Best Of 2014
(strictly for fun ... and heated argument)
1 - Angus & Julia Stone - self titled
Ahhh, they’re back (for now, anyway)! After focusing on solo work for four years, Angus and Julia reunited as a result of persistent courting by producer Rick Rubin. As the story goes, Rick heard their music at a party and was impressed enough to contact them about making an album. They were flattered but initially declined, saying they weren’t currently working together. But he kept on them and eventually they came around. The result is the most polished record of their career, the Rubin effect is clearly felt. But, always true to themselves, Angus and Julia are completely in charge, maintaining their hallmarks: disarmingly simple, impressionistic folk-rock songs, gorgeous vocal interplay, superb ensemble playing, the occasional unhinged guitar, unhurried delivery … and magic in the air. How does it stack up in relation to the first two albums? I think it’s fair to say all three records are equally great in their own ways. There is no record or group I can recommend more highly at this point in time. This is pure art and pure class.
Addendum: It’s essential to pick up the deluxe version of the album as it has three superb extra tracks, including “All This Love,” an uncharacteristically poppy song that sounds like a hit single to me. With a total running time of 72:06, the album still leaves me wanting more.
2 - Broncho - Just Enough Hip To Be Woman
File under: Rock ‘n’ Roll. From Tulsa, OK. Two near-perfect albums and several mind-blowingly cool live performances I’ve seen are ample proof that Broncho are one of the best bands going these days. They’ve concocted an ingenious, not-as-simple-as-it-sounds, musical brew that follows in the grand tradition of groups like The Replacements, The Buzzcocks, The Modern Lovers, The Beach Boys, The Ramones and The Jesus And Mary Chain but ends up with a flavor distinctly their own. If, after one listen, “Class Historian” isn’t firmly lodged in your craw I’ll be mighty surprised. Led by wunderkind Ryan Lindsey and his longtime guitarist/sidekick Ben King, this is one incredibly hard-working band, they tour constantly. A recent line-up shift – losing bass player Johnathan Ford, adding bassist Penny Pitchlynn and guitarist Mandii Larsen from another exceptionally talented Tulsa band called Low Litas - has catapulted this already formidable live group to another level altogether.
3 - Sucre – Loner EP
A supremely arty, dazzling, 5-song blast of wild and intense creativity. With Stacy DuPree King at the mic, it would be near-impossible for the vocals to not steal the show but here the arrangements run a close 2nd. Multi-instrumentalist and arranger, Jeremy Larson is Stacy’s new secret weapon, bringing a beautiful weight to both Sucre and her stupendous other band - Eisley (Jeremy did arrangements for the group’s 2013 masterpiece Currents). Husband / Mute Math member /expert drummer, Darren King completes the stellar line-up. There’s a freedom to this project that is quite awe-inspiring to me. To say Stacy is stepping out of her comfort zone would be an understatement – witness the shouting she does at the end of closing song “Line Of Fire,” WOW! Watching this woman blossom from the 8-year old prodigy she was when Eisley began to what she’s doing now with Sucre has been a consistently fascinating experience. I can’t wait to hear what she does next. The title song, “Loner,” is one of my most played single songs all year.
4 - Lily Allen - Sheezus
Another fabulous, humorously indecent, pop record from one of the Queens Of Pop! Lily’s albums are joyous occasions filled with personality – her personality. It’s always a treat to get inside her head and tune in to her clever send ups, smart commentaries, diatribes, sexy new love songs and tales of familial bliss. All dressed up in Lily and her crew’s splendid pop melodies, production and arrangements. And then there’s her outrageously great singing – geezus! I honestly can’t say enough about this album, as near perfect as they come (here again, the deluxe version comes with five excellent bonus tracks).
