ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
December 13, 2014
FAVORITE ALBUMS of 2014
Every year is a good year for music. You just have to know where to look. As with past years, my Favorites for 2014 are a mix of stuff that's been given a good deal of radio attention nationally and stuff that has flown under all but the most discerning radars. There are artists whose releases have perennially shown up on my lists and others who were unknown to me in January. As always, I'm blessed and honored to be able to continue broadcasting R&B from the KRFC studios, where I also serve as Music Director (that's right, I'm paid to juggle music). Over the past couple years, this blog has become an essential part of Routes & Branches, inseparable for me from the broadcast itself. One of my musical resolutions for 2015 is to include a podcast for those who are unable to tune in on Saturdays. Watch this space, as they say.
1. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (Hilltop Mt, 5/13)
Despite my Routes & Branches tagline, looking down my list there is a lot that is only tangentially linked to country music, if at all. Sturgill Simpson, however, stands for all that I love about the genre. If you're not paying attention to the lyrics of "Turtles All the Way Down," it's as classic and traditional a vocal delivery as you're bound to find. "Long White Line" is pure honky tonk. But then there's the incredible instrumental freakout which closes "It Ain't All Flowers," or the left-field cover of When In Rome's 1980s hit "The Promise". Metamodern Sounds is not only firmly rooted in the immediately recognizable traditions, it has arguably preserved the genre during a time when what passes for mainstream country has largely unmoored it from its past.
2. Delines, Colfax (El Cortez, 4/29)
My initial taste of the Delines created a desperate feeling in me. The melancholy country-soul of "I Won't Slip Up" announced the arrival of something that would change my year. A longtime fan of Richmond Fontaine, I also happened to be reading Willy Vlautin's most recent novel, The Free. Vlautin teamed with members of the Damnations, Decemberists and his day band to create this subtly moving monster. As sung by Amy Boone, Vlautin's hard luck stories take on a new beauty. Between his two bands and his writing career, I lose sleep these days worrying that Vlautin can't keep this up for long ...
3. Hiss Golden Messenger, Lateness of Dancers (Merge, 9/09)
MC Taylor's work has never been as accessible, or as eloquent as it is on Lateness. It is a deeply personal record, both for me and for Taylor, I imagine. Like Joe Henry's Invisible Hour (celebrated below), it seems such a carefully arranged document, with lyrics so poetic that they stand on their own. It's no coincidence that Taylor borrowed/stole the title of the album from Southern laureate Eudory Welty. The looseness of HGM's November appearance on Letterman was revelatory (and, incidentally, proved that nobody supports worthy music like Dave).
4. Hurray For the Riff Raff, Small Town Heroes (ATO, 2/11)
I'm far from the first to note that Hurray's Alynda Lee Segarra is one of the most interesting figures in roots based music. Segarra set the stage for Heroes by paying tribute to her predecessors on 2013's understated My Dearest Darkest Neighbor. Heroes wouldn't have been the same without that earlier touchstone. While the record's alt.country moments are engaging, I would argue that the more defining moments come with less direct pieces like "St. Roche Blues" or "Body Electric".
5. Benjamin Booker, s/t (ATO, 8/19)
Booker landed in my CD player with a bang. I played it over and over, knowing that I had found something that could largely define my 2014 musical experience. Why not connect the dots between blues and gospel?! Then let's shred it up by dragging it through the garage with a good dose of punk!
6. Old 97s, Most Messed Up (ATO, 4/29)
Here's a vote for vulgarity. Hooray for profanity, for immaturity and good loud fun! After so many years on the scene, I don't think that anyone would have argued that Old 97s every really fully lost the youthful thread that runs from their earliest music. Nevertheless, the abandon on Most Messed Up is so refreshing, and it's simply reassuring that the guys can still rock out like college idiots when needed.
7. Christopher Denny, If the Roses Don't Kill Us (Partisan, 8/05)
Christopher Denny's voice is the most unique sound on this year's list. I've jokingly compared it to "Jiminy Cricket as crossed with Jimmie Dale Gilmore," though the truth is that Denny's soulful croon serves his songs well. The personal struggles that defined the seven years between his debut and this sophomore album serve to strengthen the urgency of his work. There's a deep romanticism here as well, grounded in country and soul, as well as gospel.
8. Nikki Lane, All Or Nothin' (New West, 5/06)
This is The One That Stuck Around for 2014. Of course, the immediate impression was strong and positive. With edge and appeal aplenty, producer Dan Auerbach has helped Lane come into her own. As the year progressed, repeated plays revealed new depths and nuances to Lane's songs. Front to back, there are more unforgettable tunes on All Or Nothin' than on any other collection on this list.
9. Justin Townes Earle, Single Mothers (Vagrant, 9/09)
There's nothing showy to Single Mothers, nothing as catchy as "Harlem River". Instead, Earle goes for the slow burn, the more subtle approach, putting his retro stuff on the back burner in favor of a more contemporary, soulful sound. I look forward to the January release of Earle's companion piece, Absent Fathers.
