2014 Sucked But Some of the Music Didn’t

With his late-night release of Black Messiah, D’Angelo ended the year’s new releases on a high note. Black Messiah will definitely go down as one of the best of 2014 if not the decade based on the reactions to it since its late-year release. Also, I’m quite sure many music “experts” had to make last-minute changes to their “best of” lists, which gives me a bit of perverse pleasure. However, there are many other albums and EPs that did not make the best of lists of major publications and in some cases flew under the radar. So in honor of the indie and non-mainstream music scene that gave me life this year, I am presenting some of my favorite albums and EPs from this year (in alphabetical order). Also, check out the Mixcloud playlist of some of my favorites from this year.

Cold Specks – Neuroplasticity
Al Spx has one of the most affecting voices in music today. Her second studio album brings her deeper into singer/songwriter territory that defies categorization although some may try to fit it into alternative. However, whether she sings only accompanied by guitar or includes a rhythm section, Spx captures the ear and holds it, making you feel every note and every lyric. From the opening track “A Broken Memory” to the closer “A Season of Doubt,” Spx’s haunting vocals color each track of Neuroplasticity and present a range of influences from darkwave (“Exit Plan” and “Let Loose the Dogs”) to retro new wave (“Bodies at Bay”). I’ll always associate listening to her voice with walks in chillier weather, marveling at how well it fits the name she chose for the band even though the influence is actually Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. Fortunately, Cold Specks continues to gain momentum and Neuroplasticity is only one of many followups to the impressive 2012 debut I Predict a Graceful Expulsion.

Elegant Animals – Carnivora
After the 2013 EP Spectrum Nocturnal, I eagerly awaited this year’s full-length release from Philly group Elegant Animals. Carnivora was even better than expected, picking up where Spectrum Nocturnal left off and going even further. Often categorized as alternative R&B, Elegant Animals makes music perfect to chill to. Carnivora flows together perfectly even though each song stands on its own. Unfortunately, the album still seems to go by too fast but that only makes it worth multiple listens, which I often do while relaxing. Tracks like “Burma/The Womb” and “Gunpoint” make Carnivora one of the most perfect releases of this year. Despite the album’s title suggesting meat-eating animals such as tigers and hyenas, Carnivora feels more like gentle hip-hop lullabies combined with the urgency of the vocals. Elegant Animals does not fall into the same neo-soul vibe but still makes R&B for grown folks in their own way.

Johnnyswim – Diamonds
Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano Ramirez are a cute couple. Their chemistry is undeniable and they bring it to their blend of folk, pop, R&B and blues. Like many groups these days, the duo gave us a taste of their style with the EP Heart Beats before releasing a full album. With their effort Diamonds, Johnnyswim shows even more of the various influences that help create a unique blend of styles and lyrics. Tracks like “Home” stand out with a handclapping folk influence while the music of “You and I” sound like the fire and water Amanda sings about in the lyrics. While the combination of Abner and Amanda’s voices blend in perfect harmony, ultimately Amanda comes across as the dominant voice, particularly on tracks such as “Over.” Together they make Diamonds a wonderful album and place themselves in league with other couples such as Kindred the Family Spirit and Ashford & Simpson.

Kelis – Food
I have to admit to not listening to much of Kelis’ music since her work in the late 90s with the Neptunes. She became less interesting musically to me when she decided to make herself more palatable to a wider audience. Furthermore, changing her body and her image did not do much to make her music more appealing to me. However, I listened to NPR’s First Listen preview of Food and remembered the artist I enjoyed during my college days. Kelis draws on her other love as a classically trained chef to create a food-oriented album and in a way creates her own food for the soul through the 13 tracks. While she has departed from electronica that colored some of her previous albums, she falls more into alternative R&B that continues to thrive in underground circles among music snobs such as myself. Her sound has matured with tracks such as “Jerk Ribs,” “Biscuits n’ Gravy” and “Hooch” and hopefully Food is an indication that Kelis has decided to seek approval only from herself in terms of her musical direction.

