2014 has come and gone, and with a year full of memories and shenanigans that we’ll never forget, we leave it up to the music to keep the spirit of 2014 alive as we head into the New Year. The past twelve months have been an interesting year in music. While only one artist on the planet was able to reach the one million sales mark (Taylor Swift), we are reminded that it’s just a sign of the times and where the recording industry is potentially headed. Fret not however, just because albums are flying off the shelves at the rate that they once did, there’re still many artists out there putting out amazing material for us to get a chance to relax and listen to after a long day at the mill.
My end of the year list of my top ten albums features releases from recording artists all across the board. I’ll admit they may not be the greatest albums of the year, but the ones that inspired me the most. They’re the ten that feature artists giving us songwriting, musical ability, and producing techniques that stand out the way great art should. Hopefully you’ll give a few of these a listen and they’ll be able to spark something in you that you didn’t see, hear, or experience before.
10. The Weeks – Buttons
The southern rock band from Jackson, Mississippi released a short follow up to 2013’s Dear Bo Jackson with a four-track EP build around high energy and polished garage rock with more fm hit songwriting that the group has evolved towards since their early material. Having been compared to fellow southern rock contemporaries The Wild Feathers and newer Kings of Leon in the past, Buttons sounds less like a southern rock band to a solid rock band with southern roots.
The album starts out with a revamped version of ‘Buttons’, which appeared on their 2008 project Comeback Cadillac. It’s really the kind of single that can take a band to the next level with it’s catchy riff driven verses to it’s stadium anthem chorus. The first three tracks are each great guitar songs without any layering clutter or over playing. They put the up-tempo pace aside for the haunting piano ballad closing out the album in ‘Hold it Kid’, which showcases singer Cyle Bones’ ability to carry a strong rock vocal presence on a softer, more melancholy song.
9. The Belle Brigade – Just Because
Brother and sister Ethan and Barbara Gruska put together a sophomore effort that truly captures the duos vocal and musical chemistry. Their mix of singer-writer and pop styles has given birth to a great album that step outside of the pop-realm while still producing catchy songs that have real meaning.
Undiscovered guitar tones and abnormal sounding instrumentation in each song help them tell stories of looking back while moving forward in life in ‘When Everything Was What It Was’ and feeling really good while loosing your mind on substances ‘Likely To Use Something’. Then there’s the much more single-friendly ‘Not The One’ which could be mistaken for a Paul Simon or Sheryl Crow hit single.
8. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (Deluxe Edition)
What can you say about one of the greatest rock albums of all time that hasn’t been said already? The re-masters that Jimmy Page has been working on have been able to give fans new interpretations of their favorite songs and albums from the greatest rock band ever. My personal favorite Zeppelin album, Led Zep IV, was re-released mid-summer along with Houses of the Holy. The album that featured some of Zeppelin’s biggest hits now gives each song a new personality and fresh nuances.
While the first disc features re-mastered versions of the original recording mixes, disc two gives fans a new listen to each song from either alternate mixes, overdubs, and instrumental versions. In ‘When The Levee Breaks’ you’ll hear reverse panning of Page’s guitar and Plants harmonica, which goes without its signature heavy reverb. Two songs that are left without the vocal tracks completely are ‘Going to California’ and ‘The Battle of Evermore’, giving you the chance to appreciate the duet between Page and John Paul Jones and the band’s skill for inserting folk music into area rock albums. Even the mix of ‘Rock and Roll’ seems a bit more organic as Page brings down the doubling of his lead guitar riff.
7. The War on Drugs – Lost In The Dream
Now on their third album, The War on Drugs look to longer musical compositions rather than going for commercial radio purposes (only one song is timed under the 4:00 minute mark. Lost In The Dream is their first album in which songs generally are being played longer into jams. Their style of songwriting has developed letting their songs breath and have much different personalities than material from Wagonwheel Blues. ‘Red Eyes’ even seems like a not-so-distant relation to the Greatful Dead’s ‘Touch of Grey’. ‘An Ocean In Between The Waves’ also opens up to just over seven minutes of an 80s throwback rock sound that has long since been forgotten.
