Top 10 CDs of 2014
In a year when vapid, disposable pop dominated the mainstream charts, it was still a superior year for music, thanks to strong contributions from the rock, country and Americana genres. In fact, it was such a good year that albums from the Black Keys, Tom Petty, the New Pornographers and Jack White — which would have cracked the top 10 in many other years — only made my honorable mention.
So let’s celebrate a year that was deep in superior albums. They didn’t all light up the charts, but these albums sure brightened my year.
No. 1 — Eric Church: “The Outsiders” (EMI) — One of mainstream country’s boldest artists, Church not only breaks new ground on “The Outsiders” — at times he completely obliterates it. He injects grimy funk, rap and good ol’ Southern rock into “That’s Damn Rock & Roll.” The title song, with its heavy texture and an adventurous instrumental passage that almost qualifies as prog-metal, is unlike anything anyone’s ever put on a country album. On the sassy “Cold One,” he suddenly upshifts into a furious fast-picking segment that puts a whole new spin on the song. Such brave and creative moments make the “The Outsiders” my album of the year.
No. 2 — St. Vincent: “St. Vincent” — The artist otherwise known as Annie Clark goes even deeper into a synthy/electronic sound on this, her fourth album. And catchy left-of-center tunes like “Birth In Reverse,” “Regret” and “Digital Witness” suggest Clark is really hitting her stride now as a songwriter and performer.
No. 3 — Lana Del Rey: “Ultraviolence” — On “Ultraviolence,” Del Rey sounds like she walked out of a scene in “Blue Velvet,” part seductress, part scarred survivor, yearning to tempt the thrill and hurt of love all over again. The music fits the “Blue Velvet” motif, too, as ballads like “Shades Of Cool,” “Pretty When You Cry” and “The Other Woman” are the musical equivalent of film noir, filled with the sensuality, danger and beauty that make “Ultraviolence” a captivating work.
No. 4 — The Black Keys: “Turn Blue” — Once you get over the shock of hearing the dreamy Pink Floyd-ish textures of “Weight Of Love” or the sleek synthy soul of the title song and “10 Women,” the depth and creativity — not to mention quality — of “Turn Blue” shines through. This isn’t the garage-ish blues-rock of Black Keys albums gone by, but “Turn Blue” is fresh, exciting and it portends a future of wide-open musical possibilities.
No. 5 — Rosanne Cash: “The River & the Thread” — With “The River & the Thread,” Cash explores her roots in the South — both geographically and in the music of the Delta region, specifically reclaiming her Memphis roots, while also tipping her hat to Alabama and Mississippi. Her perceptive and emotionally resonant thoughts are expressed in a collection of melodic rough-hewn ballads (balanced by the occasional friskier tune), making this a rich addition to Cash’s catalog of excellent albums.
No. 6 — Sam Smith: “In The Lonely Hour” — With his falsetto to die for and several genuinely stunning soul-laced pop ballads — “I’m Not The Only One“ is as good as a ballad gets — Smith sounded destined for big things before he hauled in a half dozen 2015 Grammy nominations. Several songs could have easily gotten Manilow-esque over-production, but Smith’s producers wisely kept things fairly restrained, leaving space for Smith’s amazing voice to work its magic.
No. 7 — Ty Segall: “Manipulator” — Eight releases into an adventurous career, Segall’s songwriting is sharp as ever on “Manipulator,” and he harnessed his wide ranging influences — punk, psychedelic, glam, metal, prog rock — to create his most musically focused effort yet
No. 8 — St. Paul & The Broken Bones: “Half The City” — If “Half The City” had come out in the late '60s, it might have gone down as one of the era’s better soul albums. Instead it’s an auspicious debut from a band that already is the best of today’s new wave of soul acts.
No. 9 — Miranda Lambert: “Platinum” — The whip-smart, rabble-rousing Lambert of her first four albums is very present on “Platinum.” But Lambert also finds room for a wistful ballad with “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” and ponders a time not long ago when people didn’t seem so entitled (on the song “Automatic”). Could a little more maturity and wisdom be creeping into Lambert’s music? Yes, and it adds some welcome color and depth to Lambert’s artistry on “Platinum.”
No. 10 — Taylor Swift: “1989” — The glossy, synth-heavy sound of “1989” puts Swift squarely in step with today’s commercial pop trends. Fun, bouncy and catchy as can be, these songs (fortunately) also have more smarts than the vast majority of the fluff dominating pop radio. Sorry, Charli (and Ariana, Iggy, Miley), there’s a new queen of pop, and she came from Nashville.
Honorable mentions: New Pornographer, “Brill Bruisers;” Foo Fighters, “Sonic Highways;” Rodney Crowell, “Tarpaper Sky;” Weezer, “Everything Will Be Alright in the End;” Tom Petty, “Hypnotic Eye;” Sharon Van Etten, “Are We There;” Jackson Browne, “Standing in the Breach;” Against Me! “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” John Hiatt, “Terms of My Surrender;” Gaslight Anthem, “Get Hurt;” Jenny Lewis, “The Voyager;” Jack White, “Lazaretto;” Spoon, “They Want My Soul;” Leonard Cohen, “Popular Problems;” and The Both, “The Both.”