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

miranda

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

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

And now, some albums I love:

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Isolation | Kali Uchis (2018)
    isolation

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

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

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

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

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

  1. MASSEDUCTION | St. Vincent (2017)
    masseduction

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

  1. Honey | Robyn (2018)
    honey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Lover | Taylor Swift (2019)
    lover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. undun | The Roots (2011)
    undun

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

  1. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves (2018)
    goldenhour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve Mined That Song Forever, Part 1: 25 favorite albums from 2019

USA Portrait - Joe Henry

It’s the time of year when I tend to enthuse, at some length, about the bumper crop of top-shelf records released in the preceding 11 ½ months. This year, I’ll cut to the chase: My list of 25 favorite albums from 2019 includes at least three or four masterpiece-level achievements, and that’s estimating conservatively. The title slotted in at #5 could easily have topped the lists of yesteryear. Don’t believe anyone who tells you the well has dried up, or that they just don’t make albums like they used to. This year’s embarrassment of riches reveals such foolishness for exactly what it is.

A few notes: Witness-bearing was a recurrent theme in many of 2019’s most bracing records, with astute songwriters taking stock of a pervasive sense of loss and chronicling it without any sugar-coating or sentimentality; consider albums by Elbow and by Over the Rhine, each written in the shadows of crumbling empires and fraying bonds; each written to remind us that things fall apart, or, as another 2019 band suggest, that the center won’t hold. Albums by Joe Henry and Nick Cave are clear-eyed in their assessment of loss, mortality, and grief. Albums by Allison Moorer and Our Native Daughters consider different kinds of trauma and its lingering impact.

And yet, there were also several excellent albums to suggest, even amidst wreckage and ruin, that there lies before us abounding opportunity to connect with one another: Andrew Bird counsels us to log off of Twitter and offer something tangible into the world; Rhiannon Giddens exhibits radical neighborliness through boundary-crossing folk songs.

It was a boon year for singer/songwriters, with several veteran scribes releasing albums that stand proudly alongside their best work: Henry and Cave, Moorer and Bird, but also John Paul White, Todd Snider, Patty Griffin, Hayes Carll, and others. (Seven albums in, surely Taylor Swift qualifies for veteran status as well?)

One last thing: Only upon completion of the list did I tally up the male-female breakdown, finding that roughly 18 out of these 25 records were made by women. (Your count may vary depending on how you want to categorize husband/wife teams.) It seems well-proven by now that great music by women isn’t as well-publicized or promoted as it should be, but it’s certainly being made, and it’s really not difficult to find.

Anyway: These are 25 albums that meant the world to me in 2019. As ever, the rankings are fairly fluid, and I wouldn’t get too hung up on them. Each title selected here is worthy of your full time and attention.

  1. Walk Through Fire | Yola
    walk through fire

The British vocalist Yola is a singer of regal power, clarity, and directness. What makes her Dan Auerbach-produced Walk Through Fire so striking is how she sends gutbucket soul rippling through carefully-structured and meticulously-arranged variations on country and R&B, as if to simulate how roiling emotions bubble up through the sincerest intentions of poise and decorum.

  1. To Myself | Baby Rose
    to myself

The songs of Baby Rose are as crisp and clean as any Amy Winehouse banger, as gnarled and textured as D’Angelo’s wiry funk. They are perfectly evocative for lyrics that are haunted and panged with doubt, and a voice etched with experience far beyond her years.

  1. The Highwomen | The Highwomen
    highwomen

The Highwomen were assembled to address a particular problem— namely, gender inequity on the country radio charts. It’s to their enormous credit that their Dave Cobb-produced debut proves its point without preaching it, largely avoiding didacticism in favor of tight harmonies, uproarious jokes, good-natured camaraderie, and tough-as-nails honky tonk.

  1. Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 | Todd Snider
    cabin session

Just wait til you hear “Talking Reality Television Blues,” in which Todd Snider deconstructs a familiar folk form, offers a capsule history of the entertainment industry, and draws a straight line from Michael Jackson’s rise-and-fall to the ascent of the 45th President, all within the span of a single track. It’s just one of several high-wire songwriting feats on Snider’s opus-to-date, an album that’s bare-bones in its arrangement but lavish in its imagination.

  1. Crushing | Julia Jacklin
    Crushing

“Don’t know how to keep loving you, now that I know you so well,” admits Julia Jacklin on one of several masterful slow-burners. Her album Crushing is painstaking in its appraisal of how intimacy with another person can lead to blurred identity, compromises of physical space, a creeping sense of erasure. It’s all played out with sobering tactility; grinding guitars, creaking pianos, bruising percussion.

  1. Absolute Zero | Bruce Hornsby
    absolute zero

For his latest set of songs, Bruce Hornsby turns to the language of mathematical theory, literature, and quantum physics in an effort to impose some order on the unruliness of human emotions. That only deepens Hornsby’s anthropological mysteries, and his adventurous arrangements (equal parts arena rock, studio experimentation, free-form jazz, and chamber folk) bear witness to worlds of inexhaustible allure.

  1. Canterbury Girls | Lily & Madeleine
    canterbury girls

For anyone who prefers their pop euphoria laced with strychnine melancholy. The fourth album from sister act Lily & Madeleine is a sweet-and-salty coming-of-age saga that posits romantic dissolution as an opportunity for personal discovery. Includes candescent production from the same team that made Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, last year’s Album of the Year honoree, but the most brilliant special effects are the sisters’ tight harmonies.

  1. Amidst the Chaos | Sara Bareilles
    amidst the chaos

She doesn’t need to spell it out for you. You can tell from the title that Amidst the Chaos is Sara Bareilles’ reckoning with what life feels like in the disorienting days of 2019, and it’s a feeling she explores through an elegant series of subtexts, implications, and plausible deniabilities. The lean production from T-Bone Burnett matches the finesse of Bareilles’ writing, and highlights her easeful way with soaring melody.

  1. Western Stars | Bruce Springsteen
    western stars

How is it possible that, almost 50 years after Springsteen’s debut, he is still making albums unlike any he’s made before? Western Stars is distinguished not merely for its handsome orchestral pop classicism, but also for its point of view: Springsteen has spent most of his career writing about men chasing redemption, but here settles down with characters who know they’ve run out the clock. They’re left to make peace with the choices they’ve made, and the people they’ve become. 

  1. The Center Won’t Hold | Sleater-Kinney
    center wont hold

Tragically, this album is likely to be remembered primarily for proving its own point; for how inviting St. Vincent into the fold led to the departure of drummer Janet Weiss and the rupture of golden-era Sleater-Kinney. Better to remember it for its lurching, mutated, and corrosive take on their signature sound; for its impish evocation of dissarray; for how it allows the punk veterans to try something different while also playing to their strengths.

  1. Open Book | Kalie Shorr
    kalie shorr open book review

It’s not for nothing that Kalie Shorr opens her first album with a song called “So Much to Say.” Throughout Open Book, she comes across like a prodigiously gifted songwriter who’s been stockpiling material, and is bursting at the seams to unveil it. There wasn’t a country album released all year to boast sharper writing; her jokes, her confessions, and her therapeutic asides are all equally withering.

  1. Blood | Allison Moorer
    allison moorer blood review

Allison Moorer’s adolescence was shattered by a formative tragedy: A murder-suicide that claimed both of her parents. She has had decades to consider if and how she might speak to this trauma, and in 2019 she chose to tell her story both in an acclaimed memoir and a compact, powerful album, both titled Blood. The Blood album is a triumph of narrative courage and clarity, and a thoughtful reckoning with how we all must carry the past with us but not allow it to define us.

  1. Silences | Adia Victoria
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Singer/songwriter Adia Victoria announced Silences by affirming her intention to make the blues “dangerous” again, an implicit acknowledgement that her chosen idiom can sometimes err toward safe conservatism. You needn’t worry about encountering anything overly comforting on this slanted, modernist reworking of blues tropes; Victoria plunges a knife into God’s chest in the opening song, and spends the rest of the album torn between fleeing the Devil and running into his arms.

  1. Patty Griffin | Patty Griffin
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Patty Griffin made 10 studio albums before deciding to name one after herself; it raises the specter of autobiography, and if the songs on this album don’t quite feel like a memoir, they do form a meaningful meditation on the nature of self. Griffin survived cancer in order to make this record, and while she never references it directly, the experience obviously brought focus and clarity to these songs of struggle and survival. It’s her richest collection yet, performed with appealing intimacy and warmth.

