2014 Best Songs (part 3, course 2)

Now that you’ve had time to digest your 1st course, it’s time for your next serving(s). Like I’ve already said, 2014 was a great year for all genres of music, and this is especially true in the Country and Americana world.  Some of our landmark artists, like Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash and the Old 97’s released some of their best albums this year. And the younger generation showed us that they can carry on the traditions that their forebearers brought before them. Artists like Nikki Lane, Sturgill Simpson, and Hurray For the Riff Raff.

1. Sturgill Simpson – Life of Sin

I chose the most rocking song on Sturgill Simpson’s fantastic 2nd album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. But I could have chosen any of the 10 classic cuts to use.  But don’t Sturgill's checkmarkstake my word for it.  Look at what allmusic.com thinks of his album. They normally highlight 2 or 3 songs on a four-star album with their “A” mark. But here, they give 7 of the 10 songs “instant classic” status.  I’ve never seen that before.  Not even Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison had this many A marks. And if you are a connoisseur of cover songs, you will appreciate his treatment of one-hit-wonder When In Rome’s new-wave ballad.

2. Lydia Loveless – Verlaine Shot Rimbaud

Another young artist who sounds years beyond her age (23 when her album Somewhere Else was released) is Lydia Loveless. Less steeped in the roots of country music, Lydia forges her own path, or at least expands on the one bushwhacked for her by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.  I listen to this album and it brings me back to the 90’s country sounds of early Neko Case and Tarnation. Her lyrics are whip-smart and from the heart and she’s not above coming across as needy or desperate.  This is best represented in the song “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud,” where she deftly merges the historical with the personal.

3. Rosanne Cash – A Feather’s Not a Bird

Listening to this right after the Lydia Loveless song feels like listening to two generations of the same artist, but at the same time.  Like seeing a talented young woman sing and then seeing an idea of what she might be like in 30 years, and vice versa.  Rosanne Cash clearly has the genetic component on her side, and we’ve had the luxury of following her music for more than 35 years, but she has never rested on her laurels. Each of her 13 albums is like a progression through the years. Each one capturing the experience of her life at the time. And so she never repeats herself. It’s like she is able to capture both the pain, the joy, the sorrow, the heartbreak of a particular experience and at the same time look back upon it from a place of growth and wisdom. At least that’s the vibe I get on her essential 2014 album, The River and the Thread.

4. Willie Nelson – Wives and Girlfriends

You should be savoring your 2nd course right about now, taking in flavors you never tasted before, perhaps finding new layers of taste combinations you hadn’t previously conceived of. The sense of history in all the ingredients that fill your plate. Your palate.

What I love most about roots country music, other than the sheer history behind it, the steady backbeat, the slide guitars and the stand-up bass, is the amazing wordplay. No other musical genre does more with so little, topically (I mean, is there anything other than love, lost-love, drinking, smoking and being on the road in all the best country songs?). One of the best lines I’d heard this year, on the SiriusXM Outlaw Country station, was “She got the ring, I got the finger.” I’d have included that song, but it came out in 2009.

But Willie Nelson is no slouch when it comes to great wordplay, and my favorite on his really strong 2014 release Band of Brothers is “Wives and Girlfriends.” You can hear the history of all his relationships in his weathered, wizened voice.

5. Nikki Lane – I Don’t Care

Another new discovery for me in 2014 was Nikki Lane. She, perhaps more than Lydia Loveless, has had real staying power for me. Perhaps it’s the clean production by Dan Auerbach (of Black Keys), perhaps it’s her Patsy Cline meet Stevie Nicks twang, perhaps it’s the brash, in-your-face lyrical content. Every song on her 2014 release, All or Nothin’ is thick with both history and modernity. Nikki Lane is the hip, tattooed, urban version of Lydia Loveless. She is going to have her screw-ups, but they will be on her terms. She is complex. She can be the bad girl one song and the good girl the next, but mostly she’s the bad girl and the good girl all at once, and if you can’t handle it, it’s your problem. Suck it up.

Speaking of sucking it up, it looks like we have made it through the 2nd course of our meal. Still hungry? Ready for your entree? Ready to shake a tail feather? Well, click to part 4, course 3, right here.

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