Saturday, May 2, 2015

Consistency, Justification, and the Always-On Public Persona

One of my most-loathed quotes of all time is Ralph Waldo Emerson's suggestion that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Certainly, it's useful and sometimes even necessary to reinvent oneself, but without the day-to-day consistency of how we address the public and treat our friends, we would feel it was OK to betray associates at a moment's notice, or to add and drop lovers like pieces of aluminum foil.




Similarly, whether we are famous or not, whether we are in positions of power or not, we should assume as social beings that we need to justify our actions to others, constantly and with as much consistency one can muster. The other day, a non-profit director took an arbitrary action against a partner, then said "I have no need to explain my actions to anyone." That point of view is as absurd as the CEO or public administrator who believes they can fire an employee and call it a "personnel matter," or the government of China jailing five feminists and calling it an "internal affair." In the 24/7 Internet era of the 21st century, there are no internal affairs. There are no private personnel matters. Everything, everywhere, is open for public debate, and you damned well better be able to rationalize the actions you take. Insisting that, because you are in a position of authority, you can take arbitrary actions without justifying them, is a certain path for eventually being removed from power.


When Aaron Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel, one of the underlying reasons stemmed from Hamilton's insistence that, as a member of the aristocracy, he could say things among a dozen friends that directly contradicted what he said in a public forum. Burr, as one of the first "modern" politicians, realized that a public figure has no private space. What is done or said in front of one person is done or said in front of 7 billion. And as such, it must be justified. If you take arbitrary actions and do not justify your reasons, you've publicly identified yourself as a shitty person.


I've said before that rash and blurty acts are dangerous in their own right. Any word that escapes your mouth, any act that escapes your body, should be run through your cortex for 30 seconds first. Sometimes you plan acts that seem to others to be unfair, but you had better be able to make your public case. As my friend Ricky said, "If I were to do a crappy thing to someone it would be planned. When finished with that crappy thing I would be prepared to explain the ins and outs of the crap. To justify my actions. A percentage of people would agree but on the other end a percentage of people would disagree. Never in silence of actions taken." CEOs, executive directors, leaders of nations, you have no private space. Justify everything you do. The alternative is to end up like Alexander Hamilton.



Thursday, January 8, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the Virtue of the Insufferable Asshole

A former executive director of the Colorado ACLU, Cathy Hazouri, was fond of saying, "No matter what your political background, if something we've done this week hasn't pissed you off, then we're not doing our job." Why would someone choose to fund a non-profit designed to upset their personal notions of right and wrong? Because it's the ACLU, and people should take for granted that the purpose of such free-expression organizations is to show you all the times in your life you are wrong.

There seems to be similar misgivings among some writers and would-be progressives about supporting Charlie Hebdo and the 12 cartoonists and editors murdered by three Salafist extremists on January 7. Some insist on the likelihood of "imperialists" somehow being responsible for an action that may cause all Western Europeans to hate Muslims indiscriminately. (It seems plenty of Salafists have the full capability of doing that without the help of Western intelligence agencies, thank you very much.) Others recognize that Charlie Hebdo suffered a terrible and bloody injustice, but feel that the magazine was bound to incur some lethal wrath by always pushing and pushing the issue of the contradictions of devout Islam, a problem akin to poking a stick in a tiger's eye. Some are joining the ranks of undergraduate college students and instructors who have immersed themselves in "civility" for so long, they are leery of reading anyone from Twain to Hemingway to Vonnegut, finding it "offensive." One friend who is a firm supporter of civil rights made the legitimate point that, after the kerfuffle involving Seth Rogen's film for Sony, The Interview, he does not want to go so far in supporting freedom of speech that it means supporting people who are just plain assholes.

There are plenty of reasons to suggest that The Interview might not be protected speech because it advocates the killing of a living world leader. But we should not shy away from support of Charlie Hebdo because of fear of assholes. What art movements from Dada to punk rock should have taught us is that the world needs insufferable assholes to move art and literature forward. We can always filter out the tactical assholes who are merely creepy to others as artistic movements get assimilated after they have existed for a few years. But we should remember that Dada, punk, and like movements arose with the conscious intention of the founders being strategic assholes - making the people hate you, because you poked sticks in their eyes.

We should never underestimate the ability of the comfortably numb to turn their backs on injustices in front of them. In fact, this is one reason that the Black Lives Matter movement decided in late 2014 to consciously adopt an "in your face" attitude to protests: blockade Black Friday sales and the Mall of the Americas, show up at sporting events and music concerts, and make damned sure that no citizen could pretend that they could surround themselves with a protest-free entertainment bubble. Guess what? You have no right to avoid being subjected to free speech! Are the protesters assholes? Of course! They are assholes for a reason.

It is admittedly disturbing and discomforting to be confronted with the artwork or propaganda of insufferable assholes. But that's the point - afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Those who have learned the lessons of false "civility" in recent undergraduate academic experiences might ask, "How is a spoof of someone's dearly held spiritual principles any different than hate speech that mocks someone's race or sex?"

We are skating on thin ice here, but I would suggest that an angry tome that addresses someone's genetically inherited characteristics is hate speech. A parody that mocks someone's learned cultural experiences, including even their devout religious practices, is protected speech and a necessary shock to the system.

My support of Charlie Hebdo's decision to mock Islamic beliefs does not come from some inbred Islamophobia, but from a firm belief that the degree of devoutness a person displays is a measure of their degree of wickedness. A spirituality that reflects the divine will always be lighter than air and extremely flexible and malleable. It will treat no doctrinal framework as a given. This is why I keep yammering about making a T-shirt that says, "It is always better to change your doctrine than to circle the wagons." If your doctrine leaves you inflexible, you are succumbing to wickedness. Devoutness to any sort of cause, spiritual or secular, is equally evil.

People don't willingly subject themselves to art, literature, or political ideas that offend them because they want to live inside their comfortable and safe assumptions.  This is why Black Lives Matter wanted to take the issue of police brutality to people's homes. This is why the Dadaists and punks wanted to be as rude, lewd, and crude as possible within their temporal confines of middle America and Western Europe. They were all assholes. They were virtuous insufferable assholes trying to move the football forward. And if you are deeply offended, make a point of seeking out and shaking the hand of an insufferable asshole (hold on to your wallet). You just might have learned something.

And what might Islamic activists learn from such mockery of Muhammad? Well, Christians learned something during the Reformation years that never quite sunk in to many Islamic sects. Let's think of this as the Let's Make A Deal three doors problem. Most devout neophytes are familiar with the very rare Doors # 1 and # 2. One can be a glorious victor in a spiritual struggle, or a sainted martyr. But Door #3 is the most common occurrence of all, as manifested in the Christian preterite or "left-behind" minions. You don't get transcendence, you don't even get to be a martyr, you get to lose and be forgotten and have your entire life left as meaningless. Many in the Western world accept this but still hope for salvation. Salafists are sure they have been crushed by Western prejudice for 200 years, even though Islamic falling-behind was largely self-inflicted, the fault of the corrupt Ottoman Empire 200 years ago. Many modern Salafists get enraged, and feel they have the right to eliminate any who might tell them their entire lives have been without meaning. Guess what? This is our lot, all of us who have chosen Door #3, Shut up and be the fly squashed against the fence. Sometimes it takes an asshole to tell you that. And as Christopher Hitchens once said, we can all sit down and talk about mutual respect once the mockery has begun, but you do not get to bring a gun to the table to attempt to enforce that respect through violence. Respect and protect your local asshole.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The List 2014, Studio Albums, Specials, and EPs/Sngles

It seems as though 2014 was grim and difficult for many, but the challenges seemed to spawn an unusual number of works that tried for transcendence, sometimes with worthy results. Many of the best releases were sad in tenor, but not all by any means. An unusual number of works were throwbacks to different eras, with the late 1970s a clear favorite, in both its punk and arena-rock instantiations.
     The rules for special albums were tested this year. Special live and archival material in that category must consist of primarily new material. The five Led Zeppelin re-releases were not included because these were remastered albums, and the bonus material consisted of studio takes of the same songs. Still, hats off to Jimmy Page for the effort. Other great re-releases, such as those from Slint, Captain Beefheart, and Neil Young were kept off for the same reason. Strict best-of efforts from Bowie and Joni Mitchell didn’t count, but re-releases from Dylan, Kinks, Bardo Pond, and Game Theory contained a lot of unheard material from the vaults, so they’re in.
     Please remember that close to a thousand mainstream and indie albums are released annually, and this 150 or so represent the ones worth hearing.  Sure, there are quality gradients between the top ten and bottom 20, but anything that makes this list is worth your perusal.
     Looking forward to a busy January 2015 with new ones from Sleater-Kinney (!), Belle & Sebastian, Heather Leigh Murray, and The Decemberists – and the return of Modest Mouse come spring. Farewell to Johnny Winter, Bobby Keys, Joe Cocker, and all our other friends who left this year. And if your melancholy in 2014 prompted you to consider joining that party, remember that we’ve all seen these movies before, there are plenty of good times left to be had on this planet, including listening to these wonderful music releases.

