The Ten Best Albums of 2014

2014 was a fine year for music.   Although I did not get to go to many live shows since living in the PRC, I managed to stay in tune thanks to YOU guys out there in social-media land.   This year was equal part discovery of new bands/artists as well as seeing some of my favorites back in the saddle.  After weeks of thought and a year of listening, I have narrowed down my favorite ten albums.  Here you go:

10.  S. Carey – Range of Light –   This is real chill out peaceful music.   If you like Sufjan Stevens or Bon Iver, check out this album. It has a gentle, yet intricate and nicely layered feel to it.  Whether it is Sunday morning with a coffee on the deck or a Tuesday evening after a hectic day at work, this is a good musical prescription to relax.  Despite its laid-back feel, the audio scaffolding is still gracefully challenging to the ears. This is fine headphone album.   Dig this video for the track “Fire-scene”:

9.  Lana Del Ray – Ultraviolence – Where have I been? I just discovered this soulful voice in the last month. The songs are intimate and dark.  A sort of Portishead meets Cat Power but with a little bit more attitude and punch.  I love the huge reverb feel on the album.  All of the tracks are huge and her voice seems to resonate with you even after she stops singing.  The pain and desperation in these songs are intense.

8.  Drive By Truckers – English Oceans – This southern rock outfit has been a favorite of mine since the early 2000s. They are an ass-kicking live experience. Back in Park City, Utah a few years ago, I was on the front rail a tiny little club. Band breaks out a bottle of Jack Daniels amongst themselves and then passing it to the audience and back and forth. Sharing swigs and shots with the band as they play LOUD– that is about as rock and roll as you can get!!! I’m grateful no one had the flu. Although I don’t think the band will ever be able to top their magnum opus Southern Rock Opera or the Jason Isbell fused masterpiece The Dirty South, Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood bring their A-game songwriting to this most recent collection.   This is the first time since maybe Southern Rock Opera that the songwriting duties have been equally split between the writers.   This gives you a good understanding of the wide perspective dynamics of the band. I hope these boys are still making music in 10 or 20 years.   They age well and stick with what is important at the core: good songwriting. “I’ll think about the Grand Canyon. I’ll lift my glass and smile.”  Here is my favorite track:

7.  Robert Plant – Lullaby and The Ceaseless Roar – I’m impressed how incredibly good Robert Plant sounds at his advanced age.   Okay, maybe it isn’t Led Zeppelin IV vocal performance but it is still strong and suits him well for the material he is producing these days.   His band, The Sensational Space Shifters brings an East-meets-West trance vibe that makes for an enjoyable and eclectic journey through time, space and emotion. I’m glad Robert said “no” to a possible Led Zeppelin reunion. Following your muse is much more important than following the money.

6.  Beck – Morning Phase – Beck is one of those few artists that can produce so many difference styles of music and make them all sound good: R&B, rock, dance, hip-hop, lo-fi, acoustic emotive chill out, country, and others.   You can’t categorize Beck. Call him the King Genre Jumper.   This year’s Morning Phase goes back to one of my favorite Beck styles – the warm acoustic and straightforward songs he produced with Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s longtime producer) on 2002’s Sea Change.    I have been waiting years for the follow up to it. This album takes 2002’s sound to the next level. It is expansive and magnificently produced. Beck the rule-breaker organizes his lush palette and delivers. This is an incredibly enjoyable sonic soundscape from start to finish.

5.  Cracker – Berkeley to Bakersfield – Ever since rocking out to David Lowery and Johnny Hickman at the Music Farm (and 96 WAVEFEST) in Charleston, South Carolina almost 20 years ago, I have followed this band.   This past year, I got to see these boys play in China on a tour that was organized by the US State Department (David Lowery is a huge proponent / lecturer / blogger on intellectual property rights and the greater interests of artists. I believe he came to China to break the ice on those subjects).   What a show!!! It was just as rocking as it was way back in college. It has been a while since Cracker released a full length album. Berkeley to Bakersfield is a fine piece of work that gets back to some of the history of the band, merging iconic places and experiences that helped forge David Lowery’s songwriting.   The two disc set works balancing the punk rock feel, mainstream rock and country tingle to a genuine reflective experience. It is a great audio trip back to California whenever I’m feeling a bit homesick out here in China. Check out David Lowery’s website, The Trichordist.   Great stuff.

