This is always a subjective exercise bound to attract many differences of opinion. But it’s fun to look back at the year and think about what music really worked, particularly when every week seems to bring a new article proclaiming the death of the album.
- Lazaretto – Jack White
Designed to be enjoyed on vinyl with the volume pushed right up, this album sparked quite a revolution in record sales (it’s the highest selling vinyl pressing for 20 years). This is the best thing that Jack White has ever put out. Yes, he might be elusive, arrogant and prone to gimmicks, but Lazaretto is a modern blues classic that manages to sound fresh and innovative, while acknowledging its roots. There is a playfulness in White’s song-writing and it all sounds fantastic: alternating between aggressive, distorted guitars and softer rootsy moments.
- lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar – Robert Plant
While it remains a source of disappointment that Robert Plant refuses to countenance a Led Zeppelin reunion, at least he has something quite wonderful to show for his obstinacy. The seasoned rocker seems energised by working with his new band, The Sensational Shapeshifters. This is a strikingly fresh and original effort that blends elements of blues, world music, electronica and folk with Plant’s distinctive voice. His best work since the Zeppelin days.
- Lost in the Dream – The War on Drugs
There are influences aplenty on this album, from the Dylanesque vocal inflections to the Dire Straits style arrangements and the Arcade Fire vibe. What might easily be dismissed as background music on a casual listen proves to be an album of intricately arranged songs by Adam Granduciel. He knows that the eighties wasn’t all synth-pop and big hair, but the dawn of atmospheric stadium rock. Kick back and let this album draw you in; it’s an absolute delight. You might not hear this material on your radio but it deserves to be listened to repeatedly.
- Haven’s Dumb – Augie March
The first Augie March album since 2008 is like being re-united with an old friend, albeit someone who isn’t particularly concerned about playing to the masses anymore. In the post “One Crowded Hour” era, the band offers up an album that, like the patchwork Australia featured the album cover, is best appreciated as a whole. Literate, engaging and affecting, Glen Richards proves that he is one of our finest songwriters, with tracks that lull the listener into a place of comfort only to be struck by a moment of musical beauty or arrested by the insight of a perceptive lyric.
- Seeds – TV on the Radio
With their first album since losing bassist Gerard Smith to cancer, TVOTR offer up a work of great clarity, successfully blending loops with elements of rock, pop, soul and even punk. It is also both experimental and accessible. Holding this mix together is smooth, soulful vocal of Tunde Adebimpe. It comes as no surprise that mortality is a theme that runs through the LP, but this is balanced out by an infectious optimism. As the title suggests, the album is all about new beginnings. It’s accomplished work from a band at their peak, managing to knit together its diverse parts into a very satisfying whole.
- Shattered – Reigning Sound
American garage rocker Greg Cartwright delivers a master-class in the three minute rock song, making us yearn for a time when the songwriter was king and the melodic musical hook counted for something. Channelling Van Morrison and Motown via the Strokes, this record manages to sound nostalgic and fresh at the same time. Recorded on an eight-track, there is a wonderful, uncluttered simplicity here: no loops or laboured effects, just great song construction. Coming in at just under 35 minutes it’s the kind of LP that leaves you wanting more.
- Unrepentant Geraldines – Tori Amos
Tori Amos continues her prolific career with one of her most polished and focused albums to date. After scoring a West End musical and working with orchestras, she returns to the simplicity of piano and vocals with great results. Even at her very best Tori can overdo it a little, but here she produces her most even and accessible work. The songs are a satisfying mix: at different times playful, confessional and challenging. As expected, there are reflections on religion, politics and relationships, but the Cornflake Girl is in a different stage of life now, pondering what it means to be growing older. We even get to see Tori as a mother when she duets with her daughter. There’s no-one quite like Tori Amos and we should be eternally thankful.
- High Hopes – Bruce Springsteen
An album of discards and covers that was spontaneously thrown together between (and during) tours, High Hopes turns out to be Springsteen’s best album since Born in the USA. The harder edge and urgency of the recording seems largely due to the addition of Tom Morello, whose guitar work on the new arrangement of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” would alone justify the album’s inclusion on this kind of list. Springsteen’s social conscience is very much at the fore here, no more so than in the heartbreaking “American Skin (41 Shots)” – a song that has only grown in relevance as the year has gone on. He also took the Australian classic “Just Like Fire Would” and made it sound like it had always belonged to the E Street band.
