Brian Wise’s Best Of 2014
It seems that most of my choices for albums of the year have been prompted by seeing the musicians at a gig/festival or interviewing them. I suppose that means I have invested more time in the music and listened more carefully. This time there has been a definite Americana flavour to the choices, also reflecting the festivals that I have been lucky enough to attend. I hope you find some choices you like amongst my favourites of 2014 and, like me, make a few discoveries.
1.Lucinda Williams – Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone (Thirty Tigers)
One of Lucinda’s most impressive albums to date. Great playing, great guests and, most importantly, a double album full of great songs (some of the best of her career). The show at the City Winery in Nashvile to close Americana was brilliant.
2.The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian)
An intriguing mix of influences, at once contemporary yet echoing sounds from the 70s and 80s, as if some of our favourite commercial bands of that era formed a supergroup.
3. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams (Blue Note)
A fine effort and return to form for the writer who even inspired Elton John. Includes one of the break up songs of the year in ‘Kim’ and not surprisingly he produces the other one (see Jenny Lewis). Great show at Hardly Strictly confirmed his talent.
4. Tarpaper Sky – Rodney Crowell (New West)
One of the great country songwriters of all time continues to write great songs. This is like a masterclass with hardly a word wasted or out of place. The return of old buddy Steuart Smith on guitar is welcome.
5.Tinariwen – Emmaar (ANTI)
One of the world’s best best blues bands comes not from Mississippi but Mali. What came first? Does it matter? Mesmerising.
6.C.W. Stoneking – Gon’ Boogaloo (King Hokum/Caroline)
Speaking of origins, if Sun Ra came from Saturn I am not exactly sure where CW came from: somewhere between Mississippi and Jupiter maybe. Lo fi recordings with tinges of the 1920s and 30s thrown in. Maybe the most distinctive Australian ‘roots’ act this year, or most other years.
7.Jolie Holland Wine Dark Sea (ANTI)
Hanging out with Marc Ribot and Colin Stetson in the past has obviously had a profound influence on this avant-rock album. Some wild sax solos make this compelling. Plus she was the most fun to interview of anyone I spoke to in 2014.
8.Robert Plant – Lullaby & The Ceaseless Roar The Sensational Spaceshifters (Nonesuch)
Allegedly knocked back more than US$100 million for a Led Zep reunion to make albums that will never even sell one tenth of his old band but which help to keep Plant interesting and vital. He even manages to reinvent the old Zep songs in concert.
9.Jenny Lewis – The Voyager (Warner Brothers)
Produced by Ryan Adams this contains the other Break Up Song Of The Year in ‘She’s Not Me.’ I hadn’t paid much attention until I saw the album in Austin’s Waterloo Records and then saw her do a terrific show at ACL. Quirky but great pop rock.
10.Robert Ellis The Lights From The Chemical Plant (New West)
Along with Sturgill Simpson he is one of the new stars of ‘real country. The four hour show at the Americana Festival had everyone talking. Extra points for seeing him perform Richard Thompson’s ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ at Trans Pecos in Marfa, Texas and ‘Wall Of Death’ at Hardly Strictly.
ANOTHER TEN OR SO
11. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread (Blue Note)
Like Rodney Crowell and Emmylou this veteran songwriter still produces the goods.
Meshell Ndgeocello – Comet Come To Me (Naiive)
Performed a stunning version of Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ under a full moon in Marfa.
12. Joe Henry – Invisible Hour (ANTI)
Toured Australia with his son Levon (on reeds), who also appears on this album, and was impeccable, just like this album. The Menniyan show was brilliant.
13. Hurray For The Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes (ATO)
A couple of acts from New Orleans impressed this year – but they were not from the usual musical streams of funk, jazz, R&B (or even rap) that emanate from that city.
I saw HFTRR three times in 2014 – at home in New Orleans, at San Fran’s Hardly Strictly where the audience loved them and here at the Meeniyan Town Hall, all of which confirmed the huge talent of their ostensible leader Alynda Lee Segarra.
Benjamin Booker – Benjamin Booker (ATO)
When I saw the New Orleans-based musician at The Continental in Austin it was as if Jimi Hendrix had joined the Sex Pistols for a one hour power-packed set. Lots of rough edges but I hope they do not knock them off him.
14. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (High Top Mountain)
The sensation of the Americana Music Festival, everyone was talking about him and wanted to see him. Sounds like a young Merle Haggard. He lives up to the hype – so far.
15. Bill Frisell – Guitar In The Space Age (Okeh)
Frisell explores guitar-based music from the 1950s and 1960s that first inspired him to pick up the instrument: Pete Seeger, The Byrds, Junior Wells, Dick Dale, The Ventures, The Astronauts, Chet Atkins, Merle Travis et al. Greg Leisz on lap and pedal steel is special guest.
16. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye (Reprise)
The sound might be familiar but Petty and his collaborators take many of the songs in interesting directions. One of the better ‘rock’ albums of the year, I reckon.
Jackson Browne – Standing In The Breach (Inside Recordings)
One of Browne’s strongest efforts in recent decades that proves he still has something to say. Also celebrating the 40th anniversary of the classic ‘Late For The Sky’ he now only looks slightly older!
17. Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems (Columbia)
The sexiest 80-year-old on the planet (so I am told) smoothly ‘croons’ his way through another batch of originals with lyrics that are often playful but rarely facile.
Jerry Lee Lewis – Rock and Roll Time
Proving that Leonard is not the only bloke with enough energy to make a good album. Seeing Jerry Lee in New York was a thrill.
