As I started piecing together my favourite 20 records of 2014 list, I thought I had most of my choices locked in by about July. Beautiful and forward-thinking albums, in a diverse range of genres, appeared in the first half of the year. But the final six months of 2014 saw more quality records spring from the ether. They came thick and fast – and many by Aussie artists. Seven of the artists on this list are homebaked (and if we recruit New Zealand’s Liam Finn as one of our own, which we probably should, then it’s technically eight). But you will also notice the triumphant continuation of some stellar careers, namely Pixies, Weezer, Beck and The Tea Party. They’re all showing the kids how it’s done. Long may they run. And, like any epic list as such as this, some incredibly tough decisions were made. More time could have easily seen the creation of a top 50 list. But, alas, I can only provide the cream of the crop.
SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: TOP 20 RECORDS OF 2014
Everything Will Be Alright In The End
Weezer’s ninth record was an overwhelming return to form, bottling the pure power pop direction of their classic self-titled records. It’s as if singer-songwriter Rivers Cuomo buried these tracks in a time capsule in the mid-90s and dug them out in January 2014. The record’s gems include the Bethany Cosentino duet ‘Go Away’, the Justin Hawkins collaboration ‘I’ve Had It Up To Here’, and ‘The British Are Coming’. The album’s title indicates the arduous writing process, and Cuomo eventually distilled 200 new songs down to the tracks on Everything Will Be Alright In The End. Those that made the cut are rollicking, youthful anthems with chugging guitar riffs – the sound of a band not so much treading familiar ground, but really playing to their strengths. The finale is a three-parter, prog-rock style, that builds into a thrilling instrumental crescendo.
19. LYN BOWTELL
Heart of Sorrow
If the album name Heart of Sorrow gives you the impression Lyn Bowtell’s 2014 record is a tad melancholy, then you’re not far off the mark. But, like any talented songwriter, Bowtell transforms the heartache of an ended relationship into something not just emotionally moving but also both empowering and uplifting. Produced by Shane Nicholson, Heart of Sorrow sees Bowtell on not just vocals but also acoustic guitar, ukulele, omnichord and percussion. And while the singer is a Tamworth Country Music Festival regular and former Toyota Star Maker winner, Bowtell does not dwell in country music conventions – Heart of Sorrow is an atmospheric and eclectic collection.
Penned by singer-songwriter Husky Gawenda as he roamed the streets of Melbourne’s suburbs in a state of restless reflection, Ruckers Hill‘s kinetic folk dynamics and echoed golden harmonies do conjure the masters like Crosby, Stills and Nash and Simon and Garfunkel, and more recently Fleet Foxes. But Husky’s music is far more than accomplished tribute. Ruckers Hill‘s pastoral instrumentation is captivating. Only a strong and deeply distracted listener could turn this album off after hearing the haunting build-up of the opener and title track. And ‘I’m Not Coming Back’ is sublime.
17. FUTURE ISLANDS
It takes serious balls to call your new record Singles. But, luckily for Future Islands, they have both balls and the talent to back them up. As radiant as this synth-pop album is, Future Islands are best experienced on stage. Singer Samuel Herring dresses like a Bible salesman, sings like Bobby Womack and gesticulates like a firebrand preacher. And while Singles is an adequate indication of their sound, capturing the soulful quality of Herring’s voice, it has spacious, shimmering ’80s production that could add a dash of sex to any social gathering. Singles is the soundtrack to this summer and many others to come.
Acid Rain and Sugar Cane
There’s many twists and turns on the swampy Southern stomp of baritone-voiced rocker Henry Wagons’ latest effort. Lyrical gems like “I used to dance with the Devil on his burning coals, I had a billion little pieces of glass in my soul, until I found you” reveal Wagons as a wry, self-deprecating romantic. There are slow-burning, wistful tunes with brass flourishes alongside ballsy ’70s rockers like ‘Chase The Eclipse’. And there are playful tempo and mood changes on tracks like ‘Search the Streets’ that give Acid Rain and Sugar Cane a dark, cinematic quality – and the dichotomy suggested in the title.
15. ADAM COHEN
We Go Home
Adam Cohen is the first to admit that his voice bears an eerie resemblance to that of his legendary father, Leonard. And with We Go Home, the son demonstrates how musical magic can be transferred by the miracle of genetics. To find inspiration Cohen returned to his childhood homes, in both Montreal and on the Greek island of Hydra, and recorded live with his band in those hallowed rooms. While We Go Home has slow-burning, brooding and wry moments that channel those of his genius father, and even lyrics that directly reference Leonard’s work, many of the songs feel modern and borne of Adam’s individuality. We Go Home stands as a poignant and intimate rumination on a man’s relationship with his father and his duty to continue a family legacy.
