Angel Olsen, Sturgill Simpson, War On Drugs, Lucinda Williams, Run the Jewels, Sun Kil Moon, Ty Segall, Warpaint, Thurston Moore, Sharon Van Etten and 80 more indie gems—who woulda thunk it? And we’ve got more than just indie-rock; below find nods to sundry blues, metal, folk and hip-hop as well, even a grudging admiration for mainstream pop tart Charli XCX. And check our appendix rounding up a sampling of archival releases and reissues following the Top 100. Let’s do this…
BY THE BLURT EDITORS
We’ve said it before so might as well say it again: It was the best of years, it was the worst of years, it was…. somewhere in between. But still the proverbial music geek’s paradise. So as usual, we couldn’t stop at just a Top 10, or a Top 25, or even a Top 50 —hell, last year we went all the way to 75, an exhausting endeavor to say the least. Might as well make it a solid 100. (And yes, it’s a shameless excuse to cram as much cheerleading into this space as possible. You got a problem with that? Go start your own magazine or blog, schmuck!)
We’ve also said this before and we’re saying it again: please feel free to slap that person standing next to you who is griping about not hearing anything good this year. He/she’s an idiot. Or at least mighty lazy.
As usual, we’ve tried to factor in the fave raves of our many contributing writers (go HERE to read their individual lists for 2014), the peculiar biases of the Editor—trust us, they are indeed peculiar—plus sundry less-quantifiable measures that our highly skilled team of office interns employed in order to arrive at that golden Top 50, like which artists had the cutest boyfriends or girlfriends, or which labels put them on the guest list when their artists came to town. But in the end, we don’t take it all that seriously. List-making is supposed to be fun, not an obligation. Bottom line: no excess navel gazing here; no what everything means, maaan… from your friendly neighborhood BLURT. Below, we present our list. (Meanwhile, go HERE to view our list of notable deaths in the music world this past year.)
Also check out our 2013 and 2012 coverage:
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: ANGEL OLSEN – Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar) WE SAID: Olsen (pictured at the top of the page; photo by Autumn Northcraft) is a contradictory mix of Marissa Nadler’s ethereal spookiness, Sharon Van Etten’s unsettling intensity, and PJ Harvey’s ability to rock hard then float high within a single breath. From opening track “Unfucktheworld,” with its inevitable but laudable overtones of another Chicago songbird, Liz Phair; through dreamy, nocturnal waltz “White Fire” and jagged, blazing Velvets-styled stomper “High & Wild” (a brilliantly accurate songtitle, incidentally); all the way to minimalist, acoustic-guitar-and-voice album denouement “Enemy” and gospellish, hymnal coda “Windows,” which sets Olsen’s tremulous pipes on full flight, weaving in and around themselves like some ghostly duet; each track here is utterly dissimilar, yet sonically intertwined to such a degree that the record comes off like a classic song cycle. Thematically, Olsen seems to be operating at an elevated sensory state, one in which a constant internal dialogue is raging. And she rises to the challenge she sets for herself, traversing an emotional spectrum that leaves the listener gasping with empathy and drained from the shared exertion. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a mutual journey in every sense of the term, the signpost of a brave new artist right on the cusp of greatness.
- STURGILL SIMPSON – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (High Top/Thirty Tigers) WE SAID: Damned if this sophomore set by country crooner Sturgill Simpson doesn’t sound like an audio postcard all the way from Luckenbach, Texas. Or at least that’s what Simpson would have us believe, given his rugged delivery and an assertive mix of grit and swagger. Simpson wastes no time in establishing his debt to Cash, Kris, Waylon and others of that outlaw ilk. And while the title might suggest headier circumstances, these nine songs are dusty and determined, stoic ruminations on hard luck and happenstance.
- WAR ON DRUGS – Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian) WE SAID: Adam Granduciel’s dream sounds like an updating and reimagining of the very Seventies from which the band’s namesake sprang. Specifically, it sounds like the Seventies gestalt of Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne, wide screen white-soul narratives, filtered through the Eighties and its lusher, synthesizer suffused, travelogues – albums from Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. to Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold, and all with the sonorous, melancholy patina of Disintegration era Cure. Lost in the Dream is, well, dreamlike. And it’s about loss. What kind of dream? What sort of loss? As Granduciel repeats in the title track, “it’s always hard to tell.”
- LUCINDA WILLIAMS – Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20 Records) It’s an unapologetic throwback to vintage country soul/funk swamp-pop—it actually sounds like it might’ve been cut in Memphis or at Muscle Shoals, but in fact it was done at a studio in North Hollywood—while still conjuring the contradictory elements that made us fall in love with Williams in the first place: saucy-yet-sensitive vocals, abetted by rutting-in-the-dirt twang and leavened-by-angels jangle; plus intimate turns of phrase betraying the hurt of an old soul and the ecstasy of one eternally young. There’s an uncommon depth here that hasn’t been evidenced on Williams records in ages, both in the sonics (an immaculately crafted blend of intimate and widescreen) and the lyrics, which at times are deeply confessional and others downright defiant as the songwriter stares down her demons, the vicissitudes of relationships and the rampant idiocy of the outside world.
- SUN KIL MOON – Benji (Caldo Verde) WE SAID: Death, death, death, death. The Pale Rider gallops through Mark Kozelek’s latest LP via every imaginable avenue. That’s the real story behind Benji — the middle-age awakening of mortality as the friends, relatives and acquaintances who people our lives lose theirs, leaving behind only memories. Kozelek has stripped down the songcraft here to put the emphasis even more squarely on the stories. Since 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises, Kozelek’s relied on the warm tones of nylon acoustic guitar to accompany his nocturnal tales, double-tracking his vocals or adding strings for depth and texture. Benji’s songs rely almost entirely on repeated finger-picked patterns rather than strummed chord progressions, and only rarely does Kozelek switch up instrumentation.
- RUN THE JEWELS – RTJ2 (Mass Appeal) WE SAID: Killer Mike’s second tag-team effort with fellow incendiary mastermind El-P reflects the chaos that was 2014. Brimming with violent charisma and razor-sharp braggadocio, social unrest is the subtext for every punishing rhyme, and the beats and verses escalate with hypnotic perfection.
- TY SEGALL – Manipulator (Drag City) WE SAID: Segall’s back in all his messy, glammy, garagey glory, with what just may turn out to be one of 2014’s finest full-on rawk excursions. Stones, T. Rex, Thin Lizzy and, er, Bay City Rollers fans can only fall to their knees, gnash their teeth and rend their clothes in the face of such godlike genius. With more guitars per capita here than a barrelful of cheap-ass Sears Silvertones, Saint Ty blasts out the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am boogie, sweetly serenades in waltz-time, strings-laden reverie, goes all faux-funk for the Nuggets set, and out-teenybops pretty much every pop combo.
- WARPAINT – Warpaint (Rough Trade) WE SAID: Produced by U2/Depeche Mode/PJ Harvey co-conspirator Flood, Warpaint is an odd, atmospheric take on the group’s patented groove rock. Arrangements seemingly arrive on a breeze, rather than through a combination of instruments, while Emily Kokal’s voice floats above, between and through the ripples like a curious ghost. Electronic sounds dominate, despite the two-guitars/bass/drums format, but this doesn’t sound like a producer imposing his will on an artist – rather the latter choosing the right studio rat to bring its ephemeral visions to life.
- THURSTON MOORE – The Best Day (Matador) WE SAID: The Best Day finds Moore in “accessible” mode while still chock-full of his blazing fretwork and trademark dissonance-mongering. It’s the Sonic Youth album that Sonic Youth fans feared would never happen in the wake of the band’s split in 2011 (which itself followed in the wake of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage breakup). Clearly, Moore has become restless over the past few years, and we, his fans, are the beneficiaries of that restlessness.
10. SHARON VAN ETTEN – Are We There (Jagjaguwar) WE SAID: What hints we got on her previous albums (notably 2012’s masterful Tramp) were just that – hint. Now, though, the combined rawness of scraped-knuckle emotion and sublime sleekness of the songwriter’s enticing melodies and arrangements makes for one of the year’s most genuine – and convincing – efforts. Attention, major media outlets: Van Etten is a major star. We’re already blinded; are you?
… and all the rest….
