Come one, come all. It’s year four of “Colin’s Favorite Music of the Year.” Is it fair? Of course not. Is it self-indulgent? You bet. But does it remind me of all the great things that went down musically within the last 12 months in and around the city of Frederick? Yepper. And that, friends, makes my belly warm.
You know the drill by now: We go through every review that ran in 72 Hours this year (even if that means some of the records were officially released last year) and we pick the 10 best songs. We turn a blind eye to full albums because there are only so many albums we can fit into the publication per year. The amount of songs from which to choose is exponentially larger than the amount of albums. The suspense, obviously, is thrilling.
It was hands-down the best year of music in Frederick I’ve seen since moving to the area. We launched something called Frederick Playlist. We stood in front of large crowds and introduced bands. The podcast didn’t die. Yet. I became obsessed with a record or three. I even wandered downtown a bit to make sure you all had the opportunity to call me names, punch me in the mouth or both. And, of course, a commenter left this on a different website after I gave a lukewarm review to Mary J. Blige’s recent album:
“Good Lord I HATE (expletive deleted) critics like you. You bash other people’s happiness to make yourself feel better as if you have the final word on what good or bad music is. I’ve read soooooo many reviews of this CD over the last two weeks and you are literally the only one who had something bad to say.”
So, there’s that.
Buckle in friends. It’s the only time of year I use the first-person narrative in 72 Hours, which means two things: 1. This will be long. And 2. Chances are you’ve probably already stopped reading. So. A happy end-of-2014 to all. And to all a goodnight. Let’s go.
1. Heavy Lights – Mad Minds
Well, it’s the most dynamic local song of the year and it might just be my favorite song I’ve ever heard come out of Frederick. Each time lead singer Ryan Nicholson pulls back the guitar for that pick-up note into the chorus and asserts “Forget the who,” I get chills. Still. After all this time. It’s the highlight on a record absolutely packed with highlights.
Don’t believe me? Check out the sleigh bells that sit behind the second-verse vocal harmonies like a perfectly placed Christmas ornament on your holiday tree. Better yet is drummer Chris Morris’ subtle switch to a more up-tempo feel as the track progresses. There was some really, ****really great music to come out of Frederick this year, but the title track to Heavy Lights’ debut full-length proved to be not only an irresistible shot of rock-pop-angst, but it also proved to be my favorite. Let’s hope a follow-up is already in the works.
2. Karen Jonas – Thinkin’ of You Again
If you missed her set at Cafe Nola in October, you best get out to see her steal your heart in January. From my favorite album of the year comes the most hauntingly heartbroken song of the last 12 months. Its atmosphere is a dimly lit room with little more than brushes on drums, sad acoustic guitar strums and that unfairly honest voice. She called this song “about as real as they come” when we spoke earlier this year and she’s not lying (well, except about the whole Paris part, of course). If music is supposed to swirl around a smorgasbord of complicated emotions in you, “Thinkin’ of You Again” achieves its goal and then some. Sad. Lonely. Desperate. You name all the unsettling feelings love can bring and this song embodies them. Sure, she’s great, but this thing is utterly undeniable.
3. The Hello Strangers – What It Takes to Break A Heart
Boy, this song kicks live. Not that it’s not worthwhile on the Strangers’ excellent 2014 self-titled set. But, man. If you get a chance to see the Sisters Chace live, this thing will be especially memorable. Anyway, it has a hook that refuses to leave your head. It has an attitude that you can instantly fall in love with. And, most important of all, it’s the single most endearing use of the phrase “s—- show” ever put on record. If whiskey, wine and beer is what it takes to break a heart, the way these sisters sing it makes a great case for never wanting to deal with that hangover.
4. Lucas & The Lovelys – Reno
It’s just so cute! Really, though. It is. Tara Jenkins should be the honorary third Moldy Peach, her cute-as-a-button singing voice the sonic equivalent of a Barbie doll’s dead stare. There isn’t much to it — just a series of cymbal ring-outs and acoustic guitar strums — and by the time the groove finally gets a tempo, the song is nearly over. But that’s its charm. Actually, that’s the band’s charm. Lucas might have been smart enough to surround himself with this much loveliness, but it’s hard for him to overshadow the sheer magnetism his fellow players exude. It’s the tiniest song I heard all year. And it’s also one of the best.
5. Chelsea McBee – Gone-A-Rye
Chelsea McBee has some pretty great stuff going on over there in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. “Gone-A-Rye,” off her fantastic “The Whiskey Album,” is loaded with wordplay and metaphors and all those great things that make great people great. Backed by little more than her own banjo, a bass and a mandolin, the singer will steal your heart each time she reaches the word “cup.” And if you don’t trust me, you can just ask the rest of the FNP staff, who heard her perform this song as part of a podcast earlier in the year. Along with Christian Lopez, she’s trekking the country, winning the world’s hearts one shot at a time. “Gone-A-Rye” is the perfect example of how smooth her liquor can go down.
