Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Best Movies of 2014

Here’s the headline regarding movies in 2014—most of the big-budget, Hollywood films were either just OK or really bad.  However, the good news embedded in that headline is that there was a revival of smaller, independent films, some of which were outstanding and many of which are already available via pay-per-view and/or streaming video providers.

Before I get started listing the movies I liked, I should point out that I did not see “Two Days, One Night” and “Wild Tales,”  which might still make the list, once I get to see them.  If you know me and/or have read my list before, you probably know a few things about my movie preferences:
·  My favorite movies have both a good plot and well-developed characters.
·  I don’t like movies about nasty people doing awful things to each other.
·  I enjoy movies that either entertain me and/or in some way uplift me.
·  I don’t watch a lot of animated films.
·  I don’t include documentaries on my list.
·  I tend to like films where the script is fresh and interesting.
·  I’m not invited to free movie screenings, nor do I get to meet the casts or directors.

So, with that, here is my list of the Best Movies of 2014, in inverse order:

33.    “The Fault in Our Stars”

Directed by Josh Boone, this is a story about teenagers with cancer.  I know what you’re thinking—I said I like movies that entertain or uplift me—but this movie actually is uplifting in many ways, without being schmaltzy.  That’s due to an outstanding book by John Green, a great screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and outstanding performances by Shailene Woodley (who is great in everything), Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern (who should get a special award for playing a mom in both this and “Wild”), and Willem Dafoe.  The movie is surprising in its lack of cancer-genre clichés.

32.    “The Babadook”

This low-budget Australian horror film is suspenseful less because of its villain (the title character, who first appears in a children’s book) than because of its heroine (played by Essie Davis), who is the scariest character in the movie.  As a result, you’re not sure whether what you are seeing is real or imagined.  I would have rated it higher if the director (Jennifer Kent)  hadn’t telegraphed much of the story early in the film.  But it was still riveting to watch, and the ending is equally confounding.

31.    “Obvious Child”

The brainchild (pun intended) of writer-director Gillian Robespierre, this movie stars Jenny Slate as a raunchy, Jewish comedian who has a relationship with a WASPy Midwesterner (played by Jake Lacy) that leads to her getting pregnant.  She then has to determine what to do about both the relationship and the pregnancy, and the film is neither preachy or cliché in exploring those choices.  With fine supporting performances by Gaby Hoffmann and Polly Draper, this movie defies convention.

30.    “The Theory of Everything

This is one of those movies where the acting is the reason to watch it.  While there are some good lines in the script, the direction by James Marsh is uneven and repetitive, and the focus is on Stephen Hawking and the relationship with his wife, Jane Wild, but it barely addresses the period of Hawking's life after Jane, during which he has done much of his most memorable work.  Nevertheless, the acting by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones is superb, and well worth the price of admission.

29.    “Only Lovers Left Alive”

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch makes movies that are not for everyone (half the time, they’re not for me).  Add in his selection of Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston—two actors who require little or no makeup to look like vampires, and you have the most intelligent vampire movie in a long time.  After all, it includes musical references ranging from Schubert to Eddie Cochran to Jack White, and literary references that include phony passports in the names of Daisy Buchanan and Stephen Dedalus.  The film even includes John Hurt playing Christopher Marlowe as a centuries-old vampire (I guess he’s not buried in that unmarked grave after all).  The plot centers around a married vampire couple whose immortal lives are getting stale until the entrance of her sister (played by Mia Wasikowska) who shakes things up a bit.  This movie is stylish to a fault, but it works.

28.    “The Immigrant”

It’s not a stretch to say that Marion Cotillard is one of the world’s best screen actresses, and this film supports that assertion, as she plays a Polish woman named Ewa who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921 to watch her sister taken and quarantined with tuberculosis.  Ewa spends the rest of the movie doing everything she can to survive and reunite with her sister.  In that process, she enters into a very questionable and unconventional relationship with a Jewish showman/pimp named Bruno, played by Joaquin Phoenix.  Directed by James Gray and written by Gray and Ric Menello, this film also features a scene-stealing performance by Jeremy Renner.  Overall, it paints a painfully realistic picture of life and respect in a time and place where both are undervalued.

27.    “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1”

In the third installment of this excellent series, Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Katniss Everdeen, who has been become the symbolic leader of the revolution.  The cast is the American equivalent of the Harry Potter movies, with recurring parts played by Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Add in Julianne Moore, Patina Miller, and Natalie Dormer (just to name a few), and you can understand why this film, directed by Francis Lawrence, is so intriguing.  The screenplay by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, from the book by Suzanne Collins, provides ample opportunity for courage and resilience while exploring the power of love.

26.    “We Are the Best”

A Swedish film written and directed by Lukas Moodysson and starring Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, and Liv LeMoyne as three 13-year-old girls who don’t fit in and, after being humiliated in gym class, decide to form a punk rock band.  Of course, only one of the girls actually knows how to play an instrument, so this isn’t one of those movies where they go on to achieve greatness or win a big competition.  Instead, the film just explores the uncomfortable and exuberant nature of being a young teenage girl, and all the insecurities that come with it.  Each parent is very different but very real—not the cartoon characters so often depicted in teen movies.  What I liked about this movie is seeing the world through the eyes of these very smart but somewhat confused young minds and the joy they take from each experience.

25.    “Beyond the Lights”

It's been a breakout year for British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who starred in both "Belle" and this movie, about a young singer trying to handle the trappings of fame while dealing with her mother (played excellently by Minnie Driver) and love interest (played by Nate Parker).  The movie starts out somewhat formulaic, but eventually finds itself through the excellent direction of Gina Prince-Blythewood.  While not perfect, it is definitely worth watching and firmly establishes that Mbatha-Raw has the chops to be a fixture in the film world for years to come.

24.    “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Intellectually, I loved this movie’s humor, absurdity, and performances by a star-studded cast that includes Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, and Bill Murray, just to name a few.  However, viscerally, I was left slightly underwhelmed by the inherent glibness that director Wes Anderson displayed in the movie (as he often does).  That direction and the script by Stefan Zweig lacked the sweetness and character development of Anderson’s last film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” so I ranked this lower than did most movie critics.  Even with those caveats, it is still a very good film that displays Anderson’s unusual take on the world.