5 - Taylor Swift - 1989
Here’s one I must admit I didn’t see coming. I had never followed Taylor Swift but, from what I did know about her peripherally, she seemed pretty cool and I always had a positive feeling about her. I remember being at a radio station in Bakersfield in 2006 with Dwight Yoakam (who I then worked with at New West), around the time Taylor’s first single, “Tim McGraw,” came out. Someone made a disparaging remark about Taylor and Dwight was quick to defend her. That made a big impression on me because I have great respect for Dwight for all kinds of reasons, including that he’s a die-hard music fan. My second encounter with Taylor was in 2009 at a Grammy week ‘guitar-pull’ at the Nokia Theater in downtown LA. She traded songs with Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and Lionel Ritchie. Both her respect and her confidence were apparent. I’m a fan of those artists (except Ritchie) so I was flabbergasted when, in my opinion, Taylor completely stole the show. Since then, I’ve frequently liked individual songs but, for no particular reason, just never picked up the records. Fast-forward to fall 2014. One couldn’t escape the hoopla about the new Taylor Swift record. I loved the fact that she continued to have a mind of her own and was turning the industry on its ear for a moment. But it wasn’t until my boy, Autry, bought the new album on a trip to Amoeba Music in Hollywood (the world’s largest independent record store and one of our favorite places!) and put it on in the car on the way home that I really connected – holy buckets, it was one great song and one great performance after another! I was GOBSMACKED! Apart from the occasional Disneyesque vocal twirl, I like everything about this record. When I really stop to think about it, Taylor is not unlike other massive favorites of mine – Eisley, Lily Allen or Tegan & Sara. This album is overflowing with spunk, spirit, single-mindedness, imagination, personality and, maybe the coolest thing of all, the sheer joy of making music. It doesn’t hurt that Taylor is utterly charming, something that totally comes out in her music. One of the biggest revelations I had about this record came from a conversation I had with one of my New West workmates, Colby Silon, who is much more familiar with the pop songwriting world than I. He pointed out that, what separates Taylor’s music from other contemporary artists whose material is co-written with one of the ubiquitous Pop Industry Machine Songwriters is, first off, she’s really a writer and almost always comes up with the main body of the song (while many pop star’s co-writing credits are cosmetic); and, secondly, that she injects her own personal experience, honesty and heart into the songs. She cannily uses the best of those professional cowriter/producers to her own advantage. I revere craft and am not knocking those PIMSs but I think Colby is right – Taylor’s music benefits immeasurably from this ‘real-ness’ and may better stand the test of time because of it. But all heady analysis aside, after three months I’m still completely smitten with this record and it makes me happy every time I put it on. And don’t miss the deluxe version of this album - six fab extra tracks, including “New Romantics,” as great as anything on the record and one of my most played of the year. A bona fide Pop Masterpiece.
6 - Courtney Barnett - The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas
Let’s welcome one of the most significant new artists to emerge in the last year. I was lucky to be a bit ahead of the curve on this one. I first heard Courtney live at the behest of her manager and my friend, Nick O’Byrne in September of 2012 at a music conference in Brisbane (Australia). Without Nick’s emphatic recommendation, I might not have gone. The venue was off the beaten path, a bit of hike from the neighborhood where most of the music was happening, it was late, I was tired and my feet were screaming. But when Courtney and her band took the stage, I was exhilarated – it was one of those moments I live for, where an artist nails me right-between-the-eyes - I instantly loved them. I was immediately impressed how strongly Courtney led the band, she was so clearly in charge. This record is a combination of two Australian EPs - her sole output to date. It’s a primitive rock sound, especially in the guitar playing. It’s edgy, tuneful stuff full of heart and humor and disarming lyrical candor in her talk-sing-stream-of-consciousness delivery. It’s intelligent and earnest, yet never takes itself too seriously. And, to pay her one of the highest compliments I can – (as Jennifer first said) she’s kind of like a female Dan Kelly (infinitely talented Australian)! At times I’m reminded of the Velvet Underground, right down to the Mo Tucker-ish vocals on “Ode To Odetta.” One of the most startling things about this music to me is how it doesn’t sound like a debut but more like a continuation from an artist who’s been at it a good, long while. Courtney’s natural talent astounds me and I’ll wager this is just the beginning of a long career and tons more great songs.
7 - Missy Higgins - Oz
Oz is an album of all Australian written covers, some well known, some quite obscure. Songs by the likes of Paul Kelly, The Go-Betweens, Icehouse and The Divinyls among others. Very well thought out, beautiful arrangements and impassioned readings. One that especially knocks me out is Perry Keyes’ “NYE,” definitely one of the best songs I heard in 2014. The deluxe Australian version comes beautifully packaged in a hard cover book, complete with extensive notes, lyrics and photos.
