Saturday, January 3, 2015

Top 10 CDs 2014

The miraculous happened in 2014. Not only did Spoon release a new CD, some four years after their last release, but I got to see them do it live, and not just a YouTube video or a rerun of their Austin City Limits performance, but I physically sat/stood in front of them at the Pageant as they tore through everything I have ever wanted to hear them do live. They were one of the bands still on the will-travel-for list because I had never seen them before. They did not disappoint. While this is a Top Ten CD list, those that have been reading my yearly list, know that a band’s ability to pull it off live factors into my rankings. This live performance probably pushed Spoon into the 10th spot. 2014 was ripe with great releases. There were so many albums that spent time on this list, but when I sat down to decide on the final 10, the infectious grooves of “Inside Out,” “Knock Knock Knock,” and “Outlier” paired with the haunting atmospherics hidden throughout They Want My Soul and the strength of their live show edged out the others.  

When I review past Top 10s and this one, I am a bit surprised by how many "big" bands made it on my 2014 list. Not that I shy away from loving popular music, but it doesn’t always appeal to me. Whatever it is that makes it palatable for the masses tends to turn me off, but Coldplay has managed to defy that. With the exception of X&Y and Viva La Vida, they have always hit me where it counts. I supposed that is the strength of sincere music. From the first notes of Ghost Stories I was smitten: nice down beats that keep the body as interested as the ears; a renewed exploration of synthesizers; and the same calming vocals that have had us swooning for years. Of the CDs on the list, Ghost Stories probably got played more than any other CD when the lights got turned off. It just provides the perfect tapestry from which to hang your dreams.   

This list was all but finalized when my world was rocked. Damien Rice was dropping new music. DAMIEN. RICE. Eight years after 9. Eight long, sad years. And there he was. As soon as I heard the news, I knew someone was getting bumped (apologies to Warpaint). I cannot help it. I love him. While I cling to my Italian heritage like a joey clings to his mother, there is a quadrant of Irish in me that comes out when I open my mouth to sing and draws me to the likes of Damien Rice and Glen Hansard. I feel the words they sing, and that means everything to me. My Favourite Faded Fantasy features everything we’ve come to love from Rice: explosive and unexpected instrumentation, powerful vocals, accessible lyrics, and an instant connection, like he is speaking to every listener, directly. Of the eight songs, only one is under 5 minutes; one is 9:33, one is 8:09, and two are over 6 minutes. As a singer/songwriter on the other side of incessant reviews complaining about the length of my songs, I fully respect that he stuck it out and snubbed radio. Yep, not going to get a lot of the airplay that is reserved for A.D.D. stories clocking in at 210 seconds, but he doesn’t give a shit, and neither do I. 

I am as surprised as anyone to see this on here. I mean this dude is UBER popular. He is probably responsible for every Prom mistake made in 2014 and will no doubt cause 67% of all virginities lost, but I cannot stop listening to his music. While juvenile on the surface with tales of drinking and smoking out, there is a soul there that is pure and wants to be protected…a soul that wants to fall in love. There are some throwaways on this disc, the bumpy dance numbers that reek of club perfume and spilt lemon drops, but there are also some gems: “One,” “I’m a Mess,” “Photograph,” “Tenerife Sea,” “Thinking Out Loud,” and “Even My Dad Does Sometimes” are worth the price of the full length. Of the CDs on the list, X got the most play in my car. It’s just a great feel-good disc, tons of grooves to jam out to and plenty of earnest lyrics to get your brain spinning and your heart hurting. 

There are a few things that come with being a singer/songwriter, particularly one that performs solo and acoustic: 1) If you are anywhere near a tenor, you will be compared to Tracy Chapman, and they don’t give a fuck that she is a girl. 2) People will tell you that you sound like James Taylor, even though your smoky howl sounds nothing like the pristine perfect pitch that James offers. 3) You will learn to love the Indigo Girls because they are the best at doing what it is that you want to do. Amy Ray, the husky-voiced half of the duo dropped the best damn country album that Nashville will never play because they have completely lost touch with what country really is, favoring rap with a pedal steel or some other bastardization of the genre. Goodnight Tender is good from start to finish. It has the best pedal steel phrases; features a host of guest musicians; offers fantastic harmonies; and is filled with great stories.  


