by Josh Hurst

Or: Worthy new releases from January.


With a third son on the way, a new gig at Slant, the recurring responsibilities of my day job, ongoing work for Flood, and a few other projects on the back end, I’m not sure that I can commit to writing the sorts of long, exploratory record reviews I was writing this time last year. Surely a monthly log of worthy new releases is something I can maintain, however—and hey, with a three-album Dylan set on the way, I wouldn’t be shocked if I found the time to buckle down and really dig into a handful of truly major new albums here and there.

Tift Merritt, Stitch of the World. Tift’s latest collection of earthbound love songs and weary travelogues sounds hard-won: “Heartache is an Uphill Climb,” she tells us on one track, and you can just imagine how “Icharus” turns out. She’s always had a crack in her voice to sell stuff like this, and here it’s backed by a rowdy backing band that shows up ready to roll up their sleeves and tousle their hair; drummer Jay Bellerose shakes, rattles, and rolls his way through “Dusty Old Man,” the grittiest thing she’s ever recorded, and in no small part thanks to his rimshots, tambourine shakes, and booming bass drum. But this is Tift’s album, and she’s always been the real deal; I’m as impressed by her precision with words and melody on “Heartache…” as I am with the lived-in vibe she conjures on “My Boat.” And I haven’t even mentioned that Sam Beam sings on three of these. Even without him, this would likely be her strongest album. (I reviewed this one for Slant.)

Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 3. I can’t help but wonder: If Hillary Clinton had won the election, would these guys sound like just a couple of cranks, as opposed to seers and doomsayers who we really should’ve been listening to all along? The third album called Run the Jewels is an extended I-told-you-to, but one that leaves plenty of room for us to join them on the lifeboat; it’s also my favorite of their three albums, the one where there’s the most room to breathe amidst the weaponized profanity, shit-talking, and rage. All of hip-hop’s tropes, including the ones you never knew were political, turn revolutionary here, and thank God Mike and El-P are on the side of the people: When Mike talks about doling out “hurt and despair” to Satan himself, it somehow seems empowering, ennobling to all of us. And anyone who thinks they’re nihilists hasn’t spent much time with “2100,” a funky cut with BOOTS: “Cause I don’t study war no more/ I don’t hate the poor no more/ Gettin’ more ain’t what’s more/ Only thing more is the love/ So when you see me/ Please greet me with a heart full/ And a pound and a hug.” That’s how the resistance starts. (I reviewed this one for FLOOD.)

Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life. They’ve got principles, which means another black-and-white band photo on the cover, another LP with eight songs and lots of whoahs and yeahs. But their principles don’t prevent them from dabbling in some keyboards and drum loops here and there, a shift slightly less seismic than when Jack White put a bass part on “Seven Nation Army,” but still: it’s something you notice. Their great gifts are that, for all their primitivism and simplicity, they sing clearly and write strong melodies, so it doesn’t take long to pick up on what these songs are about. Basically, they’re a little jittery about growing up, getting older, and hanging on to a world that just keeps spinning. But then, who isn’t?

The xx, I See You. Bigger, bolder, fuller, peppier, still pretty sad. (I reviewed this one for FLOOD.)

Rodney Crowell, “It Ain’t Over Yet.” I don’t normally review singles, but I’ll make an exception for what may be my favorite Rodney Crowell song ever, wielding the power of autobiography to embolden a song about failing, and how that doesn’t have to be the end of your story. (You’d think the guy had written a memoir or something.) Consider: For a song about how a woman saved him, how he blew it, how they’ve made peace, and how the lucky dog’s landed another shot with another woman, he actually gets his ex-wife to join him in the back-and-forth. It’s pretty bold, and John Paul White also makes a strong impression as Crowell’s world-weary fellow traveler. They’ve all taken a few licks, but they’ve gotta believe the best is yet to come. I reckon we all do.

By way of teaser, I’ll close by saying that I’ve already heard and enjoyed some good ones from Rhiannon Giddens and Quelle Chris, plus just-released albums from Elbow and Sampha; I imagine I’ll have more to say about these and more in about a month’s time.