29. PLASTISCINES: BACK TO THE START
Now a trio, the French group Plastiscines released one of the year’s finest pop rock albums from any country. And you shouldn’t let the French thing keep you away because most of these songs are in English. Plus, these are some of the most well-produced, energetic tunes this year. Songs like “Ooh La La” and “Comment Faire” find them at the top of their game. They also get kudos for fully transforming Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Jeans” and Air’s “Sexy Boy” into arena-ready pop rockers with an air of punk.
28. TRICKY: ADRIAN THAWES
Tricky has never made a bad album, but his last several albums tended to be less trippy than his iconic records Maxinquaye and Pre-Millennium Tension. Some were even more alternative than trip-hop. But he made the decision to go back to his roots and deliver a true trip-hop album with Adrian Thawes (his real name). Well, suffice to say it was one trippy trip and it’s sure to please any of his early fans who were disappointed with his last few albums. He even spiced up the album with lots of female vocals. Granted, nobody can entirely take Martina Topley-Bird’s place, but each singer here brings her own charm to the record and the juxtaposition of Tricky’s vocals and the women’s vocals is priceless.
27. TRIPTYKON: MELANA CHASMATA
Tom Gabriel Warrior’s latest band released one of the year’s best metal albums of any variety, period. Even if you don’t normally like black metal, or even death metal, you’d probably find this album appealing, being that Warrior doesn’t exactly screech or grunt his vocals; he delivers clean vocals, just of the aggressive variety. Besides, there are songs here, such as “Breathing,” that sound an awful lot like thrash to my ears. If you liked either of Warrior’s previous bands, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, you’re sure to bow at the alter of Tryptykon.
26. EMILIE SIMON: MUE
French singer/songwriter/producer Emilie Simon has done many things throughout her career, which goes back about a decade now. On her first album, self-titled, she did electro-pop exquisitely, singing in a very hushed manner that was, well, adorable. Then she scored La Marche de l’Empereur – the French version of The March of the Penquins, which had different (and superior) music than the version of the film that was released Stateside. Later on, Emilie opened up her voice and revealed that she could hit very impressive high notes on The Big Machine. On her last album, Franky Knight, she paid tribute to her late husband and it was truly beautiful. On Mue, which is French for moult, which is what animals do when they shed feathers or skin, etc. I believe she was trying to say that she’s moving on, shedding her past, starting anew. Here, she does just about every style of music under the sun. On “Paris j’ai pris perpète,” she meshed organic strings with flourishes of electro, crafting one of the best songs of her career. On “Menteur” (translation: “Liar”) she combined several things that shouldn’t work together but somehow they do. She blended of Caribbean sounds, jazzy percussion and, to some degree, disco grooves (particularly during the upbeat chorus). And yet it ultimately sounded nothing like any of those things. You never can predict what Emilie will do next, but you always know that she’ll do it very well. Mue would serve as the perfect introduction into her wildly imaginative world.
25. DUM DUM GIRLS: TOO TRUE
I’ve always liked the Dum Dum Girls, but not so much that I’d want to buy their albums on vinyl. This one, however, I’ll be buying very soon. It’s easily their best album to date with more upbeat, very well-written songs, stellar production and superb musicianship. That’s a lot of adjectives, but they more than deserve them. The opening track alone makes this album essential. It’s called “Cult of Love” and it’s as if they’re channeling Blondie circa “Atomic.” At times, you’d swear you’re listening to Debbie Harry. But it’s not just the wonderful vocals that make it a grand prix winner. It’s also the guitars, which slightly lean in the surf rock direction at times, along with thick bass guitar and propulsive drum beats. Although it’s a super-polished number, other tracks have the raw vibe that the group’s longtime fans have come to expect from them. “Evil Blooms,” for example, has a rough guitar tone. “Why be good / Be beautiful and sad / It’s all you ever had,” sings ringleader Dee Dee in an all-knowing tone. And she is all-knowing; Too True has as many retro influences as it does modern. She knows The Cure. She knows The Pains of Being Pure At Heart. She knows every artist from the past several decades. And she incorporates the best elements of all of them into her songwriting on this spectacular album.
