MaxSounds Top 20

TOP 20 ALBUMS: 2016      Go to 2015    Go to 2014     Go to 2013

I realize that my yearly top album list will never win an award for being all that cool, though I’m sure that from time to time my tastes intersect with what’s going on in the current music scene.  I’m 56 years old and I think I’m still chasing that feeling I got when I was 16 and blasting Aerosmith, Rush, Kiss and Queen from a Ford Pinto with a custom car stereo in it.  I enjoy new music –  just like I did back in 1976 – but I’m still drawn to sounds that take me back to that period and the feelings I got from a great big hook, a catchy chorus, and a killer guitar solo.

This was an interesting year in music for me.  Just like I did 4 decades ago, I do a lot of my best listening while I drive.  My challenge this past year though was that I kept getting distracted by this ridiculous election.  I’m not going to get into that here, but I spent way too much time flipping the dial between news channels and not enough time listening to music.  Because of that there are albums that got by me or that I didn’t pay enough attention to.  Hopefully I’ll catch up to them soon enough but until then, here are the albums that got my attention this year.  I’ve put them in order – but really, outside of the top 5 the sequence isn’t that meaningful.  Though the first one was easy….

1)  David Bowie – Blackstar. Considering Bowie’s immeasurable talent, contributions, and influence on rock ‘n’ roll I imagine I’d put this album at the top of my annual list anyway. But it just so happens that this record belongs in this spot regardless of the circumstances.

The first time I heard this album I was making a nighttime drive from San Diego to Phoenix.  I had resisted listening to previews of the record so I could take it in all at once the first time I heard it. I had nothing else to do but keep my car pointed straight and listen to this magnificent record unfold.  Man, if we could all pick our own way to “shuffle off this mortal coil” this is the way to do it.

2)  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Key. Of all the records that came out in 2016 I’ll bet I listened to this one the most. The pain, anguish and grief that Cave poured into this album – without ever coming close to being maudlin – is astonishing.

If I hadn’t already known that Cave’s 15-year-old son had died during the making of this record it still would have been obvious that something devastating had occurred.  The first couplet of the opening song, “Jesus Alone”, tells you where Cave’s heart was:  You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field; which describes literally and poetically how his son died. The anguish is unmistakable and really comes to a head with the gorgeous, though brief, chorus of: With my voice/I am calling you.

This is a minimalist album musically, with most songs seeming like ambient soundscapes, but the lyrics are breathtaking and often harrowing.  When the vocal melody breaks through the dirge, as in the set piece of “Distant Sky”, it can bring tears to your eyes.  It also, in just one song, provides enough light to balance an otherwise very dark album.

3)  Black Mountain – IV. One of the things I like about getting my music at a real record store is that I often discover music I wouldn’t have otherwise. Either by talking to the staff, browsing the racks, or hearing what’s playing while I’m shopping.  But the next level up from that is when the staff – often surreptitiously – plays something while I’m in the store just to see if I’ll go for it.  As if they are baiting a hook and to see if I’ll take a bite.  I was in my favorite record store, Lou’s Records in Encinitas, just browsing around when the sonic mood shifted decidedly.  I don’t remember what was playing before but suddenly something loud, and heavy, and trippy was pummeling the handful of customers in the store.  I pretended not to notice what Jeremy was doing since I knew he was trying to manipulate me.  But of course, I succumbed and went over to the counter and said something along the lines of, “I know what you’re doing but I really want this record!”.  This was Black Mountain’s 2008 release In the Future.  Since then I’ve I haven’t missed an album, or a tour and they are easily one of my favorite acts since the turn of the century.

This record has everything I loved about the band almost 10 years ago and more — massive guitars, melodic vocals, proggy keyboards and arrangements, and interesting lyrical ideas – but the craft they’ve learned over the past decade is on display as well.  This isn’t just one of my favorite albums of 2016 but might make my top-10 of the new millennium. And for what it’s worth they are a beast live and easily one of the loudest groups I’ve ever seen.

4)  Frightened Rabbit – Painting of a Panic Attack. Yet another dark album thematically this year (Bowie, Cave, SVIIB) but this time with soaring guitars, huge hooks, and big choruses. Frightened Rabbit has been a favorite since my daughter texted me years ago to check out the band when she came across them playing a free set on the UC Berkeley campus. This is another band that puts on sensational live performances.

5)  Plants & Animals – Waltzed in from the Rumbling. I guess it’s no coincidence that this record is listed right behind Frightened Rabbit’s. The day after my daughter sent me that text re FR I caught their show at the House of Blues here in San Diego.  The openers?  Plants & Animals!  While Plants & Animals don’t swing for the fences the way Frightened Rabbit does, they have still captured my attention ever since.  One of my favorite songs over the last several years was “The Mama Papa” off their 2010 album, La La Land.  This new album, their fifth overall, is filled to the brim with musical and lyrical ideas and at times it seems like the songs can barely contain them all.  This is an album I usually put on when I’m in a good mood and half way through the ebullient second song, “No Worries Gonna Find Us”, I feel even better!

6)  Shearwater – Jet Plane and Oxbow. If someone asked me to describe most genres in rock I think I could give a reasonably good description. But modern indie rock? I’m not so sure.  Really it seems like anything goes now and this album illustrates that quite well.  There are pulsing electronic synths (“Prime”), jagged beats followed by a Bowie-esque vocal hook (“Quiet Americans”), and driving melodic rockers (“A Long Time Away”).  And that’s just the first three songs!  A lot of music fans have never heard of Shearwater, but they’ve put out 9 long-players since splitting from Okkervil River way back in 2001.

