Friday, January 2, 2015

Guest List Week 2014: Scott's Best of 2014

It's the triumphant return of Guest List Week!  Every day from now until I run out of lists, we'll take a look at 2014 through the eyes of people who are not me.  (My list, if you missed it, is here).  I'm lucky that my friends have such uniformly exquisite taste in music. 

Closing out Guest List Week Two, it's Scott Lawson!  Scott's 2013 Guest List is here, his 2014 Guest List is below.

Following is a selection, in no particular order, of song samples from albums I find to be among the best released in 2014.  If anyone wants my entire list of the top 150 albums of the year, just let me know and I’ll email you.

Sharon Van Etten, Are We There (“Afraid of Nothing”)

This was the album of the year.  For that matter, Sharon Van Etten’s last three albums form the best three-album stretch of any artist over the same 2010-14 period.  From the first notes, these alternately soaring and intimate portraits swoop beneath the surface and immediately and mercilessly swirl the deep sands.  The album as a whole sounds like a giant dare—or, perhaps more accurately, a threat.  “Afraid of Nothing” is a startling opener, announcing the dramatic emotional stakes to come.  It’s almost impossible to pick one song from this collection, so please listen from start to finish.  Van Etten’s songwriting confidence is remarkable.  The artist she most clearly resembles is Patti Smith (listen, particularly, to “Your Love Is Killing Me”), but the overall result is more approachable—albeit with caution.

Elbow, The Takeoff and Landing of Everything (“New York Morning”)

Elbow’s 2011 album, Build a Rocket Boys, was an eye-opening coming-out party for a band that had, in fact, been around for years (those in the know had thought The Seldom Seen Kid in 2008 or Cast of Thousands in 2004 should have broken them as pop stars of a U2 level).  Still and all, while big in England, the band has never fully caught on here.  That’s a shame.  This record is utterly gorgeous—a fully-realized masterpiece of restraint and drama.  Guy Garvey’s beautiful poetry is again on display, backed as always by a subtly progressive musical underpinning.  The album is almost novel-like—a series of portraitures and delicate social commentaries that feels a little like Joyce or Sherwood Anderson.  “New York Morning” is, to quote my wife, “the best song Peter Gabriel has done in years.”  It develops slowly and dramatically, adding new rhythmic and melodic elements over a steady repeating harmonic base—like Philip Glass or Steve Reich if they hung out in British pubs—until, by the end, it’s a vast post-modern kumbaya. 

Steve Gunn, Way Out Weather (“Milly’s Garden”)

Steve Gunn is a longtime sideman and journeyman guitarist who hits his stride on this record.  His new 8-song album, Way Out Weather, is a beautifully-recorded amalgam of country, blues, rock and (sorta) pop.  His anguished voice sounds slightly choked, as if he recorded the lead vocals in a fit of asthma.  As exemplified by the track here, “Milly’s Garden,” much of the album sounds like the long-separated conjoined twin of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street.  The interplay of the lead guitar, slide, bass and drums sounds so much like what oozed out of Nellecotte in 1972 that it’s almost eerie.  There is a relaxed ease about this record that begs repeated listening.

Jeremy Messersmith, Heart Murmurs (“Heidi”)

Two years ago, Jeremy Messersmith’s sole “Bay Area” concert was an appearance at a 12-table family-run Thai restaurant in Davis.  Sad, considering that his then-current album was arguably the best record released that year.  Some justice that with his new album, Heart Murmers, he got an appearance on Letterman this year.  Heart Murmurs is a fantastic slice of power and baroque pop.  “Ghost” was a minor hit (very very minor, although Campbell, my 12-year-old daughter, can pick it out on the radio), but every song is a miniature masterpiece.  “Heidi” is everything I want a pop song to be—romantic yearning, unrequited love, beautiful melody, and a Spector-like closing build that ends up drenched in melancholy and reverb.  A master class in pop arrangement.  Fantastic.

Jenny Lewis, The Voyager (“The New You”)

I’m not sure anyone would have predicted this, but what Jenny Lewis apparently needed was the production hand of everyone’s favorite rock-and-roll bad-boy genius, Ryan Adams.  This album is a timeless marvel.  I dare you to place it in any particular era.  It seems clear that Adams learned a lot of lessons working with Glyn Johns on his 2011 album Ashes and Fire.  Lewis’s The Voyager is infused with an insistent-if-idiosyncratic groove and a low-key energy, emphasizing a rock-solid rhythm section and perfectly understated vocal harmonies.  On it, Lewis comes into her own, realizing the promise of her Rilo Kiley albums and the sometimes-brilliant work she did with Jenny and Johnny.  Every song is good, but “The New You” is as good a place to start as any, as it highlights four key elements of the album:  Lewis’s smart, sardonic lyrical imagery, a spot-on pop arrangement, lovely vocal harmonies, and Adams’s subtle jangly lead guitar playing.

