FLOOD Magazine just posted a round-up of the year’s best albums thus far, including a couple of blurbs from yours truly. Both albums I wrote about deal, in some form or fashion, with the concept of home: With Second Line, Dawn Richard refracts her New Orleans upbringing through the prism of individuality. And with Mercy (an impossibly good, utterly beguiling gospel record), Natalie Bergman copes with loss by longing for heaven. Both are worth your time and full attention. And by the way, my own ballot is available here.
The usual disclaimers apply: These rankings can and will change (though I’d be very surprised if my #1 and #2 looked any different come December). There’s still plenty that I haven’t heard, and a couple of these are still new enough that my assessment of them might change. But for now, if you’re looking for recommendations or just want to catch up…
At In Review Online, I’ve written short takes on two new projects from the Pistol Annies universe. First, there’s my condensed take on The Marfa Tapes, transporting campfire recordings from Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall. (The extended version is available here.) And then there’s my investigation of Rosegold, an Ashley Monroe album that qualifies as a bit of a disappointment, though by no means a disaster. (I’ll stan The Blade forever.)
I’m not sure which brings me more pleasure: The thought of so many Enneagram 4 dads using this album to further their post-folkloreemotional breakthroughs, or the thought of so many teenagers literally discovering rock and roll through Rodrigo’s snarling pop-punk. (Serious question: When’s the last time guitar-based music lit up the pop charts like this album has?) I think she’s a prodigiously gifted writer, conjuring a rush of emotions with equal parts operatic exaggeration and scalpel precision. She’s funny when she’s being passive-aggressive, funnier when she’s just being aggressive, and devastating in her smart, specific takes on heartache. Not unlike her pal Taylor, Rodrigo captures what it’s like to be young and know everything, cataloging her experiences with bruising finality. Singalong album of the year, though only when my kids aren’t around to soak up the potty mouth.
Hardware | Billy F. Gibbons
With Hardware, the septuagenarian ZZ Top leader has delivered the year’s most irresistible rock and roll record—and, along with The Marfa Tapes, one of its deepest explorations of Texas’ rich musical heritage. Working with a small combo, an endless reserve of guitar tricks , and his own craggy drawl, Gibbons does a lot with a little, offering everything from pulverizing riff rockers to surging power pop, from frenzied surf-rock to spooky spoken-word narration. There’s a vague dirty-old-man-ishness to his lyrics that hinders my enthusiasm just a tad, but any sense of tastelessness is countered by solid jokes (“you’d think I was a highway the way she hit the road”). There’s nothing flashy or hip about it, but boy is it a pleasure.
Path of Wellness | Sleater-Kinney
There are a few things you won’t hear on the tenth Sleater-Kinney album: The urgency of Dig Me Out. The menacing grandeur of The Woods. The adventurous spirit of The Center Won’t Hold. Janet Weiss. Heck, even Corin Tucker’s glorious banshee wail is notably absent. So what do you get instead? Lots of low end. A reminder that, for as great as they’ve always been with riffs, they’re equally gifted with groove. Eleven songs that seldom rise to the A-level but never drop below a solid B. Proof that a perfectly-fine Sleater-Kinney record would be the envy of most band’s catalogs.
The Off-Season | J. Cole
I tend to admire J. Cole albums for their storytelling prowess, but this time around, I’m taken by the sheer verbal dexterity and old-head rap thrills. Bar for bar, this may be the toughest, fiercest Cole album yet, and his joy on the mic is infectious. His biggest flex? Recruiting young guns like 21 Savage and Lil Baby, bending their gifts to accommodate his more technical, braggadocious style.
Daddy’s Home | St. Vincent
I grew up listening to albums by David Bowie and the New York Dolls, so I have no problem with artists who revel in artifice. The problem with St. Vincent’s latest metamorphosis isn’t that it’s so obviously a costume, but that it’s an unpersuasive one. Her replication of louche 70s rock is impressive but never immersive; it’s the difference between seeing a stage show that really pulls you into its world, versus one where you simply sit back and admire the wigs. That this belabored cosplay is paired with lyrics that are ostensibly about her own family drama (I’m sure some press release has christened this “her most personal album yet”) is neither here nor there. There are some strong songs, and I’d put “My Baby Wants a Baby” on any best-of playlist, but overall this feels like the least essential St. Vincent album.
JORDI | Maroon 5
I actually harbor some affection for the earliest Maroon 5 albums— back when they actually sounded like a band, and when they traded in a blue-eyed soul style that was somewhat distinctive on the pop charts. This year’s model feels as algorithm-driven as anything by Greta Van Fleet, a mashup of current trends, anodyne lyrics, and cloying guest features that lacks anything resembling a point of view. They have become a band that signifies nothing but populist ambition. Okay, okay: The song with Stevie Nicks on it is pretty catchy.
