Here it is ,March and I am embarking on my annual music wrap up from the past year. So many reasons why I am so late, most of them involve me immersing myself in the music I’m writing about. Some of it I have recently acquired.
What a fabulous year for music. The welcome return of some favorite artists, some moody women, break up albums, and some new discoveries. Dreamers with stories to tell, and songs to sing.
It is time for me to share my thoughts on this great music. Better late than never.
1] The Pearfishers -“Open up your colouring book “..
” It’s a beautiful day, so get out of bed
You’ve got to get up while you can….”
All hail the “Master” of pop. Back after 7 years with an album that spans 16 tracks and 67 minutes of pop splendor . So much to thrill to . There is David’s magnificent multi-layered singing.The songs are full of key changes that tug at your emotions. Acoustic guitars, timpani, full string section , even some whistling. All composed, produced, and arranged by David Scott.
“Chasing all the good days down”
“You’ll never steal my spirit”
“Gone in the winter”
“Open up your colouring book.”
“One for you, two for luck, mix it all up in a wooden cup …”
“I don’t want to know about it” [this one will break your heart]
Believe me. This album is a masterpiece!
For those interested in music arranging , here is a video of David working on the album:
2] Roddy Frame- “Seven Dials”
” Once,like a kid I reigned
King of all that I surveyed…”
The boy wonder returns with a brilliant set of tunes on the AED label, which is owned by his friend Edwynn Collins. In 2013 he toured and played the entire “High Land Hard Rain” album, celebrating it’s 30th anniversary. Now he’s back with his honey tinged vocals and excellent guitar work. This is an inspired effort . There is the gentle bossa nova sway to “Rear View Mirror”, and a guitar solo on “Postcard” that is straight out of “Oblivious”. By naming a song “Postcard” points to how much he is in touch with his past.
I first heard this album in a cabin in Wisconsin , and it affected me deeply. Repeated plays have elevated these songs to the status of his greats, like “Somewhere in my Heart”. It’s that good.
A mature album by a masterful musician.
“Into the Sun”-as good as a rock song can be.
“Cos when it goes, it goes…”
“English Garden”- a fragile ballad ,that concludes with some of his most effective singing ever. You have to hear it.
3] Rumer – “Into Color”
“I am Blessed…”
Blessed is an understatement. It is one thing to be in love with the soft rock that Bacharach and Webb produced. But with a voice so pure, and a producer that worked with Burt Bacharach , Rumer has put out this album that sounds like a lost classic from that era.
That producer is Bob Shirakbari, who also arranged and co-wrote the music, and piano and bass on the album. He has helped to bring to this music a sophistication unheard of in today’s music scene. And Rumer with her gorgeous voice seems to pull all of this off without effort. This is some album!
“Dangerous” is the song with “hit” potential, but it is the rest of the songs that create the mood. Songs with key changes that tug at your heart. Songs with brass accents that Bacharach made famous, and beautiful strings. Wonderful songs like “Reach Out” and “You just don’t know people”. Songs of melancholy , heartbreak, and resolve. Even a nod to sunshine pop with “Pizza and Pinball .” This really is some album.
If you are in love with those old Dionne Warwick songs, you owe it to yourself to listen to this music, I look forward to more from this remarkable artist.
“Take a little walk in the sunshine .Count 1, 2, 3…”
“You just don’t know people”
“Baby come back to bed ” My favorite , co-written by Stephen Bishop.
4] Real Estate- “Atlas”
” and the only thing that really matters, is the one thing I can’t seem to do…”
I saw Real Estate perform “Talking Backwards” on Letterman and I was hooked. It led me to my favorite album of the year by a standard rock quintet. It is a sad album , with chiming guitars and plaintive vocals. The sound is crisp and tender, and is a study in simplicity.
And of course there are the songs. Filled with great lines, like these two from “The Bend” ;
“I’m just trying to make some sense of this before I loose another year…”
“Like I’m behind the wheel , but it won’t steer…”
Some of the album was recorded at Wilco’s studio The Loft. They thank the Feelies in the credits. I get that, but I also hear Felt , a band near and dear to me.
I’ve included that Letterman clip for you. A review worth looking up is the one John Mulvey did for Uncut. Do listen to this fine music. It will touch you. These guys are sad beyond their years.
