Best Albums of 2014
The best albums of 2014 found notable names making impressive comebacks, while others remained steady and true. (Judas Priest and AC/DC, respectively, we salute you.) Some dug deep into their past for inspiration (Pink Floyd), while others ventured out into bold new areas (Robert Plant). There were moments when you remembered everything that made legacy artists great (Roger Daltrey, Tom Petty), and others where you realized things you perhaps never knew about them (Ace Frehley, Stevie Nicks). But which was best? Glad you asked! Here’s our list of the Best Albums of 2014 …
’24 Karat Gold: Songs from the Vault’
Filched copies of poorly recorded sessions work initially sparked this project, which found Nicks — as the title suggests — polishing up officially unreleased songs. The results were transformative, and one of the best albums of 2014. Songs like ‘Lady,’ a starkly emotional piano-driven ballad, made clear that Nicks has, for too long, hidden behind effects — be they electronic, sartorial or otherwise. Stripped of artifice throughout, Nicks connected on an elemental level that she simply couldn’t while swaddled in synths or shawls. Elsewhere, she reclaimed ‘Twisted,’ a stripped-down demo that ultimately turned into this big-production duet with Lindsey Buckingham for the 1996 film ‘Twister.’ Here, she found the middle ground between both eras, recapturing the wounded fragility of her earliest passes while she filled out the empty spaces — but without over-decorating. That’s the hallmark of ’24 Karat Gold,’ which becomes this delicate triumph.
‘World On Fire’
With a whopping 77 minutes worth of new music, it’s more like iPod on fire. For those looking to draw a line back to Slash‘s days with Guns N’ Roses, there was ‘Wicked Stone’ to crank up. But ‘World On Fire’ was simply too overstuffed to stay in one place for long. You’ll find him Stones-grooving through ‘Automatic Overdrive,’ experimenting with blues-grunge (is that a thing?) on ‘Beneath the Savage Sun,’ and with Celtic sounds on ‘Avalon.’ Slash and multi-album collaborator Myles Kennedy stretched out on an episodic ‘The Dissident,’ before Slash unfurled an extended instrumental excursion with ‘Safari Inn,’ and then gathered themselves for the simmeringly epic album-closing ‘The Unholy.’ Slash certainly gave fans who’d waited since 2012’s ‘Apocolyptic Love’ plenty to digest.
Pieced together, as it was, from outtakes, covers and re-recordings, ‘High Hopes’ was never going to have the heft and meaning of Bruce Springsteen classics like ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town.’ But taken on its own terms, the album offered more than its share of small-scale distractions, a few very important additions to his studio collection and a treasured chance to hear Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici once more. Call it Springsteen ala carte, where individual moments mean more than the whole. For instance, ‘American Skin (41 Shots),’ though part of Springsteen’s setlists for some 15 years, has never sounded more visceral. A muscular update of ‘Ghost of Tom Joad” found Bruce impressively tangling with guest guitarist Tom Morello. Worthy new entries included ‘Down in the Hole,’ ‘The Wall’ and ‘Dream Baby Dream,’ which brought this tossed-together collection to an invitingly hypnotic close.
‘The Endless River’
In their lowest ebbs, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour-led albums were seen by some as nothing more than facsimiles, projects trying too hard to approximate the Roger Waters era. ‘The Endless River’ was different. This is the album that he should have made in the first place, rather than the guest-packed pastiche of ‘Momentary Lapse of Reason,’ one which reflected the camaraderie (both musical and otherwise) of Gilmour’s earliest, most free-form, most personal period in the group. And one which reflected his own strengths, thrillingly combined once more with Richard Wright’s and Nick Mason’s. Achieving all of that made ‘The Endless River’ the best kind of goodbye. Gilmour has closed a circle, and he’s done it (finally) his own way.
