A lot of great records were released in 2014, more than I ever would have imagined before I started buying more new releases on vinyl to DJ. It appears I actually bought around 100 of those LPs myself. In my defense, I DJed a lot last year. I bought stuff I thought other folks would want to hear. These are the 10 that I listened to the most. They are my favorites.
10. STEELISM “615 to Fame” (Single Lock Records)
There is something entirely compelling and timeless about this album.
As many of my favorite records do, it sounds like it could have been released anytime in the last 40 years. I'm also partial because they are from Nashville, where I used to live, and have found a way to incorporate those roots into something of their own. If anything, it reminds me of Esquivel, Ennio Morricone, and The Beatles. It’s like a compilation of the best instrumental genres on one album -- equal parts Chet Atkins picking and Dick Dale surf guitar, with a dash of Santo & Johnny “Sleepwalk” for good measure. I do love a good instrumental record. Check the kraut rock, motorik goodness of Marfa Lights or the Beatle-esque Greenwich Mean Time for yourself.
9. The Juan Maclean “In a Dream” (Secretly Canadian)
John Maclean waited years to release this new LP, and I am glad he did.
Nancy Whang had been doing her time in LCD Soundsystem and other projects, but it feels like on this LP, the two of them came together and embraced the influences that got them to where they are now. I've known of this group for years, and probably heard their songs at clubs without knowing, but when I randomly heard the first single from their new album, A Place Called Space, I was immediately intrigued. While it is an electronic album, it definitely spans eras and the genres within. As EDM, or whatever they're calling it these days, continues to splinter into smaller sects like witch house and vapor wave, The Juan Maclean works in broader strokes to create a decidedly cohesive whole. There aren't that many electronic records I enjoy listening to all the way through. This is one of them. Check out Love Stops Here and Running Back To You.
8. EDJ "S/T" (Easy Sound Recording Co.)
Eric Johnson put his beloved Fruit Bats to rest in 2013 after 5 albums and nearly 20 years. I’ve always seen him as a bit of a visionary in the indie world, preceding some of the trends that became almost cliched years later. He may never get the credit he deserves, and he surely isn’t going to ask for it. Like Nilsson -- a songwriter’s songwriter.
On his solo debut, though Fruit Bats was really always his project, the moods and arrangements shift subtly as he deftly works his way through a myriad of influences from 70s AM gold to Brian Eno ambience. All while keeping his distinctively charming persona intact. Listen to Minor Miracles, an exercise in simplicity with probably my favorite lyrics on the record. The lighthearted verse “You’re having hot dogs and beans for your birthday” leads to a deeper chorus, “Every bum you’ve ever seen is some mama’s baby, some papa’s son.” Some weird mojo, indeed. The groove of A West County Girl is undeniable as well. A+
7. Extra Classic "Showcase" (Nopal)
Named after an album by one of their heroes, reggae legend Gregory Isaacs, Extra Classic are one of the finest original bands of any genre playing today.
To be honest, good or bad, what is the last new reggae record you heard? Exactly.
Their blend of Rocksteady and Jamaican dub, recorded on classic analog equipment of the genre, is spot on. It doesn't feel retro or like a tribute band. It isn't slick and there aren't a bunch of back up singers, percussionists or modern sounds mucking up what makes classic Jamaican music sound so great. Just a solid frickin’ five piece that can tear the house down with a cover of Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” or the Dawn Penn classic “No, No, No.”
The album is called Showcase for a reason. It is a classic Jamaican dub format in which each song is accompanied by its “version”, essentially a dubbed out instrumental of the original tune. Man, does it ever work here. I very rarely take this album off before it reaches the end. It is that good. Check out A Little Rain or Whispering Leaves for a taste.
6. Warpaint “S/T” (Rough Trade)
This is one of those bands that has been around a while that I kept hearing about. It sounded like hype to me. Four girls from LA, one time celebrity drummer, etc... Then I watched the video for Disco/Very - Keep it Healthy. Then I checked the credentials. Mixed by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck), co-produced by Flood (Depeche Mode, New Order) and the band? OK, interested. It’s trippy, creepy and weird, and super compelling. There are electronic and hip hop elements going on with a dark ambience underneath, almost like Portishead at times. I know everyone else loved The War on Drugs this year, but I think this is the record that filled that spot for me. Love is to Die is one of my favorite songs of the year.
5. Floating Action "Body Questions" (Harvest)
One of my all time favorite bands, Floating Action is essentially the recording project of Seth Kauffman. He’s made six records since 2006 and they keep getting better and better. He occasionally has a hand with recording and some extra instruments, but otherwise it is all written and produced by him. The ease with which he is able to flow between reggae, soul, rock, funk, country, and even african rhythms in the same song is astounding. The fact that it sounds so darn cohesive is what makes it even more impressive. The timeless recording quality and top notch songwriting make this a most enjoyable listen. Check out the loping lullaby “Call Out” , uptempo number “Taking Me A Little While”, or the dubbed out swagger of “Fang & Furr.”
