Today is my birthday, and what better way to observe it than by writing about my proverbial desert island discs?
01. Tiny Voices | Joe Henry
Among contemporary songwriters, Joe is unparalleled at writing songs that sound like they could have been standards. It is relatively easy to imagine, say, Tony Bennet singing these melodies, though comparatively hard to imagine him singing the lyrics about a godforsaken army lost in a desert, or the ones about third-world revolutionaries burning books to keep the dogs away. It’s harder still to imagine any straight-laced song-and-dance man allowing his band to be quite so loose, to tiptoe quite so close to the edge of chaos, as Joe’s ensemble of rock and jazz studio pros. These reflections on the human preference for self-deception, and on the more demanding and uncomfortable way of love and truth, were written in the days following 9/11, and with each passing year seem to grow wiser, more comforting, and more chilling.
02. Love & Theft | Bob Dylan
I think this is the best Bob Dylan album— by which I mean it’s the funniest, and the one where it sounds like Bob is having the most fun. We could all name a Dylan album or two where it frankly sounds like he doesn’t give a shit, but he is fully in the moment here, investing the full weight of his stature and experience into the romantic parts, the prophetic bits, and especially the gags. Two decades since hearing it for the first time, I remain delighted that Bob would include both a knock-knock joke and a Groucho Marx routine within his endlessly complicated narratives. This also happens to be one of the most comprehensive summaries of his many crossed paths: The rural mystique of John Wesley Harding, the myth-making of The Basement Tapes, the careening energy of Highway 61 Revisited, and a few subtle reminders that his Born Again era was no joke at all.
03. The Birth of Soul | Ray Charles
A superhero origin story. There are maybe two or three of these 53 songs where it seems as if Charles is sitting at his piano bench, holding the threads of jazz and blues and church music in his hands but unsure of how to connect them. He figures it out quickly, and immediately makes it sound effortless. This is the birth of a sound and of a persona, rollicking and jubilant even in its midnight laments, and it is impossible to be unhappy while listening to it.
04. Birds of My Neighborhood | The Innocence Mission
No other band conveys tranquility, and no other band writes lyrics that work as well as standalone poetry, as The Innocence Mission. Their masterpiece is an autumnal chronicle of infertility, disappointment, dreams deferred, and the struggle to maintain a hopeful countenance through a trying season. It is also an album about long-expected children, meaning it’s not just one of the most beautiful and perfect folk albums ever made, but one of the most fitting for Advent. And not for nothing: At the scariest moments of the pandemic, this was the music my heart longed for, the life preserver I kept within reach.
05. The Bright Mississippi | Allen Toussaint
Anytime I need a shot of pure joy, this is the album I play: A dozen songs associated with the City of New Orleans, played with an easygoing joie de vivre by one of the city’s most distinctive pianists. The full-band performances crackle with a sense of discovery, and while they are informed by the jazz tradition, I hear this mostly as folk music: Toussaint relishes the chance to make these songs his own even as he takes seriously the broader conversation he’s stepping into.
06. Mama’s Gun | Erykah Badu
An R&B album that hits every note just perfectly, from the beats to the singing to the unstoppable momentum of the album sequencing. Its analog sound may be old-school, but there’s way too much personality and imagination for this music to ever signify as retro or nostalgic. Conveying vulnerability from beneath bravado, this is an album that requires all 70 of its minutes to fully articulate its complex emotions; I probably listened a dozen times before it dawned on me that this is low-key a breakup album.
07. The Long Surrender | Over the Rhine
Over the Rhine has been my favorite band for about two decades, and they have at least half a dozen albums that could occupy this space. I come back to The Long Surrender because it’s the one that comes closest to summarizing all the things they do well, including their sense of humor, their knack for spiritual autobiography, and their penchant for finding grace notes in sad songs. These particular sad songs are about lifelong pursuits, creative or religious or maybe both, and they explore the two big paradoxes: Failure as a conduit for grace, brokenness as a catalyst for beauty.
08. The Popular Duke Ellington | Duke Ellington
If this isn’t your favorite Duke album, then it’s either the Duke album you’ve been searching for, or the Duke album you never knew you needed. Deep into the LP era and decades removed from his cultural prime, America’s greatest composer got the band together to play the hits, if only to ensure they got immortalized in the long-player format. The resulting “greatest hits” album is a perfectly sequenced and pristinely recorded tribute to Ellington’s ravishing sense of melody, his prevailing sense of play, and the instantly-identifiable cast of characters assembled in his orchestra. Where so many jazz albums are marked by their sense of discovery and spontaneity, this one mines immense pleasure from familiarity. Every second is packed with delight.
09. Black Messiah | D’Angelo
Bears the unique distinction of being both long-gestated and rush-released: Its deep textures and lived-in funk suggest the culmination of 14 years’s careful craft, while its unyielding affirmations of dignity always remind me that it was dropped on the world as a response to violence against Black bodies. More song-oriented than the canonized, groove-heavy Voodoo, Black Messiah has everything: Raw dissonance and delicate beauty, prayers and protests, love songs and laments.
10. The Weight of These Wings | Miranda Lambert
Leave it to Miranda to highlight the full breadth of country music’s storytelling potential. Her divorce album skips tabloid confession in favor of metaphors (the one about the getaway driver), non-metaphors (the one about her pink sunglasses), aphorisms (“if you use alcohol as a sedative, and ‘bless your heart’ as a negative”), soul-searching, a few jokes, and a unifying concept (the prodigal’s endless highway) that pulls it all together.