Yes, Space Ace is back, with one of 2014’s best albums no less. Many of this album’s finest moments — though, not all of them — found Ace Frehley soaring into the outer limits, as outsized songs like the title track and ‘Inside the Vortex’ reconnected with his legacy fans on a fundamental level. There was a fun cover song (Steve Miller Band’s ‘The Joker’) too, recalling his successes with ‘New York Groove.’ But ‘Space Invader’ also moved far afield of the expected at times, adding new wrinkles to the Frehley legend via tinges of psychedelia, whispers of acoustics, new depths of emotion (‘Past the Milky Way’) and a jangly instrumental delight called ‘Starship.’
‘Redeemer of Souls’
You might have wondered if this band still had something left to say, after their strange detour into the world of double-disc concept albums with 2008’s ‘Nostradamus.’ You might have feared that vocalist Rob Halford had lost some of the thunderous force he’d once pummeled fans with. You might have wondered if Judas Priest’s time had simply passed. The perfectly named ‘Redeemer of Souls’ answered every question, with more sophisticated riffs than 2005’s ‘Angel of Retribution’ (courtesy of a remade guitar troupe featuring Richie Faulkner), a happy return to the tried-and-true subject matter fans have come to expect (Halford merrily referred to it as “Vikings, dragons, aliens, Bible-thumping and guns”), and a moment in ‘Halls of Valhalla’ when Halford’s howl must have peeled the paint off the recording-studio walls.
‘Going Back Home’
Roger Daltrey was reborn alongside Wilko Johnson, as ‘Going Back Home’ transported the longtime Who frontman to an era that predates bombastic rock operas — or even the period when his band put the “maximum” in R&B. No, this was primordial, way before that. This was deep blues, reworked by a pub rock band for the ages. And it couldn’t have more perfectly fit Daltrey’s voice — weathered, as it is these days, following decades of arena-rock yowling. Rather than reaching into the toppermost of his age-corrected range, however, Daltrey sat in a gruff comfort zone. Along the way, he happily inhabited the grizzled crag these lyrics demand, and sharply reasserted his own legend apart from Pete Townshend.
‘Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar’
If you were still wondering why Robert Plant isn’t entertaining the idea of a Led Zeppelin reunion, this album provided a definitive answer. Plant’s too busy expanding on his own solo ventures. He took the nascent explorations on 2005’s deeply underrated ‘Mighty ReArranger’ even further here, combining the bedrock influences of folk and Delta blues with ever-more far-flung sounds. When it was over, ‘Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar’ had outlined a muse without borders, gave no quarter to his oldest fans’ built-in expectations, and pushed with everything Plant could muster into places of remarkable scope and delicious intrigue.
Tom Petty said he wanted to return to the straight-ahead rock of the Heartbreakers’ earliest albums, and songs like ‘American Dream Plan B’ and ‘Fault Lines’ gave shape to that goal. There was something visceral, something of tangible release, in those blasts of knuckle-dragging rock. At the same time, there’s a lot to be said for the contemplative danger of ‘U Get Me High,’ a track that confirmed the Heartbreakers’ return to form after a detour into blues rock. This isn’t Petty imhabiting the pissed-off old-man persona that perhaps he has every right to. Instead, we find him unleashing the kind of classically sharp wordplay which can’t really be part of these other, quite cathartic tantrums. That ‘Hypnotic Eye’ could do both so well is a testament to its third-act greatness.
‘Rock or Bust’
There was an unexpected sense of drama around this new AC/DC album, amid a season of change. But even without Malcolm Young, everything else falls quickly into place. These guys, no matter what, remain the masters of the single entendre, rifftastic track. Brian Johnson whined with that familiar, pained gusto — while Cliff Williams, replacement Stevie Young and the subsequently arrested Phil Rudd set these gas pedal-mashing grooves. As ever, it all worked in service to Angus Young‘s kinetic outbursts — always so fitting, considering his school-boy outfit, and perhaps never more needed. AC/DC was due for some good news, and ‘Rock or Bust,’ the best album of 2014, provided it.