Monday, December 29, 2014

MUSIC ROUNDUP: MY TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2014

By: Connor Glowacki

Photo Courtesy of XXLMag.com
     As the final days of 2014 are winding down, it's time to take a look back at the previous 12 months in the world of music. 2014 had some good moments and some bad moments in music, but every year there are always several albums that truly rise above the rest of the pack for each individual listener.

     So without further ado, here are my top ten favorite albums of 2014!

*Note: The albums picked and their respective rankings were based solely on my opinion. 

10.) Big KRIT- Cadillactica


     Big KRIT has been one of the best young rappers in the hip hop game for the last few years. He has a lot of charisma on the mic and is a great lyricist. And yet he faced a situation where fans and critics thought that his debut album, 2012’s Live From The Underground, wasn’t on par to some of his earlier mixtapes. But with his second album Cadillactica, Big KRIT has released not only his best musical project yet, but also one of the best hip hop projects of 2014. 
     Cadillactica is described as a world in Big KRIT’s mind and in that world comes great storytelling and artistic evolutions. In his collaboration with rapper Lupe Fiasco on 'Lost Generation’, Big KRIT uses incredible wordplay to detail the sentiment that people tend to desire more than they seem to and that young children can get involved into criminal activity in order to show off the quick money with their friends. Meanwhile in the song ‘Soul Food’, Big KRIT discusses how the newer generation has appeared to toss aside love in relationships, in favor of lust. 
     Big KRIT deserves to be a much more popular rapper than he is. But as we have learned over time with similar rappers, if you consistently make great music, then the commercial success will eventually follow. 

9.) U2- Songs Of Innocence

     The legendary Irish rock band created lots of controversy back in September when they released their new album, Songs Of Innocence, free to all Itunes users straight to their iPhones. What was originally a plan to give something new to their fans, U2 was criticized mercilessly by fans and critics alike for forcing their music down people’s throats and making money off of it through Apple. It’s a shame because Songs Of Innocence might be the best album that U2 has made in the last 10 to 15 years. 
     Thematically, it revisits the group members’ youth in Ireland and paying homage to their own musical inspirations. ‘The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)’ features punk-rock guitar riffs that channel lead singer’s Bono’s inspiration of one of his favorite bands, The Ramones.
     ‘Every Breaking Wave’ is a powerful song that combines Bon’s soaring vocals with tight instrumentation from guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. Like many of U2’s past albums, there are songs that are politically charged, including ‘Raised By Wolves’ and ‘Cedarwood Road’. 
     Let’s be clear, Songs Of Innocence is not in the same league as The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby. But it features the band members of U2 at their most personal that they have been in a long time. If they can properly sell the next album they release, they should have a good chance of reclaiming a lot of the fans that they might have lost with this latest album rollout.

8.) Jhene Aiko- Souled Out

     R&B singer Jhene Aiko is the embodiment of a second-chance story. After being originally signed to Epic Records as a teenager, Aiko left the label in 2003 to further her education and raise her newlyborn child. But in 2011 through Def Jam records, Aiko began to make a comeback by releasing the stellar mixtape Sailing Souls and then an EP last year titled Sail Out. Sail Out was well-received by critics and featured her biggest hits yet, including ‘The Worst’ and ‘Bed Peace’ featuring rapper Childish Gambino. Souled Out builds upon the previous EP’s success and is arguably her best work to date. 
     Souled Out is a concept album, that according to Aiko, features the evolution of a woman’s heartbreak before eventually becoming enlightened. Aiko doesn’t have the greatest vocal range, but her soft voice does an incredible job at letting out the emotion through the words and stories that she is singing about. And the instrumentation contains a lot of hip hop based production combined with guitar-tinged synthesizers. 
     One song that we see this kind of instrumentation is ‘The Pressure’ where the laid-back, but also psychedlic production, is combined with the lyrical subject matter of Aiko stressing out as she is tying to finish the album. ‘To Love And Die’, featuring the hip hop group Coacine 80s, is filled with hypnotic synthesizers and hazy drum loops. Which works very well with the confessional subject matter of the lyrics. 
     It is no secret that R&B has been struggling in the commercial and critical marketplace. This has started to change with the evolution of indie R&B and with the emergence of singers like Miguel, Frank Ocean. But Jhene Aiko is the first female R&B singer in a while that has put an album together with cohesive material to make you listen and think. Aiko is ahead of her peers and had one of the best R&B albums of 2014.

