The Best Music of 2014

Arnold Pan

More than ever in 2014, the music industry as we know it was in need of saving. Any imminent doomsday scenarios may have been put off for the time being thanks to Taylor Swift.

More than ever in 2014, the music industry as we know it was in need of saving. Any imminent doomsday scenarios may have been put off for the time being thanks to Taylor Swift, who delivered 2014's first and only million-selling album and came as close as possible to being a galvanizing figure in a balkanized musical landscape, as someone who more than a handful of fans, critics, and suits could reach some kind of positive consensus on. But Swift bailing out the music business begs the question of whether she's the last megastar of the Billboard era or the first of whatever's yet to come, whether her calculated empire-building acts, like pulling her music from Spotify, are ultimately futile attempts at fighting the future or actually part of a more forward-looking plan to create a better, more equitable system for artists.

Whichever path she's on, Swift herself will be fine -- as pop-chart historian Chris Molanphy explains in a perceptive article in Slate, she's in a tier all her own among the music's one percent. To extend this analogy to income inequality further, another way to look at things might be to consider how capital and clout have become concentrated and consolidated in fewer and more powerful hands, which, in this monopoly stage of the music industry, belong to the strata of your Taylor Swifts, Beyoncés, and U2s -- the last being paid a reported $100 million for creating an album that was basically an iTunes commercial and had the staying power of one. It's a structural condition where someone like Swift can forego a half-million in Spotify royalties at the same time even name indie acts are scraping by earning pennies on the bitcoin and Apple can buy Beats for billions (with a "b"!) just to strip it for parts to cherry-pick the best components for a prospective iTunes relaunch.

While music's one percent builds its gilded branding on a big old pile of money that's growing larger and larger, you could say the 99 percent might be venturing into subprime territory and making ends meet on illusory wealth, leveraging whatever capital they have in the virtual currency of views and plays, likes and shares that no one's been able figure out how to monetize effectively. So even at a time when more artists are flourishing creatively and there's increased access to them, the pot of money seems to be shrinking and it makes sense to presume that the bigger acts are taking a proportionately bigger cut: As the New York Times reported, sales were down five percent for the first half of 2014, with streaming pulling closer to downloads (40/60) in generating digital revenues. The economic gap in the music industry suggests that some kind of massive restructuring is inevitable, if not already in motion, but it's an open question whether that means there'll be a leveling of the playing field or if wealth will just be increasingly accumulated by an upper class of artists turned moguls.

Ironically, though, it feels like there's less of a hierarchy among artists than before when it comes to what they're producing and how it's received. That's something you notice in the breadth and depth of quality releases across genres and subcultures, which makes the idea of reaching a consensus at year-end less likely -- and arguably less crucial. There are more and more vital listens these days, which knocks down the pecking order that best-of lists imply, as you'll see in our 2014 coverage. That means there's more disorder and chaos, but, in the case of 2014, that's part of the thrill. Whether you're digging deep into our specific genre lists or our overlooked albums rundown or our picks for this year's -- and next year's -- most promising new acts, you get the feeling that the best music you've only imagined hearing in your head is out there to be found on SoundCloud and Bandcamp.

Such acts of discovery are why it's important to not just think about the supply-side of the business -- as thinkpieces about the state of music tend to obsess over -- but also to consider demand, to puzzle over how the behaviors and motivations of the audience may actually have a bigger say in how the market shakes out. Indeed, it's rather one-sided to simply assume that consumers just want more, faster, and cheaper, the wrong-headed implication being that the interaction between the artist and the listener is almost a parasitic one. But in fact, there's probably a greater desire for closer and more intense engagement on both sides of the relationship, which might explain why live music is a thriving sector, why a more expensive, seemingly obsolete medium like vinyl is selling, and why fans are happily investing directly in artists they believe in via crowdfunding.

In 2014, social media has only amplified these connections. When Killer Mike delivered his trenchant social commentary and poignantly personal statements on race relations in the wake of Ferguson, social media had a multiplier effect in spreading his important message far and wide. With sexism being one of the flashpoints in music this year, a new generation of savvy female artists used networks of blogs to circulate old-school essay writing that demystified stereotypes and unflinchingly took on sexism, while Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace took her own experiences as a springboard to document the transgender community in an AOL webseries. Of course, the blogosphere could still too often read like an indie-rock gossip rag, with breaking news of Mark Kozelek's absurd beef with the War on Drugs, Ariel Pink trolling good taste and reeling in Grimes, and Grimes herself blemishing her otherwise strong brand by making a scene about refusing the ALS bucket challenge. As with the economic challenges facing the industry at a macro level, it's a matter of striking the right balance when it comes to social media.

The year-in-music, 2014 edition, then, only goes to show that we're still in beta testing for whatever the whole machinery for making, promoting, and distributing music is going to be like sooner rather than later. But with the system we're accustomed to in supposed demise, the future being up for grabs shouldn't be a sign of impending doom, but rather a condition of possibility. That sense of opportunity is what the most compelling and memorable music of 2014 represents, a year when even the best of the best ended up being more like the first among equals.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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