Electronic music is a singles-driven marketplace. Producers can become crazy famous on the power of one standout track, and a seemingly endless stream of songs is released on the daily via social media, SoundCloud and other forms of internet.
This is exactly what makes a quality electronic album so special. Rising above the chatter to showcase the breadth of an artist’s abilities and vision, great LPs create a more permanent cultural impression than can be gleaned through retweets. This year saw many such singular endeavors.
These are our 20 best albums of 2014.
20. Glass Animals Zaba (Harvest Records)
Glass Animals seemed to come out of nowhere in July with the release of their debut LP Zaba, but the Oxford group didn’t explode onto the scene as much as they floated into it in a haze of fog and magic. Melding indie sounds with psychedelic trip-hop, the 11-track album is a richly complex endeavor that maintains delicacy even when rising to its many ecstatic crescendos. The first track, “Flip,” is an extended come-on built from tropical percussion and atmospheric synth, while lead single “Gooey” not only introduced the notion of “peanut butter vibes” to the lexicon, but basically captured the sound of how it feels to melt. Heavy on atmosphere, Zaba is a cohesive effort that announced in a whisper the arrival of one of the more exciting late-night albums of the year. —Katie Bain
19. Tycho Awake (Ghostly International)
Not often does an album come around that has the distinct ability to capture a certain transcendental range of emotions like Tycho’s Awake. Every time I listen to it, I imagine I am in a bed of clouds, finally finding peace. Scott Hansen’s solid arrangements have always garnered him praise in the past; Tycho’s sound has never been anything short of breathtaking. With Awake, however, we see Hansen’s most complete release to date. While from time to time, I would find myself lost and disinterested with 2011’s Dive, this current release never saw me looking for an escape.
The album opens up with the majestic title track taking you to whatever beach is your happy place. Hansen has definitely benefited from touring and recording with a three-piece band over the last couple of years, as I can imagine tracks like the guitar-driven “Montana” would have never come about in the past, and that would be a shame. Melancholy and space are all themes that can be felt throughout the album, and the band gave Hansen a clearer path to exploring those ideas. Sometimes you need a monstrous dance album, and sometimes you just want to lose your thoughts for a moment. Awake surely qualifies as our favorite way to do the latter in 2014. —Kevin Camps
18. Salva Peacemaker (free download)
There’s a new wave of hip-hop producers in Los Angeles, and Salva is the dude leading the charge. Peacemaker is his second swing at an LP, and he crushed it out of Dodger Stadium straight into the Pacific. The 13-track product is unmistakably influenced by the history of West Coast hip-hop, and with a star-studded lineup of featured rappers that includes the likes of E-40, Schoolboy Q and Problem, Salva has a product that’s on par with the Alchemist or Dre. On top of producing the record, he also cowrote many of the songs, all of which were recorded at Red Bull Studios in L.A. He also ticks all boxes by having a variety of styles. There are the funky, R&B-inspired tracks like “Freaking U” and “Freaky Dancing,” but he also engages the turn-up with trunk-rattling beasts like “Old English” and “Drop That Bitch.” The most interesting thing about this record is that he didn’t have it signed to a major label, but instead released it on his own for free. So whether you’re trying to get hyped before the club, or need a soundtrack for your next house party, Salva’s Peacemaker is a must-have record for the collection. —Troy Kurtz
17. The Juan MacLean In a Dream (DFA)
With each album, the Juan MacLean becomes conventionally more dancey. The third album, In a Dream, bears no sign of the abrasive and sometimes quirky LCD Soundsystem/DFA approach of earlier works. Instead, vocalist Nancy Whang takes center stage on In a Dream, making for a smoother, more accessible, floor-friendly collection. Free of electronic effects, her gentle croons guide the softly rounded house beats and disco-inspired synths. Don’t be fooled by the starting guitar riffs of opener “A Place Called Space”; it’s building to synthpop house beats.
