2015’s Raves & Faves

Taylor Swift probably sold the most records this year, an entity named The Weekend apparently wrote and produced many of the bigger hits, and Kendrick Lamar made a lot of people hear hip-hop differently. Still, 2015 continues the ongoing diffuseness of pop music. No one singer or song or genre really defines the age. Further, no central medium (i.e. TV, Youtube, radio) speaks to the needs of all or most. It’s a buffet where we pick and choose what appeals to us and hope for some nourishment.

 As the year winds down November is a great time to reflect on the music that stood out as well as books and films worth adding to your collection. 2015’s Riffs, Beats & Codas Raves & Faves:

 Best BIG POP song of the year: “Uptown Funk” Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars

 The biggest radio hit/pop song of the year is also the best. On this Morris Day& The Time/Prince inspired slice of mid-1980s style funk Mars, one of contemporary pop’s greatest pastiche artists, struts his stuff. As a vocalist and performer Mars and his entourage of performing singers (singing performers?) bring out all the song’s colors in full force delivering some of the more dynamic TV performances in ages via a Westside Story-ish strut + call-and-response interplay. 


Most Notable music on film:

Documentary film: Amy (directed by Asif Kapadia)

 Amy, a documentary about Amy Winehouse’s career rise and descent into addiction and ultimately death, is as much about the voraciousness of celebrity as it is about the musician.  In the film success amplifies Winehouse’s vulnerabilities to addiction, and breeds a willful callousness and indifference among many in her entourage toward her wellness.


Narrative film: Love & Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad)

 Love & Mercy (starring Paula Dano and John Cusack) upturns the traditional static rags-to-riches biopic by bringing viewers into some of the touchstones of Brian Wilson’s life including sketches of his compositional prowess, his gentle rapport with musicians, especially in the studio, and his complex relationships with his family. By showing you Wilson as a young man in his creative prime, and as an older, more confused man seeking to balance creativity with the need for stability as he pulls through debilitating co-dependence, the film brings you closer to understanding the whole man with refreshing efficiency.


 Most Notable new books on music:

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (Viking) by John Szwed

 Szwed’s book is one of the more incisive and original takes on Holiday’s storied life and influential career. He probes beneath the surface of established myths about her life to reveal new layers. Further, by focusing primarily on the impressive range of musical innovations she pioneered, including her sophisticated rhythmic prowess and advanced melodic embellishments, he provides a fresh take on a legendary figure.

 Who should sing Ol’ Man River? The Lives of an American Song (Oxford University Press) by Todd Decker

 Cultural appropriation remains a vital issue and Decker raises compelling questions about the oft-recorded standard “Ol’ Man River” sung most famously by Paula Robeson in Showboat. After exploring the song’s origins, he analyzes the different approaches vocalists and musicians have employed in their interpretations of the song across genres and era. In doing so he unpacks the complex evolution of racial attitudes embedded in popular culture over the 20th century.

 Most Listenable Album: Pageant Material (Kacey Musgraves; Mercury Nashville)

Country musician Kacey Musgraves has one of the clearest and boldest voices in popular music. Proving her debut Same Trailer, Different Park was no fluke she has made a funny, poignant, and well-observed album premised on the virtues of integrity and authenticity.  Musgrave is a warm, appealing personality whose album has a near perfect balance of melodic and textural variety, smart wordplay, and rhythmic range.


Best Party Album: Dee Dee’s Feathers (Dee Bridgewater, Irwin Mayfield & the New Orleans Orchestra; Okeh Records).

 Dee Dee’s Feathers teams jazz’s finest vocal improviser with Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Bridgewater and company take on the classic New Orleans repertoire including Louis Armstrong classics like “Do You Know What it Means to Miss new Orleans” and “What a Wonderful World,” as well as a highly personalized, stretched out “St. James Infirmary” with a full complement of brass, and a “New Orleans” featuring an extended vocal plunger solo from the singer.   Her duet with Dr. John on “Big Chief,” the “Treme/Whatcha Gonna Do” medley, and the throbbing “Congo Square” are especially fun, uniquely New Orleans performances that make full use of the band. There are also interesting detours including Bridgewater’s take on Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and the charming original title track. At turns wistful but mostly jubilant she and the Orchestra are playing at full blossom making it the most festive vocal jazz record of the year.


