2014 brought some great joys musically, particularly since two of my all time favorite artists, Drive-By Truckers and Joe Henry, released deeply heartfelt and truly great CDs. Plus, black artists gave rock and roll a much needed kick in the ass with tremendous new records from Benjamin Booker, TV on the Radio and D'Angelo. Another major highlight was that The Delines Colfax and Sturgiss Simpson's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music achieved the difficult feat of resurrecting country music, now in danger of becoming a lost American art form and going the way of the blues.
Though my listening was curtailed this year due to work and family demands, I discovered an eclectic array of fine new music, some of it heralded like D'Angelo's first release in 12 years and War on Drugs acclaimed Lost in the Dream, some from newer artists like St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas, and some from old favorites Spoon, The Vaselines, and The New Pornographers.
My record of the year is English Oceans by the Drive-By Truckers .
The venerable Southern rock quintet overcame the death of a dear friend and crew member by channeling their grief into a compelling and urgent set of songs that draws out everything this band has ever done well. In the end, English Oceans is about DBT's love of each other and making music, brothers in arms. John Hyland and I reviewed English Oceans in detail here and the record has aged exceptionally well for me since March. English Oceans and Lost in the Dream by War on Drugs were my go to CDs when I need to hear some great new rock and roll. English Oceans finds the Drive-By Truckers in their 18th year but still at their very best, doing what they do, which is making deeply heartfelt, kick ass rock and roll. And the most heartfelt song of all is the album closer "Grand Canyon", Patterson Hood's haunting tribute to their friend Craig Lieske:
And of course the Truckers bring the greasy rock and roll, as here on English Ocean's opening track, "Shit Shots Count":
The remainder of my best of 2014 in alphabetical order:
Lee Bains III and The Glory Fires, Dereconstructed.
The complexity, social injustice and charm of the South have long inspired great art from everyone from Flannery O'Conner and Walker Percy to Drive-By Truckers and R.E.M. Lee Bains III channels his socially conscious young Southern man's angst into a potent mix of punk and Southern rock that leaves you begging for mercy. Full review here. As great as Dereconstructed is, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires have to be seen live to be fully appreciated, as few out there are better right now. Here's one of my favorites from the CD, "The Weeds Downtown" performed live:
The Baseball Project, 3rd.
Sometimes I feel like this band was invented especially for me - witty and intelligent songs about baseball played by Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey, and Linda Pitmon - are you kidding me? I love everything about this.. Full review here. Love the biting edge too, as here on Wynn's song. "13", about ARod:
More fastball rock and jangle guitar please. I'm looking forward to The Baseball Project's 4th and 5th records too.
Benjamin Booker, Benjamin Booker.
What a debut! Booker is a 25 year old, born in Virginia, a graduate of the University of Florida, and now based on New Orleans. This is a furious and effortless blend of blues, punk, soul, and garage rock. I just can't enough of this guy.
D'Angelo and The Vanguard, Black Messiah.
There's so much well deserved and well written praise for this record, the world hardly needs a review from me. But D'Angelo's first CD in more than a decade is all that - deeply musical and profound soul music. Sly and The Family Stone for the 21st Century. I don't know if there's a riot goin' on, but given the state of both race relations and the music industry, perhaps there should be. You can listen to Black Messiah in its glorious entirety here.
The Delines, Colfax.
Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine), Amy Boone (Damnations TX) and some of Portland's best musicians formed to present some of the most soulful and pure country music I could ever hope for in 2014. Boone's gorgeous voice brings such pathos to Vlautin's sympathetic short stories and characters.
"I Won't Slip Up":
Diarrhea Planet. Aliens in the Outfield (EP).
Yes, this may well be the worst band name in the history of rock. And yes, high energy poppy punk rock is not a novel concept. But few of the very many young bands in this genre can match the exuberance or tunefulness of this Nashville sextet with - count 'em - 4 guitar players, plus bass and a drummer who sounds like he's 4 drummers too. Aliens in the Outfield is a tornado - organized and tight on the one hand but destructive chaos on the other. Give in to the unbridled joy of Diarrhea Planet.
Guided by Voices, Motivational Jumpsuit.
We admire GBV so much that John Hyland, our founder, CEO and Chairman of the Board, named our dang blog after one of their songs. So their breakup in 2014 was a sad event even though we've been through this before with this volatile bunch. Motivational Jumpsuit is exactly the sort of tuneful, irresistible r-o-c-k we've come to expect and love from Robert Pollard and his merry band of rock savants. Here's a hilarious video to go with the great rock of "Planet Score":
Joe Henry, Invisible Hour. Like Patterson Hood and Drive-By Truckers, Joe Henry dove deep into his considerable talent as a writer and musician to create one of the most heartfelt and deeply affecting records of his distinguished, if criminally underrated, career. Invisible Hour is an exploration of family, faith and love, set to remarkably soulful folk music played by Henry's absolutely top shelf crew of LA-based studio musicians, including the incomparable percussionist Jay Bellerose. Full review here.
