For the past few years, my year-end music column has focused almost exclusively on lists of singles, from which I've tried my darndest to mine rubies in a slew of digital slush. Looking back on 2014, I was surprised to realize how many albums I fell in love with. I don't recall listening to dozens of whole albums fully and repeatedly since the 1990s or before, not to mention loving so many recordings released within the same twelve-month period.
In culling the best albums of 2014 (and even pairing my choices down to ten was difficult), I realized that each has something in common with the others: the musicians who created these albums share a profoundly deep struggle to make amends ... with the past, with a broken relationship, with the death of a loved one, with a hometown, with an imperfect family history, with a missed opportunity or with a future that questions the very existence of the art upon which they've built their livelihoods. These artists are searching for a path forward, both personally and as members of a dying industry. They treat every note as if the very existence and being of music were at stake. Sonically, this bodes well for the listener. Struggle never sounded so good.
- The War On Drugs / Lost in the Dream: After several lineup changes and side projects, the War On Drugs finally found its sound. Songwriter Adam Granduciel says the album was written after experiencing depression and paranoia upon returning home to Philadelphia from a tour. His battle to work through these feelings - made manifest in ambient monologues that feel a bit like Bob Dylan singing over a weirdly modern jam session between Roxy Music and Dire Straits - is central to the "can't win/can't lose" vibe that just won't let me quit this album.
- U2 / Songs of Innocence: To the 30 million people who haven't yet taken Tim Cook up on Apple's "delete album" button, I've got one thing to say to you: Even if you HATE U2, listen to this album, dammit. The band actually rocks (OMG "Cedarwood Road"!) for the first time in over a decade and several tracks completely dismantle Bono's iconographic Pope-kissing, shade-wearing, do-gooder facade. In "Iris," one of U2's best songs ever, you'll meet the little boy who watched his mother die a sudden, tragic death AND the very human middle-aged man who is holding back tears as he remembers her comforting him when he was afraid of the dark. When the teardrops fall, Edge chimes in with a hopeful chord and the world is light again. Must-hear brilliance.
- Rosanne Cash / The River & The Thread: There's so much meat to the songwriting here by Rosanne and hubby John Leventhal, it's hard to know where to start the praise feast. While we critics spent most of the year focused on the album's literary storytelling aspects (for example: how the record was inspired by Johnny Cash's boyhood home and a trip down the Natchez Trace, or how beautifully complex the civil war tale inside the song, "When the Master Calls the Roll" sounds), I've now settled into simply enjoying the sweet vocals and variety of bluesy grooves. "50,000 Watts" is my jam. It's everything country music should have been over the past 30 years but wasn't. Thanks for the resurrection of the genre, Rosanne!
- Johnnyswim / Diamonds: This husband/wife duo has approached its career in music the same way a master chef follows the rules of the slow food movement: take your time, source locally and develop your own authentic flavors. Done. Delicious singing, genre-less production and melodies for miles: This LA-by-way-of-Nashville pair is my favorite new act, unafraid to own its moral compass in an industry that badly needs a guiding star. Two distinctly individual voices asking, "In a million years, will this star keep shining even when our bodies disappear?" I hope so.
- Ben Watt / Hendra: It's no surprise Ben Watt made my list with his first solo album in more than two decades; he's a writer at heart and here he mixes book-and-music prose with tributes to his recently departed parents and half-sister. Add former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour to the subtle, warm chord progressions and no moment of joy goes unmet.
- Soundtrack to the movie Begin Again : This is the little soundtrack that could. Don't be surprised if its main theme, "Lost Stars," is nominated for best song during the upcoming awards season. Although he does a great job acting in the film and singing vocals on key tracks, don't be too quick to give Maroon 5's Adam Levine all the credit here: This soundtrack was written by the mysterious and awesomely tuneful songwriting team of Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois (Google them!), with assists from Glen Hansard and a few others. Their superb songs made the film shine. And in the surprise of the year: Actress Keira Knightley's matter-of-fact singing voice is real ... and irresistible.
- Elbow / The Take Off And Landing of Everything: This English band consistently puts out thought provoking, heart rending albums that deserve to be heard on every shore. My favorite track from this one is singer Guy Garvey's love letter to the Big Apple: "New York Morning" includes a sweet shoutout to Yoko Ono.
- Future Islands / Singles: This is the best album of its genre since their fellow Baltimoreans Animal Collective made 2007's Merriweather Post Pavilion. Signed to the venerable shoegazer label 4AD, Future Islands blends track after track of electronic experimentation with soulful vocals and a winking nod to eclectic late-1980s acts such as Fine Young Cannibals and even Level 42. "Sun in the Morning" exudes all of the brightness its title suggests.
- Larkin Poe / Kin: These Atlanta multi-instrumentalist sisters have spent much of 2014 hanging out with their new BFF, Elvis Costello, with whom they've collaborated on live performances in the US and the UK. Although he doesn't appear on Kin, you can tell why he loves them so much: "Don't" is evidence that these gals like their gritty Southern heritage with a cosmopolitan twist.
- Midge Ure / Fragile: Yes, the lead singer of new wave band Ultravox (and co-conspirator of Band Aid and Live Aid) released an album in 2014 that sounded fresh and relevant to the current musical landscape. And it's no wonder: Ure practically invented the electronic indie genre when he wrote brooding, sweeping songs such as "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes" and "Vienna." Fragile is introspective and moody but never manipulative or retro. Standout tracks: "Fragile" and "Dark, Dark Night" - a collaboration with Moby