2016 was rough. Losing friends and artists all through the year just would not stop, and the Presidential election turned the country into a hatful of hate. As always, music provided a way through it all. Favorite albums of the first-half of the year provided solace and inspiration and included Eric Clapton, I Still Do; Luther Dickinson, Blues & Ballads; Charlie Faye & the Fayettes; The I Don’t Cares, Wild Stab; Dylan LeBlanc, Cautionary Tale; Charles Lloyd & the Marvels, I Long to See You; Eve Monsees and the Exiles, You Know She Did; Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter; Bonnie Raitt, Dig in Deep; The Relatives, Goodbye World; Various Artists, Day of the Dead (compilation); and Dion with Paul Simon, “New York is My Home” (song). The best of the second-half of 2016 is equally inspired and guaranteed to heal all wounds. Listen and believe.
Alejandro Escovedo, Burn Something Beautiful. The early bands of Alejandro Escovedo included the Nuns, Rank & File, True Believers, and Buick McKane. When he went solo in the early ‘90s it was like Escovedo kicked down the walls around him and stood tall alone. His incendiary new release was recorded in Portland with co-writers/producers Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey and sounds like the studio was on fire during the sessions, with raging guitarist Kurt Bloch throwing in loads of unhinged jawdropper solos. This is rock & roll played for keeps, and Escovedo’s attack has lit a fuse he cannot put out. There aren’t many 65-year-old musicians at the top of their game like this, and even if worldwide fame still awaits him, there is no doubt Escovedo is not looking back. That road right outside his door truly does go on forever. (Full disclosure: I was the label A&R rep for this album.)
The Flat Five, It’s a World of Love and Hope. So often the hardest thing to find in popular music is a good surprise. That is, a group where there’s no prior knowledge of either their existence or experience. That is exactly what makes the Flat Five so fine. Their members have years of playing but as a band it feels like they’d arrived from left field with such flourish that the seas parted for them and jaws fell open at just how intriguing they are. Singers Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor both have world-class voices and also possess an aura of awesomeness a lacking on stages today. The other three Flat Five—Alex Hall, Scott Ligon, and Casey McDonough—color everything with exactly the right airy touch. Then there’s the songs of Chris Ligon, which arrive like loving missiles from another cosmos. If Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks or Jake & the Family Jewels ever rang your inner bell, do not delay and proceed directly to the check-out line with this album firmly in hand. Guaranteed to light up 2017 like nobody’s business, the Flat Five are as righteously round as a jelly doughnut and just as pleasing. Fun for all.
David Halley, A Month of Sundays. For someone who has toiled in the vineyard of Texas music so many years, David Halley should be a household name. He’s written some of the best songs from that area, and has been a steady guitarist alongside all kinds of Lone Star heroes. For this solo album Halley has drilled down to the center of his soul and written ten songs that will not be forgotten. They range from heartbreaking odes on inner turmoil to wistful daydreams of what life could possibly be. There is never any self-regret or crippling doubt; instead there is hope and vision and the things that make life an endless series of questions more than one of final answers. Try this verse out: “Don’t think too much about tomorrow / won’t you stay right here with me / it’s a gift to know there’s no place to go / and no better place to be.” So very true.
The Lemon Twigs, Do Hollywood. When another brother band appears, it’s smart to pay attention to them. There is such a permanent line in rock history that predicts greatness it would be foolish to ignore. From the Everly Brothers through the Beach Boys and the Blasters on up to the early Replacements and now the Lemon Twigs, that gene-thing is no trifle. Long Islanders Brian and Michael D’Addario have an immediate feel of fate in their young aspirations, and it’s only a matter of time before they bust through the sales charts and become a force to reckon with. It sounds like they somehow heard the Beatles before they were born, and aren’t afraid to pull influences from wherever they find them. Isn’t that the mark of all the all-timers? The pair also know their way around a studio, and it could be they end up a party of only two when they’re recording what will be their smash hits of the future. This debut album gives a hint of what’s to come, and unless Martians appear from outer space to spirit the brothers away, place the smart money on their next release to crash the party and make itself known. Nature over nurture.
Van Morrison, Keep Me Singing. Where does it come from? That place where Van Morrison can go and so few others are able to follow him; it feels like a warmth that invades the whole body and soothes whatever demons are knocking on the door. The glow arrives instantaneously and as long as the music lasts never goes away. Sometimes decade pass where Morrison misses the mark in getting there, but when he does all memories recede into the background and only the present survives. That’s what happens on the Irishman’s new album. “Let it Rhyme” kicks off the passionate parade and from the very first note there is no doubt the singer has arrived at full strength. It’s staggering just how good Van Morrison still is. There really isn’t anyone in his league when he is at his best, and the fact he has made the album of the year seems like it was meant to be. All the musicians serve their master while Morrison’s voice has an ancient wisdom running through it, like it’s never been heard before. It’s the definition of what music can be, and emotions from falling tears to extraterrestrial ecstasy often occurs in an instant, sometimes even in the same song. Even the heavenly spirit of soul man extraordinaire Bobby “Blue” Bland is in the house when his “Share Your Love with Me” is covered. Next stop: Caledonia.
Bo Ramsey, Wildwood Calling. Not many listeners would likely pick Iowa as the home of one of the country’s most mesmerizing musicians. But that’s exactly where Bo Ramsey resides, and it’s a safe bet he has no plans of moving. The multi-faceted man is possibly enamored with the lack of glare pointed his way, allowing Ramsey to create exactly what he wants without having to filter it through the endless chatter of public awareness. His albums are sent out into the world like personal letters from someone who isn’t afraid of dreaming, as he chops down whatever needs to be done to get there. If anyone could be chosen to be designated American Musician by whatever powers that be in D.C., let it be Bo Ramsey. He would do the country proud with his pawnshop guitars and garage sale amplifiers, all driven through an overt imagination that shows no signs of slowing down. This collection of instrumentals feels like they have divine inspiration born in snowed-in fields and lit-up roadhouses. Sometimes the search for solitude drives right down the middle of the highway on a lonely night with lights out and radio on. Bo Ramsey knows.
The Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome. What goes around comes around, and when you start a band dedicated to the music of Jimmy Reed, Elmore James and all the other great American bluesmen of Chicago and beyond, it’s hard to ever shake that grip. Which is exactly why this Rolling Stones album recorded over a few days earlier this year is so sharp and hard-hitting. There is no extra silliness involved: it’s basically five aging men leaning in on the music they love the most. Some might cry cultural exploitation, but the Stones put that barb to bed over 50 years ago right after their first album tore the music world apart. Though the band has strayed all over the place in their constant evolution since, it was always abundantly clear the blues was where they best hung their hat. To hear Charlie Watts smacking his drum kit with ultimate finesse, while guitarists Keith Richard and Ron Woods stoke the melodic fires is a real wonder. Mick Jagger even tones down his most overt routines in the service of the blues, blowing harp like he snuck in the back door of Pepper’s lounge on Chicago’s South Side in 1965 to see if Muddy Waters will let him sit in on a song. The Rolling Stones’ motto could well-be again: “Blues me or lose me,” and they’d be right. Brian Jones lives.
Solange, A Seat at the Table. A soul fairy-tale worthy of only the best, Solange is a secret weapon that cleared the field with an album so deep, delightful and even dangerous that there is nothing like it. Her voice is born from angels, and whether she’s soaring or slinking doesn’t matter: she will curl the most innermost feelings of anyone who takes time to listen. This is like an extended fable, one that addresses growing up as an African-American in a country that can’t decide how racial affairs should be handled. There are mixed signals galore, and enough anger to keep everyone on their toes. The final result remains to be seen, but at least someone is talking about how much confusion continues to fuel those caught in a world of division. The way Solange takes as a jumping off point Malcolm X’s statement “Just because you’re invited to the dinner table doesn’t mean you’ll be allowed to eat,” and then turns it into a musical excursion that hasn’t been done before. When she gets to the interlude “Dad Was Mad,” all bets are off as the train is bears down on the station. Special guests Lil Wayne, Q-Tip, Kelly Rowlands & Nia Andrews and Kelela only add to the temperature and keep everyone on their toes, while co-executive producer Raphael Saadiq is surely smiling bigtime. Solange: Beyonce’s sister.
