Friday, January 16, 2015

Curtiss' Top 25 Albums of 2014

This year was a tough year for me to review music. While many of the rest of the critics on this blog were raving about how many fantastic albums were released this year, I spent much of the year listening to absolutely amazing albums I'd missed last year. That said, there were a few albums released this year that I enjoyed immensely.
  1. Obdurated - I Feel Nothing - Before checking out this album, I'd never heard of Obdurated. I decided to give the album a listen, and I'm glad I did. For those that aren't into thrash and death metal, you'll want to skip right over this album. However, those that are into extremely heavy and fast guitar work should definitely give it a chance. There's something unique about the approach Obdurated takes to this genre of music, mixing a lot of elements found in the various sub-genres of metal. Altogether, it's definitely an enjoyable album to listen to when you want a little bit of aggression.
  2. Weezer - Everything Will Be Alright in the End - I wanted to like this album; I really did. It's a decent album, sure, but it's also basically just a re-issue of every other Post-Pinkerton album they've put out. The first Weezer album (generally called "the blue album") was brilliant. The second Weezer album (Pinkerton) was a masterpiece in an entirely different vein than the previous album. After that, Weezer pretty much became a caricature of themselves, and that continues with this album. It's a good, poppy album, but it's not really any different than most of their existing catalog. I enjoy listening to the album, but it's definitely not something I'd call a "must-have".
  3. Tiesto - A Town Called Paradise - This is a weird one for me. Musically, there's a handful of truly bright spots on this album, though there are also quite a few moments of cookie-cutter electro-pop on here, too. Lyrically, it's pretty much all garbage (IMHO).
  4. Kongos - Lunatic - This is an interesting album. Kongos are one of a new crop of bands being played incessantly on the radio that is actually doing something new and exciting with popular music. The album has an edge to it, but it's not overly heavy or in-your-face. It's pretty just good old-fashioned rock and roll with a bit of an edge. While the music doesn't showcase any outstanding talent, it's fun and catchy. Definitely worth checking out.
  5. ††† - ††† (Crosses) - I had no idea what to expect when I picked up this album, but I was pretty pleasantly surprised. This band is a side-project for the lead singer of The Deftones, Chino Moreno. While I was never a huge fan of The Deftones, I did casually enjoy their music. This album takes Moreno's signature vocals, and applies them to a more mellow, electronic sound. It's not quite as mellow as the stuff Trent Reznor has done with How To Destroy Angels, but it's close. It's a very relaxing, enjoyable, unique sound. Honestly, the blend of the music and vocals makes Crosses sound almost like a dark version of Duran Duran.
  6. Prince - ART OFFICIAL AGE - First of all, I have no idea why Prince decided he needed to scream at us with this album title, but, he's Prince, so I guess he can do whatever he wants. With that out of the way, this is a pretty good album. It's not his absolute best, but it's definitely great to hear. Much of the style elements on this album are similar to those found on his soundtrack for the 1989 Tim Burton Batman film (which is an album that I throughly enjoyed, almost wearing out the cassette tape when I was younger).
  7. Jackson Browne - Standing in the Breach - I'm so excited to hear a new album from Jackson Browne; he's always been one of my absolute favorites. This album doesn't really disappoint in any way, but it also doesn't quite capture the magic found in his back catalog. It's a little more country than he's done in the past (though still a long way from the twang/honky-tonk type of country), and a bit more mellow. Still a good album to listen to, but, honestly, if this were any artist other than Jackson Browne, I probably wouldn't have even given it a second listen.
  8. Passenger - Whispers - This is the follow-up to the 2012 release All the Little Lights. Both albums are very similar, stylistically. I'm not sure why, but, with Passenger, I'm okay with that. To me, it doesn't feel so much like he's released the same album over again, it's more like he's continued where he left off on the previous album. This album once again features the soulful, reflective yet fun vocals and lyrics that made the previous album so interesting and enjoyable. If you liked All the Little Lights, I have very little doubt that you'll like this album, too.
