Glancing over the list of things that highlighted my 2014, one might think that I finally suffered the midlife crisis due for one whose formative years were in the ’80s. But as we are living in an era when everything that was once old is new again, I’d like to think that this is just reflective of the cream rising to the top as it resurfaces. I no doubt have a soft spot for the bands of my youth, but I’ve never been one to live in the past, and if their albums didn’t past muster (as many of the records they’ve made haven’t), I wouldn’t be listening to them. I could also make comment on the glut of hobbyists and no-nothing fashionistas cluttering the virtual airwaves, but that just sounds like the complaints of someone indeed in the midst of that midlife crisis. Besides, the young bloods on this list show there’s plenty going if you know where to find it. So without further ado…
Top 20 of 2014
20. Simple Minds, Big Music (Caroline)
Seeing Simple Minds live in 2013 rekindled my love for this band who I had first started listening to nearly 30 years ago. Admittedly, as they hadn’t put out anything that even approached their heyday (Sparkle in the Rain and New Gold Dream) in decades, I was skeptical when they announced this record’s release. But Big Music combines the grandiosity of its namesake with truly stirring emotion, musical ingenuity, and catchy hooks. It’s easily their best record since Once Upon a Time and hopefully the start of a new era of rejuvenation for the band.
19. Pere Ubu, Carnival of Souls (Fire)
In the nearly 40 years that David Thomas has been leading the Cleveland-born Pere Ubu, the ever evolving group has consistently released records that have challenged musical norms in one way or another. That you can point to highlights of the band’s career in every decade is a testament to its vitality. Carnival of Souls is this decade’s benchmark (thus far). Led by Bob Wheeler’s electronics, it is a whirl of mechanized ambience and organic dissonance, with Thomas sounding particularly thorny as he wails over top of it all.
18. Echo and the Bunnymen, Meteorites (429)
While singer Ian McCulloch has insisted that each record the Bunnymen have made since reforming in 1997 has been a return to the heights of its magnum opus Ocean Rain, that hyperbole has never held much water (pun intended). With Meteorites, though, the band has done its legacy proud. Beginning with the splendorous title track, the album is full of both gravitas and delicacy. However, it’s not so much a continuation of the band’s heyday, but rather a lofty highpoint of its second chapter.
17. Nots, We Are Nots (Goner)
Despite punk’s seemingly simple DIY formula, many still get it wrong. Memphis femme four-piece Nots, however, do so much right within their uncomplicated framework of rickety guitar ruckus and synth whine. Cuts like “Reactor” are reminiscent of luminaries like The Raincoats, but are so completely idiosyncratic that such comparisons only serve as a point of reference. Indeed, We Are Nots, as its very self-defining title would seem to denote, is its own thing altogether, dense with ideas both fully formed and half-baked, but in both instances played with complete commitment.
16. Merchandise, After the End (4AD)
Truthfully, I wanted to like this album even more than I did. All the pieces are here for something truly earth-shattering. As it is, this is a very, very good record—just not a great record. The production lifts the band’s melodies from the obfuscation of its predecessor, 2012’s Children of Desire, but doesn’t shine them to the sparkling hue that they are due. Similarly, the performances seem to be slightly subdued. Nevertheless, at the album’s heart are some incredible songs and Carson Cox’s croon is a thing of beauty. Don’t get me wrong, I love this album and played the hell out of it. It’s just that I can also hear the potential.
15. Spoon, They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)
Whether it was taking a little more time off between records (it’s been four years since Spoon’s last album, Transference) or perhaps frontman Britt Daniel being reinvigorated by his Divine Fits side-project, Spoon’s latest eschews some of the populist propensities that have garnered a larger audience for the kind of hot-wired creativity that has marked its best work. The record as a whole migrates through a diverse succession of attitudinal and textural shifts, and in just 10 tracks, Spoon shows the full range of its abilities and reaffirms that they are still a band capable of making music not only for the masses, but for the ages.
