Wednesday, December 31, 2014

20 Favorite Albums of 2014

20) Garth Brooks - Man Against Machine - 14 tracks, 10 good songs; probably 8 or 9 of which are classic-style Garth that could be hits on country radio. That's a pretty good percentage and--after a truly terrible first single roll-out with "People Loving People" and one of the worst album covers of all time--honestly a lot more than I was hoping for. He's out of his range on a couple tracks, but that is easily forgiven when considering he shows no signs of chasing the current trend of marketable douchebaggery. We know he'll sell out every live show he plays, but it'll be interesting to see if he can once again make a dent in the charts and the industry he once completely dominated. If anyone can change something, maybe it's him.

19) Jon Pardi - Write You A Song - The best mainstream country album released in 2014 is light on "bro" and heavy on simple, good songs. Some folks will probably call his voice an "acquired taste," whatever that means, especially if what they're used to is the stuff you're likely to hear churned out by mainstream radio. But that's just something they're not used to hearing on country radio: Soul.

18) The Honey Dewdrops - Live From Folk Alley - Rules for year ends lists be damned, if the Honey Dewdrops put out anything within a given year, chances are it's going to make whatever list it is I got, whether it be a live album or, you know, like, organic soap or something. They are, for my money, the best thing going in the folk and acoustic worlds today. Beautiful, heartfelt, humbly delivered, and engaging.

17) Goodnight, Texas - Uncle John Farquhar - I came across the album from this string band late in the year. If you like music that isn't just love song after love song (though some of these songs are certainly about love), you ought to hear this album. Every song is a story that takes place at some moment in American history, and some of them are like reading journal entries. Really good stuff.

16) Kelley Mickwee - You Used To Live Here - This Trisha is a fantastic songwriter and an equally if not more brilliant singer. At seven songs, the album is short and sweet, wearing influences from Memphis soul to Texas country. Can't wait for more.

15) Drive-By Truckers - English Oceans - Known for their literate storytelling and ability to spin the absolute shit out of a phrase, DBT always makes a record that's "about something," and that's why they are so beloved. But their albums also, always, ROCK, and this, their highest charting ever, is a mighty fine addition to an already legendary discography. Some say this album is a course correction after the last two albums (even Cooley's not fond of his stuff from those sessions), but I loved those albums too--English Oceans is just a continuation of their typical artistic and musical badassery.

14) Joan Shelley - Electric Ursa - I'm not sure a more perfect record for a lazy Sunday afternoon was released in 2014. There is a lightness to the production that makes all the songs here feel like old friends. Shelley's lyrics are worked over and thoughtful, poetic and contemplative, and at eight tracks and 32 and a half minutes, she stays just long enough to make you wish she'd stay longer.

13) Don Williams - Reflections - The old man's still got it. Every song is a gem. Being able to pick amazing songs written by the likes of Merle Haggard and Townes Van Zant doesn't hurt either. Reflections finds the artist looking back with some fondness and some regret, and he makes it every bit as stately as the album cover suggests.

12) Sturgill Simpson - Metamodern Sounds in Country Music - There's not much more I can say about this Kentucky gentleman. It's all been written in 2014. He's not a self-proclaimed anything, but any article you read about him will call him the "savior of country music." I'll just say he's bringing back the good stuff, that stuff you know is real when you hear it, and he's getting popular, and ... how long do you think it'll be before the backlash begins?

11) Real Estate - Atlas - It was an almost impossible task. Actually, it was a totally impossible task--coming up with an album that could hold a candle to 2011's undisputed classic Days. Are these songs not great? No, they are. Have they changed too much as a band? No, they are exactly the same (not always a bad thing, in my opinion, though some music critics who live in trees would disagree). Could Atlas be considered Days Part 2? Yes, yes it could, which is a fantastic thing, and everything this band's fans wanted. Is this one of the best albums of the year? Sure. Some would even say brilliant. But the thing about Atlas is: Days.

10) Old Crow Medicine Show - Remedy - Old Crow's most complete album to date, even considering the unfortunate departure of Willie Watson in between albums. From songs one to thirteen, you'll find the heart, sincerity, fun, and respect for the music emanating throughout. And it all begins with the band's ringleader,  chief songwriter and extraordinarily fascinating fellow (seriously, read some interviews), Ketch Secor.

9) Del Barber - Prarieography - This Canadian songwriter made the best straight-up country album of the year. I don't remember how I found out about Barber and this album, but surprisingly I haven't seen much else written about it. Prarieography (love that title) contains 14 tracks which stretch out across the wide territory that contains country music's diverse and varied forms, and there's not a single dud in the bunch. Clever lyrics, simple song structures, and deceptively smart. There is a reference to hockey and Mark Messier, just in case we forget he's from Canada, but I won't hold that against him.

8) Alvvays - Alvvays - This album is the closest auditory equivalent to a summer romance as it gets. You will fall into flawless love, you will make out in public, you will go to the water park, and you will get dumped. But you will be okay. Except for that one night when you have a panic-dream about her in ten years.

7) Willie Watson - Folk Singer Vol. 1 - Willie Watson's voice is, to me, the definition of that high, lonesome sound. I'm certainly biased having seen him bring these songs to life at the Master Musicians Fest in Somerset, KY, and on the same day as a local metal band (who actually wasn't terrible), no less. What's perhaps more impressive than even his singing is his picking, whether on the five-string or the six-string. You owe it to yourself to listen to these classic folks songs interpreted as only this troubadour can. Post-OCMS Willie Watson is going to be just fine.

