In the latest installment of “Rooted & Restless,” I take a look at two new albums that both grapple with legacy: Steve Earle’s JT, which both mourns the loss of his son and celebrates the body of work he left behind; and Barry Gibb’s Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1, which recontextualizes classic songs from The Bee Gees. Both are worth hearing, especially JT. Though tragic in its circumstance, it’s one of the richer, more rewarding Steve Earle albums in recent memory.
Lists like this require more work than you’d think, which is why I don’t make them too often. But as new releases just start to trickle in, I thought I’d offer my hypothetical hall-of-fame ballot; my response to the age-old desert island question.
I am presuming a fairly spacious island, and lots of time on my hands. So why 60? Because 100 seems unwieldy somehow, yet keeping it to 50 required cuts I couldn’t bring myself to make. As is always the case with lists, I intend this as a snapshot in time: 60 albums that have been formative, that have brought pleasure, that have abided mystery and midwifed revelation. Ask me again in a month and I’m sure I’d come to some slightly different conclusions.
- Tiny Voices | Joe Henry
- “Love & Theft” | Bob Dylan
- The Birth of Soul | Ray Charles
- Birds of My Neighborhood | The Innocence Mission
- The Bright Mississippi | Allen Toussaint
- Mama’s Gun | Erykah Badu
- The Long Surrender | Over the Rhine
- The Weight of These Wings | Miranda Lambert
- Kind of Blue | Miles Davis
- Black Messiah | D’Angelo
- Civilians | Joe Henry
- Real Midnight | Birds of Chicago
- Good Dog Bad Dog | Over the Rhine
- A Love Supreme | John Coltrane
- Every Picture Tells a Story | Rod Stewart
- The Basement Tapes | Bob Dylan & The Band
- Sign o’ the Times | Prince
- So | Peter Gabriel
- The Low End Theory | A Tribe Called Quest
- Paul’s Boutique | Beastie Boys
- Court and Spark | Joni Mitchell
- Money Jungle | Duke Ellington
- In a Silent Way | Miles Davis
- Rain Dogs | Tom Waits
- Abattoir Blues & The Lyre of Orpheus | Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
- Red | Taylor Swift
- The Gospel According to Water | Joe Henry
- The Scene of the Crime | Bettye LaVette
- Painted from Memory | Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach
- Parade | Prince & The Revolution
- Undun | The Roots
- Highway 61 Revisited | Bob Dylan
- Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
- Legacy! Legacy! | Jamila Woods
- Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus | Charles Mingus
- Basie & Zoot | Count Basie and Zoot Sims
- Thelonious Monk Trio | Thelonious Monk
- Achtung Baby | U2
- All This Useless Beauty | Elvis Costello & The Attractions
- Time Out of Mind | Bob Dylan
- Purple Rain | Prince & The Revolution
- Hell on Heels | Pistol Annies
- Sings the Blues | Nina Simone
- Otis Blue | Otis Redding
- How I Got Over | The Roots
- A Boot and a Shoe | Sam Phillips
- Time (The Revelator) | Gillian Welch
- John Wesley Harding | Bob Dylan
- Trust | Elvis Costello & The Attractions
- Voodoo | D’Angelo
- Back to Back | Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges
- Folklore | Taylor Swift
- RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
- Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
- Hounds of Love | Kate Bush
- King’s Record Shop | Rosanne Cash
- Lifes Rich Pageant | R.E.M.
- Brighter Than Creation’s Dark | Drive-by Truckers
- there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens with Franceso Turrisi
- Diatom Ribbons | Kris Davis
The arresting new solo piano recording from Jason Moran gets its title from the late Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, a long-time culinary arts contributor for NPR. (How do you know when your chicken has been in the fryer long enough, one might ask. Smart-Grosvenor’s answer: “The sound will tell you.”) The title befits an album that speaks not just through its form, but through its depth of tone, conveying the weariness of its origins but also a deep reservoir of wisdom and resilience; an album that feels both modest and cavernous at the same time. Moran recorded The Sound Will Tell You, currently a Bandcamp exclusive, in just three days at the start of 2021; the final sessions were held on the same day white nationalists stormed the Capitol. This truly is music for piano only, though— just like on Modernistic, Moran’s 2002 exemplar of the form— he does employ some elegant technological enhancements, including what he calls a “DRIP” effect, which gives his notes something of a sustained resonance, or shadow. As such, the songs generally move with a languid gait (intentionally modeled on the music of DJ Screw), and the music feels as thick and muggy as our COVID summer, the George Floyd summer, stretching into an airless winter of discontent. But it’s not music of despair so much as fortitude: Many of the song titles borrow turns of phrase from Toni Morrison, another indicator of the depths of strength, dignity, and resolve that Moran is tapping.
