We’re into the seventh month of 2014, the longest day of the year’s been and gone, it’s well and truly summer – that can only mean one thing, it’s time for everyones mid-year “Best Of” lists. Magazines, blogs and websites alike have been churning out their “Top 25 Albums of 2014 So Far” lists, which is all well and good – but here at Highsnobiety we like to go a bit further for our readers. We’ve devised a list of the top 25 musical achievements that have occurred over the last six months. Our list does include full-length albums but it also features singles, videos, collaborations and even live shows that have made our year so far.
Our overarching criteria for the list is that the achievement must have a 2014 release date. Before you all cry out, “Happy” was released last year, so although we genuinely recognize the achievement of the world’s first 24-hour video, it sadly didn’t make the chronological cut.
1. “All Raving Under One Roof” – Jamie xx
2014 looks like Jamie xx’s time to shine again. He’s already released a couple of on-point singles, “Girl” and “Sleep Sound,” both of which are adorned with glossy vocals and his signature steel-drumsl; and there’s much excitement around a 2014 debut solo album. “All Raving Under One Roof” is his latest and most impressive effort. The ten-minute killer of a track is an amalgamation of spoken-word samples, rave whistlers and garage-referencing beats. Sampling Mark Lecky’s 1999 short film Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, the track references the history of UK hardcore as much as it pays homage to it. The London producer created the track while on tour with The xx and has stated, “I wanted to make something I could play out when I got home that reminded me of how good home is.” Check out ten songs that inspired the fiercely British track via Spin here.
2. “Can’t Do Without You” – Caribou
Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Caribou live this year will understand the power of this track. Those who haven’t should still be able to feel the sheer elation of the track as it swells in size and intensity. Kicking off with a muted bass line, the track builds from shimmering synths into a blissful explosion of love-struck vocal samples and glowing euphoria. As the rush hits, we find ourselves giddily celebrating life and love. To ensue the track with a further piece of smile-inducing news: Caribou’s sixth studio album will be released on October 7 via Merge Records.
3. “Drowning” - BANKS
One of the buzziest female artists around this year, BANKS, has stolen the hearts of many with her fiercely honest lyrics and her fusing of R&B and electronic beats. Produced by Al-Shux, “Drowning” sees the LA-born-and-bred singer cooing about unrequited love by way of its scornful lyrics, “From the girl who made you soup and tied your shoes when you were hurting/You were not deserving.” The achievement earned her the “Hottest Record in the World” accolade from Zane Lowe. In the Mike Piscitelli-directed video which premiered on i-D, she dances in a hall of mirrors to create a hypnotic array of optical illusions. All in all, it’s quite the feat for the 25-year-old who was writing lyrics on her bedroom floor just over a year ago.
4. “0 to 100/ The Catch Up” – Drake
As the title indicates, “0 to 100 / The Catch Up” is really more two tracks in one. Produced in its entirety by Drake‘s in-house hit-making producers Boi-1da along with Noah “40″ Shebib, Nineteen85 and Noel “Detail” Fisher, the track is a six-minute straight-talking affair, which includes an announcement of Drizzy’s intended Spring 2015 domination. The first half is minimal, builds gradually, turns moody and ends with a chilling James Blake sample. The inclusion of the electronic producer’s signature sound brings 2011’s “James Drake” to mind – an excellent mash-up album of genres. Drake’s own Nothing Was the Same just recently received a Polaris Award nomination and the title of his upcoming album was also revealed, Views From the 6.
5. “Say You’ll Be There” - MØ cover
Forgive us for generalizing but odds are you didn’t start the year thinking the Spice Girls would feature particularly heavily in it. For current Danish electro-pop darling, MØ, to then cover their 1996 hit and have us listening to it on repeat is quite the achievement. MØ certainly puts her mark on the newly arranged track. Just like the singer herself, it’s spacey, sexy and strangely hypnotic. The track, which was released in February, was imminently followed by her self-assured debut, No Mythologies To Follow.
6. “Chandelier” Video – SIA
This Australian recording artist has written hits for Rihanna and Beyoncé and is responsible for 12 million track sales – yet she doesn’t want to be famous. In order to remove herself/her image/her gender/her body from the mainstream media, she’s ensured she’s nowhere to be seen throughout the varying promo for her newest studio album, 1000 Forms of Fear.
To start with, the album artwork’s blacked-out her face, the Billboard Magazine cover has her posing with a paper bag over her head, on-stage, she doesn’t face the audience and the viral video itself puts the spotlight on an 11-year-old dancer that resembles her but isn’t her. The video for “Chandelier” has racked up millions of views and the track itself, which talks frankly about alcoholism, features the catchiest chorus of the year. The vocal performance and the fact that it only took SIA 20 minutes to write are achievements enough to make anyone’s jaw drop. In pulling herself physically out of the scrutinizing eye of the mainstream media, SIA is changing the playing field for women in pop. Her pre-“Chandelier” efforts may pale in comparison and it’s therefore all the more meaningful that her most conceptualized and feminist work has been released right when all eyes are on SIA, searching.
