As I said in Part One of my Favorite Recordings of 2014…

Whoa - headphones Oh, wait. You didn’t see that? I recommend you start by reading my long, long list of “runners-up” albums that I enjoyed in 2014. For each one, I’ve linked to a favorite track or two.

Okay, are we all caught up?

As I said before, I’ve organized my listening experiences into three categories. You might call them “Good,” “Great,” and “Greatest” — but that makes me uncomfortable. It takes so much time and attention to have any sense of the greatness in a song or an album.

I’m more comfortable categorizing them like this:

THANK-YOU NOTES

We’ve covered this.

ENTHUSIASTIC FAN LETTERS

Consider these the silver medalists; the albums I played at least once a month this year; the albums that I bought for the home library on CD or vinyl; the records I recommended with giddy enthusiasm.

And…

TESTIMONIES OF LOVE AND GRATITUDE

Gold medalists: Albums I wanted to hear every week; albums I would be happy to own in a variety of formats; albums I would like to put in the trunk of my car so that I can give them away to everyone I know; albums that made a significant difference in my head and heart this year.

Are you ready?

Time to meet the silver and gold medalists.

Enthusiastic Fan Letters

28.

bela fleck

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn – Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Dear Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn,

Thank you for your banjo love. Thank you for showing us what is possible with instruments that we often underestimate. Thank you for showing us what is possible when two musicians listen closely to one another and then support one another. Abigail, thank you for your sweet, sweet singing. And thank you for your love of tradition, for giving those who came before us the privilege of speaking to us now.

Readers, for the professional review, I’m going to refer you — and not for the last time — to Thom Jurek.

But trust me. Even if you don’t like the banjo, I think you’re going to love this.

 

27.

jolie holland wine dark sea

Jolie Holland – Wine Dark Sea

Dear Jolie,

Be patient with me: I’m beginning to warm to your unusual vocal style, at last. It’s your melodies, your lyrics, your musicianship that have kept me listening — that, and the fact that many of my favorite singers challenged me to appreciate new voices and styles over time.

But I’m already head over heels in love with the stormy, abrasive, Marc Ribot-flavored sound of this record. And I’m grateful especially for “On and On,” “The Love You Save,” and “Waiting for the Sun.”

26.

strand-of-oaks-heal

Strand of Oaks – HEAL

Dear Mr. Showalter,

Break-up records are a dime a dozen. But once in a while, somebody wrings something special out of the damage. It happened when Bon Iver created For Emma, Forever Ago. And you made it happen here.

Readers — if you need a reason to pay attention, just read the Wikipedia summary of what led up to this record. It wasn’t just a break-up. Timothy Showalter married “his high-school sweetheart,” who had an affair while he was on tour. The marriage died. He moved to Pennsylvania, and soon after that his house burned down. “Showalter spent his nights in hotels and on park benches with a borrowed guitar while working at an orthodox Jewish day school.” Okay, that’s enough material for a record right? Wait He married again, moved to Philadelphia, and then, on Christmas Day two years ago, they “hit a patch of ice” on the road and “crashed into two semi trucks. Showalter suffered a concussion and broke every rib on his right side.”

I dislocated a rib once, three years ago. It still hurts at night. I can’t imagine what it feels like to have injuries like that.

So, trust me. Break-up records may be common, but this one’s worth far more than a dime. I was happy to spend all fifteen bucks. This record is personal, detailed, passionate, a rollercoaster of guitars, and alive with heartbreak and rage and confession and shame and longing and hope.

Thank you especially for these songs: The endearingly autobiographical “Goshen ’97.” The fiery lament “For Me.” And the truly epic and exhilarating “JM.

25.

lone justice vaught tapes

Lone Justice – This Is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes, 1983

Dear Maria McKee and company,

Lone Justice was the band of the year for me… back in 1983. And I’ve been missing you and thinking about what might have been since you broke up in 1986, right in the middle of your meteoric rise, right after my favorite record of yours — Shelter.

I certainly never expected to hear a full, cohesive album from you again, but lo… out of the clear blue! Thanks for the surprise of this record. It sounds fresh and new, even though you assembled it from treasures in the 1983 archives. Maria, you were superhuman — and I believe you still are, so I’m looking forward to whatever you do next.

