We’re a bunch of culture geeks here at Loser City, which means we love nothing so much as conformity, lists, and faux definitive rankings of things. With that in mind, this month we’re bringing you our Loser City Best Ofs, lists on lists on lists of our picks for top video games, comics, and everything else, along with personal lists from our authors on the things that kept us from crying now and then during this terrible, terrible year.
This week, we’re focusing on music.
As has been the case for the past couple decades, music in 2014 shifted and mutated uncontrollably, the walls of genre nearly broken down so completely that the medium’s best and most successful practicioners lacked definitive labels. But as it was a year of turmoil, much of what brought music together this year was anxiety, frustration and rage, a desire to bring about change, to the point that members of Run the Jewels became favorite guests of media pundits, reclusive neo-soul legend D’Angelo broke his 14 year silence to unleash a devastating masterpiece and the only thing anyone could agree on as a bright optimistic spot was Taylor Swift’s 1989, which was so beloved by our staff it required nearly half a dozen write-ups. We hope that our list of our favorite albums this year will showcase some of the diversity and uniqueness that made 2014 a great year for art even as it was a terrible year for society. This is by no means a definitive representation of the year, and we know some choices will seem foreign to even the savviest listeners, but these are the records that kept us sane in an insane time.
Young Fathers- Dead
It’s shocking that Young Fathers haven’t taken the world by storm yet. Maybe Scottish hip-hop isn’t a thing that piques most people’s interest, or maybe the words “Mercury Prize” don’t mean anything to people outside of the UK, or maybe Pitchfork still has that much influence. But Young Fathers’ style — experimental but accessible, intense yet measured, like a fusion of Death Grips and Animal Collective– instantly impresses, even more so with their best record yet, Dead.
With its mix of soulful crooning, sudden intense rap verses, and oblique beats, Dead proves the versatility of Young Fathers’ sound, with lines that pierce the mind and take up residence (“Gate crash the Ivory tower” “Bish-bosh // banging on the calabash // dead ringers” “Don’t shoot the messenger // shoot the messenger’s mother…fucker). Tracks like “Low,” “Get Up,” and “MMMH MMMH” show off the balancing act that the group plays throughout the record — Dead feels worldly without evoking the damning label of “world music,” serious and emotional but oftentimes fun as well as funny . Dead is a record that feels like it should explode, but it’s way too cool. – Danny Djeljosevic
UDF- God’s Work
2014 was a bleak fucking year. Chaos reigned as the police openly murdered people without consequence, civil liberties were violated on an unprecedented level by our government, global conflict seemed unusually close thanks to violations of sovereignty by everyone from Russia to North Korea to rogue middle eastern nations. It was the kind of year where escape just wasn’t possible and so I sought refuge in works that embraced the darkness and tried to reshape it, works like UDF’s frighteningly unhinged bleak hip hop masterpiece God’s Work.
At the moment, the Underworld Dust Funk Collective might not be a name ringing any bells for you, but 2014 was a very good year for them, as each of their central members– Bolo Nef, Caz Greez and default producer Khrist Koopa– all unleashed devastating solo and collaborative works. But towards the end of the year, they came together as a collective and created God’s Work, a sobering album that highlighted each of their strengths and expertly communicated the anxiety and terror that defined this year while also illustrating the group’s unique aesthetic. Unlike the noise rap outfits that were so en vogue in 2014, UDF’s sound is chilling and precise, murky in its textures but full of sharp, glassy tones and intimidatingly clear vocals. The sinister mood of God’s Work would have served as a wake up call in a less chaotic year, but in 2014 it was a siren wail, a piercing sonic blast through irrelevant noise letting us know dark times are already here and the only way to get through is to keep your eyes open to the horrors. – Nick Hanover
You know all those scenes in movies where the hero’s got blood in their mouth and they smirk and spit it out like a badass? Yeah, clipping. is cooler than all of them combined. CLPPNG smacks you in the jaw and leaves you wanting more. It crunches together ephemera, phenomena and most importantly, viscera. I could say that clipping.’s second release is an extension of the experimental, industrial-hip-hop legacy of acts like Death Grips and Dälek, but that would be damning it with faint praise. What you’ll find inside is really what hip-hop has been doing forever: pushing boundaries and making connections. It’s so great then to hear these genuinely earnest goals achieved in such a sublimely-fucked manner.
