Ordinary Pleasures: Lifestyle music from Toro y Moi

outer peace

Streaming platforms haven’t just changed the way we consume music; they have imposed a new set of aesthetic assumptions on how music is produced, optimized to provide a sense of discovery but also a comforting familiarity. At its worst, this new set of values can metastasize into what critic Jon Caramanica derides as “Spotify-core”—a milquetoast mélange of tepid R&B, middle-of-the-road pop, sleepy electronica, and anonymous folk. It’s an algorithmic blend designed as lifestyle music—airbrushed eclecticism that can be turned on and then tuned out, the unobtrusive soundtrack to daily chores or errands. But what if there is a version of the streaming ethos that perfects the underlying value proposition, offering off-handed variety, glistening surfaces, and compositions that work as mood music but also reward closer scrutiny? And what if—and try to keep an open mind here—you could do it not with a playlist but with a traditional album, short, sweet, and to the point? Leave it to Chaz Bear—the synth-pop maestro behind Toro y Moi—to pull it off.

You could make an argument for Bear as an early adopter of the streaming ethos; as far back as 2011’s sublime Underneath the Pines, he seamlessly merged bedroom acoustics with wispy Beach Boys harmonies, DIY electronic effects, and an unerring instinct for earworms, camouflaging his playful invention with a shimmering, luxurious sheen. He’s been both refining his approach and trending pop-ward ever since, and the new Outer Peace feels as tight, as tidy, and as tuneful as any Toro y Moi record yet. It’s a modest but appealing confection that embraces the boundaryless nature of music consumption in the digital world, and its breadth and virtuosity hide in plain sight behind its placid exteriors. Bear’s gift is in retrofitting the porous ambiance of an effective playlist to the scrupulous construction of the album format, and the most conservative features of Outer Peace also happen to be its most bracing: Consider its 10-song, 30-minute programming, which feels like the relic of a bygone era; listen to how Bear ends the record with the piano-and-Autotune power ballad “50-50,” pop so earnest and straightforward it feels like a tectonic shift following all gentle weirdness that proceeds it.

That weirdness comes from Bear’s hodgepodge assembly of sounds and influences, pieced together with musical and emotional logic that help the album go down smooth. The ideal for any Toro y Moi song is something that works equally well as pop or simply as a vibe, and the best songs here land squarely in both camps. Listen to the carefully-orchestrated elevator exotica of “Fading,” where tinkling chimes and chintzy percussion offset the red-bloodedness of Bear’s ecstatic, Prince-ly woops and wails. “Ordinary Pleases” starts from a place of zen—you’ll hear the calming sound of gently running water—before it settles into am amiable uptown groove. “Laws of the Universe” reveals a composer whose love of dance music runs through the populist nostalgia of Daft Punk, and whose crate-digging geekery leaves room for in-jokes about LCD Soundsystem. “Miss Me,” a haunted chillwave ballad with guest vocals from Abra, is a master class in evocation; it sounds like its decomposing in real time, the song’s bitter sadness consuming it from the inside out. And “Freelance” is a testament to how Bear makes even his quirkiest moments feel graceful; a vocal stammer provides the song with its indelible hiccup of a hook.

The album is too small, too unassuming, too caught up in its ordinary pleasures to qualify as a statement—and Bear doesn’t intend it as one. Think of it more as a Choose Your Own Adventure, a record that lets you decide how you want to use it. “This record is a response to how disposable culture has become and how it affects creativity,” he’s stated. “While listening, you might pay attention or ignore—either way that’s ok, this is music for a creative mind.” So, it’s a low-key party album for introverts, or a fecund marinade for wandering minds, or both—lifestyle music for anyone who wants the freedom to just let songs wash over them, crafted with enough detail and care to reward anyone who listens closely.

Classics in the Right Way, Part 2: Further recommendations from 2018

pistolsI have been writing about records since I was 13, and have never enjoyed it more than I have this year. Love and gratitude to all who have encouraged me in these weekly, deep-dive reviews. I hope you’ve found it even half as worthwhile as I have.

I’ll be back with more in 2019, after a brief Christmas sabbatical. But first, a few closing remarks on this past year’s new releases. For those who want a long list of albums without my annotations, here are 50 albums I cherish and whole-heartedly recommend. (Of course you can find the commentary track here.) You’ll note that some of these I never reviewed, but only due to time restrictions—not a dearth of enthusiasm. 

