Normally I am not a fan of year-end lists, but for some reason I’m feeling the year-end spirit this year. Maybe it’s because this was the year of my 20th reunion from high school, so I’m just naturally nostalgic anyway. Or perhaps it’s because this year two people in my life shockingly passed on. Or it might simply be the number of candles that will be on my birthday cake in less than a month. Regardless of the reasons, I’m feeling all verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. The topic: Music released in the year 2014 that didn’t suck. Go.
- Casting Crowns – Thrive. This is contemporary Christian music at its best, even though they continue to use the same exact formula that they’ve always used. I liken them to Bon Jovi in the secular world. You always know what you’re going to get, but that’s okay because you liked it the first time you heard it and it hasn’t gotten old. Yet.
- Toni Braxton & Babyface – Love, Marriage & Divorce. Sure, it was 22 years of waiting for these two to follow up on the promise of “Give You My Heart,” and “Love Shoulda Brought You Home Last Night,” but it was well worth the wait as we got entire album of a relationship gone right, then wrong, then right again. The album traces the pattern of a couple who have major issues, like most couples, and we hear about it through song. Perfect picture.
- Pharrell Williams – G I R L. I didn’t know whether to separate the letters like that or to put period between them, but it doesn’t really matter. The album is “sick.” Seriously, Pharrell knows just what beats to marry and which ones to eschew in favor of others. He’s the consummate professional, and once I get past “Happy” I can truly enjoy this masterpiece of an album.
- Jason Derulo – Talk Dirty. I tried not to like Jason Derulo because he sounds so much like Ne-Yo and Usher (a conundrum in and of itself), but I just can’t help myself with this record. There’s just something about his music that makes me want to move my feet to the rhythm, and this collection of songs is no different. Slick production and sexual undertones help to drive this album and keep it playing on my iPod.
- Sarah McLachlan – Shine On. You know I’m a huge Sarah McLachlan fan but I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this one. It seems like her best songwriting comes out of heartbreak (like so many others), and it was universally panned by critics, but I enjoyed the atmosphere of a record that was a hopeful look forward instead of a depressing look inward and backward. Shine on indeed.
- Michael Jackson – Xscape. I love everything about this record except the title, but that part’s forgivable as Michael had no hand in actually naming this posthumous album. It really is an exercise of love, though, of producers transforming and enhancing music. But really the voice shines through as beautiful as always. It makes me miss Michael.
- Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence. There’s just something about her voice that’s ethereal, that’s so haunting it makes me feel like I’m underwater but not drowning. I wondered how she would follow up her dynamic debut, and this one does not disappoint. What I love most about Lana is her ability to capture moods so perfectly in each of her songs, and the title track here captures intensity in a bottle.
- Linkin Park – The Hunting Party. This album came literally from nowhere. One day rumors started going around that LP was back in the studio, and the next the album was sitting there on the shelf and I had no clue how it got there. Forget Beyonce, this was the surprise masterpiece of the year, amazing too because of how soon it followed their last record. It’s a return to form with significant rapping and soaring vocals.
- Ed Sheeran – X. Honestly, I gave him a chance because of Taylor Swift. It had absolutely nothing to do with Lego House, believe it or not. Ms. Swift said on her Facebook page on the day that X was released that we should all listen to it because it was “perfect.” So I did, and it is. Listen, and perfect, that is. His voice is not classically beautiful but the songwriting accentuates the nuance in it. I can honestly say that each and every song is one of my favorites. Album of the year candidate.
- Sia – 1000 Forms of Fear. Chandelier has got to be one of the hardest songs to sing, so luckily I don’t have to sing it. I can sit in my warm robe with my headphones on and listen to it instead, the haunting, lilting melody that also happens to be an anthem. Sia does a great job in connecting those bits and pieces, and her voice is incomparable.
- Maroon 5 – V. What’s with all these albums being just single letters? I assume V in this case means that it’s Maroon 5’s fifth album, but what do I know? Regardless of its meaning, the album is great. My favorite song is a treatise of lost love, called Unkiss Me, but it’s all just so relevant to me and my own personal relationship history. Besides, Adam Levine’s falsetto is perfect.
- U2 – Songs of Innocence. My favorite band returned with a new album this year after an interminable wait (thank god for Invisible to help defray the pause), and regardless of the iTunes gimmick the album itself was well worth the wait. This is my pick for album of the year because not only does it delve into new territory for the group, it also revisits old ground, something they’ve been loath to do in the past. I like hearing the guitar from The Joshua Tree, the piano from War, and the grief of Bono losing his mother in the dulcet tones of Iris. It’s a wonderful mix of past, present, and future, and I can’t wait for the tour next year.
- Keyshia Cole – Point of No Return. Normally I’m not a huge fan of R&B chanteuses, but Keyshia Cole has always been different. In fact, I look forward to her records like few others, in or out of the genre. While I don’t think this offering is better than her last one, I do think it’s right on par, which is pretty good regardless. What I like about her is that she’s not afraid to dig deep into subject matter that isn’t typically R&B fodder. Nice rhythm.
- Taylor Swift – 1989. Yes, I am indeed besotted, and not just by the singer, but also by the songs. There’s just a way that she creates music that fascinates me. While this album is a major departure from what she’s done in the past, it still fits together in a beautifully musical way, and as a concept album it works quite well. I can hear echoes of 1989 in the background music, in the way the songs come together, and even in the vocals. Taylor Swift can do no wrong in my book. Close second for album of the year.
- Olly Murs – Never Been Better. Did You Miss Me? is the lead song from this album, and it reminds me in a lot of ways of dance songs of the ’90s with the pounding bass and easily memorable lyrics. It’s catchy, and that defines the album for me in so many ways as each song blends into the next but still doesn’t sound cookie cutter somehow. I’m still letting this one speak to me, though.
Special shout-outs to new albums by Better Than Ezra, TV On the Radio, Annie Lennox, Foo Fighters, She & Him, Robin Thicke. While they aren’t essential, they have more than enough staying power than some of the other shlock out there. I’m really looking forward to the amazing records coming in the new year.