It’s that time of year again, when music reviewers attempt to convince you that their ten favorite records either are better than your ten favorites, or serve to justify your opinion of your own taste, or more likely justify your discrediting music criticism entirely. How could I have missed that obscure Taylor Swift album absolutely nobody is talking about? Who are these people I’m talking about? Where is the booty worship? Where is the booty worship?
You’ll have to go to someone else’s list for all of that, and I’m sure your expectations will be rewarded. As for myself, my expectations were well rewarded by these releases, some controversial, some not so. Some came as a complete surprise given my own initial reticence toward them (see entry number 8). Others (like number 7) were designed to be crowd-pleasers and succeeded. You’ll notice that I have not added my “Bottom 5” albums this year, because what is the point of that?
Finally, these choices have no basis for being symbolic of unimpeachable quality and are recommended to you for one reason only: these are the albums from 2014 that I kept coming back to. Top Ten lists are inherently flawed in that they are based completely upon subjective opinion. So don’t start complaining that I didn’t mention your favorite album from this year or else I’ll turn this car right around and we’re going home.
So here are my Top 10 Albums for 2014.
10 Burnt Belief – Etymology
I am hesitant to drop the name Colin Edwin here, who is part of the duo Burnt Belief with Jon Durant. Hesitant because, in the past 15 years, he has made his mark with a specific-sounding music with that other band he was a part of, Porcupine Tree. That does not sound like this. Burnt Belief’s Etymology is a far more ambient collection. Not aimless, and not merely tones looking for a framework, but definitely these tracks reach for tone first and foremost. That comes, in most respects, because of the metaphorical foot being planted solidly in the jazz camp. Having not know it was Edwin playing the bass and electronics here, I was quite happy to take the music as-is, and enjoy it as it’s own thing. Someone I knew who listened to it, and knew of Edwin’s connection, was disappointed that it wasn’t a proxy for a PT record. That can often be the case when one tries to break out of a particularly formidable shadow, and one that Burnt Belief does well, provide you allow it to.
9 St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Annie Clark is the spirit of rock’s original new wave. Not the electric-synth-neon partiers of the Eighties, but the rough-sided practitioners of the late-1970s who were melding the pleasing with the disruptive, the anthem with the jarring, spiking pop forms with punk’s willingness to offend. The pseudo-self-titled St. Vincent landed early in the year with more of a mandate to rock. Clark lords over all much as she does on the cover, on a throne, like an elegant invader from another planet. She shape-shifts. One moment she channels Cocteau Twins, briefly, and the next she is all Black Francis, then she puts on Steve Albini’s glasses and shreds your face off. It can be a little scary, but sometimes that is vitally important, and St. Vincent is doing that than virtually anyone else out there right now.
8 Pink Floyd – The Endless River
The worst thing Pink Floyd’s The Endless River did was to be called a Pink Floyd album. Immediately that title raised impossible expectations; expectations each succeeding Electronic Press Kit actively seemed to try to knock down. Had it gone out as “a tribute to Richard Wright” under the guidance of David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and others, I don’t think people would have been so ill-prepared for the effort. It is, in many ways, like a soundtrack with short, interlocking music cues rather than fully-formed song-songs, instrumental or otherwise. It is lovely and relaxing, not nearly psychedelic, quite contemplative, and probably doomed by the name on the mailbox to be regarded as a sort of cash-in on the bones of those long gone. Considering that Dark Side of the Moon in part, and Wish You Were Here in larger part were requiems for Syd Barrett, and The Division Bell was in many respects the same for Roger Waters, The Endless River had the advantage of being an elegy for bandmate that was actually deceased at the time of it’s finalization. In that aspect alone, it is a Pink Floyd record. In all the rest, it is its own thing, and can be appreciated on that order.
7 The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
While I have been a fan of the albums that make up the band’s “lost years” Challengers and Together, I was hoping for a return to the shorter, snappier tunes that made albums from Mass Romantic up to Twin Cinema so necessary in their times. As a longstanding fixture of indie label Matador Records, The New Pornographers’ tonic of more power than pop relieved the bloating caused by their moodier, so-serious scene-mates. A.C. Newman’s canny sense of chord construction and assembly helped as well, providing strings of chords that sounded just right together, but never sounded like you had heard them while getting your morning coffee at the convenience store. New Pornos musicality is not cookie-cutter, and neither is Brill Bruisers, the album that reclaims their prior stature. Much like the neon tubes that decorate the cover image, this is serious design and assemblage illuminated by bright candy colors.
