Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top 20 Albums Of 2014

To some, including me in some regards, 2014 was a relative let-down in a few genres, namely my token one, Hip-Hop. That statement holds true if we're only talking above the surface, for 2014 may have been one of the best years ever for consistent, incredible underground music. More than anything else, variety is what defines this year. Thanks to the Internet, and further acceptance of style, musicians have continued their progression past where musical limitations existed. From Death Grips to tUnE-yArDs, Sisyphus to Run The Jewels, music has never been so diverse. Below is the list of my top 20 albums of the year. Accompanying each image is a youtube link to the album, or song if the album can't be found. Enjoy, I sure as hell did.

These Days...

2014 was a strange year for TDE. Coming off an off-year as the label gathered momentum from 2012's monstrous blowout, fans were eager to hear what the next batch had to offer. Promising 6 albums by the end of the year was just a beginning taste of that hype. After two of the big artists released their records, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul, many were left disappointed in their recent releases. While neither Oxymoron or These Days... are as grand or provocative as their previous releases, Habits & Contradictions and Control System respectively, the 2014 records ushered in a slew of dominating tracks from each artist in their respective niche. For Soul, it was his introspective lyrics, attempting to open minds of listeners. This took a bit of a backseat for him though, as some have likened These Days... to being a concept album, covering the topic of, well, these days in music. If taken through that perspective, the loss of coherence the album has becomes a bit more forgivable as tracks represent certain aspects of Hip-Hop.

Sure, there's tracks like 'God's Reign' and 'Tree Of Life' that poise Ab-Soul to being his typical all-seeing rapper, but there's also others, weed rap, club tracks, and long ballads that cover These Days.... The most ear-catching of these is the latter, for Soul's stories related are some few have experienced. Take the album's clear-cut best track 'Closure,' a grueling bass empties into a hollow backbone as Soul clears his plate to make room for life after his girlfriend's death. The album enforces a bunch of these caricatures to make its overall theme noticeable. Danny Brown appropriately appears on the dark, grimy 'Ride Slow,' while Lupe Fiasco relishes on 'World Runners' his higher-level rhymes that he utilizes. There's times on These Days... were Ab-Soul seems lost, either musically or within his own mind, the best moment occurs on the latter half of 'Just Have Fun,' as a mellow, gospel-esque interlude plays out by campfire as Soul contemplates his recent successes and fears his peak has already been hit. These moments alone make These Days... worthwhile, despite the handful of emptiness found laced in.

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

To some Madvillainy 2 is the most anticipated work to ever been hinted at. And while DOOM still ponders his choices of what album to pull out next, fans of the production side of the 2004 masterpiece were treated to Madlib's zany, oft-kilter beats this time taking the form subsiding under gritty, street rapper Freddie Gibbs. Much like RZA emphasizes Ku-Fung samples long since dusted up, Madlib does so in the same way with independent Blacksploitation films and antique pieces of Hip-Hop untouched in years. Piñata effectively showcases his talents melding these sound structures to create a lush, atmospheric treasure-trove of delectably choosy material that sounds straight plucked out of the record store. Madlib's drums, known for their desolately soft effects, one would figure wouldn't play well against Gibbs' aggressive lyrics, and even-more aggressive voice. Yet, for the first time, Gibbs is able to showcase his variety in terms of speed, flow, and vocal patterns emphasized by Madlib's production.

Is it as good as Madvillainy? No. In fact there's a handful of problems I have with the record, namely the biggest difference between Gibbs and DOOM themselves. Madlib has proven his ability to carry both, but where the latter thrives is in his creativity, unmatched in Hip-Hop, and something Gibbs suffers tremendously from. Check 'Real,' a diss track that stands as one of the fiercest of the year, and yet, years earlier, DOOM was critiquing beef's on 'Beef Rapp.' But for what he does, retell street tales from getting high to visiting Harold's, Gibbs presents technical skills that outweigh his shortcomings in originality. Where the record shines though, and where another one with the same content would fail, lies in Madlib's production, that remains consistently gritty throughout, like a 70's mafioso film that resembles a no holds bar of life in the ghetto. The pairing, while not as inseperable as Madlib's most famous work, paints a vivid picture of a single scene, rather than a sporadic dose of here and there. To say songs like 'Shitsville' share the same creative time and space as 'Robes,' a mellow relaxer, whilst existing in the same streets is a commendable accomplish to say the least.

Azealia Banks
Broke With Expensive Taste

If you had told me the star of 2012's Youtube smash '212' would release her debut album in 2014 and subsequently appear on my Top 20 list I'd call you crazy, yet hear we are. After numerous debacles with her soaring career, of which I admittedly hadn't kept up with, Banks released her long-awaited debut out of the blue, and strikingly, it was good, and few could deny it. I, not haven been exposed to her drama-craving ways, was oblivious to an inherent bias going in and the first moment 'Idle Delilah' began playing I was immediately intrigued. And throughout the 16 tracks, while there is certainly filler, there wasn't a time when my attention began wandering, and that can largely be attributed to Banks' ability to create catchy Pop rap, whilst also maintaining an ere of experimentalism, at least in respect to the genre itself. Songs dip in and out, verses, choruses, and bridges all lose their definite meaning, and instrumental segments weave their way throughout a handful of tracks. Things are hardly repeated either, which makes for a constant battle of not knowing what comes next.

