Kamasi Washington

ON TO SOMETHING GOOD: Top 10 Records of 2015

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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

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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

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

6. Eric Church
Mr. Misunderstood
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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“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: Kamasi Washington, “The Epic”

the epicIt’s epic in its scope (three discs, three hours, 17 songs) and in its ballast (double drummers and keyboardists, full choirs and orchestras, horns aplenty) but not really in its feel: Sure, it’s long, but spend some time sinking into a single disc of it, or just putting the thing on shuffle for an hour or so—I suspect these are the methods through which most of us will enjoy it—and it just plays out like a love letter to everything Kamasi Washington digs about jazz. It’s not monolithic, and though it’s got deep roots it’s not really historical: It’s idiosyncratic, a particular slant on jazz from a talented sax player who grew up with soul jazz, likes it when licks stick pretty close to the melody, and absorbed a bit of the black nationalism of hip-hop, but not necessarily much else, his session work with Kendrick Lamar notwithstanding. Everybody is talking about his allegiance to Pharaoh Sanders (which is indisputable) and later-period John Coltrane (which is maybe a little bit misleading, as he never goes nearly as far into outer space as Coltrane did, and that’s fine). What’s implicit in that is that this is a really a highly traditional jazz album—traditional in a late 60s/early 70s sense, not 20s or 30s—and that’s pretty remarkable. Its title aside, The Epic doesn’t unfurl with any grand narrative momentum, but plays out like a series of scenes, each one exhibiting some particular side of Washington’s jazz obsession: “Change of the Guard” opens the whole thing with solo upon solo, choirs and strings, everybody playing their ass off and pushing the whole thing heavenward; you don’t think it will sustain for a full 12 minutes, but it does. “Final Thought” is soul jazz in cliff notes; it’s the only song here that doesn’t hit the 7-minute mark, but it still finds time for a heavy organ prelude and then a percussive Afro-Cuban workout. “The Magnificent 7” does indeed sound like music for a film, but its swirling orchestration and choral effect don’t detract from the heart of the song, which is a nasty, serpentine groove. “Clair de Lune”—a Debussy piece—is lilting and romantic, patient in its unfolding. “Malcolm’s Theme,” a Terrence Blanchard number, eulogizes Malcolm X, but it’s really a song about black pride. The neatest trick here is when Washington—along with guest vocalist Patrice Quinn—updates a standard (“Cherokee”) by making it sound blissed-out and gently funky, but not “contemporary” in any crass sense, though the ones I come back to are the numbers that prove funk can be its own reward: “The Message” and the globetrotting “Re Run Home” are the standouts. But actually: What really impresses me about this album is that, despite its running time and despite no overt concessions to the listeners who got here by way of To Pimp a Butterfly, it’s incredibly tuneful and accessible to any set of ears—those of seasoned jazz fans or total neophytes. All you have to bring to The Epic is a willingness to be swept along in swing—and in that sense, this couldn’t be anything other than gloriously traditional, deeply rooted jazz.