The 45 Best Songs of 2014

2014

 

There’s no sugarcoating it. As years go, 2014 was a difficult one for me.

I climbed some hills, descended into some valleys, traveled halfway across the globe and spent a week not talking to anyone but Motel 6 front desk clerks.

Throughout it all, I carried these songs with me and now wish to share them with you.

I wish I could write 400 words on each track but I have a whole new year to get to … To quote that great EELS song, “If you’re small and on a search, I’ve got a feeder for you to perch on.”

Whatever that means.

Sufjan Stevens “A Little Lost” single
Twin Shadow “To The Top” single
Alvvays “Archie, Marry Me” Alvvays
Bleachers “Rollercoaster” Strange Desire
Jack White “Lazaretto” Lazaretto
Operators “Cruel” EP 1
Spoon “Inside Out” They Want My Soul
John Mark McMillan “Monsters Talk” Borderland
TV On The Radio “Careful You” Seeds
Porter Robinson “Sad Machine” Worlds
Ingrid Michaelson “Girls Chase Boys” Lights Out
M83 “I Need You” Divergent Soundtrack
Tokyo Police Club “Feel The Effect” Forcefield
Cloud Nothings “Quieter Today” Here And Nowhere Else
The War On Drugs “Red Eyes” Lost In The Dream
Future Islands “A Dream Of You And Me” Singles
Pigeon John “All The Roads” Encino Man
Foxygen “How Can You Really” …And Star Power
Sun Kill Moon “Ben’s My Friend” Benji
Lykke Li “Gunshot” I Never Learn
The Rural Alberta Advantage “To Be Scared” Mended With Gold
The New Division “Stockholm” Together We Shine
Hamilton Lelthauser “Alexandra” Black Hours
Panama Wedding “All Of The People” Parallel Play
U2 “Invisible (Red Edit)” single
Interpol “All The Rage Back Home” El Pintor
Strand Of Oaks “Goshen ’97” HEAL
The Gaslight Anthem “Dark Places” Get Hurt
Speedy Ortiz “American Horror” Real Hair
Vacationer “The Wild Life” The Wild Life
Sharon Von Etten “Everytime The Sun Comes Up” Are We There
BRONCHO “Class Historian” Just Enough Hip To Be Woman
Conor Oberst “Zigzagging Toward The Light” Upside Down Mountain
We Were Promised Jetpacks “Safety In Numbers” Unravelling
Handsome Ghost “Blood Stutter” Blood Stutter EP
Passenger “Heart’s On Fire” Whispers
Young Fathers “Soon Come Soon” Soon Come Soon
Sylvan Esso “Coffee” Sylvan Esso
Warpaint “Disco//very” Warpaint
Taking Back Sunday “Better Homes And Gardens” Happiness Is
Mariachi El Bronx “Wildfires” Mariachi El Bronx III
The Lees of Memory “Open Your Arms” Sisyphus Says
Ryan Adams “Kim” Ryan Adams
Matthew Ryan “Boxers” Boxers
Matt Pryor “Ex’s And Oh’s” Nine Forty Live

Best of 2014: Ryan's Top Albums

As the years slowly quickly inevitably fade into the horizon, I fear sentimentality almost as much as I fear being too old to realistically stay out until 3:00 AM rehearsing songs that will never earn us any money. 2014 brought very few new discoveries to the table, but it was the musical equivalent of a Wes Anderson film for me: solid, reliable, slightly left-leaning but unlikely to alienate or offend most decent people. There’s something to be learned from artists that you’ve spent half of your earth-years walking around with.

Best Of (3)
A chart of my life looks something like this: Birth>>Walkman>>Discman>>iRiver>>iPod>>Android>>iPhone>>WindowsMobile

10. LA Symphony – You Still On Earth? (LAS Music)

Still On Earth is a welcome return from the Los Angeles-based hip hop crew who lived through record label hell in the early aughts and lived to tell the tale. Best of all, Pigeon John is back and the 16-tracks on YSOE don’t rely on production tricks but instead offer humor, hope, cultural criticism and laid-back bravado from some dudes who are still underdogs from the underground.

