The Best New Albums I Heard in 2014

26th December

AfterTheDiscoBroken Bells: After the Disco
He has remixed Dinah Washington. He has mashed up The Beatles’ White Album with Jay-Z’s Black Album. He formed one half of Gnarls Barkely with CeeLo Green. He has worked with artists that span a varied range from Beck to Gorillaz, Sage Francis, and many in between, including Wayne Coyne, Suzanne Vega, Iggy Pop, Frank Black, Vic Chesnutt, and others who tossed their names into the eclectic hat from which, like the magician he is, he eventually pulled out Sparklehorse’s 2009 record, Dark Night of the Soul, released after Mark Linkous, A.K.A. Sparklehorse, had taken his own life (and, sadly, Chesnutt as well). Few producers have had their hands in as many prized projects as Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) has in just the past decade alone. Burton now comprises one half of Broken Bells with the Shins’ frontman and guitarist, James Mercer. Their first full record, the eponymous release of 2010, paraded the kind of dreamy soundscapes in which Burton always seems to nearly drown himself, but somehow comes up for air just before the brew he made in the meantime turns sour. That tension between restraint and indulgence is the thing that makes Burton’s projects tick. The effervescent-yet-supine production on standout tracks like “The High Road,” which opened that 2010 effort, made you want to head to the tin roof of a friend’s flat on some sunny Sunday, stuff the necks of a couple Coronas with wedges of lime, and wonder–though not too deeply–about just what the hell you’ve done with your life, after all. The soaring synths on their second full offering, After the Disco–particularly on the title track as well as “Perfect World” and “No Matter What You’re Told“–brighten the album’s brooding edges with the suspicion that better days soon may come. Mercer did an interview with NPR about this new record in early 2014 in which he spoke vaguely of something bugging him and a drive cross-country that planted him, eventually, in New York City, where he became reacquainted the the urge that drove him to make music in the first place. After the Disco at times plays like it just as easily might have been titled After the Inferno; the spare symphony of longing with which Burton drapes Mercer’s plaintive and incantatory vocals on “Leave It Alone” betrays a clear-eyed directness borne only of suffering. Whatever was bugging Mercer before he made this record, this 11-track document of its troubles was worth the toll it took to make it possible–for the listener, at least, if not for Mercer himself.

JH_InvisibleHour Joe Henry: Invisible Hour
Joe Henry squeezed in one of the great albums of the second half of the 20th century with 1999’s Fuse, an erudite package of dense songs drenched in trip-hop atmospherics that featured cameos from Daniel Lanois, Jakob Dylan, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, among others. That record remains his greatest moment, but his songwriting, with Leonard Cohen’s ear for metaphor and the creative fearlessness of a young Bob Dylan, has withstood the many adventures in Henry’s aesthetic across the handful of albums he’s released since. Jazz legend Ornette Coleman, as well as other luminaries such as Mark Ribot, Loudon Wainwright III, Van Dyke Parks, and Jim Keltner have made their passing contributions to Henry’s records over that time, from the jazz-steeped Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation and 2003’s fascinating Tiny Voices to the decidedly more acoustic Blood from the Stars and the even quieter Reverie. Henry also resurrects careers and sustains live ones as a producer, with names like Soul greats Bettye LaVette and the late Solomon Burke among his beneficiaries, as well as Amie Mann, Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg, Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt, Ramblin’ Jack Eliot, and many others. So perhaps Henry is the “invisible” hand behind great records for which you didn’t know you had him to thank. You probably don’t know you should thank him for making a little music of his own, too. Invisible Hour, his latest, gives you 11 new reasons to do so, blending nearly every influence he’s packed into all the aforementioned albums here to the point where you’re equally unsurprised to hear a mandolin pierce the mix as you are to hear a clarinet cushion it in a yawning flourish of brass. This is great stuff by one of American music’s most visionary living artists.

