#1 Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders – Where The Music Goes To Die (self-released)
I happened upon Matthew Squires in mid-2014 at a house concert that I was attending to see another songwriter. Squires did a short set and I fell in love with his quirky, poetic lyrics and his off-the-wall vocal timbre. As quickly as I could, I consumed all the Matthew Squires music that I could, and pre-ordered his new one, Where The Music Goes To Die. I get lost listening to Squires’ lyrics, and often find myself almost hypnotized by his voice and music. (“Much better than Cats. I want to see it again and again.” Please tell me you get that reference.) I mean, I can just pull a random lyric from the record, and be blown away. Like this from the title track:
I tried hard to be some kind of mystic. I ended up a man in love with himself.
The more I look, the more I seem to miss it. My poverty is my only source of wealth.
It don’t run out.
Or this from “A Strange Place”:
And everyone I’ve met has been an arrow, pointing me to where I need to go.
Everyone I’ve met has been an arrow, piercing me right down into my bones.
Like those punk rock, suburban girls with their Betty Boop, cartoon-curls, and their bouquets of neon light.
They sip from the flask of night.
If you have been looking for some challenging concepts in musical creation coupled with philosophical and poetic musings on life, satisfy yourself with a copy of Where The Music Goes To Die.
#2 The Western Shore – Thunderstorm (self-released)
The husband-and-wife folk duo of Charlie and Kalee Smyth really captured my heart with this release. It’s well-produced, but still raw, and possesses an honesty I rarely hear. I found myself going back to this album again and again throughout the year, when I wanted to listen to some real music by real people. Their take on “You Can’t Make Old Friends” resonates with me like the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton duet never did.
#3 Swearing At Motorists – While Laughing, The Joker Tells The Truth (‘a’ Records)
I like the fresh, raw sound, that is stripped down to the bare bones on most tracks on While Laughing, The Joker Tells The Truth. Frontman Dave Doughman’s lower-register lead vocals (and his self-accompanied harmonies) provide dark overtones to already dark lyrics that focus on the real side of life. The opening track contains only the harmonized repeated words “I don’t need anyone”, until the end when he adds “but you”. Another is the repeated lyric “You know that you can tell me anything, just please don’t use the word ‘forever’”. Yet another is simply the line “I was thinkin’ ‘bout drinkin’, but I don’t have the energy”, repeated over and over, with stark instrumentation and multiple voice tracks. There are beefier songs on the album — and they are also excellent –, but I really dig the idea of a single repeated lyric to create a beautiful expression of a particular moment in the songwriter’s life. There are 17 tracks here, but with only one longer than 3 minutes, and most closer to 2, including five that are under 2 minutes, this is the perfect record for the short-attention-span person inside us all.
#4 Anchor & The Butterfly – Nothing To Win Nothing To Lose (Ghost Gum Records)
Bridget Robertson and Lance Hillier comprise this band, with Robertson as the singer/songwriter and Hillier on guitar. This album is sonically very appealing, because Robertson’s vocal performances strike all the right chords, especially when backed by the simple production. The title track is a fine example. When Robertson sings “nothing to win nothing to lose”, Hillier’s atmospheric playing is a perfect match for Robertson’s voice, which is powerful in its world-weary and smoky soft-spokenness.
#5 Manna Frost Trio – Overgrowth (Skyco Records)
Slow and dreamy is the the way I like my music, and this Chapel Hill, North Carolina, band delivers. Eclectic instrumentation creates an ethereal production that seems fresh with every listen and is often reminiscent of very early Pink Floyd, sometimes late Stones. I think we might classify this — if we were to do something so foolish — as “americana prog”. Whatever you want to call it, I can leave Overgrowth on repeat all morning and not get bored. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think they’re real. It’s just that I don’t have confidence in them.” That kind of lyric holds my attention. As a side note, I just stopped playback during the track “Shatter Cones”, so I could say — out loud to myself — “Got-DAM that’s a good song!”
And, in no particular order — I literally put them into a randomizer to remove any listing bias — the rest of the Top 25.
Rod Melancon – Parish Lines (Medina River Records) – (People who know me will probably think I am kidding about the randomizer, because Melancon’s on top, but I promise — I randomized once, and boom.) Part Elvis, part Springsteen, part Swamp Thing, Rod Melancon, er, um, RAWKS! Producer Brian Whelan (Dwight Yoakum’s guitarist) lets the songs shine with spot-on instrumentation at every turn. .
