There was no shortage of new and exciting music in 2014. From an avant-garde saxophone quartet to soul-inflected pop from the UK, this crop of artists gave us a lot of great music this year.
For an emerging artist treading down a well-traveled path, the right attitude can mean a lot. And that’s something Alvvays has in spades. What makes the Toronto-based quintet stand out are the intangibles, an authentic vibe to its girl-groupy indie-pop that comes from an intuitive knack for creating eminently catchy songs that has more to do with touch and feel than innovation. At its best on its self-titled debut, Alvvays evokes the immediacy and resourcefulness of underground touchstones like Heavenly and the Aislers Set, making the most of getting down to the basics of songcraft and sentimentality. Thanks to its uncannily wistful melodies and Molly Rankin’s wry, yearning coo, Alvvays tackles the subgenre’s coming-of-age conventions with warm reverence as well as an individual perspective that’s already earned it an identity distinctly their own. Case in point: their ode to the fear of the fear of commitment “Archie, Marry Me” is not just a performance garnering Alvvays prime rookie-of-the-year consideration, but it’s also its precocious entry in the twee-pop hall of fame. In Alvvays’ hands, nostalgic indie rock has been as forward-looking as anything else this year. Arnold Pan
Before this year, Angel Olsen languished in obscurity, written off as a Patsy Cline sound-alike novelty. But with the release of this year’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, she realized her potential as an artist, crafting an immaculately balanced record that splits between pitch-perfect classic country ballads like “Iota”, Cohen-esque folk epics like “White Fire”, and guns-out rockers like “High & Wild”. The help of a larger indie label like Jagjaguwar gave Olsen the production quality and variety of backing musicians to truly expand her sound in a direction unlike any other artist out there today. Logan Austin
Atlanta hip hop is so overwhelmingly, prolifically creative these days that comparisons to New York’s early scenes aren’t all that crazy. And with his debut mixtape, He’s Drunk!, Archibald Slim has added himself to the list of ATL visionaries who are gleefully kicking the genre off its moorings (Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, Migos, Raury, PeeWee Longway, etc.). As the most well-rounded emcee in the Awful Records crew – a loose collective of friends who seemingly record each other on whims and end up turning SoundCloud into a drug for the rest of us – Archie is able to explore the poisonous sociology of the poverty-stricken without ever losing his cool, strolling through the neon smoke of producer KeithCharles Spacebar’s beats like he’s of them, not on them. Conversely, this approach makes the raw outrage of the lyrics even harder to ignore—like that room in your house that’s always chilly, no matter how warm the hearth. Joe Sweeney
With a major nomination from BBC Sound of 2013, Banks shaped up to be one of the highlights of 2014 due to her eclectic mixture of R&B, electronic, trip-hop, and dream pop. With a critically lauded album in 2014, Goddess, Banks fused these genres and deliver a solid release. With songs that range from perfect balladry (“Brain”) to amazing simplicity (“Stick”), Banks’ debut is definitely a great one. And although critics thought it was rather similar to her contemporaries (Jessie Ware, FKA twigs, Kelela), Banks truly carved out a niche of her own: electronic-influenced R&B that balances its way between The Weeknd and Aaliyah. Devone Jones
A saxophone quartet that uses only tenor saxophones, on paper, does not sound like a great idea. Great pieces of saxophone music, such as Philip Glass’ Saxophone Quartet, derive their melodic and rhythmic complexity in large part due to the differences in pitch of the various kinds of saxophone. However, Battle Trance — the quartet organized by Travis Laplante — has, with Palace of Wind, created an album-length composition that reveals just how much sound and power can be wrought out of a tenor saxophone. Laplante, joined by Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner, and Patrick Breiner, here gives a performance with such gusto one will have to continually remind herself that the sounds on this LP are only being made by only four instruments. At times, such as the turbulent section in the first movement of the piece, these men sound as if they’ve just opened the gates of hell and let all of its fury roar out of their saxophones. This music truly lives up to its title; at just over 40 minutes, Battle Trance sculpts a palace of wind and sound, taking (and sometimes forcing) the listener through an audiovisual feast, a tour de force of avant-garde classical music. The press materials for Palace of Wind claims that Laplante crated Battle Trance after “literally awoke with the crystal clear vision that he needed to start an ensemble” with the three gentlemen he brought on for this project. What mysterious force of the universe led Laplante to think this, the world might never know. But one spin of Palace of Wind will make it clear that this project was indeed destined, for music this innovative and stunning doesn’t happen randomly. Brice Ezell