Monday, December 22, 2014

Top Twentysomething Albums of 2014

It's that time of the year again.

Like I did in 20102011, 2012, and 2013, I'm providing my top twenty albums that came out this year. After the top twenty, there's a list of albums that deserve honorable mention. 

As for the year in music, from my perspective, this year didn't produce the quality of albums that I have gotten accustomed to from the past few years. Maybe it's just my personal music tastes, but the previous four years seem stronger in quality and quantity. 

That's not to say these twensomething albums aren't good. They are. However, there weren't many albums that really blew my doors off. 

If there are other albums you would recommend, please let me know in the comments section.

1. Drive-By Truckers, English Oceans

DBT is somewhat cursed by their past success. While The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots have a number of solid songs on them, Truckers fans are prone to think about the glories of Pizza DeliveranceSouthern Rock OperaThe Dirty South (which I would argue is the band's best album), and Decoration Day. Fortunately, this year saw a DBT album that offers a roughly equal number of Cooley and Hood songs. I like that change because I've always felt Cooley has been under-appreciated as a lyricist. 

When I first made a draft of the top albums, I had this album further down the list. Then I listened to it a bit more and moved it up to 1. "When Walter Went Crazy," "The Part of Him," and "Pauline Hawkins" have become three tunes to add to my favorite Patterson Hood songs. "Grand Canyon," written for one of their friends who passed away, is majestic. Cooley's "Primer Coat" is a sober recognition of the passage of time. 

Favorite songs: "Seeing Jimmy Loud," "Primer Coat," "When He's Gone," "Grand Canyon," "The Part of Him," and "When Walter Went Crazy"

2. The Hold Steady, Teeth Dreams

It was good to see this band come out with a solid album this year. I liked Craig Finn's solo effort, but I prefer the more raw, straightforward rock-n-roll of THS with Finn's narrative-based lyrics. "Big Cig" is one of my favorite songs of this year. Some of the songs aren't as brawny as what I consider some of the band's classics like "Stuck Between Stations," "Chips Ahoy!," "Constructive Summer," "Sequestered in Memphis," and "The Sweet Part of the City." However, the band provides a strong offering here, a well rounded album. 

Favorite songs: "Runner's High," "Oaks," "On With the Business," "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You," and "Big Cig"

3. Centro-matic, Take Pride in Your Long Odds

I am a big fan of the band's previous album, Candidate Waltz. But this one has really stuck with me. It's been a go-to listen since I picked it up. It's just a solid album of Centro-matic doing their Centro-matic things. I rarely can figure out what the heck Will Johnson is singing about, but the arrangements and melodies are addictive and hypnotic. 

Favorite songs: "Through the Fog, Then Down," "Salty Disciple," "Academy of Lunkers," and "Cynthia Glass"

4. Hard Working Americans, self-titled

So Todd Snider, Dave Schools (bassist of Widespread Panic), Neal Casel (guitarist of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood), Chad Staehly (keyboardist of Great American Taxi), and Duane Trucks (drummer) got together and created an fine album of covers. Check it out. Support these hard working Americans. 

Favorite songs: "Stomp and Holler," "Straight to Hell," "The Mountain Song," "Welfare Music," and "Run a Mile"

5. Foo Fighters, Sonic Highways

I got sucked into this album because I started watching their HBO show that showcased them recording the songs at famous recording studios. As the show makes us want to believe, they would go to a certain city, talk to influential people there, lay down the tunes, and then Grohl would pen lyrics based on the time spent in the location. I don't know how accurate that method is, but I don't see why they would lie. They might fudge the truth a bit, but Sonic Highways is strong hard rock album with songs that become pleasant ear worms. 

Favorite songs: "Something from Nothing" (about Chicago), "I Am a River" (about New York City), "Outside" (about Joshua Tree, CA), and "Feast and The Famine" (about D.C.)

6. Tom Petty, Hypnotic Eye

The past couple of years I've gotten back into Tom Petty and his fine Heartbreakers. Hypnotic Eye is a solid rock album. It didn't generate the hits like his old albums did, but now is a very different music industry/environment. "Forgotten Man" is reminiscent of a Bo-Diddley riff. "American Dream Plan B" provides some social commentary. And "Fault Lines" reminds me that I'm a  middle-aged man.

Favorite songs: "Forgotten Man," "All You Can Carry," "Fault Lines," and "American Dream Plan B"

7. Various Artists, Dead Man's Town

Yep, that's right. A tribute album to Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. Younger artists take on these iconic songs and make them their own. Joe Pug's rendition of "Downbound Train" is excellent. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires start off the album with a justly somber and haunting "Born in the U.S.A." Blitzen Trapper has fun on "Working on the Highway." And a band I didn't know about before I got this album, the Quaker City Night Hawks, provides a fabulous cover of "Darlington County."

Favorite songs: Ones mentioned above plus "I'm Going Down" by Trampled by Turtles" and "I'm on Fire" by Low. 

8. Nickel Creek, A Dotted Line

The band got back together and put out A Dotted Line this year. As for Thile's outfits, I prefer the Punch Brothers over Nickel Creek. If you like their work from the early aughts, you'll enjoy this one. It's a return to form although "Hayloft" seems a bit experimental. 

Favorite songs: "Elephant in the Corn," "21st of May," "Elsie," "Hayloft," and "Destination" 

9. John Mellencamp, Performs Trouble Now More at Town Hall

If you like Trouble No More, and I really do, then you'll really like the live album of the songs performed in 2003. There are also revised versions of "Paper in Fire," "Teardrops Will Fall," "Small Town," and "Pink Houses." 

