Month: March 2015

Ten Favorite Records of the Year, Q1

kendrickWith my earlier clearinghouse post out of the way, and with the first day of April quickly approaching, I should pause to indulge in an annual tradition: To share with you my picks for the best records I’ve heard in the first quarter of the year. I will happily attest that all of the records in my running top ten are excellent, and any or all of them could be back here in December when I do my year-end wrap-up. I love them dearly, and for different reasons; I recommend them all heartily.

  1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
  2. Bettye LaVette, Worthy
  3. Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow is My Turn
  4. Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night
  5. Allison Moorer, Down to Believing
  6. Marcus Miller, Afrodeezia
  7. Laura Marling, Short Movie
  8. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
  9. Brandi Carlile, The Firewatcher’s Daughter
  10. Jose James, Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday

And ten others that I dig plenty: Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love; Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell; Gretchen Peters, Blackbirds; Pop Staples, Don’t Lose This; Will Butler, Policy; Tobias Jesso, Jr., Goon; The Lone Bellow, Then Came the Morning; Matthew White, Fresh Blood; Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside; and Steve Earle, Terraplane Best re-issue of the year, and likely to remain so: Lead Belly, The Smithsonian Folkways Collection

Deluge: New Records from Allison Moorer, Courtney Barnett, Sufjan Stevens, and More!

down to believingIn a perfect world—one in which, I presume, I wouldn’t have to sleep—I would write extensively about all the new records that have been in heavy rotation around here, but alas: I have a newborn in the house, the first issue of Cahoots coming out tomorrow, and—oh yeah—a day job, which translates into a mountain of new music that I simply haven’t the time to do justice.

I hope to write more about some of these at some point; in the meantime, don’t assume this cursory treatment to be a lack of enthusiasm. I quite like all of these albums, and recommend them to you all.

  • Down to Believing, the phenomenal new record from Allison Moorer, is a tremendous, personality-packed country and Americana album, heavy on heartbreak but also willing to dip its toes into bleak humor, ferocious blues, and hard-won optimism. It’s lovely and soulful, and while it runs a bit long—as country albums seem to do, these days—every chapter feels integral to the story, including the graceful CCR cover. This is her best album yet, I think, by some distance.
  • There are actually several recent releases from tough, vivacious women, and two that I particularly hope don’t get lost in the shuffle. Short Movie—immediately my favorite Laura Marling album—finds her broadening her palette to include moody electric effects, but what impresses the most is the drama implicit to these songs; her amazing authority as a vocalist, tender and vulnerable but still strong and magnetic. She even does a talking blues number here and just kills it.
  • Also of note: The Firewatcher’s Daugher, from Brandi Carlile and, once again, a personal best. If her previous albums were all tasteful and immaculate, this new one is messy and rough and unhinged in all the right ways, at times careening with kinetic energy and at times swaying with beautiful close harmonies, all of it teeming with life and blurring the lines between country, rock and roll, and burnished folk.
  • Courtney Barnett has rightly made waves with Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, a 90s-loving record in the best sense of the term: When it rocks and rolls it does so in a way that’s hip and weird and above all fun, and when it slows down the songs are deeply felt and soulful. This is such a funny and addictive record; it is making its auteur into a Very Big Deal, and deservedly so.
  • Meanwhile, over on the Blue Note label, bassist Marcus Miller has just released a deliriously funky record called Afrodeezia, which features an international cast of guest musicians, among them Chuck D.; it’s a blur of jazz, West African music, R&B, gospel music, and hip-hop, Robert Glapser’s presence on it tipping you off to just how hip and genre-defiant this thing is, but the big story is that it’s just a joy to listen to, full of big melodies and monster grooves.
  • Finally, there is Sufjan Stevens and his new record Carrie & Lowell. I must confess to not being the world’s biggest Sufjan guy, but the things that often keep me at a distance from the man—like his thin, brittle voice and self-conscious lyrics—work quite well here on an album that’s deliberately a bit awkward, tender, and vulnerable. It’s a modest and seemingly personal collection like none of is previous ones, and as such it’s the one that moves me the most deeply.