Always an evocative pianist, he conjures our recent and not-so-recent history of violence in “How much more terrible was the Night,” shaping minor-key jitters into a full-on Hitchcockian nightmare. If that makes the album sound sobering, well, sure: These are pensive reflections for a fraught era, and the first half of the record, in particular, leans into melancholy tunes and a solemn mood. But Moran’s gift for sustaining a particular tone does not preclude mischief or exploration. One of the great fascinations of his catalog is how he fixates on certain songs and ideas, using them as benchmarks for his creative evolution; here it’s an animated version of “Body & Soul,” which sounds livelier than it did when he played it on Modernistic. “Hum then Sing then Speak,” appearing near the album’s end, reconnects Moran with the bluesmen and stride piano legends he’s venerated in the past; and in doing so, it connects The Sound Will Tell You to a long lineage of music that bears beauty from brutality. “The only morning coming,” with a melody as clean and simple as a songbook standard, finds romantic undercurrents within the album’s prevailing sadness. But Moran saves the album’s greatest masterpiece for the very end. The earthy, molasses-thick “Toni Morrison said Black is a Rainbow” sounds at once halting and resolute— the perfect summation of this quietly majestic album, which both testifies to its times but also transcends them.
The team at In Review Online is closing the book on 2020… and not a moment too soon. Before we turn our attention to 2021’s fresh page and new crop of releases, let me plug just three holdovers from last year that I really enjoyed: There’s Perfectly Imperfect at the Ryman, a majestic, thoroughly winsome live album from Margo Price; The New OK, which is probably my favorite Drive-by Truckers record since 2008; and the excellent third volume of “lost songs” from Gillian Welch, which I’ve already extolled.
By the time I came to R.E.M., they already belonged to the world. Only by retracing their catalog did I understand they had belonged first to Athens, Georgia; then to the South; and then to the college rock underground. But even when they strode the earth like giants— stadium-fillers and soul-winners second only to U2—there was always a pulse of strangeness to their music, a shroud of mystique, an aroma of the unknowable. Maybe this makes their success uniquely resonant in the South: Even winning mass acclaim didn’t make them feel less like outsiders. Their triumph was in how they brought a regional accent to a universal tongue. It was in how they started out strange, and mostly stayed that way.
Much of their other-ness can be attributed to Michael Stipe, one of the great rock singers of all time, whose earliest contributions to the band were cryptic lyrics delivered in mumbles and murmurs. Eventually he learned to enunciate, which isn’t the same thing as making himself clear: Even in their commercial prime, R.E.M.’s songs were often emotionally resonant and logically inscrutable. There’s also Peter Buck, who became one of the era’s most notable and influential guitar players by cribbing the jingle-jangle of The Byrds and the ragged simplicity of garage rock. Mike Mills, ostensibly the bass player, provided some of the band’s most memorable flourishes on organ, keys, and most crucially on harmony vocals; he and Stipe belong on any list of the all-time great rock and roll singing foils. Drummer Bill Berry was the band’s pulse— and, as became clear following his departure in 1997, their voice of reason.
If there’s an opposite to striking while the iron’s hot, R.E.M. did it masterfully and perhaps pathologically. Every successful album was followed by one that felt completely opposite. Sometimes these U-turns generated even greater successes: Consider that, after spearheading a revival in guitar rock, they got the biggest hit of their career by trading the guitar for a mandolin.
Ranking my favorite R.E.M. albums is tough because so many of them are good, and they are good for very different reasons. A majority of their studio albums are included here, but I will note one emphatic absence: Around the Sun, a limp and listless album released in the fall of 2004. Upon its release, I listened over and over, hoping to hear something that would redeem it. That’s the album that broke my heart.
Perhaps because the band never burned out— they amicably retired in 2011, a decade and a half past their commercial prime— their music isn’t romanticized like that of, say, Nirvana. Such is the curse of their steadiness and longevity. Kids today don’t know just how great this band was; here’s where I would start:
01. Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
Captures a band in transition—but also a band in triumph. On their fourth album, R.E.M. still sounded every bit the scruffy Athens scene-setters, but by now it was obvious they were headed for the big leagues. To help them get there, they enlisted producer Don Gehman, who cleaned up their sound just enough for you to hear Berry’s beats glisten, and Stipe articulate his lyrics with greater clarity than ever. Rather than sounding boxed in by their ambitions, they sound inspired: How else do you explain the way frantic punk (“Just a Touch”) crashes into a stately Civil War ballad (“Swan Swan H”), with both of them preceded by an apocalyptic salsa (“Underneath the Bunker”)? This is also the album where Stipe’s slanted verse coalesced into a clear political worldview, or at least a galvanizing call against disengagement. I can’t necessarily parse every line, but I can tell that “Fall on Me” betrays a conservationist’s heart, and “These Days” champions the wisdom of youth. Years later, I don’t know which is more rousing: Stipe’s idealistic appeals (“we are hope despite the times”), or Mills’ pure bubblegum closer (a cover of The Clique’s “Superman”). The future seemed so bright!
