When I was 15, a kind, patient older cousin of mine was killed in a freak accident. A few days after getting that news, I was in the middle of a driving class when my instructor asked me if anything was wrong. I was stumped at first. Nothing seemed off to me; I didn’t think my driving or behavior was erratic. But both were. It took me a while to realize that I had internalized my grief so much that I was tricking myself into believing everything was okay. Instead of crying about it, or talking about it, or confronting it in any way.
And because I was a boy, and the other men in my life were just like me in the feelings department, I accepted this lack of emotional intelligence as just part of who I was. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that the dam started to break. Because that was the year I met my wife, who is teaching me what it means to be self-aware to this day. It was also the year I bought Joni Mitchell’s Blue on CD. We would fall asleep to it in the middle of the day, comforted by how the intensity of its emotions resonated with ours.
Up until Blue was released 50 years ago today, the definition of a singer/songwriter was problematically narrow – essentially it described a man who did it all, except for telling us how he really felt. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were the recognized masters of this form, posing stoically on their album covers to make it clear they were brooding troubadours who answered to no one. And while they would pull the veil back occasionally, these were artists who wrote songs like English professors – shrouding any vulnerability in layers of metaphor and literary references. Given how good their music sounded, it was easy to associate their lyrical complexity with artistic worth. To believe that honesty is somehow simpler or easier.
An iconoclast from day one, Joni Mitchell wasn’t about to pay attention to what a singer/songwriter was supposed to be. The Alberta native didn’t even tune her guitar in the standard way, perpetually twisting the pegs in search of brand new clusters of notes, frustrating generations of campfire strummers in search of an easy cover. In the years leading up to Blue, she used these invented chord structures to give her first three albums an ethereal quality that folk fans hadn’t quite experienced before. Yet her lyrics, while reflective of her talent, needed some time to catch up. These early songs were written in the ’60s Greenwich Village mold, anthems anchored by metaphors intended to be applicable to all – life is like a merry-go-round; growing up is like seeing the clouds from above for the first time. One of her biggest hits was about Woodstock, and she wasn’t even there.
These songs I’m referencing remain rightfully iconic, and they resulted in Mitchell becoming very famous very quickly. And like a lot of artists who are both egomaniacally driven and emotionally sensitive, she ended the ’60s feeling overwhelmed, disillusioned with fame, and seriously considering retirement. In Malka Marom’s fascinating interview collection Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, the artist describes this time in her life:
“I hadn’t cried for years, but at that time I cried all the time. They walked on the moon, I cried. Everything made me cry. […] Another day, I came upon a boat being pulled by a car crossing under the telephone lines as they went across the road. The name of the boat was The Wife’s Mink Coat. And I burst into tears. It had two motors and I just saw all the disruption those egg beaters were making in the water, and I felt sorry for the fish. I had to pull over to the side of the road. I was weeping about that.”
Mitchell wrote and recorded Blue in this state of mind, and made no attempt to hide it, describing the nuances of her emotions with an honesty and specificity that would forever expand the boundaries of what a singer/songwriter could do. Gone were any attempts to tap into the zeitgeist. Blue is about what one person was going through, period.
Over sparse folk arrangements that feature only a handful of players other than her, Mitchell sings about her needs, regrets, and traumas, embracing how uncomfortably they could live alongside one another. The love songs are mournful. The travel songs are homesick. The sad songs shiver in the shadows of potential happiness. To someone like me, who struggled to understand the fact that human beings contain multitudes, this doubled as a psychology lesson.
On the opening “All I Want,” Mitchell sums up the mercurial push and pull of a passionate relationship in a few pronoun-laden lines, as her dulcimer and James Taylor’s guitar lay down the path ahead:
I hate you some, I love you some Oh I love you when I forget about me
Most relationship eulogizers would be satisfied with this passive, poetic sadness, like Dylan telling his ex not to think twice and just move on. But Joni Mitchell wasn’t kidding when she titled this song. She wants us to know all of the good things she wants for this person as well. Even though it’s contradictory, and an admission of vulnerability:
I want to be the one that you want to see I want to knit you a sweater Want to write you a love letter I want to make you feel better I want to make you feel free
On the devastating ballad “Little Green,” when singing to the child she gave up for adoption while mired in poverty –a personal trauma that was a closely kept secret until the 1990s – Mitchell keeps stubbornly looking for pinpricks of hope: So you sign all the papers in the family name You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed Little green have a happy ending
On the record’s more upbeat numbers, the reverse is true. “California” uses sprightly acoustic strumming to underline Mitchell’s largely rose-colored memories of adventures abroad. But in the last chorus, she asks her adoptive home state if she’s worthy: “Will you take me as I am?” “Carey” fleshes out another lively acoustic groove about international travel with conga hits and layered vocal harmonies. But her “fingernails are filthy,” and she has “beach tar on her feet.” And the red-haired Cretian man who inspired the title? He’s “a mean old daddy.”
“My insights became keener,” Mitchell tells Marom about her frame of mind while recording Blue. “I’d just look at a person and I’d know too much about them that I didn’t want to know. And because everything was becoming transparent, I felt I must be transparent, and I cried.”
As arguably the first “transparent” work from a singer/songwriter, Blue has inspired countless purveyors of confessional art over the last half-century. But I’ve yet to hear one that resonates as powerfully. Perhaps because this was a radical form of unguardedness, an artist knowingly twisting the pegs of misogynistic limitations by the mere act of being honest on tape. Or maybe Joni Mitchell just happened to be in an elevated state of self-awareness that aligned with her talents reaching their peak. Regardless, the alchemy of these sounds and words is timeless.
To this day, when I’m having trouble tracing the origins of my emotions, I’ll turn to this album. Because in life, when you try to ignore your feelings and make literary references instead, that just makes you an asshole. Thanks to my wife, and this album, I feel comfortable saying that I miss my cousin. That I will never forget the time he sat and played a board game with me on a family visit, even though he was older and cooler and absolutely had better things to do. That I wish he was still alive.
A song can grab us in all sorts of ways. We fall for it by the time the first chorus kicks in; or it takes a dozen listens before its genius reveals itself; or it plays during a relevant moment in our lives and becomes forever attached to it; or it burrows its way into our subconscious and starts playing in our cerebral jukebox. In a year when almost everything didn’t work like it was supposed to, these 25 songs were reassuring reminders that music could still take hold of my emotions in these same old ways.
Happy listening, and happy new year!
25. Swamp Dogg (ft. Justin Vernon & Jenny Lewis) – “Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg”
In 2020, I thanked god every day that I could still hug and kiss and sleep next to the person I love. The ache in this 77-year-old R&B legend’s voice spoke for those who couldn’t.
24. Polo G – “Martin & Gina”
“I get this feeling in my stomach when you next to me,” confesses this inherently melodic Chicago drill rapper, evoking what love feels like in a way no multi-camera sitcom ever could.
23. The Chicks – “Tights On My Boat”
Natalie Maines delivers a viciously cathartic kiss-off to her trifling ex-husband, over wink-and-a-smile acoustic strumming: “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m gone?”
22. Zara Larsson – “Love Me Land”
Love is an amusement park on this gobsmacked electro-pop earworm.
21. Angel Du$t – “Turn Off the Guitar”
This side project for members of the hardcore bands Turnstile and Trapped Under Ice has become an unexpected pop juggernaut – “Turn Up the Guitar” is their boppiest effort yet.
What Freddie Gibbs does to this beat is some gold-medal-worthy gymnastics.
19. Gillian Welch – “Didn’t I”
Give Gillian Welch a 12-bar blues and she will inevitably work a miracle.
18. The Avalanches (feat. Leon Bridges) – “Interstellar Love“
In December, the electro-pastiche virtuosos The Avalanches released its enchanting third LP, and it’s heavily influenced by the love story of astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/creative director Ann Druyan, who worked together on NASA’s 1977 Voyager Interstellar Project. On “Interstellar Love,” the group uses a soothing Alan Parsons Project sample to create a nurturing cocoon of synths, which slowly launches into an exhilarating expanse, the voice of Leon Bridges showing us the way to romantic transcendence.
17. Jessie Ware – “Soul Control”
An undeniable “Two of Hearts” synth line brings us behind the velvet rope at an ’80s discotheque, where the chorus froths over like champagne.
16. Bill Callahan – “Pigeons”
A year after crafting the best album of 2019, Bill Callahan still had more to give: driving newlyweds around in his limo and reflecting on the universality of marriage, all while doing his best Johnny Cash impression.
15. Kylie Minogue – “Say Something”
Ray of Sunshine #1: Pop legend Kylie Minogue made a sparkling, return-to-form album called Disco this year. Ray of Sunshine #2: Its lead single healed through dance music in classic Kylie fashion – “Baby, in an endless summer, we can find our way.”
14. Fat Tony – “Je Ne Sais Quoi”
This Houston rapper does a better job describing his own song than I ever could: “This beat has a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi / With a quality much like the dust from a star.”
13. Carly Rae Jepsen – “This Love Isn’t Crazy”
Per usual, Carly Rae Jepsen’s B sides were catchier and sweeter and more emotionally authentic than most artists’ A sides in 2020.
12. Soakie – “Boys On Stage”
The next time you hear a Democratic man talk about the value of pragmatism, drown him out with this ferocious neo-riot-grrrl assault.
