XLR8R's Best of 2014: Releases (30 - 16)

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Although it's hard to deny that electronic music is still a genre where single tracks are dominant, that doesn't mean there's no room for long-form releases. In 2014, it felt like more artists were willing to try their hand at making substantial (i.e. longer) artistic statements, and while these efforts weren't always successful, it was interesting to see the electronic pendulum swing away from the notion that every tune has to be specifically engineered for the dancefloor. (Then again, plenty of producers turned in full-lengths where every track was made for the club; clearly, there is no single model being followed.) Admittedly, the sheer volume of new music that surfaced on a daily basis often made it difficult to really dig in to albums, or even EPs, but a handful of releases did manage to stick out, prompting repeat listen after repeat listen. As such, today's installment of our ongoing Best of 2014 series focuses on our favorite releases of the year. (For the sake of clarity, we consider a "release" to be anything with more than one original song on it.) Much like our breakdown of 2014's best tracks (which can be revisited here and here), many of our selections are rooted in house and techno, but this list is undeniably more varied; properly taking in a release requires an extended listening experience, and that framework leaves a lot more room for variation. Today's post unveils the first half of our favorite releases of 2014; the second half will arrive tomorrow.

30. Lockah Yahoo or the Highway (Donky Pitch)
There's a lot to be said for an artist who doesn't seem to take himself all that seriously, and yet has no problem delivering a record that walks the fine line between strong emotional resonance and anthemic dancefloor fare. Rife with wordplay and turns of phrase, Scottish producer Lockah's debut LP, Yahoo or the Highway, winks at you as it tugs on your heartstrings with evocative synth melodies and works out perky, ticking beats to better wiggle your backbone. Who would've guessed that a song called "Contact High Wit Big Lockah" could be both playful and sentimental with its faux trap-isms? Or that "Summer Jorts" would provide a heartfelt homage to sugary rave music, '80s synth-pop, and 8-bit videogames? Lockah delivered surprise after cheeky surprise across his first Donky Pitch album, but perhaps the biggest curveball was that a guy so enamored with music nostalgia could turn those sounds into something as forward-thinking and unique as Yahoo or the Highway. Patric Fallon


29. Forma Cool Haptics EP (The Bunker New York)
Brooklyn trio Forma first made its name in ambient and experimental music circles some years ago, having released two quality full-lengths for Edition Mego imprint Spectrum Spools in 2011 and 2012. These days, the group's live kosmiche improvisations haven't exactly evolved, but they have found new avenues of expression. The Cool Haptics EP is a two-track 12" for the nascent Bunker New York label, with each side housing 15 or so minutes of kaleidoscopic, synth-heavy techno that only moves forward—and at a chugging, motorik pace, no less. "Cool Haptics" sees Forma hurtling through a cold, dystopian landscape riddled with crystalline statues and a greenish glow on the horizon, while brighter b-side "Cloud Pillar" invokes its soft, atmospheric title with the same minimal set of hardware. It's obvious that Forma never intended to reinvent the wheel on Cool Haptics, which is more than okay; we're perfectly happy to watch them make it spin in all the colorful and cinematic ways the group has honed to perfection. Patric Fallon


28. Anthony Naples TTT026 EP (The Trilogy Tapes)
Anthony Naples returned to The Trilogy Tapes this year with this excellent EP, a four-track effort that combined dreamy synths with earworm loops and further cemented the label's reputation as rightfully being in the 'buy on sight' category. "Crazy Spirit" bobs and weaves throughout its six-minute duration, endlessly pushing its way through varying degrees of filtered suppression, whilst "Zipacon" juxtaposes mildly abrasive hi-hats with soft synth lines. "More Problem" stands out as a real highlight, offering itself up as a blueprint of big-room house euphoria with chords that dominate the track and fight tooth and nail against the kick drum. Chris Duncan


27. Caribou Our Love (Merge/City Slang)
With Our Love, Caribou officially hit backlash-worthy levels of success, but anyone able to muster much bad feeling after listening to the record a few times would be a harsher judge than us. Though it never quite reaches the heights of Swim, Our Love finds Snaith turning in excellent takes on his usual verdant pop ("Can't Do Without You"), bright-eyed garage ("Julia Brightly"), urgent '80s synth-pop ("Back Home"), and plenty more. Even better, he delivers all of it with a big smile on his face. Kit Macdonald


26. Claude Speeed My Skeleton (LuckyMe)
Edinburgh-born producer Stuart Turner spent a long time knocking around the Scottish music scene, most prominently as a member of the LuckyMe-affiliated American Men, but he's spent the fast few years in Berlin, operating as a solo artist under the Claude Speeed moniker. In July, the project's debut LP, My Skeleton, appeared, and everything about the album was interesting, from the layers of meaning in its faux-status-obsessed sleeve imagery to its copious use of field recordings, not to mention its skillful, incredibly atmospheric take on the sort of dreamlike modern-classical electronic music previously defined by the likes of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich. Kit Macdonald


