This is a project I’ve been excited to unveil for quite some time now. (Of course, as is typical with me, it’s a bit late getting out. We’re already well into 2015. All the best-of-2014 lists have come and gone, but I’ve always been a bit of a…rebel? Sure, let’s go with that.) 3 years ago, I did a 2-part list of my favorite albums of 2011. This time around, I decided to be more bold and call this list my picks for the best albums of 2014. There are 40 albums in all, much more than the number I picked in 2011 (or that I thought I’d have in the first place), mainly because I actively sought out and curated albums for the list this time around, well ahead of time. This was a very intense process, but very rewarding as well. I didn’t rank them, so their placement in the list is fairly random…I’m not calling one album better than the other. They reflect a variety of artists and genres. Some of them will be very typical choices…while some may not. But enough of this. I have 20 albums to tell you about here in Part I. I’d best get down to business.
Dan Wilson — Love Without Fear
Dan Wilson has chiefly worked as a songwriter, co-penning mammoth, well-received hits like “Someone Like You” for Adele and “Not Ready To Make Nice” with the Dixie Chicks. However, much less known than his songwriting skills are his performing skills. For years now, he’s been recording occasionally as a solo artist. This 2014 set, his first album in 7 years, is a warm, assured collection of beautifully nuanced tunes with an acoustic aesthetic. Wilson is a fine vocalist and serves his songs very well, and being an accomplished writer, his songs, while unassuming, really shine. There are also some nice guest turns from Natalie Maines and Missy Higgins, as well. Writing songs for other artists may be his bread and butter (and some very lucrative bread and butter at that), but as long as he puts out gems like this album on his own, I’m eagerly awaiting Dan Wilson’s next solo effort.
Nikki Yanofsky — Little Secret
Starting out as a jazz phenom in her teens, Nikki Yanofsky branches out in her newest release. Now 19, her music is a bit more mature, more sophisticated, and with legendary executive producer Quincy Jones on board, it’s also a bit more current. Even as she extends her reach into pop, soul, and even a little R&B, her grounding in jazz is very firm, and the result is a stellar mix of genres that nevertheless succeeds in bringing jazz to a whole new audience. Nikki’s personality is not lost in the glossy production sheen, and in fact is the very energy that drives the album. If there’s any justice in the world, this is the stepping stone to even greater heights for an incredible talent who’s paying tribute to the past, as she moves headlong into a very bright future.
Sam Smith — In The Lonely Hour
I’ve talked a bit before on this blog about the element of surprise when it comes to Sam Smith. His hit single “Stay With Me” is ubiquitous. “I’m Not The Only One” is a well-regarded follow-up. However, neither of those tunes will quite adequately prepare you for just how strong and well-done his debut full-length is…the songwriting (Smith is a co-writer on every single track), vocals, and production all come together wonderfully. Full of emotional heft and heartbreak, yet done with a light yet deeply personal touch, this is an album and a talent to savor.
Coldplay — Ghost Stories
Coldplay is one of the biggest and most successful bands out there, but also one of the most-maligned. Previously, I’ve gone on record to defend their craft against the naysayers who proclaim them boring, pretentious, insert your own favorite put-down here. I’ll do so again in the case of “Ghost Stories.” Inspired by the much-publicized “conscious uncoupling” (OK, I’ll admit that phrase is a bit pretentious) of lead singer Chris Martin and actress Gwyneth Paltrow, this set, wisely winnowed down to just 9 songs, with one of them being a “hidden” track to boot, is riveting, gorgeous, and an important part of Coldplay’s continued artistic evolution. They haven’t quite covered this exact ground before, and certainly not done a project like this (chronicling the ins and outs of a separation). This may sound cliche, but they are a band that truly does keep getting better and better, even as they move around to different places in the musical landscape, and this album is no exception. It’s truly a work of art.
Kimbra — The Golden Echo
Back in 2011, Kimbra made a stunning guest turn on Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” turning heads in advance of her later release of her debut album, “Vows.” That album was inventive and daring and fiery on its own, but her sophomore effort, “The Golden Echo,” is another beast entirely. Instead of choosing to play it safe and stick with what she’s done before, Kimbra takes us on a pop-fueled roller-coaster ride, jumping from dance-ready jams to haunting ballads to everything in between, sometimes within the very same track. The threads that keep it all together? Her dogged commitment to the material, her always-intoxicating vocals, and her indomitable, unlike-any-other energy. Heaven knows where Kimbra will go next, but with quality like this, I’m certainly along for the ride.