7)  Steven Wilson – 4 ½. The name of this record suggests that this is not a full album – as if it exists only to bridge the gap between the previous record, 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase and 2017’s To the Bone. But at nearly 40 minutes long and six fully formed songs this sure seems like a full album to me. Regardless, this is just great modern prog-rock.  In an era when most artists and groups of any stature put out albums only every 3 to 4 years (or 11 years and counting – hello Tool!!) Steven Wilson is undeniably prolific.  Yet the quality of his music is never diminished.

This record is book-ended with two behemoths in track one, “My Book of Regrets”, and the final track, “Don’t Hate Me”.  These are both 9 minutes-plus epics that cover a vast array of musical styles.  In these songs you’ll find everything from prog-metal to jazz and everything in between.  Fans of Pink Floyd and King Crimson will find a lot to like with this record, but Steven Wilson and company are no retro act and if this is just some in-between-album it’s a damn good one

8)  Opeth – Sorceress. This album marks the third outing since Opeth abandoned the blast-beats and cookie-monster vocals that accompanied the death-prog-metal from their earlier years. While they can still summon a bludgeoning presence, as on the title track, the band has fully transformed itself into a nimble, and at times crushing, prog rock band.

9)  Wolfmother – Victorious. It’s hard to imagine Wolfmother releasing an album and it not being in my top-20 for the year. Since the first time I heard of the band (in a surf video called Young Guns II) they have scratched every itch I’ve ever had for melodic hard rock. To my ears, it seemed like someone had put Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and The White Stripes into a blender and poured out a cool mug of Wolfmother.  There may be different players alongside songwriter, guitarist, singer Andrew Stockdale, but their formula of hard-charging melodic 70’s fueled rock ‘n roll is still essentially the same.

10)  Claypool Lennon Delirium – The Monolith of Phobos. This super-group formed around Sean Lennon and Les Claypool sounds exactly like you think it would. It’s weird, trippy, psychedelic, proggy and very strange. Just put some headphones on, drop the needle on the opening title track, turn the volume knob to 11, and get ready to go on a trip into intergalactic space.

11)  Tacocat – Lost Time. I think it’s safe to say that Tacocat, the 4-piece punk/pop [the order of those descriptors matters!) band from Seattle, were not writing their latest album for me, a middle-aged man who grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Jethro Tull. But fuck-it, that’s not my fault, because this is just great music! I like everything about this album, from its big surf-inspired guitars to its clever lyrics. And if you ever get a chance to see this band live do not miss it – while their records are great this band is a whole different animal onstage and put on easily one of the best shows I saw all year.

12)  Garbage – Strange Little Birds. I wonder if this album had come out, exactly as it is, in 1999 if their fans from almost 20 years ago could tell this was a blast from the future? I doubt it.  Just listen to track two, “Empty”.  It has everything anyone ever loved about Garbage: a huge production, mammoth guitars and towering choruses.  So, is this just a retread from their past glory?  I don’t know and really I don’t fucking care. All I know is that when I put this cd in car’s player I turn the volume knob clockwise and set my cruise control so that I don’t drive 100 mph.

13)  Savages – Adore Life. If I had somehow never heard of Savages and you played this record for me and then asked me to guess which decade it’s from, there’s a good chance I might miss by 30 years! I’d sooner believe that this was a contemporary of the post-punk scene that produced Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus than believe it was a modern record.  At this point though, does it really matter?  My 15-year-old son’s favorite band is Blue Oyster Cult – genres and eras don’t seem to matter anymore.

14)  Daughter – Not to Disappear. The listener might be fooled into thinking this is just chill background music. The listener would be wrong.  At times the music is slow and languid, at others it is noisy and bristling with post-punk energy.  This record should be played loud and listened to carefully as there is a lot more going on, and it is much more powerful, than it first seems.

15)  School of Seven Bells – SVIIB. One of my favorite bands of the early 00’s was Secret Machines – a band that seemed to combine elements of every movement in rock since the Beatles with a heavy dose of pre-DSOTM Pink Floyd psychedelia and the stomp of early Led Zeppelin. When that band broke up I followed singer/guitarist Ben Curtis when he joined Alejandra and Claudia Deheza (On! Air! Library!) to form School of Seven Bells. The new band combined the best parts of each of their original groups and went on to release four excellent albums.  This, though, is their best album yet as it takes everything they were doing to another level.  The first song, “Ablaze”, really sets the tone as the music brings back the power and majesty of Secret Machines and combines it with the ethereal, driving vocals of Alejandra (by now the group was just a duo).  Set against the force of the music/vocals the lyrics are often melancholy and aching – yet ever hopeful as well.  Sadly, after much of the album was written and recorded, Ben Curtis was diagnosed with, and succumbed to cancer. This album, finished by Curtis’s romantic and creative partner Alejandra and Ben’s brother Brandon two years after his death, stands as a brilliant final statement for the band.

16)  The Kills – Ash & Ice. Yet another dark record in a year that saw plenty of them. The songs on this first album by the British/American duo in 5 years are lacerating both lyrically and musically. It’s clear that Alison Mosshart’s time with The Dead Weather raised her profile, but it certainly didn’t soften her approach to songwriting or singing.  And her partner in The Kills, Jamie Hince, must have had his own demons to exorcise since this record has a bristling, defiant vibe throughout.

