Bettye LaVette’s is one of the truly gut-wrenching stories of being used, abused, overlooked, and underestimated by the music industry. She had an R&B radio hit when she was 17, then spent 40 years getting passed over time and time again. In her 50s, she began releasing a string of records that distilled a lifetime of frustration and disappointment, channeling her own song of lament almost entirely through interpretations of other people’s work. (By my count, the five albums I’ve listed below contain exactly one LaVette writing credit.) With these albums, she has finally commanded the admiration that’s long been her due. Her music of exquisite heartache now comes with an aura of triumph.
For my money, she is the greatest soul singer in the world. Whether this is because of or in spite of her long years in exile, I’m not totally sure. Certainly, personal suffering is not a prerequisite for singing the blues, nor is it something to be fetishized. And yet, listening to the work of her glory years, I am struck by one thing in particular: Bettye LaVette is someone who never lets any pain go to waste.
There are five of her albums that I treasure:
01. The Scene of the Crime (2007) I remember being baffled by the announcement that Bettye was headed to Muscle Shoals to cut an album with the Drive-by Truckers, though I don’t exactly remember why; maybe in those days none of us quite realized how well the Truckers could handle a groove. The resulting album is a masterpiece, one that excels on a couple of levels. You can enjoy it as an old-fashioned jukebox record; a wonderfully dank, swampy take on blues, R&B, and country, absent any unnecessary frills. But it’s also a transfixing piece of autobiography, told almost entirely through cover songs: Songs about drinking, paying the bills, jealousy, and regret, but also a story arc about getting chewed up and spit out, left for dead, then somehow rising in glory. It would be corny to say that LaVette delivers these songs as if she wrote them; more accurately, she makes it sound like these songs were written about her. She actually did write “Before the Money Came,” the record’s triumphant climax… though by that point, the hard turn into memoir feels almost unnecessary.
02. Worthy (2015) Sometimes when I compliment my wife’s cooking, she responds by asking: “With these ingredients, how could you go wrong?” This is exactly how I feel about Worthy, where LaVette is produced by Joe Henry and backed by a all-star squad of studio players; she revitalizes a marginal Dylan tune and an underrated Stones, turns Henry’s classic “Stop” inside-out, and finds the gospel heart of Over the Rhine’s “Undamned.” There is no overarching concept here, and there doesn’t need to be: Everything about Worthy, from the performances through the album sequencing, displays an absolute mastery of craft.
03. Blackbirds (2020) It’s incredible that it took so long for LaVette to make an album of songs popularized by Black women (with one Beatles tune to serve as the coda). The result is a stunning example of LaVette’s masterful transference of pain. She doles out song after song of romantic anguish… and then she gives us a spectral “Strange Fruit” for the ages, which will make you realize she’s been singing about a different kind of heartache all along.
04. I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005) ANTI- Records’ decision to pair LaVette with producer Joe Henry (then riding a wave of acclaim for his work on Don’t Give Up on Me, a career-reviving album for another soul survivor, Solomon Burke) really proved to be the catalyst for her remarkable latter-day resurgence. Compared to some of her other albums, including the next one she made with Henry, the production is just a shade too genteel, despite a few songs that revel in sludgy low-end fonk. And yet, everything that makes LaVette great is in evidence here. I should probably just say that she sings a Lucinda Williams tune and a Dolly Parton number, and both sound great. What else could you possibly need to know?
05. Things Have Changed (2018) Or: Bettye LaVette Sings Bob Dylan. The chance to hear our greatest interpreter sink her teeth into such a hallowed body of work may almost sound too good to be true, like a classic unstoppable force/immovable object situation, but make no mistake: Bettye devours these songs. Part of the reason it works so well is that the singer never sounds like she’s intimidated or unworthy; instead, she asserts her right to do with these songs what she will, treating them not as sacred writ but rather as vessels for her own self-expression. Though stacked with studio pros (including Keith Richards!), the sound is a little too slick, slinking and gliding when you wish it would rumble and rage. And yet the album remains an astonishing witness to the space LaVette can create for herself, even within such oft-trod material.
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.