You can hear the Tennessee cicadas in the background of this new Carolina Chocolate Drops album, which I love. I’m not normally one to get caught up in questions of “authenticity,” understand. I’ve seen this particular group play, and I believe in my heart that they’re the real deal; here, though, the recording itself offers glorious assent to the truth of the Chocolate Drops as real country people making real country music, living and breathing and swinging here with wild, rugged joy. The cicadas harmonizing along with them makes it all too easy to sink into the belief that you’re sitting on some mountain porch, hearing this music created in real time.
Praises are due, of course, to producer Buddy Miller, picking up where Joe Henry left off. Joe’s work laid the necessary foundation, establishing this band’s penchant for country-blues, rustic folk, and Appalachian jigs. The music on Genuine Negro Jig was tough, drawing the past into the future. The new album likely wouldn’t have been possible without it; that said, Leaving Eden is a more confident, more joyful, and more intimate recording. It’s more ambitious, but less polishes. I simply think there’s more feeling here, and the songs seem to flow quite naturally out of the group’s passion for making music together.
Joe Henry led the band to a cover of a contemporary R&B song, Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” It wasn’t a novelty, but evidence of how much this music kicks, even when working to revamp modern material. Leaving Eden offers sort of the mirror image– a Chocolate Drops original, “Country Girl,” that almost sounds like it could fit on a contemporary R&B album. It’s a propulsive tune and an obvious single, its weight carried by vocal percussion and by Rhiannon Giddens’ swaggering delivery of the lyric, a celebration of rural Southern culture that takes the joys with the hardships and embraces the full scope of simple living and field labor.
It’s one of three songs that stand out as obvious anchors on a record that’s otherwise too fidgety, too primitive to stay in the same place for long. The title song is another showstopper, even if it’s also the most mannered thing here; it’s got a lovely cello arrangement, but the lyric, again delivered by Giddens, is what makes it stick. The song is about a life of hardship and strife, one that we all know must end in a sad goodbye– yet for all of life’s struggles, that goodbye is a bitter one, and the song embodies that tension to aching effect. The other big Giddens highlight is the closer, a lullaby called “Pretty Bird.” Performed basically a capella, the song makes me just the tiniest bit afraid that this group could evolve into just a platform for Giddens’ voice– and lovely though that is, I love this band for the glorious cling and clatter of banjo, mandolin, pipes and whistles, beatboxing, bones, fiddles, and kazoos that kick up so much dust on the rest of this record.
And yeah, as fine and as necessary as those album anchors are, I like the record best when it’s woolier, dirtier. The opening one-two punch is actually a little disarming in how ragged the sound is; the traditional “Riro’s House” is a hoedown led by fiddle, banjo, and snare drum, the vocal so muddy you could almost believe the recording is as old as the song itself. The same goes for “Kerr’s Negro Jig,” a creeping instrumental where those cicadas almost overpower the musicians.
And there are plenty of other highlights. “Read ‘Em John” is killer, howling in its gospel fervor and call-and-response urgency. That one’s sung by Dom Flemons, who also charms on the rustic nonsense “Boodle-de-Bum-Bum,” but Giddens is the singer on the funny, feisty brawler “West End Blues” and the jaunty declaration of female independence “No Man’s Mama.” I’m not even sure what to say about the ragged tear through “Run Mountain,” except that it is, indeed, Appalachian folk music at its most primal, and it’s wonderful.
Lots to like about Levon Helm’s celebratory new live recording– actually, available as either an album or a concert DVD– but let’s start with the title itself. Just a few years ago Helm was recovering from major throat surgery, and it seemed doubtful that he’s ever be able to open his mouth and sing again. And what a loss that would have been: Helm is duly credited as one of rock’s most distinctive and soulful drummers but he is perhaps underappreciated as one of its very best singers, the man whose warmly craggy, rustic Arkansas voice gave many of The Band’s all-time classics their heart and their weight. Thank God he got his voice back– and now, has released a record with the word “ramble” in the title. A cheeky bit of triumphalism, perhaps, though I get the feeling that Helm’s attitude is mostly one of humble thankfulness.
