I listened to more than 900 new releases during 2014—all styles, all genres. My family is ready to mount an intervention, and cancel my streaming accounts. But before they cut me off, I want to share my favorite picks with you. Below are my choices for the best of the best: the top 20 albums of 2014. (For a longer list of 200 outstanding releases, click here.)
Friends tell me I’m looking for music in all the wrong places, especially given all the lesser-known titles on my end-of-year rankings. I could save myself a lot of time and aggravation if I just limited my listening to megastars and their hyped hits. But I’ve found that most of the good music nowadays is coming from small indie labels, and self-produced albums. I check out the heavily promoted releases from the major entertainment conglomerates, but only a few of these live up to the marketing copy. But each of the recordings listed below deserves yours closest attention.
1John Luther AdamsBecome OceanContemporary Classical MusicI never thought I would pick a Pulitzer Prize-winning composition for the top spot on my end-of-year list. For as long as I can remember, the Pulitzer judges focused on pleasing a niche group of academics who care more about “compositional strategies” than how music actually sounds. But contemporary classical music has changed, and the field is now spawning many appealing and genre-bending works. John Luther Adams lives up to the title of his composition, capturing an oceanic torrent of sound in an awe-inspiring performance. (Also check out the previous year’s Pulitzer winner Caroline Shaw’s "Partita for 8 Voices" for another example of the new populist movement in the classical world.)
2Fred HerschFloatingJazzI’ve long admired Hersch’s work. For the last three decades, he has garnered justifiable praise as one of best pianists in jazz. But he has somehow leapt to a higher plateau during the last few years—all the more amazing given his precarious health. (Hersch survived a life-threatening coma in 2008.) I think posterity will enshrine this body of work among the classics of 21st century jazz. But don’t wait for music historians to hand out the accolades. Check this music out immediately—and see Hersch in live performance if you get the chance!
3Khun Narin Electric Phin BandKhun Narin Electric Phin BandElectric Trance Music from ThailandYes, I get grief for picking out obscure artists for lavish praise—and what could be more obscure than a trance rock band residing in a remote village hundreds of miles from Bangkok? But give this album one listen, and you’ll learn why Los Angeles music producer Josh Marcy travelled halfway around the world to meet these musicians … and convince them to make the best rock album of 2014.
4Eleni KaraindrouMedeaContemporary Classical MusicDrawing inspiration from Euripides's tragedy from 431 B.C., composer Eleni Karaindrou manages to create music that seems both embedded in the deep past but also surprisingly contemporary. The unusual textures (santouri, ney, lyra, clarinets, voices) impart a mystical quality to this work. Karaindrou, perhaps best known for her film scores, is a master of sound painting, and delivers a genuine masterpiece in her 2014 ECM release.
5James Vincent McMorrowPost TropicalIrish Falsetto Soul MusicWe live in the age of Adele, with so much soulful music coming from the British Isles. I know that Detroit is losing market share in auto sales, but how did they let the Motown sound slip out of their hands? Last year, I was enchanted by Laura Mvula, a dazzling R&B diva from Birmingham (no, not Birmingham, Alabama); but now I’ve fallen under the sway of James Vincent McMorrow. He has the finest new falsetto voice I’ve heard in ages.
6Billy Childs (with guest artists)Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura NyroPop-Folk-Jazz
I have low expectations for tribute albums packed to the brim with the usual cast of guest artists. But Billy Childs absolutely delivers the goods in this poignant collection of Laura Nyro songs. Childs puts together some smart, if surprising, pairings—Wayne Shorter joins forces with Esperanza Spalding; Rickie Lee Jones teams up with Chris Potter; Renee Fleming performs with Yo-Yo Ma. The album also showcases the talents of Alison Krauss, Dianne Reeves and Shawn Colvin. Ms. Nyro would have loved it … and you will, too.
7HillstompPortland, Ore.Electric Swamp BluesHow can you possibly find authentic swamp blues in Portland, Oregon? But Hillstomp is the real deal, as legit as anything you will find nowadays down on the bayou. Blues music is often treated like a museum piece, a relic from a bygone day, but this band will make you want to get up and dance.
8Elio Villafranca & Spiros ExarasOld Waters New RiverGreek-Cuban Acoustic FusionShakespeare famously claimed that there’s nothing new under the sun. But if he heard this combination of Greek and Cuban music, he would be forced to reconsider. This is the mash-up of the year, yet the integration of these two distinct musical cultures is handled with effortless fluency, almost as if Athens and Havana were sister cities.
9John AdamsCity NoirJazz-inflected Contemporary Classical MusicI find I have two different John Adams in my top ten (hey, just like the list of the first ten presidents). I’ve had mixed feelings about many of minimalist Adams’ previous works, but his saxophone concerto is a standout piece, and reveals a jazz sensitivity in this composer that I had not previously suspected. I wish Stan Getz were still alive to perform this concerto, but I can’t complain about Timothy McAllister’s stellar horn work here. Even if you think you don’t like contemporary classical music, give this one a chance.
