I’m not quite sure how this happened, but amazingly enough, it’s December 1st already, and that means it’s time for the 23rd annual installment of my Albums of the Year report to fall out of my brain, and onto your screens.
For the record, I don’t wait until the very end of the year to do my list, since I think it takes at least a solid month of listening before I feel comfortable that something meets both the “strong first impression” and “stands up to repeated listening” tests that I apply in rating albums. Discs issued in December 2014 will be eligible for 2015’s Top 20 List, accordingly. I expect to see brand new discs from Max Eider and AC/DC ranking highly there, since they missed this year’s deadline.
If you’d like some preview perspective on what you might expect to see on the 2014 roster, here is the complete list of my “Albums of the Year” from 1992 to 2013, as reported in a variety of print and digital outlets along the way. I don’t know what I was thinking in some of those years, but I stand by my picks as historic facts, for better or for worse:
1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
1995: Björk, Post
1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
2001: Björk, Vespertine
2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
2003: Wire, Send
2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
2006: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
2011: Planningtorock, W
2012: Goat, World Music
2013: David Bowie, The Next Day
On a macro basis, 2014 felt like a very invigorating musical year for me, with old favorites and newcomers alike challenging me with bracing, exciting, interesting tunes and textures from places expected and places heretofore unexplored. I consider it a good sign when I have to work to cut my first list of contending albums back just to get 20 finalists, and when my Top 20 contains one or more (preferably the latter) artists who I had never even heard of 12 months ago. Both of those criteria are met in my 2014 Top 20 List, so I feel very good about that, indeed.
I’m going to repeat last year’s approach and do an inverted countdown from my 20th favorite album of 2014 to my Number One (With A Bullet), just to build suspense for you and me alike, since I’ve got a couple of possible contenders rattling around in my head for Album of the Year, and it’s helpful for me to sneak up on them from behind, rather than shooting them dead up front and then fleshing out the appetizer courses. I’m also going to provide a link to what I consider to be the best, signature and/or most representative song from each album, to help you consider them more completely. If you like what you hear, please support these artists by buying the albums reviewed, and not just chasing down free copies.
Though I shouldn’t have to note this, I know from prior experience that I do: the list below is obviously based on the things that I actually listened to in the prior year, and as musically omnivorous and curious as I am, there are some genres of music that I just don’t choose or get to experience much, and they’re generally not going to be represented in my year-end list. So please resist the urge to write me a scathing comment or e-mail telling me that I am a cultural imperialist bastard whose taste is all in my mouth because I do not recognize the overwhelming genius of your favorite Bolivian queercore free jazz ukulele and church bell skronk collective. I am glad to know that their latest album will top your own list when you write it. Thank you.
Those preambles completed, let’s get on with the list!
#20. Carla Bozulich, Boy: Bozulich earned “Album of the Year” honors from me in 1997 with the extraordinary Geraldine Fibbers, and since that time, she’s continued to make raw, literate, discomforting music with a plethora of collaborators in a variety of creative configurations. Bozulich refers to Boy as her “pop album,” though woe unto he or she who is misled by what that phrase might mean to someone as creative as Carla. I would simply cite Boy as the best thing she has done since the Fibbers’ masterful Butch, full props scored for highly effective and creative writing, playing, singing and arranging throughout this strong solo disc. Best Track: One Hard Man.
#19. Noura Mint Seymali, Tzenni: Noura Mint Seymali is a new artist to me in 2014, with her wonderful third album Tzenni offering a great blend of pan-continental North African melodies that highlight her Mauritanian griot-trained voice, her work on the ardine (a nine-string harp), and the awesome guitar of her husband, Jeiche Ould Chigaly, who adapts his axe to the tunings and phrasings of the traditional Mauritanian tidinit. Few blends of Western rhythms and African melodies work as well as this one does by embracing the best facets of multiple musical traditions. Best Track: Tzenni.
#18. Triptykon, Melana Chasmata: The erstwhile Tom G. Warrior (now generally using his real name: Thomas Gabriel Fischer) has moved on from Hellhammer to Celtic Frost to Triptykon over the past three decades, but his stock in trade remains fairly constant: smart, potent, theatrical death metal, leavened with enough experimentation and ornamentation to keep it consistently interesting, both in terms of any given albums’ arc, and across the full spectrum of his career. The second full-length release under the Triptykon moniker is one of Fischer’s best works ever, perfectly suited to the H.R. Giger biomechanoid adorning its cover, with equal blends of sheen and squalor restlessly set aside each other, squirming. Best Track: Tree of Suffocating Souls.
