The Beginning at the End: The Top 16 of 2014

Noura-Mint-Seymali-heroHalfway through the second decade of the 21st century and it’s more popular than ever to claim there’s “no good music anymore” when it’s actually less true than ever. Every year further into the millennium, I’m more certain this is the real Golden Age, that not only has there never been more great music [both new and old] in the world, but it’s never been easier for more people in more places to find and hear. Look no further than all the “best of 2014” lists popping up: There’s almost zero overlap from list to list. The lists from the various NPR critics alone must cite at least100 different releases from the year, with only a few constants [one of which is on my list too]. While their lists haven’t budged me on my own set of “bests”, I can look at people’s selections and understand why they chose what they did. I’ve only looked at a list and said That? Seriously?” a few times, which is a sign that there’s a lot out there to like, no matter what you’re into. I will admit to wondering why more things on my own list weren’t on others’. But at the end of the day, a list like this is an opinion, nothing more [nor less]. This is mine.

1. Noura Mint Seymali – Tzenni: The cover of this album is Seymali herself, levitating at the center of an axis of earth, fire, and water – fanciful until we learn that she’s the latest in a long family of moorish griot singers [imagine a cross between Son House and Dali Lama] of which her late step mother was already a living legend . Meanwhile, her father wrote the Mauritanian National Anthem in his spare time. As impressive a pedigree as this is, the music on Tzenni makes Noura’s own case with authority. Backed by a bass/drums/guitar combo anchored by her husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly on guitar, Seymali [playing ardine] doesn’t sing the songs, so much as detonate them, her voice scratching hot scars across the dark funk her crew lays down. Drummer Matthew Tinari produced the mad, cosmic desert blues on Tzenni and his tight, matte finish suits the rough, elemental tunes perfectly, giving them a weathered, sand-buffed feel that casts Seymali’s unearthly voice in a stark, spotlight. In a year when lots of people got credit for inventing things, Noura Mint Seymali took something old as the dust beneath her feet and made it into hair raising high-art.