  9. Johnny Cash - Out Among the Stars - It's always very strange to me when a newalbum is released posthumously; especially when that album is one that should have been released 20 years earlier. This album is pretty much classic Johnny Cash (the style you would have heard in the 70s and 80s - not the style that made renewed his success in the 90s), and it's a lot of fun. There are some extremely dark, cynical moments on this album that remind me of just how playful Cash could be.
  10. Adrenaline Mob - Men of Honor - This is another solid release from Adrenaline Mob. I really enjoy their unique style, but I also realize they're not for everyone. If you like Adrenaline Mob, you should really enjoy this album; if you're not a fan, this album is not going to sway you.
  11. At the Gates - At War With Reality - Another strong showing from At the Gates. Nothing terribly ground-breaking, but still a good, brutal album to check out.
  12. Shakira - Shakira - Bet you didn't expect to see this on my list, did you? Actually, it's quite a good album. Shakira is an insanely talented vocalist and, something about her voice appeals to me. The songs on this album are well arranged and quite interesting to hear. There are a few dance hits and a few very sweet, though a little melancholy (that's how I like them) ballads. While I do enjoy the album quite a bit, it also gets bonus points for being the type of album that just about everyone can compromise on.
  13. Coldplay - Ghost Stories - I'm not afraid to admit that I am a fan of Coldplay. I realize they are a dilution of Radiohead, and that there are a hundred other bands that have come along and diluted the style even further, but I still like them. This album isn't their strongest, but it's still got some great tracks on it.
  14. Maroon 5 - V - As with a few others on my list, this was an album I greatly anticipated, but was a little disappointed. It's far from their best album, but there are some awesome songs on here. Honestly, the cover of Sex & Candy that appears on the deluxe edition is worth the cost of admission.
  15. Electric Wizard - Time to Die - I had never heard of Electric Wizard before I checked out this album, so this was an extremely pleasant surprise for me. This album brings back the 90s "stoner rock" sound I loved so much when I was growing up (the sound that Kyuss really defined, though Monster Magnet contributed a bit - the same sound Queens of the Stone Age tries to bring into a handful of their songs). This album is a perfect contribution to that genre; it's got a new, unique sound while still being true to the original groove. If you know who Kyuss was, then you'll probably enjoy this album. * As far as I know, Electric Wizard has nothing to do with Kyuss; I just think they're doing a good job of carrying on that type of music *
  16. Sevendust - Time Travelers and Bonfires - Another solid effort from Sevendust. While not quite as good as last year's effort from them, this is still a great album, and should definitely be enjoyable to any Sevendust fan.
  17. Deadmau5 - while(1<2) - Deadmau5 takes this album in a slightly different direction than many of his previous efforts. It's a little more trippy and ethereal than I'd expected from him, but it's still a ton of fun to listen to. The album includes a remix of the How to Destroy Angels (Trent Reznor's side project) track "Ice Age", as well as a series of interesting originals. My favorite track on the album is probably "My Pet Coelacanth", but, for the title alone, "Infra Turbo Pigcart Racer" also gets an honorable mention.
  18. "Weird Al" Yankovic - Mandatory Fun - "Weird Al" is back with a vengeance. This album proves that, after nearly 35 years of coming up with unique, hysterical, creative parodies, he hasn't lost a step. This album also hipped me to the fact that, while I can't stand many of the original versions of these songs, I actually do enjoy the music behind them; those songs are made even more fun by his whimsical, sometimes dark, lyrics. The highlight of this album is, for most, the grammatical parody of "Blurred Lines", known as "Word Crimes". That said, the song "Mission Statement" should hold a special place in the hearts of many of our readers; the song is a great parody of the classic Crosby, Stills & Nash track "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" with a collection of corporate buzz words and phrases that should make your skin crawl.
