Monday, December 22, 2014

My Top 40 albums for 2014

This year, I think I listened to at least 120 albums in full, and sampled many more. With each year, I feel like I don't even scratch the surface of what's out there, but I always hear plenty of good stuff. Ranking albums is a semi-futile exercise, but I'm now programmed to do so. So, as per usual, the further down the list you go, the more fungible the rankings are. In other words, the difference in quality between the number 40 record and the number 22 record is near negligible. And there are plenty of other albums that I considered that are just as good as what made the bottom half of the list (such as Poor Luther's Bones, The Paul & John, Les Butcherettes, Cloud Nothings, Rival Sons, Iceage, La Sera and others I'm forgetting now). That being said, this list has a mix of music that I like and is decently representative of a lot of what I'm into.

1. St. VincentSt. Vincent: Anne Clark’s art-pop just got a little bit funkier and a little bit more accessible, and the result is a smart, danceable, fun record. There are plenty of hooks, elusive but intriguing lyrics, layers of cool electronics, Clark’s quirky-but-not-too-quirky vocals and her amazing guitar playing. While I didn’t think her collaboration with David Byrne took off, this album shows that it had an impact, as it plays with rhythms and textures in a Talking Heads-y manner, without ever sounding imitative.

2. TelemanBreakfast: The core trio of Pete and the Pirates didn’t change their musical sensibility, as these songs are still the same sly and insinuating British indie pop featured in their old band. The approach has shifted, however, to a spacious, post-punk inspired sound. Remember how everyone compared Spoon’s Kill The Moonlight to Wire’s 154? Teleman is far more successful in achieving that minimalist pop perfection on their impressive debut.

3. Run The JewelsRun The Jewels 2: The team of El-P and Killer Mike shows no signs of letting up on the their second outing (though this is their third collaboration, as El-P produced the last Killer Mike album). El-P is arguably at the height of his powers as a producer. The backing tracks here are often harsh electronic beats, but El-P can work with a wide variety of textures and sounds. Meanwhile, both Mike and El are in fine form behind the mic. Very few emcees, in my opinion, can keep up with Killer Mike when it comes to the combination of lyrics and flow (which perfectly suit this music), but El-P’s staccato raps are such a great compliment (and these are his tracks, of course). At times the duo take on serious matters, but for the most part, these two guys are having fun.

4. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80A Long Way to the Beginning: Seun’s third album finds him perfecting his 21st Century streamlining of his father’s classic afro-pop sound. Jazz keyboardist Robert Glasper is a great co-producer, as the staccato funk grooves mix with fluid rhythms and the incorporation of some rapping that doesn’t feel forced (on a few tracks). Seun isn’t a great singer, but he’s a forceful frontman whose passion and smart lyrics make this music that moves the ass and engages the mind.

5. FKA twigsLP1: While this doesn’t remotely sound like Frank Ocean’s debut LP, it hits me in a similar way. This is an artist melding some traditional R & B moves and recontextualizing them in a different musical setting. And here, it’s more radical, as twigs uses icy electronics to contrast her thin but expressive vocals, to support her generally direct lyrics. There is a lot of pain and anger in this record, as the songs show twigs to be a woman who has been wronged way too many times. The musical settings make dealing with this a whole lot easier.

6. Ambrose AkinmusireThe Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint: This Bay Area trumpet player takes a big leap from his terrific Blue Note debut LP. Akinmusire’s music is rooted in free jazz and bebop and other classic forms. It’s not always as explicitly modern as say Jason Moran or Christian Scott can be, but there’s still a contemporary vibe on his spacious compositions, with his wonderful soloing. Akinmusire’s music resonates with emotion as a lot of his songs are inspired by social themes, as he has a lot to say about what's going on in the world today. And using vocalists on three of the tracks shows that he looks at his sound expansively.

7. D’Angelo and The VanguardBlack Messiah: This unexpected gift that was just released before the year's end led to instant praise and a fair amount of groupthink, as folks whipped out the Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On comparisons (and other vintage sounds). And this time around, I think the hype is justified. The hazy production creates layers that must be unpeeled with each listen. And the funky grooves and sneaky hooks encourage play after play to keep finding those layers.

