Hosting a long-running weekly radio program at 90.3 WRIU-FM (The Boudin Barndance, Thursdays 6-9 PM), attending plenty of club shows and festivals and freelance writing affords Ear Bliss Central the opportunity to hear lots of music during the year. This week we offer up a baker’s dozen of releases from 2014 that truly hit the sweet spot. These are the records, in no particular order, which got the most play in the Ear Bliss world. Off we go.
The Delines – Colfax (El Cortez Records)
Beautiful, soulful songs and singing with a slow burn country-ish underpinning defines Colfax from Portland, OR-based The Delines whose membership draws from The Decemberists, Richmond Fontaine, Minus 5, and most importantly the late and lamented Damnations TX via singer Amy Boone who takes this stunner of a record over the edge.
Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else (Bloodshot Records)
No sophomore slump for Columbus, Ohio-based lady rocker Lydia Loveless. Fearless songwriting, a potent voice, and a kickass rock & roll attitude (again with country underpinnings) defines Somewhere Else. “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” from the album displays Loveless in all her vocal glory nailing every note and singing with pure passion is a spine tingler and arguably the favorite single song of the year for the Ear Bliss camp.
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (High Top Mountain Records)
The title alone is cool, a play on the groundbreaking 1962 Ray Charles crossover masterpiece Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music. Simpson’s nine-song effort is equal parts spiritual, outlaw and smart. It is also hands-down the best country record of the year and possibly this century.
Hiss Golden Messenger – Lateness of Dancers (Merge Records)
A record that takes its name from a Eudora Welty story, M.C. Taylor, a.k.a. Hiss Golden Messenger, continues on a path of deep grooves in the roots vein saddled with deep songwriting plum full of Southern imagery and all attuned to his soulful yelp.
Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjauwar Records)
Burn Your Fire for No Witness presents 11 “personal moments” in song set to a sonic palette that stretches from crunching rock to minimalism and all with the ever captivating voice of Ms. Olsen at its core.
Hurray for the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes (ATO Records)
An understated affair that draws from genres spanning old-timey to bare-bones blues to New Orleans bump to folk to even a whiff of honky tonk, At the heart of it all is front person Alynda Lee Segarra whose voice is a hypnotic instrument of deep soul beauty that sucks you right into her song cycle.
Lee Bains & the Glory Fires – Dereconstructed (Sub Pop Records)
Songs brandishing titles like “The Kudzu and The Concrete”, “Burnpiles, Swimming Holes”, “Flags”, “Mississippi Bottomland” and “Dirt Track” are pure South, if you ask me. For those times when you need it loud and in your face, Birmingham-based Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires a deliver a Southern sonic rock and roll fury like few others on Dereconstructed.
Reigning Sound – Shattered (Merge Records)
Shattered may be the perfect Reigning Sound record. The songs are classic-sounding garage rock & roll nuggets where relationship matters reign supreme and on which front man Greg Cartwright demonstrates Brill Building songwriting smarts. As catchy as fly paper, the magic is the music itself where guitar hooks and fuzz and organ flourishes fill the open spaces to perfection.
Steve Gunn – Way Out Weather (Paradise of Bachelors Records)
On Way Out Weather, guitar virtuoso Gunn takes the listener on a sensatory sound journey with the constant being the many splendored tones he yanks out of his six-string.
Zoe Muth – World of Strangers (Signature Sounds Records)
Heartbreak and leaving are the underlying themes running through World of Strangers from Seattle-by-way-of-Austin singer/songwriter Muth. We dare you not to fall for her honeyed-voice and storytelling attached to a tonic of pungent Americana sounds.
Nikki Lane – All or Nothin’ (New West Records)
Lane’s debut in 2011 (Walk of Shame) was a hot mash of alt country and edgy roots rockers. Sophomore release All or Nothin’ brings ultra-hot producer Dan Auerbach (of Black Keys) into the mix and Lane’s art suffers none in the process. Equal parts retro and modern, Auerbach creates a sound collage that caters perfectly to the swagger of Lane.
Cory Branan – The No Hit Wonder (Bloodshot Records)
10 and 15 years ago Cory Branan was a Memphis music maker filling the void between punk and country. Marriage, fatherhood, it can change, or perhaps, season one. From the songwriting to singing to spot-on accompaniment, The No Hit Wonder is all about seasoning, kind of like that extra special ingredient which throws a recipe over the edge. That’s what these ears hear on the simple and sweet album The No-Hit Wonder.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones – Half the City (Single Lock Records)
Go back a few years and a soul-shaking band called Alabama Shakes from where else but Alabama was turning the indie world on its side with an incredibly passionate and soulful lead singer and songs straddling garage, soul and rock & roll. The equally riveting St. Paul & The Broken Bones on debut Half the City is another stellar ‘bama entry, also with a magnetizing lead singer in Paul Janeway, but music landing more in the soul zone ala Otis (Redding) and Wilson (Pickett).
Honorable Mention: Laura Cantrell – No Way There from Here (Thrift Shop); Lee Fields & The Expressions – Emma Jean (Truth & Soul); Marty Stuart & The Fabulous Superlatives – Saturday Night/Sunday Morning (Superlatone); Courtney Barnett - A Sea of Split Peas (Mom+Pop); Jim Mize – self-titled (Big Legal Mess); Bobby Bare Jr’s Young Criminals Starvation League – Undefeated (Bloodshot); Pete Molinari – Theosophy (Ingrooves); Benjamin Booker – self-titled (ATO); Christopher Denny – If the Roses Don’t Kill Us (Partisan). Stone Jack Jones – Ancestor (Western Vinyl).
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3.)