Top 50, Top 100, Top 25, Top 5, Top 10. They’re everywhere. A million different opinions flood the internet this time of year, each vying for your attention, screaming “Me, me mememe! I have the best taste in music!!”
If we’re being honest, any and all of these lists are entirely subjective (especially this one), and in the end, are kind of pointless. People are going to like whatever music they’re going to like, regardless of how important it has been to your year. Yet still we feel the need to share. It’s a natural by-producte of any sort of artistic expression. Once a piece of art touches you, you feel the need to share it with those around you in hopes that they will enjoy it as much as you did.
Of course, that’s not always the case.
What Bob Boilen or the AV Club or Aquarium Drunkard or Pitchfork think was the hottest of hot shit may not pique your interest. Then again, you may discover a gem that you missed in their lists. I know I did. In fact, one of the albums that ended up on my list this year is just such a late-arriver. I’m not proud of missing out on it in the first place, but I’m a busy man, I can’t possibly catch everything.
In fact, I try to avoid other lists like the plague as I’m trying to construct my own. I like to think that isolating myself from outside opinions will keep my own choices “pure.” Of course, that’s complete bullshit. On top of that, it’s unrealistic. I’m bound to stumble across at least a few Top Whatever lists. It’s not entirely a bad, but I do try to limit how many I do see. I want these picks to be my own, and not a reflection of someone else’s taste in music.
I’ve been doing this in some form or another for over a decade now, whether on the radio or on my blog. It’s ingrained at this point. November rolls around and I unconciously start sorting through all of the albums I’ve listened to. I can’t help it. Then December flies by and I’m left scrambling to finish my list before the new year. All because I think I still have a pretty decent taste in music, and I want to share.
It may just be me, but 2014 has felt like a banner year for music. The album continues to make it’s surprising comeback, just a few years after it was declared dead and the digital single was crowned the new king of music. As an increasingly older fella, one who grew up on the ebb and flow of full albums, I love this reniassance for the full album.
It’s a joy to see concept albums and albums with themes and over-arching narratives again. I’ve always liked being taken on a journey.
Without any further ado, let’s get to my list. Once again, these are albums that were my favorites from the past year. I’ve long since stopped trying to pretend that I’m presenting you with the “best” albums of the past year, because, like I said earlier, it’s all subjective. Plus, I miss a fair amount of stuff. There are also a few albums (St. Vincent, for one) that I listened to this year that are objectively “better” than some of my choices below. I simply happened to like these albums more.
Here’s the list, in no particular order.
Spoon — They Want My Soul
Most every Spoon record since Kill the Moonlight in 2002 has made it onto my year end list. Like clockwork, every two to three years you were going to get a rock solid album. But 2010's Transference sounded a little tired in places, worn out, like they were pressing. And who could really blame Britt Daniel and crew? They had put out four straight killer records and spent nearly a decade atop the indie music scene. That’s going to wear on anyone.
Turns out, four years away made all the difference. You can hear the rejuvenation throughout They Want My Soul. From the summer-friendly “Rainy Taxi” and “Do You,” to referencing the classic “Jonathan Fisk” in the title track “They Want My Soul,” you hear a band enjoying themselves. Maybe it was the time away working on other projects (Divine Fits),or adding new member Alex Fischel (keys, guitar), or working with a new producer on a new label. Whatever the catalyst, the end result was one of my favorite records of 2014.
Black Pistol Fire — Hush or Howl
Sometimes I crave simplicity. It’s what attracted me to the White Stripes and the Black Keys. The primal duo of guitar and drums just gets me. So when I first saw Black Pistol Fire perform a studio session for KEXP, I was all-in.
Drummer Eric Owen wearing running shorts, athletic gloves, a full beard, and nothing else was a surefire indication that, come hell or high water, these guys came to rock. And that’s just what Hush or Howl does.
There’s beauty in simplicity, and riffs like the opener in “Hipster Shakes” (one of the songs of the year, in my humble opinion) or the backbeat that churns through “Dimestore Heartthrob” are indicative of musicians who know who they are and know exactly how to deliver their own kind of beauty.
Hush or Howl may not be the most innovative, experimental record, and Black Pistol Fire is certainly barreling down a well-rutted road. But sometimes it’s not how much new ground you cover as much as how well you churn up that dirt.
Centro-Matic — Take Pride In Your Long Odds
I first heard about Centro-Matic on Twitter. I was scrolling through my feed one day when I came across a tweet from Justin Townes Earle — “The new @centromatic record is incredible. Do yourself a favor and get it when it comes out. Don’t be a dick.” In an effort not to be a dick, I grabbed that record.
