As is my tradition, here’s a collection of stuff I’ve been listening to this year.
Travel affected my listening habits in rather unexpected ways. Sadly, I never did glean off any music during my West Africa trip that I could identify and search upon my return, beyond a bit of highlife and Ghanaian variants of the “al-Qaeda” dance. Instead, in my panic to re-learn French before heading to Togo and Benin, I ended up listening to a lot of French-Canadian music. That in turn led me to dig a bit through more Canadian music in general, regardless of language. It’s pretty great. It also let me jam a lot to whatever I could recognise on the radio during the Quebec roadtrip. Whoo.
The list below doesn’t feature everything I’ve been listening to, nor is it limited to music released in 2014. It does veer away from this year’s hype machine a bit, but it’s music that I feel deserves a few sentences of attention.
Here’s a YouTube playlist of all the linked tracks.
Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
Bring an acapella folk singer and a psych folk bassist together, and you get… glitchy electropop? It’s able to be low-key yet exuberant, dimlit yet danceable, casual yet hypnotic — making for a very cohesive but still distinctive album that plays well in sequence. The fun they’re having is obvious and infectious.
>> Coffee, Uncatena
Ases Falsos – Conducción
Classic era pop-rock done right, with bright, clean melodies and choruses. Cristóbal Briceño has a sharp voice that delivers on raw, yell-along-karaoke-worthy emotion, but a deeper glance into his lyrics reveals bittersweet romanticism and youth idealism confronting mature reality. Doesn’t matter if you don’t understand, it’s a very warm, inviting record.
>> Simetría, La gran curva
Jessie Ware – Tough Love
Everything she puts out exudes sophistication and class. Known for her restrained, smouldering songs, she expands a little into bigger beats and schmaltzier choruses, but also flirts with straight-up pop and clearer, higher vocals. The loss in album-wide consistency in sound is more than made up for by the sheer amount of amazing songs — incredibly hard to pick just two here!
>> Tough Love, Kind Of… Sometimes… Maybe
Tennis – Ritual in Repeat
The husband/wife duo master their 60s-80s era nostalgic sound, with lush harmonies, hey-hey-heys, and expansive choruses. No fuzz, no wall of sound, just clear pop hooks and wonderful slow jams, all with a bit of heft to it. Wistfully sweet.
>> Never Work For Free, Bad Girls
Louis-Jean Cormier – Le treizième étage
Lead singer of Polaris Prize-winning Karkwa takes a solo detour into folk rock — much more percussive and decidedly more straightforward musically and lyrically, full of story narratives. Karkwa may be great already, but his solo stuff may be even more engaging and immediate. I’m well over a year and a half late (this came out late 2012), but I’ve managed to listen to it all year.
>> Bull’s Eye, Tout le monde en même temps
OTHER ALBUM HIGHLIGHTS
Alvvays – Alvvays
Fuzzy indie-pop, 60s style — think a more jangly version of Camera Obscura. While sweet, singer Molly Rankin sounds emotionally direct and matter-of-fact over some addictive hooks and sharp lyrics.
>> Archie, Marry Me, Next of Kin
Ana Tijoux – Vengo
It’s almost unfair to peg this with a label like “world music” — eclectic sounds, uplifting, socially-conscious lyrics — but Ana Tijoux raps and sings over traditional South American/modern funk-pop fusions passionately without descending into genericism. It’s hip hop in an untraditional yet almost old-school sense.
>> Somos sur (f. Shadia Mansour), Los peces gordos no pueden volar
Chet Faker – Built on Glass
Take pulsating beats and stutters, pile some smooth-jazz-esque instruments, and add some soul/R&B vocals at a volume not much louder than a mumble. Definitely a chillout, bedroom record.
>> Talk Is Cheap, 1998
Chromeo – White Women
Before you ask — the album’s named after a photography book. The lotharios are at it again with an even more pop sounding electro-funk album. They’re still unabashedly hammy, but never not earnest.
>> Jealous (I Ain’t With It), Old 45’s
Erlend Øye – Legao
Former Whitest Boy Alive and still-member of Kings of Convenience goes a little Icelandic-reggae. It never goes beyond a strutting pace nor does he ever raise the volume — perfect for relaxing.
>> Fence Me In, Garota
Flight Facilities – Down to Earth
Electronic duo with a real knack for writing effortless mellow dance music, occasionally groovy, occasionally airy. Their lone tracks are good, but the many featuring tracks are the real highlight, taking them into pop, R&B, and funk.
>> Crave You (f. Giselle), Sunshine (f. Reggie Watts)
Fanny Bloom – Pan
There seems to be two sounds to this record — exuberant, throw-everything-on-the-wall pop, and former La Patère Rose frontwoman Fanny Bloom’s signature skeletal piano ballads (aided by the titular pan flute). They exist separately, but when they intersect…
>> Piscine, Blanc
Future Islands – Singles
Can synthpop be serious? I listen to this record and hear overwrought emotion and melodrama, from the driving-in-the-nighttime-rain arrangements, pounding drums and pressing baseline, to the raspy voice. Then I see the intense meme-worthy performance. Yes, it can.
>> Seasons (Waiting On You), A Dream of You and Me
Javiera Mena – Otra era
Glossy, synthy electropop with a disco/house flavour, and packaged in eye-catching, provocative visuals (beware the links) that match the spacey-technicolour and occasional suggestiveness of the music. This is very much a record about the thrill of relationships and letting loose — often on the dancefloor.
