Hey Everyone, Come See How Cool I Am: The Best Albums of 2014

As the best teacher who never existed, John Keating, once taught me, the greatness of poetry could not possibly measured on a scale or quantified in a graph, because “We’re not laying pipe, we’re talking about poetry.” The same could be said about music.

There’s no objective way to determine or rank the best albums of 2014. In fact, I probably didn’t listen to your favorite album this year, so it doesn’t even stand a chance of being on this list. However, I did listen to a lot of music this year, and at least two people have asked me to make a list of that music, which, I’m pretty sure, makes me a professional music critic.

That being said, here’s the albums from 2014 I enjoyed most…
(If you’d rather skip the small talk, a full Spotify playlist of these albums is available at the bottom of the list.)


17. The Earls of Leicester – The Earls of Leicester

Click to play on Spotify

Click photos to play on Spotify

When I was a teenager I took golf lessons from a kind man named Johnny Warren. Over the years, our families became close friends as my brother and I played high school golf with the Warren’s two children. It wasn’t until much later than I became aware of Johnny Warren’s secret identity as one of the best fiddle players in Nashville. Johnny, son of Paul Warren who played with Flatt & Scruggs, teamed up with Jerry Douglas and friends to record a Flatt & Scruggs tribute album that is hard, if not impossible, to top in terms of authenticity and musicianship. This, is bluegrass.


16. Dry the River – Alarms in the Heart

Click to play on SpotifyAbout a year ago, a friend introduced me to this band with a combination of striking vocals and pure emotional power the likes of which I had never heard before on a 2012 release that had never shown up on my radar. That was Dry the River’s first album, Shallow Bed, which you should totally listen to, because I think it’s significantly better than this one… But this one is still good.


15. John Mark McMillan – Borderland

Click to play on SpotifyI almost forgot this one on my initial ranking, but luckily I was reminded of this deserving album. John Mark McMillan has become not only one of my favorite Christian musicians but a favorite musician in any category. In this album, McMillan expanded into new territory complete with roto toms and electric guitar tones previously unexplored. At times, it reminds me of Springsteen, and other times it’s something all its own. It may not be my favorite McMillan album, but love it for the experiment it is.


14. Flake Music – When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return (2014 Remix/Remaster)

Click to play on SpotifyHave you ever found $20 in your pocket you never knew you had? If you’re a fan of The Shins, that $20 is Flake Music. Technically, this album was recorded and released in 1997. It still deserves a spot on this list with this remixed and remastered release, however, because it confirms all suspicions that James Mercer was born an indie rock genius. Presumably, he decided to re-release this album because none of us were advanced enough to understand how good this was in 1997.


13. Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were

Click to play on SpotifyIf you’re not particularly sad, but you wanna get sad, this is a good place to start. Even the songs on this album that seem to be uplifting lyrically still have a tendency towards the brooding introspection that I’ve come to associate with Ben Howard. Though this album didn’t stand out to me as much as 2011’s Every Kingdom, Howard remains near the top of my list of enviable talents in music today.


12. Matthew and the Atlas – Other Rivers

Click to play on SpotifyAnother entry that had a lot to live up to for me, Matthew and the Atlas returns from a band shake-up with a re-tooled sound compared to their earlier, more roots-reliant, releases that have become perennial favorites of mine (See: Kingdom of Your Own and To the North). This album did not disappoint, and there’s no escaping the best thing this band has to offer is Matthew Hegarty’s voice. If I could steal it, I would.


11. The Apache Relay – The Apache Relay

Click to play on SpotifyNashville neighbors, The Apache Relay, recorded most if not all of this album in L.A., and it shows. If that’s not entirely true, I did listen to this on my plane rides between Nashville and L.A. this year, and it totally made sense anyway. Regardless of the influences, it screams “Nashville 2014” to me, and that’s kinda what this list is all about. If you’d like to see The Apache Relay in action, they are probably eating at Baja Burrito right now.


10. Field Report – Marigolden

Click to play on SpotifyOn a recommendation from a Noah Gundersen tweet (who will make an appearance later on this list for things more important than Twitter), I checked out Marigolden, and I was not disappointed. There’s something about this music that makes it feel like it’s been around forever while also setting itself squarely in the present. There seems to be a theme developing on this list of folk bands incorporating modern elements. This is a good example of that.


9. Shakey Graves – And the War Came

Click to play on SpotifyThis guy made some waves as the one-man-band of the year, playing percussion and guitar in several videos I saw before the eventual release of this album. He delivers each component with a raw, captivating power present in many of the tracks. There’s a lot of great sounds on this album that make it worth listening to, but, more importantly, it will make you tap your feet and practice your best raspy vibrato in the car.


8. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line

Click to play on SpotifyThey’re back, and it comes as no surprise that they’re still making good music together. After spending a few years of going solo, Thile, Watkins, and Watkins joined forces once again for the Nickel Creek album many of us hoped would happen. It’s hard to go wrong with the harmonies these three make and the skill with which they play. Though there are a couple tracks on here where they get a little weird, the bulk of this album is the same Nickel Creek you love but just haven’t heard yet.


7. Hozier – Hozier

Click to play on SpotifyI didn’t expect to like this, but I do. I really do. Though I wasn’t initially crazy about the single “Take Me to Church” that was making its rounds on the radio, I eventually caught wind of “From Eden” and was compelled to hear more. I’m glad I did. Hozier is a great combination of influences, great vocals, and a compelling display of songwriting. This album is diverse and worthy of repeat listens on long drives.


6. Andrew Bird – Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…

Click to play on SpotifyI’m not sure if Andrew Bird has officially settled on making folk music for the rest of his career, but, if so, yes. Consistently one of my favorite artists, Bird puts out like an album every six days or something like that, and somehow they’re pretty much all amazing. The man can’t be stopped. It’s as if his talent simply won’t allow it. The stand-out song on this album for me is “Frogs Singing” which I’ve probably listened to at least once a day since I first heard it.


5. Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy

Click to play on SpotifyEight years, Damien. Eight. Years. Don’t ever, ever do that to me again. This sound of this man’s voice defines large portions of my adolescent life, and there have been many times I have lamented his escape from public life. I still have no idea what it was that drove Damien Rice out of the recording studio and, presumably, into a cave on the Irish coast, but I am indebted to the more powerful force that eventually lured him back out to make this album. It’s not exactly like it used to be. But it’s also not 2006 like it used to be. This is a sound for sore ears.


4. Bear’s Den – Islands

Click to play on SpotifyI love bears, and I’ve loved bears for a long time. Finally there are two bands, Bear’s Den and Boy & Bear that have helped bridge the gap between nature’s biggest puppies and my love for music. Yet another band that brings a touch of modernity to a folk skeleton with worthwhile results. There are so many good melodies on this album that make it interesting and addictive.


3. Kishi Bashi – Lighght

Click to play on SpotifyThis is far-and-away the biggest departure from the rest of the list as far as genre is concerned. Then again, I’m not sure if Kishi Bashi even has a genre. One thing I am sure of, however, is that this guy is one of the most talented musicians and best entertainers I’ve ever seen. His shows land near the top of my favorite of all time for the energy and the incredible display of talent. Dude can shred a violin and be more fun and creative than you’ve ever imagined while doing it.


2. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

Click to play on SpotifyOne of my biggest regrets of 2014 was not jumping at the chance to see these other-worldly beings at the Ryman. This is type of album that makes you wonder why you weren’t already the world’s biggest First Aid Kit fan shortly before listening to everything they’ve ever made until you feel as though you’ve made up for lost time. Then you come back and listen to “Stay Gold” until you’ve mastered a third harmony part just in case they come calling. Please come calling, First Aid Kit. I know you don’t need me, but I’m ready.


1. Noah Gundersen – Ledges 

Click to play on SpotifyI haven’t admired an solo artist as much as I admire Noah Gundersen in a long time, maybe since pre-hermit Damien Rice. Gundersen is one of my favorite songwriters I’ve ever encountered, and, as if that’s not enough, the dude has the best voice ever. I think I may have seen him live four times, twice in 2014, and he is consistently breathtaking each and every time. In my book, Ledges is virtually flawless, and I think we can expect more of the same in the future. This is the kind of music I’m going to force on my children.

For your convenience, here’s a Spotify playlist of everything that made the list:

Honorable Mentions

Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End
Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
The Barr Brothers – Sleeping Operator
The New Basement Tapes – Lost on the River
Noah Gundersen – Twenty-Something (EP)

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Ranking Music is Silly: My top 15 albums of 2013

I have a love/hate relationship with most “album of the year” lists. First of all, there is no measured, objective way to rank music by quality or raw, personal,emotional value, and, besides that, most of them come across as a self-interested plea to prove how hip and interesting the author is. They are an exercise in vanity.

That being said: these are my favorite albums of 2013…
(If you want to listen while you read, click on the album titles to hear them on Spotify, or click the album cover to listen to a selected song on Youtube.)