02. Automatic for the People (1992)
By 1992, R.E.M. were ready to embrace their role as elder statesmen— meaning, a ruminative, ballad-heavy exploration of age, mortality, and lost innocence. Ruminative doesn’t mean austere, as Automatic for the People is richly textured and colorful. Part of that’s the string arrangements from John Paul Jones, but part of it’s the varied material, which includes a simmering sex song (“Star Me Kitten”), grown-up nursery rhymes (“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”), and Stipe’s hammy Elvis Presley impression in “Man on the Moon.” These songs are emotional counterweights to the more pensive songs, and make Automatic more than a funeral dirge: It’s actually a bracing affirmation of life lived fully. That’s important context for “Everybody Hurts,” the most basic thing Stipe ever wrote, which gains particular resonance when you hear it as a rejoinder to grunge’s nihilism and despair.
03. Reckoning (1984)
The one I play when I just want to hear R.E.M. in careening, garage-rock mode… which is pretty often. With the phrase “rivers of suggestion,” Stipe provides the perfect shorthand for describing his own lyrics; an adroit piece of self-criticism.
04. Monster (1994)
At the height of their celebrity, R.E.M. took to hiding in plain sight. On Monster, they bury their songs in murky wah-wah pedals, and Stipe evades the spotlight with story-songs of anguish, dysfunction, and kink. It sounds like the work of a band desperate not to be seen, yet they’re writing about characters crawling out of their skin for some kind of connection. The feedback-drenched “Let Me In,” written in eulogy for Kurt Cobain, tops “Everybody Hurts” to be their most persuasive answer to grunge. And the trashy, thrashy “Circus Envy” remains one of the underappreciated gems in their catalog.
05. Out of Time (1991)
Their sweeping, blockbuster pop album, loaded with lavish string arrangements and high-caliber guest vocalists. This generates some expensive filler, like the instrumental “Endgame,” but mostly it speaks to their confidence as a band: Even when they lean hard into platinum-plated studiocraft, they still sound like R.E.M. Most of the album feels irresistibly sweet, though its two best songs happen to be its most anguished: A mandolin-driven unrequited love song (“Losing My Religion”) and Stipe’s dejected, stream-of-consciousness relationship postmortem (“Country Feedback”). Some would say the album sounds a little too sweet, at least on the unabashedly chipper “Shiny Happy People,” which the band later said they hated. But by hearing it as a satire of the artificially upbeat, I think we should allow it.
06. Green (1988)
Among the things that R.E.M. were very good at, spindly folk songs and delirious bubblegum pop both rank fairly high on the list. Green is heavy on both, bearing witness to a band that was always going to sound idiosyncratic because they just had no other way to be. “Stand” always makes me wish they’d made a children’s album. Three songs later, Stipe is singing about chemical weaponry!
07. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
One of the classic “recorded on the road albums” where the band channeled pent-up adrenaline into brave experimentation. (See also: U2’s Zooropa.) New Adventures contains some of their most adventurous writing, their goofiest larks, and their most muscular rock and roll performances; it’s a hodgepodge, but it adds up to a picture of a band with limitless possibility in front of them. A year later, Bill Berry left the band, and they would never sound quite this confident ever again.
08. Document (1987)
Fierce, polished, professional rock and roll; the one you’re most likely to hear playing on AOR radio stations to this day (assuming those still exist). I’m more partial to the ragged feel of Lifes Rich Pageant, but there’s no denying the power of their performances here. Contains two of their most essential songs (“The One I Love,” “It’s The End of the World as We Know It”), but my favorite moment is a boisterous take on Wire’s “Strange,” which they perform as a bubblegum anthem, and which sounds like it’s a song about R.E.M.: “Michael’s nervous and the lights are bright/ There’s something going on that’s not quite right.”
09. Murmur (1983)
They’d go on to write better songs, but Murmur remains an iconic debut. Come for the weird textures, the blurry vocals, and the perfect jangle of the guitars. Stay for the tunes: From the very beginning, R.E.M. were melodists of the highest order.
10. Reveal (2001)
Berry left the band in 1997, and the remaining trio embarked on a three-album boondoggle through increasingly-labored, synth-driven studio experiments. I would describe the first of these albums, Up, as an uneven but admirable adventure; and the third, Around the Sun, as hot garbage. Reveal is the trilogy’s middle chapter, and its most successful: Though it wants for the kinetic energy of the band’s rock and roll recordings, it almost makes up for it with its ravishing and romantic melodies, testimonies to the group’s fascination with The Beach Boys. This could almost pass for a Stipe solo album, and he has never sounded more tender as a singer or as a lyricist, penning warm, accessible songs about childlike faith, imagination, and the pains of growing up.
11. Accelerate (2008)
R.E.M. shook off the malaise of Around the Sun with this tight, fat-free rock and roll album—a risk-averse update of Document’s rock and roll professionalism. And professionalism is hardly without its merits. By this point R.E.M. knew a thing or two about cranking out monster riffs, pacing an album with real momentum, and refusing to wear out their welcome. They couldn’t recapture the mystique of the earliest records, and perhaps were wise not to try; they still knew how to sound like a cutthroat rock and roll band, and some days that’s all you can ask for.
