Stick around this planet long enough and anything can happen. For instance, this was the year that I agreed with the Country Music Academy of America. The Nashville establishment believes that Platinum, the fifth album released by Miranda Lambert, was the very best of 2014. I do too. Whatever our cultural and political differences may be, this we share. Let us clasp hands over the bloody chasm, as Horace Greeley said just before getting trounced in the Presidential election of 1872.
This puts me and my new allies from Tennessee at odds with RIAA — the trade organization that actually dishes out the precious metal. The Grammy voters did not see fit to nominate Platinum in the Album Of The Year category, deeming it less qualified for high honors than G I R L, a record that Pharrell Williams appears to have made in the shower one morning. Lambert will have to settle for top marks in her ghetto: she won the award for Country Album Of The Year instead. She was a good sport about this, because she always is. Nevertheless, given her accomplishment, a flash of Lone Star resentment might be warranted.
Because I did it for years, I know all about ignoring Miranda Lambert. I missed her first two albums completely, opting to spin the likes of Jens Lekman instead. I am as guilty as the RIAA, and I expect our prejudices are similar ones. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Lambert’s number two, is in retrospect one of the four or five best albums of 2007; allergic as I was to the country channel, I didn’t realize that until much later. In ’09, Miranda Lambert had a couple of crossover pop hits — “White Liar,” which is pretty great, and “The House That Built Me,” which is better. I had her on my Critics Poll for Artist I Don’t Know, But I Know I Should. Sometimes I wake up groggy.
In late 2011 I decided it was time to stop hitting the snooze button. Four The Record isn’t the best introduction to Miranda Lambert — much of the writing on the first half of the album is slack, and her band does not exhibit the same dirt-road party ferocity or imagination as it did on the three prior records. It sometimes felt as if Lambert was getting positioned by her producers as an alt-country or adult-alternative singer, and she is emphatically not either one of those damnable things. She is a pistol toting cowgirl and a fighter who leads with a neatly-directed roundhouse right, and her best, she makes nobody’s idea of brunch music. The moment she opens her mouth and twangs out her threats, boasts, and come-ons, all of this becomes apparent. I ended up loving Four The Record in spite of its uncharacteristically sedate moments, which prompted me to pick up Hell On Heels, the debut by the Pistol Annies, Lambert’s girl group. Then I played the Pistol Annies and the floodgates opened.
Since Hell On Heels, it’s been all Miranda Lambert in our house, with a few other characters thrown in for variety’s sake. I exaggerate, a little. But if you’re denying yourself Miranda Lambert for any reason, you’re missing out on one of those deep and varied catalogs — like that of, say, Jackson Browne or KRS-ONE — where every project is just different enough to be its own separate universe of associations.
And unlike Jackson Browne or KRS-ONE, Lambert is an artist without an obvious flaw. She does everything well. She’s a tremendous singer — the sort of singer who can make a throwaway line about underwear feel as profound as the choruses of her existential love ballads, and who can make an existential love ballad feel as silly as an underwear rhyme. She leads with her personality, but her performances are also pitch-perfect. Her interpretations of other people’s songs always manage to be both feistier and more wounded than the original versions; as good as those interpretations are, the best songs on her albums are always the ones she’s written herself. She’s a no-b.s., cut-to-the-chase lyricist, capable of giving you the gist of gigantic concepts in tight little couplets that look from a distance like doggerel; I’m thinking now of “I hear Jesus he drink wine/I bet we’ll get along just fine,” but there are many other good examples. In concert she is an absolute thunderbolt, leading a band as tight, lean, loud, and ferocious as prime Attractions through a punched-up version of a repertoire that is plenty searing at polite living-room volume. Her occasional modernizing moves are grounded in deep respect for country tradition and the work of the two Johns she reveres — Prine and Fogerty. I admire the consistency of the character she projects: proud of all the country verities and suspicious of fads, a gurl-fren who comes on like a prairie fire but who will actually shoot you, with an actual gun, if you get out of line. She’s probably a Republican, for goodness’ sake, but somehow I can’t hold that against her for very long; just as I always kinda admired Bob Dole, even as I never agreed with him ever, for sticking up for Russell, Kansas, I admire Miranda Lambert for sticking up for small towns where everybody dies (locally) famous. She makes them sound nifty, almost. Hell, her recorded output justifies the existence of Nashville and all its related hokum. Everything she’s cut is worth spinning, and much of it is worth cherishing: a subtly complex debut, a straight-fire sophomore record with nary a wrong step, a third album for the country programmers, a fourth for all you lovers out there, and a couple of Pistol Annies sets that prove she’s a good team player.
