Bet you didn’t think I’d be back with Part II this fast, did you? OK, maybe you did. Perhaps it was just me doubting. (I actually did them both in the same week! Hallelujah.) At any rate…let’s just carry on, why don’t we? Here are my other 20 picks for the best 40 albums of 2014. See if your favorite makes the list, below.
The Family Crest — Beneath the Brine
There are some bands, and some albums, that just get it right on every level. The Family Crest and “Beneath The Brine” are a case of getting it absolutely right. An ambitious, sprawling concept (the Family Crest consists of a core group of touring members, but features hundreds contributing to their recordings)? Check. A lead vocalist with an astoundingly gorgeous instrument? Check. Soaring, uplifting, sweeping songs? Check. This is a singular album, filled with unique, stunning songcraft that just works. A bit of a cliche here, but I mean it when I say (as the highest of compliments) that this album needs to be heard to be believed.
Ricardo Arjona — Viaje
Guatemalan singer/songwriter Ricardo Arjona has had a long and fruitful career so far full of hits, but his last few years of music-making since his decision to go independent and form his own record label in 2011, he’s been particularly on point artistically. His latest album is a personal one, but full of fire as well. Featuring a collection of songs that go from emotional lows (devastating lead single “Apnea”) to highs (the beautifully lilting, irresistible opener “Lo poco que tengo”) and many places in between along the way. Aptly titled “Viaje” (meaning trip or journey in English), this album seems like a reflection of Arjona’s experiences in the best way, and makes for very compelling listening. Even after all this time, he’s still got it.
She & Him — Classics
After three “volume”-titled albums of high-quality original tunes, duo She & Him (consisting of singer/guitarist M. Ward and actress/singer Zooey Deschanel) decided to do an album paying tribute to their favorite vintage songs, and what an excellent choice that proves to be. The disc has much more of a jazz feel than their previous albums, and it fits Zooey and M. Ward like a glove. The song choices are top-notch, and the duo sounds as good as ever. Highlights include a glamorous yet intimate take on “Oh No, That’s My Baby,” and both Zooey and M. Ward contributing to vocals for a playful, gorgeous duet on “Time After Time.” You just can’t get much better than this, folks.
Foster the People — Supermodel
Deeper and darker than their debut album, yet still with energy and verve, “Supermodel” is further proof by Foster the People that pop music can be both thoughtful and effervescent. Mixing social commentary with pop can be a risky move, but the band pulls it off well here. Musically, the album is outstanding, and lyrically, while not every idea comes right through on every listen, enough of them do to enrich the listening experience even more. The album may take some time to grow on you, but it’s definitely worth the time to dive into it.
Elbow — The Take Off and Landing of Everything
A few years removed from the mammoth success of their 2008 album “The Seldom-Seen Kid,” and after a similarly well-received follow up, “Build A Rocket Boys!,” English rock group Elbow took a bit of a different approach on their most recent offering, but one that paid off very nicely all the same. Choosing to write songs separately instead of as a group as they usually do, things are a bit more subdued this time around, but the band is still full of fire, and lead vocalist Guy Garvey is at the top of his game. You really can’t go wrong with any Elbow album, and this one is no exception.
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga — Cheek To Cheek
Pairing an 88-year-old jazz legend with a pop star under 30 (and on top of that, a pop star known for things like an infamous meat dress) sounds completely crazy on paper. Completely, utterly insane, really. But when that jazz legend is the ever-versatile and classy Tony Bennett, who has sung with quite a few kinds of artists lately, one of them being the pop star in question herself, Lady Gaga…the idea starts to sound less and less crazy. And the result? Better than anyone could have expected. Lady Gaga is a natural in the jazz idiom (she oversings a tiny bit from time to time, but it’s not too distracting), and her and Tony have a quirky, engaging chemistry that shines through on each track. They each have a few songs to themselves, as well, and acquit themselves excellently on each occasion. All in all, a very, very pleasant surprise. If they ever find the time again, I can’t wait to hear the sequel.
BYU Vocal Point — Spectrum
A cappella group Vocal Point, from Brigham Young University (where this writer is currently attending) wowed TV audiences on “The Sing-Off” back in fall 2011. This new album, “Spectrum,” is the latest they’ve recorded since that run, and it continues to show just how darn fun Vocal Point is, even without the visual element. The production is high quality, the song choices are spot-on (for the most part), and seriously, the energy just leaps out of each track. It may start to veer towards male a cappella cliches at a few tiny moments, but by and large, this is a highly enjoyable, highly recommended a cappella treat, and a real winner in my book.
Sia — 1000 Forms of Fear
Sia’s first album truly in the spotlight, “1000 Forms of Fear” is an album that might have never been. Sia was reportedly considering quitting music after her last album (an unexpected success), but thankfully, she decided to focus on writing for other artists (such as Rihanna and Beyonce…you may have heard of them), and eventually return to creating her own material. The result is this album, which is an absolute triumph. More mainstream without selling out, emotional while staying accessible and enjoyable, and sung with incredible passion, Sia has made the transition to Top 40 artist rather seamlessly, while keeping each and every bit of her personality that made her special in the first place. Sia’s already amassed quite a catalog, but here’s hoping there are even more great things to come.
