Five years is an eternity in the life of a record. When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these albums play NOW!” Not five years ago, but how have they aged in our memories. While some acclaimed albums of 2014 remain strong on our list, some critically-lauded ones didn’t have the staying power. Lost in the Dream, It’s Album Time and Pom Pom all didn’t make the cut. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. Thank you so much for reading! Here is what we said in 2014.

10. Iceage – Plowing into the Field of Love [Matador]

Iceage won over listeners with the noisy, gothic post-punk of their first two albums, thanks to their frenzied production and performances and the tortured vocals of frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt. You’re Nothing (2013) was the bolder album of the two, with standout track “Morals” offering an exciting, tense and emotional piano ballad that one hoped was a hint towards further growth of the band’s sound. On Plowing into the Field of Love, Iceage not only delivered but went well beyond expectations. Their usual thrashing sound was complemented with acoustic guitars, pianos, horns and strings. Their song arrangements and chord progressions, though still heavy, were injected with a newfound appreciation for melody. Plowing into the Field of Love is Iceage’s longest album to date and arguably their most masterful instrumentally. It showcased a softer side of a band that writes more subtle, intricate and beautiful music but remains true to the rough-and-tumble of their earlier work.

While Joy Division and Bauhaus are still clear influences (“Simony”), Iceage also pull from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (“Forever”) and the Pogues (“Abundant Living”), perfectly juxtaposing beauty and brutality. But while indebted to many influences, Plowing into the Field of Love is completely Iceage’s own. It’s an album dripping with diversity, simply gorgeous songs and frighteningly poetic lyrics, especially for a 22-year-old non-native English speaker (“I don’t care whose house is on fire/ As long as I can warm myself at the blaze,” he declares on opener “On My Fingers”). It’s a timeless record in a sense that it borrows from sounds of old, whether from post-punk or the rockabilly of “The Lord’s Favorite” or the orchestral pop of “Against the Moon.” It doesn’t sound like an album from 2014, or from any other time. – Danny Kilmartin

9. Perfume Genius – Too Bright [Matador]

Too Bright, the third album released under Mike Hadreas’ Perfume Genius moniker, remains a defining artistic statement. It serves as the culmination of half a decade of progressive pop music that not only asserted itself as deeply personal and idiosyncratic, but also a vital voice in the LGBTQ community from a creative and artistic standpoint. That this should still be somewhat of a novelty well into the 21st century says much about where we stand as a culture, let alone the fact it still resonates in 2019.

That Hadreas avoids playing up stereotypes or campiness in favor of a straightforward record of aching beauty rooted in the life and experiences of a gay, white male helps to ensure its resonance well beyond the LGBTQ community and the world of indie music. It’s this type of universality that helps define great art, something Too Bright aspires to be and largely manages. Opener “I Decline” is almost unsettling in its intimacy, while “Queen” is a massive, lumbering bit of glammed-up fuzz rock replete with an off-kilter keyboard line that augments lyrics like “No family is safe when I sashay.” “Don’t Let Them In” represents a thematic element that runs through the whole of the album, both musically and lyrically, with its borderline bedroom/lo-fi orchestrations and feelings of alienation and isolation.

Too Bright is a knowingly self-aware, confident, hook-laden romp through a changing cultural tide that still resonates today, with the continued mainstreaming of the LGBTQ community in the face of wanton hatred and bigotry. It’s an important individual and artistic statement that remains as relevant and powerful now as when it was released more than half a decade ago, a virtual lifetime in terms of social and political change. – John Paul

8. St. Vincent – St. Vincent [Loma Vista]

If the 2010s are remembered for any phenomenon in music, it’ll be that this was the decade that the indie rockers and the pop hitmakers finally decided to learn from each other and start making music together. Annie Clark adopted that shift and made it her own, focusing not on helping others make their pop music, but in building an elegant fusion between that realm and her own smart, self-aware and weird-as-heck aesthetics.

That her fourth album was self-titled, in hindsight, feels fitting, as this was when the persona of St. Vincent entirely eclipsed Clark and assumed her seat on the throne on which she’s seen confidently, menacingly perched on the album’s cover. She’s always sounded confident in her music, but as soon as opener “Rattlesnake” kicks off, it feels like something has truly shifted. “Birth in Reverse” and “Digital Witness” are the tracks that stick the hardest—and for good reason, they’re the best two-song showcase of her ascent here—but even the most unassuming songs feel like potential starmakers. It’s hard not to feel exhilaration when listening to the way the warped, wobbly synths of “Huey Newton” gives way to the blown-speaker guitar tone that has become her calling card, and how that same tone is deployed on the shiny, Green Day-indebted “Regret.”

