The nearly-half-time report
Anyone who lives by that sad old line about the best music already happening - or some version of it - telling you that there's been nothing good this year, or last, or anytime recently is so embarrassingly out of touch that their opinion doesn't count for a thing. This year, already, I've heard so many amazing albums - established artists, first timers, musicians I've followed, people I've never heard of before, mainstream pop, leftfield experimentalism (is there any other kind?) - it's been a rush and a flood of amazing releases so far this year. I thought 2013 was jam-packed with amazing releases (it was!) but already I think I've heard nearly as many great things from 2014.
Let's have a look at the very best albums I've heard so far this year...click on the links below to be taken to the full review.
Rosanne Cash, The River & The Thread: One of the very first best albums of the year - Cash always takes her time, the wait is worth it. And this collection of story-songs might be her absolute best, certainly a place to start if you've never heard her before.
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, Wig Out At Jagbags: I've never cared all that much for Malkmus' solo career but this is easily his best album with The Jicks. Recalling, yes, the Pavement glory days.
Mogwai, Rave Tapes: This was the very first best album of 2014 for me - because I had an advance copy in the last weeks of 2013, so was familiar with it before this year even really got going. As with Malkmus I'd drifted away from Mogwai somewhat, making the reward of this great album that much stronger. A huge case of welcome back and close to career best, with enough of a new direction there to entice new listeners, not just preaching to the converted.
Warpaint, Warpaint: There's particularly something in the rhythm section of this band - that's what I love. Sure, the vocals, the guitars, the songs too - but what cuts through any "coolness" factor that the cloth-eared brigade may wish to level at this band and its fans is the fact that these off-kilted, jagged and jacked-up rhythmic ideas propel this group, forcing interesting sonics within the grooves. Great mood music, which is to say it puts me in a great mood every time I hear it.
Mulchzoid, Dark Horse: I always listen out for anything Dave Mulcahy has released, he's one of New Zealand's most prolific and best songwriters. And you can find him on Bandcamp just tossing out great stuff to the world. For free. Here's his first release of 2014, the electronica-tinged Mulchzoid. Great songwriting here, as always.
The John Lurie National Orchestra, The Invention of Animals: So this one's actually material from the archives - but a brand new release, and so great to hear glimpses into the musical world of Lurie once again. One of my all-time heroes.
David Crosby, Croz: His first album in 20 years and a lovely, crisp return to all that Crosby does well. Not a classic but so much better than anyone could have ever expected - and good enough to get the nod.
Nicole Atkins, Slow Phaser: Taking elements of what made her previous two records interesting and combining them to alternate between the dark torch balladry and windswept, interesting country/ish ideas Atkins' album is full of heart and charm and great, great songs.
Damien Jurado, Brothers and Sisters of The Eternal Son: Another example of a really great record reminding me of a musician I had drifted away from - was a big fan of Jurado's work a decade or so ago and simply forgot about him. This brought it all back.
Neil Finn, Dizzy Heights: I'd hoped for something good as the wait was long - but Neil Finn delivered the best solo record of his career I think. He certainly managed to find new sounds as well as reminding us of that gift he has for indelible melodies.
Nina Persson, Animal Heart: Terrific new album from the ex-lead singer of The Cardigans.
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Give The People What They Want: Just when you write Sharon Jones off as a good time revivalist act that's worth seeing live but has not much to say on record she gives the people what they want, delivering a career best.
Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness: A record of two halves - the first very good, the second extraordinary.
Tinariwen, Emmaar: You only have to hear a few seconds of that sidewinder-snake guitar - but there's more than just that on Emmaar. Tinariwen had been close to getting soft, drifting toward the watered-down sound to catch the biggest audience but all of the soul and grit and feel is back for this new album. We're talking career best again.
Suzanne Vega, Tales From The Realm of The Queen of Pentacles: She hasn't - really - made a bad album. So it's tough for her to beat past glories, but Tales is worth it if for no other reason than it's the longest we've had to wait between records. She always waits until she has something to say. She always says it so well.
Seeds of Orbit, Seeds of Orbit (ep): It's not often that an EP rates a mention with the best albums of the year - but this one does.
Neneh Cherry, Blank Project: This will be right near the top of my best of the year list. An amazing record, a huge comeback and an album that's continuing to get better with each and every spin.
St. Vincent, St. Vincent: It might not contain the individual highlights of the other records but Annie Clark is consistent and here she's arguably at her most consistent, not a hair out of place on the head of this album.
Beck, Morning Phase: Beck makes a sister volume to his earlier acoustic/downtrodden record. And it's lovely - again. But stands on its own. Just enough.
Benmont Tench, You Should Be So Lucky: It might seem a bit slight at first but here the super session guy and member of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers delivers a debut solo album that's full of charm and a stellar band.
