Mark E. Ortega — Writer
1. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There (Jagjaguwar)
This is clearly Van Etten’s best and most expansive work to date. On previous efforts, she stuck with a less is more approach but incorporated a much fuller sound on this release. The common use of a piano brings an added element, and Van Etten takes a more hopeful approach to dealing with heartbreak and moving on in many songs. There’s not a single weak link among the 11 tracks, which you can stream here.
2. Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy (Warner Bros.)
It took Rice nearly a decade to churn out his first release since 2006’s 9, and it is the first work of his not to feature ex-lover Lisa Hannigan’s vocals, which always blunted the edges of Rice’s own voice and songwriting. This album comes across as Rice’s cathartic way of dealing with the loss of Hannigan, whom it is obvious he still very much loves. “I Don’t Want to Change You” is, dare I say, the best song Rice has ever written. The title track and “The Greatest Bastard” are also two tracks that shine brightly on this 8-song album that famed producer Rick Rubin lended himself to that can be listened to here.
3. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager (Warner Bros.)
I was a bit underwhelmed by Lewis’ collaborative effort with beau Jonathan Rice a few years back (recorded as Jenny and Johnny), so I was a bit unsure what to expect from her first truly solo effort since the magnificent Acid Tongue in 2008. Even that album featured a number of collaborative efforts, whereas The Voyager was all Jenny (minus the awesome production and guitar skills of Ryan Adams and, on one song, Beck). This album was very personal for Lewis as it addresses the questions that arise when you’re a thirtysomething woman who chose her career over the expected settling down and starting a family. Check out the album here.
4. Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were (Island)
I knew very little about Howard until I checked him out at El Rey back in October. He performed many of the songs off this incredible album and I immediately understood why it reached No. 1 in his native UK. The title track is extremely haunting and is very reminiscent of Damien Rice at his best, and the greatness doesn’t stop there. After going back and listening to older work, I could see the growth from his previous albums to this one and I’m excited to see what he comes up with as he continues to break through. Give it a listen, yourself.
5. Sun Kil Moon – Benji (Caldo Verde)
Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek is one of the most prolific musicians out there. Just a year ago, he released three studio albums on his own before putting out the ever-personal Benji, which I, along with many others, consider his best work to date. Kozelek attacks some very heavy subject matters, ranging from the fear of losing his mother to the number of catastrophes that have struck his family, all while being very specific in the writing. At the same time, he’s able to lighten the mood with references to mundane things like heading to Panera Bread. It’s worth your time, trust me.
6. Lykke Li – I Never Learn (Atlantic)
Lykke Li reminds me of a bit more pop-conscious Cat Power on her third album. This album is the ultimate ode to heartbreak and a must for anyone that finds themselves lying in bed wondering, “Why me?” There’s not a weak song among the 9-song album, and “Never Gonna Love Again” sounds to me like a song a 1980’s Michael Jackson could have sang, particularly in the chorus. The lyrics are heart-devouring and each track leads into the next seamlessly. Check it out here.
7. Warpaint – Warpaint (Rough Trade)
The ultimate jam band, Warpaint’s self-titled release makes you feel like you’re stoned, even when you’re completely sober. Beginning with the entrancing instrumental jam “Intro” that perfectly plays into the entrancing “Keep It Healthy”, these rocking ladies do what they do best. Drummer Stella Mozgawa is the backbone of this band and sets up the brooding guitar and bass quite nicely, which all serves as the perfect background to their immensely talented vocal layering. Give it a listen here.
8. BANKS – Goddess (Harvest)
If there was a list of the 10 sexiest albums of 2014, this would unequivocally be my No. 1. “Brain” was the first BANKS song I ever heard, and it features her entire range. For a full-length debut, this album suggests to me that this Los Angeles singer will be around for quite some time. You’ve no doubt been hearing “Beggin’ for Thread” regularly on the radio these past few months — trust me, it is only beginning. Check out the album here.
9. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
This indie folk rock gal will be the talk of the town in 2015 is my gut feeling. Her sound is very much her own and I can’t think of many that come close to sounding like her. Vocally, her voice harkens back to the 1950’s and 1960’s. Olsen’s strong voice and crafty songwriting are at the forefront on this release. “Unfucktheworld”, “Hi-Five”, and “Iota” are three extremely strong songs that could silence any worthwhile crowd. Check it out for yourself.
10. Phantogram – Voices (Republic)
This album served as the perfect post-Valentine’s Day depression complement. It’s always a shock to me when I realize this expansive art is the work of just two people. “Fall In Love” might be the best song of 2014, and it doesn’t overshadow the other really great songs on the album like “Black Out Days” and “Bill Murray”, songs that concert-goers were singing along to loudly and proudly when I checked them out at Hollywood Forever and Life is Beautiful.