Top Records of 2014: 5-1

5. Simone Felice - Strangers (Dualtone) Felice's second solo album is as uncomplicated as its cover art, uncluttered by most of the tropes of post 70s songwriting. Replete with melodic piano lines, the rare, tasteful horn section, and a flair for the understated, Strangers is a jubilant visitation with modern characters and places shone through a prism of classicism. Yet the album feels more like a natural progression of his work with The Felice Brothers, especially in the many sing along choruses that pop up in every song. Felice makes great use of literary wordplay that makes allusions to other songwriters. In "Molly-O," he sings "It's you and only you baby blue that can bring out the gypsy in me" and "Our Lady of the Gun" sounds suspiciously like The Felice Brothers' "Frankie's Gun," although that might just be the title -- the subject matter is a knowing exploration of school shootings. The record is quiet and contemplative just like its predecessor, but the characters and songs are more fully-fledged; they are more complete and Felice sounds more satisfied in his delivery.


4.  Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin - Common Ground: Dave & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy (Yep Roc) Dave & Phil Alvin are best known for their work with The Blasters in the 80's, a resume that might not adequately prepare listeners for their amazing treatment of this sampling from Big Bill Broonzy's catalog. The brothers barely miss a beat even though they haven't recorded together since The Blaster's Hard Line in 1985. Since then, Dave has recorded numerous solo albums, which are filled with great guitar playing, but none allows him to wail like he does here. Phil's vocals are the perfect complement to Broonzy's songs, big and soulful and seemingly impossible to contain. Broonzy's songs are updated and lovingly rendered and the album always feels like its bursting at its seams. Here's hoping that the brothers record again. More Broonzy songs would be awesome, but it would be nice to see what they could do with some original material.
 

3. Aaron Freeman - Freeman (Partisan) I've been a fan of Ween since the early 90's, but their records have always been too idiosyncratic to make my yearly lists, even though Chocolate and Cheese and The Mollusk would make any best ever lists I could compile. So Freeman's second solo record was something of a surprise; I played this record more than any other in 2014. Freeman's honesty and straightforward approach make Freeman my sleeper hit. In "Covert Discretion," he bares his soul about his drug addiction and the well publicized breakdown, singing "Down in the lobby, there's a couple left / Have them buy me a round / I'm your best friend / I'm your superstar / Yeah, I'm down with the brown." Since the breakup of Ween, he has done his best to distance himself from that band and their conception of the brown (the weirdness that seeps through their music), but Freeman certainly shows that his new work is an extension of Ween, even if it comes under another name. "The English and Western Stallion" is a cleaner, catchier take on Ween tropes as well. Yet the album does break new ground. Freeman doesn't cling to the past but expands on it. On "(For Awhile) I Couldn't Play My Guitar Like A Man," he introduces us to a singer-songwriter who can embrace the weird. "El Shaddai" flirts with middle eastern instruments and themes, while he dabbles with Prog on "Black Bush" and "Golden Monkey" which both sound like Mollusk outtakes. He also works out his classic rock jones as seldom seen in Ween on "Gimme One More" and "All The Way To China." While his previous record, 2012's batch of Rod McKuen songs, Marvelous Clouds was a metaphorical throat clearing, Freeman is a fully-formed call-to-arms.

2. Dawn Landes - Bluebird (Western Vinyl)

Bluebird is a short, cheery record, capturing a light, summery vibe better than most. It only lasts around half an hour but  resonates with heartfelt, restrained lyrics and an understated musical grace. The songs capture heavy emotions in light swatches of beauty that underscore the pain of Landes' lyrics. Landes' voice has always been her secret weapon, capturing the languid, smokey vibe of after hours recording sessions, but here she is able to harness it so that it meshes immeasurably with the connotations of her assured lyrics. The album begins with the bold statement of the title track, an airy, seemingly superficial number that paves the way for the sadness to come. On "Try to Make a Fire Burn Again," she sings "I don't lie / I just get by / Not gonna try to understand" in an effort to come to terms with lost love. Landes seems to come to terms with herself within the framework of each song. Each is an emotional release of acceptance and eventual understanding. "Heel Toe" is an easy number in which the narrator lets the rhythm of the dance fully envelop her "With all the wind blows /Yeah, your body knows, hold on to me / Then set me free." "Cry No More" feels for all the world like a lost Dolly Parton number with Landes' vocal backed by Norah Jones' harmony and piano. On "Oh Brother," Landes finds her determination; her smokey vocals are backed by double acoustic guitars. "Love Song" finds Landes at her most beautiful and vulnerable -- Jones' piano and guitar are all that bolster some of the most memorable lyrics on the record. Bluebird as a whole is understated and perfectly crafted. Landes knows what to give and take in each song and she doesn't hold back.

1. Ex Hex- Rips (Merge) Mary Timony tries something new with Ex Hex. Fresh off the heels of her collaboration with Carrie Brownstein in Wild Flag, she dives headfirst into a garage rock collab that feels far more like an assured full-time project. Over the years, Timony has made a lot of measured and intricate music, but with Ex Hex she pulls no punches to create a fun and inspired record, drawing from the rock and roll well. Her great guitar playing lends itself exceptionally well to music that at first glance might seem amateurish. Fire Tapes' Betsy Wright on bass and The Aquarium's Laura Ross on drums are the perfect rocking rhythm section. The record contains tons of catchy choruses and hooks galore inspired by some great power pop records. "You Fell Apart" struts like an obscure Record's b-side. "Don't Wanna Lose" has one of the most anthemic choruses of this year or any year - "I don't wanna lose your love / It's in my head /  It's just a question of / If you're gonna start messing around / You better hurry up / You're gonna let me down." Who else is making such stellar guitar pop in 2014? Perhaps the Muffs who almost made this list, but their records don't shred like this one even though Kim Shattuck's vocals and songwriting are a force with which to contend. Timony is able to channel her frustrations and guitar savvy into a muscly pop that transcends simple genre classifications. Then there's Wright's "How You Got That Girl" which rips like a Joan Jett or Holly and The Italians classic. Tell me it's not the spiritual flip side to "Tell That Girl To Shut Up" or the Figgs' "Girl, Kill Your Boyfriend." Other gems include the rollicking "Waterfall, the Jettsy "Hot and Cold," and the Cheap Trick raveup "War Paint." Timony and company have crafted a complete record without any missteps. Each song sounds familiar yet new and pardon the pun, each rips.

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