Year in Review
Top Albums of 2014
by Joshua P. Ferguson
What a year it's been musically. From legendary artists coming out of the woodwork to single-heavy producers finally debuting full-length material, we've seen some epic album releases these past 12 months. Familiar faces, newcomers and new combinations of artists we've long admired all log face time here, and each played a big role in shaping the musical landscape of 2014.
10) Todd Terje It's Album Time — Olsen Records
The man is a perennial favorite for us. In fact, we can't think of the last time Todd Terje hasn't shown up in a year-end wrap-up with either a remix, a dj mix or a single that's captured our attention for along as we've been following his output. But this is the first time, we've charted an album, his debut, and when we reviewed it earlier this year we affectionately referred to it as "breezy, tiki-lounge disco" and "21st century exotica." Those descriptors still hold as we boogie to the cascading synth of "Preben Goes to Acapulco" and pen our praise of this master of cheeky cosmic disco.
9) D'Angelo & the Vanguard Black Messiah — RCA
It's been a long time coming and it's captured the collective musical consciousness since it came out earlier this month—a december release that's largely counted it out of the running for many year-end lists. Ask any of those outlets, though, and there's little doubt they'll tell you that the brilliant jazz-funk-R&B-soul on D'Angelo's Black Messiah is the stuff of a modern masterpiece. There's the hand-jive-hop of lead single "Suggah Daddy," there's the angst-ridden distorted funk of "1000 Deaths," there's the plucky soul of "Back to the Future (Part 1)"—our personal favorite—and there's even low-slung gospel of "Prayer." It recalls greats like Stevie, Sly and Prince and even harkens back to moments from Voodoo, and it's hard to think of how it could sound any better after 14 years away from the spotlight.
8) Ital Endgame — Planet Mu
Brooklyn's Daniel Martin-McCormick exists on the fringe. He's a techno producer with an experimental noise-punk background and when he turns his mind to dance music as Ital, the results are unconventional, hypnotic—dizzying even—and, with Endgame, impossible for us to ignore. Deep and fluid motion pervades this dark and delightful sophomore LP for the legendary Planet Mu, from the eerie and off-kilter title track to more bouyant "Dancing" with it's skipping hi-hats to the bounding dub of "Black Dust." It's minimalist, at times unsettling, but always captivating as it glides from one bold statement to another.
7) Aphex Twin Syro — Warp
With a weight equal in its D'Angelo-like proportions, the man who's worshipped as an electronic music god, Richard D. James released the first Aphex Twin record in 13 years this year. Again like D'Angelo, no one is surprised that's really good. Moving from 8bit funk to ambient breaks to frenetic IDM with the his signature aplomb. As we described it in our review, "It's possibly just the singular statement Aphex Twin fans have been hoping for all this time, a balanced mix of the beautiful, melodic, ambient, disjointed, schizophrenic, spastic and disturbing elements that makes Aphex Twin so compelling and so unlike any other producer out there—in his hey day in the '90s and even more so today."
6) Roman Flügel Happiness is Happening — Dial
Roman Flügel's starting point may have been Chicago house, but every subsequent release from the beloved German heavyweight proves just how far he's willing to stretch those roots. With Happiness is Happening, his third LP and second for the seminal Dial label, he presents a wide palette of electronic music moods and does it in such a way as to never feel repetitive or disconnected—in that way, my-album-is-really-just-a-collection-of-singles-strung-together sort of way. From openers and closers like "Connecting the Ghost" and "All That Matters" which plod and chug with swung or half-time rhythms paired with bubbling melodies and swelling synth textures to the moody techno architecture of "Your War is Over" and even the very Andrew Weatherall-esque "Wilkie," Flügel might have just released the most refined dance record of 2014.
5) Vermont Vermont — Kompakt
Our ears were introduced to Vermont, the out-of-left-field ambient-kraut-new-age collaboration between Innervisions mainstay Marcus Worgull and ever-prolific Motor City Drum Ensemble man Danilo Plessow via a video of an animated sunrise over the Mount Fuji-esque snow-capped peak that adorns the cover of the duo's self-titled album. The track, "Majestät," glides along with the echo of marimbas, a delicate Rhodes and well-paced bursts of synthesized strings. It also sets the pace for a record that's captivating for its stillness. "Übersprung" picks up with the laser-tight ricochet of bleeps and a space-age melody, yet never unleashes the deep house thump that could have been. "Electron" is all electro-funk for early mornings and "Droixhe" is the K&D Sessions cut that never was. This pair surprised more fans than just those of us at Dialogue Inc with an ambient field trip that captures all the nuanced textures that make Worgull and MCDE's dance-floor work so compelling, but is instead something altogether more cerebral.
