Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Voyagers and Glory Fires: The Top 14 Albums of 2014 (unabridged)

Hello! It's been a while since I've written here. As I imagine most readers know, I've been busy writing for Boise Weekly this past year. It's been a lot of work, but overall, it's been great.

This article was originally published in an abridged version in the Weekly on Jan. 7, 2015 (an apparent upload mishap made it even more abridged). I decided to publish the full version here--with the kind permission of BW, I should add--because I worked hard on it and, God help me, I actually think the writing's pretty good. Hopefully, you good people will feel the same. More importantly, I hope you like the albums I picked and maybe discover something you didn't know about.

Also, I thought that this could serve as notice that I intend to write more for HCTD in the coming year. Admittedly, 2015 has already been keeping me busy: On top of working four different paying gigs, I'm looking into contributing to a Boise-based music website that's being set up (stay tuned for info on that). Nonetheless, I do miss writing stuff here. Leaving alone the freedom to write whatever I want however I want, I have by no means forgotten that this crude-looking, stupidly named blog has been the source of nearly everything good that has happened in my life over the past three years. For that and for your readership, I will always be grateful.

Okay, enough preface. Hope you enjoy!


Tough times call for tough music--music that challenges, surprises, enlightens and delights. Whether it came from young upstarts staking their claims or old lions roaring once again, a lot of this kind of music came out last year. Here are 14 of the best albums of 2014.


Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, Dereconstructed

The Clash is alive and well and jamming with Lynyrd Skynyrd in Birmingham, Ala. As unlikely as this description may seem, it's really what Dereconstructed sounds like.

Birmingham-raised, NYU-educated Lee Bains proclaims his undying love for the South while railing against some of its--and America's--many ills: racism, homophobia, thieving businessmen, regressive politics, blind consumerism. He and the Glory Fires back up these fighting words with snarling guitars and a rhythm section that can handle sludgy stomp, mid-tempo boogie and full-throttle blitzkrieg.

The Bitter Southerner declared that this punk-Southern rock hybrid "may be the most important record about the South ever released." It may also be the best rock album of 2014.


Jenny Lewis, The Voyager

Many reviews of The Voyager reference the rough patch that Jenny Lewis went through over the past few years. These experiences--the death of her father, the breakup of her band Rilo Kiley, struggles with insomnia--may have influenced the album, but focusing on them can distract you from the wit, empathy and complexity of her songwriting.

With production help from Beck and Ryan Adams, Lewis depicts women making their own mistakes, learning their own lessons and speaking their own minds. These concise tales of sexual and chemical experimentation feature some of the sharpest melodies and slyest vocals of her career, making The Voyager and almost perfect pop-rock album.


Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2

At Treefort 2014, Run the Jewels' Killer Mike got a crowd full of Idahoans to shout, "Fuck Ronald Reagan!" With their second album together, he and partner El-P pull off something equally audacious.

Run the Jewels 2 mixes social protest, trash talk and blunt-and-booze glorification without shortchanging any of them. Killer Mike and El-P deliver it all with slamming beats, razor-sharp rhymes and quicksilver flow. Add it up and you have an album that can support cameos from both ex-Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha and ex-Three 6 Mafia rapper Gangsta Boo. The latter, incidentally, comes on a sex rap that practices equal opportunity while piling on raunchy details.


Seun Kuti, A Long Way to the Beginning

As Jakob Dylan or Sean and Julian Lennon could tell you, making music under the shadow of a legendary parent isn't easy. As the youngest son of Afrobeat creator and political firebrand Fela Kuti, Seun Kuti's cross would seem especially hard to bear. He's managing just fine, though, in part because he inherited Fela's band. He's also absorbed his dad's vision and, in some ways, improved on it: "Black Woman," the soulful closing track on Beginning, helps clean out the bad taste left by Fela's condescending "Lady."

Seun's taste in producers helps too. While From Africa with Fury: Rise (2011) featured production from Brian Eno, the Nigerian musician turned to jazz-hip-hop cross-pollinator Robert Glasper for his latest album. Together, they concoct a denser, faster and more abrasive take on the elder Kuti's meld of funk, jazz and High Life. You might think of it as Public Enemy to Fela's James Brown.


Drive-By Truckers, English Oceans

The Drive-By Truckers have gone through two major crises in the course of their 18-year career. The first, which led to the firing of singer-guitarist Jason Isbell, produced the masterpiece Brighter Than Creation's Dark (2008). The second, which caused bassist Shonna Tucker and guitarist John Neff to quit, produced English Oceans, the Truckers' best album since Brighter.

It's tempting to infer that the band's internal struggles seeped into the album's songs: More than usual, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley's lyrics focus on fraught, complicated relationships. What's more important, though, is that the two songwriters delineate those relationships with humor, wisdom, respect and solid tunes. Two acidic portraits of political hustlers provide some socio-cultural perspective. The two songs that bookend Oceans--Cooley's tough-talking, hard-rocking "Shit Shots Count" and Hood's majestic "Grand Canyon"--provide uplift.


John Nemeth, Memphis Grease

If you like your soul music with two dimensions or less, go ahead and buy St. Paul and the Broken Bones' much-hyped Half the City. If you want the real thing, pick up the latest release from one of Boise's favorite sons.

