There seems to be a general consensus among my circle of friends and family that 2014 was a tough year, transitional and unsettling. We’re not alone: Wired recently shared similar sentiments in a rather grim reflection. That said, 2014 did gift us with quite a lot of good music, for which I’m grateful. As a writer I listen to a lot of music while working, most of it instrumental/electronic, a broad category that often gets overlooked on more conventional year-end lists.
The amount of music that seems to come out every year is astonishing, and I rely on a haphazard combination of earnest searching and serendipity/dumb luck to find sounds that interest and inspire me. Perhaps not all of these albums are ideal as soundtracks for writing, but if music figures in any part of your creative process as much as it does mine, you might just find something on this list that moves you. Here are my 10 favorite instrumental albums of 2014, arranged in order of release date.
Mouse on Mars – Spezmodia EP
Electronic music pioneers Mouse on Mars have continued to innovate in recent years, often pushing boundaries with limited sound palettes and new technology. This short EP showcases Mouse on Mars’ own wiggy version of dance music. For me, it’s sonic caffeine.
Inventions – Inventions
This collaboration between versatile ambient producer Eluvium and Explosions in the Sky guitarist Mark T. Smith is a match made in Heaven. The duo’s rich melodic textures and lush atmospherics conjure resonant, dream-like soundscapes that seem to drift and float somewhere just beyond the reach of words.
Medeski, Martin and Wood + Nels Cline – Woodstock Sessions Vol.2
Jazz fusion maestros Medeski, Martin and Wood have worked with many excellent guitarists during their long career, but this collaboration with Nels Cline is something truly new. This album (part of a series) was recorded during an improvised session. Best known for his work with Wilco, Cline exhibits a diverse range as he engages with MMW, and together the four create a whole new sound.
To Rococo Rot – Instrument
2014 was a year of mixed blessings for To Rococo Rot fans. The veteran German post-rock trio released an excellent, mostly instrumental new album, which charts a continued refinement of their organic electronic sound, and features the whispery voice of Arto Lindsay on a few tracks. Unfortunately, the band subsequently announced that after nearly 20 years together, this album would be their last. Boiler Room’s Fond Farewell is a fine commemoration.
Aphex Twin – Syro
Syro is the first proper album in 13 years from electronic music innovator Aphex Twin (though the 2005 Analord series shouldn’t be overlooked). Syro appears on nearly every “Best of 2014” list I’ve seen, and for good reason: here is an album of melodically-rich, skillfully composed electronic music that remains texturally engaging and uncommonly warm throughout, deepening with each listening.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey – Worker
Ever difficult to pin down, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has morphed dramatically over the years. In their current incarnation as a trio, the long-running project has found new life as a stripped-down electro-jazz powerhouse. The result is perhaps JFJO’s best album in years, a no-nonsense injection of genre-bending groove.
Objekt – Flatland
Flatland is Berlin-based producer Objekt’s debut LP, though you’d never guess it. “Angular but refreshingly accessible,” Objekt’s sound is at once meticulously crafted and propulsively engaging, reflecting the writerly approach he describes in this brief Unglued documentary. This helps explain how Flatland instantly grabs the listener, and then refuses to let go until the very end.
Phish – Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House
In 2014 Phish put a delightful twist on their long-standing Halloween tradition. Rather than cover another band’s album for their second set ‘musical costume,’ Phish debuted ten new instrumental songs inspired by the narrative vignettes that comprise Disney’s 1964 sound effects album Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. The show was one of the best I’ve ever seen, with theatrics to match such a bold concept. The music is available at LivePhish, and you can watch the album’s performance in full below.
Jon Hopkins – Asleep Versions EP
Asleep Versions presents four reworked, ambient versions of tracks from Jon Hopkins’ 2013 LP, Immunity. As such the EP essentially forms a gorgeous, reflective epilogue to that masterful album. It comes as no surprise to discover Hopkins talking about meditation when discussing Asleep Versions—this is music that’s nothing short of a contemplative lullaby.
Loscil – Sea Island
Loscil is, to my mind, one the very best ambient producers working today. His music develops through layers of subtle variation, creating immersive and beautifully-textured atmospheres. Sea Island is the latest in a series inspired by areas of Vancouver, and like Loscil’s previous releases, this album is capable of altering any locale, persuasively enfolding and permeating the listener’s surroundings without ever being intrusive.
A FEW NON-INSTRUMENTAL FAVORITES FROM 2014
Beck – Morning Phase
Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
Sidestreet Reny & Lil’Bell – Holler
Bear in Heaven – Time is Over One Day Old
Robert Plant – Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar