An Inspired Year of Americana Music: The Best of 2014
The work of creating a Best-of-the-Year list can be a strange experience. In a phone interview today with Keb’ Mo’ we moaned together about how to respond to these year-end lists. Of course, he has a lot of room to moan with three Grammy wins in Blues categories and a nomination this year in Americana for his phenomenal album, BlUESAmericana. I, however, am left being among the many fans and contributors who feel the need to create lists rather than collect awards.
At the year’s end, when this season comes around, I feel like a school kid who has forgotten to do his homework. While I was busy swimming in the slack-key bliss of Maui’s fine music this year, Lucinda Williams was releasing the finest album of her legendary career. When I was absorbing the newly released newly-mastered 1950 Garden Spot recordings of Hank Williams, newcomer, Sturgill Simpson was breaking new sonic ground in hard-core country. In a sense, creating this list has been good and grounding for me. Helping me swim back from the island music and time travel from the 50’s back to here and now. ‘Just keeping it authentic and real,’ as Keb’ Mo’ would say.
I looked for a few common characteristics for inclusion on my personal best ten list for 2014. They include accessibility, authenticity, originality, innovation and artistic integrity. All are marks of excellence that need to be present regardless of the popularity or chart position of an album in any genre of music. There were too many qualifiers this year to fit into a neat, tidy and undebatable list of ten. So I must turn to personal relevance as I’ve journeyed through the American music that has come my way during 2014. The albums I’ve selected have influenced, informed and entertained as they’ve entered my life at various critical points. But, I’ve also found they well-deserve national attention based on their excellence, innovation and the comitment to what it takes to produce a work of distinction.
It’s been a good year for Americana with fine new artists rising from the heartland and unexpected new music from our tried and true veterans. It began with Rosanne Cash’s excellent artistic breakthrough, The River and the Thread, an album that successfully binds the spiritual journey with the mythic Deep South landscape of past and present. Stugill Simpson’s doggedly original album, Metamodern Country Sounds, stands on the shoulders of George Jones and Waylon Jennings as he builds his own well-crafted songs into an entirely new experience of risky production that pays off with deeply rooted traditional country as its framework.
Lucinda William’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is uncompromising and inventive as it gives us new reason to regard her as one of the best singer-songwriter’s today. Keb Mo’s BLUESAmericana made a masterful transistion into a fully realized diverse American sound with an album of country, blues, folk and gospel, all built on a solid roots foundation. It sings and echos The Band and the Piedmont blues of Mississppii John Hurt. Willie Nelson chimed in with a tie due to the late release of December Day: Willie’s Stash Volume 1, his fine long overdue studio collaboration, with his sister Bobbie, harmonica player, Mickey Raphael and the late bass player, Bee Spears. His Band of Brothers showed Nelson is fast becoming the Picasso of country music as he rides into his sunset years capturing songs so original, intimate and engaging it’s hard to believe he’s nearer now to the final music of his career than the young gifted renegade he began as some 50 years ago. He remains our most original songwriter today.
Young Louisiana native, Rod Melancon’s outstanding and revelatory second album, Parish Lines, demonstrates artistic growth as a performer, studio artist and songwriter with Dwight Yoakam’s lead guitar player, Brian Whelan at the producer’s helm. It was a breakthough work with consistently insightful, ironic and engaging songs and a firey-take-no-prisoners production. Lee Ann Womack’s, The Way I’m Living, has shown there is still hope as she sings on the fringes of mainstream country with an album that is as gospel fevered as it is heartbroken, honky tonk country. Chiming in from the West Coast, Calico the band, a skilled instrumentalist-singer-songwriter trio gave us Rancho California with strains of Bakersfield that dove tails into the Laurel Canyon vocal sound originated by the Mamas and Papas and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The album is full of soulful songs complete with soaring three-part harmonies and dynamic country-rock instrumentation from a new band who is ready to take Nashville and Austin by storm.
At 80, Leonard Cohen still mesmerizes and engages as he draws us his near spoken word songs of confession, irony and poetic beauty. On his latest, Popular Problems, he has called us again to warm by his midnight fires with familiar tales of love, loss and redemption that we never tire of hearing.
And ending on a tragic note of mortality and finality, in 2014, we had one last love letter of songs from the great Jesse Winchester, his ironically titled, A Reasonable Amount of Trouble. As he writes and sings his last words with the knowledge he is terminally ill, he allows us into his final recorded moments with love, grace, humility, humor and a final sense of closure on a career that has done as much as any artist to define Americana over the last 40 years. He has never received enough credit for bridging the North American gap between roots music from Canada and the United States. This album is as sweet as a valentine as it leaves us with that taste of mortal bitterness at the loss we experience with his absence.
Honorable mentions for oustanding achtivement, which in many cases could be interchanged with albums that are on my list, include Phil & Dave Alvin’s notably funky take on Big Bill Broonzy on Common Ground; Mary Gauthier continues to set the gold standard for self-revealing yet universal country based lyric driven songwriting on her fine Love & Trouble collection; Paul Thorn’s gospel soaked passionate, Too Blessed to be Stressed and Dave Crossland’s fine re-invention of the legacy of John Stewart on his excellent Mother Country album. These are a few released this year.
Here is my official list. While they reflect much of my personal musical journal for this last year, they also represent what a full and rich year 2014 was for Americana-roots music.