2014 Albums of the Year

2014 was a year of extremes. It was, in terms of world events, rather extravagantly bad, marked by violence and unrest. If there was any piece of music that could sum it all up, it would be Merry Clayton wailing out a warning of rape and murder for The Rolling Stones. That was many years ago, but the storm is threatening darker than ever. For myself…it was a year of extremes, ranging from about as good as it gets, to close to as bad. Most of the defining moments of the year are things I’d rather not talk about publicly. Let’s just say that there was more drug use and anonymous bathroom sex than usual. Fortunately, there was also a lot of good music. So without further ado, the year’s best albums.

1. Lazaretto – Jack White

You knew this would happen. Of course Jack White would take the top spot. I’ve been a fan of pretty much everything Jack does, and he doesn’t disappoint. The whole thing feels tight and angry, fierce and confident. He’s really become a master at what he does, and Lazaretto is exactly everything you would want from a Jack White album. And, of course, it all comes with the usual visual delights; Jack never shorts us on imagery and artistry. The videos make me wish he’d go ahead and make a movie. The songs range from wordless to heartbreaking. Once again, Jack White presents the total package.

High Ball Stepper

Lazaretto

Would You Fight For My Love?

2. Popular Problems – Leonard Cohen

I had marked Cohen’s previous album as good, but this one is better than good. It’s his best since The Future, and it’s been a long time. Cohen is a sprightly 80 years old now, and somehow he sounds livelier than he has in years. It helps than the songs here are more catchy than somber, and the poet’s graveyard wit is still about him. The favored themes of love and desire and death and life are all lined up, along with darkly comic commentary on the bleakness of the world. “There’s torture, and there’s killing, and there’s all my bad reviews…”

Almost Like the Blues

Did I Ever Love You

Slow

3. This Is All Yours – Alt-J

Congratulation to Alt-J for avoiding the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ that affects so many people’s second albums. They escaped the twin pitfalls of either repeating their debut note for note or abruptly reinventing themselves to better suit their newfound fame. They’ve remained satisfyingly weird and clever, while also growing into their sound. It’s great to see a band keeping psychedelic weirdness alive – and being successful while at it! (Also 10,000 bonus points for taking Miley Cyrus’s boneheaded affirmation of Confederate pride and making it into something awesome and actually empowering.)

Hunger Of the Pine

Left Hand Free

Every Other Freckle

4. Ghosts of Download – Blondie

Blondie has consistently produced good albums since their late 90’s comeback, so it’s no surprise they’ve made another good one. However, this one feels particularly timely. Right now, Blondie’s euphoric New Wave pop sound is really having a moment, with so many new bands striving to emulate their energy and sass. So it’s right on cue that the original punk princess returns. The new record is unabashedly high on hooks and dance-floor ready. I first heard many of these songs live in concert, just about a year ago, and the new material stood well beside the classics. It’s like the 80’s never ended.

A Rose By Any Name

Sugar On the Side

I Want to Drag You Around

5. Hotel Valentine – Cibo Matto

I can’t believe I’ve never listened to Cibo Matto before! They’ve been flying just under the radar for years, and this album for some reason received more than the usual amount of publicity. Let me tell you, it was a case of instantly falling in love. Why would’t I love a concept album about a haunted hotel? Or a song with “Don’t throw the fucking oyster shell at me” as a chorus?  If the ghost in the hotel appears to be that of Yoko Ono, it’s no coincidence; Ono is a longtime friend and mentor. It’s nice to discover a band of serious eccentricity.

Mfn

Deja Vu 

10th Floor Ghost Girl

6. El Pintor – Interpol

*Belated discovery of the year*

Another band I’d never listened to before that really struck a chord this year. Interpol are just back from a hiatus, so the new record came with loud and serious buzz. Well earned, it turns out. Having done my research with all of their previous albums, I can safely say, this is awesome by their own and any other standards. It’s Mancunian New Wave reborn, in a different decade, as New York City grunge.

