Top 10 Favorite Albums of 2014

1. The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams

In a year that contained some high highs, great successes were pulverized with bad news and crushing defeat at what seemed like every turn. The bad seemed relentless and the good was spotty at best. Not much felt worthy of celebration. Looking back at my favorite albums of this year, there was only one record that could have been in this spot.

Teeth Dreams is an imperfect record for an imperfect year. It’s an album that struggles with balance, negotiating the band’s past and its future, and that’s emblematic of my experience. I’ve found it to act as a sonic buoy in the wake of some pretty rough waters.

If you’ve stuck with The Hold Steady this late in their career, they’ve likely soundtracked a major part of your life. For those who got lost along the way, I think through their eyes, The Hold Steady has let them down. I feel that’s kind of unfortunate. 

That’s because they’re a band that so many can pinpoint to a specific time and feeling in their life and be ok with leaving them there. I suppose that can be applied to many bands that go in and out of your life. However, those are the same people that don’t realize that some of those groups don’t really fade out. Instead, they change course, get a little more complicated and grow in unexpected ways. 

I find myself coming back to “Spinners” on an almost daily basis. It’s fascinating – one of The Hold Steady’s most texturally aware songs – fraternal twin guitar parts, a shitkicking solo by Steve Selvidge and some killer, classic Craig Finn lines like these – “Heartbreak hurts, but you can dance it off.” It’s a song about the infinite possibility of a night out on the town – “Once you’re out there, everything is possible,” which is something universal, and if you think about it – sort of euphoric.

“The Only Thing” is another favorite. It sounds decidedly un-Hold Steady, with wirey, I.R.S.-era R.E.M. guitars and Craig Finn singing with the melody instead of in spite of it. It’s cinematic. Other songs like the David Foster Wallace-paraphrasing “On With The Business” and “Big Cig” bring back toothy guitars that were kind of in the backseat on 2010’s Heaven is Whenever.

The one-two punch to close the album ranks among the band’s finest – and that’s saying a lot, considering their track record. “Almost Everything” is a meditative ballad – think the flip side of the Irish-wake “Citrus” – and finally, “Oaks,” a nine-minute epic that the band simply couldn’t have made before this. Hazy, layered and beautiful, it’s the best thing to close one of their albums since “How A Resurrection Really Feels”.

There are plenty of albums this year that may have felt more cohesive, uniform, and in some cases, relevant. But number one records on these type of lists should be there for you under any circumstance, and that Teeth Dreams has.

“Words won’t save your life,” this band once said. It’s true, they won’t, but that sure as hell won’t keep them from trying.

2. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2

No record quite captured 2014 as perfectly as Run The Jewels 2. It’s one that’s full of fury and resentment but manages an unstoppable swagger. It’s also an odd moniker for an album that superseded its original. If their first album was The Terminator, this is their Judgment Day.

It goes without saying that this was an especially hard year on this world. Endless political and social upheaval, unimaginable tragedy, and little for humankind to be truly proud of. This world is a messed up place. El-P and Killer Mike address it across eleven propane-fueled tracks and manage to factor in a veritable amount of dick talk in the process.

While the first RTJ album did feel like one, there’s something in comparison with RTJ2 that makes this release feel a little fuller. It’s a statement. It’s beefier, the beats hit harder, and the rhymes are that much more belligerent. There’s so much to unpack here – just hit play and go for the ride.

On Run The Jewels 2, The world is their T-1000. We’re John Connor. They’re the T-800’s lowering down in the molten metal, hands in the fist and gun position.

3. The War on Drugs – Lost in The Dream

Five years ago, I saw The War on Drugs open for The Hold Steady five times in one week. Back then, they were a ramshackle three piece with one record out that contained just a little more than hazy sketches of songs and a vague indication that there just might be more than meets the ear. I liked them enough to buy a vinyl copy of their first record and have them sign it. They were largely undeveloped live but I liked their energy.

2011’s Slave Ambient showed the group in transition, negotiating their fuzzier past with something a little more fluid and cohesive. I guess it’s not totally surprise, but any way you put it, “Lost In A Dream” is a triumph.

It’s so easy to rest on the album’s obvious 80’s overtones, but I think that’s what makes it so refreshing, and ultimately, successful. It’s the sound of the many of our youth – when what played on the radios of our parents cars were just bits and pieces of words we could put together surrounded by warm, encompassing beds of sound. Songs like “Red Eyes” and “An Ocean In Between the Waves” – especially when that guitar lead kicks in about two-and-a-half minutes in. I’m in a car seat, I’m going to preschool, I can hear those two endless Don Henley hits with post-peak Rod Stewart in-between. 

