The Roots

Kicking the Canon: The Roots, ‘Things Fall Apart’

thingsIt is with much sadness that I report the demise of the Kicking the Canon project, which I’ve quite enjoyed both as a reader and as a proud contributor. Sam Mac and the gang have done excellent work and I’m sorry to see it come to an end so prematurely. The silver lining is that I do have one final review to share with you, this one of the seminal Roots joint Things Fall Apart. Get hip.

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25 Favorite Records of 2014 (Take Two!)

[Editor’s Note: Like so many music critics, I published my own annual favorites list before I knew there was a new D’Angelo album on the way; and, also like so many music critics, I’ve come to regard Black Messiah as a deeply significant record. I have amended my previous list to include it, and also took the time to highlight the true nature of these lists as snapshots– moments in time, highly subject to change– by shuffling around the order of a few others. The original list is here, if you want to compare.]

Some real humdingers, this year—including my toughest-to-whittle-down Top 10 list in ages, and a number of records that are sure to remain all-time favorites.

As usual, I will note that this list is meant only as a snapshot; I suspect that #1 is more or less etched in stone, but the subsequent entries may shift a bit from one day to the next. All are excellent, though—worthy of your time and engagement.

1. Joe Henry
Invisible Hour
invisiblehour
Every Joe Henry album comes with its own lyrical and/or sonic conceit—not necessarily a formal concept, but a suggested framework, a recommended entry point for the listener. Invisible Hour is no exception: It is an album about marriage and committed love that views its subject at odd angles and from varying distances, love’s transformation felt in its absence as much as in its presence; it’s a folk album that manages to sound spare and lush at the same time, black-and-white in its rendering yet boldly widescreen in its scope. It is also his masterwork—and given how much I like his other albums, that’s saying quite a bit.

2. D’Angelo
Black Messiah
blackmessiah
Labored over for more than a decade, then rush released so as to more directly address current political realities, Black Messiah comes with its own ready-made mythology and narrative framework. What amazes is how completely the record transcends all of this: It is ridiculously funky, dense and think in its sound but kinetic in its energy and naked in its emotional expression. It’s an album about presence– having a voice, and having that voice counted– and as such it speaks wildly articulate sentences all its own. No back story needed.

3. Miranda Lambert
Platinum
platinum

The Carrie Underwood duet aside—somethin’ bad, indeed—this is basically the pop album of my dreams: Rich in ideas, its songs in dialogue with one another, Platinum addresses fame and intimacy, time and nostalgia, feminine strength and vulnerability as two sides of the same coin. It has the spirit of a double album, if not quite the running time, and its sprawl encompasses country that is as hard and as pure as Sturgill Simpson’s, plus pop that is as sleek and modern as Taylor Swift’s. It’s an album that tries to offer something for everyone while still existing as its own thing—no small feat at all.

4. Leonard Cohen
Popular Problems
popular problems

One album removed from Old Ideas, which fetishized death and preserved its mortal reflections in amber, Leonard Cohen comes roaring back with a surprising, lively, funny, poignant set of songs—as good as any he has ever put together, in fact, though what surprises the most about Popular Problems is that it’s actually musically interesting and inventive, at times almost lending the illusion of spontaneity. Stranger things have happened, but still: This one, much more than the last one (or for that matter, any Cohen album of the last couple of decades), is the one for his legacy.

5. Robert Plant
Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar
ceasless roar

I have no idea how much money Robert Plant has actually turned down by forsaking a Led Zeppelin tour in favor of following his muse, but I do know that I love him for it—especially since the muse continues to lead him in such strange and wonderful directions, here bidding him to pick up the strands of mystic folk that he first picked up on Led Zeppelin III, tying them together with the hushed warmth and haunted vibe of Raising Sand and the dusty Americana of Band of Joy. He takes the very concept of folk music—not just American—and remakes it in his own image, and the addictive results are as appealing as any music he’s ever made.

6. The Roots
… and Then You Shoot Your Cousin
cousin

The strangest, boldest, most singular and uncompromising album to be released this year, or at least to be promoted so heavily on The Tonight Show, The Roots’ latest passion project offers layer upon layer of irony, satire, musique concrete, deep hip-hop references, and yes—underneath it all, some bangin’ hooks. (And all in half an hour’s time!) Purer art-rap than anything Kanye West has yet made, Cousin is demanding, though not necessarily alienating—and it’s as rich and rewarding as you care to make it.

