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A Very Good Year
A series covering the 15 best music releases of 2014
2014 was one of the better years for music in recent memory. I’m not talking about pop music, be it the stuff kids listen to at parties or that their parents listen to on adult contemporary stations (think Cities 97 in the Twin Cities). I’m not even really talking about the underground scene that Pitchfork covers. Varied as it is, they don’t even like most records they cover enough to give them more than a 6 out of 10, and that’s telling.
2014 was good, though, for albums that keep torches burning. We’re not talking bad county fair nostalgia – we’re talking material made by vital artists with a history that still make relevant, albeit unfortunately ignored, music. 2014 saw releases by Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, and Marty Stuart that were some of the best not only of their careers but coming out today period.
There are a lot of overlooked albums on Rambling On’s 2014 best of list. Enough magazines and websites have overrated Taylor Swift’s okay pop album and a good but not great set by the War on Drugs. Sometimes I feel like music isn’t judged by merit anymore as much as reputation and its audience. This list focuses on music that doesn’t consider the age of the artists, whether hipsters drinking craft beer will pretend to like it for a few months, or kids will blast it while taking shots. It features timeless music that will last a lot longer than most of what you’ll find on similar lists.
Below are short reviews of #15-11. Longer reviews of #10-1 will appear throughout the week. Enjoy and please let us know what you think!
15. Jack White – Lazaretto
It disappoints me that Lazaretto is a good album. Sure, its deconstructionist blues and breezy folk is fun and often interesting, but Jack White is a talent that should not be making merely good albums. He should be making great ones, and that he hasn’t made that album is disappointing. He’s possibly the only popular musician today deeply rooted in the folk, blues, and country that the best pop and rock music, American or otherwise, is based on. As such Lazaretto, like its predecessor Blunderbuss, doesn’t live up to expectations.
That’s not to say that, as I mentioned, it isn’t good. The weird arrangements and funky feel of deconstructionist blues songs like “Three Women,” “Lazaretto,” “Would You Fight for My Love?,” and “That Black Back Licorice” are interesting and innovative (even if the last of those has the second worst lyrics in the White pantheon to “I Think I Found the Culprit,” also on this record). Moody country-tinged acoustic workouts “Temporary Ground,” “Alone in My Home” and “Want and Able” are catchy, fun little folk things. Again, good, not great. Hopefully someday that’ll come.
14. Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End
I take slight offense to the hype surrounding Everything Will Be Alright. Yes, it is a return to form for Weezer after several subpar releases, but it isn’t “the best since Pinkerton” as though every one of their records between then and now has been awful. Green Album, hello? That’s like the perfect pop album! Maladroit is somewhat underrated, Make Believe is filled with gems and is the most overlooked LP of the ‘00s, and there are 12+ songs on what they've released since the Red Album that is better than Everything.
That being said, after the missteps Ratitude and Hurley this is certainly a welcome change. “Back to the Shack” and “Cleopatra” revive the classic Weezer sound, final track “Futurescope Trilogy” is lovingly Wilson-esque, and “Eulogy for a Rock Band” is a beautiful tribute to the sort of songwriters and bands that fill the Rambling On top 15 albums of the year. With any luck Everything has inspired Weezer to truly get back to the shack and return to the thrilling days of yesteryear.
13. Twinkie Jiggles – Too Big to Fail
I like to listen to the albums I’m reviewing as I write about them. Since I’m covering five records here I had to pick only one and Too Big to Fail was the obvious choice. Heiruspecs bassist Sean McPherson, who is slowly becoming an icon in the Twin Cities, shows on his debut solo album that he’s got a way with both words and melody. The sunny album of horn-laden soulful pop and rap was the first release I fell in love with this year. Read the review I wrote for Curious North here.
As a lover of Bob Dylan and the Band, and especially the legendary Basement Tapes, 2014 was a very good year for me. The man himself played three intimate shows at the Orpheum, the legendary basement sessions were released in their entirety, and unused lyrics from the era were given to Elvis Costello and the guys from My Morning Jacket and Mumford and Sons for this pretty little album. As an avid fan of the Basement Tapes I can say with authority that they tap into the fun, laid back, low key, old weird America vibe of the original sessions perfectly. Highlights: Mumford’s “Kansas City” and Costello’s “Married to My Hack.”
11. Tweedy – Sukierae
I became a huge fan of Wilco after their masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That wasn’t the only thing that drew me in about them though. Their country roots, as far back as their first album AM and even in Tweedy’s old band Uncle Tupelo, interested me as much as the experimentation of their landmark YHF. Varied classic rock homage Being There and the perfect power pop of Summerteeth were icing on the cake. I thought Wilco was the new Beatles.
I still think they’re probably as close as we’ll get anytime soon, but the band hasn’t reached the heights they achieved with Foxtrot since its release. A Ghost is Born is dark and interesting but somewhat ordinary. Sky Blue Sky is light, fluffy, and fun but also somewhat ordinary. Wilco (The Album) and The Whole Love find the band on autopilot.
Sukierae, Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy’s debut solo album that he made with his son, is his best set of songs since Ghost. Maybe he isn’t trying too hard. Maybe working with his son has given his writing a breath of fresh air. Maybe he found his muse again. Regardless, this is a wonderful, varied, dark set of songs. “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is as punky as anything Uncle Tupelo ever did. “High as Hello” channels Wilco at their laid back best. Spencer Tweedy steals the show behind the drum kit on funky “World Away.” And so on. Every track is worthwhile.
The current lineup of Wilco is by far their most talented. But maybe their songs and arrangements are so stilted because it’s necessary to find room for all their parts. Hopefully that isn’t the case and Tweedy will carry the momentum of his writing here into his bands next release.
Next: 10. Neil Young – A Letter Home
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He is also a contributor for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik's music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.