As always, I’m closing the year out with a summary of my favorite records from the year gone by. The only qualifying factors to make this list are that they must be full-length albums consisting of new material (I have a separate section for EPs and collections of previously released material), with a release date in 2014. Everything I really enjoyed this year that falls outside of those boundaries still gets a mention, just not a ranking.
It was really hard to pick a clear #1 this year. I love the top four albums on this list just about equally. Two are more “baroque” pop records that lean toward the electronic and experimental, and two are more in-your-face rock records. They’re the only “A grades” that I gave out this year. Which one is my favorite among them changes based on my mood, so I basically gave the #1 slot to the one I’ve enjoyed for the largest chunk of the year. I can’t imagine very many other people who would ever actually listen to all four of them, let alone like them all, but they all come with my highest recommendations for anyone into the types of music these individual artists are making.
THE BEST OF 2014:
1. Katie Herzig – Walk Through Walls
I can think of harder-hitting, or more musically accomplished, records that came out this year, but in terms of the full package – songs that stick in your head for superficially catchy reasons but that also have something deep and meaningful to say – Katie’s latest seemed to be the best of both worlds. Here she steps aside from the expected “cutesy coffeehouse” vibe she’d cultivated on her previous albums, taking the sonic experimentation of 2011’s The Waking Sleep up several notches and creating a bold, colorful electronic pop record that may well be her equivalent of what Vienna Teng did last year on the exquisite Aims (an album which was, in turn, partially inspired by Katie). Emotions run the gamut on this album, from straightforward and disarming anthems of compassion and intimacy, to self-consciously awkward odes to unrequited love, to a tear-jerking and startling cry for forgiveness from a deceased mother. She and producer Cason Cooley make an excellent team here, just as they did on The Waking Sleep, and I hope this fruitful partnership produces many more amazing records like this one in the years to come.
Music Video: “Drug”
2. Umphrey’s McGee – Similar Skin
There’s something about UM’s tendency to spontaneously jump from one genre to the next, not caring whether each one is “cool” or not, that makes me admire them even though I’m not normally into the whole jam band “scene”. But on this record, they decided to trim a lot of the fat and make a super-tight, focused rock album. At least, to the extent that UM can focus on any one thing – you’ve got your long, atmospheric anthems here, your riff heavy alternative powerhouses over there, and your multi-part epics with weird time signatures showing up only slightly less often than they normally do. Every song feels like it’s here for a reason, and despite the gamut of moods that they run, the whole thing flows remarkably well, walking that fine line where a band can show off some genuine musical chops without most of it feeling like self-indulgent wankery.
Music Video: “Hourglass”
3. My Brightest Diamond – This Is My Hand
Since Shara Worden is an artist whose mostly mellow ways I’ve learn to respect in the past, but never really fallen in love with, this new album of hers was a real shock to my system. Percussion and electronic effects shatter my preconceived notions of her musical personality, but none of it ever overshadows her love of classical and jazz instrumentation, and the synthesis between all of these disparate sounds makes this one of the most hauntingly lovely records I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. She can be sensitive and operatic just as easy as she can be loud and menacing, which happens several times throughout these 10 tracks. Like unique gems all cut into their own unusual shapes, no two of these tracks are alike, and nearly each one wins me over in its own weird way.
Live Video: “Lover Killer”
4. Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil – Goliath
I’ve still got a soft spot for Taylor all these years after Squint challenged me to up my expectations of Christian rock back in the 90s. I didn’t have any history with him to speak of before then, so I can only imagine that this new record must have been a much awesomer surprise to fans who had been hanging in there since the 80s. Taylor and his new lineup function as sort of a Christian alt-rock supergroup, most definitely keeping the Gospel message intact long after it’s fallen out of fashion to bluntly discuss matters of faith to the tune of raucous rock music, but there’s still enough going on in religion, politics, and entertainment, and the uneasy balance that exists between the three, that it’s a veritable gold mine of subject matter for Taylor and his buddies to skewer. This one’ll probably bug the wife if I play it too much when she’s around, but I need a little abrasive wit and sarcasm to spice up the old music collection every now and again.
