By Chris Gerard on December 22, 2014
Once again, as the days tick away and 2014 draws to a close, it’s time to look back at some of the best music 2014 had to offer. As with last year’s list, it was very difficult to narrow the list down to a mere 30 albums — the initial short list of possibilities numbered over 100. Of course, once you’ve finished this list, feel free to post some of your own favorites of 2014 in the comments below.
All that said, here are the 30 Best Albums of 2014:
At this stage in her legendary career, Eurythmics vocalist Annie Lennox has nothing to prove to anyone. She’s sold countless millions of albums, has created a vital catalog of classic recordings both as a solo artist and with her partner Dave Stewart, she’s won just about every award imaginable, and she’s become a passionate and tireless crusader for the eradication of HIV/AIDS. For her new album, her first non-holiday collection since 2007’s excellent Songs of Mass Destruction, Lennox decided to experiment with a style she’d never tackled before, and she pulls it off with her usual grace and elegance. Nostalgia is true to its name – the album is a collection of Lennox’s interpretations of American jazz standards from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Her voice is in fine form as she delivers moving renditions of essential classics such as “God Bless The Child,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and the chilling “Strange Fruit.” One may wonder why some of these songs need yet another interpretation – after all, most of them have been covered countless times – but one listen to her jaw-dropping rendition of “Summertime” and you’ll understand. These songs are essential pieces of music history that were originally recorded some eighty years in the distant past, yet Lennox manages to coax fresh life into even the most well-worn old chestnuts with resplendent vocal performances and exquisite musical accompaniments. This isn’t some cheap, hastily thrown-together oldies collection, or a slow descent into maudlin easy-listening. Lennox approaches these songs with real warmth and reverence, and the result is a magnificent listening experience.
Sun Structures, the debut album by the British quartet Temples, is a smart collection of psychedelic pop that sounds like a compilation of obscure singles circa 1967/68. If one didn’t know better, it would be easy to assume that Temples belong to another generation entirely. Sun Structures is replete with jangly guitar, big echoey drums and melodies that would be radio-friendly if we lived in an alternate Top 40 universe. Standout cuts include the engaging opener “Shelter Song,” “The Golden Throne,” the orchestral majesty of “Move With the Season,” and the alluring mid-tempo shuffle “Keep in the Dark.” The album’s climax is “Sand Dance,” six and a half minutes of dreamy psychedelic rock with exotic embellishments. Temples have managed to inject their retro sound with plenty of original ideas and intelligent songwriting. It will be interesting to see where they go from here. The psychedelic rock era of the mid-to-late ‘60s is fertile territory to mine.
For their eighth album, The Black Keys once again join forces with Danger Mouse as a collaborator. The resulting album, Turn Blue, eschews the melodic garage rock for which The Black Keys are best known and instead strays more toward experimental, hazy retro-rock, with exotic melodies married to searing guitar-work. They open with the long, meandering “Weight of Love,” with whirring organ and a bleary stoner-rock vibe. The title song is built around a rumbling bass-line and a snaky vocal melody sung by Dan Auerbach largely in his falsetto register. Lead single “Fever” is more direct and focused, with a sharp new-wave keyboard riff, an insistent bass and a strong melodic hook. “It’s Up to You” features a massive wall of bass over a frenetic drum pattern that’s beamed directly from the ’60s. “Gotta Get Away” is an amped-up rocker that closes the album with a final burst of power. The Black Keys take a left turn with Turn Blue; it’s unpredictable, as the songs frequently change direction in unexpected ways, and it’s sonically adventurous. It’s an ambitious and entertaining work by one of the most consistently satisfying rock bands around.