This is an album that creates a body for the listener to explore and experience for their own. You can feel every push of MC Daveed Diggs’ tongue against his teeth and every fleck of spit he flings. You can feel the friction and collision of William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes sampling fragile bells, slamming dumpster covers and incessant alarm screeches. Not to mention BIRDS. When you back this up with tracks about violent female sexuality, the inanity of working corners and the destructive nature of storytelling, it’s hard to peel yourself away. And while maybe CLPPNG does lose sight of its body sometimes–a hook that lingers awkwardly, a sample that distracts instead of entices–it’s still able to make something more than the sum of its parts. And for a person who largely only enjoys music song-to-song like me, this album is a welcome surprise. – Liam Conlon
Swans- To Be Kind
Thirty years ago it might have seemed blasphemous to end a Swans album with the line “There are millions of stars in your eyes.” But lead singer/songwriter Michael Gira is a seasoned blasphemer and understands that true sacrilege is about flouting everything expected of you–like reuniting a band known for its sonic cruelty at the age of 55 and then releasing three albums over the next five years, two of which are over two hours long.
As the follow-up to 2012’s The Seer–the album likely to go down as Swans’ post-reunion masterpiece–To Be Kind is a more than worthy successor as it finds Gira taking the most beautiful and most profane moments of his recorded output, splitting the difference, and calling it ecstasy. That’s not to say that Swans’ sound has completely softened; album centerpiece “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Overture,” for instance, is 34 minutes of gale-force trauma played to shouts of “Sangre es amor!/Amor es sangre! (Blood is love/Love is blood)” and “Oxygen” is the most furious yet catchiest song ever written about nearly suffocating to death. But the more brutal moments on the record are complicated by the presence of songs like “Some Things We Do” and “Kristen Supine” whose languid, sinewy arrangements are sickeningly lush. The result of this combination is an album that is as much stuck wallowing in the mud as it is transfixed by the blinding gaze of the sun. Let’s hope To Be Kind is just the second in a long string of artistic triumphs for Swans in the 21st century–because we all know Gira is less likely to go into retirement than he is to kick the bucket on stage, wailing and drooling to some of the ugliest, most cathartic, most ecstatic sounds ever made. Praise be. – Joshua Palmer
Perfect Pussy- Say Yes to Love
“And I want to fuck myself/And I want to eat myself!” You and me both, sister.
Perfect Pussy’s astonishing debut record Say Yes to Love manages to be at the same time deeply troubling, endlessly moving, incredibly personal, and beyond twisted. Along with Run the Jewels’ “RTJ 2” and Perfume Genius’ “Too Bright” this record acts as a rallying call for a group of marginalized people to stand up and say “enough is enough.” Singer Meredith Graves doesn’t dream about finding the perfect man, she wants a nice apartment with flowers and windows. She eats stress and shits blood. This isn’t a record about standing by your man, it’s about standing up without having to worry about a man. And even though Meredith Graves is the de facto leader of the group, both live and on the record her vocals are mixed the same level as the instruments and feedback loop. This can come across as humbling position of the vocalist or as a representation of women in today’s Red Pill and MRM world. That no matter how loud the world is around a voice, if you take the time to listen, you’ll fucking learn something – Dylan Garsee
Half Waif- Kotekan
The evolution of home recording technology has allowed a lot of intriguing studio projects to emerge, from the lo-fi pop punk of Wavves to the glitchy electronic daredevilry of Baths, but few bedroom maestros have created works as stunningly ornate and complex as New York newcomer Half Waif did with Kotekan. Like a young Kate Bush inexplicably dropped into the 21st century, Half Waif’s voice is spectral, a gorgeous but ethereal presence that lingers in your ears long after the fade out, hinting at other worlds and eras.
