Monday, December 29, 2014

THE BEST OF 2014 - The Best ROCK Of The Year


- 2014 saw a continuation of the previous year's slowed momentum for all things rock. And yet, there were signs of a pulse. Some great new bands emerged from far corners and unexpected places. It was also a year in which some of rock n' roll's biggest titans stood tall - determined to send a message that, as long as they were still alive and kicking, rock yet lived.

If nothing else, 2014 was the year that AC/DC returned. Despite illness and turmoil in the band, the rock legends pulled it together for, perhaps, one final run. And that effort brought us Rock Or Bust, and album that continues AC/DC's uncanny, unflappable streak of delivering great rock music without fail. In these waning days, a new AC/DC album was a true gift from the rock gods - a reminder of what pure rock sounds like from a band that embodies the rock n' roll spirit. In 2014, I bought a new AC/DC album, and that alone makes it a pretty damn good year in my eyes.

Other big rock acts hit back this year with new material, to varying degrees of success. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - prolific in recent years - came out with Hypnotic Eye, which was a solid if not amazing album. What really sold me on its songs though was when I heard them played live. I saw the Heartbreakers play in LA at The Forum, and it was a true show for the ages. Petty was in rare form, and he blazed through hits and rarities and new material. And the tracks he played off his latest album sounded phenomenal on that night. Weezer, The Foo Fighters and Jack White also came out with some great new music, though the biggest news in the rock world may have been U2's iTunes album-drop. I'll admit, something about the spectacle of it all turned me off. But eventually, I warmed up to some of the songs, and felt grateful that U2 was still capable of doing innovative stuff here in 2014. The gifting of the album to everyone though? It may have been a little much.

But really, did anyone have a better year than "Weird" Al Yankovic? One of my musical and comedy heroes since childhood, Weird Al had a true moment in 2014, and it was well-deserved. For a while, Weird Al's offbeat but inherently well-meaning brand of comedy seemed decidedly uncool. Liking Al was the musical equivalent of admitting to playing Dungeons & Dragons. But in 2014, the world finally caught on to the fact that Weird Al is a by-god national treasure - a man whose songs are clever, funny, and the rare sort of pop-cultural treasure that can be equally appreciated by people of all ages. America was loud and proud in its collective love for the Weird One in 2014, and man, it's about damn time. I guess it's just another sign that the nerds have won? But regardless, it was great to be living in a world in which Al is a beloved icon, and even more so, a world where his latest album became a #1 chart-topper. With spot-on parodies of the latest pop music, Al's latest was right up there with his greatest. What a man.

I do think that 2015 has the potential to be a real turnaround year for rock. There are several albums I'm looking forward to in the new year, including new albums from favorites like The Darkness and Scorpions. But my main hope is simply that good new stuff gets played. Every so often I'll hear a great new song, like Volbeat's infectious rocker "Lola Montez," and I'll think "Yes, this. Show me more of this." Or I'll get turned on to a great new band, like Twenty One Pilots, whose 2013 album Vessel was my favorite musical discovery of this year. Hearing songs like "Car Radio," "Semi-Automatic," and "Guns for Hands," I was sort of blown away. This was new, original, different ... but it was 100% rock. I want more new bands - bands that embody rock n' roll (as opposed to the seemingly neverending parade of folky indie bands) - to break through in the coming year. And by the way, I'm going to include both of the above in my 2014 best-of, because neither really hit the mainstream until this year.

I also saw some great live shows in 2014. I saw none other than KISS in concert (with opener Def Leppard), and they completely rocked. Talk smack about them if you like, but they still put on a hell of a show. I last saw KISS circa 2003, so eleven years later, it was great to see 'em one more time. I also saw Motley Crue at the Hollywood Bowl, during their farewell tour. I'm only a casual Crue fan, but it was a great, hugely energetic show - made even better by the fact that the opener was one of my all-time faves, the legendary Alice Cooper. I also saw Tom Petty and the Hartbreakers, as mentioned, and it was a fantastic show at The Forum. An added treat was seeing opener Steve Winwood - not someone I'd see solo, but a definite bonus in this instance. Finally, I was lucky enough to see The Simpsons, live at the Hollywood Bowl. A 25th Anniversary celebration, featuring key voice talent from the show - as well as special guests like Conan O'Brien, Jon Lovitz, and Weird Al - it was a fantastic tribute to the show and all of the great songs and musical numbers it's produced over the years. As a lifelong Simpsons fan, this was a rare treat.

Here's to a rocking 2015. As AC/DC said: it's rock or bust, baby.