7. Flying Lotus
You’re Dead!
youredead

Mind-altering—and, much more than any album on the list, not normally my thing—Flying Lotus’ new album uses jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and electronica as its building blocks, but constructs from them something dizzying, otherworldly, and ultimately most moving. Its construction is masterful: From its dizzying and disorienting buildup it moves into breakneck catharsis with Kendrick Lamar, then shifts into a much-needed comedown—by turns spooky and comical, and perfect for the kind of reflection that this record demands.

8. Lucinda Williams
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
spirit
Craft isn’t a very rock and roll word, and it doesn’t exactly set the toes a-tappin’, but maybe it should—at least in the context of Lucinda’s double album, which really is a master class in craft, each song arriving as something compact, precise, evocative, catchy, and wonderfully earthy. For a collection that spans two discs, it’s amazing how economical it seems, how every word and note packs a punch. Each song is its own self-contained thing, but the cumulative effect is roaringly entertaining.

9. Jolie Holland
Wine Dark Sea
winedark

Country-blues as filtered through the prism of raw and raucous punk, Wine Dark Sea is noisy and electrifying—its cling and clatter, its punchdrunk dissonance forming the perfect soundscape for Holland’s boozy reflections on wild and reckless lovers. There is a real sense of danger here—a sense that this whole thing could come apart and blow up in our faces, and that feeling remains even after dozens of listens. Tantalizing, to say the least.

10. Spoon
They Want My Soul
spoon
This one taps into everything that’ great about Spoon: How their music seems so immaculate, so precise, so minimalist, yet so loaded with sensual pleasures; how the rich texture in their music is the perfect backdrop for Britt Daniel’s frayed nerves and bleeding heart. Sensual and lush and with a beat you can dance to, They Want My Soul is the year’s great rock and roll album.

and…

  1. Marianne Faithfull, Give My Love to London
  2. Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow
  3. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
  4. U2, Songs of Innocence
  5. Weezer, Everything Will Be Alright in the End
  6. Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home
  7. Amy LaVere, Runaway’s Diary
  8. Look Again to the Wind: Bitter Tears Revisited
  9. Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread
  10. Beck, Morning Phase
  11. Brian Blade Fellowship, Landmarks
  12. St. Vincent, St. Vincent
  13. Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes
  14. Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky
  15. The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western

25 Favorite Records from 2014

Some real humdingers, this year—including my toughest-to-whittle-down Top 10 list in ages, and a number of records that are sure to remain all-time favorites.

As usual, I will note that this list is meant only as a snapshot; I suspect that #1 is more or less etched in stone, but the subsequent entries may shift a bit from one day to the next. All are excellent, though—worthy of your time and engagement.

1. Joe Henry
Invisible Hour
invisiblehour
Every Joe Henry album comes with its own lyrical and/or sonic conceit—not necessarily a formal concept, but a suggested framework, a recommended entry point for the listener. Invisible Hour is no exception: It is an album about marriage and committed love that views its subject at odd angles and from varying distances, love’s transformation felt in its absence as much as in its presence; it’s a folk album that manages to sound spare and lush at the same time, black-and-white in its rendering yet boldly widescreen in its scope. It is also his masterwork—and given how much I like his other albums, that’s saying quite a bit.

2. Miranda Lambert
Platinum
platinum

The Carrie Underwood duet aside—somethin’ bad, indeed—this is basically the pop album of my dreams: Rich in ideas, its songs in dialogue with one another, Platinum addresses fame and intimacy, time and nostalgia, feminine strength and vulnerability as two sides of the same coin. It has the spirit of a double album, if not quite the running time, and its sprawl encompasses country that is as hard and as pure as Sturgill Simpson’s, plus pop that is as sleek and modern as Taylor Swift’s. It’s an album that tries to offer something for everyone while still existing as its own thing—no small feat at all.

