Regular readers of this blog will know that I have more than my fair share of obsessions and peculiar hang-ups—New Orleans music, black gospel music, Elvis Costello, anything involving ?uestlove—but Joe Henry surely sits at the top of the list. A few years ago, I created a list that counted down what I consider to be his finest production jobs, and never intended it to become an ongoing project. Due partly to my own obsessiveness and partly to the fact that Joe keeps doing better and better work, I’m compelled to update the list once more, making room for some of the fine work he’s done in the past year or so.
As usual, I’ll omit Henry’s own fine solo albums from the list, only to keep them from completely shutting out everything else.
01. The Bright Mississippi
Allen Toussaint (2009)
I’ve heard it said, regarding the seminal Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin American Recordings, that all Rubin had to do was put an acoustic guitar in Cash’s hands and step out of the room, and that he ended up looking like a genius in the process. In much the same way, it seems like Joe Henry gathered some of his favorite musicians into his basement and bid them go to town on some of the most classic songs of New Orleans, and the resulting record is incomparable. The Bright Mississippi is, paradoxically, as “hands off” as anything JH has produced, but it might also be the most distinctively him. All this Naw’lins racket amounts to the sound of pure joy and spontaneity. Not many records can evoke that, and the ones that do seem to come, most often, out of Joe’s basement.
02. The Long Surrender
Over the Rhine (2011)
I suspect that, had Joe Henry been living in Ohio at just the right time in the 1980’s, he would be a full-fledged member of Over the Rhine. As it is, he is merely a perfect collaborator, the catalyst for the seasoned band’s best-ever work. All of Joe’s instincts as a songwriter and a record-maker shape this masterful album, which is never in any danger of becoming anything other than pure Over the Rhine.
03. Don’t Give Up on Me
Solomon Burke (2002)
This is the one that started it all, and I suspect the one that opened the doors to most, if not all of the other collaborations listed here. It seemed revolutionary then and now: Forget the gloss, the fireworks, and the celebrity cameos. Keep the band small and soulful. Gather the very best original material possible. Focus on Song and Voice. That’s as close to a formula as you can get, I think, for a comeback record, a soul record, or really for any record that’s worth much of anything.
04. I Know I’ve Been Changed
Aaron Neville (2010)
Sometimes I read articles or hear interviews with Joe Henry, and when they list his production credits, this album never seems to get mentioned. I’m not sure why. Like The Bright Mississippi, this is strikingly emblematic of Henry’s production values. It’s got a crack band surrounding a terrific singer doing timeless material, and JH mostly just seems to let ‘em roll. Why would he do anything else? They really cook. Bottom line: The album’s hot.
Lisa Hannigan (2011)
I don’t think of Joe Henry as a producer who has his own “sound,” necessarily, but there are some sonic giveaways, and most of them have to do with the musicians he regularly employs. You can frequently tell it’s a JH joint by, for instance, the shake and rattle of Jay Bellerose’s percussion. He recorded this particular album sans his regular ensemble players and outside of his Basement Studio, and it stands as a testament to his own resourcefulness. His ear and his instincts work just fine even when he’s using someone else’s studio and someone else’s band.
06. The River in Reverse
Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint (2006)
This one demonstrates the subtly and steadiness of JH’s guiding hand. Though the collaboration is pitched on Toussaint’s terms, it does, indeed, feel like a true collaboration, and as far as I can tell Henry does nothing but cultivate that. He guides these musicians to make a record that’s part party and part protest; part lamentation, part indignation, part celebration. It’s totally Toussaint and completely Costello, and the sound is clean and rich without ever evoking overt nostalgia for Toussaint’s early work.
Loudon Wainwright III (2008)
In terms of sheer quality, I could just as easily select Strange Weirdos. What makes this one special is the perspective Joe brings to this project. The idea of re-recording vintage material in a full-band context could have become little more than a glorified greatest-hits album. Instead, through the ace song selection and instinctive performances, this becomes a remarkable achievement and a spellbinding recording in its own right, one that actually builds upon the legacy of these great songs rather than simply presenting them in new arrangements.
