Every year, I’m part of a collaborative effort across higher ed to list the best music of that span. Every year, I struggle. For 2014, I kept shuffling most of the top 10 right down to the deadline … although my #1 was pretty much set the first time I heard.
And now, as the late great Casey Kasem once said, on with the countdown …
20. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager. The two things this album has going for it are Lewis’ voice and Ryan Adams producing. Overall the material is decidedly less interesting than her recordings with Rilo Kiley.
19. Bad Suns, Bad Suns. With a little more verve, variety and exploration, Bad Suns could have been this year’s Imagine Dragons or Bastille, but instead they’re a pretty decent act that produced a very catchy single in “Cardiac Arrest.”
18. Beck, Morning Phase. When you’re in the right mood, this is a great album. When you’re not in the right mood, it’s kind of a downer. Sorry, Beck fans.
17. Gemma Hayes, Bones and Longing. The Irish songstress creates albums that are very good in the moment yet largely forgettable once you’re done. Which is unfortunate, since she has a gorgeous voice.
16. Afghan Whigs, Do The Beast. File this under mildly disappointing. Greg Dulli and the boys can still put together some interesting songs but it’s nowhere near the power of their older material since it’s missing the angular guitar riffs of Rick McCollum that so perfectly complemented Dulli’s alternately lovable and loathsome characters.
15. Dex Romweber Duo, Images 13. The former frontman of pscyhosurfabilly duo Flat Duo Jets has successfully reinvented himself in a duo with his sister Sara on drums. It’s mostly rockabilly, blues and jazz with the occasional shreiks and howls and guitar flourishes that remind you of Dex’s mercurial talent.
14. David Gray, Mutineers. Gray’s music is like an old friend — comfortable and reliable. Bursts of impressive songwriting notwithstanding, many of his latest records are somewhat interchangeable yet always charming.
13. Benjamin Booker, Benjamin Booker. Set-opener “Violent Shiver” starts with a rockabilly guitar riffs, trudges through swamp blues and a taste of grunge before even completing a verse. It’s that kind of unpredictability that makes this album remarkable and surprisingly fun.
12. U2, Songs of Innocence. Once you get past the army of hipsters whining that — gasp! — an album by a legacy band had defiled their iTunes playlist, you find a pretty decent album. Probably their best since 2001’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” it yields plenty of catchy moments yet the band didn’t stay embarrassingly away from what it does best.
11. Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn. Talent has never been the question with Fleck, perhaps the greatest banjo virtuoso on the planet, but instead how accessible his material might be. But the sweet vocals and additional banjo work of Washburn — who also happens to be Fleck’s wife — makes this one of the most engaging effort in Fleck’s impressive canon.
10. Shovels & Rope, Swimmin’ Time. Married duo Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst continue to get better and better playing foreboding folk that casts a dark atmosphere dotted with glimmering and shimmering riffs and harmonies.
9. Bob Mould, Beauty & Ruin. Bob Mould can do no wrong. He just plain knows how to rock out or present a steady slow burn, lift you up or break your heart. Like his previous record, “Silver Age,” he does wax reflective on growing older but it’s Bob Freaking Mould so anybody can enjoy it.
8. Twin Forks, Twin Forks. Best known for his work with Dashboard Confessional, Chris Carrabba ventured into folk and Americana with his new band. Call it what you will, but few vocalists have the effortless ability to craft vocal hooks Carrabba does — emo, folk or polka, it just plain works.
7. Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge, Avalon. A seemingly odd couple — “Critter” Eldridge better known for bluegrass and the Punch Brothers, Lage for modern jazz — blends sensationally through interpretations of the Great American Songbook and some improvised originals. Their collaboration, especially live, crackles with talent and chemistry.
6. Big Wreck, Ghosts, After the colossal disappointment of Big Wreck’s second album “The Pleasure and the Greed” in 2001, I’d never think a baker’s dozen years later to have a new record in my top ten. But “Ghosts,” like 2012’s “Albatross,” is a pleasant return to form. Once known as Canada’s answer to Soundgarden, Big Wreck’s comeback material easily eclipses any of Chris Cornell’s recent output.
5. Little Hurricane, Gold Fever. With a White Stripes formula — frontman Anthony Catalano and drummer Celeste Spina — playing a kind of retro rocking blues, they first made a splash with “Homewrecker” (notable largely in providing a soundtrack for Taco Bell ads). Their latest shows an even tauter, tighter take on love and loss and lust.
4. St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Half the City. “Close your eyes and listen, and you might imagine someone who looks a bit like Otis Redding. Open them, and you’re likely to see someone who looks more like your neighborhood bank teller,” said Bob Boilen of NPR. Can’t say it any better, other than that the whole excellent band and the material make this an outstanding listen.
3. Rural Alberta Advantage, Mended with Gold. When RAA first showed up, they seemed a bit of a novelty — perhaps a cross between Neutral Milk Hotel and fellow Canadians The Tragically Hip. But “Mended with Gold” is such a solid, compelling disc that it’s time to re-evaluate their skills and staying power.
2. Blondfire, Young Heart. This is simply a relentlessly catchy record. The highest of five male-female duos in my top 20, siblings Bruce and Erica Driscoll have shown flashes with their previous recordings, but “Young Heart” is really a stellar non-stop parade of hypnotic pop/rock gems.
1. Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams. Adams’ prolific nature (including three full-length albums in 2005 alone) overshadowed the fact that as catchy and engaging as his material was, his songs always felt a bit more sloppy and incomplete than you’d hope. Then he slowed down, mellowed out (a little) and the results are stunning. “Ryan Adams,” his first disc in three years, features the kind of thorough songcraft and loving arrangement that shows just how much talent he has in full flower. In my opinion, nothing even came close to this for best album of 2014.