December 22, 2014

Best Albums of 2014: "Trophies" and crowd-sourced music

Since Kickstarter and comparable sites began, I have been an avid supporter of artists through crowd-funding. Even in the case of smaller artists I may not have even been familiar with, I just love doing it. I find it exhilarating and satisfying to give an artist money that allows them the resources to create. And in 2014 the opportunities to contribute were widespread, and the money I pledged/donated led to a lot of terrific music.

Kickstarter began April 28, 2009, and my first pledge was on July 1, 2010. My first pledge was really just a pre-order, as it enabled someone to issue Brandtson's Send Us a Signal on vinyl for the first time. They had a small goal of $2,500 and only needed 81 pledgers to surpass the goal by a few dollars.

My second pledge on Oct. 6, 2010 was toward the Steve Taylor and Donald Miller Blue Like Jazz movie. Its plea was more desperate: they had written the screenplay, began pre-production, but then couldn't find a motion picture company to fund it. So they turned to the fans in attempt to raise what was thought to be a ridiculous $125,000 goal. I was one of nearly 4,500 backers that helped raise a whopping $345,000. For years, that was Kickstarter's biggest success story.

Fast-forward four years, and I have now supported nearly 20 projects on Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and PledgeMusic. In 2014 alone, I backed projects from the following musicians: Luxury (new album released in November to backers only, public release date in 2015), Gemma Hayes (new album released in October to backers, in November to the public), Vekora (debut album released in October featuring drummer Jesse Sprinkle), Burlap to Cashmere (new album releases 2015), NYVES (electronic project of Ryan Clark of Demon Hunter and Randy Torres of Project 86; album releases 2015), Waterdeep (double album, released last month), Michael Knott (live album and new EP/7", releases in 2015), Steve Taylor (first album in 20 years, released in November).

I would estimate about half of these projects could have been completed with out crowd-funding. However, the others would have never gotten off the ground, including my #1 album of 2014. I can honestly say that my favorite album of this year would not exist if not for myself and 250 people like me. That is crazy!

In early 2013, I wrote a blog post outlining my personal history with one of my top-10 all-time favorite bands, Luxury. It has now been about 20 years since I first heard them. Without recapping, I will just say that Luxury has not been an active band in about a decade. But in 2013, they launched a Kickstarter campaign that they hoped would help them write and record a 5th LP.

(If you watch this video, make sure you listen to the final album version of the song they are practicing and writing here: "Parallel Love", which is embedded below in the album review.)

With a goal of $13,000, even I had doubts if they could reach it. I didn't question the amount, I just wondered if they would be able to connect to a dormant fan-base. I pledged more than double what I had ever given to a crowded-sourced project. I didn't pledge all that money necessarily for all the fun items I will get, I just wanted to make sure the music had the chance to be written and recorded. Thankfully, with 251 backers, they raised $13, 906 by the time the campaign ended in October 2013.

One year later Luxury released an album that far surpassed anyone's expectations, and even blew me away...

Top 20 Albums of 2014:

1. Luxury- Trophies
There are many cases of artists I like with short careers in the 1990's who reunited years later to put out new music. In almost all cases, the new music they release is fine, but doesn't hold a candle to the music they wrote and recorded when they were active, or "in their prime." Luxury is the exception. Over a decade since they last played a live show, and 9 years since they released any music, they have put out what is hands-down their best work. This is shocking and stunning, and it has me grinning from ear-to-ear.

(I hate to give a negative example, but another one of my top-10 all-time favorite bands, Sixpence None the Richer, reunited a few years ago to release their 5th LP, which came 10 years after their 4th LP. While a good album, it pales in comparison to their peak work in the 90's. There are some Sixpence fans who are inclined to their current folk-pop style, but I greatly prefer their guitar rock of the mid-90's. I desperately wish Matt Slocum and Leigh Nash would record another album stylistically-similar to This Beautiful Mess, but I know it will never happen.)

Another thing about the band's history: you don't have to know it. Meaning that this album is also so good and so impressive that the fact that it was Kickstarted and that Luxury has an extensive, fascinating past is irrelevant. If you have followed Luxury their whole career, great! If not, great! It doesn't matter. If you have never heard the band before, there has not been a better time. (This also makes Luxury's resurrection vastly different than the other example mentioned here, and dozens of other bands that could be mentioned.)

