The following is a list of my favorite records of 2014. I strangely enough felt that a lot of the best work was done by artists that are well into their career. This was an incredible year for career artists. Although I love a good fun pop song as much as anyone, my favorite artists are ones that have strong personalities that seem like they are trying to communicate their truth, and sometimes the truth of the times. I feel like these are ten records that I will be going back to for years to come because of their musicality and the complexity of thought that is involved in them. Too many newer artists seem to make albums that might be sonically magnificent, but are somewhat shallow on the ideas side of things. The best albums, as far as I’m concerned, do both.
An album like The War on Drugs new album, Lost in the Dream, which has been featured on many best of lists, is musically truly something to behold and I love the blending of Roxy Music sonics with Tom Petty kind of American song craft. It’s a great album, but lyrically the album is merely good and not great. I can get lost in the album, and I do really like it. However, it works best to me as background music, music that changes the mood in the room, but that I never engage with intellectually front to back.
I also wish more than anything that there was equivalent of something like a modern day Black Flag, a young band that was coming out full of sweat and fury, but I don’t feel like there has been anything new that I have discovered like that. Too many of the visceral sounding rock records that I have heard seem like they are treading on past styles instead of adding any new ideas to the mix.
There are many albums that I wanted to add to this list, like the new AC/DC, but an album like that has several great songs, and then some stuff that is just filler. I’m sure I’ll forget many records that have moved me this year. I tried to go back and look at my record collection, but I’m sure something has evaded me. Surprisingly, given the state of the music business, this has been a really strong year for music, especially career artists. I worry that the fact that the way the business works economically, the fact that artists that can make enough off touring and catalog sales are the ones that are often making the best records, is a sign of things to come. I hope not. The older generation has been raising the stakes lately, and we need to meet their call.
10. Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes – Although I have liked all of the Boss’s recent releases, this seems to be the one in my opinion where he truly builds upon his legacy. It is a collection of songs that didn’t make his last few records that have been newly recorded. He is one of the few recording artists that can create transcendent rock n roll and speak truth to power on the same record. Because of the patchwork nature of the songs, meaning that they were written at different point and differ thematically, this is probably the least complete record on the list. Like all later period Boss records there is one or two songs that could have been stronger. However, the record sounds great and the high points are truly exceptional. He is definitely reaching on this album. By having Tom Morello joining the usual E-Streeters he expands upon his sonic territory. On Harry’s Place we get a dark cinematic character study that lyrically could almost be on a Lou Reed record. That song, like several on the album, feature new sonic territory for Springsteen. The political songs are fantastic, even if some of them have been in his set for years. American Skin (41 Shots) and the new version of The Ghost of Tom Joad are visceral. The understated The Wall may be the one that sticks with me for years. It is a song about the Vietnam Memorial. There is a seething anger just below the song’s calm surface. The anger is directed at the “masters of war” that send young men to die in wars that should have never been fought:
Now the men that put you here eat with their families in rich dining halls
And apology and forgiveness got no place here at all, here at the wall
9. Chuck D – The Black in Man – Chuck D has always delivered since his career began in Public Enemy. Although there were one or two latter era Public Enemy records that I wasn’t extremely keen on the production, his voice and ideas have always remained an unbelievable force of power. He has never stopped speaking truth to power and this album is no exception. In an era when our justice system is finally being called into question in the mainstream, Chuck D appears to be what he always was, a prophet. Like his other solo albums, this record is more soul influenced and melodic than Public Enemy. Although I prefer the chaotic discord of the Enemy, this is only the slightest of steps down. How can you complain when you got Mavis Staples laying it down in a chorus? PIC I Hate Every Inch of You tackles our obscene Prison Industrial Complex with a vengeance. This album makes you feel like you can do pushups in the rain, push the boulder up the mountain. There are definitely some great James Brown like grooves being laid down as well, culminating in a new version of Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) that brings no shame to the original. Chuck D is again laying shit down!
8. Bryan Ferry – Avonmore – This is the one album that breaks many of the rules I have established for this list. It’s not particularly deep. Although it is sonically great, it is an artist doing what they do best and not necessarily adding anything new to their game. However, what Ferry does here is to simply create an album as good from front to back as any album he has been a part of since Roxy Music’s Avalon. I mentioned that The War On Drugs album was a great release this year, a record that was very influenced sonically by Roxy Music’s Avalon, but if you are going to draw on a record that pays tribute to that sound, you might as well go with the person that created it. There is no fat here. The grooves are deep, the album is cinematic, the musicianship is excellent, and Ferry sings in the seductive and sleazy style that is his signature voice. The album ends with one of the greatest songs of his career, Johnny and Mary. This is a song that could be a movie in and of itself.
7. U2 – Songs of Innocence – U2 have finally made a complete album that plays to their many strengths for the first time since the 90’s. While their last few albums all had great songs and great moments, this is their first album that musically, melodically, and thematically feels like a complete vision since that time. It is personal music, at times political, in which song craft is paramount and that sounds like only a group of musicians that have played together for many years can. Every song on this album is a winner and it is one of those few albums you can listen to front to back. An extremely powerful moment is the song Iris, in which Bono examines the relationship with his deceased mother over a rock n roll band performing at the top of its game. No matter how intelligent something is, music needs to be emotional, and this is emotional stuff.
