Michael Coomers (formerly of Brooklyn band Harlem) sent me a song and video from his current band Lace Curtains this fall. The track was called “The Fly”. I probably get 1000 of these submissions a year and I really do listen to all of them. And every once in a while, I’ll hit play and instantly fall in love. A song about a fly just looking for some sugah on a hot summer day? I was intrigued. The song had three things that instantly drew me in: a crunchy Mac Demarco-esque guitar intro, dead pan witty lyrics that recalled the hallowed Silver Jews and a wacky early 70’s soulful undertone that was like Foxygen’s ode to Shuggie Otis and yet… it was like nothing I had ever heard. I think I played the song 5 times in a row.
So what is it about a track that just draws us in and speaks to us, worming its way into our psyche and then into heavy rotation? For me, the tracks all have a unique ‘voice’ and not just in the literal sense. Generally, there’s something that initially catches me based on past musical references and preferences, aka my comfort zone, but then hooks me with something that sounds like no one else. Of those 1000 or so tracks we get every year, a whole lot of them start to sound like everybody else and while that approach can lead to hits by today’s standards, it hardly ever leaves me with something memorable. I’m forever drawn to artists who I can instantly identify within the first 30 seconds of a song.
The 25 tracks below all fit that criteria with some remarks about the top ten. These are the songs that really spoke to me in 2014; sometimes punching me in the gut with their lyrics, others lifting me up onto the dance floor and a few that are just pure musical ear candy. I’d also like to thank all the people who turned me on to great new music this year because in the end it’s all about word of mouth and there’s nothing I love more than getting a text at 10pm from a friend telling me I gotta check out a new band so big thanks to Ryan McCardle, Tandy and Randy Fleming, Peter Robaudo, Hank Close and others for always throwing great stuff my way.
For purposes of dividing up our blogging focus here at hissing lawns, this list focuses on bands that do not call our fair city of Savannah home, although there were some fantastic local shows and releases in 2014 (check out the year-end posts from Andy, Tom, Larry Jack, and Petee).
The entries marked with an ** also represent my Top 10 Albums of 2014.
Taking it from the top:
- “Seasons (Waiting On You)” from Singles** by Future Islands: It’s hard for me to separate my love for the recorded version of this song from my memory of the band performing it at Savannah Stopover this past March. The venue was packed to the rafters, the energy was electric, lead Sam Herring was on fire and I still get chills every time I recall it in my mind’s eye. After four years of working tirelessly to build an indie music festival in Savannah, this was the singular moment that made it all worthwhile. I think I was crying, laughing and dancing all at the same time. You simply can’t ask more from a song than that! P.S. do whatever it takes to see this band live. Recorded and live versions below!
- “Do You” from They Want My Soul** by Spoon: I admit to being a bit obsessive about Spoon. I once stalked Britt Daniel at SXSW. Followed him in and out of venues all afternoon. I think it was 2007. He was by himself just checking out bands, and we chatted a bit about the acts we wanted to see, and I just instantly liked the guy. One reason is that musically, Daniel always wears his heart on his sleeve, serving up disappointments with just the right amount of breezy fist pumps, which makes him an approachable if unlikely rock star. His best lyrics always feel like little snippets from his diary: “I was on 45th, I was half out of the bag. I knew that you saw me, you laughed when I looked back”. Such a great way to hook me into this song. I think Spoon has made some of the best indie rock records of the last 20 years and this just might be their best track since 2002’s “The Way We get By” (and that’s saying a lot).
- “Hey Mami” from Sylvan Esso** by Sylvan Esso: Sylvan Esso gets my ‘best new band’ of 2014 award. The duo consists of Mountain Man’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn of Megafaun, both North Carolina powerhouses who lend their individual and contrasting aesthetics in fascinating ways. You don’t really know what you’re in for until you get to the 1:30 mark in this song. What starts off as a folk song with a southern spiritual vibe morphs into a brilliant electronic romp; a true feat of blended genres. Just when I think I haven’t heard anything really different in a while, along comes SE to pretty much shut me up.
- “Turtles All The Way Down” from Metamodern Sounds in Country Music** by Sturgill Simpson: Sturgill Simpson changed the face of country music in 2014 and I don’t think that’s an overstatement. Even the snootiest of indie music blogs took notice. He’s proven that old school country can be au courant and deserves a seat at every music table. Even if you think you HATE country music, you’re gonna love this song (and this album); it’s just that good. We were incredibly blessed (and a little lucky) to have Sturgill play Revival Fest in 2013. Chatting with him after the show I said “I’d like to marry your voice” and I meant it. It’s the voice of Waylon Jennings born anew. (Note-the album received a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album, proving that the music industry is still not quite sure what to do with him.)
