XLR8R's Best of 2014: Releases (15 - 1)

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Yesterday, we continued our mammoth Best of 2014 series by kicking off our annual rundown of our favorite releases from the year gone by. Putting this list together was no easy task, especially when one considers that today's frenetic music marketplace often makes it hard to find the time to even listen to a full release, let alone properly appreciate one. We live in a time when quality music sometimes only has a shelf life of a few days, which means that for something like an album (or even an EP) to really stick, it has to be something truly special. As we've often noted, declaring anything to be a definitive "best" is an impossible and highly subjective task, but the releases we've chosen here were generally the ones that we not only enjoyed hearing, but also made time to listen to again and again. (For the sake of clarity, we should again note that we're considering a "release" to be anything with more than one original song on it.) In the end, we settled on 30 selections, the first half of which were unveiled yesterday. Read on to see which records grabbed a place in the top 15, and of course, which release was crowned with the year's top honors.


15. Session Victim See You When You Get There (Delusions of Grandeur)
On Session Victim's second full-length effort, the Hamburg duo not only proved capable of proficiently crafting an electronic album, but also exhibited an uncommon knack for making a long-form statement. Said to have been half produced at the pair's home base in Germany and half at a hardware-filled San Francisco studio, See You When You Get There emerged as a well-balanced, and at times, deceivingly nuanced record. The LP is anchored in the traditions of disco-leaning house, yet it doesn't seem entirely tied to any particular stylistic concept. Included amongst the 11-track effort are a handful of effortlessly soulful dancefloor numbers—"Hey Stranger," "Never Forget," and "Stick Together" among them—but even when Session Victim turns its aims away from the DJ booth, the record's crisp and gorgeously detailed productions (whose plethora of samples arrive with just enough dirt to keep things interesting) provide for one of 2014's most confidently enjoyable listening experiences. Glenn Jackson

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14. Gunnar Haslam Mirrors and Copulation (L.I.E.S.)
In many ways, 2014 was a year where L.I.E.S. settled into something of a routine. That's not to say that the music suffered; it's simply that the label has essentially become a known quantity, with talk of its "raw" sounds, unrelenting release schedule, and brutally honest founder (Ron Morelli) all becoming standard-issue talking points. In short, the imprint has been run through the hype cycle, and now that it's emerged on the other side, there's a tendency for some of its records to be overlooked, or written off as "just another L.I.E.S. record." That's unfortunate, because it means that efforts like Mirrors and Couplation, the sophomore LP from rising producer Gunnar Haslam, don't always get the attention they deserve. Following quality 12"s for the likes of Delsin, Argot, and Mister Saturday Night, Mirrors and Couplation finds Haslam serving up expansive synth journeys, passages of distorted noise, respites of pastoral melody, and the occasional slice of driving machine techno. It's a diverse listen, yet Haslam's ominous, reverb-laden aesthetic expertly ties it all together. L.I.E.S. may be known for its singles and EPs, but this is a very fine album. Shawn Reynaldo

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13. Young Marco Biology (ESP Institute)
Who knew that elegant, new age house would propel Young Marco from Rush Hour graphic designer to international DJ extraordinaire? Marco hit on something special with Biology, a record that manages to be equal parts heady and light-hearted. "Trippy Isolator" combines Afrobeat, Krautrock, house, and Japanese new wave, while also serving as great music for those whose social lives extend beyond record stores. Album highlights "Sea World" and "Suzaku" find him shaping sad, Satie-like melodies into endearing dancefloor cuts. There's a lot love about Biology, which is quite the achievement for a guy who, in his own words, "spent a solid two years listening to new age records." Matthew McDermott

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12. Hieroglyphic Being The Seer of Cosmic Visions (Planet Mu)
The catalog of vanguard house experimentalist Hieroglyphic Being (the most commonly evoked alias of Jamal Moss) is not an easy one to get through; since starting off alongside Chicago house pioneers like Ron Hardy and Steve Poindexter in the early '90s, his Discogs profile has swelled to include page upon page of releases, many of them for his own Mathematics label and its subsidiaries. The Seer of Cosmic Visions culls nine tracks produced between 1996 and 2013—largely issued on cassette, VHS tape, or minidisc—but it isn't exactly a retrospective. Rather, as Moss tells us, the tracks on offer were all built to reference powerful energies or aesthetics he's encountered in clubs over the years. Whether the more esoteric dimensions of this or any record are accessible to the average listener is up for debate, but Moss' Sun Ra-inspired improvisations, woozy, mechanical funk, and bruising noise unquestionably point toward a singular vision. "Moss' contributions are beyond vital," we wrote in our review of the album. "His list of influences is deep, and he has plenty of collaborations to his name, but his music is instantly identifiable and does exist, more or less, on its own plane." Jay Donaldson

