Best CDs of 2014

by Andrew Elias

IN 2014, one of the best albums of the year ressurrected songs lost for some 45 year, while another paid tribute to a beloved artist lost last year. One of the best CDs of the year was by a guy in his mid-70s, while another was by a garage band whose accumulated ages are about equal. And three of the best CDs of the past year are by groups of sisters, while another is by an entire family.

The New Basement Tapes
Lost On The River
New Harvest Records

T-Bone Burnett recently came upon unfinished lyrics written by a 27 year old Bob Dylan during the time he was living in Woodstock and recording with The Band in the basement of a big pink house, songs and fragments that were never recorded and long forgotten. Burnett gathered a group of musicians who had previously not worked together and asked them to write music for these lyrics and record an album — all in two weeks. The results are astounding.

T-Bone brought together his old pal Elvis Costello and some of today’s most exciting young artists: Marcus Mumford, My Morning Jackets’ Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The group gelled quickly and, much like the original ‘Basement Tapes,’ embraced the looseness and sense of fun, collaborating freely and playing various instruments in differing combinations on different songs.

Lucky for us all, in addition to an outstanding CD, the sessions were filmed by Showtime. The documentary is an incredible record of the joys and frustrations even the biggest stars and acclaimed artists experience during the creative process as well as how these particularly talented musicians approach their work.

For me, the star of the project is Marcus Mumford, who despite deep doubts, in the end writes and performs the very best of a collection of outstanding songs. highlights: Mumford’s ‘Kansas City’ and ‘When I Get My Hands on You,’ James ‘Nothing To It,’ Goldsmith’s ‘Florida Key,’ and Giddens’ ‘Spanish Mary’ and ‘Lost on the River.’

Angaleena Presley
American Middle Class
Slate Creek Records

If Bruce Springsteen was born a girl in Kentucky instead of a boy in New Jersey, he just might be writing the songs that Angaleena Presley has released on this, her debut album. Much like Springsteen, Presley paints a picture of a modern middle-class America captured between the lofty promises and grounded realities of everyday life. Her songs are honest examinations of the human condition, telling stories about the lives of society’s winners and losers, about ordinary people seeking excitement, if not freedom. The title track, ‘American Middle Class’ is as powerful an anthem as anything Springsteen has written.

As a writer and a singer she is an original, but as a reference she can be compared to some of the greatest women in American music: Lucinda Williams (‘Blessing and a Curse,’ ‘Drunk’), Dolly Parton (‘Knocked Up,’ ‘Pain Pills’), Sheryl Crow (‘’All I Ever Wanted,’ ’Ready to Surrender’), Bonnie Raitt (‘Ain’t No Man’).

Angaleena Presley is the real deal. As part of the Pistol Annies, along with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, her talents are only scratching the surface. With her debut solo album she proves that she’s destined to become a star. highlights: ‘American Middle Class,’ ‘Ain’t No Man,’ ‘Drunk,’ ‘Blessing and a Curse,’ ‘Ready to Surrender.’

Dr. John
Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch
Concord Records

Now making arguably the best records of his long and illustrious career, Dr. John celebrates the music of fellow New Orleans icon, Louis Armstrong, backed by a great band and special guests such as fellow Crescent City stars, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard, as well as Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and singers, Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the McCrary Sisters. Dr. John reinvents Armstrong staples such as ‘Wonderful World’, ‘Mack the Knife,’ ‘When You’re Smiling,’ and ‘I’ve Got the World on a String’ and revives lesser known gems such as ‘Sweet Hunk o’ Trash’ and ‘Dippermouth Blues.’ Passing it forward, Dr. John, with his unique voice and devilish attitude, proves that the music Satchmo was popularizing a century ago is as entertaining and vital as it ever was. highlights: ‘Mack the Knife,’ ‘Gutbucket Blues,’ ‘That’s My Home.’

The Orwells
Canvasback Records

In the great American punk rock tradition, The Orwells have taken up the mantle of the likes of Iggy Pop, New York Dolls, The Replacements, Nirvana, The Strokes, and The Ramones, and are running with it full speed ahead. Most songs clock in at about three minutes, packed with all the teen angst, suburban frustration and garage band confidence that you’d expect from a bunch of high-schoolers from the mid-west, with songs about sex and partying. Play loud and let yourself go. Whether you’re 20 or 60, rock’n’roll like this is the great age equalizer. highlights: ‘Southern Comfort,’ ‘The Rightgeous One, ‘Let It Burn,’ ‘Who Needs You.’

Jules Shear
Longer to Get to Yesterday
Cussy in a Case Records

Jules Shear is a hopeless romantic, and after listening to his new release you might be as well. Shear has a knack for writing infectious melodies with magnetic hooks; his lyrics are simple, sweet and personal; his arrangements are lushly textured. He writes pop songs with panache, and sings them with an intimacy that makes you care. The most romantic of all here is ‘Let’s Walk,’ where he invites his love for a special winter stroll through a city blanketed in snow.

