Favorite album status, as much as musical composition and tastes, is about timing. The moment an album strikes you is a completely random act, but that album’s success is almost entirely dependent on the listener’s place and mental state. For example, would I have loved Wye Oak’s new record as much as I do if I they hadn’t opened their spring/summer tour here in Asheville with an incredible show – richly soundscaped and light-scaped – almost two months before Shriek was released? Would Lateness of Dancers have jumped so high up on my list so late in the year if, after the lush noise and lack of subtlety I had been listening to for most of the summer and fall, that album’s vividness and clarity hadn’t been a welcome reprieve?
Given that over 50,000 albums are released in given year, and that probably a tenth of them make it into the hands of at least a thousand people, the above should be fairly obvious. Not only are our musical tastes unique, but so too are the situations we find ourselves in when we hear something new (or hear it anew). I do not claim that the albums on this list are the best out of those 50,000, only that they serendipitously found me at the best time.
My top three albums were in place as far back as April. The next few filtered in throughout the year, and then there were others that stayed on my periphery, making themselves known only occasionally, like another planet in orbit only makes itself known by passing between us and the sun – they were lit mainly by the light of those favorites of mine. Those peripheral albums deserve some recognition, so they are the runners-up, not quite favorites but certainly ones I appreciated.
There were eight albums that clearly distinguished themselves for this year – and I returned to them again and again throughout 2014. And whereas in past years I have agonized over some type of ranking, ranking those eight this year was easy. That, too, I think, should be chalked up to timing.
This is just a great rocker of a country album, gritty and earthy and dirty. The (deliberately) messy production calls to mind Uncle Tupelo’s Still Feel Gone. There are a plethora of catchy songs, like “Head,” “Wine Lips,” and “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud,” all propelled by great guitar licks and heavy bass lines – and always grounded by Loveless’ endearingly sloppy country twang, a little bit Patty Griffin, a little Reba McIntrye, but uniquely her own.
Shovels & Rope come out swinging on this, their sophomore effort. “The Devil is All Around,” “Bridge on Fire,” and “Evil,” the first three songs on the album, demonstrate definitively that Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst aren’t playing nice. Male/female folk duos were given to grandiloquence thanks to groups like The Civil Wars; Shovels & Rope, refreshingly, aren’t concerned with that type of beauty; theirs is real and raw. That every song (like The Civil Wars) is a duet – a trope I can grow weary of – is the only reason Swimming Time didn’t make the final favorite album cut.
I came across Undefeated way too late in the year. And in the past I hadn’t paid Bare, Jr, much attention because to me his musical risks were too far afield for my tastes. So Undefeated has been a pleasant surprise. Bare, Jr, is still taking some risks, but he’s firmly in control of them this time around, making them feel integral to the music and not just for show. Hear “The Big Time,” for example, and the guitar hook that mimics a horn section is an intuitive choice. Ditto the subdued keyboard after the guitar solo on the title track, as well as the actual horns on “Blame Everybody (But Yourself).” A really impressive, grounded album by Bare, Jr.
Amelia Meath (of Mountain Man) and Nick Sanborn (of Megafaun) – what might seem an unlikely pairing – come together to create what sounds to me like a Feist album listing completely to the eletro-pop side. The result is endearing and ethereal, a trance record that, despite the listing, doesn’t capsize.
Steven Hyden at Grantland said it better than I ever could when he put Tinariwen’s album on his year-end list: “The baddest guitar band on the planet. These Tuareg rebels — I mean that literally; they fought against the Malian government in the early ’90s — had to flee their home country in 2012 due to the threat of Islamist militias. Emmaar was made in the U.S., but it sounds like the desert: vast, indefatigable, serene, and quietly lethal.”
Choosing St Vincent’s self-titled release from this year is a bit like an umpire calling the runner safe because he had missed the previous call – in other words, a make-up call. Despite how much I relished hearing a new St Vincent record, I wasn’t impressed with it on its release. Unlike, apparently, the rest of the world. But I did eventually warm up to the album, and there are plenty of gems: “Psychopath,” “Birth in Reverse,” “Severed Crossed Fingers,” are examples of St Vincent’s musical daring but also her groundedness; as she’s said, “I try to live at the intersection of accessible and lunatic.” For me Strange Mercy is where she most masterfully resides at the intersection, but I came upon that album a year after its release. Retroactively, it’s my favorite album of 2011. But it was too late, so here she is again in 2014. No one is making music like St Vincent these days, so an album of hers always deserves consideration as a favorite.
That I saw St Paul and the Broken Bones at my hometown free outdoor monthly concert speaks to how unexpected their stratospheric popularity was. Asheville’s Downtown After Five normally can’t afford to bring in acts that are selling out venue after venue, but that’s exactly what St Paul and the Broken Bones have been doing since spring. Getting exposure from such varied media as CBS, NPR, Garden and Gun magazine, Southern Living, and Rolling Stone helped propel Half the City to #3 on iTunes. Southern soul, when done with the panache that St Paul and the Broken Bones exhibit, should have broad appeal. Listen to Paul Janeway’s voice and hear Otis Redding in his prime; hear the tight instrumentation of the Broken Bones and you’ve got the Famous Flames or the J.B.’s backing up James Brown. If any one of the 12 tracks on Half the City (and, please, listen to it on vinyl, the only proper way to hear a soul record) don’t get you moving, check your pulse.
