Tuesday, December 30, 2014
The Short List in this week's City Paper runs down all the best concerts happening in Baltimore on new year's eve and during the first week of 2015.

Top 50 Albums of 2014

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 was a great year for me and my family, which feels weird to even say considering what an awful year it seemed to be in a larger sense on the world stage. But when life hands you some wins, after years of losses, you gotta take it. I stayed pretty busy, and just grabbed music listening time whenever I could. I heard probably over 200 new albums this year, but I didn't necessarily form deep relationships with many of them. I've never been a big repeat listener -- usually the first 2 or 3 listens let me know how I feel, and after that it's just a question of revisiting and reminding myself of that feeling every now and again. So it was fun to spend a lot of this month just re-listening to things and seeing how I feel now. And even though it's a pretty pop-heavy list, it's pretty distinct from my singles list -- by my count only 9 of these albums feature songs that were included on my top 100 singles list. And there's some pretty unknown stuff on here that I'm always trying to turn people on to. I left a lot of sophomore slumps and autopilot albums and things that I listened to out of fan loyalty off the list, and tried to pare it down to things that got me excited about new artists, or made me look at an established act in a new way. 

I made a Spotify best 2014 albums mix featuring one track apiece from most of these albums, I encourage you to listen to it and jump around and check out the unfamiliar names. 

1. YG - My Krazy Life
DJ Mustard worked with everybody in 2014, but he retained his best chemistry with the guys he came into the game with like YG and Ty Dolla $ign. Still, given how little personality YG exhibited on the big single that made his major label album happen, "My N***a," it's impressive how much he rose to the occasion here, tag teaming with Mustard to make the definitive album-length document of the sound of the moment as effortlessly as Waka and Lex Luger on Flockaveli or even Clipse and the Neptunes on Lord Willin' (although the handful of outside productions, especially Metro Boomin's "1AM," are perfectly welcome). The conversational Compton everyman persona doesn't exactly demand a virtuoso rapping performance, but YG fills out the tracks with lived-in details, filthy jokes and surprising self-deprecation. An airtight 46-minute album where even the brief dialogue-driven interludes make the experience more immersive without stalling the momentum of the songs. Even "Do It To Ya" and "Sorry Momma" make the perfect sense in the context of the album that a generic Mustard R&B radio banger never could.

2. Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Against Me!'s first album since Laura Jane Grace became the first openly transgender rock star was preordained as an important album before anyone heard a note of it, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything -- lots of significant and momentous records turn out lousy. But Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an amazing record, as much for the enormous riffs and hooks as for the subject matter. The title track is moving for its anguish and ambivalence, while other songs have such emotionally complicated moments like the singer telling her wife, "even if your love was unconditional, it still wouldn't be enough to save me." And then there are songs like "Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ" that could've been on any other Against Me! record and somehow make an odd kind of sense on this one, and make me feel stupid for not really understanding this band's appeal before. 

3. Rich Gang - Tha Tour, Part 1
For most of 2014, Young Thug was rap's breakout star who seemed like he'd get through his big year without releasing any kind of full-length project that capitalized on his buzz. Black Portland with Bloody Jay suited some rock critics but not the fanbase he gained with "Stoner," 1017 Brick Squad unloaded its vaults of early material he'd recorded with Gucci Mane, the Metro Boomin duo project Metro Thuggin has remained a vague promise for months and months, and Thugger's tangled contractual situation evidently kept him from fast tracking a major label solo album. So it seemed like some kind of miracle that Birdman turned up and rebooted the amorphous Rich Gang project, which released a mediocre retail album in 2013 full of Mack Maine and Gudda Gudda verses, into a vehicle for Thug and frequent collaborator Rich Homie Quan and released an incredible album of tag team raps. London On Da Track was already my new favorite producer just off of the strength of "About The Money," but his work here is a revelation, ranging from unapologetically similar tracks like "Keep It Goin'" to amazing piano-driven tracks like "Flava" and the Quan lyrical showcase "Freestyle." Tha Tour, Part 2 is supposed to drop around Christmas, and it's blowing my mind to think they could possibly release a second mixtape of this same caliber only 3 months later. Listen on LiveMixtapes

4. Tinashe - Aquarius
As great as "2 On" is, it's an outlier on an album that is overall much slower and moodier. But the more arty underground leanings of Tinashe's mixtapes (I don't want to dignify the term "alt R&B," stop saying that please) and the commercial pressures of a major label debut came together to form a surprisingly cohesive and consistent record. It straddles different aesthetic territories much in the same way as Miguel's Kaleidoscope Dream and nearly as successfully. And Tinashe, a showbiz lifer with glorious high notes and an earnest, clear-eyed presence, makes these kind of tracks come to life more than some of the more dutiful Aaliyah wannabes that have inhabited similar records (although it made me shudder when I saw that some moron listed "PBR&B" as the album's genre on Wikipedia). 

