Adventures In 2014: Top 20 Albums & EPs

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 was a wee bit rocky for me, especially in terms of finding albums that I could connect with. While songs by themselves I had zero trouble with (and you'll see what I mean later on...), albums and the creative construction of them have been in a constant dry spell. Yes, I'm crankily repeating myself from previous years, yet it seems at the end of the year I always find myself in déjà vu when it comes to culling together a list of my favorite albums of the year because as I get older, I'm well...more difficult to please.

These days the way an album is released has become more the focus than the actual content itself, and well, for an 'experience' girl like myself, I sit going: "Okay, fabulous, you did some epic shit, but what else have you got?" See, I like to be carted off from my lowly little existence and taken on adventures, sound adventures, lyrical adventures. I like to hear artists take risks, build from their previous efforts, and yes, at times just have some frackin' fun and not take themselves so seriously --- so few full projects fit those things now.

Still hope is never lost as even though it was a difficult year (once again) for the album, as usual I was able to dig into the cavern of sludge and uncover some aural gems that while weren't perfect --- they were perfect for me.

So take a peek at my top 20 of the year after the cut, and be sure to tell me in the comments about the albums you enjoyed this year!

20. Little Red - Katy B
"If you didn't get the message the first time on 2011's On A Mission, Little Red has Katy B once again reviving British Garage for a new generation and this time she cranks it up a couple of more decibels. Featuring Jessie Ware and Sampha in guest spots, Little Red is strictly dancefloor, with strobe light standouts such as "I Like You", "5AM", "Tumbling Down", and "Next Thing". Impressive as well are the tender moments where Katy B goes for the cool down on tracks like "Crying For No Reason" and "Still" that allow her vocals to peek out and prove that being a 21st Century dance diva is not her only strong suit. What would have made Little Red even better is the addition of last year's summer anthem, "What Love Is Made Of" and her stripped-down, impressively sung take on Sweet Female Attitude's 2000 Garage classic, "Flowers", but that is just one small grouse." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: The Next Thing, 5AM, Aaliyah (feat. Jessie Ware), I Like You, Tumbling Down, Everything, Still

19. Kiss Me Once - Kylie Minogue
"It's hard to hate a majority of anything on Kiss Me Once because Minogue is so aw-shucks sincere about it all. She spins away from the baroque Euro-pop that embodied 2010's Aphrodite, and whirls into Americana pop, recapturing the spirit of 2007's X, which was a soft nudge towards the US finally recognizing Minogue beyond that of a two hit wonder. Like X, Kiss Me Once is stark, and uneven, but purrs with sex kittenish frisk. Going from frothy disco swirls to R&B workouts back to firework crackling electro-pop, without much regard on trying to compete or cut an edge, and all of this is glazed over with her signature coos to make an album that is so uniquely her. Minogue knows she's making pop music, knows her audience, and she's not putting on airs to deem herself above everyone (see Lady Gaga). Minogue is in on the fun, and she's having it on her own terms. Is this her best work? Not really, but in times of political correctness and the fear and selfie-lothing culture, the embodiment of Kiss Me Once reminds one of the innocent nostalgic times when pop music didn't need to be taken to serious heights to be considered listenable." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: Into The Blue, Million Miles, I Was Gonna Cancel, Sexy Love, Feels So Good, If Only, Fine, Sleeping With The Enemy

18. Yellow Memories - Fatima
"Getting to know about Fatima has been simple for the most part, as her collaborations with creative thinkers Eric Lau and Funkineven led me to pay close attention, but on Yellow Memories, her long-anticipated debut album, the Swedish-Senegalese singer-songwriter allows us to thumb more pages in the novel called herself. The first chapter consists of "Do Better", a glorious joint that glides on smooth brass chords and still feels to me like a misbegotten Blaxplotation film track. She keeps things going on vintage with the jazz-soul coyness of "Technology" and squishy quiet funk of "Circle". Continuing to cross creative boundaries, the Scoop Deville-produced, "Ridin' Round (Sky High)" is a punchy low ride of rhythm n' rhyme while the Latin swivel of "La Nesta" is easily the most intricate song of the bunch as its tempo changes lead you in all kinds of fun directions." [Full Review][Stream + Purchase]
Notable Cuts: Do Better, Technology, Ridin' Round (Sky High), Family, Las Nesta, Underwater