Dave Grohl and his merry band of Foos take a novel approach on their eighth album, Sonic Highways, the follow-up to their superb 2011 release Wasting Light. Each of the 8 tracks was recorded in a different U.S. city (and there are eight different covers corresponding to each location), and documentary footage shows the recording process for each. The end result is an album that is surprisingly cohesive given the disparate locations in which it was recorded, and it features some of the strongest songwriting of Grohl’s career. Like one would expect from the Foos, it’s mostly a collection of molten blasts of hard rock with layers of guitar over an air-tight rhythm section. “Something from Nothing” and “Congregation” are highlights, but the most powerful track is the album’s moving finale, “I Am A River,” with a string arrangement directed by the legendary Tony Visconti and performed by the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. Produced by Butch Vig, who of course worked with Grohl in the past on a little something called Nevermind, Sonic Highways is a strong return for the band and it ranks among the Foo Fighters’ best work.
New wave icon and former Bauhaus vocalist Peter Murphy has been releasing some of the finest work of his career over the last decade. His prior two solo albums, 2004’s Unshattered and, especially, 2011’s Ninth are both outstanding. In 2012 he returned to his side project Dalis Car with former Japan bassist, the late Mick Carn, for the five-song EP InGladAloneness. This year Murphy unleashed his tenth solo album, Lion, a collection of ultra-heavy electronic-rock that rivals his 1989 album Deep (which includes the seminal “Cuts You Up”) as the finest of his career. The power and intensity of Murphy’s voice is truly extraordinary – he’s as imposing and expressive as ever. Murphy and his collaborators (including Youth, former bassist for Killing Joke) have created a colossal wall of sound for the album, a sonic assault that would overwhelm a lesser vocalist. Needless to say, Peter Murphy is up to the challenge. “Hang Up” opens the album with waves of synthesizers, heavy percussion and a gripping vocal that ratchets up the tension and drama that never subsides. “Compression” opens with swirling electronic effects over an ominously plodding rhythm, before exploding into an electrifying chorus with a breathtakingly powerful vocal by Murphy. As one would expect, high drama abounds, and the intensity never wavers for a second. The ghoulish “Holy Clown” sounds like Bauhaus wrenched full-throttle into the modern age. Lion is a bold statement, a dynamic sonic achievement with astonishing vocals by Murphy. At 57, Peter Murphy is delivering music every bit as vital as the pivotal gothic epics he released with Bauhaus over three decades ago. Bela Lugosi may still be dead, but Peter Murphy is very much alive.
Seattle-based duo Orcas’ second album Yearling is a wonderfully atmospheric nightscape of keyboards, gentle piano and guitar, skeletal rhythms, and forlorn, whispery vocal melodies that weave unobtrusively through the solemn waves of sound. It’s a work of epic grandeur. Yearling is an album for late nights, chilling out in dark rooms, and allowing your mind to float on the pulsing swells of sonic beauty that surround you. The album consists of eight tracks with subtle melodies that unfold gently with repeated listening. Opening track “Petrichor” fades in to the sound of what might be a jet soaring through the sky, out of which emerges a gentle keyboard pattern that grows more powerful with each passing second. “Infinite Stillness,” which features an ethereal and lovely vocal arrangement, is highly reminiscent of something you might hear on The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds album. “Capillaries” is a hypnotic piece built around a gentle acoustic guitar pattern, simple percussion, and densely layered vocals of majestic loveliness. “Filament” features an almost martial drum pattern around which keyboards and wistful vocals roil like unsettled spirits. The album closes with “Tell,” nearly nine minutes of surreal and otherworldly ambience. Yearling is an impressive work of stunning beauty; Orcas manage to create distinct moods with each piece and yet it flows together perfectly as a cohesive whole. An album well worth discovering and spending time swimming into its depths.
Sixteen albums and nearly 40 years into his recording career, Tom Petty can still rock out with the best of ‘em. Backed by his long-time collaborators The Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye isn’t the work of some elder rock statesman playing out the string with a new album by rote every couple of years to beef up the retirement fund. Hypnotic Eye is vital, raw, in your face rock and roll, energetic and passionate. It shockingly became the first ever #1 album for Petty on the Billboard Top 200 Album Charts, something that seminal albums like Damn The Torpedoes, Hard Promises, Southern Accents, Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers never managed to accomplish; not bad to finally reach the summit over four decades into your career. Hypnotic Eye is the third in a string of outstanding recordings by Petty in recent years, following Mojo (2010) and Highway Companion (2006). Tracks like “American Dream Plan B,” “Red River,” “Fault Lines” and “Forgotten Man,” among others, will take their place among the impressive pantheon of Tom Petty classics. Hypnotic Eye is what you’d expect from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – straightforward rock and roll, well-played, well-written, and sung in that instantly recognizable voice that can only belong to Tom Petty, musical legend.
