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Eleven Albums I Loved in 2015 And Nineteen More I Thought Were Worthy

[ 96 ] December 31, 2015 |

I don’t know how people really come up with definitive Top 10 album lists. But everyone loves them. Even the AARP has one! I listen to a ton of music, at almost every waking moment, and unless you are dedicated strictly to listening to new music in order to produce a list like this, I don’t see how you can come up with anything definitive. The number of albums compared to, say, the number of films released in American theaters makes the latter a possible task and the former impossible. Plus I still buy a lot of older albums as well (for whatever reason most of the new jazz I got in the last year is actually 2-5 years old so that’s really underrepresented here) In any case, here are my 10 favorite 2015 albums, a list that will probably look way different a year from now when I listen to a lot more 2015 albums in between listening to 2016 albums and all my older albums.

1) Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love. A perfect comeback album for one of the 10 best rock bands to ever exist. Let’s just embed an entire show.

2) Torres, Sprinter. I thought this was just great. MacKenzie Scott has a tremendous amount of emotion in every note of her voice. I’ve heard her songs described as storms because of that voice. A really powerful album.

3) Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. On everyone’s list and deservedly so. “Pedestrian at Best” was my most listened to 2015 song.

4) Ibeyi, Ibeyi. This is hard to describe. These are twin sisters, daughters of a famous Cuban musician, who sing in English and Yoruba using fairly sparse and often minimal instrumentation. And it’s just great.

5) Bomba Estéreo, Amanecer. This is a Colombian band combining elements of hip-hop, electronics, and traditional Colombian folk music, including a lot of traditional instruments. Really glad I ran across this.

6) Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color. I like the first Alabama Shakes album OK, but thought this was a huge artistic jump, with a serious move into psychedelic music.

7) Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp. Call it whiny hipster music if you want. The problem you’ll face is that Katie Crutchfield is really good at what she does.

8) Tal National, Zoy Zoy. This band from Niger is another of my favorite finds of 2015. Incredibly enjoyable music

9) Kurt Vile, B’lieve I’m Goin Down. Guitar rock for the 21st century.

10) DJ Spooky and the Kronos Quartet, Rebirth of a Nation. DJ Spooky decided to create his own soundtrack to Birth of a Nation. You can read about his thoughts on it here. He recorded it with the Kronos Quartet. Makes for one of the most interesting albums of the year.

Live Album of the Year is far and away Drive-By Truckers, It’s Great to Be Alive. This amazing live band had never put out a proper live album. At this point in their career, even a 35-song, 3 1/2 hour beast doesn’t feel like enough because a lot of your favorites weren’t on there. Songs that are often overlooked like “Sounds Better in the Song” and “Space City” are great while “The Devil Don’t Stay” is just awesome. Great stuff.

Others albums I liked to various degrees in 2015, many of which I will no doubt listen to a lot more next year:

1) James McMurtry, Complicated Game
2) Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
3) Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
4) Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer
5) Ashley Monroe, The Blade
6) Christopher Paul Stelling, Labor Against Waste
7) Joanna Gruesome, Peanut Butter
8) Dave Rawlings Machine, Nashville Obsolete
9) Daniel Romano, If I’ve Only One Time Asking
10) Robert Glasper, Covered
11) The Go! Team, The Scene Between
12) Olivia Chaney, The Longest River
13) John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat
14) Fred Thomas, All Are Saved
15) Shamir, Ratchet
16) Mbongwana Star, From Kinshasa
17) Dave Douglas, High Risk
18) Dwight Yoakam, Second Hand Heart
19) Sarah Gayle Meech, Tennessee Love Song

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When James Brown Played the Grand Ole Opry

[ 49 ] December 29, 2015 |

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In the 1970s, James Brown and Porter Wagoner became friends. Wagoner was of course a major player in country music and so he managed to schedule the Godfather of Soul in the nation’s least friendly venue to his kind of music, the Grand Ole Opry. It shouldn’t have been so hostile, as country and soul musicians were borrowing from each other all the time during these years. But by the 1970s, the country music establishment self-identified with the politics of white backlash and social conservatism (it wasn’t actually true that Earl Scruggs was the only Nashville star who voted for McGovern but it was close enough) and its audience loved hearing Merle Haggard singing “The Fighting Side of Me,” even if Haggard may or may not have believed in the message. Country music of the period is full of one-off right-wing songs as everyone sought to take advantage of the culture wars.

