The Year in Music 2014: Favorite Songs

Picking a list of favorite songs from 2014 is of course completely arbitrary.  As someone who rarely buys a single song on a place like iTunes or Amazon and instead buys entire albums, I usually find my favorite songs within albums that have grabbed my attention; so I could put the entirety of Lost in the Dream on a favorite song list. However, a song list with no limitations would eventually become saturated; therefore, in compiling a list of my favorite songs of the year, I must embrace the arbitrary. So you’ll note in the list below that there are no duplicate artists, making, for example, my favorite song by St Paul & the Broken Bones a difficult choice – all of those tracks were my favorite. I also gave myself the rule that I could not pick the title track from an album. Why? No reason other than I had a hard time choosing my favorite Wye Oak and Bobby Bare, Jr songs, and that rule simply made my task easier.

There are no ranking, here, by the way – again, ultimately out of laziness. But also because a favorite song on a cool April night will probably give way to a completely different song on a crisp September morning. These 32 songs are in alphabetical order, with a blurb about each to follow.

 

Avant Gardner – Courtney Barnett

I usually don’t go in for lyricists who cram as many words as possible into a measure (a la Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams), but the story Courtney Barnett builds in this song, of being short of breath, is a juxtaposition of having too much to say and not the breath to say it. “I’m having trouble breathing in” has such wonderful metaphorical undertones.

Backstairs – The New Pornographers

A power-pop powerhouse (as is most of The New Pornographers’ album of this year), with a driving beat and scintillating melody and harmony. It feels like A.C. Newman and Neko Case pulled this song from somewhere in the mid-70s, ran it through the gauntlet of the last 40 years of rock and roll, and set it down firmly in 2014, an embodiment of this decade’s pop-rock sound.

Bad Law – Sondre Lerche

Sondre Lerche used to come up in my Wilco Pandora station, and it always seemed an odd fit. It still seems that way, as “Bad Law” demonstrates Lerche’s 80s pop sensibilities, and the musical risks he takes seem much more new wave and post-disco than anything Wilco would ever do. “Bad Law” is ultimately a dance club tune, and one that I could imagine being played (and sampled) in discothèques for years to come.

Blame Everybody (But Yourself) – Bobby Bare, Jr

I came across Bobby Bare Jr’s album way too late this year; the fun and confidence of the entire record is embodied in “Blame Everybody.” I love a musical risk, and Bare Jr’s work is rife with risk. But whereas his risks used to seem far afield – to the point that I tended to ignore his music – the risks in this song – the horns particularly – and throughout the album Undefeated, from which “Blame Everybody” is culled, are intuitive, measured, and triumphant.

California (Cast Iron Soul) – Jamestown Revival

There is plenty on “California” that could be construed as cheesy, and because of those elements – like the dramatic pauses and heavy-handed drumming – it’s entirely possible that even a year from now this song is relegated to a one-hit wonder, a little too dramatic, a little too narcissistic for its own good.  But for this year, it’s infectious and sing-able, and deserving of being on this list.

Call Me – St Paul & the Broken Bones

Choosing just one song from St Paul’s debut record was a major challenge of this list.  But “Call Me” is driving, passionate, full of the stellar horn work and surprisingly good guitar work that makes St Paul & the Broken Bones one of the feel-good musical stories of the year.  Paul Janeway’s voice is a revelation, and if the band keeps putting out songs like this, so indebted to classic R&B and Soul, we’ll be hearing that voice for years to come.

Chill Pill (Experiment 2) – Hawk House

Another late find from this year, Hawk House remind me of the hip-hop acts of the mid-90s that got drowned out by the West-Coast/Gangster rap of that decade: Digable Planets, De La Soul, Boogiemonsters. With Hawk House, the Love Movement has been resurrected, and I’ve pulled out my old A Tribe Called Quest records because of them.

Colorado – Chastity Brown

“Colorado” is the twin of Jamestown Revival’s “California” i.e. will I one day find that it takes itself too seriously?  Never mind – the future is a blur. Right now I’m relishing in Chastity Brown’s gritty, soulful voice.

Dead Room – Nick Waterhouse

In all honesty, I wanted to love Nick Waterhouse’s record of this year, Holly.  And in a certain context, with the cocktail shaker pouring out strong libations, the lights dimmed and shrouded, it’s perfect.  But I had a hard time embracing the album.  “Dead Room” stuck with me, though, with its surprising sax solo helping to distinguish it from the rest of the rather pedestrian lounge sound.

