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.

Advertisements

More ‘Best Albums of 2011’

We already compiled the Top Albums of 2011 that we reviewed, so let’s round out our Top 25 albums of 2011 with 15 more that we didn’t get around to writing proper reviews for. It’s a good thing we left our final list undun until now. Looks (sounds) like 2011 saved the best for last as December saw (heard) the release of two of the years’ best from The Roots and The Black Keys.

The Roots – undun
The masters of album making strike again. The Roots have been so consistent and set the bar so high that seemingly every year or so they drop another classic on us and we put them on our year-end lists and talk about how great they are, and yet it still feels like we somehow take them for granted. Saving the best for last and releasing it in December, The Roots’ stark narrative, with the accompanying musicality well beyond just the beats, stands as perhaps the best album of the year.


Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
The return of Ryan Adams features not only his best set of songs since 2005, but his voice sounds better than ever. His co-MVP’s here are legendary veteran producer Glyn Johns and keyboardist Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers).


P.J. Harvey – Let England Shake
Maybe the most unique and interesting albums of the year. Stark and fluttering, subtly explosive, beautiful yet blunt. This one took home prestigious awards and topped a lot of other lists, and it’s way high up on mine as well. Engaging and as urgent as she’s always been, but perhaps her most musical album to date.


Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
I once described Fleet Foxes as a soundtrack for doing yard work at a Renaissance festival. And while that doesn’t make a lot of sense, I meant it in the best possible way.


Megafaun – Megafaun
Impossible to describe. Somehow manages to sound like both CSNY and Hot Chip. Comes off weird and eclectic, but still full of hooks.


Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What
Not quite right up there with Graceland or The Rhythm of the Saints, it’s certainly still a “return to form,” as the press releases like to say. And in between the spots where it bounces like those albums, he sprinkles in a few mellow numbers reminiscent of his 1970’s ballads.


The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
This time they tone down the lush, orchestral emo-pop sound of their previous album, Hazards of Love, and return with a rustic and rootsy affair, with a solid assist from Peter Buck on guitar.


Middle Brother – Middle Brother
Collaboration of lead singer/songwriters (Deer Tick’s John McCauley, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, and Delta Spirit’s Matthew Vasquez) team up for a simple but stunning record that underscores each of their (potential) places in the next generation of great American songwriters. It’s like if Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and John Mellencamp recorded an album together, but did so in 1981-82, around the time they were each making Nebraska, Hard Promises, and American Fool. Actually it’s not really like that at all. Where was I? Oh yea, back to the list.


The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient
Droney and addictive.


Radiohead – The King of Limbs
People either love Radiohead and swear by them as the best and most important and innovative band on the planet, or they don’t “get” them and think they’re overrated. There’s no point in me writing about them, other than to say The King of Limbs was a slow burn, took a while to grow, still one of my favorites from this year.


Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring From My Halo
This is a great record that took me a while to actually dig. I’d hate to cheapen it with a string of bullshit music-critic buzzwords and catchphrases… but the retro anti-folk of Smoke Ring From My Halo successfully mixes Dylanesque phrasing with Lou Reed-style street poetry, and somehow comes out smelling like indie rock.


Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
I like this better than their much-acclaimed debut. Full of subtle hooks and natural emotion, this has a crispy 70’s feel with all the guitars up front in the mix.


Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
Instrumental rock experts hit us with another dynamic set.


The Antlers – Burst Apart
Another one that is kinda hard to describe. At times a bit odd, but mostly beautiful.


The Black Keys – El Camino
This is right behind The Roots’ undun in the “Best for Last” category. Dropping in December, this one brings the heat right outta the box. Once it’s given more time to sink in, it might end up being the best album of the year.

If the Cover Fits: Great Art to Match Some of the Best Albums of 2011

You can’t judge an album by its cover, but there’s something about when certain albums seem to match their covers, often in some odd unexplained way. For me, it’s not something obvious like “yea, it’s a picture of the band playing the music,” but something much subtler. So this isn’t necessarily my 10 Most Favorite Albums of 2011 so far (though many of them might make that list if it existed), these are just 10 Favorite Covers That Happen To Match Their Music Well. Or something like that.


The War on Drugs
Slave Ambient
The kind of album that’s hard to describe: it’s lush and dreamy but it still has an organic sound and chugging pace that seems in conflict with itself. Same for how many tracks sorta hum along on what seems like just one chord and yet you don’t feel bored. It’s an interesting drone, if that’s even possible. Like Bob Dylan meets Velvet Underground. Slave Ambient sounds how that cover looks. It’s this very strange intersection of electronica and Americana, though it doesn’t overtly sound like either.

PJ HarveyLet England Shake
Stark and fluttering, subtly explosive, beautiful yet blunt. PJ Harvey delivered one of the finest albums of the year so far and this black and white cover is just sharp enough for the occasion.

Jay-Z and Kanye WestWatch the Throne
Is that not the perfect cover for Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne? Just pure gold. Delicate wrapping, and you could say at times some paper-thin rapping as well. The cover doesn’t tell you the title or the artist (of course, you already know that you are in the presence of royalty), it simply conveys luxury. Insisting that it is the best of the best because, well, it’s the most expensive. But what’s inside? Like the cover, the album is more flash than substance. The only promise that’s really delivered here is that of more luxury. Expensive samples, top notch production, and signature styles (for better and worse) of the two co-star’s verses about, well, luxury. More gold rapping. The only album cover that might have been more appropriate would be a scanned image of their bank statements and tax returns.

Continue reading →