50 Favorite Albums from 2018

  1. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
  2. Interstate Gospel | Pistol Annies
  3. Look Now | Elvis Costello & The Imposters
  4. Honey | Robyn
  5. All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do | The Milk Carton Kids
  6. Historian | Lucy Dacus
  7. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 | Black Thought & Salaam Remi
  8. This Too Shall Light | Amy Helm
  9. Thelonious Sphere Monk | MAST
  10. Love in Wartime | Birds of Chicago
  11. Sparrow | Ashley Monroe
  12. Time & Space | Turnstile
  13. World on Sticks | Sam Phillips
  14. SASSAFRASS! | Tami Neilson
  15. Dirty Pictures Pt. 2 | Low Cut Connie
  16. Isolation | Kali Uchis
  17. 13 Rivers | Richard Thompson
  18. Be the Cowboy | Mitski
  19. See You Around | I’m With Her
  20. Cusp | Alela Diane
  21. Room 25 | Noname
  22. Invasion of Privacy | Cardi B
  23. Ventriloquism | Meshell Ndegeocello
  24. Between Two Shores | Glen Hansard
  25. Beyondless | Iceage
  26. Desperate Man | Eric Church
  27. Whistle Down the Wind | Joan Baez
  28. Tree of Forgiveness | John Prine
  29. Hell-On | Neko Case
  30. My Way | Willie Nelson
  31. Out of Nowhere | Steep Canyon Rangers
  32. Vanished Gardens | Charles Lloyd and the Marvels with Lucinda Williams
  33. Full Circle | Eddie Palmieri
  34. Sun on the Square | The Innocence Mission
  35. The Messthetics | The Messthetics
  36. Currents, Constellations | Nels Cline 4
  37. Seymour Reads the Constitution | Brad Mehldau Trio
  38. Last Man Standing | Willie Nelson
  39. Heaven and Earth | Kamasi Washington
  40. Port Saint Joe | Brothers Osborne
  41. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides | Sophie
  42. Broken Politics | Nenah Cherry
  43. Wanderer | Cat Power
  44. The Prodigal Son | Ry Cooder
  45. Whack World | Tierra Whack
  46. Still Dreaming | Joshua Redman
  47. Bugge Wesseltroft & Prins Thomas | Bugge Wesseltroft & Prins Thomas
  48. Cry Pretty | Carrie Underwood
  49. boygenius | boygenius
  50. The Window | Cécile McLorin Salvant

Disappointments

The most important decision a critic makes is on what he or she chooses to cover, and for me that means curating records that are worth the listener’s time and attention. There were, however, a few 2018 albums I ended up liking far less than expected; the following are all albums I had intended to write about but ultimately didn’t justify the effort, for one reason or another.

Ye | Kanye West
Man of the Woods | Justin Timberlake
Nasir | Nas
Colagically Speaking | R+R=Now
August Greene | August Greene
The Now Now | Gorillaz
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino | Arctic Monkeys

I will also register some mild disappointment with Teyana Taylor’s album, KTSE—though it’s not disappointment with the album’s quality so much as its brevity and its botched roll-out. She deserved much better.

Re-Issues and Older Music

Deep immersion in new music means I haven’t yet gotten to all of the year’s big archival roll-outs—not to the anniversary edition of Beggars Banquet nor even to Bob Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks. (I will confess to some mild Bootleg fatigue.) I have listened to the deluxe edition of The Beatles, a joyous revelation not necessarily for the bonus material so much as the chance to hear such richly imaginative and playful material come spilling out of my speakers in clarion sound. A couple of other new/old releases to note include John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once—a transitional album that nevertheless sounds sure-footed—and a sublime anthology called Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul & Synth Boogie in 1980s South Africa, so indelible that my six-year-old son has requested it on more than one occasion.

Classics in the Right Way: 25 favorite albums from 2018

kacey

A few things you’ll see on my list of 25 favorite records from 2018: Roughly 16 selections by women, depending on how you want to classify husband-wife duos. Four official debuts, but also a number of accomplished works by seasoned pros. Numerous albums that carve out a space between tradition and progression, upholding lineage while pointing to the future. And, in these fractious times, several albums that embrace joy as a matter of intention—choosing a hopeful countenance even when circumstances point in the opposite direction.

Some critics have posited that the album format is in its dying days, to be replaced by playlists and data dumps. Maybe so, but all 25 albums on this list exist as cohesive, self-contained bodies of work, their songs in dialogue with each other, their sequencing precise and important.

I could have listed as few as 10 or as many as 100—and next week, I’ll augment this core 25 with some honorable mentions, some favorite re-issues and archival music, and more. For now, these are all albums that I’ve enjoyed enormously and recommend whole-heartedly.

25. Beyondless | Iceage
beyondless
Majestic and menacing, Beyondless reckons with the legacy of rock and roll’s golden era without anything resembling slavish devotion. Packed to the gills with riffs, rhythms, sound effects, and gallows humor, it’s the year’s most unpredictable rock album. The songs chronicle depravity, but from the abattoir of Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s imagination there springs florid storytelling and impressionistic poetry.

24. Between Two Shores | Glen Hansard
betweentwoshores
For his strongest solo collection yet, the erstwhile Frames/Swell Season frontman casually intermingles autumnal folk, heartland rock, and luminous jazz for an album as familiar and comforting as a favorite afghan—or perhaps a favorite Nick Drake record. It takes the tone of a consoling friend, promising us that time will sort out all our grief eventually—and until then, there’s nothing wrong with having a good, long cry.

23. Ventriloquism | Meshell Ndegeocello
ventriloquismMN
On Ventriloquism, a jukebox record of 80s and 90s R&B hits, Meshell Ndegeocello offers a multi-layered treatise on personal canon. Playing songs largely penned by women and/or people of color, Ndegeocello swaps featherweight synths for rustic folk flourishes and live-band funk—signifiers of respectability for songs that warranted our respect all along. They refract deeper issues of genre, gender, and identity—a covers record as aesthetic argument and stylistic manifesto.

