Thursday, March 3, 2016

My Top 30 Albums of 2014

2014 was a whirlwind, and easily the fastest a year has ever passed for me. A lot of great things happened along the way, too: I married the love of my life, I had three opportunities to spend time with my entire extended family (most years bring one, tops), and I moved out of Illinois and back to my home state of Michigan. There was also a big heartbreak: in October, my grandfather passed away at the age of 88. The loss was crushing, because my grandpa had always been a huge role model and a guiding light in my life. But from getting to help him publish his memoir last year, to having him attend my wedding, all the way to visiting him and my grandma just days before he died, I felt like there was serendipity all around me in his passing, like he was already taking the guardian angel role and doing his best to lessen to blow.

A lot of things in my life have come into clarity since the day he left, too. Losing my grandfather reminded me about what is important in my life, what things I want to fight for, what things I want to have or achieve. And losing him also shattered the perpetual wall of self-consciousness I always had when I would try to write songs of my own. The day he died, I picked up my guitar and a tribute to him just came pouring out, fully formed. Since then, I've written half a dozen other songs that I feel legitimately proud of, and I'm hoping they will form the backbone to an album of my own in 2015. Until then, though, here are the 30 albums that came into my life and helped me along this year, from the euphoric love songs that soundtracked my wedding day, to the mournful hymns that kept me afloat in the first days of October. It's my favorite year-end top 30 that I've ever put together, fitting for a year that gave me so many amazing musical discoveries and so many stunning albums to get lost in.

1. Noah Gundersen - Ledges

I loved a lot of albums this year, and the top slot on my AOTY list changed hands more than I think it ever has before. At the end of the day, though, Noah Gundersen's Ledges was the album that I always found myself coming back to. In a year full of new musical discoveries, Gundersen was the best, a soft-voiced folkie who can explode his songs into chilling climaxes of emotional bombast. Accompanied by little more than acoustic guitar, piano, violin, and the gorgeous voice of his sister Abby, Gundersen writes songs that worm their way into your soul and stay there. The secret is in his vocal delivery, which portrays a kind of candid fragility that I don't think I've heard on record in a long time. It gives his characters worlds of nuance and feeling, from the man watching his lover take his son away on "Boathouse" to the guy in the title track who is just trying to be a better man, whatever that means. At times a break-up album (the sublime "First Defeat," or the cleverly metaphorical "Cigarettes"), Ledges also explores mortality, poverty, spirituality, sexuality, infidelity, and much more. Every time I listened, whether it was on a snowy winter drive or during a quiet, late summer night, I felt as if every song could be my favorite. That hasn't happened for me with an album since 2008, and for that reason, I have no choice but to rank this masterpiece as my album of 2014.

Key track: "First Defeat"

2. Chad Perrone - Kaleidoscope

Born out of a broken engagement, a frustrating bout with writer's block, and a nail-biting, down-to-the-wire PledgeMusic campaign, Chad Perrone's fourth solo LP is an aching work of pain and resilience. Inspired largely by 80s pop music, the record trades Perrone's customary guitar and piano arrangements for swaths of synths and flourishes of electronics. At the eye of the storm, though, Perrone's sound remains the same, driven by sweeping melodies and emotive tenor vocals. The opening track, "Minor Letdowns," is the mission statement, boasting a jackpot chorus that immediately feels both comfortable and heartbreaking. "So go on, if that's all we've got now/We loved so hard, but it's not enough to stay," Perrone belts, opening up about the relationship that almost led to marriage, but instead led to devastation. It's a stirring song and the perfect opener for how it forces the listener to pay attention. The other 10 songs are every bit as moving, as Perrone takes us through every stage of a break up. "Feel Everything" flawlessly captures the moment in a relationship when you realize that there is no path forward; "Gone" channels scathing bitterness and anger toward the person who broke your heart; and songs like "Match" and "If Only for a Weekend" hit upon moving on, but not without the requisite levels of pain, regret, and awkwardness that are always present in rebuilding. Perrone may not have a major label behind him, and he might not even play live shows outside of New England, but he still made 2014's best pop record.

Read my interview with Chad Perrone.

