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).

Playlist: July 28 – Aug 3

07.27.14 PLAYLIST : Favorite songs of 2014

This week’s playlist:

My computer is on the fritz this week, which means a majority of my music library is inaccessible, so this week’s playlist is my favorite songs of 2014 so far.  I only used one song per artist – a difficult task, as some of this year’s best albums are overloaded with great songs.

Much has already been made about the rebirth of the 1980s in the music of this year, so I won’t say much more about it. I tend to agree, and I like that the current sound is causing people to re-think their opinion of the 80s.  Remember, we loved that music at the time; it wasn’t until the 90s that, with a bit of perspective, we frowned upon it. All Songs Considered dedicated an entire podcast in 2010 to the question of whether there was any good music in the 80s.  A musical epoch, like a presidency, creates a certain legacy for one generation and a revised one when another generation gets a hold of it.  This current generation of singers, bands, and songwriters has embraced the synth and guitar sounds of the 80s and made us all take another look at the 80s. I will, say, though, with a few notable exceptions, this current crop of music is much more dynamic than most of what was getting airplay in the 80s.

“Heart is a Drum”

Of course, I start with a song that doesn’t fit into the 80s musical revival.  Instead, it’s a meta-revival, revolving exclusively in Beck’s history.  The similarities between this newest album, Morning Phase, and his 2002 album Sea Change are obvious – even to Beck himself – and each review of Morning Phase tends to fall somewhere on the spectrum of “it’s-not-as-good-as-Sea Change” and “it- demonstrates-a-more-mature-working-of-Sea Change.” Which just points out that most reviewers tend to fall back on comparison with previous music in order to gauge a music’s worth.  Look, Sea Change is a remarkable album and, as the title suggests, revolutionary for Beck.  Morning Phase is not a revolution, or even a revelation.  The first few tracks are great, and then the album loses momentum, stays too much in the morning phase and doesn’t distinguish itself.  As the second vocal track, “Heart is a Drum” is one that does distinguish itself.

“Shriek”

Sea change is apropos to Wye Oak’s new album Shriek.  Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have forgone the wall of guitar noise of their previous three albums to craft a gorgeous record.  Composed mostly of bass, drums, and synth/keyboards, the songs float on crafty hooks and lush chords, the perfect vehicle for Wasner’s dreamy voice.  While some critics have bemoaned the band’s change in instrumental direction, I love this sound; to me it feels perfectly natural that Wye Oak have moved in this direction, melodic as always, buoyant in a way I have never heard before.

“Stranger to my Happiness” & “Jerk Ribs”

Sharon Jones triumphantly beat pancreatic cancer.  She was diagnosed shortly after she finished recording her latest record Give the People What they Want, which had to be shelved for a year as she underwent chemo therapy; so while this album isn’t necessarily a comeback for her, there’s an urgency and a triumph to the songs on GTPWTW that – though the energy is no more intense than on any other record she and The Dap Kings have made – feels like a comeback.  Kelis’ new album Food, on the other hand, feels like a comeback and a sea change: her first album in four years is full of modern R&B grooves that feel light years from “Milkshake” – we’re happily a decade removed from that shallow hit, and Kelis’ work now feels like that of a Diva, Donna Summer reborn.  OK, maybe that’s taking it a bit far, but Kelis’ music is now fun and worthwhile, and if you were to follow the career arc of pop singers of the past two decades, then a statement like that is a bit of a surprise.

“Fuckmylife666”

Against Me!’s transcendent album Transgender Dysphoria Blues deserves a blog post of its own (and it’ll get one from me eventually), but in brief: Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the band’s first record since lead singer Tom Gabel came out in 2012 as a woman. A band shamefully relegated to the hyper-political punk bin, Against Me! has taken their leader’s experience and built a bracingly direct album that far outstrips any punk stereotypes.  Laura Jane Grace (as she’s now known) sings of suicide, isolation, and confusion in the face of gender dysphoria; but she also sings of hope, grace, rebirth, and faith and pride (“I don’t have the heart to match the one pricked into your finger / no more troubled sleep, there’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me” she sings in the chorus of “Fuckmylife666”)  – all against a backdrop of refreshingly bright guitar licks and harmonies.  Sure the pace is brisk, but it needs to be.  “Fuckmylife666” is a perfect macrocosm showing why.

 “California (Cast Iron Soul)” & “High & Wild”

Two quasi-country songs that blur the lines of genre, “California” and “High & Wild” achieve their energies through very different means.  Jamestown Revival open up the rock-song how-to book in order to make a song that hits all the high points of rock music: slow acoustic build-up, perfect harmony, snapping snare drum, crescendoing chorus, and the dramatic pause.  Some might consider it trite, and it’s very possible that months from now I will have become bored with it – as I do with most shallow songs that epitomize rock – but “California” feels a bit deeper than those.  “High & Wild” on the other hand is all depth.  Angel Olsen’s languid voice should relegate her to the indie scrap-heap, but her songwriting is crisp enough to avoid that fate. And whereas Jamestown Revival’s passion is up in your face, Olsen’s passion is apparent at odd angles – never directly.  A bit Leonard Cohen, a bit Patti Smith, and a touch of new wave, Olsen is a unique voice, and her album Burn Your Fire for No Witness is appearing on many Best-of (So Far) lists.

 “Water Fountain”

The first single from tUnE-yArDs’ latest album, “Water Fountain” takes off where W H O K I L L finished: high in intensity, danceable, pseudo-African in rhythm, and politically-minded.  It’s not anything remarkably new from Merrill Garbus and her outfit, but it works, because she has created in pop music a niche over which she unquestionably rules.

“Don’t Mean a Thing”

I could have chosen almost any song from St Paul and the Broken Bones’ debut album as the entire record is a soul and R&B barnburner.  I’ll just say this: it’s great to have Otis Redding back.

 “I Prefer Your Love”

As exploratory as St Vincent (the stage name for guitarist and songwriter Annie Clark) can be, as much as that exploration and invention define her place among the musical literati and has made her such a darling of music critics, it’s refreshing that she can ease her foot off the pedal with that same genius. “I Prefer Your Love” is an exquisite ode to Clark’s mother; a line like “all the good in me’s because of you” cuts to the quick, daringly (like we all know Clark to be) and poignantly (which we might not have expected her to be).

“Fuck Fame”

Of all the songs on this playlist, Bart Davenport’s might be the one most clearly indebted to 80s rock and pop.  There is in Davenport’s guitar-work more than a hint of the great pop bands of the 80s – The Cars, A-ha, Duran Duran, Tears for Fears.  I close my eyes and I’m back in my bedroom in 1986, my jeans rolled at the ankle and – except for the F-bomb – “Fuck Fame” could follow “Drive” or “Take on Me”on the FM station.

“The Body Electric” & “Wine Lips”

Alynda Lee (the musician behind Hurray for the Riff Raff) and Lydia Loveless are two of my vocal discoveries of this year.  Lee’s husky soprano has its obvious influence in the likes of Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams, and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s latest album Small Town Heroes is a comprehensive walk through all things folk, and the meandering path being a folk artist entails.  “The Body Electric” is the most striking (though certainly not the only song worth listening to in depth) as Lee’s acoustic guitar and the string accompaniment are her perfect complement.  I hear a bit of Lucinda Williams’ influence on Lydia Loveless’ voice as well, because Loveless doesn’t curtail her country twang, instead accentuating it, embracing her harder edge honky tonk sound like Loretta Lynn did when she teamed up with Jack White.  “Wine Lips,” with it’s heavy back beat, bass run and hooky guitar lick, is what country should be if country music weren’t run by the corporations that make it so stale.  Stale is a term that never would be applied to Lydia Loveless.

“Silver Timothy”

I’ll be honest and say that I thought I was going to fall in love with Damien Jurado’s new album Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun. And there’s no doubting Jurado’s songwriting mastery, as songs like “Silver Timothy” attest to. But even now, six months after its release, I still can’t bring myself to fawn over it.  What at first troubled me so much is that I couldn’t t even begin to put my finger on why; I’ve made my peace with it now.  The album won’t remain on my turntable for weeks on end (like many of the other albums from which this playlist was drawn), but I’ll keep playing some of Jurado’s songs whenever I need to space out, or trip out, or whatever else Jurado was attempting to accomplish.

“Lost in the Dream”

I’ve yet to read a mid-year review of the music of 2014 without seeing Lost in the Dream, the stunning album from The War on Drugs.  At the end of the year, it should still be on most best-of lists.  Like the landscape during a long drive, the album reveals itself at different angles and in different ways.  Heartbreakingly beautiful at times, powerfully motivational at others, it is that rare creation most artists only dream of – something crafted at just the right moment.  The title track is the shortest vocal track and is evocative of the album as a whole: gently pacing, propelling forward, though not always apparently – much in the way one recovers from lost love (the major theme of the album) – there are hidden moments, gems to discover, small instances of evocation.  Lead man Adam Granduciel’s plea in the heart of the song is one we should heed, both vis a vis this album and in our own lives: “Leave the light on in the yard for me.”