Part Twenty-Two: 10-1
Well, I made it. 190 songs down and only 10 remain. What follows are the 10 tunes that stuck with me most of all those released in the 12 month span of January to December 2014. Of the ten, only two are from artists who I was more than just passingly familiar with coming into the year, and those two are bands who I discovered within the past three years. They’re almost all songs you weren’t likely to encounter just listening along with the radio, which I suppose speaks as much to my tastes clinging tightly to the kind of guitar-driven rock I grew up on as it does to anything else. Anyway, here they are, do with them what you will.
10. A Great Big World (feat. Christina Aguilera) – “Say Something”
Simple, stark, powerful. While most songs on this list took time and repeated listens to grow on me, there are a few that hit me like a ton of bricks on the first listen. This is one of them. This tends to happen more frequently with piano ballads, as they often sound so out of place on an album of otherwise upbeat stuff. In this case I had never heard of the artist (A Great Big World; I obviously knew who Christina Aguilera was) when I heard the song, but that didn’t lessen the impact any. I’ve given the full album a few listens, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve just listened to children’s music, such is the nature of their sound. This song though, crushes me.
9. Guster – “Endlessly”
Another track that comes off an album which didn’t see release until early 2015, this song was available as a digital single back in early November, and within days of that release it was on constant repeat for me. I had very little exposure to the band back in their late 90’s heyday, which should tell you how out of touch I was with music at the time since they were a local act who was getting decent airplay. I had recently given a few of their older albums some courtesy listens after a friend who is a big fan tried to turn me on to them. I liked what I heard, but their indie rock sound didn’t quite grab me to the point where I was lusting after anything new. When this song hit my streaming service, I thought, “well, give it a listen if nothing else”. I was shocked by the 80’s keyboard pop sound that started coming at me and couldn’t believe it was the same band. But I kept listening, over and over, to the point that I was surprised to find I never grew tired of its simple little pop beat and satisfying shuffle. Sometimes it pays to not be familiar with a band when they start branching off into a new direction. It lessens the old-school fan bitterness.
8. Lindsey Stirling (feat. Lizzy Hale) – “Shatter Me”
Two things to keep in mind before we begin: Lizzy Hale is my favorite current female rock vocalist and Kansas is one of my favorite bands of all time. Both of these facts should explain why I am so drawn to a song by a violin playing performance artist who incorporates large quantities of electronica into her music. This is truly quite the hodgepodge of sounds all under one roof, but oddly enough it works. Works amazingly well to my ears, as it turns out. Lizzy can do know wrong and here again delivers a strong vocal performance, using the full breadth of her range to sell the tune. Stirling’s violin playing is likewise pretty intense, making me wonder why no-one (outside of the aforementioned Kansas) chooses to use that instrument in a rock context, given how pliable it is. Then there’s the dubstep elements that interrupt the song at regular intervals, chopping it up and breaking it down, a fact which would ordinarily drive me up a wall, but for reason’s unknown work to perfection here. I wish I could explain, or hell, even understand what it is about music that it can affect me in such a way that something that is usually a total turn-off can become a turn-on in precisely the right circumstances. I guess I should be thankful that understanding isn’t a necessary component of enjoying.
7. Anberlin – “Stranger Ways”
Anberlin has been all over this countdown up until now, usually with a sonic guitar assault at their back. Here they slow things down a bit, although in more of an 80’s Brit-pop fashion than a true ballad. Once again it wasn’t the kind of tune that I would thought to find myself being drawn to, but the more I listened to the album the more this song started to stick out. The slow building and layering of various keyboard parts in particular created an interesting dynamic of increased intensity even while the guitar shading kept things a bit dark and haunting underneath. There is definitely something ethereal and hypnotic about the entire package, which is caught pretty well by the trippy video. If this is in fact that band’s final album, as they claim, then they went out with a bang, converting at least one new fan in the process.
6. Unisonic – “Exceptional”
Vocalists Michael Kiske made his impact on the heavy metal scene as an eighteen year-old when he took over frontman duties for German power metallers Helloween, delivering stunning Bruce Dickinson/Rob Halford-inspired vocal theatrics during the band’s mid-to-late 80’s heyday. He left the band in 1993 and spent the next 20 years working on various all-star projects and releasing solo material. Unisonic is a bit of Euro-metal supergroup, although the band’s sound edges more towards straight-up guitar rock, foregoing some of the speed and full-on thunder of traditional metal. Like most bands of the genre, I enjoy their stuff in stretches, the mood really needing to hit me. Then they released this single from their second album Light Of Dawn last summer and suddenly I found myself no longer needing to be in the right mood. This feels like a big, bad, arena rock radio hit from the mid-80’s, the kind of tune that would have earned Judas Priest precious airplay alongside the likes of “Breaking The Law” or “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”. Kiske’s vocal work is phenomenal, soaring to astronomical heights come chorus time and proving why he is one of the genre’s best. Then there’s former Helloween bandmate Kai Hansen, who joins Unisonic just in time to rip off one the greatest guitar solos of this or any other year. And if you need a little more convincing that the song in question is as fantastic as it is, check out this stripped acoustic version that Kiske offered up late last year. I’ve always thought the mark of good songwriting is how it sounds in an altered context, and this one holds up and then some.
5. Twin Atlantic – “Heart And Soul”
I’m not sure there is another video in existence which so perfectly captures the essence of what it is I like about the song in question as this one. The way it isolates the various elements at the song’s outset: the sprinting bassline, the in-your-face riff, the vocalist with his dense Scottish accent, the splattering drum beat; I love all of that and everything else about this tune. Then it comes to the chorus and both song and video explode with the combustion of all those elements converging on one spot. This is just a classic, foot-stomping, blood-pumping, get-off-your-ass-and-move, rock song, the likes of which doesn’t find its way onto radio often enough these days for my tastes. I mean, I’m not saying everyone needs to LOVE this song, but if you don’t at least like it, I kind of have to question what the hell is wrong with your life.
