Best Albums of 2014

spoon album coverFor once I’ve actually waited until the very end of the year to do this nerdy music-geek exercise we like to call our Best Albums of the Year List.

Good thing I did: D’Angelo’s long-awaited new album dropped in December, and after seeing this guy named Sturgill Simpson with his ambitiously titled Metamodern Sounds in Country Music on everyone else’s Best Albums of 2014 list, I finally decided to give it a bunch of spins. Both made my list this year.

Before we get to the very best and all the rest of my favorite albums of 2014, let’s start with a few words about The Album itself, and 2014’s best SELF-IMPORTANT ALBUMS:

U2 – Songs of Innocence
Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways
Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow
I wrote about the U2 album here, but that was as much about the release as it was the music. And, like with most music, it changes with time, as does our reaction and relationship with it. I think the U2 album is pretty good, but in 2014, in the midst of this evolving internet age, we must either hate U2 and glibly “destroy” any U2 fans and of course their Lord Bono. There’s no middle ground, which is kinda sad. You can’t just casually like U2. You’re either a U2 “apologist” or longtime fanatic drinking the kool-aid. All the nonsense and noise around the criticism eventually obscures the music itself. Yet it’s hard to be too sympathetic when the band and its tactics and PR create and fan the flames of said noise. Remember, this is a band that once named itself The Hype. And they still do The Hype as good or better than anyone.

Personally, I found myself liking the album a little more as it grew on me. But I also started to think differently about The Release, for better or worse. Without revisiting the story of their “giveaway” album that was essentially pushed to iTunes users… the big picture wasn’t just U2 wanting to say their album “reached” 10 Billion people or whatever. And it wasn’t just about the Current State of the Music Business that the alleged biggest band in the world was probably worried they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, sell even 1 Million copies given what’s happened to music sales.

The big picture I see is that so many artists still care about THE ALBUM. Not just singles and random one-off tracks, but the lost art of The Album. That’s why I’m grouping U2 with Foo Fighers and Wu-Tang Clan. Dave Grohl and the Foos built a TV series around their album concept and made one the rollout for the other and damn, forget the fact that the show is supposedly great (I haven’t seen it yet) but the album is really good too. Never been a Foo Fighters fan; I love Dave in all his other endeavors (especially the ones behind drum kits), but no Foos album ever grabbed me. They are so bland and safe and, yea, they rock, but it’s in this generic arena rock sense. Maybe this new album will fade out of memory like their other albums have always done. But again, the point is that Grohl put The Album and the album-building process into the forefront.

Same with the Wu. I already pointed out the album cover coincidence with Foo and Wu, but another similarity is stressing the Album as a piece of art. Not just the ongoing news items regarding Wu-Tang’s secret Only One Copy For Sale album (stunt?), but the actual new widely available official release of A Better Tomorrow. A reunion and swan song of sorts, it almost doesn’t matter that it’s “good” or “solid” or “just okay” or even “bangin.” They finally managed to get everyone together to make an Album. Not just a soundtrack single, or a “Wu-Related” project or solo joint with most of the Clan on some of the tracks. They made an album.

A bunch of other people made Albums this year. These are the ones I spent a lot of time with and loved the most. Apologies if your favorite band or album of 2014 isn’t reflected here. The comments section below is a great place for you to recommend more albums.

THE TOP 5:

Run the Jewels – RtJ2
The duo of El-P and Killer Mike is simply the best thing going in Real Hip-Hop. Their second album: a second consecutive instant classic.

Rich-RobisonCeaselessSightCoverLP_300x300Rich Robinson – Ceaseless Sight
Stunning solo album from the more anonymous of the Robinson Brothers famous for leading the Black Crowes. While Rich wasn’t gifted with vocal abilities of his hippie-jesus brother Chris, his guitar prowess and songwriting more than carry the weight here on this rich set of… Americana? Alt-country meets modern southern rock? Do we need to label it? No, but I’ll simply call it one of the best albums of 2014.

Jack White – Lazaretto
Despite his love of, and loyalty to, vintage equipment and antiquated recording practices, Jack White is nothing short of a master of modern rock. Not to mention one of our generation’s most gifted songwriters, guitarists, and producers. Lazaretto serves as yet another map to his worlds full of music.

Thurston Moore – The Best Day
If you miss Sonic Youth, this is a comforting visit.

The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
There’s a reason you keep seeing this weird band name and this album you’ve never heard of popping up at the top of every Best Albums of 2014 list. Go figure it out.

THE REST OF MY FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2014:

beckmorningphaseSpoon – They Want My Soul

D’Angelo – Black Messiah

Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Authentic. This is what the so-called music industry and its critics should wish Eric Church to be: real country songwriting and performance, without all the wanna-be Springsteen muscle-flexing or pale versions of Mellencampy small townery. Real folk rock with a twang.

