10. Atlas – Real Estate
As mellow and dreamy as ever, Real Estate’s third record Atlas continues to strengthen the New Jersey band’s repertoire in effervescent alternative rock and jazz pop. It’s the perfect album for almost any laid-back occasion: a nice drive on the highway, a picnic date at the park, a day at the beach, or a night of stargazing. Though Atlas borrows the slow-jam vibes from their previous album, 2011’s Days, Real Estate manages to keep their musical energy fresh and exciting with psychedelic guitar plucks and pitter-patter drums. Lead singer Martin Courtney’s gentle coo reverberates throughout Atlas, especially on the sweet-sounding opener “Had to Hear” and tuneful alt-pop track “Talking Backwards.” Even on the instrumental-only “April’s Song,” Real Estate’s rich, rosy-colored riffs and smooth tempo keep the album in a steady pace. The enchanting “Crime,” one of Real Estate’s best tracks to date, shines on Atlas, with its soft rock rhythm and its reflective lyrics on mortality and love (“I don’t want to die/Lonely and uptight/Stay with me”). Atlas is one of those albums that you’ll want to listen to over and over again and will still maintain its warm, intoxicating sound.
9. You’re Dead! – Flying Lotus
Experimental producer Steve Ellison took an unusual step in his career this year when he used death as the core theme on his most recent record You’re Dead!. Known by his stage name Flying Lotus, Ellison is one of music’s most radical thinkers and instrumentalists. By fusing the genres of jazz, electronica, R&B, and hip-hop into his music, Ellison creates an authentic and surreal experience for listeners. In his past records, the 32-year-old Angeleno utilized his broad musical taste to embody universal ideas. 2010’s Cosmogramma explored the romance between the planets and the cosmos and 2012’s Until the Quiet Comes dealt with dreams and the inner psyche. Now, with You’re Dead!, Ellison has masterfully crafted a 40-minute-long record filled with soulful, contemplative tunes, such as the sublime “Never Catch Me,” which features an animated Kendrick Lamar spitting rhymes about the afterlife. Though mostly instrumental, You’re Dead! feels very much alive, using every single second to the fullest without deviating into tedious territory.
8. LP1 – FKA Twigs
One of 2014’s biggest breakouts came from 26-year-old Tahliah Barnett, a British singer-songwriter known professionally as the enigmatic FKA twigs. In previous years, Barnett worked as a music video backup dancer for pop superstars Ed Sheeran, Taio Cruz, and Jessie J. Although she won over indie critics with her underrated EP2 last year, Barnett still needed an extra push to make her voice heard. Now, in her mesmerizing studio debut LP1, Barnett takes center stage with confidence and nails it completely. Combining sultry electronica with breathy R&B, LP1 is next-level, otherworldly material. The help from acclaimed producers Clams Casino, Devonté Hynes of Blood Orange, and Arca come especially in handy for Barnett. Some might be turned off by the album’s strange sound and Barnett’s sexually overt lyrics. But after a few listens, LP1 becomes unnaturally addicting. Barnett undertakes a seemingly impossible task by making her tender falsetto stand out against the record’s raucous beats, such as on the sensuous, adult-friendly “Lights On” and the trippy “Two Weeks.” She gets scary on the surreal “Numbers,” romantic on the provocative “Pendulum,” and jealous on the gripping “Video Girl.” In addition to her various talents and range of emotions, Barnett transforms her musical efforts into visual aesthetics. Watch her American TV debut performance on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and her concept video “#throughglass” and you’ll see what I mean. FKA twigs might be one of this year’s most bizarre, inventive, and fascinating artists, and there’s no doubt about that when listening to LP1.
7. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Speaking of bizarre, inventive, and fascinating female artists, Tulsa native Annie Clark (known under the pseudonym St. Vincent) made headlines this year as well. Although Clark previously released three albums, all of which received critical acclaim from indie critics, her self-titled breakthrough record has become the 32-year-old singer/songwriter’s most exciting and personal record to date. Bolstered by stinging social commentary and energetic tunes, St. Vincent reaffirms Clark’s undeniable talent as a singer, lyricist, and performer. The record manages to captivate, awe, and even inspire listeners to perceive society through her eyes and ears. Beginning with the strong minimalist opener “Rattlesnake,” St. Vincent takes us on a journey through the themes of enlightenment, chaos, connection, and love in the post-modern world. The exquisitely odd “Birth in Reverse” presents some of Clark’s cheeky dark humor with nauseating screeching guitars; “Prince Johnny”’s operatic undertones and lighthearted pace propel Clark’s angelic vocals into another sonic dimension; “Digital Witness” balances groovy synths and horns with some thought-provoking analysis on the digital age. Clark once described St. Vincent as a “a party record you could play at a funeral.” If that’s to say that the album demonstrates how life illuminates death, then Clark is clearly spot on. But otherwise, I would suggest playing this album anywhere but a funeral.
