It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who loves country music not also loving Chuck Mead’s Back at the Quonset Hut— because of course, this is a record made by and for country music zealots, and it’s no great stretch to say that the album represents something of country music’s spirit and history, distilled to their very essence.
Even the title is a tip-off to the fact that this is very much an act of homage. Mead recorded the album at a legendary Nashville studio space– former occupants of which include not just Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, and Carl Perkins, but even Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. Mead and his rugged band of country pros are literally surrounded by history. And then there are the songs, every one a country music classic that you know by heart, at least if you know your country music, and probably even if you don’t.
That all might sound like the recipe for mere homage, but the crowning achievement of this set is how it avoids studious. It’s not a historical reenactment. It’s a very loving and passionate take on standards– and like so many standards collections before it, it’s made memorable not because it reinvents the wheel, but because of its sheer empathy, enthusiasm, and warmth.
The album is, in other words, a roaring good time– rich and hearty and rustic, everything a great country album should be. And it’s amazing how much of its appeal comes from what might seem like little things; I was a full convert before the second song, “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor,” had stopped playing, partly because of the sonorous, two-stepping upright bass, partly because of the splashes of honky tonk piano (right around the time Chuck gets to the “Jelly Roll” line), but largely because of the singer’s own spirited and authoritative rendition.
Mead’s album is a winner for its diversity, as well. It begins on a truly old-fashioned note, and who better than the Old Crow Medicine Show to help Mead bring the hoedown all the way down from the mountain? Almost as old-fashioned is the wonderful barroom duet with Bobby Bare Jr. on “Hey Joe.” There are a couple of excellent ballads– a tender “Sittin’ and Thinkin'” being a standout, an excellent truckdriving anthem (“Girl on the Billboard”), and, with Jamey Johnson, a terrific, trash-talking “You Better Treat Your Man Right.”
Mead is not one bit afraid to stretch his country music to encompass early rock and roll– there are a couple of terrific rockabilly sides, including a “Be Bop a Lula” that curiously reminds me of John Lennon’s take on the song– but Mead saves the finest number for last. “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries” is fiesty, sexy, and an absolute delight– so it’s no great surprise that Mead shares the romp with Elizabeth Cook, another singer/songwriter whose gift is for bringing country music past roaring into its present.
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
Nashville malcontent Elizabeth Cook calls her new album Welder, a title she explains by noting that a welder is someone who fuses together different, separate elements into something united and whole. It’s a fitting image for Cook, a rising star whose seemingly split personas unite to form one of country music’s most interesting and complex figures– and who brings every side of her muse to bear on Welder more than on any previous album. This, after all, is a woman who hosts a country music program on Sirius Radio, and who still sings regularly at the Grand Old Opry; she’s also a woman whose last album, Balls, was simply too daring and unconventional for Nashville to embrace, leading it to be sounding rejected by country stations all over.
I can’t imagine Welder making any more of an impact on the radio, at least not the mainstream stations; the thing with Cook, though, is that while some artists simply seem incapable of being anything other than doggedly idiosyncratic, she makes it pretty evident that she could be a big country music star if she really wanted to. She’s got the chops, both as a singer and a songwriter, and she’s got the production pedigree behind her; Balls was produced by Rodney Crowell, and this one by Don Was. But what’s more than that, Cook has an understanding of country music past and present that she floats across this album, effortlessly and teasingly, as if to taunt the Nashville machine by showing how huge she could be if she were only willing to play by their rules.
Certainly, Nashville wouldn’t find anything to complain about with the high-and-lonesome boogie of “All the Time”– except, perhaps, for its lack of polish, its roots in traditional mountain music and bluegrass idioms more than anything resembling mainstream, pop-inflected country. Still, the melody and lyric are indelible, as is the harmony vocal from one Buddy Miller. There’s also “I’ll Never Know,” a country-soul weeper with Dwight Yoakam, and a cover of Frankie Miller’s hillbilly-gospel tune “Blackland Farmer.” Cook’s late mother wrote “I’m Beginning to Forget,” a swaying break-up ballad that really could be a fit for an artist more willing to step into Nashville’s box and roll over.
And then there’s “Girlfriend Tonight.” This is a tune that at first resembles everything that’s big on country radio right now, unitl you realize just how better at it Cook is than anyone else. One would almost call it sentimental, but the emotion is earned; it’s a ballad that hinges on a bit of wordplay, but rather than being corny or cutesy, the song is quietly devastating. The narrator is singing to her man about not feeling sexy or physically attractive, and the sleight of hand comes when we find that she’s actually his wife– but she wants to be his “girlfriend tonight,” a recipient of romance and sexual desire. There is an element of nostalgia here, but also sharply-penned lyrics that bypass psychoanalysis and go straight to the song’s emotional core. It’s terrific.
And so is the rest of the album– the stuff that’s a lot harder to pin to country music standards. The immediate standout is “El Camino,” a deadpan talking blues set over a Stonesy riff and a boogie-woogie beat that has little to do with where Nashville is in 2010. It’s a hilarious song about a pervy redneck cruising for chicks, and he finds himself on the receiving end of some brutal sarcasm from Cook. The song’s companion piece is the strutting “Rock and Roll Man,” a song that pulls off the neat trick of depicting a total loser while showing– honestly– why some women might be attracted to him. Cook isn’t one of them, though, and, again, her perceptive eye for detail enlivens the song with devilish wit.
On paper these sound like novelty songs, almost, except they’re so keenly observed– and so smartly dressed in vintage country and rock traditions– that they are nothing if not evidence of Cook’s remarkable songwriting ability. The same could be said of the jokey little honky tonk number “Snake in the Bed,” a song that might be slight were it not so fun; in a different league altogether, though, are a pair of shattering, personal ballads whose titles tell you everything you need to know: “Heroin Addict Sister” and “Mama’s Funeral.” Here, the album finds its beating heart, and Cook reveals herself to be miles ahead of all the other country music women whose rough-and-tumble personas eventually dissolve into schtick. She’s the real deal, something that these two wrenching songs makes perfectly evident.
If there’s any criticism to be found here, it’s that Cook stretches her eclecticism too far on a cover of Hem’s “Not California,” a fine performance that simply seems out of place here; but hey, when’s the last time a country album stumbled because it showed too much ambition? What’s important here is that Elizabeth Cook stands way out from the pack as a country singer and songwriter of restless creativity and feisty spirit; her more aggressive moments resemble Miranda Lambert and her already-classic Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but Cook delivers something even more complex and fully-realized, something that never seems like a persona or a shtick, but simply the work of a real, honest, endlessly complicated woman with a story to tell, and the talent to tell it in spades.