2014 was something of a down year for music. Sure, tons of new albums came out last year… but few really grabbed my attention. The album I listened to most in 2014 – E-Bay Queen by my favorite synthpop duo, Marsheaux – came out in 2008. The rest of my yearly top ten was dominated by albums that came out in 2013: Langsom Dans by Gliss (#2), Inhale by Marsheaux (#3), The Bones of What You Believe by CHVRCHES (#5), Lost Causes by Flunk (#7) and Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s soundtrack for the British TV show Utopia (#8). With 2012’s Observator by The Raveonettes coming in at #9, that means only one 2014 album even made the top 10!
This year I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to post my top ten albums by playcount (thanks, Last.fm!) and then post my “editorial” top ten. Enjoy!
TOP TEN 2014 ALBUMS BY PLAYCOUNT
Here are my top ten 2014 albums by playcount. The number of plays is in parenthesis:
1) The Raveonettes – Pe’ahi (122)
2) La Roux – Trouble in Paradise (74)
3) Kid Francescoli – With Julia (66)
4) Warpaint – Warpaint (62)
5) Christine and the Queens – Chaleur Humaine (59)
6) Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso (51)
7) Bryan Ferry – Avonmore (41)
8) Blondfire – Young Heart (40)
9) Lisa Gerrard – Twilight Kingdom (32)
10) Blackbird Blackbird – Tangerine Sky (27)
Of course, ranking albums by playcount is tricky. The Raveonettes dominate this year’s list largely ‘cos I played two songs from Pe’ahi over and over again. Take “Sisters” and “When Night is Almost Done” off that album, and Pe’ahi probably wouldn’t even crack the top 10. And Lisa Gerrard comes in at #9 not because I liked her album less than others, but because one needs to be in a specific mood to listen to her music, as great as it is. And that’s why you need to rank the best albums of the year.
TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2014, RANKED
So here’s my “traditional” list of the year’s top albums:
#10: Warpaint – Warpaint
Warpaint are an all-girl band from Los Angeles. Did you know that Shannyn Sossamon, Heath Ledger’s love interest in A Knight’s Tale, played drums in the band’s early days? You do now! This disc shows a lot of promise, like a female Dot Hacker, or a slightly edgier version of Melody’s Echo Chamber. Or, if you’re an old fart like me, Mazzy Star with a lil’ more oomph. But the album seems to lose steam halfway through. It’s one of those albums that’s not at all “bad”, but you’ll put it on and by the time track 6 rolls around, you’re looking for something else to play. With the right material and production, their next album could be really, really good.
Have a listen:
9) Blondfire – Young Heart
I don’t know if kids still do this – or if other kids ever did this – but back when I was in high school, one could get “cool points” for discovering a hip new band. If I were still in school, I just might get points for discovering this duo, brother-sister combo Bruce and Erica Driscoll. I fell in love with their 2008 album My Someday almost instantly, and this disc is even better! While Someday was more or less your basic snythpop, this album is fuller and richer, with more guitars and drums and fewer drum machines. Erica’s often child-like voice won’t win any awards (it ain’t opera, folks), but it’s soothing and comforting, much like the voice of Sarah Cracknell, singer of my long-time fave Saint Etienne. In fact, many of these tracks almost sound like a lost Saint Etienne album: electronic and synthy, but warm and approachable. Not something you’d hear blaring at a nightclub, but rather something you’d hear at a cool party in north London. This album is surprisingly solid, too: there aren’t a lot of bad or filler tracks on it, and I’m often surprised to see that I’ve listened to the entire thing in one sitting!
Have a listen:
8) Christine and the Queens – Chaleur Humaine
It’s my shameful secret: I’m falling in love with French pop music, and especially female singers. And this disc, a project of French songwriter Héloïse Letissier, just hits it out of damn park. There are a few misses, though: a couple of slow songs I could do without, and a couple of English-language tracks that miss (why is it that French singers switching to English is almost always bad?). But the tracks that are good are really good, and more than make up for the misses. It’s sophisticated, yet approachable, synthpop that isn’t “too cool” for you.
Have a listen:
7) Lisa Gerrard – Twilight Kingdom
I’ve been a Dead Can Dance fan since I first heard them back in… 1985? 1986? And, like a lot of people, I was more a fan of Lisa Gerrard songs than Brendan Perry ones. Thing is, though, in my opinion, she never really had a solid solo album… until now. In fact, when I think about this album, I don’t think of any single song… I think of the entire thing as a single work of art. It’s all so beautiful and haunting. But then, that’s the problem with Gerrard’s music: it’s lovely, but it’s not something you can listen to on a whim. Well, I mean, sure… you could cue it up on your iPod any time you wanted to. But this isn’t something you’d play while doing household chores or at a party (unless it was late and you wanted everyone to leave). Still, though: I’ve owned all her solo albums at one point or another in my life, and this is the best one… by far. I’ve owned The Mirror Pool for almost 20 years now, and can only name a few tracks on the disc. Twilight Kingdom, however, is an album that sticks with me, one I know I’ll be listening to years from now.
