Reasons for Living 2014
Yes, the time has once again arrived for the most sacred if clichéd of rock-critic tasks: the annual Year-End Best-of Albums list.
As I note annually, the following is my tally not of the year’s most “important” or “successful” releases, however you define those terms, but of those I listened to and loved most, which kept me coming back time after time, and which I am most eager to hear again right now—and to share with you.
So, working in reverse order from bottom to top, here are my Top 40 albums of 2014 (drum roll, please!).
40. Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems (Columbia)
Ranking second only to Bob Dylan as our greatest living songwriter, Leonard Cohen hasn’t always gotten it right in the studio, sometimes yielding to pointlessly frilly productions that only detract from that monolithic baritone rasp. Here, at age 80, he keeps things mostly simple, the better to let his wit and wisdom shine. Stream the review at Sound Opinions.
39. Sharon Van Etten, Are We There (Jagjaguwar)
The fourth album from New Jersey-bred, Brooklyn-based singer and songwriter Sharon Van Etten is her lushest yet—in fact, it’s almost baroque, with its synth bass, piano, organ, strings, harp, woodwinds, and the occasional backing choirist. Yet, as evidenced by the epic standout “Your Love is Killing Me,” she only has grown more powerful in charting the struggles of romance and uncertainty. Read the full review on this blog or stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
38. Lykke Li, I Never Learn (LL Recordings)
On album number three, 28-year-old Lykke Li Zachrisson straddles a fascinating line between chart-topping pop diva and soul-baring underground darling with a set of gorgeous understated anthems which are anthemic nonetheless. Read the full review on this blog or stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
37. The Black Lips, Underneath the Rainbow (Vice)
Capping a chaotic bender that now stretches through 15 years and seven albums, Georgia’s bad boys the Black Lips add a bit more focus to the songwriting and up the wattage on the hooks, giving us the most tuneful set (in a Nuggets way) of the out-of-control bender that is their career. Read the full review on this blog or stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
36. Broken Bells, After the Disco (Columbia)
The second offering from the stellar collaboration between Shins front man James Mercer and super-producer Brian “Dangermouse” Burton is a more understated affair than their debut; note that the title confesses that this is music for after the dancing. But that’s fine by me, as Mercer never has sounded more soulful, and Burton only gets to revel more in his delightful take on Eno ambience. Stream the review on Sound Opinions or listen to the band’s interview and live performance.
35. Lydia Loveless, Somewhere Else (Bloodshot Records)
What a better world we’d live in if America’s teenage girls admired this fearless Ohio cow punk instead of Taylor Swift. Lydia Loveless’ third is simply stunning, with her music and lyrics growing ever more mature without sacrificing an iota of that hell-raising attitude. Read the full review on this blog.
34. Bob Mould, Beauty & Ruin (Merge)
Defiantly riding the third high of his post-Hüskers career, our curmudgeonly but lovable Uncle Bob continues the melodic adrenaline rush on his 11th solo album, once again fronting the powerful but empathetic rhythm section of drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Jason Narducy, and raging valiantly against the dying of the light. Read the full review on this blog or stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
33. Olivia Jean, Bathtub Love Killings (Third Man Records)
On her first solo outing, moonlighting Black Belle and Third Man Records session ace Olivia Jean emerges as Lana Del Rey’s worst nightmare, with retro-cool chanteuse seduction done right, sacrificing none of the self-empowerment or self-respect. Read the full review on this blog.
32. Weezer, Everything Will Be Alright in the End (Universal Republic)
For my money, this is the best Weezer release since The Green Album in 2000 because it’s the most fun, as well as the best set of smart, well-crafted pop tunes. And nobody muses on the joys of playing in a band and falling in love with music better than Rivers Cuomo. Stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
31. Got a Girl, I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now (Bulk Recordings)
This may not be a collaboration with the pop wattage of Broken Bells, but actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead and producer Dan “the Automator” Nakamura nonetheless surprise and delight with this homage to French café pop and spaceage bachelor pad music. Stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
30. Edvard Graham Lewis, All Under (Editions Mego)
The latest creative spurt in the long and intensely rewarding career of English art-punks Wire happily extends to the new solo offerings from bassist, lyricist, and sometimes baritone vocalist Graham Lewis, who describes the stronger of his two 2014 offerings as “a song-based album that resides amongst the cracks between narrative and song, sound and music… [and which] conjures the spirit of Wire’s experimental pop trajectory.” And he’s not exaggerating. Read the full review on this blog.
29. Brian Eno/Karl Hyde, Someday World (Warp)
Also giving us two discs in 2014 was the iconic super-genius Eno, working in collaboration with electronic musician Karl Hyde of Underworld. This, the first, was the stronger and more pop-oriented effort, with Hyde completing unfinished Eno pieces revolving around Phillip Glass minimalism and enticing afro-beats. Stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
28. Syd Arthur, Sound Mirror (Harvest)
Young Brits revive the Canterbury sounds of ’70s progressive-psychedelic-folk-jazz-rockers such as Soft Machine and Camel, with wispy vocal melodies, twisting rhythms, burbling synthesizers, snaking guitar lines, and soaring violin from Kate Bush’s nephew. A geek-out joy. Read the full review on this blog.
