Last year at this time, I posted a list of the best albums I’d heard in 2013. I was able to do so because I still had been employed as a full-time music critic through the first half of that year, and I’d kept up through the holidays. This year, the old annual itch is still there — but I’ve definitely not kept up. I couldn’t tell you what some of the big releases were in 2014, and I’d be lying if I said I feel bad about it. Despite the professional lifetime as a music scribe, it’s felt pretty grand to let go this year, to catch up with all the music I raved about and then set aside, and to reconnect with a lot of ancient post-punk and new-wave stuff that got me excited about music in the first damn place.
Nonetheless, apropos of very little and for whomever it could possibly be of any worth, here’s a rundown of the new-ish and not-so-new music that grabbed me by the lapels and gave me the what-for in 2014 …
Beck: I’ve never liked his funky-party-boy side, but I’ve always adored his somber, moody, are-you-sure-this-is-playing-at-the-right-speed side. So “Morning Phase” is a beautiful follow to the equally great “Mutations” and “Sea Change” albums — probably superior to both, actually. Dramatic, patient, strong — the record is a graceful song cycle with a very old soul, hearkening to the best of ’70s Quaalude-fueled reveries in “Heart Is a Drum” (above) and to classic orchestrations (arranged here by his dad!) and loungey sonic moods from the ’50s in the cresting “Wave,” which might as well be Beck’s “September of My Years.” He was obviously wrestling with something during the “Song Reader” experiment (I heard some Chicago bands bring that to life in interesting ways); here, the results blossom, fruit, and satisfy.
Pretty entranced by “I Thought I Was an Alien” by Soko (pictured above). It’s from 2012, but the music resurfaced a bit this year thanks to a viral video, after which a friend turned me on to her. Lots of streams crossing here — considerable Cat Power, some early Flying Lizards maybe, Nico for sure — for a minimal indie-pop record that offers a lot on repeated listens.
Sun Kil Moon’s “Benji” is fairly extraordinary, with Mark Kozelek sounding more visceral and fully awake than he has in a while. Desperate, even — telling stories about people with an urgency belying his acoustic and often somber instrumentation. Many of the subjects are family and friends — “I Love My Dad,” “Ben’s My Friend,” a trip to Ohio to mourn “Carissa” but mainly to “get a look at those I’m connected to by blood” — but also kids he never met, in “Pray for Newtown” (above), in which he chastises CNN (always fun, always useful) and then offers a eulogy for an all-too-common tragedy the only way he feels comfortable: “I ain’t one to pray, but I’m one to sing and play.” Kozelek remains a singular songwriter, and “Benji” has teeth.
I’ve always revered Loudon Wainwright III, and he was back this year with “Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet).” I haven’t digested it fully yet, but it’s refreshing in that not only does his wit seem sharp as ever but he’s recorded here with a versatile band offering varied tones and textures, from the jumpin’-jivin’ horns of the opener “Brand New Dance” through the klezmer blues of “Spaced” to the porch-stomping title track (the tune, lyrics, and performance of which — purposefully, I suspect — echo his most successful blues song, “I’m Alright”).
New stuff I actually heard: Bad Suns’ “Language and Perspective” is not only a superb title in the context of my communication studies, it’s a lively, heady pop record with the same spunk as fun. but less froth. But I’m just a sucker for the chiming guitars. … I’ve heard Banks’ self-titled: I like the way she sounds like two singers on some songs (“Beggin for Thread”) and two different artists — a sultry R&B diva and an “Idol”-worthy pop trophy — in between the smooth grooves and glitches. … See my earlier rhapsody about the National, at long last.
My partner and I continue spelunking back through the catalog of the Avett Brothers. Christamighty, this is the finest Americana (if we must) band I’ve heard in a long time. Tasty chaw, yessir. Seeing them in a month and damn excited about it.
Artists I love who let me down: Neil Finn, a longtime favorite songcrafter, released the relatively dull, muddled, and perhaps aptly titled “Dizzy Heights.” … The new Interpol was Spotified with great expectation, but meh; I still like the way they construct a song, but after the time apart and Paul Banks’ dwindled solo outing, the slightly caricatured reunification album sounds like they spent a lot of time asking, “OK, so what do we sound like again?”
Artists I love who didn’t disappoint: Wild Beasts’ “Present Tense” is coolly consistent with the band’s brooding dance-rock and Hayden Thorpe’s still-confrontational falsetto. … The fucking Buzzcocks reunited! “The Way” lumbers just a wee bit, but the band is still serrated, still sharp. … After the spectacular proper solo debut of “The Messenger” in 2013, Johnny Marr struck while the riffs were still hot and released “Playland,” an excellent second act that maintains all the strengths of the earlier album’s Brit-rock and Marr’s deft damn style. … Chrissie Hynde, after all those years insisting she’d never release an album with her own name on it, did just that; “Stockholm” could have been a fine Pretenders outing, but by herself — and especially with the signature sound of producer Bjorn Yttling (Peter, Bjorn & John) — this solid set scores (even without the guitar solo by John McEnroe…?!). Hynde remains the coolest woman in the biz.
Old stuff I’ve been re/discovering: Where the hell has the Divine Comedy been all my life? My best friend is my best friend partly because he facilitates such discoveries, passing on “Liberation” — the best “Skylarking” since “Skylarking”? — and remaining patient as I beg for more. … After reading Simon Reynolds’ excellent history of post-punk, I’ve been listening to PiL with adult ears. Some of that stuff really holds up well, was quite forward-thinking. I interviewed the pussycat that is Johnny Lydon once upon a time, when the band rebooted (with another very good record), and I find myself wishing he’d work more. … Holy cow, I downloaded an obscure band called Cannon Heath Down, a sharp but jangly Vancouver college-rock quartet from the mid-’80s, and keep going back to it. Hits me where I and the Reivers live. … Always a sucker for moody New Agey stuff, I’m trying to work through Tangerine Dream’s catalog, a group I didn’t pay enough attention to in their heyday (I was off marveling at Jean-Michel Jarre and the like, oy). The soundtrack to my new life, I suppose.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.