I 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.
Joe Henry, Invisible Hour
Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Jolie Holland, Wine Dark Sea
Amy LaVere, Runaway’s Diary
The Roots, … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home
Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky
Royksopp & Robyn, Do It Again
Stanton Moore, Conversations
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?
There may not be a more joyful record released in 2014 than Going Back Home—which may be a bit of an odd thing to say about an album that started with a death sentence. When Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, he would have been forgiven for holing up somewhere to record a moody reflection on his own mortality, something like the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin recordings or Time Out of Mind—fuck it, he would have been forgiven for just heading to the beach to ride things out—but of course, Johnson is the very embodiment of a working musician, so instead of doing anything quite so morose or somber, he headed to the studio intent on cutting a fast-and-loose set of rock and blues, working with his studio band and simply blazing through as many rock and roll tunes as they could in the span of a few days. Roger Daltrey of The Who was recruited to sing, and the resulting album is one that hits all the right notes—combining a few new tunes with a number of Dr. Feelgood warhorses and a righteous, rip-roaring take on Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Our Your Window,” most of the songs whizzing by in less than three minutes, the entire set just hitting half an hour, not one moment that isn’t pumped full of visceral, gut-punch rock and roll.
To say that Johnson and his band sound like they’re enlivened—having the time of their lives—may be surprising but is inarguable based on the evidence here; the album may not quite have the kinetic energy of prime Feelgood albums, but it does have plenty of rock and roll swagger that’s pitched somewhere between the careening beat of 50s R&B, the anarchy of punk, and the macho strut of electric blues, particularly the McKinley Morganfield variety; not for nothing is Going Back Home released on Chess. The most surprising thing may be Daltrey, who sounds every bit as alive and as overjoyed as Johnson does, more than earning his credit as a marquee collaborator. Here he gets to let loose with material that’s bold and ballsy, full of piss and venom; in other words, it’s pretty far removed from the kinds of self-consciously arty lyrics that Pete Townshend tends to give him, and while Daltrey doesn’t try to hit all the same notes he did circa Who’s Next, he does tear into these songs with a gruff ferocity seldom heard from him, at least not recently. Going Back Home is a gas from start to finish, and while it doesn’t tackle death or finality head-on in its lyrics, in its own way it faces mortality with true grit: After all, what are we to call a joyous, careening piece of music like this if not a celebration of life, and a protest of death?