OTM’s Top 10 Albums Of 2014

So, we meet again, annual Best Of lists…

I was relieved when another music blogger commented that this year’s albums were… mixed.  Unlike 2013, where standouts hovered around every corner and within every genre, this year’s offerings were lukewarm on the whole.  The artists that most media outlets espoused just didn’t connect, and even those well-received offerings were few and far between.

Thankfully, we have these ten albums to keep our ears content and well-fed.

As I’ve said in past years, a Best Of list is really mere opinion; the beauty of music in all its forms that one listener’s ho-hum album is the album that saves another person’s life.  For our annual round-up, the following criteria were utilized in determining the final list:

  • Overall Impression:  My core reaction as a music fan.  Do I love it?
  • Staying Power:  Did I want to hear it again after the initial “new album smell” faded?  Do I feel I will still be playing it years down the line?
  • Coherency:  If a concept album, is the message clearly conveyed?  If not, do the songs make some sort of sense in being on the same album?
  • Emotional Impact:  Do the songs elicit an emotional response from me, be it joy/sorrow/wonder?
  • Complexity:  Do elements like instrumental experimentation, vocal shifts and the like keep things interesting?  Do all of the songs sound the same?
  • Significance Of Contribution To Music:  This is where an album I might independently rate lower could push higher.  Is the album taking a genre to a new place, capturing history in a powerful way or inspiring other artists?
  • Production Factors:  Polish, clarity of sound and vocals, balance/mix and the like.
  • Tracklisting/Flow:  Do the songs feel right in the order presented from a sonic and/or lyrical perspective?

Also, as in 2013, EPs have their own list.  Without further ado, let’s take a look at the ten albums that define OTM’s 2014.

 

The Top 10 Albums Of 2014

This year’s artists span all genres and multiple continents, but all speak the same language:  powerful music worth spinning.

10.  Sonic Highways – Foo Fighters 

sonic highways

On their eighth album, Foo Fighters may not be reinventing their sound, but I’m okay with that, unlike some critics.  For those who were expecting each track on the album to sound like their respective cities’ “classic sound”, you missed Dave Grohl’s point entirely.  The intention of Sonic Highways was less about forcing the Foos into different sonic boxes, but rather, an album documenting Grohl’s emotional and intellectual engagement with the history of American music.  As he so aptly puts it, it’s a love letter to that collective of artists and sociopolitical events — not an homage.

In that respect, Sonic Highways succeeds, albeit not without missed opportunities.  Lead-off track “Something From Nothing” dashes wink-nudge references to the artists interviewed for the Chicago segment of the journey, but it also draws on classic riffs that evoke some of the best artists to hold court on its stages.  Its rallying cry — “Fuck it all, I came from nothing!” — is what drives so many of the legends in the business.  And while guest artist Preservation Hall Jazz Band aren’t used to their fullest potential, New Orleans-based track “In The Clear” evokes the rich history and indomitable spirit of a city that has seen far more than its fair share of struggle.  It is an album that says, “I hear your stories, and I will take them with me.”

While twists and tastes of the musical sound of each city thread through each song, Sonic Highways‘ one downside is a failure to truly amplify those all-t00-subtle nods or the guest artists employed.  All the same, Foo Fighters have challenged themselves to step outside of their personal lives into something larger, and it’s a creative feat worth celebrating.

 

9.  Neuroplasticity – Cold Specks

cold specks neuroplasticity

Al Spx, the powerhouse vocalist of Cold Specks, is unapologetically dark in her songwriting, and I’m quite fine with it.

On her sophomore outing, Neuroplasticity, she demonstrates the adaptive prowess implied by the biological terminology, allowing the melodic backbone of her compositions to gyrate, simmer and boil over in an enthralling and welcome cacophony of sound.  Whereas 2012’s I Predict A Graceful Expulsion stuck to a more core focus on the gospel and blues elements inspiring her, Neuroplasticity uses jazzy horns (provided by an on-point Ambrose Akinsumire) and intentionally discordant rhythms to channel her raw lyricism into the accompaniment.

