Happy 4th of July? I’ll probably say that handful of times today, but this one doesn’t feel so happy. It’s hard to dial the patriotism up to 11 when your country is doing this, and your president is celebrating like this.
I put Carl Broemel’s beautiful and largely subdued 4th of July album on the turntable this morning, thinking that spinning it meant marking the occasion with an appropriate level of exuberance. The cover art certainly hits the mark, with damp coloring and a Statue Of Liberty that registers as distant and off-balance. Still, I didn’t expect to find lyrics that spoke so directly to the current political moment:
So many people are awake in the city
I see ’em walking up and down the road
Think eventually they will be sleeping
Try to find a quiet place to go
But there’s a limited number of spaces
With comfy mattresses and soft pillows
Whether your bed is just a spot on the pavement
Or an apartment on the eighty-fifth floor
You’re gonna end everyday of your life
Lying there in the dark
I’ve always thought “In the Dark” was a very pretty song about insomnia and/or death and/or the way solipsism actually unites us in a weird way. Now it feels like a meditation on conscience — the idea that at the end of the day, and at the end of our lives, we all have to reckon with what we’ve done to that point. Maybe that’s a good way to “celebrate” this year’s Independence Day.
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…
1. Lucy Dacus — No Burden
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 nationalacclaim 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.
6. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — I Had a Dream You Were Mine
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.
Wanted to post quickly about Sound Gaze for two reasons. First, I wanted to thank Doug for having me on this weekend. He’s a class act, and if you’re not a regular listener, I’d highly recommend tuning into WDCE on Saturdays or subscribing to the podcast and catching up throughout the week. (I can confirm that it’s an excellent running podcast.)
Second, I thought I’d offer a few corrections and clarifications from Saturday, because I clearly have the recall of an overwhelmed chipmunk:
The new Head and the Heart album, Signs of Light, comes out on September 9.
Jump, Little Children did, in fact, form in North Carolina, though Wikipedia lists Charleston, South Carolina as their pre-breakup “adopted hometown.”
Apologies for smacking my gums before talking. I don’t think I normally do that, which makes it extra weird that I’d repeatedly do it on the radio.
Once again, I apologize for abusing the word “incredible,” though, if I were pressed, I’d probably defend any individual use of it.
I talked about having Carl Broemel’s album on hold at BK Music in part because I originally had “In The Dark” in my mix for Saturday but had to make some tough cuts, so I thought I’d share it below. I really, really like this Broemel album. I went straight to BK after the show to grab it and had it spinning just this morning. Well worth a listen, if you haven’t heard it.
Thanks again, Doug, and thanks to everyone who listened.
CD Monday update: Didn’t end up listening to Blauklang much this week. Lots of singing on the way to daycare. Toddler YHT damn near did a recital yesterday. The setlist: “Old McDonald” -> “ABCs” -> “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” -> “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” -> “I’m Bringing Home A Baby Bumblebee.” It was [insert fire emoji here].
Speaking of fire emojis, congrats to Butcher Brown on the new EP. Love the title — Virginia Noir — and I love how tight they sound. What a machine they are. Fierce and smooth at the same time, somehow.
Also excited for this new Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket) solo album. “In The Dark” has that same breezy, jazzy feel his older solo stuff has. Can’t wait to hear more.
I already posted to Instagram about it, but cheers to Steve Gunn and Steady Sounds for the in-store on Tuesday. What a treat that was. Eyes on the Lines is my first experience with his music, and I’m not sure I would have jumped in with both feet if it weren’t for Tuesday’s performance. Just voice and two guitars, but man, was it good. Both instruments totally under control, ebbing and flowing, effects on, effects off, singing, no singing… the whole thing was like a comfortable, confident conversation.
Are y’all as bananas for this new Avalanches record as I am? It feels like I’ll be getting to know it — the samples, verses, and interludes — for some time, like a book I know I want to reread while I’m reading it for the first time. So much going on, and so much fun to listen to.
Sometimes finding out about a band late is torturous. Like when the group just broke up or is on a clear creative decline. Or, worse yet, when one or more of the founding members have died and the band is touring around the country like a zombie version of themselves. In all these cases, you can still listen to tunes from the glory days, but you have to accept that you’ve missed out on something that simply can’t be recovered. Other times, though, being the last to know isn’t so bad. Under the right circumstances, discovering an artist after everyone else can feel great, like you’re walking into a party that’s already in full swing. That’s just how I’d characterize my first two weeks of listening to Bobby Bare Jr.
When I first heard about Bare, I was a few days away from heading to his hometown of Nashville, TN for a friend’s wedding. Not to get too touchy-feely here, but c’mon; what’re the odds of me hearing about him right before my first trip to the center of the country music universe? (Bare’s father is country veteran, having charted albums for decades and written, according to Wikipedia, the world’s one and only Christian football waltz — “Dropkick Me Jesus (Though The Goalposts Of Life).”) Did I mention that I heard about him from a friend who, at the time, didn’t know I was going to Nashville? As far as happy coincidences go, this was a pretty crazy one.
Sometimes you have to take an unpopular stance, though it’s nice when you have a good friend standing unpopularly with you. My buddy Coyle and I are both staunch supporters of the most divisive song in the entirety of the My Morning Jacket catalog. That’s right, Coyle and I are proud members of team “Highly Suspicious.” I’m pretty sure we both like it for the same reason, too — the hilarious, over-the-top serious way Carl Broemel, co-lead guitarist and backup singer to Jim James, delivers the song’s title lyrics. Watch the band performing the song on Austin City Limits to see what I mean…
How can you not love that? It falls in some strange netherworld between parody and badassery, and ever since the first time I saw a video of “Highly Suspicious” being staged, I’ve watched Broemel with an added sense of enjoyment. That’s why I was so elated when the wonderful people at Daytrotter recently posted a session that finds Broemel performing 4 of his own songs that I had no idea existed, all of which can be found on an album he released last year called All Birds Say. I dove into the record as soon as I could, and it didn’t take long to learn that Broemel is as gifted at writing solo material as he is at the guitar-thrashing, falsetto-floating duties he executes so expertly as a member of My Morning Jacket. All Birds Say is a mellow record to be sure, but there’s a great deal going on in these largely down-tempo songs worth noting, including a fascinating relationship between theme and substance. Many of the songs deal with the idea of spare time, surely a commodity when you’re part of an overwhelmingly successful band, with titles like “Sunday Drivers” and “Retired,” and lyrics like “I was waiting for the moment to be perfectly clear, when the world would stop and let me catch up,” and “save an hour for yourself.” Images like these appear throughout, and pair perfectly with the choice of tempo and mood. Too perfectly, in fact. That’s what’s most interesting about All Birds Say — it’s a leisurely sounding record about trying to find time for leisure, which, as any busy person can attest, is hard work. After doing some research, I wasn’t surprised to find that he recorded the album one song at a time, whenever he had an opportunity, over the course of 4 or 5 years, so it’s no wonder he’s focused on those elusive spare moments. Even his guitar work reflects this odd coupling of efficiency and relaxation. “Questions” features a walkdown that sounds so breezy on the surface it could have followed a drunk down the street in an old Disney cartoon, but it includes just about every single in-between note that particular scale can hold. So loose, yet so tight at the same time. And these extra, in-between notes are everywhere on All Birds Say. I’m enjoying the album so much I can’t decide which song to recommend, so I’m including performance videos of three of my favorites — “Questions,” “Carried Away,” and “Heaven Knows,” where he pushes the leisure theme even further by playing the song on an autoharp in the middle of a round of golf. Check out these three great songs below, his Daytrotter session here (you’re a member already, right?), and buy All Birds Say here.