Published Dec 04, 2017
5. Nicole Atkins
Goodnight Rhonda Lee
(Single Lock Records)
Goodnight Rhonda Lee evokes the feel of a classic '60s pop album drenched in country, rock and soul, in the vein of Dusty Springfield, Peggy Lee and Patsy Cline — with a light Lee Hazlewood haze. Recorded live-to-tape over the course of five short days, Nicole Atkins' fourth album captures the brilliant singer-songwriter in a period of personal flux; she moved from her hometown near Asbury Park all the way down to Nashville while coming to grips with her father's cancer diagnosis and her own struggle for sobriety.
Sometime thereabouts, her buddy Chris Isaak advised her to push toward songs that feature her greatest assets: her rich, classic voice and revelatory lyrics. On Goodnight Rhonda Lee, she did just that.
4. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
The Nashville Sound
Was Jason Isbell kidding when he decided to call his new LP The Nashville Sound? It certainly sounds nothing like the slick, twangy pop-rock being passed off as country in that increasingly infamous hit-making locale.
Instead, Isbell harkens back to the outlaw glory days of his genre, and even rootsier niches like bluegrass on the acoustic, soothingly upbeat The Nashville Sound closing track "Something to Love." He also rocks harder than Lynyrd Skynyrd on tracks like "Cumberland Gap" and "Anxiety," while grooving deeper than CCR on "Tupelo" thanks to his band the 400 Unit backing him up here.
Nashville should be listening carefully to Isbell's sound.
3. Laura Marling
(More Alarming Records/Kobalt Music Recordings)
In this garbage-fire year, Laura Marling's sixth album, Semper Femina, is a safe space. Amidst warmly intricate, folk-tinged instrumentation, Marling celebrates and explores femininity and friendship with unremitting curiosity and love.
On tracks like "The Valley" and "Nouel," Marling admires her friends; on the standout "Wild Fire," she is her own muse; and on the album closer "Nothing Not Nearly," Marling offers an apt review of 2017: "The only thing I learned in a year where I didn't smile once (not really) is: nothing matters more than love." It all makes for some of the finest songwriting of the year.
2. Mount Eerie
A Crow Looked at Me
(P.W. Elverum & Sun)
Times of crisis force us to re-evaluate what's important. To Mount Eerie's Phil Elverum, in the wake of his long-time partner Geneviève's passing, that meant turning what were once his private, loving thoughts into songs that, as he writes on his Bandcamp, "multiply my voice saying that I love her. I want it known."
The resulting album, A Crow Looked at Me, is a gorgeous but difficult listen, an empathetic balm for anyone grieving but also a stark reminder to any listener that while our love may last forever, life itself is short — or, as Elverum puts it succinctly in the opening line here: "death is real."
1. The Weather Station
The Weather Station
On astonishing artistic statement The Weather Station, Tamara Lindeman homes in on her rebellious core to express some of the finest musical sentiments Canada has conjured. A mood and scene-setter, Lindeman delves into the complexity of interpersonal relationships and, in particular, the tricks and treachery of soul mate communication. It's not always easy, and neither is the Weather Station.
Often citing the writing of Steven Lambke, like he's a mentor, Lindeman approaches language like a dancing partner but also like a foe. Often, as on the flurry of imagery that propels "Thirty" or "Kept it All to Myself," she lets loose emotive lyrical torrents that haunt the listener.
Beyond her gift for phrasing and alluring voice, Lindeman also shows off an ear for arrangements and production here. The musicality is uniquely orchestral and sophisticated; the back-up vocalists are utilized with subtle strength. This is the Weather Station, ascending with the grace of a heron to full flight.