  1. Love and Revelation | Over the Rhine
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“Is it sacrilegious dancing in the light of all we’ve lost?” That question comes toward the end of Over the Rhine’s Love and Revelation, an assured collection of songs that extend their unmatched legacy of finding grace notes amidst heartache and grief. Capping a trilogy of fine albums released in the 2010s, Love and Revelation handles deep melancholy with a gentle touch, sounding as comfortable and as lived-in as anything the band has made. It emanates empathy, voiced with a career-best, slow-burn turn from singer Karin Bergquist. Some will tell you this is the most accomplished Over the Rhine album yet… but at this point, it’s madness to think you could pick just one.

  1. Songs of Our Native Daughters | Our Native Daughters
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What’s more miraculous: The one of the year’s most celebrated Americana/roots albums features four black women unflinchingly bearing witness to the historic and ongoing consequences of the Atlantic slave trade? Or that, impossibly, the album wrests moments of defiant joy and hard-won hope from the bleakest of circumstances? Noble and necessary work; deeper and richer than you’d think possible; abounding in knowledge, but most noteworthy for its wisdom.

  1. My Finest Work Yet | Andrew Bird
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As advertised. Bird levels his natural affinity for whimsy at our grim national mood and pervading sense of discord, whistling, crooning, and plucking his way through songs that shun self-satisfied rage in favor of the hard work of neighborly love and bridge-building. It’s as funny and strange as any Bird record, but also earnest and direct in ways he seldom allows himself to be. “This ain’t no archipelago,” one song concludes; a reminder, even in these tribalized days, that none of us are islands.

  1. Father of the Bride | Vampire Weekend
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Ennobles all the tiredest cliches about classic “double albums”— how its charm is in its sprawl, how minor songs contextualize major ones, how the discursions reinforce key themes. Validates the pleasures of pure studio craft as surely as any album from Steely Dan or Fleetwood Mac, offering endless textures and tiny details to get lost in. Justifies its Bible references and elder-millennial hand-wringing with a dazed portrait of privilege and malaise. There’s a lot going on here, and it rewards whatever investment of time and attention you care to make.

  1. Breakdown on 20th Ave. South | Buddy & Julie Miller
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Decidedly not a breakup album. What it is is a reminder of marriage’s high stakes, the need for daily engagement and attentiveness, the gravity of love and the requirement of self-sacrifice. The mere existence of a new Buddy and Julie album is one of 2019’s happiest tidings, and it would be enough if all they gave us were those sweet harmonies, the deep blues of Buddy’s guitar, the ramshackle bedroom production. All the better that the Millers offer songs of such pungent emotion, bruised humor, persuasive sweetness, and hard-won wisdom.

  1. Wildcard | Miranda Lambert
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It’s possible that we all know a little too much about Miranda Lambert; that we’ve gleaned too many personal details from the tabloids, read a little too much into some of her songs. You’d understand if she wanted to grouse about the high cost of fame, but instead Wildcard uses her public persona advantageously, flipping her storied track record into a statement of dogged perseverance and fire-forged optimism. It’s an instant classic for so many reasons: For how it plays with meta-narrative, for its great jokes, for being the best-sounding and most appealingly-textured Miranda album yet, but more than anything because she is self-evidently the greatest voice in country music, and she’s never sounded better. 

  1. there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens
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A luminous take on “world” music? An earthy version of a “standards” repertoire? A borderless companion piece to the landmark Allen Toussaint/Joe Henry collaborations? Gidden’s third and finest record under her own name is all of that, plus a mesmerizing act of compatibility with multi-instrumentalist Franseco Turrisi. But mostly, it’s a celebration of some of our best conduits for connection: A shared love of musical instruments; songs that transcend culture; the grain of the human voice; a commitment to radical neighborliness in all its forms.

  1. Lover | Taylor Swift
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Probably not controversial: Taylor Swift is one of the four or five more consequential pop musicians of the past decade. Highly controversial: Lover is her most assured and rewarding album, pulling together threads from her country roots and her imperial era into a record bursting at the seams with energy and imagination. Following the defensiveness of reputation, its most noteworthy attributes might be its bright hues and its open-hearted, generous outlook. It is also a showcase for Swift the singer, delighting in different voices and styles. Would be an Album of the Year contender if only for the churning anguish in “Cruel Summer,” the romantic ambiance of “Lover,” or “False God” and its argument for earthly love as a spiritual discipline. But the best song is “Paper Rings,” the year’s most potent burst of pure joy.

  1. LEGACY! LEGACY! | Jamila Woods
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“My ancestors watch me,” confides Jamila Woods on her sleek and purposeful second album. Ancestry is the guiding principle in these songs, and Woods apprehends it not as something confined to a history book or a genetics test so much as an animating force that dwells inside her; each song summons the spirit of a luminary influence, whether Eartha Kitt or Muddy Waters or Octavia Butler, and Woods taps into their lived experiences to navigate the complexities of righteous anger, generational trauma, and creative autonomy. Her writing is bruised and courageous, often at the same time, and reaches a cathartic apex in “BALDWIN,” in which she dares to love even her enemies and her persecutors. A font of wisdom, and every song’s a banger.

  1. Ghosteen | Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
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You won’t hear Nick Cave sing the words dead or death anywhere in Ghosteen, the first album he wrote following the tragic death of his teenage son. But you may notice just how frequently he uses the word love, a clue to what these wrenching reflections are all about: Bonds that outlast physical frames, affections that reach past the grave. Ghosteen is quiet, reflective, meditative in its pacing, and largely drumless; it’s haunted by images of a suffering Christ, the Jesus of the disinherited. And yet it’s never the downer you might expect it to be: In his grief, Cave connects to a deep reservoir of empathy, and much of Ghosteen is concerned with how the experience of loss binds us together. All of this is expressed through sharp-cut songwriting jewels, by turns impressionistic, surreal, confessional, and allegorical. 

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

“Come the turn of story, come the moving floor,” goes one song from the 15th Joe Henry album, the first released after a personal health crisis that pulled the rug out from under him. It’s not the only song on The Gospel According to Water to be set against uncertain terrain; while it’s reductive to call this an album about mortality, it’s true enough to say that it’s an album uniquely concerned with the question of how any of us are to carry on in a world where things fall apart, moth and rust destroy, and big shoes drop all the time. The answer posited here is one of radical acceptance: The Gospel According to Water surrenders solid ground and instead aligns itself to the experiences of loss and uncertainty that we all share. It is a masterpiece of poetry: Henry is virtually unmatched at writing songs that scan as stand-alone verse, and this is the full flourishing and refinement of his lyrical gift. And, it is his most melodically robust album; half of these songs sound like they ought to be standards, the other half ancient folk songs. Altogether, it is a wise and consoling friend; a balm for anyone who’s ever felt their footing falter.

The Heart Off Guard: Joe Henry holds on to his hat

the gospel according to water review

Joe Henry provides us with countless invaluable images across his new album, The Gospel According to Water. One of the most poignant is a scene from the title song, where the narrator sits at his windowsill and watches a procession of people parade by; each keeps their hat clutched tightly in hand, guarding against the fitful squall they know must come sooner or later. Henry takes it all in from behind a pane of glass, and sings with the quiet authority of a man who knows what it’s like to have the hat blown off his head. The Gospel According to Water is the 15th Joe Henry album, expanding a rich catalog of songs that reckon with blustery weather by all its various names— cruel fate, ravenous time, fickle providence, the slipstream of mystery. It is also the first Joe Henry album to arrive following a blindsiding cancer diagnosis late last year, each of these 13 songs written in the aftermath of the big shoe’s drop. A cruder man might say that shit’s gotten real, but with Henry there is always a deep reserve of eloquence. “Shadows lead us onward/ the darkness still at play,” he offers in a song called “Mule.” He’s been writing for years about how the dark itself proves a guiding light, how struggle is the mustard seed from which hope springs— and now he’s left with no choice but to believe it. Perhaps it is right to say that these new songs are similar in kind but different in clarity to the songs that came before them; that they hover over familiar concerns but exert a new kind of gravity. They’re songs forged in the refiner’s fire. They’re the sound of rubber meeting the road.

