L-R: Kimbra (Photo: Thom Kerr), Top Row: Luke James (Photo: Twitter), Brody Dalle (Photo: Chuffmedia) 2nd Row: Wye Oak (Photo: Merge), King (Photo: Sharon Esquivel)
Her voice blanketed radio in 2011, when she assisted Gotye on his inescapable breakup track “Somebody That I Used To Know.” But The Golden Echo, the second album from this Melbourne-based singer/songwriter/auteur, places Kimbra in the driver’s seat of pop experimentation, and she stretches her voice to its outer limits on the dissonant yet wistful “’90s Music” to the wanting, string-accented “As You Are.” The skating-rink-worthy “Miracle” is a disco jam on which she turns into a yowling, shape-shifting, and utterly joyous diva.
2. ANITA BIAS & AMBER STROTHER
The two vocalists who make up the powerhouse R&B trio KING seem to be made for each other, at least as partners in soul—their singing is alternately coy and commanding, an excellent companion for the smoothly retro-futuristic beats laid down by Amber Strother’s twin sister Paris. KING’s smattering of singles have garnered them co-signs from the likes of Erykah Badu and Prince; their debut album is in the works, but live performances of the material have offered a glimpse at soul that exists somewhere between the “neo” and the “retro,” never committing to either side and thrilling audiences as a result.
3. LUKE JAMES
The debut album from this Louisiana-born soul man has been a long time coming; since the 2011 release of his debut single, the buoyant “I Want You,” Luke James has toured with Beyoncé and collaborated with the likes of Rick Ross. He’s a classically styled R&B singer who gives his music feather-light touches of modernity, and when his voice opens into big notes—particularly when he’s in the middle of a love song—the effect is absolutely sublime.
4. JENN WASNER
For her duo’s fourth album, Shriek, Jenn Wasner made a decision: She was going to ditch the guitars that had defined Wye Oak’s swirling, hypnotic early work in order to free her creative process. (“You gotta do what you gotta do to feel inspired, and chase that inspiration to where it takes you,” she told me before the album’s release.) A nervy gesture, sure, but Wasner’s throaty alto and craft made Shriek one of the most satisfying left-turns of 2014. Analog synths stutter and flutter, creating a jittery atmosphere that never quite resolves; Wasner’s low, rich voice turns into an anchor, her conversational lyrics being made all the more intimate by her flowing delivery.
5. BRODY DALLE
The former frontwoman for the caustic L.A. outfit The Distillers released Diploid Love, her first album under her own name, earlier this year. It’s a snarling beast of a record that matter-of-factly treats being a woman as a topic worthy of punk-rock exploration, thanks to Dalle’s confident burr, which can flip into something more menacing in a beat, leading the way. “Meet The Foetus/Oh The Joy” takes listeners on a journey through pregnancy, from a baby’s earliest rumblings to the post-birth moment when mother becomes besotted with child.