Sunday, December 28, 2014

What Color is Blood: The Best Albums of 2014

Editor's note: You can hear me and Jay Breitling doing our annual podcast rundown of our favorite music of the year (see parts 1, 2 and 3) and I'll also be playing two hours of the best 2014 rock jams on Stuck In Thee Garage next Friday.

I've often lamented about how the music listening experience has changed over the years. What was once a focused, intense experience is now often a scattershot, multi-tasked and rushed as we try to cram a million different things into our busy days. It's rare that one listens to an album with that sole purpose in mind; there's always something else going on that competes for your attention.

Still, there's so much great stuff to sift through these days, it makes me want to try harder to dig into the albums that catch my ear. I don't always succeed, but here are the 15 albums that jumped out at me this year.

15. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Wig Out at Jagbags
The former Pavement fronter has been releasing quality solo work for 13 years. This is yet another fine collection, full of clever, jammy, guitar-saturated rockers. 

14. Bob Mould - Beauty + Ruin
Mould's resurgence continues with another powerful effort with his power trio featuring Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster. Mould hasn't rocked this hard since his days in Sugar.

13. The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers
The hits keep on coming with this Canadian supergroup's latest album. A.C. Newman, Dan Bejar and Neko Case bring an embarrassment of power pop riches.  

12. Spoon - They Want My Soul
Another act that consistently brings the good stuff is Spoon. Britt Daniel even used his time off from the band to crank out an excellent album with the Divine Fits. They Want My Soul is a classic Spoon slow grower that just gets better every time you hear it. 

11. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
After nearly a decade, The War on Drugs broke through this year with this dreamy, guitar-drenched record. Adam Granduciel, who co-founded the band with Kurt Vile, traffics in the same spacey sounds as Vile, although WOD has more of an '80s vibe. Mark Kozelek has had fun trolling the band this year, but there's no denying this is a powerful piece of work.

10. Hallelujah the Hills - Have You Ever Done Something Evil?
This was my first extended listen to HTH, which provided backing instrumentation on Titus Andronicus' The Monitor. Ryan Walsh and crew deliver a strong set of anthemic indie rock. Stirring stuff.

9. Gord Downie and the Sadies - And the Conquering Sun
This Canuck All-Star team-up of the Tragically Hip frontman and the all-purpose backup band was eight years in the making. The end product is a 30+ minute blast of energy, rawer than what either party normally is known for. It sounds like everyone involved is having more fun than they have in years.

8. Death From Above 1979 - The Physical World
Comeback albums are a tricky business. More often than not, the results are disappointing. Toronto punk duo Death From Above 1979 only made one album in 2004 before splitting up a few years later. DFA79 is a bass and drums band, but the sound they produce is super-heavy riff rock. And it's good, catchy and super loud.

7. Soccer Mom - s/t
Sadly, Soccer Mom's first album is also their last. It's a damn shame, since the Boston shoegaze quartet was able to turn a blisteringly loud live act into a compelling and interesting debut album. I had seen the band several times before the album came out, but the album marked the first time I could really make out the vocals. The band's last gasp is a magnificent one, full of unrelentingly loud and majestic songs. Guitarists Dan Parlin and Will Scales split the vocal duties, and are moving on to form a new band called Gold Muse with Young Adults' Chris Villon, Earthquake Party's Justin Lally and former Swirlies singer Deb Warfield, so at least there are good things on the horizon.

6. Ex Hex - Rips
Mary Timony's storied career has taken many interesting turns, from Helium to her solo work to Wild Flag. Her latest band, Ex Hex, is a classic power trio that packs in big riffs, loud solos and catchy-as-hell choruses in a killer album that echoes mid-'70s NYC garage punk. It's short (35 minutes), punchy and just plain fun. I saw Ex Hex play twice this year and both shows were gloriously rockin'; you can tell Timony, bassist Betsy Wright and drummer Laura Harris are having a total blast playing live. I've already got a ticket to see them in the spring and I can't wait.