24.

drive-by truckers english oceans

Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

Dear Drive-By Truckers,

It probably isn’t a popular opinion among your fans to call anything released after Jason Isbell’s departure “the best.” Nevertheless, this is my favorite Truckers record of yours so far. I love the stark, violent, O’Connor-esque storytelling, and the more cohesive sound that is created when you (Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley) take turns on lead vocals.

Hard to narrow it down to a couple of favorites. “Grand Canyon” is an epic closer,  but I think I prefer “Primer Coat” for its for its shine, and for that chilling last line.

23.

war on drugs

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

Dear War on Drugs,

Oh, how I do love these guitars, these grooves, and the generous sprawl of it all. 2014 was lacking in recordings that really let the bands play in an exploratory, leisurely fashion. This felt truly adventurous in the context. I suspect that the extreme enthusiasm in critical circles for this album has something to do with how much we all miss Dire Straits.

So, yes, I love Lost in the Dream. But I’m a little frustrated at how Adam Granduciel’s vocals get lost in the mix, making the lyrics almost indecipherable at times (at least when I’m listening in my car). What’s more, Charlie Hall’s drums sound more automated than live here. Maybe you could try a new producer next time around.

“I’m in my finest hour….” It’s a fine hour, yes. I love “Under the Pressure” and “An Ocean In Between the Waves”But I have a feeling there are greater things to come.

22.

Damien-Jurado-Brothers-And-Sisters-Of-The-Eternal-Son-608x608

Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son

Dear Mr. Jurado,

Who says sequels are never better than the original? I like this one better than Maraqopa. You and producer Richard Swift are combustible combination. I don’t know how to choose favorites from this mysterious, riddle-riddled, science-fiction record. Nor do I yet understand how to interpret it.

(I understand that, as the reviewer in Slant put it, “Brothers and Sisters zooms out to tell one story, albeit a fantastical, non-linear one cloaked in sci-fi imagery and layers of mystery.” But I also agree with this: “The religious overtones are more explicit, too. … Allegory is everywhere in this dream/vision/hallucination, but it’s not the type of C.S. Lewis allegory in which we’re meant to have an aha moment. Sure, Aslan is Jesus, but I have no clue who Silver Timothy is. Or Silver Donna, Malcom, or Katherine. And don’t count on a big reveal that unlocks a way to understand the veiled “magic number” by the time the album closes. Yet these mysteries are curiously addictive more than they are frustrating.”)

I love the sounds. I love your singing. And I enjoy wrestling these mysteries because I love the tremors of deep Gospel resonance sounds that I detect here, the sense hope and renewal that runs throughout.

21.

amy-lavere-runaways-diary

Amy Lavere – Runaway’s Diary

Amy,

Discovering you was one of the year’s most delightful surprises. Runaway’s Diary is a lovely, playful, endearing record that benefits from its detailed storytelling, which I understand came from your own recollections of running away from home. But I like imagining these as songs from a stage musical about a plucky girl who runs away and learns life lessons the hard way without losing any of her humor or her sense of mischief.

Also: I think female lead singers who play upright bass on stage are about as cool as it gets.

Nobody sounds like you. Keep singing, and I’ll show up. Thank you for your artful storytelling… especially for “Don’t Go Yet, John,” “Big Sister,” and “Last Rock and Roll Boy to Dance.”

I would share album tracks with you, but Amy must be keeping them offline. And anyway, you’ve just got to see what Amy does live:

20.

BloodOrangesCover

Over the Rhine – Blood Oranges in the Snow 

Dear Linford and Karin,

Thank you for three great Christmas records (and counting!), and for making each one unique. Thank you also for your “Reality Christmas” lyrics, which help me tear right through the holiday superficiality like a kid tearing through wrapping paper to get to the real gift inside. I love the holy hush of the dark, snowy walks through unsettling parts of town and personal history. Thanks especially for “Another Christmas,” “Let It Fall,” and “My Father’s Body.” This one’s going to get year-round play at Overstreet Headquarters.

19.

SmallTownHeroesSleeve

Hurray for the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes

Dear Alynda Lee Segarra,

I like James Christopher Monger’s description of this album — one of the most pleasant surprises of my year — as an “amiable set of millennial-informed, urban crafted, Woody Guthrie-inspired, contemporary hobo-folk anthems that play fast and loose with genre tropes without losing the essence that makes them universal.”

The scarcity of Gillian Welch records has given me an appetite, and this record is just what I was looking for. Thank you for your creativity, your sense of composition, and your conscience.

