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Sunday, January 4, 2015

2014 Top 20: my favorite albums of 2014

Here are my favorite albums of 2014 in reverse order. Standard disclaimer I give every year: this isn't a critical list of the best albums of the year. These are just the records I enjoyed the most.and that spent the most time coming through my speakers.

Before I dig into the top 20, here are a few that came close:

BUBBLING UNDER: SLOAN and WELL WISHERS both put out solid power pop albums that I just didn't get a chance to give enough listens to to make the final cut, but I have the feeling would have. The latest from SEUN KUTI & EGYPT 80 is a treat, but it lacks the focus of 2008's Many Things or the transcendental grooves of 2011's From Africa With Fury: Rise. DAVE and PHIL ALVIN's collection of Big Bill Broonzy songs sounds so natural and timeless that I think I might be taking it for granted as if it's an album I've already loved for thirty years. BRIAN ENO and KARL HYDE (Underworld frontman)'s album of electronica experiments and noodling is interesting, and in its best moments sounds a bit like Before and After Science/Another Green World era Eno. Britt Daniel has eased into a comfort zone with SPOON and the new album fits in well with his post Girls Can Tell catalog, but it's not very distinctive as a whole (but everything sounds great when it comes up on shuffle!). Also close but not quite making final cut were albums from LA SERA, TELEMAN, HOWLER, and MORRISSEY.

20. DUM DUM GIRLS - Too True (Sub Pop) For album number three Dum Dum Girls shift from garagey jangle to dreamy goth pop. With the slick production the songs lose some of the spontaneous charm of their earlier releases, but they make up for that with a wonderfully rich batch of songs. I never thought that I'd compare Dee Dee Penny's vocals to Siouxsie Sioux, but on this record it sounds like a natural stylistic fit for her.

19. the RIFLES - None the Wiser (Cooking Vinyl) Hyper-fun no-brainer pop merging early 90's Britpop with punchy mod revival powerpop and a bit of Merseybat jangle. This is the London band's 4th album, but for maximum exposure it might be a bit late - it would have been more in step in the era of the first Kaiser Chiefs and Franz Ferdinand albums.

18. LYDIA LOVELESS - Somewhere Else (Bloodshot) Jangly guitar honky-tonk from the Ohio singer/songwriter with a great country voice and indie-rock aesthetic.

17. STIFF LITTLE FINGERS - No Going Back (Rigid Digits) - 2014's biggest musical surprise for me was how great and relevant the new SLF album is. This is politically charged, riff heavy punk rock that stands up to the band's glory days without being a retro retread. This is their most consistent album since their third, 1981's Go for It.

16. the NEW MENDICANTS - Into the Lime (Ashmont) Exactly what you'd expect from a collaboration between Joe Pernice (Pernice Brothers) and Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub) (with Sadies drummer Mike Belitsky): jangly guitars, pristine mid-tempo pop with an often melancholy feel, and relaxed harmonies.

15. POPSTRANGERS - Fortuna (Carpark) For their second album, Aukland's Popstrangers turned the guitars down for an album of hazy psychedelic pop heavy on moody atmospherics. As important as the overall vibe is to Fortuna's lure, this is by no means a case of style over substance. These are solid pop songs with catchy hooks and memorable melodies that just happen to be wrapped in fuzzy guitars and swirling rhythms. 

14. STURGILL SIMPSON - Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (Top Mountain) One of my music review pet-peeves are reviews that compare new country artists to Wylon and Mearle and call it authentic old-school country. It never is. Well, until now. Sturgill really does have the sound and feel of outlaw country's heyday without sounding contrived or calculated. He is definitely not part of the modern mainstream country scene, but he's out of step with rest of the traditional alt-country movement as well. There's a sincerity that says this is not a record he planned to make, it's the record he just naturally had to make.

13. ELBOW - the Takeoff and Landing of Everything (Concord) Gorgeously crafted Brit rock that occasionally sounds like Peter Gabriel fronting Coldplay. The songs are mostly moody slow burners that dig deeper with repeated listens and the arrangements are filled with subtle twists and surprises.

12. BOB MOULD - Beauty & Ruin (Merge) As with 2012's excellent Silver Age, Bob Mould touches on highlights of his entire catalog as a starting point for a ferocious and consistently strong new batch of big guitar rock with oversized hooks.

