This year was as good as it was bad for music. Since over-hyped drool has become the mainstream standard, the bar has never been lower. Paradoxically, many artists are responding to the overall decline in . . . everything . . . with authentic, original and inspired music. We’re loath to declare these “the best” records of the year. Instead, we’d like to share our personal favorites as well as our biggest disappointments.
Ani DiFranco — Allergic to Water
On Allergic to Water, Ani DiFranco, now a mother of two, continues to explore the subtler, quieter realms. She is still brash, still brazen in terms of the points she’s attempting to get across. It’s just that she does so in ways that are, at once, more playful and more serious. Gone are the days of boot stomping and guitar thrashing. But as this album evidences, DiFranco continues to be one of the most thoughtful and innovative singer-songwriters of any generation.
Hozier — Hozier
Hozier emerged from Ireland with a bold cut that stopped a lot of people in their tracks with “Take Me to Church.” While that is, indeed, a stunning effort, the whole of Hozier’s eponymous debut showcases an artist with an impressive grasp on multiple melodic styles and an intuitive knack for intelligent lyrical twists. Bittersweetly recalling the promise of guys like Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith, Hozier will, hopefully, be a more lasting presence. He certainly has the talent.
Lee Ann Womack — The Way I’m Livin’
For whatever reason, voices that have just a little bit of ache tell a story a whole lot better than those that don’t. And, when it comes to country music, Lee Ann Womack has one of the loveliest aches around. She can coax the lonesome out of any tune, and then hold it right where she wants it. That’s how, as an interpreter, Womack makes great songs even greater, especially when they flow from the pens of outlier writers like Hayes Carll, Julie Miller and Bruce Robison. With The Way I’m Livin’, she brings her fullest talent to bear and it’s something special to behold.
Plus: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold; Jonah Tolchin, Clover Lane; Katie Herzig, Walk Through Walls; Pieta Brown, Paradise Outlaw; Rosanne Cash, The River & the Thread; Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music; The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream.
Lenny Kravitz — Strut
When he’s on, Lenny Kravitz writes grooves and gets sounds unlike anyone else in contemporary music. The Duran Duran/Fixx/INXS guitar blast of “Sex” starts Strut off with a lot of promise, but much of the rest of the record fails to deliver. There’s nary an “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” or “Fly Away” or “Always on the Run” in the bunch. And sadly so. Come on, Lenny. You can do better.
Against Me! Transgender Dysphoria Blues
No record this year strained my lungs and vocal chords as much as Transgender Dysphoria Blues. When bandleader Laura Jane Grace (the artist formerly known as a dude) came out about her transition in 2012, she took a massive artistic risk that resulted in some of her best songwriting to date as well as a potent antidote for self-loathing. “Drinking With the Jocks” (“There will always be a difference, between me and YOU!”) and “Black Me Out” are nourishing misfit anthems, while the title track beautifully crystallizes the pain of the transgender experience in one simple verse: “You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress/You want them to see you like they see every other girl/They just see a faggot . . ..” A master work.
Lana Del Rey — Ultraviolence
Having filed this artist under “contrived/manufactured pabulum” based almost entirely on her name, I confess I did not give Lana Del Rey a fair shake until this year when I finally surrendered to Ultraviolence. Haunting vocals and lyrics that both betray this femme fatale’s dark side and belie her age are awash in a lush, moody production that makes for one seductive and hypnotic listening experience. Like a cat poised to bite the hand that strokes it, Del Rey shrouds her pathological love confessions in a girlish innocence that leaves us feeling a little dirty.
Sleaford Mods — Divide and Exit
2014 was the year Sleaford Mods broke. One of those overnight sensations that was seven years in the making, the duo’s second release, Divide and Exit, made virtually every U.K. “best of 2014” list, though it hasn’t fully caught on in the U.S. Jason Williamson’s unrelenting flow of working-class laments set to Andrew Fearn’s simple groove-beats speak to and of the desperate bleakness of these times, especially for the have-nots. If it weren’t for the humor and shock that Williamson’s spitballs of discontent intermittently provoke, the material could be a tad depressing: “Three words: cage, wheel, hamster.” On the other hand, someone needs to tell it like it is, even if the particulars are Brit-centric. And Williamson does it with a confrontational, if peculiar zeal that gratifies.
Plus: Jenny Lewis, The Voyager; Black Angels, Clear Lake Forest; Foxygen, . . . And Star Power; Beck, Morning Phase; Bass Drum of Death, Rip This; Tears for Fears, Songs From the Big Chair (remaster); Jason Cruz and Howl, Good Man’s Ruin; Foo Fighters, Sonic Highways.
