Looking back at 2014 and what I listened to, it seems I spent most of the year listening to bands from Iowa. Eight of the Top 20 Albums of 2014 for It’s Time to Play B-Sides are either living in Iowa or have roots here. Some of this is easily explained by the fact that my other music gig is writing reviews for Little Village Magazine, but I had the very good fortune of being a writer during a year with the most Iowa bands putting their best foot forward.
This list sees returns of It’s Time to Play B-Sides regular favorites– Hiss Golden Messenger, Ryan Adams, Pieta Brown and Tom Petty– each turning in what should in retrospect be career-defining releases, in my opinon.
Vinyl continued its march of popularity in 2014– out of this list, only three releases didn’t come out on vinyl. The Jack Lion JAC EP came out on cassette, though (representing the resurgence of that physical media), the Surf Zombies album– though the band has been working towards getting that one put out on vinyl. It’s a… THING! was tracked on tape and would be a natural release on black plastic disc and The Sapwoods album.
Here’s the list– not ranked.
Hiss Golden Messenger – Lateness of Dancers MC Taylor and Scott Hirsh’s post-Court & Spark band Hiss Golden Messenger is back with their sixth or seventh release (depending on how you count self-released titles) and first release on their new label Merge Records. Lateness of Dancers continues the vibe and groove of their last two releases on Paradise of Bachelors but also provides a definitive declaration of purpose. With the association with Merge– a label as big as any independant can be– Taylor and Hirsh are not wasting their opportunity for bigger visibility. It seems like every blog/internet music magazine has declared Lateness of Dancers one of the great albums of 2014, plus the band has been doing some very aggressive promotion landing one of the remaining few musical guest spots on Letterman. 2015 should bring much more widespread touring for Hiss Golden Messenger, which I’m hoping will afford me the opportunity to see the band live.
Jerry David DiCicca – Understanding Land DiCicca is probably better known as the frontman for The Black Swans, which he disassembled after their– pardon the pun– swan song 2012 album Occasion For Song. Under his own name, the solo release for DiCicca continues the very loose country blues vibe he minted in The Black Swans. With some help from some friends including Will Oldham, Kelley Deal and Spooner Oldham DiCicca has made an impressive step away from his old identity as part of The Black Swans. Understanding Land seems to have missed the radar of a lot of places that would normally be championing the kind of quietly beautiful reflective song craft DiCicca has mastered. If you haven’t heard this record, go check it out. I’ll wait here until you get back.
The New Basement Tapes – Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes To be honest, I’m declaring this a favorite before I’ve had a chance to listen to this as much as the other albums on this list. At first, I was kind of put off by the very calculated concept of The New Basement Tapes: “Hey, we found these lyrics that Bob Dylan didn’t think were worth recording back in 1967 and he still doesn’t want to record them so let’s pull a band together!” The results are very good and the fact that these lyrics were written by Dylan almost 50 years ago doesn’t detract. Though, you probably could have put Elvis Costello, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket together in a room without Dylan’s lyrics and would have still resulted in a fantastic album.
The Black Keys – Turn Blue Danger Mouse is paired up with The Black Keys for the third time since 2007’s Attack and Release (if you don’t include Blacroc, the hip hop side project), and we again find the duo recording songs slightly outside of their regular sound. The whole Turn Blue record is solid and really radio-friendly and stands up to repeated listens. At times I’m reminded of the latest Beck record (also produced by Danger Mouse), but more satisfyingly varied than Morning Phase.
The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream While this album has been around awhile, and the brilliant single “Red Eyes” has been all over the place, I didn’t listen to the whole album until this month. The album’s general sound seems to come from the mid-to-late 80’s with it’s synths and either electronic percussion or drums so processed it sounds like it. At times it sounds like outtakes from Lindsey Buckingham’s 80’s albums or the more reaching anthemic sounds of Rod Stewart from the same period. A really enjoyable album.
Stanton Moore – Conversations Stanton Moore is the drummer and one of the founding members of Galactic. This is Moore’s first album as a jazz-bop trio with pianist David Torkanowsky and bassist James Singleton — a style that he has dabbled in live settings but never committed to tape previously. The results are really great and fits in with my regular diet of 50’s and 60’s Blue Note and Prestige sides.
