Walk the Mystery: The essential albums of Sam Phillips

It could have been so easy for the singer born Leslie Phillips to stick with contemporary Christian music forever. By now she might have achieved some kind of emeritus status, living comfortably in Franklin or Brentwood, emerging every few years for a handsome collection of hymns, perhaps an annual Christmas tour with someone like Steven Curtis Chapman. Instead, with a 1987 album called The Turning, Phillips declared her independence from narrowly right-wing evangelicalism and its predilection toward propagandistic expression and pat moralism. Since then, she’s assumed the childhood nickname Sam and released a string of accomplished albums that wrestle with faith and doubt, avoiding dogma for inquisitiveness, ideology for poetics. These albums have not made her a star in any conventional sense, but they have made her a patron saint for similarly-inclined skeptics and believers who view Christianity as an invitation to embrace mystery. If she ever writes a tell-all memoir of her CCM days and subsequent emancipation, she could name it with one of her old song titles: “Answers Don’t Come Easy.”

Of course, this backstory is largely unknown and probably irrelevant to those who only recognize her as the composer for shows like Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, where her signature la-las bear witness to her easeful way with earworm melodies. It is pleasing to think that the TV gigs funded some of the cagey, challenging, philosophically-rich pop records listed below. Her role in Die Hard 3 probably helped, too.

Starting with The Turning, Phillips made seven albums with producer T-Bone Burnett, to whom she was also married. Their collaborations stand among the best work Burnett’s ever done. And yet, it’s possible that the most important creative partnerships in Phillips’ discography are the ones she’s forged with great drummers, foremost among them Jay Bellerose. 

Of the many excellent Sam Phillips albums, these are the ones I hold most dear.

01. A Boot and a Shoe (2004)
The best and final Phillips-Burnett collaboration happens to be a chronicle of their dissolution— and one of the most illuminating divorce albums ever made. If it’s tabloid pull-quotes you’re after, Phillips scatters them like breadcrumbs (“I’m not sorry we loved/ but I hope I didn’t keep you too long”). But her interest is not merely in cataloging grief; “let’s excavate the surface,” she enjoins, in what could be her life’s mantra. And so, in richly suggestive and meaningfully open-ended songs, she digs deep into themes of suffering and surrender; failure and loss as conduits for grace. The presence of God hovers over these songs, even if you can never quite pin him down. Maybe that’s the Divine arriving “One Day Late,” offering consolation to the broken only once they’ve abandoned self-sufficiency; and maybe it’s him Phillips is wrestling with “All Night,” unwilling to let go until he concedes a blessing. But then again, maybe not. These lyrics reward contemplation even as they evade tidy resolution; as ever, answers don’t come easy. If you’re looking for something rock-solid, listen to drummers Bellerose, Carla Azar, and Jim Keltner, whose work here makes A Boot and a Shoe something rare indeed: A singer-songwriter album that’s as taken by rhythm as it is melody and words.

02. Fan Dance (2001)
In many ways, a matching book-end for A Boot and a Shoe— same producer, overlapping personnel, similar half-hour runtime, comparable bent toward catchy tunes played on acoustic instruments. Thanks to Burnett, those instruments sound great: Fan Dance revels in the creaks of the piano bench, the rustle of acoustic strings, the rattle of hand percussion. And the songs seem to capture Phillips at a peak of inspiration: Hear her write gorgeous pop melodies worthy of The Beatles (“Love is Everywhere I Go”) and lean into her droll sense of humor (“Is That Your Zebra?”). The songs are about questing for truth through art, poetry, and beauty. In “Five Colors,” she offers another mantra: “I’ve tried but can’t find refuge in the angle/ I’ll walk the mystery of the curve.”

03. Martinis & Bikinis (1994)
If you only associate T-Bone Burnett with the analog austerity of his post-Raising Sand material, you’ll be in for a shock when you hear the colorful, kinetic sound of Martinis & Bikinis— merely one of the most tuneful and exhilarating guitar-pop albums of the 1990s. In those days, Phillips wasn’t yet writing with the level of introspection that would make her later albums so rich; mostly, Martinis levels righteous anger and prophetic witness against materialism, greed, emotional manipulation, and poor environmental stewardship. I take enormous pleasure in assuming “Baby, I Can’t Please You” addresses the CCM machine from which she was still just-recently unencumbered. 

04. Don’t Do Anything (2008)
Her first self-produced album retains a number of structural and thematic similarities with her T-Bone material, especially Boot and Fan Dance. The biggest difference is Phillips’ rediscovery of electricity, which provides several songs with a jolt of static and hum. Recorded by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” is rightly regarded as a classic. But the best song is the title track, which comforts doers and overachievers with the notion of unconditional love.

05. World on Sticks (2018)
Long wary of the outsized influence of commerce and technology in our lives, Phillips spent a decent chunk of the 90s issuing moral warnings that occasionally seemed strident at the time, but have largely been vindicated today. The self-produced World on Sticks sounds wiser and deeper, with Phillips tracing sociopolitical problems to our underdeveloped spiritual formation. (“Troubles on the outside can be reflections of troubles on the inside,” she says in the liner notes.) Sticks also reveals just how confident she’s gotten as a record-maker, with special effects piling up one after the other… many shaking loose from Bellerose’s drum kit, but the majority conjured with cinematic flair by The Section Quartet.

06. The Turning (1987)
Compared with many of the albums that came after it, The Turning now sounds a little bit stiff, a little too cautious. It’s nevertheless an absorbing pop record, and a striking work of conscience. To borrow a phrase from Obi-Wan Kenobi, this is the sound of somebody taking her first step into a larger world. 

07. Push Any Button (2013)
Phillips deals with heavy subject matter, which can sometimes obscure her gifts as a pop confectioner. This 29-minute party record comes spring-loaded with bright melodies, colorful sounds and texture, and crackling rhythms. Enormously fun.

08. Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop) (1996)
Her boldest experiment— a bizarro mashup of winking lounge music, vaudevillian pop, and psychedelic experimentation. Burnett can always be counted on to line up A-list session pros, and Omnipop’s pleasures come primarily from the chance to hear the likes of Marc Ribot, Jon Brion, and Smokey Hormel creating such lush (or is it louche?) arrangements. Phillips’ songs satirize commercialism in a way that always reminds me of U2’s album Pop: She goes so far down irony’s rabbit hole that she finds its dead end. After this one, there was no option but retreat and reinvention. 

Re-Issues & All The Rest: New/old music from 2020

I never quite feel like I have the time I’d like for re-issues, anthologies, and other repackagings of “old” music; nor the patience to give splashy box sets and deluxe editions the attention they require. The list I’m offering here is embarrassingly incomplete, but does offer a few archival releases that have captured my ears and my imagination over 2020.

(For new releases, check out the annotated top 25 list or the comment-free long list.)

01. Palo Alto | Thelonious Monk
Unless you were lucky enough to see him in person, this is about as close to an ideal Monk experience as you’re likely to get— a chance to hear his touring troupe in full dance-band mode, thumping through hits and standards in a sweaty high school gym, all of it captured in gloriously granulated sound by an anonymous janitor. It’s a winning portrait of a well-oiled band that played themselves ragged, even at the most workaday gigs. For its rough-and-ready energy, it might even be the best live Monk album on the market.

02. Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs | Gillian Welch
Close to 20 years ago, Welch and her partner, David Rawlings, spent a weekend dashing off reel-to-reel demos of new originals, plus a few choice covers thrown in for good measure; never intending these songs as anything but contract fulfillment, they promptly locked them in a vault. When the recordings were nearly lost in a Nashville flood, Welch and Rawlings suddenly realized that there’s actually some stuff here they cared enough to want to save, resulting in three separate volumes of “lost songs” that are infinitely appealing in their casualness. Where Welch’s canonical albums all feel carefully-composed and assembled, there is a wonderful looseness to the way these recordings find them dallying with gospel, mountain music, standards, even rock and roll. In fact, the most revelatory songs here tend to be the ones that feel most tossed-off, precisely because they show a side that Welch usually keeps hidden. All three volumes are superb, but if you only have time for one, start with the third one.

03. Sign ‘o’ the Times Deluxe Edition | Prince
The best Prince albums— and this one is certainly in the top three— often gave the impression that he was capable of anything. The astonishing thing about these Sign ‘o’ the Times outtakes is that they only reinforce that idea, revealing that Prince had so many big ideas he had to leave many of them on the cutting room floor. The original album has never sounded more sterling: It remains an album by turns rousing and distressing, using dysfunctional relationships as a mirror for a fraying society, and ending with Prince’s rainbow coalition dancing their troubles to the foot of the Cross.

04. Wildflowers & All the Rest | Tom Petty
A model for how deluxe albums should be constructed, eschewing academia in favor of sheer listenability. There are separate discs devoted to demos, outtakes, and live stuff, and while each section is satisfying in its own right, they ultimately serve as reminders of how disarmingly mean, funny, and heartbroken this album was in the first place.

05. Armed Forces Super Deluxe Edition | Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Initially released in 1979, Armed Forces— an album of tuneful, terse songs about fascism— came at the midpoint of Costello’s initial hot streak with The Attractions, and suggested a songwriter far more sophisticated than his bespectacled-punk reputation let on. A remastered version of the album sounds superb, sparkling melodies and elegant performances laced with strychnine paranoia. The real treasure here is a bounty of rough, raucous live material, which presents Costello’s earliest hits in a disorienting blur of masuline malaise, emotional trauma, and political anxiety. You won’t find many opportunities to hear The Attractions conjure this level of mayhem.

05. The White Stripes Greatest Hits | The White Stripes
A lovingly curated anthology that will remind you of what made this band so special, thoughtfully sequenced to help you hear old songs in a fresh light. When I scan the track list, there are a few songs that I miss. But when the album is playing, I don’t miss anything at all.

06. Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987
A fascinating, highly listenable immersion in a scene that’s too often overlooked by anthologists. Basically, you’ll get 28 songs by bands you’ve probably never heard of, all of them clearly toiling in the shadow of R.E.M. Though none of these songs registered as anything beyond regional hits, almost all of them are delightful in their propulsive melodies, rich vocal harmonies, and jingle-jangle guitar riffs. Listen to the whole thing, then play Reckoning as an encore.

07. Just Coolin’ | Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
Because Blakey never had the same mystique or tortured vibe as Coltrane and Monk, the arrival of a never-released Jazz Messengers album doesn’t draw the fanfare it probably should. It doesn’t feel like a lost relic or an unearthed page of jazz scripture so much as it’s merely another chance to hear one of the all-time great bands, including the great Lee Morgan on trumpet, lean hard into soulful, bluesy bop. By the way: This was recorded around the same time as Blakey’s masterpiece, Moanin’, and with mostly the same personnel. And every song on it cooks.

Hard to Be Anywhere These Days, Part II: The 2020 Long List

More end-of-the-year blurbing, summarizing, and list-making: For FLOOD, I penned a few words about Fiona Apple and HAIM; and at In Review, I rhapsodized about Run the Jewels and repeated my Taylor Swift/Tony Bennett joke in a capsule review of Folklore.

My top 25 album picks, along with commentary, are still available here at the blog. But if it’s raw data you’re after, I can tell you that I spent time with around 90 new releases this year, and can easily list 50 without hitting any duds.

