Whether you were humming “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift, or practicing FKA Twigs’ dance moves, 2014 was the year that these diverse artists could coexist on your iPod without judgement. It was a year for surprise albums, reinvention, and embracing the guilty pleasures.
Story by Rumnique Nannar.
While many artists followed Queen Bey’s approach of releasing a stealthy album, no one received quite as much love and hysteria as the return of D’Angelo, who surprised us all on Dec 15 with his first album in 14 years. Aside from D’Angelo, it was the year of owning up to your guilty listening pleasures without losing your street cred, especially when Kendrick Lamar officially sanctions us to openly sing along to “Shake it Off.”
So thank us later when you’re boasting about your wide-ranging musical tastes, and put these songs on your playlist STAT!
1. FKA Twigs’ Sonic Kingdom – There are plenty of musicians like the xx and the Weeknd, whose forte lies in lush sex jams with high production values, but FKA Twigs’ takes it to a new level with her gorgeous album, LP1. A true artist who matches sound with flamboyant aesthetics, Twigs, aka Tahliah Barnett, has created her own genre of pop that’s hard to pin down but is endlessly addictive. The album has been called minimalist or even strange, with Twigs’ whispery vocals, choral sections, and wild tempo changes, but that’s all part of the style as she croons about unrequited love or when she coos slyly about masturbation. It’s thrilling to see Twigs’ offer up such a fearless perspective in her music, especially in the masterpiece track “Two Weeks”: “I know it hurts/You know I’d put you first/I can fuck you better than her …” Her style is refreshing, especially in a pop landscape that demands accessibility and radio play, which you won’t find here, because it’s such a rewarding opus to the female gaze, desire, and sexuality.
2. The Swetshop Boys Melt Our Hearts – We’ve already swooned over Heems and Riz MC’s first track “Benny Lava.” Their debut EP together was a wicked and hilarious meshing of two wildly different rappers riffing on race, colonialism, and their roots. The duo released their album over the summer to critical acclaim, which begged for more collaborations in the future. The four tracks are incisive, revealing, and deeply personal despite their kooky samples. And those samples are ingeniously utilized; “Batalvi” features the late Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi popping up to say “Life is a slow suicide” as Riz comments on his fame and pesky internet trolls, while Heems raps in his absurdist style. While the rappers don’t interact much on the tracks, the album is a loving ode to their disparate cities, London and Queens; cities they adore as they slowly unpack the complex changes that these places have undergone since 9/11. It’s amazing to see these two super-fly and literate South Asian guys riff on their identities, and offer a perspective that rarely gets showcased in hip hop.
3. Own That Guilt – There was once a time when I had a deep disdain for Taylor Swift, but then “Shake It Off” was unleashed and never left my ears. I’m not the only one owning up to my formerly concealed love for T-Swift, even SNL offered up their “Swiftamine” medical skit, which hilariously pokes fun at how she’s conquered us all, despite our brain’s reservations. The divide between straight-up pop (Miley Cyrus, T-Swift) and arthouse pop (Alt-J who sampled Cyrus, Lorde, etc) was blurred this year, as both factions borrowed liberally from each other as artists diversified their sound. When Swift went pop she earned a whole new fan base with her easygoing and undeniably catchy sound. It’s the same with Priyanka Chopra’s single “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which remixes a classic into a hellishly catchy EDM song, of which I won’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it! It’s a song that Chopra could havve opened her music career with, because that trend of EDM balladry isn’t dying down soon. Now that we’ve gotten on board with our guilty pleasures becoming universal, let’s start on that Nick Jonas bandwagon…
4. D’Angelo Steals His Way Back – We didn’t know how much we missed D’Angelo, until he secretly released Black Messiah, his first album in 14 years. Sure, we may have reached our puberty moment when he licked his lips, flashed his abs, and devoted his music video to “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” to his sweaty gorgeous body. Yet, Black Messiah is a sterling return for the soul man, and he’s assisted by Questlove in laying down more funk grooves, and politicized messages that is unlike his last release Voodoo. Recalling Sly and the Family Stone, and early Marvin Gaye, D’Angelo relies on his languorous voice to pull you through tempo shifts, old-school crooning, and experimentations. There’s nothing more rebellious than an artist refuting the wonders of the digital age of auto-tune and correction, in order to deliver some vintage soul with signature style. Make sure you give this one a chance.
5. Pick Me Up Songs: i & Happy – Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell both capitalized on that one desire we all have: to dance like a loon and feel uplifted at the same time, which we did with “i” and the monster hit “Happy.” Lamar has been readying up his sophomore album for a while now, but he released “i” in September, and it attracted a fair amount of criticism that he had “gone pop” with the funky Isley Brothers sample of “That Lady” and the positive chorus “I love myself/the world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs.” Lamar said in an interview with Hot 97 that he crafted the song as a response to fans who said his album good kid, m.A.A.d city saved them from suicide, and that he wanted a song to thank and uplift them. If this is the new and experimental side of Lamar, then bring on the new album. Plus, has Kendrick been learning the drunk-uncle-at-wedding-reception moves from our own? Methinks so.
Alternatively, Pharrell’s “Happy” was a viral hit with anybody from models and Bollywood stars at the Grazia India Fashion Awards to young students in Tehran, who were arrested for their participation. The song was a huge success in its many iterations, but it’s definitely a song that allowed you to do that chicken dance or bhangra move without caring about your awkward moves, especially from the way Pharrell was bopping along. Case in point, checkout Jugni Style’s founders in Vancouver version of “Happy.“