Monday, January 19, 2015

A Comparative Perspective on 2014: The Year in Music – Part 3 of 3

So, how does 2014 compare to other years-in-music? Certainly not every year is equal. To provide some context for how good or bad the year was, I’ve somewhat arbitrarily compared this year’s list to the best records from 40, 30, and 20 years ago. I decided against going back 50 years since the pop music album market in 1964 was really in its infancy. I also decided not to compare it to 2004 because I don’t think there’s been enough perspective on those records yet.

What follows is a brief discussion of the year in question and how it compared favorably or unfavorably to 2014. I’ve listed my favorite records from each year along with other notable records from the same year. These notables include records that were big-sellers or were critically-lauded, decent records of personal interest to me, or records that are emblematic of the year and give a good impression of the pop landscape of the time. Some of the notable are records I like, some I don’t. Each section has its own jukebox which I’ve loaded with only the things I liked, sequenced not in order of preference but hopefully in a more listenable order. Finally, at the end I’ll give a short synopsis on 2014 based on the comparative analysis.

Upfront disclosure: the records listed for each year are not every record released that year. I’m sure I won’t mention some people’s favorites. I may have even neglected to include some of my own. These are not meant to be comprehensive lists. This is a very subjective exercise. Obviously my personal bias plays into this, but let’s not pretend that you’re here to get a dry, objective view of pop history. This is my blog; I’m king here.

2014 vs. 1974

Like 2014, 1974 was not a particularly distinguished year for popular music. It was a time of late-glam, late-prog, pre-punk, pre-disco, and mid-period funk. Metal had not fully emerged from heavy, blues-based rock. Classic roots reggae and dub had barely developed out of rocksteady and ska. The hippie dream had died and nothing had come to take its place. A lot of the big groups of the time were either in between releases (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, The Who) or released records that were not their best (see both of the David Coverdale-led Deep Purple albums).

All that said, there were plenty of good records released that year, many of which I deeply love. A lot of the records released in ‘74 that mean the most to me personally were not commercial successes. Sure, Bowie had a hit with “Rebel Rebel,” but many of the rest (Big Star, Eno, John Cale, Robert Wyatt, Neil Young, etc.) were either outright flops or very specialized, marginal releases (Can, for instance). Even KISS’s first two records struggled pre-Alive. The records that did well, chart-wise, in 1974 were of the laid back, post-hippie, Californian superstar variety (Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Jefferson Starship, etc.); and I generally don’t go in for much of that. Rock had become a big-business commodity by ‘74. The darker, weirder stuff is what appeals to me from that year.

None my favorites from 2014 were bestsellers either, but that’s become the norm for past few decades. Very little in the mainstream has appealed to me since ‘93. In the Seventies, however, the biggest records were sometimes the very best. It seems like it’s the reverse of that now. In that way, ‘74 resembles 2014.

I’d argue that D’angelo’s new record compares favorably with the best of ‘74 R&B which includes good to great records from the Meters, Rufus, Parliament, Funkadelic, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Ohio Players, Isley Brothers, and more. The other R&B-related records I liked in 2014, Theophilus London and FKA Twigs (and Kelis, which didn’t make my list), were far less traditional and are a lot harder to compare to their predecessors. Even so, I don’t think they will hold up by comparison over the years. Go back and listen to Up for the Down Stroke or Sweet Exorcist if you haven’t heard them in a while. They’re pretty great.

Any easier comparison is the good country records of 2014 with those of ‘74. Waylon Jennings’ Ramblin’ Man is a clear antecedent of Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Not only does Simpson’s voice sound like Jennings’, but both are/were outsiders to what the rest of country music was doing. Gene Clark’s excellent No Other offers another predecessor for Simpson’s psychedelic country vision as well. Dolly Parton’s Jolene can be compared with 2014’s Somewhere Else by Lydia Loveless, not just because they are women, but because both albums are watersheds for the songwriting talents of both. Lucinda Williams’ Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is a maybe a closer analog to Neil Young’s On the Beach: downbeat, mature efforts with roots both in rock and country. Both have songs called “Walk On” on them too. 1974 was awash in this kind of outsider country and country-rock hybrid like Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Grateful Dead, etc. 2014 had a few good examples, but nowhere near as many.

