At the end of 2014 I found myself inspired and excited about a lot of the albums that had come out that year. A lot of my favorite singers that I had given up on seemed to have regained their spark. It was a very exciting time for me. There was a comfort in having the soundtrack of my life again provided by those I loved most. I intended to write a piece detailing each album and my experiences with them. I wrote the Natalie Merchant section late at night. I wrote the Tori Amos and Blondie sections while I was getting my oil changed. Sadly, I never got around to Stevie Nicks, Chrissie Hynde, or the exciting Madonna demos that were leaking at the end of 2014.
It is now November 2015. Both Natalie Merchant and Tori Amos have new albums released, making the ones I wrote about already one album back. So instead of letting what I’ve written already collect dust…here it is. Enjoy.
2014 RULED FOR MUSIC
2014 was a killer year for music. Some of the best music I’ve heard in ages came out in that year…and most of it was by women in their 50s. Ageists beware – your stereotypes have been challenged.
I came of age in the late 80s/early 90s and have found myself growing alongside my favorite artists and writers. With the passage of time some of them lost their spark, some of them died, and some of them retired. But in 2014 I was delighted to find that some of my faves had regained their spark, relit their fire, and were once again making music worthy of their legacy. Here is a synopsis of some of my favorite albums that came out in the last year.
NATALIE MERCHANT – NATALIE MERCHANT
I did not become a fan of Miss Merchant until her album OPHELIA. I only knew the singles…but upon exploring that album I found a depth and color I could really relate to. I have been a big supporter of all of Merchant’s releases – 2001’s MOTHERLAND (her last album of original material until the new one), her brilliant earthy album of covers (HOUSE CARPENTER’S DAUGHTER) and her most recent LEAVE YOUR SLEEP which put children’s poetry to music.
I was surprised to find out that Natalie had an album of original material coming out. Merchant’s website has been quiet for a couple years. Sure, she was touring. There was no indication of new music.
As the release date approached the first taste of Merchant’s new music was the lead single “Giving Up Everything”. I was floored by this song the moment I heard it. The moodiness and depth that Natalie always brings was in place – but add to it this time years of experience and wisdom. With its accompanying video “Giving Up Everything” was an examination of life, death, hurt, disappointment, and most importantly release and acceptance. In a society built on impulses it was so healing to hear a song discussing the need to discard yearning and longing on the path for inner peace.
When the full album arrived it conjured the feeling of being wrapped in a warm, secure blanket. In real life Natalie had given birth to a daughter since her last album of original material. That same maternal warmth and protectiveness seeped into every layer and nuance of the new songs. As always Natalie found herself at odds with the world…only this time instead of rallying a march her songs were providing a place for her audience to be emotionally safe.
The experimentation of Natalie’s last couple albums provided a nice foundation for the new songs. “Black Sheep” was built on a slinky jazz groove that could have easily wandered off of LEAVE YOUR SLEEP. Likewise “Texas” conjured the same naked, earthy depth of the best of HOUSE CARPENTER’S DAUGHTER.
Perhaps NATALIE MERCHANT’s best moment was on the second to last song. “Lulu” is a gorgeous and tragic audio autobiography of the silent film star who fell from grace. What makes the song so powerful and profound is not only Lulu’s story itself…but the fact that her story is many of our own story. I’ve seen many around me fall and I see their faces reflected in that song as powerfully as Lulu’s face herself.
NATALIE MERCHANT is a welcome and necessary addition to the catalog of its namesake. I only hope Natalie keeps paying no attention to sales and writing and releasing profound, unique music that speaks to the soundtrack of our lives. Please keeping singing and writing my favorite ladybird.
BLONDIE – GHOSTS OF DOWNLOAD
Debbie Harry was my first idol. As a Kindergartner I didn’t play with toys…I collected Blondie album. After Blondie’s red hot streak of album in the late 70s/early 80s it seemed the world moved on…my 7 year old self included. Here and there Debbie and I would meet back up. I loved 1986’s ROCKBIRD from back to front. Blondie’s 1999 comeback single “Maria” kicked ass as hard as anything in their heyday – as did 2001’s single “Good Boys”. Sadly I found their accompanying albums NO EXIT and THE CURSE OF BLONDIE to be scattershot and patchy. Even 2011’s PANIC OF GIRLS had moments of promise but in the end it didn’t deliver.
It was with much surprise I found myself enjoying 2014’s GHOST OF DOWNLOAD as much as anything Blondie had ever released. Perhaps it’s my own love for electronic music…but despite that Debbie Harry and Chris Stein seemed to be riding on a red-hot wave of inspiration.
“Sugar On The Side” struts with the swagger and attitude of Blondie’s best cuts…while “Rave” taps into a powerful energy I haven’t heard from this band since 1980. Ofttimes duets with younger artists come off as forced and gimmicky – but when Debbie duets with Beth Ditto from The Gossip on the ensuing “Rose By Any Name” the results are pure magic. The sass and spunk of both these iconic artists compliment each other. I’m floored.
Upon first listen GHOSTS OF DOWNLOAD seemed to peter out towards the end…but with repeated listening all of the songs revealed themselves to be winners Even the strange, off-kilter cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” works.
By the time one reaches the closing cut “Backroom” GHOSTS OF DOWNLOAD has taken you on an unexpectedly easy and enjoyable ride. All of the clever lyrical wordplay, effortless musicality, and unforced attitude of Blondie’s best work feels solidly back in place for the first time in years and years. Sugar on the side, indeed.
