Top Eleven Songs of 2014:
Listen to Best of 2014 on Spotify
Elbow - The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
"I am electric with a bottle in me / Got a bottle in me."
2014 was a to-the-finish race for
Album of the Year, with multiple albums vying for a legitimate spot at the top. After winning the Mercury Prize in 2008, and receiving strong praise for their 2001 follow-up,
Build a Rocket, Boys!, it would be hard to imagine how they would continue that trajectory. And yet, they did just that, by writing the theme for BBC's 2012 London
Olympics. If you haven't watched the making of video, you really should. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Beck - Morning Phase
"Bones crack, curtains drawn / On my back and she is gone / Somewhere else I do not know / Time will tell and I will go."
Within an instant on the opening
track, "Cycle", Beck cues to us that this might as well have been called, Sea Change, Part II. And that would be entirely acceptable, because this album is a fantastic
piece of work, and could easily have been Album of the Year. Over the past twelve years, Sea Change has grown from an intriguing pivot to arguably his best album. I
just looked at the 2002 list and saw that it barely made the list. Please excuse me while I bludgeon myself while playing "We Are All Made Of Stars" on
repeat. Another cool thing about Morning Phase: Beck brought in father David Campbell for orchestral arrangements.
Alt-J - This Is All Yours
"All hand claps, you will clap / (Let me be the wallpaper that papers up your room) / I want to be every button you press / And all the baths that surround you."
This English Indie band broke out in 2012 with a Mercury Prize-winning debut. Others have done the same, with drastic results in future albums. Somehow, their sophomore effort improves upon their first album. Not a concept album, but an underlying motif throughout. Similar to Beck's Morning Phase, from the first listen of the first track, I knew this was going to be a contender for Album of the Year. I can only hope that this band continues on the trajectory it's been on, because they could easily be the next Radiohead.
Spoon - They Want My Soul
"Let's go get out in the street / Somebody's gotta / Let's get the stars to align / For lambs to slaughter."
It was extremely challenging to follow-up 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. After faltering on their 2010 follow-up Transference, and then taking time to make some fantastic music in sideprojects like Divine Fits, I wasn't sure if we'd hear much more from Spoon. But I am a sucker for a loud snare and Open-G tuning, and from the get- go this album made it clear that Britt Daniel and company remain a great act which makes great music.
St. Vincent - St. Vincent
"This tune will haunt me through the war / Laugh all you want but I want more."
I've always found Annie Clark interesting, and her 2009 album Actor nearly made my list. Her music was enjoyable on an occasional rotation, a very edgy feel that eventually would bring discomfort if played too much. On this record, she's brought a more approachable sound ; head-bobbing, but nowhere close to populist or pedestrian. It's kind of like having an art school friend who is this close to hitting it big, and then she absolutely crushes it.
Ty Segall - Manipulator
"He's gonna make a movie of his entire life / he wants to figure out how to do it right."
If St. Vincent is the art school friend who finally just blew up (and rightly so), then Ty Segall is the next person you should be pulling for. Since starting his recording career in 2008, he's released multiple albums, each year. Toggling between Ty Segall and Ty Segall Band, his sounds and genres have been wide-ranging and fantastic. He is the only artist to be on my list twice in one year. This year, Segall finally (and finely) did what many had hoped: release one album, and make it the best of what would have been spread over two or three albums. You cannot stop Ty Segall; you can only hope to contain him. The more I write, the more I consider that I am six albums deep into my list, and this was a legitimate contender for Album of the Year. Great year for music. Just fantastic.
Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2
"Conditions create a villain / the villain is given vision / the vision becomes a vow to seek vengeance on all the vicious."
Hip hop duo of Killer Mike and El-P flew under the radar with their 2013 free eponymous album download. Back a year later, with guest appearances by the likes of Zach De La Rocha, this is a dark, layered album that tips its hat to The Chronic and other great rap albums.
The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
"You were raised on a promise / To find out over time / Better come around to the new way / Or watch as it all breaks down here / Under the pressure."
