50. Justin Townes Earle- Single Mothers
Single Mothers sees Justin Townes Earle stripping elements away instrumentally without dialing back the 3am heartache. Pedal steel supplies a morphine drip of comfort to the audience as they try to cope with the Earle’s fragile songs of lament. As far as the new age of Nashville songwriters/storytellers is concerned, he remains near the top.
49. Pallbearer- Foundations of Burden
In terms of rafter-rattling monstrous riffs in 2014, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more monolithically menacing record that Pallbearer’s Foundations of Burden. With four of the six songs clocking in over 10 minutes (Plus another at 8:41) it’s easy to get into sucked these massive slabs of metal as visions of Sabbath course through your brain.
48. The Felice Brothers- Favorite Waitress
After 2011’s experimental Celebration, Florida The Felice Brothers return three years later with more of a return to their roots with the folk rock-tinged Favorite Waitress. With refined melodies and Ian Felice’s early Dylan-esque nasally croon, Favorite Waitress is a warm-hearted record that rewards the listener with repeated listens.
47. St. Paul & The Broken Bones- Half The City
Half The City is like a jubilant liturgical service for castaways and ragamuffins. Born out of the same Alabama neo-soul that saw the ascension of Alabama Shakes (Even produced by Shakes’ Ben Tanner), St. Paul & The Broken Bones have created a righteous debut that makes the grit and sweat of the streets seem like salvation.
46. Robert Ellis- The Lights From The Chemical Plant
While awful plop country/bro country continues to be bafflingly successful in America there is a movement of genuine-article country artists trying to save the genre. Names like Ryan Bingham, Hayes Carll, Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell, and now Robert Ellis are reminding us why country music used to be such an earnest and respected art form. Ellis acts as a craftsman on The Lights From The Chemical Plant with frayed songs that are both raw yet slightly polished. More records like this could go a long way in restoring the fortitude of country music.
45. The Soft White Sixties- Get Right.
The Soft White Sixties start breaking down the walls with a radiant debut in Get Right. With nods to retro rock and pop, The Soft White Sixties mine similar territory to that of Dr. Dog. Churning, chattering organs and buzzing guitars make for a blissful alchemy with just the right amount of edge.
44. Cold War Kids- Hold My Home
After the astounding breakout success of Robbers & Cowards, Cold War Kids’ momentum cooled. With 2013’s stellar Dear Miss Lonelyhearts and this year’s even better Hold My Home it appears that they’re back on the map. Pounding pianos and strutting grooves are the perfect pillars for Nathan Willett’s warbling falsetto to soar into arena rock territory.
43. Eagulls- Eagulls
These ain’t The Eagles your Dad listened to. The self-titled debut from Eagulls is a hungry and fierce entrance into the world, a cross section of howling punk blended with eighties left-of-the-dial guitars making it a record that grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go.
42. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks- “Wig Out at Jagbags”
Former Pavement front man Stephen Malkmus continues the 2nd stellar act of his career with his backing band The Jicks and 2014’s “Wig Out at Jagbags”. Jangling, wiry jolts of guitar play off of Malkmus and his wry delivery of lyrics. So when he invites us to, “Come slam dancing with some ancient dudes” the answer is of course, yes.
41. Coldplay- Ghost Stories
Coldplay return after a three-year hiatus to deliver their most experimental endeavor yet with Ghost Stories. Icy synths and hip-hop rhythms supply a velvet undercurrent to many tracks but if you think they’ve forgotten about their stadium-sized theatrics guess again as they shoot for the moon on the Avicii-produced, EDM-inspired “A Sky Full of Stars” proving that they still haven’t lost their taste for celestial theatrics.
40. Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires- Dereconstructed
With a band name like Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires you better damn sure be a shit-kicking act. Bains and company do not disappoint on Dereconstructed. Part soaked in southern comfort, part motor oil from the garage, and crushing riffs on the level of AC/DC; this is a record meant for hard-charging weekend nights. Really, any night you feel like killing a bottle of bourbon or case of beer yourself.
39. Jack White- Lazaretto
With the release of his sophomore solo effort Lazaretto, ever-mercurial Jack White is clearly trying to cut his own individual swath and be redefined as something other than the garage rock guitar god of The White Stripes. White stretches further into exploration with uneven pianos bobbing and weaving throughout and a sense of matured restraint. It’s quieter than his usual amplified racket but he still wonders back occasionally into realms that put him on the map as indicated by the screeching instrumental “High Ball Stepper.”
