If you listen regularly to Portland Radio Project you’re well-familiar with the station’s attention to details – particularly when it comes to music and musicians. Are you making holiday gift lists for friends, or has your special someone asked you what you would like?
Top Ten Albums of 2014
In no special order – all are exceptional albums – here are 10 releases I thought were among the “best-of-the-best” this year.
The 13 compelling tracks from Ireland’s Hozier delivered musical splendor in spades. His first full-length debut included much-loved gospel and Motown-tinged hit single “Take Me To Church,” and the brassy, big-guitar sound of “Jackie And Wilson.”Hozier isn’t at all shy about pulling in eloquent choirs and choruses to highlight his music (he was once a member of the Irish choir “Anuna“). “Someone New” makes for delicious ear candy, while “Like Real People Do” is the perfect mix of acoustic storytelling, mystery and gentle love song.
A standout track is fresh and uplifting “From Eden,” covering all bases with a great intro, tasteful guitar highlights, captivating lyrics, a smooth background chorus plus, a luscious guitar riff three-quarters through. The whole album satisfies on just about every level.
Put your “play” button on pause once in a while to consider that Hozier is 24-years old and this is his first album. His soulful vocals are golden, his songwriting entertaining and intelligent and he has a natural instinct for picking phrases that engage the imagination. Let’s just say he’s got a long career ahead of him and we’re happy to be along for the ride.
BECK: Morning Phase
If there’s a contemplative type of music lover on your holiday list or you yourself are looking for new melodies, you can scarcely go wrong with Beck’s “Morning Phase.” His twelfth studio release, it harkens back to his 2002 album “Sea Change” and includes many of the same musicians. A bit akin to a concept album, the classical music touches sprinkled throughout “Morning Phase” give it an almost cinematic quality that’s substantive and notable. Most tracks are beautifully somber, and personal; think of it as atmospheric, “deep sea diving” soft alt-rock.
Particularly praiseworthy are layered vocals on the chorus of the lovely “Blackbird Chain” and the bittersweet but magical “Turn Away.” Enjoy the lush strings and mellow harmonies of this often-praised, multi-talented artist in this unique and most generous offering. Highly recommended.
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LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
These days during the seeming demise of the music industry, do any musicians still dare to release a double album? Rock-blues-country singer and musician Lucinda Williams does, and we’re the better off for her gumption because no one else is making music like hers. These honest, heartfelt, often gutsy tracks filled with wit and wisdom are easy to embrace. Check out “Protection,” her simmering and no-nonsense “Everything But The Truth” and “Foolishness” and the wistfully-wise “When I Look At The World.”
Williams has an amazing array of musicians with her this time around (how did she get them all into the same room at once?!), including the tasteful and revered Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz (Amos Lee, John Mayer, Ray LaMontagne), Tony Joe White (Eric Clapton, Tina Turner) and Stuart Mathis (The Wallflowers) all providing guitar. Willliams earned a Grammy for her “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” release and TIME magazine has called her “America’s Best Songwriter.” Like BECK, this is Williams‘ twelfth studio release. A bargain, the 2-CD set is currently marked down at some stores for the holidays – get ’em while they’re hot, and keep an eye out for her next year in case she comes to your town.
Note: She performs at Portland’s Aladdin theater in February.
BROKEN BELLS: After the Disco
A wonderful musical collaboration this year that merited far more airplay and praise. James Mercer, superb lead vocalist and guitarist for The Shins and renowned musician / producer Brian Burton have been teaming up since 2008, when they were nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album for their debut “Broken Bells” CD.
All tracks here were well executed and definitely deserving of more Indie rock radio time. Highlights include catchy hit single “Holding on for Life,” the tasteful, bright pop sounds of “Control,” the melancholy “Angel and the Fool” and fast-paced and buoyant “Perfect World.” Great album that holds up well on repeat.
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THE WAR ON DRUGS: Lost in The Dream
Lost in the Dream is the third studio album by Philadelphia’s Indie rock band The War On Drugs. Primary songwriter 35 year-old Adam Granduciel had a hard time adjusting to everyday life following touring; “Lost in The Dream” was the result. Nonetheless, all ten tracks are mesmerizing, pulling us in with hard-to-resist rhythms and immaculate attention to details. The only thing that might improve the music here is possibly hearing it performed live. A triumph for this band and a joy for fans, “Lost in The Dream” sets the rock n’ roll bar lots higher, and that’s certainly something to celebrate.