6. Fractal Cat – Lovingkind
Yes, Fractal Cat love themselves some psychedelia. And yes, Miles Gannett sounds oh-so-much like he was born just a couple decades too late to truly capitalize on his Beatle-esque croon. But to say that this, the title track off their most recent tripped-out album, isn’t worth all of your attention and them some … well, it’s kind of like saying Paul McCartney actually did die after a car crash in 1966 and the guy touring the world now is just a hell of an impostor. Driven by a Brit-pop acoustic guitar that eventually spreads out into trip-hop influences by the time the song ends, “Lovingkind” is one of the most pleasant songs you could hope to stumble across. One listen and you’ll feel the bounce of the groove wash over you like an open field of sunflowers. Gannett insists he’s not afraid to love you on this, yet after hearing this opening track, you’ll quickly realize how mutual that feeling is.
7. Jeff Cosgrove, Matthew Shipp, William Parker – Bridges of Tomorrow
It’s darn near 40 minutes! Like, really. Thirty-eight minutes. Fifty-six seconds. Without question the most ambitious track that came out of this area in 2014, this cornerstone of the trio’s three-song record “Alternating Current” is a lesson in patience and a master class in imagination. I called it breathtaking back in July, and five months later, this thing still manages to spin my cranium into shapes I never even knew existed. Shipp and Parker and heavyweights in the free jazz/improvisation world and Cosgrove complements them fantastically with his willingness to go just about anywhere his fellow conversationalists decide to take him. You can find loads of more accessible music that was released in 2014, but darn-it if you’ll find a more engrossing piece of work. I mean, my God. Again: It’s nearly 40 minutes!
8. The Get Right Band – Get Right
Each year, there’s a pop-reggae song that sneaks its way onto this list and each year, that pop-reggae song gets better and better. In 2014, The Get Right Band’s “Get Right” is the recipient of the spot. It’s the best their “Bass Treble Angel Devil” sounded (by miles) and it proved that The Get Right Band can get really, really good whenever it decides to. You could use the typical comparisons to Sublime or 311 or OAR, but the truth is that this track’s most accurate companion would be most anything found on Hepcat’s criminally forgotten 1998 gem “Right On Time.” One listen to this updated twist on that old formula and you’ll be humming the hook for days. Infectious isn’t even the half of it.
9. Stitch Early – Free
“Look at where they’re going, not where they are/ Because you never know, you might just find a star.” So raps Lorenzo Nichols under his alter ego Stitch Early during the year’s best locally produced hip-hop song (not that there was much competition — there were only two rap records reviewed here in 2014). Combining with a beat heavy on percussive sounds, Nichols’ easy flow accentuates as his ability to craft a memorable hook and never sounds more complete than it does here. Hey, if you’re into gazing at the midnight sky, keep an eye out: There’s a chance you might catch a glimpse of Stitch Early shooting through the atmosphere.
10. Drop Electric – Carl Pagan
If there was one rating I could take back all year, it would be the value I put on Drop Electric’s “Waking Up to the Fire” — that thing is far better than the 2 1/2 stars I gave it. So, boooooo to me. Anyway, “Carl Pagan” is great, its moody groove shuffling the track along as Kristina Reznikov’s croon sets dim light to the darkest warehouse imaginable. Combine that with some slightly fuzzed-out bass and a healthy dose of sonic theatrics and what you have is as eerie a song as you’ll comes across all year. Put this record in. Click over to track seven. Turn the stereo’s volume to 11. Plug in some headphones. And lose yourself in this undeniably ambient beauty.
1. Ambrose Akinmusire – The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint
With 2011’s Blue Note debut, “When the Heart Emerges Glistening,” Akinmusire announced himself as a trumpet player worthy of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition trophy he earned in 2007. With 2014’s “The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint,” he cemented his place among the very best jazz minds the modern day has and, more importantly, he put an entire genre’s audience at ease, promising that the future of the medium is in good hands.
“As We Fight (Willie Penrose)” is as mind-blowingly complex a track as you’ll hear all year despite its ability to both create and then hone in on an irresistible hook. “Rollcall for Those Absent” felt more and more poignant as the year unfolded, with the racial unrest that bubbled in Ferguson, Staten Island and everywhere else in between. And “Our Basement (Ed)” … well, I knew back in March that there wouldn’t be another song I’d hear all year that might eclipse it (more on that in a minute).