A comparison of rock between 1974 and 2014 is tougher and generally highlights differences between the two years, although some similarities can be found. One notable difference is the number of female artists on my 2014 list than my 1974 list. Clearly, Ex Hex wouldn’t exist with Suzi Quatro, but Rips is a way better record than Quatro. White Lung rocks harder than anything on this pre-punk 1974 list with the possible exception of KISS. Nothing approaches the musical doom of the Swans, but there is a similar lyrical darkness to John Cale, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, and even the Peter Gabriel-led Genesis (see “Back in NYC”).

That last example, of Genesis, brings up another distinction between the two years. Art rock and prog in 1974 contained a high level of both musicianship and intellectual conceptualism that is largely missing these days. Liars, Wild Beasts, Pere Ubu, Blonde Redhead, and Parquet Courts all offer a level of post-punk weirdness inherent in Genesis’ Lamb, Eno’s two records, the Crimson albums, Henry Cow, Roxy Music, Cockney Rebel, Can, and Yes. However, none of them approach the virtuosity of King Crimson, Yes, or Zappa. The bands that do offer that level of technical ability now have none of the imagination or taste of the aforementioned 2014 art rock groups. D’angelo’s record was probably the most musically proficient record on my 2014 list. Pere Ubu is the most logical bridge between the art rock of the two years, particularly since their first single was released in 1975.

One small similarity between the two years is that even in 1974 rock was starting to look back at itself in anachronism. Big Star was considered a Beatles-y throwback in the time of concept-album prog. Likewise, Ty Segall, Temples, and The Coral all feature almost self-consciously retro sounds. However, none of them approach the freshness or originality of Radio City. That’s a high standard, but if any of these retro groups want to make something that lasts they need to stop hiding behind production and write songs that expose themselves as much as Alex Chilton did.

A lot of my 2014 list was made up of electronic dance music base out of techno and house, genres whose births were only just being forecasted in 1974 by German records like Autobahn and Phaedra. The other ingredients of modern electronic dance music was also in place in 1974, namely the pre-disco Philly soul sound of records like the Spinners’ Mighty Love and the high-polish production of ABBA’s Euro-pop. Clark and Aphex Twin obviously owe elements of their sound to the krauts, but La Roux’s new wave dance music was anticipated in the synths and bassline of ABBA’s “My Mama Said.”

I suppose if I were to choose between the two years I would favor 1974 because of the degree of affection I feel towards the records I did like. I liked my top ten from 2014, but not with the zeal I feel towards the top of ‘74. Whether or not this is because I discovered the ‘74 titles earlier in my life when I was less cynical and more impressionable, I can’t be sure. There were also just a larger number of good records from that year, even several groups who put out more than one record. Brian Eno, Sparks, KISS, Rufus, and the Ohio Players all put out two (really good) records in ‘74. That speaks to the quality of the year as a whole. I was still a year away from being born in 1974, but I feel closer to the music produced that year than the current one. I loved Alvvay’s album from this year, but can I say it’s better than I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight? It’s really hard.

My Favorites from 1974 (in rough order):

Big Star – Radio City
Brian Eno – Here Come the Warm Jets; Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
John Cale – Fear
Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom
Cockney Rebel – Psychomodo
Roxy Music – Country Life
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black; Red
David Bowie – Diamond Dogs
Richard & Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Van Morrison – Veedon Fleece
Sparks – Kimono My House; Propaganda
KISS – KISS; Hotter Than Hell
Neil Young – On the Beach
Waylon Jennings – The Ramblin’ Man
Bob Marley & the Wailers – Natty Dread
Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic
Curtis Mayfiled – Sweet Exorcist
Parliament – Up for the Down Stroke
Mick Ronson – Slaughter on 10th Avenue
Can – Soon Over Babaluma
Tangerine Dream – Phaedra
Kraftwerk – Autobahn
Rufus – Rags to Rufus; Rufusized

Other Notable 1974 Releases (in no order):

