I think one of the purposes of a year-end list (besides gross self-aggrandizement) is to suss out which musical artists in our culture have staying power beyond the year of their release and which really don’t. I prefer the non-competitive lists – ranking is always kind of arbitrary and just generally difficult.
I think we also try to immortalize the albums we just love. From start to finish, you never skip a track, and when it’s over you want to listen to it again right then. Here’s my list, alphabetically.
Aoife O’Donovan – Fossils
A summer album at its finest. Gentle folk, delicate and romantic, with Aoife’s alto voice that just soothes. Fossils does not win the award for best album cover of the year, but she completes succeeds at capturing the waves and the wind, the leaves in the trees, the evening stillness, the gloaming, the long days and sweet nights with someone you love. Start with Red & White & Blue & Gold – it’s pure bliss – the rest of the album follows suit.
Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic
It’s not a concept album, but it’s seamless. No one else today captures the vintage feel of early 70s Rolling Stones while keeping it relevant and relatable to “kids today.” The group has had by far the most unnecessarily dramatic year, with cancellations and already rumors of a breakup, but the tight West Coast psychedelic sound they created on this record? Can’t nobody take that way from them. This one’s here to stay.
Jason Isbell – Southeastern
The indie Southern-Americana rocker from Drive-By Truckers and The 400 Unit frontman has gotten sober, stepped out with his solo record, and MAN, is this a guy with some stories – wow. And the uncanny ability to tell those stories in poignant, potentially transformational ways. The songs here probably have the most staying power as far as images, people, and feelings just getting into your head and not going away for a long, long time. It gets really sad in parts, but there’s also triumph amid heartsickness, and ultimately a transparent authenticity that’s hard to find in any genre.
Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks
I’ve written at length about this one since it came out in March, and I kind of didn’t listen to it during the summer and fall, but then one day I came home to “Heart’s Ease” just wafting off the record player, in a warm room with soft light, and I was reminded just how very, very good this music is. Its overall theme of relationship-gone-wrong doesn’t ever detract from the overall gentle and uplifting tone from start to finish. I marvel at his witty jabs, the way you can almost feeling him smiling through the record, and his completely unjustified sense of hope and peace.
Patty Griffin – American Kid
I didn’t even know she was an Americana legend until I saw and read about “Ohio.” I learned then that she also has this love affair thing going with Mr Plant. How, considering my background, I missed “the queen of Americana” AND the current lover of rock’s most iconic front man, I’ll never know. But I’m very happy to have started on American Kid. It aches for connection to family and rightly tributes her own heritage, like pulling together old, tattered photos and bringing them to life in audio form with patience and skill. There are slave stories, drinking songs, traditional weddings and spiritual metaphors. People call me an old soul – probably because I absolutely love artists like Patty Griffin. If you’re on the hunt for rich life wisdom and gripping musicality, look no further than American Kid.
Telekinesis – Dormarion
Indie power pop at its finest. Quite a palate-cleanser after Isbell, Ritter, and Griffin! Fresh, fun, definitely not too emotional. Just the right amount of young optimism and experimental sounds. I never liked snyths in modern music until this came out – the fact that he (Michael Benjamin Lerner) self-produced, recorded, and played every instrument himself, and without almost any tired navelgazing is most impressive. And he just seems like a nice, happy guy. His contentedness and refreshing innocence comes through on pretty much every track.
The Lone Bellow
OK, time to get serious again. It’s mournful, but harmonious. Has its world-weary loneliness throughout but also its gospel redemption. This really is church music for millenials. The backing vocals swell, acoustic guitars twang and buzz, and dynamics alternate from almost unhinged choral intensity to perfect, gentle unison whispers. You just can’t leave unchanged, and after your first taste, you keep going back again and again. See what I mean? Church.
It’s a been a good year! So excited for 2014.