Spx is at her best when she fuses the gothic nightscape of these new flourishes with her more gospel sensibilities, allowing her gritty and rich voices to soar above like the roar of an impending storm.  Opener “A Broken Memory” rattles and creaks like a hurricane against a shutter soul, swelling and receding in ominous waves, while “Absisto” builds upon a blues core into a brooding dirge bordering on funereal.  Conversely, “Old Knives” plays closer to her earlier work, allowing the imagery of her words to shiver down the spine, minimally adorned.

I don’t suffer fools gladly/Forget the scenic route,Al Spx sings.  Cold Specks isn’t about making something polished and pretty; it’s about leaving the listener unnerved and unsettled, like its songwriter.  I’ll take direct and to the core any day.

 

8.  Somewhere Under Wonderland – Counting Crows

Somewhere Under Wonderland Counting Crows

On their seventh album — the first since 2008’s Saturday Nights & Sunday MorningsCounting Crows stick with what has endeared them to listeners since their lauded debut August And Everything After:  brooding folk-pop slices of life, peppered with intentionally meandering and rapid-fired lyrics.

Opener “Palisades Park” is perhaps the epitome of the sound and style shaped by Adam Duritz and company.  A lucid dream of a song, Duritz’s ever-hoarse voice carries listeners through a nostalgic fever dream set in an amusement park.  Juxtaposing the broken-down present and whimsical past, it mirrors new love as it grows older and fades away.  An almost country twang seeps into “Dislocation”, a straight-up pop-rocker, and “Scarecrow”, a metaphor-rich song that evokes familiar territory: “Riding the subway in a Valium haze/I need the whites; she gets the blues.”  And really, that’s what listeners want from Counting Crows: quiet sounds of desperation and hope, pinned against tales of people who struggle, question and fear like us all.

Somewhere Under Wonderland is hardly reinventing the wheel, but it is brimming with refinement of that breakout album that endeared us to Counting Crows in the first place.  Curiouser and curiouser, indeed.

 

7.  The Voyager – Jenny Lewis

Jenny Lewis The Voyager

Indie folk-rocker Jenny Lewis has been reigning supreme in the scene for longer than most of her brethren have been writing songs, with her unusual flair for clever wordplay and striking imagery that captures the best of the worst of us.  California sunsets shimmer beneath the surface of her tunes, be they with her band Rilo Kiley or running solo under her own name.  And while her previous solo outings were hardly bad — her initial solo offering, Rabbit Fur Coat remains a fierce and fun album — one might say that Lewis seemed to be drifting without focus at times.  Patchy albums lent an afterthought shadow to Acid Tongue and I’m Having Fun Now.

On The Voyager, we find Jenny Lewis coping with a rough few years, ultimately finding her closure and freedom in her song craft.  With a renewed introspection and the snake venom of Rilo Kiley’s heyday, Lewis veers from self-deprecating to simply sincere in the ten-song set.  Opener “Head Underwater” is deceptively sunny, radiating the light at the end of the tunnel she’s trekking through with bleeding feet.  “I put my head underwater baby/I held my breath until it passed.”  Contrast the ‘free at last’ vibe with “You Can’t Outrun ‘Em”, a dark rocker reminiscent of Rabbit Fur Coat‘s whiskey-laced twang and predatory feel:  “I guess two souls will meet again/When the universe thinks they should…I am living proof that history repeats,Lewis confesses.  The cleverness is also back in top form, particularly in her more sneakily scathing offerings.  “Just One Of The Guys” takes a look at the misogyny that paints women into a corner and ultimately trounces all over it, leaving footprints in carefree fashion.  “I’m not gonna break for you… That’s not what ladies do,” Lewis huffs in ultimate triumph.

The Voyager dares to dream, almost in spite of its sardonic appreciation of reality’s failings.  Finally, the solo Jenny Lewis has found her stride.

 

6.  Diploid Love – Brody Dalle

diploid love brody dalle

Listen to the album here.

Brody Dalle is a legend of the unabashedly hardcore rockers that smashed the notions of female fragility in the music scene.  Fitting, then, that her first solo album, Diploid Love, arrives just as the scene surges anew with women who can match (and trounce) the male-dominated rock/punk sphere.

