The Year In Music 2014: Antony’s Picks

hissBy Antony. This was a good year to be into “bluegrass”—which has apparently become an umbrella term for all things folky, Americana, and alt-country. Eight of my fourteen picks land rather comfortably in that genre, and if I’d made the list longer it would be even clearer that this was a bluegrass year.

First, the list. After it, a narrative description of my year in music.

1. Hiss Golden Messenger – Lateness Of Dancers
2. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
3. Coldplay – Ghost Stories
4. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
5. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
6. Taylor Swift – 1989
7. Noah Gundersen – Ledges
8. Dawn Landes – Bluebird
9. Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
10. Eddie Berman – Polyhymnia & Blood And Rust (EP)
11. Spoon – They Want My Soul
12. Blackbird Blackbird – Tangerine Sky
13. Pianos Become The Teeth – Keep You
14. Bear’s Den – Islands

Hiss Golden Messenger’s Lateness Of Dancers moves me. Every review mentions that the album’s title comes from a line in Eudora Welty’s novel, Delta Wedding. But no review does anything with this fact. They don’t comment on the fact that it’s an incredible title for an album. They don’t note that HGM is mining the same Southern gothic vein as Welty. And they most certainly don’t note that the album is itself a great work of storytelling. It’s a beautiful, lived-in, creaky-old, hopeful story. Without a doubt, my album of the year.

In another year, First Aid Kit’s Stay Gold would have taken the prize. There’s a maturity in their songwriting that had previously only been hinted at. Stay Gold is about being not-so-young anymore and trying to figure out if you’re traveling because you’re running from or toward something. FAK had a banner year in 2014. Stay Gold was a success; they sang harmony on Conor Oberst’s return to form, Upside Down Mountain (which came in at #9 on my list); and they recorded an excellent cover of REM’s late-career gem, “Walk Unafraid,” for the upcoming movie Wild.

Coldplay’s Ghost Stories is easily the album I’ve listened to the most this year. My appreciation of it has only deepened. I spent much of the summer writing, and there is no better early morning writing album than Ghost Stories. It operates as a whole; several of the songs may be too atmospheric and slight to exist independent of the others, but they hold together to create something special. All the obstacles to enjoying Coldplay vanish as the album loops for the second, then the third time. What’s left is the delicate, organic electronic sound—the details reward repeated listens, the vibe is seductive, and “Midnight” is the best song by anyone in 2014.

Ryan Adams doesn’t have to try to earn my love; he has my number, and I’m always excited when he calls. As much as he wants to put distance between himself and his reputation as an alt-country god, he will never succeed because his songs, no matter how he presents them, have the soul and integrity of a well-written country song. To round out the bluegrass albums on my list were a few names that were new to me. Noah Gundersen’s Ledges was described by my friend Chris as “worship music about sex and drugs.” That’s right; I dig it. Dawn Landes’s Bluebird played during many a dinner this year in my house. Eddie Berman made the list on the strength of his EP that he just matched with his album, Polyhymnia. Oh, and his frequent collaboration with Laura Marling is a big plus for me. Bear’s Den just makes the list. The album is a little uneven. A great live show at the Casbah in San Diego has boosted my affection for the whole thing. The highlights, especially “Elysium,” are incredibly high. I expect great things from them in the future.

And the rest. Sylvan Esso (another great writing record) is fun and different. As the genre of electronica-fronted-by-a-female-vocalist reached critical mass and my indifference began to overwhelm me, Sylvan Esso did something new with the formula. Great live show too! Taylor Swift’s 1989 would have been my favorite album of the year if she were singing about where I’m at now, but she’s ten years younger than me so I can only connect to it through the sheer joy of pop and through a memory-filtered empathy for what it was like to be 25. Fortunately, that’s enough. I dig the hell out of this thing without a tinge of that irony that eats the souls of hipsters and the “hipster adjacent.” Spoon’s They Want My Soul briefly threatened to be my favorite, but somehow it fell out of the rotation after a little while. Great stuff though. Blackbird Blackbird is new to me. I dig the Postal Service vibe of Tangerine Sky. And Pianos Become The Teeth is my favorite of a group of very good records in the great #emorevival of 2014.