Key track: "Minor Letdowns"

3. John Fullbright - Songs

Everything about John Fullbright’s second full-length album is sparse. The arrangements are bare, usually consisting of some variation of voice, keys, and acoustic guitar; the album cover is basic, a simple black and white shot of Fullbright sitting on stairs in a plaid shirt; even the title is minimalistic. There’s a good reason for all of this, though, and it’s that Fullbright wants these 12 songs to speak for themselves. And boy, do they speak for themselves. At 26 years old, Fullbright is younger than both of my siblings and only two years older than me, but on this album, he sounds wiser and more mature than artists twice his age. Part of it is his voice, a mournful baritone capable of conveying huge depths of feeling. Another part is his melodies, which have an effortless grace that makes them feel timeless from first listen. Just press play on the hymn-like "All That You Know" or the piano-led vocal tour de force that is "When You’re Here," and you’ll understand what I mean. And then there are Fullbright’s lyrics, which are so flawlessly elegant in their composition ("She Knows") and so heartbreakingly nuanced in their storytelling ("High Road") that they stay with you long after the songs end. We’re just lucky that, at 26, Fullbright probably has hundreds more songs up his sleeve.

Key track: "High Road"

4. Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland

For a very long time, Counting Crows were my favorite band in the world. Their first four records, from 1993’s August and Everything After to 2002’s Hard Candy, defined my childhood and helped turn me into the music fan I am today. This year’s Somewhere Under Wonderland is the band’s first project in over a decade that truly captures the dizzying heights of those early albums. That’s thanks to breezy rock tracks like "Scarecrow," "Dislocation," and "Elvis Went to Hollywood," or to the freewheeling early-Springsteen-esque songwriting of the eight-minute opening track, "Palisades Park." Endlessly wordy and witty, filled with scathing guitar lines and beautiful vocal harmonies, and featuring two of the most stunning ballads that frontman Adam Duritz has ever written ("God of Ocean Tides" and "Possibility Days," the latter maybe my song of the year), Somewhere Under Wonderland is the sound of one of the best bands of the past 20 years finding their way back home.

Key track: "Possibility Days"

5. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream

Sometimes serene as sleep, and sometimes as thrilling as a car chase, The War on Drugs' Lost in the Dream absolutely deserves its status as one of the year’s most critically acclaimed albums. Throughout these 10 songs, band mastermind Adam Granduciel cultivates musical moments that almost defy description. In many cases, he pursues the creation of soundscapes, borrowing elements of post-rock and electronic music for entrancing instrumental sections. But he’s also got a bevy of mainstream classic rock influences up his sleeve (Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Rod Stewart, to name a few), and they manifest themselves in songs that are as catchy and anthemic as arena-sized encore closers. Granduciel’s pop sensibilities appear most clearly in "Under the Pressure," a pulse-pounding opener that uses piano keys and a relentless rhythm to create arguably the year’s finest opening track. But the moments of magic are plentiful throughout this album, from the baffling electric guitar symphony of "An Ocean in Between the Waves" to the wistful alt-country wisps of "Eyes to the Wind."

Key track: "Under the Pressure"

6. Damien Rice - My Favourite Faded Fantasy

It took Damien Rice eight years to record and release his third full-length album, but the eight songs he finally gave us at the end of that lengthy hiatus were worth each day of waiting. My Favourite Faded Fantasy is a staggering 50+ minutes of work, from from the Jeff Buckley-esque slow burn of the title track to the weightless fadeout of "Long Long Way." In between, Rice delivers not one, not two, but four legitimate song of the year contenders, each chock full of heartbreaking, stop-you-in-your-tracks moments of gorgeousness. Strings collide with Rice's wavering falsetto on "The Greatest Bastard," while the chorus on "I Don't Want to Change You" takes flight in a way that few songs from this year did at all. "Colour Me In," meanwhile, is a bare acoustic confessional that hits with minimalist grace, while "Trusty and True" builds and builds into one of 2014's many stunning penultimate moments. Without "It Takes a Lot to Know a Man," a frustrating, nine-and-a-half-minute slog of a track, Fantasy might have been Rice's masterpiece. As is, it's a remarkable collection of songs from a guy who clearly didn't miss a beat in his eight years away from making albums.

Key track: "I Don't Want to Change You"

7. Sun Kil Moon - Benji

Back in February, I gave this record a 9 and figured it would land high on my album of the year list. I didn’t expect the profusion of great albums that would hit me over the next 10 months (I gave six other albums 9s or higher), nor did I expect it to become so difficult to root for Mark Kozelek, Sun Kil Moon’s sole member and songwriter, as the year went forward. But in spite of his childish beef with The War on Drugs, Kozelek’s Benji is a masterpiece of mood and theme. Delving into the subject of death with unflinching honesty and jarring intimacy, Benji uses little more than Kozelek’s trance-like baritone, his stream-of-consciousness lyricism, and his considerable acoustic guitar skills to mesmerize. There are songs that break your heart (the opening one-two punch of "Carissa" and "I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love"), songs that make you feel uncomfortable ("Dogs"), songs that scare you ("Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes"), songs that make you laugh ("Ben’s My Friend"), and songs that manage to transport you to another place entirely ("I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same"). The resulting album is sometimes exhausting in its flow, but also viscerally emotional in its scope and realism.