3. Leonard Cohen
Popular Problems
popular problems

One album removed from Old Ideas, which fetishized death and preserved its mortal reflections in amber, Leonard Cohen comes roaring back with a surprising, lively, funny, poignant set of songs—as good as any he has ever put together, in fact, though what surprises the most about Popular Problems is that it’s actually musically interesting and inventive, at times almost lending the illusion of spontaneity. Stranger things have happened, but still: This one, much more than the last one (or for that matter, any Cohen album of the last couple of decades), is the one for his legacy.

4. Robert Plant
Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar
ceasless roar

I have no idea how much money Robert Plant has actually turned down by forsaking a Led Zeppelin tour in favor of following his muse, but I do know that I love him for it—especially since the muse continues to lead him in such strange and wonderful directions, here bidding him to pick up the strands of mystic folk that he first picked up on Led Zeppelin III, tying them together with the hushed warmth and haunted vibe of Raising Sand and the dusty Americana of Band of Joy. He takes the very concept of folk music—not just American—and remakes it in his own image, and the addictive results are as appealing as any music he’s ever made.

5. Flying Lotus
You’re Dead!
youredead

Mind-altering—and, much more than any album on the list, not normally my thing—Flying Lotus’ new album uses jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and electronica as its building blocks, but constructs from them something dizzying, otherworldly, and ultimately most moving. Its construction is masterful: From its dizzying and disorienting buildup it moves into breakneck catharsis with Kendrick Lamar, then shifts into a much-needed comedown—by turns spooky and comical, and perfect for the kind of reflection that this record demands.

6. Lucinda Williams
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
spirit
Craft isn’t a very rock and roll word, and it doesn’t exactly set the toes a-tappin’, but maybe it should—at least in the context of Lucinda’s double album, which really is a master class in craft, each song arriving as something compact, precise, evocative, catchy, and wonderfully earthy. For a collection that spans two discs, it’s amazing how economical it seems, how every word and note packs a punch. Each song is its own self-contained thing, but the cumulative effect is roaringly entertaining.

7. Jolie Holland
Wine Dark Sea
winedark

Country-blues as filtered through the prism of raw and raucous punk, Wine Dark Sea is noisy and electrifying—its cling and clatter, its punchdrunk dissonance forming the perfect soundscape for Holland’s boozy reflections on wild and reckless lovers. There is a real sense of danger here—a sense that this whole thing could come apart and blow up in our faces, and that feeling remains even after dozens of listens. Tantalizing, to say the least.

8. Spoon
They Want My Soul
spoon
This one taps into everything that’ great about Spoon: How their music seems so immaculate, so precise, so minimalist, yet so loaded with sensual pleasures; how the rich texture in their music is the perfect backdrop for Britt Daniel’s frayed nerves and bleeding heart. Sensual and lush and with a beat you can dance to, They Want My Soul is the year’s great rock and roll album.

9. Marianne Faithfull
Give My Love to London
faithfull
Songs of Experience, we’ll call it; the story of the artist’s life, told through character acting and collaboration; tough as nails, funny as hell, delivered with the well-earned swagger of a true survivor. Faithfull has made a number of fine records over the last decade or so, but this one is my favorite: Playful and devastating in equal measure, it’s got the balance of wit and wisdom that only a true rock and roll sage can deliver.

10. The Roots
… and Then You Shoot Your Cousin
cousin

The strangest, boldest, most singular and uncompromising album to be released this year, or at least to be promoted so heavily on The Tonight Show, The Roots’ latest passion project offers layer upon layer of irony, satire, musique concrete, deep hip-hop references, and yes—underneath it all, some bangin’ hooks. (And all in half an hour’s time!) Purer art-rap than anything Kanye West has yet made, Cousin is demanding, though not necessarily alienating—and it’s as rich and rewarding as you care to make it.

and…

  1. Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow
  2. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
  3. U2, Songs of Innocence
  4. Weezer, Everything Will Be Alright in the End
  5. Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home
  6. Amy LaVere, Runaway’s Diary
  7. Look Again to the Wind: Bitter Tears Revisited
  8. Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes
  9. The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western
  10. Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread
  11. Beck, Morning Phase
  12. Brian Blade Fellowship, Landmarks
  13. St. Vincent, St. Vincent
  14. Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky
  15. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