Ben Sollee — Maidentrip (Original Score)
One of two film scores that really caught my eye this year, mostly because I was looking to see what stellar singer/cellist/songwriter Ben Sollee was cooking up lately, this sprightly collection of score cues for the documentary “Maidentrip” (about teenage sailor Laura Dekker) is very solid. To be honest, I haven’t seen the movie it accompanies, but the score stands out all its own, with Sollee’s own artistic sensibilities shining through to create an engaging, vibrant work. Even without his usual singing contributions, Ben Sollee proves himself an outstanding musician.
Imogen Heap — Sparks
Imogen Heap is always one to experiment and step outside her comfort zone, but even by her own standards, “Sparks” definitely involves some major stretching. On one end, there’s a collaboration with deadmau5. On another, she crafts a song, “The Listening Chair,” based on “seeds” that fans have submitted (and pledges to add to it every 7 years). On yet another song, she uses gesture-based music gloves. You get the idea…Imogen Heap, restless and ever-ready to change things up. That said, her continued increase in experimentation and innovation does not indicate a decrease in quality, as she’s on point as ever. This album does admittedly take a listen or two to gel, but gel it does…you can comfortably say that you really won’t hear anything like it anytime soon. It’s a very different listen, but incredibly rewarding all the same.
Sondre Lerche — Please
Yet another breakup-inspired album this past year, spurred by his recent divorce, “Please” by relentlessly eclectic singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche is by turns angry, reflective, defiant, and calm. His emotional turmoil breaks through even in danceable tracks like single “Bad Law,” yet doesn’t end up swallowing the record completely whole. Sondre portrays himself as a bit of a broken man, granted, but still manages to produce some incredible music that, while quite a bit darker than his previous work, manages to draw the listener straight in. Sondre’s heartbreak seems to be a bit of a refiner’s fire for his already sky-high level of artistry, and the result is an album you just can’t look away from.
Eva Ayllón — Como la primera vez
Afro-Peruvian artist Eva Ayllón is a veritable legend, with nearly 40 years of musical experience under her belt, and has won the allegiance of countless fans not only in her native Peru, but across Latin America, with a booming, beautiful voice and a contagious passion for the music she creates. Her latest album, wryly titled “Como la primera vez” (“Like the first time”), is a celebration of her years of music-making, with songs spanning the musical spectrum, from salsa to criolla and more. Even after all these years of performing and recording, Ayllón is still electric as ever, making every single note come alive. Without question, her music is to be treasured.
Annie Lennox — Nostalgia
The case of a pop singer doing a jazz album is one we’ve seen quite a lot before (and more than once this past year, even), but when it’s done right, it’s done right, and Annie Lennox does it right. With her trademark mix of authenticity and creativity, and a clear reverence for and connection to the material, this collection of Lennox’s favorite standards is a real treat. Her voice is as powerful as ever, and she shows quite a different side of each of these songs, while keeping the elements that made them classics in the first place. By the time Annie and the band jam out to “Mood Indigo” on the closing track, you’re already asking for more.
Tierney Sutton — Paris Sessions
Tierney Sutton has always been one of vocal jazz’s finest, but this album, a captivating affair featuring only two other musicians, guitarists Serge Merlaud and Kevin Axt (the latter a member of her usual band), is in a class of its own. The setting is bracingly, hauntingly intimate, and the music simply flows. Her peerless voice and the equally peerless guitar work by Merlaud and Axt is absolutely breathtaking. The trio showcases old chestnuts and lesser-known standards alike, in gorgeously compact, stunningly beautiful new versions that give them new leases on life. I haven’t been touched this profoundly by a project like this in quite a while…it’s music like this that keeps me listening to jazz, time and time again.
The New Pornographers — Brill Bruisers
Their name may make you slightly uncomfortable, but their music (which thankfully has nothing to do with said band name) will do anything but. Known for their driving, pop-infused, unique brand of rock, Canadian/American group The New Pornographers are at it again with this triumphant new album. Starting from the deliciously anthemic title track, the energy doesn’t let up from there. The lyrics may be cryptic as always, but it doesn’t matter…the music is as good as ever. Vibrant, beautiful, and defiant, this is another gem for a band full of them in their catalog. Get past the name and check them out…you really won’t regret it.
Brooke Fraser — Brutal Romantic
Over the years, New Zealand singer/songwriter Brooke Fraser has evolved from Christian music to much more secular, contemporary fare, while never losing the heart that makes her music beat. Her latest album, “Brutal Romantic,” is a daring step forward in her artistic journey, featuring much more synths and being much more pop-driven than her previous fare, but it still keeps a thriving, beating heart, without question. She expands her musical palette significantly, and adds a bit more shade to it as well (opening track “Psychosocial” is definitely darker than anything she’s ever done, for example), but at the end of it all, her personality, gorgeous voice, and top-notch songwriting still shine brightly through. This is an exciting new avenue for Brooke Fraser, and whether she continues with it or not, we’ll have this album to cherish as a result.