Lastly, I should mention my annual “late discovery”—that album from 2013 that I missed or failed to understand. This year that album is the Arctic Monkey’s AM. It is excellent on every level. They may be the only interesting rock band left on earth.

20 thoughts on “The Year In Music 2014: Antony’s Picks

  1. I mean, I have to be a little disappointed that my personal top pick, Noah Gundersen, managed to come in on your list behind …. Taylor Swift? I haven’t heard a single note of the album, so I suppose I’m not qualified to judge. Suffice it to say that at least for once I’m not the one on this site who’s in the position of defending pop music from the detractors! (At least we have each other’s back where Coldplay is concerned….)

    Allow me to venture a theory: it seems like your top two picks, HGM and FAK, have their strongest appeal in the lyrical department? This is why, fine as those albums are, they didn’t quite vault as high for me; I’m just not as much of a lyrics guy. But am I correct in assuming that the words and the ideas are what you loved most about them?

  2. My son is an Artic Monkey Junkie and has control of the radio in the morning so needless to say I’ve heard that album more times than anything else this year. I like it but the repetition of it is wearing thin on me now.
    Hiss Golden Messenger and Spoon are our only overlap but I’ve been in a weird place this year and if I ever get around to writing one of these you’ll see what I’m talking about if not I’ll just list them on a comment section.

  3. @Spencer. You are correct. HGM and FAK definitely rise to the top for me because of the lyrics. That lines up with one of the other things 2014 was for me, which is a year of poetry. I’ve really gotten back into it and am much happier as a result!

  4. Let’s also talk Spoon for a moment. They Want My Soul was a huge improvement from Transference (which was gratingly lo-fi to me), but to me, it’s still the second worst Spoon album. That doesn’t make it bad by any stretch, but whereas Spoon had been a year-end list staple from 1998 to 2006 or so, this one didn’t get me there. It’s just sort of middle of the pack in my opinion. I know you loved it, though, so what am I missing?

  5. Okay, let’s talk Spoon. I don’t recognize your dismissal of Transference. I assume your listing of albums ignores the stuff before Girls Can Tell, right? Because Telefono is not very good at all. I think ranking Spoon albums is an absurd task. There is Spoon; that is all. You might have a favorite for personal, life-narrative reasons, but that album is not better than any of the others. What was interesting about They Want My Soul was how much I liked it, enjoyed it, and then how quickly it became assimilated into the category of “Spoon” where I’m as likely to play that as I am Gimme Fiction or Killing the Moonlight or any of the others. They all serve the same purpose.

  6. Series of sneaks was before Girls Can Tell and that album kills. I could also state a small case for Telefono but I’m a diehard who loved Divine Fits. I tend to disagree that there is spoon that is all though , I feel there is a spoon album that can scratch any nagging itch except maybe a hip-hop itch but gimme fiction is pretty funky. I think you’re right that it’s absurd to rank them because it changes on mood, today I feel chill so I want to unwind with some transference, let me just say if you ever have an angst anxiety itch throw on telephono and see if that doesn’t take you back to an awkward first year in college trying to figure yourself out place. I think I’m in complete agreement with Antony thatThey Want My Soul was immediate, it’s almost as if they took the best of themselves and their different sounds and melded it into one cohesivive album. This would be my recommendation to a new listener as to what the essence of Spoon is, an entry point into this amazing band.

  7. I don’t like Shovels and Rope for whatever reason (I know I should). But I liked Lily & Madeleine’s FUMES, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Blake Mills, Justin Townes Earle, Mirah, Sturgill Simpson, Vance Joy (on the poppier side), Willie Watson, and Ryley Walker. And for electronica, Jon Hopkin’s “Asleep Versions-EP” totally wrecks me.

  8. You are correct that I’m leaving off pre-Girls Can Tell (though I’d still put those albums ahead of Transference). As for the output between Girls Can Tell and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, I’m fine with saying those albums are in a four-way tie. The important point–and the one I was trying to make–is that Transference is far and away below those. And They Want My Soul falls somewhere in-between. I really haven’t put it into the mix alongside those four albums. I’m really not meaning to ding it here — I think it’s a decent album. It’s just not a great one.

