January 1 through June 31, 2014; just six short months with a staggering number of albums released in the American Roots format. Rightfully, the 2014 release from Girls, Guns and Glory lands in the #1 spot on our list. The band has spent many years fine-tuning their music and re-fining their show. They put Eric ‘Roscoe’ Ambel behind the boards for Good Luck and put one over the Big Green Monster in the bands native Boston, Mass with the recording. The Top 25 gathers music from long-term members in the Roots music club like Rodney Crowell, Mary Gauthier, Candi Staton, Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, Joe Louis Walker, Rosanne Cash, Will Kimbrough, Keb’ Mo’ and Carlene Carter. Like the format, the list is balanced with break-out albums from younger artists such as Hurray for the Riff Raff, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, The Howlin’ Brothers, Seth Walker, Parker Milsap, Mingo Fishtrap, and Brent Johnson. Supergroups (Hard Working Americans) and stage musicals (Hangtown Dancehall) make the list plus albums from Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition, Janiva Magness, and Eden Brent on the Top 50 (so-far) albums in 2014.
1 - Girls, Guns & Glory – Good Luck (1-28-14) - Girls, Guns and Glory have steadily built their music on four solid album releases, each showing a band growing by marking what they were got right to stretch more ‘right’ out with each note. Vocalist Ward Hayden is a smooth crooner who maintains a cool innocence in both his persona and delivery. Guitarist Chris Hersch is no guitar god but he is the guy that those gods secretly watch to knick his riffs. Chris’ guitar, and banjo, work are subtle yet all-consuming.
2 - Hard Working Americans - Hard Working Americans (1-21-14) - Hard Working Americans is Todd Snider, Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, Ryan Adams/Chris Robinson guitarist Neal Casal, Great American Taxi keyboardist Chad Staehly and King Lincoln drummer Duane Trucks (brother of guitarist Derek Trucks and nephew of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks). Hard Working Americans takes on all comers with their smoking version of Hayes Carll’s “Stomp and Holler”, the Salvation Army pound of Randy Newman’s “Mr. President”, and their honest recollection of the Kevn Kinney tune from his band Drivin’ n Cryin’, “Straight to Hell”.
3 -Hurray for the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes (2-11-14) - Alynda Lee Segarra, as Hurray for the Riff Raff, delivers the band’s most recent release, Small Town Heroes. The New Orleans music community gets a high five for creating an environment that allows Alynda’s natural talents to nurture her own musical paths. She uses familiar sounds and presents them as an Indie rock’n’roll stew of folk, blues, Americana music foundations for stories that use sharp edged electric blues to chronicle street life up close (“St. Roch Blues”) and barnstorm the river front (“End of the Line”).
4 - Mary Gauthier – Trouble and Love (6-10-14) - Night and day, leather and lace, big and small; all extremes brought together by on little word…and. The same extremities are reached in love. The meeting and the leaving, tied together with another little word…over. It may seem a linear path that goes from beginning to end yet on her latest album release, Trouble and Love, Mary Gauthier offers a completed circle. The album is a personal record, from first kiss to the closing door. It might seem like a second person accounting as the story of Mary Gauthier the human is related by Mary Gauthier the songwriter, yet the emotions stay raw, the lessons so fresh that an outer edge of red can still faintly catch the light. The questions that storm our heads looking for answers when love exits the building all find themselves in the songs on Trouble and Love.
5 - Joe Louis Walker – Hornet’s Nest (2-25-14) - Hornet’s Nestis his latest release for Alligator Records, following his blast of a debut for the label, Hellfire, and joining the ranks of over twenty career albums. Hornet’s Nest carries Blues wisdom, Soul seduction and Rock assaults throughout its dozen tracks. “Ramblin’ Soul” is a good example of the mix, though do not believe the title of the track. This soul never rambles, it is on a mission and as it exits its time on the album, the boys in the band tear a hole in the known universe with one kickass boogie blues jam.
6 - The Howlin’ Brothers – Trouble (4-13-14) - The Howlin’ Brothers need no intro for the advanced state of bluegrass that the band serves up. Their recent release, Trouble, follows full studio effort Howl and E.P., the Sun Studio Sessions, in a little over twelve months’ time. Trouble opens with the sound of salvation. The Howlin’ Brothers are glory bound, though it is not religion or fear of heaven that fuels “Pour I Down” but a different sort of spirit. The song is the firing gun that opens the gate for thirteen tracks to gallop into Trouble. The album is released on Readymade Records, the imprint of Brendan Benson (solo, The Raconteurs) who handles both production and engineering for The Howlin’ Brothers. Remember when all label heads were completely behind each project.
