Best new artists of 2014
Often times a debut can be like musical puberty: An awkward phase that requires something like a new producer or occasionally a complete overhaul on the sophomore effort. After all, it took a while for bands like Radiohead and The Flaming Lips to find their sound.
I mean, how often can we expect another Doors debut, Doggystyle, or Appetite for Destruction? But every year, there’s a handful of debut records that shake things up; the Savages’ debut Silence Yourself last year contained a written manifesto, giving their music dead-eye purpose, like Joy Division in the ’70s.
In 2014, we’ve had groundbreaking debut records by a West Coast gangsta’ rapper, Syracuse hardcore punks and an experimental R&B artist that all managed to earn equal doses of stinging criticism and vaunted praise.
We handpicked a few of those artists, the ones we felt debuted with stellar outings. A few of these artists will be around for years to come, like Ex Hex’s Mary Timony, who’s been around since the early-’90s. Others will fade away or recreate themselves as self-aggrandizing DJs or lounge singers. Of course, we didn’t pick any of those.
10. Douglas Dare – Whelm – Erased Tapes
Douglas Dare’s foggy debut is like a dusty book of poems, scored by his haunting piano and the solemness in his voice. Dare is able to project historical narratives with a level of misery that can only come from someone raised in a tiny town on the coast of England (in Bridport). Now based in London, Dare’s mediative work on Whelm is supported, albeit with restraint, by the glitchy productions of Fabian Prynn, which adds variety to Dare’s piano on songs like “Unrest,” where the electronic experimentation is used to create feelings of anxiety. It’s a purposefully cold-sounding record, where historical storytelling replaces the diary-like entries by traditional English folk musicians. He’s also, as expected, been compared to James Blake, but Dare’s creations are a bit more escapist, with less bass, more poetry, and a unique ability to take his poetry and give it musical life.
Favorite Tracks: “Clockwork” and “London’s Rose”
9. YG – My Krazy Life – Def Jam
YG’s ratchet debut My Krazy Life is absurd, like a street gangs doing musical comedy. DJ Mustard, his producer and mentor, takes YG’s sardonic gangsta’ rap lyricism and blends it with minimalist West Coast beats that are both humorous and dark. The productions on each track combine alien synths, bending theremin notes, and epic Dr. Dre “In Da Club” party productions that make YG’s major label debut a roller coaster ride that gives you everything you need from popular hip-hop: sex jams, bad acting vignettes followed by robbery, references to Bloods and Crips, prison memories, and nostalgic trips that remind you of Snoop’s Doggystyle. There’s nothing genius about this record, but like a popcorn-popping viewing of a B-movie, it’s not meant to make you think; My Krazy Life is a homage to the streets, with a few anthems that shine the light on a gifted producer, DJ Mustard, and from time to time, just makes you laugh yourself to tears.
Favorite Tracks: “I Just Wanna Party” and “Left, Right”
8. Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks - Enter the Slasher House – Domino
Is Dave “Avey Tare” Portner of Animal Collective a bit self-indulgent? Yes. Does he layer his tracks with a thicket of noise that distorts any personal connection you can build with his music? You bet. But occasionally, his trademark tribal percussions and mechanical noise can create something, well, therapeutically pop-sounding. On Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks debut, joined by collaborator Angel Deradoorian (formerly of Dirty Projector), Portner produces a more accessible record that’s grounded in ’60s garage rock, electro-pop, and classic horror movie novelty that’s not always obvious. The lead single, “Little Fang,” taking aside the excessive overdubbed vocals, sounds like pop music created for a Halloween ball, with jangling guitars and a dance-ready rhythm section. Put it all together, and Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks is an experiment worth considering, even if it takes a while to fully translate into something enjoyable.
Favorite Tracks: “A Sender” and “Little Fang”
7. Eagulls – Eagulls – Partisan Records
After EP’s and singles dating back to 2011, four working class blokes from Leeds seem to have birthed the year’s best “post-punk” record — with a hardcore edge. Eagulls, their self-titled debut, explodes with Peter Hook-inspired bass picking that snaps behind the bellowing vocals of singer George Mitchell (who sounds a bit like Jaz Colemen of Killing Joke). With each member having roots in hardcore punk, Eagulls have a brutal sound that pummels the gothic atmospherics they build each song on. While their debut isn’t quite hardcore, at least not in the American sense, it does sound rough enough for a drunken slam-dance at a local bar. In other words, it’s nonstop rock ‘n’ roll that doesn’t complicate things.
Favorite Tracks: “Nerve Endings” and “Possessed”
Jack Name is the shadowy alter-ego of former White Fence guitarist John Webster Adams. On his debut Light Show, the L.A.-based artist has created a psychedelic rock opera that melts into a mélange of dystopian symbolism, haunting horns, child-like overdubs, and melodic garage-pop. Light Show builds on a narrative of embracing the shadow (a character is his rock opera) that symbolizes Name’s fascination with “chemical imbalances” and how the nation’s youth can find healing by embracing their creativity. It’s a type of record Syd Barett might have made had he been asked to put music to “Prozac Nation.” What it is, however, is a twisted journey into the imagination of an anti-identity recluse.