23.    “Selma”
Written by Paul Webb and directed by Ava DuVernay, this is a powerful film that centers around the Civil Rights struggle, specifically the events that occurred in Selma, Alabama in 1964 and 1965.  There are excellent performances by David Oleyowo (as Dr. Martin Luther King), Carmen Ejogo (as Corretta Scott King), Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson (as Lyndon Johnson), and Tim Roth (as George Wallace), and there are some breathtaking moments of both cruelty and inspiration.  What hurt this movie was that first-time director DuVernay tried to include too much of the overall story while neglecting to focus on some of the really interesting characters directly involved in the Selma events.  Nevertheless, it's a story that deserves to be told and a movie that should be watched.
22.    “Locke”

Talk about a unique movie, this one features one man, in a car, talking to several characters (we only hear their voices) on a mobile phone (with Bluetooth, of course), shown in real time (everything takes place in the 90-minute length of the movie).   It doesn’t hurt that the man—Ivan Locke—is played by Tom Hardy (who had quite the year as an actor), or that the movie is excellently written and directed by Steven Knight.  It also matters that some of the voices are supplied by such fine British actors as Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman, Andrew Scott, and Ben Daniels.  But the beauty of this movie is its immediacy—a life in turmoil is happening as you are watching it, and you feel for the lead character as much as the faceless characters on the multiple calls.  By the end, I was almost as exhausted as Ivan Locke assuredly was.

21.    “Under the Skin”

The award for “Absolutely Weirdest Movie of the Year” goes to this film, directed by Jonathan Glazer and written by Glazer and Walter Campbell from a book by Michael Faber.  Set in Scotland, it’s about a woman, played by Scarlett Johansson,  finding odd men and seducing them.  Right from the beginning, the filmmaking is very strange, but the really weird part comes as we find out who (and what) this woman really is.  I’m not sure why I was so riveted to (and by) this movie; maybe it was the eerie nature of every encounter, or maybe it was watching Johansson explore her completely naked body in a mirror for several minutes (it is Scarlett Johansson after all).  Whatever, it’s a film that plays in your head for several days after it’s over.

20.    “The Good Lie”

Another actor who had a really good year was Reese Witherspoon, who in this movie plays an employment agency counselor who has to find jobs for three men from Sudan, played by Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, and Emmanuel Jal, who were among the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”  If you don’t know about this horrific story, I urge you to google it, so you get a better idea of what happened in Sudan from 1983 to 2005.  Adding to this film’s credibility is that actors Duany and Jal were actually among those Lost Boys.  Director Philippe Falardeau and writer Margaret Nagle exercise the good sense to make this movie about the Africans, rather than focusing much on the white people (played by Witherspoon, Cory Stoll, and Sarah Baker) who helped them settle in Kansas City.  In fact, the first part of the movie focuses on the boys and their sister, as they try to survive in Africa.  This is a good movie about a story that should be told.

19.    “The Lunchbox”

First released in 2013 but not available in the US until early in 2014, the premise of this movie revolves around a lunch delivery system in Mumbai in which someone at home prepares a lunch and puts it into a series of metal tins that become a larger “lunchbox.”  Those lunchboxes are then given to delivery men who transport them via bicycle to the office workers for whom they are intended.  The system is famously efficient, except in this rare case, when the wrong man starts receiving lunch from a woman he doesn’t know.  Soon, they start including notes and letters with those lunches, and the movie goes from there.  Written and directed by Ritesh Batra, and starring Irrfan Khan (recognizable from many other roles), Nimrat Kaur, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui (as Khan’s younger protégé), this is an excellently tender movie that reaffirms the beauty of emotions expressed in writing.

18.    “Dear White People”

Written and directed by newcomer Justin Simien, this film was incorrectly marketed as a comedy.  While there are some funny lines, it is squarely a movie about racism in many of its forms.  It starts out with characters that seem one-dimensional, but as it moves along, you start to see the other sides of many of those characters—some for the better and others for the worse, but mostly just interesting.  Tessa Thompson is outstanding in the lead role, and she is supported by good performances from an ensemble including Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell, and Justin Dobies.  While the film suffers from low-budget editing and a few missteps from a first-time director, it is nevertheless successful in pointing out that although there’s color in the White House, racism still exists throughout society, even in the world of academia.

17.    “The Drop”

James Gandolfini’s last role is a beauty, befitting his immense talent for expressing multiple emotions simultaneously.  He is joined here by Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace in a movie that stayed under the radar this year but is really good.  Directed by Michaël R. Roskam from a story and script by Dennis Lehane, it explores Brooklyn’s seedy underworld, including the influence of Chechen mobsters.  But it’s more about three people whose lives have suffered through various twists and turns until they arrive at this moment, which culminates at the film’s climax on Super Bowl Sunday.  It’s just what happens when really good actors inhabit well-written characters.

16.    “Birdman”

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s unusual comedy is about the insecurities that actors face on a regular basis, and it is illuminated by outstanding performances by Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, and Zach Galifianakis (surprisingly playing the least outrageous character in the film).  It is something of a meta-movie in that Michael Keaton (who played “Batman” earlier in his career) is playing a character who starred as “Birdman” in several movies earlier in his career.  There are scenes in this film that are absolutely brilliant at depicting the difficult and unpredictable lives of stage actors, but those scenes are often followed by ponderousness that failed to keep my interest.  As such, I ranked it lower than some other reviewers.  Nevertheless, this is still a very good film, loaded with wonderful performances.

15.    “Ida”

This is the film that surprised me the most in 2014.  Released in Europe in 2013 and in the US this year, it is set in post-WWII, socialist Poland (with English subtitles), and it’s about a beautiful young woman named Anna (played by Agata Trzebuchowska) who grew up in a convent and is about to take her vows as a nun.  However, before that occurs, the mother superior tells her she has an aunt who would like to meet her and suggests that Anna spend some time with this aunt immediately.  Upon meeting the aunt (played by Polish film icon Agata Kulesza), Anna learns that her family was Jewish, and the two women set out on a journey to learn what happened to that family.  Shot in black and white by director Pawel Pawlikowski and written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, this is a stunningly engrossing film about loss and self-discovery, and it deserves to be seen.

14.    “Chef”

OK, I’ll be honest…I enjoy an occasional feel-good movie, and there are two on my list, including this one.  Written, directed by, and starring Jon Favreau as a well-known chef who embarrasses himself in a public spat with a restaurant critic (played by Oliver Platt), he sets out to redeem himself through the unlikely venue of a food truck.  He brings his son (played excellently by Emjay Anthony) along on the trip, which also serves as a bonding experience for them.  Favreau assembled a bunch of his friends to costar in this movie, including John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr., and Dustin Hoffman.  The result is an enjoyable experience that leaves you smiling (and hungry).

13.    “Edge of Tomorrow”

One of the few big-budget films on my list, this one is like a futuristic “Groundhog Day” meets “Saving Private Ryan.”  Directed by Christopher McQuarrie and written by Jez Butterworth and John Henry Butterworth from a book by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, it stars Tom Cruise as a reluctant soldier, fighting an alien enemy, who gets splattered by an alien’s remains before he is killed.  After that, he keeps dying and waking up in the same military camp, before having to fight the same battle.  Eventually, he enlists the help of a seasoned warrior, played by Emily Blunt, and they go about trying to win the war, even though each time he dies, he has to find Blunt again and restart the process.  This is an intelligent, sci-fi, war movie that is not bogged down by typical romantic entanglements, and it’s Cruise’s best movie in years.

