Nostalgia: A sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. We all experience this and know that media and pop culture enhances the interaction. Music plays a vital role in drawing those feelings to the surface, and many of us are attached to music from our past and the memories we have tied to those defining songs. Does music seem better just because we remember it to be? Because we connect it to a first kiss, an endless summer, an emotional event? Or are there clear trends in popular music that we can (for the most part) define to be better or worse periods of musical release.
Taking a look back on 2014 it’s safe to call it somewhat lacklustre compared to the some of the miraculous content of more recent years. There were highly anticipated albums that just plain fell short of the mark. Not being able to rely on these essential artists who have consistently delivered timeless content cast a shadow of disillusion across the timeline. There was no radical advent of any new particular sound or production. Pop women and big booty ruled the airwaves and permeated the culture, while any even remotely inspiring indie rock acts took a nap in the backseat. The sound of saxophone in Pop/R&B/Hip Hop continued to please the ears, and trends in this genre’s songwriting pushed the big giant chorus out of the way to make room for bridges and instrumental refrains, a Dance/Pop trick used by DJ’s (See: Ariana Grande’s Problem / Turn Down For What). As a songwriter myself it’s actually insane to even think about an instrumental only chorus, but it’s only because I’ve forgotten that melodies and groove aren’t only effective when delivered from the vocalist, but can be just as awesome when delivered by a sticky keyboard line. U2 directly injected it’s new album onto our iPhones. Had it been an important album that strategy would have allowed us to all simultaneously live through a defining marriage of music & time – instead the album was lifeless and timid (Still Rolling Stones’ # 1 of the year. Really? On a quick side note – Everyone who bitched about what U2 did needs to show some respect and appreciation. The delete button is a thumbprint away. I still have to give credit to hard working artists at any level for making art, and we should respect and be thankful that we had the opportunity to own theirs for free, as a gift, whether it’s bad or not). Favourites such as Julian Casablancas, Interpol, & Wild Beasts all surprised with mediocre records that warranted no more than a passing glance at best. Even less popular but exciting acts like Cold Cave and The Faint released new music in 2014 that was almost completely forgettable. What happened?
Let’s look at a 20 year comparison. There are trends in this art form when you have periods of time that just sparkle with memorable content. Here’s what came out in 1994 alone, 20 years ago: NIN’s The Downward Spiral, Weezer’s blue album, Nirvana Unplugged, Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Pearl Jam’s Vitolgy, Park Life by Blur, Ill Communication by Beastie Boys, Portishead’s Dummy, Hole’s Live Through This, Ready To Die by Biggie, Under The Pink by Tori Amos (one of my all-time favs), and other major records from TLC, Outkast, Sebadoh, Neil Young, Stone Roses, The Crow, Johnny Cash, Pantera, Manic Street Preachers, Bush, Alice in Chains, Green Day, and Beck’s debut. All in one year. That’s a lot of notable content. So by comparison, what do we have in 2014? Anything even remotely considerable as timeless? Sure we have solid releases from St. Vincent and The War On Drugs. Lana Del Rey continues her queendom, and even Taylor Swift crossed over into Pop and won critics and fans the same. If your a fan of Run The Jewels you can make a decent mixtape featuring the Zach de le Rocha collab – but are we talking about ground breaking albums that will stand up twenty years into the future?
I know what your thinking. The 90’s hold a special place in my heart. And they do. However, you cannot deny the incredible impact those albums made on the world. Just to prove it’s about quality and not about my coming of age, let’s go back further, all the way to 1984. Here’s what came out that year: The Smiths, R.E.M, Echo & The Bunnymen, U2, Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Replacements, Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie and the Banshees, INXS, Talk Talk, The Cars, This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance, The Psychedelic Furs, The Pretenders, Metallica, Springsteen, Talking Heads, Bob Marley…oh and Purple Rain by Prince. Almost like a wet dream of records. If we check in with the release calendar even further back, to say 1964, it’s even more essential – The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, The Animals, Roy Orbison, & The Beach Boys all topped the charts. We don’t need to get into how important the early 60’s were in shaping future music.
One more quick flashback comparison, this time to the more recent 10-year mark. Perhaps 2004 was just flavourless background noise for the sketchy post 00’s wash of piracy wars and music industry sea change. But let’s take a look: Interpol’s Antics, The Killers Hot Fuss, Keane made it’s fantastic debut, Kanye West leaped onto the map with The College Dropout, Modest Mouse (the one with Float On), The Streets, Morrissey, Bjork, Sonic Youth, Kings of Leon, Sufjan Stevens, The Veils, Air, TVONTR, and even a pretty decent solo album from Gwen Stefani. Oh, and Arcade Fire’s Funeral. Other important releases came from Iron & Wine, Animal Collective, Madvillian, Annie, Franz Ferdinand, Xiu Xiu, and Usher. Pretty solid. Also this was still a golden era for mainstream Hip-Hop classics, albeit the tail end.
So what can we conclude? There’s definitely something about the”4’s” that seem to pattern some of the greatest releases all though good years and bad years do come in shifts. I was puzzled as to why I felt this year lacked the magic of it’s ancestors. But you see, the pendulum must swing down to swing back up.
How did this year stack up overall? Yes there WERE a handful of tracks that shone through. I would consider the top portion of this list to be mostly all essential listening for any collection. Besides the obvious candidates (Lana Del Rey, Lykki Li, Sia, Future Islands etc) I managed to find some supremely well hidden indie dynamite. Half of my actual top ten alone is virtually completely under the radar. There are some utterly amazing tracks this year by bands like Decorations, Panama Wedding, Andrew Pinsanu, The Crookes, Flagship, The Bronze Medal, Hayden Calnin, Big Scary, Ballet School, and Seasurfer – all names I was unfamiliar with before 2014.
My list follows no other ‘best of’ list. A lot of what the major publications sighted unanimously as the year’s best did not make mine, and vice versa. I am pleased to offer this contrast to you, and if you trust my taste, you will find treasure. As usual, this list was made by listening to nearly every searchable weekly album / single release via many different sources. The amount of content is staggering, but always worth it in the end.
*****BEST TRACKS OF 2014*****
120 ATOMIC | PHORIA
101 YOUTH | BEN KHAN
80 WAVE | BECK
*******BEST ALBUMS OF 2014********
1 | LYKKE LI | I NEVER LEARN
2 | ANDREW PINSANU | COLLECTING DISEASES
3 | LANA DEL REY | ULTRAVIOLENCE
4 |FLAGSHIP | FLAGSHIP
5 | THE CHAIN GANG OF 1974 | DAYDREAM FOREVER
6 | KAISER CHIEFS | EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION, & WAR
7 | SEASURFER | DIVE IN
8 | KEVIN DREW | DARLINGS
9 | TAYLOR SWIFT | 1989
10 | WHOMADEWHO | DREAMS
11 | WEEZER | EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT IN THE END
12 | THE WAR ON DRUGS | LOST IN THE DREAM
13 | ST. VINCENT | ST. VINCENT
14 | LEWIS | L’AMOUR
15 | LOST IN THE TREES | PAST LIFE
16 | DEATH FROM ABOVE 1979 | THE PHYSICAL WORLD
17 | TOVE LO | QUEEN OF THE CLOUDS
18 | EMPIRES | ORPHAN
19 | EMBRACE | EMBRACE
20 | MARK KOZELEK | SINGS CHRISTMAS CAROLS