Regular Studio Albums, 2014


1.     Pere Ubu, Carnival of Souls – Wow, David Thomas graced us earlier with an Ubu album that made 2013’s top ten, then came right back with a follow-on that approaches the greatness of The Modern Dance. What else can one say? A world where Pere Ubu can remain weird and relevant for 40 years remains one worthy of living in.
2.     Lydia Loveless, Somewhere Else – There’s a reason this surly and sad alt-country crooner dominates my LP and EP lists alike. No one else writes songs of anger and tragedy like Lydia, and no one else comes close to Patsy Cline when she sings them. This album was on constant repeat in the car throughout 2014, and I never got sick of the songs.
3.     Ought, More Than Any Other Day – Many other bands have tried for that early Talking Heads sound, like Local Natives and Tapes n Tapes, but all quickly got tedious until this Canadian band demonstrated how to make it sound fresh. Add a dollop of strange surrealist-Situationism, and you have a winning formula.
4.     St. Vincent, s/t – Annie Clark’s internship with David Byrne was of benefit to both, and it comes through in this work, her most focused and polished yet.
5.     Le Butcherettes, Cry is for the Flies – What began as a Mexican feminist punk band becomes a Dadaist feast with the aid of Mars Volta, Henry Rollins, Shirley Manson, and a cast of thousands.
6.     Parkay Quarts, Content Nausea – Sure, the more official Parquet Courts album got most of the attention, but this odd and loose jam session had it all – Dylanesque ballads, saxophone slop-rock numbers, Nancy Sinatra covers, and a diatribe to modern life reminiscent of Ginsburg’s “Howl.” A gem intended as a side dish to Sunburned Animal turns out to be greater than its more refined sibling.
7.     Alt-J, This Is All Yours – Sure, Alt-J can sound like modern music grad students married to English MFAs at times, but who else can give you Miley Cyrus mixes and Conor Oberst out-of-phase echoes? A minor psychedelic masterpiece.
8.     Street Eaters, Blood::Muscles::Bones – Say what you will about the South of Market San Francisco fuzz sound of Ty Segall and Thee Oh-Sees, I prefer another Bay Area locale. This honest punk duo from the Emeryville Gilman Street scene in the East Bay is tighter, more vibrant, with more integrity than any band across the Bay Bridge. Long may Street Eaters reign.
9.     Sharon Van Etten, Are We There? – In the world of ethereal women singer-songwriters, some prefer Angel Olsen or FKA Twigs, but Sharon still remains undisputed queen to these ears. This is a softer album than the last, almost a 1970s Laura Nyro work of rejoicing and lament.
10.                         Lake Street Dive, Bad Self Portraits – Everyone knows Rachael Price and friends can do dynamite 1940s revival swing and insanely great Motown covers. What is clear from this new album is that they write exquisite partying and moaning juke-joint originals, with “Bobby Tanqueray” standing as the perfect example.
11.                         Dead Fingers, Big Black Dog – Maria Taylor’s sister Kate got married to Taylor Hollingsworth and started a Taylor-meets-Taylor bluegrass duo that was almost a joke at first. Suddenly, the songs have become more striking and the joke is over. If Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn represent the middle-age royal couple of bluegrass, Kate and Taylor are the young upstarts, bursting with unusual and unforgettable tunes.
12.                         Sun Kil Moon, Benji – Even for a sad singer like Mark Kozelek, this SKM album is uniquely melancholy, covering the personal tragedies of several childhood friends of Kozelek’s in small-town Ohio. Some may find that the better versions of a few songs within, like “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” are found in Kozelek’s new live album, but Benji is the original source for funereal wailings.
13.                        Brian Eno and Karl Hyde, Someday World – Eno has gone through quite the renaissance in recent years, collaborating with young poets and jazz musicians, but his new work with Karl Hyde, founder of Underworld, goes beyond anything else. Many of the songs within recall Eno’s 801 band, or Before and After Science. Eno and Hyde’s other 2014 work, High Life, was decent, but is ranked lower because it did not hum the way this did. Bonus Edition Handicap: Get the double-disc extended edition, the extra tracks are worth hearing.
14.                         Tom Carter and Pat Murano, Four Infernal Rivers – It’s unusual for Tom Carter, the ambient drone guitarist, to have a studio work ranked so high, simply because he’s an acquired taste. But in this case, he and Murano of No Neck Blues Band have crafted a double album with four side-long tracks devoted to the mythical rivers of Acheron, Phlegethon, Cocytus, and Styx. A magnificent and mysterious work.
15.                         The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers – While this album doesn’t have the cello-driven tension that drove the last album, Together, to the top of the 2011 list, its light-heartedness and joy give the NPs a sound more akin to Magnetic Fields this time around.
16.                         The Invisible Hands, Teslam – This Egyptian band is as impressive for its mere existence in 2014 as Plastic People of the Universe was in Czechoslovakia’s Husak era. This album is more focused on three-minute pop and more explicitly political than the debut album, which makes it more viable for challenging the al-Sisi regime, but perhaps less interesting as a musical document. But Alan Bishop deserves thanks for curating a beautiful and dangerous project like this one.
17.                         Morrisey, World Peace is None of Your Business – As much as I wanted to hate this album, since Morrisey has become such a whiney aging queen, it offers ruthless lyrics and exquisite arrangements that are perfect for the snarky take on a world where torture is normalized and police shoot people for the hell of it. Thank you Morrisey, for being the cruel bastard you are. Bonus Edition Handicap: For Lord’s sake, of course you want the double-disc version.
18.                         Run the Jewels, 2 – While the details of diatribe may not be as well-honed as the best political hip-hop a la Flobots, Run the Jewels brings an intensity and specificity to their work that is often missing in even well-intentioned hip-hop artists. Throw in a Zack De La Rocha guest appearance and arrangements that sound like they come from Mars, and you have a winning formula.
19.                         The Mastersons, Good Luck Charm – The biggest thrill of Steve Earle’s 2014 tour was learning that the husband-wife team that comprise two new members of his band, also record as a duo. Wow, can they write, and wow can Eleanor play the violin. Just wow all over the place.
20.                         Psycho Sisters, Up On the Chair Bernice – We can tease Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson for taking 20 years to finally make this album, or we can rejoice that their heavenly voices are finally giving us studio versions of fine songs like “Never Never Boys.” A carefully crafted and beautifully executed album, not surprising being two decades in the making.
21.                         Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal – The more traditional crisp punk side of Parquet/Parkay gives us the album that everyone loved this year, and with good reason. It’s just that with the Savage Brothers, there’s so much to love from so many dimensions.
22.                         Taylor Swift, 1989 – Yes, she’s grown up enough to leave the dissing on old boyfriends rant behind, but Swift’s claim to have invented a new kind of pop really constitutes melding late 1980s dance work with a MGMT/Foster the People style. It’s catchy as hell, but you’ll miss the stronger riffs in Red. Bonus Edition Handicap: The Target stores edition has three extra tracks that are great, but you have to put up with three interviews on the process of songwriting that are pfft.
23.                         Mary J. Blige, The London Sessions – R&B singer goes to London with Sam Smith and Naughty Boy and emerges with the kind of defining work Dusty Springfield achieved with “Dusty in Memphis.” Sometimes, straight-with-no-chaser minimalism works, and this is one of those times. It would be nice to release a version of this album without the dumb interviews between songs, however.
24.                         Conor Oberst, Upside-Down Mountain – Somehow, by fusing elements of his best tendencies with Bright Eyes and his solo bands, Oberst came up with an undeniable masterpiece. An absolutely critical addition to the Oberst canon.
25.                         Jack White, Lazaretto – Of course White annoys you, he annoys everyone. But give him credit for leaping beyond his first solo album to provide an album full of well-written songs to spotlight the fine studio musicians he’s put together.
26.                         Swans, To Be Kind – It seems like everything Michael Gira has released of late has been a two-disc epic work well in excess of an hour. He wanted the new one to be a special kind of epic, and got help from St. Vicent, but after last year’s three-disc The Seer with backing vocals from Karen O. and Low, Swans albums are getting to be downright exhausting.
27.                         Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witnesses – Both of Olsen’s full-length studio works to date show lyrical talent, relentless rocking, and a sensibility beyond typical singer-songwriters, though her work still lacks the coherency of someone like Sharon Van Etten. Definitely one of the year’s more important releases, however.
28.                         Scott Walker and Sunn O)))), Soused – Walker has been looking for a slightly more traditional sound to back his strange lyrics and vocal stylings, and Sunn O)))) has been engaged in several odd collaborations of their own this year. What better treat than to have the two get together for a haunted and spooky work released a few days before Halloween?
