by Jeff Fiedler
10. Adios, Glen Campbell
The all-covers Meet Glen Campbell and its follow-up, Ghost on the Canvas, were fine comeback outings after decades spent in the musical wilderness, but after that, the Campbell discography started to get considerably spotty once again, so it’s comforting to see the late, great country vocalist’s recording career come to a close with such a tasteful and appealing disc. Producer Carl Jackson is to be commended for not trying to do anything too gimmicky here – he doesn’t try to saddle Campbell with contemporary material, nor does he go overboard on the special guests. (Willie Nelson and Vince Gill both pop up, but both cameos feel completely natural rather than forced.) Instead, he just has Campbell cut the kind of disc he was so good at making back in the late ‘60s and mid-‘70s, a sophisticated country-pop affair with a well-chosen mix of covers (i.e. “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “She Thinks I Still Care”) and, of course, a handful of tunes from the pen of Jimmy Webb, the best songwriter Campbell ever worked with. Just try listening to the Webb-penned, album-closing title cut of this album without tearing up. It’s simply the most beautiful and perfect way Campbell could have gone out on disc.
9. Anything Could Happen, Bash & Pop
This latest solo effort from former Replacements member Tommy Stinson pretty much encapsulates everything that was so appealing about his former band – it’s catchy without being calculating, and it’s just sloppy enough to be endearing rather than alienating. Stinson might not quite be the lyricist that Paul Westerberg is, but he’s nonetheless come up with a fine set of songs here, one that gives you hope that the true spirit of rock and roll is, in fact, still alive, if you just know where to look. This is simply a fun, fun album – one where even the throwaways are guaranteed to put a smile on your face – and if there’s anything the world of rock is sorely lacking now, it’s that very thing. It doesn’t quite rank up there with any of the Replacements’ best albums, of course (but then, what does?), but this is at least as good as anything Westerberg himself has made in nearly fifteen years.
8. This Is My Kingdom Now, Justin Currie
This latest solo effort from the longtime frontman for Scottish rock combo Del Amitri (“Roll to Me,” “Kiss This Thing Goodbye,” “Always the Last to Know”) does a nice job of straddling the line between his earlier, decidedly less commercial solo work (Currie’s first solo disc, the maudlin What Is Love For, was a far, far cry from the upbeat radio-friendly fare of his former band) and the sort of catchy fare he turned out so regularly on such highly appealing Del Amitri discs as Twisted, Change Everything, and Some Other Sucker’s Parade. The whole disc is a delightful listen, but “Failing to See” in particular just might be the finest – and certainly the catchiest – song Currie’s penned since 2002’s “Button on My Clothes” (which can be found on the final Del Amitri album, Can You Do Me Good?, which sadly was bypassed for release in the U.S. and can only be picked up as an import.)
7. Wonderful Wonderful, The Killers
The Killers have had a penchant in recent years for delving just a bit too often into power-ballad territory, and their last full-length of new material, Battle Born, really suffered from a lack of up-tempo material. The band hasn’t exactly returned to its new-wave roots here, but they at least lighten up a bit and toss in some fun fare here, namely the disco-tinged boasts of “The Man” and the highly appealing driving rock of “Run for Cover,” the best single these guys have put out since “Human” from Day & Age. It may not quite reach the greatness of Hot Fuss, but the lack of filler here, combined with the greater mix of musical moods, make this the band’s most appealing album since Sam’s Town.
6. Ti Amo, Phoenix
It’s definitely a grower – unlike Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, there are no cuts here like “Lisztomania” or “1901” that lodge themselves in your head immediately, and the hooks take a bit of time to work their magic on you – but, given an extra spin or two, you’re likely to re-evaluate this disc and appreciate all the little nuances that went into the arrangements here. Simply put, this is just a fun, fun album to listen to through a pair of headphones and absorb all the ear candy the band has packed into these songs. Cuts like “Fior De Latte” and “Lovelife” are simply beautiful, while the deliciously wormy slow-burning funk of “J-Boy” and the art-disco of the title cut are strangely addictive.
