5 Things: Favorite Music of 2014

One: click here for a Spotify playlist of forty-two favorite tracks from the year (including “O Canada” by Jill Sobule, video for which is embedded above).

Two: A complete list of all the albums I liked, ranked (click here and scroll to read further about the top twenty more or less in order):

    1. Jill Sobule – DOTTIE’S CHARMS
    2. Future Islands – SINGLES
    3. The New Pornographers – BRILL BRUISERS
    4. St. Vincent – ST. VINCENT
    5. Jessie Ware – TOUGH LOVE
    6. Lykke Li – I NEVER LEARN
    7. Cibo Matto – HOTEL VALENTINE
    8. Emm Gryner – TORRENTIAL
    9. Leonard Cohen – POPULAR PROBLEMS
    10. Stars – NO ONE IS LOST
    11. Gruff Rhys – AMERICAN INTERIOR
    12. Sun Kil Moon – BENJI
    13. Neneh Cherry – BLANK PROJECT
    14. Mac DeMarco – SALAD DAYS
    15. The Both – THE BOTH
    16. Ben Watt – HENDRA
    17. Suzanne Vega – TALES FROM THE REALM OF THE QUEEN OF PENTACLES
    18. Owen Pallett – IN CONFLICT
    19. Erasure – THE VIOLET FLAME
    20. Jenny Lewis – THE VOYAGER
    21. Sharon Van Etten – ARE WE THERE
    22. Perfume Genius – TOO BRIGHT
    23. Tori Amos – UNREPENTANT GERALDINES
    24. Spoon –THEY WANT MY SOUL
    25. Damon Albarn – EVERYDAY ROBOTS
    26. Lake Street Dive – BAD SELF PORTRAITS
    27. Real Estate – ATLAS
    28. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT
    29. Broken Bells – AFTER THE DISCO
    30. War on Drugs – LOST IN THE DREAM
    31. London Grammar – IF YOU WAIT
    32. Beck – MORNING PHASE

Three: Among the older albums I heard for the first time this year, I particularly liked the following: Fleetwood Mac – TUSK, Matthew E. White – BIG INNER, Jill Sobule and John Doe – A DAY AT THE PASS, John Grant – PALE GREEN GHOSTS, Prefab Sprout – STEVE McQUEEN/TWO WHEELS GOOD, The Dirtbombs – ULTRAGLIDE IN BLACK, Lalo Schifrin – BULLITT, Fairport Convention – UNHALFBRICKING, The Turtles – PRESENT THE BATTLE OF THE BANDS, Harry Nilsson – PUSSY CATS, Bob Mould – WORKBOOK

Four: I’ve made it one-fifth of the way through my ambitious 100 Albums project, finishing twenty essays so far (plus an introduction). Here are links to the five I like best, possibly because they are the most personal:

The Beatles, ABBEY ROAD
Joni Mitchell, BLUE
Stevie Wonder, INNERVISIONS
Talking Heads, REMAIN IN LIGHT
Kate Bush, THE DREAMING

My goal for this project is to at least make it to the half-way mark before 2016, but no big deal if I don’t, because I want these essays to be good.

Five: as for 2015, Belle and Sebastian, Sleater-Kinney and The Decemberists all have new albums coming out on January 20, so that’s a heck of a start. Also on the way: a reunited Juliana Hatfield Three, the first ever solo album from Kate Pierson (of The B-52’s) and Laura Marling–will her fifth LP be her fourth in a row to make my year-end top ten? Stay tuned…

Best Albums of 2014: # 2 and # 1

future islands singles

2. Future Islands – SINGLES

It restores my faith in humanity a bit that a heretofore unknown (I certainly hadn’t heard of them) synth pop trio fronted by Samuel T. Herring, who sounds almost like a crazed Roland Gift and looks like a younger Bob Hoskins can achieve instant fame after a fervent performance on David Letterman. The song they played, “Seasons (Waiting On You)”, is easily my favorite track of the year—the part where he sings “But the winter will craaaave what is gone,” still gives me chills—but for some, it has overshadowed the rest of their fourth album. I’m not going to argue anything here is better than “Seasons”, but I suspect the title has less to do with the dating scene and is more about the commercial potential of damn near every last track. Giving in to their love of New Order (dig that bass up front), AVALON and ‘80s teen movie anthems, Future Islands would seem like a throwback if not for the care put into these pop songs and of course Herring, whose impassioned, decisive growl is a thing of beauty whether he’s crooning or suddenly shifting to a full-on cathartic scream.

