@Doc’s Best CDs of 2014

Jeffrey Dean Foster2014 was, in short, a remarkable year for music. Some hipster wanker pub recently lamented that there just wasn’t a great disc this year, and all I can do is hope that somebody forwards them this list, because they damned sure missed some things.

Let’s start with my co-CDs of the Year.

Jeffrey Dean Foster – The Arrow

You know that Desert Island List challenge? You’re stranded on a desert island and can only have 10 CDs to last the rest of of your life. What do you take?

How the hell do I narrow down the hundreds of albums that I can’t live without to just 10? I don’t know, but I can say, with absolute certainty, that Jeffrey Dean Foster’s 2005 CD of the Year release, Million Star Hotel, is on it. I’ve had to wait nine damned years for The Arrow, and now the debate shifts to whether or not a desert Island List can feature two CDs from the same artist.

True to his roots, Foster sprinkles this collection with bits and snatches of sounds that recall the luminaries he grew up with – a little Eagles here, some Fleetwood Mac there, and his voice inevitably reminds you of Neil Young, especially on tracks like “The Lucky One,” plus there’s a dab of that David Lindley lap steel sound at the tail end of “When You Break.” I swear he’s vamping on late ’70s Rod Stewart in “Open Book” and hey wait a sec, that’s the Uptown Horns on “Life is Sweet.” No, I mean the actual Uptown Horns.

The wonderful thing, though, is how deftly The Arrow calls these moments to mind without seeming remotely self-conscious (which is what happens, nine times out of 10, in the hands of a less assured performer). Foster’s secret is the same one that propelled the great artists on the radio as he was growing up – he’s just a remarkable songwriter. As a lyricist he slides inside his characters and stories with such an organic grace that the writerly hand is all but invisible. And the tunes themselves are deceptively hooky – several times since I first got my hands on the CD a few months ago I’ve awakened with one of these songs in my head and had it following me around all day, even when I hadn’t listened to the disc in awhile.

Finally, there’s the apparent effortlessness of the production. If you listen closely there’s quite a lot going on technically, but never does an instrument or arrangement decision call undue attention to itself. Everything goes in service to the song, and in this it’s hard to overstate the influence of Foster’s friends and long-time collaborators Don Dixon and Mitch Easter. (Yes, that Mitch Easter, and yes, that Don Dixon.) Each plays on the CD and brings to the production team a no-ego, reverential commitment to finding what the song wants to be.

In the final analysis, Jeffrey Dean Foster holds himself to a ridiculously high standard on The Arrow. He has little choice. Million Star Hotel was one of the best CDs I have ever encountered and Above Ground and Vertical, his previous release with The Pinetops, stands shoulder to shoulder with it.

Whether you’re a longtime fan of Foster’s music (any Right Profile fans in the house?) or this is your first encounter with his tuneful, melancholy genius, The Arrow catches you from the first chord and keeps rewarding return visits, ten, fifty, a hundred spins later.

Snake Rattle Rattle Snake – Totem

SRRS dropped this murky, pulsating masterpiece late in the year, and for those of us compelled by the lush, primal beauty lurking in the darkness, their winter-is-coming timing couldn’t have been more apt.

Those who invoke Post-Punk, and in particular Joy Division, in describing the band’s sound make an apt point, but perhaps they don’t dive deep enough. Totem wanders through an ’80s-inflected synth wonderland that’s decidedly more atmospheric and consistently prettier than the sharper edges of JD’s minimalist guitarscapes. There’s much to like in how Marquee Mag frames it:

“Haunting” is an over-used descriptive, and should henceforth only be used to refer to Snake Rattle Rattle Snake’s latest album Totem. More specifically, it’s front woman Hayley Helmericks’ voice that is the dark, melodic and evocative centerpiece of the Denver group’s sophomore release. Helmerick’s voice and for that matter the whole album is somewhat uni-dimensional — there aren’t any swelling climaxes or breakdowns, but that steady pulse of eighties-inspired, synth-heavy drone gives Totem a deeply meditative feel. That doesn’t mean however that the album doesn’t have depth — the rich compositions are layered and full and manage to pack heaps of atmospheric tones that are continually shifting and changing —even if it’s not quite a roller coaster ride. Totem showcases a grace and beauty for Snake Rattle Rattle Snake as the group slithers through nine songs of intoxicating rhythms. It may have taken them three years to release their sophomore effort, but it was worth the wait.