Key track: "Carissa"

8. Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams

When Ryan Adams dropped his self-titled record back in September, I immediately felt like it was the songwriter’s best album in at least a decade. Fast-forward a few months, and I think it might actually be my favorite self-contained set of songs he’s ever put together. Sure, he’s made albums with loftier high points (the acclaimed trio of Heartbreaker, Gold, and Love is Hell), but Ryan Adams is a perfect rebirth for his career because it has a taut cohesion that arguably none of his other work can muster. It doesn’t hurt that the songs all explore welcome influences, from Petty ("Gimme Something Good") to Springsteen ("I Just Might") and beyond, or that the reverb-drenched production has a foreboding darkness that makes every song feel thrillingly unpredictable. And when Adams tosses out an acoustic ballad like "My Wrecking Ball," an elegy for his late grandmother, it's a reminder that no one can do that kind of song better than him. A lot of classic rockers came back to the game this year—Springsteen, Petty, and U2 among them—but here, it feels like Adams made the kind of record they all wanted to make.

Key track: "Tired of Giving Up"

9. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness - Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness

The maturation of Andrew McMahon has been a pleasure to watch over the past decade. From the emo-tinged piano rock of the Something Corporate days, to the perfect pop majesty of Jack's Mannequin's Everything in Transit, all the way to the folk and alt-country-laced People & Things, McMahon is one of those artists who has never put out a less-than-stellar LP. His latest, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, is no exception. The album at once manages to strike a balance between what we've heard from McMahon in the past (you know the ingredients: soaring choruses, flowing verses, lyrics that hint at both deep emotional turmoil and unbreakable resilience) and what's new to him (walls of synths and a total embrace of radio-pop textures). The result is the year's most effortless display of pop songwriting, a record that is at once blissfully euphoric ("High Dive") and heartbreakingly nostalgic ("Black and White Movies"), and an album that is as atmospheric as a late night highway ("Driving Through a Dream"), as celebratory as a concert singalong ("All Our Lives"), and as wonderful as the great wide open ("Maps for the Getaway"). It's the second best record McMahon has ever made.

Key track: "Maps for the Getaway"

10. Field Report - Marigolden

I loved Marigolden from the first time I heard it, but I think it took me months to truly understand the album's beauty. Of my 10 favorite records this year, this one is the only one that I never reviewed, and I didn't do it because I just couldn't find the words. I couldn't find a way to describe the gut punch of "Pale Rider," where the narrator finds himself "screaming at the wind," raging against God because of the death of a little boy whose "birthday was yesterday, he would have been six." I couldn't do justice to the way that song captures the helpless agony of losing a loved one. "Pale Rider" may be the year's saddest song, but it's only one piece of the emotional journey that is this album. From the rousing electro-folk-pop of first single, "Home (Leave the Lights On)," to the childhood regret of "Ambrosia" (a song that perfectly captures the feel of Springsteen's spartan Asbury Park-era balladry), arguably no album from 2014 whisked me away quite like this one. Marigolden is the kind of record that you get lost in, and by the time the expertly crafted conclusion arrives (with the cathartic swells of "Summons" and the downbeat epilogue of "Enchantment"), all I ever want to do is go back to the start.

Key track: "Summons"

11. Taylor Swift - 1989

Taylor Swift lost a lot of what made her special on 1989, her "first official, documented pop album," but from some perspectives, she gained even more. The year's catchiest, most danceable pop album, 1989 is filled with massive chorus hooks that most artists couldn't even dream of. Within the first five tracks alone, she strings together "Blank Space," "Style," "Out of the Woods," and "All You Had to Do Was Stay," one of her most unimpeachable runs ever. Each song bursts with breakneck momentum, production that sounds like it cost more than my house, and soaring melodies that constitute Swift's best vocals ever. The second half of the album gets arguably more interesting, as the famous and untouchable Taylor Swift starts having a go at herself right in front of her eyes. She blames herself for a breakup ("I Wish You Would"), wonders if she's capable of maintaining a relationship ("This Love"), and reflects soberly about the things she's given up to become pop's biggest superstar ("Clean"). 1989 is a revealing portrait of the parts of yourself that you lose to the concept of celebrity, and though it undoes itself slightly with a few bad song choices ("Bad Blood," for instance, is Taylor's worst songwriting ever), it's a borderline masterpiece anyway.

