Here are the reissues I spent the most time getting reacquainted with in 2017:
Beyoncé — Lemonade
This counts as a reissue, right? Maybe? I don’t subscribe to Tidal, and I really wanted to avoid double-buying Lemonade like I did Beyoncé’s self-titled masterpiece (iTunes then vinyl). So I waited. And waited. And OK so maybe someone sent me a download link at one point, but still — it was cause for much rejoicing when a (yellow, obvs) vinyl version was issued this summer. Gives me a second chance to recognize Beyoncé’s second consecutive masterpiece.
It’s a pretty snazzy album. Howard Wales wails (GET IT?!?) on Hammond organ and Fender Rhodes, and you get to hear how Jerry Garcia acts and reacts in a jazz setting. Parts can feel less like jazz and more like the middle of a Dead jam, but whatever. The vibe is fun and intuitive and exploratory, and it makes for great unfocused listening. Zone in. Zone out. Your call. It’s also perfect dinner music, assuming your guests are cool with meandering, guitar-driven jam-jazz. OK so maybe it’s better this is being reissued after Thanksgiving.
Another pressing of this gem is coming in January, but a 500-copy limited white vinyl run hit independent record stores in December, and I’m so glad I was in the right place at the right time to snag one. It’s a solo show — just Sister Rosetta and guitar — and her guitar isn’t mixed all that loud, so what the recording really amounts to is an extended sermon given by one of rock and roll’s under-appreciated progenitors. I don’t put much stock in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but it was nice to see she was chosen for induction this year. Credit where credit is due.
I thought it was M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger who evangelized for this on Instagram and put it on my radar, but now I can’t find the post. In the process of trying, though, I found this video of Taylor performing the title track with William Tyler. Pretty awesome if you ask me. Side note: “Bright Phoebus” handily wins the title for the song that got stuck in my head the most this year. Oh, and my daughter digs it too, which is fun.
One of my favorite musical moments of 2017 was finding out one my favorite albums of all time was being pressed to vinyl for the very first time. (“For the very first tiiiiime…” Sorry, I still have “Bright Phoebus” playing.)
I became semi-obsessed with “Unknown Legend” via the cover version on Shovels & Rope’s Busted Jukebox, Volume 1. (Volume 2 out now!) So when I saw Harvest Moon was being pressed to vinyl for the first time for Record Store Day Black Friday, I was all like “Oh cool, the album with ‘Unknown Legend’ on it!” I waited in line for more than two hours in sub-freezing temperatures with no socks on (dumb), snagged a copy, brought it home, and then got surprise-excited when I heard one of my other favorite Neil Young songs… “Harvest Moon.” That’s right — in all that time waiting for BK Music to open while my ankles froze, I never managed to connect “Harvest Moon” the song with Harvest Moon the album. Like I said… dumb. Great album, though. Played it nonstop that weekend and a number of times since.
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:
This is almost a month late, but I’d recommend Amanda Petrusich’s thoughts on the Mariah Carey NYE debacle. After reading it, my first thought was that it’s a pleasure to read along as Petrusich makes sense of things. It reminds me of one theory about dreams — that they help you process and file away the things that are happening around you. That’s Petrusich’s writing to me.
While I’m tempted to say the outfits are the best part of this hour-plus video of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters performing in Germany in 1974, the groove is too damn good. Cheers to Aquarium Drunkard for posting it.
I included Spencer Tweedy’s Geezer Love in my best EPs of 2016 post, and just weeks later, his brother Sammy released his own EP, called Canoe Country, comprised of looping synth sounds and guitar. Really neat. Jeff Tweedy has some talented kids.
This Phantogram cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” is precise and wonderful and I don’t know how you repeatedly and consistently arpeggiate guitar chords like this without your name being Jonnie Greenwood.
I didn’t go too crazy for Conor Oberst’s Ruminations album, but hot damn am I psyched for this upcoming Salutations album. (This NPR write-up had me at “Guests on Salutations include Gillian Welch…”) I’ve listened to this updated version of “A Little Uncanny” more than a dozen times and counting. Fuck Ronald Reagan. Seriously.