See the second track, 'Gimme A Chance.' While not one of my favorites, I can't negate the brilliance of switching the song up halfway through so drastically that English becomes Spanish, while then flows in to 'Desparado' and a Peter Rosenburg sample speaking on Banks' behalf. It's all bizarre for an artist compared to generic female rappers like Iggy Azelia and Nicki Minaj. As the album's delay became ever-more longing it's hard to imagine how long Banks was sitting on these songs, and while some of them feel dated, especially '212,' many come in with a surprising freshness. 'Heavy Metal & Reflective' is possibly one of the funnest tracks of the year, as the beat, aggressively metallic, bounces off Banks' flows which reverberates back to the beat itself. It's as rapid and hectic as it is alluring. Or see 'Ice Princess' which plays like a recent banger Drake would be featured on. The scatter-brained nature of Broke unfortunately misses out on cohesiveness, with an overall theme or message lacking entirely, but for what it's worth Banks' music isn't intended for thought-provoking statements. Yung Rapunxel is fierce on the mic, as her flow, and the ease at which she uses it, lays claim to her obvious talents. She's possibly the best female emcee since Missy Elliott, and that's saying something.

Lana Del Rey

There's no album, or artist, where I understand greater the dismissive nature against them than Lana Del Rey and her latest album Ultraviolence. Even I was one of them, scoffing off the album upon its initial release, not giving it it's due shot until months had passed. But Del Rey's music, so distinct from the Pop music label she's attached to, is what makes her style so alluring. In some ways she acts as the anti-thesis to the regurgitated styles dominating our saturated market. She speaks her mind, a mind thwarted by a troubled upbringing, in which, rather than glorifying female equality, she neglects it, rescinding herself to a regressive role in any relationship, whilst self-consciously fluffing up her ego. Many, of both genders, would oppose her beliefs, but being raised in certain conditions can create the most conservative thoughts out of people, and the fact that she's allowed her fair say is a testament to our changing acceptance in music. Ultraviolence bridges off on all these topics, linking them through Del Rey's torch singing, strikingly confident, depressingly innocent. Songs like 'West Coast' are followed by songs like 'Sad Girl,' defiant on one end, struggling on another with a level of childishness that only the most naive of people could compose.

The tenderness in her voice on the back half could only be seen as a tale of two halves, possibly of her own internal conflicts, as the front half, more explosive and loose than the songs following it, sees the singer make boisterous claims along with her roaring voice to match the more orchestral sounds. 'Shades Of Cool' is the glorifying example of this, sonically-speaking. What starts as a lone, ambiguous track erratically morphs into a swelling of instrumentation accompanied by Del Rey's rising vocals. Her cadence is a perfect example of beauty within sound, exquisitely attracted to a human ear. 'Brooklyn Baby' continues this, with a bridge that soars before collapsing to a more condensed chorus that features all the cliches of the Brooklyn hipster, down to Del Rey's obsession over her self-worth. It's a hilarious look at one's own determination for acceptance, going to serious lengths to outdo others surrounding her, even her own boyfriend. "Yeah my boyfriend's pretty cool, but he's not as cool as me" couldn't sum up Lana Del Rey's music any better.

Schoolboy Q 

Many, including myself in some regards, were let down by TDE's party-tycoon Schoolboy Q's third official release and easily most-hyped. And while it's clear Oxymoron fails to compete against Habits & Contradictions' cohesiveness, what it excels in is exactly what Q set out to do, make bass-heavy, mind-numbing bangers set to explode on all radios and clubs around the country. He sacrificed content, excluding the album's clear-cut stunner 'Prescription/Oxymoron,' and instead floored listeners with his ability to create simplistic choruses and ad-libs that resonated throughout all societies, cultures, and ethnicities. Anyone could see the mesmerizing display of skill coming from Q for instilling a music high through the mind of all listeners. From 'Collard Greens' head-churning beat and catchy chorus, to 'Hell Of A Night's' repetitive party jam session, to 'Man Of The Year's' haunting celebratory collage of all things Q, Oxymoron succeeded in poising the rapper at the head of Hip-Hop's club scene.

