Phantogram – Voices
It was hard not to notice as Phantogram slashed across our radar this year with Voices. This album feels like a rightful continuation of their 2009 album Eyelid Movies, preserving the clear-cut tempo throughout but managing to emphasize it. We’re given racier beats, but the tracks still have that backdrop of something haunted — an effect chiefly provided by Sarah Barthel’s vocals. It’s more appropriate to say the duo has persevered rather than evolved in terms of delivery, remaining reliable in their genre over time. I’ve definitely instilled my faith in their direction, as “Black Out Days” and “Fall in Love” have proved to be some of the best tracks produced this year.
Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo
Signed to Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dog Entertainment record label, Isaiah Rashad has essentially unlocked superstardom over the course of 12 months. The Chattanooga, Tennessee-based emcee brings a distinct gritty Southern rapping style to TDE’s pretty emphatically alt-rap (or rapidly-becoming mainstream rap) roster. “Heavenly Father” is a beautiful dictation of Mr. Rashad’s struggle without a father, while “I Shot You Down” is a good ol’ fashioned feel-good flex track. In a relatively instant era filled with indie rappers who have instantly rocketed themselves to success, Isaiah is carving his own land, and damn, he’s doing a good job.
Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
Lana Del Rey, often considered as a god to teenage girls for her heart felt lyrics and lovely appearance, made her break with a remix of “Summertime Sadness” that was played on the radio daily. Her first album showed a strong pop side to the artist that helped her fit in with big female pop artist names, often giving the appearance that she was a writer of pop music. Although this has some truth to it, if pop music is what you are expecting from her second studio album Ultraviolence then you are in for a surprise. Even the title track shows that this album is showing off what Lana Del Rey is, a dramatic singer and lyricist over a pop star any day. This album includes a higher guitar presence and Lana’s voice, and even a drum kit. The only real connection between this album and her last is the use of self over dubbed vocals which show the power of her range and add a dramatic effect to her singing. This is an album I could see coming off strongest performed on a small intimate stage, not a sold out arena. So if you blew off listening to this album because you expected debutante dancing around and having the beat drop, try again.
Mastodon – Once More ‘Round the Sun
In 2002 Mastodon started off on a series of concept albums representing the classical elements, fire, water, earth, and aether (nothing on air yet). Each of these albums had the complex artsy storytelling that in so many cases makes prog metal ridiculous. However, their honest musicality and unflashy sludge metal sound kept them from ever crossing over into the realm of stupidly overdone. In 2011 though, they put their concepts on the shelf and released The Hunter, an album that not only marked a departure in what the music represents, but more importantly what the music sounds like. They still had their badass heavy sludge, their unrelenting virtuosity, and their trifecta of lead singers, but went in a much more accessible direction, injecting more mainstream heavy rock into their sound. Once More ‘Round the Sun is yet another step in the same direction as The Hunter. While the album lacks some of the harshness of its predecessors that I’ve come to adore so much, Mastodon makes up for it in their continued ability to put metal riffs, belting choruses, drum demolishing, and stunning fretwork together in one song and make it catchy.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd – Goin Home
The concept behind Kenny’s latest album is simple enough: Go back home and play some straight Southern blues covers. The goal was simple enough and superbly achieved. The whole project was recorded in 11 days, giving it an especially spontaneous feel. The guest artists actually groove well. The lyrics may not be original, but a blues musician’s ultimate goal is to make an old tune feel fresh and different from past covers. Kenny’s greasy and emotive playing certainly accomplish that. In a year full of overly ambitious albums, the simple Goin Home feels refreshing.
Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
After an influx of albums starting in 2005 that seemed to be released prematurely, Ryan Adams’s 2014 self-titled release was a breathe of fresh air. Ryan Adams drags on a bit at times, but I think this is his most impressive release since 2005’s Cold Roses. “My Wrecking Ball” is one of his most compelling songs to date, while “Gimme Something Good” and “Trouble” successfully mix the sound of early the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers records with his own charm and charisma. With the rest of the songs resembling the mixed emotions after a breakup, it seems Adams makes the best of his dark times.
Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes
In a typical All-American, John Wayne fashion, Bruce Springsteen returned this year with an album that was much needed. A reinvigorated “American Skin (41 Shots)” rings as true during Ferguson as it did fourteen years ago when he first started touring the song after Amadou Diallo’s death. But my favorite song from the album is “Hunter of Invisible Game.” Featuring drawls like Bob Dylan and its own short film, the beautiful song combines the best things about Bruce Springsteen: soulful background singers, simple melodies and instrumentation, and gentle vocals. With combinations of pride and political statements, this album is so quintessentially “Bruce”.
