What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago I was bellyachin' about having a difficult time coming up with even SEVEN records to be passionate about. Well, 2014 doubled-down and served up a damned bonanza of musical ecstasy. I'll get out of the way and let the music do the talking...hang on, because this one goes to 11!
1. Sugar Stems – Only Come Out At Night
This year’s album of the year came from nowhere and rode a wave of buzzsaw guitars, melodic organ and powerful female vocals directly into sugar-pop nirvana. Straight outta Wisconsin, Sugar Stems’ latest is a veritable feast of melodic goodness and singer Betsy Heibler’s gale-force voice, like a stronger and brasher Belinda Carlisle, is a goddamned thing of beauty. The whole thing is a sweetly tart treat, and if the title track isn’t used to soundtrack a “rebellious teens driving around LA at night” scene, Hollywood has failed. Hands down, my most played album this year, and I cannot wait to see what the group does next!
2. Matthew Ryan – Boxers
It’s inspiring to see a rock lifer put out the finest album of his career 17 years in, and “Boxers” is a helluva record! Ryan forgoes the acoustic-based treatments of his last several albums, cranks up the guitars and makes a glorious noise. Producer and secret-weapon guitarrorist Keven Salem allows this passionate set of songs to breathe and roar, highlighting the beautiful universality of Ryan’s personal, detailed narratives. If your heart doesn’t race at the emotional and sonic rush of “An Anthem For the Broken”, I pity you and hope your soul finds solace in whatever Maroon 5 record you play to cry yourself to sleep.
3. Bob Mould – Beauty & Ruin
Uncle Bob is clearly hitting his stride and follows-up 2012’s excellent “Silver Age” with a collection that is as sonically bracing and far more emotional. Sounding like the 4th album Sugar never made, “Beauty & Ruin” finds Mould working through loss the only way he knows how…via the sharp bite of his Fender strat and the rockfuckingsolid backing of bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster. Rockers “Kid With Crooked Face” and “Hey Mr. Grey” show the kids just how much howl a 50-something can bring to the table. Another stunner in a career lousy with them.
4. Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else
It takes a lot of life lived for a 24 year old to sing with this type of conviction. Lydia Loveless’ latest is the alt country album that Fleetwood Mac never made, coked-up drunk dials and reminders that sometimes the sex has to be good to keep a relationship in line. Loveless owns her sexuality and heartbreak, and while purists and longtime fans may bemoan the smoother textures, the dusky and downright sexy production and songs match Loveless’ voice like a glove…the kind that just might slap you if you are naughty (or beg for it well enough!)
5. Swans – To Be Kind
It takes cojones to follow up a beloved double-album with another two-disk set, but Swans has never been shy in the balls department. The fact that “To Be Kind” is EVEN BETTER than the masterful dark thrum of 2012’s “The Seer” is a testament to the genius and songcraft of Michael Gira. Realizing that the only way forward is to give the music hips, Gira and co (and a coterie of guest vocalists) add groove to their sonic assault and finally capture on wax the violent beauty of their legendary live shows.
6. Sweet Apple – The Golden Age of Glitter
There is a temptation to view any band that numbers J Mascis among its members as “Dinosaur Jr., Jr.” but Sweet Apple’s second record is clearly John Petkovic’s baby. Ten songs packed with power-pop deliciousness and shot through with the most gorgeous vocals of Petkovic’s career, “The Golden Age of Glitter” plays like a fab radio station that you catch while passing through some godforsaken part of the country on a long, solitary ride. You may not recognize all of the songs, but it just FEELS right. Perfectly under-thought and joyously beautiful.
7. Split Single – Fragmented World
Jason Narducy has been holding down the low end for so many indie rock luminaries (Bob Mould, Superchunk, Bob Pollard) for so long that it’s almost shameful to have forgotten what a damn fine songwriter he is! Backed by Jon Wurster and Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Narducy’s Split Single released the debut record we didn’t realize we needed: melodic, urgent, unassuming, and filled with fully-formed paeans to everyday life. A nice reminder of his estimable abilities and hopefully a first step back into the spotlight for one of the 90s’ most underappreciated songwriters.
8. FREEMAN – FREEMAN
Ween is dead, long live Aaron Freeman! After falling into the throes of addiction and out of step with the band (and best friend) he had since he was a teen, it was easy to think that Freeman (the person) would be yet another casualty of the rock n roll lifestyle and that perhaps his finest days were behind him (a Rod McKuen tribute record? REALLY?!?). FREEMAN the band firmly establishes that this is the second act that he deserves. Full of the wit and charm that imbued the finest Ween songs, this is a “recovery” record in the finest sense of the word. It’s heartening to see that a talent as robust as Freeman’s can reclaim his spark and create something as deliciously weird in sobriety as this record.
9. Afghan Whigs – Do To The Beast
Reunion records stink. Reunion records with only a couple of original members are usually downright awful. So, how in the hell did Greg Dulli and John Curley (the only two members left standing from the Afghan Whigs 90’s heyday) create an album that is not only NOT an embarrassment but that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with their other records?!? Make no mistake, Rick McCollum’s hinky, sideways leads are missed throughout, but these songs exhibit that unmistakable, swinging wallop that is embedded in the DNA of their finest material. Dulli’s dirtysexycool croon has aged into quite a nuanced instrument, wrapping seductively around gems like the brilliant “Can Rova” and the frighteningly powerful “These Sticks”.
10. Eyelids – 854
A psych-pop mini-masterpiece from guys with enough talent and time logged in the ranks of indie’s finest to spin gold. Chris Slusarenko, John Moen, and their comrades have created an album that is the equal of the 60s albums they take as an influence. Lead track “Seagulls Into Submission” is the most gorgeous single released this year and is indicative of the massive wealth of melody and wit contained in these 37 minutes of pop bliss!
11. J Mascis – Tied To A Star
I’ll be honest, as long as Mascis has a six-string in his hands, I am probably going to listen obsessively and wax rhapsodic. Far more robust and immediate than his initial solo foray (and better than Dino Jr’s lackluster “I Bet On Sky”), Mascis weaves gorgeous melodies across these largely acoustic songs. The difference here is that he also allows himself to spew out a couple of his trademark solos, and the sudden, violent interruption of his Jazzmaster is arresting. He’s also created the single most beautiful track of his 30 year career with “Wide Awake”, an absolutely gutting duet with Chan Marshall. For someone whose demeanor can charitably be dubbed “laconic”, he puts a whole lot of heart and effort into this…viva J Mascis!