08. I Believe to My Soul
Various Artists (2003)
Joe Henry has done more than just about anyone else to bring sturdy, old-fashioned soul music back into contemporary favor, and this fine recording is exemplary of his passion for the stuff. It’s traditional but never studious, and it also introduced the sort of Motown concept—with Toussaint, in particular, serving as a featured performer as well as a member of the house band—that has become a staple of pretty much all of the Garfield House recordings.
09. I’m Not There
Various Artists (2007)
It’s a little odd, I guess, to single out a fairly sprawling collection for which Joe Henry only produced a handful of tracks. The JH tracks that are here, though, are stunning. This is still the best place to hear Joe working with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, I think, the fine A Stranger Here aside. There is also a wonderful Richie Havens song, but the best song on the entire collection is the barn-burning gospel fervor of John Doe’s “Pressing On” performance.
10. Let Them Talk
Hugh Laurie (2011)
This record is simply much better than one might have expected, and most of that credit goes to Hugh Laurie, who does the heavy lifting all on his own. I give Henry credit, though, for making sure Laurie has everything he needs to make a real album and not a vanity project—including a great studio band, tremendous songs, Toussaint’s horn arrangements, and Sir Tom Jones as a duet partner.
A couple years ago, I put together a list of my ten favorite Joe Henry productions– excluding his own, proper outings as a recording artist under his own name– and did not, to be totally honest, expect to return to it so soon for an update. The thing is, Henry– my favorite record producer, something that’s never been much of a secret– is doing some of his very best work these days, so I feel like the time is right to present a revised version of the original list, with two new entries located awfully close to the top. Let me also send my apologies to Aimee Mann and Susan Tedeschi, whose very fine albums had to be cut in order to keep the list to a nice, manageable ten.
10. Mary Gauthier
Between Daylight and Dark
Henry’s approach as a producer has sometimes been described as “less as more”– and while that’s a bit reductionist, it’s generally fairly accurate. Working with Mary Gauthier, he helps the singer locate the deep, damaged heart of the blues, in the process proving that you don’t need a lot of glitz or polish to make the blues come alive; in fact, just the opposite is true, as Henry surrounds Gauthier with a sympathetic and understated band that highlights every nook and cranny in her voice, and underscores every painful word she writes.
09. Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint
The River in Reverse
This record is a minor miracle: Vintage Allen Toussaint chesnuts and a handful of brand new compositions become a celebration of New Orleans, an angry protest of the response to Hurricane Katrina, a showcase for the unique gifts of both artists involved, and a collaboration in the truest sense. Henry comes into play with that last point– as the supervisor and facilitator of this ingenious pairing, he keeps everyone on equal footing, and the result is a brilliant balancing act. The music itself sounds great, crisp and alive, and it’s easily the best thing Costello‘s done in fifteen years or more. Henry even coaxes the reclusive Toussaint back to the microphone, itself fairly miraculous.
08. Bettye LaVette
I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise
A lot of times, veteran artists try to stage a comeback with an album full of star-studded cameos, gimmicky arrangements, and pandering song selections. Joe Henry knows better: In re-introducing the great soul singer Bettye LaVette to American listeners, he simply relied on great songs– classy material that showcases the singer’s power and versatility– and a stellar backing band. Beyond that, he simply sat back and let LaVette do the rest– and given what an incredible singer she is, that was precisely the right thing to do. This is how every comeback album should be approached.
07. Loudon Wainwright III
LaVette’s wasn’t the only career Henry jumpstarted this decade; he also breathed new life into Loudon Wainwright. Wainwright had never been recorded particularly well before working with Henry, but Joe’s backing band and deft touch made for the two most full-sounding, spirited recordings of Wainwright’s career: 2007’s joyous Strange Weirdos, and this gem, which re-interprets many of Loudon’s classic songs, but instead of guy-and-guitar arrangements, Henry records Wainwright with his full band. He gets major kudos for the concept alone, and the execution is flawless– but then, I always thought Wainwright’s older work was a bit thin in the recording department. Regardless, there’s no denying that Henry’s guidance in the song selection is masterful, and for introducing Wainwright’s gifts to a whole new generation of fans, he earns our gratitute.
06. I’m Not There Original Soundtrack
Henry only produced a handful of the tracks on this sprawling, multi-artist celebration of Bob Dylan tunes, but it’s essential Henry for this reason: It shows his range and versatility as a producer, because it finds him working with several different artists and bringing to each one exactly what they need. He assembles his crack studio band to pick and sing their hearts out with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; he keeps things simple and sparse for Marcus Carl Franklin, keeping the focus on the impact of the voice and the words; and he adds tasteful gospel thunder to John Doe’s take on “Pressing On,” as good as any track on the record.
05. I Believe to My Soul
Joe Henry is virtually single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of soul music in the 00s, for his shrewd nurturing and enthusiastic support of such legendary talents as Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette, and Allen Toussaint. Indeed: Make a list of the eight or ten best soul albums of the decade, and at least three or four of them are bound to be Henry joints. Make this one of them; assembling five of the all-time greats of soul music, Henry creates a multi-artist soul compilation that’s full of soulful, elegant arrangements; vocal performances of tremendous power and nuance; and songs that are either newly-recorded or freshly interpreted. In other words: It’s pretty much perfect.
04. Allen Toussaint
The Bright Mississippi
Henry often says that he sees his role as producer simply as that of the casting director: He brings the right people together, offers them comfort and encouragement, and stays out of their way while they do their thing. That might sound like a detached approach to take, but it’s actually an inspired one, something that’s made clear by this magical recording. Henry recruits a group of ace musicians, puts them in a room together, and presses ‘record.’ And with that, he’s produced the most thrillingly alive and joyful instrumental album of the decade. It’s like bottled lightning.
03. Aaron Neville
I Know I’ve Been Changed
Henry has a reputation for doing fine, prime work with legacy artists, but this collaboration with Aaron Neville– returning the storied singer to both his gospel and his New Orleans roots– is something particularly special. It’s no big surprise that Henry brings a similar touch to spiritual songs as he does to folk and jazz and blues, nor that he simultaneously treats these gospel standards as folk songs– part of a shared history– and embraces them for what they are as sacred songs, historic relics of church music that still live and breathe with mystery and an austere sense of Truth. His masterstroke here is casting Allen Toussaint as the anchor of the band, which means that there’s a simmering, even sensual energy that connects the songs from the heart to the feet and grounding them in a geographic place– the Crescent City. The record stands out as something rather unique in Henry’s catalog, and yet it feels at the same time like a quintessential Henry production, a perfect marriage of Don’t Give Up on Me minimalism, Between Daylight and Dark blues, and Bright Mississippi joy.
02. Solomon Burke
Don’t Give Up on Me
A masterpiece of minimalism, a triumph of simple-but-soulful recording, a soul record of astonishing power and range, a comeback album that’s as tasteful and elegant as they come… everything Henry excels at seems to be present here, on this Grammy-winning masterpiece that sparked a whole new interest in soul music in the early part of the decade. The setup is just about as simple as it gets– Henry surrounds the veteran singer with just a rhythm section and Burke’s own church organist– but the results are varied and completely wonderful: Henry asked for songs from some of his famous friends and got terrific, brand new compositions from the likes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Brian Wilson. It’s material worthy of the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul, and Burke delivers on each song. Henry’s production keeps the focus where it sould be, and the result is so thoroughly a showcase for Burke, it isn’t until a few listens go by that you realize just how masterful Henry’s work really is.
01. Over the Rhine
The Long Surrender
Immediately the new gold standard for both concerned parties, Henry’s seemingly magical sessions with the Over the Rhine crew finds him pulling out all the stops: Not only does he pull a crack band together but he enlists a heavenly cameo from Lucinda Williams and even collaborates in the songwriting on two cuts. But what makes this a masterwork is how it perfectly showcases Henry’s gifts as a sympathetic co-conspirator, as the album is nothing if not true to the spirit of Over the Rhine, whose twenty-year career as recording artists is both summarized and pushed forward here, Henry serving as an encouraging and a nourishing presence to them but also pushing them to confront new possibilities, to revel in sonic sensualism like never before, to pull together an album that’s quirky and open-ended, embracing mystery even as it hangs together as a statement of glorious symbiosis between band and producer.
Today I’m remembering– with humility and gratitude– the life of one of the world’s most extraordinary soul singers, whose stirring recordings are largely to thank for my own love of soul music. RIP, Solomon Burke.