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain

Beck – Morning Phase
I actually like this better than Sea Change. There, I said it.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

Pink Floyd – The Endless River (which I wrote about here)

Old 97s – Most Messed Up
I’d all but given up on the last 10 years or so of Old 97s and Rhett Miller releases. As their winning formula got so formulaic that it diluted itself into the background, nothing had the biting humor and real-life honesty and catchy riffs we fell in love with on earlier albums Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care. Well this new one finally does it, in a You CAN Go Home Again sorta way. A worthy update to the classic model.

Miles Davis – At the Fillmore  1970

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye

Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
I’m not the type of fanboy who always puts a Ryan Adams album on my annual Best-Of list every year he puts out an album… Wait, yes I am. That said, while this isn’t my preferred color of Ryan’s chameleon career, and on first listen thought “Welp, this might be the year I leave Ryan Adams off my annual Best-Of list…” I listened again and a few more times and it’s a real grower. Sure, there’s a couple songs that sound like Fleetwood Mac, but at least they sound like really good Fleetwood Mac songs! There’s still a few sad bastard acoustic tunes too, but it’s the slow burn of “Am I Safe,” haunting numbers like “Kim” and “Shadows,” and chuggers like “I Just Might” that give the album some depth.

And Finally, Some Random Old Shit I Was Diggin On This Year:

Donny Hathaway Live at the Bottom Line 1972. Amazing, just go: now.

Jonathan Wilson – His Fanfare was near the top of my 2013 list, but his 2011 debut Gentle Spirit is still in heavy rotation.

Pink Floyd – All of the classic mid-period stuff I’d “gotten sick of” back in college, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals. Amazing run that was. And I also had renewed discovery of just how great Meddle is.

Miles Davis – Almost everything from every era. I finally read his infamous autobiography this year and it had me diving in and out of all of Miles’ amazing incarnations. Remarkable body of work.

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Wu Fighters vs. Foo Tang Clan

I can’t be the only who’s noticed the similarities between the cover art for the new Wu-Tang Clan and Foo Fighters albums.

Obviously they’re not identical, but they both utilize the exact same concept: an imaginary “city” made up of famous landmarks from several different real cities. Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways combines the eight cities where they recorded the eight songs, while Wu-Tang Clan’s A Better Tomorrow has an international flavor.

Check it out:

Foo City

Foo City

and…

Wu City.

Wu City

Process? We Talkin’ ‘Bout Process?

Over the last several years, as technology moves at hyperwarped speeds that we haven’t yet invented fancy enough new words to describe, there’s been a backlash of purists and throwbacks who prefer things how they used to be. That could be true of film, art, sports, journalism, lots of things. But it’s particularly interesting in how it pertains to music.

This is not what's inside a laptop.

I’m mostly talking about process. It’s not just the access, the fact that anyone can record their own “album” in their basement with a laptop (and seems like everyone has), but also how the technology at the high end affects the professional artists we know and love and the ones we’ll actually discover tomorrow. Somehow the process has become a bigger part of the back story for a particular album or group. “They uploaded their demos, went viral, and now they’re selling millions!” It’s the updated take on discovering the Next Dylan on a barstool at an open mic somewhere.

Nowadays, musicians are reclaiming some sort of authenticity in what seems a reaction to this technological explosion. One of the poster boys for this movement has been Jack White, using vintage gear, cherishing vinyl and launching a real full-service label, not to mention that scene where he strings together a homemade guitar in a cow field in the film It Might Get Loud (contrasted by tech wiz The Edge and all his pedals and effects). But these analog guys who take a similar approach to Jack White’s (with less memorable results) are too numerous to list. The point is, we tend to gravitate toward authenticity, and it’s also natural to yearn for “the old days” (again, no matter the genre or medium).

It’s also easy to tear down and rip on anything that could be painted as “synthetic” or simply created (faked?) through the use of computers. It stinks of money and, possibly, inauthenticity! But really, I don’t care how many laptops and how much fancy software you have, you can’t fake not having songs that suck. The songs don’t lie. Sure, they can trick you and maybe you might think they’re better looking in a certain light late at night, but the next morning always comes. The same holds true for Mr. Vintage Authentic who only records to tape and refuses modern technology. That’s fine, but he too still needs good songs.

So assuming we’re only talking about our own personal vision of “good songs” and quality artists, we’re back to process. Does it matter to you when you hear someone “recorded his new album on a 4-track in a remote cabin in the woods” vs. “layed down tracks in various professional studios in L.A. and NYC”? The end result is all that should really matter, but subconsciously I think we all assign certain imagery and associations with the process. “Oh I heard he got sober and found god and had his yoga instructor in the studio with him” or “They locked themselves in the basement and rocked out live and recorded it all in one or two takes.”

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