Friday, December 16, 2022

Top Albums and Songs of 2022

A couple of years ago, I was accepted into a Facebook Group called “Village Voice Pazz & Jop Rip-Off Poll,” which for someone like me – a guy who dreamed at age 15 of becoming the record reviews editor of Rolling Stone magazine – was like a dream come true.  For the uninitiated, Pazz & Jop was begun by Robert Christgau in 1971, took a couple of years off, and then ran in the Voice annually from 1974 through the late 2010s, whenever it was that the once-great periodical finally bit the dust for good.  An indispensable archive of poll results can be found on Christgau’s website.

The way that P&J worked, each participant had 100 points to distribute to 10 albums, with a maximum per-album allocation of 30 and a minimum of five.  During the time that Greil Marcus participated in the poll , he was always open about the fact that he’d award 30 points to an album (for example, Bryan Ferry’s 1978 The Bride Stripped Bare) just to give it a boost in the final rankings.  Others took the “10 albums, 10 points each” approach, and a third group would painstakingly attempt to assign the exactly appropriate number of points to each of the albums on their list.  People who know me well will not be surprised to hear that I fall into the third group.

This year was really hard.  In 2021, I had difficulty coming up with 10 albums that truly fit the definition of what I would normally call a Top Ten candidate, but this year there were probably two dozen albums that fit the bill.  Complicating matters, SZA had to go and release one of the year’s best records A WEEK AGO, which required some additional thought on my part.  But without further ado, presenting my Top Ten Albums of 2022:

Beyoncé, RENAISSANCE – 20 points

Mountain Goats, Bleed Out – 17

Amanda Shires, Take It Like a Man – 12

Lizzo, Special – 11

SZA, SOS – 10

Wet Leg, S/T – 8

Drive-By Truckers, Welcome to Club XIII – 7

Kendrick Lamar, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers – 5

Miranda Lambert, Palomino – 5

The Paranoid Style, For Executive Meeting – 5

Random thoughts on the Top Ten:

·         From the very first time I listened to the new Beyoncé, I suspected that it would be my #1 – but I didn’t realize how close an album would come to pushing it out of the top spot, which Bleed Out nearly did.

·         Mountain Goats, like Drive-By Truckers before them, is a band to which I’m a late convert, but now I realize that I’ve really given them short shrift over the years.

·         Amanda Shires has been great for a while, but she really took a quantum leap forward on the new album.

·         It is nearly impossible to resist the overall positivity of the Lizzo experience, and in doing so one can have a few laughs along the way.

·         Wet Leg and The Paranoid Style both made me feel like I was back in Cheney Hall at UC Berkeley (Spoiler Alert: it was a long time ago).

·         Miranda Lambert continued the groundbreaking (and I’d argue under-noticed) work she’s been doing for well more than a decade now.

·         DBT had scored in recent years with a series of acutely political albums, and it was a bit of a relief to hear them take the foot off that gas pedal for a bit.

·         And, last but certainly not least – I don’t know I’ve spoken to or read anyone who thinks Mr. Morale is Kendrick Lamar’s best album, but the highs are incredibly high (see below for evidence of that).

The next ten, which in another year might have easily cracked my Top Ten:

Willie Nelson – A Beautiful Time

Bruce Springsteen – Only the Strong Survive

Maren Morris – Humble Quest

Beach Bunny – Emotional Creature

Taylor Swift – Midnights

Danielle Ponder – Some of Us Are Brave

Laura Benitez and the Heartache – California Centuries

Soccer Mommy – Sometimes Forever

Arcade Fire – WE

Sunny Sweeney – Married Alone

And some honorable mentions, in no particular order:

Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain

The Black Keys – Dropout Boogie

Harry Styles – Harry’s House

Jack White – Entering Heaven Alive

Dylan Triplett – Who is He?

The Vandoliers – S/T

Loudon Wainwright III – Lifetime Achievement

Chris Canterbury – Quaalude Lullabies

Courtney Marie Andrews – Loose Future

Ashley MacBryde Presents: Lindeville

Plains – I Walked With You a Way

Carly Rae Jepsen – The Loneliest Time

Angel Olsen – Big Time

Chris Isaak – Everybody Knows It’s Christmas


Since I’m on a roll, my Top Ten Songs of 2022:

Kendrick Lamar (feat. Beth Gibbons) – Mother I Sober.  Triumphant transformation.

