10 Favorite Albums of 2014.

Dec 23, 2014

Every year in music starts off unknown. While some trends seem inevitable, the majority of developments come as complete surprises. Favorite artists re-invent themselves, some disappointingly. And new creative forces take hold and capture our imaginations. I would never have dreamed that this year I would be loving a reggae album (Hollie Cook) or a country album from Nashville (Sturgill Simpson). But, I am so, so grateful that today’s music excites me. And I am already unbelievably excited about what 2015 might bring. So, here’s what stuck with me and kept popping up on Freeforms all year long. Cheers!


#10 Elbow - "The Take Off and Landing of Everything"

Lush instrumentation, gorgeous recording, and thoughtful lyrics makes this latest release from British band, Elbow, an album that rewarded repeated listening.  The songs unfold in a sometimes languorous fashion, capturing both gentle and challenging emotions in the same track.  I just love what Guy Garvey does with his singing!   Always interesting, Elbow is currently British rock at its finest and this one stands with their best.


#9 Jenny Lewis - "Voyager"

  Bright and energetic pop is alive in this song-forward release from Jenny Lewis (formerly of Rilo Kiley).   With touches of Fleetwood Mac, and a distinct influence from Ryan Adams and Beck (both of whom helped produce), you know this marks a broader audience discovering this remarkable singer-songwriter.   On stage, Jenny Lewis lights up the evening, strutting and preening in the best Hollywood fashion.  You’ll hum these songs for days.


#8 Quantic - "Magnetica"

On first blush an Englishman making Colombian music with help from a range of soulful voices, doesn’t sound the most convincing.   But, Quantic (Will Oldham) has not only introduced many to the exotic and tropical sounds of cumbia, but has helped evolve those traditional rhythms into an enticing and engaging modern sound.   This is a fun album, full of joyful and uplifting tunes.   I always look forward to what Quantic does next, particularly when joined by vocalist Alice Russell.   My favorite world music release of the year.

#7 St Vincent - "St. Vincent"

Wildly experimental, scorching guitars, and hooks that lodge firmly in your brain, St. Vincent is one of the most talented and interesting performers in today’s music.   In the vein of David Bowie, she is both weird and wonderful and her work last year with David Byrne only sharpened her mystique.   Angular and jagged in both rhythm and lyric, this can be a difficult album in places but I found myself discovering nuances and flourishes many months after my first listening.   A goddess.

#6 Courtney Barnett - "The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas"


My latest hometown hero, Courtney Barnett is a singer-songwriter so very well anchored in the inner-city culture of Melbourne, Australia.  Her lyrics are witty, wry, endearing, and honest (“The Rolling Stones, oh woe is we, the irony!”) and the stories she tells are both familiar and odd.   Her guitar playing is both straight-ahead and lacksadaisical at times, but there is a brightness that keeps the hooks rolling.   Expect big things in 2015, as Courtney has a new album on the way and if the couple of songs I’ve heard (“Depreston”, and “Pickles from A Jar”) are any indication, it’ll be a corker!


#5 Jungle - "Jungle"

I can’t believe that a Disco album is turning up on my 2014 list, but this is such a contagious and groovy disc that I couldn’t ignore it.   And I listened to it a lot.   These two British lads, Jungle, have co-opted the falsetto vocals, the smooth instrumentation and the posing of seventies disco, but you’d never mistake this as anything other than a current release.  West Londoners, Josh and Tom say that, "Getting people's hips and bodies moving is what music should be about".    I couldn't agree more and this album proves it.


#4 Aphex Twin - "Syro"

It seems I’m on a bit of an experimental music kick.  Last year it was Jon Hopkins and Bonobo, the year before Oneohtrix Point Never.     Fans of 90’s dance music will remember how much Aphex Twin ( Richard James ) helped define that era and that sound (along with bands like the Orb and Orbital).   There’s enough here (spacious soundscapes, twisted vocals, and skittering beats) to satisfy fans who have been waiting nearly 20 years for his return.   But, what kept me coming back to this disc was his endless inventiveness and obsession with texture and theme.  


#3 The War on Drugs - "Lost in the Dream"

There’s a new sound coming out of Philadelphia that is variously thought of as Slacker Rock or sometimes Psychedelic Pop.   And true to that heritage, The War on Drugs ( with lead Adam Granduciel ) pays homage to the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.   These are often introspective, long, noodling songs, but in the end there is almost always an element of triumph and resolution.   It is easy to take this trip and ponder along at the wonders we encounter.


#2 The Bamboos - "Fever in the Blood"

Upbeat soul/funk music is having a resurgence, and nothing quite makes me as happy as seeing The Bamboos helping lead that charge.   Centering around guitarist Lance Armstrong (who is also a DJ on Australian radio station, Double J), these folks are tight, swinging, and full of life.   With two full-time vocalists (Kylie Auldist and Ella Thompson), this album bounces along with at least four great singles.


#1 Tycho - "Awake"

What can I say?  This is the album I reached for more than any other this year.  When I wanted a pick-me-up, when I wanted to bop around the house or office, or when I was looking for something to fill at the top or bottom of a show.   Tycho was everywhere.  And not just in my life - both Morning Edition and All Things Considered seemed to be using short snippets in between every other news item.   Cafes and clothes stores across the nation had it on in the background.   Largely absent vocals, almost entirely electronic, I smile every time I hear a Tycho track.  

And my very favorite song on this album is, appropriately enough, called, “Montana”.     Thoroughly recommended!

Didn't quite make the Top 10, but darn these next 10 are really good (listed alphabetically):

Like picking a favorite child, inevitably there are some fine, fine releases that got bumped from the Top 10.   Each of these could very easily have made the cut, but in the end fell below the line.   There’s jazz and ambient, pop and savage rock, soul and dance.   Lots to enjoy!


Caribou, “Our Love”

Neneh Cherry – “Blank Project”

Hollie Cook, “Twice”

Chet Faker, “Built on Glass”

Curtis Harding, “Soul Power”

Kiasmos – Kiasmos”

Angel Olsen, “Burn Your Fire For No Witness

RAC, “Strangers”

Sturgill Simpson, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”

The Swans, “To Be Kind”