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark
Jefferson Starship – Dragonfly
Eagles – On the Border
Eric Clapton – 461 Ocean Boulevard
The Rolling Stones – It’s Only Rock & Roll
Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky
Linda Ronstadt – Heart Like a Wheel
Grateful Dead – From the Mars Hotel
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Second Helping
Bob Dylan – Planet Waves
Gram Parsons – Grievous Angel
Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale
Yes – Relayer
The Meters – Rejuvenation
Randy Newman – Good Old Boys
Willie Nelson – Phases and Stages
James Brown – Hell
Henry Cow – Unrest
Keith Hudson – Pick a Dub
Dolly Parton – Jolene
The Residents – Meet the Residents
Funkadelic – Standing on the Verge of Getting It On
Ohio Players – Skin Tight; Fire
New York Dolls – Too Much Too Soon
Kevin Ayers – The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories
Mott the Hoople – The Hoople
Blue Oyster Cult – Secret Treaties
UFO – Phenomenon
Elton John – Caribou
Commodores – Machine Gun
Average White Band – AWB
Isley Brothers – Live It Up
Jackson 5 – Dancing Machine
Lou Reed – Sally Can’t Dance
ELO – Eldorado
Harry Nilsson – Pussy Cats
Barry White – Can’t Get Enough
Sly & the Family Stone – Small Talk
Herbie Hancock – Thrust
Gene Clark – No Other
Sweet – Desolation Boulevard
Al Green – Explores Your Mind
Suzi Quatro – Quatro
Leonard Cohen – New Skin for the Old Ceremony
Frank Zappa – Apostrophe
ABBA – Waterloo
Rush – Rush
Spinners – Mighty Love

2014 vs. 1984

It’s almost cruel to compare the albums from any year to those released in 1984. In my mind, 1984 is one of the great years in pop music history (1967, 1969, 1972, 1977, 1980, and 1989 are a few others). The best records from 1984 are some of the best of all time. It’s not a question of which year had better music, ‘84 or ‘14. The answer is clearly 1984 by a huge margin. As such I won’t spend as much time on this comparison. I’ll just touch on what made ‘84 great and some of the ways that ‘14 managed to compare respectably in some areas.

All my hyperbole doesn’t mean that there wasn’t bad music in ‘84. There was tons, in fact (some of which is listed in the Notable records). Lots of really bad “80s” production. The 80s get a bad rap in the memory of musical history. I think this is largely due to disappointment of baby boomers that their heroes of the 60s and 70s had a rough go of it during the 80s (Dylan, the Stones, Bowie, Neil Young, Rod Stewart, and Lou Reed all floundered artistically most of the decade). That doesn’t detract from the great records that did come out. There were a number of key groups of the time that didn’t release records in 1984 (Talking Heads, New Order, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel), but enough did that a sensible person couldn’t complain.

Let’s look at the winners of 1984, starting with the Twin Cities. Minneapolis was to 1984 as Manchester was to 1989 or Seattle was to 1991. Prince reached his purple pinnacle with the release of his greatest album and all of his production/writing for other acts that year (The Time, Sheila E, Apollonia 6, Sheena Easton, Chaka Khan). The other sound coming from the Twin Cities included the best records from the Replacements, Husker Du, the Suburbs, and the first Soul Asylum album. For one year, the Twin Cities felt like the center of the music world.

Another winner of 1984 was heavy metal. It was a golden age to be a hesher. Compared to ‘84, 2014 was pedestrian in terms of its metal output. In Part 1 of this Year in Review series I made mention that metal in 2014 did very little for me and that’s because, in my mind, metal today pales in comparison to the greatness of a year like 1984. Ride the Lightning is one of the greatest metal albums of all time, period. Two of the other Big Four, Slayer and Anthrax, put out their debut albums as well. Then there were great records by Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Scorpions, Dio, Venom, Mercyful Fate, Ratt, and many more. Van Halen was really just considered a rock and roll band by this point, but that is really just a testament to how pervasive metal was in mainstream rock.

