Top 10 Albums of 2014

Posted: December 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

Happy holidays. Here are my favorite albums of 2014. As always, I’ve linked to my favorite song from each album to help you get a taste of anything you haven’t heard.

Honorable Mentions
Jack White – Lazaretto
Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
Steve Gunn – Way Out Weather

10. The Men – Tomorrow’s Hits
Three years ago, The Men were a noise rock band. Two years ago, they were a great hard rock band. Last year, they were a hard rock/classic rock cross. On Tomorrow’s Hits, their fifth album in as many years, The Men continue what they started on 2013’s New Moon and embrace classic rock influences even more. “Dark Waltz” and “Get What You Give” are songs the next guy on this list would be proud of, “Another Night” brings horns into the mix, and the piano-centric “Sleepless” is one of their most laid-back tunes to date. And if you still want the energetic hard rock, there’s plenty of that on “Different Days,” “Pearly Gates” and “Going Down.”

Favorite song: “Dark Waltz”

9. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye
It’s probably not very cool to like new Tom Petty music in 2014, but man I really like this album. It’s Petty’s best album since 1994’s Wildflowers, and it’s one of the four best albums he’s ever made as far as I’m concerned (1979’s Damn the Torpedoes and 1989’s Full Moon Fever would be the other two in that group). This isn’t just a comfortable old rocker sticking to a familiar blueprint and making a quick buck. No, Petty sounds desperate and bitter here, and the Heartbreakers bring a dirty, aggressive garage rock sound that hasn’t really been heard this consistently on a Petty album since his very first albums. “American Dream Plan B,” “Fault Lines” and “Red River” are a stellar 1-2-3 start, and “All You Can Carry,” “Forgotten Man” and the slower “Sins of My Youth” stand out as well.

Favorite song: “American Dream Plan B”

8. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Benji isn’t the easiest listen because it’s pretty dark and depressing, but it has some of the best lyrics I’ve heard in a while. There’s a lot of death and a lot of personal stories from bandleader Mark Kozelek, and if you’re in the right mood and willing to give him your full attention, the stories become stunningly real, thanks to the fact that, 1) they are real, and 2) Kozelek is an excellent writer who uses great detail. On opener “Carissa,” he tells us that not one, but two of his relatives have died from freak accidents involving exploding aerosol cans. He sings about his love for his parents on “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and “I Love My Dad.” And he shares his personal reactions to major events like mass shootings (“Pray for Newtown”) as well as seemingly unimportant events like watching Led Zeppelin (“I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same”).

Favorite song: “Pray for Newtown”

7. Ex Hex – Rips
Mary Timony’s career was revived by the Carrie Brownstein-led Wild Flag and their excellent 2011 self-titled album, and now she’s fronting her own great band in Wild Flag’s mold. It’s the same kind of punk-inspired power pop, with catchy riffs, playful lyrics, some fun solos and a strong backing band. If that doesn’t sound all that original, it’s because it’s really not. But I’m a firm believer that there will always be a place for great rock, and that’s exactly what this is. “Don’t Wanna Lose” gets things started right, and “You Fell Apart,” “Waterfall” and “New Kid” are other personal favorites.

Favorite song: “You Fell Apart”

6. Beck – Morning Phase
For his first album in six years, Beck revisited the more straightforward folk of 2002’s Sea Change; a press release for Morning Phase even called it “a companion piece” to Sea Change. Most critics seem to agree that Morning Phase is either just as good as Sea Change, almost as good as it, or a little better than it. Personally, I like Morning Phase more. The songs offer a little more hope, and I think it’s a stronger collection start to finish. “Morning,” “Heart Is a Drum” and “Say Goodbye” is a great open, “Country Down” and “Waking Light” is a strong finish, and there’s plenty of beautiful music in between.

Favorite song: “Country Down”

5. The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams
Teeth Dreams isn’t on par with 2005’s Separation Sunday or 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, but those are two of the best albums of the last 15 years. Teeth Dreams is still very good, and I think an improvement over 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever. The Hold Steady are still one of the best rock bands going, and Teeth Dreams is just a collection of 10 good rock songs — something easier said than done. “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” and “Spinners” make for a strong start, and “On with the Business,” “Big Cig” and “Wait a While” comprise a great middle-of-the-album run. “The Ambassador” and “Almost Everything” are two slower songs that work nicely.

Favorite song: “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”

4. Hiss Golden Messenger – Lateness of Dancers
This is the third year in a row Hiss Golden Messenger has made my list, so I’ll tell you the same thing I’ve been telling you — if you like Americana music, you should really check them out because they’re the best Americana band around right now as far as I’m concerned. Some reviews have called this the “lightest” or “breeziest” Hiss Golden Messenger album, but I don’t really agree with that. It’s lighter and breezier than last year’s Haw, but I think it’s kind of a return to the balance between lighter songs and more serious numbers that they found on 2012’s Poor Moon. Upbeat tracks like “Saturday’s Song” and “Southern Grammar” are great, but so are slower songs like “Day O Day (A Love So Free)” and “Black Dog Wind (Rose of Roses).”

Favorite song: “Drum”

3. Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits
Drummer Mike Calabrese once said Lake Street Dive wanted “to sound like The Beatles and Motown had a party together.” Those influences are definitely evident in their music, as is their jazz background that dates back to their days as students at the New England Conservatory of Music. Upright bass, trumpet and piano help make their sound unique, but it’s Rachael Price’s voice that is the driving force throughout Bad Self Portraits. Upbeat tracks like “You Go Down Smooth,” “Bobby Tanqueray,” “Seventeen” and “What About Me” are the standouts for me, but slower tracks like “Better Than,” “Just Ask” and “Rental Love” are strong as well.

Favorite song: “What About Me”

2. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
Call Cloud Nothings hard rock or punk or pop-punk or whatever; they’re doing it as well as anyone right now. I was excited to see how they followed up 2012’s excellent Attack on Memory, and I was not disappointed. The songs on Here and Nowhere Else are more concise, with fewer detours into frenzied jams, but they don’t rock any less. If anything, the little bit of cleaning up results in an even more frantic pace. “Now Hear In” and “Quieter Today” make for an excellent 1-2 punch to open the album, and “Just See Fear,” “No Thoughts” and “I’m Not Part of Me” are other personal favorites. Oh, and Jayson Gerycz is one of the best drummers around right now.

Favorite song: “Now Hear In”

1. Spoon – They Want My Soul
Spoon had one of the most impressive runs of any band in the 2000s when they released four straight very good albums from 2001’s Girls Can Tell through 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. When I first listened to They Want My Soul, I thought it was on par with anything from that run. But the more I listened to it, the more I began to think it’s actually better than any of those four albums. It’s pretty rare for a band to put out their best album this late in the game (leader Britt Daniel is 43 now), especially when they’ve already had a career-defining stretch, but I think that’s exactly what Spoon did here.

It’s their most diverse and most ambitious album, and they succeed in every direction they go. Opener “Rent I Pay,” “Rainy Taxi” and “Do You” are the kind of catchy rock we’ve come to expect from Spoon. “They Want My Soul” and “Let Me Be Mine” have an early 70s Bowie/T. Rex glam rock feel. “Inside Out” and closer “New York Kiss” make great use of synths and are two of the prettiest songs Spoon has ever made. “Outlier” sounds like a dance song and their cover of “I Just Don’t Understand,” with its emphasis on piano, tops both Ann-Margret’s original and The Beatles’ cover.

Favorite song: “Rainy Taxi”

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