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.

Mama Gotta Hustle: Tami Neilson redefines retro

tami neilson chickaboom

Everything about Tami Neilson is a throwback— from her beehive hairdo to the faded glam-shot artwork of her new album, CHICKABOOM! Even the ad copy that appears under the album title, anointing her “The Hot Rockin’ Lady of Country, Rockabilly & Soul,” seems to promise something like an old-timey magic trick; a costumed conjuring of something you’d typically only see at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But anyone expecting museum memorabilia or nostalgic wish fulfillment has never heard the hot rockin’ lady sing. While it’s true that CHICKABOOM! dazzles in its retro chic, at times suggesting a stylish soundtrack to an imagined Quentin Tarantino film, the music is just too loud, too raucous, too electric to ever sound like a relic. Wherever Neilson does her thing, no dust can settle, no cobwebs can form.

CHICKABOOM! isn’t a nostalgia play so much as a reinvigoration of classic tropes— a combustible cross-pollination of Wanda Jackson riffs, Patsy Cline waterworks, Bo Diddley thunder, and, on “Any Fool with a Heart,” soft-touch uptown pop. All of it’s presented not with an archivist’s academic caution, but with a stage actress’ dramatic flair and a garage band’s appetite for destruction. It feels very much like the right kind of album for Neilson to make following 2018’s superb SASSAFRASS!, which went deep and wide and showed the full range of what she’s capable of. Her virtuosity indisputable, Neilson can now turn her attention to just blowing shit up, which is kinda what CHICKABOOM! feels like: A box of fireworks, where the singer lights one short fuse after another and lets these songs burn fast and bright in a blaze of snarling guitars and crackling drums. It’s almost like a jukebox singles record, where there’s never a dull moment and only a couple of songs that push past three minutes; in the longest, “When You Were Mine,” Neilson uses the full three-and-a-half minute runway to mine maximum existential anguish from her Muscle Shoals hotbox. More representative of the album’s spring-loaded mayhem is “Hey Bus Driver!,” a concentrated dose of thumping toms, barbed-wire guitar riffs, and punchy Sun Records primitivism. 

Neilson grew up touring and singing in a family band, showbiz experience that’s always been her secret weapon: She’s got obvious natural talent but also knows how to sing with clarity and precision, how to hit her marks, how to work a crowd. “When You Were Mine” is the showstopper, the one where Neilson starts in the low embers of the blues and builds to in-the-red catharsis, putting her vocal cords straight through the shredder as she howls in anguish. It’s a controlled eruption, and a stark contrast to the nonchalant opener “Call Your Mama,” where Neilson sends an unworthy dude packing, brandishing sneers and snarls like a showboating gunslinger. She’s also unafraid to ham it up sometimes, cackling her way through “Ten Tonne Truck,” about a successful woman laughing all the way to the bank. (“HA HA HA!”)

The album’s 10 little bottle rockets— originals, once again written with brother Jay, who also sings and plays on the album— address concerns that never go out of style: Love, heartbreak, hard work, the open road, money and its absence. The heartbreak songs are imaginative: “16 Miles of Chain” is a hardscrabble drama where love is literal imprisonment, while “You Were Mine” looks to a formative loss as an event that cleaved time in two. But Neilson is at her best, her toughest, her prickliest when she’s singing about her hustle, as she does in “Ten Tonne Truck,” about the alchemic formula of luck and grit required to make big bucks in Nashville. Speaking of which, it wouldn’t be a Tami Neilson album without a few choice words about the absence of women on today’s country charts, something she takes care of with mirthless one-liners in “Queenie, Queenie.” The same song gets to another of her core strengths, which is embodying a feminism that ennobles domesticity and leaves plenty of room for working mothers. “What’s a stay-at-home mom do with all that time?” she deadpans as the bills and dirty dishes pile up, drums clattering like a ticking timebomb or a Jeopardy! buzzer. That song is a pressure cooker, but there’s release in “Sister Mavis,” a pentecostal rave-up where Neilson rides high atop handclaps and jangling tambourines, espousing a holy canon where synoptic gospels share space with Mavis Staples, Sister Rosetta, and Mahila Jackson. There’s nothing stuffy or forced about its hero worship: Like the rest of CHICKABOOM!, it uses the past as a powder keg; the first spark of a righteous ruckus. 

Objects of Affection: Jeff Parker’s sweet specificity

suite for max brown

Jazz guitarist Jeff Parker wrote and recorded Suite for Max Brown in dedication to his mother, whose image graces the album’s cover. You don’t actually have to know that in order to enjoy the largely instrumental album, which offers much to savor with or without the backstory. But when you do know it, it brings this curious piece of music into clearer view. Parker’s intentions explain why the music sounds so lovingly detailed without sounding fussy or overworked; how Suite for Max Brown is such a delicate and particular object of affection, like a Mother’s Day card made with macaroni and glue. 

