Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Photo courtesy of Rumer.
Here are my picks for the ten best albums of 2014. In a little departure from past years, we will start with my choice for the album of the year, then the rest of the Top Ten, in alphabetical order. Following that, we offer 40 more, for the complete Music & More Top 50 albums of the year.
Album of the year: Rumer - Into Colour
Listen to "Dangerous"
Rumer could be the musical child of Burt Bacharach and Karen Carpenter. Into Colour is a luxurious collection of original songs that blend the best of sixties pop into modern songcraft and the result is a beautiful listening experience produced by fiancee, musical director, and pianist Rob Shirakbari. This album fully realizes the potential Rumer displayed on her first two albums; every track is a winner. I could seriously listen to this all day long.
Into Colour was released November 10th in the U.K. and Europe. U.S. listeners can buy the download directly from Rumer's webstore or using the above Amazon link, go to the new and used seller listings for a reasonably priced import CD. The U.S. release of Into Colour has been inexplicably set for sometime in March 2015. With the record industry's well documented failure to embrace new technology contributing to its near demise, the labels' failure to grasp the "www" in every web address just further drives the point home. Works such as Rumer's Into Colour should be released worldwide on the same day with downloads for sale globally. Sadly, the labels are clinging to the old and obsolete sales paradigm much to their detriment. For more on this see The Lefsetz Letter.
The rest of this year's Top Ten, alphabetically.
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga - Cheek to Cheek
Listen to "Cheek to Cheek"
Lady Gaga on Tony Bennett during her interview with Howard Stern (12/2/2014), "He's certainly a mentoring figure, but he's so much more than that... Because when I was singing with him last night, we were singing 'Winter Wonderland', and when we were singing he had this joy in his face, and he just looks twenty-five years old. When I'm singing with him, and I'm looking into his eyes and he's laughing and, I've just never been so happy singing with somebody else... With Tony when we're working, and we're working with all the musicians, we're speaking music the whole time... And it's just that he's 100% in control of everything that's going on. Tony does a lot of his own arrangements, he works with everybody personally; he's just incredible." New York Magazine said, “…his voice is still a technical marvel, and no one else on Earth can make a lyric written eight decades ago sound as natural as a conversation at a coffee shop.”
And it's all true. At 88 years of age, Tony Bennett has never been better... or, more popular. Tony's latest album, Cheek to Cheek, A Duet With Lady Gaga entered the Billboard 200 album chart at number one. The album is a jazz-pop masterpiece in which they sing the classics from the Great American Songbook. If you only know Lady Gaga from her own pop career, you are in for a shock. She can sing pure jazz and pop on par with the greats; Tony has compared her to Ella Fitzgerald. Everything about this album speaks perfection: from the vocal performances of Gaga and Bennett to the superb jazz band, to the arrangements, production, and song selection. Tony has been all about the duet, doing three albums in the last decade with a different singer on each track. One of my all time favorite albums is Wonderful World (2002) by Tony Bennett and k.d. lang. I still love that record and didn't think it could get any better but Cheek to Cheek is just amazing in its excellence. Tony Bennett is a true National treasure.
Calico the Band - Rancho California
Listen to "Runaway Cowgirl"
California country is what Calico The Band calls the music on their most excellent debut, Rancho California. California country is country-rock-Americana ala The Eagles, The Byrds, or Poco crossed with likes of The Dixie Chicks; think Nashville meets Laurel Canyon. I have been in love with the voice of Kirsten Proffit for what seems like ever, not to mention her songwriting and her electric guitar. In 2012, Kirsten joined fellow L.A. singer-songwriter multi-instrumentalists Manda Mosher and Aubrey Richmond to form Calico The Band, Calico the word being a shortened version of California country.
These three artists, all having thriving solo careers, found that in Calico the Band the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Their voices blend into beautiful harmonies, their combined instrumental prowess is only exceeded by the confluence of their song-writing skills. Guitar World magazine said, "Like Crosby, Stills & Nash, Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, CALICO the band extends that California Country tradition both in terms of their L.A. roots and being a band of songwriters. 'When you have a band of songwriters,' said Manda, 'and everybody can lead on their own, and have that commanding lead voice, it is powerful. That is who we are.'"
Maggie Chapman - Vignette
Listen to "Golden Girl"
The most impressive debut I've heard in recent years comes from Maggie Chapman, a Nashville based singer-songwriter whose family relocated from her native Florida when her song writing abilities became self-evident. The quote is not attributed by her website, but this is no exaggeration: "Undoubtedly when it comes to crafting lyrical brilliance and unforgettable melodies, Maggie Chapman is in no short supply. That’s exactly what you hear when you listen to Maggie’s debut record, Vignette, which speaks cover to cover with bold confessions, rousing anthems and heartbreaking ballads. After all, there’s a raw honesty that follows Maggie’s writing, weaving in stories from classic novels to life experiences."
Maggie reminds me in many ways of Mindy Smith: the songwriting to be sure, her voice and phrasing, and the superb production, arrangements, and sparkling sound including some very tasty guitar work. I generally don't like when articles or reviews talk about an amazing new artist and how young he or she is. I normally avoid such references (Nelly McKay, Lelia Broussard); so I am hesitant to even bring this up. I feel that it doesn't matter whether an artist is 17, 27, or 77. A good record stands on its own, regardless of the age of the artist. Read about Maggie and you will surely hear how young she is. All this means to me is that since she is starting out at such a high level of excellence, we can expect many years and much great music to come in the future from Maggie Chapman.
Eric Clapton & Friends - The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale
Listen to "Sensitive Kind"
JJ Cale was a guitarist's guitarist, songwriter, and singer. He might have spent his entire career toiling in semi-obscurity if not for Eric Clapton. After Cream, Clapton was searching for ways to stretch musically. He next played in Blind Faith, who toured with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends as opening act. During that tour, Clapton befriended and played with all of Delaney and Bonnie's musicians (most of whom were from Tulsa) and they all worshiped JJ Cale. When Clapton made his first solo album, he used many of these same Tulsa musicians. Bassist Carl Radle suggested the Cale song, After Midnight, which became Clapton's first solo hit. Clapton has done many Cale tunes over the years, including Tulsa Time and Cocaine. Clapton has said that the entire 461 Ocean Boulevard album was essentially a tribute to Cale.
With The Breeze, Clapton has gathered many of his friends who also idolize Cale and they have made a loving tribute with lots of great guitar work. Clapton assembled a dream team of fifteen guitarists, eight of whom also sing. Mark Knopfler is all over the record; one could make a case that his entire solo career has been a tribute to Cale. Other contributors include John Mayer, Tom Petty, Derek Trucks, Albert Lee, David Lindley, Willie Nelson, Doyle Bramhall II, Don Preston, and Mike Campbell. If you have ever listened to a new Clapton album and fretted that he didn't play enough guitar, The Breeze is your dream come true. If you ever wondered what it would sound like to have Clapton and Knopfler playing on the same track, The Breeze gives you that plus many other such combinations. As tributes go, you simply could not ask for more; The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale is as good as it gets.
Cariad Harmon - Cariad Harmon
Listen to "Wicked Town"
The bigtakeover.com compares Cariad Harmon to Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones, and Cat Power. Mark Kemp of Rolling Stone uses Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones as touchstones in describing her music. There is a good reason for these accolades, Cariad is a gifted singer-songwriter with a superb voice that betrays her British origins in the sweetest way. Her music has a bit of folk, a bit of rock, a bit of pop, and a bit of country seasoned with dashes of blues, jazz, and soul.
This year Cariad released her self-titled second album. Her songwriting is masterful in the way that she weaves memorable melodies together with stories, experiences, and emotions. Cariad's songs have a decidedly British pedigree, informed by a New York sensibility. In the full review back in November I said, "In the last week, I must have listened to this album at least ten times. I wouldn't advise doing that with most albums, however this one does not have a bad track on it, and I'm quite happy to report that it gets better and better each time you listen. Cariad Harmon, the album, is something quite special."