CohenPPLeonard Cohen: Popular Problems
Popular Problems, just the 13th studio album from an 80-year-old man who has been at it for nearly half-a-century now, serves up double the Leonard for the price of one. Unless word of his work on Bryan Ferry’s late-80s masterpiece, Bete Noir, got around in Cohen circles, it may be a rare Leonard Cohen fan who did not greet the realization that Popular Problems was produced by Patrick Leonard with a quizzical head scratch. The man has not exactly worked with the kinds of acts to which Cohen fans gravitate. His genius yielded some of Madonna’s most enduring anthems in her 1980s glory days, including the Latin-tinged pop masterpiece, “La Isla Bonita,” as well as “Like a Prayer,” “Cherish,” and “Who’s That Girl?” But he also produced four tracks on Madonna’s resurgent, ebullient, and forward-looking Ray of Light in 1997, as well as the best solo album Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters ever put out, 1992’s Amused to Death, and works by Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart, Julian Lennon, Peter Cetera and many more. Known for his aplomb on keyboards, his spooky stabs at organ on Popular Problems, particularly in the closing seconds of “Slow,” invoke the genius of Augie Meyers. But, like many great producers, Leonard’s primary talent is knowing when to get the hell out of the artist’s way. He does that often enough here–particularly on “You Got me Singin'” and especially on “My Oh My,” the best track Cohen has put to tape in decades–that this otherwise uneven set of songs occasionally puts Cohen within reach of the loftiest heights he ever has attained. Cohen’s long-grizzled voice punches through its whispered growl somewhat uncertainly throughout this record, but that vulnerability is what makes the best tracks here work as well as anything in Cohen’s catalog. And not even Tom Jones at age 74 can pull off the simpering allusions to sex Cohen makes here with such conviction at age 80, especially on “Slow”: “I’ve always liked it slow / I’ve never liked it fast / For you, it’s got to go / For me, it’s got to last.” Come on: You’ve got to hand it to an octogenarian who still has his mojo working as well as his music. Popular Problems is an essential, fascinating, and fun listen.

John Hiatt: Terms of My Surrender
It’s no easy task thinking of singer/songwriters who have been more prolific–or only as prolific–as Mr. Hiatt has been since the turn of this century. Neil Young, who has released 12 studio albums in the past 14 years, comes to mind. Terms of My Surrender is only Mr. Hiatt’s 10th in the same amount of time. Yes, quite the slacker. Unlike his much more celebrated and recognized peer, however, Hiatt has proven amid his creative frenzy that quantity and quality do not have to be mutually exclusive. All you have to do is care enough to make it matter every time you enter the studio–bring at least enough sincerity to the music that most listeners will come away from what you’ve done convinced you did it because you needed to, not because you had to. Hiatt once again seems to have needed to put out another record–not for money; Lord knows he isn’t getting rich off his studio recordings (who is, these days, if your name is not Taylor Swift?)–but for the muse. Terms of My Surrender is a little more uneven an offering than its two brilliant predecessors, 2011’s Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, and 2012’s Mystic Pinball–but an uneven offering from Hiatt is better than an even offering from most anyone else these days. The album’s knockout track, “Wind Don’t Have to Hurry,” is a livid and frothing stunner on the order of the most powerful music the man has ever made. And that’s saying something; Hiatt’s been at it for more than forty years now.

Billy Idol: Kings & Queens of the Underground
Go ahead and laugh. I’ll wait. OK. Done? Good. Now, listen to me, damn you: This is a remarkable little pop rock album from a guy who, at age 58, credibly can be crowned one of that genre’s godfathers. But that alone is not reason enough to give it a chance. Here’s a better reason: It’s really good. Admittedly, the songwriting often comes off as a perfunctory exercise here, particularly on the wince-worthy title track. That has not (I don’t care what you say) always been the case with Mr. William Broad. For my money, “Eyes Without a Face” is as moving on the page as it is to the ear. That shortcoming aside, the songs–almost uniformly disciplined and catchy–exhibit a craftsmanship and an ear for the hook that comes second-hand now to a veteran like this guy. If you got a copy of his 2005 comeback album, Devil’s Playground, you remember a teeth-clenching rocker on which Steve Stevens shredded through smoking numbers like “Evil Eye” or “Body Snatcher.” You will not hear that on Kings. Not even close, even though the phenomenally catchy “Can’t Break Me Down” and the frenetic “Whiskey and Pills” lift Idol’s trademark sneer a little higher. This is a pop record, not the rock album Idol served up as he neared his golden year a decade ago. But take this new offering on its own terms, rather than weighing it against that now-distant predecessor, and you will surprise yourself with how frequently you return to it on your drive to work.

