The 8 Ball 6.28.14: Top 8 Albums of 2014 (So Far)
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 06.28.2014
From Michael Jackson's Xscape and Linkin Park's The Hunting Party to Jack White's Lazaretto, Mastodon's Once More 'Round the Sun and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 albums of 2014 so far!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Top 8 Albums of the Year (So Far)
Hello out there internet! Welcome to the Mid-Year edition of the 411 Music 8 Ball! That's right, believe it or not it's the middle of 2014 as of next Tuesday, as June ends and July begins. That means one thing: it's time for looking back at the first six months of the year and seeing what stood out. 2014 hasn't quite been the year that 2013 was to this point, but we've had some very good albums released. Pop music has been receding a little and more and more rock has made its way on the charts, while rap just hasn't been up to the quality of the past few years to date. This week it's time to check out the best albums from the first six months of 2014.
Caveat: Pretty simple: if the album was released in 2014, it is eligible. Obviously, it must be said that I have not heard all albums released so far this year; that would be nearly impossible. I try to listen to all major music releases but there are a few I haven't had a chance to get to such as Kelis' Food, Rick Ross' Mastermind, Schoolboy Q's Oxymoron and some others. For those curious, I have given ratings to fifty albums thus far in 2014 which puts me a little ahead of the forty-five I was at at this point last year and the forty-seven in 2012. Obviously that means I'm on pace to top the 97 I rated by the end of last year.
Just Missing The Cut
• Powerman 5000 - Builders of the Future
• Spirits and the Melchizedek Children - So Happy, It's Sad
• Warpaint - Warpaint
• Tori Amos - Unrepentant Geraldines
• Black Keys - Turn Blue
#8: Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence
Lana Del Rey is one of the more talked-about artists working in pop music, both for good and bad reasons. The New York-based singer has been a lightning rod of controversy since her major label debut Born to Die hit in 2012, with considerable attention focused on whether her image and sound were the result of natural artistic progression from her pre-star days or a mirage built around marketing and public relations. All of this was unable to obscure the fact that Born to Die was a great art pop album, following the likes of Adele and Duffy in calling back to an earlier era of pop music. Del Rey's second studio LP Ultraviolence saw more controversy over a statement allegedly romanticizing the early deaths of music stars, but again it doesn't take away from the fact that the album is quite good. Del Rey created an album that is more thematically cohesive than her first, with soaring and moody melodies punctuated by Del Rey's haunting voice. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys leads a production team that does great work making this a musically lush experience, with Del Rey's lyrics making the pop equivalent of a noir film. Del Rey will always be an artist who polarizes people with her public persona but for pop music fans she adds an undeniable level of sophistication to the genre and delivers one of the best pop albums of the year so far.
#7: Mastodon - Once More 'Round the Sun
Mastodon has said that Once More 'Round the Sun is a continuation of where the band left off with 2011's The Hunter. That's a lofty statement to make, considering the level of acclaim that their last album received. It's undeniably true though; with their latest LP the American metal band have taken the steps forward from The Hunter and continued to push on. When it comes to hook-laden metal there are few bands that do it as well as them and Once More 'Round the Sun hits just about every right note. The album is less beholden to the group's sludge metal identity but neither does it shy away from it. This is a more expansive and thrilling sound, layered with higher production values from Nick Raskulinecz that enrich the music instead of detracting. The album has more melodic elements than Mastodon fans may be attuned to, but it doesn't lose a single atom of its edge for that. Once More 'Round the Sun is full of great riffs and great vocal work by all involved, with hard-driving rhythms and some fantastic lyrical work to boot. There have been a good number of decent metal albums released so far in 2013, but Mastodon is undeniably better than good; it's one of the year's true greats.
#6: Ingrid Michaelson - Lights Out
Ingrid Michaelson is an artist who has been slowly raising her public profile album-by-album, building her fanbase not by major label media onslaughts but by the quality of her music. 2011's Human Again was hailed as one of the high marks of pop music that year and she tops herself with Lights Out, a smart and beautifully-arranged indie pop album that may just be the best of her career. Starting off with the uplifting sound of "Home" and grooving directly into the insanely catchy "Girls Chase Boys," Michaelson knows that she's finding herself competing with an increasingly crowded field of indie pop artists so she sticks to the smart choice: holding onto her core musical identity without trying to mold herself to an established and more popular sound. The results reap heavy rewards on an artistic scale; anyone missing the singer-songwriter pop sound of Haim has something to follow it up with here. It's intelligent pop balladry on a fantastic scale, emotive without being dumbed down or wedged into a dance beat for the sake of a club banger. "Afterlife" is one of the songs of the year so far, an inspirational earworm that sticks in your mind and won't let go...which is fine, because you won't want to. Lights Out represents a new high in Michaelson's career and sets a high bar for indie pop to try and reach this year.
