top 10: favorite albums of 2014

still life

Yeah. 2014. This is late. I wrote it and never posted it and I have no idea why, but here you go, mostly because I’m trying to put together my 2015 list soon anyway. Must clean up the drafts folder!

2014 was a hard, hard year, and the place it suffered most was my music listening; podcasts were easier, and when delivered directly to my phone automatically, less for me to think about. I don’t know that I’ve ever made a list that’s fewer than 25 albums, but this one is. What I was enjoying while I made this, though, is other people’s lists, because I missed almost everything in 2014, trying to keep my head above water, and I’m ready to stop missing things.

  1. Caleb Caudle – Paint Another Layer On Your Heart: one of the simplest, most beautiful records of 2014, Winston-Salem’s Caudle absolutely knocked it out of the park with Paint Another Layer On Your Heart. It’s full of heartbreakingly honest songs mostly about distance and love and long distance love, and “Trade All The Lights” and “How’d You Learn” are fighting for my favorite song of 2014. The single lyric, from early in album opener “How’d You Learn”, of home doesn’t share you with the places you’ve been made me cry so hard the first time I listened to Paint Another Layer that I ended up listening to nothing but the first minute of that song, over and over, for about the first 15 minutes of my experience with it. I finally listened to the rest of it, though, and it’s all just as brilliant as that line.
  2. Cory Branan – The No-Hit Wonder: Branan’s second record for my beloved Bloodshot Records combines Branan’s signature tongue-in-cheek bitter-but-not-quite lyrics with a variety of sounds — mostly bigger, broader, more layered than his previous guitar-centric solo sound — that punch up his already sharp songwriting into musical pieces that are even more suited to that lyrical sharpness than ever before. They range from country rockers to New Orleans horn laced crooners, and the startling lovely and acoustically stark “The Meantime Blues” that comes near the end of the record shouldn’t work, but might be the highlight of the album. Branan tours pretty relentlessly, and I can’t wait to hear the songs from this one live next year.
  3. Ex Hex – Rips: The only bands I saw more than twice in 2014 were Caleb Caudle, Cory Branan, and Ex Hex, who are about as far apart as can be, musically, and that didn’t matter to me. Rips, the Merge Records debut from the latest project from grown-up Riot Grrrl Mary Timony, is short and to the point, but it ain’t sweet: it rips and roars and screams and shreds guitars and bass and drums as hard as it can. It’s awesome.
  4. Old 97s – Most Messed Up: Rhett Miller drops the f-bomb upwards of 50 times on the 97s’ most recent studio album, and every single one of them makes me giggle and grin like a 12 year old boy. They also put on one of the best, if not the best set I saw this year, playing to a tiny and raucous crowd in the desert of West Texas, tearing through most of this record and proving that Rhett Miller dropping f-bombs in person is greater than Rhett Miller dropping f-bombs in the studio. And in record opener “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”, the band gives one of the most astute commentaries on the life of a musician: we’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive / 20 good years of about 25. The 97s will never be an arena band, and I wouldn’t want them to be; Most Messed Up just shows how great clubs have been and will still be for what they want to do.
  5. Taylor Swift – 1989: okay, don’t close the tab just because you hit this entry. This is a glorious, complete pop record, and sometimes, you guys, we just need glorious complete pop records. There’s always going to be blowback against Tay Tay and the music she’s making and the life she’s living, but most of it is going to come from people who didn’t listen to her albums. 1989 makes me feel good about being alive, and sometimes that’s quite literally all I want from a pop record. I listened to this four times in a row sitting in post-Thanksgiving traffic, and bonus track “New Romantics” made me cry every time. It also kept me from committing significant acts of road rage in Gaffney, South Carolina, and so Taylor Swift wins.
  6. Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else: sneakingly might be a better rock and roll album than noted rock and rollers the Drive-By Truckers, who follow her on this list, Lydia followed up the excellent Indestructible Machine with the subtler but just as fierce Somewhere Else. “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” is in my top five favorite tracks of 2014.
  7. The Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans: I fell out of love with the Truckers in 2013, and then I took Trav to see them in Atlanta in January, and I fell back in love with him, and with them. English Oceans is mostly free of the lengthy Patterson Hood guitar wanks that I complain about a lot, and things like “Shit Shots Count” add to Mike Cooler’s considerable arsenal of blow-your-face-off rockers. The balance of the songwriting is what’s been most talked about this year, and it’s one of the things that’s the most worthy of talking about, because it’s what makes this record so much greater than Go-Go Boots.
  8. The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt: Brian Fallon knows the way to my heart; this record was so close to my core that I couldn’t even write about it. But it’s beautiful.
  9. Noah Gundersen – Ledges: what I said in my two sentence reviews: start to finish gorgeous heartbreaking alt folk. One of the best records of 2014.
  10. Various Artists – While No One Was Looking: Celebrating 20 Years of Bloodshot Records: perhaps the greatest compilation I’ve ever heard, Bloodshot’s 20th birthday celebration made me cry, made me laugh, made me dance. It’d be higher on the list but it’s weird to put a compilation that high, sometimes. Regardless: it’s good. You should have it.
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best of: my 25 favorite records from 2013