Maybe that description makes the album sound small, which it is. While some records impress with their scope and their sprawl, Suite for Max Brown is an intimate collection of humble pleasures, derived from laid-back jazz, electronic beat-making, and ambient tranquility; it’s a mosaic of textures, colors, and grooves that extol specificity and warrant close attention. (The album’s modesty makes it a surprising but not unworthy choice for Pitchfork’s first “Best New Music” designation of the decade.) It’s no accident that the album’s lone vocal number, “Build a Nest,” finds Parker’s daughter Ruby espousing the virtues of slowing down, eschewing hustle and bustle, and assiduously constructing something that’s made to last. While Suite for Max Brown flits from one micro-moment to the next, each of those moments feels like it’s been placed with care, imbued with affection, and offered as a focal point for obsession; the music covers a lot of ground but somehow feels unhurried. Its grace is most evident in a glowing rendition of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain,” a moment of zen that revels in mind-clearing languor and pace-setting deliberation. 

So while Parker’s songs are generous with memorable melodies and robust performances, you’re just as likely to latch onto the droning keyboard tone that sounds through “Fusion Swirl,” as if it’s suspended in zero gravity; the loose rattle of Jay Bellerose’s tambourine on “3 for L”; the bright chimes and ringing bells of “Metamorphoses.” Parker curates these micro-moments for their sensual pleasures, their tactility, their instant earworm-ability. That doesn’t leave a ton of space for him to shred— if it’s guitar heroics you’re after, try Julian Lage or The Messthetics— but he does dole out clear, supple licks on the strolling “3 for L,” and on “Go Away,” a full studio band works up a full head of steam, locking into a roiling Afrobeat groove.

One of the album’s most precious curios is “C’mon Now,” a 20-second loop of Otis Redding’s vocal exhortations. It functions as an interlude, yet feels like so much more. It positions Parker’s music on the same continuum with Makaya McCraven, Flying Lotus, and the late J Dilla, auteurs whose work bridges the divide between jazz improvisation and hip-hop splicing-and-dicing. (McCraven also plays on a few of these songs.) In other words, it’s a small gesture toward the big picture. But there are other ways to receive these Otis grunts and incantations: Perhaps they are here to remind us that every moment, every syllable is an opportunity for close attention; or perhaps simply because Jeff Parker knows somebody who loves hearing Otis Redding sing.

 

Playing the Long Game: Bold moves from Della Mae

headlight

Della Mae’s “Headlight” is at least the second noteworthy song to be inspired by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s historic Senate testimony. Last year, Sleater-Kinney’s “Broken” articulated Dr. Ford’s account (and what felt like its dismissal) as an inflection point; a beacon of hope, abruptly extinguished. The Della Mae song registers momentary defeat but considers it in light of long-term gains: By their telling, Dr. Ford’s public courage offered a spark; a solitary candle lit in darkness, and an invitation for others to follow.

That’s just what the band does on their fourth album, also called Headlight, which opens with their song to Dr. Ford but is by no means confined to topical songwriting. Rather, it’s an album that encourages big-picture thinking. The fight for justice and dignity is a marathon and not a sprint; if it’s won it will be through incremental acts of courage, and sustained by people who live with joy, hope, and tenacity. It’s not for nothing that Headlight has a song about playing “The Long Game.” These songs encourage building on previous generations of advocates and freedom fighters (“walking in the footsteps of a woman I don’t know”), providing the scaffolding for the next generation to build something even better (“don’t let them ask you why you didn’t speak up”).

The subtext is that Della Mae has been playing something of a long game themselves. Their first record came out less than a decade ago, hardly the distant past, yet it was cause for comment and commendation that an all-female bluegrass band would display such a high level of virtuosity. They’ve pared down from a quintet to a trio but planted plenty of seeds along the way, both representationally and creatively; they are not only one of the most technically accomplished bluegrass groups but also one of the most interesting, and they’ve been so consistent for so long that they’re earned some leeway to expand their sound. There’s no question that they know how to play, even if all you’ve heard is last year’s skillful Butcher Shoppe EP; what Headlight proves is that they also know how to cast a vision, to experiment and explore.

To that end, Headlight is a broader, more eclectic album than any they’ve made in the past. They recorded it in Nashville with producer Dan Knobler (who helmed a lovely Caroline Spence album last year), and he captures the interplay of their voices, fiddle, mandolin, and guitar with clarity and warmth. He also helps them flesh out their sound with pianos, thumping percussion, and, on three songs, Pentecostal fervor from the McCrary Sisters. But Knobler’s greatest contribution may be how he helps streamline these compositions, measuring out what feels like a perfect dose of pure bluegrass without getting too lost in virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s-sake: Several songs erupt into breakdowns, hoedowns, and throwdowns, solos that work up a full head of stream but never overstay their welcome.

