Music is art – and we all have our opinions. In 2014, I found dozens of new songs to call favorites. You’ll see a list of 35 of them below. Some are quirky. Some are sad. And others just sound fantastic when you play them loud. It was a pretty good year for music – as a listener. For those actually making music, economic challenges abound (Taylor Swift excepted, of course). If you find new favorites here, please buy the music. Support the art you love.
This isn’t a ranked list. Songs are ordered like a playlist, so you might enjoy them in the order they’re presented. For convenience, I’ve created mostly complete playlists on Spotify and YouTube. Settle into a comfortable chair and have a listen!
1. Ty Segall – “Tall Man Skinny Lady” from the album ‘Manipulator’
Without question, this was my favorite song of the year. The constantly repeating drums, the screeching guitars. Just perfect. After obsessing over Ty Segall’s only 2014 album, I caught an NPR interview where he described a theme and a set of imaginary characters that reappear throughout ‘Manipulator.’ The talk is worth a listen if you’re similarly obsessed. I caught Segall’s performance at D.C.’s 9:30 Club in September — and it ranked atop my list of 2014 live shows. His was easily the loudest concert I attended during the year. And it’s been quite a while since I saw such a pleasantly wild audience (crowd surfing constantly). Really fantastic show — and the live version of “Tall Man Skinny Lady” was a special treat.
2. Temples – “Shelter Song” from the album ‘Sun Structures’
This is a beautifully recorded album — with a true-to-form psychedelic garage sound. On this particular track, you’ll catch sharp percussion that’s a hallmark of the album. It’s just great stuff. Other standout tracks include “The Golden Throne” and handclap-heavy “A Question Isn’t Answered.” ‘Sun Structures’ is the band’s first full-length album.
3. Springtime Carnivore – “Keep Confessing” from the album ‘Springtime Carnivore’
A beautiful voice, fun songs, and squealing nostalgic organs make for a fantastic album from Greta Morgan (under a new moniker). Morgan previously played in the Hush Sound and fronted Gold Motel. Both bands showcased her great vocals — and as Springtime Carnivore, Morgan’s musicianship is a highlight as well. She played most instrumental parts on the album (except bass). “Keep Confessing” was among the songs I played non-stop in the fall and winter. Other top tracks are “Other Side of the Boundary,” “Sun Went Black,” and “Name on a Matchbook.” Days before 2014 began, we caught Greta Morgan in an excellent Hush Sound set at Lincoln Hall on a very cold night in Chicago (the audience was rich with the performers’ high school classmates).
4. Sylvan Esso – “Coffee” from the album ‘Sylvan Esso’
An indie darling of 2014, this duo’s songs have the shimmer of popular pop and the electronic push of great dance music. I love a looping track of handclaps. Those are plentiful on the group’s debut — and while “Coffee” was deservedly noticed, other top songs include “Hey Mami,” and “Uncatena.”
5. Generationals – “Would You Want Me” from the album ‘Alix’
This is the closing song on a very enjoyable Generationals record. It’s infectious — from the opening track, “Black Lemon,” to this one. There’s a sing-songy delivery to most tunes. But that’s their thing. And it doesn’t ever detract from the light-hearted synths and drum loops that just sound fun. Those electronic sounds really get pushed in front of the vocals on most tracks. Good call. This is a record that’s danceable and toe-tap-inducing (check out the song “Charlemagne”). We caught a fun Generationals show in October at U Street Music Hall in D.C.
6. BØRNS – “10,000 Emerald Pools” from the EP ‘Candy’
Pleasing pop from a very pleasant first multi-song recording. All four tracks are worth hearing, especially “Seeing Stars.”
7. The Skygreen Leopards – “Leave the Family” from the album ‘Family Crimes’
So many of the songs on this excellent record are delivered in a whisper with sparse instrumentation. The folk-pop sound of this opening track slips toward the freak-folk genre as the album progresses — and I really enjoy the sound. Other notable tracks include “Crying Green & Purple” and “My Friends.”
8. Parquet Courts – “Instant Disassembly” from the album ‘Sunbathing Animal’
There are a few low points on this punk-ish rock record. But there are also supremely un-punk moments that shine. “Instant Disassembly” is lethargic and wonderful (of course, news events later in the year gave the chorus of “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” an entirely disassociated meaning by the end of 2014). A few months after this album’s release, the band put out a slow-rocking record that’s enjoyable on different levels. That album, ‘Content Nausea,’ was sold under the name of the identically pronounced but differently spelled Parkay Quarts. You can now find both 2014 records packaged together. If you do, you’ll want to hear the band’s cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and the slow-burning “Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth.” The title track of the second album, “Content Nausea,” is a notably great modern media critique with the delivery of a Velvet Underground piece.
9. Spoon – “Rent I Pay” from the album ‘They Want My Soul’
Such a great album — combining all of Spoon’s most reliable trademarks: smart writing, audible lead vocals, wordless cooing, and jangly, handclap-enhanced beats.
10. Ryan Adams – “Gimme Something Good” from the album ‘Ryan Adams’
This is an enjoyable rock album that starts with two burning tracks, “Gimme Something Good” and “Kim,” my clear favorites among several solid songs. I also particularly enjoy another track, “Shadows,” which feels like a remainder from Adams’ 2003 ‘Rock N Roll’ record (in the sense that it echoes early- to mid-80s U2). But so many songs here have the beautiful, original Ryan Adams sound — clearly recorded, well-written, and backed by music that has just a little twang. His voice. His songs about relationships and loss. And coping. This is one of his best albums. In “Feels Like Fire,” another standout track, Adams sings about being brokenhearted: “the feeling in my chest is fire… someone take me home tonight, it feels like fire… broken glass and wire” — and that just feels like a very good Ryan Adams song. There are so many similar moments on this record. I saw a top-notch Adams show this summer at the Belly Up in Aspen, Colorado. He walked on stage perhaps an hour later than expected. The audience waited as an audio recording of the Apollo 11 mission played from orbit to moon landing. Twice. It was excruciating. But a banter-filled show made up for the NASA bit, along with a setlist pleasantly heavy with material from the 2005 ‘Cold Roses’ album, another great one.
11. Tokyo Police Club – “Argentina, Pts. I, II, III” from the album ‘Forcefield’
This band has become a reliable favorite — though it’s been four years since their previous album of original material. There’s a new slickness to the most poppy songs on ‘Forcefield’ — but there’s nothing slick about a 9-minute openings track. The three-part “Argentina” showcases so many of the things that make this band great: guitar-driven rock, repetitive hooks, ethereal backgrounds, and super-fast playing. We caught them on tour at the Black Cat in D.C. in May. They had visited the White House during their stop in town and joked about the post-War of 1812 danger of letting Canadians get too close. Too soon. Oh. One more thing. In December 2013, I preemptively tweeted that this would be my favorite album of 2014.
12. Howler – “Don’t Wanna” from the album ‘World of Joy’
This is a particularly excellent track from an otherwise unremarkable rock album.
13. Conor Oberst – “Hundreds of Ways” from the album ‘Upside Down Mountain’
From start to finish, this is an excellent album. Lazy songs mix with rollicking ones. Great writing throughout. We saw Conor Oberst in May at D.C.’s 9:30 Club. He was backed by the band Dawes.
14. Elephant – “TV Dinner” from the album ‘Sky Swimming’
This British/French duo grabbed my attention with their single, “Skyscraper,” in 2013. That’s a fantastic song — and you’ll find it on the ‘Sky Swimming’ album. A lesser tune (but still excellent), “TV Dinner” has all of the nostalgia and beauty of an Amy Winehouse production. “Skyscraper” — which you seriously need to hear — begins with more of a slow Beach Boys feel (organs, a reverb-y bass) but adds a spectacular choral backing. It’s an enjoyable record.