11. Charli XCX – “Claws”
This frayed, homemade electro-pop love song had me dancing in my living room with tears in my eyes.
10. TOPS – “I Feel Alive”
I think Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 album Mirage is criminally underrated. And if this lovestruck air balloon ride of a song is any indication, there’s a Montreal soft-pop band that agrees with me.
9. John K. Samson – “Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World”
The former Weakerthans frontman uses sports metaphors to confess his death wish for our 45th president, over gentle, sympathetic guitar.
8. Kamaiyah (ft. J. Espinosa) – “Get Ratchet”
Four years after dropping one of the best rap albums of the decade, Kamaiyah was back with authority in 2020. And so were ominously funky minor-key piano chords. And extended scratch solos. And the feeling that hip hop could re-energize the world.
7. Run the Jewels ft. Gangsta Boo – “Walking in the Snow”
Black people are murdered by police so often, a rapper can write lyrics about a specific atrocity and chances are it’ll apply to others by the time the track drops. Like on the ominous synth-funk hailstorm “Walking in the Snow,” where Killer Mike connects the dots between the American education system, criminal justice system, and the destruction of Black lives with chilling precision and fulminating passion.
6. Moses Sumney – “Cut Me”
A breathtaking, falsetto-streaked, prismatic burst of R&B artistry that fills the D’Angelo-sized hole in my heart.
5. Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”
When Thundercat’s dropped this adorably goofy R&B come-on as an advance single before his album’s April release date, is was an early glimpse of an especially fruitful spring.
4. Laura Marling – “For You”
At some point in 2020, I started putting little talismans on my dining room table, the place that had become my main workstation (and Dungeons & Dragons dice-rolling surface). They were little gifts and notes from my wife, whose job still required her to go out in the world every day. It wasn’t until I heard “For You” that I realized what I was doing. “I keep a picture of you / Just to keep you safe,” Laura Marling sings over a lullaby landscape of light hums and strums, appealing to anyone whose heart resides in someone else’s body.
3. Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) – “W.A.P.”
Yes, the world’s reaction to “W.A.P.” included some tired old sexist pearl-clutching from conservative politicians and Fox News types. Yes, it’s annoying that two women rapping about their sexual prowess is still a headline-making event. (Men will be rapping about their boners until the mountains crumble into the sea.) But “W.A.P.” absolutely deserved this level of global attention – because it’s an ebullient feat of pop craftsmanship. Over a three-note bass rumble and an instantly iconic loop of the 1992 Frank Ski house track “Whores In This House,” two of the best rappers alive pack as many hilarious innuendos as possible into three minutes – staking their claim as peerless artists, making it clear that there’s no shame in consensual sex, and bringing some much-needed joy to the world.
2. Waxahatchee – “Lilacs”
“And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t get anywhere good without you,” admits Katie Crutchfield on this instant country-folk classic. Over a spare, radiant arrangement of guitar, organ and snare-rim clicks, the songwriter uses the fragrant, short-lived blossom of its title as a metaphor, not to dwell on mortality, but to drum up the courage to acknowledge the beauty that’s right in front of us: “I need your love too.”
1.Bob Dylan – “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”
A year ago, back when traveling was still a thing, I took a trip to Hawaii with my wife. We got a place in the middle of the jungle that seemed created for the purpose of sitting down, unwinding, and appreciating how beautiful our world can be. For 10 days I was able to look up from the pages of a novel and see blooms of impossible brightness, banyan trees reaching to the sky like the hands of giants, and the ocean in the distance, conducting its prehistoric symphony. Pretty much immediately, we started talking about retiring there. It was a place where we could rest in peace.
A few months later, Bob Dylan told the world about his idea of heaven on earth – an island in the Florida Keys that’s famous for attracting 20th century literary geniuses to its shores. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is a hazy dreamworld of a nine-minute ballad, its clean, reverberating guitars and gently brushed snares exemplifying how time slows to a crawl when you’re in your favorite place. In his weary, 79-year-old voice, Dylan takes us down unexpected avenues on every verse, tuning in to an old broadcast from Radio Luxembourg, pointing out Truman Capote’s old house, making sure we don’t miss the gardens overflowing with hibiscus flowers, orchid trees and bougainvillea.
But this isn’t some cryptic, “Desolation Row”-style lyrical puzzle-box. On the choruses, Dylan makes his intentions as clear as a Caribbean tide pool, sighing with audible contentment about how this island makes him feel:
Key West is the place to be If you’re looking for immortality Key West is paradise divine Key West is fine and fair If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there Key West is on the horizon line
As the music slowly fades, the impact of what just happened washes over us. One of the least transparent artists in American history – who I have never seen actually speak to an audience beyond begrudgingly introducing his band – was singing, openly and earnestly, about where he wants his sun to set. I can only hope my last wishes will be so clear.
Music wasn’t the only thing that got me through 2020. My wife, who makes my home life perpetually exciting and meaningful and new, had me guiltily enjoying quarantine. My job allowed me to work from home, out of harm’s way. My coffee maker never broke down.
But this is a music column, and I did spend many precious hours of this past year playing old records and streaming new masterpieces while “trapped” inside my humble Maine bungalow. So if you’ll humor me, here are a few of the ways that music was there for me in 2020:
Music kept me engaged. As the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world this summer, new albums from several artists on the list below channeled righteous, motivating anger at America’s deeply rooted, white supremacist systems. And many classics felt even more urgent and alive – when I played my vinyl copy of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 triumph What’s Going On and heard him so effortlessly croon, “Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying,” the realization of how little has changed brought tears to my eyes. A few weeks later, my wife and I were on the streets of Portland, chanting George Floyd’s name.
Music made me appreciate my age. I’m firmly in my 40s now, which means I’ve been obsessing over certain albums for decades. So when I decided to play several of my long-time favorites back to back on a long summer day, I was floored at how deeply they were ingrained in my psyche. I hadn’t properly listened to Randy Newman’s Sail Away or Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life in years, but the lyrics came flooding back to me in a wave. As I puttered around the house, unashamedly singing along, it truly felt like some old friends had come to visit. I wouldn’t trade that connection to be 20 years younger if you paid me.
Music helped me relax. As a teen, I’d fall asleep to music all the time. I’d put five CDs in my beloved stereo, set them on shuffle, and let them take me away. In 2020, for the first time in ages, this happened again. I didn’t plan on napping when I put Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express on the turntable, but its cold, soothing bleeps made the book in my hand feel as heavy as my eyelids, and I drifted off. Waking up to the sound of the needle gently bumping against the label was like being told, “You’re coming back to reality now. And that’s okay.”
Here are 20 more examples of how music got me through this bizarre and challenging year. Each of these albums reminded me that the world was still turning out there, and that while creativity can be shaped by current events, it cannot be stopped by them. Thanks for reading, and happy holidays!
20. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated Side B
When Carly Rae Jepsen named her 2019 LP Dedicated, she wasn’t kidding. The feel-good pop juggernaut wrote close to 200 songs during those sessions, in search of that perfect embodiment of love’s effervescent, organic swell. She pulled it off – and then some. Because for the third release cycle in a row, CRJ has followed up an LP with a “Side B” companion album, and this collection of Dedicated outtakes is just as effortlessly catchy and casually profound as Side A. Jepsen’s brand of ‘80s-inspired synth pop is as low-stakes-joyful as ever, combining the disco-ball sparkle of Kylie Minogue with Cyndi Lauper’s subtly emotional delivery. When she sings, “This is what they say / Falling in love’s supposed to feel like,” it’s with real wonder in her voice. And the synths and drums and backing vocals help her translate that feeling into the kind of starry-eyed, idealized pop music we especially needed this year.
19. Nnamdi – Brat
In the three years since his breakout LP Drool allowed him to quit his day job at a law firm, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya has been wrestling with career-based survivor’s guilt. On his emotionally and sonically kaleidoscopic follow-up Brat, the Chicago multi-instrumentalist wonders if he’d be more valuable to the world as a farmer or astronaut, confessing that “I mostly live in silence.” Ironically, the way he confronts these feelings of self-doubt is proof that he’s in the right line of work. Brat jumps from acoustic folk to rubbery hip-hop to synth-chilled art-pop with a boldness that belies its themes. It’s a world where the materialistic banger “Gimme Gimme” and the vulnerable ballad “It’s OK” feel of a piece, because they’ve grown from the same soil of self-awareness and melodic ambition.
18. War On Women – Wonderful Hell
“We’ve gotta stop this fascist creeeeeeep!” screams Shawna Potter on “Wonderful Hell,” the fist-pumping thrash-punk centerpiece of her band War On Women’s uncompromising, anthemic third LP. While it’s no mystery who Potter is referring to, this riot-grrrl-inspired Baltimore quintet is more concerned with the petrie dish of systemic racism and misogyny from which our soon-to-be-former president is just the latest mutation. Whether the subject is domestic violence, mass incarceration, or do-nothing “thoughts and prayers” politicians, the message is delivered with the clarity of a punch to a Nazi’s face, and paired with melodic riffs that are wired directly to our adrenal glands. This is righteous indignation, distilled into one irresistible call to action after another. The louder it gets, the more hopeful it feels.