Review: The Roots Tip the Scale in “…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin”

rootsI have a minor complaint that encompasses the last couple of Roots albums, but the most recent in particular. I’m not sure that it’s entirely fair for me to say it, but say it I will: I’d love to get one more Roots record where the full band just plays, and where Black Thought serves as the band’s true voice rather than as a single player in the wider ensemble. That’s not how these records have been, certainly not the new one: I couldn’t say for sure but I am nearly positive that several band members aren’t actually heard on this new LP at all—I don’t hear a tuba, for one thing, and even Captain Kirk’s guitar and Frank Knuckles’ auxiliary percussion play a more muted role—while Black Thought is present on fewer tracks here than on any previous Roots album. This is a very different band than the one you see in concert or on Jimmy Fallon, or for that matter from what we heard on “The Seed” and “Thought @ Work.” I happen to like the three post-Fallon Roots joints more than their older material, so maybe I ought not complain at all, but I can’t help but be a little vexed that a group lauded for its live performance ability, and blessed with arguably the greatest living MC, downplays so many of its core strengths.

In other words, part of me wishes ?uestlove and Thought were interested in giving us different kinds of albums than the ones we are getting, which is, perhaps, an unfair bar against which to measure … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. The two principle Roots have as much as said that they are only interested in doing passion projects from now on, which we might reasonably take to mean art projects. Certainly, Cousin steps further over the rap/art divide than any other Roots album—more even than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, if we’re being honest, though it also manages to feel less indulgent, which is no small feat. For godsake, this is a record that starts out with a minute-long Nina Simone sample—not chopped and distorted like Kanye’s Watch the Throne Nina Simone sample—and also contains a lengthy excerpt from an avant-garde composer; the first true Roots song on the album, “Never,” has a choral voice and a string section, and sounds like it could soundtrack a slow-motion action scene in a John Woo movie. This is a long way from Things Fall Apart, and for that matter is a long way from “How I Got Over” or the Wake Up! album recorded with John Legend.

Individual moments are less weird and less intellectual than all of this might sound: “When the People Cheer,” with its twinkling piano and Jay Z-referencing lyric, sounds almost like a single, and the album-closing “Tomorrow” is a tremendous R&B song, made no less affecting (though perhaps affecting in a different way) when it collapses in an avant-jazz heap, the bitter ironies below its surface oozing upward and out. “Understand” and “Black Rock” both have bangin’ beats and memorable vocal hooks. The thing is, though, the record doesn’t really sound like it was meant to be understood in terms of individual songs: Like the Romare Bearden piece that gives it its cover, this record is a collage, individual images meant to congeal into something whole and unified, even the samples and “interludes” feeling like parts of the larger mosaic. (People have asked me if they are missing anything when they stream the album on Beats or Spotify, which don’t have the three sample-based tracks, and I honestly believe that they are: Every note of this seems significant.)

The record is the shortest The Roots have yet made—just half an hour or so—and its succinctness is both admirable and perhaps a bit damning. I’ve said before that it almost feels like a Love Supreme scenario—any more than half an hour and the intensity of it would be unbearable—but I increasingly think the album might benefit from just a little more heft, a little more space for its themes to develop. When all is said and done it feels like a complete piece, a finished work, but perhaps not as deep or as heavy a work as undun—despite the fact that the two albums aren’t that far apart in terms of total run time. Another vocal track or two might have made this song cycle feel like it had that kind of gravitas—though give The Roots credit for following through on their conviction that the music itself says as much as words ever could, if not more.

Too-short or not, the album is a serious and significant exploration of capital and violence; its characters are the kinds of people you never hear from in hip-hop, except on Roots albums: They are desperate men who’ve played to win but drawn losing hands; they’ve hit rock bottom, and they know it. This is an album about bloodshed that stems from greed, aggression born of desperation; it’s set on the streets and the corners but has more than a couple of lyrics that suggest parallels with the boardroom.

It differs from undun in another key respect, despite the overlapping themes: That album told one man’s story from start to finish (or, rather, the other way around), and as such had time to develop and humanize him. The songs here all have different characters, which in effect reduces them to caricatures—but that’s the point: It works through scalpel-blade humor of the gallows variety, subverting and inverting rap clichés to reveal its themes.

