Hey! It’s 2015 now, which means another year in music has gone by, and that means I get to tell you all about what I thought were the best albums released in past year. Just like last year (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), these rankings are in no particular order and I wrote about them in pairs because I like to be different. Also, these are solely my opinions, but I listen to an insane amount of music, so my opinions are probably better informed than yours (no offense). Anyway, here we go!
TV Girl – French Exit :: Mr Twin Sister – Mr Twin Sister
Here we have a pair of albums by bands with misleadingly gendered names that have made the jump from good to great. TV Girl, which actually consists of a collection of dudes from California, fully realized its potential on French Exit, an album that is as charming as it is grim. The setting is spotlessly sunny, radiating warmth and light and positive energy, but the lyrics prove that our protagonist is nevertheless solemnly suffering. Standout track “Birds Don’t Sing” sends you strolling down the sidewalk on a bright summer afternoon, but instead of hearing sparrows carelessly chirping, they rain down upon you, pelting you the same way that your crush ignoring you pounds at your heart like a hammer. This is a record about young love, and just how much your psyche can be impacted by these fleeting abstractions of romance.
The self-titled release from Mr Twin Sister (a female-fronted five-piece from Long Island), their first since adding the “Mr” to their name, finds them furiously breaking through their cuddly indie-pop, stoner-friendly cocoon and spreading their wings to reveal a ravishingly fierce creature. This fresh-faced, exquisitely evolved specimen cannot be contained by the embarrassingly simplistic structural notions embraced by human society; “I am a woman, but inside I am a man, and I want to be as gay as I can,” frontwoman Andrea Estella proclaims on the explosive, house-infused track “Out of the Dark”, forcefully venturing out as “someone new”. The new being’s statement to the world is sent out loud and clear on “Rude Boy”: “You need to be everything if you want anything”. So either step up or step aside, because the standards will not be lowered to satisfy your shortcomings.
Rich Gang – Tha Tour Part 1 :: The Stand4rd – The Stand4rd
Rich Gang and The Stand4rd came together in 2014 to create a couple of new creatures, too, uniting unconventional talents to form hit-making hydras. Legendary hand-rubber Birdman picked Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan out of Atlanta hip-hop’s left field and got them to join forces over on the right side, and the duo rapidly developed an incredible bond. The chemistry between Thugga and Quan on Tha Tour Part 1 is electric, as they exhibit a camaraderie reminiscent of revered hip-hop twosomes from back in the 90s that is all too rare today.
This is probably a hyperbolic comparison, but if you squint a little bit, this Rich Gang release seems like the spiritual successor to a debut album put out a pair of fellow Atlanta weirdos two decades prior: Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Now that Andre 3000 might be retiring from rap, Young Thug is primed to take his place as the preeminent scene-stealer in hip-hop, overshadowing everyone else with superior skills and uncontainable ebullience. And Rich Homie Quan fits well in the Big Boi role, acting as a straight man alongside an alien while still providing a nice dose of ingenuity himself. Backed up by great production from rising stars like Dun Deal and London on da Track, Rich Gang gives you a delightful glimpse into their lives, describing what they see through their rose-colored Givenchy shades and acting as if the bando were filled with funhouse mirrors. If they can stick together and keep this effort up, Rich Gang has a chance to make a quantum leap like Outkast did and become the shiny red apple of everyone’s eye.
Another set of oddball artists teamed up in 2014, and these precocious Minnesotans may be even weirder than Rich Gang. The Stand4rd, consisting of Twin Cities youngins Allan Kingdom, Bobby Raps, Psymun, and Spooky Black, are an unlikely bunch to be making waves in the hip-hop world. But the voices of Kingdom, Raps, and Black blend beautifully, floating through Psymun’s wonked-out production to coalesce into an angelic atmosphere, emanating a seraphic sensuality that is able to melt some of the icy white snow that surrounds them. While Allan Kingdom and Spooky Black also released excellent solo projects in 2014, proving themselves to be viable artists on their own (with Spooky Black becoming especially well-known, to his dismay), the group dynamic among the four members elevates each one to another level as they ravenously feed off of each others’ vibes, resulting in simmering songs like “Pretty” and “Too Involved” that they could not muster on their own. Simply put, unifying as The Stand4rd makes these guys the best that they can be.
Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste :: Lone – Reality Testing
Azealia Banks has had a tumultuous last few years since bursting onto the scene with her scintillating debut single “212” back in late 2011, beefing with numerous artists while struggling to release her first album through Interscope, who shockingly ended up dropping her from the label this summer (more on Interscope’s 2014 idiocy in Part Three!). Free from Interscope’s shackles, however, Banks was finally able to unleash the beast that we’d been waiting to see for all these years.
Broke With Expensive Taste is pop perfection, a melting pot boiling over, filled with substantial, hearty ingredients along with a hell of a lot of spice. Banks brashly pushes genre boundaries to their breaking points, singing and rapping and strutting over an imaginatively assembled array of instrumentals; seriously, it takes a creative genius to put the beats for “Gimme a Chance”, “Heavy Metal and Reflective”, “Chasing Time”, and “Nude Beach A-Go-Go” on the same album and make it work. But Banks does make it work, showing off her astonishing versatility while never sacrificing her distinctive identity. Her infectiously brash attitude always shines through, even on pristinely polished songs like “Soda” and “Chasing Time”. It’s a disgrace that an artist with such captivating ability is currently unable to get support from a major label, and become the mega-star she should be, basically just because she is too strongly opinionated and passionate to allow herself to be pushed around. Let’s give Banks the respect and support she deserves, and hopefully one day the major label execs will recognize real.
British electronic musician Lone, who produced the final two tracks on Broke With Expensive Taste, released a fantastic album of his own in 2014. Reality Testing contains some charged up jams, with songs like “Airglow Fires” shooting off sparks and quickly turning dancefloors into smoldering piles of ash. There are also grooves on here that burn more slowly, though, including “Meeker Warmer Energy” and “2 is 8”, which steadily blaze like candles, the wax heating up until it liquefies and slides down to a cool little spot at the base. Either way, this album brings the heat.
Mariah Carey – Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse :: Prince – Art Official Age
These veteran pop stars, with illustrious careers spanning multiple decades, aren’t shattering any standards anymore. But Mariah Carey and Prince showed that they haven’t yet lost all of what made them so special way back when. I already broke down Mariah’s album here, and the success of Me. I Am Mariah…essentially boils down to the fact that she still possesses one of the greatest singing voices of all time (I refuse to acknowledge this), and was able to update her style just enough to make songs that sound dope in 2014. Plus she ditched Nick Cannon. Mariah was a big winner in 2014.
Meanwhile, Prince just continues to power on, still able to match the creative vivaciousness he had when he started his career in the late 1970s. He is undoubtedly one of the most complete musical masterminds of all time, and songs like “Clouds”, “U Know”, and “Breakfast Can Wait” exhibit his transcendent talents and unequivocal passion. People much smarter than me have lauded Prince so much already, so I won’t waste time rehashing their praises. I do want to take a second though to draw attention to one relatively unheralded aspect of Prince’s musical prowess: his percussion work, which is always exemplary, and is jaw-droppingly impeccable on “U Know” and “Time”.
Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lose :: Foxing – The Albatross
Lose and The Albatross are both intensely emotional records, with both bands unapologetically wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Cymbals Eat Guitars have been thrown headfirst into a stormy ocean, and are desperately trying to keep their heads above water as the violent waves incessantly batter them around. Opening track “Jackson” is the initial struggle, right after falling off the boat, bringing on the first rush of fear. Lead singer Joseph D’Agostino’s vocals achingly strain as he fights for his life, attempting to gasp in some oxygen and not drown in the hydrous chaos surrounding him. Exhaustion naturally sets in at points when you’re scrapping so hard for so long, but no speck of energy can be spared in this war against such a formidable opponent. And so those second and third winds arrive out of the depths of D’Agostino’s lungs on “Place Names” and “Laramie”, allowing him a few more chances to clash with the relentless forces trying to swallow him up. Sometimes, though, you just run out of breath before the rescue chopper can reach down from the sky and save you.
Foxing find themselves in a somewhat similar situation, isolated in a sprawl of frozen, gray nothingness, screaming in hopes that someone, anyone, will come and help them. The screams travel far and wide with no landmarks around to impede them, but fade into the breeze before they can reach an open ear. The lone wolf howls even louder as the night grows colder, but the moon will not provide the warmth it longs for. So it is faced with no other choice but to settle into the quietness and slumber, dreaming of a less desolate tomorrow.