Friday, December 28, 2018

Albums of 2018, Honorable Mention: The Old White Guys

In his 1980 Pazz & Jop essay, Robert Christgau quoted a critic by the name of Jay Mitchell, who described Side Two of Stevie Wonder's "Hotter than July" as "The perfect example of an artist doing his job and doing it well; with fun and grace at that."  That comment has stuck with me over the years, and has grown increasingly appropriate, as so many of our bedrock artists have continued to record and tour well into their advanced ages.

Elvis Costello (now 64 years of age), Paul Simon (77), Richard Thompson (69) and John Hiatt (66) were all recording in 1980 (Costello even placed an album in the P&J Top 40 that year, with "Get Happy" finishing at 7th), and they all released albums in 2018.  It would be foolish to claim that any of their new records - Costello's "Look Now," recorded with The Imposters, Simon's "Into the Blue Light," Thompson's "13 Rivers," and Hiatt's "The Eclipse Sessions" - was as good as the best album from each artist.

But so what?  The fact that all are still sharing their work with the world is a blessing.  And make no bones about it, all of these albums are very good.  Costello comes as close to achieving a synthesis of his early "angry young man" approach and the panache of Burt Bacharach as he ever has.  Paul Simon has surely earned the right to revisit some old songs that he didn't feel he quite nailed on the first go around, and the results are consistently engaging.  Richard Thompson appears to have been energized by his series of "acoustic classic" albums, and John Hiatt...and this will sound goofy...just sounds comfortable in his own skin.

These four artists have all created works that stand with the best of our time.  Celebrate them and their work while you still can.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Albums of 2018, Honorable Mention: Christmas Albums

The only person I know who owns more Christmas albums than I do is my brother.  It's about all I listen to between Thanksgiving and Christmas - the compilations I've made over the years, the old classics (Roches, Andy Williams, Phil Spector, Harry Connick Jr.'s first holiday record, a handful of others), and whatever new gems find their way into existence.  Holiday albums must still be moneymakers, because there's always a new crop that blooms, usually just before Halloween.  

With all the various media outlets at one's disposal in this day and age, it's pretty easy to get a sense of whether a holiday album is worth buying (or perhaps even just one or two tracks, after separating the wheat from the chaff), which is important if you're only going to be listening for a month every year.

Without question, this year was one of the best for new (and almost entirely original) Christmas albums.  Only four would fit into the picture, but there were five that are good enough to be tabbed as an Honorable Mention for 2018.

* Socks, JD McPherson.  10 original tunes, and they're all winners.  The title tune is about every little kid's least favorite Christmas gift, but along the way McPherson demonstrates, in about as fun a manner imaginable, how much he loves the holiday season.  These are tunes you can dance to, should you so desire.  Highlights: "Hey, Skinny Santa!," "All the Gifts I Need," "Claus vs. Claus," "Every Single Christmas."

* Hey! Merry Christmas!, The Mavericks.  Their own website describes their sound as "beyond category," incorporating "Roy Orbison-style balladry, Tex-Mex and Rockabilly."  That'll do, and on their holiday effort, one couldn't be faulted for thinking that they're listening to a great but long lost record from the early to mid-1960s.  Except for "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," all originals, and also with a healthy dose of fun.  Highlights: "Santa Wants to Take You For a Ride," which is quite possibly the nastiest holiday song since Elvis scorched the chimney with "Santa Claus is Back in Town," the title track, and "One More Christmas."

* Love the Holidays, Old 97's.  Rhett Miller's band has been around forever; sometimes their albums are merely good, and sometimes they're incredible.  The best think about "Love the Holidays" is that if you didn't listen that closely to the lyrics, you'd think you were listening to a "normal" Old 97's album.  And I mean that as a compliment.  Highlights: the title track, "Gotta Love Being a Kid," which sounds a bit like a Christmas song filtered through an early Clash album, "Christmas is Coming," "Snow Angels."  If you want to hear the band's take on some traditional carols, be sure to buy the deluxe edition.

* Ingrid Michaelson's Songs of the Season.  Michaelson tried her hand at holiday tunes last year with an EP; that effort was clearly successful enough for her to take a dive into the deep end of the holiday pool.  This sounds more like a traditional pop star Christmas album than any of the others on the list; it includes old chestnuts like "White Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," but in versions that add to the canon, rather than simply repeating it.  There are a handful of originals, but the highlight may be her (slow) take on Mariah Carey's monster Christmas song, joined by Leslie Odom Jr.