There’s a mix of optimistic promise and sadness across the album. ‘The Haunting Idle’, an instrumental track towards the end almost allows you to feel pain and sorrow. The band also channels some Bob Dylan in ‘Lost In The Dream’, which tells the story of singer/guitarist Adam Granduciel’s difficulty returning to normal life post-touring in lyrics “You don’t miss it man, you got it all like a memory/Now it’s living under your skin.” Overall it’s just a great coming of age album that’s so appealing sonically that you really can’t just listen to it once.
6. Stephen Kellogg – Live From Rochester (10/31/12)
For all you acoustic guitar wielding minstrels who constantly fail at the solo gig at your local pub or café because you’re playing cliché acoustic guitar songs like ‘Wonderwall’ or ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, fear not, Stephen Kellogg’s release of various live albums will show you how it’s done. Recorded during shows back in 2012, his album recorded during a show in Rochester will bring back belief that not all acoustic guitar players have to be assholes.
Stephen’s Americana/pop style of songwriting always seemed to fit somewhere in between Ryan Adams and Tom Petty. His brilliant and fan-friendly show is put on display on this live album, which showcases songs from his thirteen year career. His veteran, seasoned, and all-American vocals can hold strong after years of constant touring, and have plenty of life in them during his fun and original sounding covers of Pearl Jam’s ‘Evenflow’ and Tom Petty’s ‘Wont Back Down’. Of course no Stephen Kellogg show is complete without original catalog favorites including ‘Start The Day Early’, ‘4th of July’, ‘Milwaukee’, and of course ending with the always beautiful ‘See You Later, See You Soon’. The sixteen-song performance allows listeners to really experience and take in all the energy and fun his shows produce.
5. Aaron Lee Tasjan – Crooked River Burning
Recorded and released via new local label; Rockwood Music Hall Recordings, former Alberta Cross and Madison Square Gardener Aaron Lee Tasjan released his first non-independent solo project earlier this year. The five-song EP perfectly showcases Tasjan’s one-of-a-kind talent that’s made up of brilliant guitar playing and songwriting that echoes of earlier artists like Tom Petty and Neil Young. Anyone who loved his songwriting style with the Madison Square Gardeners will love this organic sounding album. I’ve heard some say he’s more of an acoustic guitar act but that couldn’t be any further from the truth, as the album clearly shows Tasjan can make an acoustic guitar come alive to play great Americana rock music like few who play the instrument can.
His songs tell stories that you don’t have to be in Motley Crue to enjoy some drugs, a night full of music & alcohol, and chase after the girl that everyone wants to get with. ‘Don’t Walk Away’ and ‘Drugs and Junk Food’ really display Aaron’s tasteful range of dynamics. The ballad-esque ‘Everything That I Have Is Broken’ showcases his cheeky lyrical content with his tease of Jesus’ ironical death with a carpenter being killed by a hammer and wood. ‘My Camera’ is the backbone of the album in my opinion. The pulsating kick drum and hat cymbal beat lays the groundwork for the single-friendly chorus with a beautiful melody. It really is a great singer-songwriter album for anyone needing a lesson in strong songwriting.
4. Harts – Daydreamer
Harts, aka Darren Hart, released his sophomore effort Daydreamer in September and instantly found its way onto my album shelf at home. Filled with catchy arrangements that mix funk and psychedelic rock, Harts does a great job of combining modern funk and disco tempos with guitar overdubs fit for Jimi Hendrix. He actually flew in from his native Melbourne to work with Prince on song ideas for the album, who’s influences are heavily noticed on songs like ‘Lovers In Bloom’ and ‘Leavn It All Behind’.
