In a year chock full of truly great records, it’s hard to narrow it down to 10 stand-outs. But what’s wonderful about the leveling field of music is that newcomers like Jonah Tolchin, Hozier, and Parker Millsap who really deliver the goods can sidle up alongside icons like Ani DiFranco, Rosanne Cash, and Lee Ann Womack at the top of their games, all without missing a beat. Such is the case here as newly discovered and long-time favorites alike jockey for position as some of the Best Albums of 2014.
Ani DiFranco – Allergic to Water
There are two camps within the Ani DiFranco fan base — those who swear allegiance to her early, more raw works and those who stand devoted to her later, more refined efforts. Allergic to Water falls squarely into the latter’s lap as DiFranco, now a mother of two, continues to explore the subtler, quieter realms. She is still brash, still brazen, in terms of the points she’s attempting to get across. It’s just that she does so in ways that are, at once, more playful and more serious. Gone are the days of boot stomping and guitar thrashing. But, as this album evidences, DiFranco continues to be one of the most thoughtful and innovative singer/songwriters of any generation.
First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
Though Sweden is fast becoming a hotbed for electro-pop music thanks to the work of artists like Lykke Li, Robyn, and Avicii, it is not as overflowing with indie folk. It will be, though, if First Aid Kit is any indicator. Their latest collection, Stay Gold, draws inspiration in both style and substance from Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg also take Frost’s words as something of a challenge as they make every attempt to capture and hold their own goldest musical hues against an orchestral backdrop that lifts and lilts along with their sweetly soaring vocal harmonies.
The second of four blues-influenced gents under 25 years of age on the list (along with Tolchin, Millsap, and Ellis), Hozier emerged from Ireland with a bold cut that stopped a lot of people in their tracks with “Take Me to Church.” While that is, indeed, a stunning effort, the whole of Hozier’s eponymous debut showcases an artist with an impressive grasp on multiple melodic styles and an intuitive knack for intelligent lyrical twists. Bittersweetly recalling the promise of guys like Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith, Hozier will, hopefully, be a more lasting presence. He certainly has the talent.
Jonah Tolchin – Clover Lane
From “Mockingbird” on down, listeners know they are in for quite a ride down Clover Lane. Jonah Tolchin’s collection succeeds where neo-retro bands like Mumford & Sons fail because Tolchin is a fan first, a student second, and an artist third. He understands why the Mississippi Delta music speaks to him and he knows how to translate it into his own language. Equal parts crazy barn dance and lazy campfire singalong, Clover Lane moves effortlessly between styles and genres — from the swampy shuffle of “Hey Baby Blues” to the slow saunter of “Low Life.” A truly fantastic album, Clover Lane should easily put Tolchin on the map.
Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’
For whatever reason, voices that have just a little bit of ache tell a story a whole lot better than those that don’t. And, when it comes to country music, Lee Ann Womack has one of the loveliest aches around. She can coax the lonesome out of any tune, and then hold it right where she wants it. That’s how, as an interpreter, Womack makes great songs even greater, especially when they flow from the pens of outlier writers like Hayes Carll, Julie Miller, and Bruce Robison. With The Way I’m Livin’, she brings her fullest talent to bear and it’s something special to behold.
Parker Millsap – Parker Millsap
The first two tracks on Parker Millsap’s self-titled release — the one-two punch of “Old Time Religion” and “Truck Stop Gospel” — deliver quite a knock-out blow to all who stumble into this debut. A couple cuts later, though, “The Villain” answers a call sent out more than 40 years ago by Tom Waits’ “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You.” Either way you go, Millsap, who is in his early 20s, knows how to write and deliver a song. And, as potent as this record is, his live performances are even more show stopping, so to speak.
Unlike some of her past efforts, there’s nothing urgent or insistent about Pieta Brown’s latest turn, Paradise Outlaw. Instead, it’s a gorgeously meandering affair that takes its own, sweet time getting where it needs to go. The slow motion unfolding of these songs makes for an immersive listening experience, one that refuses to be anything more than it is. Here, everything feels a little bit muted, a little bit muddled, but never overly so because there’s always plenty of room to breathe amidst the sparse arrangements and nuanced production.
Robby Hecht – Robby Hecht
On his 2014 eponymous release, Robby Hecht continues to prove the case for himself as a true descendant of the Paul Simon/James Taylor lineage of singer/songwriters. Like those greats, Hecht’s contemplative, acoustic tunes search and rescue the hearts and souls of anyone who hears them. One listen to “Feeling It Now” (or “The Sea and the Shore” or “Stars”) is like a healing balm, a salve to soothe whatever ails you. So classic is Hecht’s voice and craft, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether he is covering an old standard or offering a new original.
Robert Ellis – The Lights from the Chemical Plant
So much of what makes The Lights from the Chemical Plant great is between the lines and under the surface, just like in the stories of so many small town lives that fill it. Unlike the artists on mainstream country radio, Robert Ellis doesn’t paint with primary colors. He prefers the greys, the browns, and, yes, the blues. Those are the shades that fit the stark, dark tales he tells on this challenging and intimate work. A phrase from the lead track, “Only Lies”, captures the album’s credo: “Just because a thing’s convenient, well that doesn’t make it true.”
On her first set of original songs since 2006’s Black Cadillac, Rosanne Cash held nothing back as she journeyed into the geography and history that have shaped her life, her art, her family. It’s a heritage that is her own, sure, but it’s also a heritage that is also ours. And that point is not lost on Cash. She understands the ties that bind, perhaps more than most, which is why the metaphors on The River & the Thread run deep and wide. The chorus of the opening track lays it out perfectly: “A feather’s not a bird. The rain is not the sea. A stone is not a mountain, but a river runs through me.”
This article originally appeared on Folk Alley.