Before 2014 fades in our rearview, there’s a bit of Pop Rocks housekeeping that requires attention – the annual 10 Best Albums of the Year list. I’ve spent the past 12 months keeping careful tally, making lists and checking them twice and forcing myself to exclude a few that were, in fact, pretty nice. The result is the following roundup:
10. Taylor Swift – 1989: Before you scoff, let it be known that producing a really good and catchy pop record is no easy task. Dropping her Nashville twang and adding a bit more of that bass she has flirted with over the past few releases has resulted in a record that is engaging, energetic and sometimes pretty smart. Swift may not be my favorite young artist, but she is one that has me most curious about her next step.
9. Jack White – Lazaretto: Jack White’s blessing and curse is his utter devotion to vintage musical styles. So while his obvious affection for old country, rockabilly and the blues serves as the perfect platform for his incredible writing and playing skills, it often makes me wonder what his experimental record might sound like. Still, it is tough to argue with a very good record by one of the few authentic active rock stars.
8. Ty Segall – Manipulator: History might well write that 2014 was the high point in a glam rock revival. Segall’s take on the form features a lot of chugging guitar and mid-tempo boogie wrapped around some seriously significant British Invasion melodies. At 17 tracks, it might seem too much of a good thing, but that being said, it’s hard to identify where the fat may lie.
7. King Tuff – Black Moon Spell: The passion of punk seamlessly married to the big moment solos – and hand clap percussion – of glam rock (again with the glam) make this a firm favorite among rock records for me this year. This isn’t the kind of rock music a thesis will be written about, but it is the kind that makes you want to drive a little faster, yell a little louder and feel a little younger. That’s more than enough.
6. St. Paul and The Broken Bones – Half the City: Much has been written about this band that sounds like Otis Redding and the MGs and looks like accountants, but that really does the band a disservice. What is confounding about this act is not how they look as compared to how they sound, but how a band that channels so much real, raw soul has not broken through in a bigger way. Drop the needle on a St. Paul record – my recommended medium – and try not to dance. It’s impossible. I know. I’ve tried.
5. Johnny Marr – Playland: Although still best known as an integral part of the seminal ’80s act The Smiths, Marr’s latest – and second solo – album is something quite different from the chiming guitar tones employed with his former band. This is a real guitar record that reminds us that Britain has always, and will always, have a thing for rock.
4. Royal Blood – Royal Blood: Those who feel as though acts such as the White Stripes and The Black Keys have eliminated the element of surprise from the simple pairing of guitar and drums need look no further than this upstart British act. Heavy, tuneful and able to find surprises embedded in the blues, it is no wonder that rock royalty such as the Foo Fighters and Jimmy Page count themselves among the growing legion of Blood fans.
3. Freeman – Freeman: Aaron Freeman, the artist formerly known as the famously off-kilter rock act Ween’s Gene Ween, gave up his addictions and life on the road and, having spent a few years teaching guitar, resumed his career with a collection of songs that is introspective, personal and contrite. While it might not be as willfully weird as his Ween work, it is every bit as engaging.
2. D’Angelo & the Vanguard – Black Messiah: Recently released, this record by the famously reclusive R&B star packs all the eccentricity and soul saved up in the 15 years since his last release into every track. Make no mistake, it’s a bit of a weird one, but the sort of wonderful and always engaging weirdness that only an artist the stature of D’Angelo might produce.
1. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music: A truly great country record isn’t about women, bars, trucks or dogs. It is about the American experiences – any American experience. For Simpson, who likes his country to be of the outlaw variety, that means spinning both barroom ballads about spiritual awakenings and cautionary tales of the road. The surprising result is a complete and cohesive record. It’s essential Cosmic American Music, and somewhere, Gram Parsons is smiling.