The 20 best albums of 2014

The 20 best albums of 2014

In our SoundCloud age of instantly-leaked singles, remixes and – at the very most – possibly an EP, fully-fledged dance music albums are becoming rarer and rarer commodities. Considering that, for most artists, actually releasing music is a loss leader with the primary purpose of marketing live shows, it’s almost surprising that so many go through the process of carefully putting together the cohesive, flowing collection of songs that we commonly refer to as an album.

That said, this year saw some absolutely stunning releases from the worlds of house, big-room, future-RNB, post-dubstep, disco, prog, Jersey, experimental and the melange of other genre tags that make up the electronic music zeitgeist in 2014. inthemix writers Krystal Rodriguez, Sandro Dallarmi, Jim Poe, Katie Cunningham, Jack Tregoning and Nick Jarvis waded through the year’s releases to pick out our 20 favourites and wax lyrical on their virtues: click through to see if you agree.

#20 Max Graef – Rivers of the Red Planet

After releasing EPs for labels like Tartelet, Melbourne Deepcast, Detroit Swindle’s Heist Recordings and his own Box Aus Holz imprint, Berlin producer Max Graef finally dropped his debut, Rivers Of The Red Planet, back in April to critical acclaim.

As with all his work, ROTRP showcases Graef’s extensive and impeccable musicianship by traipsing a wide range of styles from house and hip-hop to jazz and straight-up funk, making it a DJ’s dream in terms of versatility; but we love how tracks like Itzehoe and Drums Of Death chug on with a deep-running filmy nostalgia, yet bubble with fresh-faced energy. (Fun fact: his dad, guitarist Gerry Franke, features on ‘Speed Metal Jesus’.) Dedicated DJs alike will do well to keep Rivers Of The Red Planet in their repertoire, for it’ll get a rise out of any true house head on the dancefloor. [Krystal Rodriguez]

#19 The Aston Shuffle – Photographs

Making Photographs was an epic undertaking for stalwart Australian duo The Aston Shuffle. The wrote the album, then scrapped it and wrote it all again, and the result is their best work yet, with six big tunes in Tear It Down, No Place Like Home, Never Take It Away, Comfortable, Can’t Stop Now and Back & Forth, and some phenomenal vocal collabs with Styalz Fuego, Elizabeth Rose and Mayer Hawthorne, Photographs is the sound of finely-honed experience. [Nick Jarvis]

#18 Collarbones – Return

Marcus Whale and Travis Cook of Collarbones have been building momentum for a few years now with their self-described flavour of “long distance internet teen pop,” but don’t let the bubblegum label fool you: they’re so much more than that. Their third album, Return, is said to document, “the erratic mood-swings which come after a break-up and the narcissism that follows.”

It oscillates between pensive, atmospheric tracks and more frenetic, garage-influenced songs that pack more dance punch; Flush, for instance, is a heavily gauzed, beatless outpour of emotion, while Turning combines poppy boy band refrains with stuttering vocal chops and a driving backbeat that sounds vaguely like a futuristic Nick Carter circa his BSB days. [Krystal Rodriguez]

#17 SBTRKT – Wonder Where We Land

SBTRKT’s first album arrived at a perfect time in electronic music culture; America’s aggressive version of dubstep had saturated the scene to a point where people were ready for something different, but before they could work out what that was, in came SBTRKT with a UK-style dubstep single and an album full of radio-ready dance music that pushed boundaries for US audiences. It was always going to be impossible to recreate that perfect storm for album number two, but SBTRKT has continued to forge his own path by making an evolutionary – if not revolutionary – album in Wonder Where We Land. [Sandro Dallarmi]

#16 Redinho – Redinho

Though Redinho’s self-titled debut found its biggest hit in a trap-influenced snarler, this is an album that’s all about the funk. There are plenty of fantastic distractions along the way that make Redinho an engaging listen from front to back, but it’s hard to stop hitting repeat on tracks like Get You Off My Mind and Sharp Shooter that masterfully splash hypercolour melodies over tough drums. [Sandro Dallarmi]

#15 DJ Rashad – We On One – NJ

Footwork pioneer DJ Rashad tragically passed away in April this year, just days before this final four track EP dropped. It’s raw, minimal, classic footwork: simple hypnotic vocal loops about sex and drugs (it was Rashad’s proclivity for the latter that did him in), with pulsating beat patterns that switch tempo without warning. RIP to a Chicago legend. [Nick Jarvis]

#14 Actress – Ghettoville

Ghettoville is the fourth – and allegedly last – studio album by Actress aka Darren Cunningham. The UK DJ, producer and Werkdiscs co-head hinted in a press release that the LP is his final encore ten years after starting up the label, and it’s a bit of a morbid – albeit well-crafted – one at that.

