Sunday, June 28, 2015

6 Months, 5 Albums - the best of 2015 (so far)

We're six months into the year, and I can already see that it's going to be really hard to come up with a year-end Top 10.  I'm comfortable with designating these five as my favorites at the halfway point, but it's entirely possible that one could drop out of the Top 10 entirely by the end of December.  That's not a commentary on these records, but a statement about the overall strength of the year.

So in alphabetical order, let's take a peek:

Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color.  In rock music, the best surprises are the unexpected ones - things like Bob Dylan coming up with "Time Out of Mind" after two decades in the wilderness, and Neil Young releasing "Freedom" after a series of desultory albums in the 1980s.  I'm not sure "Sound & Color" quite falls into that category, but it is a pleasant surprise nonetheless - at least for me.  I was not a huge fan of "Boys & Girls, the debut album, even though like just about everyone else on the planet I thought "Hold On" was an instant classic single.  I wasn't even sure I would buy the new album, until a co-worker insisted that I give it a listen and burned a copy for me.  Well, after just two listens I knew I liked it enough to pick up my own copy, and after two months of continuous listens I remain somewhere between surprised and astonished at the record's depth and diversity.

The best thing about it is that much of the record is downright weird - I don't know how else to describe such songs as "Future People," "The Greatest," or even the long blues jam "Gemini."  They barely even sound like each other, which in some instances could be a drawback but here just adds to the power of the album.  Brittany Howard is a vocal chameleon, and unlike the debut it never sounds like she's just trying too hard.  The stretch on the album from "Future People" through "Shoegaze," 5 tracks later - is going to be hard to top this year.

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly.  I wrote about "How Much a Dollar Cost" here, but right now the track that keeps going through my mind is "King Kunta."  This is not an album for the faint of heart (or for anyone who has difficulty with harsh language), but it's pretty clearly the best rap album since Kanye's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."

James McMurtry - Complicated Game.  Son of Pulitzer Prize winning Larry, McMurtry has a wonderful way with words, and the album is hard to classify - is it Country?  Folk?  Something in between or something completely different?  Lots of great songs, but the one that has stuck with the most is "Cutter:"

I cut myself sharp and deep
It's the only thing that let's me sleep
Takes the pain from off my face
and puts it in one tiny space

Where I can keep it down out of sight
Way off to the side
It won't come at me on a cold dark night
The red ridges I can't hide
They're on the outside

Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love.  The only thing I would add to what I wrote here is how much "Fade," the album's final track, sounds like something that Roxy Music would have recorded circa 1973-4.  Spooky.

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell.  Heartbreakingly beautiful and haunting.  Still trying to wrap my mind around it.

So there you have it.  There are plenty of honorable mentions and subjects for further research over in that list on the right, but for now I'm comfortable with these five being at the top of it.  Here's hoping that the second half of the year brings as many delights as the first.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Triple Crown!

And here is where begin to catch up on a bunch of things that would have been more interesting if I'd written about them as they were happening...

Watching American Pharoah win the Belmont to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 was a real "sports bucket list" item for me.  Even though there were three Crown winners in the 1970s, the decade when I rarely missed any of the races, I'd never managed to see the Belmont live in a Triple Crown winning year.  When Secretariat won in '73, I was on a beach in Ensenada, Baja California, on a YMCA caravan.  In '77 when Seattle Slew turned the trick, I was working at McDonalds. And the following year when Affirmed prevailed in the last of three stirring battles with Alydar, I was on my high school graduation trip in Hawaii, and for some reason we thought they were going to show the race on tape delay.  They weren't.

I saw enough of the Belmont failures in the intervening years to think that maybe I was the jinx, and through (briefly) about not even watching this time.  So it was a pleasant surprise to actually see this great horse finally do what so many before him had failed to do.  And I don't throw around "great" loosely; Pharoah's time in the Belmont was one of the best ever.  Not in Secretariat's league, of course, but there was a reason on that sunny day in June 1973 that Chic Anderson said "He is moving like a tremendous machine!"

It's doubtful that Pharoah's win means that we're on our way back to another golden age of thoroughbred racing, but it was a nice throwback nonetheless.