This past spring, I landed myself grand jury duty. I assumed that because I work from home writing about pop music and teaching online courses and none of my various employers could pay me for my time, I had a pretty solid excuse as to why I couldn't serve. But when I entered a Washington, D.C. courtroom early on a Monday morning, things looked pretty bleak from the jump. A grand jury needs to consist of 23 jurors and, by my groggy count, there were maybe 30 people in the room with me. It became clear pretty quickly that, unless I could provide documentation that I was either terminally ill or a lizard person, I was pretty much fucked.
I would end up seeing almost 50 different homicide and assault cases over the course of five weeks, for five days a week, from 9am-5pm. There was a lot of blood, a lot of crying mothers, a lot of heartbreak. It was eye-opening in almost every respect, but it was also incredibly draining and upsetting. Needless to say, my freelance work took a backseat for those five weeks, and my normal listening habits were disrupted in ways they haven't been since college. Instead of listening to five-to-ten new records a week, I only had time for one or two. At the end of my service, I knew that I was in a listening hole I couldn't reasonably dig my way out of. And in a weird way, that was OK: instead of just blowing through tons of releases to keep my head above water, I actually spent more time with stuff I genuinely liked and loved. I tried to stay in this same frame of mind for the rest of the year, and in a lot of ways, I was a much happier music listener.
Civic duty notwithstanding, there's some likelihood that you, too, have a list somewhere of albums you've been meaning to hear from the past year (or any other, for that matter). With that in mind, here are ten albums (in no particular order) that, for whatever reason, didn't get as much shine in 2014 as they should've but are great ways to jumpstart your 2015 (at least while we wait for the new Kanye/Sleater Kinney/Mark Ronson/Adele albums to drop).
1. Cymbals Eat Guitars -- LOSE
No use beating around the bush: LOSE is my favorite album of the year -- in any genre. It's one of the best indie rock records to come along in years, complete with grandiose guitar work, life-affirming hooks and eloquently spun stories about loss, confusion and grappling with a past that won't let go of you. Some of the record deals with the death of frontman Joseph D'Agostino's former bandmate and best friend, but it's such a relatable, open-hearted piece of work, that you can't help feeling a sense of joy -- or redemption -- from shouting along to it. "There's less and less rock music that matters," D'Agostino told SPIN recently. "Of course there are exceptions every year but... rock is not the thing any more." LOSE is one of those exceptions. And for those of us that loved it, it was also the rule.
First Listen: Single "Chambers," which reads like the bleaker parts of a Jonathan Franzen novel but plays like a dance-rock classic.
2. Lewis -- L'Amour
Some argue that the myth surrounding Lewis' L'Amour is more interesting that the actual record, and that's fair -- after all, it's a hell of a story: In 1983, a freakishly handsome mystery man calling himself Lewis recorded an album at a Los Angeles studio, then zoomed away in his white Mercedes with a gorgeous girl, never to be heard from again. What he left behind is L'Amour (reissued this year by Light In the Attic), a simple, affecting collection of hushed synth-folk tunes that support the idea of Lewis as a forgotten specter. Another record surfaced, 1985's Romantic Times, which featured Lewis (credited as Lewis Baloue) having a cigarillo in a white suit in front of a Mercedes and a private jet. Unfortunately, the mystery was too good to be true, as Lewis was tracked down in Canada (he has no interest in picking up where he left off) and identified as a stockbroker named Randall Wulff. Even if the story is a bit of a let-down, we're still left with L'Amour, in all its strange, fragile glory. Put it on, and you'll find it incredibly easy to forget that the ending was spoiled for you.
First Listen: The lilting opener "I Thought the World of You," which should be at least twice as long as it is.
3. Ava Luna -- Electric Balloon
Brooklyn outfit Ava Luna sound like a blast from the not-too-distant past on their deliriously fun sophomore effort Electric Balloon, dismantling and reconstructing angular punk funk, frenetic art rock and quirked-out R&B, sometimes all at once. The band calls itself "nervous soul," and that's a pretty accurate tag. It's a little slapdash, a little all-over-the-place, a little uninformed. But it's also so proudly offbeat, charming and dance-friendly, it's strangely irresistible. Ava Luna's closest spiritual cousins would be Dirty Projectors, but unlike the work of that band, Ava Luna's willingness to take themselves less seriously is a real asset. It's the best record to come out of Brooklyn in 2003 that came out this year.
First Listen: "Plain Speech," which sounds like three lost Talking Heads' demos playing all at once.
4. Sleaford Mods -- Divide & Exit
If you've ever wondered what a collaboration between The Streets and Mark E. Smith of The Fall would sound like, look no further than Grantham, England duo Sleaford Mods. Andrew Fearn takes care of the dinky beats and electronics, while Jason Williamson -- part street corner preacher, part neighborhood pub bully, part hungover, downtrodden standup comedian -- rants and raves. During a year where outrage-one-upping threatened to become an Olympic sport, Sleaford Mods made indignation fun again.
First Listen: "Liveable Shit." You put up with it.