Listeners must push through icy and atmospheric introductory waters before properly diving into Ghettoville, which runs thick with throbbing techno (‘Skyline’), the occasional hip-hop (‘Corner’) and other murky slabs of sound that groan, creep and hiss throughout like they’re actively pushing away the faint of heart. Soldier on, though, and tracks like Gaze are fleeting beacons of light before submerging oneself back into Actress’s brooding darkness. It’s not necessarily an album you’ll want to listen to right before tucking in for bed, but it’s a must-listen nonetheless. [Krystal Rodriguez]

#13 Knife Party – Abandon Ship

Knife Party are one of the most curious acts to have emerged during EDM’s takeover of the music industry; they’ve fully embraced the maximalist EDM culture while simultaneously mocking it. For the most part, this means making big-room bangers with unique character – not unlike rising producers Tchami and Bixel Boys – but they really rammed the point home with an Abandon Ship cut called EDM Trend Machine. Using the old bait-’n’-switch, Knife Party made an almost-banger that builds endlessly to a gigantic, generic drop, before immediately switching into a slab of jacking house that shows just how versatile (and cheeky) the Perth duo are. [Sandro Dallarmi]

#12 Rustie – Green Language

Rustie’s debut Glass Swords blew minds with its maximalist, futuristic post-dubstep soundscapes drawing from house, RNB, IDM and more. Sophomore album Green Language is a more relaxed affair – the first four tracks set an aquatic, ambient atmosphere before the trap-influenced club bangers come in with Up Down, He Hate Me and the epic Danny Brown vehicle Attak, before settling back into ambience in the second half of the album. Speaking about Green Language to Rolling Stone, Rustie said he originally had a lot more ambient sounds on Glass Swords but the label didn’t want them; this second record, then, is the sound of “total freedom.” [Nick Jarvis]

#11 Skrillex – Recess

Skrillex surprised everyone with his debut LP. If you were expecting 11 tracks of relentless drops, thundering bass and laser beams then I’m afraid you underestimated Sonny Moore. Sure, there’s plenty of peaktime madness, from Recess and Try It Out to Ragga Bomb, but it’s the tunes out of left-field, like Doompy Poomp (all woozy synths, plodding off-time glitch-hop beat and surreal vocal stabs), Coast is Clear (with Chance the Rapper throwing down over some rolling jungle) and the spacious, atmospheric UK dubstep sound of album closer Fire Away that make Recess a complete album. [Nick Jarvis]

#10 Moodymann – Moodymann

Vinyl purists are feeling some type of way when it comes to Moodymann’s self-titled album. At time of publishing, the double-LP’s currently going for a hefty $60+ on Discogs, but we promise it’s worth every penny (just don’t shell out $750 on Amazon).

Detroit’s own Moodymann, aka Kenny Dixon Jr., flies his flag high for house music as deep, rich and soulful as the music history of Motor City itself, and his eleventh studio album stays the course. Features from similar hometown acts Amp Fiddler, Andrés and Funkadelic add to Dixon Jr.’s sample-rich blend of house, jazz, soul and more, with tracks that vary from the sweet n’ low-slung Ulooklykicecreaminthesummertyme to the more explicit (and slightly sinister) Freeki Muthafucka. [Krystal Rodriguez]

#9 Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

It seems that as Flying Lotus’s body of work swells, so does his desire to explore the depths of his jazz-steeped lineage. You’re Dead! ventures through the full breadth of jazz staples, from improvisation on more traditional instruments like the saxophone, all the way to a fully-fledged Herbie Hancock collaboration. Despite those touchstones though, FlyLo never stops looking forward and finding new ways to make your jaw drop across one of the most vibrant electronic albums this year. [Sandro Dallarmi]

#8 Flight Facilities – Down to Earth

Flight Facilities have provided an agonisingly slow drip feed of new music over the last few years, so for the Sydney duo to release a whole album at once was almost overwhelming. They delivered though, not only providing a bunch of lovingly crafted singles, but managing to tie them all together into a stunning, transporting body of work. For the full story behind the evolution of Flight Facilities, head over to our sister site AWOL and read the stunning long-form feature. [Sandro Dallarmi]

#7 Deadmau5 – While (1

2014 has been rife with highlights (and headlines) for deadmau5, from going B2B with Eric Prydz to beefing with Paris Hilton to celebrating a remix-packed 5 Years of ‘Mau5, but Joel Zimmerman’s crowning achievement this year was easily his 25-track opus While (1

The Grammy-nominated album highlights multiple sides of the ‘mau5, showcasing sounds ranging from “gentle nautical” to “arena-level” to “exploratory club tracks” – you’ll even hear his love for Trent Reznor with a remix of the Nine Inch Nail side-project How To Destroy Angels’ Ice Age. As he told inthemix earlier this year, “That’s kind of the play here – not do a continuation of what I’ve been doing for the last four albums; that’s just stupid…I’m trying to just do an album that if you don’t know your fuckin’ head from your arse you’ll walk through the record store, see it and go, ‘Ah, this could be cool.’” [Krystal Rodriguez]

#6 Seekae – The Worry

Future Classic has been undeniably at the forefront of dance for years now, bringing fans stars from Flume, What So Not and Hayden James to Touch Sensitive and more; and their latest golden children are electronic trio Seekae, who back in September released their stunning third studio album The Worry.