Bob Mould, Beauty and Ruin (“Low Season”)

Twenty-five years into his post-Husker Du solo career, Bob Mould has hit his stride.  Bolstered of late by the rhythm section of bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk/Mountain Goats), this record continues the great work of The Silver AgeBeauty and Ruin combines the melodicism and subtlety of his solo debut Workbook with the sheer electric power of the best of Sugar and early albums like Black Sheets of Rain.  There’s a reason Mould is one of the godfathers of Post-Punk, and this album shows it off in spades.

The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream (“Lost in the Dream”)

Adam Granduciel is ready to share, and share he does on this ambitious tome of a record.  Song after beautiful song, this record reveals Granduciel’s melancholic world—full of hope but draped in despair.  The production and engineering, by Granduciel himself, is exquisite.  With the possible exception of the coda to the lovely “Under The Pressure,” which lingers like a pesky houseguest who stays a week too long, the arrangements are subtle and powerful.  The guitars are spare and evocative, bathed in delays and tremolo, a pedal steel here and there for atmosphere.  Hard to pick any one song here (“Eyes to the Wind,” for example, is a phenomenal piece), but “Lost in the Dream” is a good example of the craft at play here. 

Hotel Lights, Girl Graffiti (“All My Asshole Friends”)

Although Hotel Lights continues in much the same vein as its previous outings, new intriguing elements are added here—strings, Mellotron, keys and banjo—and the result is a fuller realization of Darren Jessee’s quirky and often hilarious songs.  “All My Asshole Friends” makes me laugh every time I hear it.  It’s a song every songwriter wishes he/she’d written.

The Hold Steady, Teeth Dreams (“The Ambassador”)

After a pretty lackluster last album, THS is back on this record.  Craig Finn remains one of the best lyricists on the planet, and the energy of the music here—particularly the layered guitars, which would make Bob Mould proud—finally again matches the energy and inventiveness of the tales Finn is so adept at spinning.  The rock songs here truly rock, but the heart of the record is “The Ambassador,” the ballad of the year.  Beautifully recorded, arranged and produced, this one song makes the album one of the best of the year.  It sounds like a Denis Johnson short story set to music—desperation, aimlessness, confusion, with a vaguely sinister overlay.  To properly use the term so currently misused, it is EPIC.

New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers (“Champions of Red Wine”)

I admit that I’m fonder of the power-pop version of New Pornographers than I am of the more prog-rock  leanings of the last few albums, but Brill Bruisers strikes a nice balance between the two.  On “Champions of Red Wine,” the Rick Wakeman-inspired keyboards and Carl Palmer drums are balanced by Neko Case’s subtle-yet-soaring vocal, the beautiful layered harmonies supporting her, and the four-to-the-measure power chord backing.  Taken as a whole, the work of this band over the last ten years is pretty amazing (even if you don’t consider the solo works of the band’s members).

Jeffrey Dean Foster, The Arrow (“The Sun Will Shine Again”)

Jeffrey Dean Foster is an old-style purveyor of power pop and lush ballads—underappreciated but remarkably talented.  Here, with the help of “old-school” producer Mitch Easter (of early-REM fame), he covers a lot of musical ground, but every song is marked by exquisite production, tasteful playing, and perfect arrangements.  “The Sun Will Shine Again” is a good example—a return to the great sophisticated pop records that came out of the Athens scene in the early 80s.  Check it out.

Gruff Rhys, American Interior (“Walk into the Wilderness”)

Gruff Rhys, formerly of Super Furry Animals, was fiddling around on and discovered that he is a descendant of a Welsh explorer named John Evans, who in the last decade of the 18th century undertook a voyage across the still-untamed American continent.  Rhys decided to duplicate the journey and this album is the quirky-yet-affecting result.  It is the kind of record that makes you think music will survive whatever may happen to the so-called “record industry.” 

Field Report, Marigolden (“Home”)

Field Report’s first album remains one of my favorite records ever.  It is my standard airplane listening fare—utterly absorbing and perfectly distracting.  After a long long wait, Marigolden came out this year displaying many of the same traits evident in the earlier effort, including odd enigmatic song subjects and countless curious couplets.  The album rewards repeated listenings, as its highly-literate writing is not first-listen friendly.  That said, “Home (Leave the Lights On)” is a pretty darn poppy song that may permeate the membrane of what passes for AOR radio (e.g., XM’s The Loft) these days.  A great album—again.