24. CHARLOTTE MARTIN: WATER BREAKS STONE
Singer/songwriter/pianist Charlotte Martin is an enigma. In a good way though. Her songs are often thought provoking and many of them are open to interpretation. Like Emm Gryner, she seems to exist in secret, and she’s a very good secret to be in on at that. Water Breaks Stone is her nineth album and she’s also released several EPs. So, also like Emm Gryner, she has a large body of work for you to lose yourself in should you read this and sample it and find it to your liking. Personally, I love it when I discover an artist and learn that they’ve released several albums. It’s so exciting to have so much music to hear from a new favorite artist. And Charlotte should be one of your new favorites for sure. Granted, many of you probably already know and love her work, but I suspect that many people reading this haven’t heard her before. If I had to compare Charlotte to one other artist I would go with Tori Amos because both are singer/songwriters who have their own language that people either get and appreciate or else they don’t like it at all because it’s beyond their understanding. As for Water Breaks Stone, it’s very much in Charlotte’s own language. It’s a sometimes startling piano driven record with lots of rich electronic soundscapes. In other words, it’s Charlotte doing what she does and doing it the best she’s ever done, the album being a true magnum opus. I suspect it’s also her most personal record, not that her other albums weren’t personal. Perhaps she just delves deeper into the dark recesses of her mind, heart and soul here. This album is full of doubts and reflection and conquering. It definitely feels like it’s about catharsis as well. It’s a rollercoaster that you’ve got to try.
23. YUKI: FLY
Yuki was the lead vocalist for the tres popular Japanese group Judy and Mary, which she founded in 1991. But she’s been a highly successful solo artist since 2002, so I’d like to think that people don’t just think of her as that girl from Judy and Mary anymore. Clearly, an awful lot of people love her solo material because Epic Records wouldn’t have released seven original studio albums, including this one, if they weren’t selling. To me, Yuki is one of the queens of J-Pop, having had a lengthy career during which she’s never released a bad album. With Fly, she delivers an updated sound with lots of punchy, danceable beats. One standout is the club-ready “Jodi Wideman,” which finds her singing the occasional lyric in English, like “don’t give up.” When I hear that, I feel like telling Yuki not to give up either because it would be a shame if she ever stopped making music. There’s a quirky element to her voice; she has an interesting tone, which is just one reason to check out Fly. I know that many Americans complain that all J-Pop sounds the same, but Yuki does not sound like your average J-Pop singer; she sounds unique, like something special. And she also gets kudos because she writes or co-writes all of her own songs, whereas the majority of J-Pop artists are just singers who couldn’t write a song if their lives depended on it.
22. f(x): 3RD ALBUM: RED LIGHT
f(x) is a Korean pop girl group in the sense that they’re based out of Korea and sing in Korean, but they’re actually multi-national. Their leader – all K-Pop girl groups have a designated leader – is Victoria, who happens to be Chinese. The other members are Taiwanese-American member Amber, Korean members Luna and Sulli, and Korean-American member Krystal. Due to the group’s multi-national status they’re popular all over the world, having made considerable dents in the Chinese, Japanese and U.S. markets. Red Light is their third album and it’s an electro-pop masterpiece. A lot of K-Pop artists call themselves electro-pop but then they just sound like pop programmed with drum machines or Pro-Tools. But f(x) actually have a distinct electronica vibe. They’re like a cross between the heavier side of ’90’s electronica – Curve, for example – and modern K-Pop. The production of Red Light is nothing short of stunning. I’m a fan of a lot of K-Pop girl groups but I can’t think of another album that’s as flawlessly produced as this one. And the girls sound amazing, delivering fine, shining harmonies that rise above the humungous beats here. If you’ve never checked out K-Pop, or if you’ve checked it out and weren’t impressed, I would implore you to listen to this album. In spite of its retro influences, it sounds ultra-modern, so much so that you listen to it and think that it’s what American pop music will sound like when it catches up in ten years. I should also mention that their songs are rather edgy. For example, the song “MILK” begins with a cat meowing followed by the sound of a gunshot.