SYVAN ESSO – Sylvan Esso (Partisan) WE SAID: Possibly the Tarheel State’s most breakout artist in ages, Sylvan Esso – Amelia Meath (formerly with Mountain Man) and Nick Sanborn (a sometimes member of Megafaun) — build a better mousetrap with their full-length debut, which follows up their frankly remarkable 12” single “Hey Mami” in fine fashion. With Meath’s intricate, overlapping vocals given a range of cocoon-like vessels (Sanborn’s electronics, natch) within which she burrows deep, you’ve also got one of the most ear-worm offerings from North Carolina – or any stage – in eons.
RYAN ADAMS – Ryan Adams (PaxAmericana Recording Company/Blue Note) WE SAID: This is the best thing Adams has ever done, rich in sonic depth and lyric nuance, boasting an expansive widescreen ambiance while still pulling the listener in close, intimate. It just might even edge out Whiskeytown’s 1997 masterpiece Strangers Almanac, which for a lot of Adams fans has always been the impossibly high bar he set early in his career, one which he’s been trying to hit with his solo albums ever since. Every tune serves the moment, like a series of self-contained filmic miniatures whose character sketches, though brief, are utterly memorable, with those sketches’ accompanying sonics just as resonant. An unabashedly classic rock record, it at times verges on homage but never slips into parody or cliché.
U2- Songs of Innocence (Interscope) WE SAID: The hype surrounding the new disc by Bono and the boys initially put a lot of folks off actually listening to it. But ultimately they didn’t need Apple to help sell it. U2 pay homage to their past on this album, whether on the pulsing “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” — which is dedicated to the late Joe Strummer — or on quieter numbers like “Song for Someone,” “The Troubles” and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” — which is about Bono’s late mother.
GOV’T MULE – Dark Side of the Mule (Evil Teen) WE SAID: The idea Warren Haynes & Co. paying tribute to the legendary Pink Floyd should make music fans slobbery. And this set, recorded on Halloween 2008 in Boston, exceeds all expectations. Mule, joined by saxophonist Ron Holloway and two of Floyd’s actual backing vocalists, nails Floyd’s sublime atmospheric sound while infusing it with that trademark Gov’t Mule slow burn. It’s a captivating, one-sitting listen that will leave you nearly speechless.
JACK WHITE – Lazaretto (Third Man) WE SAID: (1) Gawd, I loved the White Stripes. I wanted to be Meg White, because I was an aspiring rock drummer, sooooooo bad. I miss her terribly, too, but that isn’t stopping me from wanting to be in Jack White’s band! Lazaretto is both an indie-rocker’s dream and an enticing proposition for fans of old-school kickass, bluesy crud. (2) Skinny sweaty man in a blue shirt: Amidst an intense light show with spectral blues and oranges, Jack White and his band also toured. White’s soaring, searing guitars were the highlight amidst expert musicianship.
SPIDER BAGS – Frozen Letter (Merge) WE SAID: The Chapel Hill band allegedly recorded this one just for fun, with little intention of ever releasing it. You know a group has hit its stride when even its goof offs are worth releasing. This eight-track album finds them experimenting just a bit, especially on the sweet, acoustic track “Walking Bubble,” but for the bulk of the record it’s all loud guitars and crashing drums competing against Dan McGee’s deep vocals.
REIGNING SOUND – Shattered (Merge) WE SAID: Apparently Greg Cartwright exorcised his punk rock demons with the Oblivians’ Desperation, as Shattered is the band’s most accessible record yet. Recorded at Daptone Studios and given a warm, dry sound that doesn’t allow for distortion overload, the songs deserve kind treatment in any case. The measured energy and lack of noise may strike some as sacrilege – this is a band that used to give even its poppiest tunes a good thrashing. But Cartwright’s writing has gotten more sophisticated over the course of the band’s career, so who can blame him for wanting people to hear it without interference?
FLYING LOTUS – You’re Dead! (Warp) WE SAID: Filled with some of the most thrilling and unlikely genre fusions to emerge in some time, from Amon Tobin-esque ambient noise and Miles Davis bop with an electro-lush sheen to Stankonia on an intergalactic odyssey back to its Funkadelic roots, it sets the past, present and future of jazz, soul and hip-hop on a level playing field.
SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS – Give The People What They Want (Daptone) WE SAID: A 10-song set of soulful sonic manna. From the Holland/Dozier/Holland-isms of opening cut “Retreat!” and the stiletto-heeled, girl-group vibe of “We Get Along” to the sinewy swamp-funk of “Long Time, “Wrong Time” and the gorgeous torch-song jazz of “Slow Down Love,” there’s nary a moment missed by the band to demonstrate that Sharon Jones is one of the greatest female vocalist currently operating.
MARK MCGUIRE – Along the Way (Dead Oceans) WE SAID: The erstwhile multi-instrumentalist for Cleveland electronic band Emeralds has been compared to fellow composers Four Tet and Julianna Barwick, while classic psychedelia further informs his sonic visions (elements of everyone from Krautrock legends Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream to west coast avatars Quicksilver Messenger Service and pre-American Beauty Grateful Dead can be detected) as he follows a lush kosmiche path directly into the heart of a contemporary New Age sun. Along The Way sounds remarkably fresh and vital, in fact, the mark of a gifted musician trying to incorporate his philosophical yearnings into a concrete manifestation that can be shared at will.
THE MUFFS – Whoop De Doo (Burger) WE SAID: This veteran (since ’91) L.A. combo still makes a deliriously loud pop-punk sound, and the fact that it’s been absent from the record bins for a decade makes the racket all that more righteous. Whoop De Doo finds feisty frontwoman Kim Shattuck abetted by longtime Muffsmen Roy McDonald and Ronnie Barnett on a dozen hi-nrg, tuneful gems with the same kind of vim ‘n’ vigor that marked their teenage selves’ efforts.
PROTOMARTYR — Under Color of Official Right (Hardly Art) WE SAID: This is the best punk rock record you’ll hear this year — never mind that it’s not wholly or even really a punk rock record. Mad ingenuity warps the day-to-day here. Maybe it’s life in the group’s Detroit headquarters, or maybe poets in the heartland have always been deranged by the quotidian. In any case, there’s a violence and fury in these songs that transcends their subject matter, as punk rock has always blasted its blighted points of origin—London in the 1970s, Manchester in the 1980s, Orange County in the 1990s — into surreal landscapes of alienation, rage and black humor.
CHARLI XCX – Sucker (Atlantic) WE SAID: For a young gal who “just wants to break the rules,” as the bratty brit proclaims near the beginning of the album, Charli XCX doesn’t even bend much in the way of rules, much less break ‘em. But despite Sucker hewing pretty close to the 2014 dance-pop rulebook, there’s still something compellingly infectious to these songs. Like Blondie, Bow Wow Wow and even the Ronettes before her, Ms. XCX understands that for pop to be subversive, it doesn’t have to be obscure – just fun.
SHOVELS & ROPE – Swimmin’ Time (Dualtone) WE SAID: There’s a confidence here, even a swagger, that denotes a band that knows what it likes and how to make it happen. The duo revels in its multi-instrumental facility, expansive song-authoring and homespun harmonies with the easy assurance of veteran road dogs. The band’s storytelling skills have sharpened as well, the band displaying a firm grip on its craft.
EVERYMEN – Giving Up on Free Jazz (Ernest Jennings) WE SAID: On their second full-length, this nonet come across like a ginned up, Jersey-fied version of X, scorching guitars and boy/girl vocals cast in vintage rock framework, slathered in dirty horns and dyed in communal punk attitude. The lasting impression suggests a blue collar band in it for the joy of rocking asses and playing together – a Jersey blueprint that’s worked before.
DAVID KILGOUR AND THE HEAVY 8’S – End Times Undone (Merge) WE SAID: Kilgour has been honing his songwriting skills for over three decades, skillfully burnishing his lilting songwriting and mastering his guitar playing. Lightning captured in a bottle is the final result, and a rapturous listening experience for us. What you end up with on End Times Undone, is a trance-y, pop-psych, hypno-rhythmic romp that showcases a group of players that have magically meshed into a single hive-mind, behind the very talented Mr. K., at the top of his game.
HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER — (1) Bad Debt (Paradise of Bachelors; reissue) (2) Lateness of Dancers (Merge) WE SAID: (1) Bad Debt is elementally simple, just the thrum of chords, the fire-lit spark and shadow of North Carolina’s M.C. Taylor’s voice, yet it packs a gut punch. It considers destitution from a variety of angles, the hardness of work, the bleakness of prospects, the consolation of faith, the eventual release of death. (2) How do you react when everything in your life is great, but the big questions still keep you up at night? You write a record like Lateness of Dancers where Taylor—father to a happy family, signee to one of the world’s greatest independent labels—stakes his contentment against still nagging spiritual uncertainty. His talented friends cushion him with sparkling folk-rock that choogles warmly and shimmers with a cosmic sense of wonder.
STEVE GUNN – Way Out Weather (Paradise of Bachelors) WE SAID: Steve Gunn is a special sort of virtuoso. He’s not really flashy, in-your-face or starving to completely innovate. He’s subtle about it, careful even, but one thing’s for sure: the man sounds damn cool doing it. He can switch genres, moods and effects on a dime and not sound pretentious while doing it. His ability to arrange is masterful and, on Way Out Weather, he establishes this sort of psychedelic roots sound that exists outside of about any recognizable genre or even sub-genre. And that’s why it kicks ass.
PARQUET COURTS – Sunbathing Animal (What’s Your Rapture?/Mom+Pop) WE SAID: Having studied at the grimy, sneakered feet of the punk masters in their salad days, they’ve done them proud by keenly adapting, reflecting and reinterpreting that classic grittiness. You hear unmistakable streaks of deference to, and inspiration from, such classic punkers as the Replacements, Minor Threat, Descendents, Pavement, Sonic Youth, the Modern Lovers and the Velvet Underground, to name but a few. Anyone with a fondness for such bands, can sit back and grin at how they’ve taken all that punkitude and masticated it into their own original music.
JOHNNY MARR – Playland (New Voodoo) WE SAID: The follow-up to the none-too-shabby The Messenger: if that album was the best album the Smiths never recorded, then this is simply better than any albums the Smiths ever recorded. Marr has firmly come into his own as a singer, matching his fretboard prowess and proving his mettle as a consummate craftsman.
DUM DUM GIRLS – Too True (Sub Pop) WE SAID: Pulsing with an ‘80s New Wave vibe and recalling everyone from Blondie to Berlin to Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Dum Dum Girls’ follow-up to 2011’s Only In Dreams is an auralgasm par excellence for fans of lush, sensual femmepop. It offers a contemporary twist upon Phil Spector’s girl-group wall-of-sound, crafting lush cocoons of noise that, while at times edgy and crackling with tension, envelop rather than assault.
FLOATING ACTION – Body Questions (New West) WE SAID: Aww yeah, here we go: school us, Uncle Seth! That would be Seth Kauffman, who hails from the, ahem, scholarly confines of Black Mountain, NC, near Asheville, a bastion of blue-tinted culture surrounded by a sea of crimson. (Look it up.) He’s a friggin’ dynamo of exposition, a guardian of extrapolation, and a songcraftsman of the highest order, part indie-rock, part vintage boogie, part classic pop, 100% inspiration.
LEE FIELDS AND THE EXPRESSIONS – Emma Jean (Truth & Soul) WE SAID: Fields and his ace band really show off their versatility, this time tilting more toward the singer’s smooth soul roots in Fields’ strongest set of songs yet. He also displays his trademark funk, of course, but the LP’s diversity succeeds because the Expressions consistently find the pocket in any style. No slight to Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley et al., but there isn’t a better pairing of soul singer and soul band going right now.
DAWNBRINGER – Night of the Hammer (Profound Lore) WE SAID: Fielding a classic metal sound somewhere between late 70s Sabbath and early Iron Maiden, Chris Black expands his thematic reach beyond the romantic confessionals of his High Spirits work, taking on war, mythology, vengeance and isolation (“Alien”). He seems most at home, though, with a series of death-fixated horror stories. Regardless of his obsessions, though, Black always maintains the strength of his tunesmanship, without stinting on the heavy.
ROSANNE CASH – The River & The Thread (Nonesuch) WE SAID: Cash strikes a gritty, resolute, no-compromise stance throughout, yet can sound both soothing and somehow foreboding all at the same time. It’s that hint of mystery and subtle uncertainty that shrouds the album overall and ensures the ongoing intrigue that’s proven Cash’s signature trait throughout this phase of her career. As the title suggests, The River & The Thread manages to surge and sway all at the same time. Indeed, it doesn’t get much better than this.
CURTIS HARDING – Soul Power (Burger) WE SAID: There seems to be a surfeit of new soul men who draw from the ‘60s and ‘70s rather than post-Babyface R&B, but if the latest arrivals are as talented as Curtis Harding, they’re welcome at the table. On Soul Power, the Michigan-born, Atlanta-based singer and guitarist eschews the roof-raising energy of Charles Bradley and the slow burn eroticism of Lee Fields for a more measured, plainspoken sound – more Al Green and Arthur Alexander than Otis Redding and James Brown. For Harding, funkiness is more a feel than a form
JON LANGFORD & SKULL ORCHARD — Here Be Monsters (In De Goot Recordings) WE SAID: Langford, a painter as well as a poet, combines both disciplines here, expanding the template he first established with the Mekons, the Waco Brothers, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, The Three Johns and the various other odd and assorted conglomerates he’s aligned himself with over the years. Here he opts to tackle his more ambitious designs, and the results are nothing less than spectacular… and surreal. And the band rocks with a vengeance.
MARISSA NADLER – July (Sacred Bones) WE SAID: Marissa Nadler’s soprano voice is like the smoothest elevator ride you’ll ever take. It rises slowly, leveling off for brief peaceful stops before resuming to reach its high – somewhere in the clouds. On July, her sixth album, the Boston singer-songwriter gets an almost-hallucinatory effect out of her singing, often multi-tracking the voice to create a ghostly pillowing effect. Strings, synths, piano, pedal steel, Nadler’s own reflective acoustic and 12-string guitar all create a sanctuary, a safe haven, for her to sing these 11 measured, stately compositions.
THE NEW BASEMENT TAPES — Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes (Capitol) WE SAID: This supergroup (Elvis Costello, Jim James, Marcus Mumford, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops) creates a set of songs that not only measures up to The Master’s standards but stands on its own merits as well. Producer T Bone Burnett guides the proceedings with special sensitivity, taking an overall approach that’s well in keeping with the arcane trappings Dylan originally intended.
ANDERS PARKER – There’s a Bluebird in My Heart (Recorded and Freed) WE SAID: Anders Parker has rediscovered his electric guitar. The blues-rocking “Animal,” grunged-out yet elegiac “Jackbooted Thugs” and bracingly rocking “The Road” soar to the skies or dig into the dirt in a way Parker hasn’t attempted in a good long while. This isn’t to say there aren’t quieter songs here, but they sit in context, rather than dominating, and come off as that much more inviting and beautiful as a result.
ROBERT PLANT – lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar (Nonesuch) WE SAID: Produced by Plant himself and mixed by studio wizard Tchad Blake, the follow-up to 2010’s Buddy Miller-helmed Band of Joy moves away from the atmospheric Americana that earned him a Grammy for his 2007 collaboration with country great Allison Krauss Raising Sand and closer to the sonic adventures he was toying around with on Dreamland and 2005’s The Mighty Re-Arranger. And when the 66-year-old dives into his recent obsessions with the nomadic Tuareg musicians of North Africa does lullaby truly Roar.
PSYCHO SISTERS – Up On the Chair, Beatrice (Rock Beat) WE SAID: Up On the Chair, Beatrice is a document of something that happened more than two decades ago when Vicky Peterson and Susan Cowsill first began collaborating, recorded now and sounding fresh and inspired. They recruited a drummer, bassist, keyboardist, cellist, and violinist to flesh out the acoustic arrangements the songs had once been given. Add to that Peterson’s exquisitely tasteful trademark electric guitar riffs and highly melodic solos, and you’ve got the perfect backdrop to the magical harmonies of these two talented singers.
