For the past eight years, I've compiled a year-end album of favorite songs released in the 12 preceding months, with no artists repeating from previous years. I've done it again.
Beyond the artists presented here, my favorite album was O'Death's Out of Hands We Go - which, if not quite as consistently great as the band's 2011 record Outside, is a stunning accomplishment - a warbling, adventurous, authentic backwoods blend of introspection and primal emotion putting bluegrass instrumentation through the aesthetic amp of folk, punk, lo-fi, and indie rock. The band's "Vacant Moan" is probably my favorite song of the past decade (it was on my 2008 album), and since then O'Death has largely abandoned thrashing furor in favor of a more measured sound that finds its power in places other than speed and volume.
My initial effort at compiling this album was decidedly pop-oriented, with a few digressions into my natural proclivity toward the odd. But 19 songs became 16, and as I pared away tracks I loved that felt a little too reliant on formula, I recognized a thread of elemental music. Sometimes it took the form of naked aggression (another proclivity), but just as often it was songs stripped down to base emotion - concentrated states of the heart and mind. I ran with that.
So goodbye to Spoon's "Rainy Taxi" and Catfish & the Bottlemen's "Homesick" and Nikki Lane's "I Don't Care" and New Madrid's "Forest Gum." And goodbye to the Sleater-Kinney reunion-album teaser "Bury Our Friends" and José James' "EveryLittleThing" and Temples' "The Golden Throne." And goodbye, with great regret, to Lydia Loveless' "Wine Lips," which in a different world would be a hit on pop, country, and alternative radio at the same time. (And "Wine Lips" might not even be the best song off her Somewhere Else album given the deep sense of loss in "Everything's Gone," a re-write of John Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow" through sadness rather than anger.)
I ended up with 11 songs over 45 minutes, and what started out as a bright slab of 2014 became something quite different, weirdly meditative and dark - full of existential questions and perhaps even death-obsessed. (Alas, another proclivity.)
I promise, however, that there's plenty of pleasure to be found here. My 2014 album is dominated by isolation - to borrow from one of its songs - but it's invigorating and, in the sense of speaking honestly about the human condition, life-affirming.
But hey, enough of my yakkin'. Whaddaya say? Let's boogie!
Peggy Sue, "Idle." One of its lyrics is "Patience is as patience does," and that seems to be a model for the song, whose rigid three-part structure is obscured by flatly heavenly singing, which further obscures the anxiety that runs through the words - a plea to keep thoughts of a lover at bay: "I think he could love me right / If I could keep him off my mind." The wispy quality of the vocals is gently undermined by the downbeat stresses on words and syllables, which are underscored when the dense drums enter for the middle section and the guitar becomes more lyrical and eloquent. The final third ditches guitar entirely and foregrounds drums and drumstick clicks over cavernous vocal effects, with a lovely summation of the power of songs: "I will make like Robert Johnson / Swap the truth out for a song."
Andrew Bird, "Tin Foiled." With gentleness and good cheer, Bird deflates all your hopes with his unerringly pretty fatalism in this cover of a Handsome Family song: "What is moving will be still / What is gathered will disperse / What's been built up will collapse / All of your dreams, they're all fulfilled." Hmmm. What dreams, exactly? "Last night I dreamed that I dug my own grave / So I climbed down inside there to patiently wait. / And down in the ground while I breathed the cold air / All the blackbirds came down there to nest in my hair." With Bird's distinctive phrasing, lovely ukulele, and echoes of Paul Simon, the singer/songwriter crafts what might be called a love song to death - a return to the earth with no fear.
Liam Finn, "Burn Up the Road." Its initial feint of light clouds of warm sounds has hints underneath of the stormy turbulence to follow, but the driving distorted-guitar hook that explodes from it like lightning 25 seconds in still comes as a joyful shock - an eternal riff matched by electric energy. And that's just the backbone of Finn's wildly eclectic rocker, which brings in everything from Adrian Belew-style animal guitar mimicry to uninhibitedly bright keyboards to stuttering beats, all held together by Finn's unremarkable but expressive singing. Like the most infectious of Andrew W.K.'s proto-metal songs, it feels like unleashed id - although filtered through a more-sophisticated musical mind and those always effective soft-loud Pixies dynamics.
The Soil & the Sun, "Samyaza." The title, I've learned, is the name of a fallen angel in the non-canonical Book of Enoch. Lyrically, the song literally represents a struggle - against temptation, for transcendence, for destiny: "You demon / Perverter of the truth / You've been poisoning my blood / But I know that I'll be purified by a flood." You'd be forgiven for missing any of that, with the title's inherent obscurity, the lyrics' heady abstruseness, and the vocals' subdued gauziness. What can't be missed is the song's engaging, soaring, and fairly won epic-ness, with a prog-rock length, expansiveness, and sonic palette that unfolds naturally and without the pretension you'd expect from what I've written so far. Put simply, the song has a winning integrity as an interior emotional battle, as a rich musical composition, and as a damn fine rock song. But don't get too comfortable in the peaceful resolution of its outro, because the quiet breeze gives way to ...
Mica Levi, "Andrew Void." If you've seen Under the Skin, the moment in this track when the strident, wheezy, piercing, and oddly seductive triplet of violin melodies bursts from the nearly subliminal swarm of strings - soon followed by dull, forebodingly methodical percussion - will bring some specific queasy images to mind: men with erections walking, sinking willingly into liquid blackness. If you haven't seen Jonathan Glazer's movie, it will still bring unsettling images to mind. In that way, Levi's score reaches a rare ideal for soundtrack music - indivisible from the film, yet so memory-searing that it invokes the movie's mood independent of the whole, and evocative enough to stand on its own. If it doesn't send a chill of nauseating dread down your spine, you're likely inhuman. But don't despair, because to the rescue comes ...
Beck, "Wave." Beck has called Morning Phase a companion piece to 2002's Sea Change, but "Wave" sounds like it could have easily fit on Björk's Selmasongs album of Dancer in the Dark tracks - a vivid fragment of a larger musical-narrative tragedy. It's just begging for a movie to be used in. A lovely, poetic distillation of existential persistence and submission in 40-odd words ("If I surrender / And I don't fight this wave / No I won't go under / I'll only get carried away"), "Wave" is a fitting converse to the mood of Levi's Under the Skin score. Solemn, yearning strings and Beck's vocals expand and contract, with mood and meaning shifting from moment to moment. In addition to its lyrical concision, the song is striking in its precise emotional effects. The climax and resolution are created with the building repetition of the word "isolation" from breathy to firm, followed by an emphatic three-note hum from the throat that is then echoed in the strings and escapes, imperfectly, from Beck's lips, dissipating like smoke.
The Both, "Hummingbird." Aimee Mann's songs and voice for me require great care in arrangement and production, needing both gentle richness and shapely muscle to give them a life beyond Mann's oddly detached vocal-performance mannerisms. 2002's Lost in Space found that sweet spot, and this year's collaboration with Ted Leo (as The Both) rediscovered that magic. "Hummingbird" is a vaguely blunt environmental plea ("I got a message from the hummingbird / He gave me a warning in disguise / He told me they're marching on Monsanto / But the same monolithic structures rise") elevated by gorgeous singing from both artists, enveloping production, undeniable melodies, and smartly applied electric guitar from Leo. The song argues - too pointedly, perhaps - that nature and industry are out of balance, but the warm, harmonious texture offers its own kind of hope.
Christian Lee Hutson, "That'll Do." When I interviewed Hutson earlier this year, he was a chatty and charming subject, and I told him he seemed to enjoy this PR necessity more than most musicians. He said jokingly that the pleasure was likely a function of isolation, and this song strips that idea of his humor, laying bare a pure, heartbreaking loneliness: "Please send me soon / A brand new tune / Or at least someone I could sing the old one to. / If there's anybody who / will suffer a fool / That'll do just fine." It begins with a sniffle, and Hutson sings, in a cracked and unsteady voice, over simple acoustic guitar, with a muffled, wordless mimicking of the vocals in the background. It makes me want to call him up, just to make sure he has some human contact.
Little Hurricane, "Sheep in Wolves Clothes." With its stay/leave lyrical tension, this love song would seem naturally suited to the call-and-response method that distinguished 2011's Homewrecker album by the male/female guitar/drum duo. But "Sheep in Wolves Clothes" favors Anthony Catalanoa as the primary singer with Celeste Spina's background vocals echoing as if from memory, and that choice is essential to the song's success. It follows the expected musical path with its escalations, climaxes, and denouements, and the basic structure is enlivened by the artfulness of the execution - a resonantly gritty nakedness with light production flourishes. But the slippery lyrics - with attraction, need, desire, joy, and rejection melting into each other - invoke a state of both presence and absence, effectively expressing the conflicted whole of a failed relationship in the same moment.
Drive-By Truckers, "Made Up English Oceans." If you read my introduction and see the Drive-By Truckers, you'd be right to think I'm a little crazy. The Truckers, after all, specialize in detailed, specific working-class narratives, and I promised core emotional states. But Mike Cooley is a different writer from his more celebrated bandmate Patterson Hood, and his obscurity here is fascinating, as is the song's static, unwavering texture - no build, no tension, no release. The elusive melody is buried in the keyboard underneath galloping acoustic guitar and Morricone-style desert percussion, and Cooley's coolly matter-of-fact singing of overstuffed lines mostly disguises the contempt for all that drips from the words: "Because only simple men can see the logic in whatever / Smarter men can whittle down 'til you can fit it on a sticker"; "So be it if they come to find out feeling good's as easy / As denying that there's day or night at all." I've read interpretations that the song's written from the perspective of a cynical political strategist, but that feels too narrow for the bitter misanthropy Cooley quietly unleashes.
Madi Diaz, "Ashes." Andrew Bird, Beck, and Mica Levi sent us to the other side, but I'll leave it to Diaz to lure us happily there with her siren's song, and the enchanting coos that punctuate this song. Over an atmospheric backdrop and gentle piano and heartbeat percussion, Diaz sings plainly in a downcast natural voice up until the chorus, with its high-pitched, heavenward vocals invoking a famous funeral prayer and leading to something like a bird call - at once elegiac and praising, urgent and at peace. The 3/4 time lends it not a dance quality but an unsteady lurch in the vocal phrasings and rhythms, magically wrapping joy around sorrow.