4) Valentin Stip Sigh — Other People
Classically trained and a bit of a virtuoso with the piano, Valentin Stip is an artist making music beyond his 22 years. Intelligent and full of space and sophistication, the music of Stip's debut full length is delicate and complex. Melodies play second fiddle to rich arrangements that meander ahead with little regard for looking back. They build and grow and evolve and, often, bear little resemblance to themselves from minutes earlier. "Aletheia" begins with a chorus of otherworldly chanting before sparse piano chords move the track with only the hint of a tempo. Eventually the pitter-patter of a beat emerges to share time with a vocal reminiscent of an Islamic prayer. It's heady stuff and each next track unfolds with similar unexpectedness. "Correlation" is deep ambient meets hip-hop blues. "****" is nothing more than cosmic rays rendered in musical form and set closer "Sigh" is all Stip, pure expression with little more than his piano and the after effects of static carrying the song through to meet with a minimalist breakbeat that announces a triumphant—if understated—grand finale.
3) Coco, Steel & Lovebomb The Chillout Album — Melodica
We've already shared our high praise for the ray of pure sunshine that is Coco, Steel & Lovebomb's The Chillout Album. Writing about what a prominent record it was for us this year in our recent feature on excellence in ambience in 2014, we described it as "an immersive bath of sound handcrafted for sunsets, sunrises and the Balearic sense of everything and nothing that so bewitched us this summer." With track names like "Queueing For Shangri-La With A Surprisingly Level Head" and "Uncle Albert Would Never Believe What You Can Do With This Computer," a wonderful sense of humor underlies it all, making for a record that's as good for a laugh as it is for kicking back, soaking up its plethora of tropical warmth, Balearic guitar and hazy melodies and, certainly, chilling out.
2) Sebastian Mullaert & Eitan Reiter Reflections of Nothingness — Mule Musiq
Another record that featured in our survey of ambient music this year, Sebastian Mullaert and Eitan Reiter's Reflections of Nothingness isn't completely devoid of pulse the way you'd typically think of ambient music. The record, which builds and crescendos quietly over its nine epic tracks, glides from the blossoming glow of "Enter the Spiral" to delicate house of "Dissolve" and into the tribal minimalism of "Dance of Roots" before entering a tense second act that cycles through primal acid of "Ash Layla" and the frenetic techno of "No Escape." But just as seamlessly as it balls up into a chaotic storm of squelches and electronic bursts, it dissolves into the pristine calm of "Falling Apart into One" and "Faith" each purging more of the elements that came before it to end with the singular warmth that gave the record its start. It's a vision communicated as circular journey and its one of the most compelling listens we discovered this year.
1) Bugge Wesseltoft, Henrik Schwarz & Dan Berglund Trialogue — Jazzland
If Reflections of Nothingness is a vision brought to life on an epic scale, then Trialogue is the micro version of that same concept, embracing jazz's ability to capture a simple melodic thread and spiral it into a giant ball of free-flowing expression. Explaining the inspiration behind the record, deep-house visionary Henrik Schwarz talks about building ideas within his digital set-up and then challenging his bandmates, the formidable duo of Scandinavian jazz star Bugge Wesseltoft and bassist Dan Berglund of the acclaimed Esbjörn Svensson Trio, to bring those ideas to life through more analog means. The result is a rich record, full of lush improvisation from all members of the trio, from Wesseltoft's cascading piano on "Valiant" to staccato walking bass on the Monk-reminiscent "Headbanger Polka" to the collective quietude of "Movement Seventeen," which floats by with Berglund's silky string work, Wesseltoft's celestial piano melodies and the seamless atmospherics Schwarz employs to tie the piece together. Each song here is a movement within itself, let loose to evolve in extended improvisation. Given its heavy roots within the jazz tradition, Trialogue feels at first like an outlier on this list, especially when you consider that it's number one on the list. But scanning back through Terje's electronic exotica, D'Angelo's free R&B, Vermont's ambient exploration, Stip's avant garde classical expressions and the loose movements of Mullaert and Reiter, the more Wesseltoft, Schwarz and Berglund fit right in, topping a year of music where those who responded to the oversize and homogenous popularity of so much music today with excellence from the fringe won us over again and again.