As the best teacher who never existed, John Keating, once taught me, the greatness of poetry could not possibly measured on a scale or quantified in a graph, because “We’re not laying pipe, we’re talking about poetry.” The same could be said about music.
There’s no objective way to determine or rank the best albums of 2014. In fact, I probably didn’t listen to your favorite album this year, so it doesn’t even stand a chance of being on this list. However, I did listen to a lot of music this year, and at least two people have asked me to make a list of that music, which, I’m pretty sure, makes me a professional music critic.
That being said, here’s the albums from 2014 I enjoyed most…
(If you’d rather skip the small talk, a full Spotify playlist of these albums is available at the bottom of the list.)
17. The Earls of Leicester – The Earls of Leicester
When I was a teenager I took golf lessons from a kind man named Johnny Warren. Over the years, our families became close friends as my brother and I played high school golf with the Warren’s two children. It wasn’t until much later than I became aware of Johnny Warren’s secret identity as one of the best fiddle players in Nashville. Johnny, son of Paul Warren who played with Flatt & Scruggs, teamed up with Jerry Douglas and friends to record a Flatt & Scruggs tribute album that is hard, if not impossible, to top in terms of authenticity and musicianship. This, is bluegrass.
16. Dry the River – Alarms in the Heart
About a year ago, a friend introduced me to this band with a combination of striking vocals and pure emotional power the likes of which I had never heard before on a 2012 release that had never shown up on my radar. That was Dry the River’s first album, Shallow Bed, which you should totally listen to, because I think it’s significantly better than this one… But this one is still good.
15. John Mark McMillan – Borderland
I almost forgot this one on my initial ranking, but luckily I was reminded of this deserving album. John Mark McMillan has become not only one of my favorite Christian musicians but a favorite musician in any category. In this album, McMillan expanded into new territory complete with roto toms and electric guitar tones previously unexplored. At times, it reminds me of Springsteen, and other times it’s something all its own. It may not be my favorite McMillan album, but love it for the experiment it is.
14. Flake Music – When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return (2014 Remix/Remaster)
Have you ever found $20 in your pocket you never knew you had? If you’re a fan of The Shins, that $20 is Flake Music. Technically, this album was recorded and released in 1997. It still deserves a spot on this list with this remixed and remastered release, however, because it confirms all suspicions that James Mercer was born an indie rock genius. Presumably, he decided to re-release this album because none of us were advanced enough to understand how good this was in 1997.
13. Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were
If you’re not particularly sad, but you wanna get sad, this is a good place to start. Even the songs on this album that seem to be uplifting lyrically still have a tendency towards the brooding introspection that I’ve come to associate with Ben Howard. Though this album didn’t stand out to me as much as 2011’s Every Kingdom, Howard remains near the top of my list of enviable talents in music today.
12. Matthew and the Atlas – Other Rivers
Another entry that had a lot to live up to for me, Matthew and the Atlas returns from a band shake-up with a re-tooled sound compared to their earlier, more roots-reliant, releases that have become perennial favorites of mine (See: Kingdom of Your Own and To the North). This album did not disappoint, and there’s no escaping the best thing this band has to offer is Matthew Hegarty’s voice. If I could steal it, I would.
11. The Apache Relay – The Apache Relay
Nashville neighbors, The Apache Relay, recorded most if not all of this album in L.A., and it shows. If that’s not entirely true, I did listen to this on my plane rides between Nashville and L.A. this year, and it totally made sense anyway. Regardless of the influences, it screams “Nashville 2014” to me, and that’s kinda what this list is all about. If you’d like to see The Apache Relay in action, they are probably eating at Baja Burrito right now.
10. Field Report – Marigolden
On a recommendation from a Noah Gundersen tweet (who will make an appearance later on this list for things more important than Twitter), I checked out Marigolden, and I was not disappointed. There’s something about this music that makes it feel like it’s been around forever while also setting itself squarely in the present. There seems to be a theme developing on this list of folk bands incorporating modern elements. This is a good example of that.