Game Theory – Blaze of Glory (reissue) Normally I wouldn’t include a reissue in this list. But, I’ll make an exception for the reissue campaign that Omnivore is undertaking of the entire Game Theory catalog that is nothing short of a miracle if they can keep it up. Scott Miller, the leader of both Game Theory and The Loud Family passed away unexpectedly in 2013, breaking the hearts of his devoted followers (which includes yours truly). The now-defunct label Alias Records attempted a reissue campaign that underwent some modifications (even re-recorded parts) by Scott Miller who was publicly never satisfied with the original early recordings (of which 1982’s Blaze of Glory is included). Even though I’m a devout fan of anything Scott Miller worked on and consider myself a collector, I did not have Blaze of Glory in its original incarnation (aka the “trash bag” version since the original packaging was a white trashbag with a sticker on it). I had the few manipulated or re-recorded tracks he included in the final Enigma Records compilation Tinkers to Evers to Chance and the Distortion of Glory Alias compilation which also included the two 1983 EP’s Pointed Accounts of People You Know and Distortion. These were also lovingly reissued by Omnivore for Black Friday Record Store Day as colored 10″es. This release of Blaze of Glory comes from the original master tapes, so unless you had the 1982 trash bag version of the album, you’ve never heard this mix before. The remaster sounds really great and sets the bar really high for the rest of the catalog to come. The album represents the very seeds of the future sound of the band. In some ways the album sounds very much a product of its time leaning heavily in the treble space (though this version brings some of the bass back) and incorporating buzzy synths and stuttering rhythms, but also not sounding like anything else at the time. Scott’s trademark turns of phrase and heartache are already established.
The digital download version includes 15 bonus tracks of demos, songs from the pre-GT band Alternative Learning, live tracks and some really early audio experiments from Scott. Having been a member of the Game Theory online community at large since the late 90’s, I’m very aware of the potential mountain of bonus material available for the rest of the releases coming down the line, so this campaign has few peers when it comes to the archives to draw from.
Teledrome – self-titled I stumbled upon the Canadian record label Mammoth Cave quite by accident as I was searching for an original pressing of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s Saavy Show Stoppers LP (“Having an Average Weekend” is the theme music to the 80’s and 90’s sketch comedy show Kids in the Hall) only to find that Mammoth Cave reissued it! Back in March the label sent out a link for a free download of Teledrome’s debut album (EP?) and I was hooked! Brooding android pop drawing from the dawn of synth pop sounding like Gary Numan or Ultravox. I’ve heard it compared to Ariel Pink as well. 10 track, 20 minutes. The vinyl is a 45 RPM 12″ and I’ll probably wear the shit out of it. Amazing record I can listen to over and over again.
Ryan Adams – self titled Lots has been written about the return of Ryan Adams– the short version is he’s addressed his health issues, gotten clean, opened his own recording studio, taken control of the business side of his art and is re-energized to work and has released an album that draws from his stated influences of 80’s rock. The album draws from the big guitar sounds of the 80’s and sounds a lot like an album that could have come out at that time– the lead single “Gimme Something Good” could just as easily have been on a Bryan Adams album (many have pointed out the similarities of the album art to Reckless). The whole album beginning to end is a fantastic listen and stands up to repeated listens and is a compliment to Love is Hell, in my opinion, which was one of the first albums I listened to from him. So far, there has only been one formal single from the record, and XM has been playing it in regular rotation. I could see a couple more singles making it in 2015. In the meantime, Ryan is also doing a limited edition monthly 7″ single release of outtakes and studio noodling that has turned out some really great tracks as well.
Springtime Carnivore – self titled I wrote about this release here. Greta Morgan of Gold Motel is back under her new solo moniker Springtime Carnivore. It’s everything I loved about Gold Motel– the sunny harmonies and melodies coupled with a darker wall-of-sound production. Be sure to catch some of the videos she’s put out in support of the record, too. Here’s the article I wrote for Play B-Sides about it.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye Petty decides to return back to a driving guitar sound and delivers the first #1 album of his career. In some regards this album is a reaction to his previous album Mojo. I really liked Mojo, but I think that his audience was turned off by the meandering bluesy sound of it. In my opinion Hypnotic Eye kind of uses Mojo and the Mudcrutch albums as a stylistic launching point. No one can argue with the incredible success Tom and the Heartbreakers have had over four decades. It’s incredible to think that he’s had hit singles in every decade of his career. I can’t think of any other band that has pulled that off for as long. Which isn’t to say he hasn’t had some albums that were, well, kind of lacking, and many of those were in this last decade. The Last DJ, Highway Companion and Echo were not great records. Though, I would put Hypnotic Eye up there with the amazing and underrated She’s The One Soundtrack and Wildflowers– the previous Rick Rubin produced albums from 1996 and 1994. Incidentally, both of these albums are getting reissues.