12.    “Nightcrawler”

Jake Gyllenhaal is at his best when there’s a creepiness beneath that movie star exterior, and here he’s at his creepy best as a disturbed young man who becomes a freelance news videographer.  Written and directed by Dan Gilroy and costarring Rene Russo and Bill Paxton, this film explores the depths of what those who produce a TV news broadcast might be willing to do for improved ratings.  Enabled by their thirst for gory news footage, the lead character starts to become a player in his own stories.  This all leads to a disturbing albeit believable conclusion.

11.    “Nymphomaniac, Volumes 1 and 2”

This X-rated examination of sexual excitement and depravity is not for the kids.  Written and directed in two volumes (each full-length features) by Lars Von Trier, it begins with Stellan Skarsgård’s character finding Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character (oddly named Joe) bruised and beaten on the street.  He takes her back to his home, where she describes her life as a nymphomaniac and he likens her activities to fly fishing (I didn’t say this is a normal set of films).  Her endeavors are shown in flashbacks first featuring Stacy Martin as young Joe and later by Gainsbourg.  They are shown in graphic detail and include segments with characters played by Shia LeBeouf, Hugo Speer, and Willem Dafoe.  Also in supporting roles are Christian Slater as Joe’s father and Uma Thurman, in a movie-stealing performance as the wife of one of Joe’s lovers.  The second volume is more disturbing than the first and includes Joe’s exploration of sadomasochism with a character played by Jamie Bell.  This is essentially a porn film, but I’m recommending it for its interesting story, well-developed characters, and well-written dialogue.

10.      “Begin Again”

As I’m sure you know, I like music, and so does this movie.  Written and directed by John Carney, it stars Keira Knightly and Mark Ruffalo (who both had good years), and it’s about a young singer-songwriter who meets a down-on-his-luck recording company executive and, after discovering some common bonds, they set out to record an album that incorporates the ambient sounds of New York City.  What I love about this film is that the relationship is not about romance; it’s about creative expression and rebirth, and the movie features fine supporting performances by Adam Levine, James Corden, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, and Mos Def.

9.      “Whiplash”

It’s a coincidence that my Number 9 and Number 8 movies are both about music, because they couldn’t be more different.  In this film, Miles Teller plays a drumming student named Andrew, at a music conservatory, who starts playing in the school’s prestigious jazz band, led by an instructor named Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons.  While it first seems like Fletcher is trying to coach the best out of his students, his techniques begin to appear more and more abusive.  Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the beauty of this film lies in the performances, especially that of Simmons, who has always been a good actor but never such an Oscar-worthy one (even though the Golden Globes considered him a "supporting actor").   This is one of those roles like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, or Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt.  I know I’ll never forget it.

8.      “Snowpiercer”

And now for something completely different, imagine a failed climate change experiment which leaves the Earth as a frozen wasteland, incapable of supporting life.  Then, imagine that as this was happening, a few hundred people boarded a train that now travels around the globe, and that these are the only people left on Earth, but they have established a class system in which the lowest class inhabits the rear sections of the train.  This is the story behind director Joon-ho Bong’s surprisingly affective movie, starring Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, and Tilda Swinton (who always inhabits her roles with aplomb).  I can’t say much more about it without giving away the story, but it is a very good action movie with intelligence and heart.

7.      “Pride”

This is the best feel-good movie of 2014.  It tells the true story of how, in 1984, the coal miners were on strike, and Margaret Thatcher’s government sent British police to help break it up and demoralize the miners.  A group of gay and lesbian advocates, who also felt repressed by British police, decided to start raising money to support the miners, and the result was an unlikely, and at first uncomfortable partnership between the two disparate groups.  That partnership eventually developed into friendship between a small group calling themselves “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners” (LGSM) and most of the residents of a small, Welsh mining town.  Directed by Matthew Warchus from a script by Stephen Beresford, the film features an outstanding cast that includes Ben Schnetzer, Dominic West, Andrew Scott, Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, and George MacKay.  If Frank Capra were alive today, he would have liked this film, which features characters in turmoil who lift each other, and themselves, to success.

6.      “St. Vincent”

Written and directed by Theodore Melfi, this film stars Bill Murray as a drunken gambler who, through a series of circumstances, finds himself babysitting for the boy (played by Jaeden Lieberher) who lives next door.  The relationship grows as you learn the stories of both characters, as well as that of the boy's mother, played expertly by Melissa McCarthy in her most nuanced role.  Add in a pregnant Russian prostitute (played by Naomi Watts), a reasonably nice loan shark (played by Terrence Howard), and a Catholic school teacher, played by Chris O'Dowd, and you have a great cast of characters who are interesting, believable, and very entertaining in a tale of loss and redemption.

5.      “Belle”

A British film from 2013 that was not released widely in the US until early in 2014, this is written by Misan Sagay, directed by Amma Assante, and stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw—one of the few films I know of that was written, directed, and starring three different women of color.  In it, the character of Dido Elizabeth Belle (played as a young girl by Lauren-Julien Box) is the mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Captain (played by Matthew Goode).  When her mother dies, she goes to live with his aristocratic parents, played by Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson.  While her lineage provides her with certain benefits, her skin color restricts her socially, and that dichotomy is explored throughout the movie.  All this is also occurring while there is a movement afoot to end slavery in England, and the eventual decision may have to be made by Wilkinson’s character, who is the Lord Chief Justice.  Rather than being a stuffy, British, period piece, this is an exciting and rewarding film.

4.      “Wild”

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of a broken woman who finds redemption by hiking 1100 miles is brought to life beautifully by screenwriter Nick Hornby, director Jean-Marc Vallée, and star Reese Witherspoon.  This could have been a really boring movie, but instead it captures your interest in the opening scene and holds it until the quietly triumphant conclusion.  Aided by outstanding performances by Laura Dern and Thomas Sadoski, the viewer feels everything that Cheryl felt after the loss of her mother and her subsequent descent into addiction and promiscuity, and how her reawakening came along the Pacific Coast Trail.  Witherspoon’s Oscar-worthy performance is her best to date, and she was completely believable in the role, even in carrying the same, 70-pound backpack that Strayed had carried.  The cinematography by Yves Bélanger is often breathtaking, and this is a film worth seeing.