His star-studded affair, from his TDE affiliates to Tyler, The Creator, Raekwon, and 2 Chainz, extended far beyond the mic as the boards saw a great deal of talent behind them as well, from Pharrell to Mike Will Made It to The Alchemist, all helping Q formulate a record substantially more accessible than anything in his past. The beats are varied and easily noticeable, yet still come equip with tell-tale signs of established sounds known to get party's pumping. The mastering is unlike anything this year, without a blemish to its name, Oxymoron strived for club perfection. There's deep cuts here that focus on more typical TDE signatures, like 'Hoover Street' and 'Blind Threats,' providing a needed contrast to the onslaught of bangers present. His insistent reliance on ad-libs surely put a dent in his story-telling, but Q's improved flow, diverse and enjoyable, posit Oxymoron in a clear-cut position as album with the highest-replay value of the year. And what more could I say, it's what the man set out to do, and he did it in spades.

2014 Forest Hills Drive

Announcing his album's release less than a month before it hit shelves was a bold and impressive move by J.Cole. Choosing to release no singles and have little promotion prior to it only escalated the intrigue for 2014 Forest Hills Drive. However, at the end of the day, as J.Cole and every avid Hip-Hop listener should recognize, is that it's not about the extravagant affairs, the killer single, or the music videos, but about the music itself. And Cole's latest brings that in spades. It's a marriage between his old style of dense storytelling from his childhood and his new style of updated production that's easily digestible. Competing only against concept albums, Cole's content here is some of the best Hip-Hop has received this year. From 'Wet Dreamz,' a tale of one's false ego through losing their own virginity, to 'Hello,' a masterful piece detailing Cole's first love who's enduring the wrath of raising two kids, something Cole isn't up to experiencing yet, to 'Apparently,' an ode to his mother whom he failed to respect during her toughest times, 2014 Forest Hills Drive is littered with realism in Hip-Hop storytelling. 

But much of that would spell boredom for most, as it did on his earlier mixtapes, but here he pairs these recitations with intricate, soulful production that match their vocal pairing in enjoyability and talent. 'G.O.M.D' features a campy, atmospheric layered production that utilizes driving bass, skittish vocal samples, and a lack of structure to its benefit. 'A Tale Of 2 Citiez' escalates the fear-driven city streets with a haunting foundation that harkens to 'Shook Ones Pt.2.' And yet, to say that the finale, 'Note To Self,'  features Randy Newman-esque poppy piano ballads and choir-filled soul refrains would deny any nay-sayer from saying Cole lacks in diversity. It's this 14-minute closer that fills the stage with warmth, positivity, and peace as J.Cole endlessly lists his thank you's in a hilarious, improv-filled way that one can only appreciate as a satisfying conclusion to his story. Despite the story's being told, the religious imagery Cole establishes makes it quite clear how he's been able to escape his rocky past. 2014 Forest Hills Drive superimposes J.Cole's childhood with his Hollywood tendencies in a fashion that comes off as entirely heartfelt, a sentiment held to only a select few.

Thom Yorke
Tomorrow's Modern Boxes

Whilst many of his loyal followers were preparing for Radiohead's eventual re-up to creating their 9th studio album, enigmatic headpiece Thom Yorke released his latest LP, a condensed 8 songs, for free on the Internet, which spread throughout the music sphere. Tomorrow's Modern Boxes proved every bit as divisive as Yorke could have hoped. Experimental IDM, layered with sporadic spurts of various genres, formed together by a relatively uneasiness, dominates Boxes, and yet the most notable established piece is Yorke himself. The English performer dishes out some of his most dense, indecipherable messages to date, weaving poetic stanzas throughout his heavily accented voice. The atmosphere oozing from the album is unlike anything music has to offer in today's age, for in reality, it sounds entirely devoid of anything, a hollow exterior that somehow entrances the listener to explore its crevices. Take opener, 'Brain In A Bottle' and the woozy, yet direct tactical laser that erupts midway through, speeding across the soundscape untethered, out of place, and yet entirely accepted.

Tomorrow's Modern Boxes works off this premise flawlessly. It incorporates Yorke's boundless knowledge of handling sounds to stunning effect. 'The Mother Lode' acts likes a winding journey through one's psychotic brain, constantly fluctuating, from heavy bass-influence to rapid vocal repetitions. 'There Is No Ice,' despite weighing in at a hefty 7-minutes, feels like an opener to 'Pink Section's' incredibly lush classical refrain, that maintains a homemade feel despite its grandiose approach. Concluding the three-part finale is the album's pinnacle, 'Nose Grows Some,' Yorke's opening up of a dwindling relationship where the restraint left tying them together was trust, only for it to fall apart as the lies begin to build up. His softly-sung melodies, mixed with the ambivalent tone the music provides not only continues Yorke's stunning ability to close albums, but also posits Tomorrow's Modern Boxes in shaky waters. His latest work could be his most depressing yet, for where his, and his band's, previous efforts relied on witnessing and critiquing the errors of human nature, Boxes, for the first time, accepts them with a shrug and sigh.

