If there’s one tradition around here, it’s that I procrastinate and procrastinate (ok, and procrastinate) but eventually get out just about one dang post every year. Here it is! Woo hoo!
Given my track record (and, ahem, the title), you surely know that this post reveals my favorite 10 albums of the year. As you also probably already know, I’m particularly a fan of Americana, honky tonk, Red Dirt, and roots-y music of many stripes. Those interests are reflected here, of course. Listener, beware.
Here are the albums I enjoyed most in 2015.
10. Derek Charke: Tundra Songs, Kronos Quartet – The Kronos Quartet has been bringing new sounds to listeners for over 40(!) years. This year, in an album featuring Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq, whose own album made my Top 10 last year, Kronos takes us to the tundra. The pieces were composed by Derek Charke, and they marry Kronos’s discipline, Tagaq’s sensibility, and field recordings from, erm, the North. My favorite piece is probably “Cercle du nord III.”
9. Lucero’s All a Man Should Do – Lucero is an alt-country band from Memphis, and this is its 11th studio album. It’s one of the band’s best. The gravelly vocals of Ben Nichols, Lucero’s lead singer, pair so well with this set of slow songs—many of them about relationships and, well, love. I’m smitten. Check out “I Woke Up in New Orleans” and “Went Looking for Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles.”
8. Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians by Ensemble Signal – Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is one of the landmarks of 20th-century music, and this is probably the best recording of it. The piece demands virtuosity and energy, and Brad Lubman’s Ensemble Signal brings both. After I spend an hour with this CD, I feel alive. And, well, sorta self-actualized. If a CD can do that for you, you ought to listen, right?
7. James McMurtry’s Complicated Game – McMurtry is, of course, a respected singer-songwriter, and Complicated Game is largely an album about love, a traditional domain of the singer-songwriter. But the love on this album is not what you usually hear from the singer-songwriter. Nearly every narrator on Complicated Game is some kind of man’s man’s. To be sure: By “man,” I mean something on the order of “traditionally masculine.” Your—or my—mileage may vary, of course. But, anyway, among all the love songs on Game are references to motorcycles, hunting, cussing, blood, roadkill, taking a piss, fishing, Red Bull, and reenlisting. That sounds like it might be a bit much. But it’s not. In the end, these are really stories that anyone can to relate to—even if, like me, you’re not hoping to take another doe during deer season. Personal favorites: “Copper Canteen” and “Long Island Sound,” a song about a Tulsa boy who finds himself living the suburban life on Long Island.
6. Old Time Reverie by Mipso – Mipso is a young bluegrass band from North Carolina. And—trust me here—it’s a band on the verge. On the verge of Something Big™. (Hey, the band was featured in this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!) Like all good bluegrass bands, Mipso’s harmonies are tight. And the musicianship is exquisite, too. But even if you aren’t drawn to any of that (wha?!), consider the strong songwriting. “Marianne,” which opens Reverie, is about the dilemmas faced by a young interracial couple in the South in the 1960s. “Momma” movingly considers the scars left by the untimely death of mandolin player Jacob Short’s mother.
5. Two Universes, Feufollet -Now that I think about it, Feufollet has a little bit in common with Mipso. Feufollet’s members are young, too, and, like Mipso, it’s devoted to roots-y music. But as the title of Feufollet’s new album suggests, it has its feet planted in two traditions—Cajun music and Americana. Like its predecessor album, the Grammy-nominated En Couleurs, Two Universes retains its footing in Cajun tradition (often with a modern twist). But, apparently spurred on by the addition of fiddler Kelli Jones-Savoy, Feufollet has taken a turn toward Americana, too. The result is delightful. Although I’d probably prefer an album that was a little more Cajun than Americana—we get the reverse here—there’s no resisting the lively honky-tonk vibe that Jones-Savoy brings to her vocals. Chris Stafford, the band’s original lead singer, remains a strong force, too.
4. How to Die in the North, BC Camplight – One of the best concerts I ever saw was given by BC Camplight at the Tin Angel, a tiny venue in my Philly neighborhood. It was like Motown exploded all over that little room, and I mean that in the best possible sense. That was years ago, and, fittingly, How to Die in the North actually sounds quite a bit different. Since that concert, BC Camplight—who is actually Brian Christinzio, a Philly/S. Jersey native—has moved to Manchester and sorta restarted his career. [Disclaimer: Christinzio and I are the mildest of Facebook acquaintances.] But Die in the North still sounds like the 60s and 70s, if remolded, in the best possible way, for now. It’s downright beautiful pop music. Highlights: “Just Because I Love You” and “Why Doesn’t Anybody Fall in Love Anymore.”
3. The Blade by Ashley Monroe – Good God, why doesn’t country radio still sound like this? Monroe is the Loretta or Tammy or Dolly for our age. Really. She’s country, sings like the devil, and knows when a song, probably one about heartbreak, will grab you. Highly, highly recommended. Standouts: “On to Something Good,” “Bombshell,” and the title track.
2. Darren Hayman’s Chants for Socialists – And now for something completely different… Hayman, a British singer-songwriter, set poetry of William Morris, a 19th-century activist, to music. And no matter what you think about 19th-century socialism—this is not the place for a discussion of that—the result is stunning. Hayman sets a mood and commits himself to it. The chants are beautiful and musical. They’re what a 19th-century socialist would want to hear if she were reborn in this century. Highlights: “May Day 1894” and “The Day Is Coming.”
1. High on Tulsa Heat by John Moreland – I was transfixed the first time I heard High on Tulsa Heat, the third proper album from Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Moreland. His lyrics are raw, both confessional and unsentimental, and they pair so well with his raspy delivery. You can’t hear Tulsa Heat without feeling something real, maybe loneliness or abject heartbreak, and how often can you say that about an album? I’m an Oklahoman, of course, so the reference points—the “tornado” of a girlfriend, the “Indian Nation sky,” the “Tulsa heat”—resonate. But you won’t need to pay heed to the Okie Talking Points™ to appreciate Tulsa Heat. If you’re living and breathing and feeling, you’ll recognize yourself in Moreland’s music. Highly, highly recommended. Standouts: “Losing Sleep Tonight,” “Cleveland County Blues,” “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars,” and the title track.
P.S. Moreland gave one of the best concerts I heard in 2015, too. If you have a chance to see him live, grab it.
Honorable Mentions: Jimmy LaFave’s The Night Tribe; A Forest of Arms by Great Lake Swimmers; Fast Forward by Joe Jackson; Bird Calls, Rudresh Mahanthappa; For One to Love by Cécile McLorin Salvant; and Son Lux’s Bones. Dust-to-Digital’s Excavated Shellac: Reeds, a collection of reed sounds from 78 rpm records from around the world, was a real contender, too.
I’m getting to this year’s list in a bit more of a timely fashion. That probably means I’m successfully procrastinating something more important! Anyway, this post is the beneficiary. Let’s get to it. Here are the albums I enjoyed most in 2014.
10. Parker Millsap, Parker Millsap – Millsap is, like me, an Oklahoma boy (though at age 20, he’s a lot more boyish than I am). But there’s no affirmative action at work here: The Purcell native’s self-titled album earned its place here. Parker Millsap is an album full of Okie characters and, well, Okie character. Religion, geography, and connecting despite Hard Times™ are just some of its themes. The album reminds me of home; for me, that’s a high compliment. And Millsap’s voice, which is front-and-center on the album, grabs the listener’s attention.
9. Erlend Øye’s Legao – What’s that? Quirky, mildly melancholy singer-songwriter stuff from one of Norway’s most distinctive voices? And—wait—he’s backed by an Icelandic reggae band, too? Sign me up. So much fun!
8. Benji by Sun Kil Moon – Warning: There’s a lot of death on this album. Two different relatives burned alive? The Newtown massacre. The death of James Gandolfini. (Wait, what?) It could all get to be too much, of course. But the spare, plaintive vocals of Mark Kozelek—he’s essentially Sun Kil Moon—never stop conveying so much, erm, humanity. Despite the loss detailed on the album (in a striking faux-stream-of-consciousness), I always feel at peace when I listen to Benji.
7. Rosanne Cash’s The River & the Thread – Cash released The River in January 2014, and I sort of wondered at the time whether I’d still be listening when it came time for this end-of-the-year list. Well, I am. On The River, the listener tags along as Cash explores the South and its musical legacy. Cash—from one of country music’s most important families, of course—has a complicated relationship with the region, and much of that comes through. But it’s Cash’s confident, comfortable vocals that I keep returning to. The River is a beautiful album.
6. St. Vincent by St. Vincent – St. Vincent is Annie Clark, and her sound is completely her own. That’s reason enough for this album, her fourth, to be on my list. But I was really drawn to the, erm, edginess underlying these songs. “I Prefer Your Love,” for instance, somehow makes a case for the short-sightedness of Being In Love™. St. Vincent is a thoughtful, thought-provoking, completely listenable album.
5. I Never Learn, Lykke Li – I’m a sucker for beautiful songs about heartbreak, and this album delivers those. Over and over again. And again. Indeed, “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” might well be my favorite song of the year. Beyond that, I Never Learn is a true pop album, which means you won’t—and won’t want to—be able to get out of your head.
4. Liberation!, Peter Matthew Bauer – Liberation! didn’t find its way onto many year-end lists, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s possible, I think, that the album’s spiritual/religious themes just didn’t connect with many listeners. What interested me, though, was Bauer’s strong voice and his ability to make it seem at home in so many different sound settings. In some ways—and I swear I mean this as a compliment—Liberation! sounds like it could’ve been recorded in 1971. I enjoyed the time travel. (P.S. The album’s “You are the Chapel” was one of my favorite songs of the year.)
3. Animism by Tanya Tagaq – You’ve never heard anything like this, I promise. I might describe it as Inuit-throat-singing-gone-to-art-school, but what would you make of that? Just listen.
2. Aziza Brahim’s Soutak – Brahim was born in a Sahrawi refugee camp, and her life took her to Cuba and then to Spain. You hear can hear all of that in Soutak. Brahim’s vocal work is strong and involving, and it pairs amazingly well with the album’s guitar and percussion work. The songs are largely of protest and longing, I gather. They’re absolutely riveting.
1. The Lights from the Chemical Plant by Robert Ellis – Chemical Plant‘s is a small-town sensibility that I understand. I’m sure Ellis is singing about east Texas, where he grew up. But when I hear the songs, I’m immediately back in rural Oklahoma. I know those young lovers, who live amid—and briefly see something larger in—the lights from the chemical plant. I know that dreamer who lives too much in his television set (“TV Song”). I know that lonely soul in “Bottle of Wine.” Will you understand all these folks, too? I bet you will.
I should mention Ellis’s vocals, too. There’s a gentleness and, when called for, a brittleness in his singing. He feels these songs. He’s a Springsteen for a small-town Southwest.
This is the album of 2014 for me. Without question.
Honorable Mentions: The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint, Ambrose Akinmusire; Morning Phase, Beck; Songs, John Fullbright; and Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, by Lucinda Williams.
I’m awfully proud of the set I put together on Sunday on the Tulsa International Airport’s jukebox—which broadcasts throughout the passenger terminals. The bit that starts with “Okie from Muskogee” and ends with the Village People’s “In the Navy” and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” is downright inspired, right?
It speaks to me, anyway. But I guess it would.