Greylag – self-titled Portland-based trio’s debut LP on Dead Oceans. Dead Oceans is the label for Califone these days, so that’s how I found out about Greylag. Their album sounds like a perfect melding of Jeff Buckley and Led Zeppelin III– which, now that I write it might seem redundant considering Jeff Buckley always sounded like he was influenced by Led Zeppelin III to me. Another album I can play on repeat and never tire of. I can’t wait to see what this band does going forward.
As I mentioned above, quite a few of my top list are either Iowa or Iowa-Related bands. I wrote reviews for Little Village for all of these albums, and I’ll include the link to that as well:
TWINS – Tomboys on Parade The sophomore release from TWINS finds the band tightening up what was already an impressive review of power pop influences. The word is out and they’re already touring nationally as ambassadors for the really exciting music scene that Iowa has recently. In my Little Village review of Tomboys on Parade I said the album has “sublimely polished nuggets of pop, washed in harmonies and falsettos, packed in backbeat and propelled by galloping guitars and sparkling arpeggios. The album is a damn fine slice of pop pie, and the vinyl version will spend a lot of time on my turntable.
The Sapwoods – Peaks and Valleys Another Cedar Falls band The Sapwoods steps up their game with their second album. In my LV review I said, “a timeless, straightforward and no-nonsense approach to songwriting. Guitar anthems go unapologetically for the melodic hook, carrying lyrics that focus on day-to-day concerns of the human condition.” The Sapwoods have a classic midwestern rock sound that is less like Cheap Trick and more like Wilco.
Kelly Pardekooper – Milk in Sunshine Kelly is the next generation of the Eastern Iowa Country Blues tradition– he says his influences are Bo Ramsey and Greg Brown and on his latest album Milk In Sunshine he incorporates both– Bo plays on the record and Kelly covers both a Ramsey and a Brown song on the vinyl version of the new album. The CD and digital download of the album includes all of the new songs that are Milk in Sunshine proper but also include a collection of “greatest hits”– songs that have been licensed for television. If you haven’t bought any of Kelly’s albums to date, you owe it to yourself to pick this release up. You can read my review of Milk in Sunshine here.
Pieta Brown – Paradise Outlaw Pieta Brown was invited to record at Justin Vernon’s April Base studio in Eau Claire, WI. The resulting album enhances the atmospheric aspects of her work– an organically beautiful record. Here is my review in Little Village of Paradise Outlaw.
Bedroom Shrine – No Déjà Vu I had the opportunity to hear part of Bedroom Shrine‘s debut album on the American Dust EP, and there isn’t a better way to describe this record than “dusty.” In my review in Little Village, I said, “a window obscuring its songs with a sooty lo-fi patina. At times, the fluttery tape hiss that drags in the middle of the albums’ tracks add to No Déjà Vu’s complex palette of tone and sound.”
Jack Lion – JAC EP Another record I can listen to any time– it’s a great immersive headphones record for me– jazzy trumpet, bass and drums fused with electronics. Kind of like if Miles Davis met up with Four Tet. The band admits that one of its influences is the Norwegian band Jaga Jazzist, with which it shares some similarities. Here is my review for Little Village for the JAC EP.
Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits – 2014 was the year where Lake Street Dive broke onto national awareness starting with an appearance on The Colbert Report and their update on classic R&B. The connection to Iowa is through LSD’s upright bass player Bridget Kearney, but really they are a Boston band. Here is my review of Bad Self Portraits.
Surf Zombies – It’s a… THING! Local guitar legend Brook Hoover released the fourth album from his instrumental surf band Surf Zombies and his 2nd album with members of The Wheelers and The Blendours helping out. As a long-time fan of instrumental and surf rock I look forward to new releases from Surf Zombies! Word on the street is that they’re about ready to release a new album in 2015! Here’s my review of It’s a… THING! for Little Village Magazine.