7- Seth Walker – Sky Still Blue (6-10-14) - Seth Walker is a seeker. Like most musicians, he strives to be better and dig deeper into his music. His songs have that fully formed feel though the borders are never structured. That ease to the playing, the grooves, the interactions of the musicians continues on the recent release, Sky Still Blue. The recording took place at The Wood Brothers’ Nashville-based Southern Ground Studios. Producer Oliver Wood was joined as a musician on Sky Still Blue by fellow Wood Brothers Jano Rix and Chris Wood (also of Medeski, Martin and Wood). Seth’s longtime bandmates fill out the credits with bassist Steve Mackey and drummer Derek Phillips. Sky Still Blue brought Seth Walker back to Nashville, one of the major music meccas that have been as much a part of his music as personal influences and a natural calling.
8. Rodney Crowell - Tarpaper Sky - Tarpaper Skyis a reunion as much as recording experience. The recent release from Rodney Crowell gathers most of the players on hand for Rodney’s break-through 1998 album, Diamonds and Dirt. His first recorded in Nashville, the album is often cited as where Rodney Crowell went country…a defensive term for ‘okay, now we get it’ from reviewers. The release never gives up on the best of the songwriting and performances from the man on the cover; this is Rodney Crowell Country and the music comes with classic arrangements and a Rock’n’Roll heart. That theme follows the musicians back into the studio for the recording of Tarpaper Sky. The players brought their old school training and the tracks were recorded live-to-tape. Ideas were traded and the arrangements of the songs developed as a group effort.
9 - Parker Milsap - Parker Milsap (1-4-14) - Parker Millsap spent his formative years as part of a Pentecostal congregation in his native Oklahoma. He no longer follows a religious life but religion follows Parker in his tales. The church, and its teaching, showed him a people that firmly believed in what they were trying to accomplish. The lesson was to look down a little further into what makes people tick, the motivations that push them to suggest a little too strongly, or condemn too quickly, ways of life that do not fit their own. It is a teaching that allows the characters on Parker Millsap to offer themselves without any edit.
10 - Janiva Magness – Original (6-24-14) - Janiva Magness does a great job of showing the many layers of desire and despair set in motion by a single word or action. You feel the love that has gone as something physical while at the same time you can watch spit drip down that unfortunate face that Janiva is in as she asks the last sentence be repeated ‘a little less bitchy please’ in “Who Am I”. The Blues rolls on dark clouds in “With Love” as organ and guitar notes pelt the tune like big fat rain drops and the beat hits the street in “I Need A Man” as Janiva throws off political pressure for pressures of a more personal nature. Janiva Magness has strength and conviction in her delivery, a big part of the appeal of Original.
11 -Rosanne Cash - The River and The Thread (1-14-14) - “It’s a big wide world with a million shades of modern blue”. Rosanne Cash sings the line, snagging the Modern Blue for the title to her release. Rosanne, and album producer/arranger John Leventhal, wrote songs as memories of a trip through the Southern U.S. Rosanne Cash still gets an excitement in her voice when speaking about the times she “started going to the south a lot. Re-connecting with people I knew, places I had been, but I started seeing it for the first time, in a strange way; the connection to the soil and the Delta and the music. The veils were taken off something that I thought I knew. It was powerfully inspiring.“ Modern Blue lets musical heritage ride shotgun with Rosanne Cash behind the wheel calling out the sites that pass by the car window.
12 -Candi Staton – Life Happnes (5-13-14) - Candi Staton has been a cooking in the soul kitchen for nearly fifty years. Candi was recently featured in the documentary film Muscle Shoals, a must-see movie that lets music tell the history of the city of Muscle Shoals, Fame Recording Studio, and the man that put both on the map, Rick Hall. Personal relations with Candi Staton and Rick Hall date back to the early 1970’s when Rick was in the production chair for Candi’s Grammy nominated hits “Stand By Your Man” and “In the Ghetto”. The tune “I Ain’t Easy to Love” is the lead track from Life Happens, the most recent Candi Staton release, and is featured in Muscle Shoals (the movie). The cut features album guests Jason Isbell and John Paul White (The Civil Wars) on background vocals. The Southern Soul of the song and Candi’s delivery set the bar for quality and begin the saga of love that is that unfolds as Life Happens.
