Albums | Mike Rengel

warondrugs 200My perennial disclaimer still applies: I’m in no way staking claim that these were the best albums of the year.

 

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Art is subjective; what floats my aural boat may be a cast iron anchor that sinks your sonic battleship. But these are the records that made a difference in my life in the past year. The ones that were in regular, often constant, rotation. The ones that stuck with me, that made me want to dissect them, to write about them, to share them with friends. These were the songs that got me through the long, dark teatimes of the soul and that fueled exuberant runs, city drives with the sunroof open, sunny Saturday mornings where the world was my oyster, hangouts with friends, and the quiet moments alone with my thoughts. These were the sounds that mattered. Maybe they’ll become part of your life, too.

As is by now tradition, I’ve also assembled a Spotify playlist featuring my favorite songs of 2014, from this list and beyond. I use this list to keep track of the year in music as I go along, and it serves the bonus purpose of helping me spread the 2014 tunes love. There was far, far more goodness in the year than what I could reasonable cram into this article.

Listen to Mike’s top tracks on Spotify: Top Tracks of 2014 

The Top Ten:

  1. Manic Street Preachers: Futurology (Columbia) | What does a band that’s done it all and has nothing left to prove do after 25 years, countless accolades, reinventions, tragedies, and resurgent success? They keep moving. A Euro-focused album that’s as in motion as the traffic on the Autobahn its Krautrock inspired ethos suggests, Futurology is best listened to while in transit, while out running or hurtling down a desolate stretch of inter-urban freeway. It mines 1970s German art rock and early Simple Minds to craft an often angular and icy, yet powerful paean to art as a mode of transportation to new ideas. Previous Manics left turns have felt inconsistent, even a bit forced. But there’s nary a hint of self-consciousness on display here. This is the type of art that’s made when you don’t give a crap what anyone thinks, that’s imbued with the inspiration and artistic freedom borne from being unencumbered by expectation. If you only Spotify one track, make it: “Walk Me to the Bridge”
  2. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian) | Adam Granduciel’s worldview is at once blurred yet pristine. Lost in the Dream is a heathaze mirage on the horizon of a sunbaked, sleep-deprived road trip with Petty and Dylan: non-ironic guitar solos and skittering drum machines holding court with saxophones, while harmonicas like weary but optimistic sighs weave in and out, sincerity defiant in the face of fashion. This is an album that serves as a testament to the therapeutic powers of art, of working through darkness with the lifelines of creativity, conversation, dedication, and passion. Spotify: “An Ocean in Between the Waves”
  3. Sun Kil Moon: Benji (Caldo Verde) | Exceptionally conversational, even by Mark Kozelek standards. Benji is built upon delicate, sparse, yet often intricate finger-picked acoustic guitar (building on the nylon-string, Spanish classical style Kozelek debuted on 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises) accompaniments that impart weight to simultaneously simple, yet profound humanist reflections on mortality, grief, violence, and loss. Kozelek ruminates on school shootings, the accidental death of a young second cousin, a botched suicide, a mercy killing, memories of the sudden passing of high school classmates, and the death of a notorious serial killer (amongst other losses) to explore the familial ties that bind us together, and to reinforce the way the places we come from and the places we end up matter, and how an endless stream of small moments add up to the sum of a life. Benji is stuffed with the mundane, but not in a pejorative way. It emanates the hushed, yet resounding reverberations of an unamplified concert held in a deconsecrated church. Spotify: “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same
  4. Beck: Morning Phase (Capitol) | This was the year in which Beck once again checked his Coat of Irony at the door and donned his lesser-used Sincerity Hat. Morning Phase is spiritually descended from, but no mere retread of, 2002’s glassy-eyed breakup masterpiece Sea Change. Lyrically, it’s demonstrative but impressionistic, sung in a clarion voice that moves through solids with the ease of an x-ray. Beck uses phase-shifted folk, pristine harmonica-and-pedal-steel country rock, and dramatic swathes of symphonics to temper the album’s baked-in melancholy with a golden, wistful optimism. Morning Phase is deeply affecting, often affirming, but in a koan-like way; it’s almost as if Beck has crafted an emotional mirror to magnify, focus, reflect, and temper each listener’s unique sorrows and existential crises, while simultaneously sharing his own. Spotify: “Blue Moon”