All the Rage Back Home

My Desire

Everything Is Wrong

7. Ultraviolence – Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey is a divisive artist, to say the least. She gets flak for her looks (plastic surgery or nah?), her stage presence (wooden), her public statements (dumb), her fanbase (hipsters), her everything basically. She’s both blessed and cursed for having arrived on the scene fully formed in the age of internet-based instant gratification, and she’s sparked some deep debate about image and authenticity. Right away she struck me as an interesting songwriter and an original voice, and she’s grown since then. On her  new album she’s more mature, less in love with her own sex kitten image, more emotional and more perceptive. And she’s ready to parody herself and her hipstery ilk as well.

West Coast

Shades of Cool

Ultraviolence

8. Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar – Robert Plant 

Robert Plant had some bad years as a solo artist, mostly in the 80’s. (Didn’t everyone?) In recent years he’s reinvented himself as something of a folksy man of the world, in the sense that the world is his inspiration. On his latest, he’s gathered musicians from all over the globe to form The Sensational Space Shifters, and they’ve all brought a piece of their home culture. It’s Plant’s liveliest and most diverse album, and it might actually be the most diverse album by anybody this year. And he still has the voice of a golden god. No wonder he’s ‘not bored enough’ to get the Led back on.

Rainbow

Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby)

House of Love

9. Give My Love to London – Marianne Faithfull

I love it when Marianne Faithfull rocks out a little. Nobody does gloom and doom better than she, but high spirits become her too. She’s definitely in a spirited mood on this outing. And she brought friends! Nick Cave, Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Mick Jones and Steve Earle all show up, and it seems that collaborating with the masters of morbid really brings out everyone’s cheery side. Some of the tracks sound like they’ve been piped in straight from the sixties, others like they’ve escaped from one of Cave’s own albums, all delivered with a hint of a wink. Faithfull sounds like she relishes digging her teeth into everything from Cave’s extravagantly morose Late Victorian Holocaust to classic Everly Brothers to standout late period Leonard Cohen.

Give My Love to London

Sparrows Will Sing

Going Home

10. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

St.Vincent has become quite the critics’ darling – and rightly so. She’s quirky enough to satisfy lovers of eccentricity, and yet (just barely) accessible enough to actually sell an album or two. She also has the David Byrne stamp of approval (not that she needs the validation); the two made an album and toured together. But Annie Clark is in no one’s shadow. She’s the thinking man’s new rock goddess.

Birth In Reverse

Digital Witness

Prince Johnny

11. Cheek to Cheek –  Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga 

All is forgiven, Lady Gaga! If Born This Way was all gigantic choruses, then Artpop was all drawn-out middle eights. It felt like Gaga, having concurred the world of pop, was treading water in search of a new direction. So she did the last thing anyone would ever expect. She made a jazz album. With Tony Bennett. Does it add something profound to the genre? Not really. Is it campy and bombastic at times? Yes, somewhat. But it’s been a long time since I’ve heard those old standards belted out with such joy and enthusiasm. Lady Gaga finally shows off her vocal chops, and she sounds swell. It’s plain to hear that Gaga and Bennett had an absolute ball working together. It’s a contagious feeling.

Anything Goes

I Can’t Give You Anything but Love

I Won’t Dance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Love Interruption

This is clearly the work of a man who has just gone through a nasty divorce. Jack White’s separation from Karen Elson started out amicable but soon turned vicious as it made its way through court. Elson has explained that the animosity was the work of overzealous attorneys on both sides, who took advantage of the couple’s vulnerable state. Their legal issues settled, Jack and Karen are now on good terms again. However, it obviously can’t have been easy, and even the most mutually agreed upon breakup is bound to be traumatic. Although it would be coldhearted to wish that kind of pain on anyone, the benefit of going through a hard breakup, for artists at least, is that many will find the inspiration to produce work they couldn’t have come up with when they were happy. From their pain comes universal benefit. I am, of course, deeply sorry for Jack’s pain in ending his marriage. But for everyone, the pain eventually heals itself, and it’s the blessing of a creative artist to turn that experience into work that in turn helps others salve their own pain. Jack White has already produced so many meaningful and life-changing songs, but I think this one is a particularly important addition to his gallery. It’s one of the best expressions ever written of the exact state of mind we all fall into when we’re heartbroken; angry and bitter, sorry for ourselves, hurting all over, and ready to crawl back for more pain.