“We are bolder than ever,” the band boasted in a recent Instagram post, and Headlight bears that out in colorful arrangements, soulful performances, and assertive songwriting. Though Dr. Ford provides the album with its north star, these are not songs with revolutionary intentions; rather, they’re about the value in mundane acts of valor; about speaking truth and facing darkness with courage, not just at Senate testimonies and Women’s Marches but on all the ordinary days, too. It can’t be a coincidence that the three songs baptized in the McCrary Sisters’ gospel harmonies are the ones that ennoble everyday, vocational integrity: “It’s About Time” advocates for plainspoken truth-telling, while “Change” rewrites the most famous of Sam Cooke songs, daring to believe the arc of the universe is bending closer and closer toward justice. “Working,” a Stax groove stretched rope-taut, makes a case for setting nose to grindstone and trusting in the nobility of work itself.

Together, these songs form a mosaic of women living their lives unflinchingly, sometimes in big moments but more often in little ones. They are enriched by the presence of “Wild One,” a raucous and hard-stomping celebration of feminine nonconformity, and by “I Like it When You’re Home,” a rapturous zydeco that delights in domestic pleasures. But in the end, Headlight is defined not just by the sainted presence of Dr. Ford but also by the unnamed woman in “First Song Dancer,” who may as well be the album’s mascot. It’s a song that celebrates the nerve required to bound onto the dancefloor as soon as the music starts to play, as everyone else sits timid and inhibited. Perhaps the first step in any long game is just being willing to get up and get moving.

Might as Well Sing Along: 25 Favorite Albums, 2010-2019

miranda

It’s hard enough narrowing down a list of favorite albums from a given calendar year. Where to even begin whittling down a decade of music into just 25 records? What I settled on here was a simple question: Which were the albums I was most thankful for? Each of the records listed here are ones I’ve received with deep gratitude. I am so happy they exist.

Just a couple of housekeeping items. One, I have constrained myself to only picking one album per artist, though you might argue that #5 and #10 constitute a bit of a cheat. And two, I’ll simply acknowledge that the rankings here may ever so slightly contradict my rankings from previous year-end lists. Such is the fickle prerogative of the list-maker. I discourage overthinking it.

And now, some albums I love:

  1. Coloring Book | Chance the Rapper (2016)
    coloring book

The Christian theologian Dallas Willard has defined joy as a “pervasive, constant sense of wellbeing,” rooted in the sovereign character of the Divine. There are few figures in pop music who embody this virtue as ably as Chance the Rapper; and, while many will argue for Acid Rap as his achievement to date, it’s his third mixtape, Coloring Book, that shines the brightest with Chance’s inner light. Here he dusts off the dread and depression of tumultuous relationships, family conflicts, the waning of his youth, the onset of adult responsibilities; he does it with appealing buoyancy, attesting despite circumstance that all manner of things shall be made well. And, though the Chance tapes are charming for their shagginess and looseness, this one quietly codifies some of the decade’s most significant hip-hop inflection points: the genre’s embrace of melody; the common ground it’s staked with black church traditions.

  1. Far from Over | Vijay Iyer Sextet (2017)
    far from over

For his first album presiding over a large band, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer summons familiar sounds from the annals of jazz: The cool funk of Miles Davis’ late-60s combos, the rowdy charts of vintage Charles Mingus. Yet you can tell just from the song titles (“Nope,” “Wake,” “Into Action”) that Iyer isn’t interested in nostalgia; he’s tapping into the past as a way of engaging hard realities of the present. His songs sound like the 2010s felt— tense, raging, searching, disruptive, assertive. It’s a testament to jazz as an endlessly renewable resource, and a language of common purpose. 

  1. Band of Joy | Robert Plant (2010)
    band of joy

Upon the release of Robert Plant’s liveliest solo album, Band of Joy— an excavation of forgotten blues and country tunes, plus a reappraisal of more recent rock obscurities— critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine noted, “Some of these songs feel like they’ve been around forever and some feel fresh, but not in conventional ways: Low’s ‘Silver Rider’ and ‘Monkey’ feel like ancient, unearthed backwoods laments and the riotous ‘You Can’t Buy My Love’ feels as if it was written yesterday.” In other words, Band of Joy is the work of one of our most imaginative archivists, who ever since the days of Led Zeppelin has been drawn to folk songs as talismans, occult items, and mystic texts. It’s also the work of one of our most magnetic singers, largely surrendering his banshee wail in favor of charismatic whispers. The colorful, harmony-rick production from Buddy Miller (call it bubblegum country) pulls it all together into an album that makes the past sound sweet, strange, and seductive. 

