Making claims of musical originality in 2014 is difficult. Everything imaginable seems to exist. Countless albums leave listeners with the same tepid sex-drugs-money hip-hop dichotomy, whiny Bon Iver wannabes and simplistic country anthems that extol the virtues of mudding and drinking cheap, domestic beer.
The great music of this year appropriates elements from decades past. But musical innovation occurs through these means. The following albums, in no particular order, stand out from the rest of recent releases in both originality and listener enjoyment.
6. Lana Del Rey – “Ultraviolence” (the first half)
Lana Del Rey’s “Ultraviolence” suffers from multiple personality disorder. The second half is a shoddy pop affair. But the first half is signature Del Rey. It’s replete with lush strings and anthems expounding on the loneliness of casual sex and emotionless relationships.
Though it’s easy to accuse Del Rey of singing through a contrived persona, songs like “Brooklyn Baby” and “West Coast” capture her earnestness and reinforce her live-fast, die-young ethos. And while the title track is repulsive on the first several spins, it grows on the listener. It’s a painful, poignant reflection on abuse, pain and pleasure.
5. Todd Terje – “It’s Album Time”
Disco doesn’t suck. Todd Terje’s “It’s Album Time” proves that, though it feels like disco played through the lens of Bryan Ferry. It’s no surprise that Ferry, the king of smooth, makes a guest appearance on the Robert Palmer cover, “Johnny and Mary.”
Suave instrumentals set the album apart from similar disco revival efforts like Pharrell’s “G I R L” — as catchy as it is. Songs like “Leisure Suit Preben,” “Preben Goes to Acapulco” and “Strandbar” ooze seduction. They’re the ideal transition from the cocktail bar to the bedroom.
4. Angel Olsen – “Burn Your Fire For No Witness”
Angel Olsen isn’t a pure folkie, but she makes a case for the resurrection of the genre. Olson sings down-tempo Joni Mitchell-esque melodies combined with “White Album” influenced guitar riffs on her latest album, “Burn Your Fire For No Witness.” And while songs like “White Fire” and “Stars” sound like they could’ve come out of Laurel Canyon in the ’70s, Olsen’s lo-fi songbird tendencies help make a compartmentalized style her own.
3. St. Vincent – “St. Vincent”
St. Vincent transformed from a somber indie chanteuse into a bona fide pop star in under a decade. The evolution of her music feels like growth through self-realization rather than selling out. “St. Vincent” cements this progress.
The synthetic melodies on “Digital Witness” and “Birth in Reverse” are a 21st century reimagining of Blondie’s canon, without ripping off elements of her music or skirting the lines of disco. Lead singer Annie Clark combines glitz and substance in a package as polarizing and wonderful as they are on their own.
2. Badbadnotgood – “III”
Badbadnotgood upends the concept of jazz. Their riff on the genre involves fans thrashing around in mosh pits as if they were attending a punk show. Their latest album “III” features all original material, and is a departure from the Odd Future and Kanye West covers that permeated their early oeuvre. Compositions like “Confessions” and “Hedron” draw upon the melodic lineage of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and Gil Scott-Heron tunes about the malaise and grit of urban life. The rainy-day quality of “III” draws parallels to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” and it’s primed to be that album’s equivalent to this generation.
1. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – “PiÃ±ata”
Underdog Freddie Gibbs cranked out a top album thanks to the beat-making prowess of Madlib. “PiÃ±ata” is a much-improved 21st century iteration of a Blaxploitation soundtrack achieved by culling rare grooves.
Gibbs’ pedigree lends unparalleled credo to his edgy rhymes influenced by J Dilla and the P-Funk mob. “Lakers” makes a strong case for best track since it highlights Gibbs’ smooth, syrupy deep-voiced delivery and cunning wordplay. But gems like “High” (feat. Danny Brown), “Deeper” and “Robes” (feat. Domo Genesis and Earl Sweatshirt) are reminders that “PiÃ±ata” delivers throughout. Though not heralded as a game-changer right now, Gibbs deserves mention alongside Kendrick Lamar (with 2012’s “Good Kid: M.A.A.D. City”) and Kanye West (with 2013’s “Yeezus”) as a top voice in rap.
1. Mac DeMarco – “Salad Days”
2. Schoolboy Q – “Oxymoron”
3. Pharrell Williams – “G I R L”
4. YG – “My Krazy Life”
5. tUnE-yArDs – “Nikki Nack”
6. Lykke Li – “I Never Learn”
7. Raz Simone – “Cognitive Dissonance”
8. The Roots – “… And Then You Shoot Your Cousin”