Or at least, that’s how this album plays out. The title is actually not a reference to the fact that the man can still talk and sing– and quite well, actually– but rather is a nod to the spirited concerts he holds in his Woodstock studio, and, every now and again, uproots and shares with other parts of the country. This set, of course, was recorded in Nashville’s own holy temple of American roots music. The Ryman once housed the Grand Ol’ Opry. I once saw Tom Waits perform there, a carnival barker bathed in stained glass refraction; it was a thing to behold. And this Levon Helm show more than lives up to the sacredness of its famous stage. The weight of history is very much a part of these performances, though it’s nowhere near as weighty or sober-minded as all of that would suggest. It’s more like the sound of a living legend who doesn’t care much to be bogged down by that title or the feelings of self-importance it might denote; he’s rather cut loose and have a good time, and Ramble at the Ryman is certainly a hoot and a holler. More directly: It’s the party album of the year.
They are structured as revues, these Rambles– think of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder era, perhaps– and this set in particular is a star-studded affair, Helm anchoring his large touring band (complete with horns, and led by Bob’s own bandleader, Larry Campbell) and augmented by guest performers including Buddy Miller, Sheryl Crow, John Hiatt, and others. But to call them guest performers almost gives the wrong impression. They aren’t really featured soloists, though many of them do take solo vocal turns; rather, they blend in quite naturally to the organic give-and-take of these performances, trading off vocal duties just like members of the band. Their celebrity is not the selling point here. This disc is all about hearing them humbly and respectfully share the stage with a true master– someone they all clearly hold in high regard, and who is really in terrific voice here.
The record actually makes a nice capstone to the latter-day renaissance Helm has been enjoying; his two recent solo albums, Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, both won critical acclaim and even Grammys, and Ramble is very much in the same spirit, a collection of folksy American roots songs that blend originals and covers (in this case, there are some Dirt Farmer songs and also some Band staples). Helm gives a joyfully ramshackle, carefree take on The Band’s “Ophelia” for the album opener before dipping into a Chuck Berry tune, “Back to Memphis,” here done as a sort of horn-drenched R&B. His voice is too weak to carry the Dirt Farmer ballad “Anna Lee” on his own, but the choral effect– featuring support from female band members– is quite lovely, and I actually prefer the warmth of this version to the studio rendition. There is a slightly slowed-down “Rag Mama Rag” that is sort of a slinky jam, and an album highlight. The closing trifecta finds the band tearing the roof off of “The Shape I’m In,” “Chest Fever,” and, most of all, an electrifying sing-along version of “The Weight.”
Along the way, Buddy Miller gets to do a song he wrote with wife Julie and included on his own fine album United Universal House of Prayer; it’s called “Wide River to Cross,” and, again, I prefer the looser live version to its studio incarnation, I think. Sheryl Crow gets to do a very convincing, down-home folksy take on a Carter Family song (“No Depression in Heaven”), and blues man Little Sammy Davis sings and plays harmonica on a couple of enjoyable blues jams.
But again, the presence of different singers here doesn’t make this feel like some kind of stilted celebrity tribute concert; it’s just the sound of great musicians cutting loose on some great songs, celebrating the material and savoring one another’s company. The performances are spirited, the arrangements (by Campbell) unimpeachable; the upbeat numbers are decked out in full, brassy regalia, the quieter numbers given space to be warm and intimate. My only request: That this not be a glorious parting shot from Helm, but rather just one more entry in a late-career canon that will continue to grow and grow.