  1. Folklore | Taylor Swift
  2. RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
  3. Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
  4. Aftermath | Elizabeth Cook
  5. Rough and Rowdy Ways | Bob Dylan
  6. Women in Music Pt. III | HAIM
  7. Who Are You? | Joel Ross
  8. Blackbirds | Bettye LaVette
  9. We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose
  10. Felis Catus and Silence | Leo Takami
  11. Rainbow Sign | Ron Miles
  12. Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling
  13. Mama, You Can Bet! | Jyoti
  14. Letter to You | Bruce Springsteen
  15. That’s How Rumors Get Started | Margo Price
  16. CHICKABOOM! | Tami Neilson
  17. Headlight | Della Mae
  18. We’re New Again | Makaya McCraven & Gil Scott-Heron
  19. Private Lives | Low Cut Connie
  20. All the Good Times | Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
  21. SOURCE | Nubya Garcia
  22. Half Moon Light | The Lone Bellow
  23. Total Freedom | Kathleen Edwards
  24. RoundAgain | Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, & Brian Blade
  25. Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa
  26. Southside | Sam Hunt
  27. Omega | Immanuel Wilkins
  28. Evermore | Taylor Swift
  29. First Rose of Spring | Willie Nelson
  30. Heaven to a Tortured Mind | Yves Tumor
  31. Hey Clockface | Elvis Costello
  32. Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able | Black Thought
  33. Serpentine Prison | Matt Berninger 
  34. Punisher | Phoebe Bridgers
  35. Reunions | Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
  36. See You Tomorrow | The Innocence Mission
  37. Your Life is a Record | Brandy Clark
  38. Petals for Armor | Hayley Williams
  39. Rejoice | Hugh Masekela & Tony Allen
  40. We Are Sent Here By History | Shabaka & The Ancestors 
  41. Saturn Return | The Secret Sisters
  42. Echo Mine | Califone
  43. Gaslighter | The Chicks
  44. Good Souls Better Angels | Lucinda Williams
  45. Italian Ice | Nicole Atkins
  46. Imploding the Mirage | The Killers
  47. McCartney III | Paul McCartney
  48. Pick Me Up Off the Floor | Norah Jones
  49. Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? | The Soft Pink Truth
  50. Mutable Set | Blake Mills

Hard to Be Anywhere These Days: Top 25 Albums of 2020

I’ve clearly dropped the ball this year, at least as far as blogging goes. I won’t make any excuse for myself, except to say that the value in criticism can seem tenuous on a good day, and has sometimes felt like an unseemly luxury during a global pandemic and a fraught election season. It is a luxury that my mental and emotional bandwidth just haven’t been about to accommodate. Maybe I can make it up to you by recommending 25 albums that have quieted, comforted, challenged, and sustained me throughout this strange year.

As ever, there are purely personal selections, and if you ask me to redo this list in even a week’s time some of the entries might change. But all are outstanding, and all have gotten a lot of play here at Hurst HQ.

One slight departure from previous years: For whatever reason, it suits my mood to start with the #1 slot this year, rather than do my customary countdown. Life is short. Let’s get right to it.

01. Folklore | Taylor Swift
Swift has always been a remarkable songwriter. Nevertheless, her eighth album reveals a marked maturing of her craft—not so much in her casual swearing, but in the blood she draws from clean, uncluttered metaphors (“I knew you, leaving like a father, running like water”). And, she remains unequalled in writing show-stopping bridges, using them to deliver narrative pivots and grand flourishes of emotion. Her writing on Folklore is so structured that you can almost imagine these songs as standards (bring on the Tony Bennet versions); with no need to leave them legible for stadium crowds, however, Swift deliberately obscures them in misty, spongy arrangements, primarily via The National’s Aaaron Dessner. There is a faintly transgressive pleasure in the thought that Folklore might give millions of listeners their gateway drug into dream-pop, minimalism, New Age, and folk music, but the more straightforward pleasure is hearing Swift navigate new sounds with the most understated, assured singing of her career. For as much fuss as Swift has made about writing in a less autobiographical mode, she remains her own greatest character, allowing Folklore to glow with tiny embers of self-recognition (“I’ve never been a natural/ all I do is try, try, try”). On an album born in isolation, Swift stretches further and probes deeper than ever.

02. RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
Deployed like emergency rations at the peak of the George Floyd protests, RTJ4 is an album born of a long, weary history of violence and dehumanization, and for a few tense weeks felt like the only new music worthy of its fraught era. Mercifully, it’s also a rap lover’s dream, an album targeted at the pleasure centers of old heads and connoisseurs. Clattering production, worthy of the Bomb Squad, shapes street noise and psychedelic sound effects into the sleekest, funkiest, most undiluted Run the Jewels record yet, and provides the perfect cacophony to feed the duo’s wisecracks, breaking news bulletins, and arresting autobiography. The buddy-comedy routine between El-P and Killer Mike has always gestured toward nihilism, but that’s getting less and less credible; they remain crusaders for the golden age rap records they grew up on, unwilling to surrender that sound to nostalgia or obsolescence. They draw strength from an aesthetic, but more than that, they draw strength from each other: Underneath the cynicism, RTJ4 is really a sweet album about brotherhood.

03. Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
Song for song and joke for joke, Apple is as funny as any of her male peers— and that’s true even if you count Bob Dylan among her clique, which you probably should. With pitch-black cabaret routines and put-downs worthy of a battle rapper, Apple is unflinching in her interrogation of personal grievances and societal abuses that fester in #metoo’s wake. A few songs capture the old Fiona, showing her to be undiminished as a piano troubadour of peerless phrasing and panache; more characteristic are songs that wrest homemade percussion and barking dogs into a sound that is raucous, uninhibited, and untamed by genre.

04. Aftermath | Elizabeth Cook
Cook journeyed through hell to make this record, surviving loss, divorce, and rehab. You can hear all of that in the music— not because it’s confessional, but because Cook’s slanted, complicated narratives are so full of rage, despair, black comedy, and hard-won empathy. The hardscrabble honky-tonk of her early albums wouldn’t quite work for songs so prickly, so she instead fills them with gnarled riffs, stomping rhythms, and elliptical takes on heartland rock.

05. Rough and Rowdy Ways | Bob Dylan
Imagine listening to this, the best Dylan record since Love & Theft, and thinking he was a maladroit singer. Imagine believing that a younger man could bring a softer touch to the blues numbers, or more grit to the torch songs. Imagine hearing Bob’s tender litany of emotional touchpoints in “Murder Most Foul” and still thinking it was just a song about JFK.

