Top albums of 2014

This was an interesting year for music. Such a mix of older artists returning to the stage with surprising releases and newer artists trying out new colors and textures in interesting ways. I will admit that I didn’t dive too deep into the music scene this year and will probably be playing catch up throughout 2015 with music that I missed along the way. The list below represents music that touched me, got a lot of play time in the car, caused my daughters to dance and laugh, and asked big questions for me that I need to pray and reflect on. So this list – like other so-called ‘top’ lists I have published – is not framed around music that was the most novel, unique or even expertly executed and produced. Nope, this is my list of music that marked my year in the good and the bad and set the tone along the way:

Awesome Mix #1 – Guardians of the Galaxy (various artists)

I start with this unabashed marketing tie-in to a superhero movie that recycles 70’s AM radio singles to underscore this: sometimes you just need a fun mix tape at just the right time to get the world singing together. One of the best excuses for a soundtrack since “Saturday Night Fever”, Awesome Mix #1 hits all the right summer fun beats: kitschy through and through, pop filled yet pulling some B-side and deep cut moves in flow and timing that is a master class in great mix tapes. More than a few times this summer I pulled up to traffic lights and heard “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” blaring from the car next to me and my first thought wasn’t “why aren’t they discovering new music?” No, sometimes recycling is good for the musical environment and having another generation singing the Runaway’s “Cherry Bomb” is something we should all celebrate. I mean, honestly… tell me you don’t dance around and sing into an alien lizard when Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” comes on?

Ryan Adams (Ryan Adams)

I have been waiting for Ryan Adams to come back ever since “Gold” and to hear the opening strains of the lead track “Gimme Something Good” I breathed a sigh of collective relief and joy. When his first solo album “Heartbreaker” was released I couldn’t believe the depth and genius of this then 25 year old. After now over a decade of all-too-typical dives into darkness with drugs, alcohol and lame vanity projects Adams seems to have kissed and made up with his muse again because his latest is a return to form in big ways. Strong tracks stem to stern with solid production that like a good Merlot breathes and deepens with repeated listens. There is still a wink in his musical eye of mischief yet tempered with some hard earned wisdom in the humility training camp and he has stewarded it well on this release. “Gimme Something Good” and “Kim” are standouts to be sure and I for one am just glad to have the Ryan Adams of “Come Pick Me Up” back in the saddle.

Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone (Lucinda Williams)

“You do not know what wars are going on/down there the spirit meets the bone” At 62 Lucinda Williams is in the pantheon of great artists who offers us a textbook for aging into wisdom without forsaking the kick, punch and bite of a serious badass. Released without much fanfare Williams double album walks with the listener along a spiritual pub crawl of honky tonk bars, late night street corners where buskers gather to play their hearts out and settling us into a pew for contemplative prayer as to the meaning of life and the hope and joy of being human while a gospel choir sings in the fellowship hall. Some tracks are weaker links in the chain which is to be expected for a 20 song offering, but Williams’ journey from her 2011 “Blessed” release (which was one of my top picks that year) to this one seems to be so rich in spiritual depth as to make me ask “what is this women drinking and where can I found that fountain?”

Songs of Innocence (U2)

OK… OK… before I get the “you are such the fanboy” comment string rolling on the blog (which I am… guilty as charged) hear me out. Rarely does a band who has been recording for 30 years venture into the risks that U2 has been willing to weather. One of the biggest risks for a band that has launched a distinctive and unique “sound” which spawned numerous lookalike and soundalike bands over the years (I am of the camp that U2 essential created contemporary worship bands like DCB and Hillsong) is to know when to move on and when to ‘own’ their distinctiveness regardless of sounding like… well… themselves. Songs of Innocence is one of U2’s distinctively U2 albums yet distilled and perfected over years (it is the longest gestating album they have put out). Strip away all the Apple iTunes not-so-free download media splash and you have one of the most enjoyable, singable and spiritually thoughtful albums of 2014. Reflecting on their youth in 1970s Dublin while most bands are trying to be like younger bands of today, U2 overs a great addition to their canon and only whets my appetite for the companion release Songs of Experience which should come out in the new year.

