Best Pop Albums 2014

This is the least rationalized, most personal list I come up with. There’s plenty of music I listen to during the year that I have praise for, but my personal and professional interest in jazz, classical, experimental, improvised, etc music includes critical praise of things for how they work, not necessarily for how much un-thinking, in-the-body pleasure they give me. These are my pleasures from the year—don’t get hung up on the order, Kahane is on top simply because I caught his wonderful staging of The Ambassador last week: these are all number one on any given day (find them here, except for where noted):

  • Gabriel Kahane, The Ambassador. Why do we consider Schubert’s music to be “art” songs? Because the best, most human work gives us the particular sensibility of a time and place, expresses a story common to most human experience, and uses both poetic metaphor and sophisticated musical artifice. The Schubert style of art song sounds off-putting and arch when wielded by contemporary composers. as does the use of old poetry (Wilhelm Müller was Schubert’s contemporary), especially because we have decades of powerful, beautifully made songs that have a pop style and appeal and the musical and poetic sophistication to be enduringly moving. Gabriel Kahane’s new album is a collection of songs that use the architecture of Los Angeles to connect the movies and television to our personal experiences, dreams and nightmares. It is the audio equivalent to The Phantom Empire. It is immersive and moving. It is art.
  • Air Cushion Finish, Spree. This was the first set of the first night I attended at Suoni per il Popolo in Montreal this past June, and it has been haunting me ever since. Two musicians making a dream-like flow of musical and lyrical ideas, and dream-like is the right word: there are preconceived islands, and the music drifts in free-form manner among them. Beautiful, involving and truly uncanny, this album is also refreshingly close to experiencing the band live. (
  • Flying Lotus, You’re Dead! Another generation along from Aphex Twin, Keith Ellison reaches both farther into the future and deeper into the past. With Thundercat appearing again, the roots are in the tremendously enjoyable fusion music of Stanley Clarke, and the unique style and sense of form show what real imagination can produce when channeled through a laptop.
  • Ava Luna, Electric Balloon. Hip, funky, goofy, funny and serious, Carlo Martinez’s latest is an excellent, unique album in its own right, and fuel for anyone who has an itch for the bad-good old NYC of the 80s.
  • Aphex Twin, Syro. A reminder that EDM used to be IDM until the DJs started mainlining the same handful of beats to the herd. This has the type of try-to-keep-up headlong rush that is Richard D. James’ signature sensibility, along with the technical inventiveness and musical creativity that belongs to the best electronic music.
  • the cellar and point, ambit. I could, and should, have a whole list dedicated to the enduring and ongoing development and spread of progressive rock, but for now, I will just urge you to listen to this great record. It’s on the math-y side of the music, intricate in the way sophisticated puzzles are designed, made with a light, flowing touch. Direct and full of surprises and fun.
  • Ratking, So it Goes. I’m so old I remember when hip hop was weird, oddball, in the streets not to front a stance but in the way that young people create things outside of the rules, because they don’t know or care about those rules. Smart as hell, sociable and disdainful, this group makes their hermetic obsessions desirable.
  • Eagulls, Eagulls. Old school in spirit, refreshingly new in sound. This punk band from England makes all the details of the style sound new, while appealing powerfully to memories of Echo and the Bunnymen. Terrific, big, confident sound.
  • Yob, Clearing the Path to Ascend. I like my metal with an attitude of doom, a monstrous heaping of sludge, chunky riffs, melodic shape, and enough shoe-gaze for me to think the music appreciates the larger universe. Check, check, check, check and check.
  • SONAR, Static Motion. The impossible record. Complex, minimal instrumental grooves that are so loping and locked in place that the slightest variation of articulation, the briefest solo, have monumental effect. Seventy minutes of watching the movement of the most beautifully made clock you’ve ever seen.
  • Best Reissues 2014:

  • King Crimson, Starless (Deluxe box set). It is quite an experience to follow this band through so many gigs on this 1974 tour. Each song, each set gets better and deeper than the last. The set is the ultimate definition of Robert Fripp’s statement that King Crimson is a process. Superb remastering and sound quality throughout.
  • Captain Beefheart, Sun, Zoom, Spark: 1970 to 1972. As maddeningly inconsistent as he could be, when Beefheart was at his best, he made some of the greatest music this country has ever produced. This was when he was at his best.
  • Tears for Fears, Songs From the Big Chair (Super Deluxe Edition). Collections like this based around one single album, even when the album is as spectacular as this one, frequently end up dredging nothing but dross. That this is nothing but gems is revealing evidence of how fine this band was.
  • Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings. A finely made set from Dust to Digital that collects and reissues Alan Lomax’s field recordings of prison and chain gang crews singing, and talking, the blues. The source code to American popular music, which is beautiful because it’s black.
  • gtra1n

    I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.