It is a jet-black album, but its critics are wrong to call it humorless: It’s loaded with humor, simply devoid of joy. (Joy, by the way, is something that tends to be more readily available when you’ve got the warmth and camaraderie of musicians playing at the same time in the same room together—but there I go again.) It’s a brutally mirthless album that progresses with cold inevitability, and the more you play it the more you hear the hellish comedy within its lines. Then, as with a black comedy like The Wolf of Wall Street, you hit a point where you realize that all of the stories unfolding here are true, or at least accurate enough, and the heaviness of the whole thing really sinks in; here, it’s “Dark (The Trinity),” a funeral dirge and an unrelenting barrage of street-level nihilism. “Ain’t no use in attempting to civilize savages,” emerges as the record’s most insidious and disturbing line; it’s something we recognize as a lie—we must recognize it as such, or else sink into hopelessness—yet its resonance with current cultural debates is striking and terrifying; isn’t it essentially the argument of those who would dismiss any form of gun regulation?

Of course, The Roots are not nihilists, and lines like that one demand that we remind ourselves this is satire. There’s plenty you can fault the album for, but being timely and being unfunny are not among them. (Whether it actually makes you crack a smile is a different matter.) Neither can you accuse them of lacking in ambition: This is the farthest out-there they’ve yet gone, which is no small thing to say about a band that just took over prime late-night TV real estate. I can’t imagine the higher-ups at NBC loving this album title, but who cares? Certainly not The Roots: They’re as uncompromising as ever, and Shoot Your Cousin is weirdly exhilarating in its fractured beauty: It’s broken and bleak, but simply by spending time with these stories we affirm that all of this matters. Grace has the final word, even in a world as oppressive as this one.

At the Half: 10 Favorite Records from 2014

ihI could spend the rest of this calendar year holed up with old Monk and Mingus records—not listening to a single new release—and still have a tremendous set of records to recommend to you come year-end list season. With half of the year now completed, I can say without hesitation that 2014 has been one of the most significant years for new releases in recent memory, with several stone classics; plenty of others that come damn close.

Everything else I might say about the following list, I suspect, goes without saying: These are ten records I like an awful lot. It’s my halftime list, as it were, and will very likely change between now and December, maybe even between now and next week. That said, the top selection is 100 percent guaranteed to still be my favorite new record come the end of the year—is the heaviest new release in some years now, actually—and the next two albums on the list feel quite close to being mortal locks, as well.

I have found no small level of revelation and realignment in these albums; will keep returning to them for just that reason—and, because they are wildly entertaining, to boot.

  1. Joe Henry, Invisible Hour
  2. Miranda Lambert, Platinum
  3. Jolie Holland, Wine Dark Sea
  4. Amy LaVere, Runaway’s Diary
  5. The Roots, … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
  6. Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home
  7. Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky
  8. Royksopp & Robyn, Do It Again
  9. Stanton Moore, Conversations
  10. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

… and can you believe I wasn’t able to find room among those ten for Beck, Morning Phase; Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread; St. Vincent, St. Vincent; Luther Dickinson, Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues; Kelis, Food; tUnE-yArds, Nikki Nack; Jack White, Lazaretto; Ray LaMontagne, Supernova; The Black Keys, Turn Blue; and Neil Young, A Letter Home?

First Impressions: The Roots, “… and Then You Shoot Your Cousin”

rootsThe following is not intended as anything more or less than a quick set of first impressions– well, impressions of after my fourth listen, but it’s an odd and dense record– posted to Facebook this morning. I’m still unravelling the different threads of the record, but am concerned that it’s being too quickly dismissed as somber, bleak, or even slight, rather than engaged for the deeply mysterious and compelling work that I believe it to be.


A funny thing happened to The Roots on their way to semi-retirement. After getting off the road and settling into a cushy gig as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, they’ve suddenly become exponentially more prolific than they ever were before– no small thing for a working band like The Roots. By ?uestlove’s own reckoning they now write hundreds of new songs every week; have collaborated on-stage with everyone from Springsteen to Randy Newman, and on-record with Betty Wright, Booker T. Jones, and Elvis Costello; and yes: Have now released three proper, post-Fallon Roots joints that have effectively redefined who The Roots are as a recording unit (not least because none of these albums actually seem to feature the full Roots lineup, making it seem as though the Roots brand is really just a vehicle for ?uestlove’s flights of fancy).

