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Monday, December 22, 2014

Top 10 Albums of 2014

It's that time of year again.  The time in which I reflect on all the glorious music that has graced my ears for the past 12 months.  Like in previous years, I have discovered so many bands, some new and plenty old.  A whopping four of the albums on my top 10 list were released by bands I had never listened to until this year.  Without further ado, my favorite albums of 2014:

10) Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings - Give the People What They Want

Sharon Jones is nothing if not consistent.  Every couple of years she churns out another little gem and her latest is no exception.  She doesn't break any new ground here, but if you like your soul music when it's funkified (or your funk music when it's soulful?), then you will have a blast with this album.

Key tracks: "Retreat", "Get Up and Get Out" and "Making Up and Breaking Up (And Making Up and Breaking Up Over Again)"
Spotify link: Give the People What They Want

9) Wo Fat - The Conjuring

This is a beefy, sludgy, pummeling, stoner rock album that's sure to satisfy fans of Kyuss.  The riffs come at you hard from all different directions.  With only five tracks comprising the album, song lengths range from a modest six and a half minutes to a beastly 17 minutes.  This is headphone music to get lost in.

Key tracks: "Dreamwalker", "The Conjuring" and "Beggar's Bargain"
Spotify link: The Conjuring

8) Antemasque - Antemasque

When The Mars Volta called it quits a couple years ago, I was a little bummed out.  I wasn't a fan of their last album but knowing I would never see them live again was a bummer.  Fortunately, guitarist Omar Rodriguez Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala formed a new band, Antemasque.  More in line with the post-hardcore/punk sound of their old outfit, At the Drive-in, and less like their prog/jam/psychedelic band, The Mars Volta, Antemasque's self-titled debut album sees Omar & Cedric rocking out and having a good time as if they were jamming in their garage.  And their live show is packed with plenty of energy.

Key tracks: "Providence", "4AM" and "In the Lurch"
Spotify link: Antemasque

7) Mastodon - Once More 'Round the Sun

These modern metal veterans have found a very nice sound on their latest after experimenting with various sounds over their past few albums.  Their 2009 release, Crack the Sky, saw them trying out a more progressive metal sound.  Their 2011 album, The Hunter, had a more straight-forward metal.  With Once More 'Round the Sun, they've expanded upon their straight-forward sound and have put together perhaps their most melodic collection of songs to date.  That's not to say they've gone soft, because this album is as hard as previous albums, but they have tightened up their songwriting and put a strong emphasis on melodies.

Key tracks: "The Motherload", "Ember City" and "Chimes at Midnight"
Spotify link: Once More 'Round the Sun

6) Opeth - Pale Communion

Returning three years after the extremely polarizing album, Heritage, Opeth continue with, not surprisingly, another non-metal album.  The difference between Pale Communion and Heritage though, is Pale Communion is a lot more focused and cohesive than Heritage.  Whereas Heritage felt like a lot of good ideas jumbled together to form mostly directionless songs, Pale Communion takes all those good ideas, mixes them with some of the trademark Opeth sounds that we all know and love, and creates a really solid eight song set.  All of Opeth's classic elements are here: jazzy guitar solos, proggy keyboards, beautiful clean vocals, and an ominous mood.  So there are no death metal growls.  So what?  When the songs are this good, you won't miss them.

Key tracks: "River", "Faith in Others" and "Eternal Rains Will Come"
Spotify link: Pale Communion

5) St. Vincent - St. Vincent

The Queen of Weird, St. Vincent, is a bit of an acquired taste.  It wasn't until I saw her perform with David Byrne a few years ago that I started to "get it".  I'm not familiar with her entire back catalog so I may be off base with this comment, but I feel this is her most accessible album.  The melodies are infectious, her voice is powerful as ever, and the mood conveyed throughout is so different from anything else out there that this demands repeated listens.  Oh, and she's a hell of a guitar player.  This album is a bizarre journey but one that should be taken by all.