17. Archaic Rapture EP - Mara Hruby:
"A while ago, Hruby got her heart sliced and diced by a former boyfriend, but we all know the best revenge is to let the tears dry on their own and scribe lyrical daggers about oh-what's-his-face --- I mean, it worked for Adele right? For Archaic Rapture, Hruby climbs into the lonely and reflective hours of torch n' jazz, and keeps a steady head by rekindling oldies but goodies as Frank Sinatra's "In The Wee Small Hours", Barbara Streisand's "My Coloring Book" and a sonic soul redress of Billie Holiday's reading of "Gone With The Wind" are given fine-tune nods. Hruby doesn't let the past do all the talking though, as her one original number here, the Samba tinged Jazz fusion of "Set Me Free", is on par with the classics she covets, but feels much more realized, and provocative." [Full Review][Stream] 
Notable Cuts: My Coloring Book, Gone With The Wind, Cry Me A River, Set Me Free

16. G I R L - Pharrell Williams
"Celebratory and not predatory is what Pharrell is aiming for with G I R L. He's not dishing about birth control battles or why The Bachelor is oh so problematic, the tough topics about women he's not bringing up here. He's all about the bedroom frolics, the morning after, and the wide-eyed future of possibilities in a relationship. [...] Pharrell works best when he goes for the old-meets-new approach and cuts out all the "deep" thought processes and just gets down to making stylish groovers with heart, and he crams the brief album with a fair share of them. When he joins up with Justin Timberlake on the lovey-dovey "Brand New" the two are infectious no matter the Lean Cuisine Michael Jackson course they gnaw on. It's funky effervescence that creates a stylish retro vibe that gets the shoulders shimming and stands out as one of the great ones here. [...] While it's not dismantling patriarchy any time soon (nice try), Pharrell's G I R L does work as a whole, and will work, due to its charm and Pharrell's sincerity to make an album that sounds old fashioned, but bubbles with new funk elements that are easy for all ages to digest and that will class up and reassemble some of the shambles R&B has been in as of recent, and for that it's something to pop on and forget about the gruel of life." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: Marilyn Monroe, Brand New (feat. Justin Timberlake), Gush, Happy, Come Get It Bae (feat. Miley Cyrus), Gust Of Wind, Lost Queen, It Girl

15. Lion Babe EP - Lion Babe
Eclectic hip-soul duo Lion Babe roar with precision on their debut roll-out. Interest was piqued when the steam of their debut single, "Treat Me Like Fire" rose, and it kept getting better as their Childish Gambino-assisted and Nina Simone-sampled, "Jump Hi" and the slow wine of "Jungle Lady" made appearances noting that bandmembers, Jillian Hervey (who is singer/actress and former Miss America Vanessa Williams' daughter) and Lucas Goodman are onto something. Though majorly comprised of their triumphant three singles, nestling in the newness of "Don't Break My Heart", which practices of the art of (Erykah) Baduizm, and the hypnotic acoustic spin of "Little Dreamer" shouldn't be too hard to get acquainted with. [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Tracks: Jump Hi (feat. Childish Gambino), Don't Break My Heart, Treat Me Like Fire, Jungle Lady

14. JHUD - Jennifer Hudson
"JHUD proves the third album is the charm as it's a cohesive collection that finally does Hudson's voice justice, and allows her to throw glitter in the air at the same time. It's nothing but a girls night out when she straps on her party pumps to zip through funky numbers like "Say It", "It's Your World", and "Just That Type Of Girl", and downs spiked rum punches like single, "Dangerous". Hudson doesn't get too swept up in the groove as she flexes those chops and goes deep into the pulpit for "Moan" or brings breaths of fresh air for odes like "Bring Back The Music". Though she keeps company with the likes of Timbaland, Iggy Azelea, and R. Kelly, they all play as a great supporting cast while Hudson leads and brings the class as she adopts a mirrorballed diva vibe a la Evelyn "Champagne" King and Cheryl Lynn, making all kinds of smart musical moves." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: Dangerous, It's Your World (feat. R. Kelly), Say It, Just That Type Of Girl, Bring Back The Music

