Rock ‘n’ roll expert Steve Houk rounds up his 10 favorite albums, and songs, of 2014.
By Steve Houk
2014 was another challenging, often exhausting year for me in many ways. But thankfully, it’s also been an incredibly fulfilling, exciting and miraculous year for me and the other love of my life: music. From the ongoing, life-altering experience of singing lead in an assortment of bands, to intimately interviewing and meeting some of my musical heroes, to sitting in awe at live shows, I have to keep pinching myself to believe some of these moments were real. But the fact is they were.
So as we kick off 2015, I thought I’d share with you my favorite ten albums of 2014 (yes, albums still exist, and in fact, vinyl is hotter than ever) along with my favorite song from each album. There is no rhyme or reason to the order, and I know there are many other great records that came out in 2014, but this is what I personally discovered and found to be incredible music. The intention here is to do what we all do every day, sometimes all day: share great music. And what better way to start off 2015 than to share some great music from 2014, right?
1) U2 – Songs Of Innocence: Yes, I’m a U2 homer, but this is a miraculous and unforgettable collection of amazing U2 songs that got lost in a silly marketing fracas. But all in all, the legendary band released it’s most personal and powerful album in many moons, and it is all amazing. If you’re a fan, you already love it. If you’re not, give it a try; you won’t be sorry, at least with a few tunes. My favorite song among many is this gorgeous ode to new beginnings, “Song For Someone,” beautifully sung by Bono.
2) Phish – Fuego: Their most accessible album yet, the jam band kings take their wonderful, sometimes meandering sonics and fine tune them into a stunningly sublime and coherent record, exquisitely produced by Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin. The key question for them is always, will the songs convey their unparalleled live vibe? Judging by how these songs sounded live this fall, they nailed it. I love a lot of the tunes here, but “Devotion To A Dream” is not only the most fun, danceable Phish/Dead-like tune on the album, but also has some personal intimations for me. So I’ll leave you with that one, but rest assured they hit a home run on the whole record.
3) Puss In Boots – No Fools No Fun: I was lucky enough to interview Sasha Dobson — 1/3 of this fabulously cool trio that’s been playing together for a while and finally released their first album this year — while she was walking her dog in Prospect Park. She and her two pals, superstar Norah Jones and the lesser-known but also very talented Catherine Popper, are all great songwriters. The trio crafted a bunch of very eclectically cool and different songs, along with a couple killer covers, one of which is possibly my favorite on this collection, a beautiful rendering of the Band classic, “Twilight.”
4) Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes: Springsteen could do an album of nursery rhymes and I’d love every second of it, but with his 18th record, he continues to take his one in a trillion sound and unmatchable trademark and put out great music that is fresh yet familiar. There are a bunch of great tunes here, but my favorite could be the haunting “Down In The Hole” co-written by Spingsteen’s new muse, guitar mindbender Tom Morello.
5) Lucinda Williams – Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone: One of America’s most astounding songwriters does it again at the age of 61, and this time we get two albums worth of her incredibly honest, often stark and dark, yet exhilarating music. And after spending 20 minutes one-on-one backstage at the Lincoln Theater in Washington just talking with her about music and everyday life, I get her now more than ever. It was certainly hard to pick a favorite out of all these wonders, but the powerful “Foolishness” wins. Well, at least for this week. The video is great, depicting her and her stupendous studio band at work for the first minute or so; if you want to get right to the song, it’s about 1:10 in.
6) Trigger Hippy – Trigger Hippy: After my interview with the very cool and candid Steve Gorman, former drummer for the Black Crowes, I really hoped this debut record with the superstar band he created post-Crowes would kill it. Well, it does more than that. Every song works, whether it’s Jackie Greene, Joan Osborne or Nick Gorvik on vocals in a rollicking swamp rocker or an agonizing ballad, it’s a freshman home run from a bunch of rock ‘n’ roll seniors honors grads. Again, it’s hard to pick one favorite, as there are some really good hard rockers on here, but “Heartache On The Line,” a beautiful duet from Greene and Osborne about the hardships of an aging love, just gets to me; it’s my life to a tee. The video below was recorded on a mike from vinyl. You can even hear the occasional crackle, which is music to my ears.
7) Imelda May – Tribal: If you don’t know her by now, it’s time. This red-hot, Irish, rockabilly-tinged siren with the blonde swirl in her hair (whom I’ve joyously interviewed a couple times) is on a major roll with a new record, Irish TV show and world tour. And for good reason: her wild and rollicking sound, along with a voice that can blow you away or make you cry, and a personality to boot, is really unique and always fantastic. The title cut of her excellent new record will do for now, so go ahead and get “Tribal.”
8) Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways: I’ve been very slowly, but somewhat surely, getting into the Foos’ thrashy, yet hook-filled, sound since they started up. Heck, even us midlifers do a Foos song in our gigs sometimes. But it wasn’t until seeing Dave Grohl‘s miraculous rockumentary/Foo Fest/HBO series that I’ve become a true Foo believer. Not only does Grohl do a fabulous job of telling great musical stories, but he finishes each episode with a song he wrote during the week he was doing the episode. Pretty amazing. And you know what? All the songs are really good. If I have to pick one, it’s the epic closer from the New York City segment, “I Am A River,” which has become one of my favorite songs from recent years and is sure to be a fantastic song live. As a bonus, Grohl will tell you how he wrote this song if you click here.
9) Neil Young – A Letter Home: Most of what Young does moves my soul, so even an album recorded in Jack White‘s antique and carnival-esque record booth with all it’s flaws and noise grabs you by the heart and stays there. Amidst the crackles and low fidelity, his 34th record is another miracle from the miraculous Young. It’s just his voice and guitar doing covers, but it gets you there once again. I’ll pick this Dylan gem (that, to me, also evokes Zevon), “Girl From The North Country,”with the bonus on the video of seeing him record it. You’re welcome.
10) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye: One of rock’s true greats shows he can still bring it, and bring it really hard. With his Heartbreakers in full splendor, Petty crafted a nearly perfect record that both harkens back to “Damn The Torpedoes,” but also shows he can sound relevant almost 40 years after that classic came out, by just being himself. Once again, there are many killer tunes here, but my favorite since I first heard the record has been, “Red River,” with one of the best choruses I’ve heard in a long time. And any song that begins with these lyrics is gold to me: “She’s got a 3-D Jesus in a picture frame, Got a child that she never named, She shakes a snake above her hair, Talks in tongues when there’s no one there.” Ahhhhhh…..
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.