38. The Family Rain- Under The Volcano
What an apt name like The Family Rain is for this band. Three brothers unite forming a potent power trio and Under The Volcano expertly displays their formidable prowess. A tight but not constricted set of catchy blues rock bangers similar to The Black Keys. Continuing a trend like this record ensures staying power.
37. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart- Days of Abandon
2011’s Belong put The Pains of Being Pure at Heart on the map. Trying to keep the momentum going with their follow up, Days of Abandon they more than succeed. More dreamscape guitars swirl around singer/guitarist Kip Berman’s whimsical vocals. They bring the alternative side of the ‘90s into the new millennium with fantastic results.
36. Benjamin Booker- Benjamin Booker
Benjamin Booker arrives on the blues scene with a frenetic self-titled debut that is sure to put him at the forefront of the movement. A gritty, raw output that has the dirty, sincere feel of traditional blues blended with distorted, scuzzy guitars that you’d hear on punk rock albums. Booker’s wounds pour out in fervent feedback-fueled bliss.
35. Dry The River- Alarms in the Heart
After a phenomenal debut in 2012 with Shallow Bed, Dry The River return with more gorgeous chamber pop while aiming for even loftier places with Alarms in the Heart. Chiming and ringing waves propel that band forward but the real weapon continues to be Peter Liddle’s haunting, wounded falsetto. It teeters on an improbable line of innocence and experienced heartbreak.
34. Field Report- Marigolden
Christopher Porterfield leads Field Report through opulent yet simplistic landscapes on Marigolden. Similar to that of Wilco, Field Report brings the best elements of Americana to the forefront and adds dashes of electronic flourishes and modernized production. As far as looking towards the future in a genre like Americana you’d have to look to Field Report as one of the front-running bands.
33. Conor Oberst- Upside-Down Mountain
Conor Oberst’s pedigree is well-known by now. A tireless workhorse as indicated by his discography with both Bright Eyes and as a solo artist. Also stunning is his prolific songwriting chops; one of the best around and Upside-Down Mountain is his finest solo effort yet. Oberst’s songwriting continues to be his primary strength but understated idiosyncrasies in the layers of neo-folk make this his best record since 2005’s Bright Eyes masterpiece I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning.
32. Drive-By Truckers- English Oceans
Drive-By Truckers have been the workingman’s blue-collar southern rock band since 1998, constantly cranking out quality records every year or two. A three-year break might’ve caused some concern, but English Oceans shows no signs of rust. In fact, if anything they emerge stronger than ever as Mike Cooley has emerged as a wonderful co-collaborator next to Patterson Hood writing six of the 13 songs here. Another fine batch of gritty southern-spun tales but none better than the powerful closer “Grand Canyon,” a cascading sunrise epic to fallen DBT family member Craig Lieske.
31. Shovels & Rope- Swimmin’ Time
Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have brought a refreshing angle into Americana music. A married duo creating some of the best music of the genre with the male/female dynamic which continues in Swimmin’ Time. Enchanting campfire sing-a-longs are met by boozy ramshackle burners. It’s an album that sounds rustic yet revitalizing at the same time.
30. California Breed- California Breed
There are aging rockers with their weathered vocals losing some of their punch over the years and decades, then there’s Glenn Hughes whose pipes still have enough hurricane howl to level a stadium. After the dissolution of Black Country Communion, Hughes and drummer Jason Bonham regrouped and with 23-year-old hot shot virtuoso Andrew Watt. The trio formed California Breed and their self-titled debut picks up where BCC left off. Powerhouse bluesy rockers strut as they pummel their way into your cerebrum. And as for if Hughes has lost any amplification in that Golden God wail yet? Just listen to the chorus in “The Grey” and give your verdict.
29. Jackson Browne- Standing in the Breach
Jackson Browne has always had a way of standing out from the pack regarding topical singer/songwriters because of his delicacy and reassured approach to his craft. Standing in the Breach is his first record in six years and one of the finest he’s ever made. His gentle California croon gliding effortlessly through a classic collection of songs that signal a probable resurgence for Browne.
28. Ty Segall- Manipulator
Ty Segall has built one of the most prodigious catalogs in a short amount of time and with Manipulator he’s made his best record to date. What a difference a little clarity and fidelity makes! Segall fuses elements of pop with his California garage fuzz all filtered through T. Rex-style guitar glam. Segall has the canon of someone twice his age and yet Manipulator shows that he may just be getting started.
27. Rival Sons- Great Western Valkyrie
Rival Sons are carved out of the granite of classic hard rock. With 2014’s Great Western Valkyrie they’ve seemed to finally reach their Valhalla destination. Their best record yet that could hold up against many of the monumental albums of ‘70s powerhouse acts. Front man Jay Buchanan wails and howls with impunity as the band weaves in and out of touchstones from Led Zeppelin to Deep Purple. With a classic rock-leaning band like this not in fashion you certainly hope they don’t fade into obscurity.
