From folk to electronic to hip-hop, 2014 was a year for the books in the music scene. Here are the top picks as selected by the arts & entertainment department at The Daily Californian.
With a ballad entitled “Bill Murray,” Voices might just be one of the quirkiest and promising albums of 2014. The Brooklyn-based duo Phantogram (composed of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter) has become one of the most hyped artists in electro-pop — alongside CHVRCHES and Purity Ring — and for good reason. Barthel orchestrates colorful instrumentals embellished with prodding synthesizers that rise and fall with the surging dynamics of her pixie vocals. The end product is a grandiose album that projects precision and dynamism. The duo blends hip-hop and R&B with indie electronica and tailors a signature sound that exudes seduction and desperation in all the right ways. Voices is an easy contender for best albums of 2014.
— Tiffany Kim
9) Run the Jewels 2 by Run the Jewels
One could argue that Run the Jewels has the most unique sound in popular hip-hop today. The aggressive, fast-paced and unrelenting sophomore album Run the Jewels 2 features New York rapper-producer El-P’s robotic sound mixing and Atlanta-based Killer Mike’s rapping, which takes on a furious bite as the social commentary of the album unfolds. The result is a taut 39-minute barrage of anecdotes and lamentations about experiences of racism, police brutality, poverty and guilt.
Expressions of unrelenting and unbridled rage emerge between observations such as that “the only thing (closing) faster than our caskets is the factory.” The album resonates particularly in the precarious political climate of the past few weeks. When Killer Mike decries “fuckboys” in all their various forms, his humorous taunts take on a darker form as a narrative surrounding racist cops takes center stage. Run the Jewels 2 is a bitter, nimble, breakneck exhibition of the two seasoned rappers’ considerable talent, and it takes on even greater significance in the context of demonstrations and riots surrounding the Eric Garner ruling.
— Grace Culhane
The “New Radiohead” is a hefty title to live up to for the Leeds, England-based band alt-J. Following in the steps of massive industry names such as Coldplay and Muse, its sophomore effort has managed to live up to these large expectations. This is All Yours is a rambling and captivating listen, filled with bizarre folk and electronic eccentricity. The band has even managed to turn tracks into thought-provoking think pieces, such as in “Hunger of the Pine,” in which it tackles the age of Internet consumption within the music industry. Booming percussion, breathy vocals, swirling acoustics, canon vocal harmonies and even a bit of EDM are all put together in This Is All Yours.
Songs like “Warm Foothills” — a rustic number featuring the vocals of Conor Oberst, of Bright Eyes fame — are just a stone’s throw away from real folksy rock. Meanwhile, “Left Hand Free” is similar to an alt-rock track of the 1990s, showcasing the versatility that alt-J has to offer. This is one band that is truly living up to all the hype, and in 2014, it certainly kept us on our toes.
7) Sylvan Esso by Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso is the unlikely merging of Amelia Randall Meath, a vocalist from the folk a cappella trio Mountain Man, and Nick Sanborn, an electronic producer involved with psychedelic rock band Megafaun. When Meath asked Sanborn to remix “Play It Right” — featured in Sylvan Esso’s debut eponymous album — the two realized their chemistry with one another, and the band was born. Sanborn’s extensive synth range, which draws inspiration from an eclectic mix of dubstep, electro-pop and house beats — complements Meath’s delicate vocals, forming a palatable mix of sound that’s sonically pleasing without feeling contrived. This is perhaps best displayed on the album’s premier track, “Coffee.” Ultimately, Sylvan Esso creates an intoxicating atmosphere of quietly charming melodies, but it’s Meath’s demure serenades that exhibit the band’s boundless creativity and potential.
— Joshua Gu
6) Atlas by Real Estate
Some naysayers might find it easy to classify Real Estate as boring indie rock. But once you get caught in the band’s dreamy haze, it’s impossible not to be delighted by its smooth, melodic sound. Sure, the lyrics may tread on generic ground — filled with laments about lost and dying relationships, regret and death — but Martin Courtney’s catchy, eloquent vocals make up for any sense that this is just another indie rock album. Along with Matt Mondanile’s lead guitar — which is strong enough to take the lead on the instrumental track “April’s Song” — Real Estate has the ability to put you in a trance of bliss and pleasure. Atlas is such a clean and soothing album that it’s impossible to feel anything but mellowed out when listening to it — especially during the album’s best track, “Talking Backwards.”