25. Clark Clark (Warp)
If Clark has sometimes struggled to nurture a distinctive identity for himself as an artist—he's perhaps been lost a bit amongst his remarkable peers at Warp—then his eponymous seventh album made strides to put that right. In the record's press materials, Clark said he "wanted to let the weather in" on his latest LP, and the elements bare down hard on the album's fractured techno songs. But Clark is more of a document of the transitive moments of the club experience than it is a dance record per se, and this is never more apparent than on "There's a Distance in You." It's high-speed techno that, just as it threatens to explode, begins to drift away—or rather, it feels as if the listener is drifting away from it. The song aptly captures the sense of loss that comes with deserting a dancefloor to embrace the Sunday morning air, but thankfully, one doesn't need to wait a whole week to experience its thrills all over again. Ray Philp


24. Juju & Jordash Clean-Cut (Dekmantel)
The clue was in the title: Clean-Cut, Juju & Jordash's fourth LP, was indeed a more polished and rounded affair than the pair's 2012 effort, Techno Primitivism. The album also covered less ground than its expansive and ambitious predecessor, but that's not to say it is in any way less enjoyable. Instead, Clean-Cut was a more coherent proposition that rarely strayed from the dancefloor. With corrugated basslines, plenty of psyched-out synthesizer jams, and a typically raw (and occasionally brutal) sense of analog percussion, the album evolves as naturally as one of the duo's famed live sets. From the deep-space delights of "Schmofield" to the steppy and urgent metallic grooves of "Whippersnapper" and the rubbery acrobatics and nebulous atmospheres of "Deadwood City," this is an album that fires a listener's every synapse and takes them to places they've likely have never been before. Kristan J Caryl


23. Teebs E S T A R A (Brainfeeder)
Barring 2011's slight Collections 01, Teebs took more than three years to ready his sophomore LP, E S T A R A. (In fairness, the LA producer certainly kept busy in the meantime with art and other music projects, such as Sons of the Morning, his collaboration with Prefuse 73.) Continuing the detailed work he started on 2010's Ardour, Teebs retains his lush beat experiments but draws on a more muted color palette this time around. Wistful, yet still unabashedly gorgeous, E S T A R A employs fewer orchestral flourishes in favor of subtle textures and noise. There's also a healthy list of collaborators: Australian musician Jonti lends sunny harmonies to "Holiday," Italian producer Populous helps to flesh out "Hi Hat," Prefuse gives "NY Pt. 2" some grit, and Norwegian musician Lars Horntveth (of Jaga Jazzist fame) lays down a breathy clarinet line alongside an acoustic guitar that closes "Wavxxes" out in a pure, unassuming way. Teebs' new music may be tinged with an aged sadness, but he hasn't finished searching for contentment in sound. Chris Kokiousis


22. Traumprinz All the Things EP (Giegling)
Giegling inspires a cultish and slightly protective devotion. Its releases are lovingly crafted house records, covered in a fine film of metaphorical dust that one normally finds on treasured mementos and old family portraits. The Weimar-based collective wasn't especially prolific in 2014—besides All The Things, it released albums by Kettenkarussell and Edward—but the label's sole EP of the year (and Traumprinz's second of 2014) made its mark in a big way, despite its understated nature. "I Gave My Life" is a gently iridescent thrum of squelchy drums and a pedal-stretched guitar loop with a confessional monologue of drug use and finding God. "Messed Up Jam" is a similar effort, though its footprint-in-snow kick and toy-like melody are just as suited to solitude as they are to the right kind of club space. "All The Things," however, will and should grace any discerning dancefloor, with its tender blues vocal bruised and sliced by the track's sheet-metal hi-hats and hinge-busting drums. Ray Philp


21. Aphex Twin Syro (Warp)
"I'm feeling really horny about it. And very smug," Richard D. James told Rolling Stone in the weeks leading up to the release of Syro. While we can't comment on the first of those reactions, the second makes plenty of sense. Heralded by the appearance of an Aphex Twin logo-bearing blimp flying over London, and existing, as ever, in complete isolation from every other artist and musical trend out there, James's first album since 2001 was unquestionably a success. An infinitely more inviting listen than its inscrutable predecessor, Drukqs, the LP found him rollicking gleefully through 12 tracks that oozed analog appeal, and could equally have been made this year, a decade ago, or a decade in the future. Most of all though, it simply found him being the Aphex Twin that we've all known and loved for years. Kit Macdonald