Favorite Tracks: “Do The Shadow” and “Pure Terror”
Rips is the first album by Ex Hex, and in many ways, it’s veteran rocker Mary Timony’s first carefree, jukebox pop-rock record. From Washington D.C.’s Dischord punk scene, to Boston with her band Helium, and just recently with supergroup Wild Flag, Timony has been prolific since the early-’90s. Ex Hex’s Rips is a clean-reset for Timony, who steps back and allows her ’77 Les Paul Special to take over; Rips freely borrows from riff-happy records by Tom Petty, the Pretenders, and early-Blondie. But rather than ripping them off — Rips channels Timony’s teenage voice, harnessed by her danceable childhood influences, to create garage rock that defies conventional wisdom. Seriously, how does a 44-year-old create a record that could land on Burger Records and inspire teenagers to make bedroom cassette recordings? “Perception is a fool,” sings Timony, who recorded parts of Rips in her basement, like some DIY punk putting out her first tape.
Favorite Tracks: “Don’t Wanna Lose” and “Waterfall”
4. Alvvays – Alvvays – Polyvinyl / Transgressive Records
Alvvays, (pronounced “Always”) is the self-titled debut by the Toronto indie-pop group led by singer Molly Rankin, whose voice has a distant twee-pop quality, like Pam Berry of Black Tambourine. Rankin’s vocal turn out to be the perfect tool for sunny indie-pop that touches on adulthood through an eerie delivery, juxtaposed by Best Coast vocal melodies that drip with ’90-sounding nostalgia. With all the C86-influenced moodiness dripping off this record, Rankin’s personal narrative becomes something you simply can’t walk away from, like a reoccurring dream about a past romance that fills the pages of a secret, and occasionally disturbing diary.
Favorite Tracks: “Archie, Mary Me” and “Party Police”
3. Benjamin Booker – Benjamin Booker – ATO Records
At 25-years-old, with influences as varied as Blind Willie Johnson and The Gun Club, Benjamin Booker sounds like a chain-smoking bluesman playing 50’s rockabilly. His debut is evidence that he’s a byproduct of the country’s all-ages DIY scene, where musical cross-breeding (in his case, boogie riffs with punk) is at the core of the scene. The stripped down sound and soulful delivery, anchored by rapid-fire drummer Max Norton, will appeal to garage rockers and Stax Records collectors alike. It’s also a record that shakes your bones like Tom Waits crooning at the moon, followed by a whirlwind of guitars that caught the attention of Jack White, and now, all of America — from the Mississippi Delta to Hollywood Boulevard.
Favorite Tracks: “Violent Shivers” and “Wicked Waters”
2. FKA twigs – LP1 – Young Turks
FKA twigs’ imaginative debut, simply titled LP1, takes R&B into an avant-garde, vividly mechanical direction that’s freakishly overdubbed, hypnotic, and a meditation on the sustained eeriness of her voice. Reminiscent of Björk and Portishead, with a digital-acrobatic quality on the trip-hop productions, Twigs’ debut transports feelings of heartache, insecurity, and sheer confidence into the listener like a Vulcan mind-meld. Then there’s the fact that a former London cabaret singer and music video dancer, who’s body bends fluidly into positions that boggle the mind (like a real-life anime character), also has the vocal range of the alien diva from The Fifth Element — keen enough to give us just enough, with graceful subtlety, which makes her controlled sound seem vulnerable on “Pendulum,” and goddess-like on “Two Weeks.”
Favorite Tracks: “Two Weeks” and “Video Girl”
On their full-length debut Say Yes to Love, Syracuse’s Perfect Pussy creates gladiatorial hardcore punk that will either frustrate you like a complex math equation, or have you weeping from joyful tears of triumph. In other words, it’s the most polarizing record of the year. On each track of their fire-breathing 23-minute debut, singer Meredith Graves’ spoken word verses sound like a wildling strangling an elephant — which you can hear in all the whiplash feedback and heavy breathing. The result is music that straddles that fine line between a car wreck, a dreamy sunrise in the big city, and an ’80s hardcore punk. But Graves’ ability to translate her frustration into revealing poetry, stuff that’s not meant to be melodic or accessible, requires serious commitment from her audience. To really get Perfect Pussy’s debut, you need to decipher the lyrics like you would any manifesto, and then, allow the artful noise to squeeze the life out of you like a wrestling match with a polar bear.
Favorite Tracks: “Bells” and “Interference Fits”
Others We Liked:
11. Crosses (+++) – Crosses (+++)
12. The Bots - Pink Palms
13. Marmazots – The Weird and Wonderful Marmozets
14. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
15. Royal Blood - Royal Blood