17)  Okkervil River – Away. Okkervil River’s last album, 2013’s Silver Gymnasium, contained one of my favorite songs of the past several years: “Down Down the Deep River”. There is nothing on this record that grabbed me so dramatically, but this was still a highlight for the year.  In contrast to most of Okkervil River’s catalog this record is quiet and often melancholy.  It feels more like a Will Sheff solo LP rather than the output of a full band, but Okkervil River has always revolved around Sheff’s guitar and songwriting.  Perhaps it’s fitting then that the title of the first song is Okkervil River R.I.P. And though it’s quiet, there is no shortage of melodic vocal hooks and gorgeous musical passages.

18)  Caveman – Otero War. This band is yet another example of why I always arrive at shows in time to see the opening act. When I went to see Frightened Rabbit at the Belly Up in Solana Beach, I had never heard of the opener, Caveman, but I’m sure glad I had a chance to see them. Caveman fits in well with other Brooklyn bands I’ve seen recently like Snowmine and Small Black as they present an interesting blend of clever indie-pop that veers between traditional song structures and more experimental offerings.

19)  Wye Oak – Tween. Like Steven Wilson’s 4 ½, this record by the duo of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack is not meant to be an official album. Apparently, this is a collection of songs left over from previous albums. That may be but this is still a great collection of songs that has all the elements I like about Wye Oak.  Like many others I discovered Wye Oak when their song, “Civilian”, played during a haunting sequence in an early episode of The Walking Dead.  They can be quite and noisy, soft and loud, electronic and analog — often in the same song.  Wye Oak was also one of the highlights of my 2016 summer concert season.

20)  Kristin KontrolX-Communicate. Crunchy power cord riffs, disco rhythms, new wave embellishments, and pop vocals. This seems like a pop album – but I don’t really listen to pop music – so why do I like this? I know I bought the album on the strength of Kristin Gundred’s (Dee Dee) previous work with Dum Dum Girls but she has definitely gone in a new direction with this project. It may be pop – but it’s a subversive pop – and I like it!

Tied for 21st:

  • Deap Vally  Femejism
  • Dinosaur Jr.  Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
  • Green Day  Revolution Radio
  • Iggy Pop  Post Pop Depression
  • Metallica  Hardwired to Self Destruct
  • Mystery Jets  Curve of the Earth
  • Radiohead  A Moon Shaped Pool
  • The Cult  Hidden City
  • The Shelters  The Shelters

TOP 20 ALBUMS: 2015      Go to 2016     Go to 2014     Go to 2013

 We are now halfway through the 6th decade of Rock ‘n Roll A.B. (After Beatles).  That’s 52 years since Please Please Me and Meet the Beatles came out in 1963.  Until recently each decade in rock had its own signature sounds.  Of course, there was some overlap, or there might have been simultaneous but separate genres going on (like New Wave and Hair Metal in the 80’s) but each successive decade in rock spawned a new sound and a new set of artists: the 60’s had The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks and The Who; the 70’s had Led Zeppelin, Queen, Elton John and the Eagles; the 80’s had U2, REM, Duran Duran and Gun’s n Roses; the 90’s had Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and Beck; the 00’s had The Killers, The White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes.  Of course there have always been bands and scenes that didn’t really fit the mold poured by the decade they came from – like The Velvet Underground in the 60’s,The Sex Pistols in the 70’s or The Misfits in the 80’s – but for the most part each decade had an identifiable sound.

But the 2010’s?  What group or artist in rock n’ roll defines this decade?  There are certainly great bands and performers that have become prominent over the past five years: St. Vincent, Alabama Shakes, Vampire Weekend and Tame Impala come to mind.  But aren’t they all just an extension of the anything-goes indie rock explosion of the previous decade?  Since the turn of the millennium rock music, more than ever, has become a true amalgamation of all the styles and genres that have come before.

 1)      Steven Wilson – Hand Cannot Erase.  In an age when artists typically take three or more years to complete an album cycle, here comes Steven Wilson just two years after his last masterpiece, The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories, with another modern prog-rock classic.  Really, it is astonishing what Wilson has accomplished in his career: in addition to his four solo records, he has helmed or been a main creative force in at least a half a dozen other bands (Porcupine Tree, No-Man, I.E.M., Bass Communion, Blackfield, Storm Corrosion) which together have released 25 studio albums. This album is built around the story of Joyce Carol Vincent; a British woman whose death went unnoticed for almost three years as her corpse lay undiscovered in her flat amongst a pile of Christmas presents.  The music that accompanies the story is a vast, imaginative and complex combination of styles including prog rock, classic rock, metal and electronics.  In 2013 Wilson held my #1 spot and now two years later he has earned it again. 

2)      The Dead Weather – Dodge and Burn. I resisted every urge to listen to parts of this album as they became available, instead waiting to hear the effect of the full album – all at once and really loud!  My patience was rewarded as this record lived up to all my expectations and fucking rocks from start to finish. Whoever had the idea of having Allison Mosshart sing in front of a Jack White band deserves a medal because he/she is a rock ‘n roll genius. Mosshart venomously spits out the lyrics in front of a furious squall of guitar, bass and drums. There seems to be some kind of backlash against JW going on out there in internet-land – but really, fuck ‘em – because this album is awesome!!

3)      Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love.  I’m going admit something right from the start.  I did not follow Sleater-Kinney during their initial run.  I don’t have a good reason for that except to say I guess you can’t hear everything that’s out there.  But when this new record came out earlier this year there was so much buzz about it that I figured I’d better check it out.  Good thing I did too, because this record just rocks out from start to finish.  The album is filled to overflowing with angular riffs, pulsating basslines, syncopated rhythms, melodic hoods and lyrical urgency.  This album is strong from start to finish over its brief 33-minute running time, but a standout number for me was track 3: “Surface Envy.”  The song starts with a descending guitar motif backed by a simple bassline; then the drums kick in followed by a massive bass riff. With the song now roiling at full boil, Corin Tucker’s voice joins in like a caged tigress that was being held back from the microphone.  And that’s just the first 30 seconds!  So much tension is built throughout the introduction and the first long verse that it is exhilarating when the main riff is exposed and blows the song wide open during the chorus.  This record came out way back in January so I guess it’s now time for me to start checking out the band’s earlier output and find out where all this passion and fury came from.

