2014 has been a great year for music — even the experimental pop debuts along with some ancient comebacks. Because we admire pop power just as much as indie cred, here are 15 of the best mainstream new releases of the year. Keep your fingers crossed that the new year delivers bigger, better, louder, sexier and unique tracks.
1. Julian Casablancas + The Voidz – Tyranny
Casablancas has been working over the last number of years to find his own musical voice after releasing a solo album in 2009, nonetheless, Julian Casablancas has emerged with a new band called The Voidz. Tyranny is a odd and heavy rock album flaunting boisterous ebbs and flows, but keeping Casablancas’ signature walking bass line sound which is especially prevalent in the track “Human Sadness.” Tyranny gives you a chance to hear Casablancas sing with conviction performing more complicated vocal rhythms, and his range is insane. Tyranny is a triumphant and exhilarating album.
2. Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
Cohen’s sultry, soulful new album is as smooth as cream on a summer’s day. Popular Problems takes you on an intentionally smooth, gradual ride telling stories of pain, suffering and hope. Cohen’s gravelly voice is controlled and completely mesmerizing. He draws you in with his wisdom and the soulful contemporary instrumentals keeps you wanting more.
3. Common – Nobody’s Smiling
The Chicago based hip hop royal has released a brilliant and confident release. Nobody’s Smiling is an instant classic taking you back to the 90s golden era of rap music. Common keeps getting better and better over the years. Nobody’s Smiling is a satisfying hip hop effort.
4. King Woman – Dove/Fond Affections
Kristina Esfandiari of Miserable snuck in a new release from her solo project, King Woman. Dove/ Fond Affections is a follow up to Esfandiari’s Degrida / Sick Bed single, this 2014 release is sensual and soothingly creative. “Fond Affections” is a cover of the Rema Rema song and is an ambient and femininely washed out version of the 1980 track. King Woman certainly puts her own touch on the experimental pop song. “Dove” is a wild and noisy art song that displays King Woman’s genius. There’s not much more to say after the word genius emerges.
5. Beck – Morning Phase
After a slew of luke warm albums, Morning Phase was a surprise to Beck fans and the press at large when he went back to the roots of his singer/songwriter talents and wrote the most honest, tastefully ethereal electro-acoustic album in a decade. Morning Phase is a flawless effort that never went too far right or left when it came to Beck’s Neil Young-esque psych folk songs, keeping the entire album grounded and listenable. You never want to skip a track, you never want to miss a thing on Morning Phase. The album draws you in and keeps you digging for jewel after jewel from beginning to end.
6. Swans – To Be Kind
This two hour one minute indie rock opus is intriguing particularly because every song on the record is over 5 minutes long. You’ve got to be invested in this album and give into this music art installation to make it through. The album is gorgeous and a pure work of creativity, producing tracks that make you feel like you’re sitting in a studio live session with Swans as they build upon repetitious riffs tearing themselves away from 20 years of previous works and going on a search for true rock enlightenment.
7. Xiu Xiu – Angel Guts: Red Classroom
Angel Guts: Red Classroom is a brilliantly strange album, creating minimalist John Cage style sound expressions in their opening track, “Angel Guts” and dragging you down a rabbit hole of eerie art rock. If Xiu Xiu doesn’t give you goose bumps and an air of paranoia, you’re not listening to this album loudly enough. This album gives you what you expect from this slightly horrifying and arousing album.
8. Prince – Art Official Age
Prince has returned with a funky and dancible R&B pop album. Prince’s 13th studio album is youthful, sexy and encompasses the humorous and fun loving spirit. It’s hard not to fall in love with this album because this Prince stays true to himself musically. The album is real, enjoyable and completely unpretentious.
9. Frank Ocean – Memrise (single)
We’ve waited and waited. Frank Ocean is one of the most refreshing and exciting musicians on the planet and in R&B history. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Ocean dropped a tiny little stroke of perfection called “Memrise” in the last month of 2014. The lofi one minute track left a salivating emblem of hope and a promise of more art for the future. Memrise is not an album…it may not even be a full song, but it is more than worth mentioning.
10. Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty has birthed the dawn of a new genre-obliterating era which may not fully emerge as a full on musical revolution for a number of years. Nonetheless, Lese Majesty is a direct assault on the current hip hop status quo, creating psychedelic electronic instrumental beats, mixed with live percussion and instrumental ornamentation. This Seattle based duo flaunt their skills creating painstakingly elaborate and layered songs that are still danceable and rhythmically practical.
11. Brian Jonestown Massacre – +-
Anton Newcombe’s 2013 full album, Revelation could have easily made it to the list, but the shotgun release of the follow up EP, +- slipped at the end of the year and proved to be a pleasant surprise. The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s coherent current sound is coming from a solid mold. +- is majorly touching and relatable. It’s always great to watch BJM go through different stages of sound and experimentation. This album is full of strong, contemplated and satisfying tracks.
12. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
The highly anticipated 2014 release of St. Vincent’s self titled album did not disappoint. With collaborations with artists like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ drummer Homer Steinweiss, the album is impressively eccentric. St. Vincent borders on noise pop and math rock, showcasing strange and fast paced arrangements that morph and change throughout each track.
13. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah
2014’s Christmas miracle came in the form of the return of the illuminating soul musician, D’Angelo. Always regarded as a true musical gift from the clouds, D’Angelo emerged almost out of nowhere with a full length album entitled, Black Messiah. This new album is much more political than D’Angelo’s earlier work, but his transcendent R&B soul style remains only to become more refined, making D’Angelo’s genius concretely understood as more than just a two album fluke. Black Messiah is moving and spiritual and goes above and beyond the call of duty of pop music.
14. Ariel Pink – Pom Pom
Ariel Pink’s Pom Pom is a refreshing indie pop album that is fun and sticks out like a beautiful swollen sore thumb against Pink’s alternative mainstream counterparts. Pom Pom plays with well produced lofi echos, 60s style and post modern instrumental mashups and great sense of humor. This is one of those albums for the underground music lovers who grew up with the artists they were drawn to when they bought their first indie albums.
15. FKA Twigs – LP1
In the tradition of the new experimental pop movement (Grimes, Shabazz Palaces, Lorde, St. Vincent), FKA Twigs’ LP1 took the American music world by storm. The British art pop musician created an echoing, off syncopated R&B record that is equally sexy as it is unique. Her beautiful voice drapes perfectly over her, at times, awkwardly composed pop songs. LP1 is a respectable and refreshing effort.
Jordannah Elizabeth is a musician, music journalist and editor of The Deli Magazine San Francisco. She has contributed to publications VICE, Bitch Magazine, SF WEEKLY and more. She currently resides in San Francisco, CA. Follow her @lovejordannah.