Music is my life, a fact I’ve heartily established via various platforms and based on the copious amounts of money I’ve spent on cassettes, vinyl singles and LPs, CDs, and downloads over my lifetime thus far. And let’s not even begin to count the dollars thrown at concert tickets and traveling to different cities to see my favorite artists performed. I’ve pretty much been making it rain, now that I think about it.
It goes without saying that tons of new music emerges onto the scene every year, much of which is utterly life-altering and even more of which is seldom heard by the mainstream masses. And while the selections that proliferate popular radio become increasingly narrow, we can all exhale knowing that there is some truly incredible music out there, waiting for us to discover it and fall madly in love.
I decided to compile a list of the eleven albums that captivated my imagination in 2014 (in no particular order), to prove my theory that, despite what is (or rather, is not) represented on traditional radio and awards shows, fantastic music and phenomenal artists are aplenty. On this list you’ll find debut releases from break-out artists, new works by musical legends, and titles that span multiple genres and styles. Take a gander, and if the spirit moves you, make it official by adding these gems to your playlists!
Art Official Age, Prince
Prince’s 2014 release, Art Official Age, was the culmination of a year of epic Prince-ness for me. He stormed through the Bay Area twice in early spring—once in Oakland at the Fox Theatre, and then a week or so later for a special fund raiser for San Francisco’s Tipping Point Community at the Fillmore—just in time to celebrate my birthday, released some super dope singles (“FallinLove2Nite” featuring New Girl star, Zooey Dechanel; “The Breakdown” with guest vocals by Andy Allo; and “PretzelBodyLogic” with his kick-ass all-woman trio, 3rdEyeGirl), and wrecked the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on opening night of the 20th anniversary Essence Festival. He announced a new partnership with his former label, Warner Bros., making ready for the release of two new albums: the aforementioned and his debut collaboration with 3rdEyeGirl, PLECTRUMELECTRUM. And then, the one who has shot major side-eye at the mere notion of social media and the internet in general—despite having pioneered the earliest incarnations of direct-to-fan marketing and distribution with his NPG Music Club site in 2000—joined us in the new millennium by establishing a spirited and slightly tongue-in-cheek presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (all of which disappeared in late November because, #Prince).
Art Official Age erupted from the paisley underground like a beast, bringing classic Prince production and lyrical exploration into the 2010s with an undeniably modern twist. Rarely one to rely on guest features and cameos from other artists, the new album boasts gorgeously orchestrated appearances from British chanteuse Lianne La Havas and funk n soul powerhouse Andy Allo. With a track list that reflects Prince’s legendary funk sensibilities, his innovative approach to soul and R&B, and his ever-present nod to rock n roll, Art Official Age casts a spell that moves the body to the dance floor and then into to more sensual territory.
My favorite tunes from the album: “Art Official Cage,” “Clouds,” “U Know,” “What It Feels Like,” and “Way Back Home.”
Rose Ave., You + Me
Everyone’s favorite sangin’ a** rocker grrrl, P!nk, joined forces with Canadian musician City and Colour for a daring and eclectic new record. Trading in their familiar monikers for their respective government names, Alecia Moore and Dallas Green released their debut collaboration, Rose Ave., in 2014 under the name You + Me. A stunning collection of acoustic guitar arrangements, subtle percussion, and soul-stirring vocals, Rose Ave. is dazzling, introspective, and exquisite in its simplicity. This is the kind of album you play on a rainy day, curled up in bed with a good book or an even better lover, just being. P!nk remains one of the most expressive pop vocalists of modern times, her rich, warm tone the perfect mélange of grit and sweetness. Dallas Green’s measured vocal performance beautifully complements his partner’s more fierce approach, and both seem to lay themselves bare on every track. Their take on Sade’s classic “No Ordinary Love” is, in my opinion, the new standard for anyone even contemplating covering this song. Other favorite tracks from Rose Ave. include “Capsized,” “Unbeliever,” and “You and Me.”
Back in 1999, I was going through some kind of stupid behind some [stupid] guy and deeply appreciated Kelis screaming “I hate you so much right now! AAAAHHHHHHH!” in the hook to her Neptunes-produced hit, “Caught Out There.” The next time I paid close attention of any significance to Kelis was thanks to her chart-topping “Milk Shake,” which seemed to come on the radio every 10 minutes one weekend when my girls and I were in Atlanta. While I’ve long admired Kelis’ fashion sense and persona, I have to admit that her musical output never grabbed hold of me, save the occasional single; that is, until I got hold of Food.
