Best Albums of 2014

What a year it’s been.  So many good releases, it’s hard to narrow down to a mere twenty best albums.  My top three were especially difficult to separate.  The music to which I was exposed this year was exhilarating and, I must say, so important to me personally.  It guided me and uplifted me too many times to count.  In order to not focus exclusively on this year’s releases, I’ve also included some older albums that I have finally gotten around to hearing and the ten below have provided me with much delight.

Americana music continued to spread its wings, its expansionist powers on display as it continues to envelope anything roots-based, with or without a specific genre attached.  The Americana Honors and Awards this year included Loretta Lynn and Jackson Browne, both of whom have been creating their own vision well before the term Americana was first heard.  To my mind, the very term ‘Americana’ makes it logically difficult to consider that it includes anything created outside the USA, but it clearly does.  If, say, an Australian or Canadian artist is considered to be a proponent of Americana, does this mean that they are not faithful to their indigenous culture?  Hardly not I suspect.

What’s a music genre anyway?  Largely they have been created and propagated for descriptive and commercial reasons to coerce punters like you and I to fork out our money.  Having said that, it is albeit impossible to avoid mentioning them, as you will read.  Whatever, the Americana movement is clearly here to stay and there is so much traditionally-based, vibrant and fresh music under its large and growing umbrella, you could spend most of your music time there and be enriched many times over.

For various reasons (some outside my control), I have had more exposure to the bluegrass music in its many guises this year.  So much so, that I’ve found it difficult to grapple with the volume of traditional bluegrass releases, as they have tended to merge together.  On the outskirts, however, there have been some real treasures – call it new grass, progressive jam grass, folk grass – and you’ll find a few examples below to see what I mean.

There’s plenty of other styles here as well – rock, country, folk, singer/songwriter.  Blues is noticeably absent as I have struggled to hear anything that has stood head and shoulders above the pack.  Maybe it’s just the cycle of things.

Enough, here’s my top albums of the year (I’d be grateful for any comments)

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20. South – Blackie and The Rodeo Kings

southMysterious Canadian group Blackie and the Rodeo Kings releases their first album in three years.  Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden and Tom Wilson are known for their side projects as much as for their collective endeavours.  As reported before, I was incredibly excited to be seeing the band at the 2014 Americana festival in Nashville this year, unfortunately only one of the band members showed up (Linden).  To lose one player on the night could be accidental, but to be missing two out of three is just plain careless!  As it turned out, Linden played a great set and had a very special guest (Lucinda Williams).  South is a terrific addition to this band’s recorded output.  Key Tracks: “South”, I’d Have To Be A Stone” and “Driftin Snow”

19.  The No Hit Wonder – Cory Branan

thenohitwonderNashville-based Canadian Cory Branan provides anthemic songs, magnetic choruses, wry lyrical observations and dominant guitar work.  Sometimes the world-weariness and maturity leaps out at you from the speakers.  Despite the diversity of the material, every song on The No-Hit Wonder deserves your attention.  The production is exemplary.  The album is both a celebration of the undefeated underdogs of the world and a coming to terms with the cards life has dealt you.  And it’s a lot of fun.  Key Tracks: “The No-Hit Wonder”, “Missing You Fierce” and “The Meantime Blues”

18. Idyllwild – Mia Dyson

idyllwildA joyous, soulful celebration from Australian Mia Dyson.  Like a book you couldn’t put down, I listened to Idyllwild for days on end without much other music, such was its spell.  Recorded in Ojai California, it is full of passion and emotion.  Beautiful vocals, voice cracking with emotion a la Lucinda Williams or even Dusty Springfield.  Dyson has never been in finer vocal fettle and this album has the singer/songwriter/guitarist in career-best form.  Key Tracks: “That Sugar”, Mama Was” and “Based On Your Eyes”