  1. Isolation | Kali Uchis (2018)
    isolation

The irony of an album called Isolation is that it was conceived through collaboration. Singer Uchis partnered with auteurs like Damon Albarn, Tyler the Creator, and Steve Lacey to create its colorful parade of sounds— speaker-rattling hip-hop, dingy New Wave, pulsing reggaeton, throwback R&B. Its diversity of styles suggests a future where pop is female, pan-cultural, and cheerfully eclectic, yet even in their sprawl these songs are unmistakable as companion pieces. They attest to an artist who doesn’t compromise and knows how to get what she wants; who could’ve sold plenty of records singing retro soul but instead made a ruthless album of songs about the high stakes of independence; its allure and its cost. It’s a high watermark for pop records in the 2010s… freewheeling, borderless, confident in its point of view.

  1. Mr. Misunderstood | Eric Church (2015)
    mr misunderstood

Eric Church released a clutch of top-shelf country records over the course of the 2010s, and Mr. Misunderstood stands as the first among equals— the most compact, the most accessible, the most absorbing of the bunch. In under 40 minutes’ time, Church offers everything you could want in a country album: He is macho and ridiculous on “Chattanooga Lucy,” earnest and sentimental on “Three Year Old.” In the title song, he makes myths and raises hell; on “Mixed Drinks About Feelings,” he gets tears in his whisky. Long a proponent of prog and blue-collar rock, Church finesses a few metallic guitar blasts and some gangly funk into his gritty, otherwise unostentatious sound. And he is nearly unmatched in delivering a version of country that fits the contours of the mainstream while still making room for the Americana crowd—literally so in well-chosen vocal features for Rhiannon Giddens and Susan Tedeschi. 

  1. Universal Beings | Makaya McCraven (2018)
    universal beings

In the long-running project to build bridges between the jazz and hip-hop worlds, Makaya McCraven must surely be some kind of architect-savant. Universal Beings, his most full-bodied and exploratory album to date, draws connections between the two idioms that aren’t just cosmetic, but structural. Spanning four different bands and 90 minutes of music, the album creates raw material from soulful, improvisational playing, then chops it up and stitches it back together through seamless post-production work. It’s an approach to studiocraft that reaches back to Teo Macero’s innovative work in service to Miles Davis, but it also perfectly captures the fluid pacing and recontextualized sound effects that feel native to hip-hop. A mesmerizing suite, Universal Beings seems at first like a series of compelling micro-moments, but through repetition it becomes the kind of weather-changing music you can get lost in. Standing on the shoulders of his ancestors, McCraven has given us the sound of the present and future.

  1. MASSEDUCTION | St. Vincent (2017)
    masseduction

Annie Clark has always shown an affinity for strange, disruptive textures. What makes MASSEDUCTION her most bracing St. Vincent album is the presence of pop formalist Jack Antonoff, who frames Clark’s art-house sound effects in the colors of a big-budget blockbuster. Rather than sand away Clark’s rough edges, Antonoff’s production serves as a kind of pressure cooker; these songs are sleek, propulsive, readily accessible, and constantly on the verge of explosion. It’s a perfect aesthetic for Clark’s songwriting, which teems with unease: She sings about desire curdled into addiction, love soured into obsession, independence that’s really just isolation. Instantly memorable and doggedly off-kilter, MASSEDUCTION is one of the great feats of subversive pop.

  1. Honey | Robyn (2018)
    honey

Robyn didn’t invent the “dancefloor as therapy” motif, but she may be its most persuasive proponent, and Honey her therapeutic masterwork. Following a hiatus from recording, Robyn wrote these nine songs while in the throes of heartache and grief; they are presented in chronological order, offering a diaristic glimpse into her journey toward healing. Honey includes some of the artist’s steeliest bangers, her most delicate textures, and her freest singing. In “Missing U” she sounds as though her mourning will last forever, and in “Ever Again” she pledges that her days of sadness are gone for good. Both songs are believable, the emotional anchors to this thesis study in pop vulnerability; this glitter bomb of human fracture.

  1. To Pimp a Butterfly | Kendrick Lamar (2015)
    to pimp a butterfly

The third album from Kendrick Lamar features a staged interview with the ghost of Tupac; the recurring presence of a mysterious temptress named Lucy (as in, Lucy-fer); and Lamar rapping in many different voices, inhabiting a full range of characters. It’s an album uniquely demanding (and rewarding) of scholarship, and, along with albums by Jamila Woods and Solange, distinctly uninterested in feigning accessibility for anyone outside its intended audience. Through its boldness and its purity of vision, Butterfly also became one of the most loved and admired records of the 2010s, perhaps in large part because it’s not merely a triumph of intellect. It’s also a masterpiece of conscience, the suddenly-successful son of Compton grappling with his status as a hero, a survivor, and a prophet in a land more fractured than he’d ever imagined, where the stakes of failure are life-and-death.