Music Video: “Standing in Line”
5. The Last Bison – VA
Over the last few years, The Last Bison has gone from an awkward but admirable folk outfit with a horde of instruments and diverse ideas, to a much more polished and exciting version of themselves, fine-tuning their meandering song structures and rough-hwen vocals without losing their woodsy edge. Their first album since returning to indie-land is a proud ode to their home state, but one that should be relatable to anyone who longs to lay down their burdens and escape to a lovely house by the beach, or a stately southern plantation, or a canoe adrift on some remote river, or a cabin nestled deep in the woods.
Live Video: “Cypress Queen”
6. Anberlin – Lowborn
Despite the fact that I’m always going to remember Anberlin’s farewell tour as that time they released a really good album and then proceeded to play none of the new songs that fans had never had a chance to hear them play before (and to be fair, they still gave 110% to letting us relive every oldie of theirs that we could possibly want to hear one last time), that doesn’t diminish the worth of the album itself. It’s not immediately apparent, because Anberlin generally isn’t a band to change things up so radically that you wonder if they’re the same band any more, but they definitely benefitted from throwing out the rule book and not caring whether songs were strictly defined as “rock” or “pop” or “synthpop”, etc., or which ones would even be the potential singles. They chased their muse and came up with a diverse and intriguing final record, one which holds the rare distinction of actually grabbing my attention through a lot of the mellower and poppier mid-tempo songs first while the rockers (especially the abrasive “Dissenter”, which is belatedly becoming one of my favorites) required more of a learning curve. If this is truly the end for Anberlin, then I wish them well in their future endeavors, but if it’s one of those 10-minute retirement thingies and they’re out on some sort of a reunion tour a few years from now, hopefully they’ll be pals and give some of these excellent songs their long-deserved live debut.
Music Video: “We Are Destroyer”
7. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line
And hey, speaking of reunion tours… Fans of the “newgrass” genre had been clamoring for Nickel Creek to get back together for a good seven years, but I kind of thought they were all finding their footing so well apart from each other that it wasn’t time yet. So I was quite surprised when they announced not only a tour, but a brand new album early this year. A Dotted Line still shows the relentless creative energy that we’ve come to expect from the trio, perhaps in more of a democratic fashion now that the Chris Thile-fronted songs no longer dominate the tracklisting the way they used to. But everyone who contributes material is in top form, no doubt re-energized from all those years of trial and error with their various side projects (most or all of which are apparently still a thing despite their newly busy schedules). It’s hard to catch fans up on what’s been on your collective minds in the space of only ten songs, but somehow they manage to do just that and set a veritable smorgasbord of different moods along the way, from the witty meta-commentary of “Rest of My Life” all the way through the plaintive pining of the breathtaking “Where Is Love Now”.
Live Video: “Destination”
8. Band of Skulls – Himalayan
I really enjoyed Band of Skulls as an opening act for Muse last year, but didn’t quite think they knew how to put a solid album together, since their no-frills brand of blues-rock tended to work for me when it leaned harder on the rock, but not so much when it fell back on more subtle blues conventions or when the band went full acoustic. Too much mood whiplash, I guess. They’ve mostly fixed that problem on their third album, which might still have the occasional clunker, but even in what might seem to start off as a dull song, you can expect some down and dirty guitar goodness once the trio gets revved up. Even the poppier and more acoustic numbers here are highlights, surprisingly enough, and the rowdier numbers have just the right balance of arrogant swagger and fine-tuned pop savvy to really get me going.
Music Video: “Nightmares”
9. The Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down
Having Nickel Creek back in the saddle brought another nice little folksy surprise my way in the form of their opening act, a sisterly duo from Alabama with just the right balance of sweetness and darkness to make me not mind (or for that matter, not even notice at first) that they’re mostly a vocal-oriented act and not actually a full-fledged band. Their defiant harmonies on their cover of PJ Harvey‘s “The Pocket Knife” pretty much sealed the deal, but they’ve got plenty of their own sometimes dark, sometimes bright and chirpy, and sometimes helplessly forlorn material to fill out an incredibly entertaining album aside from the offbeat cover choices. T-Bone Burnett definitely balances the pop with the grit, and both elements are essential to a sound that flirts with post-modern reinventions of country music at times, but that sounds like it could have been recorded decades ago at others.