Somehow Luxury, with Trophies, has recorded their tightest, most cohesive, most aggressive, and BEST album; all about 15 years after I (or anyone) thought possible. What makes this even more ridiculous is that in the 90's, Luxury was my favorite live band. I saw Luxury in concert about a dozen times from 1995 to 2002, and their energy and fun on stage was unmatched. So somehow without touring or playing live shows, the 5 members of Luxury were able to write, record, and release their best album (and while living in different cities).

Luxury is known for their balance between short, high-energy rock songs, and long, dramatic crescendos. Previously Luxury best pulled-off this off on their debut 1995 album, Amazing and Thank You. Luxury's 2nd and 3rd albums followed the same mold, and all came in relatively quick succession (1997 and 1999). (Here is a simple yet perfect review of Luxury's debut).

Their 4th album, Health and Sport, is more sprawling and experimental and at times loses its focus. I find this partially due to its length; at 52 minutes it is the longest Luxury album. It also took years to put together, as Luxury began performing songs from it in 2001 and three of the songs appeared on a split EP in 2002. The full LP with 10 songs didn't see the light of day until 2005. The shorter, high-energy rock songs were missing, but the band did create unique musical landscapes that were new to their catalog.

With Trophies, Luxury combines the best elements from all of their previous work, from the raw aggression of 1995's "Flaming Youth Flames On" to the diverse textures of 2005's "Strange Flowers". There is laser-focus here, and every second of the album's 42 minutes is perfectly planned and executed. Ten days after the December 3 download of the 10-song LP, the band sent higher-tier backers 2 bonus tracks. These two songs are also outstanding, but clearly did not belong on Trophies (similar to how Amazing and Thank You also had two additional "hidden tracks" on the first pressing of the CD.)



Musically, Luxury is still guitar-based, but with new tones not found previously in the band's catalog. As mentioned previously, it is very aggressive, and the band is harder at times ("Courage, Courage") than at any moment of their past. However, Luxury is primarily melodic, and piano and strings ("Words of Mouth") also play an important part in increasing the dynamics. And surprisingly the band's original Brit-pop influence (most notably The Smith's) is stronger than ever, all-the-while sounding completely natural.

Lyrically Lee Bozeman continues to sing words that require much examination and pondering. From the opening lines of "Ginsberg reading 'Howl'", the listener is challenged and provoked. (In this case specifically, it led me to read 'Howl' for the first time, a controversial poem written in 1955.) The album ends with its longest song, and also possibly its strongest and most meaningful, "The Gates of Paradise (Give Praise Where Praise is Due)". The album concludes with Lee repeatedly singing over a simple piano line: "For a while everything was okay".

Is this the second coming of a 90's band? Yes, in a way. But it is also a great band who it "only" took 20 years to produce their greatest work. It is easily my number one album of 2014, and possibly my favorite album since 2010. In Luxury's Kickstarter video, Jamey Bozeman comments about the band's previous recordings, "We all walk away at least a little disgruntled with what we did." Hopefully this time even the members of the band are satisfied; they should be.

Note: Unfortunately Trophies is not available to purchase or listen to at this time (unless you were a Kickstarter supporter of the LP in 2014 or the Documentary in 2015). It will be at some point in 2015, and for the most current Luxury news I encourage you to join their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter.

2. Gemma Hayes- Bones + Longing 
Gemma Hayes is an Irish singer-songwriter, but that description probably leads to inaccurate thoughts of a woman singing simple folk songs with an acoustic guitar. But when Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine contributed to her work in 2008, Hayes began a string of terrific albums which combined her complex song-writing with intricate guitar landscapes. Now on her 5th LP, Hayes is in a groove. I recently blogged about one of her best songs, that has been released in three different versions.

From The Arts Desk: "There are whispering vocals, acres of reverb and scratchy guitars that evoke feelings of distant youth. And even where you can't quite make out the words, songs like "Iona" feel satisfyingly nostalgic and bittersweet. The counterpoint to this raw, almost garage sound is the quiet meditation of other, more instrumentally sparse, tracks. ”Dark Moon” and “Caught” with their folk-rock colourings are cinematic and ambient. The title track goes further - the delicate organ and ghostly guitar motifs sound as if culled from a superior film score."