2. Frazey Ford – Indian Ocean: We shouldn’t be surprised at Roots Priestess Frazey Ford taking her rough-hewn prairie folk to Memphis: Ford’s first post Be Good Tanyas album Obadiah hinted at folkie soul to come, but this…Wow. Tempering her bittersweet voice and backwoods poetry in the warm oven of the legendary Hi Rhythm section, Indian Ocean soars from the start, at once earthy and etherial. The stream-of-spirit songs melt into the center of the soulful grooves, yeilding some fascinating new element, glowing and white hot. Ford often claims her best songs aren’t consciously created, which in her case is completely plausible.  One can almost see her standing at some crossroads, drawing universal poetries through her skin from all directions, singing them back to the world through her bones, like a living tuning fork.  Is it any wonder how often her songs feel like prayers and tongues? Indian Ocean is the kind of beautiful mystery that artists only make when they stop thinking and let their heart and soul carry them to the other side.
3. Free! Mason Jar – While Supplies Last: While Supplies Last feels like it’s constantly re-making itself, even as you listen, it’s that deep and complex. Conceived and executed by the duo of Instrumentalist Benjamin Evans and Vocalist/Journalist/Beat Poet [!]Jabulani Leffall, This music sounds like what happens when you mix Whitfield/Strong era Temps with Massive Attack [at their most TCH heavy] in Lee Perry’s Black Ark – and then leave the resultsl to weather in the Pac Northwest grunge a while. Leffall and Evans deftly use the sonic pallates of multiple genres to divine their art, building dense layers of instruents, voices, found sounds and sound board science for a collage that can’t be taken in with a single listen. It figures this record was released on 9/11, because nothing else came out this year that better embodied the flux and strife and ominous clouds of Patriot Act America. While Supplies Last is the troubling but compellng sound you hear when you’re certain the answers are out there, but nobody seems to actually be looking for them, the sound of people who know that all politics aren’t just local, but personal.
4. Kat Edmonson – The Big Picture: Kat Edmondson takes her pop art very seriously, but only the best kind of seriously. The former “American Idol” contestant wears her quirks openly, which would be annoying and trite were she less of an Artist.  Her songs have the same charm: impeccably crafted and stylish but with a slightly off-kilter spin that makes them glitter.  Edmondson has an alchemic knack for making classic themes and melodies feel freshly minted, but still intimate and familiar. More than once we look up saying “She wrote that? Really?” Producer Mitchell Froom is a perfect fit for a charming weirdo like Edmonson and helps turn the songs into 12 perfect little black dresses for her champagne flavored voice. The Big Picture is a lovely window into a world of romance that’s never really existed, but that we all remember fondly anyway.
5. Jim Lauderdale – I’m a Song: If there’s such a place as the intersection of Merle Haggard and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, then Jim Lauderdale has a room there. Not since Gene Clark has a singer/songwriter mixed road-dust and star dust so adroitly. Lauderdale is a top drawer poet, but builds his flights of romantic fancy on tunes so sturdy and familiar his flights of fancy seem perfectly reasonable. Has there ever been a vision of the Night Life poetic as “Neon Hearts?” – The song comes off like Ray Price possessed by Percy Bysshe Shelly. And good luck finding a weeper as stately and thoughtful as “Today I’ve Got The Yesterdays” or “King of Broken Hearts”. Once upon a time, when good taste wasn’t an accident, a guy like Jim Lauderdale would be a huge star; now he’s just a National Treasure and that’s okay too.
6. Sandrine Piau – Mozart: Desperate Heroines: Few sopranos have the calm elegance of Sandrine Piau. You can hear her experience as a harpist in her approach to roles, always serving the song, never overloading the melody with firepower or technique, preferring to warm the tune in her hands like a lover’s face on a chilly day.  Her passion for baroque is always present, even during a Mozart program like this one [her second], which gives her an advantage that she never squanders. She navigates each aria like a prima ballerina: graceful, elegant, but still exacting and just little precarious; when she goes on runs, we can’t help worrying if this is the time she’ll fall [SPOILER: She never does]. Her clean, almost vibrato-less tone always delights and intrigues, especially with the high flown melodies that make Mozart lovers swoon. There were bigger records by better known sopranos this year, but Piau’s offering is as good as any of them.
7. Jill Barber – Fools’ Gold: It’s easy to imagine Jill Barber as time traveling SciFi heroine: effortlessly slipping from one dimension to another, leaving succulent, glittering trails of stardust and romance covering the grateful lovers prostrate in her wake. Barber’s talent borders on genius and she makes speaking the musical languages of any/all eras seem like child’s play. We know that’s not true, but she’s so cool we believe her when she acts like her brilliance is no biggie. On Fools’ Gold she sashays among the songs – from the charming, bittersweet box-step of “The Least That She Deserves” to the sleek northern soul of “Broken for Good” to the Memphis-sexual “Let’s Call It Love” [which Al Green and/or Ann Peebles should cover immediately] to the slinky should-be Bond theme “To The Last”….All sung in that buttery voice hoveering somewhere between Victoria Williams and Eartha Kitt. Wherever/whenever Jill Barber is actually from [she keeps claiming Canada], I hope they keep building time machines there.
