I’m thrilled that my favorite album posts have become an annual thing here at NCPR! Not only are these my favorite posts to research and write, they’re my favorite to share with friends and listeners!
As per usual, I took my cue from NPR Music’s 25 Favorite Albums of 2014 (So Far), using their top picks as a springboard for my own breakdown on the albums that have been circulating. This year, I found a lot of hidden gems on their list. As I’ve been keeping better tabs on new releases, I found that some of their picks only skimmed the surface of all the great compilations out there.
But I don’t blame them for missing the boat on this one. New music circulated slowly these last few months and, for a while, even I struggled to conjure up a list representative of what I think this year has the potential to achieve. So I reached out to friends, coworkers and community members and received some amazing recommendations that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. So here’s what I’ve come up with— and be sure to comment and tell me if there’s an album that you think deserves a spot on my list of albums. Don’t worry, the year’s only half over—there’s still time and plenty more albums on the way!
Here’s 10 that I liked from NPR’s list:
A new artist with an old soul, Angel Olsen is killing it right now. The slight twang in her voice compliments a synergy of child-like cheerfulness with an electric guitar that could put a baby to sleep. She knows it’s not enough to simply be a singer/songwriter anymore; there has to be something else. Either you’re really good at what you do or you need to pay tribute to a feeling so universal that it’ll bring listeners to their knees. And that’s exactly why her breakout album has secured spots on all of the best new music lists. What’s her secret? She makes loneliness feel like a holiday
Annie Clark’s fourth album was one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year, and for good reason. While she’s been relevant for nearly a decade (admittedly this is my real first St. Vincent experience), her new album is mind blowing. It’s sharp, bold, and confident: she powers through with propulsive beats, cricketed guitar beats, toppled with energetic chunky rhythm parts and crackling synthesizers like a cloud of mysticism that’ll send powerful jolts through your speakers. Trust me, her self-titled album is a galactic explosion of serious art.
When I first caught word of this band, all that came to mind was Riff Raff, the name of a sometimes funny, often disrespectful rapper who shares that pen name. New Orleans’ based Alynda Lee Segarra, the heart and soul of Hurray For The Riff Raff, gives classic genre-style with a gentle nudge of empowerment. In her third album, she sings about battered women with a voice of perseverance, neighborhoods keeping their pride as crime surges, as well as a band on the road that hasn’t forgotten about where they came from. Segarra sheds some progressive light on the old folk rhythm and blues. Could Segarra be heading the move back to folk? I’ll let you know at the end of the year!
This is the soulful collaboration of singer/songwriter Amelia Meath (of the indie-a capella-folk trio Mountain Man) and electronic producer Nick Sanborn, known for playing bass in the psychedelic roots-rock band Megafaun. Together, they debuted an unexpectedly delightful batch of intricately crafted, emotionally resonant, strikingly catchy electro-pop songs. NPR Music’s Stephen Thompson writes, “Music this sturdy and remix-ready doesn’t generally come from such a distinct and powerful lyrical point of view.” With playful beats and soothing lyricism atop carefully crafted beats, Sylvan Esso’s seamless collaboration seems by the books unlikely, but the quality work they’ve produced in their debut album is the gold in the pirate’s treasure chest.
WXPN’s Bruce Warren claims that this album is “the sound of tomorrow’s greatest classic rock today.” At first, I was skeptical. This album seemed like just another indie-rock album that sounded like a lot of other recent indie albums. In other words, it was nice background music. But, over time this album blossoms subtly into something a little more wondrous and profound than what the Philadelphia-based rock band originally served. After a few casual listens, I started to hear the Springsteen-Petty influence that Warren cites in his review. The sound is a progressively-mellow state of zen (not getting this) that builds and teeters on the edge of detonation—but never quite gets there and for those meditating on this, that’s okay. I sincerely hope this album grows on me as the year continues. I’ll be in touch with my final verdict.
French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux’s new album Vengo is so intricate and so on point. She’s lyrically poignant and committed to confronting social injustice and non-violence. Tijoux’s album offers a provocative mix of soulful, horn-heavy, cumbia throwback boom-bap hip-hop. Vengo is culturally confident and fresh, with a unique blend of jazz, funk and Andean folk. “Antipatriarca” sounds exactly like the feminist anthem it is. I recommend that you take a cue from David Sommerstein and check out the English translations—proof that Tijoux’s Vengo is rhythmically and lyrically flawless.
