Best albums of 2014: 30 to 21

AOTY 2014 30-21 college Beyonce, Nick Waterhouse, Ratking, ElbowDay three of my 2014 round-up features albums for the midnight hour, rare grooves galore and three degrees of hip hop excellence.

30. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
29. Allah-Las – Worship the Sun
28. Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour
27. Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything
26. Nick Waterhouse – Holly
25. Ratking – So It Goes
24. BadBadNotGood – III
23. Beyoncé – Beyoncé
22. Nick Mulvey – First Mind
21. People Under the Stairs – 12 Step Program

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Pinata, 50030. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
Madlib grooves are among the most eagerly anticipated in hip hop with good reason. Always hungry to explore untapped territory, the prolific producer, whose real name is Otis Jackson, has earned the attention of millions thanks to his records by cartoon alter ego Quasimoto and seminal collab’ albums, such as Champion Sound with the late J Dilla and Madvilliany with Doom. His latest collaboration with Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs was in the works for three years. It’s an album of melodic, gritty vignettes about thug life.

Described by Gibbs as a “gangster Blaxploitation film”, there’s some ruminating on the consequences of his affairs with Mexican women and his subsequent Afro-Latina offspring (‘Deeper’), but survival in gangland remains the album’s focal point. Gibbs gives off a commanding, alpha male quality throughout, delivering filthy, fluent verses that fans of Guilty Simpson will adore. But being a Madlib joint, there’s humour too in the mischievous skits and the sound of Danny Brown wailing after a bad drug trip (‘High’). Although it sticks to familiar ground too much to earn Spike Lee-level plaudits, sporting truly grandiose thuggin’ from Gibbs and his guest posse over lush Madlib instrumentals, it really is impossible to pass up.
Listen to: Deeper \ Thuggin’ \ Shame (feat. BJ the Chicago Kid)

Allah-Las - Worship the Sun, 50029. Allah-Las – Worship the Sun
How can a band improve on a formula they perfected first time around? That was the problem faced by Californian surf rockers, Allah-Las, as they sought to recapture the effortless-sounding magic of their outstanding, self-titled debut.

Though they certainly make a good attempt at it, it’s not something they’ve achieved with their sophomore effort, Worship the Sun. Lead vocalist Miles Michaud and the band continue to channel the sound of the Beach Boys, Felt and the Beatles’ Rubber Soul/Revolver-era psychedelia, but their ideas aren’t as arresting this time. Some songs just feel far too similar to their earlier work (‘Had It All’ for ‘Don’t You Forget It’).

Salvation comes in form of earworms such as ‘Nothing to Hide’, a slow, thumping slice of surf psychedelia, and ‘Worship the Sun’, a tranquil incentive to extend that lunchtime siesta. They also follow up the melodious oasis of bliss ‘Ela Navega’ with another fantastically moreish instrumental, ‘Ferus Gallery’. These tunes show off the California quartet at their best, audibly bottling all that’s great about seafronts, soft sands and sunsets.
Listen to: Nothing to Hide \ Ferus Gallery \ Follow You Down

Sam Smith - In the Lonely Hour, 50028. Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour
There are two common reactions when you first hear Sam Smith’s piercing falsetto: delight or derision. If your introduction is through the affectionate ‘Stay with Me’, it will likely be the former, while the eardrum assault of ‘Money on My Mind’ will led to the latter for some. Provided you can tolerate the occasional high-pitched keening of this sopranist, you’ll enjoy his music, which is soul-bearing and brutally personal. You can virtually feel the sorrow pouring out of him on ‘Good Thing’. His ability to glide smoothly from John Newman-style hollering to the vocal highs of Amy Winehouse is impressive too. When you’ve found that special someone, but can’t seem to find the words to tell them how you feel, Smith’s music is catharsis. Generous doses of comfort for lonely hearts.
Listen to: Lay Me Down \ Good Thing \ I’ve Told You Now

Elbow - Take Off and Landing of Everything, 50027. Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything
The Take Off and Landing of Everything is Guy Garvey and company’s first full-length album since their performance at the London 2012 closing ceremony sent them into the stratosphere. Even if they had adopted an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fit-it approach, the end result would have been welcomed. But Garvey is not one to rest on his laurels. In TTOALOE, Elbow successfully developed their sound and pushed their ability for crowd-pleasing, tear-jerkers to even greater heights.

