As I have reviewed the year in records I am convinced that it has been one of the best years for music in quite a long time. My #40-11 are bunged with top 10 records on any other year. My jury has struggled with decisions and I am sure I could shift about the numbers on any particular day. There are a few albums I am getting to late that might, with another week, make it in there!
My Number 1 is always an album that has subjectively touched me in heart, soul and mind as well as being an album that is artistically brilliant and consistent throughout. I rarely go for the obvious... and so again!
10. GENTRY MORRIS - THE NEXT GREAT GHOST TOWN
I wrote: “The songs are seamless and pour forth with consummate ease. They are immediate, almost familiar, and he has quite the voice to carry melodies and words that are as sweet as the proverbial nut. The first two tracks here come across like Pernice Brothers classics, strong shimmering guitars. Those electric guitar throw shine and shade throughout. For me it is the melancholic yearning beauty of songs like Waste Your Life, Fall Again or, my song of the summer, Slow Decline that has you asking why on earth Nashville aren’t placing these songs across the industry.”
9. NATALIE MERCHANT
I wrote: “For the sonic delivery Merchant has not deconstructed the electric pop band template of her 10,000 Maniac days but she has over the years widened the palate and now throws in classical string moods (Ladybird and Giving Up Everything), smokey jazz shades (Black Sheep) and even successfully pulls off Gospel with a soul filled vocal duel with Corniss Stafford (Go Down Moses). It is all as tasteful as anything you might ever hear, with Merchant’s voice never more confident, assured and expressive in exactly the ways she now knows how to use it.”
8. THE WAR ON DRUGS - LOST IN THE DREAM
High up in most of the music press top 10 of the year, I came to this one late on in the year but it’s dreamy hypnotic beauty finally snuck through. Critics have name checked Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac and Dire Straits. They are all in the mix but the final sound is hazy, lazy and nothing like either.
7. TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS - HYPNOTIC EYE
I wrote: “It is sleeker and more popped up rock than the previous bluesy Mojo or indeed pretty much anything since Petty hooked up with his fellow Travelling Wilbury Jeff Lynne in 1989. This really is back to the Heartbreaker sound of the seventies, indeed U Get Me High could be an outtake from that very record, all Mike Campbell’s full on beautiful onslaught. Hypnotic Eye has memorable hooks in maybe more abundance than any Petty album but as my list of lyrics at the top of this review reveal the choruses carry a depth of spiritual, social and politic critique that penetrates the soul as much as the ears. Think Damn The Torpedoes with forty years more wisdom and knowledge of craft!”
6. DEACON BLUE - A NEW HOUSE
I wrote: “The excitement of possibility” is a phrase from a recent Ricky Ross interview. He is speaking about A New House, Deacon Blue’s seventh album, and these words are made flesh in a collection of songs that buzz with life and hope and rebirth… A New House is all about creating an inspirational hope for what could be. New beginnings, a new house, a new land, dreaming, believing and winning bombards the listener with positivity. Not that the former things are ignored. It is the happy memory of a new house in childhood that fires future newness. There are heartbreaking memories too which are reconciled so that life can move on.”
5. THE NEW BASEMENT TAPES - LOST ON THE RIVER
Bringing Marcus Mumford, Elvis Costello, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith and Rhiannon Giddens all into a studio to work together is amazing in itself. Add the amazing T-Bone Burnette as producer makes it even better. After that throw them lyrics that Bob Dylan wrote in Woodstock. Come on! This was the dream ticket of 2014 and it didn’t disappoint!
4. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - HIGH HOPES
I wrote: “Ghost Of Tom Joad? Utterly extraordinary. Most songs get a rework that goes from band arrangement to unplugged. Tom Joad gets the reverse and I will say it again – extraordinary. It has the rustic Guthrie influences beginning before heading into Dylan circa Highway 61 territory and heads out on a highway that has never sounded more alive, adding to Springsteen’s own guitar wizardry with a blend of Rage Against the Machine, U2 and Lynyrd Skynyrd! One of Springsteen’s finest moments!
