1. D'Angelo & The Vanguard - Black Messiah (9/10)
Enigmatic and reclusive Richmond, VA, soul man D'Angelo has been a favorite of mine since the mid-90's when he dropped his debut album Brown Sugar - an exceptional 1995 launch that vaulted over its tepid R&B and "neo-soul" competition by merging tough hip-hop swagger with throwback musicality and charm. I even picked that album's version of "Cruisin'" over Smokey Robinson's 1979 original to sit alongside classic cuts by Wilson Pickett, Stevie Wonder, and Bill Withers on my wedding goodie-bag mix CD three years ago.
So, after a fourteen year hiatus plagued by legal troubles, substance abuse, weight gain, and the paralyzing anxiety of high expectation to follow up his acclaimed sophomore album, Voodoo from 2000, D'Angelo finally, and without much warning, dropped his long awaited third LP Black Messiah just a couple weeks back. Billed as an album by D'Angelo and The Vanguard, Black Messiah, was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York with lyrical and instrumental support from usual suspects Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, Kendra Foster of Funkadelic, Questlove of the Roots, and renowned bass player Pino Palladino (who toured with Nine Inch Nails last year).
Black Messiah finds D'Angelo back in the groove, drawing from a deep well of black American music - jazz, blues, soul, funk, rock, hip-hop, and beyond. With lush instrumentation paired alongside unorthodox vocal gymnastics, the album is an expansive collage of freeform jams and off-kilter rhythms that recall Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Prince. To be expected, Black Messiah, boasts a plethora of panty-dropping odes to love and sex like "Really Love" with its Spanish guitar and honey-sweet string orchestration, closing stunner "Another Life" with its flower-child psych embellishments and soaring multi-tracked vocals, and "Sugah Daddy" with its lascivious pillow talk and playful vaudevillian piano, horn licks, and tap dance beats.
However, the album's true backbone is its unsettling political and existential subtext. With its lo-fi cacophony of screeching guitar, plucked electric bass, and 808 kicks set to a muffled breakbeat, "1000 Deaths" uncoils like a seething animal - "They're gonna send me over the hill/ Because a coward dies a thousand times/ But a soldier only dies just once." By comparison, "The Charade" is disarmingly saccharine with its meandering sitar and female vocal harmonies but its lyrics are no less chilling in light of current racial strife in America - "All we wanted was a chance to talk/ 'Stead we only got outlined in chalk/ Feet have bled a million miles we've walked/ Revealing at the end of the day, the charade." Later "Till It's Done" laments a dismal state of human and environmental affairs over Questlove's gentle backbeat - "What have we become?/ Tragedy flows unbound and there's no place to run/ Till it's done."
Some have compared D'Angelo's Black Messiah to vintage landmarks like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On and I can't disagree. Despite a decade plus gestation, Black Messiah does echo the socio-political tension, unease, and turbulence in America over the last year, not just through its timely lyrics delivered by D'Angelo in eccentric vocal tics, mumbles, and pained howls, but also in its jarring patchwork production and unhinged sonic arrangements. D'Angelo himself apparently rushed the album release in the wake of recent turmoil on the streets of Ferguson and New York City. It may be premature to call Black Messiah a classic of its time, and D'Angelo himself denies that the album title is self-referential, but it certainly does sound like the work of a man resurrected and delivering a musical message many people have been waiting a long time to hear.
2. Mastodon - Once More 'Round The Sun (8/10)
Mastodon, the Atlanta, GA, progressive-sludge four-piece, reached metal primacy in the 00's with a quadrilogy of highly celebrated concept albums - 2004's Leviathan arguably their artistic peak. By 2011 however, Mastodon sidestepped expectation and released the polished and relatively uncomplicated The Hunter to mixed fan reaction. This year's Once More 'Round the Sun, Mastodon's sixth outing, proves equally divisive but exceptional nonetheless. Here the band delivers a dense collection of efficiently sculpted hard rockers while producer Nick Raskulinecz lends the album a raw clamorous atmosphere. Brann Dailor, the band's phenom drummer and spiritual leader, takes the spotlight here - providing the album with propulsive jazz rhythm, lyrical heft, and its finest vocal performances; like on bombastic anthem "The Motherload." A stellar album, Once More 'Round the Sun reaffirms the band's towering stature in contemporary metal and rock&roll.
