Way Out Weather
Wrapped up in a blanket of hushed vocals and rich musicianship, the 2014 release by Brooklyn singer/guitarist Steve Gunn is the kind of album that carries with it the heart of America. There's an Allman Brothers' vibe to songs like "Wildwood" and "Milly's Garden," and the cascading warmth of his fragile voice finds refuge between the lap steel and piano, conjuring up thoughts of a dusty, hot summer evening on the plains.
Highlights include the center of "Milly's Garden" which gives way to a tirade of spiraling guitar that circles back around, becoming a rugged, hard-working, anthem. For a singer/songwriter with a history of work in psych rock and funk as well as folk, Way Out Weather represents Gunn's most adept attempt at capturing the musical modality of the human spirit. On the rambling rock track "Drifter," there's resilience behind his tender voice and a hopeful feeling attached to lyrics that touch on detachment.
Gunn's Way Out Weather stands alone as this year's best album simply because it combines an abundance of instrumental detail, harvested from the mind of a real perfectionist, with a blue collar voice that resonates superbly against the commonplace themes he sings about. It's an every-person's record full of endearing honesty—a real gem.
For Alex Schaff's fourth album recording as Yellow Ostrich, the Brooklyn loop-pedal-experimenter attempted to capture the world around his flat through the lens of writer Carl Sagan. The resulting album, appropriately titled Cosmos, at times rumbles through the musical representation of Schaff's surroundings with the violence of a rocket launch and also harnesses the serene vastness of space. Standout tracks include the sonic rock track "Shades" and the pop-esque ballad "My Moons."
First Aid Kit
Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit upped their sublimely harmonious folk delivery in 2014 for their third album, Stay Gold. Their delicate songs, with American country influences and velvety vocals, have an underlying feistiness that elevates each track beyond a simple catchy tune—and they are all that—to charged emotional singalongs. Bouncy cadences on the opening track "My Silver Lining" as well as the following song "Master Pretender" march the songs right into the subconscious while also laying a weighty foundation for the rest of the album. Cello and violin swoon underneath sanguine singing on the title track and shaky organ echoes throughout the record's saddest song "Shattered & Hollow." For First Aid Kit, this is their most complete album.
Perhaps the most creative album to be released this year was British poet and playwright Kate Tempest's collection of stories set to hip-hop. The first track, "Marshall Law," from her debut album Everybody Down, tells the story of a ladies' night out and an encounter with a self-absorbed man. The rest of Everybody Down is an exposition on the human condition related through accessible stories involving Tempest's own realistic cast of characters including a woman named Becky who is often providing the central perspective. Off kilter flow juxtaposed with wavy beats makes the record an artistic conjoining of slam poetry and traditional rap.
U.K. duo Jungle turned in the best R&B-influenced album of 2014 and people took notice, especially when the video for their song "Platoon" went viral thanks to the dance moves of a 6-year-old. Jungle's self-titled album is a masterful modern take on Motown set to dark disco beats. Jams like the flashy "Busy Earnin'" provide just enough funk to feel vintage yet still advance the R&B sound into the experimental.
London rockers Thumpers turned in one of 2014's most infectious pop albums with the release of their debut album Galore. Incorporating anthems like "Unkinder (A Tougher Love)" and "Sound of Screams" with billowing softer tracks like "Now We Are Sixteen," Thumpers' record delivers for a variety of moods but resists becoming manic by keeping everything fun and easy to sing along with. There's also a maturity behind the youngsters' high energy music thanks to layers of experimental synth rock and a variety of asymmetrical harmonies. Galore is that album that simply sounds great the first time around but reveals its brilliance the more it gets listened to.
The lo-fi rock fad potentially reached its apex in 2014 and no band did a better job cashing in on that trend than Toronto's Alvvays. Lead singer Molly Rankin's soft voice pairs well with the fuzzy surf pop sound of Alvvays (pronounced always) but also does a good job of expressing the angst one would expect from a band clearly influenced by post punk rock as well as pop music. The self-titled record is filled with upbeat songs that are also a bit dark or otherwise feel a little sad. The best illustration of which is the very vivid "Next of King" which is also one of 2014's top songs.
On their newest album, Chinese Fountain, Orange County garage rockers The Growlers combine country with the psych surf rock of California, something they call Beach Goth. The gruff vocals of lead singer Brooks Nielsen resound with an unpolished feel that fits perfectly with a sound that's not quite pop and not quite rock. The simplistic nature of The Growlers' music adds a deeper richness to the instrumentation, allowing plenty of room for guitar to niggle into the spaces between vocals; the evidence of which can be found in the heartfelt track "Black Memories."
...And Star Power
Not ready to rest on the success of last year's stellar album We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, modern-day classic rockers Foxygen returned in 2014 with a rock opera of sorts. The 24-track album ...And Star Power includes short interludes and a separate rock tirade in four parts that includes psychedelic fuzzy guitar, an acid-jazz-inspired overture and a charged but hushed singalong with bleating horns before descending into an adult contemporary ballad. There isn't necessarily a standout track on ...And Star Power, rather the album is meant to be evaluated on the sum of its parts. It might be a little too adventurous for some, but Foxygen continues to take risks and, in this case, it pays off big time.
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
If there is such a thing as indie country music, Sturgill Simpson is the ambassador. His latest album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, is full of traditional sounds and themes including religion, the struggle to be the best man possible and of course love. But with Simpson's approach, the tired simplistic lyrics of current mainstream country are replaced with heartfelt words that dig into the raw emotions rather than skim the surface. The strongest evidence of this is the ballad, "The Promise," which finds Simpson at his most vulnerable on the album. There's also sassy honky tonk from songs like "Life of Sin" and "A Little Light," which complete the record's desire to be a modern country record that doesn't forsake the music that influenced it.