Across genres, it has been a pretty great year in music. Note that the following list does not include Sun Kil Moon’s “Benji” (I’ll be honest, I can’t stand Sun Kil Moon) nor does it include U2 (this seems less controversial, but who knows?). Nevertheless, it attempts to highlight some standouts from a stellar-sounding 2014.
19. Johnny Cash — “Out Among the Stars”
Is this cheating because it technically was recorded more than 30 years ago? Who cares! It’s unheard music from one of the greatest singers of all time, his voice rumbling and rich. Cash brings wry resignation to the title track, laidback romance to “Baby Ride Easy,” a duet with June Carter Cash, and dark humor to the spouse-killing “I Drove Her Out Of My Mind.” This album is a gift.
18. Hard Working Americans — “Hard Working Americans”
Todd Snider may be getting older, but with his new band he sounds feisty, snarky and bluesy as ever. “Hard Working Americans” is full of stomping, barroom-shaking covers through which Snider snarls and howls. It may not be terribly innovative, but the album is still fun and packed with retro character.
17. Against Me! — “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
There’s not much about “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” which separates it from any other Against Me! album, aside from being the first since frontwoman Laura Jane Grace began her gender transition. Still, the album is punchy and catchy, built on solid riffs and characteristically mature themes. Tracks like “Osama bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” show the band is still clever with its social commentary, and the line “Does God bless your transsexual heart?” ought to bring a smile to everyone’s face.
16. Beck/Various — “Song Reader”
Beck released two albums this year, and the better one is not the one everybody actually talked about. “Song Reader” originally came out as a book of sheet music in 2012, and Beck finally recorded it with a host of guests this year — the artist actually only appears on one song. The songs are incredibly well written (not a big surprise) and the performances are consistently outstanding, with most performers putting their own distinct twist on Beck’s signature style.
15. Mac Demarco — “Salad Days”
“Salad Days” is the epitome of laid-back rock. The songs are bright and relaxed without becoming cheesy or much maligned “soft-rock,” technically impressive but still fun for casual listening. If “Salad Days” has a fault, it is that it can get a little one-note. Fortunately, that one note is wonderfully sunny and melodic.
14. The War on Drugs — “Lost in the Dream”
“Lost in the Dream” takes a little while to get used to — maybe even a few listens — but after settling in, you find it is perfectly lovely. Though the critical praise heaped upon this album may be a bit overkill, it certainly is the band’s finest release to date and a supremely enjoyable, relaxing listen all the way through. With dreamy soundscapes and meandering guitar parts, “Lost in the Dream” is a satisfying listen, if a bit difficult to get into.
13. Morrissey — "World Peace Is None of Your Business”
Yes, it is annoying that Morrissey pulled this album from basically all-online distributors. Still, if you can find it, this record is packed with catchy melodies, baroque-pop arrangements and Moz’s signature righteous, sarcastic humor. If nothing else, the sheer ridiculousness of the line “Neal Cassady drops dead and Allen Ginsberg’s tears shampoo his beard” deserves kudos.
12. Jack White — “Lazaretto”
I do not want to like Jack White this much. He comes off as persnickety and tends to stay very committed to his singular, distinct sound — whether as a solo artist or with The White Stripes or other side projects. It’s hard to find faults with this year’s “Lazaretto,” though. White’s guitar work, consistently between primitive and virtuosic, sounds strong as ever, and the man can write a room-shaking chorus. The album ends with the lovely, out-of-left-field, obscenely catchy, swaying folk-ballad “Want and Able,” cementing “Lazaretto” as another Jack White masterpiece.
11. Sturgill Simpson — “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”
If Eric Church and Luke Bryan are frat-bro party boys of modern country, Sturgill Simpson is the guy doing acid and hanging out on a rooftop. In the tradition of Gram Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music,” this album has all the standard acoustic guitars and weeping pedal steels combined with introspective and often psychedelic lyrics. This is a powerful, welcome outlier in the increasingly watered-down field of modern country.
10. Lana Del Rey — “Ultraviolence”
“Born to Die,” Lana Del Ray's mediocre 2012 effort, was rife with over-slick hip-hop production and some ill-advised rap-singing. But she came back this year with rocker/producer Dan Auerbach and delivered something incredible. It’s all about aesthetic: Lana’s aching crooning drenched in Auerbach’s reverb-rock production. Listen to the wall-of-sound ending of “Cruel World” and try not to be blown away.