11. JAMES - La Petite Mort (Cooking Vinyl) 6 years since their last album (and over two decades since the last James album I've loved), Manchester's James return with a surprisingly strong and consistent album of rich, anthematic pop. The production is big and arena ready, but Tim Booth's passion and the warmth of his songs are what drives this album and make it feel intimate. 

10. EX-HEX - Rips (Merge) Mary Timony's new trio debuts with an album of bouncy power pop punk full of toe-tappers tailor made for Summer mixtapes. 

9. TEMPLES - Sun Structures (Fat Possum) UK's Temples have done their homework and mastered psychedelic pop technique and sound better than most revival bands of the past few decades. They're not shy about showcasing how authentic their swirling keyboards, fuzzed out guitars, and retro production chops are, but they're smart enough to know that only gets you so far. They also write fantastically lush melodies that are immediately likable and stick with you. Earlier this year I feared that the novelty might wear off, but I love this album as much 10 months later as I did when I first heard it.

8. NICOLE ATKINS - Slow Phaser (Oh'Mercy! Records) New Jersey singer/songwriter's third album is a widely diverse collection that confidently injects bits of barroom country, dance, music hall, art-rock, and classic Brill Building into her expertly written pop songs. As solid as the songwriting is, the showcase is her wonderful voice with equal parts sweetness and power. And unlike most vocalists with such a strong voice she has the restraint to pull back and the control to sing exactly what the songs call for.

7. CLOUD NOTHINGS - Here & Nowhere Else (Carpark) A full on assault of giant pop hooks propelled by big guitars and pounding rhythms with an almost hardcore energy. This album picks up where 2012's Attack On Memory (my #1 album of that year) left off. My only complaint may be that it's a bit too much of the same, but the songs are so strong and the performances are so compelling that this is only a small complaint.

6. the NEW PORNOGRAPHERS - Brill Bruisers (Matador) On their 6th album New Pornographers return with a joyous album of expertly crafted pop and an unbridled enthusiasm that was missing from the last few albums. Along with the endless hooks the album is packed with little vocal and instrumental flourishes that fill out the sound without ever sounding forced. This is the album I've been waiting for New Pornographers or AC Newman to make for years.

5. DROWNERS - Drowners (French Kiss) New York's Drowners (with a transplanted Welsh frontman) are a boatload of fun. Not very original. But fun as hell. They play slightly snotty guitar pop along the lines of the Libertines, Vaccines, Arctic Monkeys, and the Strokes. 12 high octane, pogo-ready pop songs in under thirty minutes and ready for the repeat button to do it all over again.

4. REAL ESTATE - Atlas (Domino) The third album from New Jersey indie soft rockers Real Estate has the same relaxed shimmer of the previous two albums, but they've added a subtle edge that gives the songs more weight. Atlas works best as a whole album - where the songs have space to stretch out and, thanks to perfect sequencing, build on each other. There's a bit more twang this round and the beautiful guitar interplay is spectacularly woven into Martin Courtney's soft vocals.

3. FIRST AID KIT - Stay Gold (Columbia) For the second time in three years my favorite Americana album comes from these Swedish sisters with the most gorgeous and haunting harmonies of anyone recording today. They fill out the sound with orchestration reminiscent of so many 60's country pop records without ever detracting from the songs' deceptively simple singer/songwriter base. They manage to make melancholy songs full of longing and loss without sounding hopeless. In fact, there's a yearning optimism that makes this such a pleasurable listen.

2. EAGULLS - Eagulls (Partisan) On their debut album Leeds quartet Eagulls deliver a relentless pummeling of manic post punk with hints of Joy Division and early Killing Joke. What the band lacks in diversity they more than make up for in energy, sound (Eagulls has some of the year's coolest sounding guitars) , and memorable melodies. Actually, it's sort of just one melody bent and twisted around different driving rhythms, but it works to great effect and builds with each song.

1. JOHNNY MARR - Playland (Warner Music Group) It is no secret that Johnny Marr is a great guitarist and songwriter, but I'm still a bit taken aback by what a strong frontman and accomplished solo artist he's recently come out as. Last year's Messenger topped my year end list, and this follow up might actually match that album's strengths. Marr sounds even more confident this time, making an album of timeless British pop that he effortlessly delivers with the youthful energy of artists half his age.

It was another good year for music - I heard a lot of good albums and there were a lot I just couldn't get to. I don'tknow if any of these will make my all-time favorite albums lists in the future, but I'm pretty sure most of the records in this Top 20 will still be in my playstack a decade from now. I'm anxious to see what 2015 has to offer.

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