dave wilson @ southland ballroom

1. Ha Ha Tonka – Lessons: like the Tonk would break their own streak of topping my lists the years they release albums. This is a flawless record, comprehensively from start to finish, that packs an intense emotional punch and gorgeous harmonies. Probably my favorite band working right now. (Album review.)

2. Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks: but this, Josh Ritter’s stunning “divorce” album, was a damn close second since it ran first for most of the year. The most raw and intimate album on my list, it’s somewhere between too personal and too universal to be anything less than genius. (Album review.)

3. Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart: basically just UGH FRANK TURNER I LOVE YOU. But also sharp songwriting, grown-up themes — “The Way I Tend To Be” is just so painfully true for me — and my most played track of 2013, “Tattoos”. if we had the luck to live our lives a second time through, we’d be sure to get the same tattoos (Album review.)

4. Mason Jennings – Always Been: like Josh’s album, the perfect record at the perfect time, a last minute shot straight into the top five. (Album review.)

5. Two Cow Garage – The Death Of The Self Preservation Society: furious punk heartbreak from my favorite two songwriters out there, no offense to Josh Ritter and Brian Fallon and Frank Turner. But Micah and Shane, together and separate, are the best songwriters working today. (Album review.)

6. The Julie Ruin – Run Fast: basically the only album in the top ten that isn’t sheer heartbreak and staggering sadness; this is brat punk at its Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna fronted best, danceable and shoutable and this was my favorite driving fast record of 2013. (Album review.)

7. Typhoon – White Lighter: “Young Fathers” is one of my favorite songs of the year, and this whole album is just an enormous, beautiful gut punch. Since I enjoy having my heart shredded by other people’s pain, I think this is genius.

8. San Fermin – self-titled: my favorite set at Hopscotch this year, this record is epic and complex and could have been overdone, but is instead thoughtful and sharp-witted and warm.

9. J. Roddy Walston & the Business – Essential Tremors: J. Roddy and Fall Out Boy are the only non-local bands I saw more than once this year. So, you know, this record is so good I saw them play it in two time zones. You want balls to the wall rock and roll, Essential Tremors is the record for you. (Album review.)

10. Jason Isbell – Southeastern: some of you know what a big deal it is for me to put a Jason Isbell record on this list, but this record was so well-recommended by so many people that I gave it a shot … and I fell back in love with Jason Isbell completely, his songwriting and his honest writing about his sobriety and his relationship with his wife, and it just. It just destroys me, the same way his songs used to, four years ago. It rips my heart out completely. (Review of Muscle Shoals.)

11. The Breedings – Fayette: the Breedings are one of those those bands whose relative lack of fame astounds me; Willie Breeding is a stellar, clever songwriter, and both the harmonies and the stage presence of Willie and his sister Erin are a double hit of excellent. Fayette ranges from the quieter love songs that show off Erin’s extraordinary voice to the cheek and charm of “Tennessee” – a very different kind of love song. (Album review.)

12. Gross Ghost – Public Housing: the smartest, most intricate straight up rock and roll record this year. You don’t know Gross Ghost now. You will this time next year. (Album review.)

13. Fall Out Boy – Save Rock And Roll: Pete Wentz and his band saved my life once. True story. This record saved my life again this year. (Photos, Fall Out Boy at the 9:30 Club, DC.)

