I could put together a list of artists on virtually every other music rag’s Best of 2014 lists that I expected to be on mine, too, but that didn’t quite do it for me this album around, or a list of artists that dropped albums I almost-but-not-quite loved with several strong playlist-worthy tracks but too many weak points for start-to-finish play-throughs, or a list of albums I didn’t even get around to listening to or only heard recently and might’ve been Best ofs with a little more ear time and due consideration.
Still, I found plenty to love in 2014. The albums I played most compulsively, that moved me, grooved me or stole my heart, are by some active locals and acts with local ties, several nationally touring players, a few Canadians, and a few dark horses from abroad you likely won’t hear about anywhere else.
Benjamin Booker, Benjamin Booker How much more can we praise the New Orleans-by-way-of-Tampa singer-songwriter, or the eponymous debut that earned him worldwide notice and widespread critical acclaim? It’s a powerful slice of righteous garage-rock and punk-blues that packs a gritty-soulful punch and plenty of distorted crunch, Booker’s groaning vibrato and fiercely raw howls soaring over the top.
DieAlps!, DieAlps! EP The enchanting, achingly sweet release from New Granada’s waltzing indie folk-pop band is almost too short at five tracks but hits on all the right notes — tunefully harmonizing female vocals led by the bright accented pipings of Austrian-born guitar-strumming frontwoman Cornelia Calcaterra, ear-wormy refrains, occasional whistling and accordion playing, and a nice balance of dramatic climaxes and quieter melodic interludes.
Death from Above 1979, The Physical World The sophomore outing from Toronto’s influential dance-punk duo made up of Jesse F. Keeler (bass, synths, backing vocals) and Sebastien Grainger (vocals and drums) comes a decade after they delivered an acclaimed debut, then broke up a few years later. They reunited in 2011 and finally unleashed The Physical World this September, the thrashing, riff-raging muscular songs like Queens of the Stone Age while standing strongly on their own confident, cock-strutting merits.
Elephant Stone, The Three Poisons Formed in 2009 by sitarist/bassist Rishi Dhir, Montreal-spawned Elephant Stone has been crafting so-called “Hindi rock” over three LPs including this third and latest, which weaves together ’60s-redolent psychedelia, grooving Krautrock, Hindustani classical music and New Wave-tinged pop into an exotic yet accessible brew.
Funny Bunny, Funny Bunny The Tampa trio’s eponymous first album evokes late-’70s New York with ventures into New Wave, post-punk and even disco territories while taking dreamy, shoegaze-y, psychedelic twists and turns, all of it propelled by the sultry croons, coy coos and ethereally sweet drones of frontwoman Kim Stein-Lepley.
Kishi Bashi, Lighght The second LP from the solo orchestral/avant-pop project of Athens, Ga.-based musician K. Ishibashi showcases his gift for composing lush soundscapes and applying the virtuosic musicality of his classical roots (violin is his ax) with electro-experimental chops and techniques. His intricate compositions veer into ’70s art-rock and prog territories (à la ELO and Yes) amid a brightly hued blend of Eastern-tinged chamber, psych and folk-pop that just makes you feel good.
Luxury Mane, Gold Standard The St. Petersburg three-piece toys with New Wave, garage and psychedelic sounds while maintaining a breezy appeal on their second album, singer-guitarist Billy Summer’s mild droning serenades wheeling amid guitar textures that vary from crunched to fuzzed to reverbed to woozy.
Phantogram, Voices My most-played album of 2014, by far, is the sophomore full-length from the upstate New York synth-rock duo, a dance-vibing affair marked by hip-hop production qualities and rhythmic breakdowns that also delivers on the dreamy pop interludes.
Phish, Fuego Hearing the Vermont rock ‘n’ roll foursome play songs off their 10th LP with such enthusiasm and reverence in a live setting has made me fall in love with this album, hailed as their best since Billy Breathes. I’m inclined to agree; it’s funny, poignant, funky and psychedelic, melody-rich and in some ways the closest I’ve heard a producer (in this case Juno award-winning Bob Ezrin) come to capturing their live dynamism on disc.
Sunbears!, Future Sounds I have vowed to give up listening to The Flaming Lips altogether in favor of embracing the more heartfelt exuberance of Jacksonville psych-rock outfit Sunbears!, their New Granada Records outing a sumptuous, expansive and transcendent work of art.
Teleman, Breakfast There’s something so endearing about earnest, thickly British accents, and this year-old trio out of London writes a good hook while blending ’60s vintage and Brit Invasion aesthetics (Beach Boys, Kinks and Velvet Underground are definite influences), New Wave, and modern indie-pop quirk à la UK contemporaries Django Django and Alt-J.
tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack Brilliant, bizarre, captivating and inventive in the way we’ve come to expect from the project helmed by multi-instrumentalist experimental pop-maker Merrill Garbus, who continues to fine-tune her multi-tracking production techniques while mixing groove-vibing hip-hop and R&B with polyrhythmic sensibilities, her cadenced lyrical passages healthily interspersed with hoots, ahhs, oohs, lalalas and nonsensical rhymes and vocal breakdowns.
The Trouble with Templeton, Rookie The Aussie alt-folk group’s debut album ranges from cuts like “Whimpering Child,” its rocking urgency segueing into inspired melodic loveliness, to moody-swirling, fast-chugging single “Soldiers,” to “Like a Kid,” all fat aggressive guitars and howling choruses driven by the huskily soothing and emotive vocals of leader/songwriter Thomas Calder.
13 more 2014 albums worth mentioning
1,2,3, Big Weather
Bahamas, All the Time
Morgan Delt, Morgan Delt
Hundred Waters, The Moon Rang Like a Bell
Damien Jurado, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
Walter Martin, We’re All Young Together
Taylor McFerrin, Early Riser
OK Go, Hungry Ghosts
Temples, Sun Structures
TV on the Radio, Seeds
Wye Oak, Shriek
Zulu Wave, Jagorilla