Perfect Hair

Down the road 2014 will be seen as the year of startling releases, some exceeding expectations, others vastly disappointing. On the list of unexpected surprises was Busdriver's Perfect Hair. Just as the rapper's shtick began to fade, following his poorly executed Beaus$Eros, the Hellfyre Club affiliate, revamped himself by looking in the mirror, something he's been at odds of doing ever since his first LP hit listeners in 2001. Perfect Hair centers around the problems at hand of every individual, Regan Farquhar, the real name of Busdriver's character, included. This lead to a tremendous album in terms of originality covering a rapper nearing his mid-life crisis. Topics ranging from aging, on 'Upsweep,' to sociopathic tendencies on 'Can't You Tell I'm A Sociopath' span the length of Perfect Hair. In fact the finale, the 9-minute, two-part epic, 'Colonize The Moon,' opens with one half detailing a entrepreneur seeking a one-way ticket off this planet, while the latter half focuses on Farquhar himself, his upbringing and life to the point.

These diversities, something notably missing from his previous releases, breath new life into not only the work, but the rapper himself. Previously, Busdriver was the scatter-brained, thesaurus-eating, quick-tongued artist who rarely expanded past complicated works with nonsensical approaches, but on Perfect Hair he opens up, makes things easy to understand, and pushes enjoyability over complexity for the first time in his career. This can be attributed to the catchy, yet detailed production throughout. 'King Cookie Faced' utilizes soft delicacies, in the form of tingling synths and harmonizing vocal cuts, to instill a pleasant vibe throughout. 'Ego Death,' the ominous lead single featuring Aesop Rock and Danny Brown receives much of its appeal from Jeremiah Jae's brooding beat, complete with haunting choirs and gritty bass reverberations, as the three rappers accept their inherent problems. Perfect Hair relishes in a rebranding of Regan Farquhar, and succeeds greatly in taking a risk, potentially dividing a fanbase, that, at the end of the day, will love the record anyways for its sheer showing of talent.

Flying Lotus
You're Dead!

Steve Ellison's divergence in experimental electronic, drawing a path only walkable by him, continued with You're Dead!, his sentimental piece on his internal beliefs, fights, realizations, and everything in between concerning the afterlife. While most would perceive the monumental lifelessness as terrifyingly hollow, somber, and silent, Flying Lotus' afterlife is filled with chaos, unorganized matters speeding through time and space, untethered to anything holding their souls down. From the alarming, interstellar awakening of 'Theme' to the peaceful sendoff of 'The Protest,' there's no shortage of unique moments to pinpoint here. There's moments of exhilaration, disappointment, contentment, and joy present, with Ellison's well-known musical palate serving as the backdrop. His recent branching into his mysterious alter ego Captain Murphy help to brighten You're Dead! from the gravel of hushed soundscapes of his previous works. Snippets of genres lay across each fold, from Jazz to Electronic to Rock to Hip-Hop, none more prominent as the latter. 

This progression is never more present than on the opening five tracks, as they build in intensity, disparity, and concept, all culminating in the album's true 'intro' 'Never Catch Me' featuring a breath-taking verse by Kendrick Lamar, captivating listeners with his fear of death. Incorporating others into his work, especially Hip-Hop artists like the aforementioned Captain Murphy and Snoop Dogg help You're Dead! push past any boredom, something his previous efforts have sometimes suffered from. While 'Never Catch Me' is the pinnacle of the piece, a statement of the message, an overview of the concept, 'Coronus, The Terminator' stakes its claim as the former's right-hand man. An exquisitely dark refrain that teeters on one's heartstrings, 'Coronus' boasts itself as one of the most expertly-crafted songs in recent memory, not just for Flying Lotus. While some tracks fail to leave a mark, none fail to serve a purpose. Each one intersects the next, a change in tone, another point in Flying Lotus' journey to the afterlife. You're Dead! is a must listen for production-pushers, yet another statement in a producer's catalog of superb works that incapsulate a feeling long out of reach of humanity.

Mick Jenkins
The Water[s]

In 2012, Chief Keef blew up. 2013, it was Chance The Rapper. This year, 2014, is Mick Jenkins' year. All hail from Chicago, the former known for his ignorant, braggadocios Drill music, the middle, for the opposite, sporting Jazz and Old-School Hip-Hop influences basing his style off peace and positivity, the latter, somehow, combines both. It's a remarkable sentiment in just knowing someone would even attempt it, but Jenkins proved to be a worthy artist to undertake such an accomplish. At just 23, Jenkins already shows the strength, versatility and dexterity of a seasoned veteran of the rap game. There's multiple times on his debut mixtape The Water[s] where one sits back in disbelief that he's able to construct such a cohesive work that remains intrinsically intertwined, yet variably unique, at such a young age. The first, without question, comes after an elongated Jazz breakdown that poises itself as an outro on 'Shipwrecked,' before an alarming Mick plasters himself back into the fold with a formidable beat switch-up, just as listeners began dozing off into relaxation.

