Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Best of 2014

Just like last year, coming up with a “best of” list for 2014 was an excruciating task. After weeks of agonizing consideration, I finally whittled my list down to 30 albums (with special attention given here to the first 10). After that, I added a slew of special categories for other releases that I thought were worthy of inclusion. Although I’m sure I’ll be kicking myself on January 1 for missing an artist or two, I'm pretty satisfied with the list below. Here goes...

1. ALBUM OF THE YEAR- James Williamson: Re-Licked

Legendary Stooges guitarist James Williamson developed Re-Licked as way to finally record a number of post-Raw Power tracks that he wrote with Iggy Pop in 1973-74. Although these numbers have existed for years on a number of bootleg releases of varying audio quality, Re-Licked represents the first time these songs were given a chance to grow in a legitimate studio setting. Guests include Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys/Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine), Lisa Kekaula (The BellRays), Gary Floyd (The Dicks), JG Thirlwell (Foetus), Carolyn Wonderland, Bobby Gillespie and Simone Marie Butler (Primal Scream), Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees/ Queens of the Stone Age), Joe Cardamone (The Icarus Line), Petra Haden, Ariel Pink, Ron Young (Little Caesar), Mike Watt (Stooges/Minutemen), Alison Mosshart (The Kills), Gregg Foreman (Cat Power), Steve Mackay (Stooges), Toby Dammit (Stooges/Iggy Pop/Swans), Mario Cuomo (The Orwells), Nicke Andersson (The Hellacopters/Entombed), The Richmond Sluts and Michael Urbano (Cracker/Smash Mouth). How could this album not be amazing? (Read my full review here.)

2. Dum Dum Girls: Too True

Charting singer/multi-instrumentalist Dee Dee Penny’s evolution over the past near-decade has been an intriguing study of how an Indie queen can be a Pop star at heart. Formerly the drummer/singer in San Diego band Grand Ole Party (and previously known as Kristin Gundred), Dee Dee launched The Dum Dum Girls as a bedroom recording project in 2008. The first Dum Dum Girls album, 2010’s I Will Be, was a delightfully echoed-out, lo-fi affair that sounded like first Pretenders album recorded on a boombox. The production was smoothed over on 2011’s stellar Only In Dreams, which showcased Dee Dee’s ability to create an unstoppable earworm. (Take a listen to “Bedroom Eyes” and enjoy the song being stuck in your head for the next week.) As hinted on 2012’s dramatically evolved End of Daze EP, Dee Dee has finally gone larger than life with The Dum Dum Girls, fully embracing a big song/big production approach on Too True in an impossible-to-deny shot at the Big Leagues. Remember the last time an act on Sub Pop decided to go to the top? While Too True surely isn’t destined to have the same cultural impact as that other band, it’s still a wondrous sonic experience and one of the best albums Sub Pop - or any label, for that matter - has ever released. (Read my full review here.)

    3. Pink Floyd: The Endless River

While The Endless River is not the greatest Pink Floyd album ever released, it is certainly the most cohesive and adventurous collection of music they've produced since The Wall. Far from a mere collection of Division Bell castaways, the album offers an array of moments that meet or even far exceed the quality of that release. Inspired by an absent friend, The Endless River takes us on one final trip through the creative minds of a unique combination of players and songwriters that left an indelible mark on the world of music. If this is indeed the end, this album is an extraordinary way for Pink Floyd's light to go out. (Read my full review here.)

4. Gong: I See You

Still going strong at 76, Gong leader/Psychedelic Rock legend Daevid Allen recently gifted the world with I See You, a fascinating collection characterized by esoteric lyricism and some absolutely draw-dropping musicianship. (Just listen to son Orlando Allen's hi-hat work on the title track!) Despite facing serious health issues in recent times, Daevid remains a deeply creative force still producing music as powerful as he did more than four decades ago.  

5. Arch Enemy: War Eternal

Demonstrating Arch Enemy's typical ability to balance aggression and melody, the extremely well-produced War Eternal showcases an absolutely bulletproof band. Beyond the impressive presence of new vocalist Alissa White-Gluz, War Eternal boasts plenty of stellar guitar playing (especially at the 2:19 mark in “On And On,” during the first half-minute of “No More Regrets” and basically in all 323 seconds of “Time Is Black”). Three cheers to founding member Michael Amott and new six-stringer Nick Cordle for delivering performances that offer plenty of dramatics without once hinting at pretentiousness. Best of all, the songs on War Eternal (especially the hook-heavy “As The Pages Burn” and the epic “You Will Know My Name”) instantly get in your head and stay there for days. Nearly 20 years after their formation, Arch Enemy have once again raised the bar for groups creating melodic, song-oriented Metal that still retains plenty of power. There's not a single note on War Eternal that doesn't shine. The best Metal album of 2014. (Read my full review here.)

