2013 was a terrific year for music — there were dozens of outstanding releases, 30 of which we compiled in a list of last year’s best. So far 2014 is starting out at least as strong. There have been some outstanding albums issued already in the first three months of the year. Below is a selection of 12 of the best that 2014 has to offer so far, and without doubt we’ll be able to add to this list as the year progresses. There are even a few honorable mentions that didn’t make the list below, but deserve to be heard: Love Letters by Metronomy, No Mythologies to Follow by MØ, Past Life by Lost in the Trees, and Trials of the Writer by Johnny Indovina.
Even if you’ve never heard the name Aloe Blacc, chances are you are familiar with his voice. Blacc provided vocals for Avicii’s breakthrough smash “Wake Me Up” last year. Now Blacc has struck gold on his own — his single “The Man,” featuring an extrapolation of Elton John’s “Your Song,” has become a major hit. Lift Your Spirit is the singer/songwriter’s third album, and he seems poised for a breakout year. There is no shortage of potential singles on Lift Your Spirit, a collection of strongly commercial material on which Blacc deftly mixes pop, R&B and electronica. Some of the tracks have an old-school vibe, especially highlights like “Chasing” and the slinky funk of “Love is the Answer,” which features a killer bass-line straight out of the Nile Rodgers playbook. Blacc is slated to open for Bruno Mars on tour this summer, including a date in the D.C. area – – July 11 at Jiffy Lube Live.
After the Disco, the second album by Broken Bells, the collaborative project by Danger Mouse and James Mercer of The Shins, is an unabashed love letter to ‘80s synth-pop. It doesn’t sound retro in a cheesy way — the album sounds fresh and modern — but there are elements lifted directly and lovingly from the new wave era. Just listen to the shimmering synth line on opening track “Perfect World,” or the main keyboard riff on first single “Holding On for Life” — straight up new wave revivalism. The hooks may not be as strong as “Don’t You Want Me” or “Destination Unknown,” but there are some nice melodies which are sung beautifully by Mercer. There are numerous standout tracks: “No Matter What You’re Told” is a winner, and album-closer “The Remains of Rock & Roll” features lavish, swaying string arrangement that adds an extra dose of beauty. After the Disco requires a few listens to appreciate its charm, but it’s well worth the time investment.
It’s been 14 long years since Cibo Matto, the duo of Japanese artists Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori, graced us with a new album. Finally arriving last month, Hotel Valentine is a welcome return. It’s reminiscent of the quirky duo’s previous work but also blazes new territory. Hotel Valentine is a groovy collection of off-kilter electric pop songs that will get you moving and stick in your head. Musically it’s a bit trip-hop, electronica, and loaded with inventive use of samples. Aurally Hotel Valentine is a wonder. Standout tracks include opener “Check In,” “MFN” and the excellent title song. The slinky “Déjà Vu” will definitely stick in your head. It’s great to hear new material from Cibo Matto, and hopefully we won’t be waiting another 14 years until their next release. They are too good to be absent for so long.
It makes sense that Elbow’s sixth album The Take Off and Landing of Everything was partially recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, as it seems to inhabit territory bordering on some of Gabriel’s best work, and vocalist Guy Garvey often sounds like Gabriel himself. The long, stately tracks are sonic marvels, with slowly building melodies and musical landscapes that leave plenty of space for Garvey’s evocative lyrics. There are plenty of standout tracks, but “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette” deserves to be singled out. It is one of the most immediate and memorable songs, thanks to a double-tracked vocal effect that adds extra intensity, and alternating jagged guitar and dense horn and string passages. It’s unpredictable, masterfully produced and truly a wonderful listen — as is the entire album. Elbow has been flirting with greatness for years, but they’ve finally gone over the top with a truly remarkable release. The Take Off and Landing of Everything is the finest album they’ve recorded. Elbow will be playing an incredible double bill with John Grant at the 9:30 Club in D.C. on May 11, 2014.
