Belated Year-Endings: Kendrick, Fargo, etc.

kendrickWe may be well past the point where anyone particularly cares about “best of 2015” features, but there a handful of odds and ends I wanted to note before we get any deeper into this new year. For starters, the good folks at In Review Online were kind enough to let me vote on the best albums and songs of the year; on the former list you can see my quick blurb about Alabama Shakes, and in the latter I wrote some laudatory remarks about three songs, two Kendrick Lamar and one Ashley Monroe.


Meanwhile, and off the beaten path a bit… I voted for the best TV shows of the year for Flood, and though my top-ranked Parks and Recreation did not make the final cut, I was most happy for the opportunity to pen blurbs for Fargo and Veep.

My own list of 2015’s best albums remains here for your perusal; if I could change anything about it now it would be to excise one album from the list– not necessarily Kacey Musgraves– in favor of the Hamilton soundtrack, which I discovered late but have listened to obsessively over the past several weeks.

As for new stuff, I hope to have some new reviews up in the weeks to come. I continue to be rather blindsided by the passing of David Bowie, but will attempt to unearth some truths from Blackstar just as soon as I make some progress wrapping my head around it. I am also happy to report that the upcoming Lucinda Williams finds her somewhere adjacent to masterpiece material, and I hope to write quite a bit about that when time permits.


ON TO SOMETHING GOOD: Top 10 Records of 2015


Every year since 2000 I have shared a list of ten favorite records, and with the same annual caveat—i.e., that these aren’t necessarily the best records of the year, that I lay no claim to objectivity or to authority, that these are just my favorites, etcetera whatever.

But no such false modesty this year: Who’s to say that these aren’t the ten best albums of 2015, or that my own perceptions of quality aren’t plenty compelling and persuasive? The ten records I’ve celebrated here are all—I am just sure—cosmic in their significance, ravishing in their humanity, exemplary in their songcraft, seductive in their creative expression, unique in how they change the weather in the room.

Yes, I feel that strongly about them. Or, as I have said before, they are abounding in revelation and rich in entertainment. They’ll make you laugh, they’ll make you cry, they have beats you can dance to, and so on.

I’m telling you that these records are worth hearing; worth owning; worth cozying up to; once dressing down and being dressed down in return. You won’t regret it, or at least I haven’t.

A few curiosities: Though I never think about genre when putting these lists together, I feel like each year brings a particular emphasis on some particular trope of American song, and this year, for whatever reason, seems to have been a particularly rich one for country. Also, I have noted that, through some weird coincidence, my past lists have tended to be a little bit slanted toward males, but this year’s picks are more or less evenly split between male and female auteurs.

But enough preamble: A couple of special distinctions follow, and then the list itself.

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll
Lead Belly, The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Bob Dylan, The Cutting Edge

 samphillipsleadbellycutting edge

The best and most easily and widely recommendable music I heard this year is a package of recordings from the 50s and 60s; the Sam Phillips anthology is as essential as the Harry Smith anthology of yesteryear, and for basically the same reasons. Why wouldn’t a person buy it? The Lead Belly collection is exhaustive but never exhausting thanks to the man’s rich humor, deep soul, and beautiful humanity. And two discs of newly-unearthed Dylan outtakes have confirmed and contextualized my deep and abiding love of his electric trifecta—reason enough to keep it in the player.


Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Adele, 25


The former is immediately iconic, and like the album itself seems to contain multitudes: It speaks to layers of history both overt and underground, to humor and heartache and a riot still goin’ on. The latter can be plastered on as many Target and Wal-Mart displays as you like but will not lose its soulful magnetism.


And… THE TOP 10

10. Kacey Musgraves
Pageant Material
Kacey’s country has plenty of room for the Opry, the outlaw, and plenty of high and lonesome—emphasis on high. Would crack the top ten for the steel guitar player alone

9. Boz Scaggs
A Fool to Care
Alternate titles: Rhythms & Romance; Love in the Ruins; Money Won’t Change You, except maybe it will. Listen to how these songs move, and then listen to what they’re telling you.

8.Bob Dylan
Shadows in the Night
Reminds me of three things: 1. Bob Dylan can still surprise. 2. Bob Dylan can still be a masterful and controlled singer when he’s of the right mind to be. 3. Love is always just a song away.

7. Alabama Shakes
Sound and Color
A promising band becoming a great one. Sound, color—and don’t forget the funk, swagger, soul, and fire.

6. Eric Church
Mr. Misunderstood
Last time, he told us he was an outsider; this time, he makes me believe it, with killer country reared on gospel, steeped in the blues, and unafraid to crank up the funk or to move from barroom ballads and murder tales into paeans to his toddler.