When we do hear John MacLean, such as on “Love Stops Here,” it brings back a late Joy Division/early New Order style of monotone delivery underscored by bubbling beats. What’s great about In a Dream is its firm handle on songwriting and the traditional song structure, while managing to create a slick dance track within those parameters. Case in point, the dual-vocaled “I’ve Waited for so Long” is melancholic and uplifting at the same time, with class ‘80s rhythms and Daft Punk-style progression. Wonderfully crafted, we dare say In a Dream would meet with Giorgio Moroder’s approval. —Lily Moayeri
16. Metrik Universal Language (Hospital Records)
From the epic intro of the title track to the last whisper of “Freefall VIP,” it’s obvious this is no mere collection of singles masquerading as an album. While numerous hits have been spawned from the LP for their ability to sweep the listener away in an intense wave of ethereal atmospheres and chunky beats, a larger narrative unfolds when you listen to the album as a whole and secures this as one of the year’s best. Festival anthems like “Want My Love” and “Human Again” satisfy the need for full-on dancefloor pressure, while bits like the spiraling “Slipstream” and hip-hop influenced “Aftermath” switch up the flavor. Still, the most memorable moments are those in-between spaces, like where Metrik takes time to let the listener breathe and get lost in the melodies of “Borealis” before exploring the minimalist tension of “What’s out There.” These are some of the most well-crafted moments on the album—ones that not only tie the album together thematically, but also reveal the true power and vision of the work as a whole. —Chris Muniz
15. Kill Frenzy Taylr Swft (dirtybird)
The man behind “Booty Clap” has made his way to dirtybird royalty with the release of his debut LP, Taylr Swft. The album reveals Kill Frenzy’s ability to touch on a number of subgenres while maintaining a dirtybird sound, vibe and energy. Tracks like “All Night Long,” “No Panties,” “XXX” and “Lava” highlight the Belgian-born, Berlin-based producer’s range and ability to combine his influences from underground house and techno. dirtybird label boss Claude VonStroke is one of the LP’s biggest fans and even admitted to playing seven tracks off the album in one set last summer. He said he was “almost sad to start sharing the new Kill Frenzy album” because it had been a huge part of his DJ bag the past year. Every track on the LP stands out in its own way and can be appreciated in and out of the club, making Taylr Swft a top album of 2014. —Joe Wiseman
14. The Acid Liminal (Mute)
First reactions to the sublime Liminal could leave you trembling, remorseful, yet strangely intoxicated with brooding thoughts of the complexities of past lovers. The complex 11-track album is the debut attempt from the three-piece coalition that includes UK producer Adam Freeland, certified Ableton professor Steve Nalepa, and Australian crooner Ry Cumming. Cumming’s performance is eerily similar to the unsettling angst of Thom Yorke and James Blake, but subtle hints of euphoria give it some mainstream appeal in the same vein as the xx. The songs ebb and flow with syncopated percussive hits and swirling synths, and the minimalistic approach allows for a closer inspection of the album’s difficult themes. Cumming hisses, “I wanna break you with a Molotov” on “Creeper,” but he reverts to feelings of regret and dismissal on “Basic Instinct”—”Silent in sin / I’m tired, I don’t want it.” Liminal will serve as the staple record for late-night drives home, as well as the subterranean serenade to keep you company as you try to fall asleep. —Troy Kurtz
13. Chet Faker Built on Glass (Future Classic)
While Chet Faker hails from Melbourne, Australia, if you listened to his seductively soulful vocals and didn’t know any better, you’d assume he was a soul singer plucked straight from the streets of L.A. Nonetheless, his charms resonate from how successfully he’s merged these classic aesthetics with a futurist approach, qualifying his nu-soul debut Built on Glass as one of year’s very best electronic releases.