It could have been so easy for the singer born Leslie Phillips to stick with contemporary Christian music forever. By now she might have achieved some kind of emeritus status, living comfortably in Franklin or Brentwood, emerging every few years for a handsome collection of hymns, perhaps an annual Christmas tour with someone like Steven Curtis Chapman. Instead, with a 1987 album called The Turning, Phillips declared her independence from narrowly right-wing evangelicalism and its predilection toward propagandistic expression and pat moralism. Since then, she’s assumed the childhood nickname Sam and released a string of accomplished albums that wrestle with faith and doubt, avoiding dogma for inquisitiveness, ideology for poetics. These albums have not made her a star in any conventional sense, but they have made her a patron saint for similarly-inclined skeptics and believers who view Christianity as an invitation to embrace mystery. If she ever writes a tell-all memoir of her CCM days and subsequent emancipation, she could name it with one of her old song titles: “Answers Don’t Come Easy.”
Of course, this backstory is largely unknown and probably irrelevant to those who only recognize her as the composer for shows like Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, where her signature la-las bear witness to her easeful way with earworm melodies. It is pleasing to think that the TV gigs funded some of the cagey, challenging, philosophically-rich pop records listed below. Her role in Die Hard 3 probably helped, too.
Starting with The Turning, Phillips made seven albums with producer T-Bone Burnett, to whom she was also married. Their collaborations stand among the best work Burnett’s ever done. And yet, it’s possible that the most important creative partnerships in Phillips’ discography are the ones she’s forged with great drummers, foremost among them Jay Bellerose.
Of the many excellent Sam Phillips albums, these are the ones I hold most dear.
01. A Boot and a Shoe (2004)
The best and final Phillips-Burnett collaboration happens to be a chronicle of their dissolution— and one of the most illuminating divorce albums ever made. If it’s tabloid pull-quotes you’re after, Phillips scatters them like breadcrumbs (“I’m not sorry we loved/ but I hope I didn’t keep you too long”). But her interest is not merely in cataloging grief; “let’s excavate the surface,” she enjoins, in what could be her life’s mantra. And so, in richly suggestive and meaningfully open-ended songs, she digs deep into themes of suffering and surrender; failure and loss as conduits for grace. The presence of God hovers over these songs, even if you can never quite pin him down. Maybe that’s the Divine arriving “One Day Late,” offering consolation to the broken only once they’ve abandoned self-sufficiency; and maybe it’s him Phillips is wrestling with “All Night,” unwilling to let go until he concedes a blessing. But then again, maybe not. These lyrics reward contemplation even as they evade tidy resolution; as ever, answers don’t come easy. If you’re looking for something rock-solid, listen to drummers Bellerose, Carla Azar, and Jim Keltner, whose work here makes A Boot and a Shoe something rare indeed: A singer-songwriter album that’s as taken by rhythm as it is melody and words.
02. Fan Dance (2001)
In many ways, a matching book-end for A Boot and a Shoe— same producer, overlapping personnel, similar half-hour runtime, comparable bent toward catchy tunes played on acoustic instruments. Thanks to Burnett, those instruments sound great: Fan Dance revels in the creaks of the piano bench, the rustle of acoustic strings, the rattle of hand percussion. And the songs seem to capture Phillips at a peak of inspiration: Hear her write gorgeous pop melodies worthy of The Beatles (“Love is Everywhere I Go”) and lean into her droll sense of humor (“Is That Your Zebra?”). The songs are about questing for truth through art, poetry, and beauty. In “Five Colors,” she offers another mantra: “I’ve tried but can’t find refuge in the angle/ I’ll walk the mystery of the curve.”
03. Martinis & Bikinis (1994)
If you only associate T-Bone Burnett with the analog austerity of his post-Raising Sand material, you’ll be in for a shock when you hear the colorful, kinetic sound of Martinis & Bikinis— merely one of the most tuneful and exhilarating guitar-pop albums of the 1990s. In those days, Phillips wasn’t yet writing with the level of introspection that would make her later albums so rich; mostly, Martinis levels righteous anger and prophetic witness against materialism, greed, emotional manipulation, and poor environmental stewardship. I take enormous pleasure in assuming “Baby, I Can’t Please You” addresses the CCM machine from which she was still just-recently unencumbered.
04. Don’t Do Anything (2008)
Her first self-produced album retains a number of structural and thematic similarities with her T-Bone material, especially Boot and Fan Dance. The biggest difference is Phillips’ rediscovery of electricity, which provides several songs with a jolt of static and hum. Recorded by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” is rightly regarded as a classic. But the best song is the title track, which comforts doers and overachievers with the notion of unconditional love.
05. World on Sticks (2018)
Long wary of the outsized influence of commerce and technology in our lives, Phillips spent a decent chunk of the 90s issuing moral warnings that occasionally seemed strident at the time, but have largely been vindicated today. The self-produced World on Sticks sounds wiser and deeper, with Phillips tracing sociopolitical problems to our underdeveloped spiritual formation. (“Troubles on the outside can be reflections of troubles on the inside,” she says in the liner notes.) Sticks also reveals just how confident she’s gotten as a record-maker, with special effects piling up one after the other… many shaking loose from Bellerose’s drum kit, but the majority conjured with cinematic flair by The Section Quartet.
