#25: Zola Jesus, Taiga
Nika Roza Danilova (who goes by Zola Jesus in her musical career) has a smoky, operatic voice, and brings a strong sense of dynamics and drama to her music. Each song is a like a mini-symphony with quiet moments and slow builds, mostly driven by electronic sounds and really nice touches of percussion (e.g., the cacophony of background drums on “Taiga” or the snare drum upfront in the mix in “Hunger”). Sometimes the result is borderline poppy (e.g., “Dangerous Days” or “It’s Not Over”) but the emphasis here is really on the gothic aspect of her musical personality.
#24: Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah, Only Run
There’s an element of arena rock about this band: thudding bass drums far up in the mix, soaring and emotive vocals. (Listen to “As Always” or “Cover Up” for an example.) There are oddball moments, too, but it’s generally a big and bold album of hardy indie rock.
#23: Ólöf Arnalds, Palme
Like a certain other Icelandic artist (whose name begins with B), Olöf Arnalds has a sprite-like voice that bobs around with a sense of child-like wonder over harp, harpsichord, and ambient noise. Rather than flying off in fits of fancy, however, these songs remain clearly within a quiet and quirky place. “Defending Gender” is a highlight.
#22: The Notwist, Close to the Glass
What does The Notwist sound like? It might be easier to ask what this German group (with a quarter-century history) doesn’t sound like. Every time I listen, I hear something new, from the Ramones-like feel on “Kong” to the trance electronica of “Lineri” to the Jesus and Mary Chain sound on “7-Hour Drive” to Broken Social Scene on “From One Wrong Place to the Next.” Always inventive and entertaining, if not the most relaxing music to listen to.
#21: Hozier, Hozier
Irishman Andrew Hozier-Byrne, like so many of his countryman before him, digs deep into the soil of American musical history (which, arguably, owes as much to Irish music as it does to the music of Africa) and comes up with the soul and blues album of the year. He wraps his expressive, gospel voice around spectacular, driving tunes like the dramatic Grammy-nominated “Take Me to Church,” and the R&B of “Jackie and Wilson” and “Someone New.”
#20: Sean Rowe, Madman
This is my favorite album of 2014, even if it ended up at #20. (My formula is designed to try and keep me objective!) Sean Rowe’s voice is amazing: deep, sometimes growling and sometimes soaring. Add that to precise songwriting and wonderful arrangements that cover the gauntlet from folk to rock to world music to soul, and the result is a unique sound. The highlight for me is the title track with its quiet acoustic opening and clap-along neo-soul chorus. Other standouts are “The Game,” with a Caribbean-flavored chant leading to a simple percussion-driven melody, and the stomping blues of “Done Calling You.”
#19: Mark Lanegan Band, Phantom Radio
I love dramatic music. Of course “dramatic” means different things to different people. “Harvest Home,” the tune that kicks off the Mark Lanegan Band’s latest is the essence of my definition of dramatic: a sense of edginess and warning in the voice, vivid and dark imagery, ringing chords and a background string synth that adds a sense of urgency. The dark feel extends throughout this record (one song is titled “Death Trip to Tulsa”) with Biblical imagery always supported by the right instrumental choices, from chugging or swelling synthesizers to loosely struck snare drums to rapidly strummed acoustic guitars.
#18: Rubblebucket, Survival Sounds
Super fun reggae- and ska-flavored dance pop with awesome horn breaks. “Shake Me Around” is a blast with its quiet, almost spoken verses and blasting chorus. “Carousel Ride” is a classic singalong and “Middle” is a great slice of funky pop with an awesome bassline.
#17: Prince, ART OFFICIAL AGE
Who brings the funk like Prince? No one, that’s who! So get down, muthaf*ckers!
#16: Gemma Ray, Milk For Your Motors
Another entry in the long list of great British neo-soul/R&B artists, Gemma Ray’s music reaches back to late-1950s and early-1960s “girl groups,” Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” recordings, and artists like Nina Simone. It’s fantastic stuff, dramatic (“The Wheel” has the feel of those late-50’s-early-60’s teen tragedy songs), playful (“Buckle Up”), coy (“Shake Baby Shake”), and moving (most of the rest of the album!).
#15: The New Basement Tapes, Lost on the River
These types of projects (i.e., find a sheaf of lyrics without music – in this case from the Master of all Lyricists, Bob Dylan – and ask modern artists to put them to music) can smack of gimmickry, but it’s the end result that counts. And in this case, it’s a pretty amazing end result, partly because the five musicians here (Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, all produced by the Patron Saint of Americana, T. Bone Burnett) are incredibly talented, and partly because of the reverence they bring to the project.
#14: Tinawiren, Emmaar
I sometimes wonder if I don’t have some distant Berber blood. (Moore is a common English and Irish name, but there’s another strain that comes directly from the Moors, the Northern African folks who invaded Spain. There’s like some Berber/Arabic mixing.) There’s something about the music of the Tuareg people (a Berber people scattered amongst Algeria, Mali, and Niger) that gets into my bones. The sound is raw and dusty, and the rhythms and tunings are off-kilter to most western ears, but I listen to a band like Tinawiren and I start moving almost without knowing it.
#13: Ben Howard, I Forgot Where We Were
Ben Howard is one of the best new singer-songwriters I’ve heard. (And I’m not just saying that because he’s left-handed!) He plays guitar with an interesting percussive style that adds a lot of expression and nuance to his tunes (somewhat like Jose Gonzalez). The rapid electric guitar harmonics on “Rivers in the Mouth” and the echoing, hammer-on’s in “Small Things” are great examples. Of course, these would just be cosmetic touches if it weren’t for great songs, and this album is loaded with them.