5. Tove Lo -- Queen of the Clouds
It took Tove Lo some time to get on her feet. Roughly 16 months ago, the Swedish singer dropped her breakthrough single "Habits," one of the catchiest songs to come along in recent memory about being a sad, stoned fuck-up. The song went largely unnoticed until later this year when "Habits" began to cozy up alongside the likes of Charli XCX on radio playlists nation-wide. The aesthetic connection shared with Charli XCX seemed like something of a gift and a curse for Tove Lo: On one hand, a song like "Habits" probably wouldn't have gained much traction if not for the groundwork laid by Charli. But, on the other, news that Charli's new album, Sucker, would be released at the end of October made it a very real possibility that it would totally dwarf and obscure Tove Lo's debut, Queen of the Clouds, released only a month earlier. In an effort to squeeze a little more juice out of Charli's hit "Boom, Clap," Sucker was pushed back into December. It hardly mattered for Tove Lo, however. "Habits" played well on the charts, but Queen of the Clouds as a whole went largely overlooked. Too bad because the record's darker, funnier, wittier and more varied than almost anything on Sucker. So if you have to choose just one...
First Listen: "Talking Body," which actually could've just borrowed the title "Have a Sad Cum" from Death Grips.
6. 100s -- IVRY
I was late to 100s' IVRY mixtape, which the California rapper released for free online via A-Trak's Fool's Gold label. It wasn't until July that a friend of mine threw it on in the car. I knew the guy had incredible hair, but man, I had no idea that anyone was still capable of making G-funk sound this vital in 2014 (all due respect to the great DJ Quik). From the pimpadelic "Fuckin Around" to the unexpectedly tender strut of "Different Kind of Love," IVRY capitalizes on a market sorely in need of some love. Unfortunately, 100s recently announced that he'd be changing his name to Kossisko, and christened the event by dropping a cover of The Clash's "Bankrobber" with London singer Rainy Milo. It is not good. 100s' (er, Kossisko's) next move will be a crucial one, but we can at least find comfort in knowing that we'll always have IVRY, an album that, for once, made pimpin' look easy.
First Listen: "Ten Freaky Hoes," where 100s hilariously runs down sexual encounters with wit and aplomb, and delivers the best blunted-in-the-passenger-seat chorus of the year.
7. Restorations -- LP3
Post-rock without the pretension, the hum of Heartland restlessness, arena-rock tailor-made for the state fair, a neon sign promising Guitars As Big As Your Headâ�¢ -- Restorations' LP3 sounds like all of these things. The Philadelphia-based band aren't beholden to any particular genre, which is ultimately their greatest strength. Ask one person, and they'll describe LP3 as a punk rock record, albeit it with three howling guitars and plenty of room for skyscraping solos. Ask another, and it's Americana for the emo set. But everyone will agree that LP3 is an impressive work and an album tailor-made for the few of us who thought that War On Drugs LP was totally bogus.
First Listen: "Separate Songs," for each and every righteous climax.
8. Drake's Soundcloud Releases
True, almost nothing that Drake did in 2014 could be described as "overlooked." As one of the most consistently surprising and surprisingly consistent pop figures we have today, his every move is tracked and picked-apart and shared and meme'd fanatically. But we're including the trail of one-offs he left on the OVO Soundcloud page on this list because, nestled amongst monster jams like "0 to 100 / The Catch-Up" and "Trophies" are other, less in-your-face gems like "Draft Day" and "6 God," almost all of which are worthy of prime placement on a LP. Equally important to the actual music was Drake's commitment to keeping his evolution transparent, recording and releasing songs in real time. In 2014, it's not a necessarily novel approach, but with an artist as dominant as Drake making music that's this of the moment, it feels downright bold.
First Listen: Conventional wisdom would suggest "0 to 100 / The Catch Up," but the real keeper is the "Doo-Wop (That Thing")-flipping "Draft Day," in which Drake brunches with Qatar royals, eats his first raw oyster, and catcalls Jennifer Lawrence.
9. Leon Vynehall -- Music for the Uninvited
The title of up-and-coming Brighton, England producer Leon Vynehall's mini-album Music for the Uninvited is a reference to dance music's inclusion of outsiders, and its slinky, slow-burning, orchestrally-tinged house grooves feel nothing but welcoming. Music for the Uninvited is a record so steeped in subtlety, it's hard to know whether it wants you to dance, lounge, or simply just be. But no matter how languid and unassuming these pieces are, it's in the gorgeous little details that it comes alive, showing the intentions of an exciting young voice who understands the value of a "less is more" approach. The most polite dance record of the year, by far.
First Listen: "Goodthing," a hypnotic, glitter-dusted soft-thumper that won't leave your head for weeks.
10. Felicita -- Frenemies EP
If I'm being honest, I have to admit that I was largely turned off by most of the stuff affiliated with the amorphous, secretive and overbearingly cutesy electronic pop label PC Music this year. "Hey QT," the most notable PC Music-affiliated track of 2014, reminded me of what I imagine the soundtrack to a pornographic PokÃ©mon fanfic Tumblr post might sound like. So it's hard to explain my love for Felicita's Frenemies EP, which is only loosely tied to PC Music but, in intention and execution, shares a great deal in common with the label's artists like SOPHIE, Hannah Diamond and A.G. Cook. What makes Felicita's music stand out? In a nutshell, it's just plain weirder. Hyper-caffeinated and dayglo dizzy, these fractured tracks sound like a Lisa Frank binder becoming self-aware and going on a nightmarish, psilocybin-soaked rampage. In a cute way.
First Listen: "Skip Blush," which finally answers the question of what kind of music Elmo and a broken jack-in-the-box doing alien Mariah Carey imitations would make.