Key track: "Clean"

12. Twin Forks - Twin Forks

In 2014, there wasn't a more gleefully carefree record than the Twin Forks debut. The new folk-pop-focused band of Dashboard Confessional mastermind Chris Carrabba, Twin Forks is a group that aims for the same mainstream pressure points that recent radio-rock-folkies like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers have hit so successfully. But Carrabba is a better vocalist, melodist, and lyricist than any of the members of either band, and that fact shows throughout these 12 tracks. Half of the songs showed up on last year's EP of the same name, but the full album deepens the experience, pairing the EP's upbeat bluegrass stompers ("Back to You," "Can't Be Broken") with slowburn summertime ballads ("Plans," "Danger," "Reasoned and Roughened"). Thanks to the youthful exuberance of the songs and lovelorn optimism of Carrabba's lyrics, Twin Forks was also my album of choice in the days leading up to my wedding. Only "Something We Just Know" made it onto the playlist I made my wife the day before we tied the knot, but suffice to say that every song on this album connects in some way to the magic of those few days, from driving home late at night, after hours of last-minute preparation at her house, to putting the finishing touches on the dancing mix for the reception.

Read my interview with Chris Carrabba.

Key track: "Who's Looking Out"

13. Coldplay - Ghost Stories

The year’s most unfairly maligned album is actually Coldplay’s best record to date, and the first since their debut where they aren’t consistently trying to sound like another band. A Coldplay skeptic for years, I wasn’t convinced by the album’s Bon Iver-esque teaser track ("Midnight") or by its modestly catchy first single, "Magic." I was far more taken with the EDM-fueled bombast of "A Sky Full of Stars," an excellent pop song where Coldplay embrace their own cartoonish ridiculousness while still retaining the heart-on-the-sleeve mentality that landed their songs on a million soundtracks. All of these songs work even better in the context of Ghost Stories, a muted nine-track affair where the band slowly and steadily lays a relationship (in this case, Chris Martin’s marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow) to rest. Many were confused by this album, or called it boring, a natural product of the band writing these kinds of spectral songs after four straight records of trying to top themselves in arena-sized bombast. But Ghost Stories is oddly one of the year’s most cohesive works, with the closing suite of songs (the svelte acoustic lullaby "Oceans," the ringing catharsis of "Sky Full of Stars," and the heartbreaking resignation of "O") resonating as a true master-class of album sequencing.

14. The Gaslight Anthem - Get Hurt

In more ways than one, Get Hurt was a disappointment. It didn’t deviate from the Gaslight Anthem’s bread and butter sound, as frontman Brian Fallon had promised it would, and on first listen, its assembly of moody rock songs and 90s grunge guitar anthems felt anything but cohesive. On repeat listens, though, the themes of Get Hurt began to coalesce, and this album became something more meaningful than the summer soundtrack I had been hoping for. Inspired largely by Fallon’s recent divorce, Get Hurt is an album about how hard it is to build a new life when memories of the old one are still fresh. Indeed, there are a number of tracks here that revisit the band’s previous material, but twist it into something more bittersweet. Case-in-point is "Dark Places," which gazes longingly back at the summer nights and Ferris wheel rides of The 59 Sound, before acknowledging that the relationship built in that youthful utopia has now decayed and died. "We were living proof, one by one we drifted away," Fallon sings, his once exuberant love of life and rock and roll left beaten down and weatherworn. And while Get Hurt may make a conscious effort to drive away from E Street, with numbers that borrow heavily from Nirvana ("Stay Vicious"), Pearl Jam ("Selected Poems"), and Petty ("Break Your Heart"), there’s nothing more Springsteenian than the broken-down American dream that defines this record’s overarching themes.

Read my interview with drummer Benny Horowitz.

Key track: "Dark Places"

15. The Hotelier - Home, Like NoPlace Is There

What can be written about the Hotelier’s triumphant sophomore album that hasn’t been said already? A masterful work that brought the roar of a so-called "emo revival" into the critical limelight, Home, Like NoPlace Is There is also far, far more than a superfluous genre tag. Telling a loose story about a visit to one's old house, post-eviction, this record excavates dust and memories from amongst the furniture and photographs that still linger there. Along the way, we encounter failure and self-loathing ("An Introduction to The Album"), struggles with identity ("Life in Drag"), and an inability to come to terms with the death of a friend ("Your Deep Rest"). In all cases, vocalist and lyricist Christian Holden writes with dense, literate poetry that is tough to parse at first, but which also rewards listeners for consistent attention and investment. There are still as many little nuances to discover in these songs after three dozen listens as there were after three, whether in a lyric that devastates (the exceptional "Dendron," perhaps the year’s best closing track), a melody that sticks in your head (the splendid "The Scope of All This Rebuilding"), or a vocal moment so imbued with intense passion (the yelping urgency of that knockout "Among the Wildflowers" chorus) that it forces you to stop what you are doing and listen.