Music Video: “Rattle My Bones”
10. Kye Kye – Fantasize
This synthpop outfit, made up of Estonian-born Olga Yagolnikov, her siblings, and her husband, was another one of those acts that I discovered as the opener for a favorite band – in this case, Future of Forestry back in 2010. It didn’t take. Then they opened for Gungor early this year, and their new material showed significant improvement. Their trancey sound and diffuse lyrical style can be hard to make heads or tails of at first, with most of their songs existing to set a mood or give a vague impression more so than to communicate a clear message. But somehow it doesn’t diffuse the compelling atmosphere of grace and gratitude that permates Fantasize‘s 12 tracks, from the triumphant clarion call of its lead single “Honest Affection” to some of its most quirky, “might’ve heard it at a rave at 3 in the morning”-styled deep album cuts.
Music Video: “Honest Affection”
11. Broken Bells – After the Disco
The unlikely duo of James Mercer and Brian Burton proves here that they’ve got more longevity than their intriguing but flawed debut had led me to believe back in 2010. Their ironic and cynical, but highly danceable, take on retro-flavored indie pop gives us an admittedly lopsided record with a much stronger first half than its second half, but regardless, I keep coming back to it over and over again.
Live Video: “Perfect World”
12. Weird Al Yankovic – Mandatory Fun
Weird Al tries out every genre that he can think of a good reason to lampoon, so it’s a miracle when a collection of his songs manages to hang together even loosely as a complete album. This might be the last such collection that we get from Al, since his brand of humor tends to work better when he can get individual songs out there in a timely fashion and strike while the subject matter is still hot. Still, even if some of the hit songs and trending topics he skewers here might be a few years old, he’s more consistently funny about it than he was on Alpocalypse, and if you ignore the dreadful and seemingly interminable closing track, it’s easily one of his best records. it was nice to see him score a win with so many of this project’s videos going viral in the span of a single week back in July when the album was released.
Music Video: “First World Problems”
13. Kimbra – The Golden Echo
Kimbra’s brand of R&B and funk-influenced indie pop was already quite ambitious on Vows, but here she takes it to a whole new level. I may still have some catching up to do, as I don’t entirely “get” the wealth of influences she’s mining or experiments she’s trying here, but I think it’s a good thing for even a catchy pop record to keep me on my toes. Whether she’s boldly proclaiming her love of disco or 90s music, or just about anything in between, The Golden Echo is a highly immersive, and mostly delightful, experience.
Music Video: “90s Music”
14. Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything
This one really had to grow on me, as it seemed like the record was thoroughly down-tempo, mellowed-out, and unconcerned with hit singles during the first several listens. Then I realized how well the slow build up to a big, joyous chorus worked in songs like “New York Morning” and “Real Life”, and how much of a noisy payoff the band was gradually building up to in songs like the title track and “Fly Boy Blue”. Not everything here works – large chunks of the record are still a bit too subtle for my liking. But that’s Elbow being true to themselves, and there’s always more beauty to be found in even their most subdued moments than I’ll probably ever fully realize.
Music Video: “Fly Boy Blue / Lunette”
15. Lost in the Trees – Past Life
Whether it was a wise move for the band to trim down their lineup and ditch the more byzantine song structures heard on their first two records, or whether this oversimplifies their sound to the point where they sound too much like other indie rock acts, is a bit of a personal judgment call. I miss the maze-like nature of songs like “Neither Here Nor There” and “Garden”, but there’s still some subtle rhythmic intricacy to be heard in songs like “Excos”, “Night Walking”, and “Glass Harp”. And the title track, with its surprisingly lovely electric guitar riffs, makes a strong case for beauty to be found in even some of their most straightforward compositions.
Live Video: “Glass Harp”
16. OK Go – Hungry Ghosts
The band upped the ante on electronic experimentation, even from the standpoint of their previous record Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. At times it’s overindulgent, but for the most part it works, and there’s plenty of disco-funk goodness to keep us entertained in between some of the weirder moments. And of course they’ve doubled down on the visually stunning viral videos. We can always count on OK Go for that.