Belgian artist Stromae’s sophomore album, Racine Carree, is an invitation to dance. Racine Carree tangos with vibrant R&B beats, rumbas, and flavorful hip-hop, with electronic dance music sprinkled throughout. The various genres create a dynamic and unique listening experience. His lyrics genius expertly navigates the turmoils of the today’s reality; the uncertainty that stems from life, love and everything in between. NPR Music’s Anastasia Tsioulcas calls Stromae’s album an “unmitigated, heavy-repeat pleasure,” and I couldn’t agree more!
Bronx musician Gordon Voidwell’s concoction fizzles with funky beats, pop synth, and R&B feels. His thoughtfully constructed modulations sound almost out of this world. But Voidwell’s galactic sounds are so not-what-you-were-expecting that his experimental grooves transcend our level of understanding—it’s all about tackling the unknown, and that’s pretty bold, wouldn’t you say?
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib’s creation is filled with retro-soul samples, tightly-wound snares and paranoid piano interplay. Pitchfork’s Jeremy Gordon calls the dynamic duo’s production a “cinematic look at life in the shit.” The pair’s brutally honest conception of gangster music is an easily digestible look at a life some of us can’t even begin to comprehend. The seamless transition between tracks ensures that the songs are more powerful together than solo.
Owen Pallett, a classically trained singer and violinist from Toronto sounds like an unfamiliar act, but I guarantee you’ve already had a brush with his music. He’s collaborated with a multitude of indie artists, including Jim Guthrie and Arcade Fire, as well as winning an Oscar nomination for scoring last year’s award winning film Her. In Conflict is an poignantly detailed composition of violin plucks and rich arpeggios, lyrical harmony and pulsating rhythms that fuses the classical and the contemporary. This album is eloquent and unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
And here’s what NPR Music missed:
“Always feeling tired/smile when required/write another year off and kindly resign,” are only a few of the lyrics that resonate in this new album from Canadian multi-instrumentalist Mac Demarco. He seems like a prankster; he has a gap-tooth, wears a lot of grungy baseball caps, and gives off a stoner-esque vibe. However, his sophomore album, Salad Days, is definitely not the work of a slacker. Rich with internal struggle, these realistically romantic love songs sound like a mystical daydream. After Salad Day’s instrumental finale in the song Johnny’s Odyssey, he remarks “Thanks for joining me, see you again soon, buh-bye,” as casually as if he were saying “See Ya Later” to a good friend. He seems like a weird, but good-hearted guy and his music is a testimony to that.
If I had pursued my dream of being a front man in a band, Hospitality’s whimsical indie-pop album Trouble is the level of perfection I would aspire to. Singer-guitarist Amber Papini lays her quirky yet forlorn lyrics over distorted bubble gum guitar licks. Papini’s voice is sweet and tender, but determined to power on alongside Brian Betancourt’s thunderous bass line and Nathan Michel’s popping percussion.
If you’re at all familiar with this New Jersey indie rock band, you’re probably aware of the mood shift that took place somewhere in between their second and third albums. Martin Courtney’s voice sounds carefree—yet his lyrics are drizzle with dejection all over Matt Mondanile’s bright open chords. Their album is the perfect soundtrack to a rainy day.
For a tag team duo, the extensive variety of sound produced is impressive as hell. Merrill Garbus brings the drum loops, ukulele and vocals while Nate Brenner throws a touch of electric bass into the mix. Tune-Yards is a wildly eclectic mix of tribal beats, vivacious rhythms and graceful lyricism that fuses indie-pop and global variation to produce music that’s totally vibrant and catchy. And it’s totally awesome.
Their lyrics may be almost criminal, but at least they’re expedient? That’s one of the reasons they get away with producing gut-wrenching material. Thee Oh Sees sound is wickedly enticing. Their most recent album, Drop, has only 9 tracks, but each one is psychedelically chaotic, yet skillfully inclined to provoke you. After six years and eight albums, their feel-good fuzz-rock groove has become ever more refined with mischievous melodies and funhouse-mirrored guitar contortions that render Drop, unmistakably, the work of Thee Oh Sees.
Hailing from England, Wild Beasts’ fourth studio album offers an inimitable interplay of vocal ranges. Complete with a sleek and supple rhythm section, Present Tense is an immaculately muffled storm of R&B, complete with funky rhythms that offer more precision than you’d expect. These guys make an overwhelming usage of synths, amplifying their quality of sound overall.