20. John Barera & Will Martin Graceless (Dolly)
Bostonians John Barera & Will Martin have had a great year by anyone's standards. After a fine run of form that included solid releases on Barera's Supply label and Steffi's Dolly imprint, they impressed the latter enough to warrant her asking them for a debut full-length. And so it was that Graceless landed in October, immediately acting as a breath of fresh air for the house world, which had been drowning in an increasingly stagnant and uninspiring glut of "deep" stuff that excited no one. Made up of eight floor-facing tracks that are fun as well as functional, the tender LP speaks of the duo's passion for unearthing vintage samples and lacing them into thoughtful arrangements. Icy strings and bumping drums, heart-wrenching vocal samples, and skyward melodies are all present and correct in an album that manages to bristle with a vintage charm while simultaneously engaging with the modern world. House records as dynamic, textured, and live-sounding as this really don't come along too often. Kristan J Caryl


19. Jordan GCZ Digitalis EP (Future Times)
Jordan GCZ, the big-haired half of analog experts Juju & Jordash, has been enjoying some solo sucess for a while now. After last year's still-excellent "Crybaby J" on his own Off Minor label, the much-lauded Future Times imprint rightfully came calling for some more solo jams, and was ultimately rewarded with the curiously occult Digitalis EP. Somewhat deeper and more stripped back than Juju & Jordash's output, all three cuts are typically experimental and otherworldly, as well as being resplendent with mystic chords and future-retro synth sounds. However, it was "Swingonoguitaro" that garnered the most chatter. Underpinned by a rubbery kick drum, it's characterized by lush and Balearic guitar licks that reverb to infinity and manage to sound soothingly laid back, despite the increasingly frenetic hi-hat patterns all around. Kristan J Caryl


18. Vermont Vermont (Kompakt)
Vermont is the fruit of an unlikely partnership between Danilo Plessow (a.k.a. Motor City Drum Ensemble) and Marcus Worgull, whose handful of releases have mostly featured on one of Europe's most popular labels, Innervisions. Working together, the two create music that is surprisingly esoteric, and features little of either producer's signature sound. Vermont's self-titled debut is an ambient kosmische record with plenty of pedigree—contributors include Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit—and briefly glimpsed mirror images of modern German electronic music, including elements of the spindly melodies that often typify the album's issuing label, Kompakt. The LP's array of bright dawn chorus jams ("Yaiza," "Majestat") and smoothly contoured electronic sketches ("Cocos," "Majestat") is easy on the ear, but the simple, somewhat improvisational nature of these songs betrays a diamond trader's scrutiny to production that makes Vermont so effortlessly enjoyable. Ray Philp


17. Vessel Punish, Honey (Tri Angle)
Seb Gainsbourg operates in a number of collaborative units, but his solo output as Vessel has always merited a close following. On Punish, Honey, his latest album for Tri Angle, the Bristol native deviates from the fractured dub and techno of 2012's Order of Noise LP—and, in many ways, from electronic music altogether—by devising a new and highly physical approach to production. Using sheets of metal as percussion instruments, sawed-up bikes as flutes, and hand-built harmonic guitars, Gainsbourg crafts a visceral, mechanistic, and occasionally malignant soundworld. It's become increasingly common to see producers eschewing the limitless possibilities of laptops and software in favor of more restrictive—and thus, more creatively challenging—hardware, but Punish, Honey is not just another faceless entry into the ever-growing body of noisy, one-take, analog techno. That the record is also said to question ideas of national identity, specifically "Englishness" and what it really means, makes sense here; Gainsbourg is clearly applying critical muscle to his newest work, and if Punish, Honey is any indication, that's taking him in an interesting direction. Jay Donaldson


16. Suzanne Kraft Missum EP (Running Back)
Suzanne Kraft went for it this year. The LA producer released a mini-LP with his mentor Secret Circuit as Blasé, and the two teamed up with Willie Burns to issue a 12" as Odd Numbers via Rush Hour's No 'Label.' On the solo front, he also offered up a pair of EPs for the Australian labels Noise in My Head and Animals Dancing (the latter under the name Dude Energy). However, the record that brought him the most attention was the sublime Missum, originally conceived as a 2010 CD-R release while he was still in high school. The prescient Gerd Janson heard something within and decided to reissue it to the (sort of) masses. After hearing it, it's safe to say that we're in Janson's debt. Most high schoolers are obsessed with demonstrating their technical proficiency (think a low-rent Neal Peart drum solo or the guy taking a pained axe solo at Guitar Center), but Missum is full of kosmische tone baths that mirror Fripp and Eno's restrained ambience. Not many people make timeless music as teenagers, but Suzanne Kraft has quite literally proven to be the exception. Matthew McDermott


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)