21. ROYAL BLOOD: ROYAL BLOOD
Death From Above 1979 are famous for not having a normal guitar player, their sound simply consisting of bass guitar, which is played like a lead guitar, and drums. Well, that’s the same formula utilized by Royal Blood, a British rock band who split the difference between Jack White and The Strokes. That said, I’m not a big fan of Jack White or The Strokes, but I love this album. Those are just the artists that first come to mind when I try to describe them. Otherwise, they’re fucking heavy – so heavy I have to swear – and raw as a razor blade. You might even think bassist/singer Mike Kerr is playing his bass with a razor blade. “This ain’t my house / This ain’t your home / Not when I’m feeling this alone,” he sings during “Come On Over,” which could have easily been titled “Get The Fuck Out.” If you’re a Death From Above fan then you’d get deep into this. To my ears, they’re like a heavier version of Queens of the Stone Age. Whenever I’ve been in a bad mood and want to listen to something aggressive, this has been my go-to record this year.
20. NACHTMYSTIUM: THE WORLD WE LEFT BEHIND
Nachtmystium is one hell of a psychedelic black metal band. Or they were a psychedelic black metal band. Whether the band still exists or not is anybody’s guess. They were broken up but then they released this brand new album, now stating that this is their final album. If I understand correctly. What I’m sure of is the quality of this album. Yes, it’s black metal, but I wouldn’t say it’s the type of black metal that could be interpretted as hate music. If you’re going to be offended by this album, it’s not because of the lyrics. It’s going to be because black metal just isn’t your thing. And, you know what, I’m not the world’s biggest black metal fan. But I am in awe of this album every single time I listen to it. Its energy is contagious and its songs are so grand in scope, even epic, the average song length being seven minutes. If you like old Black Sabbath, especially the Ronnie James Dio era, then you’d probably like this. It’s certainly as heavy and as trippy as Sabbath. They just take those elements further, their songs being more sonorous, more psychedelic. And if you’re normally put off by black metal because you can’t understand the lyrics, fear not, you can understand them all here. The singing is in the gutteral, growling vein, just not so distorted.
19. I HEART SHARKS: ANTHEMS
I Heart Sharks are a German-British Indietronica/pop band from Berlin, Germany. Anthems is their second full-length album and what an incredible album it is. All fourteen tracks are massive anthems. Great big, inspiring songs that will make you want to fist pump or dance and definitely sing along. (One song is actually called “Karaoke.”) Big beats, soaring synths, powerful vocals; these songs pack them all. If you like Bastille’s “Pompeii,” you’d absolutely love this album. Likewise, if your favorite band is Imagine Dragons then I Heart Sharks could become your second favorite. For my more mature readers, think of them as Duran Duran at their prime, high on various stimulants. If I had to describe I Heart Sharks’ songs with one word it would be unstoppable because they’re all so potent, so propulsive, so irresistible; you just can’t beat them.
18. KATE MILLER-HEIDKE: O VERTIGO!
“I had a dream / Then the dream had a dream / And then the dream had me,” sings Australian pop singer/songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke during the beginning of “Offer It Up,” the first track on her latest album, O Vertigo! If that sounds too deep for you then you should probably look elsewhere for your latest pop music high. But if you can handle that, then you’re in for a real treat with this one; it’s intellectually-stimulating pop music. Personally, I feel like Kate can do no wrong. Her style has changed quite a bit since the beginning of her career, but the changes have been gradual and they make the listener feel as though they’re on a journey with her. Other artists might be accused of selling out if they shifted too far from their original template but Kate’s fans seem willing to go wherever she wants to take them. Besides, she already had a major label deal and is now going the indie route, so if anything she’s the opposite of a sell out. So, what does she sound like? In terms of her voice, I’d say she’s like a cross between Sia and My Brightest Diamond. And her songs overall would seem to split the difference between those two artists. She does catchy and she does quirky, often within a single song. And then she does really quirky, showing off her impressive range. In fact, she is a classically-trained vocalist and has even sung opera. The best song on O Vertigo!? “Share Your Air” featuring Passenger. The oddest song on the album? A ballad called “Lose My Shit.”