It was on St. Vincent that anyone hoping for the return of the whip-smart, self-contained Clark of Actor and Marry Me that began to disappear when she teamed up with indie-pop monopolist John Congleton were shown that their wishes weren’t going to come true. Whether or not that’s a good thing is for the listener to decide, but for anyone who heard “Jesus Saves, I Spend” and secretly hoped that Clark would one day achieve world domination, St. Vincent was a step toward the realization of that fantasy. – Holly Hazelwood

7. Sun Kil Moon – Benji [Caldo Verde]

Mark Kozelek’s lyrical style, a stream-of-consciousness series of sudden observations reminiscent of Keyser Söze casting his eyes about the room and riffing on what he sees, has never been better nor more emotionally harrowing than on Benji, his finest hour. From the opening track, which details the freak accident that claimed the life of his cousin, Kozelek drops absolutely devastating bombs in passing asides, acknowledging the grotesque farce of Carissa’s death with “An aerosol can blew up in the trash/ Goddamn, what were the odds?” Working with minimal accompaniment, Kozelek lets his simple acoustic guitar lines and rambling mumble guide the album, making each track sound like a surprise that catches even its maker off-guard. Kozelek regularly gets press for his shit-stirring comments, but at his best, his rabble-rousing is rooted in an extreme empathy, even for those one might deem unworthy of it. This is most evident on “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” which takes no pity on the serial killer but notes how we mark time’s passage by the loss of cultural signifiers, a position Ramirez held just as much as more nostalgic aspects of culture. The garish prompts recollections of the intimate, with Kozelek given to reflect on childhood friends and where they are now, uniting all in melancholic rumination. Kozelek may have subsequently disappeared up his own ass as an increasingly embittered troll, but in 2014 all of his skills aligned for one brittle masterpiece, an open wound that allowed the listener to gaze into the ways that the artist’s style could conjure raw-nerve intensity with the most muted elements. – Jake Cole

6. Aphex Twin – Syro [Warp]

After a prolific period throughout the ‘90s that reached its peak with “Windowlicker,” Richard James, the producer and face, went into a period of obscurity. Fascinatingly enough, though James based much of his early artistry around centering himself, in the 2000s he took himself out of the equation; when music came out, it typically came from another moniker than James’s most famous one, Aphex Twin. Then in 2014, he returned with Syro and proved that Aphex still lay at the apex when it comes to electronic music.

In 2019, Syro sounds of the moment, its beats fit to find themselves behind Shygirl or Kelela (the latter’s own Take Me a_Part, the Remixes also shares its BPMs in each song title). Those titles also enhance the album’s listenability, as it’s easier to simply put on the whole album than trying to recall the name “CIRCLONT14” (shrymoming mix). And what a rush a full listen gives you, lulling you in with a straightforward beat with “minipops 67” (source field mix) only to transport you through a rush of sonic strangeness. The grooving tempo of “produk 29” resembles almost nothing in the cascading synths of “180db_,” and both are made all the better for it. Single tracks contain just as many surprises—”4 bit 9d api+e+6” begins with elongated, melodic tones that become chopped and staccatoed midway through for a more propulsive mood.

Up to the very end, Syro keeps true to its unpredictability with “aisatsana.” As someone who bucks tradition, James decides to invoke one of the most conventional finales, a languid piano number, proving that he’s not only capable of formalities, he knows how to flip them into something entirely atypical. – Mick Jacobs

5. Grouper – Ruins [Kranky]

Cicadas, soft digital fuzz, a bullfrog and an ominous drum: these are the sounds that open Grouper’s 2014 album, Ruins. The record starts outside, we hear the sonic layers of that space and then Liz Harris sings, “Open up the window.” That same attention to space—which in sound is really an attention to absence—is shifted indoors to a room where Harris sings quietly over a piano.

And that is it. That’s pretty much the whole record. Grouper had never been a maximalist project, but on Ruins, Harris pulled back all of the layers, all the loops and overdubs that made Grouper so singular, and gave us something at once stark and intimate. Occasionally, the open window invites the sounds of the frogs in again. Occasionally a ghost harmonizes with Harris. Rain begins to fall. Light thunder rolls in.

It sounds, on the penultimate track, as if Harris has left the room, retreated further indoors away from the draft of the open window. When this happens, the final tune, “Made of Air,” commences. The natural world fades entirely and gives way to a metaphysical ambient work. Organlike synths swell for 11 minutes, as if the room itself were finally able to be heard. In the end, this too dies away. As the final sustained notes recede into quiet, we think we hear the sound of voices. The album ends. It stands, five years later, as a masterwork of space and quiet and is an emotional tour de force. – Ian Maxton

4. FKA twigs – LP1 [Young Turks]

Not sure if Richard Connell would agree, but FKA twigs knows that intimacy is the most dangerous game. “Tonight, I’ve got a question for you/ Tonight, do you want to live or die?” she asks her former lover from the melting landscape of betrayal on “Numbers,” just one highlight among many on her debut full-length. She, like the Girl from Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, has her teeth bared and primed, as ready to kill as to love.

But LP1 stands apart from the crowd for its emphasis on intimacy with self. This was a couple of years before self-care went mainstream, and, goddamn, does it ever provide an alternative vision of what that process looks like. To love oneself, the LP suggests, is to love a hallowed abyss whose depths remain forever uncharted. So, when the album concludes with autoerotic “Kicks,” we know that FKA twigs isn’t just masturbating, she’s discovering a new and haunted entrance to a tryst with subjectivity.