Many of the songs on Home, Like NoPlace Is There deal with issues of abuse—drug abuse, abuse in relationships, etc.—but even people who haven't struggled with similar situations in their lives will find things to love about this record. "Introduction" in particular is a steady rain of beautiful images, capturing intense loneliness ("Inside yourself, there's a child/Counting stars in their timeout"), the brevity of life ("So fragile are bodies, so concave/Work in self-destructive ways"), and the feeling that your best will never be good enough ("Because I'm desperate here, a couple steps from the edge/I can't seem to burn bright enough"). These are hugely emotional lyrics, and for many of us, they ring like snapshots of the worst days we've ever lived. That's fitting, since Home, Like NoPlace Is There is at least partially a record about being too nostalgic and caring too much for your own good. It's the kind of album that gives a noble, if fractured voice to those days, in the words of "In Framing," "when you felt abandoned, when you felt alone." No wonder it's been compared to albums like Clarity and Deja Entendu; no wonder so many people on this website have credited it with reigniting their love, passion, and connection with music.

Lyrically striking, endlessly catchy, and passionately performed from first note to last, Home, Like NoPlace Is There is one of those rare albums that deserves the tag of "instant classic." It's also the breakthrough of a vital new voice for this scene, and an essential listen for fans of any genre--even for those that view "emo" as a four-letter word. And last, but not least, it's the only fitting choice for the 2014 Album of the Year title: we can only hope that 2015 brings along something this special.

Key track: "Dendron"

16. U2 - Songs of Innocence

U2 caught a lot of flak for their decision to partner with Apple and upload their first album in five years into 500 million iTunes accounts. But looking beyond the corporate power play and the limitless bad jokes and privacy complaints, Songs of Innocence was one of this year’s most revealing and intimate records from an established rock band. In these 12 tracks, we are taken on a journey through U2’s past. We see the violent neighborhoods of their youth on the blood-soaked "Cedarwood Road." We feel the awkwardness and magnificence of first love on "Song for Someone." And we follow them to America for the first time in "California (There is No End to Love)." The great thing about Songs of Innocence is that, more than any other record in U2’s discography, it seems to encapsulate who these four men are—both as people and as a band. Not only are the lyrics strikingly personal, but the songs also call back to every era of this U2's career, from the early post-punk days ("Raised by Wolves") to the electronic-infused 90s era ("Sleep Like a Baby Tonight"), all the way to the sky-scraping arena rock of their post-millennial output ("Every Breaking Wave"). It’s a shame the album won’t ever have a chance to stand on its own, because it’s U2’s best and most complete work in more than a decade.

Key track: "Cedarwood Road"

17. Yellowcard - Lift a Sail

Few albums will ever mean as much to me as Yellowcard’s 2012 masterpiece Southern Air. That record played as I drove away from my hometown, on the way to my senior year of college and away from the carefree protections of youth. Such a personal connection was always going to make it difficult for me to hear Lift a Sail as anything but a step down, but luckily, the band chose this record to really change things up. A more grown-up and experimental sound graces these 13 tracks. We still get songs about California, but gone are the wistful summer jams, replaced here with struggle, responsibility, and tragedy. It’s the band’s darkest album, born from the paralyzing injury that singer Ryan Key’s wife suffered last year. The songs aren’t depressing, though. In fact, this album’s best moments—from the rousing "Transmission Home" to the forward-looking "Illuminate," all the way to the ringing guitar solo of the title track—all spark with hopeful resilience. That’s the mood that carries through this record’s bright hooks, dingy electronics, symphonic arrangements, and passionate vocals, and although these songs probably won’t ever mean as much to me as the ones from Southern Air, it’s hard for me to look at Lift a Sail and see anything other than Yellowcard’s supreme album-length accomplishment.

Key track: "Lift a Sail"

18. The New Basement Tapes - Lost in the River

One-off conceptual projects like this are often pleasant surprises (see the Norah Joes/Billie Joe Armstrong Everly Brothers cover album from last year) but they rarely demand repeat listens. The New Basement tapes is an exception to that rule. Assembled as a tribute to the classic Bob Dylan/The Band team-up from the late 60s, this folk/Americana supergroup includes Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James, and Rhiannon Giddens (not to mention T Bone Burnett behind the boards). Each member wrote songs from unused Dylan texts, and each member gets four chances to sing vocal leads throughout the record. The result is a 20-track, double LP project that encompasses a wide range of folk sounds, from electrified Americana to sparse acoustic storytelling, from timeless Appalachian hymns to modern folk-pop ditties. Costello and Giddens both offer vibrant and moving takes on the title track, while Mumford improves upon his band's sound with gems like "Stranger" and "When I Get My Hands on You," and Goldsmith provides soft and summery ballads with his classic Jackson Browne-esque tenor. Which songs you like the most will depend on the types of folk music you gravitate toward, but it's tough to imagine any listener not finding something to love here.