17. LYKKE LI: I NEVER LEARN
When Lykke Li debuted with Youth Novel her songs were a sort of upbeat alt-pop, but then her second album, Wounded Rhymes, was considerably darker and featured more live instruments than her debut, which was rather electro-minded. This year’s I Never Learn found her in still bleaker spirits, even a bit self-deprecating. However, sonically, it sounded very much like a natural progression from where she left off with Wounded Rhymes. Since I Never Learn’s release, she has revealed that her first three albums were a trilogy, that her next album will be different. To that end, she talks like the trilogy thing was her plan all along, but why didn’t we hear about it until after I Never Learn was arleady released? Not that it matters. All that matters is that this is a fantastic voyage to the dark side of pop music that pays dividends if you dare to listen to it. Many of the songs have a Phil Spector vibe with that whole wall of sound thing going on. Some of them are immediately catchy up-tempo numbers like “I Never Learn” and the Greg Kurstin-produced “Gunshot.” Others are ballads drenched in heartache like “Never Gonna Love Again” and “Sleeping Alone.” My favorite track? The bittersweet “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone.” My only complaint about this album is that it’s only 9 songs. (For the last twenty years an album was 10 or more songs. All of a sudden this year several artists released 9 song albums, such as Leighton Meester and La Roux. I just find myself thinking, couldn’t you have spent another week in the studio and come up with one more song? After all, in this day and age many artists are releasing deluxe edition versions of their albums with 16 tracks.)
16. BETTY WHO: TAKE ME WHEN YOU GO
Betty Who (real name: Jessica Anne Newham) is an Australian pop artist based out of New York. She started off by self-releasing her music and giving most of it away for free. But her plan worked; she got the attention – and a record deal – from RCA Records, which released Take Me When You Go back in October. Of the 13 songs on the album, only four were previously released; each was a fan favorite. Betty has cited Katy Perry and Robyn among her influences and you can definitely hear both of them in her music. She’s capable of writing big choruses like Katy, yet her songs are slightly more offbeat if not quirky, more so like Robyn’s music. If you love Katy and Robyn then chances are you’d love Betty and are probably already a fan. After all, with all of her music giveaways and viral videos, you would have had to come across her by now. If not, well, then stop considering yourself “in the know.” Seriously though, Betty is awesome and Take Me When You Go is essential listening if you’re into pop. I especially admire her because she writes (and co-writes) the sort of songs she wants to, which tend to have a retro ’80’s vibe, rather than pumping out fodder aimed at top 40.
15. KYARY PAMYU PAMYU: PIKA PIKA FANTASIAN
Japanese pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu got her start as a fashion blogger. From there she went on to do modeling. And then she decided that she wanted to be a pop star. Fortunately, it turned out that she could actually sing. Better than your average pop star, in fact. Kyary’s first album was produced by Yasutaka Nakata of the hugely successful duo Capsule and it was a huge hit, so, naturally, they’ve been working together ever since. Pika Pika Fantasian is her third album and it’s another smash, both in terms of sales and quality. But I’ll be honest – Kyary isn’t for everyone. Her songs are very uppity, cheerful numbers. (Like early Kahimi Karie on steroids and beaucoup caffeine.) Her goal is to make people smile and she does that by not taking herself too seriously. If she was working with any other people, her music would probably be the sort of bubble gum pop that quickly loses its flavor. But Yasutaka is one of Japan’s best music producers and he provides her songs with the layers of playful yet interesting sounds they need to work well even once you’ve heard them a hundred times. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they’re insanely catchy. To that end, Kyary is even starting to get some attention Stateside; she was the subject of a feature in NYLON magazine just last month. Check her out now and be the first person in your circle of music-loving friends to discover her.