But where Jenkins shines the brightest is in his lyricism; from the styles, to the alliteration, to the power of his voice, to the words themselves. Through and through, Mick dominates this record, his presence is forever imposing on the listener. The drowning, suffocating production style, that stylizes itself as under water, allows Jenkins to take an even more defiant position. See 'Martys' for the best example of this. His opening verse is one of the best of the year, that lays out the citizens surrounding him in Chiraq, from the land which has "too many snakes," to the little girls that Mick "can see [their] cherry stems in the fucking street." All this, even more impressive, especially for a mixtape, is layered ontop by innumerable wordplay centered around water and the importance H2O plays in our lives. Jenkins' view of life, valuing needs over wants, water over materialistic items, serves as the foundation for the record, a much appreciated change for a rap game, especially in Chicago, engulfed in glorifying expensive taste and gun violence, persisting off jealousy and one-upmanship.

Nikki Nack

In a world dominated by Pop music, and an alternative Indie scene also being routinely engulfed in oddball Pop-oriented flavors, tUnE-yArDs remains the most characteristically unique. Her style likens itself to originality, frantically sporadic, constantly on-edge. Nikki Nack, her third LP, continues this trend sonically, whilst progressing in terms of content, with vast undertones of lead singer Merril Garbus' current societal struggles. It's an interesting paradox that allows her music to thrive on its own merits, resisting the ease of falling in the same pitfalls that cause many other aspiring 'quirky' singers to fade quickly. Regardless of what one defines Garbus as, the one thing that holds her entire shtick together is that of her pleasing tunes, sonically-speaking. Being Pop, one can easily forgive and ignore the actual meaning of the lyrics, sometimes nonsensical, other times deathly serious, in favor of insanely catchy melodies, clattering, free-flowing instrumentation, and organic sections that provide a layered approach to Nikki Nack, giving it long-lasting appeal.

Opener 'Find A New Way' excellently frames her vision as World Beat two-step bass rattles matches wits with hand claps, startling synth pulses, and polarizing story-telling and vocal manipulations, a direct showing of Garbus' skills on the mic. Her punctuation in her vocal delivery, easily alternating between soulful crooning like on the glorious 'Rocking Chair,' rap-like breakdowns, and oft-kilter articulations throughout each and every song, are Garbus' bread and butter. If one were to dive into tUnE-yArDs' lyrical vision they'd find a barrage of ideas that range from troubling relationships, critiques on capitalism, and familial cannibalism. Yes, cannibalism, in the form of competing traditional imbalance on the interlude 'Why Must We Dine On The Tots.' tUnE-yArDs, with these vast discrepancies in topics, provides a stark comparison to the songs that follow and precede each one, breath new life into the album. They don't overlap though, her reliance on progressive stances in our modern world, using metaphors and Pop, help push Nikki Nack to new, unforeseen heights.

A Toothpaste Suburb

Often critiqued by the underground as a simple reincarnation of Busdriver's tried and true shtick, Milo, while relating to many people's comparisons, set himself apart on A Toothpaste Suburb, a surreal look into his fantastical world, using a selective scope of sounds mixed with ever-evolving word-structures, that are part nonsensical, part highly-metaphorical, all deciphered through the listener themselves. Take the closing moments of the opener, 'Salladhor Saan, Smuggler' where, after describing his Toothpaste Suburb,  slyly making a nod to Busdriver's own imaginary place, things turn dark as Milo directly recites the Freestyle Fellowship's 'Tolerate,' a resoundingly assertive refrain with even darker, swelling sounds covering him, excluding the "beating, lynching, burning, whipping, pillaging, torturing, mass murdering of black" in his fantasy world. This contrast, in addition to Milo's often-elaborated bouts of depression, provide the album with a deceptive tone, as Milo himself realizes this fantasy world can't exist.

Though, through the course of the album, Milo sure aims to reach his fantasy by providing colorful lyrics and wiry, airy production qualities matched by sporadic synths, all things pictured in his dream-like state. It isn't until the closer, 'Gaudeamus Igitur' where he himself has achieved a greater understanding of his place in society, leaving with positive spirits, "who had the courage to keep on hoping." A Toothpaste Suburb, more than anything else, is, at its exterior, an enjoyable album that hardly takes itself seriously, such as on 'In Gaol,' but, when diving to its core, one is subject to find internal battles with philosophical beliefs of a soon-to-be adult resisting the forces clamoring for his eventual conformity. This dilemma between belief and sound alike allow Milo's debut to flaunt itself in multiple ways, appealing for certain occasions, beautiful in both its sincerity and absurdishness.


