A summer tradition; a check-in with the records that have received the most play and generated the most delight around here, from January through today. Of course all of this can and will change, but I recommend the following records without hesitation.
Top Ten Albums of the Year – So Far!
Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow is My Turn
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Bettye LaVette, Worthy
Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material
Paul Weller, Saturns Pattern
Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color
Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night
Richard Thompson, Still
Van Hunt, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets
Kamasi Washington, The Epic
Lead Belly, The Smithsonian-Folkways Collection
“King Kunta.” (Honorable Mention: “Biscuits.”)
Most Revelatory Interpretive Singing:
Bettye LaVette finding the quiet heart of The Beatles’ “Wait.” (Honorable mention: Rhiannon getting funky on “Black is the Color.”)
T-Bone Burnett on the Rhiannon joint… his best work in 10+ years?
Cameo of the Year:
Harry Belafonte, a most welcome presence on that new Robert Glasper.
Ringer of the Year:
Jay Bellerose, instrumental in turning Tomorrow is My Turn into a banger. (Honorable mention: Kacey’s pedal steel player.)
The album title comes from the first song, “She Never Could Resist a Winding Road,” and it denotes an absence of motion, not necessarily the passage of time: “To not be standing still’s where she belongs,” we are told of the song’s central character, though its best line comes a few beats later: “You say you love her, and she don’t doubt you/ But she could learn to live without you.” It’s a song about perpetual movement, the ravages of restlessness, the dark side of wanderlust, but the music suggests Richard Thompson hasn’t strayed far from his roots; he’s a folky at heart, and the song has the lilt and close-to-the-bone verbiage of a Celtic ballad. When you expect fiddles to come in and carry it home, electric guitar licks uncoil instead. Thompson’s folkie proclivities are illumined more explicitly in the next song, “Beatnik Walking,” an acoustic travelogue and a musical biography that cracks gentle jokes without dipping into self-parody: It’s knowing, it’s wisened by age, but it’s not unserious. As a songwriter Thompson is precise with his language and committed to his characters, even when he’s knowingly playing with archetypes. The gal in the first song is the quintessential wanderer, but the sadness of the song convinces you she’s a real person; “All Buttoned Up” is a nasty song about a dirty tease, and “Long John Silver” is probably a metaphor but doesn’t quite close the door on the possibility that it really is about the famous pirate. The song that’ll get the most attention is “Guitar Heroes,” a borderline gimmick not just for its title but for Thompson’s note-perfect six-string impressions of Django Reinhart, Les Paul, and Chuck Berry; it doesn’t quite have the cohesion to work as a rock and roll song but it does work as a bit of theater, because Thompson’s impressions are… note-perfect. The song that should get the most attention, though, is “No Peace, No End”—because it’s such a vivid and empathetic treatise on hopelessness, something Thompson’s always conveyed well; because, like everywhere else on the record, Jeff Tweedy’s production is warm and clear; but mostly because of that guitar, man.
I’ve listened to little else but the new Kacey Musgraves record this week, which I quite like, and have reviewed in some detail over at Cahoots.
The mountain holler and the Opry stage collide on “High Time,” Pageant Material’s opener—and not, by the way, for the last time over the course of the LP. The pedal steel is high and lonesome and the solitary whistle sound is stark like a mountain top yodel; there’s also a string section that’s ravishing and unabashed in its glitter, plus—just for good measure—lyrics that betray an outlaw’s love of weed. Those who knows much about Kacey Musgraves will know before needle hits groove that “High Time” is a double entendre, but it’s actually a fakeout: The song is about rollin’ and smokin’ but really it’s about a moment of surrender, a chance to breathe deep and revel in the joy of the present. Fittingly, the song sways with the lazy gait of a high school dance—a moment stolen, frozen, called from memory.
