Top Album Picks for 2014

By BOB WIRE

As a blogger who frequently writes about music, I should probably wax rhapsodic today about my pick for the top ten albums of 2014. Yeah, I still buy albums. But I’m only going to write about the top three.

I listened to a lot of new stuff. I gave it a chance, I really did. “Check out The National,” I was told. “You like classic rock, you’ll like them.” Thanks, but if I want to listen to a guy singing after drinking a bottle of Robitussin in front of a band struggling to stay awake, I’ll check out the talent show at the assisted living facility.

Grizzly Bear! They’re big with the hipster set. Sorry, they leave me cold. Seems like so many bands are trying to follow this trend with noisy arrangements, flat production, reverb-soaked vocals and stilted, cryptic lyrics. Is there such a thing as self-important gibberish? More like Grizzly Bore.

How about The War On Drugs? They remind me of Tom Petty, someone said. Really? They remind me of someone trying to sound like Grizzly Bear playing a Bon Iver song.

2014-12-18_1014You know who really sounds like Tom Petty? Tom Petty. Hypnotic Eye, his first album with the Heartbreakers since 2010’s Mojo, came out last summer and hit like a cool breeze. “American Dream Plan B” delivers some opening jabs of Mike Campbell’s crunchy rhythm guitar, and Petty sings from the point of view of a proud but oblivious loser, a frequent theme in my own songs: “Well I’m half-lit, I can’t dance for shit. When I see what I want I go for it.” As usual, though, he provides a bit of hope at the end: “My success is anybody’s guess, but like a fool I’m bettin’ onhappiness.”

Check out the slinky beat on “Fault Lines,” driving a menacing song about the cracks beginning to show in the singer’s life. This is the crux of Hypnotic Eye, reallywe’ve hit middle age, the world’s going to hell, might as well crank up those guitars and dance like there’s no tomorrow.

Another grizzled veteran of life’s ubiquitous battlefield is Lucinda Williams. Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is her best work since the Grammy magnet Car Wheels On a Gravel Road. It’s not the kind of album you put on for the first time and say, “Hey, this is great!” It’s more like that girl you meet who seems to have some problems, then treats you like shit. But you know there’s something there. You beg to see her again, and as you spend more time with her, she slowly peels off the layers to reveal a rich, complex beauty. I was put off at first by the flood of shopworn titles that had me expecting to hear Lucinda phoning it in. Indeed, the first song, “Compassion,” repeats the Dr. Phil-like bromide that you should treat everyone with kindness because you don’t know what battles they are fighting. Not a bad sentiment, of course, but are we taking our songwriting cues from Facebook memes now?

2014-12-18_1015A couple songs later Tony Joe White’s slinky swamp guitar (yes, that Tony Joe White) winds its way into “West Memphis,” a slap in the face to the system and the people who wrongly convicted the West Memphis Three of murder. The three men were railroaded by Memphis prosecutors in trials marked by lost evidence and police misconduct 20 years ago. They were released under a prosecution deal in 2011. “That’s the way we do things in West Memphis,” she drawls. It’s sobering, almost shocking in itshonesty.

Along with Tony Joe, the album also features the talents of Bill Frisell and the recently departed piano man Ian McLagan. These are some stellar players, and Lucinda’s musical instincts and songwriting chops are so well-defined that she rubs shoulders almost casually with the world-class talent. A few listens to this lyrically satisfying, musically assured album reminded me why I became a Lucinda fan in the first place. Do yourself a favor and put this on your Christmas list.

The best album of the year is the Old 97s rock and roll barnburner Most Messed Up. These Dallas troublemakers hung ten on the alt-country wave twenty years ago, and they’ve emerged as elder statesmen of their generation of rock. Most Messed Up is their balls-to-the-wall résumé, their mission statement, and a stripped-down sampler of their bare knuckle sound. If an album was a cocktail, this would be a fifth of Everclear. It opens with “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” a hilarious, yet poignant, autobiography of the best thing to come out of Texas since Mrs. Renfro’s green sauce. It’s like a greatest hits albums comprised of songs you’ve never heard before. There aren’t many bands that play with this kind of confidence, humor, and self-assured ease. And it rocks harder than anything they’ve ever done.

2014-12-18_1015_001I actually did buy a few more albums this year, and I love them all. Sturgill Simpson’s Meta Modern Sounds In Country Music is mostly great (I could do without the psychedelic freakouts). Todd Snider’s supergroup The Hardworking Americans is super tasty, and has me hoping for asequel.

Kenny Vaughan, one of my Top 5 favorite guitarists (and Marty Stuart’s right hand man) put out a solo album, V, that is surprisingly understated but highly entertaining. Kacey Musgraves got the attention of the country music establishment without using a single drop of bro country. She even won CMA’s Song of the Year with “Follow Your Arrow,” which extols the virtues of smoking weed and kissing people of the same gender. Careful, Nashville, you might give people the idea that you’ve joined the 21st century.

Jason Isbell showed that he was the more mature songwriter than Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. Too bad he takes himself so seriously. I’d like to hear more songs from him like “Super 8.”

The common thread running through all these albums is their honesty. I’m sorry, but if you make beats that doesn’t make you a musician or songwriter any more than picking up dog poop makes me a veterinarian. These people are masters of the craft of songwriting and musical arrangement. They don’t try to hew to some stylistic flavor of the month. They continue to boil down their own style, searching for the essence, reporting on the human condition from their perspective, not pandering to a particular demographic.

My soul is touched by listening to people playing instruments, singing with unaffected emotion, and inhabiting a song by interacting with other musicians. Harmonies. Hand claps. Laughter. A sigh. I admire any musician who creates real music with a human heart, because it provides a direct connection to the listener.

I can’t wait to see what 2015 has to offer, starting with the Bottle Rockets, who are in the studio right now with Eric “Roscoe” Ambel. Let’s raise a glass to the Real Thing.

   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blogarchive.

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Have an off-white Christmas with Bob Wire.Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an openmind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.

 

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