British and American post-punk was incredibly well represented in 1984. Along with the Minneapolis records already mentioned, REM, the Meat Puppets, and the Minutemen showed very different exits out of punk rock, putting out some of their finest work in the process. The Bunnymen released their Sgt. Pepper’s, U2 ditched Lilywhite for Eno, The Fall fully ushered in the Brix period (begun on Perverted By Language), Depeche Mode made their first great post-Vince Clarke album, and Robert Smith made a better record with the Banshees than he did with the Cure. Nick Cave left the Birthday Party to form the Bad Seeds. The Smiths were the transatlantic answer to REM’s stateside jangle and the Furs and Simple Minds also released quality discs. It was a good time for hairspray, eyeliner, and dark trench coats.

So where does 2014 stand against 1984? Well, I think the ‘14 Swans are actually superior to the ‘84 Swans. Robyn Hitchcock released good albums in both years (and covered the Furs hit from ‘84 this year as well). 2014 offered more in the way of electronic or hip hop than ‘84, however, Run DMC is as good of a hip hop or electronic record as those released in 2014. Tina Turner’s Private Dancer is a great R&B/rock record, but D’angelo’s Black Messiah is more powerful as a cultural achievement, and almost as powerful of a personal one. Sade beats Jessie Ware just by the fact of one being the inspiration for the other, but I think Ware will still hold up years from now too. Just like when being compared to 1974, 2014 had more great women artists than ‘84. Other than that, 1984 takes the honors in every other way. One noticeable difference between ‘84 and ‘74 is the notable releases are not as deep as in ‘74. In true 80s fashion of go-big-or-go-home, records in ’84 were either pretty good or pretty bad.

I realize this somewhat depends on your personal taste. If you don’t like metal and post-punk, then perhaps you wouldn’t feel the same way about ‘84. One thing I did notice is that rock was still the most prevalent genre on my ‘84 list. On my 2014 list – and my lists for the past few years – rock groups were nowhere near as prevalent. In fact, you could almost argue that rock doesn’t exist outside of genre anymore. In ‘84 that wasn’t the case. Rock and roll was the mainstream in a way that it isn’t now and hasn’t been for a while.

My Favorites from 1984 (in rough order):

Prince – Purple Rain
Replacements – Let It Be
Metallica – Ride the Lightning
Echo & the Bunnymen – Ocean Rain
Husker Du – Zen Arcade
Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime
REM – Reckoning
Iron Maiden – Powerslave
The Fall – The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall
Tina Turner – Private Dancer
Van Halen – 1984
Depeche Mode – Some Great Reward
U2 – Unforgettable Fire
Tones on Tail – Pop

Other Notable Records from 1984 (in no order):

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
Madonna – Like a Virgin
Bryan Adams – Reckless
REO Speedwagon – Wheels Are Turnin’
Various – Footloose (soundtrack)
The Cars – Heartbeat City
Run DMC – Run DMC
Foreigner – Agent Provocateur
Steve Perry – Street Talk
Twisted Sister – Stay Hungry
The Pretenders – Learning to Crawl
David Bowie – Tonight
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – From Her to Eternity
Sade – Diamond Life
The Smiths – The Smiths; Hatful of Hollow
Siouxsie & the Banshees – Hyaena
Spinal Tap – This Is Spinal Tap
Psychedelic Furs – Mirror Moves
Simple Minds – Sparkle in the Rain
The Suburbs – Love Is the Law
Slade – Keep Your Hands off My Power Supply
General Public – All the Rage
Chaka Khan – I Feel for You
Sheila E. – The Glamorous Life
Cocteau Twins – Treasure
Bronski Beat – Age of Consent
Chicago – Chicago 17
Weird Al Yankovic – In 3D
Yngwie Malmsteen – Rising Force
Swans – Cop
The Cure – The Top
Coil – Scatology
Death in June – Burial
Nena – 99 Luft Balloons
Dead Can Dance – Dead Can Dance
Queen – The Works
Black Flag – My War; Family Man; Slip It In
Meat Puppets – Meat Puppets II
Style Council – Cafe Bleu
Los Lobos – How Will the Wolf Survive?
Dio – Last in Line
Robyn Hitchcock – I Often Dream of Trains
Bangles – All Over the Place
Slayer – Haunting the Chapel
Anthrax – Fistful of Metal
Venom – At War with Satan
Ratt – Out of the Cellar
Scorpions – Love at First Sting
Mercyful Fate – Don’t Break the Oath
Bon Jovi – Bon Jovi
Wham! – Make It Big
Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasuredome
Judas Priest – Defenders of the Faith
Julian Cope – World Shut Your Mouth
Robert Plant – Honeydrippers Vol. 1
Billy Ocean – Suddenly
Soul Asylum – Say What You Will… Everything Can Happen

