A few requirements went into defining "underrated." The artist couldn't have more than 150,000 Facebook likes, no song on the album could have 1 million or more plays on Spotify, the album couldn't have received a "Best New Music" designation on Pitchfork and the album couldn't have appeared on Rolling Stone's list for best albums of the year.
There are certainly problems for these being the only requirements, but it makes this list a group of artists who got almost no recognition in 2014 and yet still deserve to be heard. We try to make the case for why.
15. Lydia Ainsworth, "Right From Real"
Combining traditionally beautiful, but almost Medieval choir-esque singing, with voice samples, electronic beats and wood instruments (Ainsworth started learning the cello when she was 10) into a minimalist pop structure that seems heavily influenced by the film scoring she was completing between writing these songs, "Right From Real" is a solid debut. Listen at the right time and it can transport you to what feels like a dance party of the future, taking place deep in the bluish green forest pictured on her album cover.
14. From Indian Lakes, "Absent Sounds"
Few opening tracks capture the heart like From Indian Lake’s “Come In This Light,” off their Triple Crown debut. Following a long-echoing piano line that almost isn’t even there, the song combines the band’s penchant for idiosyncratic drum patterns with Joey Vannucchi’s delicately layered croons. Climaxing with an elegant return of the piano, you feel as if you caught in the middle of a love affair and there are still nine tracks to traverse. At moments, on tracks like “Breathe, Desperately,” From Indian Lakes recalls Coldplay, but with the ability rock a harder and louder, and with eyes that are more willing to wander beyond their indie-alt-rock limits. “Absent Sounds” is a complex record and it is one of the few that doesn’t just challenge, but requires you to listen through again and again to figure out how it is that Vannucchi and company have yet to write a bad song.
13. Sinkane, "Mean Love"
Frontman Ahmed Gallab has traversed the world over his lifetime -- born in Sudan, raised in Utah and Ohio and most recently touring the world in bands such as Caribou, Of Montreal, Yeasayer and, of course, his own project, Sinkane. "Mean Love" is what happens when a global-minded dance album comes out of DFA Records, the label co-founded by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. Describing the below track to Stereogum, Gallab said, "I wanted to further explore the idea of making music that was universal. Music that people all over the world could enjoy. I was showcasing another side of me, more of an American side." It's this year's best trek to Graceland.
12. Fear of Men, "Loom"
This debut album by Fear of Men comes partly from projects completed in an English art school by frontwoman Jessica Weiss, but often seems to be driven by trans-Atlantic dreams with songs such as "America." In an interview with Rookie, the band claimed to listen to Simon & Garfunkel while writing and recording this album, and when they all first came to the United States they played Simon & Garfunkel's "America" as their plane touched down. In recording, the band shook around amps until they broke and cut up a speaker to get a perfect roughing up of the generally clean guitar-driven songs. The ground covered with "Loom" may have been a bit too previously treaded, but the rough edges of these recordings really go a long way and what could have sounded safe or sugary, often plays as a legitimately fun, thumping and bouncing album instead.
11. Big Freedia, "Just Be Free"
Big Freedia, the Queen of Bounce, starts this album at 100 percent: "Turn da beat up," he chants over and over, with instructions such as "Head down! / Ass up! / Shake it to the left / Shake it to the right / Shake it to east / Shake it all night!" From these initial rocket-launching instructions, "Just Be Free" never really slows down. Big Freedia has been bringing New Orleans bounce music to greater prominence over the last few years and in 2013, even set the Guinness World Record for leading the most simultaneous people twerking. To Time Out, Big Freedia described his bounce songs saying, "The music is sexual. It’s about sexuality, both lyrically and sonically. At the heart of the genre is what’s at the heart of all art: cultural expression." This is a much needed exclamation point of an album in a relatively soft pop-driven year.
10. The Bots, "Pink Palms"
So this band is made up by a pair of brothers in their teens who released a first album when they were only 12 and 15. Their young age doesn't really come across except for in maybe a reasoning for all the "energy" in tracks like the one featured below. Over driving bass and drums, frontman Mikaiah Lei alternates between singing and straight-talking for "All I Want" with lines such as, "Waiting around for something good to happen / Not as if anything ever happens." They of course should still have a lot of years for "things to happen," but for what's it's worth this album is certainly a good thing that happened in 2014.
Since they're also a two man band with similar vocal and bass styles, "Pink Palms" often feels like the Death From Above 1979 album that should have happened this year.
