Rhiannon Giddens

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.

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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.

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

First Impressions: Rhiannon Giddens, “Tomorrow is My Turn” (And others!)

tomorrowThough the year is still young and I’ve only heard a handful of new records, I can already say with no small amount of confidence that 2015 will yield at least a couple of deep and significant albums; in fact, both of them are out in stores now. One, Bettye LaVette’s Worthy, I have already written about. I actually wondered, upon reviewing it, if it might remain my top new release of the year, even come December’s list-making season, but now I’ve played Rhiannon Giddens’ amazing album Tomorrow is My Turn on high volume, and I’m not so sure.

Giddens is a co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and for that she already has a secure legacy; hers is a gift far too great to be constrained by a group, however, and her debut solo album is at once more expansive and more personal than any CCD album could ever be; it’s also riskier and, to be perfectly candid, much better. If there is any justice in the world the album will make her a huge star.

It’s a soulful album that takes on country, Appalachian music, old-school R&B, torch songs, and blues by turn, often twisting and tweaking conventions and taking the songs in unexpected directions: If you have heard her righteously funky, beatboxed version of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” then you know what I mean. That will likely remain one of the most joyous and addictive songs of the year, but it’s arguably not the best thing here. The title song is a vocal showstopper for its depth, its elegance, its cool; the Odetta number “Waterboy” is a vocal showstopper of another kind, loose-throated and brazen in its desire. But everything here is excellent, everything here is somehow tough and tender at the same time—all perfectly befitting a record of songs associated with female singers and songwriters. She so makes these songs hers, and she so gels them into their own emotional journey, that this feels very much like a Rhiannon Giddens joint, not a “covers album.” And on that level, it certainly earns comparison to the interpretive mastery of the LaVette album.

I should say that Tomorrow is My Turn is also easily the best-sounding T-Bone Burnett production in years—like, a decade. The studious nature and muddy sound he’s favored ever since Raising Sand are is gone, replaced by something really warm and vibrant and kinetic when it needs to be—a tremendously welcome surprise.

So there are those two albums, and there’s Shadows in the Night, which I honestly find to be most moving in its evocation of classic saloon balladry, in its treatment of standards as folk songs, and in the great romance and allure of its weariness; it’s a sad and broken album but not a dismal or alienating one. There’s comfort in Bob’s crooning.

And what else have I been listening to, besides? A few other records worthy of mention:

  • Gretchen Peters’ new album Blackbirds is most beautiful—stark and soulful country that finds tremendous depth and color in its songwriting and performances. It’s a record about death, endings, finality, and it’s appropriately sober and haunting, but there’s also much empathy and tenderness on display.
  • I quite like the new Pop Staples album, Don’t Lose This, which is obviously a posthumous release but doesn’t play as ghoulish as those albums often do, even though it does have several songs that fumble toward mortality. It’s actually a very warm, amiable, and soulful record, with a lot of welcome vocal time for Mavis and some excellent kit work from Spencer Tweedy.
  • Finally, and like everyone else, I’m happy to have Sleater-Kinney back, and am enjoying No Cities to Love for what it is: Not a comeback but a righteous and addictive rock-and-roll continuation.