Happy New Year, Folks!
Some of these seem like every other year citations, as some of the artists appeared as "Best Of's" in 2015. Here are albums and great songs we shared during the year....in no particular order.
Jason Isbell & 400 Unit “The Nashville Sound”
The winning streak continues; seeming like a man with a renewed lease on life and wanting to 'work hard til the end of his shift” Isbell follows up the outstanding “Something More than Free”, with a bracing set of soon to be covered instant standards. And herein the 400 Unit gets props as a great and varied working rock and country pop band. There's the bashing, crunching thrust of “Anxiety”; the shuddering “White Man's World”; but the pinnacle is “If We Were Vampires” - a direct reflection on his fleeting temporal existence and admitting to selfishness – hoping, “I'm not the one who's left behind”.
His songs are emotionally direct; his writing is confident, poetic and plain-spoken. But this time the band fleshes out the sonic foundations of his emotionally impactful melodies and lyrics.
Elbow “Little Fictions”
Guy Garvey and Manchester's Elbow's winning streak continues; as does life in general for Garvey. He is soon to be a father; married to the granddaughter of British acting royalty – Diana Rigg of the 1960's 'Avengers' fame- a man in satisfied middle age. Lyrically uplifting and transparently emotional. The lead-off track introduces the lockstep clockwork foundation and string-driven splendor of “Magnificent” this is clean, crisp and subtly detailed song craft with clever lyrics boasting as much life-affirmation as Garvey evidently feels. “Trust the Sun” equates each daily solar arrival with the approving gaze of Garvey's love.
Most songs are built on interlocking acoustic and electronic beats and percussion – layered with breezy and in-elaborate melodies, floating piano and spacious and oft-soaring voice of Garvey. And the tunes blend hope and melancholic self-doubt in equal measure – but the overall emotion is one of heartfelt security and joy.
Ryan Adams “Prisoner”
Adams latest continues to mine that 70's-80's hard rock acoustic/electric template with great success. Ryan's coiled alto and blatant heartachey voice is as affective as anyone's. Yes – it is a breakup record documenting his divorce from actress Many Moore, there is less of his seething anger o pitched self-loathing; Opener “Do You Still Love Me” reprises this last albums Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fetish with a crunch and jagged guitar lines paired with ringing acoustic chords. The plain and folksy “Nothing Really Matters Anymore” is a matter of fact acceptance of the relationship's evaporation. “ Haunted House” shares that gently strummed folk-rock aesthetic; cresting in big chords swelling the chorus – embroidered with chiming guitar strands and muted, spacious keyboards.
Setting aside his churlish and mercurial stage personae, Adams is an accomplished tunesmith and eternal bleeding heart.
War on Drugs “A Deeper Understanding”
WOD shifts to Atlantic Records for the latest since 2014's “Lost in a Dream”. The same recipe of twisting, knotted swirling guitars and fulsome organ and Wurlizter keyboards -revisiting the 70's art rock modus operandi. Lead singer and guitarist Adam Granduciel has had the car keys turned over to him and the vision is his, from the dreamy, floating 11- minute opus “Thinking of a Place” to the bass-driven “Holding On”- pegged to a soaring siren guitar. Electric piano drifts into focus to start the pastoral “Broken Down”- an elegantly restrained ballad of Floyd-esque excursions of picked ambient guitar buoys the twisting, skronking goose-honks of fuzzed-out guitars. Pepper in a gauzy harmonica, some saxophone and even a glockenspiel - Like the previous album, this collection is of a whole hazy, WOD musical palette and gentle, reclining melodic ruminations on love and life is sturdy and reflective.
The Clientele “Music for the Age of Miracles”
Now reduced to a trio lead by Alisdair McLean, The Clientele favor pastoral washes of keys and guitars - broadcasting their autumnal and stately musical bricolage. Holdovers from the folk rock pantheon of England, McLean and troops color the edges with lightly filigreed six string and mannered keyboards (harpsichord-like) – then infill with scalding guitar lines and horns or strings to create an ardorous mix of angelic light and chiaroscuro shading.