Beck: Morning Phase
The thing that amused me when Beck came out with Sea Change in 2002 was the frenzy with which critics raced each other to pin the album’s blue mood on his breakup with Leigh Limon. It was like Beck needed critics to excuse him for following up a record as jovial as the hysterically over-the-top homage to Prince, 1999’s Midnight Vultures–with a record that played like a sequel to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. He didn’t, of course. Nabakov nailed this bizarre predilection critics have for ransacking art for autobiography in his hilarious 1959 book about Nikolai Gogol, when he said “It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a true story.” From what I understand, Beck is a happily married father now who also happens to have suffered a debilitating injury to his spine while spending 10 hours shooting the video for “E-Pro” from his strong 2005 album, Guerro, which he says compelled him to wonder if he would ever tour again. OK, is that enough justification for the glittering gloom of Morning Phase, ye critics? Good. Now that we’ve established he has a reason to be unhappy, perhaps it’s OK for Beck to sound unhappy again. Forgive me for diminishing this brilliant album’s achievement by reaching for a cliché from one of rock’s most celebrated cliché slingers, John Mellencamp, but, well, these songs may hurt, but they hurt so good you’ll hardly mind the pain.

Perfume Genius: Too Bright
For some reason, a lot of notes you find about Mike Hadreas online begin with the revelation that he is a New Yorker transplanted to Seattle, where he apparently started making music in his mom’s house (perhaps as good a thing as one reasonably can expect to come from moving back in with your mom). I was 13 years old the last time it mattered that a band was from Seattle; maybe that news has taken a while to travel. But allow me to correct myself: Perfume Genius isn’t a band; it’s one dude, and, yes, a genius dude indeed. When I first heard his last album, the cheekily titled Put Your Back ‘N 2 It (Maybe read more about him here if you want to get the joke), I soon realized I had not heard a record construct a more inconsolably bleak sonic terrain since I first heard Sigur Rós. That record absorbs you in a peculiarly operatic dazzle that mingles Boy George with the windy winter of some spare P.J. Harvey track (something like “Catherine,” for instance). Hadreas enlisted some talented helping hands this time around, including John Parish, who has done great things with The Eels and also P.J. Harvey; and Adrean Utley, most noted for his work with Portishead. They flesh out and cheer up Hedreas’s sound, while lending it a dash of the humor that hung beneath the title of his prior record. The result is a less consistent, but, in its highest moments, even more rewarding experience than Hadreas’s gorgeous but comparatively monotone 2012 collection. The gushing synths that rush “Longpig” through its stunned moment under the album’s “bright” lights, and the sarcasm and whimsy of “Queen” and “Fool,” make this one of the most interesting and memorable records to come out in years.

The Thin White Duke at 65: Reflections on David Bowie’s 65th Birthday

16th January

That’s right, the Thin White Duke became eligible for Social Security on Sunday, Jan. 8. And I’m sure I am not alone in saying that news of Bowie’s 65th birthday struck me the same way news of Billy Idol’s 50th birthday did back in 2005: Age is not something that was supposed to happen to David Bowie, not to a guy who made his name as a kid sporting a dress and orange hair in the streets of New York City and calling himself Ziggy Stardust.

But those were the days when androgyny was the new sexy, and these are the days when CNN reporters take their cameras into the streets after the death of Elizabeth Taylor to ask passersby for thoughts on her death and find that many of them, particular younger people, either couldn’t possibly care less or just say “Who is Elizabeth Taylor?” with quizzical expressions. These are the days when the reverence once held for yesterday’s rock gods is so vulnerable to postmodern cynicism that the Flaming Lips can drop a song called “Is David Bowie Dying?”

Now, there actually is plenty of precedent for that kind of thing—remember that LA Style track called “James Brown is Dead” in 1991, when Brown actually was alive and well and would be for the next 15 years? Remember the record Townes Van Zandt dropped in 1972 called “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt?” when he too was very much alive and well at 28 years of age? Van Zandt already was great by then but he wouldn’t join the late ones until New Year’s Day of 1997. When The Lips carried on this tradition with “Is David Bowie Dying” last March, most people dismissed it as more of the kind of weirdness we expect of the Lips, but maybe it was much more than that.

