I’ve always figured that if he were around today, Teddy Roosevelt would be a Skynyrd man. Good, honest, electric blues played a bunch of Southern cats who dug whiskey and the sublime majesty of the great outdoors. Who better to honor in a mid-year list of the best rock albums of 2014 than the original Rough Rider, himself?
Admittedly, naming this list after Teddy Roosevelt is somewhat baffling and entirely random, but then so is this list. While we’ve officially passed 2014’s halfway point on the calendar, the end of June offers a perfect break to acknowledge some of the better rock albums of the year. I have deliberately left out metal, simply because I don’t have another week to devote to what has been an enormously fruitful year in that genre. Also, I will leave hip hop, country, pop, disco and Belgian synth-folk to other writers who might wish to join the party.
Here, in no particular order (except for the first album, which is the uncontested number one so far), are the most notable releases to date of 2014.
Rival Sons – Great Western Valkyrie
Making a strong case for Album of the Year, Rival Sons return with this all killer-no filler tour de force that sees the Californians sidestep the urge to remake the mega-successful Pressure & Time and instead launch their most ambitious odyssey yet. Full of soul, psych, country and good ol’ fashioned, bare-knuckled rock, Great Western Valkyrie is the sound of a band entering their rightful spot among the legends.
Key Track: “Electric Man”
Alcest – Shelter
Recorded in Iceland and produced by Birgir Jón Birgisson, Alcest’s fourth studio album bears more than a striking resemblance to the gossamer, post-rock bluster of Sigur Ros. Shelter sees the Frenchmen continue their stunning sonic evolution with this sprawling, atmospheric voyage that starts strong and grows better with each listen. Deeply personal and spiritually transfixing, Shelter is all but impossible to turn off after only one listen.
Key Track: “Shelter”
The Afghan Whigs – Do To The Beast
The Afghan Whigs signed with Sub Pop in the early stages of the grunge revolution, but their mature, nuanced sound never meshed with their flannel-covered confederates and they have since outlasted most of their peers in terms of both longevity and output. This album establishes why. While Greg Dulli’s lyrics will never appear in a jaunty, beach-themed spiced rum commercial, his knack for meditating on guilt and despair through spacey, textured grooving offers the perfect soundtrack for rainy Sunday mornings.
Key Track: “Algiers”
Julie Byrne – Rooms With Walls and Windows
Gossamer acoustic melodies thread through Byrne’s velvety hush and sparse piano passages for 2014’s ultimate chill album to date. Ideal for sitting quietly on the couch next to a sleeping pet or suffering through pulverizing waves of eye-watering regret.
Key Track: “Butter Lamb”
Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey – Going Back Home
Far too many “Best Vocalist” conversations fail to properly acknowledge Daltrey as one of the premier voices of modern rock, and yet here is is, still bringing it a half century after he first unleashed his pipes on an unsuspecting world. Along with Wilko Johnson, the two deliver a maximum R&B showcase, fittingly released on Chess Records. A bad choice for dinner parties or any occasion where listeners are required to stay seated.
Key Track: “All Through The City”
Black Label Society – Catacombs of the Black Vatican
Zakk Wylde may have written this album in a few weeks, but the tracks on Catacombs have announced a thrilling return to form for the steroidal Viking warrior and his band of Black Label clergy. Heavily weighted towards the Southern rock end of the Zakk Wylde spectrum, some of the tastiest morsels on this one are the ballads.
Key Track: “Scars”
Radio Moscow – Magical Dirt
Grooving to Parker Griggs’ kaleidescopic fretboard heroics at ear-threatening volumes is an experience that no classic rock fan should miss. As a horde of would-be proto-metal revivalists clog the Internet with terabytes of rote Zeppelin worship, Radio Moscow serve up a hellaciously unique vibe, seething with hip-shaking rhythms, howling choruses and enough jaw-dropping solos to leave the rest of the pack choking on their dust.
Key Track: “Rancho Tehama Airport”
Steel Panther – All You Can Eat
You’re damned right Steel Panther is on this list. Those wondering if the puerile sex joke thing has grown old yet are missing the point by a few time zones. These spandexed crusaders of hair metal excess have always backed up their schtick with lighter-raising musicianship and All You Can Eat sees the guys unleash a fresh clutch of hooky riffage and anthemic choruses that will never, ever be safe for work, and thank God for that.
Key Track: “Fucking My Heart In The Ass”
Future Islands – Singles
Dreamy synth-pop helmed by Beach House producer Chris Coady, who finally draws out the vocals of Samuel T. Herring the way they were meant to be heard—soaring, soulful and occasionally snarling. New Wave fans, unite! This is the album you’ve waited for since Kurt Cobain took all your fun away.
Key Track: “Seasons (Waiting On You)”
Augustines – Augustines
They might not have figured that whole pesky band name business yet (they began as “Augustines,” renamed themselves as “We Are Augustines,” then changed back to their original name this year), but these Brooklyn rockers have gathered their sound into a spacious array of spectral melodies, lush harmonies and straight-ahead rock tempos that showcase the considerable scope of both their talents and their ambitions.
Key Track: “Don’t You Look Back”
Ginger Wildheart – Albion
Good luck blending hard rock and pop as successfully, and infectiously, as Wildheart, who just provided the soundtrack for your next block party. The least you can do is to send him a Whitman’s Sampler to thank him properly.
Key Track: “Cambria”
The Meatmen – Savage Sagas
Nearly twenty years have elapsed since Detroit’s foul-mouthed hardcore upstarts released new material, and thankfully they haven’t missed a step. Snotty, hard-charging and utterly without restraint, Savage Sagas offers an unimpeachable reminder that without acts like the Meatmen, the Warped Tour would never exist.
Key Track: “Dinosaur”
Pixies – Indie Cindy
Ten years into their reunion (though without Kim Deal), the Pixies finally deliver album number five, which is actually a compilation of odds and ends released over the past year. Lyrically Black Francis tucks in to themes of paranoia, myth and all-around weirdness—which is why we’ve always loved him—and sonically, the Boston alt icons are loose, groovy and catchy as hell.
Key Track: “Indie Cindy”
Admiral Sir Cloudesly Shovell – Check ‘Em Before You Wreck ‘Em
Druggy psych-rock headtrip featuring an avian-headed maniac and a frontman named Johnny Gorilla. If you’re driving to Vegas, this is the album you want to play for the last thirty miles.
Key Track: “Do It Now”
Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Haunting in all the right ways, Olsen’s sophomore effort sees the Chicago-based singer/songwriter channeling her inner Leonard Cohen with spectacular success. Slow, meditative and at times dominated by silence, Olsen’s palpable restraint at once captivates and suggests terrific possibilities for future releases.
Key Track: “Unfucktheworld”
The Black Keys – Turn Blue
A sprawling psych-rock joyride with bright swaths of soul and funk draped across a scratchy garage rock undercarriage. A worthy successor to their 2011 blockbuster, El Camino.
Key Track: “Bullet In The Brain”