7. “We Exist” Video – Arcade Fire
Back in May, Arcade Fire released the video for their pro-LGBT anthem to critical acclaim. The video stars Andrew Garfield in the role of a transgender woman and is an account of “a young person’s struggle with gender identity.” The track itself is about a son telling his father that he’s gay – both song and track convey an important message of self-empowerment and equality. Although an unexpected choice, Garfield gives his all in a powerful performance.
The online dispute between transgender musician Laura Jane Grace, who disapproved of the Garfield casting, and Win Butler, caused an interesting discussion. Butler responded by stating that Garfield was utterly committed to the project and that it’d be “pretty damn powerful…for a gay kid in Jamaica to see the actor who played Spiderman in that [part].” The video ends with Garfield, joining Arcade Fire on stage during their Coachella set, fully embracing himself and feeling wholly accepted by those in the crowd and on stage with him.
8. “Two Weeks” – FKA Twigs
London-based R&B singer FKA Twigs has created an aura around herself in a way very few artists manage – with each intimate release, she electrifies us with a captivating video and unabashedly honest lyrics. Put simply, FKA Twigs is a work of art. Her newest track, “Two Weeks,” is accompanied by a fascinating visual proving that the 20-something year-old understands pop music is very much about pleasing both the ears and eyes. Calling upon the directorial expertise of Nabil, the slow-motion video is an intensely choreographed affair – the singer takes on the role of a Hindu-esque goddess while miniature banshee versions of herself dance and convulse beside her. The movements are mesmerizing and when Twigs regally stretches out her arm to drop water into the mouth of one of her mini-mes, there’s a slow realization that she’s got us eating out of the palm of her hand, too.
9. “Pro Anti Anti” Video – Liars
As with their other releases, LA-based Liars created an impressive audio-visual world for their track “Pro Anti Anti”. Directed by Yoonha Park, the video sees band members Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill visit a 3D technology company to have their faces scanned and turned into wax figures. Park was inspired by Sesame Street’s visit to a crayon factory and the models were made by Direct Dimensions, known for their work for Marvel Comic films. Displayed in a museum, the two band members then watch as their faces melt into two colored piles of mess. Speaking of the video, Andrew has said, “what becomes interesting about technological possibilities is what happens if you mess it up.” From the title to the artwork and the production itself, they created the music on their computers by doing exactly the opposite of what the manuals told them, Mess is the leitmotif they pull through the entirety of the album. The band believes that while professionals do everything by the book, it’s the responsibility of artists to “set fire or drown” those things.
10. “Run” Video - Beyoncé & JAY Z
Here they are: this year’s hottest couple, Bey and Jay. Back in May and prior to their joint headlining stadium tour this summer, they released this action-packed Bonnie and Clyde-style trailer. Directed by Melina Matsoukas, the star-studded cast includes Sean Penn, Don Cheadle, Blake Lively, Jake Gyllenhaal, Guillermo Diaz, Emmy Rossum, Rashida Jones and Kidada Jones. Seldom has there been such extensive coverage for an artist’s tour – the faux movie trailer, the A-list appearances and collaborations, the extravagant set list, the detailed theme and the final HBO special concert film – that’s an achievement worth celebrating on the power couple’s behalf.
11. Young Fathers winning the Scottish Album of The Year Award
You know who Young Fathers beat to be able to name themselves winners of the Scottish Album of The Year? Mogwai, Chrvches, Biffy Clyro and Boards of Canada. Yeah, that’s a musical achievement right there. And worthy winners they were – Tape Two is extraordinarily imaginative, refreshingly sharp and exhilaratingly experimental. The three Scotsmen – comprised of Graham, Ali and Kayus – are as dedicated as musicians come; their passion is raw, their talents unequivocal. The award-winning album beautifully and honestly captures the group’s collective spirit.
12. Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories Grammy Win
There’s all manner of achievements to be found on this record – musically, collaboratively and commercially. Random Access Memories pays tribute to the late ’70s, early ’80s era of music in the U.S – particularly that of Los Angeles. Unlike their previous releases, Daft Punk limited their use of electronic instruments and called upon the talents of musicians to perform live instrumentation in the studio.
