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The Not-Quites and Also-Rans

A Damn Good Group of Honorable Mentions

12/17/14

Well. That was certainly a year.

It’s interesting that even with so many changes and upheavals, both good and bad, a year can still feel, here at the end, like it flew by in the space of heartbeats. I was told early on that time speeds up as you get older, and it’s absolutely true. Appreciate every moment, you young kids. Take it from me, a middle-aged balding guy who wears dress slacks and button-downs to his 8:30-5:30 job and… yeah, I know, I wouldn’t have listened to me when I was your age either.

But it’s true. 2014 seemed to melt away before I knew what was happening, even though parts of it felt endless while I was living through them. I can’t pretend this is a new observation – hey, did you know time is relative? – but at this time of year, I’m always struck anew by my own experience of it. And I remain grateful that I have this column, which serves as a way to mark out all that time. I can look back over the 51 entries from this year (including the two that will follow this one) and see that yes, I actually lived through all these weeks, even though they blend together in my memory.

I mark my days with music. I always have. This year’s crop was so good, so diverse, so surprising that even my honorable mentions are brilliant. Really, it’s been that kind of year, and I don’t suppose I realized it until I took stock for this column and the next one. There’s a particular thing that happens in years when there’s an abundance of good material – the ones that rise to the top for my list end up conforming more to my personal taste than in years when there are fewer clear winners to choose from. My taste generally runs to the pretty, the melodic and the intricate, and my top pick certainly epitomizes all three of these things.

So there are records on the official list that are just as good as the albums I’m about to list off here, the ones that are receiving honorable mentions. In this case, an honorable isn’t like a patronizing pat on the head. It’s an acknowledgement that there really were about 25 albums worthy of my list this year, and I can only name 10, and I’m going with the ones that mean the most to me. I’m about to rattle off the names of 17 records, and I wouldn’t argue with anyone suggesting any of them as one of the 10 best.

I loved this year, in case it’s not apparent.

Longtime readers know how this works, but for the benefit of newbies (and I personally know a couple of you), let me run down my rules for the year-end list. There’s really only one, but there are a bunch of corollaries and ramifications of that rule. Here it is: only full-length albums of new original material released between January 1 and December 31 are considered for the list. That means no live albums, no compilations of previous material, no EPs (although the definition of EP and LP has blurred considerably), and no covers projects. It also excludes soundtrack compilations and various artists collections, since they don’t meet this particular definition of album. Only new full-length statements may apply.

Every year, that rule excludes at least one record I think should be honored. This year, it’s the new double-disc collection from the 77s and Michael Roe, called Gimme a Kickstart and a Phrase or Two. It’s an absolutely delightful run through 20 covers, half with Roe’s long-running, amazing band the 77s and half with Roe on his own, making magic with an acoustic guitar. Roe’s tender take on the Waterboys’ “How Long Will I Love You” is one of my favorite things from 2014, and the fact that it’s ineligible for the top 10 list shouldn’t dissuade you from hearing it.

On to the honorables? Here goes.

After the wonder that was A Church That Fits Our Needs, I paid special attention to Lost in the Trees this year, and while their third record, Past Life, didn’t quite scale the same heights, its spare, haunted tones definitely left an impression. Past Life came out in February and has held onto my heart since. Neneh Cherry’s Blank Project, her first album in 18 years, also hit in February, and nothing else this year ended up sounding like it. Minimal, dark, almost difficult, and yet dazzling, Blank Project hopefully signifies a long-lasting return for this singular artist.

There were a couple records I didn’t get to this year. But just because I couldn’t fit in full-length reviews for them, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve mention. Specifically, Sharon Van Etten’s latest and strongest, Are We There, delighted with its wind-swept folk and hard-won optimism. And The Soil and the Sun delivered another intricate, swirling set of one-world music with Meridian, perhaps the strongest argument this year for the complete dissolution of genre barriers. I plan to get to both of these not long into the new year, so look for those reviews.