On Memphis Grease, John Nemeth joins forces with The Bo-Keys, whose members have played with Rufus Thomas, Al Green and Otis Redding (bassist Scott Bomar also scored the great 2005 hip-hop film Hustle and Flow). Nemeth's smooth, nuanced vocals almost steal "Crying" away from Roy Orbison. Also, you might wonder who wrote songs like "If It Ain't Broke" and "Keep the Love a Comin'" until you check the album credits and see that the man did himself. (Sidenote: Nemeth didn't write this one. Otis Rush did.)


St. Vincent, St. Vincent

Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, has been dropping so many jaws lately that her music and videos should come with a warning label from the American Dental Association. She stunned viewers and critics with her cover of Nirvana's "Lithium" at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Last February, she released her most accomplished and accessible album to date.

On St. Vincent, Clark wraps her idiosyncratic lyrics and playful, alluring vocals in bumptious beats, mind-warping noises and loads of irresistible hooks. It's too bad that Lady Gaga already used the title Artpop: This album embodies the concept better than almost any in recent memory.


Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso

While St. Vincent kicks down the door, Sylvan Esso sneaks in through the window. Amelia Meath's sweet coo and grounded lyrics ride atop Nick Sanborn's waves of sinuous beats and quirky synthesizer hooks. This spare, clever electro-pop may seem unassuming at first, but these songs will stay stuck in your head for days if not weeks.


Wussy, Attica!

Is Wussy, as Robert Christgau claims, "the best band in America?" It's debatable, but the case for this Cincinnati, Ohio-based indie-rock band gets stronger with each new album.

Wussy's latest, Attica!, is its best yet. Front-people Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver have never sung with more confidence or delicacy. A beefed-up rhythm section and some distorted slide add heft and bite to the duo's surefire melodies and droning guitars. Thanks to the power and beauty of the music, Walker and Cleaver sound triumphant even when they compare their apartment to a prison cell or sift through the ashes of their burnt-down home.


Angaleena Presley, American Middle Class

Sturgill Simpson may sound like Waylon Jennings, but his hit record Metamodern Sounds in Country Music has more in common with Youth Lagoon's The Year of Hibernation. Both albums let listeners indulge a fantasy of escaping from this mean old world.

With Angaleena Presley's American Middle Class, such opiates for the masses aren't on the menu. Instead, you get 12 songs that combine the down-home feminist sass of Loretta Lynn (or Presley's Pistol Annies cohort, Miranda Lambert) with the tough-minded yet compassionate class-consciousness of Merle Haggard. Presley may have sweeter tunes and vocals, but she hits just as hard as Lee Bains III or the Drive-By Truckers.


Jessica Lea Mayfield, Make My Head Sing

Great rock and roll takes risks. On her latest album, Jessica Lea Mayfield takes a couple of large ones. Singing softly and carrying a big guitar, she ditches her earlier folk sound and unleashes all the grungy thoughts and noises in her head. She gets support from husband Jesse Newport's steadfast bass and Matt Martin's muscular drumming. Make My Head Sing is raw, tender, brave and beautiful.


Tennis, Ritual in Repeat

"Night Vision," the lead track on Tennis's latest album, fuses the sensual and the spiritual over a hypnotically simple, syncopated drumbeat. It's one of 2014's sexiest songs, but that's just Alaina Moore's warm-up. Drawing from '60s folk and girl groups as well as '70s new wave and disco, Moore and husband Patrick Riley stand up for tender-hearted bad girls and craft affectionate portraits of Vivienne Eliot and a Fundamentalist grandmother. Throughout, they turn three-minute pop songs into odes to female desire, strength and independence.


Various Artists, A Tribute to Bob Dylan in the '80s: Vol. 1

2014 had two excellent Dylan-related releases. One was The Bootleg Series 11: The Basement Tapes Raw. The other was this tribute album, which applies just the right balance of respect and irreverence to the great songwriter's most uneven period. Highlights include Built to Spill's anthemic "Jokerman," Craig Finn's down-and-out "Sweetheart Like You," Aaron Freeman's goofy "Wiggle Wiggle" and Lucius's transcendent "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky."


The Old 97's, Most Messed Up

"We've been doing this longer than you've been alive," Rhett Miller sings on the first song. You wouldn't know it from the way these alt-country stalwarts kick out the jams on their tenth studio album. With amped-up tempos and unfailingly catchy tunes, they get drunk and get it on like a bunch of freshly minted 21 year-olds. Is it really better to burn out than to fade away? Looks like The Old 97's will find out.

Honorable Mention
Wovenhand, Refractory Obdurate
Frazey Ford, Indian Ocean
Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin, Common Ground
Bob Mould, Beauty and Ruin
Robert Plant, lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar
Desert Noises, 27 Ways
The Both, The Both
Eyehategod, Eyehategod
YOB, Clearing the Path to Ascend
tUnE-yArDs, nikki nack
White Lung, Deep Fantasy
Brandy Clark, 12 Stories
Peter Murphy, Lion
Badbadnotgood, III
Thompson, Family
Aan, Amor Ad Nauseum
Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Taste (note: This one came VERY close to making the top 14 list. If you have any feel for hip-hop, check it out. Aside from a surf-rock parody near the end--seriously, WTF?--this album is stunning.)

You can find info on Facebook and elsewhere online. And if you haven't done it already, follow HCTD on Facebook to keep track of what I'm up to. (You'd think it would've dawned on me to mention that a couple years ago...)

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