6) Copeland - Ixora - Let's be real. Copeland is about Aaron Marsh. It's always been about Aaron Marsh. I'm sure even the band members agree, and they are all a better band because of it. You don't come across a man with the gift of voice and melody which Aaron Marsh possesses and not make the band revolve around him. With that said, six years after releasing the brilliant You Are My Sunshine, Copeland has released the brand spanking new and long-awaited Ixora, and it's probably the Aaron Marshiest of the bunch. But when your band is led by Aaron March, that can only be a good thing. Honestly, to my ears, Ixora at times plays almost as a solo record. Aside from a couple songs, the band's touches are more nuanced and intricate than previous records, though just as technically sound and gorgeous. If you have followed Copeland from the beginning, you know they started as what I like to call a "beautiful rock" band, with crunchy guitars lending their sounds to the emotional and lyrical centerpieces of the songs. They've evolved over the years into something more experimental, but just as emotionally resonating, if not more. You can still call them a rock band if you want. Whatever you call them, you have to call them good. Strike that: these sounds are supreme.

5) Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence - While Dan Auerbach was busy this past year letting Ray Lamontagne make the worst album of his career, he was also busy help Lana Del Rey--whoever she is, whatever she is--find herself as an artist. Lush and bombastic, usually in the same song, Ultraviolence is a searing gut shot of overindulgent, dark, sex-drugs-and-rocknroll-laced pop music. However I'm supposed to consume it, I love every minute, and give me more please.

4) The Lowest Pair - 36 Cents - This duo makes legitimate, unapologetic banjo music, but not what you think of when you hear the phrase "banjo music"--and they are also so much more than that. The stories sing, the melodies soar, the harmonies harken you to heaven, or at least to church. With help from producer Dave Simonett, lead singer and songwriter of Trampled by Turtles, they've made an album reminding us to slow down in these hurried times. It's a beautiful, brilliant listen.

3) Broods - Evergreen - A brilliant pop album laced with flourishes of 80s style synths and 90s style R & B. It's been awhile since I've heard an album that was this organically catchy. There's no sense of a bunch of people in a room throwing formulas together in hopes of coming up with some grand algorithm that will magically give them access to the catchiest melodies of all time, which they can then pretend to unassumingly inject into the brain of passive music consumers everywhere. Nope, not Broods. The group's secret weapon is lead vocalist Georgia Nott, who has this almost disgusted lilt to her voice for pretty much the entire affair--but when you mix that with genuine anger, sadness, and fun (whatever emotion the song calls for) you're left with something that is at the very least the opposite of boring. I'd say unique, but I'm sure she's not the first singer to sound that way. Either way, this one is a must-listen.

2) Old 97s - Most Messed Up - The funnest frickin' album of the year, without question. I'm not very well versed in their discography though I've heard a couple of the albums that span their 20+ year career. I've been trying to think of a way to describe Most Messed Up since I first heard it, because something about it seemed instantly familiar. Here is the best thing I've been able to come up with: It's like Good Charlotte--if Good Charlotte had actually been, well, good, but before they got really terrible (and hey, I liked some songs from that first album...but I also watched TRL, so...)--era pop-punk with better, wittier lyrics, more F-bombs, and a God's own boatload of more edge and talent, all played through a kind of Outlaw country auditory prism. Yea, it's good.

1) Jhene Aiko - Souled Out - From top to bottom, this is chilled-out, spacey R & B that is at once relaxing, sexy, and intricate as hell. The hooks get under your skin. The songs flow into one another. Anchored around Aiko's casually excellent soprano and some rather introspective lyrics (Aiko is listed as co-writer on all of the album's 12 tracks), including sultry one-liners like "have you seen my fucks to give?", Souled Out is assuredly the best R & B album of the year, and one of the finest, sonically-pleasing encounters you'll have with a 2014 album from any genre. (Be sure to check this one out if you liked FKA Twigs' critically acclaimed debut full-length LP1, or even perhaps especially if you couldn't get into that one, like me.) Best when listened to in the dark, but that's just me.

Other albums I enjoyed a whole lot but didn't really get around to listening to as much as I would've liked:

In the Valley Below - The Belt - Punsters perfect pop.

Lykke Li - I Never Learn - Passionate heartbreak.

HT Heartache - Sundowner - Music for in between the suns.

Jason Eady - Daylight & Dark - Modern-traditional country music for in between the suns.

Red June - Ancient Dreams - Good folks. Mountains. Happiness.

Phantogram - Voices - Schizophrenic pop shenanigans.

Stoney Larue - Aviator - Straight kickass country, not "Kiss my country ass" poser-country.

Coldplay - Ghost Stories - Branching out. Consciously uncoupled, unnecessarily hated.

Nickel Creek - A Dotted Line - The fire never died.

Luluc - Passerby - Hushed. That voice. Those melodies.

Chatham County Line - Tightrope - Experimental bluegrass. So, not bluegrass.

Kenneth O'Meara - God of Wind - Hardscrabble stories. Wrestling with God.

Lee Ann Womack - The Way I'm Livin' - Queen of country is a Chris Knight fan.

Wye Oak - Shriek - Should be in my top albums. Forgot. Sorry.

Favorite non-2014 discovery: Helen Stellar - I first heard a song by these guys called "Flutterby" on an episode of the television show Friday Night Lights. One Shazam later, I was hooked. This is indie-rock that can truly rock when it wants to but is also dynamic and intriguing and a little experimental. It's epic and beautiful and has just enough of a touch of the 80s. Plus, their full-length album has one of the greatest titles of all time: If the Stars Could Speak They Would Have Your Voice... You should check them out.

I usually get a bit link-crazy with these things, but this year I decided to act like Google exists. If you come across something that sounds like you might dig it, opposite-of-Bing that sucker.