17.Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
At its best, dance music has a transcendent effect, its rhythms triggering something in our subconscious that shelves our worries so we can focus on the present moment. Jessie Ware’s fourth LP is dance music at its best. Over simmering, synth-driven R&B arrangements that hearken back to the ’80s post-disco reveries of Grace Jones, the London vocalist tells her glitter-flecked stories of dance-floor infatuations with leisurely confidence. Instead of just belting out these bangers, she adds to their nostalgic spell by tenderly crooning them, the reassuring warmth of her voice as welcome as a happy memory. To complete the effect, Ware closes with “Remember Where You Are,” a towering morning-after ballad written in reaction to the election of Boris Johnson and designed to help us cope with the world outside: “When life is hard, that’s how it goes / As your destiny unfolds, hold on.”
16. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi
On April 17, when it was starting to really sink in that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while, the Finnish psychedelic black metal sorcerers Oranssi Pazuzu took us on a journey of the mind, in the form of its brain-flambéing fifth album, Mestarin Kynsi. By layering synthesizer patches and guitar effects to create uniquely unsettling atmospheres, and then vaporizing them in the cleansing fire of drums and distortion, the band expresses no interest in soothing our jangled nerves. When singer Juho ”Jun-His” Vanhanen enters the fray, croaking like a disturbed cryptkeeper, the spell is completed, resulting in extended suites that stick in our heads like lucid nightmares. “Uusi Teknokratia” is perhaps the boldest display of disregard for genre norms, shifting from new age synth flutes to chaotic thrash to avant-garde horror-score classical without ever losing sight of its hellish destination.
15. Thundercat – It Is What It Is
The polarizing rock iconoclast Frank Zappa is back in the news these days, thanks to an acclaimed documentary, which I’m not rushing to see. After all, with Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner in my record collection, I have even less incentive to try and “get” Zappa’s intentionally difficult catalog. An astoundingly gifted bassist, Thundercat could probably build a loyal following by just showing off. But on his third LP, he continues to do what I always wished Zappa would – value hooks as much as chops. It Is What It Is has its share of jazz-fusion fireworks, but they’re leavened by sensual R&B grooves and synthetic yacht rock melodies. His lyrics, delivered in a crystal falsetto, are often funny, but in a sweet, self-effacing way. “I may be covered in cat hair / But I still smell good,” he belts with a wink on the adorably non-threatening pick-up song “Dragonball Durag.” This is ambitious music, exquisitely played, that also wants everyone to sing along.
14. Polo G – The GOAT
This summer, America was forced to think about how dangerous it is to be a Black person within its borders. As complicit white assholes like me played catch-up, long-released books like The New Jim Crow re-entered the best-seller lists. And there were few albums better suited to soundtrack this overdue racial reckoning than The GOAT, the unflinchingly honest, sneakily melodic second album from the 21-year-old Chicago drill rapper Polo G. Released two weeks before the murder of George Floyd, The GOAT pairs heartbreaking descriptions of life in a racial caste system with minor-key piano and guitar loops that ring out like bad omens. He has no time to mince words when discussing the stark reality of this rigged game: “You gon either die or see the system / Ain’t no slippin’ up.” Yet, through the ease of his singing voice and the deftness of his pen, Polo G is somehow able to stuff these songs with hooks, turning would-be dirges into profoundly emotional pop music.
13. Megan Thee Stallion – Good Times
In 1964, Sam Cooke released a single called “Good Times,” an homage to the power of music to “soothe our souls” amidst the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. 56 years later, Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion gave a similar gift of irrepressible joy to beleaguered Americans. Good Times declares independence from holier-than-thou body policers, patriarchal gender roles, bad lovers, Instagram haters, racist cops, and the misogynistic victim blaming the artist had to endure after being shot in the foot by rapper Torey Lanez this past July. Over thunderously catchy beats that hearken back to classic tracks from Naughty By Nature, Biggie Smalls and Eazy-E, Meg raps like a force of nature, melding the past and present into something exhilaratingly new. “They tried to knock me off, but a bitch still grindin’,” she proclaims with a smirk, creating a space for anyone who feels beaten down by 2020 to take a break, crank the bass, and let the good times roll.
12. Porridge Radio – Every Bad
Dana Margolin embraces contradictions. As the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of the Brighton, UK, post-punk quartet Porridge Radio, she’s drawn to themes that explore the faultlines between adolescence and adulthood, when we know just enough about ourselves to be dangerous. “Oh I don’t know what I want / But I know what I want,” she sings in her deep tenor on “Don’t Ask Me Twice.” “I am okay all of the time / I am okay some of the time,” she shares on “Circles.” “Baby, I was born confused,” she repeats on the opening “Born Confused.” The band soundtracks these cripplingly uncertain narratives with the care of a supportive parent, going silent when Margolin needs to whisper, bashing wildly when she needs to scream, lending structure and shading to every bittersweet melody. Resulting in one more glorious contradiction: Every Bad is very good.
11. Fireboy DML – Apollo
“Time doesn’t exist / When you’re listening to your favourite song,” observes Nigerian pop sensation Fireboy DML in the middle of his unselfconscious-grin-inducing second album, Apollo. The track, “Favourite Song,” stands as proof of its own hypothesis, its dopamine-summoning groove marked by bouncy “Sussudio” horns and an honest-to-god “Macarena” sample. The artist has a knack for taking us out of time, especially on tracks that fuse the fiery syncopations of his native Afrobeat with the pillowy sounds of ’80s adult contemporary. And despite the god-complex album title and delightfully confident opening track “Champion,” this is far from an ego fest. Apollo gives us plenty of time with Fireboy on his own, sifting through his regrets, searching for answers. “I just want to be alone / I don’t wanna see no message on my phone,” he admits over the gentle “In Your Eyes” synths of “Airplane Mode.” Press play, and set your soul to vibrate.
10. Sault – Untitled (Rise)
Perhaps there were some PR considerations behind the decision to completely conceal the identities of this mysterious UK outfit – it worked for Daft Punk, after all. But it makes for a more meaningful, holistic listening experience as well. Sault’s second “Untitled” LP of 2020 sounds like it could be a lost R&B masterpiece from the late-’70s, discovered in an auction of Prince’s record collection. Sweaty funk, rippling Afrobeat, catchy Motown, soothing spoken word, and achingly pretty jazz – it’s all here. Couple that with its restorative, motivational themes of inner peace and racial justice, and we have a record that felt like a gift from a benevolent entity. With nowhere else to look in the liner notes, we have no choice but to examine the song titles. The first three are all we need to know: “Strong.” “Fearless.” “Rise.”
9. Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
One of the silver linings of quarantine has been how it stripped away life’s extraneous bits and forced us to inspect the foundation. The experimental pop cosmonaut Charli XCX spent the first few months of lockdown putting her own self-assessment on tape. What she discovered will be recognizable to any of us lucky enough to be hunkered down with someone we love. Over the malfunctioning robot glitches of producer A. G. Cook, she sings indelible hooks, evoking the bliss and terror of realizing someone else has the keys to your heart. “So I made my house a home with you / I’m right here and it feels brand new,” she swoons. A few tracks later, she confronts the power that her partner now wields: “Maybe you’re my enemy / You’re the only one who knows what I really feel.” Charli XCX may have been trapped inside, but her feelings were free as a bird.
8. Ka – Descendants of Cain
“When age speaks, youth listens sometimes,” states a crackling, uncredited voice at the outset of Ka’s fifth solo album, the gently haunting biblical allegory Descendants of Cain. And while Gen Z may not go wild for the Brooklyn rapper’s low-lit, open-hearted, hungover Wu-Tang vibes, he continues to set an incredible example, one gorgeous track at a time. “Got to be in grace first, to fall from it,” he murmurs over the ringing minor-key guitar licks of “Solitude of Enoch,” speaking to the inherent value of every American Cain driven to violence by forces beyond their control. Ka delivers every line, no matter how sad or outraged, in the same quiet, level-headed tone, like a Zen master telling stories anchored in universal truths, their life lessons burrowing deep into our consciousness.
7. Caribou – Suddenly
The title of Dan Snaith’s fifth LP under his Caribou moniker might have you expecting a bunch of sonic jump scares. But the eclectic electronic artist reportedly chose Suddenly because his daughter was “obsessed with the word.” She’s not the only Snaith who is fixated on the way things sound. Every track on Suddenly is its own carefully curated sonic universe, with constellations of pillowy synthesizers and modified soul samples that ensure Snaith’s angelic falsetto points heavenward. The overarching mood is soothing and supportive, the soundtrack to an afterparty that makes it feel less scary to come down and reenter that stark, sunlit world. When Snaith sings, “She picks up all the pieces / She’s going home,” over a touching Gloria Barnes sample, it feels like we’ve arrived at a warm, graceful place, where nothing sudden can happen.
6. Laura Marling – Songs for Our Daughter
In 2001, Leonard Cohen released a ballad called “Alexandra Leaving,” where he lies on satin sheets while using ancient Greek metaphors to brood about getting dumped. 19 years later, Laura Marling asked a question that never seemed to cross Cohen’s mind: “Where did Alexandra go?” On the UK folksinger’s impeccably crafted concept album Songs for Our Daughter, she writes about the interior lives of women who have been often cast as villains in her genre, her voice a guiding light of warmth and understanding. Marling doesn’t have a literal daughter; she’s singing to her younger self, her friends, and her future hypothetical charges. “I love you my strange girl / My lonely girl / My angry girl / My brave,” she sings, her confident acoustic strumming a reminder of how it feels to be the protagonist, walking away from pain, having chosen a better life.
5. Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline
When Andy Shauf’s sixth album dropped in late January 2020, its easygoing, low-stakes, clarinet-flecked folk felt as comforting as a cup of hot tea. But less than a year later, the story told heremight as well be science fiction – while hanging out at a bar called The Neon Skyline with friends, the narrator’s ex-girlfriend unexpectedly shows up, after which the group heads off to a different bar. “Oh I’m just fine / I’m wasting time / Sometimes there’s no better feeling than that,” Shauf sighs on the title track, his laid-back Paul Simon phrasing making it feel even more like a reassuring relic from a simpler, mask-free time. After his ex, Judy, shows up, it sparks all kinds of memories in our narrator, including a fight after a car crash where his selfishness gets the best of him. As the night goes on, his untreated ache grows, and we feel a different kind of social distance in the room. But Shauf ends things on a hopeful note, making it clear he believes that this guy, and all of us, can change. “I make a silent toast to the things I do and don’t miss,” the narrator proclaims toward the end, much like we all have done this year, figuring out how to make the absolute best of a challenging situation.
4. Moses Sumney – Grae
In most creative endeavors, it’s usually good advice to “kill your darlings” – cutting ideas that aren’t essential, no matter how profound you think they are. But on his sprawling double LP Grae, North Carolina auteur Moses Sumney threw this advice in the trash, writing about some of life’s most frustrating obstacles while dipping his brush in whatever genre he damn well pleased. Heavenly R&B, orchestral art rock, profound spoken word, dreamy jazz – it all works, because its connective tissue is Sumney’s voice, an impossibly elastic instrument that welcomes us in like a surprisingly friendly celebrity. Over the course of 20 tracks, he sings about the variety of boxes that society tries to trap us in: its self-destructive definition of masculinity; its cruelly efficient social media self-esteem compactor; its insistence that love is one very specific thing. “Honesty is the most moral way,” he sings in a Minnie Riperton falsetto, refusing to check any boxes in this backwards binary world, or listen to any tired old advice about how to make an album. His darlings are legion here. And we all get to listen to them, defiantly running free.
3. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
This summer, my wife and I saw new potential in our long-ignored backyard. I made a fire pit from stray bricks; we bought a projector and a big screen; and spent many unforgettable nights watching old movies under the stars. Fate had pushed us to reassess a familiar thing, and it felt good.Singer/songwriter Katie Crutchfield didn’t need quarantine to shift her focus inward. Her fifth LP as Waxahatchee is the result of years of introspection, a document of an artist’s shift from cynicism to optimism, from self-loathing to self-love. “I’m a bird in the trees / I can learn to see with a partial view,” she sings on “Fire,” accepting she’ll never have all the answers and that actually, life is pretty damn good perched on this particular branch. Musically, the album is one shimmering moment of clarity, its richly hued country arrangements directing steady sunshine on Crutchfield, who lets her voice soar like never before. And as she assembles the stray bricks of her psyche into something whole, she’s free to write honest, vulnerable, built-to-endure love songs. “And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t end up anywhere good without you,” she confesses, discovering that incandescent truth is within arm’s reach.
2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan spent the majority of his 70s singing the songs of his childhood, releasing a trilogy of Great American Songbook cover albums and pretty much exclusively playing those live, I imagine to the chagrin of many an entitled boomer. But this was more than just a weird rock star flex. This year, we realized that all that time dwelling in the past was preparing this grizzled poet to look clear-eyed into his future. “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too / The flowers are dyin’ like all things do,” the 79-year-old softly sings at the beginning of his 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. The song, “I Contain Multitudes,” is a quiet autumn wood of ringing guitars, a breathtakingly simple backdrop for a Whitman-biting summation of the artist’s many contradictions. Everything on this album, even the full-bore blues stomps, bears the mark of this restrained, spacious approach – on the deeply catchy “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” drummer Matt Chamberlain doesn’t hit his crash cymbal once. This commitment to openness, both sonically and emotionally, comes to a head on “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a 9-minute ballad about a Florida island famous for drawing legendary storytellers to its shores. With each sun-kissed note, with every creak in this septuagenarian’s voice, it sinks in deeper – this is about an ideal death. “Key West is the place to be / If you’re looking for immortality,” goes the final chorus. While others rage at the dying of the light, Bob Dylan croons at it like a weary Sinatra, convincing me definitively that the best is yet to come.
1. Run the Jewels – RTJ4
“Black child in America / The fact that I made it’s magic,” marvels the Atlanta rap inferno Killer Mike on the final verse of the fourth Run the Jewels LP. In a just world, that line would be hyperbolic. But in a year where violent, institutionalized American racism ran amok on the world stage, the continued existence of this brilliant, outspoken, 45-year-old Black man really did feel like a miracle. After a four-year hiatus, Mike and producer/rapper El-P returned at the perfect time to throw us all a cathartic party, summoning our deepest reserves of adrenaline to spew righteous anger at a system built to destroy Black lives. Whether the duo is exposing the “slave masters posing on your dollar,” eviscerating people who are only outraged on Twitter, or proving that shit talk is an art form (“You’re a common cold and my flows are cancerous”), their voices are crackling with purpose, like pissed-off preachers with something to prove. El-P’s production is as fluid and supercharged as ever, his bass lines and drum breaks guiding us through bursts of static like a getaway driver with ice in his veins. And Killer Mike has never been better. Over the twisted, reverb-drenched synth funk of “Walking in the Snow,” he breaks down our country’s ugly legacy on a verse written before George Floyd’s murder:
They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
It would be enough if this album just featured this kind of raw, urgent, necessary poetry. It would be enough if it featured music that made you feel invincible. The fact that it contains both, and that it came out when it did? That, my friends, is magic.
Honorable Mentions: Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin – Stygian Bough, Vol. 1; Boldy James – The Price of Tea in China; Bully – Sugaregg; Bill Callahan – Gold Record; The Chicks – Gaslighter; Neil Cicierega – Mouth Dreams; Fat Tony – Exotica; Haim – Women In Music Pt. III; Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo; Kamaiyah – Got It Made; Kylie Minogue – Disco; The Mountain Goats – Getting Into Knives;Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism; Oceanator – Things I Never Said; Pallbearer – Forgotten Days; R.A.P. Ferreira – Purple Moonlight Pages; Jeff Rosenstock – No Dream; Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1; Tops – I Feel Alive; Thy Catafalque – Naiv; William Tyler – New Vanitas
Some incredible things happened in June 2020. Protests against government-sanctioned hate swelled to unforeseen global heights, raising awareness of insidious systemic racism in the minds of the privileged. City councils voted to defund police departments. Statues honoring racists were torn down.
Also in June, fiery antiracist poetry entered our lives at just the right time. Songwriting legends reflected on love and marriage and divorce. And a resurgent diva reminded us that disco will never die. These songs might not change the world, but they’ll make a pretty good soundtrack for this harrowing, electrifying, emotional summer.
1. Coco – “I Love It (Black)”
This purposeful, pride-drenched blast of UK grime is as exhilarating as seeing Black Lives Matter protests go global.
2. Run the Jewels ft. Gangsta Boo – “Walking in the Snow”
Black people are murdered by police so often, a rapper can write lyrics about a specific atrocity and chances are it’ll apply to others by the time the track drops. Like Killer Mike’s explosive verse on “Walking in the Snow,” written before George Floyd’s death:
And everyday on evening news they feed you fear for free And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
3. Bully – “Where to Start”
If you’re a fan of cheerful, high-energy grunge hooks, well then Bully for you.
4. Jessie Ware – “Soul Control”
An undeniable “Two of Hearts” synth line brings us behind the velvet rope at an ’80s discotheque, where the chorus froths over like champagne.
5. Bob Dylan – “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”
“Lot of people gone / Lot of people I knew,” admits a 79-year-old legend over the low, reassuring hum of his backup singers, who coax him to admit that he’s in love, even now, at the end of the road.
6. Dua Selah – “Cat Scratch”
“Posture of a pastor with his sheep / Planting hella seeds,” spits this Sudanese-American emcee over a mournful, trance-inducing guitar loop. So grateful to be in the congregation.
7. Spillage Village – “End of Daze”
A scathingly funky rap crew track about our American apocalypse: “God packed her bags and said ‘Bye bye.'”
8. Bill Callahan – “Pigeons”
A year after crafting the best album of 2019, Bill Callahan is unexpectedly back: driving newlyweds around in his limo, reflecting on the universality of marriage, and doing his best Johnny Cash impression. We do not deserve this.
9. Dessiderium – “Cosmic Limbs”
A brain-liquefying display of technical death metal riffage, with rapid-fire note clusters that scamper down your ear canals like gremlins infiltrating a spaceship.
10. Saint Jhn – “Trap (Rompasso Remix)”
Burbling, chart-baiting dance-pop with a chorus that gives a middle finger to the police.