  1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy | Kanye West (2010)
    mbdtf

Before his dalliances with Republicanism, Kanye West wrestled with a more honest set of vices; he was a loudmouth, a boor, a good old-fashioned asshole whose intermittent interest in holiness was punctured by bondservice to his own ego. Maybe My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy isn’t the sound of a pilgrim making progress, but it does sound like the confession of a man who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, and continually does the very things his conscience deems contemptible. He was making Christian music long before he started making “Christian music,” and his opus-to-date remains a bravura show of vision and imagination; an album with the sweep of a blockbuster and the sophistication of an auteur’s masterwork. Contains not only the best West verses of the decade, but also his best jokes. 

  1. The Idler Wheel | Fiona Apple (2012)
    the idler wheel

A surprise contender for Best Headphones Album of the Decade, if only because each of its songs sound like a choir of voices permanently embedded deep in your brain. It’s the only Fiona Apple released in the past ten years, a pace that may flummox fans but results in one finely-cut jewel after another; these songs are perfect, equally withering in their humor, their self-loathing, their lust, and their rage. Perhaps some are songs to lovers and leavers, but more than anything they sound like songs to Apple herself, nightly wrestling matches with all her most obstinate, irreconcilable impulses. She matches the candor and gallows humor of her writing with vocal panache, cooing and roaring and occasionally turning herself into an actual choir. And the production, mostly just voice, piano, and drums, is streamlined but never spare: The black-and-white framing allows the songs to display a vivid spectrum of color. When people talk about “singer/songwriter” albums, The Idler Wheel is the platonic ideal they’re grasping for.

  1. Lover | Taylor Swift (2019)
    lover

Few would argue that Swift was one of the most consequential pop artists of the last decade, which saw her imperial era in full flourish. Some might quibble with the elevation of Lover over lauded albums like Red and 1989, but for anyone who’s ever wished Swift would drop her armor— that she’d stop writing defensively and instead write with humility, joy, confession, and abandon— then this is surely her most rewarding body of work. It also happens to be a smart consolidation of everything she does well, from colorful pop to wistful country. It includes her most comfortable and assured production from Jack Antonoff, her freest and most varied singing, and songs that would earn a spot on any best-of compilation. “ME!,” the endearingly silly and much-maligned lead single, turns out to be a helpful paradigm for the album as a whole: Long gifted in brand management, Swift now learns that it’s healthy to risk looking ridiculous sometimes.

  1. there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens (2019)
    thereisnoother

The 2010s saw a number of records that ratified folk traditions as a versatile and eloquent language for describing the present day. One of the best such albums is Rhiannon Giddens’ there is no Other, which I like even more than I did a month ago, when I described it as “a luminous take on ‘world’ music,” “an earthy version of a ‘standards’ repertoire,” and “a celebration of some of our best conduits for connection: [The] shared love of musical instruments; songs that transcend culture; the grain of the human voice; a commitment to radical neighborliness in all its forms.” Giddens has rightly been celebrated as one of the best practitioners of quote-unquote Americana music, and this album demonstrates why such superlatives are both accurate and insufficient: Her affection for traditional idioms isn’t an end unto itself, but a gateway into a larger world.

  1. The Harrow and the Harvest | Gillian Welch (2011)
    the harrow and the harvest

Gillian Welch concludes The Harrow and the Harvest with something like a shrug: “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” she deadpans. What might seem like a descent into frivolous cliche is actually a perfectly mordant apex for an album of fatalistic, unsentimental songs about choices and consequences; sowing and reaping. Welch’s handsomest album (and still, maddeningly, her most recent one) is as stark, elemental, and mysterious as the works of William Shakespeare or the Holy Bible; she writes about virtue, vice, and vanished innocence in black-and-white tones that fit in seamlessly with the sparse guitar lines and vocal harmonies supplied by Dave Rawlings. Its bleakness feels like a promise, a timeless guarantee about how the world works; but then, so do its moments of tenderness, and its surprising glimpses of subversive humor.

  1. Ghosteen | Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (2019)
    ghosteen

Nick Cave’s Ghosteen is beautiful for many reasons, not least how it resists at every turn easy summarization: Though written following the loss of Cave’s teenage son, it’s not really an album about death; though attentive to the process of grief, it’s not purely a downer; though respectful of the private nature of bereavement, it avoids isolation and actively seeks connection. Perhaps most surprising of all is that, capping a trilogy of ambient meditations with the Bad Seeds, it represents Cave’s most extreme and fulfilling adventure into softness. An epic and majestic whisper of an album; a masterpiece of intimacy. 