3.      “Boyhood”

This brings new meaning to the concept of commitment to a film project.  Every year, for twelve years, writer-director Richard Linklater assembled the same cast for two weeks to film scenes for this movie.  The result is the ability to watch the same actor (Ellar Coltrane) playing the same character (Mason), starting at the age of 6 and concluding when he is 18.  Playing his parents over the same period are Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and both are brilliant in those roles.  The director had his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, play Mason’s sister, Samantha.  In the hands of a lesser director, this movie could have been gimmicky, but Linklater also has experience developing long-term characters in the “Before” movies (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight”), and he (and Ethan Hawke) drew on that experience to make a movie in which the characters lead interesting lives, without so much happening as to seem unreal.  By the end of the 2 hours, 45 minutes it took to watch this movie, I really felt like I knew these characters, and their strengths and faults, much better than in typical movies, which simulate the passage of time.

2.      “Interstellar”

Director Christopher Nolan combined visual elements of Spielberg and Kubrick with his own sensitive script (co-written with his brother Jonathan) and modern filming techniques to explore themes first described by Einstein and Hawking while making them accessible to the common moviegoer.  That’s no small accomplishment, and this is a fine movie that examines the relationships between time and space as well as the relationships between characters played by Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, and a slew of other, talented actors.  The film explores how our own humanity can both positively and negatively affect our environment and our endeavors to improve that environment.  The convoluted plot has to do with the Earth dying and a plan to travel through a wormhole to find a planet capable of supporting life.  But that plot is secondary to the development of the characters while the secrets of time and space are revealed.  This is a well-written movie that is visually arresting and emotionally fulfilling, and I strongly recommend it.

1.      “The Imitation Game”

When Alan Turing and his team eventually built the first electromechanical machine designed to break complex codes, what they were doing essentially was inventing the first prototype of what we now call a computer.  This movie is a fictionalized account of that invention, and how it was driven by the necessity to break the code the Nazis used with their Enigma machine to convey messages to their troops and ships.  But this movie, directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore from a book by Andrew Hodges, does much more than that.  It examines the inner mind of a genius who was also a homosexual—something not tolerated in 1940s England.   Played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing had to live in a world in which he was different from most other people in terms of his intellectualism, his views of societal norms, and his sexual preference.  The film also explores the restricted views of women in society and how Joan Clarke (an actual person played in the movie by Keira Knightly) had to deal with those views while trying to forge a role as a female mathematician.   With additional, excellent supporting performances by Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, Alan Leech, Matthew Beard, and Tom Goodman-Hill, the film has layers of complexity and addresses difficult issues without seeming preachy.  By the end, I felt exhilarated that I had witnessed a historical milestone while despondent that 60 years later, even the most progressive nations are still slow in accepting and respecting our differences.  The film accomplishes all of that while still being entertaining and well-constructed.  As such, it is clearly the best movie of 2014.


Monday, December 29, 2014

Revisiting My NFL Picks

The NFL regular season has officially ended, so I figured I'd look back at the predictions I made before the season started  As it turns out, of the 32 teams, I only predicted 12 correctly in the positions they would eventually occupy, but when you consider that one team out of place can completely upset an entire division, it's not that bad.  Here is a rundown

AFC East

I correctly predicted that the New England Patriots would win the division (no surprise), followed by Miami, which I predicted would benefit from having Knowshon Merino at RB; little did I know he would be injured early and miss the season.  I thought that Chris Johnson's running would propel the Jets ahead of Buffalo, but Johnson was a bust, as well as the rest of the Jets' offense.  Buffalo was the surprise to me, finishing second in the division, pushing Miami back to third and the Jets to fourth.

AFC North

I was almost right on this whole division, until Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati yesterday, finishing first by 1/2 game (the Bengals tied with the Panthers early in the season).  Other than that, I had Baltimore third and Cleveland fourth, which is where they finished.

AFC South

I correctly put Indy and Houston in the top two spots in the division, but thought that having Ken Wisenhunt as coach would tilt third place toward Tennessee.  As it turns out, Jacksonville finished a game ahead of the Titans.

AFC West

Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I thought that offensive defections would cause Denver to slip to third place.  I was wrong as the Broncos captured the division.  With that, Kansas City slipped from first to second and San Diego from second to third.  Oakland finished last, as I (and everyone else) predicted.

NFC East

I had Philly in first ahead of Dallas--they switched.  And I had Washington ahead of New York (who figured on Odell Beckham?).  I did, however, criticize Philly coach Chip Kelly's "infantile approach to clock management," which I believe strongly hurt the Eagles by season's end.

NFC North

It was with regard to this division that I wrote, "I wouldn't be surprised to see any team end up on top," while I correctly predicted that Green Bay would occupy that position.  I also correctly put Minnesota in third, but I had Chicago in second, where Detroit ended up, and I had Detroit in fourth, where Chicago finished.

NFC South

This was my biggest barf--who figured that New Orleans would lose nine games?  Even with that, they finished second, behind Carolina by only 1/2 game.  I was correct putting Atlanta in third and Tampa Bay in fourth.

NFC West

I thought that Seattle's defense would find it hard to adjust to the new rules protecting offensive players, and for half a season, I was right.  Then, they turned it on, going from third (where I had picked them) to first, and they now look like the best team in the NFC.  San Francisco, which I had placed in first, actually finished in third.  I was right about Arizona (second) and St. Louis (fourth).


In the final assessment, I thought the New Orleans Saints would defeat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, but New Orleans didn't even make the playoffs.  However, I could (hopefully) end up half right.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Best Albums of 2014

2014 featured a wide range of wonderful new albums by older performers as well as a slew of newer artists.  The internet has made it so that an artist can be whatever he or she wants to be, without conforming to what record companies want.  As a result, there are countless definitions of what constitutes popular music, thereby enabling each of us to listen to what sounds and feels good to our own musical tastes.

As you know if you’ve read my list before, I generally favor alternative rock, R&B/soul, indie rock, singer-songwriters, and inventive pop music.  I tend to like music that is up-front, rather than hidden by layers of production.  This last point is important because a lot of the albums that reviewers are raving about this year have a “lush, haunting sound” that is generally achieved through overproduction.  As a result, those albums don’t appear on my list or are further down the list than other reviewers might place them. 

I want to point out that some of the songs on these albums have explicit lyrics.  That’s just part of rock & roll, but I apologize in advance for any offense you might take.  Also, keep in mind that I’m just a guy who likes music, and pays for it like everyone else.  Nobody pays me to do this, sends me free samples, or wants me to meet the artists.  As a result, my reviews are not colored by what the record companies or PR mavens want me to say.  It’s just my opinion, and I invite you to agree or disagree…that’s what’s so great about music.

I could only narrow this year’s list down to 123 albums (I know it’s a strange number, but those are the albums I really liked).  As such, I have  numbered and described the top 60 and listed the others as “Honorable Mention.”  The numbering is somewhat random, because on any given day, I might want to hear one album ahead of another, and each of the “Honorable Mention” albums were really good, and could easily have made the top 60. 