Refinement is a good way to think of this album, though that’s more a matter of happenstance than intention. The entirety of The Gospel According to Water was recorded quick-and-dirty in just two days’ time, initially meant to be a data dump for Henry’s publisher. It wasn’t until he listened back that Henry realized the lucidity with which these recordings speak, the lack of any need for additional polish. They are released here more or less as-is, though anyone expecting the jagged edges of, say, Springsteen’s Nebraska will want to check their assumptions at the door: These songs are beautiful and deep, autumnal in their tone and unhurried in their pace, and they all sound crisp, clean, and complete. The biggest tell to the serendipitous nature of these sessions is the absence of drummer Jay Bellerose, long a fixture of the Joe Henry players; you won’t hear any of his rolling thunder here, but you will hear fleet-fingered acoustic guitar lines from Henry and from John Smith; sparkling piano work from Patrick Warren; understated melodies from reed man Levon Henry, whose smoky sax and clarinet wind through a handful of songs. On two selections, you’ll hear harmonies from the unassailable Birds of Chicago, summoning rapturous soul. There is some of the same loose, brambly spirit that characterized Henry’s previous record, 2017’s feral Thrum, but this one is decidedly less prickly and more serene; the kind of quiet that commands active attention and full engagement.

Ever since Reverie, Henry’s songwriting has moved further from folk traditions and closer to poetic ones, meaning his lyrics aren’t necessarily linear so much as they are impressionistic. The Gospel According to Water feels like a purification of that approach; indeed, there may be no songwriter currently working whose lyrics work as well as standalone poetry (maybe Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission), and Gospel is the rare album that may be best experienced by reading along with the words, where you can see them arranged on the page in neat stanzas. Consider the tidy couplets in “Green of the Afternoon,” which the novelist Colum McCann rightly situates in the mystic lineage of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

I mean to sing of love that goes uncured–
You come to me and silence every word;
You come to me and silence every word…
But what goes unspoken may not go unheard

Henry understands the formal power in such tight, carefully structured writing, which might explain his ongoing allegiance to standards. At least since Scar he’s written songs that sound like tattered pages from the Great American Songbook, and The Gospel According to Water includes some of his most desolate, his most melodically robust. “Famine Walk,” the spindly album opener, sounds like a wee small hours confession from some alternate-universe Frank Sinatra, laid low by grievous loss, hollowed out by a few too many things that didn’t go his way. The sighing “Gates of Prayer Cemetery #2,” with a wistful moan from Levon, could pass as nightclub fodder from the world of Jim Jarmush’s zombie movie (“the dead from here, don’t stay dead long”). But the album’s most distinctive feat of songwriting is “Orson Welles,” a character sketch that belongs in the category with Henry’s previous songs to Richard Pryor and Charlie Parker. This form is associated with Henry in the same way that blue-collar malaise is associated with Springsteen, sexy Bible stories with Leonard Cohen, triple-decker puns with Elvis Costello; his song for Welles isn’t Wikipedia-style recitation but a tender, first-person reckoning with a man who ascended too high and too quickly, and now must make peace with inevitable decline (“if you provide the terms of my surrender, I’ll provide the war”).

There is enormous temptation to consider the album solely in light of its backstory, to hear it as a “brush with mortality” album along the lines of the latter-day Johnny Cash recordings, perhaps Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. But while the songs here are informed by recent trials, they resist any effort to hear them as songs about cancer, nor even songs about death. The larger concern is living in uncertainty, locating a personal center of gravity in a world where there’s never firm footing to be found; following the shadows as they point toward the light. “How is it we’ve held out through all of these rumbling years/ that rush like the wind from our sails in a tumble of tears?” Henry asks in “The Book of Common Prayer,” and it’s a useful framing question for the songs that surround it. For his part, the narrator in “General Tzu Names the Planets for His Children” ascribes titles to the heavenly bodies that spin ever beyond his reach, telling himself he’s imposed order on a vastness untroubled by the vanity of his decrees. In “Bloom,” the singer imagines time as a couple of freight trains, rumbling past him in either direction; he’s left standing at the station, capturing a moment’s clarity in a tumble of romantic verse.

Several songs in Henry’s Gospel employ the language of religious pilgrimage and devotion, though it’s always with a tacit rejection of anything overly dogmatic. “Not all are saved, not all of us care to be,” he admits in “Green of the Afternoon,” dismissing the idea that peace is found in the grip of assurance, asserting instead a kind of contentment found in the quest itself, a surrender to impermanence and uncertainty. Another white flag is unfurled in “Choir Boy,” the gnarled and off-kilter closing song, which includes the closest thing this album offers to prescriptive advice: “Raise your hands above your head and hold the air/ kick your keys in front of you into grass and leave them there/ surrender everything back to the ground.” Sometimes, surrender isn’t entirely optional. The man in “Famine Walk” speaks to “the heart off guard but ever opened wide,” sounding as though he’s been robbed of anything to cling to save his own trembling vulnerability. (“You’ve gotta get taken for everything to have anything to give,” an Over the Rhine song counsels.)

The true Gospel religion is ratified in “The Book of Common Prayer,” where all of us are bound together in acknowledgement of “love and the breach it repairs.” With any luck, a copy of this record will find its way into the hands of Nick Cave, who, following the tragic death of his teenage son, spoke about loss as a catalyst for radical openness, empathy, and zeal for human connection. Like Cave’s Ghosteen, Henry’s album reckons with private catastrophes but refuses isolation; its woundedness points toward the grace and understanding we owe one another, and to how we find our bearings not in relation to the shifting ground but to the neighbors reeling and scrambling alongside us. “In Time for Tomorrow,” ravishing pastoral folk, sounds like a word of resolve from two lovers whose intention is to put their season of bereavement behind, no matter what circumstance dictates. And “The Fact of Love,” so big and dramatic one’s tempted to call it a power ballad, casts its eye to an uncertain horizon before doubling down on love’s invitation here and now. “The hour now is hanging free/ and the stars are still above our heads,” sings Henry. How’s that for good news?

Beyond Boundaries: The radical neighborliness of Rhiannon Giddens

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There’s a righteous word for the third Rhiannon Giddens album, made available to us by the Anglican priest Oliver O’Donovan. Litigating the ethical demands of Jesus Christ, O’Donovan writes, “Xenophilia has been commanded us: the neighbor whom we are to love is the foreigner whom we encounter on the road.” That same spirit of xenophilia emanates from there is no Other, nothing if not an exercise in radical neighborliness. Your first clue is the album title (including its stylized capitalization), a declarative statement with an attending moral imperative: Giddens conceived the album as a rebuke to othering, which tells us to fear the sidelined Samaritan, the wayfaring stranger, the alien and the immigrant in our midst; to apprehend their humanity as discrete from our own, if indeed we acknowledge it at all. Xenophilia offers no quarter for such separations, requiring not just that we affirm humanity when we see it but that we actively seek ways to esteem it. It asks us to maximize our moral bandwidth, perceiving every person we encounter as a neighbor to be welcomed and embraced. That’s a tall order, but Giddens’ album rises to the occasion, never preaching its point but proving it both formally and aesthetically. There is no Other amounts to an oral history of the cosmic neighborhood we share together, pieced together from porous and borderless folk traditions, sounds and cultures that bleed into one another, roots that run deep and in perpetual entanglement.  These songs come from street corners and mountain hollers, from juke joints and royal opera halls. They revel in the overlap of regional vernaculars, standing in defiance of taxonomy and hierarchy. They offer a multitude of ancient and not-so-ancient witnesses, attesting to the interconnectedness of human experience.

Giddens made the record with Italian virtuoso Francesco Turrisi, whose piano, accordion, and hand percussion accompany her array of stringed instruments; on four songs, they are joined by Kate Ellis on cello and viola. There are historic links between the folk instruments employed, and deep connections between the American and Mediterranean idioms they articulate, but you don’t have to be a musicologist to pick up on the spirit of fluidity and cultural cross-pollination; indeed, what’s always made Giddens so effective as a folklorist is that she values ancient texts not for their amber preserve, but for their mutability. “Gonna Write Me a Letter” is an old bluegrass rag, here dominated by Turrisi’s clamorous frame drum; the song’s cast in a low-end rumble that feels closer to the speaker-shaking dynamics of hip-hop than to the high-and-lonesome key of a string band. That same jostling physicality can be heard on “Pizzica di San Vito,” a buoyant dance number performed here with locomotive momentum, Giddens bouncing crisp Italian syllables off one another as Turrisi’s jangling percussion provides rattle and thrum. That’s not the only song that leans on Giddens’ apprenticeship in the opera; she sings everything here with magisterial command and regal phrasing, not least a couple of actual opera tunes. The famous “Black Swan” aria sounds less like a theater piece than a weird backwoods fairy tale, ominous and grim, while “Trees on the Mountain,” from Floyd Carlisle’s Susannah, transmutes the flair of the theater into the dusty plainspeak of folk music. Such boundaryless invention abounds on there is no Other, where Giddens and Turrisi rough up their classical music with the gutter panache of rock and roll, cast Appalachian tunes with a Middle Eastern canter, bathe jigs and rambles in a mystic glow, and make show tunes sound raucous and earthy. It’s no surprise at all that the album sessions were overseen by producer Joe Henry, unparalleled as a wayfinder along the haunted back roads of folk tradition; indeed, the most helpful antecedents for this record might be The Bright Mississippi and American Tunes, a pair of uncircumscribed reckonings with jazz-as-folklore that Henry made with Allen Toussaint, the latter album enhanced by two show-stopping vocal assists from Giddens herself.

The revelation in all of this is that songs and folk grammars are bridges to one another, entryways and corridors in the neighborhood we inhabit; that there’s ultimately no such thing as island or isolation. (“This ain’t no archipelago,” Andrew Bird might hasten to add.) Giddens makes that point explicit in her original “Ten Thousand Voices,” a dirge that drones and swirls like Arabic music and introduces the album with a web of mutuality; the songs we sing and stories we tell are but pieces of a larger mosaic, it suggests. A few of these songs present us with immigrant encounters. Another original, “I’m on My Way,” has a co-writing credit from Henry; it’s a vagabond’s clanging blues, finding meaning in the journey even as the destination remains unsure. (“I’ve only got the taste for something sweet as time/ Not bottled on the table but still hanging on the vine.”) Giddens also sings the standard “Wayfaring Stranger,” long the anthem of pilgrims making progress, here rising from the steady pluck of a minstrel banjo to the misty splendor of Turrisi’s accordion. It would almost be perplexing if this album didn’t have a song or two associated with Nina Simone, still the patron saint and north star for any artist whose aim is to evade being captured by category, and a thumping take on “Brown Baby” feels like the record’s linchpin; it’s the plea of a mother who hopes to leave her child with a better world, when the only inheritance she can really offer is the song itself, ratified anew by one generation after another. A pair of instrumentals speak volumes, in particular Giddens’ title track, where banjo and frame drum sparkle with symbiosis, completing each other’s sentences. And in “He Will See You Through,” the closing hymn of perseverance and preservation, Giddens does for church music what she does elsewhere for opera, stripping it of ritual to reveal the emotional utility and ancient wisdom at its core.

Indeed, maybe ancient wisdom is another helpful way of receiving this record. Describing the culture of America in the 1960s, Joan Didion wrote that it was a time when “no one at all seemed to have any memory or mooring.” It’s hard to imagine a markedly improved prognosis today, but there is no Other offers grounding and connection; to a birthright of songs that exist beyond boundaries, and to the only neighborhood in which such songs could ever grow.

The Light of All We’ve Lost: Over the Rhine gets taken for everything

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The first thing you should know about Over the Rhine: All their favorite people are broken. They’ve spent the last decade closing most of their concerts with a song proclaiming as much, and on Love & Revelation— the first new Over the Rhine collection in close to six years— the prognosis doesn’t seem markedly improved. “I can fix anything except for me,” sings Karin Bergquist on the rough and tumble opener, “Los Lunas,” and what follows is a tender, album-length meditation on all things unfixable— broken love, crumbled empires, breached faith, bodies plundered by sickness and death. Love & Revelation is an album buffeted by trials, hounded by loss, stricken by a grim national mood; to the band’s enormous credit, it’s also unflinching and unsentimental. The wisdom of this record is how it chooses to abide sorrow, sitting with it, letting it linger; the aim isn’t to wallow but to acknowledge, to speak pain out loud, perhaps to be surprised by joy and healing. It’s an approach that bears fruit, as these songs are alit with moments of grace. “Is it sacrilegious dancing in the light of all we’ve lost?” Bergquist wonders on “May God Love You (Like You’ve Never Been Loved),” the album’s hushed denouement. After 30 years praising the mutilated world, Over the Rhine knows good and well that irrevocable loss is part of the deal; what they have to offer is the small mercy of bearing a terminal diagnosis together, perhaps even holding their hand out and offering a steady sway.

A second thing to know about Over the Rhine is that they are specialists. With a few charmingly offbeat exceptions— the Technicolor dreams of Films for Radio, the buoyant brass in The Trumpet Child— they make records hallowed with slow, sad songs. The gamble of this self-produced album is that it leans into that aesthetic perhaps more than any other Over the Rhine record. That’s a feature, not a bug, and what you’re hearing is familiarity, not formula. Some of these songs they’ve been stretching out in their live concerts for years, and the resulting recordings feel as comfortable and lived-in as a favorite pair of blue jeans, all the stiffness long worn away. It’s not hard to imagine an embryonic version of “Los Lunas” that was tighter and stiffer in its spiked country-rock; the version here doesn’t rock so much as it rolls, its dusty drawl assured and endlessly appealing.

Though Over the Rhine has long pared down to the central chemistry of Bergquist and husband Linford Detweiler, this marks their third record in a row supported by their Band of Sweethearts posse— synergistic studio pros Jay Bellerose (drums), Jennifer Condos (bass), Patrick Warren (keys), and multi-purpose guitar heroes Greg Leisz and Bradley Meinerding. Sensei Joe Henry, the original convener of the Sweethearts, is absent in body but present in spirit, and it’s to him that the album’s title is attributed. Detweiler’s piano, the anchor of so many classic Over the Rhine records, largely cedes the spotlight to the quiver and thrum of the guitars, which fill these lonely rooms with whispered memory and ghostly glimmers. You can practically feel those ghosts roaming through you on the spectral “Given Road,” where the pedal steel’s high-and-lonesome moan sends shivers and chill bumps. “Making Pictures”— the photo negative to Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome”— comes on as warm and gentle as spring’s thaw, while “Rocking Chair” lives up to its title with an easygoing front-porch gait. These songs are crafted so carefully and played with such gentleness and affection they sound like lost Over the Rhine classics, and Bergquist—with so many show-stopping vocal pyrotechnics already on her resume—mostly sticks to small gestures, quiet blues, magnetic intimacy; she’s the low-key MVP. There are some winsome surprises on offer, too: Detweiler and Bergquist blend their voices with sumptuous strings on “Let You Down,” wistful pop that’s as consoling as a favorite afghan. The title cut, where Bergquist sings over a cool rumble from Bellerose and Condos, hints at an alternate universe where Over the Rhine made it big as a drum n’ bass duo.

“Love & Revelation” is an outlier in another way, too: Amidst songs of experience, it sounds more like a song of resistance, Bergquist pledging her sedition from a semi-automatic Jesus (“they’d arm him to the teeth, but that’s not my belief”). The song suggests waywardness among the Good Shepherd’s sheep, making it an effective keynote for a record about holy and consecrated things gone to spoil—covenants broken, the human frame ravaged by time. Time does what it does on “Leavin’ Days,” and Bergquist lodges a psalm of lament born from saying one too many goodbyes (“I don’t like these leavin’ days”). Grief hangs heavy over “Given Road” (“I just miss the one that loved me”) and “Broken Angels” (“I want to take a break from heartache/ drive away from all the tears I’ve cried”), while “Let You Down” wrestles with things falling apart (“everything feels lost/ so lost it never can be found”). Bergquist cries a trail of tears on “Los Lunas,” a goodbye that’s wry with both acceptance (“one of us had to be gone”) and regret (“should’ve moved to Pasadena when we had the chance”).

These songs are plainspoken in their sorrow, but there is a third thing you should know about Over the Rhine: While they’ve never promised the leavin’ days weren’t going to come, they have long emphasized that none of us have to face them alone. They ratify their fellowship and solidarity again on Love & Revelation, tapping into a deep reserve of empathy that only comes through years of paying dues and saying goodbyes. “You can bet I’ll stick around,” offers Detweiler on “Let You Down,” and it’s a commitment made with eyes fully open; there are no delusions here about just how deep in the shit you can be. But if Over the Rhine’s body of work proves anything, it’s that deep shit can be a conduit for amazing grace; the album’s other Detweiler-led song, “Betting on the Muse,” unpacks the artist’s toolbox for turning darkness into light. Here’s what you’ll need: Eyes open to “all this blinding beauty” around you, a capacity for astonishment, a childlike sense of wonder, the laughter of recognition, and strength enough to weather whatever drubbings come your way. (“You’ve got to get taken for everything/ to have anything to give,” Detweiler notes; is this the opposite of Bono’s truism that “every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief?”). Meanwhile, in “Making Pictures,” Bergquist pledges that “nothing goes unseen”—a reminder, perhaps, that pain isn’t wasted and everything exists within the scope of redemption. (Amy Helm paraphrase: “This too shall light.”) The album wraps up with a pronouncement of blessing, a frayed and whispered Detweiler composition called “May God Love You (“Like You’ve Never Been Loved).” It’s a bruised benediction for Over the Rhine’s favorite people: “We’re not curable, but we’re treatable/ and that’s why I still sing,” confesses Bergquist. So maybe Love & Revelation isn’t going to fix what’s broken; but at the very least, it finds some light in all we’ve lost.