  1. Hell on Heels | Pistol Annies (2011)
    hell on heels

So many of the tension points that ran through country music in the 2010s are distilled in this first Pistol Annies record. It walks a highwire between the mainstream and Americana idioms, never sounding cloying and never sounding rote in its earthy outlaw approximations. And, years before the formation of the Highwomen, Hell on Heels puts the stories of women in the spotlight: It’s filled with one-liners that are by turns riotous and devastating, touching on everything from booze to pills, from shotgun weddings to the housewife’s malaise. It’s an endlessly appealing record not only because the writing is razor-sharp, but because it so ably demonstrates the individual personalities and the collective power of the Annies. Their three releases of the 2010s comprise the decade’s most satisfying trilogy, and this slot could almost have gone to the spirited and ranging Interstate Gospel, but Hell on Heels remains first among equals in its compactness, purity, and grit.

  1. LEGACY! LEGACY! | Jamila Woods (2019)
    legacy legacy

An instant R&B classic from a singer who’s now barely in her 30s. And also, an album generations in the making. Here’s what I wrote about it last month: “Ancestry is the guiding principle in these songs, and Woods apprehends it not as something confined to a history book or a genetics test so much as an animating force that dwells inside her; each song summons the spirit of a luminary influence, whether Eartha Kitt or Muddy Waters or Octavia Butler, and Woods taps into their lived experiences to navigate the complexities of righteous anger, generational trauma, and creative autonomy. Her writing is bruised and courageous, often at the same time, and reaches a cathartic apex in ‘BALDWIN,’ in which she dares to love even her enemies and her persecutors. A font of wisdom, and every song’s a banger.”

  1. We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service | A Tribe Called Quest (2016)
    tribe

Contains just about anything one could want out of a rap album, including some things that are in short supply these days. The back-and-forth, tag-team rap acrobatics? The high density of jokes? The lithe funk and combustible jazz? The dense, Bomb Squad-style production? This miraculous and much-delayed final album from A Tribe Called Quest checks every box. And oh yeah: How about political observations that made it seem almost prophetic upon its release, three days after the election of the 45th President, and still sound wise today? And some final words to and from Phife Dawg, whose death hangs over the album but never curtails its joy? It’s all here in Tribe’s ragged, wondrous swan song.

  1. undun | The Roots (2011)
    undun

Nine years later, has anyone in the hip-hop mainstream truly caught up with the genius of undun? The Roots’ deep, conceptual epic tells the story of a young man who sees a life of crime as his only escape from poverty; narrated in reverse, Memento-style, the record opens in the afterworld and moves back through every fated decision point in the man’s life, becoming a complicated and wise meditation on the nature of free will and how circumstance dictates the choices available to us. It extends empathy to the kinds of characters hip-hop grandiosity often leaves in the margins, the guys whose champagne wishes never come true. It covers some of the same thematic ground as Kendrick’s masterful good kid, M.A.A.D. city, though it’s both more complex and more digestible. The full-band performances are crisp and compelling; Black Thought’s couplets among his most deft and revealing. An art record that’s addictive, accessible, and profound.

  1. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves (2018)
    goldenhour

A glorious feast of comfort food: On her most stylish and assured album to date, Kacey Musgraves leans hard into classic country, supple soft rock, and unostentatious pop. It’s a sound so easeful and undemanding, it brought the term “roséwave” back into popular use. And yet, the album is also deeply nourishing. Written in the dawning light of a new marriage, Golden Hour apprehends joy and contentment first with skepticism, then with gratitude; it abides emotional nuance without forcing simplistic narratives, which means one song is about being “happy and sad at the same time,” and there’s really no better way to put it. Musgraves, already a mover and shaker for her picture-perfect songs about small town malaise, is unguarded and mostly snark-free here, choosing to view her happy and sad world through the lens of wonder. Oh, what a worldview.

  1. The Weight of These Wings | Miranda Lambert (2016)
    the weight of these wings

Though it was assumed the sixth Miranda Lambert record would address her divorce from Blake Shelton, the tenor of the album probably isn’t what anyone expected. It neither rages nor sulks, but instead uses pain as an opportunity for earnest self-reflection. Unmoored from the life she once knew, Lambert takes to the road, a series of gypsy anthems, highway soliloquies, and prodigal laments serving as a unifying conceit for double-album sprawl. It all hangs together remarkably well, not only because it sounds like Lambert’s working with a consistent band throughout but also because the songwriting is so unerring. She de-glamorizes barroom confessions in “Ugly Lights,” grounds herself in concrete particulars in “Pink Sunglasses,” admits she’s a runner at heart in “Vice,” and alchemizes her pain into wisdom on “Keeper of the Flame.” As usual, her choice in cover songs is pitch-perfect; a song called “Covered Wagon” sounds like it was made for this epic collection of heavy-hearted roadside rambles. Belongs on any list of the most majestic heartbreak albums of all time.

