#10: FKA Twigs – LP1
For better or worse, FKA Twigs created a perfect storm of hype for herself this year. By the time it was released, I was almost wary of the English singer-songwriter’s debut album, LP1, but the positive reviews kept rolling in, and even Jay made sure to point out that the effort lived up to the hype in his review of it.
And he was right. LP1 is uniquely FKA Twigs, and that’s a very good thing. The production is, of course, amazing. Each track comprises very carefully orchestrated layers, leaving more to discover with each listen. And then there’s Twigs’ voice — sometimes distorted, but always delivering her frank lyrics with a delicate force. From those mature, direct lyrics to the complex music, everything about LP1 is intentional and ambitious, making it one of the very best debuts of the year. – Winnie Fan
Listen: “Video Girl”
#9: Tycho – Awake
Further cementing the general rule that graphic artists tend to also be pretty good musicians is the latest album from San Francisco’s Scott Hansen, aka Tycho. Awake doesn’t stray too far from the hazy, synth-loving sound that made Tycho so popular to begin with, but it also doesn’t dwell in dissonance or lazy song construction. Each track is a welcome trip through Hansen’s sonic dreamscapes. Alien, but familiar. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself nodding along to echoes and reverb. The songs on Awake are a sunlit fog of sound for the mind. You don’t so much listen to it as much as you inhale it through your ear-nostrils and mellow in the luminous euphoria that follows. – Marcus Slater
#8: Odesza – In Return
After building a following on SoundCloud, Seattle-based duo Odesza made EDM headlines with their debut LP, In Return, in 2014. With its mesmerizing synths, lush soundscapes, and pop-infused hooks performed by vocalists like Py and Zyra, the album exceeded the sky-high hype, and as Harrison Mills, one half of this chillwave duo, explained to me in an interview earlier this year, the pair deliberately follows a verse/chorus setup in much of their music (e.g., “It’s Only” and “White Lies”), which could explain part of their music’s wide appeal. Odesza’s closing set at HARD’s Day of the Dead was packed, and given their strong work ethic and the impressive production value of their music, I’m certain they’ll be playing even bigger stages in 2015. – Mary Bonney
Listen: “All We Need” (ft. Shy Girls)
#7: Banks – Goddess
Los Angeles native Jillian Banks began songwriting at a very young age in order to cope with her parents’ divorce, and the raw emotion and confessional tone she injects into her debut album, Goddess, make it a perfectly relatable soundtrack to almost any listener’s life. The gloomy but synth-centric productions on Goddess show off Banks’ sultry voice, while its smooth R&B rhythms keep the body moving to the beat. After a pair of much-hyped EP releases, a touring stint with The Weeknd, and two sold-out headlining shows at the Wiltern, this debut is just the latest in a series of well-earned successes for the 26-year-old Angeleno. – Twila Grissom
Listen: “Waiting Game”
#6: Alt-J – This Is All Yours
Given how far down the rabbit hole you’ve now gone, I think it’s safe to say that we here at LAmb felt that alt-J’s sophomore album, This Is All Yours, managed to live up to the pretty serious expectations that their debut album had set for it. I’d even go so far as to opine that the son has overshadowed his father. Don’t get me wrong — 2012’s An Awesome Wave was a fantastic release that still gets regular rotation from me two years after its release, but This Is All Yours is a fresher, more confident alt-J coming together to weave an album that’s more focused and sonically cohesive than its predecessor.
That’s not to say alt-J has abandoned their genre-blending ways. “Left Hand Free” is a scintillating folk-rock romp that contrasts beautifully against the decidedly more melancholy “Nara,” which in turn contrasts with the more electronic-leanings of “Hunger Of The Pine” (the latter being one of the most perfect singles I’ve come across in recent memory). But for all its potential to come off as disjointed gobbledygook, This Is All Yours is precisely the opposite. It’s an album that can be listened to without interruption from start to finish, and in the era of single-driven Spotify playlists, that’s a rarity. – Lesley Park
Listen: “Left Hand Free”
#5: Aphex Twin – Syro
Ah, Aphex Twin’s Syro. Such a fun listen for electronic music lovers. Calling it dance music feels reductive. It’s an elaboration on a theme. In the case of Robert James, Syro is diary of drum machines. The tracks are all melodic, so you don’t have to worry about terrifying the casual EDM listener with something completely atonal or mercilessly complex, but more than anything, Syro comes across as handcrafted. Nothing here is cookie cutter or pre-made. No plain Jane 808s or predictable snare rushes. Will it change the world of electronic music as we know it like “Windowlicker” and “Come to Daddy” did? Maybe.
