It was an unquestionably great year for local music in Louisville. We’ve seen debut records earn national praise, a big name (Jim James) cover legends (Bob Dylan and The Band) for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and, maybe most importantly, we’re seeing artists pushing their boundaries in all sorts of ways — from Old Baby’s Jonathan Glen Wood releasing two excellent country records to D’Arkestra’s perpetual exploration. Below, our contributing music writers discuss 15 — unranked — songs that stuck with us from 2014.
“As Long As It’s You” — The Deloreans
I don’t want to put too much unnecessary weight on a song, but it could be said that “As Long As It’s You” could be the most important song The Deloreans have written yet. The band spent the last few years building a name on the strength of songs like “Attacked By A Panther” and “Buffalo,” both of which are great songs (the latter could make them a lot of money in a buffalo wings commercial), but they just barely cross the line of novelty. This new single proved they could put those anthemic sounds with a sing-along chorus into something more “serious.” Don’t get me wrong though: Jeremy Perry’s lyrics are unrivaled in their uniqueness, and you’ll find them entrenched within this gem, but with its opening verse reminiscent of The National to the outward bursting “ooh-oohs” at the closing, any debate about this band is put to bed. Now where’s the LP?
“Fire Extinguisher” — Howell Dawdy
Writing about Howell Dawdy’s “Fire Extinguisher” the day before Christmas makes it seem even better — its attacks on consumerism and narcissism seem more relevant than ever. And the best part about his social critique is that it’s not abrasive, but rather funny, in a satirical, almost Stephen Colbert-ish kind of way, all while being filtered through the sort of anti-folk, hip-hop 90s hybrid that calls to mind Beck. It’s strange and goofy and irreverent, but at the same time, it’s sharp and witty and really, really well-written. It’s one of the few songs that can make you bob your head, laugh, think, then wonder what the hell just happened, right before you press play again.
“Small Business” — Watter
Watter is Grails guitarist Zak Riles and Slint drummer Britt Walford, two dwellers of the underground, who decided to work within bounds of an expansive, instrumental rock sound. The collaboration — in addition to Tyler Trotter’s hand in production — yielded some slow-building, yet forceful compositions. Iridescent mountains for listeners to explore and admire. Though hard to choose just one track, the 13-minute “Small Business” shows that Watter works well at length. It’s a steady climb. Stoney guitar opens and entices the journey, while embedded vocals by Dane Waters elevate to its halfway peak. After an explosive riff crescendos and fades, the space is left to trickling of feedback, a rhythmic array of muted-string plucks and a heart-thumping bass portion played by Tony Levin (formerly of King Crimson). It is the album’s best moment, coming together like a continental collision.
— Lara Kinne
“Frames of Fires” — Satellite Twin
In a number of ways, Satellite Twin is a blast from the past. Even with only two releases under their belt, their debut “Tidal,” and the recently-released “A Tower in the Right Flood,” shows a lot of growth, having evolved between them, forming a style that is both a comfortable listen, while challenging the genre restrictions that the band had seemingly set for their music. Opener “Frames of Fires” has a kinetic charm to it, a kind of electricity that leaves it indelibly a fixture in your brain. Having reviewed it earlier this year, I can attest to just how much an earworm it is, that once it’s in your head, it is difficult to exorcise, assuming of course you’d even want to. Satellite Twin filter a progressive rock sound through the lens of indie luminaries like Fugazi or Unwound, with an end result that is with little comparison.—Syd Bishop
“Half Bad” —White Reaper
For me, this is the quintessential White Reaper song from their excellent self-titled release, not only because it was the one that really caught my ear, but also because it best shows the dynamic that makes their sound special. Half of the song is a sonic assault on your ears, the other is this weird, psychedelic melodic seduction that draws you in. The point being: These guys can rock that gritty, in-your-face, give-a-shit-less punk aesthetic and perpetuate it with a ton of distortion and wildcard drumming, all while splicing in just the amount of pop sensibilities in fresh ways. Here, that’s three things: 1) the brilliantly simple guitar and bass hooks, 2) the almost chanting, catchy vocal rhythms, 3) that awesome head rush of a keys/synth bridge. But, their version of scattering sugar doesn’t fall into the bubblegum realm, it screams something more like, “Hey, you wanna go throw bottles of Boone’s Farm at moving trains or whatever?” Which is a bullseye for a brand like theirs, I believe.