Kicking the Canon: Bob Dylan, “Bob Dylan”

bobdylanBob Dylan’s self-titled debut album turned 53 this week; it is an often underappreciated album, but one that I return to pretty regularly and find to be bountiful in revelation. (It is better than many of his all-originals albums, including all of the albums he released in the 1980s.) So when the brass at Kicking the Canon asked me to write it up, I was, of course, more than happy to oblige.

First Impressions: Tobias Jesso, Jr., “Goon”

goonTobias Jesso Jr. has generated no small amount of buzz with his debut album, Goon—including a Best New Music distinction from Pitchfork and well-received turns on both Jimmy Fallon and Conan—and that in itself is sort of a remarkable thing: The record is almost defiantly low-key and aggressively old-fashioned, to the extent that the words defiant and aggressive can even be used when describing music so unhurried and seemingly casual. It’s a throwback to the singer-songwriter era of the 1970s, a predominantly piano-based pop album made the way Randy Newman and Tom Waits used to make ‘em.

Of course Jesso doesn’t have the personality of either of those men, but that’s a bit unfair. His record is plainspoken, earnest, and classicist, and even if you haven’t heard “How Could You Babe” you can probably get a pretty good idea of what it’s about just from the title. The pleasures of the album are in its craft—in the stalwart melodies, the slow build of the songs, the everyman soulfulness in Jesso’s voice—and as such it’s underwhelming at first but grows more charming with each endearing listen. Nothing about it is new, but the way it springs so fresh-faced and wide-eyed into tried-and-true craft is invigorating in its own right.

First Impressions: Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly”

kendrickI couldn’t and shouldn’t speak much to the resonance of To Pimp a Butterfly as a State of the Union address—for hip-hop, for Kendrick Lamar, for America—except to say that it’s there and that its depths are worth plumbing, even if there is, perhaps, no bottom. This is a record so teeming with ideas and so bristling with wild, careening, often contradictory energy that it quickly blasts through any notion that it could possibly be empty or slight: The medium is the message, the chaos is the point, and its profundity lies in its ambition, if nothing else.

It comes with lofty expectations—more than any record since, well, Black Messiah, and arguably as much as any album in rap history—and it rises to meet them, surely shouldering the burden through an admittedly exhausting 80-minute runtime in which Kendrick speaks boldly and directly to current events while spending a curiously large fraction of his time dwelling in the past: This is a record that grapples with the current realities of stardom by looking back to the artist’s roots, and honors Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement by throwing it back to Parliament and the Isley Brothers, to Tupac and Dr. Dre, to Alex Haley, Michael Jackson, Nelson Mandela, 40 acres and a mule.

It is an album of overwhelming blackness that is also steeped in the artist’s own autobiography and internal monologuing; it does not condescend with efforts to open itself up to wider audiences, and in its lack of compromise proves James Baldwin to be correct: The destiny of America is the destiny of black America; Kendrick wrestles with the pull between being responsible and being a fallen human, with institutional injustice and personal shortcomings, with the rap game as savior and as serpent, and never gives any of us an out: These aren’t just black problems or rap problems or Kendrick Lamar problems, and we think of them as such at our own peril.

Throughout the album, Kendrick is triumphal, defiant, reflective, self-loathing, and self-destructive; a song called “u” courts the hatred of self, the hatred of Kendrick Lamar, with the singer adopting the cracked and pitiful voice of a bitter alcoholic. A later song, “i,” rides an electrifying Isley Brothers groove to an expression of self-love, self-worth.

The album never congeals into any one thing. Funk grooves build momentum and then collapse into free jazz; smooth soul mutates into drunken, Dilla-style beats; a song begins as one thing and then transforms into something altogether different. It’s noisy and convoluted and at times willfully difficult.