Have a listen:
6) She & Him – Classics
She & Him is kind of a love-hate affair. I know there are tons of folks out there who can’t stand them, who think that the band only exists because of Zooey Dechanel’s star power. And there’s probably a kernel of truth there: would She & Him be as big a deal if Zooey wasn’t already a star? Having said all that, the band is coming along quite nicely. Ward was always a solid guitarist, and Deschanel really is developing her voice and vocal personality. She’ll never be the most talented singer in the world, but she’s just so damn… lovable. But that’s also the album’s Achilles Heel: no one wants to bash earnest musicians making an album of pretty cover songs. But not every track on this disc works. For every “Stars Fell on Alabama”, there’s an “Unchained Melody” (a cover that misses by a wide margin). My one issue going forward with She & Him is that they’re teetering on becoming “Starbucks music”, stuff you’d hear in the background of a coffee shop. She & Him were never “edgy”… but they’re at serious risk of becoming my mom’s favorite band, ya know? Still, this album is a lot of fun. Enjoy it.
Have a listen:
5) Bryan Ferry – Avonmore
I’ve loved Bryan Ferry since the first time I heard Roxy Music in (I think) 1982. But Ferry’s solo albums have never been very good, Oh sure, any given album might have 2-3 awesome songs on it… but there are also 4-5 completely forgettable songs, too. Seriously: can you name any song on Olympia other than “You Can Dance”? Did you ever even listen to side 2 of Frantic? Do you remember As Time Goes By at all? That’s what makes this album so remarkable: the whole thing is pretty damn good! I mean, it kind of loses steam towards the end (as most Ferry albums do), but I was surprised by how much I like “Loop Di Li”, “Midnight Train”, “Soldier of Fortune” and “Driving Me Wild”. It’s like the best string of Ferry songs since side 1 of 1985’s Boys and Girls. Of course, it’s Bryan Ferry, and the music doesn’t really sound that different from Boys and Girls, either. This album could have been recorded much any time after 1985. Not that that’s a bad thing. What is bad, though, is that you can tell Ferry’s voice is starting to go. That’s not entirely surprising – he turns 70 this November. It’s still sad to see such an icon in decline. But this album is a pretty good way to go, if you ask me!
Have a listen:
4) The Raveonettes – Pe’ahi
Yep, here they are in the top 10 AGAIN. Raven in the Grave was my top album of 2011, and the main reason Observator ended up at #2 instead of #1 on my 2012 list was that I just didn’t want to repeat myself. But while this is a solid album totally worth buying, it just doesn’t stick with me like other Raveonettes albums have. And what really puzzles me about that is why. Objectively, any track on this disc is as good as any other Raveonettes song. The album’s kind of disjointed – one slow song, one fast song, one really LOUD song, then another slow one – but Observator was the same way, and I freakin’ love that album. I think it might be because the middle of the album – from “Z-Boys” to “The Rains of May” – kind of runs together. Or something. And I might be the only one here, but it seems like The Raveonettes are making their vocals clearer than ever. Whereas on earlier albums vocals were mixed in closer to the music, and the lyrics were often opaque, with this disc, they’re completely front and center. And I have this theory that every Raveonettes song is about murder, suicide, drugs and\or sex… and having that beaten into your head just gets old after a while. Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just was in a different place when this disc came out. I was listening to their (somewhat obscure) EPs – which are older, and have a more synthy sound – when this came out. It’s still a good album, mind you. It’s just not as good as the band can be.
Have a listen:
3) Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
I never, ever thought folk and synthpop would work as a combo, but it SO DOES with these guys. The band, from Durham, NC, is made up of folk singer and Appalachian music champion Amelia Heath, while bandmate Nick Sanborn used to play bass in Magafaun, a group “on hiatus” with connections to Bon Iver. Yet somehow, it all works. Were it not for Heath’s charming vocals, the opening track “Hey Mami” might be the most annoying track of the decade. But they pull it off, grabbing your attention enough to want more. And in some senses, you’re rewarded for wanting more: “Coffee” and “Uncatena” are two of my favorite songs this year. But too much of the album is repetitive; it’s one of those discs where if I was going to put it on my iPod I would, for sure, only choose certain tracks. But the songs that work do work, and make me wonder what their future will be like. With a better producer, Sylvan Esso could make a masterpiece. There’s a lot to be said for synthpop with lyrics that actually have something to say, and Sylvan Esso is most certainly the band to do that. Also, be sure to read this fun article at the A.V. Club where Heath talks about her love of biscuits and gravy, and how a good plate of biscuits and gravy is the “light of humanity”.
