Three months in and there’s already been plenty of good stuff– including three records that very well might, in fact, stand as my three 2012 favorites when December rolls around. Two of those three are only now releasing, in the month of April, and my full reviews are forthcoming. Naturally, their presence here can be taken as a very strong endorsement indeed.
01. Black Radio
Robert Glasper Experiment
03. Locked Down
Vijay Iyer Trio
05. Release Me
06. Leaving Eden
Carolina Chocolate Drops
07. Radio Music Society
08. Young Man in America
09. I Will Set You Free
10. Carnivale Electricos
Anais Mitchell’s last album, a recording of her beautifully-conceived “folk opera” called Hadestown, was always going to be a tough act to follow; after all, in addition to being a one-of-a-kind recording featuring spot-on guest roles from Ani DiFranco, Justin Vernon, and Greg Brown, the album was just loaded with beautiful, evocative songs, telling a seamless story steeped in mythologies old and new. But Mitchell has followed it up as well as possible, I think, with a fine new record called Young Man in America. She’s wise enough not to do another folk opera, but this one is a very thematically focused work that’s not necessarily any less ambitious than the album that came before it. In fact, I’d say the music here is every bit as rich and beautiful, and there are some stand-alone tracks that are every bit as good as the standout songs on Hadestown.
So another very lovely and distinguished recording, then– my brief review of it is posted at CT today, if you’re interested in reading further. To the review I’ll only add how nice it is to have the full focus on Mitchell’s voice; the guest turns on Hadestown were all great, but I don’t think I ever realized what a superb singer this lady is all on her own until I heard her take center stage here.
I imagine we’ve done this enough that a disclaimer is no longer necessary, but I offer one anyway: Lest there be any confusion, I claim no authority on which to pronounce the Best, or the Most Significant, albums of 2010. All I can offer are my selections for the ones I’ve kept coming back to– the records that have moved both heart and imagination, and in several cases the hind quarters as well. What a year of abundance it’s been– a year that convinced me of hip-hop as a genre towering higher and higher with creative vigor, of gospel and old spirituals as links to a shared history as strange and mysterious as the present, of legacy artists as those with the most left to tell us. Among my fifteen favorites I count a “folk opera,” a concept record about the environment, and a hip-hop album about hitting middle age. Of course, I’ve also got a Genesis frontman visiting the orchestra, Zeppelin’s golden god recasting indie rock as country/blues, and, naturally, Yeezy noodling around with the Autotune. These albums have blessed me tremendously already– and I suspect I’m only beginning to understand the extent of what they have to offer.
15. The Bad Plus
Another year, another Bad Plus album—and with each new record, the argument over what it means for jazz music—is it the music in its purest form? Or is it something else altogether?—seems exponentially less interesting. Oh, I suppose their first album of all originals muddies the waters more than ever—with nary a single left-field cover song in sight, it’s still the Bad Plus album with the most nods to jazz convention, and the one most prone to unorthodox flights of creative whimsy—but the men themselves seem far less concerned about this than they do knocking out a record of roaring, visceral thrills. And that’s why I love them. P.S.—Jazz record or not, the title song is one of the year’s hookiest pop songs. Discuss.
14. Peter Gabriel
Scratch My Back
There were a few barbs traded over the entire Scratch My Back endeavor, but none of them came out of my living room. I love everything about this one: How it gracefully showcases the diverse colors of the orchestra, how it plays like a masters’ class in the malleability of great pop songwriting, how it makes a case for Gabriel as one of rock’s most souful interpretive singers. I love it too for what an unforeseen delight it turned out to be, the loosest and most un-Peter Gabriel-like album to ever be made by Peter Gabriel. He’s still restless, still an explorer, and the level of integrity he’s invested into this project suggests that he doesn’t particularly care to conduct his adventures on anyone’s terms but his own.
13. The Black Keys
Could’ve/should’ve been their White Blood Cells—and even if the indie kids didn’t quite catch on like they might have, I’d still call it their breakthrough. When last we heard from them the Keys had turned to Danger Mouse for a minor makeover, but here they turn within themselves—and when you’re as resourceful a band as this, why not? There’s a Howlin’ Wolf reference in the cover art and psychedelic shadings throughout, more than enough vintage references to cement their cred as a duo of considerable smarts and a record collection gilded in classic rock chic, but what I really care about is that they’ve still got it where it counts: They play the hell out of this thing, stirring up a ruckus like they’re two kids banging around in a basement at the end of the block.
