The Best Southern Albums of 2014
The Bitter Southerner’s Highly Opinionated List of the South’s Best Music This Year
Last year, when we decided to do a year-end roundup of the best Southern albums, we entered the process in a carefree way. We did it because we could.
Perhaps that attitude reflected our youthful arrogance. We were only about five months old at the time, and we thought, “Well, it doesn’t matter that much. Not that many people will care about it, anyway.”
This year, we’re a little scared because … well … y’all have expanded the Family a good bit. So the question becomes, do we still have the arrogance — the cojones, if you will — to hold forth about The Best Southern Albums of 2014?
Well, yeah, we do. We’re like that. We are the kind of people who look up and suddenly realize that it’s after midnight, we’re surrounded by empty whiskey glasses and a big pile of records, and that we’ve just spent the last four hours arguing about music. And this makes us happy.
That’s just how the BS rolls, and as we’ve come to know our readers, we’ve concluded that a good many of y’all roll that way, too. As for this list of the the South’s best music — this year pumped up to a properly inclusive 25 (actually 26) albums — not all of you will agree with us. You will say we underrated your favorite record of the year. Or you will say we overrated records you’re not so sure about. We left out quite a few good ones entirely (rest in peace, Jesse Winchester). But be assured: We know you, and we love you, and all we’re trying to do is give you something fun to debate while you listen to records and drink whiskey.
And of course, we want to be part of the argument. We already know that you won’t be shy about telling us, on Facebook, exactly what you think.
— The Crew
Dualtone Music Group / October 7, 2014
On his Facebook page, Shakey Graves (née Alejandro Rose-Garcia) refers to himself simply as “a gentleman from Texas.” But that demure description doesn’t exactly square up with the sound he creates on “And the War Came.” This could have been a quiet singer-songwriter record, but Shakey is more likely to wield a big hollow-bodied electric guitar with the backing of nothing but drums, throwing out smartly lyrical songs that cover a lot of sonic ground. Shakey Graves is producing some of the best young music coming out of Austin.
Burger Records / May 6, 2014
Two great old-line soul records from new voices came out in the South in 2014. This is the one you didn’t hear much about, but should have. Atlanta-based songwriter and guitarist Curtis Harding — who first gained notoriety as one of Cee-Lo Green’s background singers — has made an album that pulls from a wide range of Southern soul inspirations. Sometimes, he sounds like “Superfly”-era Curtis Mayfield, and other times his sound edges more toward the roadhouse blues of guitar slingers like Buddy Guy. This record demonstrates that Harding is more than capable of updating Southern soul traditions while staying true to their roots.
This Is American Music / May 20, 2014
This is the first full-length album from Fire Mountain, a five-piece band from Troy, Ala., and it took a while to grow on us. The songs of frontman Perry Brown and his bandmates are in no way aggressive. These guys aren’t much interested in smacking anyone in the face with a big message; instead, they focus on simple, appealing folk-rock arrangements. But listen underneath the soft surroundings long enough, and you’ll discover that Perry Brown’s songs have some bite, an undercurrent of discontent that gives them the tension they need to be compelling. We think the tastiest song of the bunch is “Fortress,” in which Brown rides into the chorus declaring, “So kiss me goodnight now, honey / I’ll be all right / I sleep with a dagger by my side.”
Daemon Records / January 21, 2014
It’s easy to pick on the Indigo Girls. You could write them off as paragons of an overly earnest style of folk music — too little bite and too much “Kum Bah Yah.” But they have always possessed a secret weapon in the fierce spirit of Amy Ray, who has occasionally churned out a punk-rock record in her time away from partner Emily Saliers. In this year’s solo outing, Ray surprised us and went to North Carolina to make a country record — a swear-it-on-your-grandma genuine country record. “Goodnight Tender” is solid from front to back, with spot-on arrangements and Ray’s decades of experience as a lyricist on full display. The standouts include the lovely title song, graced by Kelly Hogan’s shining harmony vocals, and the incredible opener, “Hunter’s Prayer.” But we think our favorite is “The Gig That Matters,” in which Ray practices for her final gig — the one with St. Peter for an audience. Her lyrics here are, in a word, perfect. “I’m practicing for the gig that matters, I want to see my savior’s face / When St. Peter says, ‘Sing your song, child, and I’ll let you through these pearly gates’ / Gonna say, ‘Hey Lordy, I’m here to bear some witness / No disrespect but, just in case you missed it / There’s some long-haul suffering broken folks that need mending / And they ain’t seen your help yet.’” Let the church say amen.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones
Single Lock Records / February 18, 2014
This is the Southern soul record that everyone heard about in 2014. Having first discovered the Bones as an absolutely stunning live act, we had big expectations for this record. Probably too big. But there’s no denying the fact that the spirit of Otis Redding seems to be living these days in the body of young Paul Janeway, who grew up in a holy-roller church in little Chelsea, Ala. They recorded their album in Muscle Shoals and mixed it at legendary FAME Studios — the very source of the world-shaking soul music that came out of North Alabama in the 1960s. And Janeway delivers every song with the fervor of a Pentecostal preacher. We can’t wait to hear what’s in store as this tremendously talented young band matures.