4)      David Gilmour – Rattle That Lock. While the former co-writer and lead guitarist for Prog-rock super-heroes Pink Floyd has been busy with a variety of projects – (the collection of previously unreleased Floyd tracks, The Endless River; and his trance/electronic work with The Orb) – it has been a long time since his last solo release, On an Island in 2006.  In fact, this is only Gilmour’s fourth solo outing since his self-title debut in 1978.  However, what he lacks in quantity, he more than makes up for in quality.  This is stunning album, especially for a 69-year-old artist with an already exceptional 50-year career in his rear-view mirror.

5)      Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color.  Three years ago Brittany Howard and the Alabama Shakes seemed to arrive out of nowhere to drop an awesome set of bluesy, soulful rock tunes on us with their debut album, Boys & Girls.  That record spent a lot of time on my turntable back in 2012 so I was eager to see what the band had in store with their second offering.  While they didn’t change the focus of their sound drastically, this also doesn’t feel like Boys & Girls Part 2.  If the first record seemed a bit controlled, they definitely let it all hang loose with this set. With Howard’s fierce vocal performance and the band locked in behind her, The Shakes seem to simultaneously look back to their influences and forward with their own sound. This band is going to be around for a long time.  

6)      Built to Spill – Untethered Moon.  With a jungle drum beat followed by crashing power chords and a distorted lead riff, it sounds like Built to Spill started off their first album in six years right in the middle of some classic rock song you’ve never heard before.  And really the entire album is like that.  It is new and creative, to be sure – but it is not of any particular time.  It’s like our needle was dropped in a random groove in music history and we just started rocking out.  This record keeps offering bursts of riffs, rhythms and lyrics that are as good as anything in this storied bands’ career.  And then there’s the final number, “When I’m Blind,” an epic track on an already standout album. This is a two-minute-long song with a six-minute guitar freak-out stuck right in the middle of it [yes, this song is a Tardis], and the release back into the main riff at the 7:08 mark is my favorite musical moment of the entire year.

7)      Metric – Pagans in Vegas.  Some bands just confound me that they are not more popular.  I’m sure that Emily Haines and her band are making a decent living filling House of Blues sized venues – but they should be a lot bigger.  This time out Metric trades in their guitar-oriented sound for a synth-heavy set that recalls many of the band’s heroes and influences like Depeche Mode (“Lie Lie Lie”) and New Order (“For Kicks”).  Don’t ever try to have a conversation with me when I play this album because every time it comes on I reach for the volume knob and twist it to the right!

8)      Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I sit and Think. Here comes Courtney Barnett, a young singer/songwriter/guitarist from Australia, to prove that rock & roll is still alive and well in its second half-century of existence.  She combines clever, almost stream of consciousness, lyrics with classic rock & roll riffs and an energy that dares you to not start bobbing your head as you listen on your car stereo.

9)      The Waterboys – Modern Blues. Mike Scott has lead the Scottish band, The Waterboys, with himself as the sole continuous member, since the early 80’s.  I remember the band mostly from their early smash hit, “A Girl Called Johnny”, a song that was hugely popular but did not seem to fit into the pop landscape at the time.  Then I promptly forgot about them for the next 32 years!  It wasn’t until I went into one of my favorite record stores, Spin Records in Carlsbad CA, that I rediscovered the band when the owner recommended that I get the new album.  All it took was the first song, “Destinies Entwined”, with a bluesy guitar riff backed by a Hammond organ and an Ennio Morricone-style trumpet solo, to get my full attention.  This album features song after song of Americana inspired classic blues-rock until it gets to the epic closing number, the 10:23 long opus “Long Strange Golden Road”, which sounds like a long lost classic from some Mark Knopfler/Bob Dylan super group.

 It turns out that The Waterboys have been busy in the intervening 3 decades, releasing 11 albums in between their 1983 debut and this new collection.  I was fortunate to see the band play live this past year and based on the energy and passion that Scott and company displayed on stage, and the enthusiastic response from the crowd, I’d wager this band has a lot of miles left in it.

10)   My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall.  I can never get enough of Jim James’ melodic voice and his band’s combination of classic rock mixed with prog-rock complexity and guitar heroics.  While much of this record is a more mellow and measured affair, there are tracks like “Spring (Among the Living)” that surge with power and emotional weight.  When I saw MMJ in concert this past year, they played most of this new album, and these new songs held up quite well against their classic repertoire.

11)   Florence + the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.  It’s hard for me to separate my feelings and thoughts about this album from the impression I got when I heard much of it live earlier this year. Florence Welch and company played most of the songs from the new album, her third overall and first in four years, on her headlining worldwide tour this year. Welch’s performance was so dramatic and the staging was so epic that I picture the show whenever I listen to the album. This is a gorgeous, propulsive album full of big hooks, massive choruses and the occasional kitchen sink thrown in for good measure.

12)   Wilco – Star Wars. It has been four years since The Whole Love came out in 2011 and that is a long time in Wilco-land.  The good news is that Jeff Tweedy and the rest of the band have delivered an album that was definitely worth the wait.  Star Wars covers a lot of ground – from the noise-rock blast of the opener, EKG; to the alt-rock classic vibe of More… with its huge chorus; to the glam-rock stomp of Random Name Generator – and that’s just in the first three songs! Someone smarter than me said that this was like a greatest hits album of songs that had never been released before.