14. Camper Van Beethoven, El Camino Real (429)
Another old favorite, Camper Van Beethoven has returned to the peak level of its pre-break-up years of the ’80s with El Camino Real. The record has the same spark that marked the records of its heyday, with David Lowery’s lyrical witticisms matched by musical smarts every bit as ingenious. Indeed, I’m thinking that the band’s mix of folksome college rock will continue to only get better as the years progress.
13. Various Artists, C86: Deluxe Edition
It’s odd to think that a promotional cassette would come to define a certain style of music, but nearly 30 years later C86, one of a series of cassette tapes that weekly New Musical Express offered to its readers for mail order, is still a seminal document of British music in the mid-80s and the tape’s moniker has come to represent the presiding indie sound of that era. The original cassette contained 22 tracks from such notable bands as The Mighty Lemon Drops, The Pastels, and The Wedding Present, but also several others who have been lost to the sands of time. For this expanded edition, Cherry Red has added another 50 tracks from such bands as the BMX Bandits, That Petrol Emotion, The Railway Children, Happy Mondays, Blue Aeroplanes, and Pop Will Eat Itself. Like its original predecessor (and perhaps more so), this edition of C86 reveals that self-made ingenuity and honest creativity were running rampant, resulting in a wealth of music that can never be replicated.
12. Loop at Le Poisson Rouge
It is probably fitting that my memory of this April show at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge is as blurry as the music this seminal band made. But what has stuck with me is how truly awe-inspiring it was. Touching on all four albums it made in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the band unleashed a furious sound that encompassed all in it attendance. (This was one of the few shows that was as loud as it needed to be.) As there’s been no news from the Loop camp as to whether or not the band will be continuing this reunion in some form, this night may just live on in my head as some wonderful dream.
11. Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein
This was the year that I began to re-appreciate the music of my prepubescent youth, i.e. new wave, and this book helped spark that interest. Full of lists and pull quotes and organized by song titles (fitting for many of these one-hit wonders), the book’s mix of critical thought and irreverence (as epitomized by the authors’ two voices) is a great read that reveals that sometimes style can impact artistic merit just as much as substance.
10. Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal (What’s Your Rupture?/Mom+Pop)
It’s hard to believe that in this age of the misuse of irony and the word “literally” that a bunch of kids from Brooklyn (the epicenter of such crimes against humanity) can make a record as smart and cogent as Sunbathing Animals. That this is the second such intelligent album from the band, only verifies the Parquet Courts’ merits. Chockfull of wry observations and wiry guitar lines, this record shows that there’s still hope for the youth of today.
9. Devo at Best Buy Theater
With the death of Bob 2 this year and the future of the band in question, I was kicking myself for having never seen these Ohio-born legends in the flesh. Fortunately, the band continued with its plans to play the songs from its earliest day on this venture dubbed the Hardcore Tour after its recent Superior Viaduct releases. Though a couple more encores would have been nice, the band didn’t disappoint, playing a set that was artful as it was invigorated and included songs like “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Jocko Homo.”
8. The Woodentops, Granular Tales (Cherry Red)
To my ears Granular Tales picks up where The Woodentops left off in 1986 with their superb debut, Giant. The band, which includes original members Rolo McGinty (vocals, guitar), Simon Mawby (guitar), and Frank de Freitas (bass), has tapped into the vibe of its earlier years without rehashing past formulas. “A Pact” matches frenetic rhythms to a galvanic acoustic riff and keyboard flutters that are belied by a darkened tone, while “Third Floor Rooftop High” is a bombastic romp seemingly channeling the same energy of yore. Best, though, is “Every Step of the Way,” which finds a low-key groove and burrows into it. It is an amazing return to form that will hopefully continue onward.
7. Tweens, Tweens (Frenchkiss)
The debut by Cincinnati’s Tweens bursts from the gate with “Bored in This City,” a booming lashing against adolescent ennui following in the tradition of “Pretty Vacant,” “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” et. al. Singer Bridget Battle’s yowl has more sweetness to it than those predecessors, though, and you can fathom the yearning when she screams that her town is eating her alive or when she’s asking her paramour to show less kindness (“Be Mean”). As the band name might indicate, that sweetness is accentuated by a pop element at work here, but so too is there a Midwest grittiness. This is a record that careens with enough recklessness to let you know there’s something behind it and also that there’s still plenty of life to be found in rock’s basic tenants, if only you know where to find it. Surely, these kids know where it’s at.