5. Harry Styles, Harry Styles
Shockingly enough, this former One Direction member went in a completely different direction on his solo debut, dispensing entirely with the teen-pop that dominated the earliest albums from his former band and delving even deeper into the folk and rock dabblings of such later, surprisingly appealing One Direction albums as Midnight Memories and Four. Styles here has created a potpourri of classic-rock sounds that vaguely recall acts ranging from Aerosmith to David Bowie to Pink Floyd to the Allman Brothers Band without ever actually sounding like mere rips or overt homages. It’s an extremely bold move artistically – not in the least since rock isn’t exactly in vogue at Top 40 radio at the moment, whereas EDM-tinged pop and hip-hop are – and Styles’ love of this sort of music comes across as completely genuine. There are beautiful moments scattered throughout (particularly the lovely, somber country-rock of “Two Ghosts”), but the wistful near-folk of “Ever Since New York” is the biggest knockout of all and is arguably the catchiest non-single I heard on any mainstream pop album all year. Here’s hoping Styles decides to stick with this musical direction, because he shows a shocking amount of promise here.
4. The Punishment of Luxury, O.M.D.
The synth-pop masterminds behind such beloved ‘80s hits as “So in Love,” “(Forever) Live and Die,” and the timeless Pretty in Pink theme “If You Leave” make an unlikely return – and with nearly its entire classic lineup still intact, at that! (Lead singers Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys are both back, as is keyboardist Martin Cooper, while newcomer Stuart Kershaw takes over the drum seat from Malcom Holmes.) Amazingly enough, for a new studio outing from a band long past its commercial heyday, the band never actually embarrasses itself in the slightest or shows its age (McCluskey in particular still sounds every bit as good today as he did back then) and, instead, turns in a disc that strikes the perfect balance between the more melodic fare of the band’s late-‘80s work and the more avant-garde-oriented experimentation of such critically-heralded early ‘80s full-lengths like Dazzle Ships and Architecture and Morality. The title cut is the most infectious and addictive cut here, but the album as a whole is arguably the finest full-length from the band since 1987’s The Pacific Age. This was the year’s most delightful comeback album.
3. Prisoner, Ryan Adams
Diehard fanatics of his earliest – and arguably less commercial – solo work may be quick to dismiss his more recent fare, but while this disc is a far cry both musically and sonically from the lo-fi alt-country of Heartbreaker and Gold, Adams is arguably on one of the best rolls of his life artistically with such recent outings as this album and its self-titled predecessor. Like Ryan Adams before it, this disc is jam-packed with solid melodies, devastatingly powerful singing (just listen to any cut from Gold alongside this album’s emotional lead-off track, “Do You Still Love Me,” and it quickly becomes obvious just how much more self-confident a vocalist Adams has become over the years), and a delightful lack of filler. It’s not as ambitious or quite as artful as Love Is Hell, no, but Adams is doing something almost as admirable here both as a songwriter and producer – he’s not only artistically aging more gracefully than most rockers his age, but he’s helping to fill a void and bridging the ever-widening gap between indie-rock and adult-contemporary radio in a very tasteful way by making appealingly hook-laden music that’s both muscular yet intelligent and glossy without pandering.
2. The Breaker, Little Big Town
They’ve always had great vocal chops, but with this disc, this country quartet takes a giant leap forward artistically and moves behind the country clichés of past singles like “Day Drinking” into much more mature territory. This delightfully filler-free disc often plays at times like a Nashville spin on the sunny California pop of late-‘70s Fleetwood Mac discs like Rumours, and the influence of that band is most clear on the brilliant opening cut, “Happy People,” which deserved to be a far bigger hit at country radio than it was. The disc also includes what is certainly the most tasteful, if not the finest, song Taylor Swift has written in over five years in the lovely and clever ballad “Better Man.” [If only Swift actually still recorded songs like this for her own albums, her more recent discs would be considerably less cringe-inducing.] This is easily the band’s best album to date, and these four definitely deserve the title for the year’s most improved band.
1. After Laughter, Paramore
The band’s lineup changes yet again (longtime bassist Jeremy Davis has departed, while original drummer Zac Farro unexpectedly returns to the band after seven years away), but the trio continues to evolve musically with wildly impressive results, playing up its ‘80s influences on such cuts as the infectious new-wave-tinged singles “Hard Times” and “Told You So” and even closing the disc with their most naked ballad yet, the jaw-dropping “Tell Me How.” Sure, the band may sound like a completely different outfit than the emo-and-pop-punk-tinged outfit that gave us “Misery Business” nearly a full decade ago, but they’ve never sounded quite as comfortable in their own skin as they have on their last two outings and they’re much more adventurous and unpredictable now than they were in their earliest years. This is arguably the band’s finest album yet. It’s just too bad that radio didn’t get behind this album the way they did with the band’s self-titled affair from 2013. [Even the lead-off single, “Hard Times,” couldn’t get any further on the Hot 100 than #90, bizarrely enough.]