I generally offer a quick count of my current favorite records after the first quarter of the year passes, a quick recommendation of the stuff that’s really stuck with me thus far, so I’ll follow suit here. These are ten albums that have impressed me during the first three months of 2011, and yes: One, some, all, or none* of them could end up on my year-end list come December. Note that, as is my custom, I’m only counting albums that have officially been released at this point in the year, which means that some favorite April releases– Low, Emmylou Harris, etc.– are going to be “exempt” form this sampling. But I strongly suspect you’ll see them on later lists…
* Well, no, that last part probably isn’t true. The first album on this list is perhaps my favorite new recording in three or four years, so it’s unlikely that it will be knocked off altogether…
There’s a sound that I love, used to introduce the second song on this album– it’s the sound of some frisky, playful guitar work, slowed down and then sped up in a way that makes it sound like the needle being dropped onto an old .45, eventually syncing up and, with a count-off, launching into a feisty take on the country chestnut “No Good Lover.” That’s the album in a nutshell: It’s pure guitar mastery from start to finish, but not in the way you might think. That Buddy Miller is an ace guitarist is not up for debate– he’s got no one less than Robert Plant to back up his shred cred– and the musicians he’s corralled into his Majestic Silver Strings troupe include jazz/blues stalwart Bill Friell, edgy Tom Waits/Joe Henry sideman Marc Ribot, and steel whiz Greg Leisz. These guys could put on a fireworks show for you if they wanted to. Much to my delight, however, they’d much rather put on a country music show.
And actually, the thing really does have the feel of a country music revue. Buddy Miller is the ringleader; he takes the lead on the first few tracks before passing along vocal duties to a star-studded lineup of country music pros (and even Ribot, whose unpolished romanticism as a singer somehow seems perfectly in sync with his guitar playing, and is an album highlight). It’s like a good old-fashioned guitar pull. Miller gets the mic back to close things out, and– how’s this for a perfect showstopper?– he gets wife Julie to join him.
It’s a celebration of great guitar playing, but much more than that it’s a celebration of country music. The songs here are mostly covers, and I think it’s fair to say that, while some of them might be familiar to you, none of them suffer from overexposure. (George Jones’ “Why Baby Why” is probably the best-known thing here.) There are lover’s laments and campfire sing-alongs; prison songs and jilted lover songs; songs of thick, syrupy sentiment and songs of unsettling gallows humor; songs for the honky tony and songs for lonesome nights on the prairie. Taken together, the material here doesn’t represent anything so formal as a history of country music, or even country guitar playing; it’s really just a love letter to the stuff, messy and heartfelt and brimming with personal quirks, humor, heartache, and general weirdness.
And as for those guitars, they’re usually used more for atmosphere than anything. Just about the boldest thing here, I think, is the opening number, “Cattle Call.” It’s a cowboy song, made for lonely nights of reverie around the campfire, and here it begins with a few minutes of gently-picked acoustic, sonorous electric, and high-and-lonesome steel guitar work, the aural equivalent of a slow-motion pan over desert plains and vistas that stretch for miles. It’s the slow and steady start that any good Western requires. Buddy’s voice comes in toward the end and carries it home, as gentle and unhurried as it began.
There’s a total lack of ego here, something that’s as evident from the lack of blazing guitar solos– which any one of these guys could peel off in a heartbeat and set the whole thing on fire, were they not so keen on serving the songs– as from the fact that, once “No Good Lover” kicks in, the emphasis is as much on Jay Bellerose’s drumming as it is on the electric guitar work. Buddy is in fine voice here, and Ann McCrary is his perfect vocal foil. Any album that wants to highlight the rich blend of heart and humor that’s always propelled country music would be a pitiful thing indeed without at least one good he-said/she-said duet, and this one is a gem– oddly sexy, or at the very least appealingly cantankerous, and rich in droll humor and bittersweet barbs. But the next Buddy song might be even better; he duets with Patty Griffin on “I Want to Be With You Always,” and it’s a mushy country weeper in the best possible sense, devastatingly beautiful.
Ribot sings lead on two songs– plus a duet with Buddy on “Why Baby Why”– and I never knew the man had it in him. Listening to his tracks is as revelatory as hearing him pick up the coronet on Joe Henry’s Blood from Stars— it seems there’s no musical endeavor to which the man can’t bring a wonderfully ragged, tattered sense of humanity and romance. His first song is a sad and stately prison song– “Barres De La Prison”– in which he brings a sort of deadpan resignation to his tale of woe; even better is “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” a six-minute masterpiece of heartbreaking frailty and ominous atmospherics. It is perhaps the album’s best showcase for its four-guitar interplay, even more so than the very fine, chugging instrumental “Freight Train.” (And there’s another must-have; what would an album like this be without a train song?)