In recent years, the prolific singer/songwriter has added chef and foodie entrepreneur to her resume, launching her own line of sauces (deliciously called Feast) after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu. How cool is that she extended her passion for good eats into her latest musical masterpiece?
With song titles poised to completely ruin your CrossFit/Paleo/Daniel Fast situation (“Jerk Ribs,” “Cobbler,” “Biscuits n Gravy”), Food plays like the ultimate soundtrack to every social engagement where nibbles and sips are served (and let’s face it—no one is coming to your social engagement if you’re not serving snacks and bevs). The album is a fitting tribute to the love Kelis infuses into her culinary creations and to her new love (check out her mouth-watering snaps on Instagram @SausageandBoots, with the hashtag #ThingsIMakeForHim), yet just as sharp, spirited, and sexy as her earlier works. As soon as I downloaded Food, I could not stop listening to it. There is something just so satisfying about this album, from first bite to the last.
My faves from Food: “Floyd,” “Bless the Telephone,” “Friday Fish Fry.”
Love and Hate, Joan Osborne
I have never been able to disguise my love for the magnificent Joan Osborne. From her first single, the catchy and oh-so-nineties “One of Us” (which, by the way, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince covered quite funkily on his 1996 triple disc set, Emancipation) from her inaugural offering, Relish, to her glorious sophomore album Righteous Love, which featured her heart-stabbing version of Bob Dylan’s burner, “Make You Feel My Love” and was the star of my year in Osaka; to her adventures in classic soul (How Sweet It Is, Breakfast in Bed), country (Pretty Little Stranger), R&B and blues (Bring It On Home), and her delectable ode to New York City (Little Wild One), Osborne’s discography teems with sultry goodness and a genuine respect for the genres she tackles on each recording. Never one to give in to melismatic temptation in her singing style, Joan Osborne always manages to deliver vocal performances equal parts smooth and raw; and still, particularly with well-known songs from the soul, R&B, and blues repertoire, she flawlessly graces every note with her distinct signature.
Her 2014 release, Love and Hate, began as what Osborne describes as a song cycle, taking on the one topic that every human being struggles to make sense of over the course of a lifetime. Exploring the carefree highs and soul-crushing lows of modern relationships, the album weaves tale after tale of love found, lost, and excavated. The album’s artwork, evoking the original star-crossed lovers, Adam and Eve, could easily find itself etched into a forlorn lover’s back in indelible ink, that’s how powerful the imagery is. Songs like “Work On Me” and “Up All Night” celebrate the triumphs love can bring, while “Thirsty for My Tears” and “Keep It Underground” point to more than a little trouble in paradise. I’m particularly fond of “Where We Start,” “Not Too Well Acquainted,” and “Kitten’s Got Claws,” and the title track is a haunting gem.
Oakland Riviera, Kev Choice
When I relocated to Oakland in 2012, I knew that it, along with San Francisco, was home to some of my favorite artists and boasted an incredible music scene. One of the first live shows I attended as a neophyte in The Town was at The New Parish, and featured rebel soldier Martin Luther, songstress Silk E (currently touring with Bay Area natives, The Coup), and hip-hop artist/producer and classically trained pianist, Kev Choice. It wasn’t my first time seeing Kev perform live; several years before, I’d caught him during a set at Michael Franti’s Power to the Peaceful festival. However, after watching Kev and his band light up the stage that night at The New Parish, I was officially a fan.
Kev’s 2014 project, Oakland Riviera, is a love letter to one of the most beloved and beleaguered cities in America. Often viewed through the narrow lens of the crime, gang violence, and poverty all too common in our country’s urban centers, Oakland is also the seat of revolution, as the home of The Black Panthers and activist and professor, Angela Davis, and an increasingly diverse population that is, in so many ways, loads more colorful and lively than our San Francisco counterparts. It is all of these elements—along with gentrification, the entrepreneurial spirit of long-time Oakland residents, and Oakland’s rich musical legacy—that inspired Oakland Riviera.
The album situates Kev Choice at the center of the action, offering commentary on all that is going on in his hometown from the perspective of one born and raised and committed to staying and serving there. Interspersed with hard-hitting knockers like “Shed Light,” “That Life,” and “Make Believers” are progressive instrumentals named after familiar places in Oakland’s neighborhoods; Kev site checks notable spots like MacArthur Boulevard, Foothill Road, and Lakeshore Avenue through these tracks, infusing the album with the kind of cool for which Oakland is renowned. He romances The Town, and it’s a lovely thing to behold. If you’ve ever driven around Lake Merritt at night and watched the lights sparkle off the water, you know of which I speak.