  19. To The Wind - Block Out the Sun & Sleep - This artist and album took me by surprise. I'd never heard of To The Wind before I saw this album in the list of new releases, but I decided to check it out, and I'm very glad I did. This album embodies everything that I love about hardcore. Much of the album reminds me quite a bit of classic Strongarm or Shai Hulud, with a slightly modern touch. Anyone that's a fan of either of those bands should definitely give this album a listen.
  20. Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland - It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years since I first fell in love with the unique sound that Counting Crows serve up. This new album is a strong showing from the band. It's not a simple re-hash of their previous efforts, it's a whole new sound. This album still incorporates Duritz' one-of-a-kind vocal style, but puts it on top of a soundtrack that's much more heavily influenced by classic country than much of their earlier music. Because of the major shift in musical style, it took me a few listens before I could begin to appreciate this album, but, once I got into it, I couldn't stop listening.
  21. Train - Bulletproof Picasso - This is probably the biggest surprise on my list (with the possible exception of Shakira). It certainly was the biggest surprise to me, personally. I've always found Train's radio singles somewhat annoying when I've heard them on the radio, but I decided to give this album a listen anyway. I was shocked to find how much I enjoyed it. While this album isn't quite as good as Matthew Sweet's back catalog, it does have a similar feel with a modern update. The vocals are slightly haunting and bittersweet, while the lyrics are, at times, very dark, all laid on top of a bouncy, poppy soundtrack. It's that type of dichotomy that I've always loved about Matthew Sweet, and it's that exact dischord that makes me enjoy this Train album.
  22. Better Than Ezra - All Together Now - I make no bones about it; I love Better Than Ezra. It's a product of my musical up-bringing. There are a handful of alternative and college rock bands from my teen years that can do no wrong in my eyes (for those curious, that list also includes Matthew Sweet, Collective Soul, The Lemonheads, The Afghan Whigs, Catherine Wheel and Soul Asylum). That said, this is a very good album from the band. It doesn't quite have the magic that Friction, Baby or Before the Robots had, but it still puts a slightly new spin on the beloved Better Than Ezra sound, and it's still, in my humble opinion, measures above many other alternative/college rock albums that have come out in the past decade or so.
  23. The Afghan Whigs - Do to the Beast - Speaking of The Afghan Whigs, they put out a new album in 2014, too, and it's pretty brilliant. After 16 years (1965 was released all the way back in 1998), I had basically given up hope that they would ever record an album together again. Then, to my gleeful surprise, this album dropped, and I picked it up immediately. It's a little bit formulaic at this point, sounding very similar to 1965 and, to a lesser extent, like Black Love, but it's still a fantastic album. I wouldn't rank it nearly as highly as I would rank Gentlemen (which is, by far, my favorite album from them), but I still love it for what it is.
  24. American Authors - Oh, What a Life - This is another one that surprised me a bit. I'd heard the single "Best Day of My Life" on the radio so much, I'd grown sick of it, but I was also strangely drawn to it. It's super-poppy and bouncy throughout most of the album, but the way it's put together, it's a truly fun pop rock experience.
  25. A Great Big World - Is There Anybody Out There? - This album, on the other hand, is, for the most part, about as far from a bouncy, poppy album as you can get. There are moments of great fun (such as the song "Cheer Up"), but most of the album harkens back to the hay-day of emo. While I was never a huge fan of emo, there were a handful of bands that grabbed my attention and held it for a while (such as Dashboard Confessional - thought I spent a lot more time listening to emo-core bands like Brandtson and Stavesacre than I did with straight-up emo bands). With all of that said, this album came along with a perfect message and a perfect sound at a perfect time in my life. There's no need to get into details, but I was going through a major personal crisis at the beginning of last year, and songs like "Say Something", "I Don't Wanna Love Somebody Else" and "Already Home" gave me the feeling that I wasn't alone, while songs like "You'll Be Okay", "There Is an Answer", "Cheer Up" and "This Is the New Year" gave me a glimmer of hope in a dark time in my life.