This one’s subversive, and no less profound because of it. These are high-minded concerns, spoken in dick jokes and crude come-ons; Cave and Co. seem at first to be laughing their way through a mid-life crisis, but the jokes is on anyone who thinks the crisis is anything less than a global pandemic, a scourge on manhood and marriage alike, or that Cave isn’t taking all of this stuff very seriously indeed. They’ve also gone a bit psychedelic on us, but here again, all these new textures only affect the telling, not the story itself—for all the colors they’ve added to their palette, they haven’t forgotten that noise is still the one they wear best.
11. Robert Plant
Band of Joy
I reckon this shouldn’t register as much of a surprise: Robert Plant—obsessive myth-seeker, and frequent myth-maker—plays fast and loose with the tropes of classic Americana, turning a couple of Low songs into backwoods incantations, a Richard Thompson song into weepy C&W, and some 60s pop nuggets into soulful gems that could have been written by the Beatles—or, written yesterday. Still: Just listen to this thing, especially after the lovely but relatively conservative Raising Sand, and try not to raise an eyebrow. Everything here—from the rolling thunder of the drums to Patty Griffin’s presence as spectral siren—is just a touch removed from the expected, and the album is all the more sublime because of it.
10. John Legend and the Roots
I’ve heard this one called a “throwback,” but there’s nothing throwback about it. Legend and the Roots crew salvage politically-charged obscurities from the soul/R&B vaults and champion them as living, vital documents of concerns that are very much those of our present situation. That is both the point and the ultimate triumph of this record. Yeah, Brother ?uesto nails the sonics on all of the vintage-sounding stuff, but hip-hop adrenaline is never far removed from the equation; as far as covers albums go, this one’s remarkably streetwise. It’s also remarkably on balance: There are moments of pure, hippie-dippie idealism, and moments of abject, hopeless rage; there are protest songs and love songs, there’s grit and blues and the sweet, smooth strains of gospel. All of it’s necessary for pulling off a project so precarious, and all of it’s here, exerting its own right to our attention with just as much suavity and grace as it might have in 1969.
09. Mavis Staples
You Are Not Alone
Top to bottom, Mavis sets every one of these songs on fire—a holy fire, occasionally mixed with brimstone. Alongside the songs of sin and sadness, though, there are songs about hope and faith and community; it might have been “inspirational” music in the blandest sense of the term, but there’s nothing bland about an album mixed so perfectly with shades of humor and heartache, message music and personal testimony. I still can’t believe the thing moves so naturally from its opening Pop Staples reverb to the Sunday School sing-along of “Creep Along Moses,” only to end things on a sublimely bluesy tip. But I am increasingly credulous as to Jeff Tweedy’s stature as a producer of gospel-soul- or is it soul-gospel? Doesn’t matter; the way it all comes together here is a match made in heaven, and that’s doubly true for Tweedy and Mavis.
How is it that an album so high on concept—a thematic record about environmental woes and consumerism gone mad, performed by Damon Albarn’s cartoon rock and roll troupe—works so splendidly as a collection of pristine pop pleasures? Maybe it’s all the deep references to pirate radio and The Who Sell Out: Like that record, this one hangs together on the strength of its narrative thread but the real joy is in the simple, ragged joy of the songwriting and the performances. I love that this one takes so many views on its central conceits, swinging so gracefully between sadness and humor both cheerful and black, each guest performer so perfectly chosen to breath his or her character to life, everything united by Albarn’s whipsmart pop instincts, hooky as ever even in a hip-hop and club-oriented context. In a way, it’s a nice mirror image to some of those great Blur albums; where Parklife sought to reclaim lad culture from a sea of faceless nationalism, this one’s about rescuing shared humanity from the corrosive effects of modernism. It’s a more ambitious project, and, to my ears, an even greater achievement.
07. Anais Mitchell
“Ambition” has been the watchword for so many of the albums on this list, and in many ways I’m inclined to say that Mitchell’s is the most ambitious of them all—a “folk opera” that recasts the myth of Orpheus as a sort of sociopolitical allegory for the America of the Great Depression and the America of today, it’s literally an album unlike any other. But that is neither its greatest achievement nor the source of its pleasure; I, for one, keep coming back to it because the songs are so good, kicking up just the right amount of dust and finding weathered authenticity in the period details. And I love that it isn’t primarily a screed, but a tale of love and morality: I’ve read any number of interpretations of “Why We Build the Wall,” as a metaphor of everything from economic division to conflict in the Middle East, but no matter how you slice it the record cuts deep as an unflinching meditation on trying to do the right thing, even when the chips are down.
06. Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
At first I felt like Kanye wasn’t doing enough to bridge the gap between Hip-Hop and Art, but whenever I get to “Lost in the World,” the concern is immediately dropped. Who else would splice together a Bon Iver tune with a Gil Scott-Heron recital and underpin it with a jungle beat that’s totally bangin’? In terms of sheer audacity, there’s none like him. This album is many things—an event, a blockbuster, an already-legendary 10.0—but mostly I think it’s a triumph of self-expression. I’ve never heard any artist, in any idiom, so skillfully reinterpret his past as something so rooted in the present, or so heroically convert every one of his weaknesses into a feat of incredible creative strength.
05. Elvis Costello
You can say what you will about Elvis Costello—that he’s lost some of his edge thanks to a decade or more of writing operas and singing with jazz orchestras—but National Ransom gives us a Costello who’s as sharp as ever. What’s more, the album’s razor edge is not in spite of, but precisely because of its sophistication, its literary scope, its historical awareness and its integration of everything Costello’s done since he was first playing the pubs. So yes, the title song could almost have fit on an early Attractions date. But he also pens parlor tunes and nightclub jaunts, country shuffles and string band jams. In the last song, he even does a little bit of the ol’ soft shoe—but if the apocalyptic omens and prophetic overtones are any indication, he’s still pushing as hard as ever.
04. Aaron Neville
I Know I’ve Been Changed
Simplicity speaks powerfully to Truth. As a producer, Joe Henry understands that better than anybody; his approach is to throw a bunch of studio pros into a room together and stay out of the way while they make something really special, something spirited and spontaneous and alive. When it’s all done, the man looks like a genius just for leaving well enough alone. He brings Allen Toussaint on board for this record, which essentially does for gospel music what his Solomon Burke album did for soul: It strips away the inessential and reminds us of the power this music has always held. I don’t know that much needs to be said about the singer or the songs. It’s Aaron Neville—voice as sweet and soulful as ever—and a bunch of spirituals that have weathered the ages. And they’re presented just as they should be: Without distraction.
03. Elizabeth Cook
The first three songs almost play out as the album in microcosm. “All the Time” is an ass-whoopin’, barroom anthem, a sure-thing country radio hit if only there were any justice in Nashville. It symbolizes everything that makes country music great. “El Camino,” on the other hand, strips away the country conventions and turns our preconceptions of roots music on their head. And then there’s “Not California”—a folksy power ballad that swells with emotion and doesn’t seem to give a shit whether we want to call it “country music” or not. But things only get more daring from there: Cook proves her love of country tradition over and over, but songs like “Heroin Addict Sister” prove that she isn’t beholden to it, because no one else is writing songs like that these days. This is a hilarious and heartbreaking album that flaunts and then shatters roots music standards, and as such it is, quite frankly, the most idiosyncratic and wonderfully personal country album I’ve heard in a decade or more.
02. Big Boi
Sir Lucious Leftfoot: The Son of Chico Dusty
It took me a while to figure it out, stacked as this album is with killer singles, but I’ve come to think of “The Back-Up Plan” as a break-up song, of sorts—only, the object of General Patton’s jilting is the rap game itself. He still loves her, to be sure, and probably always will… but these days, she just can’t keep up. Sir Lucious is an album made by a man who isn’t interested in running the rap game so much as he knows that he’s outpaced it; ironically, it’s also something of a throwback to the genre’s most foundational virtues, not to cult-of-personality rapping but to the sheer, giddy joy of the sound of words and their innate sense of rhythm. As a words man, I confess that I find that to be pretty irresistible. By the way, I do have a slight preference for this record over Kanye’s, and I think it’s largely because Yeezy seems to be working so very hard, both to entertain us and to prove his mettle, while Big Boi knows that he doesn’t really need to. He’s a master of his craft, and this is an album-length display of mesmerizing vocal dexterity and incredible showmanship. Those are things that speak for themselves.