Less-is-More Awards: Just You Just Me (Karen Marguth; CD Baby); The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap; Columbia Records)

 Voice + Piano: After his cycle of rather gimmicky duet sets Bennett finally released a solo album with The Silver Lining where he and jazz pianist Bill Charlap, and on some tracks a trio, record some of the signatures from Kern’s formidable songbook. Bennett is at his best navigating the tricky melodies, complex harmonies, and unusual modulations of songs like “All the Things you Are,” and capturing the essence lighter fare like “I Won’t Dance” and the wistful “Yesterdays.” His vocal flexibility and interpretive focus yield some of his strongest, most jazz-oriented performances ever.


Voice + Bass: On Just You Just Me vocalist Karen Marguth and bassist Kevin Hill build from the promise of previous efforts and tackle classics like “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” “I Got it Bad,”  and “Imagination” perfectly capturing their melodic and rhythmic contours, and emotional essence in the sparsest of settings. She makes her greatest impact on her scat-laden rendition of the title track, a surprisingly blues-y and quite humorous rapid fire “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Taught Me,”  and fresh songs like her loping version of Phoebe Snow’s “Harpo’s Blues” and the charming Johnny Mercer tune “Love’s Got Me in a Lazy Mood.” Other inspired choices include takes on Nellie Lutcher and Rickie Lee Jones. Marguth is quite assured in a variety of modes, and she and Hill have faultless chemistry. 


Most Memorable concerts:

Angelique Kidjo (May 15, 2015 @ the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, Lewisburg, PA): She sings, she dances, she inspires, she soars: the ageless Kidjo, an eclectic writer and performer originally from Benin, can galvanize a whole room with her energy and simultaneously make everyone in her audience feel welcome and loved. Kidjo and her band, with whom she has delicious chemistry, delivered an eclectic multi-lingual program of riveting pop music.

 Gregory Porter (February 20, 2015 @ the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, Lewisburg, PA): Porter is the most exciting male singer in vocal jazz. He is one with his instrument which he uses with astonishing force and finesse. Running through his relatively small but deeply personal repertoire he stuns on his rendition of Oscar Brown’s “Work Song” and brings you deeply into his soul on personal anthems like “Painted on Canvas” and “Musical Genocide.”

 Best live TV performances:

Alabama Shakes “Don’t Wanna Fight,” on Saturday Night Live (3/1/15): 

 Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk,” on Saturday Night Live (11/23/14):


BEYOND MUSIC media favorites:

 Essay collection: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)

 Coates blends an epistolary format with autobiography to address his teenaged son. Coates details an American pathology that consistently renders black bodies vulnerable to exploitation and violence ranging from 17th century enslavement to current struggles against police brutality. Boldly defying our predilection for optimistic endings, especially regarding cultural divides, his outlook is jaded, cautious, and bracing.


Film: 99 Homes (directed by Ramin Bahrani)

 In this narrative films set in Orlando circa 2010 construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and his family are evicted from their home and the real estate vulture who savors this moment is Rick Carver (played with delicious contempt by Michael Hannon), a hard boiled, unsentimental agent who uses the mortgage crisis to his advantage, acquiring properties from evictees and exploiting abandoned properties for wealth. The desperate and jobless Dennis ends up working for Carver making quick cash through performing various duties but questioning the moral price of his newfound fortune. Bahrani’s story balances the topical with the philosophical depicting the roots of the mortgage crisis and the perverse range of moral pathways crises engender in even the best of men.