James Brown, of course, was the opposite of everything the country music establishment stood for in the 1970s. He was a symbol of black nationalism, a man of flashy brashness that challenged the white supremacy of country music fans, a man playing at Zaire ’74 instead of the Grand Ole Opry’s Nixon rallies.

But Porter Wagoner didn’t care. He knew Brown was a great performer and felt that if country musicians and fans opened their minds, they would recognize how great he was in a county format. Thus, he managed to get Brown scheduled on the Grand Ole Opry in 1979. Sadly, it did not go well. Even before the performance, the Nashville establishment was angry.

“I could throw up,” said piano player Del Wood in the most eloquent of the Opry outbursts. “It’s not an antiblack issue, don’t get us wrong, it’s not racial. She went on to praise DeFord Bailey, O.B. McClinton and Charley Pride. Since her own piano style was strongly ragtime (Del was the only female country act to have a Top 10 instrumental hit), she was no doubt sincere. “The next thing you know, they’ll be doing the strip out there.”

Jean Shepard was Jean Shepard: “The Grand Ole Opry is supposed to be a mainstay in country music-and it’s fighting for its life. What’s he going to sing, ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’? She condemned the Opry management and said Opry fans weren’t going to enjoy tuning in and getting James Brown. “And you can’t tell me rock n’ rollers are going to wait six hours to hear James Brown. It’s a slap in the face to those people who drive thousands of miles to see the Opry and have to be subjected to James Brown. If Mr. Brown’s on the first show, I’ll appear on the second. If he’s on both, I won’t appear at all.”

Justin Tubb said, “I don’t understand it. None of us do. If it was Ray Charles, I’d be waiting to hug him when he came off the stage,” recalling Ray’s albums of country songs. Ben Smathers of the Smoky Mountain Cloggers square dance act said George D. Hay would be turning over in his grave. Of Opry stars, only Skeeter Davis spoke publicly in Porter’s defense.

Skeeter Davis, it should be noted, was pretty awesome.

The performance itself was not particularly well-received, in part because the Opry hamstrung Brown.

At the Opry on the night of James performance, some of those opposed organized a boycott. Opry officials were worried that the backstage area was going to be very empty so Bud Wendell began offering backstage passes to anyone who wanted to see James Brown. It worked as it was reported that over 300 people showed up backstage that night.

When James performed on the Opry that night, he used Porter’s band and the Opry would not allow him to use his horn section. He performed a number of standard country songs including “Your Cheatin’ Heart” “Georgia” and “Tennessee Waltz.” He then kicked into “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and took off from there. He did the splits and the microphone tosses that he was famous for. The reponse was what you would have expected.

Roy Acuff was quoted as saying “I wish I could go out there and speak my mind, but I won’t.” Dolores Smiley said, “I drove to the Opry and heard James Brown over the car radio, and when I got there it was abuzz in the backstage area. I purposely arrived late. It sounded terrible on the radio. When I got backstage, everyone was outraged and upset. I thought it was funny.”

It was reported that he broke all Opry records and performed for over 30 minutes. Porter would later say that he recorded it and it was actually 17 minutes. It just seemed longer. He did do an encore, but it was reported that he received what most Opry acts get and that was polite applause.

Satoko Fujii’s Tobira

[ 15 ] November 21, 2015 |

I was lucky enough to see Satoko Fujii’s quarter Tobira, starring my college roommate Todd Nicholson on bass, at Firehouse 12 in New Haven this evening. This is a clip from a recent show in Buenos Aires. They have one last stop on a tour that can only end in one city if you start in Buenos Aires and that’s Troy, New York. That show is tomorrow and you should go if you live in the Capital Region.

Ibeyi

[ 2 ] October 4, 2015 |

One band I’ve been listening to a lot lately is Ibeyi. For fairly minimalist music, there’s a lot going on here. They have an interesting backstory too, daughters of a famous Cuban musician who sing in both English and Yoruba. Probably not for all tastes, but certainly for mine.

This is also a good place for a reminder that I will be speaking at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Tuesday at 7. I hope to meet many of you! Books will be for sale and I love signing random things as well.

Over the Tallest Bridge in the State of Ohio

[ 44 ] October 2, 2015 |

We haven’t had a thread about the nation’s best band of the last decade lately, so it’s worth noting that “Little Miami” might be the best song Wussy has ever recorded. Chuck Cleaver thinks so anyway. I can’t really argue, although there are 5 or 6 others that I think have a claim to the title.

Irving Fields

[ 6 ] October 1, 2015 |

The other day I was listening to an album by the great Irving Fields, the brilliant pianist who merged jazz, the sort of Jewish-American popular music I associate with Catskills resorts in the 1950s, and Latin music in the 1950s, making legendary albums like Bagels and Bongos and Champagne and Bongos, which are just flat out pleasant and fun albums to listen to. I knew Fields was still working even though he is very old. I did a little research and found out that he just turned 100 and still plays at an Italian restaurant in New York. I’ve actually known about that for awhile and have never gone when I’m in the city, which is a huge error, even when time is limited as it often is there. The video in the attached article plays him up a bit as a lovable and slightly silly very old man, unfortunately not uncommon in a society that infantilizes the very old. But he can still play. And if you haven’t heard Bagels and Bongos, do it. He also recorded some excellent albums for Tzadik, John Zorn’s label, and the one with the percussionist Roberto Rodriguez is really fantastic. Highly recommended.

Music Reads for Your Tuesday

[ 8 ] September 1, 2015 |

Oum-Khaltoum

Above: Oum Khaltoum

This is a great read taking you on a tour of the first recorded music from spots around the world in the mid to late 1920s. Well worth your time.

And a discussion on the evolution of the cheating song in country music.

Strange Hellos

[ 0 ] August 21, 2015 |

A Friday evening link to one of my very favorite songs of 2015.

Terrorism!

[ 48 ] July 8, 2015 |

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Above: ISIS founder and accordion terrorist Frank Yankovich.


When will the terrorists stop attacking us with their squeezeboxes?

More than two hours. More than 30 police, fire and rescue workers. And more than enough police cars and big trucks to widen the eyes of three dozen youngsters in day care, all to investigate a suspicious package that turned out to be … an accordion.

About 9 a.m. Friday, Howard County authorities were alerted to what appeared to be an abandoned suitcase in front of the Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia, according to fire officials. The center, at 7246 Cradlerock Way, tucked behind a shopping center, is home to a day care center.

The area around the building was cordoned off with yellow police tape. Just outside the perimeter were police cars, an emergency services command truck, and fire and rescue trucks. “We send out equipment based on a worst-case scenario,” said Assistant Fire Chief Joe Dixon.

The day care center temporarily relocated to a room in Giant Foods nearby. The experts went to work opening the package.

Inside: the musical instrument.

Owner: Unknown, said police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.

“I’m sure the police took it into custody,” she said.

Will the police arrest Flaco Jimenez for being too awesome on the accordion? Or will they string up Weird Al for the sins of his distant relative? As a real American, I hope for both.

A Day’s Playlist

[ 36 ] June 19, 2015 |

Given the utter depression of the news in last two days, I thought a music thread would make people feel better. So here are the albums I listened to today:

1. Miles Davis Quintet, Live in Europe 1967, Disc 2
2. Patti Smith, Horses
3. St. Vincent, St. Vincent
4. Tinariwen, Aman Iman
5. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
6. Drive By Truckers, Go Go Boots
7. Neko Case, The Worse Things Get
8. Serge Gainsbourg, Histoire de Melody Nelson
9. Wussy, Funeral Dress II
10. Miles Davis, Porgy and Bess

Tex Logan, RIP

[ 3 ] May 5, 2015 |

I had no idea that Tex Logan, noted fiddler for Bill Monroe, was also an engineer who worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Dead at 87.

We Shall Overcome

[ 4 ] May 4, 2015 |

On the death of Guy Carawan, I’ve been poking around various folk music sites and the like today and I thought this video of Pete Seeger explaining the development of We Shall Overcome was really interesting and I think a lot of you would find it worthy.

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