But it’s not exactly nostalgic, either. This sound is big, sweeping, infinite. It’s music saying something. I don’t know exactly what it’s saying, but I like the vessel it’s in.

4. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues 

I’m going to resist writing about what everyone else has said about this record, what led to its release, and what it means now. That’s a conversation we’ll be having for a long time and that’s a very good thing.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an album about discovery, negotiating your past, present and future and how absolutely fucking hard and completely scary it is to do that. And while the particulars aren’t the same, I can sympathize with that core feeling.

Laura Jane Grace just happened to write a record about it – one that’s furious, frenetic, and sometimes frightening. Play it through. There’s so much raw emotion – vocals that soar, guitars that with the life wrung out of them and bass that reaches the bottom of the gutter. With that combination – it’s hard to not be hooked. Never has an album so specific in theme actually been just as universal. 

5. Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright In The End

My relationship with Weezer has changed many times over the years, basically from superfan of not-quite-Hold Steady proportions to prognosticator that the “next great Weezer album is coming, I swear,” to hopeless former fan watching them play the parking lot of the local mall.

That’s why Everything Will Be Alright In The End is such a surprise. For whatever reason, Weezer flipped back on the switch. I don’t know what I expected from a Weezer album in 2014 (or that I expected anything from them at all, really) but what I find is that this album is a deeply satisfying listen. It’s a layered collection pop songs with big guitar solos and fun hooks to sing along to.

That next great album probably will never come, and that’s okay. This is all I need from them these days, and I’m glad they’re back in the business of doing it.

6. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams/1984

It’s impossible to mention Ryan Adams’s recorded output this year without mentioning both his self-titled album and the 10-song EP 1984, which shows the downright duplicity of his catalog.

Ryan Adams is a collection of moody, 80’s guitar rock that would fit nicely alongside with other branded “college rock” radio favorites of the era. “Gimme Something Good” is a great song in ANY year, and I bet Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are pretty pissed they didn’t write it.

1984, on the other hand, is the more fun record of the two. It’s Adams in all of his Mats/Huskers/insert-favorite-hardcore-band-here glory, busting out one similar-sounding punk blast after another. That said, both are essential listening this year and should always merit back-to-back listening.

7. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

Always a very talented songwriter from the start, Sharon Van Etten had never really made that record. She’d written a lot of beautiful songs, teamed with one of the Dessner brothers from The National to wear in her sound a bit more, but nothing really quite came together completely like the immense beauty and infinite sadness of Are We There.

It’s easily Van Etten’s best record. Choose any song: “Afraid of Nothing,” the simplicity of “Our Love,” and the propulsive album closer “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”. Put it on and let it wash over you. It’s that kind of record.

8. Fucked Up – Glass Boys 

Fucked Up take a very different sonic approach to whatever project they’re working on, be it the scrappiness of their endless 7″ releases, the genre-bending Zodiac series, or even that goofy full-length David’s Town faux-compilation they put out exactly the same time they released a double album.

That said, every Fucked Up album is denser than the last, with all of these hidden layers that you usually don’t notice with a lot hardcore records. Glass Boys is no different. It maintains the scope of 2011’s David Comes to Life but contracts just enough to keep that laser focus they always have with each project. Half a year later, I’m not certain that I’ve got this album all figured out, but something tells me that was kind of the point.

9. The Lawrence Arms – Metropole

It was a long eight years between albums from The Lawrence Arms – for good reason. They needed the time to age out of being a scrappy punk band from Chicago pushing 30 to become a scrappy punk band from Chicago pushing 40. There’s a series of lines from “Seventeener (17th and 37th)” that sets the tone for the rest of the record: “And yesterday I woke up to find/The black in my beard had turned to white. And the pretty girls that used to smile at me/Just stared off straight ahead or looked down at their feet.” 

What Metropole represents – but certainly isn’t limited to – is a new kind of dad rock. Music made by dudes who cut their teeth on third-wave punk rock. It’s music for people old enough to worship Asian Man Records entire catalog and recall those legendary late-90’s shows at the Fireside Bowl.

The band has lost none of their edge – it’s definitely still there, and they’re just as vital. It just feels like there’s something learned, and it’s made them even better.

10. Protomartyr – Under Color Of Official Right

It’s scary that Detroit-based Protomartyr are this good two records in. Under Color of Official Right is an collection of dangerous, spacy post punk fronted by Joe Casey, whose baritone probably can best describe as a deeply unconcerned Matt Berninger. Songs like “Maidenhead”, “Trust Me Billy” and “What The Wall Said” are spiky and sinister. This is a band that sounds like they’ve got a lot to say, and with this record, they’re in the middle of a sentence.