Rosita Kess - F.L.O.Y.D
Listen to "Just Because of You"
By way of introduction, "From Bossa Nova to a taste of French chansons to old Cuban and Argentinian flavors, Rosita Kèss finds the thread, weaving her honeyed alto through four languages in eleven original songs on this tuneful international album recorded in New Orleans. Originally from Venice, Italy, Rosita Kèss’ gypsy aura led her to Berlin, Paris, Barçelona and London before finding a groove in New York and spending two years writing songs and making a new record in New Orleans. “I love living in a constant state of motion and I think my music reflects this. I have a little Argentinian blood and the very first compositions I fell in love with were old recording by Mercedes Souza and Ariel Ramirez that my grandmother used to play in the house. I’ve always felt particularly sentimental listening to Tango; it‘s the music of the immigrants, it reflects their profound sense of loss and longing for the people and places they left behind. It was born in African‐Argentinian dance venues where Polkas, Mazurkas, Waltzes were mixed with the popular Habanera from Cuba and the Candombe rhythms from Africa. These are the major influences in my music” (from her website).
This year, Rosita released her third album, F.L.O.Y.D, the title being an acronym for "For Love Of Your Desire". Recorded in New Orleans with some of the Big Easy's best musicians, F.L.O.Y.D brings together all of Rosita's musical influences in a piece of work that is as irresistible as her voice (expressive, emotional, exotic, sweet, warm, and unique). Floyd is also the name of her son; she currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband, singer-songwriter Richard Julian. Of her new album, Rosita says "I think it's the most intimate songs I've ever written, it's still abstract because my lyrics are most of the time abstract." I first encountered Rosita in 2009, singing frequently at New York's Rockwood Music Hall, with a fantastic band of mostly jazz players. Her last album, Northern Sky, was one of my favorites of 2011; with F.L.O.Y.D, she has done it again.
Eilidh McKellar - Devil Dreams
Listen to "Summer Daze"
One of the happiest surprises of 2014 was the brilliant debut full length, Delta Devil Dreams, by Eilidh McKellar, a gifted blues-rocker, guitarist, singer, and songwriter from Edinburgh, Scotland. Eilidh finished college just in time to tour the UK showcasing the album as well as her electrifying guitar work. Recorded late last year, Delta Devil Dreams also features Eilidh's vocal and songwriting skills spread over fourteen tracks of guitar based blues-rock of the highest order with great sound and a tight band propelled by album producer Guy Eckstine on drums.
Regarding her music Eilidh says, "I suppose, like rock, I think it needs a fresh take on it...if you look at the charts now...it's more dance based, hip hop, and, I like to take an influence just like your classic guitar driven rock and put, about kind of like soul in it...I want people to...like the music and...yeah I want to be successful...I want to kind of keep comin' back with music that will last." Eilidh's words are as refreshing as her music. At the time, I wrote "my first thought upon hearing Eilidh was that she could be the logical successor to Texas and Del Amitri, two of Scotland's finest. We might seem to be getting ahead of ourselves, if all this was based on hearing one song." Now that Delta Devil Dreams is upon us, these sentiments were not misplaced. I further wrote "I think that Eilidh has the potential to do with rock music, what Joss Stone has done with soul and R&B, in that when quality music finds a mass audience, magic happens and the future is limitless."
Puss N Boots - No Fools, No Fun
Listen to "Don't Know What it Means"
One of my favorite albums of this past year is No Fools, No Fun by Puss N Boots. Puss N Boots is a side project consisting of Norah Jones and two of her New York singer-songwriter musician friends, Sasha Dobson and Catherine (Cat) Popper. They started playing together in 2008, strictly for fun and their love of country music. The concept was covers of cool country songs. I literally stumbled onto a performance at Rockwood Music Hall in October of 2008, and went back to see them in NYC several times. Earlier this year, in my full review I said, "I'm loving this record. There's the simple production that sounds no different from hearing them play live (three tracks are actually recorded live). I love the song selection, songs like "Bull Rider" written by Rodney Crowell, which I remember them playing back in 2008. There is an Amazon deluxe version of the album with two exclusive bonus tracks including Johnny Cash's "Cry, Cry, Cry"...One of my musical weaknesses is the combination of a sweet female vocal with electric guitar; it works every time, even more so when the material is good, as with every track on No Fools, No Fun."