The surprise winners of the prestigious Mercury Music Prize handed out to the best album by an artist from the UK or Ireland, Young Fathers’ full-length debut album Dead is hip-hop that is raw, intense and exhilarating. The Scottish trio draws from a variety of influences to create a sonically brash mix of rap with snippets of vocal melody that is engaging and roiled with tension. “Low,” with its bombastic, massive percussion, is a kinetic powerhouse. Musically they often tend more towards indie-electronica than typical hip-hop, and that is apparent on tracks like “Just Another Bullet” and “War,” which features a beautifully haunting vocal arrangement. “Get Up” is a sharply rhythmic party tune that pops aggressively from the speakers. The starkly emotional “Am I Not Your Boy” features multi-layered vocals that swirl and build with escalating intensity to stunning effect. There are many such moments of power throughout Dead, an alternative-hip hop album of unflinching honesty and impressive creative chops. Like much of the best hip-hop, Dead is accessible and musical while still retaining a razor-sharp intensity. Young Fathers have staked their claim as one of the most exciting new bands to emerge in ages, and it will be fascinating to see where they go from here.
Caribou is the working name for Canadian multi-instrumentalist and studio wizard extraordinaire, Dan Snaith (who’s also recorded under the monikers Manitoba and Daphni). This year he issued his seventh full-length album, Our Love, a glorious, hallucinatory mess that sounds as bright and kaleidoscopic as its colorful cover. Snaith revels in exploring electronic textures and sounds while instilling his songs with genuine emotion. Lead single and opening track “Can’t Do Without You” is a repetitive mantra of the title with an electrifying electronic backing track that surges and pulses in frenetic fashion, building from a simple opening to a dazzling climax. The hypnotic, slow-grooving “Silver” is a thing of beauty; a soft, gentle vocal melody hovers over a circular rhythm heavy on the bass, with incandescent waves of keyboard dancing merrily above. Snaith’s work is obviously painstaking, and the attention to detail and careful nuance is evident in every track. The vocals are always well down in the mix, like he’s singing from behind a glass, swallowed by the carefully constructed swirls of electronics that twist and spin around him. It can be tricky to record electronic music that doesn’t sound cold and devoid of human emotion; Caribou has managed to record an endlessly fascinating album of creative electronic textures that are warm and are wrapped around a fragile heart that peeks through in his delicate vocals and melodies.
One of Eric Church’s big breakthrough moments was an ode to getting high, “Smoke a Little Smoke,” a single that sold enough copies to go platinum despite only garnering enough radio airplay by skittish programmers to reach #16 on the country singles charts. Church was an “outsider” from the beginning; he’s been a splash of cold water to the face of mainstream country music, much of which is as slickly polished, soulless and formulaic as the vast majority of the inane dreck that pollutes the Top 40 on the pop chart. Church is generally considered a country artist, but listen to the monster guitars on the opening song and title track to The Outsiders and you’d think you were listening to a hard-rocking bar band. Church is a first-rate songwriter, a mix of Merle Haggard and Bad Company. “Cold One” is a particularly brilliant construction, a party tune with elements of country, rock, and even some pop and bluegrass – an odd concoction, yet it works beautifully. Church’s rich baritone is powerful and downright badass when it needs to be, and expressive and tender on the ballads. Just like the American South is far more than the stereotypes portray, so can be an artist defined as country that really crosses and eliminates boundaries. Good music is good music, and The Outsiders is a genre-defying album that is engaging and entertaining throughout. It also happens to be a gigantic success, one of the few truly big sellers in 2014 as the music industry’s sales figures continues their nosedive into the dumpster.