“In the Still of the Night” — Carly Johnson & Craig Wagner
Louisville is blessed to have a wide array of top-notch jazz talent, ranging from big band to progressive and a lot in-between. Some, however, find jazz demanding, inquiring “where’s the melody” when artists improvise. Singer Carly Johnson and guitarist Craig Wagner never lose sight of the gorgeous melody of Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” in their 10-minute rendition. Wagner’s three-minute opening solo twists and turns, with some Eastern accents, before he sets the groove for Johnson’s voice. While some jazz singers emphasize improvisation and scatting, here Wagner takes her time with the lyrics, drawing syllables out for emphasis, caressing them. She steps back for more nimble, thoughtful soloing by Wagner, before returning for an elegantly delicate and soulful caress of the final lyrics. Johnson and Wagner, consummate artists, are at their peak.
—Martin Z. Kasdan, Jr.
“Doomed Moon”— Young Widows
“Doomed Moon” comes from the reverb-heavy post-punk band Young Widows, who released their fifth album, “Easy Pain,” in early 2014. Lulling you into a false sense of tranquility with wind chimes and eerie echoes of cargo ship horns to transverse the dead of night, Young Widows then suddenly slams the rusty deadbolt home. On this track, Young Widows displays their relentless noise-rock assault on top of a semi-psychedelic background. This track demonstrates why Young Widows is still one of Louisville’s best bands after all these years.
— Ben Welp
“Unorthodox Juice” — D’Arkestra
D’Arkestra is a nine-piece, primarily rooted in the jazz circle. Bandleader Drew Miller (alto saxophone) writes the majority of its orchestrated material, which unifies aspects of fusion, post-rock and multiple genres in a seamless fashion. “Indie jazz chamber music,” as he likes to say. Since the beginning D’Arkestra emphasizes its horns and “Unorthodox Juice” is the latest display, coming from the March release “Little Voices.” Like the song’s title, the initial melody is odd, catchy, compelling. Brandon Coleman’s dissonant guitar fans the flame towards an impassioned moment at the two-minute mark, a definite title-holder for the Sexiest Sax Solo of the Year. It’s a worthy predecessor to the cover of Frank Zappa’s “Regyptian Strut” that follows — clearly a big influence on the band. If D’Arkestra wants to further explore its prog sensibilities, let’s hope it continues in this direction.
— Lara Kinne
“Obedience” — Anwar Sadat
There is a snarl in singer Shane Simms’ voice that so perfectly encapsulates the sludgy rowdiness of Anwar Sadat — a sound that manages somehow to incite spontaneous head bangs. It doesn’t make sense on paper that a band can channel such apparent rage and discontent in their music, but also make music that has a subtle pop element to it — if only in that it sucks you in and demands repeated listens — but they do. That it’s a punk furious screed, a wonderful anti-establishment piece about blind faith in authority, or so it seems to my ears, is that anarchist icing on the cake, that makes you want to flip off the police and yell at Bill O’Reilly and his ilk. Combine all this with a tight rhythm section and the sickeningly awesome guitar work of Clay Farris and you have nice, pissed-off indie that’s rough around the edges.
