Caleb Saenz returns to count down his favorite albums of 2014.
It’s been well over a year since I posted 2014’s top ten list on Screenfellows, and for a lot of reasons (most of them poor), I haven’t done an album review here since. I’m only telling you this because for some of these entries I wrote what is essentially a full post, and nobody really has the patience to read that much in one sitting. So I’ll be posting part two of this list, which will include the top five and a YouTube playlist of some of the year’s best songs, tomorrow afternoon.
Before I jump in, though, let me offer a quick caveat. Every top ten list is obviously subjective, and art tends to make people irrationally upset. If you don’t see something here that you loved, that’s okay. I promise. I only included albums here that I listened to a lot last year, and there were many that I liked that just didn’t make the cut. So while I’d like to include, say, Run the Jewels’ sophomore album, I didn’t listen to it enough (still think the first one is way better), and including it here would be disingenuous. There were some others I loved that didn’t make it. I really enjoyed Beck’s Morning Phase, your Grammy Album of the Year – which, you know, whatever – and it very nearly made the list. Big Black Delta’s self-titled debut is excellent, and you should own it. Parquet Courts had a big year, as did The War on Drugs. Ryan Adams, too. And that Amen Dunes album is really good.
But I can’t include everything on here. I mean, I could, but then I probably never would have finished this. So, here’s to 2014, a year of buried gems. (And here’s to a new year of more frequent posts.)
10. FAREWELL, BASTARD MOUNTAIN, BASTARD MOUNTAIN // key track: “New Boy”
Reworked material and some new songs recorded by a group of folk artists assembled from several different bands – this is not the kind of project that you’d expect to foster an album of stark beauty and quiet focus, but that’s somehow what we got with Farwell, Bastard Mountain. “Meadow Ghosts,” the album’s opening track, provides a good preview for where Bastard Mountain aims to take us. The band starts things off with a warm invitation, but the moments of serenity fade, as odd notes crash into otherwise calm folk melodies before quickly disappearing. The whole album plays with expectations. The brooding of “The Mill” is punctuated by the flurries of joyful violins. Jill O’Sullivan’s beautiful, haunting vocal on “Old Habits” seems to be answering the sorrow of the music behind her. On closer “New Boy,” the album’s best song, the band vocalizes the underlying tension of the album, as Neil Pennycook presents the sorrows of a man without a home. “I’m a new boy,” he sings. “And I’m living in an old time, with a new frame of mind and the same, sad heart.” The aching in his voice presents sincere pain, but it’s oddly uplifting. And the album closes much as it began, an earnest meditation on how sadness and joy often reside in the same place. Of all the albums here, this was the one released to the littlest fanfare, but despite its lack of press, Farewell continues to stretch its crooked roots into those lucky enough to have discovered it.
9. TOMORROW’S HITS, THE MEN // key track: “Different Days”
Brooklyn-based punk outfit The Men put out an album every year, and every year that album is freakin’ great. Since 2011’s Leave Home, the band has taken steady leaps forward with each release, incorporating wide-ranging genres like country and blues and even doo-wop within the formula that has helped them make a name for themselves. And while this creative risk-taking has led to some unfocused excursions into awkward Neil Young impersonating (New Moon), it has also pushed the band into new territory, occasionally fostering moments of genuine elation (see Open Your Heart’s “Candy”). 2014’s Tomorrow’s Hits feels like a continuation of the band’s evolution, and though it’s not as diverse stylistically as New Moon, its focus makes it a better listen. The band that started as an explosion of noise rock has discovered the utility of horns (“Another Night”) and just loves handclaps (“Get What You Give”). But Tomorrow’s Hits is not at all the sound of a band kitchen sinking. You find yourself enjoying hearing The Men jubilantly push themselves forward, and even as the music mellows, the band never abandons the chaotic frenzy that has made them so infectious.
8. SONGS OF INNOCENCE, U2 // key track: “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight”
For some of you reading, this entry is all you’ll need to dismiss the rest of the list. A certain part of that reaction is understandable, given how off-putting U2’s megalomania has become. But behind the oddly demonized release campaign for Songs of Innocence spins a surprisingly bold album from a well-established group of old dogs that really have no financial incentive to learn new tricks. As big as U2 is – still selling out arenas all across the world – they entered the studio facing an uncomfortable reality: they haven’t made a great album in nearly twenty-five years. 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind was the closest they came to reclaiming Achtung Baby’s heights and had some truly transcendent moments, but the album drags with the weight of some awful songs. (Does anybody anywhere still listen to “Wild Honey”? Can you hear “New York” without laughing? And poor, poor Joey Ramone, ascending to Rock Star Heaven as “In A Little While” blasted in his ears.) Before 2014, U2 was simply a legacy act, a band whose popularity had also become associated with their worst traits and the sound of an irrelevant generation. Their recent attempts at success were uneven at best, a combination of “hard rawk” and Hallmark lyrics. So expectations were definitely tempered when the band announced the surprise release of Songs of Innocence. And while it’s tempting to dismiss what actually sounds like a good album as the product of these lowered expectations, the truth is Innocence stands on its own merits.
