Friday, March 13, 2015

My Top 100 Albums of 2014: #50-26 (with commentary!)


#50: LP, Forever For Now
LP (the simple stage name chosen by singer-songwriter Laura Pergolizzi) creates impeccable, urgent pop songs that ride on her powerful, expressive and emotive voice. Just listen to her soar on “Tokyo Sunrise” or plead on “Your Town.”
#49: Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
A surprisingly poppy and produced album for the indie-rock, alt-country icon. She covers a lot of ground, from the ‘70s pop of “She’s Not Me” to the country stomp and singalong of “Just One of the Guys” or the ‘80s chime of “Late Bloomer” or the alt-pop of “Love U Forever.” Great stuff!
#48: The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Midnight Sun
This is a very haunting recording, not because the music itself is particularly haunting, but because it’s almost impossible not to hear John Lennon’s voice: his son Sean is one half of this band and his vocal tone is very similar to his father’s. Add in the fact that the music itself is an homage to ‘60s-era psychedelic rock and it’s not to get sucked back in time. But however derivative it may be, it’s wonderfully put together, heartfelt and extremely coherent from beginning to end.
#47: The Apache Relay, The Apache Relay
The Apache Relay crank out rootsy rock often backed by boppy string arrangements. “Katie, Queen of Tennessee” is a stand-out, as is “Good As Gold” (with its handclap chorus).
#46: Umphrey’s McGee, Similar Skin
I’m an unreconstructed progressive music fan. (For you kids out there, that means Yes, Rush, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, etc.) So when a friend mentioned Umphrey’s McGee as a kind of progressive rock jam band, and then I watched a few samples of their live performances, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. While known primarily for incendiary live performances, especially of covers and mash-ups, and their incredibly musicianship, they do record studio albums and this offering captures well their combination of influences (from hard rock to prog to jazz to pop), their musical talent, and the organic way it all comes together.
#45: St. Vincent, St. Vincent
Another slice of quirky, oddball musical inventiveness from the always entertaining Annie Clark. Her work, while extraordinarily accomplished and creative, isn’t always what you’d call “accessible,” but there’s less shrieking and oddball time signature changes than in some of her previous work. Tracks like the playful “Birth in Reverse,” the electronic funk of “Digital Witness” or the ballad-like “Severed Crossed Fingers” are almost, gasp!, mainstream.
#44: James Vincent McMorrow, Post-Tropical
James Vincent McMorrow is a kind of Irish Bon Iver, singing in a delicate yet soulful falsetto with the same sense of aching loss. It’s very affecting, if borderline soporific at times. The songwriting is more blue-eyed soul than northern Wisconsin folk with soaring choruses and generally simple keyboard and guitar arrangements. Great “Sunday morning over coffee” music.
#43: Lykke Li, I Never Learn
Lykke Li has moved a long way from the light electro-pop of “Little Bit.” Between 2011’s Wounded Rhymes and 2014’s I Never Learn, she’s turned into a Nordic chanteuse, singing torch songs that often move from quiet verses to “wall of sound” choruses. They’re beautifully written songs and the arrangements are impeccable. My only complaint is her voice: it’s not 100% suited for this style of music. There’s an element of constraint, almost like someone who’s trying to protect her voice. It gives a sort of resigned tone that often matches the lyrics, but it also means that there are times when you want her to belt it out and it doesn’t happen. But more power to her for picking how she wants to approach her music and sticking to it.
#42: Kasabian, 48:13
You’ve got to love an album named after its length. Swaggering, driving, dramatic Brit-rock with grabby repetitive figures often making up the choruses (e.g., “treat” and “doomsday”) that make it almost impossible not to shake one’s head.
#41: U2, Songs of Innocence
It’s almost impossible to listen to U2 objectively. Between their constant angst about whether or not they can remain relevant, their over-earnest and over-serious past, their naked ambition (only in artistic fields does it seem that “becoming big” is automatically a ding), and Bono’s big mouth, this is a band with a lot of baggage. But so the fuck what? At the end of the day, it’s about the music, and this album features lots of great music, from the kick-ass opener of “”The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” to the soaring ache of “Song for Someone.”
#40: Tove Lo, Queen of the Clouds
This electronic pop debut from the Swedish songwriter (full name Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson) is playful, sexy, and impeccably crafted. Highlights are “Like ‘Em Young,” “Talking Body” and “Not on Drugs” (“I’m not on drugs, I’m just in love”).
#39: Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
