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A Very Good Year
A series covering the best music releases of 2014
10. Neil Young - A Letter Home
9. Bill Mallonee - Winnowing
8. Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways
7. Tom Petty - Hypnotic Eye
6. Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes
Key tracks: "High Hopes," "Ghost of Tom Joad," "American Skin (41 Shots)," "Just like Fire Would."
There are few musicians more divisive than Bruce Springsteen. For most he is either a rock n’ roll god or the epitome of “classic rock” dinosaur indulgence. There isn’t much room in between.
For a brief period of childhood innocence I fell into the former category. The Boss is perfect for kids: you can sing along, pump your fist, and generally get into most of his songs, especially his big hits. Plus when I was growing up you couldn’t get away from the beautiful “Streets of Philadelphia.”
When I hit adolescence I became too cynical, too cool, and ultimately too pretentious for Springsteen. Unfortunately many, especially fans of “indie” or underground music, never grow out of this. Oh irony.
My conversion began when I discovered Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad around the time of the release of similarly affective Devil’s and Dust. As a fan of songwriting, creativity, and feel it’s impossible not to be drawn to each of them. 2007’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, an album of scorching versions of songs that folk legend Pete Seeger popularized, sealed the deal. I was a legitimate Springsteen fan.
To my delight he followed Overcome with a series of quality albums. The best of them, 2007’s Magic, is filled with gems that are as catchy and engaging as his most popular material (and with a bit less bombast). High Hopes, a collection of outtakes and covers, doesn’t quite reach those heights but it still continues his latter-day resurgence. The craft of Springsteen outtakes easily outdoes the best that most songwriters and musicians turn out in the 21st century.
Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello famously adds his distinctive playing to many of the songs on High Hopes. It might seem like an odd pairing but Morello and Springsteen are both more eclectic and forward-thinking than most of their contemporaries. They go together better than you’d expect.
Morello enhances each song he plays on. His breaks on catchy mid-tempo “Heaven’s Well” blast it into another world. He’s at his best on the two highlights of High Hopes, the title track and an intense re-working of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” More than the best songs on the album, they are two of the best songs of 2014.
“High Hopes” begins with driving percussion and hot Morello guitar textures that, combined with tasteful horns and the conviction of Springsteen’s performance, put it among his best. Yet even that is nothing compared to “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a blistering, emotional performance that finds Morello and Springsteen giving everything they have. A must listen.
The rest of the album doesn’t reach such lofty heights (how can it?) but it does have good variety and typically memorable Springsteen melodies. Although it sounds 20 years older than it actually is, mid-2000s leftover “Harry’s Place” sounds like an ‘80s Warren Zevon outtake (that’s a compliment). A series of catchy mid-tempo rockers – “Just like Fire Would,” “Heaven’s Wall,” “This is Your Sword,” and others – are highly melodic and very Springsteen (again, a compliment). “American Skin (41 Shots),” a brooding, emotional song, is a throwback to his best bombastic ‘70s and ‘80s ballads. It’s the best of the slower songs on the record.
It’s a great injustice that, no matter how good the material they’re releasing is, albums by older artists like Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Pink Floyd don’t get any recognition much less played on the radio. In the Twin Cities we’re fortunate enough to have a station like the Current that, while too focused on hip albums that get a 6.15432 on Pitchfork but nobody listens to six months after they’re released, will play stuff like this. God bless them. Because albums like High Hopes, and especially songs like the title cut and “Ghost of Tom Joad,” are better than not only most new music but also much of what is in the regular rotation on classic rock radio.
Next: 5. Willie Nelson - Band of Brothers
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.