14. THE TEA PARTY
The Ocean at the End
After 10 years away, it would have been foolish to think Canada’s mystic prog-rockers The Tea Party would return with anything less than a bold, stadium-sized record. The Ocean at the End saw the band end their hiatus, bury the hatchet and lock themselves away for 18 months until they had an album worthy of their monstrous back catalogue. The Ocean at the End contains Jeff Martin’s spiritual lyrics and deep, melodramatic vocals, Burrows’ Bonham-esque drumming and Stuart Chatwood’s thundering bass. The classic thrust of the album’s epic set pieces have a distinctly ’70s vibe, whether its the shimmering Zeppelin-esque opener ‘The L.o.C’, the gargantuan title track or the heavy blues stomper ‘The Cass Corridor’. The Ocean at the End is a robust return from the power trio and one of the year’s finest rock albums.
When Beck releases a new record, most music purists rightfully stop to sit down and absorb it. Morning Phase rewards those listeners, with the consistently fascinating songwriter delivering a stunning dream-folk opus that returns to the sensibilities of 2002’s Sea Change. But, dare I say it, Morning Phase is even more wondrous. Using much of the same band as Sea Change, including both drummer Joey Waronker (who can also be heard on Steve Smyth’s Exits) and his composer father David Campbell, Beck’s latest musical sojourn is essential listening.
12. LIAM FINN
I was lucky enough to hear Liam Finn play the entirety of his new record, The Nihilist, in a tiny Brooklyn venue in April this year. My mind was blown. While we all know the musicality that Finn has in his genes, this sublime and superbly eccentric pop-rock opus confirms that the apple has fallen quite far from his father Neil’s tree and rolled through time, spinning through the deep-space wormholes previously travelled by Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Jeff Lynne, Prince and, more recently, Luke Steele and Dan Kelly. Finn has certainly explored the furthest reaches of his creativity on The Nihilist and, as the title suggests, is unshackled by any previous rules. The anarchist streak is there, infused in the fuzzy, synth-sparkled production, and alive in Finn’s impressive guitar work. ‘Burn Up The Road’ is a particular highlight.
11. FIRST AID KIT
When stunning Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg released their sublime 2012 record, The Lion’s Roar, it was difficult to imagine they could write anything more gorgeous. But this year they proved they had more beauty to offer with Stay Gold. They’ve expanded their sound on their third release, floating their aching, other-wordly harmonies over a 13-piece orchestra that swells and fades in the luscious folk atmosphere. The sisters clearly grew up on ’60s Americana, and write timeless masterpieces that echo of that era. Lyrically, Stay Gold illustrates more personal and mature introspection, making this record all the more goosebump-inducing and emotionally devastating.
If We Don’t Leave Now
The restless, smoky atmosphere of Demi Mitchell’s captivating debut record If We Don’t Leave Now is perhaps best defined by the hypnotic lulling guitar and piano of Red Wine Fever. The lyric “I’ve been dancing with the Devil with two left feet” seems to perfectly distill De’May’s restless introspection and evocative lyrics. As does opener Chelsea Bridge, in which beguiling songstress is followed through the streets of England, France and Berlin by the presence of a lover left behind. This album is perfectly suited to the conditions in which it was almost certainly written – in the presence of red wine, gin and candlelight.
09. DAVEY LANE
Appearing in the broader public consciousness as the young axe-wielder that joined You Am I before the release of their commercially successful Dress Me Slowly record, Davey Lane has since been a quiet achiever as a solo artist and singer. He released two records as the principal songwriter and frontman of Brit-rock-inspired group The Pictures, penning stadium sized tunes with killer riffs and instantly infectious hooks. But last year Davey Lane spread his wings further with The Good Borne of Bad Tymes, an EP released under his own name. It was followed this year by the release of a second offering, debut album Atonally Young. If it is not one of the best rock albums of 2014, then it is certainly the best Australian rock record of the year. The album proves Lane’s status as a clever craftsman as it takes the listener on a journey through both his musical tastes and his wild imagination. While there’s no major departure from his Brit-rock leanings there is certainly a far broader scope, with elements of psychedelia, Brit-punk, ’70s glam and power pop.
08. THE WAR ON DRUGS
Lost In The Dream
It’s safe to assume that Lost In The Dream will feature large in most Top 10 lists this year. So it should. The third album from the Philadelphia quartet, led by mastermind Adam Granduciel, and counting Kurt Vile amongst its former members, is indeed an echoed, dreamy folk-rock album. It is a lush, layered excursion that straddles the influences of both Americana and some of Montreal’s grandiose indie-pop acts. It’s as if Kevin Shields collaborated and produced an Arcade Fire album. Though diverse in mood, from upbeat tracks like Red Eyes to chiming slow-burners like ‘Suffering’, Lost In The Dream is cohesive and consistent, placing you in a trance from which you never want to wake.
Closing Forever Sky
On their 2009 debut record, The Bowery, Firekites gave us a sweet, wistful indie-folk record. With crisp acoustic guitar parts that playfully intertwined amid organic percussion and Tim McPhee and Jane Tyrrell’s vocals, the album captured fond suburban memories and small moments of significance. It was music best played at either sunrise or sunset. It was radiant. Closing Forever Sky is Firekites music that breathes best at night, deconstructing the pristine qualities of The Bowery and rebuilding them into a darker, more spacious and atmospheric layer cake. It’s as if the dream-like opening textures of Sonic Youth’s ‘Candle’ have been expanded into a full-length musical study. The result is something beautiful, hypnotic and meditative.