8. Steve DawsonFuneral Bonsai Wedding: Both in Dolly Varden, and particularly as a solo artist, Steve Dawson has been striving for fresh new ways to present his songs. With his third solo LP, he came up with a great concept – team up with some top flight local jazz musicians. The result is fantastic. Dawson’s tight compositions mesh well with the floating music made by the jazz guys. They don’t overwhelm the well structured songs, instead giving them extra layers of feeling. I hope this isn’t a one off project.

9. Ex HexRips: Mary Timony’s music has always been a bit off-kilter, although Wild Flag edged her closer to accessibility. Now back fronting her own band, she goes pop-punk in the best sort of way. The songs are as simple as her Autoclave days, but with more pep and hummability, often augmented by surf guitar lines. This is one of the most fun records of the year.

10. Gogo Penguinv2.0: This cracking good British jazz trio centers around Chris Illingworth’s springy piano. At times, the music is a 21st Century take on cool ‘60s jazz, but the band also embraces a Radiohead-inspired glitchiness on other tracks. Even the longer compositions are economical, and the band never lets its academic precision get in the way of the fun.

11. EagullsEagulls: Great debut album from British band putting its own stamp on post-punk in the vein of The Sound, The Chameleons and Echo and the Bunnymen. The album is pure intensity from the first note and all of the basics are there: passionate vocals, a prominent throbbing bass guitar and explosive guitars. The energy and passion augment some really well-crafted songs.

12. MountiesThrash Rock Legacy: This Canadian trio combines the talents of wunderkind Hawksley Workman, Hot Hot Heat’s Steve Bays and Ryan Dahle of Limblifter. They find the sweet spot in their approach to songcraft, producing one delightful song after the other. I find that Workman’s sound pushes the trio, but not overly so. Many of the songs work pulsing, summertime grooves with winsome melodies, but enough instrumental punch to keep them from floating away. And the Hall & Oates homage is a nice touch.

13. The New PornographersBrill Busters: A.C. Newman knew that he wanted to make a cheerier effort, after his last two projects (one with the band and one solo) were more subdued. The result is the band’s best album since Twin Cinema. The band has cited some of their influences on this record, and Electric Light Orchestra, in particular, has clearly inspired these big songs. I was beginning to take the New Pornos a bit for granted and this album certainly set me straight.

14. A Sunny Day In GlasgowSea When Absent: There are many fine shoegazer albums coming out nowadays, and this one was by far the most striking. The blend of gauzy Cocteau Twins and edgier My Bloody Valentine is familiar. What is added here are daring sonic and compositional choices that add spice to these songs. Almost every track has some surprise that takes the song to a higher level.

15. Sturgill SimpsonMetamodern Sounds in Country Music: Yes, Simpson’s music is heavily steeped in ‘70s outlaw country tradition, and he does bear quite the vocal resemblance to Waylon Jennings. But Waylon couldn’t hit the high notes like Sturgill can (compare Waylon’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” to Simpson’s great rendition of When In Rome’s “The Promise”), and none of the outlaws sang songs invoking Buddhism or used psychedelic production techniques. A great update of a classic sound.

16. Reigning SoundShattered: Greg Cartwright has found his sweet spot. There are a few upbeat garage rockers, but most of this is mid-tempo R & B, with a lot of songs of longing. He’s in no way a classic soul singer, yet his passion wins out. His new set of backing musicians fits him like a glove, setting down the right groove each time.

17. Chris HickeyLove Away: Hickey’s fifth solo album in 28 years is his most elaborately produced. Not that this sounds like a Phil Spector production, but it’s great to hear Hickey with strong drums and multiple guitars supporting him. Hickey’s songs are still models of economy, with incisive lyrics and highlighted by his warm voice. This album truly is a grower and I’ll probably rank it higher as the years go by.

