The big backlash over how U2 intrusively delivered its latest album. The anthems about big asses by new and established pop stars.
Those were just two of music’s biggest topics in 2014. Medleyville staffers George Henn, Donald Gavron and Mike Madden look back on some of the most notable stories and sounds from the past year.
GEORGE HENN’S TAKE ON 2014
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Most Messed Up by Old 97’s (ATO).
The middle-aged alt-rock stalwarts’ have crafted a classic that is also their rowdiest and most revealing release.
Honorable mention 1: Shattered by Reigning Sound (Merge).
Former Memphis, Tenn., garage-rock mainstay Greg Cartwright dives headlong into old-school soul, and the latest Reigning Sound lineup (New York combo The Jay Vons) is more than up to the task.
Honorable mention 2: Hypnotic Eye by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Reprise).
The strongest Petty album, with or without the Heartbreakers, since the ’90s finds Mike Campbell’s guitar full of newfound bite.
Honorable mention 3: Night Surfer by Chuck Prophet (Yep Roc).
Sharp-tongued narratives, a live-in-the-studio feel and glam-rock guitars make this an all-around impressive effort from the venerable singer-songwriter.
SONG OF THE YEAR: “New Moon” by Tweedy.
A highlight of Jeff Tweedy’s first solo foray (Sukirae), this moving, stripped-down waltz feels like a throwback to the era before his work with Wilco became bogged down in avant-garde noodling.
Honorable mention 1: “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” by Old 97’s.
On the leadoff track/mission statement to their latest album, Rhett Miller & Co. peel back the curtain on the sometimes darker and chemically enhanced side of life as a longtime touring band.
Honorable mention 2: “Dark in the Spotlight” by Steve Conte NYC.
A cleverly composed tale of a death-defying, hard-partying rocker, where singer-songwriter-guitarist Conte earns extra points with a wry reference to the legend whose place he once took in the New York Dolls with the lyric “you’re no Johnny Thunders.”
Honorable mention 3: “Hearts From Above” by Micky & the Motorcars.
A tender tune packed with twangy hooks from an under-the-radar Texas band: think Steve Earle crossed with the Gin Blossoms.
HYPE OF THE YEAR: Who knew that some two decades after “Baby Got Back” that Sir Mix-A-Lot would have so much company when it came to being obsessed with well-padded posteriors? Meghan Trainor’s smash-hit anthem for bottom-heavy women, “All About That Bass,” combined with Kim Kardashian being (justifably) rump-roasted over her latest racy pics helped make 2014 the Year of the Rear.
HOPE FOR THE NEW YEAR: The massive backlash over U2’s Songs of Innocence being automatically loaded onto everyone’s iTunes device should make them gun-shy about using technology to be so intrusive with their next album release. Rumor has it that the band’s next roll-out strategy will be to stuff issues of AARP magazine with free copies of the follow-up disc, Songs of Incontinence.
DONALD GAVRON’S TAKE ON 2014
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Morning Phase by Beck (Capitol).Beck’s first album release in six years is a relaxing and foreboding musical landscape reminiscent of his excellent 2002 album, Sea Change, and contains some of the most lyrical instrumental harmonies this side of Brian Wilson. The result is an ambitious series of rock arias that tap into the subconscious ennui of dread and longing.
Honorable mention 1: A Letter Home by Neil Young (Third Man/Reprise).
A ghostly collection of cover tunes recorded by Young in a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph recording booth that gives the audience a feeling of eavesdropping on meditations from beyond the grave.
Honorable mention 2: Meteorites by Echo and the Bunnymen (429 Records).
A welcome return to form for this successful ’80s New Wave band, anchored by Ian McCulloch’s soulful vocals and Will Sergeant’s efficacious guitar work.
Honorable mention 3: Lazaretto by Jack White (Third Man Records).
This bluesy and energetic collection of White’s angry poison pen ballads is amplified by his usual pyrotechnic production values.
SONG OF THE YEAR: “Waking Light” by Beck.
Beck’s cloudscape of sound takes the listener on a hypnotic journey to the heart’s eclipsing darkness, only to be awakened to the emerging passion of a new day dawning.
Honorable mention 1: “Trouble’s Lament” by Tori Amos.
Amos finds the universal in the particular and makes it into a battle for control of the heart with her soulful lyrics and the timbre of her beautiful mezzo-soprano vocals.
Honorable mention 2: “Shadow People” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Petty and cohort Mike Campbell produce a stellar swamp-guitar vibe on this exceptional cut from an album of tightly constructed songs that probe the pulse of the heartland.
Honorable mention 3: “Troubled Man” by John Mellencamp.
From 2014’s wonderful Plain Spoken album, this is the kind of tune Mellencamp has been penning for years — seemingly effortless and familiar on the outside, deeply heartfelt and intricate on the inside.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Most Messed Up by Old 97’s (ATO).
While not the best album in the band’s two-decades-long career, Most Messed Up is its most consistently rowdy effort. But with that rowdiness comes a strong self-awareness that allows the listener to live vicariously through the stories without wanting to emulate them.
Honorable Mention 1: Half the City by St. Paul & The Broken Bones (Single Lock Records).
A dynamic debut from the seven-piece soul-garage band, led by Paul Janeway and his powerhouse vocals.
Honorable mention 2: Teeth Dreams by The Hold Steady (Razor & Tie Records).
A return to form for the Minneapolis band; the slick production of its past few studio albums fades away to make room for the characters and clever insights of Craig Finn’s mind.
Honorable mention 3: The Both by The Both (Super Ego Records).
You take the silky vocals of Aimee Mann, pair them up with the urgent nature of Ted Leo, let them share songwriting duties and what you get is a great collection of ballads and barnburners.
SONG OF THE YEAR: “Divisionary (Do the Right Thing)” by Ages and Ages.
In a more tuned-in world, this would be the biggest single of the year. A sing-along chorus, tight, beautiful harmonies, steady instrumentation and a positive message all come together to pull the listener in for repeat plays.
Honorable mention 1: “Stranger” by The Pfieffer Twins.
This ballad of trepidation finds the subject in the usual push and pull over following the heart or the head, but it’s the delicate vocals that really allows you to sense the apprehension.
Honorable mention 2: “If You Gotta Leave” by Reigning Sound.
Greg Cartwright takes his band to a softer place here with soulful, echoing vocals over a steady stream of Hammond B3 melancholy.
Honorable mention 3: “The Harvester” by Barbarian Overlords.
A substantial rock workout that hits you in the face with thunderous drums, then rattles with wild guitar riffs and finishes the job with wailing siren-like vocals. This is what Led Zeppelin would sound like if the band lived in the desert.
HYPE OF THE YEAR: The music industry’s booty fascination
There were so many hit songs and accompanying videos this year that focused on the backside (by the likes of Meghan Trainor, Nicki Minaj and Jennifer Lopez, to name but three artists), it seemed like a required selling point. It’s easy to imagine a record-label marketing session in 2014 playing out like this: “Yeah, we like all her new songs well enough, but I think we need one more true anthem for a single. Can we write her one that’s about the butt? Not butt stuff — just about the butt itself.”
HOPE FOR THE NEW YEAR: Artists who will truly give back to fans
The trend of crowd-sourcing to fund albums and tours is one huge artist away from being a major trend, and within the next year, a service such as Tweet Secret, which gives superfans exclusive, as-it-happens content, could become the new way to get backstage without being there. This new model for fan interaction might become a slam-dunk for artists who are struggling to create new revenue in the streaming-music revolution.