When UAB’s football program was unceremoniously canceled a week ago, it was a reminder — disconcerting for some, gleeful for others — that for all the talk of Birmingham’s renaissance, this city is systematically and by design not in control of its own destiny. However much progress the city has made since the dark ages of Jim Crow, the statewide political calculus is still very much tied to its 1901 constitution.
But take heart, Birmingham. During the actual capital-R Renaissance, Italian city-states were tasked with fending off assaults from the Holy Roman Empire and France, not to mention their prolonged and vicious wars against one another. Despite losing pretty convincingly in each of those conflicts, it was Italy’s art and philosophy that came to dominate the rest of Europe, not that of its conquerors. As Orson Welles put it in The Third Man, “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.”
Nobody in Birmingham produced the Sistine Chapel or Mona Lisa this year, but it was still a banner year for culture in the Magic City. Nowhere was that more evident than 2o14’s crop of local music, which not only made life easier for certain local music writers, but also features music that defines the city’s present moment and which gives it reasons to be proud moving forward. It’s not going to shake up the statehouse in Montgomery, but Birmingham’s cultural ecosystem may give it the sort of artistic footprint to compare to the legendary salad days of Muscle Shoals.
Here follows a list of this particular music writer’s favorite local records of 2014, all of which would make excellent gifts for the folks on your list who happen to have wonderful taste. It’s a testament to just how good Birmingham’s music scene is right now that worthy contributions from acts like the Dirty Lungs, Corey Nolen and Plains didn’t make the cut, as well as the fact that yours truly had to disqualify Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires and St. Paul and the Broken Bones to keep things interesting.
Without further ado — and that really was a lot of ado, sorry — the top five Birmingham records of 2014:
5. Noel — I Won’t Answer: “I feel about as low as any soul could go and still be saved,” Noel Johnson sings on the first track to this ambitious opus on God and man. Things only get more complicated from there, as Johnson explores the tenuous state of the spiritual in a corrupted material world — or, in the album’s worldview, the tenuous state of a corrupted material world whose time is rapidly approaching. As grim as that might sound, the record breezes along thanks to Johnson’s ear for melody, Armand Margjeka and three-time Grammy winner Darrell Thorp’s excellent production style, and I Won’t Answer’s unique synthesis of old-time blues, gospel music and Beck-style experimental rock. If the apocalypse is looking for a soundtrack, it could do a lot worse than I Won’t Answer.
4. Wray — Wray: The second Communicating Vessels release on this list, Wray is docked points mainly for being the size of an EP; otherwise, it’s pretty hard to find fault with the record. Wray make music that sounds like pure sonic nostalgia, distilling the yearning of ‘80s synthpop, the energy of mid-‘90s indie rock and the gorgeous textures of shoegaze music into a combination that’s pure bliss to listen to, particularly on the record’s flawless opening suite of songs. If you’d told me two years ago that a Birmingham record could sound this good, I wouldn’t have believed you.
3. Drew Price — Hustle Strange: If he’s not a pop music genius, Drew Price is something perpendicular to that. Every song, whether it’s a churning electronic anthem, a goofy trifle or a psychedelic freakout, features the same effortless pop sensibility. Even if Hustle Strange can be a little too relaxed for its own good, it features hooks for days, with any given song on the album’s chill first half likely to get stuck in your head. Despite the constant Mac DeMarco comparisons, Price’s music is unique — not just because of his songwriter’s voice, but because of how perfectly it fits a specific time and place. With Hustle Strange, Price captured what it feels like to be a twentysomething trying to figure things out in a city that’s trying to figure things out, too.
2. The Green Seed — Drapetomania: At the Green Seed’s set at this year’s Secret Stages festival, the hip-hop foursome performed their set like conquering heroes. After releasing the best record from Communicating Vessels’ insane summer crop of albums, they had every right to. If Hustle Strange is the record Birmingham needs now, then Drapetomania is the record it needs going forward, a bold, clever and endlessly charismatic testament to friendship, faith and hope that doesn’t gloss over issues of race and class. Birmingham doesn’t deserve to take a victory lap yet, but if it follows the Green Seed’s lead, it’ll be on the right track.
1. Holy Youth — Holy Youth: Alabama’s musical history is littered with great acts — The Sex Clark Five and Carnival Season both come to mind — who are now basically forgotten thanks to the complete lack of infrastructure at the time. Though they’re not a retro act by any means, Holy Youth sound like one of those forgotten treasures, a band whose masterpiece of a debut LP wouldn’t seem out of place next to old Blondie and Nerves cassettes. Holy Youth features some of the best power pop songwriting yours truly has ever heard, pairing bleak songs about frayed relationships with irresistible hooks and melodies, all amid a frisson of fuzz. It’s electric, efficient, an instant classic, and the best local record I heard in 2014.
These records have set an awfully high bar for 2015, but something tells me I’ll have the same grin on my face when I make this list next December. I’m already looking forward to it.