Best of 2014

A quick rundown of some of my favorite albums of 2014:

…and then you shoot your cousin, The Roots

The deans of hip hop gave me a birthday present! Even compared to Roots albums like Rising Down, this is a serious record: short and diamond-hard, gnarled with experimental pieces. It’s a tough listen to the point that the gospel tinges on the closing track “Tomorrow” feel like a real relief. “Never” features some of the most masterful and technical rapping of Black Thought’s career. The Roots gave us a lot to think about, but when they put this one together they can’t have known what we’d be talking about throughout 2014. Which leads to…

Black Messiah, D’Angelo and the Vanguard

It turned out no man knew the day or hour. There’s a reason people couldn’t stop talking about this one – it just dropped like a bomb in the middle of December. D’Angelo came back draped in shades of There’s a Riot Going On and Maggot Brain, and like some of the political-soul classics of years past, this one speaks on the mass level and the individual level. It’s needy and urgent, intimate and strident.

Hotel Valentine, Cibo Matto

Hotel Valentine feels a little sedate compared to the insanity of Cibo Matto’s first album and the giddy genre-hopping of their second. But a song cycle about a ghost woman haunting a hotel is something only they could come up with, and damn, it’s good to have them back and writing post-modern tunes about the pleasures of eating. Even Talking Heads wasn’t this committed to songs about buildings and food.

St. Vincent, St. Vincent

Everybody’s cheered this remarkable album, and with good reason. It has a unique style, great vision, emotional depth, and it’s so much fun to listen to. St. Vincent wrote a spate of great songs about modern life, love, performance, privacy and hope. She sounds like she knew exactly what she wanted to do with this album, and she nailed it. She has become a major voice and it’s always heartening to see such an uncompromising musician enjoy so much success.

You Can’t Fight Love, Mike Mattison

I wrote a review of this one a while ago. Mike is one of my favorite singers and writers, and this is the first album devoted 100% to songs he wrote or interpreted. Blues, soul, country, rock, R&B – he crafts all of it well, and he can sing anything.

The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings, The Allman Brothers Band

I was going to say I’ve waited almost 20 years for this album, but people who were at these shows in 1971 have been waiting more than 40. The Allmans played four shows on March 12 and 13, and those gigs were the basis for At Fillmore East, the album that formed their reputation. Here, finally, is every note from all four performances. You can actually hear the band catch fire as the run goes on: they started the run as an opening act for two other bands, so the first gig lasts is a tidy minutes. By the next night, they were the headliners and their final performance stretches out to almost three hours. This is a band becoming a legend in real time.

In the comedy category:

Same Sex Symbol, Cameron Esposito

I’d like to brag that I was on the Cameron Esposito bandwagon early: I watched her set on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson in 2013 and thought she was terrific. (Craig and Jay Leno were also clearly impressed.) She’s a great read on Twitter and in The AV Club, and on her first album she’s an excited and positive presence who loves being in front of a supportive crowd. Same Sex Symbol is very much an introduction to Esposito and her persona. You can see she’s already looking ahead. As Leno put it, “”You’re the future… lesbians rule!”

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