The thing that really brought me clarity about Outside Child was learning that Allison Russell began writing it while on tour with Our Native Daughters. You remember Our Native Daughters, right? The group that proclaimed the rightful place of Black women in the unwritten history of banjo music, and put out a terrific album on Smithsonian Folkways that lingered long over the intergenerational bruises of the Atlantic Slave Trade? My favorite song on that album was Russell’s “Quasheba Quasheba,” which recounted the kidnapping and subjugation of an ancestral grandmother, but also celebrated the generations that have flowered in her wake. It’s a song about violence done to Black bodies, but also about how violent cycles can be broken, and even how they can bear redemptive ends that the abuser never imagined.
The songs on Outside Child are about the same things, only here, the violence is fresher, and closer to home. A song called “4th Day Prayer” outlines Russell’s story with a single harrowing couplet: “Father used me like a wife/ Mother turned the blindest eye/ Stole my body, spirit, pride/ He did, he did each night.” That’s about everything you need to know, save that Russell ultimately ran away from her abuser, living as an orphan and a runaway on the streets of Montreal. (“Montreal” is also the first song on the album, a hymn of gratitude to the city’s nurturing benevolence.) And that, though she is only now telling her story in public, Russell has not been idle; Outside Child tells a story that begins in brokenness but moves toward wholeness, chronicling a lifetime’s healing process. Not for nothing is its penultimate song called “Little Rebirth.”
After listening to the album for the first time, I went back to Real Midnight, an album Russell made in 2016 with her husband JT Nero, who together have a great band called Birds of Chicago. I have listened to that album close to a hundred times, I’d bet, finding kinship in its very relatable set of anxieties; like, how can a person ever feel at peace as a parent or a lover or a spouse when there are real wolves at the door, when nothing lasts forever, when things can end at any moment? (“Once she was born, I was never not afraid,” Joan Didion wrote, referencing her daughter Quintana.) I never knew to contextualize Real Midnight’s struggle in the broader story of Russell’s, but knowing it now makes that album sound sharper, somehow; its worries about the world’s capriciousness are not just theoretical, and neither is its sense of optimism. There is more of that on Outside Child. When Russell declares herself the “mother of the Evening Star,” it is a nod to her own daughter; to the end of one cycle and the beginning of something better.
I should get around to saying that Outside Child sounds earthy and pristine. It was recorded over four days in Nashville with producer Dan Knobler, and bolsters its storytelling with a colorful, porous library of roots music influences. (Birds of Chicago fans, take note: There are some very good Alli clarinet solos here, nearly enough for us to compile a definitive listicle. You might also be happy to know that JT plays on every song and sings on one of them, something I didn’t know I needed to hear until I was hearing it.) “Persephone” is nimble country-rock, comforting in its light touch and gentle gait. “4th Day Prayer” conjures a survivor’s swagger through fecund gospel harmonies. “The Runner” is a minor-key banger, celebrating the same rock-and-roll that Russell identifies as her deliverance from despair and purposelessness. When I hear a song called “The Runner,” I can’t help but assume it to be a song about prodigalism… but where the prodigal son in the Bible eventually wanders home, Russell finds home welling up around her. So, more like a Road to Damascus moment; not a song about finding something, but being found.
And this is one of the remarkable things about Outside Child: It is a rare gift of generosity and courage, and the bravery of Russell’s truth-telling lies in how it refuses to diminish either the darkness or the light. The world of Outside Child is one where abusers prowl like bloodthirsty hunters (real wolves, indeed), and Russell’s candor at times warrants a trigger warning. (“‘These are the best years of your life,’” she muses on one song. “If I’d believed it, I’d have died.”) But it’s also a world of benevolent cities, found family, and the redemptive power of music and art; because she is so honest about the darkness, you trust her when she invites you into a “little rebirth,” or drains the toxicity from a long-lodged poison arrow. There are signs of life everywhere, and often in places you wouldn’t think to look. When I’m listening to an album concerned with sexual abuse and see a title that reads “All of the Women,” my heart sinks; it’s about just what you think it’s about, and it’s a tough one, yet there is something amazing and beautiful in the way Russell finds room in her own story to advocate for others who’ve born abuse.