“Ya Boi Gets Right” — Skyscraper Stereo
This year Skyscraper Stereo finally followed up their 2011 debut with the new single “Ya Boi Gets Right.” They are the flagship hip-hop group on the local, mostly rock-oriented label Little Heart Records. And it only takes one listen to “Ya’ Boi Gets Right” to figure out why they feel so at home among their rock-minded labelmates — it’s a hip-hop song with a long, shredding guitar solo. The shuffling groove was written by group members Chuck Deuce (Deuce also produced the infectious track), Mr. Goodbar, and Dat Boi Dunn. The soulful retro-rhymes are what speak for the track, but it’s the saccharine refrain that wraps its arms around your brain and squeezes for days. It’s also hard not to mention that the song becomes complete with a perfect, amazingly cheeky, throwback early 90’s hip-hop video, which feels more like it’s lamenting what MTV has become, rather than overstating the influence of artists like Bell Biv Devoe.—Brent Owen
“Move” — House Ghost
“Hey, I really like you. No, the girl behind you. And if you don’t mind to, please move.” Thus begs the chorus from just one of House Ghosts many sharp-witted singles they released this year. Like other standouts “Cactus Killer” and “Venn Diagram,” “Move” feels like it gets a heavy dose of inspiration from Weezer’s Green-era — pitch-perfect pop with crunchy guitars and heart-on-sleeve confessions, all with a heavy wink and a bright smile (worth noting that all three members have seriously great smiles). It’s intelligent pop that doesn’t take itself too seriously, without cutting corners on execution, but, most importantly, it is the sounds of friends having a great time and inviting you in to party with them. (Side note: DO NOT miss a chance to catch them live. Their near legendary on-stage antics merit a whole other review.
“River Low” — Joan Shelley
Soft and sad, with the sort of barely-contained emotion that is shared among great folk singers, this, like many of Shelley’s songs, is elegantly structured, although it’s about as barebones as possible, anchored by a vocal rhythm that carries a lot of weight. One third of the rootsy trio Maiden Radio — which formed in 2009 — “River Low” is off Shelley’s second solo album, “Electric Ursa,” one of this year’s best local releases. While old-timey mountain music seemed to dominate Maiden Radio’s output, Shelley, in her solo efforts, has explored new territory that cultivates a range of Americana influences, forming a diverse and individualized style. On “River Low” she sounds like a cool, collected stream-of-consciousness Greenwich songwriter, but with bluegrass flowing through her veins.
“The Necromancer (featuring CJ Prof)” — Touch AC
This track speaks to a soft spot in my heart for dirges in a minor key, something I consider a Louisville tradition. Here though, the key of the track evokes a sense of looming menace, like something rotten is about to happen or perhaps that it is currently happening at the time of the track. You can picture emcees Touch AC and CJ Prof and producer Filthy Rich plotting a heist or slowly walking away from an explosion while The Necromancer plays and the credits roll. The plodding pace to the track lends itself to earworm status, as the bouncy bass and gritty drum work demand to remain embedded in your brain — a constant loop punctuated by tasteful rhymes and tremolo heavy guitar. The atmosphere created is thick and viscous, demanding multiple replays to properly soak up the vibe, while the raps weave a dark and foreboding story perfect for nighttime listening.
“Nothing To It” — Jim James
Well, needless to say, when I heard of “The New Basement Tapes,” featuring Jim James, Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith and Rhiannon Giddens completing a series of unfinished Bob Dylan songs together, I started tingling in places that made me feel trapped in some sort of arrested musical adolescence. The shining point on the elegant album came from our own Jim James, who bounces “Nothing To It” on an indelible spark that Dylan never would have allowed for himself – but probably would’ve encouraged in others. “Nothing To It” is a song that immediately elevates you to places you haven’t been to in a sober state in a very long time. The amp-distended guitar riffs paired with that circular melody makes this track feel like something George Harrison would have written at the peak of his “All Things Must Pass” brilliance. James also has an amazing talent for delivering optimistic lyrics in a whimsical manner without sounding flighty or subversive, just genuine.
“Stranger” — Jonathan Glen Wood
Another side of the frontman for the psychedelic, blues-heavy rock outfit Old Baby, “Stranger” from the album “Ballad of Jon” digs into the war chest of classic country, pulling out all of the best honky tonk weapons — a crying fiddle, sharp steel, rolling keys, a baritone howl and a chorus that packs some punch. His vocal delivery — a dark and dry croon — reminds me a little of Townes Van Zandt, while his versatile and clever arrangements sound like the music that should be coming out of Nashville, if there wasn’t an infatuation with sappy pop country. It really shows the caliber of musician he is, and the depth of talent that he holds.