3. Aphex Twin - Syro (8/10)
Thirteen years after releasing his last album, the onerous double-disc Drukqs, influential UK electronica producer Aphex Twin returned with his sixth official studio LP Syro. Aphex Twin always had an impish penchant for the ugly and the absurd so I expected Syro to be a piss-take mashup of irritating drill&bass and chalkboard frequencies. Surprisingly, this turns out to be Aphex Twin's most palatable and funky statement to date. Rich in texture, with analog synth and jittery robo-rhythm in constant oscillation across the stereo field, Syro finds Aphex Twin inspired, reenergized, and paying homage to some of his musical contemporaries and acolytes. Evoking some of Orbital's anthemic spirit, Goldie's sub-bass boom, early Autechre's electro b-boyisms, Boards of Canada's haunted hip-hop miasma, Rustie's spastic "purple" funk, and even Thom Yorke's latter-day vocodered warbling, Syro plays like a favorite electronic music mixtape and looks to be a primer for more.
4. St. Vincent - St. Vincent (8/10)
Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, might just be 2014's most compelling artist and an encouraging portent for the future of rock&roll. This year she released her fourth solo album, the self-titled St. Vincent. Having attended Berklee College of Music and recorded/performed with the Polyphonic Spree, Sufjan Stevens, and David Byrne, her approach to rock is already unusual. Though Clark has few antecedents, at times she does elicit Beth Gibbons of Portishead, Bjork, PJ Harvey, and even Madonna. St. Vincent plays like an alien communique with Clark weaving astute narratives on the mundanities of contemporary life on earth, while teasing and expanding the parameters of what a six-string guitar should sound like. Not to say this album is overly abstract or unenjoyable, to the contrary, St. Vincent simultaneously revels in a certain irresistible glam bombast and seductive tenderness.
5. Pallbearer - Foundations of Burden (7.5/10)
2014 was a big year for doom metal, that prototypical metal sub-genre comprised of molasses riffs, oppressive low-end, and foreboding reefer smoke brume - originally forged by the godfathers of all metal, Black Sabbath. YOB, Electric Wizard, and Earth all released outstanding doom albums this year, but none stood out quite like Pallbearer's sophomore effort Foundations of Burden. Following their impressive 2012 debut Sorrow and Extinction, the Little Rock, AR, four-piece trekked to Portland, OR, to record with veteran sludge/doom producer Billy Anderson. The fruit of that labor is a hefty slab of epic headbangers - most averaging ten minutes. Foundations of Burden finds the band much improved, with bolder song composition and more confident vocals. Frontman Brett Campbell bellows with clean operatic bravado, a rarity in doom, while bandmates Devin Holt, Joseph Rowland, and new drummer Mark Lierly assist with the dramatic, lofty instrumentals.
6. Gorgon City - Sirens (7/10)
British electronic dance music, as part of a hardcore continuum, has been an obsession of mine for decades. Last year Disclosure connected the dots and ushered in a new era of UK garage and deep house with their worldwide smash debut, Settle. That chart-topping LP cast a long shadow well into 2014 and kicked the door open for other likeminded Anglo producers. Enter another duo, Gorgon City, with their debut Sirens. This collection of bass-heavy club bangers went straight for the jugular, utilizing a battalion of vocal talent. Irish-English crooner Maverick Sabre lends some yearning soul to intro and outro tracks "Coming Home" and "Hard on Me" while UK funky house veteran Katy B showcases on "Lover Like You". Even Oscar-winning diva Jennifer Hudson features on the sky-high 90's house throwback "Go All Night". Still, newcomers MNEK and Zak Abel steal the show on anthemic hit singles "Ready of Your Love" and "Unmissable" respectively.
