In a year that might well be remembered for one of the worlds largest bands giving their album away for free – much to the chagrin of many music listeners, there’s was plenty of great music to get excited about.
Albums from Ryan Adams, U2, Taylor Swift, Beck, Foo Fighters and many others made the rounds on airwaves, speakers and ear buds in 2014. Still, some albums, some songs were more resilient, more beautiful, catchier and more…”top” than the others,
That’s what this list is for.
A list showcasing the Top 5 albums I heard this year, like I write every year. Here were the albums I played relentlessly. Are any of your favourites on it?
Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
Leonard Cohen has been quite an active musician the past few years, writing and touring and, perhaps inspired once more by love, sex, age, God and, to a certain degree, his financial situation, after being defrauded of savings by his longtime manager.
Popular Problems is Cohen’s second album in two years after taking an eight-year break form recording during the early part of this past decade – and it’s his strongest offering of songs since 1992’s The Future.
The blues-dirge of Slow kicks the album off, a telltale sign that things are different here. “I like to take my time, I like to linger as it flies, a weekend on your lips, a lifetime in your eyes,” croons Cohen. Yes, his deep and syrupy vocals are present, as you’d expect, but the organ and incessant bass drum make the perfect match for the singer in the twilight of his years. He might be in his eighties now, but Cohen’s fire still burns hot coals.
The sound tapestry that makes up Popular Problems is indeed the blues. It feels, for the first time in a long while, that Cohen has a band supporting him, equals in the studio as on the stage. And that is the greatest hallmark of the album. Over the past few years, a busy touring schedule has placed Cohen in good stead. He’s among accomplished musicians whose music elevates the singer’s vocals and words. Nevermind is a slow, ominous build, containing imagery of war and crime, punctuated by a woman’s cries while Cohen evocatively whispers “Our law of peace which understands, a husband leads a wife commands”. The powerful song escalates into percussive beats and rising strings, a payoff worth the wait.
You Got Me Singing is a three and a half minute folk song with violin, banjo and bass guitar at its center, which finishes the album proper. It’s a beautiful conclusion, not just to Popular Problems, but to what could be a career. “You got me singing the Hallelujah hymn”, exhales Cohen, a nod to his most famous song.
In hopes that Popular Problems is not the end for the Canadian institution that is Leonard Cohen, it is a great album that runs quickly and affectionately through the oeuvre of Cohen-esque subject matter. It is a collection of songs that showcase the artist at the height of his powers: musically and lyrically.
It is an album to be listened to, often during the day, and always late at night, a lover by your side. Would Cohen want it any other way?
Billed as the new Radiohead, British experimental rockers, Alt-J, have distanced themselves somewhat from that moniker on their second full-length album, This is All Yours. Their first offering, 2012’s An Awesome Wave, was the top album of that year and you can read a review of it right here. On this album, however, they’ve foregone the urban beats that characterized their earlier work in favour of more programming experimentation and world beat sounds.
This Is All Yours doesn’t contain the number of immediate, infectious sounds as its predecessor. In fact, Alt-J, upon completion of the album, was asked by their record company to head back into the studio to record a “hit”. What they came back with was the catchy Left Hand Free. Still, as a grower, the album is no less a worthy musical offering, showcasing the band’s changing tastes and musical maturity.
The first track, appropriately titled Intro, starts with short, staccato sounds that sound like mid-eighties, Black Celebration era Depeche Mode, before eventually bursting into bass and drum grooves. If you can wait it out, the song has a fantastic, Arabian-sounding payoff. It’s beautiful music combining disparate elements – an aural atmosphere that has quickly become the Alt-J signature.
The soft piano and guitar and vocals of Arrival In Nara, quickly follows. “Though I cannot see, I can hear her smile and she sings” whispers lead singer and guitarist, Joe Newman. The song, titled after the Japanese city and UNESCO World Heritage Site, replete with temples, shrines, ruins and forest, is the early promise of a prog-rock sensibility. The late night groove-based Nara is the next song, and, of course, the nervous but deft, Leaving Nara, closes the album.