8 - Arctic Monkeys - AM
Released September 2013 but new to me in ’14. I have to admit, I hadn’t followed Arctic Monkeys since their 2007 release, Favorite Worst Nightmare. I loved the first two albums but, for no particular reason, just lost track of the band. I wasn’t aware of how huge they’d gotten. On a run to the record store, Autry bought AM. He put it on in the car as we were driving home and I instantly had that “Where have I been??!!” feeling … like, holy crap, WOW!! This record is so cool, I can hardly stand it - positively dripping with style and fire. And so bloody original. Inventive in that boundary-pushing way that 60s Brit bands like The Yardbirds or Family were, stuff that sounds truly new. Zeppelin-esque riffs abound. The maverick music overall punching up some of the most intelligent lyrics and slinkiest, rhythmic singing I’ve ever heard. Lead vocalist / lyric writer / rhythm guitarist Alex Turner is a master-phraser, unquestionably one of the finest singers working today. Quintessentially British, northern accent / pronunciation / enunciation, certainly tons of Lennon in there but also sounding uncannily like some kinda time-warped Gerry Marsden. One of the most startling things is how fantastic the falsetto singing is (is it just me or have there been way too many people singing falsetto that can’t really pull it off?). Also surprising is the generous number of slower songs sharing space with up-tempo crunchers. So many songs I could mention but stand-outs as I write are “No. 1 Party Anthem” (Beatle-ey and then some!), “R U Mine?” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High? – the latter really made me stop and think … whew, been on both sides of this one! Special mention must be made about album closer “I Wanna Be Yours” with guest lyricist, British punk-era poet, John Cooper Clarke (“I wanna be your vacuum cleaner / Breathing in your dust”). Another pretty near perfect record and the very definition of cool.
9 - Leonard Cohen - Popular Problems
Back in 2004, I remember being concerned that, after two good but relatively slight releases – 2001’s Ten New Songs and 2004’s Dear Heather, Leonard’s strong work might be behind him. But now he’s made two great albums in a row and one can’t help but marvel at how lucky we are that 47 years after his first release, Leonard Cohen is still doing it and doing it so well.
10 - The Barr Brothers - Sleeping Operator
One of the most musically accomplished groups in music today. There’s a distinct and wonderful upper east coast, sort of Ivy League / Simon & Garfunkel quality to The Barr Brothers’ take on folk-rock. They never disappoint. And I don’t know if it’s intentional but dig the resemblance to The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” on “Come In The Water”!
11 - The War On Drugs Lost In The Dream
The first thing that sucked me into this album is the way the singer at times resembles Bob Dylan … or what Bob Dylan might have sounded like had he made an album of ethereal-rock jams. It works best when taken in as a whole. One to put on, turn the lights down and listen to all the way through.
12 - Luluc - Passerby (EP)
Delicate, folk music from Australian duo featuring the beautiful voice of Zoe Randell. The title track may be their single best song ever.
13 - Young Rebel Set - Crocodile
A northern England rock band that writes smart, catchy songs that I couldn’t stop playing from the moment I first connected with them in September.
14 - Low Litas - self titled
Here’s another one from Tulsa that’s really gotten under my skin. A myriad of ideas in a loud rock context. Lotsa reverb on the vocals which gives parts of the record an eerie, Julee Cruise / David Lynch-ian feel. Absolutely awesome guitar tones, Crazy Horse-esque sounding riffs, where you can tell the volume in the studio must’ve been ear-splitting. Or, as their Facebook page says, “shamelessly making a ruckus”! As mentioned above, the two main band members – guitarist, lead vocalist Mandii Larsen and bassist, backing vocalist Penny Pitchlynn - do double duty, touring with the mighty Broncho, while Broncho’s drummer, Nathan Price regularly sits in on drums with Low Litas. Definitely a group to watch.
15 - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye
Sometimes really talented people who stop having HITS become uninteresting. Others continue to make great records without HITS … or without worrying about whether or not a record has hits on it. This album was a constant companion for me all year.
16 - Bryan Ferry - Avonmore
Bryan Ferry is one of those artists I love through thick and thin. Even the records I acknowledge as lesser works over the years I still hold dear. I was dumbstruck by the first record he ever made (Roxy Music's "Virginia Plain") and have been a fan ever since. This is not to say Avonmore is substandard. It’s a strong addition to an amazing body of work.