Preceded by 2005’s Human After All, the album is their first full-length studio album in eight years and is their most critically acclaimed album to date. It includes the producing expertise of Nile Rodgers (who is now able to list two of the world’s best selling singles to his achievements), heavily features man-of-the-moment Pharrell Williams as well as notable collaborations with Giorgio Moroder, Panda Bear, Julian Casablancas and Chilly Gonzales. At this year’s 56th Grammy Awards it won Album of the Year, Best Dance/Electronica Album and Best Engineered Album, while “Get Lucky” was awarded Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. The lead single charted in the top 10 in over 32 countries, sold more than 9.3 million copies and was performed live at the awards show – with Stevie Wonder, Pharrell and Rodgers joining the duo onstage.
13. OutKast Reunion at Coachella
OutKast’s performance at Coachella this year was one of the most anticipated musical reunions in years. It included on-stage appearances from Ellie Goulding, Chromeo, Honest, Girl Talk and Janelle Monae and was Coachella’s most-tweeted moment clocking in at over 90,000 tweets. Fans and critics alike have been divided when reviewing the show – some state their behavior and track choices were questionable – but for the world’s best hip-hop songs to be played live again by two people who hadn’t been on stage together for seven years is a worthy achievement in itself, and will surely go down as a moment in musical history.
14. Pharrell’s Set at Coachella
Another highly anticipated set at Coachella was that of Mr. Pharrell Williams – and he certainly lived up to expectations. The singer/producer/rapper was joined on stage by Snoop Dogg, Tyler, The Creator, Gwen Stefani, Nelly, Diplo, Busta, Diddy, JAY Z, Usher, Pusha T, T.I. – and most importantly, that hat of his. The star-studded set saw him and guests perform a medley of his biggest hits, his most noteworthy collaborations, and of course, the Oscar-nominated, chart-topping, record-selling “Happy.” A further highlight of the show saw Pharrell bring the “Queen of Awesome” on stage, which marked Stefani’s arrival back to the music industry. The set wasn’t just an impressive solo set, it was, in part, a Williams career retrospective, which climaxed with the man himself declaring “this was the best performance of my life.”
15. Prince’s Guerilla Gigs
In February of this year Prince surprised fans and critics alike by playing a handful of secret intimate gigs in London. Utilizing guerilla tactics to promote his upcoming album, Prince announced the impromptu performances and venues via Twitter. Playing “iconic” venues such as London’s Electric Ballroom, a couple of hundred lucky patrons were able to see the pop legend for a free hour-long gig in a 1,000 capacity space. The performance backed by his band 3RDEYEGIRL, featured music from his upcoming album, Plectrum Electrum, including the new single, “PretzelBodyLogic.” Fans who were committed enough to travel to the venues in hope rather than expectation were rewarded with a unique moment that will surely go down in musical history.
What do you get if you put super-producer James Murphy, Belgian electronic brothers Soulwax and a circle of renowned McIntosh speakers in a room for six hours? A unique sonic experience like no other, that’s what. Playing only vinyl from exclusive collections, DESPACIO is all about focusing on the experience of the listener rather than the spectacle on stage. The project toured around Europe, including Glastonbury and Sonar festival. A celebration of pure live music performances, the figures speak for themselves: seven stacks of 11-foot speaker towers with a total sum of 50,000 watts – an achievement that made for an unprecedented immersive sound.
17. Nirvana’s Hall of Fame Induction
Artists become eligible for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 25 years after the release of their first record and this year saw the induction of Nirvana. Inducted by R.E.M’s Michael Stipe, the event was held to celebrate the music legacy of the Seattle grunge band and to recognize in what substantial ways they changed the musical landscape. The event saw David Grohl on drums and Kris Novoselic on bass with Pat Smear on guitar, and standing in for the late Kurt Cobain: Joan Jett during “Smells Like Team Spirit;” Kim Gordon’s rendition of “Aneurysm;” Annie Clark of St. Vincent singing “Lithium” and Lorde closing the show with “All Apologies.” The choices were in recognition to the singer’s dedication to women’s rights and causes. The ceremony also saw various artists and musicians putting aside their differences, in particular Grohl and Courtney Love who embraced on-stage, marking an amicable end to their feud.
18. Remixes of Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love”
All manner of artists, singers and producers have had their time with Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love.” The original track featuring JAY Z was officially reworked by Kanye West imminently after its initial release and was then met with a flood of remixes and reworks by artists including The Weeknd, T.I., DJ Ted, Future (who auto-tuned the track) James Blake’s alter-ego Harmonimix (considerably altering Beyoncé’s vocals) and Diplo (who added an EDM influence to the track). Producer Detail released a seven-minute track, which he worked on for three weeks and included unreleased audio elements from the original recording. By repurposing the vocals, the lyrics and modifying the instrumentals, each artist added their own mark to the record – some even changing the theme to discuss empowerment, drug use and corruption. Pitchfork’s Jordan Sargent listed up every cover and remix (12 in total) – quite the achievement in itself. See the list here.
