Eddie Ashworth, an associate professor in the School of Media Arts & Studies at Ohio University where he teaches courses in record production and music industry studies, recently shared his top albums of 2014 with WOUB a series of year-end articles by WOUB staff and contributors. From his WOUB.org blog:
1. Frazey Ford, Indian Ocean (Nettwerk): Taking a page from the Cat Power playbook, Frazey Ford (of The Be Good Tanyas) collaborated with the Hi Rhythm Section (famed for backing Al Green on his classics) on this ebullient release. But where Cat Power’s The Greatest had a dreamlike, slightly soporific quality, Ford’s album bubbles with life, with every song imbued with a sinuous groove and infectious melodies.
2. Cymbals Eat Guitars, LOSE (Barsuk): A rock album of uncommon range and majesty. Many of the tracks seem to be referencing the death of band leader Joseph D’Angostino’s musical collaborator Benjamin High, and lyrically the songs are both despairing and uplifting all at once. Musically, the band has never sounded more confident and cohesive.
3. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (High Top Mountain): The perfect antidote to the proliferation of bro-country anthems currently clogging the country charts, Kentuckian Simpson recalls a young Waylon Jennings with his earthy lyrics and effortless twang. Produced live in the studio by David Cobb (who also helmed Jason Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough album, Southeastern), the record has a well-worn quality while still sounding contemporary. Country music as nature intended it to be.
4. Water Liars, Water Liars (Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess): This vibrant release veers between the raucous (album opener "Cannibal") and the intimate ("Let It Breathe") with equal parts conviction and grace. The album has a refreshingly unfussed-over sound, which complements vocalist/guitarist Justin Kinkel-Schuster’s songs perfectly. Along with Bob Mould’s crew (see #8) my favorite rock trio.
5. St. Vincent, St. Vincent (Loma Vista): Produced by John Congleton (who is having a pretty stellar year himself with records by Angel Olsen, The Black Angels, Cloud Nothings, Swans and many others), Annie Clark’s latest is the epitome of sophisticated, cerebral, yet sublimely catchy pop music. Nervous, edgy fun for folks who like a bitter pill with their spoonful of sugar.
6. Angela Perley and the Howlin' Moons, Hey Kid (Vital Music): Gotta give a shout out to former Athenian Angela Perley and her crack band (Billy Zehnal on bass, Jeff Martin on drums and guitar hero in the making, Chris Connor). Angela’s songs are equal parts sweetness and sass, finely observed odes to characters met and places lived, all presented with a Faces/Stones roar that nimbly supports Perley’s tough but tender vocals. An exuberant, roots rock delight.
7. Robyn Hitchcock, The Man Upstairs (Yep Roc): As an unabashed Hitchcock fan, you just knew this album of covers intermingled with originals was going to make my cut. This record marks the first collaboration between Hitchcock and producer Joe Boyd (much revered for the Nick Drake albums, as well as his work with R.E.M. and The Incredible String Band), and it is indeed a match made in folk rock heaven. His versions of Roxy Music’s "To Turn You On" and The Psychedelic Furs "The Ghost In You" reveal a gravitas not immediately apparent in their original incarnations, highlighting the cunning song craft that Hitchcock so obviously admires.
8. Bob Mould, Beauty and Ruin (Merge): Last year’s Silver Age marked a stunning return to form for Mould, and this album is, if anything, an even more assured release. Clocking in at a brisk 36 minutes, this is a hardcore pop-rock barn burner that benefits mightily from the muscular playing of Mould and his dream team of Jason Narducy (bass) and Jon Wurster (drums). Mould’s songs spit defiantly in the face of sorrows past with furiously played music that takes no prisoners.
9. Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, Sling Shot to Heaven (Mariel): The not-so-little band that could. Hailing from Indianapolis, MATNSAS have a whimsical quality that belies the record's strong emotional undercurrents. The songs of bandleader Richard Edwards recall the sweeter side of Harry Nilsson, but filtered through the same Midwestern pragmatism that informs the writing of Jeff Tweedy and Will Phalen. Lovely lo-fi hymns for incurable romantics.