14. THE BRILLIANT GREEN: THE SWINGIN’ SIXTIES
The Brilliant Green are a Japanese pop rock group who’ve been releasing beautiful music since 1998. They did break up in 2002 but they returned in 2010 and have been active ever since. The Swingin’ Sixties might sound like an album of covers and you’d be half-right if you guessed as much, being that the album is one of self-covers, the band remaking 11 of their classic songs, spanning their whole career. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is vocalist/songwriter Tomoko Kawase, a woman who can do no wrong. And I’m not just saying that because The Brilliant Green is as brilliant as their name implies. I’m saying that because she also releases music as not one but two successful alter egos, one being a hard rock star (Tommy Heavenly6) and the other being a pop star (Tommy February6). Fortunately, she’s wise enough to keep the super heavy and super bubble gum tunes for her solo career rather than taking The Brilliant Green in a direction that wouldn’t ring true for fans who’ve been with them from the beginning. Not that they keep re-writing the same album, but they’re always going to be a pop rock band with vocals, guitars, drums and bass guitar. But within that frame they’re always coming up with new things. Here, they manage to put new twists on old tunes and the results are super dreamy and highly enjoyable. If you find American pop rock too cheesy or boring, you’d do well to check out the Green. Their songs even have bits of English scattered throughout most of them.
13. TAYLOR SWIFT: 1989
I’m sure there were people who were offended by Taylor’s decision to make a pop album, but they were certainly a silent minority because this one sold like crepes with Nutella in Paris. This was an album that people wanted to own, to hold in their hands, not just download it on iTunes or stream it on Spotify. Granted, she removed her music from Spotify shortly after the album was released, but you get the idea. Not since Adele’s 21 has the listening public rushed out to buy so many CDs. (Maybe something has sold more, but 1989 has had the biggest cultural impact since 21.) And I don’t think many of them were disappointed. And how could they be? There isn’t a bad song on the album. Even the deluxe edition bonus tracks are fantastic. To that end, I’d have to say that the bonus track “Wonderland” is one of the best songs on the album. Could’ve even be a hit single. You know you’re doing something right when even the bonus tracks could be mega-hits. I’d like to think that Taylor will make another country album someday, but I wouldn’t mind if she released a few more pop albums before she got around to it.
12. EMM GRYNER: TORRENTIAL
Emm Gryner is indie pop’s best kept secret. A few years back, the singer/songwriter’s album Northern Gospel was my #1 album of the year. The only reason this album isn’t ranked higher is that there was so much good music this year, such tough competition. Torrential is Emm’s eighteenth release – a diamond among fine gems – and most of her releases have been full-length albums; only a couple were EPs. So, here you have an incredible pop songstress with one of the prettiest voices on the planet and a huge discography for you to get into. If that doesn’t entice you, well, there really is no hope for you then. But, of course, I’m sure some of you are serious Emm Gryner fans already and chances are she hooked you the very first time you heard her. After all, to know her is to love her. Nobody just likes Emm; either you love her or you’ve simply never heard her. Or else pop music just isn’t your thing. All of the songs on Torrential are amazing, but the ballads are what really struck a chord with me. Nobody writes sad songs like Emm. “It can end just like it began / Is it sundown on us / Sundown on everything that was,” she sings on “Sundown On Us,” sounding like a woman who’s about to get her heart broken, her voice dripping with nostalgia and melancholy. And that’s the least emotive of the album’s ballads. “Torrential” finds her so downtrodden she’s sick of everything – on the verge of a nervous breakdown – and “End of Me” is one of the most tragic love songs ever, a haunting piano ballad on par with the best of Elton John.
11. PHANTOGRAM: VOICES
I suppose some might fault Phantogram for signing with a major label and concocting more accessible tunes, but the fact of the matter is that Voices rings true, sounding like the next logical step in their body of work, hardly a sellout. And, let’s face it, these songs veer quite far to the left of anything even remotely top 40. This is offbeat, edgy electro-pop music that finds Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel at the top of their game. (Who cares if it happens to be easier to get into?) The duo produced the album along with John Hill and the result is a record full of nuances and vivid, kalidescopic color that constantly changes shapes right before your very ears.