Taylor Swift – Anti-Hero.  The earworm and catch phrases of the year.

Lizzo – About Damn Time.  Out on the dance floor – now!

Wet Leg – Chaise Longue.  “Would you like us to assign someone to worry your mother?” was the line of the year.

Laura Benitez and the California Heartache – Plaid Shirt.  Just your everyday instant classic country breakup song.

Beyoncé – Virgo’s Groove.  NSFW, and I learned that the hard way.

Drive-By Truckers – The Driver.  In seven minutes, a distillation of everything they do best.

Bruce Springsteen – Night Shift.  How had I forgotten what a great song this is?

Angel Olsen – All the Good Times.  Dusty Springfield, meet Tammy Wynette.

SZA – Blind.  Also NSFW, but quite likely the best verbal interplay of the year.


And what the heck, since I never got around to posting it this year, here’s my Top Ten of 2021:

1. James McMurtry, The Horses and the Hounds

2. Liz Phair, Soberish

3. Alison Krauss & Robert Plant, Raise the Roof

4. Aimee Mann, Queens of the Summer Hotel

5. Lana Del Rey, Blue Banisters

6. Sleater-Kinney, Path of Wellness

7. Courtney Barnett, Things Take Time, Take Time

8. Hayes Carll, You Get It All

9. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Georgia Blue

10. Mickey Guyton, Remember Her Name

Rock on!  See you in 2023.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

The Duke

It's been a long time since I've gone down the Duke Ellington rabbit hole.  Last week, what sent me down was a tweet (a retweet, actually) from a music writer whose name I can't even recall off the top of my head, with his list of the 30 Greatest Big Band Jazz Albums of all time.  I figured there had to be a Duke album on the list, and the writer did not disappoint.  The album in the photo at left was not the album on the list, but we'll come back to that in a moment.  

I knew who Duke Ellington was from an early age, but my first real exposure to his music came in the late 1970s.  My then-girlfriend's father was a jazz fan, and he owned the indispensable collection, The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz.  My own tastes in music were starting to expand around that time, and he was kind enough to loan me the album, which I promptly recorded on cassette.  I still have one of the tapes, Memorex no less, but its useful, listenable life is long past.

I don't know that the Smithsonian Collection remains available today, but it has been re-created on Spotify by enterprising listeners, and the same is probably true for the other major streaming services.  It's a treasure trove, and particularly useful in helping to determine exactly what types of jazz music are palatable to a listener's ears.  For me, the two major discoveries were Ellington and Charlie Parker.  Going back through the Spotify playlist, it is striking how well the curators did with their selections of Ellington tunes for the collection:

East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (two versions, and yes, the Steely Dan version of the song was the first I'd heard)

Creole Rhapsody

Harlem Air Shaft

Concerto for Cootie

Cotton Tail

In a Mellotone


Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue

Blue Serge

Brilliant songs all, and brilliant selections, considering there are better known tunes in the Ellington pantheon.

Back to the album pictured above - also a Smithsonian collection, a Christmas gift in 1980 from the same then-girlfriend.  However, by then I had gone to school in Berkeley and she had gone to UCLA, where she met her husband-to-be the first week she was there.  The gift exchange at Christmas might have been a bit awkward - I don't remember what I bought for her, but I'm quite confident it wasn't as nice as what she gave me.

The 1940 version of the Ellington Big Band is remembered today as the absolute pinnacle of his career.  It's come to be known as the "Blanton-Webster" version of the band, after the brilliant young bassist Jimmy Blanton (who would tragically succumb to tuberculosis at age 23) and the equally great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.  Six of the ten songs listed above were recorded by the Blanton-Webster band, and there are at least a dozen others on the two-record set that are equally good.  It's that good.

Fortunately, the songs all exist today - the album to seek out on your streaming service is Never No Lament - The Blanton-Webster band, which collects all of the tunes the band recorded together.  Listening to it today, it's obvious why Ellington is considered one of the great musical artists in American history.  A rabbit hole well worth going down.  Besides, it's cooler down there.

Monday, January 31, 2022

"Maus" and Why It Matters


The first political science course I took in college (at American River College, here in the Sacramento area) was taught by a gentleman who had lived in Tennessee until he graduated college, after which he and his wife moved to California.  During his lectures, he frequently referred, in a sarcastic manner,  to his birth state as "enlightened Tennessee."

Dr. Striplin is no longer with us, but "enlightened Tennessee" has been all over the headlines this month, courtesy of the decision by the McMinn County Board of Education to remove "Maus" from the curriculum.  In a statement released on Thursday, the Board said that it voted to remove the graphic memoir from the county's schools "because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide."  The statement goes on to note that school administrators have been asked to "find other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion."

The question that comes to my mind is this: what could be more age-appropriate for young learners than an historically accurate, well-written depiction of the Holocaust in the graphic format?  Yes, it is a book filled with pain and suffering - how could it not be? -  as well as one that demonstrates in stark fashion how the impact of the Holocaust crossed entire generations.  But what are we afraid of here, exactly?  And how about we show a little respect for those young learners, who I can't help but think have a greater capacity to understand challenging topics than is assumed by the McMinn board of education.

In the face of this nonsense, of course I had to re-read the book.  The first part of Spiegelman's story was released in 1986 (on the left in the above photo), and though the exact circumstances of my first encounter with it are lost to the mists of time, I'm guessing that it was the Village Voice that alerted me to its existence.  

The genius of Maus is in the way that author Art Spiegelman makes the modern-day story of learning from his father just as compelling as the horrifying tale that his father is telling.  Spiegelman is brutally honest, even painfully so, about his father Vladek.  Vladek's experiences during the Holocaust were incredible, without question.  As Art himself comments in one scene depicted in the book, Vladek's ability to survive the horrors of that time was due in large part to luck, but also to his father's remarkable resourcefulness and present-mindedness.  That comes through powerfully throughout.  But while Vladek survived, something of his humanity did not.  The older Vladek is petty, often irrational, and as depicted in a memorable scene when Art's wife Francoise picks up an African-American hitchhiker with Vladek also in the car, is quite the racist.  

For me, Maus is a landmark book.  And while I've seen some write that it is inaccurate to say the book is being "banned," for me "removing from the curriculum" is at the top of the slippery slope that leads to banning.  It seems unlikely to happen, but here's hoping that the McMinn County Board reconsiders their decision.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Notable Albums of 2021 (Memorializing)

 Not a bad year at all.

  • Lana Del Rey - Chemtrails Over The Country Club
  • Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi - They're Calling Me Home
  • Eric Church - Heart
  • Eric Church - Soul
  • Tom Jones - Surrounded by Time
  • The Black Keys - Delta Kream
  • Chrissie Hynde - Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan
  • Leftover Feelings - John Hiatt
  • Lula Wiles - Shame and Sedition
  • Liz Phair - Soberish
  • Sleater-Kinney - Path of Wellness
  • Lucy Dacus - Home Video
  • Allison Russell - Outside Child
  • Leon Bridges - Gold-Diggers Sound
  • Jackson Browne - Downhill from Everywhere
  • Rodney Crowell - Triage
  • David Crosby - For Free
  • Sarah Jarosz - Blue Heron Suite
  • Cassandra Jenkins - An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
  • Los Lobos - Native Sons
  • Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever
  • Yola - Stand For Myself
  • Emily Duff - Razor Blade Smile
  • Jade Bird - Different Kinds of Light
  • Kalie Shorr - I Got Here By Accident
  • James McMurtry - The Horses and the Hounds
  • Sturgill Simpson - The Ballad of Dood & Juanita
  • Lorde - Solar Power
  • Madi Diaz - History of a Feeling
  • Kacey Musgraves - star-crossed
  • The Felice Brothers - From Dreams to Dust
  • Mickey Guyton - Remember Her Name
  • Brandi Carlile - In These Silent Days
  • Natalie Hemby - Pins and Needles
  • Carolyn Wonderland - Tempting Fate
  • Lilly Hiatt - Lately
  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Georgia Blue
  • Lana Del Rey - Blue Banisters
  • Hayes Carll - You Get It All
  • The War on Drugs - I Don't Live Here Anymore
  • Pistol Annies - Hell of a Holiday
  • Snail Mail - Valentine
  • Aimee Mann - Queens of the Summer Hotel
  • Amanda Shires - For Christmas
  • Courtney Barnett - Things Take Time, Take Time
  • Taylor Swift - Red (Taylor's Version)

