Lists

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.

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ON TO SOMETHING GOOD: Top 10 Records of 2015

ashley_monroe

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.

RE-ISSUES, COMPILATIONS, OLDER MUSIC, ETC.
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.

 

BEST ALBUM COVERS
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Adele, 25

kendrick25

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
pageant
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
boz
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
bob
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
shakes
A promising band becoming a great one. Sound, color—and don’t forget the funk, swagger, soul, and fire.

6. Eric Church
Mr. Misunderstood
church
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
Worthy
worthy
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
kendrick
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
tomorrow
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
theblade
“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.

Favorites of 2015 – At the Halfway Point

rhiannonA 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!

  1. Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow is My Turn
  2. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
  3. Bettye LaVette, Worthy
  4. Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material
  5. Paul Weller, Saturns Pattern
  6. Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color
  7. Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night
  8. Richard Thompson, Still
  9. Van Hunt, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets
  10. Kamasi Washington, The Epic

Favorite Re-Issue:

Lead Belly, The Smithsonian-Folkways Collection

Favorite Single:

“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.”)

Favorite Production:

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.)

Favorite Album Cover:

Gotta be Kendrick’s.

Worst Title for an Otherwise Good Record:

Van Hunt, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets.

The Top 100: 2015 Edition

jesusA 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.

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

25 Favorite Records of 2014 (Take Two!)

[Editor’s Note: Like so many music critics, I published my own annual favorites list before I knew there was a new D’Angelo album on the way; and, also like so many music critics, I’ve come to regard Black Messiah as a deeply significant record. I have amended my previous list to include it, and also took the time to highlight the true nature of these lists as snapshots– moments in time, highly subject to change– by shuffling around the order of a few others. The original list is here, if you want to compare.]

Some real humdingers, this year—including my toughest-to-whittle-down Top 10 list in ages, and a number of records that are sure to remain all-time favorites.

As usual, I will note that this list is meant only as a snapshot; I suspect that #1 is more or less etched in stone, but the subsequent entries may shift a bit from one day to the next. All are excellent, though—worthy of your time and engagement.

1. Joe Henry
Invisible Hour
invisiblehour
Every Joe Henry album comes with its own lyrical and/or sonic conceit—not necessarily a formal concept, but a suggested framework, a recommended entry point for the listener. Invisible Hour is no exception: It is an album about marriage and committed love that views its subject at odd angles and from varying distances, love’s transformation felt in its absence as much as in its presence; it’s a folk album that manages to sound spare and lush at the same time, black-and-white in its rendering yet boldly widescreen in its scope. It is also his masterwork—and given how much I like his other albums, that’s saying quite a bit.

2. D’Angelo
Black Messiah
blackmessiah
Labored over for more than a decade, then rush released so as to more directly address current political realities, Black Messiah comes with its own ready-made mythology and narrative framework. What amazes is how completely the record transcends all of this: It is ridiculously funky, dense and think in its sound but kinetic in its energy and naked in its emotional expression. It’s an album about presence– having a voice, and having that voice counted– and as such it speaks wildly articulate sentences all its own. No back story needed.

3. Miranda Lambert
Platinum
platinum

The Carrie Underwood duet aside—somethin’ bad, indeed—this is basically the pop album of my dreams: Rich in ideas, its songs in dialogue with one another, Platinum addresses fame and intimacy, time and nostalgia, feminine strength and vulnerability as two sides of the same coin. It has the spirit of a double album, if not quite the running time, and its sprawl encompasses country that is as hard and as pure as Sturgill Simpson’s, plus pop that is as sleek and modern as Taylor Swift’s. It’s an album that tries to offer something for everyone while still existing as its own thing—no small feat at all.

4. Leonard Cohen
Popular Problems
popular problems

One album removed from Old Ideas, which fetishized death and preserved its mortal reflections in amber, Leonard Cohen comes roaring back with a surprising, lively, funny, poignant set of songs—as good as any he has ever put together, in fact, though what surprises the most about Popular Problems is that it’s actually musically interesting and inventive, at times almost lending the illusion of spontaneity. Stranger things have happened, but still: This one, much more than the last one (or for that matter, any Cohen album of the last couple of decades), is the one for his legacy.

5. Robert Plant
Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar
ceasless roar

I have no idea how much money Robert Plant has actually turned down by forsaking a Led Zeppelin tour in favor of following his muse, but I do know that I love him for it—especially since the muse continues to lead him in such strange and wonderful directions, here bidding him to pick up the strands of mystic folk that he first picked up on Led Zeppelin III, tying them together with the hushed warmth and haunted vibe of Raising Sand and the dusty Americana of Band of Joy. He takes the very concept of folk music—not just American—and remakes it in his own image, and the addictive results are as appealing as any music he’s ever made.