#12: Thurston Moore, The Best Day
The dissolution of Sonic Youth in the face of his affair with an assistant and subsequent break-up with Kim Gordon has not dented Thurston Moore’s creativity. There might be less shrieking than in his Sonic Youth days, but the range of sounds and feelings he produces from an electric guitar is unmatched. (I’d love to know exactly many different tunings he uses!)
#11: Fanfarlo, Let’s Go Extinct
This band continues to impress me with their impeccable songwriting, and smart, eclectic instrumentation (whether it’s the muted trumpet on “Cell Song” or the phased synth on “A Distance”). Every song is just tight as hell, perfectly put together, tuneful and bright. These are total pop gems that will set your head to bobbing: “We’re the Future” or “Painting with Life.”
#10: Jesca Hoop, Undress
I almost didn’t include this album since it’s not new material but reinterpretations of her 2009 Hunting My Dress album. But since I listened to this before I’d heard the originals (and since this is an incredible album), I decided to keep it. “Experimental pop” is most common description of her music, but that doesn’t begin to capture the flavor here. It’s playful, hypnotic, rhythmic and enchanting. And she’s got some great help on this album: Guy Garvey (Elbow), Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Erika Wennerstrom (Heartless Bastards) and Willy Mason. Some guest appearances just reek of record company interference (“Let’s stick So-and-so” on this album to help sell”) but that’s not the case here: every contribution feels perfectly natural and adds a great touch to the song.
#9: Kevin Drew, Darlings
One of the best albums ever about that always hot topic: sex. This isn’t stylized, idealized bodies linking, but real, down-to-earth coupling: hands wear out, thanks is given for what we taste, buildings crumble with lust and desire, and we breathe together. Drew’s voice is perfect here: cool and sexy, sometimes aching and sometimes breathy. “Body Butter” and “Good Sex” are highlights.
#8: Imogen Heap, Sparks
I often find myself responding to vocalists who offer something interesting or different in their tone and inflection. (Interestingly, these are often qualities that may make their voices less than technically perfect. But then I can barely tolerate technically superb vocalists like Celine Dion or Mariah Carey.) Imogen Heap falls into this category. Her voice is light, breathy and almost slightly hoarse-sounding on occasion. But it blends perfectly with the genius she brings to electronics and production. This album really highlights the latter as she collected sound samples from fans over several years, releasing tracks based on these, and eventually pulling the whole thing together into this album. Beautiful, ethereal and quirky.
#7: TV on the Radio, Seeds
TVOTR is one of those bands whose sound is instantly recognizable, and whose music is hard to categorize. But while they’ve danced all over the musical spectrum in their previous four full-length albums, Seeds is a kick-ass rock record, whether it’s the driving power pop of “Lazerray” or the sneaky “Happy Idiot.”
#6: Robert Plant, Lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar
The photo of Robert Plant in the booklet accompanying his latest album is an interesting choice: it looks like a celebrity mugshot from The Smoking Gun. He slouches, glowering from dissolute and puffy eyes. It’s like he’s saying “I know I’m an old rock god and I should be long dead, but I’m still here and I’ve still got things to say.” And say them he does. The now 66-year-old legendary lead singer and renown musical explorer shows no sign of slowing down. His latest collection of musical journeys ranges over Celtic, Arabic, blues, and rock with magical results.
#5: Wye Oak, Shriek
Layer a strong sense of rhythm (including some amazing basslines) onto classic ‘80s synth-pop and you’ve got this album. The duo of Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner has produced an incredibly cohesive and slick gem of indie pop: dreamy, moving, and sweet. Shriek is bookended by my two favorite songs on the album: “Before” to open, and “Logic of Color” to close. Sweet tunes!
#4: Damien Jurado, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
With an album name like this, what kind of music would you expect? If you answered “psychedelia,” you’d be correct. The ‘60s remain a hot source of inspiration, and no one did it better in 2014 than Damien Jurado. His voice often sounds druggy and processed. The songs are a mix of quiet acoustic folk songs, and percussion-driven (like Santana on “Silver Timothy”) rockers. And the last song, “Suns In Our Mind,” closes things with a bit of sunny pop.
#3: My Brightest Diamond, This Is My Hand
This is sensual, jazzy, slinky music. “So Easy” is a sensual flow. She swings on “Pressure.” “This Is My Hand” is a wonderful orchestral build with a fantastic closing line: “This is my gloom, my flame, my joy, my aim to love.”
#2: Perfume Genius, Too Bright
Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) has an incredibly expressive voice that floats above spare but emotive arrangements in this exquisite set of songs about being an outsider (and being out). “Queen” is a gut-wrenching tour de force of emotion. “My Body” has the frightening claustrophobic feeling of a Nine Inch Nails’ track. And “Longpig” may be my favorite track with its looped synth figure and handclaps creating an astonishing sense of urgency.
#1: tUnEyArDs, nikki nack
It’s taken me awhile to warm up to Merrill Glabus’s particular (peculiar?) brand of quirky pop. Until this release, I always found the experimental outweighed the melodic. nikki nack, on the other hand, gets the balance just about perfect. The quirky voice and harmonies bubbles and bounces over playful and inventive soundbeds in a way that’s absolutely joyful. “Hey Life” is an inspiration.