Indie Cindy, originally released as three EPs and the legendary band’s first studio release since 1991, somehow recaptured the darkness and twisted beauty of the Pixies’ finest work. Even without bassist Kim Deal. Opening with the metal thump of ‘What Goes Boom’, the record documents a fiercely original act that has influenced many but never been emulated. Tracks like the dreamy ‘Greens and Blues’ and the anthem rock of ‘Another Toe In The Ocean’ stand amongst some of the Pixies’ finest surf-drenched, sunny, punked up, guitar-driven classics. Black Francis’ lyrics are typically obtuse and wry, David Lovering’s drums are relentless and dynamic and Joey Santiago’s guitar-work is gigantic, adding texture and colour to every track. Indie Cindy echoes of past glories but is so vehemently modern, the mark of a group that was – and still is – ahead of its time.
05. TV ON THE RADIO
TV On The Radio have always struck me as similar to that thawed alien from John Carpenter’s The Thing – they’re a shape-shifting blob that’s absorbed the DNA of musical genres across all time and dimensions. What does the real TV On The Radio sound like? There’s no definable answer beyond the identification of a number of traits: inventive, experimental, odd, mesmerising, dynamic. They’re essentially a rock band, but the Brooklyn quartet always keeps the listener guessing and, most of the time, engaged. Seeds is TV On The Radio at both their most accessible and immediately engaging. This is by no means an attempt to cross into the mainstream, but it does feel like the group have allowed pop convention – particularly melodic hooks – to share equal airspace with their eccentric arrangements. Seeds is an appropriate name too, because this truly brilliant record grows and grows with repeated listens. It’s at times moving and in other moments dance-inducing. Very few bands can be this diverse without seeming unconvincing. But TV On The Radio’s latest effort never falls short of impressive intricacy or authenticity.
04. BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB
So Long, See You Tomorrow
Bombay Bicycle Club’s first three records were the work of a band with a penchant for interesting and incredibly melodic power pop, comparable to other “calypso pop” bands but with far more emotional resonance than the surface sheen of their contemporaries. So Long, See You Tomorrow, which perplexingly takes its name from the short and dark 1979 novel by American author William Maxwell, is a joyous and lusciously produced album comparable to some of Mew’s finest work. Frontman Jack Steadman wrote the songs while touring through Japan, India and Turkey and those world influences are evident, but they’re more a spiritual and euphoric texture that solders together the immense and diverse array of instruments and ideas. It all comes together and makes sense, while both leaving the listener guessing and allowing the tracks to unfurl with repeated listens. So Long feels youthful yet is undeniably the work of songwriters and musicians with burgeoning wisdom and exploding craftsmanship. A truly masterful record.
03. RYAN ADAMS
In the three years since his stripped-back acoustic record Ashes & Fire, the world’s greatest songwriter, aka Ryan Adams, formed a punk band called Pornography and in his own studio, Pax Am, produced artists like Fall Out Boy and Jenny Lewis. He also found the time to put together a new post-Cardinals studio band, which includes Aussie bass prodigy Tal Wilkenfeld, and make a self-titled rock record. The result is a beautiful marriage of dark and light shades that echoes of Springsteen, and includes guest appearances from actor Johnny Depp and Adams’ wife Mandy Moore. From slick, masterful rockers like ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘Trouble’ to an effortless ballad like ‘My Wrecking Ball’, the tracks on Ryan Adams combine to form a modern classic of a record. But the true nature of the songwriter’s genius is how the album tracks step forward after repeated listens – ‘I Just Might’ and ‘Kim’ emerge as some of the finest rock songs of Adams’ astonishing and indisputably flawless back catalogue.
02. STEVE SMYTH
Nomadic troubadour Steve Smyth is a truly unique talent and his mesmerising vocals have drawn many comparisons. His voice shifts effortlessly between the haunting lilt of Jeff Buckley and the gravelly depths of Tom Waits. On his second album, Exits, Smyth also proves himself a master songwriter, drawing together innumerable influences gleaned from his travels around the world; rock, folk, blues and gypsy swagger. From the moving ballad Written or Spoken to the Australian anthem South Land, Exits is a record that you – despite the title – will not want to leave any time soon.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
01. JAMES VINCENT McMORROW
From the first notes of opener ‘Cavalier’, it’s apparent that Dublin’s James Vincent McMorrow has given the world a stunning gift this year. His vocals across Post Tropical are fragile, like shards of melting glass, and bring the listener an ecstasy that is difficult to quantify. Leaving behind the acoustic folk of his previous release, the singer-songwriter opts for icy, piercing vocal overdubs, stinging organ chords and vast, spacious production. His stunning voice floats across you, buoyed by transcendental melodies. And when you think Post Tropical can’t contain any more beauty it ends with ‘Outside, Digging’, a track that words will never do justice. Just listen to it and have your spirit uplifted.