9. Shakey Graves – And the War Came
This guy made some waves as the one-man-band of the year, playing percussion and guitar in several videos I saw before the eventual release of this album. He delivers each component with a raw, captivating power present in many of the tracks. There’s a lot of great sounds on this album that make it worth listening to, but, more importantly, it will make you tap your feet and practice your best raspy vibrato in the car.
8. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line
They’re back, and it comes as no surprise that they’re still making good music together. After spending a few years of going solo, Thile, Watkins, and Watkins joined forces once again for the Nickel Creek album many of us hoped would happen. It’s hard to go wrong with the harmonies these three make and the skill with which they play. Though there are a couple tracks on here where they get a little weird, the bulk of this album is the same Nickel Creek you love but just haven’t heard yet.
7. Hozier – Hozier
I didn’t expect to like this, but I do. I really do. Though I wasn’t initially crazy about the single “Take Me to Church” that was making its rounds on the radio, I eventually caught wind of “From Eden” and was compelled to hear more. I’m glad I did. Hozier is a great combination of influences, great vocals, and a compelling display of songwriting. This album is diverse and worthy of repeat listens on long drives.
6. Andrew Bird – Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…
I’m not sure if Andrew Bird has officially settled on making folk music for the rest of his career, but, if so, yes. Consistently one of my favorite artists, Bird puts out like an album every six days or something like that, and somehow they’re pretty much all amazing. The man can’t be stopped. It’s as if his talent simply won’t allow it. The stand-out song on this album for me is “Frogs Singing” which I’ve probably listened to at least once a day since I first heard it.
5. Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy
Eight years, Damien. Eight. Years. Don’t ever, ever do that to me again. This sound of this man’s voice defines large portions of my adolescent life, and there have been many times I have lamented his escape from public life. I still have no idea what it was that drove Damien Rice out of the recording studio and, presumably, into a cave on the Irish coast, but I am indebted to the more powerful force that eventually lured him back out to make this album. It’s not exactly like it used to be. But it’s also not 2006 like it used to be. This is a sound for sore ears.
4. Bear’s Den – Islands
I love bears, and I’ve loved bears for a long time. Finally there are two bands, Bear’s Den and Boy & Bear that have helped bridge the gap between nature’s biggest puppies and my love for music. Yet another band that brings a touch of modernity to a folk skeleton with worthwhile results. There are so many good melodies on this album that make it interesting and addictive.
3. Kishi Bashi – Lighght
This is far-and-away the biggest departure from the rest of the list as far as genre is concerned. Then again, I’m not sure if Kishi Bashi even has a genre. One thing I am sure of, however, is that this guy is one of the most talented musicians and best entertainers I’ve ever seen. His shows land near the top of my favorite of all time for the energy and the incredible display of talent. Dude can shred a violin and be more fun and creative than you’ve ever imagined while doing it.
2. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
One of my biggest regrets of 2014 was not jumping at the chance to see these other-worldly beings at the Ryman. This is type of album that makes you wonder why you weren’t already the world’s biggest First Aid Kit fan shortly before listening to everything they’ve ever made until you feel as though you’ve made up for lost time. Then you come back and listen to “Stay Gold” until you’ve mastered a third harmony part just in case they come calling. Please come calling, First Aid Kit. I know you don’t need me, but I’m ready.
1. Noah Gundersen – Ledges
I haven’t admired an solo artist as much as I admire Noah Gundersen in a long time, maybe since pre-hermit Damien Rice. Gundersen is one of my favorite songwriters I’ve ever encountered, and, as if that’s not enough, the dude has the best voice ever. I think I may have seen him live four times, twice in 2014, and he is consistently breathtaking each and every time. In my book, Ledges is virtually flawless, and I think we can expect more of the same in the future. This is the kind of music I’m going to force on my children.
For your convenience, here’s a Spotify playlist of everything that made the list:
Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End
Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
The Barr Brothers – Sleeping Operator
The New Basement Tapes – Lost on the River
Noah Gundersen – Twenty-Something (EP)