Robert Plant

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

Deluge! (Quick Thoughts on Robert Plant, U2, Spoon, Jenny Lewis, etc.)

The-VoyagerWell, here I am again: Coming back to the blog hat in hand, a bit chagrined that it’s been so long since an update but honestly unsure of where I could’ve found the time. Lest anyone assume my silence is due to a lack of subject matter—that is, a lack of worthy new music to write about—I want to offer a quick but hearty assurance that this couldn’t be further from the truth: 2014 continues to be one of the most significant years for new music that I can remember.

I’m going to bullet point a few things that have been on heavy rotation, with the acknowledgement that I won’t get to write about all of them in depth—much as I’d like to—but I will earnestly try to write more about at least a couple of them. Then again, I’ve been saying that about the new Jolie Holland album since May, so don’t get your hopes up too much.

I will certainly recommend any and all of the following, however:

  • Easily the highlight of my recent listening experiences is Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, the magnificent new record from Robert Plant. Plant, it seems to me, is virtually alone among his contemporaries—only Paul Simon can equal or eclipse him—in his restlessness, in his zeal for ensuring that no two of his albums sound the same. That’s not to say that this new one is without a foundation—it picks up the threads of American country-blues and folk music, as well as the folk traditions of Africa and England, that have been present on Band of Joy and Raising Sand, and for that matter Led Zeppelin III—but he weaves them together into something layered, propulsive, and totally groovewise. The album is twangy, trance, funky, folky, solemn, celebratory, and bluesy—to varying degrees and at different times—and utterly absorbing. It’s a record you can immerse yourself in again and again, and it may be Plant’s finest hour.
  • The big story right now, of course, is the new U2 album, Songs of Innocence. Plenty has been written about the surprise release strategy of the album—some of that writing laudatory but much of it weirdly snarky—but what matters to me is the music. U2 was the band of my high school years, and I’ll always have a soft spot for them, even as they’ve seemed increasingly rudderless and lost in recent years. I am so very pleased with this new album, though: God knows it’s not perfect, but it’s melodic, vigorous, and hip without sounding desperate; it experiments with new textures and sounds, Bono sounds great on it, and the autobiographical nature of the lyrics has focused his songwriting more than it’s been since God knows when. No, it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s surprising and—unique among U2 albums—genuinely fun, and I never thought I’d like a new U2 album quite so much.
  • Meanwhile, I think Spoon is one of the very finest American rock and roll bands to emerge in the last 20 years; I would call their 2007 set Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga something of a modern classic, and I play it more often than I do any one White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys, or Queens of the Stone Age album (and I dig those bands plenty). New album They Want My Soul is nearly as good: A seductively rhythmic album that comes across as simultaneously minimalist (in its precision and its leanness) yet also somehow extravagant (it’s drunk on different textures and sounds, and revels in sensual pleasures). It’s got a killer vibe, a killer set of songs, and a wonderfully ragged lead singer who continues to establish himself as uniquely soulful, compelling in his frayed and frazzled humanity. What more could we ask for?
  • The new Jenny Lewis album is called The Voyager, and I increasingly think it may be just as good as her excellent Acid Tongue—maybe even better. This one is focused where that one was sprawling, and the pleasures are in the craft: The tight, hooky songwriting and the appealingly mucked-over production from Ryan Adams (and a bit from Beck). Lewis blurs the lines between pop and country-rock here, and by turns recalls everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Tom Petty, and her songs are funny and quirky with some deep, dark undercurrents about loneliness and the pains of growing up. It gets better with every play, and I think “Head Underwater” is the most addictive single of the year—vying with U2’s “Every Breaking Wave” and maybe a Spoon song or two, I guess.
  • Some of you know that I was not huge on The Bad Plus’ Stravinsky record from earlier this year, but now they’re back—so soon!—with Inevitable Western, an all-originals album that takes us back to the loud, knotty, adventurous, and occasionally just dreamy music they’re known for. It deserves a spot on the shelf with such corkers as Made Possible and Never Stop—the latter still my favorite of theirs, I think, but this one very much on the same level. Pick any of their records and see how much is expands your definition of what jazz can be.
  • I sort of scoffed at the idea of Song Reader, the sheet music project from Beck, when it was announced a couple years ago, but now there’s an actual artist, in which a roster of great musicians gives voicing to Beck’s songs—and it’s not half bad. The songs themselves, it turns out, are outstanding—self-referential, funny, and catchy—and the performances all allow the individual musicians to let their personalities shine through. Loudon Wainwright III gets to be biting and funny, Jarvis Cocker is suitably deadpan, .fun is actually fun, Laura Marling’s song is lighter and more propulsive than most of her own compositions, Jack White’s honky tonk jam tops anything on his own Lazaretto, and on and on.
  • Singer/songwriter LP has an album called Forever for Now that’s excellent, splitting the difference between craftmanly singer/songwriter fare and the vocal pyrotechnics of, say, an Adele. It’s a hooky record with a lot of soul to it, and though it maybe reaches for those big skyscraping hooks a bit too often—the lone subdued, acoustic song comes as a bit of relief—it’s a fun record to sing along to.
  • Finally, Dr. John has a new album called Skee-Dat-Dat-Doo: Spirit of Satch, which is surely the weirdest and most idiosyncratic Louis Armstrong tribute album ever made. It’s got reggae grooves, raps, smooth soul, NOLA funk, gospel, guest spots for Bonnie Raitt and the Blind Boys of Alabama and tons more, and some excellent trumpet spotlights for Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard. Not all of it works perfectly, but most of it works very well indeed—and you’ve got to give the good doctor credit for not taking the easy route with this one.