5. Protomartyr - Under Color of Official Right
This Detroit quartet is one of the most interesting bands of the year. An unorthodox combo fronted by Joe Casey, who had never been in a band before, Protomartyr delivers a potent post-punk mix that echoes bands like Wire and The Fall. Casey's vocal style could be called talk-singing, but that's taking away from the undeniable presence the man has that gives Protomartyr a sound unlike any other contemporary act. Seeing the band open for Parquet Courts in June was a fortunate chance to see two hot indie bands just before they started blowing up (relatively speaking). I'm looking forward to seeing what Protomartyr does next.

4. Ty Segall - Manipulator
Ty Segall's no surprise to this space, but what was surprising this year was that he only released one album instead of three or four. Segall's 2012 album Slaughterhouse was a breakthrough, and Manipulator moves beyond the garage-psych sound he perfected and focuses on a fuller, '70s glam rock sound that harks back to Bowie and T-Rex. At 17 songs and 56 minutes, this is the longest album Segall's ever done, but it's all killer, no filler. Combine that with a lethal live show and you've got one of the best artists working today.

3. Sloan - Commonwealth
Speaking of prolific and consistently excellent bands, Sloan has been delivering high-quality power pop for 23 years. The foursome's latest release is a double album in which each member contributes a side's worth of music. It's an experiment that other bands have tried, but the difference is Sloan albums have always featured contributions from all four singer-songwriters. Musically, Commonwealth doesn't stray too far from the band's sound, although drummer Andrew Scott's 17-minute suite "Forty-Eight Portraits" is decidedly different. Jay Ferguson's opening side is the best, with his supremely catchy '70s AM pop ditties, but as is always the case with Sloan, it's all good.

2. The Afghan Whigs - Do to the Beast
Anybody who's followed Greg Dulli's career over the last 15 years knows he's continued to operate at a high level, whether it was with The Twilight Singers, The Gutter Twins or doing the odd solo tour. So when word broke earlier this year that the Afghan Whigs would be releasing a new album, it wasn't a case of "Will they still have the goods?" It was always Dulli's band, so for me, I was confident the end product would be worthy. Some of the trademark Whigs slide guitar sound is gone because founding guitarist Rick McCollum is no longer part of the band, but Dulli and bassist John Curley have forged ahead with a new group of players and the results are terrific. Dulli still writes smoldering, intense songs about love and greed and mortality...y'know, the good stuff. In addition to the main group, the album features contributions from the likes of Clay Tarver, Alain Johannes, Van Hunt and several others. It's a rich collection of moody rock from one of the best unsung artists of our time.

1. Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal
Parquet Courts made a splash in the indie rock world last year, when their 2012 release Light Up Gold was reissued and caught fire. The New York by way of Austin quartet upped the ante with Sunbathing Animal, which took their brand of CBGBs-inspired garage rock and infused it with more fully developed songs. It feels like the natural evolution of the band's sound, moving from midtempo locked-in grooves like "Bodies" to slower meditations like "Dear Ramona" and "Instant Disassembly" to sped-up chooglers like "Always Back in Town" and the title track. Singer-guitarist Andrew Savage's laconic Richard Hell-like vocal style fits Parquet Courts much like Stephen Malkmus' dry delivery was perfect for Pavement. Savage's guitar interplay with Austin Brown also is reminiscent of Television, with snaking leads that wind their way through the songs. Where Light Up Gold's songs were for the most part short and punchy, Sunbathing Animal finds the band stretching out and dare I say, jamming more. And somehow the band found time in between tour dates to release yet another album, Content Nausea, on which Savage and Brown present some more low-key songs. It was a great year for music, and Parquet Courts were leading the charge.

Honorable mention: Ryan Adams - 1984 (Pax-Am Singles Series); Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else; Two Inch Astronaut - Foulbrood; Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues; Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2; Benjamin Booker - s/t; Radiator Hospital - Torch Song; The Both - s/t; Johnny Foreigner - You Can Do Better; Krill - Steve Hears Pile in Malden and Bursts Into Tears (EP); Speedy Ortiz - Real Hair (EP); The Hush Now - Sparkle Drive; Fucked Up - Glass Boys.   

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