15. Sharon Van Etten – “Our Love” from the album ‘Are We There’
This album is among the most slow and beautiful of the year. It rocks when it needs to. And Sharon Van Etten’s spectacular voice takes center stage. Other great tracks include “Your Love is Killing Me” and “Every Time the Sun Comes Up.”
16. Arum Rae – “Warranted Queen” from the ‘Warranted Queen’ EP
This is the excellent title track of Arum Rae’s 5-track EP, released in April. The heavy bass and robotic handclaps are pretty excellent. I had to look up the lyrics before I understood that Arum Rae is referring to a “hand-me-down jean,” not “Jane.” Mysterious words nonetheless. Another track on this same short record is fairly good, “Proof.” Arum Rae put out a second 5-track EP, ‘Waving Wild,’ in November. It’s different — more rocking and still enjoyable. She first crossed my path as an opener for Generationals — and we saw Arum Rae perform with them in October. According to a December Facebook post, Arum Rae recently joined the new band Western Summer along with Steve West, the drummer from Pavement (yes, that Pavement).
17. Swiss Alps – “Boredom” from the album ‘Dreamcentre’
This song was released as a single in 2013 before ending up on the California band’s 2014 LP. I first heard it as a random iTunes Radio item. It’s not bad — and the remainder of the record flows withs a similarly light, synth-y feel. I like that “Boredom” is especially sparse. Other songs have noticeable string parts that seem unusual and unusually pleasant (check out “Daydream,” “King,” and “Vital Signs”). One thing about this band: they’re almost invisible online.
18. Stugill Simpson – “The Promise” from the album ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’
Put on headphones and admire the tight musicianship on this album. A classic Nashville crew lays down a razor-sharp recording. And then you get to the vocals. Wow. This guy is sad. And dark. Really dark. Listen to “The Promise” for what must have been a particularly fun band assignment. The song kicks off with immediately recognizable words — but they don’t match the differently recognizable melody. You’re clearly hearing the strains of Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” (with slightly less countrypolitan strings). It’s repetitive and beautiful — but the lyrics above the Elvis tones are a familiar strain of a song you know you know — but you just can’t place. Turns out, the synthy original 1988 version was the only hit by When In Rome. Something complicated is happening here. And that’s just in the opening moments. About 2 minutes into this track you’ll hear a bit of John Lennon’s “Merry Xmas (War Is Over).” Why? Unclear. But it might be enough to make you contemplate the lyrics, repeatedly. There are more fantastic songs here — and they aren’t covers. Check out “Life of Sin,” “Long White Line,” “A Little Light,” and “Living the Dream.”
19. Luther Dickinson – “Mojo, Mojo” from the album ‘Rock ’n Roll Blues’
Loving a piece of music can be a nostalgic thing. Luther Dickinson’s excellent ‘Rock ’n Roll Blues’ album is a mature, respectful stroll through a style of music that Dickinson has played for quite a long time now. It’s impossible for me to listen to this record and not draw up a list of now-dead artists I want to hear for dessert: Otha Turner, Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and their various collaborations with Jon Spencer, Judah Bauer, and others. As one of the brothers behind the North Mississippi Allstars, Luther Dickinson helped introduce me to some great old music about 15 years ago. “Mojo, Mojo” opens with the sound of a fife (played by Otha Turner’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas). The song continues brightly and beautifully— but, damn, listen to those lyrics. This is a fantastic song. And really, just a pleasure of an album. You’ll also want to hear the song “Stone’s Throw.” Thanks to Seth for calling this record to my attention.