AUTUMN DEFENSE – Fifth (Yep Roc) WE SAID: If George Harrison was known as “the quiet Beatle,” Pat Sansone and John Stirratt might be viewed as “the quiet Wilcos.” From an obvious love of the British Invasion—in particular, the Zombies, Kinks and, yes, Beatles—to an instinctual grasp of the complexities underlying West Coast sunshine pop and baroque psych (e.g., Beach Boys/Van Dyke Parks, Jimmy Webb and Love), the Autumn Defense, pure and simple, makes things look easy. Sings Sansone, “Tonight, we just gotta get the feeling right/ What is this thing that we’ve found?” What they’ve found, is pop perfection, and Fifth is a contemporary gem.
JEFFREY DEAN FOSTER – The Arrow (Angel Skull) WE SAID: NC’s Jeff Foster (ex-Right Profile, Carneys, Pinetops) still specializes in power pop-tinged Americana, with obvious reference points being Springsteen, Petty and McGuinn. But this is the kind of record that can stop you in your tracks it’s so good. For folks who like their songwriting sharp and their sonics sublime, this is the album you’ve been waiting for. And for fans of classic Southern pop—dB’s, Let’s Active, Connells, R.E.M. of course—it’s a gift of epic proportions that’ll rekindle all that jangle lust you’ve kept tucked away in your hearts these many years.
NOX BOYS – Nox Boys (Get Hip Recordings) WE SAID: Three of the musicians aren’t even out of high school, yet they perform with the ferocity of grizzled gabbers thrice their age. Give ‘em the blindfold test and you’d swear the Nox Boys were some terrific archival find resurfacing at a Cavestomp event. They understand that analog is ace and vinyl rules; that putting on skinny black jeans and hanging out at Brooklyn warehouse spaces doesn’t necessarily make you cool; and that the likes of Steely Dan and the Human League were and always will be the enemy. These kids are the Real Effin’ Deal, whether you’re talking straight up Nuggets raveups, turbocharged Stones/Kinks R&B swagger or Black Lips-styled supah-skronk.
THE LEES OF MERMORY – Sisyphus Says (SideOneDummy Records) WE SAID: Although two-thirds of the band is comprised of Superdrag vets, the sound here is a pretty big step away from the infectious Power Pop the Knoxville band was known for. John Davis and Brandon Fisher, along with Nick Slack, opt for a much more wide-ranging atmospheric sound, trading jangly riffs for swirling guitars.
TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS — Hypnotic Eye (Warner Bros.) WE SAID: While its somewhat cerebral title might suggest otherwise, Hypnotic Eye places its emphasis on strictly visceral appeal. The album affirms the fact they remain an austere and unapologetic outfit, which has pretty much been their mantra since the start. After nearly 40 years, it’s almost reassuring in a way to find Petty’s still so full of purpose.
A-BONES – Ears Wide Shut (Norton) WE SAID: The A-Bones songs are loud, trashy and fun and it seems like producer James McNew wanted them to be in the red as fast as they could go. Lots of overloaded guitar and plenty of howling for a rockin’ good time. Give those Black Keys records a rest and try on the A-Bones for size. I’ve got the Brannock Device waiting for you.
SYD ARTHUR – Sound Mirror (Harvest) WE SAID: The Canterbury band draws from the late 60s and early 70s music of its birthplace, that quirky, jazzy psychedelic pop that unsurprisingly found favor with prog rock audiences of the time. By concentrating on that era’s virtues – accessible melodies, deft musicianship, an inviting sense of whimsy – Syd Arthur avoids any whiff of trendiness and just gets down to the business of writing and performing timeless music on its second record Sound Mirror.
BOBBY BARE JR. – Undefeated (Bloodshot) On his most ambitious record to date, Bobby Bare Jr. and his band add a more liberal mix of rock to their normal punkish country brew and the result is one of their most consistently satisfying records so far. His vocals are delivered with such breezy casualness, you almost miss the poetry in the words. Pair that with the brilliant musicianship and it’s simply confounding that Bare and his band aren’t as big as groups like Arcade Fire and My Morning Jacket at this point.
SO COW – The Long Con (Goner) WE SAID: Brian Kelly is feeling his age in the way that only a late twentysomething can. His exuberant punk pop pummels and bristles; like Deerhoof, Kelly sets his tunes on edge and occasionally tips them over, but they do seem to bounce right back. His songs are gruffly, engagingly buoyant, charged with a youthful energy if not enthusiasm. He’s like a Billy Bragg without the politics, like a Cloud Nothings that acknowledges the ridiculousness of its own angst. He’s sharp and sarcastic and looking right down the hole into middle age, but he hasn’t given up a bit of his edge in the process.
WHITEHORSE – Leave No Bridge Unburned (Six Shooter) WE SAID: The third album by this Canadian duo, led by multi-talented spouses Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, is a decidedly dark affair, one marked by raging rhythms and a somewhat stealth-like demeanor. Nevertheless, the Polaris Prize-nominated pair seem fond of purveying their angular melodies with a razor-sharp edge. McClelland’s sultry vocals and Doucet’s imaginative guitar spin a seductive web of elusive intents.
CORY BRANAN – No-Hit Wonder (Bloodshot) WE SAID: Self-deprecating title aside, the record is a brilliant snapshot of one of the best songwriters working today, a worthy heir to the aforementioned Prine, as well as Kris Kristofferson and the Willie. Branan got married not too long ago and also recently had a child, so this new record, more than some of the earlier ones, seems to be a little more optimistic as well.
SISYPHUS – Sisyphus (Asthmatic Kitty/Joyful Noise) WE SAID: It’s a dark—at times downright bleak—set, recalling the Bristol-spawned trip-hop of Massive Attack and Tricky and sifting through disorienting layers of minimalist, abstract beats surrounded by oddly compelling melodies. One moment the listener is assaulted by abrupt bursts of noise; the next, soothed by an almost gospel-like reverie; and the next, seduced by a disco-tilting foray into funk. And even if familiar elements do crop up over the course of this clear-vinyl double album—in particular, most of the vocals are rapped—Sisyphus is ultimately as off the wall a release as you’ll likely encounter this year.
RODNEY CROWELL — Tarpaper Sky (New West) WE SAID: Tarpaper Sky finds Crowell yet again emphasizing the superior songwriting skills that have been his stock in trade since the very beginning. After all, Crowell’s always been best when he’s mining homespun emotion, and here he injects that bare-bone sentiment into both ballads and rockabilly-style rave-ups with results that are awe-inspiring to say the least. He can clearly claim one of the finest albums of a sterling 40-year career.
SONNY KNIGHT & THE LAKERS – I’m Still Here (Secret Stash) WE SAID: It’s a retro-soul blowout of epic proportions that will no doubt please fans of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kinds, Charles Bradley, Lee Fields et al. Throughout, Knight & Co. deploy their traditional-tilting, seventies-inspired soul/funk with the agility of wizened veterans. Somebody alert the neighbors, ‘cos this house party’s gonna stretch long into the night and everyone needs to prepare for some major noise ordinance violations.
BLACK LIPS — Underneath the Rainbow (Vice) WE SAID: Even though they have polished their sound, they haven’t lost their edge. The chaos may be more controlled, but Black Lips can walk that line between unhinged and dexterous. They still have that dirty, carefree, uncompromising vibe, but on Underneath the Rainbow it’s able to be tamed, morphing into melodic garage rock that’s as catchy and easily digestible as it is rugged and in-your-face.
JOHN HIATT — Terms of My Surrender (New West) WE SAID: With Terms of My Surrender, he unashamedly opts for matters of the heart with a set of songs based entirely on the blues. On the surface, this no-frills approach may seem something of a step backward, but thanks to Hiatt’s marble-mouthed vocals and determinedly gritty demeanor, it’s all adapted well.
IAN MCLAGAN — United States (Yep Roc) WE SAID: Recorded with the ever-reliable Bump Band, it more or less affirms the MO he established early on – simple, concise and unassuming songs delivered with a reliable mix of tenacity and humility. He succeeds whether deadpanning a smooth croon on “Mean Old World” or crowing with conviction on “Love Letter.” All in all, United States demonstrates McLagan’s allegiance to a pure pop mantra.
TIMBER TIMBRE – Hot Dreams (Arts & Crafts) WE SAID: Timber Timbre is the dissolute house band at that end-of-the-trail, abandon-all-hope lounge, seducing and disorienting listeners by lulling them musically into chimerical comfort. The relaxed tempos and spacious arrangements of the Canadian band’s latest create deceptively calm backdrops, from haunting noir balladry to spaghetti western cinemascope. But once the listener buys in, singer Taylor Kirk enjoins them to reveal their darkest selves, to see motives and ethics for the fig leaves they are.
THE BLOODHOUNDS – Let Loose! (Alive Naturalsound) WE SAID: On the East L.A. quartet’s debut album they reaches back to the pre-psychedelic days of ‘50s R&B and ‘60s garage rock, sticking in the main to the classic two guitars/bass/drums formula stamped into eternity by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles a half century ago. It’s a pretty basic setup, but the ‘Hounds make it fresh, sounding like they’re having a blast jumpin’ in the night.
KEVIN MORBY – Still Life (Woodsist) WE SAID: Kevin Morby’s second solo record sounds more like a delayed second platter of last year’s superb Harlem River than a free-standing sophomore effort. The former album, the ex-Woods’ bassist farewell to his New York years, tapped into all manner of Gotham influences, from Greenwich Village folk to choogling VU, and those elements prevail in these 10 tracks, too. Morby may be in Los Angeles now, but the City of Angels isn’t quite in Morby…yet.
LA CERCA – Sunrise For Everyone (Fort Lowell) WE SAID: Singing in a warm, confident voice, Andrew Gardner imbues his tunes with a handshake-and-a-hug quality, inviting you to come into his world which, per the album title, is an inclusive one. It’s as if every great indie pop band you might care to cite, from Big Star to Yo La Tengo to Galaxie 500 to all the great Flying Nun bands (Clean, Verlaines, etc.) of yore, had held a summit in order to formally pass the torch to this small band of Arizonans.
HOLY SONS – The Fact Facer (Thrill Jockey) WE SAID: Emil Amos writes, performs and self-records druggy dirges – sometimes with Middle Eastern flourishes, occasionally in a jazzy vein — over which his sleepy vocals deliver brutally honest self-analyses. His narratives may plumb the darker angels of human frailty, obsolescence, paranoia, addiction and self-loathing, but there’s an undercurrent of humor that lightens the mood just enough. The Fact Facer is a nuanced, multi-leveled listen that stands with the best things Amos – and anyone covering similarly adventurous terrain — has done.
PANOPTICON – Roads to the North (Nordvis/Bindrune) WE SAID: Plenty of black metal maniacs maintain actual honest-to-Baal artistic values, making music that’s not just for chronic thrashaholics with anger management issues. Chief among them is Panopticon whose previous platter Kentucky somehow managed to combine sweeping black metal with Appalachian folk music and pro-union sentiments to amazing effect. Roads takes the same mix and expands it even further, injecting more sweep into the melodies, more traditionalism into the folk atmospheres and a finely honed sense of craft.
PURLING HISS – Weirdon (Drag City) WE SAID: Purling Hiss, and front-man Mike Polizze, has propelled the evolution of his basic DIY solo roots, into a three-piece rock combo, and again into the frantic, manic and just downright catchy effort that is Weirdon. The end result being a bash of slamming guitars, along with engaging production work, igniting this power pop-punk slammer.
tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack (4AD) WE SAID: Astounding in its social aims, Nikki Nack pushes the already far-ranging musician out of her formerly messy comfort zone, honing her hooks and placing her beautifully confounding voice front and center, in all of its racially ambiguous glory.
SWANS – To Be Kind (Young God) WE SAID: A double CD set with several tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes – all the better to dive ever more deeply into Michael Gira’s psychospiritual brood of an imagination, where emotional states translate directly into musical sound and the doors of perception open to reveal whatever you choose to see. Dueling guitar riffs, rattling grooves and Mark E. Smith-like vocal dynamics; cacophony and scree; bluesy grumble, Tibetan moan, found sounds, feedback and Gira’s intense mutter and stentorian harangue. Quintessential Swans.
D’ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD – Black Messiah (RCA) WE SAID: Much has been made of the versatile arrangements—the fire-breathing funk of “1000 Deaths,” the proto-hop strut of “Sugah Daddy”—and the political firepower. But it’s the spellbinding vocal performances on his first album in 14 years that elevate Black Messiah, bridging its myriad ideas and frustrations with buttery, sensual charm.
BROKEN BELLS – After The Disco (Columbia) WE SAID: What we have here are dance songs for a post-faith, post-meaning world, one in which the old values, the old gods, and the old safety nets have all fallen away. Adrift in the ensuing chaos, we grasp at meaning and beauty where we can find it. And if we can’t find it, we create it. It’s the ideal album for both the end of the world and the end of the affair. The ability to transform such dour subject matter into such ebullient music might be considered a form or alchemy.
DOUG GILLARD – Parade On (Nine Mile) WE SAID: Parade On finds him turning down the distortion, in some cases, but still building up a set that blends hooks with layers of guitars. While Gillard’s heart remains devoted to steady, riff-based rock, the album is his most varied example of how it can be played. It still contains a substantial number of fast, punk-inspired riffs, but the songs with a cleaner attack get a boost from the layers of guitars.
RIVER OF SNAKES – Black Noise (Bad Fidelity) WE SAID: What is it about Australians and guitars? Put a six-string in the hands of a rock musician living Down Under and magic happens – dirty, grimy magic, most likely, but magic nonetheless. So it goes with Melbourne power trio River of Snakes. Guitarist Raül Sanchez loves his fuzzy fingerings, his thick riffs, screeching feedback excursions and general amp abuse proving him as much a disciple of Aussie guitar hero Rowland S. Howard as of J Mascis and Neil Young. Black Noise revels in gritty guitar glory, with Sanchez straddling the divide between psychedelic lyricism and filthy sewer grate noise.
THE DELINES – Colfax (El Cortez) WE SAID: In between penning novels and running the much-beloved Richmond Fontaine, songwriter Willy Vlautin started another project: the Delines, which revolves around his writing and the matter-of-fact intonation of former Damnations singer Amy Boone. The result of the collaboration is a gorgeous set of songs set in late-night bars after work, as denizens tell their stories with the appropriate tenor of resignation and hope, all the while mixing country and soul with neither muss nor fuss.
JOHN WESLEY COLEMAN III – The Love That You Own (Burger) WE SAID: The Love That You Own, his fifth release, makes for a thoroughly enjoyable outing, and being fronted by a habanero-hot band with a wicked pedal steel doesn’t hurt. There’s quirky genius at work here – off-the-wall–rock, with a dollop of outlaw country, garage and psychedelia all scrambled in.
SLOAN – Commonwealth (Yep Roc) WE SAID: Their eleventh album finds the Canadian quartet giving a “side” to each of the four musicians. While their individual proclivities and qualities emerge, it’s clearly Sloan – the best pop band in the world (since Super Furry Animals, who contested the crown, are no more).
VASHTI BUNYAN – Heartleap (Fat Cat) WE SAID: It took her 35 years to record a sophomore album, after releasing the (eventually) influential sleeper Another Diamond Day; Lookaftering was a lovely song suite with gorgeous arrangements from composer Max Richter. Heartleap follows Lookaftering by a mere nine years. A self-produced affair, recorded privately and quietly for private, quiet listening.
NEW PORNOGRAPHERS – Brill Bruisers (Matador) WE SAID: Like Arcade Fire, Polyphonic Spree and Of Montreal, their sound is complex and even difficult to discern, although the overall vibe is one of effortless enthusiasm. Whether it takes the form of the exuberant opener “Brill Bruisers” or the boisterous delivery of “Marching Orders,” the new album clearly finds them exploiting a playful mood and eager to entertain.
ST. VINCENT – St. Vincent (Loma Vista/Republic) WE SAID: Top-notch guitarist Annie Clark has gone from a face in the crowd as a member of The Polyphonic Spree to a major artist in her own right. This self-titled is an achievement and a huge step forward toward becoming the heir apparent to DEVO’s art rock throne.
EX-HEX – Rips (Merge) WE SAID: From Helium’s density, to Wild Flag’s super-woman jam rock, to this – Mary Timony’s new band delivers a straight-up pop-punk album. Just when Timony’s vocals start to sound a little too Smith College she flashes signs of Patti Smith inspiration, and her Thunders-esque guitar and Janet Weiss’s drumming keep the music rocking.
THE EMPTY HEARTS – The Empty Hearts (429) WE SAID: The debut effort from The Empty Hearts — a supergroup featuring alumni of The Cars, The Romantics and Blondie — offers a fresh take on the garage rock and power pop that prompted its members to play music in the first place.
TEMPLES – Sun Structures (Fat Possum) WE SAID: Listen to the debut by this young band from Kettering, England and you’d swear it was recorded in 1967. These guys wear their influences on their paisley sleeves — and for the most part, it works.
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS – English Oceans (ATO) WE SAID: The Drive-By Truckers have always been a meat-and-potatoes kinda band: they do what they do well, and they’ve kept on doing it. There’s great virtue in that: they’ve created a complex and detailed world, and English Oceans adds more memorable characters to it. The southern soul elements of Go-Go Boots get set aside for the rock and roll that we’ve come to expect from them, although maybe toned down one notch from the rave-ups of their early days. The Truckers retrench here, and these songs and stories slip under your skin.
CHATHAM COUNTY LINE – Tightrope (Yep Roc) WE SAID: NC’s Chatham County Line is much more than your average banjo-playing, fiddle-fueled bluegrass combo. While Tightrope boasts plenty of picking and plucking – and not that they ever try to negate those elements – they infuse their music with a seemingly effortless accessibility capable of connecting them with a broader Americana audience.
EASTLINK—Eastlink (In the Red) WE SAID: Not necessarily equated with Australia’s Eastlink freeway, the five-man Eastlink is still a rock ‘n’ roll pileup of epic proportions. Indeed, Eastlink is not about moderation. Four guitarists flail and drone away, turning block simple riffs into shimmering monuments of volume and tone. You could read Eastlink as too much, too many guitars played by guys in too many bands, too many riffs repeated too many times, but that would just be cheating yourself. Sometimes too much transcends itself and becomes elementally simple, loud as it goes and exactly the right amount.
GHOST WOLVES – Man, Woman, Beast (Plowboy) WE SAID: Blues-inflected duos proliferate like nymphomaniacal rabbits in the ‘aughties, so it takes something special to stand out from the pack these days. Austin’s Ghost Wolves have got that something on their second record Man, Woman, Beast. Outside of a marvelously stripped-down sound featuring Jonathan Wolf on rhythm pound and Carley Wolf on bare-bones riffery and teasing, pouting vocal, the Wolves burst with sheer attitude, the kind of moxie that comes from being young, hungry and not giving a shit whether or not they see the inside of an arena.
MARY GAUTHIER – Trouble and Love (In The Black) WE SAID: The follow-up to 2010’s The Foundling, Trouble and Love is just as powerful, harrowing and, ultimately, life-affirming – a song cycle chronicling the end of a love affair and its aftermath. It proves beyond a doubt that Mary Gauthier is one of the best singer-songwriters working today.
EDWARD ROGERS – Kaye (Zip) WE SAID: Unabashedly inspired by the late English eccentric Kevin Ayers, British-born, New York-based auteur Edward Rogers’ fifth solo album (not including the pair he recorded as part of the chamber pop trio Bedsit Poets) is, in turn, his most experimental effort yet. Having established himself as a prime purveyor of Brit pop pageantry, Kaye find Edwards making some dramatic departures, all in homage to Ayers’ own spirit of adventure. Rogers remains an original, a man who puts his own definitive stamp on everything he does, even while knowingly paying tribute to a host of pop predecessors.
THE SPLIT SQUAD – Now Hear This… (Self-released) WE SAID: Michael Giblin (Parallax Project) is joined by the Fleshtones’ Keith Streng and the Plimsouls’ Eddie Munoz on guitars, Blondie’s Clem Burke on skins and the needs-no-intro-if-you-are-a-Red Sox-fan-Josh Kantor on keys. The ensemble don’t waste a sec on formalities during Now Hear This…, making the most of said manifesto. It takes everything you ever loved about late ‘70s power pop—air guitar-worthy riffing, relentless kit thumping, a memorable and insistent melody, singalong choruses, and that timeless feeling that you should just be jumping up and down in front of the band until the girl of your dreams comes up and joins you on the dance floor—and distills it all into the perfect set.
MICHAEL RANK AND STAG – Deadstock (Louds Hymn) WE SAID: Four albums in, singer/songwriter Rank (ex-Snatches of Pink) has no more bested the demons that taunt him that the rest of us can claim to have the answers to life itself. What he has done, though, is allowed the struggle to make him stronger, to finally summon the resolve that eluded him back around the time of 2012’s Kin and draw up an uneasy peace with those demons.
JOE LOUIS WALKER — Hornet’s Nest (Alligator) WE SAID: This is the real deal. When you think greatest bluesmen working today, Walker’s name does not come first to mind with the general public. And this is an injustice. Walker is one of the greatest bluesmen of this or any generation, a virtuoso of rock, blues, soul and gospel. On Hornet’s Nest you will see why. Walker can do it all, each song delivered in his soulful vocal style.
BRY WEBB – Free Will (Idée Fixe Records) WE SAID: On Free Will, Bry Webb, leader of Canada’s beloved Constantines, takes a modest step back from the immediacy of his previous Provider and looks back at his years as the raging young outcast, contrasting them with adult topics like responsibility, belief, love, work, and art. And the mostly down-tempo songs draw volatile energy from the balancing act between resignation and defiance.
LA SERA – Hour of the Dawn (Hardly Art) WE SAID: This is the sound of La Sera’s Katy Goodman (ex-Vivian Girls) bursting out, personally and musically. The result – frantic rock ‘n’ roll that finds its inspiration in punk, new wave and power-pop – should do the same for her band. Establishing a forceful new identity from the start, Goodman makes music with an infectious enthusiasm. And if this record is truly her dawn, Goodman and La Sera will be pushing the right rock ‘n’ roll buttons for long to come.
DEATH OF SAMANTHA – If Memory Serves Us Well (St. Valentine) WE SAID: You can’t keep a good band down, and twenty-plus years later DoS reconvened its original lineup and started playing shows again. They recorded a good chunk of its vintage repertoire live in the studio: shifting from groove to riff at will, DoS still grandly inhabits any permutation of six-string fire we might desire. Guitarist Doug Gillard, bassist David James and drummer Steve-O support John Petkovic’s cheeky lyrics with enough hooks to hang Paris Hilton’s entire wardrobe. The band knocks out anthem after anthem with ridiculous ease.
BILLY SEDLMAYR – Charmed Life (Fell City) WE SAID: Produced by Gabriel Sullivan (of Giant Sand and Taraf de Tucson) it’s a record of simultaneous intimacy and expansiveness, and as befits its desert origins, of moonlit luminosity and sun-baked glare. Tucson’s Sedlmayr, backed by Sullivan and a host of Tucson talent that includes members of GS and TdT as well as erstwhile Bob Dylan drummer Winston Watson and multiinstrumentalist Andrew Collberg, serves up a dozen dusty travelogues.
DOUG PAISLEY – Strong Feelings (No Quarter) WE SAID: With fuller arrangements than Paisley has relied on previously, the new offerings are buoyant, beautiful and often a little boisterous. Emmett Kelly’s guitar lines are kinetic and poignant, while Band alumnus Garth Hudson contributes organ fills that flicker with cozy warmth. But beneath this understated grandeur are narratives that feel more like snippets of an inner monologue than fodder for a confident country frontman. These are personal ruminations on lost loves and fallen idols, imminent mortality and an uncertain future.
THE ALLAH LAS — Worship the Sun (Innovative Leisure) WE SAID: The Allah Las weren’t even born when their late-1960s sound was first devised. No, they learned the Nuggets style by listening to records, apparently. You can imagine them one-upping each other at the turntable with dog-eared, day-glo colored albums that splice minor chord melancholy with jangly euphoria, tambourine slapping hedonism with moody surf licks. And then in the practice space trying those tricks with their own instruments, infusing the echo and fuzz of Nixon-era rebellion with fresher, sunnier tones.
MASKED INTRUDER – M.I. (Fat Wreck Chords) WE SAID: If The Ramones and The Beach Boys were locked up in a high security prison with nothing to do but harmonize, write love songs and plan their escape, they would sound exactly like Masked Intruder. The pop-punk ex-cons from Madison, WI, each sporting a different color ski mask ‘cos, well, figure it out yourself (I ain’t no snitch!), have just turned in M.I., their second full length; a brilliant collection of odes to unrequited love and crime sprees.
CARLA BOZULICH – Boy (Constellation) WE SAID: Like Tom Waits, Bozulich favors a sound that reimagines Howlin’ Wolf as performance art – she plays guitars and works the synth and most samples and loops while John Eichenseer adds keyboards, viola, percussion and other droning electronics. But unlike Waits of late, she works hard to not let the songs become just moody soundscapes. And her lyrics crackle with the eerie allure of a distant Mississippi Delta radio broadcast on a lonely night, but are sophisticated enough to be on the wall in the Museum of Modern Art.
SID GRIFFIN –The Trick Is To Breathe (Prima) WE SAID: Sid Griffin has been plying his craft for the better part of 30 years, helming such bands as the Long Ryders and the Coal Porters. Griffin’s latest individual outing — and only his third solo studio album overall — finds him offering a reverent nod to past precedents, with ample samplings of bluegrass, country rock and subdued ballads flush full of meditative desire.
DANIEL LANOIS – Flesh and Machine (Anti-) WE SAID: Easily the most ambitious effort of his career. It finds him veering into sonic terrain eerily reminiscent of the dreamy atonal soundscapes once conceived by avant-garde composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley. And although it lacks material that could be deemed of the hummable variety, these instrumentals are draped with hushed halo-like effects, a mix of random rhythmic pulses, droning tones and a brief shimmering sparkle.
THE BASEBALL PROJECT – 3rd (Yep Roc) WE SAID: What initially may have been taken as schtick—cutting an album composed solely of baseball-themed tunes—into a witty, cerebral and thoroughly rocking homage to our National Pastime. 3rd, the smartly titled third BBP album, picks up where its predecessors left off, singing the praises of heroes, wannabes, almosts and also-rans with equal enthusiasm, additionally dipping its resin-stained fingers into baseball’s sprawling culture.
TOMMY CASTRO – The Devil You Know (Alligator) WE SAID: A brilliant, hard rocking blues album. Besides being a road warrior for decades, when people think of Tommy Castro they think of his soul tinged vocals and soaring guitar licks anchored by a red hot horn section. But then in 2012, he introduced live “The Painkillers,” a lean, mean four person band. The result on CD is The Devil You Know which marks a stripped down return to the basics for Castro.
….what the hell, let’s keep going and look at some of the best archival/reissue titles from 2014….
GUN CLUB – Fire of Love (Superior Viaduct) WE SAID: – Its punk-soaked blues and roots rock & roll sound as iconoclastic now as it did in 1981. The blues is a form given to intensely personal interpretation, from Son House and Charley Patton to Chris Whitley and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The punk-informed approach the Gun Club employed maintains its power and distinction over three decades on.
THE KINKS – Muswell Hillbillies (Legacy Edition) (Sony Legacy) WE SAID: Arguably the band’s last great concept creation, Muswell Hillbillies found the Kinks opting for Americana well before the term was invented. It’s enough to hear this album newly remastered after more than 40 years, and most of the bonus tracks are essential as well. The archival concert video footage occupying the accompanying DVD which makes this version a near necessity: a pair of 1972 appearances on the BBC.
LOVE – Black Beauty (High Moon) WE SAID: This ain’t Forever Changes part whatever. That said, it’s not quite in the same space as the hard-edged blues rock Lee had explored with the post-Changes versions of Love, either. Lee’s new musicians were as comfortable with then-contemporary R&B as rock, and there’s definitely a tighter groove and a looseness to the arrangements that usually comes from folks who’ve gotten funky a time or two.
UNCLE TUPELO – No Depression (Sony/Legacy) Chances are, when future tastemakers set out to uncover the exact juncture at which Americana merged with insurgency, they’ll find their ‘ah-ha’ moment by tapping into Uncle Tupelo’s seminal effort, No Depression. The addition of an entire second disc full of demos suggests that the antagonistic attitude emerged fully formed.
THE BEATLES — The Beatles In Mono (Apple/Universal) WE SAID: Last year’s vinyl reissues of these albums in stereo simply used the digital masters that were created for the 2009 CDs. But for these mono albums, the producers went back to the original analogue tapes, and were cut sans the use of any digital technology. And the quality of this vinyl box set is such that you may find yourself thinking — what’s so great about stereo, anyway?
LED ZEPPELIN – Led Zeppelin + Led Zeppelin II + Led Zeppelin III Deluxe Editions (Swan Song/Rhino) WE SAID: Like a coven of long, lost friends who show up at your door with beer, blues and barbiturates in tow, Led Zeppelin’s first three albums, originally released in ’69 and ’70, have returned to remind us of the fun we used to have together in the form of these long-awaited deluxe editions. It really is a long overdue treat to see these first three Zep LPs get the individual reissue treatments they so richly deserve.
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Native North America Vol. One (Light In The Attic) WE SAID: It aims to acknowledge some of the artists who have surfaced over the years, in varying degrees of prominence, and to offer a resource/starting point for fans who want to delve deeper. Once again the ever-diligent archivists at Light In The Attic have enlisted the crate-digging talents of deejay/journalist Kevin “Sipreano” Howes (Jamaica To Toronto and Motown’s Mowest Story 1971-73) to compile an overview collection that tells a compelling musical story.
ELECTRIC EELS – Die Electric Eels LP (Superior Viaduct) WE SAID: When music nerd discussions turn to proto-punk, the electric eels’ brief mid-70s existence often gets overlooked. The quintet didn’t just hail from the same fertile Cleveland scene as fellow travelers Rocket From the Tombs and the Mirrors and future luminaries the Dead Boys, the Styrenes and Pere Ubu – it’s probably responsible for starting it. Die Electric Eels compiles all the material from its original ‘74-’75 incarnation, starting with the jittery “Agitated” and its atomic B-side “Cyclotron” and continuing through another eleven slices of Midwestern clatter and spit.
THE DREAM SYNDICATE – The Day Before Wine and Roses (Live at KPFK, September 5, 1982) (Omnivore) WE SAID: Originally released 20 years ago on a German label, The Day Before Wine and Roses represents baby pictures of the much-beloved Dream Syndicate captured during a radio broadcast a few weeks before the band would go into the studio to record its debut. It may not get the same spins as more accomplished Dream Syndicate records, but it’s still an essential document of a great band at the beginning of its journey.
JUANECO Y SU COMBO – The Birth of Jungle Cumbia (The Vital Record) WE SAID: For anyone looking for one of the original touchstones of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia (or chicha), here is a motherlode: eighteen tracks recorded in the early 1970s by the legendary Juaneco y su Combo, from the upcountry Amazon Basin city of Pucallpa. Beautifully packaged with extensive liner note and striking graphics, The Birth of Jungle Cumbia is a class project all the way, and absolutely essential.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART – Sun Zoom Spark 1970 to 1972 (Rhino) WE SAID: Of course it started with Beefheart’s landmark Trout Mask Replica. Then you discovered The Spotlight Kid, Lick My Decals Off, Baby and Clear Spot. But that’s part of the fun, pickin’ a point of entry and bargin’ in, you know, booglarizin’ the stuff online until such time as you can procure your own (probably second-hand) copy. Sun Zoom Spark collects remastered editions of these three albums plus a fourth bonus disc of outtakes and unreleased tracks from the same period and sessions. If you decide now is the time to get some Beefheart in your life, embrace the weirdness. There are dividends if you do.
BOMBADIL – Tarpits and Canyonlands (Vinyl Re-Release; Ramseur Records) WE SAID: This beautifully simple 2009 record by the Durham, NC-based Bombadil should have been the album to bring this trio indie rock fame and fortune. Its 15 tracks of striking piano-based twee pop. Not a bad song in the collection. The vinyl itself is 180 gram (a cool pink color for the collectors) with 45 rpm speed for the best sound quality. The packaging is a tri-fold jacket that includes 14 color prints.
CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN – Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart + Key Lime Pie (Omnivore Recordings) WE SAID: Both reissues are padded with multiple rarities and live cuts, including songs by the Damned, the Stranglers, and the Buzzcocks which clearly show Camper had roots in the emerging punk/New Wave scene before they were old enough to make their own kind of music. The remastering is terrific, opening up the music and letting it breath in ways the original CDs didn’t quite allow.