3. The New Pornographers- Brill Bruisers
Most reviews you will read about this album will call it a "return to form" or something along those lines. I for one have loved all of the New Pornographers releases, from the mellower Challengers to the cello-driven Together. But of course I do appreciate this collection of 13 upbeat pop songs and it continues the band's excellence.

From NPR (listen to the Fresh Air segment): "Brill Bruisers is a collection of lushly arranged and harmonized pop. While Neko Case, Dan Bejar and A.C. Newman make moody music individually, there's a brightness when they come together... The chief songwriter for the Canadian-based rock band The New Pornographers, AC Newman, calls the band's new album, "Brill Bruisers," a celebration record. He's quoted as saying, "after periods of difficulty, I'm at a place where nothing in my life is dragging me down." And the music reflects that."

4. Conor Oberst- Upside Down Mountain
It took me a very long time to appreciate Conor Oberst's music. Bright Eyes songs started appearing on mix tapes made for me in the late 90's, but it wasn't until the 8th and "final" Bright Eyes album, 2011's The People's Key, that I ever loved Oberst's work. I enjoy this album almost as much, but  stylistically it is very different from that final Bright Eyes album, or any Bright Eyes album for that matter.

From Rolling Stone: "'I'm blessed with a heart that doesn't stop,' Conor Oberst declares in a still-boyish voice in the aptly titled "Zigzagging Toward the Light." At 34, the former indie-rock prodigy still writes and sings about the high times and bad choices of adolescence, on the way to matured love and responsibility, like the sharpest kid in the room: a florid Midwest Morrissey with Jeff Tweedy's twisted-pop savvy. "What a time to live among the ashen remnants of a love/That came before," Oberst sings in "Hundreds of Ways," against a sambalike sway, country guitar and brass. "I'm still looking for that now," he adds eagerly. Oberst faces west and backward, brilliantly, on Upside Down Mountain. A sumptuous immersion in Seventies California folk pop, it is the most immediately charming album he has ever made."

5. Taylor Swift- 1989
Until this year, I would have considered Taylor Swift my guilty pleasure. Clearly she and this album seem out of place in this list of primarily indie/underground music. I enjoyed her pop songs occasionally (sometimes in secret!) over the last 5 years as a way to connect to the students I teach (and preferred her over other top-40 music primarily because she writes her own songs, and is an actual musician). Now I am more than a casual listener; I am a true fan. This album is excellent. While I am very much hoping Taylor eventually records a folk album in the vein of "Safe and Sound" from the Hunger Games soundtrack, this all-out pop album seems much more fitting for her than any of her previous pseudo-country releases.

From the New York Times: "Full of expertly constructed, slightly neutered songs about heartbreak, “1989,” which is to be released on Monday, doesn’t announce itself as oppositional. But there is an implicit enemy on this breezily effective album: the rest of mainstream pop, which “1989” has almost nothing in common with. Modern pop stars — white pop stars, that is — mainly get there by emulating black music. Think of Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber. In the current ecosystem, Katy Perry is probably the pop star least reliant on hip-hop and R&B to make her sound, but her biggest recent hit featured the rapper Juicy J; she’s not immune. Ms. Swift, though, is having none of that; what she doesn’t do on this album is as important as what she does. There is no production by Diplo or Mike Will Made-It here, no guest verse by Drake or Pitbull. Her idea of pop music harks back to a period — the mid-1980s — when pop was less overtly hybrid. That choice allows her to stake out popular turf without having to keep up with the latest microtrends, and without being accused of cultural appropriation."

6. Manchester Orchestra- Cope/Hope
I actually created the album cover you see here. Manchester Orchestra released two albums this year: First Cope, an all-out, in-your-face rock album. Then a few months later Hope, an album with all the same songs but recorded quietly and acoustically. Individually, neither album works very well. But together, they are excellent. Manchester Orchestra's previous best albums, 2006' I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child, and 2011's Simple Math, both featured diverse instrumentation and dynamics. Cope lost all that. It is just one guitar-driven rock song after another, and by the end, it all blends together (and personally, I get bored). With Hope, the band shows they are capable of more, with the acoustic sounds of piano, strings, and other instruments in addition to guitar. If I had to listen to one of the two straight-through, I would choose Hope. But I have created my own version of the album, combining the stronger versions of each track. The result is what I feel would have been in the band's best interest to release originally:
Manchester Orchestra- C/Hope
1. Top Notch (C)
2. Choose You (C)
3. Girl Harbor (H)
4. The Mansion (C)
5. The Ocean (H)
6. Every Stone (C)
7. Trees (H)
8. Indentions (C)
9. See It Again (H)
10. Cope (H)
11. Never Really Been Another Way Out (C)
12. After the Scripture (C)

