2015: It’s The Greatest Hits Edition!

Well, it’s that time again. The Christmas decorations have been put away, the food and sweets have been consumed in exhaustive amounts, and the trash has all been swept out from another Times Square New Years Eve celebration. It’s January of 2016 now, and usually that’s the time people have prepared their quick-to-be-broken resolutions, trim the caloric leftovers caused by all those food and sweets, and prepare for the long road of despising much of the year ahead.

But enough about my intended plans.

These earlier days of the new year are also an excellent time to look back. To take a wistful glance at the greatest hits and a look at the best of what was in a 2015 with plenty of was nots. And when it came to music, while the content may not have quite been as strong as the year before, my choice for the Top 10 Albums of the Year was certainly still just as difficult.

So let’s get to the heart of the matter now, starting off with….

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10. Tobias Jesso Jr, Goon

2015 was a big year for the Canadian-born singer-songwriter, who rose from the ranks of several years of struggling obscurity to co-writing songs for Adele’s new album 25 by year’s end. But in between that the biggest springboard to Jesso’s newly risen star has been none other than his stellar solo debut Goon, which took Jesso’s recently learned piano wielding skills to wounded heights akin to the likes of John Lennon, Carole King and Harry Nilsson. And while not exactly blessed with the strongest of singing voices, Jesso makes up for that with a keen sense of winsome poetry, a touch of wry humor, and an embodiment of the soul of Brill Building songwriters past.

And if 2015 has been anything as we start off this list, it’s a great reminder that this generation of talent hasn’t forgotten the power of what made the musical past so potent. And for Jesso, well… talk about a hell of a year.

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9. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free

I was first introduced to Jason Isbell back in 2013 with the release of Southeastern, and while it didn’t immediately capture my attention the album was ultimately a soul-destroying reflection on death, sobriety, and the burning up of the skeletons in Isbell’s closet. It marked the strongest solo album to date from the newly-clean and focused artist, and Something More Than Free came along this year as the next logical chapter in that train of thought.

The record doesn’t quite carry the dark potency of Southeastern, but being once again reunited with super-producer Dave Cobb and a brighter point of view has done nothing to slow the brilliance of Isbell’s creativity. He still writes with all the intricate lyrical nuance of one of the best country folk musicians in the business (i.e. a modern Kris Kristofferson in many ways), and has the acumen to jump from folk to blues and rock n roll and back again, with the vocals to match.

I do maintain that Isbell’s live performances surpass his albums overall, but Something More Than Free marks the continued strength of passage of an artist coming up from the darkness and back out into the light. And I for one, am ready to hear each story all along the way.

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8. Gary Clark Jr, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim

When Gary Clark Jr hit the scene with his 2012 debut record Blak and Blu, it was a revelation to the world of blues. Hailed by the likes of Alicia Keys and other such luminaries, Clark’s mixture of blues, R&B and soul seemed like the next recipient of the scepter as older artists of the craft such as BB King, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton have either died too soon or started to slowly fade into the sunset (with King unfortunately passing away this year).

And while some have called Clark’s blues credentials less than “authentic” because of his genre-ranging style, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim laid some of those unjust criticisms to rest (at least from my perspective). Clark brought his sound closer to the bone on this one with the gospel of “Church” and the croon of “Our Love”, while still showing how much he could shred on tracks like “Grinder” and “The Healing”. It may not have come in at number 1 on this list, but it is the latest in some of the finest work that young blues still has to offer this world.

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7. Glen Hansard, Didn’t He Ramble

In 2015 there were certainly a number of surprises that ranked on this list, and while Glen Hansard was right up there he wasn’t the most unknown to me by any means. In 2007 the Irish-born former street musician and member of The Frames was brought to prominence when he and Marketa Irglova starred together in the John Carney music film Once, and probably broke a few million hearts in the process with the tender wrenching ache of breakthrough single “Falling Slowly”.

This time around Hansard went solo with the gentle grace of Didn’t He Ramble, and while some longtime fans didn’t necessarily agree with some of the instrumentation present, in my opinion it was impossible to ignore Hansard’s usual penchant for songwriting as well as sheer accessibility. “Grace Beneath The Pines”, “Paying My Way” and “Stay The Road” kept that highway to the heart lines wide open, while “Wedding Ring” and “Lucky Streak” painted those same lines with a lighter brush of charm along the way.

It’s music like this that keeps my heart searching for just a little more. Just a few more stories please, as long as they’re as good as this.