TORI AMOS – UNREPENTANT GERALDINES
A person’s hairstyle is a pretty superficial way to gauge the excitement of an upcoming album. When the first promo photos accompanying Tori’s upcoming UNREPENTANT GERALDINES were released I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief that is was Tori’s natural hair…and not a glamor shot wig.
I jumped on the Tori train around TO VENUS AND BACK in 1998. During the early 1990s I just didn’t “get it” but by the time 1998 came around I’d found a soul mate in Tori’s music. The albums that followed: STRANGE LITTLE GIRLS, SCARLET’S WALK, THE BEEKEEPER, and AMERICAN DOLL POSSE all intrigued and had moments of genius in their own ways. 2009’s ABNORMALLY ATTRACTED TO SIN felt spottier and less inspired than usual…and all of the albums that followed, while favorites of some fans, did not speak to me at all. For many musicians I love there comes a point in their output where the magic is gone. It doesn’t speak to me anymore. I’m not interested. After three Tori albums that didn’t grab my soul at all (MIDWINTER GRACES, NIGHT OF THE HUNTERS, and GOLD DUST) I found myself playing SCARLET’S WALK more than ever. Internally I wrote off my Tori Amos allegiance to be similar to that of my Prince allegiance: I would continue to buy every album forever…probably play it once (if that) and hope that the next one would be great…even though it won’t be.
But to see those promo pictures with Tori’s natural hair for the first time since THE BEEKEEPER was huge. Sure, there were gossipy jerky rumors of her hair thinning. Sure, she may have been wearing extensions in the new photos. But the Tori Amos that I loved and could relate to was the girl exposed her warts and her flaws…not hid them under wigs and photoshop. I am getting older and uglier. Or maybe just older. And naturally I can relate best to the artists who embrace the inevitable as well. And as herself, Tori looked absolutely beautiful in the most shining way.
The first single from UNREPENTANT GERALDINES was “Trouble’s Lament”. Upon first listen I found myself connecting with this song in a way I hadn’t since “Welcome To England” in 2009. Like all Tori lead singles the song showed the Tori picture from a different angle. This time around we heard Tori from a nearly bluegrass earthy Americana slant. I can’t lie: “Trouble’s Lament” kicked ass.
As far reaching as some of Tori’s album concepts could be…I usually found myself on board. UNREPENTANT GERALDINES was no exception. I loved the idea of using paintings as inspiration for music. And I loved that fact that in her promotional interviews Tori opened up a dialogue about women aging within the context of the entertainment industry. And within the context of society itself. But would the music be that good?
Seeing the tracklist I was a little bit weary of an opening track called “America”. Hadn’t we already covered that territory effectively on SCARLET’S WALK? My apprehension was unfounded: “America” found Tori completely on point and was the perfect beginning for the ride that is UNREPENTANT GERALDINES.
Throughout this beautiful, open, airy album Tori updates her thoughts on love, society, self-image, and interpersonal relationships. Some of the most beautiful poignant moments are the songs that find Tori alone with her piano. These new piano songs are nothing like the classic Tori ballads of yore…gorgeous songs like “Weatherman”, “WIld Way”, and “Oysters” reflect a few more passings through the seasons and a bit of weathering.
“50 Shades Of Blue” is an album highlight. Here we find Tori sounding and speaking like she never has before. Building on a free-form jazzy chord progression Tori not only confronts and acknowledges the big 5-0…but she embraces and celebrates it. She challenges it. This is the Tori I love.
Another grower is “Promise”. Upon first listens I cringed a bit at Tori duetting with her daughter Tash. A deeper listen revealed the track to be full of love, affection, and interpersonal bonding. Tori’s early albums may have dealt a lot with fragmented relations…and we related to that ourselves. In “Promise” Tori reveals the co-pilot, co-conspirator, and best friend that she found in her own daughter. It’s beautiful…and for lack of a better word…promising. Maybe we won’t all always be alone after all. Repeated listens showed the album to be consistent from beginning to end.
UNREPENTANT GERALDINES found itself to hold a unique place in my heart compared to Tori’s other albums. Usually Tori albums were night time albums for me…the drive home…songs to listen to when the moon and stars are out and I’m in the most shadowy parts of my head. But UNREPENTANT GERALDINES revealed itself to be my sunny Florida afternoon Tori Amos album. In 2014 I bought a brand new car…the first new car I’d ever bought…and I spent many afternoons driving through the gorgeous Florida countryside. UNREPENTANT GERALDINES was the perfect companion and passenger. This music perfectly synced with the rolling grassy fields, the wispy moss covered trees, and the rural tiny country homes. As I confront my own age and midlife it felt great to have a record to share the journey with me. Tori Amos…thanks for taking off the fucking wig and being a human again. I needed you exactly when you showed up.
There’s been other great albums that came out in 2014 by veteran artists at the top of their game. Among them are Stevie Nicks’ 24 KARAT GOLD and Chrissie Hynde’s STOCKHOLM. Stevie sounded as inspired as she did in the 1980s…and STOCKHOLM was certainly Chrissie’s best set since The Pretenders’ LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS in 1995. I listened to lead single “Sunglasses” probably hundreds of times.
As a postscript it must be mentioned another artist I had written off has reemerged from the ashes. Janet Jackson’s UNBREAKABLE is easily my favorite album of 2015.
It’s reassuring and exciting to see that with age, inspiration and creativity do not have to fade. These ladies are proof.