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
Clipping and more…
Clipping. isn’t as new as us; most listeners didn’t hear about it until CLPPNG, its first big-house record, hit the shelves this summer. Yet the rap group is still in its formative stages, and 2014 was a new beginning for it. The year introduced a new and innovative angle to their formerly abrasive take on hip-hop. To clipping., accessibility is as volatile a tool as any other, because it means more will get in line to hear the protests. Songs like “Summertime” are immediately appreciable, but offer sizable depth as well. Clipping. is just now getting noticed because it’s just now started to approach its music from the listener’s perspective. If music is a form of communication, a message sent from one party to another to be deciphered by the listener, then clipping. is a purveyor of an exceedingly exact memo: not all is how it appears. There are innumerable paradoxes in the world, and we’ll need to keep our eyes peeled in order to catch onto them. Clipping. knows this because it’s been on the other end of the line this whole time, heeding the narratives of their choice hip-hop artists in order to arm its own armada. Jacob Royal
Doug Seegers doesn’t just sing about the hobo life, he has lived it for four decades, squatting in abandoned buildings in Manhattan, sleeping under bridges in Austin and Nashville, hopping trains to another town where the promise of pocket change dropped into his guitar case seemed better. Seegers harkens back to the classic country of old while establishing his own unique voice and vision. When Seegers howls, mimicking a train whistle in “Gotta Catch that Train”, he evokes the blue yodels of Jimmie Rodgers. One can hear echoes of Porter Wagoner in “Pour Me”, where the singer sits forlornly at the bar while his ex sways across the dance floor with her new beau, “Lucky him, lovely her, pour me.” A less nuanced songwriter would probably reach for the “lucky-lovely-lonely” progression (those Nashville Music Machine songwriters are suckers for alliteration), but Seegers’ choice of the simple, brilliant pun amplifies both his narrator’s state of mind and his means of coping. That’s smart songwriting, and, start to finish, this is one of the best country releases you will hear this year. Ed Whitelock
When it comes to originality, creativity, ambition, and maturity, no artist who released a debut album in 2014 even comes close to what 26 year-old Tahliah Barnett has pulled off this year. Having facetiously given herself the “formerly known as” acronym after another artist named Twigs threatened litigation, FKA Twigs follows the young auteur example of Grimes, but in a far less flighty way. Instead, she opts for something darker and a lot more mature, meshing sultry, dusky pop hooks with intensely erotic lyrics. Best of all, she uses arrangements that strip the music away of all flash and flesh, leaving a bare-bones accompaniment of electronic beats and throbs that pulsate with the emotional power of the words and music. It’s a situation where as soon as the album ends, you can’t wait to hear what she does next. Adrien Begrand
Hypnotic, ethereal, detached, expressive: these are just a few descriptors that apply to Hundred Waters’ sophomore LP, The Moon Rang Like a Bell. Try nailing down Nicole Miglis’ eerie soprano and you’ll find that it slips untrustingly from your grasp, evading your ears, and slinking back into the darkness where it came from. The album is gripped by a unseen fear and a full-moon mysticism, and its not out of the question to suggest that much of Moon dances around the concept of feminine mystique and its impact on a male-dominated indie crowd. The first words you’ll hear on album opener “Show Me Love” are, “don’t let me show cruelty, though I may make mistakes / don’t let me show ugliness, though I know I can hate.” An lone vocal track that acts as a prelude to the odd and eerie electronic staccato of “Cavity” and “XTalk”. Is there a hint of new age mysticism and Eastern chord progressions dropped loosely into syncopated rhythms? Yes, that and the simplest of notions: “take my hand when I’m walking”.