29.                         TV on the Radio, Seeds – The Brooklyn R&D oddballs had seemed to be melancholic and low on energy since the death of bassist Gerard Smith, but they have re-committed themselves with this high-energy work of hope and joy. Virtually every song is a keeper, which couldn’t be said of the last album.
30.                         Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems – Cohen is embracing his gruff, lost voice and his 80th birthday, steering himself to sardonic and sometimes apocalyptic works in the style of Tom Waits. Maybe his best work since The Future.
31.                         Jenny Lewis, Voyager – Now that Lewis has returned to her southern California home, we shouldn’t expect lyrics with the complexity and introspection of some of her best Rilo Kiley work. But what we should expect is some of the toughest and best-informed jangly pop in the business, and we get it.
32.                         The Black Keys, Turn Blue – While maybe not displaying the energy of El Camino, BKs responded to their exploding fan base by trying for a bitter, dark blues-rock album. The experiment works to a great extent, giving us BKs’ equivalent of Tonight’s the Night or Nebraska.
33.                         Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone – A powerful two-disc work dedicated to her father, this one has Williams spouting fire and brimstone about the world at large, which is more fun to listen to than when she is in one of her world-weary moods.
34.                         Air Dubai, Be Calm – Denver’s own R&B/rock fusion band finally gets a proper commercial studio release and succeeds big time, coming across like a Sly & The Family Stone for the 21st century.
35.                         Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines – It’s a shame there were so many great works moving ahead of Tori this year, as this is her strongest work since American Doll Posse, full of wry songs about turning 50.
36.                         Ex Hex, Rips – At last, Mary Timony comes fully into her own! After some great work with Helium, solo outings, and Wild Flag, Timony watched her former Wild Flag partners leave to re-form Sleater-Kinney. That’s OK, she brought two women into the studio with Mitch Easter and made a stunning debut of her own. The S-K reunion will get strong competition from a trio that sounds like a middle-aged Runaways.
37.                         The Pixies, Indy Cindy – Seeing as how this is collected material from three insanely-limited EPs, and seeing as how Frank Black is a jerk, it’s surprising how good this new “album” sounds. Some might disqualify it for its compiled nature, but Indy Cindy is a rocker deserving of notice.
38.                         Rosanne Cash, The River & The Thread – All too often, an accomplished musician who goes into the studio to create a definitive masterpiece stumbles and falls. But every now and then, the artist gets it right. Every song on this one sizzles. Bonus Edition Handicap: Let’s face it, this album is incomplete without “Two Girls,” “Biloxi,” and “Your Southern Heart.”
39.                         tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack – Merrill Garbus is one of the few musicians smart enough to weave together equal parts of Laurie Anderson and D’Cuckoo in her live shows. People often complain that the studio albums don’t bring all of Garbus’s live experience to bear, but anything that can give us “Water Fountain” is OK in my book.
40.                         Passenger Peru, s/t – This new band grabs influences from a variety of eras and styles, and fuses them together far more effectively than someone like War On Drugs.
41.                        Peter Hammill and Gary Lucas, Otherworld – 2014 was a great year for unexpected collaborations – Brian Eno & Karl Hyde, Tom Carter & Pat Murano – and who ever expected Hammill to offer up a duo album with Gary Lucas of Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley fame? Experimental as both artists would have you believe, yet more listenable than most improvisational music.
42.                         Astral Social Club, Fountain Transmitter Medications – Anyone who has yet to be convinced that Neil Campbell is the next John Cage or Philip Glass, might want to start with this. Campbell has given us great solo work and a ton of albums with Vibracathedral Orchestra, but his last few years have been spent with ASC, who started out as a drone collective but moved to a beat-oriented noise group. This LP-plus-CD gives us 110 minutes of new and very diverse ASC works.
43.                         FKA Twigs, LP1 – Many people ranked this in their Top 10, and this new British singer is quite unique, but the album has an ethereal quality, not unlike Liz Harris/Grouper, that makes it more of a dream state than an album in which individual tracks can be ranked and rated. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
44.                         Counting Crows, Somewhere Under Wonderland – Some may be surprised, even offended, that Adam Duritz could rank in the Top 50, but this album was surprisingly good and different from any other Counting Crows work, bringing in elements of what might even be called scat jazz. Stop laughing.
45.                        Tennis, Ritual in Repeat – This Denver band has come a long way since the mediocre Cape Dory, and Alaina Moore writes some dynamite songs these days, with husband Patrick Riley providing beautiful arrangements.
46.                         Sky Ferreira, Night Time My Time – As I mentioned in last year’s list, this album was held until 2014 because it was not easily commercially available until January 2014. It was worth the wait. She may play a “poor punky perverted waif” game, but she writes and arranges great songs. This year, she had stronger competition from artists ranging from Taylor Swift to Charli XCX, but this still stands out. Bonus Edition Handicap: Several expanded editions of this album exist, I vote for the double-disc CD with the “Ghost” EP as your best entertainment value.
47.                         Marissa Nadler, July – Probably Nadler’s most dutifully crafted and perfectly executed work. For someone who came up from the breathy folk underground, Nadler has blossomed into a folk-rock singer who really knows how to declare herself.
48.                         Deerhoof, La Isla Bonita – It’s hard to maintain utterly weird over the course of nearly 20 years, but Deerhoof is back and at their tightest and wildest, even though the members are scattered over multiple cities. One of the best Deerhoof albums to date.
49.                         Imogen Heap, Sparks – Heap went all out in studio effects and fan involvement with this album, recording portions on high plains in China and train stations at lonely outposts. But she strived too hard to make it a masterpiece, and the album lacks the direct intimacy of Ellipse. Bonus Edition Handicap: The double-disc edition with instrumental CD gives you insight into her song development, if you’re into that kind of thing.
50.                         Dillon, The Unknown – There are times I want to rank this unusual vocalist ahead of the likes of Angel Olsen. Ethereal at times, but more hard-hitting than the gauzy vocalist types, this album is a one-of-a-kind odd gem.
51.                         Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything – Over the course of a decade, Mt. Zion has emerged as the most coherent spinoff project of Godspeed You Black Emperor, and on this album, Efrim Minuck gets wonderfully specific with his musical arrangements and political targets.
52.                         D’Angelo and The Vanguard, Black Messiah – Several critics had this album up near the top, due to the brilliant political statements linking Ferguson protests to Occupy and the Arab Spring. We should thank D’Angelo for his political savvy, and for his return after a 14-year absence with arrangements that meld Prince stylings with murky modernist space-jazz. Maybe the latter is part of the problem. If you’re going to be socially strident, you want the music to demand attention, whereas this is chill jazz linked with political marching orders, a bit of a mismatch.
53.                         Elisa Ambrogio, The Immoralist – The Magik Markers’ wild and mysterious guitarist graces us with her first solo album, and it’s surprisingly melodic and ethereal. Some might find that prospect frightening, but it’s nice that you can play Elisa among friends and not clear the room.
54.                         Guided by Voices, Cool Planet – Who knew in advance this would be GbV’s farewell album (for a second or third time)? Many fans like Motivational Jumpsuit better, but I find the second 2014 album to be superior, for reasons hard to pin down.
55.                         Melissa Aldana, Crash Trio – Yikes, a gorgeous South American woman has emerged from nowhere to take the skronk saxophone crown away from Roscoe Mitchell and Ornette Coleman. This album opts for more tunes than free jazz, but indicates just what a treasure Aldana is.
56.                         Smoke Fairies, s/t – This British blues-folk duo developed a fan base through a consistent sound over three albums, but took a chance on their fourth to add a certain strange electronica to their music. A step ahead for two women who deserve a far larger fan base.
57.                         Neil Young, Storytone – Neil put his all into a strong political and emotional work that talks about his efforts on environmental campaigns, the breakdown of his marriage, and his new relationship with Daryl Hannah. He released this album as a two-disc set, with an odd difference: Even though he created fully-orchestrated versions of these songs, the primary disc is the solo acoustic one, while the richer-engineered songs are on Disc 2. That makes sense. Neil is always at his best in acoustic minimalist mode.