What do you do when you reconvene your acoustic jazz trio following an eight-year hiatus from the recording studio—an eight-year hiatus in which you won a few Grammys in the category of R&B? Or, to be blunter: How’s a cat like Robert Glasper supposed to return to his roots after two well-received Black Radio installments, and carry as many of his newfound R&B and soul fans as possible along for the ride? These questions are not merely implicit to Covered but explicit, stated by Glapser in the spoken introduction to this live-in-the-studio set. His answer—to focus the program on covers of pop, soul, R&B, and rap songs—is offered as though a revelation, when in fact it’s really a fairly common trope in jazz circles, departing from standards to bring contemporary fare into the songbook. The presence of the spoken-word introduction really serves only to illustrate Glasper’s slant toward seriousness, his insistence that all of his records have concepts to give shape and context to the tunes; frankly, not all of the songs here are well-known—hip-hop fans will recognize the Kendrick Lamar cover, and like seemingly all jazz musicians in the 21st Century Glapser is compelled to include a Radiohead jam—but others are a little more leftfield, including a composition from Black Radio collaborator Bilal and a Macy Gray tune that’s only known to folks who bought the deluxe edition of Black Radio 2. As for the music: There’s more than 70 minutes of it—including spoken intros to a few songs—and it’s all tastefully and beautifully rendered, if not especially swinging. Glasper and his Trio favor a more ponderous, meditative quality to their work, and over the course of an hour-plus that has the effect of making the experience a little sleepy, a shade too ambient, a touch too academic. Generally, the songs do not betray their R&B or pop roots. On a song like Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” which is a little bit drifting and sleepy even on In Rainbows, what stands out the most is the cling and clatter of the percussion; then again, Glasper’s dramatic and percussive soloing on “In Case You Forgot” has the studio audience rightly on their feet, and, ironically enough, the set’s lone standard—“Stella by Starlight”—stands out for its graceful, Bill Evans-styled romance. Musiq Soulchild shows up in ghostly sample form on “So Beautiful” to provide a bit of Black Radio-style shading, though it feels a little forced in this context. It’s more than atoned for on the shortest song here and the true highlight, a new, original composition called “Got Over”—featuring a rousing spoken word performance from Harry Belafonte, encapsulating the #blacklivesmatter movement by voicing dignity on behalf of those who’ve been denied it.
Killers albums are always the damnedest things, and Brandon Flower’s second solo album is more bewildering still: Unencumbered by the rationalizing forces of democracy and free to indulge in his wildest flights of bizarre taste, Flowers has created a record of strange juxtapositions, high drama, and odd aesthetic touchstones. His heart is still in Sam’s Town—his lyrics still favor sepia-toned mythologizing, and he sings several songs in a Springsteen impersonation that’s dialed back a notch from Jimmy Fallon’s send-up, but just a notch—yet, Vegas son that he is, he can’t seem to escape his penchant for garish colors, over-the-top spectacle, and strained neon. The Desired Effect nicks nearly all of its production tricks from So-era Peter Gabriel or—more significantly—from Pet Shop Boys, though let it be said that this works better than you might think: When his flair for drama and his instincts for melody intersect, as they do smashingly on “Can’t Deny My Love,” the result is a synth-driven anthem that you might find yourself singing at full-volume in your car and feel vaguely embarrassed about, though you shouldn’t. More often, the union of aesthetics results in a misbegotten mishmash: “Diggin’ Up The Heart” is a small-town short story (opening line: “Tony came back to town, with his cap and gown”) set to pulsing New Wave rockabilly, if you can believe it, while another song finds him singing about a “kid from Lonely Town,” his voice Autotuned like he’s T-Pain. There is also his dip into messianic love songs on a number called “Still Want You,” where he pledges his faithful love even amidst rising tides, “hurricanes and floods,” and the ominous-sounding “nuclear distress.” Even Bono would likely counsel him to come down from the cross. What’s ultimately, maddeningly strange and appealing about it all is that Flowers seems like he really means it, man; The Desired Effect may scale Bat Out of Hell levels of ridiculousness but the stupidity and tastelessness of it are offered obliviously and sincerely. He’s a weird guy but he’s guileless, and there’s something to be said than that. Plus, you have to hear the record just to hear him sing this line: “She wasn’t having anything, no birds or any bees/ Girl, don’t go shootin’ all the dogs down cause one of ‘em’s got fleas.”