30. Gillian Welch
Time (The Revelator) (2001)
Proof– as much as any other album released in the last ten years– of the power of simple things, Time is an album of stark modesty, and, paradoxically, of bewildering complexity. It’s a primitive recording of a sophisticated set of songs: There’s nothing here but Welch singing and playing acoustic guitar, her partner Dave Rawlings plucking alongside her, no embellishments or studio tricks to be found– but using that most basic of palettes, Welch creates a remarkable masterpiece of little, interlocking parts. The songs weave history, both cultural and personal, around reflections on passion, work for the sake of work, the beauty of creation– a monument to the triumph of artmaking, of hard work on its own terms. And the album proves its own point: Few recorded moments send a chill down my spine like the moment when the audience bursts into applause during the disc’s lone live recording, a rousing affirmation of the ability of these simple gifts to dazzle us still.
29. Bettye LaVette
The Scene of the Crime (2007)
You could almost accuse her of plagiarism. You see, Bettye LaVette only wrote one of the ten songs here– the rest, pilfered from the likes of Willie Nelson and Elton John– but make no mistake: These are her songs, and they tell her story. The Scene of the Crime is an exemplary soul album in the grand tradition of interpretive singing, LaVette inhabiting these songs like a fine actor and digging deep into their hearts until she finds the truth of her own story within them. And it’s a good story, too, one of artistic and commercial frustration and a survivor’s spirit, told here in scenes of heartbreak and humor, jealousy and choices and, in the end, triumph. That’s the Bettye LaVette story, and this just might be its climax. Add to all that the fact that, in one of the decade’s greatest casting coups, she hijacked the Drive-by Truckers as the tricked-out engine for her ferociously unhinged performances; and, that she pulls her material not only from the proper soul tradition, but from pop and rock and country as well, proving that “soul” is just a matter of heart and inflection. All things considered, I’d say that adds up to one of the decade’s most inspired acts of theft.
28. Over the Rhine
Films for Radio (2001)
Sellouts! What could have been one of the gaudiest cash-ins of the decade is instead one of its bravest experiments and most assured triumphs. Armed, for the first time, with a semi-major record deal and an expanded budget to match, Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist– musicians known for their folksy intimacy and their acoustic slow-burners– dressed up their sound in a dazzling array of studio hues. A typical Over the Rhine song is built around a piano, an acoustic guitar, perhaps a drum kit and an upright bass; this one has loops. It has electronic effects and full-band arrangements that at times sound like the work of a small orchestra. And it works. Rather than corrupt the duo’s trademark intimacy, these studio effects enhance it. These are prayers, confessions, and interior monologues, dressed up like the big radio singles they really deserve to be. It’s a dynamite pop album, and it’s a lesson learned: Linford and Karin know what they’re doing.
27. Buddy and Julie Miller
Buddy and Julie Miller (2001)
An album that was, along with Emmylou Harris’ mid-90s classic Wrecking Ball, a sort of gateway drug for me, Buddy and Julie Miller is an album that makes country converts out of folks who swore they’d never go for the twangy stuff. Resistance is futile: The Millers’ first official collaborative album is jubilant, energetic, and, by turns, sorrowful and seductive. It’s clear that these two were made for each other; Buddy’s rough-hewn country grit and Julie’s gospel-laced pop work in perfect harmony, creating an album made up of the very best kind of sentimentality, one that speaks to both the heartache and the giddy joy of romantic love, alternating between teary-eyed ballads and strutting, flirtatious rock and roll. All the important things in life are here– passion for one’s spouse, for music, for Jesus– and it’s little wonder that this spirited, home-made labor of love has only made its way into my stereo more and more since I tied the knot myself.
26. Bruce Springsteen
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)
The more devout E-Street fans may not care to admit it, but it’s this album– not the more studied Magic, not the more solemn The Rising— that marked Bruce’s true new-milenium return to the loose spontaneity and ramshackle glory of his early days. Simply put, this album rocks harder and with more abandon than any other Springsteenr recorded this decade, but that’s only half of its appeal. The Seeger Sessions— an all-covers album culled from tracks that are decades, in some cases centuries old– is a rousing celebration of the resiliance of folk music. The songs may be dusty relics, but here Springsteen transforms them; this set, all at once, a killer party album; one of the most timely and elegant political protests of the Bush years; and a stirring affirmation of genuine Christian hope. Not bad for an album that should have been little more than a museum piece. I can think of no closer kindred spirit than the rowdy majesty of The Basement Tapes; of course, that album made up its own myths while this one toys with the old ones, but if that makes it less iconic, it doesn’t make it any less impressive.
