Matt James’ Favorite Albums of 2014

Happy Holidays Neat Beeters! As the ‘Beet comes up on its first full year of existence and I celebrate my first several months as a contributor to the site, I’ve decided to share some of my reflections on the year that was in music. 2014 has given us a wealth of fantastic records to enjoy and this article details a list of my favorites, stretching across a multitude of genres and styles. I’ve put together a playlist of some solid selections from each album which you can listen to below, and check back later this week for an article on my favorite live shows of the year.

alt-J – This Is All Yours

Losing a band member typically has detrimental effects on that band’s future endeavors, but fortunately for us that isn’t the case with alt-J, who followed up their wildly successful 2012 debut, An Awesome Wave, with their strong second LP, This Is All Yours.  Distinctively more downtempo yet keeping with the band’s trademark sound/vocals, alt-J avoided the traditional sophomore slump by sticking to what got them there in the first place, proving that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

Arthur Beatrice – Grand Union

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Arthur Beatrice @ Mercury Lounge

Not a great deal is known about Arthur Beatrice, but perhaps they like it better that way, opting to create their own label and make all tour bookings and promotional materials on their own. Because of this approach, their debut album Grand Union flew way under the radar, but don’t let that speak to the quality of this record. Orlando Leopard and Ella Girardot provide lead vocals that complement not only each other, but the music that surrounds them as well. Arthur Beatrice isn’t trying to be something that they’re not, and in doing so, they’ve created a masterful album that is strong from beginning to end.

Banks – Goddess

Banks burst onto the music scene during the latter half of 2014 with her debut LP Goddess, and wowed listeners with her visceral lyrics and sultry R&B delivery. Calling to mind numerous comparisons to artists like The Weeknd and Fiona Apple among many others, Banks puts her heart and soul on display with Goddess, and she ends up creating a wonderful album that is equal parts emotionally relatable and personally empowering. Banks is easily in the consideration of one of the best new artists of 2014.

Birdy – Fire Within

Only 18 years old, Birdy (born Jasmine van den Bogaerde) has been writing and performing for over two-thirds of her life, making her both the youngest artist on this list and also one of the more experienced musicians as well. Her second full-length album Fire Within (released in the US in June) showcases that maturation by delivering an album chock full of her own material, and where her hauntingly beautiful vocals did wonders on her self-titled 2011 debut which covered existing material, it does even more for the lyrics and arrangements that she created herself.

Broods – Evergreen

Brother-sister musical combo Broods found their popularity last year after collaborating with producer Joel Little, who was instrumental in bringing fellow New Zealander Lorde into the mainstream, having produced her Grammy Award-winning mega-hit “Royals.” After releasing several singles and a self-titled EP earlier this year, Broods followed up with their debut album Evergreen, which does well to combine Georgia Nott’s soft, smooth vocals and Caleb Nott’s driving production style into a dreamy 11-track package that is both entertaining and replayable.

††† (Crosses) – †††

Crosses is the side project of Deftones lead singer Chino Moreno, Far guitarist Shaun Lopez, and Chuck Doom, and their style replaces the metal/hard rocking nature of their respective bands with a downbeat approach that Moreno described as “minimal and soothing and it’s sort of like the stuff I like listening to when I’m not screaming my head off.” Their nearly hour-long self-titled debut blends the influences of their two other bands with an electronic spin that would satisfy fans both old and new alike.

Dan Croll – Sweet Disarray

Dan Croll

Dan Croll @ Bowery Ballroom

Dan Croll is a talented young British singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who released his debut album Sweet Disarray in March.Croll’s style is difficult to pin down to a specific label, with distinct pop, indie, electronic, and folk influences spread throughout his album, but what is easy to determine is the feel-good vibes and heartfelt emotions that his music elicits. Croll puts together a solidly cohesive and efficient album (run time shy of 40 minutes) that is perfect for sunny days or transporting you back to happy memories.

FKA twigs – LP1

Music from the “R-neg-B” subgenre makes several appearances on this list (Banks, SOHN, and Tove Lo among others), but no one puts their stamp on that label more than FKA twigs, whose debut album simply titled LP1 perfectly pairs electronic beats and visceral, sometimes overtly sexual themes into a beautiful musical package. The album was nominated for the UK’s famed Mercury Prize and includes one of the best songs of the year, “Two Weeks.” It is an album definitely worthy of your time from an artist we’re sure to hear from again soon.