The title track is a heavenly overture of guitars and sinewy harmonics that sweeps you skyward and never let’s go. It’s music to make you leap out of bed in the morning with an uncontrollable drive to make your life better. Garvey’s tender, knowing voice is in fine form on the rousing ‘New York Morning’ and the beautifully affecting ‘Honey Sun’. His gift for wry, but serious, lyrics has not lessened as he ponders MPs dancing on TV, “G&T and sympathy” and “the age where decisions are made on life and living”. Arena-worthy songs are here in abundance, but Elbow remains the thinking man’s rock band, bolder and more British than ever.
Listen to: New York Morning \ Charge \ Fly Boy Blue / Lunette

Nick Waterhouse - Holly, 50026. Nick Waterhouse – Holly
Nick Waterhouse is a 1950s revivalist, obsessed with the warmth traditional analogue instruments still bring to the listening experience. His sound is a blur of jazzy, vintage R&B, borne from smatterings of loose sax and double bass sections, hurried piano melodies and Waterhouse’s crooning baritone. This brief, but tightly formed, second outing from the LA-based singer is a case of more of the (very agreeable) same. The boogie-woogie groove of ‘This is a Game’ and the foot-tapping, harmony-filled ‘Ain’t There Something That Money Can’t Buy’ are highlights. Anyone in search of a retro fix who’s not yet picked up his fantastic debut record will find Holly a pleasant introduction.
Listen to: This is a Game \ Dead Room \ Ain’t There Something That Money Can’t Buy

Ratking - So It Goes, 50025. Ratking – So It Goes
Obfuscated, feverish, grunge rap for you, me and anybody else who’s eager for hip hop to rediscover the rough-and-ready appeal of its early roots: that’s the sound of Ratking. First impressions of this trio – MCs Wiki and Hak, and beatmaker Sporting Life – lean towards an image of cartoonish, urban scenesters. But these scenesters have a raw charisma that draws you to them just like a crowd is to a street entertainer. And the longer you stay with So It Goes, the more you’re intrigued to hear what subject the group’s own leftfield, fire-spitting act will pounce on next.

Ratking’s punk sensibility bares the rebellious air of Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys. Corkscrewing synths and occasional sax tumble in and out as Wiki punctuates bar after bar with his loose, almost lazy, hollers. Hak joins in or sings in his rueful tone.

Thematically, this is conscious music for the underdog uprising, the self-improvers and independent movers – as gleaned in ‘Canal’, ‘Protein’ and ‘Take’. You might not get this from its bizarre delivery at first, but that’s the point. Tuning into the buttery rhythms and chewy bars of ‘So Sick Stories’ or ‘Puerto Rican Judo’, with its seesaw beat and tongue-in-cheek onomatopoeia, it’s hard not to be entertained. And, if you subscribe to Ratking’s sentiments of youthful, self-reliance, a little inspired too.
Listen to: So Sick Stories (feat. King Krule) \ So It Goes \ Puerto Rican Judo (feat. Wavy Spice)

BadBadNotGood - III, 50024. BadBadNotGood – III
It was a shared love of hip hop that brought the trio of Matthew Tavares, Alexander Sowinski and Chester Hansen together. And it’s hip hop that was the foundation for much of the Canadian band’s first two self-released albums, which featured instrumental covers of songs by Doom, J Dilla, A Tribe Called Quest, as well as James Blake and Feist. They’ve opened for Roy Ayers and produced tracks for Earl Sweatshirt and Danny Brown, putting them in a strange place in the contemporary jazz scene.

