As much as I love streaming, I’ve found the ease of access of Spotify and my insatiable hunger for music discovery has gotten me away from listening to full albums as much as I used to. However, I do tend to listen to more new music, as I usually dedicate Tuesday mornings to checking out the new releases. Along the way, I’ve discovered some albums that I did listen to all the way through, and then wound up buying on vinyl, in several cases. So these are my ten favorite albums of 2014, in no particular order. I couldn’t tell you if these selections say anything about the state of music, other than the fact that good music is out there if you want to find it.
Curtis Harding: Soul Power: The morning I first listened to this on Spotify, I saw the black and white cover and figured it was some older soul singer from the 70s I’d never heard of. That alone got me curious. Playing it, I was still under the same impression. That deep, rich voice and that style of production and instrumentation was too accurate to be a throwback. It turns out, though, that Curtis Harding has been a back up singer for Cee Lo, among other projects, and this is his first solo album. And what a debut! This is real soul music, with a psyche flavor to it, calling to mind everyone from Albert King, Lou Rawls and Bill Withers to Sly Stone, The Chambers Brothers, Shuggie Otis and various Motown artists. I tend to lean more to Southern Soul, but this album is just undeniable with tracks like the simply perfect opener “Next Time” that had me grooving along instantly and the tough guy leather and muscle car infused blues jam of “Drive My Car” that made me wish I could grow a Richard Roundtree moustache. Laid back soul at it’s best grooves all over this album and plays with stripped down rock. And as it should be with this type of material, it doesn’t feel dated, but timeless. It’s not about the nostalgia, it’s about staying true to the music.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones: Half the City. This album was a no brainer for me. Like I said, I lean towards Southern Soul and there’s been no better example of this in recent memory than St. Paul & The Broken Bones. And again, this is not a throwback as much as it is timeless. This band can play like few others can. Those horns are right out of the best of Stax and anything from the 60s era Muscle Shoals. And Paul’s voice grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you before you wrapping you in a warm embrace to make you feel you are not alone. You can feel the sweat dripping from this with scorchers (“Broken Bones and Pocket Change”) worthy of Otis Redding and Percy Sledge and funky grooves (“Like a Mighty River”) worthy of Wilson Pickett, this is the real deal.
Hozier: Hozier. The popularity of “Take Me To Church” is only recently becoming apparent to me. I don’t listen to the radio or watch live TV, and I’m very much aware that streaming and selective access to media via the internet leads to isolated pockets of popularity, so it’s not necessarily indicative of any mass appeal. So, I was surprised when my 5 year old daughter told me her after care teacher was playing this song (which she loves) on the radio one day. I get the feeling, though, that mass audiences might be missing the intent of the song, as they often do. In any case, as great as that single is, it’s not even the best song on the album. I’d put “Angel of Small Death and The Codeine Scene” in that spot, or the delta blues inspired “To Be Alone” with the most haunting falsetto howl I’ve ever heard. What makes Hozier so great is how unassuming he is in his presentation and delivery of these soulful songs that could easily become showy in less confident hands. Instead, he lets the music do what it needs to do and serves as a vessel to deliver them. There’s blues, soul, folk and R&B here that’s as authentic as it gets. It’s poetic and heartfelt. It’s beautiful and reveals itself more with each listen.
Kitten: Kitten. I didn’t get in touch with my inner teenage girl until I was at least in my late 30s, but that girl loves this album. She is, after all, stuck in the mid to late 80s. The thing about teenage girls that I learned by thinking back to those I knew back when I was actually their age is that they tend to be passionate. About EVERYTHING. A negative way to say it might involve the term “drama queen,” but, likely in preparation for my own daughters’ distant teenage years, I’ve learned to appreciate that passion through my taste in music. So it’s not just that hormonal teenager inside me, with her eyeliner, attitude and moused hair that loves this album, it’s all of me. Once again, as with most albums on my list, this is harkening back to music of the past, and here it does tend to feel more like a throwback, but that’s not necessarily bad. I’ve always felt that 80s music tends to come off as dated in ways no other era does, but Kitten has found a way to make it somehow interesting in spite of this. The influences range from The Thompson Twins to Joy Division with a heavy helping of Siouxsie and the Banshee’s vocal stylings. I could totally see how this might turn some people off, but I think getting past the initial noisiness of it, you get to that feel and then you understand.
Brownout: Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath. Latin funk covers of Black Sabbath classics. That’s all you need to know, really. This album is awesome. It’s like the soundtrack to a 70s occult cop action movie that should be filmed immediately. Just listen to the percussion and horns on “Iron Man” and tell me you don’t picture a long lost episode of Starsky and Hutch, chasing a devil worshiping cult through the streets in an old Mustang. This is how you cover Sabbath while bringing something new to the table. As a bonus, “Hand of Doom” features Alex Maas of The Black Angels. It’s funky, it’s trippy, it rocks.
