Wednesday, December 24, 2014

COLUMN: The Best of 2014: Music

I get to wear many hats in life, but the one that fits the comfiest is that of Shane Brown, Music Nerd. Listening to music isn't a hobby for me; life is a hobby and simply something to do while I'm NOT listening to music. Growing up, I carefully read every major critic's year-end picks and chose my own, pretending that people cared about my opinion. Well, now I've got my own newspaper column where I can share my year-end picks and continue to pretend that people care about my opinion. I call it the annual indulgence. With that, my picks for the 10 best albums of 2014:

10. FUTURE ISLANDS - Singles - A year ago, Future Islands were just another veteran indiepop band slugging it out on the touring circuit. Then one fateful booking on Letterman turned them into overnight viral video sensations. There's just something compelling about the confident awkwardness of Samuel Herring's crazy dancing, chest pumps, and earnest bravado set against a musical soundscape that would fit right into just about any John Hughes flick from the 80s. When he growls like a metal madman, you can't help but be a fan. It's just like Dave said, "I'll take all of that ya got!"

9. DAVID MAYFIELD - Strangers - With his third album, David Mayfield proves he's more than the clown prince of Americana. Known for his life-changing live shows that weave musical showmanship with unapologetic goofiness, Mayfield's silly charm only occasionally masks the fact that he's a real virtuoso at guitar picking. He might be a nutball onstage, but Mayfield's always taken his records seriously. "Strangers" runs the well-tread path of heartache to heartbreak, but with a steely resilience that renews the spirit.

8. PAUL HEATON & JACQUI ABBOTT - What Have We Become - In my lifetime, there's never been a more subversive critic of society than British singer/songwriter Paul Heaton. First as lead vocalist for the Housemartins and then as frontman of The Beautiful South, Heaton has spent the past 30 years sending songs up the global pop charts with his biting wit. For his new project, he's reunited with Beautiful South vocalist Jacqui Abbott for an astonishing return to form. Pop music shouldn't be this smart.

7. WE NEED SECRETS - Melanchony and the Archive - I spent my college years devoted to the indie rock genre of shoegazing. In those days, bands like Ride and My Bloody Valentine crafted overproduced masterpieces of swirling guitars and vocals melted together into a blissed-out haze of raucous reverb, sonic dissonance, and  speaker-shredding walls of sound. Shoegazing fell out of favor fast when grunge came along, but a new class of bands have picked up the torch, The standout of this year's crop is We Need Secrets, who figured out the My Bloody Valentine sound AND how to twist it into a great record. It's a huge feat made even more astonishing given the fact that We Need Secrets is one guy named Chad who made the whole album by himself at home.

6. RUN THE JEWELS - Run the Jewels 2 - It's the only hip-hop album you need worry about this year. Pump it out of a speaker standing next to a jet engine and I swear to you this record would win. It's the sound of pure molten angst and an unrelenting assault that cannot be ignored. El-P's trademark production style is hard at work here, and every track features a less-is-more idiology where the beats come fast and loud over minimal abrasive staccato samples and loops. Taking no prisoners and offering no excuses, this is the kind of record that should burn to the touch.

5. TAYLOR SWIFT - 1989 - This just might be the riskiest record of 2014. When Taylor Swift went full-on pop this year, she had to know that she stood a chance of losing her entire country fanbase forever. But this is no regular pop album. Well, it might have been back in the mid-eighties. While other mainstream artists tried their hand at dubstep, house, or hip-hop in their constant battle for relevancy, Taylor Swift instead went retro with a dose of vintage keyboards and straight ahead verse-chorus-verse songcrafting. The result is her first record that stands up to scrutiny deeper than guessing which celebrity each song's about.

4. JAMES - La Petite Mort - Usually when a band reunites after some time apart, the resulting record ends up being forgettable at best. This is the first full-length record in six years from the Manchester band James, and shockingly, it's one of their all-time best. The band sounds as vital today as they did in their heyday, with Tim Booth still capable of belting out life-affirming rallying cries against repressed moralities and oppression. The world is a better place with this band in it.

3. MARTIN CARR - The Breaks - By now, my friends have to be tired of me championing Martin Carr. Heck, Martin Carr's probably tired of me championing Martin Carr (we're Facebook friends, and I'm not above the occasional public fanboy worship.) But he's my favorite lyricist of all time, and I doubt that'll ever change. At every stage of my life, I'm happy to have his songs to turn to for inspiration. After a few years absence, "The Breaks" is like reconnecting with a dear friend. Sonically, it's a triumphant return to form. In a perfect world, he'd be a mega-star who I wouldn't be able to harass on Facebook.

2. ALVVAYS - Alvvays - Molly Rankin is one generation removed from The Rankin Family, Canada's beloved first family of Celtic folk. But there's a heck of a musical highway separating the folk harmonies of The Rankin Family and the fuzzy surf-pop of Alvvays. It's the sound of sun-drenched summers as heard through the haze of distant memories. Rankin's singing style might be deadpan, but it cuts through the guitar wash with tales of lost love and life's follies. It's not exactly an original construct (see the Scottish band Camera Obscura if you like the Alvvays sound,) but it never fails to put a smile on my face.

1. BLEACHERS - Strange Desire - When Jack Antonoff unleashed this beast of a record back in July, I said at the time it'd be hard to find anything better in 2014. Nothing else came close. Music fans might better know Antonoff as the guitarist of Fun, but I prefer to know him for Bleachers, his 80's-inspired synth-driven side project responsible for the catchiest songs of the year and the death of my overused iPod Classic. Antonoff doesn't have the vocal chops of Fun's Nate Ruess, but a record this inspiring doesn't need a good singer. This is smart music for smart people, with singalong anthems about insecurity and twisted feelings. It's a therapy session set to music, and screaming along was all the therapy I needed this year.

Next week? My picks for the best TV of 2014.

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