  5. MØ: No Mythologies to Follow (Sony) | Danish singer MØ is Ronnie Spector in a Sporty Spice topknot and a tracksuit-clad cyborg exoskeleton. Her accomplished debut is a dynamically alluring mélange of Continental electro-pop, cascading guitar lines, Motown girl group callbacks and R&B of both the trad and postmodern downtempo varieties. This is an excellent collection of dispatches on the state of modern love and trust, where sweetness and lust, action and contemplation, betrayal and devotion coexist on flipsides of the same coin. Spotify: “Waste of Time”
  6. Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots (Warner Bros./XL/Parlophone) | Albarn’s first official solo album is a mix of unadorned indie rock, downtempo trip-hop, North African music, and chamber pop. It carries an overarching sense of carrying on in the face of both personal loss and a loss of cultural soul; it’s a record about what we do to keep ourselves going whenever our inner and outer worlds erode. It’s a thoughtful listen, occasionally dour in an old man’s fist-shaking way, but never angry. It’s a record shot through with both gray views on capitalism and omnipresent technology’s homogenizing influences, as well as human-scale hope for personal and societal redemption. Spotify: “Lonely Press Play”
  7. Future Islands: Singles (4AD) | Samuel T. Herring is the unlikely face of wholehearted passion. His dancing, bopping, crooning, death metal growling style is both shtick and bordering on outsider-art sincerity. Future Islands provides him a buoyant bed of organically grown, acoustic-guitar-augmented synthpop over which to do his thang, and the resultant album is equal parts daily affirmation and dance party for the non-self-aware. This is music that is not complicated but is deeply fascinating and affecting. Spotify: “Seasons (Waiting on You)”
  8. Neil Finn: Dizzy Heights (Lester) | Neil Finn solo albums are sonic comets, appearing at regular but infrequent intervals. But when they do arrive? They’re unfailingly adventurous. Dizzy Heights doesn’t disappoint in this regard: It’s a collaboration with producer Dave Fridmann that pays dividends by melding Finn’s innate, effortless gift for pop songcraft and melody with playful and skewed arrangements. It’s heavy and breezy, swirling with psychedelic flourishes and a not-unpleasant sense of high-altitude lightheadedness. It’s a little bit romantic and a lot weird. Dizzy Heights further cements Finn’s pedigree as a gifted songwriter who manages to never fall off the difficult to walk tightrope strung between tradition and experimentation. Spotify: “Recluse”
  9. Spoon: They Want My Soul (Loma Vista) | It’s easy to get in a rut, to keep doing what you do because, well, that’s what you’ve been doing for as long as you can remember. Spoon clearly felt the toll of that path, taking four years off after 2010’s weary, fairly perfunctory Transference, focusing on solo projects and outside collaborations. The hiatus did Britt Daniels well, as he reemerged with an intensely focused, purposeful, yet somehow still elastic set of songs that bear the sonic stamp and influence of producer Dave Fridmann (who, judging by his 2014 pedigree, never sleeps and/or is actually three people). They Want My Soul teems with spiky guitars, burbling electronics, sneering and self-assured vocals, and the kind of rhythm that gets into your bones. It’s an album that’s clearly the work of a group that felt compelled to make it, one that stands as the best Spoon record in years, and possibly…their best to date? Spotify: “New York Kiss”
  10. Lykke Li: I Never Learn (LL/Atlantic) | Clocking in at a barely LP length 32 minutes, I Never Learn is nonetheless packed tight with laid-bare flaws and all of the feels: smoldering, still-raw heartbreak; wrenchingly honest self-recrimination; regret; and the particularly confusing realization that, despite having made your peace with who and what you are, who and what you are still wasn’t good enough for someone. Li melds late 1960s/early 1970s California folk-rock and English singer-songwriter vibes with Wall of Sound dramatics to great effect, producing a sweeping but unvarnished record that’s half Plastic Ono Band and half a stack of Ronettes 45s played at 33 speed on an old portable turntable. Lykke Li is my spirit animal. Spotify: “Never Gonna Love Again”