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11. Steffi Power of Anonymity (Ostgut Ton)
Even on the first listen, Power of Anonymity is an effort in which Steffi's long history as a DJ is obvious. Not only are these tracks structured for the dancefloor, but when listened to from beginning to end, the tempo gently builds towards the more full-bodied tracks that appear towards the album's conclusion. This steady incline eventually arrives at a well-earned peak on tracks like "Bang For Your Buck" and the acid-laced "JBW25," and by the time the collaborative "Treasure Seeking" (with Dexter and Virginia) comes around, the LP's significant shift in gear is especially evident. (This has a lot to do with the arrival of Virgina's playful vocals, which don't appear anywhere else the record.) Throughout it all, the album's frequent nods to '90s techno and electro show that Steffi isn't afraid to take notes from the past, but much like the artists that inspired her (e.g. Underground Resistance), it's clear that this Berghain resident has her gaze fixed on the future. Chris Duncan

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10. Head High Megatrap (Power House)
The Head High album arrived like a thief in the night. One morning, the new LP from Shed's unapologetically retro rave alias appeared on Hard Wax's website, although the typically terse one-line description was more excitable than usual—"Anthem alert," it exclaimed. For René Pawlowitz, producing for peak time is easy, as the formula of massive beats with a bit of emotional melody was pounded into his head as a techno-obsessed German teenager. Laying waste to the neverending authenticity debate, Pawlowitz claims to not even be searching for a new sound, as he's content to rely on tried-and-true '90s principles. On "It's a Love Thing (XXX Mix)," a pair of sirenic divas get cut up over a maddeningly addictive stab—there isn't much to it. The various mixes of the title track—there are three on the record—offer an education in breakbeat functionality. Though he would probably deny it, Head High's '90s revivalism often improves upon the original templates; the kick drums are louder, the melodies are more direct, and the perennial tracks blossom into something gratifying and yes, anthemic. Matthew McDermott

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9. Terekke Terekke EP (L.I.E.S.)
Much like his super deep, misty, and lo-fidelity house, Terekke won't be rushed. Despite releasing one of L.I.E.S.' most in-demand 12"s last year, he managed only a single EP in 2014. That was this self-titled effort, which showed only the slightest of evolutions from an artist who likes to record his jams live, rather than meticulously crafting them in the studio from the ground up. Opening with the swirling, subterranean rhythm of the "A1," a captivating vocal sample drifts about in clouds of grainy ambiance as prickly hits and claps peek out of the insular murk. The jostling "A2" then allows a little more light and melody into the picture, before the "B1" suspends us in celestial ambient that could well soundtrack the exact point life turns to death. Rounding out an amiably blurry and imperfect EP is the distant, gentle bump and grind of "B2," which slowly emerges from the depths to lock listeners in a blissfully serene and dusty headspace. Kristan J Caryl

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8. Objekt Flatland (PAN)
It's hard to fathom the amount of hours Objekt must have spent combing over each and every sonic component of his debut album. As meticulously crafted as any LP that arrived in 2014, Flatland was never lost under the weight of its details. Instead, there was something intangibly alluring to the immensity of its high-definition productions, which further stripped back the shades of club sensibilities that coated past Objekt tracks—especially 2012's "Porcupine"—to reveal the array of intricate mechanical underpinnings hidden beneath. Not only substantial in terms of craftsmanship, but also in the ability of its tracks to evolve and pivot in increasingly unconventional fashions, Flatland was ultimately one of the year's most accomplished LPs. Glenn Jackson

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7. Todd Terje It's Album Time (Olsen)
In 2014, Todd Terje proved himself to be the gift that keeps on giving. Following a largely untouchable string of singles—the inescapable "Inspector Norse" and "Strandbar" among them—the Norwegian disco king made the leap to the LP format with a tongue-in-cheek title and a considerable bag of new tricks in hand. A partial victory lap which includes a handful of Terje's most memorable past efforts, It's Album Time charts the course of a prog-disco voyage, with the producer's wealth of musical personality taking on a number of unexpected influences in the process. Echoes of playful jazz, Latin lounge, hi-NRG, and more can be heard sprinkled throughout the record's 11 beautifully arranged tracks, and despite the stylistic diversity, the album succeeds, not just because Terje sounds like he's having loads of fun, but because he's doing it simply by being himself. Glenn Jackson

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6. Barnt Magazine 13 (Magazine)
Barnt's music has a utilitarian feel—it's sinewy, cold to the touch, and made up of the fewest tools necessary to do the job. Those who spend some time with the Cologne-based producer's records, however, tend to find a whole lot more going on. The melodies are meticulously detailed, the rhythms are as taught as guy ropes, and his icy shards of machine sounds somehow come together to form something very inviting. Magazine 13, Barnt's debut album, is a potent cocktail that demonstrates his effortless way of teasing complex emotions from the simplest of motifs. It's an LP that will, improbably, reward home listening and clubbers equally, while retaining the uncompromising strangeness and experimental sensibility that has always made his records so appealing. Ray Philp

