Buzz: Staff Favorite Albums of 2014

2014 was a great year for records, and some of our dedicated staff share their three favorite albums from the last year. 

From Holly:

Ingrid Michaelson, Lights Out. A roller coaster of emotional songs, swinging from upbeat pop anthems to heartbreaking ballads.

Nickel Creek, A Dotted Line. Amazing harmonies and musicianship - Sara Watkins blows me away.

Lake Street Dive, Bad Self Portraits Rachel Price is the Etta James of the 21st Century - in my book.

From Kim:

Kate Rusby, Ghost

Bellows, Blue Breath

St Vincent, St Vincent

From Lisa:

Nicole Atkins, Slow Phaser. A good old fashioned rock record! Songwriting and musical nuances, which Nicole Atkins delivers gritty and beautifully.

Amy Ray, Goodnight Tender. Amy Ray is an incredibly gifted songwriter. Past solo albums are full of great rock and strong guitars. Ray's strings are ever present on Goodnight Tender, as is her penchant for sharing an entire record full of beautifully penned lyrics. Pure country, roots, Americana, critics have used these terms in describing Goodnight Tender. It may be a change from the rock of previous albums, but it is Ray at her best. 

Natalie Merchant, Natalie Merchant. Hard to believe 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of Tigerlily, Merchant's debut solo album, which left an indelible mark in the songwriter and pop world. Merchant raised the bar. Her self-titled 2014 release is my favorite album of the year, and one of the best albums I've heard in the last five years. Natalie Merchant's songwriting is in a category reserved for very few artists, and her artistry on each track is breathtaking. Music and art at its finest. 

From Sam:

Flying Lotus, You're Dead! Instrumental hip hop artist, Steven Ellison, brings a listen to every track, like you'd turn every page of a book, album. Tracks feature special guests like Kendrick Lamar.
Cage the Elephant, Melophobia. An incredible rock band. A late 2013 release that I'm still spinning. Disqualify me, but I'm on a Grammy timetable! True to their alt-rock roots, we are all thrilled for Cage the Elephant's Grammy nod for Melophobia.

Real Estate, Atlas. Awesome songwriting and instrumentation from a talented band.

From Sara:

Sharon Van Etten, Are We There.

The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream.

Future Islands, Singles.

From Vincent:

Lori McKenna, Numbered Doors. Put simply: Lori McKenna is doing it right. I anticipate few new releases with the fervor with which I anticipate a Lori McKenna record, and she never disappoints. Numbered Doors is yet another collection of gems from one of the finest songwriters around.

Natalia Zukerman, Come Thief Come Fire. An entirely new kind of record from Natalia Zukerman. A beautiful and moving reinvention. Sonically thrilling and lyrically brilliant, Come Thief is a record that didn't leave my car stereo for months.

Rose Cousins, Stray Birds. Technically an EP, Stray Birds packs as strong a punch as any full-length record released this year. In my humble opinion, Rose Cousins has the fucking loveliest voice in music. Check out her insanely gorgeous cover of "What's Love Got To Do With It" for the proof.

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On the Shelf: Thirst by Kerry Hudson

In Thirst, Kerry Hudson’s sophomore novel, Alena, is promised, upon leaving her native Siberia, “Lots of work. For good girls with good English like you. Lots of work and a good salary too.” She discovers she has been brought to London to be trafficked. Dave, who dreamed of travel and accomplishment, only made it as far away from his Roehampton Estate as Hackney. He works as a security guard in a department store on Bond Street, making only just enough money to get by. They meet when Dave must catch Alena, who tries to steal a pair of shoes. Rather than berating her for shoplifting, he tries to learn about her, to understand why she tried to lift what didn’t belong to her. She reveals little about herself and her circumstances. Still, he finds her compelling.
Before Alena gets away without getting into any trouble, she tells him, “Once you are something, you are always it.”
The story that follows continually tests Alena’s assertion by showing readers two people, impoverished in circumstance but not necessarily in spirit, who fall very carefully in love. But their love story is surrounded by the realities of their circumstances. Can Dave and Alena escape the labels they themselves and society have assigned them? Can they learn to trust each other with the darker parts of themselves? Can they escape the assumptions they’ve made about themselves and each other? Will they be able to get past their insecurities and the tentativeness they wear like armor? Their struggles are replicated in the communities in which they find themselves: other girls, perhaps not as clever a survivor as Alena, are also trafficked, brutally abused, and seemingly stuck; the folks on Dave’s housing estate are similarly cash-poor with little prospect of social mobility; people feel they have the right to “own” other people, using them for personal profit. Hudson’s prose does not shy away from the brutality, mess, and difficulties found in anyone’s situation.
Thirst ends on a hopeful, but ambiguous, note—some readers may not like the absence of a neatly-tied bow at the end, but in a novel where few things are tidily wrapped, such an ending is hardly unexpected.
Thematically, Thirst is not a comfortable novel; nor was Hudson’s debut, the charmingly titled Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (the story of Janie Ryan, one of the fiercest young women I’ve ever come across). Hudson’s characters are not neat and shiny—they are scrappy, they tend to swear, and they tend to struggle. As a result, I think they are convincingly real and utterly compelling. While literature can be a kind of escapism, escaping too much too often neglects the stories and people that are not told or told only in the margins. Part of Hudson’s allure, I think, is her unabashed willingness and skill at making marginal stories and lives an integral part of contemporary fiction. Hudson makes an immeasurable contribution to the current literary landscape by making it more socially just and inclusive through the kinds of voices and stories she tells, and is a writer not to be missed.
Thirst, published by Chatto & Windus, is available now in the UK; US readers may not have to wait long for its States-side release or can order abroad. Kerry’s debut, Tony Hogan, is available everywhere.