9. Juan Wauters, "N.A.P. North American Poetry"
In the Fall of 2014, Juan Wauters played a show at Brooklyn's venue Baby's All Right. Despite just being an opening band going on early in the week, Wauters had props and flags on stage, and then went through great lengths to make the show seem like it'd be hilariously terrible before getting to the real playing. He brought on a surprise friend who looked like Slash to play an opening original acoustic song that was beyond repetitive and singer-songwriter-y. Then Wauters took the stage in a red turtleneck and light blue jeans and played a couple songs on a dinky keyboard. Between songs he'd yell a mantra about how this was going to be a great show and chanted "All right!" By 20 minutes into all of this, the crowd was certainly shuffling uncomfortably and then Wauters walked over to his acoustic guitar and launched into "Sanity Or Not," immediately, finally, captivating everybody.
Much like his Captured Tracks label-mate, Mac DeMarco, Wauters being a jokester is much a part of his songwriting "brand." "North American Poetry" often plays it pretty straight, but the charisma carries every note even when Wauters is just playing an unaccompanied acoustic guitar. You don't need to know Spanish to appreciate tracks such as "Escucho Mucho," just as you don't need to understand his onstage jokes -- Wauters' style is just able to carry everything.
8. Amen Dunes, "Love"
This is one of those albums that comes out of a songwriter meandering in lo-fi productions for years and finally writing "the album" where all the diamonds in the fuzzy rough from before come beautifully through. As if you were looking out at the Grand Canyon, "Love" will basically just make you say an almost breathless swear over and over. If you don't like nature, then think about saying a breathless swear as Joaquin Phoenix, standing atop his apartment looking out over the future lit-up and colorful Los Angeles city-scape from "Her." Something like that.
In an interview with Wondering Sound, frontman Damon McMahon said, "I was literally trying to do a spiritual jazz record. Well, a songwriter record produced by a spiritual jazz band, like if Elvis had Pharaoh Sanders back him up."
7. QuESt, "Searching Sylvan"
“Searching Sylvan” is the hip-hop storyteller’s album. Many of its tracks like “Hunger,” “Automatic” and “Struggle Rapper” can easily stand on their own legs, but very few albums resound as powerfully as a record when listened straight through. You aren’t just handed a map, but a first-person vision into the struggles, motivations and successes that define how QuESt came to be the still-realizing artist he is today.
Between the relatable skits of the scolding-meant-to-galvanize speeches from his mom, his description of his strained relationship with his father in “Erase Me” and his homage to a friend murdered over an iPhone on “Lost Niggas” and “No Love in the City,” “Searching Sylvan” is an emotional investment that is as much about art as it is catharsis. With no limit to the variety in production, half of which came from in-house producer 6ix, and all of which properly complemented every mood of the album, QuESt has proven there’s no flow he can’t take on. Closing out the album with a lead into the introduction, there’s no choice but to put QuESt’s seven-year journey on repeat, and decipher every song until you’ve memorized its meaning word for word.
6. Raz Simone, "Cognitive Dissonance: Part 1"
Raz Simone’s “Cognitive Dissonance: Part 1” plays like the first installment of a handbook crafted by a man who has seen it all and done it all; a script written by and for the streets. A transformation in progress, Raz eschews the black and white for a more vibrant spectrum, detailing a mind forged from a convoluted past, unwinding toward a more lucid future. As The Huffington Post wrote about in a Simone feature earlier this year, the “Inception”-themed opener, “They’ll Speak,” shows off a non-stop-bars, diction-sharp Raz, while the following track, “8 Rangs,” is built up with a more syrupy flow and dark harmonies.
Dealing out his own production, the album strays from the comfort of typical hip-hop instrumentals. Raz challenges us with dilemmas like deciding between providing our aunt with dope or letting her go look on the streets where harm is always waiting around the corner, reminding us that no matter what life we have been handed, the reality of it all is never as clean as we want it to be.
5. Parkay Quarts, "Content Nausea"
Among all the viral videos and horrible headlines and sentimental, but seemingly junk stories passed around by content mills with the rise of the Facebook algorithm over the last few years, 2014 felt like the wave in the sea of empty stories reached a typhoon peak. Sites such as Clickhole rose up to surf, but not destroy the wave, at least adding a bit of sanity and levity and relief to everything. "Content Nausea" was the musical equivalent of this and was probably the most "important" and "necessary for the times" album on this list.
