Mid-Year Music Roundup: 5 Records You Need to Hear Right Now
It’s pretty hard to believe that 2014 is more than halfway over. There have been countless releases ranging from big pop stars (Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Lana Del Rey) and LPs by artists who aren’t dominating the Billboard Top 200. Below are five records released in the first six months of the year that you need to listen to immediately.
Various Artists - PC Music
OK, this isn’t an official release, but the new and upcoming U.K. record label PC Music’s SoundCloud page has had a consistent output of tracks since last year. The label has really stepped up its game in 2014, however. The stream of free futuristic pop explores sounds, textures and tolerance levels by capitalizing on classic pop tropes but dips them in chrome and processes them through Windows ’95. The result is songs that sound like a cross between a Taio Cruz single and the "Rugrats" theme song.
The artists on the label sound nostalgic but from a world that doesn’t exist. PC Music, apparently headed by A.G. Cook, may be home to a bevy of mysterious musicians, but its most famous / popular is Hannah Diamond. Her 2013 single "Pink and Blue" has over 130,000 plays and her latest solo single, the glitchy and clever "Attachment," isn’t far behind with more than 120,000 plays. The newest track, A.G. Cook’s "Beautiful," a house-meets-bubblegum-pop that operates as a club smasher and outsider art, is definitely one of the best songs of the year.
St. Vincent - "St. Vincent"
Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, released her most confident and strongest album in February. The self-titled work, which comes just months after Beyonce’s similarly confident and commanding "Beyonce," screams: "I’m in charge." From the stern album cover alone, Clark sits on a thrown, looking directly at you and you know "St. Vincent" is serious business.
Throughout the record, Clark destroys your preconceived notions women’s about ability to rock; she melts face on almost every cut with her mind-blowing guitar skills, like on the David Bryne-inspired "Digital Witness." This funkafied, brass-driven single echoes the themes found on most of "St. Vincent." Clark details our unhealthy relationship with technology and our inability to not over-share. The boldness of tracks like the gritty but Clark’s catchiest song to date, "Birth in Reverse," the smooth "Prince Johnny" and the psychedelic "Huey Newton," create a cohesive album that ends up being one of the best releases this year.
How to Dress Well - "What is This Heart?"
Tom Krell, who performs under How to Dress Well, has always been a sad guy. Since releasing his debut 2010 LP "Love Remains," Krell has been singing about death of close family members, mental illness and love loss over lo-fi R&B beats with his shocking velvety smooth voice, covered in reverb and buried in the mix. But he’s grown more confident over the years, like on his sophomore effort "Total Loss," where he moved away from his lo-fi roots and felt more secure singing in the spot light.
Things come full circle on his latest album, "What is This Heart?" where Krell shows that he’s at his most confident and not afraid to create touching and devastating music by using accessible pop structures and putting his voice front and center. Single "Repeat Pleasure" is one of his catchiest songs to date and features R&B pluses with flickers of guitar. "Words I Don’t Remember" is soaked in sadness and clouded in a cloak of synths while Krell sings: "Yeah, who knows if I love you baby / But you’re the only one thing on my mind / If you could let your angels out, I’d rescue one at a time." It’s this kind of songwriting, matched with Krell’s best production to date that makes "What is This Heart?" his best effort.
Lykke Li - "I Never Learn"
The third album by Swedish singer Lykke Li is a downer. "I Never Learn" completes a trilogy series started by Li with her 2008 debut "Youth Novels." Between these albums, and the sophomore LP "Wounded Rhymes," Li sings about the trials and tribulations of her love life, but her latest effort is her most somber but also her best to date.
While her other two albums had strong singles but spotty deep cuts, "I Never Learn" finds its strength in being a cohesive album detailing the biggest breakup of her 28-year-old life. The emotional richness pours out the nine tracks, like on the haunting single "No Rest for the Wicked," where Li’s crackling voice moves through echoing drums and a piano riff that sounds like Daniel Johnston’s "Some Things Last a Long Time." On the title track an acoustic guitar carries Li’s layered power vocals and on the epic "Gunshot" Li really goes for it.
It’s hard to make an album of all power ballads but Li makes it look easy. Each track on "I Never Learn" offers something fresh and exciting; never playing into gimmicks or giving into current trends to appeal to listeners.
Swans - "To Be Kind"
How do you follow up a two-hour experimental album that is hailed one of the best albums of your 20-year-plus music career? You put out an equally awesome two-hour record that is also hailed as one of the best records of your two-decade career. Michael Gira, the leader of the post-rock band Swans, released "To Be Kind" in May to follow up "The Seer" (2012). The 60-year-old Gira sings and rocks with every bit of intensity of someone 40-years younger.
The seven-minute single "A Little God in My Hands" thumps along with gritty guitars and is one of the most accessible tracks in Swans’ impressively extensive discography. Other cuts, namely the 34-minute "Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture" defines the word "epic" with its sprawling soundscape created by Gira’s guitar work. "To Be Kind" may be a lot to take in, but it’s a record worth spending time with and peeling back its complex layers over multiple listens.