Key track: "Lost in the River #20"

19. Copeland - Ixora

Packed with delicate slow-burns and fragile heartbreakers, Copeland's first album in six years was the perfect record to soundtrack the shift of the seasons, from fall to winter. In many ways, it's the band's best album, packed to the brim with their most gorgeous songs to date. (From opener "Have I Always Loved You," to closer "In Your Arms She Will Never Starve," these tunes never lack for beauty.) Frankly, I'm not so sure it's possible to listen to "Erase" without understanding its utter, aching perfection. Or to hear the collision of acoustic guitar and saxophone in "World Turn," and not feel a pang in your stomach from thinking about all the time that has passed, and all the things that have happened, since this band last put out an album. More confident, concise, emotional, and effortlessly melodic than any of the four records these guys made before their lengthy hiatus, Ixora proves that the scene is better with Copeland in it.

Key track: "Erase"

20. Augustana - Life Imitating Life

On the fourth Augustana album, the band becomes a solo project for singer Dan Layus, and there are some obvious growing pains as a result. The record is scattershot, flinging itself carelessly from summery FM pop throwbacks ("Love in the Air") to Springsteenian anthems ("Youth is Wasted on the Young"), and never finding the cohesion that made Augustana’s best record (2008’s Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt) such a classic. Life Imitating Life never becomes more than the sum of its parts, but for me me, that didn’t matter. The album ended up being remarkably personal anyway, because its two best songs ended up soundtracking the two most vivid days of my year. The first, an orchestral love song called "Alive," anchored the mix I made for my wife the day before we got married, and even played triumphantly at our reception. The second, a poignant piano farewell called "Remember Me," was playing when my mom called to tell me my grandfather had passed away. Here in these two tracks—the penultimate and ultimate songs on this album—are the happiest and saddest days of my life, reflected back at me. I will never be able to listen to either without having a viscerally emotional response.

Key track: "Remember Me"

21. Charlie Simpson - Long Road Home

In 2011, Charlie Simpson slipped into my top 10 thanks to Young Pilgrim, one of the best and most surprising folk-pop albums of the decade so far. His sophomore solo record, Long Road Home, isn't as uniformly great, but it still packs a slew of great tunes into its 11-song tracklist. From kick drum stompers that put the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons to shame ("Comets," "Haunted") to tunes that perfectly capture the delicate beauty of winter ("Winter Hymns") and the limitless freedom of summer ("Still Young"), Long Road Home is the kind of album that was made to be a life soundtrack. For me, it served as just that, with the wistful guitar picking of "Another Year" functioning as the perfect song to lay my summer and everything that had come with it to rest. As my new wife and I packed up our apartment in Illinois and set our course for a new life in Michigan, "Another Year" was the soundtrack, with the line "Did this place ever feel like home?" packing a special kind of punch. And I don't know if that place ever did feel like home, but something about this album, with its welcoming arrangements and the lush harmonies built up around Simpson's voice, always did.

Key track: "Another Year"

22. Ingrid Michaelson - Lights Out

Prior to this album, I’d never been a huge fan of Ingrid Michaelson. Her songs always seemed pleasant in an easy-listening kind of way, but I never saw her as a very vital voice in modern pop music. Lights Out began to change that, with a set of songs that was edgier and catchier than her older material. "Girls Chase Boys" should have been the song of the summer, with an indelible hook that’s tough not to sing along with, even on first listen; "Afterlife" should have been an even bigger hit, with an anthemic chorus and message that would have appealed to the same people who liked fun.’s "We Are Young" a few years ago; and "One Night Town," a pleasant road-trip pop song featuring the great Mat Kearney, should have completed the trifecta and made this album a multiplatinum hit parade. Due to a few rough edges and completely scattershot flow, Lights Out never got a chance to ascend to those populist heights, but that didn’t end up mattering to me. I saw Ingrid live for the first time this past November, and it was the best and most musically accomplished concert I’d seen in ages. Suffice to say that there aren’t many better live vocalists or more infectiously charismatic personalities in modern pop.