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COLDPLAY: Ghost Stories
It’s Coldplay…what more needs to be said? “Magic” was a stellar pop song with a great arrangement, charming and chill, as irresistible as “Ink” and “True Love,” all great compositions that hit the mark. Rather than “hard rock,” Martin has described the group’s sound as “limestone rock,” and somehow Coldplay always finds creative ways to make that phrase jibe with their alternative rock style sound. The band also does an exceptional job of remaining true to their standards, avoiding product endorsements but supporting causes like Amnesty International and Oxfam. Probably the most “Viva-la-Vida”-ish song here, with a big, sweeping sound, compelling keyboards and a bold, inviting chorus ready-made for audience participation was “Sky Full of Stars.” The band recently announced they plan to stop touring following their next release, but we won’t think about that until tomorrow.
Viva la Coldplay!
JAMES BAY: Let it Go
U.K. singer-songwriter James Bay has been the opening act for both Hozier and Kodaline but is now becoming a headliner in his own right. He released his “Let it Go” EP in June of this year. Though not a full album – that’s coming in March – it nonetheless merits an ovation for compelling, artfully crafted songs delivered with conviction. Whether sharing personal disclosures in his wise and tender title track or softly crooning on “Hear Your Heart,” there’s an immediacy to his music nigh impossible to ignore. Soft-rocker “If You Ever Want to Be in Love” is the EP’s pinnacle, boasting crisp keyboards, bits of slide guitar and inviting vocals and choruses all within an arrangement that’s stunning.
Let it Go
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As if to remove any remaining doubters, Bay closes “Let it Go” with the deeply felt “Running,” proving that, even at age 23, he has what it takes to travel the long road to stardom. Produced by Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Of Monsters and Men), this is an EP not-to-be-missed.
TY CURTIS: Water Under the Bridge
Oregon’s loss was Texas’ gain as young and talented blues rock musician Ty Curtis relocated to Austin recently. It was obviously a smart move on his part since he recorded his “Water Under the Bridge” there, and it sounds phenomenal. “We recorded all the rhythm tracks straight into a tube amplifier that was cranked,” says Curtis via email. The good times begin with big and booming “Key to My Heart,” but Curtis’s dedication to his craft as a blues artist also shines through mightily on “Bad Break.” Listen too for “All it Took” and the sheer rock n’ roll exuberance of “Your Desire.” “Seen My Chance” is silky-smooth blues at its best.
According to this article, Ty Curtis started playing guitar at 13. Although multiple guitars were used on “Water,” he plays a ’56 Fender stratocaster on much of the album. To be sure, his abilities as a blues guitarist approach others who’ve been in the business far longer. He breathes fresh life into the blues genre, a credit to both the great states of Oregon and Texas.
ERIC CLAPTON & FRIENDS: The Breeze
“The Breeze” was Eric Clapton’s album tribute to legendary blues musician JJ Cale. These 16 tracks are engaging and touching; one talented artist after another steps up to the mic to pay homage to Cale, who died last summer of heart failure.
Standout track “Call Me the Breeze” opens the album in dandy fashion. It comes from Cale’s very first record “Naturally,” the same album from whence Clapton’s mega “After Midnight” hit came.Clapton’s vocals and cool guitar licks satisfy with a rollicking vibe – this is the track that honestly should have gotten a Grammy nomination for “best music to hit the road with.” Mark Knopfler’s performance of “Someday” is nothing short of sublime and a “must have.” All-in-all an excellent new take on a great body of work.
ROSEANNE CASH: The River and the Thread
A rich, retrospective Americana album of well-crafted songs and ballads.Pull your honey close and dance to “(Shades of) Modern Blue,” or take in the sad but folksy advice of “Tell Heaven.” “The Sunken Lands” and “World of Strange Design” – both showcasing John Leventhal’s splendid Mark Knopfler-like guitar touches, are other favorites.
“When the Master Calls the Roll,” a song Cash and Leventhal co-wrote with Rodney Crowell, is the longest track and the album’s epicenter. Its meandering, commanding arrangement features a catchy melody, some evocative fiddle and a strong, lovely chorus with guest musicians Rodney Crowell, Kris Kristofferson and John Prine – making this civil war story memorable, indeed. Outstanding.