Ironically, regularly displaying their sense of humor on ‘Fallon’ seems to be making The Roots more gravely serious on record; their increasingly prolific nature, meanwhile, has been tempered somewhat by much shorter albums– all of them with strong conceptual thrusts, tackling middle age, the corrosive effects of capitalism, and the fractured nature of hip-hop as a culture.

New album …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is the shortest one yet, at barely over half an hour; it’s also the bleakest, a brutal and biting satire of a culture in love with violence and completely given over to the basest drives of capitalism. ?uestlove has suggested that the record is intended as a comment on hip-hop culture– and the deeply referential lyrics, which pick up on thoughts by everyone from KRS-One to Jay Z, certainly bear this out– but to approach this record as a tourist would be to do it and yourself a disservice: We’d be fools to think this same seed of self-preserving bloodlust isn’t carried somewhere in each one of our bruised and battered human hearts—watered not by hate but by fear.

This is also their most their weirdest album—they’ve outpaced Kanye in the art-rap department, stripping away most recognizable elements of funk and instead going back to jazz and 40s and 50s pop and looking ahead into avant classical music, weaving instrumentals, snippets, and full-fledged Roots songs into an intentionally disjointed, postmodern hip-hop operetta. (Hop-hiperetta?)

It’s some weird shit, is what I’m trying to say, with weighty concerns: Violence, misogyny, and greed are offered up as the dehumanizing fruit of hip-hop culture—indeed, of an American culture now marked more by dreams deferred than by dreams brought to realization. (All of this makes the whistled, sunshiney closer, “Tomorrow,” seem like a coda so bitterly ironic that even their new pal Randy Newman might think it too dark.)

You could say the album is too brief, but—like A Love Supreme—its sheer intensity might make anything more than 30 minutes all but unbearable. You could also say they’ve become far too serious, and maybe you’re on to something—but right now it seems as though this is the message they’ve been given, the voice with which to deliver it. Best to stand back and let these dear hip-hop journeymen testify—because as brutal as this all can be, there’s something undeniably exhilarating about hearing a veteran band like this go so far out—while looking so far in—and conjuring a record as brave and uncompromising as this one.

Deluge! (Quick Thoughts on Jolie Holland, The Roots, The Black Keys, etc.)

jolieIn my decade and a half of blogging, I have found that—nearly without fail—the seasons in which I am busiest, too preoccupied with other things to get serious about online writing, are the very seasons in which blogging holds the most appeal, or at least the seasons in which I have the most to blog about. Take lately: Between travel, family, the 9-5, and other creative endeavors (plus my heavy investment in Invisible Hour), there just hasn’t been as much time as I might have liked to write about new records that have come across my desk.

And actually, that’s another reason I haven’t devoted more time to the blog: I’ve been spending so many hours connecting with new records, of which there have been many fine ones in recent weeks. I feel a bit like we’re getting a deluge of worthy new music, enough that I think it useful to pause just now and offer a few quick recommendations. Some of these records I hope to formally engage in the weeks to come; others I just know I’ll never get to. All are excellent and have offered me something in the way of revelation and pleasure, and you could do worse than to invest an hour with any one of them.