25. Solomon Burke
Don’t Give Up on Me (2002)
In 2002, Solomon Burke– once crowned the king of rock and soul, in what seemed like another lifetime– was in need of a comeback. And in the hands of a lesser collaborator, that might have meant gaudy production, unseemly and illogical celebrity cameos from younger performers, songs guaranteed to draw crowds but failing to surprise. Thankfully, his collaborator was Joe Henry, a mostly-untested producer who earned his stripes and laid the foundation for his esteemed reputation here, simply by realizing that the key to a great comeback– the key to a great record— is great songs, a great singer, and production that gives them plenty of room to cast their spell. And that’s what this is: An almost minimalist backing leaves the spotlight on Burke, who chews on his words like a great thespian and belts it like a man a quarter his age, performing original material contributed by little-known songwriters like Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Tom Waits. It’s a timeless formula for winning music, and to this day it stands as a potent lesson in just what exactly makes music soulful.
If I my be permitted a bit of revisionist history, I can say with the benefit of hindsight that my favorite record of 2006 is almost certainly Tom Waits‘ Orphans. Talk about an album transcending its modest roots: Originally meant to be a clearing-house for rarities, B-sides, and soundtrack cuts, the album proved such an inspiration to Waits that he ended up re-recording most of the old material along with a huge batch of new, resulting in an impossibly vast and astonishingly flawless three-disc epic that stands as easily the closest thing out there to the quintessential Tom Waits album. It’s all here: Bluesy, barroom rockers; howling, junkyard hoedowns; whiskey-soaked piano ballads; theater pieces and stand-up comedy interludes; and strange experiments of inspired madness. In terms of pure, unfettered creativity, I’m not sure if there’s any album out there that matches this one in ambition or generosity.
At the time, of course, my pick for album of the year was Boys and Girls in America, the blazing breakthrough album from The Hold Steady. That’s the album where the group really found their footing, something less ragged and less prone to bizarre detours than Separation Sunday but more sophisticated in its songcraft, and more ambitious in its fusion of raucous barroom rock, Thin Lizzy guitar heroics, and E-Street mayhem. It’s another profound and complex masterpiece from some of rock’s most exploratory and artful poets– an album about relationships, about addiction, and, as usual, about redemption.
One of my favorite trends from 2006 was that of veteran rockers reconnecting with their muse to make some of their most vital music ever. Donald Fagen did it with his sleek, life-affirming soft-rock album Morph the Cat, and Paul Simon did it with the vivid Technicolor of the experimental album Surprise. And of course, there was Bob Dylan and Modern Times, a profound and mystical blues album that’s a bit more ponderous and less volatile than Love & Theft, but nevertheless a rich work that finds poetry and meaning in the tropes of classic American blues and folk songs.
But one of my absolute favorites of the years– and indeed, of the decade– is Bruce Springsteen‘s tribute to Pete Seeger and the canon of great American folk music, We Shall Overcome. A joyous affair that captures the spirit and spontaneity of Dylan’s Basement Tapes and rocks harder than any of Bruce‘s albums since the 80s, the set pulls off the neat trick of being not just a tribute to American music lore, but, more vitally, a thrillingly visceral and lively testament to the music’s enduring power, an album of sharp political protest, and a celebration of Christian love and hope.
My favorite performance by a vocalist in 2006 came from Jolie Holland, on a wonderful, low-key album called Springtime Can Kill You. There’s all manner of ghosts rattling around on this recording– those of parlor folk songs, of country-blues, of swinging jazz– but it’s all vivified by Holland‘s remarkable, sultry phrasing and her evocative poetry. The album becomes a complex series of symbols and images that speak to love and lust and longing.
As far as indie goes, 2006 was all about TV on the Radio and the fractured beauty of Return to Cookie Mountain— an album that sounded something like Radiohead performing Prince songs, by way of Berlin-era David Bowie, and spoke to the confusion and malaise of the Bush years with more poetry– and more genuine, spiritual hope– than nearly any other album I can think of. The Decemberists, meanwhile, mixed history and myth, violence and renewal, in their best-ever album, a song cycle called The Crane Wife, and Danielson cultivated a whole new kind of Christian rock in the hard-rocking, campfire sing-alongs of Ships.