13. Trouble In Paradise - La Roux 
"Still clouds and their dismal coloration are what make for those stellar humanizing albums, and Trouble In Paradise utilizes the group's (or rather Jackson's) personal misfortunes and evokes keen vulnerability as it's void of the jumping jack flashiness of its predecessor, but gilded with fluid melodies and poignant lyricism that justify those five elongated years of breakout fame and angst. The album literally bursts with maturation and, most importantly, balance. True, Jackson isn't all straight-laced. The nine-track album does engage in frothy good times that cape David Bowie at his Thin White Duke soul best, as the dizzy disco opener, "Uptight Downtown", exemplifies while the electric ska of "Tropical Chancer" prances nearby as a song No Doubt would've loved to have done. Jackson just struts much more assuredly in these cuts, winking in a sexier direction with tounge n' cheekiness to spare." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: Uptight Downtown, Kiss And Not Tell, Tropical Chancer, Silent Partner, Let Me Down Gently, The Feeling

12. Lemongrass and Limeleaves EP - Sasha Keable
"With Lemongrass and Limeleaves, Keable is still riffing on heartbreak and redemption, but the musical backdrop has delved deeper into engulfing synth tinged R&B, with the craftwork taking more artistic turns. The twilight soul of opener "Living Without You" fantastically dabbles in the darkest corners of mid-'80s R&B and Freestyle complete with a lonesome jazz horn at fade-out, while "Memory" blends murky piano chords and bass-lined percussion with Keable taking vocal diction pages from Amel Larrieux. If you think Keable is all gloom and doom, she emerges from her morose moods to bounce a little on the brass peppered "Sweetest Talk", and it's a highlight for sure. Over before one would want, Lemongrass and Limeleaves has Keable succeeding beyond her debut with a four-track starter on what it is to be futuristic yet bitingly soulful." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: Living Without You, Memory, Sweetest Talk

11. Sirens - Gorgon City
"Jennifer Hudson, MNEK, Erik Hassle, Katy B, Laura Welsh...the guest list is staggering on Gorgon City's debut Sirens, but all of them slip into the sleek twilight lounge that the duo from North London have formulated with precision. Naturally the guys of Gorgon City are going to give Disclosure, another duo of House revival hipness, a little run, but while the Lawrence brothers are focused on pouncing on you with strident beats, Gorgon City are much more tuned into the rhythm and blues of House, as they go deeper into its interior with velvety and soulful tones." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: Coming Home (feat. Maverick Sabre), Ready For Love (feat. MNEK), FTPA (feat. Erik Hassle), Go All Night (feat. Jennifer Hudson), Unmissable (feat. Zak Abel), Real (feat. Yasmin), Elevate (feat. Anne-Marie)

10. Taste The Juice EP - JUCE
Culling the crazy, sexy, and coolness of '90s girl groups of yore, JUCE easily became one of my favorite discoveries this year. The London band of besties are far from bashful as they exert an enticing blend of soulfully tinged synth-funk, that skirts every so often into rockier psychedelia terrains. With the cheeky single, "Call You Out" leading the way, the pace of  Taste The Juice, the trio's first collection, is kept with bass happy, "The Heat", and the disco shimmer of "Burnin' Up" and the melodic nourishment of these tracks run deep. Fresh squeezed and without concentrate, the sweet soul of JUCE are ones to watch when the new year rolls out. [Stream]
Notable Cuts: Call You Out, 6th Floor, Burnin' Up, (H)ours, The Heat (yes, the whole thing...)

9. Take Me Where You Go - Betty Who
"Take Me Where You Go is a Starburst of an album, where you get nothing but strawberry and cherry flavored gems like "Runaways", "A Night To Remember", and the '80s rush that is "Glory Days". Who also brings a little pop balladry into the mix as the longing, "California Rain" and dreamy "Missing You" note that Who can bring those piping hot pipes of her down to a smolder. Plus the fantastic ode to being young and broke, "High Society", is present on this set --- and that is always a win-win situation in my book." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: Just Like Me, High Society, Glory Days, Somebody Loves You, Missing You, Runways A Night To Remember, Heartbreak Dream, California Rain

8. FOOD - Kelis
"Food is yet another relentless variation on the R&B theme. This time Kelis reaches back into R&B's roots, finding the comfort in soul and with a voice that already sounds like the scratches and pops of an old soul record, it's a wonder why she took so long to immerse herself among heaping helpings of bob and weave horns, gut bucket blues, and torchy soul testimonies, but the u-turn is what makes Food so satisfying right down to the last morsel." [Full Review][Stream]

Notable Cuts: Jerk Ribs, Breakfast, Floyd, Runner, Cobbler, Fish Fry, Biscuits n' Gravy, Dreamer

