Sam Velazquez’s Big, Fat, Completely Unnecessary Year in Review (AKA Favorite Albums of 2014)
Do we really need another end of the year list?
Every media outlet under the sun has them, from Pitchfork to Consequence of Sound to the A.V. Club and beyond. Hell, even Grantland, ostensibly a sports/pop culture site, has one for music.
So the answer is a resounding “no, probably not.” But we’re going to give you one anyways.
Here’s another rhetorical question: does Sam Velazquez’s taste in music come close to encompassing everything released this year?
The answer is, again, no, only this time it’s a resounding “no, DEFINITELY not.” Jessica, one of our blog directors, characterized my music taste as falling squarely in the “dad rock” category, whatever that means.
Ouch, Jessica. Very ouch.
(ed. note: it was out of the love in my heart-Jessica)
But she’s not wrong. I was raised on classic rock and blues, and my tastes in modern music largely stem from there. I’m not a big fan of hip-hop; I can appreciate singles, but have never been able to settle in for a whole album’s worth. I can’t do modern country (which I maintain is closer to ’80s hair metal than anything), and electronic music has almost always gone over my head. So my tastes sometimes lock into guitar-oriented rock music, singer-songwriter tunes, and things of that nature. The good news is that there was plenty of great music like that in 2014, and maybe I’m just the guy to talk about it.
A disclaimer: I’m no good at ranking things. I don’t like ranking things. I don’t think things like music should necessarily be ranked. So I’m not going to do it. Rather, I’m going to give a list of 10 albums, in no particular order, that I listened to and enjoyed the most this year. I’ll also acquiesce and list some honorable mentions, as well as some albums by artists I was disappointed in. Sometimes you’ve gotta cover all your bases.
So let’s begin.
Songs of Innocence – U2: Every Apple user has it. Fewer have listened to it. Even fewer have truly enjoyed it. It was a statement album for the band, but the music wasn’t doing nearly as much talking as the delivery was. Coming from a huge U2 fan (Joshua Tree is one of my all-time favorites), this album was a big disappointment.
High Hopes – Bruce Springsteen: I didn’t have the highest of hopes (HA!) for this album, despite enjoying both of Bruce’s last two releases. The Boss amassed an album of covers, outtakes, and reimagined versions of songs he’s been playing live for over a decade. It’s not his strongest effort, and his decision to make former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello an honorary E Street Band member is puzzling to me as well.
Ghost Stories – Coldplay: I’m a huge, unabashed Coldplay fan, but this album left me… well, cold. When “Midnight” was released, I thought the decision to stretch further into electronic music was pretty cool, but it sounded like Chris Martin and co. had forgotten how to write a song underneath it all. “Magic” was completely half-baked, with cringe-worthy lyrics. The whole album was like that, really. With the band currently recording their seventh album, I’m hopeful they can regain some semblance of their former selves.
Sukierae – Tweedy: Wilco frontman and lead songwriter Jeff Tweedy struck out on his own this year, releasing an album with his son, Spencer, on drums under the moniker Tweedy. The resulting record, a 20-song double album, is at once a triumph and its own worst enemy at times. Jeff’s songwriting skills are sharp as ever, and Spencer’s deceptively deft drumming is tremendous, but the album strains under its own sheer length at times. Still, “Low Key” and “I’ll Sing It” are power pop gems, and anyone who can make it through all twenty songs will certainly be rewarded by the treasures inside. Check out Brian McMahon’s full review here!
…And Star Power -Foxygen: 2013’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic was a triumph. It completely rebooted ’60s rock music, avoiding the novelty factor of nostalgia acts with sharp, incisive songwriting. On their follow-up, the band decided it’d be best to invert what made 21st Century so great: they crafted a massive, often difficult, occasionally brilliant double album. Throughout its 82-minute sprawl, you catch more than a few glimpses of truly brilliant songwriting buried within the madness and late-60s Mick Jagger-isms, but you’re often left feeling like this album could’ve been 30 minutes shorter and significantly more memorable. Still, when it’s good (like “How Can You Really?”, which is a tremendous song), …And Star Power is great. Check out Brian McMahon’s full review here!
