Don’t ever forget that The Smoking Section crew is composed of musical omnivores. While the majority of our content covers the ins and outs of the rappity-rap industry, we get down just as often to the stuff that doesn’t include a breakbeat and rhymes. This year especially we enjoyed lots of projects from artists as varied as Lykke Li and Lana Del Rey, and we anticipate we’ll continue listening to them even as the calendar slides into 2015.
Without further ado, here are our 13 favorite non-rap releases in 2014.
Lykke Li – I Never Learn
Lykke Li’s first album since 2011 is gorgeous–so much so that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the sound of the whole sweeping LP without so much as listening to the heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics about breaking up a relationship. “No Rest For The Wicked” will swallow you whole; “Never Gonna Love Again” is the anthem for the resolute ex-lover that this is it–love’s zenith has come and gone. Even the album’s title, coupled with the austere cover artwork, is beautiful because it’s something that’s universal. Love is fatalistic. The same mistakes repeat themselves. — Ryan J.
Tinashe – Aquarius
It was always going to be somewhat of an uphill battle for Tinashe when it came to her debut album. She had built her name mostly on the backs of atmospheric, project-oriented mixtapes, only to have most people recognize her for the (admittedly great) turn-up single, “2 On.” It’s pretty impressive, then, how Aquarius managed to bridge that gap–certainly better than the Soundscan returns would have you believe. It’s both current and nostalgic, swaggering (“Thug Cry”), and steamy (“Feels Like Vegas”). Tinashe has the vocal chops and the spunk to stick around for a while. She’s no one-hit wonder. Not to those who are really listening. — Samir S.
TDE’s having one hell of a creative run right now and SZA is certainly a strong example of that. SZA’s latest album, Z, embodies the honesty of early Aughts neo-soul but blends it with the whimsy and trippy sounds of current indie pop. From the proclamations on “Ur” to the perfect tandem with Chance The Rapper to the freaked-out club tune that is “Julia,” Z is a dreamy album that subtly catches the ear and never lets go. While I’ve become so disillusioned with mainstream R&B, SZA managed to create a project that hasn’t left my playlist since its release. — Dr.Hip Hop
BANKS – Goddess
Goddess is the perfect description for BANKS. The Los Angeles-born singer has an angelic voice that works beautifully with the whimsical, delicate, electronic-based instrumentals. But pretty voice and face aside, she’s the type of girl who won’t let someone walk all over her, and has some attitude that’s reflected in “Fuck Em Only We Know” and on the chorus to “Goddess.” The highlight of the album, though, is “Drowning,” a record about a flailing, unhealthy relationship. Overall, to quote her, you’re “f*cking with a goddess,” and she achieves the perfect balance of spicy singer. — Julie J.
Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
I can’t recall the first time I heard the term “slacker rock” used. It’s a sign of the times that rock genres are being distilled into cheap adjectives I used to describe my best friend from high school–next thing you know “post-dude-core” is going to be a thing. Without giving “slacker rock” credence, Mac DeMarco made an album in Salad Days that would appeal to slackers and is rock. But it’s more than that. It’s a great portrait of a young, easy-going kid who knows how to concoct short, sweet tunes about the big things that nag at us: am I wasting my time and talent on something I hate? Do I worry too much? Am I letting a concocted persona run my life? Mac leaves those questions and more open-ended for his listeners.
Generally speaking, though, he’s fine. Which is all the better for us. — R.J.
The Black Keys – Turn Blue
Let me go ahead and say it: when it comes to rock duos and what some people call “arena rock,” nobody is doing it better than Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. With help once again from Danger Mouse, the Akron guys dropped another great album in Turn Blue, a perfect distillation of rock, blues, jazz, and soul from yesteryear. It’s a core principle of the album and one of its biggest strengths, like on the all-consuming “Weight of Love” or the sly throwback rock tribute “10 Lovers”.
The other strength is the duo’s ability to have such a restraint with their sound–just listen to all the sounds not being played on “In Time”–but still manage to be bold with their moves and precise with their execution. A lesser group would’ve made “Gotta Get Away” into a horrid homage to beach-rock or “Fever” into a throwaway track unworthy of Mr. Levine and company or Magic. It gives fans hope to know that a rock group like The Black Keys can continue to keep us all entertained. — Dr.Hip Hop