 22. Invasion of Privacy | Cardi B
cardib
“Is she a stripper, a rapper, or singer?” asks Cardi B on a debut album that suggests she’s all these things and more, an envelope-pusher and category-killer whose identity can only ever be all of the above. The big surprises here are how rooted she is in hip-hop orthodoxy, but also how much room to roam she finds within traditional frameworks: Invasion of Privacy bursts at the seams with flows, beats, jokes, vulgarity, empowerment, and defiant autobiography. A rags-to-riches blockbuster for the ages.

21. Room 25 | Noname
room 25
Poet-turned-rapper Fatimah Warner—aka Noname—pours forth speech, joking and tongue-twisting and free-associating a dense web of language where everything, including her black life, matters. Her proper debut, following the radiant Telefone mixtape, is sleek and assured, an album that’s at once precise and all-encompassing.

20. Cusp | Alela Diane
cusp2
You wouldn’t even need the fingers on two hands to count the great albums about motherhood, a list to which Cusp immediately belongs. But that’s not the only thing singer/songwriter Alela Diane has on her mind: She uses the particulars of being a mom to wrestle with the broader topic of becoming, how a day or a season in our life can be a threshold for personal change, a catalyst for transformation. Her songs are presented in warm, clean arrangements, their straight lines contrasting with the deep mysteries contained within.

19. See You Around | I’m With Her
see you around
A trio comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, I’m With Her is about the super-est group imaginable in today’s acoustic scene, and they betray subtle virtuosity throughout their debut album. See You Around reflects a worldview that’s respectful of folk and bluegrass traditions without ever being beholden to them, and the songs are similarly restless, full of characters seeking solid ground through seasons of tumult and transition.

18. Be the Cowboy | Mitski
be the cowboy
Mitski’s songs sparkle with clean pop perfection; her easeful way with melody may remind you of Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, or even Paul McCartney. She spikes those buoyant tunes with lyrics of quiet desperation. Each song on Be the Cowboy glimpses either an unattainable future or an irretrievable past—alternate realities where, for all these characters know, everything worked out just fine.

17. 13 Rivers | Richard Thompson
13 Rivers
One of our top-tier shredders makes a blessed return to electric mayhem on an album that’s as muscular and direct as any in his corpus. Thompson’s songs don’t so much rage at the dying light as they wrestle with the darkness in his own soul—“the rattle within,” as one song memorably phrases it. The result is a prickly masterwork, a discontented opus from a guru working at his peak.

16. Isolation | Kali Uchis
isolation
On her luminous debut, the Brazilian singer flits from steely hip-hop to dingy New Wave to coy bossa nova; a couple of retro R&B numbers show how easy it would have been for her to fashion this album as a diva’s showcase and a soul revue, but Uchis is far too restless to live in the past. So she’s given us a pancultural pop showstopper that functions as a declaration of independence; her lyrics, about the cost of freedom, remind us that independence and isolation can be two sides of the same coin.

15. Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 | Low Cut Connie
dirty pictures part 2
Listen beyond the buzz saw guitars, the pounding pianos, and the relentless kick drums and you’ll hear a bar band of startling sophistication, their brashness and bravado belying depth and sturdy craftsmanship. Or, just pump your fist in the air and get swept along in their crackling, unostentatious energy. A near-perfect jolt of pure rock and roll, Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 is by turns wounded, vulgar, earnest, and hysterical.

14. SASSAFRASS! | Tami Neilson
sassafrass
One of the year’s most classicist country albums also happens to be one of its most colorful—at times bordering on being outright bonkers. Neilson tucks into haunted Appalachian ballads, brassy R&B, swaying nightclub reveries, even Vegas-style showstoppers; sometimes she plays it straight, sometimes she revels in double entendres and caustic humor. Throughout, she proves herself a singer of redoubtable power and control, and a writer whose wit is eclipsed only by her compassion.

13. World on Sticks | Sam Phillips
worldonsticks
Sam Phillips is one of pop’s most daring and resilient excavators; she’s made a career off of digging deep for truth and beauty, and on World on Sticks she rummages through the trash and ephemera of a culture given over to hollow materialism. Fortunately, she is also one of our most gifted melodists, and here powers her elastic tunes with thunderous drums, luxuriant string arrangements, and thrumming electric guitars.

12. Time & Space | Turnstile
time and space
A document of bruising physicality but also big ideas, Time & Space is a galvanizing punk album that jostles with riffs, banshee wails, and headbanging fury. It also nods at Chess Records, branches into pure pop, and augments its hardcore wails with sophisticated harmonies. Diplo shows up to add weird keyboard effects, and it’s not even one of the top 10 most surprising moments on the album. Which is, incidentally, just 23 minutes long, every second packed with white-knuckled exhilaration.

11. Sparrow | Ashley Monroe
sparrow
Monroe, a country singer from Knoxville, Tennessee, has a legitimate claim to 2018’s MVP title; look for her name to show up again on an even higher entry. For Sparrow, Monroe proves once again that she’s unequaled at reimagining country roots and traditions for the present day. Awash with strings, it’s a colorful update on the classic “countrypolitan” sound, its lush orchestrations illuminating the contours of her internal monologues and emotional remembrances.

