My Favorite Music of 2014

It was a very good, if not great, year for music. My 2014 list is as varied as any in recent years, moving from the neo-soul of Lake Street Dive to the confessional new folk of Mary Gauthier to the epic rock of The War on Drugs.

Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits

Rachael Price is a force of nature, but while her voice grabs you by the collar, the band’s inventive arrangements and strong melodies keep you coming back for more. The breakout disc of the year.

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

I was late coming to this one, but it’s the best rock record of the year, a disc that at times reflects influences as diverse as Springsteen, Pink Floyd and Arcade Fire. One that’s been in the car player for a very long time.

Mary Gauthier – Trouble & Love.

This is as tough a listen as you will find, a searing, anguished chronicle of love ending and eventually the painful path back to feeling worthy, as she sings in the song. “I know this– a fundamental change in character, transformation, can happen after annihilation of life as we knew it,” Gauthier wrote about the song, “Worthy,” one of the album’s many highlights. “On the other side of wretched: Worthy.”

Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds of Country Music.

Simpson’s voice, as deep as an ocean trench, and the traditional sound have this being compared to Outlaw Country. But Willie and Waylon never wrote a song as existential as “Turtles All the Way Down.” Google the phrase to get a sense of Simpson’s depth.

Lucinda Williams – Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.

A return to form for one of America’s best and most enduring songwriters. One good cut after another.

Beck – Morning Phase.

This was one of the soundtracks of my summer. I caught a bit of him at Firefly and the musical chameleon rarely disappoints. An enchanting album.

Hurray for the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes.

Another summer favorite that moves from folk to rock to the sound of New Orleans. On “The Body Electric” the super songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra takes a shot at the murder ballad, too long an unquestioned country staple.

Dawn Landes – Bluebird.

This subtle, beautiful folk disc took a few listens to stick, but then it stayed for a long time. Landes is a charming singer and a fine, honest writer. Pal Norah Jones lends a hand on “Love Song.”

John Fullbright – Songs.

I was lucky to discover Grammy nominee John Fullbright when he was an add-on to a show with Sam Baker and Kevin Welch at my house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts. He’s one of the finest young songwriters today, a soulful vocalist and a deep writer.

The New Basement Tapes – Lost in the River.

T-Bone Burnett takes some old Dylan lyrics and assembles a bunch of great musicians including Elvis Costello, Jim James, and Marcus Mumford for a brilliant album. The revelation here is Rhiannon Giddens, late of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who has a solo disc coming in February. Look for it.

Chris Smither — Down on the Levee.

This two-disc set celebrating 50 years in the business establishes Smither as a songwriting treasure. His lyrics are witty, funny, and philosophical. Sit back and listen.

Parker Millsap – Parker Millsap.

Another young songwriter from Oklahoma, Millsap is a comer. Great songs, great vibe, great voice.

Sons of Bill – Love and Logic.

A fine Americana effort, in the best sense of the genre, by the guys from Charlottesville. Smart lyrics, good rockin’, and captivating vocals.

Lake Street Dive Motorboats into Norfolk

LSD The usual pleasantries open the interview with Lake Street Dive’s singer extraordinaire, a mention of a shared acquaintance and a nod to the band’s previous appearances in town, the first before a tiny crowd at Ghent’s Taphouse in 2011.

“Oh, I recall,” Rachael Price says. “That was a very memorable show.”

I push the comment aside, deciding to return to it at the end of the interview.

It’s been a memorable year since Lake Street Dive played Norfolk in the 80/20 Burger Bar last June.

“I’ve been in the band for ten years and it seems like it’s all become reality in the last year or so,” Price says. “It’s been exciting.”

That reality, that hard-won reality after a decade of playing before dozens, means the band, thanks to some sensational Youtube videos and one of the best albums of the year, “Bad Self Portraits,” has played to 30 consecutive sellouts in mid-sized venues.

On July 22, they will headline The NorVa.

They’ve been on Colbert, Letterman, and Ellen. At the Coen brothers “Inside Llewyn Davis” concert in New York, they were the unknowns who wowed the crowd and fellow performers, including Elvis Costello.

It all started with a 2012 tweet from Kevin Bacon gushing “this is amazing. Gives me chills!” Chills watching the band’s sultry, jazzy cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Want You Back” recorded with one microphone on a Boston sidewalk to promote their EP of covers. It quickly became a Youtube sensation with nearly two million views.

“We”ve been making Youtube videos like that one for years,” Price explains, adding that they have been a gateway to the group’s original tunes. “It’s a great tool and always brought us exposure and success, helping people find our music. It’s always been good to us. But never that good.”

