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A Very Good Year
A series covering the 15 best music releases of 2014
10. Neil Young - A Letter Home
9. Bill Mallonee - Winnowing
8. Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways
Key tracks: "Something from Nothing," "What Did I Do/God as my Witness," "Subterranean," "Congregation."
I love that Dave Grohl always keeps growing. He’s one of the last songwriters that writes melodic pop/rock songs with guts that not only break the charts but also keep his credibility with the underground.
Sonic Highways was written and recorded in several famous music cities in the US in conjunction with a TV series of the same name. Grohl thankfully resisted the temptation of writing a country song in Nashville, a Motown song in Detroit, and a Woody Guthrie-ish folk tune in New York. Instead he simply used the locations as springboards for his new material.
This approach works nicely, as Sonic Highways is filled with catchy, could-be singles. Melodic, rocking “Something from Nothing” and “The Feast and the Famine” are classic Foo Fighters. “Congregation” is a bit mellower, something like a more upbeat Son Volt, at least until the screaming in the bridge. Its lyrics are biting and thought provoking: “Do you have blind faith/do you have blind faith?/open your eyes/step into the light.”
Things get interesting with the creative, gospel-tinged suite “What Did I Do?/God as My Witness.” It builds from a more typical, blistering Foo Fighters track into something both twangy and soulful. “In the Clear” is another interesting, more laid back song with a catchy chorus and a southern flavor (makes sense considering that it was recorded in New Orleans). “Outside” has to be about David Bowie, the lyrics name-dropping his albums Outside and Earthling and coming off almost like a biography. Musically it could also fit on one of Bowie’s last couple albums, except for the bridge which is straight up Bleach-era Nirvana and comes out of nowhere.
Bowie’s influence is even more apparent on “Subterranean,” which could have easily fit on his legendary ‘70s albums “Heroes.” Swelling strings and acoustic guitars fit perfectly behind one of Grohl’s best melodies. Double tracked vocals enhance its dark, otherworldly feel. It’s quite unlike anything the Foo Fighters have ever done. Closing “I Am a River” brings the Bowie influence full circle, as it features a string arrangement by his longtime collaborator Tony Visconti (who played bass on “The Man Who Sold the World” which was covered famously with Grohl behind the drums on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged). The melodic, evocative song is a fitting ending to the album.
One of the most creative forces in modern rock, Dave Grohl shows his versatility and gift of melody throughout Sonic Highways. Rock music today needs more people like him who continue honing their craft but also aren’t afraid to push boundaries.
Next: 7. Tom Petty, Hypnotic Eye
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He is also a contributor for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik's music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.