Sharon Jones does exactly what the title of her 5th album says – she gives her fans what they want. More specifically, old-school R&B and funk performed with real verve and enthusiasm. Her outstanding vocal performances are as energetic and soulful as ever, and the album is packed with 10 strong tracks that add to Jones’ already impressive catalog with the versatile and talented Dap-Kings. Opening track “Retreat!” starts with a bang, and the energy never lets up. Fans of Amy Winehouse’s neo-soul vibe need to check out Sharon Jones if you haven’t already. Fans of R&B music who are left a little cold by what passes for R&B for mass consumption will find Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings a welcome return to the funky and soulful R&B of the past, but with a modern sheen. The album grooves for a brief 33 ½ minutes before wrapping up, but it doesn’t feel too short — that’s the length of most albums during the era from which Jones is revisiting. It feels genuine and real thanks to the strength of Jones’ gritty, soulful voice, the whip-sharp instrumentation by the Dap-Kings, and a strong collection of songs. Give the People What They Want is a definite winner. Sharon Jones & The Daptones will be playing in Charlottesville, VA at the Jefferson Theater on May 29, 2014.
Classically-trained singer/songwriter Matthew Hemerlein is the mastermind behind Lo-Fang. His debut album Blue Film is an interesting listen — he blends classical elements, traditional folk-rock sounds, and bits of pop, R&B and electronica to create a cohesive whole. Hemerlein’s voice is pleasant if unremarkable, but it seems perfect for the impeccably-produced hybrids that he’s created from multiple musical disciplines. Blue Film isn’t overly ambitious — it’s often rather restrained and detached, as if he’s leery of stretching his obvious virtuosity too far. Perhaps greater experience as a songwriter will benefit Hemerlein and he’ll be able to create more of an emotional connection with the listener. The technique is there, but where is the heart and soul? One oddity is the strange and eerie cover of the Grease standard “You’re the One That I Want.” But small quibbles aside, Blue Film is a certainly an impressive debut, an accomplished creation by a guy who is clearly uber-talented, and a perfectionist craftsman in the studio. Lo-Fang will be back in D.C. to perform on Saturday, April 26 at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.
The Australian dance-pop diva is back with Kiss Me Once, her first studio album of new material since Aphrodite four years ago. It’s great to have her back — pop music needed a new Kylie Minogue album. Very few pop artists are as consistent as Kylie, who has a knack for churning out one irresistibly catchy song after another. Lead single “Into the Blue” is essential Kylie, a dance anthem with a dreamy, futuristic vibe. “Million Miles” is another earworm with killer beat that practically begs for multiple dance mixes. Kylie’s in a sensual mood on this record, with no fewer than three songs with the word “sex” in the title. “Sexercise” is a dubstep-flavored number, and the addictive “Les Sex” is one of the strongest tracks on the album. “Beautiful,” the romantic duet between Kylie and Enrique Iglesias, although heavy on the auto-tune, lives up to its name. Kiss Me Once is a classic disco album for the current generation — Kylie Minogue fans, or those who enjoy pop/dance music in general, should pick it up ASAP and prepare yourself to groove.
Phantogram is the duo of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, based in New York City, and Voices is their second album, following Eyelid Movies from 2009. Voices is an arresting collection of time-warped songs that draw from 1983 and 2113 in equal measures. All of the weird electronic sounds, textures and Barthel’s ethereal vocals fit like a wonderfully weird and exciting puzzle. “Nothing But Trouble” has a cinematic urgency, like it’s the embodiment of some cutting-edge high-tech thriller. “Bad Dreams” is built on a stuttering rhythm, swirling electronic effects and a terrific vocal by Barthel. The single “Fall in Love” is a standout, with a complex wave of keyboards incorporating samples forming the base of the song, and Barthel’s beautiful vocals floating atop with a gorgeous melody. Voices is highly experimental but it never loses touch with the song itself, the melody and the ability to reach an audience. The experimentation serves the song and isn’t for the sake of creating the strangest sounds possible. Voices is an exhilarating album that unfolds more and more with each listen, and only becomes better the more you play it. Phantogram is currently touring, but the closest they’ll come to D.C. is a date in New York City at Terminal 5 on June 16, 2014.