I drove down to College Park a few months ago to watch the first of two getaway concerts he offered at the University of Maryland. It was the most mesmerizing hour of musical performance 2014 gave me, if not my entire adult life. Remember: The best, most important artists always figure out ways to constantly expand the parameters of tradition. “The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint” took jazz music and turned it on its head, single-handedly making the argument for how alive the genre is in the modern day. It’s transcendent to the core.
2. Catherine Ireton – Pieces of Me
It’s only five songs. And you’ll be in and out far before the 20-minute mark. But if you have an extra five bucks to spare, open up your iTunes store, search the name and settle in for the most delightfully tiny collection of music you’ll hear in a long time. I fell in love with her back in 2010 when I got my hands on the soundtrack to Stuart Murdoch’s pet project “God Help the Girl” (which finally got to theaters in 2014). When a friend told me she threw a few songs out into the world earlier this year, I immediately pressed the download button.
And I’m glad I did. The thing is a tour de force through what makes that twee-pop voice of hers so addicting. If you haven’t felt what Ireton illustrates in “Goodnight” at some point in your life, you’ve never lived, and “Pieces of You” features everything that made her first impression so unforgettable: A contradiction of voice and word that is entirely indicative of her brilliant appeal. She’s got about a thousand other artsy things going on these days, but here’s hoping she’ll return to music sooner rather than later. More importantly, here’s hoping more people will start listening.
3. Jason Moran – All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller
If you were there with me in 2012 when Moran and Meshell Ndegeocello brought their Fats Waller dance party to the Kennedy Center, you already know what I’m talking about. Sure, some of it might float into smooth jazz, but the things to value here are many. The clash of old and new during their take on “Two Sleepy People” is a fascinating listen and old Waller favorites like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “The Joint Is Jumpin’” get a kick in the butt with mildly Latin grooves and a whole cigar’s worth of imagination. Sometimes you have to look back to move forward and Moran has made a career at doing that better than most of his peers. “All Rise” is as invigorating a listen as 2014 provided.
4. Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
He keeps putting out phenomenal work, now into his 80s … but are you still listening? You should be. The follow-up to 2012’s fantastic “Old Ideas,” “Popular Problems” is every bit as hauntingly dour as its predecessor proved to be. “Did I Ever Love You” suddenly turns into Leonard Cohen Meets Mumford & Sons (yet it somehow works) while opener “Slow” addresses any doubt age may bring with as much vigor and intellect as the most self-aware octogenarian in the universe could possibly offer. “I always liked it slow/ I never liked it fast/ With you it’s got to go/ With me it’s got to last,” he asserts on it. Make it last, sir. Please, please make it last.
5. Bleachers – Strange Desire
So, who knew fun.’s Jack Antonoff could sing? Well, he can’t, really, but in Bleachers, his speaking-tone vocals work and boy do they work well. “Rollercoaster” is Springsteen by way of The Smiths. Lead single “I Wanna Get Better” slips into your head and stays there far longer than a mere Some Nights. “Shadow” kind of feels like a song James Murphy would write if LCD Soundsystem ever sold out. And “I’m Ready To Move On” has Yoko Ono on it. So … yeah. “Strange Desire” doesn’t work because the expectations were low; it works because it’s that good. Too many people discarded it as a sugar-filled vanity project from the guy who dates Lena Dunham. That’s not fair. Spin this record once and you’ll hear why.
6. Paolo Nutini – Caustic Love
Sam Smith had the “foreign white-boy soul singer” schtick on lock, but if you try and tell me that “In the Lonely Hour” is better than Nutini’s “Caustic Love” … well, you might as well stop reading now. The Scottish singer is more gritty. More hungry. More soulful. More believable. More … good. Nobody is sitting still during “Scream (Funk My Life Up),” and I dare you to find me a more longing male R&B performance in 2014 than “Better Man.” Nutini has been around for nearly 10 years now and never before has he sounded so grown up, so fully-realized. Smith may have received the accolades in 2014. This guy has the authenticity.
7. St. Paul & The Broken Bones – Half The City
It took me longer than it should have to come around to this seven-piece shot of Southern soul, straight out of Birmingham, Alabama, but thank God I got there. Ben Tanner, who tours with Alabama Shakes, produced it, and … of course Ben Tanner, who tours with Alabama Shakes, produced it. Paul Janeway is the male, white version of Brittany Howard, and you don’t have to look much further than “I’m Torn Up” to realize that. It’s a little more rock than it is rhythm, but that doesn’t mean it can’t grab hold of your ear drums as hard it does your soul. Janeway embodies the sound of pain. From front to back, “Half the City” is proof.