5. D'Angelo and the Vanguard- Black Messiah
I've written before about my ambivalence towards Voodoo and its place in the canon, and years ago I checked out of having any investment in what was going on with his third album beyond "when it comes out I'll listen to it." And then, suddenly, a couple weeks ago it actually came out, and I listened to it, and it was great. I don't know if it's better than Voodoo, but right now I like it more, because it sounds fresher and in some ways stranger, and I've only had like 14 days to absorb it instead of 14 years. One thing that's really struck me is that, for all the talk of D'Angelo working on his guitar playing during the making of this album, it's his piano that really stands out on this record. 

6. Carla Bozulich - Boy
In the '90s, Carla Bozulich became moderately famous (and one of my personal musical heroes) while hopping between divergent sounds and short-lived bands like the mutant country of The Geraldine Fibbers and the transgressive industrial rock of Ethyl Meatplow. In the last decade she's settled into a creative groove with four albums under her Evangelista project, and Boy is both a nominal return to solo work and her self-proclaimed "pop record." What's great about Boy, however, is that it picks up where the Evangelista albums left off, with some of the same collaborators and a similarly unhinged avant garde aesthetic, but every song is between 3 and 5 minutes long, with more foregrounded vocals. "Gonna Stop Killing," a previously unreleased song which echoes the title of her cover-heavy 2004 live EP I'm Gonna Stop Killing, suggests that some of this material may have been gestating for a long time. And in any event, Boy feels like a culmination of what Bozulich has been working towards throughout her career's very rewarding second (or third or fourth) act. 

7. Toni Braxton & Babyface - Love, Marriage & Divorce
Back in the '90s, Toni Braxton and Babyface sold zillions of records singing his glamorous and dramatic songs of heartbreak with their pouty, beautiful voices. A couple decades later, there's something poignant about hearing them sing together for an entire album for the first time, after the blockbuster sales trailed off and their marriages ended, on Love, Marriage & Divorce. True to its title, it's a wizened middle-aged divorcee album, but the songs circle through so many different emotions -- the smoldering make-up sex of "Sweat," the mournful soul searching of "Where Did We Go Wrong?" and the spiteful, fed up "I'd Rather Be Broke." 

8. Eric Church - The Outsiders
The top-selling 2014 country album is by a self-styled rebel whose attitude towards the Nashville establishment that's been so good to him seems a little like a pompous persecution complex or a guy trying to will himself into some kind of Johnny Cash mythology. But Eric Church has more to him than that -- as he says on "Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)," his 8-minute suite about the evils of Nashville, "it's not all bad, it's not all dark, it's not all gloom." His reedy voice has a down home charm, his songwriting is at once playful and ambitious, and Jay Joyce's production vividly captures gorgeous guitar and organ tones while eschewing total earthy naturalism with touches like the subtly glitchy edits on "Broke Record" and "Cold One" or the groovy synth bass on the closing "The Joint." 

9. Vince Staples - Hell Can Wait EP
I ignored Vince Staples initially because he initially appeared alongside other west coast rappers with goofy noun last names, Earl Sweatshirt and Casey Veggies. But then I learned that unlike those guys, Staples is Vince's real birth name, and unlike his Odd Future friends, he doesn't rap in tedious monotone word salads. And I learned that, surprisingly, though one of the major label EPs that have become one of the worst trends in popular music in recent years, usually pitiful little 5-song testers that labels put out instead of full-length from new artists even if they have a hit single. Hell Can Wait, however, is 7 great songs (and, at 23 minutes, is only a few minutes shorter than some of the albums on this list) from a guy who I'm a little surprised even got signed to Def Jam, much less got to release something. Staples raps in a squeaky, expressive west coast twang and his writing is sharp and level headed. "Hands Up" is a timely and evocatively titled song in the year of Ferguson, but pretty much everything here is on the same high level of quality, with No I.D. using his Def Jam clout to oversee a batch of gnarly, hard knocking beats.