Music Video: “I Won’t Let You Down”
17. U2 – Songs of Innocence
It’s unfortunate that this record will probably be remembered as the one U2 tried to give away and everyone criticized them for doing so. Simply allowing iTunes to let us “opt out” might have saved them a lot of grief there. Still, it’s a gift that I was happy to receive, and there’s an interesting diversity to the sound and subject matter of this album that immediately makes it more compelling as a whole than all three of the albums they put out during the “noughties”. At times it’s edgy as it recollects a brutal loss of innocence, and at times it’s sublime as it yearns to regain that young idealism that once made Bono and his pals such loveable little upstarts. I’m looking forward to the companion album Songs of Experience, which will probably hit us out of nowhere just like this one did, but knowing U2’s usual timetable, I won’t hold my breath.
Music Video: “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”
18. Ghost Beach – Blonde
This Brooklyn-based synthpop duo wears its love for 80s music on its pastel-colored sleeves, and in recent years I’ve come to admire certain bands for fully indulging in a sound that others might consider cheesy or overly melodramatic. Think Empire of the Sun, but with more instantly likeable vocals and not so many illusions of cinematic grandeur, and you’ll get where these guys are headed.
Music Video: “Miracle”
19. Crowder – Neon Steeple
Speaking of committing to a genre that can be a tough sell for some folks, David Crowder certainly raised a few eyebrows when he tried to merge the sounds of Ibiza and Appalachia on this weird little mutated worship album which I guess you could call “folktronic” or “technograss”. None of the sounds presented here will be anything new to fans of his former band; it’s just the way they collide over the course of a single song that can be rather jarring. A few purely electropop or purely folk/country-styled numbers stand out among the weirdness, proving that Crowder might be better off tackling these genres separately, but there’s something about his audacity that you have to admire, because it shows he’s got a sincere admiration for the Church’s past while also making an admirable attempt to forecast its future.
Live Video: “Ain’t No Grave”
20. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
This one was a bit of a “late bloomer” for me – I was drawn to its overwhelming exuberance right away, but I wasn’t sure if song-for-song, it was strong enough to stand up to the group’s seminal Twin Cinema, or even records like Challengers that I admired for veering off into more introspective territory. Apparently Carl Newman‘s philosophy is “write what you know”, and what he knows now is that there’s nothing writing him down, and he and his bandmates did their best to encapsulate that happiness in their own cryptic way. Only now, at the end of the year, am I finally realizing the utterly victorious goodness of some of this album’s most massive, hook-driven hits in waiting, while a few other tracks that don’t necessarily go full-throttle right away, like the synth-laden “Backstairs” and Neko Case and Kathryn Calder‘s formidable two-pronged attack on “Champions of Red Wine”, are proving themselves to have more longevity than throwaway novelty as well. Also Dan Bejar, who often feels like he’s dropping in his own bizarro-world compositions regardless of rhyme or reason, contributes some of the strongest numbers he’s given to the band since the Twin Cinema days.
Music Video: “Dancehall Domine”
This year I didn’t really feel like going into depth about my least favorite records, because I honestly only came across two that were particularly awful (the latest from Maroon 5 and Jason Mraz), and at this point I didn’t expect much from those artists anyway. Pretty much anything that was a letdown, or that I just plain didn’t understand, was covered in my monthly “What Am I Listening To?” column, so I guess you can go have a look there if you’re a glutton for mediocrity.
COMPILATIONS, EPs AND SO FORTH:
This is the stuff I really liked, but felt it would be a bit unfair to include in my Top 20, either because they only constitute roughly half an album’s worth of music, or in the case of Jars of Clay, they reworked a lot of established fan favorites and the resulting collection sort of sits on the fence between “compilation” and “all-new studio record”. What’s listed here is still quite excellent; it just deviates from the expected format of what I’d consider an “album”.
Jars of Clay – 20
Two decades of a band’s amazingly diverse musical history, with the tracks from nine of their studio albums handpicked by fans and re-recorded by the band, in mostly faithful versions that lean toward the folksy and reflective side of their sound, with the occasional pleasant surprise (“Silence” has never sounded more compelling than in its acoustic version here, and “Trouble Is” never rocked so hard) and only one or two regrettable alterations of their classics (the sudden time signature shifts in “God Will Lift Up Your Head” didn’t work for me, and their pretty-as-a-wedding-video revamp of “Love Song for a Savior” subdues the tempo a bit too much). Honestly, I’d have been thrilled to hear them even briefly revisit any period of their history that had been mostly glossed over in their setlists in more recent years, so hearing them go back and re-learn songs they’d forgotten from pretty much every single record they’ve ever done over the course of this year was a diehard fan’s dream come true. Also, the two new songs easily stand among their best work.