 

3df65680bd47fe2ee2bb98926c334acc5050a18615. Ministry of Stories, Share More Air

Kicking off a year-end list with a compilation may be against the rules. I don’t know, and I don’t care. This project is awesome. Children wrote the lyrics, then great artists such as Ben Folds and Matthew and the Atlas turned them into songs. Perhaps more of an novelty than a great album, but absolutely worthy of a listen and #15 on this list.

 

avettmagpie14. Avett Brothers, Magpie and the Dandelion

You’re seeing this right, Jesse Baker is ranking the Avett Brothers 14th. Maybe I’m still bitter about Seth’s marital indiscretion, but I really thought this was a sub par album from a band who has proven time and time again that they can do better.

 

noah-and-the-whale-heart-of-nowhere-album-artwork-1811713. Noah and the Whale, Heart of Nowhere

This band has a quirky little place in my heart, like Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer or something comparably twee with a melancholy underpinning. Noah and the Whale has put out better albums, but this one is solid musically if not as inspired lyrically (NatW’s greatest inconsistency). You might love it, you might hate it, I say it’s my 13th favorite album of 2013.

 

BastilleBadBloodArt600

12. Bastille, Bad Blood

This album is just downright fun to listen to. It will make you dance in your car. If that’s what you’re looking for, then don’t pass this one up. For me, it doesn’t seem like something that will stand the test of time in my rotation, however, so it’ll have to live here as lucky number 12 for now with the hopes that Bastille will impress again soon.

 

mockingbird211. Lulu Mae, The Mockingbird and the Dogwood Tree

The first of three Nashville-based bands to make this list, Lulu Mae impressed me not only with this ear-friendly album, but also with their performance at Live on the Green this year where they, in my opinion, put on an even better show than their stagefellows, Leagues and Local Natives. Support your local starving Belmont alums, buy this album.

 

HillsongUnitedZion10. Hillsong United, Zion

I know what you’re thinking: “Really Jesse? A Christian worship album in the top 10?” Yes, cynical reader, a Christian worship album in the top 10. Also, I’ll be saving you a seat at church this Sunday. This album defies all stereotypes and stands apart as a masterfully produced project with some serious power. Besides that, I’m pretty sure the song “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” may have actually been more recognizable than the Pope for a brief time in 2013.

 

KRK-Cover-FINAL--1024x102409. Kopecky Family Band, Kids Raising Kids

Another local group you can help feed by making sure you buy their album, Kopecky Family Band has been making the rounds for a few years, but this is their best yet, in my opinion. These guys and gal are seriously talented, and the Bob Boilen‘s of the world have already started to take notice… You should too.

 

05-08-Discs-The-Milk-Carton-Kids-The-Ash-and-Clay08. The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay

The combination of Dave Rawlings and Simon & Garfunkel you didn’t even realize you’ve been waiting for your whole life, The Milk Carton Kids are the “Sound of Silence” if the sound of silence sounded a lot like paralyzingly tasteful bluegrass guitar licks. Now, you may fall asleep listening to this album, but, if you’re like me, you’ll fall asleep with a big, goofy grin on your face.

 

Volcano-Choir-Repave07. Volcano Choir, Repave

I spent the first three songs of this album thinking, “This is like the new Bon Iver album except really good.” By the fourth song, I had done enough research to find that Volcano Choir is Justin Vernon’s side-project, so that was no coincidence. Like a Bon Iver album that you can quote on Facebook without looking like a fool for thinking the lyrics actually make good, coherent sense, my original review still stands but with the caveat that Vernon will never top “For Emma, Forever Ago,” because I just need to get that opinion on record.

 

dawes-stories-dont-end-136422658106. Dawes, Stories Don’t End

This one was a surprise for me. I like Dawes, but I’ve never liked them liked them. This album makes me like them like them. Lyricist Taylor Goldsmith is a unique and gifted songwriter who caught my attention this time around with the song “Most People” and then drew me into the other unending stories on the album. This is the kind of album to make you say, “Well, now I’ve gotta go back and listen to everything Dawes ever recorded before I can look at myself in the mirror again.”

 

Night-Beds-Country-Sleep105. Night Beds, Country Sleep

According to something I read on NPR once, recent Nashville transplant, Winston Yellen, didn’t even sing until he was 18, now he’s in his mid-twenties and has one of the most disarming singing voices I’ve ever heard. Night Beds is the musical equivalent of the well-intentioned guy in a romantic indie film that everyone falls in love with… except Ramona, the toxic but magnetic leading lady he just can’t seem to shake. Country Sleep is not a restful one. Rather, its the kind of sleep that is barely sleep at all, because the heart just can’t seem to stop feeling long enough slow its rhythm.