On Kotekan’s best tracks– “The Operator,” “Ceremonial,” “All My Armor,”– that haunting voice is supported by eccentric instrumentation, glitched out percussion frolicking with wobbly organs and alien vocal samples. St. Vincent did similarly adventurous chamber pop this year, but Half Waif is such an exciting new voice that Kotekan was the album I turned to more, desperate to uncover its buried secrets, comforted by the warmth of its near spiritual tones. I suspect that Kotekan is the kind of beautiful but overlooked debut that will only become more potent as Half Waif carves out a more prominent space for herself in the national scene, but for me it was love at first sound and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop returning to it. – Nick Hanover
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
After years of putting in work with consistently great albums, Killer Mike and El-P finally received their due comeuppance after making waves with last summer’s first Run The Jewels album. The record was a celebration, two close friends shit-talking their competition while revealing depth and heart that had been drawing fans in for decades. This year’s Run The Jewels was stronger on nearly every level. El-P’s beats were more intense, Mike’s raps even more passionate. They talked about serious issues, whether it be the guilt of selling drugs to a pregnant woman, the fear of being harassed by the police for being black, or how to deal with the paranoia that comes with our modern government. While not directly influenced by the events of Ferguson this past summer, the album’s themes felt relevant to the injustices occurring daily.
Luckily, the increased level of gravity didn’t mean the two were any less fun or less fierce. Over some of the most manic beats of El-P’s career, the two took aim at everyone, from priests and teachers to rappers and fuckboys. The two have never sounded as lean as they did here, packing tirades of insults and hammering beats into eleven tightly packed songs. They made dream collaborations happen as well, bringing in a range of guests from bands such as Foxygen, Blink-182, and Rage Against the Machine, and utilized them flawlessly. Killer Mike and El-P are cocky assholes who know how skilled they are, and here they got to show the world that. – David Sackllah
Against Me!- Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Culturally, few, if any, albums of 2014 were more important than Transgender Dysphoria Blues. A year and a half after publicly announcing that she was transgender, lead singer Laura Jane Grace delivered a searing and honest collection of songs that provided incredible insight into the struggles and triumphs she’s faced, while also rocking your fucking face off. Grace’s voice is stronger than ever and Transgender Dysphoria Blues is beautifully direct, often to the point of being brutal. The opening track has Grace tackling the difficulty of being seen as she wants to be, when so many people “just see a faggot,” and in “Unconditional Love” she struggles with the bitter fact that even someone’s absolute, unconditional love might not be enough to make some things okay. Still, when things verge on becoming too bleak to handle, there’s the impossibly lovely lullaby, “Two Coffins,” and the darkly victorious fuck-you of “Black Me Out,” which could easily have come from a much earlier Against Me! album.
Even if this album had been average from a musical perspective, it still would have been monumental in terms of providing visibility and speaking to the transgender experience. We were luckier than we could have hoped to be, though, because it was also the most riotous, invigorating, and original music that Laura Jane Grace and the rest of Against Me! have made in years. From start to finish, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is one of the punkest things that’s happened in the past decade, let alone this year. – Kayleigh Hughes
D’Angelo & The Vanguard – Black Messiah
2014 was filled with many wonderful albums, but none felt as momentous as D’Angelo’s return to the music world after a 14-year break. Voodoo has rightfully been heralded as one of the all-time greats, and the pressure to follow it up was immense. All D’Angelo really had to do to garner acclaim was show up, but instead he delivered an album that sounded like it took 14 years of intricate care and backbreaking work to create.
The 12 songs are expertly crafted, with a refreshing sound that also felt wholly familiar. Many sounded like instant classics, as though they had been a part of the cultural landscape for decades. Black Messiah was influenced by legends such as Marvin Gaye, Prince, and Parliament, but it also felt as a peer to the works made by those artists. The album was released months ahead of schedule due to D’Angelo’s feelings regarding the outcome of grand jury hearings related to Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Black Messiah was equal parts timely and timeless. Full of layers to unpack, D’Angelo’s return was nothing short of a masterpiece, and 2014 was a much better year because of it. – DS
Taylor Swift- 1989
Friend of Loser City David Sackllah texted me the second “Shake it Off” debuted with the most devastating six words a lifelong Taylor Swift fan could hear: “What did we do to deserve this?” Taylor Swift had always been pop artist, and anyone who says otherwise is a moron. Her debut wasn’t “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”– in fact the most teeth she shows is when she threatens to tell her ex’s friends he’s gay. But did she go too pop? Did she lose herself to dance?
Fuck no, 1989 is a goddamn masterpiece, miles above her last effort Red and at the same level as other perfect second and third records. The lip biting sexy desperation of “Style” feels right at home with the singing into the hairbrush jam “How You Get The Girl”.
Besides being the best pop record since Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob, 1989 has some of the best Burn Book entries since Regina George wrote that Amber D’Alessio made out with a hot dog. The aforementioned “Style” and “Out of the Woods” throw great shade at Harry Styles and “Bad Blood” is basically Swift farting out a better version of Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally”.
