By Joel Francis
Days blur together like a Michel Gondry dream sequence, but the vinyl never stops.
Slowdive – self-titled (2017) During their original run, the English quintet Slowdive delivered three albums that blurred the lines between shoegaze and dream pop. For their first album in nearly a generation, the band is once again operating in the sweet spot of dreamy guitars and ethereal vocals. Slowdive manages to maintain a consistent mood without feeling repetitive. I’m not sure I would have appreciated them as much during the grunge era as I do now, but this reunion album still serves as a soothing antidote to a stressful time. There’s nothing better than putting this on and letting the world float away for the better part of an hour. Favorite songs include the single “Sugar for the Pill” and “Falling Ashes,” which became even more of a favorite after seeing them perform it in concert.
Bruce Springsteen – The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) The Ghost of Tom Joad is typically compared to Nebraska because they are both acoustic albums, but this is really unfair to Joad because it isn’t trying to accomplish the same thing. The songs on Tom Joad are fully realized acoustic performances complete with violin, pedal steel and a full band. The songs are some of the Boss’ best, as well. I love the title track in all its arrangements, especially the one with Pete Seeger reciting the lyrics over Springsteen’s guitar. “Youngstown” is a concert staple, yet “Dry Lightning” and “My Best Was Never Good Enough” don’t seem to get the recognition they deserve. “Across the Border” remains particularly relevant in the current xenophobic culture. Overall, The Ghost of Tom Joad has more in common with Devils and Dust than anything else in Springsteen’s catalog. It’s his best album of the 1990s.
Tom Waits – Alice (2002) Tom Waits threw his hat into the ring of releasing two albums on the same day when he released Alice and Blood Money simultaneously in the spring of 2002. Of the two, I prefer Alice, which features more ballads and generally less abrasive material (not that Blood Money is a bad album). Really, the two albums complement each other like less contrived versions of the Brawlers and Bawlers collections on the Orphans box set. Blood Money says “Misery is the River of the World” and Alice cries “No One Knows I’m Upset.” Pick a pill, red or blue. Either one leads to sonic delights.
Margo Price – Live at the Hamilton (2016) Margo Price is a throwback to a time when women like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt could move the needle in Nashville. Sadly, I don’t know how much traction she and fellow spirits the Highwomen will get. Either way, her songwriting and spirit can’t be denied. This set features Price and her band onstage in Washington, D.C., 24 hours after election day. (I was set to attend an in-store that same night but couldn’t muster the motivation to leave the house, an ironic stance now.) They perform several songs from her debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and cover Billy Joe Shaver, Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell and breathe new life into Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Houston Stackhouse – Worried Blues (2017)
Rev. Leon Pinson – Hush-Somebody is Calling Me (2016) There’s a great record shop in Memphis, right around the corner from a restaurant that used to be a hair salon and built their eatery around the old fixtures. Both are worth a stop. The shop, Goner Records, has an incredible selection of delta blues albums that is expertly curated. I typically pick out a half dozen albums that look intriguing by artists I’ve never heard. The person behind the counter is always happy to describe each album and I buy as much as I can afford. This process has never let me down. It also led me to these albums, released in the 2010s but compiled from recordings made in the 1960s. Both contained fingerpicked, acoustic Delta blues. As expected from his title, Pinson works a lot of gospel in his songs. If you can’t make it to church (or don’t want to go) put this on instead.
Prince – Art Official Age (2014) It is lazy critical shorthand to say a given new album is an artist’s best since his or her most recent critical masterpiece. The new album usually doesn’t measure up and music fans end up with piles of reviews where each subsequent release is hailed as a return to form and compared to the same previous classic.
So let me try it now. Art Official Age is Prince’s best release since the Love Symbol album. The funk workouts are on par with the best jams on Musicology and 3121 but what gives Art Official Age the nod is “Funknroll” a track that combines soul, funk, rock and electro to surpass its title and give Prince his best dance track since “P Control.”
See how easy that is?
If you are curious about any of Prince’s post-heyday releases and feel overwhelmed by the number of albums he put out across the last 20-or-so years of his life, Art Official Age is a solid place to start.