As promised, here’s part two of my list, or alternatively, a “Why Is Everyone Sleeping on The Walkmen?” post.
I’ve also included a “songs of 2014” YouTube playlist at the bottom for your enjoyment.
5. LIBERATION!, PETER MATTHEW BAUER // key track: “Irish Wake in Varanasi (for Big Pete Devlin)”
When the Walkmen announced they were parting ways, there was little indication that the band would embark on a big post-split output. Outside of a somewhat inevitable Hamilton Leithauser frontman solo album, there wasn’t much to anticipate outside of the kind of nebulous “projects” heads up that often accompanies band dissolution. The Strokes tried a similar thing when they took a long hiatus, and the solo albums were mixed affairs. Their New York indie compatriots didn’t seem primed for that kind of “everyone gets a turn” solo tour jaunt, so it was certainly a surprise to see The Walkmen have such a great 2014. Leithauser released the excellent Black Hours (see below), a moody slice of debauched regret juiced up with some Sinatra-esque swing. Walter Martin grabbed all of his Harry Nilsson albums and sat down to make We’re All Young Together, a joyous album about childhood that your kid will love as much as you will. It’s been fascinating to trace the influences within The Walkmen through these solo outputs. Leithauser loves Bob Dylan. Walter Martin, Nilsson. Listening to bassist Peter Matthew Bauer’s excellent Liberation!, it’s clear that he loves him some Tom Petty. Bauer’s voice bears clear similarities to early Heartbreakers, but it’s the aesthetic he creates through most of these songs that really drives it home. On “Latin American Ficciones,” Bauer’s band bounces around as he gives each phrase-ending syllable a classic Petty extension. Even the lyrics – “how’d you get so reckless, baby” – sound like they’re delivered straight from Petty’s pad.
This isn’t to say that Liberation! plays simply like a tribute. It doesn’t. There are Stones homages (“Fortune Tellers”) and songs that sound exactly like, well, The Walkmen (“Irish Wake In Varanasi”). But even with a clear strand of influences, Bauer retains a style all his own, no small feat for someone who, by his own account, had never written a full song before recording the album. Bauer, clearly animated by the freedom afforded him after the band’s hiatus, pushes himself most as he explores his spirituality. There are eastern flairs tucked into nearly every track on the album, and in this way, he walks in the footsteps of George Harrison, who also followed his band’s end with an ambitious exploration of melody and faith. But Bauer’s journey, though just as sincere, ends on the opposite side of belief, and on Liberation!, what he’s announcing is escape. “Will you ever admit, that myth wipes out reason?” he asks on the album’s closer, the appropriately titled “You Are the Chapel.” And while he’s singing here about leaving faith, you get the feeling he’s right there with Harrison on All Things Must Pass, even more excited about the prospect of leaving his former band’s shadow.
4. GRAY LODGE WISDOM, WILL STRATTON // key track: “The Arrow Darkens”
A few years before the release of Gray Lodge Wisdom, Will Stratton’s sixth album, the songwriter received a devastating diagnosis: he had stage three testicular cancer. Faced with a future of surgeries, chemotherapy and other difficult treatments, Stratton left New York City for Seattle to receive care and put the fight of his life to tape. After five albums of poetic reflections and folk-based arrangements, Stratton’s catalogue suggested he’d be well equipped to express something so serious. But rather then lean into the quiet sorrow one might expect, Stratton turned in a defiant and triumphant record – his best to date – filled with incredible lyrical candor and delicately crafted melodies. On first listen, the intimacy and hushed arrangements might suggest you’re hearing a “Cancer Record,” but Stratton refuses to let Gray Lodge Wisdom solicit your pity or beg for cheers. The album’s title track (which features a gorgeous guest vocal from The Weather Station’s Tamara Hope) sets the stage as Stratton makes the case for the dignity of quiet endurance. “Why sing about death when I’m still alive? Why sing about life when I’m still alive?” Rather than lower his head and sulk into what’s coming, he rises to fight and just sing, sing about people and places and really about something, anything else, a kind of victory he sees for a songwriter in his condition. “Why hope for salvation when I’m still in my prime?”
There’s something deeply affecting knowing Stratton’s story and hearing him call his shot in “The Arrow Darkens,” the album’s best song. “I resolve to come back stronger than before, with every instinct hungry at the door.” Within the horror of his experience, that hunger becomes a sign of life. Stratton’s painful memories become warmly recounted tales of victory over insurmountable odds, but they’re told to us through a wry, defiant smile, as by a crackling fire. It’s that wit that pulls the album from a mere expression of pain, a tempting proposition for other artists (see Beck’s Waking Light), and into something transcendent. Stratton isn’t interested in the horror of death, but neither is he chasing the kind of emotional euphoria afforded the lives of fictional protagonists. His story is most powerful in its simplicity. He is. He still is. Whispered, but never weak; introspective, but not self-indulgent; confessional, but not resigned; intimate, but not lonely; sobering, but inspiring — Will Stratton’s Gray Lodge Wisdom was the most emotional listening experience of 2014.
3. ALVVAYS, ALVVAYS // key track: “Archie, Marry Me”
Sometimes an album demands repeated listens, challenging you to dig for hidden meanings and pore over subtle shifts and melodic twists. Some albums just want you to shut up and smile. The self-titled debut from Toronto’s Alvvays (pronounced “always”) stands triumphantly in the latter camp, a veritable tacklebox of streamlined, penetrating hooks. There isn’t a second wasted in its brief 33 minutes, and each song provides its own immediate delights. And while the aspirations for the album are simple – all tight grooves and catchy choruses – Alvvays isn’t “dumb” by any standard. You don’t come to such a perfect mix of indie pop, shoegaze, and surf rock without a very serious appreciation for what makes each of those genres special. And though the album’s lo-fi aesthetic and the unassuming delivery of Molly Rankin’s vocals might imply a loose approach, each song is tightly constructed and immaculately produced.