The divine “Talk Is Cheap” functioned as somewhat of a teaser in the lead-up to the album’s release, with Faker showing he was brave enough to lead with a saxophone solo—a cardinal sin when not executed properly, but beautifully done here. It’s perhaps the album’s most memorable moment, but it’s also reflective of a bigger picture that’s brimming with a range of different moods: introspection, sadness, joy, excitement and beyond. “To Me” is the most straightforward, soulful number, while “Blush” sees Faker exploring some particularly lush electronic soundscapes in the album’s most moving moment. Whether though you’re a fan of soul or electronica, Built on Glass is an album that really stays with you. —Angus Thomas Paterson
12. RL Grime Void (WeDidIt Records)
Trap was easy to dismiss as a trend, a sound appropriate only for frat parties and the bros who threw them. With Void, however, RL Grime proved all of that criticism irrelevant. Released in November, the WeDidIt producer’s debut LP delivered a savvy, sleek, and at times utterly sensual incarnation of the trap sound, while maintaining all the hype, aggression and raw power that makes the genre so unabashedly fun. Go-big-or-go-home moments like “Scylla” and the epic lead single “Core” are balanced with quiet, nearly ethereal tracks, including the come-hither opener “Always,” which plays like a long, meaningful look across a crowded room. Void features appearances by Boys Noize, who brings the techno vibes on “Danger”; L.A. producer Djemba Djemba, who assists on the call-to-arms “Valhalla”; and rapper Big Sean, who lays down a forthright flow on the woozy “Kingpin.” As a whole, Void establishes the feeling of something vast and apocalyptic, a mood no doubt bolstered by the space-army look portrayed on the album cover and in the accompanying music videos. Welcome to the future of the genre. —Katie Bain
11. Todd Terje It’s Album Time (Olsen Records)
The cover artwork of It’s Album Time, featuring Norwegian DJ/producer Todd Terje dressed unmistakably as a lounge lizard—not to mention the intentional silliness of the album title itself— perfectly illustrates the line Terje walks between self-conscious irony and sincerity. That paradox defines much of his work and is embraced on this album, which made quite the impact in 2014.
Steeped in classic sounds of the disco era, the album contains several familiar jams from Terje’s portfolio of club hits over the past few years, like the quirky electro jam “Inspector Norse” and the Latin-fueled “Strandbar.” The more clubby moments help paint the bigger picture that he’s going for, but the overall vibe of It’s Album Time is more cinematic. It’s also filled with such extravagant musicality and fun, so unconcerned with trying to be “cool,” that it’s won the hearts of many around the world. By midyear, it was already classed as one of 2014’s finest. —Angus Thomas Paterson
10. Flight Facilities Down to Earth (Future Classic)
Australian duo Flight Facilities already had an impressive collection of radio-friendly singles in rotation before they dropped Down to Earth this year. A few of the bigger hits returned for guest appearances, though the album was the pair’s attempt to deliver something where every song was worthy of being called a single. They were largely successful in realizing this ambition, as there’s plenty of dreamy, melodic, groovy house on here, with all the same gentle synths and crossover radio appeal they built their reputation on.
The downside of this approach is that with so many similar tracks sharing space next to each other, they can tend to blur together at times. Returning Flight Facilities classics like “Crave You” and “Stand Still” may not have quite the same impact when slotted alongside a whole bunch of similar-sounding tunes, but that may be partly a reaction to the fall in favor of the album format at the moment. If you’re a fan of Flight Facilities, you’ll find an abundance of polished material to enjoy on Down to Earth. —Angus Paterson
09. Basement Jaxx Junto (Atlantic Jaxx Recordings Ltd)
One of dance music’s truly seminal live acts, Basement Jaxx this year celebrated the 20th anniversary of their debut release with their new album Junto. With five years passing since their last album, it represented a chance for the UK duo to establish their relevance again within the status quo. Yet, to a degree, it’s business as usual on Junto, as it’s an even spread of house, garage and bass music, with lots of vocals and plenty of sass.
