So, only two weeks and some change in to the new year, here, finally, are the records from last year that I stuffed into my ear-holes the most. These are in no particular order...
Lydia Loveless - Real: I've been raving to whoever will listen about this girl for a couple years now, and she backed me up by releasing a record that's leaps and bounds ahead of her last one (which was great). Cleaner, and bringing in an almost 80s pop edge to her rootsy angst, Lydia still has the voice of a lifetime, and at 26, her songwriting is sharpening wildly. Catch her now before she's a lot bigger, trust me. Hooks for days...
Hoots & Hellmouth - In The Trees: These Philly dudes are, in addition to some of the nicest cats around, just spectacular. They've brought a heavy, reverby indie rock feel to their (secular) folk-gospel feel, and it pays off in spades. Sean Hoots is the best (and possibly only) rejoinder to the well-sourced theory that gingers do't have souls, Robert Berliner plays his heart out on the keys, and the rhythm section of Todd Erk and Mike Reilly has never been as integral or vital as they are here. Just a wonderful record.
Bon Iver - 22, A Million: What can't Justin Vernon do? Dude vanishes into the woods, comes out with For Emma, which is heartbreaking and beautiful and mostly acoustic. Hits a studio with a full band, comes out with s/t, which is heartbreaking and beautiful and heavily electric. Disappears for awhile, comes back with a squelchy, squonky electronic record, which is heartbreaking and beautiful and also the weirdest damn thing. He can drown himself in auto-tune and drum loops and still come out human and vulnerable. Keep an eye on this kid, he might have a future...
Beyonce - Lemonade: This is maybe the most brutal record about infidelity I've ever heard. It's also one of the realest (along with Solange's "A Seat At The Table", which is only in this parenthetical because I haven't had time to give it as much focus; it surely deserves its own spot) explorations of modern womanhood, and modern BLACK womanhood, as I've run across. It's ALSO compulsively listenable, crosses just about every genre line there is, and manages to be somehow fun despite all the weight. If you weren't sold on the Knowles girls as Capital-A Artists, their records this year should be all you need.
Drive-By Truckers - American Band: I've been in the tank for these dudes for a long, long time, and somehow, without really changing the formula, they're able to keep topping themselves. They're mythical Southern progressives (they DO exist!), and this record is a righteous fury of inequality and violence and injustice. "Compelled but not Defeated, Surrender Under Protest if you must" indeed. Scorching.
Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth: This record is really, really good. It's great. It's ALMOST a perfect record. That it failed to achieve All-Time status doesn't mean it ain't spectacular, and as surprising as its Grammy nod is, it's also not a surprise at all. Simpson is the real deal, here walking among us, and you need only watch his incendiary performance on SNL last weekend to see it. Can't wait to see what he's got next for us.
Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool: I've felt for awhile that Radiohead's post Kid A/Amnesiac material, while generally great, was somehow less VITAL than their earlier works. I love In Rainbows, but... I don't NEED In Rainbows, and I'm not sure they did either. No disrespect intended here: when you do The Bends -> OK Computer -> Kid A -> Amnesiac, I'mma go ahead and say you can take your foot off the gas a little. All that said, I think they NEEDED to make this record. And if you're not a blubbering mass of tears by the end of True Love Waits, there's something the hell wrong with you.
A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service: There's no damn way this record should exist. There's no damn way this record should be any good. There's no damn way this record should be THIS good. There's no damn way it should somehow be exactly what Tribe always was, and simultaneously be so new. Phife (maybe literally) poured the last of his life into it; Q-Tip continues to be on another plane of talent; all the old gang (and some of the new gang) is here. Just a total gift from the heavens.
case/lang/viers - s/t: I would commit all kinds of felonies to have Neko Case's voice. I want her to sing the phone book to me. How is it possible that she's not huge? And then how, with a voice so big and powerful, does she fit so perfectly with kd lang and Laura Viers? And how do these three wonderful musicians get so much more powerful together? That NEVER works! And yet this collaborative record is warm and inviting and languid and beautiful.
Kate Bush - Before the Dawn: There is no one like Kate Bush. Period. Never has been, never will be. The 25 or so shows she did a year or so ago are the only ones she's done in my lifetime, she'll never, ever tour, and this record is just astounding. There's a brief, curated "best of" set, and then two song-suites (from Hounds of Love and Aerial: A Sky of Honey) with staging and narration. This is what genius sounds like.
OTHER RECORDS I LOVED BUT DON'T NECESSARILY HAVE AS MUCH TO SAY ABOUT LEST THIS BECOME A NOVEL:
Paul Simon - Stranger to Stranger
Solange - A Seat At The Table
Nicklas Hughes - Games
Anderson .Paak - Malibu
Wilco - Schmilco
Frank Ocean - Blonde
Tallahassee - 32
Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book
Brandy Clark - Big Day in a Small Town
Margo Price - Midwest Farmer's Daughter
V/A - Day Of The Dead
Venice Sunlight - Vs the Swingers & the Saints
Run The Jewels - RTJ3
Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered
What were you into last year? Who'd I miss?