I still don’t hear “Starbucks Lovers” though. Y’all need to clean out your ears. – DG
Listen, I’m not one to cite sales numbers as a metric of artistic merit. After all, Mackelmore is incredibly popular, and don’t even get me started. But this seems like a special case: The only artist to go platinum in 2014 was Taylor Swift, with 1989. In our infinitely fractured media landscape, Taylor Swift stands astride our musical loves like a pop colossus, unifying American culture in our adulation of her catchy, catchy jams. That may be overstating it a bit, but not by much. Taylor Swift is popular beyond most of the traditional bounds that separate people’s tastes, as loved at this point by my indie friends as the ones who don’t know or care who Pavement is.
None of this would be justification for 1989 making a year-end list, however, if it wasn’t also so irrepressibly good. The songs here are consistently listenable and showcase a depth of sophistication and range that a lot of people don’t associate with Taylor Swift. This music is self-aware, fun, and pulls some of the best tricks from late’-80s dance pop, repurposing them for Taylor’s own designs. Which are, again, colossal. She’s the closest we have to a universal pop star, and this was easily her best album, which made it quite an event, and one of the best musical moments of 2014. – Jake Muncy
Taylor Swift is an artist that does not stop. From the uncontainable joy of “Shake It Off” to the dreamy whirlwind of “Style” to the absolute rush of “I Know Places,” 1989 is the most recent manifestation of Swift’s incredible resilience, and it’s even further evidence that she truly was put on this earth to write pop songs. She’s a genius at it, and even when her lyrical choices seem odd or out of place (“mad love”, any time she says “beat”), they’re the right kind of strange. These songs are meant to be that way. Much is made of the autobiographical nature of Swift’s music, but it goes beyond just love stories and into the honesty and imperfections and music-making weirdnesses that make her a real and remarkable human. This is the album where Swift is unabashed about who she is–it’s the first album of hers where she sounds proud of herself in all ways.
As with Red and Fearless before it, things on 1989 get more down-tempo and reflective towards the end of the album. That means there’s less single material–indeed, it’s exceedingly rare for a Swift single to come from the latter half of an album–but these are also the songs that allow her to breathe and show off her songwriting talent and unique brand of emotional acuity. There’s so much fun on 1989, so much confidence, and so many great pop hits, it’s an album that’s impossible to deny. – KH
It’s possible that 1989 is full of backmasked tracks preaching the word of Mammon; that would probably be the most satisfying explanation for 1989′s platinum status to the fifty or so people who didn’t enjoy this dance pop extravaganza. But it feels far more likely that 1989 is just a wonderful collection of 16 incredibly well-engineered pop songs with some of the cleverest lyrics and biggest fuck you‘s to the pop music media establishment (who somehow misunderstood the video for “Blank Space” and the lyrics to “Shake it Off”). Yes, I said 16 tracks; “New Romantics” is worth the price of admission in and of itself with lyrics like “We show off our different scarlet letters/Trust me, mine is better.”
It seems that Taylor learned quite a bit from Tegan and Sara while performing with them and listening to Hearthtrob, which she declared one of her all-time favorite albums, 1989 feels like a pop-star interpretation of the sounds and emotions on display on Tegan and Sara’s latest record. TSwift not only borrowed a bit of the Heartthrob sound, she borrowed the heart-on-your-sleeve level of sincerity that has led to countless successful indie rock bands. Even when Taylor falls short on being immediately relatable and lets her class privilege show on a song like “Welcome to New York,” the metaphor is still a good one.
The strong contenders for the best songs on 1989 have no trouble leaving a mark all over critics’ top lists of 2014, and while I frequently found myself skipping tracks, it was to jump ahead to a song I really wanted to listen to again (like the aforementioned “New Romantics”). I couldn’t find a song on 1989 that didn’t impress me, didn’t stick with me in some way, didn’t make me want to keep listening to TSwift, and if Mammon’s to blame, I’ll be first in line to worship at the altar of capitalism. – David Fairbanks
And don’t forget to check out our other best of lists in the coming weeks, as well as those we’ve already published: 10 Favorite Video Games, The Year in Panels, 10 Favorite Comics, 10 Favorite Movies and more to come.