06. Women in Music Part III | HAIM
To fully appreciate all the weird, scraggly textures on HAIM’s third album, consider how easy it might have been for them to coast forever on their sweet, sisterly harmonies and euphoric pop melodies. Both are omnipresent here, but exist within a larger ecosystem: Leaning into their earnestness, their goofy sense of humor, their ear for noise, and their instinct for studiocraft, HAIM has altered the language of classic rock into a dialect all their own.

07. Who Are You? | Joel Ross
Following a smooth, assured debut, the young vibraphonist and bandleader returns with a small-group, straight-ahead jazz album bursting at the seams with ideas and invention. Ross’ music is a thrilling reminder of how the jazz tradition offers endless permutations of texture, rhythm, and tone.

08. Blackbirds | Bettye LaVette
On previous albums, the world’s greatest soul singer laid claim to the songs of the British Invasion and the towering catalog of Bob Dylan. Astonishing, she’s just now making an album of songs popularized by Black women— with one Beatles tune to serve as a coda. LaVette locates the pain and resolve in song after song of heartache and despair, all of which gain their full meaning through a harrowing “Strange Fruit.”

09. We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose
Nothing ever sounds too effortful on a Whitney Rose album. For her fourth, she proves herself once again to be a singer of impeccable instinct and restraint, and a graceful navigator of soaring country-rock, slinky blues, and tender ballads. Her craft is seamless and unforced, making it easy to take for granted just how smart and sturdy the record really is.

10. Felis Catus and Silence | Leo Takami
One of the year’s great left-field surprises is this sweet, playful little record from Japan, which elegantly blends jazz, ambient, and New Age music with clean, folksy melodies. Its tranquility offers a welcome refuge from hurry and anxiety.

11. Rainbow Sign | Ron Miles
Summoning the same all-star band that joined him on I Am a Man— merely one of the richest , deepest jazz records of the past decade— cornetist Ron Miles offers another collection of handsome, stately originals: Songs that move gracefully from meditation to mischief, from deep blues to spirited swing. 

12. Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling
Just 30 years old and with seven solo albums to her credit, Laura Marling gets deeper, wiser, and more emotionally articulate with each release. Her latest is filled with stories of collapse and resolve, and shows that she’s gotten scarily good at perfectly-crafted couplets designed to break your heart. Here’s one: “I feel a fool, so do you/ For believing it could work out, like some things do.”

13. Mama, You Can Bet! | Jyoti
Recording in a one-woman-band arrangement a la Prince or Stevie Wonder, Georgia Anne Muldrow recreates the loose, exploratory feel of a jazz ensemble— and, sustains an affectionate, referential dialogue with the lineage of Black music.

14. Letter to You | Bruce Springsteen
Deeply nostalgic, but not uncritically so. It’s as if Springsteen is holding a seance with a younger version of himself, writing new songs that reflect on his glory days while resurrecting old ones from the vantage point of age and experience. All of it summons the majestic heft of the E-Street Band, who wear familiarity as a badge of honor. Together, they weigh the burden of mortality against the fleeting joy that rock and roll can bring, frequently making it sound like a worthy trade-off.

15. That’s How Rumors Get Started | Margo Price
Price has made a couple of handsome country albums, but what many of us now realize is that we’ve always wanted her to make trashy little rock and roll records, full of grudges and bile. This one, produced by Price with Surgill Simpson, gleefully obliges. 

16. CHICKABOOM! | Tami Neilson
If it’s a knockout voice you’re looking for, you’re unlikely to find better than Neilson, a singer of rarified power, precision, and personality. Past albums have run the gamut of country and soul, but CHICKABOOM! offers something distilled: A pure concentrate of raucous, roadhouse rhythm and blues.

17. Headlight | Della Mae
Play any given minute of any given Della Mae album (including this one) and you’ll get all the evidence you need that these women can play. But Headlight offers a lot more than pure bluegrass virtuosity: It’s their richest and most expansive work yet, accommodating feisty love songs and topical laments; crawling blues, rowdy hoedowns, swaying ballads, even gospel choruses.

18. We’re New Again | Makaya McCraven & Gil Scott-Heron
For the third and best airing of Scott-Heron’s stirring I’m New Here material, drummer and producer McCraven dices and splices the late poet’s spoken word recitations, setting his rich words against vivid musical backdrops. The resulting album honors not just Scott-Heron’s prodigal wanderings through abuse and addiction, but also his legacy as a bridge between jazz and hip-hop.

19. Private Lives | Low Cut Connie
It was only a matter of time before the extroverted Adam Weiner— our most dependable purveyor of down and dirty rock and roll— set his ambitions to a concept album. Private Lives condenses 17 songs into 55 minutes, and creates a patchwork of quiet desperation, nagging self-doubt, and unspoken prayers for redemption. Thankfully, it still sounds like down and dirty rock and roll.

20. All the Good Times | Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
Ten cover songs reveal a different side of Welch and Rawlings. Where they are normally fastidious, here they sound carefree and casual; just a couple of crazy kids with time on their hands, some reel-to-reel recording equipment, and a burning love for American folk music. Come for Gillian’s sensitive reading of a John Prine tune; stay for Dave’s immaculate Dylan snarl.

21. Source | Nubya Garcia
The young sax prodigy’s first album as a leader fulfills all the promise she’s shown through her guest spots and supporting roles. The album’s vibrant pan-culturalism reminds you that she comes from an immigrant family, while the speaker-rattling bass suggests an upbringing on hip-hop; but it’s her questing solos that reveal how much she’s learned from her elders, and how much history informs her take on the shape of jazz to come.

22. Half Moon Light | The Lone Bellow
Gifted in so many tragically unfashionable ways, the Brooklyn trio delivers earnest anthems to a world that’s largely put such things behind it. For anyone with room in their hearts for a bit of the ol’ U2-style grandeur, this album is pitch-perfect in channeling loss and grief into catharsis, and in making intimate reflections sound universal. The cruelest irony of all: Some of these songs would sound great in an arena.