#17. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2: This is one of those rare albums that seems truly, madly, deeply larger than life, in all measurable (and some unimaginable) ways. Its narrative is epically lurid, for example, with its stories spat in language that could make Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, Andrew “Dice” Clay, and Millie Jackson blush. Its beats are huge, chewing up 808s and guitars and sirens and cement mixers and shotgun blasts and concussing them back out at General Noriega-torturing levels. Legacy and provenance are utterly impeccable, with Killer Mike and El-P bringing their genealogical connections to the best of both Atlanta and New York underground hip hop, and guest spots by the likes of Zack de la Rocha, James McNew, Ikey Owens and Matt Sweeney expanding the family tree to include most everything that mattered musically in American for most of the past two decades. Oh, and it’s also incredibly, unbelievably, over-the-top fun, it has a good beat that you can dance to. Sold! Best Track: Close Your Eyes (And Count to F*ck) NSFW.
#16. TEEN, The Way and Color: TEEN take their name from singer-guitarist-songwriter Christine “Teeny” Lieberson, who made her mark with indie hotshots Here We Go Magic before heading out to form this band with her two sisters to play her own songs. TEEN evoke a 2010-take on the sorts of loop-based funky femme-friendly pop that Luscious Jackson once offered, though the songs on The Way and Color tend to be a bit richer and more satisfying than their forebears’ work, grabbing your attention first on surface shine alone, then unexpectedly impressing you once you peel the price tags off and take ‘em for a serious spin. Best Track: Rose 4 U.
#15. Xiu Xiu, Angel Guts: Red Classroom: Following his surprising 2013 Nina Simone tribute album, Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart returns to his usual self-penned theatrical psychodramas on this disc, delivering the goods at something close to the top of his game in terms of material consistency, creepiness, creativity and claustrophobia. And as if the graphic narratives of his best songs aren’t already chilling and explicit enough, Stewart supplemented Angel Guts: Red Classroom with a series of expository videos, some of which could not be released through traditional musical outlets, rather finding their hosted homes on hardcore horror or pornographic websites. As odd as it is to follow those sentences with this sentiment, this record actually constitutes one of the most musically accessible and consistent collections in the Xiu Xiu canon, so if you’re new to the Stewart milieu, this is a very good place to start exploring this terrifically difficult, monstrously rewarding artist’s efforts. Best Track: Stupid in the Dark NSFW.
#14. Thurston Moore, The Best Day: Man, oh man, did I want to hate this album before I’d heard it! I had given up on Sonic Youth after Sister circa 1987, I can’t stand Thurston Moore being trendily trotted out to offer his often insipid insights in every rock documentary about every band who recorded anything, ever, in the ’80s and ’90s, and the tawdry other woman tale that ended Moore’s too-hip marriage to Kim Gordon read like a road map to everything I hate about many men my own age. So when the title track of this disc first floated out online, I hit “play” to give myself something to be happily unhappy about . . . except that I ended up being unhappily happy with what a great song I heard instead. Dammit!! Don’t do that, Thurston Moore!! That’s just not right!!! And then the rest of the album came out, and, oh man . . . it was great too, like Sonic Youth with all the annoying bits edited out!! God, I hate it when that happens! Grrrr! Best Track: The Best Day.
#13. Sleaford Mods, Divide and Exit: This very English duo sound like a cross between The Streets and Can, or Suicide with a sense of humor, or Mark E. Smith soloing with a Casiotone, with heavily accented (East Midlands, according to Wikipedia, though this subtlety was lost on me), often hysterical, highly observational lyrics being spouted atop minimalist metronomic grooves, creating a whole that’s far more entertaining than you’d expect from the sum of the admittedly limited parts. A little of this sort of thing normally goes a long, long way, but Sleaford Mods are so good at what they do (and so prolific!) that whole afternoons can disappear in a haze of grumpy grooves, hey presto, before you know what hit you. Best Track: Tied Up in Nottz NSFW.
#12. Ought, More Than Any Other Day: This is a surprisingly weird, unique, and effective album that belies its perpetrators’ relative youth and musical inexperience. The Montreal-based band’s debut album offers a fascinating blend of seemingly unmixable elements, ranging from Television-style guitar noodling through to atonal rhythmic lurches of a This Heat variety, from itchy funk fugues that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Talking Heads’ early albums through to Velvety violin drones, and from speak-sing sermons cut from Violent Femme fabric through to straight-up gorgeous Big Star-style songs with catchy choruses and oddly anthemic overtones. And they do all of that in the space of but eight songs. Impressive! Best Track: Around Again.