 

nathaniel-rateliff-falling-faster-you-can-run-520904. Nathaniel Rateliff, Falling Faster Than You Can Run

October 12, 2013 was the first night of a three night run at the the Ryman for the folk-pop sensation Lumineers, but, as usual, many patrons that night would miss the opening act. Nathaniel Rateliff was not only deserving of his place on the stage at the historic Ryman Auditorium, he was deserving of a headlining spot. His sophomore release argues that case without any need of him raising the point. Rateliff’s dynamic and powerful voice strikes a chord with me that few singers’ do, and this album showcases a diverse set of influences that lend itself for repeat visits on long drives.

 

dr-dog_b-room03. Dr. Dog, B-Room

This is no surprise. If you know anything about me, you knew you could expect to see Dr. Dog on this list. What you may not have expected is that they wind up at #3. Perennially my favorite band in the universe, Dr. Dog certainly did not disappoint in 2013 despite their bronze finish. B-Room is a great album top-to-bottom with some instant classics for a rabid Dr. Dog fan such as “Nellie” and “Broken Heart.” These are songs that I’ll want to hear the next six times I see this band, and that’s all I need.

 

wildewoman02. Lucius, Wildewoman

Buy this album. You’ll like it. I don’t know how you couldn’t. I’ll wait here while it finishes downloading…
Along with a few friends, I happened upon Lucius about a year ago in a tiny venue opening for a band popular enough to headline a tiny venue. Since then, Lucius has dropped a phenomenal album and started blazing a path to what I can only presume will be world domination, and I’m ok with that. This album will make you dance, cry, and fall in love probably (TBD). Even though the song “Two of Us on the Run” may be the least representative track on the album, I just need you to know that I listened to it on repeat for about two hours during a road trip and it made me cry real tears.

 

Typhoon-White-Lighter201. Typhoon, White Lighter

Well, here it is. Odds are if you’ve spent time around me in the last several months, I’ve eventually started talking to you about how White Lighter is the greatest album to come out in years. It doesn’t matter that we started the conversation talking about global politics or our current favorite Youtube video of Corgis (this is mine), I need you to know about Typhoon.
This album is massive, the kind of album I’ve listened to so many times in such a short span with so little loss of awe, that I know it’s going to go down as one of my favorite albums of all time. I’ll give you a couple minutes to download this one too… Though I’ve been following Typhoon for a few years, relying primarily on their A New Kind of House EP to keep me company, I wasn’t sure if they would ever quite meet my hopes for them after the decent but eventually disappointing release of their first LP, Hunger and Thirst. Oh, what a pleasant surprise it is to have your expectations exceeded.

I hope you’ll take a few of these albums for a spin, especially Wildewoman and White Lighter. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. As a matter-of-fact, you might just be amazed.

 

And, for good measure…

Honorable Mentions:
Diarrhea Planet, I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
J. Roddy Walston and the Business, Self Titled
Head and the Heart, Let’s Be Still
Phosphorescent, Muchacho
Lowland Hum, Native Air

 

If you want to keep up with what I’m really listening to, follow me on Spotify and check out my Current Recommendations playlist.

On Jesus and Brother Ross…

Bob-painting I don’t seem to have many of the same favorite kid shows as a lot of my friends.

It’s not that I never spent time in front of a television. I did.
More than is medically and psychologically advisable. I’m sure.

But I don’t remember much about the Power Rangers, Barney, or even Sesame Street. I remember the characters of course, but no particular favorite moments… nothing that really stuck.

Instead, I gravitated towards personalities like Raffi, Mr. Rogers, and Bob Ross. That’s right… The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross on PBS, Bob Ross.

bobrossproject

My high school art project.

Now volumes could be (and have been) written about Fred Rogers, and I don’t know where I’d begin to dig up material on Raffi. However, upon being referred to Brother Ross’s new iPhone app (yes, really), I got to thinking about him and what it is about him that has had such a lasting impact on me.

Though Bob Ross did not set out to be in children’s television, nor did he have any idea a young Jesse Baker was glued to the television screen at nearly every given opportunity to watch him paint, he had a certain quality that was mesmerizing to me, even as a child.

Upon recent reflection, I realized that those men that stick with me as being somehow valuable to my youth have something central in common: they are men, but they weren’t afraid to practice sensitivity, creativity, and kindness. They had no interest in being “macho” (as the 90s would’ve put it).

When I watched these shows, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t grow up to be a very intimidating fella, topping out at 5’8 with a healthy fear of any and all conflict, but I suppose I didn’t have to. What I did know is that there was something unique and welcoming about a man who would glance over his shoulder from time to time to let me know it’s ok to make mistakes.

“We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.”