Himalayan – Band of Skulls: This album garners an Honorable Mentions spot on the strength of the title track alone. Band of Skulls has always been a modern homage to the glory days of classic rock, and can often get trapped by the same cliches. But the title track storms through any trace of triteness and takes no prisoners. It’s glorious, and one of the most badass tracks of the whole year. Elsewhere, “Hoochie Coochie” melds Abbey Road vocal harmonies with supercharged Black Sabbath riffing. The whole album is like a Marshall halfstack cranked up to 10, which is a rare find in popular music anymore. This band fills a niche, and they fill it extremely well.
Post Tropical – James Vincent McMorrow: After the largely acoustic folk of his debut, James Vincent McMorrow retooled his sound to include elements of hip-hop and soul music to great effect. It doesn’t hurt that McMorrow has perhaps the finest falsetto of 2014. Look no further than album opener “Cavalier”, where McMorrow’s soulful, haunting voice scales to its upper limits as he laments about his first love. He possesses a spine-tingling vocal ability that resonates throughout the record, and his musical maturation is evident on the back half of “The Lakes”, where glistening slide guitar lines soar over minimalist production. There are a few stretches of mundane songwriting which ultimately hurts the album, but McMorrow’s voice alone is often enough to make up for those.
Royal Blood – Royal Blood: Bass and drums. Sometimes that’s all you need, everything else is superfluous. On Royal Blood’s self-titled debut, the duo turn their bare-bones operation into an absolute rock n’ roll powerhouse. Lead singer/bassist Mike Kerr splits his bass guitar’s signal through three separate amplifiers, creating a quasi-lead guitar tone that beefs up the bands’ sound. And their sound is crushing. Album opener “Out of the Black” rides a heavy, staccato riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a vintage Sabbath or Priest record. Lead single “Figure It Out” is staggering, with a descending riff that gives way to a chorus that exemplifies just how tight this two-piece is. The album mines the same sonic territory the whole way through, however, and fatigue starts to set in. Still, for what these guys are doing, it’s a pretty damn good sonic territory to mine. Royal Blood set out to make a good rock n’ roll record. They released a great one. Who needs a guitar anyway?
After the Disco – Broken Bells: The second collaboration between Shins frontman James Mercer and producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse yielded another sleek, hooky album. While their self-titled debut featured only one true standout track (lead single “The High Road”), it was solid throughout and lent itself to an enjoyable listening experience. On After the Disco, the duo largely frontload the album; the first four tracks are the first four singles, and are easily the best ones here. Channeling some traits from the genre the album’s title invokes, opener “Perfect World” bubbles and streaks through its tempo-changing six-and-a-half minutes, while the title track bounces along on an updated disco beat. “Holding On For Life” creeps forward on a sinewy synth line, and “Leave It Alone” features some of Mercer’s most soulful vocals to date. Altogether, this is an enjoyable, though ultimately uneven, album with four great songs, so it must remain outside the Top 10.
The Voyager – Jenny Lewis: On The Voyager, her first release since 2008’s Americana-tinged Acid Tongue, former Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis enlisted alt-country superstar (and hero of mine) Ryan Adams to perform production duties. The result is a sparkling ode to late-70s/early-80s pop rock (ie; Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, etc.). Lewis’s songwriting talents are staggering: “She’s Not Me”, “Slippery Slopes”, and “Late Bloomer” are legitimate earworms. But it’s the album-closing title track that steals the show, all swelling strings, 80s synths, acoustic guitars, and Lewis’ sublime voice. The Voyager is truly a showcase for artist and producer alike.