13)   John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure.  There is so much going on in this album, musically and lyrically, that it’s hard to know how to describe it.  There are clear homages to Frank Zappa and David Byrne, along with a lavish mix of New Wave, Chamber Pop and indie rock.  This is a dense, complex record that takes repeated listens and probably a lyric sheet to fully absorb.  It’s been out for just over two months now and I’m not nearly done figuring it out.

14)   Howlin’ Rain – Mansion Songs.  Howlin’ Rain is led by Ethan Miller, the creative force behind NorCal’s psych-rock outfit, Comets On Fire.  After issuing 4 albums in 5 years (just like they did back in the 70’s – an era that Miller has fully explored with all his projects) the Comets went on indefinite hiatus back in 2006.   Since then Miller, the only constant member in the band, has released 4 albums as Howlin’ Rain.  While his former band specialized in smashing together various styles and sounds, touching on acid-tripped psych-rock over a foundation of classic rock underpinnings, the group could also fool the listener into thinking that they had created a more normal song structure with the melodies and themes stretched out. Then, just when they lulled you into a false sense of safety, the guitars would just come unhinged and take the song to a completely different place. While Howlin’ Rain’s songs still take some interesting twists and turns, and Miller might still insert a guitar freak-out here and there, this new band is a much easier going affair.  Now the main influence is West Coast 70’s rock, with more emphasis on melody over distortion, and Miller’s ragged voice sounds perfectly at home over the often languid arrangements.  But don’t let this Laurel Canyon vibe deceive you – there are still plenty of big, hooky riffs and chanted choruses to bring some real energy to the songs.  This is especially true in a live setting.  I’ve seen this band a few times now and they are quite adept at locking into a melodic chilled-out groove, then building up and unleashing a ferocious racket. I like all their albums quite a bit but if I had to recommend the perfect starting point I would pick 2008’s Magnificent Fiend.  Get some good headphones and find a comfortable spot, then play the back to back numbers “Nomads” and “El Rey”. You’re welcome.

15)   The Sword – High Country. One of the first albums I ever bought was Black Sabbath’s Paranoid – and it is still a favorite today.  But as good as Sabbath was, for my money their heyday ended back in 1975 with the 6th album by their classic lineup, Sabotage.  Yet here we are 40 years later and new bands start up every day trying to emulate that epic heavy metal sound.  There has been a thriving retro heavy metal/stoner rock scene going on for some time and some of these bands are actually starting to break through to a wider audience; bands like Wolfmother, Mastodon, Priestess and Black Mountain come to mind.  Another standout group that has reached for Sabbath’s crown is The Sword (short forThe Sword of Doom) who hail from Austin, Texas.  Since their first LP, Age of Winters, was released in 2005 The Sword have released four more doom-laden, prog-metal classics that would have been wildly popular had they come out in the 1970’s.  Even though they may not be filling the arenas that their music was meant for, they still regularly sell out smaller venues like the 700-person capacity Belly Up Tavern here in San Diego where I saw them earlier this year.

16)   Franz Ferdinand & Sparks – FFS. This pairing of two distinctive bands from completely different eras is like the Reese’s peanut butter cup of super-groups; they were meant to be together.  Sparks was new wave before the term existed; and Franz Ferdinand was greatly influenced by this now 30+ year old style.  Both bands are known for their clever wordplay and memorable choruses as well as wild shifts in tempo and rhythm.   Nearly every song is a duet between the two lead voices: 67-year-old Russell Mael and 43-year-old Alex Kapranos; but you’d never guess they were separated by so many years and several generations of rock ‘n roll.  Each holds their own, with and against the other, as their voices combine and split-up throughout the set.  A funny story that I read about this record when it came out:  when Kapranos first approached the Mael brothers with the idea of collaborating, the Sparks sent back a demo-song called “Piss Off”. Eleven years later it finally came together and of course that song is on the album!

17)   Baroness – Purple. While I love vinyl, I still buy a lot of my new music on CD – mostly for cost considerations.  But there are some groups I always purchase on vinyl and Baroness is one of them.  The covers are magnificent and their 70’s influenced hard rock/heavy metal sound is perfect for the medium.  This new record gets the listener’s attention right from the start with a short multi-tracked guitar intro that clearly references early Queen. The intro is interrupted by a burst of crashing drum fills, returns again, and then all hell breaks loose with a monster guitar riff and pummeling rhythm section.  Purple features a furious twin guitar attack – at times locked together into crushing riffs and at other times intertwined in knotty melodic leads. Baroness draws from many generations of heavy rock as you can hear the influence of groups like Thin LizzyMetalica and Mastadon.  This record only arrived a week ago, otherwise it probably would have been higher on my list.  Regardless, I can tell that Purple is going to get a lot of play on my turntable.

18)   Drenge – Undertow. I like record stores for a lot of reasons.  One of them is that I often enter with a clear idea of what I want to buy, only to leave with something completely different.  If I go into a Sears store to buy a microwave oven, there is no chance that a salesman will be able to talk me into buying a blender. But if I go into a record shop to buy the new Mr. Gnome record and it is out of stock, when the clerk says, “Hey, check out this new album by Drenge”, then I’m all over it!  This record touches on so many genres, and sub-genres of rock: metal, psychedelic, garage, post-punk, and post-rock all come to mind; and the band seems to just toss them all into the blender (from Sears of course) to make a sound all their own. Thank you to Lou’s Records in Encinitas CA – your store has hung in there and fought the good fight since 1980.

19)   La Luz – Weirdo Shrine.  La Luz (Spanish for “the light”), are an all-female quartet based out of Seattle, WA.  After forming in 2012 they quickly released their debut, It’s Alive, in 2013.  Over the course of two albums now, the band, led by singer/guitarist Shana Cleveland has created a sound that deftly mixes girl-group sounds, indie rock, doo wop and of course the predominant element of their sound: surf rock.  This is indie music for surfers that don’t care about indie rock; just as it is surf-rock for indie scenesters that don’t care about surf music.  This turns out to not be a problem for me at all since I love both Surf and Indie rock.  The music goes from languid to upbeat between and within many of the songs, but always there are reverb drenched guitars and girl-group vocals.  If you’re feeling a little down in the dumps one day – grab a cup of coffee, or maybe a beer, and pop this record on.  Problem solved!

20)   Veruca Salt – Ghost Notes.  Not a lot of groups made a lasting impression in the post-grunge boom of the mid-90’s. Groups like Live,BushFuel and many others sold plenty of records and played to good crowds, but 20 years later they all kind of run together.  Not so withVeruca Salt.  Their first record, American Thighs from 1994, was an alt-rock classic.  Yes, they mixed a pop sensibility with their crushing guitars, but they stood out from the pack at the time and the album holds up quite well today [check out their hit “Seether” from American Thighs].  Ghost Notes is the band’s fifth record overall but the first since 1997’s Eight Arms to Hold You to feature the original lineup.  Most importantly, this means that the duel voice/guitar attack of Louise Post and Nina Gordon is back in action. They announce their return with “The Gospel According to Saint Me” which starts off with a sinewy bass line and then explodes with a huge glam-pop guitar riff.  Another standout track is “Laughing at the Sugar Bowl” which would probably have been a huge hit in 1994 but still sounds great today in a pop/rock landscape that is not so concerned with fitting into a specific genre or scene.

Tied for 21st:

  • Beach House   Depression Cherry
  • Best Coast   California Nights
  • Bjork   Vulnicura
  • Crocodiles   Boys
  • Eliza Rickman   Footnotes for Spring
  • Muse  Drones
  • Will Butler  Policy


TOP 20 ALBUMS: 2014    Go to 2016    Go to 2015     Go to 2013

For me 2014 seemed to be more about big releases by established acts rather than discovering a lot of new, independent bands.  While I still enjoy discovering new artists I can’t help the fact that I came of age in the 70’s and am still heavily influenced by classic rock.  The following list is really only in a loose order since I find it pretty difficult to rank my album preferences after the first few selections.  Anyway, here are the albums released in 2014 that got the most spins on my turntable and CD player…

1)      St. Vincent – St. Vincent.  This record grabs the listener straight out of the gates with the slithery bass line of “Rattlesnake” and never lets you go. Annie Clark’s fourth record as St. Vincent is an instant classic and shows just how otherworldly her talent is. 

2)   Jack White – Lazaretto.  Jack White is easily one of the most prolific songwriters of the past 15 years.  Between the White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather and his own solo material he’s released at least a dozen albums of new material since 1999.  And that doesn’t even count his work with Loretta Lynn or the Rome album with Danger Mouse and Norah Jones. All the while he’s done as much as anyone else with his Third Man Records company to revive vinyl records.  All that and this new album is as varied and rocking and strange and awesome as anything he’s ever done.

3)      Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger – Midnight Sun.  This was the second full length LP (following 2011’s groovy La Carotte Bleue) by famous progeny Sean Lennon and his “It girl” partner, Charlotte Kemp Muhl.  With this record, the younger Lennon both steps out of the shadow of his father while also reminding us of his dad’s incredible influence.  This is an expansive, psychedelic and proggy set that reminds me of a perfect combination of late-period Beatles, mid-period Flaming Lips and current Tame Impala.

4)      The War on Drugs – Lost In a Dream.  For a relatively new group I’d say that TWOD fits right in with many of the other classic rock veterans on this list.  It’s no slight to say that many of the melodies and vocals are reminiscent of artists like Springsteen and Dire Straits.  I especially like how each song is allowed to breathe and stretch out as if they are in no hurry to go anywhere.  This is my first record by The War on Drugs and it won’t be my last.

5)      Opeth – Pale Communion.  These Swedish metal gods may have started out as a somewhat progressive leaning death-metal group but they have left all their grunts in the rear view mirror on their eleventh album.  While powerful riffs and chugging bass lines still abound, this record has way more in common with the classic prog-rock of King Crimson and Yes than the black metal of Entombed and Children of Bodom.  Twenty years into their career, Opeth have created a prog-metal classic.

6)      U2 – Son gs of Innocence.  I purchased my first U2 album, Boy, from the import section of a little record store in Goleta (near the UC Santa Barbara campus where I was going to school).  The album had yet to be released in the states and we had no idea at the time that they would become arguably the biggest band since the Beatles and the Stones.  It seems pretty fashionable these days to dis U2.  Not me.   When I put this record on I always reach for the volume knob and turn it as far to the right as I can!

7)      Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways.  Who would have thought that the second drummer for some grungy punk band (I’m kidding about that part!) would go on to carry the torch for the classic rock of 10 to 20 years before Nirvana even existed (which itself is now 20 years ago!)?  This record rocks from start to finish and I really like how they used the various guest artists from the cities they visited.

8)      Black Keys – Turn Blue.  Dan Auerbach, Patrick Carney and unofficial third member, Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse), have created a slow burning, psychedelic, soulful and groovy record that has more in common (listen carefully) with Pink Floyd than with that other guitar/drums duo they used to always get compared to.