Favorite tracks: “Seasons (Waiting On You)”, “Doves”, “Back In The Tall Grass”, “Fall From Grace”, “A Dream Of You And Me”

dottie's charms

1.  Jill Sobule – DOTTIE’S CHARMS

Chiefly known for her novelty hit “I Kissed A Girl” (not the Katy Perry abomination of the same name) from her 1995 self-titled album, Jill Sobule has quietly built up a neat little discography since then: her winsome, wry persona ever present, each subsequent effort contains at least one or two gems as fully-formed as her hit (check out “Rainy Day Parade”, “Cinnamon Park” or “San Francisco”, for starters). Sobule’s latest is her first concept album, inspired by an odd charm bracelet given as a gift from a friend who purchased it off eBay. It consisted of a dozen or so charms in the shapes of various objects (such as a piano, a Canadian penny and a jet plane) with the name Dorothy inscribed on it. Obsessed with the bracelet, Sobule decided to make an album that would tell Dorothy’s imagined life story with each song inspired by one of the charms.

What’s differentiates DOTTIE’S CHARMS from Sobule’s previous work is that instead of writing the lyrics herself, she asked a group of her favorite writers to provide them, including Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, David Hajdu, Vendela Vida and six others. While Sobule herself is no slouch as a lyricist, this collaboration allows her to focus more on the music, which is the strongest and most stylistically varied of her career. In addition to whimsical orchestrated pop (“My Chair”), Marty Robbins-inspired country-and-western (“I Hate Horses”) and protest folk (“Women of Industry”), there’s a new reliance on piano rather than guitar, making for such lovely ballads as “Statue of Liberty” and “Wedding Ring” (the latter sounding exactly like classic early ‘70s Elton John, of all things). Throughout, despite the numerous lyricists, Sobule’s puckish, affable voice remains a constant presence. DOTTIE’S CHARMS has slowly traveled up my mental list of the year’s favorite releases since I first heard it in May; it’s the great album I always knew she had in her.

Favorite tracks: “My Chair”, “Statue of Liberty”, “I Swear I Saw Christopher Reeve”, “O Canada”, “Wedding Ring”

Best Albums of 2014: # 5, 4, 3

Jessie_Ware_Tough_Love

5. Jessie Ware – TOUGH LOVE

Ware has such a distinct voice and tone that in a worst-case scenario, she’s nothing more than that. Fortunately, she avoids that trap on her second album, and not without taking some risks. “Say You Love Me”, “You and I (Forever)” and “Want Your Feeling” all aim for more immediacy and directness than anything on her debut, making no apologies for their blatant crossover aspirations. However, I end up responding as positively to them as the title track, which I could listen to on repeat for both its disarming melody and enigmatic allure, or the effervescent “Champagne Kisses”, a gentle yet euphoric hymn I’d gladly purchase in bulk if it could be bottled. She may have already solidly established her persona, but a long career awaits if she continues to explore all the possibilities it can contain.

Favorite tracks: “Tough Love”, “You and I (Forever)”, “Want Your Feeling”, “Champagne Kisses”

st vincent

4. St. Vincent – ST. VINCENT

Initially dismissing her fourth album as more of the same following the impenetrable STRANGE MERCY, a few months and many spins later, it finally clicked: she’s figured out how to write catchy pop songs that are often a world apart from any other catchy pop song you ever heard. Also, she’s taken a cue from former collaborator David Byrne and has forged an entirely original persona where she’s as alien and freaky as she cares to be and yet, it all connects on the strength of her musicianship and, more importantly, her vision. Not as visionary as Kate Bush’s fourth album, of course, but the more I listen to it (and the more I hear in it), I’m convinced she’s up there with Bush, Tori Amos and Bjork as one of our great female eccentrics.

Favorite tracks: “Rattlesnake”, “Digital Witness”, “I Prefer Your Love”, “Psychopath”

the-new-pornographers-brill-bruisers

3. The New Pornographers – BRILL BRUISERS

Perhaps all they needed was the four-year break. After two albums of diminishing returns, I figured this Canadian supergroup had nothing left to offer at the level of their now-classic first three efforts, and I’m ecstatic to be proven wrong. Newman, Neko and Bejar all sound refreshed and recharged, which each one providing career near-highlights: respectively, the ELO-worthy “Backstairs”, the shimmering “Champions of Red Wine” and new wave pastiche/manifesto “War On The East Coast”. But wait! There’s also the one where Neko sings, “They say we can’t make this stuff up / but what else could we make?”, the title track’s immense “ba, ba, ba’s,” the alternate-universe radio standard “Dancehall Domine” and a closer as stirring as anything they’ve ever done. A very good album that also serves as an argument for waiting to make a record until all participants are sufficiently inspired.

