Favourites of 2014: Popular music

January 5, 2015

To be honest, I have hesitated to write a retrospective about the popular music I’ve enjoyed this year. As my leisure time has been squeezed I have had to prioritize, and more often than not I simply never get to those things that are second or third on the priority list — like popular music. And this year most of my pop music time has been devoted to that pop music odyssey, about which I have already been writing. So it is not clear that I have much of interest to say.

As if to drive the point home, when I look at a list of 2014’s critical darlings, I’ve heard only 2 or 3 of the top 20, and I haven’t even heard of many more. In the past few days Jeffrey Overstreet has been writing extensively about his favourite records of 2014; his tastes overlap to a large extent with mine, but even so many of the records he praises are new to me. When you’re done here — it won’t take long — I recommend you go over there. (Part 1, Part 2)

Anyway, on paper I was excited about new records from Joe Henry, U2, and Taylor Swift this year, but for various reasons they failed to make a good impression on me. Joe Henry’s latest, Invisible Hour, I believe to be a great record, but I believe it strictly on the testimony of those to whom its greatness is evident; I myself do not perceive it, and this makes me feel rather bad about myself. I was keen when I first heard of U2’s What Was It Called Again?, but it seems to me a pretty indifferent record, nowhere near U2 at their best; for years now I have been awaiting their rumoured collection of songs based on the Psalms, rumoured to be called Songs of Ascent, but rumour has it that we have to keep waiting. As for Taylor Swift: my fears have been realized. I complained last time about the noisy pop posturing of the biggest hits from her last record, and sadly 1989 is cut wholesale from the same glittery cloth. Garish. There are still glimmers here and there of the girl I used to know — I quite like the back-half of “You Are In Love” — but on this record she has mostly been smothered by The Machine, or so it seems to me.


cohen-problemsWhich brings us to the one record from 2014 that I am truly fond of: Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems. I wasn’t sure we would get another record from Cohen, and then suddenly there it was, an unmerited gift. It’s a strong collection of songs, with a production that is lusher and warmer than was the case on his previous record, Old Ideas, closer to a record like Ten New Songs. Though I am not sure I like the album quite as much as I did his previous effort, and while there does seem to be something unbecoming about an octogenerian tossing off double-entendres, in the end this record has found a place in my heart. If its last song, “You Got Me Singing”, should turn out to be Cohen’s last, it will be a most fitting departure. But I hope that it will not be his last.


oh-hellosWhen Mumford & Sons announced in 2013 that they would be on extended hiatus, part of me began quietly casting about for someone or something to take their place — that is, someone or something that would unite spiritual sensitivity with accessible roots rock and hipster sartorial excellence. It was then that I stumbled upon The Oh Hellos, who are doing very well on the first two criteria and failing decisively on the third. It’s good enough. The Oh Hellos are a brother and sister duo, Tyler and Maggie Heath, hailing from Texas. To date they have issued an EP (2011) and one full length record (2012), plus a Christmas EP. They are not as hip or as groovy as Mumford & Sons, and not as photogenic as Mumford & Sons, but the comparisons are most invidious only where they matter least. Where they matter most — in the quality of the songs — The Oh Hellos are very interesting indeed. When they sing, “We were young when we heard you call our names in the silence / Like a fire in the dark / Like a sword upon our hearts,” I, for one, feel like I have found a songwriter who is getting to the heart of things. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in their songs: sorrow and trouble, but rumours of glory whispering from between the lines. At the end of the day, I do not know very much about The Oh Hellos, but I like what I hear, and I recommend them for your consideration.


Other records I enjoyed, just not enough to write about them: Loudon Wainwright III, Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet); The Lone Bellow, The Lone Bellow.

4 Responses to “Favourites of 2014: Popular music”

  1. godescalc Says:

    I agree on Old Ideas being slightly better than Popular Problems, but the newer one is, as you say, warmer, and really cheerful – “You Got Me Singing” is absolutely beautiful. (I wonder what he uses “river” to mean. “If it be your will” has a line about “let the rivers fill”, and here it’s “you got me singing, ever since the river died”.) “My Oh My” is kinda filler, and “Did I Ever Love You” is a brave but not entirely successful attempt to be Tom Waits, but everything else is between rather good and very good. (Old Ideas had no filler at all, though I wasn’t massively keen on “Lullaby”.)

    “…while there does seem to be something unbecoming about an octogenerian tossing off double-entendres…”

    I didn’t notice that at all. Now when I listen to it part of my mind is parsing everything for possible double meanings, darnit.

  2. cburrell Says:


    Good question about the river. In other stanzas he is singing “though the world is gone”, “though it all looks grim”, and “though the news is bad”, so maybe a dead river is just another example of something that one wouldn’t ordinarily sing cheerfully about.

  3. godescalc Says:

    Hmmm. I’d say “Slow” is more erotic overtones than actual double-entendres, but possibly my innuendo-senses have become dulled by life abroad. (An English upbringing tends, or tended, to include an education in the fine arts of joking about sex by saying things that are technically totally innocent (cf. “I’m Sorry I haven’t A Clue”, which I listened to when a teenager and student); but I’ve lived outside the UK for over a decade and also I’m not an adolescent anymore. I suspect modern English youth are more direct and have less use for circumlocution in this matter.)

    Regarding rivers, the “If it be your will” line I cited uses it to represent some form of grace or goodness, perhaps similar to the river of life in Ezekiel 47; whereas “Rivers Dark” from 10 New Songs clearly refers to the rivers of Babylon in the Psalm 137. If it’s permissible to pull in the same word from 3 different songs and assume they’re variants on one metaphor, I’d say that the river is primarily life and health (“let the rivers fill”), that the rivers dark are the fallen and broken life of Babylon, the World and the Flesh (“by the rivers dark in a wounded dawn”) which the singer still finds himself loving for what’s good in them, that in “You Got Me Singing” he’s cheerful even though the life and health of the world, or his own life, has dried up.

  4. cburrell Says:

    I wouldn’t dispute any of that; it’s a reasonable interpretation.

    Perhaps it’s true that I don’t really know what a double-entendre is, specifically, but “Slow” seems to me to be unbecoming anyway. 😎

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