A few years ago, I was in the audience for a little Q&A session that Russell and Nero gave as part of Over the Rhine’s Nowhere Else Festival. I don’t remember the query that prompted it, but at one point Russell admitted to feeling self-conscious about her voice when she was a child, its slight rasp leading some to wonder if she’d come down with something. I’ve thought about that a lot while listening to Outside Child, an album where she never sounds less than confident, and where she renders something lovely from a traumatic history. I think about it when I play “Nightflyer,” a bold reclamation of the self. (It’s sort of her version of the Dylan song “I Contain Multitudes.”) I think about it when I play the cathartic album-ending “Joyful Motherfuckers,” where Russell speaks a word of blessing so surprising and powerful that I immediately began sobbing the first time I heard it, and also let out a string of gobsmacked swear words. And I think about it, and Quasheba, and whether art can really transform pain into something beautiful and redemptive, when I play “4th Day Prayer,” which features this nursery rhyme chorus: “One for the hate that loops and loops/ Two for the poison at the roots/ Three for the children breaking through/ Four for the day we’re standing in the sun.” I think what she’s singing about here is breaking patterns of violence; how it’s a process, potentially one that spans generation, but how it’s possible to achieve wholeness for ourselves and our children and the people who will call us ancestors. And based on all available evidence, I believe her.
An excerpt: “… though the undertow of Black to the Future is curdled indignation, let it be said that while the music is thrillingly visceral, it’s never violent. Rather than impose suffering on the listener, this music channels suffering into music of coursing momentum, vibrant interplay, and hip-shaking groove. Shorthanding it as a jazz record feels inevitable, and isn’t wrong, but don’t miss out on just how eclectic the album is in its sense of motion. It occasionally moves like bop, but just as often moves like dub, like hip-hop, like calypso, like highlife. Say, have you heard that this is a dance record?”
At In Review, I’ve written about a couple of albums that feature new versions of older songs. There’s They’re Calling Me Home, new from Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, which uses ancient tunes about death and isolation to help us assess the current moment. (It’s very much a sister album to there is no Other, and nearly as good.) And then there’s Taylor Swift‘s meticulously recreated version of Fearless, which casts songs of innocence as songs of experience, and is pretty close to un-reviewable.
If I had to live forever with just one “Solitude,” I’d probably pick the one on The Popular Duke Ellington. And if forced to choose a favorite “Amazing Grace,” I reckon it would have to be Aretha’s. But proverbial desert islands notwithstanding, I’m not sure I believe in quote-unquote definitive versions of songs, and I’m not sure that Miranda Lambert does either. On The Marfa Tapes—a reel of non-produced campfire recordings made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall— she sings “Tin Man,” just as she’s probably done at every concert since the song first appeared on The Weight of These Wings. The version here is not radically different from the original, but it does have a slight variance in tone, a casualness that comes with familiarity. She’s not reading it into the public record so much as she’s settling into familiar contours, reacquainting herself with what must seem like a lifetime of memories. At the end of the song, she complains that one of her strings was buzzing, but her pals aren’t here for any self-effacing bullshit. “That was your brain buzzing,” one of them says.
All 15 songs on The Marfa Tapes have a similar looseness. On Wildcard’s “Tequila Does,” the only other familiar tune here, Lambert briefly forgets the words, eliciting giggles. In “Geraldine,” she makes what seems like an impromptu decision to imitate the stutter and skip of a vinyl record (“G-g-Geraldine! Geraldine!”); there is more laughter, and a spontaneous uptick in the song’s bristling energy. Harmony parts sound like they are being worked out in real time. Nearly every song is bookended by jokes, encouragements, or general expressions of enthusiasm from the three performers (the word “fun” comes up a lot), and you can also hear the wind blowing over the microphone, the rustling of trees, the hollow thump of guitars and other gear. This ambiance is crucial to the vibe, creating a connective tissue of warmth and camaraderie that stitches these ragged performances together. Meanwhile, not a single one of these performances sounds like it’s meant to be the definitive take, nor like there is even any interest in achieving a definitive take; The Marfa Tapes is nothing if not a celebration of performance, the way the right song at the right time and in the right company can spark irreplaceable joy. These songs aren’t being immortalized, but savored; not embalmed, but discovered.
They are all thrillingly low-key, single-take, bare-bones renditions, performed by just the three musicians under the starlight of Marfa, Texas. (Pitchfork’s Sam Sodomsky describes the album as “somewhere between a demo collection, a live album with no audience, and a lo-fi left turn.”) And if none of the songs sound authoritative, they all sound pretty perfect in their own shaggy way. For most listeners, the standouts will be the big, sad ones: “In His Arms” dreams of the one who got away, while “Waxahachie” traces a post-breakup trail of tears. I’m just as fond of the lighter ones: “Two-Step Down to Texas” suggests that Ingram and Randall share Lambert’s affinity for “old sh!t,” while “We’ll Always Have the Blues” is a breezy shuffle, complete with some rough whistling. Country pros that they are, all three songwriters have a knack for melancholy, chronicling heartache with precision, detail, and economy. (Random line: “I don’t wear my ring no more/ kids and time will learn to love us both.”) But even the saddest songs are played with a palpable sense of joy; they revel in the pleasure of sharing music together, if only for a moment, if just for a night.
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.