Surprise? ATR Best of Music 2014 featuring predictability

I almost wrote this post in early December along with all the other best-of lists, but something (besides laziness) nagged at the back of my mind, telling me “wait, it’s not the end of the year yet, what if someone (Jay Electronica? Nah!) decides to drop a last-minute album that blows your mind?”

Weirdly, my intuition turned out to be correct, as D’Angelo, ATR all-time R&B favorite, dropped a surprise in the form of his first LP in 14 years. Like a D’Angelo album isn’t going to be one of my favorite album of any year, as if my list would be complete without it. I remember the first time I heard D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar,” it was a life-changing experience. I was in high school and heard D’s dulcet tones emanating from a classmate’s boombox. “Who IS this?” I asked. “D’Angelo,” my friend Josiah answered. I sat in dumbfounded awe for a minute, listening quietly. “What did you say his name is, again?” “D’Angelo, the CD case is over there.”

The next day, I went to the CD shop near campus and found a used copy of “Brown Sugar” for $5. That ranks up there with the best $5 I’ve ever spent. This was 1998.

So as you can see, D’Angelo is in my blood. I’m glad I waited. He deserves recognition.

I was going to rank literally every album I heard in 2014 because I didn’t feel like I had heard a lot of new stuff, but when I sat down and tallied it up, I did actually listen to about 30-some albums, plus some mixtapes, which seems like more than I feel like writing about. This year was a fairly forgettable year in music for me, save for a few outstanding exceptions, so I’m just going to toss out some of my favorites in a somewhat unranked fashion, except for my favorite album, which should be obvious to anyone who knows me or has read any of my music reviews in the past.

Hip-hop album that bent the conventions of the genre and made me more closely examine my relationship with hip-hop: TIE – Flying Lotus “You’re Dead,” Black Milk “If There’s A Hell Below”

The Flying Lotus album is more like a Sun-Ra jazz experiment than a regular rap album, and Black Milk is continuing to take the more traditional sounds of boom-bap beyond the outer limits of the solar system. Both made me appreciate the breadth and depth of hip-hop culture and sounds this year.

Hip-hop collaboration that made me appreciate just how HARD hip-hop can be: TIE – Freddie Gibbs and Madlib “Pinata,” Ras Kass and Apollo Brown “Blasphemy”

I love me some hard hip-hop. I used to fire up some M.O.P. on my portable CD player and ride the bus at college, letting the percussive beats and growling voices permeate my subconscious. I wasn’t an angry guy at all, but I could definitely appreciate some angry raps. This year, two collaborations between hard-ass rappers (Freddie Gibbs and Ras Kass) and producers more known for artful beats (Madlib and Apollo Brown, respectively) both made me grateful that there are still guys who can execute that roughneck style. The opening track to “Blasphemy” actually made me make a face, it’s so nasty.

A rock album that made me appreciate my favorite artists even more: TIE – Beck “Morning Phase,” Ted Leo & Aimee Mann “The Both”

I’ve been a Beck fan since “Loser” and the thing that always gets me about him is how far he can drift from techno-pop to wiggy white-boy rap to melancholy breakup music and still sound quintessentially himself. I’m not exactly the first to say that, I’m sure, but “Morning Phase” sounds like just another strong Beck album, even though it doesn’t sound like half of his other albums. And in “The Both,” two of my favorite artists from different sides of the rock n roll tracks, Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, make beautiful indie rock music that somehow veers back and forth from Aimee-ville to Ted-land while still sounding coherent and unified.

A rock album that really made me want to go to the beach (and I don’t even like beaches): Allah Lahs “Worship The Sun”

Just perfect sunnytime fuzz rock, like if Ty Segall had a seaside recording studio.

An R&B album that made me have hope for R&B: D’Angelo “Black Messiah”

This album is pretty advanced. I should have known that whatever D’Angelo produced to follow the still-ahead-of-its-time-after-14-years “Voodoo” would push the sound of R&B even further down the timeline, and “Black Messiah” does just that. This is like master-level R&B, jazz, funk, like Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis and Al Greene and Prince all executive produced, but it’s just what D’Angelo does, along with partner in crime ?uestlove.

My favorite album from a female-fronted rock band this year: Tweens “Tweens”

Straight-ahead power pop punk. Invigorating stuff. It sounds like it’s easy to make, but apparently it’s not, otherwise more bands would sound like this and do it this well.

My favorite album of the year/the album I listened to more than 10 times as much as any other/the album that’s still in my car stereo getting daily spins after seven months: Spoon “They Want My Soul”

There’s not a whole lot else I can say about this album that I didn’t say when it came out, other than it’s grown even higher in my estimation in the intervening months. This is a top-three Spoon album, pushing “Kill the Moonlight” and “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” for favorite-album status, edging out “A Series of Sneaks” and “Girls Can Tell.” Spoon is the soundtrack to my subconscious, the kind of music I would make if I could make music. In fact Spoon makes me glad I’m not a musician, because I would have quit after hearing their stuff, unable to continue creating without unconsciously aping everything they do, unable to listen to my old stuff without realizing how much better Spoon does what I wanted to do. I can just enjoy it. Thanks, guys.

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