Emajer – Tinariwen

Oh my, what a sound the Malian rebels and refugees Tinariwen produce.  This record easily could have made my list of favorites (except that I’m shamefully Eurocentric and prefer to be able to understand the lyrics). The word “Tinariwen” means empty places, and the album, recorded in Joshua Tree National Park, has that feel of the hot desert air, the wide expanses of sand and rock, the hot winds and cool nights.

Evil – Shovels & Rope

“Evil” stood out on Shovels & Rope’s 2014 Swimming Time with its molasses feel, its dirge-like tone.  The band’s previous album sounded too much to me like Loretta Lynn, but “Evil” was proof that Shovels & Rope has its own sound and, given lines like “but every now and then I get evil/I’m ashamed in the shadow of a steeple/I’m a lunatic looking through a keyhold/I hit my kids but I don’t mean to/I’m a dead dog lying on the sidewalk/another victim of the mortgage-bubble pop/waiting on the other shoe to drop,” its own ethos.

Eyes to the Wind – The War on Drugs

Another stellar album from which it was a challenge to pull just one song, but The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream has as its mid-point this song, which simultaneously grounds the album and lets it soar off into other realms.  “Eyes to the Wind” is an embodiment of the paradox that runs the course of the entire record: musically soaring and empowering while also deeply melancholy – thanks a lot, saxophone coming in there in the final 30 seconds, to remind us of that dark, brooding place we’ve all been.

Fuck Fame – Bart Davenport

In a year when the sound of the 80s has come back with a vengeance (The War on Drugs, Wye Oak, Broken Bells all channeling that decade’s synth-heavy sound), Bart Davenport’s guitar work stood out as the most evocative of 80s pop. “Fuck Fame” would have fit perfectly wedged between a-ha and Mister Mister songs on the radio – except for the expletive.

Fuckmylife666 – Against Me!

On a record rife with simultaneous angst-filled thrash and grace-filled melody, “fuckmylife666” is the centerpiece.  Propelled by a timeless guitar riff and grounded by a bittersweet chorus, the song stands as an anthem for the ages.  “I don’t have the heart to match the one pricked into your finger” could be a line in a Franz Wright poem.  The message of Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues is concisely told in this song: “There’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me.”

Heart is a Drum – Beck

Beck’s latest effort, Morning Phase, fell flat for me, because it seemed a rehash of Sea Change from a decade ago, and because the melodic strength of the record petered out in the second half.  The first few tracks, though, are gems, with “Heart is a Drum” the best of the bunch.

High & Wild – Angel Olsen

Angel Olsen created a lo-fi masterpiece with this year’s Burn your Fire for No Witness.  A song like “High & Wild,” even with its oppressive production and gritty feel, is a welcome melodic wonder among the dirge-like songs on the rest of the album.

Home (Leave the Lights On) – Field Report

Even if “Home” had no gently moving melody and totally singable chorus, it would be a standout simply because of this line: “And the body remembers what the mind forgets, archives every heartbreak and cigarette.”  (Also, years from now, will this song be the new “I’ll be Home for Christmas”?)

Horizon – Real Estate

Another album I really tried to love and had a hard time latching onto.  Maybe it’s because Real Estate are a little ahead of the trend-curve, skipping the synth-pop of the 80s that everyone seems to be referencing these days and going straight at the indie 90s and bands like the Red House Painters.

I Prefer Your Love – St Vincent

This is probably my single favorite song of the year. For all of St Vincent’s modern musical bravura and technical mastery, this song proves that she is first and foremost a gifted songwriter. That it feels just as comfortable coming from the car speakers on a clouded-over February afternoon as it does blaring from the home speakers on a bright summer Sunday is proof enough of the song’s transcendence. It is spare and nuanced and, ultimately, beautiful. There are moments when an artist finds that perfect sense of grace, and this, an ode to her mother, is St Vincent’s moment.

Jerk Ribs – Kelis

I’m a sucker for a good horn section coupled with a sultry voice, and Kelis delivers both on her compelling album, Food.  Apparently Kelis is an accomplished cook in addition to writing infectious soul-pop like this song, as well as her biggest hit (by far) to date, “Milkshake,” which, given her love of food, might deserve a different interpretation.