While they’ve allowed the exhilarating festival energy of their earlier anthems to simmer a little, instead of forcing it in a contrived fashion, there’s still the same buoyant Basement Jaxx vibes on display here—in particular, with lead single “Unicorn” in party mode. What’s missing is perhaps the manic sense of adventure that defined their earlier albums; though at this stage, perhaps it makes sense to spend a bit of time going over familiar ground, and Junto is a testament to what Jaxx have been able to build over the past 10 years. —Angus Paterson
08. Gorgon City Sirens (Virgin EMI Records)
Through their debut LP Sirens, Gorgon City welcomed pop-oriented elements into their garage and house heaters with open arms. Paying mind to the style of songwriting and composition that characterizes modern dance music, Kye Gibbon (Foamo) and Matt Robson-Scott (RackNRuin) called on a stacked lineup of vocalists to help forge the collab-centered 13-track album. It’s a cohesive, well-constructed full-length that builds upon both members’ preceding solo careers; only, it’s a more mature and focused event. Prior to its release, the duo took to Instagram to tease each featured cut as 15-second snippets, but the hype was already alive and well.
Moving from strength to strength, they burn through emotive energy, like the heavy-hearted bass-case “Real” alongside songstress Yasmin, or the ever-inviting MNEK-featured thumper “Ready for Your Love.” Not afraid to step up the sex appeal, they dive into the explicitly sensual “FTPA,” while toning down the intimacy with the piano-pumping “Unmissable” with Zak Abel. Then there’s the acid-rinsed “Go All Night,” cosigned by Jennifer Hudson, that illustrates the wide cast of singers the production pair brought on. Completely solid. Although Gorgon City’s Sirens straddles the line between the under- and overground, it does so without ever straying too far from the dancefloor. —Sam Yu
07. Andy Stott Faith in Strangers (Modern Love)
As anyone who’s survived a near-death experience can attest, flashes of grace can be found in the darkest of moments. A similar mix of horror, wonder, ache and relief pulses, grumbles, gurgles and slithers through Andy Stott’s Faith in Strangers album, released in November on Modern Love records. Using lo-fi gear, ambient sounds, a euphonium, and clippings of his piano teacher’s voice, Stott handcrafts a jarring, elegant, near-perfect album. Opening on a glacial note, Faith in Strangers works its way through disembodied dub, lysergic trip-hop, splintered techno, and staccato R&B to a haunting, minimalist finish.
Since his debut in 2005, Andy Stott has produced some of the most pummeling, in-your-face shades of bass—both under his own name and as Andrea in Millie & Andrea. On Faith in Strangers, the bleak romanticism that worked its way into 2012’s Luxury Problems takes flight, forcing one to ponder how long it will stay aloft and what shape it will take when it alights. Such journeys make Stott one of the most intriguing artists in electronic music and puts Faith in Strangers among the most memorable albums of the year. —Jorge Hernandez
06. SBTRKT Wonder Where We Land (XL Recordings)
On his second album, SBTRKT illustrates what post-dubstep (the British interpretation of the genre) sounds like. Muted beats, understated bass and gurgling synths underscore the wildly eclectic Wonder Where We Land. Considering that Aaron Jerome is still hidden behind his masks (inspired by the stage version of The Lion King) it makes sense that the album is fronted by a far-reaching and diverse list of guests—Sampha, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Denai Moore, Jessie Ware, Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, Koreless, A$AP Ferg and Raury. Associated more with SBTRKT than any other vocalist, Sampha really shines on his contributions. Always soulful, he sobs on “Temporary View,” serenades Seal-like on “If It Happens,” pitches high on the sleek “Gon Stay,” and waxes introspective on the piano-laced title track. Koenig flexes over “New Dorp, New York”’s funky house rhythms, and Moore attempts to kick up “The Light,” which is just begging to be let loose. “Everybody Knows” is also dying to break free of its minimalist restraints but is held in place with the sleepy mumbles of the vocal refrain. SBTRKT is spare but selective, preferring to let the hybrid spirit animal on the album’s cover do the representing. —Lily Moayeri
05. Flying Lotus You’re Dead! (Warp Records)
What a difference the space of a single album can make. Los Angeles bass experimentalist Flying Lotus has traversed a wide range of latitudes over the past 10 years. Though his 2012 album Until the Quiet Comes was noted for its distinctly mellow and subdued direction, You’re Dead! represents the sharpest about-face we could have ever possibly expected. It’s so mad that it actually works.