20. Mary Johnson Rockers & The Spark – “Send A Letter” from the ‘Remedy’ EP
That Southern accent it real. Mary Johnson Rockers is also the totally real name of a real person. And she is my friend. Mary’s latest recording is top-notch. Check out the guitar sound and those churchy organs on “Send A Letter.” It’s a fantastic and very well-recorded tune. Another favorite worth hearing on this record: “Pulley & Rope” — beautifully written and backed by a firm piano part. “Slow Loving” is also a great song with well-placed saxophone and a message about dialing it all back for the things that matter. Just buy the whole record. It’s great music and Mary’s voice sounds faultless throughout (the same is true for Miriam Chicurel Bayard’s accompanying vocals). Congrats on an excellent EP, friend!
21. Reigning Sound – “You Did Wrong” from the album “Shattered”
Throwback sounds and a less-than-perfect voice make for an endearing recording on this particular song. The non-stop rough edges make this a great album. Additional must-hear tracks: “In My Dreams,” “My My,” and “Never Coming Home.” Thanks to Shawn for this recommendation. Great stuff.
22. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – “Stranger to My Happiness” from the album ‘Give the People What They Want’
Another excellent album from Sharon Jones — highlighted by a second-to-none backing band. Here’s how I described their February concert in a Facebook post: “Just saw Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings in their first tour stop after their leader’s battle with cancer. Wow. The braids are gone. But that’s it. Her energy and her amazing voice are in top shape. Really a show about survival and joy. Lots of great stage banter. See this one if it comes to your town!”
23. Aretha Franklin – “Rolling In the Deep (The Aretha Version)” from the album ‘Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics’
Sure. I’ll buy Aretha’s covers record. And I’ll enjoy it. The production gets weird at times. But her voice shines — even if it used to be much brighter. Aretha’s touch adds extreme value to songs that you might otherwise see on the aging pop bargain rack. She adds her touch — and her lyrics — to Adele’s 2011 track here. But I also recommend checking out Aretha’s version of Sinéad O’Connor’s 1990 classic, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” What incomparable things does Aretha mention in her personally added list of loves? “Strawberry sundaes.” “Ham hocks and greens.” “My roller skates.” And of course, she notes, “I love my garlic toast.” Perfectly Aretha!
24. Jenny Lewis – “Just One of the Guys” from the album ‘The Voyager’
Great album, notably produced by Ryan Adams. I love the appearance of that very unique rainbow/sky/stars jacket on the cover of the record. It appears again in the video for this song along with a matching guitar. We saw an excellent Jenny Lewis show at D.C.’s 9:30 Club in July. She was clad in that same special suit (and guitar). You’ll want to check out this Vogue piece for a full history of the outfit.
25. Bobby Bare Jr. – “If She Cared” from the album ‘Undefeated’
I love the way this track opens with the cheerful tones of an organ — never to be heard again. Bobby Bare Jr. always has a knack for telling tales of the lowest places. In this case, it’s the collapse of a relationship from the voice of a cheater — or just someone moving on, depending on how you see it. This song — and this album — show Bare at his best. This is just great rock music.
26. Jack White – “I Think I Found The Culprit” from the album ‘Lazaretto’
The chunky guitar sounds and electric squeals that have been present in the best Jack White work definitely return in this album. Aside from this track, I really enjoyed the wordless “High Ball Stepper.”
27. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – “Lariat” from the album ‘Wig Out At Jagbags’
You’ll hear the goofy rhymes and strangely careful lyrics that really are a Malkmus trademark in this shout-out to the late 1980s: “We lived on Tennyson and venison and the Grateful Dead / it was Mudhoney summer, Torch of Mystics, Double Bummer.” And things slide along like a post-Pavement song. We caught Stephen Malkmus shortly after this album was released in February. He played at the Black Cat in D.C.
28. Elephant Stone – “Knock You From Yr Mountain” from the album ‘Three Poisons’
Hypnotic sitar psychedelia. This album probably has limited interest among general audiences — but I think it’s a solid addition to the expanding genre. This is a particularly fun band to see live (mainly due to the sitar). We caught them twice in 2013.