18.

lucinda williams

Lucinda Williams – Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

Dear Lucinda,

I’ve loved you since Sweet Old World, and I’ve followed you through so many different albums and sounds. What got into you? A double-album? And one without an ounce of fat on it? Thank you!

Every track is solid, your vocals are darker and stranger and more evocative than ever, and your lyrics are a cohesive collection of straightforward meditations on compassion, empathy, hardship, regret, and love. While I wouldn’t say these are your most poetic lyrics, I’m not sure it was poetry you were going for this time around. I think you wanted to bring us together with simpler, more foundational sentiments during a time when we’re all feeling fragmented and partisan and aggravated.

And you have the power to do that. I think this may well be your finest hour as a performer with a band. When I put this record on, it’s like you and your posse are right here in the room with us, down where my feet meet the hardwood floors.

17.

arewethere.lpout

Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

Dear Sharon Van Etten,

Before, I found your songs to be dark, seductive, and haunting. But these… these are commanding, ferocious, hook-barbed performances about self-destructive compulsions, harrowing relationships, and “I can’t quit you” laments. I’d call it the most beautiful feel-bad record of the year. From here on, I’m going to pay close attention.

For what it’s worth, I’m particularly averse to the way so many of my gender walk over their wives and girlfriends as if women were inferior beings. I’m encouraged when I hear women who sing like they deserve better, like something dangerous is waking up and making ready to fight back.

Rage on.

16.

robert ellis lights of the chemical plant

Robert Ellis – The Lights from the Chemical Plant

Dear Robert Ellis,

Every year, it seems I find an out-of-the-blue surprise at year’s end, and I wonder what took me so long to discover it. This year, your record is that record.

And “Chemical Plant” would land on my Five Favorite Songs of 2014 Playlist if I got around to making one.

Everyone with a taste for genuine country music seemed high on Sturgill Simpson this year, and I admired that record’s rowdy irreverence for the genre, but it never got all the way to my heart like this one does.

And you even get away with a cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” — one that I’m tempted to say I prefer over his original.

15.

tune-yards cover 2

tUnE-yArds – Nikki Nack

Dear Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner,

I’m just going to get this off my chest: If if weren’t for Leonard Cohen, I’d say you’re guilty of the Ugliest Album Cover of the Year. It looks like a scrap torn off of a Boy George promotional poster from 1983, or something like that. I don’t get it.

But the reason this bothers me so much is that I love what’s inside that cover so much.

Nikki Nack is wildly creative, energetic, frenzied, busy, and fabulous. I get lost in this record’s labyrinthine layers of drum-loopiness. Each wild experiment in Haitian rhythms and hysterical harmonies is like a 10-car pile-up of catchy pop songs. Or, try this: It’s an orchard of musical pinatas… and, Merrill, yoiu’re running among them blindfolded and swinging a bat with wild, joyous abandon.

“Water Fountain” is the high point, one of my favorite tracks of the year, and “Look Around” is another major high.

14.

hundred waters

Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like a Bell

Dear Hundred Waters,

I drifted off into your surreal, beautiful, and sometimes disturbing soundscapes over and over again this year. In the car, in the coffee shops, and in the dark.

I love how sumptuous this record is with Radiohead-y and Bjork-y textures that summon images of moonlit-lakes and ice caves. Nicole Miglis, your vocals are positively shivery, your harmonies are exquisite, and your soulful, strange lyrics keep me guessing.

Also: This is a fantastic headphones experience. Kudos to producer Trayer Tryon.

This will be long-term writing-soundtrack music for me. My favorite dreamscape of the year. Thank you especially “Broken Blue” and “Down from the Rafters.”

13.

Columbia Records Leonard Cohen Popular Problems cover

Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems

Dear Leonard,

What in the world? Help me understand this album cover. Seriously. I can’t stand looking at it. You’re a distinguished-looking fellow — no complaint there. But… ugh.

No disrespect, sir — you keep company with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, among the reigning lyricists in all of popular music. And this time you took the time for the kind of music and orchestration that your lyrics. By my lights, this is easily your most interesting collection of songs since Ten New Songs. 

I also love how your voice continues to evolve into something more textured and interesting all the time. You really growl and snarl and rasp your way through this record, and I like it. I like it a lot.

I really should take the time to dig deep into these lyrics, but if I start, I’ll write pages and pages. Better to let listeners hear them the way that they were meant to be heard.