While his underground dubstep past still shimmers across the surface of You’re Dead!, the album is largely an unhinged (though still cohesive) crash and tackle through an explosion of free jazz, ‘70s funk, hip-hop and a whole lot more. The eccentric blast of different sounds seems entirely improvised, while somehow coming together for a final product that makes sense. It’s a testament to the mad genius of Flying Lotus. —Angus Thomas Paterson
04. Skrillex Recess (Big Beat Records)
With the massive success of the Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites and Bangarang EPs, Skrillex set the bar impossibly high for his debut LP Recess. Not only did he not disappoint, he brought an eclectic group of friends along for the ride. Featuring genre-bending collaborations with Fatman Scoop, Chance the Rapper, K-pop’s G-Dragon and CL, Diplo, Kill the Noise and more, Skrillex transcended the realm of electronic music, as well as international borders. Furthermore, he proved he’s one of the few artists that can pull a Beyoncé surprise album move and randomly drop an LP right under our noses with little more than a cryptic Alien Ride app. Recess would then spawn two massive Mothership tours across the US throughout the summer and fall, as well as a brand-new live setup. The single “Strangers” would also find its way to the silver screen via Summit’s Divergent (hey, at least the soundtrack was good, right?). —Camille Cushman
03. Caribou Our Love (Merge Records)
Caribou’s sixth studio album, Our Love, is a lush, pretty thing. The long-awaited follow-up to the Canadian producer’s 2010 opus Swim, the album is easily as solid as any of Caribou’s previous output—as danceable as it is cerebral and sophisticated. Heavy on synth, there is a lightness and accessibility to Our Love that at moments, including the slow-building title track, still meanders to the darker realms of deep house. Caribou’s Dan Snaith called the 10-track album his most personal yet, saying much of the lyrical content was inspired by the birth of his daughter. The shimmery lead single “Can’t Do Without You” quickly became one of the year’s most celebrated dance tracks; as bright and anthemic as that song is, the album finds moments of contemplative repose, including the steady, sober ‘‘Silver.” Altogether, Our Love encapsulates everything that is good and smart and holy and mature in the realm of dance music. Amen. —Katie Bain
02. Aphex Twin Syro (Warp Records)
One of the decade’s most hotly anticipated comebacks, Aphex Twin’s Syro at first had music nerds jumping over the moon. But for some, the swirl of seemingly geriatric IDM (“intelligent dance music”) was anti-climactic: Where was Richard D. James’ usual mind-blowing flip of the script? What happened to the obnoxious glitch and the sadistic sense of humor, à la Come to Daddy? Apparently, a number of critics wanted their heads thrown through the windshield and stomped to bits. Thankfully for the rest of us, the gentler, more melodic hero of European techno’s early years stepped out from the shadows this time. Author of the immortal Selected Ambient Works 85–92, James had mostly tabled his gift for uplift for nigh on 20 years. Songs like “XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix)” are timeless bursts of light that echo a loving sun. Still armed for battle with warped beats, Syro has all the right peaks, valleys and clears. It’s a rewarding journey filled with a nostalgia and hope no one expected. Once again, EDM’s original court jester had played a joke, and a beautiful one at that. —Thomas Kelley
01. Porter Robinson Worlds (Astralwerks)
Perhaps what’s most compelling about Porter Robinson is that he gives us hope—that DJs can go from selling out clubs, playing electro house bangers, to maturing into full-fledged musicians and selling out even larger venues. As people question when the “EDM” bubble will burst, Robinson provides an answer. He’s been vocal about his disdain of DJs producing whatever is commercially viable, and Worlds shows that he can walk the walk. Months before the album was released, he began priming fans, explaining that his forthcoming music was going to sound nothing like his previous work. His message was clear: If people didn’t like his new sound, then so be it. As it turns out, the fans couldn’t get enough. His chief focus while writing the album was on capturing beauty and vastness, and Worlds does both wonderfully. Anyone who was lucky enough to go to the Worlds tour knows that the show is inseparable from the album itself, making the latter a truly multifaceted experience for the eyes, ears and heart. —Anum Khan