This is the first year I've thought about a personal top ten albums list in a while, mostly because 2014 was the first year in a long time when there were at least ten albums that I really do like. In fact, in my opinion, 2014 was probably the best year for music in more than ten years. I actually had a hard time narrowing this list down to just ten albums. For whatever it's worth, here are the ten albums that owned my iPod in 2014:
The War On Drugs: Lost In The Dream
I didn't know anything about The War On Drugs when the critics started talking about how good their most recent album is. I paid little attention, most of the hipster bands that the critics praise these days end up boring me. But my son told me that this album was something I'd actually enjoy, so I gave it a listen on Amazon Prime. I was surprised at how much I liked it, mostly because of it's retro sound. There is a lot on this album that reminds me of alt-rock from the '80's, which is right up my alley. I've ended up listening to this album quite a lot.
John Fullbright: Songs
Fullbright's 2012 debut, From The Ground Up, is easily the best album by anyone that has come out so far this decade. You're not gonna find a better set of immaculately written, perfectly performed songs anywhere. His 2014 follow-up, Songs, is not as good, but it's still a damn fine album. It's almost entirely made up of ballads, so it doesn't have the variety of the debut, and doesn't feel as complete. But, damn, what good ballads these songs are. Fullbright is a master at turning out simple, addictive, pure melodies, and he's the best lyricist of the current crop. This guy writes songs that sound like they should have been around for fifty years. That's just rock-solid talent, right there.
Lucero: Live From Atlanta
Some people call Lucero "cowpunk," and, hell, I'm not even sure what that means. Ten years ago they'd just have been called outlaw country; their music is steeped in the tradition of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Gram Parsons. I heard them for the first time by creating a Jason Isbell station on Pandora, and ended up loving damn near every Lucero song that came up. After a while I picked up a couple of their albums, and loved them, too. Admittedly, the voice of Ben Nichols is a love-it-or-hate-it thing. This dude's vocal chords are wrecked by whiskey, smoke, and too many songs played in bars. But there's an authority and an authenticity to that, and it isn't something you find much of in Nashville these days. 2014's live album is a double disc set of fan favorites, and there isn't a stinker in the bunch.
Cory Branan: The No-Hit Wonder
My girlfriend and I saw Branan open for Isbell last spring, and I thought he had some good songs, but I wasn't blown away. His 2014 album featured guest performances by his famous friends, and when the critics started praising it I decided to give it a listen. I was surprised at how good it is. I don't remember Branan playing any of these songs when we saw him live, and that's a shame. This is some of his strongest material, and the songs really stand up. Branan is right up there with Fullbright as far as my favorite current-day lyricists. He's got the ability to pack a lot into a few lines, and can get humor and sadness out of a song at the same time. For instance, in my favorite song from the current album, he sings
"I hear you got another boy, I hear he looks a lot like me.
Did this one come with some kind of guarantee?
Well, I got me another girl, she looks like you ... at 23.
While she sleeps I trace the places where your tattoos used to be."
Now, I ask you, how do you not love that?
Drive-By Truckers: English Oceans
DBT is one of my absolute favorite bands ever, of all time, period. They're the kind of band that embodies everything that's good about rock and roll, and the release of new Truckers material is cause for celebration. This is one of those bands I take personally; they've recorded some songs over the years that sum up my life better than I could have ever done in my own words. A lot of talent has passed through this band, but the core song-writing pair of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley remains the two-chambered heart of this band. I'd have bought the new DBT album regardless, but I was surprised and thrilled at just how good it is. The first four songs, in fact, are as good as anything this band has turned out in their entire career. And that's saying a lot. This album was on repeat in my car for at least a month when it came out. God bless Cooley and Hood.
Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams
Another album full of overt and self-conscious 1980's throw-backs. It isn't the strongest album Adams has recorded, and he'll probably never top his absolutely perfect debut, Heartbreaker. But this album is like meat n' potatoes for an old fart like me. And the reverent references to bands like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Dire Straits isn't just an imitation. Tom Petty's keyboard player, Benmont Tench, is all over this album. It doesn't just sound like the real thing... this album is the real thing.