St. Vincent (St. Vincent)

I will be honest… it took me a while to become a St. Vincent fan. At first Annie Clark’s career came off a little bit like a gimmick or novelty act like her former band The Polyphonic Spree did. Sure, all the jumping around in choir robes was fun and all but I never really saw the genius of her work until her 2012 release with David Byrne Love This Giant and some of her side work with Sufjan Stevens and as part of Back’s Record Club project when she covered “Need You Tonight” by INXS (which is simply stunning). This year’s self-titled release is a move toward a muscular, confident sound that is not reclining at all. At once challenging Shirley Bassey (“Prince Johnny”) and The Talking Heads (“Digital Witness”) her use of brass arrangements with a lo-fi aesthetic is both precision cut in tone yet breathes and flows without effort making for a great album through and through. Just her confessional “I Prefer Your Love” alone with the refrain “I prefer your love/to Jesus” sung to a Sinead O’Connor ‘Nothing Compares 2 You’ vibe is worthy of a sea of think pieces on how pop music continues to ask religion to be a better suitor.

Black Messiah (D’Angelo and the Vanguard)

Where St. Vincent’s “I Prefer Your Love” takes issue with religion for being a poor suitor, D’Angleo’s “1,000 Deaths” gives voice to the chaos and confusion of faith communities remaining silent while continued violence occurs in our streets. In their review of the album, Pitchfork called Black Messiah “a study in controlled chaos” and I think they are simply missing the point. Nothing in this album has been left for chance nor is anything allowed to run amuck without D’Angelo controlling its direction both lyrically and sonically. Akin to the wall of sound in John Coltrane’s 17 minute “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” Black Messiah requires a disciplined and repeated listening to get at the layers found in this great album and it is certainly worth the 14 year wait. Deep jazz and R&B influences coupled with its laser focus on racial tensions make this both the most timeless and timely sounding release of the year and I hope that it gets the broader audience in the new year.

1989 (Taylor Swift)

As much as highbrow magazines like The New Yorker and Slate might despise Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” for painting the Big Apple as not being as bookish as they might like…guess what? Its a city of 8.5 million people and many of them loved this album and are not hoping for a Woody Allen retrospective. This. album. is. amazing. Crafted to pop perfection thanks to Max Martin and Shellback (Swedish producers channeling Scandinavian pop circa A-ha and ABBA) it is simply a great example of a party guest to knows when to laugh at the right jokes and not to over stay her welcome. Each song is a mini moment that is breezy, simple, clean cut and right made to blast out of your car speakers. True, you get no cool kid points for playing Taylor Swift while making artisanal candles from Yak lard with Fremont hipsters nor sullen contemplatives who can only find community in dark coffee shops, but this album was never for that market share. It is not an album that gets that the brokenness of our social networks, the economic stress on the backs of people, the disease and sorrow that is in our world today but it is also not that album. But it is an album that causes people to sway a bit whether they want to or not, sing along a bit and that might not be so bad. Even Yak lard candle makers need a pop song from time to time.

Passerby (Luluc)

I owe Jeffrey Overstreet a solid for recommending this album to me. One of those releases that I would have surely overlooked. Cutting a singer-songwriter vibe of whispers from the Sub Pop stable that gave us Fleet Foxes, Luluc’s commentary of lost friends and loved ones is backed by light Hammond B-organs and acoustic guitar strumming bringing Nick Drake back to life for the Instragram era. The songs are simple on first listen – laments in loneliness and the desire for reconnection – but the album begins to work its magic with a longer listening session where you will find the faces of those you haven’t seen in years come flashing across your mind and the desire for an unhurried life causing you to take a detour off the highway to more pastoral surroundings. Get some postcards, brew some coffee, put on Passerby and write some “thinking of you” notes… this is the magic that music like Luluc is putting out can do.

Notable mentions (all strong releases worth a listen or two or ten):

Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
Hozier – Hozier
My Brightest Diamond – This Is My Hand
The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams

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