6. The Roots
… and Then You Shoot Your Cousin
cousin

The strangest, boldest, most singular and uncompromising album to be released this year, or at least to be promoted so heavily on The Tonight Show, The Roots’ latest passion project offers layer upon layer of irony, satire, musique concrete, deep hip-hop references, and yes—underneath it all, some bangin’ hooks. (And all in half an hour’s time!) Purer art-rap than anything Kanye West has yet made, Cousin is demanding, though not necessarily alienating—and it’s as rich and rewarding as you care to make it.

7. Flying Lotus
You’re Dead!
youredead

Mind-altering—and, much more than any album on the list, not normally my thing—Flying Lotus’ new album uses jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and electronica as its building blocks, but constructs from them something dizzying, otherworldly, and ultimately most moving. Its construction is masterful: From its dizzying and disorienting buildup it moves into breakneck catharsis with Kendrick Lamar, then shifts into a much-needed comedown—by turns spooky and comical, and perfect for the kind of reflection that this record demands.

8. Lucinda Williams
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
spirit
Craft isn’t a very rock and roll word, and it doesn’t exactly set the toes a-tappin’, but maybe it should—at least in the context of Lucinda’s double album, which really is a master class in craft, each song arriving as something compact, precise, evocative, catchy, and wonderfully earthy. For a collection that spans two discs, it’s amazing how economical it seems, how every word and note packs a punch. Each song is its own self-contained thing, but the cumulative effect is roaringly entertaining.

9. Jolie Holland
Wine Dark Sea
winedark

Country-blues as filtered through the prism of raw and raucous punk, Wine Dark Sea is noisy and electrifying—its cling and clatter, its punchdrunk dissonance forming the perfect soundscape for Holland’s boozy reflections on wild and reckless lovers. There is a real sense of danger here—a sense that this whole thing could come apart and blow up in our faces, and that feeling remains even after dozens of listens. Tantalizing, to say the least.

10. Spoon
They Want My Soul
spoon
This one taps into everything that’ great about Spoon: How their music seems so immaculate, so precise, so minimalist, yet so loaded with sensual pleasures; how the rich texture in their music is the perfect backdrop for Britt Daniel’s frayed nerves and bleeding heart. Sensual and lush and with a beat you can dance to, They Want My Soul is the year’s great rock and roll album.

and…

  1. Marianne Faithfull, Give My Love to London
  2. Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow
  3. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
  4. U2, Songs of Innocence
  5. Weezer, Everything Will Be Alright in the End
  6. Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home
  7. Amy LaVere, Runaway’s Diary
  8. Look Again to the Wind: Bitter Tears Revisited
  9. Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread
  10. Beck, Morning Phase
  11. Brian Blade Fellowship, Landmarks
  12. St. Vincent, St. Vincent
  13. Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes
  14. Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky
  15. The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western

25 Favorite Records from 2014

Some real humdingers, this year—including my toughest-to-whittle-down Top 10 list in ages, and a number of records that are sure to remain all-time favorites.

As usual, I will note that this list is meant only as a snapshot; I suspect that #1 is more or less etched in stone, but the subsequent entries may shift a bit from one day to the next. All are excellent, though—worthy of your time and engagement.

1. Joe Henry
Invisible Hour
invisiblehour
Every Joe Henry album comes with its own lyrical and/or sonic conceit—not necessarily a formal concept, but a suggested framework, a recommended entry point for the listener. Invisible Hour is no exception: It is an album about marriage and committed love that views its subject at odd angles and from varying distances, love’s transformation felt in its absence as much as in its presence; it’s a folk album that manages to sound spare and lush at the same time, black-and-white in its rendering yet boldly widescreen in its scope. It is also his masterwork—and given how much I like his other albums, that’s saying quite a bit.

2. Miranda Lambert
Platinum
platinum

The Carrie Underwood duet aside—somethin’ bad, indeed—this is basically the pop album of my dreams: Rich in ideas, its songs in dialogue with one another, Platinum addresses fame and intimacy, time and nostalgia, feminine strength and vulnerability as two sides of the same coin. It has the spirit of a double album, if not quite the running time, and its sprawl encompasses country that is as hard and as pure as Sturgill Simpson’s, plus pop that is as sleek and modern as Taylor Swift’s. It’s an album that tries to offer something for everyone while still existing as its own thing—no small feat at all.