They recorded a version of George Michael’s “Faith” in a kitchen. They did “”Dedicated to the One I Love” in a living room. And ABBA’s “Take a Chance” recorded in black and white in the corner of a room.

The timing for “I Want You Back’s” breakthrough proved perfect. With an album ready for release and three others in circulation, the band had an appealing catalog. “It was good because if that had happened ten years ago, they (viewers) wouldn’t have had all this original music to find. We’ve been a band so long there was a depth of material to discover.”

The Llewyn Davis concert was another instance of right time, right place, right kind of friends. One of their buddies from the Punch Brothers worked with T Bone Burnett, who was assembling the lineup, and played him their music. Next thing they knew they were in a concert with Marcus Mumford, Joan Baez, Gillian Welch and Dvid Rawlings, Justin Timberlake, Jack White, Elvis Costello and Patti Smith. “No one knew who we were,” Price says. “We felt out of our league.”

Soon enough, they knew, and bookers from shows like Letterman started calling.

While their live performances have been memorable for years, the new album, which debuted in Billboard’s Top 20, showcases a more muscular, accessible pop sound. Oh, don’t think that kind of pop. Lake Street Dive brings all the best of pop and jazz to the bar, everything from Ella and Billie to girl groups to the Beatles (all the members are fans) to Motown, swing, and rock and roll. They defy genre labeling. Drummer Mike Calabrese has a good a description as any. “We’re ear-worm-dance music,” he says.

“You Go Down Smooth” with Price’s stunning vocal theatrics — there is no voice in popular music as powerful, soulful, or supple as hers — made a splash at the Llewyn Davis concert. But “Bad Self Protraits” has one stunningly framed tune after another from the mid-temp title track opener through the girl-group harmonies of “Stop Your Crying” on to the sly bass line of “Use Me Up” and the slow burn of “Just Ask.”

Price’s vocals are stunning, but so is the playing by Kearney on bass and piano, Mike “McDuck” Olson on guitar and trumpet, and Calabrese on drums. The songs are witty, fun, and, yes, catchy enough to drive you to dance. Everyone, she says, writes songs separately, then brings them to the band for consideration.

“We wanted it to be a big-sounding album,” Price says. “We wanted to create sounds we could not necessarily do live, but we also wanted to do it with just the four of us. How many different sounds could we create with guitar? What could we do with background vocals? Things like that. “

Price says the bigger sound has her reworking her singing. “The shows have gotten more energetic. The band is rocking out more so I’ve sort of had to reapproach singing,” she says. “It’s really exciting for me. I feel like it’s an evolution that excites me.”

The album was recorded, then in limbo as Price dealt with a delicate contract situation. Price has been a jazz fan since she was five, enjoying Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and the big band sounds of Judy garland and Doris Day. When she met the others as a freshman in Boston, she was already appearing around town as a vocalist.

She’d been signed and released music on a jazz label funded by her father and a partner. And the partner wanted to be bought out of the contract to recoup his investment after she decided to abandon jazz and concentrate solely on Lake Street Dive. So the disc was delayed while that settlement was negotiated.

The waiting was the hardest part. “We were pumped about the album,” Price says. “We all feel like it’s our best recorded project to date. We were super ready to get it out to people.”

In all, they sat on the album for about a year, but Price again says the timing worked in their favor. The disc came out after “I Want You Back” went viral and after the Llewyn Davis concert. “It was a complete blessing because the band’s popularity was in a completely different place after that year,” she adds. “It has done much better than it would have done.”

The band, named after a street in Olson’s hometown of Minneapolis known for its dive bars, is touring in a van these days, but Price expects to upgrade to a bus for the next leg. In the early days, she said, they traveled in her Subaru.
“When we formed ten years ago, everybody wanted to be part of a band, not a band that had one leader, a four-piece classic, democratic rock band, ” she says. “That’s true today. That’s the most consistent thing about the band. Soundwise, we were awkward. We had no conclusion on what style we were playing. If people heard the recording of the first gig we ever played, I don’t think they would even recognize us.”

So what about that first gig in Norfolk at the Taphouse in May of 2011?

There were maybe 20 people in the audience, Price says, and early in the set a woman in front became more and more excited. Before Price knew what was happening, the woman came on stage, planted her face in Price’s chest and motor-boated her. Then she shouted, “Motorboat, y’all” and jumped off the stage.

“It was an infamous night. I don’t think any of us have ever forgotten it. It fit our mood for every time we’ve subsequently returned to Norfolk. We’ve always loved it for that reason. That night was a doozy.”