58.                         Doug Gillard, Parade On – Gillard mixes that familiar Gem-era sound with a crispness that resembles Johnny Marr at times, and ends up ranking higher than Marr’s second album. Bravo.
59.                         Liars, Mess – A shame this new danceable Liars work fell this low, as it really is a fun effort. It lacks the self-importance of WIXIW, and opts instead for the kind of silliness their compatriots in Black Dice love. Recommended for downtown weird-rock fans.
60.                         Grouper, Ruins – Many Liz Harris fans have this in the Top Ten, and the minimalist voice and piano on this release make it my favorite Grouper work. Still, Liz has this way of being ultra-ethereal and surrounding everything with gauze, which makes it more of a mood background piece.
61.                         Mogwai, Rave Tapes – A solid and substantive work for Mogwai, though one that must stand up against the majestic masterpieces they’ve offered recently. Regardless, this is Mogwai, so it’s essential.
62.                         Lykke Li, I Never Learn – If you’ve never gotten the appeal of Scandinavian pop star Lykke Li before, here’s one that should turn many into a believer. A solid, dark, troubled, but danceable work.
63.                         J. Cole, 2014 Forest Hills Drive – Cole set out to make a hip-hop masterpiece, and the strings and quality of arrangement make this album work. He shows something that many hip-hop artists avoid – vulnerability – but he still makes a nod to club culture at its least interesting. Nevertheless, tracks like “Fire Squad” will be classics.
64.                          Kaiser Chiefs, Education, Education, Education, and War – After everyone in the U.K. started hating the band for various sellout schemes and personal problems, Kaiser Chiefs suddenly came up with a concept album about World War 1 and war in general that is really, really good. What a surprise.
65.                         Spoon, They Want My Soul – Britt Daniels went to great lengths to make this a tight, direct, almost soulful album, and to a large extent succeeded. Some people have this in their Top Ten, and it is one of Spoon’s finest works, but hey, it’s a tough year.
66.                         Charli XCX, Sucker – When this British pop diva started fooling around with Iggy Azalea and others, it was obvious she had some substance behind her, but it was a surprise to have her release an album at year’s end that sounded like the unholy alliance of Sleigh Bells and Miley Cyrus. Nice stuff.
67.                         Johnny Winter, Step Back – It’s sort of eerie how the guest musicians and choice blues standards suggested a farewell album, recorded just a couple months before his unexpected summer death. An epic way to leave this world.
68.                         Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence – An album in which Lana falls more directly and sullenly into a dark Marilyn Monroe vision, which makes this perfectly executed, but also self-limiting. Then again, would we want her to insert a bright poppy item into this album?
69.                         Perfect Pussy, Say Yes to Love – Some folks insist PP is the perfect reincarnation of Harry Pussy, and the scream thrash noise is certainly there, but there doesn’t seem to be as much substance as any of the other new art punks like Le Butcherettes or Savages bring to the table.
70.                         Sylvan Esso, s/t – It’s hard to pigeonhole the throbbing and occasionally dark dance sounds of this duo, but it is absolutely captivating.
71.                         Black Bananas, Electric Brick Wall – Jennifer and Neal will go to great lengths to tell you this is not Royal Trux under another name, and the beats behind BB are certainly different. But the sludge psychedelia certainly indicates that the reigning royalty of stoner otherworldliness are at it again.
72.                        Iggy Azalea, The New Classic – Proof that other nations have wiser and better-arranged hip-hop than we do is the existence of this Australian piece of mixing wonder, as compared to our own Nicki Minaj, who doesn’t make my list this year because she just annoys me (sorry, Skylar Grey, you do wonders for Nicki, but why not go work with Iggy?).
73.                         The Both, s/t – Ted Leo and Aimee Mann make a great pairing on both a personal and professional front. There are some who say the power of two is not as great as either artist working solo. I disagree.  There are some great songs on this duo album.
74.                         Thurston Moore, The Best Day – There’s a reason Moore uses nostalgic photos of perfect 1940s romance as the album art. This solo outing melds the best tendencies of Sonic Youth and Moore’s solo work, and is full of tracks worth multiple listens.
75.                         Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, s/t – This married couple of banjo virtuosos are long overdue to offer their wedding album. Bela is the bluegrass traditionalist, while Abigail is the free-jazz and oriental chord specialist, and together they make whoopee.
76.                         Xiu Xiu, Angel Guts: The Red Classroom – Jamie wanted Xiu Xiu to go out with a bang, and made this the most difficult and scary album in the catalog. Unfortunately, in a year that also saw the release of Xiu Xiu singing spirituals, Xiu Xiu singing Nina Simone, and a Xiu Xiu expanded “Best of” remastered edition, an album of amplified darkness just didn’t come off as the best of the multiple Xiu Xiu farewells.
77.                         Mac De Marco, Salad Days/Salad Days Demos – Listing this as one, since some of the songs from the separate demos release are superior to the main studio album. Mac has a Modern Lovers/Steely Dan style that can be endearing or annoying, and he wouldn’t want to sacrifice one for the other. I bet once I got used to this, I’d rank it higher.
78.                         Ariel Pink, pom pom – And speaking of equal doses of endearing and annoying, Pink can be even more insufferable in a solo album than with Haunted Graffiti. But the thing is, his work can meld elements of Beatles and Mothers of Invention. This album is great fun.
79.                         Ashley Paul, Heat Source – Now that Leslie Keffer and Inca Ore have gone strangely silent, while Marcia Bassett seriously cuts back her output, Paul stands as the best hope for experimental noise-music among young women. Her work is intriguing, which is a good thing, as she has big shoes to fill.
80.                         The Notwist, Close to the Glass – At last Munich’s Notwist comes back to grace us with a new work, and this one moves more to minimalist electronica while retaining the danceability. Marvelous tunes on this one.
81.                         The Hold Steady, Teeth Dreams – Like Black Keys, The Hold Steady elected to go dark and sullen on this new album, and the sound fits them better than the Springsteen-esque anthems. There’s no real reason for this album being so much lower than Black Keys’ latest, as it’s actually quite good.
82.                         Owl John, s/t – Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison goes solo and comes out with a work that is often as good as the best Frightened Rabbit. “Los Angeles, Be Kind” is an especially worthy track.
83.                         I Love You, But I’ve Chosen Darkness, Dust – Austin’s band with the best name in history vanished after 2006, and suddenly reappeared with a stunning album sounding a little bit Joy Division, a little bit Polvo, a little bit Bauhaus. Cheers.
84.                         Hospitality, Trouble – Amber Papini was almost falling into a Belle & Sebastian twee mode, but added darker elements to the Hospitality sound with great results. Notice how there’s a bunch of bummer albums that came out in 2014? This is a good thing.
85.                         Blonde Redhead, Barragan – They’re not back to sounding like a European Sonic Youth, but at least Blonde Redhead have recovered from the awful pop of Penny Sparkle. There’s still hope.
86.                        Got A Girl, I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now – A few fans of Dan the Automator swear that this is the best studio album this year, and I love the vocal work he gets from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but it’s a work intended for spy movies. Great if you’re a fan of Morricone and James Bond flicks, maybe a bit limiting otherwise.
87.                         Robert Plant, lullaby and the ceaseless roar – This might be Plant’s most diverse and complex work, melding traditionalist folk and African polyrhythms.
88.                         Suzanne Vega, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles – Sorry this was low, Suzanne, it’s good to have you purge the bitterness of the last decade and be busy writing worthy and unusual tunes again. Maybe the Tarot references were a bit heavy, but still….
89.                         Thompsons, Family – One might not be able to expect the best Richard, Linda, or Teddy Thompson material ever in this family-affair disc – and the songs are far from throwaway -- but the mere fact that Richard and Linda and the kids are back in one studio performing is plenty of reason to rejoice.
90.                         Manchester Orchestra, Hope – This band always had to balance its folky and hard-rock tendencies, and when the new album Cope came out in the spring (see below), it felt like a bow to arena-rock that led to sludgy, indistinguishable tunes. The announcement that an acoustic version would follow at year’s end sounded like a backhanded admission that a mistake had been made. What is surprising is that Hope makes one realize what a fine batch of new tunes Manchester Orchestra had. Sometimes arrangements and engineering can make all the difference in the world.
91.                         Cloud Nothings, Here and Nowhere Else – A fine enough work by this art-punk band, but one that does not seem to have a clear focus. A fun listen, nonetheless.