Ryan Adams — Ryan Adams
Will Ryan Adams ever make a good record again? It doesn’t even have to be great, just good. Maybe he’s too busy championing other artists (Pangaea, Jenny Lewis), but it seems that ever since he got sober and married Mandy Moore he’s lost his edge. Could the MOR (look it up) scraps he’s been tossing us really be a passive-aggressive cry for help? If I wanted to hear a Tom Petty record, I’d put on a Tom Petty record, not a Ryan Adams record. Come back, dude. We miss you.
Phil Cody — Cody Sings Zevon
Despite his small but rabid following, and semi-brush with fame in the ’70s with the hit single “Werewolves of London,” Warren Zevon was always the definition of a cult artist. So it’s fitting that a decade after his untimely death from cancer, someone has finally paid proper tribute to the Excitable Boy. Thankfully, it’s not some late-to-the-party hipster-fan-boy; it’s one of Zevon’s actual opening acts, Phil Cody. Cody, himself the greatest living songwriter you haven’t heard, doesn’t have one original song on the tribute to his late friend, but you wouldn’t know it as his passionate performance makes Zevon’s songs sound as if they’re his very own. With a near-perfect song selection — not easy with Zevon’s deep catalog — the record features stripped-down arrangements of Zevon classics like “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” as well as lesser-known Zevon cuts such as “Heartache Spoken Here,” a gorgeous country ballad that rivals the original recording if not surpasses it. The raw and emotional record is full of goosebump moments that make the listener feel as if Zevon were haunting the sessions. Cody Sings Zevon succeeds at a rare feat, introducing the listener to not one, but two important voices in American music.
The Front Bottoms — Rose EP
While The Gaslight Anthem may have been anointed New Jersey’s new-school Springsteen suburban angst expressionists, for those in the know, that honor should go to The Front Bottoms. In many ways a continuation of last year’s near-perfect full-length release Talon of the Hawk, the Rose EP, proves that the Front Bottoms are some of the best lyricists in music today. Imagine a young They Might Be Giants, but with enough attitude to appeal to the current Warped Tour generation, The Front Bottoms are a welcome relief for a scene that makes heroes out of overly tattooed and makeup-wearing models fronting as musicians. If you’re not emotionally affected by the heartbreaking chorus of “Jim Bogart” with its impassioned cry, “Break your neck and I will love you like a bird that cannot fly,” then you don’t deserve to know that such a great band exists. The Front Bottoms’ underground following also proves there’s hope for the next generation. If your kid comes home and tells you he’s into a new band, and it’s The Front Bottoms, be proud because your kid has great taste. Then immediately ask to borrow the record because he/she’s not the only one who just found a new favorite band.
Chuck D — The Black in Man
If Chuck D didn’t record a single song or perform another show again, the frontman of hip-hop legend Public Enemy that was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would still have his place in music history firmly cemented. That’s what makes The Black in Man, even more impressive. An open attack on the current state of corporate radio that fearlessly namechecks actual stations, the fiery record is a flat-out challenge to his entire genre to strive for more — lyrically and socially. The blistering and inspiring single “Give We the Pride” is a soul meets hip-hop anthem featuring none other than Mavis Staples that needs to be heard by the masses. Ignore and pity the embarrassing Rolling Stone magazine picks for rap album of the year, which The Black in Man didn’t even appear on; Chuck D not only has made the most important rap record of the year, he’s made one of the most important records to be released in any genre in 2014. As MistaChuck warns: “Get it right, or be gone.”
Plus: Sun Kil Moon, Benji; Weezer, Everything Will Be Alright in the End; Dead Milkmen, Pretty Music for Pretty People; Downset, One Blood; Old 97’s, Most Messed Up; Hozier, Hozier; Loudon Wainwright III, Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet).
Pink Floyd — The Endless River
Pink Floyd fans were shocked and overjoyed when it was announced that a new Floyd record was on the way this year. Was it possible that the long-feuding and remaining Floyd members, in their old age, and in secret, had buried the creative hatchet and decided to make one more masterpiece? Not even close. The Endless River is nothing more than reworked sessions from 1994’s Division Bell with some additional recordings to those tracks made recently. If they were actual lost songs rerecorded, that would be one thing, but this is a collection of instrumental outtakes that are boring and better left for a bonus disc on a deluxe edition of The Division Bell. To have this masquerade as a new and final studio album is misleading and insulting to say the least. A better title might have been The Endless River of Cash, ’cause that’s the only reason this record ever sailed.