The ten best albums of 2014 that you won't find on Spotify
If you're my age or older, and you first began discovering your music tastes no later than the early 1990s, the one word that probably defined your experience more than any other was "scarcity." There was simply never enough music.
It began with my parents' vinyl and cassette collection. At the time, my music consumption was limited to the mere dozens of records my parents owned by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, and plenty of less seminal artists (I still hold a soft spot for Gloria Estefan). Before long, the music at my fingertips expanded to include my older sister's CD collection -- Miami Sound Machine gave way to Pretty Hate Machine. Once those were exhausted, and I was old enough to have a part-time job, I would buy two or three new albums a week, the selection limited to what Sour Records in Westerville, a suburb of Columbus, had to offer. (And even then you weren't guaranteed to go home with the album you wanted -- the owner of that store once made my friend put Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks back on the shelf because a girl had "never really fucked him up.")
But to the new generation that grew up on Spotify and YouTube -- and to every other generation henceforth -- "scarcity" simply won't be in their musical vocabulary. Huge artists like Taylor Swift notwithstanding, if a song can't be found on Spotify or even YouTube, will anyone take the time or money to hunt it down? Even the older generations, with what time we have left, are inured to the ease of these platforms. With so much noise already, so many trillions of bytes uploaded with no end in sight, and so many music blogs tossing recommendations into the gaping abyss of the Internet, I'm surprised new bands ever get discovered at all without somebody first shoving them down our throats. No wonder U2 felt the need to force its record onto every iTunes customer on the planet.
That's why, for the past two years, I've compiled a list of the year's best music that you can't find on Spotify. By and large, it's a celebration of smaller releases dug up from the corners of the Internet that, to be perfectly honest, I probably would have never heard myself had I not hunted them down for these lists.
But this year, something feels different. There's palpable excitement around direct-to-consumer distribution platforms like Gumroad, Patreon, and Bandcamp that bypass Spotify and the rest. And we're beginning to see success stories that are more than mere one-offs from established artists. Although Radiohead, Louis CK, and Amanda Palmer were important pioneers in direct-to-consumer sales, we're starting to see evidence that with the right platform and only a modest marketing budget, selling directly to consumers could be a successful model for tiny upstarts and huge rockstars alike.
As you try in vain to catch up on all the music you missed this year, devote a few minutes to these releases that opted to abandon Spotify for the road less traveled. It's still early days in digital content distribution, and therefore it's well worth experimenting with other models. But even if these alternative models never take off, it's the music that matters most.
Or as Wilco's Jeff Tweedy sings in "The Late Greats",
The best song will never get sung The best life never leaves your lungs So good, you won't ever know I never hear it on the radio Can't hear it on the radio
10. Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Singer's Grave • A Sea of TonguesIn one sentence: Because most of the songs here are reinterpretations from earlier releases, this is what music critics might call a "minor" entry into Will Oldham's immense 20+ album discography -- which I tried to make sense of for an enormous Stereogum article last year -- but even minor work from this Louisville folk prophet is better than most artists' best.
Why it's not on Spotify: Chicago's Drag City, which puts out records for artists like Joanna Newsom, Bill Callahan, and Oldham, is one of the best independent labels in the country. It's also one of the most high-profile outfits that withholds its music from Spotify.
Where to get it: Drag City's website
Listen up: "Quail and Dumplings"
9. Curren$y - The Drive In TheatreIn one sentence: Lots of rap albums are "cinematic," but The Drive In Theatre is literally about going to the movies, as Curren$y's workmanlike yet unique flow, laid over smooth chilled-out beats from a stable of producers led by the great Thelonious Martin, recreates the feeling of getting high and watching a great gangster film -- no chemicals required.
Why it's not on Spotify: Hip-hop artists often release "mixtapes" like The Drive In Theatre as a form of promotion and to keep momentum going between releases. Without any financial obligations to a label, it's not uncommon for these "unofficial" releases to be far more interesting than the "real" albums artists later put out. This practice goes all the way back to the days of rappers selling cassettes out of their cars to help make a name for themselves.
Where to get it: Download it for free at Datpiff, which has become the digital equivalent of a car trunk full of cassettes.
Listen to this: "MPR"
8. Girl Talk and Freeway - Broken Ankles EPIn one sentence: While Greg Gillis' once-exhilarating mashups had begun to grow stale by the time he released his last album in 2010, today four years later -- and with a rapper as good as Philadelphia's Freeway laying down rhymes -- the DJ's genre-agnostic beats sound as fresh as ever.
Why it's not on Spotify: Gillis has never been terribly fond of traditional distribution channels, making his last two records, Feed the Animals and All Day available at "pay-what-you-want" prices.
Where to get it: It's free to download on DatPiff
Listen to this: "Tolerated" featuring Waka Flocka Flame
7. Taylor Swift - 1989In one sentence: I love hip-hop, R&B, and dance music, but at a time when every pop song has become a strange hybridization of all three, it's refreshing to hear a catchy, clever, and carefully constructed pop album like 1989 that doesn't try to co-opt every genre under the sun.
Why it's not on Spotify: You know.
Where to get it: iTunes
Listen to this: "Shake It Off."
6. Jon Connor - The Late Registration of a College Dropout Who Had a Dark Twisted Fantasy of 808s and HeartbreaksIn one sentence: Flint, Michigan's hip-hop laureate raps over Kanye beats about getting DMs from Xzibit, watching BET reality shows, and existing in that precarious artist middle class where either fame or poverty is always waiting around the next bend.
Why it's not on Spotify: Because those Kanye beats would be pretty expensive to clear had this been an official for-profit release.
Where to get it: Free download off DatPiff
Listen to this: "We Don't Care"
5. Young Thug & Bloody Jay - Black PortlandIn one sentence: Like Lil Wayne circa 2007 -- both in terms of his output and his gleefully weird persona -- breakout rapper Young Thug has been inhumanly prolific in 2014, releasing seven mixtapes, digital albums, and collaborations this year alone, with Black Portland being his best.
Why it's not on Spotify: See Curren$y.
Where to get it: Free download on DatPiff
Listen to this: "Movin"
4. Woods of Desolation - As the StarsIn one sentence: Like Deafheaven and Wolves in the Throne Room, Woods of Desolation's brand of black metal is at once pretty and pummeling, unraveling a warm blanket of sound to reveal cold steel and razor wire underneath.
Why it's not on Spotify: Inconclusive
Where to find it: Buy it or stream it for free on Bandcamp
Listen to this: "This Autumn Light"
3. Andy Stott - Faith in StrangersIn one sentence: To me, so much "dark" electronic music ends up sounding moody or cheesy or both -- I blame Depeche Mode -- but Andy Stott's Faith in Strangers is full of so many strange and unexpected progressions that it transports the viewer to a sinister alien world, light years away from the wayfarers of Planet Earth in the 80s.
Why it's not on Spotify: I may have missed some, but as far as I can tell, Modern Love Records, which put out Faith in Strangers, has zero records on Spotify.
Where to find it: You can buy it on Boomkat, a marketplace for underground music genres.
Listen to this: "Faith in Strangers"
2. Bing & Ruth - Tomorrow Was the Golden AgeIn one sentence: A gorgeous, freeflowing ambient masterpiece that will either bore you to tears, or serve as the ultimate antidote to the overstimulated madness of modern life; a weekend in the woods, but in album form.
Why it's not on Spotify: Inconclusive
Where to get it: Bandcamp
Listen to this: "The Towns We Love Is Our Town"
1. Ty Segall - ManipulatorIn one sentence: Glue-sniffing garage rock of the highest order, Ty Segall sounds less like a modern artist trying to sound like he's from the 60s, and more like a 60s artist who sounds way ahead of his time.
Why it's not on Spotify: Ty Segall's label is Drag City. See Bonnie "Prince" Billy."
Where to get it: Drag City's website
Listen to this: "It's Over"
[illustration by Brad Jonas]