Justin Townes Earle, Single Mothers
Earle has made it clear on several occasions that this album had a troubled birth, having been cut back from two discs to one (there’s now a companion album, Absent Fathers, due for release early next year). It’s difficult not to feel that troubled genesis is reflected on the album itself though, at least to some extent: certainly it’s the least immediately approachable of Earle’s past four albums, partly because the opening two tracks, ‘Worried About The Weather’ and ‘Single Mothers’ are so downbeat. But give it a few listens and the album unpacks itself, revealing gorgeous tracks such as ‘Time Shows Fools’ and ‘Today and a Lonely Night’. I’m not sure it’s Earle’s best – I think that crown still belongs to the brilliant Harlem River Blues – but Single Mothers is still a terrific album that shows Earle continuing to grow as a songwriter and lyricist.
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
Sharon Van Etten’s last two albums, Tramp and Epic, demonstrated her capacity to write frighteningly intimate and jagged songs about fractured identity and resilience, but Are We There (the annoyingly absent question mark is her doing, not mine) sees Van Etten’s songwriting grow in both complexity and range. The undercurrent of emotional and physical violence that makes Epic so raw is still very present on Are We There, but there’s a new expansiveness to the production and arrangements, an expansiveness that’s anchored by the intensity and total commitment of the performance. It’s a raw, powerful and exhilarating combination.
Hurray for the Riff-Raff, Small Town Heroes
Small Town Heroes isn’t Hurray for the Riff-Raff’s debut but it’s the first of their albums to find real success. Based in New Orleans and led by singer and bassist Alynda Lee Segarra, the band combine traditional elements with contemporary subjects, as evidenced by songs like ‘The Body Electric’, which reworks the murder ballad to expose the violence against women that lies beneath it, but it’s Segarra’s songwriting, voice and charismatic performance that makes them really exciting. You can check out ‘I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright)’ and ‘The Body Electric’ below, together with a scorching performance of one of my all-time favourite songs, The Velvet Underground’s ‘Rock and Roll’.
The Last Internationale, We Will Reign
I know the thumping blues-rock albums I was supposed to love this year were Royal Blood’s self-titled debut and Jack White’s Lazaretto, but I have to confess I was reasonably unmoved by both of them. Instead I found myself listening to New York act The Last Internationale’s passionate and polemical We Will Reign, an album that nails its political colours to the mast from the first song, the stomping ‘Life, Liberty and Indian Blood’.
Given the subject matter of the songs it’s an album that could be dour or humourless, but it’s not, even on songs like ‘Devil’s Dust’, which is a lament for miners poisoned by their work, something that’s got more than little to do with lead singer Delila Paz’s thrillingly unbridled yet gorgeous voice, something that’s showcased on the live acoustic version of ‘Wanted Man’ below.
Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
I’ve been a huge fan of Jenny Lewis for a long time, so despite being a little underwhelmed by her 2009 collaboration with Johnathan Rice, Jenny and Johnny, I was very excited to finally have a new solo album. And what an album it is: combining the 1970s soft rock of Fleetwood Mac with Lewis’ flair for unpacking her capacity for self-destruction, it manages to be funny, tender and sad all at once, a quality that’s even even more heft in the light of this excellent New Yorker profile of Lewis. It’s a wonderful, wonderful album, and although I can’t find a decent copy of my favourite track, ‘Late Bloomer’, online that doesn’t really matter, because there’s not a bad song on it.
Lydia Loveless, Somewhere Else
One part country, one part punk, Lydia Loveless’ sexually frank and emotionally intelligent songs of romantic disaster are wonderfully raw and funny (let’s face it, a song that begins “Well I was just thinking about you and how you got married last June/I wondered how that worked out for you, so I just thought I would call” is never going to work out well for anybody), and they’re played with fabulously dishevelled energy and directness by Loveless and her band. I love this album.