Steve’s Favorite Albums of 2013

I like dad-rock, female country singers, and NPR-friendly hip-hop. Here are the 20 albums that meant the most to me this year:

(If you want to listen to a mix of one song from each of them, go here.)

Sam Phillips

20. Sam Phillips - Push Any Button

If you know me, you know Sam Phillips is one of my musical heroes. It’s been hard to be a fan for the last few years, though: for such a stylistic chameleon, she’s been in a rut since her life-changing (for me) early ’00s reinvention albums Fan Dance and A Boot and a Shoe. Push Any Button isn’t new territory, really, but it’s the first really good record she’s made since then–lean, catchy and incredibly listenable. I told my boyfriend that this album sounds like someone emerging from a long depression.  “Bathed in the light I’ve waited all my life to see,” she sings on ‘All Over Me’. It’s good to hear her having fun again.

Listen to ‘No Time Like Now‘.

Patty Griffin

19. Patty Griffin - American Kid

First, the elephant in the room: Patty Griffin’s started recycling melodies and chord patterns. Lots of great songwriters do it—she’s reached the tail end of a tried-and-true formula and soon it’ll be time for her to adapt. What makes this album still good—really good, even—is that she’s wrung every bit of juice out of that formula to tell a story about life and death and God and family. Meant as a tribute to her late father, this record is very deep, but it lives and breathes and dances too.  ‘Wild Old Dog’, particularly, gives me chills: it’s a pretty incredible commentary on postmodern belief, imagining God as a mangy old dog running in the woods beside a highway.

Watch the weird-ass music video for ‘Ohio‘.

The Revival Hour

18. The Revival HourScorpio Little Devil

If DM Stith just makes a record every four years that sounds like being possessed by demons, I’ll be happy. The thing is, this “spooky queer Halloween demon album” (Stith’s words, not mine) really is an exorcism of some personal demons for Stith and his collaborator JM Lapham, two gay men who were raised in the rural south—Lapham in conservative Abilene, Stith by Charismatic fundamentalist Christians. That “Charismatic” bit is key to understanding Stith’s music, and he’s exploring that tradition as a pissed off, terrified, still sort of reverent former insider. Nobody else is making music like this.

Draggy doo-wop in hell in the music video for ‘Hold Back‘.

Lori McKenna

17. Lori McKenna Massachussetts

I didn’t discover Massachusetts until December 30, but oh boy, this is good stuff. According to her website, Lori McKenna is a “housewife and a townie”, and for ten years she’s been quietly building a reputation as a songwriter in her home of New England—and in Nashville, where she landed songwriting credits for Faith Hill & Tim McGraw and a brief flirtation with a major label a few years ago. She seems to be focused on DIY regionalism now (and her family), so Massachusetts didn’t make much of a buzz. But in a year with many high-profile (and excellent) albums by female country songwriters, this album stands on its own. The excoriating ballads “Salt” and “Shake” are the best songs here, but the deeper cuts about home life and marriage make this an album (and a career) I’m excited to get to know better.

Salt‘ might have the best use of extended metaphor of any song in 2013.

16. Robbie Fulks - Gone Away Backward

This record is so smart I don’t know for sure how to write about it yet, but it’s great—an incredibly hip old dude discussing really interesting topics under the guise of making a very traditional country-bluegrass album. “That’s Where I’m From”, this Chicago suburbanite’s tribute to his rural Southern home, makes me cry every time.

Watch him play ‘I’ll Trade You Money for Wine‘.

Kacey Musgraves

15. Kacey MusgravesSame Trailer Different Park

Like Brandy Clark’s more marketable kid sister, Kacey has an incredible eye for lyrical detail and an incredible ear for hooks. This album—loosely themed around rural alienation and substance abuse—is that rare example of something very deep that’s also very easy to listen to. It absolutely deserved the two Grammys it won. Apparently Kacey’s been co-writing with Katy Perry in 2014, which makes a sort of weird sense to me.

Watch the music video for ‘Blowin’ Smoke‘.

Haim

14. Haim Days Are Gone

I’m completely pro-HAIM. This is the kind of thing I want to be popular. All the hype is accurate–these sisters write some really good songs. But I just want to remind everyone: there are three totally WTF, terrible songs in the latter third of this album that everyone seems to ignore! Can’t we at least acknowledge that while celebrating the album’s merits?

