Apologies for the long delay in writing. There has been a lot of pop culture news that I considered writing about — new seasons of TV shows, film releases (though, honestly, I haven’t seen anything in a while), lots of new music. But I wasn’t feeling inspired. Part of that is because my academic plans this year fell through. I’m not teaching as I expected and, since I submitted my dissertation, haven’t done much academic work, leading to my lack of inspiration.
All that changed when I read this ridiculous Rolling Stone article, at which point I felt my thoughts on the best albums of the year became important. I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, but no way was High Hopes the second best album of the year. Hell, it’s not even Springsteen’s second best album in the past five years. Don’t even get me started on their top choice…
As much as I’d like to listen to every new album released, I just don’t have the time, so this list is culled from what I’ve actually heard. There’s probably some albums I should have listened to but never got around to doing, and some that I like more than other critics. I am a product of my own musical preferences, that’s for sure. There was quite a bit of good music this year (particularly country), so narrowing down to ten was actually a bit tough. I don’t have a clear favourite this year, so these are presented in no particular order.
Jenny Lewis — The Voyager
The indie-rock maven and former lead singer of Rilo Kiley returns with her first solo album in six years. Fueled by a two-year bout of insomnia, the album tells tales both personal, ‘Just One of the Guys’, about aging and being a childless woman, and metaphorical, ‘Aloha & the Three Johns’. With contributions from First Aid Kit and Beck, as well as production from Ryan Adams (who also released an album of strong material this year after his own long hiatus), the album ranges from surf-inspired jams to New Wave sounds. An excellent addition to Lewis’ already stellar records.
Old Crow Medicine Show — Remedy
The Virginia-based old-timey band turns in their strongest album since 2006’s Big Iron World. The songs are catchy, soulful, exuberant and vibrant. The album sounds like it could trace its way through the sounds of American history. Due to the band’s superb musicianship and boundless enthusiasm, the raunchy ‘Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer’ and breakneck pace of ‘8 Dogs 8 Banjos’ somehow manage to sound at home next to the to lamentations for dead soldiers and friends (both ‘Dearly Departed Friend’ and ‘Brave Boys’). A decade after the band turned a Bob Dylan sketch, ‘Wagon Wheel’, into a hit, they again collaborated with him on the new tune ‘Sweet Amarillo’. It sounds just as in place as their previous pairing.
Eric Church — The Outsiders
Like most country artists, this new country outlaw draws inspiration from every day life and the music around him. But unlike traditionalists, his influences range from the rock power-chords of Nirvana and the Clash to rap, which all show through in the Chief’s fourth full-length album. Church is by turns both melancholy and menacing, but also soulful and pop friendly. The contrasts of the album wouldn’t fit on almost any other country-rocker, but Church plays the hometown outlaw card so well it all adds to the mystique. You can tell Church loves his wife, NASCAR, beer, rock ‘n’ roll and his hometown. He’s not quite the outsider he pretends to be; just another good ol’ boy.
If you didn’t know this deep-voiced bluesy belter was a 21-year-old Bristol-based kid, you would swear he were a wizened old Southern soul, because, as the common phrase says, he has a ‘voice beyond his years’. Catchy tunes mix with weary-eyed wanderings to make this one of the best albums of the year. He’s a new musician to watch, with his debut album having already reached number 1 in the UK charts. His infectious wailing on songs like ‘Blame It On Me’ and ‘Cassy O’ belies a darker tone; ‘Lucifer’s inside’, he warns in ‘Did You Hear the Rain?’.
The Pennsylvania-born raspy-voiced rocker delivers another soulful blend of brooding and hope in his latest outing. As the official bio for the record reads, it is an album that is a ‘growling missive in the modern wilderness, a defiant howl against complacency, despair and greed’. Furthermore, all the proceeds from the first single, ‘An Anthem For the Broken’, went to help his friend John Anderson fight ALS. The live recording, with minimal overdubs, can be felt in the energy and passion involved. With contributions from, among others, Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon on guitars, the album is drenched with a sonic ambiance that demands playing loud.
In addition to helping his friend (and tour partner) Matthew Ryan record an album, Brian Fallon was busy with his own stellar collection of material. The new work reflected a career-shift of sorts for the band, in part inspired by Fallon’s divorce. The New Jersey-based rockers turned to Nashville for its new sound, with a few country touches mutely included in the overall sound. Though it doesn’t quite have quite the anthemic songs like ’59 Sound’ or ‘Handwritten’, it still delivers passion and a solid bunch of music.