Looking at the Invisible Man

One of my favorite of Jack White’s many eccentricities is his habit of performing and filming all his new material at Third Man. Of course he also doesn’t allow amateur filming or photography at his shows, which is a losing battle. I am, as an amateur photographer, all in favor of amateur photography at shows, and not allowing such things is increasingly impossible to enforce. Even Jack White is going to eventually realize he’s just being Quixotic to no end. On the other hand the absence of decent documentation of shows needs to be addressed. It’s fantastic that White takes the time to make sure at least one show gets thoroughly well documented for posterity. The Dead Weather haven’t offered any new material in a long time and don’t seem to be planning anything; who knows, they may never congregate again. So it is important that their amazing live energy doesn’t go forgotten. You may not ever get to see them play this song in person, but this is the next best thing.

Icky Thump

Another peek into the deranged imagination of Jack White. Not that deranged, really, it’s actually quite appealing. In this video we see many interesting things, like Meg having red hair. I’ve been saying it for a long time, but here it goes again; Jack, when you find the time, please make a movie. He’s been playing around with the idea of acting, taking a few small roles in big films, and of course, has a music video backlog that a shows a vision as distinctive as any real film director. Various directors of varying fame have made videos for The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and other Jack White projects, and each has their own touch, but in the end, they’re all unmistakably Jack, full of his peculiar tastes and obsessions. It’s only a matter of time, I think, before he goes off and does his own movie. Whether it would be a masterpiece or disaster I can’t say, but either way it should be fascinating.

I’m Shakin’

This new year I didn’t do a best of or a top ten, you may have noticed. I tried to, but I couldn’t come up with a full ten albums I really loved. There were a lot of hit or miss things I was partially fond of, but not very many solid efforts I could hold up as future classics. If I had done the list, though, one thing’s for sure; Jack White’s Blunderbuss would have come out on top. I might be biased. I always give top score to everything Jack White does. But even if last year had been more fruitful and there’d been more contenders, I’d still vote for Blunderbuss as the best. It’s one of the few records I got all excited about initially, and it lived up to expectations, finding a regular place on my playlist. I don’t know what I expected a Jack White solo album to sound like, but this sounds exactly right. It’s everything Jack; rootsy, eccentric, soulful, hard-rocking. On a mighty great album, this is definitely my favorite song. Because I absolutely must love anything with the word ‘noivous’ in it. Only Jack could be in the middle of a rip-roaring blues song and suddenly go all Three Stooges on us. Also, he says he’s Bo Diddley. If you say so, Jack.

I’m Lonely (but I Ain’t Lonely Yet)

White Stripes action for you today, in sad ballad mode. Kind of an overlooked gem, I think. It’s easy to forget the ballads in between all those loud, thumping rockers, but take a minute to appreciate this. I really adore Jack White’s singing, so take a minute to appreciate that too. Sometimes Jack gets labeled as being more of an ideas man, most likely because he likes to talk a lot – quite eloquently – about his inspirations, and what concepts he’s working on, and his beliefs on music and art and style. And it’s true, he is definitely a man with ideas to burn. But when in comes to actually performing, nobody is more passionate. Jack’s playing is impassioned, his singing is impassioned, he’s just passionate about everything he does. That’s one of the things that make him special. The way how, although his image is very carefully executed and everything is so thoughtfully designed that you’d think it was all style and no substance, in fact every single thing about the Jack White empire is based on passion. It’s all so personal, and it’s obvious that it’s not about selling an image – he’s just trying to share the things he cares about.

I Think I Smell A Rat

Classic White Stripes appreciation post. I’m overflowing with White Stripes appreciation. Even when it’s not technically their very best song. So what, it’s better than most people’s songs and I find it humorous. I guess Jack and Meg don’t have the image of being laugh machines, but there’s something very wry and witty about them. Sometimes it seems like they’re secretly laughing at how seriously people take them. With the dress code and the graphics and Jack’s big serious pronouncements, you kind of expect them to always be in Grand Artistic Statement mode. But they’re just making noise for the fun of it, being playful together. It’s just joyful and silly and there’s no grand statement coming. That’s the magic of the White Stripes rapport, which is unmatched by anything they (meaning Jack) have done without one another. I wonder if they miss playing together. Not being rock stars and touring and going on photoshoots, but just banging out some songs, one-on-one.