Best of 2014 (Part 1)

While 2013 was personally a year of transition, 2014 was all about attempting to find some stability in my professional and personal life. Sadly, that stability did not translate into regular updates of this blog, but perhaps the new year will provide more time for writing projects and my push to finish my manuscript (on railroad history) will stoke the fires of inspiration here as well. At any rate, I love reading 2014 year end music years mainly for the discoveries they can lead to, and figured I should share some of my own picks. As before, the caveat remains that I’m a historian and not a professional music critic. I’ve been throwing some of my favorite songs in a Spotify playlist as well so you can also check that out:

For the uninitiated my tastes reside mostly in metal, indie, punk, and a scattering of things. We’ll break this down to metal and non-metal categories and while I’m feeling too non-committal to name a champion, here are 12 albums that have stuck with me for quite some time this year:

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Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy
A group of hardened indie veterans decamped to a the small town of Millheim in my home county in central Pennsylvania and holed up in a church to record a record based on an obscure book of folk songs. Mountain Minstrelsy details the lives of the lumbermen, miners and various other hardy folk who carved a living out of the Pennsylvania mountains around the turn of the century. An album thoroughly haunted by the past, but enlivened by lively arrangements (including tuba players, a town-wide sing-a-long, and a prepubescent fiddle player). I realize this type of thing is catnip for me, but its a fun and surprisingly effective reinvention of these old myths and legends.

Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires : Dereconstructed
Simultaneously a blistering takedown of the hypocrisies of the South, and a love letter to the beleaguered region. The Southern historian in me appreciates “Flags” for its take on 21st century Confederate flag wavers or “We Dare Defend our Rights” for its righteous juxtaposition of the Birmingham church bombings with Alabama’s state motto, while the angry metalhead in me appreciates how these guys just totally shred. But seriously, read the lyrics:

Water Liars: Water Liars
The third full-length from these Mississippi-based purveyors of southern-tinged melancholia cranks up the electric guitars and still retains the emotional edge of earlier efforts. My live music experiences are limited due to my extreme rural location, but I did catch these guys play a great set at the Music of the South Conference in Oxford, Mississippi this past spring.

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Rome: Passage to Rhodesia
An album of martial neo-folk so dark it almost belongs in the metal category, this is a concept album from the point of view of white Rhodesians during the Bush Wars of the 60s. On the surface seems like it would be impossible (and politically problematic) to pull off, but the dark acoustically driven music, evocative lyrical themes, and old news footage captures this dark era of African history, especially the white Rhodesians settlers loathed by the world, abandoned by Europe and defending a doomed state and colonial system.

Hurray For the Riff-Raff: Small Town Heroes
The train-hopping roots of these New Orleans folkies lend a certain sense of wanderlust to this, as the wandering spirit of the rails infects these tunes. Tapping into a vast history of Americana, the record takes the listener from the Blue Ridge Mountains to a German traffic jam to the intimate neighborhoods of New Orleans. Politically charged lyrics, such as the inverted murder ballad “Body Electric.” Spinning these tunes in the dead of winter brought a bit of Gulf Coast warmth to the cold mountains. Mostly this record just makes us wish our employer would open a branch campus in New Orleans…

Strand of Oaks: HEAL
This dude’s been favorite for a while – Pope Killdragon soundtracked a particularly glum period of my life back in grad school – but he really ups his game on HEAL, embracing big guitar arrangements and letting some light into the darkness. JM, a pitch-perfect tribute to Jason Molina, still gets me every time. Its been great to see the critics digging this stuff as well.

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Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness
This one was another grower that stuck with me all year. Meditations on loneliness and isolation backed mostly by sparse acoustic guitar arrangements. I’m pretty sure “White Fire” is more intense than half the metal records I’ve heard this year. She gives utterly mesmerizing performances and it would be great to catch a live show of her’s in 2015. Given that she’s apparently (somewhat) local now after moving to Asheville this may actually happen.

iceage: Plowing into the Field of Love
Have to admit I’m not familiar with the earlier output from these Danes but this record is phenomenal. Angry ramshackle punk filtered through a cowpunk/country lens. I think this first clicked for me when the trumpet descends from the heavens in the bridge of “Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled.” Who knows what sort of existential Danish angst inspired this stuff but I love the pure-out swagger behind the enterprise.

Parquet Courts – Content Nausea
The second record they put out this year and while its a close call, the laid-back vibe on this one gives it the edge over than Sunbathing Animal. They go all in on the Pavement/Silver Jews influences here – “Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth” may be my favorite song of the year.

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First Aid Kit: Stay Gold
The Swedish folk duo has been covered here before for one of my favorite train songs (Ghost Town). Its more than just acoustic guitars on this elaborately produced step forward for them. Sweeping string arrangements give this an air of mystery and adventure – a great record for a drive out in the countryside.

Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds of Country Music
I know everyone has been all over this guy but this one really grew on me over the course of the year. These are just really good songs and its weird as hell, from the daguerreotype in space cover, to the lyrics, which blow old country tropes to smithereens.

Steve Gunn: Way Out Weather
A late entrant to this contest. This Brooklyn-based guitarist weaves an elaborate tapestry of jams here. Its both relaxing and intellectually stimulating thanks to the intricate guitar work. His labelmate and collaborator Nathan Bowles’s album of clawhammer banjo drones and reimagined Appalachian ballads also merits a mention in this last slot.

And thus concludes part 1 of this year-end retrospective. Stay tuned for a trip to the metal world…

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