The 25 best independent albums of 2014

Posted at 12:35 PM, Dec 30, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-31 11:22:33-05

Did you get an iTunes gift card this holiday season, but aren't sure how to use it?

Take the opportunity to discover your next favorite artist and use this list of the best independent recordings of 2014 as your guide.

Taylor Swift's "1989" was the only album of 2014 to go platinum, selling more than a million copies in November. With only one lucrative album released this year, many business analysts wonder if the music industry is dead. Independent music aficionados certainly hope so. Many artists and fans credit the industry with stifling both innovation and creativity. There's no shortage of awesomeness in 2014's music scene. Counting album sales is just an outmoded way to measure success.

25. Little Dragon “Nabuma Rubberband”

Little Dragon is continental chanteuse Yukimi Nagano. The 33-year-old songwriter is the driving force behind this electro-pop outfit from Gothenburg, Sweden.

In addition to collaborations with De La Soul and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra's string section, Nagano credits much of the album’s sound to her affinity to Janet Jackson. “When you put some of Janet’ really slow stuff on you feel like you’re floating,” Nagano told Rolling Stone. “That feeling really influenced me and maybe that’s why there are quite a lot of slow jams on the record.”

24. Tune-Yards “Nikki Nack"

Merrill Garbus is the definitive outsider artist. Her recording career began with the lo-fi masterpiece “Bird-Brains” in 2009, where she performs all instrumentation, which is played into an old tape recorder and layered with open-source editing software.

Five years later, this New England native released a third album which highlights her songwriting wit and lyrical playfulness. “Nikki Nack” is a synthed-out homage to Garbus’ endlessly percussive sound-environments that pair with her love of polyphony, like white wine and gala apples.

23. Grouper “Ruins”

Grouper is the solo project of Portland resident and Bay Area-native Liz Harris. Her work is sullen, intimate and flush with washed-out vocals that pulse like a lonely jukebox at the bottom of the Willamette River.

“Ruins” is Harris’ tenth studio album and was produced with a four-track recorder, upright piano, and a single microphone; recorded entirely in Portugal during a creative residency. The album was honored with Pitchfork’s coveted “Best New Music” title.

22. Spoon “They Want My Soul”

The definitive Austin indie-band checks in with their tenth album, ditching long-time label Merge Records for Beverly Hills-based Loma Vista Recordings. Spoon frontmen, Brit Daniel and Jim Eno, both explored vanity projects in the months leading to “They Want My Soul”. Daniel formed the Divine Fits and Eno produced albums by !!! and The Heartless Bastards.

The creative diversion paid off, as the band produced a recording fused with many elements. Spoon’s album is a crunchy and well-paced, complete with jangly hooks served in leather and denim.

21. Odesza “In Return”

Relative newcomers to the electronic zeitgeist, this Seattle duo formed by Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight program bright moods and sound environments for a handful of fresh, up-and-coming vocalists, including Jenni Potts, Zyra, Py and Madelyn Grant.

20. Sage Francis “Copper Gone"

Hip Hop’s Mickey Rourke returns with a confessional piece to mark the end of a four-year hiatus. With close to 20 years in the industry, Sage is one of the genre's ornery elder statesmen. 

The opening song “Pressure Cooker” is awful. Like, if it could die, it’s death should be a painful and murderous one. But that’s Sage Francis’ modus operandi. This veteran poet-gone-MC-gone-renegade pushes hip-hop’s meter by challenging its sound to do new things. "Copper Gone" is rife with clever wordplay and writing worthy of a Pulitzer.

19. Chet Faker “Built On Glass”

Chet Faker is the handle of Melbourne’s bearded soul-singer Nicholas Murphy; whose handle is an homage to his jazz hero: trumpeter Chet Baker.

Faker’s soulful melodies croon atop baselines and kick drums punctuated with lazy horns and warm-toned organ arrangements. There are moments on the recording, like “Dead Body”, that sound like vintage neo-soul, while other pieces make one imagine Mumford & Sons singing on a D’Angelo track.

18. Angel Olsen “Burn Your Fire For No Witness”

This 27-year-old folk artist began her singing career as a teen in the coffee shops of St. Louis. Olsen relocated to Chicago to discover her sound, eventually moving to North Carolina to produce a third studio release.

“Burn Your Fire For No Witness” is a brilliantly written and heart wrenching exploration of bad relationships, invisible partners and the power found in the emptiness after experiencing both. Olsen's voice is captivating and the album is carried by her ability to transform personal tragedy into universal suffering.