10. Love in Wartime | Birds of Chicago
love in wartime
The warmest, most humanistic of bands cranks up the electricity for this rangy and roaming opus, jolting their gospel harmonies and brambly folk with punchy rock and roll vigor. While their previous album presaged “real midnight,” this one supposes that it’s already come and gone, and beckons us to pick up the pieces. The whole record plays out like a swift kick in the ass for anyone who thinks they have the luxury of complacency; in a dispiriting year, it was a lighthouse, an oasis, and a life preserver.

09. Thelonious Sphere Monk | MAST
mast
The worst possible way to celebrate the skewed genius of Thelonious Monk would be with an overly reverent tribute album—and this songbook record by Tim Conley, aka MAST, never even comes close. Instead, he chops, screws, and bedazzles beloved Monk classics, dressing them up with bells and whistles, augmenting them with lurching hip-hop beats, kicking them down a flight of stairs and then ultimately setting fire to them via a crackling live band. The result qualifies as the year’s most bewitching jazz and its most immersive electronica—an album that uses the past as a jumping off point for boundless imagination.

08. This Too Shall Light | Amy Helm
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An exercise in community and a testament to the redemptive act of singing, This Too Shall Light features songs of joy and sorrow, lifted up in smudged harmony by Helm and her troupe of harmony singers, Birds of Chicago among them. The songs come from disparate sources—Allen Toussaint, T-Bone Burnett, The Milk Carton Kids, even Rod Stewart’s immortal “Mandolin Wind” is here—and Helm brings confidence and grace to each one. She is one of our great soul singers, and here she proves herself to be both a keeper of the flame for her father’s legacy and an able blazer of her own new trails.

07. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 | Black Thought & Salaam Remi
Traxploitation
In 2018, no rapper had harder bars than Black Thought, an all-timer who’s just beginning to get his due. For his second solo joint of the year, he offers a head-spinning and endlessly quotable feast of language, nimbly pivoting from self-aggrandizement to sociopolitical arguments to stirring endorsements of the steel-driving work ethic he embodies. Producer Salaam Remi creates warm, funky environments, drawn largely form blaxploitation tropes, giving this GOAT candidate the regal adornment he’s always deserved. Old-head rap executed with such flair, it sounds less like the past than a whole new wave.

06. Historian | Lucy Dacus
historian
For her second solo album, singer/songwriter/shredder/boygenius member Lucy Dacus writes about romantic dissolution and human frailty—but always from a therapeutic remove: It’s not a break-up album or a death album so much as an album about the stories we tell, the way we make sense of tragedies, the role we play in curating one another’s history. These masterful songs—pitched between emotional acuity and writerly sophistication—are paired to sleek rock arrangements that soar, grind, and erupt as needed.

05. All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do | The Milk Carton Kids
allthethings
On their first album to feature outside musicians, the folksy duo conjures a loose, borderless Americana that recalls such inclusionary classics as The Basement Tapes and Willie Nelson’s Stardust—all the while retaining the whimsy, melancholy, and close harmonies that make them The Milk Carton Kids. The songs reflect dissolution: Sometimes they’re about wayward nations, sometimes they’re about faithless lovers, and sometimes it seems like it might be a little of both. Like Amy Helm’s record, it was produced by Joe Henry, enjoying a banner year.

04. Honey | Robyn
honey
In her alluring new suite of songs, recalcitrant Swedish pop star Robyn journeys through heartache, memory, self-inventory, and in the end, defiant hope. She’s always walked a fine line between steeliness and vulnerability, but none of her albums tremble quite like Honey, which features some of her most cracked vocals, her most porous song structures, and her most lovelorn lyrics. It adds up to an immersive song cycle that washes over you, waves of sorrow followed by waves of cathartic joy.

03. Look Now | Elvis Costello & The Imposters
look now
Has everything you might want in an Elvis Costello album—unless all you want is loud guitars and paranoid songs about girls, in which case there’s just no helping you. Intricate and tuneful, ornate and direct, Look Now consolidates decades of tutelage in pop songcraft; it has the confidence of a master but the exuberance of a young buck. Its songs—all richly empathetic, most about or from the perspective of women—make it the year’s most rewarding album by a dude.

02. Interstate Gospel | Pistol Annies

Pistol Annies cover art
Finding solidarity in songs of divorce, depression, and quiet desperation, the Pistol Annies emerge with their wisest and funniest album yet. The one thing Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley don’t know how to do is sugarcoat, and Interstate Gospel is bracing for its candor—yet its emotional directness is channeled through childhood remembrances, archetypes, saloon soliloquies, and randy rock and roll; meanwhile, the outlaw dreams of their first couple of albums have blossomed into a more sophisticated American roots milieu, one that’s grounded in tradition but refracted through modernity. In the middle of the worst of it, they’ve made an album that reflects the best in each of them.

01. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
goldenhour
Festooned though it may be with disco balls and kaleidoscopic sound effects, Golden Hour is a country album through and through. You can hear it in the air, the empty space between Musgraves’ words; and you can hear it in the words themselves, plainspoken even when they’re clever. They’re not clever quite as often as they were on Musgraves’ fine earlier albums—which, it turns out, is perfectly fine. She’s toned down her impish wit for songs of disarming sincerity, perfectly wed to a colorful production palette so visceral, you can almost feel this music on your skin. Musgraves is still enough of a cynic to question her own right to be happy and to wonder when the other shoe’s gonna drop, yet what dazzles the most about Golden Hour is its sense of awe: Inspired by her new marriage, Musgraves is seduced by hope, surprised by joy, and bowled over by a world of marvels beyond anything she could have imagined. It’s an album about grown-up love and childlike wonder, and a vision of country music as something timeless, borderless, consoling, and fun.