Lazy Wonderland – Broken Bells

At the start of the year, Broken Bells’ new album After the Disco was the record I was most looking forward to.  James Mercer and Brian Burton’s (Danger Mouse’s) debut collaboration of 2010 was my favorite album of that year; anticipating a sophomore effort is always dangerous, and After the Disco fell flat for me.  There are some high points, and “Lazy Wonderland” is one of them.

Logic of Color – Wye Oak

I love the new direction Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have taken on their latest album Shriek.  Replacing the waves of guitar sound are percussive loops and keyboard.  The music at once feels pulled straight from 80s synth pop while also feeling wonderfully unique. “Logic of Color” closes out Shriek with such pared-down perfection – perhaps the best closing track of year.

Saturday’s Song – Hiss Golden Messenger

“Saturday’s Song” is a song that can’t be contained.  It could be a Dylan song circa 1975.  It could be a mid-80s Tom Petty song.  There are elements of The Band and John Prine and any number of other songwriters in there, but it’s MC Taylor’s instrumental restraint that makes it a favorite song of mine. There’s no fluff, just straightforward piano and acoustic guitar and that wonderfully subdued mandolin riff, and, ultimately, a catchy guitar riff that could just go on forever.

September Fields – Frazey Ford

So apparently Frazey Ford was in the Be Good Tanyas.  Did everyone other than me know this? Because as melodic and gentle as the Be Good Tanyas were, there was nothing in their sound that made me think any of them would put out a record as soulful as Frazey Ford’s Indian Ocean.  I came across the record way too late in the year to give the entire album enough listens, but “September Fields” stuck out. Ford, like in her time with the Be Good Tanyas, isn’t taking any serious musical risks here, but the result is still infectious and compelling.

Silver Timothy – Damien Jurado

There are some real gems on Jurado’s latest effort, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son. I love the tropicalia-sounding strumming of “Silver Timothy,” combined with Jurado’s ethereal voice and back-up chorus, the heavy bass line and the swirling guitars. It all makes for a song that’s at once grounded and at the same floating out in the ether. A truly unique sound this year.

Slow Motion – PHOX

The band PHOX seems to be trying to carve out a particular space between alt-country and 90s pop.  I mean, doesn’t much of their song “Slow Motion” seem pulled straight from a Dave Matthews tune? Plus, the descending notes of the opening guitar line are a rip-off of Ryan Adams’ “Answering Bell.” But despite the unsubtle references, there’s something really appealing and, quite frankly, innocent about PHOX’s sound. It brings me back to a time in college when the only thing that mattered was listening to music late into the night with whatever substances were available – that is to say, moving in slow motion.

Stranger to my Happiness – Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings

Probably the best news of 2014 was Sharon Jones’ being back in the soul saddle.  The album Give the People What they Want had been shelved in 2013 as Jones underwent treatment for bile duct cancer, so its release in early 2014 felt much like a comeback, even though the album had been completed before her diagnosis.  But as Jones has continued to demonstrate her inexhaustible energy on stage, “Stranger to my Happiness” has demonstrated it on vinyl (because, really, that’s the only format with which to listen to her and her band).

Taking Chances – Sharon van Etten

Sharon van Etten’s follow-up to her critically-acclaimed Tramp was a bit of a surprise for me, with its glossy production and mainstream pop-influenced beats – both of which are featured prominently on “Taking Chances.” But van Etten’s skill has always been in the visceral insistence of her voice, which, despite her newly-produced sound, has not been lost in this song.

The Body Electric – Hurray for the Riff Raff

The production on Hurray for the Riff Raff’s stellar Small Town Heroes, by contrast, is crisp and understated, allowing Alynda Lee Segarra’s un-forced voice to ground every song.  Here, on “The Body Electric,” her vocals resonate alongside the staccato strings; the effect is soulful and mesmerizing.

Waiting for the Sun – Jolie Holland

In all honesty, I don’t know why the closing track of Jolie Holland’s Wine Dark Sea appeals to me.  Maybe it’s Holland’s interestingly sultry voice, maybe it’s the molasses-like baritone sax or the background trumpets.  Probably it’s that all the above combines to make for a methodical song that doesn’t care how long it takes to reach its conclusion.

