2014 was an unpredictable year for music.
Female artists like Taylor Swift, Iggy Azalea, and Ariana Grande ruled the charts (okay, maybe that wasn’t too unpredictable). Foo Fighters rolled the dice with their most ambitious record yet. And U2 invaded your iTunes (now THAT was unexpected). In fact, the only constant for listeners in 2014 was being surprised. And here at Northeast Underground there was just as much shock and amazement as anywhere else.
Whether you’ve already heard any of the albums listed below or are reading about them here for the first time, this blog hopes that you’ll at least enjoy reading about its selection of some of the best albums of 2014 ( in no particular order). With any luck, some choices will surprise you too.
(Wicked Nature Music)
As recently as 2011, this blog started to sour on The Vines. After several lackluster albums, the writing on the wall seemed to state that group leader Craig Nicholls, after weathering personal turmoil and migration from one record label to another, was content merely to release the same set of songs over and over again. Now, seemingly reinvigorated after reforming as a three-piece with new band members Lachlan West and Tim John, The Vines and Nicholls appear ready to realize long-held ambitions. You see, back in 2002 Nicholls was quoted as saying that he wanted to release a double-album as his group’s debut. Management pressure and clearer heads prevailed at the time, but here, 12 years later, Nicholls gets his wish. Coming in at a whopping 22 tracks, Wicked Nature is not just a dream come true for The Vines, but for fans of the band as well, since it was members of the group’s diehard audience who helped fund much of the recording of the record via contributions to PledgeMusic.com. The end result is a sprawling, yet concise, distillation of what made many fall in love with The Vines in the first place. Album single “Metal Zone” opens with Nicholls’ echoed vocals before erupting into catchy riffing played over thundering drums. Elsewhere, “Anything You Say,” and “Girl I Want” are blasts of ‘60s-inspired pop, while “Psychomatic” and “Everything Else” pull from the Kurt Cobain songbook of distorted rage. Far from being just another comeback album, Wicked Nature is also a record with a message. “Green Utopia,” “Killin the Planet,” and the album’s own title track all share warnings about, of all topics, global warming and the potential disaster it means for our planet. As unlikely a spokesman Nicholls might make at this point in his career, it’s a pleasant surprise to see him pick up his pen again with one eye on the stars and both feet firmly on the ground.
The Foo Fighters’ eighth studio album is more than just another rock record. Instead, “Sonic Highways” is one of the most ambitious musical projects in recent memory. Eight tracks recorded in eight different cities nationwide. This is the concept behind “Sonic Highways.” And the results are startling. Bruising opening number “Something From Nothing,” recorded by the band at Electrical Audio studios under the watchful eye of alternative rock iconoclast Steve Albini features Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen and evolves from a finger-picked intro to a near-metal blowout that also includes references to blues heroes Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. Track two, “The Feast and the Famine” is an homage to Grohl’s punk influenced youth in and around Washington, D.C. using stop-start riffs and propulsive drumming to craft a soundscape that feels like a rallying cry. Foo Fighters stretch out more on the record’s latter tunes with the final two songs both breaking six minutes. The finale even clocks in at over seven. Whether this epic-like approach is due to some particular inspiration that welled up in the city each track was recorded in or was sparked by some other factor, there’s no denying the finished product. Any album that can merge the influence and appearance of artists as diverse as Cheap Trick, Bad Brains, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and more, is worthy of its description as “a love letter to the history of American music.” Listeners shouldn’t tuck such a treasure away in a box.
Watch the Foo Fighters video for the song “In the Clear” from the album “Sonic Highways” and featuring the Preservation Hall Jazz Band here:
Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Angel Olsen used to steal the spotlight as a backing singer for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (aka Will Oldham). Then with the release of her solo debut Half Way Home, the singer/ songwriter stepped into her own. Now with her sophomore album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen seems ready to set the whole stage aflame. Opening track, “Unfucktheworld” plays like a somber warning. The song’s instrumentation is minimal. Repeated acoustic guitar strums make up the entire foundation for Olsen’s echoed vocals to glide over, and the impression left is that of a spurned lover (or artist) coming to the realization that they must strive for self-reliance in order to survive. “Hi Five” continues to drive home the theme of individual responsibility. Taking inspiration from Hank Williams for the introductory line, “I feel so lonesome I could cry,” the track also incorporates a distorted garage-like stomp that swings like a country song. By constantly swaying from tender acoustic numbers to more indie rock styled rave-ups, Burn Your Fire For No Witness seems perched on the edge between two trains of thought, and the album somehow makes haunting magic out of this indecision.