The premise is a simple one (somewhat surprising from a band known for worshipping the complex), and each song is a chapter in the early life of the band. This autobiographical foundation gives Bono a reason to write something other than clichés, and while he’s not always successful in reaching lyrical profundity, he does manage to provide the band’s music with more heart than it’s had in a long time on songs like “Song for Someone” (written for Bono’s wife) and “Iris” (written for his mother). That kind of emotion seems to have been an inspiration for the rest of the band as well, as the songs, carried by Danger Mouse’s production, are among the most engaging they’ve recorded. There are some big standouts (“Every Breaking Wave,” “Raised By Wolves”), and even the weaker tracks like “Cedarwood Road” and “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” have their charms, only slight missteps where they might have manifested as unintentionally hilarious goofs on previous albums. The most surprising song here is also it’s best: “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” is unlike anything else they’ve written, a throwback to Pop-era bravado that transcends that call back with an uncharacteristically raw vocal from Bono. It’s a nice snapshot of the album as a whole, presenting a band pushing itself into unknown territory, not content to simply paint by the numbers they’ve been calling for the past two decades. At this point, most people have already formed an opinion about the band, so take from this what you will: Innocence is the best thing U2 has done in nearly a quarter century (!), and it’ll last a lot longer than the feigned indignation over its digitally invasive release. For people who enjoy their music, the album represents a surprising gust of energy and emotion from a band that seemed to have forgotten how to generate interest in simply trying. Whether that gust is the band’s dying breath remains to be seen.
7. THE PHYSICAL WORLD, DEATH FROM ABOVE 1979 // key track: “Trainwreck 1979”
Reunion albums have to be one of the most difficult endeavors in popular music. In many cases, chemistry is irrevocably lost. In some, the moment of relevancy is too far gone. After seeing Death From Above 1979 at the 2011 Austin City Limits Festival, I would not have put faith in their ability to defy the odds and make something meaningful. Their set was noisy and chaotic, but not in the same mold that made their debut – 2004’s You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine – so much fun. Sebastien Grainger’s vocals were a trainwreck, and he and Jesse Keeler seemed to be on completely different pages for most of their set. It was as if, decades removed from their moment, the only thing they remembered about being a band was to play loud and angry. I suspect many shared my disappointment leaving that set.
That they returned three years after that show – and a nearly decade-long hiatus that included two uneven Grainger solo LPs and various side projects from Keeler – with The Physical World is something of a miracle. It’s everything their debut aspired to, but there’s enough polish to suggest that Grainger and Keeler picked up some valuable tricks in their respective treks through the wilderness. Opener “Cheap Talk” comes as close to picking up where they left off as the band could get, a flurry of tight hats and thick fuzz that leads up to a killer closing riff. I’m not sure how much DFA 1979’s sound ripened in the decade since their debut, but I suppose this qualifies as “vintage.” They still come off like a violent explosion of punk energy (“Right On, Frankenstein!”, “Always On”), and women still make Grainger yell his lungs out (“Gemini”, “Virgins”). But while the basics are still there, on songs like “White Is Red” and “The Physical World” the band takes some significant leaps, as Grainger pushes his vocals into new territory and Keeler adds some needed sophistication. If you’re looking for the standout, “Trainwreck 1979” is probably it, a fantastic taste of what makes the band unique and a promising sign for their future. But really, the whole thing is fantastic, and The Physical World is a massive success because the band references their debut without simply copying it. If there’s any justice, we won’t have to wait another decade to see its follow up.
6. LIFE AMONG THE SAVAGES, PAPERCUTS // key track: “Life Among The Savages”
Since 2004’s Mockingbird, Jason Robert Quever has been quietly releasing music as Papercuts. His voice, which recalls The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone at his breathiest, find its rhythms over a sleepy blend of early Byrds folk and the lo-fi aesthetic of mid-2000s mopey Beck. 2009’s You Can Have What You Want remains an underappreciated classic, a curiously overlooked bit of warm dream pop that somehow eluded the same people who fawned over Beach House and Grizzly Bear. Quever’s delivery might be to blame for some of that, as his hazy vocals can occasionally fade into the music, but that’s surely by design. He picks his spots well, and his vocals remain a part of each song’s movement, less a solo piece and more a member of the ensemble. After 2011’s somewhat disappointing Fading Parade, Quever has found his footing (and a new label, Easy Sound) with Life Among the Savages.
Papercuts’ sound has always rewarded deep dives and repeat listens, and Savages is no different. Quever, who also produces here, gives each song orchestral waves you might associate with Nigel Godrich’s work, but he balances the grandiose with delicate detail. The opener, “Still Knocking At The Door” provides a good example of Quever’s approach. Staccato violins march throughout, but they never dominate the song, giving him a chance to earn the emotional lift of the track’s final minute. Savages is full of these nice signatures, each rising for a brief pass before disappearing into the background. You hear how the strings on “New Body” lift the chorus, but only after you’ve noticed that organ in the background laying down the verse. It takes a few listens to catch the twelve-string on the sorrowful “Easter Morning,” but when you do, it absolutely makes the song. Lou Reed’s nonchalance, Ringo Starr’s kit, The Turtles’ jangly Ricks – Quever’s work recalls a lot of 60s staples, but it’s his ability to meld them so seamlessly into one hazy wave that sets him apart from other indie rock acts.