I’ve since corrected this, but I, just this moment, realized I was titling the blog posts “2014 Best Albums” but that was completely erroneous. What I’m presenting here are not albums at all, but individual songs. There is a place to include “Best Albums” and that may come, but I felt I had to explain this, as, in reality, in my reality, best songs and best albums are rarely commingled. There are exceptions, and one of them is below (spoiler: it’s Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings), but often, a standout track sucks all the energy out of the rest of an album, losing momentum and/or inspiration or “the magic” of the song.
And there is nothing wrong with this. We live in a world where we primarily listen to streaming music, picking and choosing what to play on our portable devices. Or letting Pandora or Spotify, etc. do the picking. Listening to an album from beginning to end has become a quaint, nostalgic activity, like looking at photos in an actual photo album. Even the word “album” connotes feelings of slowness, of lounging. Doesn’t that sound fantastic though? Like something we ought to do? The way I see it, streaming music from Pandora (which I do, so I’m not criticizing the messenger) is like snacking; it’s something you do while busy doing something else. Playing an album is like sitting down to a meal.
Speaking of which, aren’t you a teensy bit hungry, after all those veggies and salad? Craving something more substantial, something you can sink your teeth into? Of course you are.
This course might be my favorite course, though don’t tell the others; I want all my children to believe they are my favorite. Go ahead and accuse me of being stuck in the past, but the funkiest, grooviest songs of 2014 all had a thick aura of the 60’s and 70’s. Motown, Stax. Chess. All five of these songs feel like they could easily have been huge hits of a bygone era. Yet, I refuse to pigeonhole any of them with the retro tag. I will admit, I struggle to connect with the newer, more popular Soul/R&B artists, struggle to find my way in. I try, I give the kids’ music a few listens, but the truth is, I don’t like to have to work to connect to a song, and that is why there is no Hip Hop or modern R&B on this list. I can appreciate Run the Jewels and Young Fathers as innovative and passionate hip hop talents, but I can’t see playing either of their latest albums again. Same goes with Beyonce. And Banks. And FKA Twigs. All so critically acclaimed. Just doesn’t do it for me. Sorry ladies.
1. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings – Stranger To My Happiness
There’s something about baritone sax that is so damn sexy, so damn guttural. Why isn’t it used more often in today’s music? Listen to this song, feel it all, let it wash over you with it’s delicious grooves. Then listen again and pay attention only to the sax. Man is it tasty. I am not the type of person to play one song over and over, literally hit repeat, and then hit it again. But this song? It gets better each time. There are tons of “expressive” vocalists out there, where you can tell they are really feeling what they are singing. But how many seem like they are living each song they sing? Very few. Sharon Jones is the real deal. The genuine article. And the Dap-Kings? Only the best backing band in existence nowadays. The modern-day Funk Brothers or Booker T & The MG’s. And, the entirety of her 2014 album Give the People What they Want is just as good as this song. It’s that rare album that is inspired from beginning to end.
2. Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas – Sorry I Stole Your Man
Listening to this early 60’s-styled tune (which also has baritone sax, btw) makes me happy that someone has finally grabbed the musical baton out from Amy Winehouse’s rigor mortised clutches. Not to speak ill of the dead; I loved Winehouse’s brilliant 2nd album, Back To Black. But to pull off a song like this with such confidence, such joy and reverence makes “Sorry I Stole Your Man” a standout track for 2014. Even the title is very Amy Winehouse. But Amy wouldn’t have her tongue in her cheek when singing it. If only the rest of the Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas album could match this songs swagger…alas, this is why I am listing best songs, not best albums. Sure, you might call this retro, even slight, but we are not here to ponder the enormity of it all, we are here to enjoy a meal, and we will have no brooders at the table.
3, Paolo Nutini – Scream (Funk My Life Up)
I can’t let the girls take over this list here, can I? (Actually I can, but I’m gonna squeeze one in for the boys before going back to the girls.) Luckily 2014 gave us something new from Paolo Nutini, which, based on his previous work, certainly could have made this list, but probably in the singer songwriter or folk category, not the Soul-R&B. Nutini is actually Scottish, not Italian, and he’s in his 20’s not his 40’s or 50’s which, when you hear his Joe Cocker meets Sam Cooke vocal gymnastics, will blow your mind. Nutini is a vocal chameleon, capturing the essence of so many classic Soul voices, from Marvin Gaye to Van Morrison to Curtis Mayfield to Bob Marley. It’s awe-inspiring to listen to. Caustic Love is another album that astounds from beginning to end. I definitely recommend buying this one.
4. La Roux – Uptight Downtown
Bananarama meets Disco. I could have stayed within the classic Soul sounds for the entire course, but I thought mixing it up a bit with some early 80’s-style disco would be a better choice. I remember hearing La Roux for the first time about 5 or 6 years ago and thinking that she really nailed the 21st century disco sound. Here’s a video from her first album. “Upright Downtown” is less electro than her earlier hits, and reminds me a bit of The Gossip, though Elly Jackson (La Roux’s vocalist) doesn’t have the vocal range of Beth Ditto. And the album as a whole doesn’t maintain the awesomeness that is “Uptight Downtown.” I guess I’m just a sucker for anything that brings me back to the 80’s. Well, almost anything.
5. Frazey Ford – September Fields
I only discovered Frazey Ford a few weeks ago while searching out some of my favorite music magazine best of 2014 lists. At first I assumed she was a country music artist. I mean, wouldn’t you? And then I looked her up on my trusted allmusic.com and learned Frazey was a member of the Be Good Tanyas, who I’d seen in concert in the early 2000’s. I’d remembered the Tanyas to be folky, bluesy, with nice vocal harmonies. I liked them, but quickly forgot about them and moved on. And listening to Indian Ocean, Ford’s recent album, I never would have guessed the gentle, soulful, organ-infused songs here were connected to what I’d seen 14 years ago. Even though Frazey has such a unique vocal style. Though now, playing them both back to back, the connection is quite clear. This is a good song to end the meatiest portion of the meal with; it’s got real soul, but it’s got a sense of winding down, of late night grooves. Ford’s latest album, Indian Ocean, might be a choice for best make-out album of 2014.