Alternative Lyrics from Plan 9:
Lots to catch up on since my last news and notes post. To be honest, I’m having trouble posting these days because the world seems so grim, but there is still so much good music worth celebrating, and I’m trying to let the light in. Here are a few things that have been shining particularly bright for me lately:
[Editor’s Note: American Tunes is a series of posts dedicated to songs that address America’s social and political challenges. For more information on the series, click here.]
I dunno about you, but given the way January 20 has been looming — ominously, darkly — on the horizon, the days before then have seemed unusually pregnant and worthy of cherishing. Today, especially, given that Martin Luther King Jr. preached lessons of love, progress, and decency that have, unfortunately, become urgently relevant of late. Holding up his example seems crucial, which is why I’m posting “Will You Love Me” — a song from Matthew E. White’s debut album that gently adjusts a King quotation on loving your enemies and refusing to co-opt despair:
Darkness can’t drive out darkness
Only love can do that
The original quote — “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” — appears to have first been said in a 1957 sermon, though it can also be found in King’s book Strength to Love. As it happens, I heard the very same quote at my mom’s church this past Sunday, when the rector included it in his sermon. With all the ugliness of the 2016 election, it may seem harder than ever to live up to King’s compassionate, loving example, but these words exude a deep, unchanging truth that’s bigger than any one politician, businessman, or political party, and I truly believe they represent the most direct line between where we are and where we need to go.
Last 2016 in Review post — I promise. That said, I lied about the “Top 10” part. I’ve included the rest of my top 25 at the bottom, as well as some albums that I couldn’t resist mentioning, because they’re also amazing.
Without further ado…
Earlier in December, in a New Yorker piece about her favorite songs of 2016, Amanda Petrusich wrote something that helped me name the reason I so badly wanted to place Lucy Dacus’ No Burden at the top of this list:
Whole musical worlds were invented this year, and, perhaps most notable, listeners seemed better equipped than ever to accept and navigate them. I sensed both a collective ache for progressive work and a willingness to metabolize it.
Between the in-town excitement that accompanied the February release of No Burden, the wave of national acclaim that rushed in, the consistently excellent shows she played all over town, and the poised atmosphere she commanded at each of those performances, Dacus really did establish her own new world here in Richmond. It never ceases to amaze me how truly talented musicians can create something out of nothing but their own experiences and insights. It feels like an exception to the rule in physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.
The second part of the Petrusich quote above also resonated — the idea that audiences are looking for something progressive. Something that will move us forward. I sense that in Dacus’ music in large part because meaningful change hinges on truth, and her writing displays an honesty that’s both outwardly and inwardly directed. It’s why she was such a joy to interview, and it’s why her lyrics have so much substance. Would this country still be in the mess it’s in if people took a hard, unflinching look at their own motivations? Probably, but the mess might not be quite so bad.
In these last days of December, I find it impossible to imagine what this year would have been like — what my world would presently be like — without No Burden in it. For that reason, it’s #1 in my book.
In a word, transcendent. Blackstar turned out to be RVA Magazine‘s #1 album, and I was given the opportunity to write about it. I tried to put in context why it loomed so large over 2016, and talking about it ended up being strangely therapeutic. Here’s the first bit:
2016 will be remembered as at least these three things: The Year We Hated and Wanted to End Early, The Year Donald Trump Was Elected and Brexit Happened, and The Year All the Famous People Died. David Bowie’s death in January, just days after he released his dark and jazzy masterpiece, Blackstar, cast a pall over months ahead in which we lost one towering cultural figure after another. Like Prince, Bowie dying felt especially cruel, because of the life-affirming, self-empowering spirit he brought to his art. Bowie was evidence that you can take control of your identity and invent yourself in the image of your choosing, and he carried that artistic approach with him from life into death. His last artistic act was nothing short of transcendent.
It was an honor to blurb this one as well for RVA Magazine — take a look here. I couldn’t help throwing a little shade at the start:
While plenty of artists in the realms of pop and R&B were out there cultivating a public persona drenched in faux sensitivity, Frank Ocean was quietly at work, making some of the most powerfully vulnerable music I can remember hearing.
Another one I wrote about for RVA Magazine’s year-end bonanza. Such a beautiful album, such heavy subject matter. A Moon Shaped Pool acts as a reminder that lists and rankings pale in comparison to the lived experiences that make music and lyrics possible.
To say that Teens of Denial grew on me would be misleading — you usually hear people say that when they were unsure about an album initially but learned to love it. But Teens of Denial did grow in my estimation in the sense that, every time I listened, Will Toledo’s genius would seem more profound. I was one of the people for whom Car Seat Headrest’s newest album acted as an introduction, despite the fact that Toledo’s already released more albums than many artists release in a career and a half. That said, I recently snagged a used copy of 2015’s Teens of Style at Plan 9, and I hear that same undeniable (sorry) gift for fusing melody and energy. I may be late to the party, but it’s great to be here regardless.
This one probably has the highest ratio of number of times I listened to it to number of words I wrote about it. I did write a quickie review of it for the Winter RVA Magazine, and here’s how I closed it:
Hamilton Leithauser’s smoky vocals ascend seemingly without limit; when paired with Rostam Batmanglij’s knack for producing in styles both old and new, that voice — “the same voice I’ve always had” — soars with an inspiring freedom.
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are in a really interesting position right now. They have roots in a red state but personal politics that lean blue, and because they’ve been consistently making some of the best and sludgiest Southern rock around for decades, they have the ears of fans from all over the political spectrum. In my mind, that’s why this album was and is so important — it represents a bridge spanning the huge chasm that separates America’s populated coasts from its rural center. It’s honest, just as the band is honest at their shows about where they stand when it comes to social justice. (“Black Lives Matter” was prominently displayed in their stage setup when they came to The National in November.) At a time when social media algorithms are making it harder and harder to encounter opinions that conflict with your own, the Truckers make me hopeful. Fingers crossed people are actually listening.
I thought Bon Iver’s self-titled album would be a tough act to follow — maybe impossible — given that it was the realization of such a big, colorful, well-rounded vision. But 22, A Million is proof that Justin Vernon’s vision is a renewable resource. An unexpected joy this album has brought is seeing who it resonates with — identifying other people who like their musical beauty laced with a healthy dose of obfuscation. It’s like we looked at a Rorschach and all came up with the same answer.
In terms of style, Stranger to Stranger is cut from cloth similar to that of Graceland, Paul Simon’s 30-year-old masterpiece. That said, his new album doesn’t feel retrograde, in part because Simon’s witty, acerbic writing seems sharper than ever. (Who else could turn concert wristband drama into a genuinely enjoyable, insightful song?) A piece of advice: If you missed Simon on this year’s tour — I did — check out his recent Austin City Limits performance. It’s excellent and has probably earned squatter’s rights on my DVR by now.
I thought about splitting this year’s lists into weirder categories like “Albums I Was Going To Like No Matter What” (Hiss Golden Messenger, Sturgill Simpson) and “Albums I Know I’m Going to Like Later But Haven’t Spent Enough Time With” (Beyoncé, Solange). MY WOMAN made me want to create a category called “Albums By Artists Who Had A Whole Other Gear We Didn’t Know About.” I thought Angel Olsen had truly found her form with her last album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, but Olsen’s direct, intense writing is just as effective in a setting that calls to mind early rock and roll. This may be my dad’s Memphis roots talking, but I hear a ton of Roy Orbison in MY WOMAN, and “Shut Up Kiss Me” is quite simply one of the strongest songs of the year.
Here’s the rest of the Top 25 I submitted for RVA Magazine…
11. Hiss Golden Messenger — Heart Like a Levee
12. Wilco — Schmilco
13. Lambchop — FLOTUS
14. Clair Morgan — New Lions & the Not-Good Night
15. Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
16. Steve Gunn — Eyes on the Lines
17. Allen Toussaint — American Tunes
18. Dori Freeman — Dori Freeman
19. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
20. The Lumineers — Cleopatra
21. Julian Lage — ARCLIGHT
22. Solange — A Seat at the Table
23. Avers — Omega/Whatever
24. Durand Jones & the Indications — Durand Jones & the Indications
25. The Head and the Heart — Signs of Light
…and here are 15 more albums I loved dearly but am too tired to rank…
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down — A Man Alive
Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book
Cian Nugent — Night Fiction
Daniel Bachman — Daniel Bachman
Kyle Craft — Dolls of Highland
Nels Cline — Lovers
The Avalanches — Wildflowers
Colin Stetson — SORROW
Anna Meredith — Varmints
Carl Broemel — 4th of July
Blood Orange — Freetown Sound
Animal Collective — Painting With
Negative Gemini — Body Work
James Supercave — Better Strange
Andy Shauf — The Party
OK, I swear I’m stopping now. If you’re still reading, you’re a peach. See you in 2017.
Lots of great RVA releases this year. Here are a few I particularly enjoyed, with one notable absence that will make sense when I post tomorrow’s list:
RVA Magazine let me blurb this one for their best local releases list — check it out here. I wrapped up by saying:
They can crack off a breezy summer jam like “Santa Anna,” power through a charged rocker like “Everything Hz,” or sink into moodier tunes like “Don’t Care” with ease. That’s one reason Omega/Whatever is such a gift — we get the clearest glimpse yet of the plurality of Avers’ abilities.
I wrote a longish review of New Lions & the Not-Good Night around the time it was released. I’ve been doing fewer of those lately — writing time is in short supply these days — but I felt compelled to dive deeper into this one, and I think this bit from the review explains why:
There are a lot of good albums out there, but music that can make you feel pure joy is rare. There has to be something about it that worms way down, through the topsoil of everyday stuff — Is this recycling week? Do I need to go to the grocery store on the way home? — to the core of what makes us who we are. The permanent stuff. The stuff that was forged years ago via childhood experiences we may have only snapshot memories of. New Lions & the Not-Good Night… gets to that place.
I got to see Angelica Garcia perform a happy hour show at The Camel earlier in December. She was drinking tea and commented at one point about the possibility of losing her voice, which makes what I heard — a voice as versatile and expressive as any you’ll find — all the more impressive. In the span of just a few words, she’d jump between talk-singing, pure tones, pop ornamentation, bluesy bent notes, and a rapid waver that feels connected to the vibrato you might find in folk, only more natural and urgent, somehow. Medicine for Birds compiles all these sounds nicely, and while it’s tempting to frame the album as indicative of a wildly promising future, the polish of the production and the quality of the writing and singing make this a destination in itself.
I only recently started listening to The Rain, but the partnership it features — Noah-O’s storytelling and DJ Mentos’ classic, jazz-inflected production — is clearly a winning one. They recently put up a vinyl pre-order — I look forward to snagging a copy and getting to know this one in person.
This may turn out to be my favorite White Laces album. I wrote about it a couple of times, once on here and again in RVA Magazine. The latter review struck a heavier tone, since I’d learned by that point that White Laces were disbanding:
Landis Wine’s gliding voice pairs beautifully with synthetic elements that call to mind the ’80s, merging the past and present to create something truly timeless. I know it should feel final, but I’d rather think of it as everlasting.
It’s hump day for 2016 in Review! Part three of five lists a handful of EPs that I enjoyed this year:
Just as Moses Sumney’s voice can reach up and up, his music seems to find new heights of beauty with each song he releases. I’ll take a choir of looped Sumneys over just about any other vocal group out there.
What a perfect companion to the outburst of joy found on Southland Mission. This compact set of pensive guitar tunes is great for working, driving, running… anything where you want to turn your active mind off and let the quiet murmurs of your soul bubble up.
Apologies for getting all parental about this, but my heart was warmed by Geezer Love in part by the combination of Spencer Tweedy’s voice — how much it sounds like his dad’s — and how he’s managed to make something all his own while building on his dad’s songwriting strengths. That thing Tweedy Sr. does by offering ear-pleasing patterns and then subverting them slightly via structural tweaks and manipulation of phrasing — Tweedy Jr. has it down pat. There’s a wonderful irony at work here: If the style you inherit is dependent on offering variation, you’ll never be a copy of what came before. In “Fawn,” Spencer sings “I want to be what you want me to be/I want to do what you want me to do,” and I can’t help thinking that in being himself, he’s already being and doing what his dad would want.
I had an opportunity to write a quickie review of this for RVA Magazine. Here’s a snippet:
Eat Your Heart Out’s literal centerpiece, “I Just Want U,” is an expertly crafted pop ballad that’s a joy to get lost in — lost in the harmonies, the guitar, and in time.
I love how narrative Thunder Tillman’s music is. I was hooked halfway through the EP’s first song, “Exact Location Of The Soul,” in large part because I felt like added elements and changes in mood were advancing a story.
Easing into the numbered lists with Blasts from the Past — the reissues and archival releases I had the most fun with this year.
I once found myself outside a recording studio talking to a very large and friendly stranger about how much we both loved “In Spite Of Ourselves,” trading the verses we could remember off the tops of our heads and laughing hysterically. The power of John Prine’s songwriting, y’all. I think about that dude every time I hear the song. I think about you too, Mrs. YHT, just [adjusts collar nervously] not just you. I’m going to stop typing about this now.
The Last Waltz introduced me to Allen Toussaint The Arranger, and Matthew E. White’s interviews and Spotify listening feed helped me get to know Allen Toussaint The Influence, but I hadn’t really met Allen Toussaint The Performer until Record Store Day, when this live set was reissued. Predictably, that part of his personality is like the other parts — charming, entertaining, and close enough to flawless that you find yourself wondering if he ever makes mistakes. (Just a few months later, when I grabbed a copy of American Tunes while in Chicago for a wedding, I got to meet Allen Toussaint The Technician-Historian — he’s pretty great, too.)
If you buy into the Gillian-Welch-as-self-styled-Southern-person narrative, you’d probably call this album evidence of a crucial turning point in her persona definition. I tend to think we’re all constructs of the people we want to be, with varying degrees of consciousness about the whole deal. Having grown up in Norfolk — large military presence, friends’ families moving away and moving back, not all that rednecky but right near the North Carolina border — I understand how it feels to embrace Southern-ness consciously, selectively, and gradually, and I tend to feel a little defensive when people talk/write about her origin story. It’s weird, and I can’t tell whether I like this Boots album because of or in spite of that defensiveness. Probably a little of both.
Spooky tunes compiled and analyzed by legendary 78’s collector Chris King? Check. Cover art by R. Crumb? Check. Release party at Steady Sounds with King spinning 78’s from the second floor? Check. Something to play whenever we want to make Greek food and/or remember our trip there? Check.
[knock, knock, knock] “Hi, I’m here for the alternate version of ‘Carolina Drama,’ and I’m not leaving until I understand the critical plot points.”
I hadn’t planned on buying this, but that giant 1966 box set has been looking more interesting by the day, and a used copy popped up on BK Music’s Instagram feed. I figure this’ll keep the box set at bay. For now.