What an awesome year for music this really was. When reviewing all the magazine’s lists of Best songs and albums this year, I relived a lot of memories of ear candy and album happiness which made me truly realize just how great a year for music it was. From small Canadian up-and-comers like the Glorious Sons, to pop dynamo vets like Taylor Swift, 21st century music’s finest really put their best feet forward this year and narrowing down the top 5 (honourable mentions to come later) was a rough call. But here they are, my ABSOLUTE favourites of a favourite-infused year of great records.
5. David Gray – Mutineers
David Gray has been releasing weepy ambient acoustic pop for a couple of decades and has, with few exceptions, gotten increasingly polished with age. On this latest effort he enlists fellow Brit and former Damien Rice collaborator Andy Barlow to produce and program this HIGHLY underrated gem of a record, possibly Gray’s best since his breakthrough White Ladder. What functions as a Gray career-capturing best-of, empowering uptempo marchers like the lead single “Back in the World” and the title track, which starts off as a simple tinkering intro that builds up and up to a satisfying and gorgeous yet understated conclusion, meld wonderfully with the 2 minute, 30 second simplicity of “Cake and Eat It” just as well as with the heavy-handed, gorgeous piano-driven “Birds of the High Arctic”, Gray’s best track in years and years. David Gray has found a formula that works but has ‘tried’ harder, favouring simple arrangements and lofty romantic lyrics (“Lying here with you on top of me/There’s nowhere on this earth that I’d rather be”) over production gymnastics. Listening to this is pure bliss, a return to greatness, and I’m surprised to not have seen it on more best-of lists this year.
4. Jack White – Lazaretto
Lazaretto was not only an angrier, gritter and more pronounced sophomore solo from Jack White (who was once accurately described as the “Willy Wonka” or 21st century music), but it was also the best-selling vinyl of the year for understandingly good reason: with all the bells and whistles of Wonka’s chocolate factory, there are still secrets to be revealed on the Ultra LP edition of the record, from secret songs to backwards play, to graphic etchings and then some. Lazaretto succeeds in stamping White’s influences such as blues and classic country, as well as reintroducing the epic guitar work he does best which felt lacking on his first solo release. The title track and the instrumental “High Ball Stepper” both employ the guitar god’s finest work since his White Stripes days, and his screaming manic vocals have never sounded better than they do on “Three Women” or “That Black Bat Licorice”. Just as strong are the lovely “Temporary Ground”, which harkens back to the work he did with Loretta Lynn. An eclectic mix of all kinds of tricks is what we’d expect from one of the coolest people alive – afterall, he has dabbled in the past year in authorship and publishing, virtual reality, film, production, releasing the fastest vinyl recording, and so on and so on and so on. 2014 has proven that the world needs more people like Jack White.
3. Tweedy- Sukierae
Jeff Tweedy, like Jack White, is a bit of a wizard with a passion for many things. Evidently, one of his passions is being a husband and father to his two sons, Spencer and Sammy, and keeping it in the family is what is so charming and un-Wilco on this sort-of-solo debut, featuring a great many tracks (perhaps a tad too many?) that are at times, semi-autobiographical (the lead single with very funny and clever Nick Offerman-directed video, “Low Key”) and at times, simple romantic odes to his wife, the nicknamesake of this record, on songs like “Where My Love” and “Pigeons”. There is a certain childlike-ness to much of this record which has surfaced on later Wilco records but is a far departure from the starkness of a record like “A Ghost is Born”. Wistfulness can be gleaned from songs like “Summer Noon”. And yet, Tweedy’s signature penchant for meandering experimentalism is evident on “Diamond Light, pt. 1”, which is both a familiar and challenging listen all at once, much like a lot of Wilco’s less conventional back catalogue tunes. Tweedy is one of the most gifted songwriters who can make simple lyrics seem to span decades of meaning and truth, and oddball non-sensical lyrics seem like either comical or romantic poetry. All his best qualities as a writer truly shine on this record, and Spencer Tweedy’s drumming, while not rhythmically flexible, crisp and maniacal like Wilco’s rythm-keeper Glenn Kotche, are certainly a wonderful and fitting edition to Sukierae. I hope there’s a follow-up coming (but let’s see another Wilco record first, Jeff!!).
2. Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy
Eight years ago, Damien Rice released a follow-up to his spellbinding, earth-shattering debut that was, in my opinion, equally as spellbinding and earth-shattering if not more so. Rice’s songs, which are weepy acoustic outpourings of his tortured soul, are the stuff this reviewer’s listening party dreams are made of. And so, for the last near-decade, his talents, voice, and heart-wounding lyrics were greatly, deeply missed. Re-enter Rice unexpectedly and quite suddenly into the music landscape just a short month ago. My Favourite Faded Fantasy is what I would have expected from Rice – admittedly, more of the same teary broken-hearted laments, though flavoured at times with Irish drinking songs (“Long Long Way”), or digi-pop (“My Favourite Faded Fantasy”). The thing about Damien Rice is, listening to him is not about variety. It’s about emotion. The outpouring of such depth is achieved by calm seas interspersed with orchestral swells, coupled with Rice’s smooth-yet-pained vocals, sometimes screaming out, sometimes merely muted whispers. In this regard, he is the master of his own craft, a still-unique voice that has permeated the hearts of maybe not enough tortured souls, myself included. I’m so thankful to see a record from him again. Let’s hope the next one isn’t another eight years in the making.
1. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
A ‘proper’ Ryan Adams album has not been released since 2011’s wonderful, Californian-flavoured “Ashes & Fire”, an acoustic and honky tonk piano-led album about recovery, love and promises. In typical Adams fashion, he has abandoned working again with Glen Johns in favour of self-producing an aptly self-titled fourteenth record and the results are pluperfect retro 70s and 80s pulsating rock gems. The first single, “Gimme Something Good” is a catchy and addictive edgy alternative song with a lot of grit featuring an ear worm of a chorus with an impassioned plea only Ryan Adams can deliver. “Shadows” is a darkly beautiful slow jam which asks questions about the future (perhaps Adams’ future as a singer/songwriter while faced with debilitating Meniere’s Disease?). “Trouble” is yet another rhythm guitar-driven pop/rock classic, one of Adams’ best songs ever, in which he sings, “Sometimes I just got nothing else to say/I’ve been on repeat since yesterday”. I respectfully disagree with this self-assessment of Ryan Adams, if only based on the fact that his ability to reinvent, wear new influences, try new sounds, produce himself and others (check out the great Butch Walker!), and continue being one of the quirkiest, funniest, most relaxed and most eclectic live performer of the year. This record is wonderful. It’s thoroughly enjoyable and each song pieces together an overall emotionally resonent sound that demands repeated listenings if only to glean and re-glean its essence. This is what an ‘album’ is truly all about.