9. A Sunny Day In Glasgow — “Sea When Absent”
“Sea When Absent” is a noisy, textured album. Dense guitars and looping electronics meet leader singer Annie Fredrickson’s perfect pop vocals, resulting in a sound sometimes almost as dissonant as it is melodic. With cryptic lyrics and complex song structure (see the major dynamic shifts of “Boys Turn Into Girls”), “Sea When Absent” is unique and ambitious.
8. Withered Hand —“New Gods”
With the singer’s high, heavily-Scottish-accented voice and brutally personal lyrics, Withered Hand’s “New Gods” is striking. The first five tracks are outstanding and diverse, ranging from folk-pop to zydeco instrumentation to the horse-whip adorned desolation of “California.” Though the later tracks sometimes drag a bit, the album is on the whole an outstanding sophomore effort.
7. Richard Dawson — “Nothing Important”
“Nothing Important” is simultaneously one of the weirdest and most brilliant albums of the year. The first and fourth tracks are all instrumental, just Dawson’s distorted nylon string guitar. The middle two tracks are both 16-minute-long epics, songs of birth and death and despair and major surgical operations. Think Daniel Johnston via Richard Thompson — a complex, often jarring work of art.
6. Sharon Van Etten — “Are We There”
“Are We There” exemplifies restrained intensity in music perhaps better than any other release this year. The songs smolder and build, the instrumental parts layering as Van Etten’s voice rises into a soulful wail (see “Your Love Is Killing Me”). The laid-back, electronic-inflected “Our Love” is rather minimalistic but beautiful. The piano-only “I Know,” with Van Etten’s voice bared, is breathtaking and heartbreaking. “Are We There” is a nearly flawless powerhouse.
5. Angel Olsen — “Burn Your Fire For No Witness”
Angel Olsen has a voice like no other, and that’s really the point of her music. From a wavering whisper to a powerful, vibrato-filled belt, Olsen sings every word with unshakable conviction. Augmented by simple arrangements and Olsen’s basic, rhythmic guitar playing, “Burn Your Fire For No Witness” is stark, sad and profoundly beautiful.
4. Hurray for the Riff Raff — “Small Town Heroes”
Alternating between incredibly energetic bluegrass numbers and lovely ballads, “Small Town Heroes” is powerful and infectious. Alynda Lee Segarra’s soulful vocals carry tremendous emotion whether on the low, relaxed “The New SF Bay Blues” or the stomping opener “Blue Ridge Mountain.” At a time when every pop-rock act is trying to emulate the folksiness of Mumford and Sons, Hurray for the Riff Raff sounds utterly authentic and rooted in tradition, with brilliant lyricism to boot.
2 (tie). Jenny Lewis — “The Voyager”
After Sleater-Kinney, The Postal Service and two moderately successful solo efforts, Jenny Lewis released one of this year’s most successful albums from start to finish with “The Voyager.” Loaded with collaborations — Beck, Ryan Adams and Lou Barlow, to name a few — ”The Voyager” is ridiculously catchy and full of lyrical honesty, vulnerability, wisdom and humor (see the lewd adventure of “Aloha and the Three Johns”). Plus, how cool are those pastel rainbow-themed guitars?
2 (tie). Ariel Pink — “Pom Pom”
What makes a record truly outstanding is an element of surprise. Smart lyrics and creative compositions are, of course, important, but few albums consistently make you do a double-take (or the audio equivalent of one). Surprise is Ariel Pink’s main objective. Few other artists sound this inventive, this capable of blending pop, punk, prog, TV commercial jingles, movie soundtracks — the album is all over the place and it sounds amazing.
1. St. Vincent — “St. Vincent”
Annie Clark could have rested on her laurels at any point in her career so far. Instead, she keeps pushing the envelope and making weirder, more ambitious and complex records. This year’s self-titled album is her best yet and easily the best release of the year, expertly blending electronic sampling with shredding guitars and her distinctive, consistently stunning vocals. Ranging from 8-bit studded electro-freakouts to perfectly crafted rock ballads, “St. Vincent” is simply triumphant.