6. Too Bright – Perfume Genius
With his first two albums, 2010’s Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, singer Mike Hadreas, known by his stage name Perfume Genius, was categorized by many as a “sad, soulful pop musician.” Indeed, his quivering tenor does make his music sound lugubrious when juxtaposed with his dark thematic material and tearjerker instrumentals. But at the same time, these aspects made Hadreas’ music sound more unique and distinct among a large crowd of singer/songwriters. Fortunately, Hadreas expanded his artistic realm while maintaining his roots with Too Bright, his most realized record yet. Though relatively shy in person, Hadreas is extroverted and confident on Too Bright, proving that he’s a musical force to be reckoned with. On the riveting anthem “Queen,” Too Bright’s best track, Hadreas discusses his frustration towards gay panic, an issue that shouldn’t be taken lightly according to the Seattle-based artist, who is openly gay. With tracks like the haunting “Fool,” the terrifying, trance-like “Grid,” and the dizzying “Longpig,” Hadreas doesn’t show a hint of self-consciousness or self-loathing. Instead of lamenting about his insecurities and unrequited love, Hadreas wails with anger, passion, and intensity about his repressed feelings. Even on Too Bright’s sad, lonely-sounding songs like the dramatic opener “I Decline,” the beautifully sung “No Good,” and the muffled “I’m a Mother,” you can tell that Hadreas is tired of being pigeonholed by critics as a downer. Too Bright proves that Hadreas can be an uplifting spirit too.
5. Syro – Aphex Twin
One of electronic music’s most influential and well-renowned artists surprisingly does not chase celebrity. He lives in secrecy and hides in the crevasses of underground music using fake names like AFX and Caustic Window. Of course, I am talking about Richard D. James, known professionally as the mastermind Aphex Twin. Since the early 1990s, James has pulled a remarkable amount of success with his distinctive ambient and glitchy EDM sound. He played a major role in the onset of current popular artists, such as Daft Punk, Radiohead, and Linkin Park. But despite all the acclaim throughout his lengthy career, James remained isolated from the radio charts and eventually disappeared on the music radar after 2001’s middling Drukqs. However, as fate would have it, James emerged from the darkness this year and presented us with Syro, one of 2014’s best electronic albums. Retaining James’ chillwave, techno style with finesse, Syro redefines the often stigmatized genre of EDM by transcending its every stereotype. The album is refreshing, funky, and stimulating, all without a single bass drop or dubstep rattle. The titles of every song on Syro are cryptic and almost incomprehensible (“syro u473t8+e [141.98] (piezoluminescence mix)” to give an example). But underlying the unintelligible diction is a vast world of wiggling beat patterns, acid jazz, and synths like on Syro opener “”minipops 67 [120.2]” (source field mix).” As chaotic and fascinating as the album can get, Syro closes on a soft note with “aisatsana ,” an ambient, stripped down piano melody. James is not a producer; rather, he is a composer. He conducts the various symphonies of software music and analog systems in spectacular fashion, almost as if they were real instruments.
4. They Want My Soul – Spoon
You may not have heard of the Austin-based group Spoon before, but you might have heard their music. Despite their lack of mainstream recognition, Spoon has showcased their catchy rock jams in movie trailers and popular TV shows, such as Veronica Mars, The O.C., How I Met Your Mother, and House. Though their presence is low-key, Spoon remains one of the biggest driving forces in modern indie rock music. They’ve written beautiful songs, performed passionately onstage, and kept up with the latest rhythms of the unpredictable music medium. Now, after four endless years of hiatus, Spoon continues their hot streak of critically esteemed records with their eighth excellent album They Want My Soul. Spoon whisks through 40 minutes of utter bliss with 10 remarkably catchy tunes of glittering 70s art pop and luminous 90s psychedelic rock. The record starts off with three strong openers: the fierce headbanger “Rent I Pay,” the gorgeously ethereal “Inside Out,” and the finger-snapping “Rainy Taxi.” However, They Want My Soul shifts into full throttle with “Do You,” an earth-shattering rock anthem for the ages. Accompanied with lead vocalist Britt Daniel’s signature howl, “Do You” feels both classic and brand new like a mint-condition record player. Spoon accentuates this balance of They Want My Soul’s past-and-presenting-sounds with grittiness and panache. It’s no doubt that Spoon’s adept musical flair will persist in the coming years.
