As in years past, picking my favorite EPs is the most pleasurable part of creating these year-end lists. Inevitably, the EPs are generally more interesting and stronger. I guess brevity is the soul of wit. Short and concise often allows an artist to push everything they are to the forefront, without feeling the need to fill out songs for the sake of calling a record an LP. This year is another strong group. It was tough to narrow it down, but below are my 10 favorite EPs of 2014. — David D. Robbins Jr.
10. Lydia Ainsworth “Right From Real”
The opening track, “Candle”, ushers in the cinematic and orchestral foundation of “Right From Real”. Stuttering electronic blips blend with strings, vocal melodies and tribal drum. On the second track, “White Shadows”, the vocals are twisted into what sounds like back-masking, giving the lush track a mystifying edge. There isn’t anyone doing what Ainsworth does, mixing strange bedfellows, mainly combining the digital and the classic into heavily sweeping pop melodies. Listen to “Malachite” below to get a sense for how she seems to raise the mystical from the ground. This record is full of gorgeous music, both powerful and delicate. “Hologram” plays like a dreamy pop-rock power ballad from another world.
09. SZA “Z”
This year, SZA’s (aka Solana Rowe) name probably became more familiar to people, as she was featured on songs from two of her label-mates’ (Top Dawg Entertainment) albums including two songs for Isaiah Rashad’s EP “Cilvia Demo”. The sultry second track on her “Z” is called “Childs Play” and features Chance the Rapper. SZA sings over the softer instrumentals of XXYYXX’s (aka Marcel Everett) “About You”. The songs skips through unusual imagery, from Shakespeare to SZA’s thought on escaping reality, cleverly expounded in lyrics that blend a hip-hop mentality with dollhouse dreams: “Ripping the heads off all my Barbie dolls / Toss them to the side, give them convertibles / Click vroom / I like the way it rides up.” But SZA is a singer, not a rapper. She can’t be pigeon-holed because her music has branched off her many interests, which she says ranges from ice-skaters to Bjork, to Wu-Tang Clan, to Jamiroquai and Ella Fitzgerald. “Warm Winds” is an album highlight. Her album is about love, fear, sexuality and even religion.
09. Shamir “Northtown”
The 19-year-old North Las Vegas native breaths life into a genre I’ve found has grown tired — house music. His wildly acrobatic “If It Wasn’t True” is a sexy dance track fueled by a heavy beat and Shamir Bailey’s shaky prepubescent vocals. He criss-crosses lead and backing vocals with twisted beats and inventive cascading synth. It’s like going back to a less flamboyant La Bouche’s “Be My Lover”. The funky “I Know It’s a Good Thing” is the kind of song that would make Donna Summer proud. Now let’s get to the elephant in the room. Yes, Shamir is a man, whose vocals sound distinctively like a woman’s. Shamir says a number of producers didn’t know what to do about this when he was shopping his demo tracks around and more or less said, “What the hell do we do with this?”(Yeah, apparently, those producers had never heard Jimmy Scott before either, I’m sure.) Anyway, it’s to God Mode label head Nick Sylvester’s credit that he immediately contacted Shamir after getting the demos in his e-mail. And I’m forever grateful, because “Northtown” is a wonderful EP.
07. Isaiah Rashad “Cilvia Demo”
Okay, so “Cilvia Demo” is breaking the mold in regard to what the definition of an EP is. The album contains 14 tracks, but the artist considers it an “extended play”. The first song (and my favorite), the 1:27 minute “Hereditary”, sets the pace for the rest of the album. After hearing it you know you’re getting a sound more in the vein of Mick Jenkins, Chance the Rapper and A Tribe Called Quest than Young Fathers or Run the Jewels. “Hereditary” is a song about the lessons being passed down from father to son: “My daddy taught me how to drink my pain away / My daddy taught me how to leave somebody / My daddy taught me how to smoke my load and go / My daddy taught me you don’t need nobody.” The Chattanooga rapper’s cap-tip tribute to Baton Rouge rapper Webbie (“Webbie Flow (U Like)”) is a blazing cut, and whether you like he raps about or not, its stylistic acumen is fully apparent in the lyricism: “In that duplex, hit a suplex / Fuck a crew neck / Spottie solo up in recess / Never regress / Georgia peach-es … / Picking up trash on highways / Never my way / Blasé blasé / Sneaking shotty / Fuck a Friday / I’m with Robert, chugging bombay.”