Most famous for fronting iconic punk band The Distillers, Dalle opts on her solo outing to toe a line between her punk roots and the grunge influences of her youth.  The reason Diploid Love radiates raw truth is because it lives and breathes in the pure anger and hurt that seeps from the pores of Hole’s Live Through This or Babes In Toyland’s Fontanelle.   Opener “Rat Race” smashes the establishment in Dalle’s trademark fashion, serving as a call to arms perhaps of fans who grew up with Dalle and now find themselves caught up in mainstream bullshit.  The anthemic “Don’t Mess With Me” is as rousing and sing-along ready as classic Distillers’ tune “The Young Crazed Peeling”, although glimpses of the stability found in her marriage to Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme emerge:  “You’re the reason I can stay and fight until the death/’Cause where I stood, I will not give up.”

While she’s found motherhood and marriage highly fulfilling, there are always reasons to rage against the artificial light.  “Meet The Foetus/Oh The Joy” draws from the seeming irrationality of bringing children into a world filled with darkness and mindlessness — with a delightful cameo from fellow hard-rocking bad-ass Shirley Manson (Garbage).  An almost teenage longing permeates standout track “Dressed In Dreams”, a more ethereal and quiet brooder that swells to an unrelenting optimism that surprises: “I won’t give up at all/I want the freedom to dream the impossible.

An unflinchingly honest album, Diploid Love is a welcome return from an artist who refuses to compromise — and refuses to let us do so, either.  “Find your weakness and kill it.”

 

5.  This Cold Escape – Amos The Transparent

This Cold Escape - Amos The Transparent

Listen to album stream at Exclaim.

(Excerpted from our original review)

Music, like any art, is a challenging labour of love, more than ever before.  So, when do you decide that enough is enough?

For Jonathan Chandler, frontman of Ottawa folk-rock band Amos The Transparent, that struggle reached critical mass a few years ago.  Despite critical acclaim for previous outings, Chandler reached a moment where he no longer wished to release music.  In resulting discussions with his bandmates, Chandler and company came to realize that the introspection was rife with material for an album.  Harnessing their appreciation of classic concept albums, the band launched a successful PledgeMusic campaign to explore the complexities of life as a working musician.  The result:  This Cold Escape, an 11-track narrative best explored as a cohesive whole…

Thematic cohesion aside, the concept album vibe is seldom intrusive.  It’s cleverly put to work in the shuffling of radio stations to shift us into the country twang of the bittersweet “That’s The Life For Me”.  Clever in its darkness, with self-referential lyrics — “Goodnight my dear, back to sleep”; “My, what big scary teeth you could show…” – it’s the listener’s turning point, a signal that the heart of the album’s conflict lies ahead.

This aching heart is the most rewarding and poignant stretch of the album for listeners.  The stunning “Smoke & Mirrors” is a soundscape of near-operatic indie rock, delving into the toll that the struggle for fame can take on life offstage.  Sacrifice and emotional ties left tattered and frayed play out in a somber rock waltz, swelling to a layered, orchestral rock crescendo that exemplifies the best of Amos The Transparent.  In complement, “Death & His Certainty” offers an almost counter-argument:  great love doesn’t die in adversity; it remains as the smoke clears.  Indeed, it is the foundation upon which we can rebuild, no matter how dire the destruction in our wake.

 

4.  Glory Under Dangerous Skies – Moist

Moist Glory Under Dangerous Skies

(Excerpted from our original review)

Less pop, more garage grit and heart:  that seems to have been the studio mantra.  For those who perhaps shied away from the mainstream influence that seeped into last outing Mercedes Five and Dime, it’s time to exhale that sigh of sweet relief.  Instrumental jams sprawl just enough to pierce the heart, retreating at the right time to take their bow.  Moist may be a little more low-key on Glory on the whole, but it’s not without heartfelt intention and creative decisions meant to support the stories crafted in four-minute morsels.

One of the things that has always made the band stand out is their ability to dissect slices of life, casting spotlights onto everyday heroes and villains in ways that subtly provoke contemplation of society.  From addiction to class warfare, no subject is too taboo.  Take, for example, “The River” and its defiant lament of religion:  “We ran to Jesus to be saved…You fooled us all. Oh, and I know the river won’t save me.”  Powerful imagery, yet universal, it beckons to anyone who’s surrendered to another force in darkness, only to be disappointed. Conversely, second single “Black Roses” feels like a lost Creature-era cut, driving ahead with its abandon as Usher insists, “I’m not here to save you.”  And really, that’s the point of it all:  everybody hurts, to borrow a classic lyric.  Now, Usher muses frenetically, what do you plan to do about it?

