(For more about that segment, I refer you to my thoughts on U2’s free Songs of Innocence, as previously discussed.)
The following list, then, comprises every CD I acquired in 2014 that was also released in 2014. Back-catalog materials are forbidden from inclusion, though for what it’s worth Mike Doughty’s 2011 album Yes and Also Yes deserved to be bought much sooner.
On with the countdown, then — from least favorite to worthiest:
10. Pixies, Indie Cindy. In college I dug the yin/yang pairing of singer/guitarist Black Francis/Frank Black and singer/bassist Kim Deal, who together sounded like the Mamas and the Papas on berserker pills. Twenty-three years after their last studio album, Deal is out but the rest of the band is back with a just-passable reunion gig, sadly reminding me of the Frank Black solo albums that always left me cold. Joey Santiago’s guitar adds some much-needed personality, but Deal’s contributions are sorely missed.
(Sample track: the closer “Jaime Bravo“, one of the few bright combos of harmony and edginess. If they never record another album, it also doubles as a spacey, final farewell.)
9. Rancid, Honor is All We Know. The authentic sounds of raging, hook-heavy, anti-establishment short-fuse Punk Rock will never, ever die as long as tattooed forty- and fiftysomethings stay trapped in their amber casings and never, ever let it go. I’m not ready to consign myself to a life of easy-listening lullabies just yet, but rah-rah self-empowerment ditties like “Raise Your Fist” and “Evil’s My Friend” and the title track make me feel content with my life choices, comparatively mellow, and self-conscious about how I’m not really feeling the down-with-everything-but-us, self-worship bandwagon these days. I think I’m finally getting too old for this.
(Sample track: the 95-second “Face Up“, in which our unreliable narrator celebrates the joy of not getting killed in bar fights.)
8. Foo Fighters, Sonic Highways. Dave Grohl celebrated the Foos’ twentieth birthday by inviting special guests (Joe Walsh! Zac Brown! Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard!) and indulging in a high-concept pitch: eight new songs recorded in eight different major cities. None of them are instant hits, and only a few sound arguably city-inspired — New Orleans horns on “In the Clear”; the Nashville poetry tribute of “Congregation”; maybe a vaguely Chicago-ish club-hopping funk buried in the middle of “Something from Nothing”. After a solid second act with tunes from Austin and southern California, the final two tracks (courtesy of Seattle and L.A.) are repetitious drags that saunter on for a combined thirteen minutes of post-party padding, making Highways feel like a nine-day road trip with a five-day to-do list.
(Sample track: Recorded in Arlington, VA, the monuments-mentioning “The Feast and the Famine” speeds along nicely at their trademark breakneck pace, though the first time I heard it without knowing the title, I thought Grohl was shouting, “HE WANTS A PIECE OF THE PEBBLE!” I was so confused.)
7. Seth MacFarlane, Holiday for Swing! Yes, holiday albums released in 2014 count for purposes of this list, as do albums by comedians who created shows I don’t watch. MacFarlane’s second, equally sincere, old-time swing album is all about covering holiday tunes that dodge the Christmas Story altogether in favor of counting “winter” and “snow” as holidays. Slick and charming and apropos of certain aspects of the season, and fits respectably on the shelf from a technical standpoint, but it rekindles my admiration of crooners like Mel Torme who weren’t afraid to name-check the Savior on or around His big day.
(Sample track: Faith-based reservations notwithstanding, the perennial “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” is perfectly 20th-century lounge-lizard magic, with the kind of whistling and horn solos and throwaway added lines guaranteed to wow the retirees out in Branson.)
6. The Presidents of the United States of America, Kudos to You! The light-hearted rockers behind “Lump” and “Peaches” resurfaced after a six-year recording hiatus and crowdfunded their latest disc through PledgeMusic, which, based on my experiences, is like Kickstarter but professional. I had a CD in my hands less than a month after their campaign ended, and they sent me a second copy I didn’t request. As for the contents: like most of their other albums, it’s a dozen wacky, bouncy theme songs for cartoons that don’t exist. It’s the kind of party that’ll have you humming and snapping along while you’re there in the moment, but then you’ll struggle to remember any of it the next day. Sometimes that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
(Sample track: “Flea Verses Mite“, which feels like a hard-driving They Might Be Giants homage.)
5. Gaslight Anthem, Get Hurt. I really liked 2012’s Handwritten but was aghast to hear this one open with what sounded like warmed-over Stone Temple Pilots. A couple other detours into ’70s AOR licks weren’t quite my thing, but by and large they still sound like a hearty team of earnest, younger Springsteens. I mean that as a compliment — sincere, regretful, upward-looking, bracing new guitar rock that local radio apparently can’t or won’t handle. If it weren’t for that clunky opener, this would rank so much higher, and opening tracks are weighted heavily whenever I assign final grades for such lists.