MARSHMALLOW OVERCOAT – The Very Best Of LP (Garage Nation Records) WE SAID: Fans get one final encore via this beautiful double album, a gatefold sleeved affair pressed on cloudburst orange and blue vinyl. Less an epitaph than a fitting celebration of what turned out to be a pretty fine run (how many groups to you know lasted a quarter century and still managed to sound vital at the end of that tenure?), The Very Best Of makes a solid case for this group being one of America’s—hell, the planet’s!—best-ever second-generation garage/psych combos.
THE POSIES – Failure (Omnivore Recordings) WE SAID: With the LP version of the Failure reissue pressed on eye-candy greenish-gold vinyl and the CD edition boasting 8 bonus tracks comprising demos, instrumentals and live material, the Posies and the astute archivists at Omnivore have done fans a huge service. Make that a gift, in fact. A “failure”? Ironic title or not, to paraphrase a great philosopher, from small things, big things one day will come. Herein find some of those small thing—pop nuggets that turned out to be a musical goldmine.
RAN BLAKE – Plays Solo Piano (ESP-disk) WE SAID: From the first notes of “Vanguard” on ESP-disk’s reissue of 1965’s Plays Solo Piano, it’s clear that Ran Blake represented a new kind of pianism – equal parts impressionism (Satie, Debussy) Avant jazz (Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley) and (Thelonious) Monk-isms. For a debut album Plays Solo Piano was a courageous statement. Clearly in the jazz tradition, and very much a personal, stylistic explosion of the idiom, Blake belonged on ESP Records.
CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG – CSNY 1974 (Rhino) WE SAID: A stunning box set boasting three CDs and one DVD (a single CD distillation is also available as well; both are from Rhino). Included are 40 songs and eight videos culled from the quartet’s highly touted 1974 tour, a point in their combined careers that found them in their prime. And the massive 185 page booklet that accompanies this extravaganza is practically worth the price of admission on its own, chock full of concise commentary, detailed liner notes and stunning photos.
THE POP GROUP – Cabinet of Curiosities + We Are Time (Freaks R Us) WE SAID: The Pop Group could only have existed in the late 70s. An almost textbook example of that nebulous genre known as postpunk, the Bristol quintet deftly combined nervous funk with clanging punk rock and performed it with a loose sensibility that has as much in common with free jazz as rock & roll. It never found chart success in its original 1978-1981 lifespan. But as a favorite of maverick musicians like Nick Cave and Mike Watt, the Pop Group’s influence lives on.
FLESH EATERS – A Minute to Pray A Second to Die (Superior Viaduct) WE SAID: When the roots rockers met the punks in early 80s Los Angeles, they probably had no idea that one of the ultimate expressions of the collision would be 1981’s A Minute to Pray A Second to Die, he second LP from singer/lyricist Chris D(esjardin)s’ loose collective the Flesh Eaters. His noir nightmares and his esteemed collaborators’ feral roar keeps it as bracing now as it was then.
SUPERDRAG – Jokers W/Tracers (SideOneDummy) WE SAID: A collection of demos from the Head Trip in Every Key sessions. The Knoxville power pop band spreads out 23 songs over two LPs, and of the 13 songs off of their sophomore record, only four aren’t included on this collection
MIKE COOPER – Trout Steel + Places I Know/The Machine Gun Co. (Paradise of Bachelors) WE SAID: His fearlessness in moving away from the standard trappings of folk and blues by embracing the direction of such avant-jazz greats as Pharaoh Sanders and Sonny Sharrock as well as early electronic sound architects as Steve Reich and Terry Riley have also made his long out-of-print early ‘70s albums very much in demand amongst a niche market of young sonic adventurers.
PUGWASH – A Rose in the Garden of Weeds: A Preamble Through the History of Pugwash… (Omnivore) For the uninitiated, Ireland’s Pugwash is the second coming of ELO, Jellyfish and XTC (they were even wisely snatched up by Andy Partridge for his own label), combing smart lyrics with earworm Pop melodies that stick with you for days. This is a CD crammed with 17 songs culled from Pugwash’s catalogue from 1999 – 2011.
SMALL FACES – There Are But Four Small Faces (Deluxe Edition) (Charly) WE SAID: One of the best British albums of the mid-‘60s era. The most eloquent example of the Steve Marriott/Ronnie Lane songwriting axis, it was the album that best represented the band’s multiple strengths overall. Whether in the stereo, mono and alternate mixes included here, they represent the best the band had to offer.
NATIONAL WAKE – Walk In Africa 1979-81 (Light In The Attic) WE SAID: National Wake formed in the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, South African students additionally inspired by the international punk movement, and a bi-racial combo to boot, which in the apartheid era wasn’t exactly given the blessings of the government. They penned meaty anthems such as the Clash-like “International News,” the reggae-drenched title track, blazing garage-rocker “Mercenaries” and the lilting Caribbean pop of “Corner House Stone,” all politically charged and purposeful. Light In The Attic has compiled all the key recordings here, several of them previously unreleased, as a double LP (180-gram vinyl) in a tip-on deluxe gatefold sleeve, plus a handsome, photo-packed 20-page booklet.
VELVET UNDERGROUND – Velvet Underground (Sundazed) WE SAID: that Velvet Underground was originally issued in 1970 as part of the MGM label’s “Golden Archive Series” of compilations of several of its key artists. It boasts an intriguing tracklist that sequences the beautifully poppy “Candy Says” next to the serene, dreamy “Sunday Morning”; the starkly droning “Heroin” beside archetypal VU choogler “Beginning to See the Light”; and the violently throbbing “White Light White Heat” just before the luminous, ethereal “Jesus.” As liner notesman David Fricke astutely observes, it “now plays like a set of greatest hits by a band that made them ahead of schedule, before the rest of the world was ready.”
JAMES BROWN – Love*Power*Peace (Sundazed) WE SAID: Good-GAWD! When liner notes refer to “electrifying a crazed Parisian audience” you might be inclined to roll your eyes and sigh, “journalistic hype…”—and then you hear this concert from March 8, 1971 and find yourself electrified yourself. This 3-LP set is the sound of artist, band and crowd being hotwired together. Watch the sparks fly. Portions of it were previously released in remixed form on a ’92 CD, but this is the first time it’s seen a complete, official airing.
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Country Funk II 1967-1974 (Light In The Attic) WE SAID: Boasting such heavy hitters as Willie Nelson, Jackie DeShannon, Dolly Parton, JJ Cale and Kenny Rogers, Light In The Attic’s second Country Funk volume isn’t as compelling as the flawless first volume (released in 2012), but it’s only slightly less so. Swampy, sexy, boozy, twangy and, yes, undeniably funky stuff. Packaged, as previously, in a handsome tip-on gatefold sleeve, Light In The Attic has succeeded once again. To quote a famous politician, “Mission accomplished.”
BIG STAR – Live in Memphis (Omnivore) WE SAID: Issued to mark the 20th anniversary of the Oct. 29, 1994, concert, Live in Memphis—which has a corresponding DVD available separately—finds Alex Chilton, particularly, in good voice, his obvious playfulness all the more engaging given that he’s performing before a hometown crowd, the first such Memphis appearance since the reunion. It makes for a fitting tribute not just to Chilton and the latter-day incarnation of Big Star, but to all the members.
VARIOUS ARTISTS — Peru Bravo: Funk, Soul & Psych from Peru’s Radical Decade (Tigers Milk) WE SAID: A double-vinyl, 16-track compilation that documents an extraordinary period during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when despite harsh political repression, a genre-omnivorous blend of rock, jazz, funk and traditional Peruvian music blew up in Lima.
ROWLAND S. HOWARD – Six Strings That Drew Blood (Liberation) WE SAID: Though never a household name, the Australian rock pioneer’s dark romantic songwriting and distinctive twangnoise guitar hugely influenced the downunderground and, by proxy, the world of alternative rock & roll. The two-disk Six Strings That Drew Blood pays tribute to the power his work still commands, drawing tracks from nearly every project in which he had a hand – the Birthday Party, Crime & the City Solution, These Immortal Souls and of course his solo albums. It’s an excellent summary of one of non-mainstream rock’s most underrated and singular artists.