10. YSA FERRER: SANGUINE
Ysa Ferrer has been called “the Kylie Minogue” of French pop and I’m inclined to agree with that. Both have high-pitched yet syrupy sweet voices and an aresenal of grade A tunes and exist deep within the hearts of their fans. (And I suppose they’re both sex symbols.) For years, my favorite Ysa Ferrer album was her second, Kamikaze – the album that made me a fan a decade and a half ago – but after living with Sanguine the past few months I think that’s changed. It’s such a delicious and superbly-produced pop record, consisting of layers and layers of juicy sound. Listening to it is like eating the perfect caramel apple or a slice of hot cherry pie. With its exqusite synths, loud guitars, propulsive beats and lusty vocals – it’s a French pop record for people who don’t like French pop. It even has a few songs in English.
9. SYLVAN ESSO: SYLVAN ESSO
If you would have told me Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut was going to be one of my favorite albums of 2014 the first time I listened to it I doubt I would have believed you. I did enjoy it from first listen, and even gave it a highly positive review, but it was only after going back to it time and time again that I fell more and more in love with it. Now, well, you could say I’m head over heels. There’s just something magical about the way Amelia Meath’s playful vocals interact with producer Nick Sanborn’s serious beats, which pack more bass than your average Avicii track. This is electro-pop at its finest. It’s also very fun; even their song titles are playful (see: “Hey Mami” and “Dreamy Bruises”).
8. FKA twigs: LP1
The FKA in FKA twigs stands for “formerly known as,” so I’m assuming that her nickname used to be twigs. What I do know for sure is that the English singer/songwriter/producer was born Tahliah Debrett Barnett and that she released 2014’s best trip-hop record. The funny thing is that I read the reviews and most critics referred to the album as R&B. Well, whatever it is, it’s entirely fantastic. The way she melded organic and electronic percussion with bleeps, blips and boisterous punches of bass was so good as to be mind-boggling. And the devil was in the details. Every time I’ve listened to this album, I’ve felt like I’m only hearing it for the first time, the songs so lush – and imaginative – that you can listen to it five times without even hearing the half of it. One of the year’s most interesting and spell-binding records.
7. ELVA HSIAO: SHUT UP & KISS ME
Elva Hsiao is a highly popular Taiwanese singer; you could consider her the Chinese Madonna. Since her debut in 1999, she has released 13 studio albums. That’s roughly one album per year. And the quality of her music has been especially high since day one. In my opinion, she only gets better and better with each album that’s released, so let me put it this way: Shut Up & Kiss Me is the strongest album by one of China’s most exceptional and popular artists. If that doesn’t spike your curiosity enough to make you check it out, then you’re missing out. From ultra-modern, bass-heavy pop numbers like “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and “Trigger To the Thunder of Love” to tender romantic ballads like “Dare To Hurt” and “Surviving,” every song on this album was an exercise in pop perfection. I’d always liked Elva, but after spending months listening to this album I’m sure I’ll be a die-hard for life. (Note: these song titles have been translated from Mandarin, which is what most of Elva’s music is in, though she also sings in Cantonese from time to time.)
6. JENNY LEWIS: THE VOYAGER
“I’m not the same woman that you are used to,” sings Jenny Lewis during “Head Underwater,” the opening track from her latest album, The Voyager. Fortunately, for the listener, she is the woman that we’re used to, a veritable tour de force with outstanding melodies, superb lyrics and one of the best voices on the planet. Lyrics which run deep in their honesty and their ability to chop one’s head off. “She’s not me / She’s easy,” she sings with a forked tongue during “She’s not me,” saying so much with so few words. Clever lines like this are reason enough to make this a must-have album of 2014, but with all of these qualities, well, she’s the total package. Buy this record and prepare to fall head over heels in love with her.