On Humanity or Myself: The majesty and menace of Iceage

beyondless

What does it even mean to be a rock and roll band in 2018? There’s more than one answer, of course, some more satisfactory than others. If you’re in Greta Van Fleet, you may understand your charge to be equal parts torch-bearing and opportunism, exploiting Led Zeppelin cosplay to preserve in amber a particular lineage, with any luck seducing Spotify’s rock algorithms along the way. If you’re one of the Twenty One Pilots, meanwhile, you may feel unencumbered to renegotiate what rock even means as a taxonomy— or at least a marketing term— while betraying tenuous allegiance to its tropes and traditions. Iceage has the best idea of all: reassembling rock’s most familiar building blocks in a way that’s bracingly anarchic and unpredictable. That’s the highest praise imaginable for an album like Beyondless, which crackles with majesty and menace: It makes rock and roll sound dangerous again, using time-tested motifs and ideas to create the illusion you’ve never heard anything quite like it.

You can discuss the album through a list of its influences, but it wouldn’t quite convey the record’s exhilaratingly off-balance equilibrium— how it sounds sure-footed and lawless, swaggering and implosive. By all means, talk about how the group borrows from Johnny Thunders’ arsenal of buzz saw guitar riffs and chattering sound effects— but also be sure to mention the queasy cabaret number “Showtime,” where they zero in on the quality that truly made the New York Dolls dangerous and ahead of their time—how they took trashy theatricality dead-seriously, their lack of irony dogged and demented. You can also mention Iceage’s deployment of acoustic flourishes on “Under the Sun,” but be sure to mention how their spindly folk always sounds sinister and alienating; when they go rustic, it’s not to conjure the comforts of home, but the hard-boiled torment of a murder ballad. Like any good rock record, you can also describe this one by enumerating its forms of movement: “Hurrah” is a bruiser right out of the gate, hurtling forward with waves of tremulous bass and a distorted Chess Records riff, while “Thieves Like Us” patiently builds from a country shuffle into a howling boogie. “Catch It” is thunderous and slow, but “Pain Killer” almost qualifies as an anthem, buoyant horns lifting it out of its Exile on Main Street murk. Consider it an argument for one of rock’s most enduring value proposition: Transcendence through trash; uplifting primitivism.

Seedy and literate in equal measure, the songs on Beyondless find their perfect narrator in Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, who slurs his way through tales of decay and debauchery, filtered through skewed poetry. Never exactly aloof but also not as alarmed as you think he should be, Rønnenfelt is a kind of bemused oracle; the world is burning, but at least it makes for a crackling good yarn. He waxes apocalyptic on “The Day the Music Dies,” which rattles and hums with bad omens, and on “Hurrah,” he channels a soldier intoxicated with bloodlust. It’s a song about state-sanctioned violence, told in a language any plutocrat could understand—the language of capitalism! (“I was told to protect and serve/ But I’m here to supply a demand,” he grins.) What gives these signs o’ the times such intrigue is that, as he drifts through crumbling streets, Rønnenfelt can’t shake the corrosion in his own soul—what Richard Thompson might call “the rattle within.” On “Plead the Fifth,” he’s racked by guilt: “Unravel and come undone/ plead the fifth on all accounts.” On “Beyondless,” he’s a faithless lover, borrowing his half-hearted apology from a Dylan classic: “If you think I am the pillar which you needed/ Believe me, dearest, it ain’t me.” These songs are hard-boiled and unflinching, but also invigorating; from the abattoir of Rønnenfelt’s imagination blooms a florid storytelling, equal parts Tom Waits impressionism and midnight-black Nick Cave comedy. The best yarn here is “Thieves Like Us,” which begins with Rønnenfelt filing a restraining order—“on humanity or myself.” It’s a fine line between misanthropy and self-loathing, and the song only ratchets up the urgency from there, both in its feverish narration and its locomotive rhythm. “Hush as I spill my wayward theory,” Rønnenfelt sings, the barstool philosopher calling his grotesque salon to attention. He’s not the first to tell this tale, but you’ll hardly remember when you’ve heard it told with such panache.

Deep in the Railroad: Black Thought & Salaam Remi make old rap new again

Traxploitation

“The rap John Henry/ They send me deep in the railroad,” boasts Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought. It’s the perfectly low-key self-mythology for a gifted technician who’s always been about the grind, eschewing flashy short cuts for refinement of craft, exhibiting a steel-driving work ethic from his prodigy days to his current station as a hip-hop oracle and survivor. The Black Thought value proposition is the same as ever, lyrical excellence, thrills derived from pure technique, head-snapping couplets and multilayered quotables. The fruit of his labor includes an enviable catalog with The Roots (see Things Fall Apart, undun), institutional approval (see Jimmy Fallon, Lin-Manuel Miranda), and a growing consensus that he is at once underrated and a serious GOAT candidate. With Streams of Thought Vol. 2Traxploition if you’re nasty— he finally has the one crown jewel he’s lacked: A brainy and ballistic solo album, nine perfectly-honed bangers that give Thought’s rhymes the opulent framing they’ve always deserved. As ever, he’s put his back into it, and he’s triumphed on his own terms, mining white-knuckle exhilaration from verbal skill and luxurious soul beats. Almost 20 years after he promised us the next movement, here he pledges “the new shit”—the joke being that his old-head rap is executed with such flair and bravado, it sounds more advanced than any of the deconstructions and mutations you’ll hear from the younger cats. This isn’t throwback rap, but the platonic ideal. “Child rhymers don’t come at the old timers,” he quips on “Long Liveth,” and it’s not get-off-my-lawn so much as kiss-the-ring. The warning is persuasive: After decades of going deeper and working harder than anyone else, the rap John Henry finally has his submission form for untouchability, a master class in speaker-rattling, mind-expanding proficiency.