7.) Logic- Under Pressure

     Under Pressure was the debut album for Maryland rapper Logic after four highly successful mixtapes that were a part of his infamous Young Sinatra series. It’s an album that is undeniably raw and personal, describing Logic’s difficult upbringing in his hometown of Gaithersburg, Maryland. And with no guest features on the album, we get to hear Logic’s story from front to back. 
     This album is dark as it tells the brutal events of his sister being raped in the song ‘Soul Food’, being surrounded by gang violence and criminal activity in ‘Gang Related’ and his addiction to nicotine in the aptly titled, ‘Nikki’. As a result, listeners are brought into Logic’s dark world and how that world affects his subconscious. There are upbeat braggadocio tracks on Under Pressure such as the bangers ‘Bounce’ and ‘Never Enough’, but it’s the more introspective songs that leave a lasting effect. 
     Logic does incorporate a lot of the lyricism, storytelling and emotional connection that we generally hear from star rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Drake, but Logic’s story is unique in its own right to help him stand out on his own. 
     Under Pressure is a great debut that shows Logic willing to step away from radio trends and focus on making a hip hop album that could quite possibly be remembered for years to come.


6.) Eric Church- The Outsiders

     Country singer Eric Church could’ve easily replicated the formula that he had with his breakthrough 2011 album Chief. Instead he created an album in, The Outsiders, that is more adventurous and mixes different genres with one another throughout the entirety of the entire album. You can hear the obvious country and bluegrass tones, but there are at other points, metallic guitars and funked up bass lines. 
     The title track opens up with a snarl-rap from Church that leads into a southern rock stadium chorus and eventually somehow finishes as a progressive metal barnburner. ‘That’s Damn Rock and Roll’ completely takes away any country overtones and smashes it with straight up classic southern rock music. And in live performances where Church features Halestorm lead singer Lizzy Hale on vocals, the songs gets even more aggressive and epic. 
     Then you have your confessional songs, ranging from Church wishing the girl back in high school stayed in his life or traveling up to a racetrack with friends to experience one of the final moments of a carefree childhood, in ‘Give Me Back My Hometown’ and ‘Talladega’ respectively. 
     The Outsiders didn’t have the huge commercial singles that Chief had, even though I still think ‘Talladega’ will be the smash for The Outsiders that ‘Springsteen’ was for Chief, but it’s a more adventurous project that should be commended for pushing mainstream country out of its standard comfort zone. With all of the generic bro-country artists out there right now, it’s nice to see Eric Church getting the accolades that he deserves with The Outsiders.

5.) The Black Keys- Turn Blue

     It’s pretty remarkable to remember that Turn Blue is the Ohio band’s eighth album because The Black Keys really started gaining mainstream success and recognition in 2010 with their album, Brothers. And it’s even more surprising that after the garage rock and hook-laden songs that filled their 2011 Grammy winning album, El Camino, The Black Keys took their latest album in an entirely different direction. 
     Producer Danger Mouse returned for the Turn Blue sessions, but the vibe of this album is slower and honestly more melancholy. No surprise since the sessions for this album were happening in the midst of guitarist Dan Auerbach’s reportedly ugly divorce from his wife, which inspired a lot of Turn Blue
     This album is more psychedelic rock and soul based music. Turn Blue opens with an epic seven minute song called ‘Weight Of Love’ that contains a building guitar solo from Auerbach. ‘Fever’ contains a fantastic multi-layered vocal track to brighten up the chorus and yet also exposes the pain that Auerbach is singing with throughout the song. Drummer Patrick Carney delivers a wide variety of drumming patterns that range from the energetic ‘Gotta Get Away’ to the introspective ‘It’s Up To You Now’. 
     The Black Keys were another musical act that opted away from making radio singles and Turn Blue is better because of it. It is a record that is meant to be listened to from front to back and take you on a musical journey. It ultimately stands up very well with their more up-tempo albums Brothers and El Camino

4.) J.Cole- 2014 Forest Hills Drive

     Ever since releasing such spectacular mixtapes in the late 2000s ,that included The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights, North Carolina rapper J.Cole has always been unfairly put on an extremely high pedestal compared to many of his peers. Add that to being the first signee to Jay-Z’s music label, Roc Nation, and the expectations continued to rise.
     J.Cole’s first two albums, 2011’s Cole World: The Sideline Story and 2013’s Born Sinner were commercial hits that showcased J.Cole’s lyrcism and storytelling abilities. However, neither album has been viewed by critics as being on par with some of J.Cole’s earlier mixtapes. 
     The main criticism has been that J.Cole tends to play it safe on albums and that he has been chasing the radio for hits, which is a fair criticism if you’ve listened to ‘Work Out’, ‘Nobody’s Perfect’, ‘Power Trip’, or ‘Crooked Smile’. With his third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, there is no sign of reaching for the radio and no featured guests. It is J.Cole telling stories of his early life at the album title’s home address. 
     One of J.Cole’s strengths is that he’s extremely relateable and it pops up again with a great song called ‘Wet Dreamz’ that tells the story of J.Cole trying to impress a girl by telling her that he is great at sex, even though he is actually a virgin. We later learn in the song that J.Cole is completely insecure about this fact only to find out that the girl he is trying to impress is also a virgin and doing the exact same thing back to him. 
     Then there are the songs that are critiques towards society including the aggressive ‘Fire Squad’ that displays the cultural appropriation that has steadily increased in hip hop and the lack of role models for young women in the aptly titled ‘No Role Modelz’. ‘Apparently’ is a song about regret for leaving his mother to deal with their foreclosed house while he was partying and trying to snag a record deal up in New York. 
     This is the most honest and direct album that J.Cole has ever made and not only is it his best yet, but it is one of the best hip hop albums that have been released this year. And it seems that fans agree since 2014 Forest Hills Drive has already sold over 500,000 copies and has been certified gold in just two weeks. J.Cole is officially a superstar and 2014 Forest Hills Drive could turn out to be the album we look back on and refer to as his classic.