Anyway, Platinum is better than any of that stuff. Platinum is Miranda Lambert magnified — every gesture played big enough to reach the cheapest seats — and since she does everything well, the result is like one of those legendary basketball games where the star puts up a zillion shots and they all go in. Bluegrass throwbacks, pure radio music, a little swing, a sublime folk-rock closer that references Shenandoah, some circus b.s. for kicks, Bonnie Raitt soundalikes, the wide panoply of Southern American music. Like Beyonce on her fifth, here is an artist who realizes it is her moment and is determined to squeeze out every bit of quality before the zeitgeist passes her by. This is an album so confident that even the self-satire feels anthemic: she refuses to apologize for her behavior, her language, or her success, and when she says that you can’t step to her backyard swagger, “you” includes all the competition, on and off the country charts. She’s brought back her best accomplices, including her most gonzo producer (Frank Liddell) her favorite writing buddies (Ashley Monroe, Natalie Hemby, Brandy Clark) and a band that can be sweet as a barnyard dance (“Holding On To You”) and turn around and simulate Oklahomageddon (“Little Red Wagon,” “Somethin’ Bad”). So good is the Lambert group that she allows them a Allmans-style victory lap on “Hard Staying Sober,” and it isn’t even a disaster. The musicians can play like this because there is never any question of overshadowing the singer; they’re raucous, but her charisma speaks louder than any amplifier could ever go. All of the collaborations come off swell — in her shadow the Time Jumpers play as wry as Lyle Lovett and his Large Band, the irritating elements of Little Big Town burn off in a haze of pot smoke, Audra Mae gets a million-dollar makeover, and even Carrie Underwood sounds like nobody’s lunch meat. The best song, once again, is Lambert’s own (and maybe even Lambert on her own), staring down her reflection in the bathroom mirror to the sound of high-octane roots rock. “It’s amazing the amount of rejection that I see in my reflection, but I can’t get out of the way,” she sings at her own image. At that moment, the motivation for all of this intensity becomes clear: she’s meeting her regrets and her insecurities with everything she can muster, and fighting as hard as she can. Maybe she’ll lose. She’s aware of that possibility. A few songs later, she concedes that no matter how hard you go at life, the clock remains undefeated. She’s determined to crack wise about it, and she’ll go down swinging.
I wish she wasn’t such a boozehound. Mind you, she’s far more aware of the problems than most Music City guitar slingers allow themselves to be, but if you need something from a can or a bottle on ice at 11:30 on Sunday, you’re a few steps from an intervention. Moreover, I want to get it on the record that I do not believe life was better before e-mail, I’d much prefer to drive an automatic car to one with a manual transmission if I’ve got to drive at all, and given the damage done to Newark by armed idiots, I do not believe that it is now, or ever, time to get a gun. On the other hand, as an anti-authoritarian musician, I sympathize with many of her libertarian principles. I’m glad there’s somebody out there who appreciates the charm of slow-living and the USPS, and who can rhapsodize convincingly about vinyl records and Black & Decker.