And then there was Game Theory, The Roots‘ pitch-black, righteously pissed-off opus– and the 00s’ equivalent of a great Public enemy album. Few albums released this decade match this one in terms of anger, but the music is anything but despairing; this is cathartic, invigorating music that channels hip-hop street poetry through the weary, dark funk of latter-period Sly Stone.
Meanwhile, Gnarls Barkley had one of the year’s most promising and exhilarating debuts with their pop/rock/hip-hop blockbuster, St. Elsewhere. Alan Jackson released his late-night saloon masterpiece, Like Red on a Rose. Solomon Burke went country with his excellent, Buddy Miller-produced Nashville. Vince Gill went for oversized sprawl with his four-disc epic, These Days, and Rosanne Cash made for pure catharsis with her elegiac, tender Black Cadillac.
So that was 2006 for me. How about you?
I’m tempted to say that it’s been a good month for country. Within the last couple of weeks, Patty Loveless released her second Mountain Soul recording, celebrating the traditional music of the hills. Kris Kristofferson cut a sparse, poetic set called Closer to the Bone. Miranda Lambert continued her quest to bring a punk edge to mainstream country with Revolution. And just this week, Lyle Lovett returns with another fine, wry singer-songwriter set called Natural Forces, while Terri Clark released a fiery mainstream country disc in The Long Way Home.
But again, I’m only tempted to call this a good month for country, if only because the entire decade has been a good one for country. Nashville is maligned in music critic circles, and not always unfairly– certainly, it’s a scene prone to formula– but even as mainstream country has grown stale, a number of artists have kicked against the stagnation of their beloved music with records that have been vibrant and often brilliant.
This is my tribute to the country music of the last ten years, inspired in large part by my favorite country album of this year, Rosanne Cash’s The List. You’ve probably heard the story behind that one: Old man Johnny gave his teenage daughter a list of the 100 essential country music songs, twelve of which are covered on her new LP. My own list isn’t of songs, but of albums; and it isn’t of all-time classics, but of modern-day classics.
Note that this isn’t necessarily a list of my ten favorite country discs of the 00s, but, rather, ten albums that demonstrate the range and depth of what’s coming out of the genre. Also, I’ve tried to restrict these choices to albums that have some kind of clear connection to traditional country forms. And finally, since I’ve already written about newer albums from Cash, Kristofferson, and the rest, I’ve left those out– for now.
On to the list:
I’ve heard it said that country music is really just soul music, an adage that I’ve shamelessly used in my own writing more than once. That connection is made implicit in this recording, in which the king of soul music dons a cowboy hat, takes up arms with producer Buddy Miller, and makes one of the most authentic and expressive country music albums of the decade.
Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell
It might sound like hyperbole to say that these are some of the finest country duets this side of Gram and Emmylou, but get a listen of these heavenly harmonies and try to disagree. This is the good stuff: Tears-in-beer ballads mixed with driving, heartland country-rock.
Not even Tom Waits’ sprawling Orphans set can top this one in terms of sheer scope and generosity; at four discs of all-new, all-original material, this one is king of the mountain. The four discs are divided according to style, which shows just how diverse and far-reaching the Nashville sound can be when a pro like Gill is given the space to do his thing.
Like Red on a Rose
Jackson has spent most of his career making good-times anthems for the honky tonk; Alison Krauss has earned acclaim as a bluegrass virtuoso. Together, they made a late-night saloon album that has less in common with their normal gigs than with Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours. I’m not sure how they pulled it off either, but it’s a singularly moving record, perfect for late-night listening.
Dreamin’ My Dreams
Though she’s spent most of the decade mining traditional country sounds in her fine Mountain Soul records and the all-covers Sleepless Nights, her finest work might be Dreaming My Dreams, a knockout set that represents a perfect blending of traditional and modern country trappings.
Van Lear Rose
It’s not just one of the best country albums of the decade, but one of the biggest comebacks, in any genre: A storytelling masterpiece that combines autobiography with a healthy dose of garage rock mayhem, the latter thanks to superfan and producer Jack White.