For all of its unrelenting techyness, the music on Syro is actually pretty catchy and unobtuse. One of the standouts, “Circlon6TA,” is an undeniable electronic track with a memorable melody. 8-bit synthesizers make it feel nostalgic, like this might be a remix of the theme from an old Nintendo game that never made it out of Japan. All in all, Syro is a very accessible stew of glitchy bleeps and bloops. Aphex Twin’s electronic obsession feels handcrafted. A rare and precious feat. – Marcus Slater
#4: Phantogram – Voices
No one balances brain-detaching dance beats with brain-engaging lyrics better than Phantogram. Their sophomore album, Voices, is a testament to their artistic reach, shifting their style beyond the trip-hop/electronica genres and into a unique realm centered around emotion, but they don’t force the feels through heavy-handed means, opting instead for lyrics that complement the music.
One of the album’s many disarming tracks, “Celebrating Nothing,” offers these lyrics: “How many times can I blow it all? How many times will I burn it down? Give me a reason to stay alive. I’ve got the feeling we’re gonna die.” Alone, the words could come across as overstated, but place an almost-poppy beat behind the track, and the result is much more rich and dynamic…lovely, even. Phantogram has hit their stride with Voices, and the effort deserves its spot near the top of this list. – Christine Perez
Listen: “Celebrate Nothing”
#3: Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
As if he hadn’t already set the bar unbelievably high, Los Angeles-based producer Flying Lotus continued to drop listeners’ jaws in 2014 with his latest opus, You’re Dead. A concept album taking a no-holds-barred look at the final chapter of life that awaits us all, the record seamlessly rips between moments of hard bebop jazz, experimental noise, hard-hitting beats, and poignant electronica.
Featuring the prominent fretboard acrobatics of his partner-in-crime Thundercat as well as guest contributions from Kendrick Lamar, Herbie Hancock, Snoop Dogg, and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, You’re Dead is also one of FlyLo’s most concise efforts, cramming 20 tracks into just over 38 minutes. The end result is an auditory adventure that simultaneously nods to the past and boldly blazes into the future’s unknown. – Sean Kantrowitz
Listen: “Ready Err Not”
#2: Run The Jewels – RTJ2
Question: If RTJ2 had been released a couple of months earlier, would it have landed at the top of the list? Impossible to say, but it is an album that gets better with each listen.
This LP is simply the sound of two rappers with effortless chemistry at the tops of their games. Hearing El-P’s already-sterling production skills employed for something so direct and forceful is a thrill, just as it’s a thrill to hear Killer Mike’s graduation at the top of the class after years of potential as a gifted rapper without the material to back him up.
The second album from Run The Jewels is at times soulful and occasionally very funny, but more than anything it’s angry and fiercely political. In the wake of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, RTJ2 is a sadly relevant rallying cry to action. Nevertheless, the duo did not forget to bring it when it comes to earth-shaking beats and awesome tunes either. – Jay Chirinos
Listen: “Blockbuster Night Part 1”
#1: St Vincent – St Vincent
Equal parts experimental performance art and straight-forward pop music, St Vincent is a lesson in dichotomies. In the words of the artist herself, Annie Clark, “I wanted to make a party record you could play at a funeral,” and her eponymous fourth solo studio album is just that. The situation may be grave, but there’s no reason we can’t still dance.
Primarily upbeat with the occasional relaxed tempo thrown in (“I Prefer Your Love,” “Severed Crossed Fingers”), St Vincent manages to sound substantial and “important” without ever crossing over into the realm of self-importance or pretentiousness. Enjoying the album takes very little effort on the part of the listener, but each of its eleven tracks holds up under scrutiny. From beginning to end, St Vincent is enjoyable, provocative, innovative, and, perhaps most of all, fun. In other words, it’s a perfect album and deserving of being called the best of the year. – Kristin Houser
Listen: “Digital Witness”