Every year Rolling Stone magazine publishes a list of their top fifty albums. The list is complied by a group of professional writers whose job it is to listen to music and offer critique. My primary job is to teach philosophy and help form young men into good priests, but I do enjoy listening to music, and since I put 25,000 miles on my car every year, I have a lot of time to listen to a lot of records.
I thoroughly enjoy recommending artists and records, and I take even more joy in receiving recommendations of good music from others, especially young people. As the year comes to a close, I thought that I would make a list of my favorite records from 2014. This list is unique, because it’s compiled of the albums that not only sounded great, but that best helped me reflect on our fallen world and the way in which people try to navigate it, some for the better, others for the worse. You’ll note that the majority of albums listed are from secular artists, simply because they are artists and they are good at their craft. Good music is good music, and beauty is beauty, no matter who creates it.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “The fact is that in order not to be scandalized, one has to have a whole view of things, which not many of us have.” That whole view of things is what’s known as a sacramental imagination, or a Catholic worldview. Chances are, that if you’re reading this piece, you have such an imagination, or that you’re at least working to form one. So I trust that you won’t be scandalized.
TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2014
1. Parker Milsap – Parker Milsap
Back in June I went to see Patty Griffin at Mountain Stage and Parker Milsap was the opening act. I had never heard of him before, yet he stole the show. I don’t even think Milsap is old enough to drink, but with the looks of Leonardo DiCaprio and the stage presence of Elvis, this young man is going places. He sings, plays a mean guitar and writes all his own songs. Milsap was raised in a Pentecostal family, and although he no longer practices his Pentecostal faith, he’s Christ haunted, as Flannery O’Connor would say. I reviewed the entire album earlier this year and I can’t say enough good things about it.
2. Madman – Sean Rowe
Madman is a beautiful collection of secular psalms, all written and performed by Sean Rowe, who is one of America’s best kept secrets. Rowe looks like John the Baptist, sounds like an Old Testament prophet, and he plays guitar like John Lee Hooker. Trust me, Sean Rowe is not to be missed. Find my full review of Madman here.
3. Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone – Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams, the daughter of poet Miller Williams, opens her double album with an adaptation of her father’s poem “Compassion,” which sounds like something Pope Francis may have written. She brings the record to a close with the ten-minute “Magnolia,” which is the perfect song for a night drive. The eighteen tracks that fall between these bookends are just as good and will keep you company, as Williams voice offers the comfort of an old friend. (Nota Bene: Williams’s dad was mentored by Flannery O’Connor, and when she was a little girl, Lucinda used to play with O’Connor’s peacocks at Andalusia.)
4. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
The mega talented Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) is weird, in a good way, like David Bowie. Clark studied at Berklee, has collaborated with Sufjan Stevens and David Byrne, and has made a very solid, thought provoking, pop-synth, self-titled record. She shreds on guitar and her vocal arrangements are masterful. “Digital Witness” is perhaps the strongest track, which is commentary on social media and the dehumanizing potential of technology. (For more on St. Vincent, check out her most recent appearance on the Colbert Report – she and Colbert both come from big Catholic families and their exchange is pretty funny.)
5. 1989 – Taylor Swift
Perhaps you’ve seen the SNL commercial parody of Swiftamine – the fast acting medication that cures vertigo brought on by listening to Taylor Swift music. Well there’s truth in parody, and the truth is that 1989 is an excellent pop album. I posted a thorough review of the entire record here, but for now let’s just say that Swift has made a seamless transition from country to pop.
6. Lazaretto – Jack White
Here are some things you may not know about Jack White: He was raised Catholic, he’s the youngest of ten children, his mom was the cardinal’s secretary for the Archdiocese of Detroit, his dad worked maintenance for the Archdiocese, and he wanted to be a priest until he picked up his first guitar. His Catholic roots show on Lazaretto, an Italian word meaning quarantine hospital, derived from Lazarus, the patron of lepers. Jack White is a guitar genius and he plays with the passion of a martyr, but he warns against interpreting this album as autobiographical. He told Rolling Stone that many of the ideas and lyrics on this record came from short stories that he wrote when he was nineteen. (If you buy the actual album, don’t miss White’s thank you list in the liner notes.)
7. Neon Steeple – Crowder
David Crowder describes Neon Steeple as “Folktronica” – a record that mixes folk music with electronica – something that David Crowder has always done very well. For regular Word On Fire readers, this will likely be the favorite record on my list. Ironically Crowder isn’t Catholic, although he has Catholic sensibilities and writes beautifully and credibly about the Paschal Mystery. “My Beloved,” “This I Know,” and “Here’s My Heart” are all great tracks, but “Come As You Are” may be the best. Matt Maher helped him write the song, which is not an original, but a translation of an old Latin hymn. Watch Crowder explain the songwriting process here.
8. Folk Singer – Willie Watson
Willy Watson recently left Old Crow Medicine Show to record his first solo album produced by his good friends David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Watson looks like he walked out of a Mark Twain novel and sounds like Roy Orbison, if Orbison sang folk music. All ten songs on the record are covers, but they way Watson sings and plays, they sound as if he wrote them all himself. If you like the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, then you’ll like Willie Watson.
9. Popular Problems – Leonard Cohen
The only octogenarian to make the list is the consummate gentleman, Leonard Cohen. Lately every album Cohen has released has been a sort of momento mori, and I don’t just mean lyrically, but it’s in his voice as well. Cohen is always serious, even when he’s being funny, and Popular Problems in no exception. I wish more young people would listen to Leonard Cohen, but perhaps one needs to live a while to appreciate him.
10. Hints & Guesses – Alanna-Marie Boudreau
This album surprised the heck out of me. A friend sent it my way and I didn’t expect much of it – and then I played it. I stopped what I was doing and listened to the entire album all at once. Boudreau’s voice is hypnotic, and her lyrics confuse me and delight me all at the same time – they’re deeply personal, yet undeniably universal. Because I can’t categorize this record to save my life, and because I keep coming back to it, Hints & Guesses rounds out my list.
High Hopes – Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen is my favorite musician, but High Hopes let me down. There’s not a lot of new music on the record, and compared to The Rising (2002), Magic (2007), and Wrecking Ball (2012), which were all five-star records, this one disappoints. It’s not a bad record, it’s just that I have come to expect absolute greatness from Mr. Springsteen.
Songs of Innocence – U2
This album didn’t make the cut out of principle. Songs of Innocence wound up in my iTunes library without me ever asking for it or ordering it. It’s a fine album, but since it made its way into my collection without being invited, I started thinking about what other kinds of things might be added to or subtracted from my computer without my consent. And for that reason, U2 made me doubt the innocence of Songs of Innocence.
Late to Love – Sam Rocha
One of the most classic texts of Western Civilization is Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Sam Rocha recorded a concept album presenting the Confessions through soul music. It’s an unexpected project, especially with the jazzy riffs and the Marvin Gaye inspired falsetto, narrating the journey of a doctor of the Church. It would be fun to hear this album played live at some Chicago jazz club and see if the listeners know what was hitting them.