Classics in the Right Way: 25 favorite albums from 2018

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A few things you’ll see on my list of 25 favorite records from 2018: Roughly 16 selections by women, depending on how you want to classify husband-wife duos. Four official debuts, but also a number of accomplished works by seasoned pros. Numerous albums that carve out a space between tradition and progression, upholding lineage while pointing to the future. And, in these fractious times, several albums that embrace joy as a matter of intention—choosing a hopeful countenance even when circumstances point in the opposite direction.

Some critics have posited that the album format is in its dying days, to be replaced by playlists and data dumps. Maybe so, but all 25 albums on this list exist as cohesive, self-contained bodies of work, their songs in dialogue with each other, their sequencing precise and important.

I could have listed as few as 10 or as many as 100—and next week, I’ll augment this core 25 with some honorable mentions, some favorite re-issues and archival music, and more. For now, these are all albums that I’ve enjoyed enormously and recommend whole-heartedly.

25. Beyondless | Iceage
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Majestic and menacing, Beyondless reckons with the legacy of rock and roll’s golden era without anything resembling slavish devotion. Packed to the gills with riffs, rhythms, sound effects, and gallows humor, it’s the year’s most unpredictable rock album. The songs chronicle depravity, but from the abattoir of Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s imagination there springs florid storytelling and impressionistic poetry.

24. Between Two Shores | Glen Hansard
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For his strongest solo collection yet, the erstwhile Frames/Swell Season frontman casually intermingles autumnal folk, heartland rock, and luminous jazz for an album as familiar and comforting as a favorite afghan—or perhaps a favorite Nick Drake record. It takes the tone of a consoling friend, promising us that time will sort out all our grief eventually—and until then, there’s nothing wrong with having a good, long cry.

23. Ventriloquism | Meshell Ndegeocello
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On Ventriloquism, a jukebox record of 80s and 90s R&B hits, Meshell Ndegeocello offers a multi-layered treatise on personal canon. Playing songs largely penned by women and/or people of color, Ndegeocello swaps featherweight synths for rustic folk flourishes and live-band funk—signifiers of respectability for songs that warranted our respect all along. They refract deeper issues of genre, gender, and identity—a covers record as aesthetic argument and stylistic manifesto.

 22. Invasion of Privacy | Cardi B
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“Is she a stripper, a rapper, or singer?” asks Cardi B on a debut album that suggests she’s all these things and more, an envelope-pusher and category-killer whose identity can only ever be all of the above. The big surprises here are how rooted she is in hip-hop orthodoxy, but also how much room to roam she finds within traditional frameworks: Invasion of Privacy bursts at the seams with flows, beats, jokes, vulgarity, empowerment, and defiant autobiography. A rags-to-riches blockbuster for the ages.

21. Room 25 | Noname
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Poet-turned-rapper Fatimah Warner—aka Noname—pours forth speech, joking and tongue-twisting and free-associating a dense web of language where everything, including her black life, matters. Her proper debut, following the radiant Telefone mixtape, is sleek and assured, an album that’s at once precise and all-encompassing.

20. Cusp | Alela Diane
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You wouldn’t even need the fingers on two hands to count the great albums about motherhood, a list to which Cusp immediately belongs. But that’s not the only thing singer/songwriter Alela Diane has on her mind: She uses the particulars of being a mom to wrestle with the broader topic of becoming, how a day or a season in our life can be a threshold for personal change, a catalyst for transformation. Her songs are presented in warm, clean arrangements, their straight lines contrasting with the deep mysteries contained within.

19. See You Around | I’m With Her
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A trio comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, I’m With Her is about the super-est group imaginable in today’s acoustic scene, and they betray subtle virtuosity throughout their debut album. See You Around reflects a worldview that’s respectful of folk and bluegrass traditions without ever being beholden to them, and the songs are similarly restless, full of characters seeking solid ground through seasons of tumult and transition.

18. Be the Cowboy | Mitski
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Mitski’s songs sparkle with clean pop perfection; her easeful way with melody may remind you of Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, or even Paul McCartney. She spikes those buoyant tunes with lyrics of quiet desperation. Each song on Be the Cowboy glimpses either an unattainable future or an irretrievable past—alternate realities where, for all these characters know, everything worked out just fine.

17. 13 Rivers | Richard Thompson
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One of our top-tier shredders makes a blessed return to electric mayhem on an album that’s as muscular and direct as any in his corpus. Thompson’s songs don’t so much rage at the dying light as they wrestle with the darkness in his own soul—“the rattle within,” as one song memorably phrases it. The result is a prickly masterwork, a discontented opus from a guru working at his peak.

16. Isolation | Kali Uchis
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On her luminous debut, the Brazilian singer flits from steely hip-hop to dingy New Wave to coy bossa nova; a couple of retro R&B numbers show how easy it would have been for her to fashion this album as a diva’s showcase and a soul revue, but Uchis is far too restless to live in the past. So she’s given us a pancultural pop showstopper that functions as a declaration of independence; her lyrics, about the cost of freedom, remind us that independence and isolation can be two sides of the same coin.

15. Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 | Low Cut Connie
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Listen beyond the buzz saw guitars, the pounding pianos, and the relentless kick drums and you’ll hear a bar band of startling sophistication, their brashness and bravado belying depth and sturdy craftsmanship. Or, just pump your fist in the air and get swept along in their crackling, unostentatious energy. A near-perfect jolt of pure rock and roll, Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 is by turns wounded, vulgar, earnest, and hysterical.

14. SASSAFRASS! | Tami Neilson
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One of the year’s most classicist country albums also happens to be one of its most colorful—at times bordering on being outright bonkers. Neilson tucks into haunted Appalachian ballads, brassy R&B, swaying nightclub reveries, even Vegas-style showstoppers; sometimes she plays it straight, sometimes she revels in double entendres and caustic humor. Throughout, she proves herself a singer of redoubtable power and control, and a writer whose wit is eclipsed only by her compassion.

13. World on Sticks | Sam Phillips
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Sam Phillips is one of pop’s most daring and resilient excavators; she’s made a career off of digging deep for truth and beauty, and on World on Sticks she rummages through the trash and ephemera of a culture given over to hollow materialism. Fortunately, she is also one of our most gifted melodists, and here powers her elastic tunes with thunderous drums, luxuriant string arrangements, and thrumming electric guitars.

12. Time & Space | Turnstile
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A document of bruising physicality but also big ideas, Time & Space is a galvanizing punk album that jostles with riffs, banshee wails, and headbanging fury. It also nods at Chess Records, branches into pure pop, and augments its hardcore wails with sophisticated harmonies. Diplo shows up to add weird keyboard effects, and it’s not even one of the top 10 most surprising moments on the album. Which is, incidentally, just 23 minutes long, every second packed with white-knuckled exhilaration.

11. Sparrow | Ashley Monroe
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Monroe, a country singer from Knoxville, Tennessee, has a legitimate claim to 2018’s MVP title; look for her name to show up again on an even higher entry. For Sparrow, Monroe proves once again that she’s unequaled at reimagining country roots and traditions for the present day. Awash with strings, it’s a colorful update on the classic “countrypolitan” sound, its lush orchestrations illuminating the contours of her internal monologues and emotional remembrances.

10. Love in Wartime | Birds of Chicago
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The warmest, most humanistic of bands cranks up the electricity for this rangy and roaming opus, jolting their gospel harmonies and brambly folk with punchy rock and roll vigor. While their previous album presaged “real midnight,” this one supposes that it’s already come and gone, and beckons us to pick up the pieces. The whole record plays out like a swift kick in the ass for anyone who thinks they have the luxury of complacency; in a dispiriting year, it was a lighthouse, an oasis, and a life preserver.

09. Thelonious Sphere Monk | MAST
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The worst possible way to celebrate the skewed genius of Thelonious Monk would be with an overly reverent tribute album—and this songbook record by Tim Conley, aka MAST, never even comes close. Instead, he chops, screws, and bedazzles beloved Monk classics, dressing them up with bells and whistles, augmenting them with lurching hip-hop beats, kicking them down a flight of stairs and then ultimately setting fire to them via a crackling live band. The result qualifies as the year’s most bewitching jazz and its most immersive electronica—an album that uses the past as a jumping off point for boundless imagination.