Honorable Mentions:

Ryan Adams: s/t (PaxAm) | I haven’t stopped loving Ryan Adams since I heard him for the very first time circa 2001, but this marks the first time since 2005’s Cold Roses that he’s made an album I haven’t had to train myself to like. So many of those felt like fumbling approximations of himself—not bad but staid or muted, as if shedding his formerly careening, hard-living lifestyle robbed him of his prolific superpowers. But after 2012’s sedate but centered and promising Ashes & Fire, Ryan Adams arrives filler-free and bearing a sense of passionate purpose borne of confidence and peace of mind. Adams’ DIY production job is slick yet organic, giving the album a feel that’s both expansive and private. He peels off tight electric guitar lines to complement thoughtful acoustic spines, enhanced by a crack backing band led by multi-instrumentalist power pop maestro Mike Viola and exquisite, liberally applied Hammond organ courtesy of the mighty Benmont Tench. After getting married and sober, and enduring periods of illness and injury, it appears that Adams has finally realized and internalized that being in control doesn’t have to equate to being boring or bored. Spotify: “Am I Safe”

First Aid Kit: Stay Gold (Columbia) | With their perfect harmonies and their hearts prominently sewn to their flowing sleeves, the sisters Söderberg continue to bridge the gap between suburban Stockholm and the vast, golden wheat fields of Midwestern America. The lyrics are more personal this time, overcoming occasional awkwardness by virtue of their unfakeable, earnest idealism. The duo’s third album employs orchestral flourishes and a full band, adding a sweeping scope to their country-folk intimacy. Spotify: “Stay Gold”

Deptford Goth: Songs (37 Adventures) | Post-chillwave (whatever that means) electro with a Bon Iver indie-folk twist. Concise songs with structures that twist and morph within their four-minute constraints like a dolphin in the sea. Spotify: “Relics”

James: La Petit Mort (BMG/Cooking Vinyl) | James is barely known in the States and hasn’t been a chart name in the U.K. for nearly 15 years, but they’ve quietly, steadily continued to make some of the most soulful, restless, yearning “big music” around. La Petit Mort is the sound of doubling down on life as we process loss and mourn death—aptly personified by the vibrant Mexican skull art on the cover. It’s doleful record, but also dance-y, joyous, darkly funny, sexual and tender, punctuated with life-affirming trumpet lines and Tim Booth’s ageless sing-it-to-the-rafters vocals. Spotify: “Moving On”

David Gray: Mutineers (IHT) | A quintessential cult act, David Gray continues to be beloved by a few, but is mostly remembered as a VH1 blip by many who remain oblivious to his veteran charms. He’s spent the past decade and change making a string of finely crafted, likeable albums —each with a handful of gems of songs strewn about —that often struggled to make enduring impressions. Mutineers, a collaboration with Andy Barlow of U.K. electronic duo Lamb, marks a conscious effort to rip out the ductwork and start anew. Its oft-meditative tone occasionally bursts with exuberant yelps and moments of joyous relief. It stands guarded but not closed off, emanating romance and even cheer amid moments of self-criticism. The soulful songs are structured but impressionistic, akin to watching layers of marine clouds shift sideways in the low light of a British winter’s late afternoon. Gray was never the chart act he was presumed to be with White Ladder; with Mutineers, in taking a step back before taking two forward, he finally sounds free. Spotify: “As the Crow Flies”