Themes of water, of seeking salvation in the darkest hours, run throughout the album.  The world reflected back at the listener truly is one of dangerous skies:  storms brew overhead, with unforgiving winds driving us on in a place where the divide between have and have-not continues to grow.  And yet, there’s no need to despair:  as Usher urges on “Comes The Sun”:  “Blow like ashes on the wind/We will survive…Take back the light ’till it’s gone.”  There is glory to be had, beauty to be found, and on the title track (one of the band’s best compositions in their career), a cautious optimism beckons:  we fall, but rise.  We transcend what we have endured.

At turns near-philosophical and lashing with guitar strings, Glory Under Dangerous Skies is a spiritual wake-up call and a welcome reunion of a well-loved collective.  Capturing the best of their history while remaining fresh and bold, Moist soars.

 

3.  Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness – Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness

ANDREW MCMAHON In The Wilderness cover

(Excerpted from our original review)

The entire album, more so than perhaps the Jack’s Mannequin catalogue, feels like a series of vignettes — stillframes and stories, moments in sharp focus.  There’s more talking with/about than talking to, a sharing of wisdom and truth favoured over emotional turmoil.  This isn’t to say that the raw confessions of albums past are missing — take “Halls” and its familiar feel of being haunted by past mistakes and regret, for example — but more often, the album feels like a 2am conversation on the beach with a drink in hand.  “All Our Lives” explores the notion of painful lessons learned and shared in cautionary concern — the idea that the mistakes of one can spare another from a similar fate, if heeded.  “There’s only two mistakes I have made/It’s running from the people who could love me best/And trying to fix a world that I can’t change,” Andrew pays forward in his moment of 20/20 hindsight…

There’s a conscious choice on the album to abandon guitars in favour of keys and vocal effects on this album.  It’s a choice that does well in evoking a classic California feel to the tracks:  the shimmering synths roll like ocean waves, while the push of the piano allows McMahon’s talents to shine.

Where this dreamy vibe pays off best are the songs that focus on elements of freedom.  “High Dive” is an album highlight, carefully weaving images that resonate with the uncertainty and head-thrown-back abandon of early adulthood.  Each note is gently played, a quiet twinkle of the stars blanketing the object of his gaze:  “Meet me on the high dive/You’ll dance with your headphones on/So I can watch you all night long/Dancing to someone else’s song.”  And if “Canyon Moon” kicks the album off on a lost in the dark vibe, closer “Maps For The Getaway” is a hopeful, “all you need is love” resolution to its confusion, proving that there’s a difference between escape and actual freedom.  It bookends the record nicely, offering us another drive down another highway, one with good company.  Soaked in 80s influence, “Maps” brings the journey full circle — from shirking the corporate we’re trained to view as ideal (“No white picket fence, no job with the government“) through illness and healing (“The years of hope, the months of rain…I guess we survived it after all“), looking out at last to the future.  “All we have is gas in the tank, maps for the getaway/All we have/All we have is time,McMahon concludes.  In light of his battle with cancer, it is all the more powerful a statement to embrace.

 

2.  High Noon – Arkells

arkells-high-noon

(Excerpted from our original review)

On High Noon, the band’s third full-length release, Arkells are looking for, as the name suggests, a confrontation:  with societal injustices; with their own hearts; and with their inner demons.

Opening salvo “Fake Money” swaggers like a pirate’s sea shanty, jeering and jabbing at the highly-placed power players who willfully disconnect from the human faces of their moneymaking ploys.  Immediately, I’m thinking of the spoiled likes of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his man-child tantrums, but there’s a broader view of the Financial Districts of North America to explore.  “Winning’s your religion, the altar where you preach/It’s easy setting fires/We’re all just currency.”  This thread of protest winds through the album narrative, resurfacing on “What Are You Holding Onto?” in a pulsing pop-soaked call-out tune.  Challenging the hypocrisy of those who tout God as their only judge and jury while disregarding morality at a whim, it’s a sly, bluesy wink-nudge born from eyes that see the man behind the proverbial curtain.

The album also explores personal triumphs and tribulations with an emotional rawness juxtaposed with fond reminiscence — think Born To Run meets Born In The U.S.A.   Album highlight “Cynical Bastards” is a wry celebration of the people of Hamilton juxtaposed with the city’s sometimes questionable reputation.  There’s an exuberant feel to the song, a challenge to rise up and embrace the darker elements and a thumbing of the nose to the surrounding suburbs.  A portrait of life in an industrial world, it’s some of the best songwriting the band’s delivered to date.  On the flip side of the sonic coin lies “Crawling Through The Window”, a fondly dark ode to difficult times shared between Kerman and friend Dan Hamilton.  Through simple and stark imagery, the loss of love and friendship’s enduring power to help pick up the pieces shine through the night streets of the chorus.  Similarly, “Leather Jacket” takes an iconic item of clothing and unfolds in quiet, unassuming observation of a woman caught in a spiral of bad situations — always coming back to a call for help and the comfort of worn sleeves.

High Noon may be a call to arms, but it’s wordy weapons the Arkells are truly espousing.  Our stories, our experiences and opinions — these are what matter, and what we must amplify in the face of tough times and leaders who gamble with our lives.  Cleverly political while remembering personal ties are what bind listeners to their favourite bands, High Noon is destined to be remembered as an iconic contribution to Canadian rock.

 

1.  Sparks – Imogen Heap

Imogen Heap - Sparks

We called it back in August and we’re making it official:  when it comes down to choosing an album that’s polished, solid from start to finish and innovative, Sparks has left the rest of 2014 in its dust.  Uniquely personal and interactive, with a songwriting process spanning years, Imogen Heap‘s latest offering is the shining star of her sonic sky.

(Excerpted from our original review)

The germination of this notion — that the audience feeds the artist as much as the art feeds the listener’s spirit — has been nurtured to its full potential on Heap’s fourth album, Sparks.  Initially conceived of as a project approach to song, wherein she would set an idea in motion that would lead to a song in three months’ time, Sparks ultimately is an exercise in collaboration that proves that our collective human experiences ultimately tell the story of us — with no need for direct narration

While the songs born of these myriad projects were released as they were completed, they are rearranged into a new order on the album.  Demonstrating an intuitive sense of arraying her work akin to snapshots in a photo album — and perhaps moved by personal events offering new interpretations to the stories told — Imogen manages to shape a loose narrative of love, loss and the search for identity in adulthood.

Physical exploration, too, plays a powerful role in the composition of Sparks.  During a trip to Hangzhou, China, Imogen coordinated a whirlwind of activity for her birthday, capturing the sounds of each planned activity and threading them into a stunning track.  “Xizi She Knows” is perhaps one of the most ambitious of the original “heapsongs” as they were known, capturing the sounds of dance, song, schoolroom exercises and the water.  A love song to the people and the land, it carries a warning: “Slow down/You’re in a terrible hurry to change…Xizi she knows that once it’s gone, then it’s gone.”  One sense that Hangzhou is a symbol of a woman searching to find her future.

What makes Sparks more than a great album, but a historically significant one, is the use of technological tools in ways that will push artists to redefine musical possibility.  Be it “Run-Time” and its musical capture of an actual run, “Me The Machine” — crafted using the artist’s music gloves and delving into where machine ends and human begins — or the power of crowdsourced sounds and imagery, Heap dares to interact, to playfully embrace the internet as a unifying force for the creative good.  The results:  astonishingly organic sonic snapshots of our world and us within it.

Sparks is Imogen Heap‘s finest artistic hour:  a perfect intersection of her impassioned storytelling, her keen observation of the world and the electrical surges along her Macbook’s wires.  Unafraid, uncompromising, unabashedly human, Sparks  is the powder keg of our shared narrative, ignited.

 

And there you have it:  OTM’s favourite albums of 2014!  Is your favourite missing?  Think we nailed it?  Come share your musical loves on Twitter (@OTMidnight) or Facebook.

More of our faves for 2014:
OTM’s Top 5 EPs of 2014
OTM’s Top 25 Songs of 2014

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