3. Pom Pom – Ariel Pink
On the outside, 36-year-old certified eccentric Ariel Pink seems like another weirdo you would see drifting in the streets of Hollywood or Beverly Hills. But on the inside, the Cal Arts alum is a creative and artistic genius. After rising to fame in 2010 with his backing band Haunted Graffiti and their indie breakout Before Today, Ariel Pink became known to many as a zeitgeist of contemporary indie pop music. However, with his DIY-style, aptly pink wig, metrosexual fashion, and provocative comments on social media, Pink exhibits much more than the characteristics of a pop icon. This can especially be heard and seen on his latest solo effort, Pom Pom. Like Pink himself, Pom Pom is messy but inventive, unconventional, and even profound at times. The 70-minute-long Pom Pom spans over past eras of pop music, from 50’s surf pop (“Nude Beach a Go-Go”) to 60s psychedelica (“Plastic Raincoats in the Pink Parade”) to 70’s lo-fi rock (“White Freckles,” “Goth Bomb”) to 80s New Wave (“Lipstick,” “One Summer Night”). It’s almost as if Pink is going through a time machine and experiencing new aspects of his personality in different time periods. Pom Pom also succeeds in transcending the norm of pop by generating pop music for the future. The whimsical “Put Your Number in My Phone” and the reflective “Picture Me Gone” both offer glimpses of love and relationships in a world ruled by machines. The freaky, Middle-Eastern-sounding “Dinosaur Carebears” sounds like a demented mashup between American Horror Story and Barney. Ariel Pink puts all his thoughts, feelings, and emotions onto Pom Pom and it’s one heck of a rollercoaster ride, but one that you would want to go on again and again until you spew chunks of stomach acid.
2. Salad Days – Mac DeMarco
Montreal indie rocker Mac DeMarco embodies two different personas: the goofy, extroverted guy who likes parties and laughs at poop jokes, and the introspective crooner who reflects on existentialism and personal fears in his music. Though both disparate personalities may seem incongruous, they work well together with DeMarco. Behind the 24-year-old’s gap-toothed smile and carefree demeanor is a gentle, serious, emotional songwriter whose lyrics and warble echo the works of Bob Dylan. Initially performing under the moniker Makeout Videotape, DeMarco first transpired in the music world with his self-produced 2010 debut Ying Yang. Although he gave up the Makeout Videotape alias, DeMarco continued to utilize his signature blue wave, slacker rock in 2012, when he released Rock and Roll Nightclub and 2, an EP and full-length LP, respectively. The latter album, 2, eventually caught the attention of indie critics, who lauded DeMarco’s psychedelic, glam-inspired sound. With his newest record Salad Days, DeMarco goes even deeper into his soul and consequently conjures up a compelling, heartfelt album. Throughout the 35-minute Salad Days, DeMarco wistfully reminiscences about the romance with his current girlfriend (“Let My Baby Stay”) and the inner turmoil of his self-loathing (“Blue Boy”). DeMarco’s soft croak brings light into the album’s thematic darkness, such as on the mind-bending “Chamber of Reflection” and the trippy, hypnotic, horn-infused slow jam “Passing Out Pieces,” which might as well be his best song yet. DeMarco may look like a slacker, but he sure doesn’t write and perform like one.
1. Run the Jewels 2 – Run the Jewels
In a turbulent year such as 2014, one can only hope that something would shine amidst of all the commotion and chaos happening around the world. Luckily, this miracle manifested into Run the Jewels 2, the gravity-defying sophomore effort of rapper Killer Mike and hip hop producer El-P. As I mentioned in my previous review of RTJ2, these guys have had a ton of experience in music. However, their initial rise to prominence as Run the Jewels came last year with a self-titled debut that piqued the interest of music critics. Even after a decade’s worth of albums, both Mike and El-P are still undoubtedly astute at taking on heavy, complex subjects and twisting them into impeccable, dynamic anthems. On the showstopping RTJ2 opener “Jeopardy,” Mike and El-P trample over the haters with swaggering rhymes that tower one after the other. The unstoppable hip hop duo continue to exchange more gleeful expletives on the schizophrenic “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry.” Their alliterations on the bass heavy “Blockbuster Part 1” extend poetry to another realm of linguistic art. The political commentary on our country’s justice system unravels into an aggressive rant on the thought-provoking “Early.” Essentially, Run the Jewels 2 is the Godfather Part II of hip hop records. It highlights all the great parts of its predecessor, but is somehow even more original and vibrant. Though Mike and El-P have already announced Run the Jewels 3, it will definitely not end up like the misfire that was Godfather Part III.