19. Once Upon A Time In Shaolin - Wu-Tang Clan
Wu-Tang Clan announced earlier this year that they’d recorded a new album but would only make and sell one physical copy of it. That copy currently resides in a handcrafted silver-and-nickel box in Marrakech – where the hip-hop legends have been secretly recording over the past few years. The double album is likely to have a multi-million dollar price tag and potentially has the ability to change the way music is consumed and monetized. As Robert “RZA” Diggs put it: “we’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody has done in the history of modern music.” It’s the group’s remarkable effort of bringing music back to a place of value in a time where music is almost given away for free.
The group plans to take the album on “tour” through museums, galleries and festivals – much like exhibiting a piece of art. What will reveal itself over the remainder of the year is who the buyer of this single-sale collector’s item might be. Potential suspects: a brand for heightened publicity, a major record label who’d bring the album out through the usual channels, or a rich private patron – who may or may not release it for free for the greater good of everyone.
20. Caustic Window LP - Aphex Twin
In April this year, a test pressing of an unreleased 1994 Aphex Twin album found its way onto the Internet – the owner was selling it on Discogs for $13,500. Shortly after, fan forum We Are The Music Makers and James Thomas set up a Kickstarter to buy one of the four test pressings and release it digitally to those who donated $16 dollars or more. The campaign raised $67,424 and copies were sent out. One, unsurprisingly, surfaced on Youtube in June. This was met with the news that the rare vinyl copy was bought on eBay for $46,300 by Markus “Notch” Persson, creator of video game Minecraft. A large portion of that sum went to charity. It was one of the year’s stranger stories and a remarkable achievement from those who managed to bring a lost record to dedicated fans.
21. Lazaretto - Jack White
Has Jack White been this year’s busiest man? He’s not only released his second solo album, held an impromptu show at a makeshift London psych ward, he also runs record label Third Man, changed the face of the world of vinyl and broken a world record in the process. Dubbed a “workaholic” by a close friend, Jack White has taken vinyl to unprecedented places with his newest release, Lazaretto, which is full of special features such as hidden tracks, secret grooves and holograms that appear when played. Lazaretto sold 40,000 vinyl copies in its first week, which also translates to the highest number of vinyl sales for any title since SoundScan began collecting data in 1991. See the full list of the vinyl’s special features via Hypebot here.
22. Salad Days - Mac DeMarco
Mac DeMarco just received a Polaris Award nomination for his second studio album, Salad Days. The album is an immensely enjoyable guitar pop daydream. In it, the off-kilter Canadian has created a collection of wonderfully weird pop songs – the songwriting is wry yet deep, the guitar playing is rich and assured – that perfectly encapsulates the singer’s carefree approach to life. It’s a mature and endearing achievement for the 23-year-old.
23. St. Vincent - St. Vincent
It seems Annie Clark has figured out exactly what she wants to do and has done exactly that with St. Vincent. It’s the strongest work of her career. The record is beautifully ambitious, personal and, as described by Clark, “very extroverted.” Critics and peers alike have been quick to praise Clark’s confidence in the record and with its precise direction, tight production and innovative soundscape it’s easy to see why. By way of its twisted vocals, distinct guitar playing and startling lyrics (“I now have a fractured attention span because I’m like living in the modern world”), the album proves itself to be rich in texture and insight.
24. Benji - Sun Kil Moon
With Benji, American indie folk act Sun Kil Moon has created the most lyrically poetic album of the year. The astonishing album is his most personal and intimate work to date and is both hauntingly raw and touchingly beautiful. Centered in Ohio, the record speaks of death, family, friends, loss and heartbreak – some of it sad, some of it funny, all of it true. He recalls past events with stunning detail and although the subject matter is often difficult, Mark Kozelek is respectful of the complexity and power of life. With his sixth studio album, we’ve found one of the most remarkable storywriters in contemporary music.
25. Lost In The Dream - The War On Drugs
In the last decade, there’s been a trend for bands to gain a huge amount of hype around their debut album – and unable to deliver that same power with their following works. It’s been three years since The War On Drugs’ latest album, six since their debut, yet they’re an anomaly that haven’t fallen into this demise. What’s remarkable about Lost In The Dream is how much their sound has progressed and matured. At its core, Lost In The Dream is a break-up album, and for singer and main songwriter Adam Granduciels it was an arduous, year-long recording process – but one that wholly paid off. They’ve developed a distinctive, unconventional sound that’s densely loaded with synthesizers, pianos and guitars – and, in the process, managed to make rock music sound fresh again.