As for the guest vocalists, Shawn Colvin’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” and Emmylou Harris’ “Why I’m Talkin'” are both exquisite ballads. I’m even more taken with Lee Ann Womack, though, whose “Return to Me is Lovely” but who really shines on the standout number “Meds”– a hilarious, heartbreaking, and somewhat unsettling tale of love and loss and anti-depressants, written by Ribot. She performs it with an actor’s instincts. But the real showstopper? Marc Anthony Thompson, the Chocolate Genius himself, lending his golden pipes to a twisted, irreverent, and again grippingly sad gallows tune called “Dang Me,” guitars and drums churning in the background like the gathering flames of Hell itself.
It’s actually a pretty good representative of the album itself– atmospheric, gritty, funny, a little weird, and totally country– but what makes this something truly superb is the balance of material like this with songs that are lighter, more playful, more sentimental; this might read on paper like an exercise in guitar-worship, but actually it’s a thrillingly lively and authentic (albeit idiosyncratic) homage to the breadth and depth of great country music– a tradition that this wonderful album simultaneously honors and joins.
Back in their glory days– when they were cranking out albums that all of us, with our 20/20 hindsight, regard as five-star classics– Led Zeppelin couldn’t get much respect from the rock and roll elite. (That line from Almost Famous is right: Rolling Stone trashed everything they ever did.) I blame it on Robert Plant, and his stubborn obsession with mythology; when your lyrics are littered with references to Norse and Welsh mythology, and when your rock and roll epics come with a heavy Tolkien fixation… well, let’s simply say that, when you’re penning a song called “The Battle of Evermore,” relatability is probably not your primary concern.
But Plant is a cagey fellow, and almost twenty years into his solo career he’s still pretty stubborn. He’s dropped the swords-and-sorcerers hangup, and thank God: I never minded it, but it might seem a tad juvenile coming from a man who’s now 62. His love of mythology, however, has never abated, and his music is all the better for it. These days is sourcebook isn’t some dusty tome about Ragnarok, nor his inspiration the hills and valleys of Middle Earth. Now Plant looks to the pages of the American songbook, and to sunswept images of the old West– and he does so to considerably more acclaim that he received as a younger man: Let us not forget that Raising Sand, his album-length duet with Alison Krauss, won an armload of Grammys, and it’s got the sales figures to match.
His latest, Band of Joy, grew out of the seeds sewn with Raising Sand; actually, it began as a straight sequel to that album, but the chemistry with Krauss just wasn’t there this time, so Plant decided to take the project in his own direction, enlisting some Nashville pros to give his stuff just the twang it needed– including Buddy Miller as producer, and Patty Griffin as his vocal foil. But the actual Band of Joy concept goes back to well before Raising Sand— indeed, to before Zeppelin. Band of Joy was the name of a band Plant was in before Zep got together, and though it never went anywhere his memories of it are fond ones. He recalls that, back then, he simply had a boyish enthusiasm about him, his art beholden to nothing more or less than a love of song– of taking words and tunes written by other people and doing them his way, not for the sake of radical reinvention but simply for joyful, spontaneous music-making. And that’s the approach that informs this album, perhaps even more so than on similarly song-oriented projects like Raising Sand and Dreamland: In the singer’s own words, he doesn’t want to break open the door to a song so much as simply shake it open with his hips, and so he takes old chestnuts like “Can’t Buy My Love” and “I’m Falling in Love Again”– ostensibly rockabilly and doo-wop, respectively– and treats them both basically as pop songs. His concern isn’t reworking them– just putting himself into them.
But if Band of Joy has a light-heartedness to its approach, it’s still an album of immense mystique– even darkness– as Plant uses the material (all of it covers, though Plant and Miller get credit for arranging some of the traditional songs here) as a jumping-off point for further adventures in mythology, with a particularly American bent but not exclusively within the realm of “Americana.” That may be the key to unlocking this album: He’s playing with ideas of Americana, but not in a style that could be easily classified as such. He’s doing it Plant-style, which turns out to be more interesting than yet another ol’ Brit making a straight country-Western album. And there’s really no other way to describe songs like “Angel Dance”– a Los Lobos tune played here with currents of Celtic folk melodies running through it– than to compare it to its antecedents in Plant’s recent past, like his dark and death-obsessed blues/Celtic crossovers on Dreamland.