12.

TV On the Radio – Seeds

seeds

 

I came to this record late, and found it (contrary to reviews I’d read) to be the most engaging, joyous effort yet from one of America’s strongest, most imaginative rock bands.

Testimonials of Love and Gratitude: The Top Ten

11.

Robert Plant

Robert Plant – lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar

Dear Robert Plant,

What a massive album you’ve produced here. In the last seven years, you’ve turned into a magician, showing up with surprise after surprise. First, Raising Sand, then Band of Joy, then rumors of “eloping” with a certain famous folk and Americana singer, and now this… a tale of heartbreak, orchestrated by a new band called the Sensational Space Shifters.

Your vocals have become more restrained and refined from his experiences with Allison Krauss, Patti Griffin, and the Band of Joy. It gives you more range and nuance. And the musical styles are a whirlwind fusion of Americana, Irish fiddle tunes, African rhythms, and New Age atmospherics. There are a lot of U2 sounds going on here, actually, with occasional left turns into trashy Tom Waits rhythms.

But the spiritual restlessness, the mythological references, the wisdom born of a lifetime on the road… these are chapters in a book that’s unmistakably your own.

You’ve sung a lot of songs about love and heartbreak, but there’s a particular urgency this time in how you sing about the end of a great love, and about a burdensome sense that your search for that perfect, lasting love maybe running out. But then you also sing about a deepening faith that “there is somebody there” — somebody who gives you hope and consolation. For somebody who has lived as colorfully as you have — superstardom, relationship breakdowns, personal tragedy, it’s a remarkable thing to hear persuasive professions of faith in a Comforter.

Lullaby sounds like an album from the Robert Plant of the future — and that’s exciting. Usually, artists of your stature are reaching back to capture something of their past glory. But you seem like a a giant striding over the horizon, and I am more than happy to follow.

This record sounds great under headphones, by the way — and hugely resonant on the home speakers.

10.

Warpaint

Warpaint – Warpaint

Dear Warpaint,

I really don’t know how to write about your sound.

Woozy with grooves. Groovy with moves. Seductive and spectacularly spacious.

I don’t know. I just know that I have a crush on your sound. I feel about your sound the way I felt about my dreamgirl in high school. I want to follow this sound around and get high on its perfume. If I’m listening to this record in the car, I’m likely to sail right on past my destination and forget where I’d been going just to live in the world these sounds create.

Listening to this self-titled record on a road trip, I suddenly started ranting. (Poor Anne, who had to listen to it, will testify that this is true). I said pretty much this:

“Why can’t the great bands of the ’80s and ’90s rediscover the joys of exploring soundscapes again? Why do they seem compelled to try and relive past glories when they could be conquering new worlds? This… this is the most exploratory album I’ve heard in many months. It has the edge of early Sinead O’Connor, the dark magic of Kate Bush or Siouxie and the Banshees, the layered rhythms and percussive genius of Radiohead, and something like the spirit-world sequences in Twin Peaks. And it hast this extraordinary patience about it — it lets the songs slowly bloom into really entrancing stuff. If, say, U2 rediscovered curiosity and paired up with somebody like Radiohead’s Nigel Godrich or that producer who made so much of Zooropa — Flood — they could really become adventurous and interesting again.”

Then I got home and looked up information on your new album, and… lo! This album was co-produced by producer Nigel Godrich and U2’s producer Flood!

What can I say? I am on your wavelength. Follow this road. Keep going. Don’t look back.

I am your crazy fanboy.

9.

st vincent

St. Vincent – St Vincent

Dear Annie Clark,

While this isn’t my favorite record of yours (not yet, anyway) — that’d be a toss-up between Actor and Strange Mercy — I am so glad that I’m living here and now to see you grow and evolve into something the music world has never seen: a woman who sings, writes songs, plays guitar, innovates, and performs in ways that surpass her peers and make her the most exciting figure in music.

On this self-titled record, you prove once again that you’re not only one of the world’s greatest guitarists, but one of the world’s most provocative lyricists, and most commanding performers. Earning every comparison to David Bowie and David Byrne that music reviewers have given you, you have created something unexpected here — a pristine, clear, and chilly science fiction world that cautions us, through slight exaggeration, about the dehumanizing effects of technology. But I love the irony in how you do that: By taking the oh-so-human idiosyncrasies of your talents and running them through technology. The synthesizers here sound soulful. The buzz guitars sounds eloquent and emotional.