Nathan Bell – Blood Like A River (Stone Barn Records) – I could have put this album on this list simply for the song “Names”, which is the opening track. It’s a poignant song about how the soldiers we send to war are real people, not just names we may read in the obituaries, and it’s one of those songs that made me sit up and take notice when I heard it on the radio (WLVR, I believe it was). The rest of the album, though, is more than worth a listen, as Bell spins a series of well-crafted, powerfully delivered, acoustic tales.
Susan Clynes – Life Is … (MoonJune Records) – Piano-based goodness from Belgian singer/pianist Susan Clynes. This album was recorded live at three different shows. It’s a beautiful album, one that I like to put on headphones and lie back with my eyes closed, so I can immerse myself in the performance. Simon Lenski’s cello sets the tone on five of the tracks, and by “sets the tone” I mean “blows me away”.
Esther Golton – Stay Warm (self-released) – So much of this album reminds of one of my favorite artists-gone-too-soon, Kirsty MacColl. Golton’s voice is similar to MacColl’s and there is a similar overall feel to the music — serious but hopeful with dashes of island magic. “Echo Point” is a killer story tune, and, in fact, the songwriting throughout this record is top-notch.
Dave Desmelik – We Don’t Want A Dying Flame (self-released) – What can I say, I like the dark side. Desmelik has put together a superb mix of painful instrumentals and lyrics-driven songs that makes me appreciate my good fortune whenever I spin it. Desmelik’s vocal performance is so plaintively melancholy that I find myself wondering how he survived the recording sessions. He did, right?
The Jonathan Fox Band – 20 Something Runaway (self-released) – An eclectic mix of sounds, all of them pleasing to the ear. “My Own Drum” jumps out as a special song with its strongly percussive instrumentation, but the pure rock-n-roll feel of “Front Page Cliche” has my head dancing, and “Van Gogh” keeps me coming back for more. A strong record from start to finish.
Britchy – Every Heartache (self-released) – 907Britt (Britt Arnesen) and Richie Reinholdt and are Britchy. This is country music from the northern United States. It features Arnesen and Reinholdt taking turns singing their own compositions. I enjoy the songwriting of both, but I mostly like how they move back and forth between Arnesen’s Kasey Chambers-y voice to Reinholdt’s Tom Petty-y (well, adding that “-y” didn’t work out very well, now, did it?) one. Acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo, mando — this is country music!
Grant Peeples and the Peeples Republik – Punishing The Myth (Gaterbone Records) – Poet. Activist. Songwriter. Musician. Artist. Punishing The Myth is yet another step forward in Peeples’ take-no-prisoners indictment of life and society. “Who Woulda Thunk It?” is a groovy tune about how our priorities change as we age. “The Hanging” features Eliza Gilkyson, a snapped neck, and a message about capital punishment. Don’t get weirded out — the song’s not preachy, just good. Grab this album for Peeples’ poetic songwriting (“High Octane Generation” is actually a spoken poem) and Gurf Morlix’s thoroughly appropriate production. If you aren’t on the Grant Peeples train yet, there’s still time to hop on board.
Trailhead – Leave Me To Learn (Timezone Records) – Leave Me To Learn is yet another rock solid country album from the German singer/songwriter Tobias Panwitz. The title track beautifully pulls at heartstrings I didn’t know I had. “My Mother’s Father” is a loving tribute to the grandfather Panwitz never met.”Out In The Open” grabs me with its piano open and its classic riffs. Panwitz’s lyrics are interwoven with often haunting melodies, and fleshed out with full instrumentation and lush harmonies that never fail to satisfy.
Marcus Rubio – Land Of Disenfranchisement (self-released) – One of Rubio’s more accessible releases, Land Of Disenfranchisementoffers something for casual listeners, but is really aimed — as all his music seems to be aimed — at the listener who is searching for meaning and cohesiveness in this universe. My general reaction after listening to most of Rubio’s albums is, “I don’t know why I liked that, but I do. I really do.” At times poppishly sensible and at times the embodiment of the art of noise, Land Of Disenfranchisement stands tall in Marcus Rubio’s growing catalog.
Rick Dill – Quiet Town (RBD Music) – Rick Dill strikes me as a quieter, mellower, christianer Jimmy Buffett. Songs like “I Don’t Know What I Did”,”Remember What He Said” , and “Auction Block” give us a peak inside the songwriter’s state of mind as he deals with relationships with his love, his god, and society in general. As I listen to the record, Dill’s sincerity often reaches out and slaps me across the face, waking me up to the realities of the small-town lives he’s singing about. On the plus side, his outlook is not all that grim.