Not pictured above but equally deserving of the honor is Rodney Crowell's "Christmas Everywhere," which I've seen described as an "anti-Christmas album," which I think was the author's way of noting that some of these songs are about as sad as you'll ever hear on a holiday album.  The clear highlight, and one that definitely falls into that category, is "Christmas in New York," which my friends can definitely look forward to hearing on next year's compilation.

All in all, a jolly time.  Thank you to all of the above artists for brightening the holiday season with these outstanding efforts.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Albums of 2018, Honorable Mention: Kacey Musgraves

My feelings about this album are mixed.  On the one hand, I'm very happy for Musgraves' success, and happy that she is breaking through the male-dominated wall of country music radio that has continued to feature inferior male artists and bands over female artists like Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, Ashley McBryde, Courtney Marie Smith, Amanda Shires, and others (and for the record, I do not include Eric Church, Chris Stapleton or Sturgill Simpson on that list of male artists).  I'm happy that she has done so well in the year-end polls at NPR and Pitchfork.  If there is a Pazz and Jop poll this year (and I don't know that there will be, considering that the Village Voice is no more) "Golden Hour" will no doubt finish very high.  And that's all great.

On the other hand, I'm not hearing a lot of what others are hearing on this album.  I thought that "Same Trailer, Different Park" was a terrific debut, and that "Pageant Material," although suffering slightly from sophomore slump syndrome, was a very solid follow-up.  I was really looking forward to what album #3 might bring.  Musgraves is carving out a path that is mixed equally with roots music and countrypolitan glamour - and from a financial standpoint, that strategy appears to be paying off in spades.  More power to her, and there's no doubting that on songs like "Oh What a World" and the magnificent "Slow Burn" the formula is completely successful.  But too often, to these ears the songs sound like pop pablum - not horrible, but also not justifying the kudos that have followed.

If every song on "Golden Hour" was as good as the two mentioned above, it would be a contender for my Album of the Year.  As it is, it's still worth an honorable mention.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Bruce Springsteen: Live at the Roxy, 1978

I'm not sure it makes sense to call it the "Holy Grail" because you could find recorded versions of the show if you knew where to look, but an official release of Bruce's legendary (and here, that's just fact, not hyperbole) show at the Roxy certainly qualifies as major news for anyone who even remotely considers themselves a fan of Bruce.

The show is famous for a few reasons, aside from the fact that it deserves to be on the basis of quality alone.  In his Rolling Stone chronicle of Bruce's 1978 tour, Dave Marsh wrote about the show extensively, and one thing that has stuck with me through the years is when he mentions that Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey and Irving Azoff were all present at the beginning of the show, with Frey and Azoff leaving after a handful of songs and Browne closing out the night dancing on the top of the table at which he was sitting.

A year later, Greil Marcus wrote about the show for his New West column (congratulations if you remember that late, lamented periodical).  Marcus was not present, but got his hands on a decently recorded bootleg of the show (I had one as well, but I'm not sure I'd call it a decent recording) and called it "one of the most vivid pieces of sound in the recorded history of live rock 'n roll.  There's nothing you can't hear; even when the band goes after its harshest, most brutal rave-ups, every note stands out."

I've been to ten Springsteen shows, but my first wasn't until the 1980 tour behind the release of "The River," after he had graduated from the small clubs and venues to playing almost entirely in basketball/hockey arenas.  Four years after that, he'd make the full-flown leap into baseball and football stadiums.  I saw him at each, and loved every show, but there's no doubting that the sound you can achieve in a smaller venue is superior to what you can do in, for example, the cavernous Oakland/Alameda County Coliseum (or whatever they call it today).

When you listen to the Roxy show, you can't be faulted for thinking that you are listening to rock history.  I've played the bootleg off and on for nearly 40 years, but there's no questioning that the sound quality on this release is far superior to what I shelled out $25 for back in the late seventies (and believe me, $25 was a lot of money back then for a vinyl record).  For example, I'd never heard that show's version of "Point Blank," the same version he would play at Winterland in December of that year - not quite finished, not quite the version that you hear on "The River."  But still amazing, nonetheless.

But the highlight, then and now, is the titanic version - played only a couple of times since the 1978 tour - of "Prove It All Night."  I'm going by memory here so this may not be a direct quote, but Dave Marsh in describing it wrote something along the lines of, "When you hear this version of the song, you might question whether it is a hit single, but there's no questioning that it's a great song."  I'd go even further than that, and say that the 1978 version of "Prove It All Night" - and don't get me wrong, there have been other great versions of that song - is probably the single best live song he ever performed.