Antemasque: Antemasque. By the time The Mars Volta officially called it quits, I felt it was at least one album past due. The prog rock band that was really just Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixter-Civala had a great run, but I felt they had gotten to a point where they had pushed it as far as they could. When their new project, was announced, with Flea and Dave Elitch of Red Hot Chili Peppers on board, there was reason for excitement. It was basically the same line up as both Flea and Elitch played with Mars Volta at times, but a new band name meant a new direction. The album does not disappoint at all. It’s a whole new sound, incorporating some of the unpredictability of The Mars Volta, but keeping the songs much simpler and tighter with elements of 80s hard rock and metal somehow mixed in. The opener “4AM” calls to mind everything from Pat Benatar to early, sneering Motley Crue to high concept, operatic Queensryche, while still being something completely new and different. This album is quite refreshing and rocks pretty hard.
Ana Tijoux: Vengo. I have not been a fan of mainstream hip hop for a very long time. I feel that at some point in the late 90s the genre lost its soul, starting with what I called bling rap. To me, hip hop always worked best in the same way the blues, folk and classic country in that, whether it was explicitly about social problems or just elaborate bragging, whether it was about street violence or partying, it was always about the common person and mostly by people who were not far removed from the experiences of the common fan. It was relatable even if you didn’t have the same experience, precisely for this reason. This is what made it possible for the form to also be political in very important ways. That hasn’t been true for far too long in American hip hop, as far as I can tell, though I admit that may be due to my age. Chilean Ana Tijoux, much like M.I.A., is all about politics and social justice. This, to me, is the ultimate promise of hip hop and her 2014 release captures it perfectly. She raps and sings beautifully with a very distinctive South American flow, about everything from raising her child to be socially conscious in a world beset by technology and instant gratifiaction (“Los Peses Gordos No Pueden Volar”) to unifying different and distinct third world cultures under one banner (“Somos Sur”). She incorporates music from all of these cultures, whether South American or Middle Eastern, as well, bringing a fresh world sound that gets mixed with more familiar hip hop beats and styles. It’s ultimately rooted in a spirit of cultural pride and social revolution that comes through clearly in some of the more defiant tracks, like the title track, even if you don’t understand all of the words.
Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence. In terms of putting together a complete package, from image to sound, to general atmosphere, I’m not sure anyone right now beats Lana Del Rey. By now, I would hope that any hype and backlash that attached itself to her since “Video Games” became an internet sensation a few years ago would have faded and that people can now freely like or dislike her music and artistry on its own merits. Then again, hype and backlash might very well be part of her artistry. But perhaps because of the sound she tends to go for, with lush orchestration and guitars rooted in some dark, alternate post apocalyptic future from the 50s or 60s, in which the landscape of America was somehow swallowed up by glossy magazine ads out of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, I don’t care about the public’s perceptions of her at all. Instead I can just listen to her longing, sexy and heartbreaking songs and get lost in her voice and the brilliant production by Dan Auerbach.
Band of Skulls: Himalayan. If anyone ever claims that rock is dead, this is but one example of a band keeping it alive. The British trio’s third studio album is tight and atmospheric and should be played loud and with complete abandon. Head bobbing, air guitar and straight up rocking out are pretty much guaranteed. While this does not feel like a throwback type album, you can definitely hear the influence of 70s arena rock. It’s big and, at times, heady music that is dynamic and melodic. The beauty of the alternating and harmonized vocals of Russell Marsden and Emma Richardson calls to mind everything from The Beatles to Fleetwood Mac. It’s a great album to just get lost in, from start to finish. There just isn’t one bad track to be found on it. If I have one regret this year it’s that I missed seeing them live when they were in town, due to a severe case of allergies that made me feel like my face was melting from inside my sinuses, which is ironic, since I’m sure they would have melted my face off as well.
Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways. If you truly love music, not just a specific genre or era or a few artists, but music itself, then it is a part of everything you do and everything you do somehow comes back around to music. There’s a soundrack playing in your head all the time, whether you actually have headphones on or not. You are moved to tears by songs and it’s not because of nostalgia or even a specifically heartfelt lyric, but just because of the artistry of the most minor, seemingly insignificant chord. If you can relate to any of this, then you’ll understand why I can say that even though the individual songs on this album are not my favorites, this album, the way I experienced it, could easily be my favorite of the year. I didn’t hear the album all the way through at any point, but I experienced it as each episode of the HBO companion series aired. And while I was ambivalent about the first episode, each one after that just grabbed me in ways that made me truly appreciate why I love music in the first place. By the time the last episode aired, focused on New York, there was a moment where Dave Grohl explains the point of the whole series and it moved me to tears. Sure, there were still moments, even in the last episode, such as his interview with President Obama, that seemed contrived, but the intent still comes through in the songs. If you have not heard the album, yet, I highly recommend experiencing it as a TV show instead. It’s a weird thing to put on a best albums list, but I think the entire project should be taken as a whole to truly appreciate the music.