On new album, The Hold Steady bare their “Teeth”

The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams (Positive Jams/Washington Square)

Teeth Dreams Album CoverI thought about how to best collect my thoughts on Teeth Dreams, the sixth album by The Hold Steady, for several weeks after I first heard it. I’m intrinsically tied to the band in more ways than I can articulate, so giving anything less than my feelings surrounding this release would feel totally inauthentic. It’s probably best to start with some context.

Heaven is Whenever was the sound of transition. A lot was happening with the band in 2010. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay had left, taking with him the barroom drama that permeated their first four records. Sonically, they took many chances with instrumentation and production that took the focus away from the trademark guitar element and focused more on atmospherics. The result was admirable, but came away feeling a lot less like a Hold Steady record than anything that preceded it. Less celebration, more darkness. The scene seemed a little less sunny.

That wasn’t the only change. The album’s first tour showed the band trying out a six-piece three-guitar, bass and keys lineup. It didn’t quite gel as much as it powered through each show with sheer force. By winter, they’d pared down to a five-piece. Steve Selvidge was installed as a full time member, bringing with him guitar texturization and muscle that wasn’t present with Tad Kubler and Craig Finn’s previous interplay. Just like that, the band pivoted from ‘bar band’ to ‘guitar band’.

You wouldn’t have picked up on the change if you didn’t see them live in the interim. For many, Heaven felt like an abdication, going from one knockout record after another to something that felt less full and more like it was compensating for a missing element. Perhaps that was the case, but it could also be said it was also the product of trying to do too much in too little time in the face of major change.

But here we are four years later with Teeth Dreams. To put how long that is into context: in that time, their contemporaries Guided By Voices got back together and released five new albums while singer Robert Pollard put out SEVEN of his own. Sure, it’s an extreme example, but it’s not entirely far off. These guys made their name trying to keep up with Uncle Bob in more ways than one at some point in their career.

The album begins with the propulsive rocker, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”, which quickly gives way to the shimmering “Spinners”. Here Finn sings “Heartbreak hurts, but you can dance it off,” Full of bright guitars and a propane-fueled solo, it’s the closest thing The Hold Steady has ever written as a crossover hit.

Next up is “The Only Thing”, a slice of jangle pop infused with organ by studio musician Al Gamble that’s both a wink to their past as well as a distillation of present. It’s a dexterous move by the band, a song only accomplished by a few years away from recording, and in turn it is one of the album’s best.

Speaking of highlights, “On With The Business” comes at the album’s midpoint. Here, Finn reaches “maximum Craig”, spitting a dizzying array of lyrics (“Blood on the carpet/mud on the mattress/waking up with that American sadness”) over anxious guitars, building towards a vocal delay bit that replicates his lyrical repetition off mic at their live show. Finally, it segues into an absolutely face-melting guitar solo.

The Hold Steady in 2014Overall, the album showcases another layer of depth that was not apparent in previous Hold Steady recordings. This is for a few reasons. Producer Nick Raskulinecz, who admittedly did not know much about the band prior to recording, seemed to instinctively know how to handle the band’s lineup and play best to their strengths. The guitar duo of Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge provide stunning guitar textures, while bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake (who has never sounded better) re-establish themselves as one of rock’s best rhythm sections.

While this collection of songs mostly focuses on loud, immediate rock and roll, the emotional one-two punch of “Almost Everything” and album closer “Oaks” cannot be understated. “Almost Everything” is a quiet ballad that is a sonic cousin with earlier songs like “First Night” and “Lord I’m Discouraged”. While it doesn’t crest quite like those songs, it’s just as beautiful.

There is nothing The Hold Steady has ever created like “Oaks”. Clocking in at over nine minutes, it’s a sprawling masterwork that kneads and twists through peaks and valleys, with Finn conjuring dreamlike images as the song turns the corner with a gorgeous melodic solo carrying the song through its final minutes. Kubler stated that at one point he felt that this would be the last record he’d make with Finn. If this were goodbye, it’s a hell of a way to go. While there has always been sentimentality in Hold Steady songs, this one feels like it has real stakes. It’s just heavier.

For a band that looked like they may not make another record, Teeth Dreams is an album that pulls off an impressive magic trick. It’s a return to form for a group that looked like they lost their way, while alternately showcasing who they are now. Ultimately, it’s a portrait of a band that has the gift of hindsight and the confidence to make changes when they’re most critical. We benefit from it, and they’re better for it.

