Below are the ten best albums of 2014 as chosen by the Noisey staff: Kim Kelly, Kyle Kramer, Drew Millard, Kayla Monetta, Dan Ozzi, Fred Pessaro, Eric Sundermann, and Kim Taylor Bennett. See albums 25 to 11 here. For Noisey's top 25 songs of the year, go here.
** Sylvan Esso 10. Sylvan Esso –**
You can glean a lot about Sylvan Esso’s auspicious debut from its opening cut “Hey Mami.” It is, in case you didn’t know, about girls getting cat-called (guys, don’t do it!) and begins with the sound of the streets wafting through an open window. Amelia Meath’s vocals are stacked and stacked again to provide a nursery rhyme melodicism, and then—BAM!—there’s a drop and a beat you can bust a nut to. This isn’t Feist gone folk, this is something else: a collision of clarion-call crisp tones and fuzzed-up synths, each song a surprise to unwrap. Like all the best records, the highlights are too numerous to list here, but the hypnotic sway of “Could I Be,” the peaks and troughs of “Play It Right,” and breakout song “Coffee,” compelling even in its moments of whispered hush, are just a few. This is record to get lost in.
—Kim Taylor Bennett
** iLoveMakonnen 9. iLoveMakonnen – EP**
Sure, you know “Tuesday.” You’ve seen the video. You’ve sung along. Your squad has gone up. But have you ventured into the Makonnen deep web? The rest of iLoveMakonnen’s self-titled EP—and his catalog—is full of strange, spacy tracks from a bedroom recording weirdo that somehow churned out songs of love and heartbreak and what it’s like to be young and dumb and not really know much about life after all your shit got kicked up in your face. “Tonight” sounds like a David Bowie song from the year 3014. “Meant to Be” is about breaking all of your most personal promises. “Sarah” is every person you’ve ever loved—but in a song. With this EP, Makonnen established himself as a weirdo with whom you always want to hang out, and even got a Grammy nod off of it. What’s next? Does it matter? Because regardless what the future holds, there will always be another Tuesday.
** Montevallo 8. Sam Hunt –**
Sam Hunt’s music almost sounds like it was focus-grouped into existence: The choruses are so big, the country twang is restrained just enough, and the production is unreservedly modern, with all the eclecticism that entails (the end of “Speakers” could fit in perfectly on a Drake album, for instance). That doesn't mean it's impersonal, though—quite the opposite. As much as Sam Hunt's sound is anything goes, his attitude is everyone's welcome. He's the guy at the party who's ready with a drink, a story, or a set of ears. He's down to keep the party going late into the night or get the house incredibly turnt even though it's just him and the girl he's visiting. He realizes you're only making out with him to make your ex jealous, but he takes it in stride. Sam Hunt's music feels like a conversation. He has a mesmerizing way of switching from talking to singing mid-sentence, bursting into voice memo-like melodic asides that evaporate after a few notes, but he's also just direct about the little triumphs of life, the joys of feeling like you own your little corner of the world, and the occasional disappointments that come with being human. Montevallo is a rich, warm debut that connects and is awesome no matter how country you think you are.
** Sell Sole 7. DeJ Loaf –**
When Detroit rapper DeJ Loaf performed at Noisey’s CMJ Showcase in October, she took the stage wearing black jeans, a red sports bra, and a black bucket hat, proudly clutching a bottle of Hennessy, absolutely owning the stage. She was the (unfortunately overused) term “swag” personified, and so is her triumphant October mixtape Sell Sole. It’s proudly out of step with both conventional hip-hop and mush-mouthed trap tales. It’s not that DeJ doesn’t mind talking shit—this is the person who uttered the graphene-hard threat that her crew will “Really take yo fingas /Turn yo face into a pizza, no acne” in her breakout single, after all—or that she isn’t elastic with the flow. Instead, Sell Sole is a singular record with an icy sheen and pillowy, alien productions, finding DeJ sublimating between a rapping and singing style that rarely eclipses a whisper, making both her tough talk and elegies for lost loved ones all the more devastating.
6. The Menzingers – Rented World
It seems like just last year, The Menzingers were still struggling to fill small rooms. Fast forward to the release of Rented World and they’re everyone’s favorite band. Really, it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch of guys. For years, the Rust Belt punks have been grinding away, releasing a catalog that’s gotten progressively more cohesive with each release. By the time they dropped last year’s On the Impossible Past, they had officially perfected that thing they were striving for—striking the perfect symmetry between raw, visceral chaos and melodic harmonies. Rented World, the band’s fourth album sees the Scranton boys-done-good off and running. And it doesn’t look like they’re stopping anytime soon.