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5. Jack J Looking Forward to You EP (Mood Hut)
Vancouver's Jack J is Jack Jutson, one half of dreamy deep house duo Pender Street Steppers and a key member of the emergent Mood Hut collective. Despite already being behind some of the year's best tracks (with buddy Liam Butler as Pender Street Steppers), Juston also felt the need to step out on his own. The resulting Looking Forward to You EP is by far one of the most cuddly, romantic, and smoochy releases of the year. Built upon vintage-sounding, midtempo drums, coated in a warm, lo-fi fuzz and awash with loved-up chords, all three cuts will make hearts swell, heads nod, and feet tap. As many a DJ remarked upon the EP's release, this is soppy, honest music that is sure to bring people to the floor, but it's also the sort of stuff that makes sense on lazy Sunday afternoons and during sun-kissed dates in the park. Kristan J Caryl

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4. Gesloten Cirkel Submit X (Murder Capital)
The world is not short of banging techno albums—and Submit X is certainly one of those—but Gesloten Cirkel's long-form debut also possesses an altogether rarer quality: humor. The baroque guitar solo on "Arrested Development" may as well be winking as it funnels through whipping snares and squiggling acid lines; "Vader" bursts with 303-rendered shapes built like bubble fonts; and "Submit X"'s titular vocal loop is sublime and ridiculous in equal measure. Submit X is fun, bold, and fantastically produced. It houses some of the best techno tracks made this year ("Arrested Development," "Zombie Machine (Acid)"), carries traces of like-minded genres ("Stakan" has a degraded EBM-ish strut to it, while "Chatters" basically sounds like the theme music from a "Game Over" screen cast into a furnace), and it's impeccably sequenced. In short, Submit X is about as good as a techno album can be, and there certainly aren't enough of those around. Ray Philp

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3. Leon Vynehall Music for the Uninvited (3024)
It doesn't matter if Music for the Uninvited is thought of as a full-length album or an extended EP—either way, UK producer Leon Vynehall has crafted a stellar seven-song collection that flows as one impressive sequence. Starting with the beatless orchestral bliss of "Inside the Deku Tree," Vynehall establishes a tape-warped world of emotive house numbers that swell and subside with an inimitable nostalgic quality. Tied together with Eagles For Hands' lavish string section and segues of film projector noises, Music for the Uninvited is unafraid to try something that most electronic artists fail miserably at: creating an artistic statement, not just a series of dance cuts. As light fades on the tranquil garage rhythms of "St. Sinclair," Vynehall succeeds in capturing a rare sense of wonder, proving that even after decades of dancefloor domination, house music has plenty of uncharted territory left to explore. Chris Kokiousis

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2. Kassem Mosse Workshop 19 (Workshop)
The debut Kassem Mosse album is held in an unassuming black package with a purple watercolor reminiscent of a violet sunset. Once again, the hardware-obsessed producer hasn't revealed too much about himself, as he prefers to let the music do the talking. That said, Workshop 19 is his most refined statement to date, and its best tracks operate with a carefree logic, coming off like a cubist interpretation of classic Theo Parrish material. (The album's narrative arc culminates in "Untitled B2," a propulsive track slathered with rapidly shifting drones.) In this surreal forest, Kassem Mosse's sturdy rhythms are the breadcrumbs tracing back to reality, leaving Workshop 19 as the year's most pleasantly disorienting journey. Matthew McDermott

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1. Call Super Suzi Ecto (Houndstooth)
In a year when Aphex Twin returned from a long bout of self-imposed isolation (amidst huge fanfare, no less), it's interesting that another producer essentially beat him at his own game. Granted, Call Super isn't exactly a Richard D. James soundalike, but there's no question that Aphex Twin's legacy is present on the Berlin-based producer's debut album, Suzi Ecto. Again, the similarity isn't so much in Call Super's musical palette (although there are some obvious parallels to be drawn, particularly in the album's sharp percussive strokes and serene, vaguely Eastern melodies), but in his willingness to embrace unorthodox rhythms and the obsessive way he approaches the construction of his tracks. The attention to detail on Suzi Ecto is truly impressive, as it's clear that every element was labored over, precisely sculpted, and carefully placed, even the rough-edged bits. And there are plenty of those, as the album is heavily populated with static, hiss, distortion, and an ever-present mechanical buzz. Of course, these kinds of sounds aren't generally well suited for the dancefloor, so it makes sense that the LP is essentially devoid of club tracks, a brave decision when one considers that all of Call Super's previous releases were at least rooted in techno, even at their most experimental. Suzi Ecto, on the other hand, is solely devoted to Call Super's exacting vision, and that's what makes it the year's most fascinating listen. Shawn Reynaldo

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XLR8R's Best of 2014 coverage will continue into next week, so check back each day for additional year-end round-ups. In the meantime, don't forget to take a look at the other Best of 2014 pieces we've posted already:

XLR8R's Best of 2014: Top Downloads (100 - 76)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Top Downloads (75 - 51)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Top Downloads (50 - 26)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Top Downloads (25 - 1)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Features
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Podcasts
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Gear
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Tracks (50 - 26)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Tracks (25 - 1)
XLR8R's Best of 2014: Releases (30 - 16)