Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Class of 2014

I look over my shoulder at the year quickly departing, in it's wake I heard some amazing music this year. I was taken aback by the ability of some artists to write songs that cut to the bone, filled with honest raw emotion, at the fate of their own existence and that of the world we live. Uncertainty, anger and a growing urgency seemed to permeate a lot of what I heard, the music was deeply rooted in the past from the soul of Detroit and the deep south to the floating sounds of the West Coast. It was tough to select ten of the best but here we go,

10. The Reigning Sound-Shattered

The sixth studio album from this Memphis crew found the band in tight form, this set is full of garage drenched soul, Big Star inspired melodies as well as being an ode to the Memphis soul scene that changed the landscape of popular music. Falling Rain sounds like it was recorded at American with Tommy Cogbill at the board. My My is unbridled enthusiasm with a pulsing soul groove.

9. Robert Ellis- The Lights Of The Chemical Plant

The title track bowled me over capturing the beauty and intensity of love, in the shadows of life the passion of this love only grows, it's a gripping meditation. Ellis is a rare songwriter, crisp and forthright but also with a great dry sense of humour as demonstrated on TV Song the dreariness of life replaced by the fantasies of being a superhero. Didn't play it safe either, his cover of Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years elegantly captured the jazzy intonations of the original.

8. Ryan Adams-Ryan Adams

This album seemed to confuse some critics who were perhaps waiting for something more daring and confronting. What was delivered was a great and consistent set of songs, flawlessly played and given a subtle production treatment at Adam's own PAX AM studio in L.A. Adams had obviously spent time listening to Damn The Torpedoes from Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers alongside the 70's work of Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. Gimme Something Good is a strong indicator of the Petty influence, whilst I Just Might sounds like Springsteen at his most urgent.

7. Roseanne Cash- The River and the Thread

This was the year and the album that established Roseanne Cash as a masterful songwriter, this was a flawless album. It beautifully captured the mystique and rhythmic lifeblood of the Mississippi River as it snakes it's away across the southern heartland. It's also a deeply personal recognition of Cash's past and the legacy passed on to her by her family. It's a tribute to the music but also the stories of the south, the tough times on the cotton fields, the vitality of the river, the dark gothic literature that emanated from the region and the music that was disseminated from the mighty 50,000 watt tower of radio station WLAC.

6. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers- Hypnotic Eye

Petty at his angriest and disillusioned always leads to something special on record, Hypnotic Eye shared some similarities with the great Damn The Torpedoes, where that album recalled the stresses of youth Hypnotic Eye is defiant in the reality that nothing has changed and perhaps it will only get worse. Petty rails against the inequalities and the unfulfilled promises against a lean backdrop. Mike Campbell is a fantastic rhythm player, his solos are concise and powerful, the great Benmont Tench is equally measured and restrained but is a vital component of that pulsing Heartbreakers sound. One of the great rock albums of the year, I still keep hoping he will tour!

5. Sharon Van Etten- Are We There

A brilliant album, Van Etten sang of heartbreak, obsession and isolation that was incredibly visceral, she opened up and let it spill out into each song. Confronting and rewarding in equal measure, no more so than on Your Love Is Killing Me with it's unbridled anguish at being trapped in a damaging relationship. Our Love is even more confronting with it's tale of violence in a relationship. There is also a light of hope brilliantly expressed on You Know Me Well, the idea of turning within to find your true self. What makes this a truly great album is that it never crosses the line of being maudlin or indulgent, it's honest, raw and importantly real.

4. The War on Drugs- Lost In The Dream

A remarkable album capturing the synth drenched sounds of the late 70's from the pioneering work of acts like Kraftwerk and Television to the 80's layered sounds of Roxy Music this album captures the growing uncertainty we face in the world as we know it, Adam Granduciel probes and pushes as the snyths add to the pressure.

3. Beck- Morning Phase

I was blown away by the grandiosity and inventiveness of this album, Brian Wilson would have loved to have made this album in the 70's. This album promises redemption and hope, Beck weaves a musical tapestry that evokes the great works of The Beach Boys in the 70's and also Dennis Wilson's great solo album Pacific Blue. Like the great Pacific Ocean as it winds along the California coastline Beck embraces the positivity and hope of great music that came out of LA in the late 60's and 70's.

2. The Delines- Colfax

This late night muse was one of my most rewarding discoveries of the year, Colfax has a timeless quality. Stories of people down on their luck, lost and isolated, trapped in small towns and ravaged by war are the bedrock of this album. Shaped by guitarist and novelist Willy Vlautin and with the smoky soul tinged vocals of Amy Boone each song has an aching relevance, Colfax Avenue is the tortured story of a returned soldier from Iraq. The Oil Rigs At Night is a soulful midnight confession with an amazing breathless vocal. Colfax had an interplay of soul and country that is refreshing and new to the ear.

1. The Black Keys- Turn Blue

What do you do when your previous album sells by the bucket load on the back of a catchy single that you have no hope or desire to replicate? You make an album that is even better, Turn Blue has a cohesiveness that was lacking on El Camino, it also sees them pushing their musical boundaries. The album embraces the stomping soul sounds of Motown, but they also detour via the open landscapes of Pink Floyd at their stretched out best. This suits Dan Auerbach who lets his riffs wander over a more layered landscape created by co-producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton). The Year in Review is just a pounding soul revue same with Fever, Bullet in the Brain and Weight of Love are lengthy spaced out grooves that give the album a heavier dynamic.

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