08. This Too Shall Light | Amy Helm
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An exercise in community and a testament to the redemptive act of singing, This Too Shall Light features songs of joy and sorrow, lifted up in smudged harmony by Helm and her troupe of harmony singers, Birds of Chicago among them. The songs come from disparate sources—Allen Toussaint, T-Bone Burnett, The Milk Carton Kids, even Rod Stewart’s immortal “Mandolin Wind” is here—and Helm brings confidence and grace to each one. She is one of our great soul singers, and here she proves herself to be both a keeper of the flame for her father’s legacy and an able blazer of her own new trails.

07. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 | Black Thought & Salaam Remi
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In 2018, no rapper had harder bars than Black Thought, an all-timer who’s just beginning to get his due. For his second solo joint of the year, he offers a head-spinning and endlessly quotable feast of language, nimbly pivoting from self-aggrandizement to sociopolitical arguments to stirring endorsements of the steel-driving work ethic he embodies. Producer Salaam Remi creates warm, funky environments, drawn largely form blaxploitation tropes, giving this GOAT candidate the regal adornment he’s always deserved. Old-head rap executed with such flair, it sounds less like the past than a whole new wave.

06. Historian | Lucy Dacus
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For her second solo album, singer/songwriter/shredder/boygenius member Lucy Dacus writes about romantic dissolution and human frailty—but always from a therapeutic remove: It’s not a break-up album or a death album so much as an album about the stories we tell, the way we make sense of tragedies, the role we play in curating one another’s history. These masterful songs—pitched between emotional acuity and writerly sophistication—are paired to sleek rock arrangements that soar, grind, and erupt as needed.

05. All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do | The Milk Carton Kids
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On their first album to feature outside musicians, the folksy duo conjures a loose, borderless Americana that recalls such inclusionary classics as The Basement Tapes and Willie Nelson’s Stardust—all the while retaining the whimsy, melancholy, and close harmonies that make them The Milk Carton Kids. The songs reflect dissolution: Sometimes they’re about wayward nations, sometimes they’re about faithless lovers, and sometimes it seems like it might be a little of both. Like Amy Helm’s record, it was produced by Joe Henry, enjoying a banner year.

04. Honey | Robyn
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In her alluring new suite of songs, recalcitrant Swedish pop star Robyn journeys through heartache, memory, self-inventory, and in the end, defiant hope. She’s always walked a fine line between steeliness and vulnerability, but none of her albums tremble quite like Honey, which features some of her most cracked vocals, her most porous song structures, and her most lovelorn lyrics. It adds up to an immersive song cycle that washes over you, waves of sorrow followed by waves of cathartic joy.

03. Look Now | Elvis Costello & The Imposters
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Has everything you might want in an Elvis Costello album—unless all you want is loud guitars and paranoid songs about girls, in which case there’s just no helping you. Intricate and tuneful, ornate and direct, Look Now consolidates decades of tutelage in pop songcraft; it has the confidence of a master but the exuberance of a young buck. Its songs—all richly empathetic, most about or from the perspective of women—make it the year’s most rewarding album by a dude.

02. Interstate Gospel | Pistol Annies

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Finding solidarity in songs of divorce, depression, and quiet desperation, the Pistol Annies emerge with their wisest and funniest album yet. The one thing Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley don’t know how to do is sugarcoat, and Interstate Gospel is bracing for its candor—yet its emotional directness is channeled through childhood remembrances, archetypes, saloon soliloquies, and randy rock and roll; meanwhile, the outlaw dreams of their first couple of albums have blossomed into a more sophisticated American roots milieu, one that’s grounded in tradition but refracted through modernity. In the middle of the worst of it, they’ve made an album that reflects the best in each of them.

01. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
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Festooned though it may be with disco balls and kaleidoscopic sound effects, Golden Hour is a country album through and through. You can hear it in the air, the empty space between Musgraves’ words; and you can hear it in the words themselves, plainspoken even when they’re clever. They’re not clever quite as often as they were on Musgraves’ fine earlier albums—which, it turns out, is perfectly fine. She’s toned down her impish wit for songs of disarming sincerity, perfectly wed to a colorful production palette so visceral, you can almost feel this music on your skin. Musgraves is still enough of a cynic to question her own right to be happy and to wonder when the other shoe’s gonna drop, yet what dazzles the most about Golden Hour is its sense of awe: Inspired by her new marriage, Musgraves is seduced by hope, surprised by joy, and bowled over by a world of marvels beyond anything she could have imagined. It’s an album about grown-up love and childlike wonder, and a vision of country music as something timeless, borderless, consoling, and fun.

Every Moment to the Letter: Amy Helm sheds light

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The phrase, as you’ve probably heard it, is “this too shall pass”—a promise that hardship is fleeting and trials last only for a season. On a ravishing and resplendent new album called This Too Shall Light, Amy Helm dreams a deeper redemption. Supported by a ragged troupe of harmony singers, she lifts up 10 songs of heartache and grieving, world-weariness and weathered hope. With voices smeared together in messy, unkempt community, Helm and her crew turn private sorrows into shared experiences. Their premise is that the hard times aren’t just here to be survived, but actually reclaimed; that the whole of our lived reality (“every moment to the letter”) is kindling for joy and catalyst for illumination. Or, if nothing else, as good a reason as any to get together and sing.

This is only the second album Helm has released under her own name, but it reveals the sure-footedness of a veteran. The years and miles she logged with her band Ollabelle are etched into this loose and lived-in set, a community sing-along that casually intermingles gospel, soul, rock, and folk idioms, all of it sparkling with first-take immediacy and the thrill of shared discovery. Helm convened quick, unfussy recording sessions with producer Joe Henry, who’s in the midst of a banner year (see also: Steep Canyon Rangers, Joan Baez, The Milk Carton Kids). It’s a synergistic pairing: Henry has an unbeatable track record in coaxing pantheon-level performances from powerhouse singers, and Helm is one of our best. She can write, too, but here aligns herself with the interpretive singing tradition, and she and Henry connected over songs that are perfectly pitched for achieving the desired tenor of hard-won hopefulness. One wonders how long Henry kept The Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan” in his back pocket before deciding Helm was the right vessel for its desolation and resolve; or how cathartic it was for her to lift up Allen Toussaint’s “Freedom for the Stallion” as a prayer for clarity in an era of murk. The ace in the hole is Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind,” not only because it’s one of the greatest songs of all time nor even because it connects the album to the tattered emotion and earthy romance of Rod’s Every Picture…/Never a Dull Moment prime. It’s the album’s beating heart because of how it sneaks up on you: Its protagonist endures coldest winter and darkest night before being surprised by joy, heartened by love’s durability. It embodies the album’s dogged optimism and tested perseverance.

Henry’s go-to engineering guru, Ryan Freeland, captured these loose sessions in all their rafter-shaking power and clarity. It sounds as immediate and as visceral as any album they’ve made together. You can make out every popped snare and rattled tambourine from Jay Bellerose in crackling detail; follow Jennifer Condos’ limber bass as it snakes through the clamor of voices; get lost in the woolly hum of Tyler Chester’s organ and keys. But in an album about singing as a work of redemption, the harmonists are the ones who come in clutch. They include Adam Minkoff along with—crucially—Allison Russell and JT Nero, better known as Birds of Chicago. The most warmly humanistic of bands, their geniality and deep harmonies color everything they lay a hand to. Helm’s miniature cloud of witnesses imbues even the most hardscrabble songs with the lilt of compassion. Listen to how they sow little eruptions of joy through the tough-as-nails title track, a lithe groove where Doyle Bramhall’s electric guitar squalls fade into snapped fingers. And hear them in “Michigan,” all but underwater in dashed romance and Chester’s organ wash—until the chorus comes, roaring in celebration at the freedom to just belt it at top volume.

Community is a big part of what the album’s about, and Helm’s sense of belonging reaches back beyond what’s visible, encompassing even the ancestors. She’s a keeper of the flame, a singer who holds lineage close to her heart—not least the lineage of her legendary father, Levon Helm. His confederate Robbie Robertson has a writing credit here, as Helm swings and swaggers through a wonderfully sweaty R&B number called “The Stones I Throw,” a relic of Levon & The Hawks’ days lighting up bars. But if Helm is buoyed by heritage, she’s not beholden to it; her aim isn’t to live in the past but to remake it in her own image, something she does on a read of Henry’s song “Odetta” (a literal invocation of the ancestors). The original recording featured a high-stepping gospel piano motif, which here spills its sanctified ebullience all over a boisterous bridge; Helm holds it aloft by her own solemn authority.

