45. UNWOMAN: CIRCLING
I’ve heard Unwoman’s Circling categorized as steampunk music. I’m not sure I understand what that means, but I certainly know that the way she – her real name being Erica Mulkey – married her cello with vivid electronic soundscapes was as enchanting as anything this year. Add to that her spell-binding voice and her knack for circling the lives of the people she writes about and you have one of the year’s most bewitching records.
44. WEEZER: EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT IN THE END
Rivers Cuomo finally stopped writing songs with certified A-list hit-makers and returned to writing songs from a purely artistic place, even reuniting with “green album” and “blue album” producer Ric Ocasek, and the results were easily the band’s best tunes since the “red album.” Ironically, it was because of his work with overly commercial songwriters that he was able to write this record, which features lyrics rebelling against what he’d done on those albums, lyrics about finding his voice again and delivering quality music to his deserving fans. This might even prove to be my all-time favorite Weezer record, though I have a feeling the next one might just be even better.
43. TINASHE: AQUARIUS
Tinashe’s solo career launched when she started making and releasing mixtapes, giving her music directly to her fans for free. When she signed with a major, many of those fans feared her best music was behind her, but then a funny thing happened: she disregarded any worries the label might have had and simply made the album she wanted to make. And why not? If the album flopped and she got dropped she could just go back to doing things on her own anyway. The resulting album, Aquarius, wound up being one of the year’s best R&B records and that’s because she didn’t adhere to your typical R&B formula, resulting in many songs that were darker, more like The Weeknd than Christina Milan. Even the brighter tracks were more of an alt R&B than straightforward. Suffice to say, Aquarius was one of the year’s most imaginative releases.
42. J. COLE: 2014 FOREST HILLS DRIVE
These days far too many rap artists pepper their albums with too many flavors (and take the easy way out), bringing aboard a half dozen guests or more, having famous singers do their hooks, etc, all of which ultimately dilutes things, leaving you wondering who they even are. J. Cole is popular enough that he could have assembled a dozen guests for his latest album, but he didn’t. Instead, he filled song after song with his own words and delivered some of the year’s most thought-provoking and smooth rap music. If nothing else, you have to admire him for standing on his own and having plenty to say. I also admire him for making an album that isn’t all about drugs and violence and getting rich. These are real stories from a real guy. A really talented guy.
41. AMBER AN: WITH YOU
As in the rest of the world, Chinese pop music stars often rely on outside writers. I’m not sure if Amber An did so in the past, but she was largely involved in the writing and production of With You, her sweet as a Tootsie Roll Pop album, and you have to applaud her for that. Many of the songs here are light and fluffy, but I mean that in a good way. They make you feel like you’re floating on a cotton candy cloud when you’re listening to it. They can be simple, but they’re also sonic bliss. “哈囉 (Hello)” is one of the year’s best folk ballads, while “在一起 (With You)” is a joyous mid-tempo ballad. But she brings out the throbbing beats with “女孩，站出來! (Girl, Stand Up!),” a downright irresistible girl power anthem. I’m in love with every song on this album and if you give it a chance you probably will be, too, because Amber has one of the loveliest voices you’ll ever here, sounding sophisticated and innocent all at once.
40. CLARIS: PARTY TIME
J-Pop duo ClariS are a couple of students who make music using pseudonyms and anime drawings (which may not even be of them) in order to have a normal high school experience. Which cracks me up because my normal high school experience totally sucked and I would have done anything to change that. But I can see how being famous pop stars would meddle with your school experience if your classmates are constantly trying to take selfies with you, asking for your autographs, or perhaps even picking on you because they’re jealous of your success. But that’s just their backstory. What I need to tell you about is their third album, Party Time, which is said to be their last with one of the girls bailing to focus on college. If you like super fast dance pop (see: “CLICK”) then look no further because these girls deliver it in spades. Just don’t call their music bubble gum, as they’re always doing new and clever things – like using electro embellishments or retro vibes (see: “眠り姫”) – to make their music distinctive. But the real magic is what happens when their two voices meld into one, producing something as bright as the sun.
39. AZEALIA BANKS: BROKE WITH EXPENSIVE TASTE
Azealia Banks might not have been on everybody’s lips this year, but if this album is any indication then she will be at some point in the not so distant future. There aren’t many rappers who can sing just as well as they rap, but Azealia is one such artist. She sings the first half of the album’s jittery opener, “Idle Delilah,” but then she loosens up her tongue and delivers some rapid-fire rap that will likely have you drooling. If not, look no further than track two, “Gimme A Chance,” and you’ll be in awe of her immense talents as she uses blaring horns, funky bass and retro-tastic beats to suck you right in – and chew you up.
38. THE FLAMING LIPS: WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FWENDS
The Flaming Lips have rounded up their “fwends” to cover entire albums before – like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon – but they’ve never taken things quite so far into their weird little world as they do here with their cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And the results are stupendous. It’s truly remarkable how they can morph some of The Beatles’ most well-loved tunes into something so strange without it feeling like blasphemy. Perhaps that’s because they created these covers with nothing but love and the same type of hyper imagination that The Beatles wrote the original version of the album with. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” might not have been about LSD, but this version, which features Moby and Miley Cyrus, sure as hell is. So, c’mon, open your mind and take a trip with the Lips.