Shear has always been influenced by Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys’ harmonies and it’s never been more obvious than here, with songs like the title track, ‘Let’s Walk,’ ‘You Don’t Love Me,’ and ‘California.’ highlights: ‘Nothing Compared to the Moon,’ ‘Let’s Walk’, ‘Not Until Then,’ ‘More Reason Than the Wind.’

The Haden Triplets
Third Man Records

The Hadens make music steeped in the Americana traditions of Appalachian bluegrass and southern gospel music traditions. Produced by and with Ry Cooder’s band behind them, it’s a celebration of the music of their grandparents, the popular music of the depression and war years. Singing with three beautiful and distinct voices, and the most gorgeous harmonies, they cover songs by Webb Pierce, Ralph Stanley, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe, the Louvin Brothers, and the Carter Family. highlights: ‘Single Girl, Married Girl,’ ‘My Baby’s Gone,’ ‘Billy Bee.’

Kenny Barron & Dave Holland
The Art of Conversation
Blue Note Records

The album showcases the remarkable talents and exquisite tastes of pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Holland. Barron’s playing is pretty standard straight-on bop and post-bop, while Holland has often delved into more avant-garde jazz, but here we find the two masters meeting comfortably to make jazz that anybody and everybody can love. Barron swings the melodies while Holland drives the rhythms, each playing off and pushing each other. Music for quieter times, it’s a conversation worth listening to. highlights: ‘The Only One,’ ‘In Walked Bud,’ ‘ Seascape.’

The Secret Sisters
Put Your Needle Down
Republic Records

With seemingly effortless harmonies and the guidance of T-Bone Burnett, sisters Lydia & Laura Rogers have crafted an album of uptempo country rock (‘Rattle My Bones,’ ‘River Jordon), gothic ballads (‘Iuka’’) and jazzy blues (‘Dirty Lie,’ a song Burnett had them finish for Bob Dylan), and mid-60s girl groups (‘Black and Blue, ‘I Cannot Find a Way’). Like a female version of the Everly Brothers, they have a sound that could be described as a cross somewhere between Loretta Lynn and Lana Del Ray – sexy and strong, down home and dangerous. highlights: ‘Rattle My Bones,’ ‘Dirty Lies,’ ‘Black and Blue,’ ‘Good Luck, Good Night, Goodbye.’

Fantasy Records

It must be hard growing up in a family overflowing with talent. The pressure to be creative, original and successful can be an overbearing burden. Lucky for the Thompson children they don’t need to worry much. Their talents, though possibly not as formidable as their parents, are remarkable nonetheless. Teddy Thompson addresses the issue immediately on the album’s title and opening track, singing, ‘Sean Lennon, you know what I mean.’

Although Richard and Linda Thompson are in fact legendary rock musicians (founding members of 1960s folk-rock band, Fairport Convention), their children, Teddy and his sister Kami, are talented artists in their own right, skillful songwriters, exceptional vocalists and accomplished musicians.

The album includes two songs each from father Richard Thompson, mother Linda Thompson, son Teddy and daughter Kami, as well as one song each from half-brother Jack and cousin, Zak Hobbs. Richard’s songs showcase his dry wit as he ponders the state of the world, both politically (‘That’s Enough’) and personal (‘One Life at a Time’); Linda’s her haunting tenderness (‘Perhaps We Can Sleep’). Teddy and Kami, joined by her husband and Chrissie Hynde’s guitarist, James walbourne, each have one ballad and one rocker. Richard Thompson’s guitar playing, as always, is exceptional. highlights: Richard’s ‘That’s Enough,’ Teddy’s ‘Right,’ Kami’s ‘Careful.’

Joseph Arthur
Vanguard Records

Lou Reed passed away in 2014. One of the most revered of the rock ‘n’ roll icons, he was an inspiration to countless younger musicians and songwriters – Joseph Arthur among them. This is a wonderful tribute from a friend for a mentor, the album highlights the subtle simplicity of Reed’s music as well as the cool dryness of his poetry.

Arthur covers Lou’s songs with care. Whether it’s Reed’s hits (‘Walk on the Wild Side,’ ‘Satellite of Love,’ ‘Heroin’) or lesser known classics (‘Pale Blue Eyes,’ ‘Coney Island Baby,’ ‘Dirty Blvd.’), his versions, acoustic and sparse, are all renditions Lou would love. highlights: ‘NYC Man,’ ‘Stephanie Says,’ ‘Sword of Damocles’).

John Hammond
Palmetto Records

When considering the Best CDs of 2013 I included John Hammond’s ‘Timeless,’ not realizing that I had been listening to an advance copy and the official release date was not until January 2014. Because ‘Timeless’ is such a great album, an excellent recording of an intimate performance in a small club by one of the truly great bluesman of all time, I had to include Hammond’s CD again this year in the list of the Best CDs of 2014. highlights: ‘Further on Up the Road,’ ‘That Nasty Swing,’ and Tom Wait’s ‘No One Can Forgive Me But My Baby’ and ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon.’ •

January-February 2015