To read any number of forum or blog posts on Bowie from the past few years is to think the reason he hasn’t made an album in nearly a decade, the reason he’s hardly even bothered to be David Bowie, really, with the exception of making an appearance at an Arcade Fire gig here and there or at a red carpet event with Imam, his supermodel wife of 20 years, is that the man’s health is so dire he’s dangling from the last thread of his life. Wholly unfounded speculation abounds about whether he may be terminally ill, or whether he has retired which, for the sycophants clamoring for a comeback on the occasion of Bowie’s 65th birthday last week, is far worse than terminal illness—because it’s about us, of course. Because if Bowie is physically able to entertain us then damn it David Bowie where the hell are you? What are you thinking? What are you doing with your life? Don’t you understand that you’re ours?

It’s like Lester Bangs said in his story on the death of John Lennon back in 1980: “Once you’ve made your mark on history those who can’t will be so grateful they’ll turn it into a cage for you.” So rather than entertain the entirely plausible possibility that at 65 years old David Bowie has earned the right to not give a crap anymore, or that he’s got an 11-year-old daughter at home he might like to get to know before he dies, or that the thirty years of unrelenting recording and touring he put into being David Bowie since his Ziggy Stardust days is not the way he cares to live out those golden years he sang about back in ’76, no, no, the only possible reason he could have gone this long without entertaining us is–that’s right–he must be dying.

Maybe I am giving the Lips too much credit here; maybe they were just being the weirdos that they are. And yes, David Bowie did undergo heart surgery after experiencing chest pain on stage in Germany in 2004 that forced the cancelation of the rest of that tour. But even so, that Lips song, whether intentionally or not, does force us to confront the absurd incredulity with which we receive news that the false gods who shaped the culture we were born into might be just as transient as the rest of us, that they, too, will get old and die. Let’s be honest; when we gasp at news of Bowie’s heart attack or his turning 65, we don’t do so out of concern for David Bowie. We do so out of concern for ourselves, because we’re watching our own lives slip through our fingers just as we always knew they would but, as John Lennon put it, we were busy making other plans.

The Daily Mirror ran a feature on Bowie’s 65th birthday in which Bowie is seen ducking in and out of a bookstore in the trendy SoHo neighborhood of lower Manhattan unnoticed, seeming to savor an anonymity he could not have imagined he would ever enjoy even ten years ago.

“Browsing the shelves in the fashionable McNally Jackson bookstore in New York’s SoHo,” the Daily Mirror’s Barbara McMahon reports, “a man in a grey overcoat and flat cap barely merits a glance from other shoppers.

“A regular customer at one of the few independently-owned bookstores left in the city, where he mostly buys books on art, the man exchanges a few pleasantries with the staff before buying, on this occasion, a couple of DVDs.

“Then he ducks back out to the busy Manhattan streets and disappears anonymously into the crowds.

“Hardly anyone has noticed that the man with the computer bag slung casually over his shoulder is David Bowie, the godfather of glam rock and one of the most enigmatic of rock ’n’ roll legends – and that’s exactly how he likes it.”

You can read the rest of the story at the Daily Mirror’s website here. The bottom line is this: The closest Bowie has come to resuming his recording career is jamming with his 11-year-old daughter, Lexi, in their living room; other than that he’s more interested in chilling with the fam than chilling with tens of thousands of strangers in a packed auditorium near you.

So no, he is not dying; he’s just not going to play the monkey to your organ grinder at 65 years old, especially not after a heart scare eight years ago and decades of alleged drug and alcohol abuse have put him in a place in life where he realizes more than ever that any given day could be his last. So why spend what time he has left busting his ass for you? As one of Bowie’s friends put it in McMahon’s story, “there’s no great secret agony or fear of failure that has led to this. He finds the reclusive rocker tag very amusing.”

Imagine that, David Bowie more interested in amusing himself than in amusing you. Well, clearly then, he must be dying, right? I mean, what other reason is there?

Gianmarc Manzione

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Leonard Cohen drops new song ahead of Jan. 31 album release

10th January

If you have any idea what Leonard Cohen has been through since emerging from the Zen monastery “Mount Baldy” after years of seclusion there following his 1992 record The Future, then the seething ruminations on age, death and ruin he indulges on the new song he dropped today is precisely what you’d expect of the grizzled, 77-year-old bard. Culturespill told the full story here back in 2008, but here’s the CliffsNotes version: Cohen re-entered the real world to find that the $5 million retirement fund he left in the hands of his long-time manager Kelley Lynch had dwindled to $150,000. With no recourse through which to recoup the money and his estranged manager on the lam, he instead embarked on the much-celebrated world tour documented on two live releases–2009’s Live in London and 2010’s Songs from the Road.