10Jenny Hval and SusannaMeshes of VoicePop-Flavored Norwegian Art SongsThis music is sweet and eerie, beguiling and foreboding by turns. I could marvel over the technical aspects—and clearly a lot of thought went into constructing a fresh sound that integrates elements of ambient music, art song, and declamatory pop. But put all the analysis aside and just listen to the emotional currents here. This is heartfelt music, and after a first encounter you will find yourself coming back for more.
11Willie WatsonFolk Singer, Vol. 1Raw, Unfiltered Traditional Folk MusicMost folk music recordings are pop albums in disguise. Who can blame musicians for seeking a larger crossover audience? But Willie Watson is a throwback to the days of Woody Guthrie and early Bob Dylan. Even the album cover looks like an anachronism—almost as if the label had decided to recycle some old Folkways jackets from the days of Moses Asch. But this isn’t just a stunt. Folk Singer, Vol. 1 is powerful music, and the moment you start playing the album, it demands your attention. I eagerly await volume 2.
12The Haden TripletsThe Haden TripletsOld-Timey Vocal HarmoniesI am a full-fledged fan of vocal harmony groups, but not all singing ensembles are created equal. The best ones are made up of siblings. There’s some uncanny property in the DNA that makes the vocal parts blend more effectively—and you can hear it in the Andrew Sisters, the Jackson 5, the Beach Boys, and other famous family bands. Add the Haden Triplets to the list. The Haden family ranks among the premier music clans in the United States—the Triplets’ father Charlie Haden, who passed away a few months ago, ranks among the greatest jazz bassists of the last half century. And his parents were well-known country performers on stage and radio. But the new generation is ready to keep the family’s legacy alive, as they demonstrate on this charming album of old-fashioned songs.
13Jack WhiteLazarettoRockJust when I feared that rock music had forgotten its blues roots, Jack White shows up to prove me wrong. And I couldn’t be happier to admit my mistake. Not long ago, a whole host of artists were plowing these fields—Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Johnny Winter. But Winter is dead, Clapton is tired of life on the road, and King unreliable in concert. As I size up the scene, Jack White now wears the crown … and he wears it well. (Also check out his massive reissue of Paramount recordings from the late ’20s and early ’30s—which gets my vote as the most important historical preservation project of the year.)
14Marc BroussardA Life Worth LivingBayou Singer-SongwriterWhen I hear the term “singer-songwriter,” I tend to think of a tender-hearted troubadour with a repertoire of sentimental tunes. But Broussard is not like that. He’s a tough varmint, with grit in his voice and a dose of funk and rough-and-tumble blues in his songs. If your ears are tired of slick auto-tuned vocals, pick up this disk for an aural detox.
15Denny ZeitlinStairway to the StarsJazzPianist Denny Zeitlin has long been one of the best-kept secrets in jazz. The general public has never paid much attention to his music, but other pianists know what this man can do at the keyboard. He is the consummate musician’s musician. This newly-released live recording of Zeitlin captures a vibrant performance of his trio, and is one of the standout jazz albums of the year.
16Jack ClementFor Once and For AllLonesome Cowboy MusicCowboy Jack Clement died last year at age 82, but this posthumous release reminds us of how much we have lost. This music is stark and unadorned, and probably too austere for most radio formats, but it’s my favorite country album of the year by a country mile.
17Arve HenriksenThe Nature of ConnectionsJazzCan jazz trumpet really sound like a Japanese shakuhachi flute? Somehow Arve Henriksen makes it happen. But this is much more than a gimmick. By following such an unorthodox blueprint, he taps into potentialities of the trumpet that I’ve never heard realized elsewhere. This is an extraordinary recording that deserves to be much better known.
18Norma WinstoneDance Without AnswerJazzJazz singing is increasingly for the young and sexy. You don’t get a record deal nowadays unless you look like a cover model for Vogue or GQ. So I am happy to report that my favorite jazz vocal album of the year is by 73-year-old veteran Norma Winstone. If you want twerking, go to Miley; but if you won’t settle for anything less than artistry, opt for Norma.
19S. CareyRange of LightWisconsin-Style Folk-PopBon Iver wasn’t just a fad, but a revealing insight into the possibilities of a Wisconsin contemporary folk movement. Eau Claire is happening now! And if you have any doubts, check out this album by S. Carey. You can practically smell the sugar maples and wood violets.
20The MartinsA CappellaA Cappella Roots & Trad Music
Did I mention that siblings make the best vocal groups? Well, here’s another example. Joyce Martin Sanders, Jonathan Martin, and Judy Martin Hess hale from Hamburg, Arkansas, and rank among the finest contemporary exponents of the Southern gospel music tradition. But these singers have open ears and confident voices, and mix a host of other elements—Americana, roots, soul—into their appealing vocal arrangements. Like many other albums on this list, A Cappella comes from a small indie label (Spring Hill) but these artists are big-time talents.