Destroying SNL with ‘Don’t Save Me‘.

Laura Veirs

13. Laura VeirsWarp and Weft

I’ve learned that there will pretty much always be a Tucker Martine-produced album on each of my year-end lists. Veirs and Martine (who happen to be married) crafted this album to be a patchwork quilt, documenting Veirs’ creative, emotional and political interests in the year or so after her first child was born. Environmentalism, gun politics, Hiroshima, post-partum depression and Alice Coltrane all stitch together to make a weirdly cohesive, really beautiful snapshot of an artist’s internal life.

The music video for ‘America‘ is pretty fucking preachy, but it’s a good song.

Kiran Leonard

12. Kiran LeonardBowler Hat Soup

Teenage wunderkinds make me nervous, and Kiran is the worst of them, at least on paper–his two closest analogues on Bowler Hat Soup are Sgt. Pepper and Neutral Milk Hotel, and he writes suite-length songs and is credited as playing 20 instruments in this album’s liner notes, including a stapler. But this kid knows his way around a song! I imagine this guy just bumming around Manchester, going to high school and having the best record collection ever and writing these beautiful songs. I hope he keeps writing, and I hope he doesn’t get famous until six or seven years down the road, once he’s got a good head on his shoulders.

Watch the music video for ‘Dear Lincoln‘.

Ashley Monroe

11. Ashley Monroe Like a Rose

The most honky-tonk of 2013’s country standouts, Ashley Monroe’s very young, very old-school, and very, very talented. Like an early Kris Kristofferson LP, this record cuts the chaff and gets straight to the point. Sensitive, funny, badass.

Watch the music video for ‘Like a Rose‘.

Alela Diane

10. Alela Diane - About Farewell

My second-favorite breakup album of the year! About Farewell is much more relatable / human / present than Laura Marling’s album (see below), not to mention being absolutely wrenching. It’s a bit of a featherweight compared to some of the other albums on this list, with only a couple songs that make you stop everything and listen, but that’s part of what makes me cherish it so much. This album has a story to tell and a lot to give. Most of Alela’s best songs are on her first two (also great) albums, but this is the one I’ll love forever as a whole.

Watch the video for ‘About Farewell‘.

Kanye West

09. Kanye West - Yeezus

Man, this record frustrated the hell out of me. I’m somehow squarely within both the pro- and anti-Yeezus camps. Compositionally it’s amazing and vital and terrifying and years ahead of its time (are we allowed to say that yet?); lyrically, it’s—what? A shitty first draft? Pure evil? Or as one friend put it, morally and socially stunted, like Mozart in Amadeus? There are a lot of brilliant lyrics, and a lot of throwaway lyrics, and the throwaway ones outweigh the brilliant ones, and they’re infuriatingly intertwined within virtually every song. While the critical corpus has clearly chosen to take a leap of faith and call Yeezus a masterpiece, ignoring or rationalizing its obvious flaws (the explanations for “Blood on the Leaves” are especially hilarious), I respectfully refuse the ticket, help thou my unbelief, etc.

That said, I still listened to (and like) this album a whole lot. It sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard, and it made me think a lot about race and sex and myself and human depravity, and I talked about it more than probably any other album this year.

It’s pretty much impossible to decide whether ‘Bound 2‘ on Fallon or ‘Black Skinhead on SNL was the best TV performance this year.

Vampire Weekend

08. Vampire WeekendModern Vampires of the City

I can always tell I’ll be returning to an album a lot when the best songs are crammed into the second half. The singles got the most attention (and they are great), but the run from “Finger Back” to “Ya Hey” is an incredible seventh-inning stretch of catchy-as-hell songwriting and deep spiritual searching. I have to admit, I’ve never quite felt the spark when it comes to Vampire Weekend, but it’s hard to deny this album was fearfully and wonderfully made. (If you haven’t, spend a night listening to it and reading its lyrics and annotations on Rap Genius.)

Diane Young, I guess.

Laura Marling

07. Laura MarlingOnce I Was An Eagle

With the exception of her transcendent single ‘Sophia‘, I’ve been a proud hater of Laura Marling since 2008. I can’t quite say that this album won me over on her as an artist, but it has won me over on itself. Seven or eight times this year I turned out all the lights and pulled the covers over my head and listened to it in its entirety, letting this very cold shower of a record wash over me. We’ve worked out a truce, me and Laura: I’ll suspend judgment on her as a songwriter, and in exchange she’s given me one of the weirdest, darkest breakup albums I’ve ever heard.