1.) Twenty One Pilots - "Car Radio" / "Semi-Automatic"

-  I heard "Car Radio" on the radio one day (ironically enough), and it was one of those "thank god for Shazam" moments. The song was not quite like anything I'd heard before - an escalating descent into madness that evolved from a deliberately spoken rap/emo hybrid into a head-banging rock/EDM rager. Soon after, I caught Twenty One Pilots when they performed on the MTV Movie Awards back in April. These guys were insane. Donning white face masks and stage-diving into the crowd like alien freaks, this was, finally, it seemed to me, a legit rock band for the 2010's. As I dove into their album, "Vessel," I was pretty amazed at how seamlessly they blended rock, rap, and EDM to create something wholly unique. "Car Radio" and "Semi-Automatic" are my favorite examples of their sound - great, catchy songs that go from zero to one-hundred and just plain rock.

2.) AC/DC - "Rock Or Bust" / "Rock the Blues Away"

-When I heard "Rock or Bust," all seemed right with the world. This is just straight-up classic rock, the sort of stuff that AC/DC seems to be able to churn out in their sleep. And yet, with a long gap between albums, and with rumors that this could be their final run, this is not the sort of song we can take for granted. In reality, "Rock or Bust" is a minor miracle - a song that's vintage AC/DC at a point in the band's career when they shouldn't be able to still be making music this good. "Rock or Bust" is yet another mission-statement from a band that is needed now more than ever, digging their heels in the sand and saying "Rock on its deathbed? Not on our watch."

3.) Weezer - "Back to the Shack"

- Weezer gets a lot of undeserved crap, but the one thing that is true is that it was high time that they delivered a kick-ass rock song on the level of their best tunes. Luckily, they did just that with "Back to the Shack," a stand-up-and-clap-your-hands rallying cry that beckons listeners to rock out "like it's '94." This is Weezer at its best - confessional and defiant, funny and flip, rocking confidently while also being self-effacing.

4.) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - "Shadow People" / "Forgotten Man"

- With each passing year, Tom Petty seems less and less interested in creating a radio-friendly rock anthem in the vein of his greatest hits. But he can still rock a jam like nobody's business, and he's still one of the best lyrics-guys in the biz. "Shadow People" is a mesmerizing, hypnotic jam that sucks you in and doesn't let go. "Forgotten Man" is a more straight-up rocker, a bluesy tune that casts Petty as a man out of time. Like that's news. 

5.) Jack White - "Lazaretto"

- I still miss The White Stripes, but Jack White has been keeping plenty busy, and I can't deny that his solo stuff has been pretty consistently excellent and interesting. His latest album was an eclectic mix of sounds and styles, but "Lazaretto" is the loudest, most badass rocker of the bunch. With White's trademark guitar stylings and rebel-yell vocals, it's the kind of song that makes you appreciative that guys like White are carrying the rock torch loud and proud.

6.) Volbeat - "Lola Montez"

- I noticed this song one day atop the iTunes charts and gave it a listen. What I heard was one of the catchiest rock songs in a long while, the kind that begs you to sing along and jump around. The source is unlikely - Volbeat is a Danish rock band whose songs lean towards the metal side of the spectrum. But Lola Montez is a melodic, anthemic song - with strange lyrics about a legendary Spanish dancer. Whatever it is, it works, and I'm pumped to hear more from this band.

7.) The Pretty Reckless - "Heaven Knows"

- The Pretty Reckless were a band that, until now, has perhaps been better in concept than in execution. Led by Taylor Momsen of TV's The OC, the band's trashy, thrashy aesthetic made me want to like them, but I just never got that into the music. But with "Heaven Knows," I'm converted. The song feels like vintage 80's arena-rock, and it's the kind of fist-pumper that you just don't hear much of anymore. It's a perfect match for Momsen's growling voice, and the whole thing has a Joan Jett-esque flair that I dig.

8.) U2 - "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)"

- This one grated on me a bit at first, but after a few listens I really came around to it. For one thing, I like the premise - the idea of a young Bono being transfixed by the music of Joey Ramone ... that's pretty cool. For another thing, I like the song's mix of heavy, distorted guitar with soulful singing. In a way, it's a departure for U2, but it also quickly feels like a lost classic.

9.) Foo Fighters - "Something From Nothing"

- The Foos seemed to be men on a mission this year. They were everywhere. They saw themselves as the defenders of the holy name of rock, and their new album seems intent on cranking things up a notch and going decidedly heavy. "Something From Nothing" has an almost Sabbath-like feel, grinding away like it's a song with something to prove.

10.) "Weird" Al Yankovic - "First World Problems"

- All hail the Weird One. Al's latest album is rife with spot-on pop parodies, but the man has always been a rock n' roller at heart. First World Problems, a surprisingly rocking original song that pays stylistic homage to the Pixies, shows Al's rock bonafides. It's even got supporting vocals from Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls. And in addition to being a pretty rockin' tune, it's also a typically hilarious example of Al's warped observational humor. Basically, it sort of seals the deal: Weird Al friggin' rocks, dude.


1. Iggy Azalea - "Fancy"
2. Charli XCX - "Break the Rules"
3. Jennifer Lawrence - "The Hanging Tree - Alternative Radio Mix"

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