Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bob's Favorite Music Of 2014


I am long past the point of musical relevancy.  If I didn't already know that, it was confirmed yesterday when, driving down to Florida with my daughter, I asked her to play some music, anything to pass the the time.  What followed was a pleasant mix of artists, none of whom I recognized, most all of whom I enjoyed hearing.  I asked, from time to time, who was who, and was informed that I was hearing Dr. Dog, among others.

So let me start with a pronouncement (that doesn't need to be pronounced), followed by a clarification (which probably is needed, at least for this blogpost).  My pronouncement: popular music is alive and well, and those who have abandoned it and those who simply can't keep up can rest assured that the fresh, the creative, and the inventive is out there like it always was.  And that the good old days were just as full of crap as these days are now.  So let's not pretend that they weren't.

My clarification for my "best of" list that follows is threefold:

1. It comes from the mind of a 57 year old man, albeit one who has been collecting music for 50 years.
2.  I wouldn't list a CD if I didn't own it.
3.  I wouldn't list a CD if I didn't think it merited repeated listenings (and possible ownership) by you.   I have passed the point where I want to celebrate something that is "important," even though I never want to listen to it.
4.  Ranking is pointless.  All of these CDs are good; all of them sound better at different times or when I am in different moods.  So, no ranking, no order.

The Robert Cray Band--In My Soul.  Cray is one of the few consistent blues torchbearers who keep the genre fresh and relevant.  Of course, his guitar playing is unparalleled--every riff, every solo is precise and interesting.  But his skills as a songwriter and, especially, as a singer allow him to merge "traditional blues" with the Memphis R+B sound effortlessly.  The distinction was always artificial anyway.  Why shouldn't Albert King and Steve Cropper be mentioned in the same conversation?  A stunningly-good effort from Cray.

Roseanne Cash--The River And The Thread.  Mostly a rumination on the state of Mississippi and its past--both tortured and musical--, The River And The Thread is a superb song collection that shows off the full talents of Cash.  Call it heresy, if you like--she is the best songwriter in the family.  From the mid-tempo rocker "Modern Blue" to the ghostly "Money Road" that closes the CD, each song demands the listener's full attention. As a bonus, this is probably the most perfectly-produced CD of the year, both in terms of the musical parts played and the crystal clear reproduction.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers--Hypnotic Eye.  Call me old fashioned, but a good, straight ahead rock and roll record with crisp guitars and catchy choruses doesn't need much explanation or justification.  And "Fault Lines" is a clever metaphor for an aging California rocker.  Half the songs you'll love; the other half you won't be sorry you listened to.

The War On Drugs--Lost In The Dream.  By all accounts, I shouldn't like The War On Drugs--heavily-synthed, electronically-built songs with religious backbeats and lyrics that I can't always hear or understand.  But it's like the band channelled the melodic lines of The Cure and morphed those with vocals that draw from Petty, Springsteen and other anthemic singers, and the songs build on layers of guitars and coalesce into something powerful.  This one will stir you and you might not know why.  "Red Eyes" is probably the most immediate choice, but this hour-long CD might be best heard on a hallucinogenic car trip.

Broken Bells--After The Disco.  The second outing for Danger Mouse and the lead singer of The Shins' side project is just as engaging, if not as propulsive as the first CD.  The songs are often slower and quieter here, but no less enjoyable.  This is one for the car, not a party, though "Holding On For Life" would be just fine in the disco, not after it.  Danger Mouse's production, with its clean low-end, orchestral swells, and open space for every instrument only enhances the pleasures of this CD.

Bruce Springsteen--High Hopes.  First rate versions of leftover songs from the indefatigable Springsteen.  A very listenable, surprisingly coherent CD whose songs (naturally) come even more alive in concert.  And "American Skin (41 Shots)" is sadly as timely a dirge as it was 15 years ago.  Many artists have made careers from Bruce's leftovers.  This is a less monumental reminder of the man's prodigious talent.

Allo Darlin'--We Come From The Same Place.  I bought their previous CD on a whim, used it as a favored summer choice a couple of years ago, and it was an easy decision to add this tasty new one to my collection.  Allo Darlin' fills the void left when Frente disappeared, that breezy, heavily-accented, female-led band whose angst is never too serious and whose delivery is infectious.  This time the band gets to show off a bit more, especially on the guitar-extended title track.

Greensky Bluegrass--If Sorrow Swims.  It's a neat trick and it's new to me, but not to Greensky, that of using bluegrass styles, structures, and instruments to sing modern songs of angst that have nothing to do with bluegrass.  The effect is a jarring parlor trick at first, until you realize that these guys are not joking.  Why not use an old form to tell post-modern versions of what have always been the same problems anyway?

Jenny Lewis--The Voyager.  There are plenty of confessional songwriters out there, but the ones     who are tuneful pop craftspeople as well are few and far between.  Put Lewis somewhere near the very top of that category.  It's hard to pick a favorite here.  The Voyager is a short CD, and each song is a distinct gem.  Maybe the bookends, "Head Underwater" and the the title track, shine brightest.

Ryan Adams--Ryan Adams.  Ryan Adams is always good; sometimes he's great.  For those of us who miss his prolificness, we gulped this CD like thirsty pilgrims, not caring if it is his finest vintage or not.  He stacks the best songs early on, and mid-tempo rockers like "Gimme Something Good," "Kim," and "Stay With Me" juxtapose nicely with "My Wrecking Ball" and other slower, acoustic fare.

Benmont Tench--You Should Be So Lucky.  Where Heartbreakers' keyboardist Tench proves himself a masterful songwriter and a serviceable singer with a batch of songs in the Randy Newman romantic vein and a couple of covers.  Mature, well-crafted, and durable.  "Why Don't You Quit Leaving Me Alone" feels like a classic ballad.

Leftovers:  some of The Augustines, Lucnda Williams' latest if she'd kept it to a single CD, Chrissie Hynde's "Down The Wrong Way" w/ Neil Young on guitar.

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