Master Hunter‘ messes with Bob Dylan, and it’ll mess with you too.

Laura Marling

06. Caitlin RoseThe Stand-In

Close your eyes and point your finger at any song on this album—it’ll be great. Caitlin Rose’s honey-and-vinegar voice, her ace band, her lovingly rendered country/rock nostalgia—it’s all beautiful, and The Stand-In is pretty much perfect. I’m in awe of this album.

Watch her play ‘I Was Cruel‘.

Chance the Rapper

05. Chance the RapperAcid Rap

I think the moment that won me over on Acid Rap came during “Cocoa Butter Kisses”, after Chance and Vic Mensa reminisce for awhile about childhood in Chicago: Saturday morning cartoons, the El, the Dougie, sneaking liquor and cigarettes, and the moment when they started smelling too much like weed to get hugs from Gramma anymore. Suddenly, Vic stops the party during the bridge, singing “I think we all addicted—really though, I think we all addicted.” But pretty soon the party starts up again.

It’s a brief and winking pause to acknowledge something scary and serious, in the midst of an otherwise groovy song. Vic nails it, a perfect example of a guest emcee who’s completely in sync with the logic of a tune, and of the whole world Chance created on Acid Rap: pissed off and scared, but totally confident and completely charming.

Watch the video for ‘Good Ass Intro‘.

Brandy Clark

04. Brandy Clark12 Stories

I have to admit, I have a totally idealized idea of what it must be like to be in the songwriters’ circle that Brandy Clark occupies (along with Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves and others) on Nashville’s Music Row. These folks (who all seem to be friends, if my Instagram stalking can be believed) are hit-makers in one of the most limiting markets around, and they keep turning in these culturally edgy, formally excellent songs for people like Miranda Lambert and The Band Perry. I imagine them getting together to drink and write, saying to themselves, “What can we get away with this week?”

Presumably, this album contains all the songs Miranda Lambert didn’t like. Brandy Clark’s a country traditionalist and a storyteller with the perfect Randy Newman blend of cynicism and sentimentality. Each of these 12 songs is a detail-heavy character study navigating infidelity, substance abuse, misogyny and lotto cards. Time will tell if she’s The Real Deal, but gosh, this year I wanted everyone around me to know about her. If country music still matters, it’s because of people like Brandy Clark.

Marty Stuart is adorably excited about ‘Take a Little Pill‘ when Brandy Clark visits his show.

Jason Isbell

03. Jason IsbellSoutheastern

This is a major return on an incredibly long-term investment. Until now, Isbell’s best work was back between 2003 and 2006 when he was writing and playing with the Drive-By Truckers. Finally his solo career is living up to that promise: this is a song cycle about cancer, murder, addiction, identity and companionship, made by a guy who just got sober and then fell in love, and the whole thing ripped my heart in half all year long. (For what it’s worth, Southeastern made me cry almost as much as Dream River did.)

That voice! ‘Cover Me Up‘ on Austin City Limits.

Kurt Vile

02. Kurt Vile - Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze

I listened to this album probably every week this year, and it still fills me with wonder. Kurt Vile’s a compositional genius, and this was the only rock record (if you can call this a rock record) that excited me this year. Pure beauty.

Watch the video for ‘Never Run Away‘.

Bill Callahan

01. Bill CallahanDream River

Whenever I’m not sure which album is my favorite of the year, I usually just pick the one that made me cry the most. In some ways this album feels like it hasn’t yet revealed most of its mysteries to me. Bill Callahan’s last three albums have all been exercises in poetic minimalism – carving out profound moments of silence in a familiar American landscape. I’m not sure if  Dream River‘s the best of the three, but it made the most visceral impression on me: listening to Dream River was a sort of spiritual discipline, and thanks to it I feel more connected to my own body, to the world around me, and to the people I love. “I wonder if I’ll ever wake up / I mean, really wake up.”

Watch the video for ‘Small Plane‘.

Without any comment, here are 12 more I really liked:

Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer - Child Ballads
Andrew Cedermark - Home Life
Audrey Assad - Fortunate Fall
Cakes da Killa - Eulogy
Courtney Barnett - The Double EP: A Sea Full of Split Peas
Laura Mvula - Sing to the Moon
Over the Rhine - Meet Me At the Edge of the World
Sam Amidon - Bright Sunny South
Shonna Tucker & Eye Candy - A Tell All
Son Lux - Lanterns
Valerie June - Pushin’ Against a Stone
Vienna Teng - Aims

And, my favorite tracks of the year can be found here.

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Steve’s Favorite Albums of 2012

I don’t know why you should devote 10 minutes to my list instead of the million other year-end lists on the Internet. How about this? Here are all the things I like:

Hype; the 70s, the 90s; pop, folk, pop-folk, hip-hop; good melodies, poetic lyrics, grooves that change; sad songs, story songs, political songs; songs about tragedy, songs about family, songs about sex, songs about Jesus; songs by women, songs by black men, songs by gay men, songs by old men; not drugs.

If you like those things you’ll like this list. If not, look at the other million lists.

Here are my favorite albums of the year:

I didn’t latch onto many 2012 albums, though I listened to dozens. I have no idea if these were the best records of the year, but they were the ones I listened to the most:

Daniel Rossen

9. Daniel Rossen – Silent Hour / Golden Mile EP

One of the interesting things about the late ‘00s has been watching indie weirdos learn their way back into an older way of writing songs—artists in the “New, Weird America” discovering the much better songcraft of the ol’ regular America. Joanna Newsom did that with great results in Have One On Me, and now Daniel Rossen’s taken a time machine back to the LA canyons in the 70s and taken songwriting lessons from Judee Sill and Neil Young. This EP’s just a postcard, but it points to great things to come.  Beautiful, easy listening; I had it on repeat all year.

Watch him perform ‘Saint Nothing’ in a church.

Derek Webb

8. Derek Webb -ctrl

My excitement about this album has waned a bit since I wrote a glowing review of it in August. Webb’s main goal on ctrl is to tell a story, and with a gun to my head I have to admit the story he tells is vague, derivative, and a bit too neat – like if OK Computer ended with a conversion to Christianity. Maybe Webb would benefit from the Anaïs Mitchell masterclass I’ll talk about later (seriously, he would). Lyrically ctrl doesn’t match the sermonizing of Mockingbird and She Must and Shall Go Free.

Even with that criticism this is one of the coolest, weirdest things I’ve heard in awhile, and it quaked me right down to my boots. Webb and his producer Josh Moore are reaching for something deep and important here; they doesn’t quite grasp it, but it’s still an excellent album.

Listen to ‘A Real Ghost’.

Frank Ocean

7. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

Don’t let anyone trick you into thinking this is the year’s best album. It has five unbelievable songs (‘Pyramids’, ‘Thinkin Bout You’, ‘Super Rich Kids’, ‘Sweet Life’, ‘Bad Religion’), and they’re worth getting excited about—hooky, smart, pretty R&B songs that tell stories and make statements. That two of those songs are explicitly queer makes channel ORANGE a really interesting cultural landmark to boot.

But I hit “Skip” a lot when listening to the whole album. channel ORANGE had me excited about five great singles, not one great album. Let’s save the hype for the masterpiece he’ll hopefully make next year.

Watch him sing ‘Thinkin Bout You’ on SNL.

Leonard Cohen

6. Leonard Cohen Old Ideas 

In 2012, Iris DeMent made Christian faith sound really hard. Derek Webb made it sound really scary. And for me, in 2012, faith was both. Leonard Cohen’s record, of all things, offered some moments of comfort, and a lot of tears. It’s not just about faith—it’s also about death and sex and all the usual Leonard Cohen things. But all of it felt like church for me on mornings when I couldn’t get up to go to a real church. That subterranean growl, those gospel singers–kinda felt like going home.

Also, ‘Different Sides’ is the sexiest song I’ve ever heard a 70 year-old sing about religious schism.

Listen to ‘Going Home’.

Killer Mike

5. Killer Mike -R.A.P. Music

Listening to this album is like a 40-minute car ride with a driver who is incredibly smart, pretty full of himself, and completely intimidating. It’s not exactly fun, you’re tempted to cry “Bullshit” every once in awhile, but  you still learn a TON. El-P’s beats are incredible, and Killer Mike’s a virtuoso. Super-smart, super-political, super-fun, super-violent. ‘Reagan’ alone will give you plenty to talk about, but this whole album’s beautiful, from start to finish.

Watch the terrifying video for ‘Reagan’.

Iris DeMent

4. Iris DeMent -Sing the Delta

“I stopped in the church to pray / It was the middle of the day / And I don’t even know if I believe in God”

Iris DeMent is back, and she’s still writing down arguments she has with herself about Jesus and then belting them out over her country-gospel piano like she’s in the middle of a big tent revival. Each of these twelve songs is a poem—about faith and doubt, about life and death, or just about reading too many books. If you believe, but doubt; or if you don’t believe, but question: listen to this album. If you, like Iris, grew up someplace like Arkansas and moved someplace like Los Angeles: listen to this album. And I guess if you like Southern gothic kitsch and Coen brothers movies, listen to this album.

(And incidentally, if you wanted to like DeMent’s previous albums but couldn’t get past that piercing soprano, give her another try now—the sixteen years since My Life have made her a slightly less-piercing alto, and she’s a bit easier to listen to now.)

Watch her sing ‘Go On Ahead and Go Home’.

Kendrick Lamar

3. Kendrick Lamar -Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City

This album has some flaws: It’s too long. The skits, which take about five listens to sweeten, start to get old after ten listens. Its singles aren’t that single-y. And the whole hour and ten minutes of it is chill, and serious.

But it’s such a cool way to do an autobiography, and it’s brimming with poetry, and it has a positive message. How could I resist an album that begins and ends with the sinner’s prayer?! If there’s a spiritual/moral takeaway from this album, though, it’s not the formulaic rapper-remorse of “I’m a sinner / and I’m probably gonna sin again / Lord forgive me” (‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’); not the conversion story near its end (Maya Angelou cameo?!); not the anti-drugs and -alcohol moralizing; not the family-love that anchors the album in the form of (adorable, hilarious) voicemails from Kendrick’s parents. Rather, it’s the album’s empathy. Kendrick is telling the story of “black and brown kids from Compton” because he loves them, and nowhere is that more powerful than in the unforgettable second verse of ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’. Good Kid is not the year’s best album, but it might be its most compassionate.

Watch the video for ‘Swimming Pools (Drank’).

Fiona Apple

2. Fiona Apple -The Idler Wheel…

Everybody has a few of those weird, beloved albums in their collection that took ten listens to really start to like—albums that play by their own rules and have to be taken on their own terms, but feel utterly essential once you enter into their universe. Upsetting, comforting, or entertaining (or in this album’s case, all three), they’re yours and only yours.

It’s pretty rare, though, to find one of those albums in front of the register at a Starbucks. After a very weird career, Fiona Apple may have perfected her craft on this very weird album, and it got a ton of attention and made a ton of money. It’s pretty dang solipsistic, but even that ends up seeming generous–this album spoke to almost every twentysomething I know, even the cranky ones who hate everything. It’s a cool, rare thing: what feels like a cult classic just might turn out to be a plain ol’ classic.

Watch the video for ‘Every Single Night’.

Anaïs Mitchell

1. Anaïs Mitchell - Young Man in America

I don’t know anyone who listened to Young Man in America and didn’t immediately want to talk about it. Mitchell’s tackling really big ideas, but through the small lens of relatable yet unforgettable characters—a woman who defines herself in the eyes of the guys she dates (‘Tailor’), a husband who works too hard (‘The Shepherd’), a son who can’t escape his father’s shadow (‘He Did’). It’s political but personal, important but accessible. It’s a record out of its time, but it’s a masterclass in songwriting—every melody hits its mark, every lyric is the right one.  And for what it’s worth, I think it’s awesomely feminist for a woman to make a record primarily about straight white men. Most of the people I know who fell in love with this record were straight white men, which I think means she’s doing something right.

With 2010’s also-great Hadestown, I’m obviously excited about Anaïs—she’s at the top of her craft. Fellow songwriters… we’re gonna be playing catch-up for a long time.

Watch the video for ‘Coming Down’.

Here are other albums I liked: 

Bill Fay - Life Is People, Bobby Conn – Macaroni, Bowerbirds - The Clearing, The Coup – Sorry to Bother You, Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan, Menomena - Moms, The Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth, The Tallest Man on Earth - There’s No Leaving Now, Todd Snider - Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables

Here are albums I tried and tried to like but did not like:

Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man, Cat Power – Sun, Grimes – Visions, Julia Holter - Ekstasis, Lambchop - Mr. M, Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dreams, THEESatisfaction - awE naturalE

Here are two albums I was conflicted about:

Grizzly BearShields

When Veckatimest came out in 2009, I thought, “Man, I want to hear a whole album that sounds like ‘Southern Point’.” Shields is that album, and you know what? Maybe I didn’t want that as much as I thought I did.

I do like the album: they’ve changed their palette in very slight ways (more single-voice melodies / fewer harmonies; more—a lot more—of that one lively strumming pattern from Daniel Rossen) which is interesting if you’re already invested in Grizzly Bear (and I am). But unlike, say, Anaïs Mitchell, I wouldn’t force Shields on anyone. Unless you’re a fanboy like me, download ‘Yet Again’ and ‘Sun In Your Eyes’ and skip the rest.

Perfume Genius - Put Ur Back N 2 ItPerfume Genius – Put Ur Back N 2 It

Man, I want to hate Perfume Genius. Full disclosure: this is partially because I feel threatened by the presence of another skinny gay dude who chokes out traumatizing songs at a piano, especially when he’s way more popular than me. Also, I think I had good reason to dislike his debut, Learning. That album wouldn’t know a melody if it was hit in the face by one, and for all its kinky detail I didn’t find its storytelling interesting. So you slept with your high school teacher: that doesn’t necessarily make for a good song.

But after listening to Put UR Back N 2 It for a year, I guess I do like it. It’s a very flawed but beautiful album that reminds me a lot of Lisa Germano’s Lullaby For Liquid Pig, another fringe-y album about struggling through incredibly hard things and finding beauty in the midst of it. Plus, I think it’s fascinating that he’s cited The Innocence Mission as an influence. The only people I know who love that beautiful band are evangelical Christians. Who’d have thought that their highest-profile follower (besides Sufjan) would be a guy who hires gay porn stars to be in his music videos?

Also, ‘All Waters’ makes me cry, every time.

That’s it. If I ever get around to it I’ll post my list of favorite songs. It’s much longer! People in 2012 are much better at writing good songs than they are at making good albums!

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Album Review: Derek Webb – ctrl (2012)

I’ve always been in Derek Webb’s court, though I go back and forth on his music. She Must and Shall Go Free made me weep when I first heard it and still does pretty regularly. I’ve had a harder time with his more didactic stuff in recent years, though, partially because I feel like he’s a big fish in a small pond. On Stockholm Syndrome, especially, it seemed like he was reaching for low-hanging fruit.

I was intrigued, though, by the total reset of Feedback and the lower-profile Sola Mi project he did last year, and ctrl totally blew me away. Did not expect this from him. Glad to get to be one of the first to review it.

Webb and producer Josh Moore (who also produced Webb’s 2009 album Stockholm Syndrome) use the same sonic palette for much of ctrl: take one straightforward guitar-and-voice folk-pop tune, add programmed beats and synths, sprinkle in Sacred Harp choral samples. Sometimes the samples are integrated fully into the song, like “Pressing on the Bruise”, where Webb essentially trades verses with the choir over a laid-back groove. Elsewhere they provide sonic texture, elevating the spastic “Attonitos Gloria” to moments of unexpected joy. Still elsewhere full choral verses are added as interludes between songs, as if commenting on what we’ve just heard. Nearly every instance that choir pops up is jarring, and occasionally it comes barreling out of left field at you with the surreal violence of a David Lynch film.

-full review up at RELEVANT Online

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Album Review: Sixpence None the Richer – Lost In Transition (2012)

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Sixpence None the Richer was the first band I fell in love with, back in high school. If not for them, I’m not sure I’d be a musician, a writer, or even a Christian. So this was a special review for me to write.

…the theme of failure plays such a prominent role in Transition that ‘Failure’ is the title of one of its best tracks. “Time is not my friend anymore,” sighs Nash, over Greg Leisz’s haunting pedal steel, before repeating “I’ve failed to make it,” over and over again as the song ends. Elsewhere, the Nash-penned “Should Not Be This Hard” masks its heartbreaking lyrics–about fighting for a failing relationship–with bouncy, sparkly instrumentation. Incidentally, Nash pens nearly half the tunes onTransition, more than any previous album. Her other highlight is the pop-country “Sooner Than Later”, an unsentimental reflection on the death of her father. Victory has never been this band’s M.O., but there’s a humble vulnerability on Transition that shines through more than ever before.

-full review at RELEVANT Online

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Album Review: Bowerbirds – The Clearing (2012)

New one’s up at RELEVANT. Due to an editorial error, it went up a few weeks late.

Bowerbirds’ Philip Moore and Beth Tacular have always been pretty off the grid, both literally and figuratively. Their two previous records of outsider folk had them occupied with their love for each other, nature and the interconnectedness of everything. For the last couple years, though, they’ve gone one step further, living in a trailer in the North Carolina woods while building a cabin with their own four hands. The Clearing, first and foremost, tells that story.

-full review at Relevant Online

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Album Review: The Roots – undun (2011)

My first review for RELEVANT Online went up awhile ago, but my computer’s been acting too fussy for me to get around to posting it here.

undun, while not The Roots’ best album, might be their deepest, and it’s uniquely rewarding. They’ve worked within a very strict set of limitations to craft a truly generous, incredibly thought-provoking album about death, regret and the choices that make a man. Dig deep and it’ll change you.

-full review at Relevant Online

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Album Review: Andrea Bustin – Disappoint the Elements (2011)

I got to write my first review for IndieMonday this week. It was definitely fun to try on the “IndieMonday voice”, and I look forward to writing for them again. And Andrea’s record is a gem. I definitely recommend it.

I have not met Andrea Bustin, but I imagine her to be the type of person who you expect to be quiet and shy until you get to know her and discover an encyclopedic brain and a killer sense of humor. Then you think she’s that quiet person with the encyclopedic brain and killer sense of humor, until you really get to know her and discover, on top of everything else, a probing sensitivity and deep wisdom. Usually that’s the type of friend you want to keep around for a long time. Bustin may be nothing like the person I’ve described, but her debut album, Disappoint the Elements, is that type of album.

-full review at IndieMonday

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Songwriter Mix: Family Business

I love listening to music topically. Some days I’ll search my whole library for a single word and listen that way. It’s like a strange conversation–hearing different artists from different genres all chiming in about the same thing.

So I made a mix about family. In this mix, you’ll hear Kanye update his relatives in prison, the Avetts leave some last wishes, James Blake lament being an only child, and Rufus tackle daddy issues via cover song. We’ve also got a handful of variations on the ‘advice song’ trope: Drive-By Truckers’ iconic father-son lesson ‘Outfit’, Vienna Teng’s retelling of her grandmother’s less-than-welcome advice about men and careers, and The Coup’s outrageous ‘Wear Clean Draws’, in which Boots Riley’s passes on his anti-establishment politics to his daughter in a totally unique lesson on what it means to be a woman.

I hope you enjoy it, and feel free to suggest other family songs in the comments section!

A couple other highlights:

-my friend Reid Comstock has been making a splash lately with his psych-pop band Tiger Waves, and I included my favorite song from his 2008 folk project, Father Padraig & the Next of Kin. He wrote ‘Emily’s Funeral Song’ after losing his mother to cancer, and his performance of that song at a house concert a few years ago was powerful and I won’t forget it.

-for more on Mary Gauthier’s mother, check out this previous post on The Foundling.

-everyone knows and loves ‘My Girls’, but does everyone realize how unbelievably awesome it is? It’s entirely about a father’s concerns about providing for his family.

-’Song for Mama’ isn’t an Abigail Washburn tune at all – its backstory remarkable enough that I’ll just link to it here and here.

-we have two crib-side lullabies: Sara Groves’ sweet, straightforward ‘You Cannot Lose My Love’ and Low’s much darker and creepier (though still kind of sweet) ‘In Metal’.

Note: I included two songs–Joanna Newsom’s ‘Emily’ and Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Djohariah’–that are ass-long, so feel free to skip those. The mix works either way. But they’re two incredible songs, each an epic ode to the artist’s sister.

Here’s the track list:

1. Kanye West – Family Business (from The College Dropout)
2. The Avett Brothers – Murder in the City (from The Second Gleam)
*3. Joanna Newsom  - Emily (from Ys)
4. Art Brut – My Little Brother (from Bang Bang Rock ‘n’ Roll)
5. James Blake – I Never Learnt to Share (from James Blake)
6. Mary Gauthier – Mama Here, Mama Gone (from The Foundling)
7. Rufus Wainwright – One Man Guy (Loudon Wainwright cover) (from Poses)
8. The Coup – Wear Clean Draws (from Party Music)
9. Drive-By Truckers – Outfit (from Decoration Day)
10. Vienna Teng – Grandmother Song (from Inland Territory)
11. Abigail Washburn & the Shanghai Restoration Projecct – Song for Mama (from Afterquake)
12. Father Padraig & the Next of Kin – Emily’s Funeral Song (from Virginia Singing Hymns)
13. Ben Harper & the Blind Boys of Alabama – Mother Pray (from There Will Be a Light)
14. Sara Groves – You Cannot Lose My Love (from All Right Here)
15. Low – In Metal (from Things We Lost in the Fire)
16. Animal Collective – My Girls (from Merriweather Post Pavilion)
*17. Sufjan Stevens – Djohariah (from All Delighted People EP)

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First Impression: Wilco – The Whole Love

On the day The Whole Love streamed on Wilco’s website, my internet connection timed out four times during my lunch break and I only ended up getting to hear the opener ‘Art of Almost’ over and over again. I wasn’t disappointed—that song grabs you by the scruff of the neck, and I relished the repeat listens—but it did set me up for future disappointment. For the few days before I could get my hands on the whole album, I was expecting The Whole Love to be Wilco’s Embryonic, preparing myself for a bitches’ brew of dark, experimental rock.

Well, The Whole Love definitely isn’t a rock record, and (with the exception of ‘Almost’, which, though incredible, is starting to stand out like a sore thumb on repeat listens) it’s not that experimental either. And in this case that’s a really, really good thing. A handful of perfect pop songs rival Summerteeth’s best (“I Might”, “Dawned On Me”, “Born Alone”) and the gentler cuts succeed where Sky Blue Sky failed (“Black Moon”, “Rising Red Lung”). What really excites me, though, is Tweedy’s emergence as a songwriter’s songwriter. His lyrics—especially on “Born Alone” and the incredible “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”—really stand up to repeat listens and deep digging. More than Tweedy’s past lyrics, they’re direct yet poetic, clearly communicating something while keeping the mystery intact.

I’m noticing themes of family and home life, spirituality and faith and life on the road, and I’m excited to dig deeper. We’ll see if the excitement wears off as the spin count grows. Regardless, “One Sunday Morning” is absolutely essential listening, whether you’re a Wilco fan or not. Expect a post on it down the road. Share your thoughts if you have ‘em!

Discovery: Northernists – Mama and the Loerie EP

I have a friend who mercilessly stalks speaker / ethicist / public figure Gideon Strauss. In her defense, Strauss–the former president of the Center for Public Justice–is an awesomely worthwhile guy to stalk, at least in the sense of following his Twitter and attending all his speaking engagements. But my friend–though totally harmless–always takes her obsessions one or two notches beyond the norm. In this case, she managed to hunt down his teenage daughters’ Youtube channel (!) where they were posting songs they had written with their friends and were performing in their living room. We’re talking videos with like 13 views.

That was four years ago, but apparently Hannah Strauss is still writing songs, and they’re awesome. As Northernists, she and bandmate Cole Gleason have crafted a really fascinating EP mixing chamber-folk with beautifully subtle lo-fi production. Joanna Newsom, Karen Peris and Josephine Foster all seem to be influences here, but Strauss has her own unique voice and songwriting style. I was especially struck by “Song for Simeon,” which combines plucked harp and bowed violin with a sweet, loping melody, until toothy electric guitar, kitchen percussion and disembodied vocal samples come in halfway through. The lyrics combine some beautiful imagery (“see the age in you / like a tree in an acorn”) with hymn lyrics (“God be with you / ’til we meet again”) and seem to ruminate on loss. It’s strangely unsettling, and I’m excited to unpack it more on further listens.

Download the album at their Bandcamp. And if you like it, pay them some dang money for it!

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