By Zachary Kaczmarek
Seeking out the best music from endless genres that are constantly evolving can be an arduous task. Reviews can dance around the subject and tend to take the drawn out approach instead of giving a simple thumbs up or down – admittedly this writer is guilty of this as much as any other. But to save you the reader hours of sifting and consolidating, we’ve compiled a list of the best releases that 2014 has bestowed upon us to this point in time.
18. Katy B – Little Red
Katy B’s debut represented the perfect mixture of Americanized R&B-pop a la Beyonce, Aaliyah, and so on, combined with house and funky UK beats that have catapulted names like Disclosure to worldwide success. Unlike her debut, Little Red invests in various ballads which tap into a more solemn place below the surface that goes beyond club bangers and a night out on the town.
17. Clipping. – CLPPNG
In the world of hip-hop there are the innovators, constantly incorporating previously unrelated elements into their compositions, and then there’s clipping. There’s no question that the industrial mix of glitch synth and snares limits the reach and appeal of clipping’s sophomore album, but the sound as a whole is cleaner and well-polished without sacrificing the bizarre off kilter approach on Midcity. Daveed Diggs does not posess the greatest flow or the most insightful lyrics, but his style fits in well with the abrasive lo-fi approach of Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson.
16. Protomartyr – Under the Color of Official Right
Upon first listen, Protomartyr sound disjointed and sloppy, simply flailing around for the sake of it – the vocals of Joe Casey which sound improvised and off the cuff at times have a lot to do with this. But this reckless style is also their greatest strength, plowing through multiple tracks without a care and somehow establishing a consistent rhythm along the way. It’s not random chance or dumb luck that Under the Color of Official Right sounds good by the time the gem of the album ‘Come and See’ tears into its reverb heavy chord progression. Protomartyr has its share of gaping flaws – an overabundance of chaos, scraggly, sloppy vocals to name a few – but they wisely turn those critiques into pillars of strength. Under the Color is meant to be enjoyed in an unhinged state of bliss, not in a coffee shop, analyzing the deeper implications of their uninhibited nature.
15. Warpaint – Warpaint
The self-titled release by LA-based quarter Warpaint, favors musicianship and slick grooves over the cavernous vibes that their debut, The Fool, relished and bathed in. There are certain moments that feel like more of an exercise than an impassioned LP, but in the end their strengths – psychedelic riffs and fills and a newfound mid-tempo druggy haze – win out and make up for a slightly generic sound. Each expert display of musical brilliance is accompanied by a Portishead style of shadowy appeal to love and everything else that comes with making brooding rock music.
14. EMA – Future’s Void
Tackling the theme of technology and some of the unintended negative consequences is not why Erica M. Anderson pervades a sophomore slump, but rather the way that she scores a dark, complex society with complementary sounds and loops, and the presence of dejection and anxiety looming overhead, is what prevents an overused concept from seeming empty. She adopts more abnormal samples and dramatic synthesizers than guitars this time around, but it’s fitting considering the disgust towards the modern obsession over technology and social media. The spooky part about her bleak perspective is that the future in question is not a post-apocalyptic world staring at us from afar, but a world that already exists, re-imagined with sinister electronics.
13. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
Setting aside the bright melodies and uplifting, dance-inducing arrangements, Li finds herself churning out one melancholy ballad after another. The percussion is softer, the lyrics are somber, and Li’s sound as a whole is perfectly retrofitted for a classic breakup album. I Never Learn may not have a defiant urge to seek independence or find confidence in a free fall, but it does show a toughness that aspires for more than just self-loathing. More than anything, Li masters the art of the bare-bones ballad, a skill that the pop of her last two albums – a pop which she now claims to hate – could not fully harness.
12. tUne-yArDs – Nikki Nack
If tUne-yArDs self-titled debut was the proper introduction to the zany mind of Merill Garbis, Nikki Nack serves as the collection of moments that solidify her brand of messy, avante-garde pop not as trend that ran its course, but as a viable sound that will carry tUne-yArDs for years to come. Garbis tightens down the loose structures and unleashes all sorts of havoc, lyrically with her politically/socially charged quips, and sonically with a full arsenal of popping, Afrobeat percussion and layers of spastic vocal samples. As strange as and chaotic as Nikki Nack can be at times, it never strays away from the idea that this is pop for a strange new generation.
11. MØ – No Mythologies to Follow
Riding the recent wave of Scandinavian pop that has infiltrated ears in each corner of the world, Danish singer-songwriter Karen Ørsted, or MØ as many now know her, fuses hip-hop laced beats and percussion with moody hooks that have a unique anthemic presence. Sure, the vocal delivery and inflections will have some making silly claims that Ørsted is aping Lana Del Rey, but the heights that Ørsted’s choruses soar to and the eclectic interaction between guitar licks, horn rhythms, and bass is undeniably hers and hers alone.
10. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib – Pinata
Gangsta’ rapper Freddie Gibbs is not the world’s most underrated MC or one that needs reexamination, his discography is, for lack of a better word, decent. But Madlib, whose influence runs through the veins of modern hip-hop, lays down some of his finest beats and production work to cast Gibbs in a different light, one that has Gibbs delivering the performance of a lifetime. The diverse samples and spacious layout draw the best out of Gibbs and his narration of street life, and to this point create the best hip-hop LP of 2014 thus far.