27. The Vaselines, V for Vaselines (Rosary Music)
The third studio album in 28 years from Scottish cult heroes and Kurt Cobain favorites the Vaselines was well worth the wait, with the trademark snark, linear rhythms, and unforgettable melodies as strong as they’ve ever been. Read the full review on this blog.
26. The Preatures, Blue Planet Eyes (Harvest)
Preatures singer Izzi Manfredi’s leather-jacketed, self-assured, coolly disaffected update on the classic Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde stance perfectly meshes with percolating rhythms that chart a tuneful course between Motown, New Wave, and modern electronic dance music, all with exquisite production by Jim Eno of Spoon. Read the full review on this blog or stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
25. Jack White, Lazaretto (Third Man/XL/Columbia)
If the second album under Jack White’s own name isn’t quite the surprise of his solo bow, hearing him turn one-page short stories and plays written at age 19 into vital music for the here and now is no less a gritty, soulful, alternately hard-hitting and seductive/lulling joy. Read the full review on this blog or stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
24. The Rentals, Lost in Alphaville (Polyvinyl)
Proving that he’s no alternative-era footnote, Matt Sharp returns with his post-Weezer combo to revel in gloriously fat and glitchy Moog drones, a wonderfully endearing and otherworldly future-past melancholy vibe, and a bevy of memorable and infectious hooks. Read the full review on this blog.
23. The Muffs, Whoop Dee Doo (Burger Records/Cherry Red)
West Coast garage-popsters the Muffs may not be reinventing the wheel on their sixth album, the first in a decade. So what? As with Joey Ramone and his band of brothers, I never tire of Kim Shattuck and her fellow tuneful hell-raisers delivering the pop-punk goods. Then again, I may just be the weird boy next door immortalized in the opening track. Stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
22. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
On her third album, St. Louis-to-Chicago-to-North Carolina transplant Angel Olsen summons not so much Patsy Cline-meets-Leonard Cohen, but rather a more rootsy, less pretentious early Liz Phair. And she simply slays while doing so. Read the full review on this blog or stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
21. tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack (4AD)
The third afro-pop gem from Merrill Garbus proves that her loopy methodology is no novelty, and the real source of her appeal is that powerhouse voice and an ever more sophisticated and nuanced global feminist perspective. Read the full review on this blog or stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
20. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)
Honing in on age 40, Killer Mike and El-P may be great granddads by hip-hop standards, and they’ve always been old-school in their subject matter and sonics. But such silliness only matters to the shallow. Show me a more passionate, angrier, musically undeniable rap release this year, I dare ya (and I’ll bet you can’t). Listen for an upcoming interview and performance on Sound Opinions.
19. Sinead O’Connor, I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss (Nettwerk Music Group)
Sinead O’Connor may be famously frustrated with the machinery of pop stardom and dealing with plenty of turbulence in her personal life, but her music rarely has suffered, and her voice never has diminished. Here she seems to be having a bonafide blast rocking out once more—even if it’s a bit hard to buy her contention that this is “just an album of love songs.” Read the full review on this blog or stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
18. Martin Carr, The Breaks (Tapete Records)
Proving that he hasn’t lost a step in 16 years, Martin Carr, the driving force behind ’90s Britpoppers the Boo Radleys, returns with an unforgettable set of songs about not fitting in, though that no longer means the systematic derangement of all the senses via psychedelics, but smoking pot before dropping the little ones off at school in the minivan. Read the full review on this blog.
17. Ty Segall, Manipulator (Drag City)
Anyone tempted to argue that lo-fi garage-rock hero Ty Segall has at times been too prolific for his own good hasn’t heard this concise, supremely focused, and exquisitely well-crafted set of psychedelic-pop/garage-rock gems, the finest single album in his bountiful catalog. Read the full review on this blog or stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
16. Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20)
As much of a songwriting treasure as the aforementioned Leonard Cohen, legendary stonecutter Lucinda Williams gave us the unlikely gift of a sprawling, loose, and endlessly rewarding 100-minutes-plus double album, with more than enough strong moments to last us a decade, if she deigns to take that long before gracing us again. Stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
15. The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers (Matador)
I’ll confess that I’d given up on being surprised much less thrilled by this Great White indie-pop supergroup ever again, but its sixth album is the best it’s delivered, thanks largely to a return to the sunshine, an amping-up of the pure pop pleasures, and under-heralded heroine Kathryn Calder. Plus, “Dancehall Domine” may be my favorite tune of 2014, second only perhaps to the Meghan Trainor guilty pleasure of “All About That Bass.” Stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
14. Damon Albarn, Everyday Robots (Warner Bros.)
Like Jack White, it took former Blur and Gorillaz front man Damon Albarn half a lifetime to give us his first solo effort, but when he finally stands naked and alone, he does it wholeheartedly, with some of the most quietly beautiful music of his career coupled with some of the most honest and introspective lyrics. And the title track is one of my favorite testaments ever to the solace and antidote to loneliness that can be found in music. Read the full review on this blog.