5. Kamasi Washington
The Epic
the epic
Epic not just because it’s lengthy or because it’s weighty but because it takes you on a journey—from Coltrane’s spiritualism to hip-hop’s new world order.

4. Bettye LaVette
Not as explicitly autobiographical as The Scene of the Crime, but also not any less her story; these songs of tribulation and triumph alternate between tearjerkers and shitkickers, and are sequenced so perfectly you’ll want to just keep listening over and over.

3. Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp a Butterfly
Audaciously hopeful, or hopefully audacious? Only hip-hop could create such an expansive funhouse of history, and only a visionary like Kendrick could tilt each carnival mirror toward the present.

2. Rhiannon Giddens
Tomorrow is My Turn
She is everything we keep hoping our Americana stars will be: Rooted in the past but living for the present; authentic, yes, but also funky and fun. This deeply traditional album is closer to Technicolor than to sepia; it’s got twangers and bangers, and its reverence never outweighs its imagination. And let’s not let the obvious go unstated: She is one of the most gifted vocalists working today, in any idiom.

1. Ashley Monroe
The Blade
“I thought that we would go all the way/ But you caught it by the handle, baby, and I caught it by the blade.” The year’s best album– country, roots, Americana, singer/songwriter, or otherwise– balances on the razor’s edge separating joy and sadness, songs of hopefulness and devotion in dialogue with honky tonk weepers, broken-hearted laments, and testaments to love’s abiding fracture. Just as skillful: The balance between tradition and modernity, between songs with crusty roots and songs with sleek hooks, songs that are smart about their happiness and joyous even when they ring with lamentation. Ashley Monroe has enough sense of history to make an album that’s weighty and well-crafted, and enough sense of herself to keep it crackling with personality. She doesn’t reinvent this music, but she may as well be rewriting it– making a masterful country album cast in her own image.

HELLO FROM THE OTHER SIDE: Quick Takes on Dylan, Adele, Badu

cutting edgeBob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Volume 12: The Best of the Cutting Edge. Outside of Bob’s own Basement Tapes, there is probably no other period in recorded pop music that might actually reward an exhaustive 18-disc excursion. There’s a six-discer, too—an entire CD devoted to “Like a Rolling Stone” outtakes, which I’m sure are all just fine—but, finding myself more and more interested in immersive listening rather than scrutinizing academia, I actually opted for the two-disc highlight reel, which has nary a dull moment. If Another Self-Portrait righted wrongful narratives, this one mostly reaffirms what we’ve always said about this most inspired of eras, which is not at all without value. For example, the line on Bringing it All Back Home has always been that the acoustic side is just as caustic, imaginative, surreal, and gamechanging as the electrified side, and these one-man takes on “Love Minus Zero” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” prove again that inimitability is hardwired into these compositions. There are alternates and backstories from Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, too, and if they don’t dispel the myth that this era was a blur of inspired mania and overflowing brilliance, they do hammer home how careful Bob was to give his dreams structure and shape. I don’t know how often I’ll reach for the loopy, unfinished “Tombstone Blues” in place of the original, but the piano take on “Like a Rolling Stone” makes the master take sound even crisper, and the snarling “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” shows how rock and roll this stuff really was. And is.

Adele, 25. She weathers her quarter-life crisis with the perfectly respectable good taste of, say, Florence Welch (too charitable?), Celine Dion (too mean?), or Sting (maybe that’s it). Throughout the album she realizes that she’s running out of time, that she ain’t a kid no more, and that she needs to relearn how to be young. I don’t remember being so morbid when I was 25, though I probably could have gotten that way if I were this skilled in making schmaltz sound like soul.

Erykah Badu, But You Cain’t Use My Phone. She calls it a mixtape—not an album—and that’s just as well: Though it flows nearly as smoothly as Mama’s Gun and packs almost as much weirdness as New Amerykah Part 1, it’s deliberately slighter than both. It’s also loose and jammy like Return of the Ankh and more focused than Worldwide Underground, so if you assume that this iTunes/Apple goodie is lowest-tier Badu, you may be surprised by the not-insignificant sensual pleasures on offer: An interconnected suite of songs about the need for human connection and technology’s double-edged role as catalyst and cockblock, Phone offers symphonic sweep, loads of humor, typically bonkers Badu weirdness, numerous bangers, the hottest Andre verse in years, a superior “Hotline Bling,” arguably the year’s best song called “Hello,” and that unmistakable voice at the center. If you think it won’t hold your attention then you’ve obviously never tangled with Erykah Badu. She can make you put your phone down.

GET READY TO GET DOWN: Josh Ritter, Guy Garvey, The Dead Weather

ritterJosh Ritter, Sermon on the Rocks. Alternate title: Words ‘n’ Grooves. The ever-ornate and endearingly loquacious Ritter returns to the raucous, ragged beat of Historical Consequences—still my favorite of his records, and one I’d long presumed to be anomalous within his catalog—for a wild and wooly rebound from the sparse, desolate Beast in its Tracks. The first two songs both lock into ramshackle funk before monetarily drifting out of, then back into, their established grooves—annoying shifts that speak to Ritter’s tendency to overcomplicate things, but also to how seductive said grooves actually are. In addition to jagged guitars and honky tonk keyboards, most songs sound like they have at least two percussion players; “Cumberland” is propelled by congas, “Where the Night Goes” anointed with E-Street piano. “Seeing Me ‘Round,” the fifth track on the album, is the first time things settle down, and the only time things resemble the last record. Ritter practically raps his delivery on some songs, especially “Getting Ready to Get Down,” which is fitting for a set of songs that somehow get away with being incredibly dense and wordy, blurs of images that simulate the dizzying effect of mid-60s Dylan, had mid-60s Dylan been obsessed with the language of the Bible not so much as signifier of truth but as cultural shorthand. At first I thought the words flew too fast and furious—but the forward momentum here is undeniable, the energy crackles, and the words have are affecting even without you taking the time to decipher them.

Guy Garvey, Courting the Squall. Theory: Garvey provides Elbow with its soulfulness and its ongoing fascination with sound and color; his bandmates bring the energy. His first solo album moves through thunderous percussion, peppy horns, a waking dream called “Unwind” and an old-timey duet with Jolie Holland—but with a uniformly stately pace and Garvey’s sensitive emoting, never seems to go very far at all.

The Dead Weather, Dodge and Burn. Proof enough that sleaze can be seductive—even sexy; and, that there are still new riffs to be written.

First Impressions: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, It’s a Holiday Soul Party

holiday soulLike any good joke or halfway decent story, the holiday album is really all about the telling: You know where it’s headed and likely won’t be satisfied if you have the expectation of a big surprise ending, but a gifted storyteller can find new life and fresh wrinkles in the yuletide tropes you thought you knew by heart. And Sharon Jones? She counts off her new album like she’s James Brown while her Dap-Kings work vintage JB drum breaks into a thoroughly samplable “Little Drummer Boy”—ain’t it funky now? The first song is about Hannukah and the second one is called “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects.” It’s as good as you’d hope it would be, its sociorealism grounding the project in what Over the Rhine calls “reality Christmas” but not letting it sink into despair: Want of a fireplace may stop Santa but it can’t diminish a good parent’s love. Jones also serves up a “White Christmas” you can shimmy and shake to, a great little groove called “Just Another Christmas Song” that finds room for a “Hark, the Herald Angels” riff, a dreamy slow-dance “Silent Night,” and a light-as-air Christmas confection called “Big Bulbs.” (As in, “Baby you’ve got them…”) Basically, Jones does what she’s always done: Takes tried-and-true sonic comforts and renders them fresh and familiar at the same time. She was made to deliver a classic Christmas LP, and here it is. Bonus points for the fact that she’s still chasing her muse and singing her song even while battling cancer. More bonus points because it’s both funky as all get-out and festive as shit. Buy it.


thirteenThough the real point of this blog is for my occasional musings on various new records, I will flatter myself by thinking that a few of you may be interested in my, ah, extracurricular activities. To that end, I have a couple of new pieces for FLOOD Magazine that may strike your fancy: First, a review of Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking, a tremendous book that I recommend to anyone who likes great storytelling; and second, an interview with Bokeem Woodbine, a lovely man and a breakout star on the quality television program Fargo.

First Impressions: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll

samphillipsI wrote about the outstanding new Sam Phillips anthology over at In Review Online, and really cannot say enough great things about this record. As a document of strange and wondrous Americana, it is as essential as the Harry Smith box– and even more compulsively playable. A must-buy if ever I heard one. Go check it out.

First Impressions: Eric Church, Mr. Misunderstood

churchLord knows I’ve had my doubts, and even my concerns—but I’m now more than happy to believe Eric Church is misunderstood, an outsider, a purple unicorn, or any other damn thing he claims to be. I don’t even laugh when he sings about having a “guitar full of freedom.” Unleashed by the same corporate overlords who midwifed Songs of Innocence but thankfully closer to Black Messiah in its defiant expectations obliteration, Mr. Misunderstood is a tight little set that clocks in at 10 songs in 39 minutes, and in that time packs plenty of outlaw swagger, rock and roll thrills, alt-rock namechecks, Dixie-fried funk, Bourbon Street blues, and guitar heroics. Church writes songs that start off like campfire rounds before erupting into sheets of white metal. He snags Rhiannon Giddens for harmonies and Susan Tedeschi for a duet. He packs his songs with music and murder, rebellion and regret, more badassery than any country bro in years—and then he brings it all down with a song trumpeting the toddler wisdom of his three-year-old, turning from the tough shit to down-home sentiment like he’s Waylon Jennings and it ain’t no thing. The title song lifts a melody from Wilco and even namechecks Jeff Tweedy—don’t worry, I like it anyway—but one-ups Being There by being several things at once, mutating from wistful lament to balls-out rock, double-timing and then triple-timing, exploding and scaling back down. “Mistress Named Music” is a travelogue about following the muse, finding its genesis in Pentecostal hymnody but working up a head full of blues. Church left his prog rock inclinations on the last album, thank God; he takes some electric solos here and they all feel vital. “Chattanooga Lucy” is twisting southern funk like Lowell George wrote on his best days. Tedeschi’s turn is on “Mixed Drinks About Feelings,” a barroom blues that’s more Nola than Nashville. “Record Year” is showy in referencing Stevie Wonder, subtle in working in John Lee Hooker; it’s a weeper but not really, because his baby left him but now he’s got a great excuse to sit for hours and listen to records. I’ll drink to that. I mean, look: This record makes you feel things like Jason Isbell’s do, and it’s got nearly as many twists and turns as a Miranda Lambert record but in a fraction of the time. It’s catchy enough to get played on the radio but greasy and funky and hard enough to appeal to people who say they only like real country. In fact, it’s the country record of a lifetime—no misunderstanding about it.

WHICH WAY SHOULD I GO? Quick Takes on Patty Griffin, Steve Martin, Edie Brickell, Richard Hawley

servant of lovePatty Griffin, Servant of Love. She sounds like she’s searching for something—at times, for a song, though even the meandering numbers have their charms, not least the sunshine harmonies and gentle twang of “Rider of Days.” At other times, it’s an original Americana that’s born of tradition but made in her image, as on the stomping, trumpet-led blues “Gunpowder.” But mostly, it’s answers: The ruins of a relationship are strewn across this covert breakup record (song titles: “Good and Gone,” “Hurt a Little While,” “Everything’s Changed,” “You Never Asked Me”). “Servant of Love” drones its way into a trance of almost religious fervor, which underscores both the heaviness of this record and the fact that it’s not just about Robert Plant. “Hurt a Little While” isn’t her first gospel number, but it is the surest evidence yet that time and heartache have made her a deeper, more soulful singer. And “Snake Charmer” proves that the mischief and sass of “Getting Ready” was no fluke, not least because this end-of-the-album throwaway sounds like something Robert Plant might record.

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, So Familiar. Take the title in a couple of ways: Yes, this is pretty similar to their first album, using its zippy, earthbound folk as a foundation and building on it ever so slightly with the addition of some strings here, a bari sax there, a toy piano when they really want to get sentimental. But there’s also a greater familiarity between the two performers, an ease and a comfort that make this one feel more effortless and lived-in even as it very gradually ups the ante. What’s more, they’ve carved out a sound that’s really theirs now—romantic, lilting, wistful, coloring its playfulness in subtle shades of blue. Right now it feels like they could just keep making albums like this forever; right now it feels like I’d never get sick of it.

Richard Hawley, Hollow Meadows. Hawley probably isn’t the first to write a song lamenting our culture’s cellphone obsession, but he may be the only one to pull it off without sounding like a crank; though Hawley’s albums all sound like transmissions from a half-mythic, half-remembered past, he’s wistful and romantic, not curmudgeonly. Probably no big surprise, then, that he responded to the surprise popular success of Standing at the Sky’s Edge with a new collection of low-key, intimate folk songs—patiently unfolding, craftmanlike, not particularly trendy. He’s combined the burnished late nigh vibes of Cole’s Corner with the cinematic scope of Lady’s Bridge, peppering it with some of Truelove’s Gutter’s dark sound effects and Standing’s guitar thrills. Its vision makes it feel like a masterwork, even as its familiarity makes it less bracing than the typical Hawley LP. Of course, Hawley is the master of the slow burn; maybe two months isn’t enough time for me to fully absorb all this. Though, I was smitten with “Which Way” from the get-go. And “I Still Want You” captures the kind of long-term intimacy and weathered desire that nobody writes better than Hawley.