10. Boosie Bad Azz - Life After Deathrow
One of the best moments of 2014 was when Boosie, a great rapper who seemed for a few years doomed to spend the rest of his life in prison, became a free man. Whether he was able to capitalize commercially on his legend that had grown while he was away, whether he could still make great music, seemed kind of secondary to the simple reality that the guy got to come home and live his life. Still, it was a huge relief when, after 6 months of trickling out songs and doing shows, he finally dropped a mixtape. And it was focused and cathartic and well produced, and in some ways a more complete project than any of his previous tapes or albums. 

11. Gerard Way - Hesitant Alien
In one of my favorite episodes of "Behind The Music," Poison's C.C. DeVille self-deprecatingly remarks that he had all the right influences to be a great guitarist, but somehow...he became C.C. DeVille, I guess. Gerard Way makes me think of that, because he's always had these hip punk and glam and Britpop influences that could've translated into him being a hip indie guy, but instead he became a massive rock star whose band, My Chemical Romance, was dismissed by a lot of boorish serious types as guyliner emo for teenage girls. Gerard Way's solo debut strips away a lot of the Bowie-esque theatricality and narrative concepts of MCR's albums, but leaves the sounds of the world that '70s Bowie inhabited, with songs and arrangements strong enough to transcend mere retro posturing. 

12. K. Michelle - Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart?
It was clear that K. Michelle could belt out a song 5 years ago when she was one in a long series of unsuccessful R. Kelly proteges. It was clear that she had the kind of larger-than-life personality to become a low-level celebrity when she found fame on reality TV. It was clear that she could transfer that personality to her music on her playfully foul-mouthed mixtapes. And it was clear that she could make radio hits when she released her 2013 debut album, Rebellious Soul. But it didn't become clear until 2014, as she kept building on all that momentum and made an even better follow-up album, that she's going to be here for a while. 

13. IamSu! - Sincerely Yours
HBK Gang were kind of the bridesmaids of the current resurgence of west coast rap, especially since you can hear the roots of DJ Mustard's sound in P-Lo's. And in 2014 IamSu! finally dropped a retail album, well after he guested on a string of big hits, and still doesn't have a solo hit of that magnitude. But the aptly titled Sincerely Yours is one of the most disarmingly warm and earnest rap albums of the year, taking the template of skeletal Bay Area slaps and filling them with pastoral melodies and plainspoken everyman raps. 

14. Future Islands - Singles
A couple of the more exciting things I was involved with in 2014 converged when a great new music site, Wondering Sound, asked me to interview Future Islands (Wondering Sound had some major layoffs recently and its future is currently uncertain, but they did great work all year and it was an honor to contribute to it). And so I got to hear the band's breakthrough album early, and hang out in their practice space and hear them run through "Seasons (Waiting On You)" four days before they played it on Letterman in the performance that basically made them famous in a way that late night TV appearances rarely do anymore. But more than that, it was just awesome to see a band that everyone in Baltimore has been rooting for for so long get that big moment with an album that was totally worth it, and packaged their whole odd sound into the perfect little compact 10-song set. 

15. Wye Oak - Shriek
Wye Oak are another great Baltimore band I got to interview for Wondering Sound, although the main difference was that in 2014 they kind of released the album after the album that made them a big deal. Shriek is not Civilian or even anything resembling a sequel, but I think it's actually a far more interesting record, one that captures the spirit of experimentation and self-discovery of If Children and the My Neighbor, My Creator EP as they push out of their comfort zone and make these weird bass-heavy grooves that become a surprisingly good foundation for Jenn Wasner's always incredibly gorgeous and emotive voice. 

16. DJ Quik - The Midnight Life
In 2007, DJ Quik started a group with AMG called The Fixxers, and their single "Can U Werk Wit Dat" was an odd, refreshing little moment of two west coast veterans trying on southern snap music for size and it actually working. But it didn't hit very big, and the Fixxers album Midnlight Life got shelved and then leaked in an uncompleted form and Quik moved on to other things. 7 years later, DJ Quik released an album under almost the same title, probably just because Quik liked the title. And while it doesn't feature anything quite like "Can U Werk Wit Dat," the whole album feels relatively light and carefree compared to Quik's last couple solo albums, Trauma and The Book Of David, which were weighted down with personal setbacks that I'd like to think maybe aren't dogging him as much anymore. 