Pomplamoose — Season 2
YouTube duo Pomplamoose (consisting of Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn) is known for its quirky, offbeat covers and occasional original material…and that’s basically what you’ll find here. The thing is, those covers and those originals this time around are some of the best that they’ve done to date. Nataly’s voice is, as always, angelic and breathtaking, and Jack’s and hers’ production is as always incredibly engaging and unique. Featuring such highlights as a bouncy mashup of Pharrell songs, and a very cool reinvention of the jazz classic “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” among other things, Pomplamoose shows no signs of slowing down…and that’s all the better for us as listeners.
Laura Mvula — Laura Mvula with the Metropole Orkest
It’s not a usual move for an artist to make their sophomore album a re-recording of their first album, but when you’re Laura Mvula and you have the Metropole Orkest to accompany you, that option begins to make quite a lot of sense. Bringing stunning new dimensions to the riveting tunes off her debut album “Sing To The Moon,” Laura and the orchestra create virtual masterpieces with every track. The orchestration is gorgeous, Laura’s vocals are top-notch, and it all just comes together beautifully. (The track order from her debut album is interestingly altered slightly, making for a nice change of pace.) I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for more new material down the road by Laura, but for now, this is a stellar way to enjoy her debut collection anew.
Jorge Drexler — Bailar en la cueva
Jorge Drexler, a singer/songwriter hailing from Uruguay, has never been one to play by the rules, and this genre-hopping album is no exception. Featuring everything from bossa nova to salsa to rap (Ana Tijoux takes care of the latter with a fine guest turn), Jorge creates a colorful, unique-as-always musical journey that’s nothing short of brilliant. It’s definitely not what you hear every day, even in the Latin music world, but it’s always worth listening, and yet another excellent album that could only come from Jorge Drexler.
Vance Joy — Dream Your Life Away
Male singer/songwriters with guitars and such are admittedly quite common (especially given the recent trend towards more acoustic music), but Vance Joy manages to stand out all the same. With soaring tunes like “Riptide” and “Mess Is Mine” that manage to strike a perfect balance between melancholy and uplifting, he creates a confessional, honest, accessible aesthetic that’s pretty darn impossible to resist. Seeing as this is only his debut, there are great things to come from Vance Joy, if this album is any indication.
Paloma Faith — A Perfect Contradiction
Paloma Faith may not be too well-known here in the States, but over in her native UK she’s become somewhat of a sensation, with her albums and singles hitting the top of the charts. This latest release may be the thing to help her break out stateside, but even if it doesn’t, we’ve got a dazzling collection of soul, pop, and R&B-influenced tunes to enjoy. She’s a firecracker vocalist and performer, with some fine co-writing chops, and although things may get a bit crazy at times, the music is always engaging, interesting, and perfectly Paloma. They’ve certainly got their heads on straight in the UK if they’ve made her a success.
Fictionist — Fictionist
A few years ago, Utah-based band Fictionist scored a record deal with Atlantic, and began work on their major-label debut. Fast forward to 2014, and they’re instead releasing this self-titled album independently. It turns out Atlantic tried to take away far too much artistic control, and as a result, the band decided to fly solo. It seems, oddly enough, like they made quite a wise choice…this is an outstanding album, that reflects the very best of Fictionist and the unique brand of music that they create. With lots of different influences showing but an unmistakably individual sound, Fictionist goes to show that you don’t necessarily need to be backed by a record label to make top-notch music.
Ingrid Michaelson — Lights Out
With each successive album, Ingrid Michaelson seems to get bigger and bigger. “Lights Out,” driven by her biggest hit single yet, “Girls Chase Boys,” has her finally getting just the tiniest bit mainstream…but never losing what made her special in the first place. At first glance, things seem very pop, and it seems that there’s a few too many “featured” credits on the songs (she collaborates with Trent Dabbs, A Great Big World, and husband Greg Laswell among others), but once you get listening to the album, everything starts to make perfect sense. This is the Ingrid we know and love…she’s simply continuing to evolve and grow. That growth shows wonderfully on “Lights Out,” and once again, Ingrid Michaelson has a winner on her hands.
Yes! I’ve got Part I done. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Enjoy this specially curated Spotify playlist below, featuring a standout track from each album on the list above, while you wait for Part II. Be sure to give me your feedback below…what do you think of my choices so far? What album would YOU include? I’d love to hear from you, as always…this is meant to be a discussion, after all, not just me blogging into the ether (though I guess that’s fun, too). For now, enjoy the music, and stay tuned for the next installment of my very late best-of list, as well as more good things from Harmony Avenue.