 

9. Spoon – They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)

 

Razor-sharp hooks, a rhythm section that is wound tighter than a suspension bridge and some great songs propel They Want My Soul into my top ten. It’s not rocket science, just rock n roll.

 

8. Future Islands – Singles (4AD)

 

I bought Singles on vinyl, which meant that I couldn’t skip around like an actual collection of singles. More than just the sum of a couple great songs (“A Dream of You and Me,” “Seasons [Waiting On You]”), Singles is actually a pretty adventurous record. At live shows, Samuel T. Herring inspires the kind of devotion and morbid fascination that has typically been reserved for Prince or Morrissey. I kid you not, we could be watching the stuff of future TIME LIFE Box Sets for 2035.

 

7. Tokyo Police Club – Forcefield (Mom + Pop Music)

Tokyo Police Club wisely stuck with the guitar/bass/drums + occasional keyboards formula on Forcefield, pairing it with some of the band’s strongest songwriting to date. Perennially under-appreciated, TPC quietly offer up two of the best songs of 2014, the rock-opera catharsis of “Argentina parts 1,2,3” and the heart-on-the-floor romanticism of “Feel The Effect.”

 

6. Sun Kill Moon – Benji (Caldo Verde)

 

I like to make up my own Benji-style lyrics “Got home from work/Logged on to my website/Argued with my woman about who should run for president I said I don’t know but I want some Panera right now.” All kidding aside, Benji is a real heavyweight feat of songwriting.

 

5. U2 – Songs Of Innocence (Interscope)

It’s not cool to like U2 and that is more than OK with me. I actually have appreciated the band in most every incarnation, including 1997’s Pop, when it was trendy to knock the band for making euro trash bleeps and video game sounds. Songs Of Innocence is not a radical reinvention and the publicity-stunt release of the record belies its emotional heft. “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight,” “Iris,” “Song For Someone” are all gimmick-free solid gold.

 

 

4. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams (PAX AM)

 

Adams spent his own money to record this self-titled monument after shelving another complete album. Slowing down his prolific pace, and mercilessly editing himself has allowed Adams to record his most urgent, potent songs since Cold Roses, maybe even since Heartbreaker.

 

3. Bill Mallonee and The Darkling Planes – Winnowing (Self-Released)

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Bill Mallonee has written a lifetime’s worth of memorable songs but nothing can stem the flow of music and lyrics that dig deep into the pathology of despair and hope that define the human condition. The past several years have not been kind to Mallonee and yet he persists in chronicling a story that sounds at once familiar and foreign to the rest of us who walk the same ground. “All that binds us to this hard world is but a single golden chord and it all flooded through the windshield of an old beat up Ford,” Mallonee sings on “From An Old Beat Up Ford.” It’s clear that he still believes in the power of American music, and if you give Winnowing a chance, you will to.

 

2. Matthew Ryan – Boxers (Blue Rose)

 

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“We sigh and shiver under miserable stars,” Matthew Ryan sings on “Boxers,” the title-track and album opener. A straight forward rock album for the year 2014. I honestly feel like crying, laughing and expressing incredulity that simple chord changes, bass and drums can be deconstructed and chemically altered into this legendary formula. Heisenberg has got nothing on Matt Ryan.

 

1. The Lees Of Memory – Sisyphus Says (Side One Dummy)

 

There’s always been more to John Davis and Brendan Fisher than just the mantle of power-pop-revivalists. Sisyphus Says occasionally winks at the past, like when the ending of “Not A Second More” nods back to the riff that closes Superdrag’s cathartic album-opener “Slot Machine.” But more often Davis, Fisher and drummer Nick Slack operate in an alternate universe, where My Bloody Valentine was every bit as big as The Beatles and where Jesus really did ride next to Paul Westerberg. The sonics are immaculate, the songs are generously paced without overstaying their welcome and most importantly, the hooks here are earned.