Songs of the Year, 2021: A Little Soon To Say, Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne earned his spot in the Hall of Fame a long time ago, so it's OK that his late-career albums fall short of the standards he set early on.  None of them have been bad, don't get me wrong.  But you can always be sure you will get 1-2 political songs that are just a little too obvious (and probably a verse or two too long), and a couple of rockers that sound (more or less) like an old guy trying a little too hard to recapture his youth. 

But you can also count on 3-4 songs that can stand right up there as part of Browne's pantheon.  "A Little Soon to Say" is one of those songs, and with this one I'd go a bit further - this is one of the best songs he's ever written, one that perfectly captures the tone of our times. 

I wanna see you holding out your light
I wanna see you light the way
Beyond the sirens in the broken night
Beyond the sickness of our day
And after all we've come to live with
I wanna know if you're ok
I wanna think it's gonna be alright
It's just a little soon to say

It's distressing - amazing, really - that this is where we find ourselves at this point in our history, but this is where we are.  I too wanna think it's gonna be alright.  Only time will tell.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Songs of the Year, 2021: Hard Drive, Cassandra Jenkins

There is a LOT going on in "Hard Drive."  It's got a definite Laurie Anderson feel to it, almost as if it were a lost track from 1989's "Strange Angels."  Each verse tells a different micro-story, featuring a diverse cast of characters: the security guard, the bookkeeper, the driving teacher, and Peri.  The thread binding each of the stories together is what Jenkins addresses in her spoken intro - "our spirit, our humanity, our sense of self."

The emotional payoff, from both a narrative and a musical perspective, comes in the final verse:

I ran into Peri at Lowell's place
Her gemstone eyes caught my gaze
She said, "Oh, dear, I can see you've had a rough few months
But this year, it's gonna be a good one
I'll count to three and tap your shoulder
We're gonna put your heart back together
So all those little pieces they took from you
They're coming back now
They'll miss 'em too
So close your eyes
I'll count to three
Take a deep breath
Count with me"

It's an extraordinary song.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Songs of the Year, 2021: Calling Me Home, Rhiannon Giddens + Francesco Turrisi

The music that Rhiannon Giddens has made on her last two albums with Francesco Turrisi cuts like a scythe, slashing through fields of grain.  The emotional power of her voice combines with the miraculous but spare instrumentation from both artists to create an emotional power that more or less wipes every other song off the map.  When you listen, it's as if time is standing still.  

Songs of the Year, 2021: Loser, Carolyn Wonderland

Carolyn Wonderland is a good example of an artist that I would not likely have discovered if it were not for Spotify, with a huge assist to No Depression - an online journal of Americana and Roots Music that (along with American Songwriter, which covers similar territory) does an outstanding job of covering just about every release in those two genres.

As demonstrated in this track, Wonderland is a red-hot guitarist, and she turns this old Grateful Dead chestnut into something that is quite unlike anything I've ever heard from the Dead.  And I'm a big fan of theirs.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Songs of the Year, 2021: Tom Jones - I'm Growing Old

Over the next few days, in preparation for posting my Top Ten Albums of 2021, I'll be posting some of my favorite songs of the year from the albums that were Honorable Mentions.

First up, the great Tom Jones.  Still making great music, and in a sense reinventing himself, at the age of 80.  At the same time, recognizing his mortality.

Monday, December 27, 2021

...Ring in the New

And that bad boy in the middle now holds the place of honor previously occupied by the Technics Receiver.