3. Leonard Cohen
Popular Problems
popular problems

One album removed from Old Ideas, which fetishized death and preserved its mortal reflections in amber, Leonard Cohen comes roaring back with a surprising, lively, funny, poignant set of songs—as good as any he has ever put together, in fact, though what surprises the most about Popular Problems is that it’s actually musically interesting and inventive, at times almost lending the illusion of spontaneity. Stranger things have happened, but still: This one, much more than the last one (or for that matter, any Cohen album of the last couple of decades), is the one for his legacy.

4. Robert Plant
Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar
ceasless roar

I have no idea how much money Robert Plant has actually turned down by forsaking a Led Zeppelin tour in favor of following his muse, but I do know that I love him for it—especially since the muse continues to lead him in such strange and wonderful directions, here bidding him to pick up the strands of mystic folk that he first picked up on Led Zeppelin III, tying them together with the hushed warmth and haunted vibe of Raising Sand and the dusty Americana of Band of Joy. He takes the very concept of folk music—not just American—and remakes it in his own image, and the addictive results are as appealing as any music he’s ever made.

5. Flying Lotus
You’re Dead!
youredead

Mind-altering—and, much more than any album on the list, not normally my thing—Flying Lotus’ new album uses jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and electronica as its building blocks, but constructs from them something dizzying, otherworldly, and ultimately most moving. Its construction is masterful: From its dizzying and disorienting buildup it moves into breakneck catharsis with Kendrick Lamar, then shifts into a much-needed comedown—by turns spooky and comical, and perfect for the kind of reflection that this record demands.

6. Lucinda Williams
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
spirit
Craft isn’t a very rock and roll word, and it doesn’t exactly set the toes a-tappin’, but maybe it should—at least in the context of Lucinda’s double album, which really is a master class in craft, each song arriving as something compact, precise, evocative, catchy, and wonderfully earthy. For a collection that spans two discs, it’s amazing how economical it seems, how every word and note packs a punch. Each song is its own self-contained thing, but the cumulative effect is roaringly entertaining.

7. Jolie Holland
Wine Dark Sea
winedark

Country-blues as filtered through the prism of raw and raucous punk, Wine Dark Sea is noisy and electrifying—its cling and clatter, its punchdrunk dissonance forming the perfect soundscape for Holland’s boozy reflections on wild and reckless lovers. There is a real sense of danger here—a sense that this whole thing could come apart and blow up in our faces, and that feeling remains even after dozens of listens. Tantalizing, to say the least.

8. Spoon
They Want My Soul
spoon
This one taps into everything that’ great about Spoon: How their music seems so immaculate, so precise, so minimalist, yet so loaded with sensual pleasures; how the rich texture in their music is the perfect backdrop for Britt Daniel’s frayed nerves and bleeding heart. Sensual and lush and with a beat you can dance to, They Want My Soul is the year’s great rock and roll album.

9. Marianne Faithfull
Give My Love to London
faithfull
Songs of Experience, we’ll call it; the story of the artist’s life, told through character acting and collaboration; tough as nails, funny as hell, delivered with the well-earned swagger of a true survivor. Faithfull has made a number of fine records over the last decade or so, but this one is my favorite: Playful and devastating in equal measure, it’s got the balance of wit and wisdom that only a true rock and roll sage can deliver.

10. The Roots
… and Then You Shoot Your Cousin
cousin

The strangest, boldest, most singular and uncompromising album to be released this year, or at least to be promoted so heavily on The Tonight Show, The Roots’ latest passion project offers layer upon layer of irony, satire, musique concrete, deep hip-hop references, and yes—underneath it all, some bangin’ hooks. (And all in half an hour’s time!) Purer art-rap than anything Kanye West has yet made, Cousin is demanding, though not necessarily alienating—and it’s as rich and rewarding as you care to make it.

and…

  1. Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow
  2. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
  3. U2, Songs of Innocence
  4. Weezer, Everything Will Be Alright in the End
  5. Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home
  6. Amy LaVere, Runaway’s Diary
  7. Look Again to the Wind: Bitter Tears Revisited
  8. Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes
  9. The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western
  10. Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread
  11. Beck, Morning Phase
  12. Brian Blade Fellowship, Landmarks
  13. St. Vincent, St. Vincent
  14. Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky
  15. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

Core Curriculum: My All-Time Favorite Records

rodThis is old news to those who follow me on Twitter or on Facebook, but perhaps worth parking here: I recently took advantage of the new user listmaking feature at All Music Guide to develop a list of my 100 favorite albums of all time. I’ve dubbed it the Core Curriculum, because in truth, this is where I’ve learned most everything worth knowing in my life. You can see the full 100 here; I may even draft a full, annotated list– here at the blog– some day, but no promises.