8. Counting Crows – Somewhere Under Wonderland
I believed lead singer Adam Duritz when he told me over the phone last year that his bandmates were certain the lyrics he was writing for their next record at the time were the best of his career. But it wasn’t until I received a copy of this record in the mail that I understood precisely how much of a new level Counting Crows were on. “Palisades Park” can only be described as epic, its time-signature shifts accenting each of its almost-nine-minutes. “Earthquake Driver” is like The Band and The Faces forming a Wallflowers tribute group. And “Cover Up the Sun” has my favorite Adam Duritz line ever. Roll your eyes all you want at Counting Crows making a year-end list in 2014, but that’s on you and your own snobbery. Those guys were right: Duritz hasn’t sounded this interesting in years.
9. David Gray – Mutineers
I consider this the singer’s proper follow-up to his massive 1998 set “White Ladder.” The secret ingredient? Lamb’s Andy Barlow, who helped produce the record and even co-wrote a few songs. He brought a specific electronic texture that hasn’t sounded this fresh on a David Gray record since his aforementioned breakthrough. “Back In the World” is as anthemic as the singer has ever been while “Snow In Vegas” is charming as hell. Counting Crows and David Gray back to back? What year is this? Don’t answer that.
10. Max Collins – Honey From the Icebox
I’m not even going to try and give you a good reason for this being here, other than the fact that I want you to know the lead singer of Eve 6 put out a record in 2014. Even so, this is thing is really, really good, and it’s not entirely what you might expect from the guy who made “heart in a blender” as famous as Fred Durst once did. “Sports Bar” is as subliminally smart as “On the Roof Again” was, yet far more matured and far more acoustic. Add some train-beat drums and it’s like a ‘90s alternative rock band tried to make a country single. And you can’t ignore how adorable “This Lonely Life” really is. Even now, it’s one of the year’s best unheard guy-girl duets. Because it was produced with members of Fountains of Wayne, I had high hopes for the traction it might gain for the guy, but no such luck so far. Everything on “Honey From the Icebox” is “Here’s to the Night” meeting its indie rock cousin. And who wouldn’t want to hear that?
1. Ambrose Akinmusire Featuring Becca Stevens – Our Basement (Ed)
You know what? I said this before, so I’ll say it again: You will not find a song in 2014 with a more palpable atmosphere. You just won’t. It’s impossible. The percussive heart that beats like an organ either ready to die or come alive. The movie-soundtrack strings that splice through the chorus with aggression and suggestion. The middle section during which Akinmusire responds to his lyrical counterpart with his stunning trumpet. Addicting is too light a word. Especially when you consider Becca Stevens’ top-shelf vocal performance. “I imagine you/ Doing simple things/ Like humming/ One part of a song that you like,” she sings to begin the hook, and you’re equally creeped out and turned on. Better yet is how breathy her delivery continues to be from verse to chorus, an ambiguous facilitator for the obsessively conflicted emotions the song embodies. Turn this on, close your eyes, and feel the sounds paralyze your soul. “Our Basement” is the quintessential case of music as therapy, and it’s irresistible.
2. Catherine Ireton – Goodnight
“I’m not asking you/ To come out tonight/ Because I wouldn’t tell you/ What’s on my mind,” Catherine Ireton explains over nothing more than a sparse piano before eventually adding this touch of genius: “If you get drunk tonight/ And go act the fool/ And if I’m drunk tonight/ I’m just drinking of you.” Yeah. She said it. The thing is so heartbroken that you simply can’t imagine her naming the EP anything other than “Pieces of Me.” That fantastical voice of hers works best when its vulnerable and “Goodnight” drips with exposure. We all understand that wounds like these rarely heal, but rarely do they sound as last-call as Ireton makes them sound here. I’ll have what she’s having.
3. Taylor Swift – Out Of the Woods
“Shake It Off” was the kiss-off lead single. And “Blank Space” was the hit that cemented “1989” as a success. But “Out Of the Woods” is going to end up being the great lost track from Taylor Swift’s first full-on pop record. It’s a shame, too, because this is not only the sugar-filled hook of the year, but for my money, it’s the best chorus Tay-Tay has ever been involved with. Sure, she can thank Jack Antonoff for that, but there’s only one female starlet in the universe who can pull off the urgency in her vocals that becomes more palpable throughout each racing measure of the song’s bridge. Phil Collins would be proud.