6. The Pretty Reckless: Going To Hell

The cover of Going To Hell - Gossip Girl actress Taylor Momsen's second album with her band The Pretty Reckless - shows her wearing nothing but black paint. (She shows off even more skin on the vinyl edition). Although some of the more conservative and/or cynical members of the public might be unimpressed by such blatant “sex sells” exploitation, the fact remains that anyone unwilling to look beyond a bare ass on the cover and simply listen to the actual music will miss out on experiencing one of the finest albums released this year. (Read my full review here.)

7. Brownout: Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath

This Austin-based Latin Funk ensemble take on seven of the most beloved songs from the original Black Sabbath with amazing results. Although every second of the mostly instrumental Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath is magnificent, “The Wizard” and “Planet Caravan” are especially sublime. (Have a listen here.)

8. Mike Hudson & The Pagans: Hollywood High

When you get right down to it, legendary writer/Pagans frontman Mike Hudson didn't need to do a goddamn thing after releasing the “Street Where Nobody Lives / What's This Shit Called Love?” single with The Pagans in 1978. As perfect as anything off Raw Power, this two-sided gem easily secured Hudson's place in history, making everything (records, books, articles, etc.) he has blessed us with in the ensuing decades icing on the cake. Not only is Hudson still creating, but Hollywood High proves that hasn't lost the spark that made his early work so incendiary. Backed by a supergroup including members of Detroit/Los Angeles veterans The Dogs (whose Loren Molinare produced the album), Keith Christopher of The Georgia Satellites and even former Dio/Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain, Hudson and his raspy, world-worn voice deliver an eight-song, 33-minute blast of energy that reminds listeners of what the real deal sounds like. This ain't Mall Punk, kids - this is real, filthy-barroom-at-1am-with-a-full-ashtray kinda shit. If The Dead Boys had kept their act together long enough to do a third album, it would have sounded like Hollywood High. (Read my full review here.)

9. Sonny Vincent & Spite: Spiteful

First off, let's have a look at the cast of characters on this thing. Of course, there's Sonny Vincent, New York Punk veteran and legendary Testors frontman, on vocals and guitar. On bass, we have Glen Matlock from The Sex Pistols. The drumming is handled by none other than the great Rat Scabies of The Damned. And then things go way over the top...On saxophone, Steve Mackay from the mighty Stooges. Let that sink in...We have a singer/guitarist who's been at this game for a good 35 years, the guy who wrote “Pretty Vacant” on bass, the original drummer from one of history's greatest bands and a guy who played on Fun House. This is some serious, serious business – enough to make one reluctant to actually play the record out of fear of having his or her incredibly high hopes dashed. Thankfully, Spiteful will go down in history as one of the very few occasions when something like this absolutely worked. (Read my full review here.)

10. Jade Starling: Captive 

Jade Starling, the voice of one of the world's most revered Dance tracks (Pretty Poison's “Catch Me [I'm Falling]”) returned in 2014 with Captive (Subpoena/Universal), her amazing EDM-driven solo debut. Created with longtime musical partner/Pretty Poison bandmate Whey Cooler, Captive found Starling working with some of the world's greatest DJs and remixers, including Lee Dagger of the hugely successful English remix team Bimbo Jones (Lady Gaga/Rihanna/Kylie Minogue), Laszlo (Selena Gomez/Kelly Clarkson/Justin Bieber/Nicki Minaj) and Franck Dona (Universal France). A true labor of love and easily the best Dance album of 2014, Captive took close to two years to complete. (Read my interview with Jade here.)