#11. Aloe Blacc, Lift Your Spirit: I had picked Aloe Blacc’s Good Things as one of my best albums of 2010, and I kept listening to that engaging disc for the ensuing couple of years, having no idea that Blacc went on to achieve a significant level of creative and commercial success as a singer, songwriter and producer in pop circles, where I rarely dabble. Imagine my (very pleasant) surprise when I was watching the Super Bowl in early 2014, where two of the biggest commercial roll-outs of the broadcast featured his songs. Huh! Go figure! Someone I like got popular! Hooray! Lift Your Spirit builds on the many strengths evident on Good Things, with strong, often-inspirational songs framed in gorgeous arrangements all but guaranteed to render them ear worms in single listens, and favorites upon repeated spins. It’s nice to like something this nice sometimes, you know what I mean? Best Track: Wake Me Up (Acoustic).
#10. Goat, Commune: Two years after they earned my Album of the Year honors in 2012 for World Music, anonymous Swedish septet Goat return with their one-of-a-kind blend of voodoo magic, psychedelic grooves, shrieked female vocals, and absurd Arctic Circle back story intact, creating another wonderfully loopy record in the process. There’s a bit more percolating programming on Commune than on World Music, as well as some jolly fun Jim Morrison-style male vocals adding variety to the deliciously delirious mix. While the element of surprise in their music could never be as strong on their sophomore disc as it was on their debut, Goat certainly demonstrate that they’ve got the chops and the chutzpah to stick to their musical guns, and are happy to aim them at new targets in 2014. I’ll take that, happily. Best Track: Gathering of Ancient Tribes.
#9. Pere Ubu, Carnival of Souls: I’ve been writing rave reviews of Pere Ubu albums for as long as I’ve been writing about music, period, so I was particularly amused by Ubu guitarist Keith Moline’s “Review of Pere Ubu Reviewers,” which was published shortly before Carnival of Souls was released. As a very experienced Ubu critic, I’m pretty much guilty again and again of everything that Moline observes, so with no small amount of shame (or is this pride I feel?), I will duly note that this new Pere Ubu album is the best album they’ve done since the last best album they did, and also make reference to their first best album, The Modern Dance, and their best best album, Dub Housing, and then conclude by noting that I mean all of this more now than I have ever meant it before, when I had yet to experience this last best Ubu album, because that is what we very experienced Ubu critics do. My work here is done. Excelsior! Best Track: Golden Surf II.
#8. Melvins, Hold It In: I noted in last year’s Best Albums report that Melvins regularly win perversity awards for doing things like, oh, say, bringing back their original drummer and pushing their brilliant current drummer over the bass for a collection of reinterpretations of early materials (which they did last year) or, say again, bringing in the guitarist and bassist from Butthole Surfers (Paul Leary and Jeff Pinkus, respectively) and letting them write and sing a majority of the songs on a new album — which is what they’ve done with their latest, Hold It In. This fluid approach to band membership works weirdly well, once again, though in shockingly unexpected ways, many of them surprisingly poppy and accessible, when casual expectations would have indicated this one was gonna be a massive sludge fest. Paul Leary is among my Holy High Trinity of Lead Guitarists (along with Robert Fripp and David Gilmour), and Jeff Pinkus is one of the most under-appreciated bassists currently slinging an axe, so getting to hear their exquisite talents alongside the always-appealing Buzz Osborn and Dale Crover’s fare was one of the most exciting musical developments of 2014 for me. I literally got goosebumps the first time I heard Leary’s distinctive shriek atop the quartet’s rumbles on teaser single “Brass Cupcake,” and was also happy to hear how much Pinkus added to the mix as both vocalist and riff-meister, leading a lot of this album to sound like his own wondrous band, Honky. Pinkus is touring with Melvins this year, while Leary is staying home, hopefully to pen another set of songs for the next Melvins/Surfers album, though I doubt their perverse natures will allow it to come to pass anytime soon, until long after I’ve forgotten that I wanted to hear it, leading to more squeals of unexpected surprise and delight when it finally sees the light of day. Best Track: Brass Cupcake.