17. Kevin Gates - Luca Brasi 2
Kevin Gates has been one of the more exciting rappers to gain a national profile in the last couple years, but throughout 2014 it started to feel like he was becoming famous for all the wrong reasons: the memeification of "I don't get tired" and his enthusiasm for eating booty, a pointless beef with Young Thug, the disturbing "Posed To Be In Love" becoming his first minor radio hit. So I was glad that he ended 2014 with his fourth project in two years and it was so good that all those annoyances seemed minor, he just seems to be rapping faster and even more intensely than before. Even the song that transparently tries to spin the "I don't get tired" catchphrase into a hit song is pretty good.

18. One Direction - Four
While white male pop stars like Nick Jonas and Ed Sheeran continue to reboot their careers with Timberlake-style R&B makeovers with mixed results, there's something refreshing about the reigning boy band of the day staying so confidently in their lane with big thunderous guitar pop. And by their fourth blockbuster album (something barely any boy bands have ever had), they've continued refining that formula with increasingly impressive results, putting power pop and classic rock and '80s synth pop and hair metal into a blender and winding up with these big beautiful wind tunnel anthems that blend their 5 voices together into one lovestruck goofball. The party line often goes that the music is secondary to the cult of personality when it comes to teen idols, but that doesn't mean it can't end up pretty great anyway. 

19. "Weird Al" Yankovic - Mandatory Fun
The terms "parody" and "satire" are often used interchangeably. but not with "Weird Al" Yankovic, pop music's most popular and enduring song parodist. But Mandatory Fun is the closest he's ever come to creating a collection of social satire -- from the grammar snob rants of "Word Crimes" to the middle class complaints of "First World Problems" to the perfect melding of CSNY with corporate babble on "Mission Statement," Yankovic mostly wrote songs that skewer the way people really talk and think in 2014, not just changing the lyrics of pop hits to non sequiturs and food puns. He still does that, though, and ended up with his funniest and most consistently enjoyable album in at least two decades. And because of timely parodies of chart-toppers like "Fancy" and "Happy," and a series of great videos, he finally got a well-deserved #1 album.

20. Marsha Ambrosius - Friends & Lovers
In July, BBC1's 1Xtra released a list of "20 most important UK artists in the black and urban scene" that featured Ed Sheeran, Disclosure and Sam Smith in the top 4. This drew a lot of well-deserved controversy, but even the people criticizing the list seemed to miss the most glaring omission -- the week that list was published, British soul singer Marsha Ambrosius released a great second album. Granted, she's been far more successful in the US than in the UK, but just as her first album featured a Portishead cover, Friends & Lovers included "Streets of London" and a Sade interpolation, placing her in a long lineage of forward-thinking British soul. But Ambrosius spends most of her second album in a trembling upper register on her Teena Marie/Minnie Riperton, with a suite of sexually explicit slow jams that gradually gives way to a more emotionally vulnerable run of songs in the second half. 

21. FKA twigs - LP1
Like Marsha Ambrosius, FKA twigs is a British woman who twists up a variety of musical traditions, R&B and trip hop among them, while singing some of the horniest songs I heard all year. FKA twigs isn't really correctly defined as R&B, though -- she's more like the Portishead that'll be covered by an R&B formalist more like Marsha Ambrosius in a decade or two. But I think her album was a great surprise, a really unique and bewitching record that I'll consider a rare victory for the same corners of the music press that were hyping up that AlunaGeorge garbage a year earlier.  

22. Ex Hex - Rips
Mary Timony's voice is an odd little deadpan hiccup, I feel like she has more of a lineage in, like, Joan Jett than the usual indie rock influences. And this band is a great refinement of the different sounds she's toyed with over the last couple decades, with shit hot guitar leads and a rhythm section that I always wish was a little louder in the mix.

23. JuegoTheNinety - Sonny September CD
I put this at #1 on my list of the best Baltimore hip hop releases of 2014, mostly because it just caught me by surprise and was so singular, whereas a lot of the other albums and mixtapes were by artists I'd known of and listened to for a while before this year. One of my favorite things about covering a local music beat is getting an e-mail or Twitter message from someone unfamiliar, clicking on a Soundcloud link, and being blown away. This record starts with this guy with this rubbery unhinged voice yelling "I'd cry if I didn't get high all the time," but the quality of the rapping and the little observational details of Juego's writing always keep it way above the usual low bar for self-conscious weirdo rap records about pill popping.