Sharon Van Etten
Are We There
Despite being named after a refrain familiar to anyone who’s ever embarked on a road trip, Van Etten’s latest release already knows the answer to the question it’s asking. While on 2012’s Tramp the sound of Van Etten’s music leaned heavily on lush orchestration, giving the final result a cohesive albeit at times insular feel, this new record seems to relish its own grandeur. Opening track, “Afraid of Nothing” sets the tone. Over rolling piano and distant drums the song builds slowly as if pinned musically to Van Etten’s wish for the day to come when she and a companion, “hide from nothing.” When the next number, “Taking Chances,” begins with more pronounced drums and Van Etten’s own echoed harmony, an astute listener might be tempted to start taking the song titles on Are We There at face value. By the time the sound of horns crops up on “Tarifa,” Van Etten’s spell seems to be in full effect. She even strips back some of the production for the piano ballad “I Love You But I’m Lost,” harkening back to the more intimate sound of her 2010 effort Epic, and never misses a beat. “People say I’m a one-hit wonder,” Van Etten sings on the country-tinged closing number “Every Time the Sun Comes Up.” Then she ponders, “But what happens when I have two?”
Watch the Sharon Van Etten video for “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” from the album “Are We There” here:
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Wig Out at Jagbags
Stephen Malkmus is still a California kid at heart. Though the former Pavement frontman’s latest album with his band the Jicks, was recorded overseas in Berlin, the record’s lyrics remain rife with references to the West Coast. Whether talking about grooving to the Grateful Dead on “Lariat” or extolling the virtues of punk rock in the valley on “Rumble at the Rainbow,” Malkmus’ words inspire repeated images of laid-back Cali slackers getting down on every beach from Redondo to Santa Monica. And that sunny vibe doesn’t end with the lyric sheet. Musically, the sixth studio album from the Jicks summons up many of the same comparisons lobbed at its predecessor, 2011’s Mirror Traffic. Much like on that previous album, Malkmus and company forgo extended jams to slot one concise pop gem after another on to the disc’s just over 40 minute running time. Employing trebly fret runs, bright melodies and bouncing rhythms, many tracks drift pleasantly by anchored only by eminently hummable choruses and clever couplets. Sudden forays into hazy psychedelic breakdowns, when they occur, seem to exist only to keep listeners on their toes. Observant fans will even be able to spot moments inspired by such staples of ‘70s rock radio as The Eagles (see the peaceful, easy noodling on “Houston Hades”) and Chicago (the horns on “Chartjunk”), proving once and for all that Malkmus clearly has no problem wearing his nostalgia on his sleeve.
Watch the Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks video for “Cinnamon and Lesbians” from the album “Wig Out at Jagbags” here:
Brian Jonestown Massacre
Anton Newcombe, founder and leader of psychedelic rock band the Brian Jonestown Massacre, has never been shy about mixing spiritual overtones with his music. Whether penning song lyrics that mention Jesus, God and even the Devil, or describing his own creative process with a mystical aura, Newcombe has always seemed like a songwriter with one eye on the otherworldly. Now on his newest record, and first to be solely recorded and produced at his own studio in Berlin, Germany, the indie rocker who once sang of praying to “to Buddah, to Allah, and Jim [Jones],” has crafted a song cycle as prophetic as it is apocalyptic. Featuring vocals sung in Swedish by musician Joachim Alhund, the opening track on Revelation “Vad Hände Med Dem?” is a bracing introduction. Rapid-fire drums push the song forward relentlessly as Alhund’s words bubble up in the mix like directions from a tour guide. Elsewhere, “What You Isn’t” pays a hazy nod to such past BJM cuts as “You Have Been Disconnected” and “Open Heart Surgery” from 2001’s Bravery, Repetition and Noise. The song’s rhythm simmers instead of boils, creating a foundation for lines about walking “through the fire and the fear” and breaking down the “walls of glass.” For those with a soft spot for older Massacre material, a welcome return on Revelation is made by Newcombe’s use of guitar and other classic rock instrumentation. Where records like 2012’s Aufheben and 2010’s Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? traded liberally in electronic-aided grooves and beats, here acoustic strums and loose electric leads star prominently, adding swaying layers to several numbers jam-like feel.
Plowing Into The Field Of Love
Iceage returned in 2014 with a full-length release that, according to press materials, is “about seeing, learning, and rejecting things, in a cycle that repeats and builds.” The sequence begins with “On My Fingers.” Stuttering drums back singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt as he almost croons about the “second coming” and “unrelated hell.” Track two, “The Lord’s Favorite,” continues the religious allusions over an alt-country beat reminiscent of the band the Meat Puppets at its most acid-fried. But not every song hinges on faith. “Abundant Living” and “Cimmerian Shade” each tackle the issue of drunkenness from differing viewpoints. And throughout the rest of the album the impression is given that even though Iceage’s members are in their early twenties, their quick success has made them old before their time. The music reflects this growth too with piano and acoustic guitars heightening the melancholy of certain moments. And nowhere does everything come together more fittingly than on the finale of a title track. Rønnenfelt begins the song with words of warning from a cynical man looking out his mansion window. The twist is he’s not bragging. As horns, guitar and marching drums rise around him, the lonely figure may shout for “bootlickers to stand aside,” but his pleas are meaningless. “They will place me in a hearse,” Rønnenfelt shouts, repeating the final word like a mantra before all sound cuts out. It’s an ending full of release, and after spending 45-plus minutes “seeing, learning, and rejecting,” many will need to catch their breath before starting such a record over again.