10. Goat, Commune (Sub Pop): If you are not in a trancelike state by the end of this album’s first cut ("Talk To God"), you are probably immune to such higher planes of existence. The second album by this Swedish collective weaves a hypnotic spell through imaginative percussion/drum loops, wailing vocals, psychedelic guitars and lyrics that exhort the listener to "Travel the Path Unknown," which, not coincidentally, is one of the songs on the album. Along with You’re Dead (#12, below) one of the year’s most imaginative and spellbinding releases.
11. Ximena Sariñana, No Todo Lo Puedos Dar (Warner Brothers): Beautifully written, sung and produced (mostly by Sariãna in her native Mexico, as well as Texas), this is pop music of the highest order. The Latin-tinged arrangements are impossibly catchy, the melodies transcendent, and the lyrics (in Spanish) meld beautifully with the music.
12. Flying Lotus, You’re Dead (Warp): Steve Ellison (the nephew of late pianist Alice Coltrane) takes on the family business by incorporating elements of free jazz to his always-inventive (and oddly moving) electronic soundscapes. Featuring vocals by Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dog, this record sounds like no other released this year and richly rewards repeat listenings.
13. Hurray for the Riff Raff, Small Town Heroes (ATO): Based out of New Orleans, Hurray for the Riff Raff spotlights the considerable talents of singer/songwriter (and train-hopper) Alynda Lee Segarra, who has clearly steeped herself in the sounds and themes of Appalachian mountain music. The record has a timeless quality, with band mates Yosi Perlstein and Casey McAllister providing perfectly nuanced instrumental support.
14. Wussy, Attica (Shake It): For my money, this is Cincinnati-based Wussy’s finest hour, a testament to rock music and its power to inspire and transform the listener. Punk, folk, garage rock and pop meld on this record seamlessly, which reunites frontman Chuck Cleaver with former Ass Ponys band mate John Ernhardt. And Lisa Walker’s quirky vocals have never been better.
Reissues, Compilations, Box Sets:
The obvious choices--The Beatles in Mono, the Led Zeppelin remasters, the comprehensive release of the Dylan/Band Basement Tapes--are of course vital additions to any record fanatic’s collection. Just get that credit card ready—they definitely aren’t giving this stuff away.
My ear gravitated to these remastered re-releases, however—all on vinyl, natch:
The The, Soul Mining (Sony): This oft-neglected masterpiece of '80s synthesized angst gets the royal treatment with a flawless pressing, expansive liner notes and deluxe packaging.
The Jayhawks, Sound of Lies (American): Worth the steep price of admission ($35…really??) for the track "The Man Who Loved Life" alone, and the gloriously remastered sonics.
Bob Mould, Workbook 25 (Omnivore): Mould’s classic first solo album—marred in its initial release by brittle digital mastering—benefits greatly from this year’s 25th anniversary re-release.
Wilco, Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014 (Nonesuch): Another immaculate (German) pressing. Expertly curated compilation of everyone’s favorite Dad Rock band. Some of this stuff has actually been readily available to Wilco completists, but many of the tracks (particularly the live recordings and studio outtakes) are revelations.
Records I Also Liked This Year:
The Swans, To Be Kind
Steve Gunn, Way Out Weather
Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There Yet?
Caribou, Our Love
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Crobot, Something Supernatural
Hiss Golden Messenger, Lateness of Dancers
Shakey Graves, And the War Came
Monica Heldal, Boy from the North Country
Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye
Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty
Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal
Brian Jonestown Massacre, Revelation
Carlene Carter, Carter Girl
Robert Plant, Lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar
William Onyeabear, What?
Will Phalen, The Dirt and the Air and the Grass
Ray LaMontagne, Supernova
Eels, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Elliot
The Menzingers, Rented World
Ana Tijoux, Vengo
The Strypes, Snapshot
Beck, Morning Phase
The Men, Tomorrow’s Hits
Motel Beds, These are the Days Gone By
Original article written by Eddie Ashworth
and published by WOUB Public Media.