One final note - a friend and colleague of mine was actually at this show, which is pretty cool.  For me, that is.  Very cool for him.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Revisiting the Top Ten Albums of 2007

The Winner, and New Champion
Not long ago, I was looking for something in the blog archives and stumbled across this post, about my Top Ten albums of 2007.  To save you the time of taking a look, this was the list:

1. Magic, Bruce Springsteen
2. Neon Bible, Arcade Fire
3. Kala, M.I.A.
4. Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley
5. Raising Sand, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
6. Revival, John Fogerty
7. Challengers, The New Pornographers
8. Children Running Through, Patty Griffin and West, Lucinda Williams (tie)
10. Dylanesque, Bryan Ferry

Perusing the list, three things immediately came to mind:

* I really over-rated Magic.

* I really under-rated Challengers (an album that took a while to sink in for me, but which I've grown to love).

* There were at least a couple of albums that weren't even part of my collection in 2007 that I suspected would break into this list, and an album from an artist you've probably heard of that has really grown on me over the years.

Wanting to be fair (as if that really matters at this juncture), I took the time to give each album at least another listen, and am now prepared to offer this revised list of the Top Ten Albums of 2007.

1. Neon Bible, Arcade Fire.  It's really not a stretch to say that this is a perfect album.  There was a time when it seemed like that would be true of all their albums, but alas that time is now past.  But there isn't a single misstep on this one.

2. Kala, M.I.A.  When this came out, I wrote, "The best part of it is that it just sounds exciting - music that you want to tell someone about..."  Nothing has changed on that score, and if anything the record feels deeper and more effective now than it did a decade ago.

3. Challengers, The New Pornographers.  Back in 2007, the car I was driving didn't even have a CD player, so I made a mixtape consisting of songs from this, songs from Bryan Ferry's Dylanesque, and songs from Fountains of Wayne's "Traffic and Weather."  That tape got a LOT of play, and over time the songs really began to sank in.  After a while, it became pretty clear that this was a great album.

4. Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley.  This holds up, although I know that there are few people who think this is their best album.

5. Magic, Bruce Springsteen.  It's not as if it is a bad album.  But like nearly everything Bruce has released since getting the E Street Band back together, it's inconsistent.  I was never a huge fan of the title track, and ten years in I find "Livin' in the Future" actively annoying.  A handful of other songs are just meh, but the core of the album can stand proudly with anything he's recorded.  For me, that core consists of "Radio Nowhere," "Gypsy Biker," "Last to Die," "Long Walk Home" and "Devil's Arcade."  Those I always expected with age with grace, but I never would have dreamt that over time, I'd come to believe that the album's one indisputably classic song was "Girls in Their Summer Clothes."

6. Planet Earth, Prince.  When Prince died, I went back and listened to a lot of his stuff, but focusing mostly on the albums released in the years after he was the biggest thing in the world.  How I missed just how strong this record is, is beyond me.  It's not "Purple Rain" or "Sign O' the Times," but it's a really, really solid album.

7. Graduation, Kanye West.  Make fun of me if you will, but in 2007 I'd never listened to Kanye West.  This is not his strongest album, but it's certainly good enough to crack the Top Ten.

8. Raising Sand, Alison Krauss & Robert Plant.  Down a couple of notches, but still sounds great.  If there were just a couple of more fast ones, it might have stayed where it was.

9. Emotionalism, The Avett Brothers.  Like Kanye West, the Avett Brothers were an unknown to me in 2007.  They'd release their best album a couple of years after this, but this one is still very good and includes at least three classics (including the immortal "Shame").

10. Traffic and Weather, Fountains of Wayne.  An expert "hard-pop" band, and this one has hooks galore.

Out of the Top Ten:

Revival, John Fogerty - A good, but not great album.  Still worth a listen.

Dylanesque, Bryan Ferry - Ferry has always had a bit of an obsession with Dylan, and when this is good, it is really good.  But some of the tracks are just a little too lightweight.

Children Running Through, Patty Griffin - Still very good.

West, Lucinda Williams.  I'm honestly not sure what I heard in this one.  She's still one of the most frustrating artists of my time.  But we'll always have "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."

Monday, February 26, 2018

"Helplessly Hoping" - Annihilation

In one of "Annihilation's" early scenes, Natalie Portman is painting the bedroom where she and her husband Kane slept.  It's been established that he has been missing for a year, and that her character - Lena, a Johns Hopkins biologist and Army veteran - remains in his absence a shell of her former self.  On the soundtrack, Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Helplessly Hoping" plays, a song that perfectly sets the tone that director Alex Garland seeks to establish in the early portions of his film.  It's one of the best uses of music in a film in recent memory.