5] Swan Dive “Soundtrack to me and you”
“It’s bittersweet without the bitter…”
It came in a nifty package all the way from Korea. It is always exciting to listen to a new Swan Dive album. Reviews claim it is their 10th release. I haven’t counted, but I have them all. I love them all. There is so much to admire . Bill DeMain’s crafty songs, and Molly Felder’s awesome vocals. Pop music may be a familiar genre, but no one does it quite like Swan Dive.
This album plays like a hit parade from yesterday year. Like a countdown, every song hits and delights From the finger snapping opener “Sweet summer fling” to the feel good closer, “Good Things”, we get breezy pop, sweet R&B, torch, even a classy chanson,”Brief Interlude”. As usual we have Brad Jones producing and Jim Hoke on saxophone and horn arranging. Bill is in fine company with his composing partners [Mike Viola, Kelly Jones, Boo Hewerdine, and the great Gary Clark. He even gets Gary to sing backing vocals on “Slim Willie Dunn and the gin bottle pour.” I’ve said it before , so I’ll say it again. Molly is the best singer out there. Period. Just listen to her stunning “Star Crossed lover” if you don’t believe me. Chills galore!
If I were a wealthy man , I would love to finance a documentary on just how Bill DeMain writes these songs.It could conclude with the songs in production. Someday maybe.
I really love the fact that Bill is doing more singing with Molly on this one. It speaks well of the possible country duet album Bill has hinted at. That would be so cool.
My love affair with Swan Dive continues. Like all great albums, it leaves you wanting more.
“Star crossed Lover”
“Brief Interlude” [“Milkshakes for two”]
an oldie but a real goodie :
Forgot to mention how much I love the cover art work. Beautiful!
6] Sondre Lerche- “Please ”
” Now we’ll never know what legends we were meant to be …”
Sondre is one of today’s most important pop artists. His glorious melodies, his poetic lyrics, and the combination of both is like no other. His unique talent is on full tilt with “Please .” It is a break up album, even though the actual songs were written mostly before the break. The songs are still filled with his special brand of pop. But there is more rhythm , and there are moments of sonic distortion that accent the tensions going on. There is pure adventure going on here.
the falsetto in “Bad Law”- quite a hook. great rhythmic dance tune
“When crimes are passionate , can love be separate …”
the weariness in his vocals in “At a loss for words ” – he way he holds onto the word “change ”
the tug of war going on in “At times we live Alone”
“Try “I love you” ,try “get angry”…”
the incredible sax solo at the close of “Logging off”- simply amazing
There are two ballads that showcase Sondre at his very best. “Sentimentalist” shimmers with beauty even with the tension going on
“I’ll be damned if I fight , I’ll be damned if I don’t …”
It reminds me of a Jacques Brel chanson . It ends with a wash of dissonance.
“Lucky Guy” is a gorgeous love song , perhaps Sondre’s finest. But it is a love song to his break up. Still the beauty is there, and some of the previous tension is eased up.
” I won’t lie , Baby you broke me, I am truly a lucky guy…”
It all ends with “Logging off” with it’s enigmatic lyrics of a “ghost”
“Looked for you in a mirror , but you were logging off …”
I hope when great break up albums are discussed that “Please ” is remembered. It is a milestone recording for Sondre. Can’t wait to hear what he’ll follow this with . Whatever it is , I’ll be there.
Check out the dancing in the “Legends” video. Pretty cool!
7] Nicole Atkins- “Slow Phaser”
“Here we stand still and desired, Seagulls know what we conspired…”
One thing that can be said about Nicole Atkins. This lady can sing! I first saw her on Letterman, way back doing “The way it is”. I was immediately hooked, and she became one of my favorite singers. She can rock , and she is an amazing torch singer.
I took this album with me on vacation in San Diego. My first listen was on the plane ride,and it became our favorite in the rental car. Every time I played it , my wife would say “Who is this ?” She really liked Nicole’s voice. That is saying a lot, because she doesn’t like a lot of the music I play. The album was recorded in Sweden, and it really is delightful.
She comes out blazing on the opener ,”who killed the Moonlight” with a killer chorus. There is the seductive singing on “Girl you look amazing” and “Cool People”.