5. LILY ALLEN: SHEEZUS
When I heard that Lily Allen was finally making a third album I was over-joyed, her first two records both being among my all-time favorite albums. The new record was to be called Sheezus and when she released the first single from the in the form of “Hard Out Here” people’s expectations were more than met. Our beloved, sarcastic, brutally honest Lily was back. Critics noted that the next few singles weren’t as strong and I’m inclined to agree with them. As Lily has said, the album features some of her best material ever along with some of her worst material ever. But, here’s the thing: the good far outweighs the bad. From immediately infectious songs like “Wind Your Neck In” and “URL Badman” to less immediate but deeply personal cuts like “Life For Me” and “Miserable About Your Love,” Sheezus features plenty of tracks that put most of the pop music released this year to shame.
4. ROBBIE WILLIAMS: UNDER THE RADAR VOL. 1
Robbie could have released this album of unreleased material as though it was truly a new record – without divulging that these were out-takes from other albums – and it would have been a smash like everything he does. But he was honest about these being leftovers from other albums. In fact, he didn’t even release this as part of his major label deal. On the contrary, he self-released it through his website, simply making the material available for die-hards. Then a funny thing happened: the album quickly sold far beyond his expectations. Apparently, there’s still something to be said about word of mouth. To my ears, these mostly rock songs are some of the best tunes Robbie has ever written. I’d even go so far as to say that this collection is stronger than his Take The Crown and Reality Killed The Video Star albums. And I liked those records. But this one is just insane, bursting with insanely catchy songs that demand to be played again and again.
3. BANKS: GODDESS
“What if I said I would break your heart?” sings the super creative and entirely brilliant Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Jillian Banks during “You Should Know Where I’m Coming From,” one of the most exquisite gems on the flawless diamond ring that is her debut album Goddess. The reason this album ranks so high on my list is precisely because she does break the listener’s heart. Time and time again, throughout her brutally honest and highly relatable record, she tells stories of bad break ups and unrequited love. Her words — often laced with sarcasm — cut deep, whether she’s singing electro-pop songs like “Alibi” and “Drowning” or considerably more organic tracks like acoustic guitar-led “Someone New” or the haunting piano ballad “Under The Table.” She’ll slice you apart.
2. LANA DEL REY: ULTRAVIOLENCE
If anyone thought Lana Del Rey was formulaic after Born To Die and Paradise were both chock full of pop songs set to rap beats, they were hugely mistaken. So much so that there aren’t even any songs with hip hop beats at all on her sophomore album, Ultraviolence. Instead, she changed things up by working with live musicians and doing an album that was more rock than pop. It wasn’t terribly accessible, but it’s a true – and truly admirable – artistic vision that doesn’t waste any time begging for hits. On the contrary, only the first single, “West Coast,” was anything radio might touch and it didn’t exactly get a whole lot of airplay, program directors apparently fearing that the way it slowed down during the chorus would make it bore listeners, which was a concern of her record label as well. And, you know, heaven forbid radio take a chance on something different. But one gets the impression Lana didn’t lose any sleep over the album’s lack of hits. She made the unflinching album she wanted to make, her fans adored it and that’s all that seemed to matter. Besides, the album was a hit record. It just didn’t yield any *major* hit singles like “Summertime Sadness” or “Video Games.”
1. ST. VINCENT: ST. VINCENT
The very first time I listened to St. Vincent’s eponymous album I had a feeling I’d just listened to the year’s best album. The way she married guitar rock, electro-pop and singer/songwriter fare was just perfect. She’d done it before on previous albums, but the results were never quite so pristine, each of these songs hitting a home run and then some. Whether she’s running from snakes, masturbating or snorting the Berlin wall, each lush track tells a colorful tale that you’ll want to listen to again and again. If ever an artist was destined to make an album, she was fated to make this one. When she was promoted the record she explained that she’d finally released a self-titled an album because it was the first time one of her records sounded like herself. If this is Annie Clark at her purist then she’s easily one of the most interesting and beautiful people on the planet. “I prefer your love to Jesus,” she sings during “I Prefer Your Love” and, well, you’re inclined to prefer her music.