11. Neil Young – “Separate Ways”
Can a break-up song be romantic? The opener of Neil Young’s long-lost, finally released 1974 LP Homegrown certainly comes close. Over a trademark guitar and harmonica arrangement, Young celebrates a love gone by with stark, open-hearted tenderness.
12. Teyana Taylor ft. Lauryn Hill – “We Got Love”
“Love is the new money / I’m mentally wealthy,” posits Teyana Taylor on this buoyant R&B singalong about what really matters. When Lauryn Hill appears to share her own hard-won perspective on the emptiness of financial success, it feels like a torch being passed.
In April 2020, I was in my car only a handful of times. This honestly made me worried that I would have nothing to share in this monthly round-up of my favorite new tracks. (This was not my primary worry in the midst of a pandemic. I’m not a sociopath. But it did crack the top 20.) Because like a lot of adults with jobs and responsibilities, my commutes are the ultimate moments to be able to focus on a song, to give it the best chance to get its hooks in me. Alas, I worried for no reason. Great artists still managed to worm their way into my workdays, providing an outlet for feelings of stress and disorientation, and giving voice to the joy I feel when realize I can stop and kiss my wife in-between meetings. No matter what is happening in the world, music will always have the power to do that. Which is an encouraging thought.
1. NNAMDI – “Gimme Gimme”
On this song about unrepentant greed, an insanely catchy dive-bomb bass line leaves me wanting more.
2. Charli XCX – “Claws”
If this frayed electro-pop love song is any indication, Charli’s imminent recorded-at-home album is going to make us all dance in our living rooms with tears in our eyes.
3. Jean Deaux (ft. Saba) – “Moody!”
Two Chicago rappers melting the lingering snow with their flows.
4. Laura Marling – “Fortune”
An almost unbearably beautiful breakup song.
5. Thundercat (ft. Zach Fox) – “Overseas”
Another delightful, international travel-based ditty from our planet’s resident jazz-pop goofball/genius.
6. Rina Sawayama – “XS”
If Destiny’s Child and Korn had teamed up on a single back in 1999, it would’ve broken TRL records. And, as this Japanese-British pop craftsman posits here, it would have also supersonically slapped.
7. Jessie Ware – “Spotlight”
Jessie Ware brings Sade to the club: “A dream is just a dream / And I don’t wanna sleep tonight.”
8. Duck Sauce – “Captain Duck”
The DJs responsible for the playful, unpretentious early-’10s jams “It’s You” and “Barbara Streisand” return, reminding us that the bass line to Chic’s “Good Times” is anything but a misty watercolored memory.
9. Khruangbin – “Time (You and I)”
Even when they employ vocals, as they do here, this Houston psych-funk trio uses them as mantras, ushering the groove even more expeditiously into our souls.
10. Yaeji – “When I Grow Up”
Over a skittering, hi-hat-strewn backdrop, Yaeji whispers about the intimidating permanence of adulthood: “You feel crazy / You’re hurt maybe / You don’t have room to say maybe no more.”
11. Bob Dylan – “I Contain Multitudes”
So many things are comforting about Bob Dylan’s new ballad.
1. A legendary lyricist scratching his name-dropping itch for the thousandth time, borrowing the song title from Whitman and referencing Indiana Jones, Chopin, Poe, etc.
2. A percussionless arrangement of acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars that is the sonic equivalent of organic honey.
3. A message that we’re all complicated beings, who can be expected to do unexpected things – like, perhaps, vote for a Republican president in 2016 and then turn on him in 2020.
In 1996, things weren’t exactly going Jeff Tweedy’s way. It’d been a few years since the nasty breakup of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, and Tweedy’s new band wasn’t doing as well as his old partner Jay Farrar’s. So he literally doubled down, recording a double album and refusing to budge when his label balked. He called it Being There, after the 1979 Peter Sellers movie about a clueless man named Chance who floats to the top of society. “Misunderstood,” the album’s first song, starts as a ballad about not belonging, and ends with a thunderous punk catharsis: “I wanna thank you all for nothing!” It’s Tweedy trying the Chance method of getting famous, sharing what’s on his mind and letting the chips fall where they may. It’s selfish, and dynamic. But thankfully, Being There isn’t all vitriol. The brilliant multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett joined Wilco for these sessions, burnishing every track in some way, be it a ringing pedal steel note or a heartfelt backing vocal. And Tweedy full-on embraces his love of classic rock, from the shameless Stones rip-off “Monday” to the T. Rex boogie of “I Got You.” He may have missed the point of that movie – Chance is a stand-in for every idiot who’s coasted to the White House on white male privilege – but he made himself a masterpiece all the same.
24. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1992)
There’s something inherently rewarding about talented people not taking themselves seriously. Like Meryl Streep playing an ego-drunk Danielle Steele villain in She-Devil. Or Werner Herzog narrating an episode of Parks & Recreation. Or a quartet of accomplished dancers forming a goofy rap group called The Pharcyde. After landing a record deal on the strength of a song full of mom jokes (e.g. “Your mama’s got a peg leg with a kickstand”), Fatlip, Slimkid3, Imani and Bootie Brown poured all their youthful energy and comedic chops into Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. Whether they’re rapping about getting high, or arrested, or ignored by a woman, their rapid flows, class-clown antics, and legitimate moments of clarity formed the backbone of a record that was so much more than funny. These guys were smart enough to avoid the kind of wooden sketch comedy that marred many a ’90s rap album – instead, they freestyled about hypothetical presidential power over a vamping live band. Oh, and did I mention Bizarre Ride is a clinic in sample-based beatmaking? J-Swift’s celebratory, jazz-inflected production has aged wonderfully – it’s entirely possible the inventor of the confetti gun was listening to it when inspiration struck.
23. Rheostatics – Introducing Happiness (1994)
Sire Records had no idea what to do with Rheostatics’ fourth album. Even though it featured “Claire,” by far the biggest hit of this Ontario cult quartet’s career, Introducing Happiness was a carnival of clashing ideas – the deep cerulean of a sci-fi ballad, next to a lime green fever dream of a giant hummingbird, blurring into the mercury-silver glow of a jazz ode to the Russian lunar cycle. Factor in singer Martin Tielli’s anti-Vedder quaver and guitarist Dave Bidini’s explosive, angular noodling, and the Buzz Bin probably felt out of reach (although the Flaming Lips, this band’s closest American counterpart, managed to pull it off). Who cares about this 24-year-old industry context, you say? Well, you may have forgotten just how deeply odd, and disarmingly pretty, this album is. You may have forgotten about “Cephallus Worm/Uncle Henry,” which sounds like a room of amateur impressionists covering “Purple Haze” through a fog of nitrous oxide. You may have forgotten about lines like “I’m dripping water on your gills / You’re such a beautiful thing.” These guys had been given a second chance to prove themselves as a commercial force, and this is what they made. God bless them.
22. Björk – Debut (1993)
There’s a moment on Björk’s solo debut where we get a chance to step back and truly take stock of what we’re hearing. In the middle of the deliriously catchy raver “There’s More to Life Than This,” the singer pulls us out of the club – a door slams, muffling the music behind it. It’s a disorienting experience; I thought my speakers had shorted out the first time I heard it. But before I could start messing with the wires, Björk was singing again, in full-throated a cappella – “We could nick a boat / And sneak off to this island!” When the beat comes back, it’s a whole new kind of high. This, right here, is what it was like to listen to Björk in the ’90s. Anytime we thought “perfectly enjoyable” was good enough, we felt a pull at our sleeves, away from complacency and toward a previously unimaginable Icelandic adventure. Debut isn’t quite as richly layered as her future triumphs, but the building blocks alone make it a classic – the insanely creative techno production, the vintage movie musical balladry, a voice with a majestic ornithology all its own. There’s more to life than this, but only because Björk’s next album was even better.
21. Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind (1997)
In the summer of 1997, Bob Dylan was hospitalized with a fungal infection that was attacking his heart. He’d already had his 30th album, Time Out of Mind, in the can by then. Its songs weren’t inspired by this particular crisis. But it’s a haunting, melancholy struggle just the same – a man on the verge of becoming a boomer relic, coming to terms with the mortality of his mind and body. Here was rock’s most renowned lyrical obfuscator, writing with eerie clarity about failed marriages, stale hopes, and looming shadows. “I got no place left to turn / I got nothin’ left to burn,” he sings on “Standing in the Doorway.” He’s spent. But ironically, Time Out of Mind was Dylan’s most fulfilling work in decades. With producer Daniel Lanois back in the fold – he produced Dylan’s underrated 1989 album Oh Mercy – these songs of woe get the sonic TLC they deserve. From the ominous, echoing organ of “Love Sick” to the sauntering blues vamp that makes the 16-minute “Highlands” feel like a reasonable length, Lanois’s warmly evocative touches remind us that while the narrators are alone, the musicians are anything but. “It’s not dark yet / but it’s getting there,” Dylan confesses. His talent has rarely shone brighter.
In the summer of 2000, I was out of college and in a panic – sleeping in my childhood bedroom, bombing interviews and praying my girlfriend would stick with me. It was also the summer I finally “got” Bob Dylan. I made a tape of my dad’s copy of Highway 61 Revisited and wore it out, driving around town with my cheap tie and thin resumé. The music was so urgent and alive, the words pouring out like lava. It made me feel like anything could happen. Which was exactly how I needed to feel.
