American Songwriter’s Top 50 Albums of 2014: Presented by D’Addario

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40. Hozier: Hozier

When the music video for Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” released in late 2013, it barely made a ripple, save for a few outlets that noted the clip’s advocacy for gay rights. Fast forward a year and you can’t escape the song, from its omnipresence on both pop and alternative radio formats to its placement in a high-profile Beats by Dre commercial featuring LeBron James. It’s the kind of success that makes Hozier, full name Andrew Hozier-Byrne, the ideal candidate for one-hit-wonderdom, a fate that would have overtaken the musician were it not for the strength of his debut self-titled album. On Hozier, the Irish singer songwriter demonstrates a capacity not just for crossover ballads a la “Take Me to Church,” but for deeply felt, sharply observed songs inspired by the one genre popular radio could always use a little more of: the blues. While everyone else is strumming banjos and stomping their feet, Hozier is layering soulful vocals over chicken-picked guitars, taking us all to church in the process.

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39. Warpaint: Warpaint

Atmosphere is Warpaint’s stock in trade. Each of their songs, no matter how intricately written, is bathed in a chilly glow. The ambiance is intoxicating. But after the effects-laden trip of their debut album The Fool, Warpaint allowed some of that hallucinatory mist to dissipate on their sophomore, self-titled album. It’s still an enchanting and beautiful piece of music, but the Los Angeles quartet hones in on some of the finer details of their melodies, be it on the intricate, folky sound of “Keep It Healthy,” the sparse and beat-driven approach of “Hi,” or the haunting synth-throbs of “Biggy.” In context, the change in the band’s sound that has occurred over the past four years has been a gradual and minimal one, but on Warpaint, a little goes a long way.

Old 97s Most Messed Up

38. Old 97s: Most Messed Up

No mid-life crisis here. The veteran Texas quartet, with all its original members intact, have “been doing this longer than you’ve been alive,” as they explain on the opening track. There are no signs of middle age fatigue as the band enters its 20th year. Most Messed Up is arguably one of their most rollicking and immediate albums. The terms “country rock” and “cowpunk” seem hopelessly clichéd, yet both are adequate descriptions of the twang and strum, turned up to 10 on these dozen corkers. There are no ballads to slow down the pace or let you catch your breath as every track boasts a hummable melody, a memorable riff or two and enough “F” bombs to let you know they’re not getting soft anytime soon. It’s the sound of a band who has perfected their own rowdy Americana groove and joyfully rides it with skill, sweaty energy and no excuses.

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37. Bahamas: Bahamas Is Afie 

Bahamas is the alias of Afie Jurvanen, and his third album is called Bahamas Is Afie. That part is pretty self-explanatory. The connection between the Canadian folky and the Caribbean island chain is a little less so, but there’s no complaining about the results. Bahamas Is Afie is a triumph in soulful, roots music, and instead of just trying to sound old-timey, the record is full of personality. It takes quirky turns, sometimes settling into reserved, twangy ballads and other times strutting with groovy confidence. It’s idiosyncratic to underscore that this is Afie. But he also sounds like M. Ward pretty often. That is in no way a complaint. Ward and Jurvanen share a knack for soulful folk, and the bigger arrangements on Bahamas Is Afie pushes the similarities to the forefront. Bahamas has the songs, though. “All the Time” bounces along a big groove while being one of the more ornate songs in the Bahamas catalog. That’s followed by “Stronger Than That,” completing a one-two punch that’s well worth the price of admission alone.

Tom Petty Hypnotic Eye

36. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Hypnotic Eye

You wouldn’t normally peg Tom Petty as a songwriter focused on current events, since his normal style is to write telling character sketches which relegate larger concerns to subtext. On Hypnotic Eye, his first album with the Heartbreakers in four years, those issues start to creep to the surface a bit more. “Burnt Out Town” catalogs with gallows humor a burg that has crumbled to figurative ruins, while “Power Drunk” addresses class warfare with barely-contained fury. Haunting closing track “Shadow People” pinpoints the way that those who become detached from society’s tethers can easily turn to violence as a result. Through it all, the Heartbreakers are there to embellish every nuance in his typically strong writing, especially guitarist Mike Campbell, who leaves an indelible mark on practically every track. After 2010’s Mojo was a bit of a bluesy slog, Hypnotic Eye is a thrilling return to Hall of Fame form.