3.) Young The Giant- Mind Over Matter

     Mind Over Matter marked a nearly four year gap from the California band’s self titled first album. And for young rock bands ,that lapse in time early in their careers is usually a large warning sign that signals trouble. Young the Giant’s debut album focused on rich harmonies, acoustic sounds and great vocals from lead singer Sameer Gadhia. Although, there were times where that album felt thin and introverted.  Don’t get me wrong, it had great songs like ‘My Body’ and ‘Apartment’, but I wanted to see Young The Giant build upon that debut and evolve instead of replicate their past success. 
     I’m very glad to say that Mind Over Matter did just that. The production improved with this album as the band got to experiment with synthesizers, strings and different guitar tones to go with their indie rock sound. ‘It’s About Time’ is a call to arms song that pleads for urgency and has a decidedly heavier tone that resembles something a band like Incubus would put out. 
     The song ‘Mind Over Matter’ displays killer melodies and fantastic vocals from Gadhia and ‘Daydreamer’ kicks up the distortion to another level to really bring that visceral edge that Young The Giant were at times lacking on their debut. ‘Firelight’ meanwhile uses a plucked guitar line that resembles songs from their first album, but adds atmospheric tones that help build the emotional impact from the lyrics. 
     Mind Over Matter is a fantastic second album from Young The Giant and proves that this could be one of rock’s biggest bands possibly in a few years.

2.) Beck- Morning Phase

     Singer-songwriter Beck has been one of the most eclectic voices in music for the last two decades. His ability to jump across different genres and innovate allows his music to sound better as the years go by. Back in February, he released his twelfth album, Morning Phase as a companion piece to his 2002 album Sea Change
     Morning Phase is a fantastic album as it continues the story of Sea Change with its incredible harmonies and emotional story telling, but this time having that lingering hope of optimism planted all throughout its songs.  Songs like ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Wave’ show the gentle nuances of Beck’s voice with the combination of plucking and strumming of multiple acoustic guitars. 
     Since it’s release, Morning Phase has garnered critical acclaim from almost all music and entertainment publications and has been nominated for the 2015 Grammy Awards for Album of the Year. It’s so rewarding to witness for Beck, who produced great hits in the nineties including ‘Loser’, ‘Where It’s At’ and ‘Jack-Ass’, to still be making great meaningful music that could sound like it could be played in any era. 

1.) Isaiah Rashad- Cilvia Demo

     Admittedly, the first time that I heard of Tennessee rapper Isaiah Rashad was based off the news in 2013 that he had signed to heralded indie label Top Dawg Entertainment. Top Dawg Entertaiment (TDE) has quickly grown a reputation of being among one of the best labels in hip hop and sporting one of the best roster of rappers in recent memory. Kendrick Lamar, Schooldboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock were the original four members and have not only released outstanding individual projects, but great songs under the group collective, ‘Black Hippy’. 
     So when news leaked that Rashad signed with TDE, expectations understandably grew for his first project with the indie label. Cilvia Demo was originally planed to be a mixtape, but following the strategy of his labelmates, Rashad made the project an EP for purchase on iTunes. Needless to say, Rashad not only met expectations, but received universal acclaim from music critics. And Cilvia Demo became not only my favorite rap album of the year, over rap heavyweights like J.Cole. Big KRIT, and Schoolboy Q, but my favorite overall album of 2014. 
     This album is a coming of age story for Rashad who combines his Southern sound and swagger with introspective lyrics and haunting melodies. Cilvia Demo is not an album full of hype, but rather an album that is very calm and chill. ‘Ronnie Drake’, featuring TDE singer SZA, has Rashad focusing on race and the appropriately timed relationship between police officers and the black community. He also raps about how it’s easier to make money in hip hop by rapping about the stereotypical ‘money, drugs, and hoes’ instead of conscious subject matter. ‘Modest’ describes Rashad’s ultimate goal of staying humble in the rap game in order to preserve the longevity of his career. And ‘Soililoquy’ tells the story of Rashad’s father never providing for him and his family and him eventually leaving his hostile family living situation. 
     Ciliva Demo is an incredible first project for Rashad through TDE. And if it ends up being the career equivalent that Section.80 was for Kendrick Lamar, then we’re going to have even bigger things to look forward to for the best rap rookie in the game. 

Agree or disagree? Like or hate this list? Leave a comment below and let me know what your favorite albums of 2014 were or tweet me your comment on Twitter @ConnorGlowacki.








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