Parkay Quarts is the "alter-ego" of the band, Parquet Courts, that has slowly been worshipped by more and more fans over the last few years despite doing few interviews and actively staying off social media. Courts released the album "Sunbathing Album" this year, a bigger release, but "Content Nausea" fit into 2014 far too well to be overshadowed. The standout song below, "Uncast Shadow Of A Southern Myth," shows more traditionally impressive lyric-writing, while the album's title track, "Content Nausea," gives the feeling of a 2014-version of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" with rattling offs of generational truths.
All in a span of seconds: "Content nausea, World War Four / Seems like it all came too soon / Another carnage apparatus / Such a dissapointing doom / I've used money, I've used drugs / Abuse body, abuse mind / People use such strange excuses / Always have done no clue why / Most folks think and some folks know / Life's lived least when you don't let go / Of a memory, of a dream / Like a hometown better seen." Time will tell if in a few more seconds the surfer falls back into the wave."
4. Mr Twin Sister, "Mr Twin Sister"
The Huffington Post interview with Mr Twin Sister earlier this year started by focusing on a serious car crash the band had gotten into and how much they overcame to make this album. After sharing an account of the crash here's what was said in the rest of the intro:
A few years ago, Dev Gupta, the keyboardist and oldest member of the band Mr Twin Sister (formerly Twin Sister), told The Guardian, "I think to even be in a band and be like, 'We're going to make music', requires a serious amount of naiveté."
The band has since parted ways with independent record label Domino, after their critically-acclaimed "In Heaven" from 2011 "didn’t make [the label] enough money." They've gone through a legal battle in which they were essentially forced to change their name after a '70s band of actual twin sisters, called Twin Sisters, expressed they were "a little annoyed" this new band didn't have any twins. The lead singer, Andrea Estella, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And, as recounted by Gupta, the band was in a grizzly car crash that almost killed them all while touring in Tallahassee, Florida.
But from the troubles of the last few years, they've emerged with a new name and a new album, the just released, self-titled second debut of sorts, "Mr Twin Sister." Easily one of the best releases of 2014 so far, the album is absolutely beautiful through and through. For Gupta, Estella, bassist Gabe D'Amico, drummer Bryan Ujueta and guitarist/singer Eric Cardona, this band is their "shot at immortality." The Huffington Post discussed "Mr Twin Sister," a record deeply concerned with personal identity and what happens in the final hours of your night, with Gupta and how "mortality is a hell of a motivator."
Now that the year has ended, the qualifier "so far" can certainly be dropped and "Mr Twin Sister" is easily one of the best releases of 2014. Below is the track "Out of the Dark" that shows off the dancier elements of the album and has the amazing line, "I am a woman / but inside I'm a man / and I want to be as gay as I can."
If you have a moment though, you should also check out tracks such as "Blush" that are highlighted in the original interview which highlight the more beautiful elements of this album.
3. PC Music, (Website Releases)
PC Music was arguably the biggest mystery in music this year (although maybe losing to the question of what went down in that elevator). Pitchfork began an explainer article saying, "What is PC Music? A label, a scene, a subgenre, a red herring? It may be all of these things at once."
A mid-20s British music producer named A.G. Cook started this "thing" called PC Music and throughout the year released by far the most interesting pop songs of 2014 through a range or artists such as Lipgloss Twins and Hannah Diamond, whose song is featured below. These songs would typically be accompanied by original videos and early-Internet graphics right on pcmusic.info for extra spectacle. Perhaps it is a stretch to say these website releases collectively constitute an "album" release, but as mentioned above, 2014 was a year of "content nausea" and a collection of webpages feels more like an "album" than vinyl-pressing right now. Similarly, this collection of what you could maybe call "extreme" pop songs from what actually might even be the same person under different pseudonym artist names is the most contemporary perplexing thing to have been released, on one hand feeling like bizarre futuristic dance tracks while also having lyrics rooted in the style of other pop successes.
In Diamond's "Pink and Blue" she sings, "I waited for so long for a guy like you / This guy who likes me too, and I think I like you maybe / I know that you're so unavailable / But you call me all the time, and you know I've got you on my mind." In this subversion, the love interest gets a definitive "call me all the time" while the affection is more blurred with "I think I like you maybe."
