It’s New Years Day here in the hinterland. Time once again to put some thoughts into words.
2014 was a solid, if not spectacular, year for new album releases. Once in awhile a year will stand out as a high-water mark for music. 1997 brought us new releases from Spiritualized, The Verve, Chemical Brothers, and the era-defining OK Computer by Radiohead. 2004 begat the storming debuts by the Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand, and Arcade Fire. By those standards, 2014 doesn’t quite punch above its weight class. But I’m firm believer that every year, and every era, has its merits. Music is a human endeavor, a valuable medium for expression, and a continuum that will never be broken.
Here are the ten new albums I enjoyed listening to the most this year. As always, this isn’t an exhaustive list; I’m not a professional music scribe, and I haven’t sifted through thousands of releases to arrive at an exalted few. There are a few highly-touted albums that I haven’t tracked down or bothered to buy yet (Sun Kil Moon, St. Vincent, Cloud Nothings, Future Islands, Kasabian) that perhaps should have cracked my Top Ten. I’m saving those discoveries for the traditional new-release dead zone of January and February.
These are my favourite albums of 2014, sorted alphabetically by artist:
Morning Phase by Beck
Often cited as a throwback to 2002’s broken-hearted Sea Change, Beck’s new release is wistful and calming, the aural equivalent of a cup of warm cocoa by the fireplace. Morning Phase doesn’t push the boundaries of genre – or good taste – in quite the same way as Beck at his most adventurous. However, in a year when my most important friendship disintegrated before my eyes, I spent a lot of blurry evenings listening to this album for answers. Sometimes you just need to immerse yourself in something familiar, something safe, something empathetic. Key track: “Blue Moon”
(Self-Titled) by The Both
I discovered this album somewhat randomly in a record store in Columbia, SC. I was flipping through the record racks at Manifest Discs & Tapes and, in the Ted Leo + The Pharmacists section, was this collaboration between my man Teddy and Aimee Mann. It sounds pretty much like you’d expect – the rougher edges of Ted’s melodic punk rock are sanded and polished by Aimee’s distinctive vocals, bass guitar, and songwriting chops. This collaboration could have so easily produced a mediocre blend of two styles, satisfying no one. Fortunately, The Both is an example of the sum being greater than the constituent parts. This pop-rock gem is tuneful and engaging and chock full of joie de vivre – the very best kind of accidental discovery in a faraway land. Key track: “Volunteers of America”
After the Disco by Broken Bells
Speaking of collaborations, the new album by Broken Bells was another entertaining collage of styles. After the Disco brought us ten new tracks of melodic bliss. James Mercer’s pitch-perfect vocals are the perfect vessel for delivering the mail for Danger Mouse’s electronic pop. Like the best moments of Matthew Sweet’s career, After the Disco delivers melancholy tales wrapped in sneakily catchy melodies. You’ll be too busy tapping your toes to notice the crippling depression lurking within. Key track: “The Angel and the Fool”
The Take-Off and Landing of Everything by Elbow
One of my favourite UK acts returned this year with an elegant new record that only British bands seem to be able to make. The themes – both lyrical and musical – seem to plough through the fertile ground of melancholy, dislocation and loss. But The Take-Off and Landing of Everything is miles from depressing, often beating with a quiet defiance. Somber, introspective, and tasteful in equal measures. Key track: “My Sad Captains”
Brill Bruisers by The New Pornographers
Any year with a new record by the New Pornographers is bound to be a good year. Decades from now, we perhaps won’t be lauding Brill Bruisers as the band’s very best work (for my money, that would be 2007’s Challengers, an album I simply cannot overplay). However, these delightfully skewed power-pop titans deliver often enough on their new record to keep their fans’ heads bobbing, hips swaying, and brains dreaming. Thunderous drums, sinewy synthesizers, and layers of vocals all do their part to entertain. Key track: “Brill Bruisers”
Atlas by Real Estate
If I’m being honest, Real Estate’s previous album Days is one that I admired more than I enjoyed. I implicitly understood what sound they were going for, but was missing the emotional engagement. Thankfully that connection was finally made on Atlas. The music is still certifiably laid back and hypnotically rhythmic, but the hooks get stuck under your skin and stay with you long after the record spins into its run-out groove. It took a few listens to fully open up to me, but now this record’s chiming highlights happily appear in several of my carefully curated playlists. Key track: “Crime”
Mended With Gold by The Rural Alberta Advantage
I cannot say enough good things about this album. Nils Edenloff’s strained lead vocals, like wasabi or black licorice, aren’t necessarily to everyone’s taste. But they express a sense of yearning and urgency that very few of the conventionally- pretty voices on American Idol could ever hope to convey. Mended With Gold breezes by in thirty-nine minutes of devastating, heart-on-sleeve glory, an alternative country tour de force with nary an ounce of fat. And if anyone else captured a better drum sound this year, I didn’t hear it. If you can manage, I highly recommend listening to this album on vinyl. Crank it up to 11, rip off the volume knob, and throw it away. Key track: “Terrified”
They Want My Soul by Spoon
Spoon may be the most reliable band in rock. Ever since perfecting their sound on 2001’s Girls Can Tell, they have been releasing excellent indie-rock albums with clockwork precision. They Want My Soul adds ten more catchy, rhythm-driven songs to their canon, deftly splitting the difference between the more experimental Transference album and the radio-friendly Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. This time around, keyboards feature more prominently in the mix, perhaps a nod to Britt Daniel’s time spent with his more synth-driven side project, Divine Fits. Key track: “They Want My Soul”
Seeds by TV on the Radio
Three years after losing their bass player to cancer, TV on the Radio are back with their seamless synthesis of R&B-infused alternative rock. The new tracks on Seeds are a little more streamlined than the kitchen-sink approach they took on their often hyperactive Dear Science and Nine Types of Light records. But even if the arrangements this time are tidier, the additional sonic room still features plenty of pop hooks and inspired ideas. It’s good to hear this band pick up the pieces after tragedy and move on. Key track: “Happy Idiot”
Lost In The Dream by The War on Drugs
You will see this album on plenty of ‘Best of 2014’ lists this year, and with good reason. Lost In The Dream is a near-perfect album of atmospheric alternative rock. Their musical influences are still in abundance (Petty, Dylan, Springsteen) but, to my ears at least, the band has finally transcended those touchstones to arrive at a sound all their own. The ten tracks on the new record unfold organically, taking the listener along for a most enjoyable ride. It’s difficult to sound laid-back without slipping into boredom, but The War on Drugs manage to make engaging music that still sounds effortless. You’ll no doubt like this album upon first listen, and on the third or fourth playback you might just fall in love with it. Key track: “Red Eyes”