06. The Turning (1987)
Compared with many of the albums that came after it, The Turning now sounds a little bit stiff, a little too cautious. It’s nevertheless an absorbing pop record, and a striking work of conscience. To borrow a phrase from Obi-Wan Kenobi, this is the sound of somebody taking her first step into a larger world.
07. Push Any Button (2013)
Phillips deals with heavy subject matter, which can sometimes obscure her gifts as a pop confectioner. This 29-minute party record comes spring-loaded with bright melodies, colorful sounds and texture, and crackling rhythms. Enormously fun.
08. Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop) (1996)
Her boldest experiment— a bizarro mashup of winking lounge music, vaudevillian pop, and psychedelic experimentation. Burnett can always be counted on to line up A-list session pros, and Omnipop’s pleasures come primarily from the chance to hear the likes of Marc Ribot, Jon Brion, and Smokey Hormel creating such lush (or is it louche?) arrangements. Phillips’ songs satirize commercialism in a way that always reminds me of U2’s album Pop: She goes so far down irony’s rabbit hole that she finds its dead end. After this one, there was no option but retreat and reinvention.
I never quite feel like I have the time I’d like for re-issues, anthologies, and other repackagings of “old” music; nor the patience to give splashy box sets and deluxe editions the attention they require. The list I’m offering here is embarrassingly incomplete, but does offer a few archival releases that have captured my ears and my imagination over 2020.
01. Palo Alto | Thelonious Monk
Unless you were lucky enough to see him in person, this is about as close to an ideal Monk experience as you’re likely to get— a chance to hear his touring troupe in full dance-band mode, thumping through hits and standards in a sweaty high school gym, all of it captured in gloriously granulated sound by an anonymous janitor. It’s a winning portrait of a well-oiled band that played themselves ragged, even at the most workaday gigs. For its rough-and-ready energy, it might even be the best live Monk album on the market.
02. Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs | Gillian Welch
Close to 20 years ago, Welch and her partner, David Rawlings, spent a weekend dashing off reel-to-reel demos of new originals, plus a few choice covers thrown in for good measure; never intending these songs as anything but contract fulfillment, they promptly locked them in a vault. When the recordings were nearly lost in a Nashville flood, Welch and Rawlings suddenly realized that there’s actually some stuff here they cared enough to want to save, resulting in three separate volumes of “lost songs” that are infinitely appealing in their casualness. Where Welch’s canonical albums all feel carefully-composed and assembled, there is a wonderful looseness to the way these recordings find them dallying with gospel, mountain music, standards, even rock and roll. In fact, the most revelatory songs here tend to be the ones that feel most tossed-off, precisely because they show a side that Welch usually keeps hidden. All three volumes are superb, but if you only have time for one, start with the third one.
03. Sign ‘o’ the Times Deluxe Edition | Prince
The best Prince albums— and this one is certainly in the top three— often gave the impression that he was capable of anything. The astonishing thing about these Sign ‘o’ the Times outtakes is that they only reinforce that idea, revealing that Prince had so many big ideas he had to leave many of them on the cutting room floor. The original album has never sounded more sterling: It remains an album by turns rousing and distressing, using dysfunctional relationships as a mirror for a fraying society, and ending with Prince’s rainbow coalition dancing their troubles to the foot of the Cross.
04. Wildflowers & All the Rest | Tom Petty
A model for how deluxe albums should be constructed, eschewing academia in favor of sheer listenability. There are separate discs devoted to demos, outtakes, and live stuff, and while each section is satisfying in its own right, they ultimately serve as reminders of how disarmingly mean, funny, and heartbroken this album was in the first place.
05. Armed Forces Super Deluxe Edition | Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Initially released in 1979, Armed Forces— an album of tuneful, terse songs about fascism— came at the midpoint of Costello’s initial hot streak with The Attractions, and suggested a songwriter far more sophisticated than his bespectacled-punk reputation let on. A remastered version of the album sounds superb, sparkling melodies and elegant performances laced with strychnine paranoia. The real treasure here is a bounty of rough, raucous live material, which presents Costello’s earliest hits in a disorienting blur of masuline malaise, emotional trauma, and political anxiety. You won’t find many opportunities to hear The Attractions conjure this level of mayhem.
05. The White Stripes Greatest Hits | The White Stripes
A lovingly curated anthology that will remind you of what made this band so special, thoughtfully sequenced to help you hear old songs in a fresh light. When I scan the track list, there are a few songs that I miss. But when the album is playing, I don’t miss anything at all.
06. Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987
A fascinating, highly listenable immersion in a scene that’s too often overlooked by anthologists. Basically, you’ll get 28 songs by bands you’ve probably never heard of, all of them clearly toiling in the shadow of R.E.M. Though none of these songs registered as anything beyond regional hits, almost all of them are delightful in their propulsive melodies, rich vocal harmonies, and jingle-jangle guitar riffs. Listen to the whole thing, then play Reckoning as an encore.