This Too Shall Light concludes with two songs that tie it all together. First is T-Bone Burnett’s “River of Love,” haunted when Sam Phillips sang it on her album The Turning but quietly hopeful here; the song sparkles as Helm follows the rivers of grief and struggle, truth and belief back to the origin points, reassured that they were running long before she got here and they’ll keep running long after she leaves. The final song is an acapella read of the traditional “Gloryland,” wonderfully rough and craggy, with an arrangement credit shared between Helm and her father. Here there’s light shed even in death, the true end of suffering and sadness. Those who’ve gone to Heaven shall weep no more, the song promises; and for those of us still breathing, at least we have something to sing about.

Rooted and Restless: Acoustic travelogues from Steep Canyon Rangers, I’m With Her

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American folk music is rife with restlessness; its backroads and byways are well-trod by lonesome hobos and wayfaring strangers; by ramblers, drifters, lovers and leavers. On two new albums, restlessness is both a theme and an aesthetic. Steep Canyon Rangers’ Out in the Open and I’m With Her’s See You Around are both travelogues, full of weary and weathered but ultimately hopeful songs about change, transition, and movin’ on. And, both albums embody roots music idioms while also subtly pushing at the boundaries. These records are respectful of tradition without ever being beholden to it; they are eager to offer an expansive and subtly progressive take on familiar forms.

Few bands have done more to expand bluegrass’ cultural cache than the Rangers, a fleet-fingered North Carolina troupe now well-decorated for their work in support of Steve Martin. Martin doesn’t appear anywhere on Out in the Open, which means there’s more air time for singer/guitar player Woody Platt and singer/banjoist Graham Sharp. It also means there’s room in the fold for another renaissance man, this time producer Joe Henry, who’s got an extensive track record working with artists who both embody and elaborate the grammar of folk music. (Give a listen to his albums with Hayes Carll and Joan Baez, among others.) Henry gives the Rangers room to roam, which happens to be one of the things bluegrass is really great for: On up-tempo songs with locomotive rhythms, the Rangers sound like they’re racing into open horizons, sketching the invisible boundaries of an untamed frontier. “Let Me Out of This Town,” the most locomotive of the bunch, is the jittery confession of a man bursting to escape from small-town monotony, set to a frenzy of banjo notes that sound like a train hellbent on careening off the tracks. Escape isn’t an option for the narrator in “Can’t Get Home,” a deceptively rollicking tune about a soldier imprisoned in his own memories. Songs like these and “Roadside Anthems”—where nimble mandolin work weaves through galloping banjo and loping fiddle—offer familiar bluegrass pyrotechnics, speed and virtuosity in service of melodic purity. Yet there are just as many moments that prove how pliable bluegrass orthodoxy can be. A campfire lullaby called “Going Midwest”—where a man packs his bags and says goodbye to everything he’s ever known—is carried by acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies; it’s spectral and spare, singer/songwriter introspection that recalls no one more than The Milk Carton Kids. The title song, a rickety construction of puffed harmonica and steady-thumping kick drums, is a shambolic delight, sounding like it’s constantly on the verge of collapsing but staying upright through sheer whimsy and will. Its good-natured goofiness is eclipsed only by “Shenandoah Valley,” where the Rangers slow things down considerably for a bit of old-timey soft-shoe, rhapsodizing about a romantic dalliance with the power to stop time.

These are all subtle shake-ups that reveal a musical tradition in constant dialog with itself, in service of songs that grope for solid ground in a world gone topsy-turvy. “Farmers and Pharaohs” is a mirrored hall of romantic regrets, given folksy flourishes by Nicky Sander’s swooping fiddle. “I learned the hard way/ Now it’s too late/ If I could take back that very day,” the song goes, and you hardly need the clause completed: It’s the worst moment of a man’s life, captured in amber, a talisman and a mile-marker born of wisdom and rue. Similarly, “When She Was Mine” tells one of the oldest stories in the world, and it tells it all right there in its title. The ringer in the bunch is “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” a Dylan cast-off-turned-standard, here adorned with mossy harmonies that make it sound ancient. It’s a soldier’s windswept lament; he knows he can’t escape death, but at least he can go out with dignity. He fits in well on Out in the Open, an album that ennobles tradition by leaning into change.

The same could be said of See You Around, the debut album from I’m With Her, just about the super-est group imaginable within today’s acoustic roots scene. A working unit since 2014, the all-ladies band is so named for their embrace of collaboration and camaraderie, values they uphold throughout this ego-free set. The group—Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan—discovered an easy chemistry through back-stage jams at various concert halls and festivals; wrote the lion’s share of their album together, save for a stray Gillian Welch cover; and convened with producer Ethan Johns, who gives the album a clean, spare production—mostly just voice, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle— that leaves them no room to hide. (So unembellished is the production, the introduction of electric fuzz in “I-89” feels just slightly less disruptive than Jack White’s adoption of a bass line in “Seven Nation Army,” all those years ago.) Rather than embalming the album in austerity, though, Johns’ tidiness highlights the band’s sophistication and allure—the melodic precision and emotional acuity in their songs; the casualness with which they blend bluegrass, folk, and country traditions; and the way the three of them only ever sound like one person, whether trading verses or harmonizing together. If the Steep Canyon Rangers are a band built for speed and showmanship, I’m With Her trades in sly seduction—songs that are winsome both in their earthiness and in their seamless virtuosity. Listen to how “Game to Lose” rises from doleful, fiddle-led verses to a hard-strummed, staccato chorus, reminiscent of the progressive string band music Watkins innovated in her Nickel Creek days; or, to the hazy hypnosis in “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree),” a loping and languid tryst that turns southern sultriness into something atmospheric and enticing.

See You Around—its very title suggesting movement and separation—is a scrapbook of stories, many of them involving travel and transition. It’s an appropriately frayed collection, full of loose ends and spritely invention—consider the weightless harmonies that hold “Wild One” aloft, or the easygoing spontaneity of “Waitsfield,” an instrumental rag—yet it also feels like it adds up to something complete, a lifetime of experience and regret, seen from a vantage point that’s clear-eyed without being callous. World-weariness fleshes out even the most archetypical tales: “Overland” is a railroad song that finds relief in the turned page: “Oh I’ve lived through more than I could tell/ I’ve sold all that I could sell/ Finally leaving it behind, goodbye, farewell.” And it’s not the only wayfaring tune here; “I-89,” built from layers of delicate picking and wheezing blues, imagines wanderlust as a survival instinct: “If there was another way out I’d take it/ If there was another way down I’d go.” Feminine agency animates romantic arrangements of all varieties, even as the songs reflect just how much these entanglements change and shape us: “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” is about a dalliance in the orchard, told with just the right blend of discretion and lustiness, while “Close it Down” is about a barroom fling with a married man, one in which both parties see things for what they are, and even extend empathy to the wife who’s back home. And then there’s “Ain’t That Fine,” a song of experience that’s all about accepting mistakes and moving on, told with wistful humor (“I can’t believe the things I put my mother through”) and hard-won contentment (“Some folks have it better/ But oh, we’ve got it good”). There are bruises aplenty here, but I’m With Her never stops to count them: See You Around is concerned with the events that push us forward, not the ones that hold us back; it’s a document of evolution, and the travelogue of pilgrims making progress.

Make Me Another Promise: The Milk Carton Kids sing American tunes

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At 14 words, All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do is an album title calling out for a shorthand. Consider a helpful phrase from the accompanying press release, “waltzing into disaster,” which captures well the album’s spirit of whimsy and foreboding. Its dozen songs, clear-eyed and bruised, reflect an older, more weathered version of The Milk Carton Kids, hobbling forward in the wake of disasters both personal and cultural. It’s an album whose margins are haunted by remembrances of runaway lovers and a nation that’s all but vanished; its narrators still remember how thing used to be, and sigh in the opening lines: “Just look at us now.” And, it’s an album that dreams a highway through the backwoods and byways of American folk song, employing canonical forms for their emotional directness and uncluttered sense of narrative. These are—to borrow another recently-popular title—songs of experience, tattered but true.