This album is sprightlier than that, generally speaking, but it isn’t without its affectations. Crucially, Buddy Miller keeps this from sounding like a Raising Sand knock-off with Griffin filling in for Krauss, and a lot of that is simply due to the way it’s recorded. T-Bone Burnett kept Sand a sleepy and conservative affair; Band of Joy has its share of rounded edges, and anyone looking for live-from-the-floor Americana grit will be disappointed, but again, anyone looking for Americana grit period is clearly looking for something different than what Plant wanted to make. Miller keeps the album shrouded in a certain dark mystique, with percussion rumbling like ominous thunder where you might expect it to snap; it rarely crashes, and the restraint used here gives the album an oddly nervous edge that underscores the mythic trappings Plant’s taking on.
The two best songs here are both by the slowcore band Low, from their Great Destroyer LP, and both of them showcase exactly what’s great about this album at its best. These are hardly country songs, yet their presence here, and the inflection Plant gives them, make them sound like extensions of the rest of this material’s Americana leanings; Plant’s take on American roots music is as much about the drone as it is the twang, and so these thundering rock epics almost play like mirror-image reversals of the rest of the album’s reworked country and blues. They rock, but in a precise and deliberate way instead of a loose, Led Zeppeliny way. Patty Griffin’s high harmonies– different from anything she’s ever sung before– are incredible grace notes that make the songs stick, and show that though her role is much smaller than Krauss’ was she’s every bit as important to this album’s success. And the two songs nicely merge the various mythic threads running through the rest of this material– the Old West archetypes, the pop-song love lyrics, the themes of redemption and religious liberation that begin to pile up as the album concludes.
Indeed, the final couple of songs are interesting capstones. “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” and “Even This Shall Pass Away” are both traditional gospel numbers, and both encapsulate religious themes not in a personal sense so much as a cosmic one; the former, as it is played here, almost sounds like the defiant stance of a gunslinger in a shoot-out with the devil himself, praying to Jesus for cover fire. Are sentiments like these supposed to be taken as expressions of Plant’s actual religious beliefs, or simply as his interest in American mythology of another sort? I suspect we’ll never know. Band of Joy holds tightly to its secrets, preferring the allure of mystery as a sort of invitation for our imaginations to run wild. It’s open-ended and exploratory– in other words, Plant once again doing things his way.
For at least a few years now, Patty Griffin has enjoyed a critical reputation as a “secular gospel” singer, a term that suggests her involvement with the genre has more to do with aesthetic than it does with any particular creed. But what to say now that Griffin has recorded her first actual gospel album, Downtown Church— an album that draws in large part from traditional black gospel songs, that was in fact recorded in a church and is marked in part by a deep sense of reverence? Shall we chalk this one up to a formal exercise that derives its authenticity from its storied source material, or a sincerely soul-searching effort that derives its authenticity from the singer’s own marriage of her faith to her art?
Griffin herself grew up Catholic but seems less interested in applying a particular religious descriptor to herself these days, so any autobiographical readings will only go so far. The music itself, though, offers evidence in favor of both readings, and suggests that maybe Downtown Church is both the next step in Griffin’s artistic journey as well as her faith journey. Certainly, the album is a natural continuation from the increasingly gospel-influenced sounds of Impossible Dream and Children Running Through, and on one level the record works superbly as an exploration of traditional black gospel– so much so that the inclusion of Big Mamma Thorton’s “I Smell a Rat,” a snarling kiss-off to an unfaithful lover, feels less like a sore thumb than a curious but not unrelated diversion, being as it is a rambunctious, bluesy number that was likely inspired by– and an inspiration to– some of the other music included here.