“How does it feel to be cool People, what does it mean to me, cool people…”
The way she sings that song is , well cool.Her voice glides through that chorus and is a big hook. She has the bar anthem “It’s only Chemistry ” with it’s great sing along ;
“All that you love and what makes you feel free, It is and forever will be…” Raise your glass!
The torch singing is displayed on the stirring “Red Ropes” and “Gasoline Bride” a terrific road song.
“The worst hangover” is my favorite. where she ends with “I’m Dying” and descends her voice lower and lower till she reaches the end. Gets me every time.
She ends with the lovely ballad “Above as below” , with some gorgeous singing.
So we have rock and torch, touches of dance music, and nice ambient textures. But how do I describe this album? Well, I went to her site and got the following :
” a neon noir tour de force of hi-def late night pop …”. There you have it. And it all comes back to what I said at the beginning, this lady can sing!
Here is a recent Letterman performance of her classic “War Torn” . It is a must see
8]Hello Saferide- “The Fox, the hunter and Hello Saferide”
” I was born a romantic for a reason, not to be loved, to be a songwriter…”
The cd arrived all the way from Sweden. Welcome back bittersweet story teller Annika Norlin, or better known as Hello Saferide. I am a huge fan of her narrative music .She can be quite funny, but this album is darker. Still the music carries the same sweetness we know from her past releases.
She wastes no time , for the opening track “I forgot about songs” is gorgeous. Here are some of her best lyrics as she sings about re-connecting with her love for music.
“I forgot about songs, I forgot about what they are to me
I forgot how they hold me , how they soothe me and carry me…”
This is one of the year’s best songs.
-“Dad told me ” -sad and personal
“I’ve lived my life with a backpack that was never mine to carry… ”
-“I was Jesus” -she sings of coming back as Jesus, Ghandi ,and Martin Luther King .
“And I was Jesus and I decided to come down to earth, in the shape of a woman this time…”
However being a woman does not fare well for her. The wordless background singing at the close is a nice touch.
-“Raspberry Lips” -best pop song here with falsetto and romance. Love it!
-“This Body”- used in a Swedish documentary on transgenders. I watched part of it on YouTube bit it was in Swedish as well as the notes about it.
“Oh, body ,how I have wished of you
That you would look different than you do…”
The song ends with a chorus of singers that is quite moving.
– “Hey Ho”- a quiet song about the loss of youth that is heartbreaking.
“And when the streets wake up at nights, we’ll go there
singing “Hey ho”
The ending of this song brings tears to my eyes. And that is the magic of Hello Saferide. Sweet music with deep meaning. I don’t understand all the meanings, but still am very moved by her.
It reached #4 in the Swedish charts. Does that mean she may come to Chicago [Please!]
9] Liam Hayes-“Korp Sole Roller”
“If there’s a singer , there is a song…”
For over 20 years Liam Hayes or Plush , has been treating those who know to his never ending pop songs. He is known for his meticulous attention to detail, for going broke financing orchestral and string sections. However , lately that has changed. He has stripped back his production, dropped the Plush name, and gone to a core rock band. And the results have been wonderful. Suddenly we don’t have to wait endlessly for new music. In fact ,he is working so quickly these days that he has already released a follow up to “Korp Sole Roller”, the 2014 release I am writing about.
His influences are pop standard: Lennon, Wilson, Rundgren and don’t forget Bacharach. On this release I am hearing more Jimmy Webb than in the past. His endearing melodies, lovely falsetto, chord changes that tug at the heart all add up to melancholy pop of the highest order. And I can’t stress enough the emotions he can find in a song.
” A glimpse inside” -opening track- Rundgren piano , with the band kicking in and we’re off and running. A nice twin guitar in the middle .
-” Dream Deferred”- if there is single, this is it.
-” Cried a thousand thousand times” -shades of Lennon – even some Beatles-ish guitar to close
-“Waves”- classic Plush sound with some of his best falsetto
“If the love that you have is leaving, let it be
If the dream that you had’s receiving, set it free…”
An incredibly beautiful track.