17. Night Surfer – Chuck Prophet

prophetnightsurferTwelve songs from this rocker troubadour.  On Night Surfer, Prophet captures a sweet balance between that distinct and expressive voice, an authentic rock sensitivity and unique, hard-to-ignore lyrics.  While the album has some darker moments, there’s plenty of hope here too and that ray of sunlight is from someone who you can trust, someone who has been through a lot and still has something positive to say about humanity.  From straight rock ‘n’ roll tunes, to fuzzy boogie and tender acoustic ballads, there’s not a misstep to be found.  Key Tracks: “Wish Me Luck”, “They Don’t Know About You and Me” and “Love Is The Only Thing”

16. All Or Nothin’ – Nikki Lane

allornothin'From Nashville, Nikki Lane’s second album, All Or Nothin’ is a classy, diverse outing.  Produced by Dan Auerbach (Black Keys), this is a rousing collection of songs that spans genres and exudes with Lane’s characteristic attitude and Southern swagger.  Lane sings tales about misbehaving, wanton desires, heartache, love and lust.  “It’s always the right time to do the wrong thing,” she repeats like a mantra during the infectious opener “Right Time” and that statement might well define All Or Nothin’Key Tracks: “Right Time”, “You Can’t Talk To Me Like That” and “Love’s On Fire”

15.  Wild Animals – Trampled By Turtles

wildanimalsThe members of Trampled by Turtles wanted a refuge from their various rock bands and decided to combine and only play music with acoustic instruments.  They learned old fiddle songs, traditional folk songs, bluegrass songs, and what few original songs they had, followed those formulas.  Nine albums since 2004 and the band has been steadily growing its following.  Wild Animals is the perfect next step.  The tracks launch from delightful harmonies, frantic instrumentation and Pink Floyd (I’m serious!) serenity.  The title track is one of the best songs I’ve heard this year.  Key Tracks: “Wild Animals”, “Are You Behind The Shining Star” and “Winners”

14.  Most Messed Up – Old 97’s

mostmessedupIt’s taken me a while to get onto the Old 97’s bandwagon.  Not deliberate, but just how it’s been.  First, I got my hands on the 2012 deluxe version of the classic Too Far To Care (1997) this year.  Then I saw them in Charleston SC this October and was thrilled by their four-piece muscular sound.  Third, this year’s Most Messed Up is most enjoyable, blending Texas cow punk and power pop into an alt. country sensibility, with respect for traditional country.  It’s full of energy and attitude, but with an ear for the melody and the ability to make acute observations.  I’m on the bandwagon now and staying. Key Tracks:  “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”, “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On” and “Nashville”

13. Dharma Blues – Peter Rowan

dharma bluesTraditional bluegrass cannot hold Peter Rowan down, as he has continually explored new frontiers and contributed enormously to the assimilation of traditional music forms.  Nothing exhibits this more than Dharma Blues, his excellent and intriguing 2014 CD release.  Recorded in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Sausalito, the album features twelve new Rowan tracks written in India and Japan, as well as guest appearances from Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna) and Gillian Welch.  Dharma Blues was inspired by his practice of Buddhism and his love for creating sounds with fellow musicians.  This album is both majestic and unique.  Key Tracks: “Raven”, “Arise” and “Restless Grave” and “Illusion’s Fool”

12.  Trouble and Love – Mary Gauthier

marygauthierThis is Gauthier’s first studio album in four years and only her third in seven years – usually a sign of an artist that imposes a high bar on her muse and only releases material when it’s good and ready.  Trouble & Love is for me an undeniable treasure – eight songs of beauty and with a dagger-like clarity on the human condition in its many guises.  The production and arrangements are perfect.  I am reminded of the feel and poeticism of the great Lucinda Williams as I tune in again and again.  As I wrote in my review of the album upon release, when it’s over, it’s hard to work out what to listen to next, such is its vice-like grip.  Key Tracks:  “Trouble In Love”, “Worthy” and “Another Train”

11. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams

ryanadamsAnother classy entry from Ryan Adams, who has always straddled the alt. country line, but offered so much more.  Ryan Adams is very little country indeed and is more power-laden than previous efforts (his last release was Ashes and Fire in 2011), with austere electric guitar (in the main) underpinning his crisp song writing and plaintive vocals.  It’s the sort of music that you can listen to anywhere with any company and it will stand out.  “Gimme Something Good” is a classic rock song.  Key Tracks:  “Gimme Something Good”, “Am I Safe” and “Shadows”

10.  Hard Working Americans – Hard Working Americans

hardworkingamericansNow I usually am not that enamored of covers’ albums.  But this one is exceptional, refreshing the chosen tunes with a hard, rocky edge.  Hard Working Americans is the self-titled debut from a musicians’ collective – Todd Snider, Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), Neal Casal (The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and The Cardinals), Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi) and Duane Trucks.  So we have artists from the Americana, singer/songwriter, experimental, jam and rock communities, covering eleven tracks by the likes of Randy Newman, Lucinda Williams, Hayes Carll and Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings.  It rocks, it stomps, it bleeds.  Key Tracks: “Down To The Well”, “Run A Mile” and “Wrecking Ball”

9.  Colfax – The Delines

colfaxOh my, this is gorgeous.  Slow, wistful and lonesome.  From Portland, Oregon The Delines’ debut album Colfax is a slow burning stunner.  It has large dollops of modern and evocative storytelling where the songs beckon you to plunge into them, each like a captivating novella.  There are wonderful vocals and gripping arrangements where everything is accessible.  Colfax is a haunting, reflective master work.  The album released in Australia/New Zealand has two exclusive bonus tracks – “Walking Alone” and “Slim and Maggy”.  Unnaturally beautiful instrumentation again pervades the material and these bonus tracks are just that, not add ons.  Key Tracks: “Calling In”, “I Won’t Slip Up” and “State Line”

8.  The Lights From The Chemical Plant – Robert Ellis

lightsfromchemicalplantRobert Ellis’s The Lights From The Chemical Plant is simply brilliant.  The sensitivity and emotion of his lyrics, his voice a brilliant timbre and a range that has surprised me on this record.  The production is an example of how good some arrangements, engineering and mixing can be.  The tracks range from the majestic, string-adorned title track to noir pop rock and somber confessionals.  The songwriting is sublime.  Key Tracks: “Chemical Plant”, “Bottle Of Wine” and “Only Lies”

7. Madman – Sean Rowe

madmanCanadian Sean Rowe spent much of the last year traveling the country with just his guitar, performing in people’s living rooms.  Perhaps it is this connection that has shaped his extraordinary new album.  Madman is really soul music in the purest and most literal sense.  Rowe looks to be an intense man.  Full of hair, a strong glare and the deepest voice since Isaac Hayes, he turns heads and ears.  When he sings, shouts, bangs that guitar, you sit up and take notice.  On this record, Rowe has created a beautifully primal work. The record is deliberately, if not defiantly, simple in both arrangement and composition.  I saw him perform in Nashville this year and I can still feels the chills.  Hard to pick three songs here.  Key Tracks: “Madman”, “Shine My Diamond Ring” and “My Little Man”

6.  A Dotted Line – Nickel Creek

adottedlineGrammy Award–winning, multi-platinum selling trio Nickel Creek – Chris Thile (mandolin/vocals), Sara Watkins (fiddle/vocals) and Sean Watkins (guitar/vocals) – have reunited for the first time since a 2007 self-described ‘indefinite hiatus’.  A Dotted Line marks Nickel Creek’s 25th anniversary and they ended up with six new co-written songs, along with one tune by Thile, one by Sean Watkins, and two covers.  Three virtuosos together again and the musicianship, diversity of material and sheer lofty heights make this a special outing.  Brilliant! Key Tracks: “Christmas Eve”, “Hayloft” and “Where Is Love Now”