Eric Church The Outsiders

35. Eric Church: The Outsiders

Eric Church has had a handle on the old-fashioned art of making interesting albums for some time now. His previous output’s been steely, swaggering, sentimental and smart in turns—and The Outsiders dwarfs all of it in sheer scale and grandiosity. He took the aggressive posturing and modern country metal bombast to new extremes: blistering proggy vamps; a soul ballad rubbed-raw with lust; darkly funny southern gothic storytelling; production set apart by its exactness, eccentricity and devotion to groove. Above all, Church unfurls a mythology of artistic rebellion against the commercial establishment, complete with an anthem, a creed, a hymn to survival and an origin story, each delivered with the gravitas, bluster or poetic delicacy that they deserve. That he also reinvigorated several common country themes in the in the process is icing on the over-the-top cake.

Adam Faucett Blind Water

34. Adam Faucett: Blind Water Finds Blind Water

One of things that we were really into this year that we’ve been meaning to tell you about is our obsession with the post-Club 47 experimental folk-rock scene in Cambridge — weird shit like Earth Opera and Ill Wind and bands that were too weird for the late ’60s but are still amazing 50 years out. Faucett’s sophomore set has the exact same vibes — a little too far out for the pop-folk, too rockin’ for the traditionalists, too mercurial for the mainstream. Faucett’s sounds are slippery, guided by spirits rather than structures — feedback and piano float through movements and vocals phase in and out through walls of sound. Faucett roams the backroads and gas station parking lots of some strange, haunted country, hinting at a terrifying truth behind mundane imagery.

Jack White Lazaretto

33. Jack White: Lazaretto

At this point in his career, Jack White could drop never-before-heard records from space and fans would still scramble to get their hands on a copy (oh wait, he basically already did that…). Lucky for White’s loyal band of acolytes, though, he never just ‘drops’ any music haphazardly. Case in point: Lazaretto, White’s second album and most ambitious solo offering to date. White goes off the rails on Lazaretto, trading in the simple riff-driven songs he was known for in the White Stripes for dense, often heady tracks that demand more than just one listen for full comprehension. It’s hard to pin down White’s primary influences on Lazaretto, which, ironically, is a large part of what makes it feel like such a cohesive project; his years of playing, producing and absorbing music have coalesced into a truly singular sound, one never more clear than on this album. While White makes more of a name for himself these days through his record label and his baseball game exploits, Lazaretto is proof that he’s just as valuable a player as those he works with, perhaps now more than ever.

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32. Miranda Lambert: Platinum

Critics have offered plenty of theories on what sets Platinum apart from Miranda Lambert’s previous work: that it’s funnier, or more grown-up, or softer in its sentiments. None of that’s untrue, but it doesn’t get at the real triumph of her fifth album—that she closed the distance between artfully specialized candor and powerfully broad appeal. Never before has she addressed her audience—especially women in that number—with such sisterly familiarity; here she confesses private insecurities, wryly gripes about what aging does to the body and confides savvy strategies for dealing with scrutiny. Besides that, she deftly refashions a slew of modern country idioms in ways both modest and dramatic. There’s ample punch to the songwriting, magnetic bite to her vocal inflections and an assuredness to the whole 16-song affair that’s hard to resist.

Spoon They Want My Soul

31. Spoon: They Want My Soul

Spoon has espoused a “less is more” philosophy in their groove-heavy indie rock since as far back as their 1996 debut Telephono. But with each new release, the Austin-based band seems to expand the boundaries of just how much more less can be. They Want My Soul, the group’s eighth album, is the richest and densest the band has ever sounded, thanks in no small part to some heavy production flourishes from Dave Fridmann. But the core of the group is still firmly intact: Three-chord rock songs, lots of space, and swagger dripping from every note. But Spoon is composed of much more eclectic stuff than they were back in the ‘90s; it’s hard to imagine that band releasing a dreamy trip-hop track like “Inside Out” or the flashy synth-pop of “Outlier.” Still, Spoon is first and foremost a rock ‘n’ roll band, and when they’re firing on all cylinders — like on the booming “Rent I Pay” or the fuzzy title track — it’s hard to imagine a better contemporary rock band than this.

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