  1. Real Midnight | Birds of Chicago (2016)
    real midnight

The decade’s most surprising discovery, and its most reliable dispenser of joy. Birds of Chicago— essentially the husband-wife duo of Allison Russell and JT Nero— are the kindest, most genial of bands, a fact that’s by no means unrelated to the music they make: Where some groups are built for mystique, the Birds of Chicago emanate open-hearted compassion. So you’re welcome to hear Real Midnight, an album that portends the apocalypse and warns that all our earthly allegiances are fleeting, as an election year homily, but its concerns are actually more domestic: How do we carry on when we know the lives we make here will eventually vanish? It is perhaps the most convincing and relatable album ever made about the particular jitters of new parents and young families, and if that sounds like a downer, rest assured that Real Midnight is anything but. It puts its joy into practice through rich gospel harmonies and massive sing-along hooks; it rocks and rumbles with uncontainable hope. After Real Midnight the band made the more muscular and really just as good Love in Wartime, solidifying Nero as one of our sharpest songwriters. And 10 years from now, when you’re reading an Artist of the Decade feature on Russell, you’ll want to go back to Real Midnight (“Kinderspel” and “Barley” in particular) as a kind of origin story; the moment we all realized we beheld a legend.

  1. The Gospel According to Water | Joe Henry (2019)
    the gospel according to water review

Over the course of the decade, Joe Henry released four solo albums under his own name, each one bearing witness to a singular songwriter, equally gifted in writing melodies that sound like old standards and lyrics that work as stand-alone poetry. The Gospel According to Water, the fourth and best album in that sequence, arrived in the aftermath of a life-shaking medical diagnosis, and has the unmistakable feeling of everything being brought into sudden focus. The words here are scalpel-sharp, the melodies more robust than ever; what’s most beguiling about the album, though, is how little it sounds like an album about cancer or death or loss, and how much it sounds like a wise and buoyant meditation on what it means to carry on in a world that can pull the rug out from under you at any turn. Eschewing certainty for mystery, dogma for humility, and security for surrender, Henry’s Gospel offers hard-won peace and contentment. And it sounds great, too, an unvarnished document of fleet-fingered guitar lines, winding reeds, and Henry’s freest singing. Just when you think it can’t get any more beautiful or deep, the Birds of Chicago show up to sing harmony. It’s one revelation after another; a deep well of blessings.

  1. Black Messiah | D’Angelo (2014)
    black messiah

The third D’Angelo album was nearly a decade and a half in the making. And yet, by some accountings, it was also something of a rush job. Moved by scenes of the Ferguson protests and the dawning Black Lives Matter movement, the legendary singer sought to choose a side and speak his mind. The result, a song called “The Charade,” is a vision of black bodies outlined in chalk; a prayer for dignity, a voice for the voiceless. Maybe nothing else on Black Messiah is quite so quote-unquote political. But then again, each of its songs, including the songs of romance and the songs of resistance, ask for humanity to be acknowledged in its fullness. They are about the hard work of being physically present, alert, and engaged. It’s an even better album than Voodoo, D’Angelo’s second album and first masterpiece, if only because it’s shapelier; where the previous venture was full of loose-limbed jams, the songs on Black Messiah are sculpted, punchy, and precise. That doesn’t mean they don’t contain multitudes, including some of the most alluring textures heard anywhere in the 2010s— the raucous din of “1000 Deaths,” the sweet caress of “Really Love,” the blurry supplications of “Prayer.” An album of monstrous grooves, unfailing vision, big heart, and heavy conscience.

  1. The Long Surrender | Over the Rhine (2011)
    the long surrender

The decade’s most affecting and sustaining record was made by a husband-wife folk duo from Ohio, who spent more than two decades working the roads, playing their asses off every night, and making one beautiful album after another before finally releasing this haunted meditation on dashed dreams and faded glory. Songs about the rock-and-roll life are almost always insular and dull, but The Long Surrender redeems them into a prayerful, candid, and funny song cycle about the possibility of grace. “Rave On” swaps tour-bus glamor for the concrete realities of obeying a calling, giving yourself away to a mission even when you can’t see its fruit. “Infamous Love Song” retells the history of the band as a winking, Leonard Cohen-style epic, testifying to the grind and churn required to make love and revelation tangible options. At every turn the album groans with the weight of experience, and sparkles with the flash of earned wisdom: It is the masterwork from unsung masters, and feels like a consolidation of everything they do well. Joe Henry, producer of many of the decade’s best-sounding albums, provides Over the Rhine with boon accompaniment, assembling the Band of Sweethearts posse and guiding them through moments of mystic swirl and acoustic clarity. All of it pinnacles in “All My Favorite People,” a hymn of solidarity to anyone who’s ever felt beat-up, spit-out, or badly broken. The Long Surrender brings to mind a promise of Jesus: Blessed are the poor in spirit. And it offers one of its own: That none of us are too far gone to fall into the arms of grace.