92.                         Warpaint, s/t – Finally starting to grasp what these precise and vibrant women artists are doing, sort of an informed version of Don Caballero or Mogwai.  In any event, it’s good.
93.                         The War On Drugs, Lost In Dreams – Unlike Mark Kozelek, I don’t despise War On Drugs and demand that they do lewd things. On the other hand, I can’t justify placing them in a top 10 or 20 as many would do, because the 1970s references are a little too obvious. Some of the psychedelic interludes are great, some boring, but do we need an album that sounds largely like Dire Straits?
94.                         Fucked Up, Glass Boys – A decent album from the Canadian growler band, but it would have been difficult in the best of circumstances to follow up a classic like their David Comes to Life. Bonus Edition Handicap: You could get both copies of this album released at two different speeds, but the purpose of the slower version seems unclear to these ears.
95.                         Joseph Airport, Stronger and Better – A GbV-related Rockathon project from Matthew Cutter and friends that ends up being superior to any Pollard effort this year save Cool Planet. Weird but essential in its own way.
96.                         Jackson Browne, Standing in the Breach – Browne could have been in danger of being a parody of himself at various periods in life, but took the time to make this a political album, a self-disclosing album, and a humble album, all at the same time.
97.                         The Fray, Helios – In some circles, The Fray have gotten to be parodies of themselves, but this is a well-crafted work, and the most worthy since their first, and possibly the best album they’ve ever released.
98.                         Interpol, El Pintor – Again, Interpol has attracted its share of former fans who thought the band stuck around too long, but this album brings back some of the energy of the first two albums.
99.                         Guided by Voices, Motivational Jumpsuit – Why was this album so popular with GbV fans, while its follow-on Cool Planet was ignored? Damned if I know, but damned if I can tell you why I liked Cool Planet so much better. It’s a gut thing.
100.                   Chrissie Hynde, Stockholm – It’s far better for Chrissie to release a solo album under her name than to pretend to do another Pretenders album that is really just Chrissie with studio musicians.  This one has at least four or five keepers in the batch.
101.                    We Were Promised Jetpacks, Unraveling – Jetpacks tries for that sad Scottish sound pioneered by Arab Strap and honed by Frightened Rabbit, and it is starting to get it right on this third album.
102.                    Tweedy, Sukierae – The obvious assumption was that if Jeff Tweedy got together with his son on drums and recorded a two-disc set of new material, there had to be some arrogant excess going on. Surprisingly, this sounds like a middling Wilco album, which means it’s pretty damned good.
103.                    A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Sea When Absent – This geographically dispersed band cooks up concept albums that fit between Dirty Projectors and Oneida. A little strange to figure out properly, but certainly offering a better focus than someone like Foxygen.
104.                    Cymbals Eat Guitars, Lose – A fascinating and complex band with exquisite guitar work that probably deserves higher ranking, but I’m still trying to find their center of gravity.
105.                   Kimbra, The Golden Echo – I’m a big proponent of the Kiwi sparkling diva, but Kimbra tried to do too much in this album, and it overwhelms the listener. Nevertheless, there’s no denying the talent in arrangement, singing, lyricism, anything.
106.                    Ensemble Economique, Melt Into Nothing – Some people consider Brian Pyle the leader of the next phase of ambient music, and I have no basic disagreement with that. The problem is that I miss Starving Weirdos too much, and now that Pyle is putting all his energy into EE, it’s apparent SW might not come back.
107.                   Tom Petty, Hypnotic Eye – For this album and the last, Petty has offered up fresh, exciting material that makes critics say “The old Petty is back.” Why so low then? Maybe because the geezer has to compete with so many new whippersnappers.
108.                   Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Give the People What They Want – Following recuperation from cancer, Sharon comes back with a vibrant, exciting set that may be her most focused and strident yet.
109.                   Ronnie Fauss, Built to Break – Only just learned how this Austin shitkicker is trying to revive the spirit of Joe Ely and Steve Earle all rolled into one. Maybe not as gripping as his last album, the new one still offers some unforgettable tunes.
110.                   Julian Casablancas and the Voidz, Tyranny – The worst Julian could have done was to try and make a Strokes-Lite album with his new band. Instead, this is a weird-as-hell ensemble, not unlike The Residents.
111.                   Johnny Marr, Playland – Johnny came close to #1 last year with his first true solo work, but maybe he came back with a second round too quickly. A worthy album, but the punch doesn’t match that of the last album.
112.                   Bob Mould, Beauty and Ruin – Many long-time Mould and Husker Du fans want to love this, as a confessional for Bob as he comes out sexually and confronts his political and social demons. All true, though it was hard to get a sense of why that was compelling.
113.                   Phantogram, Voices – I actually like these folks more than most ethereal pop duos, and this one had a touch of sadness and terror in it, which put it above the high-water mark.
114.                   U2, Songs of Innocence – Look, let’s not gang up on Bono merely for offering this album free on iTunes. Yes, it can be mediocre at times, but it has some moments of greatness, and it is not the worst album U2 ever released. Then again, it ain’t a Top Ten contender, no matter what Rolling Stone may say.
115.                   Vacant Lots, Departure – Many people consider this duo the future of psychedelia. I consider them more interesting than Ty Segall and many of his side bands, but that’s a matter of damning with faint praise.
116.                   Afghan Whigs, Do to the Beast – This is not a worthless Greg Dulli effort.  It has many great tunes on it. Still, Dulli has not decided where he wants to go with AW, and this album is like a sampler of directions the band might head in.
117.                   Brian Eno & Karl Hyde, High Life – This was mostly a suite of outtakes from Someday World. It’s worth owning for a comprehensive suite of the Eno/Hyde sessions, but nowhere near the original in impact.
118.                   Dum Dum Girls, Too True – Recent outings have shown that Dee Dee is capable of crafting the perfect pop song. Some held out hope that this would be the quintessential DDG album, but it’s more an act of treading water.
119.                   Aaron Despised, Scopes Monkey Trial – Aaron G. provides some intriguing and wise lyrics melding a little science in with the heartache. Great potential here.
120.                   Tom Carter, Numinal Entry – The only reason this falls relatively low is because it’s a normal, mellow Carter work in comparison with his collaboration with Pat Murano and his split LP with Jackie-O.  Still worth several listens.
121.                   Stephen Malkmus, Wigout at Jagbag’s – A shame to put this one low, as Malkmus has cast aside his snarkiness and given us a nostalgic review of progressive music from the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  A work of love from a music lover.
122.                   Swearing at Motorists, While Laughing, the Joker Tells the Truth – Hey, even it’s a little rough around the edges, Dave Doughman is back, which is a cause for celebration.
123.                   Horse Feathers, So It Is With Us – Horse Feathers are somewhat like Newfoundland’s The Once in dwelling near the edge of too much sincerity, but I’m beginning to think there’s nothing wrong with that.
124.                   Karmin, Pulses – There are those who are pissed off with this white suburban couple providing polished hip-hop, but it works well enough to deserve a listen.
125.                   Wovenhand, Refractory Obdurate – This Denver folk/psychedelia band is hard to pin down, but this carefully engineered and mysterious album holds up across repeated listens.
126.                   First Aid Kit, Stay Gold – These Swedish woman always are fascinating, but the last album had a little more guts, while this one might have slightly too much hippie.
127.                   Pink Mountaintops, Get Back – Stephen McBean of Black Mountain is back with his wild and sarcastic PM band again, always interesting but always inscrutable.
128.                   Mark Lanegan Band, Phantom Radio – The last time Mark was around with his full band, the Blues Funeral album scored very high on my list. This album was more cowboy lonesome, but couldn’t hold my interest as well.
129.                   Ani DiFranco, Allergic to Water – Ani knows she’s stuck in middle-class connubial bliss these days, and even writes songs alluding to being happy most of the time. She tries for some very interesting arrangements and rhythms to spice things up, but it still ain’t the guitar-thumpin’ lesbian bitch of yore.
130.                   Hey Rosetta, Second Sight – What may be Canada’s best band just keeps turning out consistently interesting music, with very few instances of repeating themselves.
131.                   Foo Fighters, Sonic Highways – I like David Grohl a lot, but even when he’s making music for a TV series, with a different song written in every town, Foo Fighters music all sounds alike after a while.