14. Marnie Stern – The Chronicles Of Marnia: one of the dumbest titles of the year is hiding one of the best guitar records of 2013; Marnie can sing, and she can play the shit out of her guitar. She played my second favorite set at Hopscotch, just absolutely burned up the room at the Lincoln late on Thursday.

15. Frontier Ruckus – The Eternity of Dimming: if you’re a Frontier Ruckus fan, you already know that there are a damn lot of words on this record. Matthew said something like 50,000? 50,000 genius words. Nobody packs more into the landscape of Michigan as a metaphor and a truth and a lie than Frontier Ruckus.

16. Giant Drag – Waking Up Is Hard To Do: I love girl group soaked drunken garage pop so much.

17. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park: smart, smart-ass Nashville country. Musgraves has the kind of voice and presence that’s going to sell, and she delivers her feisty, fierce songs with the effortless grace of an old pro — which, since this is actually Musgraves’ fourth record, she is. She deserves this, after all her hard work, and the record holds it up.

18. Kingsley Flood – Battles: I expected this DC / Boston band to blow up this year; they still haven’t, and that surprises me. Traditional songwriting combined with unique sounds, they’re taking “Americana” and making it very much their own.

19. The National – Trouble Will Find Me: dear boys from Ohio, I think that there’s a tiny piece of my heart that you didn’t shred with this album. Please try harder next time.

20. Panic! at the Disco – Too Weird To Live Too Rare To Die: if OutKast and Passion Pit made a really smart big dumb dance record, it would be this P!ATD record, which just goes to show that Brendon Urie is a chameleon who should not be underestimated.

21. Have Gun Will Travel – Fiction Fact Or Folktale?: not just a great record because it has punctuation in the title, but because Scott Anderson and company are sharp songwriters with a phenomenal sense of tradition; modern folk music for the punk rock set. Their fourth LP, it’s a stunner.

22. Belle Adair – The Brave & the Blue: proof that there’s more music coming out of Muscle Shoals than you are aware of; and that Belle Adair is one of those bands that should have your attention. Sharp, sad, indie pop songwriting.

23. Dorado – Anger Hunger Love and the Fear of Death: genre-defying furious rock and roll from This Is American Music. Eye-popping and brain-melting.

24. Heyward Howkins – Be Frank, Furness: smart, literate, intricate modern folk from Philadelphia; an deeply overlooked album by an artist who should be much better known than he is. Hoping that this record grabs Heyward that notice.

25. Radiation City – Animals In The Median: I also like girl group fuzz-haze garage pop lots, too. Radiation City, come back to North Carolina so I can see you play.

best of: favorite songs of 2013

the breedings @ the casbah

How I made this list: these 25 songs are the five-star songs in my iTunes library that I listened to most in 2013. You’ll see a few repeated on my Christmas mix — spoiler alert! — but not most of them. Stream them below via Spotify (tracks not available on Spotify are linked individually), and tell me what your favorite song of 2013 is.

  1. Kacey Musgraves – Follow Your Arrow
  2. Frank Turner – Recovery
  3. Ha Ha Tonka – Rewrite Our Lives
  4. Josh Ritter – Hopeful
  5. Mason Jennings – Patti & Robert
  6. Camera Obscura – Troublemaker
  7. Dorado – Molotovs
  8. Elin Ruth – F Off
  9. Bad Bad Hats – Super America
  10. Jason Isbell – Stockholm
  11. The National – I Should Live In Salt
  12. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Back When We Were Beautiful
  13. The Front Bottoms – Au Revoir (Adios)
  14. Giant Drag – Garbage Hearts
  15. Gross Ghost – Howlin
  16. Josh Ritter – Joy To You Baby
  17. Leif Vollebekk – Photographer Friend
  18. Mount Moriah – Connecticut to Carolina
  19. Neko Case – Man
  20. Tedo Stone – Good Go Bad
  21. Wooden Wand – Southern Colorado Song
  22. Kinglsey Flood – Waitin’ On The River To Rise
  23. The Julie Ruin – Just My Kind
  24. The Head and the Heart – Shake
  25. Frank Turner – Tattoos

list: my ten favorite photos of 2012

bad machine tour

Of all the photos I took this year, these are my ten favorites, unranked and presented without comment. I will say, though, that I was surprised that three of these were basically portraits (the Cowboy and Biggs; Montgomery, thoughtful; and Erin Rae on Matt’s porch); I don’t think of myself as a portrait photographer, but I do think of myself as someone who likes to capture quiet intense moments, and all three of those are that.