-“I’m sorry”- more Lennon- sweet and endearing
-“Rock and roll” – very Jimmy Webb hear with more lovely falsetto
“won’t you tell me that I’m still alive …”
The hooks and melodic changes of these songs have stuck with me since I first heard them. I had several of them playing in my head for weeks. Can’t wait to hear the new one.
Included for your musical pleasure is a 19 minute set recorded in a hotel lobby. If that is too much go to the 8 minute mark to see Plush at their best. A couple tunes from this album are on there.
10] Sharon Van Etten- “Are we there ”
“Sitting on the porch looking for a way out…”
After hearing “Taking Chances ” on WXRT I had to finally check Sharon out and wound up being deeply affected by this album. In fact I can safely say that no other release on this list affected me the way that this one did. The power that love holds over us and how it can crush us is on full display here. Sharon Van Etten has a powerful voice and together with her sensitive musical backing takes us on quite a journey through the pitfalls of relationships.
The first 3 tracks set the stage :
-“Afraid of nothing”- Simple piano, light guitar , and a magnificent vocal ,accented by swirling ambient strings that just move you
” you told me the day that you show me your face We’d be in trouble for a long time…”
The mood grabs you and doesn’t let go , but we move on
– “Taking Chances”- one of the year’s best – her vulnerable voice hypnotizes you and does not let go. “Be alone and take, and you break for your sake …”
Moody organ to add to the emotions , but she is just getting started
– “Your love is killing me ” 6 minutes filled with the terror of love gone very wrong .The starkest lyrics of the year :
“Break my legs so I won’t walk to you cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you..”
“you love me as you torture me…”
Staggering music with great drumming pushing it along.
The songs following do let up a bit. “I love you but I’m lost ” is a favorite with just Sharon and Heather singing with minimal backing. And the very pretty pop of “Nothing will change” with subtle woodwinds and this classic line :
” A couple years later When I saw you making Western moves…”
Through all of this we are hearing a major vocalist . Sharon sings with great confidence and the needed vulnerability . I must mention the backing vocals of Heather Woods Broderick that are vital to the beauty of this music.
From pain comes the resolve of moving on. After the final song ends, we hear Sharon laughing in the studio , so we know our singer may be doing all right.
Watch the hypnotic video for “Taking Chances” -just look at her face. Then just Sharon and Heather with “Afraid of Nothing” -simply awesome.
11) Beck- “Morning Phase”
12) Spoon – “They want my soul” – Inspired effort – glad to have them back
13} Eleni Mandell- “Let’s Fly a Kite ” Funny, sad, and wonderful.
14} Lykke Li- “I never learn”- Another break up album- powerful in it’s sustaining melancholy
15} Roseanne Cash- “The River and the Thread ” -Impressive travel through the South.
16} Angel Olsen- “Burn your fire for no witness”- High, lonesome and stunning.
17} Elizabeth and the Catapult- “Like it never Happened”-Entertaining pop artist who can make you think and laugh all in the same song- plays a mean piano
18} Vic Goddard and Subway Sect- “1979 Now!”- Lots of fun as the veteran tackles Northern Soul all self written by Vic- on Edwynn Collins AED label
19}Jackson Browne- “Standing in the Breach “- another welcome back- still has stories to tell and songs to sing- in terrific voice
20} Linus of Hollywood- “Something Good”- top drawer infectious power pop
21] Tweedy- “Sukierae”- Not a throw away by any means- there are some very affective tunes here, with minimum instrumental backing. So nice to hear Jeff play guitar a lot.
22] Kasim Sultan- “Three”- Very impressive pop outing by this terrific singer. Includes a sweet cover of “Someone to watch over me”
23] NRBQ- “Brass Tacks”- Wonderful album. Scott Ligon has really proven to be such an asset. He even brought in his musical friend Casey McDonough. Nice mix of romantic and quirky tunes.Sweet cover of “Getting to Know you”.
24] Ben Watt-“Hydra”-So happy to see his name pop up with a new one.
25] Avi Buffalo-“At best cuckold”- Gorgeous pop with sweet high vocal. Total delight.
26] Foxygen – “And Star Power”- Sprawling double album that goes from Todd Rundgren sound ing pop to noise.
27] The New Pornographers-“Brill Bruisers”-Soaring pop anthems
28] St. Vincent-“St Vincent”- continues her unique sound , always with amazing guitar
29] Lana Del Rey- “Ultraviolence ” Noir torch that draws you in. She is developing her own brand and it is special.