Foster the People – Supermodel

Andrew Markowitz

Foster the People @ Sweetlife (via Andrew Markowitz)

Another band on this list who avoided the dreaded sophomore slump is Foster the People, who followed up their massively successful debut album Torches with their long-awaited second album Supermodel. While it didn’t commercially catch to the extent of their previous album, Mark Foster and his mates showcased a more mature, refined sound with Supermodel without sacrificing much (if any) of their atmospheric, indie pop style, culminating in a wonderful, multi-dimensional record.

Glass Animals – ZABA

If you haven’t yet noticed, the United Kingdom makes a very strong showing on this list, and Glass Animals is part of that grouping. Their debut album ZABA came out in the middle of 2014 and unleashed their unique brand of psychedelic pop and trip-hop on the masses. In fact, unique describes pretty much every aspect of ZABA, with its song titles (“Intruxx,” “Wyrd,” “Cocoa Hooves”), album art, music videos, and the songs themselves all earning that description. In this case however, unique is exactly what the doctor ordered, as Glass Animals puts forth a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable record.

Glass Animals

Glass Animals US Debut

Hozier – Hozier

Irish singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Hozier-Byrne (known better as Hozier) recently released his self-titled debut LP in September to critical acclaim. More than just his Grammy-nominated song “Take Me to Church,” which just crossed the 100 million listens barrier on Spotify, his laid-back indie fusion of soul and blues translates wonderfully whether he’s backed by a full complement of instruments and vocalists, or sitting alone in a field with nothing but his voice and acoustic guitar.

Jason Mraz – YES!

A wordsmith of the highest order, Jason Mraz has been penning and performing intelligent and catchy music for nearly a decade and a half, and with his fifth LP YES!, Mraz takes an acoustic turn working alongside the all-female folk-rock band Raining Jane. YES! doesn’t provide much of Mraz’s trademark wordplay seen in many of his previous albums, instead opting for a more measured approach, which in turn actually further solidifies his craftsmanship as a top-class musician. YES! is a quality album with heartfelt, relatable lyrics that’s perfect for late night chill out sessions.

Andrew Markowitz

Hozier (via Andrew Markowitz)

Jessie Ware – Tough Love

British R&B/soul songstress Jessie Ware released her second album Tough Love in late October, continuing with the foundation she laid from her 2012 debut Devotion. A frequent collaborator, having worked with the likes of musicians like Sampha, SBTRKT, and Disclosure, Ware this time finds herself paired up with Ed Sheeran on this album, working together on the track “Say You Love Me.” Her soft, yet powerful voice carries Devotion, placing her firmly into the conversation as one of the best female singers today, not to mention having one of the better female solo albums this year as well.

Jungle – Jungle

A seven-piece modern soul music collective hailing from London, Jungle formed in early 2013 and quickly caught fire for their dynamic sound and fantastic live shows. Nominated by the BBC for their Sound of 2014 list (along with several others included in this list), Jungle released their hotly-anticipated, eponymous, debut album in July full of songs that call to mind imagery ranging from spaghetti westerns and 70s’ era cop movies to the psychedelic. Jungle’s blend of funk and electronic makes this album amazingly vibrant and unabashedly dancey, easily earning them the classification of one of the best debuts of the year.

Kimbra – The Golden Echo

Kimbra hit the stage in a massive way in 2011 collaborating with Gotye on the hit song “Somebody That I Used to Know,” but this also diverted attention away from her debut album from the same year Vows, which stood on its own merit as a wonderful pop album independent of the popular success of the aforementioned song. The New Zealander came back in 2014 with her second record titled The Golden Echo, which features more of the same fantastic vocals and quirky pop melodies that made her first album so successful. Kimbra’s approach to pop music is a refreshing respite from the cookie-cutter music that fill the top 40 airwaves, and The Golden Echo is full of songs that I’d gladly substitute in their place.

Kneebody + Kimbra

Kimbra w/ Kneebody @ Le Poisson Rouge

Little Dragon – Nabuma Rubberband

Swedish band Little Dragon have been together for nearly two decades, and their fourth studio LP Nabuma Rubberband continues to build on the steady success the band has already experienced. Inspired both by the cold Swedish winters and Janet Jackson slow jams that lead singer Yukimi Nagano would listen to during said winters, Nabuma Rubberband explores the depths of Little Dragon’s sound, producing a downtempo electronic album that was recently nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Dance/Electronic Album.

Paperwhite – Magic EP

The only EP album on this list, Paperwhite’s six-track release Magic is another in the long and distinguished line of Brooklyn dream/synthpop music that has emerged over the past few years. Like Broods, siblings Katie and Ben (who’s also the drummer for another Brooklyn-based band, Savoir Adore) Marshall have stuck to their family ties, helping them produce shimmering, dreamy melodies alongside Katie’s inspiring vocals which quite literally makes magic happen. If this record is any indication, Paperwhite is a certainly a band to look out for moving into 2015.