Jenny Lewis teamed up with Ryan Adams to create The Voyager, the album on which her entire career dropped into focus. It’s her sharpest set of songs, and her most transcendent record. But she didn’t deliver the biggest surprise on the female singer-songwriter front. That belongs to Tori Amos, who – for the first time in longer than I care to remember – invested completely in one of her albums. Unrepentant Geraldines contains half a dozen songs I would rank with her best stuff, and the fact that those songs are accompanied by a bunch of lesser material dims this record’s light, but doesn’t extinguish it. I’m excited to hear what she does next, for the first time in ages.

The same goes for Weezer, who stunned me with the quality of Everything Will Be Alright in the End. It’s not quite as good as their early stuff, but it's right up there – they sound alive, like they’re taking their silliness seriously for the first time in a while. Also revitalized is Aimee Mann, who teamed with Ted Leo to form The Both. Their self-titled record manages the difficult task of taking two songwriters with long-established styles and sending them both into new directions. It’s a great, great pop record, and “You Can’t Help Me Now” will go down as one of Mann’s finest.

The quiet ones crept up on us this year with some tremendous work. Ben Howard’s second album, I Forget Where We Were, is a confident stroll through spacey, atmospheric melancholy. And Over the Rhine gave us their third holiday-themed record, Blood Oranges in the Snow, and it plays like a third disc of their rustic masterpiece Meet Me at the Edge of the World. Minus a pair of covers, this album is all original winter-themed tunes, and with “Let It Fall” they penned my anthem of the year.

Now we get to records that held onto the list longer than any others. I can’t even explain how surprised I was when I first heard Stay Gold, the third and (by far) best album by Swedish sister act First Aid Kit. This record is glorious, swelling with absurdly lovely harmonies and the best set of songs the pair has written yet. And neither of these girls are even 25 yet, so stay tuned. At the opposite end of the age spectrum is Canadian icon Leonard Cohen, who turned 80 this year. His 13th record, Popular Problems, continues his remarkable creative resurgence, matching spiritual laments like “Born in Chains” with cynical crawls like “Nevermind.”

And then there is D’Angelo, who surprised me and everyone else by returning after 14 years with Black Messiah, an album that was announced on a Thursday and made available on the following Monday. December 15 is seriously cutting it close to be included in the year-end lists, and I have only heard this record a handful of times – not enough to know if it belongs among the 10 best, or where to rank it in that list. I know it’s damn good, good enough to deserve at least the honorable mention I am giving it. But I am not ready to review or rank it quite yet. Look for a full examination of this thing after the New Year. I’ll just have to be comfortable with keeping it off the list for now. (The moral of the story? Release your masterpiece earlier in the year, dude.)

Finally, we have the three Number Elevens. I wrote drafts of the top 10 list with all three of these records on it, and should anyone quibble with my bottom three choices, I wouldn’t argue that any of these three honorables could go in their places. First up is the Roots, who continued a long hot streak with …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. A genuine rap opera, this record packs a ton of remarkable arrangements and bizarre sonic choices into its 30 minutes, at times going full-on Frank Zappa, but never leaving the core of the Roots behind. It’s an extraordinary piece of work, easily the best rap record I heard in 2014.

Nickel Creek made a much-heralded return with A Dotted Line, and though this record is similarly brief, it runs through just about everything that makes the combination of Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins great. They delivered a killer pop song with “Destination,” a pair of intricate bluegrass instrumentals, an out-of-this-world cover of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft,” and, with “Where Is Love Now,” one of the most haunting pieces of music this year. It’s one of 2014’s most welcome returns, and I hope it’s not a temporary one.

And at the last, there is Beck, who once held the number one spot on the list. Morning Phase is a deeper, fuller sequel to his introspective Sea Change, and it sparkles with melancholy. Beck made his name as a pop chameleon, but he’s never better than when he channels Nick Drake and writes from the heart. Songs like “Say Goodbye” and “Blackbird Chain” and the luminous “Waking Light” were among the year’s most beautiful gifts. It will probably be a while before Beck puts down the drum machines and gives us something like this again, so Morning Phase is a record to treasure.

OK, that’s it for the honorables. Pretty damn good group, though, right? Next week, the 2014 top 10 list. Be here. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.