17. Zola Jesus "Taiga"

Zola Jesus is former business student Nika Roza Danilova. The songwriter was raised in the remote Wisconsin wilderness and credits the isolation for developing her artistic talents. "When you live around a lot of people in a city and that synthesized stimulation, you can get lost in the hustle and bustle,” the 25-year-old told L.A. Record. “When you grow up in the country you have nothing to stimulate you but what you seek.”

“Taiga” is the Russian word for snow forests; a nod to the hibernating sound of Danilova’s fifth studio release. These 11 songs are a warm emergence from the winter of previous work, as the young songwriter shakes off the ice and snow and stretches her range.

16. Tycho "Awake"

San Francisco-based electronic artist Scott Hansen has been busy. This lauded Bay Area creative designed the art for his website and new album, which is a follow-up to the acclaimed 2011 release “Dive”, which critics compared to the work of Scottish duo Boards Of Canada and M83.

This former bedroom producer assembled a band--adding drummers, guitars and a bassist--for his latest recording, “Awake”. Hansen retains the gorgeous warmth of previous work, but every composition feels part of a larger unified concept. It’s classic variations on a theme, only updated for contemporary electronic sensibilities.

15. The Roots "And Then You Shoot Your Cousin"

The Roots have been around for a minute. Formed in Philadelphia in 1987 by frontmen Black Thought and Questlove, The Roots boast dozens of albums and collaborations. Their legacy as the grand old men of hip-hop was set in stone after being hired by Jimmy Fallon as the Tonight Show’s house band.

With such history, it would be easy for artists at the apex of their careers to release a tepid, business-as-usual album or not bother with new material at all. “And Then You Shoot Your Cousin” is refreshingly different from the self-obsessed flotsam left behind by celebrities. It’s got the quirky, independent sound of up-and-coming artists looking to distinguish their style in a bloated genre.

14. Jesse Boykins III "Love Apparatus" 

This Brooklyn-based soul singer honed his chops in his school's choir at the age of nine. Boykins later recorded with the Grammy Jazz Ensemble in high school and studied under Grammy-winning vocalist Bilal after attending The New School University in New York City.

Boykins has a rebooted neo-soul sound that picks up where artists like Anthony Hamilton and Eryka Badu left off. "Love Aparatus" is more than a boudoir album, however. Boykins has insight on experience, memory and love. It's just delightfully difficult to see beyond the sexy music to discover his profound musings.

13. Sarah Jaffe "Don't Disconnect"

Jaffe’s style has developed from that of a solo-acoustic act to an edgy songwriter pulling from electronic and indie-rock canons to create a bold and colorful sound.

Her latest collection of songs explores the symbols and meanings of relationships in a culture where connectivity is replacing connections. Jaffe's "Don't Disconnect" is bedroom rock. It's the music listened to while getting ready for the day or after retreating to a safe space to reflect.

12. Anthony Valadez "In Search Of..."

This Los Angeles-based DJ is a music historian and musician. Anthony Valadez is a public-radio host who created music programs at KCSN, KPFK and is currently a mainstay on Santa Monica’s KCRW.

Valadez makes beats and uses his soudscapes to introduce the talents of a stable of largely unknown vocalists. The album is similar to his radio shows. You listen to "In Search Of..." to hear the next big thing. 

11. Cherry Glazerr "Haxel Princess"

The debut album from a brood of Los Angeles kids who gleefully fuse garage rock and pop punk into a cacophony of fuzzy drums and guitars. Their sound is quirky with front-woman Clementine Creevy preferring to write songs about favorite pets and odes to grilled cheese sandwiches.

10. Sam Smith "In The Lonely Hour"

Much has been written about this emerging artist embraced by top-40 radio, but there’s really only one thing to know about Sam Smith: this guy can sing.

9. Caribou "Our Love"

Canadian born Dan Snaith emerged in the 2000s under the moniker Manitoba, but transformed into one of the premier indie-electronic musicians as Caribou, releasing the acclaimed album “Andora” in 2007 under Merge Records.

Snaith returns with a sound that is more soulful and personal than his earlier, more cerebral work. "Our Love" features vocals from Jessy Lanza and contributions from Owen Pallett. It's a sexy album that is comfortable dancing at a club or making dinner at home.