So yeah, I no longer have the ability to listen to the radio, but considering I can't even remember the last time I listened to the radio, I think I'll survive.

So this should last me well into my 90s...

And what better CD to test it out than a little classic Steely Dan?

BTW, many thanks are due to my 31-year old son, without whom this would probably be sitting in its box for some period of time to be determined, given dad's lack of prowess with anything having to do with technology installation.

Happy New Year!


Ring Out the Old...


This bad boy served me well for close to 40 years, but it was well past the time to say farewell.  Little did I know that the frustrating glitches in my recent stereo listening experience were due, not to faulty speakers or speaker wires, but to the fact that this guy was just tired.

But hey - considering that among the first CDs I played with this setup were Springsteen's "Born in the USA" and Madonna's "Like a Virgin," I think I got my money's worth.  


Sunday, November 14, 2021


 2020 was the year that I made the transition from buying CDs (I've bought two this year) to listening to music almost exclusively via streaming.  It's scrambled my brain a bit, to be honest.  I've had to force myself to dedicate time to listening to full albums, because it's so enticing to come up with another playlist; another quest for the perfect segue between songs.  There are albums on the list below where I can't remember a single song.  That's not great, obviously - so for my 2021 sidebar list, I'm going to include only those albums that truly sunk in, that I've gone back to on a regular basis.  

The 2020 list:

  • Starting Over - Chris Stapleton
  • Generations - Will Butler
  • Hey Clockface - Elvis Costello
  • Love is the King - Jeff Tweedy
  • Uncivil War - Shemekia Copeland
  • On My Own - Lera Lynn
  • Letter to You - Bruce Springsteen
  • Serpentine Prison - Matt Berninger
  • Cuttin' Grass, Vol. 1 - Sturgill Simpson
  • Speed, Sound, Lonely kv (EP) - Kurt Vile
  • Good Luck With Whatever - Dawes
  • As Long As You Are - Future Islands
  • Alone Together Sessions - Hayes Carll
  • The New OK - Drive-By Truckers
  • What Is There - Delta Spirit
  • Aftermath - Elizabeth Cook
  • Hearts Town - The War and Treaty
  • Daughter - Lydia Loveless
  • The Ascension - Sufjan Stevens
  • Shore - Fleet Foxes
  • Long Violent History - Tyler Childers
  • Shallow Graves - India Ramey
  • Blackbirds - Bettye Lavette
  • Die Midwestern - Arlo McKinney
  • The Beautiful Madness - Jerry Joseph
  • Twelfth - Old 97's
  • Total Freedom - Kathleen Edwards
  • Xoxo - The Jayhawks
  • The Dirt and the Stars - Mary Chapin Carpenter
  • Such Pretty Forks in the Road - Alanis Morrisette
  • Made of Rain - The Psychedelic Furs
  • The Balladeer - Lori McKenna
  • Old Flowers - Courtney Marie Andrews
  • folklore - Taylor Swift
  • Hate for Sale - Pretenders
  • The Waterfall II - My Morning Jacket
  • Gaslighter - The Chicks
  • All the Good Times - Gillian Welch, David Rawlings
  • That's How Rumors Get Started - Margo Price
  • What's Your Pleasure? - Jessie Ware
  • On the Road: A Tribute to John Hartford
  • Women in Music Part III - HAIM
  • No Dream - Jeff Rosenstock
  • Homegrown - Neil Young
  • Rough and Rowdy Ways - Bob Dylan
  • Punisher - Phoebe Bridgers
  • Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston
  • Self Made Man - Larkin Poe
  • Introduction, Presence - Nation of Language
  • All Visible Objects - Moby
  • World on the Ground - Sarah Jarosz
  • Dreaming Again - Lizzy Long
  • RTJ4 - Run the Jewels
  • Spider Tales - Jake Blount
  • Folk 'n Roll Vol. 1 - J.S. Ondara
  • A Different War - Daniela Cotton and the Church Boys
  • Danzig Sings Elvis
  • Neon Cross - Jaime Wyatt
  • Tessy Lou Williams
  • Dedicated Side B - Carly Rae Jepsen
  • Chromatica - Lady Gaga
  • Cold Water - Medhane
  • Copy That - Sara Evans
  • how i'm feeling now - Charli XCX
  • Going to the Movies - Mark Fredson
  • Reunions - Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
  • Beautiful and Strange - Chelsea Williams
  • Bad Luck - Sylvia Rose Novak
  • The Way It Feels - Maddie & Tae
  • Invisible People - Chicano Batman
  • We Still Go to Rodeos - Whitney Rose
  • Alphabetland - X
  • Future Nostalgia - Dua Lipa
  • Lamentations - American Aquarium
  • Walking Proof - Lilly Hiatt
  • Fetch the Bolt Cutters - Fiona Apple
  • The New Abnormal - The Strokes
  • Mama's Biscuits - Kirby Heard
  • Never Will - Ashley McBryde
  • The Family Songbook - The Haden Triplets
  • Saint Cloud - Waxahatchee
  • Gigaton - Pearl Jam
  • Anybody Out There - Sadler Vaden
  • Your Life is a Record - Brandy Clark
  • Expectations - Katie Pruitt
  • The Dream - Hailey Whitters
  • Saturn Return - The Secret Sisters
  • Honeymoon - Beach Bunny
  • color theory - Soccer Mommy
  • Open Book - Kalie Shorr
  • Miss Anthropocene - Grimes
  • The Unraveling - Drive-By Truckers
  • County Squire - Tyler Childers

