2014 In Music (Part 3): Albums #5-1

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For Part 1 (Albums 15-11), click here.
For Part 2 (Albums 10-6), click here.

As I get to writing about my five favorite albums of 2014, I remember heard a lot of people say that 2014 was a “bad” year for music. The implication was that a lack of high-profile releases made it harder to gravitate around certain albums. The consensus was that their was no consensus.

That’s crazy to me. While I’m certainly hoping with the rest of the world that stars like Kanye West, Adele, Frank Ocean, and  Kendrick Lamar (one of these artists is not like the others) will drop their highly anticipated follow-ups this year, it was a total blessing that a mainstream album didn’t dominate the conversation this year. Most of the 30 albums on my 2014 list (which is printed in full at the bottom) came out of nowhere for me, and it gave me the chance to relisten to a lot of stuff that I normally wouldn’t have given a second chance to. Anyway, thanks for reading this retrospective, and I hope a few of these albums connect with you like they did with me. (Let me know if they did!)

Charlie Simpson

5. Charlie Simpson – Long Road Home

It’s all about his voice. Charlie Simpson makes folk music, but there’s a beautifully ethereal feel to the way he uses his vocals to create a fuller sound. Four, five, six parts weave together at a time, creating harmonies that are equal parts symphonic and anthemic. It’s evident in songs like “Haunted” and “Ten More Days”, which beg to be sung along to the rafters. Most of these tracks have acoustic fingerpicking, but they build into reverb-drenched rock songs. Propulsive, almost martial drums carry Long Road Home along like train rail as little moments escape like sparks—the heys on “Comets”, the punctuated refrain of “Still Young”, the dynamic shifts of “Would You Love Me Any Less”. They form a beautiful tornado of a record, whose heart is exposed every now and then with vague yet personal lyrics, pulled out from the reverb like a survivor of the wreckage.

Listen: “Haunted”, “Comets”

Ryan Adams Self-Titled

4. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams

It’s weird to think that Ryan Adams’ 14th studio album might be his best. His first two albums, Heartbreaker and Gold, have long been the standards by which every subsequent release has been (unfairly) judged, and he’s released hundreds of tracks in his ridiculously prolific career. It’s probably the highest compliment I can offer that since their September release, the 11 tracks on Ryan Adams are the only ones I’ve wanted to hear. Instant classic songs like the lonely lament “My Wrecking Ball” and the night-splitting “Kim” abound, creating an atmospheric rock sound that somehow synthesizes his Americana leanings and well-documented predilection for 80’s punk music into one concise package. I can only imagine the pressure you’re putting on yourself to self-title your 14th official album. He must have recognized something definitive in this batch, though, as it stands as his most urgent collection of music to date.

Listen: “Kim”, “My Wrecking Ball”

the hotelier - home, like no place is there

3. The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace Is There

There’s a saying that I’m probably misremembering that goes: “Getting joy out of life is all about redefining what a miracle means to you. A miracle is just the world showing you that it can still surprise you.” While I’ve always 100% believed that music is the best way to find solace in hard times, Home Like Noplace Is There reaffirmed that faith when I really needed it last year. Christian Holden’s voice might be a bit to outré for listeners who haven’t dabbled in emo music, somehow pulling you apart and putting you back together at the same time. But that’s the whole point: this is what catharsis sounds like. I’ve screamed with this music in my car at 3:30 in the morning, headbanged with it while driving full speed around an empty lake, cried with it while waiting for the bus. To borrow a phrase, it’s an album that sets my spirit free in a way that I’d forgotten was possible. That’s a miracle.

Listen: “Among The Wildflowers”, “Your Deep Rest”

And if you’re unlucky enough to not know the feelings I’m talking about, watch this.

damien rice - my favourite faded fantasy album cover

2. Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy

Simply put, I never thought I’d ever get to hear this record. Damien Rice’s 2003 debut is, to me, a modern classic—one of the most affecting records made during my lifetime. Its unabashedly emotional folks songs shaped the kind of songwriter I want to be, combining hooks and heart into a single, distinct voice that seemed ready to take over the world with smashes like “Cannonball” and “The Blower’s Daughter”.

And then he just stopped. Sure, there was 2006’s 9 (a b-sides record in all but name) and some scattered new songs played live at shows every year, but Damien Rice just kind of…left. Whatever the reason for his absence, as the years passed, it seemed unlikely that the world would ever be graced with new recorded music from one of its most gifted songwriters. At least that was the case until September 8th of last year, when out of the blue he released a teaser for his new album, the first real taste in nearly eight years.