That about wraps up my list, with some bonus material included below. You may have noticed that my list is a little more all-over-the-place than it has been in the past, and that it includes considerably more top 40 music than many would expect from me. I think this is a juxtaposition of two phenomena: first, I honestly feel like there's a lot more great radio-friendly pop and rock from the past 2 or 3 years than there has been since the 90s; secondly, I spent a lot of time in the car with my kids this year, and much of the music on my top 25 list (and in the list below) is a result of having to find music that we could all enjoy.

Honorable Mention

  • Celldweller - End of an Empire Chapter 01: Time - This album actually came out this year (so, technically, it could have been included on my list); however, since it's actually only an EP (five unique songs that are then remixed multiple times to make a total of 15 tracks), I decided to leave it off the list of albums. That said, this album is insane. The original versions of the tracks harken back a little bit to Celldweller's roots, including a bit more of a hard rock edge than some of his more recent releases, and the remixes span a ton of different electronic genres, making the entire EP truly enjoyable to listen to.

Top Albums I've Listened To This Year

I want to take a moment, before I wrap this thing up, to list the top albums I've actually listened to this year. Some of them made my list last year, but others I didn't discover until it was too late to include them on my list. Here are the top 10 albums I've been listening to throughout this calendar year, in no particular order (well, actually, they're in alphabetical order according to artist).
  • A Great Big World - Is There Anybody Out There? - Mentioned above
  • American Authors - Oh, What a Life - Mentioned above
  • Arctic Monkeys - AM - This album is insane. The music and vocals are truly unique, and the lyrics are quite a bit of fun. There are some strong radio singles on this album, but there are also a lot of sleeper hits to be found. This is absolutely worth checking out if you haven't already.
  • Avicii - True - I listed this one on my list last year, but it might have ranked even higher than it did last year if I had things to do over again.
  • Bastille - Bad Blood/Remixed - This is actually two separate albums (the original release - a deluxe version of which was released later in the year - and a separate album of remixes from that original album). Both have been in heavy rotation for me all year long. I still can't get enough of this set of albums.
  • Capital Cities - In a Tidal Wave of Mystery - This is probably the album I've listened to more than any other over the past year. I am so, so disappointed that I missed this last year. These guys are taking a little bit of inspiration from the strangest places; at times, it feels like a weird hybrid of Steely Dan, Pink Floyd and The Pointer Sisters (I know, right?). The lyrics are fantastic, and the flow of the album is awesome. Quite possibly, my favorite track on the album is "Farrah Fawcett Hair", which melds gospel-style background vocals with fun, silly topics, NPR announcer Frank Tavares and even a cameo from Andre 3000. That said, the entire album is a wonderful experience.
  • Fitz & The Tantrums - More Than Just a Dream - This is another album I missed out on last year. It's not terribly unique (not nearly as unique or different as Kongos, Arctic Monkeys, Avicii or Bastille), but it still has a pretty great sound to it. Quite honestly, I could draw a lot of comparisons between these guys and The Killers. This is yet one more album in my heavy rotation that also gets (or at least got) played on rock & Top 40 radio pretty often.
  • The Neighbourhood - I Love You - This album is amazing. I'm not sure how to really explain the way it sounds, but I can't get enough of it. If I had stopped with their initial single "Sweater Weather", I probably wouldn't have given them a second thought; then "Afraid" started getting played on the radio, and I instantly fell in love. The album itself is a bit of a roller coaster ride, but it's a great ride the whole way.
  • Passenger - All the Little Lights - This album was actually released at the end of 2012, which is why I didn't include it on my list last year. That said, it's still an extremely strong album that deserves to be mentioned. Many of the songs are extremely introspective and deep, but there's always a bit of an extremely creative dark humor thrown in. Honestly, coupled with the vibe on his album from this year (Whispers), if he keeps putting out albums of this quality, I might even classify him as the modern, extremely British version of Matthew Sweet.
  • Train - Bulletproof Picasso - Mentioned above

Monday, December 29, 2014

Our Favorite Albums of 2014

Soo...looking at the calendar and seeing it's almost the end of 2014, time to get this out there.

Every year we do this, it's interesting because we get an eclectic mix of people from across the diaspora of the industry who all come with different perspectives, musical interests and so, what's more interesting isn't so much seeing where we diverge, but where our interests actually match up. Because if you can get more than two people in this group to agree on an album, trust me, it must be the goods.

Word of advice. If you are ever putting together a list of musical albums that involves Excel and a nerd who is an amateur sabermetrician in charge of compiling rankings because you'll get a lot more than you bargained for. Because there were so many ties within certain rankings, I was able to create an album "batting average" which each album is ranked against the total number of points possible to score (650 this year or 50 x 13 participants) to give us a better glimpse than the pure ranking points could. If that's not enough, ties were broken based on the number of ballots an album was featured on, as there were some albums that showed up quite a bit for a bunch of us.

Six years after starting this little experiment, we're still at it and glad to have you join us.

Many of the members of the band have listed their own individual albums with reviews that you can read from this year. Others (like me) will follow later.

Check out reviews from Eric, Laura, Joel, Andy and Georgy.

With that, here's the top albums of 2014 list based on the entire team's rankings.

The Top 20 albums are pretty clear cut. (Top 10 in orange)

Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams356
The War on Drugs - Lost In The Dream278
Beck - Morning Phase230
Sturgill Simpson - Metamodern Sounds in Country Music213
Spoon - They Want My Soul205
St. Paul & The Broken Bones - Half The City182
Sharon Van Etten - Are We There181
Jenny Lewis - The Voyager180
Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels 2176
St. Vincent - St. Vincent158
Jack White - Lazaretto155
Real Estate - Atlas152
The Both - The Both137
The Rural Alberta Advantage - Mended with Gold131
Ben Howard - I Forgot Where We Were127
The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers124
Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland119
Benjamin Booker - Benjamin Booker115
Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal114
Bahamas - Bahamas Is Alfie105

Once you get out of the Top 20, things get dicier. So many people, so much diversity means lots of ties. Again, a late calculation adjusted our rankings a bit, so Top 50 took many forms before it looked like it does below.