Allen Toussaint, American Tunes. The world fell into a hole last year with the passing of Allen Toussaint. His gifts were so prodigious and his presence so regal in New Orleans and beyond that it seemed he would always be there. How could he not, with his elegant Rolls-Royce navigating through the French Quarter and Ninth Ward, while his songs filled the air from uptown to Uganda. Toussaint’s music the past 60 years made life lifted. Fortunately, through the fine efforts of producer Joe Henry, the man left us a legend wrapped up in this amazing collection of songs, some written by him and others by everyone from Professor Longhair to Paul Simon. Toussaint’s piano is a study in grace, a whole way of approaching the planet in silk suits and sandals while still wearing white socks. Why not? The way he imparted all that is life-changing about the Crescent City will never be equaled, nor should it be. In the end, Allen Toussaint wrote the book. Yeah you right.
Wilco, Schmilco. Is Wilco the best band in the land right now? It could well be the case, and fortunately there are two or three different Wilcos to choose from on any given night. This new album points in the direction of the band’s biggest strengths: when frontman Jeff Tweedy has a suitcase full of new songs he sounds like he adores singing, those that show both his tender and tenacious side, and let him open up as much as he can in this world. Tweedy is not someone who readily adapts to attention. Instead, he sings it from way down inside himself in an aw shucks manner, the kind of star who always wears the same jean jacket and looks like he might have just woken up from a long nap. No matter, because there is a core of steel inside him, one that rose from being on the passenger side in Uncle Tupelo to build a band second to none. Wilco’s first few years were a tangle of record company and inner-group squabbles, but once the reins were firmly in Jeff Tweedy’s hands he lit out for new territory and has stayed there ever since. These songs are among the band’s best. They never stretch beyond recognition but always deliver an added zap of electrical force, one that captures all an American band is capable of. The future’s bright. Best Song (tie): Gregory Porter, “Take Me to the Alley” and Neil Young, “Peace Trail. It’s like winning the Daily Double when songs come out of the ozone to take over the soul. It shows music really does come down to one song at a time. When they’re of the power of these two, nothing else is really needed. Gregory Porter is a singer who has the home number of greatness, and calls it often. Still, “Take Me to the Alley” captures compassion like very few other songs do. It fills in the puzzles of the heart that require our attention but most often elude our grasp: who are we to others, and what can we do to help? It is the inquiry that will define our time that remains. In some ways, Neil Young’s “Peace Trail” travels the same path as the singer asks what the future may bring. Times are surely changing and Young knows it. Sometimes it’s enough to understand that it’s best to stay open to what is lurking out there. A cosmic traveler of the highest order, Neil Young realizes that staying centered on peace at the same time he continues the search for new guiding lights is the trail to be blazed. Start right here.
Best Reissue: Lou Reed, The RCA & Arista Album Collection. How does any artist follow being the center of the Velvet Underground? Lou Reed spent over four decades accomplishing just that, and his history of songs really does add up to a great American novel in ways that are becoming obvious three years after his death. This mighty collection of his first 16 solo albums arrives like a history of someone who changes American culture early and then never stops. Some of the releases, like Transformer, Coney Island Baby, and Street Hassle, surge to the forefront from sheer genius, while there are others that take a more stealth approach. In the end, it could be said that Lou Reed is among the handful of musicians forged in the 1960s who mattered throughout their entire careers, and continued to make music that demanded attention until their last days. And hopefully the next boxed set, possibly titled ‘The Sire and Reprise Album Collection’ including sets like New York, Ecstasy, and Animal Serenade, will have the last word on one of the best friends rock & roll ever had. Fine, fine music.
Best Book: Trouble Boys: The True Adventures of the Replacements, Bob Mehr. It doesn't take a soothsayer to see that the story of America's best almost-famous outfit would make for a knocked-out biography, but Bob Mehr's tome on the Replacements is surely one of the best rock books ever written. Of course, part of that is because the Minneapolis born and based band have such a wild and almost unbelievable story that a study of their lives becomes a peek inside the psychology of greatness. Still, it's Mehr's research and writing that really makes every single page of this tale a can't-miss ride down the rock & roll superhighway. Paul Westerberg alone would be an obvious candidate for anyone hoping to crack the code for what continues to make rock the greatest hope for the world's youth. Add in the 'Mats entire fantastical tale and it's a superlative journey inside musical history. Who knows if they'll ever be another aggregation as ripe for literary truth-telling as this band, but for now dust off a National Book Award and crank up the Replacements' "Bastards of Young," because yesterday has gloriously arrived again today. Swingin' party indeed.
Bill Bentley © 2016
Bill Bentley is the head of A & R at Concord records. He was the music writer and typesetter for the original Austin Sun.