This Is American Music / June 24, 2014
We will admit to some bias here, because Caleb Caudle, a 28-year-old songwriter from Winston-Salem, N.C., has played a couple of BS events in Atlanta, and we’ve gotten to know the young man a bit. That said, the first time we saw him stand on the stage at Eddie’s Attic and dive into “Miss You Like Crazy,” we damn near choked. In a just world, the song would be on every country radio station in the world, and Caudle would be a millionaire. It really is that good. But the world ain’t just, of course. Caudle actually wrote the song as a present for the 15th wedding anniversary of two friends in Charlotte. See, when you’re a songwriter whom few people have heard of and you’re scratching a living out of gigs at any bar that’ll have you, you can’t afford much in the way of presents. But we’d bet that when those two folks in Charlotte first heard Caudle sing, “We'd fight like my grandfolks, John and Rose / But if the lord takes you first, he better take us both / ’Cause I miss you like crazy,” they probably figured they’d gotten the best anniversary present ever. “Paint Another Layer on My Heart,” with its simple arrangements, many of them with the sounds of an organ hovering gloriously in the background, is a fine record that suggests even greater things ahead for Caleb Caudle. We’ll be watching him.
OWSLA / May 27, 2014
This Gainesville, Fla., band sits precisely at the intersection of what the genre police would call “indie rock” and “electronica.” As Hundred Waters has gained fame since the release of its first album two years ago, the quartet’s tour pairings have reflected its ability to win equal appreciation from music-hungry festival goers of different tastes. Two years ago, they were out with Skrillex, and they just wrapped a fall tour with Interpol. Though the record in no way sounds distinctly Southern, Hundred Waters do show their Central Florida roots a bit on the first cut of “The Moon Rang Like a Bell”: “Show Me Love.” You hear the multi-tracked voice of lead vocalist Nicole Miglis singing harmony with herself and delivering lines like “Don’t let me show cruelty, though I may make mistakes / Don’t let me show ugliness, though I know I can hate.” The whole thing rings like a hymn and serves as a fine beginning to a hypnotic electronic record. Perfect music for cooking Friday night dinner. Works best after the first cocktail.
Rich Gang (Young Thug, Birdman, Rich Homie Quan)
Tha Tour Part 1.
Cash Money Records / 2014
You couldn’t really ask for a better boost in the hip-hop scene than the one Atlantans Dequantes Lamar and Jeffrey Williams got from Birdman (Bryan Williams), the 45-year-old, New Orleans-bred hip-hop mogul whose Cash Money Records unleashed on the world the platinum-selling likes of Lil Wayne and Nikki Minaj. Two years ago, Birdman brought the 25-year-old Lamar (Rich Homie Quan) and the 23-year-old Williams (Young Thug) into a collective with him called Rich Gang. The threesome’s only “official” album, in 2013, garnered only middling critical praise, but this 2014 mixtape (available most everywhere on the Internet for free) is delightful, albeit it not in a family-friendly way, and Rolling Stone just last week declared Young Thug the “hottest voice in rap.” Thug’s wordplay is completely trippy, sure enough. Get out the sizzurp.
