Friday, December 12, 2014

My Favorite Music Of 2014

This has been an interesting year for music for me. I bought A LOT of albums this year and it made narrowing it down to 10 albums quite difficult. As always, there were the obvious favorites, the albums that never left my side all year long (or at least from the time they were released). Then there were the ones that came out later in the year and so have not had the chance to fully engross themselves into my life. There were also plenty of surprises and some disappointments along the way.

So with that, here are my favorite albums from 2014:

1. Alpha Consumer: Meat
80% Devo and 20% Ryan Adams alt-country stylings, Meat mixes some amazing weirdness with the right amount of heart and a major dose of musicianship that makes this album one of the most fun albums that, really, I've ever heard. From the first notes of "Miss Positron", I was hooked. The head starts bopping and the fingers and feet start tapping. The album slides from fuzzed out guitar rock ("Brain Doctor"), to 80s New Wave danceable numbers ("The Eat"), to oddly sweet country ballads ("You Ain't Alone") with out ever feeling like a song doesn't belong.

Top Three Tracks: "Miss Positron", "You Ain't Alone", "Cry Bullets"

2. Haley Bonar: Last War
Haley is back again with another brilliant album of exceptionally crafted songs. I still stand by it: I don't think it's possible for her to write a bad song. Last War sonically has a bit more grit to it than previous albums with songs like "No Sensitive Man", "Woke Up in My Future", and the title track barreling through with electric guitars and spitting vocals. But her softer side still comes through on "From a Cage" (which features Bon Iver's Justin Vernon on backing vocals) and the hauntingly beautiful album closer "Eat for Free". A stunning album and a perfect next step in her discography.

Top Three Tracks: "Eat for Free", "Last War", "From a Cage"

3. Sylvan Esso: Sylvan Esso
It was their live show that did it for me. I heard the song "Coffee" and liked it enough to pick up the album. Every time my iPod would shuffle onto a song from the album, it would catch my ears and I'd find myself paying more and more attention. But their live show was outstanding and made me completely fall in love with them. That's quite an accomplishment for a band that consists of a singer and a guy hunched over a computer and mixing board. The beats are great and Amelia Meath's vocals and lyrics are perfectly charming.

Top Three Tracks: "H.S.K.T", "Dress", "Play It Right"

4. S: Cool Choices
This album is probably the biggest surprise of the bunch to make the list because I had never hard of this artist until a couple of weeks ago. I was in the car listening to Radio K and her song "Brunch" was playing and I instantly fell in love with it, got home, looked her up online, gave the the samples from the rest of the album a listen, downloaded it, and immediately went to all of her social media things and liked them all. It's a mix of cool guitar driven tracks and simply beautiful piano ballads led by biting and humorous and painfully honest lyrics that take me back to the early days of Juliana Hatfield. Really excited about this artist and I'm eager to pick up her earlier albums once I've fully given Cool Choices the attention it deserves.

Top Three Tracks: "Losers", "Brunch","Remember Love"

5. Ani Difranco: Allergic To Water
Ani has a new album out, so Ani makes the list. I don't mean for that to sound like the album doesn't deserve it on its own, because it does. It's just that I always love an Ani Difranco album so it's no surprise it made it. Allergic To Water might be the most cohesive album of Ani's in years. She completely took the reigns again on this one and she really needs to do that more often. Her guitar is back out front. The album has a flow and feel to it that has been lacking on her last couple of albums. She said she mixed this album through headphones while her newborn baby slept and you can tell as the album has a quietness to it, even on the more rocking tracks like "Dithering" and "Genie", as if she's decided to whisper you her thoughts this time. The lyrics are grown-up Ani. She's married, settled down, with kids and that's what she reflects on these days. But she does it in that Ani way like on the truthfully funny "Harder Than It Needs to Be".  It just feels like she knew exactly what she wanted out of this album and that's what she got - and it works.

Top Three Tracks: "Allergic to Water", "Harder Than It Needs to Be", "Dithering"

6. Sharon Van Etten: Are We There?
A much more subdued, yet way more raw album than her previous release Tramp, Are We There? is filled with beautiful piano ballads that showcase Sharon's gorgeous vocals. It's a break-up album that feels like it was created right at the breaking point. There's less looking back and reflection and more calling out and realization. I mean, with songs called "Your Love Is Killing Me", "I Love You But I'm Lost", and "Nothing Will Change", it's an album where hope has pretty much sailed. But even with all of that, it never feels like its wallowing. The songs are powerful. They have a statement to make.

