I’m getting to this year’s list in a bit more of a timely fashion. That probably means I’m successfully procrastinating something more important! Anyway, this post is the beneficiary. Let’s get to it. Here are the albums I enjoyed most in 2014.
10. Parker Millsap, Parker Millsap – Millsap is, like me, an Oklahoma boy (though at age 20, he’s a lot more boyish than I am). But there’s no affirmative action at work here: The Purcell native’s self-titled album earned its place here. Parker Millsap is an album full of Okie characters and, well, Okie character. Religion, geography, and connecting despite Hard Times™ are just some of its themes. The album reminds me of home; for me, that’s a high compliment. And Millsap’s voice, which is front-and-center on the album, grabs the listener’s attention.
9. Erlend Øye’s Legao – What’s that? Quirky, mildly melancholy singer-songwriter stuff from one of Norway’s most distinctive voices? And—wait—he’s backed by an Icelandic reggae band, too? Sign me up. So much fun!
8. Benji by Sun Kil Moon – Warning: There’s a lot of death on this album. Two different relatives burned alive? The Newtown massacre. The death of James Gandolfini. (Wait, what?) It could all get to be too much, of course. But the spare, plaintive vocals of Mark Kozelek—he’s essentially Sun Kil Moon—never stop conveying so much, erm, humanity. Despite the loss detailed on the album (in a striking faux-stream-of-consciousness), I always feel at peace when I listen to Benji.
7. Rosanne Cash’s The River & the Thread – Cash released The River in January 2014, and I sort of wondered at the time whether I’d still be listening when it came time for this end-of-the-year list. Well, I am. On The River, the listener tags along as Cash explores the South and its musical legacy. Cash—from one of country music’s most important families, of course—has a complicated relationship with the region, and much of that comes through. But it’s Cash’s confident, comfortable vocals that I keep returning to. The River is a beautiful album.
6. St. Vincent by St. Vincent – St. Vincent is Annie Clark, and her sound is completely her own. That’s reason enough for this album, her fourth, to be on my list. But I was really drawn to the, erm, edginess underlying these songs. “I Prefer Your Love,” for instance, somehow makes a case for the short-sightedness of Being In Love™. St. Vincent is a thoughtful, thought-provoking, completely listenable album.
5. I Never Learn, Lykke Li – I’m a sucker for beautiful songs about heartbreak, and this album delivers those. Over and over again. And again. Indeed, “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” might well be my favorite song of the year. Beyond that, I Never Learn is a true pop album, which means you won’t—and won’t want to—be able to get out of your head.
4. Liberation!, Peter Matthew Bauer – Liberation! didn’t find its way onto many year-end lists, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s possible, I think, that the album’s spiritual/religious themes just didn’t connect with many listeners. What interested me, though, was Bauer’s strong voice and his ability to make it seem at home in so many different sound settings. In some ways—and I swear I mean this as a compliment—Liberation! sounds like it could’ve been recorded in 1971. I enjoyed the time travel. (P.S. The album’s “You are the Chapel” was one of my favorite songs of the year.)
3. Animism by Tanya Tagaq – You’ve never heard anything like this, I promise. I might describe it as Inuit-throat-singing-gone-to-art-school, but what would you make of that? Just listen.
2. Aziza Brahim’s Soutak – Brahim was born in a Sahrawi refugee camp, and her life took her to Cuba and then to Spain. You hear can hear all of that in Soutak. Brahim’s vocal work is strong and involving, and it pairs amazingly well with the album’s guitar and percussion work. The songs are largely of protest and longing, I gather. They’re absolutely riveting.
1. The Lights from the Chemical Plant by Robert Ellis – Chemical Plant‘s is a small-town sensibility that I understand. I’m sure Ellis is singing about east Texas, where he grew up. But when I hear the songs, I’m immediately back in rural Oklahoma. I know those young lovers, who live amid—and briefly see something larger in—the lights from the chemical plant. I know that dreamer who lives too much in his television set (“TV Song”). I know that lonely soul in “Bottle of Wine.” Will you understand all these folks, too? I bet you will.
I should mention Ellis’s vocals, too. There’s a gentleness and, when called for, a brittleness in his singing. He feels these songs. He’s a Springsteen for a small-town Southwest.
This is the album of 2014 for me. Without question.
Honorable Mentions: The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint, Ambrose Akinmusire; Morning Phase, Beck; Songs, John Fullbright; and Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, by Lucinda Williams.