24. Trunkweed - Days Of Haze
Another example of why I love Baltimore music -- a couple weeks ago I went to see my buddy and sometimes bandmate Andy Shankman's band Jumpcuts in a basement, and totally fell in love with another band on the bill that I'd never heard before. The album doesn't live up to how good they are live, but the fact that they recorded it in their apartment and put it out within months of forming suggests that Trunkweed could really be onto something if they keep at it.

25. The Nels Cline Singers - Macroscope
Nels Cline is all settled down now, both in his marriage and in his role in Wilco, but he keeps turning out multiple brilliant albums pretty much every year, which in 2014 included a duo record with Julian Lage and yet another great album from his long-running trio the Nels Cline Singers. Macroscope isn't in any way a departure from the last couple Singers albums, but "The Wedding Band" may be the single most amazing track they've ever put on record. 

26. Jeezy - Seen It All: The Autobiography
For almost a decade, Jeezy and T.I. have been operating at similar levels of stardom making roughly the same kind of music, but their paths have diverged in some significant ways, and often sales didn't reflect who was making better music at the time. But in 2014, it felt really instructive that Jeezy's album sold more than 50% more than T.I.'s even though Tip had been singles and way more publicity. T.I. relied on guests for nearly every track of his album, and seemed kind of adrift trying to recapture his Paper Trail crossover success, while Jeezy has remained incredibly confident in his sound and his approach and has held onto a bigger share of his audience. 

27. Al Great and Street Scott - Great Scott
Al Great is a rapper from Baltimore who I've heard several projects from over the years that I liked but not loved. I remember the first time I ran into him at a party, he was a nice guy but definitely joked around like I had really shit on his music when I didn't really ever write anything harsh about his music, I just knew he hadn't made his best work yet. But this is it, Street Scott is a brilliant producer who has brought out the best in a good number of artists in Baltimore and Al Great is one of them, glad they did a whole album together. Listen to the album on Audiomack.

28. Foxes - Glorious
British singer Foxes performed the gorgeous vocal on Zedd's EDM power ballad "Clarity," which became a big crossover hit in America and one of my favorite singles of 2013. And while Zedd has continued to have big U.S. hits with the bland "Stay The Night" and Ariana Grande's awful "Break Free," Foxes released an album with 11 songs almost as good as "Clarity" and it went completely under the radar. Or maybe the songs aren't that great and I just kind of swoon whenever I hear her voice, but either way I enjoy the hell out of this album. 

29. Charli XCX - Sucker
A year ago, Charli XCX seemed doomed to be one of those hip would-be pop stars for people who need pop to be cool enough to meet them halfway. And then "Fancy" happened and she became a real going concern. But by and by, various songs and singles broke down my skepticism (while the rote rebellion of "Break The Rules" built it back up a little bit), and the album was full of tracks like "Doing It" and "Famous" that made her seem worth all the buzz. 

30. The Both - The Both
Ted Leo and Aimee Mann are two musicians who've both made music I've loved, in the same constellation of wordy, spleen-venting rock songwriting that appeals to the lifelong Elvis Costello fan in me. But I never would've thought to put them in the same room, let alone have them start a band together, until they did it themselves. If they keep collaborating, I think I'd like to hear Leo in a glossy Jon Brion-produced adult alternative context instead of hearing more of Mann in a lo-fi post-punk context, though. 

31. Priests - Bodies And Control And Money And Power EP
When I first heard about them, I figured Priests got described as a throwback to '80s hardcore in part simply because they're an explicitly political punk band from the city of Minor Threat. But the thing that impresses me about Bodies And Control And Money And Power is that it genuinely sounds like it could've been recorded in the '80s, in a much different way than people usually mean when they say that. The extremely dry, almost artlessly flat production serves to let you hear how loud the band is really playing, the bass is a dull thud, and the vocals are a belligerent raw nerve. And in '80s hardcore tradition, a 17-minute EP can feel like as much of a complete statement as any album, and one of the most memorable songs is only 44 seconds long. 

32. Shy Glizzy - Young Jefe
interviewed Shy Glizzy over a year ago, but I wouldn't say I really got into his music heavy until the two tapes he dropped this year. The recent Law 3 was kind of the tipping point that made it feel like he'd really arrived as a national star, but Young Jefe earlier this year still holds up as the stronger of the two. Tom Breihan hilarious described Glizzy's music as "murder threats delivered in cartoon-rabbit voices" but there's a good amount of pathos and emotion in his stuff, too. I wish he had a better breakthrough single than "Awwsome," though, that song just sounds irritating and lazy to me. 