29. Sudden Death of Stars – “Bright Sunday” from the album ‘All Unrevealed Parts Of The Unknown’
Psychedelia! Sitar! And more beautiful harmonies among old-style garage rock. I’ve become a devotee of releases from Ample Play Records. The label founded by the former Cornershop frontmen has a great ear for talent — especially along the lines of retro psychedelic rock. Join their e-mail list if you’re into this stuff.
30. The Black Angels – “Linda’s Gone” from the album ‘Clear Lake Forest’
With this record — and particularly this song —a droning and beautifully repetitive psych-rock sound returns to one of my favorite bands. “Linda’s Gone” combines this group’s hazy lo-fi trademark with a few great (and Velvet Underground-like) guitar sounds. Tambourines make an appearance. And the background vocals are ethereal and repetitive. Exactly what I hope to hear in a Black Angels recording.
31. The War on Drugs – “Eyes to the Wind” from the album ‘Lost in the Dream’
One track does not do this album justice. It begins with ethereal sounds and robotic clicking that soon becomes a perfect, nonstop drumbeat. It continues hauntingly with that unique War on Drugs guitar sound. You’ll hear some woodwinds. Some echoey vocals. And then the album closes with the sound of waves crashing against a shore. It’s a beautiful record. Beyond this song, my favorite tracks include “Under the Pressure,” “Red Eyes,” “An Ocean Between the Waves,” Lost in the Dream,” and “In Reverse.” Lots of good songs.
32. Angel Olsen – “High & Wild” from the album ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’
From start to finish, this is practically a perfect album. Beautiful. Raging. And specific enough that there are some great stories lurking below the surface. In so many of these songs, you’re really left to imagine the details of a terrible pain or a messy relationship. I suppose that that’s what makes for great writing. Oh. And bonus points for including the lyrics to every song in the digital booklet (there are interesting and subtle differences between the text and the recordings). Occasional fuzzed-out guitars, sometimes lo-fi vocal recordings. But always clear enough to get the point across. This album moves so smoothly between sweet and sad acoustic songs — into ever-so-slightly wild rock-outs.
33. Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires – “The Company Man” from the album ‘Dereconstructed’
Southern rock blasts perfectly along in this record — though maybe too often drowning out some spectacular lyrics. Listen closely (or Google for the words). In the case of “The Company Man,” you can read this excellent interview for some background. We first heard Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires when we watched them open for Alabama Shakes at a 9:30 Club show in D.C. in April. Great set.
34. The Black Keys – “Weight of Love” from the album ‘Turn Blue’
It’s fair to say that the things I like the best about ‘Turn Blue’ are also among the things that annoy me most — throughout the record. The song that shares a title with the album includes a weird droning noise that snakes from left to right and back. And back. And back. Repetitively. Annoyingly. In its dissonance, that sound is a reminder of everything that attracted me to this band in the first place: their sparse sounds and marvelous two-person musicianship. The time has long passed to negatively address the Black Keys expansion beyond a duo. I’m over that. And they clearly are as well. The popular single, “Fever,” is a well-produced song that melds already-arrived pop aspirations with a bit of the retro Black Keys sound (“retro” for music in general — not just this particular band). Organs are a great addition to so many modern Black Keys songs, including “Fever.” The same goes for background vocals (adding a beautiful touch to “Year In Review”). I’m highlighting the album’s first track here, “Weight of Love,” because it blends a wailing guitar with sharply recorded drumming and an ethereal sound that really works. It’s a solid song (with lyrics that may not match the quality of the music — but they’re ignorable). There are a few great singles on this record. But also several throw-away tracks. Overall, it’s a shoulder shrug of an album. Meh. Extra points for the psychedelic cover art.
35. The Lumineers – “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” from the deluxe edition of the album ‘The Lumineers’
This is a bit of a bonus track — as it was really released in 2013. I didn’t hear it until a car trip along a narrow mountain road this past summer. It’s a fun cover of the Talking Heads original.
My annual lists of Favorite Music are a running tradition — going back 15 years. Find the complete playlists at AaronMyers.com.