That’s Right, You’re Already Dead!
1. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
I couldn’t comfortably dictate a list of top albums until well after the entirety of 2014, but this release was surely the winner despite a constantly shifting list of runners-up. FlyLo (a member of the famous Coltrane family, for those unfamiliar) hones his style masterfully on this release; at times he weaves instruments so seamlessly that you might think you’re listening to some enigmatic result of jazz-fusion records that melted together with a progressive rock LP in some hot archival basement during the early 1970’s, but while taking advantages of all the abstract possibilities that electronic music has to offer the album carries a distinctively untouchable modern flair. Indubitably a work best served in one continuous run-through, You’re Dead! sees this musical trip progress from schizophrenic jazzy freak-outs to equally unique hip-hop segments featuring his mystical alter ego Captain Murphy and recognizable names like Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar. But guests are few and far between and those moments arrive within the first ten minutes of the album; the real treasure lies in the belly of the beast, and the glory belongs to the Lotus. His signature style of short yet powerful numbers that center around electronic foundations that resemble the clicking, morphing, and shifting of the doors of perception in the unconscious mind is all too present, and sweeping orchestral accompaniment and soaring, often wordless female vocals are still here as well. Try as I might, my words can’t provide aural synesthesia so its time to just tell you to listen. I’ll leave you with this: the man behind the album has elaborated on its concept in multiple interviews, and if you’re going to just sample a track or two, you can’t go wrong with “The Protest” or “Coronus, The Terminator.” But don’t pretend you don’t have 40 minutes, either.
2. Teebs – E S T A R A
A member of Flying Lotus’ record label Brainfeeder, fellow L.A. native Teebs creates dreamy instrumental electronic music similar enough to FlyLo’s to draw a referential comparison but more than unique enough to firmly stand on its own two feet. “Atmospheric” is a frustratingly abstract term to apply to music, but in certain cases it’s the only logical solution. This is one such case; E S T A R A is an album that provides the perfect blank canvas for pure mood, whatever that mood be. Perhaps a crisp, warm May sunrise that bursts purple and orange over the lush green trees and calm but detectable breeze before ascending into the sky to observe humanity’s daily bustle is the scene that echoes the feeling the album elicits through its mechanically interlocking yet alluringly organic electronic soundscapes, or maybe the contemplative gaze outside a window spattered with the perpetually falling and exploding bursts of fallen raindrops on a brisk, cloudy, and grey day from inside the conditioned sanctuary of a vehicle moving over pavement at the speed of the Earth’s rotation while windshield wiper blades periodically slash across your field of vision only to reset the situation is more of your association. Whatever your setting, this album is one that lends itself nicely to quietly kicking back in contemplation, and once again, is properly served whole. If you must, “Wavxxes,” “Grattitude,” “Shouss Lullaby,” and “NY, Pt. 2″ are prime cuts, but you’re selling yourself far too short by missing out on the entire meal.
Check out his debut Ardour, too.
3. Run The Jewels – Run the Jewels II
The opening track “Jeopardy” says it all – Run the Jewels is the answer, your question is “What’s poppin’?”But in case you’re late to the party, Run the Jewels is the initially unlikely collaborative project between legendary NYC underground hip-hop rapper and producer El-P whose solo albums typically depict futuristic dystopian concepts laden with highly complex and meticulous production and southern-fried Atlanta MC Killer Mike. Both artists create quality hip-hop in their own right, but during the summer of 2013 they teamed up after El-P produced Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music (an exceptional album whose title track offers quite possibly the best appraisal of what true rap music is) to release Run the Jewels, a hard hitting free album that combined both individual styles to create something truly unique. Last year, they came back to cement their position as the rawest rap duo in the game, and achieved success in their chosen endeavor. El-P’s production is on point, providing a pulsing energy that keeps your head bobbing, legs bouncing, or fingers tapping throughout the album’s 40 minute duration and always maintaining a freshness that holds an undivided interest. Throw in the maniacal tag-team ferocity of El’s and Killer Mike’s raps, and you’ve got all the makings for a top-tier hip-hop album. Spin this one, and 40 minutes will pass in the span of what feels like 15; many tracks move at the speed of blitzkrieg but a couple slower, plodding numbers are present to make things interesting. Even though the lyrics are often raucous, utilizing the classic hip-hop metaphor of violence to illustrate their lyrical superiority, the verses go much deeper than that. Features are few and far between (the focus is on El-P and Killer Mike, after all) but popular names of rock music that peaked in popularity approximately a decade ago surface here, namely Zach de La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine and Travis Barker of Blink-182 fame. There’s no weak link here, and a vast majority of the songs on this album are in strong contention for the best, but must-listens for you flaky folks are “Jeopardy,” “All Due Respect feat. Travis Barker,” “Crown,” “Early,” and “Angel Duster,” perhaps the most lyrically intriguing song on the album.
4. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
From the opening layered clicks of “Under the Pressure” that echo the raindrops falling on the window behind Adam Granduciel that blur into a pulsing classic War on Drugs piano-driven beat, and soon into a morphing autonomous beast of a rhythm that sucks you into its ever-flowing river of sound so deep that you become lost in the music, its clear that this record is off to a great start. The air of melancholy that drenches the albums reverb-laden production is a marked improvement over past releases, and beneath that outer gild of sadness is a core of quiet determination that cracks through the surface most notably in the form of wild yelps over the most powerful sections of song. Clearly indie rock’s champion of 2014, the record brings together those influences along with that of an ever-present keyboard-generated ambient background to create a detailed atmosphere that lifts you out of the river’s soaking clutches and into the grey, misty clouds through that window and soon into the sunny yet frigid majesty of Earth’s thin blue outer reaches far above the ceiling. Each track is a standout in its own right, but clearly the winners here are single “Red Eyes” (a perfect example of that heightened conviction), its successor “Suffering,” with one of the classic guitar solos of the new decade that perpetually melts into itself then explodes over a softly plodding rhythm. I could go on, but its in your best interest to just throw this one on and kick back for an hour, find a great chair with a window.
5. Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
The art of hip-hop production evolves continuously in improvement each year, catalyzed by a series of forward-thinking releases that push the genre forward. This is one of those releases, from Seattle-based Shabazz Palaces, and this album surely captures the majesty of Seattle’s rainy yet naturally beautiful and somewhat mystic western aura. Cascading waves of aural sunlight pour in through the vertical blinds on the albums cover in the opening seconds of “Dawn in Luxor,” soon accompanied by an ever expanding array of sounds and beats exquisitely catered for your listening experience by Tendai “Baba” Maraire, whose production style draws from his Zimbabwean ancestry. Make no mistake, however, the sound found here is exquisitely sophisticated and modern, floating along thumping basslines that run up and down beneath the patterned and shifting electronic scaffolding running above. The songs seem to come in sets, with multiple successive numbers contextually running into each other, but the overall diversity of the music on this album is staggeringly impressive.
Lyricist and rapper Ishmael Butler does an excellent job of maintaining both originality and attention, offering heavily philosophical lyrics that evoke satisfactory imagery straight from the mind’s eye. The short song lengths keep things steadily moving, and thus keep the album easily navigable. I can’t stress enough how refreshing this album’s overall production and sound are; if you won’t hear it all then be sure to hear the outstanding one-two punch of “Dawn in Luxor” and “Forerunner Foray,” the next outstanding one-two punch of “Solemn Swears” and “Harem Aria,” or the fast-paced run through the world found in “#CAKE.”
6. Ricky Eat Acid – Three Love Songs
“Sometimes, I can feel it in the room with me”
This is a peculiar and wonderful little album. Completely devoid of lyrics apart from some spoken word interludes and the foundational sample of the excellent “In my dreams we’re almost touching,” Three Love Songs largely consists of abstract ambient electronic soundscapes that create moods ranging from the ominous to the awesome. Visual synesthesia of the clicking, floating, and zooming bleeps, beeps, and boops that litter the album often evokes images of fireflies floating in a swarm on a dark summer night or colorful orbs bouncing around the musical note-staff. Unusually precise and clever titles populate the track listing, from “Driving alone past roadwork at night” to “God puts us all in the swimming pool,” and the corresponding sounds provide the perfect compliment to those names. Much like Teebs’ music, it is hard to do this album justice with the mere power of written word, but one listen reveals a smattering of unusual noises and well-placed samples that come together to form one cohesive journey through aural relaxation. The album isn’t all lo-fi and downtempo ambient though, with moments of riveting electronic rhythms in “It will draw me over to it like it always does” or the thumping dance rhythm of “In my dreams we’re almost touching.” If you don’t think you can handle the entire ride, listen to those two and “Outside your house; the lights went out, there was nothing.” Otherwise, take the ticket and run. This is the album your doppelgänger made while you were sleeping, then released to the world.
7. Mac Miller – Faces
“The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones that have gone over. The others – the living – are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the Edge is still Out There.” – Dr. Thompson
Now, what could I possibly be thinking? Isn’t Mac Miller some mindless two-bit Emimem wannabe who manufactures music for mindless American teenagers? Why would you have any interest in this album? What’s it doing on this website in the first place?