18. King TuffBlack Moon Spell: I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played by King Tuff on CHIRP, and I finally took the plunge and picked up this LP. It’s glammy power pop, with a strong dose of T. Rex, which fits Kyle Thomas’s vocal range, and, as Stewart Mason smartly noted, Neurotica-era Redd Kross. The songs have crunchy guitars, twee melodies and killer hooks.

19. Marianne FaithfullGive My Love to London: Faithfull works with an all-star team of collaborators on a mix of British rock/folk tunes and more Brecht-ian detours. The songs are of consistently high quality, and Faithfull remains a raspy voiced interpreter who finds just the right approach to the words, no matter who penned them. Nick Cave, Anna Calvi and Roger Waters get especially high marks for their contributions.

20. Lykke LiI Never Learn: Li has perfected her anguished, girl group inspired ballads. What is really impressive is that she doesn’t need a Wall of Sound to pull them off. Yes, this isn’t exactly a spare production, but the songs rely on insistently strummed acoustic guitars and just the right amount of drums and other instruments to carry to tune off. Then she sings the hell out of them with her wonderful warble.

21. Azealia BanksBroke With Expensive Taste: Why this album languished in the vaults for two years is beyond me. Banks combines fine singing skills with rapping that evokes a sleeker 21st century cousin to Missy Elliott. The album is full of fantastic rhythm tracks, as hip hop and club music are mined equally. Banks is a consistently compelling personality.The middle part of the album is simply not as strong, or otherwise this would certainly rank higher.

22. Homeboy SandmanHallways: There is a classic '80s feel to Homeboy’s flow and lyrics that I love. That he chooses to work with sonically innovative producers makes it even better as he is old school and new school at the same time. Many of the songs show his characteristic wit, but when he’s angry, he’s a real force.

23. Nicole AtkinsSlow Phaser: The fact that this album just missed the Top 20 is indicative of how strong the releases were this year. Atkins continues to expand the scope of her songwriting, but is smart enough to know that her torch singing tunes are a calling card that she needs to play a fair amount. In a better world, poppier songs like “Girl, You Look Amazing” would be overplayed on Triple-A stations everywhere.

24. KelisFood: This is the most consistent album from Kelis since her debut. Part of what makes her so interesting is how she adapt to so many different approaches with her smoky voice and dominant personality. Here, working with Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio, she sings the most traditionally based R & B songs of her career, and it works so well.

25. Against Me!Transgender Dysphoria Blues: On their last album, Against Me! seemed to become a bit generic and almost indistinguishable from more traditional modern anthem rockers like The Gaslight Anthem. But having transitioned to living as a full-time female, Laura Jane Grace is supremely inspired and this album is littered with passionate, shout along songs about the difficulties of being a transgender woman. It’s angry, substantive and rousing.

26. Angel OlsenBurn Your Fire For No Witness: Olsen’s striking voice makes her work immediately compelling. The album mixes some rocking little tunes with the ballads that her vibrato laden singing is tailor made for. Living with this album for months, I found that her songwriting is not quite on par with her performance skills, thus some tracks get by more on atmosphere. If she can get more consistent in the composition department, she will really be something.

27. Wild BeastsPresent Tense: This British quartet manages to evoke the early lush Roxy Music-inspired synth based bands of the early ‘80s, with a bit of a mid-period Talk Talk vibe thrown in, but Wild Beasts improve on that sound in a big way. Their songs usually have a few memorable lyrical phrases and both vocalists make the best use of limited but expressive instruments. They manage to make decadence elegant and catchy.

28. Real EstateAtlas: These gentle folk rock songs occupy a space between The Kingsbury Manx and The Go-Betweens, which is a nice space to be in. This music would have ruled college radio in the ‘80s, but their jangle rock works equally well on indie radio stations today. These acoustic guitar dominated numbers just envelope the ears with warmth.

29. PopstrangersFortuna: Australia has some fine psych-pop acts, led by Tame Impala, and now this Kiwi band deserves a seat at the table with them. I initially hear a lot of early Pink Floyd, but as the album goes on, everything from Led Zeppelin to The Church and Hoodoo Gurus and more seeps through.