33. Deleted Scenes - Lithium Burn
One of my favorite D.C. bands of the last few years continues to build an impressive catalog with their third full-length. It was cool to see them get to do a bunch of show with the Dismemberment Plan, although that seemed to encourage some unimaginative reviews for this album that reductively compared them to the Plan in the classic way all D.C. bands get forced into some category together. I feel like Dan Scheuerman has really found his voice as a singer and songwriter, though, even when I don't make out the lyrics there's something in the tunes that carries his signature. 

34. Ellis - The Education of Ellis
A year ago I wrote a feature about Ellis (it used to be here but City Paper changed the URLs for a bunch of articles this year and a lot of stuff straight up disappeared), really underrated guy in the Baltimore rap scene who pulled off an ambitious album concept. Check it out on DatPiff.

35. Greenspan - Stairway To Heaven
Another Baltimore rap album I wrote a story about (this one is actually still online too!). Greenspan is super talented and it was cool to see him link up with a strong production team like the Mania Music Group guys for a whole album. 

36. Chumped - Teenage Retirement
They hit the prematurely world-weary young punk vibe of Superchunk circa On The Mouth on the nose, except with a girl singer whose voice is (only a little) higher than Mac's. Whether they're singing about coffee or beer, they can bring to mind the feeling of being day drunk, or caffeinated all night, sometimes both at the same time. 

37. E-40 - Sharp On All 4 Corners (Deluxe Edition)
E-40 is perhaps the most avuncular figure in the growing constellation of aging rap veterans still in action. And like most uncles, it's easy to reduce him to the shorthand of the quirks of his voice and his bad jokes, but he's also kind and familial, rapping constantly about the values and principles that made him one of his region's most beloved rappers. And one of those values is hard work, which he continues to espouse mainly by dropping more music than most rappers half his age -- 12 albums in the last 5 years alone (usually 2 or 3 albums at a time, this time the Corner 1 and Corner 2 installments of the Sharp On All Corners series that are collected on the deluxe edition of the albums). 

38. DJ Mustard - 10 Summers
DJ Mustard could've made pretty much any kind of album he wanted to make this year, could've packed it with every major star and his most radio-ready beats. Instead, 10 Summers is a tight 40-minute album that seems more focused on the hard gangsta rap side of his sound with a handful of big names sprinkled among west coast guys and frequent collaborators. And the only nod to the kind of Mustard R&B that ran 2014 is the great little minute-long "Tinashe Checks In" and "Ty Dolla $ign Checks In" interludes. 

39. Chrissie Hynde - Stockholm
Despite the fact that it's nominally her first solo album, and she went to Sweden to record it with Bjorn Yttling (of Peter, Bjorn & John fame) and, uh, John McEnroe instead of the usual ringers from later Pretenders lineups, this is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a Pretenders record. And that's good enough for me, at 62 her voice still sounds exactly as it always has. 

40. DRGN King - Baltimore Crush
Really cool record from a Philly band whose frontman grew up in Baltimore and wrote a bunch of nostalgic songs about his formative experiences in the area. I'm supposed to do an interview with them soon so I won't say too much, but it's a dope album. "Don't Trust The Sad Boys" is one of the most relevant songs written this year. Plus one of these guys is a good hip hop producer and worked on a couple tracks on the Tinashe album. 

41. Jennifer Lopez - A.K.A.
One of my favorite things about the wealth of new music constantly being released on Spotify and other streaming services is that all it really costs me is the time it takes to listen to it, and sometimes random albums I have no expectations for end up being really good. Case in point: J.Lo has never struck me as a particularly good pop star (she almost seems incidental to the greatness of "Ain't It Funny" and I can count her other decent singles on one hand), and she's been on the decline for a long time. But A.K.A. is really surprisingly excellent, way better than the two goofy singles that most people heard would suggest, and it only asked 36 minutes of my time for me to figure that out. 

42. Mary J. Blige - Think Like A Man Too (Music From And Inspired By The Film)
Mary J. Blige released two albums in 2014, with the far more high profile one being the recent The London Sessions, which featured one or two really strong songs and a lot of really ill-fitting material with trendy British collaborators. But I preferred this soundtrack full of new songs in a more traditional Mary mold, half of them produced by the once-powerful team of The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, which came and went with little notice despite being attached to a #1 box office hit.  