Liam Bailey – Definitely NOW
I’m not sure when I first heard of Liam Bailey, but I do know the first time I heard of him was with the lead track from this debut album. The bluesy rock of “On My Mind” manages to call on classic rock without sounding at all like a throwback and gives you an idea of Bailey’s potential as a rock artist. And Bailey rocks hard as hell when he wants. After collaborations that found him working on a variety of genres including reggae, Bailey seems to have found his own comfort zone whether turning a phrase in “Autumn Leave” and “Fool Boy” or mellowing out on acoustic numbers like “Battle Hymn of Central London” and “So, Down Cold.” His vocals fall in between a growl and falsetto, displaying a versatility few rock singers can maintain. Definitely NOW stands out among my choices as a favorite this year moving from slow, driving rock to sweet, melancholy that makes the album feel like it was made with an A- and B-side in mind. But Bailey does have that certain something that makes me believe his talent will be around for a while.

Little Jackie – Queen of Prospect Park
Any time Imani Coppola makes new music, she automatically becomes part of my favorites. This includes her work with Little Jackie. After viewing a short documentary about her life (Brooklyn Backstories), I found the group had released it’s third album in September. Queen of Prospect Park picks up where Made4TV left off with a 60s-inspired sound backing up Coppola’s witty and clever lyrics. The album makes use of Coppola’s ability to create such bouncy, energetic tunes that the lyrics coloring them may get missed. “Hater’s Club” may sound like something from a 60s girl group singing about love, but as the title suggests, it’s all about hating on others. But just when she’s confessing her inner killjoy, Coppola moves on to her version of self-empowerment with “Lose It,” telling us all to celebrate ourselves and be who we want. She even gives us what I think is her first cover with Cass Elliott’s “Dream a Little Dream.” Coppola’s always been the one to color outside the lines, which has been the reason she has kept a devoted fanbase since her 1997 debut Chupacabra and continues to be one of the most creative forces on the scene.

Macy Gray – The Way
In 2012, Macy Gray gave us a couple of exquisite cover albums, Covered, which reworked songs from everyone from Radiohead to Colbie Caillat, and Talking Book, which reworked Stevie Wonder’s entire 1972 classic. This year, Gray returned to original tracks with The Way and reminded us that she has been consistently good for the past 15 years. Gray’s ability to go from 0 to 100 within the space it takes to move between songs makes her one of the most interesting musical personalities in recent history. Unfortunately, I feel that many do not get the full complexity of Gray’s style. I mean there is real joy in “Hands,” not just an expression of sexual desire. The vulnerability with “I Miss the Sex” may be dismissed in favor of a misleadingly blunt title. Then there’s “Queen of the Big Hurt,” which makes me think of the album cover for The Trouble with Being Myself in which Gray appears nude, crouched in a corner. Also, there appears to be a maturation of her style with tracks like “The First Time,” focusing on Gray’s vocals and a straightforward backing track. Gray has evolved and made music to reflect a new point in her life while still giving us what made us fans back in ‘99.

Mykki Blanco – Mykki Blanco Presents Gay Dog Food
If I’m going to be perfectly honest, some of the most creative forces in rap music and hip-hop culture right now come from LGBTQ communities. Mykki Blanco is at the forefront of these rappers, giving us a taste of punk-inspired rap with the 2012 release Cosmic Angel: The Illminati Prince/ss Mixtape. But as he explains on the track “New Beginnings,” it’s been a crazy two years, culminating in the album Mykki Blanco Presents Gay Dog Food. Blanco splices excerpts from shows like That’s So Raven and Moesha and films like Player’s Club between trippy songs like “Baby’s Got Big Plans,” “Fulani” and “Cyber Dog.” One of the most fun aspects of the album is that it ends with an 8-minute+ interlude. Yeah an interlude. But the inclusion of black pop culture shows and the end-of-album interlude just shows that Blanco does exactly what he wants. And hip-hop sorely needs that “fuck it” attitude right now.