4. Somi – Last Song
My vote for prettiest song of the year goes to this Rwandan-by-way-of-Illinois’s delicate meditation on what essentially amounts to romantic existentialism. Better yet is the track’s second movement that kicks the music into up-tempo world grooves and serves as a smart contrast to the piano-laden opening two minutes. Some call it jazz. Others call it neo-soul. No matter what genre you put it in, there’s no denying the African rhythms on top of which Somi’s voice fits so perfectly. One listen and you’ll be stopped in your tracks. It embodies beauty on every level imaginable.
5. Meghan Trainor – All About That Bass
Isn’t it just so refreshing to hear a great pop song? Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” came out of nowhere with its vaguely doo-wop structure, subliminally Caribbean undertones and a healthy dose of positive reassurance, making it the 2014 step-sister of “Call Me Maybe.” Youthful whimsy? Check. Intelligent commentary masked by sugar-filled innocence? Check. Cheeky metaphors? Check. Utterly unavoidable? Double check. In a world where the female end of the mainstream pop spectrum is bogged down by broken hearts and blank spaces, Trainor is far more than a mere breath of fresh air; she’s nearly a revelation. No television show background. No tabloid-worthy escapades. No celebrity dating games. Just a pocketful of song-writing credits and the ability to write an undeniable hook. If nothing else, “All About That Bass” is sonic proof that simple pop will forever find ways to shine through any popular culture trend, any changing business landscape, and any type of apathy that forces snobs to turn their nose to such blatantly fun music.
6. Bleachers – I Wanna Get Better
It’s hard for me to remember how great this song was because I played it out. Like, a lot. Like, a real, real lot. Still, I can’t help but constantly be reminded: This was the song off “Strange Desire” that brought me to the party, even if it was “Rollercoaster” or “Shadow” that kept me there. A simple piano line underneath a bombastic drum beat that pounds through the speakers as though Jack Antonoff’s army boots were the force behind it … well, that’s only the beginning. Because from there, you have a throwback bridge that sneaks up more and more with each spin, a set of gang vocals that serves as the most polite call to action pop music heard in 2014, and a rip-roarin’ guitar solo that reminds everyone this is also the guy behind that powerful noodling heard on “Carry On.” It was Antonoff’s year on a lot of levels, but it all began, in earnest, with “I Wanna Get Better.”
7. Bruno Mars & Mark Ronson – Uptown Funk
Oh, come on now. Anchored by an absolutely killer “Saturday Night Live” performance, “Uptown Funk” is the song I’ve been waiting for Bruno Mars to write since I first heard “Grenade” (and yes, I refuse to acknowledge any type of involvement Mark Ronson might have had in any of this). The horns are straight from the 1970s and the School of Earth, Wind & Fire. The vocals recall Prince’s “Musicology” in the most endearing ways possible. The guitar has more funk on it than a pile of 5-year-old uncleaned laundry. And that groove is skin-tight. I’ve waffled back and forth when it comes to my opinion on Mars for the duration of his career, but this? This is the best he’s ever been and it’s not close.
8. Counting Crows – Cover Up the Sun
And the winner for Best Adam Duritz Line Ever goes to this: “You can’t keep your s—- together when God is on your side/ What chance do you have when he’s not around?” Lay that on top of the bluegrass-iest the Crows have sounded on a studio album, and what you have a recipe for a song that deserves its place among the year’s best. It’s far more late-night Appalachian party than it is an evening full of Hangin’ Around, yet the singer’s signature sadness is what makes this one of the band’s most memorable tunes. If you have to pick one off “Somewhere Under Wonderland,” this is where you start.
9. Jesse Winchester – Every Day I Get the Blues
The world lost one of the most tender, hauntingly sad voices in popular music when it lost Jesse Winchester in 2014 (for proof, pull up the “Spectacle” clip where he makes both Neko Case and Elvis Costello cry). This, off his final record, “A Reasonable Amount of Trouble,” isn’t the “Every Day I Get the Blues” that you’re thinking of, though it’s certainly no less heartbroken. Backed by little more than his acoustic guitar and some light percussion, Winchester reminds us why he was such a national treasure for all of us sad-saps roaming our way through life. On a lot of levels, he approached icon status in my eyes — eyes that fill with tears each time this thing comes on.
10. Ingrid Michaelson – Girls Chase Boys
Oh, but the video is so cool for someone who remembers the 1980s! And listen to all of those handclaps! After floating around in the pop ether for about a decade now, Michaelson struck gold with this irresistible ditty about the finer nuances of contemporary dating. I mean, the thing utterly refused to leave your head once it took up even the tiniest tidbit of real estate there. Better yet is the optimistically cynical tone of it all (or the cynically optimistic undercurrent, depending on whom you ask, of course). “Let’s not make it harder than it has to be,” she demanded during the hook, single-handedly proving that sometimes taking your own advice can lead to the best career move one might possibly make.