“Automatic” came out only a few months after we bought ourselves a new car, and as your basic Yankee armchair-environmentalist clown, I’d wanted a Prius C, if not something engineless that we could foot down a hill, Fred Flintstone-style. Hybrids, I learned, do not accommodate manual transmissions, and Hilary, who shares more than a rural upbringing with Miranda Lambert, was determined to keep it old school. We got a tiny, bright green Chevy Spark — nothing Lee Brice or Dierks Bentley or any of the other Nashville fuel-burners would even call a vehicle, I’m sure. But manual it was, and when Miranda Lambert made shifting gears and “three on a tree” the central metaphor of her lead single, it felt like destiny. If you know Hilary and you know Platinum, you might have already concluded that Platinum is, but exactly, the kind of flaming sword of an album Hilary would make if she’d chosen to apply her talents to pop-country rather than 18th century British literature (not that there aren’t some real parallels between the two.) So it is reasonable to ask whether my pick this year is just another expression of uxoriousness. The answer is yes, a smidgen. Probably. But look at it this way — were it not for Miranda Lambert, Ultraviolence would have topped my list, and you would have had to read one of Those essays. Better mushy than thinkpiecey, I always say. C’mon, Valentine’s Day is right around the corner.
Album of the Year
- 1. Miranda Lambert — Platinum
- 2. Lana Del Rey — Ultraviolence
- 3. The Hotelier — Home, Like Noplace Is There
- 4. J. Cole — 2014 Forest Hills Drive
- 5. Weezer — Everything Will Be Alright In The End
- 6. Jenny Lewis — The Voyager
- 7. Kimbra — The Golden Echo
- 8. Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness — Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness
- 9. Homeboy Sandman — Hallways
- 10. Allo Darlin’ — We Come From The Same Place
- 11. Cymbals Eat Guitars — LOSE
- 12. Taylor Swift — 1989
- 13. Run The Jewels — Run The Jewels 2
- 14. Elbow — The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
- 15. Kate Miller-Heidke — O Vertigo!
- 16. Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties — We Don’t Have Each Other
- 17. Rachel Ries — Ghost Of A Gardener
- 18. The New Pornographers — Brill Bruisers
- 19. Tinashe — Aquarius
- 20. Angaleena Presley — American Middle Class
Best Album Cover AND Album Title
Because you’ve got to take them together. That’s why the Hotelier has written the title in FEMA-big letters on the front siding of the house that dominates the album cover. It was probably inked on the photo with magic marker, but it certainly looks like it was painted there as a warning to passersby: something terrible has happened in this place. Look carefully and you can see the ghosts in the windows.
Best Liner Notes And Packaging
Notable it is that J. Cole’s “Hello” comes at the same point in the 2014 Forest Hills narrative trajectory as Neil Diamond’s “Hello Again” from the soundtrack to The Jazz Singer. Cole/Neil has risen from humble origins to become a star in the entertainment industry, but being a sensitive soul, Cole/Neil misses the girl from way back when and places a lovable-pathetic phone call. Cole/Neil later learns to reconcile his life in the fast lane with traditional values, and everybody goes home happy. Except the girl from way back when, sure, but this is hip-hop/Jewish immigrant schlock. Neil Diamond actually starred in his own filmed-entertainment version of The Jazz Singer; J. Cole is too kind-hearted to make you sit through a stupid movie, so that’s one for the rapper. Besides that, these guys are similar. They’re both corny-inspirational, which works for me, they’re both way better in longform storyteller mode than clever-clever mode, they’re both hooked on sophisticated melody, and they’re firm believers in the expressive power of Beautiful Music. Neil got away with all of this because he made adult contemporary music and adults, tired from their days selling municipal bonds, never listen with any comprehension. Hip-hop is much less forgiving. Soft rock is an industry; soft rap is an insult. Yet many of the most beautiful recordings that have been made over the past three decades have been contained on hip-hop albums, and Cole, who is a beautiful producer as well as an occasionally beautiful rapper, has even applied his aesthetic preferences to the images that decorate his third album. Look at him there!, on top of his childhood home, his feet dangling off the roof, staring soulfully out toward the canopy of trees like the deep thinker he wants to be, and sometimes even manages to be. Here is a clue for those wondering why 2014 is so much better than Cole’s other albums — he slipped free from the shadows of his influences (mostly Kanye and Drake, but Nas too) by sticking to his life story and animating the romantic treehouse dreams of a precocious adolescence. 2014 Forest Hills Drive was a gutsy album to make: there are no features at all, no obvious singles, and the whole thing floats by like a sweet reverie. There’s very little violence or effrontery, and Cole’s theme — that loving your home, your mom, and your girlfriend is more important than making money, and that winning a rap crown is not as rewarding as cooperation between artists — could not be less popular with corn-detecting tastemakers or cynical rock critics. Everybody dismisses this guy. Well, everybody except for the hundreds of thousands who picked up 2014 in stores. He threw the dice and it came up sevens. For that, I can forgive and even enjoy the interminable thank-you track at the end of the record. Like few rappers before him, gratitude is his medium.
