10. First Aid Kit: Stay Gold
“We spoke of dreams that came to us when we were young/ But as the morning rose, we spoke with forked tongues,” sing Johanna and Klara Soderberg on their third album as the folk-pop duo First Aid Kit. It’s just one of many declarations of shaky faith and penetrating nostalgia that comprises Stay Gold, the Swedish sisters’ major label debut. The Soderbergs’ folkie romanticism won over hearts with their 2012 breakthrough Lion’s Roar, and their last two years of touring and unprecedented success have left them weary and wistful on their latest record. Major label skepticism, touring fatigue – this is all standard fare, if not outright cliché territory, for an ascendant group like First Aid Kit. But Stay Gold steers clear of mediocrity by treating such themes as starting points rather than conclusions.
9. John Fullbright: Songs
“Tell me what’s so bad about happy,” talk/sings John Fullbright on the opening track of his sophomore studio album. He then spends the next 11 songs responding to that philosophical query. The set’s modest title and spare instrumentation—predominantly elemental acoustic guitar and piano– is reflected in the stark black and white layout of the cover and booklet. Fullbright’s dusky voice and somber yet never dreary lyrics of lost, fading or just difficult love and relationships effortlessly conveys a sense of hope even in the darkest of situations. The sparse music focuses the listener’s attention on his melancholy, brilliantly descriptive lyrics that use intimate details to describe larger issues without sounding obvious or cloying. He sings these meditative songs in a resigned but not defeated voice that reverberates with honesty and a deep-seated empathy of issues that may be beyond his ability to correct, but not to understand.
8. Hiss Golden Messenger: Lateness of Dancers
Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor was one of America’s great under-appreciated songwriters, but 2014 looks like the year when that all changes. Between the re-release of his lost album of archly-intimate cynics’-hymns Bad Debt in January and the September landing of both HGM’s Merge Lateness and Follow the Music — the Taylor-produced comeback record by bluegrass legend Alice Gerrard — we’ve spent the year soaking in the dulcet tones of the North Carolina country-soul shaman. We’ve been Taylor obsessives since the days when he led Left Coast folk-rockers The Court & Spark, and when it was announced that he had moved from the tiny but totally rad Paradise of Bachelors label to the mega-indie Merge Records — home of Arcade Fire and Neutral Milk Hotel — we knew Hiss Golden Messenger had a breakout on their hands. Lo and behold, Lateness of Dancers is, in fact, a masterwork of mellow vibes, laconic melodies and rich, nuanced storytelling.
7. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Angel Olsen’s 2012 album Half Way Home showed what the singer/songwriter was capable of with a relatively simple approach. So it logically follows that a vocalist with such a powerful presence and a penchant for penning ballads that could make any grizzled and weathered brute crumble could, in fact, do a hell of a lot of damage with a bigger sound and a fair amount of fuzz. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is Olsen’s Crazy Horse moment — an album loaded up with ample doses of fuzz and fury. Yet that only serves to amplify the vulnerability within her songs, as in standout “Hi-Five,” where she emphatically asks, “Are you lonely too?/ Hi-five!/ So am I.” But the moment that speaks loudest on Burn Your Fire is also one of its quietest; “White Fire” is a slow burner in the vein of Leonard Cohen’s early, minimalist ballads, and an epic new peak on Olsen’s consistently inspiring musical journey.
6. Hurray for the Riff Raff: Small Town Heroes
Released back in February, Small Town Heroes ushered in a breakthrough year for the New Orleans collective Hurray for the Riff Raff. With the feminist folk commentaries of “The New SF Bay Blues” and “The Body Electric,” front-woman Alynda Lee Segarra carves out her own singular voice as one of the most vital contemporary, traditionally-minded singer-songwriters. Other highlights occur when Segarra and her cohorts get homesick during a traffic jam in Germany (“Crash on the Highway”) and play around with gender pronouns while channeling Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings (“Good Time Blues”). Elsewhere, the band finds its grooves on Americana melting-pot tracks like “End of the Line” and “I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright),” and Segarra has some fun. But even on the ebullient, hook-laden latter track, she manages to sneak in some poignant words of political wisdom: “I’ll tell you one thing, always made some sense: It’s never wrong to hop a fence.”
5. Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams has cultivated a well-deserved reputation as an artist who will zig precisely when his fans expect him to zag. In contrarian fashion, his latest, a self-titled album, serves up a much more direct and accessible version of Adams than what might be available on his wildly divergent side projects and one-offs, yet it’s also perhaps the most brooding album of his career. And even though the arrangements are often stark, the album rocks as hard in its way as anything he’s released. Case in point: the sure shot first single “Gimme Something Good,” full of minor keys and Benmont Tench’s creeping organ yet catchy as hell. The intensity on the faster numbers is unwavering, but Adams also saves room for some gorgeous reflection on songs like “My Wreckin’ Ball” and “Let Go.” It’s a good bet he’ll revert to his genre-hopping ways in the future, but Adams’ singer-songwriter side is represented flawlessly on his set.
4. Taylor Swift: 1989
When Taylor Swift proclaimed that her fifth album, the follow up to her massively successful 2012 release RED, would be a full-on pop album, eyebrows were raised but the general reaction was not one of shock and awe. Swift had, after all, already laid the groundwork for a transition out of Nashville, one that began with crossover hits like “You Belong with Me” and ended with the decidedly banjo-free, EDM-leaning “I Knew You Were Trouble.” With her most recent offering, 1989, Swift not only made the best selling pop album of 2014, she also made the best sounding one. A slick, smart collection of songs that owes more to Peter Gabriel than it does Katy Perry, 1989 deftly satisfies the current vogue for nostalgia while managing to add something new to the current pop conversation. Haters gonna hate, sure, but with an album this good, their voices will be drowned out by everyone else too busy singing along to listen.
3. Strand of Oaks: Heal
Like an unholy mixture of a break-up album, a reflection on better times, and a grand attempt to expel old demons, Heal, the newest album from Strand Of Oaks, aka Timothy Showalter, is a fierce, heady triumph. Showalter had previously skewed more to the folkie side of the musical spectrum, but he amps the instrumental intensity here to match the depth of the emotional charge provided by his lyrics. Whether it’s the Southern rock of “Goshen ‘97,” the glammy blast of “For Me,” or even the sweet heartland acoustics of “Shut In,” Showalter proves he can do a little of everything and do it very well. As a result, this album is one of the true out-of-nowhere delights of 2014. One of its recurring themes is the power of music to get folks out of the tightest emotional and psychological jams, and Heal is just the kind of revelatory album to do the trick.
2. The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
The War on Drugs have had a hell of a year. There were certainly some lows (Mark Kozelek’s sophomoric taunts, primarily), but the highs they encountered in 2014 — sold out tours, late night appearances, overwhelming critical acclaim — have pretty much all arrived as a result of their breathtaking new album, Lost In the Dream. More so than 2011’s Slave Ambient or 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues, the band’s third album is a full realization of their potential, and a 360-degree expansion of their horizons. Adam Granduciel turns everything up just a little bit brighter, a bit louder, and a bit richer this time around, their dense arrangements building up into colossal monuments of hypnotic effects and earthy melodies. Everything the band does right is summed up perfectly within first track “Under the Pressure,” in which their hallucinatory ambiance and rootsy rock achieve a perfect balance. There’s a lot of struggle and pain that went into this record, and in its most tender moments, like “Disappearing,” you can hear it loud and clear. But when Granduciel lets out his best yelp on “Red Eyes,” and the Philadelphia band tears through their closest approximation to “Dancing in the Dark,” The War on Drugs prove that sometimes the best way to heal is to simply have fun.
1. Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
2014 was, undoubtedly, the year of Sturgill Simpson. The Kentucky-born singer songwriter burst on the scene seemingly out of nowhere when he released his second album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music in May, to the delight and awe of critics and fans alike. “Turtles All the Way Down” may be the first and only country song to nod to Stephen Hawking, but it’s not Simpson’s offbeat lyrics that make him such a refreshing addition to the country canon. Simpson emerged at the height of “bro country,” an overused moniker for the unfortunate wallet-chain-and-six-pack movement currently plaguing country radio, shining like the “reptile aliens made of light” he sings about in “Turtles” and earning him the honorific the “Savior of Country Music,” a title the often taciturn Simpson was more than reluctant to accept. Savior may be a pretty apt descriptor, though, as Metamodern Sounds grapples with questions of spirituality and identity, concepts typically reserved for headier genres that take on a new weight when underscored by the instrumentation of traditional, honky-tonk tinged country. Simpson may not be country music’s savior, but he is the genre’s poet laureate, bringing nuance back to a form that, especially recently, so desperately needs it.
Reviewers: Jon Bernstein, Jim Beviglia, Jewly Hight, Hal Horowitz, Sean Maloney, Lynne Margolis, Emily Maxwell, Brittney McKenna and Jeffrey Terich.