  • Outside of Invisible Hour, there may be no release from this calendar year that’s ignited my imagination quite like Wine Dark Sea, out this week from Jolie Holland. I love everything about Jolie—have ever since her stone classic Springtime Can Kill You LP from 2006; I love her voice, her songcraft, and her devotion to making each record sound different from the one that came before it, even as all share the same dusty, lived-in vibe, engaging American folk and parlor song from different angles. This new one is something altogether weird, warped, and wild—a savage, thumping set of country-blues songs as filtered through the New York underground, rooted in the same dust and clay that Robert Johnson trod but reimagined through the prism of punk. It snarls and howls and kicks up dust; has a bruised and battered heart and considers love in all its treacherous beauty. Tremendous record, and pretty far out there.
  • Speaking of far out there, those who know me well know that I love The Roots—both with and without Jimmy Fallon—and am smitten by how ambitious their records have become since they made the shift to late night. How I Got Over and undun are both significant works, but the forthcoming … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is on another level; it goes deeper out and deeper in, and—more even than the last couple of Kanye West records—it feels to me like the advent of art-rap. It’s much more appealing and intoxicating than that tag might make it sound—dense in its sound and weighty in its subject matter, but also compact and never without recognizable elements of swing and soul. I know I dig it plenty, though it may take a while to appraise just how much. (My suspicion: A lot!)
  • I love the musical and cultural history of New Orleans, and many of my favorite records engage and celebrate the vibrant lineage of that city—The Bright Mississippi, The River in Reverse, Trombone Shorty’s records, and so on. Conversations, the new record from Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, is something a little different: His first recording as the leader of an acoustic jazz trio, and a rather remarkable conjuring of Mardi Gras music in all its color and kinetic energy. Like Duke Ellington, Moore is masterful at utilizing the full textural palette of his band—whether it’s a 28-piece or just piano, drums, and bass—and this record’s invention is only topped by its righteous sense of swing.
  • The new album from Sturgill Simpson is called Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and for that tip of the hat to Ray Charles alone it’s aces; factor in Simpson’s devastating outlaw strut and his impeccable Waylon Jennings gravitas and you’ve got the makings of a record that reaches back to an almost forgotten tradition and brings it into the present day. The songs, most of them originals, are tough and sensitive in equal measure, explicitly philosophizing but rooting everything in hard life experience; it clocks in at a lean 30-minute running time, its hard-hitting brevity just one final and welcome nod to the crisp, no-frills outlaw era.
  • I’ve been a little bit resistant to the music of tUnE-yArds over the years, not least because of the annoying stylization of the band’s name and some of their LP titles, but new record Nikki Nack is a set of summer bangers that I’m finding easy to warm to; it’s like Graceland on speed, and it overflows with energy and attitude, humor and invention.
  • Food, from the sublimely gifted singer Kelis, is a treat—by turns sweet and savory, nourishing for sure but not without its moments of pure bubblegum pleasure. The production is tricked out with all kinds of colors and textures, some of them recalling vintage soul and R&B and others defiantly modern, giving the record an out-of-time allure—but of course, it’s the songs that count, and they’re fine ones.
  • A final note: Dan Auerbach has clearly been dipping pretty heavy into the R&B as of late, something that’s evident not just in the songs he wrote for the new Black Keys record but also in his production work for Ray LaMontagne, whose new Supernova is a major left turn; the opening song alone sounds like the spacey vibe of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” crossed with the druggy undertow of “I’m Only Sleeping,” with a paisley color palette that could’ve been cribbed from Prince. What makes the record identifiable as Ray LaMontange—what gives it its grit and its soul, and makes it more than just an extreme pop makeover—is his ongoing Van Morrison fixation, here manifest in some scatting and soulful pop that’s evenly split between Astral Weeks and Moondance. He goes way out into the mystic, Ray does, and the album is an appealing and worthwhile adventure. As for the Keys’ own record, Turn Blue, it’s thankfully less self-consciously arty than their last Danger Mouse joint, Attack & Release; it’s pretty weird, at least by their standards, but even through the flourishes of epic psychedelic rock there’s plenty of grit and swing. Both albums, it should be noted, work neither because of nor in spite of the psychedelic flourishes, but rather because there are some strong bones underneath all the wonky production—plain and simple.

Year-End Wrap-Up: Favorite Records of 2013

rhineAn end-of-the-year top ten list is meant to be a snapshot. It’s not etched into stone. It can and will change—partly because the listener’s mood shifts, and partly because the best records grow deeper and more resonant over time, sinking their hooks in gradually.

I have published a list of my favorite albums at the end of every year, going back to the year 2000. Every year I wrestle with the notion of not ranking my albums at all—of simply offering up a ten-album tie for first place—and every year I grudgingly make decisions about, say, which album is my sixth favorite of the year and which is my seventh. I often regret at least half of my rankings by the following morning.

This year I feel liberated to tell you upfront that these are my ten favorite albums of 2013, as of December 31. I don’t merely acknowledge that this list might change by tomorrow: I guarantee that it will.

What follow is a list of the thirteen new releases that made the biggest impact on me in 2013—first, ten brand new recordings, listed in the order I feel is most appropriate as of right now. After that are three re-issues—older music that sounded as fresh and as revelatory as the new recordings, in many cases more so.