Live Video: “Ghost in the Moon”
House of Heroes – Smoke EP
HoH managed to get an all-new concept album funded through Indiegogo this year, though they didn’t progress on it as quickly as I’d hoped, so I guess the album won’t appear in its full glory until next year. Most of what they’ve given us as a teaser here kicks some serious butt, though, which serves as a hint that they might have another record as strong as The End Is Not the End in the works.
Listen: “Bottle Rocket”
Sleeping at Last – Atlas: Oceans EP
Even though a great number of the songs Ryan O’Neal has penned that have made their way into TV and film soundtracks have been the kind with actual lyrics, he’s also proven to be quite compelling at scoring films that only exist in his mind’s eye, and communicating a lot with no words at all. That’s best represented in the closing chapter of “Year One” of his Atlas series, which dedicates a track to each of the world’s five oceans, bringing closure to the suite he began three years ago with Yearbook‘s “Pacific” and “Atlantic”.
Switchfoot – The Edge of the Earth EP
It’s a troubling sign when a lot of the songs a band discarded during the process of hand-picking songs for an album are as good as, if not better than, the material that actually made it on to the album. It’s especially so when they cut a perfectly good title track for no discernible reason. The actual song “Fading West” is more than poppy and catchy enough to fit right in alongside the album it confusingly shares its title with, as are the bright electronic tones of “Liberty”, but there’s a good amount of darker material on this EP that would help bring balance to a record that got bogged down by one too many generic pop songs. This is apparently what Switchfoot was talking about when they touted their unusual recording process for the album. Somewhere within the 18 tracks that were split between the EP and the album proper, there’s a much more solid collection of 10 or 12 songs representing Switchfoot at their best than what you’ll hear if you take either project by itself.
Listen: “Fading West”
LAST YEAR’S LEFTOVERS:
Stuff that only got disqualified for this year’s list because it was released last year and I didn’t get to it soon enough.
Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
This would have been my #1 record of 2014, hands down, if only it hadn’t been released in 2013. It retroactively slipped its way into my top 5 for that year, just by being a killer synthpop record where even the deep albums cuts in between the big singles are gorgeous (and often catchy as hell). Lauren Mayberry might seem like the most adorably petite frontwoman in the history of indie music, but the trio’s lyrics pack a real punch when dealing with some rather difficult topics, and she’s eloquently demonstrated, when dealing with some of her more misguided and lecherous fans, that you’d damn well better respect her instead of objectifying her.
Music Video: “Gun”
Lucius – Wildewoman
Take the same sort of sisterly retro-pop vibe that worked so well for Haim (though it doesn’t involve actual siblings in this case), add a fair amount of indie rock grit and charming folksy nostalgia, whip it all together in a blender, and you get another massively catchy collection of songs that I’m kicking myself for not knowing about back when it was brand new.
Music Video: “Turn It Around”
Owel – Owel
This indie rock quintet from New Jersey has had me mystified for most of the year with their expansive sound and their long, intricate songs, which stand tall among some of my favorite baroque pop and symphonic rock music just as easily as they bring to mind the post-rock wastelands of Sigur Rós. It was only in preparing this list that I thought to look for footage of some of their live performances, and let me tell you, I was absolutely blown away. This’ll be a group to put on my “concert bucket list”, if they ever manage to tour beyond New York City and their native New Jersey, of course.
Live Video: “Float”
Haim – Days Are Gone
The surname “Haim” comes from the same root as the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim”, which basically means “life”. And the group, headed up by three sisters who bring their early 90s nostalgia and impeccable pop savvy into an indie rock format, is certainly full of life. Their sound and their lyrics may seem polished, perhaps even superficial at first, but there’s a certain amount of grit lurking behind the scenes if you’re willing to look for it. Their live performances exemplify this a bit more, and while they’ve quite nearly landed on the perfect pop album with this first outing, I kind of hope they’ll bring a bit more of that live edge into their sound on the follow-up that they’re working on for 2015.
Live Video: “Let Me Go”