It’s also evidence of Griffin’s interest in pursuing the roots of this music no matter how deep and wide they’re spread, something reflected in her choice of material: Not only are there familiar black gospel numbers like “Wade in the Water,” but also a nod to Hispanic religious traditions in “Virgen de Guadelupe,” and the inclusion of a song like “Waiting for My Child” suggests gospel in its social awareness and its musical structure more than in its explicit mentions of faith per se. But for all of this, Downtown Church smartly avoids being simply Patty Griffin Plays Gospel, feeling as much like an exploration of the religious themes contained within these songs as the musical heritage they carry with them. I’m not sure how else to explain the inclusion of the traditional hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King,” which is not a gospel song nor is it performed as one here; it’s a benediction that ends the album on a note of humility and prayerful reflection.
And then there’s the matter of the way these songs were recorded and produced by Buddy Miller. A friend has suggested that this is black gospel music as recorded for white people, and I suppose that’s fair enough, if you want to assume that black folks don’t much care for country-folk, which is essentially how these songs are presented here. No, this is not Patty Griffin throwing a hoedown or havin’ some church, but Patty Griffin assimilating these songs into her own sound, making them sound, well, like Patty Griffin songs. Which is not to say that the album is placid: Buddy knows how to capture the sparkling energy of a popping upright bass and rattling percussion, as on “Move Up,” and his swampy production turns “Wade in the Water” into a delightfully spooky sing-along. And that last part’s important, by the way: Griffin and Miller both know that these songs are meant to be sung by a community, and as such most of them are recorded with prominent back-up singers, giving the record the feel of a spirited sing-along even in its many quiet moments.
But if Miller understands that this is music made for singing, he also knows that gospel music offers serenity and reflection, which is how a lot of this material is recorded, be it the somber reading of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold” that opens the album, the warm glow of the pedal steel in “Little Fire,” or the tasteful strings and overlapping harmonies in “Coming Home to Me.” (Those last two, by the way, are the album’s lone originals, and they’re both exquisite.) This is beautifully meditative music that underscores one of the most unlikely characteristics of the chosen material– its reverence. Not reverence for the material so much as what it’s about: Griffin seems honestly interested in letting these songs of faith resonate in the listener’s mind and heart, and one assumes that they have some personal meaning for the singer, as well.
What Downtown Church is, in the end, is a rather accomplished piece of work, an album that works both as a gospel collection ans as a proper Patty Griffin release– one that feels like a natural extension of her last two records, not a diversion from them. It’s an album that celebrates traditional music and the unique stamp that a talented interpreter can put on it, an album that reflects religious faith in a way that’s direct but not didactic. That all makes it a very special recording, better even than the sum of its parts, and another knockout from one of our finest (not-so-)secular gospel singers.
18. Sam Phillips
Fan Dance (2001)
Fan Dance stands apart from every other album I own as a sort of dark marvel, a series of riddles that build upon one another into a grand puzzle that absorbs me even as it remains slightly elusive. Certainly, Phillips lives up to her album title: A fan dance is a strip tease, and so is the record, a performance of gradual revelation and a winking smile, an album that does indeed tease the listener with enigmatic poetry about art, truth, and grace– ideas formed and cultivated by Phillips’ own experience of being artistically and spiritually stunted within the confines of Christian pop, and her subsequent exodus into true, expressive freedom. This is something of a belated sequel to The Turning, a diary of an artist’s life wherein questions come easier than answers and the journey carries more weight than the destination. It’s also the seed of everything I love about singer-songwriter records; everything from the unvarnished production, the deep resonance of the creaky acoustic instruments, to the lyrics’ sly, knowing humor, has been formative for me, and the album still dazzles.
17. Buddy Miller
Universal United House of Prayer (2004)
I grew up listening mostly to Christian rock, a habit I long ago abandoned, but this record reminds me of how far a little holy fire goes toward making religious music really burn. Buddy’s gospel is more about creed and conviction than a particular aesthetic or style, as he surveys everything from fiery gospel-rock to hillbilly sing-alongs, country balladry to soaring spiritual anthems. It testifies to the astonishing depth and variety of American religious music, but what to make of the album’s centerpiece, a somber, epic take on Dylan’s “With God on Our Side?” It’s a spiritual of a different variety, a prayer for peace and a plea for compassion, an acknowledgment both of political realities (remember, this is a year into the Iraq War) and of the transcending power of the Divine. Falling where it does, it transforms the album into a powerful witness to the very real hand of God in affairs both personal and political, and House of Prayer into a timely and timeless ode to unity, tradition, and heavenly-mindedness.
