This is it. The big one. It’s a yearly ritual, and I think my tastes may have evolved more this year than any other.
Hurray for the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes
Alynda Lee Segarra has an amazing story, an amazing voice, and has put out an amazing album. She now calls New Orleans home, after a long journey that started in Puerto Rico, took her to Brooklyn, then train-hopping across the country, until finally finding a place in the renewed ruins of the 9th Ward. Her voice is both gritty and sultry, and the social consciousness she brings to country music is hair-raising. “The Body Electric” is her pro-woman response to the traditional murder ballad (“Tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that’s so sick and sad?”) which comes after a couple of new takes on old bluegrass standards ( “Blue Ridge Mountain” and “The New SF Bay Blues”). She is both innovative and true to herself with a haunting, intense approach to this already venerable genre.
Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
This is definitely the hardest-hitting album of 2014 for me, both for the unapologetic punk sounds and the heartbreaking story they tell. It’s basically the confessional of Tom Gable becoming Laura Jane Grace. It’s messy, it’s awkward, and it’s also beautiful and humbling. I don’t fully understand the pain that Grace has gone through to get to where she is now, but I’m very grateful and inspired by her openness and vulnerability – being willing to let millions of people shine a spotlight on such a personal and deeply felt experience is the definition of courage.
Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End
Weezer is back, people. I never thought it would happen since Raditude and the other travesties since Maladroit, but this one brings back all the harmonies and expansive wistfulness of Weezer’s former glory, with some really interesting concept album threads too, not least of which is the last track which is a three-phase operetta lasting 7 1/2 minutes. On the whole it’s a very ambitious album, with one song not just referencing Paul Revere’s famous ride, but straight-up paying homage to it, and not ironically. There’s not a low point on this record, and it feels SO good to finally have the Weezer album that *should* have followed the genius of Pinkerton. We’ve waited 18 years since then, and this is a huge payoff.
Taylor Swift – 1989
I’ve always been kind of an on-again-off-again fan of Taylor Swift thanks to most of her singles being impossible to get out of my head and not altogether horrible, but 1989 takes it to the next level. It’s her first breakthrough as a mainstream pop star (she’s done with the constraints of Nashville), but there’s nothing conventional about the album. It’s alluring, sexy, vindictive at times and playful at others. To my relatively untrained ear it’s extremely well-mixed and expertly produced, a joint-production effort including Jack Antonoff of Fun./Bleachers, Imogen Heap, and the pop titan Max Martin who produced a number of Swift’s other smash hits.Top tracks include the lead singles “Shake it Off”, the incredible “Blank Space”, as well as the hypnotic “Out of the Woods” and “Bad Blood” (which is probably not actually about her mega-hyped disputes with Katy Perry). Bottom line with 1989: I wanted to hate it, but I really really like it.
Jack White – Lazaretto
OK, so I followed Taylor Swift with Jack White. I wonder if either of them would mind being next to each other? Both records are incredible in their own way. I’d rank Lazaretto higher than T-Swift if I were actually ranking these, because Jack’s record is probably the coolest consumer item I’ve come across in the last 5 years or so. First of all – the gimmicks. It’s a 180-gram vinyl that projects a hologram when it spins, it spins from the inside out on Side A, has a hidden track on Side A, and begins Side B with a surprise acoustic intro to an otherwise electric song – but only if you start it at a certain place in the groove. The cover art is complex and stunning, and I’m proud to own the record.
Now, the songs. This is Jack’s somewhat significant departure into more of vintage country feel while still pushing the rock envelope ever further. On the tour for this album he frequently does his more jangly acoustic country version of “Hotel Yorba” and several tracks on Lazaretto feature a pedal steel. But the title track for one, and “High Ball Stepper” for another feature the syncopated, mind-melting power-riffs that White has been known for, and the final track features a sampling of an old duck call used by hunters back in the day when they would bring an old 45 player with internal speaker into the woods and play the record to attract the ducks. Yeah. Also, electric fiddle makes a frequent showing, and occasionally there’s this eerie whistle/squeal that’s created using the palm of one’s hand interfering with sound frequencies in an early 20th century vaccum-tube transistor system. Yes, I don’t fully understand it. Yes, it is awesome, and I so look forward to the next genre-busting revolution sure to come from Mr. White.
Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits
The opening line of the whole record just blew me away from the get go “I bought this camera to take pictures of my love / Now that he’s gone I don’t have anybody to take pictures of.” The delivery, the rhyme, the sadness – all perfect. Each time I’ve seen the band perform, I’m consistently floored by Rachael Price’s stage presence, and her powerful, powerful voice. She’s basically a 1960s motown maven living out a blessed existence as a uber-hip Brooklyn force of nature. (Say that 3 times fast). The band is extremely cohesive together, there’s a ton of energy throughout the record, and the production is really well-balanced and warm. Very fun record, and I’m looking forward to hearing more.