And then, having shown up the machines, you break out with a passionate mid-80s-Madonna anthem about how you prefer the personal, the maternal, to the institutionalized love of a stained-glass father figure: “I prefer your love to Jesus.” Provocative, sure. But I’m not taking this song as a cheap shot at church. I hear you declaring a deeply human need for intimacy, for hands-on relationships, for familial love. And that’s powerfully ironic, because what the singer in your song is craving is just the kind of love that Jesus asked us to show one another. And in my experience, it’s all too often that we point automatically toward Jesus while demonstrating very little of the love that he tried to teach us to share, the love that many would say has changed their lives.

Anyway, I’m on a tangent.

Thank you for this beautiful monster of a record.

I prefer your music to “Christian music.”

8.

goliath-front-cover

Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil – Goliath

Dear Steve,

I confess, I’ve been hoping that you’d return to rock. Then I gave up hoping. You seemed set on new career paths, like being a producer for Newsboys and Sixpence None the Richer — thank you, by the way, for Sixpence — and then turning left to become a film director.

Then, out of the blue, you announced that you’d put together a new band called The Perfect Foil, and, with the help of some Kickstarter support, and that you’d offer us an album soon. The Kickstarter campaign blasted beyond your expectations. And the rest is some pretty sweet history.

Now we have Goliath, and I think it’s the peak of your creative endeavors. Goliath is a strong, searing rock record with some of your sharpest writing. That finale called “Comedian” — my favorite song of 2014 — is, I would argue, the most subversive, serrated, spectacular song of your career. (I’ve already heard a complaint that “Comedian” sounds a little too much like a song by The National, but hey… when I first heard The National I thought that they sounded a little bit like you… and you’ve sounded like that since the early ’80s!)

Everything I’ve ever loved about your lyrics is here. In retrospect, I think you found your truest musical self when you recorded “Jim Morrison’s Grave” in the late ’80s, and this is a refinement of that glorious noise. The musical energy I loved in the best moments of I Predict 1990 and Chagall Guevara is here. It’s hard to believe, but you sound like no time has passed at all. You’ve jumped right back into the saddle sounding supremely confident.

And this does not sound like a band’s first album to me. It sounds like a band that’s waited a long, long time to be turned loose to do what they do best. I’ve been blasting it in the car on my commutes this week and my appetite for another round seems to increase with each listen. I love the ambition in “Comedian,” I love “Sympathy Vote”‘s snarky rhymes, I love “Happy-Go-Lazy” for being funny and for being the catchiest song I’ve heard all year. It’s not a reinvention — thank God. It’s the next strong step in a journey that went from “I Want to Be a Clone” to “Jim Morrison’s Grave” to “Take Me to Love Canal” to “Smug.”

And yet, for all of your creative achievements, you don’t seem smug at all. You sound grateful, giddy, and full of new ideas.

7.

my brightest diamond None More Than You

My Brightest Diamond – This Is My Hand 

My Brightest Diamond – None More Than You (EP)

When I first started listening to your music, Shara Worden, I knew that My Brightest Diamond was something special. You were chasing your own muse through worlds that I suspected I’d find on the same musical continent as those wild, imaginative regions called “Annie Clark,” “Bjork,” and “Kate Bush.”

But — forgive me if I’m being presumptuous — I had a sense that you hadn’t really found That Record, That Sound, the spot in which you could pick up the strong signals you’d been searching for, the soil where you would put down roots and grow into the oak tree that you seemed likely to become.

Then came an EP called None More Than You.

And hard on the heels of that came a full record: This Is My Hand.

And what can I say? Introducing… MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND. This is a big moment for a great imagination. “Pressure,” in particular, sounds like the very thing you’re singing about — one of those jewels of great price born out of a lot of hard work.

I listen to these records a lot.

6.

dangelo-black-messiah

D’Angelo – Black Messiah

Dear D’Angelo,

Check back in a month or two, and this album may have ascended further up the list. It’s still fresh out of the oven, and thus it’s too early for me to say much about it.

And, frankly, I’m brand-new to your music altogether. When your first album in 14 years arrived by surprise, the rush of excitement among some of the listeners I respect most intrigued me. I must not have been paying attention to the right reviewers 14 years ago; I didn’t pick up on what you were up to back then. (Granted, my musical interests have expanded into a wider range of styles since then.)