From Sputnik Music: "In blunt terms, Cope was a mess. Manchester Orchestra's determination to play so-called "brutal" rock on that album started getting to the point of blind stubbornness when every song started following the exact same formula without deviation or respite. Nowhere was there to be found the clever lyrical confessions and vocal intimacy of Andy Hull that characterised the first two albums, nor the sonic diversity and space which allowed the following two albums to soar. Cope was, pure and simple, a disappointment, and the ever self-aware Georgian boys appear to have acknowledged and furthermore righted their wrongs with the surprise release of Hope. In essence, the re-imaginings on Hope are entirely different beasts than their Cope counterparts. This is undeniably for the better as the listener is allowed to focus on the truly exceptional part of Manchester Orchestra's sound: the stunning catharsis that Andy Hull delivers time after time, song after song. The emotional power of the songwriting is truly magnified on Hope as the majority of songs are given their due with a liberal dose of delicate instruments." 

 7. Stranger Kings- Stranger Kings
For years, Northern Records, the label run by Andy Prickett and Eric Campuzano, lay dormant. Both dropped off the musical landscape for awhile, at least with their own projects. Then last year they made a resounding comeback with a new Cush EP, and now Campuzano returns with a band fronted by Holly Nelson. The results are outstanding, and the best Northern Release in perhaps a decade.

From Rogue Octopus: "With each member pulling from their own soul-imprinted 80’s, they found a point of mutual inspiration in the idea of “John Hughes movies,” which always featured great soundtracks of current bands, and Molly Ringwalds loving Jake Ryans. So you hear it here; bass like The Cure and New Order, clean, singing guitars and washes of Cocteau chords, synths and drums from Modern English and Simple Minds. Songwriting elements hail from Echo & The Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, and The Psychedelic Furs, with the romantic angst in Nelson’s lyrical storylines balancing their sincere but measured delivery. Not a single note is sung or played in cool irony, or retro-tribute, but rather as if it were their first band in 1991, and not a moment has passed since."

8. The Lees of Memory- Sisyphus Says
Historically I have only been a minimal John Davis fan, as I unfortunately missed Superdrag when they were tearing up the indie scene in the 90's. However, there is no better time to a be a fan of his, as his new band, the Lees of Memory, just released their debut LP, and Davis is almost monthly releasing new tracks and old demos. His Bandcamp pages have become an incredible database of his music, most of which had never been released until recently. I personally think this album is the best thing he has ever done.

From Exploding in Sound: "The songs unwrap themselves with a tender and reserved stride, rarely clocking in under 5 minutes. The trio has a remarkably effortless command over their sound, peeling back claustrophobic layers of effects in favor of clean pop-songs and rich vocals. Comparisons to My Bloody Valentine are well-founded: “We Are Siamese” is carried on a chord-change identical to “Come In Alone,” followed shortly by with “Reenactor,” which starts off with the same clattering drum bit on “Soon"... the last 15 minutes are downright anthemic, moving in the direction of The Lassie Foundation with soaring vocal harmonies and woozy guitars."


9. Jenny Lewis- The Voyager
Once again late to the party, 2014 will be the year I finally "got" Jenny Lewis. I bought Rilo Kiley's More Adventurous when it was released in 2004, and I got her first "solo" album, Rabbit Fur Coat, a year later. But despite a large catalog of other Rilo Kiley and solo releases, I never explored anything else beyond those two albums. Until now. I love The Voyager, but I spent most of my Jenny Lewis listening time this year focused on the spectacular 2002 Rilo Kiley album, The Execution of All Things. I missed it at the time, but it will now rank as one of my favorite albums of that year (which reminds me to get to work on my year-end lists for 2000, 2001, and 2002, which are the only ones that don't appear on this blog, except my initial mention of them.)

