Let's play it loud & clear

Music for the masses

Let's play it loud & clear

From quirky pop, blues to native sounds, the year has seen the return of old school music. Jon Pareles’s picks for 2014 include the Puerto Rican band Calle 13, Angel Olsen and Azealia Banks

Calle 13
MultiViral (El Abismo)

Calle 13 matches overarching ambitions to music with scope, impact, finesse and humour. Residente’s lyrics, rapped and sung, are less raunchy and more cosmic than ever, addressing the survival of the poor, the human life cycle, private uncertainties, public responsibilities and the charms of idiocy. Forget the language barrier: The words have an equal partner in Visitante’s music, which encompasses pan-American folk roots, hard rock, symphonic pop and brittle electronics, a world of ideas that can matter.

Angel Olsen
Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar)

It’s an old-fashioned rock album: sometimes folky and acoustic, sometimes electric and distorted, a little country, a little Velvet Underground. Just three or four chords, nothing fancy. But archetypal passions and sorrows course through Angel Olsen’s songs about falling in and out of love. She can be unnervingly calm or raw and wounded, and her concentration is unflinching and riveting.

Azealia Banks
Broke With Expensive Taste (Prospect Park)

She sings, she raps, she rattles off designer labels, she strives, she sketches polymorphous hookups. Most of all, she and her well-chosen producers exult in rhythm, cross-pollinating hip-hop, house, Caribbean beats and even some punk and surf-rock, making her melodies and rhymes dance with them all.

FKA twigs
LP1 (Young Turks)

Hovering between slow motion and no motion, in electronic tracks that are simultaneously twitchy, somber and cavernous, FKA twigs uses her whispery soprano for freeze-frame examinations of desire, power, trust and dread.

1000 Forms of Fear (Monkey Puzzle/RCA)

Sia Furler, the songwriter who has infused other people’s Top 10 hits with angst and twisted emotions, returns to her own, formerly introspective career with new pop firepower. With a cried-all-night voice and tracks that move from hollow-eyed verses to monumental choruses, she’s both terrified and triumphant, a basket case and an amourous heroine. Perhaps she’s winking, too.

Rosanne Cash
The River & the Thread (Blue Note)

Southern memories — personal, historical, musical — shape The River & the Thread. Rosanne Cash and her husband, John Leventhal, collaborated on quietly lambent songs, moving between reminiscence and imagination and picking their way through regional styles with wise understatement.

St Vincent
St Vincent (Loma Vista/Republic)

Annie Clark, who records as St Vincent, traded her past guitar-centered rock for synthetic keyboard and drum-machine tones on St Vincent. It’s a complex, stylised conceit for songs that ponder the physical and the virtual, and it’s a self-imposed challenge: Can this vocabulary be expressive? She warms the cool arrangements and verbal conundrums with well-considered melodies and a very human voice.

Mary J Blige
The London Sessions (Capitol)

Blige’s new British collaborators — including Disclosure, Sam Smith and Emeli Sandé — had the brilliantly straightforward idea of exposing her voice, whether it’s backed by gospel-y piano or austere house beats. She sounds closer, more improvisational and more soulful than she has in far too long, making her painful moments and self-help lessons more intimate. The album would be higher on this list if interview snippets didn’t wreck the endings of some songs.

TV on the Radio
Seeds (Harvest)

After TV on the Radio’s art-rock past, Seeds is the band’s poppiest album. It cuts back on noise to unveil melodies, hooks and lyrics about love, though it’s mostly troubled, argumentative love. The band’s new clarity doesn’t mean it has abandoned jittery undercurrents.

Leonard Cohen
Popular Problems (Columbia)

Love and war, consolation and destruction, lead Leonard Cohen to songs steeped in the blues and gospel. There are glimpses of drollery amid the darkness, and a stubborn belief in the redeeming power of romance; there are also grim, monosyllabic epiphanies.


1     Lana Del Rey: “Pretty When You Cry” (Polydor/Interscope)
2     Beyoncé featuring Nicki Minaj: “Flawless (Remix)” (Parkwood/Columbia)
3     Sharon Van Etten: “Your Love Is Killing Me” (Jagjaguwar)
4     Robert Plant: “Embrace Another Fall” (Nonesuch)
5     Banks: “This Is What It Feels Like” (Harvest)
6     Angélique Kidjo: “M’Baamba (Kenyan Song)” (429)
7     Flying Lotus featuring Kendrick Lamar: “Never Catch Me” (Warp)
8     Jenny Lewis: “She’s Not Me” (Warner Bros.)
9     Natalie Merchant: “Maggie Said”(Nonesuch)
10   The Hold Steady: “The Only Thing”(Razor and Tie) 

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