Sunday, December 7, 2014

The year in pop music: a ten best list for 2014

These were the CDs I enjoyed listening to the most this year. These all stayed in my car CD player for long stretches of time and bore up to repeated listenings. Not everyone will enjoy each of these picks. But if you read carefully, you're likely to find something that will make you glad youpurchased it or you might find something here to stuff in your family's Christmas stockings.

Happy listening!

1) The War on Drugs: “Lost in the Dream.” This album was released in March and has been in heavy rotation in my car ever since. It’s the band’s third and most fully realized album.  Starting with the epic two-chord romp "Under the Pressure," Adam Granducial and the band offer a mesmorizing collection of entirely engaging rock songs. They tend to start with predictable rock instrumentation but blossom into more interesting set pieces that feature floating ambient passages, assorted blasts of brass instruments and synthesizers. Songs like "Red Eyes" and the gorgeous "An Ocean in Between the Waves" channel the energy of Bruce Springsteen with the introspective navel-gazing of Jackson Browne’s most introspective songs. The album’s ten songs are a sprawling pastiche of deceptively simple yet utterly unforgettable reflections on modern living. "Lost in the Dream" is a meandering masterpiece of shifting moods and dreamy vibes, always anchored by Granducial’s guitar. 

2) Ought. "More Than Any Other Day". This Montreal-based post-punk band had one of the most explosive debuts of the year. My son and I caught their sparsely populated set at Johnny Brenda's for just $8 and thought we were seeing the Talking Heads, circa 1978 at CBGBs. It won't be so easy (or so cheap) to see them next time around. The energy they brought to their high-powered rock n' roll set was exhilerating to witness. The band takes a collaborative approach to their songs. They tend to start slowly and gradually build to climatic crescendoes of slashing dissonance and vocal angst. Tim Beeler's vocals (like David Byrne's) may grate on some ears, but there's never any doubt he's totally invested in the performance of the song. "More Than Any Other Day" rocks harder than any CD I heard all year. 

3) Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. This is the second Simpson album release this year. The album’s title clearly borrows from the landmark Ray Charles' country set. But the musical precedents he’s channeling are Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Jimmy Webb. The album’s first single, “Turtles All the Way” takes an unpredictable and somewhat disconcerting psychedelic approach that works surprisingly well considering the genre Simpson is working in. His rich baritone and his phrasing sound as if he’s been taking voice lessons from Jamey Johnson. If you don’t like your country music in its most distilled form, you probably won’t dig Sturgill Simpson. But if Willie, Waylon and the boys are still rattling around your memory bank, you’ll love this one.

4) Ex-Hex. Rips. In her earlier work with Autoclave and Helium and, more recently, Wild Flag, Mary Timoney’s virtuosic guitar work always threw up in-your-face riffs that reeked of snarky confidence. If you loved her then, you’ll really  love her new album with an old collective known as Ex-Hex, who debuted in 2005 and has been on hiatus since. A punky, feminist romp, “Rips” is an economical, throwback to classic rock albums on the 1970s. This one is similar to Elvis Costello’s first record. Every song is a gem and all 12 of them clock in under 35 minutes.  Highlights include “Hot and Cold,” “You’ll Fall Apart” and “New Kid”. But trying to pick just three cuts off an album of 12 great blistering rock and roll songs is like choosing which fingers you want to slice off your hand.  “Rips” rips.   

5) Beck. Morning Phase. It’s been six years since Beck released an album. He had some serious health issues that kept him from working or recording in the interim, but the time off seemed to add layer of reflection that’s been missing from his songwriting since “Sea Change,” his most introspective record. Like that one, “Morning Phases” shows a more philosophical side of Beck that makes this latest recording a distinct pleasure to hear many times. “Sea Change” broke from Beck’s heavy use of sampling and electronic gimmicks an acoustic presentation of the songs. So, too, does “Morning Phases.” The songs possess a warmer, gentler tone and show the subtle side of an artist who destined for the rock n’ roll hall. “Cycle,” “Morning” and “Waking Light” are songs to start the day with.