9)      Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes.  While this is mostly a collection of covers and songs that didn’t fit onto earlier albums, the addition of Tom Morello on guitar brings a new energy to Bruce’s sound as well as making this feel like a more cohesive album.  “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is an epic number and is worth the price of admission right there!

10)   Spoon – They Want My Soul.  Spoon opened for Arcade Fire on their recent tour and it was a real shame that more of the crowd hadn’t arrived in time to hear their set which included several songs from this excellent new record.  From top to bottom this album is full of clever lyrics and strong melodies and as usual the rhythm section keeps it all bouncing along.

11)   The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers.  If you don’t care for brilliant pop with huge hooks, soaring vocal melodies and thundering drums then this band, and this new record in particular, are not for you. This album has all the NP’s trademark sounds, only bigger than ever this time around.

12)   The Birds of Satan – The Birds of Satan. This new side project from the Foo Fighters’ drummer Taylor Hawkins puts Hawkins’ reported love for classic rock on full display.  Within the outline provided by the modern rock of groups like the FoosQueens of the Stone Age and the White Stripes, The Birds of Satan manage to fill in the rest of the space with licks, riffs and melodies from the pantheon of classic arena rock.  The sounds of Queen, Sweet, Slade, Thin Lizzy and Black Sabbath are all over the place – and that’s just in the first song, the nine minute long opus, “The Ballad of the Birds of Satan”.

13)   Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye.  In 2010 Petty reconvened his famous backing band for a pretty solid set with the bluesyMojo.  Now, four years later, Petty and company have made a complete return to form with a rocking set that recalls the energy of his early, classic albums.  For me, this is the best record Petty has released since 1999’sEcho.

14)   Robert Plant – Lullaby and… the Ceaseless Roar.  By my count this is Robert Plant’s 22nd album, including Zeppelin, solo work, the Honeydrippers and collaborations with Allison Krause and Jimmy Page.  That is an incredible amount of music, and to still be writing and performing at such a high level after all those songs and years is astonishing.  This new record, filled with dense rhythms, swirling melodies and meditative vocals/lyrics is yet another keeper in a long career of them.

15)   Afghan Whigs – Do to the Beast.  I was late to the Afghan Whigs party, real late.  I only just now arrived in time for this new album, which apparently is their first release since 1998.  I’ve been told that this album is not as deep, dark and huge as some of their previous efforts.  If that’s the case then I have something to look forward (backward?) to as I dig back into their catalogue.  I like everything about this record, from the big guitar riffs to the passionate screamed/sung lyrics to the awesome album cover.

16)   Temples – Sun Structures.  This new band of psych-rockers from the UK may be this year’s Tame Impala.  So far they have created a very listenable blend of 60’s psychedelia with a modern indie-rock punch.

17)   Snowmine – Dialects.   The Brooklyn chill wave/indie rockers have returned with their second album which builds and expands on the sound from their excellent debut, Laminate Pet Animal from 2011.  This time out they have expanded their sound somewhat and invite favorable comparison to Vampire Weekend’s recent records.

18)   Broken Bells – After the Disco.  I have heard some folks say that this second LP by the super-duo of Danger Mouse and James Mercer isn’t as strong as their first.  My typical response is that they’re just not playing it loud enough.  It’s hard to figure how Brian Burton has this much creativity left over after all the work he has done producing and playing with other artists.  Disco has come a long way!

19)   Fanfarlo – Let’s Go Extinct.  I’ve been following Fanfarlo since their first LP Reservoir came out in 2009.  This is their third record and like its predecessors the group has changed direction once again.  They may have started out as part of the indie-folk movement like so many others but they have moved well past it by now. Like their contemporaries, Arcade Fire and the Decemberists, Fanfarlo use a lot of non-rock instruments and aren’t afraid to let the arrangements stray wherever they need to go.  Yet they have also separated themselves from the pack and found their own voice.  Speaking of voices, Simon Balthazar’s just keeps getting better.  On their debut he sounded a little too much like the singer from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (who in turn sounded a lot like David Byrne) but now he has really come into his own and provides strong vocal melodies to go with the lush arrangements. 

20)   Dum Dum Girls – Too True.  The band joins the hi-fi world this time out, combining the best parts of the Go Go’s, Echo & the Bunnymen and the Raveonettes into their own sound.

Tied for 21st:

  • And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead  IX
  • Band of Skulls  Himalayan
  • Bryan Ferry  Avenmore
  • Conor Oberst  Upside Down Mountain
  • Damien Jurado  Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun
  • The Pixies  Indie Cindy
  • Ramona Lisa  Arcadia
  • The Burning of Rome  Year of the Ox
  • Wye Oak  Shriek


TOP 20 ALBUMS: 2013      Go to 2016    Go to 2015      Go to 2014

The music industry may be facing serious challenges, but to these ears this has not diminished the variety and quality of the music being created and performed this year.  Another thing I perceive is that listeners seem less concerned with following a particular genre and more interested in following what they like, regardless of style.  I believe this tendency is reflected in my top 20 list this year.  Without trying to cover all the bases I managed to include prog-rock, heavy metal, indie rock, classic rock, neo-psychedelia and whatever the hell Nick Cave is!  

1)      Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories.  It seems impossible for one man to be so prolific while still creating such a distincitve and excellent body of work.  Yet here’s Wilson again with an astonishing record that is both a throwback to the glory days of prog-rock and a step forward into a new realm of creativity.  

2)      Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium.  This CD hasn’t come out of my player since it came out in September.  I like everything about this record – plus it contains my favorite song of the year: “Down Down the Deep River.”

