Friday, December 12, 2014

The 10 Best Albums of 2014

I love the years that this list is hard to do. Fun fact: I have been looking forward to this since late summer when it occurred to me there was always something new I was getting into on my frequent plane trips and bus rides. Every month, there was some great new sound.

The craziest part: even with so much great stuff, my pick for the year's top album wasn't even close.

Onward...

Honorable mentions - These were on the periphery and, pleasantly, in a year with so much good stuff, there weren't a ton of flaws with any of them.

  • Calvin Harris - Motion - Dance albums (or, are we only using EDM these days, kids? I'm 36 and not as up on the lingo as I might hope to be anymore...) are tough. They run the risk of simply running too long with far too similar tracks. This disc does not. While Harris relies on the big anthematic instrumental chorus, it's the song structure and vocals that make this easy to listen. For my money, Haim outshines the whole thing on "Pray to God." Your btrip to the gym needs this album.
  • Coldplay - Ghost Stories - I have to give them credit, because I thought Mylo Xyloto was this band treading water and Ghost Stories is basically saying, let's try drowning instead and see where we land. Much more sparse than previous work, for me, the album defines "slow-burner" in that I was absolutely underwhelmed at first and then subtle little bits of song (say, "True Love") would pop into my head and have me listening even more closely. I will never fault a band for trying something different and these guys have the songwriting chops to make it worth going on the trip with them.
  • FKA twigs - LP1 - Someone else said this when the album came out, but I have no better way to sum it up: what if Beyonce wanted to be Bjork? I think the answer to that is yes. This one definitely has to seep in, but the payoff when it does is great. "Two Weeks" was "my jam" for at least that length of time this summer if not longer.
  • Jenny Lewis - The Voyager - I don't care if 2014:1994::Jenny Lewis:Juliana Hatfield... all of that is good. Well, maybe even better now, because the ease with which Jenny Lewis seems to write nice pop-rock songs is ridiculous. Lewis' honesty in lyricism continues to be something worth hearing as well (more on this topic coming up...)
  • Thom Yorke - Tomorrow's Modern Boxes - I'm not saying that just because Thom put it out that it's brilliant, but I'm not not saying it either. "Guess Again" is so good I hope Radiohead itself reworks it with tweaks and guitars and stuff. Also, while everyone was up in arms about that other band forcing its album upon you on iTunes, Yorke used BitTorrent like a champ here.
Alright. Let's dive in to the top 10. As always, my own views supplemented by someone who does this for a living so you can see I'm not totally insane.

10) Electric Youth - Innerworld
Second opinion: Exclaim

I was driving, listening to KEXP and "Runaway" came on and I almost had to pull over. This was before I knew this was the group behind "A Real Hero" from the Drive soundtrack. It's always exciting to hear a new band finding its way and this debut is exactly that. If we're being honest, there are a lot of band trying the whole synthed-out style that quickly gets boxed into the 1980s. We forget that technology and a big dose of post-90's cynicism is driving a lot of new creativity here. Electric Youth aren't a female-fronted M83 at the moment, but neither was M83 at the point of its debut. Songs like "Tomorrow" show a lot of where this band could head... the driving beat, the subtle instrumental tweaks and swells that push the action forward. This record also wins the award for best album by a band with a lead singer named Bronwyn this year, so there's that, too.

9) Jack White - Lazaretto
Second opinion: The Telegraph

It was a weird year for Jack White (dude gave some weird interviews), but when he concentrates on music... yeah. Pretty much a straight up blues record, this one just rolls right by.  The title track gets a lot of attention, possible because it's the most White Stripe-y in a bunch of, actually, yeah, most White Stripe-y songs. But you get the idea that no matter the topic (and this is something of a breakup album), Jack White makes music for people that just like listening to good, loud rock music. It's the Tarantino approach to heavy rock. The soulful side comes through on "Temporary Ground," but the real rager comes with "That Black Bat Licorice," which is just begging to be turned all the way up on your device of choice.

8) Beck - Morning Phase
Second Opinion: Spin

Rolling Stone gave this album 4.5 stars, but since Rolling Stone is giving out five star reviews like candy these days, I'll let Spin do the talking here, but I digress... This album is inevitably compared to Sea Change as it is primarily a collection of acoustic guitar songs rather than electronic experimentation. Sea Change was amazing, but bleak. This one... not as bleak. With age comes wisdom, and Morning Phase is absolutely a more mature album than Sea Change. "Blue Moon" was included at the end of a Girls episode so everyone knows that one, but it's tunes like "Blackbird Chain" that really show Beck at his absolute best. Pulling off an album like this also means fighting off the challenge of things dragging on too long, but either Beck himself or the producers he surrounds himself with know better. Great disc to turn any room of your house into your favorite coffee house.

7) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Official Soundtrack
Second opinion: Pitchfork

If there's a true dividing line between the great and the super great on this list, we just crossed it. Where to begin? Let's just start by putting Lorde in charge of more things. Ms. Yelich-O'Connor (she has three names before that... you'd go simply by Lorde, too) had quite a year on a lot of fronts, but this might be the best musical achievement among them. This gets real very quickly. Like opening bars of "Meltdown," (which someone on the internet referred to as being "by Stromae, featuring everyone.") While it does feature seemingly everyone, it's Lorde herself that shines on the track, somehow holding her own with Pusha-T, Q-Tip and Haim. The album itself seemingly featured anyone. If you want to teach people which artists are the ones to watch in 2015, this album is probably a good primer. Chvrches' "Dead Air" and Tove Lo with "Scream My Name" follow the blistering opener and neither track is the kind of traditional soundtrack throwaway material. It just keeps going from there... Charlie XCX with Simon Bloody LeBon? Ariana Grande and Major Lazer? Lorde is smart enough to know how to let her friends shine while also leaving the biggest moment to herself. "Yellow Flicker Beat" (along with Kanye West's remix of it later on in this proceedings) is the undeniable winner with a theme that is both perfect for the movie's content and also that of the likely-insecure music maker who may feel the pressure of the world when it comes to a follow up to a killer debut album. "This is the start of how it all ends/they used to shout my name now they whisper it," Lorde sings. Keep putting stuff out like this, no one will whisper.

6) Tove Lo - Queen of the Clouds
Second Opinion: MUU

It may actually be Tove Lo's world and we simply live in it. I am fine with this arrangement, if so. I don't believe it when people say the album is dead, but there is a case to be made that you can rely on singles in the internet era. Tove Lo's approach here is to basically combine the two, sorting her songs into three sections, basically taking you through the stages of a relationship, ultimately a short term one. The real album opener, "My Gun," has Tove Lo singing over a synth line that would fit in on the Fever Ray album from a few years back. Like any pop album, there are a handful of songs that after a few listens, you might want to pass over, but there are very few on here. And Tove Lo's blatant honesty in lyrics make the whole thing compelling. No one is making pop music that cuts as much to the point as this. On "Moments," we get possibly the pop lyric of the year with “I can get a little drunk, I get into all the don’ts/But on my good days, I am charming as fuck." And then, of course, there is "Habits (Stay High)" and, since one of the songs better remixes is also included here, you get to hear it twice in 15 minutes and that might even be one time short of enough in that 15 minutes. Tove Lo has written for Icona Pop and more. I'm hoping she becomes part of the pop pantheon, because this is solid stuff.

5) Phantogram - Voices
Second opinion: Entertainment Weekly

If you have 44 minutes, Phantogram will make ti worth your while. "Nothing But Trouble" starts things off, but it is "Black Out Days" that really puts things into the right, somewhat dark space. As electro-rock goes, this is a tremendous effort, building on previous releases and delivering the payoff indie fans have been looking for. "Fall in Love" was a worthy indie rock hit on the charts earlier this year - I even managed to hear a DJ play it at a wedding, so it must have made it somewhere. "The Day You Died" is irresistible pop and "Bill Murray" is a flat out incredible song. New favorites kept popping up on here all year long for me.

4) Bob Mould - Beauty & Ruin
Second opinion: Pitchfork

At Bumbershoot a few years ago, Bob Mould basically destroyed the Seattle Center in a blistering 60-minute set. When I started to hear good things about this album earlier this year, I checked it out and was immediately impressed. First off, I can be this cool when I am Bob Mould's age, it will be an accomplishment. If I could ever turn out a rock song like any on this album, it would be more than an accomplishment. I know Foo Fighters put out an album this year, but if you want straight-up, in-your-face rock, this is the the one. The album runs like a live set: big opener that sets the tone for bigger things ("Low Season"), a thrashing "real start" to the set ("Little Glass Pill") and never stops until the guitar indulgences on "Fix It," which apparently Pitchfork didn't love, but Pitchfork hates fun, so whatever. Mould has accomplished much in his career and if he can keep going with material like this, it will end up pushing our current batch of rock icons (Pearl Jam, say) to keep pushing themselves over the next 10 years.