8. Sylvan Esso "Sylvan Esso"

Sylvan Esso is Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn. An electropop duo hailing from North Carolina. Meath previously performed with the a cappella folk ensemble Mountain Man, while Sanborn cut his teeth in psych-rock band Megafun.

The new project is a sultry collection buzzes, glitches and taps that slow dance beneath Meath's bright vocal melodies. It's a must listen for fans Postal Service and Feist.

7. Ephemerals "You Made Us Change"

This Soho-based R&B outfit reincarnates the vintage sound of '60s soul a la Lee Fields and Charles Bradley. The band showcases the continental talent of a New York-born Parisian singer named Wolf, who applied for the job of vocalist with a YouTube video and virtually no experience.

“You Made Us Change” is a tribute to the era of Stax Records and Motown. 

6. Lo-Fang "Blue Films"

Lo-Fang is the stage name of Matthew Jordan Hemerlein, a classically-trained musician from Arizona.

“Blue Film” was originally a mixtape written and produced during Hemerlein’s travels to Cambodia, Bali and Tokyo. He signed with label 4AD in 2013 and developed his project into a full-length album and later touring as Lourde’s opening act after its release."Blue Film" weighs in with 13 tracks and nearly every one is catchy enough to sing along to.

5. Adult Jazz "Gist Is"

Frontman Harry Burgess goes out of his way to distinguish his band’s sound from others. That’s why this clean-cut collection of twenty-somethings from Leeds, UK have one of the most unique debut albums of 2014.

Recorded in a Scottish farmhouse, “Gist Is” is a pastoral spread of tenor and falsetto vocals layered with an array of acoustic and electronic instruments. It’s a gorgeous wealth of melodies set to catchy, minimalist rhythms that evoke a mood of sun-warmed grass in the late morning.

4. Apollo Brown "Thirty-Eight"

Detroit producer Apollo Brown is often spoken of in the same breath as producers like J Dilla and Madlib. This bedroom producer quietly created complex beats in his Grand Rapids home until moving to Detroit after college. Now, at 35-year-old, this beat maker collaborates with genre heavy weights like Guilty Simpson and Black Milk.

“Thirty-Eight” is an homage to Brown’s adopted hometown of Detroit in the 1970s, as the city transformed from heroin to crack. It’s a throwback album that samples the music of Blaxploitation films, woven into a melange of soul, jazz, blues and R&B.

3. Perfume Genius "Too Bright"

Seattle-based solo artist Mike Hadreas has come a long way since his 2010 debut “Learning.” A North American tour supporting Beirut in 2011 and a critically acclaimed second album “Put Your Back N 2 It” in 2012 has prepared this young songwriter for an album that crosses over from brooding, introspective songs of domestic abuse and drug addiction to a brilliant and confident sound that has known trouble, but is ready to conquer.

“Too Bright” is the perfect follow-up to a strong sophomore album. It’s just different enough to keep a hungry audience interested, but it doesn’t veer to far from the original mission. The destination is the same, but the route is now chosen more wisely and it will be traveled in style.

2. Shamir "Northtown"

“Northtown" is not only the EP from up-and-comer Shamir Bailey, but also the Las Vegas suburb where this vocalist was raised. Bailey grew up in a Muslim household in the unforgiving mediocrity of the American southwest, but the experience was all creative fodder for this young musician who has the potential to become one of the premier voices of his generation.

Bailey has the gorgeous androgynous tones of a countertenor, but infused with pop sensibilities reminiscent of a young Michael Jackson. “Northtown” is the type of exciting EP that hints at either a brilliant full-length release or a disappointing LP that squanders the momentum of its rehearsals. Only time will tell. Look for Shamir’s album in 2015.

1. Isaiah Rashad "Civilia Demo"

This 23-year-old Chattanooga, Tennessee native began rapping in the tenth grade and recording his tracks into laptops. Rashad's first big break was in 2012 with Joey Badass on the Smoker’s Club Tour. His sophomore release, "Civilia Demo", debuted in early January. A follow-up mixtape, "Welcome To The Game", was released ten months later.

"Civilia Demo" has the confessional approach to lyricism that made hip-hop an institution, but is often lacking in the work of Rashad’s contemporaries. His world is filed with marijuana, poetry and a quest for self understanding that this rapper often mistakes for success in an industry that posts and deletes new talent every day. Rashad’s is the quintessential hero’s journey, where ambition is currency and insight hides in vice. "Civilia Demo" is truly one of the greatest hip-hop recordings produced in the past twenty years.