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Top Ten Albums of 2020

1. Fleet Foxes - Shore.  Over the years I've toyed around with the concept of what I call "Autumn Albums."  Not necessarily albums that were released in the fall, but ones with a signature sound that evokes the feel of the season.  Linda Ronstadt's Simple Dreams is an Autumn Album; I wrote about about it here (dear Lord, more than ten years ago now).  George Winston's Linus and Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi is an Autumn album, as is Frank Sinatra's Where Are You?  Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad is another, having been released two days before Thanksgiving in 1995.  Great albums all.  Autumn Albums.  When it comes to Autumn Albums, however, it's doubtful that anything that came before it or anything yet to come will ever match Shore.  Having been released at the exact moment of 2020's Autumnal Equinox, Shore literally is an Autumn Album.  

In and of itself, being the quintessential Autumn Album would not be enough to justify ranking it at #1.  What allows it to land here is the fact that from first cut to last, over the span of 54 minutes and 29 seconds, it is absolutely gorgeous music.  There isn't a weak cut or any filler on the entire album, and from day to day it's difficult to choose what is the album's best song.  Today I'd probably say "Thymia," tomorrow I might think it's "I'm Not My Season," and the day after that it could be "Maestranza."  And just keep repeating daily, adding a new track until you've fully absorbed the record.  Shore is only their fourth album over the course of twelve years, but it's their best.  A wonderful record.

2. Lilly Hiatt - Walking Proof.  Hiatt's previous work has all been excellent, but with Walking Proof she has fully developed a sound and approach that sounds unmistakably her own.  The album features great rockers ("Some Kind of Drug," which according to Spotify was the song I listened to more than any other in 2020, "P-Town") great mid-tempo ballads ("Rae," the title track, "Drawl", several others), and as the Pitchfork review put it, "winds through moments of incandescent joy, gentleness, cathartic noise, and even unease."  

3. Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia.  I might have this one a little high, but then again I might not.  What I'm comfortable saying is that it reminds me a lot of Madonna's debut, and for me that's high praise indeed.  The album title was well calculated - the record would have sounded new and fresh in each of the past four decades, so you really can feel as if you're delving into nostalgia while wondering if this might just be the sound of the future.  And you can dance to it.

4. Letter to You - Bruce Springsteen.  Speaking of "future nostalgia."  If a couple of these songs sound as old as anything he's ever written, it's because they are - I've been hearing about "Janey Needs a Shooter" for more than 40 years now, and "If I Was the Priest" was one of the songs he sang in his audition for John Hammond all the way back in 1973.  And if one song in particular sounds transparently Dylanesque, well then Bruce can do anything he darn well pleases in this phase of his career.  And if you can have fun deciding which previous album each of these songs would best fit on, well that's OK too.  Overall, Letter to You is as good as anything he's recorded in this century, and better than at least some of the albums he recorded before then.  The E Street Band sounds as good as it ever has, Ron Aniello comes up with a beautiful sound, and "Ghosts" can stand proudly with any Bruce songs you might pick for your own personal pantheon.  It's that good.

