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.
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.