Ross constantly reassured his viewers that there is no mistake we could make in our oil and canvas world that couldn’t be redeemed.

As a matter-of-fact, I learned in later years that the technique he mastered and adapted is based on the thought that painting should be accessible to everyone, not just the formally trained. It was not his goal that he alone create something beautiful. It was his goal that we all would.

There’s something captivating about that invitation.

Ross was always there as our trusted guide, showing us his world through a fan brush and a painting knife rolled with titanium white and burnt sienna… but he would often seem more interested in the world you were creating than his own.

It was only through our following Ross into his world that we would truly be able to find a sense of our own.

Ross did not seek to bring attention to himself. He didn’t claim to be Rembrandt or even Thomas Kinkade (though, let’s be honest, Kinkade is a chump by comparison). All he really wanted to do was inspire others to find their artistic voice.

I hope to take a page from Ross’s example in my own life.

It would be a beautiful thing to look back years from now to see that I inspired someone to find their voice. I would love to know that I had guided someone to create something, all-the-while gently reminding them that it’s ok to make mistakes, because we’re all going to. It would be a legacy to know I extended an invitation to discover something greater, something beautiful, something beyond myself.

May we all paint with such vivid colors. May our brushstrokes be filled with purpose. May we never cease to give thanks for the Painter who guides us, comforts us, and invites us to see a new world.

Happy painting, and God bless, my friend. 

25 years || 2,500 dollars

Click to learn more.My birthday is coming up in a month, and, no, I’m not telling you so you’ll remember to get me something… I have something far better in mind.

For my 25th birthday, I want to raise $2,500 to change lives with the gift of clean water.

I’ll be reminding you over the course of the month leading up to my birthday, but please visit charity: water‘s website to learn more about the world water crisis and consider donating to this very worthy cause.

I fully believe we can meet this goal and then some.

Let’s change the world together.

Livin’ a Dream – Dr. Dog

dr dogI’m trying my best to be the biggest Dr. Dog fan in the world.

Recently, I heard a song that I had missed for years: a song on an old, obscure EP that my favorite band put out years ago. After some classic Dr. Dog melodies, Toby Lehman recites a poem that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with. 

Are we so in love with yesterday that we’ve forgotten today?

_____________________________

One hundred years from now when our grandkids have all had sex,
will they look back to the past and know what they’ve missed?
Will they think we had it better than the way they have it then?
Will they gaze at a strip mall where a field had once been?
Will they think they’re born late like the way we now do it?
Or will they curse at the present and lend credence to it?
Will they hear all the old songs and think they’re all true
and hate all their own songs and everything new?
Well I’m here to tell you something that’s known,
from someone who’s lived it from someone who’s grown,
the somebody who somebody once loaned a home to.
The grass is always greener, the past is always cleaner,
the present is crap and everyone’s meaner.
They say we’re moving towards something
but I think we’re moving from something.
There are some folks who are more apathetic
and then there are some folks who are more money grubbin’.
Well, I know there’s always been greed and green acres,
and war and peace makers.
And then there’s your takers and your leavers,
your havers and your needers.
And in this great froth as we skim through the batter,
there’s now many more of the former and less of the latter.
Help us climb out of this pitfall disaster
led by dynasties, charlatans, but not poetasters.
Where there is a mortal disconnect spawned by gluttonous connection,
where you pick your own culture without viewer discretion.
Where there is no more history and nothing is learned.
Where you shun all your kin and all your bridges are burned.
Where you are what you buy and you’re who what you own;
and you think of yourself and you live all alone.
You make yourself feel fine when everything’s wrong.
The world keeps turning but you’re brittle as bone.
So to all you future dreamers and lovers and leavers,
to all those who know there’s still something between us that binds us
and reminds us of times that passed,
I appreciate you listening to this one man’s last gas.
In spite of all the words that we can’t fit to song,
I’d thank you to take off your eye shades, please… sing along.

________________________

May we sing along.

On Pop Theology: Death and Don Draper

I was recently invited to contribute to a great blog called On Pop Theology, in their words, “A blog about the intersection of theology, pop culture, and philosophy.” They needed a post for this week, so I could think of no better contribution during the week following the season six premier of Mad Men than a reflection on the theology of Don Draper.

The piece is titled “Death and Don Draper,” and you can find it over at On Pop Theology now.

I hope you enjoy it, and mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Don Draper.

 

Wendell Berry: Manifesto

Wendell BerryI was recently reminded of one of my all-time favorite poems, written by prolific author, poet, and theologian, Wendell Berry. I would like to share it with you here.
May we plant sequoias. May we practice resurrection.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

– Wendell Berry