13. Big Freedia, Just Be Free (Queen Diva Music)
Genre- and gender-hopping Freddie Ross/Big Freedia is as undeniable a force of nature as the hurricane that slapped his beloved New Orleans. To call it “sissy bounce” is to limit its sensual appeal, which to my mind knows no boundaries or limitations. Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law—so long as thou shall shake thy booty. Stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
12. Tweens, TWEENS (Frenchkiss Records)
The Cincinnati punk group led by Bridget Battle somehow merges girl-group doo-wop and Black Lips-style, no-holds-barred garage punk. And it absolutely takes no prisoners. Stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
11. TV on the Radio, Seeds (Harvest)
Ending a break many thought would be permanent, Brooklyn-based art-rockers TV on the Radio mine the loss of their bassist for soulful catharis and quiet tunefulness that also extends to the best all-out pop song of their career, the gleeful “Happy Idiot,” a thinking hipster’s answer to Pharrell’s “Happy.” Read the full review on this blog.
10. Spoon, They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)
How is it that indie-rock’s most devoted minimalists only get better and better while rarely adding a new twist or turn to their basic ingredients of driving grooves, melodic drones, and laconic, charmingly alienated vocals? I really can’t say, but the undeniable truth is that no group in rock does more with less to get under your skin and inside your head. Read the full review on this blog or stream the discussion at Sound Opinions.
9. Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal (What's Your Rupture?)
Deceptively ambitious slackers Parquet Courts continue their casual brilliance, combining Television and Pavement with a bit more of the former on a set that is more unapologetically art-rock and slightly less focused on song craft, with an epic centerpiece (the 7:13 “Instant Disassembly”) that’s as much of a tour-de-force mission statement as “Marquee Moon.” Read the full review on this blog.
8. Kelis, Food (Ninja Tunes)
Proving she has a lot more on her menu than “Milkshake,” the sixth studio album from Kelis takes us from electronic soup to neo-soul nuts, courtesy of spot-on production by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio. Saucy and sweet, but full of pride and power, and delicious from start to finish. Read the full review on this blog or listen to her interview and performance on Sound Opinions.
7. F*cked Up, Glass Boys (Matador)
Lacking any grand concept this time around, the uncompromising, punishing, but ridiculously tuneful Toronto art-punks simply deliver the goods with a set of the best in this “hardcore” genre since the heyday of Hüsker Dü. Read the full review on this blog.
6. The Gotobeds, Poor People Are Revolting (12XU)
Named for the enigmatic drummer in Wire but following in the stoned and starving footsteps of Parquet Courts, Pittsburgh’s Gotobeds have less in common with either of those bands than with the sloppy brilliance of Let It Be-era Replacements and the postmodern-pop of early Pavement. And that’s a fine, fine thing. Read the full review on this blog.
5. Shellac, Dude Incredible (Touch and Go)
The fifth time around turns out to be the most impressive from Steve Albini since he was at the height of his pummeling powers in Big Black. Together with his storied collaborators, he relies less on predictable, overly clinical math-rock precision and more on storytelling, songcraft, and dare I say melody. No, really! Read the full review on this blog.
4. Aphex Twin, Syro (Warp Records)
The question isn’t where Richard D. James has been, but why he’s chosen to release music again as the Aphex Twin, lo these many years after his groundbreaking ’90s. I can’t answer that, but I can happily report that he still delivers a more varied sonic palette and a more exciting listening experience on one track than many electronic artists who fill arenas now provide in an hours-long set. And he has a better, much more twisted sense of humor to boot. Read the full review on this blog.
3. Le Butcherettes, Cry is for the Flies (Nadie Sound)
Long though the wait was for her second album, Mexican art-punk Teri “Gender Bender” Suaréz returned with undiminished ferocity, ready to burn down a long list of offensive targets, from male hegemony to that vile wall between her country and this one. Read the full review on this blog.
2. Ex Hex, Rips (Merge)
A longtime underground heroine who’s never quite gotten her due, even as the guitar-vocal foil to Carrie Brownstein in Wild Flag, bandleader Mary Timony emerged anew fronting a power trio with drummer Laura Harris and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Betsy Wright, recording with ’80s hero Mitch Easter, and tearing through punky garage-rock that kicks harder than she ever has. The band calls it “twelve songs about underdogs, guys stealing your wallet, schoolyard brawls, and getting bent,” and it’s simply unforgettable and absolutely essential. Read the full review on this blog.
1. Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Red Distribution)
Now based in Chicago and led by Laura Jane Grace, anthemic political punks Against Me! deliver a moving, deeply empathetic, and very much needed message to the transgender community, though by no means is the rousing music or the lyrical calls for humane behavior exclusive of anyone, anywhere. This is to say, this album was needed in Ferguson as much as in San Francisco, or indeed on the south and west sides of our Windy City. Read the full review on this blog, stream the discussion at Sound Opinions, and listen for an upcoming interview and live performance on the show.
Listen to Greg Kot and me each discuss our five favorite albums of 2014 on this week’s episode of Sound Opinions, always our favorite of the year. And follow me on Twitter
@JimDeRogatis or join me on Facebook.