17 - Lucinda Williams - Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone
Her best since Essence. A bold move to do a double album but this one works from start to finish.
18 - Hamilton Leithauser - Black Hours
Strong first solo effort from Walkmen lead singer.
19 - Eleni Mandel - Let’s Fly A Kite
I love to listen to Eleni sing. But, even more so, I like to watch her sing. That’s because she is such a technically brilliant vocalist and you can see how intricate the process is for her – like the way she shapes her mouth for certain words or the distance she is from the mic to get power or subtlety. After a tour opening for Nick Lowe, Eleni decamped to London for three weeks and made this album with Nick’s backing band. Highly recommended.
20 - Neon Trees - Pop Psychology
Here’s another one I was turned onto by my now 12-year old son, Autry. We’ve been fans for a couple of years now, seen them live twice and love ‘em. From Provo, UT. It might just be me but I hear singer Tyler Glenn as a sort of rock version of Rufus Wainwright – a gifted singer and writer of damn catchy HIT songs with lyrics that often contain important social and moral issues while still being tons of fun.
21 - Rumer - Into Colour
3rd album from the super-fine, Bacharach-ian, Karen Carpenter-ish British vocalist. Jennifer doesn’t like the disco song but I do. I love how Rumer purposely makes out-of-time records.
22 - First Aid Kit - Stay Gold
Terrific third album from Swedish sister country-folk duo.
23 - Echosmith - Talking Dreams
Fun pop-rock from LA family band. “Cool Kids” knocked me out the first time I heard it, I’ve played it a million times and it always sounds great, one of the year’s best singles.
Singles / 10-inchers
David Bowie - “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” / “ ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” - 10-inch single
Unlike anything David Bowie has ever done, the top side is 7:23 long, an unrelentingly tense, sort of free jazz song that may have something to do with illness, infidelity, a secret past pregnancy, madness and/or murder. Even better is the B-side, with lyrics based on a play written in the year 1629 (how does he pull this sort of thing off??!!). Jagged and dark, very much in keeping with 2013’s The Next Day and yet another step beyond, Bowie is clearly going through a purple patch, making some of the best recordings of his entire career.
The Unthanks - “Mount The Air” - 10-inch single
My other current favorite band of the last few years (along with Angus & Julia Stone), The Unthanks bear almost no resemblance to anyone else I hear in music these days. Led by vocalists Rachel and Becky Unthank (yes, that’s their real last name) and pianist / arranger Adrian McNally, they are the very definition of ‘following your own muse.’ They use British folk as a jumping off point for what ends up being borderline uncategorizable music … sophisticated, cerebral stuff, eclectic and cinematic, often piano-driven and melancholy with expansive string arrangements … I dunno, maybe we just call it Classical Folk Music. Whatever it is, it’s always impeccably well produced, ungodly beautiful and it takes me away from this mortal world. The A-side is a preview of their upcoming 2015 album of the same name (an edited single version of what is reportedly a 10-plus minute track). The B-side, “Died For Love” is a live demo of another song from the upcoming release. Tastefully packaged in a sleeve with gorgeous artwork and, since I placed my order early, my copy was signed by the sisters – nice!
Robert Wyatt - Different Every Time – Ex Machina / Benign Dictatorships
Well curated career overview. Disc One is a ‘Best Of Robert’ while Disc Two compiles many of his amazing collaborations with other artists. The companion biography of the same name was a fabulous read, chock-full of fascinating stories and facts and it made me love the man more than I already did … which I didn’t think possible!
The Velvet Underground - self titled 3rd album super-deluxe reissue
Bob Dylan - The Complete Basement Tapes
Paul McCartney - New - Deluxe edition
David Bowie - Nothing Has Changed
For me, any Bowie compilation is a tough prospect as, inevitably, I feel some essential tracks are missing and some that are included maybe shouldn’t have been. But I find this one particularly interesting cos he sequenced it backwards, chronologically, to begin with his latest non-LP single, “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime).”
