Making year-end lists is a fun exercise for music heads. My Top Ten Albums of 2014 are each solid, deep albums, highly subjective choices that spoke to me as a music lover beyond just one or two tunes. I'm allowing for serendipity of time and place, too - I don't think it's a coincidence that the metal of Mastodon's new album was just the thing for me to hear after I'd been in my car crash in April, for example.
2014 was another great year for music! Here's what I thought was good.
10. Greylag - Greylag. After hearing their "Yours To Shake" at a radio music conference in early August, I managed to get my hands on an advance copy of the self-titled debut album from Greylag and loved it!. Had it for two months before I could share it - the album finally came out in mid-October."Another" was released first, as a "teaser track" - a killer track, like "Shake" which followed as the first "single". Clear these guys have something real going on. They're based in Portland, Oregon, have a sort of Northwestern flavor. Lead vocalist Andrew Stonestreet sounds a bit like the late Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone, at times Perry Farrell.
Some reviews have described Greylag as a folk-rock band, doesn't seem accurate. Their "folk" sounds more like an acoustic Led Zeppelin influence on tunes like "Black Sky" and "Mama"... is III a folk rock album? They play with some Zep-y chords, but also do their own thing. Greylag know how put an electric guitar to good use, too, bringing menace and tension to "Shake" with its subtle threat, for example. On "Burn On" and "Arms Unknown" they certainly assert their right to shake off the "folk-" appellation. Closer "Walk the Night" is acoustic, but it's like so many album closers in rock history, the the quiet - and satisfying - ending to a rock album. Damn fine one at that.
9. Mastodon - Once More 'Round The Sun. Have a bunch of friends into hard rock and metal. My taste in that arena runs towards the Progressive Rock variety, when it does at all. Knowing that, many of those friends have recommended Mastodon to me over the last couple of years. I've checked out some videos, cool science fiction stuff, but nothing connected. All it took was a high-speed car accident. Got rear-ended when I was going 65-70 mph traveling down the highway to work one Monday morning in April. Guy who hit me got a DWI. The Camry bounced off the railing a couple times but I kept it together and walked away. Got this album right about then.
Right now? Listening to it to write a sum up... it's not the right album, you know? But it was such the right album at the right time, it makes my list. It became my driving album, you see. Yeah. Even helped me get back and forth to Balticon at the end of May. These guys are talented, with three distinct voices and melodic and at times intricate song structures. The entire album may not be in my rotation anymore, but the title track - which reminds me a little of early Monster Magnet - and "Asleep In the Deep" - which I love - are still on my playlist. Sorry, I work in radio, those are my metaphors.
8. Phish - Fuego. They're baaa-aa-a-ack! There's a moment during "Wombat" when they break and sing - "discovered by a man named Wilson!" - and when first heard it flashed through my head - my band's back! No, they don't belong to me. But I have been seeing them play since the Nectars' days. And I was the first radio DJ in the world to ever play them on the air. So, there's that. I'm biased. But also? Picky. That said, "Fuego" - the title track - opens the album strong for me, launching right into a jam, no apologies, Fishman on fire - Fuego? - and Trey with a sweet solo. Great long phrase of a bass line from Mike, tasty key fills from Page. Strong group vocals. This is Phish.
Not a lot of extra stuff here, sound effects, guests - just the band playing music. Okay, some horn players and singers on "Wombat". Fine. Works for me. Different sounds of theirs work for me now, though, it's funny. Rockers like "Devotion To A Dream" used to be more my cuppa, but now it's "Halfway to the Moon" that sucks me in. Still, "Sing Monica" is fun in its simplicity.
7. Pink Floyd - The Endless River. An unexpected album makes an unexpected and late leap onto my list. Had no idea until the news leaked in early July that we'd even get one, final Floyd album. Turned out the late Richard Wright had recorded a great deal of material back during the Division Bell sessions, with David Gilmour and Nick Mason and solo, anticipating a companion release to that album, one comprised of ambient and instrumental music. But The Endless River isn't that album. It's more than that. "Louder Than Words" - the only track with words - sums it up pretty well at the end, giving we listeners the sense of scope and scale they're covered here - this is what's it's been like to be this thing, Pink Floyd.
Gilmour, Mason and company have put together the capstone to Pink Floyd, the swan song, a fond reminiscence of a band gone bye. Filled with Echoes of their musical past, The Endless River recalls every era as they meander through the instrumental soundscape, freely pulling out sonic references from their catalog and recombining them. There are 18 tracks, but many are under two minutes, flowing into each other. The "Things Left Unsaid" intro leads into the sort of "Welcome to the Machine"-ish "It's What We Do" and the Wall-esque "Sum", then "Skins" recalls pre-Dark Side Of The Moon "Saucerful of Secrets". "Anisina" feints towards "Us and Them" before becoming its own slightly separate thing.
Love what I'll call "Allons-y 1/Autumn '68/Allons-y 2" with its opening and closing "Run Like Hell" inspired riffs and tasty keyboard center - my favorite part of the album right now. "Louder..." is a quality Gilmour-era Floyd tune, good Polly Sampson lyrics capturing the mood. Does seem to take longer to get to know instrumental albums - notice repeated listens to this one have me appreciating it more and more. Finally, a Bonus track alert - "Nervana" is a killer little guitar jam. Sounds like they're having fun!
6. Dan Wilson - Love Without Fear. Dan Wilson writes songs my heart sings. Was looking forward to this collection for a while! Got the Deluxe Book version, full of Dan's own drawings and calligraphy - you see his art in his videos for the album, too. Having been a fan since his days in Trip Shakespeare, I'm completely biased - everyone should love this! Many talented friends on here, too: Sara Bareilles, Lissie, Natalie Maines, Sean Watkins, Oliver Krauss, and more. Wasn't a chance this album wouldn't make my Top Ten. Only reason it's not higher? Came out early this year and I hadn't heard it lately. Listening again writing this sum-up... love every song!