132.                   Low Fat Getting High, s/t – Another punky Brooklyn band is out to save our souls, but in this case, Michael Sincavage has a high-energy voice that resembles Dave Grohl’s, giving LFGH a sincerity lacking in many growlier punk bands.
133.                   Off!, Wasted Years – I don’t have Off! as high as other punk bands, simply because some of their efforts seem contrived. Still, a worthy effort.
134.                   White Lung, Deep Fantasy – Great to see the rise of new women’s punk bands with this much energy, though it doesn’t reach as far as Ex Hex or Le Butcherettes.
135.                   Wye Oak, Shriek – I love Jenn Wasner to death, and really wanted to like her new move into synthesizers, but damnit, I miss the guitar-driven Wye Oak of old!
136.                   Edith Makes a Paper Chain, There There There – A shame that new talent Miette will be heading off to a music scholarship, but at least we have the chronicles for each phase of the always-shifting Edith.
137.                   Hamilton Leithauser, Black Hours – Everything about the packaging and structure of this album suggests that the lead singer of The Walkmen wanted to make an album that recalled the best 1940s and 1950s moody solo work. It doesn’t always translate that way, but remains a helluva lot more interesting than Sam Smith.
138.                   Chris Forsyth, Intensity Ghost – Some great improvisational guitar work, potentially bringing Chris up to the Jack Rose/Tom Carter level.
139.                   Beck, Morning Phase – The first time Beck attempted an album of ballads, Sea Change, there was plenty of sincerity and novelty. It’s been ten years and time for another ballads album, but this one didn’t hold the sincerity for me.
140.                   The Roots, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin – It’s always fun to see where Jimmy Fallon’s favorite house band goes next, but at least they’re not becoming too mainstream. This one is a downright weird album, veering from 1940s lifted sounds to strange stories of death on the streets.
141.                   The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Days of Abandon – Kip Berman’s progressed enough in his sound to make Pains less twee, but live shows suffer from no Jen Goma, who carries this studio album. Pains has some great tunes, a more consistent touring band would help.
142.                   Raveonettes, Pe’ahi – With this many studio albums under their belt as a dark, percussion-driven duo, you have to credit Raveonettes with at least trying for a richer and stranger sound this time out.
143.                   … And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, IX – Trail of Dead always tries to meld various types of Yes, Mars Volta, and Tool prog-rock, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so. The band has established an imaginary sci-fi historic world rich with anime, and it’s always fun to go visiting, but the ninth album has fewer new ideas.
144.                   Natalie Merchant, s/t – At least her voice is not gone, albeit deeper, and she’s writing about adult themes again. Several of these songs have substance, but also have predictable trajectories.
145.                   Owls, Two – It took Tim Kinsella a decade to make a second Owls album, but it’s still hard to figure out what this band’s center of gravity is.  I think I like it.
146.                   Chad Van Gaelen, Shrink Dust – You have to hand it to Chad in being akin to Jandek or Daniel Johnston, never compromising a weird sensibility and songwriting style. This album is deliciously strange.
147.                   Ty Segall, Manipulator – OK, OK, I like this, but still have my doubts about a lot of Ty’s work. Give me time.
148.                   Odonis Odonis, Hard Boiled Soft Boiled – A Toronto band that melds the strangest brew of punk, industrial, and surf rock that you’re ever going to hear. An acquired taste, but yummy.
149.                   White Fence, For the Recently Found Innocent – Somehow, I find I can like Ty Segall’s work when it is within groups like WF or Sic Alps.  This one certainly merits a listen.
150.                   Sunn O)))) and Ulver, Terrestrials – A surprisingly soft and structured album from two purveyors of metal noise. Unexpected.
151.                   Wytches, Anabel Dream Reader – Some folks swear by these odd punk rockers.  Maybe a bit immature right now, but Wytches will be worth watching.
152.                   Prince, Art Official Age
153.                   Prince and 3rdeyegirl, Plectrumelectrum – Prince celebrates his return to Warners with two distinctly different and fairly interesting albums, but it’s clear Prince is mostly repeating himself these days, when he’s not mimicking everyone else.
154.                   Volcanoes, Future Sorority Girls of America – Another fun-loving punky crew with a lot of noise in the mix, providing hope for a new generation of crazy rock out there.
155.                   Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music – So the alt-country world went gaga over this guy because he comes from a traditionalist background and talks about doing drugs. Waylon Jennings et al did that years ago. Fact is, the songs on this album aren’t all that ground-breaking or startling – it’s OK country, nothing more.
156.                   Sisyphus, s/t – Sufjan Stevens’ latest project is a three-man hip-hop ensemble, but it doesn’t take Sufjan’s efforts that far forward.
157.                   Robert Pollard and Teenage Guitar, More Lies from the Gooseberry Bush – Not as much diverse efforts as the last Teenage Guitar, and more borderline songs.
158.                   Casper & The Cookies, Dingbats – When Casper & The Cookies are on point, the Athens, GA band are as amazing as any experimental group out there.  At other times, as with this album, they simply sound too normal.
159.                   Cherry Glazerr, Haxel Princess – CG is comprised of punk-rock princesses all in their teens, but they ain’t The Runaways. Still a little amateurish, but fun to hear.
160.                   Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Only Run – Poor Alec Ounsworth always gets picked on for being the great hope of indy rock and then blowing it. It’s hard to call this album a return to great form, but it’s certainly better than Clap Your Hands’ more recent work.
161.                   Lily Allen, Shezus – I loved this British surly bitch so much, but she started believing in a Katy Perry/Miley Cyrus world, and became a mom at the same time. Consequently, Shezus is filled with silly party songs that lead us mostly nowhere.
162.                   The Kooks, Listen – At least they make no bones about playing pure pop for now people. As long as I’m including Kooks, I’m tempted to include Maroon 5 in the list, because at the end of the day, I bash both but hum their tunes.
163.                   Circus Devils, Escape – Last year, two Circus Devils albums were released simultaneously that had some of the most experimental and ambitious pop music out there.  This year, the Pollard/Tobias Circus Devils outing is all ballads, and not that exciting.  It’s hard to understand what constitutes a Circus Devil.
164.                   The Gaslight Anthem, Get Hurt – Brian Fallon always gets knocked for trying to bring too much of a Springsteen or Mellencamp sound into his music. This was going to be the sincere and sad album. In some ways it succeeded, but Fallon still tries too hard.
165.                   Foxygen, And Star Power – This duo is manic, and often rivals Todd Rundgren of the Wizard/True Star era for complexity, but they suffer from extreme ADHD.  Too many unfinished ideas shooting around.
166.                   Marketa Irglova, MUNA – Look, I want to cheer for the Czech waif from Swell Season and Once, but she’s really got to lose a little of the hippie mysticism.
167.                   Real Estate, Atlas – Why oh why do people go so bonkers over Brooklyn’s Real Estate? They have carved out a 21st-century remake of 1970s Southern California soft rock. So what?
168.                   Eels, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett – In which Mark remains stuck in his “poor me” laments.  Gawd, he can be talented when he wants to be, but Gawd, does he need to get out of self-pity.
169.                   Justin Townes Earle, Single Mothers – JT’s got to work twice as hard to live up to his dad’s legacy, let alone the whole Earle clan of Stacey, Emily, etc. This sort-of-concept album fell flat, however.  A companion album is due in January, dedicated to Absent Fathers, but my expectations aren’t high.
170.                   Fanfarlo, Let’s Go Extinct – Here’s the danger of concept albums: you can be a band like Fanfarlo and come out with two focused exceptional albums, then reach for an album-long concept on environmental devastation and come up with a poorly-executed disappointment.
171.                   Manchester Orchestra, Cope – Manchester Orchestra’s stab at a total hard-rock album fell flat, and it’s hard to believe these songs are the same ones as on Hope.
172.                   Coldplay, Ghost Stories – We were promised sincere stories about Chris’s breakup with Gwyneth Paltrow, when what we really get is the flattest Coldplay album since the band was formed.
173.                   Generationals, Alix – Here’s a band like Lumineers whose popularity I largely don’t get.
174.                   Foster the People, Supermodel – Only kept on the list because they’re occasionally fun.
175.                   Karen O, Crush Songs – OK, Karen, lo-fi we can get, and sweet goofy songs are OK, but did you really think this 28-minute knockoff would get anywhere? It might work for Kimya Dawson, not so much for the woman who gave us Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
176.                   Pink Floyd, Endless River – This only stays on the list in deference to David Gilmour. Scarcely a Pink Floyd album, scarcely much of anything, and scarcely worth your time.