The Worry is the first album with vocals from frontman Alex Cameron, and while it’s not particularly dance-y in the physical sense, it’s got our minds moving with whirlwind, at-times jarring soundscapes and melancholic vocals. As our sister site FasterLouder says, “it evokes anxiety, the defining emotion of our times, a constant inescapable undercurrent…The lack of frills makes it seem more honest, an unadorned representation of people’s internal lives set to sound.” [Krystal Rodriguez]

#5 Aphex Twin – Syro

For fans of experimental electronica, the return of the Aphex Twin moniker after a 13 year absence was undoubtedly the most exciting thing to happen this year; and happily, Syro didn’t disappoint. It’s 12 tracks of unmistakeable Aphex Twin: not an immense, game-changing statement, but his trademark densely-layered barrages of sound, cascading drum patterns and surreal distorted vocals.

The album leans heavily towards the futuristic Aphex Twin take on jungle and early UK hardcore, rather than ambience or pure noise: there are big breakbeats, rolling liquid drum’n’bass beat patterns, unexpected basslines and voice samples stretched out into acid quavers. It’s cohesive as an album experience – and it’s (almost) accessible; as accessible as Aphex Twin IDM gets. If this is only a fraction of the material he’s sitting on, as Richard D. James has hinted in interviews, then we can’t wait to hear what else is hiding on his hard drive. [Nick Jarvis]

#4 DJ Dodger Stadium – Friend of Mine

If you’re the type to judge a book by its cover (or an act by its name), chances are you might’ve passed over DJ Dodger Stadium. The duo, made up of BODY HIGH label heads Jerome LOL and Samo Sound Boy, may have a cheeky name inspired by their Los Angeles surroundings, but one listen to their debut album, Friend Of Mine, shows the team’s got serious talent.

The album plays acidic warehouse techno against bouncy house numbers, throwing in the occasional pop-like vocal for curveball effect. Love Songs, for instance, centres on the same swelling refrain (“Lately I’ve been singing love songs by myself”) whilst driving with puttering percussion to a climactic destination that never quite arrives, making for a scenic ride. After this album, we imagine DJ Dodger Stadium are feeling the love. [Krystal Rodriguez]

#3 Todd Terje – It’s Album Time

It’s Album Time sounds as though dance music just woke up, Rip Van Winkle-style, after 30 years in a hot tub on the Canary Islands, sunburnt, hung over, the umbrellas in the empty drink glasses long crumbled to dust, completely out of touch with contemporary sounds. And for a generation weary of the excesses of EDM, brostep, tech house and what have you, this kind of classicism is exactly what the doctor ordered. OK, so I could take or leave the ironic lounge-lizard act, as epitomised by the throwaway album title and the cheesy space-age bachelor-pad artwork. But Terje’s music does it for me every time.

Much of the new material here is in a soundtracky vein, which works just fine. Many of Terje’s Eurodisco forebears and biggest influences, especially Giorgio Moroder, did some of their best work in the service of movie soundtracks. The variety of styles here means the imaginary early-’80s cinematic moments that accompany them vary too, from softcore adult fare, let’s say, to European arthouse drama. Either way you picture lots of amazing facial hair.

His greatness lies in walking that very fine line between sarcasm and sincerity – but it’s the terrific musicianship and attention to detail lurking beneath the cheeky humour that’s the difference in the game – this is very rich, layered and composition-centred dance music. [Jim Poe]

#2 Caribou – Our Love

Our Love sits at a curious junction. It’s Dan Snaith’s most personal album, with lyrics delving into themes of love and relationship breakdown, and featuring more of his vocals than ever before.

But it’s also the album best suited to the dancefloor, from the swelling opener Can’t Do Without You to the micro-house rager Our Love, the unusual high-energy post-jungle of Julia Brightly and looping synthesiser riff of album closer Your Love Will Set You Free, Our Love draws on influences from the whole history of dance music and recontextualises them in the quirky Caribou kaleidoscope. [Nick Jarvis]

#1 Porter Robinson – Worlds

Worlds is an important album. Rising from a plethora of unusual influences but backed by an established career on the mainstage, it’s a unique piece of work that’s both accessible and mind-blowingly different. While the EDM machine continues to roll onwards just as strong as before, Porter Robinson has provided a unique and compelling alternative that may just open the minds of a generation of producers.

It’s a rare artist who can craft singles that are both radio-friendly and excellent standalone pieces of music. That’s what Porter did with Language two years ago and it’s what he’s done so well again on Worlds. FM favourites Lionhearted and Sad Machine are two of the best tracks on the record and more importantly as singles – or “the songs the label’s excited about,” as Porter put it to us earlier this year – there’s nothing cheap or formulaic about them. They’re also perfectly at home in Worlds as a complete piece of work.

But the best thing about Worlds is a little less tangible. Months ago, Porter told us that he decided not to collaborate with big names on Worlds because he didn’t want to compromise on his vision for the album in the way bringing someone else into the creative process might necessitate. This was his chance to present his taste in its most distilled form and that’s something he hasn’t budged on. It shows that this is a record Porter’s poured himself into.

The commitment to Worlds as a piece of art and not a money-maker or a stadium-filler – as he’s said himself many times, the change in sound could have alienated fans – is what sets the album apart as this year’s biggest highlight. [Jack Tregoning, Katie Cunningham, Sandro Dallarmi]