23. Total Freedom | Kathleen Edwards
A beloved singer and songwriter emerges from self-imposed exile, proving that she’s lost neither her delicate touch nor her dry sense of humor. These warm, earnest originals speak to the bittersweetness of domestic life, highlighting isolation and regret, yet still finding room for gratitude. Nearly every song on the album is darker and more conflicted than it first sounds, which lends surprising ballast to Edwards’ seemingly-breezy country-rock.

24. RoundAgain | Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, & Brian Blade
Reconvening nearly 30 years after their last studio summit— that would be Redman’s excellent MoodSwing, from 1994—four of the leading luminaries in jazz get together for egoless, leaderless improvisation. In a fraught year, RoundAgain offers a balm: The sound of easy chemistry between long-time pals, lost together in a spirit of play.

25. Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa
Arriving just in time to soundtrack a few million quarantine dance parties, the young British singer’s second album offers a master class in state-of-the-art disco. Singles and could-be singles pile up one after the other— coiled, propulsive, fat-free— and quickly create the illusion that you’re listening to a greatest hits collection.

Honorable Mention: Evermore | Taylor Swift
All hail Taylor Swift: Our most productive quarantiner, our most essential pop star, and the redeeming poet laureate of 2020’s malaise. Surprise-released a few days after I drafted this list, her second album of the year expands upon the moody aesthetic of Folklore, doubling down on its autumnal vibe but also sharpening and clarifying it with a dab of 1989 gloss, a few left-field experiments, and at least one track that could almost fit in on country radio. It’s less surprising, less consistent, and more adventurous than the album that came before it, impressive enough to warrant its inclusion as an unranked bonus pick.

Peaceful Waters: Leo Takami’s evolutionary ambiance

felis catus and silence review

You are familiar, no doubt, with the nerdiest icebreaker in the book: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one album with you, which one would you choose? The grim tidings of Spring 2020 offer a variant question that’s much less appealing, and far less hypothetical: Suppose you were hunkering down to ride out an unprecedented global pandemic, and had to pick an album to accompany you in quarantine… well? Leo Takami, a guitarist and composer from Tokyo, provides a credible last-minute answer. His Felis Catus & Silence was released on the Unseen Worlds label just as coronavirus brought its spread of decay to American shores. The music is beguiling and beautiful for its own sake, and seems to offer everything the socially-distanced might need right now: It’s quiet enough to drown out the terrors of the outside world. It’s placid enough to reset the pulse and cleanse the mind. It’s almost decadent in its loveliness, unblinking in its modest rebellion against a season of death and despair. And it’s borderless enough that, if your bunker is wired for Spotify, you’ll be pointed down plenty of tributaries worthy of further exploration. 

Takami’s compositions— there are seven of them here, ranging from two-and-a-half to nine minutes— are so delicate in their feel, so elegant in their structure, so unhurried in their pace that you might almost miss how evolutionary they are. It’s evident from the disinfectant cheer of the opening keyboard tones and muted marimbas that Takami is rooted in New Age ambience and Japanese environmental music, idioms noted for their minimalism. And yet the great paradox of Felis Catus is how the music is at once so streamlined and so generous, spring-loaded with fairy dust and wind chimes and babbling brooks and other sensual pleasures, each one its own tiny sanctuary. Minimalism is all about acknowledging negative space, but Takami’s music unfolds with a real sense of abundance, string sections and choral effects magnanimously extended like presents on Christmas morning. That generosity is never more evident than on “Unknown,” the record’s deepest discursion into jazz guitar, where Takami lets loose a geyser of round, clean notes that place him in a lineage with Charlie Christian, Jim Hall, and Pat Metheny. It’s as if he is dead-set on giving you as much jubilance as he can fit in before the song winds down And what about the record’s spiritual kinship with bossa nova? Just listen to the insinuating pulse of “Garden of Light,” its cool, tactile breeze, its subterranean melancholy. The governing concept here is gagaku, a Japanese folk form known for its courtly melodies. It’s the well Takami drinks from as he shapes his subtly progressive music into narratives of fluid grace and unified purpose.

Felis Catus leans toward the pastoral, even the idyllic, but that’s not to say it exists at a complete remove from this world’s rot and corrosion. Takami has expressed an interest in cycles of life and death, which you can hear in almost every song here; midway through the title cut, the floor seems to disappear right out from under it, and for a few moments there’s roaring silence before Takami’s idyll is rebuilt. “Children on Their Birthdays” promises merriment in its title but delivers something considerably more depressive in its melancholy piano notes; think of those scenes in Pixar’s Inside Out where colorful childhood memories fade into adulthood’s doleful shades of grey. The best moment on the album comes in its last song, “Quiet Waters,” an endless cool river that dips, just for a moment, into a brooding apparition. For a season the quiet waters sound troubled, but by album’s end they’re once again flowing in peace and tranquility. It’s oddly provocative. Who dares to believe, in times like these, that trouble might be fleeting? That any beautiful thing could ever carry on?

All I Know is I Loved You: Brandy Clark and the search for story

brandy clark your life is a record review

Brandy Clark’s characters are the heroes in their own stories— and most of them seem to know it. In an older song called “Soap Opera,” Clark cast the everyday affections and indiscretions of small-town America as a serialized daytime drama, each of the locals quite confident that theirs is the starring role. Her new album is called Your Life is a Record, its very title suggesting a similar conceit: “If your life is a record/ people and places are the songs.” Love and loss don’t always present clean narratives, but Clark’s characters turn again and again to familiar structures and storytelling beats, seeking to impose some order and make some sense of life’s mess and sprawl.

With Your Life is a Record, the mess Clark’s trying to make sense of is a break-up. She wrote the album following the end of a longtime relationship, something she acknowledges right from the jump. Wistful opener “I’ll Be the Sad Song” interpets joys and sorrows through the sequencing of classic vinyl; “they’ll all make sense when they’re together,” Clark says, because every devotee of the album format knows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Addressing her ex, Clark mines grace notes from a relationship that ended in disappointment: “I’ll be your sad song/ your ‘good love gone bad’ song/ the part of your heart that’s bittersweet.” 

Not everything on Your Life is a Record is as intensely vulnerable, but even its moments of broad comedy benefit from Clark’s thoughtful deployment of familiar tropes and storytelling structures. Take the movie-quoting “Bigger Boat,” which uses Jaws allusions and a riotous Randy Newman cameo to advocate unity in an era of political fracture: “We’re springing a leak, we’re coming apart/ We’re on the Titanic, but we think it’s the Ark.” It’s only a notch or two subtler than Newman’s classic “Political Science,” but in an era of learned deafness there may be no recourse but the megaphone. 

Newman’s gleeful cynicism is a welcome treat, but his presence on the album also feels symbolic: On Your Life is a Record, Clark dramatizes her sharp songwriting and chiseled short stories with thoughtful orchestrations for strings and brass, grounding the album not just in the countrypolitan lushness of Bobbie Gentry records but also in the orchestral sophistication of Newman classics like Good Old Boys and Sail Away. Produced with warmth by Jay Joyce (Miranda Lambert, Eric Church), Your Life is a Record is as burnished and evocative as a watercolor landscape; horns swell and trill in boisterous swagger on the casually profane “Who Broke Whose Heart,” but more often they are hushed and romantic, whether in the glowing embers of “Love is a Fire” or the mournful billow of “Apologies.”

The buried lede here is that Brandy Clark has now made a trilogy of albums that are consistent in their clear-eyed, observational songwriting, but distinct from one another in their overall aesthetic: 12 Stories is stripped-down outlaw country, Big Day in a Small Town a pristinely polished bid for the mainstream, Your Life is a Record a canny update of those emotionally nuanced singer-songwriter mainstays to which Clark now turns for solace. These albums work together as companion pieces, attesting to the singularity of her songwriting talent and the breadth of her vision: Each one is undeniably a Brandy Clark album. Each one sounds markedly different from the other two. And each one is excellent. You’d no sooner part with one than you’d toss out a piece from your matching dining room furniture set.

The throughlines are Clark’s affinity for detail and her sense of the high stakes of seemingly trivial moments; you’ll hear both of those things in “Pawn Shop,” one of the peaks of the new album, where a divorced woman and a failed musician both head to the secondhand store (and not just any store, but the one on Charlotte Avenue) to hawk their wedding ring and beat-up guitar— items that once instilled great hope. (“It ain’t stolen, it ain’t hot/ someone told me it cost a lot/ Man, ain’t that the truth.”) There’s also “Bad Car,” where the Check Engine light is as certain as death and taxes, but a mom holds tight to her clunker because of all the good times and bad times it’s carried her through (including the first time her kid ever said a cuss word). Such intimate moments provide grounding for a song like “Long Walk” (as in, “off a real short pier”), where Clark tells off a middle-aged mean girl with bars that would make any battle rapper envious: “Well I’d give you grace but whey even bother/ ‘Cause after all, you can walk on water.”

Clark’s levity is a healthy diversion from the album’s more reflective core, which turns again and again to its romantic postmortem. “Who You Thought I Was” feels like the album’s fulcrum, testifying to how the stories we tell about ourselves can ebb and change and eventually evaporate altogether. When she was young, Clark confesses, she wanted to be a cowboy, a circus performer, the next Elvis Presley; with time she wanted only to be someone worthy of love and devotion. It’s a sweet sentiment, and the brutal set-up for the album’s most gutting twist of the knife: “There’s a lot of things I used to want to be/ til you stopped loving me.” When our narratives so easily go up in smoke, it makes you wonder how useful they really were to begin with. Maybe that’s the point of “Who Broke Whose Heart,” where there are a lot of possible reasons why good love went bad (“was it you were never good enough for my dad/ and I could never live up to your mom?”), and ultimately none of them really seem to matter: “All I know is I loved you/ so fuck the rest.” Sometimes there’s no story you can tell yourself to help things make sense; and yet Brandy Clark’s proven once again that it’s a worthy pursuit just the same.

Let it Break You: The Lone Bellow lay their burdens down

half moon light

One of the central implications of Christian faith and practice is that death doesn’t have the final word. In “The Eastern Gate,” a traditional Christian hymn, believers look forward to the joyful reunions that await them on the other side of the curtain— reunions with Christ, reunions with saints who’ve already crossed over into glory. An instrumental version of this hymn winds like a river through The Lone Bellow’s Half Moon Light, snippets of it appearing as a brief introduction, an album-bisecting interlude, and then as a quiet coda. It threads its way through songs about death, loss, and sorrow, bearing quiet witness; encircling these tenderhearted songs in otherworldly hope, watering them with God’s kindness. 

There is enough heaviness on Half Moon Light to fuel several forlorn singer-songwriter records, not to mention their accompanying press cycles. Two members of the core trio lost grandparents while this album was gestating, and one checked into substance abuse rehab. Oh, and have you turned on the news lately? It seems sometimes like nothing lasts forever, except “The Eastern Gate” wonders if maybe some things do. Perhaps its presence here is to bookend these temporal murmurs with glimpses at the eternal. It’s also worth noting that these instrumental snippets were played by singer/songwriter Zach Williams’ grandmother, at her own husband’s funeral. So maybe their inclusion here is to remind us that pain and loss are what thread us together as people, families, communities. We weather grief, we long for all manner of things to be made well, we do it together. May the circle be unbroken.