But right away I was captivated by the complexity, creativity, and substance of what you’ve accomplished here. It arrives at just the right time — as our culture seems increasingly at war with itself, and needs to marinate on lyrics like these, lyrics that turn us inward, so that the change starts with us.

And it also delivers what is arguably the years most groundbreaking soundscape of 2014. My first thought was “These are the sorts of sounds Prince might be making today if he’d kept up the momentum of imagination and genre fusion he demonstrated in the ’80s.” More than any other record I’ve heard this year, this created an entire world of its own — psychedelic and improvisational without ever losing focus or purposefulness. The rhythms, the lyrics, the harmonies in the first three tracks won me over so quickly and completely that I’ll be diving both forward and backward (14 years backward) now.

Thanks for coming back at last so I could celebrate the comeback by hearing you you for the first time.

5.

U2 songs of innocence large

U2 – Songs of Innocence

U2 are busy right now, so I’m not writing this one directly to them. I’m playing this one straight.

Plenty of folks will dismiss my entire list and say I’m blowing my credibility entirely for including this one. (One guy even promised to do so.)

But what can I say? I love these sounds. I love these performances. I love these songs.

And let’s face it — 99.9% of the objections I’ve heard to this album have had to do with something other than the songs themselves. And I’m not interested in dwelling on anything but the music itself. In time, the cynics and celebrities who jumped on the Bash the Famous Rock Stars bandwagon are going to be reduced to an amusing historical footnote.

There was no record this year that I sang along with more than this one, no batch of songs that spoke so directly to my own convictions, questions, and experiences. And I didn’t hear a single record this year that pulled together such a wide variety of styles into a program that felt cohesive.

When it comes to bands that have made a difference in my life, Over the Rhine’s records mean the most to me, but where Over the Rhine has been part of my personal soundtrack for 20 years, U2 has been part of that soundtrack for 30 years, and they were hugely influential to me during the most identity-forming years of my life (high school and college). So I’m well aware that I listen to this band differently — their sounds evoke memories and personal history like nothing else does.

That doesn’t mean I give them a pass on quality. Far from it. I’ve been frustrated with their past several albums for a variety of reasons. I have frustrations with this one too, but this is the first album since Pop during which aggravations don’t disrupt my experience. Every piece seems to fit, every song feels like a chapter in the unfolding of a grand story. And while U2 became legendary by looking outward and singing about “the troubles” of the world, I’ve always found that their strongest songs are the personal ones, the songs that seem to have been unearthed from the ground beneath their feet, or surgically exposed in their hearts and guts. And this is an album about their life stories: their hallelujahs, their horrors, their hopes.

My main disappointment with it is not about the production or any sense of eagerness to please their fans (that was my primary compliant on No Line on the Horizon). It isn’t about forgettable or predictable songs. (That was my complaint for some of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.) It isn’t about half-baked lyrics or sequencing. (That was my problem with All That You Can’t Leave Behind.) My biggest disappointment is that these songs are wound so tight that it feels more like a Bono album than a U2 album; the stretches of pure music are fleeting when they come at all. And as a result, the record is full of strong songs that never rise to the level of “epic” like “With or Without You” or “Please” or “Acrobat” or “Love is Blindness” or “Where the Streets Have No Name.” But I’m okay with that: U2 has done a lot of epic. They’ve been very clear about the fact that this was an album about singable songs, about melodies that were built to last.

Of course, as a huge fan of Pop, Zooropa, and even Rattle and Hum, I will earn scorn from plenty of U2 fans. What can I say? Music is a personal thing.

This record testifies that a band entering its fifth decade (!!) is still striving for excellence, innovation, transformation, and revelation. They’re doing what Beatles fans dream that the Beatles would be doing today if they were still together. You know what? If the Beatles were recording fantastic music today, they’d be scorned, mocked, hated, vandalized, and treated like the unwanted guest at a party. Forget about that. It’s about the music.

I’ll be there on the first weekend of U2’s upcoming tour, and I won’t be there out of nostalgia, hoping they play the hits: Frankly, I’ll be dreaming of hearing new sounds, new ideas. Knowing U2, I’m unlikely to be disappointed.

4.

landmarks

Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band – Landmarks

Dear Brian Blade,

Let me say this up front: I don’t know how to write about jazz.

I’ll let my friend Thom Jurek give the professional’s review of this record.

