Monday, December 1, 2014

Top 10 Albums of 2014

After the usual re-arranging, edits, and sitting on it to give it a second opinion, here they are, my top 10 for 2014.

10.Maroon 5 - “V”

Maroon 5 squeak onto the tail end of the list this year with a follow up to their pop coming out record “Overexposed.”  It boasts tight, shined to a blinding glare perfect pop songs...but fails to really stand out and is a sad excuse for an album coming from a band who has shown they are capable of so much more interesting work than what is found here.

9.U2 - “Songs of Innocence”

Casting aside for a second any slams against how this album was surprise-bombed to every Itunes user the world over in September 2014, let’s look at the music.  It’s U2 realizing that they tried to get weird a la POP with “No line on the horizon.”  Unlike POP, No Line On The Horizon is completely undeserving of cult appreciation or slow-burning recognition, having been a flat out disaster.  Here U2 remembers what made them fun to listen to.  If they hadn’t leaned nearly as heavily on the production flourishes injected into the mix by Ryan Tedder, Danger Mouse, etc. - it could have been the “All that you can’t leave behind” of the 2010’s.  Still waiting for that one.

8.Tim McGraw - “Sundown Heaven Town”

Tim McGraw continues to show off his kaleidoscope of country-rock colors, especially now on his second album for Big Machine since extricating himself from his Curb contract.  What keeps this album from being higher on the list is the inconsistency - while this disc has some gems, it has quite a few questionable choices, and the quality is all over the place.  An uneven record, but worthy of inclusion on the list just the same.

7.Broods - “Evergreen

A surprise-hit-having duo from New Zealand who manage to show more promise than their most obvious contemporary.  The twosome worked with Joel Little, who produced “Royals” for Lorde.  They even thank her in the liner notes.  That’s where the similarities end, though.  Sure, there are musical similarities that one could point to the producer, but here the warmth is what matters.  While Lorde’s music is certainly well played, it can be ice-cold and seemingly devoid of heart in places, even considering that it is still intelligent music.  Broods manage to spin a disc full of (true to their band name) brooding electro pop, but brooding electro pop with much more of a beating heart beneath the surface - a quality that makes them stand out and makes this an album worth praising.

6.The Nick Hexum Quintet - “My Shadow Pages

Here the lead singer of 311 detours off into the land of pop-jazz.  It’s tempting to write this off as a lark, the “all the songs that wouldn't fit on a 311 record dumping ground” but that isn’t being fair to what’s offered.  Standout singles like “Sideways” with a sparse, stick-in-your-head-like-glue beat stand alongside such reggae-splashed asides as “The Dreamer” or the sleepy “Just Give It To Me.”  While Nick + his brother Zack Hexum, Luke Miller, Andres Rebellon & Gary Novak don’t always sound fully “comfortable” on this record, they do manage to create an interesting diversion, coming as it does being sung by a man most would never have expected to put his voice to tunes like this.

5.311 - “Stereolithic

Ditching both major labels and loudness war-mongering uber-crunch producer Bob Rock - both of these things lead to a much better album and, not to overuse an over-used phrase, a return to form.  It traffics in darker themes and ideas than most of their typically sun-dappled easy-breezy reagge-funk-rock-pop-sprinkled work.  That said, it manages to balance those explorations with more upbeat themes that make this one of their best works since their 1990’s heyday.

4.Lily Allen - “Sheezus

After a 5 year gap, Lily Allen returns with a bang.  This one is worth the price of admission alone via the video for “Hard Out Here” and it’s scathing rip on modern music and music videos accompanying them turning women into mere barbie dolls to prance around on screen looking pretty.  While this is a commonly mocked trope, Allen has always had a certain dry, over-cooked sarcasm informing her best music, so it’s only natural that she’d take on such a subject.  Doesn’t hurt that the rest of the album is well done also.  Check such standouts as “URL Badman” (evisceration of the internet troll-in-the-basement stereotype) or the bouncy near-rockabilly love-stomp “As Long As I Got You.”)

3.Jason Isbell - “Southeastern

An accidental discovery - first was watching this video and then reading his picks for Top of 2013.  I discovered it in early 2014, so that’s why it’s here, so hah.  But seriously - I did my usual - I said “Ok, so Grady Smith thought this album deserved  #1 country album of 2013.  Why did he?  Let’s see.”  And while it isn’t #1 on this list, I see what caused him to place it so high on his own.  Literate songwriting, throaty, evocative singing, and catharsis that will sting in a way few musicians are really able to do.  This has been talked about as Isbell’s “sobering up” album and while this is a well-worn topic, Isbell’s approach to the subject strips away any glorified “woe-is-me” sentiment, and leaves behind instead the broken man, who has learned to put himself back together, feeling better having done so, and continuing on from there.  And while it can be a difficult listen, it’s a difficult listen worth taking on.

2.Betty Who - “Take me when you go

A purely accidental discovery, starting with a youtube link sent from a friend, followed by snaring the full album, and loving it.  For starters, she sings every song sounding like the singer-songwriter waxing nostalgic about love lost and love gained...only usually the backdrop for this sort of singer is down-tempo folk music.  Instead of down-tempo folk, it’s unashamedly 80’s-styled electro pop.  From the free-wheeling fun of the song (And also video) to “Somebody loves you” to making even a breakup or close-to-breakup sound upbeat somehow (See “Heartbreak Dream” for this) this is one of the rare slices of 80’s-resurgence that have been cropping up over the last 6-8 years or so that really gets it right.  Also doesn't hurt that she had a hand in writing every song on the album - not something many of her contemporaries can say.

1.Basement Jaxx - “Junto”

As with other years writing this list, the top spot in my own head comes from a combination of two key factors.  Both an album that is start to finish spot on, with not a single “skippable” track, and one that stays in rotation long after purchase.  “Never Say Never” is the crown jewel of this list.  It is at once all things that Basement Jaxx have ever been, and all they ever will be, and a blender-full of catchy dance-pop, exploring styles ranging from the release of this album all the way back to when they made their first track.  ETML’s star-struck vocals are the perfect match for Buxton+Ratcliffe’s sharp-slamming bass, handclaps, and stick-like-glue hooks.  They even manage to thread latin-pop schlock through their dance-a-holic filter and make it sound great (check “Mermaid of Salinas” for proof of this.)  And closing “Love is at your side” is the perfect cool-off track after an album of truly addictive pop.  Pop flecked with flourishes of many electro genres, sure, but expertly done pop just the same.  This, and the front-to-back perfection lands this album at the top of the list.

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