Key tracks: "Birth in Reverse", "Severed Crossed Fingers" and "Rattlesnake"
Spotify link: St. Vincent

4) Anathema - Distant Satellites

I figured that after hearing about Anathema for the past 12 years or so, 2014 was as good a time as any to finally give them a listen.  I'm thrilled I did because their catalog is vast and it is damn good.  They are certainly "mood band", but luckily I seem to be in the Anathema mood quite often.  This album, like their previous few, is drop dead gorgeous.  The interplay between lead male vocalist, Vincent Cavanagh, and lead female vocalist, Lee Douglas, is too beautiful for words.  Lee's vocals are the best I've heard from her yet and they elevate the band's sound to a new level.  I also love some of the electronic elements they've introduced on this album.  The title track sounds like a lost song from Radiohead's Kid A.  I highly recommend listening with a good pair of headphones, while lying down on a grass field, with your eyes closed.

Key tracks: "Distant Satellites", "The Lost Song Pt. 1 & 2" and "Ariel"
Spotify link: Distant Satellites

3) The Afghan Whigs - Do to the Beast

Most comeback albums are sad attempts to get back into the limelight, to recapture prior glory, to make an irrelevant act relevant once again.  The beauty of flying under the radar, like the Afghan Whigs have somehow done throughout their brilliant career, is there is no glory to recapture.  It's all about the music.  It may have taken 16 years, but frontman, Greg Dulli, finally felt it was time to release a new Whigs album.  It's a hell of an effort and it's great to have them back.  I implore everyone to see them live, as they are truly one of the best live acts around.  I wrote a longer semi-review for this album back in May and you can read it here: What Have You Been Listening To?

Key tracks: "Algiers", "The Lottery" and "These Sticks"
Spotify link: Do to the Beast

2) Evergrey - Hymns for the Broken

This is a personal comeback album for me.  In Search of Truth, Recreation Day, and The Inner Circle is as good of a three album string as you can get.  And then Evergrey followed that up with Monday Morning Apocalypse, Torn, and Glorious Collision which was a rather average string of releases.  There were a handful of great songs from those latter three albums, but none of them came close to matching the greatness of the previous three, especially their masterpiece, In Search of Truth.  I'm happy to report that Hymns for the Broken is the best Evergrey album since The Inner Circle.  The band sounds fresh and rejuvenated, the songs are punchy and memorable, and Tom Englund's powerful and emotional voice is at the top of its game.  He sings with such passion in every song and doesn't waste a note.  This is dark, melodic metal done right.

Key tracks: "The Aftermath", "A New Dawn" and "Hymns for the Broken"
Spotify link: Hymns for the Broken

1) Ne Obliviscaris - Citadel

This is the defining album of 2014 for me.  Since it's release last month, I have listened to little else.  I'm not sure how to describe this Australian metal band's sound, as they seem to transcend all genre labels.  They mix elements of death metal, black metal, jazz, folk, classical - I'll just settle on progressive metal.  Their debut album, Portal of I, blew me away.  They introduced a key element I'd never heard before in this type of metal: violin.  The song "Forget Not" was one of the most original, beautiful, and amazingly epic songs I had heard in a long time when I first discovered them earlier this year (you can read my full song review here: Forget Not).  I truly didn't think that song would ever be topped by them, and if they did top it one day, I didn't think it would be on their very next album!  Well, they topped it with the first song on their sophomore album, a sprawling 3-track, 23 minute epic entitled "Painters of the Tempest".  This song is the culmination of everything from their first album but done even better.  Brutal death metal growls, gorgeous clean vocals, acoustic passages, violin solos, masterful basslines.  It truly has it all.  The remaining tracks are nothing short of remarkable as well.  What excites me most about this band is not the fact that they already have two legitimate masterpieces under their belt to begin their career, but it's knowing that they still have plenty of tricks up their sleeves and they have a long career ahead of them.  I cannot wait to see what these guys come up with next.

Key tracks: There are only three songs on the album, split into six tracks.  Every part of every song must be heard
Spotify link: Citadel

I hope you found something new by reading this and perhaps found a new favorite album of the year as well!