Get The Blessing, Lop and Antilope: A lot of interesting - and really great - jazz-with-a-twist records this year. And this is the first of them that I really loved.
Drive-By Truckers, English Oceans: Another example of the new - very good - record getting me back into the work by the band. So many great albums from this group but the new one is right up there.
Courtney Barnett, The Double EP - A Sea of Split Peas: I'd want more in the way of melody if I was to keep listening beyond this but this album gets the big tick for the lyrics, the stories, the spit and the guitar chug, it all comes together brilliantly. Turns out ennui is a venom too.
V/A, Masterpiece - Created by David Rodigan: The reggae master selecta pulls together his favourites and tells his life story through beat-combo and soul tracks from the swinging sixties and the choicest reggae and dancehall cuts.
Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time: Every now and then I'm won over by pop music that's clearly not meant for me - I'm not supposed to be part of its demographic. Its demographic might even be cross that I like it. Well tough. This record packs a punch.
The Fondue Set, Down To The Rind: A new release - but an old concert. A reminder to me that one of New Zealand's greatest singers is Caitlin Smith.
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, F**k Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything: The latest from what I think of as the flipside to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Beautifully intense.
The War on Drugs, Lost In The Dream: This will be the album that will feature at the top of more best of the year lists than any other record released in 2014. Seems a fairly safe prediction to make. Thankfully, it really is a wonderful album. A strange throwback to so many things from the 1980s - Don Henley, The Waterboys, Chris Rea and Lindsey Buckingham - well, you'd think it shouldn't/couldn't work. But it does. Boy, does it ever.
Spain, Sargent Place: Continuing their very strong comeback Spain offers yet another great record.
Laura Cantrell, No Way There From Here: Her first record in a long time and strong songs as usual but the real treat is hearing one of the sweetest voices you ever could hear.
Robert Ellis, The Lights From The Chemical Plant: Another that will easily, effortlessly, make my Top 10 for 2014. One of the nicest surprises of the year, I didn't have any hope or expectation around this release. And it knocked me out.
The Haden Triplets, The Haden Triplets: You get, as a bonus, another great Ry Cooder album too - he's on the playing and production duties.
@Peace, @Peace and the Plutonian Noise Symphony: An amazing album - made sweeter for me by the fact that I loathed the album they released before this. I always love it when a band turns around and knocks it out of the park after failing. I don't carry grudges. I want to like music. But I'll never lie - I'll never tell you I like something if I don't. So it's always especially pleasing when someone reminds you why you like them in the first place.
Linda Perhacs, The Soul of All Natural Things: A first record in over 40 years, Perhacs works as a dental hygienist - she finally decided to follow-up on her psychedelic-folk album from 1970. That one wasn't a hit, this won't be either. But it's worth your time. And the story is interesting.
Vijay Iyer, Mutations: As a player and educator Iyer is interesting for his use of acoustic instruments and electronic textures, he moves from pure jazz to experimental dance-music ideas and back again. And this, his latest, is a stunner.
Frank Zappa, Roxy By Proxy: Long bootlegged this official Zappa Records release is a reminder of one of the best bands he ever had.
The Robert Cray Band, In My Soul: There's a downside to having to move through so much music as a reviewer. There are loads of upsides though - I never would have thought that Robert Cray would make another kick-ass, super-good record. But here it is. And I probably never would have heard it were it not for trying to work through so much music daily, weekly, monthly...
Conrad Wedde, Space World: I always like how you can hear the individual elements the separate players bring to The Phoenix Foundation when you hear their solo recordings. So it is here. Another great one from Wedde, better than his previous solo outing in fact.
Dan Weiss, Fourteen: I've already called this the record of the year. I'm sure I'll stand by that when we get to December. The scope of this album is astonishing, I'm blown away every time I hear it.
V/A, Haiti Direct - Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twoubadou Sounds 1960-1979: My favourite compilation of 2014 - you'd probably never think you need to hear this music. Until you hear it.
Luke Vibert, Ridmik: Yet another reminder of a guy I used to follow and then simply forgot about - he's still making really great music. As this album shows.
Dean Wareham, Dean Wareham: Wareham has made great music across Galaxie 500, Luna and Dean & Britta, he's made movie soundtracks, written one of the best music memoirs I've read and stepped into acting. And with his debut full-length solo album (following on swiftly from last year's fantastic mini-album) he shows the muse is still there. And he continues on the path, never putting a foot wrong.
V/A, Inner City Beat! - Detective Themes, Spy Music and Imaginary Thriller 1967-1975: From the always excellent Soul Jazz Records label this is my second or third favourite compilation of 2014 - little snippets of funk and soul and jazz, strange little worlds within fringe-jazz and exotica. Reminds me of the Ultra-Lounge series if David Holmes or DJ Shadow had compiled them.