Mordrake – Every Shadow Is A Ghost (self-released) – As I re-listen to the albums in this list, I realize that I am truly a fan of a slow, haunting delivery of a well-crafted song. It’s all about atmosphere. Well, not all about atmosphere, but I do seem to lean into the ghostlier stuff. I think I could listen to Katy Raine sing pretty much always, as this UK band truly delivers an eerie sound with Raine’s voice complemented beautifully by an alluringly doleful backing track. “A Brush Of Color” at track 3 and “The Cowboy Cannibals” at track 7 are sung by male leads — they provide a bit of contrast and a further glimpse into the collective mind of the band.
Dallas Dorsey and The Rails – Come On (self-released) – Cool guitars and soulful vocals from Dallas Dorsey and Gini Young create a honkytonkin’, rockin’ good time. At a runtime of 7:21, the extended jam “You” stands out to me as the track that sums up this band: stunning vocal interplay between Dorsey and Young, swampy guitars, and heavy percussion, with sex and death smoldering just below the bass line. Dig.
Bill Scorzari – Just The Same (self-released) – Gravel-voiced Bill Scorzari delivers a strong set of americana with Just The Same. Of the thirteen tracks, “Because Of You” hits me hardest, with its Hammond throughline and tenor sax solos, and its simple but powerful lyrics, delivered perfectly, with almost every syllable punched up by the beat of a drum. Beautiful.
The Far West – Any Day Now (Medina River Records) – Lee Briante and Robert Black are a couple of the best songwriters in americana right now. From the traditionally country “Hudson Valley” to the Tom Waits-like “Forged In Iron”, The Far West hits all the right notes on Any Day Now. “She’s Gonna Leave Him Too” is the best “screw you and screw her, too” song I’ve ever heard, and “The Bright Side” shouts misery through a spunky beat. If you didn’t get a chance to see The Far West as they toured the country during 2014 — including several shows with Dave & Phil Alvin, one of which I was lucky enough to attend — look for them in 2015 at a venue near you.
DC Bloom – The Rest Is Commentary (Table or Booth Music) – A serious (well, mostly serious) set from a man primarily known for his novelty songs and off-the-wall social media posts. “One White Crow”, a duet with Susan Herndon, stands out for its sparse beauty, and “Some Kind Of Nasty Comin’ Down”, a duet with Stefanie Fix, is a socially relevant song that reverberates with Butch Morgan’s blistering-but-subtle slide guitar. “Epiphany” is a beautiful rolling love song. All in all, a stellar effort by Mr. Bloom.
Marah – Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania (Valley Farm Songs) – Brilliant interpretations of music found in It an obscure book, Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, published in 1931 as a collection of song lyrics gathered in the mountains of Pennsylvania by Henry Shoemaker, a folklorist and “song catcher”. Beautifully bluegrassy americana, mountain-style (the way bluegrass should be).
Billy Sharff – This Side Of Town (self-released) – Sharff’s songs are so damn personal that I often feel like an eavesdropping neighbor getting the through-the-walls scoop on the family in the trailer next door. “The Gambler” knocks me out with its quick pace, talky vocals, and poignant story, but the whole album is rather brilliant in a Hiatt-Prine kinda way.
Holy Moly – Brothers’ Keepers (Whoopass Records) – Technically released toward the end of 2013 (whatever, I didn’t hear it until this year), this is solid country music out of Fort Worth. The self-proclaimed “Reigning Cowpunk Kings” — I must have missed the vote that knocked Hickoids off that pedestal, but nevermind that — deliver a delicious set of alt-country that covers all the required topics: cocaine, death, and John Wayne. The latter is celebrated in a whistling song, and, really now, who doesn’t like a good whistling song every now and then?
Chris Taylor – Daylight (Lo-Fidelity Records) – Chris Taylor is a rock star in waiting, and this mostly acoustic collection punctuates that. His voice is haunting and hopeful at the same time and his look is straight up rock. The songs are cool, too. “Dogtown” knocks me out with its Bono bluster and its Bowie bridge. “Slide” is so classic, I almost want to get up and dance — not quite, but almost. Really, I’m content to listen, and to do that often.
Plus a couple of EPs I really enjoyed:
- Jana Pochop – Throats Are Quarries (EP) (self-released) – Dig the folk fusion sound, doubled vocals, and the line “My deepest fear is that my fears are not that deep; they are just simple things.”
- Nellie Pearl – So It Goes (EP) (self-released) – The opening track, “Canoe”, is such a jaunty fun song, I got drawn right into the whole five-song EP, right through the EP’s coda, the mournful “Call”. I find myself swaying in my chair (I guess that is my way of dancing — shut up!) when this record is on. Dig.