(Sample track: hard to pick just one because tracks 4-up are pretty much all praiseworthy, but I’ll go with “Helter Skeleton“, a more tragic and touching look into the downhill, twilight years of barfly life than anything Rancid’s ever attempted.)
4. Linkin Park, The Hunting Party. The years after Top-40 life have seen the former youngsters continuing to diversify their sonic portfolio with more mature electronic sounds, more varied guitars, slightly less screaming, and a firm commitment to stuff-sucks activism. Also, this time: more special guests than ever! Helmet’s Page Hamilton lends his ’90s metal drone to “All for Nothing”; Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello plays quiet acoustic guitar on the instrumental “Drawbar”; the rabble-rousing “Guilty All the Same” features an epic rap break by the old-school master Rakim (of “Paid in Full” fame); and System of a Down guitarist Daron Malakian claims “Rebellion” as his very own and would sound even better if Serj Tankian had tagged along. On the latter, the rhythm section keeps up and seems to enjoy the challenge, but it points toward a larger issue: for all their growth as Serious Artists, Chester and Mike are stiff, sanctimonious killjoys compared to their seasoned guests. I’m all for complexity and aural dynamics and Meaning Something, but I’d be curious to hear how they sounded if they let themselves loosen up. Like, at all.
(Sample track: the aforementioned “Guilty All the Same“, because Rakim.)
(Bonus aside: somehow without realizing it, The Hunting Party is the closest my 2014 list comes to anything resembling diversity. I promise it’s not a conscious choice. Someone needs to notify me if Bloc Party, Chuck D, or Lorde release anything in 2015.)
3. Bob Mould, Beauty & Ruin. Still one of my favorite musicians and an automatic buy every time. The life-after-50, speakers-to-11 renaissance that 2012’s The Silver Age ushered in continues unabated in another fully charged set with bassist Jason Narducy and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, integral players in Mould’s most synched-up trio in ages. Blustery assaults like “Hey Mr. Grey” and “The War” confirm old guys don’t have to calm down and speak more quietly if they don’t feel like it, but if they’d like to slow down for contemplative moments like “Let the Beauty Be”, then that’s okay too. My only real complaint is that cranking up the amps has drowned out some of the delicacy and nuance that marked Mould’s thirty- and fortysomething phases, resulting in some sameness issues between songs. It also bugs me whenever he opens an album with an unpleasant dirge, a weird habit that’s dogged him from Candy Apple Grey to the present.
(Sample track: “I Don’t Know You Anymore“, for which Mould made a cute video guest-starring the guy from the Decemberists and following along with their attempts at local CD marketing.)
2. Weezer, Everything Will Be Alright in the End. Same as it ever was. Twenty years in and Rivers Cuomo doesn’t sound any older or calmer. The Weezer catalog could be played in virtually any order without betraying any real sense of dated material or artistic compromise, unless you included photos of the time he was stuck on cowboy hats or that time they pandered to a new audience by hanging out at Playboy Mansion for a while. Everything sees a concerted attempt to do the same slightly differently while returning to the random pop-culture referencing of the first album, with oddly chosen moments like “The British Are Coming” and “Cleopatra”, plus a children’s chorus inserted into “The Futurescope Trilogy”. Otherwise, it’s another round of eminently sing-along dissatisfaction and snark, minus any overt sellout dance numbers.
(Sample track: the repentant “Back to the Shack“, a raucous apology to any longtime fans who hated the last few albums and/or Cuomo’s Top-40 team-ups with B.O.B. and the like.)
1. Gerard Way, Hesitant Alien. The solo debut by the former My Chemical Romance frontman is one of those fun, exploratory projects where a formerly pigeonholed musician expands into other genres without caring whether or not it’s remotely commercial, and might even be baffling to the old fan base. Past the sludgy opening Led Zeppelin pastiche of “The Bureau”, the balance of Alien is deceptively cheery, low-rage, sometimes scornful, frequently hopeful storytelling buried inside several layers of power-pop confectionery that would dominate an entire Billboard chart if the kids these days were into guitars and live drums anymore. I normally don’t like being reminded of the ’80s, but reprising my unpopular favorite music from it within a modern context and without blatant nostalgia is a truly impressive feat.
(Sample track: the single “Millions”, which is sort of about love even when things go horribly wrong, is worth checking out, but for my money “Action Cat” might be the most infectious track on any of these ten albums.)
For basis of comparison, I also picked up the 2014 MCR compliation May Death Never Stop You, which could’ve been the cherished soundtrack to my angsty teen self if I’d been born ten years later. You can hear Way and his old bandmates progressing over time from a bratty hate-everything stance to their bombastic anthem-making years to their latter-day pretend-sci-fi glam-rock. I may not have followed along at the time, but at a distance their long journey is curious to behold. (Sample track: one new song — the snappy, piano-driven “Fake Your Death“, an apt transition between MCR and solo Way.)
…so, 2014, then. See you next year!