Pretty Damned Good As You Are
The 2014 Top 10 List

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?

It’s Christmas Eve, and that means you don’t have time for my babble. You’re here to see which 10 albums made this year’s list, and you’re fitting this in between last-minute shopping and caroling with the neighbors. I appreciate even a little of your time on this hectic day, so I won’t waste any of it droning on and on about my choices this year, except to reiterate what I said last week: in a year with so many great options, I picked the 10 that resonate most with me, personally. If you don’t see one of your favorites here, check the honorables from last week. (Unless your favorites are Sun Kil Moon, the War on Drugs or Run the Jewels. Those aren’t here.)

Ladies and gentlemen, my 10 favorite records of 2014.

#10. Andrea Dawn, Doll.

Yes, Andrea is a good friend of mine. No, that did not play into my decision to include this album here. Yes, I expect you to be suspicious of that statement. But also yes, I expect one top-to-bottom listen of Doll will eradicate those suspicions. This is an extraordinary album, a song cycle that leads you from the first blush of romance to the bitter ashes of regret, each song sparking off the last. Dawn’s writing has grown to match her piano playing and her always-remarkable voice, and these songs bloom and burst with honesty, joy and pain. Taken on its own, “Love Always” is one of the year’s best laments. In the context of this record, though, it’s one of the most heartbreaking things I can imagine. That’s the mark of a great record – when each song is wonderful by itself, but it rises to another level when taken as a whole. Doll is one of those records, and one that everyone should hear. Go here.

#9. Sloan, Commonwealth.

Believe it or not, this album has actually dropped a lot in my estimation, but not enough to keep it from the list. There are only good and great Sloan records, and Commonwealth is a great one, an experiment in crafting a whole from the sum of its parts. Each of Sloan’s four singing songwriters took a side of this double album, writing to their own strengths, and the result is a smashing tour through the four personalities that make up this Canadian institution. My favorite sides belong to Chris Murphy, who penned the most infectious songs – “Carried Away,” “Misty’s Beside Herself” and “You Don’t Need Excuses to Be Good” – and Andrew Scott, who took the challenge of filling an entire side with an 18-minute suite called “Forty-Eight Portraits.” Commonwealth is an ambitious effort, and a near-complete success (only Patrick Pentland lets the side down). It’s proof that even 23 years into their run, Sloan can keep on finding new ways to be one of the most interesting bands in the world.

#8. Coldplay, Ghost Stories.

Yeah, get out the pitchforks, I don’t care. This album resonated with me like few others this year. Coldplay’s sixth record sets a consistent melancholy tone, inspired by frontman Chris Martin’s very public breakup, but in so doing, it takes the band’s sound through avenues they have never explored. They rarely sound like themselves here, most notably on “Midnight,” a slice of shivery electronic moodiness that is one of my favorite things from this year. Only Martin’s weak lyrics keep this album from soaring ever higher, but even so, this record contains his most honest and heartfelt work. These nine songs should not sit comfortably next to one another on an album. That they not only do that, but in fact play like a single thought is utterly remarkable. Ghost Stories is a Coldplay album like no other, and the one that I have revisited more times than any other. I think it’s the best thing they have made.

#7. Elbow, The Take Off and Landing of Everything.

British ambient-rock gods Elbow are incapable of bad work. They’ve never made an album that deserves less than devotion, and yet they’ve never landed one in my top 10 list, for reasons unfathomable. I’m happy to break that streak here. The Take Off and Landing of Everything is the band’s most luminous, most beautiful work, from the whispered opening of “This Blue World” to the fragile conclusion of “The Blanket of Night.” Guy Garvey’s voice remains one of the smoothest instruments you’ll find, and the band stretches out here, giving their ideas ample room to breathe and develop naturally. There were few songs as emotionally affecting as “Real Life (Angel)” and “My Sad Captains” this year, but the prize goes to “New York Morning,” an ever-unfolding circle of light that envelops you in its warmth. If they continue to make albums of this quality, this won’t be the last time you see Elbow in the top 10 list.

#6. Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil, Goliath.

It’s been 20 years since Steve Taylor graced us with a new set of songs, and I’m trying not to let that fact color my assessment of Goliath. This honestly is just one of the best rock records I’ve heard in years. The Perfect Foil is a supergroup backing up Taylor, one of the most riveting lyricists and frontmen I’ve had the pleasure of hearing, and these songs, crafted for the band, are sharp, strong, powerful things. The first ten tracks comprise a full-on kickass slice of rock, tumbling from one stellar melody and witty insight to the next, and the finale, a six-minute epic called “Comedian,” turns the entire album on its ear. This is vital, explosive stuff, and it validates my longtime love of Taylor and his work. This is the year’s most welcome return to me, and it’s a wonderful, cranky, blistering, funny, brilliant thing.

#5. Dan Wilson, Love Without Fear.

Do you want to learn how to write a peerless pop song? Step one is to buy this album. Step two is to listen and listen and glean every single thing you can from it. Dan Wilson is a master of his craft, which is why so many people, from Adele to Spoon to John Legend to Taylor Swift to Mike Doughty, have tapped into his talent for their own records. That leaves Wilson with little time for his own music – this is only his second solo record, seven years after his first. Love Without Fear is a rare treat, and it’s practically perfect, from the ringing strains of the title track to the witty and heartbroken “A Song Can Be About Anything” to the skipping “Your Brighter Days” to the epic closer “Even the Stars Are Sleeping.” And somewhere in the middle there, Wilson gives us “Disappearing,” the year’s prettiest sad song, and yet one more feather in the cap of this songwriter’s songwriter.

#4. Husky, Ruckers Hill.

Who knows if American audiences are ever going to get to own a copy of Ruckers Hill, the phenomenal second album from Australian band Husky. So far, it’s on iTunes here, but on CD and vinyl only in the band’s native country. But if U.S. music fans do get their hands on this, they’re going to love every second of it. Husky Gawenda has blossomed into a truly excellent writer, caressing his folksy epics into new shapes before your ears. Husky’s sound combines elements of Simon and Garfunkel and Fleet Foxes, ending up with a rustic yet modern feel that snakes its way around these lovely, deceptively intricate tunes. “I’m Not Coming Back” remains a favorite, but every song on Ruckers Hill shows growth from the band’s already impressive debut, and officially heralds Husky as one of the best new acts out there. If you can find this, snatch it up without hesitation.

#3. The Choir, Shadow Weaver.

You all know that the phrase “new Choir album” is one of my favorites in the English language. Even so, this album is stunning, one of the long-running band’s very best. Funded through a Kickstarter campaign, Shadow Weaver finds every element of the Choir’s sound gelling, and every minute of it bursts with inspiration. The band has rarely delivered a knockout punch like “What You Think I Am,” and even more rarely followed up with a genuine epic like “It Hurts to Say Goodbye.” “The Soul of Every Creature Cries Out” is exactly the kind of spiritual yearning song the Choir does better than any other band, and is one of my favorite 2014 moments. I am always beyond grateful to get a new Choir album, but to get one this good, one that stands up with the best work they have ever done, one that even brings them to new and magical places – well, grateful barely seems to cover it.

#2. U2, Songs of Innocence.

I wish Bono and company had not tried to give free copies of Songs of Innocence to every iTunes user earlier this year, but not for the reason you think. I wish it hadn’t happened because the ridiculous, privileged, invented furor over this so-called invasion of privacy overshadowed the fact that Songs is the finest U2 album since Achtung Baby. If you deleted it without listening to it, you missed out on the most riveting, vital, alive set of songs this band has delivered since the glory days. The sound of an invigorated, emotional, flat-out powerful U2 is like no other sound, and on this record, they dig deeper than they have in years. The soaring moments, like “Song for Someone” and “Iris,” soar higher, and the grittier songs, like the remarkably dark “Raised By Wolves” and the stunning “Cedarwood Road,” sink in more fully. Songs can serve as a summary of everything U2 has ever been good at, from the classic “Every Breaking Wave” to the electro-crawl of “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” and taken as a whole, it’s about holding on to the wide-eyed past. But when U2 decides to sound like U2, there isn’t a single one of the hundreds of imitators who can come close to them. And on Songs of Innocence, they sound like U2 in ways they haven’t in two decades. This album is a beautiful gift, and as Bono sings on “The Miracle,” we get so many things we don’t deserve.

Which brings us to my top pick. And it should be no real surprise.

#1. Imogen Heap, Sparks.

Imogen Heap is a genius. This has been true for a long time, and hints of the breadth of her talent have slipped out before. But Sparks is the record I’ve been waiting for, the one that fully explores just how astonishingly brilliant this woman is. No record this year has a story like Sparks – it was created specifically as a way of shaking up Heap’s life, sending her out of her comfort zone, dropping her in new and unfamiliar places (often other countries) to see what she could do. Each song has an origin tale, each one a fable of renewed confidence and exploded possibility. Sparks is the sound of a true original discovering just what she can do.

And no record this year has the scope, ambition and sheer go-for-broke-ness of Sparks. Heap traveled to the homes of more than a dozen fans to record their various pianos for the remarkable opener “You Know Where to Find Me.” She layered her voice a million times for the insane a cappella piece “The Listening Chair,” a song she will add to every seven years until she dies. She traveled to Hangzhou, China, and recorded random people on the street, stitching them together into the background of “Xizi She Knows,” one of the year’s best songs. She worked in audio 3-D on “Propellor Seeds,” collaborated with a host of unlikely musicians (including Indian composers Vishal-Shekhar on the great “Minds Without Fear”), and invented an entirely new way to play her electronic instruments for “Me The Machine.”

This should be a mess, but incredibly, even with all these separate ambitions pulling at it, Sparks flows beautifully as an album. Heap’s songs are always at the center of her experiments, grounding everything, and on this record, she’s written her very best. Taken as a whole, it’s a testament not only to her blossoming brilliance, but to the spirit of adventure, to the wonders people can achieve if they close their eyes and leap. This is the kind of album I live for. The sheer amount of work that went into realizing Sparks – Heap hunched over her keyboards and computers, tweaking every element a thousand times – is evident in the astonishing amount of detail woven into the electro-organic sound. But it’s the inspiration – the spark, if you will – behind everything that truly makes this record. This is the sound of freedom, of possibility, of a wide-open universe, and one woman determined to see it all.

And that’s it. For those keeping track, this is column number 717, and we’re nearing the end of my 14th year writing this thing. As always, I cannot thank you enough for reading and for supporting this labor of love. Next week is my annual Fifty Second Week, which will put a bow on 2014. I hope you all have a very merry holiday season. I’m grateful for you all.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.