- “Ben’s My Friend” from Benji** by Sun Kil Moon: Not since LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy penned “Losing My Edge” in 2002 has there been such an introspective song about growing older (in life and in the music business). This track operates on so many different levels-using Mark Kozelak’s (aka Sun Kil Moon) friendship with Ben Gibbard of The Postal Service and Death Cab For Cutie as one segment of a meandering ‘day in the life’ midlife meltdown. There are vestiges of jazz, folk and pop here, all played out in an almost spoken word white-guy rap that is one of the most poignant and disarming (and at times hilarious) songs I’ve heard in years. You’ll want to listen several times and you may find yourself walking around humming little phrases like “blue crab cakes” and “sports bar shit” over and over.
- “Burning” from Lost In The Dream** by The War On Drugs: It’s been hard to find a critic’s list that this album didn’t make it onto this year, with “Red Eyes” being the track that got all the buzz. But from first listen, it was “Burning” that wormed its way into my soul. It’s the ultimate road trip song. It’s got that Tom Petty meets Bruce Springsteen vibe that recalls my youth and yet it’s 100% a War On Drugs song.
- “Archie, Marry Me” from Alvvays** by Alvvays: Almost a tie with Sylvan Esso for best new band of 2014, Toronto’s Alvvays deliver fuzzy indie pop that will appeal to fans of Camera Obscura (who I miss terribly), Tennis, Dum Dum Girls, Teenage Fan Club, etc. and yet there’s something bigger and more plaintive and pleading in lead singer Molly Rankin’s voice-it’s like she’s about to burst wide open. It’s incredibly infectious from a band that has the chops to break big. They’ve signed to Polyvinyl Records, one of our absolute favorites.
- “Lilac In Hand” from Love** by Amen Dunes: Damon McMahon had a lofty goal for his 3rd album as Amen Dunes. He wanted to make an album that would be his Astral Weeks (Van Morrison’s 1968 psychedelic folk masterpiece). I don’t know too many artists that would even attempt such a thing but damn if he didn’t make one of the best records of 2014. Written and recorded over almost two years, it’s beautiful, haunting, personal and it almost defied me to select a single track from the 11 on the album. “Lilac In Hand” is a stand out, a warble-y, reverb drenched folk song that owes as much to another Irishman, David Gray, as it does to Morrison. Open up a bottle of good red wine and listen to this album start to finish.
- “Boys Latin” by Panda Bear: A mid-December single release from the much-anticipated album Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper (due out 1/13/15). The song plays out like some avant-garde choir practice at a prestigious boys Latin Prep School and has more in common with 2007’s “Bros” than anything he’s done since. “He” being Noah Lennox, founding member of Animal Collective, as well as Panda Bear and all around musical genius. I can even imagine forward leaning Pope Francis diggin this one. Bonus: coolest video of the year?
- “St. Roch Blues” from Small Town Heroes** by Hurray For The Riff Raff: In a year when bullets were flying all over America, this track about the St. Roch neighborhood in The Bywater of New Orleans feels like it belongs to every city, Savannah included. The last time I was in NOLA I stayed on St. Roch Avenue so I can literally see and feel this song as I listen. While so much of rap and hip hop music today deals with the subject of gun violence from a very different angle, it’s nice to hear a songwriter like Alynda Segarra treat the issue in such a gut-wrenching manner. Maybe someone will listen.
The remaining songs on the playlist form an eclectic multi-denominational, genre bending mix with a focus on newcomers like Angel Olsen (Missouri), Yumi Zouma (New Zealand), Jungle (UK), Dinner (Denmark/LA), and the aforementioned Lace Curtains (Brooklyn) as well the stunning “Mahogany Dread” from Hiss Golden Messenger’s (Durham) Lateness of Dancers**, named for a Eudora Welty Story. Then there’s pure pop punk ear candy from Oklahoma’s BRONCHO (who’s heading out on tour to support Billy Idol) and another Oakie Parker Milsap but wait, there’s more! Dare I say it, but there’s Kendrick Lamar, whose 2014 single, arrogantly titled “i” uses the Isley Brother’s 1973 hit “That Lady” as its musical muse~~ to great effect. It’s as fun and accessible as rap gets!
And lastly, it’s so great to have Jenny Lewis (LA) back on a ‘best of’ list. After a six year hiatus, the former Rilo Kiley frontwoman is in fine form with “Just One Of The Guys” from her excellent album Voyager. The track was produced by Beck and he and Lewis play all of the instruments on the recording.
Below are tracks 11-25 with a full Spotify Playlist at the bottom:
Hospitality – I Miss Your Bones
Jenny Lewis – Just One Of The Guys
Yumi Zouma – Alena
Kendrick Lamar – i
BRONCHO – Class Historian
Hiss Golden Messenger – Mahogany Dread
Angel Olsen – Hi-Five
Bahamas – All The Time
Lace Curtains – The Fly
Blonde Redhead – Dripping
Quilt – Tie Up the Tides
Parker Millsap – Old Time Religion
Mac Demarco – Salad Days
Dinner – Going Out
Jungle – Busy Earnin’
Happy listening and here’s to the musical discovery that awaits us all around the bend in 2015!