Boz Scaggs

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.

Advertisements

MEN OF CRAFT: Quick Takes on Keef, Boz, Dave Rawlings, and Ryan Adams

keefKeith Richards, Crosseyed Heart. Casual in its craft and subtle in its sophistication, Keef’s first solo album in 23 years sounds at first listen like the kind of tossed-off rock and roll that any monkey could bang out, given an afternoon’s time. My guess is that the strange alchemy here is irreplicable. It takes a lot of work to make virtuosity sound so easy, and you don’t hear a lot of whippersnappers hit this level of craft without breaking a sweat. If you think it sounds appealing to hear Keef fingerpick some Robert Johnson blues, croon a bit of scratchy folk, get lost in a seductive groove with Norah Jones, and lay back for some reggae before firing up for that trademark guitar boogie—well, why are you still reading this? And if you don’t think that sounds appealing, I’m just not sure what I can do for you.

Boz Scaggs, Fool to Care. The first time you listen, don’t even pay attention to the words: Just focus on how these songs move. It’s a treasure trove of kinetic verbs: “Rich Woman” sashays, the title song shimmies, “High Blood Pressure” clings and clatters and bashes like it’s got Fats Domino on keys, “Last Tango in Paris”—well, you know. And then, when you do focus on the words, you’ll want to note that Boz has got money on his mind: His “Rich Woman” may be loaded but “Last Tango” imagines poverty as war—or maybe it doesn’t require any imagination at all—while on “Hell to Pay” Boz and Bonnie Raitt buy off a Senator and a Judge. Notice how our man sardonically narrates the plight of love, just down-gutter from Wall Street, and how he finds the heart to be a romantic anyway. And while you’re at it, notice his good taste: He covers The Band’s “Whispering Pines” and unearths a gem from Bobby Charles’ criminally overlooked, Band-assisted self-titled. That tells you plenty about the headspace he’s in, but one last thing to note is that this album is funky as hell—more of an ass-shaker than my beloved Brown Album, even.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Nashville Obsolete. No, it doesn’t bother me that Dave and Gillian have touched up their old-time stomp and twang with a full orchestral workup, their most lavish overhaul since Soul Journey’s Big Pink sound effects. I don’t think it undermines their authenticity, in the first place, and I don’t assume authenticity to be virtuous, in the second. If I did, I’d be in line to vote for Donald Trump; and if Bob Dylan and Tom Waits have taught me anything, it’s that artifice is usually more fun. It also doesn’t bother me that it takes 44 minutes for them to get through just seven songs. Still, it’s probably worth noting that “The Last Pharaoh” packs more rock and roll thrills into its 3:38 than “The Trip” does in its 10:56. Then again, the tragic symphony of “Short Haired Woman Blues” holds my attention for upwards of seven minutes, while in the four-minute “Candy,” when Dave asks when the song’s going to end, I fear the answer will be never.

Ryan Adams, 1989. Quixotic if he’s nothing else, Ryan Adams takes a deep dive into shallow waters with his song-for song remake of the biggest blockbuster in recent memory, construing a formalist feint that trades the surface pleasures of Taylor Swift’s steely pop for the surface pleasures of college rock and Bruce Springsteen’s Americana, all the while playing into our fantasy that acoustic guitars and anguished vocals signify authenticity more effectively than do glinting beats and streamlined hooks. They don’t, and your enjoyment of this will hinge on your preference for his surface pleasures over hers, though both parties come off well in this little experiment: Her songs have sturdier bones and more definite shapes than the original album might have suggested, and he’s a better stylist when he’s got a template and a conceit to keep him in check. Best remake: “Style,” which trades sighing pop for slurred desperation—and hey! A Sonic Youth reference! Most questionable: The spare ballad treatment given to “Shake It Off.” (“There’s no way he could have topped the kinetic hooks of the original,” you might say to me. “Yeah, exactly,” I would say back.) Which album’s better? If you’re a Spotify user, you’ll have to take his word for it.