When front man Dylan Baldi sings “I’m not telling you all I’m going through” in their hit single “I’m Not Part of Me,” it sounds like a challenge. Here and Nowhere Else has the same vivacity as the tracks in their 2012 album, Attack On Memory, but this time around their sound is a little brighter and their lyrics are about as distressed as the ivory Chuck Taylor’s I’ve been harboring since freshman year. Surely, we want to understand what Cloud Nothings has been going through. Fortunately, their new album is “Here and Nowhere Else,” so make sure you take a listen.
When front man Samuel T. Herring sings, he enunciates so carefully, you can tell he takes his work seriously. I mean, you can hear the thought that goes into Herring’s articulation. In a way, he reminds me of a young Morrissey, but with more poppy-synth and less desperation (he kind of looks like him, too). Even his live performances are physically crafted to theatrically correspond with the sturdy wave beats that make Future Islands so enjoyable—just watch his onstage performance on The Tonight Show with David Letterman a few months back. Future Island’s fourth album has the potential to be the soundtrack of the summer.
At the beginning of his gripping sixth album, Mark Kozelek sets out “to find some poetry to make some sense of this/to find a deeper meaning” in the senselessness of death. Benji serves as a case study for the grievances that engulf us as we experience tragedy. Each song is a hauntingly honest tribute to the people Kozelek has known who have passed away. His words are elegiacally resonant and the hum of his acoustic guitar lingers long after the last chord is strummed.
A Lake Placid native, Lizzy Grant (a.k.a Lana) took some bold risks in the tracks on her highly anticipated new album. Ultraviolence is atmospheric and orchestral; it showcases her sensuous voice more vividly than Born To Die ever could. In “Shades of Cool,” she demonstrates her dynamic vocal ability, which transcends all of her other work. But as with every Lana song, there’s a hint of sadness that seeps through; a hint of despair that’s so enticing, you wish to get inside her head and figure out what’s going on up there, find the source of her pain and hold onto it yourself so she doesn’t have to anymore.
The emergence of St. Paul and the Broken Bones is a much-needed blessing. Hailing from Birmingham, the seven-piece soul band combines gospel-tinged ambiance, vibrant garage rock, and a lively horns section. Their charming lead singer, Paul Janeway (who looks a little like Drew Carey) told NPR Morning Edition’s David Greene that he “learned more from preaching than he did singing in church.” He even trained to be a preacher—that’s where all of that soul comes from. When he sings, the Earth quakes a little under his feet.
Isaiah Rashad’s debut album earned itself a spot on Pitchfork’s list of Overlooked Records 2014, which tells you that this album is good, but not getting the recognition it rightfully deserves. Rashad dishes out the pain conversationally and honestly. A southern rapper from Chattanooga, TN, Rashad draws on his home and adds a modern hip-hop sound to a classic Southern style. His rap game mirrors that of his predecessors Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q. He’s new on the scene, but, unlike other starters, he doesn’t hold back.
I Never Learn is the Swedish native’s shortest, most explosive album yet. While only 33 minutes in length, the tone carries on long after the tracks cease. Thunderous beats and warm piano heighten the gasping breaths of a tormented artist. But Lykke Li’s voice is stronger than it’s ever been. When she reaches into her upper vocal register, the notes spread their wings and soar. And when she drops back into her lower range, that’s when the pain feels raw and resonant. Although Lykke Li sings about her most sorrowful defeat, I Never Learn is her most powerful album.
Indie folk unit Saintseneca melds dimly-lit acoustics and post-modern pop to produce an engaging sound. It’s hard to determine who creates the momentum on this album: vocalist Zac Little sings his verses vigorously, but shares a robust series of harmonies with the charming Maryn Jones. Dark Arc makes valuable use of abstract instruments at the beginning of each song, including the balalaika, mandolin, dulcimer, and Turkish Baglama, as well as traditional acoustic and electric guitars and synths to create an album that gains momentum as it rolls along.
This album has been on my mind since it’s appearance on NPR Music’s First Listen page at the beginning of the summer. At the end of last year, I spoke highly of this Brooklyn-based band’s second album, Light Up Gold, which epitomizes the twenty-something angst of growing up. Just a year later, they have a fresh new album that puts pressure on what defines “punk rock.” Sunbathing Animal is an energetic compilation of songs that describe the mind transcending the body in times of pressure and change. As the album progresses, the sneering intensity of the album ensnares you. This album stopped being “just an album” in the bridge of “Bodies Made Of,” when the bridge drops. Here’s your homework: go outside and, lie out in the sun and start from “Track 1.” Make sure to turn the volume way up and spend the remainder of the summer being the animal you really are.