Thus far, 2014 has produced moments of rock and pop redemption, in the form of a stirring comeback project from David Crosby and a career-defining triple EP from John Oates, but also some bold new items from emerging figures like Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Jack White and Marco Machera.
For Crosby, the solo albums have been few, and the successes even fewer, since his 1971 debut triumph If I Could Only Remember My Name. For Oates, his pedigree as a critical element in the Hall and Oates success story has always been questioned.
Both settled some scores in the early going of this year.
Meanwhile, Rosanne Cash and Bob Mould, two figures who have made their own personal journeys a cornerstone in their art, returned with vital, reanimating projects. They’ve never sounded so much like themselves, and — for fans like me — that’s a very good thing.
The crunchy, fearless California Breed emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of Black Country Communion, while the Howlin’ Brothers continued improving on a sound that combines the Grateful Dead, the Band and some as-yet-undiscovered age-old front-porch picker.
With the layered Dime Novels, Machera might have put out one of the more intriguing prog recordings in memory, while the rootsy Joe Henry continues to delight with a writerly approach that richly rewards repeated listenings.
Then there’s White, whose brief but fascinating solo career has thus far been as difficult to pin down as a drop of mercury. Figuring him out, however, is more than half the fun …
No. 10 — HOWLIN’ BROTHERS – TROUBLE (ROOTS): An album of electrifying episodic variety, Trouble couldn’t have been more different when separated into individual tracks, save for the throwback instrumentation and spacious work at the board from producer Brendan Benson. Take them of a piece, however, and this fleet, frisky project fits together like a sibling’s conversation — each narrative distinct, and yet interrelated because of their proximity. The Howlin’ Brothers’ furious invention on the guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass does the rest. I loved how they steered the current fascination with string-band hominess back toward rock music.
No. 9 — CALIFORNIA BREED – CALIFORNIA BREED (ROCK): 23-year-old guitarist Andrew Watt is no Joe Bonamassa. There’s not a whiff of the blues-rock underpinnings from their time with Black Country Communion. No, this is balls-out rawk. For Glenn Hughes and Jason Bonham, it’s a chance to reemerse themselves in a sound that’s embedded in their very DNA as former collaborators with the likes of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. More particularly, they get to walk confidently — hell, as “Sweet Tea” unleashes a nervy mix of lip-smacking sexuality and bloody-knuckled aggression, it sounds like they’re absolutely running — away from the bad mojo surrounding Black Country Communion’s sudden end.
No. 8 — MARCO MACHERA – DIME NOVELS (PROG): The guitarist and percussionist furiously pushes at the walls of musical convention here, with an all-star cast of Robert Fripp-related contributors including Tony Levon, Markus Reuter and Pat Mastelotto. But Dime Novels doesn’t limit itself to King Crimson-ish prog. There are times when it sounds like an ambient fever dream, and others still when it sounds like something that couldn’t be farther away from either construct. Dime Novels is as challenging as it is entertaining — and a huge leap forward for Machera.
No. 7 — BOB MOULD – BEAUTY AND RUIN (ROCK): The only thing, it seems, that ever reliably pierced the twined armor of Mould’s squalling guitar and emotionally serrated singing style was the former Husker Du frontman’s penchant for revelatory hooks. Same here. Much of the aptly named Beauty and Ruin is, at least on its bristling surface, a gut punch, all angry recriminations and hurt feelings. But then, as Mould dashes into a chorus, he’s all of the sudden hanging ten on the surging wave of sun-flecked pop goodness. Not for long, of course. As with Husker (and Mould’s subsequent band Sugar), there are several layers to this music, each of them seemingly at odds with the other. And that’s the power and glory of this album, and of Mould himself.
No. 7 — ROSANNE CASH – THE RIVER AND THE THREAD (ROOTS): Rosanne Cash’s completely realized, stunningly detailed, profoundly touching new album isn’t just a journey through the American South. This is a journey through its soul, its heartbreak, its redemption — and her’s, too. The River and the Thread — with assists from husband John Leventhal, Derek Trucks, Tony Joe White, Rodney Crowell, John Prine and Paul White of the Civil Wars — is as writerly as earlier successes like Interiors were personal, with universal themes that give it a sense of almost otherworldly timelessness.
No. 5 — GHOST OF A SABER TOOTH TIGER – MIDNIGHT SUN (ROCK): An enormous leap forward in both focus and experimental verve, the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger’s new album is a prismatic explosion of psychedelia, woozy but also cut through with these thrilling vocal sun shards. It sounds like the very embodiment of what Syd Barrett might have stumbled upon, had he not been lost in a drug-fueled maze of his own making. At the same time, there’s a flinty post-modernism to the proceedings. Forget Sean Lennon’s obvious parental influences. With Midnight Sun, he and Charlotte Kemp Muhl have created a world unto themselves.
No. 4 — JOE HENRY – INVISIBLE HOUR (ROOTS): This is a love story, told from inside a heart — not meant for public consumption, in the broadest sense of the word. This isn’t How I Met Your Mother; it’s how I found a way to express something that maybe only I understand. Joe Henry is talking to himself about something that’s bigger than words, bigger than a song — bigger than anything you could describe, much less put into rhyming pentameter. That’s the beauty of his music, the grace of it, and the lasting wonder. Things like “Lead Me On,” so unadorned and yet some complex, aren’t for everyone. Sometimes, you’re not even sure if they are for you, they come across as so personal, so very real. Unravelling their mysteries becomes its own reward.
No. 3 — DAVID CROSBY – CROZ (ROCK): At its best, this record combines Crosby’s most identifiable personal attributes with propulsive, boldly current musical vehicles. But it doesn’t ignore his past or make the awful mistake of conventionalizing Crosby, either — something that doomed his most recent album, the slickery Thousand Roads. Crosby, even accounting for some sonic updating, sounds like himself again. Over a career which hasn’t produced many solo efforts at all, much less albums with even this measure of consistency, this is a very rare thing. Croz gives shape again to what can only be called an offhanded legend.
No. 2 — JACK WHITE – LAZARETTO (ROCK): “Just One Drink” is as subtle as a slap across the face after a long night at the bar. That’s the enduring charm of Jack White, despite the crazy outfits, the curio recording booth, the world’s-fastest-record stunts, the heartbreaking split with Meg. (No, actually, we’re not over that yet.) See, deep down, somewhere tucked away under all of that hipster modernity, is a stone-cold blues lover — and “Just One Drink” proves it. But if that was all there was to White, and to Lazaretto, it wouldn’t be anywhere near this high on my list. There’s also fantastically mangled dance music, Stonesy country honk, something like prog, and countless other brilliantly unquantifiable things.
No. 1 — JOHN OATES – GOOD ROAD TO FOLLOW (ROOTS/ROCK): It’s been a long road, indeed, for Oates. He wrote or co-wrote some 82 songs between 1972-2003 as part of Hall and Oates, including the No. 1 smashes “I Can’t Go For That” and “Out of Touch,” but he rarely voiced their biggest hits — leading some to question, wrong headedly, how much of a role Oates actually played in the partnership. This tour de force project, which began as a series of stand-alone collaborations with the likes of Vince Gill and Hot Chelle Rae before emerging as a three-EP set, should put that nonsense to rest for good. Good Road illustrates just what he brought to that Hall of Fame duo even as it definitively breaks apart every stereotype that ever grew up around Oates. You’ll never think of him the same way again.