A few of you may remember last year when I counted down my favorite albums of all time– first on Facebook, then over on All Music– and officially launched my first-ever Top 100 list. I don’t plan on making as much fanfare about it this year but did think it would be interesting to redraw and reimagine my list– as a way of keeping a record of how my tastes shift, or don’t. It may even become an annual/summer tradition.
Anyway: I do not claim that this will be surprising or even interesting, but if you want to know what my all-time Top 100 albums are– circa June 2015– the full list is available here, and will remain so until next summer rolls around.
Fun fact: Jason Derulo was born in 1989—the same year as Taylor Swift, you might have heard—so when the new wave synths whir into motion at the start of “Want to Want Me,” you know he came by them second-hand, perhaps from any one of the R&B-worshipping indies that have risen to prominence in recent years. The nimble rhythm and smooth slip into falsetto, though, could only have come from hours spent studying the Prince playbook, something that’s driven home with the song’s bookend, “X2CU,” a 1999 raveup that, weirdly, shares a bit of wordplay (and almost a title) with a Sam Hunt single. It’s not as clever as the Sam Hunt song but both Derulo songs are effortlessly light on their feet and funky like the guy could do this in his sleep—funky like Prince hasn’t been in a long time, actually—so all is forgiven. Besides, Derulo gets down with a country cat on the superb workingman’s blues “Broke,” which has banjo from Keith Urban and harmonica from Stevie Wonder and sells its “mo’ money, mo’problems” singalong almost solely on the back of Derulo’s charisma. That’s not even the best guest feature: On “Try Me” Derulo is “just lookin’ for some lovin’” and Jennifer Lopez takes a verse to respond sensitively and compassionately to his come-on, which is itself pretty affectionate and not nearly as leering or brazen as his reputation (or “Talk Dirty”) might suggest. Things do get considerably randier on “Get Ugly” and “Pull-Up,” a couple of dirty-minded little strip club bangers that are distinctive mostly for Derulo’s goofy sense of humor. The ringtone rap drawl on the former is not as endearing as the automotive sound effects on the latter, though neither are among the record’s finest moments. The thing about Derulo is, he does alright on the dancefloor jams, but he’s really something when he writes pure pop, which the best songs here are: Not only do they display subtle skill—how fully he’s absorbed pop’s playbook, how cannily he tweaks it—but they give him room to be a little bit warmer, more humane. Plus: He just makes them sound so easy.
Before Django and Jimmie I might have told you there was no such thing as an album about time that wasn’t actually an album about death, but I’ll be damned if this one doesn’t count its combined years—more than 80 for Willie, nearly 80 for Merle—with real warmth and acceptance, its greatest virtue a palatable, easygoing sense of friendship and mutual pleasure that I can’t imagine coming from a duo less seasoned. They don’t fetishize mortality nor even really address it: They may be “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” but their remembrances don’t fade into sepia; they’re more interested in keeping the Man in Black myth alive and perhaps adding a few of their own stories to the canon, Willie at one point balking at sharing a particular anecdote but then calling Johnny himself—presumably up in heaven somewhere—who assures us that he don’t give a shit. The song is big-hearted and smartassed, and a more vibrant tribute to Cash than most any of his own moribund Rick Rubin recordings. Willie and Merle also find time to hit the honky-tonk hard on a “Swinging Doors” revival, they tackle Dylan with real affection—their “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is less barbarous than his, less about pushing forward than accepting what’s already been done—and they dip into gospel a bit on “Family Bible,” which is, it may be worth noting, pretty much a solo Merle number. There are a couple of songs about weed, which speaks volumes about the spirit of this record. “It’s All Going to Pot,” the one you know, is funny, but not as funny as “It’s Only Money,” which makes you think it’s a divorce song but kills with a great Willie punchline at the end. They burn through a couple of twangy country-blues numbers but are mostly content to let things drift along at their own leisurely gait, perhaps a bit too leisurely on “Where Dreams Come to Die,” which isn’t as charming as the warm and hazy “Unfair Weather Friend.” The album title nods to the pair’s formative influences, but this is no more a return-to-roots record than it is a last will and testament. It’s the sum of their years, and like any great outlaw album it manages to sound tough despite being frequently sentimental; also, it’s got all the jokes it needs. Its best reveal isn’t the one about the jazz-playing gypsy and the singing brakeman; it’s the one where they express mild surprise that they got to “Live This Long,” and say they would have taken much better care of themselves if they had only known, though this doesn’t seem to involve smoking any less weed, nor should it. Willie and Merle savor their long life here without getting stuck in the past; they know they won’t live forever but don’t have the time or patience to dwell on that fact: They’ve got songs still to sing.