Phantogram - Voices103
Dawn Golden - Still Life99
Blondfire - Young Heart95
Haerts - Haerts92
Shovels & Rope - Swimmin' Time92
Swans - To Be Kind88
First Aid Kit - Stay Gold88
Wild Cub - Youth86
Grouper - Ruins85
Wye Oak - Shriek85
Mac Demarco - Salad Days84
Damien Jurado - Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son84
The Colourist - The Colourist84
Afghan Whigs - Do To The Beast83
Bleachers - Strange Desire82
Andy Stott - Faith in Strangers81
Strands of Oak - Heal81
Conor Oberst - Upside Down Mountain81
Tokyo Police Club - Forcefield81
Angel Olson - Burn Your Fire for No Witness80
Future Islands - Singles80
RAC - Strangers78
Ben Frost - A U R O R A74
U2 - Songs of Innocence74
Bad Suns - Language & Perspective72
Alvvays - Alvvays69
Justin Townes Earle - Single Mothers67
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings - Give The People What They Want64
Bombay Bicycle Club - So Long, See You Tomorrow64
FKA twigs - LP164

No album with 3 or more voters choosing it anywhere on their list managed to escape the Top 50, so it was a pretty reliable indicator of a Top 50 spot on our list.

Here is more data I managed to mine out:

Albums with the most ballots
Ryan Adams had eight ballots.
Spoon came in second with seven ballots.
Beck came in second with six ballots.
The War on Drugs, Sturgill Simpson, Run The Jewels, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Jenny Lewis, Real Estate and Parquet Courts came in second with five ballots.
Sharon Van Etten, St. Vincent, The Both and The New Pornographers latest releases logged four ballots.

There were 15 other albums that had at least 3 ballots. 

Top albums list by H/L adjusted score
For those albums that appeared on a lot of lists, which ones were outliers that got one or two high (or low) rankings compared to their peers? Which was truly the best album of the year according to our rankers? When you subtract the highest and lowest score an album received, the Top 10 albums stays composed of the same albums, there are just some position changes. This remains basically consistent in the Top 20 except for a notable change.

Real Estate - Atlas (LP) For a brief moment, it appeared this album which appeared on five lists, would end up in the Top 10. But it was not to be. Instead, it came in 12th but using an adjusted metric, it actually ranked 10th. 

Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal (LP) vaults from 17th to 13th when you rank by adjusted score. In fact, it's the lowest rated album on the list of any album with 4 or more critics ranking it on their lists. But whether it was Top 10 or Top 50, bottom line is, people liked it and liked it enough to rank it. 

Biggest outlier album
Young Heart (LP) by Blondfire finished at 23rd on the strength of just two ballots. Joel and Tim both ranked it into their Top 5. Clearly they heard something the rest of the gang didn't, since no one else ranked the album at all. Maybe the group as a whole needs more electro-pop in their lives?

In that same class was Still Life (LP) by Dawn Golden which both Eric and Stephen rated highly, raising it to the 22nd spot on the rankings, when it initially looked like it wouldn't be rated at all. 

Most underrated album
How do you determine underrated in an exercise like this? Take the lowest ranked album with the most ballots and highest score. The winner in this category? Bad Suns - Language & Perspective (LP) which appeared on three ballots, but was ranked 45th, but had an adjusted ranking of 30th meaning you ought to give it a list.

Most overrated album
This category is a bit of a misnomer. But for the purposes of this exercise, we're talking about an album that appeared on a number of ballots (which means it can't be that bad, right?) but has a lot of scoring variance. The album in this category? Bahamas - Bahamas Is Alfie (LP) which cracked the Top 20 at #20 overall on the big board this year, but had a median score of just 21.5 which is lower than any album in Top 45 or so albums. If nothing else, it means the people who liked it, liked it a lot, but there wasn't a consensus about whether it was truly one of the elite albums of the year, given how many people left it off their list.

Critic with most Top 50 selections
In these parts, we've taken to appreciating our musical diversity. We wear it like a badge of honor. Still, it's fun when a few of us overlap. This year I've noticed more of that than normal, especially when you look at the top list and notice how many people had Top 50 albums on their lists.

After crunching the numbers, Dylan had 24 of the top 50 on his list.

See you next year! Interested in playing along next year? Say hello on twitter @ronbronson.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Joel's 2014 Faves

My listening preferences this year were strange. Maybe not strange in the context of my lifelong listening habits, but definitely more focused in a few genres when it came to music released this past year.

Never in my life did I expect the year of my 30th birthday to include an emo revival, 80s girl-pop influenced hooks, or my friends from college releasing their first critically acclaimed records of their own original songs. In adding my picks to our critical compendium, 18 of the 30 albums I chose were new to the group.