7. Beck - Morning Phase (7/10)
Musical chameleon and Los Angeles, CA, native Beck released his ninth studio album, the self-produced Morning Phase, this year. Regarded by the singer-songwriter himself as a companion piece to his acclaimed 2003 album Sea Change, Morning Phase moves at a glacial pace but is immensely rewarding for the patient listener. Here Beck's voice is multi-tracked and drenched in echo and reverb - ebbing, flowing, and soaring into infinity. On "Turn Away" Beck harmonizes elegantly, evoking Simon and Garfunkel, while the simple melodies and pedal steel of "Blackbird Chain" suggest The Shins gone country. The album's instrumentals are equally striking, like the heavily flanged and lumbering piano on "Unforgiven" and the album's centerpiece, a percussion-free "Wave," featuring arresting string orchestration courtesy of Beck's dad David Campbell. Morning Phase breaths with a self-assured vitality and was a shoo-in for this top ten list, even early in the year.
8. Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways (6.5/10)
It's hard not to admire Dave Grohl, an ernest workaholic and rock evangelist that rose to superstardom with his own band Foo Fighters after playing drums for Seattle grunge icons Nirvana. Twenty years after Nirvana's untimely demise, Grohl and the Foos put out Sonic Highways - their eighth album, comprised of eight songs recorded in eight cities across America. Released in conjunction with a stellar eight part docuseries on HBO directed by Grohl himself, Sonic Highways is the Foos' most ambitious and engaging project to date. Produced by Butch Vig and featuring guest appearances by the likes of Joe Walsh, Rick Nielsen, Zac Brown, and Gary Clark, Jr., the album finds Grohl taking inspiration from America's colorful music tapestry. No coincidence the number "8" resembles an infinity symbol - these guys don't stop. Grohl and the Foos are already gearing up for another massive stadium tour, more side projects, and the next Foos album.
9. Smashing Pumpkins - Monuments to An Elegy (6.5/10)
Smashing Pumpkins founder and frontman Billy Corgan still has something to say, even if his original bandmates are long gone. For the Pumpkins' ninth studio album, Monuments to an Elegy, Corgan is joined by a skeleton crew of hired guns - Jeff Schroeder on guitar and Tommy Lee on drums. Dire as that may sound, the Pumpkins haven't sounded this focused or energized in over a decade. At a concise thirty-three minutes, Monuments' brevity is its greatest asset. Here the band forgoes the protracted jams and angry bluster of latter-day LPs and tap into some of the dreamy romance and distilled power pop of their early material. Despite some chintzy electric keys here and there, the Pumpkins bring back that husky wall of guitars on album highlights like "One and All" and "Monument." The latter even finds Corgan in unusually high, maybe humorous, spirits, - "I feel alright, I feel alright tonight/ and everywhere I go it's shining bright/ Alright, alright, alright."
10. Huxley - Blurred (6/10)
Like Disclosure and Gorgon City, Huxley is another UK garage and deep house producer on the rise. Having already occupied many a DJ's setlist with a string of choice singles, Huxley upped the ante this year with a diverse collection of nostalgic British electronica and smoldering late night house on his debut LP Blurred. A fitting title, Blurred effortlessly blends disparate club styles. Twinkly minimal tech-house opener "I Want You" gives way to the stuttering 2step rhythm and dubstep wobble of "Barne Dance" while "Give 2 U" features a curious mix of proto-jungle and breathy cocktail bar vocal pop. Following a short drum&bass palate cleanser, "Mxr," the album moves into more traditional deep house territory with highlights like "Say My Name," and "Callin'" featuring the exceptional vocal and co-production talent of Yasmin and house legend Roger Sanchez respectively. Blurred is a solid journey through UK dance music's past, present, and future.
Happy New Year, and thanks for reading! Can't wait to see (and hear) what 2015 brings.