And to make it easy for you, we've put together a best of 2014 - Spotify playlist:
Album: "Black Messiah"
Song: "Ain't That Easy"
Notes: There's a ton to unpack on D'Angelo's first album in nearly 15 years. First of all, there's the man's legend, which has grown in his absence, so much so that people assume this LP's title, "Black Messiah," is about him. But D'Angelo would dispute that.
Forget that he just channeled George Clinton, Al Green, and Marvin Gaye in the span of two breaths. The lyrics display a man down in the muck with us: "Won't believe what you have to sacrifice just to get some peace of mind. You take what they give as if it did suffice, still it's just a waste of time."
The only reason we're hearing this LP at all is the unrest over the repeated killings of unarmed black men. D and the label rushed it out. But though they were laboring over this thing for years, the sounds do echo the national mood: dense, dark, deep. The lyrics are a similarly intense muddle, dealing with love, faith, transcendence, and tragedy.
Black Messiah is more about channeling our collective angst and ennui, plus reviving soul music as both high art form and social soapbox. D doesn't often directly address the issue, but when he does, it's devastating: "All we wanted was a chance to talk / 'Stead we only got outlined in chalk."
Album: "Our Love"
Song: "Can't Do Without You"
Notes: Here's one to win over even the snootiest dance-music hater. Caribou emerged in the early aughts with a "folktronica" sound — a headier, introspective style marked by acoustic samples and quiet vibes. This is him now.
The Canadian producer has embraced body music with the same verve and - best of all - the same incredible ear for color. The album "Our Love" is blissful brain candy. It combines the pulse of house music with cut-up beats borrowed from hip-hop, and the crisp, clear-eyed beauty of modern pop. There's also a whole lot of soul here. The guy sings more and more with each album, and this is both his most intimate and outward-facing. "Our Love" is, yes, about love, but, in his words, "not some b.s. fairytale." Rather, "The daily connection and presence between people."
Artist: Doug Paisley
Album: "Strong Feelings"
Song: "Radio Girl"
Notes: This is the one I've listened to more than any other set of songs this year. I've got a penchant for weird, futuristic music, but sometimes the simplicity of guitar, keys, and a helluva voice cuts straight through all the noise.
That's why I love Canadian country feller Doug Paisley and a sweet little song called "Radio Girl." It's a wistful song about an ephemeral love, but the arrangement gives it so much warmth and light that you can almost see the titular character, whom he lost a long time ago.
The LP Strong Feelings combines Americana twang with Laurel Canyon groove and is full of lovely heartbreakers like this. Thanks in part to Paisley's rich pipes and nuanced storytelling, plus help from members of the Band, Bon Iver, and Bahamas.
Artist: Angel Olsen
Album: "Burn Your Fire for No Witness"
Song: "High & Wild"
Notes: It's tough to capture this on in a single song, but here goes. Check out Angel Olsen's spellbinding "High & Wild."
That's from an LP called "Burn Your Fire for No Witness," which finds this St. Louis-raised singer and guitar-slayer expanding her range mightily. The span of her voice is the first thing you notice. She'll move from a detached monotone to a spine-tingling howl in a couple of bars, and the music moves with.
Olsen came up in Bonnie "Prince" Billy's circle, but her songs emote far more openly and dramatically. The one we heard deals in fuzz and frustration.
The reason it's on my year-end list: If you've ever been bummed about love or felt rudderless, you'll find solace here.
Artist: Charli XCX
Song: "Doing It"
Notes: "Girls rule, boys drool." That was a line from an op-ed that Billboard published titled Why 2014 Was Pop's 'End of Men' Moment. The answer was that women ruled the pop charts, occupying the top five spots for seven weeks in a row over much of the summer. Perhaps their loudest cheerleader: British newcomer Charli XCX.
Now Charli XCX, we can safely say, is hell-bent on being an international pop star. Exhibit number one: how much time she spends outside of her home country across the pond in the U.S.
And for good reason: American audiences respond to her sound. This goes back to 2012 when Swedish duo Icona Pop broke through with "I Love It," a song Charli wrote and was featured on. Next came Iggy Azalea’s "Fancy," the inescapable “Boom Clap” first from the Fault in Our Stars soundtrack and ending up on Sucker, as well. She’s only 22, and it should be noted that my first ever appearance on Take Two, I chose Charli, then 19, to highlight as an artist to watch.
So here we are, three years later and pop is, er, promising thanks in no small part to stars like Charli XCX. Don’t look, listen to the album track "Doing It." If this is the music of millennials and Top 40, it’s a good place to be.
Artist: Garden City Movement
Album: "Entertainment" EP
Song: "Move On"
Notes: This group that splits its home base between Berlin and Tel Aviv hits on a lot of the hallmarks of this year with their brand of ambient, mid-tempo pop. Like Disclosure, who Garden City Movement has opened up for in the past, the touchstones here are beautiful melodies more dreamy, less dystopian and not as bummed out as the likes of the xx or James Blake. "Move On" is the standout track on this debut EP and it more than holds up in repeated listenings.
Artist: Courtney Barnett
Album: "The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas"
Song: "Avant Gardner"
Notes: “Avant Gardner" is 5 minutes and 12 seconds of asthma-inducing hilarity and indie rock goodness by Australian Courtney Barnett, who combined two EPs for her debut U.S. release.
It didn’t take long for Courtney Barnett to pick up the baton from Best Coast’s Bethany Costentino. She was hailed as low-fi’s next big thing, as oxymoronic as that sounds, almost the instant "Avant Gardner" started making its way around the blogosphere. in a year’s time, Courtney Barnett had graduated from tiny gigs at venues like LA’s Bootleg theatre to playing festivals for crowds of thousands. Her bare-bones set-up, guitar, bass and drums, held both crowds equally captive.