This album would probably make my list just for the lead track, “Turtles All the Way Down,” a meditation on the meaning of life that’s at once humorous and affecting (not to mention melodic as hell) but the rest of the record is solid country-rock driven by Simpson’s gifted songwriting and classic voice.
#38: Eric Church, The Outsiders
A combination of crunching rock ‘n’ roll (the title track, “That’s Damn Rock ‘n’ Roll”), acoustic ballads (“A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young”), and more traditional country (from the humorous “Cold One” to the affecting “Give Me Back My Hometown”) from the country rebel and his kick-ass backing band.
#37: Gem Club, In Roses
I’m not surprised that this album ended up just below The Antlers on my list as it has a similar feel: same high-pitched, expressive voice, and aching sadness. The instrumentation is less lush and full, if similarly orchestral in nature. Some of the piano figures sound like they were pulled directly from classical composition.
#36: Temples, Sun Structure
The 1960s continue to be a tremendous source of musical inspiration, as this album demonstrates. The first cut, “Shelter Song,” could come from any late-‘60s British band: slightly druggy vocals, ringing guitars, etc. The title song (just the name gives it away) delves into psychedelia with Moody Blues-style vocals. There’s lots of great stuff here, like the melodic descending chorus on “Mesmerise” or the catchy acoustic “Keep in the Dark.”
#35: Sinkane, Mean Love
A wonderful mélange of influences (from reggae to Latin to Afro-pop to electronica) come together to create this wonderful and danceable collection. Hard to believe it’s the product of a single person (Ahmed Gallab)! The bass really drives this music, sometimes in subtle ways (“New Name”) and sometimes more aggressively (standout track “How We Be”). It’s amazing how such a mix of styles can also sound coherent: the ‘60s soul of “Mean Love” seems right at home next to the slow funk of “Hold Tight” and the smooth reggae of “Galley Boys.”
#34: The Antlers, Familiars
The Antlers continue to produce achingly lovely orchestral rock highlighted by Peter Silbermann’s exquisite voice and perfectly chosen musical touches, like the trumpet on opener “Palace.”
#33: The Kaiser Chiefs, Education, Education, Education & War
The sound may be a bit different (less ska and rockabilly influence, more produced) but this album has got the feel of London Calling-era Clash. A great musical kick in the guts delivered with passion and conviction.
#32: Lia Ices, Ices
This a wonderful blend of influences, from the Arabic sounds that launch the album on “Tell Me” to the synth ballad “Waves” that closes the record. But the broad range (and inventiveness) of her choices in sounds support, rather than overwhelm, what are very catchy pop gems, say on “Magick.”
#31: alt-j, This Is All Yours
While not placing as high their Polaris Prize-winning 2012 debut, alt-j still solidly makes my top 50 with this excellent sophomore effort, almost totally ducking the dreaded second album curse. (That said, this album does suffer slightly from 2nd albumitis just because I was expecting their amazingly unique sound and therefore not as immediately enthralled.) It’s hard to think of another band with such a unique sound. Their vocalizations sometimes sound like madrigals or Benedictine chants. When layered on the backbone of spare percussion, dramatic keyboards and heavy, low-end bass, the sound is stupendous.
#30: Shovels & Rope, Swimmin’ Time
My vote for Americana album of the year! Fantastic harmonies, great thrashing and upbeat energy, and wonderful execution. Plus their beautifully written songs touch on all the great themes from the American songbook: good vs. evil, God and the Devil, fishing, drinking, hard times and good times.
#29: Spoon, They Want My Soul
God, I love Spoon. There’s such a swagger and bop to their music. When the drums thump confidently and then the guitar plays the opening chords of the first track, “Rent I Pay,” my head starts bobbing. Even something quieter like “Inside Out” has a hint of rock ‘n’ roll attitude in the delivery. It helps that Britt Daniel’s slightly hoarse voice is so perfect for the music.
#28: Saint Saviour, In the Seams
Lovely brooding chamber pop, delicate and gentle. What more do you want?
#27: Nico Vega, Lead to Light
This band offers driving, urgent, guitar and synth-based pop. “Drive” is a good example, with the urgency partly delivered via the instruments and partly via the voice. “I Believe (Get Over Yourself)” showcases their pop bona fides: what an earworm! Then there’s a dramatic cut like “Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” that’s like a combination of Nine Simone and teenage tragedy songs.
#26: Cymbals Eat Guitars, LOSE
If you’re a fan of quirky, offbeat indie rock (think Modest Mouse), you’ll love these guys. Vocals and instruments dart all over the place and there’s a strange sound of wide-eyed wonder in Joseph D’Agostino‘s voice. Sometimes it pulls me back in time: the soaring guitar figure at the start of “Laramie” makes me think of mid-1970s Genesis. (Yes, I realize this isn’t exactly a recommendation to some of you!)

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