43. Sun Club - Dad Claps At The Mom Prom EP 
Baltimore indie bands rarely take themselves too seriously, and Sun Club is one that communicates levity and absurdity in every song title or record cover. But where a lot of bands giving off that "buddies playing happy music" vibe often have puerile and half-assed songs, the 5 on here (plus one goofy interlude) have a wealth of instrumental skill and songwriting prowess on display that make me feel like it's not all entirely a lark. Or they're just that good that they can throw something like this together almost as a joke. 

44. Little Big Town - Pain Killer
A vocal group with two men and two women is an odd format -- worked great for ABBA and The Mamas & The Papas, I guess, but if you're not them it tends to just look like a weird musical double date. Little Big Town make it work, though, and have been on a run of some of my favorite country singles of the past few years. Karen Fairchild's smokey voice usually stands out in the ensemble, however, especially on lead single "Day Drinking" and the future hit "Girl Crush."

45. Jeremih - N.O.M.A. (Not On My Album) EP
One of the more exciting and confounding stories in popular music this year was Jeremih, long one of my favorite voices in R&B. He got a huge top 10 hit in "Don't Tell 'Em," and got very close to releasing his first major label album in four years, and then for reasons that are still unclear, it just didn't happen. Now he's mired in legal issues and back to giving hits to rappers that don't deserve them, and who knows when that album is dropping. Fortunately, over the summer he quietly released two EPs that, if combined, would make a pretty nice album's worth of material, and my favorite of the two was explicitly outtakes from the album, which sets the bar pretty high for what did make the cut. 

46. All The Luck In The World - All The Luck In The World
Even though I did the overwhelming majority of my album listening on Spotify this year (especially after the CD player in my car stopped working), I pretty much never use Spotify for the 'music discovery' it has tried so desperately and often sadly to help with. But a couple weeks ago I searched for a song by its title, and then forgot to put on something else when it kept playing into the next song with a similar title, and that's how I wound up accidentally hearing a track from this Irish band that released its album earlier this year. It's a really quiet, intimate record but there's some charm and creativity in the production, lovely Sunday morning listening. Could easily imagine these guys becoming huge but at the moment they're pretty obscure. 

47. Kix - Rock Your Face Off
I've been covering the Kix nostalgia beat in Baltimore media for years now, and most people don't get it, even around here, they think Kix were just a less successful Poison and not a great unique band in their own right. And I would still use the first couple albums to try to convert them, but it was great to review their first album in two decades and be able to honestly, enthusiastically endorse it. Most bands from their era usually screw up their comeback albums with the production, but it's pretty perfect here. 

48. Pharrell Williams - G I R L
Pharrell's comeback as a ubiquitous pop hitmaker is owed to the fact that he's got a much higher batting average in 2014 than he did in 2006, but if we're honest he's not touching 2003 Neptunes. Which is a roundabout way of saying that G I R L is far better than In My Mind, but not as good as the theoretical solo album I wish he'd recorded back when "Frontin'" hit. There's some dippy stuff on this album, but there were also some pretty sublime cuts like "Brand New" and "Freq" and "Know Who You Are" that kept me coming back. 

49. Spymob - Memphis
10 years ago, Spymob released their sole Star Trak album, Sitting Around Keeping Score, which did little to leverage their minor fame as N.E.R.D. sidemen into any major success, but was nonetheless one of my favorite rock albums of the 21st century. And in 2014 Spymob finally released a follow up album, long after almost anybody but me would notice. And whatever expectations about the band's power pop past still remain are left behind for a twangy set of country-leaning songs featuring slide guitar and occasional banjo, with John Ostby writing charmingly self-deprecating lyrics about shoveling snow or having no plans on Saturday night. 

50. Sloan - Commonwealth
One of my more ambitious nerdy playlist projects this year was a 'box set' of the best songs by each of Sloan's four singer-songwriters, in honor of their 11th album and first to separate each guy's contributions onto its own side of a double LP. That sequencing decision makes Commonwealth kind of a slow burner compared to some of their better, more immediate albums. But it climaxes with the weakest link of the quartet, Andrew Scott, packing his whole side into one epic 17-minute track. 