26. Neil Young- Storytone
Neil Young is a man that doesn’t know how to stop working. He’s arguably been more prolific with releases in his latter-day career than at his creative summit in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some of it very frustrating (Fork in the Road, Americana), some of it good (Chrome Dreams II, Living With War) and even in some cases, still incredible (Psychedelic Pill). 2014’s Storytone fits in the middle of that pack and sees Young believe it or not putting yet another new spin on his musical footprint. Songs are split between the massive swells of a 92-piece orchestra and big band arrangements with surprisingly stunning yet focused results.
25. AC/DC- Rock Or Bust
You’ve heard terms “The irresistible force” and “The immovable object” before? Well, the indomitable AC/DC can fit under both of those banners. AC/DC are Rock & Roll survivors, after first losing front man Bon Scott in 1980 all the way up until this year losing co-founding guitarist Malcolm Young due to dementia and drummer Phil Rudd due to legal troubles. The result of all of this attrition and internal strife leads up to Rock or Bust. A stout, guttural shot of classic visceral AC/DC. Clocking in at less than 35 minutes, it’s their shortest record ever but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack all of the meaty riffs and power surges from some of its masterpieces lead by guitarist Angus Young and front man Brian Johnson’s weathered banshee growl. It’s uncompromising, they haven’t changed a damn thing in 40 years… and thank these Aussie Gods for that.
24. Interpol- El Pintor
Interpol was one of the more prominent guitar buzz bands in the early 2000’s and after a four-year break they prove why they were at the head of that pack with El Pintor. Nocturnal and brooding in areas, luminous and energized in others as Paul Banks serenades with his melancholy baritone that could give The National’s Matt Berninger a run for his money.
23. Temples- Sun Structures
There are several bands who’ve tried to tap into the golden years of ‘60s and ’70s psychedelic rock with mixed results. English lads Temples feel more like the real deal than some cheap imitator. Their debut Sun Structures is brilliantly produced with echoing guitar tones, whimsical harmonies, and hooks a-plenty this band sounds like they’re at the beginning of something extraordinary. Songs like “Shelter Song,” “Keep in the Dark,” “Mesmerize,” and “Test of Time” sound like they could be hit singles from 1968 all the way up until today.
22. Wolfmother- New Crown
Wolfmother’s future seemed uncertain with a constant revolving cast along with leader Andrew Stockdale releasing a solo album in 2013 and in a roundabout way hinting that Wolfmother may be finished. Out of the blue though Stockdale dropped Wolfmother’s surprise third record New Crown as a digital download via website Bandcamp to no fanfare at all. New Crown finds Stockdale taking a more raw approach than the two predecessors while still maintaining all of Wolfmother’s strengths. Squealing, squawking guitars rip like serrated blades while Stockdale roars like an invigorated beast. No matter the cast behind him, whether he continues under the Wolfmother moniker or as a solo artist, Stockdale is going to continue moving forward on his own terms. He’s too talented not to.
21. TV on the Radio- Seeds
Following the 2011 death of bassist Gerard Smith, TV on the Radio took a break from the action until the release of 2014’s Seeds. A requiem of sorts for the band it serves as a fitting eulogy to their fallen comrade. They continue to carve out their own niche of art rock with subtle washes of electronic accents. Arguably their best record to date, TV on the Radio has seemingly survived tragic loss and come out on the other side stronger than ever.
20. The Smashing Pumpkins- Monuments to an Elegy
By now The Smashing Pumpkins have really become nothing more than a glorified solo project of Billy Corgan’s as the lone-surviving original member. That doesn’t make newer Pumpkins records any less potent or rewarding as Corgan has always been the brain trust at the center of the matter. Monuments to an Elegy has more of the alt-‘90s guitars that buzz and hiss while liquid synths provide a glacial blanket to make this the most engaging record Corgan has released in years.
19. King Tuff- Black Moon Spell
There’s no other way to put it: King Tuff is one of the weirdest and best artists out there right now. His style is almost unable to be categorized and his newest LP Black Moon Spell displays that. Psych pop, garage fuzz, glam rock, and metallic riffs all packed into an irresistible cauldron of eccentric magic. If you get lost in a swirling psychedelia while listening to this record, fear not as Kyle Thomas will ferry you safely across the river.
