Sharing my favorite songs of the year with you was not enough. Thus, I must offer a few thoughts on the year in music in general, then share my favorite albums of the year. I like to think of it as a rough guide for people with some iTunes or Amazon credit to burn who would like to add an album or two to their collections.

I’ve long taken pride in my musical tastes. Since becoming a father and suburbanite ten years ago, I’ve liked to say that I still listen to the music of a 23-year-old. My tastes have continued to lean toward the alternative/indie rock side of the spectrum as I’ve slipped into that tenuous stage of life known as “middle age.”

But in 2014, things changed. A little. The bands I listened to most this year still reside in that rather broad part of the rock world that is still labeled “alternative.” Yet, a significant number of those bands boasted influences from the mid–1980s Heartland Rock sound. Springsteen. Petty. Dire Straits. Mellencamp. Bryan Adams. With faint echoes of Dylan. It is the core rock sound for those of us who grew up listening to American Top 40 in the ‘80s.

Which is kind of weird. I’ve been this big alt-rock guy since the early ‘90s, but suddenly I’m embracing artists who are pushing 40 and harkening back to the mainstream rock sound that dominated FM radio when we were in middle school. There’s probably some deeper meaning hidden in there, but, frankly, I’m a little fearful of chasing it down.

So let’s just use that as our general statement of purpose and jump into my favorite albums of 2014.

Burn Your Fire For No Witness – Angel Olsen
I wrote about this album briefly last spring, and I’m afraid I have to use the same lazy description of Olsen I used then: She’s a modern day Patsy Cline, at least in terms of her voice.

This is a gorgeous and heart-wrenching album. It is filled with songs about wounded people clinging onto some sliver of hope that better days will come. Despite all that pain, this is a wonderful album to listen to.[1]

Essential Tracks: “Hi-Five,” “Lights Out,” “Windows”

Transgender Dysphoria Blues – Against Me!
Another album I wrote about multiple times this year. As I said when discussing the title track in my favorite songs of the year section, it is one of the most powerful expressions of self I’ve ever listened to.

Essential Tracks: “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “FUCKMYLIFE666”

They Want My Soul – Spoon
Spoon received a lot of run this year for their longevity. They’ve been putting albums out for nearly 20 years now. There have been a few valleys in their career, but they’ve never sucked, and quite often they’ve been brilliant.

After spending recent years in one of those relative valleys, this was a fantastic return to the form and sound that has made Spoon one of the best American rock bands of the current century. You don’t listen for deeper meanings, although they are certainly there. You just listen to enjoy.

Essential Tracks: “Rent I Pay,” “Do You,” “Inside Out”

The Voyager – Jenny Lewis
Lewis taps into the late 1970s, AM radio pop sound more than the Heartland Rock vibe, but there are certainly common elements. Those are brought forward a little more thanks to the production work of Ryan Adams.

While not as striking as Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Lewis also shares an honest portrait of self; in this case of a single, childless woman in her late 30s, contemplating the choices she’s made, confronting pain, fending off demons, and learning to be comfortable with the woman she has become.

Essential Tracks: “Head Underwater,” “Slippery Slopes,” “She’s Not Me”

Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
2014 was the year I dove into the Ryan Adams experience. Sure, I was familiar with a handful of his songs, but never had I listened to an entire Adams album. But after falling in love with his two 2014 releases – this self-titled full length and the glorified EP 1984 which honored the classic sound of mid–80s American hardcore – I decided to take the plunge. And thus most of the past fall was spent listening to some of his epic 17-plus album collection.

When he’s at his best, Adams is the mid-point between Tom Petty and The Smiths. He’s never been as locked into that sound as on this disk. Every song would have fit perfectly into a classic album of the 1980s. Born In The USA, Damn the Torpedoes, and The Joshua Tree being the most notable. It is musical comfort food, but with substance and warmth to it.

Essential Tracks: “Gimme Something Good,” “Trouble,” “My Wrecking Ball”

Album Of The Year

Lost In The Dream – The War On Drugs
If Ryan Adams is where Tom Petty meets The Smiths, TWOD are where Springsteen meets The Cure. Wonderful, classic Heartland Rock stacked on top of layers of synthesizers and over-dubs to create a sound that is more lush than dense.

This album is absolutely loaded with delights. The extended, psychedelic jam of the opener, “Under The Pressure.” The liquid, ‘get the hell out of town fast’ scorcher “Like An Ocean Between the Waves.” The wonderful moment to catch your breath that is “Eyes To The Wind.” And, “In Reverse,” one of the all-time great album-ending tracks.

And then there are two perfect pop songs that sound straight out of the last half hour of a 1984 American Top 40, “Red Eyes,” and “Burning.” Each song is carried by a sense of liberation, of breaking free from the troubles that have held you down for too long.

If I had a list of Best Musical Moments of 2014, so many of them would come from this album. There is the acoustic guitar that comes in at the end of “In Reverse,” which opens up the perfect ending to the perfect last track and ties the entire album together. There is the moment when Adam Granduciel lights the fuse on his guitar and soars into the heavens on “Like An Ocean Between the Waves.” There is that perfect lyric in “Eyes To The Wind,” that sums up where our narrator is just before he decides to dig out of his hole of depression:

“I’m a bit run down here at the moment.”

And the top moment of the year must come from my favorite song of the year, Granduciel’s “WHOO!” that throws the drums into another gear, kicks off a gorgeous guitar run, and begins what amounts to the chorus of “Red Eyes.”

Sometimes my choice for favorite album of the year fades in time, replaced by newer, greater disks. Lost In The Dream, however, is an album that is going to stick with me for a long, long time. It is one of my favorite albums of recent years and certainly deserving of the label as my favorite of 2014.

Essential Tracks: “Red Eyes,” “Like An Ocean Between The Waves,” “Burning”

  1. In sharp contrast to Sharon Van Etten’s stunning Are We There Yet, which is even more of an emotional nuclear bomb of an album, but often so stark and personal that I had a difficult time listening to it.  ↩