This is the fifth time that Paste has named The 20 Best Bands of the Year, and looking back at previous lists, most of these acts have endured. And we have no doubt we’ll continue to see names like Alvvays, Sturgill Simpson and Sylvan Esso for years to come. And unless you’re a music geek of the highest order, we’re also confident that you’ll find some others on this list that you didn’t know. There’s nothing like stumbling across a new group of musicians or solo artists and realizing you’re hearing something special. That’s what these 20 acts did for us in 2014.
For a band whose name keeps getting brought up in close proximity to the word “anonymity,” Jungle’s sound sure suggests a strong sense of identity. The two men behind this project, who are going by their first initials J and T primarily, don’t view their reclusiveness as a publicity stunt but as a way to keep their art free from egotism.
“One of Jungle’s key mantras is that we never self-promote ourselves,” they said via email. “The only way that you can ensure that people make an honest connection with your work is by letting them find it themselves or through word of mouth. I can safely say that Jungle will never have a Twitter account. It’s just not about that for us. If people want to spread the word on our behalf then that’s the coolest thing, and the most humbling.”
This view of community and connectivity also colors the way they promoted their debut. Their music videos featured dancers and other talented friends, not J or T themselves. Whether Jungle is best viewed as a musical project or artistic collective is still up in the air, especially considering how much faith the two centerpieces have in their compatriots.
The hip-hop these two must’ve grown up listening to definitely factors into their sound, given the emphasis on beats and basslines. Add to that a healthy smattering of soul and dance and you’re beginning to get a handle on the treat you’re in for when you listen to this record for the first time. Jungle’s debut definitely sounds like progress. It knows enough about what came before it, both musically and on a more wide-scale level, to be able to take 2014 a few steps forward in the soul, R&B, dance and alternative rock departments. Even though everything is changing, Jungle wants to be on top of the present without giving in to its pretenses and weaknesses. And, with an attitude like that, it’s pretty exciting to think of what they’re going to come up with next.—Mack Hayden
19. Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas
Jessica Hernandez has always been busy. She’s been singing since she was three, (her staggeringly beautiful singing voice deceives, as she’s had no formal training). She balanced her studies with singing in the choir and performing in every school musical. When she wasn’t in school, she helped her parents in the family bakery located in southwest Detroit.
A singer and multi-instrumentalist, Hernandez is self-taught on everything. She started getting serious about music after high school. She taught herself guitar, keys and, more recently, drums, while penning notebooks worth of experimental folk songs through her late teens and early 20s.
“With every recording I’ve learned more about what I want to do,” Hernandez told us earlier this year, “but, then, also, what I should have done. By putting out so many weird E.P.’s by myself early on, it helped me learn what I should be doing for ( Secret Evil).”
Her voice is both smoky and scintillating, and her style is varied. Some songs harken to an old world cabaret only to be kicked up by a meaner, modern indie-rock, while other songs strike a candlelit lounge-pop aesthetic electrified by weird synth effects and danceable rhythms. Hernandez has been consistently expanding her sound, leading into an adventurous amalgam of blues, vocal jazz and neo-soul that ever-sharpens the chip on its shoulder with a ratcheting of rock.
But as tremendous and delicate her singing voice is, she was beginning to just consider music as merely a dream, something she would just do on the side between working at her parents’ bakery. But, when she got a call on her cell phone from the iconic jazz label Blue Note Records after they had heard her sing, that was the reassuring sign she was on to something, boosting her to take music from being a dream into more of a reality. Now that dream comes true.—Jeff Milo
18. Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen, the commanding 27-year-old songwriter who cut her teeth in Chicago’s music scene for roughly seven years, had grown tired of life in the Windy City. She felt stifled, rather than relieved, upon returning home from tours despite being near her friends in a comfortable place. She needed something to change.
“Everything there was just soaked in memories,” Olsen said when we talked to her back in August. “Not necessarily bad memories. … But I couldn’t tap into it anymore. I started to feel the harshness of going back to a very busy place where everyone is trying so hard to be unique and trying so hard to be an artist.”
Olsen decided to move to Asheville, N.C., where she’d made her latest record, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, with the help of acclaimed producer John Congleton (Modest Mouse, The Roots, St. Vincent). At the time, she joked with Mark Capon, her manager, and Jon Hency, the owner of her former label, Bathetic Records, about making the indefinite move to the west North Carolina city.
Months later, she ended up relocating to the 86,000-person town in the midst of a whirlwind year that included signing a new record deal; the release of Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her captivating, melancholic new record; and a constant string of tour dates. In her weeks off the road, Olsen said she’s felt comfortable with the pace of life offered in the town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains: “I really enjoy and appreciate a place that isn’t about moving constantly and isn’t about trying to be distracted with all of these things on a day-to-day basis. It’s teaching me that I don’t have to do anything quickly. I don’t have to write if I don’t want to write. Part of my writing is living well.”
The album, part of so far has proved successful enough to allow her to travel the world, sell out shows and engage with fans—all with her trusted band that’s comprised of guitarist Stewart Bronaugh, drummer Joshua Jaeger and bassist Emily Elhaj.
“There’s nothing else I would rather do, of course, but there are eras for everything.”—Max Blau
This isn’t EDM, yet it makes everyone who hears it want to dance. And throw on our headphones and soak it all in. It’s the balance of high energy and relaxation. ODESZA, a production duo out of Seattle, eschew the bubble-gum “gutz-gutz” and robotsex sounds typical of electronic music today. ODESZA arrives instead with “tasteful electronic,” as member Clayton (Clay) Knight half-joked to us this fall.
There’s a certain finger-on-the-pulse feeling with ODESZA. Their grasp on the direction of electronic music sets them apart and they’re becoming the gold standard of acts born from sounds exchanged on the internet. “We take elements from classics and try to blend them into something unique. But we keep it tasteful, to not feel like we’re using a trend or taking a piece because we know its popular,” ODESZA’s Harrison Mills said.
For every headbanger the duo plays live, there’s also the chill-out music for the crowd to just have a drink and smile to the beat with a subtle sway. “In Return is a mix of our love for headphones music and how we’ve been playing lots of shows, getting the crowd moving and adding energy to our set,” said Clay.—Adrian Spinelli
Jillian Rose Banks, known as BANKS, isn’t afraid to carefully use voice as her instrument. She switches easily between low R&B and floaty pop, her vocal range the thread that leads us through the 18 tracks on her debut full length Goddess. BANKS uses her distant, vibrating vocals to tell the common tale of failing relationships and reveals more than seems possible through just one thing—the art of singing. Infinitely cool, her voice scratches at the skin.
BANKS brought together an impressive roster of hip producers to propel the music to atmospheric heights. Shlohmo worked on the album’s stand-out track “Brain,” and Sohn collaborated with the singer on “Waiting Game.” The result is complex, modern and uncontrollably hot. It’s a debut that dances, ebbs, flows, fuzzes and wraps you in low-lit room with a lover you never liked that much.