8. Joyce DiDonato – Stella DiNapoli: There may be nobody alive who embodies the pure sensual joy of singing like Joyce DiDonato. Time and again, she throws herself headlong into roles, practically diving from the stage, unconcerned how far she may fall, or what awaits below. Her confidence in her powers is only matched by the thrill she finds in every note, every breath. A natural comedienne, DiDonato always finds the balance of tragedy and comedy that separates the great actors from the merely good. Her voice can go from a stormy sea to a raging fire to an explosion of flowers to a lover’s embrace all in the space of a single verse. On Stella Di Napoli DiDonato showers her reckless [but requieted] love for song on a collection of little-known arias by the likes of Mercadante, Michele Carafa ,Valentini and Giovanni Pacini, author of the title track. Joyce embraces each piece with the joi de vivre that’s become her trademark, making Stella DiNapoli a thrilling, chilling toboggan ride with a fearless, spellbinding, sure-handed guide.
9. Carsie Blanton – Not Old, Not New: What a delight! You’d think the Great American Songbook would be played out [especially as it becomes an easy default for singers without ideas]. Luckily we have someone like Carsie Blanton around to remind us how fine and mellow this sort of thing can be in the right hands. Too much of a hopeless romantic to be anyone’s “Stylist”, Blanton approaches her songs like irresistible dance partners, luxuriating in their embrace, holding them close and tight as she lets them lead her. Blanton eschews the fireworks and/or schmaltz and/or camp a lot of singers rely on when singing this kind of material, instead letting her cozy voice glow with a sweet blue flame that gives well-worn tunes like “Two Sleepy People” and “What Is This Thing Called Love” a lovely new look. Her sultry, drifting take on “Laziest Gal In Town” is a revelation. Play this record for the cynic in your life…They’ll thank you.
10. Paloma Faith – A Perfect Contradiction [Outider’s Edition] It seemed like Amy Winehouse had barely gone before Paloma Faith arrived, the Crowne Peacock of British Soul, fully formed and ready to fly. Faith’s eccentric charm [think Boy Geroge as played by Bridget Jones], is leavened by her knack for romance that presents her voice to us in one heart-shaped box after another. Love is her thing: Finding it, losing it, missing it, cursing it, reveling in it, regretting it, running back to it. While she’s liable to all the highs and lows that come with affairs of the heart, Faith never forgets to bring it: Her Sass has Brass and her Funk is never fake. She can smoulder and soar with the best of them, and you’d best hold on when she takes flight. Usually when a soul singer of any serious octane shows up, the conventional wisdom tries to appoint him/her as “The Next ‘x” or “New ‘y’” or “Another ‘z.” None of that here: This lady is way too busy being Paloma the First for that mess. So [not] sorry. The “Special Edition” of A Perfect Contradiction features live tracks showing off how easily Faith and her crew present their High-Vegas take on soul values on stage, hinting that Faith has located the turn ahead and is in for the duration. Having lost Amy to temptation and Adele to attrition, that is a very, very good thing.
11. Cecelia Bartoli – St. Petersburg: It would be fine with her fans and critics alike if Cecelia rested on her laurels, stuck to her comfort zone, became a Grand Dame. Fortunately, she prefers to continue her quest to know all, see all, sing all. That said, St. Petersburg is a bit of a revelation. Known for her earthy, passionate performances [don’t forget she just destroyed “Norma” not too long ago] and her knack for comedy, Celelia has changed course, pulling in the reins for this set of arias written for the Cazarinas. It’s a bit of trip hearing her chill her big bosomed mezzo into an elegant, often tender, occasionally even demure instrument fit for the Russian court. Her coloraturas here fairly drip with jewels and her highest notes feel snow-capped and regal. Sometimes artists make their most fascinating music when they’ve nothing left to prove and that feels like what’s happening here. Bartoli isn’t surprising and delighting us because she has to or even because we expect it- but because she wants to and because she can.
12. Lucinda Williams – Where the Spirit Meets the Bone: This record sounds like Lucinda woke up one morning and said “F*ck aging gracefully, where do they keep the kickass around here?” Lucinda Williams has never seemed comfortable or at ease with the world, which is what gives her songs so much heft. She was the original Wrecking Ball, able to charge the most casual affairs and ordinary days with gravity and grit. On her latest [her first all-studio double] Miss Williams isn’t even bothering with that easy sh*t: She’s been waiting on this world to finally get better, and it hasn’t…and she’s pissed about it. Maturity and life on the road [and probably a few drinks] have toasted the gravel in her voice into a rueful, riveting growl fit for a woman who’s Seen It. She’s mad at the fools who abused her trust, mad at the fakes and charlatans who trick us into doing wrong, mad at the businessmen who drank her wine. She’s mad at the world…Because she still loves it, and wants it to be better than it is…And is going to kick its stupid ass if it doesn’t get itself together. Despite how testy and ticked off she is on a lot of this record, the DNA of her father’s poetry never let’s her come off like a bitch, just someone who cares enough to get pissed and not give in. She’s like that person you want to hold on tight to – even after she goes upside your head [again]. Just when you think she’s going to burst into flames, she turns on our waterworks with a heart-grabber like “It’s Going to Rain” and we know she still loves us…Whether we deserve it or not.