Led Zeppelin - deluxe 3rd album
Epic Soundtracks - Wild Smile (An Anthology)
Big Star - Live In Memphis
Live (in LA unless otherwise noted)
Wild Moccasins – Bootleg – 1/28
The Angus & Julia Stone Band - Live
A great dividend of Rick Rubin convincing Angus & Julia to make a new record together was, naturally, that a tour would result. They were scheduled to begin the U. S. leg in southern California, which is my neck o’ the woods, so I decided to indulge myself and catch the first three shows: at The House Of Blues in San Diego, The Henry Fonda Theater in LA and The Independent in San Francisco. I hadn’t seen them perform together for four years so was beside myself with excitement. But I was also concerned that Rubin’s persistence might have swayed them - even though they weren’t 100% into the idea of playing together again. When I first heard the album it was clear it was another great one so, no worries there … but I wondered if they could conjure the consistent live magic of their previous tours. So, there I was, oh, maybe a minute or so into the first night’s opening song - “A Heartbreak” - when I realized my fears were for naught – they were unmistakably and thoroughly engaged. But maybe the bigger surprise was the audience. A&J haven’t sold a lot of records in the states but all three shows were sold-out, the number of people in their teens and twenties was shocking and everyone seemed to know the words to all the songs. I don’t know about you but, generally, I find the quality of live sound at the shows I see to be wildly irregular and often just plain bad. So it’s just one more feather in A&J’s caps that they have consistently sounded borderline perfect live and these shows were no exception, thanks in no small part to Adam Rhodes, who’s been mixing the band live since the very beginning. In fact, the sound, the lights, the song selection, the playing, … the entire presentation was astonishing. Honestly, you’d be hard pressed to find a tighter band. Again, it was pure art and pure class from the moment they walked onstage until the final notes of the last song.
Bob Dylan and his band at the Dolby Theater -10/24
The setting itself was heavy and elegant – an ornate theater smack-dab in the middle of Hollywood, the place where they hold the Academy Awards fer chrissakes. It was the first show of a three-night stand. No opening act. Dark curtains and big, antique looking spotlights set in a curve along the back of the dimly lit stage. Instruments and amps set up for Bob and five band members. I’d spent $160.00 for a 15th row seat, just slightly stage left. Not too long after 8:00 pm Bob and the band walk onstage and open with a stunning rendition of “Things Have Changed” from the 2000 film Wonder Boys. Of course we all chuckle when he sings the line, “I’m in the wrong place, I should be in Hollywood.” They do two sets, 19 songs in all, 15 of them from 1997 or later. Interestingly, of the four older songs – “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Blowing In The Wind” fall short while “Shelter From The Storm” and especially “All Along The Watchtower” are sensational, the latter possibly the best live version of the song I’ve ever heard Bob do. Bob plays strictly harmonica and piano. Remarkably, a song that had never stood out to me before – “Forgetful Heart” (co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter from 2009’s Together Through Life) - is the most riveting performance of the night. The sound is perfect. And maybe the most surprising thing of all is that Bob’s enunciation is clear and the words are audible. After the show, I walk out of the theater in a daze and head downstairs into the adjacent subway station to catch a train home. I just keep thinking over and over how fortunate we are to still have Bob Dylan in our midst, performing at the top of his game!
The Replacements – Midway Stadium – Minneapolis / St. Paul – 9/13
The level of emotion and intensity surrounding The Replacements doing their first hometown performance in 23 years was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. When they announced that the show was going to take place in a 14,000 capacity minor league baseball stadium I thought they’d completely overshot their drawing power. It sold out in something like eight minutes - I stood corrected! Ticket scalping began immediately. People from all over the world were flying in for it. Even waiting for our flight at LAX two days before, Jennifer, Autry and I ran into people that were headed there. Once we got to town, the buzz was unavoidable; it was in the daily newspapers, the weeklies, the record stores, the clubs, on the radio, the TV … everywhere we went it, seemed to be on everyone’s mind. It was as if the Twin Cities themselves were proud parents. Come the night of the show, walking into the stadium was surreal. Seeing so many people I hadn’t seen for years, it was like the coolest high school reunion I could have ever imagined. Lucero and The Hold Steady played sets and I’m sure they were great but - and I apologize for this - I couldn’t concentrate on them. Then, the Mats hit the stage. How to describe it? They played like they meant it, they rocked, looked cool as hell, Paul sang great, their inimitable sense of humor was in full view, the set list was bullet-proof … it really was everything the three of us, and it seemed most everyone else there, could have hoped for and then some.
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