>> La joya, Espada
Jorge Drexler – Bailar en la cueva
An already well-established singer-songwriter known for his lyricism, this is his take on danceable music — Latin guitars, gentle horns, a little jazz, a little bossa nova. It’s rootsy and starry-eyed and really gets going around the middle of the record.
>> La luna de Rasquí, Universos paralelos (f. Ana Tijoux)
The Juan Maclean – In a Dream
Put LCD Soundsystem’s Nancy Whang’s coolly blasé voice on any dance track and it becomes a classic. Now put her on an entire record full of disco-house jams.
>> A Simple Design, Running Back to You
Karim Ouellet – Fox
Pop music (in French) through and through with radio-ready hooks, borrowing lightly from sounds around the world (reflecting Karim Ouellet’s own Senegal/Tunisia/Canada upbringing). Nothing complicated, the whole thing’s got a loose vibe to it.
>> L’amour, Rien ne sert de courir
Kelis – Food
A decade after “Milkshake” and several style eras later, Kelis lands on a soul-funk-pop-R&B meld that sounds as good as the song titles taste. (She’s a trained chef now with her own cooking show!) Her raspy voice over the brassy and bold instrumentation provides a loose, comfortable vibe. Comfort food, rather.
>> Jerk Ribs, Rumble
Les Hay Babies – Mon Homesick Heart
Rich harmonies, a little twang, and some stomping rhythms — this all-girl trio (all great singers who swap lead) make some warm, inviting folk music. It’s all very much tied into their Acadian roots, with lyrics drawing from regional locales and sung in mostly French/Chiac.
>> Fil de téléphone, Bonnie and Clyde
Mala Rodríguez – Bruja
Spanish hip hop is no less able to be intense. La Mala spits politically motivated rhymes in some songs, snarls and rages in others, then manages to fit in a few poppier songs on classically Spanish-inflected beats — it’s a marvel to behold the tonal shifts in the same album, and the different sides to her person.
>> Quién manda, 33
Monserrat – Monserrat
Breezy folk-pop with a Spanish flavour, laying Beach Boys-esque harmonies over catchy, lighthearted melodies.
>> La playa, Elige tu propia aventura (full album here)
Mr Twin Sister – Mr Twin Sister
The group returns, rebranding themselves with the “Mr” tag and finding a different (and far better, but front-loaded) remarkably cohesive, soft-electro-disco record. It’s smooth, intimate, dreamy, and evokes a city night — and the lyrics are just as much living in night time vignettes, as introverted and pensive as a wild night on the town can sound.
>> In the House of Yes, Blush
Radio Radio – Ej feel zoo
This is a ridiculously fun record — even if you understand the baffling Chiac rhymes, you still might not understand what’s going on… and bounce along anyway. Don’t take it seriously. Can’t think of anyone else who can add a fiddle to electro-rap and make it sound awesome.
>> SuHold, Ej feel zoo
Shad – Flying Colours
Going against the grain of most rappers, Shad addresses his immigrant experiences (being from Kenya), faith, Canadiana, and life lessons using clean and witty rhymes without being cloying. Always thoughtful and heartfelt but never angry, still able to flow. The beats hop around genres, always providing a positive or pensive mood, never removing focus from the lyrics.
>> Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins), Stylin (f. Saukrates)
She & Him – Classics
Covers of songs/pop standards from the 30s to the 70s. You almost can’t tell, the lyrics and new arrangements sound right up their alley. Whether you’ll like this album is entirely correlated with whether you like their previous records.
>> Stars Fell On Alabama, Stay Awhile
Sinkane – Mean Love
The sound is eclectic blend of afropop, funk, R&B, and a little bit of everything else, pulling — as the lyrics also do — from his Sudanese background, American upbringing, and search of identity. It’s a record of simple sentiments through a personal lens, laid-back and bright.
>> How We Be, New Name
Spoon – They Want My Soul
Spoon still sound like Spoon, the pinnacle of indie rock — hard, measured drums; crisp, clean melodies and hooks; Britt Daniel’s rasp spitting out weary, biting lyrics. This is easily the most earwormy, immediate-sounding they’ve been.
>> Inside Out, Do You
Tanya Tagaq – Animism
This year’s Polaris Prize winner is from an Inuit throat singer, of all people. This is not an easy album to listen to, but it’s engrossing — backed by sparse instrumentation, Tagaq is front and center from guttural grunts and gasps, a force of nature and a constant source of tension. The album is worth a full listen, but nothing is a better example than her live Polaris performance.
>> Uja/Umingmak (live)
tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack
Mostly throwing out the ol’ ukulele and loop pedal, this album is an exercise in pop deconstruction, jamming a litany of ideas, sounds, and socio-politicised nursery rhymes into songs, with a heavy focus on percussion (augmented by bass guitar and synths). It’s dissonant, but it works, and it never ceases to surprise.
>> Water Fountain, Hey Life (live)
Yelle – Complètement fou
Assistance from mega-pop producer Dr Luke (Katy Perry, Kesha) hasn’t diluted their eclectic-but-very-French dance/electropop or made them sound even remotely generic (phew!), but rather, it’s added a lot of weird, morphing sounds to their repertoire — it lives up to the title. It’s a ton of fun and about having fun.
>> Complètement fou, Ba$$in
Recommendations are always welcome!