#7. FREEMAN, FREEMAN: I have an embarrassing confession to make: when Gene Ween (Aaron Freeman to his wife and mother) left the mighty Ween a few years back, then issued press statements citing his search for sobriety and dedication to detox as deciding factors in said decision, then released a wan cover album of Rod McKuen songs, I found myself thinking he was really just being a wuss, and rooting mightily for his former partner in crime, Dean Ween (a.k.a. Mickey Melchiondo) and the other live members of Ween to carry on their band’s awesome legacy of substance-fueled, hilariously observational, brilliantly played rock and roll, despite that damnable defection. Then this album by Aaron Freeman and his new band came out, and I sort of consciously realized that (a) Freeman was the primary songwriter for Ween, and (b) most of their awesome vocals were his, and (c) it’s actually not very wussy at all to walk away from something huge to get healthy, if that’s what has to happen to get the job done. So now I kind of find myself feeling bad for Deaner, since based on the brilliance of FREEMAN, I think he’s probably lost his meal ticket, and he seems like such a fun, good dude and righteous guitar player. Hopefully his own Dean Ween Group can make an album as good as this one, and then I’ll have two great bands to root for . . . but I’m regretfully not optimistic about that happening, alas and I’m sorry. Oh well. If FREEMAN is all we get, post-Ween, then it’ll be enough, since it’s a wonderfully accessible disc of great songs, played and sung well, and Aaron Freeman gets a Gold Star for Huge Clanking Man Stones for explicitly tackling his final days in Ween with the harrowing “Covert Discretion,” one of the best getting-clean songs ever written, period. Well played, Gener . . . errrr, Aaron. Well played, indeed. Best Track: Covert Discretion NSFW.
#6. Protomartyr, Under Color of Official Right: Protomartyr are a Detroit-bred and based quartet who manage to make a standard rock vocal-guitar-bass-drum lineup sound like something much bigger, far scarier, more complicated, and wildly colorful than 98% of their similarly-configured peers. They achieve the leap from stock post-rock fare into transcendent music making on the strength of their songs, the creativity of their lyrics, and the forcefulness with which they ply their knotty musical waters, with baritone belter Joe Casey shouting into the darkness around them, while his bandmates triangulate complex navigational passages from the strength of his echoes. Protomartyr’s music is dark, yes, and reflective of the dying urban environment in which they live and work, filled as it with damaged characters who become fascinating via the myriad ways in which they’re broken. Under Color of Official Right ultimately feels like an album of anthems to anomie and atomization, and the clarity and consistency of its creators collective visions makes it one of the finest American rock albums released this year. Best Track: Ain’t So Simple.
#5. Krankschaft, Three: I wrote a long review of this album a few weeks ago, so rather than regurgitating (much), I’ll just point you to it, here. At bottom line: this is rock and roll music the way it used to be (and is probably meant to be), with great riffs, stellar arrangements and production, catchy singalong songs, superb packaging that’s integral to the musical experience, and slamming four-on-the-floor grooves from a three-piece band that knows how to steer well clear of power trio tropes and their related pitfalls. I love the BLANGA style, and this album delivers it by the bucketful. Aces, all around. What else can you ask for? Best Track: Silent Witness.
#4. Vulkano, Live Wild Die Free: It was apparently a very good year in Sweden for the types of music I like, as this is the second group hailing from that nation to make an appearance on my Top 20 Albums of 2014 list, with one more yet to come. Vulkano are an eccentrically weird, yet oddly earnest, pair of young women named Lisa Pyk-Wirström and Cissi Efraimsson, who make drum and keyboard intensive music that evokes the not-quite-right whimsy of early Sugarcubes, complete with quirky vocals, cheesy synth pads, and delightfully garbled English lyrics. They’re apparently charming and magnetic enough to have already inspired a feature-length biographical film treatment called All We Have is Now, and their online presence makes it clear that they have the drive — and the talent — to make it in the big world beyond Scandinavia. I’m a believer, for sure, as I’ve been rocking this record hard since its release — and watching pretty much everyone who hears it stop, pause, and ask me to tell them more about it. That effective blend of the appealing and the eccentric can be magic, and I look forward to hearing their next steps, while wholly appreciating the one they took this year. Best Track: Choir of Wolves.
