Month: December 2014

25 Favorite Records from 2014

Some real humdingers, this year—including my toughest-to-whittle-down Top 10 list in ages, and a number of records that are sure to remain all-time favorites.

As usual, I will note that this list is meant only as a snapshot; I suspect that #1 is more or less etched in stone, but the subsequent entries may shift a bit from one day to the next. All are excellent, though—worthy of your time and engagement.

1. Joe Henry
Invisible Hour
invisiblehour
Every Joe Henry album comes with its own lyrical and/or sonic conceit—not necessarily a formal concept, but a suggested framework, a recommended entry point for the listener. Invisible Hour is no exception: It is an album about marriage and committed love that views its subject at odd angles and from varying distances, love’s transformation felt in its absence as much as in its presence; it’s a folk album that manages to sound spare and lush at the same time, black-and-white in its rendering yet boldly widescreen in its scope. It is also his masterwork—and given how much I like his other albums, that’s saying quite a bit.

2. Miranda Lambert
Platinum
platinum

The Carrie Underwood duet aside—somethin’ bad, indeed—this is basically the pop album of my dreams: Rich in ideas, its songs in dialogue with one another, Platinum addresses fame and intimacy, time and nostalgia, feminine strength and vulnerability as two sides of the same coin. It has the spirit of a double album, if not quite the running time, and its sprawl encompasses country that is as hard and as pure as Sturgill Simpson’s, plus pop that is as sleek and modern as Taylor Swift’s. It’s an album that tries to offer something for everyone while still existing as its own thing—no small feat at all.

3. Leonard Cohen
Popular Problems
popular problems

One album removed from Old Ideas, which fetishized death and preserved its mortal reflections in amber, Leonard Cohen comes roaring back with a surprising, lively, funny, poignant set of songs—as good as any he has ever put together, in fact, though what surprises the most about Popular Problems is that it’s actually musically interesting and inventive, at times almost lending the illusion of spontaneity. Stranger things have happened, but still: This one, much more than the last one (or for that matter, any Cohen album of the last couple of decades), is the one for his legacy.

4. Robert Plant
Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar
ceasless roar

I have no idea how much money Robert Plant has actually turned down by forsaking a Led Zeppelin tour in favor of following his muse, but I do know that I love him for it—especially since the muse continues to lead him in such strange and wonderful directions, here bidding him to pick up the strands of mystic folk that he first picked up on Led Zeppelin III, tying them together with the hushed warmth and haunted vibe of Raising Sand and the dusty Americana of Band of Joy. He takes the very concept of folk music—not just American—and remakes it in his own image, and the addictive results are as appealing as any music he’s ever made.

5. Flying Lotus
You’re Dead!
youredead

Mind-altering—and, much more than any album on the list, not normally my thing—Flying Lotus’ new album uses jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and electronica as its building blocks, but constructs from them something dizzying, otherworldly, and ultimately most moving. Its construction is masterful: From its dizzying and disorienting buildup it moves into breakneck catharsis with Kendrick Lamar, then shifts into a much-needed comedown—by turns spooky and comical, and perfect for the kind of reflection that this record demands.

6. Lucinda Williams
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
spirit
Craft isn’t a very rock and roll word, and it doesn’t exactly set the toes a-tappin’, but maybe it should—at least in the context of Lucinda’s double album, which really is a master class in craft, each song arriving as something compact, precise, evocative, catchy, and wonderfully earthy. For a collection that spans two discs, it’s amazing how economical it seems, how every word and note packs a punch. Each song is its own self-contained thing, but the cumulative effect is roaringly entertaining.

7. Jolie Holland
Wine Dark Sea
winedark

Country-blues as filtered through the prism of raw and raucous punk, Wine Dark Sea is noisy and electrifying—its cling and clatter, its punchdrunk dissonance forming the perfect soundscape for Holland’s boozy reflections on wild and reckless lovers. There is a real sense of danger here—a sense that this whole thing could come apart and blow up in our faces, and that feeling remains even after dozens of listens. Tantalizing, to say the least.

8. Spoon
They Want My Soul
spoon
This one taps into everything that’ great about Spoon: How their music seems so immaculate, so precise, so minimalist, yet so loaded with sensual pleasures; how the rich texture in their music is the perfect backdrop for Britt Daniel’s frayed nerves and bleeding heart. Sensual and lush and with a beat you can dance to, They Want My Soul is the year’s great rock and roll album.

9. Marianne Faithfull
Give My Love to London
faithfull
Songs of Experience, we’ll call it; the story of the artist’s life, told through character acting and collaboration; tough as nails, funny as hell, delivered with the well-earned swagger of a true survivor. Faithfull has made a number of fine records over the last decade or so, but this one is my favorite: Playful and devastating in equal measure, it’s got the balance of wit and wisdom that only a true rock and roll sage can deliver.

