Campfire Tales: Albums of the Year 2014
Welcome to the inaugural Campfire Tales Albums Of The Year. Here you’ll find those albums that have stayed on regular play since their release and have given the most pleasure or despair, an emotion of some kind: they make you feel. For editorial reasons we’ve left out Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music and Hurray For The Riff Raff’s Small Town Heroes - they’re in The Music Fix Albums Of The Year. There are a whole heap more we could have included but ten seems to be the magic number these days. Anyhow, enough of the boring preamble, on with the list.
Hannah Aldridge - Razor Wire
A lot of courage is involved in scrapping your entire debut album. It's an experience Hannah Aldridge knows well. After working with some Muscle Shoals greats, and having her successful songwriting father pens some tracks, she tore it up and started again. Behind the steel guitar and Americana grooves there’s hurt, emotional pain and a gifted storyteller: hear the resignation in ‘You Ain’t Worth The Fight’, the vivid 'Parchman', heartbreak of the title track. A searing cover of Jason Isbell’s ‘Try’ with his band The 400 Unit is the cherry on the cake. This is the sound of a young woman really finding her voice, a rare thing to capture on record as honestly as Razor Wire.
Kenny Chesney - The Big Revival
All the biggest acts in popular country music seemed to release records at the tail end of this year: Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, even Garth Brooks got something new out the door. The best of the bunch was Kenny Chesney and his continued dominance of feel good country. Mostly eschewing the drinking culture that’s consuming the genre at the moment, The Big Revival is a massive hug of a record, all good time fun (‘Beer Can Chicken’ and ‘Flora-Bama’) and anthems (the smash single ‘American Kids’). Not content with being the founder of No Shoe Nation, Chesney is also the father of country fun. The feelgood album of the year.
Eric Church - The Outsiders
Forget all the talk of ripping up the playbook and how outlaw country is back; The Outsiders is simply the purest, hardest, rocking-est country record of the year. As well as spawning a bonafide anthem in the title track, Church has a whole stetson full of 'em: the clever twisting lyrics and mechanical sounds of ‘Cold One’; the beauty of ‘Talladega’; the ode to small town America that is ‘Give Me Back My Hometown’. The culmination of Church’s progression to date, The Outsiders is a rare treat - a mainstream country record that challenges conceptions and pushes boundaries from the inside.
Samantha Crain - Kid Face
It’s been quite a year for the Oklahoma born singer, with Kid Face’s positive reception (actually released in the US in 2013), well-received UK shows, and a summer living in London with a round of festival dates. Her winning stage presence won over many fans, giving her terrific third album the wider audience it deserves. Mixing influences from country, indie rock, and Americana this Oklahoman marries personal songs (the tale of her youth ‘Kid Face’ and her ode to the late Jason Molina ‘For The Miner’) with the lighter fare (‘Ax’ and the groovy restlessness of ‘Somewhere All The Time’). If there's one album you've overlooked this year, it's perhaps Kid Face. Remedy that today.
Lincoln Durham - Exodus Of The Deemed Unrighteous
Blues has had a bit of a mainstream resurgence in recent years, with the Jack White’s and Black Keys of this world bringing it to the mainstream, whilst also sitting behind the production desk for a multitude of artists. Away from the limelight there are a ton of great artist producing gritty, thrashing, knee-deep-in-the-grime, blues rock. In 2014 Lincoln Durham was right at the head of this. The rhythm kick of ‘Annie Departee’ gets your heart thumping; the gospel blues of ‘Ballad of a Prodigal Son’ kills when it opens up with a last thirty seconds of electric guitar; ‘Keep On Allie’ touches the heart, and ‘Stupid Man’ grooves down deep. Exodus Of The Deemed Unrighteous isn’t your laid back, “Oh whoa is me” blues: it’s in your face, high tempo, guitar, drum, and shredded voice blues. And it's bloody marvelous!
Goodnight, Texas - Uncle John Farquhar
Who? That’s the question you might be asking about this little known band, named after the town equidistant between the hometowns of main songwriters Avi Vinocur (San Francisco) and Patrick Dyer Wolf (North Carolina). From the fun ‘Button Your Collar’ to the touching ‘The Horse Accident (In Which A Girl Was Killed)’ and darkly rocking ‘Cold Riders’, it’s terrific stuff - great stories and great music. A concept album of sorts, Uncle John Farquhar mixes various historical references to good effect (‘Dearest Sarah’ is a letter from a soldier in the colonial wars to his family) with comedy (‘A Bank Robber’s Nursery Rhyme’ and ‘Hello, Nebraska!’ are gems). One of the quirkiest, most entertaining records for a long while.
Shakey Graves - And The War Came
It sounds like a made up name, and it is. Alejandro Rose-Garcia uses his alter-ego to create and release some wicked Americana. Debut album And The War Came mixes quiet solo foot tappers with catchy, genre-breaking anthems - sometimes in the same song. 'Only Son' builds from a quiet start with a bass drum, and superlative roots rocker 'Dearly Departed' - one of a trio on which Esme Patterson provides melodies - has caught on across the US. These quieter, simpler songs show Rose-Garcia at his nimble fingered, gravel voiced best. Dropping in the odd track of grungy blues ('The Perfect Part') or old time dance ('Panzy Waltz') keeps it fresh, though unlike other records on this list it doesn't have a consistent through line. Songs as honest and captivating as this make that far less of a deal.
Ward Thomas - From Where We Stand
No-one has done more for country music in the UK, or British country music worldwide, in recent years than the twin sisters from Hampshire. Lizzie and Catherine were all over BBC Radio 2 this summer with their catchy, peppy country hit ‘Push For The Stride’, and the album is full of up-tempo pop in the same vein. What makes it really special though is the personal nature of the record: the title track is the beautifully observed and poignant tale of their parents break-up when the twins were kids. Success comes from merging the specifically British viewpoint with this most American of music (see ‘The Good And The Right’). If country music genuinely takes off in the UK it will be because of a homegrown act - and Ward Thomas have every chance of being that band.
Holly Williams - The Highway
If you’re reading this in the US you might wonder why the hell there’s a(nother) 2013 release on this list. Well, us backward folk in the UK have had to wait a year or so to get an official release for this exceptional set of tracks from the youngest in the Williams dynasty. Family is a strong theme on The Highway but it’s Williams’ non-Hank side that gets the focus, with ‘Waiting On June’ (about her other grandparents) one of the most touching and wonderful tracks of the year.
Lucinda Williams - Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone
Maybe more than any other record in 2014 this was a triumph. A double album with not a track to spare - that’s some achievement. Williams shows that it’s not always a choice of quality over quantity and twenty years after her apparent career high she delivers both. Now 61, Williams chose her first album in three years to mix the personal and challenging, the rocking and the stadium ready, the bluesy and thoughtful, and somehow get away with it. Opener 'Compassion' is based on a poem by her father; 'Protection' is all 70s rock; 'West Memphis' grumbles with menace. 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' oozes bluesy swagger. With an apparent plethora of songs still left over we may be hearing more of Williams in the not too distant future. We can but hope. Much like Neil Young, the brilliance of Williams is not about the vocals - though her lived-in voice adds unimaginable depth - but in the song craft and delivery.
There are loads missing, we know, but feel free to tell us your choices in the comments below.