This was a strong year for music and one that felt more tumultuous than ever for planet Earth and its inhabitants. No coincidence, I'm sure. Here are some favorites, and I urge you to browse the Spotify playlist below, which features some notable additions. Happy listening and happy new year.
Hiatus Kaiyote - Choose Your Weapon
Someone had to invent the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The cheeseburger. The breakbeat. The multi-dimensional, polyrhythmic gangster shit. This foursome from Down Under is all that and then some, and their kitchen sink is stacked with Madlib and Stevie Wonder gumbo and Soulquarian stew, cookin' in Miles mode with Meshuggah-like precision drenched in hot buttered soul. This is the sweet and the savory, and it feels distinctly like the record the band wanted to make - they have a real affinity for the dusty analog past yet look toward a world so vivid and beautiful it sometimes hurts to imagine.
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly
The year's most polarizing record, Kendrick spawned think pieces like none other. It rocks like a Coltrane album, its leader in complete control of his band (which features some of our finest instrumentalists), grappling with a statement yet making it nonetheless. I'll let K. Dot explain more, from XXL's cover story:
[This album] is a little bit more intricate, a little more blunt, a little more emotional because it's about things that I was going through and feeling at the time. And stuff I was and am just trying to figure out. It was like me questioning my being and my influence. And it took a turn the moment I started recording, everything just changed from the concepts, to the vocal arrangements to the instrumentation. Everything just got warm and at one point in time, it got really dark. I don't know if people expected that album from me and the subjects that were on there. A lot was going on at the time for me personally and in the world and still is and it still is. Besides the changes I went through, the world was going through something.
Everything Everything - Get To Heaven
This fab four might be the best group in the world, and though their artsy British spirit makes it easy to liken them to Tears For Fears or Talk Talk, Get To Heaven sounds like Queen for the digital age. The musicianship in this band is scary, and like Mr. Mercury's, the subtlety is overshadowed at first listen by the novelty of the frontman, in this case Jonathan Higgs's warbly falsetto. The rhythm section is daringly creative; the guitar work is inspired - Alex Robertshaw plays as confidently and creatively as Brian May. Some songs sound written for Rhianna, while most (and the deluxe edition's six additional songs) weave in and out of atmospheres and influences like a pop chameleon. Stuart Price's production adds a patina that 2013's Arc was only hinting at.
Tame Impala - Currents
Kevin Parker shook me up this year. First there were show-stealing turns on Uptown Special, then this change of pace, a Princely voyage through the haze of love, loss and relationships. I've never been a "lyrics first" guy, but I felt like Parker was singing only to me - this album governed a large chunk of my year. Although "'Cause I'm a Man" remains a favorite, leadoff track "Let It Happen" sets a seven minute stage for the synthscape to follow, with Parker noodling less like Roky Erickson and more like Vangelis.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-Love
Ruban Nielson hit the scene in 2010 with a voice and style that seemed both familiar and strange - things were just off-kilter enough to require deeper listens, and this record takes the solitary quality of those first two albums and explodes it. Much like Around The World In A Day, Multi-Love is laden with hooks that float through psychedelia, blues and classic soul in addition to the baroque dustings scattered throughout Nielson's catalog. Sonics lean solidly on Eddie Kramer-like oscillations, mirrored lyrically by Nielson's real-life exploration of polyamory, an "emotionally terrifying situation."
Snarky Puppy - Sylva
"When Snarky Puppy won a Grammy in January of 2014, the question I was asked most was, Was this on your bucket list of things to do before you die? And my answer to each of them was, actually, no. I have only one thing on my list. The only thing I want to do before I die is make an album with an orchestra." And so it was that Michael League, Snarky architect/bassist/composer/must-be insomniac, got his wish and as always, no energy was wasted. Sylva sounds like an after-hours woodland jam with Gil Evans, Lalo Schifrin, Bartok and Marcus Miller, and the genre-warping we've come to know and love from League & co. is there, amplified by the talents of Amsterdam's Metropole Orkest.
Jaala - Hard Hold
Maybe it's something in the water or how it flushes counter clockwise, but Oceania is killing it thanks in large part to Wondercore Island, a Melbourne-based management firm and label that represents both #1 on this countdown and Jaala (and Sampa The Great, whose mixtape shows huge promise). The band's first proper release both lurches and cuts like a tipsy serrated knife, perhaps the product of studio decisions both quick and right. They remind me of the youthful abandon often found in suburban VFW halls, yet carry a certain weathered gravity that only comes with experience; Cosima Jaala flails like a post-punk Kate Bush.
The Internet - Ego Death
Sydney Bennett was always the quiet engine behind Odd Future's hijinks, and she steps fully up to the mic with this record, which feels more confident and complete than the band's last two. She and musical director Matt Martians just write good songs - spacious and relatable, something Purple in their attitude on love ("girl / if they don't know your worth / tell 'em you're my girl / and anything you want is yours"). The band is capable and never flashy, content to tastefully lay in the cut and further the channel ORANGE vibes.