The New York Times published a terrific article in July about Jenny Lewis, and I highly recommend reading all of it. Here is the final paragraph: "But it was also a kind of emblem of where Lewis has been and of where she is now. She has overcome all kinds of obstacles to get here, often with great style, but it hasn’t always been pretty. Whatever demons stole her sleep for these last few years, they’ve surely been with her forever, in one form or another. But they are also what gives such depth and soul to what she does. “I’m not looking for a cure,” Lewis sang, and as she stood in the spotlight at the 9:30 Club, nobody there would have thought she needed one."

10. StarsNo One is Lost
In my attempt to find an appropriate review to quote for this album, I was largely unable. I will include a clip below from The Muse, but what I have discovered is that my favorite Stars albums are apparently the least favorite of the masses (or are "the masses" just Pitchfork?). I have always found Stars to be a band that writes great songs, but lacks any consistency, and most of their albums are full of bland, if not just plain bad, songs. The first Stars album I loved as a whole was The Five Ghosts, and The Muse has this to say about it: "The band’s fifth album, The Five Ghosts, was nearly universally panned, mostly for a failure to interest listeners due to moroseness generally atypical of the band’s sound." Obviously I disagree, I find the darkness or seriousness of that album to be its biggest strength. Back to the new album, No One is Lost, it is far from morose, it is the most consistently upbeat, danceable album the band has released.

More From The Muse: "The album definitely has its fair share of interesting experiments peppered throughout, from a return to the use of crackling samples like the famous opening quip on Set Yourself on Fire, a saxophone interlude on “Trap Door,” a drum focus not often heard from the band on “Are You OK?” and French language and electro dabbling on the title track that would make Arcade Fire proud. These creative decisions serve for exciting and memorable tracks that will stick with the listener."

11. Nickel Creek- A Dotted Line
Nickel Creek's three members all have successful solo careers, but arguably they are at their best when collaborating. It was nine years since the last Nickel Creek release, and they benefitted from going their own routes for awhile. "Hayloft" has a higher play count than any other song in my iTunes/iPod this year, as my wife and three kids all love it. (Thankfully my kids are too young to know what the song is about!)

From the A.V. Club: "Nickel Creek’s sixth album, A Dotted Line, serves as both a summary document of the group of thirtysomethings’ incongruously long history together, and an indication of how they’ve grown individually in their years apart. At just 10 songs and 38 minutes, A Dotted Line is a concise jaunt through some of the signifiers of the group’s past discography: bluegrass-influenced instrumentation (mandolin, fiddle, guitar, occasional bass) applied to personal, modern-sounding lyrics, plus a couple of more traditional-sounding instrumentals and a pair of covers. But there’s no regression apparent in the execution, which boasts the effects of both the band members’ artistic maturation and their lived-in chemistry together. A Dotted Line’s songwriting is a step above Nickel Creek’s previous album..."

12. Spoon- They Want My Soul
Despite being a Spoon fan for a decade, I didn't get this August release until December. It may have had more of an immediate impact than anything in their discography, and that is saying something. I rarely agree with a Pitchfork review, but they hit the nail on the head with this one: "It's not exactly classic rock, not quite post-punk. It's not the soul of indie idealists blindly conflating modesty and virtue. Instead, this band is about capturing the unknown—those "finer feelings," as Daniel once put it—and simply letting it float. Many of their songs are meticulously crafted, but they also breathe and break with crackling spontaneity. Theirs is an in-between soul happily seeking limbo as its own destination. It's manly in an old-fashioned way, but still scuffed-up and vulnerable. It's allergic to empty sentiment. It's smart but not eggheaded, tough but not dumb. It's Costello, Lennon, Can, and the Cure. It's all-knowing and hopelessly fallible, mysterious with a purpose. It's going to be crushed by life and love, and it's going to endure."

13. Braid- No Coast
Embarrassingly, I never consciously listened to a Braid song until this year. They were primarily active from 1993-1999, and shared the same scene with many of my favorite bands from that time period. But somehow they just slipped by my music radar. But then Soundsupply released an artist legacy drop for Braid, which was all six of their LPs for $10 (98 songs!). While it may be too late for me with their older stuff, No Coast is fantastic.