Befitting its somber subject matter, Half Moon Light is a quiet record, notably lighter on actual bellowing than any previous Lone Bellow release; Williams mostly sticks to a lower register of whispers and croons, a deep well of understated charisma. The Brooklyn group can still dole out cathedral-ceilinged eruptions of U2-style catharsis, as they do in the volcanic “Count On Me,” but much of Half Moon Light is twilit and slow-burning; there is something of a Cowboy Junkies/Trinity Sessions shimmer to it all, a similar midnight allure. The album was produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, whose work is textured but also warm, approachable, consoling. Many songs are built from acoustic guitars, pianos, and loops of wordless vocal harmony; some also have spritely horns and careening drums. The band members themselves (Williams, Kanene Pipkin, Brian Elmquist) soften their folksy austerity with soft-rock hooks and easeful melodies; imagine them as the small-batch, artisanal alternative to Little Big Town’s mainstream populism, both groups approaching acoustic roots music by way of Fleetwood Mac succor. Within the album’s after-hours glow, there exists a wide spectrum of moods: “Good Times” strikes up the horn section and leans into rowdiness, “Just Enough to Get By” is a salty blues. “Enemies” comes on soft as a whisper, and “Wonder” has the gentle sway of a campfire rag.

These songs investigate different ways of coping with grief, though they never wallow in it. Along with recent albums like Over the Rhine’s Love and Revelation and Elbow’s Giants of All Sizes, Half Moon Light is fundamentally concerned with processing, and it balances the heaviness of its witness-bearing against moments of light and grace. And so you have a song like “Count on Me,” where tribulation is the refiner’s fire (“let it break you/ let it help you lay down what you held on to”) and friendship is more valuable than silver and gold (“you can count on me if I can count on you”). And “Just Enough to Get By,” where Kanene Pipkin grits her teeth and voices feminine stoicism through mirthless jokes (“if silence is golden/ I know a lot of wealthy women”). You also have “Good Times,” which spins tall tales as a way to rhapsodize life lived in its fullness; it’s a song written for a season of mourning, reminding us that there’s also a season for revelry (“let no good time slip away”). Though the world of Half Moon Light is darkened by death and decay, rumors of glory are whispered along its periphery; in “Wonder,” Williams surrenders the hopelessness he’s harborded in his heart (“take the sorrow and the poison, I dreamt that I might need”). If despair is bondage, this song is a dream of freedom. The wispy, featherweight “Martingales” is even more direct in its prescriptive advice: “If yesterday’s too heavy, put it down.”

Half Moon Light is introspective, but that’s not to say that it’s insular. In “Illegal Immigrant,” which combines “Where the Streets Have No Name” atmospherics with dusty harmonica, Piper voices a mother’s quiet promise to find the child from whom she was taken; its a gentle witness to our evil days of border separations, and also to the more universal feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. But the record’s deepest well of compassion comes in “August,” a bleary-eyed gospel song written for the late Scott Hutchinson of Frightened Rabbit. He was a friend of the Lone Bellow crew, and the song wrestles to make sense of his shocking death: “Woke up and my mouth was dry/ Gotta get to the bottom of this.” It’s a song laid bare by grief, its only consolation the thin promise that “there is love all around you.” All that’s left after that is the sound of a piano playing an old Christian hymn; sorrow and hope, echoing through time.

To Love the Mystery: The Innocence Mission’s bigger things unseen

See You Tomorrow

See You Tomorrow, the twelfth album from The Innocence Mission, opens with a song called “The Brothers Williams Said,” which captures one of the ultimate introvert dilemas: When your nature is to be shy and reserved, how do you convey your love and affection to the people around you? The song’s protagonist moves quietly through life offering small gestures of warmth and charity; a smile on the streets, a friendly wave to passersby. Such grace notes are lost on the fellows who give the song its title (“The Brothers Williams said/ you don’t ever talk”), but they are not lost on the narrator, who speaks words of encouragement and gratitude: “The kindness of your face/ does not go unrecognized/ has not refused to shine/ in this most difficult time.”

This is about as Innocence Mission-y as a song can get. They have arguably never written anything more on-brand, except perhaps for deep cut “When Mac Was Swimming,” about a little boy lost at play, unaware of the loved ones scurrying about to make his birthday celebration special. Songs like these speak to what makes The Innocence Mission one of the most irreplaceable of bands: There are few songwriters who would be as sensitive in capturing the shy person’s plight. And there are none who have amassed such a treasure trove of songs that find holy wonder and simple beauty in everyday acts of connection. If The Innocence Mission was special for no other reason, they would be special for their recurring subject matter: Kindness. Humility. Mercy. Compassion. Our shared need to be seen. To show others that we see them.

There is a reasonable criticism to be made that the band returns to the same well over and over, not just in content but in sound. It’s true that their albums since We Walked in Song have all felt of a piece. They are all lovingly crafted basement recordings made by the Peris family— Karen and Don, occasionally joined by their string-playing children or bassist pal Mike Bitts. Karen fills each album with delicate singing and carefully-stanzaed lyrics that draw deeply from poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins. Don provides the gentle rustle of acoustic guitar strings, as clarion as cathedral bells, and the occasional smudge of shoegaze atmospherics. These recordings are simple but sound lush; you can often hear the crack and hiss of the tape rolling, romantic swells of pump organ, accordion, and creaking piano. They are quiet, too, except when they are loud: When a drum kit enters toward the end of “We Don’t Know How to Say Why,” a highlight of the new album, it sounds like thunder. See You Tomorrow is enchanting for all of the same reasons that Sun on the Square was enchanting, but there’s a difference between a band that’s directionless and a band that’s faithful to a very particular muse. The Perises stand alone in their attentiveness to this niche of beauty, this reservoir of quiet, this oasis of kindness and vulnerability.

Their masterpiece of storytelling remains Birds of My Neighborhood, which aches with lamentation and hope during a difficult season. But since then, Karen’s writing has become even more impressively succinct and incisive. On song after song she imbues the mundane with meaning, and a lot of See You Tomorrow is spent gently kneading the wordless and ineffable into beautiful, precise language. Listen to the sensitivity with which she sketches a character in “We Don’t Know How to Say Why,” who only wants “to be loved as much as anyone,” then bursts into tears from an undefinable longing. “At Lake Maureen” uses an afternoon hiking and sailing to meditate on the mysteries of time’s passage (“I feel something new about you/ every day of the world”). In “St. Francis and the Future,” the narrator wants only to stay where she is with her loved ones, and to keep change and uncertainty as far-off as possible (“Oh, make the future small”). And who can’t relate to the voice at the center of “The Brothers Williams Said,” who wishes she could “love the mystery/ and have no tears that there can be no better understanding.” These songs live in the peculiar glow of all the things we can never fully understand or articulate, but are caught up in nevertheless; what Joe Henry calls the “bigger things unseen.”