It is the work of a man heading towards the twilight, working hard and thinking clearly about the legacy he wants to leave. These are songs that needed heard. They are not just thrown together but though recorded over a long period of time are collected in a way that makes them whole. Harry’s Place broods with menace. Springsteen has said that it was written for George W Bush! Down In The Hole gives you the feel of weary toil. The Wall is full Streets Of Philadelphia poignant sadness. Heaven’s Wall and This Is Your Sword are more celebratory Boss with the latter giving another Pogues’ knees up to add to American Land! Hunter Of Invisible Game is a ballad with depth and poetic delight!”
3. OVER THE RHINE - BLOOD ORANGES IN THE SNOW
Over The Rhine. In my Top 3 for the third year out of four... and with a Christmas record. "love is touching souls, surely they touch mine!"
I wrote: “These particular songs are suffused with a melancholy that peels back the sentimentality of Christmas that even Christmas carols have yielded to the temptation of. In these songs people lose parents, are struggling with drink and homelessness. There is a world at war in the very place the Christ child was born to bring peace. These are songs that expose the sadness and weariness of a world on the brink of hopelessness.
Yet, there is hope being marinated through the whole batch. Grace’s baby; old hymns around the fire; sparkling rumours of redemption at play; faint Christmas bells; confidence and grace; a hope for all mankind; biblical verse in neon above the trash; bright future in a checkered past.
2. U2 - SONGS OF INNOCENCE
Two hours after it was downloaded into our iTune account I wrote: “Headphones on. Press play! Eleven songs later and I am exhausted by the music, the emotion, the spiritual gems. U2 have blown me away all over again; when I expected it least. We will be getting our heads around album of the year being released free in an age when record companies need a big seller for some time. Let’s reflect on that later. Let us ask our first questions of the songs.
Though not a concept album on Bono’s childhood there are a lot of songs that go back. The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) is conversion to the power of music and U2’s life’s pilgrimage begins. Raised By Wolves is about a Friday in Dublin city when loyalist paramilitaries blew the city centre and 33 people apart. Bono only missed it by having taken the bike and not the bus that day. Cedarwood Road is about the power of friendship on the street Bono grew up on. Most powerful of all is Iris (Hold Me Close) about Bono’s mum who died when he was 14. It is an emotional pummelling - “the ache in my heart is so much a part of who I am.”
On first listen it would seem to me that that emotional heartache is a key to why the album hits. This is Bono at his most personal. These are not objective songs about creeds, political opinions or thoughts on love. This is Bono’s heart and soul right out there on his sleeve. Which might explain the voice. When has Bono ever sounded as good as this.”
1. STEVE TAYLOR & THE PERFECT FOIL - GOLIATH
The jury has been out for about a week, wrestling with Over The Rhine, U2 and this one. This utter gem of a rock n roll giant (“no pun intended” - nor that one!) came out of nowhere and I couldn’t believe it was as awesomely brilliant as I kept thinking it was. It just is the rock album, literate album, socially and spiritually observant album and utterly hilarious album of 2014. Subtlety with a rock thud!
I wrote: “It rocks as well as anything has rocked this year. It would seem that the Perfect Foil is not just for wrapping but that all three are contributing at the heart. Furler writes melodies as well as great drum rhythms, Painter is one of the most versatile and imaginative players and Abegg can strum, riff and finger dance. All of that is in evidence throughout. There is a bass groove that thuds most sweetly and guitar licks that sprinkle like shards of brightest light.
On top of all of that Taylor’s lyrics are so poetic, prophetic, provocative, downright clever and so darn humorous that you can’t take your ears off it. English theologian John Stott spoke of “double listening”. No one does it better than Taylor. He is listening acutely to the soul numbing dangers of the world around him and how the culture bends and breaks us. He has also a sharp Biblical ear, that cuts through the shallow thinking and cheap cliche of most evangelical Christianity, and applies the Word to the world with sensitive grace but courageous truth. He brings Stott’s double listening together in the studio to create songs that everybody needs to listen to.
The listener will feel a strength to fight a variety of empty enemies in a modern world of entertainment, celebrity and moulding us into its image. With many a depth charge some of them humorous (the high 5 in Goliath is beautifully done and the puns in Comedian are genius) we will be engaged artistically, spiritually and rebelliously. It is deftly subtle and tenaciously tough. Whatever your Goliath this will help! A Life Preserved might be a summary:
“Calling me out of the shallows of my world
Called to something graceful, something true
Gratitude's too cheap a word for all you've reassembled
From a spirit broken and unnerved
A life preserved.”