The 25 Best Albums of 2014 So Far

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It’s getting toward the end of June, which means… mid-year list time! It’s been a strange year for music thus far, with plenty to like but relatively little to love, and as a result, our annual state-of-the-year-in-progress list is an eclectic affair, encompassing genres as diverse as studies on an imagined pseudo-China, dystopian futurist pop, food-centric neo-soul, and an epic triple album that’s likely to generate a panic attack and/or an existential crisis. And strangest of all, perhaps, hip hop from Portland.

Against Me! — Transgender Dysphoria Blues

It’s easy to lose this album in its narrative — the first record Against Me! have made since Tom Gabel became Laura Jane Grace, and an album that addresses the transgender experience with perception, compassion, and at times brutal honesty. But it’s also just a great rock ‘n’ roll record, home to some of the best songs that Grace has ever written, songs that evoke the most universal of human emotions: rage, and sadness, and love. — Tom Hawking

Automat — Automat

This album is… how to put this? It’s very German. It’s the work of three Berlin-based producers who go by the one-word names Arbeit, Färber, and Zeitblom, and it taps into the country’s rich heritage of driving, motor-powered rock ‘n’ roll — and it also features guest vocals from Lydia Lunch, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, and, inevitably, Blixa Bargeld. As the band’s website says, “it’s a Berlin affair.” — Tom Hawking

Clipping. — CLPPNG

Flavorwire editorial overlady Judy Berman and I stumbled into these guys’ set at the Red Bull Music Academy last month — neither of us were familiar with the band, and both of us liked them a great deal. A couple of days later, the album was everywhere, which goes to show just how quickly hype can build. Clipping. are worthy of that hype, though — they’re like a more cerebral and less dickish Death Grips, mixing industrial noise and mic-melting MC skills to startling effect. — Tom Hawking

EMA — The Future’s Void

We’re doing this list in alphabetical order, but if I had to pick an album of the year to date, it’d most likely be this one. Erika M. Anderson’s second album is a very different beast from her first, the wonderful Past Life Martyred Saints, but all that shows is how diverse and fascinating her lyrical interests are. Your correspondent spoke with Andersen back in April, when the album was released — if you’re interested in reading further about its themes, click on through. — Tom Hawking

The Hotelier — Home, Like Noplace There Is

Even hinting around the phrase “Emo Revival” will inevitably scare off potential fans of The Hotelier’s stunning sophomore LP, but the lay-it-bare style of late ‘90s emo heroes the Promise Ring and the Get Up Kids cannot be denied here. Also in the mix is mainstream modern punk like Against Me! and a touch of screamo vocals, unfurled over the course of nine unrelenting songs. The Worcester, Massachusetts band builds up a narrative of self-destruction and emotional abuse only to climax midway through with an extreme scene: a funeral. Even on the acoustic tracks, there’s not much room to move: every mouthful of exposition, every ‘whoa-oh’, every nest of power chords is packed full of hurt. ­ — Jillian Mapes

HTRK — Psychic 9-5 Club

This is as close to happy-sounding as HTRK get, which is to say that it’s still restrained and somewhat ominous, albeit less so than their previous work. There’s definitely a hint of levity in songs like lead single “Give It Up,” which is the perfect soundtrack to one too many cocktails in the backyard/rooftop on the sort of steamy summer night when it’s too hot to sleep anyway. — Tom Hawking

Katy B — Little Red

Although Katy B was initially pegged as a pop-dubstep star and her debut toyed with a number of electronic styles British and otherwise, her underrated sophomore LP exhibited a more precise vision of deep house through the lens of pop. Where her peers would load up on guests and toss in a couple ballads, Katy stays focused on unrelentingly upbeat, infectiously catchy dance music. Her guests — Jessie Ware and rising UK songwriter/producer Sampha — masterfully fit into the picture she paints. When Katy does take a rare breather from the dance floor, she veers towards R&B and still stays midtempo. It’s rare to see a young pop artist flinging herself so confidently into a singular vision in lieu of playing subgenre whack-a-mole, and it pays off. — Jillian Mapes

Kelis — Food

Kelis gets all soulful about food, and the results are excellent indeed. Lead single “Jerk Ribs” (above) sounds like a sort of languid latter-day Stevie Wonder jam, and the rest of the album follows in a similar fashion, basing itself around a loose theme of, yes, food, but using that idea as a jumping-off point for meditations on love, loss and the importance of family. — Tom Hawking