As you know, a few years later I developed the alter ego Franz List, who has to make pop culture lists even though they’re pointless clickbait that goes against the very idea of art being subjective. He made me share my 10 favorite Beatles songs a while back. And now he’s making me do the same to my professional life coach of yore. Here are my top ten Bob Dylan songs of all time, in the universe, forever:
10. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home)
Both hyper-literate and head-over-heels, this endlessly compelling love song has zero to do with how its subject looks. It’s about her keen intelligence, her zen-like confidence, her easy authenticity in a world of quote-spewing bullshitters. “She knows too much to argue or to judge,” he sings, a self-centered man in awe of his opposite.
9. “From A Buick 6” (1965, Highway 61 Revisited)
Dylan’s band takes a cookie-cutter 12-bar-blues and injects it with cheetah blood, playing so fast and loose as to court chaos. Harvey Brooks’s bass line, steady and life-affirming, keeps it all together until Dylan can bring it home with a locomotive whistle of a harmonica solo. And then, like a child, we yell “Again!”
8. “Buckets of Rain” (1975, Blood on the Tracks)
Two of the biggest stereotypical gripes about Dylan – that he’s a grating singer and limited guitarist – are refuted on this, the graceful coda to his mid-’70s comeback album. His soothing, open-tuned acoustic waltzes gracefully with Tony Brown’s bass, and his voice is deep, gentle and flecked with regret. It’s no wonder he went full-on Sinatra 40 years later.
7. “Positively 4th Street” (1965, single)
Dylan had a lotta nerve to release this as a single. Because despite its sunny folk-rock chords and frolicsome organ runs, “Positively 4th Street” is one of the bitterest songs in pop history. Yet this alchemy of hooks and burns proved to be irresistible – it was a hit, and deservedly so. If you’ve ever had a shitty friend, get ready for a candy-coated catharsis.
6. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” (1969, Nashville Skyline)
Sometimes love can stop you in your tracks so hard that you’re giving away your train ticket. Dylan uses this bulletproof sentiment to close out his sweet, underrated country gentleman album, wooing his crush like a Tennessee Romeo.
5. “Most of the Time” (recorded in 1989, released on 2008’s The Bootleg Series, Vol 8: Tell Tale Signs)
Dylan pulls the same trick that Hoagy Carmichael did with “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” bragging about how he’s over someone while proving just the opposite. I prefer this stripped down alternate take to the glossier version that ended up on Oh Mercy. It’s as stark as a December oak.
4. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)
Take a look at the lyrics to this timeless breakup song, and its songwriter seems like a bit of a dick. A more accurate title would be “It’s All Your Fault, But Don’t Freak Out or Anything.” But pair these words with the cascading finger-picked guitar of a 22-year-old Bob Dylan, and have them sung in his wise-beyond-its-years tenor, and this lack of empathy is exposed as a thin tough-guy facade. Behind it is heartbreak, pure and true.
3. “Like A Rolling Stone” (1965, Highway 61 Revisited)
“How does it feel?” Dylan asks on his most iconic song. He likely meant it in a cutting way, as a “get a load of me now” dig at an ex. But the music says otherwise. The rising major scale of the verses, the swirling organ of the choruses – it’s utterly, vibrantly optimistic. Enough that the artist deserves a straight answer. How does it feel? It feels like an acid trip in a botanical garden. It feels like waking up in Oz. It feels like discovering electricity.
2. “Not Dark Yet” (1997, Time Out of Mind)
Dylan wrote this song on a Minnesota farm in the wintertime. It had been seven years since he’d recorded anything of note, decades since his last masterpiece. Whether it was creative frustration, bruised ego, or just the weather, he was in an uncharacteristically confessional mood. “Not Dark Yet” is an admission of frailty, striking in its simplicity, stunning in its beauty. “I feel like my soul has turned into steam,” he shares, guitars and keyboards drifting around him like ghosts. Ironically, it was irrefutable evidence that he had so much more to give.
1. “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” (1966, Blonde On Blonde)
This is the apex of Bob Dylan’s artistic maturation, his transformation from strident folkie to impenetrable rock enigma. A seven-minute carnival ride through thickets of metaphors, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” is both impossible to parse and instantly mesmerizing – its circular blues groove, peppered with organ and harmonica, could go on for an hour without losing its power. While the verses make us consider Shakespeare, dead grandpas and vampiric railroad workers, the chorus is a plea so basic, it could’ve come from a child: “Mama, is this really the end?” In a way, it was. Two months after Blonde On Blonde was released, Dylan got in a motorcycle accident and receded from the public eye. Subsequent albums looked backward at the Americana that inspired him. He’d release incredible music in the decades to come (he still is), but nothing so exhilarating, so tapped into the magnetic and frightening possibilities of American life. At any point during Dylan’s peak, the music sounded like it could go off the rails. It’s the sound of risks paying off, of taking chances that get you places. He may have felt like he was stuck in Mobile, but he was teaching us how to get the hell out and live.
Call me a cheeseball, but I’ve always been excited at the prospect of new summer music. One of the best things you can say about a song is that it sounds perfect blasting out of a car window, air conditioning be damned.
I remember exactly how it felt to discover my first song of the summer, in May 1992, when one of Buffalo’s 17 classic rock stations debuted the new Black Crowes single “Remedy” just as my mom was pulling into the driveway. I ran inside to catch the rest of it. To this day, when those incredible backup singers come in on the chorus to bolster Rich Robinson’s shaggy blues riff, I get chills. I will forever associate that moment with feelings of warmth and possibility.
25 years later, figuring out the “Song of the Summer” has become its own cottage industry. We make our predictions in May and declare the winner in September. And for the most part, the criteria is the opposite of most pop culture analysis – mainstream acceptance is a must. In 2013, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” won the season not just because of its pristine, inescapable disco hook, but because the Internet was obsessed with it as well. It’s easy to be cynical about arbitrary “awards” like this – it is the the essence of music blog clickbait, after all – but it’s important to talk about music we can generally agree on as a culture once in a while. The more I hear that our country is hopelessly divided, the more I want to prove that wrong. Searching for, and honoring, these shared musical moments every year is one tiny way to do it.
Plus, I really really like to make lists of songs. So here are the ones I’ll be running into the house to tape off the radio this summer.
Jeremih – “I Think of You”
Jeremih flirts with MJ status, yearning for a mistletoe moment in July over an utterly joyful, marimba-inflected beat.
Thundercat – “Tokyo”
An electro-jazz-yacht-rock bass virtuoso sings about how a great vacation can bring out the kid in us: “Gonna eat so much fish I think I’m gonna be sick / Gonna blow all my cash on anime!”
Haim – “Want You Back”
This California trio finds a sweet spot between Fleetwood Mac and Wilson Phillips. Hope they luxuriate in it for a while.
Bebe Rexha – “I Got You”
A pop song about building trust, with a chorus that feels like falling into somebody’s arms.
Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”
The best rapper alive, tearing a monster Mike Will Made It beat to shreds. Bring on the Summer of the Low-Register Piano.
Power Trip – “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe)”
The headbanger of the summer, with a riff that chugs like a locomotive from hell, and a chorus that demands to be shouted at top volume, like a bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts.
Bob Dylan – “Braggin'”
The more Dylan digs into the Great American Songbook, the happier I get. This sprightly shuffle off his excellent Triplicate album is a pure pleasure, full of folksy, spot-on commentary on what passes for leadership these days: “When you should be busy plowin’ and a-plantin’ / You stand there a-rantin’ / Get no harvest tootin’ your horn.”
Calvin Harris (ft. Frank Ocean & Migos) – “Slide”
A smooth-as-ever Frank sings about moments when “whatever comes, comes through clear” over a breezy disco groove from Calvin Harris. Positive vibes abound.
Beachheads – “Your Highness”
Shimmering, harmony-laden power-pop that sweeps you up like a hang glider.
CupcakKe – “Barcodes”
This sex work empowerment anthem is a blast of exuberance from a Chicago rapper on the rise. “Pay the damn price or go home to your wife,” CupcakKe demands, backed by the funkiest horns you’ll hear all summer.
Drake – “Passionfruit”
Over a swirling dream of a dancehall groove, a narrator mourns a fading long-distance relationship. Emotional and entrancing, it has all the makings of signature Drake summer smash.
Feist – “I’m Not Running Away”
Sparse, introspective blues songs don’t usually make me want to bat a beach ball around. But I can’t shake this tune. Its mix of slinky guitars and bold declarations are as thoroughly bad-ass as the Power Trip song on this list. I’d suggest throwing it on while a bonfire is burning.
You don’t need to read another rundown of all the things that made 2016 the absolute worst. We know what happened. So let’s seal ourselves off in a pop culture vacuum and focus on what an incredible year this was for music. I think it’s the best since 2000 – the year of Stankonia, Kid A and a Democrat somehow not becoming president even though more people voted for him. Oh shit. Sorry about that. Calm blue ocean, people. Just read on.