the vaudevillain revue: the bootlegger's ball

holden beach, north carolina

promo photos: slingshot cash

montgomery, thoughtful

hopscotch music festival 2012

hopscotch music festival 2012: the roots

mandolin orange @ carrboro town commons

red hot chili peppers @ pnc arena

speakers in code garden party

best of: top 25 albums of 2012

chatham county line electric holiday show @ haw river ballroom

I hate making these lists. Everything was good! If it was bad, I didn’t keep it, thus, all the albums in my iTunes from 2012 are excellent! Agggh. But anyway: I contributed to the Speakers In Code list, of course, but this one is mine and ended up getting a hefty end-of-the-list tweak from my SiC list.

  1. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten: This is probably too mainstream for music bloggers and too weird for normal people, but this album made me have more feelings, both joy and heartbreak, than anything else this year. Brian Fallon, leave your wife for meeeeeee.
  2. Micah Schnabel – I’m Dead, Serious: Micah’s songwriting always moves me, and I think this is his best yet – it’s one of the few albums in my iTunes, along with Handwritten, that is composed of entirely five-star songs.
  3. The Lumineers – The Lumineers: perfect roots-pop songwriting; “Ho Hey” got the most press, but “Classy Girls” makes me happy every time I hear it.
  4. Damien Jurado – Maraqopa: unbearably heartbreaking and intimate; “Working Titles” is my favorite song of the year.
  5. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Going To Change The Way You Feel About Me Now: a perfect fusion of Memphis soul and JTE’s standard country songs; Justin was already an amazing songwriter, and this record pushes his musical boundaries in a fantastic way.
  6. Gross Ghost – Brer Rabbit: The best pop record in the Triangle, and maybe the country, this year. You probably haven’t heard it, and that’s a shame.
  7. Spider Bags – Shake My Head: This is a disgustingly close second for Triangle record of the year, all shake and shimmy and guitars and hooky choruses.
  8. Craig Finn – Clear Heart Full Eyes: Not everyone loved this one, but I think it’s among Finn’s finest songwriting and sharpest observations about fucked up people just trying to live their lives; it was gorgeous live.
  9. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar: “Emmylou” was one of the greatest songs of the year, one of the best love songs I’ve ever heard, and the rest of the album does that song justice in setting.
  10. Tift Merritt – Traveling Alone: probably wouldn’t have made my list, except for how it hits me right in the chest when it’s played live, and I got three sets to discover that punch of emotion and heartbreak this fall.
  11. The Orwells – Remember When: like the Smith Westerns a few years ago, this record is a bunch of Chicago teenagers leaning back to roots that are older than them and making a kickass retro record, except these guys are better than the Smith Westerns.
  12. Admiral Fallow – Tree Bursts In Snow: spend two days with these guys, learning the intimacies of their lyrics and their accents and their laughs, and this record will move your heart in wide open sky ways.
  13. Bob Mould – Silver Age: Bob called it a “big dumb rock” record, but if anybody gets to make a genius big dumb rock record, it’s Bob Mould, and this one is genius.
  14. Delicate Cutters – Ring: the best band from the South that you’ve never heard of; this record is creepy and gothic and gorgeous, and you will fall in love if you hear it, but I bet you haven’t heard it.
  15. The District Attorneys – Slowburner: smart, hooky, guitar-driven Southern rock – one of the best high-energy live shows I saw this year, and while the album really is more like its title, it’s well-worth it.
  16. Archie Powell & the Exports – Great Ideas In Actionperfect retro pop songwriting, some of my favorite guys to follow on Twitter, exactly amazing for a late night one person dance party, the best band from Chicago that you’ve never heard of. Listened to this one in the car like whoa.
  17. Heartless Bastards – Arrow: a slow burner for me, this one didn’t really take hold until I saw HBs play on Halloween, when I realized fully realized the morose and epic power of the songwriting and Erika Wennerstrom’s haunting, terrifying, gorgeous voice.
  18. Corb Lund – Cabin Fever: this is filthy in the same way that Black Keys records are filthy, country like only Alberta can be, and funny like you never expect your brilliant songwriters to be. “Cows Around” was one of my most-listened 2012 tracks.
  19. Dr. Dog – Be The Void: this spent, cumulatively in total, about six weeks of this year, 24/7, in my car stereo. I listened to “That Old Black Hole” 173 times. They were one of my favorite shows of the year.
  20. Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues: because fuck you, that’s why.
  21. Cory Branan – Mutt: Branan’s first Bloodshot Records release, and first full length LP in many years, this was a roots rock gem that really got overlooked in the glut of releases this year; Branan is a sharp, funny, irreverant, and moving songwriter, and the clean production doesn’t polish off the rough edges that make him a charming performer.
  22. Will Johnson – Scorpion: Will is one of the most talented songwriters and composers out there today, and Scorpion isn’t my favorite of his releases, but it’s delicate and sad and a lovely introduction to Will Johnson’s epic catalog, if you haven’t discovered him already.
  23. Japandroids – Celebration Rock: this is not the best rock album released this year, Stephen Thompson, but it was a good one; I have spent a concentrated amount of time with it in the last few weeks after it started turning up on lists, and it is solid and rocking and unique from start to finish. (Spider Bags made the best rock record of 2012.)
  24. Kelly Hogan – I Like To Keep Myself In Pain: this should probably be higher, but I just didn’t spend enough time with it; Hogan’s voice is unmatched, her own songwriting is great, and when you can line up a list of friends to write songs for you like Kelly Hogan can, it’s an amazing one from the start.
  25. Passion Pit – Gossamer: listen to this late one night, in the dark, on your headphones, when you’re feeling really sad; then go out and see Michael Angelakos and his masterful band absolutely control a crowd. The sold out show at Disco Rodeo this year, and my lovely Clea’s joy in them, sold me on the power and talent behind this album.