** El Pintor 5. Interpol –**
Sure, your joke about it not being the year 2003 probably got some laughs, but with El Pintor, Interpol provided a record that recalled their classic debut. It hits you with an urgency that music missed—yet is carried by a weirdly soothing calm. With tracks like “All the Rage Back Home,” “Ancient Ways,” and “Same Town, New Story,” the band proved they know how to soundtrack the most introspective moments of our lives. But doing it in the most suave way possible. This record is a tailored black suit to a wedding. This record is a clean haircut and shave from the barber down the street. This record is a late night cocktail on the Lower East Side. After a decade, Interpol figured out how to be cool again. We thank them for remembering.
** Ruins 4. Grouper –**
Its hard to hear Grouper and not feel the pain in her fragile, gorgeous, and totally heartbreaking delivery. Just make sure you're out and about when you listen to Ruins. Otherwise, you'll never leave the house, just stay in your pajamas, order in, and cry into your bedding. And of course hit the repeat button.
3. Iceage – Plowing into the Field of Love
Have you ever been so drunk that you’ve had sex in the bathroom of a bar? Or maybe one time during the summertime, you ended up on the doorstep of your ex’s apartment at 3 AM unable to speak but are definitely there because you have a point. We’ve all been there—making foolish decisions that fuel our foolish lives, just trying to figure out how to be human beings. Iceage’s brilliant third LP Plowing into the Field of Love is a record about just that—fucking up, making mistakes, and maybe kicking a garbage can over just because there’s a garbage can to kick over. But then you learn from these terrible decisions and kinda-sorta Figure It Out. What’s more is that with Plowing, the Danish punks cleaned up the brute sound of their first to records into something that feels less like a punch in the face and more like a drunken waltz. These guys still kind of hate your guts and would probably take a piss in your coffee when you’re not looking. But like all great rock and roll acts we experience in this thing we call life, irresponsibility carries a certain charm.
2. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
There’s not much to say about this album that hasn’t been said already—and that’s a good thing.
Releasing an album in January is a deathkiss for most bands. By the time December rolls around—when music publications begin releasing their coveted year-end lists—the year’s earliest albums have long been forgotten, seeming dated by the wash of big summer hits. But when Against Me! released Transgender Dysphoria Blues on January 21, for frontwoman Laura Jane Grace, it was only the beginning of a year-long journey.
With so many eyes on Grace and Against Me! after her 2012 Rolling Stone feature where she came out as a transgender woman, they couldn’t have afforded for the album to be even one note short of perfect. And it wasn’t. The album, the band’s sixth, received across-the-board high marks, from fans who had been with the band since they were banging on makeshift drums and screaming along with the anarchist anthems of their debut album Reinventing Axl Rose to music critics who couldn’t name a punk song since “Rock the Casbah.”
The acclaim was more than merited. Stylistically, it was a long-awaited return to form for Against Me!, who had come off a transitional few years of on-again, off-again relationships with major labels and band members. The album provided the catchy but ferocious punk jams to which fans could once again turn their clapping hands into angry balled fists. One song served as a eulogy to dead friend, another song provocatively entitled “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” explored the idea of perspective-based thruths, and stuck somewhere in between was an achingly beautiful acoustic existential love song for Grace’s five-year-old daughter. And it was all somehow tied together thematically through a deeply personal and brutally honest introspective look at one person’s coming to terms with gender dysphoria and all the self-discovery that comes with it—the aggression…
“You want them to see you like they see every other girl/ But they just see a faggot/ They'll hold their breath not to catch the sick.”
“Don’t wanna live without teeth/ Don’t wanna die without bite/ I never wanna say that I regret it.”
and the uncertainty…
“Does God bless your transexual heart? True trans soul rebel.”
Grace and the band have been singing the Blues ever since. As stellar as the album is in a musical context, it has merely served as a vehicle to create widespread awareness of gender dysphoria across the world, with Grace as the posterwoman for it. This year alone, in addition to the band’s extensive international tours which clocked in 151 shows across 57,000 miles, she has appeared in just about every media outlet—The Guardian, Elle, Newsweek, NPR, and Time, a magazine which also put transgender actress Laverne Cox on the cover of a May issue with a cover story, “The Transgender Tipping Point.”
The band also returned to The Late Show with David Letterman in February. The sight of a 6’ 2” transgender woman (6’ 4” in heels) singing a song called “Fuckmylife666” on a talk show watched by grandmas in the middle of the country probably advanced the cultural acceptance of transgender politics by about a decade alone. She tirelessly threw herself into the fire, covering it all, from highbrow features in Grantland to a Buzzfeed photo listicle, “10 Questions It’s Never OK To Ask A Transgender Person.” However you consumed media, Grace was there to educate you.