The mantra here isn’t reinvention so much as reclamation, an exhibition of traditional rap tropes as creatively fertile and emotionally rousing. Thought’s partner is Salaam Remi, a noted beatmaker well-credentialed for his work with Amy Winehouse and Nas. His aesthetic is streamlined splendor, and here he draws on the blaxpolitation soundtrack palette—think crisp snare pops, head-bobbing bass, humming oboes, trilling flutes—to create loose, live-sounding environments for the MC’s unrelenting flow. The result sounds like The Roots’ analog warmth blown up to symphonic scope, meaning Black Thought’s rhymes finally have the regality to match their diamond-cut precision. Check the gold-plated, vibranium-girded “Streets,” where a declaiming Black Thought is the center of gravity for soaring string arpeggios and clattering low-end rumble. What Vol 2. offers that its fine 9th Wonder-produced antecedent didn’t is breathing room; that five-song quickie was a throat-clearing exercise in sheer density, but here there’s a little more elasticity, funk, and finesse. Listen to how the tight Rat Pack groove on “Get Outlined” unravels into sax skronk and clattering percussion,” or to the way “How to Hold a Choppa” cools down for Thought to ruminate over cooing woodwinds and rattling hand percussion. There’s aggression, too, usually in quick bursts: “History Unfolds” is a clenched rock and roll brawler, while “Long Liveth” festoons its thunderous boom-bap with twinkling chimes, an immaculately bejeweled bludgeon.

Black Thought is “the breadwinner, dead center, head-spinner” in all this, not so much preaching black excellence as personifying it—embellishing, enjambing, flipping similes, creating dense webs of language that seldom leave room for proper choruses or hooks. (And when he does need a hook, he can sing it himself, as he does on the album-closing R&B bop “Conception,” credited to his Reek Ruffin alias.) He’s not the first rapper to wax cerebral about his own dopeness, but there’s a special pleasure in what Black Thought does here: Some rappers get duller as they age, but his years of dues-paying bear out in incredible linguistic punch and precision. He holds court like the statesman that he is, in a way that’s not unlike Pusha-T’s wizened oration on DAYTONA—the difference being that Pusha’s a coke-rap specialist where Thought’s porous imagination leaves more room for empathy and intersection. “Fentanyl,” the loose tumble of jazz that opens this set, could almost be a rejoinder to Pusha’s dealer sagas (“real drugs do real things,” intones Black Thought); meanwhile, where so many rappers connect black excellence to capitalism, Black Thought largely eschews Rollies and Benzes in favor of a less materialistic approach. “Save us, Sammy Davis, Belafonte, Quincy Jones/ Mahatma Gandhi, James Baldwin, Jesse Owens,” he calls out on “Streets,” an invocation of the ancestors that sets up Black Thought’s own tragedy-to-triumph memoir: “I changed from a rock boy to a rock star/ Hijack the elevator to the top floor/ I’m takin’ everything that’s left like a southpaw.” His expert braggadocio is grounded in stark realities. “What I’m haunted by is knowing where the bodies are buried,” he admits on “Soundtrack to Confusion,” and he unearths a few of them on “How to Hold a Choppa,” where he just needs 90 seconds to connect chattel slavery and lynchings to the prison industrial complex—all part of the ongoing “war on the heavily melanated.” When he pivots from the political history to family affairs, it lands like a sucker punch: “Now am I wrong if I teach my son to properly hold a choppa/ and how to bring down a helicopter?” More than one song speaks of blindness (“if you can’t see what’s happenin’, you just can’t see”), but the rap John Henry has been bearing witness for decades now. “I had a black thought and they called it wokeness,” he quips. He’s been saying this shit for years, and with greater eloquence than anyone else; the rest of us are still trying to catch up to Black Thought.

Keep it Shakin’ While We Can: Jon Batiste sings for his city

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“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image,” Joan Didion wrote. If she’s right, then the City of New Orleans must surely belong to the musicians who have at once ratified and expanded its traditions. Think of soul stirrer Irma Thomas, R&B shaman Dr. John, most of all the late and eternally-cool Allen Toussaint. Think also of the prodigious John Batiste, the singer and pianist who, as Stephen Colbert’s bandleader, stands as New Orleans’ most prominent cultural ambassador, smuggling Dixieland swing into mainstream America five nights a week. Batiste makes his major label debut with Hollywood Africans, also the first album he’s made without his unruly Stay Human collective, and it’s further proof of the gravity with which he assumes his emissary role: It’s music made by a man who knows he’s a keeper of the flame, and understands his duties to encompass both historical curation and progressive ideation.