The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

John Darnielle can be a frustrating dude. The highs are high: 2005’s “The Sunset Tree”stands tall as a bonafide masterpiece, but the lows are just as low – try the heavy handed 2009’s “The Life of the World to Come” if you’re curious. It seems that every other Mountain Goats record hits a high note. Last year’s “All Eternals Deck” was fine, but it doesn’t come close to the mastery of their latest, “Transcendental Youth”.

In the two distinct eras of this band – the pre-2002 low-fi boombox recordings and the subsequent studio recordings, Darnielle’s catalog is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. There’s a startling emotional undercurrent to his work, and here it clicks perfectly.

Horns are all over the album, from the upbeat ‘Cry for Judas’ to the meditative dirge of ‘White Cedar’. It’s lovely, lush with it’s perfectly timed swells. Followed by the acoustic ‘Until I Am Whole’ it creates a great compliment to the previous track’s delicateness. ‘The Diaz Brothers’ is a propellant number that’s akin to Mountain Goats classics like ‘This Year’ and ‘Dance Music’, and the title track has a horn intro that wouldn’t be out of place in a fifties sitcom.

Unlike some of it’s predecessors, none of the elements of ”Transcendental Youth” are overbearing. That’s plagued some of their previous albums. Every arrangement is carefully chosen. There’s no ‘square peg in a round hole’ effect that comes with some of Darnielle’s songwriting. This album plays like a hits collection from the studio-recorded era of this band.

“Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive,” advises Darnielle at the beginning of ‘Amy (aka Spent Gladiator 1)’. Those are pretty wise words. Maybe with album after album that’s what he was doing.

This time, he got it right.

The Men – Open Your Heart

The Men – Open Your Heart

There’s something special about a group that entirely shifts their sound from one record to another. Brooklyn-based The Men are one of those bands. With their new record, Open Your Heart, it’s apparent that it’s miles away from 2010’s Immaculada and last year’s Leave Home both in sonics and songcraft.

Tuneage instead of tonnage is the real story here. For the uninitiated, the prior two albums were variants of blue-in-the-face scuzz rock, low on songcraft and high on volume. (Stuff not for the faint at heart, but if you want to try it, “Night Landing” will surely be disorienting.) Their latest is anything but. They have have ditched that formula for something way more basic, and brawnier. There’s no better example than the album’s title track, a Let It Be-era Replacements cataclysm. Strong on hooks, pleading vocals and an earworm of a bass line, there’s no reason it’s not a song-of-the-year candidate. “Turn It Around,” the album opener, is four minutes of fist pumping heroism and an undeniable show-opener. “I wanna…” choruses and wild soloing will ignite crowds everywhere. Then there’s the oddly named “Country Song,” which sounds more like incidental music from Friday Night Lights than it’s namesake. (“Candy,” which comes later on the album would be more aptly named.)

What’s most impressive about this album may not be the songs themselves. It might be the fact that the band that created it was able to turn out a release so confident in a sound that is nothing like they’ve released before. It also leaves those to wonder what’s next for The Men. They’re a band that’s yet to peak, and every record they’ve made is a fine example of that. Open Your Heart isn’t just a clever title. It’s a request.

For Lucero, It’s Not Work

Lucero – Women & Work

Lucero are on a hot streak. While they’ve made dependable records with tracks that absolutely slay, it wasn’t until 2009’s 1372 Overton Park did they create an album that fully combined their rough-hewn songcraft with hooks that last for days. Punctuated by Memphis horns and Ben Nichols signature rasp, the record was nothing short of an instant classic, and this year’s Women & Work expounds on the work the last record started. “Downtown (Intro)” is a great table setter for the pulsating “On My Way Downtown”. Singer/guitarist Ben Nichols showcases his sandy croon on the drowsy balladeering of “When I Was Young”, later followed by the ragtime rave-up “Like Lightning”, this album’s best entry into their already impressive canon.

Unlike many of their roots-punk contemporaries, Lucero has had a half-decade head start in record making. With that, they’ve accomplished something rare in the genre: shaving down the rough edges of their material without actually sounding like it. It’s a tribute to the band’s decade-and-a-half together, showing that after all this time, they’re actually just getting started.

Top 10 Albums of 2011

Top Ten Albums of 2011

1. David Comes to Life – Fucked Up
2. Killing The Darlings – Pearl and the Beard
3. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
4. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
5. Long Live All Of Us – Glossary
6. Strange Mercy – St. Vincent
7. The King is Dead – The Decemberists
8. Civilian – Wye Oak
9. Nine Types of Light – TV on the Radio
10. The Whole Love – Wilco