Ashley Monroe

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.

First Impressions: Ashley Monroe, The Blade

thebladeAn album of deep fracture, most of its songs resembling crime scenes, The Blade opens with an optimism that sounds like it could bubble over and carry the rest of the record along with it: “On to Something Good” is sunny pop—classic country, assuming your history of country only stretches back to 1990 or so—and it might seem like a feint or a false promise were it not for the singer’s conviction: Ashley Monroe delivers it like a dare, a fragment of sunshine to pocket and carry with us through the record’s twists. And twist it does, literally so on the title track, wherein romance turns to betrayal and love into a two-edged sword: “You got it by the handle,” the singer sighs, standing amidst the wreckage, “I got it by the blade.” Monroe is such an ace singer and songwriter that a perfect metaphor like that one isn’t even the highlight of the album, and she often says the most when she doesn’t say much at all: “Bombshell” trembles and jitters at the thought of dropping an unpleasant truth; note that the song doesn’t actually reveal what said bombshell happens to be. My first assumption was infidelity; yours may be something different. It ultimately doesn’t matter: “It’ll never be a good time to drop a bombshell,” coos Monroe, and it’s not hard to hear it as a song of experience. Even the songs that sound totally put-together reveal tattered ends and razor edges: “Had anybody ever told you/ That they’d be lucky just to know you?” one song goes, but what sounds like a song about intimacy is actually a song about separation: It affirms the beauty of the Beloved while damning the singer’s hesitation. The subtlety of these songs provides context for Monroe’s dips into mythology and drama: “Dixie” is a song about leaving the South, but really it’s a song about hopping the next train to leave your past and your memories behind, to start anew. (She ain’t leaving ‘cause of the weather, the singer assures us.) “I Buried Your Love Alive” mirrors it in its resolve to put heartache and hurt six feet under, while “If the Devil Don’t Want Me” conjures country tropes and gothic folklore to convey the deepest despair of all: What if even my acts of self-destruction don’t make the longing go away? There’s humor here, too, as there must be on an album that leans so far in to embrace the hurt of love and the ache of desire: “Winning Streak” is about a loser, and it breezes by in feisty self-deprecation, while the closing “I’m Good at Leavin’” looks for a silver lining. I could go on and on about the songs, but let me also mount this theory: Maybe the real reason it’s called The Blade is because it walks with such poise along the razor’s edge of country authenticity and country pop: Monroe can do breezy country folk (check “Mayflowers”), outlaw swagger (“Dixie”), or backporch twang (“Winning Streak”) without sounding self-conscious and without sacrificing melody; she can turn toward soft rock and unabashed pop without pandering. (Listen to this and then go back to Platinum, and tell me Miranda couldn’t have swung for the charts without anything so dire as “Somethin’ Bad.”) Here’s how your experience with this brilliant album will go: The first time through, it’ll just be fun. Three or four listens in, the songs will start to cut you—deep. Eventually you’ll realize that country and Americana records don’t have to be self-serious or fetishize “rootsiness” to sound real, and the heavy stuff lands better when there’s a joke or two thrown in. And, that for right now, nobody does this stuff better than Ashley Monroe.