That isn't to say that the other albums on the list weren't good. Mostly I'm saying I have no idea how good they are because there's just too much music being released over the course of a year to stay on top of every new album. Eric makes really good points and gives really good tips in his post on how to find new music.

For me, having access to every song ever (sort of) is the worst thing that could've happened for my ability to complete my responsibilities to this blog. There's too much. And I like my old music too much. I'd have to spend all day every day listening to just the new stuff in order to keep up with my colleagues here.

But I love music. I always have. And I think part of being a responsible music appreciator is giving yourself enough space to enjoy new music alongside your old favorites. That is why my list is more focused. I'm positive that is also why I was able to pull this list out at all. I also believe that one big part of this year's list is the amount of live music I was able to see here in Austin and the energetic effect it had on my listening and playing.

You should listen to this while you read on...

My favorites this year sit pretty squarely in four camps:
  2. Indie/Emo
  3. Electro-Pop
  4. Singer-songwriter pop
One of my own big surprises this year was the quality of Ryan Adams' self-titled record. I've been a Ryan Adams fan for a long time but he's definitely had a few misses during his career. I wasn't a big fan of Ashes and Fire — I mean, it was fine, just not up to Adams' normal quality — or of Easy Tiger, the last record he did under his own name alone. I was blown away, however, by how on-point this record was. And it was only knocked out of first place by a grouping of songs so well-crafted it created ambience and interest the entire length: The War on Drugs' Lost in the Dream.

But I found other really great and Americana records this year. Jamestown Revival's Utah seems under appreciated, and though its stance is very much in the realm of the Avett Brothers, the best thing Jamestown Revival has going for it is that, unlike the Avetts, Jonathan Clay's vocals sound like they belong with the type of music they are carrying. Desert Noises was a band I had never heard but their road-trippy Americana tunes have the same pushing tones as Paul Simon's Graceland and that created instant love from me.

We also got treated to a good bit of Americana with sugary-sweet pop melodies with the two Oh Honey EPs. My favorite of the two is With Love. The vocals might be pure saccharine but they weren't annoying in the ways the Jenny Lewis record that came out this year was (yeah, I loathe that record).

The second big surprise I got this year was from discovering the depths of the emo revival. A few old school bands released new records. The two that ranked high on the list for me were Taking Back Sunday's Happiness Is offering and Braid's new record No Coast. Some newbies I discovered included Gates (oh my gosh is that record good), Prawn, My Heart to Joy, and Dads.

Stemming from there, the new Damien Jurado record is great. Really great. All The Luck In the World's self-title record was also very good, combining great emo-style guitar parts with more solid melodies and vocals.

Then there's the smattering of more current pop and electro-pop albums from this year including Blondfire's incredibly catchy Young Heart. I was surprised by the familiarity of the Haerts record and knew I would love The Colourist's debut full-length based on seeing them live and their EP released last year.

This year I had friends release albums as well. Speak's Pedals album is great and I still maintain that Troupe has some of the best male vocals in the industry. RAC released his first collection of original material helped by talent from the many bands and groups he has remixed over the years.

There there were the great offerings from Young the Giant and Tokyo Police Club. And while some found Beck's record boring, I thought Morning Phase was moody and engaging, perfect for working and general contemplation.

And that's what I've got to say about my favorites from this year. Oh, and if you like any of these, please consider buying the album... either at your local record store or from iTunes or Amazon. Streaming music is great for our convenience but doesn't do much to help the artists keep making their livings from entertaining us.

Andy's favorite albums of 2014

I began 2014 with High Hopes, the 18th studio album by Bruce Springsteen (with or without the E Street Band). That album dropped way back in January and was one of my first listens of the new year. As an album, High Hopes was a disappointment (as has much of Springsteen’s work since The Rising). But it was also a harbinger for what was to come in the music world of 2014.

I listened to a lot of music this year, as I do most years. I enjoyed much of what I heard. But 2014 was not a transformative year for music. There were no brilliant, breakthrough albums, and I’ll probably forget much of what I heard in a year or so. Before I do, here are my favorites for 2014:

Beck - Morning Phase

After spending the past five or six years on numerous side projects, including sheet music, Beck returned with an album that took many by surprise. Touted as a follow up to Sea Change, Morning Phase is melodic, laid back, acoustic and mellow. It was a perfect summer album for 2014.

The Orwells - Disgraceland

These guys are getting some recognition nowadays, thanks to the new Apple ad for the iPad Air 2, which features a track from Disgraceland. In contrast to my No. 1 pick of the year, which met my need for mellow, contemplative and stripped-down sound, Disgraceland fueled my need for amped up garageness.