Here are 20 more albums that made 2014 a great year for music:

Taylor Swift: 1989
Haunted Hearts: Initiation
Cœur de pirate: Trauma
Ian Anderson: Homo Erraticus
Obituary: Inked In Blood
Bob Mould: Beauty & Ruin
Shellac: Dude Incredible
Tuxedomoon: Pink Narcissus
Renaissance: Symphony Of Light (Read my feature here.)
John Batiste/Chad Smith/Bill Laswell: The Process (Read my review here.)
Bernie Worrell: Phantom Sound Clash Cut-Up Method: Two (Read my review here.)
Ani Cordero: Recordar
Hollis Brown: Gets Loaded
Anna Phoebe: Between The Shadow And The Soul
Paul Roessler: Volume One
Sanctuary: The Year The Sun Died
Mike LePond's Silent Assassins: S/T (Read my review here.)
Negativland: It's All In Your Head
Various Artists: Axels & Sockets: The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project
Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey: Going Back Home

Song of the Year – Hawkwind featuring Brian Blessed: “Sonic Attack”

Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen fronting Hawkwind? How amazing is that?! (Read my feature on the song here.)

Best EP- Shmu: Chroma Key

There is a big difference between acting weird and being weird. It’s simple to spot by asking yourself this question: “Is the strange person in front of me working hard to appear fucked up, or is this person projecting ‘odd’ by merely existing?” Compare Dot Wiggin to Marilyn Manson, and you should hopefully see my point. A lot of trust fund smart-asses hit the musical conveyer belt on my desk these days, with each cheeky bastard trying harder than the last to shock or befuddle. (They usually bore or mildly annoy.) While I’ve never met the man who calls himself “Shmu,” his genuinely weird music leads me to believe that this cat’s creating stuff as inventive as the Chroma Key EP because that’s what’s in his head naturally and not because he wants to appear “out there.” (Read my full review here.)

Best Split Release – Electric Frankenstein/The Cheats: Rockamania #1

Bolstered by the return of original bassist Dan Canzonieri, Electric Frankenstein storm out of the gate on Rockamania #1 with their strongest tunes in a decade. (Check out “I Feel So Lonely” if you don't believe me.) The Cheats from Pittsburgh keep the party going with their melodic Antiseen-meets-Hellacopters charm.  

Best Box Set – Black Sabbath: The Complete Albums 1970-1978

Featuring the same remastering as the out-of-print Black Box from 2004, this budget collection gathers all eight of the original lineup's albums. Nearly 40 years after Osbourne, Iommi, Butler and Ward last recorded together, this music remains the absolute high point of Heavy Metal.  

Best Live Album – Pere Ubu: Visions Of The Moon

There is no other band quite like Pere Ubu. The kind of musical group that forces scribes to beg the heavens for the right adjectives (I'll go with “brilliant”), Pere Ubu has been offering exciting and perplexing sounds for the past 40 years. Recorded in Dublin in November 2013, the digital-only Visions Of The Moon finds the band at their experimental best. Closer to the out-there spirit of albums like 1978's Dub Housing and 1982's Song Of The Bailing Man than the more conventional vibe of, say, 1991's Worlds In Collision, Visions... is an exhilarating (if at times uneasy) journey.  

Best Single – Front 242: “Take One” / “Im Rhythmus Bleiben”

The return of Wax Trax! Records was the best music news of 2014. In addition to a 12-inch EP by Cocksure (featuring Chris Connelly), the label marked its second coming with this very limited edition single by Wax Trax! legends Front 242. Side A features a 1984 live recording of “Take One” from the group's first US appearance at Medusa's in Chicago, while Side B presents a live recording of “Im Rhythmus Bleiben” from the Wax Trax! Restrospectacle event in 2011. A glorious reminder of just how magical Wax Trax! was – and is

Best Compilation – Soulside: Trigger + Bass•103

Twenty-five years after playing their last gig, the final lineup of legendary D.C. Post-Hardcore band Soulside – singer Bobby Sullivan, guitarist Scott McCloud, bassist Johnny Temple and drummer Alexis Fleisig – reconvened this month for a series of east coast reunion shows. Fans were able to prep for the gigs by checking out a 12-inch release on Dischord Records that combined Soulside's 1988 Trigger EP with the three-song 1989 single, Bass/103. Released in August on yellow vinyl, the LP served as a stellar primer for listeners who are just now discovering the band thanks to the considerable buzz surrounding the December events. This stuff still sounds great after all these years. (Read my feature on the band here.)