#3. Ian Anderson, Homo Erraticus: With his latest solo album, Ian Anderson officially put Jethro Tull to bed as a band, while continuing to make music with the quarter of musicians who have accompanied him on most of his tours and studio outings for the past decade. He seems to have found that freedom creatively liberating, as Homo Erraticus is easily the best album he’s produced under any name since at least 1982’s The Broadsword and the Beast. The new disc builds on the Gerald Bostock mythology he mined on 1971’s masterpiece Thick as a Brick and its 2012 sequel, with a former child poetry prodigy allegedly writing the lyrics of an exposition on Britain’s past, present and possible future histories, all culled from the loony manuscript of a perpetually reincarnated English country gentleman. (If you’re keeping score, this is the second concept album on this year’s list, joining Krankscaft’s Three, which also rocks a time travel angle). The sound is exquisite throughout, and the album features all of the acoustic and electric flourishes and filigree that we expect from our old one-legged flautist, with knotty passages and dense wordplay dancing in a surprisingly spry fashion atop crunchy rock underpinnings. Recognizing that his voice isn’t what it once was (what is, though, really?), Anderson protege Ryan O’Donnell provides sympathetic and empathetic support to the proceedings, both live and in the studio, and the blend of their voices is quite charming, evoking that magical era in Tull history when Anderson and the late, great John Glascock once sang together. A wonderful, late career highlight — and hopefully a sign of still more possible musical futures, yet to come. Best Track: Meliora Sequamur.
#2. Godflesh, A World Lit Only By Fire: Justin K. Broadrick was an early, influential member of Napalm Death, who I will generally cite (along with Jethro Tull) as one of my all-time favorite bands, if queried. After leaving Napalm, he worked with Head of David (as a drummer) for a spell, then founded Godflesh, which took Napalm’s grindiest moments and merged them with Swans-like dirge-metal, all mounted atop drum synths that would have given Big Black’s Roland a headache. While ancillary members came and went (including former Swan Ted Parsons), Godflesh was primarily built around the pummeling patterns crafted by Broadrick and bassist G.C. Green, and they forged a formidable catalog before imploding under the weight of their own heaviness circa 2002. Broadrick remained active, generally issuing his best late career work under the Jesu banner — until this year, when he re-teamed with Green and issued a monster of a comeback Godflesh album with A World Lit Only By Fire. It’s amazing how much the evolution of musical technology in the past decade has benefited the Godflesh sound, as it seems studios are finally able to capture the full onslaught of their attack, made all the more forceful by Broadrick’s ministrations on his new custom-made eight-string guitars. This is easily the best, most riveting extreme music album of the year, and it is kind of amazing to me how much I find I have missed Godflesh, although it took a long sabbatical and a stellar, unexpected return to make me fully appreciate that fact. Best Track: Shut Me Down.
And with those 19 as preamble, it’s now time to name my 2014 Album of the Year. Drum roll please (with brushes, not sticks) . . .
#1, 2014’s Album of the Year: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold:
As noted earlier, I found myself listening to a lot of music from Sweden in 2014, and the best of the year’s crop was this wonderful album from sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, recording as First Aid Kit. The pair make gorgeous, country-flavored music with soaring sibling harmonies, sweet melodies, unexpected song twists, and surprisingly poignant and evocative English-language lyrics. This was an album that grabbed me before I knew anything about the artists who created it — and that’s probably a good thing, as their back story (e.g. their dad was in Lolita Pop, they got their “big break” on MySpace, Conor Oberst played a role in bringing their music to America, and one of their first semi-hits was a paean/tribute to Emmylou Harris) likely would have been so off-putting to me that I wouldn’t have bothered listening to them. So it’s a testament to the glorious strength and vigor of this album that it overcomes a lot of deep seated preconceived notions on my part about what I like and what I don’t like (see also Thurston Moore above . . . dammit!), and this is also another record that inevitably caused people trapped in my car or house to inquire as to its provenance whenever any of its delightful songs aired on the stereo. With a little luck, I could see these incredibly talented sisters crafting the sort of career that Kate and Anna McGarrigle mastered, earning respect and adulation for both their songwriting and for their singing, creating a body of work that will grow in time to become simply accepted as part of the canon of great songs, capable of being eagerly covered by artists from a wide range of disciplines and sounds. I’m glad I discovered them when I did, and I look forward to hearing and seeing what the future holds for them. Best Track: Cedar Lane.
And that’s it for this year, huttah! As always, I welcome your thoughts and observations on these or any other of the year’s great releases. I’m always happy to learn about things I’ve missed, even after I complete my list! Happy listening!