Favorite tracks: “Champions of Red Wine”, “War On The East Coast”, “Backstairs”, “Marching Orders”, “Dancehall Domine”

Best Albums of 2014: # 8, 7, 6

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8. Emm Gryner – TORRENTIAL

Following her glorious NORTHERN GOSPEL, this feels a bit all over the place musically: it opens with a folksy stomper that bears some influence from her side project Trent Severn and closes on a grand, emotional power ballad that may hint at where she’s heading next. Elsewhere, she’s gleefully profane (“Purge”), she’s clever without being arch (“Math Wiz”), she duets with astronaut Chris Hadfield (“So Easy”) and even flirts with disco-divadom (“Bright Spot”). What holds it all together are sustained themes of independence, self-awareness and self-preservation. Call this another chapter in the keen body of work she’s been dutifully building since deciding to stay independent fifteen years ago.

Favorite tracks: “Excess Baggage”, “Purge”, “End Of Me”

Cibo-Matto_Hotel-Valentine

7. Cibo Matto – HOTEL VALENTINE

Reunions after decade-plus absences are usually dicey propositions, but when I saw this kooky late ‘90s Japanese-American female duo in concert in 2011, I had reason to feel confident about the forthcoming “new album” they announced. Finally arriving three years later, it’s not only good but actually on par with their old stuff, which either means they were ahead of their time or that the long break kept them fresh. Only Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda could conceive of a concept album about a hotel for ghosts, but what’s almost startling is how devoted they are to seeing it through: at a tight ten tracks and 37 minutes, they conceive an entirely unique but accessible world and keep their weirdness intact.

Favorite tracks: “Deja Vu”, “10th Floor Ghost Girl”, “Empty Pool”

Lykke_L

6. Lykke Li – I NEVER LEARN

I admit I wasn’t impressed on the first or second listen of Li’s long-awaited third release: it all sounded too samey, one heartbroken lament after another. Then I heard the propulsive “Gunshot” in isolation, gave the whole thing another chance, and gradually saw the light. This isn’t too far removed from WOUNDED RHYMES, but it’s more cohesive and Li’s more assured even as most of these songs are about falling apart. She’s also both unflinching and vulnerable, often shifting everywhere between those two states in the space of one line. And while you can detect the torch song lineage in “Just Like A Dream” and “Heart of Steel” all the way back to the Ronettes, her persona feels more contemporary than classical and thus, the songs all crucially pulsate with life.

Favorite tracks: “No Rest For The Wicked”, “Gunshot”, “Heart of Steel”

Best Albums of 2014: # 11, 10, 9

LP packshot

11. Gruff Rhys – AMERICAN INTERIOR

The band who recorded my favorite album of 2009 has been on hiatus ever since, so I take solace in this latest solo effort from its leader. A concept album about 18th century Welsh explorer John Evans (he went to America and produced an early map of the Missouri River), it’s more disciplined than the average Super Furry Animals release, even as it runs the gamut from showtune-ready rockabilly (“100 Unread Messages”) to extended orchestral fanfares (“Iolo”) and catchy nonsense (or whatever the heck “Allweddellau Allweddol” is). There’s also a corresponding documentary film and book (both of which I want to check out), but this very much stands on its own as a fully realized piece.

Favorite tracks: “American Interior”, “100 Unread Messages”, “Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be)”

starsnooneislost

10. Stars – NO ONE IS LOST

Most bands should be so lucky to sequence their albums with such fabulous bookends as Stars has for their seventh album: “From The Night” places somber, meek verses against a catchy, full-blast chorus, and the contrast heightens the impact in both sections, while the title track manages to eke out an uptempo, floor-filling anthem from a sentiment as dark and honest as, “Put your hands up ‘cause everybody dies.” In between, you get the usual ‘80s pastiches and Amy Millan ballads, none of which are standouts or embarrassments. They’ll still release a stellar singles comp someday, but, along with 2012’s THE NORTH, they’re getting closer to that classic full-length they’ve been edging towards since SET YOURSELF ON FIRE a decade ago.

Favorite tracks: “From The Night”, “What Is To Be Done?”, “No One Is Lost”

leonard cohen

9. Leonard Cohen – POPULAR PROBLEMS

I hate to keep going back to the well of “this is artist x’s best album since y”, but seriously, I have not enjoyed listening to this man so much since 1988’s I’M YOUR MAN. If I had first heard this when it was released in September instead of a few weeks ago, it might’ve placed even higher here. Cohen’s almost exclusively-spoken growl may now fall somewhere in between Tom Waits and Cookie Monster, but he’s completely in sync with the material. However, the real attraction this time out is the music: both spacious and intimate, its twists and turns (the tempo change in the chorus of “Did I Ever Love You”, the Serge Gainsbourg-worthy near-disco (!) of “Nevermind”) are surprisingly spry coming from a near-octogenarian.