Neneh Cherry – Blank Project
It took D’Angelo 14 years to release another studio album after 2000’s magnum opus Voodoo. However, 2014 saw the return of an underrated genius who had not released a solo project in 18 years-Neneh Cherry. Two years ago she worked with the group The Thing to create The Cherry Thing, but this year, Cherry’s Blank Project found her with a beautiful trip-hop blend of songs including “Weightless” and “Naked” to show how she has remained one of the most influential artists in the industry even during her absence. “Across the Water” opens Blank Project, feeling like Cherry channels the ancestors while singing to her daughters. “Spit Three Times” feels just as spiritual, blending lyrics and music that could only come from dyaspora experience just like the drum beat in “Cynical.” Blank Project remains consistent throughout the ten tracks and reminds us that excellence always finds its way back.

PHOX – self-titled
PHOX is one of those groups that exists just because I want them to. Seriously, this group exists for me. Monica Martin is my new Minnie Riperton, not only because of her deceptively innocent, sublime voice that masks risque lyrics but also because she fronts a band that eschews genre. (“Face deep in between my best friends knees, telling me that you don’t want to hurt me.”) Some of the songs on the album have all the fun of a polka (“Shrinking Violets”) while others take on a more dreamy quality (“Laura”) led by Martin’s exquisite vocals. The album reworks a couple of selections from the previous year’s EP Confetti, “Slow Motion” and “Noble Hearts,” and includes other tracks like “1936” and “Kingfisher” that feel old-fashioned and timeless all at once. I’ve wanted a band like PHOX to exist for a long time and now I’ve found it right here in my adopted city of Madison, Wisc., where the band hails.

Bibi Bellatrixx – B-Side Part I
I’m not certain how I first came across Bibi Bellatrixx, but I do know I looked forward to this EP. When looking at Bellatrixx, I expected hard rock or heavy metal. However, this guitarist has a more mellow style, a step above acoustic but not as aggressive as hair metal. Her style of music matches the purity and lightness of her voice, making the four-track EP a pleasant surprise among rock enthusiasts.

Claire Reneè – Breaking Codes
Admittedly, this one almost got away from me, getting lost in a plethora of downloads that I take advantage of throughout the year. However, I revisited it recently and found that it fit perfectly with the trippy, alternative R&B that dominated my music tastes this year. Reneè has a style as playful as it is sexy throughout these five tracks.

Ego Ella May – Breathing Underwater
Ego Ella May is another artist I “discovered” because of a free EP release. Interestingly, Breathing Underwater feels as if it was performed underwater with echoes of afrofuturism and trance. Breathing Underwater has been a go to for me when I need a quick fix of something mellow and soothing as well as a favorite for playlists. The seven tracks last less than half an hour but hold together well as a fluid album.

Estère – self-titled
Estère’s self-titled debut is another one I almost overlooked but remembered somehow and gave it a listen. The seven tracks of the EP departs from many of my other favorites from this year in that it does not have a theme either musically or lyrically. Rather, Estère gives a sense of her eclectic nature in this short collection of laid-back alternative R&B. Making it more impressive is the claim that Estère recorded most of the EP in her own bedroom.

Greighwolfe – Black EP
From the first time I heard it, Greighwolfe’s Black EP easily became some of my favorite music this year. After streaming it on Soundcloud, I was immediately hooked and took advantage of the free download. The Black EP has a strong rock background and lyrics just as aggressive as they are vulnerable. Greighwolfe sounds sexually aggressive in “Hurt Me,” but as the title suggests, he’s looking for mutual satisfaction. He manages to be wistful with “I Still” and playful with “I Want You.” The most disappointing thing about the EP is that it is only six songs. Greighwolfe just gives us a taste of his full potential, whetting the appetite and making us want more. The Black EP is quite possibly my favorite release of the year.

Honorary Mention
Remy Shand
For those of us who looked for this man for the past 10 years, finding him on Twitter was a coup and an effort that paid off in a big way. We quietly began to get snippets of songs via Instagram and Vine as well as a few other treats through Mixlr. But we all saw the beginnings of new work when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Day: “Best in Me.” Later throughout the year, we got some acoustic numbers like “Son of Night” and “Politicians” as well as Shand’s work with Canary and a few instrumentals. In effect, fans get to put together their own album as the work comes along. In any case, we’re ecstatic to have Remy Shand back.