I And Love and You by the Avett Brothers
Selected Song: “I and Love and You”
North Carolina indie darlings Seth and Scott Avett made their major-label debut with this album, and it’s a beauty. Producer Rick Rubin helped the band focus these thirteen songs, and the result is a triumph of craft and concision. If you think those virtues preclude emotion, think again. As is often the case, clarifying the songwriters’ intent means allowing both their meaning and their feeling to hit with greater potency. Appropriately, this is an album about coming of age, which plays just as it feels in real life: scary, exhilarating and wondrous, all at the same time.
The List by Rosanne Cash
Selected Song: “Sea of Heartbreak” (with Bruce Springsteen)
When Rosanne Cash was eighteen, her storied father, Johnny Cash, gave her a list of 100 songs that she needed to learn if she wanted to achieve literacy in what we might think of as the alternative version of the Great American Songbook. (He called his handwritten list “100 Essential Country Songs.”) As any self-respecting teenager would, Rosanne ignored the list until later, when she got interested in songwriting herself. She learned the songs, then set them aside to travel her own artistic journey. She returns to it now, and her interpretations of twelve of her father’s recommendations are deeply moving, not least because these songs themselves have lost none of their power with the passage of time.
The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists
Selected Song: “The Hazards of Love”
The Decemberists’ vaunting literary ambitions annoy some people but, to quote Bob Dylan, it’s just “my cup of meat.” Songwriter Colin Meloy had a great fondness for folkloric themes, and this album has the feel of an ancient folk tale staged as a musical drama. The grand passions of love and betrayal inform this album, which reminds us, as the Decemberists so often do, that however complex and contemporary our lives may feel, a long human history precedes us, and many of our most compelling struggles are not so new at all.
Townes by Steve Earle
Selected Song: “No Place to Fall”
The late, great Townes Van Zandt was Steve Earle’s mentor – or “tor-mentor” might be more like it. Van Zandt was intently self-destructive, and a difficult man to get to know, even for those closest to him. But he was also a songwriting master, and Earle repays his debt with this gripping collection of fifteen Van Zandt tunes. If this album inspires you to check out Van Zandt’s own work – especially the superb Live at the Old Quarter – Earle’s most sincere wish will come true.
Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear
Selected Song: “Two Weeks”
Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear has earned a well-deserved reputation for sonic ambition, and Veckatimest (named after an island off the coast of Cape Cod) lives up to that standard. You can hear echoes of such architects of sound as Brian Wilson and Steely Dan throughout this album. But Grizzly Bear also displays an unforeseen degree of focus here, so these twelve songs retain their own distinct identities, even as they drift into each other, like water colors blending around the edges.
Electric Dirt by Levon Helm
Selected Song: “When I Go Away”
Levon Helm, formerly of the Band, is one of the greatest singers in the history of rock & roll. A few years back, he was stricken with throat cancer, and both his life and career seemed in jeopardy. Happily, Helm has recovered nicely, and this album – a worthy followup to the Grammy-winning Dirt Farmer, from 2007 – is riveting proof. Characteristically, Helm confronts the issue of mortality head on, in performances that leave no doubt that as long as he’s alive and kicking, the music will kick just as hard.
The Fall by Norah Jones
Selected Song: “Light as a Feather”
The Fall is a break-up album, and Norah Jones brings her considerable gifts to bear on that tried-and-true story. Jones turned thirty this year, and her maturity is evident. The Fall has a grittier feel than her previous pristine work. The cool detachment of her singing works perfectly here – revealing enough to draw you closer and pique your interest, but never giving away too much. “Light as a Feather,” which she co-wrote with Ryan Adams, captures all the fear and unsettling freedom of being newly alone.
Monsters of Folk by Monsters of Folk
Selected Song: “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F)”
Supergroups are often disappointingly less than the sum of their parts, but the hilariously named Monsters of Folk (a take-off, of course, on the heavy-metal tour called Monsters of Rock) are a welcome exception. Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, and the ubiquitous M. Ward deliver songs that don’t merely display their individual gifts, but encourage the best in each other. This album is at once relaxing and thought-provoking, a wonderful listen that also stays with you, entering your mind and heart without your even realizing it.
Joy by Phish
Selected Song: “Backwards Down the Number Line”
When Phish reunited it was, in its way, an event as momentous as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band getting back together a decade ago. Aptly, then, this is an album about connections restored and community re-established, and, as its title suggests, it’s a celebration. Of course, Phish has a reputation as a live band whose albums are erratic at best, but producer Steve Lillywhite helps the group channel its on-stage energy into comprehensible songs. (Though the thirteen-minute-plus “Time Turns Elastic” provides proof, if anyone needed it, that the Phish kids are not so easily contained.) Phish fans know that Joy is wonderful, and haters will stay away regardless. But let me assure those of you on the fence about Phish, even if you’ve been burned by purchasing the band’s albums in the past: Joy is safe even for non-true-believers.
Let Freedom Ring by Chuck Prophet
Selected Song: “Let Freedom Ring”
Chuck Prophet has been making terrific records since he started out with the raw-and-ready L.A. band Green on Red nearly a quarter century ago. Let Freedom Ring is the latest in that long line, and it takes a place of pride. The title tells you that, once again, this album centers on Prophet’s favorite subject: America. He recorded the album amid the quotidian chaos of Mexico City, but guess what: One side of the border turns out to be not that much different from the other. If it’s chaos you’re after, Prophet understands that you need look no further than the local news. In his own good-humored, ramshackle way, Prophet earns his last name.