On this day of our Year In Review, we examine albums from artists who dropped projects that were diamonds in the rough—LPs that although were overlooked, also were marked by unexpected risks and daring sonics. As artists like Miguel and The Internet took surprising turns on their third offerings, Jazmine Sullivan made a grand return and Alabama Shakes and Grimes continue to paint in their own colors.
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
A good thing takes time, this we know. But after their 2012 debut Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes has since coined a sound, genre and formula of tempting every genre border with the solemn aspiration to make undeniably transformed music. To say their recent release Sound & Color is an instant-vintage album for roots-rock poster children, is an understatement. It’s a touchstone of classic R&B vocals from lead singer Brittany Howard, shouts of riveting riffs from guitarist Heath Fogg, and a woozy channel of production from bassist Zac Cockrell, keyboardist Ben Tanner, with a blast of blaring punches from drummer Steve Johnson.
To say the very least, it’s a disposition of imaginative music everyone can feel. There’s no firm dividing line between modern and classic, instead you'll find a stretched-out showcase of harmonies and moonlighting live instruments. At a lapse of blurred grassroots and assembled reverbs, Sound & Color is the macro level of love songs and global rock aggression. You can only marvel where they will go next.—Shanté Merida
Grimes, Art Angels
I was listening to Grimes' Art Angels earlier when, upon completion, my playlist shuffled to The Knife's You Take My Breath Away. It was a seamless transition and got me thinking about the similarities betwixt the pair of artistes: they're foreign to the States (Grimes hails from Vancouver and The Knife call Sweden home); each has been bestowed awards on said hometurf (the Juno for Electronic Album of the Year and countless Swedish Grammis, respectively); and they both have a tepid relationship with the media, social or otherwise.
In April 2013, The Knife released their fourth and final studio album (Shaking the Habitual), which was rooted in themes of feminism, queer theory and gender studies.... Subjects not unfamiliar to the young Claire Boucher (Grimes). So on her fourth studio album (and follow up to 2012's Visions), the singer, songwriter, music video director and record producer decided to take Art Angels into her own hands, notching the rare "all songs written and composed by..." title.
Fourteen tracks (each, in this author's personal opinion, better than the previous) span categorical sounds (pop, punk, rock, baroque) with ease while inviting listeners into Grimes' magic-eye art of an album. Stare/listen hard enough and you'll hear one hell of a precisely perfect album that cuts... like a knife.—Hannah Rad
The Internet, Ego Death
The Internet spawned from the Odd Future gold rush of the early 2010s. With core members Syd tha Kyd and Matt Martians both playing integral parts in the founding of the hip-hop collective before branching off to form their own jazz/soul/R&B project in 2011. At the time of their debut, Purple Naked Ladies, The Internet was a two-piece that came to realize implementing more multi-instrumental components into the misfit, was probably a better formula.
Now, fast-forward to their third studio effort Ego Death, and the group has expanded into a sound of the filthiest bass lines and a full tank of jazz cues for a fully-formed vibe. They are a group that draws relevance from past genres with a twist of well-rounded experimental undertones, making use of a full backing band to Syd’s smoky vocals. Ego Death’s arrival is a visible product of what can happen in between a grace period of new inspiration and a poised take on the bigger things in the near future.—S.M.
Jazmine Sullivan, Reality Show
When Jazmine Sullivan tweeted in 2011 that she was leaving the music industry, it was something for us to understand, but more so, to respect. But when the R&B powerhouse returned after a nearly five-year hiatus, we quickly realized it was an act of self-preservation that only poised her spirit, transparency, and underlying love of making heartfelt and timeless music. Sullivan isn’t a singer who just scratches the surface, instead, she’s a vocalist that registers on an emotional level well beyond your deepest sentiments.
Presenting her life and times on her latest album Reality Show, Sullivan opens the windows of her soul to a front-row view on what captivated us at first listen in 2008. It’s an ode to not only the state of true R&B, but a pledge to musical versatility that she effortlessly blends from one album to the next. Turns out Reality Show is the wittiest joke that Sullivan could have told on herself, at the expense of her ex-lovers and anyone that ever doubted her.—S.M.
Picture a Venn diagram, the left circle represents "coffee" and the right circle holds "fucking." In the shared middle space? Miguel.
Not only does Wildheart's first single "Coffee (Fucking)" remain our "reintroduction" to the slick-tongued singer (it had been nearly three years since the release of 2012's Kaleidoscope Dream), but it also serves as the embodiment of this album and it's singer whereby all our needs (coffee) and wants (fucking) are met. Perhaps flip the needs/wants, for some. No judge.
Armed with a battalion of musical accoutrements in the forms of Pop Wansel, Kurupt, Salaam Remi, Lenny Kravitz and Cashmere Cat, Miguel served us Wildheart, a piping hot cup of individuality and intimacy. For the singer, all he wanted was, "[for] everyone to know I am wild, funny, edgy and love women. I need this album to connect”.
His needs? Met.
(The author of this piece, Hannah Rad, had a raging crush on Lenny Kravitz as a hormonal pre-teen and currently has one on Miguel. The fact that Lenny and the latter paired up on album track "face the sun" made said author nearly implode.)