ATO Records / August 19, 2014
We really wanted to write Benjamin Booker off. The hype from his label, ATO Records, a division of RCA founded by Dave Matthews, was intense, and we were suspicious, because the record biz seems to enjoy itself just a bit too much every time it finds a young African-American man who plays the guitar instead of rapping. But the thing about music is: It always speaks for itself. And Benjamin Booker’s debut record speaks loudly. The Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot (who is generally right about all things musical), called it “a raw brand of blues / boogie / soul,” and that description fits to a T. The song “Wicked Waters” is one of the damnedest things we’ve ever heard, an insistent, choogling, butt-shaking testament to the young man’s determination. “And my heart is feeling empty, and my legs are feeling weak,” the Virginia-born, New Orleans-based Booker sings. “Well, I answered wrong yesterday / I stumble when I speak / Oh, I’m afraid I’ll never be nothing / And I remember chains / Oh, all chains, all chains is all I am! / I’m making on this, son / I’m a new beginning / I will into love, oh!” The joy of his flight from away from chains and into love makes that missing final verb completely unnecessary. And Booker’s band lays into a juke joint groove that ranks up there with the best we’ve ever heard. This dude’s a keeper.
Self Released / June 24, 2014
Kelsey Waldon is from Monkeys Eyebrow, Ky., hard up against the Illinois border. Five years from now, we figure Waldon’s name ought to rank right up there with Kentucky’s greatest — women like Loretta Lynn and Patti Loveless. She makes hard country of the classic mold, but sadly, the big Nashville labels no longer seem interested in songs that aren’t about beer and trucks and don’t sound like Bob Seger in 1977. The guitars on “The Gold Mine” twang and so does Waldon’s voice as she wraps it around no-bullshit lyrics like “Early one morning, someone came to our door / They held a little book that said heaven was in store / And said if we believed, there could be a way out / And that seemed like quite a bit to think about / Now church-going people know more than I do / And we might need Jesus, but we also need food.” We like Kelsey Waldon a lot, and we’ll be watching her, too.
Justin Townes Earle
Vagrant Records / September 9, 2014
Yeah, he’s Steve Earle’s kid, but you have to give the young man, whose father named him after one of the greatest songwriters ever, credit for cutting his own path through musical styles to find his own voice. “Single Mothers” finds Earle and band in a comfortable groove that sounds a little slithery and funky like Alabama soul. We think the folks over at PopMatters nailed it when they concluded that “Single Mothers” is perhaps the record on which the younger Earle has finally found his own voice. Of course, that doesn’t keep him from flirting with the darkness with which his father has always done lyrical battle. In “Picture in a Drawer,” he is looking at a picture of a lost lover on a rainy day when his mom calls. “Mama, if you don’t mind, can we talk about something else?” he sings. “Mama, please don’t come over. This ain’t nothin’ you can help / You’ll be the first to know when I start to come around / I’m not drowning / I’m just seeing how long I can stay down.”
Jessica Lea Mayfield
ATO Records / April 15, 2014
Jessica Lea Mayfield’s earlier albums were far more sedate affairs, which is odd considering that they were produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Nashville’s reigning king of garage-rock fuzz. Without Auerbach, Mayfield and her husband Jesse Newport went it alone, playing almost all the instruments and turning out a record that sounds a little bit country and more than a little bit like Nirvana and Mudhoney. We just admire her for having the gumption to challenge the audience she had already established. We also admire her for the fact that “Make My Head Sing …” shows her songwriting talent is too big to be locked inside of an individual genre or style.
Hurray for the Riff Raff
ATO Records / Feburary 11, 2014
The Riff Raff’s songs sound so small-town that it’s a little brain-scrambling to think that Alynda Lee Segarra, the band’s leader, grew up in the Bronx. But she ran away from home at 17 and wound up hopping trains before finding a home in New Orleans. “We really feel at home with a lot of worlds of people that don’t really seem to fit together,” Segarra has said, “and we find a way to make them all hang out with our music. Whether it’s the queer community or some freight train-riding kids or some older guys who love classic country, a lot of folks feel like mainstream culture isn’t directed at them. We’re for those people.” But Segarra’s music isn’t just some hipster re-creation of old-time string bands. Witness “The Body Electric,” in which Segarra takes the Appalachian murder ballad and turns it inside out, declaring, “Well, Delia’s gone, but I’m settling the score.” The song begins with the line, “Said you gonna shoot me down, put my body in the river,” and Segarra proceeds to turn the song into the sharpest feminist anthem you’re likely to hear this year. “Oh, and tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand,” she concludes, “gonna do for his daughter when it’s her turn to go?” A question worth pondering, that one.