Key track: "Afterlife"

23. Stolen Silver - We Have Everything, We Have Nothing

Not many bands send me promo CDs anymore, but when they do and I end up loving the album, it's bound to get a lot of plays. Normally, in my car, I'll hook up an FM transmitter and listen to my iPod (retro all around, I know). Sometimes, though, I'll forget the iPod or the FM transmitter, and I'll be left to listen to whatever's in the CD player. In 2014, We Have Everything, We Have Nothing was always in the CD player. Throughout this record, vocalist Levi Britton and multi-instrumentalist Dan Myers craft an irresistible mix of folk, pop, and classic rock and roll that feels instantly timeless from the moment opener "Awake and Alive" sparkles through the speakers. Britton, one of the best vocalists in music today, brings soul and passion to heartbreaking ballads like "I Stay Lonely," or hymns to never giving up like "Prefontaine." Myers, meanwhile, sprinkles the album with atmospheric interludes like "The River Only Borrows" or "The Reservoir Still Flows." When their talents best coalesce, like on the Battle Studies-era John Mayer ballad that is "Learn to Fly," or the sky-scraping arena power balladry of "I Can't Live Like This," the sound can best be described as "luxuriant."

Key track: "Prefontaine"

24. Fireworks - Oh, Common Life

I went into Fireworks Oh, Common Life with the worst kind of preconceived notions. I'd written the band off based on two listens to their previous album, Gospel. A 2011 disc, I thought Gospel was pop-punk by the numbers: dull songs about summer (and a trip to the dentist's office?) performed by guys who didn't have anything musically unique to bring to the table. When I first pressed play on Oh, Common Life, I expected a record full of similarly empty, juvenile pop-punk, not unlike what I've heard in recent records by everyone from Man Overboard to the Mixtapes to New Found Glory. What I found instead was a dark and moody collection of songs that transcends the pop punk genre tag. Inspired largely by the death of frontman David Mackinder's father, Oh, Common Life tosses devastating lyrics like hand grenades, grenades that tore down my preconceived notions and forced me to pay attention. "I share my name with a stranger all my life," Mackinder confesses on "Run, Brother, Run," the album's most potent cut, and the one that most directly addresses his father's passing. But Oh, Common Life is endlessly lyrical and relentlessly cutting, whether Mackinder is singing about his own shortcomings ("I use metaphors to write about what I should really say aloud") or about the slow, twisting knife of time ("So I started writing songs about a girl/But now that girl, she's somebody's wife"). Either way, the record is one that deserves more respect than its genre generally commands.

Key track: "Run, Brother, Run"

25. Hunter Hayes - Storyline

One of the great pop albums this year came from Hunter Hayes, a mainstream country crooner evidently interested in following in Taylor Swift's footsteps. Hayes recorded Storyline, his sophomore full-length album, with Dann Huff, a 2004 and 2009 Academy of Country Music honoree for Producer of the Year. But while Huff's wheelhouse is Americana, Hayes draws his own inspiration here from the likes of John Mayer, Jason Mraz, and last year's most notable country music trend-braker, Kacey Musgraves. The result was arguably the summer's most unbreakably infectious set of songs. As far as 2014 went in the "albums for summertime drives" category, Storyline was the ace in the hole, with well-put-together love songs ("Storyline," "Tattoo"), inspirational ballads (the anti-bullying pep talk of "Invisible"), and electric guitar manifestos that suggest Hayes was spending a lot of time with Mayer's Continuum while recording this record ("You Think You Know Somebody," "When Did You Stop Loving Me"). Throughout, Hayes consistently shows off soulful vocals, impressive electric guitar chops, and strong songwriting skills. Clearly, he's one to watch.

Key track: "Storyline"

26. Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways

This was the year of the concise album: 11 of the records on this list have 10 tracks or fewer, while five cut out before even reaching the 10-song mark. One of these is the latest LP from the Foo Fighters, a taut eight-song collection that instantly ranks as their most consistent and cohesive work to date. Even as a standalone, Sonic Highways is special, sporting excellent examples of the dark slow-burns ("Something From Nothing") and anthemic rockers ("I Am The River") on which the band has built its 20-year legacy. As the companion to the HBO show of the same name, though, Sonic Highways becomes something more. It has, of course, been argued that the record sounds safe and predictable compared to its television counterpart. But watch the TV series—which frontman Dave Grohl assembled from 1,300+ hours of footage—and this album grows in depth, meaning, and overall enjoyability. There's something about watching the band craft "Congregational" in a rustic Nashville studio, built in the heart of an old church, that makes the song's southern rock intensity really come alive, and something similar can be said for each of the other seven songs on this great rock and roll travelogue.