If there were any justice in the universe, The Lees of Memory wouldn’t be a shoegaze side project, they would be playing the main stage at Coachella and collaborating with a still-smooth Notorious BIG. But this is the world we live in and Sisyphus Says can be first on my list, right where we all belong.

Best Albums of 2014 – Version Rossi.0

In direct opposition to my 2013 list, 2014 was a year of highly anticipated albums that for the most part, I thought, delivered on their anticipation.

Anticipating upcoming albums is a funny thing. If it’s a band you have followed for some time, you are generally looking forward to something similar to their old stuff. Something welcoming and familiar. Many times, however, that’s not quite what you get. If it’s a new band, there are multiple ways you might have come to your place of anticipation – word of mouth, good early publicity, etc. Or maybe it’s a band you’ve known about, dabbled in but could never quite get into, but have reason to believe this new offering will be different. Three of the albums in my top 10, in particular, were highly anticipated, at least by me.

However, some came out of nowhere. There were albums that hooked me from the first listen, while still others that grew with time. I started putting a tentative list together about a month ago, and the way it has shifted since that initial list is testament, I believe, more to my wide range in tastes than anything else.

So, without further ado, below is my top 10 albums of 2014. Please, tell what I missed, why I’m wrong, and what you also loved this year!

1. The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream

From a personal standpoint, the most highly anticipated album of 2014. And man, did it ever deliver. I was a bit late to the War on Drugs game, only having really started to appreciate the work of Adam Granduciel with their 2011 release, Slave Ambient. But that album was enough to get me excited for what came next. Lost in a Dream feels is deep. It’s the only way I know how to describe it. With every listen – which is likely now going on 100 for me – I hear/feel/experience something different. But I think the greatest compliment I can pay to this album is that EVERY time I listen in, it feels as if Granduciel is right next to me, playing the song for the first time. It’s that real.

2. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams is back, and in a big way. It’s evident not just in how this album is everything that every Ryan Adams fan had hoped for in his return from “retirement,” but it how he’s come back into the spotlight the only way he knows how – unapologetically. From covering whatever the hell he feels like (see here, here, and here) to chastising a fan for a camera flash that set off his Ménière’s disease. Ryan Adams toured hard this fall (and I was there), including the late night talk show circuit with Jenny Lewis. And why not – this album deserves to be heard far and wide.

3. Perfume Genius – Too Bright

Perfume Genius, aka Mike Hadreas, has been on my radar for about three years – after his debut LP Learning but before encore Put Your Back N 2 It. His first two albums were personal, dark and haunting. You felt as if you were watching him play each song behind a one-way mirror, with him unaware that anyone was listening or watching – a personal window into his soul. Too Bright, on the other hand, is Hadreas’ coming out party. Subdued opener I Decline lures you into the belief that you are in for the same ol’ same ol’. But that’s quickly rejected as in-your-face single Queen breaks out singing “No family is safe, when I sashay,” followed by grunts coupled with a catchy electronic hook. Hadreas’ previous albums saw him coupling the topics of sexuality and depression, as if there were intrinsically linked. But Too Bright has Hadreas breaking out from behind the glass, comfortable with who he is and exclaiming he is here to stay, in a big way.

4. Future Islands – Singles

The biggest missed live-performance regret of my year come by way of Baltimore-based Future Islands. For the first half of 2014, the band was playing domestic and international shows at known but not large or iconic venues. But that all changes in the second half of the year, as Singles gained in popularity, and word of their electric live shows spread across the indie music scene. That meteoric rise in popularity culminated in a much-talked-about performance on Letterman. My fear is that small, intimate venues won’t be on the tour circuit for Future Islands for the foreseeable future. Good for them.

5. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

One of the strongest albums of the year burst onto the scene in its first month. Speaking of highly anticipated albums, the first album from Against Me! since lead singer Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender in a Rolling Stone article in 2012 fits snugly into that category. Admittedly, the album title that leaked some six months prior to release led to much of that anticipation, but this album delivered in a big way. From the first track to the last, Grace’s vocals and lyrics come across as raw, personal, tortured, unapologetic, and in-your-face. Remember when punk rock was overtly political? This is a throw back to the heyday.

6. The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt

I love the Gaslight Anthem. They have become entrenched into a list of a dozen or so bands that carry loftier status for me. Get Hurt is what it is, and it’s not what it’s not. Brilliant, right? What it is is an attempt by Brian Fallon and company to be taken more seriously as a band, to come out of the shadows of cult-status and announce themselves to a wider audience as a “serious rock band!” This is apparent, not only in the album itself, but also in the marketing campaign that surrounded its release. Hell, Fallon himself declared Pearl Jam to be the album’s biggest inspiration. What Get Hurt is not is the same ‘ol heart-on-sleeve, teenage-angst-filled combo of dance-alongs and ballads thats permeated their previous albums. This new way works, too.

7. G-Eazy – These Things Happen

Every year, one rap album is able to crack my top 10. This year’s entrant – G-Eazy – comes from the same lyric school as 2012’s representative, Kendrick Lamar (unofficially, at least). Though G-Eazy hails from almost 400 miles north on I-5, the beat style and themes covered are very similar. They include dealing with newfound success, sacrifice, and staying true to self. But the theme throughout this album that resonated the most with me is Gerald Earl Gillum’s apparent internal struggle between living in the now and an obsession with dying young. This is something everyone has dealt with at some point, but G-Eazy verbalizes it better than most.

8. Copeland – Ixora

Copeland is back doing what it does best, writing songs that combine relatively simple piano or guitar chords with deep lyrics and the haunting voice of Aaron Marsh. I was skeptical Copeland’s music could still resonate with me, but that skepticism was misguided. This is a strong album from front to back that gets better with every listen.

9. Lana Del Ray – Ultraviolence

Another highly anticipated album, following up on 2012’s strong LP Born to Die and mini-album Paradise, Ultraviolence beat back Del Ray’s haters by featuring moody songs that stuck with you long after they ended. Del Ray’s unlikely (or, maybe more accurately, “self-constructed”) path to fame is well-pronounced, but for all the hate, you have to give her credit for the staying power.

10. The Antlers – Familiars

This album doesn’t ebb and flow, doesn’t have climaxes or songs that are better than others, or even many catchy beats. What it is is steady, strong from the beginning to the end. This might not be an album I listen to much in a year, or even remember in 5 years. But I enjoyed it this year as a background soundtrack of sorts, able to be played while reading, writing, or working.

Honorable Mentions:

  1. How To Dress Well – What is this Heart?
  2. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
  3. Matthew Ryan – Boxers
  4. Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
  5. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
  6. Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were
  7. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Ryan Adams Live at 930 Club

ryan adams at 930 3In case Ryan Adams’ new self-titled album wasn’t enough to demonstrate that he has emerged from an always-tenuous retirement as both a new person and a new musician, last night’s album release show at the 930 Club in Washington, D.C. provided more evidence.

Adams has always been beloved by both fans and critics for his achingly personal song writing. And that much has not changed. He has also gone to often-great lengths to appear as both a poet and tortured soul – a kind of 21st century Dylan/Morrissey hybrid. But that seems to be where the shift is taking place.

One listen to Ryan Adams and this much is clear – his ability to write songs that deeply relate to his listeners is still there. But what takes multiple listens – and in my case, a live performance – to understand is how his inspiration for those songs seems to have shifted. Ryan Adams is no longer the reckless and carefree 20 year old from his Whiskeytown days of the 90’s. He is no longer the wannabe rock star of the early 2000s (from Heartbreaker through Love is Hell). And he is no longer the radio-friendly pop star of the late 2000s (as heard on Easy Tiger and Ashes & Fire).

