Mark Hellenberg
Mark Hellenberg (photo: Robin Barnes)

Mark Hellenberg: My Top Albums Of 2014

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This completes our series of year-end blog posts by WOUB staff, volunteers and contributors. Check out all of this year’s lists at this link.

2014 was another interesting year in music. This entry is the final submission to our annual series and I must say, I truly enjoyed reading my colleagues choices as well as all the other “best of 2014” lists in the trade magazines, blogs and web sites.

I am in a rather unique position as WOUB’s music director of having hundreds of CDs cross my desk (and ears) throughout the year.

I find many of these end-of-year retrospectives to be useful (Thanks to Chris Pyle for turning me on to Real Estate) and at the very least, entertaining (Andrew Lampela: Sorry I’m uncool, but Eyehategod by Eyehategod? P.S. You are as mean as you look).

I think a lot of us are like Barry, Dick and Rob, those geeky and slightly snobby guys at Championship Vinyl in the film High Fidelity, ruminating if they should categorize their record collections alphabetically, chronologically or autobiographically. (FYI: I sort geographically.)

Also, thanks to Liz Pahl and Dawn Jewell for throwing their hats into the ring with all of us middle-aged or older white dudes.

This was a year in which several notable collections and box sets were released by elder statespersons. Joni Mitchell curated a four-disc retrospective. (Check out her candid interview with Renée Montagne on NPR’s Morning Edition.)

Bob Dylan’s complete Basement Tapes, all 138 tracks, were released along with a more affordable two-volume edition, and Wilco, celebrating two decades as a band, released not only a 20-song Greatest Hits CD for the uninitiated but an impressive four-CD collection of studio rarities and live tracks, Alpha Mike Foxtrot, for completists and the more die-hard fans.

In November, Columbia released a boxed set comprised of remastered editions of the first seven Bruce Springsteen albums from 1973-1984 (Asbury Park to Born in the USA). To the cynic, these exercises in marketing, reissuing and repackaging previously recorded material may look like nothing more than a paycheck for artists in their off-years, but these offerings are full of surprises, hidden gems, memorabilia, copious notes and great music.

Here are my 10 favorites from 2014 in no particular order:

Jim Oblon, Sunset (Compass)

I knew of Oblon from his work as a drummer on Paul Simon’s So Beatiful or So What and was further impressed watching his skills on the subsequent Simon DVD Live in New York. Sunset is essentially a classic organ trio outing featuring Oblon, not as a drummer but as a guitarist and vocalist with the great Larry Goldings at the keys and one of my favorite drummers of all time, Jim Keltner. The material is a 10-song collection of reworked and reimagined classics from Leadbelly, Fats Domino and Little Richard, along with several originals. The playing is adventurous and improvisational, recorded in one room, live in the studio. The arrangements are loose, the singing is good and the playing is top notch.

Monica Heldal, Boy From the North (Warner)

This is an impressive North American debut from a 21-year-old Norwegian singer/songwriter who sells out concerts in Europe and who won 2013 Best Pop Artist award in her native country. Although she is Scandinavian, her sound is very much rooted in Celtic, Brit and American folk music with a good measure of country blues. Her admiration of the late Nick Drake is apparent from the title track. The songwriting is strong, as are her guitar chops, the performances are assertive and powerful and the production is perfect.

IFrameLuluc, Passerby (Sub Pop)

Speaking of Nick Drake, I was first introduced to this Australian duo through their performance on Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake, performed by various artists and produced by Drake’s legendary producer, Joe Boyd. Luluc’s contribution to that collection stole the show. Adam Dessner from The National produced this, their debut. This duo (Zoe Randall and Steve Hasset) is so quiet they make Gillian Welch and David Rawlings sound like AC/DC. NPR’s Bob Boilen chose this album as his favorite of 2014.