Located in some dark interstice between carnival and cathedral, the sound of the album is seismic. Along with James Blake and Yeezus, LP1 set the shifting groundwork (read: holy terrain) for this decade’s experiments in electricity and music. Listen closely and be shocked by the demented pipe orgy at the bridge of “Lights On,” that endlessly muscled ripple of percussive bass on “Two Weeks” and the knock-knock-knocking on your window at the yearning hands of “Pendulum.” These touches are nothing if not perilous. Worship at your own risk. – Jeff Heinzl

3. Swans – To Be Kind [Young God]

By 2014, Swans had well and truly returned from Michael Gira’s enforced hiatus with a refocused sound and a new kind of intensity as well as an incorporation of the longer form musical explorations that had become a feature of post-rock in the intervening years. The album’s highlights shuttle between the contributions of the band’s members and moments of sonic transcendence. Thor Harris’ and Bill Rieflin’s percussion and drumming grounds Swans in a powerful and earthy rhythm, bringing a muscularity that is, throughout, tender and controlled.

“Screen Shot” and “Bring the Sun” perfectly embody the ways in which tension can be built with precision and restraint, each adding layers as Gira intones another bleak shopping list of affects. Longtime collaborator Norman Westberg similarly adds fire with guitar flourishes and, at times, surgically distributed noise, and his work on the 34-minute track “Bring the Sun/ Toussaint L’Ouverture” runs the full spectrum of what can be done with six strings. Little Annie’s vocals on “Some Things We Do” disperse Gira’s heady masculinity, adding a universal presence to Gira’s statements while St. Vincent’s guest vocals on “Bring the Sun” are otherworldly, seemingly emerging from beneath the song and into its midst.

Throughout his career, Gira’s artistic landscape has been strewn with a rich contradiction of binaries: loud/quiet, sparse/detailed, desiring/impotent, violent/tender. It’s fascinating to watch the gradual drift of his work with Swans, in particular, but also his solo work and with Angels of Light, move from an intense exploration of the depth of human darkness to a position that is, if not obviously positive, at least open to the possibility of positivity. It’s in To Be Kind that Gira’s revision of the band’s mission as an orchestra of darkness and light can be most clearly seen, and it’s with those moments where restraint is momentarily ignored that the album glows fiercest. – Scott Wilson

2. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 [Mass Appeal]

If Killer Mike and El-P had stopped with their first album as Run the Jewels, it would have been a worthy addition to both rappers’ considerable discographies. It was a shocking whirlwind of hip-hop, an old-school neo-classic from two of the genre’s finest students. But the duo wasn’t done in 2013, not while the world was rapidly going to hell and two of the post perceptive and socially aware voices in the game still had shit to say. If RTJ was a shocking symbiosis of talent, Run the Jewels 2 was a searing statement of intent, proof that these two MCs weren’t just content with hanging out in the studio and patting each other on the back. No, they were going to tear shit down, no matter the consequences.

On RTJ2, Killer Mike and El-P lay waste to society, taking their aim at a culture that disguises its inherent selfishness and callousness towards humanity as being based on some nebulous set of values. Whatever they may be, Run the Jewels have no time for you. The beats are aggressive; while synth-based, they also rely heavily on deep, booming percussion in the way that invites Rick Rubin comparisons. It’s old-school, but it’s not trying to be retro; it’s just the only way to channel the strident attitude expressed on these songs, from the kick in the ass that is “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” to the undeniable force of nature that is “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck),” on which they literally take no prisoners. Simultaneously timely and entirely out of its time, Run the Jewels 2 survives now because its creators stayed true to their instincts when any record executive in America would have told them not to. – Kevin Korber

1. D’Angelo – Black Messiah [RCA]

D’Angelo’s belated return confirmed him as one of modern music’s greats; it’s one of the best funk albums since…well, since Voodoo. Black Messiah flows from a deep well of black art-pop stretching back to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and it’s deeply reverent; both the name of the band (“the Vanguard”) and the sitars slathered all over this thing pay tribute to Prince. But even the Purple One never pushed as far out as “1000 Deaths,” a burbling, claustrophobic funk behemoth with the simple message that D’Angelo would kill and die for his freedom and for the freedom of his fellow man. “God must’ve not have heard my prayer,” he croaks deep within “1000 Deaths,” and indeed the “Prayer” we hear later in the album comes through cracked and broken, as if through a faulty radio transmitter.

Black Messiah was often mentioned this decade in the same breath as Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly: a masterpiece made at least partially in response to the epidemic of police killings of unarmed black Americans. But while Kendrick explicitly dated his record to 2015, Black Messiah is a more general meditation on a broken and violent world—and on the things that make it worth saving, demonstrated on its wonderful love songs like “Really Love” and “Another Life.” It’s hard to imagine the album aging unless the human race puts unprecedented effort into casting the ills which Black Messiah laments into the dustbin of history, and it’s distressing to hear D’Angelo sing about many of the same things Gaye did almost 50 years ago on What’s Going On. It’s no easier to reach God now than then. – Daniel Bromfield

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Best Albums of 2020 (So Far)

We have reached the halfway point of 2020. In the past, we would use this time to pause, l…