St. Vincent - St. Vincent

I love the quirkiness and unexpected turns on every track of this album. St. Vincent the musician (Annie Clark) previously worked with former Talking Heads front man David Byrne, and that influence is apparent in St. Vincent the album. A fun jumble of unpredictable tunes.

Old 97s - Most Messed Up

“We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive,” drones Old 97s lead singer Rhett Miller on the opening track of this enjoyable record. Most Messed Up is a celebration of the Texas band’s 20-plus years in the business, and like most of their previous releases, it’s a raucous, southern-fried party of music about boozing, carousing and life on the road. By far the year’s best songs of the south.

The Black Keys - Turn Blue

With all the production work Dan Auerbach is doing with other musicians these days, its a wonder he and Patrick Carney have time to do anything as the Black Keys. While Turn Blue turned off some of the band’s diehard fans of their traditional blues-based garage-grunge, I like the pop-infused sound of this album. It was a refreshing sound from a band that should be constantly evolving.

The Both - The Both

The Both is my choice for Most Unlikely Duet of the Year Award. Who would have thought that Aimee Mann and Ted Leo would make such great music together? (Then again, last year’s folkie-grass collaboration by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell kind of set the stage for unusual pairings.) Hat tip to fellow higher ed music critic Mason Dyer for tipping me off to this album.

Conor Oberst - Upside Down Mountain

I’m not supposed to like Conor Oberst. But dammit, I can’t help myself. Quavering voice aside, this man can flat write cutting lyrics. On Upside Down Mountain, Oberst gets personal in a hurry and never lets up. The result is a thought-provoking, soul-searching work that is worth several listens.

The War On Drugs - Lost in the Dream

This album has been talked about on countless forums, and for good reason. With Lost in the Dream, the War On Drugs has hit their stride. A flowing album of dreamlike tunes.

The Pixies - Indie Cindy

Frank Black and company are now without former bassist and singer Kim Deal, who contributed much to that distinctive Pixies sound and provided a coolant counterbalance to Black’s white-hot shrieks and riffs. But even without Deal, Indie Cindy is a good album.

Sturgill Simpson - Metamodern Sounds of Country Music

Sturgill Simpson is a throwback to the “hard” country styles of Merle Haggard, but with a honky-tonk rock-and-roll twist. Hands down, this was the best country album I listened to in 2014.

The rest


Jack White - Lazaretto

La Sera - Hour of the Dawn
Robert Plant - Lullaby And … The Ceaseless Roar
Drive-By Truckers - English Oceans
Keb’ Mo’ - BluesAmericana
U2 - Songs of Innocence
Benjamin Booker - Benjamin Booker
Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams
Strand of Oaks - HEAL
The New Basement Tapes - Lost on the River


St. Paul & the Broken Bones - Half the City

Justin Townes Earle - Single Mothers
John Mellencamp - Plain Spoken
Spoon - They Want My Soul
Puss N Boots - No Fools, No Fun
Hurray for the Riff Raff - Small Town Heroes
The Fauntleroys - Below the Pink Pony (EP)
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye
Chrissie Hynde - Stockholm
Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes


Foster the People - Supermodel

Vance Joy - Dream Your Life Away
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings - Give the People What They Want
John Doe - Best of John Doe, This Far
Shovels & Rope - Swimmin’ Time
Real Estate - Atlas
Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else
Dum Dum Girls - Too True
Ingrid Michaelson - Lights Out
Tycho - Awake


Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence

Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal
Delta Spirit - Into the Wide
White Lung - Deep Fantasy
The Raveonettes - Pe`ahi
La Roux - Trouble In Paradise
Lucinda Williams - Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
Kongos - Lunatic
The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams
First Aid Kit - Stay Gold

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Laura's Top Music of 2014

I know I’m not the first, and nor will I be the last, to say that 2014 gave us a lot of really great music. This is the first time I’ve ever put together a Top Albums list in addition to my Top Songs, and I have to say, I’m surprised by how different the two lists are. There were some great songs that just didn’t have a complimentary album to back them up and some solid albums that flowed together just right without having that stand-out single. But that’s OK. In fact, that’s part of what makes music great.

Without further ado, here are my top albums of 2014, listed in order.

1.) Wild Cub - Youth
I love how much I love Wild Cub’s debut effort. I’ve been listening to this album almost exclusively for the past two months. There’s something about their at-times jaunty score juxtaposed with the more melancholy lyrics that really does it for me.