6 Devin Townsend Project – Z²
It is actually two separate albums, being the latest DTP record Sky Blue and the sequel to Townsend’s alter ego, the coffee hoarding, earth destroying puppet from outer space Ziltoid. The thing that ties the two together is an unspoken desire to take metal, or just plain heavy music, from the long-standing domains of down, angry, “evil” in Olde English typeface into other realms. Ziltoid Dark Matters is thunderous, but also silly, and is meant to be. Sky Blue, as indicated by the title, is uplifting and filled in every corner with moments of sing-along or scream-along exuberance. Having both releases arrive in a single package sounds counterproductive, as if the intentionally outlandish Ziltoid would undercut the earnest Sky Blue, rendering it ineffectual. Instead, the two are a joining of forces, a reason to lighten up even as you’re getting heavy.
5 Prince & 3RDEYEGIRL – PLECTRUMELECTRUM
More organic and funky, harder and meaner than the sister release Art Official Age, Plectrumelectrum was a shockingly gloss-free effort, reminding the listener that people called Prince a genius for more than just because that is what he always called himself. The two albums arrived at the same time and answered the unspoken question of which way he needed to go: a bit retro and back to the garage, or to the gleaming spaceship of the modern pop sound. He went to both. Many critics preferred the solo effort over Plectrumelectrum, but I believe this will age much better. It hurts not a bit that his band is (that we know of) incredibly talented and fully complicit. It’s hard to say when you talk about the one-time Jamie Starr and his music factory tendencies, but I’d rather think Prince found a group of individuals that can stand toe-to-toe with him.
4 The Choir – Shadow Weaver
Having never really settled into a retirement phase to then need to break out of, The Choir has benefited from never having had the rust form on their musical machinery to begin with. However, there have been albums that have locked into prevalent moods and tempos, and the lack of variety has not served the otherwise strong material in a favorable way. This could not be said for Shadow Weaver. The Choir have not been this window-rattlingly present since the early-1990s with the Kissers And Killers and Free Flying Soul efforts. Perhaps it was thanks to better funding thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, or perhaps because that campaign provided validation from an audience eager to hear more, but it is undeniable that they returned invigoration and turned up to ten.
3 Beck – Morning Phase
If not a sequel to, then a spiritual companion to Beck’s Sea Change. The sound is lush and beautiful, but the 2002 record was delivered on the heels of a severe breakup, and sounds like it. Beck sounded hushed and humbled, self-exiled in a corner, waiting for the lights to go out and everyone to go home. Morning Phase, on the other hand, is on the opposite side of that scenario. He is now past that misery, standing before the congregation in almost triumphal fashion. He is enunciating with sharpness and clarity. He has chased the shadows out and the room is filled with light. It, like Sea Change, is not for everyone simply because it is so unlike the most recognized of Beck’s work. Yet there is something to both records that causes the breather to take a deeper breath, and this time around it comes with a sigh of great contentment.
2 Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil – Goliath
It took many years to formally bring Steve Taylor back to the spotlight, away from filmmaking and the production end of music. The result is likely one of his best efforts throughout his discography. Goliath is terse, no question about it, despite the placid, posed cover. They may look a little goofy, but it is a ruse, I promise you. And the cheekiness that has leavened previous Taylor efforts (which, don’t get me wrong, I liked) are all tightened up like Roebling cables holding up a bridge. Taylor has surrounded himself with one of his best bands featuring Jimmy Abegg (Vector), John Mark Painter (Flemming and John), and Peter Furler (Newsboys). It all comes together in a complete package that demands attention and volume.
1 Gazpacho – Demon
Forget 2014; there hasn’t been an album in the past five years that has challenged traditional popular music structure the way Gazpacho’s Demon has. It is heavy, it is folk, it is dark, it has moments of great sadness and beauty, and it is disturbing. While it resides in the progressive rock parameters, there is little here that neatly fits into that box. There are soaring performances that never attempt to shift focus from the “story,” no matter how vague the narrative may be at times. In other words, the kind of self-indulgence so common to prog has been gathered and tapered into the meticulous construction of the four songs that comprise the record. You are never removed from a logic thread by the big guitar solo. In many ways, Demon has more kinship with the post-rock movement, without its anarchic tendencies to burn it all down to raise the new. More than any record I can recall of recent time, Demon is the one that keeps revealing new things with repeat listening. Even if the subject matter shakes you up, the pure ambition behind it merits audiences to give it a patient try.