5. The Unraveling - Drive-By Truckers.  In my January review of the album, I called it "relentless and unforgiving."  I also called it their bravest album.  They were depicting a world on The Unraveling that felt as if it were about to fall apart.  What we didn't know at the time is that it was.

6.  how i'm feeling now - Charli XCX.  Not surprisingly, there were numerous artists who released "pandemic albums" in 2020.  My favorite was Charli XCX's, because it was so obviously homemade, and perfectly conveyed the fractured nature of the year.  But at the same time, there were several tunes that were as catchy as anything she's ever recorded.  A fractured fairy tale.

7. Reunions - Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Even though I have this album rated lower than The Nashville Sound, the band's previous effort (which I tabbed as the best album of 2017), there's no question that Isbell grows as an artist with each succeeding effort.  The standout track is "What've I Done to Help," a 7-minute magnum opus that poignantly poses a question that we should probably all be asking ourselves right about now.  

8. Shallow Graves - India Ramey.  My favorite country music album of the year, from an artist I had not heard of when the year began.  She called the record a "post-apocalyptic western," and in sound it carries - especially on "The Witch" and "You and Me Against the World" - a sense of menace that would fit right in during Unforgiven or The Revenant. My favorite song is "Montgomery Behind Me," in which she leaves behind a town, a bad relationship and quite possibly the remains of someone who richly deserved his fate.  

9. Run the Jewels - RTJ4.  Not for the faint of heart.  Come to think of it, "relentless and unforgiving" would work as well as a description for RTJ$ as it did for DBT.  Robert Christgau, who gave the album a rare A+, wrote, "the gangsta sonics that power El-P and Killer Mike's inchoate aggressiveness will feel tonic to anyone with both an appetite for music and a political pulse (you can put me down for both).  The album closer, "a few words for the firing squad," matches in its intensity any music that I've heard in recent memory, and well beyond that.  The rest isn't far behind.

10. Sarah Jarosz - World on the Ground.  It wasn't easy to decide which album would fit into the final spot this year.  Jarosz is another artist with whom I was not familiar when the year began, but fortunately there are numerous online publications that focus on the broad category of "Americana."  The album was produced by John Leventhal, who I've criticized at times for softening the rough edges around his partner Rosanne Cash.  That's not the case here - the sound and the accompaniment are perfect for Jarosz' spare vision.

OK, so there it is, and now it's time to play Pazz & Jop - 100 points, divided among the 10 albums, with no more than 30 and no less than 5 awarded to any of them.

1. Fleet Foxes, Shore                                    20

2. Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof                        15

3. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia                     13

4. Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You             12

5. Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling        10

6. Charli XCX, how i'm feeling now             8

7. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Reunions      7

8. India Ramey, Shallow Graves                   5

9. Run the Jewels, RTJ4                                5

10. Sarah Jarosz, World on the Ground         5

And as alluded to above, narrowing the list to 10 this year was a bear.  Here are some of the albums that I hated to leave off (in alphabetical order):

Ashley McBryde, Never Will - Not quite at the level she showed on her debut, but still strong.

Beach Bunny, Honeymoon - "Promises" was right up there with my favorite songs of 2020.

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways - The epic "Murder Most Foul" was the song of the year.

Chris Stapleton, Starting Over - Country soul.  

Drive-By Truckers, The New OK - Cooley's "Sarah's Flame" right up there with his best.

Emma Swift, Blonde on the Tracks - Right up there with Bettye Lavette's as the best Dylan cover album.  Maybe women make the best Dylan covers?

HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III - Their strongest album yet.

Jayhawks, Xoxo - Still sounding great after all these years.

Kathleen Edwards, Total Freedom - A very nice comeback.