18. Broken Bells- After the Disco
It seemed at first like it may have been just a one-off side project but James Mercer and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) return under the guise of Broken Bells after a four-year absence with their sophomore effort After the Disco. Ever the production wiz with an ear for catchy pop hooks, Burton creates an atmosphere of flittering globes and fluorescent nebulas that dance around Mercer’s tantalizing falsetto. Inescapable grooves and melodies are like 2nd nature for Mercer and Burton; it’s as natural as breathing for them.
17. Band of Skulls- Himalayan
With Himalayan Band of Skulls concocted a metallic-sounding record that is an amalgamation of truncated pop sensibilities and adventurous prog rock. You wouldn’t think something like the complex grandiosity of a band like Muse could be shaped and melded into a Black Keys style of bluesy restraint but that’s exactly what they manage to do. A record that is largely undefined, and that’s what makes it so alluring.
16. Strand of Oaks- Heal
Timothy Showalter (Strand of Oaks) has tapped into a rich reservoir of neo-folk similar to that of My Morning Jacket. Showalter drifts in and out of a sonic slipstream with a shaman’s proficiency on Heal. None more startling than the centerpiece simply titled “JM” for the late indie rock icon Jason Molina. It’s a transcendent, Crazy Horse-spirited tribute that would leave the likes of Neil Young and the late Molina awestruck.
15. The Orwells- Disgraceland
In an era where everyone is trying to decide what’s next for popular music and attempting create state of the art futuristic albums with mixed results; The Orwells come crashing through the wall with a breath of fresh air in Disgraceland. With no frills and all thrills it’s a brash, middle finger double shot of rough ‘n’ tumble Rock & Roll. Front man Mario Cuomo sounds like he’s coughing up blood to get every last ounce of moxie into each song as the band shreds a jagged distorted path through Friday nights. Why over-think things when it’s so much easier hanging on the edge for dear life with The Orwells?
14. Delta Spirit- Into the Wide
Into the Wide is a fitting title for Delta Spirit’s fourth album as it’s a panoramic journey that sees them take their biggest creative leap yet. Sounding less like a band entrenched in Americana music and gliding towards a more ethereal template with visions of grandeur as evidenced by anthems like “From Now On,” “Live On,” “Take Shelter,” “For My Enemy,” and “Patriarch.” Delta Spirit continues to grow more ambitious with each passing record and their surging arc of creativity doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon.
13. Bruce Springsteen- High Hopes
For his 18th studio album High Hopes Bruce Springsteen takes his most unorthodox path of constructing a record. A collection of castaways, covers, and reconfigurations providing a fusion that Springsteen thought had to see the light of day. Fueling Springsteen’s drive even further was Rage Against The Machine guitarist and E Street understudy Tom Morello. A genuine guitar hero, Morello’s amplified alien landscapes were a lightning rod of inspiration according to Springsteen himself. The results are startlingly synergetic as Morello’s tones and squalls sound revitalizing interwoven throughout the various rhapsodies of Springsteen’s. Retirement is seemingly the furthest thing from Springsteen’s mind at this moment; with plenty of material left to excavate and revive along with a continuous outpouring of new ideas, Springsteen made this keen observation, “It’s like that old story. The light from the oncoming train focuses the mind.”
12. Spoon- They Want My Soul
Waiting over four years for a new Spoon record is far too long. With the arrival of 2014’s They Want My Soul however, Spoon shows it was well worth the wait as they’ve created one of their best records. Certainly their most accessible and engaging since 2007’s breakthrough Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. A concentrated set of songs with the perfect balance of staccato guitars and off-kilter pianos that have become a part of Spoon’s blueprint. “Rent I Pay,” “Rainy Taxi,” “Do You,” “Outlier,” and “Let Me Be Mine” all hold up against anything else in their sprawling back catalog. The finest moment however might come on luminous closer “New York Kiss” that sounds like Spoon taking a stab at new wave flourishes with outstanding results.
11. Death From Above 1979- The Physical World
Death From Above 1979 became the definitive buzz band with the unpredictable success of their 2004 debut record You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine. As quickly as success found them it became all too taxing on the duo of Jesse Keeler and Sebastien Grainger and they called it quits. 10 years later, burnt bridges are repaired and with it comes their hotly anticipated follow-up The Physical World. The results are incredibly dynamic as it sounds like they never split in the first place. With bizarro ragers dancing on a razor’s edge, killer cuts like “Cheap Talk,” “Right On Frankenstein,” “Trainwreck 1979,” and “Government Trash” make you wish more than anything that we hear more from DFA 1979 before 2024.