Water Fountain – tUnE-yArDs

tUnE-yArDs’ follow-up to their wildly successful W H O K I L L picked up where that record left off.  For a band with such a unique sound as theirs, this meant nikki nack was doomed to stepchild status.  Indeed, “Water Fountain” really belongs on W H O K I L L, while the rest of record should be relegated to a b-sides and rarities release.  I know that sounds harsh, but for those just discovering the band, “Water Fountain” is the epitome of their sound – polyrhythmic, African, and looped incessantly – and other songs won’t reveal much that’s new.

Wine Lips – Lydia Loveless

Probably my favorite riff of the year is the one on “Wine Lips.”  Lydia Loveless’ voice (hinting vaguely at Dolly Parton), the twangy rhythm guitar, and the heavy drumbeat make for a perfectly messy sound, gritty and unashamedly country, originally country. If Top 40 country wasn’t so insipid, Lydia Loveless would be embraced as its new darling.  Fortunately, she’s too down and dirty, too damned herself, for that anyway.

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You can read the first posts for 2014 Year in Music here (a personal overview of the year).

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The Year in Music 2014: Overview

2014: Transgender Dysphoria Blues and the Awakening of the Heart.

Against Me!

Against Me!

In writing about the year in music for 2013, I made the off-hand remark that 2014 could be the “Year of the Transgender” – because someone [ahem] had tagged 2013 as the “Year of the Woman” in music. It’s absurd, to label an entire (and entirely arbitrary) 12 months as the “Year of Something;” hence my flippancy about this year being the “Year of the Transgender.” But here I am, for the second straight year, affixing a label to a span of time that should be beyond labels.  Because I am going to say that, for me, 2014 in music was the “Year of the Transgender.”

Since about the age of two, my son has identified more with things that our society would call girl-ish. He wears leggings instead of jeans, chooses tutus over jerseys, skirts over athletic shorts. He has insisted on growing his hair long, and for a few weeks last winter wrote “Jane” on his school work instead of his given name. Over the course of the past three years or so, he has grown less and less comfortable with the trappings and norms that might be associated with boys. He now uses the girls’ restroom at school. This past summer he began insisting on wearing a one-piece girl’s bathing suit (previous years he had been okay wearing boy’s swim trunks). His newfound love is dance, and he has the pink leotard and tights to show for it.

All this, of course, from a distance, might seem like the normal phases of growing up, particularly since he has an older sister whom he adores. And for years this was the stance I took with him: he is constantly surrounded by girls – maybe if he played with more boys he’d be into cars and sports and superheroes. If he’ll just wear normal boy clothes to school, he’ll eventually get used to them and see that they’re not so bad. This was selfish of me, the thoughts of a father determined to have a boy to play with. Even if I robed myself in some noble justification – since he was born a male, he should fit into western male stereotypes so he won’t be bullied – it wasn’t about my son and his identity; it was about my identity and my stubborn desire not to lose the son I thought I had at birth. There was always – despite the growing evidence that he related more to girls and even often self-identified as one – the hope that the masculine would trump the feminine in him, and I would have someone to throw the baseball with, to go to basketball games with, to work on the car together with and to chop wood together with.

These are western clichés, I admit. What one boy loves another disdains, and I was casting upon him the unfair shadow of those things that I, as a male, love. But my son will be my son whether he gravitates to trucks and guns or stuffed animals and ballerinas – until that time when he tells me he is no longer my son but instead has always been my daughter. But I fear that day. I fear what that means for me and the idyllic, clichéd world I have tried to create within my family. I fear being cast adrift in a world with which I am unfamiliar – because isn’t that what the unknown is for us all, a place where we are untethered, vulnerable, exposed?

One album this year demonstrated just how myopic that holding on to an idyll is. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the punk band Against Me!’s first record since its lead singer came out as a woman. And throughout the record’s brisk 30 minutes, lead singer Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gabel) pulls not a single punch in expressing her rage, her angst, her confusion, her loss and grief at the life she led trapped in a masculine body. The opening lines demonstrate her dysphoria growing up as a male: “Your tells are so obvious/shoulders too broad for a girl,” and, later in the song, “you’ve got no cunt in your strut/no hips to shake/and you know it’s obvious/that we can’t choose how we’re made.” And the way the rest of the world looks at her: “You want them to see you like they see every other girl/They just see a faggot/They hold their breath not to catch the sick.” Are there any words in modern rock more bracingly honest and absolutely shattering as those?