Top Three Tracks: "Every Time the Sun Comes Up", "Afraid of Nothing", "Tarifa"

7. Leonard Cohen: Popular Problems 
At 80 years old, Leonard Cohen is still kickin' it and kickin' it well. He's truly a poet so age was never going to get in his way. He's not making rock songs that require him to strut around on stage in leather pants. He writes sonnets. After all this time, he still finds intriguing ways to look at things. Of course, maybe that great insight comes with age. His wonderful back up singers are still there and possibly a little more up front to smooth out Leonard's elder grumble. Their harmonies and his words are laid out over simple grooves. It's a very chill record.

Top Three Tracks: "Did I Ever Love You?", "Almost Like the Blues", "You Got Me Singing"

8. Southside Desire: Southside Desire
Soulful, groovy, smart, fun. Southside Desire has always gone beyond their excellent rhythms and amazing harmonies. Lead singer Marvel writes some of the best lyrics. There is a lot to really listen to on this album...and you can do it all while dancing and singing along to those awesome vocal arrangements.

Top Three Tracks: "Missing", "Make or Break", "Double Dutch/Recognize"

9. J Mascis: Tied To A Star
Another surprise entry on this list. I've never been much of a Dinosaur, Jr. fan - I liked the one song they had as a hit in the 90s ("Feel the Pain"), but that was about it. I certainly never explored his early works. But I scored some tickets to his show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts back in October and he completely won me over. I picked up this album AND a show poster at the show. I think his voice just really suits these laid back, mostly acoustic numbers. He has an interesting voice and it stands out so much more. The guitar work is great (which is something he's known for anyway). It's just a very charming, quiet little album.

Top Three Tracks: "Every Morning", "And Then", "Come Down"

10. Mimicking Birds: Eons
Mimicking Birds came back this year with another album full of interstellar, evolution via alien origins, sci-fi, introspective thought provoking songs - and if those themes don't interest you, then you will still most likely enjoy the intricate guitar, subtle harmonines and just total chill out vibe. Light the candles, grab a glass of wine, and just...listen.

Top Three Tracks: "Bloodlines", "Owl Hoots", "Wormholes"

Honorable Mentions:
I really try to keep my favorite list to just 10 albums, so these are the ones that just missed the cut (in no particular order):

Jenny Lewis: The Voyager (Really wanted to love this album, but I just don't. But I LOVE the songs "Head Underwater" and "The Voyager". Like LOVE LOVE LOVE them. But that does not a favorite album make.)
Wye Oak: Shriek
The Eels: The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett
We Are The Willows: Picture (Portrait)
Graveyard Club: Nightingale
Sun Gods to Gamma Rays: A Ghost to Find
Erica Russo and The Good Sport: Split EP
Taylor Swift: 1989

Additional Mentions:
These are albums that I felt like I'd have to put a disclaimer by if I included them in the Top 10, so I'm just going to put them here - though they could have easily made the Top 10.

Beyonce: Beyonce
Disclaimer Reason: Technically this album came out mid-December of last year, but it was a surprise release so I (and everyone else) had already put out their best of 2013 lists. It wasn't fair. Because this album has not left my iPod since it was released and would definitely be my #1 album of 2014 - if it was actually released this year.

Anais Mitchell: Xoa
Disclaimer Reason: This is kind of a compilation album. Anais re-recorded a bunch of previously released songs and then mixed in some new/unreleased tracks. It's a beautiful record and these solo, raw takes on some of these older songs are definitely preferred over the originals.

Rank Strangers: I Am Thinking About You
Disclaimer Reason: Not an actual release - but a teaser release of the trilogy of albums they are releasing next year. This album has 3 songs from each of the 3 albums - just enough to leave us wanting more.

She and Him: Classics
Disclaimer Reason: It's a cover song album and it seems weird for it to be a part of the best of list for that reason. But they are delightful covers and it's a great album for this time of year.

Favorite Songs:
Here's some songs that I loved that are not off of one of the Top 10 albums.

Jenny Lewis: "Head Underwater"

Lizzo and Caroline Smith: "Let 'Em Say:

Taylor Swift: "Shake It Off"

Future Islands: "Seasons (Waiting on You)"

Beyonce: "***Flawless"

Wye Oak: "Before"

We Are The Willows: "Dear Ms. Branstner"

Erica Russo and The Good Sport: "Roller Coaster"

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