I’ve determined that 2014 actually started on August 16, 2013. That’s the day Prince shared his “Breakfast Can Wait” cover art featuring Dave Chappelle, in his Chappelle’s Show impersonation of Prince, complete with pancakes.
How a piece of music is packaged and promoted has always been important, and I’m not trying to downplay that, but the notion that an album announcement should be memorable has become all the more significant this year. The “unlimited story” capacity of online media, combined with the growing prevalence of articles designed to be “shared” means a great album cover or track list can be news in a way it might not have been in the days of the magazine. A new Morrissey album is always news, but it didn’t hurt his cause that he gave it the lightning-rod title World Peace Is None of Your Business. The same can be said of Lana Del Rey‘s Ultraviolence track list — how much more attention did it get with the appearance of defiantly unapologetic titles such as “Fucked My Way Up to the Top”? At the opposite end of the extreme, the cover art and album title for Black Flag’s quasi-reunion album What The turned out to be a harbinger of the band’s troubled 2014.
The year brought its share of Beyoncé-style album-as-event rollouts, too. Where 2013 brought us the breadcrumb album launches of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest, and the business model coup of Jay Z’s Samsung-sponsored Magna Carta…Holy Grail, 2014 gave us Aphex Twin‘s blimp, Deep Web use and brilliantly scrambled press biography, plus — sorry, you knew I’d have to mention it — U2′s Apple-foisted Songs of Innocence. Based on year-end lists published so far, these approaches failed or succeeded in different ways for different people, but all of them started a conversation. In fact, the idea of entertainment as discussion, embodied in self-acknowledged hate-watch material such as Peter Pan Live!, was the end point of South Park‘s fall-season-long Lorde crush, embodied in the image of a hologram Kurt Cobain singing “Up on the Housetop” while clutching a shotgun as an onscreen tweet reads “this show sucks!!!”
Earlier this year, I argued that the notion of the “concept album” is outdated: The album is a concept. My point was that although pundits since the ’90s have been predicting the internet would kill the “idea of the album,” it turns out the idea of the album is stronger than the format itself. Album sales overall are down, but sales of vinyl albums that might sit on a shelf unplayed were up. Media both old, as seen in GQ‘s list “The 21 Albums from the 21st Century Every Man Should Hear,” and new, as exemplified by Reddit’s list “the best albums of the 2000s,” were still starting arguments about albums as ideas, if not objects people actually bought.
Little did I imagine (though I probably should’ve) how much more conceptual the existence of the album could get.
On one hand, this month Billboard published its first Billboard 200 chart that ranks “total album equivalent units” instead of album sales; the chart’s methodology now includes streams and download sales, rightly reflecting the changes in the way we listen. So each week we can still talk about a “No. 1 album,” even if it’s not really the whole album we’re discussing.
On the other hand, the fetish for physical records has become practically baroque. Jack White, just a month after recording and pressing a record live with Neil Young on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, came back on the show to talk about talk about his new album Lazaretto and a deluxe vinyl edition that includes a hologram, multiple playback speeds, a side that plays inside out, tracks that play under the center label and tracks that play differently depending where you drop the needle. I talked with someone who makes CDs that can also play as records. The soundtrack to the year’s biggest-grossing movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, was made available on cassette. Ty Segall announced a double-vinyl EP that can also be used as 3D glasses. As the physical packing for music no longer serves as a necessary functional purchases, people have become obsessed with the decorative aspects.
All of these patterns have played out in my own music listening, too. I listen as widely and often as I can — I’m lucky to have that as part of my work — but if I’m being honest, I spent more time with total album equivalents this year than proper albums. And when I did listen to albums, it helped when the LP proper carried enough weight, either conceptually or literally, to fix my attention. I don’t know why El-P thinks it’s cool to rap that “you can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks,” but his Run the Jewels partner Killer Mike’s inspiring public rhetoric in a year of tragedies in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York certainly helped make the anarchic cacophony of RTJ2 make sense in a way too powerful for me to resist. At the same time, though, a more understated album like Spoon’s They Want My Soul worked for me because it satisfyingly delivers, track after track, a style of indie rock that has long been a comfort zone for me; other people might dismiss the album for the same reasons. And there were definitely albums that existed prominently as discussion-ready concepts this year— Sun Kil Moon’s and the War on Drugs, to name two — where I like to think my opinions (I loved Benji, but Lost in the Dream left me cold) survived the ugly online back-and-forth. As for Charli XCX’s Sucker, I don’t want to place it yet, and it’s my list so you’ll have to deal, but her first proper hit in her own right, “Boom Clap,” was my favorite song of the year, so I probably should place her LP at No. 1 for total album equivalent units alone.
Which brings me to the album that surprisingly became my favorite of the year: Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence. I’ve been writing about her since her polarizing Saturday Night Live appearance became, for many, an early kind of hate-watching, but I’d never had a strong opinion one way or another on “Video Games” or her other breakout hits. Ultraviolence feels different. My friend Tom Breihan over at Stereogum put it best, as he often does: “A blues-rock doof like lead Black Key Dan Auerbach should not be the person to push downcast pinup queen Lana Del Rey to become her greatest self, and yet here we are.” She inhabits an audacious persona that’s larger than life and yet, she makes it easy to suspect, somehow all too true to life; she carries herself like a pop star and an underground darling all at once, though she’s not quite either; and, if you’ll allow me to sound like a grandpa for a second, it just sounds great when I play it on vinyl. She’s had her fair share of extra-album conversation-starting, too, some of it intentional and some of it surely not, but hers was the album that came closest to, if I may paraphrase Queen B, making the world stop when it was playing. It’s pretty incredible, and I still can’t get enough of it.
1. Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence
2. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
3. Spoon, They Want My Soul
4. Hundred Waters, The Moon Rang Like A Bell
5. Grouper, Ruins
6. Caribou, Our Love
7. White Lung, Deep Fantasy
8. Perfume Genius, Too Bright
9. Allo Darlin’, We Come From the Same Place
10. Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Taste
1. Charli XCX, “Boom Clap”
2. Shamir, “On the Regular”
3. Lauryn Hill, “Black Rage (Sketch)”
4. Kendrick Lamar, “i”
5. Bully, “Milkman”
6. Hannah Diamond, “Every Night”
7. Röyksopp and Robyn, “Do It Again”
8. Tinashe (Feat. Devonte Hynes), “Bet”
9. Flying Lotus (Feat. Kendrick Lamar), “Never Catch Me”
10. Michelle Williams (Feat. Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland): “Say Yes”