I love the contrast of the smooth bass and key lines with Darren’s smoky vocals. In a way, he’s very close to what Gary Clark Jr. is doing in bringing funk and old blues styes back to pop music with new revamped style. His guitar sounds can take over the way an electric guitar is meant to on ‘Red & Blue’, then takes a more subtle and tone-heavy approach on ‘Tide’. It’s that diversity in styles that makes this a fantastic guitar album and a sound that really makes a musical statement in 2014.
3. Beck – Morning Phase
Like anything Beck does, his Morning Phase album is so unique and fresh sounding that it keeps itself as something totally different than any project he’s done before. I’ve heard debates on what genre Beck should be put into in the past, but Morning Phase certainly feels like a folk-rock album that takes you into another world with dreamy and rippling acoustic guitars, pianos, strings, and reverb filled vocal layering. There’s no power in the album’s percussion, rather a perfect balance of subtle pulsating rhythm to keep you right into the beat of the song’s heart, which, ironically enough, fits the lyrics in ‘Heart is a Drum’ sing “The heart is a drum, keeping time with everyone.”
The beautiful riff style songs carry a strong presence in songs like ‘Turn Away’, ‘Heart Is A Drum’ and ‘Say Goodbye’, but gets into more complex and deeper compositions in ‘Wave’, the very Neil Young sounding ‘Country Down’, and the albums closing piece in ‘Waking Light’.
2. Alvvays – Alvvays
The Canadian indie-pop band’s debut has really caught attention to almost anyone that’s given it a listen, including this guy. First thing I noticed when I heard it was how great of a throwback to those mid-90s alt rock kind of songs it was, and it would fit perfectly onto the Empire Records soundtrack. It really is a great guitar album, with most of the songs featuring that great tone of clean reverb turned up just enough where the line signal starts to crack.
Their unique style of jangle-pop represents the kind of music that once represented every teenager’s feelings of mixed emotions growing up in middle America. Anyone who still hasn’t sold themselves to corporate America can appreciate their theme of lost innocence in songs like ‘Ones Who Love You’, with lyrics like “When the lightening strikes/I’ll be on my bike/I wont be stuck inside/I’ll be on my bike/And when the wheels come off/I’ll be an astronaut/I will be lost in space/I will be skipping rocks.” You can also hear that same adolescent attitude in ‘Party Police’ when she sings “We wrote our names on the overpass/And hope it lasts forever.”
That and singer Molly Rankin really has a Debbie Harry thing going on and I’m loving it
1. Canon Logic – WYLD
My personal favorite album of 2014 has to belong to our local hometown heroes, Canon Logic. From beginning to end it’s a pop/rock album that will make you dance around your apartment every time it’s played, guaranteed. The nine-song album is filled with such brilliant musicianship and songwriting showcased in songs like ‘Runaway’, ‘Mountain’, ‘Crocodile’, ‘IBOK’, and the hauntingly beautiful ‘Carry The Water’. All the while any cracks or breaks in the songs are perfectly filled with ambient noises and experimental musical fills that very few bands are talented enough to try and use effectively.
Tim Kiely’s ear-friendly tenor vocal layering and the group’s background vocals bring each song to life and fit strong over guitarist Josh Greenfield’s brilliant lead guitar lines. Josh and Mark try so many guitar sounds that change with every song with their diverse pedal arsenal that allows the listener to get a new and fresh taste of their guitar playing with every track. Josh’s clean yet delay-driven riffs on ‘Crocodile’ and ‘IBOK’ really harness his unique playing style that few guitarists really go with today in a guitar world oversaturated with overdrive and distortion pedals. I’ve tried to figure out how to play the opening riff to IBOK like 50 times and still can’t crack it.
When it comes down to it though the biggest reason why this album is so great, is that I have yet to find a band that can reach their level when it comes to having such an original sound. It really is one of the more experimentally creative rock albums I’ve ever heard.
Article by: Tom Shackleford