Best CD Reissue – Slint: Spiderland

Although Nirvana's Nevermind is often cited as the most important Rock album of 1991, there were plenty of “Alternative” titles put out in the months leading up to that record's release that – at least in my never-humble opinion – far exceeded it. (Dinosaur Jr.'s Green Mind and Material Issue's International Pop Overthrow instantly come to mind.) With Louisville, Kentucky's Slint already disbanded by the time Spiderland was quietly released by Touch and Go in early 1991, this extraordinary album never really stood a chance the first time around. It would take more than two decades – and a steady cult following that grew with each passing year – before Spiderland saw the reissue treatment (and international attention) it deserved. Offering a compact alternative to the massive, sold-out-before-you-even-knew-about-it box set version, the two-disc edition of the Spiderland reissue features the album, a DVD of Lance Bangs' documentary film Breadcrumb Trail and a download card for 14 bonus tracks. One of the greatest listening experiences you'll ever have.  

Best Vinyl Reissue – Rollins Band: Life Time

Although the Rollins Band would gain mainstream recognition years later with albums like 1992's The End Of Silence and 1994's Weight (and leader Henry Rollins would later find considerable success as a TV show host, actor and 30-plus-year spoken word performer), 1987's Life Time remains perhaps the band's strongest and most incendiary studio release. Released November 18 on Rollins' 2.13.61 label in association with Dischord Records, this revamped vinyl edition of Life Time was remastered for vinyl by TJ Lipple and includes updated artwork by Jason Farrell. (Read my interview with Rollins here.)

Best Digital Reissue – Toiling Midgets: Sea Of Unrest

An album everyone should hear at least once, Sea of Unrest was the 1982 debut full-length by the brilliant post-Negative Trend band Toiling Midgets. Featuring former Sleepers members Ricky Williams (vocals) and Tim Mooney (drums), the record finally saw a digital release earlier this year. Those unfamiliar with Toiling Midgets are encouraged to give “Destiny,” “Microage” and “All The Girls Cry” a listen. Remarkable. 

Best Unearthed Recording – Fugazi: First Demo

In addition to consistently adding new releases by current bands to their always-intriguing discography, D.C.’s Dischord Records has devoted considerable time in recent years to reaching as far into the dusty crevices of their recorded archives as possible to uncover previously unheard (or at least widely uncirculated) early demos from some of their most popular artists. This ongoing project includes the 2003 release of Minor Threat’s 1981 demo as a 7-inch EP, the 2012 CD/10-inch release of the extraordinary 1984 demo by Rites of Spring and - earlier this year - the 7-inch, eight-song 1980 demo recording by State Of Alert (S.O.A.). The label wrapped up 2014 with the release of the self-explanatory First Demo by Fugazi, a collection bursting with unbridled energy and some of the finest bass/drums interplay ever committed to vinyl. Bonus: Features the previously unheard “Turn Off Your Guns.” An essential purchase, even if you already own and know the proper studio versions of these tunes by heart.  

Best Video – OFF!: “Hypnotized” 

The best video of Jack Grisham peeing on David Yow you'll see this year.

Best Music Documentary – Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of Randy Now & City Gardens  

Seeing a show at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ was like visiting the Thunderdome. The violent, sweaty crowds inside matched the danger and decay that greeted showgoers outside. Thankfully, it was worth it to see some of the most incredible music to come from the underground in the early '80s through the mid '90s. Have a favorite band from left of the dial? Yeah, they played City Gardens. Riot on the Dance Floor chronicles the man responsible for it all: Randy “Now” Ellis, a super-enthusiastic, larger-than-life music fan who spent his days as a mailman while doing his part to keep the American Alternative music scene alive at night. Randy paid his dues; Riot pays him the respect he deserves.

Best Music-Related Book – Book by The Jesus Lizard

Published by the Brooklyn-based Akashic Books, BOOK charts the Chicago band’s intense history: From their beginnings as a drum machine-fueled recording project to their rise in the American underground scene to the band’s highly controversial (yet financially beneficial) jump from indie label Touch and Go to Capitol to their eventual breakup in 1999 (and reunion 10 years later), it’s all there. With a slew of photos illustrating the tale, the band – as well as multitude of friends, supporters and fellow musicians – offer insight into the band’s caustic life and legacy. Even if you’re unfamiliar or disinterested with the band’s music, BOOK makes for an intriguing exploration of the alternative music scene of the ’90s – a short burst in time when a band as gloriously odd as The Jesus Lizard could do whatever they wanted to do and get a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. (Read my feature on the book here.)

So there you have it. I wish you all a happy, healthy and successful 2015!


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