With a month and a half left of 2014, the top albums of the year have more or less distinguished themselves. This will be the last post before I whip out that year-end monster.
There were some albums that I have a lot to say about but was unable to get to earlier this year. So this post is dedicated to revisiting those gems.
Kris Allen – Horizons
Rating: Freed from the chains of a big-name record label, American Idol winner finally shines.
The only season of American Idol I watched religiously was its eighth season, when I heard the earth-shattering shriek of one Adam Lambert. While I was drawn in by Lambert’s glam, I stayed for the charm of underdog Kris Allen.
Kris was a humble man who, armed with just a guitar and his voice, could captivate an audience. He was good, but I thought he would for sure be the first person ousted from the top four. Against all odds, he shockingly won the whole thing. But when you “win” American Idol, you win a two-album record deal and that’s not always a good thing.
His self-titled major-label debut was more than forgettable. The album cover itself was over the top, his most popular song was originally performed by another band and it lacked any kind of personal touch Kris used to win the show in the first place. The next album, Thank You Camellia, was much better from all standpoints, but still had too much going in the production phase.
Now that he’s finally on his own label and making music on his own terms, we can see how good Kris can be. When it comes finding truly good music, corporate labels see almost well as a headless mole, so this is not surprising. Horizons is stripped and personal, borderline pop/adult contemporary. Like something you’d find in a Matt Nathanson record, perhaps. Regardless, the music is universally acceptable.
At 10 tracks and 35 minutes long, there’s a shocking amount of good stuff here. “Prove it To You” gently serves up a man’s dedicated heart whereas “Lost” is just as delicate and gorgeous, but much more painful. Try to hold yourself together during “It’s Always You.” The bridge in “In Time” gives me chills every time I hear it.
And the pure innocence of “Beautiful and Wild” makes it one of my top five favorite songs of the year: “There’s probably no saving us, but I wrote this song to try.” Kris is also a superb songwriter, so the songs here are more three-dimensional than anything you’ll find on the radio these days.
As far as an acoustic, singer-songwriter album goes, this is as good as it gets. But, as is the case with most of the previous American Idol winners, you won’t hear any of it on the radio and it didn’t get the financial support of his other albums. It’s quality music that shamefully came after his 15 minutes were up.
If that’s the cost of a dream, I’d say he got off lucky.
Starset – Transmissions
Rating: Space rock is the future.
Equipped with space suits, a Tony Starkian mixer and a fictional narrative behind their music, this is your rock band of the future. I mean, who comes out of nowhere with a website like this? It’s is all sorts of bonkers.
The potential of Starset is so immense that I do believe the rock genre can be saved. It’s up to narrow-minded rock fans to accept it. Joining the likes of Red and Nothing More, it seems heavier bands are embracing and properly utilizing modern sounds and layers while keeping the spirit of rock alive.
Starset calls their music cinematic rock, which is as it sounds: grand and full of purpose. Their breakthrough hit, “My Demons,” injects some fresh energy into a tired rock scene. With the electric sounds subtly spliced throughout tracks such as “Carnivore” and “Let it Die,” it’s proof enough that synthetic music and organic rock can coincide without a brash bravado. And even with the use of Auto-Tune on the ballad “Dark on Me,” it fits the interstellar style in which Starset defines themselves.
If you were to listen to a pure rock album this year, this is the second which I would highly recommend. Starset is breaking out of the atmosphere and the launch proved to be a success. The galaxy awaits.
Zella Day – Zella Day
Rating: As purifying as the summer breeze.
We’ve only got a handful of songs to work with here, but all of them are stunning. With her her powdered sugar vocals, Los Angeles-based Zella Day brings an addictive EP that escapes the restraints of traditional pop.
I first heard “Compass” earlier this year and it immediately became one of my favorite tracks of 2014. The hook, which makes me feel like I’m gliding through the clouds at dusk, is as good as anything out there right now. If I ever hear this on my local radio station (not that I listen to it anyway), I will be found dead in the street.
“Sweet Ophelia” has all sorts of beats that put it into Banks and MØ territory, though she doesn’t stay there for long. “East of Eden” is a quasi-bubblegum head-bobber, but it’s just complex enough to show that Zella Day is no amateur. Many people liken her to a more upbeat and innocent Lana Del Rey, which isn’t wrong.
The lyrics are personal and mature, making each song deserving of follow-up listens to absorb every piece of her narratives. The girl can write. Her four-track EP contains four songs, lasing 12 whole minutes. That’s fine with me, since it means more spins.
Updated Best of 2014 playlist:
I did not realize Brody Dalle was married to Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age. That family knows how to rock.
Can’t wait to see everyone’s year-end lists.