Best albums of 2014

Happy New Year's Day! It's always fun for me to reflect upon my favorite albums of the previous year, so here's my list for 2014. Usually I rank my choices from 1 to 10, but this time I just can't decide how to order I'll list all ten alphabetically instead. The overarching theme: almost all these albums were crafted by an overlapping community of pop genius producers and instrumentalists in Los Angeles. The musical family tree branching out below is incredible!

Long ago I enjoyed Adams' "Heartbreaker" album, but since then I've lost track of him despite his always prolific output. However, due to the involvement of some of my favorite musicians like Mike Viola and Benmont Tench, I was very interested in checking out his new self-titled release. This very cohesive collection of songs blends together many of the sounds and vibes that appeal to me...'80s rock influences, Stonesy swagger, and smart melodies and arrangements. Lyrically, it's a bit forgettable, but the rest of the elements are very strong.

Beck is another artist who I don't really follow. I've got a couple of his albums that I enjoy, but the bulk of his catalog has escaped me. This particular record generated a lot of notable reviews upon its release, and I checked it out. Like the Ryan Adams album above, the session musicians appearing on this new Beck album are some of my all-time faves: Greg Leisz, Jason Falkner, and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. I liked it upon first listen, and it has sounded better and better over time. Beautiful atmospheric production, mysterious and evocative lyrics, and gorgeous arrangements and melodies.

Aimee Mann is one of my musical heroes, and her new duo collaboration with Ted Leo as The Both has obviously energized and inspired her. I love this entire album, but certain songs like "Hummingbird" will hold up with her best work from across her 30-year career. I saw The Both perform here in Minneapolis last Spring, and they're excellent in concert as well. Bravo, Aimee and Ted!

OK, technically this album came out in October of 2013, but I discovered it in January of 2014, so it goes on this best-of-list. Ferreira's music fits squarely into the kind of female-millennial synth pop that I've been loving lately, like Tegan & Sara, and Haim. Ferreira seems to be positioning herself as some kind of punkier and more dangerous alternative to Katy Perry...or maybe a more commercial version of Lana Del Rey...and I don't really get what's going on with her image. However, the music really appeals to me, thanks to the involvement of brilliant studio musicians like Ariel Rechtshaid (of Haim fame), Jon Brion, and Blake Mills (see below). There's some weird and clunky filler on this record but the pop singles are incredibly good. They're like the lost '80s singles that the world has discovered for the first time.

I adore everything done by musical adventurer Petra Haden, so I was thrilled to hear she was finally making an album with her talented sisters. These perfectly-curated collection of cover tunes was produced by Americana genius Ry Cooder, and the triplets' pure and natural voices sound glorious, effortless, and refreshing. Their interpretation of Nick Lowe's "Raining" is favorite moment on an entire album of brilliance. Also worth noting: I have two children in elementary school, and when I play this album in the car, my kids sing along and try to find the harmonies. So cool!

More than any of the other albums on this list, Jenny Lewis' new album stands out for its lyrics. Sometimes jarring in their confessional nature, and always fresh and surprising, Lewis sings from the oft-unheard perspective of a 40-something woman. Musically and instrumentally, too, this album is a slam dunk, echoing Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, and early-90s Maria McKee. In many ways, this album forms a trilogy with two other entries on this list: Beck appears on the album in a production role, and Ryan Adams (with Mike Viola, again) produces and performs in Lewis' band. Man, there's a cool scene happening down in LA right now with these Gen-X musicians!

Yup, another Los Angeles team of pop craftspeople at work. Now, bear with me here....the description of this band/album is a bit difficult to describe (or justify!). For the past seven years or more, producer/songwriter Bleu McAuley has been convening a rock super-band (featuring members of The Donnas, Rooney, Extreme, and more) to write and record songs that deliberately sound exactly like Def Leppard. After nearly a decade of movie soundtrack appearances and online leaks, the songs of Loud Lion have finally been released as a real album. The creation of this record accomplishes something very difficult and unusual: it takes a ridiculous idea, and delivers the goods with such confidence, fun, and unabashedness that it stretches beyond absurdity into awesomeness. If you ever loved the Pyromania and Hysteria albums, and if you appreciate rock songwriting and arranging, this album will please you deeply. "they're gonna kill you dead / they're gonna eat your head!"

My Facebook feed started getting filled up with mentions of this album a few months ago. Intrigued, I did some investigating, and I picked it up. I've got weird vibes about this's feels like the kind of thing I should NOT be interested in, for some reason. Like, it's kinda too jazzy for me, and Mills' vocal style is not really my speed. But, it's undeniable...there's something totally original and stone-cold genius about this album. The band is unreal: Jim Kelter, Mike Elizondo, Jon Brion, and Benmont Tench (again on this list!), and Mills' guitar playing is virtuosic, sensitive, weird, and totally cool. The closest thing to this from my record collection is John Hiatt's 1986 album Bring The Family...but even that's not exactly right. Blake Mills has done something incredible and original here, and although I don't quite get it, I can tell that it is a masterpiece. (Also worth mentioning...Blake Mills has played with lots of other artists who I've really enjoyed in recent years, including Sky Ferreira and Haim.)

My favorite album from 2013 was Tegan And Sara's "Heartthrob," produced by the brilliant Greg Kurstin. When I found out that Kurstin was also behind the board for the 2014 release by Sia, I immediately snapped it up. The single (and video) for "Chandelier" was unavoidable this past year, for good reason, but the rest of the album has brilliant moments as well. Some of the moodier R&B content doesn't work for me, but when Sia turns uptempo, I'm all about it. Her composition skills are singular and sophisticated, and her roof-raising vocal performances are lessons in virtuosic, unhinged caterwauling.

What else can be written or said about this album? I liked it on first listen, and incredibly it continues to improve with each spin. I really respect Taylor Swift as a human and an artist, and this album is a slam dunk.


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