Monday, March 30, 2015

Best Music of 2014: Top 10 Albums

Confession: I originally meant to do this toward the end of last year or the beginning of this year, but then the time slipped away...and now here we are, a quarter of the way through the new year. It may not necessarily be timely, but who cares, it's always a good time for a list!

I don't often write about music, but I'm not as well-versed in the theory and criticism of writing about it, but make no mistake that I do love it. So, as I did in 2013, I've put together two different lists: my ten favorite albums from the year 2014 as well as my thirty favorite songs. This isn't a definitive, all-genres "best" list, and it's probably more subjective than any other list I publish. It's just a list of the things I liked the most last year, ranking according to my tastes.

So, without further ado, my ten favorite albums of 2014.

10. 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole

With each successive (and successful) album, North Carolina rapper J. Cole has grown more confident in his delivery and more clever in his lyrics, with 2014 Forest Hills Drive landing as his most personal and best album yet. He turns up the heat on tracks like "Fire Squad," getting political with a ferocity he hadn't exhibited previously. And radio success "Apparently" rocks a great hook and rolling beat. He still hasn't quite reached the potential he continually hints at, but he's getting closer with every album. He may not be so underrated for long.

9. Sonic Highways, Foo Fighters

To be fair, Sonic Highways does feel like a missed opportunity: the band recorded each of the album's eight tracks in a different U.S. city, bringing in local artists to record with them. The implication would be that the sound of each city would be reflected in each song, which made the prospects of the band's trips to New Orleans, Nashville, and Los Angeles all the more exciting. The actual product, however, is the same old Foo Fighters sound, with those local flavors mostly hanging out the in background. That being said, this is still an album from the best mainstream rock band working today, so to say that its muscular riffs and singer Dave Grohl's howling vocals are disappointing couldn't be further from the truth. And several songs do soar, like the proto-punk screed "The Feast and the Famine" (featuring D.C.'s Scream), the Preservation Hall Jazz Band-assisted "In the Clear," and the Ben Gibbard team-up "Subterranean." It wasn't the album it could have been, but it was still an excellent, hard-rocking work.

Albums #8-1 after the jump.

8. Morning Phase, Beck

I'll be the first to say that I've been off-and-on with Beck in the past. There are albums of his that I do like - Odelay, The Information, Modern Guilt - and albums that I don't like - Mutations, Guero, Midnite Vultures. If you know anything about Beck, you'll also realize that there's no rhyme or reason to those exclusions: there isn't that much difference between them, but those I do like just stick with me better. So when Morning Phase - his first album in six years - was finally released, I had no idea which way it would fall. There was no need to worry. Morning Phase ranks among his very best, drawing from the atmosphere of his 2002 album Sea Change (my personal favorite) for a set of songs that are clever, reflective, and haunting. From the gentle strum of "Turn Away" to the driving "Heart is a Drum," there isn't a dud song on the album. And it contains what is perhaps his best vocal performances to date, his distinctive voice showing more range than his more affectless work suggests. No wonder it won Album of the Year at the Grammys in February: it's a terrific example of what he's capable of as an artist at his peak.

7. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), Various Artists

Forget about the movie, which hinted at some interesting ideas only to essentially go nowhere. The soundtrack is what we should remember about it (even if none of the songs actually appear in the film). "Curated" by alt-pop icon Lorde, the soundtrack is a veritable who's-who of disparate influences, with a few inspired collaborations to boot: R&B star Miguel, Lorde, and EDM maestros The Chemical Brothers all combine for the pounding "This is Not a Game," pop singer Charli XCX is joined by Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon on "Kingdom," and Lorde joins an all-star team of Pusha T, Q-Tip, Stromae, and Haim on the opening cut "Meltdown." Most of the songs sound like they could soundtrack a dance party in District 13, and feature more up-and-coming talents (Tinashe, Tove Lo, XOV, CHVRCHES, Raury) than you can throw a mockingjay at. But Lorde wisely keeps the best songs for herself: "Yellow Flicker Beat," the film's monster of an anthem (which also gets a remix here by none other than Kanye West), and a cover of Bright Eyes' plaintive ballad "Ladder Song." Pretend the movie never happened and just treat this album like an awesome mixtape from your too-cool friend.

