This list is not my favorite new releases; instead, it is the best of the albums I listened to for the first time since last year. This list is also in alphabetical order because agonizing over a precise order would take all the fun out of remembering these albums:
Alt-J, This Is All Yours:
Judging from Alt-J’s 2012 debut An Awesome Wave, here are the minimum requirements to earn the “next Radiohead” tag: be a British band that likes guitars and computers. And yet, with few other groups seeking to fill the hungry post-The King of Limbs void, it was enough to convince the Mercury Prize committee and stateside radio programmers. Even though that record’s gawky, akimbo singles recalled Thom Yorke’s “Lotus Flower” dance more than his actual music, it’s been a decade since Yorke and his team had a song that hit the American charts with the impact of “Breezeblocks” and “Tessellate”. If you’re surprised by Alt-J’s rapid ascent, well, they are too; their sophomore effort, This Is All Yours, is the Peter Principle on wax, a record that’s exactly what you’d expect from a band that finds itself at the top after failing upward and has no idea what their next step is. (Pitchfork)
Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems: Cohen’s 13th studio album was released two days after his 80th birthday:
To say that Popular Problems is a great album for a guy his age is to do it a disservice. It is precisely because Leonard Cohen is the age he is that Popular Problems is so good…. Popular Problems is a mature work that could only be created after a lifetime spent in art, at a point when the search for the “holy” and the “beautiful” have been reconciled with human frailty. (Paste)
Bob Dylan, The Basement Tapes Raw: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11: The Bootleg Series, yet again, do not disappoint. I opted for the 2-disc, 38-track, $14 version instead of the 6-disc, 138-track, $83 version:
Compiled from meticulously restored original tapes many found only recently. Among Dylan’s many cultural milestones, the legendary Basement Tapes have long fascinated and enticed successive generations of musicians, fans and cultural critics alike. Dylan’s mercurial rise and prodigious outpouring of work during that the 60s came to an abrupt halt in July 1966 when he was reported to have been in a serious motorcycle accident. Recovering from his injuries and away from the public eye for the first time in years, Dylan ensconced himself in the basement of a small house. The actual recordings remained commercially unavailable until 1975, when Columbia Records released a scant 16 of them on The Basement Tapes album. A critical and popular success, The Basement Tapes went Top 10 in the US and UK. The Basement Tapes Complete brings together, for the first time ever, every salvageable recording from the tapes.
Charles Ives, Concord Sonata:
The sonata’s four movements represent figures associated with Transcendentalism. In the introduction to his Essays Before a Sonata (published immediately before the Concord Sonata) Ives said the work was his “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.” The four movements are: “Emerson” (after Ralph Waldo Emerson) “Hawthorne” (after Nathaniel Hawthorne) “The Alcotts” (after Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott) “Thoreau” (after Henry David Thoreau). (Wikipedia)
Lost on the River, The New Basement Tapes:
The 50th anniversary of Cash’s landmark album, 1964’s “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.” A concept album focusing on the mistreatment and marginalization of the Native American people throughout the history of the U.S. Now, 50 years after it was recorded, a collective of top Americana artists (including Kris Kirstofferson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bill Miller, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Norman Blake) have come together to re-imagine and update these songs that meant so much to Cash, who died in 2003.
A music event 47 years in the making. An historic album project from five of music’s finest artists — Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons) — in unique collaboration with a 26-year-old Bob Dylan. Produced by project creator T Bone Burnett, the album was recorded in March 2014 at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, where the artists and Burnett convened for two weeks to write and create music for a treasure trove of long-lost lyrics handwritten by Bob Dylan in 1967 during the period that generated the recording of the legendary Basement Tapes. The collective completed and recorded dozens of songs, the first 20 of which appear on this deluxe edition.
Spoon, They Want My Soul:
Spoon’s soul is theirs alone. It’s not James Brown’s soul, and though Daniel was raised Christian in conservative small-town Texas, it’s not God’s soul, either. It’s not exactly classic rock, not quite post-punk. Many of their songs are meticulously crafted, but they also breathe and break with crackling spontaneity.
St. Vincent, St. Vincent: “St. Vincent is the musical identity of 31-year-old Annie Clark, who grew up in the youth program of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas. Since releasing her first album in 2007 she has seen extraordinary success” (UU World):
Clark began her music career as a member of The Polyphonic Spree and was also part of Sufjan Stevens’ touring band before forming her own band in 2006. Her debut album was “Marry Me,” and was followed by “Actor” (2009). Her third album “Strange Mercy” was released in 2011. Clark has opened shows for such acts as Television, Arcade Fire, Andrew Bird, Jolie Holland, John Vanderslice, Death Cab for Cutie and Grizzly Bear.
Tweedy, the band, is a collaboration between Jeff Tweedy, best known as the founder of the pioneering Chicago rock band Wilco, and his 18-year-old son and drummer Spencer Tweedy. Sukierae (sue-key-ray), the debut release by the aptly-monikered duo Tweedy. Sukierae features 20 new songs penned by Jeff, performed by Tweedy father and son along with a host of musical guests.
Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone:
There’s something wonderfully contrarian about Lucinda Williams ending one of her multi-year silences with a double album. In 2014, no one is supposed to have time to appreciate three straight songs from one artist, much less an entire album. So here comes Williams, the perceptive and much-lauded songwriter whose early works helped define alt-country and Americana, with a characteristically ornery response: Double down. It’s not hard to imagine her sitting on a grand Southern front porch somewhere far from the cities, sifting through this creative bounty and becoming frustrated by the task of choosing the keepers. “One album is too much? Give ’em two. See how they like that.” (NPR)
The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).
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