Moon doesn’t attach itself instantly. Instead, Hundred Waters have created a delicate grower of an album, one that peels back layers and cadences until you’re not certain if the music is still being made by humans or ghosts. It would be more plausible if it were made by spirits, given its spirituality and subdued sexuality. All of that is to say, Hundred Waters keep you wondering where their inspiration comes from and where they’ll take you next. An astral plane? Your parent’s bedroom? Basement parties? Wherever they go, be sure to follow. Scott Elingburg
There was no consensus “Song of the Summer” this year. (Yes, Iggy Azalea was everywhere, but so were allergens.) Nothing captured the popular imagination like “Get Lucky” did in 2013, reminding us that songs don’t do that kind of thing as much as they used to. The upside was that we could choose our own summer jams without having to feel like we were missing out on something. And for me, that choice tended to be Jungle’s debut album. Leading up to its release, the British duo got the hype machine going in pitch-perfect fashion, keeping the member’s identities secret and releasing several feel-good clickbait videos featuring all sorts of killer dance moves. These moves set us all up to be surprised by the actual tone of Jungle, which is soft and languorous, a bedroom R&B production full of floating synths and falsettos. It sounds like something a day-drunk Philip Michael Thomas would’ve put on his Hi-Fi in 1986. It makes me want to put on sunglasses even though I know I look stupid in sunglasses. It makes me feel like it’s not actually going to snow tonight. Joe Sweeney
Lucius and more…
Although Lucius released its debut Wildewoman in North America last year, it received a wider release in 2014, with increased promotion through TV and radio appearances. It has recently been re-released in a digital deluxe version, including eight new tracks. Lucius can be distinguished by the sound of two female voices (Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig) singing as one, blending a girl-group sound with new wave style to make smart and engaging pop music. “Turn It Around”, “Tempest” and “Don’t Just Sit There” are the easiest routes of entry, with fantastic catchy harmony vocals and clever instrumentation. The skilled band tackle Americana on “Go Home Hey”, with much of the remainder of the album made up of modernist experiments such as “Hey, Doreen” and “Nothing Ordinary”. And indeed there is little ordinary about Lucius, perhaps one of the reasons why Tweedy chose them to add backing vocals for the excellent Sukirae. Charles Pitter
Milo is part of the indomitable Hellfyre Club, and his take on KOOL A.D.’s brand of near-dada storytelling and free-associative rhyming, deconstructing rap tropes in pursuit of the deeper truths beneath them, made for a wildly exciting debut. He’d released a couple of mixtapes and had some features in years previous, but the much-lauded A Toothpaste Suburb was his first major showcase and was one of 2014’s better rap albums. The first track alone, with its wandering plot, eye for detail, deadpan delivery, and intricate wordplay, cemented Milo’s place as a storyteller par excellence who comes off much bigger than rap, taking the best left-field tendencies of label mate Open Mike Eagle and adding a dash of meta-narrative and a pinch of consciousness to prove why he’s one of the most vital new artists working in hip-hop today. Adam Finley
Mr. Little Jeans
Named after a minor character in Wes Anderson’s quirky 1998 film Rushmore, L.A.-based singer-songwriter Monica Birkenes (aka Mr Little Jeans) captured the attention of over two million YouTube viewers with her cover of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”. A testament to the immense power of social media, her darkly delectable interpretation of their track thrust an unknown Norwegian musician into the international spotlight and ignited a career. Luckily for Birkenes, her own material and songwriting chops are equally as arresting.
While the prolonged gestation period between EPs and her major label effort might have given critics and admiring fans reason to pause, it appears they had nothing to fret about. The 12 intoxicating songs of Pocketknife herald the arrival of an artist whose immense talent contains both an indie credibility and undeniable mainstream potential. From the widescreen ‘80s pop sheen of “Runaway” and the brilliant, lo-fi dance track “Good Mistake”, to the children’s chorale featured on the chorus of the charmingly unconventional “Oh Sailor”, few records brush up against perfection as effortlessly as Mr. Little Jeans’s debut. Ryan Lathan
It’s shocking to me how sure of himself this kid sounds. Even looking beyond that confident and weathered voice, how is it that this 20-year-old from Purcell, Oklahoma has the guts to jump right into the guise of the classic country troubadour? Some of the tunes on this album — all originals, mind you — sound so patently authoritative that it’s hard to believe they weren’t copped from some old folk record. And a song like “Disappear” must have been borrowed from one of the early Avett albums, right? Or one of those early Justin Townes Earle tracks? Then there’s “Quite Contrary,” which features a mishmash of different children’s rhymes and fairy tales set to a rollicking blues guitar, which sounds like weirdness that could only have been dreamed up by a Delta blues singer in a drug reverie. Where this stuff comes from, an intoxicating mix of country, folk, blues, honky-tonk, and Western swing, it’s hard to know, though it’s safe to say that everyone is left wanting more. Taylor Coe
So, Detriot’s Protomartyr isn’t exactly new. However, the band’s second album, this year’s Under Color of Official Right, is so fresh and immediate in its impact, it’s hard not to think of the band as wholly new itself. The group’s debut, No Passion All Technique, was a raucous, angular record, a barbed burst of energy that could be garage rock if you consider airplane hangars to be garages. The sound, and its lasting rumble, stretched out that far. Under Color of Official Right is an exercise in refining the edges not to dull them but to make them sharper. The guitars ring out on opener “Maidenhead”, but the guitars still grind along, the vocals still bellow outward. “Want Remover” is a crunchy wind-sprint, but it hollows out to let the melody shine through. The album balances the chaotic with the carefully constructed, like when “Scum, Rise!” shifts back and forth between white-out fuzz and a single repeated hook. Protomartyr seems to have found its larger audience by, well, not giving a shit about compromise. Instead, this is honing of a craft that existed on its first record as well. It’s tempting to mention Joy Division when you hear this record, but Protomartyr is missing the self-serious restraint that made the New Romantics sound distanced and cool instead of unabashedly on fire. Of all the promising rock bands out there, Protomartyr made the greatest leap forward in 2014, and in turn created one of the most volatile, infectious rock records of the year. What makes them one of the best new artists is that, crazily enough, it sounds like Protomartyr is just getting started. Matt Fiander
RAC to Twin Peaks
That hop from making remixes of video game level soundtracks to becoming a part of the pop stratosphere is a tricky one to make, noticeably because pretty much no one does it ever. You find your niche in gaming circles, sometimes pump out original tunes of your own, and then you make a modest living off of your small cadre of followers. For André Allen Anjos, however, that journey has been unlike anything else people had ever seen, if not just because his early video game remixes weren’t just fun pieces of revisionist history: they were good. Like, damn good. A great majority of those early songs released in 2008 and 2009 could sneak their way into the club and you wouldn’t give it much nevermind at all, probably dancing yourself silly to the tune that frustrated too many Contra players to count.