“Everyone You Meet” is a lilting tune straight from 60's and 70's British folk tradition. McLean's voice swathed in chimerical reverb – Beatlesque and modern at once. The standout track is “Lunar Days”- a bewitching lope, twinning the luster of harvest sunlight with ensuing dread – 'this is the year that the monster will come” all the while 'down in the streets they're falling in love”
Dan Auerbach “Waiting on a Song”
Pop masterpiece by the one-half of the Black Keys, this album showcases the catchiest songwriting of his career. From the uplift of the Traveling Wilburys styled “Shine On Me” to the casual stroll through the downtrodden “King of a One-Horse Town” replete with 60's drippy strings and tremolo guitar.
Auerbach has given in to his better angels of pure pop songcraft- there is not a weak or uncatchty track to be found. “Malibu Man” could be a long, lost Motown outtake with its chundering horns and force majuere B-3 organ. Same goes for “Undertow”, a completely backwards looking sonic recipe – snappy snares, soul-brass and unison organ and syrupy violins. The acoustic chinking lope of “Never in My Wildest Dreams” is so breezy and facile – the simple chirp of horns on the chorus makes you want to strut down the center line of Main Street.
Whether the Black Keys are done or not, I prefer this avid miner of nostalgia and pop tunesmith. Digestible, insistent and irresistible.
Liz Wright “Grace”
Capacious voice; uncluttered arrangements; slinky and serene; and as vivid as seeing Spanish moss hanging in the Southern trees. This Joe Henry produced project is a wonderland of standards and stellar modern interpretations of early century songs.
Wright has always possessed an abundant and soothing, fully controlled voice, and on each of these well chosen compositions, the sound is earthy and soulful. Take her smooth rendering of Allen Toussaint's “Southern Nights”, a leisurely stroll distinct from Toussaint's original or the pop cover by Glen Campbell. And the title track, written by Rose Cousins, drifts through with glorious, well, grace. And her sanctified reading of Cortez Franklins “I'm Never Tired of Loving You” is sublime, soul-stirring holy excursion.
Unlike many of Henry's own recordings, which have a a more clangorous, Gothic forboding, this collection is unrushed, and steeped in southern roots, soul and jazz. Nary a mistep in the bunch. Outstanding – my ultimate late night tonic for hard times.
Also Noted: Individual Albums, Songs and Artists of 2017 that got our hearts pumping.........
Paul Kelly - “Life is Good” - Finaly a new album from Australian Kelly, who pens brief, deal-sketched portraits of life encapsulated in three minute roots rockers or ballads. Simple and catchy to a fualt.
Loamland - “Little River” - I discovered this great track in 2017, though it technically was released in 2016. A great little folk-rocker.
Laura Marling- “Soothing” - A crawling sexually charged track; propelled only by percussion and slinking upright bass- not with a beat, but a suggestion of a time signature leading to, well – you listen. Sexual Healing, indeed.
Ron Sexsmith - “Radio” - When you are of an age, these paeans to the heyday of album oriented or the multifaceted and wide-open formats of FM radio of the past ring true. Nostalgia in pop nugget format.
Jonatha Brooke - “Midnight Hallelujah” - This is propulsive , near anthemic folk rock.
Cactus Blossoms- “Mississippi” - This perhaps my favorite song all year- The near perfect Everly Brothers delivery of a song revived for David Lynch's Twin Peaks reboot – Waitsian in its dread and downbeat mantra.
Slowdive- “Sugar for the Pill” - Terrific comeback of the masters of 'shoegaze'. This song has a glorious ambience ; instantly caught my ear.
Mac Demarco- “My Old Man” - As I get older, the truer this becomes.-
The Shins – “Mildenhall” - Slice of life of James Mercers formation as a musician – bouncing to the UK and “whittling away” at his dad's guitar on a rainy day.
Madia Diaz - “Taste the Rain” - “I'm not gonna help you, heaven's gotta help me first” the opening lines say it all is the gently strummed masterpiece. Full album coming in 2018.
Real Estate - “Darling” - Something about their modern, yet throwback guitar sound that evokes 60's Byrds.
Fionn Regan- “Meetings of the Waters” - Awash in ambience.