Best Albums of 2014: # 17, 16, 15

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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”

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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”

Many Happy Returns

Should I worry that my three favorite new albums of the year are all by artists returning after exceedingly long hiatuses? First up is Cibo Matto, the Japanese-American female duo who broke up after their second album in 1999 but reunited for a tour in 2011. I saw them then at the Brighton Music Hall, where they teased a few tracks from “their new album”. 2+ years later, Hotel Valentine has finally arrived and I’m liking it almost as much as their classic debut, Viva! La Woman. Whereas that was a loose concept album about food, the new one’s a (somewhat less) loose concept album about a hotel for ghosts. It’s pretty wonderful, unmistakably Cibo Matto but also fresh and unique, not at all stuck in a late ’90s time capsule. “10th Floor Ghost Girl” is the immediate standout, a catchy, loopy dance floor fixture with a guitar riff swiped straight from Talking Heads’ Remain in Light.

After putting out four discs of re-recorded versions of her old songs, Suzanne Vega has finally crafted a true follow-up to 2007’s Beauty and Crime. Despite its unwieldy, pretentious title Tales From The Realm of The Queen of Pentacles, it ranks with her best, most lucid work; oddly enough, it’s also possibly her hardest rocking effort to date, and if you scoff at the idea of describing Vega that way, give “I Never Wear White” a spin and get back to me.

Finally, Neneh Cherry, of all people, has a new album out. Apart from her recent collaboration with avant-jazz group The Thing, she hasn’t put out anything in 18 years, and that last record, Man, was never officially released here. Remarkably, she doesn’t sound a day older than she did on 1992’s Homebrew. I only just listened to Blank Project for the first time yesterday, but its minimalist grooves already seem both up-to-the-minute and timeless. “Out of the Black” is a sharp collaboration with Robyn, whom I hope doesn’t wait too much longer to release a follow-up to her own last LP, 2010’s Body Talk.