A few notes about the list:

  • I have tried very hard to limit my selections to just one per artist– an odd thing to say, perhaps, given that a full tenth of this list is given to Bob Dylan, and has five selections apiece from Costello and Ellington, four apiece from M. Davis and J. Henry, etc. Where multiple albums appear for the same artist, it is either because there isn’t any one album that summarizes everything I love about the artist in question (e.g., I love Trust and Painted from Memory for totally different reasons, and neither can quite be said to encapsulate everything great about Elvis Costello; same with Purple Rain and Sign O’ the Times for Prince), or because I simply cannot decide which album I really prefer (as in the two Elton John selections, the three electric Dylans, etc.) Meanwhile, I could have quite easily put half a dozen or more Over the Rhine albums on this list, but ultimately chose just one because it (The Long Surrender) hits on everything that’s great about that particular band.
  • I have generally tried to avoid box sets, except in a few scenarios where the box set is more definitive than the proper LPs (The Birth of Soul), the box set contains material that you just can’t find on proper LPs (the Faces box), or it’s a box set compiled from material that was recorded before proper LPs were really even a thing (Hot Fives and Hot Sevens).
  • If anyone is curious, the oldest music on this list is the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens stuff, circa 1927-ish; the newest, Joe Henry’s Invisible Hour, released just this year.
  • I am not even going to try to break any of this down by genre, because that’s just not something I see much value in; I will note that, insofar as all of these albums include variations on traditional forms, and are deeply rooted in American culture and tradition, I consider this to be basically a list of 100 folk albums.
  • Finally: Roger Ebert always said, of his Favorite Films list, that he never included anything on his list just because it was popular, but he also never excluded anything because it was popular. I am frankly proud that my list encompasses many of the “usual” desert island suspects, but also a few entries that I suspect are on nobody’s list but my own.

At the Half: 10 Favorite Records from 2014

ihI could spend the rest of this calendar year holed up with old Monk and Mingus records—not listening to a single new release—and still have a tremendous set of records to recommend to you come year-end list season. With half of the year now completed, I can say without hesitation that 2014 has been one of the most significant years for new releases in recent memory, with several stone classics; plenty of others that come damn close.

Everything else I might say about the following list, I suspect, goes without saying: These are ten records I like an awful lot. It’s my halftime list, as it were, and will very likely change between now and December, maybe even between now and next week. That said, the top selection is 100 percent guaranteed to still be my favorite new record come the end of the year—is the heaviest new release in some years now, actually—and the next two albums on the list feel quite close to being mortal locks, as well.

I have found no small level of revelation and realignment in these albums; will keep returning to them for just that reason—and, because they are wildly entertaining, to boot.

  1. Joe Henry, Invisible Hour
  2. Miranda Lambert, Platinum
  3. Jolie Holland, Wine Dark Sea
  4. Amy LaVere, Runaway’s Diary
  5. The Roots, … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
  6. Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home
  7. Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky
  8. Royksopp & Robyn, Do It Again
  9. Stanton Moore, Conversations
  10. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

… and can you believe I wasn’t able to find room among those ten for Beck, Morning Phase; Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread; St. Vincent, St. Vincent; Luther Dickinson, Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues; Kelis, Food; tUnE-yArds, Nikki Nack; Jack White, Lazaretto; Ray LaMontagne, Supernova; The Black Keys, Turn Blue; and Neil Young, A Letter Home?

Year-End Wrap-Up: Favorite Records of 2013

rhineAn end-of-the-year top ten list is meant to be a snapshot. It’s not etched into stone. It can and will change—partly because the listener’s mood shifts, and partly because the best records grow deeper and more resonant over time, sinking their hooks in gradually.

I have published a list of my favorite albums at the end of every year, going back to the year 2000. Every year I wrestle with the notion of not ranking my albums at all—of simply offering up a ten-album tie for first place—and every year I grudgingly make decisions about, say, which album is my sixth favorite of the year and which is my seventh. I often regret at least half of my rankings by the following morning.

This year I feel liberated to tell you upfront that these are my ten favorite albums of 2013, as of December 31. I don’t merely acknowledge that this list might change by tomorrow: I guarantee that it will.

