The following was submitted to ZRockR magazine but hasn't yet been published, and it kind of has a shelf life, so I'm posting it here.
Top 10 Albums of 2014
So, I’m turning 38 this month. Getting older, whatevs. I’m finding that I’m caring much more about songs and melody than anything else. I’m not actually sure that has changed over the past few years, but I am definitely noticing it a lot more lately. I’m sitting at my keyboard and looking at the rough list I came up with, and almost all of the entries are there because of at least one amazing song, usually more. (I know, I’ve used the word “more” a lot so far, and we’re just in the first paragraph.) (I’m also noticing that there are more than ten. Crap. Oh well, I will hopefully have remedied that by the time I have submitted this.) (Also, I’m using a lot of parentheses.) I’m doing what I can to seek out new music. As a matter of principle, I no longer go to tribute or cover band shows. Or old bands that were marginal at best in their prime and haven’t created anything new to warrant a new tour, other than collecting money from people wanting to relive their glory days. (Iron Maiden is not included in this category because they are freaking awesome, and I love their 2000 and on era work, not to mention them playing their new album front to back on the A Matter Of Life And Death tour, because it was awesome, and they kick ass.) If they are successful at it, and making a living for themselves and their families, god bless ‘em and god speed. (I’m also crankier and more judgmental these days. Yet still delightful. Go figure.)
ZRockR is growing, and doing cool stuff. But right now, to my knowledge, we aren't at the “record labels send them our new release right now so that guy Brad Bailey (he’s freaking delightful) can review it” stage. Everything on this list, I bought with my own money. Everything else I’ve reviewed for ZRockR has been actual purchases. (Exception: Maragold gave me their debut CD. But I tried to pay for it. And it’s really great. You should totally buy it. And see them live. But it was a 2013 release, so not on the list this year.) In my mind, this has a couple of advantages: if it’s awesome, I feel even better about my positive comments and all around wonderfulness. And if it’s not up to par, I can be extra righteously indignant over the intolerably crappy awfulness the artist subjected me to, and share that with you, Dear Reader, warning you for the love of god to not buy this terribly awful terribleness. (Huh. “Terribleness” seems to be an actual word, according to my spellchecker.) Anyway, all that to say (and I’m not actually sure it relates all that well to what follows, I just wanted to say it): Here are the albums I liked the best this year.
1. Almost Normal - In Technicolor. I played a show with them a few years ago to benefit Songs4Soldiers. A lineup change later (they are now a duo), and they have released In Technicolor, an EP chock full of ridiculously good synth-pop songs. Their song “Clockwork” is probably my most played song on my iTunes this year, and “Oblivion” is absolutely gorgeous. Local artists who should be national very soon.
2. Hozier - Hozier. A friend posted a link to Hozier’s Saturday Night Live performance of “Take Me To Church” a couple months ago. He used the phrase “a new Peter Gabriel,” so I had to check it out. (For the record, I completely ignored Ed Sheeran’s recommendation from the month before, which I regret.) Holy crap, it was amazing. The melody was captivating, the lyrics transcendent. The whole vibe was haunting. First chance I had, I went out and bought it. The rest of the album is a bit different, kind of a roots rock affair, with R&B overtones, but it’s still fantastic. “Jackie & Wilson,” “Sedated,” “Work Song,” and “Foreigner’s God” are some of the amazing standout tracks.
3. Anathema - Distant Satellites. I reviewed this earlier for ZRockR. (I think. If not, I should have. It’s awesome.) Melody, melody, melody. Gorgeous, beautiful songs, fantastic performances. Super highly recommended.
4. Tycho - Awake. I’m not sure how I discovered these guys, possibly a free song on iTunes from their last album. Whatever it was, I bought their new release the day it came out. They have an almost electronica sound, but they use actual instruments. I played it on a drive to California to pick up a guitar, and felt like I was in a movie. A very cool soundtrack, atmospheric vibe.
5. Set and Setting - A Vivid Memory. More atmospheric, instrumental goodness. Saw this one in an email from Prosthetic Records, which is often more extreme than my tastes usually run, but the description looked cool, so I checked it out. Great stuff, and I’m glad I discovered it.
6. Polyphia - Muse. Every once in a while, you hear something, and from the first notes, all you can say is “Holy shit!” That’s this album. Hyper-melodic, and guitar shreddiness for days. Probably the most all out fun release on my list.
7. Animals As Leaders - The Joy of Motion. I have the first two AAL releases. They're crazy instrumental stuff, and they’re… interesting. Nothing on them really grabbed me and held on to my ears. The Joy of Motion absolutely did. Their compositions have gotten much more melodic, and they are still fierce. Next level stuff here.
8. (tie) Opeth - Pale Communion. Steve Rothery - The Ghosts of Pripyat. I’m cheating here, because I have more on my list than will fit in my arbitrarily selected framework of ten. Both have amazing guitar tones and fabulous melodies. I’m talking “no longer requiring female companionship” guitar tones. I love both of these albums. You should go buy them.
9. Flying Colors - Second Nature. I’ve previously reviewed this. In summary: Steve Morse does his best playing ever, which is really saying something, and the song “Peaceful Harbor” as awesometastically awesome.
10. Bill Mallonee and The Darkling Planes - Winnowing. Bill Mallonee is one of America’s greatest living songwriters. He is beyond prolific (releasing multiple EPs and full length albums each year), and just super awesome. He was in the group Vigilantes of Love, probably best known for their song “Struggleville,” which got quite a bit of play in the early 90s on adult contemporary radio. Winnowing is actually not my favorite of his most recent projects, being a little darker than both Amber Waves and The Power + The Glory, which feature the amazing songs “Faith (It Comes Soaked In Gasoline)” and “Just To Feel The Heat,” respectively. He’s a national treasure, and everyone should be buying his albums and seeing him perform.
Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin IV remasters. Led Zeppelin IV is my favorite album ever. “When The Levee Breaks” is the best thing anyone has ever committed to tape, and basically pure sex. I got the first three albums when they were released this past spring, and was just sort of playing them in order as I did some work around the house (ie., reading comic books.) Then “Whole Lotta Love” came on, and I said “Holy shit!” (I seem to say that a lot.) I like to think that my response is how people first heard it back in 1969.
Iron Maiden - 80s album and single releases on vinyl. The coolest album covers ever. Hands down. Especially Somewhere In Time. I skipped a few meals over the last few months, but I got them all. So worth it. The best news about them: Maiden’s announcement that they marked the end of the catalog reissues and “classic” tours commemorating Live After Death and Maiden England, freeing them to focus on the future. Since their post-Bruce reunion output has been stellar, this is fantastic to hear.
So, that’s my list of my favorite albums of the year. I don’t have a list of the worst, although Pink Floyd - The Endless River might be on my “Marginal Disappointments Because It Should Have Been Much Awesomer, But It’s Still OK” list. Go buy them. And maybe pick up my new EP Connection, Pt. 1, if I manage to get it out in the next week or so.
PS: I just got Haken - Restoration and it’s freaking amazing. So is Little Histories, the new one from Cloudkicker. Progressive rock awesomeness, both of which should be on this list, but I can’t think of what else I want to kick off, and I already cheated.