I’ve got another capsule review up at Kicking the Canon this week, and, for once, it’s not a Bob Dylan one! This week I look back at Prince’s Purple Rain, not just the greatest pop record of all time but one of my personal top ten albums. Speaking of which, a couple of you have inquired about a 2015 edition of my personal Top 100 list, and I’m happy to say that I do plan on posting an updated list some time within the next week or so.
And then, suddenly, in 2008, Paul Weller was just bursting with ideas, the staunch traditionalist reigniting his career with the expansive and imaginative double album 22 Dreams and following it with the frantic modernism of Wake Up the Nation and the noisy rush of Sonik Kicks. Weighing in with just nine songs, Saturns Pattern would seem to have the least in common with 22 Dreams’ sprawl, but actually it recalls that album in how Weller lets his music unfold slowly and patiently, painting in vibrant colors but allowing each hue to settle on the canvas and make a strong impression. Where the ideas flew fast and furious on the last two albums, they really have a chance to marinate on Saturns Pattern, and the album is all the better for it: A deep, rich record that speaks to the great specificity of Weller’s tastes, tying together Curtis Mayfield-styled soul, howling blooze, spacey album rock, and psychadelia as though they were always meant to be played together. It’s actually a pretty laid back album, too—not that you’d know it from “White Sky,” the menacing album opener that slashes its guitars, pounds its drums, and sends Weller’s voice through some nasty distortion. It sounds at first like it could be an outtake from the color-coded duo of your choice—White Stripes, Black Keys—but its primitive howl masks a subtle sophistication: Listen closely and you’ll hear how guitars and keyboards are layered to create a full, vibrant sound. And that’s the key to the record: Weller no longer sounds like he’s trying to get all his ideas on wax before he forgets them; instead, he’s taken his time with compositions and arrangements that immediately seduce but reveal new depths the more time you spend with them. My favorite build is “Phoenix,” which starts with the kind of outer space keyboard effects Miles Davis might have employed in the 70s; over six minutes we get a propulsive piano groove, feel-good vocal harmonies, and—a wonderful mid-song surprise—an acoustic guitar and organ breakdown, all before a buzzing electric guitar comes in to carry it home. Weller uses all the colors of his band and layers the orchestration like he’s Gil Evans, and every second of the song is addictive. “In the Car…” is nearly as good, building from a finger-picked acoustic blues into something wild and untethered in its sound but still earthy and traditional in its construction. “Long Time” sounds for just a second like it’s going to rock and roll like “White Sky” does, but then its riffs are all sent through a blender and the song becomes something altogether trippier and more interesting. I feel like I should also mention “Pick It Up,” which grooves like trip-hop but feels like soul jazz, and “I’m Where I Should Be,” which swells into an anthem of positivity. And why shouldn’t Paul Weller be positive? He’s been brilliant for a long time now—but on Saturns Pattern he’s slowed down enough for the rest of us to enjoy his brilliance. And he’s made an album you could get lost in.