Memoir: Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson (Pantheon)

 Jefferson delves into her personal history growing up in an upper middle class family in Chicago in the late 1940s to illuminate larger questions that haunt the black elite. While tacitly acknowledging the hard work and good fortune of many enterprising African-Americans Negroland frequently asks readers to consider how colorism and classism shaped the ascent of many blacks who gained some modicum social acceptance, and depicts the emotional toll the pressure for respectability has had on the mental wellness and self-esteem of generations.  

 Novel(s): Loving Day by Mat Johnson (Spiegel & Grau); The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux)

 In these hilarious, searing, and clever satires Beatty and Johnson create fictional worlds whose inventive humor is based in poignant realities about navigations of racial identity in the U.S. Johnson’s depiction of a half Irish-half African American man returning home to Philly to a rundown mansion purchased by his late father and discovering a daughter he never knew in Philadelphia is a fertile playground laced with characters and scenarios that raise lingering questions about the construction of race and the perils and pitfalls of racial authenticity. Beatty’s depiction of a fictional all-black community in L.A. is narrated by a young man raised by a radical intellectual, killed by police, who proposes a radical idea to bring back segregation. Beneath Beatty’s brilliant wordplay and often absurdist scenes lie some illuminating truths about embodiments of race in 21st century U.S. life.  



2015 R.I.Ps


AT songbook.jpg

Ornette Coleman (jazz musician)

Andrae Crouch (gospel musician)

Lesley Gore (pop musician)

B.B. King (blues musician)

Ben E. King (R&B musician)

Mary Murphy (jazz singer)

Percy Sledge (R&B musician)

Clark Terry (jazz musician)

Allen Toussaint (pop/rock/R&B musician)




Not Ms. Congeniality: Kacey Musgraves the country rebel

I decided against reviewing albums on Riffs, Beats & Codas because I’m not sure that people read reviews anymore or have any real influence on what people buy. Further, writers usually review albums when they’re new which leaves little time for albums to sink in. Periodically I hear a notable recording and decide I can’t keep it to myself. In that spirit, my favorite album of 2015 so far, and by favorite I mean the album I find myself revisiting most often, is country singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves’s Pageant Material. Her popular and acclaimed debut Same Trailer Different Park instantly established her as country music’s resident rebel and wiseacre. Though country is notoriously conservative and stubborn even the industry conceded to her debut album’s achievement awarding her various honors including Album of the Year from the American Academy of Country Music (ACM), Grammies for Best Country Song (“Merry Go Round”) and Best Country Album, and the Country Music Academy's (CMA) Best New Artist and Song of the Year awards for her ode to freedom and acceptance “Follow Your Arrow.” Country has become so bland that anyone not singing about partying and trucks in sub-Springsteen melodies stands out, and industry insiders know it.

                                                                      A contender for Best Album of 2015? Possibly.   
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  ©  2015 Mercury Nashville.

                                                                      A contender for Best Album of 2015? Possibly. Copyright © 2015 Mercury Nashville.


But, rebelling on your debut does not a promising career make. What’s left once the novelty wears out? Surveying the title of her album and some of the song titles could easily suggest that she’s all too-willing to run her rebel image into the ground as the outsider-looking-in, but she surprises you at every turn. She refines the cheekiness of her debut without losing her edge. Musgraves is country-punk spiritually if not musically. Her spirit, and often her lyrics, matches the wit, humor, and insight of (formerly) young male punks like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and Nick Lowe but without their snark or profanity. Preferring spiced honey to acid she has mastered the ability to transform prized country tropes like home and family into vehicles for her personal values.

Like many outsiders to the white Southern culture commonly associated with country music she recognizes the hypocritical, conformist, judgmental, and intolerant aspects of Southern culture. Notably the way policing behaviors in the social realm undermines and contradicts the rhetoric of freedom, liberty, and choice in the political realm. This is one of the cruxes of the oft-cited cultural divide between Southern culture and the Northeast (i.e. Northern elite) and West Coast (i.e. “Hollyweird”). And as a Southerner herself she is uniquely capable of seeing through these elements and singing through them—as well as being heard. She empathizes with her targets rather than aiming to merely shoot them down. By doing so she humanizes the behaviors of the judgers, conformists, and enforcers locating these tendencies in vulnerability and fear rather than malice.