High Hopes is an album comprised mostly of outtakes and unfinished material in the decade since his last great album, The Rising. The result is a diverse collection of that sticks together as a coherent album despite its unorthodox genesis. Springsteen’s last album, Wrecking Ball, was so bleak and downbeat that it was a slog to get through. High Hopes has more spark, a generous helping of the fire that infuses The Boss’s best work. Working with Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, undoubtedly helped Bruce find his groove. Since some of the tracks have been in the works for a while, the late E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici appear on some tracks. There are even a couple covers, and from unlikely source material — Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” and “Just Like Fire Would” by Australian rockers The Saints. Before purists gasp and howl, Springsteen actually does justice to both, fitting the disparate tracks to his style with ease. The looseness and freedom to experiment on this album has obviously infected it with an energy lacking in the morose Wrecking Ball. He also records an epic studio version of his chilling track about the death of Amaduo Diallo at the hands of NYC police, “American Skin (41 Shots),” which was previously included on his 2001 release Live in New York City. High Hopes is Bruce at his best — loose, unafraid to take risks, and culling material from a wide range of recording sessions and sources. It’s his best release since The Rising. Springsteen has some U.S. dates forthcoming, but sadly he is bypassing Washington, DC (at least for now). But there are a couple dates within reasonable driving distance — April 12, 2014 at Farm Bureau Live in Virginia Beach, VA, and May 14, 2014 at Hershey Park Stadium in Hershey, PA.
California-based artist Scott Hansen, who records music under the name Tycho, has hit upon a winning combination with his fourth album Awake. The album is made up of eight long instrumental tracks that are hypnotic and engaging. It’s a perfect soundtrack for letting your mind drift and flow along with the strange and beautiful dimensions of sound that Hansen has carefully crafted together — most definitely headphones music. The soundscapes are a seamless blend of guitar, soaring synthesizer, and unobtrusive percussion. Awake is perfect for any number of situations — at work, in the car, or for chill out time when you want to turn out the lights, put on the headphones, and leave the rest of the world behind. It’s not ethereal, new age, easy listening music – – it has a bit more edge than that, and is engaging. Awake is an album that you’ll keep coming back to because it just has a great vibe and it feels good to hear. It’s uplifting. Tycho comes to D.C. on April 20, 2014 with a show at the 9:30 Club.
Suzanne Vega – Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles (February 14, Amanuensis Productions/ Superego)
Suzanne Vega returned this year with her first new studio album since Songs in Red and Gray 13 years ago. Yes it has an unwieldy title, but Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is every bit as good as classic Vega albums like 99.9F (1992), Solitude Standing (1987), or her self-titled debut from 1985. Her songwriting is as incisive as ever, and hearing her distinct voice again is like visiting an old, familiar friend. The chilling “I Never Wear White” is a standout for sure, as is “Fool’s Complaint” and low-key folk ballad “Portrait of the Knight of Wands,” proof that Vega still knows how to tell stories with evocative imagery and whip-smart lyrics. It may be a long time since Vega’s commercial peak, and there are no hit singles like “Luka” hiding amongst the tracks here, but Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles deserves to be heard. Vega will be playing The Birchmere in Alexandra, VA on May 9, 2014 in support of the album. Don’t miss it.
Frequent Kurt Vile collaborator Adam Granduciel is the creative force behind The War on Drugs, a Philadelphia-based band who has just released their third album, Lost in the Dream. Never has a title been more apt. It is very easy to lose yourself in the lush, dreamy soundscapes that Granduciel creates. Lost in the Dream is a carefully crafted collection of songs with shimmering keyboards, beautifully chiming guitars, and lovely melodies. Lost in the Dream is an album of exceptional beauty and power. There are many standout tracks, including the otherworldly opener “Under the Pressure,” and “Red Eyes,” which has a brilliant vocal and is the closest thing to a proper single on the album. “Eyes to the Wind” is sublime, as is the long and complex “An Ocean in Between the Waves.” Lost in a Dream is an album best experienced as a complete piece of music, start to finish. Set aside an hour of your time tonight, get in the right relaxed frame of mind (by whatever means preferable), turn out the lights, sit back and let the swirling waves of sound envelope you. Lost in a Dream is a musical experience to be savored. And how ‘bout Secretly Canadian? They’ve put together an impressive roster of artists: Yeasayer, The War on Drugs, I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness (are they still around? They put out one great album six years ago and disappeared), Animal Collective, and Antony and the Johnsons just to name a few. The War on Drugs will be performing at the 9:30 Club in D.C. on April 18, 2014.