Alabama Shakes

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.

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.

First Impressions: Alabama Shakes, “Sound & Color”

shakes“The Greatest” starts with Brittany Howard counting it off and ends with her cackling in glee, and in between she and the rest of Alabama Shakes slash and burn as though on board a runaway locomotive of rock and roll kinesis, the whole thing not quite sludgy or lo-fi but reveling in a certain roughness, Howard’s voice buried deeper in the mix than normal—a bold move for a band endowed with such a powerhouse singer—and the guitars skirting with the red. It’s representative of the rest of Sound & Color, not in its sound—the record devotes more time to slower songs and limber funk workouts than to brassy rock and roll—but in spirit: Sound & Color is the work of a group that is, I imagine, dynamite in concert but focused here on the possibilities of the studio, of songcraft, of—yes—sound and color, much of it provided by the great producer Blake Mills, who has a way of making the whole affair sound charmingly off-the-cuff and ragged even when he’s adding string accents and other studio effects. And that, too, is characteristic of the album, which has a rambling energy and a gritty sound that masks how assured and risky it is in its compositions and its craft. It’s got a lot going on, whether it’s the band riding a tight groove in “Don’t Wanna Fight” or dipping into country for a song called “Shoegaze,” connecting with the mothership on “Gemini” and discarding guitars altogether for the title song, on which Howard perches atop a bed of chimes and bells and keyboard tones. The album has been called weird, which is perhaps just another way of saying that it’s got character and balls, but it swings and swaggers enough that it’s never alienating or off-putting. (“I wanna touch a human being,” Howard sings in the opening title song, and she goes: This is an album made for connection and emotional availability.) For all these signifiers and doors into the record, though, what’s most telling may be what isn’t here, at least not much: On “Gimme All Your Love” the song slow-burns to an explosive vocal eruption from Howard, an old trick the band could fall back on song after damn song if they weren’t too intoxicated by the discovery of new ones.