If the album is about any one thing, it’s about the intersection between person and place—how geography and culture shape a man, and continue to exert a gravitational pull throughout his life. Given that, it’s important to know that Batiste cut Hollywood Africans in an old New Orleans church. It may also help to know that he made the album with producer and roots music impresario T-Bone Burnett, present not so much to shape the record’s sound as to preside over a séance, calling the rattling haints of Crescent City song and story into era-spanning communion. The result is a mixture of Batiste originals and sacred texts—a few ornamented by strings, percussion, or harmony singles, but most presented solo and unadorned. Burnett captures all of it with the same analog austerity he’s favored since Raising Sand, his Grammy-winning team-up with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. It’s a muted approach that seems jarring at first, diametrically opposed to the exuberance Batiste channels night after night on The Late Show, yet it’s ultimately the right choice for an album that shows off a different side of Batiste—earnest, meditative, grateful in his acknowledgement of the giants who have come before him, humbled to reveal how he’s built on their achievements.

You can hear it in his engagement with some of New Orleans’ most hallowed documents, like a shimmering and blissed-out reading of the Louis Armstrong staple “What a Wonderful World.” Batiste sings it not as a feel-good anthem so much as a meditation on holy wonder and active gratitude; it drones where Armstrong’s exults, and feels almost liturgical in its calming resonance. There’s also a reading of “Saint James Infirmary Blues” where the artist is comfortable enough with the song’s familiar contours that he can both lean into camp (listen to the disembodied voices and funeral-march horns that haunt the song’s periphery, like the ghosts of all the New Orleans bluesmen who’ve performed it before) and sprinkle in his own goofy humor (“she ain’t never gonna find another sharp-dessin’ piano player like me,” he winks), all while upholding the song as a serious piece of folklore.

These gently revisionist histories set the parameters for Hollywood Africans, where tradition exists not to be recited into the public record but to provide a malleable language for personal expression—and Batiste takes that even further with his originals, the best of which are instrumental. Opening song “Kenner Boogie,” named for the New Orleans suburb where he honed his chops, is a blazing three-minute history of stride piano, encompassing everyone from James P. Johnson to Little Richard in its raucous two-handed fury. “Chopinesque,” meanwhile, belongs to a lineage of jazz compositions that keep one foot in classical sophistication, the other in the free-flowing logic of swing (think of Mingus’ brainy ballets, Ellington’s symphonic masterworks, or Brad Mehldau’s luxuriant After Bach).

Batiste is eloquent in his native tongue, even as he bends it to his modern dialect. You might think his carefully-plunked melody on “Green Hill Zone” is a lost Solo Monk outtake, at least until the strings enter—but actually, it’s a melody snatched from Sonic the Hedgehog, a video game that shares bandwidth in Batiste’s head with shopworn standards like “Smile” and “The Very Thought of You,” both played straight here. There’s also “Mr. Buddy,” a ruminant and tender-hearted recollection of a childhood mentor or teacher. The deeper Batiste goes into the rhythms of his city, the more they seem to shake loose these remembrances, and the more fully his personality blossoms; what seems at first like a travelogue reveals itself to be a self-portrait, and an argument that person and place are never fully separable.

All of that lends gravity to the closing song, a Batiste original called “Don’t Stop.” A pensive waltz, the song urges open-hearted, resilient love; in another context, it might sound naïve, but here it’s a bloom of hope planted in a very particular soil, the same soil that nurtured Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Toussaint’s “Yes We Can.” “Let’s keep it shakin’ while we can,” Batiste sings, sounding not quite like all the cats who kept things shakin’ before.

In the Middle of the Worst of It: Pistol Annies on fire

Pistol Annies cover art

The Pistol Annies—Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley—have about a hundred different superpowers between them. Truth-telling, trash-talking, myth-making, hell-raising—their virtuosity runs both deep and wide. One thing none of them are great at is sugar-coating, and on Interstate Gospel—their third and most accomplished album—they are proudly, defiantly, even confrontationally unvarnished. “I’m in the middle of the worst of it,” Monroe sings toward the start of the album—and then comes the knife twist: “These are the best years of my life.” The group has always written about women deep in the shit—sometimes dumped upon them, sometimes self-generated—yet even their most desperate protagonists take the shitstorm in stride. Most weather it with their sense of humor intact; some come through it newly self-reflective; more than a handful are aided by booze or pills, and try though you might you can’t blame them. Interstate Gospel may be the most troubled Pistol Annies record yet, stacked with songs about divorce and regret, but this is a band whose jocularity and compassion seem directly proportional to the enmity faced by their characters. In other words, this is also their most rollicking, joyful, and confident album, the one with the funniest jokes, the most sophisticated blend of hazy autobiography and richly-detailed fiction. “We’re on fire, I think,” Lambert muses at one point, and it’s a line with double meaning—both a statement of emergency but also a not-so-humble acknowledgement that the Pistol Annies are on a hot streak.