30] Lake Street Dive- “Bad Self Portraits ” Another group discovered on Letterman. Singer Rachael Price is gritty and can sing any genre. Impressive!
Some more who did good work:
Jill Sobule – “Dottie’s Charms”
New Medicants _ “Into the Lime”
Nikki Lane – “All or Nothing”
Sarah Borges- “Radio Sweetheart”
Tiny Ruins- “Brightly painted one ”
Gruff Rhys- “American Interior”
The Yearning “Dreamboats and Lemonade”
Neil Finn “Dizzy Heights”
Recordings of special merit :
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross- “Gone Girl ” Soundtrack
This album of atmospheric music takes it’s place along side soundtracks like “Twin Peaks”, music that plays equally well at enhancing it’s movie yet stands on it’s own as a pure listening experience. It is dark and moody like modern noir music, but there is also beautiful music. There are lovely themes that show the initial romance in the story, and it all turns to doom and gloom as the dark story goes. Recommended for anyone who enjoys music for thrillers. I love them, and this is one of the best.
Oxford American Southern Music CD- “Texas”
Every year the southern literature magazine devotes an entire issue to music. The last few have been focused on one location. This year it was the music of Texas. They are fascinating compilations ,as well as the magazine which is full of articles about the music. The music is comprehensive from historic to current. Among the 25 tracks on “Texas” are artists as diverse as Moon Mullican, Barbara Lynn, Bob Wills, Spoon, even Ornette Coleman. Highly recommended for music lovers. This is the 16th collection. Most of them are still available at the magazine’s site.
She and Him- “Classics”
Perfect time for a covers album by these two. Some standards, some oldies. Songs like “Unchained Melody”, “Teach me tonight”, “Oh no ,not my Baby”, and “It’s not for me to say”.Both Zooey and M. Ward are huge music lovers , and we’re going deep into their record collection for this release. Accented by lots of horns, and featuring M. Ward’s tasty guitar ,this is good stuff. I love it. With each release , Zooey gets better on vocals and gains more confidence. Just listen to how well they click on “Time after Time” ,
Songs of the year:
-Sharon Van Etten -“Afraid of Nothing” Can not listen to this without being affected by it. The strings alone are devastating.
-Natalie Prass- “Bird of Prey”- This has a real pull to it. Shades of Dusty Springfield. An artist to really watch out for in the new year.
-Real Estate- “Talking Backwards”-Chiming guitars add to the sadness at stake here
-Angel Olsen- “Hi-Five”- “Are you lonely too. High Five. So am I…” What a song
-Avi Buffalo -“Overwhelmed with Pride”- What a find. Just lovely high vocals.
-Rumer- “Baby come back to bed” Sensuous beauty on an album full of gems.
-Hello Saferide – “I forgot about songs” Love the lyrics about re-connecting with music
-Pearlfishers- “Chasing all the good days down”- insanely great pop. Can’t say enough about David Scott, a pop genius.
-Linus of Hollywood- “When it’s quiet”- There is a moment in this song that elevates it; he sings “When it’s quiet, Music plays in my head, My own private symphony” followed by strings playing that very symphony. Wonderful!
-Lana Del Rey- “Cruel World”- “Get a little bit of bourbon in ya ”
-Vic Godard and Subway Sect- “You bring out the demon in me” So cool. Listen to that sax.
-Kasim Sultan- “Clocks all stopped”- Sounds like Utopia. What a voice. Those guitars.
-The Grand Gestures featuring Gary Clark- “The World will break your heart” Gary Clark is one of my favorite vocalists ever. This is quite haunting.
-U2 -“The Miracle [of Joey Ramone”- First heard this on the car radio and had no idea who it was . With it’s monster guitar riff, smashing drums, and an inspired vocal this ode to a great punk singer is quite addictive. Then it popped up in the Apple ads and I could not escape it.I still applaud their free download to I-Tunes was brilliant. Don’t know why people complained.
-Taylor Swift- “Welcome to New york” – Her performance of this tune on Letterman got me out of my chair. I had no idea. After one viewing the song was stuck in my head. What a surprise. What a performance. I see her entirely different now.