Have a listen:
2) Kid Francescoli – With Julia
Kid Franescoli, a music project started by Mathieu Hocine, and later joined by singer Laetitia Abello, is a hazy, dreamy synthpop band from Europe (yes, “Europe”. I spent 20 minutes trying to find out where these people are from; “Mathieu Hocine” sounds French, but he sometimes sings in Italian; “Laetitia Abello” sounds Spanish, but could be French or Italian. I found one reference that says they’re from Marseilles – good enough for me, I guess). Oh, and most of the album was co-written by Julia Minkin, a girl from New York Hocine dated and broke up with (hence, the name, With Julia).
Anyway, the band’s music is intimate and lovely – kid of like a hip (but not too hip) European version of Washed Out. To listen to them is to fly over the Mediterranean at 30,000 feet as the stars twinkle above. And their music is hard to pin down: sure, it’s electro- or synthpop, but there are influences from everywhere: elements of classical, Italian folk and even Ennio Morricone in there, and guess what? It all just works. It’s really worth tracking this album down. And yes, this album is in English.
Have a listen:
1) La Roux – Trouble in Paradise
In 2009, a woman named Elly Jackson blew up the British music scene with her eponymous debut album recorded under the stage name “La Roux”. That album made it to #2 in the UK, won a Grammy in 2011 for “Best Electronic/Dance Album”, was nominated for a slew of awards in Britain and Europe and went platinum in the UK are Ireland, and Gold in Australia. It was a BIG DEAL, and people who had no idea synthpop even existed were pleasantly surprised by an album that reminded most of something the Eurythmics would have put out. But there was turbulence ahead: La Roux was actually a duo, with producer Ben Langmaid. The two quarreled over the future of the band. Entire albums were scrapped. Acrimony grew and Langmaid eventually left the band. Hence the long delay in her follow-up album… but the wait has been, by and large, worth it.
Trouble in Paradise is like La Roux, but somehow slightly better. While the debut album was great, it felt trapped in 80s nostalgia, as if Jackson was somehow afraid of breaking the illusion that it was 2009, not 1983. On this disc she actually steps out a bit. It’s not all drum machines and cold synths like the debut. Where La Roux might have been a beautiful, yet black & white, photograph, this album is a riot of tropical color. Yet once again, were trapped, this time by sexuality, which seems to permeate every inch of the disc. This isn’t a surprise – Jackson told us the album would be all about sensuality, and with song titles like “Cruel Sexuality” and “Sexotheque”, it’s not exactly a hidden agenda, either. But La Roux has always been about the hooks, that catchy something that makes her so appealing. The disc only has 9 songs, but damn if 8 of them could have been released as singles in a different era (ya know, when singles actually mattered). I know some will question my making this the album of the year, but the truth is, it’s the one disc I instantly fell in love with and wanted to hear more of. Sadly, this isn’t entirely of its own merit; 2014 was a down year, and so here we are. But Jackson deserves it anyway,
Have a listen:
THE RAW DATA
In case anyone’s interested, here’s some raw data from Last.fm.
Top Artists of 2014
(playcount in parenthesis)
1) Marsheaux (505)
2) The Raveonettes (460)
3) CHVRCHES (184)
4) Gliss (170)
5) Cocteau Twins (114)
6) Flunk (108)
7) Cristobal Tapia de Veer (96)
8) Saint Etienne (85)
9) La Roux (77)
10) Warpaint (72)
Top Songs of 2014
(source album in italics, playcount in parenthesis)
1) Marsheaux – “Analyze “(E-Bay Queen, 98)
2) Marsheaux – “The Game” (E-Bay Queen, 67)
3) The Raveonettes – “Sisters” (Pe’ahi, 58)
4) Gliss – “A to B” (Langstrom Dans, 56)
5) Flunk – “Queen of the Underground” (Lost Causes, 56)
6) Marsheaux – “So Far” (Lumineux Noir, 56)
7) The Raveonettes – “Last Dance” (In and Out of Control, 50)
8) CHVRCHES – “Recover” (The Bones of What You Believe, 42)
9) La Roux – “Sexotheque” (Trouble in Paradise, 38)
10) Gliss – “Hunting” (Langstrom Dans, 37)