07. Just Coolin’ | Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
Because Blakey never had the same mystique or tortured vibe as Coltrane and Monk, the arrival of a never-released Jazz Messengers album doesn’t draw the fanfare it probably should. It doesn’t feel like a lost relic or an unearthed page of jazz scripture so much as it’s merely another chance to hear one of the all-time great bands, including the great Lee Morgan on trumpet, lean hard into soulful, bluesy bop. By the way: This was recorded around the same time as Blakey’s masterpiece, Moanin’, and with mostly the same personnel. And every song on it cooks.
Paul McCartney was making ramshackle home recordings long before a global pandemic forced his hand. His latest, McCartney III, meets the moment not with sweeping sociopolitical statements, but rather with a very welcome spirit of warmth, frivolity, and merriment. I wrote about it at FLOOD Magazine.
More end-of-the-year blurbing, summarizing, and list-making: For FLOOD, I penned a few words about Fiona Apple and HAIM; and at In Review, I rhapsodized about Run the Jewels and repeated my Taylor Swift/Tony Bennett joke in a capsule review of Folklore.
My top 25 album picks, along with commentary, are still available here at the blog. But if it’s raw data you’re after, I can tell you that I spent time with around 90 new releases this year, and can easily list 50 without hitting any duds.
- Folklore | Taylor Swift
- RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
- Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
- Aftermath | Elizabeth Cook
- Rough and Rowdy Ways | Bob Dylan
- Women in Music Pt. III | HAIM
- Who Are You? | Joel Ross
- Blackbirds | Bettye LaVette
- We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose
- Felis Catus and Silence | Leo Takami
- Rainbow Sign | Ron Miles
- Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling
- Mama, You Can Bet! | Jyoti
- Letter to You | Bruce Springsteen
- That’s How Rumors Get Started | Margo Price
- CHICKABOOM! | Tami Neilson
- Headlight | Della Mae
- We’re New Again | Makaya McCraven & Gil Scott-Heron
- Private Lives | Low Cut Connie
- All the Good Times | Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
- SOURCE | Nubya Garcia
- Half Moon Light | The Lone Bellow
- Total Freedom | Kathleen Edwards
- RoundAgain | Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, & Brian Blade
- Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa
- Southside | Sam Hunt
- Omega | Immanuel Wilkins
- Evermore | Taylor Swift
- First Rose of Spring | Willie Nelson
- Heaven to a Tortured Mind | Yves Tumor
- Hey Clockface | Elvis Costello
- Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able | Black Thought
- Serpentine Prison | Matt Berninger
- Punisher | Phoebe Bridgers
- Reunions | Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
- See You Tomorrow | The Innocence Mission
- Your Life is a Record | Brandy Clark
- Petals for Armor | Hayley Williams
- Rejoice | Hugh Masekela & Tony Allen
- We Are Sent Here By History | Shabaka & The Ancestors
- Saturn Return | The Secret Sisters
- Echo Mine | Califone
- Gaslighter | The Chicks
- Good Souls Better Angels | Lucinda Williams
- Italian Ice | Nicole Atkins
- Imploding the Mirage | The Killers
- McCartney III | Paul McCartney
- Pick Me Up Off the Floor | Norah Jones
- Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? | The Soft Pink Truth
- Mutable Set | Blake Mills
I’ve clearly dropped the ball this year, at least as far as blogging goes. I won’t make any excuse for myself, except to say that the value in criticism can seem tenuous on a good day, and has sometimes felt like an unseemly luxury during a global pandemic and a fraught election season. It is a luxury that my mental and emotional bandwidth just haven’t been about to accommodate. Maybe I can make it up to you by recommending 25 albums that have quieted, comforted, challenged, and sustained me throughout this strange year.
As ever, there are purely personal selections, and if you ask me to redo this list in even a week’s time some of the entries might change. But all are outstanding, and all have gotten a lot of play here at Hurst HQ.
One slight departure from previous years: For whatever reason, it suits my mood to start with the #1 slot this year, rather than do my customary countdown. Life is short. Let’s get right to it.
01. Folklore | Taylor Swift
Swift has always been a remarkable songwriter. Nevertheless, her eighth album reveals a marked maturing of her craft—not so much in her casual swearing, but in the blood she draws from clean, uncluttered metaphors (“I knew you, leaving like a father, running like water”). And, she remains unequalled in writing show-stopping bridges, using them to deliver narrative pivots and grand flourishes of emotion. Her writing on Folklore is so structured that you can almost imagine these songs as standards (bring on the Tony Bennet versions); with no need to leave them legible for stadium crowds, however, Swift deliberately obscures them in misty, spongy arrangements, primarily via The National’s Aaaron Dessner. There is a faintly transgressive pleasure in the thought that Folklore might give millions of listeners their gateway drug into dream-pop, minimalism, New Age, and folk music, but the more straightforward pleasure is hearing Swift navigate new sounds with the most understated, assured singing of her career. For as much fuss as Swift has made about writing in a less autobiographical mode, she remains her own greatest character, allowing Folklore to glow with tiny embers of self-recognition (“I’ve never been a natural/ all I do is try, try, try”). On an album born in isolation, Swift stretches further and probes deeper than ever.
02. RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
Deployed like emergency rations at the peak of the George Floyd protests, RTJ4 is an album born of a long, weary history of violence and dehumanization, and for a few tense weeks felt like the only new music worthy of its fraught era. Mercifully, it’s also a rap lover’s dream, an album targeted at the pleasure centers of old heads and connoisseurs. Clattering production, worthy of the Bomb Squad, shapes street noise and psychedelic sound effects into the sleekest, funkiest, most undiluted Run the Jewels record yet, and provides the perfect cacophony to feed the duo’s wisecracks, breaking news bulletins, and arresting autobiography. The buddy-comedy routine between El-P and Killer Mike has always gestured toward nihilism, but that’s getting less and less credible; they remain crusaders for the golden age rap records they grew up on, unwilling to surrender that sound to nostalgia or obsolescence. They draw strength from an aesthetic, but more than that, they draw strength from each other: Underneath the cynicism, RTJ4 is really a sweet album about brotherhood.
03. Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
Song for song and joke for joke, Apple is as funny as any of her male peers— and that’s true even if you count Bob Dylan among her clique, which you probably should. With pitch-black cabaret routines and put-downs worthy of a battle rapper, Apple is unflinching in her interrogation of personal grievances and societal abuses that fester in #metoo’s wake. A few songs capture the old Fiona, showing her to be undiminished as a piano troubadour of peerless phrasing and panache; more characteristic are songs that wrest homemade percussion and barking dogs into a sound that is raucous, uninhibited, and untamed by genre.
04. Aftermath | Elizabeth Cook
Cook journeyed through hell to make this record, surviving loss, divorce, and rehab. You can hear all of that in the music— not because it’s confessional, but because Cook’s slanted, complicated narratives are so full of rage, despair, black comedy, and hard-won empathy. The hardscrabble honky-tonk of her early albums wouldn’t quite work for songs so prickly, so she instead fills them with gnarled riffs, stomping rhythms, and elliptical takes on heartland rock.
05. Rough and Rowdy Ways | Bob Dylan
Imagine listening to this, the best Dylan record since Love & Theft, and thinking he was a maladroit singer. Imagine believing that a younger man could bring a softer touch to the blues numbers, or more grit to the torch songs. Imagine hearing Bob’s tender litany of emotional touchpoints in “Murder Most Foul” and still thinking it was just a song about JFK.
06. Women in Music Part III | HAIM
To fully appreciate all the weird, scraggly textures on HAIM’s third album, consider how easy it might have been for them to coast forever on their sweet, sisterly harmonies and euphoric pop melodies. Both are omnipresent here, but exist within a larger ecosystem: Leaning into their earnestness, their goofy sense of humor, their ear for noise, and their instinct for studiocraft, HAIM has altered the language of classic rock into a dialect all their own.
07. Who Are You? | Joel Ross
Following a smooth, assured debut, the young vibraphonist and bandleader returns with a small-group, straight-ahead jazz album bursting at the seams with ideas and invention. Ross’ music is a thrilling reminder of how the jazz tradition offers endless permutations of texture, rhythm, and tone.
08. Blackbirds | Bettye LaVette
On previous albums, the world’s greatest soul singer laid claim to the songs of the British Invasion and the towering catalog of Bob Dylan. Astonishing, she’s just now making an album of songs popularized by Black women— with one Beatles tune to serve as a coda. LaVette locates the pain and resolve in song after song of heartache and despair, all of which gain their full meaning through a harrowing “Strange Fruit.”
09. We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose
Nothing ever sounds too effortful on a Whitney Rose album. For her fourth, she proves herself once again to be a singer of impeccable instinct and restraint, and a graceful navigator of soaring country-rock, slinky blues, and tender ballads. Her craft is seamless and unforced, making it easy to take for granted just how smart and sturdy the record really is.
10. Felis Catus and Silence | Leo Takami
One of the year’s great left-field surprises is this sweet, playful little record from Japan, which elegantly blends jazz, ambient, and New Age music with clean, folksy melodies. Its tranquility offers a welcome refuge from hurry and anxiety.
11. Rainbow Sign | Ron Miles
Summoning the same all-star band that joined him on I Am a Man— merely one of the richest , deepest jazz records of the past decade— cornetist Ron Miles offers another collection of handsome, stately originals: Songs that move gracefully from meditation to mischief, from deep blues to spirited swing.
12. Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling
Just 30 years old and with seven solo albums to her credit, Laura Marling gets deeper, wiser, and more emotionally articulate with each release. Her latest is filled with stories of collapse and resolve, and shows that she’s gotten scarily good at perfectly-crafted couplets designed to break your heart. Here’s one: “I feel a fool, so do you/ For believing it could work out, like some things do.”
13. Mama, You Can Bet! | Jyoti
Recording in a one-woman-band arrangement a la Prince or Stevie Wonder, Georgia Anne Muldrow recreates the loose, exploratory feel of a jazz ensemble— and, sustains an affectionate, referential dialogue with the lineage of Black music.
14. Letter to You | Bruce Springsteen
Deeply nostalgic, but not uncritically so. It’s as if Springsteen is holding a seance with a younger version of himself, writing new songs that reflect on his glory days while resurrecting old ones from the vantage point of age and experience. All of it summons the majestic heft of the E-Street Band, who wear familiarity as a badge of honor. Together, they weigh the burden of mortality against the fleeting joy that rock and roll can bring, frequently making it sound like a worthy trade-off.
15. That’s How Rumors Get Started | Margo Price
Price has made a couple of handsome country albums, but what many of us now realize is that we’ve always wanted her to make trashy little rock and roll records, full of grudges and bile. This one, produced by Price with Surgill Simpson, gleefully obliges.
16. CHICKABOOM! | Tami Neilson
If it’s a knockout voice you’re looking for, you’re unlikely to find better than Neilson, a singer of rarified power, precision, and personality. Past albums have run the gamut of country and soul, but CHICKABOOM! offers something distilled: A pure concentrate of raucous, roadhouse rhythm and blues.
17. Headlight | Della Mae
Play any given minute of any given Della Mae album (including this one) and you’ll get all the evidence you need that these women can play. But Headlight offers a lot more than pure bluegrass virtuosity: It’s their richest and most expansive work yet, accommodating feisty love songs and topical laments; crawling blues, rowdy hoedowns, swaying ballads, even gospel choruses.
18. We’re New Again | Makaya McCraven & Gil Scott-Heron
For the third and best airing of Scott-Heron’s stirring I’m New Here material, drummer and producer McCraven dices and splices the late poet’s spoken word recitations, setting his rich words against vivid musical backdrops. The resulting album honors not just Scott-Heron’s prodigal wanderings through abuse and addiction, but also his legacy as a bridge between jazz and hip-hop.
19. Private Lives | Low Cut Connie
It was only a matter of time before the extroverted Adam Weiner— our most dependable purveyor of down and dirty rock and roll— set his ambitions to a concept album. Private Lives condenses 17 songs into 55 minutes, and creates a patchwork of quiet desperation, nagging self-doubt, and unspoken prayers for redemption. Thankfully, it still sounds like down and dirty rock and roll.
20. All the Good Times | Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
Ten cover songs reveal a different side of Welch and Rawlings. Where they are normally fastidious, here they sound carefree and casual; just a couple of crazy kids with time on their hands, some reel-to-reel recording equipment, and a burning love for American folk music. Come for Gillian’s sensitive reading of a John Prine tune; stay for Dave’s immaculate Dylan snarl.
21. Source | Nubya Garcia
The young sax prodigy’s first album as a leader fulfills all the promise she’s shown through her guest spots and supporting roles. The album’s vibrant pan-culturalism reminds you that she comes from an immigrant family, while the speaker-rattling bass suggests an upbringing on hip-hop; but it’s her questing solos that reveal how much she’s learned from her elders, and how much history informs her take on the shape of jazz to come.
22. Half Moon Light | The Lone Bellow
Gifted in so many tragically unfashionable ways, the Brooklyn trio delivers earnest anthems to a world that’s largely put such things behind it. For anyone with room in their hearts for a bit of the ol’ U2-style grandeur, this album is pitch-perfect in channeling loss and grief into catharsis, and in making intimate reflections sound universal. The cruelest irony of all: Some of these songs would sound great in an arena.
23. Total Freedom | Kathleen Edwards
A beloved singer and songwriter emerges from self-imposed exile, proving that she’s lost neither her delicate touch nor her dry sense of humor. These warm, earnest originals speak to the bittersweetness of domestic life, highlighting isolation and regret, yet still finding room for gratitude. Nearly every song on the album is darker and more conflicted than it first sounds, which lends surprising ballast to Edwards’ seemingly-breezy country-rock.
24. RoundAgain | Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, & Brian Blade
Reconvening nearly 30 years after their last studio summit— that would be Redman’s excellent MoodSwing, from 1994—four of the leading luminaries in jazz get together for egoless, leaderless improvisation. In a fraught year, RoundAgain offers a balm: The sound of easy chemistry between long-time pals, lost together in a spirit of play.
25. Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa
Arriving just in time to soundtrack a few million quarantine dance parties, the young British singer’s second album offers a master class in state-of-the-art disco. Singles and could-be singles pile up one after the other— coiled, propulsive, fat-free— and quickly create the illusion that you’re listening to a greatest hits collection.
Honorable Mention: Evermore | Taylor Swift
All hail Taylor Swift: Our most productive quarantiner, our most essential pop star, and the redeeming poet laureate of 2020’s malaise. Surprise-released a few days after I drafted this list, her second album of the year expands upon the moody aesthetic of Folklore, doubling down on its autumnal vibe but also sharpening and clarifying it with a dab of 1989 gloss, a few left-field experiments, and at least one track that could almost fit in on country radio. It’s less surprising, less consistent, and more adventurous than the album that came before it, impressive enough to warrant its inclusion as an unranked bonus pick.