One complaint I have with much of what I see written about Totem is the developing consensus relating to judgments like “there aren’t any swelling climaxes.” Tonally, this is absolutely true. But don’t let it lull you into thinking there aren’t high spots. While there are no throwaway moments here, there are emotional crescendos that are positively breathtaking – give “The Breath and the Glow” a few spins, for example.

Totem is utterly spectacular in just about every way I can imagine. Surely the band knows what they have accomplished here, and if they’re at all like me they’re already trying to figure out how the hell to top it next time out.

Platinum CDs From 2014

St. Paul & the Broken BonesHalf the City

Sweet hell. There are years when this is my top CD and it ain’t close.

It’s no secret that I loves me some neo-Soul, and one of the best presents I got in 2014 was the arrival on the public stage of this doughy white kid from Alabama who was going to be a preacher and then he was going to be an accountant until his friends talked some sense into him. Some of these performances just leave me gasping for air. With luck, 2015 will be the year I get to see them live.

The Raveonettes – Pe’ahi

I have argued that within a certain set of criteria, including consistent excellence over a certain number of CDs in a certain time frame, that The Raveonettes have been the best band in the world in the past decade or so. 2014 did nothing but strengthen my argument.

Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo have always had a wicked streak, evidenced by a willingness to approach very dark subject matter with deceptively perky songs, and there’s nothing I admire quite like a black sense of humor and a fondness for irony. Pe’ahi, though, has a little extra edge about it, as Wagner tackles a brush with death, painful family issues, betrayal and then some. The mean streak is there, but there’s less of that undercurrent of lightness that I’m accustomed to.

The disc also finds the band breaking some new ground with their musical approach – instrumentation, production techniques and the like – and the result is fresh and forward-looking in ways that make me think their next disc is going to strengthen my argument even more.

The Blueflowers – At the Edge of Disaster

Honestly, I didn’t think The Blueflowers would ever do anything I loved more than 2011’s In Line With the Broken-Hearted, but they’ve gone and proven me wrong. Tony Hamera’s songwriting is more seductive than ever and Kate Hinote’s vocal performances are just bigger than life.

I hear songs like “I Can’t Let Go” and find myself thinking this is what Patsy Cline would be doing were she alive today. Hamera’s ringing, jangly guitars call to mind everything from Duane Eddy to Peter Buck, and the trippy title track that leads off the CD has this sultry neo-Spaghetti Western vibe – not only does [David] Lynch need The Blueflowers in the new [Twin Peaks] series, he needs to keep them in mind should he ever decide to reboot The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

I can’t say enough about Hinote’s work here. She’s been a riveting presence on everything the band has done, but on At the Edge of Disaster she pushes the noir chanteuse persona to 11. Her voice is pure velvet, a soft blue light infusing the smoky stage of every ’40 detective movie ever made. I hate to gush, folks, but she’s really that damned good.

Twangy, torchy, like the soiled dove at the end of the bar who’s forgotten how to cry, At the Edge of Disaster evokes a … well, Michael Ross at the MetroTimes does a far better job than I ever have at articulating a sound that has always hit my gut instead of my brain.

…with age, those flowers have hardened into something a little drier, a little darker (ahem, bluer), and this new darkness fits the country-noir atmosphere of At the Edge of Disaster like a glove.

On songs like “Grey Matter,” lead singer Kate Hinote’s vocals ring out with a clarity devoid of optimism — and that’s a good thing. You might imagine this song playing as you walk into some bordertown bar deep in the Texas desert, a few sad souls with even sadder backstories nursing their sweating beers.

“A Little Is Too Much” is another open-plains weeper; this is country music far from the polish of Nashville, with the emphasis on the “Western” segment of the phrase.

We could go on with the superlatives, mentioning the Phil Spector-ish teen-symphony heartbreak pop of “Everywhere,” or the dreamy narcotic ballad “In the Way,” and the mastery of feel and tone of everyone in the band — but really we suggest you find out for yourself, because this is a great record. The Blueflowers claim that they’re aiming for the heart — “not to warm it, but to break it.” They hit the mark with this release. The inclusion of Patsy Cline’s “Strange” is a fitting endcap to this set of songs, most of which are its equal. The tribute serves to draw a direct line from this record to that great, tragic singer — forever beautiful, forever heartbroken.

I continue to marvel that a sound this steeped in Spaghetti Western romanticism comes from Detroit, of all places, but I’ll take a CD this wonderful wherever I can find it.