If that image of Mac is more or less synonymous with yours, you’re like me, from 2010-14. I hadn’t really ever actually listened to him (or Eminem for that matter, shame on me), then I sat down with Faces‘ excellent predecessor Watching Movies With the Sound Off and realized my misconception. Let’s keep the focus here though, this album is definitely a more polished follow-up (although technically a mixtape, by sheer volume and quality it earns a spot here) and showcases how much Miller’s production skills have developed; he’s capable of drawing on a wide variety of musical styles not limited to multiple jazz subgenres and good ol’ rock n’ roll to create unique hip-hop beats that provide the perfect foundation to his philosophically intricate verses that dish out everything from critiques of the state of hip-hop music, to the big and existential questions many of us find ourselves asking in this bizarre and hilariously complex existence known as human life, to rather blatant but surprisingly thoughtful ruminations on his chemically induced journey towards the edge. Chock-full of creativity, perfectly placed and inventive samples, metaphor, big-name features like Earl Sweatshirt and lesser-known guests that still shine like Vince Staples and Retch, and catchy rhythms and hooks Miller proves both his prowess as a producer, wordsmith, and songwriter with this release that practically ran on repeat through my speakers during the summer months of 2014. At nearly an hour and a half, this tape is rather behemoth and can be quite daunting to get through in a single sitting to the unaccustomed listener, but despite this its strikingly devoid of filler; each track seems to fit quite well into the greater puzzle. At the end of the day, the album is a fun yet engaging listen that gets you thinking. Of course, I’ll end with the supreme takes for those of you who would rather pass on the entire album: “Grand Finale,” “Apparition,” “Colors and Shapes,” “New Faces,” “Diablo,” and “It Just Doesn’t Matter.”
8. Cunninlynguists – Strange Journey: Volume III
“Hello. My name is Miley 3000, your AOI Flight commander
Your mission is simple: proceed 13 parsecs to planet Earth
and verify intelligent and empathetic life.
Good luck on your strange journey, gentlemen.
Oh, and one more thing: try not to die.”
Hip-Hop is the modern day rock ‘n’ roll, and this album’s niche is analogous to that filled by space rock in the late 60’s. Crisp, smooth, and punchy, Strange Journey: Volume III delivers a fresh smattering of catchy tunes best served while cruising in your vehicle of choice. The breezy ambiance set by the grandiose and spacey production contributes greatly to the easy flow of the record, and the continuity found here is without fail; you may actually feel as if you’re floating through space’s void in that classic ride pictured above. The flow of the verses found here is a nice complement to the albums aforementioned general flow. As always with any hip-hop album worth listening to, the lyrics here have more depth than materialistic emphasis on property and substance, touching on everything from the existential problems of deep space to those found in human romance. These punninlynguists are indeed quite the cunning lynguists, and this shines through most profoundly on the fantastic semi-autobiographical oral history of physical music and hip-hop itself “The Format,” if there’s one track to be heard here its this one. If you want to continue the ride out of order, “Innerspace,” “Dying Breed,” “Guide You through Shadows,” and the killer closer “Urutora Kaiju” are your best bets. Apart from the ideal action of playing the record straight through.
Here’s a prime example of some obscure, atypical, yet unique and fascinatingly enjoyable hip-hop album from the rather passive scene of the San Francisco Bay Area – Vallejo specifically. Issue is the son of professional SF-area rhyme-hustler E-40, but his music is far too distanced from that of his father’s to even draw a comparison. This album carries a laid-back vibe that makes for easy and pensive listening. Breezy like the wind over the plains behind our masked rapper (no, that’s not MF Doom), the production here is lush and sparkling. A large amount of the album’s lyrical focus centers around tea, an unusual concept but also one that separates him from the pack a bit. Straddling the boundary between drinking a hot tea in a Japanese pagoda deep inside Golden Gate Park and driving an expensive sports car through the affluent neighborhoods on the north side of the San Francisco Bay, sometimes Liquid Wisdom decides to buy a plane ticket to Europe just to explore the various locales over there. The point is, this album is unusual (weird? perhaps, depending on you) but being unlike anything else you’ve heard from 2014 doesn’t detract from its quality. It’s hard to really get a comprehensive feel for the way this album sounds, but its definitely more hip-hop (art) than rap, and probably fairly inaccessible for a bulk of traditional hip-hop listeners. Not that that matters. The pop number “Livin’ on a Dream,” presents a convincing case for the best track here, but “Ten Monks,” “How I’m Feelin’,” “Look Into My Mind,” and closer “Seeing Diamonds,” present equally strong competitors.