6. Sinead O’Connor – I’m Not Bossy I’m the Boss – Sinead O’Connor has long been one of the most fearless artists around. She has spoken truth to power often to her own detriment. (She was right about what was going on at the Catholic Church years before anyone wanted to believe it.) She is fighting form on this new record that also features some of her best melodies. Even when she is singing about love, like she often does on this record, there is a righteous power to her performances that make the songs seem expansive in their meaning. If you were to read some of the lyrics they might come across as simple love songs, but when you hear them performed they are songs of the eternal love that speaks to the possibility and dreams of humankind.
5. Marah – Marah Presents: Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania – Marah is one of the great American bands. Unfortunately they are not known very well outside of their fan base. They put out another exceptional record this year. Marah is a band that has dabbled in different styles and feels through the course of their career, but there is always a rock n roll heart beating underneath. Dave Bielanko is simply one of the best rock singers around. On this album they took lyrics from an old book of unrecorded folk songs and and wrote new music to them. The music combines all different kinds of American traditional music in new and interesting ways. They also recorded this album with the townsfolk of their current home of Millheim, Pa. When you listen to this record it feels as if you are discovering the present from the vantage point of the future. The record often has a ghostly organic feel, but there is a tremendous amount of passion and love going on as well. Folk music has long been a way to communicate the needs of the people through song. This is a modern day folk record in the best sense.
4. Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright In the End – As with most Weezer records, the lyrics on this album deal with the personal state of lead singer songwriter Rivers Cuomo. There are themes of forgiveness and familial ties, but some of the songs are just about rock n roll and girls. However, this is the one record that is on the list just because it is pure rock n roll joy. He has crafted his best set of songs and melodies since Weezer’s Pinkerton record. The melodies are punk rock Brian Wilson and the production, by Rick Ocasek of Cars fame, makes each little guitar part its own small universe. One’s spirits can’t help but be lifted when this album is put on.
3. Marianne Faithfull – Give My Love to London – This album, celebrating her 50th year in show business, is one that I believe will be seen as a cornerstone of her career. Although she has been making great music all along, I believe this is her best and most complete record since her pinnacle of Broken English. She revisits many of the styles and themes she has touched upon during her long career and delivers every single time. This record is a statement of purpose and not merely a rehashing of past virtues. The production is varied, always interesting, and yet somehow the different styles all sit perfectly next to each other. You have her tackling styles that remind one of her Brecht/Weill covers, pastoral English folk, rock blues, and beautiful ballads. The lyrics touch upon everything from her own shortcomings and drug dependency to her disconcerted opinion of the state of the world. This is raw vital music by an artist that isn’t afraid to leave it all hanging out.
2. Jackson Browne – Standing in the Breach – An artist at the height of his powers. Browne has made an album that sonically calls upon the best of his past, but lyrically could only have been written right now. Browne is ever the seeker, always trying to understand the world that is around him. He is one of the few that can be extremely poetic and topical at the same time. And although he might be addressing matters of the moment he does so in a way that is timeless. These songs will not rot as the political fortunes of the day change. And as he sings and crafts such powerful lyrics along with expertly written melodies, the organic backing recalls his all time triumphs like Late for the Sky. However, while many of his past masterpieces were personal in nature, this album looks out as much as it looks inward. The group of musicians that surround him on this album are fantastic. They play with subtlety and depth that highlight his every move as a songwriter. This album is the thesis of a master.
1. Morrissey – World Peace is None of Your Business – I know beyond any doubt that this is the album of 2014 that I will return to the most as the years progress. This is another career artist that is turning out a high-water mark of an album, in a career that is full of them. Morrissey is at his most combative. What he does that so few other artists do, and that he quite frankly does better than anyone, is expand the form of what songs can be about. He makes macho male behavior, that is often so destructive in our world, look unappealing and silly in his song I’m Not a Man. In Mount Joy, he stretches back to Behan and uses the Irish prison as a metaphor for the often cruel way that people treat each other. His singing makes every barb, joke, and confession sting with maximum impact. The melodies are the kind that are built to last. However, Morrissey is often pegged as being musically conservative, but this album is adventurous as anything released this year. It is his testament to his road band, that has often been dismissed by critics, that they have created an album so varied and so interestingly musically. Flamenco guitars blend with British sounding pop songs, there are moments of white noise, and the title song begins with tribal drums that open up eventually into a beautiful melodic arpeggio. A song like Istanbul is a mini-movie that makes you feel as if you are witnessing the story that it tells. Maybe no other album that he has released demonstrates that behind his caustic view of the world there is love and a hope that people can treat each other better. And did I mention the album is funny? Despite all of the genre blending, deep poetic insight, and strong political convictions, this album will more often than not bring a smile to my face. This is what the best of music can do. It can make one see the world in a new light, even when you are viewing the darkest recesses of human nature, and allow you to transcend and endure at the same time. While you could have moved some of these albums around the list, and possibly slid one or two other albums in some of their places, this album is the undisputed number one in my book.
And I’m already remembering albums I failed to mention like Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems. Although I would put it somewhere near the middle of the pack concerning his output, even average for him is better than 99% of artists. He is another musical giant that is still, at age 80, putting out thought provoking and incredible albums. Popular Problems is one that I might substitute for one on this list if I thought about it deeply. It is definitely worth checking out. He is a true original that I am grateful is still making music.
Here a song from each album:
Songs From My Favorite Albums of 2014