Sturgill Simpson: Meta-Modern Sounds In Country Music
This album provided me with more wow-moments than any other release that came out this year. Simpson recorded this album completely independently, with no major label support and no interest from Nashville. Isbell and DBT started talking it up on their Twitter feeds last spring, so I decided to check it out. I liked what I heard, and since the album was five bucks at bandcamp.com, I picked it up. But the samples I'd enjoyed hadn't given me any idea just how inventive and fresh this album really is. I may have never heard such disparate influences combined into something this organic and completely singular before. Simpson manages to channel Waylon Jennings as strongly as he channels psychedelic rock, and all of it works. This is what happens when a talented singer-songwriter decides to just record an album full of music he likes instead of music he thinks will make him rich. And, just based on word of mouth and touring, Meta-Modern... had become the number one album on Amazon's country chart by the end of the year.
LCD Soundsystem: The Long Goodbye: Live At Madison Square Garden
What happened was, Netflix kept suggesting that I check out a movie called Shut Up And Play The Hits, based on my viewing history. And I kept ignoring that suggestion because the movie was about the last concert by LCD Soundsystem, a band I wasn't interested in. I didn't dislike LCD, but all I knew about them was that they were a dance band, and dance music ain't my thing. But Netflix was persistent, so eventually I decided to watch some of the movie mostly out of boredom. Well, thank God for Netflix, because that movie introduced me to something new that I absolutely loved.
Calling LCD Soundsystem "a dance band" is seriously oversimplifying what they were about. The band's sound simultaneously reminds me of so many of my favorite bands... Phish, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Prince, Queen, and Frank Zappa all show up in the arrangements, but at the same time it's entirely unique. It's "dance music" because it makes you happy, and maybe dancing is the only sane reaction to the band's sound. Since I saw the movie, I've played LCD's three studio albums non-stop (The Sound Of Silver in particular has been in heavy rotation), and when the three-hour final show was finally released as an album this year, I grabbed it up on release day. I only wish I'd known about this band from the get-go.
Shovels & Rope: Swimming Time
I liked Shovels & Rope before their 2014 album was released, and I was curious to hear what their new material was going to sound like. I had no reason to believe, nor did I expect, that it would be one of the best albums I've heard in a long time. Their previous material has been good, but this album is just ridiculous. Eventually when I listened to this album I was just astonished at how good the songs are, and how well they're played. But that wasn't my initial reaction. My first reaction was to flip out on a gut-level about how good this album is. This was an album that made me forget about everything else when it came out late last summer. It just completely took over, and I listened to nothing else for a solid month and a half.
When the band played Charlottesville, my son and I went to see them, and I was curious about what kind of touring line-up they'd have. After all, this is a two-person band, made up of husband and wife Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. But their material, especially the new album, is too solid and full to be played live by just two people. Or, so I thought. I was wrong. Trent and Hearst record their material by themselves, and they play it live by themselves. Both of them are multi-instrumentalists in the truest sense of the word, with each one playing up to two instruments at a time. One will play keyboards with one hand and drums with the other while the other plays the guitar (both the lead and bass parts) and sings. And they did this for song after song, constantly switching instruments and roles. I was amazed, and it only made me love the current album that much more.
Afghan Whigs: Do To The Beast
AFghan Whigs was one of my favorite bands of the '90's, but the '90's was a long time ago. When they announced that they were doing a reunion album in 2014 I was curious, but not all that excited. Plenty of '90's bands have done recent reunion albums that were mediocre at best (Soundgarden. Blink 182. Stone Temple Pilots. Etc). My only real hope for the Afghan Whigs reunion was that Greg Dulli and the others wouldn't embarrass themselves. So I'd never have guessed that they'd turn out an album that is among their very best, and my favorite album of the year. When I first listened to Do To The Beast I was was surprised that it was good, and worth another listen. I never thought that I'd come to love it more, incrementally, every time I played it. This album grew on me in chunks, the way all of my favorite albums have since childhood. Every song on the disc has been my favorite at one point or another, although I prefer to listen to it as a whole and not just a song or two at a time. Some of these songs flow together and make up parts of a larger musical whole, and it deserves to be listened to that way. This is an album, a complete work of music, and the sequence and structure are not random.
Afghan Whigs weren't just another '90's grunge rock band, their dirty rock sound had a soul element that was straight out of Motown, and their sound owed as much to Teddy Pendergrass and Otis Redding as it did to Led Zeppelin and Neil Young. It was amazing to hear those influences still come through so loud and clear on the new album, but with a fresh and absolutely modern new quality. This doesn't sound like a reissue or a collection of previously unreleased songs from the mid '90's. Do To The Beast is a 2014 album, it's as viable and as challenging as anything I've heard in years, and every listen pays off with new textures and new sounds to notice. It's funny; several of my favorite albums this year made my list because they remind me of old favorites. Afghan Whigs are an old favorite, and they came back with the strongest and most absorbing new material I've heard all year.