At first blush, the albums of The Innocence Mission can sometimes sound like they belong to another world entirely, one where beauty is savored and where people are more decent. But there is no Thomas Kinkade-style idyll, no denial of this world’s hardship. You certainly hear it in Birds of My Neighborhood, an album that attests to disappointment, barrenness, and sorrow. As for See You Tomorrow, perhaps it’s a noteworthy coincidence that the album was released around the same time as the Drive-by Truckers record The Unraveling, which chronicles contemporary malaise with diaristic precision (song titles include “Babies in Cages” and “21st Century USA”) and basically amounts to a nihilistic howl. It’s a lament from a slipstream far beyond our control; See You Tomorrow, with its songs about time and uncertainty and fickle emotion, is not entirely dissimilar. But into the wild and the uncontainable, the Peris family offers a tender gift of grace, peace, and kindness; proof that these, too, are among the bigger things unseen.

Pieces of a Man: On the run with Gil Scott-Heron and Makaya McCraven

we're new again review

Was there ever really a home for Gil Scott-Heron? Throughout his abbreviated life he seemed to pine for one, even as he harborded disbelief that such a place could ever exist. In his seminal albums from the 1970s— outpourings of conscience and lament— the poet-singer bore witness against racial and economic injustice like a wild voice in the wilderness; a citizen of the promised land who knew he’d be forever estranged from its abundance. He was alienated not just from his country, but from himself. One famous song posited that “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” an admission that for a lifelong addict there’s no haven to be found; no shelter from the treacheries of the flesh. Home sounded equally unattainable some 40 years later, when an album called I’m New Here reflected on a life spent on the run. (“Not running for cover/ because if I knew where cover was/ I would stay there and never have to run for it,” he reasoned.) Much of that album was devoted to the strong women who raised him, gave him peace and shelter, provided him with light unto his path and a foundation of love and support. But still he ran. A year later, he was dead from the complications of HIV and years of substance abuse. A perpetual prodigal, a lifelong exilee. Did he ever find cover? Did he ever find home?

The sense of displacement Scott-Heron embodied in life— and the unsettledness he conjured in his music— makes him a strangely perfect candidate for a project like We’re New Again, which marks the third distinct presentation of his I’m New Here material. The original album was made in tandem with producer Richard Russell, who adorned Scott-Heron’s creaky intonations in spectral electronics. We’re New Here, an album-length remix from Jamie xx, was released just a year later. We’re New Again is the latest tribute to Scott-Heron as a man fraying at the edges; a scruffy character whose life and work were proudly unvarnished and unfinished, and whose legacy exists not as settled business but as a set of open questions ripe for relitigation. At the helm this time is drummer/composer Makaya McCraven, one of our great jazz visionaries. It’s not quite right to call McCraven’s album a remix. It’s a full reimagining, using the late poet’s final recorded words as building blocks but stacking them against a rich backdrop of live performance and convincing post-production effects. One of the most famous Gil Scott-Heron records is called Pieces of a Man, and that’s still what’s on offer today: Shards of a beautiful man and a broken life, submitted to us as runes to be reassessed and reassembled. 

As Mark Richardson notes, “McCraven brings Scott-Heron’s work down to earth and situates it in a milieu the elder artist would have recognized,” running the gamut from spirited soul-jazz to lived-in blues. It feels more in-tune with Scott-Heron’s black music affinities than either of the albums that preceded it. And yet, in McCraven’s splicing, dicing, sampling, and imaginative recontextualizations, it also bears witness to Scott-Heron as a forward thinker and hip-hop originator. It’s a smart positioning for Scott-Heron’s legacy, and it’s an advantageous setting for McCraven. He’s all but unmatched at weaving together grooves and textures and micro-moments into immersive suites of sound, an approach he blew up to epic lengths on Universal Beings. We’re New Again allows him to make similarly evocative music, but with Scott-Heron’s words as a focal point. McCraven and his collaborators (including Jeff Parker) rise to the occasion with both narrative clarity and disorientation: “Where Did the Night Go” is a trippy nightmare of trilling flutes and drum kit bluster, as gently unmooring as the Heffalumps and Woozles dream sequence from Winnie the Pooh. “Running” is set to an insistent hip-hop beat, McCraven’s timekeeping cruel and unrelenting. “I’ll Take Care of You,” Scott-Heron’s turn as a piano crooner, is presented in all its parched vulnerability; a declaration of fidelity that’s really an admission of raw need.

McCraven gives us stirring music and high drama, alternating between fleshed-out songs and fragmented soliloquies. But there is a real sense of thematic development here, empathy for Scott-Heron’s life spent on the lam. “Running” still feels like a thesis statement (“because the thing I fear cannot be escaped”). There’s also “The Crutch,” presented here as a distorted electric blues, a song for men who carefully evade the kindness of God or the universe (“when the world reached out, they chose to flee”). On I’m New Here, Scott-Heron gave us a tender reflection on the grandmother who raised him (“absolutely not your mail order, room service, typecast black grandmother”). McCraven divides it into four separate tracks, left scattered throughout the album like breadcrumbs. There’s also the “I’m New Here” theme, recurring on multiple songs as a reminder that there’s never any wanderer who’s strayed too far (“no matter how far wrong you’ve gone/ you can always turn around”). But McCraven gives the last word to “Me and the Devil,” Scott-Heron’s take on Robert Johnson. Amidst gnarled guitars and swaggering brass, Scott-Heron warns against the Evil One. There is always something to run from.