Her fourth album, this time self-titled, sees St.Vincent take a leap into the introspective realm that doesn't fail at encapsulating more Indie Pop tunes with melancholy messages. For once, Annie Clark's skills as a musician can't be easily decided, is it her lyrics or production that's the best side of her? With tracks like 'I Prefer Your Love' and 'Severed Crossed Fingers' you'd be hard-pressed to decide. The former, a spacious groove that emphasizes punchy drums and airy synths whilst spilling over the fear of her mother's near-death, the latter, a guitar-led ode to Clark's mid-life crisis. The complexities in sound and style are what make St.Vincent such an intriguing listen. It's not pop music in the sense of mindless lyricism, nor is it a pure devotion to sonically-pleasing tunes, Clark combines both in an elegant collage of fun versus reality. Song structures vary wildly, never remaining stagnant, punctuated by memorable sections of melodic refrains. There's times when Clark's voice echoes violently, cascading across the sound-waves, while there's others when her voice seems defeated, lost, and distant.

All this shapes the vision and style of St.Vincent. From the opener 'Rattlesnake' and Clark's revelation that she's not alone in this world, with a vocal shriek and distorted guitar to cue, to the high-octane finale of 'Psychopath' that takes a simple "ah ah ah ah" to extrodinary lengths, Clark's durability and dexterity with her voice makes St.Vincent high in replay value. Moments glisten and pop, guitar's are stretched, hollow, condensed, and everywhere in between. The second half of 'Huey Newton' is the clearest example of this, as the track morphs into a mad man's monster house, hollers and squeals litter the foreground as a reckless acoustic guitar flings in the background. No song accurately portrays St.Vincent's style more than 'Digital Witness' however, an insufferably addicting song that one can't help but dance, nod, or gallop to. The trumpets loop throughout, providing a quirky, oft-kilter beat that's met with grandiose bass hums in the chorus. Clark spends her time critiquing the 21st century's reliance on mass media consumption, noting that a television is not a window to the outside world. Clark's eponymous album collects her talents into a bombastic batch of catchy hooks, unforgettable melodies, and uber-realistic lyrics.

The Roots
...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin

Nestled in a brief, unassuming 33 minutes, The Roots' 11th LP, a social critique of violence in Hip-Hop and the youth in the ghettos raised by it, bartered with itself on brevity. Not a minute is wasted, each passing moment just as meaningful as the last. Their last LP, the stunning undun, told the story of Redford Stevens in reverse, beginning with his death, ending with a sprint through his childhood. ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, one could propose, delves into those last four instrumental blimps with blossoming detail, excavating the trials, trip-ups, and dilemmas faced by inner-city youth before they fully comprehend the repercussions of their actions. Songs like 'The Dark (Trinity)' brilliantly showcase this, as Black Thought, Dice Raw, & Greg Porn turn in scathing verses replicating the lives found in adolescent youth's raised by the vision violent Hip-Hop has instilled upon them.

The album's structure may bewilder some, and to be honest, it's a rough first listen. Out of the 11 tracks, none of the first 8 exceed 4 minutes, while all of the last 3 do. Things progressive oddly, unbalanced or distorted. Sparks of spoken poetry, senseless audio compilations, and female singing scatter themselves amongst the rubble. This just further continues The Roots' aim at moving beyond a Hip-Hop group, into more diverse, genre-breaking roles. The closer, 'Tomorrow,' one of the best on the album, features no rapping, for all the leads have met their demise, and is completely engulfed by Raheem DeVaughn's heartfelt crooning as a typical 9-5er, as a progressive piano melody carries him throughout the track. The song ends the album, what many would assume, on a positive note, based solely on the starking production contrast to the previous 28 minutes. But things become open-ended when actually delving into the album's true message, as The Roots' themselves purposely leave holes in their intended message. ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is filled with impact, and that's without even explaining the quality of the music.

Our Love

The frequency to which Caribou's music latches onto the listener, with repetitious samples, ambient build-ups, breakbeat house tendencies, all wrapped in nostalgic overtones, rivals that of the best today's dance music has to offer. His latest LP, Our Love, continues the trends he set forth with on Swim, choosing to relish in detail rather than expansion, providing similar instrumentations through a more elaborate lens. Take the album's staple, 'Silver,' which combs through related genres for inspiration, directly taking from updated 80's woozy synths washes and scattered basses of varying intensity as seen on Hip-Hop's biggest bangers. His lush, yet shallow singing, adds an allure of teen drama-esque ramblings of a relationship gone wrong. This fills much of Our Love, plainly stated topics of love litter the landscape. Trite yes, but what really sets Caribou apart isn't his voice making proclamations over the production, it's the production itself.

Whereas certain groups of fans respect an artist who branches out, there's others who expect to see perfection in a certain style of music, and Caribou has come awfully close to that in regards to 21st century electronic dance. The title track and opener, 'Can't Do Without You,' expertly show off his craft. Songs of sputtering segments, all melded together with mind-numbing vocal cuts, elicited by improvised pacing, organically made throughout where things never feel forced. He doesn't completely rely on this format though, for woven without the construct of Our Love are tracks like 'Second Chance,' 'Julia Brightly,' and 'Mars' which aim to branch beyond Caribou's style, much like 'Jamelia' did off Swim with its odd incorporation of instruments. The previously mentioned tracks all come with their notable distortions, none more dramatic than 'Second Chance's' use of Jessy Lanza to provide a female contrast to Caribou's insistent whining. Our Love is a journey through the craft of dance, masked by unoriginal topics meant solely for the sake of pleasing accompaniment, but formed jointly with the production to create something truly lovable.