Favorite tracks: “Slow”. “Almost Like The Blues”, “Nevermind”

Best Albums of 2014: # 14, 13, 12

Mac_DeMarco_Salad_Days

14. Mac DeMarco – SALAD DAYS

This 24-year-old Canadian’s “slacker rock” is like something John Lennon and Harry Nilsson would’ve cooked up together forty years ago if they never made it to the bar and holed up in their hotel rooms, strung out on pot more than booze. The opener/title track is nearly worthy of Lennon even as it exudes wisdom while half-wearing a shit-eating grin. The instrumentation abruptly switches over from guitars to old-sounding synths on the album’s second half, but the songwriting rarely wavers. SALAD DAYS ain’t a “great” LP, but it’s inspiring enough you suspect DeMarco will make one sooner rather than later.

Favorite tracks: “Salad Days”, “Passing Out Pieces”, “Chamber of Reflection”

neneh-cherry-blank-project

13. Neneh Cherry – BLANK PROJECT

Best known for “Buffalo Stance” twenty-five years ago, Cherry’s flash-in-the-pan status is unearned. On her first domestic solo release in over two decades, as the title suggests, she opts for a sparse palette: percussion, vocals, subtle electronics. Not quite drums n’ bass nor trip-hop in the Portishead sense, these ten minimalist queries place Cherry, who sounds as urgent and personable as she ever did, front and center. Even a high-profile guest such as Robyn doesn’t obscure that, in the most heartfelt since, this is Cherry’s project: solid enough to make up for the time she’s been away and distinct enough to hope this is just the start of a great second act.

Favorite tracks: “Naked”, “Spit Three Times”, “Out of The Black”

benjifront

12. Sun Kil Moon – BENJI

Whether you find Mark Kozelek’s shenanigans boorish or amusing, they don’t distract from the compellingly raw confessionals on his latest album. His recent shift from character sketches to autobiographical narratives has left some longtime fans scratching their heads, but it’s what moved me to pay more attention to him. His occasional bouts of self-deprecating humor are also something I hadn’t previously noticed in his work (of which I’ve heard only a small fraction of, admittedly), but it renders his often rambling tunes bearable and likable—it also enables him to pull off the breezy lounge pop of “Ben’s My Friend” without seeming like a total cheeseball.

Favorite tracks: “Carissa”, “I Love My Dad”, “Ben’s My Friend”

Best Albums of 2014: # 17, 16, 15

suzanne-vega-Tales-From-The-Realm-Of-The-Queen-Of-Pentacles-e1386005321757

17. Suzanne Vega – TALES FROM THE REALM OF THE QUEEN OF PENTACLES

Laborious title aside, this is nearly as good as BEAUTY AND CRIME from 2007, which is the least one should expect since it’s her first collection of new material since then. What’s unexpected is how well “Fool’s Complaint” would’ve fit on any of her first three albums, or the Macklemore reference she sneaks in to “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain” or “I Never Wear White”, arguably the first all-out rocker of her 30-year career and a convincing one at that. Let her take another 5+ years to make another album if it replicates the quality control present here.

Favorite tracks: “Fool’s Complaint”, “I Never Wear White”, “Horizon (There Is A Road)”

BEN WATT hendra space 2

16. Ben Watt – HENDRA

Given wife Tracy Thorn’s solo renaissance, it seems inevitable Watt would follow with his own album—his first since 1982’s pre-Everything But The Girl NORTH MARINE DRIVE. Closer in vein to that record than the electronic dance music he’s dabbled in since the late ‘90s, HENDRA casts Watt in the role of middle-aged troubadour, similar to the persona Thorn inhabited on LOVE AND ITS OPPOSITE. These ten reflective, mostly stripped-down songs concern such universalities as memory (the sublime “Forget”) and aging (“Young Man’s Game”). And although Thorn was EBTG’s primary vocalist, it’s simply great to hear Watt sing (and play guitar) again.

Favorite tracks: “Forget”, “Spring”, “Young Man’s Game”

the both

15. The Both – THE BOTH

Two of my favorite musicians (Aimee Mann and Ted Leo) make up this duo and the lead single is named after my hometown (“Milwaukee”) so the whole effort would have to suck considerably for me to hate it. And though it’s not the best thing either artist has ever done, it’s the most enjoyable album either has released in some time. Even more impressive, it’s a perfect melding of two sensibilities that pays dividends: Leo encourages Mann to convincingly rock like she hasn’t since I’M WITH STUPID, while Mann inspires a melodic drive and focus from Leo that hasn’t been so tight since SHAKE THE SHEETS. It all sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Favorite tracks: “Milwaukee”, “Volunteers of America”, “The Prisoner”