13- St. Paul and the Broken Bones – Half the City (2-18-14) - Paul Janeway grew up in a devout household with little non-religious music being heard at home. Paul’s plan was to become a minister, a goal until he was 18 years old. He was seduced by an open mic night in Birmingham, AL, expanded his musical experiences beyond The Mighty Clouds of Joy and into Tom Waits and Nick Cave. It is Soul that crowned St. Paul, and The Broken Bones became the chariot that carried him and the Birmingham, Alabama sextet to finally release their debut of rock’n’soul, Half the City.
14 -Brent Johnson – Set the World on Fire (4-8-14) - “My sound is rooted in the blues, though I don’t pretend to be a purist, and I don’t want to be. I write music based on my experiences and the sounds I grew up with; I never want to pretend that I had the same experiences as the old bluesmen did, so I’m not going around trying to sound like them. What I do is put the emphasis on the feeling of the music, the passion, the urgency, the directness –that’s the goal.” Brent Johnson introduces himself with short bursts, but it is not the words of the New Orleans-based Blues/Rock guitarist that has you showing up early for the party; it is his playing. Set the World on Fire is kinda the perfect title for his release on Canadian imprint, Justin Time Records….bravado that will immediately get the hackles of true believers raised, and guitar work that will have them saying they saw Brent in some little hole in the wall rock club way before anybody heard of him.
15 -Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition - Dark Night of the Soul (1-18-14) -The songs of Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coliation have a presence; they invade each arrangement making Dark Night of the Soul a majestic album on full listen. The band jumps into each song with a beautiful display of coordinated chaos. Luckily, the folks that roam the tunes halls fit perfectly with music that wears Jimbo’s rock and roll heart on its sleeve. The title track starts life on a scratchy church basement piano, pulling the curtain back slowly behind Jimbo’s stage soul pleas as the boys in the band plug in to back their brother behind the microphone.
16 -Keb’ Mo’ – Bluesamericana (4-22-14)
Keb’ Mo’ uses the strength of a solid groove to suggest that there are times in life when limits are reached and you got to “Move”, a track from his most recent release, BLUESAmericana. The rhythm is a physical thing on the song as Keb Mo’ finger points with his guitar licks, laying down the rule of the house…. ‘you ain’t got to go home but you can’t stay here’. He took his own advice and headed back into the studio to record, though the inspiration for BLUESAmericana came way before the wisdom of the tracks. The album’s nine originals and a cover of a tune Keb’ first heard sung by Mississippi Sheiks Sam Chatmon, “That’s Alright”, began the recording process. Keb’ Mo’ knows himself, and that “I only make albums when I’m inspired to, and these ten songs come from a very honest place”. Since his last album, Keb’ had gone through life challenges as he and his wife persevered tough turns on the marriage road. He touches on the need, and is thankful for the ability to talk things out in “For Better or Worse”. He felt that patch in his marriage forced him to take a look, realizing “I had to learn more about myself and in doing that I felt a personal shift’
17- Will Kimbrough – Sideshow Love (2-18-14) - Will Kimbrough uses his latest release title, Sideshow Love, to focus on matters of the heart. The Love in Will’s Sideshow walks a carnival midway filled with bright lights and dark shadows, strong men and bearded women, exotic beauties and transient roundabouts. Will Kimbrough is the barker standing outside his album’s tent to draw you in with quality songwriting and styles that offer three-ring diversity. The album’s mix of music and moods fits the man behind the song, Will Kimbrough. Songwriter, performer and producer is a good resume, one that gets a hand up the ladder with work as sideman guitarist with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Kim Richey, musical rambles with longtime friends Todd Snider and Tommy Womack and a quarter owner of the Willie Sugarcapps sound.
18 - Carlene Carter – Carter Girl (4-8-14) - Carlene Carter boards a “Little Black Train” to start off her most recent release, Carter Girl. The locomotive tune is running a full route, making station stops at songs made popular by the forebears of her musical legacy, The Carter Family. Carlene Carter is the daughter of June Carter Cash and country music superstar Carl Smith, and the granddaughter of Maybelle Carter aka Mother Maybelle, original member of The Carter Family formed in 1927 in the Virginia town of Maces Springs. The group was ground zero for Country music, recording several of the genres standards such as “Will the Circle be Unbroken” and “Keep on the Sunny Side”. The Carter Family influenced generations by developing but also integrating Country music with Folk, Bluegrass, Gospel, Rock….and how those styles translated to Pop.
