This is the fourth and final (for now, at least) part of a series chronicling each year of my life as viewed through the lens of a song that was meaningful to me in some way that represents a significant aspect of my life experience in that year. This segment covers the fourth decade of my life. Be sure to catch up on Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 first.
This is part two of a series chronicling each year of my life as viewed through the lens of a song that was meaningful to me in some way that represents a significant aspect of my life experience in that year. This segment covers the second decade of my life. Be sure to catch up on Part 1 first.
The next order of business as I relive some of my favorite music from the past year is to give credit to the odds and ends that I really enjoyed, but considered categorically ineligible for my “Top Albums” list, either because they aren’t full-length albums, they were re-releases of older material, or they were released in 2014 and I just didn’t catch up to them in time to put them on last year’s list.
Tree63 – Land
Tree63 is one of those bands who seems to disappear for long stretches of time and then resurface. I haven’t really been into them since their first few records way back in the early 2000s, when I still had a decent tolerance for foreign-accented worship bands that clearly wanted to be the next Delirious? by way of sounding like U2 a lot. But to Tree63’s credit, they’ve been unhappy about getting pigeonholed as “that band that did the really good cover of that Matt Redman song” and they do try to mix a lot of more “conversational” material in with the praise choruses. Land seems to continue that trend – some really solid rockers, a few interesting genre twists I didn’t see coming, some meditative, ambient stuff that will probably go over the heads of listeners looking for those simple praise choruses, and… I’ll be honest, some of it’s the same boring adult contemporary stuff that makes Tree63 more of a “singles band” than an “album band” in my book.
Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks
On an album that is thankfully not all about the gory details of Ritter’s personal life, and thankfully features him doing more than just strumming an acoustic guitar for 13 tracks, he takes aim at modern American Christian culture, and well, kind of turns a lot of the “holy roller” language on its head. There’s probably some witty social commentary in here. Iron & Wine’s probably said similar stuff, albeit more cryptically, but I appreciate the attempt all the same. What’s most notable is how rock and country influences mold a lot of these songs into very different shapes, sometimes twisting them mid-song into something you wouldn’t have expected based on how it started out. I prefer variety when it comes to Josh Ritter albums, so this fits my bill way better than The Beast in Its Tracks ever could have.
Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars
Another year, another Beach House album. Wait… they released the last one only two months ago? I was going to say, “Way to follow up a non-event with another non-event, guys”, but the truth is, I’m warming to this one a little more easily than Depression Cherry. Amidst the dreary gloom that pervades a lot of the material here, there’s actually a little more variance in tempo and texture than I would have expected from the band. Sometimes they’re still up to their old tricks (check out “Common Girl”; it’s pretty much the same keyboard melody from “On the Sea”, except not nearly as interesting), and their rather uninspired insistence on using canned drums isn’t doing them any favors, but I dare say that a few of these songs are eerily romantic.
Jon Foreman – The Wonderlands: Dawn
Foreman’s suite of one song for each hour of the day (though he actually ended up giving us 25, so one to grow on, I guess) finishes up beautifully with this song that finds the darkness from the previous EP slowly giving way to daylight. Some of his most striking scriptural songs can be found here, as well as a bit of quirky commentary on his own utter lack of even coming close to deserving grace on the standout “Mercy’s War”. For me it’s the album closer “Before Our Time” that really takes the cake – it’s another collaboration with Sara Watkins, but this time she gets to tear it up on the violin and the result is a true sense of joy. I expected mostly mellow and kinda samey output from Foreman’s solo work, so I think he really stepped up his game by wrangling a different producer for each track and making a solid effort to ensure that the songs would all stand out. Now… I wonder how that whole “play 25 shows in 24 hours” project is going for him?
Jars of Clay – The Long Fall Back to Earth (Deluxe Edition)
I normally don’t get that hyped about re-releases, but the good folks at Jarchives have been really excited for this one, and with good reason – there’s a generous helping of bonus tracks tacked on to the end of it, turning what was already Jars of Clay’s longest album at 14 tracks into 20. Three of the “overcuts”, which apparently were recorded during the album sessions back in 2009, are quirky, up-tempo pop/rock, sort of in the same overall style as The Long Fall proper except that they deviate just enough to where you can see why they didn’t quite fit the album. They’re strong material nonetheless, especially “Love Won’t Let Us” with its surprisingly aggressive guitar attack, which is unlike anything Jars of Clay has done in the “rock out just for the heck of it” department. The other three tracks are remixes of beloved album cuts that I’ve known every single word and note of for six years now, so changing up their sounds, and often their melodies is a risky proposition. But the “Headphones” and “Heaven” remixes are really good, y’all. They almost rival the album versions, and yet they’re quite a departure genre-wise. The “Heart” remix at the end might be a bridge too far, as was a lot of the bizarro material on Inlandia, but having all three of these done by Jeff Savage (who apparently only likes song titles that start with “Hea”) does help to give them a more unified feel. If not for that and the strength of the “overcuts”, this release could have felt like a desperate clearing of the vaults for some quick cash.
As always, I’m closing the year out with a summary of my favorite records from the year gone by. The only qualifying factors to make this list are that they must be full-length albums consisting of new material (I have a separate section for EPs and collections of previously released material), with a release date in 2014. Everything I really enjoyed this year that falls outside of those boundaries still gets a mention, just not a ranking.
It was really hard to pick a clear #1 this year. I love the top four albums on this list just about equally. Two are more “baroque” pop records that lean toward the electronic and experimental, and two are more in-your-face rock records. They’re the only “A grades” that I gave out this year. Which one is my favorite among them changes based on my mood, so I basically gave the #1 slot to the one I’ve enjoyed for the largest chunk of the year. I can’t imagine very many other people who would ever actually listen to all four of them, let alone like them all, but they all come with my highest recommendations for anyone into the types of music these individual artists are making.
It’s that time of year again, when I arbitrarily sort through the list of songs I’ve been obsessed with over the past 12 months, and try to whittle it down to a semi-reasonable list of 100 favorites. A lot of these were released in 2013, and a few even in 2012, but as usual, I was late to the party.
Music videos and some live performances are embedded for most of the Top 30. I didn’t want to go too far beyond that, for fear of crashing your browser. I’ve also created a Spotify playlist that explores a number of these favorites, more or less chronologically in the order that I discovered them.
In Brief: It’s an absolute treat to hear a favorite band revisit their entire discography, leaving almost no stone unturned as they celebrate a milestone anniversary. These mostly acoustic remakes of fan favorite songs are a delightful walk down memory lane, and hopefully they will demonstrate the diversity of the Jars catalogue to new listeners, as well as old fans who never really kept up with them past the first few albums.