The whole thing seems like it might have its own internal logic—repeated phrases and motifs, callbacks to earlier songs—and perhaps in time it will all snap together into something unified and consistent. I rather hope it doesn’t, though: The album’s appeal is in its beautiful mess, its contradictions, its loose sense of time and history. To Pimp a Butterfly is an album that could only have been made by a human being named Kendrick Lamar, following on the heels of wild success and widespread tragedy.

Given how rich in history the album is, it comes as no surprise that it has many antecedents: It resembles Fear of a Black Planet in how its general anger is metered out into individual songs that mount specific arguments and tackle specific points, and also in how its lyrical ambition doesn’t keep it from being musically rich and—at times—funky as shit. It resembles a Roots joint in its live band feel, and undun in particular with its humane and compassionate perspective, with how its protagonists are reflective and aware of their imperfections. George Clinton shows up on the first song as a kind of funk godfather, and unsurprisingly this song feels like it’s cut from the same cloth as Aquemini—not least because, like Outkast, Kendrick makes the case for eccentricity as its own black experience; the album’s weirdness is its own form of hardness.

Several songs feel like Olympian feats. “How Much a Dollar Cost” is tough, then surprising in the end; the song recounts an encounter with a homeless beggar who is in the end revealed to be the very Ancient of Days. It’s killer. On “Mortal Man,” Kendrick considers the burden of his newfound responsibility, the inevitability of his imperfections, and the way we all turned on Michael Jackson. (“He gave us ‘Billie Jean’—you think he touched those kids!”) It descends into a poetry recitation, then an interview with Tupac, then more poetry. It is impossible to imagine a more audacious album closer.

Kendrick’s audacity is almost all it takes to sell the record: I’m not sure how often I’ll actually sit through the Pac interview, but Kendrick really goes for it, doesn’t pull punches, and makes it feel like it’s essential to the album’s tapestry.

If the album’s cover and its opening line—“Every nigga’ is a star”—didn’t give it away, it is indeed a Very Serious record, and could just as easily have been titled There’s a Riot Goin’ On, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, or Black Messiah, were those names not otherwise claimed. It is often fun though never particularly funny, and perhaps doesn’t need to be: It tries so hard and pushes so fearlessly forward that it’s impossible to be bored by the record, even if you might find yourself overwhelmed or even wearied by it. Personally, I think its madness invigorating and galvanizing.

Throughout the album the artist asks us if we hate him, and seems at times to feel sure that we do. Some will, perhaps; To Pimp a Butterfly does not try to make friends. But none will find it possible to ignore. It is as much its own thing as any hip-hop record you can name. It seems as though it contains everything of who Kendrick Lamar is and what he can do, which is another way of saying that it contains multitudes.

First Impressions: Will Butler, “Policy”

policyFor me, Arcade Fire is a band that has delivered diminishing returns, even though all of their albums are fine and worthwhile. Still, the shaggy, underdog energy of Funeral is, in my mind, still the unchallenged high water mark in their catalog, outstripping the top-heavy thematic ambitions of Neon Bible, the curiously subdued and genteel The Suburbs, and the Very Serious Boogie of Reflektor. The problem with the band, such as it is, is that they are increasingly insistent on making Important Albums that tackle weighty political and spiritual themes; their calling cards are depth and sophistication, not the rugged enthusiasm and anarchic energy on which they first built their name.

So when I tell you that Policy, the debut solo album from AF member Will Butler, is a bit slight—it’s only 27 minutes long—and that it’s not deep and sophisticated, but rather is punkish and nervy and rough around the edges, you’ll understand that I mean all of those things as compliments. I’m not saying it’s a better album than any of these Arcade Fire jawns, but it certainly has an appeal, a charm that’s hard to deny.

In fact, I have been playing it quite a bit. It’s shambolic, the lyrics endearing and funny but pretty rough, the piano ballads disrupting the considerable momentum achieved by the careening energy and frayed nerves on display elsewhere. And I love it for all of those reasons.

It’s not a great statement, and its memory fades about as soon as its 27 minutes are up—but it happens to be a great deal of fun, which is not nothing. Not nothing at all.