3)      Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt.  Pearl Jam has transcended their grunge beginnings to become a classic rock band in their own right.  Lightning Bolt came out in 2013, but with a few stylistic changes, it could have come out in 1969 or 1978 or 1984.  This is classic arena rock, as passed down from The Who and Bruce Springsteen, at its best.

4)      Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends.  Sure, this is their most accessible work, due in large part to Danger Mouse’s production. But if music this loopy and psychedilic can be considered “mainstream” then there is still hope for rock and pop.

5)      Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away.  For me, if Nick Cave puts out a record it’s going to automatically be in contention for this list – so here it is.  On the surface this is a melodic and quite often elegiac record.  However, just below that there is a lurking menace that reveals itself in the stories that Cave weaves. 

6)      David Bowie – The Next Day.  A full 46 years into his carreer, Bowie has created a compelling work, both musically and lyrically, that sounds great today and holds up well against his classic canon.

7)      Volcano Choir – Repave.  Somehow I had never heard of this group and only discovered it by accident when I was at the record store. The cover caught my attention so I asked the clerk about it.  He merely said, “Oh, you’re gonna want to get that”.  So I did.

8)      Arcade Fire – Reflektor.  I’m still in the camp that believes there is an incredible single album held inside the padding of an overlong double album.  I am also aware though that I might be wrong and with more time I will appreciate the entire package.  In the meantime, the good parts are so good that I’m going with it anyway.  I also appreciate how the group clearly did not pander to the masses after their surge in popularity due to their Grammy win.

9)   Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the CityEven in my (slightly more) headbanging youth I always had a soft spot for Paul Simon.  So this new record by Vampire Weekend, with its clever lyricism, strong melodies and worldly percussion, sounds like something Paul Simon might have created had he began his career in the 00’s instead of the 60’s.

10)   Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse.  I had almost forgotten to include this record since it came out so early in the year.  That would have been a mistake.  There is just so much going on here, from the strong imagery in the lyrics, to the creative melodies, to the driving, propulsive bass and drums – this group is clearly still growing ten years and four albums into their carreer.

11)   Shearwater – Fellow Travelers.  I don’t usually consider cover albums for my end-of-year list but the concept and execution of this record made it easy to include.  This aptly named record is a collection of songs by many of the artists that Shearwater has toured with over the years, including: Coldplay, Xiu Xiu, St. Vincent, Wye Oak, Clinic and others.  More than that, many of these artists were invited to help arrange and play on the album. 

12)   Savages – Silence Yourself.  In this age of genre-revivals the searing debut album from London’s Savages actually sounds like less of a copy and more like it really belongs amongst the post-punk pioneers like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division and Bauhaus.

13)   Black Sabbath – 13.  Heavy Metal isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and Sabbath has returned to show everyone who the real King of Hell is. With Iommi’s menacing riffs, Ozzy’s howl and Geezer’s doom-laden lyrics, this record fits right in with the best of Sabbath’s early classics.

14)   Queens of the Stone Age …Like Clockwork.  This time out QOTSA seems to have taken all they have done before and taken it to a whole other level.  The most apt description I found was from Stephen Thomas Erlewine on AllMusic: “…smartly sculpted guitar fuzz, elastic solos, haunted harmonies, and deceptively slinky rhythms into a cool, relentless collection of heavy rock.”

15)      Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare.  This record, Wilson’s third, features a who’s who from the classic melodic rock pantheon, including David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Brown, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench.  Yet even with these heavy hitters this is Wilson’s record all the way and he shows that he is able to create something new and memorable from all these classic influences.

16)   Grant Hart – The Argument.   The drummer/singer/songwriter from seminal indie rockers Hüsker Dü is back with just his 4th solo outing since the Hüskers broke up in 1987. And man is he back!The Argument is a double-album-rock-opera based on a splicing together of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and William S. Burroughs’ unpublished sci-fi story Lost Paradise.  This is a sprawling, epic and varied record with 20 songs and almost as many styles.

17)   Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest.  From time to time I am made aware of a group or artist that has somehow slipped past my radar.  So when an old friend, whose knowledge and taste in music I really respect, began raving about this new release I figured I’d better see what all the fuss was about.  Well, it looks like I have some catching up to do after hearing this gorgeous album.

18)   !!! – Thr!!!er.  This might be my favorite put-on-the-headphones-and-play-it-really-loud record of the year.  You can just get completely lost in the rythms and effects and deep down funky groovyness of this record.

19)   Flaming Lips – The Terror.  This is a bleak record fueled reportedly by Wayne Coyne’s separation with his long-time girlfriend/partner.  Breakup records in general can be a dark affair so you have to figure if the Lips are going to create one it will be especially hopeless.  Fortunately for us Coyne and company have surrounded all this despair with music that is fascinating and captivating. 

20)   Paul McCartney – New.  I like music quite a bit but I don’t really understand how musicians can create a song out of nothing, all the while making sure the notes haven’t been played that way before.  Then they do it again.  And again.  But to think about accomplishing this at the level Paul McCartney has on his “New” album, 50 years into his carreer, is mind-boggling.

Tied for 21st:

  • Austra  Olympia
  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club  Spectre at the Feast
  • Chvrches  The Bones of What You Believe
  • Daughter  If You Leave
  • Edward Sharp & the Magnetic Zeros  Self Titled
  • John Grant  Pale Green Ghosts
  • Lightning Dust  Fantasy
  • Man Man  On Oni Pond
  • Nine Inch Nails  Hesitation Marks
  • Rose Windows  The Sun Dogs
  • Russian Circles  Memorial
  • Spock’s Beard  Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep