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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”