From NPR: "Let's get one thing out of the way: Braid in 2014 is not Braid in 1999. As an album title, No Coast is either a clever turn on geographic identification or a challenge to reunited '90s bands not to rest on their laurels. As Braid returns with its first full-length album in 16 years, it's probably a little bit of both... No Coast, on the other hand, is a measured and often gorgeous album that still ought to remind fans why they fell in love with Braid in the first place. "Bang" and "Damages!" are anthemic indie-rock songs that recall Guided by Voices. Sweeping up and down the fretboard, "East End Hollows" is about the danciest power-pop tune Braid's ever written. The scratchy vinyl sample at the beginning of the somber "Light Crisis" comes from a 45 RPM record written by Nanna's grandfather from the birth family he'd only discovered a few years ago. And don't worry, a few tracks still could have come out of Age of Octeen, like 'Put Some Wings on That Kid' and 'Climber New Entry.'"

14. Coldplay- Ghost Stories
Coldplay has been one of my favorite mainstream bands for over a decade now, despite most of my peers criticizing them. They are not groundbreaking, but they write great songs that are appropriate to listen to with almost anyone, anywhere. I welcomed the change to the quieter tracks found here from their last couple of releases.

From Paste (one of my favorite reviews of the year): "If you’ve always hated Coldplay, Ghost Stories may make you hate them a little less. If you just didn’t like the direction they went after Rush of Blood, you’re going to be very satisfied with this new release. If you’ve never had a problem with Coldplay, if you are one of those who openly admits they love Coldplay to the chagrin of their musically savvy friends (like this reviewer), then Ghost Stories is as worthy of canonization as any of their other much-beloved records. Coldplay is never going to be cool. Don’t let that get in the way of realizing that Coldplay is always going to be warm, nostalgic, melancholy, pleasant, innocent and good. They’re as much a warm word and an arm around the shoulder now as they were when they first showed up."


15. Steve Taylor and The Perfect Foil- Goliath
I still haven't given this album the time it needs, but Steve Taylor is very much on top of his game, despite an almost 2-decade musical hiatus. From Pop Dose: "It was almost like a countdown. Four years ago on his Facebook page, former rock singer/present movie maker Steve Taylor posted a picture of himself doing that awful, downcast stare that has graced nearly every Stanley Kubrick movie. The look projects a sinister quality using the brow like a visor. It turns an ordinary glare into something quite menacing, and all one has to do is lower their head a bit. Three years ago, Taylor posted (paraphrased) “New music in the new year — promise.” He hadn’t released an album as the frontman since the early ’90s, but had been a primary force behind The Newsboys, Sixpence None The Richer, and Chevelle. No new music came, but there was talk of the Taylor/Peter Furler project, so it seemed as if some action was happening. Last year in the fourth quarter, the Kickstarter campaign began for Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil, a new band featuring Furler on drums, Vector guitarist Jimmy Abegg, and everything else by John Mark Painter of Fleming & John fame, as well as the go-to orchestrator for most of Ben Folds Five’s albums. This year, Goliath arrived."

And Wondering Sound makes me feel guilty for how little time I have spent listening to Goliath and examining Taylor's lyrics: "I won’t offer any theories as to what “Comedian,” the final song on Goliath and my favorite song of 2014, is about. In my review of Goliath, I wrongly interpreted the title track as some sort of “Christians vs. Everyone” battle cry when, as it turns out, it was inspired by a Malcolm Gladwell book. I will say, however, that I’ve listened to it more than any other song this year, for several reasons. One is that, somehow, Taylor is becoming an even better lyricist as he ages, and his mastery of the English language is on full display (the line “The Amen Coroner’s marching orders got nailed to my front door” is one example of perfect syntactic construction that I marvel at every time). The second is that, even in its deliberately opaque lyrics, it managed to encapsulate a host of things I felt over the course of 2014. The finale, about which I was initially ambivalent, has now turned into a hurricane of pure catharsis. The line “Didn’t I take up all your crosses that were made of balsa wood” — i.e., the lightest kind of wood there is — gets me in the gut. But the lyric that means the most to me is the also most oblique, and thankfully so: “The king and I began a feud time will not erase until he wipes that omniscient smile off his face.” The song, I think, is about a lot of things (Taylor referred to it as “a lyrical dialectic with God”), but that feud, that push/pull between humanity and the Divine or fate or the future — call it whatever you want — is the thing I keep coming back to. And when I try to write about why that is, the meaning dissolves in my hands. So I’ll just wrap this up with an expression of gratitude that this song exists, and that it arrived right when I needed it."