Minnie Driver — Ask Me To Dance
Actors and actresses who sing ‘on the side’ can be rather hit and miss. Minnie Driver has always seemed to stay decidedly on the hit side, though she’s as low-key as they come. Her music may not be flashy, but she’s an accomplished vocalist and performer, and as a result, her music is just…solid. Quality stuff, really. This album, a collection of covers of songs that have inspired and influenced her, is unassuming, but beautiful and exceptionally well-done. She somehow manages to make a dramatically slowed-down cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster” sound very good, as well as throwing a surprisingly strong country-tinged cover of the Killers’ “Human” at us without a sweat. “Ask Me To Dance” makes a strong case for Driver as one of the foremost actors/actresses that also happens to make some great music.
Millennial Choirs & Orchestras — To Be American
As previously mentioned on this blog, Millennial Choirs & Orchestras (MCO), an organization involving various choral & orchestral ensembles across 4 states, has done some amazing work. This, their most recent recording, is just the latest pinnacle of that work. Featuring some absolutely stunning arrangements among choral and orchestral music of the highest quality, this collection of patriotic music isn’t just for Independence Day or Memorial Day–it’s for the whole year long. Arguably the album’s centerpiece, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is dazzlingly reinvented…you won’t be sure what you think of it at first, but by the end, your jaw will drop, and with each successive listen, you’ll be moved more and more. That’s just one example of the incredible music that awaits you…MCO just keeps getting better and better.
U2 — Songs of Innocence
“Songs of Innocence,” U2’s latest album, is probably best known as the album that Apple loaded onto everyone’s iTunes library without prior notice. However, I’m grateful for that gift from Bono, the Edge, and Co. to my music collection…I quite honestly wouldn’t have taken much of a listen to the album otherwise, and I’m very glad that I got the chance. Bringing some modern producers into the fray, yet inspired by their early lives and trying to return a bit to a more authentic sound, the band sounds at the top of their game. Whether they are at the top of their game seems a matter that’s been subject to a ton of debate, but I think I’ll just ignore all that, and enjoy the excellent music. This may be my first extended taste of U2’s work beyond the obvious hits, but I really liked it, and I’d like to hear more. Even if it took giving away their album for free to accomplish that for me, I’d say that’s a win for U2 in my book.
Missy Higgins — Oz
Yet another artist taking the covers-album route, Missy Higgins subverts the usual cliche by exclusively recording songs from her native Australia. For those of us who don’t hail from there, this means most of the songs are pretty unfamiliar, but Missy’s passion for her country’s songcraft shines palpably through each track, and that passion is contagious. “Shark Fin Blues,” a standout, is a gripping, powerful ballad showcase; elsewhere, things go much more uptempo on the sprightly “NYE.” Missy Higgins couldn’t have found a better way to celebrate Australian music–now the world has a taste of exactly what they’re singing Down Under, courtesy of one of the finest Aussie performers there is.
Kat Edmonson — The Big Picture
Kat Edmonson has done a fine job recently of creating her own unique mix of jazz, folk, pop, and singer/songwriter elements, among other things, and “The Big Picture” is an excellent showcase for just how well she does it all. She shows some cinematic flair on tracks like the alluring opener, “Rainy Day Woman.” On the winsome “Avion,” she pays a bit of tribute to 60s-style pop. No matter what style she includes in her palette, she’s very on top of things musically, and makes listening to this album a highly enriching experience. You’d better keep an eye on this girl…it seems like she’s just getting started.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
I freely acknowledge that there were assuredly quite a few terrific musicals this year, but “Beautiful” was the one to really catch my attention, most likely because of its focus…the legendary Carole King, one of my all-time favorite artists. However, that wouldn’t be enough to keep my attention if the musical wasn’t good…but good, it most certainly is. Jessie Mueller as King gives a transcendent performance (one that deservedly garnered her both Drama Desk and Tony Awards), the supporting cast is very solid, and the reworkings of both King’s songs and others of the era are tons of fun. (The one-two punch of closing numbers, the musical’s title tune and “I Feel The Earth Move,” are a rollicking, terrific way to tie it all together.) I may not have been able to see it on Broadway, but this top-notch cast recording shows that “Beautiful” is, well, beautiful.
Ximena Sariñana — No todo lo puedes dar
Returning to Spanish-language music after her last, self-titled album, her first in English, and one that went in a more pop-oriented direction, Ximena Sariñana takes things a bit slower this time around, bringing us an authentic, engaging collection of songs that keep reminding us just how strong she is as an artist. Her voice is beautifully understated, and the production and the writing are the same. These songs just sneak up on you, grab you, and draw you in, little by little. It’s always great to see Ximena back with a new album, and this record is most certainly no exception. The title in English may be, “You can’t give it everything,” but from what I’m hearing, she’s given us pretty darn close to everything with this kind of outstanding music.