NOTE: I elected not to include the new albums from Weezer or Maroon 5 on this list, but if you want to indulge in guilty pleasures, really, I won’t laugh.



Special Albums (Live, Compilations, Splits, CD-Rs, MP3, etc.)

1.     Savages and Bo Ningen, Words to the Blind – A 37-minute single-track live recording that only aces out The Dead C due to its total audacity. Savages wanted to be the art-punk-feminist new political vanguard, but issued a pretty conventional album in 2013. Lo and behold, they release a dangerous EP in 2014, and this Dadaist experiment with Japanese poetry-noise band Bo Ningen, which raises Situationist art attacks to new heights.
2.     The Dead C, Live – The Twelfth Spectacle: Arena/Permanent LSD/This Century Sucks/Year of the Rat – New Zealand’s Dead C has graced the improvisational music world with more exceptional studio recordings than any band had a right to claim. Now the Grapefruit folks present with a four-LP set of Dead C live recordings. Stunning.
3.    Icepick, Hexane – A live recording on cassette of one of the most thrilling new jazz trios in years, featuring Chris Corsano on percussion. Essential.
4.     Fripp & Eno, Live in Paris May 28, 1975 – Quite a surprise to see a set this good only surface after nearly 40 years. This is the perfect blend of No Pussyfooting and Evening Star epochs. Since filtering could have removed the crowd noise, it seems apparent that Fripp and Eno wanted to keep this in. The audience in St. Etienne on this tour booed and walked out, so maybe the message is that apparently enlightened audiences from any era can act just as idiotic as the audiences that booed the electric Dylan. (Hey, wait, didn’t Neil Young get a lot of boos during the Living With War tour? Case closed.)
5.      OctaGrape/Trumans Water/Permanent Makeup, Lotions & Creams – Former Trumans Water vocalist Glen Galloway has been garnering plenty of attention for his vibrant new band Octagrape. Multiple accolades to Galloway this year for helping to pull together his Trumans cohorts for a brief U.S. tour, and for getting both bands, along with tour mates Permanent Makeup, to offer new studio songs in a special tour-only tape. A universe in which Trumans Water exists in any form is a far richer universe.
6.     Xiu Xiu, There is No Right, There is No Wrong – Xiu Xiu released two special albums on Record Store Day to mark the alleged death of Xiu Xiu. This massive two-LP-plus-CD set has remastered versions of all the best Xiu Xiu songs, and a CD of rarities and unreleased work that includes some great vocals from Caralee McElroy. A must for Xiu Xiu fans.
7.     Antony & The Johnsons, Turning – What, another live Antony Hegarty album? Well, this one is more intimate, with a smaller string ensemble than Cut the World, and it also includes a DVD of a film by Charles Atlas, which is a manifesto and documentary on Antony’s inscrutable ideas on transgenderism and linguistics. Don’t try to understand it all, just absorb.
8.     Tom Carter and Jackie-O Motherfucker, Split Hopland – Both sides on this odd little LP are essential. Tom Carter provides one of his best live sets with Helena Espvall, while Jackie-O returns to free jazz with a brass and woodwinds ensemble featuring Lemon Bear. Exceptional.
9.     Anais Mitchell, xoa – Shortly after having her baby, Anais went into the studio with Gary Paczosa to record new versions of 15 songs, some from previous albums, some unreleased. The result is transcendent. It’s hard to make it through a beautiful song like “Out of Pawn” with a dry eye
10.   Vibracathedral Orchestra, REC-REH 13 – Even if Bridget Hayden tweets on occasion, “What was I thinking, getting back with these mad dogs?”, the return of VCO is a cause for intense celebration. The release of this CDR just before the group’s British gigs in February 2014 made us realize how much we missed in VCO’s absence.
11.   Mark Kozelek, Live at Biko – This almost serves as a live chronicle of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, along with other assorted songs. And Kozelek gives us several deadpan jokes about aging, without getting to the annoying point he reached in the notorious “War On Drugs Can Suck My Dick” YouTube.
12.   Bob Dylan, Basement Tapes Raw/Complete – Even for those who owned the 1976 double-record version of the notorious Big Pink tapes, the two-CD version serves up bonus songs and alternate takes that make it worth the purchase. Bonus Edition Handicap: I suppose there are people that would want the six-disc edition of Basement Tapes. There are also people who collect every possible Grateful Dead performance. Doesn’t make it right.\
13.   New Basement Tapes, s/t – This effort was akin to what Nora Guthrie did with Wilco, Billy Bragg, Jay Farrar, and Jonatha Brooke, for reinterpretations of Woody Guthrie poems. T-Bone Burnett talked with Bob Dylan about some of the Basement Tapes-era material that was never recorded, then recruited such stalwarts as Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, and Jim James to turn them into songs. Nothing earth-shattering, but fun blues and ramblin’ tunes showing Dylan’s more humorous side.
14.   Jonatha Brooke, My Mother Has 4 Noses – Speaking of Jonatha Brooke, the woman never ceases to amaze. She wrote and performed in a one-woman play about her mother’s final two years of life in deteriorating health. Then she releases a companion soundtrack/studio CD. Heartbreaking, beautiful.
15.   Game Theory, Blaze of Glory – This is a re-release of a first album that almost no-one outside Sacramento or San Jose ever saw. It counts as more than a re-release because a download card is included with several unreleased Scott Miller/Game Theory tunes, a bargain if ever there was one.
16.   Xiu Xiu, Unclouded Sky – The second of the two Xiu Xiu Record Store Day releases, this one has Jamie performing stripped-down late-19th-century spirituals in Sigur Ros’s studio. Strange and beautiful.
17. Ought, Live at the Bowery, Oct. 14, 2014 – A first-class live set from the folks at NYCtaper, one capturing the band as it is bursting into fruition.
18.   Tindersticks, Ypres – A special instrumental installment piece that the band put together to commemorate the centennial of nerve gas attacks in Ypres, Belgium in WW1. Grim but breathtaking.
19l.  Death of Samantha, Live at Baby’s All Right, May 29, 2014 – Doug Gillard brought Death of Samantha back for a stunning reunion set in NYC last spring, and the NYCtaper files make for great listening.
20.  Whiskey Bitches, Live at CMJ, Oct. 23, 2014 – There are many great bootlegs out there documenting why Whiskey Bitches are one of the new NY “it” bands, but this one is the most vibrant.
21.  Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back – Finally, after putting out an album where he covers several artists, many of the artists return the favor. Bonus Edition Handicap: For those missing the original effort, the covers and covered are available as a 2-CD set.
22.   Bill Orcutt, VDSQ Vol. 10 – It’s hard to determine when Bill Orcutt is doing a special vs. a standard studio recording, but this special collection of Orcutt’s oddball interpretations of American classics is a curated classic worth hunting down.
23.  Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes – This is sort of Bruce’s Odds and Sods album, a collection of songs he’s always played but never committed to a proper album. There are some great moments here, to be sure, but it’s a hit and miss proposition.
24.   Peter Hammill, All That Might Have Been – Best interpreted in its 3-CD version, there are both songs and continuous tracking “cine-album” versions of his recent work. He treats the movie soundtrack as the primary vehicle, but it explains a lot to hear the source material of discrete songs.
25.   Richard Thompson, Acoustic Classics – In which Thompson enters a studio with a guitar and gives us the Unplugged version of his best songs.
26.   Alvarius B and Sir Richard Bishop, If You Don’t Like It, Don’t! – A special Record Store Day gatefold LP of one side of live Alvarius B, one side of live SRB, some of their best recent work.
27.  Bardo Pond, Shone Like a Ton – A proper vinyl edition of an almost impossible to find ancient cassette session.
28.  Flaming Lips, With a Little Help From My Fwends – Wayne set out to re-make Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with an all-star cast of thousands, but even though he provided some of the obligatory Flaming Lips noise, he never veered that far from the original. It gets better with repeated listens, but is not the kind of groundbreaker that FL’s cover of Dark Side of the Moon was.
29. Astral Social Club, Live in Antwerp – As if the sprawling Fountain Medication Transmissions wasn’t enough, Campbell provides us with a taste of a downloadable and wild ASC live show.
30.  Gram Parsons, Alternate Takes – A 2-LP collection of alternate takes from GP and Grievous Angel. While not an essential offering, it’s a special treat for fans.
31.   Kinks, Anthology 1964-71 – With all the Kinks compilation material out there, you’d think a five-disc set would be scraping the bottom of the barrel, but there’s actually a lot of good keeper material.
32.   Bardo Pond, Refulgio – A 2-LP set of single B-sides and oddities, largely from the 1990s, that have not had a decent release until now.
33.  Swearing at Motorists, An Intimate Evening at Hasenschaukel – One of the few informal live sets available of Dave Doughman since he’s settled down and become a dad, this one is endearing for its friendly silliness.
34.  Tuxedomoon, Pink Narcissus – The San Francisco legends come back for the first time in years to record a soundtrack to a 1971 cult film, a beautiful instrumental suite.
35. Vibracathedral Orchestra, Live at CafĂ© Oto, February 2014 – A beautiful chronicle of VCO’s return to the living, as droney and as unexpected as ever.
36.  Neil Young, A Letter Home – I appreciate what Neil was trying to do with Jack White here, record in a primitive sound booth a suite of popular standards as a gift to his dead parents. But this effort is so lo-fi it’s almost unlistenable. Hard to know why Young thought this was a good idea.