Lena turns around and, miraculously,  Kane (Oscar Isaac) stands there, but it quickly becomes apparent that something is amiss.  He begins to shudder, and while en route to the hospital the ambulance transporting him and Lena is overtaken by a military force.  Lena is sedated, and when she awakens she finds herself in a mysterious compound, with her husband in a coma and suffering from organ failure.  She is questioned by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist.  She learns that the compound has been established just on the outside of a phenomenon that has come to be known as the "Shimmer."  In an earlier scene, we saw a meteor strike a lighthouse; the Shimmer has grown from that.  Only one person has returned from previous expeditions into the Shimmer - Lena's husband Kane.  No one knows exactly what is happening inside the Shimmer; they only know that it is expanding.  They suspect this is not a good thing.

Lena meets three women at the compound - a physicist (Josie), a paramedic (Anya), and a geologist (Cass). She learns that they, along with Dr. Ventress, are to be the next expedition into the Shimmer.  Lena joins them, and together the five women venture into the unknown.  What they find is that within the Shimmer, no life is the same as it was before.  Plant life is different, animal life is different (some animals are benevolent and even beautiful, others are vicious and life threatening), and there is life that doesn't look like anything that anyone has seen before. 

Within a short period of time, the women realize that they are changing as well. In one sense, the trek through the Shimmer is a journey into the heart of darkness.  In another sense, it is a journey of discovery.  Not all of the discoveries are pleasant, and some are quite horrible.  Left open to interpretation are some pretty fundamental questions that linger with the viewer after the end of the movie:

* Have these five women somehow been "chosen" for the journey?

* We learn through the story that each of them is damaged in some way - does that impact their fate within the Shimmer?

* What exactly is the ultimate fate of Lena and Kane?  Are the life forms that we see at movie's end actually Lena and Kane?

* Is the film as a whole a commentary on disease?  On what humans are doing to the planet we live on?  On what humans do to themselves in their most self-destructive moments?

The great thing about great science fiction is that the stories can be read as an open book, by which I mean that they're like those old assignments when the teacher would read a story and then you were tasked with writing (or talking about) the ending that you thought made the most sense.  "Annihilation" is clearly not for everyone, and at some points (especially the part that takes place within the lighthouse) I'm not sure I ever understood everything that was going on.

Kudos to director Alex Garland for his steady and confident hand, kudos to producer Scott Rudin for supporting his director and insisting that Paramount release the movie as Garland had intended it to be seen, and kudos to the five actresses who give the story its heart and soul: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Books of 2017

And last but not least, a list that will hopefully be longer this year - the books I read in 2017:

  • Altamont - Joel Selvin
  • The Power of the Dog - Don Winslow
  • Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World - Rob Sheffield
  • Before the Fall - Noah Hawley
  • Home - Harlan Coben
  • Born to Run - Bruce Springsteen
  • The Wrong Side of Goodbye - Michael Connelly

The Movies of 2017

Housekeeping post #2 - the movies I saw in the theater in 2017:

  • Thor: Ragnarok
  • The Shape of Water
  • Star Wars - The Last Jedi
  • The Florida Project
  • Blade Runner 2049
  • It
  • Mother!
  • Good Time
  • Logan Lucky
  • Wind River
  • Dunkirk
  • Atomic Blonde
  • Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
  • Wonder Woman
  • War for the Planet of the Apes
  • Spider Man: Homecoming
  • Baby Driver
  • Alien: Covenant
  • Free Fire
  • Life
  • The Fate of the Furious
  • T2 Trainspotting
  • Logan
  • Get Out
  • La La Land
  • Silence

The Albums of 2017

This is strictly a housekeeping post, but I like to memorialize for the record the music, films and books that I've enjoyed in the course of a year.  So without further ado, the albums of 2017:

  • From A Room, Vol. 2 - Chris Stapleton
  • Songs of Experience - U2
  • Carry Fire - Robert Plant
  • Masseduction - St. Vincent
  • Turn Out the Lights - Julien Baker
  • Lotta Sea Lice - Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile
  • Colors - Beck
  • A Deeper Understanding - The War on Drugs
  • Way Out West - Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives
  • Hitchhiker - Neil Young
  • Science Fiction - Brand New
  • Sleep Well Beast - The National
  • A Black Mile to the Surface - Manchester Orchestra
  • Everything Now - Arcade Fire
  • Out in the Storm - Waxahatchee
  • Something to Tell You - Haim
  • 4:44 - Jay-Z
  • The Nashville Sound - Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
  • Crack Up - Fleet Foxes
  • Close Ties - Rodney Crowell
  • Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie
  • Triplicate - Bob Dylan
  • Be Myself - Sheryl Crow
  • DAMN. - Kendrick Lamar
  • From A Room, Vol. 1 - Chris Stapleton
  • Sad Clowns & Hillbillies - John Mellencamp
  • Wrangled - Angaleena Presley
  • Love and War - Brad Paisley
  • Whiteout Conditions - The New Pornographers
  • Teens of Denial - Car Seat Headrest
  • Americana - Ray Davies
  • Graveyard Whistling - Old 97's
  • Pure Comedy - Father John Misty
  • Trophy - Sunny Sweeney
  • Freedom Highway - Rhiannon Giddens
  • Windy City - Alison Krauss
  • Prisoner - Ryan Adams
  • We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service - A Tribe Called Quest
  • Darkness and Light - John Legend

Monday, February 12, 2018

Belated Super Bowl Thoughts

As far as Super Bowls go: it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

The best of times:

Were you not entertained?  It's hard to imagine a more engaging game, from start to finish.  I was wrung out by the end, and my team wasn't anywhere near Minneapolis.  The Eagles put everything on the table, including the legendary call shown on the SI cover at left.  And no one who watched last year's game thought it was over until they saw for certain that the ball made contact with the ground on the Hail Mary.  We had three generations watching together, and I'm pretty sure that until it was proven otherwise, we thought that New England would figure out some way to pull it out at the end.

A Cinderella story for the ages.  The Nick Foles story is why people watch sports in the first place.  As recently as Christmas night, he just plain stunk up the joint, and one reason I can say that with authority is that his poor play cost my fantasy team a championship.  But why would anyone have expected anything more?  I felt good for him after the divisional round victory, just because then he could point to something positive heading towards the future.  But not for one second did I think it was possible for him to perform the way he did in the NFC Championship game and the Super Bowl.  Even under the worst case scenario, in which he accomplishes nothing notable for the remainder of his career, he merits a paragraph (heck, maybe even a chapter) in the NFL History Book.

Tom Brady.  Yeah, I'm tired of him too.  But no one has ever played at a level like this, at an age like this.  It really is quite remarkable.

The worst of times:

The NFL cannot win the battle against brain injuries.  That was illustrated quite well by the play that sent Brandin Cooks packing (warning - not for the faint of heart).

What's scary about this play is that there is absolutely nothing the NFL can do to prevent it, outside of a change to the game so fundamental that it won't be American Football anymore.

As Rodger Sherman noted in The Ringer:

"Cooks spent several minutes motionless on the ground and was almost immediately ruled out for the rest of the game with a head injury.  But Jenkins's hit wasn't dirty: he wasn't head-hunting, and he didn't aim to make contact high on Cooks's body.  Yet he still hit the living hell out of him, and I can't imagine any rule that would make Jenkins's hit illegal that wouldn't essentially outlaw tacking.  The hit on Cooks and his subsequent injury served as a remind that perfectly legal hits can cause the types of terrifying injuries that the NFL claims it can eliminate from the game, and it happened with the largest audience of the year watching."

Malcolm Gladwell is already on record as stating his belief that professional football as we have known it will end at some point during his lifetime.  A few years ago, that seemed like a preposterous statement.  Not so much anymore.

Defense, where art thou?  The statistics all showed that New England's defense wasn't very good, but come on - more yards were gained in this game than ANY GAME IN NFL HISTORY.  I have an old book about the early years of the Super Bowl, and there's a part in it that takes place right before Super Bowl III where some elitist NFL nabob is watching the AFL Championship game with some cronies, and makes the comment, "Gentleman, what we are watching here is Mickey Mouse football."  Well, in that famous game, Joe Namath and Daryl Lamonica threw 96 passes, and the two teams gained a total of 843 yards.  In Super Bowl LII, Tom Brady and Nick Foles threw 91 passes, and the two teams gained a total of 1,151 yards.  Reach your own conclusions.

Cris Collinsworth.  I'm not even sure why, but boy did I find him annoying.

There's probably an entire post in the issue of what the NFL can do to get past the "kneeling before the flag" issues, so we'll save that for another day.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The Song of 2017: "Hope the High Road," Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

Almost forgot to close this thing out! 