10. Royal Blood- Royal Blood
2014’s best debut record was by far the self-titled effort from Royal Blood. Royal Blood is a pulverizing display of noise caused only by the menacing tandem of Mike Kerr on bass and Ben Thatcher on drums. You can hear a burly brew of influences flooding this 32:38 blitzkrieg including The Black Keys, The White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age and Muse amongst others. Frantic, uncompromising riffs keep rolling throughout like a seismic steamroller displaying Royal Blood’s vicious prowess, well beyond their years. You can literally feel the sweat and fuel drip from the pores of these brawny headbangers, there’s not one second on Royal Blood that isn’t explosive and adrenaline-packed. Royal Blood have already conquered the UK with their album going to #1 and they’ve got enough fire power to rattle the dominos and make them fall across the Atlantic too.
9. Leonard Cohen- Popular Problems
There’s no denying the latter-day genius of Bob Dylan. He’s in rarefied air that few can touch, save perhaps for Leonard Cohen. Continuing his brilliance now as an octogenarian, Cohen like Dylan has seen an unlikely creative resurgence with his latest output Popular Problems being the best of the batch so far.
Cohen continues to saunter through his twilight years under the guise of a smoky lounge-act bard; his calloused fathoms-deep vocal brings about a demanded reverence and awe. Popular Problems is nine psalms soul-crushing in dimension, their sorrow burrowing into the marrow of listeners. Cohen uses simple melodies, lilting arrangements, and choral female backing vocals to set the back drop for his phenomenal lyrics. Whether it’s the desolation of “Almost Like The Blues” (“I saw some people starving/ There was murder, there was rape/ Their villages were burning/ They were trying to escape/ I couldn’t meet their glances/ I was staring at my shoes/ It was acid, it was tragic/ It was almost like the blues”) or the emotional anguish of “A Street” (I cried for you this morning/ And I’ll cry for you again/ But I’m not in charge of sorrow/ So please don’t ask me when/ There may be wine and roses/ And magnums of champagne/ But we’ll never know we’ll never/ Ever be that drunk again”), Cohen’s capacity to find the genuine interpretations of personal heartbreak and worldly tumult are nearly unmatched. At 80 years old, how can you beat that type of authenticity?
8. The War On Drugs- Lost in the Dream
It may not top this list but there may have been no other album more beloved in 2014 than Lost in the Dream from The War On Drugs. Critical acclaim from countless publications and a general consensus (Well almost, sorry Mark Kozelek, you missed out) that this is indeed a sonic marvel.
It’s a hybrid of the familiar and extraterrestrial, a nebulous wonder with a cavalcade of classic rock influences wrapped in the cosmos. The gorgeous “Eyes to the Wind” sounds like Against The Wind-era Bob Seger fronted by Bob Dylan with mastermind Adam Granduciel’s nasally Dylan-esque delivery while tracks like “Red Eyes” and “Burning” are like long lost cuts distorted through a wormhole from Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. with their radiant synths and restless spirit. There’s an underlying inflection of Dire Straits too as meandering, weaving passages of haunting guitar atmospherics sometime prove more effective than any lyric could do.
Shivering ambiance in areas, enthralling interstellar highways in others, Lost in the Dream defied everyone’s expectations securing 2014’s Dark Horse Record of the Year award for this list.
7. The Hold Steady- Teeth Dreams
You knew the hangover couldn’t last forever, The Hold Steady are finally back for the first time since 2010. Time to saddle up to the bar and try to make a good night last forever again with Teeth Dreams. Front man/preacher Craig Finn leads his Rock & Roll crusaders through more hyper-literate cautionary tales, and their collective sound is the biggest and boldest of their career.
That’s thanks in part to former Foo Fighters producer Nick Raskulinecz as well former Lucero guitarist Steve Selvidge joining as a full-time member to add even more muscle to the six string assault. With him, Tad Kubler, and Finn creating an interplay that make the guitars more towering, as evidenced by the masterful opening trifecta of “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” “Spinners,” and “The Only Thing” able to slash right out of watering hole dives and into arenas. Finn lets things simmer with the hypnotic waltz of “The Ambassador” really exploiting his superior songwriting prowess (“When you came back to us/ In South Minneapolis/ You said revenge exists outside of space and time/ Back behind The Ambassador/ Man it feels kind of magical/ I guess your friend can really move things with his mind”) He has an uncanny way of turning the tragic losers and downtrodden characters into the most beautiful. The true crowning achievement though may come in the nearly nine-minute mammoth closer “Oaks.” If there’s such a place as Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” then The Hold Steady’s “Oaks” is the next borough over. It’s transcendental but not as ethereal. This is a sifting, a clawing through the drug-addled fog, chasing the ambulance lights in the distance. No one wins and everyone dies at the end of this West Side Story. Once again The Hold Steady have created a record that sounds like communal catharsis and feels like one big maudlin embrace.
6. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers- Hypnotic Eye
“I knew I wanted to do a Rock & Roll record,” Tom Petty told Rolling Stone regarding Hypnotic Eye. “We hadn’t made a straight hard-rockin’ record, from beginning to end, in a long time.” Petty more than achieves that with a powder keg of feral virility akin to some of his earliest recordings with The Heartbreakers while also integrating their matured sense of self-awareness keen on craft. Flowing seamlessly like a blistering live set of Petty & The Heartbreakers, they bash out snarling rockers sounding like a band half their age.
There’s the predatory riff of opener “American Dream Plan B” as Petty unspools his disintegrating future, “Fault Lines” is a roadhouse boogie chugging along like an 18-wheeler peeling across a desert highway as lead guitarist Mike Campbell interjects some piercing and scalding virtuosity while a gritty harp rides sidecar, and “Red River” is fueled by a brawny, swampy riff to cutting through the Everglades as Petty supplies plenty of faulty religious talismans. Petty and Campbell’s interlocking guitars continue to gallop and swirl like cyclones on “All You Can Carry” and take on a bluesy crunch for “Power Drunk,” “U Get Me High,” and “Burnt Out Town.” The closer “Shadow People” eclipses the six-minute mark and is arguably the album’s finest moment. It’s a brooding slow-burner, marauding in the moonlight until melding into a psychedelic trance middle section. Guitars dance around ringing ivory rain drops before giving way to another spiraling conflagration of Campbell’s ahead of Petty’s cautionary forecast, “And this one carries a gun for the U.S.A. he’s a 21st century man, and he’s scary as hell cause when he’s afraid he’ll destroy anything he don’t understand.” As the song simmers to a seeming finale there’s an added gentle acoustic coda as if a small glint of hope in Petty’s steely blue eyes stops the doomsday clock just before midnight as he muses, “Waiting for the sun to be straight over head till we ain’t got no shadow at all.”
Petty and The Heartbreakers are certainly not entering their geriatric years quietly and this further illustrates that they are an indispensable All-American institution. Nearly 40 years down the road, they’re still running down a dream.
5. Foo Fighters- Sonic Highways
After the career apex of 2011’s instant classic Wasting Light many were left wondering how the Foo Fighters would respond. The result was a hiatus imposed by leader Dave Grohl which allowed him to concentrate on side projects. One of those projects being a documentary about Sound City, a paean to the legendary Los Angeles studio. After that the hiatus didn’t last much longer sparking the motivation of the Foo Fighters most daunting and experimental record yet, Sonic Highways.
Much like the Sound City documentary only far more encompassing, Sonic Highways is a love letter to American music of all forms synthesized through the filter of the Foo Fighters’ trademark sound. It’s literally an expansive journey across the American frontier taking place in eight different pivotal studios in eight different major U.S. cities. Although each track has the signature Foo Fighters’ caterwaul there are audible cadences from the different cities and studios alloyed throughout. An all-star supporting cast facilitates this whether it’s Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen providing an additional baritone guitar to the hulking opener “Something From Nothing,” Zac Brown “devil-pickin’” through “Congregation” leading to a “Freebird”-esque outro, blues gunslinger Gary Clark Jr. providing an escalating solo in “What Did I Do? / God As My Witness,” or guitar God Joe Walsh providing the sweltering desert distortion on “Outside.”
Although this doesn’t quite reach the same mountain top as Wasting Light it is a worthy follow up, aiming high and succeeding. There’s also comfort in knowing that with Wasting Light and now Sonic Highways the Foo Fighters have leveled up to what seems to be a new creative plateau while also becoming standard bearers for arena rock bands.
4. The Gaslight Anthem- Get Hurt
Hipster publications can criticize all they want but there’s still no one on the rock scene making music like The Gaslight Anthem. Going even further, no act has been as consistently dependable as The Gaslight Anthem with producing great records and Get Hurt is their darkest yet.
