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

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