6. Are We There, Sharon Van Ettan

There is perhaps no other album as heart-ripping, uplifting, and emotionally tumultuous as Sharon Van Ettan's fourth album, Are We There. A self-professed work of "therapy rock," the album is a collection of songs written about a real abusive relationship in her life, and the scars show on just about every track. From the haunting wail of "You Know Me Well" to the desperate pleas of "I Love You But I'm Lost," Van Ettan's voice howls, cries, and breaks over spare arrangements, her suffering made all the more palpable by her emotionally-fraught lyrics. It's an album that's tough to listen to more than once, but worth hearing and experiencing. Here's hoping she finds happiness, and continues to make music this provocative.

5. Do It Again, Robyn & Royksopp

For years, Swedish pop chanteuse Robyn has made a name for herself for delivering chilly, danceable Europop like "Dancing on My Own" and "Call Your Girlfriend." It only made sense, then, that she should team up with Norwegian duo Royksopp for a five-song EP that contains some of the year's best EDM. "Do It Again" is an instant dance-floor anthem, while opener "Monument" is a looping trance of sax-infused melancholy. There's not a dud song on the album, making this a collaboration that will hopefully continue in the future.

4. Ghost Stories, Coldplay

For the past few albums, Coldplay have left the piano-rock formula that made them famous behind, exploring new sounds that have resulted in the best album of their career (2008's Viva la Vida or Death and All of His Friends). Ghost Stories takes the same electronic-based sound from their previous release, 2011's Mylo Xyloto, but goes a decidedly more relaxed route, resulting in nine tracks of gentle pop-rock. "Ink" has a distinctly Peter Gabriel-esque vibe, while "Magic" rides a stuttering beat and friendly groove. Then, of course, there's the album's biggest hit, "A Sky Full of Stars," which rides a monster EDM beat that comes as the cathartic explosion of the set. There are no duds here, just Coldplay doing what they do best: crafting great, heartfelt songs.

3. Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Against Me!

A few years ago, Florida punk outfit Against Me! made headlines when the band's lead singer, Laura Jane Grace, completed her transition from male to female. She's turned the experience into the band's latest album, which is chock-a-block with deeply personal songs that boil with the same sense of anger that the band has always specialized in. Along the way, despite the specificity of the material, they've recorded what may be their most accessible album yet, full of catchy hooks and irresistible riffs. "True Trans Soul Rebel" is the standout, but "Drinking with the Jocks" and "Dead Friend" also prove that this band is just hitting its stride. It's their best album yet.

2. Songs of Innocence, U2

The album is certainly more famous for how it was released: it appeared out of the blue - and for free - in every iTunes account holder's library, and was thus criticized as being an invasion of user privacy. Yet for that to be the whole story is to miss the fact that this is the best album U2 has recorded in years. The band delves deep into their own past, with songs like "Cedarwood Road" and "Iris (Hold Me Close)" exploring Bono's childhood in Ireland, and opening track "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" celebrating the band's influences. The whole set is remarkably introspective, resulting in an incredible set of songs that deserve to be heard. Give them a try - they've earned the title of "world's greatest rock band."

1. 1989, Taylor Swift

From the moment "Teardrops On My Guitar" began getting Top 40 radio play in 2007, it was inevitable that Taylor Swift would drop the "country" from her country-pop sound. She flirted with the idea on her last set, Red, but with her fifth album, 1989, she dives in head-first. The result? The best music she has ever recorded, and the best album of 2014. She fully embraces pop stardom, reaching back to 80s influences for songs like the fashionable-strut of "Style," the self-parodying "Blank Space," and the horn-laded smash hit "Shake It Off." "Wildest Dreams" contains one of her very best vocal performances, while album-closer "Clean" - a collaboration with Imogen Heap - shows her range is far more expansive than we previously thought. Every song is delivered with confidence and energy, making every song just as infectious as the last. It's quite simply a perfect pop album. Who could ask for anything more?

1 comment:

Shane Slater said...

Cool list. I need to dig into some of these more, like the U2 and Taylor Swift albums. Songs of Innocence didn't grab me when I first listened to it.