5. Small Town Heroes – Hurray For The Riff Raff

small town heroesHurray for the Riff Raff hail from New Orleans, Louisiana and they deliver distinctive folk and Americana music.  Small Town Heroes is the band’s first major label release and it is an authentic and unpolished gem.  While on the surface, this music could have surfaced in many parts of the American South, the band’s home roots ensure there’s plenty of genuine Crescent City rolling rhythm and maybe the musical gumbo on display here is what’s most appealing.  Alynda Lee Segarra’s resonant and wistful voice is both omnipresent and compelling.  Key Tracks: “The New SF Bay Blues”, “The Body Electric” and “Small Town Heroes”

4.  Cold Spell – Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

coldspellFrank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen have taken their brand of progressive bluegrass up another notch with Cold Spell, their third album.  They combine diverse and precise songwriting, grand harmonies, musical virtuosity and, most important of all, a unique blend of something which is hard to pinpoint, except to say it is highly original and tantalising.  Solivan is an amazing mandolinist and worthy singer.  Winner of this year’s IBMA award for Best Instrumental Band and now a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album, this release is a joy.  There are few vocal bluegrass outfits around that come close to Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen.  This is not just great bluegrass, this is great music that deserves to be heard widely.  “Missing You” is a stunning pop song.  Key Tracks: “Cold Spell”, “Chief Taghkanik” and “Missing You”.

3.  The River and The Thread – Rosanne Cash

riverandthethreadA perfectly executed album, tales of Rosanne reconnecting to the spirit and mood of the South.  Revisiting her strong family and musical links.  There is emotion dripping from every word, the lyrics, the sound, the arrangements and production all hit the right note.  I was at an interview when she explained the context and background of the album (before it was released) and it was a beautiful experience.  And the music sounds just as good on stage too – in Columbia, Missouri she performed most if not all the songs on the album.  Key Tracks: “A Feather’s Not A Bird”, “Modern Blue” and “The Long Way Home”

2. Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone – Lucinda Williams

downwherespiritIn career-best form maybe?  Lucinda Williams has hit on a rich vein of musical excellence that doesn’t look like stopping for quite a while.  Now with her own record label, she took a gamble to release a first double album in 2014 and Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone not only does not disappoint, it surpasses expectations.  When I saw her preview a significant number of songs from this album in Nashville this September, the strength and passion of the new material fitted in so easily to her long, career-spanning set that night.  It’s hard to be more specific about such a large and masterful body of work.  If you buy one album per year, get this one.  Key Tracks: “Burning Bridges”, “Cold Day In Hell”, “Foolishness” and “Magnolia”

1. Metamodern Sounds In Country Music – Sturgill Simpson

metamoderncountry

Well, this album is really causing a commotion.  Less than a year since his last release, Simpson has come out with a follow-up, and its title is a bold one –  Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.  The title in fact is an allusion to Ray Charles’ groundbreaking 1962 Capitol release Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.  Simpson is delving into psychedelic and mystical sounds, a far cry from the traditional earth-grounded genres of country and alt.country.  Even the album’s art work is far removed from home spun values.  It is a fascinating move and clearly a significant departure from Simpson’s first album which drew comparisons to the music of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard.  This album reinvigorates outlaw country with an intensity and youthful ear and an attitude to match.  This is both bold and brilliant – it has the power to breathe new and sustainable life into country music.  Key Tracks: “Turtles All The Way Down”, “The Promise” and “It Ain’t All Light”

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My favourite older albums that I have discovered during the year:

Chip Taylor & The New Ukranians – F**k All The Perfect People 2012

Junior Brown – Long Walk Home 1998

Darrell Scott – Theatre Of The Unheard 2003

Old 97’s – Too Far To Care 1997

Old and In The Way – Breakdown: Live Recordings 1973 Vol. II 1997

Seldom Scene – Live At The Cellar Door 1997

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol III 2002

Leftover Salmon – The Nashville Sessions 1999

Billy D and the Hoodoos – Somethin’s Wrong 2009

Sam Doores, Riley Downing & The Tumbleweeds – Holy Cross Blues 2012

(Thanks Sandra and Jim for the heads up on some of them)

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Author: Rob Dickens

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