30. BabymetalBabymetal: Yes, this mix of J-pop and shredding metal is pure novelty. But this album rewards repeat plays, as the blending of sticky melodies and dance and EDM elements works on song after song. I think this is because there is no compromise here – they don’t water down the metal side; in fact, it dominates. And the hooks on the pop side are very, very strong. Maybe I’m underrating it because of the novelty.

31. HushdropsTomorrow: The long awaited second album from this stalwart Chicago power pop trio highlights frontman John San Juan’s way with a hangdog melody. This double album is packed with thick riffs that jangle with an undercurrent of sadness, somewhat akin to Tommy Keene. In other words, music that you can play air guitar to while swooning over another great sorta sad hook. The rhythm section is simply killer and San Juan makes the most of his (admittedly) limited voice. Do to the sheer number of tracks and the consistency of the sound, a few tracks blur together, but the quality is always, at the very least, good and often great. Bottom line, their sound is so compelling that a year from now I'll be wondering if I should have ranked it higher.

32. Gerald DowdHome Now: This Chicago scene veteran has beaten the skins for a who’s who of top flight Chicago artists, including Robbie Fulks (for whom he is also a comic foil), Electric Dirt (he is the Levon Helm in this The Band tribute band) and sophisticated power poppers Frisbie. That is the axis around which his own songs spin, making for a swell debut album. Dowd’s an ace singer, who reminds me of a mid-point between Fulks and Helm, and his songs twang, jangle and riff quite well. Moreover, the specificity of his lyrics give his music extra personality. I hope he’s got more tunes in his stockpile.

33. Prefab SproutCrimson/Red: Paddy McAloon is losing his hearing and his sight. Yet he found a way to play almost everything on the best Prefab Sprout album in years. This is what he does best, with shimmering guitars, amazing lyrics and winning melodies. This is harder that it looks (sounds?), as lesser Sprout efforts reveal, but when he’s on top of his game, it’s a must hear.

34. TemplesSun Structures: In the wake of Tame Impala and Toy, there seems to be a new crop of psych-pop bands ready to entertain. Temples may be young guys, but they craft tunes and play them in a manner that one would think of more experienced. They really do a good job at replicating that ‘60s vibe, but with a better drum sound. At times they remind me of The Bees, which is a very good thing.

35. NothingGuilty of Everything: Another fine shoegazer revival album. These guys have mastered both the floaty atmospherics and the fuzz laden explosions, going from one end of the spectrum to the other so easily. They sometimes really remind me of more psychedelic Ride, which is a great thing to sound like. They certainly would have fit right in with the original shoegazer brigade.

36: Inspiral CarpetsInspiral Carpets: A few years ago, these Mancunians reunited with their original vocalist, who left before the band’s first album, Life. Twenty years after their last album, this band sounds totally rejuvenated, and one might think this album was recorded before Life and the tapes were just recovered. This is ace garage and psychedelic rock, with organist Clint Boon’s distinctive sounds leading the way.

37. Hollie CookTwice: Compared to her concise debut, the languid reggae-pop songs on this album (again produced by Prince Fatty) are more stretched out. I’m not sure if this is for the better, as a lot of the five and six minutes songs here are nice, but there’s not a need for them to go beyond three or four more minutes. Other than that, everything is copacetic. Hollie’s vocals put the sunshine in this tropical sound and the songs are soulful, some augmented (well) by strings.

38. Autumn DefenseFifth: This band has been a reliable source for AM gold, evoking everyone from George Harrison and the Bee Gees to Bread and America. The songs are both well constructed and played. The album goes down easy, without becoming mere background music.

39. Ibibio Sound MachineIbibio Sound Machine: This Nigerian-London band mixes simmering afro-pop with some more modern electronics and funk. The band cooks and frontwoman Eno Williams pushes things to another level. What is impressive is that the mid-tempo material works as well as the really grooving stuff.

40. SabersSic Semper Sabers: Josh Chicoine of The M’s teams up with some other local musicians of note to take that glammy/T. Rex-y sound of his old band into a new direction. The songwriting is just as good as his M’s work, and his collaborators provide new textures and sounds, lending new atmospheres to these reliable songs.

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