THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2014

Speaking Cursive, Speaking Cursive
Speaking Cursive’s self-titled debut album has been a long time coming. Rick Grice, the band’s frontman, wrote the songs for the 11-track LP almost four years ago, but was waiting for the right line-up of musicians to make it a reality. Since forming over the past few years, and the long-awaited album’s release last fall, the Jacksonville-based band snagged a spot at The Big Ticket Fest, playing their mix of Something Corporate-style pop-punk and Fountains of Wayne – or even Cheap Trickesque power-pop – alongside genre heavyweights Fall Out Boy and Weezer. The first single on the album, “Rorschach Dress,” is indicative of the group’s polished and heavily produced sound, a super-peppy break-up song with squeaky-clean three-part harmonies, simple hand-clap-style drumming, and a catchy earworm-worthy chorus. — Janet Harper

S, Cool Choices
A walk up and down a piano chord accompanied by the lyric “This is how losers feel/I am a loser” is how S, aka Jenn Ghetto, chose to open up “Cool Choices,” and it works, grabbing the listener’s attention and taking him through 12 tracks of breakup songs and general sadness. The title track, “Losers,” is the antithesis of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” and the tracks get better as the album goes on. “Vampires” is a tongue-in-cheek look at what we all deal with in our daily lives. “Brunch” is bitterness at its finest, a great addition to the “he/she is with someone else” canon, with lines like “I can do things that hurt you too” and “I know about the girl you fucked.” Ghetto uses “Cool Choices” to release some teenaged-girl demons, with a shy but unapologetic ferociousness. — Danny Kelly

Sondre Lerche, Please
I get about 50 emails a week about upcoming releases from publicists and record labels. At that rate, it’s pretty hard to listen to everything, so sometimes a great record can slip through the cracks. Please, by Norwegian pop master Sondre Lerche, did not. From the funky album-opener “Bad Law” to the beautiful waltz “Sentimentalist” to the sincere ballad “Lucky Guy,” Lerche blends hi-fi and lo-fi by combining polished production with a wide variety of instrumentation, including what I think are keys jangling, some sort of synth-driven booms, and maybe a chainsaw or some other landscaping tools. Please is one half groovy, dance-floor fun and one half love songs for friends. And the album artwork is awesome. — Danny Kelly

David Bazan, Bazan + Passenger String Quarter, Volume 1
As the face and voice of Pedro the Lion, David Bazan was perhaps the face and voice of the cool, shoegaze indie-rock youth-group set of the late ’90s and early 2000s, the ones who maybe struggled with their faith but still believed – until, that is, he decided that religion is bullshit and broke up his band in favor of a solo career that is better viewed as a continuation than a departure. In fact, if you listen closely to the latter-day PTL tracks, especially beginning around his quintessential 2002 record Control, his in-progress evolution is pretty evident. Bazan is still a masterful songwriter who still writes about faith and doubt and (more and more) politics and the intersection of all three, and those skills have never been better showcased than here, a collection of 10 songs spanning his PTL and post-PTL career, all stripped-down and rearranged for an impossibly lush string section that only highlights Bazan’s lilting, emotive baritone. — Jeffrey C. Billman

Civil Brute, Civil Brute
This self-titled, five-track EP is a well-rounded collection of songs, exposing Civil Brute’s forte for capturing both raw emotion in lyricism and masterful clarity in sound. Though Civil Brute (fondly known to their friends and peers as “Civ Biv”) specializes in melancholic, dreamy ballads, they manage to maintain their sentimentality while providing an undeniably catchy and kinetic quality. The indie-rock quartet appeals to a diverse crowd, combining the fun of pop, and the fury of rock, completed by the earnest, powerful vocals of Colin Adkins. — Jessica Gilpin

Michael Bloomfield, From His Head to His Heart to His Hands
Considered by many (this writer included) to be the one of the greatest white blues guitarists, Michael Bloomfield (1943-1981) was equally at home playing with blues elder Sleepy John Estes as he was with Bob Dylan, who hired Bloomfield to add some serious six-string voltage to his mid-’60s cuts, including “Like a Rolling Stone.” Lovingly assembled by Bloomfield collaborator Al Kooper, this box set features 30-plus tracks that follow the arc of the Chicago-born Bloomfield’s career from his earliest days to his stint with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Electric Flag and beyond. — Daniel A. Brown

Gross Evolution, …Then Take Bread
Gross Evolution is not just a great punk band; it is a cause, a humanitarian cause that does not apologize for getting in your face. Their full-length release, …Then Take Bread, includes a call for brotherhood and unity. “Together we’re everything, apart we’re nothing,” howls lead singer and Venezuelan guitar master “Speedy” Segovia on “Camaraderie.” But … Then Take Bread is also a powerful indictment of the system. The album includes a plea for social justice and a warning of revolution. Fortunately, the music is as rowdy as their cause is serious. Come for the mosh pit, stay for the message. — J. Scott Gaillard

John Coltrane, Offering:  Live at Temple University
Finally officially released to the public, this much-bootlegged recording from Nov. 11, 1966, captures Coltrane deep in the hurricane of his mid-’60s melodic and harmonic
explorations, displaying the skills that made him an acknowledged master at reinventing saxophone techniques. Over the course of five tracks, Coltrane is supported by his core band of wife Alice Coltrane on piano, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and percussionist Rashied Ali, who are joined by bassist Sonny Payne and guest horn players Arnold Joyner and Steve Knoblauch, as well as percussionists Umar Ali, Algie DeWitt, Robert Kenyatta and Charles Brown. Coltrane standards like “Crescent” and “Leo” have chord changes, but in these ferocious performances, Coltrane and company detonate them into motivic shards of melody and unrelenting emotion that shed greater light on Coltrane’s restless search, which was as much spiritual as it was musical. — Daniel A. Brown

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Wig Out at Jagbags
On his sixth release with his band the Jicks, former Pavement honcho Malkmus and crew offer a collection of a dozen rockers and ballads that just touch on the outer edges of rock. The single “Cinnamon and Lesbians” offers lyrics like “I’ve been trippin’ my face off since breakfast/taking in this windswept afternoon,” backed up with psych-tinged guitar tones and odd time breaks that owe more to Malkmus’ admitted love of old-school prog like The Groundhogs or even mid-’70s Grateful Dead than to the efforts of any of his peers. It’s an odd mesh of influences, which seems fitting since his initial work with Pavement, and his subsequent solo releases, seem to remain in their own hermetically sealed galaxies. Which isn’t a bad place to visit at all.
 — Daniel A. Brown

D’Angelo and The Vanguard, Black Messiah
Last year I picked the Miley Cyrus album Bangerz as the year’s best. It was a protest pick, as I think the album is a concept as obsolete as Rick Scott’s hairdresser. This year, though, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah jumped out at me – not as shtick, but as a real, rewarding full-length album. R&B music has been de-politicized and synthesized for decades now; D’Angelo’s new effort presents an alternative, with a sound that’s been compared to Sly Stone’s, but one that reminds me more of Lovesexy-era Prince. The lyrics are on point. The album is cohesive. And it holds up through repeated listenings. — A.G. Gancarski

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