The Best Albums Of 2014 -- According To Me
December 8, 2014
I love albums.
I said that last year when sharing my top five of 2013 and I still feel that way. I continue to get excited when hearing familiar, superstar artists bring something new but I love putting in a CD from newbies too, hoping -- and wanting -- to be surprised and amazed.
My criteria are pretty simple: It must be something I keep coming back to over a long period of time, involuntarily. It must be something craved, not a homework assignment. And it has to keep reintroducing itself to me, peeling away layers with each pass. I know I love an album if my favorite song on it is a moving target. I listen mostly in the car while alone, so it needs to be a good driving companion.
I make an effort to listen to everything sent to me and my rule is to listen to the entire album, in track order because I still think (and hope) somebody wanted certain songs to follow others. I want all the individual cuts to equal a bigger picture and tell the story of where that artist was at that stage in their life and career.
So yeah, I love the album. There were some great ones this year. These are the ones that best fit the above description. Doesn’t make me right; it just makes it my list. As always, tell me yours too. Comment below, or email me direct here.
Hope you enjoy ... and, because this is the final ‘Ville of 2014, I also want to thank you for reading each week and always sharing your candid feedback.
Happy holidays to you and yours – talk to you on the other side of the break.
5. Dierks Bentley – “Riser”
Through his first six albums, Bentley proved himself to be a reliable hit maker, delivering radio-friendly hits and solid concert performances. There was always a workman-like consistency and quality to his work, but with “Riser,” Bentley has elevated himself as an artist overall and perhaps more granularly, a songwriter. It could be said that everything you need to know about Bentley can be found in two songs from this album, “I Hold On” and the title cut (Riser), which features these lyrics: “I'm a get off of the ground, don't run and hider/When pushin' comes to shove/Hey I'm a fighter/When darkness comes to town, I’m a lighter/A get out aliver, of the fire Survivor.” It’s clear the passing of his father packed an emotional punch for Bentley, which he referenced in “I Hold On.” And the album’s most thoughtful, introspective cut, “Here On Earth” feels like eavesdropping on someone’s conversation with a higher being. But rather than an entirely ballad-heavy, deep-thinking piece of work, let’s please not forget this album contains what is probably Country’s song of the summer in 2014, the catchy and hilarious “Drunk On A Plane,” which, in its own way, is also very introspective, right? If you want a dash of Bro Country, sample “Back Porch,” too. Great albums give you different slices of the artist’s soul and that includes happy, sad, funny, fun and thoughtful. “Riser” did all that for me. It was not a one-listen album, either. Songs here kept coming back to me, making me return to this album over and over, and appreciating it more each time.
4. Blake Shelton – “Bringing Back the Sunshine”
Shelton’s 2013 album, “Based On A True Story,” won the CMA Album Of The Year” award so you’d assume that collection would be hard to top, right? And, since Blake is a huge star on NBC-TV’s “The Voice” and has string of bulletproof singles over the past five years (14 straight #1s, if I am correct), we kind of take him for granted, right? Well, to my second question, don’t ever -- ever -- take Blake for granted as an artist and Country singer, above TV stardom. To the first, um, don’t look now, but “Bringing Back The Sunshine” is better than his CMA winner. The lead single, “Neon Light,” topped the charts quickly, before any real research came in but guess what? The follow-up, “Lonely Tonight,” will need to be a little patient while radio keeps playing “Neon Light” due to kick-ass testing. The combination of Blake and Ashley Monroe for “Lonely” is amazing and it will have its time soon enough. It’s probably a career record for Monroe. I love the sexy, mid-tempo vibe of “Sangria” and fully expect it to be a single and a smash at that. It will never grow tired. But I also hope we get to hear the hilarious “Buzzin’,” too. This puts Shelton’s great sense of humor and timing on full display and lightens up the room. A wildcard single choice would be “Good Country Song,” which is fantastic on two levels. First, it’s a touching tribute to Shelton’s dad, who apparently taught him to love Country music by listening to it with Blake as they drove together in the elder Shelton’s truck. This song perfectly frames just what constitutes a great Country song: “Makes you smile, makes you hurt/Leaves you hanging on every word/A good country song/Makes you love, makes you leave/Raise some hell or hit your knees.” Second, I love that this tune namechecks Earl Thomas Conley, George (no last name, but presumably Jones?), Vern Gosdin and Alabama. “Bringing Back The Sunshine” is another album that keeps getting better with each listen, which probably explains why it’s still in my car as this is being written.
