Miranda Lambert

25 Favorite Records of 2014 (Take Two!)

[Editor’s Note: Like so many music critics, I published my own annual favorites list before I knew there was a new D’Angelo album on the way; and, also like so many music critics, I’ve come to regard Black Messiah as a deeply significant record. I have amended my previous list to include it, and also took the time to highlight the true nature of these lists as snapshots– moments in time, highly subject to change– by shuffling around the order of a few others. The original list is here, if you want to compare.]

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. D’Angelo
Black Messiah
blackmessiah
Labored over for more than a decade, then rush released so as to more directly address current political realities, Black Messiah comes with its own ready-made mythology and narrative framework. What amazes is how completely the record transcends all of this: It is ridiculously funky, dense and think in its sound but kinetic in its energy and naked in its emotional expression. It’s an album about presence– having a voice, and having that voice counted– and as such it speaks wildly articulate sentences all its own. No back story needed.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

and…

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

At the Half: 10 Favorite Records from 2014

ihI could spend the rest of this calendar year holed up with old Monk and Mingus records—not listening to a single new release—and still have a tremendous set of records to recommend to you come year-end list season. With half of the year now completed, I can say without hesitation that 2014 has been one of the most significant years for new releases in recent memory, with several stone classics; plenty of others that come damn close.

Everything else I might say about the following list, I suspect, goes without saying: These are ten records I like an awful lot. It’s my halftime list, as it were, and will very likely change between now and December, maybe even between now and next week. That said, the top selection is 100 percent guaranteed to still be my favorite new record come the end of the year—is the heaviest new release in some years now, actually—and the next two albums on the list feel quite close to being mortal locks, as well.

I have found no small level of revelation and realignment in these albums; will keep returning to them for just that reason—and, because they are wildly entertaining, to boot.

  1. Joe Henry, Invisible Hour
  2. Miranda Lambert, Platinum
  3. Jolie Holland, Wine Dark Sea
  4. Amy LaVere, Runaway’s Diary
  5. The Roots, … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
  6. Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home
  7. Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky
  8. Royksopp & Robyn, Do It Again
  9. Stanton Moore, Conversations
  10. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

… and can you believe I wasn’t able to find room among those ten for Beck, Morning Phase; Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread; St. Vincent, St. Vincent; Luther Dickinson, Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues; Kelis, Food; tUnE-yArds, Nikki Nack; Jack White, Lazaretto; Ray LaMontagne, Supernova; The Black Keys, Turn Blue; and Neil Young, A Letter Home?

9 More Things About Miranda Lambert’s “Platinum”

platinumI said to my dear wife the other evening that Platinum is basically the pop album of my dreams—something that might be a slight exaggeration but is close enough to the truth: Now that Miranda’s fifth album has been heard in its entirety—and played on near-constant repeat around my house for several days—it’s clear that it’s a record dense with ideas, but never actually one that feels heavy; it’s a record brimming with humor and personality and melody, one that rewards thought and analysis but by no means demands them.

As suggested by the eight-song teaser, posted to the Web the week before the album released, it’s also a bit of a mess: It has 16 songs that feel, at least at first, like they don’t belong on the same album together, so presenting the record as a “sampler” didn’t actually obscure its character, even if it did undermine its real depth.

The charm of the record is in the sprawl, and in light of that, the best way to unpack it further may be with a few bullet points:

  • I’ll admit that I’m more than a little smitten with Miranda Lambert, and this record hasn’t done anything to minimize that. Think of the position she’s in, and how well she’s handling it—how ably she plays both sides of the fence: If she isn’t the biggest female star in country music she’s surely one of the top two or three (and really, I’d say that she is the reigning queen, if only because Taylor Swift’s music has less and less to mark it as identifiably country), and on Platinum she both pushes the country mainstream forward while taking it back to its roots; the album is cohabitated by smart, edgy singles and more rootsy songcraft, songs that sound like the country radio of 2014 mingled with songs that honestly could’ve been cut in the 1970s.
  • I said that the album is dense with ideas, and I think it is: There’s much to be said about the feminism on this album, which reflects both feminine strength and vulnerability, suggesting that the two are not entirely unrelated; the record is also about nostalgia versus living in the moment, and here again Miranda seems to suggest that the two are not mutually exclusive—that perhaps we can find strength for the present by looking back to the past.
  • There are a lot of thematic threads that stitch different songs together, suggesting that it’s less of a hodgepodge than it first seems. Surely it’s no accident that Marilyn Monroe is invoked by name in both “Girls” and “Platinum,” or that smoking and drinking play a significant role in both “Hard Staying Sober” and, well, “Smokin’ and Drinkin.’”
  • These through-lines and dichotomies are what give the record such richness: Like on so many classic, sprawling double albums—which this one is in spirit, if not in actual runtime—the songs mirror each other, answer each other, exist in conversation with each other. There are some obvious examples and some not-so-obvious ones—the most obvious being how the nostalgia in “Automatic” is followed, just minutes later, by the even more overt and specific celebration of tradition in “Old Shit,” basically a bluegrass number; that song, in turn, gives way to the Texas Playboys-style swing of an old Tom T. Hall song (“All That’s Left”), performed with the Time Jumpers and sounding like it could have appeared on my favorite Merle Haggard album, his winsome Bob Wills tribute album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World. Old shit, indeed.
  • Of course, not all of these nostalgic songs are as simple as they first seem. It’s hard to shake the notion that the last line in “Automatic,” about shaking a Polaroid, is a nod to a certain Outkast song—clearly, Miranda is someone who’s more than a little familiar with the pop charts—and while “Old Shit” may celebrate her grandfather’s values, it does so with a cheeky album title that members of her grandfather’s generation might frown on.
  • Another connection: Note how “Priscilla”—in which Miranda beseeches Mrs. Presley herself to offer advice on successfully staying married to a man who’s “married to attention”—finds Miranda wondering how she and Blake might “be the first to make it last” in the tabloid spotlight. “Automatic” is the next song in the sequence, and its line about “staying married” being the only way to work out problems almost seems like the answer she was looking for. (And, by the way, it’s also an example of that “old shit” coming in handy.)
  • Note how a trip to the hair salon is celebrated as a source of feminine strength in “Platinum,” even as the wonderful “Bathroom Sink” suggests that glamor is a form of “hiding”—the kind of seemed contradiction that makes Platinum so richly human and appealingly messy.
  • … or maybe Miranda means to suggest that we can find strength in vulnerability and brokenness, something that’s also, subtly in view on the delightfully punky “Little Red Wagon”—which is all feminine strutting, except for the actual chorus. “The front seat’s broken and the axel’s dragging” is a metaphor for brokenness, but not one that holds our narrator back from her “backyard swagger.”
  • My comments above might suggest that I’ve warmed considerably to “Automatic,” a single I didn’t much care for at first but appreciate more in the context of the record; alas, the same can’t be said of “Somethin’ Bad,” the album’s lone misstep: Miranda sounds a little desperate to keep up with Carrie Underwood on a tune that’s basically 80s hair metal in its production, TV pageantry in its composition.

But as with so many great double albums, even the weaker material seems somehow to have value: It provides context for the true brilliance on display everywhere else, and brings into focus just how much Miranda has accomplished on this excellent LP.

Half-Review: Miranda Lambert, “Platinum”

platinumMiranda Lambert’s big breakout album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—a stone classic—is rightly heralded for many things, high on the list being the album’s lean, focused strike: In its relatively brief running time and its streamlined track list, the album felt more like an outlaw country record anything out of contemporary Nashville, where big, bloated, hour-plus programs have become the norm. Every song on Crazy Ex felt like part of a larger narrative, and every song played an integral role in the set’s musical and emotional momentum—even the covers.

What’s weird is that the records that Miranda has made since then have been in many ways just the opposite, with long tracklistings and no real sense of thematic or musical focus, yet the music has suffered little as a result of it: A set like Four the Record is great in different ways than Crazy Ex was, emphasizing the sheer breadth of what Miranda can do so well, the depth of her musicality; I’d trim a couple songs from its 15-song running order, but if being slightly overgenerous is her biggest fault then who’s really complaining?

The unimpeachable Miranda will soon return with a fifth record, this one called Platinum. Weirdly, exactly half the album is being streamed in advance—and even with its abbreviated running order, it’s a whopping eight songs. The record is going to be a monster, in other words, and in more ways than one: 16 tracks is lengthy by any stretch, but the album also seems to be overflowing with different, often competing ideas about what country music can be.

Frankly, none of the eight songs being streamed in advance sound like they belong on the same record together—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Something like Sign ‘o the Times or The White Album is appealing precisely because of the sprawl, so Platinum being incoherent isn’t such a bad thing. It’s a double album in spirit, if not in actual assembly, and that’s something that I can rally behind.

What really makes this eight-song teaser such a promising precursor to the full album release, though, is that all of the songs are excellent—and in fact, all are better than “Automatic,” which was released as a single but underwhelmed me, sounding like Miranda was drifting a bit too close to sentimental, red-state-country balladry for my tastes.

The songs on the sampler handily best the single, making its selection as the single a little baffling. The opener, “Girls,” is a kind of mid-tempo power-country number, not unlike “All Kinds of Kinds.” “Little Red Wagon” is a burst of pop-punk album and snotty, tough girl strut (“you can’t step to this backyard swagger!”), but with weird flourishes of country twang and old soft-shoe pizzazz lurking around the edges. If there’s any through-line connecting these songs—thematically and spiritually, if not exactly musically—then it’s the kind of spunky feminism that you’ll hear in “Bathroom Sink,” a song that grapples honestly with regret and self-image; some of the biggest pleasures, though, are the oddball tracks like twangy, appropriately traditional yet endearingly crude “Old Shit.”

It’s a mess, but an endearingly one—and frankly more human and unpredictable than the album title, cover, or first single might have suggested. One can only hope that the songs still unheard add further charm, further reach to this program—adding up to a weird and wonderful blockbuster.