Now he is set to deliver a long-anticipated new studio album, Old Ideas, on Jan. 31. Cohen angered some fans with the unfocused gaiety of his last studio effort, 2004’s Dear Heather, and defended himself by saying that it was meant as a “playful” album to be followed by a collection of more characteristic material–you know, the stuff that makes you want to kill yourself. In keeping with that promise, the song Cohen dropped today is called “Darkness,” and delivers precisely that. He tosses metaphor to the winds and instead dives right into the rough of what’s bugging him here. “I’ve got no future / I know my days are few” he growls in the gruff and whispery baritone Elton John calls his “non-voice.” “The present’s not that pleasant / just a lot of things to do.”

These sound like the words of a man who, now in his late 70s, might have been perfectly content to live out the rest of his life much the way David Bowie does these days–chilling at home with family and friends, savoring the anonymity of walking the streets unnoticed, and feeling absolutely no compulsion to add anything new to his abundant and glittering oeuvre. And perhaps that’s where things might have stood had Lynch not directly linked her American Express card to Cohen’s bank account and sucked it dry to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars at a time.

Poets like Cohen get snarly when critics read autobiography between every line they write, and perhaps rightfully so. But autobiographical or not, “Darkness” delivers precisely the kind of unabashed and strikingly sincere appraisal of the human condition that longtime fans heard on every Cohen record before the hapless and baffling Dear Heather. If “Darkness” is any indication, Old Ideas will deliver much more from where all that came from.

Veteran fans will delight in this track’s more stripped-down approach, a sound Cohen largely has abandoned for the slicker, more ornate production he’s preferred since 1984’s Various Positions and its brilliant follow-up, I’m Your Man. “Darkness” opens with a gorgeous flutter of acoustic guitar that storms with the ominous and theatrical finger-picking style exhibited on some of his most signature tracks, such as “Teachers” from his 1967 debut or “Avalanche” from the incomparable Songs of Love and Hate in 1971. Those earlier records are achievements no artist can ever hope to replicate, but “Darkness” comes damned close, and suggests that somewhere in the consternation of a retirement disrupted by circumstance Cohen turned up a few more of those songs of love, hate and, now, the growing specter of mortality.

You can check out the track here, and also visit his website where you can hear another track from Old Ideas he released in November, a supine piano ballad called “Show Me the Place.”

Gianmarc Manzione

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Bill Callahan’s “Apocalypse”: The Transcendent Emergence of a Great Songwriter

3rd January

Achingly gorgeous from first song to last, Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse (Drag City Records, 2011) sounds like the work of some 21st-century Jerry Jeff Walker who spent many hours ransacking his parents’ collection of Van Morrison LPs as a kid.

As on all records Callahan has released under his own name since leaving Smog behind in 2005, these songs color spare musical landscapes with flourishes of flute, piano or fiddle, the elegant but very occasional shuffle of percussion, and hard-bitten lyrics delivered in the kind of off-the-cuff, sort-of-singing-but-really-just-talking-to-ya manner of Walker or Lou Reed.

Taken as a whole, this brief song cycle explores a courageous and curious imagination that looks away from nothing and takes no easy turns. Callahan speaks of the man that “love’s coltish punch” empowered him to become. He discovers “the bee’s nest in the buffalo’s chest.” He watches Letterman somewhere in Australia while undressing American jingoism with ruthless sarcasm, dropping the names of giants like Kris Kristofferson, George Jones or Johnny Cash along the way.

The music throughout Apocalypse replicates the whimsy, beauty and restraint of records like Van Morrison’s exquisite Veedon Fleece, Leonard Cohen’s 1967 debut Songs, or Will Oldham’s masterpiece, I See a Darkness. Just when you think you’ve got Callahan’s number, though, he shifts his tone to a truculent and foreboding rocker like “America!”

Apocalypse is urgently worthy of your attention; the same can be said of every Bill Callahan record to date. It is available for just five bucks at’s MP3 store; or you can pony up for the cause by buying directly from his label here.

Gianmarc Manzione

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