18. Shovels & Rope Swimmin’ Time (Dualtone)
One of the standout acts at the Old Settler’s Festival in Austin, Texas, in April the duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are able to create an excitement – and sound – unlike few of their peers. Good to see them here soon.
Two of the other outstanding acts at Old Settler’s were Lake Street Dive (also coming to Australia), whose album Bad Self Portraits (Signature Sounds) is impressive, and St Paul & The Broken Bones who were a knockout with a charismatic lead singer in Paul Janeway. They also wowed them at San Francisco’s hardly Strictly, where the audience went nuts. Their album Half The City (Single Lock) was great start to what looks like a promising career.
Hard Working Americans led by the eccentric Todd Snider is an eclectic group of musicians – including Neal Casal, who was not with them when they appeared at the Americana Awards. The debut – Hard Working Americans (Melvin) – was solid and the new live album (due out in Australia soon) even moreso.
Two of the acts I missed were The Delines (Colfax) – who appeared at the inaugural Out On The Weekend festival, which seems to have a great future –
and The Mastersons (Good Luck Charm on New West) who toured with Steve Earle and did some side gigs. Lesson: stay home more often because their albums are fine.
The Old Crow Medicine Show seemed to fly under the radar with Remedy (ATO), though it did hit the Top 20 in the US and included another Dylan song in ‘Sweet Amarillo.’
19. Black Sorrows – Certified Blue (Head)
In a solid year for Australian music, Joe Camilleri just keeps keeping on, making great music and writing great songs with his collaborator Nick Smith.
Rob Snarski – Wounded Bird (Teardrop)
Rightful winner of the Off The Record Listeners’ poll for 2014.
Halfway – Any Old Love (Halfway)
The Audreys – ‘Till The Tears Roll Away (Universal)
Mia Dyson – Idyllwild (Back Door)
Liz Stringer – Live At The Yarra (Liz Stringer)
Charles Jenkins – Too Much Water In The Boat (Silver Star)
Three Kings – Three Kings (TK)
Chris Wilson – Live At Cherry (Forge)
Tracy McNeil – Nobody Ever Leaves (Vitamin)
Wagons – Acid Rain & Sugar Cane (Universal)
Chelsea Drugstore – You are Golden
20. Chuck Prophet – Night Surfer (Yep Roc)
Chuck put on one of the gigs of the year at the Boom Boom Room during the Hardly Strictly weekend. He might have been playing to several hundred but he acted like it was several hundred thousand. That’s rock ‘n’ roll.
– Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin – Play & Sing The Songs Of Big Bil Broonzy: Common Ground (Yep Roc)
Played superbly together at Hardly Strictly on a tour that saw them reunited for the first time in decades.
– Luther Dickinson – Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues (New West)
One of the keepers of the modern blues flame, if Dickinson had got a tenth of the PR that the Black Keys did for Turn Blue this would have been a monster too.
Bob Dylan & The Band – The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol.11 (Columbia)
Michael Bloomfield: From His Head, To His Heart, To His Hands (Columbia)
Various -0 (When The Sun Sets Over) Carlton (Warner Music)
BEST LOCAL CONCERT
Bob Dylan, Palais Theatre, Melbourne
Bruce Springsteen, Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne
Rolling Stones, Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne
Joe Henry, Meeniyan Town Hall
Hurray For The Riff Raff – Meeniyan Town Hall
The Replacements @ ACL Festival (October 14)
Jerry Lee Lewis @ BB King’s, New York (October 24)
Lucinda Williams @ City Winery, Nashville (September 21)
Ryan Adams @ Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival (October 4)
Americana Awards Ceremony @ Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN (September 17)
St Paul & The Broken Bones @ Old Settler’s Festival
Sturgill Simpson @ Americana Music Festival
1. A Man Called Destruction: The Life And Music Of Alex Chilton – Holly George Warren (Viking)
2. Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul Of Bert Berns & The Dirty Business Of Rhythm & Blues – Joel Selvin (Counterpoint)
3. Cowboys & Indies: The Epic History Of The Record Industry – Gareth Murphy (Thomas Dunne Books)
4. Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story – Rick Bragg (Harper)
6. The Dylanologists – David Kinney (Simon & Schuster)
7. The Original Guitar Hero & The Power Of Music: The Legendary Lonnie Johnson, Music & Civil Rights – Dean Alger (University of Texas Press)
8. There Goes Gravity – Lisa Robinson (Riverhead)
9. Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys – Viv Albertine (Faber)
10. Sound Man – Glyn Johns (Blue Rider Press)
True Love Scars – Michael Goldberg (Neumu Press)
10:04 – Ben Lerner (Faber & Faber)
The Zone of Interest – Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape)
The Free – Willy Vlautin (Harper)
So, Anyway….. – John Cleese (Random House)
Flash Boys – Michael Lewis (W.W.Norton & Co.)
Playing To Win: The Inside Story of Hawthorn’s Journey To An 11th Premiership – Michael Gordon (Slattery Media Group)
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution – Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster)
The Oxford American: The Music Issue 2014 (Out Now)
BEST MUSIC FILM
Don’t Throw Stones: Stephen Cummings
It is rare that music docos rise above being puff pieces of PR these days but this was terrific. Not only did we get to hear Cummings side of the story but his fellow musicians also got to tell their versions – and it was not always flattering. Cummings also released Nothing To Be Frightened Of (Head) despite the fact that he said he had given up making albums!
Boyhood (Richard Linlater)
BEST TV SERIES
True Detective (HBO)
Starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey this existential thriller was compelling. Line of the year from McConnaughey’s character Rust Cohle: ‘The earth is a gutter floating through space.’
NPR and BBC – what would I do without them when I travel.