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6. Butch Walker, Afraid of Ghosts

This year featured a lot of wonderful music, wonderful songs, and as I just mentioned in that Glen Hansard bit a moment ago, a lot of stories. But none perhaps more beautifully poignant than Butch Walker’s emotional masterpiece Afraid of Ghosts.

Inspired by the death of Butch’s father Butch Sr, Walker’s traditionally pop-rock oriented sound took a broad left turn into a lo-fi, bare bones mosaic of textures the likes of which Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska might certainly appreciate. And with Ryan Adams at the helm producing the kind of sound his own records lack for currently, Walker couldn’t have found a better set of companions to take this cathartic journey alongside.

As a result, Ghosts shines with the kind of magic that’s as deeply prolific as it is personal, and shows off the deepest and darkest light of Walker’s creative career after his more than 20 years in the industry.

Thankfully (much like a story we’ll get to later), Butch Walker stepped out from behind the shadow of the producer’s chair to give us this. It’s deeply sad that it comes from this place of remembrance and eulogy, but Ghosts is undeniably relatable and immersive all the same. Don’t let this one pass you by.

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5. Wilco, Star Wars

In the years since becoming a Wilco fan (around the Sky Blue Sky era), I began to slowly wish for an album that could be as diverse and bizarrely odd-rocking as staples Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. Sure, Sky contained the kind of roots-rock and quieter moments that lead man Jeff Tweedy could pull off in his sleep, but after muddy retreads Wilco (The Album) and The Whole Love it felt like the band was past due for a record that felt… more cohesively dynamic. More sure of the direction it wanted to take.

Then in June of this year, the group rediscovered that spark with the surprise release (and curiously titled) Star Wars. And while it isn’t a Yankee or Ghost (or an intricate concept album about Luke Skywalker and the Sith Empire), it was a shot of electricity hearkening back to the band’s knack for exploration. From the moment “EKG” and it’s opening clatter of explosive instrumental defibrillation kicks in, Star Wars is an adventure of Lou Reed-esque Velvet Underground psychedelics, caffeinated jitter-rock, and lyrics that dash from off the wall to that same quiet still Wilco has made it’s specialty amidst all the tumult.

It’s the type of album that takes the muscle of the past and breathes the life of where the band is now into it’s every ligament. And coming from this sole perspective, it was eagerly missed.

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4. The Lone Bellow, Then Came The Morning

In 2013, a little country-folk trio out of Park Slope in Brooklyn started to come out of the woodwork of the still-newly relevant folk scene popularized by the likes of Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers with their initial self-titled debut. And while they’ve progressed and started to show the world their electrifying stage persona, the comparisons might still remain but Zach Williams, Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist have begun to forge into a realm entirely their own with 2015’s Then Came The Morning.

With The National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner at the production helm as opposed to well known Civil Wars producer Charlie Peacock, the shiny folk-based residue of their first LP was replaced by instrumentation that wiped off the polish in favor of something more organic and…. flavorfully ornate. Morning edged much further towards bigger sounds in retro rock, country and gospel while splitting singing duties between all three vocalists this time around, and as a result the band looks poised to take their success onward and upward in 2016. All while helping to define a little “Brooklyn country” along the way.

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3. Adele, 25

With powerhouse albums 19 and 21 already under her belt since her debut in 2008, Adele Adkins had already easily reached the echelon of mononym status reserved for the likes of Prince, Cher, and Sting. And while she may not have made any doves weep with envy (yet), one had to wonder if the third time would still be the charm with this past year’s release of 25.

Well luckily, despite a four year wait the British balladeer had no plans of settling into a slump. Buoyed by the strength of monster singles “Hello” and “When We Were Young” and backed by strong co-writers Tobias Jesso Jr, Bruno Mars, Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder, Adele once again owned every note to come out of these 11 tracks. Whether it was wrapped in jazz, stripped to the nuts and bolts acoustics, or soaring on gilded wings into the highest heavens, 25 was one of the most impressive this year simply because of how controlled every ounce of it’s strength was. Rarely do albums come along that feel so perfectly grasped, and as usual Adele makes no question when it comes to owning her music. In fact, she doesn’t own it…. she dominates every fiber.

Live At Rockwood Music Hall

2. Ivy, Beck & Neill, Live at Rockwood Music Hall

This year offered several boosts to the Brooklyn country music scene, and arguably one of the best was the debut of Ivy, Beck & Neill’s Live at Rockwood Music Hall. It was the first proper recording for the band (and the only live album on this list), and ranks in this high for good reason.

Featuring a sparsely acoustic backing band, the trio of Trisha Ivy, Mike Beck and Amanda Neill dazzle the New York City room with twining harmonies and as much sense for gleeful energy as gorgeously dusky gloom. Listening to Ivy and Neill sing together is like finding the kind of blues-folk collaborative spark Melissa Ethridge and Natalie Maines would be jealous of, and when you add on the band’s talent for songwriting and a rare kind of chemistry to go along with it… well, as IB&N’s song “Texas” goes, you got all you really need.

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1. Chris Stapleton, Traveller

Going into the category of both my biggest surprise of the year as well as biggest breakthrough, Chris Stapleton’s Traveller is a powerhouse album of country music that reminds me of why I’ve never lost faith in the genre. Despite the presence of so-called “bro country”, despite the nasal goose-honk vocalizing, beer swilling, tractor riding mainstream stereotypes that litter today’s excuse for the charts…. Chris Stapleton flies in the face of it all. And not only that, he’s written with great success for many of these artists as he’s had notable collaborations with the likes of Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Luke Bryan and Darius Rucker with plenty still to spare.

Thankfully, Stapleton finally stepped out from behind the shadows of ghostwriting this year to deliver a debut that had all the heart and soul of what made old school country music so relevant in the first place. Plus, unlike his “peers” from today’s industry Stapleton brings to his writing a sense of gritty hard soul with a killer voice to match scenes of whiskey, women, religion, having the blues and getting stoned. Not to mention having his extremely talented wife Morgane alongside to harmonize, which is just icing on the cake.

In closing I’ll say this much, Chris Stapleton’s coming out party performing with Justin Timberlake at the CMA’s earlier this past year was just the overdue match to light the hot streak he was already on. And if you don’t believe music can save your soul, just put on Traveller and it’s closing track “Sometimes I Cry”.

Something tells me, you might just change your mind.

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Wilco Takes “Star Wars” To a Galaxy Truly Out Of Their Comfort Zone

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As I sit here in these post-June 16th/pre-June 17th hours, I originally thought to myself that I’d be writing something in my blog about the new Jason Isbell record. After all, Something More Than Free does officially roll out tomorrow at long last, has carried a great deal of anticipation along with it, and quite frankly in my book holds up to all that baited breath.

But before I could get into a feature about that, a little band from Chicago had different plans for music fans inhabiting the interwebs tonight. I was no more than able to crack open the lid on my computer screen before I was greeted by the sight of Wilco dropping their 9th studio album Star Wars as a completely free download (provided by entering your email address on their web site). No strings, no catch, just an email address for 11 unknown studio tracks and some mildly perplexing cat art (mild for the internet anyway).

Was it an album of instrumentals? An oddly conceived joke of some sort? More unreleased demos? What was going to be waiting for me and so many other sets of ears in this rather sudden (and Beyonce-esque) turn of events?

Once I was able to get my confusion as well as my jaw off the floor after pondering all of this, I went into this listening experience with what I now realize was the perfect reaction. Which was…. essentially nothing. A lot of those questions obviously, but for the most part I was the fresh Etch-a-Sketch and Star Wars was about ready to start twisting the knobs.

And while I don’t think listening to this album has left me in a state similar to Luke Skywalker finding out who his daddy is (I had to make one Star Wars joke), this Star Wars HAS left me joyously surprised.

Not that I doubted Wilco or frontman Jeff Tweedy’s prowess. Rather, by the 20 year mark of their career I started to figure that the sextet had settled into the pleasant middle ground carved out by the likes of 2007’s Sky Blue Sky and 2011’s The Whole Love. Far from dull and as hookishly melodic as ever, but in a territory settled away from their more rigorously explorative sides (2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 2004’s A Ghost Is Born). Don’t get me wrong those sides have still appeared, but they seemed reserved more for moments and glimpses.

Not so with Star Wars. The frantic fever of opening instrumental “EKG” is less of a glance and more of a full-throated shot to the chest announcing the tapestry of wigged out psychedelics, jittery, muscled electric guitars, layered harmonies and tightly nuanced song structures soon to come. The melody still exists within the nooks and crannies, but it’s less accessible this time around and that’s a very good thing. This record doesn’t want you to be so easily satisfied within melody or lyrics; it wants you to dig down for the layers of sonic gold waiting just beneath the surface.

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It’s as close as Wilco has ever gotten to reaching back to Ghost, only Wars feels more like abrupt, in your face alt-rock instead of the droned-out, Television-heavy influence of that period of time. And it’s that solid all-around intensity coupled with superb track sequencing that gives Star Wars the perfect stage for it to be taking tonight.

You see in another, more traditional format this type of album might have struggled to find it’s footing in a market dominated by releasing singles, doing promotion in every medium possible and having listeners hear complete work only in beginning chunks.  Star Wars thrives in my ears solely as a complete piece of music, so now it not only gets to do that before it’s later physical release but ALSO makes mass social media news and promotes itself beautifully before release date.

And it’s not without merit. Casual listeners or those more accustomed to Wilco’s softer side might not be as interested, but for the diehards long-awaiting a return to the band’s balance of accessible versus intriguingly challenging, this by far is as close as they’ve ever gotten. Star Wars is certainly not a groundbreaking masterpiece of revolutionary musical theatre, but it’s not overly long, straight to the point with it’s intentions, and executes them beautifully. It represents the most ambitious chance Wilco has taken musically in years, and as a longtime admirer of the group it quite literally comes as music to my ears.

Listening to tracks like “You Satellite”, “Random Name Generator” or “Magnetized” reminds me why this band helped me love music. It reminds me of why I long considered Jeff Tweedy to be an influence in how I wrote strangely worded poetry.

And most of all, Star Wars leaves me feeling more energized than any new release has in a while. Mostly because the band making it sounds as tight and as sharp as they’ve ever been making a record that sounds like them, yet excavates new territory as well.

Not bad for a Thursday night surprise, eh?

Grade: A

Favorite Tracks: You Satellite, Random Name Generator, Magnetized, Where Do I Begin, Taste The Ceiling 

Album Review, Tweedy “Sukierae”

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It’s been nearly a month since Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (with the help of son Spencer) dropped the first true solo record of his 20+ years in music with Sukierae. In that time the father and son duo (along with the help of some friends) have extensively toured the country, rolled out a music video, appeared on everything from The Tonight Show to The Colbert Report, and have more or less impressed fans and critics alike with this gutsy double album debut.

Now as for my own personal perspective? Given the span of this material and the deep admiration I’ve had for the elder Tweedy’s work these past six years, I had to take Sukierae and it’s twenty songs as a slow sip rather than a chugging gulp, and I think it’s more rewarding that way. I referred to the record as “gutsy” there a moment ago, and it isn’t so much because it takes big chances or pushes the sonic landscape so much as it challenges the endurance of the listener.

In the era of overnight pop single sensations and social media-hyped flameouts that are more style than substance, it’s rare that our collective attention spans ever really get pushed very far. But the Tweedy duo most certainly shoves, and Sukierae emerges less as something that needs to be “pruned”, so much as a retrospective of the best parts of Jeff Tweedy’s career.

And while it may not exactly be a call back to the hyper-prolific abundance of material that was Wilco’s early 2000’s with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot/A Ghost Is Born, Sukierae contains familiar nods to experimentation (“Diamond Light Pt 1”, “World Away”) as well as Tweedy’s ever-present knack for songwriting (“Nobody Dies Anymore”, “Summer Noon”). In fact the more stripped away the moments get the more his words seem to shine with this one; not so much for their depth of content perhaps so much as how they’re said.

Tweedy has long had this evocative quality as a singer and storyteller to make you believe and believe in what he’s saying; it’s a level of emotional ease and gravitas that many other artists would be envious to capture time and again as he does. That quality sparkles most on songs like “Pigeons”, “Honey Combed” and the piano dirge “Where My Love”, which feels like combing the most sensitive depths of Tweedy’s themes on family, loss and coping with wife Sue’s cancer diagnosis. It’s a record that manages to stay above the weight of it’s subjects, but also gives them the freedom to breathe across the span of it’s twenty tracks.

All in all, Sukierae is one of Jeff Tweedy’s most refreshing releases in the last several years. While Wilco continues to be one of the best and most varied touring bands in America to date, the group is almost a little too slick and a little too polished nowadays, so 2014 feels like an appropriate time for Tweedy to take a solo turn with a few more bumps and bends in the road. With son Spencer in tow (who is a damn talented drummer at only 18 years old), he couldn’t have better company to do it.

Grade: 9/10

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