19 -Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits (2-18-14) - Lake Street Dive have moved forward and have kept their musical focus pure. They have traveled from up sidewalks, keeping their musical focus leveled on the sparkle of 60’s Pop. The songs on Bad Self Portrait, the band’s recent release, siphon sound from the heydays of 1960’s genre-blending Pop that mattered with nods to Brill Building girl-groups, British invasion bands, R&B, horn-fueled Stax soul and Motown. The bright musical bed softens the blows of the heartbreak and headaches of love in the tales on Bad Self Portrait
20- The Holmes Brothers – Brotherhood (4-1-14) - Family of choice holds men and women closer than blood, and that sentiment has proven true for The Holmes Brothers. Two of the members, Wendell and Sherman Holmes, are attached by ancestry. The third man, Popsy Dixon, is a Holmes Brother because there is just no other place that he could, or should, be. The Holmes Brothers celebrate and define the band, and music, on their recent release, Brotherhood. The album is their fifth album for Alligator Records. Wendell Holmes (guitar, piano, vocals) shares the recipe that has kept The Holmes Brothers cooking for three decades; “Great songs, whether we write them or not, bring great things. And we are all striving to write, find and perform great songs.
21- Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons - Key Kid (1-21-14) - Hey Kid might just be the gold standard for roots rock’n’roll as Angela’s voice curls around the power of the playing. She teases in her delivery, waiting a beat, to drop bombs by the way of one-liners, winks and promises. Hey Kid is the first full length album from Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons following four EP’s since forming in 2009. The Howlin’ Moons explode out of the speakers with a barely contained ferocity tamed by Angela Perley’s smoother seduction.
22 - Eric Brace & Karl Straub – Hangtown Dancehall (1-21-14) - Hangtown Dancehall features a stunning array of musicians featuring players such as Tim O’Brien, Pat McInherney, Jen Gunderman, Fats Kaplin, Buddy Spicher and Mike Auldrige. Lead vocals come in the form of the musical’s characters as played by Kelly Willis, Eric Brace, Karl Straub, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Wesley Stace, Jason Ringenberg and Andrea Zohn. A-list players are surrounded by warm melodies and tempos that never get too far from the dancehall.
23 - Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin - Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy (6-3-14) - It has been close to thirty years since Dave Alvin and brother, Phil Alvin, recorded an album together. One-off songs here and there and the occasional live shows of their shared history with The Blasters have put the brothers together in studio and stage. It was inspiration that took them back in to record for their recent Yep Roc Records release, Common Ground: Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy. Friends don’t stay friends in bands, and in shared blood and you have one volatile working environment in studio or stage. Addressing the unspoken question about how the recording process proceeded, brother Dave said it simply, ‘we argue sometimes, but we never argue about Big Bill Broonzy,’
Listen and buy the music of Common Ground: Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy from AMAZON or iTunes
24 - Eden Brent – Jigsaw Heart (5-6-14) - It is the lady and her piano that take center stage on any Eden Brent recording or performance. As a solo artist or as a bandleader, Eden is the single cell that gives the music life as much as her Mississippi Delta heritage hardwires the blues into her own playing. Eden Brent and her Blues made the trip north from Mississippi to record her latest release, Jigsaw Heart, in Nashville with guitarist/solo performer and member of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and Bob Dylan’s band, Colin Linden, sitting in the producer’s chair. Blues blood of broken and bubbling love courses through Jigsaw Heart, the album forming a circle of the lost and found love within the tracks puzzle pieces. Blues boogie, and Eden’s personal history of learning the 88’s, has garnered the nickname Lil’ Boogaloo. The boogie is present on Jigsaw Heart though its songs stretch out, laying out the album’s tunes out as a musical songbook of Southern styles such as Gospel, Soul, Country and R&B to exist alongside Eden’s natural Blues.
25 - Mingo Fishtrap – On Time (6-3-14) - If you have never seen Mingo Fishtrap live then please consider On Time for a resume describing what they can offer. Desperate pleas want answers while warm harmonies support (“Where Did You Come From”), dangerous grooves rumble under pulpit pounding hopes (“Silver Linings”) and realization shakes like a caffeine buzz (“Things Ain’t What They Was”). Mingo Fishtrap cook up a new story about an upcoming revelation in “Movin’” as they chop (chords), dice (harmonies) and puree (percussion) one feast of a tune. On Time has a little something for the worlds ills as Mingo Fishtrap open their magic “Mason Jar” for the warmth of some love shine and they put a cool on “Fireproof” to keep the flames from spreading once the “walls come down”.
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