2014 vs. 1994

1994 was the year that the corporate co-opting of alternative music took hold. Bland facsimiles of alternative music took over the airwaves and true indie returned to the underground. Perhaps not coincidentally it was also the year Kurt Cobain killed himself. Mediocre bands got signed and made long, terrible CDs that sold millions of copies. With the advent of the compact disc, bands could put out almost 80-minute albums which were 80% filler. It was, in my opinion, the beginning of a terrible time for rock and roll. One that I think it hasn’t recovered from. It pushed me to explore hip hop and electronic music which were coming into their own.

There were some good rock albums throughout the 90s, and 1994 in particular. Those that I did like, I loved – I think in part because I hated so much of the rest of what was out there. A lot of what got me through that decade was Britpop and American indie rock. Real alternative music went underground again which was fine but frustrating when you couldn’t hear good rock on the radio anymore. There were a few above ground rock artists from that year that I will stick by, namely Beck, Green Day, and Weezer. I didn’t really stick with those acts as the years passed, but in ‘94 they offered a brief respite from the rest of the dreck. Blur were huge in England but only a novelty in the U.S. and soon to be dwarfed by Oasis (who were in my mind inferior). Jeff Buckley’s high archangel tenor soared at a time when every mainstream rock male vocalist was either exaggerating some nasal vocal tic or grunting in a manly constipated moan. Low-fi became a code for keeping the good music secret and safe. That, in the end, became a cage itself. For the time though, it’s all I had.

Most of the notable records below are albums I couldn’t understand at best and couldn’t stand at worst. I realize some of you may go through and think I’m an idiot for not liking a lot of these records. Hey, whatever floats your boat. For me, 1994 was horrible and isolating.

It’s hard to compare 1994 to 2014. I think ‘14 had more good records than ‘94, but again, I felt an attachment to my favorites from ‘94 that I don’t feel for the ‘14 records because these albums were a life preserver for me. I think the easiest way for me to reconcile the two lists is imagine how I would have embraced my ‘14 list had they come out in ‘94. From that perspective, it’s easier to make a connection. Alvvays, Parquet Courts, and Mac DeMarco would have fit in very well next to Liz Phair, Sebadoh, Superchunk, and Pavement on 120 Minutes. White Lung would have ended Courtney Love’s career before it really caught fire. Ironically, there would be no superior White Lung without Hole. Saint Etienne’s record is great, but probably not as good as La Roux’s. You could hold Jeff Buckley responsible for a lot of the soggy male singer-songwriters out now, but in ‘94 he couldn’t have been more different from everything else. It’s hard to see Green Day as anything other than megastars at this point, but when I first heard them I saw them as inheritors of both the Descendents and the Buzzcocks. FKA Twigs owes a lot to Portishead, but ultimately I think Dummy is the much better record.

In the end, I think my favorites from 2014’s are at least as good as those from 1994. There are more of them too, so the win goes to 2014, but how high is that bar, really? Maybe that’s not fair. There’s always good music released every year. The jukebox below is the weakest of the three, but there are still some great songs on it. What makes 1994 a bad year for music was how much bad or mediocre music became hits. The Black Keys and the War on Drugs didn’t make my list for 2014, but I think their records were pretty good. Neither of them have yet sold as many copies as Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy (“Corduroy” is the only good song) or Sponge’s Rotting Pinata (no good songs), but the Black Keys and WOD records are easily better and are as successful as far regular rock and roll gets nowadays.