Dum Dum Girls – Too True

If you listen closely, it won’t be hard to discern an aural theme running through my list this year. There’s a backward-looking guitar, shaped by the ’50s and ’60s, maybe a little Duane Eddy, maybe a little surf, maybe a little Ennio Morricone, and stacked on top of this is a vocal – usually female – that might call to mind anyone from Patsy Cline to Dusty Springfield.

Dum Dum Girls have been one of my favorites in recent years, and they’re one of the preeminent practitioners of this sound. Cross Chrissie Hynde with The Ronettes and you’re not too far from Dee Dee Penny and Co. Add to the mix a knack for songwriting that references those historical moments without descending into revivalism and you have something that bridges a 50-year span in a way that’s wholly contemporary.

And by the way, those opening bars of “Rimbaud Eyes” remind me of “Behind the Wall of Sleep” by The Smithereens. What were those lines again? Ah, yes:

She had hair like Jeannie Shrimpton, back in 1965.
She had legs that never ended,
I was halfway paralyzed.
She was tall and cool and pretty,
And she dressed as black as coal.
If she’d ask me to I’d murder,
I would gladly lose my soul!

Or maybe I’m imagining things.

The Lost Patrol – Chasing Shadows

If I listen long enough, the law of averages says that eventually I’m going to hear something from The Lost Patrol that I don’t just love. So far, though, it hasn’t happened. Bands like TLP are a big part of the reason why I abandoned the pretense that I was doing reviews. At some point I had to admit that I wasn’t able to be “objective” about bands that I liked so much, and really I didn’t want to be. It’s more fun sometimes to just indulge the fanboy.

That said, my inner fanboy won’t stick around if the band stops delivering. So there.

I think my enduring take on the wonderful Chasing Shadows goes back to a piece I wrote a few months back when I heard that there was going to be a new Twin Peaks mini-series. I immediately realized that David Lynch needed The Lost Patrol, along with The Raveonettes and The Blueflowers, on his soundtrack.

…The Lost Patrol have very pointedly taken some cues from Twin Peaks, and their new CD, Chasing Shadows, makes the case for their inclusion in your new series from the very first note. I mean, just listen to the first 45 seconds of track 1, “Creeper.”

The truth is, TLP’s reverence for the Twin Peaks sound goes back as long as there has been a TLP, and I’ve written in the past about their cinematic “epic retro-futurist” vibe before. In fact, I even fantasized about them getting involved with Lynch back in 2011.

So if you imagine Midnight Matinee as Duane Eddy teaming up with Hope Sandoval, Jon Crosby and The Church to do a soundtrack for a new David Lynch Western Gothic epic starring Johnny Depp and a wrung-out Elisabeth Shue, with powerful supporting turns from Zooey Deschanel and Javier Bardem, you’re probably more or less on the right track.

There are a number of tunes on Chasing Shadows that I can imagine in a new Twin Peaks, but the one I most want to hear on that soundtrack is “S’enfuir,” a beautiful ballad performed in French. It’s utterly lovely, and I can see it being put to good effect by Lynch in anything from a love scene to the authorities dragging a body from the river. This is David Lynch we’re talking about, after all.

The thing I’m conscious of, though, is that a number of my favorite bands these days owe a lot to movements and genres from decades past, and TLP is certainly on that list (along with, frankly, damned near everyone else I’m propping this year). When a band builds its oeuvre around a retro sound, there can be a temptation to herd them into a ghetto and treat them like a novelty act.

I want to make sure I’m not doing that, especially with a band like The Lost Patrol, which continues to look for ways to deepening a really interesting artistic exploration of a genre. This isn’t Postmodern pastiche, if I might soil a perfectly good musical discussion with an academic concept. Instead, Stephen Masucci, Mollie Israel and Michael Williams are using the freedom afforded by the Indie ethos to recover some of our underappreciated musical heritage and establish its relevance in the contemporary landscape. How is this sound viable in 2014? Well, no less a mind than Eliot emphasized in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” the importance of understanding and assimilating the past in forging the future, didn’t he?

Apologies for going all PhD on you there. But hey, a lot of what I find interesting these days is precisely this: bands excavating our shared musical history in search of lost artifacts that might enrich our present moment. Not a lot of people are doing that better than The Lost Patrol, and you shouldn’t need much more evidence than we have in Chasing Shadows to understand the point.

(Tune only – no video here.)