Not many acts can get away with a nine-and-a-half minute opening track, but this Philly-based Indie band is a textbook example of the Theory of Relativity: a melody so catchy it feels like it's over in half the time. And to do so with such a depressing lyrical theme makes it even more incredible. Frontman Adam Granduciel painstakingly recorded this album over a two-year period, during which time Granduciel fretted over how to shape the sound. From demos to sessions to more sessions, Granduciel frought over what this album was to become. At one point, he dropped everything but the drum-tracks and began rebuilding the tracks from scratch. Somehow, he managed to avoid going off the deep end and becoming this decade's Chinese Democracy. This album carries an Americana theme in the way The Killers intended on Sam's Town, and at times sounds like Springsteen is in the studio with Jerry Garcia, with Brian Eno at the board. It's no wonder that it took two years to record, but thankfully it sounds as beautiful as this.
Temples - Sun Structures
"As the shadows lighten up the day / Through the cons we laugh away / Like a windy day that's always wrong / We take shelter where we can."
I am glad that I heard this band before I saw them, because if it was the reverse I might have assumed they'd sound like Jet covering The Darkness (in the worst way possible). Instead, my introduction came from a beautiful 12-string electric arpeggio, reminiscent of a sound and era not heard since The Byrds. As a general rule of thumb, if Johnny Marr and Noel Gallagher BOTH say you are the best new band in Britain, you probably are.
Real Estate - Atlas
"When that night was over / And the field was lit up bright / And I walked home with you / Nothing I said came out right."
Another Brooklyn-based quintet, with origins from New Jersey. Their third album on Domino Records, an indie feel with jangly guitar riffs. Almost as if Peter Buck joined Luna in studio for a session.
Sharon Van Etten - Are We There
"I'm better than I know / there is room to grow."
Four albums into her career, Van Etten has a voice and style that make you realize that there are musicians operating in an entirely different stratosphere from what you hear on terrestrial radio (pun intended). There are singer-songwriters who can command attention, and there are those who can make a bar full of drunks drop everything to listen. She is of the latter.
Future Islands - Singles
"As it breaks, the summer will wake / but the winter will wash what's left of the taste / as it breaks, the summer will warm / but winter will crave what is gone."
The best thing to come out of East Carolina University since ... Chris Johnson? Synthpop group that many heralded with the top track of 2014.
Wild Beasts - Present Tense
"Don't confuse me with someone who gives a f*** / Funny how that little pound buys a lot of luck."
Fourth album by this English act, also on Domino Records. A prominent dreamy synth sound throughout the album, this is a great listen while trying to focus at work, or while trying to relax over a pint after.
The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams
"Before she figures out whats wrong / put another record on."
Brooklyn-based quintet earned 2008 Album of the Year. Craig Finn has never been stronger in his lyrical duties, and he's always been the cream of the crop. I am pretty suret that it would be a compliment to call this band the American version of Elbow. Let's go with that.
The Black Keys - Turn Blue
"Acting right is so routine / Fever let me live a dream."
Arguably the most successful band of the last ten years, The Black Keys gave several reasons to love this album: it was partly recorded in Benton Harbor, MI; it was announced by MIKE TYSON; they co-wrote and co-produced this with Dangermouse. It has a lusher feel and sound - more layers and more intricately arranged, but still holds true to sounding like a Black Keys record.
Jack White - Lazaretto
"And even God herself has fewer plans than me / But she never helps me out with my scams for free."
Can we just give Jack the "Hardest Working Man in Show Biz" title already? All due respect to James Brown, but I think even Brown would shake his head and wonder how White does it all. Blunderbuss may have been his first official solo album, but this record seems to fulfill what he was trying to do the first go-around.
Guilty Pleasure of the Year
Taylor Swift - 1989
"But I keep cruising / Can't stop, won't stop moving / It's like I got this music / In my mind, saying it's gonna be alright."
I am already getting comments like, "So, how many years as Guilty Pleasure before someone ends up in the
actual list?" Truth is, the two singles off this album make me believe that might actually happen. I am a little afraid of this. Okay, a LOT afraid of this. But
consider this: how many artists have attempted cross-over and experienced success? Now consider: how many Country artists have tried this and experienced success?
Shania Twain? Kind of, if you count radio play on Lite FM. Don't even make me bring up Chris Gaines. Swift continually proves critics wrong about her ability to succeed in an industry which makes it nearly impossible to do so.
1989 was THE ONLY ALBUM to reach certified Platinum in 2014. Both singles reached Number One on the Billboard 100. At one point, I thought that I had lost my Guilty
Pleasure candidate and that it might actually make the list. (Note: just don't ask me what my backup was. It's probably better that you didn't).