So Ryan Adams is coming to The National here in Richmond, and I’ve managed to snag my ticket for the Sunday (3/5) show. Tickets for that one and the next night’s show are on sale now, unless they aren’t because they’ve already sold out. This might be my favorite pairing of artist and venue since Landlady came to Hardywood last year. (Oh yeah, they’re coming to Richmond — to The Camel — on the second night Adams is in town, so I get to see him and them on consecutive nights. Pretty sure I’m going to happy cry at one or both.)
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.
Jeremy Gordon wrote a great article for Pitchfork recently that talked about early interweb fandom through a Radiohead lens. It showed how especially devoted fans can go from listening to creating, with At Ease as a prime example. In a coincidence that’s too meaningful to call purely coincidental, just a few days later, I got an email from James Adams, who has created a stunning zine — Daniel Bachman’s Commonwealth — devoted to Bachman’s body of work. It uses Bachman’s song titles as a jumping off point for exploring the history and geography of Virginia, with detailed looks at small towns and rivers and even a map with a legend that pinpoints areas Bachman writes about.
There’s insight, there’s humor, and there’s a shit-ton of information. Here’s the passage about Farnham, which is the namesake of one of the songs on Bachman’s excellent River album:
And I’m pretty sure the back cover is the most fantastic untapped tattoo idea I’ve ever seen. (If you do have this tattoo, I’m jealous of you):
I’m so happy I have it, and James was nice enough to send a couple extras. If you’d like a copy, let me know. It’s not just for Daniel Bachman fans — if you’ve lived in Virginia your whole life like I have, it’s a true gift. (And if you’re a Dylan fan, James’ Bob Dylan Studies twitter feed is a required follow.)
I can’t remember what day this week it was, but I had to get out of the car right when Marketplace was starting a story about Radiohead’s finances and, presumably, how they start new companies for each record they release. Bandmate 4eva Doug unknowingly came to the rescue by sending me this Guardian article about the same thing a day or two later. Interesting stuff, I think. Maybe I need to start a couple corporations for YHT, especially now that I bought an actual domain for the site.
Hey! I forgot to tell y’all! I bought youhearthat.com, so there’s that. Feels like I got my own little plot on this great big internet, and it feels like I should be saying that while standing with a cup of coffee in one hand and a suspender strap in the other, looking out over my growing crop of blog posts through the early morning haze. That’s how the internet works, right…
James Blake? Gooood. Radiohead? Goooood. Beyoncé? I trust that it’s good, but I still haven’t heard more than a couple songs. I don’t want to pay to download it, since it might come out on vinyl at some point, and it’s not on Spotify, and I’m not about to sign up for Tidal while I’m still paying for Spotify Premium, so…
Happy Friday Cheers, y’all! A few News and Notes items to celebrate the start of my favorite 1/6 of the year:
An article I wrote about Friday Cheers and Lucy Dacus for River City Magazine just hit the interweb yesterday. Stephen Lecky and Lucy Dacus are such tremendous people and tremendous contributors to this musical community (who happen to have the same birthday, which happened to happen this week), and getting to meet and interview them meant fulfilling two huge #rvamusic bucket list items. I hope you’ll click here to check the article out or grab a print copy, which has a really snazzy “Cheers to Cheers” cover. Speaking of Friday Cheers…
The season kicks off tonight with The Soul Rebels and Mighty Joshua & the Zion #5. Wanna hear something crazy? Mighty Joshua has that same birthday! As Stephen Lecky pointed out on Twitter, this calls for a party on Brown’s Island. How does tonight sound? It may be a little wet, but some of my absolute favorite Friday Cheers experiences have been in the rain. Charles Bradley, the Funky Meters… I’m sure this week will follow suit.
Lots of great new music this week. Radiohead’s newsongs are instant classics, James Blake has a new album out today (I’ve yet to hear it the whole thing, but what I’ve heard I love), and I’m really digging this new Red Hot Chili Peppers song.
CD Monday update: What a wild ride. Sunrise can feel disconnected, and my lasting impression of it will be as a collection of individual moments, but one endearing constant glued the whole thing together for me: Masabumi Kikuchi scratchily singing along with his piano parts. His voice borders on a growl, and while it’s quiet, it’s almost always there, so it’s something of a reassurance amid the chaos. NPR described his voice this way: “His hazy voice is like a walkie-talkie transmission from the moon. It’s too weird to dislike.” Well put.
For nearly three decades, I thought my mom was a fan of the ALCS-swept New York Yankees. She grew up in New Jersey, her brother is a Yankee fan, her parents are Yankee fans… I guess I just assumed. And there wasn’t exactly a shortage of opportunities for her true colors to show — I played little league for like 10 years, went to god knows how many Norfolk Tides games, and watched a ton of baseball at home during and after family dinners. So imagine my surprise when the following exchange took place over the phone earlier this season…
Mom: “Ugh. I hate the Yankees.”
Her: “I’m a Mets fan!”
Turns out, when she was a kid, she rooted for the Mets to stick it to the rest of her family. Pretty awesome, if you ask me. She also called a career audible when I was in high school and became an Episcopalian priest after 31 years of teaching American History. She’s just full of surprises.
Today’s embarrassing honest admission comes in two parts, the first of which came about when I was listening to the wedding band from last weekend prep for the reception. As the keyboard player was going over the set list and the requisite synth settings, the unmistakable sounds of “Dirty Work” floated through the room, prompting one of the other groomsmen to say, “This is my favorite Steely Dan song.” I quickly shot him what I assume was the same look that Copernicus got when he went around telling people that the Earth wasn’t actually the center of the universe, because I had NO IDEA “Dirty Work” was a Steely Dan song. My stink-eye quickly gave way to a facepalm-worthy moment of clarity — OF COURSE it’s a Steely Dan song. It has the Dan written all over it. Those harmonies. That crisp, clean production. Those jazzy changes. I don’t claim to be a Steely Dan aficionado or anything (Aja is pretty much as far as I’ve gotten), but this still felt like a piece of information I should have obtained at some point. A hole. An absence. A nothing where something should have been.
I got the same feeling the other day, when I came across Radiohead’s “Pearly” on Tumblr.
While VSQ boasts a killer catalog, I’ve yet to find a song to depose Brad Mehldau’s version of “Exit Music (For A Film),” the current king of instrumental cover music mountain. But to be fair, that’s a tough throne to topple. My attachment to “Exit Music” runs waaaaay deep. Why so deep? Because never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
I hate it when famous people I like don’t get along.
The subject of music feuds came up a few hours before my friend Coyle and I saw Radiohead in Washington D.C. And before you ask, no, the music feud I’m talking about isn’t the one about us buying the same M. Ward shirt, though I am wearing it as I type this — hear that Coyle?!? No, the subject came up because our pre-show listening regimen leaned heavily on Arctic Monkeys, to whom Coyle’s been listening quite a bit recently. As we talked about Suck It and See, Arctic Monkeys’ most recent album, it dawned on me that I hadn’t given the band a fair chance over the years, and I’m pretty sure it’s because of something Thom Yorke said a little while back. Of AM and their rapid rise to fame, Yorke was quoted in 2006 as saying:
“The fact that poor Arctic Monkeys are getting so much attention is purely based on the fact that the mainstream music business is such a bunch of fucking retards as far as I’m concerned.”
Looking back at this incident with the benefits of hindsight and Google, it seems totally unfair (and dumb) for me to have let a single utterance, especially a flippant one that was mainly directed at the mainstream music industry, steer me away from a group I’d been starting to enjoy. But a half decade of tepid listening, a heavy Radiohead bias and the fact that AM drummer Matt Helders had fired back a shot about Radiohead being boring all worked together to warp my memory, and I found myself saying to Coyle something like, “I haven’t listened to them much. I think they said something not so nice about Radiohead at one point.” It’s embarrassing to admit it, but I seem to have passively chosen a side in a disagreement that took place 6 years ago between two people I’ve never met, which means that I’m just now finding out how great Suck It and See is. Crazy, right?
Well, the crazy train keeps on rolling, with a stop two days later at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, where I was set to see tUnE-yArDs for the first time.