I was hit by a car. I got a book deal (unrelated). I got my first credit card. I visited L.A. and D.C. I became a member of Tigers Unlimited Foundation. I spent more time in my hometown than I have in a decade. I decided that I like tomatoes for the first time in life. 2014, man, it was popping.
I used to wax poetic about my year at the beginning of this annual post, and I’ve slowly done that less as photos can sort of do the talking. Things are good! The leg is fine! I can’t run and it feels weird before it rains, but I’m still kicking (well, not really kicking literally, that isn’t easy anymore either).
I moved my music musings to Weld this year. Here are the ten most read stories that I posted there.
10. Shonna Tucker
9. Sundy Best
8. NEEDTOBREATHE (Bear Rinehart)
7. Better Than Ezra (Kevin Griffin)
5. Cory Branan
4. The Secret Sisters (Laura Rogers)
2. Sam Bush
And now, my top ten records of 2014:
10. Hannah Aldridge – “Razor Wire” – This one came to me late. I discovered Hannah’s music while working on the book, and I’m floored by this first full-length independent effort. Walt’s daughter didn’t grow up on the country music her father was writing, but rather, she grew up on the sounds of a modern Muscle Shoals: Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Civil Wars. On the record, she covers Isbell’s “Try” from his debut “Sirens of the Ditch” with the 400 Unit backing her. There’s a SAW solo on the title track. She surrounds herself with some really talented musicians that are familiar to folks from the Shoals, including Dylan LeBlanc, the son of one of Walt’s writing partners, James. Hannah has quickly carved her place into a bustling scene of new musicians, and I’m very eager to see how her career grows. She has stories to tell, and she writes gorgeous and sometimes brash lyrics.
9. D’Angelo – Black Messiah – This is just easy to listen to, and it dropped out of nowhere. I’m not sure why I had no idea this was coming, but I didn’t. It’s a little weird and it’s sometimes political, but it feels really important, and D’Angelo has this thing that few ever have – the falsetto that creates a sexy R&B record with the guitars that give it rock flair. I don’t want to say it’s Prince, but it’s kind of Prince. I’m eager to have it on vinyl in February.
8. Robert Ellis – The Lights from the Chemical Plant – I spoke to Robert at the end of 2014 before his stop at Alys Stephens Center. What he created here is one of the most bare, sincere and vivid collections of stories in song that I have heard. Maybe ever. He told me it’s part truth and part lies, and I suppose that’s most any record. But songs like “Tour Song” really cut deep. “Tour Song” is an even more depressing version of the story that Jason Isbell was telling last year in “Traveling Alone.” Folks were really hot on Sturgill Simpson this year, (and, SPOILER ALERT, that isn’t in my list) but this is the country record that was better.
7. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence – I don’t have an elaborate explanation for why I loved this record. It sort of earns this spot as the top of a collection of records that I really enjoyed just “putting on” this year. It’s really sexy and it seamlessly blends into the background. How to Dress Well is also really high on this list, but I guess I’m letting Lana do the talking for both of them.
6. Ryan Adams – Because of a 2014 flame, I was reintroduced to Ryan Adams. It’s not that I ever stopped loving Ryan’s music, I just sort of fell out of touch with it. There was a patch where everything just sort of sounded the same to me, as a casual fan. But he was still making great records, as I learned. “Easy Tiger” has gotten heavy rotation from me this year. But the new record – the new record is easily his most accessible since “Gold” and maybe since “Heartbreaker.” There’s plenty on here that’s radio friendly, there’s great songwriting and I really love what he’s been doing this year with the PAX AM 45’s.
5. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream – This record has been out for a long time and I’m not going to say anything about it that every music blog in America hasn’t already. Ok, I’ll try this: it’s a headphones record. There’s a lot happening here. It’s complex. It’s layered. It’s an incredible sonic accomplishment.
4. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 – This collaboration is the best thing happening in hip-hop right now. It was around, and I was a little ambivalent. But when I heard that Zach de la Rocha was guesting on RTJ2, I was on board. I saw them perform at Zydeco this year the day before the new record dropped. Fun show. Fun record.
3. Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires – Dereconstructed – Maybe this is cheating a bit. I’ve developed a friendship with Lee over the last few years and watching him mature into the voice of Birmingham has been a lot of fun. Sure, he lives in Atlanta now, but the stories he tells, the lyrics he writes, the grittiness in his voice and his guitar and his gut all personify Birmingham, which is a really hard thing to do. The Bitter Southerner called this record the most important record to address the duality of the Southern Thing since Southern Rock Opera. So maybe that’s why it’s special to me. Lee Bains addresses my adopted hometown of Birmingham the way that Patterson Hood addressed my actual hometown of Muscle Shoals. And in a city that is still trying to find its musical identity, no one else could have pulled that off.
2. Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour – This record and this man can be a lot of things to a lot of people. “Money on My Mind” and “Latch” are danceable tracks, but that’s not really what has made him a radio mainstay in 2014. His show at Bonnaroo was one of the happiest moments of my year; from far from the stage, a rain began to close in on Manchester. It cooled. But the water never really fell, and the week the record was released, this remarkably large crowd sang verses in unison of some of the most straightforward pop lyrics that I’ve heard in ages. It’s all just beautiful, and I fell for it on first sight.
1. Taylor Swift – 1989 – Why can’t the best record of the year also be the most popular? I’ve never tried to pretend that I’m Pitchfork. “1989” is amazing. Some folks think it trails off at the end, but the more I listen, the more every single track grows on me. My favorite track is still probably “How You Get the Girl.”
Everything doesn’t have to be Radiohead. Music doesn’t have to be deliberately complicated in order to impress your friends. Big, dumb fun is just fine sometimes.
Taylor made a fun record with great lyrics that was recorded beautifully and generated two of the year’s biggest hits and she isn’t finished. Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate – “1989” is great great great great great.
Top Ten Concerts of 2014
10. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit w/ St. Paul & the Broken Bones. The Ryman. 10.25.14. Both of my hometowns represented on stage at the Mother Church of Country Music. The second of three sold out nights for Isbell’s October residency. Jason was great, and it was the second night on the run that I saw him, with Friday being a complete performance of “Southeastern,” but the weight of everything represented in this show is why it makes the list. Place has become important to me and a point of pride, and here, a band that has helped put my hometown back on the map and a band that has become the biggest from the town I live in shared a bill on one of the most important stages in the South. It was a really special night.
9. Nickel Creek w/ The Secret Sisters. Alabama Theatre. 4.16.14. This was ahead of the weekend that I was to walk again. Three months of being laid up, and I had circled the weekend that would begin the next day as my coming out party. I had tickets to the Nickel Creek show at The Ryman, the Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street band show at Bridgestone Arena and I was planning on seeing Miley Cyrus (before she canceled, probably drugs) in between.
But a funny thing happened. Nickel Creek changed their minds and decided to do a “warmup show” before their Ryman run became the beginning of their reunion tour. So now, Birmingham was the first stop. It’s a place they’ve spent a lot of time and made a lot of memories, and it came through in an incredible musical performance. The jokes were recycled in Nashville and the setlist was mostly the same. Seeing it for the first time was much more memorable.
8. The Replacements. Shaky Knees Festival. 5.10.14. Shaky Knees did its Shaky Knees thing again. That is, it poured. It didn’t just rain. It wasn’t a sprinkle. It wasn’t a slight inconvenience. It wasn’t a tad damp. It was torrential. For multiple days, for multiple hours. It was cold, and I was wet to my bones. I think my teeth were wet. But when it poured, I managed to move myself to the front of the stage The Replacements would be on, and this band which I discovered much too late in life, proceeded to rock my face off. All of the hits. And Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day was there to boot. Like it was no big deal. Just hanging out playing guitar.
7. The Killers. Hangout Festival. 5.17.14. Outkast is the sexier thing to say to represent Hangout. I get it. That was a fun show. There were some pretty awful people around us during that set, and I was more than a little annoyed, so maybe that affected me.
The Killers, man. I’ve loved this band from day one. I vividly remember their City Stages performance eons ago, and I more vividly remember always thinking, “I have never heard a band sound better in an outdoor setting. Flawless. Studio quality.”
And my memory had not let me down. It was, again, a hit parade, leaving the crowd wanting absolutely nothing more. Just an incredibly fun night on the beach with one of my best friends in the world and her girlfriend.
6. Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band. Bridgestone Arena. 4.17.14. I saw Bruce twice this year. A week later, I’d go sit on the lawn with Joey and Greg for his amphitheater show in Atlanta. But this one was something else. The lights were turned on in the arena, which I was later told was a sign that Bruce had agreed to take the fine for going over his allotted time. He played for three hours, and he performed “Born in the U.S.A.” for the first time live in around five years. He did an acoustic “Thunder Road” to end it. Tom Morello wailed. I’ve now seen one of my favorite artists three times and this was the best of the three, including the time we saw him play “Born to Run” in its entirety in the same building.
5. Jack White. Bonnaroo. 6.14.14. I was running late because I wanted to see Lauryn Hill and she was running late. It was worth it, because she covered Aretha Franklin, she brought the house down and Jack was late anyway. Greg and Joey had situated themselves in the pit, so I went at this one alone in the back thanks to Ms. Hill. But Jack proceeded to play for over two and half hours. He didn’t care about set times, which is the first time I had seen that with a Bonnaroo headliner.
We were all pretty ecstatic to learn this will be the final Vault package of the year. It was just electric. Jack has two solo albums. And there were legitimately points in the evening that I wasn’t convinced he would stop performing before dawn. Bonnaroo was playing by Jack’s rules that night, not the other way around.
4. Lady Gaga. Philips Arena. 5.6.14. Hoooo man. Greg and I were in the pit. Let’s start there. Greg had on a bright shirt and light colored pants. He looked like a gay dad on Miami Beach. That was fine, because it helped us blend in a little better on that floor. Lots of folks were barely wearing clothes, y’all. And, I mean, Lady Gaga changed on stage once. Just right there. No screen or anything. Just switching out tops for the world to see.
This show is a sight to see. Everyone should. Gaga is an incredible entertainer with some amazing music and this was a blast.
3. Garth Brooks w/ Trisha Yearwood. Philips Arena. 9.19.14. I saw Garth, I guess, around 1995? It was The Chase tour at the BJCC in Birmingham. I was 12 or 13. It was a big, big, big deal.
I saw him again a couple of years ago when he did about a 10 date run in Nashville. He was out of shape. Tired. Kind of going through the motions. He was very entertaining; he always is. But it wasn’t quite the full-on Garth experience.
Garth played about two and a half hours, past midnight as it was the second show he had done that night. I think he did two new songs, the opener and another, which he displayed lyrics for, karaoke-style, on the big screen so that the crowd which had been singing along note-for-note all night didn’t have to stop.
He did some acoustic tunes, including a cover of “Amarillo by Morning.” And man, I had a killer seat. It was a walk down memory lane with a pile of tunes that I never forgot one note of, despite not listening to them in nearly 20 years.
2. Patterson Hood/Mike Cooley/Jason Isbell. Shoals Theater. 6.15.14. Well, this is obvious.
This benefit for Terry Pace was announced and somehow, I managed to snag 4 tickets to the set which sold out in minutes. The Shoals Theater – it may seat 500? It was the day after Drive-By Truckers had played Bonnaroo, and Isbell was out on the road, too, so it wasn’t incredibly rehearsed. Not that it needed to be. What it became was three of the South’s best songwriters in a round swapping turns and swapping stories about the songs they had written for Muscle Shoals’s most important band about the Gothic South. I’m not sure, acoustically, that it really harkened back to the glory days of the three of them being in the same band, but it was really cool to see three musicians that have meant so much to me personally and professionally share a stage again in such an intimate setting.
1. Foo Fighters. The Ryman. 10.31.14. I really don’t know if this can ever be topped. I think I probably said that with Paul McCartney last year, too, but this was out of body. It was religious. It was one of the biggest rock bands in the world in a room that held 2,682 people and Joey and I were on the seventh row. The band came out in KISS makeup and barreled through THREE HOURS. Three hours. The show went until 2 a.m. Zac Brown and Tony Joe White joined them onstage.
[On a side note, Joey and I were walking through the alley before the show and saw some ladies posing with this old guy in a brimmed hat. We couldn’t figure out who he was or why they wanted a photo with him. Joey asked one of the ladies. “That’s a Foo Fighter,” she insisted. “I don’t think that’s a Foo Fighter,” Joey explained. “No, it’s a Foo Fighter,” she insisted. “Welp. Okay,” we looked at each other and winked. It was Tony Joe White, as we found out during the screening of Sonic Highways.]
They did a cover of “Under Pressure,” and they threw in some Petty as well. It was a really incredible night with one of my best friends that I’ll never forget.