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Friday, December 26, 2014

2014: My Year in Dad Rock

Where to begin? Another year, and I'm feeling more and more dadrocky. Gotta watch what I play, given the girls' increasingly astute ears for lyrics. Appreciate those discussions, but let's save some for the teen years, eh! My tastes have never been especially cool, but in an era of explosively eclectic music sampling, I am increasingly aware of how narrow my auditory sweet spot is, even as it has deepened (rediscovered catalogs from Dylan, Young, Costello, Velvet Underground) and widened (classic soul from Sam, Otis, Etta, Bobby, or African indie rock from Bombino and Tinariwen). To keep this simple, I'm going to limit myself to original material, excluding reissues of various stripe. If I included those, Dylan's Basement Tapes would steal the show, since it is the definitive (and radically restored) version of what may be the best record ever made. Add in REM's Unplugged, 1991/2001 and Wilco's Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks, 1994-2014, and this has been an almost unbeatable year. Here's the new stuff I've geeked:

1) the War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream. For the second year running, in a show of daring originality, I share my best record with Paste Magazine. Bastards. In my defense, I was already gonna pick this. To my detriment, I can't top what they already said about it. Still, a great record. Put David & David, Springsteen, New Order, and Yo La Tengo in a blender and pour yourself a mug on a gray day when you need a fix of epic 80s guitar bliss. That didn't make sense, did it? Try "Red Eyes."

2) Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. God, I love her. Right now I love this even more than Car Wheels (1998), a sacrilegious thought. For a sprawling double album, Down Where is remarkably cohesive, from the opening ache of "Compassion," whose lyrics she adapted from one of her father's poems, to the closing cover of J.J. Cale's "Magnolia," which she expanded from a couple of minutes to nearly ten. In between, nothing but the best country soul from an incomparable songwriter. Paste, BTW, utterly ignored this record. Idiots (see what I did there?).

3) Beck, Morning Phase. This record has gotten endless comparisons to Sea Change (2002), for its shift away from cryptic pastiche-rock toward confessional singer-songwriter beauty. This one's better! No, really. Of course, Sea Change featured "Lost Cause," his best song and on my short list for all-time favorite songs by anyone ever. But aside from that and a couple of other great tunes ("Golden Age," "Guess I'm Doing Fine") I never though the whole quite lived up to the hype. Morning Phase, by contrast, is nearly perfect from front to back, with special props to "Blue Moon," "Heart is a Drum," and "Turn Away." He got a surprise Grammy nod for Album of the Year. He'd deserve to win but will likely lose to something. . . popular (hence, more momrocky than dadrocky, he typed condescendingly). 

4) Tweedy, Sukierae. Another sprawling double album. In some ways, this is a hard album to process. At times I think it's just another great Wilco album ("Low Key") and at other times I think that by pairing with his teenage kid Spencer as drummer (a pretty great one at that) he's onto something completely new ("Please Don't Let Me Be So Understood"). Disc 1 is one of the best rock sequences JT has ever assembled, building a lot more Pavement and Velvet Underground into his usual sound ("High as Hello"), while disc 2 sounds more like a lost Neil Young folk rock gem from the early 70s ("Flowering," "New Moon").Put this together with the 4 discs of Alpha Mike Foxtrot and it has been an orgiastic year for Papa Tweedy. Is there anyone else who has managed to assimilate as much canonical American music (Woody Guthrie, the Band, Big Star, the VU, the Dead, Television, Mavis Staples, Sonic Youth) into his own distinctive songbook?

5) Spoon, They Want My Soul. I know it's been a great music year because this is number 5. More genius from Austin New Wave savant Britt Daniel & co. "Do You," "Rent I Pay," "Knock Knock Knock," "I Just Don't Understand" (an Ann-Margaret cover!), and "Inside Out" stand up to anything they've ever done, which is a vertiginous standard.

6) Elbow, The Take Off and Landing of Everything. These guys slipped under the critical radar this year, maybe because their popularity crested with the Brit rock smash "One Day Like This" back in 2008. As always, I'm late to the party since I didn't discover them until this year. But Take Off is really, freakin' good, like a less annoying Coldplay (low bar!), or a tightened-up pub-rock version of early, Gabriel-era Genesis. "My Sad Captains," and "Fly Boy Blue/Lynette" are two of my favorite songs of 2014.

7) Sharon van Etten, Are We There? The most emotionally bruising record of the year, from a former Boro Blue Raider and barista at the late, lamented Red Rose Cafe. She made a lot of top-10 lists this year, and deservedly so. "Your Love is Killing Me," "I Love You But I'm Lost," and "Every Time the Sun Comes Up" make this sound like P.J. Harvey singing Elvis Costello's Blood & Chocolate.

8) Justin Townes Earle, Single Mothers. Not quite up to either Nothing's Gonna Change the Way you Feel About Me Now (2012) or Harlem River Blues (2010), but still pretty strong. The sequel, Absent Fathers, comes out next month.

9) St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Half the City. Thanks, NPR! Paul Janeway is the whitest Otis Redding you will ever see sing. Not a lot of lyrical depth or musical innovation, but they do kick up an old school ruckus.

10) Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye. This has been a pretty good year for classic rock oldsters, and I could give this slot to the Drive By Truckers or Springsteen, but Petty edges them out, at least for the consistency of Eye, which is Petty's best overall record in years, even if it lacks that one immortal jukebox tune that he has managed to write a dozen or more times now.

That's a pretty good year for music, especially when I left off some good records. I liked the Black Keys Turn Blue and Ray Lamontagne's Supernova, but just didn't feel that compelled to go back to them over and over. The New Basement Tapes, which has Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James, and others taking on a drawer of lost Dylan lyrics circa 1967 is intriguing, but I haven't made up my mind on it yet. The name oversells. Who could live up to that hype? It doesn't help that these recordings are so much more polished than the actual Basement Tapes, the gold standard for back-to-basics simplicity, that it seems like a mismatch. That said, there is a lot of great music in there. I also don't know what to say about U2's Songs of Innocence. Like much of the planet, I was so alienated by the gonzo marketing drop that I've barely listened to it. Maybe Sam will convince me to change my mind. I'm also still wrapping my brain around bands like Foxygen, Ty Segall, and Ages and Ages, whose records I have only heard once or in fragments.

So that's the dispatch from the land of white dad blues, where my artist demographics could pass for a GOP congressional panel on race and gynecology. Let me know what I've missed (either here or FB)!

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