Hidden within the bookend soundscapes is Every Other Freckle, a rollopping and infectious song that shares as much with urban beats as it does with the flute sounds you’d hear at a Renaissance fair. With lyrics that include “I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a beanbag”, it’s the star of This Is All Yours, at once a study in musical artistry and a bar-thumping sing-along. Warm Foothills is a soft and pastoral song that interplays the vocal harmonies of man and woman, so in love that they are able to finish each other’s lyrics. It’s as beautiful as anything you’ll ever hear, a warm and tender and deep embrace for lovers.
Although the album is somewhat bloated with thirteen tracks, This Is All Yours is a worthy listen and points at future experimentation by Alt-J, a band on the cutting edge of both programming and tried-and-true musical instrumentation. It’s a late night album meant to grow upon subsequent listens – and it accomplished just that.
It’s been eight years since we last heard an album worth of new music from Damien Rice. That’s a long time, but no one has forgotten Rice, and Rice surely hasn’t forgotten his own musical sensibilities.
My Favourite Faded Fantasy, the Irish singer-songwriter’s third album, is his greatest to date: a beautiful, moving and pointed offering that stays true to his romantic philosophy. Songs here, as fans might expect, are about women and relationships and the attempted understanding of both those subjects.
There’s no denying that Rice’s tumultuous history with fellow singer-songwriter and once romantic partner, Lisa Hannigan, is at the heart of the matter that makes up the songs here. Still, their emotional resonance is universal, not singular.
The title track and first song on the album was also the first song released to waiting fans. It starts breathy and melancholic with acoustic, soft guitars and the lyric “I know someone who could serve me love but it wouldn’t fill me up” Rice sings to an old paramour, a lover that he cannot replace. This has been Damien Rice for years now, but this song, like the entirety of the album, is more direct, more accessible than he ever has been before – the influence of producer Rick Rubin who has worked with everyone from Tom Petty to Red Hot Chili Peppers to Justin Timberlake to Neil Diamond to Lady Gaga. The producer knows accessible. And Rice has always teetered on that edge, a testament to his instrumentation, his voice, and his muse.
But there’s a polished sense of professionalism on My Favourite Faded Fantasy that doesn’t dismiss Rice’s penchant for chaotic guitars and vocals. While the title song astoundingly breaks down into a cacophony of sound, I Don’t Want To Change You is a sweet reprieve, a radio-friendly croon with saddened but uplifting strings and chorus that professes “I’ve never been with anyone, in the way I’ve been with you, but if love is not for fun, then it’s doomed”. Colour Me In is a beautifully simple song, another Rice creation meant for lovers, that carries an emotional hit unlike any other song on the standout album, a song that needs to be experienced live.
And then there’s the stadium-sized expanse of Trusty And True, an acoustic song about men failing their women, but trying to be worthy of them nonetheless. “Cause we can’t take back what is done, what is past, so let us start from here,” wails Rice. It’s a wonderful sing-along that opens the heart as well as the taps at the local pub.
There are tears of sorrow and joy here. My Favourite Faded Fantasy is Damien Rice’s most accessible, most beautiful album to date. It runs the length of rock and folk, never once leaving the heart untouched.
Futurology was the second Manic Street Preachers album to be released in less than one year, a prolific output not seen since the beginning of their post-punk, glam and rock ‘n’roll musical careers in the early nineteen nineties.
While last year’s Rewind the Film was a stripped down folk trip through the protestation of aging (reviewed here as one of the top albums of 2013), Futurology is the band’s return to stadium-sized guitar, bass and drum, all warmly enveloped by the sharp tech leanings of late 70’s and early 80’s krautrock sounds.
Futurology is a decidedly European sounding album, full of forward movement. And well it should, as it was influenced greatly by touring through the continent during promotion for the band’s 2011 retrospective collection, National Treasures – The Complete Singles. Landscapes and cities had changed, noted lead singer and guitarist, James Bradfield, from the first time they had experienced continental Europe as teenagers. Still, here on their twelfth studio offering, with band members now in their mid-forties, the Manic Street Preachers political and cultural sensitivities and expressions are just as present and direct and engaging as ever.