- Are We There – Sharon Van Etten
This is a collection of beautiful, heartbreaking songs. With simple instrumentation the songs are held together by Van Etten’s affecting voice, which has the ability to sound fragile and powerful at different moments. Moving at a slow, deliberate pace the true beauty of this album only becomes apparent with repeated listens. We are fortunate that she will be here as part of the WOMADelaide line-up next year.
- Walking Under Stars – Hilltop Hoods
A surprisingly soulful offering, the seventh album from the Hilltop Hoods shows how they have matured as song-writers. Slightly less energetic than their previous material, the more chilled vibe here really works; the tracks here are consistently engaging and purposefully crafted. The diverse instrumentation offers strings, piano, organ and guitar over the signature hip hop beats, resulting in satisfyingly complex song construction. To polish it off, there are a host of great collaborations.
- The Anatomy of Mister and Sunbird – Mister and Sunbird
This is blues and roots gold, transporting the listener back to a time when music was enjoyed predominantly in smoky bars and dance halls. With smooth vocals, wonderful musicianship and solos aplenty, the songs here explore every variation in the genre.
- Benjamin Booker (self titled)
This is alternative rock done New Orleans style. Booker is a gifted blues guitarist who gets his boogie on with suitable gravel in his voice and a bunch of well-crafted, catchy songs. A very impressive debut from an artist who is heading our way for the Laneway Festival early in the new year.
- Is Exotic Bait? – French Style Furs
This side project from some of the Cold War Kids was recorded with Nick Launay in short time. Squeezed in between other musical commitments, the album has an urgency and a sense of experimentation that has been missing from the more recent CWK work. A delightful discovery with some great moments.
- Microscopic Wars – Kingswood
This debut from Aussie rockers offers up more than light and shade than you might expect. These guys prove that they have many tricks up their sleeves and look to be in this for the long haul. They rock hard but they also know how to put together a damn fine song. Travelling to Nashville to record this, the Kingswood star is very much on the rise.
- Blood and Wine – John Butler Trio
A warm and generous atmosphere is everywhere on this recording. Exploring a range of styles within the blues and roots genre, everything fits together comfortably and naturally. As usual the highlight is Butler’s wonderful guitar work.
- Gon’ Boogaloo – C.W. Stoneking
Reclaiming “dance” music for the delta blues, the eccentric Stoneking really gets the blood moving and the toes tapping. It’s hard to believe that this was created in 20th century Australia and not some by contemporary of Robert Johnson. Another artist to catch at WOMADelaide in 2015.
- Songs of Innocence – U2
Placing U2 on a best of the year list is not the fashionable thing to do. But amidst the great Apple publicity stunt that backfired, the band actually put out a really strong album which has largely been ignored. While it may not have the killer tracks of some of their other efforts, Songs of Innocence works best as a whole, recapturing the spirit of the band’s early work.
- Royal Blood (self-titled)
Like the manic love child of Led Zeppelin and Queens of the Stone Age, Royal Blood rocks hard, producing an incredible wall of sound for a two piece. Who knew the bass guitar was so versatile? Another act to look forward to on the Laneway circuit.
- 1000 Forms of Fear – Sia
Sia’s return from retirement has been a welcome one with the release of a collection of well-crafted pop songs with soul. Textured sounds and big choruses celebrate Sia’s versatile and distinctive voice. Let’s hope she doesn’t go back into hiding any time soon.
- White Deer Park – Papa v Pretty
With a set of great songs and getting plenty of airplay on Triple J, this looked to be the young rock outfit’s breakthrough effort. It was a great shame then that soon after this release (and before they had really toured the album) they mysteriously decided to call it quits. White Deer Park is a calling card for what could have been.
And just to look at the other side of the coin, here are three misfires from 2014:
World Peace is None of Your Business – Morrissey
Morrissey’s angry didacticism just doesn’t work here. That he continues to maintain the rage is admirable, but it’s all a little too unsubtle to really engage the listener in what he is clearly very passionate about.
Ghost Stories – Coldplay
There are some good moments here and these guys still know their way around a musical hook, but we are a long way from the indie genius of Parachutes. The problem is that the songs are largely forgettable. Conceived as breakup album, the lyrics are too pedestrian to be affecting. Maybe Chris should have just written Gwyneth a long letter instead.
A.K.A. – J.Lo
Chris Martin’s lyrics on Ghost Stories look like Shakespeare compared to the ones on offer here. J.Lo should hire a lyricist next time. Lines like “I luh ya, papi” and “I luh ya mami” are beyond cringeworthy, not to mention the completely unimaginative, “Someone took my emotions/ I feel good cause I don’t feel bad”.
By Matthew Trainor