16. Haley BonarLast War
I randomly discovered Haley Bonar when I was living in Zambia in 2003 and downloaded a couple of MP3s. For years and years I completely lost track of her and/or forgot she existed. But, thanks to Graveface records, she reappeared on my radar because they released her 2011 album Golder. (I didn't realize until writing this that I had back-to-back Graveface LPs here.) It is excellent, and I have been a big fan ever since. In 2012, she released the Bad Reputation single, possibly the best song she has ever written, which also reappears on this album.

From the Line of Best Fit: "On Last War, we see Bonar, now roughly 13 years into her career, veer away from her sparser side. The shattered fragments of alt. country and heartache, once delivered via predominantly acoustic means, are mutated and warped. Bonar proudly brandished space in earlier records, using the silence as an extra instrument, and weaving narratives in a more traditional folk fashion; there was a lot of eggshell-thin finger plucks, sheets of brittle wurlitzer and skeletal, naked melody. Never frail, but perhaps rawer.

Last War is an ardent direction change. There's less sonic reticence. Along with her characteristically nerve-prodding lyrics, the music has been unshackled, with guitars screeching into the distance, booming rock percussion and grunge-speckled pedalboardery. It's louder; it's toothier. Whether it's more emotional because of this change is probably a more subjective thing, but one thing's for certain: Bonar's heart, still bloody and beating, is firmly stapled to her sleeve."

17. Casket Girls- True Love Kills the Fairy Tale
Graveface Records is based out of Savannah, Georgia and puts out the most beautiful vinyl of any label in the business. I originally became aware of the label because they issued the vinyl versions of many Appleseed Cast albums, including Sagarmatha, my #1 album of the year in 2010. I did a video feature on that album displaying the artwork and wax.

Because of the qualify of the vinyl the Graveface puts out, I subscribed to the label's Record Club, in which you get every release in a calendar year. On some occasions that means you get vinyl, cassette, CD, and digital copies of the same album. And much of the time, it might be from artists you never heard of. One of those artists was the Casket Girls, who is a band started by the founder of the label, Ryan Graveface. He teamed with sister-vocalists and they have two LPs together. The first one didn't do much for me, but this, their second album, is fantastic, and radically different than most everything I listen to these days. And as you would expect, the vinyl itself looks amazing:

From Slant Magazine: "True Love Kills the Fairy Tale is one of the few psych-pop albums in recent memory in which the lyrics are as rich and evocative as the synth-driven beats laid beneath them. Graveface fills the album with eerie, droning walls of sound shot through with just enough alluring melodies and goose-bump-inducing drops. Still, the Black Moth Super Rainbow guitarist keeps his arrangements atmospheric and austere, with the occasional fetching hook to give his sonic baubles just enough pop accessibility."

18. Smashing Pumpkins- Monuments to an Elegy
While I enjoy this album, I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed in some ways. I prefer the Pumkpins when they are heavy, with walls of guitars.  This is the closest Corgan has ever come to a pop album, and it is easily the shortest Pumpkins album ever at only 9 songs and 30 minutes. On the positive side, "The Schredder" appears be having more creative input over the years. The Pumpkins already have another album close to completion, set to release in 2015, and one can only hope it is more intense. Also hopefully the next album includes some longer epic songs, which are typically Corgan's best.

From Paste: "Aside from Adore, which was appropriately remastered and rereleased earlier this year, Monuments stands as the Pumpkins’ biggest sonic outlier. There are no gnarly solos. The SP roar has been toned down to make space for shimmering synthesizers. While longtime fans will still feel at home with Corgan’s snarl and majestic guitars—especially on opener “Tiberius”—Monuments will be remembered for its pop-focused (but not colder) take on the classic Pumpkins sound. Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee makes a case as the best successor to the irreplaceable Chamberlin. Most importantly, there seems to be a new creative fire under Billy Corgan’s ass, which he’s partially credited to guitarist Jeff Schroeder’s expanding role within the band."

