In this year-closing time frame of lists, reviews, recaps, and rehashes, I’ve gone back and forth on the notion of providing a favorite albums post for a variety of reasons. These range from vanity to the desire to operate in any mode that counters my hungry ego. I have done year-end lists before, and upon reading them, realized that I’m not qualified to tell anyone what’s the “best” anything. Foremost among the arguments against is the simple fact of scope. I’m not a professional music critic. By that, I intend not to imply that the pros have greater authority due to their receipt of compensation, but rather that they have the time and inclination to listen to a far broader selection of releases in the course of a year.
That said, I do listen to a lot of new music. I certainly miss out on plenty of it, but the years don’t pass me by the way they did in the 90’s. Then, I skimmed past the pop or rock hits of the day (remember when rock music WAS pop?) on my way to the classic rock station in between Grateful Dead or Phish tapes. Now, I buy albums in wife-aggravating quantities. It’s still hard to keep up but the rewards are rich.
If you peruse my previous lists, you’ll find one artist prominantly mentioned time and time again: Woods. Their 2014 offering, “With Light And With Love”, constantly finds its way to my turntable. Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere continue to craft brilliant songs with melodies that seem to already inhabit my heart before the first needle drop. They tidily blend broiling tension into blissful Harrison-esque slide riffs while Earl’s upper register vocals deliver lyrics that kick the heart up into the brain. At this point, they’re on a run of albums few artists have matched since the 70s.
But they’re not alone in commanding my pre-ordering loyalties. White Fence moved to the big time (in indie label terms) with the release of “For The Recently Found Innocent” on Drag City Records. It’s likely no coincidence that Tim Presley’s sometimes collaborator (and recordist for this record), Ty Segall has put out a number of great albums via Drag City. Here, we get more of what Presley does best: bent melodies, sharp lyrics, fuzz boxes, and a disconcerting sense of time. This time, he’s moved on from his bedroom four-track to Segall’s home-studio eight track but little is lost in the upgrade. If you’ve ever taken my recommendation on White Fence before, you know what to do now. If you haven’t, this is the right time to jump in.
Speaking of Ty Segall, his album for Drag City this year, “Manipulator” is a garage rawk classic. Since its release, I’ve constantly gone back when I want to turn up the room and throw down with some high energy awesome.
But it’s not always time to rock out.
It took me much of the year to find a place in my life for this year’s The War On Drugs album, “Lost In The Dream”. While I had occasionally panned this record when it first came out, I soon found that it remained on my phone and was regularly getting playtime when I wanted to relax on the train. It may not seem a compliment to say that this album is good for naps (I don’t think I meant it as such when I first said it), but this, to me is a true statement and I find that I really enjoy the somnambulistic nature of the mix and the melodies. The album sounds a bit like a chill-out album produced by Keith Olsen in the mid-70s. Considering the work he did that is presently in my stacks, I hope that is read as a kind comparison.
Hiss Golden Messenger’s album, “Lateness Of Dancers” came out in the Fall and almost slipped off my radar. I’d listened when it was new then filed it away until, in November, they appeared on Letterman. Dave was energized by their performance to a degree that I’ve rarely witnessed and I watched the clip countless times before pulling out the album to re-familiarize myself. If this is folk-rock, alt-country, or singer-songwriter rock, then those old labels have a new life here in this record. Sharp lyricism combine with hook-laden melodies throughout the album making this a thrilling listen.
Tinariwen has found a berth in these annual brain dumps for that last couple albums. 2014’s “Emmaar” is a perfect example as to why. The expression of their Saharan Tuareg musical traditions blend with blues and other western sounds to produce a psychedelic guitar groove that must be heard. This is their first album to be completely recorded outside of northern Africa (due to a rebellion in northern Mali) but the influence of recording in the U.S. is subtle, if noticeable at all. I’ve kept this on my phone since its release early last year and find myself returning to it easily once a week.
These days, psychedelic music has a lot of faces and voices. Among my favorites in recent years are the works of Matt Valentine & Erika Elder aka MV & EE. This year, their homespun label, Child Of Microtones, produced their first vinyl release (previously they’d focused on CDrs and tapes while partnering with other labels for vinyl), “Alpha Lyrae”. This one keeps with the lysergic mountaintop moonscapes of their recent releases, painting from a palate of vivid blues and deep echoes. Never bound for the mainstream, MV & EE maintain a beautiful stream of their own in which I love to wallow.
Speaking of psychedelic, Stardeath And White Dwarfs returned with a new album last year, “Wastoid”. Their first full length album (they have pitched-in on a couple collaborations with The Flaming Lips) since 2009’s “The Birth” find them producing the same sort of freaked out, heavy psych as before. Fuzzed out bass sounds, ear grabbing melodies, and clever lyrics dominate this unapologetic attempt to alter your senses.
Another band that deservedly bears the tag “psychedelic” is Temples. Their 2014 album, “Sun Structures” continues to blow me away with each spin. Some have attempted to kindly compare Temples to Tame Impala but I find that the latter bears far more resemblance to modern Britpop whereas Temples seem to be strident revivalists. Their sound is a stirring amalgam of classic fuzz, compelling hooks, and just enough off-center oddness to catch your ear and turn your head. I’ve played this album for guys twenty years my senior and they each likened it to a lost 60’s classic.
This leads me to a couple guitar records that bear mentioning before I close out my already overlong ramble.
Chris Forsythe & The Solar Motel Band had somehow eluded my radar until late 2014 when I listened to a couple live tracks on SoundCloud. The original songs were a revelation and their cover of Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel” convinced me that I had been missing out on something special. Their latest album, “Intensity Ghost” is captivating. The dueling guitars ebb and flow creating compelling tension and waves of release. Forsyth will be getting a lot of spins from me in the coming year.
Another guitar player with whom I was not particularly familiar, Julian Lage, put out a pair of duet albums last year that have gotten my attention. The first, an acoustic slice of Americana recorded with The Punch Brothers’ Chris Eldridge, is called “Avalon”. Standards, Appalachian ballads, fiddle tunes, and a handful of original compositions collide to make this a delightful, at times, wistful experience.
Lage went another way with his next release with collaborator Nels Cline. Nels is a journeyman of avant garde guitar work known for his own Nels Cline Singers, as well as his work with with the infinitely more mainstream (yet quite awesome) Wilco. On “Room”‘ the duo conjure sounds that roam from the counterpoint melodies of an atonal Allman Brothers, to driving complementary rhythms, to gentle pastoral soundscapes. Both players bring in compositions and they combine for a sublime listen.
Finally, I would feel remiss in not mentioning yet another great release from the wildly prolific Ryan Adams. He had slowed the pace of his releases in recent years, but if you count all of the 7″s he’s been issuing, the man seems to be heading back to the tempo of his earlier days. 2014 marked his first self-titled album and on it he delivers a set of stirring rock songs. Ballads and rockers intermingle with Adams’ typically great songwriting. Some fans may lament the dissolution of the excellent backing band, The Cardinals, but the players on this release certainly have the goods. I can see this as one that I’ll be spinning for years to come.
This then is where the year 2014 closes. I certainly didn’t run down every release that I’ve enjoyed from the year (for example: the Phish album, “Fuego” which is fun but falls somewhere below each of the aforementioned albums at one time or another.) I do hope that this gives you a picture of the sounds of my 2014 and perhaps opens you up to something new.