This year I've found myself drawn more toward the simple musicality of the bands whose albums I most enjoyed. These are the albums that stayed on my iPhone for more than a week. (I should note, I use Rhapsody, so I don't purchase the albums that I download; I merely rent them, so to speak, for as long as I'm a Rhapsody subscriber. That allows me to download and listen to unlimited music for a flat monthly fee.)
I will remember 2014 as the year I discovered emo, or "emotional hardcore," loud, in-your-face music with confessional lyrics from jilted and angst-ridden young men. Aaron West's We Don't Have Each Other got to me. Another standout was Piano Become The Teeth's Keep You.
2014 also saw my ongoing affinity for traditional country. Sturgil Simpson's self-produced album is absolutely incredible, and Nikki Lane is as talented as any of the four women whose albums were on my 2013 list.
The year was not without disappointment. Foxygen, whose 2013 album was my #1 pick last year, released a new album in October, but I found it too disjointed and lacking in musicality to hold my interest beyond two listens. If there's a spot for psychedelic indie-rock in my list, it's taken up by Quilt; their album was released in January, and I didn't delete it from my phone until June.
So without further ado, the list.
1. Too True, by The Dum Dum Girls
It's rare to find an album where every song is an earworm, but Too True is one of them. I can't tell you how many times I listened to this album after its release, and it stayed on my iPhone well into the summer. Dee Dee Penny's beautiful voice is carefully layered among synthesizer, dreamy guitar, and vigorous percussion that reflects the band rock influences (Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, etc.).
2. Days & Nights, by Daley
In the four years I've been selecting my top 10 albums of the year, I think this is the first for an R&B album. Like Too True, Days & Nights is full of catchy songs, and Gareth Daley soulful delivery gives them a life beyond the music. There's some sexy stuff in here (Time Travel, Look Up) as well as heartbreak and enmity (Be, Blame the World), and soul (Love and Affection)...everything you want in an R&B album.
3. Held in Splendor, by Quilt
Quilt is a three-person psychedelic folk-rock band from Boston. Held in Splendor is a collection of 13 relatively short, dreamy songs that showcase the band members' tight harmony which immediately reminds you of The Association. Seeing them perform acoustic versions of their songs on an NPR Tiny Desk Concert confirmed their presence among my favorite albums of the year.
4. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, by Sturgill Simpson
While most male country artists are singing about beer and trucks (bro-country) under the watchful eye of the big record companies, Sturgill Simpson is crooning about philosophical issues on this, his second self-released album (which cost him all of $4,000 to produce). This is what honest country music should sound like, with a dose of gospel (A Little Light) and rock (It Ain't All Flowers) tossed in for fun.
5. We Don't Have Each Other, by Aaron West
If you're looking for an album to tell a story, you generally have to turn to a Broadway soundtrack, but this year Dan Campbell, frontman for the punk band Wonder Years, gave us We Don't Have Each Other, a rockin' yet heartbreaking emo soundtrack, sung from the perspective of jilted husband Aaron West. The image of him finding dead lilies from his deceased daughter's funeral could break any man's heart.
6. Morning Phase, by Beck
From the first notes of the opening intro on Morning Phase you know this is not going to be your typical Beck album. It's not progressive nor experimental in any way. It is, ...beautiful. Beck is at his best, using lyrics and vocals to captivate with every track.
7. The Weight of Your Love, by Editors
This British band's synthesizer-driven music was described by NME as "dark disco." That seems about right to me as there's a certain angst and brooding tone to lead singer Tom Smith's voice. Standout tracks include Sugar" and A Ton of Love. The latter could have been recorded by U-2.
8. Guilty of Everything, by nothing
It's ironic that a band named nothing (lowercase N) can give you everything, filling your head with heavy, distorted, guitar-driven riffs of shoegazing bliss. There's melody underlying those incomprehensible lyrics, and its easy to get lost in it.
9. American Middle Class, by Angaleena Presley
There were three country albums from women that I really enjoyed this year, and I felt compelled to include at least one. I choose Angaleena Presley. (The other two are listed among the runner-ups below.) She's the last of the three members of The Pistol Annies to release a solo album (fellow bandmember Ashley Monroe's Like a Rose was among my top 10 albums last year), and Presley's songwriting and music exceeded expectations. Never have the goings-on of a mundane life been so musical.
10. Bring Us Together, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour
Without a doubt the most funnest release of the year was this album. This Danish group is characterized as pop, but there's an in-your-face weirdness to their sound that will probably keep them outside the mainstream, but it's that offbeat sound that gives you every reason in the world to dance with TAGT. You'll find Navigator among my top 10 songs of 2014, but other standouts include Choke It and opening track Bring Us Together.
Overlooked in 2013Owel, by Owel
With so much music being released every year, it's very easy to overlook something. That was the case last year with Owel. Frontman Jay Sakong and his band can write a song that opens with moody, hushed notes and build to a crescendo of brash, fill-your-head orchestral arrangements that take you to another place. Jay can stretch a note -- a single vowel in a single word -- so long with his falsetto and the instrumental sequences behind him that it feels like you're spending an entire day under warm blankets. The lyrics are sparse but direct. Jay opens Burning House slowly singing, "I need this house...to stay burning," and then adds, almost as an uncertain afterthought, "For a while." The song builds until he, his voice full of frustration and sadness, admits he's lost all hope in his relationship.
Weird Album of the YearChampagne Holocaust, by The Fat White Family
Their sound is hard to explain, so if you're even mildly intrigued just go listen to it. With songs titled Is It Raining In Your Mouth, Bomb Disneyland, and Special Ape you know it's gonna be one helluva a ride. Two other albums -- Electric Wurms's Musik, Die Schwer zu Twerk and Mykki Bianco's Mykii Blanco Presents Gay Dog Food -- come close in icky goodness.
Runners UpHimalayan, by Band of Skulls
Counterfeit Blues, by Corb Lund
Doug Tuttle, by Doug Tuttle
Edj, by E:DJ
La Gargola, by Chevelle
All Or Nothin', by Nikki Lane
Angel, by Pure-x
Atlas, by Real Estate
Put Your Needle Down, by Secret Sisters
Lost in the Dream, by War on Drugs