Ryan Adams is who he is at this point in his career – an enormously accomplished musician who seems to have little care for what people think of him. He’s writing what he wants to write, and nothing else. Both on Adams’ new album, and his live performance, there is a comfort level with himself that I had previously not heard or seen. And this isn’t a bad thing in the slightest.

It was this comfort level that ultimately stood out last night above anything else. Jokes abounded, including quips about a new band called Dingo Infestation, a story about a taking mushrooms and visiting a cemetery which somehow related back to the 930 Club logo, and endless new merch concepts such as a shirt with a sad face wearing a cowboy hat that would accompany his “depressing songs.” This was in stark contrast to the last time I saw Adams play with his one-time band The Cardinals, a show during which he might have engaged with the audience for a grand total of five seconds. Last night’s show should have been billed as two acts – Ryan Adams the comedian performing with Ryan Adams the singer-songwriter.

His newfound comfort was also evident in which songs he played and the way he played them. At least half a dozen songs spanned more than 10 minutes and included (at least what came across as) a variety of improvised break downs and guitar solos. Multiple songs were started and stopped because he wanted to play it at a different tempo. And very few, if any, of his radio-friendly “hits” were included in the set list.

At the end of the night, someone with specific expectations could have been disappointed with the overall performance. Fortunately, I was anything but. The show was lively, entertaining, engaging, suspenseful, funny, and thought provoking. So while Ryan Adams may not be the Ryan Adams of old, I like the new one just as well.

Set List

 

2014 Week of the Concert

The vast majority of my posts for Pop Heart Etc. consist of concert reviews. This week will be no different – just more of the same in a condensed period of time. Here is my concert-going schedule for the upcoming week. Reviews of each will follow shortly after.

Monday, September 8
Ryan Adams @ 930 Club in Washington, D.C. (This is an album release show for Ryan’s upcoming self-titled album)

Wednesday, September 10
The Gaslight Anthem w/ Against Me! @ 930 Club in Washington, D.C. (Gaslight is touring on their newest album, Get Hurt)

#ThrowbackThursday: Ryan Adams' obscure gems

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I don’t often participate in #TT whether on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter because I guess I prefer to use Thursday to try and make sense of the immediate future.

Friday is more or less my primary day off so I try and power through and leave my desk 50 % less full of trash.

However, looking back now and then is good for the soul, and in the case of the incomparable Ryan Adams, it can help us prepare for the future. Whether or not he returns to his hyper-prolificacy remains to be seen. But the man has authored many, many great songs, a large number of which remain relatively obscure. Here are 5 of the best, according to Popheart.

“Desire” is a gorgeous, mostly two-chord ballad that could choose to reach for epic, arena-rock heights but instead remains firmly rooted on planet earth. Which is the piece of space dust on which we all live and love and hum along. Also including a 2007 live version with The Cardinals.

“This House Is Not For Sale” merges Johnny Marr-guitar-heroics with bittersweet sentiment. Really, switch this track with any of the lesser songs on the Rock N Roll album (essentially a wink/middle finger to Lost Highway record execs) and this song could have been a fantastic single.

“So Alive” was in fact, a single from the album Rock N Roll. While the whole record is underrated in my opinion, “So Alive” ranks as one of Adams’ best songs on any of his albums. Direct, unashamedly lovesick and uptempo, with a soaring vocal that almost gets silly but toes the line in favor of heartfelt.

“September” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful, warm and harrowing songs I’ve ever heard. Clocking in at a taut 2:28, Adams tells a story worth a full-length feature film in the time it takes Pitbull to open a can of Redbull.

Few writers can combine literate folk ballads and garage rockers like Ryan Adams. “Breakdown into the Resolve” is the type of song you feel like it took 10 minutes to write on the back of a discarded cocktail napkin. And you will never ever get it out of your head.