— Art Siriwatt
5) Goddess by Banks
Just like the title of her debut album suggests, Banks is a goddess. With her delicate, heavenly R&B vocals backed by sparkling synthesizers and minimal hip-hop beats, Goddess is an ethereal journey from start to finish. A true highlight of the album is the gloomy, soulful “Waiting Game,” a tortured ballad aimed at another performer, in which Banks wonders, “What if I never even see you ’cause we’re both on a stage / But don’t tell me listen to your song, because it isn’t the same.” The song is backed by wavering gospel vocals and minimal piano chords, only to be bumped up to epic proportions with buzzing synths and a soaring foray into Banks’ high register. Other standout tracks on the album include “Warm Water” and singles “Goddess” and “Beggin for Thread.” At its best moments, Goddess smolders with masterful production from the likes of Shlohmo and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, who put the glittering magic into her voice that might otherwise fall flat without the proper accompaniments.
— Madeline Wells
4) Salad Days by Mac DeMarco
It’s hard not to love Mac DeMarco. Slacker rock, blue-wave — whatever genre label you care to slap onto his music, there’s something about his laid-back, weird-for-weird’s-sake attitude and music that’s just plain charming, and his sophomore album, Salad Days, is no exception. Though Salad Days uses the same jangly guitar effects and warm sonic space as his first album, titled 2, DeMarco’s lyrics have evolved in theme from his first’s “Ode to Viceroy” — a love song about his favorite brand of cigarettes — to the eponymous track on his second album, “Salad Days,” in which DeMarco croons about senescence and the dawn of a new, more mature age. “As I’m getting older, chip up on my shoulder / rolling through life to roll over and die,” he sings. With his new lyrical depth, DeMarco salvages the best elements of 2 but refines the sound in “Salad Days,” making for a truly great sophomore album.
— Lindsay Choi
Annie Clark’s fourth record, St. Vincent, is an album full of confidence. Unlike many of her peers, Clark is not afraid to tackle overtly difficult, ambitious subjects in her lyrics. She isn’t afraid to tell us what’s wrong with America. “People turn the TV on it looks just like a window,” Clark sings on “Digital Witness,” a synth-driven song that criticizes our transparent, social-media-obsessed lifestyles.
Although St. Vincent contains ambitiously serious lyrics, the album is balanced by quirky, catchy instrumentals. The guitar solos feel like they were broadcast from another planet. Each melody sounds like a work of creative mischief — synthetic saxophones are layered over powerful, tight bass lines and ominous, forceful keyboards and guitars.
St. Vincent is certainly Clark’s best album to date. It’s tighter, stronger and more agreeable than any of her previous works. From the post-apocalyptic first track, “Rattlesnake,” to the self-deprecating, vulnerable closer, “Severed Crossed Fingers,” St. Vincent brings unique life to an industry that needs it.
— Jeremy Siegel
2) 1989 by Taylor Swift
When the queen of country crossover’s fifth studio album dropped Oct. 27, record stores were filled with mumbles of “I can’t even!” and whispers of “This is literally me!” as myriads of millennials forked over their parents’ hard-earned money to buy — gasp! — an actual CD. Selling more than a million copies its first week, 1989 singlehandedly bumped up record sales for 2014, becoming the first album of the year to earn platinum status. But even if you push impeccable marketing tactics, unparalleled sales and record-breaking statistics aside, 1989 still stands as the most important chapter in Swift’s diary-like discography. Shifting from her explicit, revealing lyrics and down-home country roots to blooming metaphors and bonafide pop hits, Swift transcended the confines of her media-given boundaries and defined what it meant to be Taylor Swift. We’ve got a blank space on our album-of-the-year list, baby, and we’re writing Taylor’s name.
— Rosemarie Alejandrino
1) LP1 by FKA twigs
Tahliah Barnett, otherwise known as FKA twigs, rose to prominence in the record industry as a dancer in music videos for Britpop exports Jessie J and Ed Sheeran — a fact that FKA twigs laments in LP1’s “Video Girl” with the repetition of its opening coda: “Is that the girl from the video?” FKA twigs has spent the entirety of her industry career straddling the threshold of anonymity, but with the brilliant LP1, she has shattered the barriers constraining her art and reached a new level of fame. FKA’s dreamy lyrics are filled with internal dichotomy. She is equal parts seductress and succubus on LP1’s debut single, “Two Weeks,” in which she implores, “Pull your body closer, I can rip it open.”
Throughout the album, she is equally infantilized and romanticized, playing a submissively “sweet little love maker” on the LP’s centerpiece, “Pendulum.” But there is purpose in this juxtaposition. For FKA twigs, codependence, fame and desire are contradictory and complex — all of which are traits shared by the cutthroat industry she calls home. LP1 is proof that FKA twigs is no longer merely the resident “Video Girl.”
— Joshua Bote