13. Zara McFarlane – If You Knew Her: Jazz is a constant puzzle; a music born of spontinaity and the energy of human intellect and interaction fighting against the burdensome history threatening to seal it in the same amber of respectiblity that’s suffocated classical music. Zara McFarlane seems to have the missing pieces. Her jazz is a living, breathing thing, not a textbook chapter. Watch as she pirouettes through the Afro-Cuban abstract of “Plain Gold Ring” with the same ease that she swings the chocolaty bop of “Woman in the Olive Grove” a few moments later. You can hear her band’s relish as they follow her through the maze to the centerpiece of the record: A chilling, exhillarating take on the Junior Murvin classic “Police and Theives”. While the original is cool under fire and the Clash’s 1979 reboot is hot under the collar, McFarlane and her band treat the song like the dark end of the street, first titpoeing, then walking, then running to get to…where? This is the sort of combustible, delicious record that used to get made all the time here in the US…Leave it to a doting Brit like McFarlane to remind us of what we’ve always known.
14. FKA Twigs – LP1: Despite the across-board raves this record has reaped, one couldn’t be faulted for not quite “getting” it. There’s nothing easy or simple about LP1…or FKA Twigs herself for that matter. A former video dancer who doesn’t want to be a “Video Girl”. Q glittering erotic demi-goddess who isn’t ready to do it with the lights on quite yet. A budding pop star who vanishes like Garbo when the cameras arrive. The songs on LP1 are as elusive and iffy as the singer: melodies and beats teasing and evaporating in clouds of mechano-organic mist only to crash forward like waves when we’re off our guard. And the singer: strolling through the fever like the love child of Nefretetti and the Little Prince, a wide eyed, Mystery Girl, beckoning yet invisibe. If you don’t get it, you have my sympathies.
15. Nikki Lane – All Or Nothin’: Someday, Bear Family Records is going to do one of their big, pricey box sets on this lady. While all the hollywood-buffed “bra country” singers whine and pine, Nikki Lane strolls through All Or Nothin’ with a grin and an attitude. She manages to wring the whiskey out of her voice long enough to coo her way through “I don’t Care” like an anti-matter clone of Skeeter Davis, then turn up the gas for the Loretta Lynn-gone dark shuffle of “Man Up” and then set the whole thing on fire with the white-trash funky-abandon of “Sleep With a Stranger” [“you can call me anything you want to/just don’t call me after tonight” may be the lyric of the year]. Nikki Lane hasn’t hit the mainstream yet, but when she does, you’ll be able to hear the crash.
16. Mia Dyson – Idleywild: Imagine Tank Girl finding a vintage Strat half-buried in the desert and putting together a band to rock the Outback. Romantic as that is, the truth is more conventional, which makes this record feel even less probable: The Daughter of reknown guitar maker leaves home for the wilds of L.A. in search of the Big Beat. And boy has she ever found it. Bolstered by a band churnng up tough, road worthy new wave rock, Dyson kicks out her tough, well-rounded songs in a straight, clear voice that’s part ingenue and part biker babe. You’d think that “tough-yet-tender guitar chick” trope would be played out, but Dyson is so committed to the role, that it works all the way through Idleywild. This is the sort of record that reminds us that sometimes all you need is three chords, six strings and the courage to tell Your own truth.
Honorable Mentions: Marianne Faithful – Give My Love To London Anna Calvi – Strange Weather Alisa Weilerstein – Solo Chet Faker – Built On Glass Imelda May – Tribal Chrissie Hynde – Stockholm Ingrid Fliter – Chopin: Preludes Melissa Aldano & Crah Trio Simone Kermes & Vivical Geneaux – Rival Queens Gregory Porter – Liquid Spirit Cooly G – Wait Til Night Neneh Cherry – Blank Project Simone Dinnerstein – BachL Inventions & Sinfonia Melanie De Blasio – No Deal Alanna Royale – Achillies iET – So Unreal NEXT: Unknown Pleasures…


5 thoughts on “The Beginning at the End: The Top 16 of 2014

  1. Yay for the first ode to Euterpe! Best new list of the best of the year we’ve just put behind us, some earlier than others. 2014 never sounded as good as when accompanied by your best. Here’s to what has been, and to all that’s coming – may it be every bit as beautiful and more.


  2. CORRECTION: 5/10 tracks on Noura Mint Seymali’s Tzenni were recorded by Tony Maimone, but the album was in fact produced by Matthew Tinari (drummer). Noura’s instrument is called the “ardine,” not the kora. Dimi Mint Abba, Noura’s step-mother is deceased since 2011. Noura’s father arranged the Mauritanian, not West African, national album.


  3. Quirky list, but you gave me several new albums to check out. The Lucinda album is wonderful and the Jim Lauderdale was a revelatiom. Nice to see Imelda May on your honorable mention (though it is in my Top 5)

    Liked by 1 person

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