Dolly Parton, Blue Smoke: Was gutted to miss her show this year. It wasn't to be. But the new album shows she's still got it, strong covers, great originals and that voice.
Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band, Landmarks: I love Blade's playing - and writing. So I'd follow him wherever he went. But this new Fellowship Band record is super good.
The Nels Cline Singers, Macroscope: The not-so-secret fire behind Wilco's last few records returns to his free-improv roots and serves up one of the best records Marc Ribot never made.
Bruno Bavota, The Secret of The Sea: Reminding me of the best bits of Rhian Sheehan and Max Richter and, er, Phil Coulter, this has been my lullaby music for most of this year. Lovely way to end the day.
Nick Granville Group, Home: Hard-working local jazz guitarist Granville has been busy lately - super-busy. Busy, even by his standards. And this, his latest, is a free gift to you on Bandcamp. The playing is great and I love Granville's approach, he's part of the band always. He's not your usual dominating guitarist.
Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana, Mehliana - Taming The Tiger: I used to love Mehldau's playing, I've always dug what Guiliana does, but Taming The Tiger has me back onside with Mehldau once again. So this was another of those nice surprise albums.
Hard Working Americans, Hard Working Americans: A "supergroup" that relies on the really great writing of Todd Snider and celebrates the wonderful guitar playing of Neal Casal, these Hard Working Americans channel Drive-By Truckers and jam-band moments from The Grateful Dead too.
Rob Thorne, Whaia te Maramatanga: Palmerston North-based composer Thorne shows his stuff across Taonga Puoro. Haunting and evocative, it's also beautifully presented and packaged, as is the way with Rattle.
Dawn Landes, Bluebird: Heartbreak songs, in fact it's a record that commiserates a recent divorce. The playing is wonderful, so sympathetic and Landes shines as both singer and writer. Her best.
Badbadnotgood, III: Another of the jazz-with-a-twist records. The band's best so far and one of my go-to albums for almost all occasions.
Lubomyr Melnyk, Windmills: The end result of three years of work, the currently very prolific Melnyk releases his best effort, a hypnotic rush of cascading "continuous" music.
Pharoahe Monch, P.T.S.D. - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: I've found my way back to hip-hop recently and this album is a big part of the reason.
Sun Kil Moon, Benji: Another of the very special records this year, and I figure this one will sit high on many of the end of year lists too. I'd almost given up on Sun Kil Moon but this is so deeply moving, so profound, so huge in scope and depth, so wordy, and the playing is wonderful too. It's as if he's invented his own music, or set a memoir to a 12-string jangle.
L'Orange, The Orchid Days: Dusty old soul and jazz vocals chopped up and spliced in with clipped hip-hop beats. It's a winning formula of course. Well, certainly when L'Orange is handling things.
White Hinterland, Baby: I compared her to Laura Nyro - that was meant as huge compliment of course. There's a hint too of Dirty Projectors here.
Lorelle Meets The Obsolete, Chambers: It's a bit like a more rocking version of Moon Duo, psychedelic rock replacing the trance and Krautrock ideas. And there are throwbacks to post-grunge 90s stuff I loved, like PJ Harvey and Sonic Youth.
The Notwist, Close To The Glass: Worth it because the best bits shine - and again it's a reminder of a band I'd once loved and forgotten about. Turns out they had actually taken a fair bit of time out, but they're back and they sound really good. Once again.
Damon Albarn, Everyday Robots: Struggled with this to begin with - kept at it though, as I heard enough to want to keep listening. You can't deny that voice and here he's reinventing himself again, ditched the gimmicks of previous bands, collaborations. Takes several listens but I'm hooked now.
Phantogram, Voices: Didn't know what to expect here. Big hooks though - good songs. Really strong.
A New Line (Related), A New Line (Related): Grainy ambient electronica and hints of when house and techno get really weird. This brought back some of my favourite Aphex Twin and Vibert moments, Herbert too.
Polar Bear, In Each And Every One: Jazz music is cool again. Well, if it isn't nobody tell the members of Polar Bear. They'd never believe you.
Natalie Merchant, Natalie Merchant: Mention this yesterday - but the latest record to totally win me over. Had expectations for this one, definitely. And I really love this album, it's surpassed my expectations.
John Matthias, Geisterfahrer: Matthias is a serious composer making jilted, noirish post-modern classical soundscapes. He's an earnest folkie too. Both sides of him are on display here and it's a constantly intriguing, exhilarating listen.
I've still got catch-up reviews to write. The new Liam Finn album is a winner, but I haven't written it up yet. And of course there's many more. And we're only getting towards halfway through the year.
See anything here you've liked too? Anything on this long list you're going to check out? And what have been the key releases for you this year so far?
You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts