Days Are Gone
The three sisters collectively known as Haim arrived this year on a wave of hype that rivaled that of well-established pop stars. With their debut album Days Are Gone, they not only proved that the hype was well worth it but also exceeded expectations. It is the definition of endlessly listenable music, influenced by everything from California pop rock and the music of the 1970s to ‘90s pop and R&B. When it comes to Haim, the old adage holds true: ask 10 people to describe Haim and you’ll hear them compared to 10 different artists. And that’s the heart of Haim’s appeal, their ability to blend so many styles into one intoxicating pop style, which in itself reflects contemporary music consumption. Their driving guitar riffs and baselines, everything about their music is percussive. “The Wire,” the biggest hit off Days Are Gone could be a long-forgotten ‘80s hit. The backing dance beat and glossy lyrics of “If I Could Change Your Mind” reveal more contemporary R&B influences. Their songs can seamlessly shift between styles, and yet they still remain within their own unique multifaceted sound. “Honey & I,” “Don’t Save Me” and “My Song 5” are unpredictable, ingenious pop songs. This maturity and unity of sound is typically reserved for established bands. The fact that Haim can claim such accolades with their debut album surely promises more for the future. – Katherine Springer
14. Janelle Monáe
The Electric Lady
In an interview with “The Guardian,” Janelle Monáe confesses what we’re all suspecting: “I’m a time traveler. I have been to lots of different places.” It’s unclear – as it usually is – whether this is Monáe talking, or her alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, an archangel robot-being sent to mediate between the contentious polarities of humankind. This is a mythology she began to build back in 2007 with her debut EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) through 2010’s (inter)stellar The ArchAndroid and into this year’s eclectic and star-studded The Electric Lady. With all of the power gaps this electric lady seeks to root out, overturn, subvert and contain – race, gender, class, sexual politics, alienation, marginalization – her role is to liberate. Mirroring to us here on earth, Monáe’s music – for a moment – likewise sets us free.
“Dance Apocalyptic” embodies a fuck-all abandon, “cha-langa-langa-lang”s pinging off the tiles of a ladies’ room at this futuristic sock hop. Transposing the end of days with oblique references to transgressive sexual thrills, the outcome is radioactive: You’re not afraid to break out.” Prince supplies guest vocals on “Givin Em What They Love,” a duet that is absolutely slick and slithery, Monáe and the Purple One getting their grind on. Can that be topped? Maybe. It’s hard to pick the best collab of the bunch: “Primetime” with Miguel crests as an R&B ballad, and “Q.U.E.E.N.” with Erykah Badu struts and squiggles as the album’s signature song. A fresh collection of songs inspired by the sounds of a bygone era – Monáe could easily be mistaken for a Jackon 5-era MJ in “It’s Code” – The Electric Lady is convincing evidence that time travel is possible. – Stacey Pavlick
The Bones of What You Believe
Sometimes, a good Sunday morning worship service can rouse even the staunchest of atheists. The soaring choruses, the communal voices, the steadfast belief in a universal salvation — it might not convince you of a Great Light in the Sky, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the sheer beauty of it all. Scottish trio CHVRCHES operates in much the same way, having created a near-perfect album of electro-pop that’s as universally appealing as any album I’ve heard all year. Bombastic enough to envelop a cavernous cathedral, but so emphatic as to creep into any wounded heart, The Bones of What You Believe is the rare record that justifies every ounce of hype that came before it.
Sure, early singles “The Mother We Share” and “Recover” are crystalline in their effervescence, but deep cuts like “Tether” and “Night Sky” surprise by revealing a lyrical darkness and sonic debt to horror soundtracks from the ‘70s and ‘80s. It all coalesces beautifully, forging a skeleton from crystal, stardust, and sea salt that can’t help but drag its sparkling bones onto the icy blue dance floor. Ominous yet uplifting, the songs The Bones of What You Believe can inspire the kind of ecclesiastical fervor that makes you close your eyes and lift your hands; not in worship, but in ecstasy. – Randall Colburn
By blending brooding electronic pulses with brutal honesty and a healthy dose of levity, ex-Czars frontman John Grant stirs up an intoxicating brew with his second solo album, Pale Green Ghosts. A lot has changed since his 2010 solo debut, Queen of Denmark—both for good and ill. That record dealt largely with Grant’s past battles with drug and alcohol addiction. On the plus side, Grant is clean these days, and he relocated to the majesty of Iceland to record Pale Green Ghosts, but in 2012 he revealed that he is HIV-positive. Grant doesn’t hide behind any masks on his new album, instead openly discussing his diagnosis on “Ernest Borgnine,” while continuing to expose his internal conflicts about his own homosexuality.
While Grant bares his soul on moody tracks like “Vietnam” and the breathtakingly beautiful “Glacier,” he takes more of a confrontational tone on others, singing, “What you’ve got is a black belt in BS/ But you can’t hawk your pretty wares up in here anymore,” and later he pines after a lover on “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore” and bemoans the inevitability of bumping into an ex in “I Hate This Town.” Many of the songs directly address lost lovers and Grant wears his heart on his sleeve about these men, but he also injects sarcasm and introspective wit on tracks like “GMF.” Add to this potent mix Pale Green Ghosts’ edgy electronics that sway between danceable and atmospheric and you’ve got yourself an album that’s haunting in its honesty and otherworldly in its infectiousness. – Josh Goller
11. Neko Case
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
It’s not like further proof was needed that Neko Case is one of the most accomplished songwriters working today, but The Worse Things Get… validates that distinction all the more. Though it lacks the immediacy of her previous LPs, the album sees Case pushing her craft into new territory, still incorporating and fusing disparate musical touchstones but with a lyrical shift toward confessionalism. The majority of the lyrics here are evocative enough to give impressions but remain abstruse to cloud literal meaning. There are themes of indistinct gender roles, identity crises and family strife, with Case at one moment spitting bile and the next displaying vulnerable empathy, as in the striking “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” Sure, lead single “Man” has garnered the bulk of attention, not undeservedly, but it is the most incongruous song in context of the whole album, which is more staid, reflective and pensive than that charging and confrontational number. Many of the cuts are brief, like glimpses into the shifting but at times complimentary facets of one’s psyche, their hooks revealing themselves only on repeated listens. For the road-weary “I’m From Nowhere” which serves to demythologize the glory of a rootless life, there is the elegiac Nico cover “Afraid,” wherein Case imparts sagelike encouragement, and “City Swans,” effervescent in its melody but laced with sadness in the vocal delivery. For the dirty western tumble of “Bracing for Sunday” there is the relaxed, front porch at sunset flow of “Calling Cards.” Wrapping it is one of the finest closers of the year, the struggles of the preceding 11 songs reaching a resolve in “Ragtime,” which builds from a slow simmer to a brass and percussion-led crescendo, a renewed Case stating “Reveal myself when I’m ready/ I’ll reveal myself when I’m invincible soon.” As a whole, it is Case’s boldest work yet. – Cole Waterman