Deradoorian - The Expanding Flower Planet
Song Exploder, Hrishikesh Hirway's fantastic aural dissection podcast, hipped me to this one. He spoke with Angel Deradoorian about album opener "A Beautiful Woman," and I was immediately taken with its marriage of experimental and accessible. She also mentioned hocketing, a technique I learned in high school from a loopy Aussie instructor named Padma Newsome (who's composed extensively with The National). Anyone who's into that stuff is thinking about music on a slightly mathematical level, but this record swims in tangible tones and big, reverby drums, reminding me immediately of Carla Azar. By "DarkLord," it's obvious there's a lot going on here and is no surprise that the songstress is featured on other strong releases this year, like Flying Lotus' You're Dead! and Boots' Aquaria.
Earl Sweatshirt - I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside
Earl's return grinds and grates like the underbelly of a carnival, something wicked yet innocent; dark, from a churning and serious mind. "When I was a kid, I used to sit in front of the TV and just say what the TV says," he told Grantland. "It's how I got good at imitating people. And I applied that to music and shit. That's how I learned how to rap. You just make yourself an encyclopedia." This is his transition to adulthood, a self-defined higher education under the post-Odd Future microscope. It's melancholy and enveloping, and with Earl handling most of the production, it's a grimy confessional that lilts more like The Infamous than traditional West Coast bounce.
Cool Uncle - Cool Uncle
"Break Away" was my second favorite song of the year, and when it debuted on Soundcloud I had nothing but good, smooth, funky feelings about this project. Bobby Caldwell has made some of the greatest soul jams of all-time, blue-eyed or not, and when the specifics of his wife-via-family-dog's-Facebook-profile e-meetup with producer Jack Splash came to light, I was hooked. Splash nails the early 80's textures, throwing it back with a deft touch that only comes from being a voracious student of the era, while Caldwell croons just like he used to. The most fun, carefree release of the year from two experts in their respective fields.
Ghostface Killah & BadBadNotGood - Sour Soul
For all the Wu hype this year (Supervillain Throws Down Millions for Album's Only Copy), this half-hour collab with Toronto's autogenic cratediggers is one of Ghost's finest turns. BadBadNotGood proved they could hold their own with last year's III, but they remain one of the best backing bands on the scene, another skill altogether. From the twisting funk of "Six Degrees" to the syrupy "Tone's Rap," this squad deals not in Axelrod and Bob James facsimile but in an update of the form, a much-needed dose of gritty groove.
Kneebody & Daedalus - Kneedalus
This Brainfeeder release flew pretty far under the radar thanks in large part to The Epic, Kamasi Washington's sprawling jazz opus, but Flying Lotus's label kept pushing even after all the accolades. Kneebody and Daedalus are so well integrated that it's hard to hear where one stops and the other begins, but I guess that's the point. Some pieces sound like continuations of 2013's The Line, but that will never be a bad thing for one of the most creative quintets on the planet. Nate Wood and Shane Endsley are in particularly good form here, and the project's synergy ends up sounding eerily like In A Silent Way on Ray Kurzweil's home stereo.
Mutoid Man - Bleeder
A couple years ago I walked into Greenpoint's St. Vitus for a rehearsal, the floor sticky with stale beer, house lights up in the perpetually Stygian room, and was met with something venomous and combustible (420, brah) blasting from the PA. Vitus soundman Nick Cageo was listening to mixes from his new band, a little project from alternative heroes Stephen Brodsky and Ben Koller. After that debut EP, the band sprouted demonic legs and took its Captain Beyond-meets-Mastodon riffage to Kurt Ballou for LP treatment, and the result is both brutal and insanely fun. I tend to mourn the fact that I wasn't around for the 70's, but fuck that - there was no Mutoid Man back then.
Emily King - The Switch
Emily King sports an impressive resume that certainly informs her writing, but it sounds like she finally made her record. "It definitely feels like a reintroduction. Kind of like I can finally go outside and play after staying indoors for so long," she said this summer when she released it on her own label. There's a classic Paul Simon quality at work here, and King's pop sensibility reaches Alicia Keys levels. Sporting a killer live band (featuring Jaime Woods, whose Troy EP needs your attention, and guitarist Jeremy Most, who masterfully produced both records) and a killer haircut, King has taken James Brown-like command of every stage she's touched this year.
Thundercat - "Them Changes"
This is the reason for this category. While The Beyond / Where The Giants Roam EP has other highlights, this Isley loop + intertwining Bruner lines + Kamasi Washington is perfection. Buddy Miles is smiling.
Autolux - "Soft Scene"
I came to Autolux through Failure, and although that band had a MONSTER comeback this year (sorry), I found myself yearning not for more Fantastic Planet heaviness but for more of the myriad things Transit, Transit supplies. I got that here, and giddily anticipate their continued work with Danger Mouse.
Solo Woods - "Lightwalk"
The Emily King orbit extends to Jaime Woods' brother, Solo, an enigmatic public figure and top tier songwriter. Assisted on this one by Meshell N'Degeocello, it's the slow birth of an unafraid and multifaceted artist.
David Bowie - "Blackstar"
Bowie is back with a dream band that will be household names to only a few pop listeners, but to this guy, he's basically fronting Led Zeppelin for the post-post-bop set. The fairytale narrative is there: hearing Donny McCaslin's band at 55 Bar, booking studio time and the symbiosis to follow, and it shows in the music. For a primer on this outstanding cast, check out McCaslin's excellent Fast Future, another favorite of the year.