4.  The Mother Hips – Chronicle Man – The Hips have THAT “California Soul” sound.   Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono have been chasing it for two and a half decades through the Hips and various other side-projects. They deliver the goods: incredible songwriting, introspective lyrics, Beach Boysish harmonies, intricate guitar play and amazing live performances.    Chronicle Man is actually not new material. It is a collection of recordings that were recently discovered; tapes that were dusted off from the time in the 90s that the band was on Rick Rubin’s American Recordings roster.   These songs have an unpolished raw edge (they are demos, obviously) and, to my ears, are a continuation of the direction the band was pushing with Part-Timer Goes Full and Shootout.   The last track, “Rich Little Girl”, knocked my ears off my head the first time I heard it. The guitars go full throttle.   I’m usually feeling Neil Young territory when I listen to some of Tim and Gregs’ guitar conversations.   Here it is full-on Led Zeppelin.  This is what it is about:

3.  Phish – Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of Halloween – Phish has been on creative over-drive for the last couple years. For Halloween 2013, they covered their own Phish album from the future (Wingsuit, later named Fuego). This year in Las Vegas, they covered (or rather interpreted) Walt Disney Record’s sound effects / spoken word album, Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of Halloween.   Technically, this isn’t really an album. However, the concept and originality of this performance is so outstanding, that it deserves full honors.   What an idea!!! Genius! I could not have been more blown away. The performances are tight, unique, fresh and the band is on fire in all ways that only Phish can be. Keyboardist Page McConnell is the star of this performance. Your trip is short.

2.  U2 Songs of Innocence – It has been 5 years, several producers, shelved projects and changes of direction and even the band itself questioning their own existence (or at least Bono’s egotistical ramblings about relevancy and being the best band in the world).   Finally, this past September they shocked the music world and every single person with an iTunes account with a “gift” for everyone: Songs of Innocence.   Interesting delivery and marketing.   Some people loved it. Many Apple users bitched. You can’t please everyone. Even though Apple and U2 are about as commercial and corporate as you can get, I admire the band for taking the risk and doing something fairly creative in promotion and delivery. Getting to the music:   This album is a real rewind back to early U2. Bono’s songwriting is reflective on his youth, events and feelings that shaped him as a man and how the band forged ahead in their early days in Dublin and beyond.   Although this is stylistically not my favorite production by U2 (I am much more into the soundscape, layers and space between the notes that Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois brought to the band on The Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and Zooropa), it is incredibly well-focused and a solid album from start to finish.   After the “it’s okay but not as strong as U2 could be” sound found in How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon, this direction is welcome for this longtime U2 fan.   I am looking forward to the tour and the release of Songs of Experience.   The later hopefully not another “Bono Bullshit.” Hey boys, whatever happened to that Songs of Accent? (hell, it is U2…. no links needed) DRUM ROLL PLEASE!!!!!!……………………………………..

1.   Brian Eno / Karl Hyde – High Life – Welcome to 2055.   This is music from the future: a cerebral hymnal from the great heavens above us.   The truth is, it really landed in a spaceship somewhere in the tribal regions of Africa many centuries ago.   The Africans have been dancing to it for thousands of years. The West is just beginning to discover this sound.   Brian Eno has tried to show us tastes of it through the years: Another Green World, in his work with the Talking Heads (particularly Remain in Light), in the project with David Byrne, My Life in the Bushes of Ghosts; and in the space-rings he brought to The Edge’s guitar playing and the sonic depth of U2’s albums in the 80s and 90s.   In 2055, when there are passenger spacecraft headed to Mars I’m going to have this album playing on my headphones. Hell, maybe we won’t even use headphones then.   Some device plugged into our heads and straight to the brain part that resonates audio enjoyment and general happiness. It will remind me of the good ‘ole glory days of 2014, rambling around China looking for something ancient. It all came from the sky.   Until we realize that, “Slow down, sit down, breathe, look at nothing in particular, everything talks to you. Can you feel it? Connected to something that hasn’t happened yet. The future is a black hole. You are on it, on the other side.” We can feel it Mr. Eno. We can feel it. Get tribal!   Get polyrhythmic!  (also check out Someday World – it was recorded during the same sessions.   Incredible music as well…  a little bit more pop accessible.)

Have a great 2015, everyone!!

2 thoughts on “The Ten Best Albums of 2014

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