Here is my list in ascending order:

60.          Kina Grannis, Elements

The 2008 winner of the “Doritos Crash the Super Bowl” contest and 2011 winner of MTV’s award for “Best Web-Born Artist,” Grannis is from California.  On this, her second album, the music is straightforward, drawing on her elegant voice and strong guitar skills.  Songs include “Dear River,” “Forever Blue,” and “Sorry.”

59.          Hunter Hayes, Storyline

I don’t mind that teenage girls love this 22-year-old, Louisiana-based, country-pop, singer-songwriter.  The truth is that the kid has talent, which is on display on this, his second album, including “Storyline,” “You Think You Know Somebody,” and the poignant “Invisible.”

58.          Christina Perri, Head or Heart

I love Perri’s voice as well as her songwriting.  On her second album, she follows up last year’s “Lovestrong” with a set of songs including “Be My Forever,” “I Don't Wanna Break” and the beautiful ballad, “Human.”

57.          K. Michelle, Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart?

Atlanta-based Kimberly Michelle Pate, who performs as K. Michelle, released her first album last year, and followed it up with this excellent set of soul songs.  Her clear and powerful voice is best cherished on songs including “Love 'Em All,” “How Do You Know?” and “Maybe I Should Call.”

56.          Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye

Oddly enough, I think this is the first time Tom Petty has made one of my “best of” lists.  That’s not because I haven’t loved his songwriting skills or the excellent talents of the Heartbreakers, but this is the first of his albums since I started writing reviews that is more than just a collection of pop hits.  This is Petty’s 16th album, and the songs include “Fault Lines,” “U Get Me High,” and “American Dream Plan B.”

55.          The Soft White Sixties, Get Right.

This first album by this San Francisco-based, alternative rock group features a combination of power vocals and pure rock hooks.  Songs include “Up to the Light,” “Lemon Squeezer,” and “I Ain't Your Mother.”

54.          Shakey Graves, And the War Came

Alejandro Rose-Garcia performs under the name, Shakey Graves, and this debut album shows a depth of songwriting skills and musical sensibilities that will hopefully lead to a long career.  Songs include “Only Son” and two duets with Esme Patterson—“ Dearly Departed” and “Big Time Nashville Star.”

53.          Ed Sheeran, x

Maybe I like him because he’s from Framingham (England), but Ed Sheeran’s career has already taken off with just two solo albums.  His songs combine folk, pop, R&B, and an excellent tenor voice that accents the series of emotional songs he has written.  Those songs include “Bloodstream,” “Thinking Out Loud,” And the toe-tappingly infectious “Sing.”

52.          Hozier, Hozier

Andrew Hozier-Byrne is an Irish singer/songwriter who performs simply as Hozier.  This is his first, full-length album, and it shows off a very self-assured artist who combines rock, blues, and R&B into a terrific set of songs that includes “Take Me to Church,” “Jackie and Wilson,” “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene,” and “Work Song.”

51.          The GOASTT (The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger), Midnight Sun

After performing and recording in different forms for several years, Sean Lennon and his girlfriend, Charlotte Kemp Muhl, recorded their first full-length album under the name, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (or The GOASTT for short), based on a character from a short story by Muhl.  The album has a 60s, psychedelic feel to it that, when combined with Lennon’s voice, is reminiscent of later Beatles albums.  If you liked those albums, you’ll probably like this one, with songs including “Animals,” “Moth To a Flame,” and “Don't Look Back Orpheus.”

50.          Foo Fighters, Sonic Highways

The Foo Fighters’ eighth album, this accompanies a documentary, directed by Dave Grohl, on the roots of American music.  The band’s well-known musical prowess is on display throughout this album, which includes “Something From Nothing,” “Congregation,” and “What Did I Do? / God As My Witness.”

49.          Candice Glover, Music Speaks

Winner of the 2013 American Idol show, Candice Glover possesses a powerful and elegant, R&B voice.  That and her outstanding vocal runs make her a real presence in today’s pop market, and on this, her first album, she excels on songs like “Cried,” “I Am Beautiful,” and her adaptation of the Cure’s classic “Lovesong,” which her album lists as “Love Song.”

48.          David Guetta, Listen

Pierre David Guetta is a French music producer who dropped the Pierre for his recording career.  He and Calvin Harris are the best of the writer-producers who populate today’s music scene, and this is easily his best album, written and recorded after divorcing his wife of 20 years.  He enlists the vocal talents of several performers including Sam Martin, Emeli Sandé, The Script, John Legend, and Sia.  Songs include “What I Did For Love,” “Listen,” and “Bang My Head.”

47.          You+Me, rose ave.

An acoustic collaboration between Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) and Dallas Green (of City and Colour), this album is a rare chance to hear two artists in their prime, performing stripped-down songs that they wrote together.  Those songs include “Love Gone Wrong,” “You and Me,” and “Break the Cycle.”

46.          Jackson Browne, Standing in the Breach

This Jackson Browne’s 14th, full-length, studio album, and it’s his best in a long time.  It’s a true pleasure to hear this rock troubadour return to form in both writing and performing songs like “The Birds of St. Marks,” “The Long Way Around,” and “You Know the Night.”

45.          Eli “Paperboy” Reed, Nights Like This

Eli "Paperboy" Reed is really Eli Husock of Brookline, Massachusetts, who moved to Mississippi to immerse himself in Southern R&B.  This is his fourth studio album, and definitely his best, having added some polish and production to Reed’s signature raw edge.  I dare you to keep still while listening to song like “Grown Up,” “Nights Like This,” and “Shock To the System.”

44.          Original Cast Recording, Here Lies Love

Hold on while I describe this: an off-Broadway, rock musical written by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, about the life of Imelda Marcos.  And it’s really good.  But you can judge for yourself with songs like “Child of the Philippines,” “Eleven Days,” and “God Draws Straight.”

43.          Aphex Twin, Syro

Jon Burke first introduced me to the music of British electronic guru Richard David James (aka Aphex Twin) several years ago.  This is his 6th album as Aphex Twin and his first in 13 years.  More polished and approachable than much of his previous work, it is musically excellent, with songs like “minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix],” “180db_ [130],” and “PAPAT4 [155] [pineal mix].”

42.          Say Anything, Hebrews

This band is the brainchild of Max Bemis, and its genre is often referred to as art rock, but here, on the band’s 6th full-length album, he diverges from previous albums with a scalding portrayal and self-examination of what it’s like to be Jewish and in the music industry today.  He also changes up everything you might expect from a rock album, drawing on the talents of artists from other bands, while replacing guitars with string arrangements.  The result is a very good, very unusual album with song like “Judas Decapitation,” “Hebrews,” and “Lost My Touch.”

41.          We Are The In Crowd, Weird Kids

Hailing from Poughkeepsie, New York, this quintet displays consistent rock musicianship, well-written songs, and outstanding vocals by lead singer Tay Jardine.  This is their second full-length album, and it includes “Manners,” “The Best Thing (That Never Happened),” and “Don't You Worry.”

40.          She & Him, Classics

This duet consists of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, and they have recorded five albums together, but this is the first time they have done a complete album of older music, accompanied by a scaled-down orchestra.  If you like interesting versions of classic songs, you’ll likely enjoy this album, featuring “This Girl's In Love With You,” “Time After Time,” and “Teach Me Tonight.”

39.          Weezer, Everything Will Be Alright In the End

Gavin first introduced me to Weezer in the late 90s, and they have been a consistently good rock band.  Rivers Cuomo always finds a way to write and deliver high quality music, and on this, the band’s 9th studio album, they go back to basics with great songwriting, singing, and guitar work.  Songs include “Back To the Shack,” “I've Had It Up To Here,” and “Go Away.”

38.          Larkin Poe, Kin

The Atlanta-based Lovell sisters (Rebecca and Megan) display an unusual brand of Southern-influenced folk-rock on this, their first full-length album.  Their music is outstanding as is their musicianship—all of the instruments, except bass and drums, are played by the sisters.  Songs include “Jailbreak,” “Crown of Fire,” and “We Intertwine.”

37.          Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour

This is one of those albums that is both popular and good, and it’s the debut of Sam Smith, a British singer-songwriter with an outstanding, melodic, tenor voice.  It’s likely you’ve already heard the hummable “Stay With Me,” but other songs of note include “Money On My Mind,” and “I'm Not the Only One.”

36.          The New Basement Tapes, Lost On the River

In 1967, Bob Dylan and The Band secluded themselves in a house in upstate New York and recorded the Basement Tapes, an amazing set of songs that signaled Dylan’s return from self-imposed exile.  Recently, a batch of song lyrics Dylan wrote at that time were discovered and verified.  While Dylan was not interested in completing the songs, T-Bone Burnett was, so he assembled a group of songwriter-performers including Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford (from Mumford & Sons), Jim James (from My Morning Jacket), Taylor Goldsmith (from Dawes), and Rhiannon Giddens (from the Carolina Chocolate Drops).  They added tunes they felt best suited the lyrics and recorded this artful set of songs including “Kansas City,” “Liberty Street,” and “When I Get My Hands On You.”

35.          Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence

Each of the previous two albums by Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, who perform as Lana Del Rey, appears on my annual list, and I probably would have rated this excellent set of songs higher were it not for the irritating overproduction by Dan Auerbach.  I know he intended to add a “haunting” quality to these darkly themed songs, but I find that it detracts from Del Rey’s outstanding voice.  Nevertheless, this is a very good album of well-written songs including “Shades of Cool,” “Brooklyn Baby,” and “West Coast.”

34.          Ingrid Michaelson, Lights Out

As you may know from previous years, I really like Ingrid Michaelson and her interesting brand of indie-pop.  This is her 6th album, and it continues her combination of complex tunes and inventive, introspective lyrics.  Songs include “Girls Chase Boys,” “Afterlife,” and “When I Go.”

33.          FKA Twigs, LP1

And now, for something completely different, welcome Tahliah Barnett, also known as FKA Twigs.  On the debut, full-length album for this English singer-songwriter, she challenges the listener to define her genre.  Better yet, just sit back and listen to this unusual and excellent set of songs including “Two Weeks” (with very explicit lyrics), “Pendulum,” and “Video Girl.”

32.          The Colourist, The Colourist

The debut full-length album by this California quartet with a singular name, The Colourist drives much of its direction from singer-drummer, Maya Tuttle, whose work helps to distinguish this band’s excellent pop sound.  Songs include “Little Games,” “We Won't Go Home,” and “Say You Need Me.”

31.          Hurray for the Riff Raff, Small Town Heroes

Singer-songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra was originally from the Bronx, but her music is more expressive of her current base in New Orleans.  With the outstanding fiddle of Yosi Perlstein and several other excellent back-up artists, Segarra is the force behind this band, which released five albums prior to this collection that includes “The Body Electric,” “End of the Line,” “No One Else,” and “I Know It's Wrong (But That's Alright).”

30.          Aloe Blacc, Lift Your Spirits

California-based Aloe Blacc began his recording career as a rap artist with Emanon, but has morphed into an outstanding soul singer with a deep baritone voice and an unusual take on soul-pop music.  If you’ve heard his radio-friendly song, “The Man,” you should take note that he shares writing credits with Elton John and Bernie Taupin for enabling him to use the line, “You can tell everybody.”  The album also includes “Wake Me Up,” “Ticking Bomb,” and “Lift Your Spirit.”

29.          Perfume Genius, Too Bright

Mike Hadreas performs under the name Perfume Genius, and until recently, he performed mostly at his piano.  His previous two albums were very good, but this one is a revelation, tackling homophobia and emotional distress while including a range of instruments and production techniques that drive home the excellent quality of songs like “Queen,” “Fool,” and “No Good.”

28.          Jenny Lewis, The Voyager

Chances are you’ve been watching and/or listening to Jenny Lewis for a long time, first as a child/teen actor in films such as “Troop Beverly Hills” and “Pleasantville,” as well as a slew of TV shows, or later, in her recording career as the lead singer of Rilo Kiley.  She’s also appeared as a guest artist on several other performers’ records and released three solo albums.  This effort continues her excellence of combining her songwriting craft and clear, bluesy voice on songs like “Head Underwater,” “She's Not Me,” “Just One of the Guys,” and “Late Bloomer.”

27.          Sarah McLachlan, Shine On

Canadian Sarah McLachlan has been known throughout her career, which includes eight albums, as a singer-songwriting with a lovely voice, but on this album, she has added an edge I’ve rarely heard from her before.  Maybe that’s because of the recent changes in her life—her father died, she got a divorce, and she changed managers and labels.  Whatever the reason, this may be my favorite of her albums, and it includes “In Your Shoes,” “Monsters,” “What's It Gonna Take,” and the introspective “Song For My Father.”

26.          The Pretty Reckless, Going to Hell

This is a rock band, in the truest sense of the word, and it’s fronted by actress Taylor Momsen (Gossip Girl).  It also happens to be very good.  On this, their second album, they play interesting songs with a style that combine polished musicianship and a raw edge.  Those songs include “Follow Me Down,” “Heaven Knows,” and “F**ked Up World.”

25.          The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, Days of Abandon

This Brooklyn-based indie-pop quintet has been one of my favorites since their first album in 2009, and now, with their third album, they are duplicating the sound of 80s British pop, and doing it very effectively on songs like “Simple and Sure,” “Kelly,” and “Eurydice.”

24.          Milky Chance, Sadnecessary

Consider this: a German duo that combines folk, pop, reggae, and electronic music releases its first single, and it climbs to number 1 across Europe before breaking in with a US audience, beginning with the Jimmy Kimmel show.  That’s the unlikely story of Milky Chance, comprised of Clemens Rehbein and Philipp Dausch.  The truth is that these guys are very talented, as displayed in songs like “Sadnecessary,” “Down By the River,” and the European mega-hit “Stolen Dance.”

23.          Gina Chavez, Up.Rooted

Austin-based Gina Chavez is another artist that defies genre definitions, combining pop, Latin, and rock rhythms into a unique sound, complemented by her excellent voice and ability to play a wide range of instruments.  This is her second album, and it displays her special talents on songs like “Gotta Get,” “Like An Animal,” and “Fire Water.”

22.          Lydia Loveless, Somewhere Else

An alt country artist from Columbus, Ohio, Lydia Loveless writes very good songs and performs them with a talented backup band that complements her earthy, expressive voice.  This is her third album, and it’s the best statement yet of why she has to be in the conversation when discussing modern, country-oriented, female artists.

21.          Joan As Police Woman, The Classic

This is the fifth album by Joan Wasser, who performs under the name Joan As Police Woman and has a very interesting set of experiences.  Born to an unwed, teenage mother, she was adopted and raised in Norwalk, CT, eventually establishing herself with the Dambuilders as a premier rock violinist.  She was married to Jeff Buckley when he accidentally drowned in 1997, and after several years, landed on her feet and joined Rufus Wainwright’s band.  Since going solo in 2006, this is her most complete album, and it combines modern and retro approaches to songs including “Holy City,” “The Classic,” and “Your Song.”

20.          Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Laura Jane Grace, the band’s founder, lead singer, and songwriter, began life as a male, but soon had to deal with gender dysphoria, which she did not discuss openly until beginning her physical transition in 2012.  This album describes aspects of that dysphoria and transition, and it does so in a way that is open, honest, and in keeping with the rock talents that have marked each of the group’s six albums.  Songs include “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” “F**KMYLIFE666,” and “Black Me Out.”

19.          The Black Keys, Turn Blue

The Akron based duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney seem to improve a little with each of their eight albums.  Whereas I blasted Auerbach’s production on Lana Del Rey’s album, it seems to work perfectly here, and this album contains excellent vocals and musical craftsmanship on songs like “Weight of Love,” “Fever,” and “Gotta Get Away.”

18.          Cold War Kids, Hold My Home

This California quintet is one of my favorite bands, featuring excellent songwriting, musicianship, and rock harmonies.  Add to that their increasingly proficient production on this, their fifth album, and you have the kind of modern rock that draws you in and keeps you there.  Songs include “All This Could Be Yours,” “First,” “Hot Coals,” and “Hear My Baby Call.”

17.          Damon Albarn, Everyday Robots

Having already established himself as the driving force behind Blur and Gorillaz, this English singer-songwriter released his first solo album, and it displays an emotional intimacy not always on display in his band work, combined with a technical proficiency that few artists can match.  Songs include “Mr Tembo,” “Everyday Robots,” and “Lonely Press Play.”

16.          The Veronicas, The Veronicas

Australian twin sisters Lisa and Jessica Origliasso perform as The Veronicas.  On each of their three albums, they have continued to hone their craft and establish an identity as a pop-rock duo willing to think outside the box.  Songs include “Cruel,” “Line of Fire,” and the beautiful ballad, “You Ruin Me.”

15.          Beck, Morning Phase

What more can I say about Beck, who appeared many of my early “best of” lists but has not released an album in 6 years?  There are few people in the pantheon of modern music who know more about structure, melody, and rhythm, while being able to stretch the boundaries of each.  This album, his 12th, is generally warmer than some of his previous work, but occasionally snaps you out of your comfort zone to remind you that you’re hearing something different than what others dare to try.  Songs include “Heart Is a Drum,” “Blue Moon,” and “Waking Light.”

14.          Mary J. Blige, The London Sessions

Now that Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey are past their primes and Whitney Houston has passed, it leaves Mary J. Blige as the premier R&B singer-diva, and on this album, she demonstrates why.  After 11 previous albums, she decided to travel to London to change things up…British R&B has been going in different directions than much of what’s produced (or overproduced) in the US today.  When you can sing like she can, minimalism is the way to go, as is demonstrated in songs like “Therapy,” “Not Loving You,” “When You're Gone,” and “Worth My Time.”

13.          Mariachi El Bronx, Mariachi El Bronx (III)

“The Bronx” is not from the Bronx, but rather is a hard rock band from Los Angeles.  However, they have also recorded three albums of English-language, Mariachi-rock music, and this is the best to date.  It’s definitely more rock-oriented than traditional Mariachi music, but the songs generally adhere to the musical structure of that art form.  That’s what makes this album such an interesting hybrid, with songs like “New Beat,” “Wildfires,” and “Everything Twice.”

12.          American Authors, Oh, What a Life

The first album from this Brooklyn-based band was released early in the year, and I keep coming back to it.  It’s obvious by their songwriting and performing skills that these are students of music, and in truth, they met when attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music.  Many of the songs are solid demonstrations of how alternative rock should sound, including “Believer,” “Best Day of My Life,” “Luck,” and “Home.”

11.          Kelis, Food

As well as being an excellent singer-songwriter with six albums under her belt, Kelis Rogers is also a formally trained chef, which explains this album having several songs that live up to the album title—they are about food.  Hey why not use a passion as your inspiration, especially when it works as well as this album does?   But that’s just one thing that makes this album outstanding; another is the personal nature of each song by this New York-based artist,  Those songs include “Breakfast,” “Hooch,” “Bless the Telephone,” and “Rumble.”

10.          Charli XCX, Sucker

Last year was a breakout for Chari XCX (nee Charlotte Emma Aitchison); her second album, “True Romance,” was successful, and even more successful was her collaboration with Icona Pop on “I Love It.”  But this album establishes her as one of the top electro-pop artists today.  In a genre that can often be vapid, it adds substance in terms of songwriting, singing, and production.  Songs include “Break the Rules,” “Boom Clap,” “Famous,” and “Need Ur Luv.”

9.            Damien Rice, My Favourite Faded Fantasy

Few singer-songwriters on the scene today can capture the emotional artfulness of Damien Rice.  In 2003, he wrote and recorded the remarkable song, “The Blower’s Daughter.”  Unfortunately, he’s only recorded three albums, and this is the most complete from the Ireland-based Rice.  Each song has depth and character, but none more so than “The Box,” which is destined to be covered by many artists.  Other songs on this beautiful album are “My Favourite Faded Fantasy,” “It Takes a Lot To Know a Man,” and “I Don't Want To Change You.”

8.            Dirty Loops, Loopified

I love the sound of this Swedish trio and how they combine jazz riffs, electronic production, and Stevie Wonder-style vocals.  It comes honestly to these three young men, who were students together at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm.  This is their first album, and I thoroughly look forward to the follow-up.  You will too after hearing songs like “Hit Me,” “The Way She Walks,” and a very interesting take on Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep.”

7.            Mary Lambert, Heart On My Sleeve

No one had heard of Mary Lambert before she performed with Macklemore on last year’s “Same Love,” but now that I’ve heard her, I want to keep hearing more.  After listening to this outstanding album by the Seattle-based singer-songwriter, you will too.  Songs include “Secrets,” “When You Sleep,” and the Rick Springfield classic, “Jessie’s Girl.”

6.            Lake Street Dive, Bad Self Portraits

When Joe Burke first introduced me to this Boston-based band a couple of years ago, I thought he was mispronouncing the name, but he was right about both the name and the band.  This is their second full-length, studio album, and it expands on the excellence of the first effort by these New England Conservatory-trained musicians and singers.   Their music combines jazz, pop, and rock into a whole that’s better than the sum of its parts.  Songs include “Bad Self Portraits,” “You Go Down Smooth,” and “Use Me Up.”
5.            Eno Hyde, Someday World

In 1976, Roland Barker introduced me to the techno-genius of Brian Eno, and throughout his 40-year career and 16 solo albums, Eno has changed the face of music, while influencing David Bowie, David Byrne, Pink Floyd, and thousands of other artists.  Here, he teams with Underworld’s Karl Hyde to create a thing of beauty—a collection of songs that brings Eno’s music more to the forefront than his “ambient” undertakings, while blending it with excellent vocals on songs like “The Satellites,” “Daddy’s Car,” and “To Us All.”

4.            U2, Songs of Innocence

Chances are you have this album.  After all, it was provided as a free download to anyone who wanted it, and to many who didn’t.  But lost in that altruistic approach is how good an album it is.  In truth, it is U2’s most emotional and immediate album in years, and it doesn’t deserve the plastering that some critics gave it.   This is the band’s 13th album, and it contains “Iris (Hold Me Close),” which is as good as many of the classic U2 ballads.  It also contains other excellent songs like “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” “Raised By Wolves,” and “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now.”

3.            Us The Duo, No Matter Where You Are

I kept thinking that I must be crazy putting the debut album from a relatively unknown duo this high on my list, and then I listen to the infectious songs by Michael and Carissa Alvarado and realize why I like them so much.  The sound is clean and straightforward, the singing is ebullient, the lyrics are upbeat, and the melodies are…well, melodic.   Maybe it isn’t so emotionally complex as other albums on the list, but occasionally, I like an album that just entertains me, and this is it, with songs like “No Matter Where You Are,” “Smile & Keep Your Head Up,” and “Make You Mine.”

2.            Jack White, Lazaretto

Gavin will never let me forget that I didn’t like the White Stripes, especially now that both of Jack White’s solo albums have made my list.  But the White Stripes never demonstrated the depth of musical brilliance that White has demonstrated on this album.  In fact, few albums combine this level of songwriting, production, and performance.  There’s no other way to say it…this is a great album that I like more every time I hear songs like “Three Women,” “Lazaretto,” “Alone In My Home,” and “I Think I Found The Culprit.”

1.            St. Vincent, St. Vincent

When I first heard this album, I thought, “What happened to Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent)?”  I had loved her previous three albums, which include songs like “Marry Me,” “Actor Out of Work,” and “Cruel,” and her hybrid of folk and rock, with varying degrees of electronic influence.  But this album was a completely different thing, and I wasn’t sure about it.  Then I listened to it, again and again, and eventually understood the evolution of this artist to someone who combines her musical prowess, outstanding voice, and superb songwriting skills, in conjunction with the modern production techniques of John Congleton, to make what is clearly the year’s best album.  Songs include “Rattlesnake,” “Birth In Reverse,” “Prince Johnny,” “Digital Witness,” and “Psychopath.”
The following are all excellent albums that deserve Honorable Mention (listed alphabetically by artist):

·                     Aer, Says She Loves Me
·                     Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness
·                     Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness
·                     Angela Johnson, Naturally Me
·                     Angels & Airwaves, The Dream Walker
·                     Ani DiFranco, Allergic to Water
·                     Arc Iris, Arc Iris
·                     Ariana Grande, My Everything
·                     The Belle Brigade, Just Because
·                     Benjamin Booker, Benjamin Booker
·                     Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa, Live in Amsterdam
·                     Calvin Harris, Motion
·                     Chiodos, Devil
·                     Chrissie Hynde, Stockholm
·                     Chuck Ragan, Till Midnight
·                     Copeland, Ixora
·                     Deaf Havana, Old Souls
·                     Delain, The Human Contradiction
·                     Drowners, Drowners
·                     Eric Hutchinson, Pure Fiction
·                     The Family Crest, Beneath the Brine
·                     Frazey Ford, Indian Ocean
·                     Future Islands, Singles
·                     The Griswolds, Be Impressive
·                     Hard Working Americans, Hard Working Americans
·                     Interpol, El Pintor
·                     Jason Mraz, YES!
·                     Joe Bonamassa, Different Shades of Blue
·                     John Newman, Tribute
·                     Kat Edmonson, The Big Picture
·                     Lenny Kravitz, Strut
·                     Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems
·                     Lily Allen, Sheezus
·                     Liv Warfield, The Unexpected
·                     Long Arms, Constant Comment
·                     Mac Demarco, Salad Days
·                     Manchester Orchestra, Cope
·                     Marz Ferrer, Blur
·                     Matt Sorum's Fierce Joy, Stratosphere
·                     The Men, Tomorrow's Hits
·                     Miniature Tigers, Cruel Runnings
·                     MØ, No Mythologies to Follow
·                     Naughty Boy, Hotel Cabana
·                     Neneh Cherry, Blank Project
·                     Nicky Egan, The 45 Homestead Project
·                     O.A.R., The Rockville LP
·                     Paolo Nutini, Caustic Love
·                     Parquet Courts, Content Nausea
·                     Prince, ART OFFICIAL AGE
·                     Secondhand Serenade, Undefeated
·                     Sia, 1000 Forms of Fear
·                     Skrillex, Recess
·                     The Sons, Heading into Land
·                     Spoon, They Want My Soul
·                     Sun Kil Moon, Benji
·                     Tove Lo, Queen of the Clouds
·                     Tune-Yards, Nikki Nack
·                     TV on the Radio, Seeds
·                     Umphrey's McGee, Similar Skin
·                     WALK THE MOON, TALKING IS HARD
·                     We Are Scientists, TV en Français
·                     Yellow Ostrich, Cosmos
·                     Young & Sick, Young & Sick