Liars — Mess

Otherwise known as the Liars party album! (Admittedly, considering we’re talking about a band who once made a gloriously unlistenable concept album about witches, that’s not saying a great deal, but hey.) The consistently interesting NYC-based trio continue their excursions into electronic music with this record, this time with some thunderous beats and distinctly dancefloor-y flavors. You’ve probably never danced to a song that contains the lyric “I’ll die before the fire’s out” before, but shit, there’s always a first time. — Tom Hawking

Marissa Nadler — July

This has been a good year for fans of mournful female singer/songwriters — but despite the excellence of the albums on this list by Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen, the most welcome development of the year has been the return of Marissa Nadler, who apparently nearly quit music before Sacred Bones main man Caleb Braaten convinced her to make one more record. This is the record in question, and it’s the best Nadler’s made yet. Hurrah. — Tom Hawking

Angel Olsen — Burn Your Fire For No Witness

And speaking of Angel Olsen, this early year highlight has rarely been far from the Flavorwire stereo since its release in February. It’s a fascinating hybrid of country sounds and seamy, late night rock ‘n’ roll, layering Olsen’s tales of heartbreak and loss over a bunch of distortion-laden guitars. The result is an album that sounds like a latter-day answer to the work of Lucinda Williams, which is high praise indeed. — Tom Hawking

Owen Pallett — In Conflict

Owen Pallett’s fascinating dissections of the work of other songwriters for Slate have thrown a deserved spotlight back onto his own work, and happily, he’s got an excellent new album for new listeners to start with. This is probably Pallett’s most accessible record, but it sacrifices nothing in the way of either his trademark intricate arrangements or his trademark idiosyncrasies. — Tom Hawking

Fatima al Qadiri — Asiatisch

The Desert Strike EP, released in 2012, marked Brooklyn producer Fatima al Qadiri as a fascinating new talent to watch, and her debut full-length release delivers on that promise, and then some. It’s a difficult record to categorize — as the title suggests, its music explores Asian influences, and Chinese ones in particular, but only in the respect that they’re reflected back through Western culture (as she told Pitchfork in March, she’s never been to China, and the record is “like a virtual road trip through ‘imagined China'”). The music that results is fascinating, atmospheric and decidedly eclectic. — Tom Hawking

St Vincent — St Vincent

New hair, new synth obsession, and probably a whole lot of new fans… 2014 has been an excellent year for Annie Clark, and its highlight has been this fantastic record, which explores themes of privacy and surveillance culture to great effect. A futuristic dystopia has never sounded quite so good. — Tom Hawking

Sharon Van Etten — Are We There

It recently emerged that the cover photo of this album is the first photo that Van Etten gave her ex-boyfriend when they started dating, one that she assumed he’d lost before it re-emerged years later, covered in dust. That should be enough to suggest that this is an uncompromisingly honest and personal record, but if not, then Jesus, just listen to the lyrics. “Your Love Is Killing Me” is perhaps the most intense song of the year to date — “Break my legs so I can’t walk to you,” she sings during the chorus, “Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/ Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/ Stab my eyes so I can’t see” — and the rest of the album continues in a similar vein. Yikes. — Tom Hawking

Shocking Pinks — Guilt Mirrors

For the last couple of years, New Zealand-based oddball Nick Harte, who records under the Shocking Pinks moniker, has been the subject of the occasional “Whatever happened to…” conversation around the editorial vodka bottle. Turns out the answer was: recording a triple-album opus! And what a record it is — strange, immersive, claustrophobic electronic music, based around beats that give you both an urge to shoulder dance and a sense of vague existential unease, veering at times into weird Aphex Twin-esque abstract noise and at others into the sort of reflective balladry that’d have Hope Sandoval sobbing in appreciation. If you can listen to the whole thing in one sitting without having some sort of breakdown, you’re in a better mental state than me. — Tom Hawking

Sun Kil Moon — Benji

This may well be the most downbeat and emotionally demanding record Mark Kozelek’s ever made, and that’s saying something. If nothing else, though, it’s definitely his most personal — among other things, the first-person narratives discuss the singer’s family (“I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” “I Love My Dad”), his transition into middle age (“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes.”), and, um, his relationship with Ben Gibbard (“Ben’s My Friend”). It’s a beautiful, sparse record — at times, it’s harrowing listening, but always rewarding. — Tom Hawking