It’s a collection of jagged yet passionate songs, the emotional strife cloaked in pile-driving rockers, clarion-call choruses, bleeding metallic guitars, and piston-firing drums. Front man Brian Fallon continues to be an authentic heart-on-sleeve poet whose universe remains tilted to an alternate reality. It’s one where James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Steve McQueen all came into their prime a decade or so later. After filming their latest big screen epics they would hang out at CBGB’s in its golden years, down the bar Fallon would be sitting between Joe Strummer and Bruce Springsteen, trading tour stories over beers. The Ramones would be set to take the stage with gutter punks and greasers in the crowd unified in undulating anticipation. It’s that type of infused mythology that makes Get Hurt so rewarding beginning with opener’s “Stay Vicious” sledgehammer riff and Fallon sounding like he’s been chewing asphalt as he bellows, “And I feel just like a murder, and I feel just like a gun/ And I’ve been shaking in the hands of somebody who’s finally had enough.” Get Hurt continues heavy on the heartbreak and riffs throughout with “1,000 Years,” “Stray Paper,” “Helter Skeleton,” Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” and “Red Violins.” The best moment is saved for last with closer “Dark Places” and even goes as far to rival the band’s summit song “The Backseat” which to put in Springsteen vernacular, is their “Born to Run.” This seems like the conclusion to “The Backseat” as a worst case scenario; a road trip that started out so promising with an open stretch of highway and optimism that ends in disillusion and separation, a gradual drifting apart.
Despite the disillusioned climax, there’s an enduring fortitude in Get Hurt, a restless and relentless heart beats in its chest. It’s earnest and genuine and if you’re going to bag on a record like that then there’s no telling what can move you.
3. Ryan Adams- Ryan Adams
When Ryan Adams doesn’t release a record for three years it’s the equivalent to 10 years for most other artists. 2011 saw the release of Ashes & Fire after which Adams went dormant (again, relatively), largely in part due to a continuing battle with Ménière’s disease: A debilitating inner ear disorder that can affect hearing and balance. It was so crippling to Adams that it was uncertain if his career would continue.
Fortunately for Adams and everyone else 2014’s self-titled record is not only a comeback, but it’s one of the best he’s ever made. Adams has made a career out of masterfully jumping from genres of music, throwing caution to the wind without batting an eye. Ryan Adams sounds like a record he was always born to make but couldn’t do so until reaching such an age of experience. At 40 he’s made assured adult-contemporary rock music. No deviating sharp turns or genre-jumping from track to track, just 11 masterfully crafted seraphic songs. Filled with visions of a man still cocksure and focused yet having a sense of maturity that belies the same man that had some pretty burdensome demons. The album is bountiful with anthemic ‘70s and ‘80s touchstones but perhaps the most prevailing influence whether deliberate or not is the fidelity of golden-age Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. With their classic chiming guitars and insatiable tenacity coursing through the sultry swagger of opener “Gimme Something Good,” the crepuscular lust in “Kim,” and the Damn The Torpedoes-sized drums in “Trouble” that sound like they could go round-for-round with “Refugee.” “Stay With Me” is so sultry it damn-near sweats and you’d half expect Stevie Nicks to come knocking on your front door, well, 1981 Stevie Nicks. Even Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench is credited with “Organ and Piano weirdness” in the liner notes. There are nods sonically to other statesmen of Rock & Roll, chiefly Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” being emulated on fist-pumping “Feels Like Fire” and the staccato guitar barreling down the darkened highway on “I Just Might.” There are moments of restrained solace as well none better than the astral envoi of “Let Go” as a summation of more than just the album but perhaps Adams’ entire career.
The once combustible, caustic troubadour is letting go of his reservations and instability. Taking the virtues he’s been bestowed with and getting out of the ditch and out onto the middle of the road, driving steady. If this is the sound of driving down the road sober, Adams is entering a new phase in his already prolific career with radiating affirmation.
2. U2- Songs of Innocence
U2 are arguably the biggest band on the planet (There’s still some band named The Rolling Stones around that might beg to differ), and with that they are also the most polarizing. U2 released Songs of Innocence to a firestorm of negativity due to the way it was delivered, being released for free to anyone that had an iTunes account. It was invasive to a certain extent but nothing more than a minor annoyance which U2 haters blew completely out of proportion. Unfortunately this is how it largely came to be defined as many publications panned it for its release tactics rather than on the merits of the actual record itself. Giving scathing reviews just a few hours after it was available on iTunes. How could you possibly absorb the record that completely? Better question yet, how could you possibly call yourself a professional? Delving deeper into Songs of Innocence reveals U2’s most audacious, ambitious, and cohesive record since Achtung Baby.
