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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BONO IS IN YOUR YARD HOLDING A BOOMBOX OVER HIS HEAD

St. Bono and the boys were so busy rushing this off to Apple Corp to push to you that they didn't even have to make a cover!

St. Bono and the boys were so busy rushing this off to Apple Corp to push to you that they didn’t even have time to make a cover!

First, this isn’t really a first. Thousands of bands release free digital albums all the time. Even in the realm of major commercial artists obviously we had Radiohead “giving away” In Rainbows almost 7 years ago as part of a “pay what you want” thing… and as for selling it to a corporate sponsor for them to give away, Prince had his Twenty Ten CD given away with a newspaper in the U.K. a few years ago. AC/DC, the Eagles, Justin Timberlake, Prince and several others have cut exclusive deals with the likes of Target and WalMart. Jay-Z had an (intrusive) app to deliver his free album (sponsored by Samsung). And Beyonce and others have done the suddenly announced/released “IT’S HERE NOW” album drop.

U2 selling this to Apple for them to then “give” to us is a bit of a hybrid of those previous releases. I guess the main difference is that they actually PUT IT ON YOUR COMPUTER. Lots of major artists give away tracks for free, or offer streaming previews etc… plenty of free tracks that most people can’t be bothered to “go get” (by clicking a mouse several times).

This is Bono coming to your house and standing in your yard holding a boombox over his head.

Hold me close like I’m someone that you might know” he sings as he crawls into your inbox.

The cynical among us will say we’ve already talked about U2 enough, or entirely too much, over the last 25 years or so… and “who cares,” and that any critical discussion about That New Free U2 Album is just falling for Bono’s trick and giving them the publicity they want. OK. Rock bands might not be the most important subject in the world (to you guys) but within the realm of “The Arts” and “Pop Culture,” if we’re going to chronicle every time Justin Beiber pisses in a bucket, then perhaps it’s okay to give 15 minutes of fame to discussing the new U2 album and its method of delivery.

I mean, leave it to U2 to somehow pull off a “surprise album” that’s been years in the hyping.

Doing it this way saves them from any potential embarrassment of it “flopping” and/or the reality that even U2 isn’t gonna sell millions of copies like the old days. By any measure, conventional sales figures of this album would have looked bad by U2 standards even if still in line with rock-bottom expectations of music sales in 2014. So this gets them publicity and they get to look like they gave it away for free…

This is how U2-level artists deal with the new Music (Lack-of) Business, and of course we shed few tears cuz they’re already rich…. and obviously there’s a few levels of artists trying to get their music heard (from the novice garage bands, to the mid-level professional but still anonymous artists on up to the superstar stratosphere). So now even the U2s of the world have to pull stunts just to get heard and “play for free” (even if their new album giveaway was actually subsidized by a large corporation). It’s just funny that even they have to do this shit.

After the first several listens, I’d say there’s some interesting tracks and some more late-career filler with a few pretty good kinda “raw” moments as well… and a few more examples of Bono going for the Big Huge Sweeping Sentiment lyrics… but it’s still too soon to have a strong opinion. (Ultimately it sounds destined for “not-horrific, better than their last one, but still just OK” status.) Continue reading →