By 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.