IFrameThe War on Drugs, Lost in a Dream (Secretly Canadian)

I was somewhat familiar with The War on Drugs’ first two albums and was a bit suspect of the early buzz about this album when it was released in March. It is ubiquitous on these end-of–the-year lists, and for good reason. After repeated listens, I got it. I drank the Kool-Aid. Adam Granduceil has put together a mesmerizing project filled with wave-like songs that build to over the five-minute mark. His ’80s influences are everywhere, from Dire Straits to Tom Petty. A few of the songs chug over grooves reminiscent of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” drum riff or Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.”

Spoon, They Want My Soul (Merge)

What a big surprise (not!): Another stellar album by Spoon. Like Wilco, the Austin-based Spoon has been around for a couple of decades and shows no signs of compromising or letting up on producing great rock and roll. After a four-year hiatus, Spoon has delivered the goods on this their eighth album. As soon as Britt Daniels opens his mouth and drummer Jim Eno smacks his snare drum you know who this band is and what they do. They consistently make terrific music.

IFrameBeck, Morning Phase (Capitol)

Like Neil Young, Beck is one of those artists whose output is pretty darn diverse and unpredictable. Just as some people are fans of the Harvest Neil Young versus, say, the Rust Never Sleeps version, I am a Sea Change Beck fan. Morning Phase is a bit more cheery than Sea Change but the comparisons are abundant from the orchestration and production to the general atmosphere. “Morning,” “Heart Like a Drum,” “Blackbird Chain” and “Blue Moon” may be the best of Beck’s songs to date.

Reigning Sound, Shattered (Merge)

Shattered is Reigning Sound’s fifth album. The band has been around for a while, albeit with various personnel changes, but it has always been songwriter Greg Cartwright’s baby. Cartwright has put together his most accessible and confident project to date, loaded with pop hooks, R&B grooves, punchy arrangements and most importantly, great material.

IFrameThe New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers (Matador)

As Reigning Sound is tunesmith Greg Cartwrights’s vehicle to strut his craftmanship, The New Pornographers is primarily A.C. Newman’s showcase, in league with songwriter Dan Bejar and singer Neko Case. This longtime project (this is the sixth New Pornographers release in 10 years) has always had a unique and recognizable trademark sound distinct from the collaborators’ solo works. This album is fun and breezy compared to Newman’s most recent album, Shut Down the Streets. Brill Bruisers blasts along for 43 minutes through 13 mid-tempo, synth-soaked power-pop masterpieces. Like Spoon, exceptional music is what we have come to expect from these veterans.

IFrameTinariwen, Emmaar (-Anti)

I was introduced to this band’s music about 10 years ago on the Putumayo label’s sampler, Mali. I had never heard anything quite like it before (or since). I played the one Tinariwen track on the CD over and over again until I could get my hands on the full length import. Since then, I have faithfully followed the band through their career. Their previous release, Tassili, a stripped-down acoustic affair, won the Grammy in the World Music category in 2011. Because of the political unrest and social upheaval in their native land, Emmaar was recorded in Joshua Tree in California. The guitar-driven sound is as hypnotic and fluid as ever, but darker and more electric.

IFrameSharon Jones and The Dap Kings, Give the People What They Want (Dap-Tone)

This album was recorded back in 2013 but its release was delayed because of Jones’ bout with cancer. Her treatment and recovery were successful; she released the album and immediately went on tour in support of it. Jones, now 58, laughs at the “retro” label and insists that you can’t be a revivalist if this is the music with which you grew up singing and the only music you’ve always done: funk, soul and no-nonsense R&B. Her vocals here are as strong and sassy as ever, the songs–particularly “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” and “Long Time, Wrong Time”–are as good as anything she’s ever recorded, and The Dap Kings, with their tight signature sound, have to be the best kick-ass horn band in the land.

IFrameOK. I can’t stop. Briefly, here are another 10 (or 11):

St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Half the City (Single Lock): This Alabama-based soul band, featuring frontman Paul Janeway, tore it up at the 2014 Nelsonville Music Festival. Although not groundbreaking, this debut studio recording is a fun and a rewarding listen and a great introduction to one of the best live bands around.