37. tUnE-yArDs: NIKKI NACK
With Nikki Nack, tUnE-yArDs waved their freak flag and you’ll want to join their fandom after hearing this intriguing album that saw them splitting the difference between CoCo Rosie and Björk. The album appropriately opens with a quirky number called “Find A New Way” and many of the songs that follow prove to be even quirkier, such as the wacko “Water Fountain,” which is crammed full of lots of jittery percussive sounds and electro-embellishments, some of which sound like laser guns firing in a sci-fi movie. Speaking of which, I found there to be a sci-fi vibe to this album because when I listen to it I feel like I’m playing music from another planet. Another planet that makes very interesting tunes.
36. TOMOMI ITANO: S×W×A×G
J-Pop singer Tomomi Itano got her start singing in the 64 member J-Pop girl group AKB48. I don’t know what the circumstances were that prompted her to go solo – I suspect that she simply got too old for AKB48, which mostly has members in their early teens – but I’m glad she shed that skin because her solo material has been top notch. And this year’s album S×W×A×G is the best of the best. 15 pop songs guaranteed to get your body moving. Because if “1%” doesn’t inspire you to dance than nothing will. And “Clone” is precisely the sort of song Britney Spears should have been doing when she made the atrocious Britney Jean.
35. AT THE GATES: AT WAR WITH REALITY
At The Gates’ last album, Slaughter of the Soul, was nine years ago. But this year’s exercise in brutality, At War With Reality, was so strong as to give one the impression that they hadn’t taken any time off whatsoever. From the creepy opening track, which would seem to be a Satanic priest speaking in Spanish, through the blistering title track and the monstrous guitar assault that is “Hereos and Tombs,” At The Gates cast out any doubts their fans may have been harboring about the record, winning over any detractors, making them bow and kiss their dirty, blistering feet.
34. SIXX A.M.: MODERN VINTAGE
It’s been years since fans were treated to a new Motley Crue album, but bassist and primary songwriter Nikki Sixx has kept busy making new music with singer James Michael and guitarist DJ Ashba (of Guns ‘N’ Roses fame). They’ve been so busy, in fact, that Modern Vintage is their third album already. And while their first two records were great, this one is fucking incredible. Songs like “Stars” and “Gotta Get It Right” are as inspiring as any Christian rock you’ll hear this year – although they’re not actually Christian at all – and any of these tracks could fare well on modern rock radio. I’m especially fond of the piano ballad version of “Before Its Over” and their unexpected and very different cover of The Cars’ classic “Drive.”
33. ALIZEE: BLONDE
Blonde came as quite the surprise for Alizée fans, being that it wasn’t even a full year since the French pop star had released the career high point album 5. But when she won the French version of Dancing With The Stars, she and her team felt as though they’d be crazy not to cash in on her increased popularity. So, they set about quickly making Blonde. So, you’d think it would be full of filler, right? But, no, each of its 12 songs are as addictive as nicotine, thanks to some of Frances very best songwriters. Thus, listening to them is kind of like getting a good nicotine buzz or having a four shot espresso. A real kick in the pants. From the mega-hit title track, an ode to bleached blondes, to the funky “K.O.,” to her tribute to “Mylene Farmer,” who wrote the lyrics for her first two albums, everything here is to die for.
32. KARY NG: ACROSS
Chinese songstress/pop star Kary Ng’s latest offering, Across, might have more ballads than kick ass pop songs, but that’s because ballads are usually more popular than club-killers in China. But her ballads are exemplary and diverse enough that they don’t all sound like different versions of the same song, which is how albums full of Chinese ballads can feel to me sometimes, since I don’t know Chinese. To that end, if you love emotive love songs, then this one is for you; I don’t care if you don’t know Chinese. Plus, Kary does deliver the occasional modern pop gem here as well. “麗人行 (Beauty Line)” is smooth and intoxicating, like an early Sia tune, and “逆轉 (Reversal)” is electro-pop at its fluttery best.
31. BOA: WHO’S BACK?
K-Pop singer (and now songwriter) BoA is as big in Japan as she is in Korea now. Perhaps even bigger. Really, she couldn’t be more embraced by the Japanese public if half the population of Japan gave her the world’s biggest group hug. Here on Who’s Back, she puts Western pop music to shame with one magnificent earworm after another. Songs like “First Time” and “Fun” are as exhilarating as a ride on a killer rollercoaster and they’re sure to make you want to put your arms up and cheer. And “Shout It Out” is one of her best songs ever, which is a lot coming from someone with a dozen or so hit albums under her belt. She’s been a favorite of mine ever since she released her very first Korean album a decade and a half ago and she’s never disappointed me once. Here, she even managed to blow away my high expectations.
30. OK GO: HUNGRY GHOSTS
Maybe OK GO’s last album wasn’t as accessible or catchy as their previous albums. But their latest, Hungry Ghosts, is their finest hour to date. From shiny songs like the uppity “Upside Down & Inside Out” and “The Writing’s On The Wall” to darker tracks like “Obsession” and “The Great Fire,” there isn’t a loser in sight. Even the chilled-out “Lullaby” is triumphant. Even if you didn’t care for any of their previous output, I suspect you could get into this. Unless you’re allergic to infectious tunes.