Consisting entirely of original compositions, III shows BBNG confidently straddle the line between beatmakers and jazz originators. The influence of experimental producers, such as Flying Lotus and Mala, are evident in ‘Since You Asked Nicely’ and ‘CS60’. But they remain true to their jazz calling with numbers such as ‘Confessions’ and the bluesy ‘Differently, Still’. Whether you consider yourself a jazz aficionado or more partial to a good hip hop/dubstep beat, BBNG’s third album shouldn’t go overlooked.
Listen to: Hedron \ Can’t Leave the Night \ Kaleidoscope

Beyoncé - Beyoncé, 50023. Beyoncé – Beyoncé
Appearing late last year like an early Christmas present, Beyoncé’s fifth album surprised the world; not only because of its guerrilla assault, but the videos, many of them openly sexual, that were specifically directed for each song. It was a darling move, but it has also diverted attention from the music, which is where the true messages lie.

This is Beyoncé at her most powerful and personal, mulling the pressure of body image (‘Pretty Hurts’), the passion of lovers (‘Drunk in Love’) and what it means to be a women in the modern world (‘Flawless’, ‘Jealous’). Not only that, but the beats she’s chosen as the basis for many of these songs give her room to show an intimate side of her we’ve not heard till now – as the harmonious, toe-curling joy of ‘Blow’ and ‘Superpower’ attest. Thematically mature and sonically progressive, Beyoncé’s most experimental album to date is proof that the pop queen’s reign is far from over.
Listen to: Drunk in Love (feat. Jay-Z) \ Blow \ Flawless (feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche)

Nick Mulvey - First Mind, 50022. Nick Mulvey – First Mind
There has been a big attraction lately to artists evoking the essence of a well-travelled Bob Dylan. But unlike Jake Bugg or George Ezra, Nick Mulvey’s gentle guitar strums and campfire-tales bare a sincerity that most of these ‘Dylan disciples’ regularly miss.

His debut record, First Mind, is an arresting journey through wilderness and the brief encounters of wild hearts. You can practically feel hiking boots connecting with crumbling earth in the tap-tap beat of ‘Juramidam’. Or the Muvley’s “ceaseless yearning to belong” on nostalgic lullaby ‘Cucurucu’. Or the feeling of being swept skyward during the insurmountably delicate chorus of classical strings and guitar acoustics in ‘Meet Me There’.

Mulvey’s music has an earthy, meditative beauty, which is like being wrapped in a warm blanket. It’s perfect accompaniment for a cleansing walk among Mother Nature. He brings fresh ideas to folk in one of the year’s most comforting albums.
Listen to: Cucurucu \ April \ Meet Me There

People Under the Stairs - 12 Step Program, 50021. People Under the Stairs – 12 Step Program
Christopher ‘Thes One’ Portugal and Michael ‘Double K’ Turner, the pair behind People Under the Stairs, are hip hop revolutionaries who don’t seem to get their dues. 12 Step Program, their ninth studio album, is a one-two punch of irresistible funk rhythms and conscious commentary. If you combined De La Soul’s De La Soul is Dead with the Nextmen’s Get Over It, you’d be on the right track.

Double K’s butter-slick flow could see him masquerading as Dave ‘Plug 2’ Jolicoeur and you’d been none the wiser. But it’s the comical skits (‘Get Hip’) and the duo’s socially aware lyrics (“as a country, we’re not growing”) that drive the similarity home. As for the Nextmen, it’s the production masterclass elevating each song to higher ground. ‘1 Up Til Sun Up’ is all kinds of chiptune fun (just like the Nextmen’s ‘High Score’), ‘LA Nights’ has funk to match the Meters and showstopper ‘Doctor Feelgood’ fizzles with an energy that will have you whooping out loud in delight.

Scorching with funky fresh beats and raw bars, 12 Step Program deserves your time. It samples James Brown and Back to the Future, for heaven’s sake – instant class.
Listen to: LA Nights \ Cool Story Bro \ Umbrellas (God Forgive Me)

Leave your comments, rants and questions below or direct them to @dk33per.

See my entire albums of 2014 series.

Image: (clockwise from top left) Beyoncé, Nick Waterhouse, Ratking, Elbow. Photos belong to respective parties

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