I can’t believe 2014 is over! It’s been a crazy year, but through the ups and downs I’ve had plenty of great music to keep me going. Here’s my annual list of the ten best albums I’ve heard this year. Enjoy…
10. Nashville Cast, Nashville: On The Record
One of my favorite shows continues to deliver great music week in and week out, and Nashville closed out its second season with a special and album featuring most of the cast performing together live. On The Record didn’t disappoint one bit. It’s so cool to see and hear stars like Sam Palladio, Clare Bowen, and Chaley Rose do the songs in a live setting. If you’re a fan of the show or just a fan of good country music, Nashville: On The Record is well worth the listen.
Best of the Best: “I Ain’t Leaving Without Your Love,” “Nothing In This World Will Ever Break My Heart Again,” “A Life That’s Good”
9. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music
In a year where country music seemed to double down on douchebaggy pop-with-twang, a handful of artists (and one TV show – see above) dared to make country music that far more resembled what country music should be. One of those artists was Sturgill Simpson. Here’s a guy who sounds like Waylon and writes like he’s ingested Willie’s share of drugs. It’s a head trip of an outlaw country album, and somehow it feels vintage and new at the same time. Besides, anybody who can cover the technopop 80s classic “The Promise” and turn it into a heartfelt retro-country ballad deserves to be on a top ten list somewhere.
Best of the Best: “The Promise,” “Long White Line,” “Life Of Sin”
8. The Crash Years, Cope (EP)
Last year, The Crash Years had the second best album on my list, and their follow up came early in 2014. Cope mines much of the same territory as Disposition, but some of the jazz influences are gone and the EP as a whole takes a bit darker tone. It doesn’t grab me quite like the band’s debut did, but Cope is still full of good stuff.
Best of the Best: “Beyond The Trees,” “The One,” “Relentless”
7. Rend Collective, The Art Of Celebration
Northern Ireland’s Rend Collective have been around a few years, but I hadn’t heard of them until early this year, when The Art Of Celebration dropped. It’s rare to find worship music this exuberant yet thoughtful and carefully crafted, with lyrics that are intelligent yet accessible. Rend Collective blends Celtic folk with modern pop elements to create something truly appealing. I hope to hear from them for years to come.
Best of the Best: “Finally Free,” “Boldly I Approach (The Art of Celebration),” “Immeasurably More”
6. Jimmy Real, Jimmy Real (EP)
In 2014 I had the pleasure of experiencing the debut releases from two bands featuring my friend Shane Cole. Jimmy Real is a piano based pop trio featuring my friend on bass. This piano driven pop, led by the powerful voice of James Shealy, is sophisticated, melodic, and accessible. Here’s hoping some of these songs make their way on to the airwaves!
Best of the Best: “All Your Love,” “I Won’t Go,” “Freely Decide”
5. Brooke Fraser, Brutal Romantic
When Brooke Fraser released a teaser video for “Psychosocial,” the first cut on Brutal Romantic, she created a stir. Gone were acoustic guitars and piano, and in their place were techno beats. This album is a radical departure for Fraser for sure, but she makes it work. Tracks like the aforementioned “Psychosocial” and the (sort of) title cut “Brutal Romance” take on a darker tone, while brighter tunes like the debut single “Kings And Queens” and the Kate Bush-inflected “Magical Machine” dot the landscape. It’s a change, but Brutal Romantic is fresh and powerful.
Best of the Best: “Psychosocial,” “Start A War,” “Magical Machine”
4. Needtobreathe, Rivers In The Wasteland
By now, we know exactly what to expect from a Needtobreathe album – solid modern Southern rock with tight vocals and challenging lyrics. With Rivers In The Wasteland, Needtobreathe didn’t disappoint this time out. Full of toe-tapping rockers and gospel-influenced ballads all the way around, Rivers mines familiar territory and treads some new ground. At this point in their career, Needtobreathe has found their niche, and more power to them for continuing to refine it.
Best of the Best: “The State I’m In,” “Where The Money Is,” “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now”
3. Tall Bear, Tall Bear (EP)
Tall Bear was the other band featuring Shane Cole whose debut release saw the light of day in 2014. Shane played lead guitar on this one, and the combination of his amazing fretwork and Jonathan Ray’s sparkling songwriting and soaring vocals make Tall Bear an appealing treat – one that I can listen to over and over without it wearing thin. I can’t wait to hear more of them.
Best of the Best: “Find You,” “Oceans Away,” “Young Love”
1 (tie). Melanie Penn, Hope Tonight
We waited four long years for a sophomore album from Melanie Penn, and Hope Tonight was worth every bit of that wait. Any other year, this album would rank #1 all on its own, but a tie doesn’t diminish what she has accomplished here. On Hope Tonight, Penn has managed to add more sounds to her palette while continuing to mine truths both temporal and spiritual. This album has sustained me through a crazy roller coaster ride of a year.
Best of the Best: “Hope Tonight,” “Turnaround,” “Before A Fall”
1 (tie). Liz Vice, There’s A Light
In a perfect world, Liz Vice would be hanging platinum records on her wall, selling out venues all over the world, and basking in Grammy nominations in every category where her music would fit. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, which means Liz Vice’s winning brand of old school soul and unabashedly God-centered lyrics may well remain a best-kept secret for just a few. And that’s a shame. Because beyond the tight grooves and the powerhouse voice lies some powerful, encouraging truths about God. There’s A Light is the most listenable records all year long (and it’s saying a lot to rank her above Melanie Penn). This young lady deserves any accolade that come her way.
Best of the Best: “Empty Me Out,” “All Must Be Well,” “Everything Is Yours”