3. Eric Paslay – “Eric Paslay”
This is definitely the dark horse album of my list and the entire year, for that matter. Paslay had powerful songwriting cred before recording his own album, penning hit songs for Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts, Jake Owen and others. He may have saved his A+ material for his own project, though. All 11 songs were written or co-written by Paslay and there is not one filler or clunker song here. “Friday Night” went to #1; I remember that as an album cut for Lady A, wondering why they didn’t make it a single. We will think of newcomers Maddie & Tae as the Bro-Country busters of 2014, with “Girl In A Country Song” and it’s awesome, but Paslay’s “Song About A Girl” was perhaps ahead of the curve with that theme with lyrics like, “This ain't about tailgates/Ain't about bonfires/Ain't about souped up cars, water towers or drowning in a bottle of Jack.” Paslay sets the tone for this album on the first cut, “Keep On Fallin’,” and proves that, like a character actor primed for a lead role; he’s now ready, willing and able of being a front and center act. We talk to radio all day around here at All Access and two words have been used to describe Paslay’s current single, the powerful ballad titled, “She Don’t Love You.” Those two words are: “Career record.” I found this album early in the year; it’s been in heavy rotation in the car since and I’m nowhere near tired of it. Not one cut. That’s always part of my criteria for making this list and Paslay certainly qualifies.
2. Miranda Lambert – “Platinum”
We have some real “girl trouble” in Country music; in that we can’t seem to develop and break even one new female star. We still need to work on that big-time, but meanwhile, Miranda Lambert has taken on the power of five or more girls on “Platinum,” as if to say to all other females and the industry: “I got this.” In most cases, artists have one album during a career that takes them to another place with its completeness and overall brilliance. I thought for Lambert, that album was 2009’s “Revolution.” That is, until I heard “Platinum.” This is not just one of my favorite Country albums of the year, but one of the best OVERALL albums of 2014, in ANY genre. This is the one you give your friends who swear up and down they hate Country and after they listen, they say, “Wait, that’s not a Country album – but it is awesome!” The lead single, “Automatic,” is the second coming of “The House That Built Me.” “Little Red Wagon” is a red hot mess and I love it. The subdued and vocally semi-monotone “Smokin’ And Drinkin’” featuring Little Big Town would also have fit on LBT’s “Pain Killers” album, sonically and thematically. “Holding Onto You” and “Another Sunday In The South” are beautiful and subtle. The Carrie Underwood duet, “Somethin’ Bad,” absolutely rocks and by contrast, there’s a by-gawd, 100% Western-Freakin’-Swing song here too, “All That’s Left” featuring The Time Jumpers. If this Country superstardom thing doesn’t work out, Miranda has a brilliant future as a cowgirl singer. ”Platinum” is versatile, envelope-pushing and collaborative. To my first point, this is Miranda, fully aware of her skills, her place in the format, who has stepped up and taken responsibility and a leadership position for Country music in 2014.
1. Little Big Town – “Pain Killer”
Not only is this the best Country album of 2014, it’s one of the best Pop/Rock album of the mid-late ‘70s. That’s not meant to be snarky, it’s a sincere a compliment. Listening to this album dozens of times, I keep hearing LBT channeling their inner Firefall, Fleetwood Mac, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; maybe even a dash of Bad Company. When I tell you this is the boldest, most daring album of the year, you may ask, “What about Eric Church’s ‘The Outsiders?’” My answer? Loved the Church album – in spite of it being a hair on the uneven side, especially when compared to “Chief,” which is an absolute masterpiece. Played side-by-side (Yes, I did that too, several times), “Pain Killer” is the more cohesive project than “The Outsiders.” I’ve always been a big LBT fan; together as a unit, they have been amazing and they still are on “Pain Killer.” But this time, the individual parts are pretty damned amazing, too, as all of the group -- Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook, and Phillip Sweet -- shine individually and brightly. On 2012’s excellent “Tornado” album, I felt Karen emerging as the prominent voice of the group and true, she did lead the way on “Pain Killer's’” debut single, “Day Drinking,” and now on “Girl Crush.” But crank up cuts eight and nine, then listen as Sweet and Schlapman push, pull, bend and basically contort their vocal range on “Stay All Night” and “Save Your Sin,” respectively. Those cuts help this album rock, but it also, rolls, soothes and caresses, too. I love tempo-driven, energetic and aggressive songs and “Pain Killer” has all that ... but for some reason I gravitated to the more ethereal “Tumble And Fall,” “Live Forever” and “Silver And Gold.” This is one of those albums you’ll listen to over and over; you’ll keep finding different nuances and change your mind about favorite cuts. Come to think of it, maybe mine is actually the title track. See what I just did there?