It’s probably unfair to keep calling The New Pornographers a super-group. The band has become Carl Newman’s primary focus and Neko Case’s vehicle to venture away from her unique brand of Americana. Besides, albums by super-groups these days tend to be piecemeal and disjointed as each artist does his or her own exploring. I’m thinking specifically of Golden Smog, and Brill Bruisers first struck me as another Weird Tales, with Jeff Tweedy’s and Gary Louris’s songs being distinct from each other. But The New Pornographers aren’t Golden Smog, and Brill Bruisers isn’t Weird Tales. Probably because of Newman’s focus, it is a unified piece of indie pop, with catchy tunes like “Champions of Red Wine,” Fantasy Fools,” and “Wide Eyes.” You can thank Newman’s sense of melody and Case’s sense of harmony for that. Newman clearly has been influenced by 80s (and even 90s) college rock and I hear what I hope is an appreciation for the criminally unknown Scott Miller of the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family in his songs. Brill Bruiser’s closing track “You Tell Me Where” could be dropped easily onto Lolita Nation or Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things and no one would be the wiser, and that, Mr Newman and Ms Case, is the highest praise I can give.
The rich, deep tradition on which American folk music is based is a double-edged sword: there lurks always in the shadows the danger of folk growing stale under its own tradition: why bother to reach for new territories when the territories already claimed by the likes of the Carter family and Woody Guthrie have proven so fertile and perpetually harvestable? In this quandary, the musician Alynda Lee Segarra and her project Hurray for the Riff Raff make the other edge of that sword sparkle with hope. Segarra obviously has been steeped in the folk tradition, but perhaps because of her New Orleans roots she has the envious ability to propel folk into those other territories. I love the accompanying organ on “Crash on the Highway” and the gospel swing of “No One Else.” But beyond her willingness to exercise folk’s muscles is her voice. On the album’s closing track, “Forever is just a Day,” her haunting vocals over an Appalachian fiddle sounds close to breaking. It’s a voice of powerful duality – equally strong and vulnerable. Couple that dynamic voice with Segarra’s ability to work both the beautiful/melancholic (“The Body Electric”) and the rollicking/raucous (“I Know it’s Wrong”) and you’ve got an artist who (like Gillian Welch a decade before her) can explore folk’s new terrain.
What a breath of fresh air this album has been for me. Every musical choice that MC Taylor makes – I’m thinking specifically of the fiddle/banjo/chorus addition to “Drum” and the organ solo at the end of “Mahogany Dread” – seems completely intuitive. There is no fluff here, no bravado. In fact, Taylor doesn’t even strain his voice on a single note, which gives the album a feeling of clear confidence and naturalness. I can put on this record on a day clouded-over, and despite the gray skies the world seems clearer, fresher, more vibrant.
I wrote at length about Transgender Dysphoria Blues in an earlier post, and I’m not going to run that horse into the ground. I’ll just say this: this record has been a revelation to me, and I hope to others. In his essay on the fiftieth anniversary of Howl, poet and essayist Robert Hass writes that “it is absolutely necessary, at least once in every generation, that someone get unhypnotized long enough to let the sense of the absurd crystallize and the grief and rage well up into a howl loud enough for the rest of us to hear.” Laura Jane Grace’s statement is for me what Allen Ginsberg’s was for so many upon Howl’s release – a piece of art to awaken me and put me among the nuances where I should continually be residing.
In her Pitchfork review of Shriek, Harley Brown laments the old Wye Oak sound, comparing the new record to a friend you think you see who turns out to be a stranger. (To her credit, she also respects Wye Oak’s new sound.) And I guess I understand that to a certain extent; on albums like Civilian and The Knot, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack definitely carved out a soundscape that was as unique as it was comforting. So it makes sense that Wasner’s eschewing of her guitar for pared down keyboards on Shriek would cause Wye Oak’s fans some discomfort. But it’s apparent to me that Wasner and Stack need to live in that discomfort and hope that their listeners will be willing to do the same. I know that not everyone is able to do that, but that unsettled feeling is what makes Shriek so compelling. There is, hidden among the drum loops and piano runs and bass riffs on tracks like “Shriek” and “I Know the Law,” an 80s pop-sensibility that feels familiar; Wasner and Stack, though, stretch and peak into unknown corners and peer around bends in the road (“School of Eyes” and “The Tower”), and the result is, for me, a record that is as unfettered to any past as any album released this year.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
Listening to Lost in the Dream again and again over the past couple weeks in preparation for writing about it, I’ve been trying to put my finger on why exactly I’ve fallen so in love with it. Is it the melancholy (to which I’m naturally drawn) with lyrics about the heart that I can relate to (“Lost in the dream/or just the silence of the moment/it’s always hard to tell”)? Maybe. Is it Adam Granduciel’s reflections on loss and love (“Love’s the key to the games we play but don’t mind losing”)? Maybe. It is the small wonders, the surprising moments, like the saxophone at the end of “Eyes to the Wind” or the chord riff in the middle of “In Reverse”? I’m sure it’s all those things. But I noticed for the first time the other day just how much the drum work of Charlie Hall helps move this album along. Even if the core of Lost in the Dream is loss and grief, it’s a propulsive record, a driving record, one you’d carry on a road trip, and that’s in large part because of Hall. It’s almost as if every piece in his drum kit acts as a ride cymbal – the snare drum in “Red Eyes,” the bass drum in “An Ocean Between the Waves,” and, yes, the ride cymbal in “Eyes to the Wind.” Robbie Bennet’s subtle work on the keys deserves mention too, particularly on songs like “Under the Pressure” and “Lost in the Dream,” for helping create the ethereal air of the album. The resulting work is masterful, and there’s no doubt that Granduciel deserves all the accolades for his craft, but this is not a solo album: the War on Drugs made Lost in the Dream, collectively. Maybe that’s why I love it so; all of this – the lyrics, the instrumentation, the production – all of it comes together to create an experience that you hate to come to a close, like reading a Walker Percy novel and the skies he describes are just as important as the minds of his main characters and when you get to that last line and close the book you breathe a little differently, and you don’t know exactly why, you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know it permeated your being in the reading – or, in the case of Lost in the Dream, in the listening.