The grungy sludge heard all over this collection can, at times, sound like Nirvana — the band and the sentiment. Worth noting: Courtney Barnett, like Kurt Cobain, plays guitar left-handed. The start of a movement? Maybe so…
Artist: Ryan Adams
Album: "Ryan Adams"
Song: "Stay With Me"
Notes: I’ve said it before on this very program, Ryan Adams put out the best Tom Petty record Petty never made, and that’s in a year when there WAS a new and pretty good Tom Petty album.
But here’s the thing about Ryan Adams, and it’s almost cliché to say it, but he’s so prolific. And among from all of his limitless drive to write, we get to reap the benefits. In the case of this self-titled release: a gem 14 albums in.
Chock full of crunchy guitars and anthemic choruses, this is Ryan Adams at his most full-bodied working man’s rock sound so no wonder it nabbed a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album — along with two more for lead single "Gimme Something Good." I chose the equally torpedo-damning "Stay With Me" to demonstrate the meeting of American and Americana, something an elite group of singer-songwriters — Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy among them — can pull off.
Artist: Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters
Album: "lullaby and…THE CEASELESS ROAR"
Song: "Little Maggie"
Notes: The best thing Robert Plant did in 2014, musically speaking, was what he did not do: cave to pressure, including from former band-mates, to mount a Led Zeppelin rehash/reunion tour.
Okay, well, the best thing really was what he did instead of that, devote his talents and energies to his current band, Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters. It’s as much for the example he’s setting — following his passions, seeking the new rather than cashing in the past — as for the music. But the music stands on its own, a bracing folk-blues-African-psychedelic melange, alternately vibrant and haunting on the album, positively explosive in concert.
It’s all there in the album’s opening song, a radical reworking of the murder ballad "Little Maggie." (Leaving is a theme running through the album, but that’s a rather extreme way to introduce the notion.) The band, particularly when spotlighting the swirling sounds of Gambian musician Juldeh Camara’s riti (one-stringed fiddle) and Justin Adams’ border-blasting guitar, fully lives up to its name, and stands as the best Plant has had since, well, you know who.
Artist: Henry Butler-Steven Bernstein & the Hot 9
Album: "Viper’s Drag"
Song: “Henry’s Boogie”
Notes: Put the needle down one place and it might strike you as conservative, vintage jazz. But keep listening and you’ll hear how the krewe — veteran New Orleans pianist Henry Butler and New York composer-arranger-trumpeter Steve Bernstein with some of both cities’ leading jazz players — spins it into some rather surprising, challenging variations. The latter can be the very kind of thing jazz traditionalists generally disdain, but here they might get so pulled in that they won’t even notice the transitions until they’re fully enjoying the results.
Each track goes through several phases, from as old-school as anything the two worked on together when they first met while making music for Robert Altman’s "Kansas City" to flights as phantasmagoric as albums Bernstein’s made for avant-gardist John Zorn’s label. It’s all done with equal measures of expertise and playfulness, with the two principals spurring and inspiring each other. The title tune, for one, takes the Cotton Club into the contemporary Downtown Scene, while "Henry’s Boogie" marches a New Orleans parade through Manhattan.
Seeing the group at the Jazz Standard in New York on New Year’s Day, months before the album was released, remained a highlight for the year. Seeing it again at New Orleans JazzFest shortly after release was even better.
Album: "Nikki Nack"
Song: "Water Fountain"
Notes: A Bette Midler for Millennials? That's the impression my girlfriend Laura Grover, a big Bette fan, had of Tune-Yards’ prime mover Merrill Garbus at a recent showcase performance. And it’s spot-on, but in a hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show kinda way — homemade outfits and backdrops, purposefully imprecise choreography — and with a very arty musical approach not at all like Ms. M’s. The Oakland-based act’s playfulness and artiness are a dynamic combo, the former undercutting any potential pretensions of the latter, the latter bringing substance to the former. But even without the visuals, the music on the album is astonishingly, often startlingly original, and with its own balance of art and play, the latter often coming in Garbus’, well, playfully arty extrapolations from Haitian rhythms in the percussion-centric tracks and African village women’s songs in the spirited vocal arrangements. Those also give a sort of earthy orientation to the material, heard solidly in the neighborhood scenes of "Water Fountain" (a neighborhood the circles the globe via her new Water Fountain Fund non-profit to address water-related issues) and the multi-layered existentialism of "Sink-O (Peace and Love)" and "Hey Life." And the odd vocal sensibilities bring new twists and dimensions to inward-probing soul of "Wait For a Minute."These are the voices in her head, and perhaps all of ours too. Great that she’s able to get them out so distinctively.
Artist: Noura Mint Seymali
Notes: Finding permanence through change, "faith and stability found through instability," per the press materials, is the theme of this album by Mauritanian singer Seymali. The title comes from an ancient spinning dance which represents that quest. Given the instability and challenges to faith that are constants in her West African region — wars, famines and now the ebola crisis — the album has added urgency to it. That edge to her voice is compelling, just-shy-of-shrill, powered by the pace of the musical style known as asawan, here combining a traditional ardine harp and the spiraling electric guitar played by her husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly. But as current as it seems, it draws on a strong lineage. Seymali is the daughter of one of Mauritania’s music giants, Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, who invented the first system of notation for Moorish melodies, and step-daughter of Dimi Mint Abba, a leading singer in the country’s modern music. Mauritania gets lost in the world music realm, overshadowed by neighbors Mali, Morocco and Algeria. Seymali, who gave her first U.S. concerts last summer, including a strong L.A. debut at the Skirball Cultural Center, has the potential to change that.