9. Eagulls – Eagulls
The debut from the Leeds post-punk group Eagulls do not take home any awards for originality – but to be fair how many completely original acts these days can stake such a claim? The influences are unashamedly worn on their sleeves – the Clash, the Cure, perhaps a heavier-sounding Joy Divison – and the truth is there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a remarkable skill that Eagulls have mastered; being able to parley the soul and contempt of their British rock heroes into fresh explosive brand of punk. It never sounds like a cover band trying to relive a golden age because the urgency and manic personality that Eagulls channel so well, is far too pulse-elevating and convincing to be a half-assed homage.
8. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
What a criminal statement it would be to mistake Lost in the Dream as a stunted ode to classic rock. Despite the unmistakable traces vintage Americana, psych rock, and the folk of Dylan, Lost in the Dream finds its own personality by inserting a ballad or two and feeding off a newly added new wave component. There’s not a lot of parity from one track to the next – the similarities can become tiring – but the results are definitely more satisfying and consistent than if the band had recorded a diverse, scatterbrain LP that explores conflicting sounds for the sake of being well-rounded.
7. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
The irresistibly heartfelt folk pop of Johanna and Klara Soderberg reaches new heights on Stay Gold, ditching the simple aesthetic for a beefed up sound that makes every climatic moment feel larger without sacrificing any purity or sincerity that made their first two records such a delight. While Stay Gold may not be sexy, unpredictable, or fringe, its consistency ends up being the saving grace – especially in an age where even the most veteran acts can put out a dud.
6. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Maintaining her love for the heartwarming twang of the 50s and 60s, Olsen turns away from the charming, quaint rock from her debut. The elements of garage rock allow Olsen to channel fuzz drenched, frustrated sentiments that were far too bold for the passionate, understated songwriting of Half Way Home. The grittier distortion that underlies Olsen’s lyrical chops show just how versatile Burn Your Fire can be – breaking hearts with silent acoustic ballads and generating unrest in lovers quarrels through psych rock. However Olsen chooses to frame her work – gentle or caustic – it tugs on heart strings all the same.
5. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Annie Clark’s fourth LP is not exactly the best jumping off point for newcomers. Clark’s self-titled record is lyrically stirring, taking sardonic jabs at selfie takers and consumers, and also fearless in its adventurous style sonically. The haywire personality that is characterized by freakish guitar tones and jazz-based rhythms is stronger than ever as Clark allows herself to explore new extremes while still working within a very broad definition of pop. It’s an undeniable marvel that marries pop and art like few other albums in the past decade have been able to do. Comparing the exciting gambles that Clark takes on this eponymous record to the work of her contemporaries does not feel right, not because it’s a discussion of styles that relate to each other like apples and oranges, but because it seems Clark could one day end up in far grander and more intriguing discussion, with the likes of Bowie and Byrne.
4. Royksopp and Robyn – Do It Again
When a collaboration of this magnitude occurs, it’s difficult not to expect something unparalleled and brilliant that ventures into new territory or redefines a genre. Unfortunately, Do It Again does not expand the boundaries or implement a shelved idea, but meets expectations and allows the unique pop sensibilities of Robyn to coexist and flourish inside the large array of synths and beats that Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland construct. Do It Again is the peak of sophisticated synth pop that has the potential to produce an enjoyable, dark horse, hit single of the summer (“Do It Again”) and still be incredibly daunting with all its complex and intricate parts.
3. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Storytelling is often an underrated skill in today’s music but Mark Kozelek prides himself on constructing some of the most compelling and powerful lyrics that 2014 has brought us so far. The lengths vary between 3 minute cuts and 10 minute free form, evolving tales, both of which are equally gripping and heavy, even for the genre of folk. Kozelek effortlessly transfers all of his experiences, joys, and woes onto anyone who lends an ear. The art of being subtle or mysterious never crosses Kozelek’s mind as he thrives on songwriting that prioritizes being forthright and candid. Whether a line is embarrassing or demoralizing, Kozelek stands tall, because there is no charade or persona to which he is a slave, and his loyalty to honest storytelling is what makes Benji one of a kind.
2. Swans – To Be Kind
If Swans have proven anything it’s that a band is never over the hill and the freshest of rebirths could occur decades after forming. The experimental rock pioneers last album, The Seer, redefined the limits for expansive rock that almost feels too large to process at once, and To Be Kind possesses the same colossal weight. It’s not hard to feel engulfed in tracks that can reach the 30 minute range and morph countless times over, adding layers upon layers of eerie guitar noises or chants and mantras. There aren’t as many chilling moments that haunt the mind in the way The Seer did, but To Be Kind is every bit as versatile, meticulous, and unnerving as any album that Swans have released.
1. White Lung – Deep Fantasy
Lengthwise Deep Fantasy might not seem like much to gawk at – the run time falls just short of 23 minutes – but Vancouver post-hardcore act White Lung make every second count on their third LP, which is nothing short of a swift kick in the ass musically. The opening blows of kick drums and overwhelming explosion of hissing riffs generate the kind of unhinged intensity that is impossible to fake and Mish Way’s Kathleen Hanna-meets-Karen O. vocal delivery propels each pummeling sequence of furry with a confidence that has a slight pop addictiveness. Albums of this kind usually don’t suck in the casual listener that fancies pop or charting alt-rock, but in an age that has less boundaries and more cross-over than ever, Deep Fantasy has the potential to do just that.