I can’t resist the pull of “Forever Again,” “The Greatest,” and “Golden Chariot.” No doubt, Oakland Riviera is one of my faves for ’14.
The Unexpected, LiV Warfield
Hands down one of the most exciting introductions I have ever experienced, former NPG vocalist turned queen of everything, LiV Warfield, played no games with her album, The Unexpected. Dramatic and theatrical in its production and execution, the album is full of the kind of energy that screams “the world is mine!” There is nothing timid about LiV Warfield; she effervesces with joy, bliss, and the confidence of a woman who knows that her mere presence—not to mention her ceiling-shattering voice—has the power to move the universe. The Unexpected is life-force, an exuberant exigency.
The album’s lead single, “Why Do You Lie?,” shook itself loose from the tree Chaka Khan planted and took root in this era of new power soul. The Prince-penned title track (which he and 3rdEyeGirl revisited and retitled “WOW” on their album) rips open your speakers with reckless abandon, no damns given. Warfield’s hearty vocals epitomize soul; even as she roars and lays into the heart of a song, she is controlled and resolute. Sonically, she has more in common with fellow vocal heavy-hitters like Ledisi, Lalah Hathaway, and Sandra St. Victor than the more Top 40 radio-friendly singers currently dominating the airwaves, which, in my opinion, is a welcomed change of pace. Her high-impact live performances are the lovechild of Tina Turner, Patty Labelle, and Betty Davis. Truth.
Stand outs on the album: “Stay—Soul Lifted,” “Don’t Say Much,” and “Your Show.”
I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, Sinéad O’Connor
I was maybe 14 when I first encountered the wild and righteous Sinéad O’Connor, by way of her cover of the Prince-written “Nothing Compares 2 U” (originally recorded by The Family and released on their 1985 eponymous debut album). After becoming acquainted with this Irish firebird through her second album, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, I retraced my steps to her first album, 1987’s The Lion and the Cobra. If you tell me you didn’t dance around your room to “Mandinka,” I’m calling you a liar. With her shaved head and ballsy, outspoken, take-no-prisoners lyrics, and her vibrant vocals ripe with urgency and passion, O’Connor quickly became a living legend whose controversial and scathing criticisms of the Catholic church and British monarchy threatened to eclipse her brilliant musical work. After ripping a photo of Pope John Paul to shreds on SNL, O’Connor became a veritable persona non grata in American popular culture for sure, an unfortunate turn of events given that she stood as one of the gutsiest women in rock at the time. Nevertheless, she continued to make music, cranking out explorative collections throughout the 90s and into the 2000s. My run with the mighty Sinéad tapered off after 1992’s Am I Not Your Girl, and picked up again briefly for 2000’s Faith and Courage on the strength of the single, “No Man’s Woman.” I continued to romance her from afar, mostly in reliving her so-called glory years through her earlier works, until stumbling upon her 2007 release, Theology. This was, in so many ways, a new Sinéad; although she had never failed to expose her vulnerability and humanness throughout her oeuvre, this new album brought a certain grace and elegance I’d not experienced in her other works. So Theology became the album that bridged 1990s Sinéad with 21st century Sinéad—at least in my music library.
Clad in black leather, clutching a black guitar, and donning a black bob wig, Sinéad channels Shakespear’s Sister’s Siobhan Fahey on the cover art for her 2014 album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss. With a title inspired in part by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean Forward, in which she admonishes parents not to chastise their little girls for being “bossy” but rather to recognize their “executive leadership skills” (can I get an “oh hell yes!”), this new album is classic Sinéad, but it is also reflective of the life she has lived while many of us were not watching. O’Connor has always had a way with words and melodies and harmonies, and her treatment of love and matters of the heart has never been more sublime. The opening song, “How About I Be Me,” comes from the core of a woman who will not beg for love, but she will ask. And yes, there is a difference. “How Nice a Woman Can Be” and “Make a Fool of Me All Night” follow a similar sensuous thread, while “Dense Water Deeper Down” and “Kisses Like Mine” offer a more playful vision. My favorite song from the album is “Take Me To Church,” which fell into my life at a rather pivotal time during 2014. Other jewels include “Harbour,” “Where Have You Been,” and “8 Good Reasons.”