6) Teddy Thompson. Family.  Just last month Teddy Thompson (Richard and Linda’s son) released his latest collaborative project, called “Family.” His mother and father and his sister, Kami, all contribute songs to the record, as do Kami’s husband (James Walbourne) and their stepbrother, Jack Thompson, from Richard’s second marriage. In an interview with the New York Times, Teddy said “at first, I thought it would be fun and easy,” but he soon realized “I was definitely trying to repair some kind of damage.” Kami, in the same story, said the family reunion concept was “like a family song-writing competition – it’s a bloody nightmare. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?” If “Shoot Out the Lights” (a ‘70s classic five-star recording ) was the Thompson’s truth about their divorce, “Family” shows that they’ve weathered the emotional storm just fine. 

7) Temples. Sun Structures. The nostalgic trip-fest of the year goes to this debut CD from Temples, a band from Kettering, England. Lead by guitarist and vocalist James Bagshaw, the Temples’ template takes 1967 psychedelic era pop and reinvents it, adding layers of sonic tricks that are pleasurable if a tad polished. Their best songs sound like T. Rex at their glittery finest but on a few others, the sheer studio sheen makes it seem as if the band is trying a little too hard to replicate a ‘60s pop confection. I caught their gig at the Union Transfer and the band pushed the songs forward with a gritty, guitar attack that suited their material better. “Shelter Song,” the title track and “Mesmerize” all sound like top of the pops chart-toppers from the late ‘60s. Temples is a band to watch.

8) Allo Darlin’ – We Come From the Same Place. Anglo-Australian band Allo Darlin' released their third album this year and it’s another batch of well-crafted, hook-laden songs written by Elizabeth Morris, the band’s songwriter and lead singer. She’s supported here with effortless ease by her band but it’s Morris’s show and she delivers these introspective, anecdotal stories with lines that sound like tossed-off couplets but reel you in close for a hard look at her heart. “I wanted to impress you, and I think you knew” she sings in “Kings and Queens”.  There are the idiosyncratic characteristics here, especially her use of the ukulele as a center point for some songs,  but the band behind her rocks hard. This is an immensely likable pop album, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell in her prime.  

9) The Antlers. Familiars.  On “Familiars”, The Antlers abandon the electronic influences that informed the Brooklyn band’s first two records, 2011’s “Burst Apart” and 2009 “Hospice”, opting  for a jazzier vibe that showcases a reliance on horns. Peter Silberman’s controlled falsetto remains one The Antler’s most compelling assets. There’s not a cut on the album that one might hear on top 40 radio, and that’s meant as a compliment.  Nine compelling cuts that bring you to another world and craft a soundtrack that just needs the right movie to find its audience. The Antlers seem like one of the most interesting bands making music today.

10 Roseanne Cash, The River & The Thread. Cash’s string of terrific CDs released in the last seven or eight years continues on this well-crafted set that has flown under the radar since it was released in January. (I didn’t discover its many charms until about a month ago.) Much of her most recent work was imbued with a sense of memory and grief, coming on the heels of the death of her mother and her iconic father. The River & the Thread finds the veteran Nashville songwriter crafting songs of immense detail and emotion she delivers in her trademark plaintive voice. The uptempo rocker “Modern Blue”sounds like an outtake from her classic “King’s Record Store” but the rest of the record travels down blues and folk roads, with the able contributions from her husband, John Leventhal. "A Feather's Not a Bird" and "Etta's Tune" are highlights.

In alphabetical order, here are some CDs that almost made my end of the year list: Anansy Cissy, "Mali Overdrive"; Gary Clark, Jr., “Live”; Joe Henry, “Invisible Hour”; Parquet Courts, “Sun-bathing Animals”; Cookie Rabinowitz, “Four-Eyed Soul”. Spoon, "They Want My Soul", St. Vincent, "St. Vincent"; U.S. Rails, "Heartbreak Superstar"; Sharon Van Etten "Are We There"; Woods, “With Light & With Love”.

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