01. The Roots
How I Got Over
Early in the new Roots album, Black Thought laments a sad possibility– that perhaps “the light shines once in a lifetime.” As in, only once. A couple songs later, though, he gets his fight back: “The light comes in different types/ Be more specific!” It’s a powerful moment, and the emotion is earned. To boot, it’s earned the old-fashioned way: Through an exquisitely-crafted, nine-song set of luxuriously soulful, groove-oriented hip-hop numbers, through perfectly-sequenced record-making and economical songcraft. In many ways, this is a very different rap album than the others that hit so big this year, arguably not even a straight rap record at all– where Big Boi and Kanye employed the sheen of modernity, The Roots crew opts for vintage warmth; instead of club-ready rap, they spike their hip-hop with flavors of indie rock, but the whole thing sounds more than anything like a soul record; and instead of sprawling ambition, this is an album of deliberate succinctness. And yet, I think it’s an album that matches anything else released this year in terms of its ambition– and not just because it’s so doggedly out-of-step with current trends. This stuff is artful and profound, the product of what has historically been a youth-dominated idiom that here turns its attention to the crises of middle age, to growing up and coping with changes that aren’t always good. They’ve called it an album for a “post-hope” era, but it’s hardly hopeless; on the contrary, this is a soul-stirring, moral wake-up call, an album-length argument for perseverance as a good and noble thing, worth striving for in and of itself.
It has been, in my opinion, a very rich and fruitful year for new music. I could come up with a very fine Top 10 or 15 list right now– and we still have six months ago. So naturally, compiling my list of favorites so far is tough; I can only imagine what kinds of agonizing decisions I’m going to have to make when it comes time for the year-end list in December.
As with my “best of the first quarter” list from earlier this year, I’m only counting albums that have already released as of the end of June 2010; thus, such excellent records from the “coming soon” department, including (but not limited to) Big Boi, Ray Lamontagne, Robert Plant, The Innocence Mission, and others, are not considered here. And speaking of that “best of the first quarter” list, let it be noted that, from that list, only two albums return for this top ten, which goes to show just how many terrific recordings have come out in the spring and early summer.
So, with no further explanation, here are the ten albums that have moved me, entertained me, rewarded me, and inspired me the most in the first half of 2010– and yes, all or most of them could very well end up on my year-end-list come December.
01. The Roots
How I Got Over (review)
02. Elizabeth Cook
03. Anais Mitchell
Plastic Beach (review)
05. The Black Keys
06. Robert Randolph and the Family Band
We Walk This Road (review)
07. Trombone Shorty
08. The Tallest Man on Earth
The Wild Hunt (review)
09. Alejandro Escovedo
Street Songs of Love (review)
10. Josh Ritter
So Runs the World Away (review)
Some Honorable Mentions: Paul Weller– Wake Up the Nation; Spoon– Transference; Elizabeth Shepherd– Heavy Falls the Night; Peter Gabriel– Scratch My Back; Peter Wolf– Midnight Souvenirs; Gil Scott-Heron– I’m New Here; Mary Gauthier– The Foundling
As is my custom, I’m going to wrap up the first three months of the year with a tally of my favorite recordings that I’ve yet heard in the still-young 2010. The take-home message, I think, is that this has been an extraordinarily rich year for new releases thus far– in folk, in pop, in jazz– and I can only hope that the good stuff keeps coming. For now, though, let it be said that any of these albums would make fine additions to my year-end list, and a few of them are pretty much shoo-ins.
One disclaimer: Last time I made a list like this I included a few recordings that I’d heard in advance but were not yet released to the music-buying public; some of you thought I was cheating, so, for this list, I’m only including stuff that released officiall between January 1 and March 31, meaning that a lot of up-and-coming stuff that I really love– music by The Tallest Man on Earth, Josh Ritter, Peter Wolf, Roky Erickson, and others– isn’t eligible here.
The more music you listen to– and write about– the rarer it is that you hear something you can honestly say sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. So this announcement comes with a bit of fanfare, and no small degree of surprise: In 2010, I’ve heard an album– Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown, which is a folk record, an opera, a political fable, a revised myth, and an existential love story, all in one– that is, most assuredly, like nothing I’ve ever heard before.
Unfortunately, an album as rich and original as this one is pretty much guaranteed to remain a cult classic at best, virtually unheard at worst. Let me do my part to buck that trend: I’ve already reviewed the album here— not in nearly as much detail as I would have liked, but who would read a track-by-track walkthrough?– and here are some links to a few more required readings on the Hadestown project:
First and foremost, read the story of Hadestown— its history, its themes, its songs– in the aritst’s own words, over at The Basement Rug.
And here’s more from Anais– an interview with NPR.
Here’s the review that turned me on to the album, by my friend Thom Jurek.
And here’s a terrific review from the Burlington Free Press.
When’s the last time you heard a pop musician take inspiration from Greek mythology? My mind automatically goes to Nick Cave and his retelling of “The Lyre of Orpheus,” from his brilliant 2004 record of the same name. Cave re-imagines the Orpheus tale as– what else?– a dirty punk rock song, sleazy in all the right ways, and memorably rhyming the protagonist’s name with the word “orifice.” Now if only more mythology textbooks would take the same approach, I imagine it would be a much more popular topic in middle school English.