Lake Street Dive
Bad Self Portraits
One of the more notable, local-orientated music stories of 2014 centered on the release of the third album from the Brooklyn-based band Lake Street Dive. Though the group is not from Western Mass proper, its members have ties to the Bay State – joining forces after meeting as students at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston – and the band’s breakthrough record was released by Northampton’s own Signature Sounds Recordings. Merging a variety of styles to defy easy categorization, the album, much like one of its signature tracks, goes down smooth. Upon first listen, vocalist Rachael Price is the show-stopper, bringing soul and wit to her tour de force performance, which is augmented ably by LSD’s other members. Drummer Mike Calabrese brings the jazzy fills, bassist Bridget Kearney lays down rhythms worthy of her Motown and Paul McCartney fandom, and multi-instrumentalist Mike “McDuck” Olson handles both his guitar duties and horn playing with equal flair. Standout numbers like the aforementioned “You Go Down Smooth” and “Stop Your Crying” show off the group’s classically-trained roots. But room is also made for cuts like “Bobby Tanqueray,” which features crunchy riffing and theremin, and “What About Me,” which betrays traces of Lake Street Dive’s initial formation as a “free country band.” Influences abound, but the best compliment is perhaps that Bad Self Portraits is something wholly original and eminently enjoyable.
Watch Lake Street Dive perform “You Go Down Smooth” from the album “Bad Self Portraits” live on KEXP here:
Few artists exist who would commit to releasing a record of full of covers, outtakes, and re-imagined versions of songs from past albums and tours as a full-fledged studio album, and fewer still would be the artists with enough quality material in their vaults to make such a release a standout record in its own right. Fortunately for music fans, Bruce Springsteen is such an artist. On his 18th studio album, “The Boss” added Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello to the roar of the iconic E Street Band and brought new life to a variety of tracks that in lesser hands could’ve resembled a grab-bag of odds and sods. The merger of past and present is observed right away with Morello adding an effects-laden solo to the album-opening title number, which was originally recorded in 1995. “American Skin (41 Shots),” though written in 2000 in reference to the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo, saw revival as a timely anthem in 2014, gaining added poignancy by being featured on a record in a year when protests over similar events cropped up nationwide. Elsewhere, “Frankie Fell in Love” brings a light-hearted bar band vibe to the proceedings, while “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” sung as a duet by Springsteen and Morello, gets punched up into a dark rocker with near-metal guitar and pounding drums. By the time High Hopes closes with a cover of the band Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” listeners will likely marvel at Springsteen’s continual willingness to defy expectations and restlessly experiment both with his own tunes and those by others. Even after all these years he’s still unpredictable, and listeners are all the better for the uncertainty yet to come.
(i Am Other/ Columbia)
Music fans were hard-pressed to avoid Pharrell in 2014. Still rolling from the success of his 2013 hits “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, the ever stylishly-hatted singer, songwriter, and producer popped up everywhere from awards shows to his new stint as a judge for the popular talent show “The Voice.” His hot streak continued with “Happy,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the animated film “Despicable Me 2,” and was also the first single from his second full-length studio album. The song’s music video, shot continuously over a 24 hour period, was a viral sensation. But more music soon found its way to the charts. Second single “Marilyn Monroe” featured a short orchestral string section and lyrics concerning the search for a perfect woman. “Come and Get It Bae” sported uncredited vocals from Miley Cyrus over funk guitar and hand clap percussion. And “Gust of Wind” included robotic contributions from the members of Daft Punk, who Pharrell appeared with at the 2014 Grammys for a performance that also included Stevie Wonder and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers. Those just familiar with Williams’ career working behind the scenes with artists like Britney Spears, Mystikal and Jay-Z amongst others, received Girl as a refreshing taste of his talent as an artist in his own right. Keeping everything positive his breezy mix of pop, soul, funk, and R&B ruled the radio in 2014 and might still for years to come.
Watch the Pharrell Williams video for “Happy” from the album “Girl” here:
Honorable Mentions: Jack White – Lazaretto, Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line, Coldplay – Ghost Stories, U2 – Songs of Innocence, Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal, Ty Segall – Manipulator, Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End, Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
That’s it for 2014. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Don’t forget to visit the Northeast Underground again in 2015. And check out more from the blog on YouTube and Twitter by clicking on the icons below: