top 10: favorite albums of 2014

still life

Yeah. 2014. This is late. I wrote it and never posted it and I have no idea why, but here you go, mostly because I’m trying to put together my 2015 list soon anyway. Must clean up the drafts folder!

2014 was a hard, hard year, and the place it suffered most was my music listening; podcasts were easier, and when delivered directly to my phone automatically, less for me to think about. I don’t know that I’ve ever made a list that’s fewer than 25 albums, but this one is. What I was enjoying while I made this, though, is other people’s lists, because I missed almost everything in 2014, trying to keep my head above water, and I’m ready to stop missing things.

  1. Caleb Caudle – Paint Another Layer On Your Heart: one of the simplest, most beautiful records of 2014, Winston-Salem’s Caudle absolutely knocked it out of the park with Paint Another Layer On Your Heart. It’s full of heartbreakingly honest songs mostly about distance and love and long distance love, and “Trade All The Lights” and “How’d You Learn” are fighting for my favorite song of 2014. The single lyric, from early in album opener “How’d You Learn”, of home doesn’t share you with the places you’ve been made me cry so hard the first time I listened to Paint Another Layer that I ended up listening to nothing but the first minute of that song, over and over, for about the first 15 minutes of my experience with it. I finally listened to the rest of it, though, and it’s all just as brilliant as that line.
  2. Cory Branan – The No-Hit Wonder: Branan’s second record for my beloved Bloodshot Records combines Branan’s signature tongue-in-cheek bitter-but-not-quite lyrics with a variety of sounds — mostly bigger, broader, more layered than his previous guitar-centric solo sound — that punch up his already sharp songwriting into musical pieces that are even more suited to that lyrical sharpness than ever before. They range from country rockers to New Orleans horn laced crooners, and the startling lovely and acoustically stark “The Meantime Blues” that comes near the end of the record shouldn’t work, but might be the highlight of the album. Branan tours pretty relentlessly, and I can’t wait to hear the songs from this one live next year.
  3. Ex Hex – Rips: The only bands I saw more than twice in 2014 were Caleb Caudle, Cory Branan, and Ex Hex, who are about as far apart as can be, musically, and that didn’t matter to me. Rips, the Merge Records debut from the latest project from grown-up Riot Grrrl Mary Timony, is short and to the point, but it ain’t sweet: it rips and roars and screams and shreds guitars and bass and drums as hard as it can. It’s awesome.
  4. Old 97s – Most Messed Up: Rhett Miller drops the f-bomb upwards of 50 times on the 97s’ most recent studio album, and every single one of them makes me giggle and grin like a 12 year old boy. They also put on one of the best, if not the best set I saw this year, playing to a tiny and raucous crowd in the desert of West Texas, tearing through most of this record and proving that Rhett Miller dropping f-bombs in person is greater than Rhett Miller dropping f-bombs in the studio. And in record opener “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”, the band gives one of the most astute commentaries on the life of a musician: we’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive / 20 good years of about 25. The 97s will never be an arena band, and I wouldn’t want them to be; Most Messed Up just shows how great clubs have been and will still be for what they want to do.
  5. Taylor Swift – 1989: okay, don’t close the tab just because you hit this entry. This is a glorious, complete pop record, and sometimes, you guys, we just need glorious complete pop records. There’s always going to be blowback against Tay Tay and the music she’s making and the life she’s living, but most of it is going to come from people who didn’t listen to her albums. 1989 makes me feel good about being alive, and sometimes that’s quite literally all I want from a pop record. I listened to this four times in a row sitting in post-Thanksgiving traffic, and bonus track “New Romantics” made me cry every time. It also kept me from committing significant acts of road rage in Gaffney, South Carolina, and so Taylor Swift wins.
  6. Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else: sneakingly might be a better rock and roll album than noted rock and rollers the Drive-By Truckers, who follow her on this list, Lydia followed up the excellent Indestructible Machine with the subtler but just as fierce Somewhere Else. “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” is in my top five favorite tracks of 2014.
  7. The Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans: I fell out of love with the Truckers in 2013, and then I took Trav to see them in Atlanta in January, and I fell back in love with him, and with them. English Oceans is mostly free of the lengthy Patterson Hood guitar wanks that I complain about a lot, and things like “Shit Shots Count” add to Mike Cooler’s considerable arsenal of blow-your-face-off rockers. The balance of the songwriting is what’s been most talked about this year, and it’s one of the things that’s the most worthy of talking about, because it’s what makes this record so much greater than Go-Go Boots.
  8. The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt: Brian Fallon knows the way to my heart; this record was so close to my core that I couldn’t even write about it. But it’s beautiful.
  9. Noah Gundersen – Ledges: what I said in my two sentence reviews: start to finish gorgeous heartbreaking alt folk. One of the best records of 2014.
  10. Various Artists – While No One Was Looking: Celebrating 20 Years of Bloodshot Records: perhaps the greatest compilation I’ve ever heard, Bloodshot’s 20th birthday celebration made me cry, made me laugh, made me dance. It’d be higher on the list but it’s weird to put a compilation that high, sometimes. Regardless: it’s good. You should have it.
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