20. Black Mountain – IV
If you thought rock bands were done generating fresh sounds from old ingredients, here’s some cause for optimism. This Vancouver quintet is certainly a student of 1970s and ’80s rock tropes, but the elements they fuse together on IV felt distinct in 2016. Sabbathy pentatonics make way for undulating synth patches cribbed from Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The melodies are imbued with the downcast posture and shattered beauty of Pornography-era Cure, but sung with the lithe dual-vocalist force of peak Fleetwood Mac. When these considerable influences melt together in the telling of an epic alien invasion or a graveside love affair, you have something that can only be described as Black Mountain.
19. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” sang Bob Dylan in the late 1990s, while in the midst of a heart-related health scare. Gone was the artist’s typical literary remove, leaving behind an authentic beauty that he’s rarely matched. A similar sense of clear-eyed acceptance is present on what we now know as Leonard Cohen’s final LP. Released a few weeks before his death, You Want It Darker is a spare, haunting treatise on the pitfalls of faith, with the artist staring eternity in the eye and giving it a knowing wink over soft beds of synths and the occasional choir. It’s familiar territory for the writer of “Story of Isaac” and “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Hallelujah” – onelast crack at the god that never wrote him back. He may not have won the war, but this final battle is all his.
18. Angel Olsen – My Woman
Angel Olsen’s third album is a plugged-in collection of rough-hewn folk songs that are resigned to love’s failure. “Heartache ends, and begins again,” she sings. But in this resignation, she finds freedom. My Woman is an ecosystem of love and pain, the evaporation of the former resulting in the thunderstorms of the latter. After the crackling chemistry of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Not Gonna Kill Me” captures that frightening moment when you realize loving someone gives them the power to hurt you. Then, in a torrential catharsis, “Woman” unleashes that hurt, clearing the way for the cycle to begin again. Like Roger Sterling once said, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” By admitting defeat from the beginning, you’re free to just enjoy the ride.
17. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
With a guest verse on one of the year’s most irresistible dance songs and a weekly slot performing the theme song to ABC’s family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, Danny Brown seemed on a path to being one of the cuddlier MCs of 2016. Then Atrocity Exhibition came out, and we were reminded he was fire incarnate. Inspired by a Joy Division song that was inspired by a J.G. Ballard novel set in an insane asylum, Brown’s fourth album is unrelentingly bleak, a musty hotel room with blankets on the windows and powder residue on the cable guide laminate. Fans of his club-friendly fare won’t find any refuge in the lyric sheet. But they don’t have to. Brown’s acrobatic flow is so effortless, his lung capacity seemingly bottomless, it’s impossible to avoid getting swept up in its energy.
16. Case/Lang/Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs
When k.d. lang wanted to realize a decades-long dream of creating her version of the roots rock supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, she shot an email to two of her favorite songwriters, Neko Case and Laura Veirs. Within a half-hour, it was a done deal. But Case/Lang/Veirs feels like anything but a one-off experiment. Whether it’s one of Case’s sweeping country gallops, some pitch-perfect vocal jazz from lang or a plaintive folk singalong from Veirs, the production has the same, perfectly lived-in feel. Plus, the shifting spotlight feels natural, because these artists share an uncanny ability to depict the joys and jealousies of long-term relationships. “The hungry fools who rule the world can’t catch us / Surely they can’t ruin everything,” sings Veirs on one of her several standout contributions. When I looked at my wife sleeping next to me on Election Night, I knew for a fact that she was right.
15. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Kanye West’s seventh album is by far his messiest. It’s also his most forthcoming. For months leading up to its release, West was wracked by indecision and completely transparent about it, asking for our opinion on the title, tweeting out pics of yet another altered track list. This clear lack of direction had an obvious impact on The Life of Pablo, muddying its themes and splintering all its potential narratives. What’s amazing is that West uses the disarray to his advantage. Listening to this album is like pinballing through the maze of his mind – absurd ego and existential malaise, blue sky gospel and hamfisted sex rap, concerned fathers and bad friends. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” he challenges. I certainly can’t name one that could make an album as magnificently conflicted as this.
14. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai
Few things convey strength better then staying calm as a samurai in the face of adversity. Like Charles Bronson, vengeful yet stone-faced, in Once Upon A Time In The West. Or Barack Obama, never losing his cool in the face of obstructionist hate. Or the Brooklyn firefighter and underground rapper Ka, who dives deep into the warring psychologies of street life while never once raising his voice. Over candlelit soul samples that would make any Wu-Tang member salivate, Ka delivers every line in a steady, conspiratorial whisper – even the ones about the tragically paradoxical advice of his loving parents. “Mommy told me be a good boy / Need you alive, please survive, you my hood joy / Pops told me stay strapped son / You need the shotty, be a body or catch one.”
13. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Thirteen years ago, Beyoncé released her debut solo single – an exhilarating song about how love made you feel crazy. This year, on her stunning emotional arc of a concept album, the artist wrestles with the consequences of that overwhelming emotion, how it can be taken for granted and betrayed. “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? … I’d rather be crazy,” she sings over the airy island rhythm of “Hold Up,” refusing to suffer in silence about her cheating husband. Gorgeously curated and thoughtfully sequenced, Lemonade is more nuanced than your typical breakup album. The artist doesn’t limit herself to syrupy ballads to convey her pain. She burns with righteous anger, eulogizes her sense of security, then blazes a path to forgiveness and, ultimately, empowerment. By the end, Beyoncé has transcended being crazy in love. She’s never sounded more powerful.
12. Masta Ace – The Falling Season
A great storyteller finds humanity in the mundane. Like a math class, or a bus ride, or a conversation with your mother about what high school you should go to. These are moments that Masta Ace writes about on The Falling Season, an utterly absorbing, 23-track hip-hopera about the rapper’s years at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. The 48-year-old MC is on top of his game throughout, his couplets shading in characters and pushing the plot forward with ease. The skits are skillfully written and performed, especially a monologue by self-described “Italian tough guy” Fats that gets interrupted in a sweetly humorous way. Ace has been polishing his skills as an underground rap raconteur since 1990, and you hear all of those years on this record, his words infused with hard-won wisdom, his flow steady and reassuring. In 2016, he was my favorite teacher.
11. The Monkees – Good Times!
On Good Times!, the surviving members of The Monkees celebrate their 50th anniversary by doing what they do best – exuberantly harmonizing over impeccably produced sunshine pop.Along with producer Adam Schlesinger and an impressive array of guest songwriters, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith lovingly recreate that warm, jangly 1966 pop sound that proved they were more than a bunch of boob-tube Beatles. Schlesinger does an excellent job mixing his authentically retro-sounding sessions with unreleased vintage recordings of Davy Jones (who died of a heart attack in 2012) and old Dolenz pal Harry Nilsson. And while Dolenz handles most of the singing with admirable verve, it’s a joy to hear Nesmith, who sings with grace and transparency on two excellent ballads. At 73 years old, the green-hatted one remains a woefully underrated craftsman.
10. Jamila Woods – HEAVN
Chance the Rapper had a massive 2016, his relentlessly positive Coloring Book mixtape resonating big time with a traumatized American populace. But to me, Chance’s frequent collaborator Jamila Woods was the one doing the lord’s work this year, radiating strength and self-worth in a society that is hell-bent on destroying it. HEAVN is one beautifully constructed ode after another – to resilience in the face of police brutality, to Lake Michigan, to her name – over gentle, rolling grooves that feel like they were warmed up on a windowsill. The Chicago native is a meditative singer along the lines of Erykah Badu, her voice a balm, exuding serene confidence without ever pretending there isn’t a reason to be afraid.
9. Kvelertak – Nattesferd
A bearded warrior broods on a mountainside, his loyal space owl by his side, the moon a lingering witness in the early morning sky. One of the highest compliments you can give Kvelertak’s third album is it that its songsperfectly suit its objectively awesome album art. Nattesferd is extreme metal party music that grabs you by your filthy black t-shirt and demands you pay attention. It’s a group of focused Norwegian musicians worshipping the art of the riff as if Odin decreed it to be so. Chugging, triumphant arena rock, exhilarating 1000 mph thrash, reflective minor-chord balladry, sinister doom – it’s all here, and it’s all unbelievably catchy. Vocalist Erlend Hjelvik screeches like a possessed space owl all over everything, which could be a sticking point for some. To me, it’s downright painterly.
8. Anderson Paak – Malibu
Throughout his sprawling second album, Anderson Paak intersperses interview clips of professional surfers, who discuss the dangers and sensory thrills of their sport. It’s an appropriate motif for the artist, who treats Malibu like one 62-minute wave, created when the current of 2016 hip hop meets the undertow of 1976 soul. And I’ll be damned if he ever loses his balance. Paak is an R&B singer first, but his masterful syncopation and raspy tone are more reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar than any crooner. He’s just as comfortable on an Isley Brothers jones as he is trading verses with Schoolboy Q. One of the surfers says it best: “I enjoy some of the old, and I enjoy the new, and if I can find a balance between it, that’s where I find my satisfaction.”
7. Solange – A Seat at the Table
In a year that tried its hardest to crush our spirits, Solange Knowles made an album of crisply focused R&B that felt like the eye of a hurricane. A Seat at the Table had been gestating for years, but it doesn’t sound remotely fussed over. The artist favors a less-is-more production aesthetic, putting kick, snare and keyboards together in ways that evaporate tension. She sprinkles in a series of compelling conversational interludes to accentuate the informal vibe, while deepening the record’s theme of irrepressible black pride. Whether she’s admitting to weariness, bristling at cultural appropriation, or explaining all the reasons she has to be mad, Solange does so with preternatural calm and emotional insight, like the moment of clarity that comes after a long, productive cry.