I had never heard Centro-Matic before, so I had no earthly idea what to expect. The rusty-nail guitar, haunting organ, and distant wail of the album-opening title track captured my attention. What was this I was listening to? Was it some sort of concept record, a broken-down version of Explosions in the Sky?
Listening to Take Pride in Your Long Odds, it’s hard to believe that I completely missed out on this band for the entirity of their existence. If they had only put out a couple of records over a long period of time, like say, The Wrens or Cotton Mather, I could excuse the oversight. But this is Centro-Matic’s 11th full length. Dipping into their back catalog, they’re obviously my cup of tea. Yet here we are, they’re calling it quits for good, and I’ve only just fell in love with their music. It’s a fucking shame. But at least I have their back catalog to explore.
If you’re going to pack it in after 17 years and 11 albums, it’s hard to think of a more triumphant way to do it than with a record like this one. Every song weaves a vivid story, shot through with fuzzed-out guitar and whiskey-weary vocals.
Jack White — Lazaretto
It’s been interesting to watch Jack White go from scrappy Detroit rocker to one of the few bona fide “rock gods” of my generation. I mean, aside from Dave Grohl, who else fits that bill?
Lazaretto sounds like an album made by a man who knows exactly what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. Whether seething through “Entitlement” or digging in for some guitar histronics on “High Ball Stepper,” White’s doing what he wants without stopping to worry about the consequences. I mean, the first single — “High Ball Stepper” — is an insturmental. This from a musician who is almost as well known for his signature howl as he is for his guitar sound.
And if there was a better “fuck you, I do what I want” song than “That Bat Black Licorice” released this year, I’ll eat my hat.
Jack White rapping to a hip-hop backbeat seems like it should be surprising at first. But then you remember that this is a man who came to fame wearing candy cane outfits and pretending to be brother-sister with his ex-wife, Meg.
Lazaretto jumps around a lot. From country to prog to blues to hip hop to straight up White Stripes punk. All of it tied together around Jack’s carefully crafted persona. This is the sound of Jack White having a hell of a lot of fun, getting some shit off his chest, and expecting us to like it. I’ll be damned if he didn’t nail it.
Robert Ellis — The Lights from the Chemical Plant
I came to this album late in the year. But I get the feeling it’s going to stay with me for awhile. Great songwriting does that. It worms it’s way into your brain and makes a home.
Ellis evokes some of the best country music storytellers, like John Prine or Willie Nelson, and storytelling songwriters in general. Even going so far as to include his faithful-but-full-of-life cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.”
At a time when a contemporary sounding album can sound out of place, Lights sounds like a Nashville studio album without going over the top into schmaltz, an impressive feat. This isn’t the highly-polished corporate country you hear on the radio, but it isn’t quite outlaw country, either.
The Lights from the Chemical Plant is only Ellis’ second full-length, but it certainly doesn’t sound like it. There isn’t any filler, no throwaway songs. It ebbs and flows and every song, even the standouts like the title track or “Steady as the Rising Sun” sound better in context with the rest of the album. So sit back, crack open a beer, and settle in to Ellis’ consistently entertaining album.
Sharon Van Etten — Are We There
It takes real talent to turn sadness, melancholy, existential pain into triumphant art. Sharon Van Etten is one of those people.
Are We There builds on the sonic palette of 2012's excellent Tramp and at the same time, reconfigures it into an even more intimate sound. Tramp’s producer, Aaron Dessner of The National, left his fingerprints all over that album, and Sharon must’ve taken notes. She self-produced Are We There and a more personal touch is evident from the opener, “Afraid of Nothing.” The instrumentation floats above Van Etten’s husky-yet-delicate voice. Instead of weighing her down, it lifts her up.
Even at her most explicitly vulnerable in “Your Love is Killing Me” — Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/cut my tongue so I can’t talk to/burn my skin so I can’t feel you/stab my eyes so I can’t see/you like it when I let you walk over me/you tell me that you like it when our minds become diseased — there is an underlying sense of being in control. Instead of being consumed, she finds strength, and we benefit, because front to back, Are We There is a fantastic album.
Benjamin Booker — Benjamin Booker
Booker calls his sound “punk blues,” a moniker that immediately draws me in. I love the blues. I love punk. I grew up with Pearl Jam and Nirvana and came of age with The White Stripes and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, so anyone using “punk” and “blues” to describe their music has me hooked from the get-go.
In Benjamin Booker’s case, it helps to kick off your album with a perfect rave up like “Violent Shiver.” The hits just keep on coming as you get further into his self-titled debut. There’s loss, there’s anger, there’s the sense of detachment of a new generation coming into it’s own. Each song feels like a postcard — earnest and direct with no time for fluff.