Highway 20 Records / September 30, 2014
Lucinda Williams is the grande dame of modern Southern rock and roll. Over a 30-year career, she’s followed her muse anywhere she damned well pleased, even if it took her seven years to complete a record, as was the case with her masterpiece, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” She pulled the title for this expansive two-disc set from the writing of her father, former U.S. Poet Laureate Miller Williams, and that’s telling, because really, that has always been the destination of Lucinda’s deeply searching songwriting. She’s always been trying to dig down to where the spirit meets the bone. One could pick nits, we suppose, about a record that spreads 20 songs over a whopping 104 minutes. But it’s so appealing to listen to one of our best and brightest just follow her spirit. “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone” is Lucinda Williams’ best record in more than a decade.
Def Jam Recordings / November 10, 2014
First off, “Cadillactica” might be one of the coolest album titles ever. But more importantly, the record lives up to its name. The son of Meridian, Miss., known as Big K.R.I.T. has made a smooth-riding machine of an album, and it runs on the lazy Jeep beats that have always characterized Southern hip-hop, the kind of beats that feel like honeysuckle vines dripping down a wall. This record almost smells good. After nearly a decade of mixtapes and “next big thing” proclamations, K.R.I.T. has also hit full stride as a lyricist. Yes, he can have fun with the braggadocious proclamations of “King of the South,” but in his more serious moments, you can hear the wonder that any human being feels in the process of self-discovery: “I found life, in the darkest of times / How can I describe what’s God’s design? / With these faulty eyes that often lie? / Stars shine bright but they often die / I’m asking for permission to perceive / I’m closer than I’ve ever been, I probably shouldn’t leave / I probably should record some of the things that I perceive / To be more sublime and divine than you and me.”
Bass Drum of Death
Innovative Leisure / October 7, 2014
This is the kind of record that makes you wish you had long, golden, rock-star hair, just so you could swing it to the jackhammering beats. Take the Ramones, Cheap Trick, Mott the Hoople and Kiss, throw them in a blender, and you’ve got Bass Drum of Death, one of the most badass rock-and-roll bands ever to call Mississippi home. “Rip This” captures John Barrett’s little band at the top of its game. When The Bitter Southerner wrote about BDOD earlier this year, we hadn’t yet heard “Rip This.” It came out the same day we published our story. But it was quickly clear that they’d made a no-adjectives-needed Rock Record of the highest order. This is what you listen to in 2014 when you’re ready to rock and roll all night and party every day. Especially on Highway 61 south of Tunica.
Loma Vista Recordings / August 5, 2014
Two longstanding Texas bands — Spoon and the Old 97’s — both gave us great new records this year, and they couldn’t be more different from each other. When we first heard the 97’s years ago, we thought, “This has gotta be from Texas.” When we first heard Spoon a couple years later, we thought, “This is from Texas?” Spoon has carved out its own special place in the indie rock world, but the most admirable thing about the band is that it has simultaneously honed and expanded its sound over the years. There aren’t many duds in the Spoon catalog, but “They Want My Soul” represents the band at the height of its powers.
ATO Records / April 29, 2014
No record made us happy faster this year than “Most Messed Up.” It’s hard to believe this beloved Texas band has been putting out records for 20 years now. After a three-record stretch from 1997 to 2001, when the band was absolutely at the top of its game, its more recent records have explored different sounds and subjects. But with “Most Messed Up,” the 97’s have just decided to embrace what they are — a well-oiled machine that spits out honky-tonk train beats and lyrics that are cleverer and wittier than what 99 percent of the world’s writers are capable of. They ’fess up to their intentions from the first notes of opener “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” in which Rhett Miller tells listeners that he’s been doing this longer than they’ve been alive and what he’s learned in the process. The song is full of gems like this one: “Well, it must be hard to get partnered with me / Some narcissism, some OCD / Well, love that comes easy’s a fake or a fluke / Love is a marathon, sometimes you puke.” This record is four friends, rock-and-roll lifers every one, being exactly who and what they are, with all pretense stripped away. God bless Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Phillip Peeples and Ken Bethea. We need them still.
Hiss Golden Messenger
Merge Records / September 9, 2014
Durham, N.C., has always turned out great bands, but we think Hiss Golden Messenger tops the list right now. Hiss’ leader, M.C. Taylor, cribbed the title of this record, the band’s first for the revered North Carolina label Merge, from Eudora Welty’s “Delta Moon”: “She remembered the nights — the moon vine, the ever-blooming Cape jessamines, the verbena smelling under running feet, the lateness of dancers.” Taylor adopts Welty’s fanciful lyricism on this new record, threading lines like “See is there work for me? / Is there a hammer and a nail? / Because I’m going that way anyway through the crippled green country” over loose, funky, finger-picked electric guitars. After Hiss did that song, “Southern Grammar,” last month on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” the host sprang from his chair and said, “Oh, my god. I tell ya. I liked everything about this!” Gotta love old Dave.