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On the Shelf: The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms by Ian Thornton

What if your life had so much forward momentum that you never once gave any thought about having to go backwards? And what if, just once, when it mattered most, going backwards was the one thing you had to do?
Such is the life, and eventual calamity, of Johan Thoms (pronounced Tomes), a promising student at the University of Sarajevo; a talented chess player, with a brilliant mind, an answer for everything, and quick wit for conversing with dukes and drunkards alike. When his father, a “mad professor (which was convenient given that he was one, albeit a fine one),” finally succumbs to the fullness of his madness, Johan must find work to help support his family. Through a family friend, and a key player in the novel, Johan becomes a chauffeur. His first, and most famous, client is the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The day Johan must drive him, and his pregnant wife, is June 28, 1914, through the streets of Sarajevo.
Like his historical counterpart Leopold Lojka, Johan Thoms takes a wrong turn down a dead-end street. Like Lojka, Johan Thoms cannot drive a car in reverse. And then, inevitably, gunshots turn the world on its head.
And so begins a tale that weaves historical fact with fiction to create a deeply heartfelt tale of how the young man who knew everything except how to reverse alters the course of the world throughout the twentieth century. Thematically, the big questions Thornton’s novel asks are, how responsible are we for the events around us? And if we feel responsible for them, how do we make amends? Or, in the words of Johan himself:

How could anyone have turned such a dream of a situation into such abject horror?

How could anyone have grabbed so much notoriety from the jaws of nobility?

How could anyone have fucked up so badly?

We follow Johan as he tries to atone for his mistake, purposefully exiling himself from friends, his one great love, and his family, trusting almost no one, and feeling forever responsible for the destruction, chaos, ruin, and death that occurred from one wrong turn and not being able to go backwards.
Structurally, Thornton tells Johan’s story as mise en abyme, a story-within-a-story. The narrative layering and frame make Johan’s story more intimate and gives his despair at the events he believes he set in motion more depth. As reader, I feel this kind of frame is necessary to believe such an epic tale and the depth of Johan’s personal despair. You leave the book feeling the depth and greatness of Johan’s heart.
A word of caution: Thornton does litter the novel with epigraphs and literary references that stretch across literary forms from Cowper, to Chaucer (a personal favorite of mine, admittedly, on page 44), to Tom Waits, to Walter Pater, among others. I don’t find these distracting, nor do I find them obstacles, though that may be a professional hazard of my day job. If I were to teach this novel, I’d say that you don’t need to have a working knowledge of the textual citations for their impact to be felt; think about how they work in their new context. Language is play, so seeing these words in different contexts should, I think, be taken as part of that play. But some readers could be put off by that kind of citation. I'd urge everyone, though, to give it a try and not miss this endearingly epic story.

Ian Thornton’s The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is available in Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia. Readers in the United States will have to, for now, order from abroad.

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Suzy and The Swizzle Sticks Debut

I would go to see Susan Werner sing the alphabet. Last night, in a quaint Pennsylvania town, Susan Werner served up top notch alphabet soup. Through cryptic Tweets, Werner alluded she was going to participate in a show at Puck, a small music venue in Doylestown, Pennsylvania on Monday night. Details? Notice? Devoted Werner fans are not worried about details, instead they follow their beloved songwriter on a whim.