Yet as his notoriety grew, Anjos slowly began working his way towards the realm of the true-blue pop song, and when the two halves of his great full-length album Strangers came out earlier this year, it’s amazing how stripped-down and effective his tunes were: the minimalist funk of the Penguin Prison collaboration “Hollywood” reminded some folks of the work of Tokyo Police Club, who, incidentally, also collaborated on Anjos’ big major label debut, getting to share his unique pop gifts with the likes of YACHT, Tegan & Sara, and even Matthew Koma on the summer anthem that never was, “Cheap Sunglasses”.
Without ever leaning towards twee or even taking himself too seriously, RAC, through his original works and his numerous remixes, has reintroduced the fun back into pop music, finding joy in melody while avoiding the indulgent pitfalls that so many of his remix-ready peers fall into time and time again. While he’s been at it for half a decade, RAC truly made himself known in 2014, and rest assured, you will be hearing about him for a long, long time to come. Evan Sawdey
If the recent commercial success of Sam Smith shows that big male voices are back, well—it’s about time! The English singer has a commanding presence, even when he sings about being lonely (“In the Lonely Hour”), barely making it (“Life Support”) or the morning after (“Stay With Me”). A good part of the reason for this is Smith’s ability to start quietly and let the songs build with the intensity of his feelings. There have always been shouters, but Smith goes from a whisper to a scream while always staying in control. This restraint just makes him seem powerful and tender at the same time. Smith’s expressive vocals suggest that he’s someone who knows better but cannot stay quiet even when it hurts him. He embodies that disconnection we all feel when our thoughts and emotions don’t match, but we still know that just being in the grip of love or some kind of higher power is essentially something for which we all yearn. Steve Horowitz
It could be argued that South Londoner Christopher Taylor is quite some way from being a new artist, having previously released three albums as Trouble Over Tokyo. His insistence in interviews that the person he was before SOHN no longer exists might seem something of an affectation, but musically the sea change is black and white, if not an actual epitaph. The new Taylor is a genuine triple threat as a producer, musician, and songwriter. He displays irksomely great taste in his choice of collaborators and remixees (including Rhye, Kwabs, Lana del Ray, Disclosure and Banks). The fact that his own signature sound manages to be a lyrical blend of the intellectual, the physical, and the emotional is already a sign of fearsome calibre, but it’s his ability to coax great performances out of singers that promises most for the future, even as it made his debut album Tremors one of the most gorgeous, affecting and flat-out best of 2014. We’re not to call it a comeback, but with any luck this year could be but the first step of a prodigal son. Stefan Braidwood
To make too big a deal of Sylvan Esso’s roots in other bands — Mountain Man, Megafaun – is both to set up false expectations of what the music will sound like and to make this seem like a side project. If this was once a trial, an experiment, it is no more. It’s an exciting new pop group, one of the most interesting of the year. Slyvan Esso’s new album, as represented by indelible singles like “Coffee”, “Dreamy Bruises”, and “Play It Right”, is a cross between dreamy stillness and rushes of pure, instinctive energy. The instinctive part echoes with what the band sings about – the natural world, modernity, human impulses, sex, dancing – and the sing-song-y, chant-y style of vocals. Yet the duo also has a keen instinct for how pop music works, the way a melody embeds in your brain, how the simplest rhythm can drive it, the power in tapping into our collective memory of music to achieve something new. Dave Heaton
Twin Peaks join Smith Westerns and The Orwells as another in Chicago’s recent surge of garage rock bands helmed by youngsters who aren’t even old enough to legally consume alcohol. Their 2013 debut, Sunken, was a solid record, but its reverbed-washed production over took the songs, which were still quite rough around the edges. But Twin Peaks’ latest, Wild Onion, isn’t only an improvement over Sunken, it’s quite possibly one of the best record of 2014. On it, Twin Peaks upped their songwriting with meaner hooks and catchier melodies all while embracing cleaner and crisper rock and roll sound. This year also saw Twin Peaks become one of the most talked about live acts due to their on-stage antics, which even left guitarist Cadien James with a broken foot. After a busy 2014, Twin Peaks’ potential arrow is pointing sky high. Here’s hoping they can just avoid any more bad breaks. Richard Giraldi