Strut, Lenny Kravitz
#TeamLK, all day. And Lenny’s 2014 drop, Strut, is one sexy muthashutyomouth of an album. At this point in the game, some things are a given. Lenny knows we want to see his shirtless, ripped abs. He knows we want to watch him slither through video frames in leather pants. He knows we’ll continue to buy into the rock star fantasy as long as he keeps dangling that gold-dipped carrot in our thirsty faces. But he also knows that we want to rock. So he gives it to us—all of this sweaty, musty, soaking wet stuff of which we can never get enough.
Strut delivers all of that and then some. I’m a big fan of the booty shaking possibilities “Dirty White Boots” brings, and the sentimental groove of “The Pleasure and the Pain.” The title track, though, is the joint that really lets me embrace my inner supermodel.
What a treat, Lolawolf! This trio, comprised of Zoë Kravitz (yes, Lenny Kravitz’s and Lisa Bonet’s daughter), James Levy, and Jimmy Giannopoulos, released their self-titled EP in early 2014 and immediately caught fire. The latter part of the year found Lolawolf touring internationally with Lily Allen and Miley Cyrus, as well as releasing additional singles and building a loyal and rightfully enamored following. The EP itself is nothing like what one may expect, given the fact that one third of the group hails from rock royalty; that is to say, Lolawolf’s sound is distinct and impressive, and almost makes me wish I were a bright-eyed Millennial instead of a jaded and surly Gen X’er. Almost. Damnit.
Lolawolf’s “Drive (LA)” is now my must-have tune when I get ready to hit the road from the Bay to Los Angeles (and not only because I adore the line, “I could stare out your window/and f**k you tonight.” Man, I wish I’d written that!), and “Wanna Have Fun” is this perfect nugget of smirking nonchalance. I’m excited to see what Lolawolf brings next, and definitely hope to catch them live next time they’re in SoCal.
I first learned about Ibeyi in late 2014, thanks to AfroPunk.com featuring their new song, “Mama Says.” The 19-year-old French-Cuban twin sisters, Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz, graced our ears and hearts with their inaugural EP, Oya, which features these burgeoning supernovas singing in English and Yoruba. With a minimalist sensibility and carefully-crafted compositions that pay homage to their cultural heritage (their father is Anga Diaz, the late Cuban percussionist), Ibeyi is by far one of the most intriguing acts I came across in the last year. Their songs incorporate sparse instrumentation, where percussion is front and center and their melodic vocals float like ghosts above the rhythms and beats. The EP features only two songs—“Oya” and “River,” two versions of each. So far there is no word on when a full-length album will arrive, but the buzz surrounding Ibeyi is indication that there is most certainly more to come from this innovative duo. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing more from these ladies. They’re the real deal.
Black Messiah, D’Angelo and the Vanguard
In 2013, Beyoncé dropped her surprise self-titled visual album and “broke the internet.” Summer 2014 saw the venerable U2 release their new album, Songs of Innocence, somewhat forcibly to iTunes users, much to the chagrin of many who did not want the album and were more than a little bit annoyed when it suddenly turned up in their library. But the greatest, most heavily anticipated albeit least expected release was from D’Angelo who, on December 15, 2014, broke his 14 year silence and gifted us with Black Messiah. As soon as the downloads began, the criticisms and panning followed close behind, with complaints that the album was too obviously unfinished and the lyrics indiscernible. Blah blah blah, yawn. Just as I have posited amongst my music snob brethren that there are two camps of Prince fans—those whose attention span lasts only as long as “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” and Purple Rain, and those who’ve been down to ride since For You and have remained steadfast through the awkward SLAVE years and unpronounceable symbol years, and who are still here—there are two camps of D’Angelo fans: Those who touched and agreed that Brown Sugar was a slice of neo-soul heaven and the entire damn near naked Voodoo era was a delightful wet dream, and those who agree with the former sentiments but who also recognize that D’Angelo is one of the most important artists of our time. Black Messiah is living proof.
What has continued to strike me as awesome about how we have experienced Black Messiah in the weeks since its release is how many people have reported having profoundly emotional responses to the album. The project has touched something in so many of us that few, if any, albums have managed to reach; it has struck a nerve, ignited a fire, and opened up listeners’ hearts. It has bled us. Fellow music aficionados and musicians alike are describing these visceral reactions to Black Messiah as full-blown spiritual revolutions, and it is a miraculously humanizing moment. Ecstasis. Catharsis.
So much of Black Messiah channels the best of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic (“Ain’t That Easy”) and Parade-era Prince and the Revolution (“The Charade”), and still leaves room for pieces of Gil Scott-Heron and traces of Marvin Gaye. I can’t get enough of the entire album, and am especially obsessed with “Really Love,” “Betray My Heart,” and the most excellent “Another Life.”