"When Norah released her debut record Come Away With Me the most immediate striking thing about it were the two covers of old country standards, written by Hank Williams and Hoagy Carmichael. It was pure genius in performance and production to have a simple arrangement that blended jazz, country, and pop. These songs sounded at the same time revolutionary and completely natural. The reason is that Norah's voice has a certain timbre and delivery that leads me to the conclusion that Norah was born to sing country music. She sealed the deal in October 2008 in those Puss N Boots shows. These three artists sound so good together, I can say without reservation that No Fools, No Fun is my favorite Norah Jones record since Come Away With Me, and it's her most fun record ever."
Lucinda Williams - Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
Listen to "Protection"
My favorite return to form this past year came from Lucinda Williams. Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is Lucinda's 11th studio album and sounds like her most cohesive effort since 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which is really saying something since this is a double album; no writer's block here apparently. Lucinda has always had a penchant for electric guitarists; her best work has always had great lead guitar. Bone features a host of electric guitar players including Bill Frisell and Tony Joe White whom I should have guessed; some of those guitar leads sounds deliciously swampy. Produced by Lucinda with Greg Leisz and Tom Overby, Bone has a riveting electric guitar based blues-rock sound throughout. Also appearing on the record is Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello's Imposters), Ian McLagin (Ian McLagin's Bump Band), Bob Glaub (bass), and Jakob Dylan (vocals). Lucinda wrote or co-wrote all of the songs except one, "Magnolia," written by JJ Cale. Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is Lucinda's first release on her own Highway 20 label. That name has a familiar ring to it; anyone watching Nashville?
Mark Deming, writing for the AllMusic guide, "(T)hough this doesn't always sound like an album where Williams is challenging herself musically, for a musician who has long believed in the power of nuance, this is an album that feels unerringly right for her, full of sweet and sour blues, acoustic pondering, and simple, bare bones rock & roll that slips into the groove with Williams' literate but unpretentious songs... Williams also gives herself plenty of room to stretch out on Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, offering 20 songs spread out over two discs and running an hour-and-44-minutes, and despite its epic scale, there seems to be precious little filler here; if these songs sometimes take a while to find their spiritual and emotional center, they invariably get there, and the powerful litanies of "Wrong Number," "Something Wicked This Way Comes," and "Big Mess" mesh comfortably with the implacable rhythm of this music."
Here are the rest of the albums to complete the Music and More Top 50 (in alphabetical order). Each one of the following could have made the Top Ten if only there were one more spot.
Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams
Beyonce - Beyonce
Brian Blade Fellowship - Perceptual
Black 47 - Last Call
Luka Bloom - Head & Heart
Pieta Brown - Paradise Outlaw
Jackson Browne - Standing In The Breach
Rosanne Cash - The River & The Thread
Clean Bandit - New Eyes
Leonard Cohen - Popular Problems
Coldplay - Ghost Stories
David Crosby - Croz
Justin Currie - Lower Reaches
Neil Diamond - Melody Road
Kat Edmonson - The Big Picture
Melissa Etheridge - This is M.E.
Bryan Ferry - Avonmore
Ruthie Foster - Promise of a Brand New Day
Aretha Franklin - Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics
Ari Hest - Shouts and Whispers
Alexz Johnson - Let 'Em Eat Cake
Marti Jones - You're Not the Bossa Me
Jenny Lewis - The Voyager
Lily & Madeleine - Lily & Madeleine
London Grammar - If You Wait
Martina McBride - Everlasting
Jess Morgan - Langa Langa
Joan Osborne - Love & Hate
Pure Bathing Culture - Pure Bathing Culture
Eddi Reader - Vagabond
Smokey Robinson - Smokey & Friends
Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes
Teddy Thompson - Thompson Family
Kristina Train - Dark Black
Various Artists - All My Friends: Celebrating The Songs & Voice Of Gregg Allman
Various Artists - Looking Into You: A Tribute To Jackson Browne
Violette - Falling Strong
The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream
Jessie Ware - Tough Love
Leah West - Speechless