James Vincent McMorrow – Post Tropical
I was converted to one of James Vincent McMorrow’s fan girl literally overnight after hearing his song “Cavalier”, which is featured in his 2014 album Post Tropical. This Dubliner may seem like a modern day Bon Iver to some, but Post Tropical proves how rich and complex McMorrow’s musical style is. He’s usually labeled as folky, but in this album one can also discover elements of hip-hop (the song “When I Leave” is a great example). McMorrow commented that he wanted “to make something that was beautiful in whatever it did, wherever it went”. Surely enough, listeners can be mesmerized by McMorrow’s soft woozy voice, which displays an incredible range of vocal heights, be touched by his bittersweet lyrics, and be enlightened by a mixture of sounds like cymbal clashes, guitar riffs, drum taps, and plucks of cellos. Moreover, it is clear through the big crescendos and gradual layers of sounds, as can be found in “Red Dust” and “Look Out”, McMorrow’s desires to evoke not just audio pleasure but also a variety of emotions like hurt, regret, and optimism. If you check out some of his live videos, be ready to be blown away by his soulful performances. I love all his songs, but I would highly recommend for new listeners to check out “Gold”, “Cavalier” (of course), “Outside Digging”, and “Look Out”. This album is just so pretty and genuine, something very refreshing among today’s mainstream music.
Fucked Up – Glass Boys
Fucked Up released their fourth studio album this summer, and received much less attention for it than they deserved. Considering that their last album, David Comes to Life, was regarded as one of the best albums of 2011 by many music journalists, their recent lack of critical attention has been baffling. True, Glass Boys does not have many stand-alone songs, and has less of an epic sonic impact than previous efforts from the Toronto rockers. Nonetheless, the entire album is a thrashing cathartic release, and is every bit as enjoyable as their older music.
Little Dragon – Nabuma Rubberband
Little Dragon is never afraid to dance the line of electro-pop and pure experimentalism, and this is definitely prevalent in the 2014 release of the album Nabuma Rubberband. An almost jazzy sound coming from lead singer Yukimi Nagano is so original and it shines especially on “Klapp Klapp”, as she reaches high in the chorus of the song. A lot of pop beats feature on the album, like in “Paris” where there’s a rhythm you can’t help but dance to. The band always stays adventurous, using orchestral strings on the title track to contrast the heavily electronic feel. Nabuma Rubberband is all over the place but that’s the sound that makes Little Dragon so original and cutting-edge.
Gold-Bears – Dalliance
One of the big surprises for me in 2014 was just how much I grew to love this little album by the Gold-Bears. It was recommended by a friend and after one listen it seemed like a fine album, but it didn’t strike me as interesting in any way. But after a few listens, the melodies really started to stick, the energy exuded by the band on their uptempo tracks became undeniable and the songs where the band slows things down became welcome breaths of fresh air. Dalliance sounds like what the Pains of Being Pure at Heart would sound like if they grew some teeth. The Gold-Bears have given their gauzy-pop a razor edge; there’s a wall of sound here, but rather than merging with it like many shoegaze bands, singer Jeremy Underwood steps to the foreground and delivers an energetic and emotional performance. Dalliance is a short album and it moves fast, but the hooks and high energy stick with you.
Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
Our list of the top 50 albums of 2014 is absolutely stacked with the best music that was released this year (as long as Beyoncé doesn’t drop another secret album on us tomorrow). There is one band though that didn’t make the cut that I’d like to personally give a shout-out to, and that band is Sylvan Esso. This year they released their debut, self-titled album that featured some undeniably catching tracks. Their hit single, “Coffee,” is without a doubt one of the best songs of the year. Their electro-folk sound seems like it falls right into the typical electro-indie category after a first listen. But, once you test out the whole record, you’ll find that Sylvan Esso’s mountain-folk and digital beats background from previous bands makes them stand out as quite the unexpected duo in a sea of unoriginal artists. It’s an album full of familiarity, strangeness, darkness, and up-beat jams all creatively crafted into one notable record. If you second-guessed them before, give Sylvan Esso another listen and you’ll hear the effortless, unique talent unleashed in every song.