This is one of the more promising debuts I can think of in recent years. Booker has made one hell of an introduction. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say next.
Strand of Oaks — HEAL
Not many of us can say that we’ve ended up just where we imagined we’d be when we were teenagers. Justin Showalter can, even if it’s been a rocky ride to get there. HEAL is a triumphant, celebratory, and at times brutally honest record. Showalter pulls no punches, with lines like — “I know you cheated on me, but I cheated on myself” — a reference to his high school sweetheart cheating on him after they had gotten married.
HEAL is a catharsis. A cleaning out of hangups and regrets and disappointments to make way for remembrance of the good, like making music in a basement, finding beauty in loneliness (Goshen ‘97) — “Then I found my dad’s old tape machine That’s where the magic began I was lonely, I was having fun / I was lonely, but I was having fun.”
HEAL feels like a man pouring everything he has into one cup and asking you to not just take a sip, but drink the whole thing.
Tom Brosseau — Grass Punks
I first heard Tom Brosseau in 2007. His album, Grand Forks, initially caught my attention because it’s not very often I see things titled after the area where I grew up (Fargo is the only other one I can think of). It wasn’t until I sat down and listened to it that I realized what a brilliant musician and songwriter Brosseau is.
The fact that such a talent was growing up right across the river (he’s almost exactly three years older than I am), coupled with his remembrances of the historic Flood of 97 that permeated that record, made it hit even harder. We saw that devastation with similar eyes. Even the most subtle reference hit like a hammer.
Grass Punks is more playful. From the opening “Cradle Your Device,” it’s clear that Brosseau is reveling in his talents. This culminates in the unabashed “I Love to Play Guitar,” before the heartfelt coda of “We Were Meant to Be Together.”
This is another great album by one of the better songwriters out there today. At times melancholy, at times playful, this record is a joy to listen to from start to finish.
The War on Drugs — Lost in the Dream
This is what nostalgia sounds like, if it were warped and twisted and run through about five different effects pedals and slathered in a shimmery glaze.
I liked The War on Drugs second record, Slave Ambient, but I love Lost in the Dream. The man behind The War on Drugs (War on Druggist?), Adam Granduciel, seems to have found the best parts of the 80s and used them to their fullest. There are also some elements of shoegaze throughout the record and the songwriting is often heartachiningly beautiful.
I really don’t know what to say about Lost in the Dream. It’s just an album that you have to sit down and live with for a bit. Like so many of my favorite albums from this year, it’s one that needs to be listened to as just that, an album. Individually, the songs are fantastic, especially the wide-open “Under the Pressure” and the driving “An Ocean Between the Waves.” But taken altogether, it’s a pretty great high.
Vikesh Kapoor — The Ballad of Willy Robbins
I didn’t hear this album until midway through 2014, and on the Bandcamp page, it says “released 15 October 2013.” But I’ve now seen it pop up on Rough Trade’s Top 100 of 2014 at #70. I’m taking that as license to tack The Ballad of Willy Robbins onto my list, as well.
I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work on a concert series this year as a videographer and editor. The series is called Stagepass and we’ve been featuring local and regional bands from Portland and the surrounding area.
Basically, I’ve been getting paid to do what is a dream job for an a/v nerd who loves live music. Crazy.
We’ve had so many fantastic musicians be a part of this series, but so far one of my favorites has been Vikesh Kapoor.
Ever since I heard songs like “This Land is Your Land” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain” as a kid, I’ve been partial to folk music. It wasn’t necessarily something I sought out, but when I did stumble across it, like with Wilco and Billy Bragg’s Mermaid Avenue albums, I was always enjoyed it. Those kinds of artists are, unfortunately, few and far between these days.
So when I picked up The Ballad of Willy Robbins to familiarize myself with Vikesh’s music before the show, I was blown away.
I believe that we need protest songs and story songs that illustrate the lives of everyday struggles of working class people. It may not be the most commercial path for an artist to take, but listening to Vikesh tell how his music moved people makes me think that it can still be a very worthwhile path in this day and age.
The Ballad of Willy Robbins is a damn fine record. that would have been a hit 40, 50, 60 years ago, and is rightfully garnering plenty of praise today. Vikesh’s strong, clear voice and excellent songwriting paint such vivid, world-weary stories that it’s hard to believe he’s still in his 20s.
Just Missed the Cut:
**Sallie Ford — Slap Back
Mimicking Birds — Eons
Ex Hex — Rips
Angel Olsen — Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Run the Jewels — RTJ2
Black Prairie — Fortune
EDJ — EDJ
Augustines — Augustines
Afghan Whigs — Do to the Beast
Frazey Ford — Indian Ocean
The Hum — Hookworms
J Mascis — Tied to a Star**