Honorable mentions go to The Menzingers; Wintersleep; Waxahatchee; the Avetts; and Black Prairie, whose records might have made the list if I’d spent more time with their records. (The lack of time I spent with The Carpenter is ridiculous.) Rayland Baxter’s Feathers & Fishhooks was the last one off, like Virginia Tech at tournament time only way way better than any of Seth Greenberg’s teams.

The Speakers in Code list is here, and contains our multitudinous opinions.

top ten shows of 2011

josh ritter @ mcglohon theatre

I saw 133 shows so far this year, with two left in 2011, but these are the unquestionable top ten. Now with photos. (Josh Ritter in Charlotte above.)

1. Josh Ritter, solo acoustic, at the McGlohon Theatre, Charlotte, 11/2011. I didn’t go to another show this year where I barely breathed from start to finish for the sheer magic of it.

Continue reading “top ten shows of 2011”

ten more tracks from 2011 that i loved

local beer local bands: lilac shadows

Tracks that didn’t make the Christmas mix, for whatever reason, but got a lot of play from me, in no particular order and little to no commentary, but with a zip file [here]. More music I loved!

  • Cee-lo Green, “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”: from the Buddy Holly tribute album, we all know I think the world needs more Buddy Holly covers and this was the best on the disc.
  • Lydia Loveless, “Steve Earle”: the funniest damn song this year.
  • Jason Isbell, “Alabama Pines”: I thought the rest of this album sucked, but I loved the hell out of this track.
  • the Drive-By Truckers, “Weakest Man”: I have been waiting years for Mike Cooley to record this track, and then he did, with a sexy little shuffle and an accordian and maaaaan, I love it.
  • the Donkeys, “I Like The Way You Walk”: man, this was a great album that got very little press.
  • Old Man Markley, “Guts ‘n’ Teeth”: the title track from the best bluegrass punk album of 2011.
  • Josh Ritter, “Harrisburg”: from the Live at the Iveagh Gardens disc, this has the most amazing surprise in the middle of it.
  • the Head & the Heart, “Coeur d’Alene”: from the re-release of their self-titled, this made me cry in the car repeatedly.
  • Glossary, “The Flood”: another weeper.
  • the Baseball Project, “Panda and the Freak”: clever kitschy songs about baseball, yes, please.