Whether the PC Music releases -- which also sort of includes the slightly more popular "Hey QT" and Sophie's "Lemonade" releases -- were brilliant or garbage was debated throughout the year, even by NPR. Although it's still unknown whether future mainstream pop songs will begin to incorporate/steal these ideas and bring them to larger audiences, PC Music won the year for the most interesting inclusion into the pop canon.
2. Julie Byrne, "Rooms With Walls and Windows"
In "Holiday," Julie Byrne sings about giving up dreams of wandering: "We met on New Year's Eve in New York City / How cold it had been then and soon will be again / We could’ve lived together and given up our dreams of wandering / We could’ve left together and given up our dreams of the home we could keep." Over the last few years, Byrne has moved across the country almost continuously, living on both coasts in show houses and work/trade situations and touring until just recently finding a place in New York. She's also had a handful of different jobs including selling dorm room posters to college students and a stint at an old drive-in restaurant which she thought might help her "write pop songs," but eventually stopped showing up to because as she explained in a "residency" with Portals, "A long time ago, I convinced myself that it cannot always be irresponsible to forsake obligation for moments of interior peace."
Byrne's idea of an ideal "home" seems to be always shifting. The album title, "Rooms With Walls And Windows" is vague enough to evoke only the concept of a home. In her song "Marmalade" she describes how she wants a brick house with a porch and land, but in a conversation with Sea Oleena, she's asked "If you had to choose someplace anywhere in the world to spend the rest of your life, where would it be?" and Byrne responded, "Oh, I don’t think I could ever say now. I’m sure there will come a time when I’ll believe in my answer to that question, but right now, I don’t even think I’d want all my ashes to be buried in one place."
Another Byrne -- lead singer of the Talking Heads, David Byrne -- starts off "This Must Be The Place" by singing "Home is where I want to be / Pick me up and turn me around / I feel numb, born with a weak heart / Guess I must be having fun / The less we say about it the better / Make it up as we go along / Feet on the ground, head in the sky / It's okay, I know nothing's wrong, nothing."
Julie Byrne's songs are coming from a place other artists failed to capture this year. The songs have hyper-basic production values and this is just one songwriter with an acoustic guitar, but Byrne found a way to make the basics of this noise better than all the similar acoustic noise. With it becoming increasingly impossible again for most people to pay for the production values of an album, celebrating simple recordings seems to make the most sense. Of course, many (far too many) people compete in this lo-fi spectrum, but Byrne did it the best this year. Many of the albums on this list have had projections of America, but this was 2014's Great American Album.
The below recording is actually of an earlier version of "Holiday," but the album version is very close to this. As the song is more about the writing than the recording anyway, sharing this track still feels all right.
1. TOPS, "Picture You Staring"
While talking to The Huffington Post earlier this year for an interview, frontwoman Jane Penny said:
I think it can be hard to see a future. I know that a lot of people my age don't really know what we're going to be doing. There doesn't seem to be a ton of opportunities. I don't know.
In another interview with GroundSounds about "Picture You Staring," Penny said, "We're living in a pretty fucked up time, and life can be hard, but ultimately I hope it's a record people can enjoy."
Above all others, this is the album that should have been enjoyed by far more people in 2014. "Picture You Staring" is the "most underrated." It almost seems a given that this album will get the same late-reaction that their friend, fellow Canadian and former live bandmate, Mac DeMarco, got for "2" after its release in 2012. That album was later considered brilliant and started the beginning of a huge fan base for DeMarco, despite mostly missing full critical acclaim with its initial release due to it being written off as too simple. Tops' album essentially had the same problem this year and yet if you attend one of their shows you'll already find a crowd of full on superfans.
"Sleeptalker," which is featured below, is easily one of the best tracks of the year, but doesn't completely show off how extremely fun this album got. Songs such as "Change of Heart" and "Way to be Loved" capture straight guitar dance rock much more wonderfully than other guitar driven groups have been able to pull off in recent years. In the music video for "Way to be Loved," Mac DeMarco flashed his balls for a brief second. When asked about this, Penny told HuffPost:
I never really thought anything of it ... That's how he wanted to be portrayed. I think it's kind of funny, life is pretty funny and stupid. It's silly to edit out all those parts, you know?
The album may be fairly straightforward rock/pop songs, but they're the best we got all year. As HuffPost concluded the first time around about this album:
Despite the hours of recording that make it a pretty album, it never gets "too precious" and it sounds perfect in a way that can only be achieved from a group of longtime friends still just hanging out. It's structured beauty. It's messing around with someone who loves you for you.
The right things are never edited out.