Jenny Lewis: The Voyager (Warner Bros.) | These are the sounds of the things you do and think to keep yourself on the right side of crazy, along with the memories of the signposts you pass along the way. On The Voyager, Lewis and producer Ryan Adams (a catalyzing presence who contributes clarity-granting oversight and liberally applied lead guitar lines) spray a pop-rock candy coating over a dense, chewy center made from the struggle between reconciling societal and personal expectations with reality, the attendant confusion and attaining the (hopefully) eventual transcendence. A taut record about messy things that couches incisive, highly personal stories in a colloquial, vernacular style, making for an album that’s both well-honed and gratifyingly loose. Spotify: “She’s Not Me”

Town Cars: Hearts and Stars (Extension Chord) | STL’s Melinda Cooper is well-known around town as a lynchpin support player in numerous vital acts. But as Town Cars, she finally steps out into the spotlight to deliver a beguiling collection of songs that range from overdriven lo-fi indie, to singer/songwriter and chiming folk-rock. Hearts and Stars is unassuming but confident, dynamic and melodic, and well-stocked with harmony and counterpoint vocals. Spotify: “Paul’s Party”

Chumped: Teenage Retirement (Anchorless) | Hey, it’s 1993! Again! Still? Chumped make irresistible college radio ready alt rock with touches of unadorned, bash-it-out DIY punk and late-1990s indie emo. Their debut LP is exuberant and insecure, brash and vulnerable as 20-year-olds often are, all jagged guitars with melodic treasure buried amidst the shards. This is music that feels, at once, of a specific time and timeless. Spotify: “Old and Tired”

Special Awards section:

“Not Actually an Album” award: Line & Circle: “Mine Is Mine” single & s/t EP (White Iris) | Line & Circle’s entire output for 2014 comprises a mere four tracks, but they all light up the jangle cortex of my brain like whoa. Unabashedly reminiscent of early R.E.M., 4AD-stable dream pop, and bits of C86 lo-fi indie, Line & Circle follow up on the tantalizing teaser of 2012’s debut “Roman Ruins/Carelessness” single with new single-serve snack packs of open-ended promise and the mysterious, weighty wonder of gazing up at a vine-strewn, rune-covered monolith from a lost civilization. These guys only have six songs to their name, but it behooves you to listen to them all. Twice. Spotify: “Mine Is Mine”

“Interesting Failure” award: The Gaslight Anthem: Get Hurt (Island) | Not a failure, per se—more an overlong noble experiment that intermittently succeeds but consistently holds interest. If nothing else, I’d have preferred Brian Fallon to mess with the Gaslights’ winning formula to a greater extent. Get Hurt features greater lyrical depth (mixing mythological allusions in with his bread and butter of tragi-romantic, leather-jacketed heartbreak), a number of arrangements and musical approaches brand new to a band that previously adhered fairly rigidly to a trademark, albeit endlessly satisfying, blueprint. Get Hurt sometimes sputters, but it’s always fascinating, never outright terrible—and when it works, it really works. Spotify: “Underneath the Ground”

“Comeback Player of the Year” award: Counting Crows: Somewhere Under Wonderland (Capitol) | Straight up, I never thought Adam Duritz would make music like this again. Somewhere Under Wonderland is a return to the wide-eyed Van Morrison rambling, rocking, tender spirit that marked the Crows’ best work, and it stands quite easily as the most interesting, loose-yet-purposeful, engaged record the group has made since the underrated This Desert Life way back in 1999. If the still-classic first three albums are Duritz Mk I, the intermittent, distant, theme song–peddling, chart-chasing “Hard Candy”/”Saturday Nights…” Aughts years were Mk II; call this…Adam Duritz 3.0. Not quite as tragically, beautifully sad, and wandering as the original iteration, not as disinterested as the previous one, but remarkably free of self-consciousness and clearly in a better headspace, while simultaneously being engaged and into it when it comes to fronting this band. Welcome back, gents. Spotify: “Palisades Park” | Mike Rengel

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