At the start or end of every decade U2 has had an innate ability to reinvent or at least reestablish themselves in part due to sheer fortitude but also out of necessity. Where 2009’s No Line on the Horizon missed this mark slightly, Songs of Innocence is an immaculate rebirth that valiantly stares down the future. Ironically U2 move into new frontiers sonically by looking to their past with an array of contemporary producers. Unleashing their classic rapturous sound of heaven as a modern cadence permeates the entire enterprise to create something astonishingly intrinsic. Opener “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” is like a call to arms as distorted shock waves of The Edge’s guitar rupture through Larry Mullen’s militant drums, Bono’s epiphany comes in the form of hymn (“I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/ Heard a song that made some sense out of the world/ Everything I ever lost, now has been returned/ In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”). “Every Breaking Wave” is sweeping and devastating, it ranks as a peer amongst their biggest most opulent anthems while “California (There is No End to Love)” teeters more towards the rejuvenated rush of early 21st century U2 and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is an epitaph to Bono’s late mother with the chiming allure of The Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree. “Volcano” and “Raised By Wolves” have the virility and touchstones of War as The Edge’s virtuosity splinters into shards through the disenchanted angst while “Cedarwood Road” may have the heaviest riffing in any U2 song yet. “This is Where You Can Reach Me” has a disco-punk strut of Sandinista-era Clash buoyed by outer limit synths. “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” and closing duet with Lykke Li “The Troubles” are ballads that pulse in the afterglow with electronic accents further pushing U2 into new territories while maintaining their rhapsodic essence.
Ultimately, Songs of Innocence embodies everything that makes a great U2 record; unbridled passion, spiritual sermons, eminence, and deliverance. With talk of an impending sequel in the works U2 may be in the process of a pertinent resurrection befitting of their stature.
1. The Black Keys- Turn Blue
Every year there are so many great records released. Everyone pining to put out their best statement but to be better than anyone else is no small task. Since I started this endeavor there has always been a different artist at #1, no one winning that coveted top spot more once. That is until 2014 as The Black Keys have earned the honor of Record of the Year once again with Turn Blue. Not only is this the 2nd time they’ve topped this list but they’ve done so with consecutive records dating back to 2011’s truncated masterpiece El Camino. Turn Blue for all intents and purposes is The Black Keys’ victory lap as the dynamic duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have executed another flawless opus. Co-producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) also deserves partial credit for helping Auerbach and Carney sculpt and hone a sound that’s been evolving ever since their first collaboration, 2008’s Attack & Release. It’s now become an undeniable sonic signature of theirs, so catchy and many have attempted to imitate but only The Black Keys can perfect it.
While El Camino was a short uppercut of their glam rock vertex, without sounding oversaturated, Turn Blue is their most indulgent record yet. Nowhere is this more apparent than opening track “Weight of Love” which is the most stunning as well as one of the best songs they’ve ever made. Rather than the concise numbers we’re so familiar with, this is an entirely different beast all together. By Black Keys’ standards it’s a roaming colossus at nearly seven minutes. It’s a deluge in ‘70s excess, looking into a snow globe and seeing the dunes as two figures appear in the distance. It’s like an intergalactic Spaghetti Western with The Keys trouncing through the alien landscape in their Chelsea boots like nomadic cowboys as a hazy narcotic blizzard of guitar God luxuriance is kicked up by torrents of Auerbach’s majestic solos. The slow-burning opiate flame of the title track feels like a pupil dilating process and Auerbach’s congenial falsetto nearly conceals the impending danger (“I really don’t think you know/ There could be hell below”), “Fever” bathes you in a hypnotic palpitating Farfisa-style organ and “Bullet in the Brain” begins as a kaleidoscopic rover before transforming into a clamorous cosmic stride. The trio of tracks to conclude Turn Blue is one of the best stretches on any of their previous works. “10 Lovers” is the best groove they’ve ever devised, ridiculously infectious like a lunar dance hall before giving way to the bluesy lava flow of “In Our Prime” which contains some of the darkest lyrics on the record (“Like every lover hovers in my mind/ We made our mark when we were in our prime./ The house had burned, but nothing there was mine/ We had it all when we were in our prime.”) Redemption however lies ahead in the beaming road trip closer “Gotta Get Away” as tantalizing guitar twang and euphoric organs explode out of the gate, not looking back in the rearview mirror. Rock & Roll as a cathartic release, what a concept.
Contrary to what many may think due to the heavy psychedelic atmosphere, this is the bluesiest album The Black Keys have ever made. A testament to their prevailing tenacity, Turn Blue rose from the ashes of Auerbach’s bitter divorce. The heartache and personal turmoil is obscured by contagious hooks, soulful guitars, swirling organs, swooning falsettos and impeccable production. The Black Keys have stated that they love to make albums rather than just singles, if they continue to treat the process with this much aplomb and proficiency then we may have to start calling them the dynasty duo. The only ones that can seem to slow The Black Keys down are themselves.