Hans Zimmer — Interstellar (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Hans Zimmer is primarily known as an action movie composer. The drum-heavy, pulsing style he typically usually uses in such movies is well-documented, and occasionally criticized. However, the best work he’s done, in my book, is when he variates from that formula, and his most recent score, for the sweeping Christopher Nolan masterpiece “Interstellar,” is probably his most daring, and successful, variation yet. Utilizing a grand, expansive organ sound as a centerpiece, he creates a score more emotional, more epic, more completely and utterly moving than anything he’s ever done (and he’s done quite a lot of things that display those qualities in spades). It’s incredible, and speaking as one who has also been fortunate enough to see the film the score accompanies, I can say that it enhances the movie impeccably. Hans Zimmer is a wise enough composer to get outside himself a bit when he feels like he’s been a bit repetitive, and also wise enough to work closely with his directors when the situation calls for it. Because of these wise choices, the “Interstellar” soundtrack absolutely shines.
Round Nina: A Tribute To Nina Simone
This was an incredibly late-breaking addition to my Best Albums list. In fact, it was so late-breaking that it actually knocked an album off the list. Released just a month or two ago, this all-star tribute to the incomparable Nina Simone, released by legendary jazz label Verve, is both a surprise and a triumph. I quite honestly hadn’t heard of many of the artists featured on this disc (Melody Gardot, Lianne La Havas, Gregory Porter, and French singer Camille were ones that I had), but wow…they all bring their absolute A-game, creating covers that both honor Nina’s incredible legacy, and blaze bold new trails with her classic songs. There is just so much to love about this tribute…everyone is top-notch, and clearly Nina Simone has played an important part in each of their musical journeys. It really shows. If you want to remember Nina right, look no further than this album.
Mary Chapin Carpenter — Songs From The Movie
I’m admittedly a sucker for artists that re-record their songs with an orchestra (you saw Part I of this very list with Laura Mvula doing so and wowing me in the process, and Peter Gabriel’s “New Blood” album, where he takes on his own catalog, is one of my all-time favorites, just to name a few), and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s new offering, a retrospective of her body of work, with orchestral arrangements by the incredible Vince Mendoza, is no different for me. I’m hearing many of these songs for the first time on this album, but that doesn’t mean they come any less alive. Carpenter, now older and even more seasoned than she already was when she recorded these songs, gives lovely, assured, world-weary vocals, and the arrangements…good gosh. They’re stunning. (Vince Mendoza is always on top of his game, it seems.) Beautiful and reflective, this is a wonderful way to introduce yourself to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s impressive level of songwriting, performing, and artistic quality that has kept her thriving in the business for so long.
Leighton Meester — Heartstrings
Leighton Meester has long been first and foremost an actress, but has dipped her toe into the music world in the past. Her resume unfortunately includes the questionable hit “Good Girls Gone Bad,” but is countered by her winning turn in “Country Strong,” where she contributes some respectable vocals. Neither of those outings, however, are quite a logical prelude to this album, which really does wonders in giving Leighton some serious musical credibility. Choosing to go the singer/songwriter route (think late-period Mandy Moore), she pens all 9 of the songs here, and keeps things very low-key, yet each song drives and moves, which makes it all the more compelling. Her voice is soft, yet full of substance and nuance, and adds to rather than detracts from the proceedings. This is an album that’s authentic and real, and shows that Leighton Meester has quite a lot to offer musically beyond her previous pop and country detours. Here’s hoping she makes music even more of a priority in the future.
Hozier — Hozier
What an incredible debut. (I could really just stop this review here, but I should probably expand a bit.) Starting with the now bona-fide hit single “Take Me To Church,” Irish singer/songwriter Hozier, with a devastating mix of soul, rock, folk, and who knows what else, takes us, well, “to church.” His voice is incredibly powerful. His writing is wildly unique, defiantly vibrant, and softly profound. You can tell Hozier knows exactly who he is as an artist, and he’s quite happy to show us a little bit of himself on this record. He couldn’t have introduced himself to the world in a better way, and it’s great to see he’s enjoying widespread success. Record sales or radio plays or not, however, this is a triumphant debut, and chances are, the best is yet to come.
And that’s it for this list. (I will be posting, hopefully tomorrow…yes, I know you’ve heard that before…a short addendum of a few EPs I enjoyed from 2014, as well as a few honorable mentions that didn’t make it onto my top 40 albums. I also hope to get a Song or Music Video of the Day up for the first time in a bit.) I hope you enjoyed it, and if you loved my picks, you vehemently disagree with them, or aren’t sure how you feel…be sure to comment! I love engagement, I’m proud of this list and the journey it’s been in making it, and I don’t care if you don’t quite agree with me on it, I want to hear what you think…that would just make my (blogging) day. Thanks, as always, for reading, and stay tuned for a much-more-active-and-alive Harmony Avenue, full of more heartfelt music recommendations and commentary just for you.