A few words in defense of 1994 compared to the other years: pop memory can be selective in hindsight and with the distance of years the bad music of ’74 and ’84 can get filtered out more easily than the bad music from just 20 years ago. We tend to forget about how popular things like the Osmonds, Helen Reddy, Barry Manilow, Barbara Mandrell, and countless one-hit wonders (Andy Kim, Billy Swan, Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods, etc.) were. There is always terrible popular music. The good years just make up for it with plenty of great music.

My Favorites from 1994 (in rough order):

Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Jeff Buckley – Grace
Blur – Parklife
Guided By Voices – Bee Thousand
Liz Phair – Whipsmart
Sebadoh – Bakesale
Superchunk – Foolish
Weezer – Weezer (blue album)
Green Day – Dookie
Beck – Mellow Gold
Portishead – Dummy
Saint Etienne – Tiger Bay
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Let Love In

Other Notable Records from 1994 (in no order):

Nas – Illmatic
Jeru the Damaja – The Sun Rises in the East
Digable Planets – Blowout Comb
Nine Inch Nails – Downward Spiral
Beastie Boys – Ill Communication
Soundgarden – Superunknown
Oasis – Definitely Maybe
Boyz II Men – II
Common Sense – Resurrection
Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die
Hootie & the Blowfish – Cracked Rear View
Blues Traveler – Four
Hole – Live Through This
Rollins Band – Weight
Live – Throwing Copper
Grant Lee Buffalo – Mighty Joe Moon
Morrissey – Vauxhall and I
Suede – Dog Man Star; Stay Together EP
TLC – CrazySexyCool
Method Man – Tical
Prince – Black Album
Nick Lowe – Impossible Bird
Mary J. Blige – My Life
Pearl Jam – Vitalogy
Stone Roses – Second Coming
Stone Temple Pilot – Purple
Bush – Sixteen Stone
Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York
Autechre – Amber
Orbital – Snivilization
Sponge – Rotting Pinata
Warren G – Regulate...G Funk Era
Aaliyah – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number
Massive Attack – Protection
Johnny Cash – American Recordings
Brandy – Brandy
Ween – Chocolate and Cheese
REM – Monster
Soul Coughing – Ruby Vroom
Dave Matthews Band – Under the Table and Dreaming
Cranberries – No Need to Argue
Korn – Korn
Veruca Salt – American Thighs
Rancid – Let’s Go
Tori Amos – Under the Pink
Jamiroquai – Return of the Space Cowboy
Melvins – Prick; Stoner Witch
Neil Young – Sleeps With Angels
Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works II
Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary
Shellac – At Action Park
Sonic Youth – Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star
Rusted Root – When I Woke
Dinosaur Jr. – Without a Sound
Toad the Wet Sprocket – Dulcinea
Ani DiFranco – Out of Range
The Offspring – Smash
Coolio – It Takes a Thief
Marilyn Manson – Portrait of an American Family
All-4-One – All-4-One
Seal – Seal
Frank Black – Teenager of the Year
Mark Lanegan – Whiskey for the Holy Ghost
Underworld – Dubnobasswithmyheadman
Kristin Hersh – Hips and Makers
Alice in Chains – Jars of Flies
Gravediggaz – 6 Feet Deep
Outkast – Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik
Stereolab – Mars Audiac Quintet


So, what’s my takeaway? How good or bad of a year in music was 2014? In short, 2014 is not as bad as it gets (although even 1994 isn’t as bad as it gets); but when compared to a great year (like ‘84), or even a really good one (like ‘74), 2014 comes out pretty mediocre, which is really what it felt like to me. Of the records that I really like from this year, I bet I don’t end up listening to half of them five years from now. What I think this comparison really reveals is how the changes in the music industry and culture have shaped the way we process and think about music. The music made in the years above is really just a mirror of the time from which it came.