2.) First Aid Kit - Stay Gold
I’ve always been a fan of indie folk music and these Swedish sisters really do it for me. “Shattered and Hollow” is possibly my favorite song of the year, period, but the album’s entire tone is soothing like a favorite sweater. And best of all, this album led me to explore the duo’s earlier work, which has been fun in and of itself.

3.) Jenny Lewis - The Voyager
I’ve been a fan of Jenny Lewis since her Rilo Kiley days. Then again, I was a moody teenage girl during the early 2000s so that was pretty much a prerequisite. But what I most appreciate about “The Voyager” is that it echos what I loved about “The Ripchord” and “Portions for Foxes” as a teen: it’s relatable. Cliche or not, Lewis writes and sings songs that I and many of my fellow twentysomething, childless women can close our eyes and imagine is about us.

4.) Echo and The Bunnymen - Meteorites
This album just hits that perfect balance of rough-edge vocals and unexpected guitar that I’d actually hoped for from some other albums this year. Those (which shall remain nameless) disappointed but thankfully the Bunneymen filled the void.

5.) Tigers Jaw-Charmer
Another bit of late-90s/early-00s inspired indie emo, this album was nostalgic without being overdone. I’m a sucker for a lead singer with an unusual voice and Ben Walsh certainly fits the bill for me and Brianna Coles’ backup vocals only sweeten the deal.

6.) Tokyo Police Club - Forcefield
I appreciate a good saga and I really appreciate even more when a group goes big or goes home and opens an album with one. “Argentina (Parts I, II, III)” is quite possible the best long-form song I’ve heard since The Decemberists’ “Crane Wife.” This epic alone would be enough to put them on the best of the year list, but complemented by a host of songs unafraid to try something different with each track locks in their place.

7.) Bombay Bicycle Club - So Long, See You Tomorrow
Despite this being Bombay Bicycle Club’s fourth full album, this was my introduction to the band. And I’m so glad it was. Much of my music listening takes place on the daily commute and this album has just the right mix of energizing beats to keep me awake through the slog and mellow enough vocals to keep me from losing my temper when people annoy me.

8.) Alvvays - Alvvays
Another debut album, this one already has me eager to see what the band does next. Molly Rankin’s voice reminds me of CHVRCHES’ Lauren Mayberry in the best possible way.

9.) Quilt - Held in Splendor
This band makes me feel like I’m living inside a Wes Anderson movie every time I listen to them and I love them for it. If David Bowie and the Beatles were to have afternoon tea with Tilda Swinton, I imagine this album would be playing in the background. That’s not much of a description but that’s the best I can do for the awesomeness that is Quilt.

10.) Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal
Much like Echo and the Bunnymen above, Parquet Courts filled the post-grunge void in my life that I didn’t expect them to but I’m so glad they did. There’s also something about the languid, almost to the point of drawling vocals, that makes me think of the classic country of the 60s and 70s I grew up listening to with my dad.

And here's what rounds out my Top 20 Albums:
11.) The Colourist - The Colourist
12.) Young Rising Sons - Young Rising Sons
13.) Bleachers - Strange Desire
14.) Interpol - El Pintor
15.) Spoon - They Want My Soul
16.) PHOX - PHOX
17.) Cold War Kids - Hold My Home
18.) Jack White - Lazaretto
19.) alt-J - Hunger Of The Pine
20.) We Are the Willows - Picture (Portrait)

Top songs of 2014

I'm in another music exchange and we have a few different rules than this bunch of renegades, namely that our list of top songs has to fit onto a CD. It makes things a bit more challenging but I like it. And because I'm a nerd, I always put my list in the order I think the songs flow best, not necessarily by favorite. You can also find the list on Spotify.
I Won't Let You Down - OK Go
Eye of the Pearl - Quilt
Dear Ramona - Parquet Courts
Would You Fight For My Love - Jack White
Left Hand Free - alt-J
Head Underwater - Jenny Lewis
Feel the Effect - Tokyo Police Club
Thunder Clatter - Wild Cub
My Desire - Interpol
Holy Moses - Echo and the Bunnymen
Archie, Marry Me - Alvvays
Knock Knock Knock - Spoon
Red & Gold - Young Rising Sons
All This Could Be Yours - Cold War Kids
Gooey - Glass Animals
Shattered & Hollow - First Aid Kit
In Due Time - PHOX
Wild Heart - Bleachers
It's Alright Now - Bombay Bicycle Club
Distress Signal - Tigers Jaw
We Won't Go Home - The Colourist