6. electric eels, Die electric eels and “Spin Age Blasters” (Superior Viaduct)
electric eels, “Jaguar Ride” (HoZac)
X__X, X Sticky Fingers X (Ektro)
Most probably think that punk was born in New York or London, but the argument could also be made for its origination being in Cleveland. Though they were never awarded the acclaim or the commercial spoils of its successors, the electric eels, led by the imposing John Morton, were creating the same kind nihilistic ruckus on the shores of Lake Erie as early as 1972. This year saw several records, the Die electric eels comp and “Spin Age Blasters” single on Superior Viaduct and “Jaguar Ride” single on HoZac, issued as evidence. Morton went on to form X__X in the late-70s, and with the release of the X Sticky Fingers X compendium also this year, got the band back together for a handful of dates that showed him still to be a force to reckon with.
5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Mann Center
I also saw Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play in New York this past summer, but this date at Philadelphia’s beautiful Mann Center was the superior of the two. Comprised of songs from the entirety of the band’s catalog in addition to cuts from last year’s Push the Sky Away, this lengthy show revealed Cave and his cohorts to be in top form. Cave repeatedly ventured out into the crowd, often times singing from 20 rows deep into the audience. In such moments of communing with his fans, he held them in the palm of his hand. The show was equal parts fury and beauty, and it still resonates in my head anytime I hear a song from the setlist.
4. Johnny Marr, Playland (Warner Music Group) and at the Music Hall of Williamsburg
I continue to wonder what Johnny Marr was doing wasting his time with Modest Mouse and The Cribs when he could have been making albums like Playland and last year’s equally excellent The Messenger. While his former songwriting partner cancels tours and squabbles with his label in the press, the one time Smiths guitarist has proven himself capable of great records on his own. Live, this is even more evident, and his performance in Brooklyn also included runs through “The Headmaster Ritual” and “Still Ill” that weren’t lacking in anyway. Morrissey who?
3. The Crookes, Soapbox (Modern Outsider)
The Crookes’ sophomore album, Hold Fast, was criminally overlooked, but fortunately the Sheffield quartet has returned sooner than later with a follow-up, Soapbox. Like its predecessor, the record is characterized by snazzy pop that occupies the middle ground between the territories tread by The Housemartins and Gene. Singer George Waite leads the way, his voice a highly tuned instrument that traipses atop each melody with acrobatic glee. Musically, the record is a smart mix of jangly guitar riffs and big backbeats that the Brits seem to have cornered the market on over the past few decades. Ever after many regular listens since its release this past spring, the album’s charms have yet to diminish.
2. The Rock*a*Teens at Le Poisson Rouge
There was probably no show that I anticipated more this year than The Rock*a*Teens at Glasslands this past August. But when the assholes at the now defunct club nixed the band’s encore in favor of starting their late night dance party, I knew I needed more. Thankfully, they were playing again the next night, and it surpassed the previous night’s gig in all ways. The reformed group careened through a set comprised largely of their recently reissued Sweet Bird of Youth, each song seemingly building on the one previous. By the end—and this was the end, the last show of the tour—singer Chris Lopez was in a heap on the stage, having wrung every ounce of emotion out of every note.
1. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
The sophomore album from this crimson-throated Missouri whippoorwill at turns evokes the ghosts of Hank Williams and Roy Orbison, while also sounding decidedly modern. Songs like the opening “Unfucktheworld” are lent an added poignancy by being stripped to just the barest of essentials, but Olsen also at other moments wraps her ruminations in fuzzy coatings of hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-woman vitriol that adds to the record’s cumulative potency. The album is quiet and thunderous, pensive and cathartic, and simmers with a bellyfire that seems destined to never go out. In short, Burn Your Fire for No Witness is one for the ages.