The unyielding media blitz was far from Grace preaching from a soapbox though, but rather, she has been learning with us, growing into her new, heavily tattooed skin right before our eyes. And Grace has handled it all with nothing short of, well, grace. Her ten-episode series “True Trans” on AOL showcased her learning from—and learning with—fellow members of the trans community. “I’ve met gender-variant people from all walks of life, all at various points in their journeys,” Grace says in the show’s intro. “Hearing their stories and then being able to relate myself to it is what I need right now.” In addition to her time in the public eye, she put so much time into engaging with fans in person and on the internet—answering questions, lending support, listening.
To think of how many young people have seen Grace over the last year—whether it be playing guitar in a mini-skirt on stage or crying openly with a gender-variant person on her web series—the impact of it is immeasurable. For many, she will be the first face in which they will be able to see their own unspoken struggles. Her unwavering commitment and honesty will undoubtedly be largely responsible for a new generation of the trans community or simply those who feel different, for those who look at her and say: Me too.
That is perhaps the most significant theme of Transgender Dysphoria Blues—one that has been much overlooked: It is not simply about gender issues. At its heart, it’s a record about more universal themes of alienation and depression. Songs like “Drinking with the Jocks” and the lyrics, “All of my life, wishing I was one of them” perfectly capture the innate feeling of desperately wanting to belong to the same popular in-crowds that ostracize you. The album stands as a modern-day punk masterpiece and a message to those who’ve ever felt uncomfortable in their own bodies: you are far from alone.
If there is a God—whatever gender an omnipotent being might identify with—it’s hard to believe that he or she would allow a heart like Laura Jane Grace’s to go unblessed. True trans soul rebel.
1. Rich Gang – Tha Tour Part 1
Was there a more flat-out fun record than Tha Tour Part 1 this year? No fucking way. In 2014, nothing was as exciting, unpredictable, dangerous, disarming, or laugh-out-loud funny as what happened when Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug got thrown in the studio with Cash Money impresario Birdman. What made Tha Tour feel so vital, particularly in what could be an artistically and spiritually stagnant year, was its many-sidedness, the way it seemed to spawn new versions of its lead characters practically every few lines. On “Keep It Going,” Young Thug slowly builds from a mumble to a full-on scream, jumping from serenading his girl to yelling about hanging out with Bobby Shmurda in New York; on “Givenchy” he rattles off punchlines and boasts 'til he's left sputtering; “Freestyle” finds him asking Quan for pain pills out of nowhere.
Quan, too, is a wild card in his own right. Throughout his mixtape career, he’s garnered a reputation as a stylistic innovator if something of a conventional writer; here, his melodicism and penchant for raw emotion shines. It’s his tender hook on “Milk Marie,” his caterwaul of “I just wanna li-i-i-iiiive” on “Hate I,” his backing vocals on “Tell ‘Em (Lies)” that steal the show right out of Thug’s larger-than-life personality. Though nearly every verse on Tha Tour is endlessly quotable, the line that takes the cake on the entire tape is Quan’s flippant, “Did a show out in Boston, drinkin’ lean out a teacup” on “Beat It Up.”
Still, the unsung hero of Tha Tour is Birdman. In addition to his incessant ad libs of “Rich. Gang!” and “Rich. Girl.” that pepper the tape (they’re grating at first, but they grow on you—seriously.) and a poetic monologue about “gold terlets and chandeliers,” he reveals himself to be a genuinely thrilling rapper, something that people have forgotten amid the hand-rub gifs and allegations that he’s holding Lil Wayne hostage at Cash Money against his will. He might only have a handful of verses on the tape, but he steals the show every time out, whether it’s the cartoonishly evil tenor with which he drops lines like “For the money it’ll be your own people on you” on “Flava” or the jazziness of his boasts on “Imma Ride.” Yet most importantly, Birdman is the one who Berry Gordy’d this shit, giving Tha Tour the steady hand it needed to maintain its unflagging quality, and, above all, recognizing the potential of Quan and Thug as a duo and bringing them together.
Whether it was listening to them enthusiastically get lost in ad libbing over each other's hooks or the satisfyingly pleasant surprise that Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan make harmonies together like they’re the motherfucking Beach Boys, Tha Tour positioned Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug as hip-hop’s next great duo, right up there along with Big and Andre, Bun and Pimp, Raekwon and Ghostface. Much like the aforementioned groups, there's a dichotomy to Quan and Thugger that just works. With Quan as the level-headed anchor and melodic center holding everything together, Young Thug is free to play the id, meandering over these 20 tracks with a logic uniquely his own, damn near inventing a new flow for every other line. Make no bones about it: though Kendrick Lamar, in his infinite austerity, technical skill, and novelist’s eye, might be the de facto “best rapper alive” these days, Thug’s right on his heels, rewriting the rules of hip-hop in real time.