Fun, loss, drinking, introspection; just some of the words that describe songs from Bentley’s seventh album. A mishmash of themes fill the collection, from wondering why all the ‘Bourbon in Kentucky’ can’t make him forget, so he takes a solo honeymoon and gets ‘Drunk On A Plane’ to remembrances of the trips he and his dad took in an old beat up truck. He also has fun in back porch parties with ‘good ol’ boys pickin’ six strings’. It’s not quite the ‘bro-country’ that tended to dominate the genre this year, though there are touches of the style tinged throughout. Bentley has grown as a musician since his early records, and this album shows his maturity and growth.
No one expects a 23 year-old to name-check, let alone write a song about, French symbolic poet Paul Verlaine (oddly, Eric Church also invoked him in a poem he recites on his album), but Lydia Loveless does so twice on her third album. With its songs inspired by feelings of love (‘Chris Isaak’), lust (‘Head’), anger and pain (‘Verlaine Shot Rimbaud’), Loveless shows her writing chops have only improved with each passing record. The depth and complexity of alt-country continues to show the genre has not yet reached its heights, with Loveless helping to lead the charge.
The final member of the critically acclaimed country group Pistol Annies to release an album, Angaleena Presley shows that the trio (whose members also include Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe) is indeed a supergroup in the best sense. In her debut, Presley paints tales of truth of the American Middle Class. It deals with everyday problems in a new way, detailing the dangers of prescription drug abuse (in both ‘Pain Pills’ and ‘Dry County Blues’) as well as longing and regret (‘Grocery Store’, ‘Better Off Red’). Whilst the themes are well tread in country, Presley’s honest take removes the clichés.
Her first album of original material in nine years, Cantrell delivers a beautiful one. The New York-based sometimes DJ sings songs that are deceptively deep, not just pretty. It’s a personal album but not-quite autobiographical, deep and textured but filled with lovely sounds. Indeed, as the opening track suggests ‘All the Girls Are Complicated’, a sentiment that rings true throughout the album. With songs that mix tempo, from hymnal to country ballad to almost flat-out rock, the music is interesting enough to keep the listener satisfied and coming back for more; perhaps enough to catch many of the deeper truths casual listeners won’t notice at first glance.
I’m a huge Wilco fan. Their lead singer, Jeff Tweedy, released a ‘solo’ album, created along with his drummer son, Spencer, entitled Sukierae. Its twenty tracks, spread over two discs, is laconic, menacing, jazzy, avant-garde, precious and precocious. Rolling Stone described the album as ‘psychedelic folk’, as apt as any title. It takes a different path than would a ‘normal’ Wilco record (whatever that means from a band that constantly reinvents its sound), further proving that Tweedy is one of the best (and most under-appreciated) writers of his era.
Speaking of Wilco, they’ve now been around for an amazing twenty years. Though there were numerous personnel changes over the first ten years, for the past decade the band has had a solid lineup. In response to two decades together, they released both a ‘greatest hits’ double album, What’s Your 20, (though many tracks that weren’t included would be contested amongst Wilco enthusiasts) as well as a four-disc ‘alternative history’ of the band, as seen through demos, alternate versions, B-sides and live tracks, this Alpha Mike Foxtrot. Though almost everything on the compilation has been released on something (and I actually have almost all of it on various discs), this one collection is a boon nonetheless. It includes a rich 64-page set of liner notes detailing every song by Tweedy, with notes from band members and extended professional family. Since it’s not, strictly speaking, new material, I didn’t include it in my ‘best of’ list, though I will certainly enjoy it nonetheless.
Also not technically a new album, this infectious soundtrack is still part of the honourable mentions because it’s so darn good. As great as the movie was, it would have suffered without the fantastic mix of songs presented here. I’m very much looking forward to what will be included in the Awesome Mix, Vol. 2 in the next installment of the movie.
Walk the Moon — ‘Shut Up + Dance’
It’s not an album, but this song has got to be one of the catchiest tunes of the year. I just can’t seem to get it out of my head. The video is a lot of fun, too. Enjoy.