Favorite songs: "Stones in My Passway," "Paper in Fire," "To Washington," and "Down in the Bottom"

10. Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes

Since Mellencamp came in at 9, I might as well follow it up for another aged rock star. Apparently, the skinny on this album is they recorded a bunch of songs that he and the E Street Band usually play live. It has a live vibe that makes me disappointed that I've never seen Springsteen in concert. Tom Morello was part of the recording of this album and he also was part of the tour. So the album presents a significant revision of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" since Rage Against the Machine revised it. 

Favorite songs: "High Hopes," "American Skin (41 Shots)," "Just Like Fire Would," "Hunter of Invisible Game," "The Ghost of Tom Joad" 

11. John Fullbright, Songs

Fullbright's debut album, From the Ground Up, is so outstanding that it was going to be difficult to live up to those lofty expectations. Songs is a slower moving affair than the first album, with only a few songs with drums on them. I prefer his more uptempo tunes. However, there are solid, introspective tracks on this album. 

Favorite songs: "When You're Here," "Never Cry Again," "Going Home," and "The One That Lives Too Far"

12. The Bad Plus, The Rite of Spring

I was between either putting up this album or the band's other one, Inevitable Western, that came out this year. One of the best jazz trios out there takes on Stravinsky's famous work, an opus that people consider to one of the most influential pieces of music in the 20th century. The Bad Plus is considered to be experimental by some jazz purists, so it makes sense they reinterpreted this classic work that was seen as experimental in its day. Well done.

Favorite parts: "The Augurs of Spring," "First Part: Adoration of the Earth: Spring Rounds," and "Second Part: The Sacrifice: Sacrificial Dance" 

13. St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Half the City

If you're looking for some good old fashioned soul music, you need to get this album. These fellows from Birmingham (AL) do it right. The lead singer's voice reminds me of Otis Redding, and Redding is easily my favorite R&B/soul singer. Fun arrangements and soul butter slappin' you upside the head. 

Favorite songs: "It's Midnight," "Half the City," "Like a Mighty River," and "Call Me"  

14. Justin Townes Earle, Single Mothers

For me, because Harlem River Blues is such a strong album, it's difficult for subsequent JTE albums to impress me. I like this one better than the last, and I look forward to the follow up to Single Mothers, which is titled Absent Fathers. This album is standard JTE and worthy of the top twenty of 2014. 

Favorite songs: "Time Shows Fools," "Wanna Be a Stranger," "My Baby Drives," and "Single Mothers"

15. Keb' Mo', Bluesamericana

I hadn't bought a Keb Mo album in a good while. This year's album got good reviews, so I picked it up. Though it's a bit too polished for my taste at times, he offers a strong set of songs on this album. If you're hankering for some blues, this was a good option this year. On some songs, such as "Old Me Better," there are ragtime influences. 

Favorite songs: "Old Me Better," "The Worst Is Yet to Come," "Do It Right," and "Move"

16. The Secret Sisters, Put Your Needle Down

Their debut album was widely lauded by critics. I think their sophomore album is even stronger. In contrast to the old timey feel of the first album, these songs sound more original and a bit more dark. Nice work, ladies.

Favorite songs: "Black and Blue," "Rattle My Bones," "Let There Be Lonely," and "I Cannot Find a Way"

17. Trampled by Turtles, Wild Animals

The bluegrass dudes from Duluth scored another fine album this year. In comparison to other releases, Wild Animals is, in general, a slower paced affair. But it's good. 

Favorite songs: "Western World," "Are You Behind the Shining Star?," "Repetition," and "Winners"

18. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

I don't have Simpson's first album, but this album is a definite breath of fresh air for country music. It contrasts, thankfully, to the bro-country offerings of schmucks like Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, et al. This is country music that's old school, and that's a very good thing. 

Favorite songs: "Life of Sin," "Turtles All the Way Down," "It Ain't All Flowers," and "Living the Dream"

19. Counting Crows, Somewhere Under Wonderland

Yes, these guys are still around. I hadn't bought one of the band's albums since Hard Candy (2002). I doubt any of these songs were big hits on the charts like how the band captured the music industry's attention with August and Everything After, but if you yearn for good poppy rock music, this album is worth your time. 

Favorite songs: "John Appleseed's Lament," "Scarecrow," "Dislocation," and "Palisades Park"

20. The Barr Brothers, Sleeping Operator

If you missed their first album, you should start with that one. Sleeping Operator is a good second offering, but I think I could sum up this album in one word: atmospheric. It's a good listen if you're in the mood for that kind of music. 

Favorite songs: "Valhallas," "Even the Darkness Has Arms," "Wolves," and "Static Orphans"

Honorable Mentions

The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western

Delta Spirit, Into the Wild

The Afghan Wigs, Do To the Beast

Rod Picott, Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail

Shovels and Rope, Swimmin' Time


Fozzie said...

Honorable mention:

Robert Plant's "Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar."

The Hold Steady is my #1. Favorite song is "Wait A While." Craig Finn's vocals took a while to grow on me, but you can't beat the power chords and pop choruses.

Quintilian B. Nasty said...

I haven't gotten that album, Foz. Thanks for mentioning it.

I forgot about that song from The Hold Steady. When I initially did this list, I had Teeth Dreams at no. 1. I think you could make the case that English Oceans and Teeth Dreams are 1a and 1b.