4. Fractures – “Won’t Win”
The cover to the single looked interesting, so I clicked the link and let it play out. My initial impression was that it wasn’t my type of thing, but I kept listening. And listening. And listening some more. Finally I threw it up on Facebook for my friend Mark’s opinion, given that it seemed to fall more in line with his tastes than mine. He immediately made the Radiohead connection, which he is often want to do, and for a brief moment I thought I was maybe missing something with Thom Yorke and company as this song was appealing to me way more than Radiohead ever did. Turns out that I just have a blind spot for Radiohead that bands like this and Coldplay somehow manage to avoid. So I returned to this song, again and again, each and every time drawn into its hypnotic web of interwoven keyboard passages and delicate guitar shadings. There’s a weird kind of subdued urgency to the way this song is put together, like the protagonist is in the midst of a full blown panic attack but is too heavily medicated for anyone to notice. And I used to think that before I saw the actual video. Good music finds a way. Always.
3. Rival Sons – “Where I’ve Been”
I have made no secret of the fact that the Rival Sons are one of my two or three favorite new bands of the last handful of years, pretty much pummeling anyone would listen with my praise of their amazing retro rock sound. They are now what I had always hoped The Black Crowes would one day become, and somehow they seem to be exceeding even that expectation. Their new album The Great Western Valkyrie is among the finest releases of the past year, as evidenced by the previous entries on this countdown. So it’s a bit weird then that the version of this track off the aforementioned album that I have posted above is not in fact the album one, but instead a live-in-studio performance. The differences are slight, but the impact of watching Jay Buchanan conduct his vocal exorcism – for there is no other way to describe the way he sings – makes this take that much more engrossing. The song in any form is pure brilliance; an emotional kick to the gut that dares to explore the question of how any of us are really deserving of love given the things we have done in our past (in this case told from the perspective of a former drug addict turned prostitute and a shattered former soldier). Just an incredibly powerful and heart-wrenching song in its message and its delivery, here captured in its rawest form. Scott Holiday’s work on the dobro is incredible, underscoring the intensity of Jay’s vocals with an almost melancholy vibe. This is musical perfection.
2. The Tea Party – “Water’s On Fire”
The band The Tea Party, named long before the political movement of the same name, is a Canadian act that formed in 1990 in Toronto, enjoying modest but steady success in their home country throughout the decade that followed. My lone exposure to them was through their 1994 album The Edge Of Twilight, which is a work best described by me and many other as “what would happen if Jim Morrison were alive and fronting Led Zeppelin instead of Robert Plant”. In other words, they sound a lot like The Cult, although vocalist Jeff Martin’s similarity to Morrison is considerably stronger than The Cult’s Ian Astbury, and their slavish devotion to Middle Eastern music much more closely matches the Zeps as well. After a ten year hiatus, the band returned in 2014 with The Ocean At The End, an album which has sadly not yet been released in the States and therefore in unheard by me, save for this stirringly emotional lead single (and a few other tracks which have made their way to YouTube). Which is a fucking shame, because what I have heard has led me to believe it might be among my favorites of the year. Meanwhile, this track will have to suffice, although just saying that seems to underplay its own individual magnificence. Martin’s rich voice is on full display here, and drummer Jeff Burrows delivers a controlled yet stunning performance, his use of hi-hat in particular really filling the song out beautifully. Then at 3:40 things take off, with Martin turning in my absolute hands-down favorite guitar solo of the year. Seriously, it takes me to a place that is not of this world. That in and of itself is worth this song’s position at #2, but thankfully everything that leads up to it is equally as worthy. I will never grow tired of hearing this song. (Note: there was an actual video made for this song, seen here, but it’s an edited version of the song that cuts out the tail end of the solo for reason’s which escape me and should be the subject of a criminal investigation. It’s a cool video because it’s footage from the recording sessions and I love watching the guys play, but man, that edit is for the shits.)
1. Big Wreck – “Ghosts”
Trying to decide what my “favorite” song is for any given year is a pretty hopeless exercise, even if I did just spend the better part of two months trying to do so. On any given day my answer could change, and you can pretty much pick any song in the top 10 and at the moment I’m listening I could be myself convinced that “no, in fact THIS is my favorite”. So why this song above all the others? Because everything. Every aspect of this track, from the vocals, to the bass work, to the various little guitar sections (including the Stevie Nicks’ “Edge Of Seventeen” style metronome bit), right down to the lyrics, do something for me. Ian Thornley, as has been stated previously on this countdown, is my favorite song-writer currently plying his craft. The fact that he happens to be an equally amazing vocalist and guitarist really just sweetens the pot. Big Wreck’s 2012 album Albatross was my favorite of that year, and the excitement I felt at the announcement of its 2014 follow-up Ghosts was palpable for weeks. So much so that I began to worry that there was no possible way for it to live up to my rather large expectations. So when the title track and first single was released back in the spring, I clicked the link for my first listen with great trepidation. What if it was only a decent song and nothing more? One listen later and my worries were put to rest. As I said, this song has everything, so much so that even though the video posted above is, like the song at #2, for an edited version (trimming the running time from 6:11 to 4:35), I don’t even mind the edit. Of course, the full album version (found here) does add a second glorious guitar solo, which is on top of the original solo that is a kind of Stevie Ray Vaughan inspired goodness that gives me chills. This song is gorgeous, the album is a masterpiece, and the band is as good as any going today. Great rock music isn’t dead, it’s just not on the radio.