It’s been a great year in music, with all the genres I love producing at least one album I can call a classic. I’ve reviewed a ton of music this year, my busiest yet, as have my talented contributors. To get the year-end list ball rolling, here are mine. The other contributors’ lists will follow in due course.
I’m not really that big a fan of year-end top tens, because it makes music seem like a competition (which it is not), and also I only heard a fraction of the music released this year — how can anyone’s list be definitive in any way? So I think you need to take all such lists with several grains of salt. However, you may enjoying finding out what I spent a lot of time listening to in 2014.
I will humbly offer that you should certainly check out the music on this list, because I do know what the hell I’m talking about!
Stay tuned for more in 2015!
Rock/Songs Top Five
5. (tie) Ali Murray – Further Still
This collection by an unheralded Scot from the Outer Hebrides is a dazzlingly consistent set of lovely, hushed, ambient Celtic-influenced folk with great playing, singing, lyrics and a spartan, misty atmosphere; he has really hit his stride here and if you have any interest in singer-songwriter music or quiet, beautiful music in general, you just have to download this recording. Full review here.
Gazpacho – Demon
Gazpacho is a very interesting progressive band from Norway, and this concept album based on a bizarre fictional premise mixes progressive rock (with influences and instrumentation from Central European folk) with creative lyrical imagery to create a fascinating musical novel experience on par with all the greatest concept albums in rock history. Full review here.
4. IQ – The Road of Bones
IQ hit a plateau with Dark Matter (2004) and has stayed up there; this is the band that does “classic” progressive sounds best, with a heavy early seventies influence but a definite style of its own, more humanistic and less obscure. There’s a slight tinge of contemporary prog-metal on here as well. Great musicianship, lyrics and singing as always from Peter Nicholls, and this double album impressively does not have a bad track on it. Full review here.
3. Oysterband – Diamonds on the Water
I love British folk-rock, and Oysterband are the best at it without question, combining an intimate knowledge of the nuances of traditional music-inspired melodies with a great pop/rock sensibility, stunning, passionate vocals and moving lyrics that are effective both when political and personal. This is the band’s best album in many years, and that’s saying something since they’re all good. Full review here.
2. The Church – Further/Deeper
The Church is my longtime favourite band, and has been since I was sixteen — the greatest mystic psych band ever. Due to a shakeup, there was no guarantee this one would be any good, but with the departure of charismatic guitarist Marty Willson-Piper and his replacement with a fine player in his own right, Powderfinger’s Ian Haug, this is the band’s best, densest and most powerful album in over a decade. Steve Kilbey is in top lyrical and vocal form. Full review here.
1. Anathema – distant satellites
Well, duh, I guess. I’m even getting sick of reading myself writing about it. I’ve written tons of copy already about this album by the world’s leading atmospheric rock band — go read my review. This has it all, though: incredible arrangements, great axework, beautiful vocals, experimental electronics, dramatic rock and string arrangements, lovely lyrics. You just can’t make this sort of music any better. This is for smart, spiritual people who care about shit, so if you’re one of those, have a listen. It is healing music, if such a thing could be said about rock. Full review here.
Honourable mention: E Gone – All the Suns of the Earth
A recent review, Scandinavian psych of the highest order. This album contains funky Eastern psych electronica, spooky kosmische instrumentals and crackly old psych-folk with Americana influences in a surprisingly cohesive musical journey. A great new act and one to follow. Full review here.
Ambient/Instrumental Top Ten
If you want context here for my ambient list, Steve Roach released an album this year. I loved it. And it’s not on this list. That shows the sheer quality of ambient music that I reviewed in 2014. Ambient acts like to use Bandcamp, hence I’m able to mostly give you tidy little embeds for this part.
Ambient composer Sanfilippo flexes his modern classical muscles here; these delicate, ruminative piano pieces are occasionally augmented by a couple of string players. On a level with Harold Budd’s best work and also for fans of the sparser Arvo Pärt repertoire, this is timelessly beautiful music. Full review here.
My fellow Canadian is one of the finest ambient composers in the world, and his music just gets better and better. This is a new entry in his “Excursions” series, but while earlier albums were more soundtracky, this one is in his current ambient style. There is a sunny, tranquil beauty here that few composers can capture. If you like albums like Roach’s Quiet Music, you will love this one. Capsule review here.
Lawlor is a prolific artist whose work spans various ambient subgenres. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve heard, from dark ambient to space ambient, but this one is a cut above, bridging the gap between celestial space music and darker, more experimental textures. This recording on Earth Mantra is great from start to finish. Capsule review here.
Tim Dwyer makes some of the best and most distinctive ambient these days; his style is easily recognizable, which is rare in the genre, being based on mysterious, melancholy, almost percussive sounds mixed with ambient pads. This Psychonavigation Records release is a little cheerier and with lengthier pieces that allow him to spread out a bit more, but it’s still classic Off Land, enriching and enlightening. Capsule review here.
Earlyguard does long-form ambient better than just about everyone, and he’s usually good for an hour of peaceful vibes, but I was mucho impressed by this very involving and challenging but still pleasant hour redolent of classic mid-twentieth century composition that brings to mind my favourites, Morton Feldman and György Ligeti. Higher praise cannot be given! Capsule review here.
This duo makes ambient music with “real” instruments, ie guitar and older-fashioned organs, which takes it closer to the ambient end of earlier Krautrock. Much like your humble host’s own music. ;> Anyway, this album from Sparkwood Records is very beautiful and does make a wonderful case for the value of making ambient sounds with a more organic instrumentation; there’s a living pulse here in these beautiful pieces. Capsule review here.
A stunning debut album on the Winter Alternative label that is “name your price” on Bandcamp — but with this level of talent, don’t expect it to stay that way. This is a dark excursion to the thundery, vast heart of the Great Plains, relayed through the medium of grandiose, dramatic, cinematic synth music that will please anyone who likes that sort of thing — think Schulze or Tangerine Dream at their darkest. Full review here.
3. Rudy Adrian – Atmospheres
Adrian is a reliable source of ambient influenced by the natural world; while his music is sometimes experimental, this Spotted Peccary release, like earlier albums such as The Healing Lake, is based on a lovely fusion of synth pads, wordless vocals and soothing field recordings. Innovative? No. But there’s a way to do this kind of music well, and Adrian does it as well as anyone, so any release from him is to be treasured. Full review here.
Wilkerson is nothing if not reliable as a rule, but this wonderful slice of space ambient is probably his best album, or at least one of them; the space travel theme is entirely appropriate for this cosmic excursion with the master of spiritual synth pads. Fans of classic space music and early eighties late Berlin School will absolutely not want to miss this. Full review here.
Bowed instruments and ambient music are already good friends but this collaboration between cellist Christine Hanson and electronic dude Don Tyler (Phase47) contains, without hyperbole, some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. It sounds ancient in the same way as Stephan Micus’s albums like Panagia, but electronics are subtly woven in amongst all this primal, cosmic bowed beauty to add a spacy, ethereal vibe. Honestly, I could listen to this all day, every day. Here’s hoping for a second album from this duo soon. Full review here.
— Prolific ambienteer Cousin Silas released a compilation of some of his finest via We Are All Ghosts label, The Sounds of Silas — this guy is the goods and anyone with the vaguest interest in ambient music would enjoy it. Full review.
— The tribute to Steve Roach’s Structures from Silence, titled Quiet Friends, is chock full of lovely pure ambient tracks. Released via Free Floating Music.