Porter Robinson – Worlds

Electronic music producer Porter Robinson is only 22 years old, but he’s been honing his craft for nearly a decade, having already toured with electronic heavyweights like Skrillex and Deadmau5, as well as co-writing and providing vocals for fellow music producer Zedd’s smash hit “Clarity,” a song which won the 2014 Grammy for Best Dance Recording. Robinson’s debut album Worlds was released this August and could be best described as record full of atmospheric video game music, which is not surprising given his personal love for the Japanese culture. Worlds is a very entertaining hour-long ride which is best experienced with a set of high-quality headphones to lose yourself in the music.

Real Estate – Atlas

Lo-fi indie rockers Real Estate have been making music perfectly designed for long road trips and beachside hangouts since 2009, and their third album Atlas builds on their previous two full-length efforts (which includes another wonderful album entitled Days) to create a near perfect record. Blending a heavy amount of surf rock with the easy going vocals of Martin Courtney, Atlas is an album that wastes no time putting its listeners in a deeply relaxed state and keeping them there through the duration, while still staying remarkably engaging. This is easily one of the better albums you’ll hear this year, so give it a listen.

Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

It was only a matter of time before Sam Smith’s stardom exploded into the mainstream, and we saw his precipitous rise throughout 2014 culminating in the release of his debut album In the Lonely Hour. Lending his soulful vocals to the unbelievably catchy Disclosure song “Latch” back in 2012 was simply a stepping stone to sharing his talents with the masses, as those same vocals are put on full display with this beautiful record, paired perfectly with lyrics that tug at the heart strings. Nominated for six Grammys and a mainstay on nearly every Top 10 list this year, Smith is a force to be reckoned with, owed in no small part to this massively successful debut record.

SOHN – Tremors

With his smooth vocals and ambient electronic sound, musician/songwriter/producer SOHN (born Christopher Taylor) released his debut album, Tremors, in April, nearly two years after releasing several of his songs on Soundcloud to critical acclaim. Part of the “R-neg-B” movement gaining traction this year, SOHN takes a soulful, soaring vocal approach to his music with upbeat supporting electronic beats that stretch from the groovy to the abstract. Tremors is a wildly engaging album and hopefully the first of many from this London-born artist.

Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso

Collaborative electropop duo Sylvan Esso released their eponymous debut album in May 2014, and prominently features the powerful, bubbly vocals of Amelia Meath and the electronic production prowess of Nick Sanborn, both of whom are current members of other bands. Bringing their talents together to create Sylvan Esso was a marvelous concept, as each of them play to the other’s strengths, creating an album that comes together perfectly, as if they’d been creating music together for years.

Tove Lo – Queen of the Clouds

The other Swedish musician on this list, 27-year old singer/songwriter Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson (better known as Tove Lo, pronounced “Tove-low”) has started to make a name for herself by singing raw, emotional lyrics that takes listeners on a journey of personal feelings and experiences. However, Tove Lo does so in an upbeat electropop package, illustrated clearly by her debut album Queen of the Clouds. A unique storytelling experience, she separates the album into three parts—sex, love, and pain—regaling the listener of the carnal highs of a new relationship through to the deep lows of its eventual end. It’s a brilliant album structure driven home by Tove Lo’s beautiful and unfiltered vocals, making for a strong debut.

Young & Sick

Young & Sick @ Bowery Ballroom

Twin Forks – Twin Forks

Generally the first thing people think about when they hear the name Chris Carrabba is emo music, courtesy of his band Dashboard Confessional, but those people are in for a shock when they give a listen to his new band Twin Forks and the distinctively different sound they’ll hear from him on their self-titled debut. Gone are the emo stylings of years past, replaced instead with plucky, folk rock/Americana music and melodies created by Carrabba and the rest of his seven-piece band. Twin Forks is a pleasantly entertaining record that will have you clapping your hands and stomping your feet in no time, and it is as impressive of a musician genre-switch that I’ve seen in some time.

Young & Sick – Young & Sick

Starting out as an art project spearheaded by Dutch artist Nick van Hofwegen, most famously creating the album art for both Foster the People albums and a massive mural of their Supermodel album cover on the side of a Los Angeles building, Young & Sick delved into the musical realm in April 2014 releasing their debut album of the same name. Equal parts electronic and R&B, Young & Sick’s music is just as beautiful and unique as its artwork, earning van Hofwegen a “double threat” label that couldn’t be more deserved.

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