10. The Roots
… and Then You Shoot Your Cousin
cousin

The strangest, boldest, most singular and uncompromising album to be released this year, or at least to be promoted so heavily on The Tonight Show, The Roots’ latest passion project offers layer upon layer of irony, satire, musique concrete, deep hip-hop references, and yes—underneath it all, some bangin’ hooks. (And all in half an hour’s time!) Purer art-rap than anything Kanye West has yet made, Cousin is demanding, though not necessarily alienating—and it’s as rich and rewarding as you care to make it.

and…

  1. Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow
  2. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
  3. U2, Songs of Innocence
  4. Weezer, Everything Will Be Alright in the End
  5. Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home
  6. Amy LaVere, Runaway’s Diary
  7. Look Again to the Wind: Bitter Tears Revisited
  8. Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes
  9. The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western
  10. Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread
  11. Beck, Morning Phase
  12. Brian Blade Fellowship, Landmarks
  13. St. Vincent, St. Vincent
  14. Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky
  15. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

Review: Over the Rhine’s “Blood Oranges in the Snow” Brings Long Journeys, New Mercies

bloodorangesBlood Oranges in the Snow—the third Christmas collection from Over the Rhine—opens with a weary travelogue, weepy pedal steel and wistful vocal harmonies lending weight to the song’s hard-won hopefulness. “Just a little while longer,” Karin Bergquist promises, and you almost don’t need any additional words to dial into the song’s spirit—tired and a bit broken down, but hopeful just the same. (And yes, as Karin previously put it: “There is something to be said for tenacity.”)

The rustic vibe feels like a continuation of last year’s homespun Meet Me at the Edge of the World, and sure enough: Blood Oranges feels, at times, like the winter companion to that autumnal meditation on rural life. Some of the same names adorn this album’s credits, including several of the Joe Henry players (though not the man himself; the band self-produced, this go-around) and engineer Ryan Freeland. The plot is considerably thicker than this description might suggest, though, and the cast of players is deeper and broader; included also are Over the Rhine acolytes from way back, among them Ric Hordinski and Jack Henderson; for that matter, dynamite drummer Mickey Grimm is back for the first time since the Trumpet Child/Snow Angels era, and frequent partner-in-crime Kim Taylor contributes a song (as she did on The Long Surrender).

No Over the Rhine album that I can think of has so many callbacks to the band’s history; none are as reflective of what Over the Rhine is, not just as a band but as a community. It is a consolidating effort in many respects, though not a nostalgic one. The weight of the band’s history gives considerable heft and meaning to the nine new songs presented here: They are songs about roads that have been long and hard, but good, and travelled together. The point is proven sufficiently just by a scan through the Blood Oranges credits.

Most of the songs here were written by Linford Detweiler; Karin is co-credited on the final number, and there are also one song apiece from Henderson and Taylor, plus a cover of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make it Through December.” On paper this seems like a bit of a patchwork approach to the album, but actually the pieces all fit wonderfully together, the songs in dialogue with one another even as they all conjure different variations of the same vibe. Blood Oranges is, impressively, a very different beast than either of the band’s previous Christmas LPs, and is especially distinct from Snow Angels—just as warm and intimate, but tending toward introspection and melancholy where that album was playful, flirty, and jolly.

It feels as much like an Advent album as a record to spin on Christmas Day. It’s probably not unfair to call Blood Oranges an album about waiting; about toughing it out—the Snow Angels coda “We’re Gonna Pull Through” would’ve fit in just as well on this collection. It’s an album about expectation—the long, dark nights chronicled in these songs all looking forward to some act of grace and redemption, even when it goes unnamed, even when it’s as simple as holding on through another winter.

If that makes it sound like a sadder set than most Christmas albums, well, that may be true—though even “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” have their shadows and their scars, if you stop and really listen. It’s true enough that Blood Oranges is melancholy more than it’s jubilant, and its soul-searching is restless throughout “Another Christmas” and especially “My Father’s Body.” These are songs colored by regret and anxiety, haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past and present; by the time the Merle Haggard song rolls around—what with its painfully pragmatic tale of the everyday hardships that seem, so often, to be heaviest in December—it seems almost like it could capsize the album, but the way Karin sings it the song feels tough—as though the narrator is hopeful not by nature, but by stubborn choice and intent.

“Bethlehem,” written by and sung with Jack Henderson, locates the source of that hope more vividly; it’s a soulful and weary song, a dark night of the soul that nevertheless dares to dream of “a hope for all mankind”—the light of that simple phrase shining all the brighter in this pitch-black midwinter. “Snowbirds” could almost be its lighthearted companion piece; its titular characters dive into the water knowing full well that it’s icy cold; they seek love and companionship despite the long odds and the dark nights. The best song here is “Let it Fall,” a simple and powerful exhortation to leave anxieties and insecurities checked at the door.

The album ends not with Christmas Day but with the coming of a New Year, and the promise that “New mercy comes with every morning/ The unexpected with no warning.” It offers us this, too: “Just a bit of New Year’s cheer/ To say I’m glad you’re here.” By this point, of course, the feeling is mutual; in more ways than one Blood Oranges sounds like a moment of rest following a long haul filled with tough sledding; a warm fire on a cold night. Its every grace note, its every new mercy feels earned—for all of us, no matter the journeys we’ve been on.