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The Best New Albums I Heard in 2014

26th December 2014

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.

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