7. Ester Rada - Ester Rada
"....the eclecticism of Rada is boundless. And with torch jazz, Afrobeat, reggae, alt-rock and slabs of brassy funk coming at you from all sides, there is little room for boredom and lots of room to explore. The familiar sounds of previously released singles "Monsters" and "Life Happens" melt in with the newer material, and she goes from packing heat on tracks like "Sorries", "Bad Guy", and "Bazi" to dimming the lights on mood pieces like "Out" and "Could It Be" with the quickness. Rada's consciousness to her Israeli and Ethiopian roots continues to play a major way in the tracks she scribes (and by the way, she wrote all 12 tracks present) and that honesty towards her roots and upbringing flows with great poise from one song to the next." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: Monsters, Sorries, Life Happens, Nanu Ney, Herd, Bazi, Bad Guy, Anything

6. Tough Love - Jessie Ware
"Jessie Ware has a good ear towards the her fellow UK chanteuses, as the past notes of Sade, Alison Moyet, and Annie Lennox are hard to ignore on Tough Love. For round two, Ware no doubt brings a delicacy to her vocal craft, and quietly she thunders again, proving why everyone made a big deal about her back in 2012 when she released her thrilling debut, Devotion. Though Tough Love is a little too sterile in comparisons to her debut, it's still just as hauntingly sound as Ware is sensually astute, and plays like the best girlfriend who's been there, romanced that, and has come out alive to tell the tale, and she's got some stories and they pull the heart string. [...] With each tear Ware vocally sheds, she's mending, and us right along with her." [Full Review][Stream]

Notable Cuts: Tough Love, Cruel, Say You Love Me, Sweetest Song, Want Your Feeling, Champagne Kisses

5. Sound Of A Woman - Kiesza 
"Want an album that takes crisp nostalgic detours into '90s House and Hip-Hop? Want a singer that has combed through the vocal rulebooks of Robin S. and CeCe Peniston and steps into the platforms of DeeeLite's Miss Lady Kier with flourishing abandon? Then Kiesza and her Sound Of A Woman project is the antidote. The massive "Hideaway" was the electric current towards Canada's latest export, and Sound Of A Woman keeps the charge alight as Kiesza just sings her mutha fuggin' ass off. Yes, literally sings her rump off on this as exhibits like "The Love", "Piano" and "No Enemiesz" have you aware to that fact. Kiesza has got some pipes on her and they are primed and polished, bringing back yearn for those days where Mariah Carey's voice was in much better shape, and Whitney Houston was singing about being a queen of the night." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: Hideaway, No Enemiesz, Losin' My Mind (feat. Mick Jenkins), So Deep, Sound Of A Woman, The Love, Piano, Cut Me Loose

4. Nabuma Rubberband - Little Dragon
"Nabuma Rubberband isn't the easiest of Little Dragon albums to get into as the foursome indulge deep into their conjoined psyches. It almost feels intrusive, as we peer and find footing into this album that feels like a loaded whispered secret, where songs are landscaped, wide, almost to where they blend into one, especially on first sitting. When the final song, the finest of the bunch, "Let Go", the door is opened, oxygen rushes through, as the secret is told, and it's now safe to sway into its buoyant net of synths. Still don't let the gravity bring you down, Little Dragon's art is in how they manage mystique, even during exposing moments, and Nabuma Rubberband is able to find that balance and then some. An album for the lonely hunters looking to spear the floating heart, Little Dragon have hit their bliss spot just right with this one." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: Mirror, Pretty Girls, Cat Rider, Paris, Pink Cloud, Let Go

3. Black Messiah - D'Angelo
Forget about Kim Kardashian and her Turtle Waxed arse, D'Angelo broke the Internet when after 14 years of being a recluse and multiple taxing and teasing situations, his long-anticipated project, Black Messiah was liberated. Divine intervention it was as D and his band of Vanguards picked up where 2000's iconic Voodoo left off, incorporating signature rubbersnapping bass licks, plucky ivories, and Spanish guitars, not paying any mind towards what musical trends are flourishing, but instead spinning out needling Victrola era jazz ("Sugah Daddy") and touching base with Funkadelic and Prince at their most experimental peaks, with D wiggling in his own sly grassroots soul flair. 
While D waxes a little romance and reason as far as the warm bedding of "Really Love" and "Another Life" go, but underneath his riffs, mumbles, and elastic coos, Black Messiah sparks with a political charge as it harps and reflects on today's torrential down-pouring of racially charged killings, and the on-going lack of justice in cases of police brutality. Lines like "all we wanted was a chance to talk, 'stead we got outlined in chalk" and "clock ticking backwards on things we've already built", crackle with truth and give backbone to the current movements and motions that have sprung up. D's urging for peace while trying to piece together understanding is a monologue that most who have been closely affected by these weary times have been combating with, and D fits the stream of consciousness into a candid form of poetic justice. 
While it's still not the grand What's Going On of our time (let's be truly honest, folks...most of the songs present aren't about Ferguson), for a generation who is searching to find its soundtrack, Black Messiah does in its strengths fit the credo of the cries. Still what it does even better than unbolting mass catharsis, is that its a truly commanding return for a long-admired soul virtuoso. [Stream]
Notable Cuts: Ain't That Easy, The Charade, Sugah Daddy, Really Love, Back To The Future (Part 1), Till It's Done (Tutu), Another Life

2. The Golden Echo - Kimbra 
"At it's best, The Golden Echo corrupts the ideas of pop music in a way that is refreshingly brilliant (or horrendously damaging, depending on how you look at it...), as it indirectly highlights how mainstream pop music has become quite conservative in its construction. We're not used to such intense layering and complexity when it comes to tracks like this today, and a lot of it is an acquired taste. [...] It's easy to also claim that this album is filled with copy and paste grooves. It's true, you've heard some of these styles before, but Kimbra enacts admirable gall to introduce new ways to hear what we've heard decades prior by assembling a multifaceted collage that doesn't cheapen or diminish her personal artistry, but rather showcases her desire to make music making an outright adventure. Each song stands as an individual idea or mood, taking on lives of their own. 
The excellent M-Phazes produced "Madhouse" is caught in an obvious trap of Prince's Lovesexy and Teddy Riley's New Jack Swing, while "Waltz Me To The Grave" is a Tim Burton corpse bridal march. "Goldmine" works in the heat and sweat of the '90s hip-hop chain-gang its led on, and even though it competes with itself, "Carolina" gallops across a plain of heavy percussive beats that recall the drive of even her own creation, Vows' "Cameo Lover", but positions the singer knee-deep in country fried vocality that froth up her creativity to stretch and pull her vocals like clay." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: Teen Heat, '90s Music, Carolina, Miracle, Madhouse, Nobody But You, Love In High Places

1. The London Sessions - Mary J. Blige
"Present on The London Sessions are the hippy Brit kids of today --- Disclosure, Sam Smith, Emeli Sandé, Naughty Boy, and Sam Romans --- and in some meta twist, Blige finds herself working with these artists who are currently interpreting the catalog she has carefully culled for over 20 years. [...] This influence rolls into The London Sessions, as instead of these new kids mangling her formula and trying to twist her into sounding 20 years her senior --- they elevate her. There is a lot of care in how Blige lyrically operates and an awareness of how Blige's voice works, and with these considerations it leaves little room for overindulgence, and a lot of room to bring Blige back to the Gospel roots she began her career on, and then some.
Blige's voice is taunt, has aged well, and is clear and unwilling to be bossed, making such ardent stances as the standout, "Long Hard Look", and the intricate strut of "Follow" into big anthems, the latter giving Disclosure some of their best work yet as the sizzling kiss-off spirals into a sea of cymbals and stuttering synths that heightens, not hampers, Blige's fiery vocals. [...] Though Blige may seem more put-together than we all are, throughout the course of her career we see that that isn't always so true as she has been reassembling herself, reviving herself, and has proven time and time again to be human like us all, and with The London Sessions this truth is no different. Just this time Blige she has found a new way to express her joy and pain, and has intersected these layered feelings into a new and bolder musical frontier that allows her to still be in-tune with what resonates deep within her, as well as smartly turn the page for the next chapter in the journey of herself and her art." [Full Review][Stream]
Notable Cuts: Therapy, Doubt, Right Now, My Loving, Long Hard Look, Whole Damn Year, Pick Me Up, Follow


Honorable Mentions: Vibes! - Theophilus London | The Elusive Chantesue - Mariah Carey | Strong As Glass - Goapele | Rachel Foxx EP - Rachel Foxx | In The Lonely Hour - Sam Smith | Fall For You - Leela James | Almost Us EP - Milo & Otis | Unfinished Business EP - Fly Moon Royalty | #LOVEJO - JoJo | The Unexpected - Liv Warfield | Xscape - Michael Jackson

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