Hurray For the Riff-Raff, Small Town Heroes (ATO): And speaking of the Nelsonville Music Festival, I am thrilled that Alynda Lee Segarra and her outfit are slated to play in 2015. This is honest, authentic contemporary folk music.

Rosanne Cash, The River & The Thread (Blue Note): This is another nice collection of well-written stories, based on Cash’s family and history and steeped in Southern geography. The songs are wonderfully fleshed out by her husband John Leventhal’s guitar and production skills.

First Aid Kit, Stay Gold (Columbia): The Soderberg sisters’ stars have certainly risen since the two teenagers’ cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” racked up a million views on YouTube back in 2008. Now in their early twenties, the two Swedes took Americana music by storm this year with their fourth album and their first on a major label. There is nothing quite like sibling harmony singing.

The Secret Sisters, Put Your Needle Down (Republic): And speaking of sibling harmony, I love nearly every minute of this T Bone Burnett-produced collection of great songs sung by these sisters from Muscle Shoals. This is highly recommended for Everly Brothers fans.

Robert Plant, Lullaby and…the Ceaseless Roar (Nonesuch): Once again, this rock legend refuses to rest on his laurels and continues to amalgamate his influences into new sounds and directions, thanks in no small measure to his killer band, The Sensational Shape Shifters.

Sam Amidon, Lily-O (Nonesuch): Amidon continues to reimagine traditional folk songs in a free and inventive way, this time with a small ensemble showcasing the unique guitar styling of Bill Frisell.

Shovels and Rope, Swimmin’ Time (Dualtone): The husband and wife team of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent “strum, beat, shake, blow and hack” (as they put it) a sundry of different instruments on a fitting follow up to their raucous 2012 coming out, O’ Be Joyful.

IFrameNikki Lane, All or Nothing (Bloodshot): A lot of accolades have been written about Miranda Lambert’s new release, but for my money, Nikki Lane gets the 2014 country-rocker-outlaw-bad-girl crown for All or Nothing, suberbly produced  by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.

IFrameThe Both, The Both (SuperEgo): Two solo artists, Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, perfectly compliment each other with this collaboration that actually sounds like a band and not just two disparate parts coming together. The song “Milwaukee” is a power-pop gem.

The Barr Brothers, Sleeping Operator (Secret City): This Montreal-based band’s sophomore effort is a somewhat mellow mash-up of Americana, delta blues, West African music and features a classically trained harpist.

One more honorable mention…

Ian McLagan & The Bump Band, United States (Yep Roc)

Rock and roll is so much about celebrity, stars and hype that we sometimes forget about the true musicians behind the scenes: the session players and the sidemen who have contributed so much to the music that we have listened to our entire lives. One of those, Ian McLagan, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years back for his work with The Small Faces and The Faces, and who recorded and toured with The Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, James McMurtry and Bonnie Raitt, died earlier this month.

Besides this fine, straight-ahead release from his longtime Austin-based group, The Bump Band, he was also featured this year on Lucinda Williams’ new two-CD release, Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. He was one of the greats and will be missed.

IFrameMark Hellenberg is the music director at WOUB Public Media. He hosts WOUB FM’s Crossing Boundaries weeknights and has co-hosted the program Audiosyncrasies for more than three decades. He often tours nationally on the weekends as a freelance musician and has more than two-dozen recordings to his credit.

In addition to performances and recordings with Eric Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, he has performed live on NPR’s Mountain Stage and All Things Considered. His old-time band, The Ratchet Mountain Rock Farmers, won first place in the traditional band category at the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, W.Va. in 2011. He can also be heard in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary Prohibition.

Hellenberg founded and has been a member of Athens, Ohio, band The Wingnuts since 1986 and performs every Tuesday evening at Tony’s with The Word of Mouth Jazz Band.