Probably the most underrated album on the list. It was released with minimal fanfare. If I wasn’t following the Counting Crows on social media, I may have never known it was released, but good God is it good. In my opinion, it is their best work since This Desert Life. The instrumentation highlights the strength of their ensemble. The guitar tones are some of the best I have heard recorded. David, David, and Dan are as legit as any guitarists out there, but they don’t look for the spotlight. They understand the power of the unit. They are a band, and while media will always point to Adam as the face, they should not be separated; Adam needs Charlie as much as Charlie needs Adam, etc. In addition to the music, Somewhere Under Waterland is strengthened by some of Adam’s best storytelling. He is turning great phrases and painting pictures for the world to see behind eyelid shutters. “Palisades Park,” the opening track, is my probably my favorite, but I don’t think there are any throwaways. Every track is solid.   

 When two powerhouses merge it’s either going to be a clusterfuck or its going to be amazing. You+Me falls on the amazing end of the spectrum. While I would have liked for the disc to be less rushed, for Alecia and Dallas to really flush out some of the lyrics, to expand on the sound, the atmosphere created underneath the words, and replace Alecia’s trills with something more thoughtful, the harmonies cannot be denied and make me forget my want list. Despite the kind of shallow appeal of a few of the tunes, there are some incredibly strong songs on Rose Ave. “You and Me” is a complete song, something that feels fully vetted, and I love that they carried the harmonies throughout the track. “Gently” also resonates with me, and “Break the Cycle” has the anthemic, self-help appeal to it. But the strongest track, “Open Door,” spent days on rotation in my bed room, in my car, and at my office. As someone that hasn’t lived near his parents for the majority of his life, it hit home.

We might as well forgo 2 and 3 and replace them with 2.5 and 2.5. I love both discs for the same reasons, and they feature my two favorite songs of the year. “Don’t Disconnect” is stark and haunting. Sarah creates this space that leaves you feeling alone, just as the lyrics cry out, “Do you still feel me.” When you journey through her catalog, you remember that this is a singer/songwriter, a girl and her guitar, but she has been pushing boundaries and redefining what it means to be a singer/songwriter in the electro-pop era. “Slow Pour” is another track that gets under your skin and forces your body to sway, as if you were holding an invisible lover. Don’t Disconnect provides a nice balance of up and down-tempo. It is thoughtful and explorative. 

Same tune different name. Much like Jaffe, Ahn is a girl and her guitar that has been pushing the boundaries of electro-pop with strong lyrical content and the musical sensibilities of a solo musician. She is able to feed the listener tiny bites of music filled with space and still leaves them feeling satiated, but on This is Where We Are she shows she can serve up a very detailed landscape of musical textures sending her listeners away feeling Thanksgiving-full. She embraces dynamics and not just volume swells; she understands how to build a composition. In contrast to the majority of This is Where We Are “Remember When I Broke Your Heart” is nothing but a droning guitar, piano, harmonies – luscious, luscious, harmonies – and the best lyrics of the year:

It was a gray sky on a Monday
There was nothing more I could say
So I called you from Ohio in a parking lot of a motel
I remember how you greeted me
Like you knew we were not meant to be
On this phone call after two years of the fighting of the mad tears

After all that we've been through all the damages I bestowed on you
All the jealousies you engraved in me
The end was near it had to be
So I called you from Ohio in a parking lot of a motel
To say nothing and yet everything I remember I was trembling

Now I'm drinking to forget you spend your money get a tattoo
Stayed a week end up in Oregon bought a plane ride to an island
But I stopped first in Toronto met a man who almost let me go
Four years later he married me I am happier than I dreamed I'd be
So you see I had to let you go in a phone call from Ohio
Filled with silence and apologies still I loved you as you loved me

Having the Water Liars at #1 was a pretty simple decision because this was the album that I would want to make. I love the three piece sensibility, allowing each instrument to breathe, to have a distinct voice, to not clutter the middle with fifteen different versions of the same line of music. Justin continues to drop golden lyrics that have me wishing I had written them, such as “on the dirty brown river of heroin shivers” from “Sawnnanoa” or "When I left her house, it was snowin’ out and her taste was in my mouth, but who cares” and his guitar tone is the stuff of my dreams. I wish every drummer would listen to the Water Liars, so they would understand how powerful minimalism can be. Andrew Bryant is the perfect drummer. While I am definitely a fan of their first two duo releases, I have to admit I like what GR Robinson adds to the recording. It’s nice to have that solid bass line to keep things tightly tied together.  I won’t give you a favorite track because they are all good.

The review is over; now, go buy some music and thank me later.

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