My Favourite Faded Fantasy is everything I could have hoped for and more, a stunning work that pushes all of Rice’s best tendencies in new and expanded directions. Never afraid to write a long song, the ones here are drawn to epic lengths that confirm each as a fully formed idea in its own right (only one track comes in under the five-minute mark, and most push closer to six or eight). This is a great thing, because every song is perfect. Not perfect in a wow-they-sound-pristine-and-get-the-job-done way; perfect like there’s not a single possible way to improve on them, even with the weight of eight years of expectation. I can try to describe what works—how the title track arrangement sends you spiraling down a rabbit hole made of rainwater, how the ha dah dahs of “The Greatest Bastard” create a perfect songwriting payoff, how the chorus of “Trusty and True” throws you into the air and trusts you to land on your feet—but it wouldn’t be the same as just letting you listen to it for yourself. No, it wouldn’t be the same.

Listen: “The Greatest Bastard”, “Trusty And True”

HEAL-Strand Of Oaks

1. Strand Of Oaks – HEAL

I’m not sure what it is about Strand Of Oaks’ HEAL that so thoroughly captured me. (Real talk: I’ve had the prior fourteen albums here written for nearly a month.) It’s a difficult album to get a grasp on—I’ve given up trying to recommend a specific song as an entry point, because each piece of this truly does build to a greater whole. If I tell you to sample the electric kick-stomp of the opening single “Goshen ’97”, you’d get so caught up in the guitar riffage that you might miss how meditative the album is. You can came out of the careening hymn “Woke Up To The Light” thinking you’re in the middle of some kind of psychotic gospel collection. “For Me” would have you convinced that you’d found a repressing of some lost classic from the 80s. You’d be right about all of it, of course.

This is an uplifting record. That’s what I like about it. In a meager sentence of backstory to provide context: main songwriter Tim Showalter wrote HEAL to help himself out of a depressive state. The lyrics clearly reflect this to a degree that can be completely uncomfortable—intensely specific ruminations on overcoming loss, inertia, fear, and doubt.

The all-caps title indicates what to expect. Though there are some beautiful, almost transcendent synthscapes that give the album some ethereal leanings, this is ultimately a catharsis grounded firmly in distorted guitars. In Showalter’s world, you can’t just sing yourself past a situation; you have to drag yourself out of it. Nothing proves this better than album centerpiece “JM”, an ode to the fallen musician Jason Molina that sounds simultaneously apocalyptic and meditative—like a missive from the center of a harrowing wind. It’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, the kind of storm that you never want to leave once it hits.

2014 was a weird year for me. I got my first steady job, marked my first year living alone in an apartment, took another step in the series of random steps that make up a life. Yet with all of this forward progression, it also feels stagnant sometimes. This was the year when I could find solace in lines like most days I start where I begin. When I could only empathize with the thoughts I hate talking about money, I don’t wanna talk about luck, I hate thinking I’m not the same as I was. When I could drive 70 miles an hour down a dark highway in midsummer, roaring let me roll, let me go, I’m bound to lose control. 

Strand of Oaks put on one of the last concerts I saw in 2014. It was a homecoming show (though Showalter’s from Indiana, he’s been adopted as a native son of Philly). After an energetic, raucous set, Tim ended up in the crowd, hugging every individual member of the extended family that had come to celebrate his success with him. It was the kind of appreciative love that you have to fight to give and accept for yourself, an embodiment of everything HEAL stands for to me. When he got around to where I was standing, I grabbed him, thanked him, and told him it was hard to say how much this album means to me. I still feel that way, but at least while I’m figuring it out I have his sweet tunes to play.

Listen to the whole damn thing.

——————————————————

Thanks for reading, if you got this far. This end-of-year exercise has always been more for me, but I hope if you find a new record you like you’ll reach out and let me know.

Here is my full Top 30 list:

1. Strand of Oaks – HEAL
2. Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy
3. The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace Is There
4. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
5. Charlie Simpson – Long Road Home
6. Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties – We Don’t Have Each Other
7. Young & Sick – Young & Old
8. The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt
9. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
10. Taylor Swift – 1989
11. Augustana – Life Imitating Life
12. Coldplay – Ghost Stories
13. Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness – Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness
14. DJ Higgins – Subject To Change
15. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
16. Tinashe – Aquarius
17. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
18. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
19. Mr Twin Sister – Mr Twin Sister
20. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
21. Alt-J – This Is All Yours
22. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
23. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
24. Arrange – Their Bodies In A Fog
25. Say Anything – Hebrews
26. Future – Honest
27. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line
28. Miniature Tigers – Cruel Runnings
29. K. Flay – Life As A Dog
30. Antlers – Familiars

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