Anais Mitchell– an inspired young singer/songwriter who you’ve probably never heard of until now– has written an entire album about the Orpheus saga. Actually, it’s not just an album– it’s an entire “folk opera,” which is exactly what it sounds like. The show has been performed and tinkered with for several years now, played with different casts of singers and musicians, but the release of the Hadestown CD makes it definitive. It’s not the original cast recording– or even the original cast– but it, and Mitchell, are original through and through. And there’s also nothing about it that suggests the awesome vulgarity of Cave’s song; Mitchell’s is a poetry that’s much less lowbrow, and her Hadestown story is a human epic about love in the ruins, grace during trying times, holding on to compassion and integrity even when the chips are down.
The original Orpheus myth is about a man who follows his beloved into Hell. Mitchell’s version takes place during a post-apocalyptic American depression, in a city where times are “hard and getting harder all the time.” Underground, there’s a city that prospers, its ruler, Hades, having constructed a wall around the city that keeps wealth in and poverty out. So which one is Hell, exactly? Euridyce, voiced by Mitchell, finds out all too quickly when she abandons her poet lover Orpheus (Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon) for the posh set-up down in Hadestown. Judge her if you must, but the chorus of Fates– voiced by the Haden triplets– turns the question right back on us: Would we behave any differently, were our bellies and pocketbooks both empty?
Meanwhile, down south, Hades (Greg Brown) indoctrinates his subjects, with a cruel mantra that bears eerie resemblance to a certain Pink Floyd song. Why do they build the wall, he asks? They answer: To keep them free; to protect them from the enemy; the enemy is poverty, etc. They are creating security, at the cost of their own freedom. But behind Hades’ back, his wife Persephone (Ani DiFranco) runs a little speakeasy, a hole-in-the-wall where Hades’ slaves come for a taste of what they’ve left behind– like sunshine, flowers, summer air.
A project like this really has the odds stacked against it: For it not to topple under the weight of pretension, or of being too stagey, it takes a songwriter of graceful touch and generous spirit, which is exactly what we have in Mitchell. Her vision of Hadestown is a labor of love, to be sure, but what makes it work is that she’s humble enough not to do it all on her own. She made the album with arranger Michael Chorney, who ties lofty ambitions to the dirty ground with expressions of American folk music that range from country-blues to ragtime. When DiFranco introduces her speakeasy, Chorney gives her a deliciously raucous, seedy cabaret background. He gives the project what it really needs to succeed– songs. Not just a narrative arc, but songs that stand on their own and make each scene feel like a thing unto itself as much as a part of the greater tapestry of story.
Chorney believes in Mitchell’s vision, in all its audacity, and so do her guest singer. To the character of Hades, Brown brings a mixture of roguish seduction and royal weariness that makes the character at one villainous and empathetic. DiFranco could quit making records and get a career as a Broadway singer right now, so spirited is her performance as Persephone. Justin Vernon’s wounded falsetto turns out to be the perfect instrument for the legendary and heartbroken Orpheus. And Mitchell, in surrounding herself with singers who are all more famous and experienced than her and in going out of her way not to be the star here, somehow stands out as the star nevertheless; perhaps it’s because her generous creative spirit is abundantly clear in every note she sings.
Her generosity and genuine humility inform everything about the way this project takes shape: This being a myth, Mitchell is wise in treating it as an archetype, an album that’s broad enough to be about love and greed and politics, precise enough to invoke acute ethical conundrums and real-world crises of courage and good faith. Some have said that the album is a metaphor for Israel and Palestine, for the U.S. in an age of homeland security and racial profiling, but there’s nothing here that’s ham-fisted, nor is there anything that suggests Mitchell is willing to settle for easy definitions of good and evil. She sounds like she is at play here, following the myth and her carefully fleshed-out characters to their inevitable conclusions and simply allowing the themes to resonate all on their own.
It’s telling that two of the story’s most climactic moments are presented here as instrumental pieces; Mitchell is confident in her poetry– which is clever and profound and never cliched– but also in the gifts of her collaborators, and she trusts that the musicians will tell this story just as evocatively and suggestively as she herself does. The wordless songs aren’t a cheat, but a tease– they spur the listener to imagine his or her own words, and draw unique conclusions. Would that every artist could come to the table with ideas as big and audacious as this one, and still trust listeners to be able to keep pace and follow along. Hadestown affords the listener this very liberty, and in so doing it becomes an album that’s original and unforgettable.