Salad Days – Mac DeMarco: For his second full-length release, Mac DeMarco crafted an album full of lush, off-kilter guitar pop gems. Jumping from song to song is a treat, as the album never loses its chorus-guitar, lackadaisical vibe. DeMarco, in a somewhat surprising about-face, wrote a record full of very personal songs, using his long-time girlfriend as the inspiration for several of the albums best tracks (“Let Her Go”, “Let My Baby Stay”, “Treat Her Better”). The loping title track and the chiming guitars of “Goodbye Weekend” worm into your ears, while “Blue Boy” encapsulates the record as a whole. DeMarco isn’t one to play it entirely straight, though. Everything feels a little woozy, and throughout it’s just a well-placed wrong note that turns what would’ve been decent songs into memorable ones. And oh yeah, he headlined WIUX Culture Shock 2013. So that was pretty cool. Check out Bryan Brussee’s full review here!
Hypnotic Eye – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: This was one of the surprise albums of the year for me, and it very nearly made my Top 10. I’m a massive Petty fan; his self-titled debut and Damn the Torpedoes are two of the best classic rock albums of all time. Hell, I even wrote 1300 words on 1994’s underrated Wildflowers. The guy is insanely talented. And while 2010’s Mojo was superb, it was also one of Petty’s least focused, jammiest albums of his career. On Hypnotic Eye, Petty and the Heartbreakers get back on track with some of the best songs he’s written in 20 years. “Red River” and “All You Can Carry” find Petty’s signature nasal drawl in fine form, while “U Get Me High” swaggers and struts, Benmont Tench’s organ scaling the walls of the song’s massive riff. “Forgotten Man” might be the best performance, the band powering through a vintage Bo Diddley beat to devastating effect. Nearly 40 years in, Petty has proved once again that he’s still got the chops.
Great Western Valkryie – Rival Sons: Listen to “Electric Man” and tell me your face didn’t get melted off. Listen to “Secret” and tell me you weren’t scared shitless by frontman Jay Buchanan’s powerhouse of a voice. Listen to “Open My Eyes” and tell me you weren’t floored by how monstrous this band sounds. Listen to “Where I’ve Been” and tell me it didn’t make you feel things. Listen to any one of guitarist Scott Holiday’s bludgeoning riffs and say SOMETHING, goddamnit! Guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. Sounds like rock and/or roll to me.
TOP 10 (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)
Turn Blue – The Black Keys: Whereas 2011’s El Camino was lean, taut, and full of hooks, Turn Blue is the polar opposite. The songs here are much more about space and depth. Some of the songs here are sprawling; look no further than the album’s opening track, “Weight of Love”, which sounds like equal parts Pink Floyd’s “Time” and Neil Young’s “Down By the River”, and features Dan Auerbach’s longest solo to date. Auerbach’s guitar chops are all over this record, from the opener to the fuzzed out riffing in “It’s Up To You Now” to the wah guitar on “In Our Prime”. Auerbach’s voice is in superb form throughout, whether he’s utilizing his newly-developed falsetto on “In Time” or belting out “Bullet In the Brain”. But just because producer Danger Mouse worked to bring the haze out on this album doesn’t mean the band’s forgotten how to craft great hooks. On “It’s Time”, drummer Patrick Carney reworks the drumbeat from “Tighten Up” to great effect, while closer “Gotta Get Away” could easily be featured on any number of mediocre beer commercials. It hits all the right buttons. The whole album does, and serves as the perfect contrast to El Camino. Check out Jamie Kendrick’s full review here!
Key songs: “Weight of Love”, “Fever”, “10 Lovers”, “In Our Prime”
Lazaretto – Jack White: That Jack White’s second solo release isn’t the craziest album on this list is shocking, because it’s by far the most brilliantly nutty thing he’s ever put out. The whole album vacillates between the shell-shock guitar we’ve come to expect from White and traditionalist country tunes that can’t help but be traced to his time in Nashville. Any critics who bemoaned the lack of any Stripes-ish riffs on the album certainly weren’t looking hard enough: instrumental track “High Ball Stepper” is undoubtedly one of the most crushing sounds he’s ever but to tape, all ripping fuzz guitar and electrifying band dynamics. Opener “Three Women” is an organ-fueled rave-up, while the manic hip-hop groove of “Lazaretto” is utterly batshit crazy. The swaggering “That Black Bat Licorice” features one of my favorite lyrics of the year: “Just a bunch of propaganda, makes my fingers histrionic: LIKE THIS!” *cue badass guitar riff* “AND THIS!” *cue another one* THAT is awesome. On the softer, country side of things, songs like “Entitlement” and “Want And Able” showcase Whites’ abilities as a true songwriter. While these songs are traditionalist in every sense of the word, they contrast superbly with the more eccentric parts of this album. Lazaretto is so good that it almost entirely overshadows the beef Jack White had with the Black Keys this year. That was good beef. This album is even better. Check out Collin Thomas’s full review here!
Key songs: “Three Women”, “Lazaretto”, “High Ball Stepper”, “That Black Bat Licorice”
The Take Off and Landing of Everything – Elbow: I wrote at length about this album back in March, using words like “sweeping” and “symphonic” in my praise. Months later, those words of praise still ring true to me. This album sweeps you up and wraps you in its warm embrace. It runs the gamut from pure melancholy (“This Blue World”) to uplifting and celebratory (“My Sad Captains”, the epic title track). “This Blue World” features one of my favorite lyrics of the year: “While three chambers of my heart beat true and strong with love for another, the fourth is yours forever.” That’s a beautiful sentiment, perhaps the best line in an album full of them, and perfectly delivered by Guy Garvey. This is an album for people who wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Key songs: “This Blue World”, “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette”, “Colour Fields”, “The Take Off and Landing of Everything”
Supernova – Ray LaMontagne: From the opening crash of electric guitar, you know this is not going to be a typical Ray LaMontagne album. For the past decade, the singer-songwriter’s style has been defined by his smoky voice, acoustic instrumentation, and truly gutting songs. On Supernova, LaMontagne enlisted the help of Black Key Dan Auerbach to produce the album. The results are as jarring as they are sublime. Album opener “Lavender” comes crashing into the fray, all electric guitars and a confident LaMontagne. “Airwaves” makes obvious nods to Van Morrison, while the swaggering, electrified “She’s The One” features some of Ray’s most full-throated vocals. The title track is a piece of ‘60s power-pop nirvana, complete with bright guitar lines and ascending counter-melodies. Closer “Drive-In Movies” is a nod to sentimentality and nostalgia for days gone by, and while the subject matter may be a tad trite, LaMontagne is so skilled a songwriter that he pulls it off perfectly. Auerbach’s fingerprints are all over this album, moving LaMontagne away from his tried and true singer-songwriter format and into a more confident, quasi-psychedelic space (look no further than the swirling surrealism of “Smashing”). This is certainly a departure for Ray: there aren’t any of the eviscerating, heartbreaking songs that were such cornerstones of prior records. But Supernova more than makes up for any of that. 10 years in, and Ray LaMontagne has finally become a rocker.
Key songs: “Lavender”, “She’s The One”, “Supernova”, “Smashing”
They Want My Soul – Spoon: There might not be a better opening salvo on record this year than “Rent I Pay” and “Inside Out”. “Rent” is all swaggering, rock n’ roll machismo, while “Inside Out” is a gorgeous, twinkling trip-hop homage. Britt Daniel and co. are in fine form on their first release since 2010’s brilliant Transference. Spoon is one of the few truly reliable workhorse bands in indie rock; it’s gotten to the point where every release spawns the inevitable “oh look, another great Spoon record”. But Soul really IS a great Spoon record. It might also be the band’s most direct. “Do You” is one of the hookiest songs they’ve ever produced, and the title track exudes the kind of confidence that bands have when they know a song is really really good. This is a rock n’ roll record, the likes of which aren’t really made anymore. Spoon has just managed to package it in a way avoids all the traditional rock clichés to make a truly memorable album, one of the very best of 2014. Check out Jessica Yarvin’s full review here!
Key songs: “Rent I Pay”, “Inside Out”, “Do You”, “They Want My Soul”
Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams: I wrote nearly 900 words on this album when it came out, so I’m not really sure what’s left to say. Ryan Adams is one of my absolute favorite songwriters and musicians. His music has played an incredibly important role in shaping my life, particularly the last several years. On his 14th studio album (in as many years!), Adams ditches acoustic sentimentality (save for standout “My Wrecking Ball”, written for his recently-deceased grandmother) and cranks up his electric guitar to record one of his most consistent, measured albums to date. Adams’ biggest strength, his prolificacy, is often his biggest weakness as well. Some of his records feel rushed, like they were written just before the tracks were laid down. Here, it seems like Adams really took his time and focused on songcraft. The resulting album is chock full of dynamic, ’80s-influenced rock music, with the kind of melodies that only Adams can churn out. From the slashing riff of opener “Gimme Something Good” to the simmering “Shadows” and implied danger of “I Just Might”, this album delivers in every aspect. 14 years in, Adams continues to prove why he’s one of the best and most eclectic songwriters of the 21st century.
Key songs: “Gimme Something Good”, “Am I Safe”, “Shadows”, “Tired Of Giving Up”
St. Vincent – St. Vincent: “Oh, what an ordinary day/Take out the garbage masturbate.” Wait, WHAT? Those are the first lyrics of “Birth In Reverse”, the second track on St. Vincent’s insanely genius self-titled album. This might be the craziest album of 2014, certainly the craziest one on this list. I’ve long maintained that Annie Clark/St. Vincent is the bizarro Katy Perry: they’re both candy-colored pastiches of what a pop star is. Perry obviously operates in the mainstream, St. Vincent in the indie world. On her self-titled album, she’s internalized the lessons learned from her collaboration with David Byrne, embracing the madness within. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Digital Witness”, where interlocking synths are punctuated by a descending melody before exploding into a pulsing chorus. It’s the manifestation of a record that veers between the crushing fuzz guitar that buoys the end of songs like pulsating opener “Rattlesnake” and “Huey Newton” and woozy ballads like closer “Severed Crossed Fingers”. On her self-titled fourth LP, Annie Clark bridges the gap between batshit crazy and pure genius, and does so brilliantly. Check out Jamie Kendrick’s full review here!
Key Tracks: “Rattlesnake”, “Huey Newton”, “Digital Witness”, “Severed Crossed Fingers”
Half The City – St. Paul & the Broken Bones: Period pieces only have so much of a niche to reside in. Think of a band like White Lion in the ’80s: they were so dead set on nailing the sound of early-70s Led Zeppelin (which they did) that they never found their own identity. Sometimes bands get so caught up in the retro, nostalgia aspect of it all that they only serve as a novelty act, something to remind listeners of times gone by. If St. Paul & the Broken Bones are a period piece, they’re damn well one of the best out there. The Broken Bones are as tight a soul band as you can find, rivaling Sharon Jones’s Dap-Kings and Charles Bradley’s Menahan Street Band. But it’s the band’s namesake, singer Paul Janeway, that truly steals the show. Possessing both the voice and the panache of soul singers like Otis Redding and Al Green, Janeway delivers perhaps the best vocal performance of 2014. Opener “I’m Torn Up” is exactly the kind of down-on-my-knees slow burner that Redding would’ve delivered, and the rest of the album unfolds in kind. What separates this band from others of its ilk are its songs, which sound distinctively fresh. “Don’t Mean A Thing” and “Like a Mighty River” up the aggression level, with the horns blaring and the rhythm section driving Janeway into gospel-influenced histrionics. Closer “It’s Midnight” might be the albums’ best track, a woozy Southern waltz that ends with Janeway’s most affecting vocal of the album. Half The City, for all its sonic touchstones and influences, is still one of the freshest and most distinctive releases of 2014.
Key Tracks: “I’m Torn Up”, “Like A Mighty River”, “Dixie Rothko”, “It’s Midnight”
Morning Phase – Beck: When I covered Forecastle Festival in Louisville this past summer, I noted Beck’s reputation as a musical shapeshifter of sorts. You’re never sure which Beck you’ll get. It might be the slacker rock innovator of Mellow Gold, the sample-happy genius of Odelay, or the heart-on-his-sleeve singer-songwriter of Sea Change. On Morning Phase, Beck’s first full-length release since 2008’s Modern Guilt, we didn’t have to wait long to find out. The subtle orchestration of instrumental opener “Cycles” gives way to the beautiful, George Harrison-esque “Morning”, and we’re firmly in singer-songwriter territory. Acoustic guitars abound, and Beck’s voice is smoky and emotive. The production is positively sparkling, every acoustic guitar note accounted for, every vocal harmony perfectly placed, every swell of strings contributing to the gorgeous soundscape that Beck has crafted here. Lead single “Blue Moon” is lush and captivating, and resoundingly triumphant. “I’m so tired of being alone”, Beck declares, and you really feel it. The whole album is a master class in intimate melancholy, and represents something of a successful comeback for the musical chameleon. Check out Mitch Fee’s full review here!
Key songs: “Morning”, “Blue Moon”, “Heart Is A Drum”, “Country Down”
Lost In The Dream – The War On Drugs: This is album is full of contradictions. When Lost In The Dream came out back in March, I listened to it and loved it. Then I kind of forgot about it for a while. When compiling this list, I revisited the album and was completely floored by what I was listening to. In a way, this album is a sleeper. But at the same time, it’s impact is so immediate that you can’t help but be struck by it. Similarly, the album has a distinctly melancholic feel to it. It was written over a difficult stretch of lead singer/songwriter Adam Granduciel’s life. And yet it’s hard to pinpoint truly sad moments anywhere on this album. Some of the lyrics might be sad and aching, but more often than not the music is triumphant, upbeat, sometimes even uplifting. Another note about the music: many critics are quick to point out the band’s influences. There are traces of ’80s rock all over this album, primarily by way of Springsteen, Petty, and heartland rockers of that ilk. Part of what makes this album so great is how those obvious influences are masked. As you listen to this album, you’re hearing a sound. Not individual instruments or sounds; just one big blanket of sound that completely envelopes you. And yet at the same time, you’ll subconsciously notice things. A wheeze of harmonica here, a honk of saxophone there. But just as you notice them, they recede back into the haze. Nothing overstays its welcome, every sound is perfectly placed and contributes to the overall soundscape. See what I mean about contradictions? But it’s one of the most delightfully contradictory albums I’ve ever heard. It’s hard to pin down individual songs as standouts. Words like “haze” and “dream” are perfectly apt adjectives for this album, and this record truly shines when taken as a whole. This really is one of the best releases of 2014. Maybe my favorite. Certainly, Granduciel and co. deserve all the accolades they’ve garnered this year. Check out Annie Skertic’s full review here!
Key tracks: “Red Eyes”, “Eyes to the Wind”, “Burning”, “In Reverse”
We’re done. That was a lot, probably unnecessarily so. There were a lot of really tough omissions to make. It was a great year for music. We say that every year, but it’s always true. Music is arguably one of the most important things in my life, and I know many of my peers at WIUX would say the same thing. Everyone has their favorites, their opinions, their distinct tastes. What’s so wonderful about lists like these is the conversations they spur. It’s fun to talk about music, to try to rank and compare albums and artists that might not have anything in common. Music is such an incredibly subjective thing. It brings so much joy to so many people. These were the albums and artists that brought joy to me this year.
Feel free to agree or disagree as you’re inclined. I hope, at the very least, this list inspires conversation, and inspires people to consider what their favorite music of 2014 was. Maybe this list will lead you to some music you wouldn’t have heard otherwise. Maybe it’ll spur you to revisit some music you haven’t heard in a while. Maybe it’ll do nothing at all. Regardless, if you made it this far then I commend you.
And of course, be sure to check out all of WIUX’s other End of the Year content, including the staff’s top albums of the year!