People often underestimate the complexity of doing “simple” well, but one listen to “Adult Diversion” or “Next of Kin” shows a band of extreme focus, quickly shifting in and out of its musical inspirations. It’s quite a feat and surely required a ton of work, but you don’t get that impression listening to something so buoyant. Rankin’s voice, in particular, is a revelation, slightly detached but subtly emotional, pulling you into each song with just the opening lines. It’s hard to find a standout on an album full of them. The end of “Ones Who Love You” opens up like a flashbulb in a darkened room, unexpectedly elevating the song’s drone to a moment of sudden clarity. “Dives” proves brokenness has its own charms. But surely the track that will find a forever home in your head is “Archie, Marry Me,” the best pop song released last year. It’s a flawless three-minute adventure into the joy of young love, and the goosebumps it inspires will have you repeating it over and over (and over and over). If the album was just this song nine times, it would still make this list. Alvvays cannot be recommended enough, but I suppose a warning should be included: after just one listen, it will absolutely dominate your rotation.
2. LATENESS OF DANCERS, HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER // key track: “Saturday’s Song”
MC Taylor writes music under the Hiss Golden Messenger moniker that can be labeled “country rock” but would be more accurately described as “southern gothic.” While his gravelly voice finds pasture over warm country hills, it’s the stories he tells that fuses the songs to your memory. On past releases, those songs tended to involve crushing heartbreak or debilitating circumstances. Taylor seemed firmly planted in a perpetual cycle of relapse and recovery, fighting the demons that taunted him from the dark confines of his own heart. On 2011’s excellent Poor Moon, for example, Taylor would gleefully race past his own shortcomings one minute (“Super Blue”), only to be brought to his knees soon after (“Jesus Shot Me In The Head”). Hiss Golden Messenger wasn’t made to wallow in sorrow – you can only do a The Band impression so long without cracking a smile – but the band’s songs do suggest that as long as darkness remains in the heart, it lurks around every corner.
On his fifth album, Lateness of Dancers, Taylor seems to have negotiated something of a reprieve. He’s still haunted to his core, but a defiant light has broken through to lift much of the album. Whether it’s from basking in that light or from dancing on the edge of brimstone, there is a rich warmth that permeates each song. “Lucia” opens the album with Taylor singing wide-eyed and smitten. “They told me treasure seekers are thrown in jail,” he sings, before dismissing such pessimism. “And she was beautiful,” he adds. “It was circumstance.” Taylor defies impending darkness by relishing the power of the immediate. On “Saturday’s Song,” he strums along to a 70s California backdrop, singing to the debauchery of a night of freedom, but acknowledging its fleeting promise of escape. Taylor is weighed down by history (“Black Dog Wind”), a higher power (“Southern Grammar”), and fear for his own kin (“Chapter & Verse”). Throughout Dancers he never dismisses the inevitability of pain, and on “Mahogany Dread,” he offers something of a manifesto. As the song bounces along, he sings to his love, “I still want you. It’s getting harder to be easy now – a couple of kids, mahogany dread – but happy days are still ahead.” After the darkness of Poor Moon and Haw, Taylor is fine carrying his ghosts, as long as he can still march toward the light.
1. BLACK HOURS, HAMILTON LEITHAUSER // key track: “11 O’Clock Friday Night”
Listen. The summer’s coming. Slow down. Don’t chase the crowd. ‘Cause I’m right here.
Black Hours opens with a plead for patience, as Hamilton Leithauser tries desparately to reassure his lover of a bright future just around the corner. It’s a bleak song, and Leithauser’s aching never finds its resolution, the track’s title (“5AM”) suggesting these are the words of a man talking to himself on a sorrowful, lonely walk home. But for all its dreariness, the song is also revelatory. In the thirteen years Leithauser spent fronting The Walkmen, he has always worn his influences as badges of honor, and on Black Hours, he adds Frank Sinatra to a list of heroes that includes Bob Dylan, Harry Nilsson, and Elvis Presley, finding in Old Blue Eyes a musical guide and something of a spiritual one, too. The one-two punch of the album’s opening tracks provides the clearest example, as the mournful “5AM” is followed immediately by the bouncing jubilance of “The Silent Orchestra,” the pleading loneliness of the opener replaced with the unconvincing brashness of someone committed to moving on. “When you go dry in your heart, come and find me,” Leithauser coos. “I’ll hang my hat on the songs that I’m singing.” All he needed, it seems, was a day to sleep it off.
This kind of joyful defiance can be found throughout Black Hours, but it hits a peak with the album’s best song, “11 O’Clock Friday Night.” “You’re Monday’s child,” Leithauser sings, as much to himself as to the woman he’s banished to the emptiness of memory. By the time Leithauser reaches the unconvincing piss-off of “I Don’t Need Anyone,” the album’s picture becomes clearer, an ode to one lover, an ode to a thousand. Black Hours is the story of someone who can’t be happy alone, a motor that keeps running on the fumes of former glories and toward the promises of ones always just around the corner. Leithauser’s final line on the album (“hit me again”) is the familiar demand of the addicted, and in someone else’s hands, the album might have become an unlistenable, tearful mess. That Leithauser manages to make the whole thing so damn fun is also part of his point. His Black Hours are only lit by the vapor of delusion and inebriation – a fun reprieve, sure, but a temporary one still. When you’re damaged, heartbreak is cyclical. It’s a heady statement from an album of surprising depth, and in 2014, nothing else matched its harmony of vision and song.
PLAYLIST: THE YEAR IN MUSIC
NOTE: I elected to use YouTube since Spotify didn’t have all of these albums available.