The album’s opening salvo is the title track, Futurology, and it’s an arena-sized shot to the solar plexus with a quick, wind-up synth that hits with smashing drums and bass before guitar licks remind you that this is a rock song. “One day we will return no matter how much it hurts – and it hurts” sings Nicky Wire, left-leaning lyrist and bassist of the group, reminding listeners that the young-sounding Manics, the Manics with the political ethos and the “For Real” spray-paint massaging on their clothes, never, ever left.
The three-minute and fifteen-second epic, Walk Me To The Bridge quickly follows, an urgent kraut-rocker whose lyrics reminisce the 1995 disappearance and apparent suicide of former band mate and brilliant lyricist, Richey Edwards (a body has never been found; just an abandoned car near the Severn Bridge in Cardiff, Wales), although Nicky Wire has repeatedly stated that the song is about him contemplating his exit from the group. Still, you can’t escape your past – and the Manics never have. “Old songs leave long shadows,” the band sings, both beautifully and harrowingly before continuing, “So long my fatal friend, I reimagine the steps you took, still blinded by your intellect, walk me to the bridge”. The song is deeply affecting.
The kraut influence is laid bare on the protest treatise of Let’s Go to War and the industrial sounding Europa Geht Durch Mich, which features German singer and actress, Nina Hoss, on vocals. Now well into their third decade of musical creation, Europa sounds like nothing the Manics have created before. Still, there’s a distinct patriotic guitar nod that accompanies the singing of “God builders – divine losers, let’s salute eternalism”, a hateful, spitting lyric against the institution of republics, kingdoms, borders and imperialism.
Although the album might sound different than what listeners are used to, Futurology is still so very Manic Street Preachers. Here, in the latter stages of their musical career, lyrics and instrumentation continue to surprise, incite and comfort. It is one of the best, most rocking albums of their career.
I was late to Philadelphia indie rock band, The War On Drugs, but that’s what makes music so great: there’s always a band, new or old, waiting for you to discover their music. And the music that The War On Drugs creates on their third full-length album, Lost In The Dream, is distinctly American rock.
The nearly nine-minute epic of Under the Pressure opens the album with atmospheric programming and echoing guitar before piano starts things off proper with driving drums setting the slow, deliberate pace. “Well the comedown here was easy, like the arrival of a new day,” sings principal musician in the band, Adam Granduciel, before the song evolves into a real classic album rocker.
Indeed, everything about Lost In the Dream sounds easy. It was easy to get into the band, easy to love the tracks, even though subsequent listening’s revealed the complexities of the instrumentation. But it wasn’t easy for Granduciel to create the album. The recording process took over two years, a time that Granduciel experienced a sense of loneliness and depression after touring the critically acclaimed second album, Slave Ambient. Many rewrites characterize Lost In The Dream, including the scrapping of the original version of the now absolutely gorgeous, An Ocean Between The Waves, after a year of working on it in order to start fresh. “It wasn’t the vibe of the song that I was searching for,” says Granduciel of those early versions. Eventually, he wanted his musical contributors to showcase what they did best, hence the beautiful piano brought forward in so many songs, the beat of the drum driving every song forward, the keyboards bringing a sense of experimentation to the album’s fullness of sounds.
Still, guitar is ever-present here. It’s a classic guitar that happily harkens Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac in the complex but fun sounds of Red Eyes and the previously mentioned An Ocean Between The Waves, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in the triumphant Burning, a standout song that needs to be played in front of fifty thousand people. There are Bob Dylan and Tom Petty influences here too, mainly in Granduciel’s vocal delivery, but he’s much more accessible than those two rockers.
All the frustration and hard work paid off. All the tinkering and false starts and restarts made for an album that sounds distinctly easy and timeless. Lost In The Dream is an album of music where one song flows seamlessly into the next. It is a collection of powerful, quintessentially American rock songs, the greatest, most enjoyable album release of the year.