the ep is the multi-purpose tool of musical formats; established acts can release them as placeholders before new albums arrive (see tennis, panda bear) or as containers to hold supplemental material from a recording session. they’re the perfect companion for touring bands wishing to give their audiences extra incentive to purchase merchandise, but above all, the ep is a logical stepping stone for many young artists seeking to release something more cohesive than a single or free mixtape. all five of 2014’s best eps fall into this final category. this year saw a bevy of new artists vying for attention, but those on this list seem like they’ll be sticking around for awhile, regardless of whether or not they have major label support. read our thoughts below.
it’s not a stretch to assert that eric wells is one of the hardest-working musicians in wisconsin’s diy scene. while this blog has a soft spot for and a deep connection to the midwest, the fact that sayth’s second ep shows up on this list is not a concession to that relationship; it’s an acknowledgement of the artistic identity wells has crafted. using alternative hip-hop as his delivery method, wells covers a lot of lyrical ground on bad habitat: being a gay rapper in a heteronormative climate, metaphysical musings attached to a video game, and the untimely death of a close friend. bad habitat is billed as a solo effort but wells benefits from the help of his frequent collaborators, as north house provides some beats and wealthy relative drops by for “chirp,” a song that recalls the duo’s dream feast joint effort. sayth may be stylistically indebted to other art rappers like open mike eagle and milo, but his content is always wrapped up in personal narrative. on “esc,” by and far the ep’s most poignant cut, wells laments not only about the loss of a friend but the insensitivities that surrounded his death, leading him to conclude that “it feels so evil / this is why we name hurricanes after people.”
last year’s recipient of our inaugural “best new artist” award followed through with an atmospheric ep that reflects its seasonal namesake while retaining a strong degree of warmth. tim bettinson is the young architect of vancouver sleep clinic, and the maturity of winter is strikingly uncommon for a seventeen year-old high school student. the ep is clearly anchored by bettinson’s pair of 2013 singles, “collapse” and “vapour,” but its other four songs are crucial in understanding his artistic vision and ambitions. lush orchestrations and a fragile falsetto seem to be at the core of vancouver sleep clinic’s aesthetic, yet the surging sigur ros-indebted outro of “rebirth” suggests a very strong secondary interest, one that might be explored further on subsequent efforts. bettinson should also be commended for his striking lyricism; after peeling away the layers of ethereal falsetto and effortless melodies, one can find a wealth of personal narrative blended with metaphor on cuts like “flaws” and “stakes.” if vancouver sleep clinic keeps delivering music of this caliber, we’ll probably be talking about them again this time next year.
the fact that shyne coldchain vol. 2 is the better of vince staples’ two 2014 releases and that hell can wait ends up so high on this list should paint a clear picture of the sheer amount of talent and work ethic staples possesses. he trades the short song durations and soulful loops found throughout vol. 2 for fully-formed, intense offerings throughout hell can wait. staples’ sneering monotone has always been his calling card, and that abrasion is compounded by a punishing low end that prevails on the ep and is especially prevalent on “fire” and “blue suede.” that sneer is also responsible for delivering some of the most brutally honest lyrics in rap music right now; staples is incredibly intelligent but does not mince words when discussing the polarities of his life, especially his relationship with gang culture and its impact. the synth tone that dictates “blue suede” is as piercing as the song’s content, which not only details a materialism enticed by drugs and violence but staples’ own admission that a focused music career has kept him out of prison and the grave. perhaps the most important track on hell can wait is “hands up,” a no-bullshit critique of the rampant police brutality against people of color which carries extra weight in light of the non-indictments in ferguson and new york. “paying taxes for fucking clowns to ride around” indeed.
we’ve already heaped praise on yumi zouma here, but some of that praise bears repeating. the new zealand trio breathed originality and stability into a genre that seems to be in a perpetual state of reinvention with a sharp self-titled ep that many have likened to the golden years of kate bush. particular comparisons aside, yumi zouma was undoubtedly on point throughout their debut effort. “a long walk home for parted lovers” is indicative of the trio’s aesthetic: muted, bass-heavy minimal synth-pop delivered with a shrug of apathy. yumi zouma’s music is a counter to the over-the-top ambitions of so many of their peers, a counter that’s been especially welcome this year.
field division bills themselves as “folkwave,” a portmanteau that accurately describes their sound to those that seek new music exclusively via genre tags. in actuality, the five songs on reverie state are so much more. they’re the byproduct of an incredible musical relationship between evelyn taylor and nicholas frampton, two iowa natives who linked up once they moved to nashville. despite the duo’s relocation, reverie state still embodies the bucolic sounds characteristically associated with the midwest. the rustic nature of “faultlines” and “modest mountains” is indebted to folk influences both new and old, but the marriage of that influence with more ambitious textures is what makes field division really stand out. “of lives we’ve never known” is dictated by an absolutely huge bass line while the ep’s finest cut, “to innisfree land,” mixes in flutes and multiple guitar countermelodies to support taylor’s and frampton’s vocal duet. after such a strong first outing with reverie state, a full-length effort from field division feels all but inevitable, yet the richness of these songs is so potent that there’s no rush for that album to come to immediate fruition.