3) Dum Dum Girls - Too True
Second opinion: AV Club

A criminally underrated band, Dum Dum Girls latest should be getting a lot more attention. People I know who are into all kinds of music haven't even heard of them, which makes zero sense whatsoever. A few folks wrote them off after some initial releases that seemed to walk the same paths. Then, the End of Daze EP came out and I actually thought it was the best music of 2012. I don't know that Too True is as jaw-dropping epic as I hoped for in 2012, but it is not far off. Opener "Cult of Love" barely hints at what's to come, with only the bridge of the song showing the depth that is about to follow. "Evil Blooms," though, brings the heat with dark pop perfection, a guitar line that if Robert Smith had done, people would be talking about how it's just so classic and a great sing-along outro. The highlights continue and they are all packed into a little box of just over 30 minutes. The last four tracks alone are standouts in their own way, kicking off with "Lost Boys and Girls Club" followed instantly by "Little Minx" which just rocks the hell out. Closing out the set is "Trouble is My Name," even asking "is it your name, too." After listening to this, if you need it to be, sure. In the year of #yesallwomen, it's good that (even on this list), a lot of creative women are getting some attention. That said, women in traditional rock music remain under-represented. Here are Dum Dum Girls doing everything right in that genre, so let's give them their due.

2) Spoon - They Want My Soul
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

Well now. This, I was not expecting. I like surprises, though! A lot is packed into this effort, pop hooks, thrashing guitars and, in the end, the rock album of the year with the freshest feeling to it. Songs are crafted tremendously well and what variety! Listen to "Knock Knock Knock" - which has a case to be the best song on the album - and then skip ahead to "New York Kiss" - which also has a case to be the best song on the album. Most bands have a song like these and do the rest of the album like them. Here, they are the only two songs on the disc quite like themselves. And not a single track feels like filler. Oh and you like guitars? This one was the only album of the year I had to turn down from the normal volume because some of the guitars (and Britt Daniels' unmistakable raspy singing) are just that loud. Basically, Spoon is bringing it to you. And you should absolutely want it to be brought.

1) Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence
Second opinion: Idolator

While this is making a lot of folks' best-of lists, people seem to be trying hard to find reasons to not make this their pick for album of the year. It is seriously not even close. Conversation around Lana Del Rey seems to be super-focused on what's real and what's not. If all performance is show, who really cares? Lana isn't my friend. I don't need her to be one thing or another. What I need is for to team up with Dan Auerbach and make an absolutely stunningly dark album that likely pulls from personal experience, others' experiences and likely some embellishment. It's too damned gorgeous to get bogged down in "did that really happen to her" conversations. Her name isn't actually Lana, people. Chill. Plus, there's something pretty odd about demanding that the protagonist of the title track actually have been in the abusive relationship being described. "He hit me and it felt like true love" is not something I wish upon people. But the when the bridge of the song hits, full of string swells and Lana sings "We could go back to Woodstock/Where they won't know who we are" it's a desperate plea that - true life for her or not - it has been for someone we know and damn.

I almost never got to listen to "Ultraviolence" because getting there meant getting through album opener "Cruel World." The first time I listened to this album and heard that, I listened to "Cruel World" again. And then one more time. Because geez... everything - the lyrics, the guitar - is bloody perfect. "Shades of Cool" is a theme song in wait of a Bond movie that needs to be made immediately. Poking fun at herself/hipsters in "Brooklyn Baby" shows the album's small bit of brighter side. Much was made of putting "Sad Girl" alongside "Pretty When You Cry" might actually be darker than the title track. There's also speculation as to just who is the the target of the venom being spit (ever so sweetly) in "Fucked My Way to the Top," but I know I wouldn't want it to be me.

It's interesting to me that the only other artist I can think of right now that has come under as much fire at Del Rey is Kanye West. Both say some things they shouldn't from time to time. They both are making music like no one else in the game. Ultraviolence already sounds timeless. Whether it's autobiography or simply building the lore of who Lana Del Rey is as a character, it's breathtaking stuff. Don't get hung up on the pop culture conversation. Fall into the music and let it be as wonderful as it is.

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