Navigational Transmissions / June 3, 2014
OK, so there’s this one other longstanding Texas band that gave us a great album in 2014. Before Centro-matic released “Take Pride in Your Long Odds,” they announced that the album would be their last, and next week, they will play their final shows at Dan’s Silverleaf in their hometown of Denton. All three are sold out — a fitting farewell to a band that’s made some of the weirdest, most distinctive rock music we’ve heard over the last 20 years. “Take Pride” doesn’t break their strange mold. It starts with a slow, wordless title song that sounds like exactly what it should: a stately march into new beginnings. Not everyone falls under the Centro-matic spell, but those who do are generally hooked for life. Our friend Jay even sports a T-shirt that says, “Centro-matic is better than your favorite band.” If “Long Odds” is your introduction to Centro-matic, you may never again have the chance to see them live, but you’ll have a wonderful catalog of great music — all of it anchored by the ragged beauty of Will Johnson’s voice — to catch up on.
ATO Records / March 4, 2014
The Bitter Southerner — as people and as an enterprise — is hopelessly biased when it comes to this band. Arguably, we owe our existence to the willingness of DBT’s Patterson Hood to write a piece for us in our very first month. But with all due respect to our dear and longtime friend Mr. Hood, that’s still not enough to buy the No. 1 spot on our list. (And the truth is, we expect he wouldn’t argue much about our choices farther up.) Here’s what we can say: We have watched this band loyally since its earliest days, and it’s pretty clear that “English Oceans” is DBT’s best expression yet of the force that’s always laid at the center of their success — the unique musical marriage of two stubborn Alabama boys, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. “English Oceans” opens with “Shit Shots Count,” a great example of Cooley’s ability to do two things better than damn near anybody: rock hard and deliver lyrics that are 100 percent free of bullshit. “Shit shots count,” he sings in his basso twang. “If the table’s tilted, just pay the man who levels the floor.” And it closes with “Grand Canyon,” Hood’s magnificent elegy to Craig Lieske, the band’s dear friend and merch manager who died in 2012. It’s damned hard for any band to pull off the dual-frontman trick. Even harder to do it with this much class and sass in the same package. To DBT, we raise our glasses and smile.
Wara from the NBHD
Playin For Keeps / July 1, 2014
It was pretty hard for us to rank this record, which few seem to have noticed this year, higher than our friends in DBT. But here’s why we did it: This is the only record that came out in 2014 about which we can honestly say, We’ve Never Heard Anything Like It. Ever. Wara is a Brooklyn-born, Atlanta-based rapper, but when you drop the needle on the record, you don’t hear beats. You hear a progression of three piano chords repeated over a tapping high-hat cymbal. The repeated sequence ends in a weird minor chord that’s enough to make you wonder if you’ve mistakenly put on Thelonious Monk. Gradually, ambient sounds from the neighborhood (that’s where the NBHD comes from) fade into the mix, then Wara’s voice comes in. He’s evidently playing the role of a hood rat who drives up to some kids (like him) and demands they get in his car. “Show you some shit you never seen before / You’re wastin’ your time playin’ your stupid-ass piano chords / That shit ain’t gonna get you hard / That ain’t what you were put here for.” It’s positively cinematic. In 90 seconds, Wara has constructed what might as well be the opening of a movie — like if Scorsese was black and decided to make “Mean Streets” in Atlanta. And throughout the record, Wara’s raps always return to the conflict at the record’s center — the battle of fast money in the dope traps vs. the longer-term promise of trusting in one’s native talents. In other words, can these stupid-ass piano chords get me above the life? In Wara’s case, the answer had better be yes. It’s rare to hear talent like his. And you’ve never heard a hip-hop record that sounds like this. Without a doubt, “Kidnapped” is the most remarkable debut of the year.
Dust-to-Digital / November 11, 2014
The Bitter Southerner thrives, at least in part, on its willingness to explore the parts of Southern history that others would rather leave out of the conversation. So if we’re going to look at the music of our region in 2014, we’d have to be idiots not to understand the significance of this release from Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital. On these recordings of black chain gangs at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary, performing their work songs for the microphones of folklorist Alan Lomax, two pictures become clear in the listener’s mind. First, there is the system that held these men, a brutal apparatus of Southern government that essentially kept slavery alive for an entire century after the Emancipation Proclamation. Second, there is the determination and life inside the voices of the imprisoned. It’s beautiful music from the mouth of hell. Every Southerner should listen.
Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires
Sub Pop / May 27, 2014
When “Dereconstructed” came out in May, we did not hold back. We said, “Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires have made what might be the most important rock record about the South ever released.” We still stand by our words, and we’d love for you to go back and read them if you missed them the first time. “Dereconstructed” would be at the top of our list were it not for the fact that one dude made a classic, and two dudes made exactly the record we need right now — but more about that in a minute. The thing to know about “Dereconstructed” is this: No Southern band has ever made a record so beautifully aimed at skewering — with great vengeance and furious anger — the parts of our history that too many of us would rather ignore. “We were raised on ancient truths and ugly old lies,” is the way Lee Bains puts it, then adds, “But I learned how to say a firm ‘No, sir,’ lookin’ in them old yellow eyes.” It’s a lesson we all need to learn. The Glory Fires make us proud to claim the South as our home — and give us reason to be encouraged for its future.
Yes, we could be accused of copping out by declaring a tie for No. 1 this year. But here’s the way we look at it. If you think of Southern music as a circle, then hard country and hard rap are arguably about 180 degrees removed from each other. And this year, one act made a classic in the hard country vein, while another act made the rap record we needed to hear right now, as we watch events unfold that feel more like 1964 than 2014.
High Top Mountain, Loose Music / May 13, 2014
In a normal year, Sturgill Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” would be a clear No. 1. This record, which begins with the reverb-drenched sounds of Simpson’s grandfather declaiming the title, will stand the test of time. Forty-five years from now, people will listen to it like they listen to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.” If you are uninitiated, Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds” is a Waylon Jennings record re-imagined as an acid trip. Its opening track begins with the line, “I’ve seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire that I was standing in.” From there it travels through a variety of theories of life Simpson has constructed: “There’s a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there far beyond this plane / Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.” You might think Sturgill Simpson is the craziest dude that ever came out of Kentucky, but then again — as the same song points out — he might very well be the sanest guy around. The basic brilliance of “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” is that it unashamedly explores and attempts to reconcile the concerns that are part and parcel of young white Southerners’ lives, particularly those of us who grew up out in the country but had the determination to question what we learned there. Its ultimate brilliance is that its lysergic journeys always end at what we know is the bedrock of sanity in the weird Southern world — faith in our own basic decency. As he sings in “A Little Light”: “Don’t need no compass, map or chart / I don’t need no stars shining above / I don’t need no nothing but a little light in my heart / Glowing inside me like a blanket of love.”
Run the Jewels
Mass Appeal / October 24, 2014
Also, in a normal year, “Run the Jewels II,” by Atlanta rapper Killer Mike (black) and Brooklyn rapper and beatmaker El-P (white), would be a clear No. 1. If Wara From the NBHD’s debut contains the makings of a movie, well, “Run the Jewels II” is the whole damned “Godfather” trilogy. Sometimes, it plays like a Quentin Tarantino movie. On “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck),” Mike ruthlessly sets the stage, “Black on black on black with the ski mask, that is my crook look / How you like my stylin’, bruh? / Ain’t nobody smilin’, bruh / ’Bout to turn this motherfucker up like Riker’s Island, bruh.” Other times, it plays like the stankiest porn movie you ever saw, such as in the brilliant “Love Again,” in which Mike and El do battle with Gangsta Boo, the only female member of Memphis’ legendary rap crew, Three 6 Mafia. We know The Bitter Southerner is not always a family publication, but even we will leave the lyrics of this one to you listeners. Suffice it to say that the song evens the score on the misogyny of which hip-hop is often accused — and of which is often guilty. But the gangsta stripper stuff is just context — cinematic backdrop — for the heart of the record, which is the question that Mike and El always address: How does the community rise above where it is today? How do we grow? How do we become better human beings? And the beating heart of “Run the Jewels II” is “Crown,” in which Mike is forced to recall the hymns of his late grandmother Bettie Clonts’ Pentecostal church — those songs about what’s required to pick up your crown in heaven. “Can’t pick up no crown,” he raps in the chorus, “while holding what’s holding you down.” That’s what Mike and El always do — they challenge. They ask, how can we all be better?
Sturgill Simpson made a classic, and Killer Mike and El-P made the record we needed to hear Right Now. That’s why we declare a tie for 2014.