Lydia Loveless, Daughter - I feel like I've yet to fully plumb the depths of this one.

Ondara, Folk 'n Roll Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation - Addressing the isolation we've all felt over the past 11 months.

Soccer Mommy, Color Theory - An album that seemed to foresee the isolation we'd begin to feel a month after it's release.

Sylvia Rose Novak, Bad Luck - Ready for a fight.

Taylor Swift, Folklore, evermore - Don't ever underestimate a force of nature.

Coming soon (?), the songs of 2020.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

NFL Memories and "The Football Book"

 A few years ago, one of my Christmas "stocking stuffers" was a coffee table book on the history of the NFL.  Cleverly titled "The Football Book" and published by Sports Illustrated in 2006, the book includes article excerpts from several of the great football writers who graced the pages of SI, including Paul Zimmerman, Peter King, Dan Jenkins and Michael Silver, as well as the great feature writers George Plimpton, Gary Smith, Frank Deford, and S.L. Price.  The book also includes Dr. Z's (how Zimmerman was known to his biggest fans) indispensable All-Decade Team choices, which are guaranteed to be the perfect argument starter. 

But as good as the writing is, the highlight of the book is the photography, which shouldn't come as a shock given that the "Illustrated" part of SI was always key to its enormous success.  The photograph at left was taken by Neil Leifer, who, over the course of a career that spanned several decades, earned the right to be called a legend.  It's a wonderful photo that evokes both the effort and grace that is involved in the game of football, but is also evocative of the atmosphere at Lambeau Field, longtime home of the Green Bay Packers.

What made this photo of particular interest to me is that it comes from the first NFL game that I have a memory of watching.  The game was played on Saturday, December 7 in 1968 (the year the Colts went 13-1, and were then upset by the Joe Namath-led New York Jets in the Super Bowl).  My dad drove over to a friend's house to watch it, and for some reason brought me with him.  I'm not exactly sure why I remember all this, but that's the strange way my mind works sometimes.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Albums of the Year: Finalists

With the help of Spotify, there's no question that I listened to more new music this year than ever before.  On the one hand, that's a great thing.  On the other, it did make me wonder if there was such a thing as "too much music."  It's my own fault, but I found myself too often reaching for the shiny new object (i.e. that week's new releases), and not spending enough time doing a deep dive into those albums which I enjoyed the most.

By the end of the year, I think I'd figured it out.  But there are still going to be a lot of 2020 albums that end up on my "subjects for further research" list.  

This list is the list from which my year-end Top Ten will come.  That will be, and this is a promise that will be kept, sometime during the holiday break - and definitely sometime before year's end.

My picks for the best of 2020, with further refinement to come:

Ashley McBryde, Never Will

Beach Bunny, Honeymoon

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You

Charli Xcx, how i'm feeling now

Chris Stapleton, Starting Over

Courtney Marie Andrews, Old Flowers

Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling

Drive-By Truckers, The New OK

Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia

Emma Swift, Blonde on the Tracks

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fleet Foxes, Shore

HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III

India Ramey, Shallow Graves

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Reunions

Jayhawks, Xoxo

Kathleen Edwards, Total Freedom

Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof

Lydia Loveless, Daughter

Ondara, Folk 'n Roll Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation

Run the Jewels, RTJ4

Sarah Jarosz, World on the Ground

Soccer Mommy, Color Theory

Sylvia Rose Novak, Bad Luck

Taylor Swift, Folklore

Taylor Swift, evermore

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Summer 2020 Album Diary: "Either/Or," Elliott Smith (1997)

"Either/Or" is enjoyable enough as music, but it's impossible to separate the album from the circumstances of the artist who created it.

For anyone unfamiliar with Elliott Smith, he died in 2003 from two stab wounds to the chest, and it doesn't appear to have ever been fully determined whether it was suicide or homicide.  His life had not been an easy one.

A lot of the album is reminiscent of some of Sufjan Stevens' work, but after a couple of listens I'm not sure it's anywhere as musically interesting.  The standout track is "Cupids Trick," which takes the same general approach but adds a dash of mystery to the proceedings (not to mention some additional instrumentation).