That streak encompasses at least a half dozen classic albums between them, estimating conservatively; Monroe’s Sparrow, striking for how it finds room for personal expression within an established lineage, came out just a few months ago. It’s masterful in a different way than Lambert’s contemplative The Weight of These Wings or Presley’s razor-edged Wrangled, and one of the chief accomplishments of Interstate Gospel is how it showcases each Annie’s individuality but also the strength in their bond; the specificity of what each Annie does is sharpened, not flattened, by their fellowship. Maybe that’s why they chose to open the album, after a quick prelude, with “Stop, Drop, and Roll One,” a band introduction and theme song. (“One’s got the Tylenol, one’s got the Adderall, one’s got a drink in her hand,” they summarize, and if you’re not sure who’s who, just listen to when each voice enters the scene.) Presley’s verse on the song showcases the ease and economy with which she can tell a story: “Get this thing off of me, where in the hell is my bra?/ This hurts a lot more than the last time we did Mardi Gras.” Meanwhile, “Leavers Lullaby,” a goodbye letter from a woman born to run, is voiced by Monroe, reflecting a thematic strain that would have fit neatly among Sparrow’s assembly of gypsy hearts and wanderers. “Best Years of My Life” opens with a line that seems like a Monroe special—“I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet”—yet it’s almost more satisfying to imagine the line penned for her by an alternate Annie, the fruit of their sisterly camaraderie and intermingled sensibilities.

As for Lambert, she can’t help but be at the epicenter of what’s nearly a divorce album. Her severed ties with Blake Shelton comprise the most tabloid-worthy breakup among the Annies, and she addressed the matter at length on The Weight of These Wings, a double album where she took stock, admitted fault, and largely found virtue in Being the Bigger Person. Somehow, singing divorce songs under the Pistol Annies banner frees her to chronicle dissolution and its aftermath with an expanded range of emotions, including grief, shame, liberation, and glee. The grief and the shame come primarily in “Masterpiece,” a late-album stunner performed almost as a Lambert solo track, and of a piece with The Weight of These Wings. Here she agonizes over oblivion, anguishing over all the hard work that can go into keeping a marriage afloat just for it to capsize anyway (“like nothing ever happened,” she laments). Considerably perkier is “Got My Name Changed Back,” a courtroom jamboree that turns lemons into lemonade and a divorce settlement into rebirth (“Now who I was ain’t who I be/ I got my name changed back,” Lambert exults). That’s the Interstate Gospel prism, one where it can be easier to see the joy and relief in separation than in sticking it out. There’s no sadder line on the album than the pungent country one-liner Lambert lets loose on “Best Years of My Life,” about a woman who’s stuck: “He don’t love me but he ain’t gone yet.” Meanwhile, each Annie gives voice to wisdom and the healing power of time on “When I was His Wife,” a song of experience if ever there was one. “His love was enough to keep me satisfied/ I said that too when I was his wife,” sings Monroe, another leaver’s confession.

Pistol Annies are uniquely gifted at upholding the Lady Bird doctrine, where paying careful attention is really an act of love. That’s true even when their impish humor and their passion for archetypes veer close to cartoonishness; their empathetic streak is always there to save them. Less caring writers would let “Cheyenne” lapse into cliché, what with its protagonist who loves trashy tattoos and country music. When Lambert hits the longing in the chorus—“If I could treat love like Cheyenne/ If I could be just as cold as the beer in her hand”—it feels like the most nakedly autobiographical sentiment on the whole album. Likewise, the randy “Sugar Daddy” could have been a lark (“My sugar daddy’s got a rhinestone suit/ Got a snake in his boot,” Monroe coos), but it’s noteworthy here for its brazen celebration of feminine agency. Their propensity for empathetic nuance brings unresolvable ache to “Milkman,” which tries to unravel the complicated threads connecting mothers and daughters but ultimately tangles them further; and to “Commissary,” which addresses addiction and enablement by putting the tough in tough love.

Of the three Pistol Annies records, Interstate Gospel sounds the most sure-footed as it straddles country’s past and its present; it prizes both traditionalism and pop punch, and it sounds classicist without fetishizing analog austerity. (This catholic conception of country marks some of the year’s most enthralling albums, including Eric Church’s Desperate Man and Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.) Working with producer Frank Liddell, who helmed all of Lambert’s solo joints, the Annies give equal stature to close harmonies and thunderous drums, finger-picked acoustics and fuming electric blues. The title song is an old-timey frenzy, pounding church pianos colliding with rollicking bluegrass. Presley’s biblical dad jokes (“Jesus is the bread of life, without him you’re toast”) split the difference between Grand Old Opry cornpone and Dixie Chicks irreverence. Elsewhere, “Cheyenne” lilts to a folksy fiddle, while “Sugar Daddy” crackles with loose electricity. These arrangements manage to surprise without ever seeming ostentatious: Listen to how “Got My Name Changed Back” ends on an Andrews Sisters high, or to how “5 Acres of Turnips” morphs from sepia-tinged regret into a psychedelic dream sequence.

It’s that song that may be Interstate Gospel’s true lynchpin: In a rural multi-generational epic, the Annies whisper about dark family secrets. (No specific allegations are made, but there’s talk of “generations of shame” and ominous holes in the ground.) But when the lurching honky-tonk blossoms to its coda, Presley sings amazing grace: “Something beautiful comes out of this dirt,” she declares. Just like that, deep shit is redeemed, through good humor, joyful intent, and sheer force of will—proof of the Pistol Annies’ superpowers working at their peak.