So this may end up being the earliest I’ve woken up to wait in line at BK Music on Record Store Day. The sun will not be out. The birds will not be chirping. The Mennonites won’t even be making donuts at the South of the James Farmer’s Market. I’m talking oh dark thirty. (The time, not the movie in which Andy from The Office kills Osama bin Laden.)
I’m not sure which I heard first, the studio version on Here We Rest or the live version onLive from Alabama, but Isbell’s take on “Heart On A String” put Candi Staton on my radar, and it represents a crucial part of his own personal history, given that Staton’s original version was recorded at Fame in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The phrase “full circle” comes to mind when I hear Isbell perform “Heart On A String.” It makes clear that he both remembers and understands where he came from.
I haven’t gotten to see Isbell do The Stones’ “Sway” live, but setlist.fm tells me that the cover closed his 2008 set on Brown’s Island here in Richmond, which is neat. I have seen him do “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” however, and he does a great job. It’s one of those “Man, that dude knows how to get just the right guitar tone” songs.
400 Unit renditions of Isbell-penned Truckers songs make the world go ’round, and “Never Gonna Change” was the song with which he ended his outstanding 2016 Altria Theater performance. Man, was that show good. I said on Instragram at the time that he “pitched a perfect game,” and the experience has only gotten rosier in retrospect.
What can I say about “Atlantic City”? It’s on a very short list of “All Time” favorites on Spotify and I wrote a mini-essay on the song after spending time in the city for the first time, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Isbell perform it. I’m sitting here trying to think of a combination of artist and cover that would make we wake up earlier in the morning… Thom Yorke singing “Hallelujah”? Donald Trump singing “2 + 2 = 5”?
There must be something in the water, because four of the other titles I’m most hoping to see at BK are also live sets:
Would also be neat to snag the Lumineers’ Song Seeds 10-inch. As someone who’s contributed parts to music written by Wes, I like the concept of the album — hearing songs at different stages of fruition. It’s the same reason I was so psyched to hear the episode of Song Exploder that featured “Ophelia.”
I better stop there before I get carried away. See y’all in line on April 22nd.
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.
Just a few quick things this Friday. Hope y’all have an awesome weekend ahead!
Be on the lookout for the return of CD Monday next week…
Haven’t seen it yet, but NPR has video of The Head and the Heart performing their new album at NYC’s City Winery. Definitely watching that. That album is very, very good.
And hot damn, is the Hamilton Leithauser/Rostam album good. “The Bride’s Dad,” y’all. You gotta hear it. NPR is streaming it — click here to listen and click here to sign my petition asking for them to be a band forever and for that band to be called RostHam.
Car Seat Headrest was excellent at the National on Monday. Was not expecting a Frank Ocean cover (“Ivy”) but was so excited when he announced it was about to happen that I guiltily videoed the whole thing. Then I listened to it on the way home and felt… OK, still guilty but I’m happy I can revisit it. Here’s a video someone took of him doing the song Asheville.
Lumineers tonight at RIR. The same RIR Denny Hamlin kicked ass at last weekend. OK, so it’s technically at an amphitheater near the track, but whatever. Something tells me the smell of victory (burnt rubber, beer, pee) is still floating around that place. Might need to wear some #11 merch tonight to soak the win in fully.
Happy reissue day to Lucy Dacus, and happy release day to The Head and the Heart! Also to Wilco, though I grabbed a copy of Schmilco at BK Music’s listening party on Tuesday. It’s excellent. It sounded more understated and mellow when I was listening at BK, but listening at home was a whole other story. Very tense, like bottled up emotions slipping out a little at a time, with more fun weirdness and ornamentation than I heard at first.
Speaking of BK, while I was there on Tuesday, I flipped through their amazing new bluegrass/country section and found a copy of Tony Rice’s Manzanita. I’ve been looking for his stuff since I learned that the cover of Daniel Bachman’s Miscellaneous Ephemera and Other Bullshit album was an homage to one of Rice’s. Is Manzanita a good Rice starting point? They had a couple of others, but I kept seeing Manzanita described as a landmark/watershed album when I looked it up, so it seemed like a good bet.
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.
Speaking of early 2000’s throwbacks, did you know that the men’s Olympic basketball team loves Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” and that Carmelo Anthony actually tweeted Carlton to apologize for looking cranky in this video? The joy all of this brings me is immeasurable. Let’s hope the result against Spain today is joyful as well.
The new Head and the Heart album is shaping up to be really special. I’m wild about “Library Magic” — that type of magic being central to any marriage between two English majors (s/o Mrs. YHT) — and “All We Ever Knew” is blowing up.
So last Wednesday’s show at the National was quite the hootenanny. I already wrote about how much I enjoyed the outstanding headlining act, the Head and the Heart, but I have to say a few words about the fine work done by Black Girls in their opening set. There’s nothing like catching one of your favorite bands on the perfect night. Homecoming shows are always special, but this was the RVA group’s first stop in town after their most packed string of dates yet, having spent March on a trans-American/Canadian tour with the above mentioned, Seattle-based headliner. The atmosphere on Wednesday was appropriately celebratory, and Black Girls’ music fed off the welcome-home-y energy throughout, sounding equal parts powerful and joyful. And it wasn’t just who started off the evening but what as well, given that having “South Carolina” at the very top of a setlist is akin to waking up in the morning and immediately downing one of those giant Red Bulls that only truckers and people who sell Red Bull to truckers drink. From these first few moments until the closing notes of “Broadway,” the band channeled all the energy in the room into what may have been the best performance I’ve seen them give. You often hear about how busy concert schedules like the one they had in March render a band tighter or more polished, and this is undoubtedly the case for Black Girls, as well. But two of the band’s greatest strengths are a loose, confident swagger and a willingness to take chances, and the road seems to have, somewhat paradoxically, nurtured these qualities as well. As precise as each member’s performance was, it seemed like I was also hearing some additional layers and stylistic flourishes that I hadn’t before. Gillihan’s vocal improvisation was as far-reaching and captivating as I’d ever heard it, and the use of synth felt bolder and more emphatic than I remembered, shining a light on an aspect of their recently released album Hell Dragon that I absolutely loved. As a side note, this post doubles as an official, 5-alarm, all-hands-on-deck Merch Alert. I snagged the above pictured t-shirt just a few minutes after they concluded “Broadway,” and I was not the only one clamoring for one. I suggest grabbing yours at the earliest opportunity, as they appear to be too fly to last long. And even though iTunes technically has an infinite number of Hell Dragon downloads left in stock, I encourage springing into action on that front as well, given how great the album is. Get a taste of the #snuffrock awaiting therein by previewing “Broadway” and “St. Simons” below.
My introduction to the Head and the Heart came courtesy of an RVA Magazine interview with drummer Tyler Williams, who took a leap of faith a few years back by moving from Richmond to Seattle to join the group. He did so at the suggestion of another former Richmond resident, Jonathan Russell, who is half of the band’s founding partnership (he also happens to be a former high school friend of Williams’). File what I’m about to say under “Small and Mostly Meaningless Coincidences,” but I read this article in the midst of my own westward journey, aboard my very first cross-continental flight, bound for Portland. As tenuous as that connection may have been, I was pretty damn excited to see what the west coast was like, and reading about these fine Virginia gents heading west made me feel adventurous as well (so much so that I bought the 7-inch single of “Down In The Valley” while in Portland, even though I had no idea what it sounded like).
Reliving that adventurousness is one reason I was so excited about heading to the National this Wednesday evening to see the Head and the Heart in person (another reason being that Richmond’s outstanding Black Girls was one of the two opening acts — more to come on their performance in a separate post). And there was so much to love about the headlining set — singer and violin player Charity Rose Thielen’s impressive voice and magnetic personality won the crowd over completely, and Russell playing a solo acoustic tune to kick off the encore was a treat — but it was the last song of the night that best illustrated why I love the Head and the Heart so much.