Top 50 TV Shows of 2014

Saturday, December 27, 2014

1. Broad City (Comedy Central)
2. True Detective (HBO)
3. Bob's Burgers (Fox)
4. New Girl (Fox)
5. You're The Worst (FX)
6. Black-ish (ABC)
7. Masters of Sex (Showtime)
8. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
9. Veep (HBO)
10. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)
11. The Leftovers (HBO)
12. The Mindy Project (Fox)
13. Community (NBC)
14. Rick And Morty (Cartoon Network)
15. Transparent (Amazon Prime)
16. Enlisted (Fox)
17. Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)
18. Saturday Night Live (NBC)
19. The Affair (Showtime)
20. How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
21. Sonic Highways (HBO)
22. Halt And Catch Fire (AMC)
23. Suits (USA)
24. The Strain (FX)
25. Sons Of Anarchy (FX)
26. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Nickelodeon)
27. Playing House (USA)
28. Kroll Show (Comedy Central)
29. Key & Peele (Comedy Central)
30. Parenthood (NBC)
31. Marry Me (NBC)
32. Married (FX)
33. True Blood (HBO)
34. The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (CBS)
35. The Pete Holmes Show (TBS)
36, The Late Show with David Letterman (CBS)
37. Funny Or Die presents Billy On The Street (Fuse)
38. The Soup (E!)
39. The Daily Show (Comedy Central)
40. Drunk History (Comedy Central)
41. Selfie (ABC)
42. Suburgatory (ABC)
43. Gracepoint (Fox)
44. Silicon Valley (HBO)
45. The Bridge (FX)
46. Justified (FX)
47. Parks & Recreation (NBC)
48. Benched (USA)
49. Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey (Fox)
50. Too Many Cooks (Cartoon Network)

- I'll never claim to be any kind of connoisseur about TV, I mostly just like what I like, but I try to keep up with things and say something at the end of the year (for some context: my year-end TV lists for 2013201220112010200920082007 and 2006). This was a pretty good one, I think. A better time for TV comedy than a lot of people would probably tell you, while cable dramas have been in kind of a good-not-great rut as far as I can tell.

- It was definitely a good year for new shows, judging from my top 10. I respect a lot of the arguments against True Detective, but I don't really care, I loved every silly damn minute of it, and can only hope they can do something great with a less promising cast next year. Black-ish gave me some renewed hope for network sitcoms, while You're The Worst broke out of the pack of usually unpromising cable sitcoms.

- Happy Endings is gone, but I'm glad that its cast member diaspora has found homes in good established shows (New Girl, The Mindy Project) and promising new ones (Marry Me, Benched).

- A lot of shows I liked went off the air this year, and some shows ended on a higher note than I expected (How I Met Your Mother, True Blood) while Sons Of Anarchy was mostly a big letdown after a pretty great penultimate season. I think I'm just down on finales in general at the moment, considering that in the last month SOA, The Affair and Gracepoint all aired finales that made me bump them down far lower on this list than I thought they'd end up. But I'll miss Craig Ferguson and Pete Holmes doing their underrated loopy versions of late night, and am still trying to savor the final months of Letterman's run and hope for the best with Colbert's transition. And I've got lots of sympathy for Emily Kapnek, who got 2 very funny and underrated satirical sitcomes, Suburgatory and Selfie, canceled this week. And Enlisted was the best show to be dumped on Friday night for a half season in quite a while.

- The Leftovers, The Strain, Halt And Catch Fire, and The Affair all seem like part of an underachieving claass of cable dramas that will probably be put out of their misery after 2 or 3 seasons, like The Bridge and The Newsroom just were. But I like all those shows, and the similarly undistinguished sophomore Masters of Sex, a lot more than a lot of the prestige dramas I'm supposed to have loved, and I'll keep happily watching them as long as they're on.

- Honorable mention to shows that I've liked but haven't kept up with new episodes of (Orphan Black, The Americans, Sherlock), and to the various popular streaming shows that I still have not gotten around to checking out. Dishonorable mention to Louie and Girls, which continue to be "different from regular comedies" in ways that are increasingly unfunny and unrewarding, and I hope I will manage to stop watching both in 2015.

- The worst bullshit you probably think should be on this list is Fargo, and I encourage you to come fight me about it. I've got lots of ammo. But at least The Newsroom flopped into the grave so horrifyingly and entertainingly that I almost was tempted to include it as some kind of hate watch tribute.

- Too Many Cooks was both worth and not worth the hype. But it's better than most Adult Swim shows because it's never going to ask us to come back every week to watch minor variations on the same gag and pretend it doesn't suffer from diminishing returns (hi, Eric Andre fans).