But there is a redeeming warmth and a deep soulfulness in this record. I don’t know how to describe it, but I feel the Holy Spirit when I listen to it. It slows me down. It tunes me up. It restores my adrenalin, my heartbeat, my concentration to healthy human levels.

I listen to it a lot.

3.

Print

Luluc – Passerby

Thank you, Zoë Randell, for your lyrics and your sweet, beautiful voice. Thank you, Steve Hassett, for the elegance, emotion, and restraint in your musicianship.

Stories of loss. Stories of searching. Stories of hope.
For me, it’s the second or third — or tenth — listen to an album that sometimes wins me over. On a Sunday morning, driving in the morning sunshine with Anne, listening to Luluc’s Passerby for about the fourth time, I suddenly fell madly in love with this record.

This seems to be quiet music. But I learned that I need to turn it up. I need to turn it up really loud. That’s when it reveals itself. It’s so full of wonderful textures and details. It’s a gorgeous, cohesive, poetic record, and I think that fans of Over the Rhine’s Drunkard’s Prayer and The Innocence Mission’s Birds of My Neighborhood will really appreciate it. 

I’ve listened to this more than any other record this year, because I needed music about loss. I needed beauty. I needed hope. The closer I listened, the more I heard.

I listen to this a lot.

2.

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Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything

Dear Elbow,

Every new record you release is better than the last. And this is your finest yet.

My friend Josh Hurst, upon hearing this album for the first time, wrote, “The record unfolds patiently and organically, taking its time for the hooks and the emotions to sink in. These guys can write killer singles, but they’ve been doing that for so long that it’s nice to hear them pour so much passion into something more contemplative and serene.” I couldn’t agree more.

This is your most mature, nuanced, literary, substantial piece of work. Your gorgeous compositions patiently set the stage for Guy Garvey, who sings with more soul and grace and control than ever. You are a band completely in touch with your muses, performing at the level that fans of supergroups always hope their bands will reach.

When I first heard this record, I hadn’t yet been surprised by U2’s Songs of Innocence yet, so this is what I wrote (somewhat snarkily):

It’s a bittersweet experience, hearing this and pondering the possibilities of roads that bands like U2 and Coldplay could have taken… could still take. I don’t mean I want them to sound like Elbow. I just mean this: U2 and Coldplay have shown themselves capable of crafting substantial music, but the drive to make hits, to dazzle their audiences, to Be Important has prevented them from making much built-to-last work in recent years. I think I’ll still be listening to this one a decade from now. This is one to carry with you.

Then, of course, U2 turned around and delivered a surprisingly strong record. But still… but stillThe Take Off and Landing of Everything is a record that does not sound calculated to impress. It sounds like the work of artists who are following their questions, making new discoveries, and releasing what has built up in their oversized hearts.

And that’s why I listen to it a lot. And why I will go on listening to this album more than any other band album of 2014.

And hey, readers! If you want to listen to the whole album, well… this is your lucky day.

1.

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Joe Henry – Invisible Hour

It wasn’t peace I wanted,
So it wasn’t peace I found.
I wouldn’t stand for reason,
And it never would sit down.
The bird upon my shoulder
Has not one kind thing to say.
My eye is on the sparrow,
But she looks the other way…

Dear Joe Henry,

I wish I could have been a fly on the wall. Or, better, a bird on your shoulder. I’d have had many kind things to say.

Just to be there in that room — your home studio — from July 24-31, when it all unfolded: When you started into the Invisible Hour sessions with your guitar, with Jay Bellerose on drums, Jennifer Condos on bass, your son Levon with his clarinets and saxophones, and the rest of your collaborators: Greg Leisz, David Piltch, John Smith, Lisa Hannigan, and The Milk Carton Kids.

I hear Jay’s drums like waves rolling in on an easy tide, sometimes sighing and sometimes crashing; I hear Levon’s horns flashing like sparks and leaping like campfire flames; I hear Jennifer’s bass lines sturdily arranged as kindling for the fire. And you all sing with such beautiful harmonies. But above all, there is a quality of listening in this record, something I rarely notice in recordings. I think anyone will notice it if they turn it up: they’ll feel just how closely each one of you is tuning in to what everyone else is doing. They’ll feel the combined attentiveness in that room, the way every instrument and every lifts up the others, giving just enough to play a vital role without stealing the show.