It would be one thing, though, if the album was only angst and rage, but for me Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a grand, gorgeous album because ultimately it is also filled with grace and love. In a song like “Two Coffins,” in which Grace sings, “How lucky I ever was to see/The way that you smiled at me/Your little moon face shining bright at me,” I hear her saying goodbye to the boy she once was. There are many farewells on the album, be it to her friend (and, by reading another double entendre, her former self) that she lays in the cold ground in “Dead Friend” or the nameless youth stuck in their own dysphoria and suicidal thoughts, as in the raging final track “Black me Out.” Ultimately, I feel that the album is a love note – a brutally honest one – to all those who have experienced any type of dysphoria, have struggled in any way with their identity.

So it has registered with me in my relationship to my son. It has been unfair of me to expect him to fit into some mold that I might think (whether nobly or misguidedly) would protect him best. Should he could continue to be gender fluid into his adolescence and teenage years (and there’s no reason to think that he won’t), he will face confusion and ridicule enough from the greater world. He doesn’t need me pathologizing him or questioning the person he is. There will be things about him to which I won’t be able to relate, but I hope to support him when he needs me; there will be times he is searching for an empathetic voice, and one person won’t be able to give it all to him – but Laura Jane Grace and Transgender Dysphoria Blues will join the chorus of voices supporting him.

I can confidently say that no punk album has ever brought me to tears – until this one.  To think of the thousands of children and teenagers struggling with gender identity, feeling isolated in a society that sees gender as something very black white; to think of the higher suicide rates among people with gender dysphoria; to think of the confusion of feeling one way while your body looks a different way – and to think that my son might one day (and perhaps does now) feel what Laura Jane Grace felt as a man – it fills me with tenderness toward him, this little miracle of creation, who deserves none of the grief and suffering about which she sings. A chill runs through me when I hear her, in “Paralytic States,” perhaps the boldest and most fulfilled song on the album, sing, “Standing naked in front of the hotel bathroom mirror/In her dysphoria’s affection she still saw her mother’s son.”

That phrase – “dysphoria’s affection” – is a summation of the record as a whole, a contradiction of the black and white album cover and Western society’s black-and-white view of sexuality and gender. The whole world is gray and muddled, and this recognition that we all live in some sort of dysphoria is what makes the album full of universal truths. Punk though it may be, it is not far removed from other albums full of muddled heart that were released this year: Sharon van Etten’s Are We There, Hiss Golden Messenger’s The Lateness of Dancers, and The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream come most prominently to mind. When Grace sings on my favorite song from the record (“fuckmylife666”) that “I don’t have the heart to match the one pricked into your finger,” (a line that would be right at home in a Franz Wright poem), she is adding her voice to the many who sing about brave love, the lessons of life and loss, and the awareness of the heart and its strengths and shortcomings, sentiments you can hear in the songs of The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel, MC Taylor (aka Hiss Golden Messenger), and van Etten.

So I’ll amend my way-overgeneralized label and not call 2014 the “Year of the Transgender” but will instead call it the “Year of the Heart.” Because this year numerous artists released wonderful records full to bursting with grace and melancholy and poignant moments that speak directly to the human condition, to our attempt to know ourselves as best we can on this journey of life. None of those records, however, changed me the way Against Me!’s did. And perhaps I have never been changed by an album in the way Transgender Dysphoria Blues changed me – recalibrating the manner in which I need to parent my son, altering the way I view him and the person he is likely to become; exposing me to the grief and rage he likely will feel as he matures; and offering me visions, dark and terrible, of what might face him if he does not feel unconditionally supported in growing into his true self. Transgender Dysphoria Blues wasn’t necessarily my favorite record of 2014, but it was the most important that fell into my hands this year – and may end up being the most important ever to come into my family. As I write this, and Grace growls in the background, “does God bless your transsexual heart?” my son is asleep in his bed, organs pumping, cells dividing and growing like almost every other six-year-old on earth. His brain is getting the rest it needs in order to, in its waking hours, receive the world and all its signals – like most every other child alive. So why should his gender fluidity make him any different from those other hundreds of millions of children? There is nothing to pathologize. And yet, as he moves through childhood and adolescence, there will be many questioning who he is. Hell, he will probably do the same. But thanks to Laura Jane Grace’s rage, honesty and, yes, grace, I won’t be one of those to raise the questions, and my son will be blessed to have one more authentic voice from which to seek the answers.