Spend some time with Invisible Hour and let Joe Henry take you deep.
Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas, Secret Evil.
The charismatic and irresistible Jessica Hernandez embodies the resurgence of her hometown Detroit - street smart, urban, hip, funky, and drawing on rich traditions (in her case Detroit's rock and soul and her Cuban-Mexican American roots). As impressive as this debut is, Jessica Hernandez and her fine Motor City band are yet even more captivating in concert. One gets the feeling that even better things lie ahead for this talented artist. Full review here.
Hiss Golden Messenger, Lateness of Dancers.
Durham based Michael Taylor made the move to indie rock flagship Merge Records this year and released the most accessible and fully realized CD of his career. Tackling his devout Christian faith in the idiom of alt-folk rock is a high hire act that succeeds because Taylor is such a gifted and subtle writer and a remarkably soulful vocalist. A lot of Southern soul and even boogie here. "Saturday's Song" is one of my favorites of the year, in a perfect world it would've been a hit single:
Jenny Lewis, The Voyager.
This CD would make my best of list just for this single and video alone:
The Voyager is excellent throughout. Jenny Lewis makes singing appear a great deal easier than it actually is.
Bob Mould, Beauty and Ruin.
Bob Mould is a national treasure. They oughta put him on Mt. Rushmore or have a national holiday in his honor. When he makes a record this good whether it's with Husker Du, Sugar or his current stellar power trio (Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster), it's a cause for celebration. This is classic Bob Mould power and melody and a must have record for anyone who ever liked him. Full review here.
Bonus point because the official video was filmed for Record Store Day here in Portland at Music Millenium, my favorite shop.
The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers.
The New Pornographers may be the only hipster indie band who with credibility could slyly reference the NYC 1960's hit making songwriting factory. AC Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar and the rest of this Canadian "supergroup" come together every so often to create remarkably tight and intelligent power pop. There's not a more fun band around even though the New Pornographers are deadly serious about what they do.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Half the City.
I'm skeptical of anything reeking of music revivalism. But Paul Janeway is such an amazing singer and so genuinely steeped in Southern soul music that I will lead the parade for this red hot band of young Alabama white boys. They are the real deal. Janeway combines a preacher's fervor with the enthusiasm and good taste of a classic Southern soul music expert. St. Paul and the Broken Bones appearance on super fan David Letterman's show was memorable, Letterman throwing down the gauntlet and the band picking it up.
Spoon. They Want My Soul.
It's hard to believe this is Spoon's 8th record. Even harder to believe is that one of America's best rock and roll bands manages to get even better. Britt Daniel is a truly great rock singer, like Rod Stewart and Paul Rodgers were great rock singers, and arguably the best of his generation - expressive, distinctive, compelling. Spoon's songs are so meticulous and well crafted, perfect really. We love this record and its videos so much, we'll give you two.
First, "Do You":
And then "Inside Out":
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
Wow, what a great country music record. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was one of the most critically hailed records of 2014. Simpson's baritone voice is amazing, but it's his writing that really shines. Just listen to the opening track, "Turtles All the Way Down":
TV on the Radio. Seeds.
TV on the Radio, like their forefathers The Velvet Underground and Talking Heads, take all the art, intellect and grit of New York City and create intelligent and highly original rock music. I was a big fan of the 1980's Black Rock Coalition that spawned Living Colour, Follow For Now, The Veldt, etc. It only took 30 years for the alternative establishment to truly embrace a black rock band, with TV on the Radio's arty dance rock being a consensus favorite both under and above ground. Seeds is a careful and great sounding record that is a fine place to start if you have somehow missed the boat on this deservedly heralded band. The hit single "Happy Idiot":
The Vaselines. V for Vaselines.
Formed in Glasgow Scotland in 1986, The Vaselines are perhaps best known for reportedly being Kurt Cobain's favorite band. Nirvana recorded three of their songs, including "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" on MTV Unplugged in New York. V for Vaselines is the exactly the kind of power pop punk we've come to love from this seminal band. Age seems to have only made them even smarter and more confident. Full review here by our resident Scottish rock expert Rocksteady74 (Scott). Enjoy one of the singles, "High Tide Low Tide":
War on Drugs. Lost in the Dream.
So many reasons to praise this Philadelphia band, but let's start by thanking them by bringing the saxophone back to rock and roll. Inspired by Dylan and Springsteen, Adam Granduciel aims high. And as high minded as Lost in the Dream is, it's also irresistibly catchy and at times even danceable.
I have nearly worn out my CD already, playing it every week and sometimes daily in my commute to and from work since its March release. Full review here.
It's fitting to end my year end retrospective here as "An Ocean in Between the Waves" by The War on Drugs is my favorite song of 2014:
My writing here curtailed significantly in 2014 due to work and family demands, and this may be my last article for quite awhile as I start a new job that deserves my focus. But I'll be listening and reading. I hope all our WYMA readers have a great 2015. I'm looking forward to the new releases this month by Sleater-Kinney and Bettye Lavette (produced by Joe Henry).