Most Welcome Surprise
Holy cannoli, what’s got into Rivers Cuomo? I took “Pork And Beans” as a tacit acknowledgment that Weezer wasn’t going to try anymore — and for years, try they most certainly did not. The Red Album and Raditude were two of the most uninspired rock albums ever helmed by a genuinely talented songwriter, and I think I voted for Cuomo in the Hoary Old Bastard category. Somebody told me that Hurley was a baby step in the right direction, but I didn’t believe it. Hence I was completely blindsided by Everything Will Be Alright In The End, an album that opens with an apology, and includes an irate co-write withe the guy from the Darkness, a patriotic song about the Revolutionary War that sounds like Cheap Trick at Yorktown, an unironic eulogy for a broken-up rock band (possibly Blink-182?), a Patrick Stickles feature on a sincere number about forgiving wayward dads, a three-part album-ending prog-out that seriously reminds me of Phish, guitar solos, drum breaks, heavy-metal falsetto, big dumb fun on subjects that are anything but dumb. I heard better albums in 2014, but nothing floored me or made me shout out loud like this did. Rivers Cuomo sounds motivated and re-energized throughout, and his belief in rock and roll is restored and completely sincere. It was a great year for guitar bands, and this, my guitar-rocking friends, is a shot of pure oxygen.
Oh, how I would like to vote for anybody else but Brooke Fraser in this category. Alas, I cannot. I don’t expect her to write variations on the C.S. Lewis Song for the rest of her life, but I also didn’t expect her to exchange a singular spirituality for the fashionably spooky, portentous generalities I associate with contemporary Scandinavian pop. Hey, it must be what she’s into right now. I can only hope her tastes continue to evolve.
Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To
If Brad Paisley had come out swinging after the brutal reception of Wheelhouse, I wouldn’t have blamed him. Instead, he tackled the problem sideways. Some of Moonshine In The Trunk is explicit bro-country parody — “Four Wheel Park,” for instance, which concerns a girl in skorts, and “(A Bunch Of Lowlifes Living The) High Life,” which tackles litigious hillbillies. But Paisley has too much Southern pride — and too much love for country conventions — to go for the jugular. Instead, the narrator of the title track is a man pretending to be an outlaw for kicks, and so alienated from anything dastardly that the Dukes Of Hazzard is his standard for antisocial rebellion. Just like your typical bro-country dude, in other words. This is satire without malice, and sometimes I’d even call it brilliant. Amidst the margarita numbers, the album also slyly extends Paisley’s political agenda: a complaint about gridlock in ’14 can only be received as a message in support of the President, and “Shattered Glass” could have been commissioned by the Hillary Clinton (or Elizabeth Warren?) campaign. The guitar solos are ridiculous, too, but if you know Brad Paisley, you wouldn’t expect anything different.
Hebrews by Say Anything, This album is ambitious in about fifteen different directions all at once — any one of which would have been a convincing talking point. Say Anything attempted to make a hard rock album with no guitars on it at all; synthesizers and a string section covered the treble range, and his wife and sisters-in-law provided the heavy metal witchcraft. An armada of pop-punk frontpeople contributed guest vocals to the songs, including Brian Sella of the Front Bottoms, though if you can make him out, you’ve got better ears than I do. Chief conceptualist Max Bemis attempted to put his fears about impending fatherhood in the context of his Jewish heritage and the difficulties and contradictions inherent in being a thirty year old punk. This was all heady stuff, and by now we ought to know that in top form, Say Anything has the imagination to pull it off. But Bemis’s melodies weren’t up to his previously established standards, and many of the songs fell flat. This is a good album, but it was the first Say Anything set that I never felt compelled to put on.