Almost doesn't feel like a 2014 album."Disappearing" came out as a single in the summer of '13, follow-up "Love Without Fear" over a year ago. Dan also released some demos earlier - "Songs From the Ballroom" - thru his mailing list, like the majestic "However Long", folksy ditty "Your Brighter Days" and bonus track "Patience". "When It Pleases You" is Dan's version of a tune Sara Watkins released on her Sun Midnight Sun solo album in 2012. Been hearing parts of this album for a while. Still, "A Song Can Be About Anything" came as a fresh surprise - and an amazing pop song - and "Even the Stars Are Sleeping" with Missy Higgins surprising and simply sublime. Nice - now that I've had a break from it, I can listen again fresh!
5. Opeth - Pale Communion. First heard Opeth when they worked with Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson on their Blackwater Park, Deliverance and Damnation albums in the early 2000's. Originally Swedish metal, Opeth is evolving into a brilliant Progressive Rock band whose new Prog sound has hints of the old, mellotron and keyboards, soaring guitar solos - think early Deep Purple and Genesis, even The Dregs. On Pale Communion they fully embrace the progressive rock mantle and lose the death metal trappings almost entirely. Singer, guitarist, and songwriter Mikael Åkerfeldt leaves the cookie monster, er, "death growl" vocals behind. Would rather hear him sing - Åkerfeldt has a great voice, reminiscent of pre-Asia, King Crimson-era John Wetton. He's also a talented guitar player - and an unabashed fan of 1970's Prog.
Didn't know I needed a good, new Prog album until "Eternal Rains Will Fall" opened and began the unfolding - an inner chord was sounded. There's still a hard edge to much of the album - the hard rock side of Prog, not the neo-metal Prog of bands like Dream Theater. "River" is my favorite - opening with a delicate, Steve Hackett-esque acoustic guitar and layered harmony vocals, adding stately keyboards and intensity, the piece builds to a near-metallic crescendo before easing to a close. "Moon Above, Sun Below" is an almost 11-minute-long epic. Instrumental "Goblin" recalls The Dregs as it repeats a riff in diabolical fashion in a style also similar to Wishbone Ash on "The Pilgrim". This is Progressive Rock for 2014 and beyond.
4. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye. Got this one early, but couldn't share the music right away. Embargoed by Warner Bros. until release time, all I could do is tell people how good it was - that Petty and the band had delivered some of his best stuff since Wildflowers! Great summer record, too. First song we could play was advance track "American Dream Plan B" - a pretty killer tune with a nice uplift to the chorus - but "U Get Me High" was the single, good Petty. Getting the entire album was a revelation.
I'm an old Petty fan - but Mojo didn't do a lot for me. To be honest, Echo, The Last DJ, Highway Companion... they've been good, some tracks keepers for sure - still have my "Swingin'" promo baseball bat - but as albums? Just okay. Hypnotic Eye doesn't weaken like those others. If rock ruled the radio as it did in the days of Into the Great Wide Open this would be a deep album on the air, with "All You Can Carry", "Red River", "Forgotten Man" and "American Dream..." all seeing play. And Petty's other facets are on strong display, too: funny on "Burnt Out Town", epic on "Shadow People"...named almost every track on the album! It is that good. Highly recommended for Petty fans.
3. S. Carey - Range Of Light. Love it when something hits me out of nowhere! I wasn't familiar with Sean Carey's work before listening to Range of Light - quietly unfolding, erupting, simmering - stark, yet surrounded by the silences - like walks in winter woods. He's best known as the drummer and back-up vocalist in Justin Vernon's Bon Iver - so I learned. This is his second solo effort, and Vernon appears in a back-up capacity, most clearly evident on "Crown The Pines". My favorite is "Fire-Scene", but "Creaking" is close - all of "side one" is strong. There is a serenity throughout the album, and the video for "Fire-Scene" captures visually the feelings the work evokes.
2. The War On Drugs - Lost In the Dream. Didn't know I was going to love this one. Some albums slowly sink in under the skin - this was one. Though "Red Eyes" was the first single heard from the whole, I grew to love Lost In the Dream because it was such a strong entirety. The flow of the album made it a great driving record - listened to it in the car a lot. Then it seemed I was hearing it many places as it caught on. "Eyes To the Wind", "Burning", "An Ocean In Between the Waves" and opener "Under The Pressure" - there are so many beautiful, spacey, guitar-filled moments! Was great seeing Adam Granduciel and the band bring the songs alive in the misty rain of a September night on the Burlington waterfront, too - their set during the Grand Point North Festival was sublime.
There's a timelessness to the music crafted by the six-piece. Harmonies recall modern Fleet Foxes, but pre-1970's Prog Rock as well. With Smith at the lead, Midlake had drawn comparisons to Jethro Tull. There's less of a Tull feel here than on their earlier material, but it remains rooted in the progressive rock realm with echoes of early Pink Floyd and Moody Blues. "The Old And The Young" received some airplay - trust me, I know these things - and the video is pretty cool. You can listen to the entire album on YouTube. Set it for "HD" for best sound. From the opening title track, through gems like "It's Going Down" and "Aurora Gone", to the finishing "Provider Reprise" it's an aural treat!
That's my Top Ten! Completely subjective. Loving the music of 2014!
Want to go deeper into 2014? Check out this mix at 8Tracks - you can listen for free to almost 2.5 hours of 2014 tunes: http://8tracks.com/brotherzag/because-i-hear-everything 32 tracks, including selections from the albums above and a bunch more, curated by yours truly.