4. Generationals "Alix" (Polyvinyl)
Here is another current band making consistently great records every few years.
On their 4th LP, this New Orleans duo gets even more electronic. They’ve always dabbled, and clearly have a lot of love for 80s synth pop and 90s hip hop beats, but it never sounds campy or retro. You know why? Because the songs are great. After self producing their first 3 records at home, they began to think they might be in a rut. When producer Richard Swift (The Shins, Foxygen) heard their demos he told them they were already album worthy, with a little more tightening. Whatever magic they did up there in his Cottage Grove, OR studio sure worked. This is one for the ages. Gold Silver Diamond is one of my favorite songs of the year.
3. Taylor Swift "1989" (Big Machine records)
After buying the "Shake it Off" single a few weeks after it came out, I developed a new appreciation for Taylor. She wrote this decade’s “Hey ya!” to now be played at wedding receptions forevermore. I'd understood the allure of her music for teens, but it never got to me until this album. I heard the second single, “Blank Space,” and I figured I’d better check it out. I found the reasonably priced LP on Amazon, with a free download.
I went to town. In all honesty, in the last 3 months of 2014 this is probably the record I listened to the most. It’s that good. Every song is strong and the production by Max Martin and Shellback is impeccable. It’s current and classic. She wanted to make a pop record influenced by the sounds of 1989 and she nailed it. No doubt. Nice work, Taylor. I’m curious to see if she can do this again. The bonus tracks on the Target only release are worth tracking down as well. “New Romantics” and “Wonderland” are excellent as well as the voice memos showing her songwriting process. I’ve been throwing the italo-disco flavored “Style” into my sets and no one bats an eye. Though they may now since it appears to be the 3rd single.
2. Sturgill Simpson "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music" (High Top Mountain)
There have been a lot of great country artists releasing great records outside the mainstream country industry in the last few years like The Easy Leaves, Nikki Lane, and Hurray for the Riff Raff. But to me, something about Sturgill is different. From the moment I heard his voice singing “Long White Line” on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” on May 10, 2014 while on a solo road trip from Little Rock to Oakland, I knew. It was amazing enough that I was surfing the radio right then and just happened to find it. When I stopped at the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, NM that night, the first thing I did was go to his bandcamp and order both of his self released LPs. It wasn’t just Waylon, or Merle, like everyone asks just about every time I play him while DJing, it was a new pure country voice. One that can make me cry on a dime. One that doesn’t sound like it will ever be on country radio, and it probably won’t. Though that may change now that he’s signed with Atlantic, a label that released albums by some of his heroes like Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, and The Velvet Underground. You can hear all those influences here. It is definitely a country album, but not like any you’ve heard. It’s psychedelic and soulful -- it’s jammy and it rocks. There are guitar solos and backwards things and crazy effects and lyrics about reptile aliens made of light. “Love is the only thing that ever saved my life” comes from my favorite song of the year “Turtles All The Way Down.” What can you say about a lyric like that? There is no denying the power of his voice and songwriting. It is as fully realized here as on my favorite Elvis album, From Elvis in Memphis. How can this guy have only made 2 albums? Because he’s in his mid 30s. He probably worked on tons of albums and songs that never saw the light of day as he honed his craft. Sometimes you have have to live the life before you can write about it. When I play his cover of 80’s one hit wonder When In Rome’s “The Promise”, people come up and say, “I didn’t know this was a cover” because it sounds so damn authentic. Apparently, he is already working on his next album, which he says may piss off everyone that likes him now. Bring it on, Sturgill, bring it on. I think that’s why we liked you in the first place.
1. The Range of Light Wilderness "S/T" (Gnome Life)
A soft caress of tape. Breathed vocals through gauze, intertwining like lovers talking over breakfast in the early sun after the late night of the first time staying over.
4 track, 8 track, iPhone, cassette tape. Apparently some practice recordings ended up on the album too. The songs are so strong that it doesn’t matter. In fact, they are brought to life even more through this, dare i say, lack of production. I believe it is intentional. They wanted it to sound like this undiscovered record that nick drake made with mo tucker or karen carpenter on drums and harmonies. It is beautiful and perfect in its imperfection. It is one of those albums that I knew I would be listening to forever the first time I heard it. Apparently, it was painstakingly constructed over the course of several years by principal songwriter Thomas Frank McDonald (guitar, synths & lead vocals) at home in Big Sur, California with contributions from Jessi Campbell (drums & vocals) and Nick Aives (bass & vocals). I really can’t find much info about them and in this day and age, that is refreshing. The music speaks for itself. I saw them play on New Year’s Eve and can vouch that they are one of the best live bands around. Hopefully they don’t wait another few years to make another record. Have a listen to the exquisiteness of “Jasmine Vines” and “Under Your Spell.”