Death Grips
Niggas On The Moon

While we await to hear the second half to Death Grips' final album, The Powers That Be, the first half is still lingering in the confines of Hip-Hop lore. Niggas On The Moon is, shockingly to say the least, Death Grips' most aggressive, abstract, and difficult to get into album yet. It prides itself on its ability to manipulate everything it encounters, churning potentially peaceful sounds into magnificently horrid experiences. Take Bjork's odd inclusion. The elegant crooner's voice is distorted, pitch-shifted, altered, and everything in between like a sick fetish in which everyone tries to one-up each other's crude imaginations. And yet, once everything 'clicks,' melodies begin appearing in the rustic barrage of electronic glitch-Hop. Hooks start becoming catchier the more you listen, moments appear that linger in one's brain as they contemplate what exactly Death Grips set out to do with it. See the hell-raising opener 'Up My Sleeves.' The moment Bjork's piercing screeches pound through Ride's repetitious opening monologue immediate feelings of hysteria, claustrophobia, and paranoia set in. How, or more likely why, would someone create music to instill negative emotions? For the same reason movies don't always end with a happy ending. Music sometimes shies away from true emotion aimed at disgruntling the listener, for obvious reasons, but Niggas On The Moon deserves to be lauded for its attempt at pushing the boundary and inciting panic.

And really, on the top layer, there's not much else to it. The 32 minutes that comprise the first half are an adrenaline-laced, psycho-connective, rush that never ends, or dissipates, and only tumbles over itself as tracks smash into one another with reckless abandon. Nothing this year compared in terms of an emotional connection. While Run The Jewels 2 certainly held its own this year, many who joke that they're sweating or on a rampage by the end of it haven't experienced Death Grips' latest. It's chaotic, unnerving, unrelenting, and abusive to the eardrums, yet remains intrinsically enjoyable. And yet, with all the production has to say, MC Ride has to say more, and does so in an inventive, incredibly elusive way. The typical content displayed on previous releases are present, but are told in more serious, tight-lipped ways, as Ride's uneasiness mounts. The death of his mother, his amnesia over his childhood, and his own insecurities dominate his lyrics. 'Say Hey Kid' acts as an anti-peer pressure PSA, with orderlies following in line to societies norms. The fear at which all of this is told, with a psychotically stoic delivery, makes the track all that more poignant. Overlying themes of magic and the dark arts come into play as well, alluding to the bands own enigmatic nature. Niggas On The Moon is a sensational art piece depicting internal human struggles as they're released from Pandora's Box in a fiery mess of pent-up emotional torment.

Run The Jewels
Run The Jewels 2

Continuing on last year's side project El-P and Killer Mike, after receiving a widespread warm welcome for their efforts, responded with yet another barrage of uppercuts, haymakers, and low blows in the forms of hard-knocking El Producto beats and aggressive spitting unlike anything in the game. From Killer's opening remarks, "I'm finna bang this bitch the fuck out" you know something foul, provocative, and astounding is soon to arrive. What resulted was a compact assault in the form of 11 songs, 40 minutes, and a whole lot of blood and sweat. One of the finest crafters of sound El-P took arguably his biggest leap yet in terms of overall talent, as extra layers of depth surround each beat, finding their nook in each open seem, making sure as to not leave in any silence. The album's definitive blockbuster is not the song of the same name, although that one bears praise too, but is rather 'Oh My Darling Don't Cry,' which, much like 'Banana Clipper' off last year's collection, is a rambunctious effort to conjure up the perfect banger. It's scattered, loud, varied, and overwhelming in all the right places. This is what defines Run The Jewels 2

Where El-P isn't assaulting the boards, he and his accomplice verbally abuse the mic, making sneering remarks on socio-political issues, embarking on stories of consciously-thinking crack dealers, and providing a striking contrast between black and white America, all whist coating it in confidence of art matched only by Kanye's highest-caliber taunts. Songs like 'Early' sound off on police brutality and violence in incidents like Ferguson. 'Angel Duster,' the brilliant closer, focuses internally on the rapper's and their impact on their own lives, and 'Close Your Eyes' is as chaotic as the content itself, which sees prisoners revolting on their overlords. Ever since their first LP Run The Jewels has always known their place, and LP#2 sticks to that, some would say too closely, but what more could you want, Run The Jewels is the Hip-Hop version of an over-the-top action flick, a la Die Hard. They take no prisoners, either you join in on the ride or become a fuckboy yourself.