The Milk Carton Kids are Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, both of whom play acoustic guitar, sing in close, single-mic harmonies, and dodge comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel (and also Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings) that have never felt quite right; as songwriters, Ryan and Pattengale are engaged with an older school of parlor songs and soft-shoe routines that convey deep melancholy through wistful, romantic melodies. These new songs of experience, all of them originals, are their best work to date, conveying the emotional acuity and formal control of the great American songbook. They are plainspoken, and they contain multitudes. “Mourning in America,” a state of the union in the Rhymin’ Simon vein, reflects political dislocation through street-level detail and a sense of mundane weariness; “You Break My Heart” is a song about every heartbreak, even though it was pretty clearly written about a particular one.

This is the first Milk Carton Kids album to be recorded with outside musicians, and to guide them through this new adventure Ryan and Pattengale enlisted Joe Henry, a producer who’s developed a strong catalog of albums that wring spontaneity and joyful abandon from hallowed folk forms (for examples, see his work with Allen Toussaint, Aaron Neville, or his own recent Thrum). Henry presided over Nashville sessions that brought in a rich cast of supporting players. Levon Henry’s clarinet snakes through the fleet-footed “Younger Years,” while Russ Pahl’s pedal steel sounds like a high-and-lonesome train whistle in the background. Brittany Haas’ fiddle leads off “Big Time,” something like a last waltz crossed with a barn-burning hootenanny. Spectral, lovelorn ballads like “I’ve Been Loving You” have their edges frayed by ghostly piano and steel guitar, while “Blindness,” a haunted house of a song, seems to be dissolving as it plays, an apparition fading back into shadow. There are subtly cinematic effects in every song here, and none as good as the harmonies of the Milk Carton Kids themselves; the genius of this record is how it broadens their scope while maintaining the centrality of their chemistry. It never doesn’t sound like a Milk Carton Kids album.

The result is an album that takes cues from some of the ramshackle myth-making of The Basement Tapes; the well-worn, second-hand Americana of Gram Parsons; the casual virtuosity with which Willie Nelson synthesizes roadhouse roots into something seamless and supple, with Pattengale’s ragged lead guitar ably filling in for Trigger. The album’s centerpiece is “One More for the Road,” an impressionistic epic that stretches Sinatra’s wee-small-hours desolation across the broader canvas of the American frontier, a saloon song by way of a campfire rag.  “Nothing is Real” is weary juke joint R&B, swaying in place to its dawning disillusionment. “Younger Years” recalls the wispy cowboy songs of Marty Robbins, while “You Break My Heart” is a lovelorn standard, thread-bear ruminations from a spectral Cole Porter. “I’ve Been Loving You” marries songbook formalism to country twang so ably, it sounds as though it should have been included on Stardust.

The songs were born of fracture and chaos—break-ups and relocations, health scares and a declining national mood. They sound suitably beleaguered and wary in their evocations of wayward countries and faithless lovers, and it is occasionally hard to tell whether a given line is meant to reflect personal crisis or the broader tragedies unfolding around us. (For that particular synthesis, there remains no better model than Joe Henry’s 2007 album Civilians, a singular songwriting achievement of such elegant and alluring metaphors, it can’t help but be seminal for younger writers like Ryan and Pattengale.) “Just Look at Us Now,” chronicles the curdling of youthful idealism: “We wanted to prove we were something, we were special/ We knew in our hearts we weren’t the only ones,” the song goes, and it could just as easily be a story of fated lovers or of an exceptional empire’s slow crumble. “Make me another promise if you dare,” Ryan sings, hard-won skepticism from someone who’s been through the ringer. “Mourning in America” allows for less ambivalence, capturing a disheartened trudge through an atmosphere of malaise. Later, when Ryan and Pattengale sing “I’ve been loving you all wrong,” it could be either the patriot’s boondoggle or the fool’s sad revelation; either way, they sing it like it’s too little, too late. “Unwinnable War” imagines love as a battlefield, though there’s always the outside chance it’s just about the battlefield as a battlefield; even “Big Time,” ostensibly a party jam, masks a menacing eschatology: “This’ll be the last time/ we’re gonna have a big time.”

These are all familiar lessons from the Songbook, learned anew with each new generation: The times, they change. Things fall apart. We come, in the age’s most uncertain hour, singing American tunes. The Milk Carton Kids end their album with a great one. “All the Things…,” performed by Pattengale with haunting vulnerability, is a divorce song, written from a place of reflection and regret. But for its bridge, the spare arrangement suddenly breaks open into a full-color dream sequence, Ryan joining in and the two of them daring to imagine something like peace and reconciliation. They sound like they know they’re not the first to wake up and find their house in shambles; to lift up a song for better days.

Another Mutilated World: A swan song from Joan Baez

On Whistle Down the Wind, intended as the curtain call of a legendary recording career, Joan Baez says goodbye—all the while acknowledging that it’s never quite that easy. Think of the poet Adam Zagajewski, who exhorts us to “praise the mutilated world.” And think of Mary Oliver, who writes: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” The songs on Whistle Down the Wind are love songs to a mutilated world and a beleaguered humanity, their weariness and valor resonating as much today as they would have at any given point in Baez’ recording life. But love songs they remain: In her trembling read of Anhoni’s “Another World,” a throbbing and delicate album highlight, Baez sounds like she’s stepping onto a train and already regretting her departure; she can’t articulate her search for a better world and a higher plane without rhapsodizing about this one. “I’m gonna miss the birds/ Singing all their songs/ I’m gonna miss the wind/ Been kissing me so long,” she sighs, holding fast to the mortal world in all its ephemerality and imperfection, still the surest thing she’s ever known. Or, as Baez sings on the Tom Waits- and Kathleen Brennan-penned title song: “I can’t stay here and I’m scared to leave.”

Baez has spent her whole life hymning the mutilated world, and mutilated it will remain even once she sings her last. Maybe that’s what she means by titling the album after a gesture of transience; maybe it’s an acknowledgement that, after decades spent singing against war and desolation, she’s ending her recording career with a song called “I Wish the Wars Were Over,” because of course they’re not. But the record’s deep melancholy waters her hard-won hopefulness, weathered and in full bloom: Eliza Gilkyson’s “The Great Correction,” the closest this album gets to a jaunt, imagines the day when the walls of Jericho crumble, a camel passes through the eye of a needle, and the darkest hour gives way at last to dawn. Nobody said any of this would be easy, and so a Josh Ritter composition exhorts us to “Be of Good Heart.” That same song voices a humility born of experience: “I never claimed to know it all,” she sings, summarizing decades spent bearing witness. “All I know is what I’ve known.” And there is resilience, too. Waits’ “Last Leaf”—originally done as a barroom lament with soul survivor Keith Richards—is notably more forceful here. Baez imagines herself a leaf that’s weathered every winter since Eisenhower; she’ll make room for the new shoots of green, but she won’t let go—not yet.

The risk with an album like this—intended as a last will and testament, reckoning with a world that’s in roughly the same shambles she found it in—is austerity. It was produced by Joe Henry, who is singularly gifted at working with septa- and octogenarian artists to generate works that expand their legacies, rather than Cliff Note them. He and Baez address the concern of an insular and self-serious album by steering straight into it, laying all their cards on the table: There aren’t many jokes here and no song that qualifies as a lark; just song after song that burrows deep into earnestness and empathy. It earns our trust through its candor and its sincerity; its cumulative effect is total disarmament.

Whistle Down the Wind stands among the most genteel Joe Henry productions; his inclination toward first-take immediacy, which summoned elegant swing on his Allen Toussaint sessions and hard-boiled grit on his work with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, manifests here as gentleness. Drummer Jay Bellerose, whose rolling thunder is a hallmark of Henry’s production work, mostly offers gentle thumps and cymbal accents. Baez, John Smith, and Greg Leisz join acoustic guitars into a blur of finger-picked melody, while Patrick Warren’s piano and pump organ surface with crystalline romance. “Whistle Down the Wind” sounds at once earthy and windswept, born of this world but no longer tethered to it. “Another World” is skeletal and pulsing, Baez standing ragged and unsure at the song’s center.

She trusts the warmth and sadness of these songs to shine through, and they do. Baez sings with too much affection for any of these songs to lapse into cynicism, and too much weariness for any of them to sound like celebration. And so she is caught between this mutilated world and another, better one she can’t quite imagine; she’ll cling to this until she can’t, and then she’ll let go. In the meantime, Baez leaves us with a Zoe Mulford song called “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” set in the wake of the Charleston church shooting: “But no words could say what must be said/ For all the living and the dead/ So on that day and in that place/ The President sang Amazing Grace.” To sing in the face of sorrow is an amazing grace, indeed; a tender mercy that only a broken world can allow.