-Jackson Browne- ” Walls and Doors”- There is always one song on a Jackson Browne album that stands apart as a great one. This is that song on his latest. It is a cover of a Carlos Varela tune, a Cuban artist who also ends the song with his vocals. An excellent song from a fine album.
-Nikki Lane- “Sleep with a stranger” Sassy little tune from a smokin’ album.
“You can call me , anything you want to Just don’t call me , after tonight …”
-New Pornographers- “Brill Bruisers “- First tune on the album and it wastes no time in delivering soaring pop, the kind A.C. Newman is known for.
I need to check out [music I haven’t gotten to because there’s only so much time] :
Owen Pallet, Steve Gunn, Ty Segull, Mac DeMarco. War on Drugs, Cloud Nothings, Sturgill Simpson , Olof Arnalds ,
Looking forward to in 2015:
Belle and Sebastian, Decemberists, Courtney Barnett, B. C. Camplight, Natalie Prass, Waterboys, Sufjan Stevens, Brian Wilson, Josh Rouse, Mikal Cronin, Sleater Kinney, Of Montreal, The Do, Liam Hayes and Plush, Laura Marling, Michael Carpenter, Michael Head, My Morning Jacket, Tame Impala, Nellie McKay Ron Sexsmith Tallest Man on Earth Joanna Newsome [I hope] ,Rhiannon Giddens
I can dream can’t I – After hearing Gary Clark’s vocals on the Grand Gestures and Swan Dive albums it would be a dream come true if he made an album. Such an awesome talent. With artists like Ben Watt releasing new music I’m holding out hope for Gary.
-Daniel Tashian the immensely talented vocalist for Nashville’s Silver Seas has some solo recordings. I’m a huge fan and didn’t know. I found 2 of them, “Arthur” and the Lights of this Town”. Also a 2011 release by the Boxwoods which seems to be all Daniel. That one even has a cool Christmas song. All of these are full of wonderful, sensitive singing and beautiful tunes. If you enjoy the Silver Seas , do seek these out.
-A. K. Ellis- I freaked out when I found this one. I love the music of Sylvie Lewis , and wait patiently for new releases. Not sure when this originated, but Sylvie made some recordings with Italian pianist Valerio Vigliar aa A. K. Ellis. Just stumbled upon this on YouTube and was able to download the music from Bandcamp. 5 tracks , all great. And Sylvie is wonderful as usual. A real find.
Disappointment : Bruce Springsteen “High Hopes”- Why Bruce decided to showcase Tom Morello is beyond comprehension. I have tried to enjoy this album, but end up cringing when Morello indulges. With amazing guitarists like Nils Lofgren and Little Steven , even Bruce himself, why Morello takes over this release beats me. Skip it and spend your money on a Nils Lofgren release.
Eleni Mandell at Shubas . A terrific evening of music and story telling by one of the very best. Her latest “Let’s fly a Kite” was showcased . Her dry , self deprecating humor had everyone quite amused.
All the internet sites and magazines that kept me well informed: Mojo, NME, Uncut [thank you to John Mulvey for those weekly playlists], Pitchfork, PopMatters , Alan Haber and Pure Pop Radio. Paste, Pause and Play, No Depression, Stereogum
Thanks to: Ray at Kool Kat Records , Matinee Records, Darla Records, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, The Nashville Scene
To all my internet friends from groups like Beyond a Wizard, Audities, and Boo Hewerdine,
Special mention to the staff at David Lettermen for consistently fulfilling us with great musical acts. Don’t know what I’m going to do without you.
And to Paul Shaffer- his knowledge of musical history comes pouring out of the tv screen,That man can play with anyone and do it with finesse.
That’s it. It is now mid April and I’m ready to share this list. If you’ve got this far , chances are you love music as much as I do. So if you have an artist to turn me onto , please do. And by all means, if you try one of acts I’ve listed, and like what you hear, please don’t hesitate to let me know. This yearly exercise is for sharing musical ideas. I’m not a writer. Just a huge musical fan. Watch some of those videos I picked out. There are some good ones.
Time to start diving into some 2015 music.
A very special thanks to my wife, Amy for giving me the Beatles Box set for Christmas. Love love love it!
God save the Kinks!