The savviest musicians know that they’re not just presenting their art for the world to ingest; they’re selling a hot-ticket product. The most successful music campaigns are the ones that stand out and stick in people’s memories—for the right reasons. (Robin Thicke’s rebranding as a repentant sad sack is how not to run a winning project.) We chose 10 outstanding bands and artists that have delivered the full package this year: vibrant stage presence, off-kilter merchandise and covetously viral marketing. A little eccentricity went a long way.
1. St. Vincent
It’s usually left to strict pop tarts to market the hell out of themselves, appearing on backpacks, shampoo bottles, Band-Aids, etc. But indie oddball Annie Clark has nailed product placement with her Intelligentsia coffee flavor. Then you have her distinct flavor on her self-titled St. Vincent album: The metallic purple vibe of her site and record sleeve is courtesy of Creative Director Willo Perron (Nike, Lady Gaga) and Designer Brian Roettinger (No Age, Liars). Clark’s shock-white curly hair looks almost Einsteinian— and she is indeed a music scientist, playing with syncopation and genre hopping. Finally, the pyramid at the bottom of her website illustrates her angular sound, truly felt only by those who “get” her.
2. Arcade Fire
The creepy macramé heads, the celebrity cameos—Aaron Paul, Debbie Harry—the Reflektor costume parties, the growing allusion and reverence for Regine Chassagne’s home country of Haiti make Arcade Fire the last great “event” band. Their Reflektor tour bled into 2014 with celebratory gigs at Coachella and at ridiculously intimate venues like The Roxy in Hollywood. And yet, the giant collective still dons suspenders along with its newly adapted Dia de los Muertos makeup. It’s astonishing how a group can grow so much in 10 years and still remain so true to its origins.
3. Jack White
Rock’s Willy Wonka pulled out all the stops with his second solo offering, Lazaretto: the hologram in the vinyl, the tinfoil-country outfits, the constant stream of novel music coming out of his Third Man Records booth (Neil Young, Weezer, etc.) Sure, he ruffled PR feathers in his infamous Rolling Stone interview, but people love Jack White’s weirdness! This mad genius is almost as well known for his marketing antics as he is for his guitar-revival theatrics. These elements make for great bedfellows.
From the triumphant and sepia-toned comeback album Morning Phase to his partnership with charitable eyewear maker Warby Parker, to the always-fun concerts, Beck Hansen deserves to make this list. He is working his full spectrum of talent these days, keeping his shows upbeat and choreography-driven, while Morning Phase woos listeners via their record players. And we can’t forget that folksy hat he’s rocking on the album cover— now that’s an example of “mellow gold” at its finest.
“Weird Al” Yankovic | Mandatory Fun
5. “Weird Al” Yankovic
The king of parody outdid himself with Mandatory Fun, releasing eight zeitgeist-y videos in succession. He turns the lyric vid into a print medium with the literary “Blurred Lines” jab, “Word Crimes,” and he borrows from stark communist propaganda for his promo materials. It’s time Yankovic got the kudos he’s long been owed as a nouveau Andy Warhol. He re-imagines pop culture in a whole new light and honestly makes improvements to the self-righteous works. If you disagree, maybe you’re just like his Pharrell Williams cover— “Tacky.”
6. Kate Nash
The formerly bubblegum singer-songwriter now embraces the color of bubblegum—pink—with her entire being: her costumes, her stage accompaniments, her instruments, even her hair. The dichotomy of the ultra-feminine hue with her increasingly riot-grrrl sound and style—dig her “girl gang” necklaces for fans—is a bold branding move.
7. Capital Cities
The Bruce Lee Mazda ad was a huge boon for the former jingle writers Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian. The duo are like human mullets: They’re shrewd partiers and businessmen. They’ve done wonders with sax-and-hot-dance-move remakes of Bee Gees and Sinead O’Connor songs. And like any good band on the rise, they sport epic beards and ridiculously awesome sunglasses. We think the joyful duo are “Safe and Sound” on our list.
8. Against Me!
The color scheme of the Florida/Illinois band’s site and artwork might be black and white, but Laura Jane Grace has become a prismatic voice in the transgender community. She has a reality web series coming soon, and the band’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues is in-your-face punk rock from a unique perspective. Against Me! again enlisted art entity Steak Mtn. aka Christopher Norris to guide their style, as he did on the previous release, White Crosses. The imagery is unsettling, but that’s the point—transitioning publicly as Grace has done cannot have been an easy, comfortable journey.
9. Jenny Lewis
The former Rilo Kiley front woman could not be more adorable if she tried. Unless she were to throw on an Adidas tracksuit and grow a woolly mustache. Lo and behold, she does just that in the video for “Just One of the Guys,” her directorial debut. Her newest album, The Voyager, doesn’t bro down beyond that. In fact, it ups the unicorn-and-kittens factor with its Rainbow Brite scheme and matching pantsuits, designed by graffiti artist and art director Adam Siegel. Everyone say “awwww.”
10. OK Go
These power pop gurus have become synonymous with mind-blowing music videos. They continued their wizardry with the “how’d they do that?!” spectacle of “The Writing’s on the Wall.” It’s all optical illusions and peripheral trickery, navigated expertly by singer Damian Kulash and co-directors Aaron Duffy and Bob Partington. And now that OK Go are taking their show on the road, they’re dazzling audiences with neon projections that spell out words like “Hey” and “Cadillac.” (Are they hoping for a sponsorship?)