19. Copeland- Ixora
It's rare that I update a list so soon after publishing it, but here I am 5 months later plugging in one of my favorite 2014 albums I got way too late. Copeland's Ixora is outstanding, and possibly my favorite thing they have ever done. I hadn't even been paying attention to them for 6-7 years.

From It's All Dead: Ixora is delicate and often whimsical. Opening track “Have I Always Loved You?” feels like so many of the lullaby-ish Copeland numbers, backed by a peaceful acoustic guitar. “Disjointed” slightly picks up the pace, driven by its tinkling keyboards and strings. The song’s climax appears just before the final chorus as the keys drop out and Marsh’s falsetto takes the reigns, “And now I feel the current / Pull me up, take me under / Rush over again”.

So much of Copeland’s appeal has always been wrapped up in the otherworldly vocals of Marsh, who has a knack for capturing a moment. His graceful flair comes in small doses on this record, as he regularly practices restraint. In truth, it makes those flashes of brilliance even more special. Take “Erase”, a soft track that floats along for nearly two and a half minutes before the drums kick in and Marsh takes the song over the top with his repeated refrain of, “You won’t erase me”.

The band’s use of electronics, which became a staple on their later releases, is in full effect on songs like “Lavender” and the smooth and jazzy “Like a Lie”. Marsh shares vocal duties with Steff Koeppen on the extremely familiar sounding “Chiromancer”, which may be the biggest treat for fans of the band’s early work.

20. White Lighter- White Lighter
Another outstanding surprise release from Northern Records. As with most of the albums ranked here from 11-20, the actual order changes day to day. This definitely needs to be mentioned in the top 20, but appears a little lower than it could because it is too "slick." If you've clicked on any of the artist names up until this point, they are links that point to live concert performances. That is what makes this album different; the "band" has never performed live, and probably never will. I feel White Lighter is missing rawness and energy that they might could have if they performed these songs live, rather than only in a studio.

While a studio-only project, White Lighter is an excellent rock album coming from some of my favorite musicians, most notably Andy Prickett, potentially my favorite guitarist of all time. And then the vocals and lyrics are from Mark Salomon, who has now sung lead for countless bands. Chronologically, he has sung for: The Crucified, Native Son, Stavesacre, Outer Circle, Neon Horse, White Lighter. And then he has also contributed guest vocals to countless other bands, most notably Argyle Park and Focused.

Stavesacre is far and away my favorite band Salomon has been a part of. The Crucified would be second (and maybe only second because I didn't discover them until after they had disbanded. Native Son is a hip-hop project, and Outer Circle is a punk band, and each of those releases I do not own and have only heard a few songs (that I did not appreciate).

Neon Horse is fascinating because Mark uses all different kind of crazy vocal stylings radically different than Stavesacre and The Crucified, at times making his voice intentionally unrecognizable. Neon Horse is more of a fun, light-hearted thing, and while I do enjoy both albums, I just can't take them seriously (and maybe I'm not supposed to).

Back to this release, White Lighter, I would almost call it a more serious version of Neon Horse. Salomon's voice is more consistent, but still in a style that is much different than Stavesacre (I LOVE and prefer how he sings in Stavesacre). But it is the rest of the instrumentation, specifically the guitar work, that makes it far superior to Neon Horse.

Finally, it is nice to know that Trey Many does some drumming here, but man I sure wish he would write and record some of his own stuff again (Velour 100)!

From Northern Records: "With riffs that easily translate between the languages of classic, modern, and alternative rock, White Lighter features a team of people that have collaborated before, but not quite in this way. Steve Dail's bass and guitar compositions are both brute and melodic, with rhythm and song combining effortlessly, while Mark Salomon has once again crafted a lyrical and vocal character that strikes where it matters. Andy Prickett guitar lines are present throughout, swinging things wider than can be predicted, and beats provided by David Brotherton and Trey Many feel pocketed and heavy with bodily force. Production overseen by Jason Martin, a mix by J.R. McNeely, and mastering by T.W. Walsh make this a listen that is as much of an experience as the words and music are themselves. Vinyl purchasers will be treated to a visual experience as well, provided by Ryan Clark."

Other Best of 2014 posts:

Top 5 EPs

Best Vinyl Reissues

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