And there your lyrics have never been wiser, never been more poetic, never been more rewarding to attention.

I love the themes that weave it all into a tapestry: The importance of seeing the Kingdom of God spread out before us now, rather than excusing ourselves from attention and accountability by determining that God’s Kingdom is something Elsewhere, some world to which we have no access, some place that must be earned or wearily and begrudgingly awaited.

I love how this album finds relationships to be the place within which we find that kingdom, in spite of their troubles — because of their troubles.

I love this:

Then, foolish we are, in the presence of God
And what all his [her] grave angels have done—
In love’s growling weather, if we’re dreaming together
Of a heaven apart from this one…
Apart from our own

I take this to be holy—
If futile, uncertain and dire:
Our union of fracture, our dread everlasting,
This beautiful, desperate desire.

Indeed. Foolish we are if we do not live as if heaven is offered to us here and now, as if we are not partly responsible for making it real.

I love the epic story told in “Sign” of loss, of loneliness, of striving and striving, of deep regret and longing for those missed opportunities for love and grace.

I love this:

He who cannot be seduced cannot be saved…
I hang ready to be swayed.

For a lot of people, this album will be deemed “too difficult.” It isn’t out to flatter them, to insist on itself by shouting through the noise. It waits for those who are curious, who listen closely, who will receive its blessings by allowing themselves to be slowly seduced.

The truth, after all, must dazzle gradually. I’ve been listening to this album all year, and sometimes I am too impatient, and I’ve allowed too much clamor into my mind to pay attention and lie down beside these quiet waters, to let my soul be restored. But sometimes I’m seduced, and these dry bones are knit back together.

I love this:

No one you can name
Is just that one thing they have shown,
You speak from the shadows
And I want you to lead me on.

Is there any theme that means more to me in music, in art, in living, than the sense that there is a still, small voice on the edges of things inviting us into a relationship, into a journey? As Sam Phillips once sang, “Burning light inside my dreams / I wake up in the dark / The light is outside my door / Love is everywhere I go…” The light is always with me; the light is always unwilling to leave me where I am; it is always asking me to move, to grow, to discover, to live. If I am truly married to my wife, truly loving to my friends and neighbors and — most importantly, perhaps — enemies, then I will remember that none of them are “just that one thing they have shown.” I will remember to humble myself and learn more about them, learn from them, and allow them to lead me on.

I also love this:

After every sorrow comes a joy,
But every howl hides one more
This may challenge all our senses,
Hold us tight within its fences—
But singing out, her gate stands open,
For all the world, so weak and broken,
A story giving all a framing,
A face that waits but for a naming…

Isn’t that what we want to believe? Isn’t that wanting evidence enough that joy is possible, that the invitation has been made, that redemption is here?

I love this:

We roll and tumble,
Rattle, shake, and hum —
We’re dying to be other
But we kill not to become.

Oh, how I have been praying for change and transformation. Oh, how I’ve been kicking against anything that might invite me to be challenged, and thus changed and transformed. How we all invest everything in order to build walls against change, suffering, death. Oh how we long for that very same fall into grace.

Readers — find me lyrics more beautifully written, or a band more gracefully in tune with one another, or the power of restraint more powerfully employed, or textures more richly and deeply layered. Each song is a path up a mountain, requiring some work and attention, and rewarding that with different revelations depending on the day, the time, the circumstances, the listener. These are lines that are powerful when read aloud without the music, but they shine when sung to this music the way agates shine in glittering tidepools. Even here, now, by spelling them out for you without the context of the music, I am taking translucent, colorful, beautiful agates from the tidepools and bringing them back to the house where they lose much of their magic and ministry.

Joe, I take all of this to be holy. Uncertain. And holy.

Thank you for inviting us to listen closely.

“Lead Me On”

“Sign” (from the album):

“Swayed” (a solo version, live at KEXP)

And speaking of listening closely…

Readers… since you’ve been paying close attention, I want you to be the first to know: I will go on doing this in 2015 — bringing lyrics and intuitions to your attention, and engaging in the impossible art of writing about music (“dancing about architecture”) — in a new column at the website called Christ and Pop Culture. I hope you’ll meet me there, in the good company of Richard Clark, Alan Noble, and other fine contributors.

Thanks for making this journey with me.

Happy New Year!

P.S.

One more song.

It seems appropriate to wrap up this celebration of 2015 with my favorite Closing Credits track of the year

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