Critics' Poll Results: The Top 10 Albums of 2014
Critics, by nature, overanalyze. After all, it’s our job to not only figure out whether music works, but to turn the average listener’s ears in a direction that’ll help them hear things they may not have heard in a casual first or second listen. There are many ways of doing this, of course. Some of us focus on determining whether a song makes sense in terms of music theory. Others of us (myself included) seek to contextualize music in the world, to help listeners find the stuff in the music that will speak to all the cruel and unusual absurdities, the multilayered confusions that make up processing not only our personal lives but where and how – and if – we are impacted by things that are happening in the world.
It’s this last bit that inspired me to call on writers to delve deeply into four albums that finished in the top half of our 2014 Critics’ Poll for the Best Albums of the Year. (We skipped profiling Lee Ann Womack, whose The Way I’m Livin’ came in fourth place, because nobody could outdo David Cantwell’s in-depth feature from October.) The assignment was deliberately vague. I simply asked for 2500 words on the assigned album, and told them to do with that what they would. It’s been interesting to read the results, and their work has, I think, shed light on some kind of critical consensus about the role of roots music in 2014.
From Ferguson to Peshawar, Sydney to Staten Island, Hong Kong to Cleveland, the news in 2014 has been hard to hear. Yes, this is not a news site, but even the music that made ripples among our readers and critics, when taken altogether, is a reminder that we have work to do. For example, Hurray for the Riff Raff reminded us we have work to do on violence against women. Lucinda Williams reminded us we have work to do when it comes to reckoning our physical existence with our spiritual longing. Rosanne Cash reminded us we have work to do in the realm of empathy, in reckoning how far we’ve come with how far we have yet to go. Sturgill Simpson and Lee Ann Womack … well, I think they just both reminded us that things aren’t always what they seem, that definitions have limitations, and that we could all stand to do a little work on ourselves.
Lucky for us, “work to do” has always, in the history of America, had a good friend in rootsy music. This kind of music we love here on No Depression is made with the sweat, passion, and focus of hard work. I reckon it’s the work that goes into it, as well as the work it helps us accomplish, that makes it so appealing – the grit and raw muscle, as well as the less-pronounced emotional work. And, these are the things that wound up getting discussed by our critics in their in-depth profiles of these albums. Looking beyond that Top 5, it’s easy to see that kind of work ethic prevailing across the albums on which we who overanalyze for a living, all agree.
Thirteen critics* participated in this poll, drawn from the folks who have written – or will soon write – a commissioned cover story for us. Their lists were scored, ranked, and tallied in the same manner as our readers’ poll. And, though they included everything from twangy pop to earnest singer-songwriters, hard-thumping stringbands and progressive bluegrassers, this final list of ten albums represents a very clear consensus. So, here it is, folks:
The ND Critics’ Poll: Best Albums of 2014
- Rosanne Cash – The River and the Thread
- Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
- Lucinda Williams – Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
- Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’
- Hurray for the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes
- Rodney Crowell – Tarpaper Sky
- Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers
- Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
- Parker Millsap – Parker Millsap
- Robert Ellis – The Lights from the Chemical Plant
*Participating in this poll: Kelly McCartney, Jewly Hight, Grant Britt, Mike Seely, Peter Blackstock, Anne Margaret Daniel, Kim Ruehl, Terry Roland, Gillian Turnbull, Neil Ferguson, Henry Carrigan, Lee Zimmerman, Kevin Lynch.