From the onset, with their original name S / S / S, the unlikely trio of Sufjan Stevens, Son Lux, and Serengeti were at odds with their listener. Their debut EP failed to attract an audience, often times segregating them as one fan from a single artist would be disappointed in knowing the other two, from vastly different genres mind you, had to fill the same space. In comes Sisyphus however, both in name of band and album, which proved that these three alternative artists in their respective genres can co-exist and make a relatively cohesive piece that's at some points goofy, others deadly serious. The intro and closer show this rapid distinction, the former, 'Calm It Down,' playing off the stress many face, comically regurgitating the phrase they want to hear least, while the latter is a descent into madness of a man so overcome with the realization that he's slowly becoming his alcoholic parents, that the only escape is through a existential release of emotion.

What makes Sisyphus so encompassing is that it toys with this battle between playfulness and pain, something very few albums even attempt. It's either The Roots or Riff Raff, neither both. But here, songs like 'Booty Call' share the same space as 'Dishes In The Sink.' The finished product relies strongly on Serengeti's internal battle between his present life, the attraction he has to the opposite sex, the care-free attitude he lives his days by, and the past, a troubled up-bringing in poverty, littered with drugs and alcohol. The culmination occurs in 'Flying Ace,' an internal dreamscape, expertly crafted by Son Lux using a variation of ever-evolving instrumentation, that pits a fiery battle with a village and a dragon with the on-going struggles of his long-time girlfriend. Sisyphus never relies on one set code of structures to make its magic, instead it emphasizes the melting pot of life lessons it receives from its three founders.


While the mainstream struggled to push out stellar, or even note-worthy, Hip-Hop albums this year the Alternative Rap scene thrived, with clipping's second LP providing the first initial shock to this change of pace. CLPPNG witnesses the life of hood-rat grown up through the streets. Not very creative or odd for an Experimental outfit. But, the appeal for clipping has always been their harsh Industrial sound that prominently displays itself behind Daveed Diggs' exemplary rapping. And that rapping, the story-telling of a satirical look at life in the ghetto, is what pushes CLPPNG over the edge from two shticks at once, one content-wise, the other sonically-speaking, into a realm that's entirely enthralling. Each song brings into account a new layer to the story, from the female serial-killing masochist in 'Body And Blood' to the three-part night on molly 'Tonight,' 'Dream,' & 'Get Up.'

The project wouldn't be half its worth in gold if it weren't for technically-skilled lyricist Diggs adorning each song, providing true creativity in terms of altering the fabric of what rappers can rap over, and how they can approach it. From the corny, yet ballsy 'Get Up' that most of us know utilizes an alarm clock as the basis to the beat, Diggs doesn't shy away from the chance to express his innovation, free-flowing over the track, providing his own style able to turn his own voice into an effective beat to bounce along to. The album's conclusive stunner however, 'Dominoes,' pins everything to love about CLPPNG into one gargantuan track that excels off a mash of simplicity and depth with a ever-collapsing/rebuilding beat that parades throughout, as Diggs provides reminiscing moments of the G's life gone wrong, all the while children chant his slurred vision. It's a scary sight to behold, but one that's warped formation makes for one of Hip-Hop's most visionary creations. 

Shabazz Palaces
Lese Majesty

2011's Black Up sparked a rejuvenation in experimental Hip-Hop, expertly crafting a concrete monolith of abstract soundscapes taking influences from African tribal music to futuristic space-age synthesizers, all whilst Ishmael Butler weaves dense lyricism of black righteousness with standard braggadocios confident rap. Lese Majesty, the duo's second LP, did away with the conclusive structures that defined Black Up's rigid landscape and formed a loose journey unburdened by musical constructs in place of true Experimental music, Hip-Hop being a simple qualifier to get Butler's point across. The production is murkier, like a lava flow slowly changing and alternating, never remaining on the intended course, the lyrics more layered, interchangeable, and nondescript, the sounds more spacious, unorthodox and expansive. Lese Majesty is a perplexing listen that confounds the listener in more ways than one, complimented by space-age beats catchy enough to warrant repeated listens before Butler's lyrics suck you into finding out what it all means.

From 'Dawn In Luxor's' opening glitch droplets the battle between technological dominance and ever-lasting earthy overtones looms ever so delicately over Butler's head, as he transcends listeners, taking them on a journey from the Pharaohs of our past to the ghosts of our future. Lese Majesty is incredibly detailed, as inconclusive arrangements of sounds fade into the soundscape with no purpose other than to remark their eternal existence, like the vocal sample that signals the start of 'Forerunner Foray,' or the absurd city-dropping anthem that closes '#CAKE.' All this is covered by Butler's lyrics, his most indecipherable to date. Each song's message, whether they have one or not, is so loosely orchestrated through the verbiage that spending years pouring over them will still lead to dead-ends. Leaving a sense of mystery further heightens the long-lasting appeal to one's work, and Shabazz Palaces' latest effort flawlessly exudes this battle between one's thoughts and their own sub-consciousness, toying with each at every stop, turn, and bend.

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