Cory Branan, The No Hit Wonder (“The Only You”)

On The No Hit Wonder, Cory Branan realizes the promise of his inconsistent earlier records.  This great record defies categorization.  Drop the needle in one spot and it’s a stone country record.  Drop it in another spot and it’s pure punk revelry.  In still another it’s old-school rock.  Throughout, the songwriting is excellent.  On “The Only You,” Branan sings “I hear you got another boy / I hear he looks a lot like me / Did this one come with some kind of guarantee? / Well, I got me another girl and she looks like you at 23 / While she sleeps I trace the places where your tattoos used to be.”  You can’t go wrong from there.

Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (“The Promise”)

This album was the revelation of the year.  It would seem to have fallen from outer space.  Simpson’s voice is startlingly like Merle Haggard’s and the production has an occasional Bradley’s Barn sensibility to it, but the lyrics are genuinely odd and not a little psychedelic.  “The Promise” is arguably the oddest song on the record, as it is a very very country cover of an 80s post-New Wave song.  But Simpson so owns the song that it is not even fair to call it a cover.  The album is undeniably one of the best of the year, and one of the best country records in years.

The Antlers, Familiars (“Palace”)

I still haven’t recovered since, at Aaron’s recommendation, I first heard “Two” five years ago.  It’s hard ever to top that song, but the collection of songs on Familiars does its best and some come pretty close, although it’s unlikely any of them will be the theme music to an Anthony Robbins seminar any time soon.  The instrumentation has expanded, and the song structure is broader than on previous efforts, but the lyrical content remains deeply affecting.  “Palace” is a wonder of a song.  The trumpet line is somehow both mournful and hopeful, and the singing is fantastic.  The song builds persistently and leaves you in a place that, although not so dark and almost a little optimistic, is not unlike the heap of despair I find myself in whenever I put “Two” on.

Real Estate, Atlas (“Talking Backwards”)

I don’t know enough about the members of Real Estate to say why, but something happened between their first two albums and their latest, Atlas.  Although offering up much of the same instrumental lightness and cheery Vampire-Weekend like chiming guitars of the earlier efforts, the emotional heft of Atlas is significantly increased.  Suddenly I find myself stopping along the frat row of their music and actually interested in what they’re singing about.

Frontier Ruckus, Sitcom Afterlife (“Sad Modernity”)

Although silly record industry folks use the term “Americana” to describe the band, Frontier Ruckus’s new album proves that to be utter nonsense.  Although there are banjos here and there and a honky-tonk piano or two, this is primarily a power pop/jangle pop record—and a good one at that.  “Sad Modernity,” with its lilting horn riff, slinky Stratocaster licks, and Philly-sound stringbed on the chorus, is a perfect example.  If any of you didn’t listen to this record because of the genre label associated with this (Detroit-based!) band, toss away your preconceptions and take a listen.  Good stuff.

Justin Townes Earle, Single Mothers (“White Gardenias”)

It can’t be easy to be the son of an ex-con, former heroin-addict, absentee father who also happens to be one of the most acclaimed songwriters of the last thirty years.  It would seem that Justin Townes Earle has tried a number of different ways of working through whatever issues have plagued him, including a pretty significant drug problem of his own.  But he seems more together now than in past years, and this album reflects both a coming-to-grips and a certain kind of artistic directedness that his prior records have occasionally lacked.  This is an excellent collection of songs that ranges from obvious kiss-offs (“Single Mothers”) to swaggering guitar-driven rockers (“My Baby Drives”) to contemplative what-if ballads (“White Gardenias”).  With Single Mothers, dare I say it, JTE threatens to become the songwriter his father was.

Strand of Oaks, Heal (“Goshen ‘97”)

First of all, I don’t have any idea what “Strand of Oaks” is supposed to mean (did he mean to name the band “Stand of Oaks”?).  Regardless, this is a great collection of songs by Timothy Showalter.  The album deftly explores a broad swath of emotional territory—and it rocks.  I personally like that he refers not only to “singing Pumpkins in the mirror,” but also to listening to Sharon Van Etten on his headphones.  Nice.

John Hiatt, Terms of My Surrender (“Long Time Comin’”)

John Hiatt has been one of the world’s great songwriters since the late-1970s.  He has popped his head up into the world’s consciousness a few times—most notably during the period from 1987 through 1990, when Hiatt produced a set of albums (Bring The Family, Slow Turning, and Stolen Moments) that well showcased both is lyrical finesse and his various bands’ (particularly the slide work of Ry Cooder and Sonny Landreth) remarkable flexibility.  He hasn’t produced a crappy album for 30 years, which is remarkable considering the subject matter he takes on.  Terms of My Surrender is no exception.  Low-key and casual, but at the same time harrowing and hilarious, the songs have the feel of a bunch of musical compatriots sitting around a campfire.  His vocals justify the long-held critical belief that his is among the most soulful and expressive of all voices in contemporary music.  This record rewards repeated listens.

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