I’ve Mined That Song Forever, Part 2: Further reflections on the music of 2019

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Like I was saying: It was a great year for records. My list of annotated favorites includes several titles I’d qualify as masterpieces, and plenty more that come close enough. 

The just-the-facts version, expanded to a full top 50, is as follows, along with a few additional loose ends. I’ll be back in 2020 with some best-of-decade reflections, then on to new albums!

Thanks as ever to all of you who join me on these adventures in listening. I do not take for granted the gifts of your time and attention, and remain hopeful that I’ve honored them by turning you on to something good.

50 Favorite Albums from 2019

  1. The Gospel According to Water| Joe Henry
  2. Ghosteen | Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  3. LEGACY! LEGACY! | Jamila Woods
  4. Lover | Taylor Swift
  5. there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens
  6. Wildcard | Miranda Lambert
  7. Breakdown on 20th Ave. South | Buddy & Julie Miller
  8. Father of the Bride | Vampire Weekend
  9. My Finest Work Yet | Andrew Bird
  10. Songs of Our Native Daughters | Our Native Daughters
  11. Love and Revelation | Over the Rhine
  12. Patty Griffin | Patty Griffin
  13. Silences | Adia Victoria
  14. Blood | Allison Moorer
  15. Open Book | Kalie Shorr
  16. The Center Won’t Hold | Sleater-Kinney
  17. Western Stars | Bruce Springsteen
  18. Amidst the Chaos | Sara Bareilles
  19. Canterbury Girls | Lily & Madeleine
  20. Absolute Zero | Bruce Hornsby
  21. Crushing | Julia Jacklin
  22. Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 3 | Todd Snider
  23. The Highwomen | The Highwomen
  24. To Myself | Baby Rose
  25. Walk Through Fire | Yola
  26. Fever Breaks | Josh Ritter
  27. Amadjar | Tinariwen
  28. The Hurting Kind | John Paul White
  29. Giants of All Sizes | Elbow
  30. Jaime | Brittany Howard
  31. Internationally Unknown | Rat Boy
  32. TEXAS | Rodney Crowell
  33. Let’s Rock | The Black Keys
  34. Love and Liberation | Jazzmeia Horn
  35. On the Line | Jenny Lewis
  36. Aventurine | Linda May Han Oh
  37. By Blood | Shovels & Rope
  38. Two Hands | Big Thief
  39. Magdalene | FKA twigs
  40. What it Is | Hayes Carll
  41. Diatom Ribbons | Kris Davis
  42. Love Hurts | Julian Lage
  43. i,i | Bon Iver
  44. Sunshine Rock | Bob Mould
  45. Hurts 2B Human | P!nk
  46. Anthropocosmic Nest | The Messthetics
  47. Crowing Ignites | Bruce Cockburn
  48. While I’m Livin’ | Tanya Tucker
  49. 2019 | Lucy Dacus
  50. Finding Gabriel | Brad Mehldau

Disappointments

I don’t especially enjoy dismembering anyone else’s creative output, but in the interest of candor, I’ll take a moment to register just a few albums that left me cold this year, by artists I typically enjoy. As ever, your mileage may vary.

The Big Day | Chance the Rapper
The Black Album | Weezer
The Teal Album | Weezer
Jesus is King | Kanye West
Sound and Fury | Sturgill Simpson

I have half a mind to include Willie Nelson’s Ride Me Back Home on this short list, a largely pleasant and agreeable album that falls just a bit short of recent standouts like Last Man Standing and My Way. And, I’ll confess to enjoying Maren Morris’ GIRL quite a bit less than I enjoyed HERO, though between her role in The Highwomen and her uproarious duet with Miranda Lambert, she is still one of this year’s MVPs. (And, “The Bones” is an excellent single.)

Re-Issues and Older Music

A commitment to new releases means that it’s sometimes difficult finding time for re-issues. One of my hopes for the holiday break is to catch up with some of the lavish reappraisals of classics like Abbey Road and The Band. The one re-issue that I can vouch for here is the 25th Anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s Monster, which dials back some of the guitar effects in favor of greater crispness and clarity. It remains a singularly moving document of a band that’s hurting, and trying anything and everything not to be fully seen.

A Year Ago

These end-of-year lists are always intended to be snapshots, and it would be foolish for me to assume my rankings would ever remain static or unmoving. Looking back at last year’s list, I can safely say that I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for any of my selections. I will note that it took me a few months to catch up with Universal Beings, from the great drummer and bandleader Makaya McCraven, which provides an immersive set of grooves and textures even as it persuasively bridges the gap between jazz performance and hip-hop production. It probably would have made my top 10, had I only heard it in time. An album that did make my top 10 is Love in Wartime, by the mighty Birds of Chicago, yet in hindsight I still think I underrated it: I have returned to its durable humanity and hopefulness again and again this year, and found it to be deeply nourishing each time.