Susan Werner has an eclectic, albeit genius back catalogue. She has garnered critical acclaim for records like I Can't Be New and The Gospel Truth, penning classic popular songs ready for a new great American songbook and an agnostic's gospel/bluegrass spin on the gospel, respectively.

An accomplished pianist, incredible lyricist whose live performances weave wit and musicality effortlessly, so what brings us to Suzy and The Swizzle Sticks? I'm not even sure Susan Werner knows.

Most recently touring in support of her latest album, Hayseed, Werner's theme was agriculture. Jazz, gospel, farming. Mix in a few classical pieces, and you begin to understand why Werner fans didn't raise an eyebrow when she toyed via Twitter she was going to be in PA to "catch" a new band.  

Fans found Werner on a Monday night in a basement venue perfectly suited for the debut of Suzy and The Swizzle Sticks. One walked down a few stairs to find a dimly lit room full of tables with a drum kit and keyboard facing one another in the center of the room. The actual stage was in the background, and remained unused for the night. Susan Werner put her on twist on covers from the 1970's and a few 80's classics. Songs made famous by The Eagles, "Heartache Tonight," Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop," "Welcome Back" (Welcome Back, Kotter's theme song), and even Dolly Parton were included in the set.

Susan Werner encouraged the audience to sing a long, and by the end of the evening, it was comfortable. Good comfortable. Werner sat in the middle of the room filled with tables of people who were comfortable with singing along with their table-mates, or settling in to listen with another glass of wine.

Werner joked throughout the night, "Ah, it's a little cheesy, no?" She asked people to find her on Facebook or Twitter and let her know what they thought of the night, the name, "Should Velveeta be mentioned?"

If The Adventures of Velveeta continue, count me in for another Suzy and The Swizzle Sticks performance.

Find Susan Werner on Facebook (, and Twitter (@swernermusic) for new, perhaps cryptic messages about possible future Suzy and The Swizzle Sticks' performances.

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PonoMusic: We Hear You Loud & Not So Loud, But Clear

A "revolution in the way people can listen" to music says PonoMusic founder, Neil Young. The PonoPlayer was unveiled during the 2014 South by Southwest Festival. It was an event like many, media ready with laptops eager to break any news, first.

Neil Young, and a new music player? It wasn't just any old festival keynote. Many involved with PonoMusic are calling it a "revolution" in the way a consumer will hear music. An audiophile and techie, I listened carefully. As it turns out, listening carefully is exactly what the PonoPlayer allows one to do.

Throughout the process of recording, mixing, and mastering in a studio, one hears the reverb of a crisp clash of a hi-hat or final strum of a guitar. That is, all of the subtleties instruments produce as they are being played and recorded, one hears during playback in a studio. The PonoMusic team created the PonoPlayer, a pocket-sized device, which allows listeners to hear their favorite music in stunning, as close to studio as one can get, quality.

(Photo: PonoMusic Team)

A high resolution master copy of your favorite artist's original recording is a huge file. While demand for portable music has increased, the size of the original file has had to shrink. In order to fit a recording onto a CD, the original file is compressed. In order to carry around thousands of mp3 files on our various pocket sized devices, the files are compressed more, squeezing most of the aforementioned subtleties and all of the incredible ear candy from the original master recording.

The PonoMusic team aims to give the music consumer the choice to hear their music with all of the original ear tingling goodness the artist intended, and heard during studio playback.

From the team, "PonoMusic starts with the best ingredients – artist-approved digital masters sourced directly from all the major music labels. Every artist you know and love, plus new releases as they come out. PonoMusic honors the music at the level it was created – it holds up a mirror to the artists’ original vision, reflecting it with perfect clarity."

Is it worth it? I was geeking out upon first listen. I went to Kickstarter, and preordered ASAP. The PonoMusic project was fully funded within 24 hours. Less than twenty days remain to take advantage of the perks of the Kickstarter campaign. Discounts on the retail price, limited edition "artist series" players are up for grabs (your PonoPlayer will be chrome with the artist's signature etched on the side), etc.

PonoMusic is a complete ecosystem. Purchase your PonoPlayer, which easily fits into most pockets or purses, and next the ear-tingling music. High-resolution digital albums at are expected to cost between $14.99 -$24.99. The PonoMusic team states, "For this price you get the best quality digital music available anywhere, you own these albums forever - they don’t live only in the cloud, but also on your computer and backup disc, and you can play them anytime you wish on your PonoPlayer or other compatible devices. We will also be offering many of your favorite individual songs. We'll let you know the pricing soon."

A music fan? It is worth a visit to PonoMusic's website to read more:

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