10. Shakey Graves, And the War Came (Dualtone, 10/06)
Yes. Me and everyone else. After two low key self-releases, I eagerly anticipated Alejandro Rose-Garcia's full fledged debut. With contributions from Colorado's Esme Patterson, its long awaited arrival exceeds expectations. Songs add new shades to the Shakey Graves sound, proving that he's more than a one dimensional busker. Having said that, my hope is that future records remain well rooted in his lo-fi past.
11. Caleb Caudle, Paint Another Layer On My Heart (This Is American Music, 6/24)
I put North Carolina's Caudle in a similar category as John Moreland, with whom he toured in 2014. Brilliant with a turn of phrase, he's a songwriter in the classic tradition who deserves a breakout moment about now. "Come On October" and "Missing Holidays" are songs for the ages.
12. Tweedy, Sukierae (dbPm, 9/19)
With two Wilco retrospectives and this double solo record, Jeff Tweedy is apparently responsible for no fewer than 8 CDs worth of music in 2014. The revelation here is how natural it all sounds, freed from the studio trickery and more experimental noise of his day band. Tweedy has long been an excellent writer, but it's never sounded so basic, personal and direct as on Sukierae.
13. Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Hwy 20, 9/30)
With Lucinda, Justin Townes Earle and Delines, 2014 was a year I was thirsty for country-soul. Like the late JJ Cale (whom Williams honors here with a patient cover of "Magnolia"), her music can be Memphis incarnate. Especially on the country numbers, she demonstrates that her worn and ragged voice is still capable of such expression. Down Where the Spirit is a generous record, but never indulgent, with every cut earning its place.
14. Ryan Adams, s/t (PaxAm, 9/09)
As much as the mainstream media rides Adams for some of his more ill advised public moments, I can never seem to shake his music. While he remains elusive and overly prolific, he's also reached such a consistent level of songcraft on his "official" releases. Most impressively, Adams does it all without straining to achieve the Big Statement. Songs like "Gimme Something Good" are immediate and seemingly effortless.
15. Cory Branan, No Hit Wonder (Bloodshot, 9/19)
Let's hope this self-deprecating gem doesn't mark the end of Branan's attempts at being taken seriously as a writer. Shot through with both humor and classic storytelling, Wonder stands as Branan's most consistent collection to date. More focused than Todd Snider (but who's not?), with hooks almost as sharp as Rhett Miller.
16. Joe Henry, Invisible Hour (Worksong, 6/03)
Such beautiful and evocative work, self-produced and pared to its essence. It's almost as though Henry has drifted into a genre all his own over the past decade. More than any other album on this list, Invisible Hour is pure poetry.
17. Robert Ellis, Lights From the Chemical Plant (New West, 2/07)
I've pegged Ellis as a potential game changer for records to come. A bright songwriter, he makes unexpected choices, and adds textures to his music uncommon to most americana. My hope is that he'll continue to evolve in challenging directions. Ellis also branched out as producer in 2014, behind the boards for Whiskey Shivers' new release.
18. Old Crow Medicine Show, Remedy (ATO, 7/01)
"Dearly Departed Friend" will compete for my Favorite Song of 2014. It's OCMS' strongest record since their debut a decade ago. Always sharp musicians, here they buckle down and prove themselves to be worthy writers as well.
19. Elliott BROOD, Work and Love (Paper Bag, 10/20)
Once fond of incorporating bits of Canadian history in their songs, the BROOD boys keep things closer to home on this one, with tunes about getting older and raising kids. While that doesn't immediately say "good time record", the trio's tuneful blend of roots pop has matured in a great direction.
20. Bloodhounds, Let Loose! (Alive Naturalsound, 11/04)
Another band from East L.A. This one seems to make more noise, do more drugs and have more fun. It's garage music at its finest, with echoes of blues, pop and punk. One of my favorite surprises of the year.
21. JP Harris & Tough Choices, Home Is Where the Hurt Is (Cow Island, 9/23)
22. Fire Mountain, All Dies Down (This Is American Music, 5/20)
23. Hard Working Americans, s/t (Melvin, 1/21)
24. Sons of Bill, Love and Logic (Thirty Tigers, 9/30)
25. Parker Millsap, s/t (Okrahoma, 2/04)
26. Otis Gibbs, Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth (Wanamaker, 8/19)
27. Rosanne Cash, River and the Thread (Blue Note, 1/14)
28. John Fullbright, Songs (Blue Dirt, 5/27)
29. Whiskey Shivers, Whiskey Shivers (Self, 9/23)
30. Joe Fletcher, You've Got the Wrong Man (Wrong Reasons, 10/06)
Next Saturday, please join me for my annual R&B holiday show - music that's both seasonally and musically relevant. Looking forward, I think I'll actually be airing a wide selection of my favorite songs on KRFC's Monday Mix on December 22 (8-10am Mountain Times), and my Colorado favorites on Monday, January 5 during those same hours. I'll post both my Songs and Colorado lists on this blog soon after they air.