EelsThe Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett

Mark Everett has been about as great as anyone over the past 20 years. Time and time again he hits us with CDs that are tuneful and intelligent, that advanced the cause of Alternative/Indie as an art form worth paying attention to. If we had a real Rock hall of fame he’d be a unanimous first ballot pick. Period.

But like all great artists, he challenges us in ways we don’t always like. His recent forays have departed from his established Chamber Pop styles and ventured into terrain that was noisy and unkempt, and while I absolutely, positively appreciated its artistic merit and respected his exploration of new territory, I did not like it as much. It worked in the head, but less so in the heart.

This year the old E was back, in triumphant fashion, marking his 50th birthday with a look at where he is, where he’s from and where he’s going. Pensive and introspective, always hallmarks of one of our era’s true living legends – and as a guy who worked on some of these themes myself about three years ago for exactly the same reason, I have to admire the grace with which he examines the small daily march that mortality is making on us as we think back on some of the decisions we might do differently now, if we had the chance….

Honorable Mention

Truth is, several of these CDs probably deserve better, but for one reason or another I was simply unable to give them the attention they merited. But that’s no reason you can’t investigate them in more detail and report back to me.

Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways
Standard bearers for a Rock legacy that lives on beyond the stultifying repetition of Classic Rock radio.

2:54 – The Other I
A little goth, a little punk, dreamy and aggressive and moody and I really need to listen to this one more than I’ve had a chance to so far.

Phantogram – Voices
Trip-Hop and Shoegazer roots, updated with a slick Indie-Pop presence that gets in your head and stays there.

The Birthday Massacre – Superstition
TBM has been one of my favorites ever since I heard the first note of Violet back in 2005. Not breaking new ground here, but a wonderful execution of the Goth/Industrial/Pop landscape they have staked out over the past decade.

Future Islands – Singles
David Letterman loved this band. I played the hell out of them, too. Thoroughly steeped in the ’80s, with a vibe that reminds me of Fine Young Cannibals in a way – maybe because when Samuel Herring sings my brain hears a kinship with Roland Gift.

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
Yeah, they’re huge Dylan fans, but you’ll hear a lot wider ranging influences in their songs. One of the year’s most engaging and listenable CDs, and one that probably deserves more time than I have to devote to it.

La Sera – Hour of the Dawn
Another one of those female-fronted acts with that retro-influenced sound. I want a Dum Dum Girls/La Sera/Frankie Rose triple bill and I want it now.

Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End
It can be hard getting past first impressions, and the first song I ever heard from Weezer was that goddamned annoying “Sweater Song.” In retrospect, I probably should have given them more of a chance through the years. 2014’s outing was really, really good.

She & Him – Classics
I don’t normally mention cover projects, but damn, this is the most charming CD I have heard in forever.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – Give the People What They Want
Not long ago Sharon was fighting cancer. Now she’s back and sounds good as new. I’m happy for her. I’m happy for us.

And now, a brief special comment.

U2 – Songs of Innocence
Let’s separate the hype from the reality here. Rolling Stone named this the best CD of the year, which illustrates how silly RS has gotten since, oh, the last ’60s. It was maybe the biggest album of the year in terms of magnitude of the event, but best?

Look, U2 is my favorite band of all time, and SoI is probably their best outing since…Achtung, Baby? And that was arguably the band’s last relevant moment. So the bottom line here is that Songs is a very good CD, and one that I admire because of the ways in which it reveals a self-awareness on the part of Bono & Co. (“I get so many things I don’t deserve”). Ever since Rattle & Hum, if not before, the haters have been doing all they can to caricature U2, going out of their way to miss fairly obvious poses designed to make important comments about our ludicrous popular culture establishment. Bono has never been “The Fly,” and while you have a right to interpret and misinterpret all you like, I have a right to keep pointing out all the evidence you have to ignore to cobble the noise together.

I continue to hold out hope that they have in them one more Achtung, Baby moment. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy this for what it is – an intelligent, accomplished effort by one of the greatest bands in rock history – not their best, but still worth the listen.

I have compiled a playlist on Spotify featuring all these CDs, as well as a bunch more that I liked. Grab the headphones, click in and feel free to let me know what you liked.

Dr. Sammy’s Best of 2014 Playlist

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3 thoughts on “@Doc’s Best CDs of 2014”

  1. This year’s list is your best one yet, overall. Or, perhaps not best, but most in line with my taste.

    I agree with you on U2. I enjoy listening to the new album, and certainly don’t think it’s the worst one.

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