06. Wolf Alice “Creature Songs”
This four-piece London band is a fist in a velvet glove. Lead singer Ellie Rowsell can seduce with her twee little voice until the band bashes ears with its monster indie-pop sound. That’s when Rowsell pushes her voice into Throwing Muses territory, guitars thrashing about. The band seems to find its real voice when all the dishes hit the wall. But even when the band is at its lightest in “Heavenly Creatures”, with its faint guitar melodies and whispery vocals, the song circles around to some vicious lyrics: “Time to die / Time to kill …” Think about this too — what rock band uses a mondegreen like the cutesy opening verses of “Heavenly Creatures”: “We laughed at bitches [pictures] in our passports”? It’s glorious. But I think my favorite song is the last one, “We’re Not the Same”, because it finds the band at its most balanced, soft vocal melodies working like lazily swaying hammocks, eventually give way to explosive drumming, air-raid guitar and horror-film screaming.
05. Your Friend “Jekyll/Hyde”
This band is the creation of talented singer-songwriter Taryn Miller. She manages to build giant monuments of sound out of what are essentially folk songs. In part that’s owed to the infusion of shimmering guitars — but largely it’s her powerful vocals. Miller has a keen sense for the musically dramatic too. Her experimental songs are gargantuan, while also retaining a sense of minimalism. The right drum crash here, an echoed guitar pluck there — and the building crescendos it all leads up to will tear your heart out. Listen to “Bangs” below and you’ll get the idea. Buy the record, if not just to hear here album version of “Tame One” — a song about trepidation and hurt. I think the song encapsulates everything Your Friend is about: Power in quietude, respect through emotional honesty.
04. Happyness “Anything I Do Is All Right”
This South London trio blows in like a fresh breeze with its pretty, melodic, cheeky, and noisy four-song indie rock EP. Just when you get used to the upbeat joys of “You Come to Kill Me?!”, the record slows down into the languid and funny “When You Wake Up” — with the classic hangover chorus: “But I can’t complain / ‘Cuz I know that’s what you get / When you wake up in the bathroom shit-faced.” Seriously. Reading the lyrics doesn’t do it justice. It sounds gorgeous. But the band closes with its best and most meandering track, “Montreal Rock Band Somewhere.” There’s a lightness to the band’s style of rock. It’s organic, fluid, and somehow makes you feel like no matter how bad the day is, everything is going to be alright. There’s a wonderful, dry, straight-faced nature to their humor too. Take this line about the lead vocalist for Arcade Fire, sung over lightly reverberating guitar: “I’m wearing Win Butler’s hair / There’s a scalp-less singer in a Montreal rock band somewhere / And he’s alright.” Glorious.
03. Niykee Heaton “Bad Intentions”
Heaton’s early career so far has followed a modern trend: First get yourself famous on social media and then try to prove to everyone you have talent. I’ve got nothing against the sultry-looking teen posting near-nude photos of herself all over her instagram and facebook. To each his own. (The new feminism is a kind of self-assured anti-feminist I suppose.) But as many pervy followers as that may have gained her — it can overshadow the fact that she’s talented. Really talented. She’s a better songwriter than most of the pop artists I hear with hits on the radio. Being a teen, it’s fitting her songs are largely about youthful temptations, loss, and finding solace in the bottle. Her first two tracks are “Sober” and “Champagne” for god’s sake. And they’re great. But my favorite is the sultry stunner and title track: “I’ve got some damn bad intentions / I got some secrets I forgot to mention / I’ve got some damn bad intentions / I see the world in 25 dimensions / I’ve seen evil reign over perfection … / You say you love the way the storms blow / But when it comes, you close your window.”
02. Movement “Movement”
Hot. That could be the singular word used to describe Movement’s EP — or perhaps Australia and its increasing entry into the music world. This Sydney band begins with the R&B-infused “Like Lust”, high falsetto oozing sex: “Got you comin’ over / When this feels like lust.” After those opening verses, the album kicks into gear with repeated vocal cooing, warped sampling, light keyboard and soulful utterances that feels like a prelude to dimming the lights and heading to the bedroom. It finds a way to be hushed and sexual. There are touches of Fine Young Cannibals in the bouncy 80s piano track, “Ivory”, that bursts out with wild electric guitar flourishes and a pounding beat.
01. George Maple “Vacant Space”
This was as easy a selection as I’ve had this year. Australian songtress George Maple is the next big thing. She can lift house music, like the album opener and title track, just as easily as she can sing a simmering and eclectic R&B song like “Began to Say”. Just how good is she? Well, I heard her sing a song on the BBC show “CJ’s Beatz Soundcheck”, where you can’t hide if you don’t have the goods. The song was a mash-up of the lyrics of her own track, “Fixed”, with the instrumental from “About You” by XXYYXX. It’s out of this world good. It doesn’t hurt that she’s pleasant on the eyes, and her voice has this sexually rusty tone like an airy Miles Davis trumpet. From then on I’ve been waiting to hear more from her. I happened on “Began to Say” in my soundcloud feed early this year and was re-hooked. This is the best EP of 2014.