Album That Opens Strongest
YG’s My Krazy Life. It gets bogged down midway with a few songs “for the ladies,” and the narrowness of his range of concerns is exposed by the end of the album. (Also, a little bit of DJ Mustard goes a long way.) But in the first fifteen minutes, he achieves all of his objectives. He should have made the EP, and Vince Staples should have made the full-length.
Album That Closes Strongest
Even if you’ve come to like hip-hop or acoustifolk or klezmer better, you’re all rock fans, too. If you didn’t vote for Weezer in this category, you probably didn’t hear “The Futurescope Trilogy.”
Best Songwriting AND Best Production
Ultraviolence. No, I don’t want to have the discussion about whether Lana Del Rey is feminist or antifemininst, and that is because “Lana Del Rey” is not a person. We forget this. That’s a credit to Elizabeth Grant, the songwriter jerking the strings of this puppet-monster. Even the name is a pop culture joke about the shallowness of Hollywood: Lana for Lana Turner, best remembered as an underage-ish pinup girl and one of the first stars to get more attention for offscreen shenanigans than her acting, and Del Rey for Marina and Playa Del Rey, the first two ugly-affluent suburban towns due north of LAX. Elizabeth Grant isn’t from Southern California, or Miami Beach, or even Brooklyn. She’s was raised in upstate New York and schooled in Connecticut, and even kicked around Jersey for awhile. Along the way, she watched a bunch of celebrated movies that glamorize villains and drug dealers and lazy bums with guns, and became interested in the cinema’s strange and unerring power to direct our national daydreams. On the first few Lana Del Rey releases, her attempts to represent this were cartoonish, which undercut their force. With Ultraviolence, she and Dan Auerbach figured it out. I don’t think the album is straight-up social satire (although “Brooklyn Baby” comes close): if it was, it would be just another critique of popular culture instead of the lived-in revelation that it is. Grant may indeed be playing out some Fifty Shades Of Grey fantasies of hers — she may be a reporter best qualified to sing about male brutality because of her own troubled and conflicted desires. But maybe not, and thank goodness, there’s no way to know for sure. Just as the media cycle demands that Kanye West be “Kanye West” all night and day, Grant must be constantly “Lana Del Rey” and never break character — or laugh at the absurdity of her scenarios, even though many of them are roll-on-the-floor funny when looked at from a particular angle. What I love best about Ultraviolence — and there are a million and one things I love about it — is that the listener’s immersion is total. Come in one side and shake hands with Lana Del Rey, leave the other side waving goodbye, and in between, enjoy a maximum experience of Lana Del Reyness that doesn’t let up for a second. It’s drugs and guns and money and Chevy Malibus and girls getting beat up by guys and sexing them and a languorous Bond flick soundtrack with nary an uninteresting measure. This is the entire history of Hollywood b.s. condensed into in forty-five minutes of impeccable pop songcraft, and if Grant was just calling b.s. on all of it she wouldn’t be doing justice to the mystique. So when the artist tells a clueless journalist that feminism doesn’t mean anything to her, well, what do you expect “Lana Del Rey” to say? Grant has spent too long — and made too many mistakes –putting this character together to have it fly apart in the Twitter spin cycle. How soon we forget that LDR was, not so long ago, subject to one of the most vicious cyberbullying attacks any of us have ever witnessed — a public shaming that was a thousand times more misogynist than anything that happens on Ultraviolence. We almost lost one of our most sensitive popular songwriters to the Internet torture chamber. All respect to those dopey Europeans who don’t care about Saturday Night Live and who kept Born To Die alive through wack but enthusiastic remixes of “Summertime Sadness”. If Lana Del Rey can come back from that, there’s hope for all of us. Even Brad Paisley. And up yours, Brian Williams; now you know how it feels.
Okay, friends, pages 2 through 5 — including singles — will be up tomorrow!