- Ex Hex, Rips (Merge). No rocket science behind these tunes but this CD makes me happy from beginning to end—pure punk-power pop.
- Black Lips, Underneath The Rainbow (Vice). I love this band and gobble up every release. This is their most accessible CD to date. I love it. Black Lips dance the line of funny and serious. I hear their live show is do not miss. Maybe in 2015 I can convince them to play live at my pool party. I have a feeling they’d be fun at a party.
- Ty Segall, Manipulator (Drag City). Pretty perfect CD. Every song is solid and affable. Love it.
- The Wytches, Annabel Dream Reader (Patisan). The Wytches unearthed a dark portal of gothic rock principles and took them to their bloody hearts. This CD would be a perfect soundtrack to a dark ride in a bumpy forest.
- Temples, Sun Structures (Fat Possum). Temples brand of Zombies loving 70s psychedelia rock is like the coming of the new musical dawn. They aren’t merely regurgitating some familiar sound, they have transformed the sound into their own. It’s an amazing disc that bathes you in a warm magical mist.
- Dum Dum Girls, Too True (Sub Pop). I love the Dum Dum Girls. I have never been disappointed in any of their CDs. Too True shines with smooth songwriting and catchy tunes.
- Band Of Skulls, Himilayan (+180 Records). Formed in 2008, Band Of Skulls’ 2014 release continues a most excellent streak of solid releases. I love them and every thing they do. This band rules.
- The Horrors, Luminous (XL Recordings). A beautiful release from this band. Luminous basks in ambient/psychedelic themes that transport the listener to a rainbow of musical colors.
- Allah-Las. Worship The Sun (Innovative). Love this disc—catchy and fun with some good songwriting.
- Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence (Polydor). This is such a solid disc. Lana’s songwriting continues to mature, the melodies are heavenly and she collaborated with the one and only Dan Auerbach on this one. Win-win-win.
2. Bob Dylan and the Band, The Basement Tapes Complete: Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (2014). Speaking of the Dylan-Industrial-Complex, I ponied up for the expanded Basement Tapes box set not long ago. I’m still digesting this, but it’s a rich collection of material that’s probably best thought about as a whole set. I’m not sure if some of the best songs are great or just fascinating (like the Johnny Cash covers), but there’s some bullshit in here, too. It’s a valuable historical document for sure, if you’re into buying music for that reason.
3. Various Artists, Look Again to the Wind (2014). Musicians of the future should study this as an example of how to cover an entire album with just the right mixture of respect and interpretation. This is a top-to-bottom re-creation of Johnny Cash’s 1964 album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, plus two instrumental reprises and “Look Again to the Wind” by Peter La Farge, who wrote many of the songs on Bitter Tears. Cash’s album was a searing but restrained indictment of the many injustices leveled against Native Americans over a long period of displacement and oppression; this version is more haunting and gloomy than the original, which is perhaps appropriate since we’re half a century deeper into that sorrowful historical process. When I heard that Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, producer Joe Henry, and others would be putting this together, I had high expectations, which were met and surpassed by this album.
4. Crowbar, Symmetry in Black (2014). Like Motorhead, Crowbar is one of those bands that seemed to appear fully formed on their first album, and has since made a career of consistency and quality. There’s enough variation between albums to keep it interesting, but otherwise Crowbar plows ahead with an “if-it-ain’t-broke” mentality, and releases one heavy-as-fuck album after another. This installment seems especially good compared to the last Down EP (part 2 of an ongoing series), which is the supergroup’s first without Crowbar’s Kirk Windstein, and certainly isn’t bad but feels a little under-baked.
5. Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams (2014). This motherfucker has ways of pissing me off (like self-titling this album, or boasting that he blew an exorbitant amount of money recording an album that he scrapped, and then started over with this one). But I also think he’s one of the best artists working today. I usually prefer his alt-country and folkie side to the indie rock side, but this is basically a rock album, and it’s fantastic.
6. Causalities of Cool, Causalities of Cool. This album is hard to explain unless you’re familiar with Devin Townsend and his myriad projects (as a solo artist and with Strapping Young Lad). I’m a convinced Devin fan—although it seems like he releases whatever he manages to record, which isn’t always a great idea even for a great artist—and this is one of his best because it pushes into slightly new sonic territory, including some forays into country music. This album is eerie and weird, but sometimes beautiful, and has cover art that captures the vibe perfectly: an old-fashioned radio, blasted and smoking, sitting on what looks like the surface of the moon, left out in the annihilating vastness of space.
7. Pete Seeger, American Favorite Ballads Vols. 1-5 (2009). Pete Seeger died early in 2014, and I spent some time this year reflecting on the man and his life as an artist and revolutionary. This collection brings together albums he recorded in the late 1950s and early 60s, alone, usually accompanying himself on guitar or banjo. The sound is spare but engrossing, and Pete works his way through a diverse bunch of songs, a real treasure trove of (not entirely all) American music. There are some songs here that I want to skip—who the fuck sits down and listens to “Yankee Doodle”?—but it’s an overwhelmingly strong collection otherwise, and a fine testament to an irreplaceable artist.
8. Lydia Loveless, Indestructible Machine (2011). I heard her for the first time this year, bought this album, and listened to it over and over for a week. She reminds me of Neko Case with more attitude and more rocking songs, which are, at least on this album, mostly about booze and heartbreak. Worth it alone for the song “Steve Earle,” about being pursued in a very creepy way by that famous musician, which is hilarious, assuming that it’s a joke (and I’m not 100 percent sure it is).
9. Son Volt, Wide Swing Tremolo (1998). Certain that my co-ticklers might be horrified to learn that I didn’t own this album until somewhat recently, maybe last year, as in 2013. It was one of those situations where I had worked through the whole Son Volt catalog and overlooked this album, and then forgot that I didn’t own it. What a tragic fucking mistake, I learned as I listened to this all through the year. Every Son Volt album is great, and this one is especially great.
10. Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful (1991). I read a handful of music-related books in 2014, but this one stands out. The subtitle is A Book about Jazz, which is really the only way to describe it. Dyer blends fiction with historical research and music criticism to create portraits of some legendary jazz figures, portraits that are mostly true but maybe not entirely factual, and certainly shaped by Dyer’s own imagination. It’s the kind of approach that’s hard to pull off and risks turning into a load of self-indulgent bullshit if it fails—like a lot of jazz music—but Dyer succeeds, and creates his own kind of art in the process.