Music

The Best Americana of 2014

Eric Risch, Taylor Coe, and Steve Leftridge

If forced to define Americana, it's the one genre where honest craftsmanship is required, respected, and rewarded, something the best of 2014 lived up to.

In a year that lacked, for better or worse, the crossover appeal of acts like Mumford & Sons or the Lumineers, widely acclaimed artists such as Jason Isbell, or a breakout star like country's Sturgill Simpson, a number of events shaped the Americana musical landscape in 2014. Major labels tested the waters, hoping to polish rough edges and extend the genre's reach into the mainstream. In August, Grammy winners the Civil Wars officially ended speculation of their parting, effectively opening the door for new duos -- married or otherwise -- to contend with the likes of Shovels and Rope. Traditionalist poster boys Old Crow Medicine Show, coming off their 2013 induction into the Grand Ole Opry, released Remedy, further demonstrating how indebted artists of their ilk are to the matriarchs and patriarchs of traditional American music.

Often considered a genre for acts that don't fit within a specific marketing niche, roots artists and aging musicians no longer commercially viable in their respective genres, we still struggle to define "Americana". While we were able to segment Americana from bluegrass and country, the blurred lines that exist muddle more into a deeper shade of gray with acts like OCMS possibly bridging all three classifications. The artists contained on this year's list are predominantly singer/songwriters, upstarts and veterans alike, ranging in age from 20 to early 60s. While we included returning alumni, there are a number of first-timers as well, signifying the genre's continued growth and viability. If forced to define Americana, I would be inclined to say it's the one genre where honest craftsmanship is required, respected, and rewarded. Marketing hype, YouTube views, and commercial radio play all have their place in other genres; in Americana, the songs and music are what count. That being said, I feel our top 15 Americana albums of 2014 live up to such a billing. Eric Risch

 
Artist: Goodnight, Texas

Album: Uncle John Farquar

Label: Tallest Man

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Goodnight, Texas
Uncle John Farquar

Formed by songwriters Avi Vinocur, from San Francisco, and Patrick Dyer Wolf, from North Carolina, Goodnight, Texas is named for the geographic midpoint between their respective homes. Despite the attempt (at least in designation) to point toward a middle ground, Wolf's home seems to have an upper hand. The Appalachian ghosts of the group's first album (most memorably, that of Jesse, a coal miner trapped underground) haunt this album as well. Characters on Uncle John Farquar include Civil War specters, such as a woman who can sense the death of her husband from afar ("Many Miles from Blacksburg") and a soldier penning a letter to his wife ("Dearest Sarah"). Vinocur and Wolf have touched brilliantly here on a rich, weird vein of American folk nostalgia, and one can only hope that that they find more ghosts out there to channel. Taylor Coe

 
Artist: HT Heartache

Album: Sundowner

Label: self-released

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HT Heartache
Sundowner

Not a widely known musical entity yet a household face recognizable from her television commercial work, actress Mary Roth as HT Heartache quietly delivered this year's under-the-radar release with her sophomore album, Sundowner. Four years since her debut, HT Heartache's tales of cross-country escapism ("Trenton", "Roam Cold Highway"), confessional omissions ("Darkside"), and noirish undertones ("Cowboy Poetry", "Ruby") are both beguiling and affecting. Backed by Christina Gaillard on guitar, the duo pairs celluloid imagery with weathered instrumentation, speaking to the wanderlust of post-war 1950s America, a promise that is itself these days a roadside relic most can only visit through the fiction of Jack Kerouac and photography of Robert Frank. Uncertain we will hear more from HT Heartache in the future, she has added her own marginalia to America's musical history with the singular Sundowner. Even if time proves it to be only a footnote, it's one worth referencing. Eric Risch

 
Artist: John Cowan

Album: Sixty

Label: Compass

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John Cowan
Sixty

In the '70s and '80s, John Cowan helped redefine progressive bluegrass as the vocalist and bassist in the seminal band New Grass Revival. Since then, he has led his own band, a finishing school for the best young pickers in bluegrass, and most recently signed on a full-time touring member of the Doobie Brothers. At age 60 (hence the album's title), Cowan went into the studio with fellow Doobie John McFee as producer and a long list of guests (Sam Bush, Leon Russell, Alison Krauss, etc.). The results play like a Best of Cowan, as the singer, whose titanic tenor remains as strong as ever, runs through strapping arrangements of country rock, midnight blues, jumping swing, and his signature electrified newgrass. As with everything Cowan touches, he makes these songs -- classics from the likes of Marty Robbins, Jimmie Rodgers, and Charlie Rich -- thoroughly his own, marking both a high point in a remarkable career and verifying a relentless creative spirit. Steve Leftridge

 
Artist: Caleb Caudle

Album: Paint Another Layer on My Heart

Label: This Is American Music

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Caleb Caudle
Paint Another Layer on My Heart

Road-weary songs of love, loss, and longing dot the distances spanned on Caleb Caudle's Paint Another Layer on My Heart. Sullen and sentimental, Caudle's lyrical imagery is accented by pedal steel provided by Whit Wright (American Aquarium), with harmony vocals on opener "How'd You Learn" and aching album standout "Trade All the Lights" provided by Lydia Loveless. Classic in sound and simplistic in delivery, Caudle's contrition is refreshing on songs like "Bottles & Cans" and the swooning "Another Night"; the promises of "Missing Holidays" and "Come on October" knowingly prove false, yet Caudle sells his exhausted apologies with a voice worn ragged by blind miles of county lines crossed year after year. With its earnest and lived-in songs, Paint Another Layer on My Heart firmly places Caudle amongst the ranks of hungry musicians everywhere with stories and lies to tell. In Caudle's hands, both are worth hearing. Eric Risch

 
Artist: Justin Townes Earle

Album: Single Mothers

Label: Vagrant

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Justin Townes Earle
Single Mothers

Justin Townes Earle's fifth full-length finds a sober and newly married Earle, who, rather than living in the grips of his former emotional turbulence, is now reflecting back on the trouble with which his fans are fully familiar. So ruinous relationships, personal demons, and deadbeat dads get plenty of play, but Earle's lifestyle transitions have produced a paring down of his sound. The Memphis horns of his last release have been replaced by a sparer four-piece band, somewhere between his country-folk beginnings and Stax-influenced soul writing, replete with minor-key progressions and lonely pedal-steel embroidery. Things get occasionally peppy, as on the jukebox-boogie of "My Baby Drives", but most songs come to terms with regret ("Picture in a Drawer") and disconnection ("Wanna Be a Stranger"). Consequently, the album sees Earle deepening as a songwriter, and if Single Mothers isn't the sound of an outright renewal, it's JTE's warmest and most focused album to date. Steve Leftridge

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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