Swans — To Be Kind

To Be Kind is even longer than Swans’ mighty 2012 magnum opus The Seer, although it lacks that album’s coherence and general sense of being the product of a band at the top of its game. Still, two hours and two minutes of Michael Gira and co. is the musical equivalent of going 12 rounds with a large, terrifying man — punishing, but thrilling in its own strange way. — Tom Hawking

Tacocat — NVM

How do you follow up a debut album whose most memorable song was about wearing a leotard to avoid having to go past first base? With an album whose catchiest single is an irresistible surf-rock anthem about getting your period — titled, of course, “Crimson Wave.” Any release from Tacocat, the wonderful band that pairs pop-y punk with lyrics about weed, cats, and Being Female, is cause for celebration, but NVM is the kind of record that leaves you hoping they’ll never, ever stop. The zeitgeist is surely working in Tacocat’s favor, but so are all those hooks. — Judy Berman

Todd Terje — It’s Album Time!

Terje has been king of the deft disco re-edit for years, and his remixes have always been top notch. But as the album title suggests, it’s well past time for him to release a record of his own material. Happily, It’s Album Time was worth the wait — the standout track is the startlingly good cover of Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary” with Bryan Ferry on vocals (above), but there’s plenty more to like here. — Tom Hawking

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra — Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything

Uneasy music for uneasy times. Efrim Menuck’s “other” project delivers a state-of-the-nation (and the world) record that isn’t even remotely optimistic, and is at times downright bleak. And yet, there’s something strangely exuberant about this music, the sort of last-ditch desperation that arises in adversity and can deliver unexpectedly positive results. It means that this is an album as laden with hope as it is with fatalism — the future is unwritten, and we haven’t ruined everything yet. — Tom Hawking

Total Control — Typical System

A welcome return for the Australian post-punk quintet, whose debut album Henge Beat was one of the under-appreciated pleasures of the last few years. This is a more diverse record than its predecessor, delivering flat-out analog synth for the dance floor (lead single “Glass,” in particular) at some moments and harking back to the band’s garage rock roots at others (especially the coruscating “Systemic Fuck”). It’s a terse, no-nonsense piece of work, and went straight into this list on its release a week or so ago. — Tom Hawking

Jozef Van Wissem/SQÜRL — Only Lovers Left Alive Soundtrack

I can’t remember the last time a film soundtrack made it onto a list of my favorite albums, but this one is practically the only thing I’ve listened to more than a handful of times over the past few months. A collaboration between the minimalist composer Jozef Van Wissem and Only Lovers Left Alive director Jim Jarmusch’s noise band, SQÜRL, it’s the perfect opiate-paced, largely instrumental accompaniment to a film portrait of two vampire aesthetes in eternal love. But it’s more than that, too — combining the rough, industrial austerity of Detroit and the ancient mysteries of Tangier, it’s music that’s old and new and fresh and familiar all at once. The Wanda Jackson cover, “Funnel of Love,” is perfection, and Yasmine Hamdan’s mesmerizing contribution should surely win her some new fans. Buy the double LP, for the blood-red vinyl. — Judy Berman

White Sea — In Cold Blood

On her debut under the moniker White Sea, M83’s Morgan Kibby makes a frantic play at redefining the pop breakup album. Neither a pretty/sad ballad album nor a big-voiced redemption, In Cold Blood goes for it all: disco, stylized ‘80s synth-pop, diva pop drama, sci-fi movie soundtracks, dance-punk, lots of falsetto. But with Kibby’s unfiltered mouth and unconventional eye, her menagerie of styles cuts through what would come off as clutter from a lesser artist. — Jillian Mapes

Young Thug and Bloody Jay — Black Portland

I’ll be honest — as an NBA nerd, I was first attracted to this mixtape on DatPiff as much by the adapted Trail Blazers logo on the cover than anything else. I’m glad I did listen, though — this is pleasantly spaced-out Three Six Mafia-esque stuff, its chief source of appeal the eccentricity of MC Young Thug, a man who promises to “do home invasions, take all your cookies, go to the block and straight sell ’em.” To continue the basketballing theme, though, the best moment comes when Bloody Jay rhymes “Jenna Jameson” with “Antawn Jamison.” Round of applause. — Tom Hawking