Aside from King Kendrick, Jason Isbell made my favorite album of 2017, the first time to these ears that he's been able to sustain over the course of an entire album the greatness of the songs he contributed to Drive-By Truckers.

A decade later, married, sober and father of a little girl, there seem to be no limits to what Isbell can achieve in the years to come.

"Hope the High Road" was the perfect illustration of 2017 - hopeful, against the background of a year that was probably the biggest shit show of my life.  Sometimes you just gotta forget all that, and focus on the good stuff.

And this is the good stuff.

"Hope the High Road," Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

Thursday, January 25, 2018

My Favorite Albums of 2017

Like most of the music-listening world, the digital age has changed the way that I listen to music.  I still buy CDs and rip them onto my devices rather than buy music straight from the online vendors, but most of my listening (in the car, at work, on the plane, or while running) is of the playlist variety.  For the purposes of putting this list together, I put in a concerted effort over the past six weeks or so to actively listen to each of these recordings as they were intended to be listened to: from start to finish.  Because I know that throughout the history of rock 'n roll, rare has been the album that gripped me immediately upon first listen.  Some just take time.  There were a lot of albums that I wanted to give a shot before making my final decisions.

So at long last, here is the list that at least three (maybe four?) of you have been anxiously awaiting.

1. DAMN., Kendrick Lamar.  Whether you listen to it frontwards, backwards or on shuffle, there's no questioning that "DAMN" was the best album of 2017.  I didn't buy the reverse order "Collector's Edition," but I did create a reverse order version on my iPod, and I'm glad that I did because it really opened up the last three songs - "FEAR.," "GOD.," and "DUCKWORTH." - in a way that I hadn't been able to hear before.  But for me, the heart of the album is the eight song stretch that begins (ends?) with "ELEMENT." and ends (begins?) with "XXX."  "DAMN." may not be Kendrick's boldest statement to date - "To Pimp a Butterfly" could hold that title for the entirety of his career - but the streamlined, no frills approach appeals to me in a way that none of his previous albums did.  As I told a fellow music enthusiast earlier this year, this may not be Kendrick's "best" album, but it's certainly my favorite.

2. The Nashville Sound, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.  Having the band back on board opens up some breathing room for the music, and lets Isbell flex his muscle in a way that he mostly avoided on "Southeastern" and "Something More Than Free."  The most important changes in his now-sober life appear to have been the addition of a wife (Amanda Shires) and a daughter, both of whom have challenged him, although it sounds corny, to be a better man.  Both of the solo albums were outstanding, but this is the first time that I've thought he's been able to sustain the quality of his best Drive-By Truckers songs over the course of an entire record.  "Hope the High Road" is the realistic but hopeful anthem that we needed in 2017, and it's a fair bet that "If We Were Vampires" is the best love song ever written with the word "vampires" in its title.

3. Lotta Sea Lice, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile.  I'm assuming that this will be a one-shot, since Barnett's second solo LP is already in the works.  And I'm not exactly certain why this has clicked so much with me, since much of it has such a slapdash and laid-back feel to it.  At least emotionally, some of the songs have evoked in me a Grateful Dead feeling, and while I've never made the Dead a steady diet, I've periodically gone into a binge that ultimately ended up testing the patience of friends and/or family members.  The album's opener, "Over Everything," was one of my favorite songs of the year - I love the way that the guitars just seemed to pile on to each other, creating a sound that might have struck some as cacophonous but really resonated with me.

4. Find A Room, Vol. 2, Chris Stapleton.  See here for what I wrote about this album.  Suffice to say, Chris Stapleton is going to be around for a long time.

5. Sleep Well Beast, The National.  It took me a long time to discover The National, and I still haven't heard what many believe to be their best album (Boxer, 2007), but the band's approach is tailor made for my musical tastes and sensibilities.  Some might call their music depressing, and maybe it is - but it also feels like a well and smartly spoken commentary on what real life is like, and let's face it - real life is depressing sometimes.

6. Carry Fire, Robert Plant.  It's been nearly 40 years since the last Led Zeppelin album, which makes me wonder whether there are young fans of Robert Plant who know him only because of his solo work.  He's now on a string of at least three consecutive winners, and when you listen to his eclectic mix on each, it seems like there's little he can't do.  He probably can't quite reach some of those high notes which made him famous in Zeppelin, but other than that, nothing immediately comes to mind.

7. Way Out West, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives.  When I included a couple of their songs in my "Songs of 2017" series, I wrote that the album managed in the span of 45 or so minutes to evoke everyone from Tom Petty to Marty Robbins to The Grateful Dead.  What I forgot to mention was the notion that with this here record, we had ourselves the very first cowboy surfer band.

8. Whiteout Conditions, The New Pornographers.  "11 Soaring New Pop Songs," sayeth Robert Christgau, who picked it as his #4 album of the year.  While not putting them quite that high on my own list, there's little doubt that this is their best album since their 2007 masterpiece (so sayeth I), "Challengers."

9. Wrangled, Angaleena Presley.  The past (and perhaps future?) Pistol Annie continues the string of outstanding solo albums from that group's members.  Songs like "Only Blood," "Wrangled" and "Groundswell" almost effortlessly transcend the label of "country," and are good enough to make one wonder whether labels are even necessary.  Ashley Monroe, it's your turn now.

I know that every standard "Best Of" includes 10, but after spending about two weeks trying to nail down one last pesky album, there's just too many to choose from with too little separating them in terms of quality.  So, consider this a list of "Honorable Mentions," with some brisk commentary on each:

4:44, Jay-Z.  The most entertaining apology of all time?

A Black Mile to the Surface, Manchester Orchestra.  Not quite just another American band.

Close Ties, Rodney Crowell.  The old guy seems a little cranky and pensive, but it suits him.

A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs.  I'm still not quite sure what it is about this band that makes Pitchfork QUITE so orgasmic (sounds a lot like Bruce Hornsby to me), but the best songs are hypnotic.

Everything Now, Arcade Fire.  Certainly a step up from Reflektor, but I guess I'm just going to have to come to grips with the fact that the Arcade Fire which produced masterpiece after masterpiece is no longer with us.

The Far Field, Future Islands.  There's no way they could have topped "Singles," and I don't think they tried.  Believe it or not, I mean that as a compliment.

Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens.  At its best, reaches levels of passion and depth that few can match.

From a Room, Vol. 1, Chris Stapleton.  Just a step below Vol. 2.  Check out "Them Stems."

Love and War, Brad Paisley.  The dude can be a total cornball and like the rest of the world I'm really sick of his Nationwide commercials with Peyton Manning, but when he is on, he's about as close to universal as we can get in this day and age.

Masseduction, St. Vincent.  At its best, I hear an artist who would have fit right in with the Talking Heads.

Out in the Storm, Waxahatchee.  The band that Haim wishes it was.  Or at least, the band that I wish Haim was.

Pure Comedy, Father John Misty.  Sometimes I feel like the act is getting old, and sometimes he is just too damn clever for his own good, but when it works, it works.

Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, John Mellencamp.  The old codger ain't never going away.  Thankfully.

Songs of Experience, U2.  Not quite as good as the album that got them in so much trouble, but I'm frankly not sure what everyone expects at this point.

Trophy, Sunny Sweeney.  At her best, right up there with the best of the new wave of women country singers.

Turn Out the Lights, Julien Baker.  Maintains a downtempo mood like no album since Sufjan Stevens' "Carrie & Lowell."

Windy City, Alison Krauss.  I don't always go for the countrypolitan approach, but we've always known that Krauss' best instrument was her voice, and so this deviation from the usual bluegrass approach feels downright revolutionary at times.

And there you have it, folks. Happy listening.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Songs of 2017 - "Broken Halos," Chris Stapleton

Scroll down a bit and you'll find what I wrote about the two albums Chris Stapleton released in 2017.  They were both outstanding, and between the two of them there are probably close to a dozen songs that I could choose for this series.  But there's no doubt that "Broken Halos" is one of his best.

Monday, January 15, 2018

"Linger," The Cranberries

Every now and then, a song is released that is so perfect that it feels like a miracle.  The Cranberries' "Linger" is such a song.  It's been a while since I listened to the car radio on a regular basis, but back in the Nineties, this was a song that I always looked forward to hearing.  A song that, for the little more than four minutes of its playing time, would make all right with the world.  I never bought the album, so

Last fall, I stopped at a garage sale, and found the album buried in a big box of old CDs.  I bought it for this one song, and have yet to listen to any of the others.  Sometimes, the space in the CD cabinet is worth spending for one song.

Today came the news that lead singer Dolores O'Riordan has died, much too young at the age of 46.  But her voice will live on forever, with this song (and many others).


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Songs of 2017: "I Don't Care Anymore," Rodney Crowell

This is not a young man's song, and Rodney Crowell hasn't been a young man for a while now.  You look at him in this video, and "grizzled veteran" is the first thing that comes to mind.  Not unlike Sam Elliott in the film "Hero," Crowell is an artist who probably has a list of things that he would do differently if given the chance, but on the other hand, so what? 

"I Don't Care Anymore," Rodney Crowell.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Songs of 2017: "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness," The National

The National is another band that I came to enjoy rather late, and even now I've yet to discover a couple of their older albums that many longtime fans consider their best.

"Trouble Will Find Me" was probably my favorite album of 2013, and while 2017's "Sleep Well Beast" won't reach quite that level, it was a more than worthy successor.  "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" is a good example of what the band does best, and rather than try to explain what that means, I'd suggest you have a watch and a listen.

Dick Enberg and Keith Jackson: R.I.P.

In the span of less than a month, we've lost two of the all-time legends in sports broadcasting: Dick Enberg and Keith Jackson.

Fun Fact: from 1980 through 2006, Dick Enberg and Keith Jackson called 24 of the 27 Rose Bowls (Brent Musberger helmed the other three).  That alone would probably be enough to cement their legacy in sports broadcasting, but there was oh so much more for each broadcaster.  For Enberg, the resume included the Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Super Bowl, Summer and Winter Olympics, NFL, NBA, Wimbledon, the French Open, the U.S. Open (golf and tennis), PGA Golf, NCAA basketball, and Major League Baseball.  Meanwhile, Jackson's resume included the Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, NCAA regular season football, NBA, Major League Baseball (including the World Series), the NFL (the very first play-by-play announcer for Monday Night Football, in 1970), Winter and Summer Olympics, and NCAA basketball.

For all their brilliant work in a variety of settings, Enberg is probably best remembered for NCAA basketball, with his signature moment being the 1979 NCAA Championship Game between Michigan St. and Indiana St.- one of the most famous NCAA games ever, and the game which kick-started the legendary rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.  And without question, Jackson will be remembered best for his work on college football.  It is not a stretch to say that, for more than three decades, Keith Jackson WAS the voice of college football.  Appropriately, he closed his career with one of the most famous college football games ever, the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC.

For any sports fan who grew up in the Sixties, Seventies, or Eighties, Dick Enberg and Keith Jackson will always hold a special place.  They were both magnificent at their jobs, and from all accounts great people to work with.  Farewell to both.

"Oh My!"

"Whoa Nellie!"

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Songs of 2017: King Kendrick

Son #2 asked me yesterday when the "Songs of 2017" series would get around to Kendrick Lamar, and now is as good a time as any.  Part of the problem was deciding which song to pick - there are so many classics on "Damn" that it's impossible to narrow it down to one.  The album may not have quite the epic scope of "To Pimp a Butterfly," but it's a pop masterpiece, and will almost certainly be my "go to" album for Kendrick for a long time.

Like I said narrowing it down to one was impossible, so here are two songs that demonstrate the scope and range of the album and the artist.  And yes, the standard advisory, for both lyrical and visual content, applies.  If you think there might be something here that you're not comfortable with, you should probably not watch.


"Love" (feat. Zacari):

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Songs of 2017: "The Gold," Manchester Orchestra

I like to think that I'm up-to-date on most of the new bands and music of the day, but every now and then one manages to slip through the cracks.  So even though they've been around since 2004 I'd never heard (or even heard of) Manchester Orchestra, a band I would not have guessed was from Atlanta, Georgia.  Their page on Wikipedia describes them as "an American Indie Rock band," which basically demonstrates the meaningless of that word as a descriptor.

Last summer, someone that I follow on Twitter was talking about how good their new album was, so I figured what the heck, I'd check it out.  And while not all of it has truly sunk in for me, there's no denying that this is one of the best songs of the year.

"The Gold," Manchester Orchestra

Monday, January 01, 2018

Songs of 2017 - Two from Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives

Task #1: Happy New Year!  Even though we're into a new year, we're still in the midst of wrapping up the "Songs of 2017" series, with a few entries yet to come.

Task #2: A hearty thank you to Larry Aydlette, who tipped me off to "Way Out West," the record on which tonight's two songs appear.  It's one of the year's best, and manages in the span of 45 or so minutes to evoke everyone from Tom Petty to Marty Robbins to The Grateful Dead.  Well worth your time and listen.

First up, "Old Mexico":

To these ears, it sounds like the follow up to "El Paso" that Marty Robbins never got around to recording.

And second, "Time Don't Wait," a flat-out rocker that would have sounded just fine being played by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers:

"Old Mexico" and "Time Don't Wait," Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives.