever happen.” Well, it did, and fans of the venerable, reclusive Walker, fans of the doom/drone duo, and fans of avant-garde music in general flipped their collective lids when the new album Soused was announced. Not all dream collaborations work, though, and there was plenty of reason for apprehension. And in this case, for good reason, too. I’m very familiar with both sides, but consider myself much more of a Scott Walker fan than a Sunn O))) fan, though I have enjoyed a great deal of Sunn’s work over the years. So I approached the prospect of this album with a few questions. Would the roaring guitars of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson overwhelm Walker’s crazed poet persona on record? Or would Walker’s sheer eccentricity prove too much of a challenge to the comparatively more rigid Sunn O)))? Could these two disparate yet similar musical geniuses come together in the middle and yield a genuinely rewarding album?

In the end, as perfect a balance between the two sides as possible was struck on this extraordinary record. Much to my great relief, it’s essentially a Scott Walker album with Sunn O))) acting as backing musicians, the guitars, drones, and feedback harnessed and manipulated brilliantly and beautifully by Walker and longtime collaborator Stephen Walsh, dark in tone, laced with dry humor, unsettling and bracing at the same time. It has all the elements I look for in a modern Walker album: eccentricity, poeticism, thoughtfulness, horror, mystery. A complete disregard for anything conventional – song structure, melody, lyrics – yet at the same time focused, lucid, linear. Walker matches the power of Sunn O))) step for step, and more often than not dominates, leaving harrowing impressions that continue to leave a lasting impact on me. Whippoorwill. “A beating would do me a world of good.” Pete the Whipper. Ho, ho, watenay. Custodiunt migremus. Acne on a leper. “The most intimate personal choices and requests central to your personal autonomy will be sung.” While the sheer eclecticism of Walker’s Tilt/The Drift/Bish Bosch trilogy is missed, this is a completely different beast, the 71 year-old Walker offering his own, unique take on heavy metal and coming up with music far more visceral and intense than anything the genre produced in 2014.

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The Best Singles of 2014, #4

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4. Lana Del Rey, “West Coast”

I liked Lana Del Rey’s hugely hyped debut album a couple years ago, but I never, ever expected to her to not only surpass that record but come through with a single as stunning as “West Coast”. The first time I heard it was in Paris actually. I’d just gotten back to my flat in the Bastille, weary from a day of sightseeing, and got the news of the new track. I played it through my Bluetooth speaker, and I don’t know if it was my happy mood, the bottle of cheap wine, or what, but I was so transfixed. Here’s a track that masterfully combines trip hop, surf guitar, indie rock, Lee Hazlewood-style psychedelic pop, hip hop, shifting from murky and menacing to dreamy and romantic. Dan Auerbach’s production makes the song, but you can’t overstate Lizzy Grant’s singing, either. She’s wrapped up in her Del Rey persona beautifully, bringing out the bad-ass torch singer concept better than she ever did before. It’s a spectacular little suite that initially felt a little too smart and avant-garde for the pop crowd as I sat there that night in April trying to figure it out, but it turned out to be a global hit. Deservingly so, too.

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The Best Albums of 2014, #4

band014. Lykke Li, I Never Learn (LL Recordings)

It’s been rewarding watching Lykke Li evolve as an artist over the past seven years. In early 2008, when “Little Bit” was a minor indie hit over here and her debut album Youth Novels had charted in the top five in Scandinavian countries, she brought fresh, youthful energy to pop melodrama. When I saw her play in Oslo that February, I was transfixed by this quirky little pixie that seemed shy yet at the same time performed like a dynamo. She’s not the most prolific singer-songwriter, but as the years have gone by her music has matured a great deal, and even more, it’s darkened plenty. So much so that you can hear a strong gothic element creeping into her confessional-style songwriting, the pop element that made Youth Novels so effervescent pushed to the back burner as she began exploring the more introspective, meditative side of her art more and more.

Popular music has a rich history of “dark night of the soul” albums, from Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, to Beck’s Sea Change, and Lykke Li’s third album is a very worthy addition to that beautifully miserable canon. Precipitated – as it often is – by a devastating break-up, Lykke Li holed up, did a little soul-searching, teamed up with longtime collaborator Björn Yttling, and emerged with I Never Learn, a stark, concise album that despite its moments of shimmering beauty, could not be bleaker and hopeless thematically. At first I wasn’t overly impressed with so many stark ballads, especially coming on the heels of the rich Wounded Rhymes, but ever so slowly this concise, 35-minute album worked its way into my heart. First the singles, then the deep cuts, and by the time I saw her perform a spellbinding set in a cozy, dark enclave of a tree-lined park in Montreal, my faith in this extraordinary artist was fully restored. What glorious hopelessness is on display on I Never Learn, too. “No Rest For the Wicked”, “Just Like a Dream”, and “Never Gonna Love Again” channel the melodrama of classic Phil Spector, while the Greg Kurstin-produced “Gunshot” whittles all that pain down to one devastating line: “And the shot goes through my head and back.” The deeper cuts are just as powerful too: the gut wrenching “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone”, “Heart of Steel”, and “Sleep Alone” are quieter, but pack just as big a wallop. Turn out the lights, listen, and wallow in some of the loveliest, saddest music of 2014.

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