16. Arcade Fire
I have something of a love-hate relationship with the indie music scene; I am dazzled by the innovation and eclecticism on display, but frustrated by the genre’s tendency toward exclusivity, and artists who seem to pour all their effort into emphasizing the line between those who “get it” and those who don’t. Not so with Arcade Fire, a band that transcends both their scene and their peers with open arms, big hearts, and anthems designed to reach all the way to the rafters and coax everyone into singing along. This is raw catharsis, music of intense feeling and a conviction that rock and roll can actually make a difference in lives, which might make Arcade Fire the closest thing this generation has to a new U2, and Funeral is their Boy and their Joshua Tree rolled into one: An album of suburban malaise and yearning for spiritual release, music that soars because it’s rooted in something personal, but aims to say something universal.
15. Josh Ritter
The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007)
An album that I will always defend, Ritter’s reinvention from a mannered folkie into a frisky, rambunctious pop troubadour recalls nothing if not Nick Lowe’s funny, layered records of the late 1970s, cartwheeling as it does from one style to the next with giddy energy and a pop craftsman’s ear for melody. Ritter’s album is deeper and richer, though, as he hijacks American myth and music and refashions it in his own image. Here Ritter is the gunslinger, the grizzled cowboy, the consummate lover; he is the American Adam, the new Dylan, the randy soul man and the soulful rocker. The album is built from a vocabulary we know– the language of pop songs– but from it Ritter fashions something that’s funny, original, and meaningful. The album is full of frayed ends, loose electricity, and odd left-turns, but its heart is true– love shines as the ultimate temptation and the only true redemption. This is Josh Ritter’s Americana, and it is mine as well– and I will love this album forever.
14. Richard Hawley
Truelove’s Gutter (2009)
I guess Richard Hawley just wasn’t made for these times. These songs are rich with images of modernity, of cling and clatter, noise and complication, drugs and addiction and love that hasn’t faded so much as atrophied, killed by the din. But the music rebukes all these modern demons through its sheer beauty, its elegance, its clarity. This is an album of rich, enveloping sadness, a kind of melancholy that feels warm and comforting, not dispiriting but awe-inspiring, and it becomes not just a prayer for serenity and a monument to enduring romance, but a note of permission to feel again; the last song is called “Don’t Cry,” but actually the singer tells us we can cry, that perhaps a little release is much-needed in this age of numbness and overload. Certainly, that’s what Truelove’s Gutter has become for me– a gateway to catharsis, my go-to sadsack album for when I need music to simply wash over me.
13. The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America (2006)
In 2006, Craig Finn and his Hold Steady weren’t simply heralded as the new ‘it’ band; they were greeted as saviors, which was on one level quite literally true– they may not have saved rock and roll, but, for many of us, they saved our faith in just what rock and roll could do. Certainly, that’s what this record will always be for me: A clear bolt of rock’s youthfulness and romance, its brash energy and cock-eyed sense of wonder. This is rock that knows no boundaries, lacking any kind of self-awareness or pretense; it may weave together threads picked up from Bruce Springsteen, Thin Lizzy, and The Clash, but it does so without making a big to-do about its influences or the way the band blends them into a voice all their own. It’s simply the sound of men who love power chords and beer-swilling anthems, creating a glorious ruckus.
That The Hold Steady is on some level a lyrics band has been said time and time again, and it somehow seems to state the obvious while missing the point altogether; yes, Craig Finn writes sharp and visceral stories about down-and-out losers, barstool romantics and gutter poets, but these have always been the heroes of rock and roll, just as integral in making this vital, crackling rock and roll as the E-Street piano and devilish guitar riffs. It’s what Finn does with these characters, though, that makes The Hold Steady a band of uncompromising heart and integrity; he leads them through back alleys of addiction and raw desire, and allows them to at least see the light of redemption shine through. I’ve never been a drug addict, but his references to Judas and Jesus in “Citrus” ring true; I don’t always like to admit it, but the story Finn’s telling is my story, too.