What follow is a list of the thirteen new releases that made the biggest impact on me in 2013—first, ten brand new recordings, listed in the order I feel is most appropriate as of right now. After that are three re-issues—older music that sounded as fresh and as revelatory as the new recordings, in many cases more so.

I will say that picking my favorite album of the year proved more difficult than usual. Last year, Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio was the clear choice—with no disrespect intended toward any of the other fine LPs from the class of 2012. Honestly, were I to pick my favorite album of 2013 based solely on what I listened to the most, I suspect Robert Glasper would win again—and I’m sure my wife would confirm for you that Black Radio 2 has played around here just about every day since it came out.

And yet, the album that seemed the most substantive and nourishing—the one that hit me the hardest at the soul level—was Over the Rhine’s. The albums that surprised me the most—for different reasons—belonged to Brandy Clark and Nick Lowe. The first time I heard John Smith’s album I never dreamed it would end up on a year-end list, yet I’ve come back to it again and again, and now can’t imagine making my list without it.

Truthfully, the first three albums here could all make fine and fair choices for my favorite album of the year… and I could likely expand that to the first four. As I hear them in this moment, however, my ten favorite recordings of 2013 are:

  1. Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World. Linford and Karin make it a double—again—and reteam with Joe Henry and his Garfield House players for a record that’s richer than Ohio, earthier than The Long Surrender; tethered to a particular piece of ground, steeped in country and haunted by The Band; as personal as anything they’ve recorded, and seemingly as contented. They could have called this one Ohio, had the name not been taken; or they could have just called it Over the Rhine.
  2. Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio 2. Glasper and his dream team of jazz cats, R&B songbirds, and positive-thinking MCs court disappointment by making a straight sequel to last year’s landmark of boundary-free imagination; avoid it by going deeper, risking more on original compositions over covers, keeping the songs paramount.
  3. Brandy Clark, 12 Stories. Today’s country music is all explanation, no seduction—but here’s a woman who knows how to hook you, how to leave you space to find yourself in her songs, how to speak through silences as much as she does through words.
  4. North Mississippi All-Stars, World Boogie is Coming. No need to wait: World boogie is here. The brothers Dickinson aren’t afraid to dress up backwoods blues in the hand-me-downs of punk, hip-hop, and garage rock—to say nothing of Jack White’s peppermint-stick wardrobe. Authentically weird and totally timeless.
  5. Trombone Shorty, Say That to Say This. The hardest working man in showbiz tightens things up—keeping to ten songs in 35 minutes, celebrity cameos at a minimum—and comes up with an album that’s funkier, livelier, and closer to his live show than any yet released: The great Trombone Shorty R&B album—at last!
  6. Elvis Costello and The Roots, Wise Up Ghost. Costello’s Warner Years refracted through hip-hop’s prism, every allusion giving the album depth even as the soon-to-be Tonight Show band keeps things darkly funky and in the pocket.
  7. Nick Lowe, Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family. I’ve never put a holiday album on my year-end list—but then, I’ve never heard a holiday record as surprising as this. Biggest and best surprise: It’s not just a killer Christmas record but one of the best Nick Lowe albums, funny and loose and dripping with charm.
  8.  Paul McCartney, New. Who better than Sir Paul to fall in head-over-heels, punchdrunk love with the craft of modern pop music? It’s a Technicolor wonder; all surface, all heart.
  9. John Smith, Great Lakes. A sweet whisper of an album—hushed, melancholy, romantic; tough to shake—but then, why would you want to?
  10. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience. There are dozens of reasons to write off JT—for his excess; for his awful lyrics; for how he always tries so damn hard—but on a purely surface level, the classic soul and R&B updates on his first 20/20 are irresistible; the album’s elegance and romance, surprisingly winsome.

And three great collections of older music:

  1. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self-Portrait. Like shit he didn’t care about these songs: What was once written off as tossed-off, third-rate Dylan is redeemed on this fine set, as heartfelt and seductive as anything he ever released. I don’t have an answer for why he left the best stuff in the vault all these years—but just listen to this. Beautiful.
  2. Duane Allman, Skydog: A Duane Allman Retrospective. It works equally well as an exhaustive tribute to an all-time great guitar player—revealed here to be shockingly, criminally underrated—and as a shadow history of American rock and pop music; keeps its momentum and its appeal over seven discs, then begs to be played over again from the beginning.
  3. The Band, Live from the Academy of Music 1971. The presentation is imperfect, but the music is as wild and wooly as anything these fellas ever cut—proof enough that, artsy inclinations aside, they were not-so-secretly the world’s greatest R&B band.