Key track: "Something from Nothing"

27. The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams

Though it's probably the weakest album in the Hold Steady's storied catalog, and though it may be the most top heavy LP this side of Hot Fuss, Teeth Dreams is still a terrific pile-driving rock and roll record, meant to be played as loud as possible, in the car, with the windows down, on a hot as hell summer evening. The production gets a bit too "generic radio rock" at times, and there's nothing as transcendent as the highlights from Boys & Girls in America or Separation Sunday. However, songs like "The Only Thing" or the dusky "Oaks" are still among the best material this band has ever written. In fact, the first half of the record is damn-near flawless, from the relentless drumbeat of "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You" to the rip-roaring dueling guitars of "Spinners," all the way to the bar that's lost its liquor license in "The Ambassador." The back half is a bit more stacked with filler, but even then, no one does filler material with quite the conviction and fire of Craig Finn and Tad Kubler.

Key track: "The Only Thing"

28. Moose Blood - I’ll Keep You in Mind from Time to Time

One of the biggest surprises of the year for me was this record, the full-length debut from Canterbury-based emo band, Moose Blood. The record is not perfect: after the astounding opener "Cherry," a Clarity-esque slowburn with some of the year’s most haunting lyrics, I’ll Keep You in Mind… settles into a rather one-dimensional mid-tempo rock sound for the remaining 10 tracks. Some of the songs are rather juvenile, making repeated references to drinking and "half-smoked smokes." But even with these reptitions and flaws considered, there’s still an awful lot of promise in these songs. Take the lead single, "Anyway," a kinetic rock song with a grandiose guitar riff and a big chorus worthy of being shouted along by a sold out club audience; or "Bukowski," which actually makes reference to the Jimmy Eat World record these guys are trying to sound like. Seriously, if "I'll introduce you to Clarity/Teach you the words to 'The Sound of Settling'/Make you watch High Fidelity/On a Sunday, maybe one day" isn’t the most gloriously homage-filled lyric of 2014, I don’t know what is. These songs are catchy and relatable, and even if this album has its faults, I frankly can’t wait to see where Moose Blood go next.

Key track: "Cherry"

29. Better Than Ezra - All Together Now

Sometimes laugh-out-loud clever, sometimes the musical equivalent of a big, dumb, fun Hollywood action flick, All Together Now was the year’s most gleefully ridiculous pop album. Prior to this record, 90s alt-rockers Better Than Ezra (known as one-hit wonders for their song "Good") hadn’t released an album in five years (and hadn’t released a great one since 2006’s Before the Robots). Here, though, the band reconvenes without missing a beat. From the album’s wry opening lyric ("There are six and three-quarter billion people in this world/And 51 percent of them are girls/You roll your eyes like I’m full of it/But I Googled that shit"), All Together Now spits the catchiest, most sarcastic pop-rock songs this side of Butch Walker. Frontman Kevin Griffin sure knows his way around a hook, and legitimately every song on this album, from the falsetto-laden "Crazy Lucky" to the SoCal guitar pop of "Sunflowers," is an earworm. Sometimes, Griffin’s hooks are actually too infectious, (the zippy "Diamond in My Pocket" is, in a word, annoying). But when the band drops the tempo, like on the luminescent "Before You" or the slow-burn, Petty-referencing "The Great Unknown," it becomes clear that there aren’t many better melodists in the game right now. The only question is how these guys never had more hits.

Key track: "The Great Unknown"

30. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye

I spent a lot of time with the music of Tom Petty this year. A week before my wedding, "Wildflowers" was the soundtrack to a perfect summer boat trip taken with my soon-to-be in-laws. "Learn to Fly" was the first song I played as I hit the highway on my way out of Illinois and toward a new home in Michigan. And this record, Petty's best in two decades, was in constant rotation as the summer dwindled and disappeared. Blending the anthemic heartland rock of Petty's best material with the relentless 12-bar blues of his last record (2010's Mojo), Hypnotic Eye strikes the perfect balance between big choruses and deep rock and roll grooves. The album's ineffable opening trio ("American Dream Plan B," "Fault Lines," and "Red River") stay in the former vein, while the highway-ready riff from "All You Can Carry" runs straight down a dream toward the latter. Petty and his Heartbreakers even find time to drop the tempo, turning in a jazz club ready slow-burn in the form of "Full Grown Boy." The record's second half doesn't hold a candle to its first, and there's nothing as great as "American Girl," "Free Fallin'," or "You Got Lucky," but Hypnotic Eye sounds vital and fierce in a way that suggests the 54-year-old Petty might still have another half-dozen great records under his sleeve.

Key track: "Red River"

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