6. David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie wasn’t one to sugarcoat. His most universally accessible work was about alienation and mortality. So it’s hard to imagine a more perfect coda to his career than Blackstar, released two days before his passing in January. Bowie sings of his impending demise with wit and honesty, over sumptuous, adventurous production. He casts a cadre of New York jazz musicians as his Titanic orchestra. And they wail furiously, until the pair of stunning ballads that close the record. The last song is called “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” its sweetly bending harmonica a direct callback to the Low track “A New Career in a New Town.” It’s one more glance over the shoulder before he ends his transmission to us all, leaving no doubt he gave us everything he could.
5. Rihanna – Anti
Rihanna didn’t call her eighth album Anti as some sort of faux-punk Avril Lavigne pose. This is a truly remarkable example of a massive pop star pushing back hard against weighty commercial expectations. Her favored production style is a shadowy electronic murk – faint bass lines rumble under jittery drum machines and the whispered rumor of a keyboard. “Woo” is straight-up label-head-baiting, dissonant art rock, all squealing guitars and Auto-Tune howls. And it works, as does everything here, because of Rihanna’s voice, the beating heart of these compellingly cold environments. She’s always been an underrated vocalist, but on Anti, she’s living the notes, inhabiting the melodies. And it’s 100% why a risky late-album shift to straightforward R&B feels like a spine-tingling coup instead of a money grab. “Higher” is the best of the four excellent ballads that end the album – a raw, drunken plea with a great lyric about being too heartbroken to write great lyrics. When her voice frays on the chorus, I’ve been known to cry.
4. William Tyler – Modern Country
There’s something about the way William Tyler plays guitar that makes you feel like everything’s gonna be OK. So this year, Modern Country was an absolute blessing. It’s an album of transportive, richly reverberating instrumentals, the kind of music that gets played in the background but refuses to stay there. Tyler is a Nashville native, and his bluegrass chops shine through in the gorgeous way he clusters notes together. His production instincts are open, warm, and never rushed, like a stroll in the country with someone you love. And his tone is pure honeysuckle. Lyrics would ruin this.
3. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You For Your Service
The day after Donald Trump got elected on a wave of fake nostalgia, A Tribe Called Quest returned after 18 years to give us the real shit. On We Got It From Here, the group accomplishes the difficult task of appeasing nostalgic fans, and mourning one of its members, while never pandering to anyone. It’s full of the warm Rhodes chords, spacious jazz-fusion loops and glorious vocal syncopation of classic Tribe. But rapper/producer/visionary Q-Tip leads his crew down some fruitful new avenues as well, including an embrace of guitar sounds that encompasses distorted Jack White atmospherics and Can’s cold funk. Even more amazing is how great these MCs sound, with Tip and the late Phife Dawg effortlessly trading couplets like old times, and former hype man Jarobi delivering some of the year’s most purely enjoyable bars from out of nowhere. “It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever,” rap Tip and Phife together on the instant-classic opener. Even on November 9, it made me feel hopeful.
2. Kamaiyah – A Good Night in the Ghetto
In 1992, Ice Cube illustrated how rough most days were in Compton by painting a vivid picture of a good one. Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape extends Cube’s party into the evening, with a collection of pristine, lowrider gangsta shit about how much better champagne tastes when you’ve been broke all your life. The Oakland MC is the definition of charisma on the mic, her flow easygoing, her rhymes both celebratory and reflective. “I shine so hard that you can’t ignore it,” she raps over the rubbery synth bass and vintage high-register keyboard runs of “Out the Bottle,” and it’s a goddamn fact. No album in 2016 was stacked with more hooks than A Good Night in the Ghetto, and Kamaiyah fills them with laid-back swagger that comes naturally to her, like a sigh of relief on payday. She’s like the protagonist on the cover – arms raised with a bag of chips in one hand and a bottle of Hennessy in the other, triumphant in her newfound belief that life is good.
1. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Frank Ocean took a long time recording his follow up to 2012’s magnificent channelORANGE. And it seems like most of those four years were spent deconstructing. More often than not, Blonde is as stripped down as a folk song. Keyboards are abandoned. Guitars are stranded. His peerless voice goes unsupported as it seeks salvation through loneliness, attempting to transcend the temptations and limitations of fame. It’s passionate, therapeutic and heartbreaking all at once. On some level, Ocean must feel a connection with the haunted geniuses he references on Blonde – Elliott Smith, Karen Carpenter, Nirvana. That must be scary for him. But instead of burying that feeling and trying to recreate the work that made him famous, he has channeled it into something new, and complicated, and compelling in its flaws. Anything means more when he’s singing it. And here, he’s singing for his soul.
Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz – Daniel Son Necklace Don; Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid; Against Me! – Shape Shift With Me; ANOHNI – Hopelessness; The Avalanches – Wildflower; James Blake – The Colour In Anything; Bloodiest – Bloodiest; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree; De La Soul – And the Anonymous Nobody; Drake – Views; Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression; Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows; Kendrick Lamar – Untitled. Unmastered.; M.I.A. – AIM; Noname – Telefone; Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool; Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade; Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth; Survive – RR7349; Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere; Vektor – Terminal Redux; Young Thug – No, My Name Is Jeffery; Young Thug – Slime Season 3
Being a Self Portrait apologist is an uphill battle. And I understand why – after a run of challenging, zeitgeist-capturing songwriting like no other, Bob Dylan titled his first album of the 1970s in a way that promised new depths of introspection, yet the music he put on there delivered on none of it. A collection of Americana covers, live tracks and roughshod instrumentals with nary a T.S. Eliot reference to be found, Self Portrait was (and remains) his least self-conscious work. To a passionate fan at the time, this album must have sounded like the kind of odds and sods phone-in job artists release to fulfill label obligations.
Lucky for me, I was negative eight when Self Portrait pissed everybody off, including Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus (who delivered perhaps the most famous line in album review history – “What is this shit?”). Listening to it in a vacuum, knowing that it doesn’t have to inspire the hopes and dreams of a generation, I became charmed by its ironic self-remove, by how a man who was once perceived as a lightning rod of revolution in our country was defining himself with cowboy songs. It left me open to appreciate the record’s loose, nostalgic atmosphere, and gave me the freedom to obsess over the handful of all-time great Dylan songs nestled inside of it (e.g. “It Hurts Me Too,” “Wigwam”).
Regardless, to express this charm out loud to another Dylan fan has been a form of pop culture suicide to rival my Coldplay love. Self Portrait‘s suckiness has been a foregone conclusion ever since that Marcus review; it took Blood On The Tracks to convince people that the man’s genius hadn’t mysteriously evaporated, retroactively stocking the ’70s albums that came before it into the “transitional period” bargain bins of our minds. “But, it’s fun!” I’d say. “He’s not taking himself so seriously!” Opinions that don’t exactly hold up against decades of despair.
But I don’t really have to argue so much anymore. Because the latest entry into Columbia/Legacy’s transcendent Dylan Bootleg Series gives us a studio feed into the 1969-1971 sessions for Self Portrait and its follow-up New Morning (as well as a pair of Nashville Skyline outtakes). And like so many Bootleg Series releases before it, Another Self Portrait is much more than some artifact for Dylan completists – it’s a carefully curated and sequenced work, meant to be listened to front to back like a new Bob Dylan release. It weaves unreleased songs, alternate takes, overdub-stripped versions of album tracks, and a few live cuts into a gorgeously insightful whole, revealing how Nashville Skyline,Self Portrait and New Morning were all different chapters of the same story – a hyperbolically beloved artist turning to the sounds and ideas of old Americana for succor. If you had to pluck a “single” from the previously unreleased stuff, it would probably be “Pretty Saro” – Dylan delivers the 18th century English folk ballad with a close-miked, lullaby tone that would’ve fit snugly on any of his records from the time. Second place goes to “These Hands,” a working man’s prayer of a 1950s country song that Dylan sings with heartbreaking tenderness. These moments of intimacy and full-throated nostalgia put the listener in the right mindset to hear Self Portrait, and this set drives the point home by stripping the strings and horn sections out of songs like “Little Sadie,” “All The Tired Horses,” “Wigwam,” and “Days of ’49,” revealing the earnestness and warmth of the performances underneath. I think I’ll always prefer the original productions – especially the drunken Spanish horns of “Wigwam” – but the quieter versions do make Another Self Portrait sound more like one seamless session. (FYI: I still prefer Phil Spector’s schmaltzy-ass overdubs on Let It Be to that Let It Be … Naked experiment, so perhaps I’m just a big old sap.)
By giving context to a record that disappointed so many, Another Self Portrait gives us precious access to a Bob Dylan that was tired of the swirling stream-of-consciousness poetry slams, a Bob Dylan who just wanted to sing pretty songs he loved and jam on some blues vamps. I’m tempted to say it’s an amazing feat – to force a re-assessment of something long-reviled. But honestly, all it’s done is release this great music in an impeccable package. The most important thing that’s been stripped from the original Self Portrait? Unfair expectations.