Singles and EPs




1.     Christina Carter, Character Study – The ethereal otherworld diva continues her evolution from guitar to spoken word with a combination chapbook and vinyl release featuring poetry as only Christina can convey it.
2.     Diane Cluck, Boneset – Some might say this should be disqualified as a reimagining of last year’s fall.tour.songs EP, but the new arrangements are so stellar, and the 10” vinyl such a physical pleasure to behold, that we’ll bend the rules a bit.
3.     Halsey, Room 93 – The slightly slutty mystery woman who’s a hybrid of Elle Goulding and Lana Del Rey issues her first EP in the physical form of a hotel key. Really, what else do you need to know?
4.     Octagrape, Major Mayor Maxion Marble – Glen Galloway and his mad San Diego ensemble dredge out four ultra-obscure cover tunes and give them the Octagrape style makeover.
5.     Lydia Loveless, Boy Crazy – As good as her last two albums, but containing songs on no album. Lydia just keeps smacking the balls right out of the stadium.
6.     St. Vincent, Pieta – Two songs that should have been on the most recent album, but make a nice little holiday season extra.
7.     Frightened Rabbit, Live at Criminal Records – The reason we never get tired of Frightened Rabbit live recordings is because Scott and company have developed such a reputation for fine sullenness.
8.     Liars, Mess On a Mission – Perhaps the visually coolest offering from the April Record Store Day, this single is printed in transparent vinyl with embedded colored yarn throughout. And yeah, the music is a great extension of Mess.
9.     Speedy Ortiz, Real Hair --  Right now, you’re either on the Speedy Ortiz circuit and must pick up everything they release, or you have yet to attain enlightenment.
10.                         Adam Clark, A Simple Equality – This British lyricist and song stylist brings together influences from all over the map and the decades, but emerges with songs that sound like no one else.
11.                         Esme Patterson, Woman to Woman – A concept EP about re-imagining famous tunes from the woman’s point of view, from the singer who brings the shake to Paper Bird, and to Shakey Graves as well.
12.                     Mogwai, Music Industry-3, Fitness Industry-1 – Mogwai has developed a reputation of issuing an EP or a remix album at the end of years in which the band releases major studio works. This year was no exception, with an EP that contained both new songs and remixes, intended as an augmentation of Rave Tapes.
13.      Neil Campbell/Michael Flower, Wharf Cat – Campbell and Flower love multimedia mixes in releases, and this new one combines a 7” record, a CD, and a hand-printed book of silkscreened paintings, probably reproduced using a letterpress or windmill press. Fancy.
14.      Jake Bugg, Live at Silver Platter – A brief set issued for Record Store Day, one to keep our appetites sated between albums.
15.      Ashley Paul, White Night – A cassette EP release, vastly different from her Heat Source album, yet wildly experimental all the same.
16.      Lydia Loveless, “Blind”/”Mile High”—Another exclusive single, another bit of perfection.
17.     Bardo Pond, Looking for Another Place – The second in a trilogy of 12” singles for Record Store Day, this one features extended covers of Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets” and Velvet Underground’s “Ride Into the Sun.” Intriguing.
18.     Savages, Fuckers/Dream Baby Dream – Someone who sets out to be as challenging as Savages may find that a single called “Fuckers” no longer shocks anyone, but it’s still an impressive EP.
19.     Ryan Adams, Vampires – Intended as the doppelganger to the self-titled album released in 2014, this EP is low-fi buzz punky stuff, which makes it more interesting than his second EP, listed below.
20.     Chvrches, Recover
21.    Chvrches, Under the Tide – Two fascinating 12” EPs to augment last year’s album, both worth owning for the remixes within.
22.     Haim, Forever – Fans of Haim’s first album were hoping this song would be placed on a 12” dance single, where it belonged. The wish came true.
23.      Dodos, Substance – Two songs from Carrier get re-imagined with help from Magik*Magik Orchestra.
24.      Cults, Upstairs at United – I love it that Nashville’s United studio is getting new life in special sessions, but after hearing three of the Upstairs series, I’m convinced that analog/analog/analog recording methods ain’t necessarily better than partial or full digital. It works well with Cults, however.
25.       Loamlands, Same Kind of Light – An interesting new band touring with Mountain Goats offer up their first recordings.
26.      The Notwist, Run Run Run – A nice 12” dance remix EP from the new album.
27.      Game Theory, Distortion
28.      Game Theory, Pointed Accounts of People You Know – Two impossible to find EPs from the 1980s by Scott Miller’s legendary band are given new life as 10” records.
29.      Arctic Monkeys, Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys? – While this may not be the finest EP/single Arctic Monkeys have ever produced, it gives us four solid songs in between album releases.
30.      Guided by Voices, Littlest League Possible
31.      Guided by Voices, Planet Score
32.      Guided by Voices, Alex and the Omegas
33.     Guided by Voices, Vote for Me, Dummy
34.      Guided by Voices, Save the Company – This may well be the last multi-single batch of GbV singles that ever come out, and it’s a good batch.  Don’t snooze.
35.       Devo, Gates of Steel – A fun and interesting Record Store Day project.
36.      Cage the Elephant, Take It Or Leave It – This band is growing into such an interesting and unique pop project, it’s exciting to see any single come out.
37.       Bardo Pond, Without a Doubt – A new 45 rpm 7” that almost got overlooked in all the Bardo Pond re-releases of 2014.
38.       Bis, Minimum Wage – The British “teentsy-pop” wonders of the late 1990s have returned as middle-agers, and they’re growing old gracefully.
39.       Low Fat Getting High, Poor Circulation – A spring 2014 teaser to the album that came out in November, establishing LFGH as Brooklyn’s finest punk band.
40.       Iggy Azalea, “Fancy” – Of course this needed to be listed along with the album, thanks to the presence of Charli XCX.
41.       Mogwai, “Tell Everybody I Love Them” – Along with the Music Industry EP, we got a non-album single to augment our Rave Tapes.
42.      The Decemberists, “Make You Better” – A teaser single for the new album due in January 2015.  Should be good, based on this.
43.       Ryan Adams, “Do You Laugh When You Lie?” – More an extension of the self-titled album than a lo-fi punk side project, but decent.
44.      Passenger Peru, “Light Places” – Another teaser for a 2015 album, this shows PP getting richer and more layered, should be a good year for them coming up.
45.     Conor Oberst, “Hundreds of Ways” – There were many great outtakes left off the exceptional 2014 solo album, here’s an example.
46.     Regina Spektor, “You’ve Got Time” – Our Russian chanteuse has been quiet of late, so here’s a little single to hold us off until the next go-round.