  9. Antony,
    First off, really grateful that you brought HGM and Bear’s Den to my attention, these have been instant musical loves for me. Most of your list makes sense to me, aside from Taylor Swift, though I love your commentary on that album. But seriously, your favorite album of the year?! I listened to her album quite a bit with a lot of hipster guilt and a shocking amount of enjoyment. But still, I think her albums are the kind that are AMAZING for about 3 months and then fade into forgettable nostalgia. Plus this album is so over produced you can barely tell it’s her singing the songs, it could be Demi Lovato or any other young female pop star. I think she traded the distinctiveness (though not amazing quality) of her voice for catchy pop beats/hooks.

    Antony and Spencer,
    This is where I also have a bone to pick with Coldplay. This was actually the album I listened to the most while I was abroad, and I truly love and appreciate it. But as someone else pointed out I think I was so let down by Mylo Xyloto that I sort of expected this one to have the same quick fade from the rotation. I also hate the song Magic more than almost any song, not sure why. But Midnight and O are awe inspiring.

    Spencer, Biff, Antony,
    I discovered Spoon my first year of college and they sort of stuck there for me. Maybe I haven’t listened enough to their discography, but I have to agree they are just sort of one sound to me. And I can’t seem to get back to the mood where I enjoy it.

  10. Antony – Was wondering where T. Swifty would fall on your list. Really high it turns out. Ha. Wow. Like the list. Trying to decide if Eddie Berman makes mine. I dig the album, but it becomes a little background-y if I try to make it through the whole album. And thanks for the HGM recommendation months ago. His record definitely make my top list.

    Morgan – Couldn’t agree more on “Magic.” If I had to pick a song that makes me want to start a fight that’d be the one. It’s disgustingly saccharine even for Martin.

  11. Ha. Just looked at the lyrics for “Ink.” Dear Lord, can’t do that one either. And here I thought, “you’re such a precious jewel” was the biggest clunker of a lyric on the record. “I see your stars begin to shine” — those are lyrics for a Disney tune.

  12. Picking apart Coldplay lyrics is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s not a sport suited to gentlemen and ladies. For the record, I don’t mind “Ink” because it seems slight–I don’t really ponder it, it’s connective tissue. “Magic” hurt for a long time. I think because the song SOUNDS so good and the reliance on the idea of “magic” really pains me. But as time has passed, I have an affection for the clunky and corny lyrics. There’s something heartfelt about it. Martin is not the Poet Laureate, he’s just an ordinary fellow with a gift for melody and an awesome band.

  13. @Mark. Yes, I agree about Eddie Berman and the risk of falling into the background. I think the EP might be overall stronger. In the end, the lyrics save this one. He’s a great songwriter and when I pay attention it rises in my estimation…

  14. That’s a very good defense of Coldplay. Martin does have a knack for melody and the record does generally sound good because of the strength of the band. Just not a record for me. He was better in my mind when he kept things more opaque. When he’s direct, at least to me, it comes off as emotionally shallow. Ah well, you’re a better man than me to be able to look past it. The album does have a nice flow, just get too distracted by the rough lyrics. “Midnight” is rad though. That we can agree on.

    Cool. I’ll give the EP more spins. Dove into the record more than the EP.

  15. So the list did grace my presence! You introduced me to Hiss Golden Messenger this year. No doubt it was one of the best albums of 2014 and I had never heard of him before. I think I need to give Conor Oberest another spin. I listened to that album once, thought it was good and never went back.

    Ryan Adams’ record didn’t sit right with me, but I often find myself bored with his full albums, yet love many of his songs. That comment is probably blasphemy for this website…apologies in advance.

  16. @Antony: So on your recommendation and the recommendation of another friend whose taste I also trust, I went ahead and listened to Taylor Swift. I stand by my previous assessments of the quality of her work.

  17. It’s probably your fault that you can’t enjoy 1989, Spencer. Too many hang-ups. You need to be a little younger and more care-free.

  18. You’re right, Antony. I do have this crazy hang-up where I don’t heap credit on 25-year-old songwriters who still write lyrics exclusively about 15-year-old concerns. 🙂

    I mean, seriously, it was one thing when she was still a teenager, but 25 is plenty old enough to be writing about topics of substance and maturity. Case in point, guess who else was born in 1989? Noah Gundersen….

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