The best albums of 2014 so far

Future's confessional club hits, Lykke's raw reinvention and Lana entering a new phase – we chart the highs and highs

Music Top Ten
Best albums of 2014

10. FATIMA AL QADIRI - ASIATISCH

Future-facing producer Fatima Al Qadiri released her debut album via Hyperdub this year after making her name with a series of conceptualised EPs. Asiatisch is a sonic whirlwind, but it’s also Al Qadiri’s most ambitious idea yet, being the realisation of an imagined China pieced together from her westernised experience of the culture; as she put it in an interview with Dazed back in May, “creating a reality from a non-native source.” Blending sinogrime, martial art, ancient Chinese poetry and nonsensical Mandarin karoake covers of “Nothing Compares 2 U” (okay, just the one), this record is one that could only have been made by an artist as masterful as Al Qadiri is at simultaneously world-building and maintaining an unmistakably unique voice.

9. SCHOOLBOY Q – OXYMORON

Schoolboy Q’s self-destructive, unravelling flow meets beefy production and some of the most difficult stories he’s ever told on the record he describes as a “classic”. In the run-up to its release, with the world’s eyes on Top Dawg Entertainment in the wake of Kendrick Lamar’s runaway 2012 success, Q spoke several times in interviews of having felt the pressure to produce something beyond. The result contains the elastic wobble and bounce of club hits “Collard Greens” and “Break The Bank” alongside the searing reality of confessionals like “Prescription/Oxymoron” (“Prescription drugs / I fell in love” he sneers as his young daughter Joy asks if he’s awake). Q shows exactly what he’s best at: Lamar narrates stories with such intensity and poetry they come to life, while Q places himself bodily in the centre of these scenarios and lives them. With Q it’s all presence, and on Oxymoron he’s a force you wouldn’t dare reckon with.

8. YOUNG THUG AND BLOODY JAY – BLACK PORTLAND

Atlanta eccentricity is at its finest on the most recent mixtape from man of the moment Young Thug and relative newcomer Bloody Jay. Sparse on the production and frenzied on the vocals, the pair as Black Portland have a tangled-up flow that makes them natural sparring partners, and an appearance from Future on the kicked-back "Nothing But Some Pain" makes their lineage explicit. Meanwhile, fighting tracks "Danny Glover" and "No Fucks" are scream-along worthy singles capable of dominating the radio. The genius is in what’s not there as much as what is, though: Thug keeps it minimal, which is just as well given he’s the kind of star who can captivate with as little as an off-key drawl or a yelp through gritted teeth.

7. LANA DEL REY – ULTRAVIOLENCE

Lizzy Grant has openly declared in interviews that her Lana Del Rey persona has nothing to do with her personally, and that’s what makes the tragedy of her second studio album Ultraviolence so compelling. On the surface of the it, the record is an exercise in melancholia, with tales of painful trysts and lives lost to addiction set to the plush melodrama of Dan Auerbach’s production strokes. But with a carefully maintained distance in its shades of cool and knowingly controversial flourishes like “Fucked My Way Up To The Top” and “Sad Girl”, Del Rey embodies the doomed femme fatale and bragging mistress roles so well it comes off like a critique of a culture that lusts after fame at any cost. Del Rey notably subordinates herself in her own fantasy, singing about her boyfriend who’s “in the band” on “Brooklyn Baby”, and quoting the The Crystals’ refrain “he hit me / and it felt like a kiss” on the title track; and somewhere behind all the provocative imagery, Grant stands tight-lipped, remaining the mystery at the centre of it all.

6. FATIMA - YELLOW MEMORIES

Eglo’s resident soul singer Fatima worked with a host of producers on her debut album, drifting between the luxuriant groove of Kendrick Lamar’s hit-maker Scoop DeVille and the orchestral ambitions of Floating Points. All this makes Yellow Memories a record with an unpredictable, jazzy flow; but at the centre of it all is Fatima’s warm-hearted vocal musing on family and friends past, the music all coloured with the same gentle nostalgic tinge like the yellowing pages of an old diary.

5. HOW TO DRESS WELL – "WHAT IS THIS HEART?"

“I know I can be extra sentimental,” Tom Krell admits on “Very Best Friend”, the heartfelt pop song that comes towards the end of his career-high LP "What Is This Heart?" – but he’s not sorry about it. On his bold third album, the singer-songwriter owns the sentimentality of pop with a sincerity of expression that sees his vocal pushed all the way into spotlight, and with orchestral swells and stadium drums that hit harder than anything he’s ever attempted before. This is him laying himself bare, and the result is the most complex and complete record he’s offered so far.

4. LONE – REALITY TESTING

Somewhere between sleep and wakefulness lies Lone’s dreamy latest album for R&S Records. Built on a set of distinct influences – the ambience of Boards of Canada, the grooves of Dilla and Madlib, rave piano stabs straight out of the 90s – the record tests reality by evoking memories that are uncannily familiar whilst also glowing like new. This one is a thoroughly absorbing, complete listen to stay up with until you see that weird, unwanted kind of morning light.

3. LYKKE LI – I NEVER LEARN

Gone are the handclaps and cute choruses from Swedish pop star Lykke Li’s third album, a reverb-soaked heartbreak epic. Current single “Gunshot” provides one of the best pop moments of the year, with subdued verses that explode into choruses that thrash and boom like their namesake, but elsewhere on the record Li is wistful, avoiding gimmicks in favour of raw songwriting such as the unshakeable “Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone”.

2. MAC DEMARCO – SALAD DAYS

“Calm down, sweetheart, grow up,” 23-year-old Mac DeMarco advises on the matter-of-fact album track “Blue Boy”, a gently sarcastic tune that epitomises his second full-length Salad Days. The Canadian singer-songwriter is all finger-wagging and elbow-nudging on his sun-streaked LP, where the boredom of being young and responsibility-free is all beachy guitars and pretty rhythms – until it’s not. With stark, self-aware lyricism and unsteady wobbles into psychedelia, the entire record is precarious, gazing on a carefree life through a lens of anxiety. “Hell of a story,” he chimes in on the lush single “Passing Out Pieces”, with the immediate second thought “or is it boring?”

1. FUTURE – HONEST

Honesty is an elusive, ever-sought quality in pop and hip hop, a world where performance is everything and yet perceived inauthenticity can turn crowds against you. But while everyone else is striving for it or wringing their hands over it, Future straight-up names his album Honest and gets it done. His frayed voice trails a listless story about an ex over the acoustic skeleton of “Special”, gets low and commanding on “Move That Dope” and rips like a chainsaw on tough cuts “My Momma” and “Covered N Money” – and yet with every acrobatic flex it’s more distinctive than any other, and able to make you believe in his every single word. He’s jus’ being honest.

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