Willie Nelson turned 87 this week. In honor of that, Texas Monthly ranked all 143 of his albums. This is truly the list we all need. Things that are correct about this list: #1 is Phases and Stages and #2 is Red Headed Stranger. Yes, Red Headed Stranger is a great album. But Phases and Stages is an even greater album. It’s properly ranked. I’m fine with Stardust at #3; it’s not my favorite but it is beautifully rendered. And Then I Wrote is Willie’s first album, recording those many hits he had written for other country legends when no one knew who he was. It’s fantastic and great at #4. Albums I disagree with. I’ve never really been a big fan of Willie’s 90s comeback albums, so for me Across the Borderline at 8 and Spirit at 10 are overrated. Highwayman is a terrible album so I’d call it overrated at 70. Underrated are Willie Sings Kristofferson at 27, Teatro at 32 and San Antonio Rose with Ray Price at 65. It’s probably more fun to read about the lower ranked albums, with some real “what were you thinking” moments. But the real joy is just reading about all of Willie’s collaborations over the years and his willingness to do whatever the hell he wants at any given time, even if it all doesn’t work. Great list.
The great Tony Allen has died. One of the most important and respected drummers in the history of popular music, Allen became famous for his work with Fela Kuti’s band, but also had a hugely important career after that, both in terms of releasing albums under his own name and a widely varying set of collaborative projects. It’s not a silver lining that it wasn’t COVID-19 that took him, but that’s not much consolation. He worked up to the very end, releasing his last album last summer.
Chuck Mead, who used to front the excellent 90s alt-country group BR5-49, rewrote and recorded Hank Snow’s old hit “I’ve Been Everywhere” (no, it is not a Johnny Cash song even if he recorded it) to reflect staying inside forever in the time of COVID-19. It’s now called “I Ain’t Been Nowhere.”
Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof
Hiatt’s followup to her breakout album Trinity Lane is less rough and less autobiographical. That album felt like someone reliving their drugged out past, which is exactly what it was, with a bracing hit of both honesty and humor. Here the songwriting is more introspective and the voice more emotional. But the songwriting remains as incisive and interesting as the previous work. Like her last album as well, she puts together a great set of musicians to work with her here, including Amanda Shires on fiddle. Very strong release.
T. Hardy Morris, Dude, The Obscure
This 2018 album from the former Dead Confederate frontman is certainly cleverly titled, but also a strong statement from this rock and roll lifer. He knows he’s a lifer too–lyrics such as “I have only death ahead of me, I have only life behind/“My one and only certainly, and the feeling is sublime” certainly come from an artist who know where they stand in life. What this isn’t is the kind of southern rock Dead Confederate was known for. It doesn’t have a lot of big riffs or heavy drums. It’s a pretty quiet album of introspection.
Jim Lauderdale, Time Flies
It’s hard to imagine a more solid artist than Lauderdale. I don’t know that he has any truly classic albums, but whether he’s working more in a bluegrass or country style, he’s always just someone worth listening to. This 2018 release is another example. He covers most of his musical range here, with different country styles throughout the album. Sometimes, it sounds like 70s country, sometimes he has a good dash of rock and roll, sometimes it is more stringband oriented. But it is always worth your time.
Robert Forster, Songs to Play
This is a highly pleasant 2015 album from the former Go-Betweens member. Forster may not be much of a singer, but this is a straight-ahead rock and roll album filled with quality tunes and lyrics. He’s got a tight little band and that Lou Reed-Jonathan Richman vibe he always had. This isn’t going to blow your mind, but it is going to be something you want to play when you are in the mood for a solid, if restrained, rock album. Also, “Disaster in Motion” might be 5 years old, but it’s a pretty good theme for the disaster that is 2020.
Big Thief, Masterpiece
Big Thief is one of those bands I’ve heard about for awhile, but never got around to. So I decided to check out their first album, from 2016. I liked it pretty well. The title track is a real great tune, a very catchy rocker. The back end of the album is somewhat less compelling for me, hardly an uncommon scenario. Adrianne Lenker is a good rock singer and a good folkish singer. The term “folk” is thrown around so widely today as to be meaningless and I don’t think that’s what this band does at all. But it does tell good stories behind a good band that can rev it up pretty good. I look forward to checking out their more recent albums as well.
Neil Young, Hitchhiker
Neil Young’s productivity in the 1970s was astounding. Not only was their gem after gem of great albums, but there were so many recordings that weren’t released, albums that the label didn’t like, or projects that Neil was distracted from for one reason or another. Since he is so open with his archive, these projects have been seeing the light of day in recent years, as well as a lot of live performances. Hitchhiker was recorded in 1976 and supposed to be released soon after, presumably in 1977. But the label found the album more like a bunch of demos and didn’t want it.
If Young had released Hitchhiker when he recorded, we’d see it as another solid, if not amazing, album of his. As is, the label might have been right. Most of these songs did get re-recorded for subsequent albums, usually for the better. The versions of “Pocahontas” and “Powderfinger” on Rust Never Sleeps are classic and they aren’t quite here. “Human Highway” ended up in a slightly better version on Comes a Time and fits well there too. “Campaigner,” with its hilarious chorus line of “Even Richard Nixon has got a soul” Neil released on the Decade collection. The title track didn’t show up again until his 2010 release Le Noise, which I haven’t heard. So there’s only two tracks you can’t find on other releases here, but it’s a worthy listen nonetheless.
David S. Ware Trio, Live in New York, 2010
Ware was a miracle, a saxophonist to beat all in the modern era of free jazz. This 2-disc set from late in his life, after his kidney transplant gave him three extra years of life to make music (a fan donated it), is a pretty great display of his virtuosity. With his long-time band mate and legend in his own right William Parker on bass and Warren Smith on drums, this is not going to be for everyone. Ware was always much closer to the earlier forms of free jazz that emphasized the skronk and the noise than a lot of more recent work that integrates electronics or hip-hop influences or ideas from modernist classical work. Without a piano (usually he had Matthew Shipp playing with him, but not here) there’s even more space for the sax to fill. The only thing I’d say about this album that’s less than fully glowing is that at well over 2 hours, it’s really freaking long and honestly that’s a frequent problem in this part of the music world.
I can’t find a sample of this from YouTube, so I included a different Ware live performance, also with Parker.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music or other sorts of art and none things politics.