Buddy and Julie Miller
Buddy and Julie Miller
I know of few recordings that capture the joys of love– or the pains of heartache– with as much vigor as this flirty, fun set from country’s best husband-wife team; musically, this one touches on everything from acoustic country ballads to swaggering, Stonesy rock.
Of late, Willie has proven himself willing to collaborate with pretty much anyone, but who would have thought that one of his best albums in years would be a joint effort with Ryan Adams? This set has Nelson songs, Adams songs, and covers of everything from Leonard Cohen to “Amazing Grace,” and everything here is killer.
Love, Pain, and the Whole Crazy Thing
It’s the Sgt. Pepper of mainstream country music– not in terms of impact, maybe, but certainly with regard to its baroque arrangements. But there ain’t nothin’ artsty about it: This is thrillingly bold, colorful music that blends the best of country, pop, and guitar rock.
World Without Tears
I know I’m in the minority, but I think this is Williams’ best record: Part country, part folk, part rock, all raw emotion, pain and heartache. It’s sharp, strong and sexy– and though it dabbles in classic rock and talking blues, the close-to-the-bone human poetry is country through and through.
Over the last seven years, I have had no fewer than four favorite albums of 2002.
At the end of that year, when I published my annual list, I named Wilco‘s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as my favorite from the year– and indeed, for its ambition and innovation, it was an album that genuinely impressed me and remained in frequent rotation throughout the year. It’s still considered a classic in some circles, but I admit that it hasn’t aged well for me; as the novelty of the experimental production wears off, it becomes increasingly clear that Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics alternate between real brilliance and impenetrable muck, while the production masks the hard-edged rock and roll chops that the band so ably demonstrates in their live performances.
So, sometime in 2003, I retroactively decided to name Beck‘s Sea Change as my favorite of 2002, and it’s an album that still moves me to this day. I prefer its emotional candor and its focus on rich songcraft to his more famous, postmodern art-rock albums, and its rich, enveloping sadness proved to be something of a gateway for me, leading me into a greater appreciation of sadsack folk music, as well as weary country rock.
Later, there was a brief period when I became so enamored with The Roots‘ Phrenology that I thought it might be my actual favorite from 2002. It’s probably not the most consistent or powerful of the albums made by ?uestlove and Co., but it’s surely their most ambitious and eclectic– so much so that I think of it as their “Outkast album” on some level, simply because it’s so all-over-the-place and unrelentingly creative. Not all of it works, yet it’s an album so sprawling and diverse that it’s great because of its epic sweep and ambition, the rough spots only adding to its character and complexity.
But over the past year or so, I’ve come to believe that, of all the albums released in 2002, the one I come back to the most– and the one that most clearly influenced my own understanding and appreciation of music– is Don’t Give Up on Me, the big comeback album by Solomon Burke. Produced by Joe Henry, it’s a masterpiece of minimalism in which everything is in service of the Singer and the Song: The sparse arrangements bring out all the nooks and crannies in Burke’s voice, and the material is all top-shelf stuff. Rather than settle for cover songs or standards, Henry insisted that Burke record all-new material, penned by some songwriters you may have heard of– Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Van Morrison, and Brian Wilson, to name a few. It’s not just the most important soul album of the decade, but also a textbook case of just how important Song really is.
But speaking of Tom Waits: No discussion of 2002’s new music releases would be complete without mention of the fact that, in that year, Waits released not just one, but two new albums on the same day. And though neither the sour, raucous rock of Blood Money nor the nightmarish jazz of Alice quite qualifies as Tom Waits’ best, both albums are excellent, artful, and complete, if not quite as daring or deep as the albums Waits would release later in the decade.
2002 saw some other historic releases, too. Blackalicious released their summery, block-party hip-hop classic, Blazing Arrow, which I still unpack every year when the weather starts getting warm. Sixpence None the Richer released their long-delayed, hotly-anticipated Divine Discontent, a polished pop delight in which the sweet melodies concealed rich theological and existential exploration and refined poetry. Spoon put traditional R&B through a blender to make the fractured pop of Kill the Moonlight, still one of their best records. The Flaming Lips traded epic weirdness for warm electronics and dreamy psychedelia on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. And of course, Bruce Springsteen released his rousing E-Street reunion album, The Rising— which, for many, remains the essential 9/11 album.
That’s what 2002 looked like for me. What were your favorites?