In the Seventies, the record industry was a huge business that acted as gatekeepers for which music got released. As a result, fewer records were released than now, and still fewer were actually heard by most people. That doesn’t mean that only the good stuff got released. A lot of terrible, safe music came out back then. However, there was a real support system for the recognized greats of the time (Bowie, Neil Young, Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, etc.) that clearly doesn’t exist now. There was such a thing as real A&R that developed artists to have long term careers. Kate Bush is a prime example of this. The Seventies were the decade that AOR (album-oriented rock) ruled. In that light, it’s not surprising that even an “off” year like ‘74 produced some exceptionally strong albums.

In the Eighties, music became more imaged-based with the advent of MTV, even as album artwork became physically smaller with cassettes, then compact discs, overtaking vinyl as the format of choice. Affordable Walkman players meant that music not only became more portable, but more of an individualized listening experience. It was easier to walk around with your headphones and tune the world out. Home taping may not have killed the record industry, but it did begin the death of the album format as people began making their own mixes, re-sequencing and re-contextualizing the art as it was intended. The result of these changes was that the music sometimes became as much of a fashion accessory. The release cycles of albums started becoming longer as MTV allowed the record companies to milk a single album over a longer period of time. Although the album was still in many ways considered the primary way for an artist to make a grand statement, music videos made for a lot of one-hit wonders and placed more focus on singles. Culturally, the Eighties were obsessed with a utopian space-age dream of a technological future which bled into the production choices of its pop music making much of it somewhat dated.

In the Nineties, the longer run-times of compact discs meant less editing which weakened the structure of the album. Albums became packed with filler and no longer had two programs (A and B) separated by the intermission of turning the record or cassette over. Album artwork during these years was horrible. Not only did it get physically smaller, but with the introduction of primitive digital design, some of the ugliest album art of all time graced the covers of million-sellers. 1994 was the start of a dour three-year period of a corporate takeover by the record companies. They had had a few years to figure out how to capitalize on the revolution of ‘91 and began to pump out pablum disguised as edgy, rebel music to be sold to a youth market eager to be identified as individuals.

Which brings us to the present. Digital music has changed everything. There’s no such thing as album length any more. Album sequencing, album cover art, and liner notes are all but lost pieces of pop culture. Streaming has even challenged the idea of owning or collecting music as if storing music in any form was burdensome. And yet there has been a microscopic resurgence of vinyl which recognizes the old values of sound quality and the tactile experience of music. There will be a ceiling to this trend and the current vinyl bubble will inevitably burst at some point. The most troubling aspect of the current music landscape though is that very little of it truly sounds new. Pop music has always made a practice of cannibalizing its own past, but in ‘74, ‘84, and ‘94 there was music coming out that sounded like nothing before it. In ‘74, Robert Wyatt, Can, Kraftwerk, King Crimson, and Henry Cow were making music that hadn’t been invented ten years prior. In ‘84, there were precedents from the previous decade for RUN DMC (Gil Scott Heron, Last Poets), Metallica (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest), and the Smiths (the Byrds, Sparks); but “It’s Like That,” “Creeping Death,” and “This Charming Man” couldn’t have come out any sooner than the year they did. They were shocking in their newness at the time (and still are, to some degree). Even the Nineties had records from Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Orbital that sounded like the promised future the ‘80s had yearned for. Looking over my 2014 list, I can’t say that any of the records couldn’t technically have come out 10, 20, 30, or 40 years before. In fact, most of them almost aim for some pop moment that preceded them.

This isn’t supposed to be an old man’s lament about how music nowadays isn’t as good as it used to be. To give you some generational perspective on my possible personal bias, I was 18-19 in 1994. Usually for most people, the music that comes out during that time of their life becomes the standard by which they judge everything else. They think of it as “their” music. If that’s supposed to be the case for me, I feel ripped off. In my opinion 1974, 1984, and yes, even 2014, were far richer years. There’s the possibility that there are great records from 2014 that I have yet to hear. Many of my favorites from ‘74, ‘84, and ‘94 were hardly successful at the time of their release. It took years for them to find an audience. So in some ways the jury is still out on this newly finished year. Maybe one day I’ll look back on 2014 as a golden age in popular music. That’s a terrifyingly depressing thought for the future, but on the other hand, I may still see 2014 as mediocre compared to the great music of the years yet to come.

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