I will say that picking my favorite album of the year proved more difficult than usual. Last year, Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio was the clear choice—with no disrespect intended toward any of the other fine LPs from the class of 2012. Honestly, were I to pick my favorite album of 2013 based solely on what I listened to the most, I suspect Robert Glasper would win again—and I’m sure my wife would confirm for you that Black Radio 2 has played around here just about every day since it came out.

And yet, the album that seemed the most substantive and nourishing—the one that hit me the hardest at the soul level—was Over the Rhine’s. The albums that surprised me the most—for different reasons—belonged to Brandy Clark and Nick Lowe. The first time I heard John Smith’s album I never dreamed it would end up on a year-end list, yet I’ve come back to it again and again, and now can’t imagine making my list without it.

Truthfully, the first three albums here could all make fine and fair choices for my favorite album of the year… and I could likely expand that to the first four. As I hear them in this moment, however, my ten favorite recordings of 2013 are:

  1. Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World. Linford and Karin make it a double—again—and reteam with Joe Henry and his Garfield House players for a record that’s richer than Ohio, earthier than The Long Surrender; tethered to a particular piece of ground, steeped in country and haunted by The Band; as personal as anything they’ve recorded, and seemingly as contented. They could have called this one Ohio, had the name not been taken; or they could have just called it Over the Rhine.
  2. Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio 2. Glasper and his dream team of jazz cats, R&B songbirds, and positive-thinking MCs court disappointment by making a straight sequel to last year’s landmark of boundary-free imagination; avoid it by going deeper, risking more on original compositions over covers, keeping the songs paramount.
  3. Brandy Clark, 12 Stories. Today’s country music is all explanation, no seduction—but here’s a woman who knows how to hook you, how to leave you space to find yourself in her songs, how to speak through silences as much as she does through words.
  4. North Mississippi All-Stars, World Boogie is Coming. No need to wait: World boogie is here. The brothers Dickinson aren’t afraid to dress up backwoods blues in the hand-me-downs of punk, hip-hop, and garage rock—to say nothing of Jack White’s peppermint-stick wardrobe. Authentically weird and totally timeless.
  5. Trombone Shorty, Say That to Say This. The hardest working man in showbiz tightens things up—keeping to ten songs in 35 minutes, celebrity cameos at a minimum—and comes up with an album that’s funkier, livelier, and closer to his live show than any yet released: The great Trombone Shorty R&B album—at last!
  6. Elvis Costello and The Roots, Wise Up Ghost. Costello’s Warner Years refracted through hip-hop’s prism, every allusion giving the album depth even as the soon-to-be Tonight Show band keeps things darkly funky and in the pocket.
  7. Nick Lowe, Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family. I’ve never put a holiday album on my year-end list—but then, I’ve never heard a holiday record as surprising as this. Biggest and best surprise: It’s not just a killer Christmas record but one of the best Nick Lowe albums, funny and loose and dripping with charm.
  8.  Paul McCartney, New. Who better than Sir Paul to fall in head-over-heels, punchdrunk love with the craft of modern pop music? It’s a Technicolor wonder; all surface, all heart.
  9. John Smith, Great Lakes. A sweet whisper of an album—hushed, melancholy, romantic; tough to shake—but then, why would you want to?
  10. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience. There are dozens of reasons to write off JT—for his excess; for his awful lyrics; for how he always tries so damn hard—but on a purely surface level, the classic soul and R&B updates on his first 20/20 are irresistible; the album’s elegance and romance, surprisingly winsome.

And three great collections of older music:

  1. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self-Portrait. Like shit he didn’t care about these songs: What was once written off as tossed-off, third-rate Dylan is redeemed on this fine set, as heartfelt and seductive as anything he ever released. I don’t have an answer for why he left the best stuff in the vault all these years—but just listen to this. Beautiful.
  2. Duane Allman, Skydog: A Duane Allman Retrospective. It works equally well as an exhaustive tribute to an all-time great guitar player—revealed here to be shockingly, criminally underrated—and as a shadow history of American rock and pop music; keeps its momentum and its appeal over seven discs, then begs to be played over again from the beginning.
  3. The Band, Live from the Academy of Music 1971. The presentation is imperfect, but the music is as wild and wooly as anything these fellas ever cut—proof enough that, artsy inclinations aside, they were not-so-secretly the world’s greatest R&B band.