#5: Linkin Park - The Hunting Party
To be honest, I wasn't looking forward to Linkin Park's new album all that much. The band bounced back from the failed experimentation of A Thousand Suns with 2012's Living Things but it seemed as if the ongoing return of rock had left them behind. Thus, it was my pleasant surprise to listen to The Hunting Party for the first time and realize that they had delivered their best album since Meteora if not their best album period. The band shows a more focused sound and mature sound on their latest album, which is not to say that they've mellowed at all. Quite the contrary in fact; they've brought back the aggression and merged it with elements of their last few albums for the rare effort that can please old-school fans and holding nothing back without just repeating their old steps ad nauseum. Songs like "War" show a sound completely unlike what we've heard from them before without falling down the rabbit hole of poor conception. And on the songs that sound more like the LP we know the band really unleashes. "Guilty All the Same" and "Rebellion" earn spots in the top echelon of the band's discography and guest appearances by Page Hamilton, Rakim, Tom Morello and Daron Malakian all add a lot to their respective tracks. I didn't expect to love this album as much as I did and I'm happy to have had my initial expectations proven wrong.
#4: St. Vincent - St. Vincent
There is a common belief that pop music is an easy-going, mental exercise-free experience. And in many cases this is true. It's not a bad thing, necessarily; we all need something catchy to just sit back and groove to from time to time. But we also need more and St. Vincent is one of the exceptions to that rule. Born Annie Clark, the pop singer has been recording music for nearly a decade now, starting with 2007's Marry Me. She is known for her intellectually challenging music and while her self-titled fifth album is more accessible than her past work, it sacrifices nothing in terms of smarts. By her own admission this is a more extroverted album than her past work and it shows track by track, with an evocative sound and wonderful imagery in her lyrics. Some people laugh when you refer to pop musicians as artists, but it's a valid term even with people who put out banal records such as Icona Pop and Jennifer Lopez. With St. Vincent there's no laughing in regard to the term; she wields her artistry with skill and doesn't sacrifice it her, an album that is enjoyable and thought-provoking.
#3: Michael Jackson - Xscape
Did anyone expect Michael Jackson's second posthumous album to be a great one? Not very likely considering the disaster that 2010's Michael turned out to be. For the record, that would be the LP that was surrounded with condemnation from people close to Jackson, with claims that three of the tracks were done by a Jackson impersonator. Typically an artist's first posthumous release is their best, which meant that few people had high hopes for Xscape upon its initial announcement. This time they got it right though. Much of that credit has to go with L.A. Reid, who got involved and found full Jackson tracks instead of bits and pieces that needed collaborating artists. There are only eight tracks on Xscape that add up about thirty-seven minutes, but it's clearly a case of quality over quantity. Jackson hasn't sounded this vital and powerful in a long, long time and it's a credit to the King of Pop as well as the production team behind the album that makes it sound so good. From the seventies feel-good tone of "Love Never Felt So Good" and the electrified synths of "A Place with No Name" to the aggressive dance mood of "Slave to the Rhythm," this is a fantastic album that, if not quite another Thriller or Off the Wall, still reveals the Michael Jackson that we loved as an artist.
#2: Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots
Damon Albarn's first solo LP was a long time coming. The British musician has been a part of the music scene for quite some time, rising to prominence with Blur and then moving on to make great music with Gorillaz and a supergroup after that. Most artists deliver a solo album right after their band breaks up, or perhaps even during the band's life. But Albarn waited and it was very much worth the wait. On Everyday Robots, Albarn is able to take his production and songwriting skills to new places without leaving his past behind. He takes many of the stylistic elements of his past projects and paints them over a strong framework, delivering some fantastic electronic pop music. Songs like "Lonely Press Play" and "Everyday Robots" explore themes of modern technology while "Mr. Tembo" is a strummy, upbeat number that goes in a very different direction without feeling out of phase with the rest of the album. Albarn delivers an album that is thoughtful while still being emotional and a little experimental while still accessible. It's another example of how talented of an artist he really is and thus far, the single-best pop album of the year.
#1: Jack White - Lazaretto
Jack White has a history of setting the bar high for himself. Whether it was striking out and making a name as the White Stripes' frontman, creating side projects like The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather or delivering his well-regarded 2012 solo debut Blunderbuss, White generally brings the quality. With his second LP Lazaretto, White pushed the bar ever higher. It's an old-fashioned record, cantankerous and very specifically looking backward into rock and roll's history without seeming quaint or dated. The blues and country rock overtures on Lazaretto are a rock nerd's dream and it makes for one of the most intriguing rock albums in a while. "Three Women" is classic blues material and "Would You Fight For My Love?" has all the epic storytelling of some of the great rock songs while he keeps some of his garage rock elements around on tracks like "Lazaretto" and "The Black Bat Licorice." The fact that White has released the best album of 2014 to date is just another example of how rock music is making a comeback, which is a very good thing.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
For this week's Music Video A-Go-Go, I don't have a particular rhyme or reason for the selection. I chose a random album from those I had listened to and picked out a music video from it. That gives you the Pretty Reckless' "Heaven Knows." Check it out below:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.