 Pageant Material is a fairly brisk album at 14 songs and 46 minutes. Each song is a clear-eyed sketch with an obvious, but not simplistic theme. Her economical approach reminds you of how over-padded most pop albums are. Musically brisk, melodically diverse, lyrically crisp, and emotionally dense Musgraves, and her collaborators, have assembled a compelling nominally country album using traditional tools (i.e. strings and pedal steels) and a few oddball ingredients.

 As a lyricist she covers a lot of territory. She knows that country girls who make it big are instantly perceived as big shots and traitors. She responds by declaring herself a “Dimestore Cowgirl” (“You can take me out of the country/You can’t take the country out of me”). This may sound like pandering, but if you listen she reminds you that she needed to leave her hometown (“Had to get away so I could grow”) in order to thrive. In this sense she is also a spiritual heir to the Dixie Chicks.  In “High Time” (ponder the title for a minute) she sings of her need to “To slow my roll/Let the grass just grow/And lean way back.”  I hear both a nod to listeners that she’s still a grounded person and a sincere reaction to post-fame.

 The title tracks lets you know that, “There are certain things you’re supposed to know/ When you’re a girl who grows up in the South.” She builds from this idea with humor and integrity noting: “My mama cried when she realized/I ain’t pageant material/I’m always higher than my hair/ And it ain’t that I don’t care about world peace/ But I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage/ I ain’t exactly miss congenial/Sometimes I talk before I think/ I try to fake it but I can’t /I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t.” Buried in these funny couplets is a sincere and hard-won rejection of family expectations and “traditional” feminine values sung with playful but clear resignation.

 Affectionate but pointed insights and observations continue surfacing in her seemingly homespun anthems. She begins “Small Town” with two women gossiping about a drug addict with few teeth. She builds from there by reminding you that, “This town’s too small to be mean” since the reality is “…somebody’s mama knows somebody’s cousin/And somebody’s sister knows somebody’s husband/And somebody’s daughter knows somebody’s brother/And around here, we look out for each other.” Instead of sugarcoating things and rendering small towns in virtue she points out how tensions between human behavior and reality play out. Kindness and discretion aren’t always purely voluntary. “Family is Family” reminded me of some of the better episodes of the great sitcom Roseanne. She uses coded “white trash” language (‘em instead of them) and imagery like “They own too much wicker and drink too much liquor” to signify her country roots, but moves beyond this to more universal realities, “You might look just like ‘em/That don’t mean you’re like ‘em /But you love ‘em/Family is family, in church or in prison/You get what you get, and you don’t get to pick ‘em.” 

 Other solid songs like “Biscuits” (“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”) and “Cup of Tea” (“You can’t be everybody’s cup of tea”) are a little more on the nose about non-conformity but no less truthful. At her best she manages to employ the rebel persona to point out a range of behaviors, beyond the South. A person listening to “Good Ol’ Boys Club” could hear everything from a feminist rejection to a comment on white male privilege to an anti-corporate ode: “Don’t want to be a part of the Good Ol’ Boys Club/ Cigars and handshakes/I appreciate you but no thanks/ Another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me.”

 Musgraves conveys a consistent persona in her songs but she possesses an emotional compass beyond social foibles. “Late to the Party” is a remarkably gentle, intimate love song. Under pressure to socialize with friends, she assures her mate “Never late to the party/If I’m late to the party with you.” On “Miserable” she soberly reminds a friend to get on with life and confront the emotional paradox neatly summarized as “You ain’t happy/Lest you’re miserable.”  She asks “Do we really have to grow up?” on “Die Fun” and says to hell with it all, “Lets love hard /Live fast/Die fun”; it’s her own “Born to Run.” Elsewhere she laments an unreliable lover on the waltz tune “Fine” and she and Willie Nelson, perhaps the quintessential country rebel generate genuine heat on the lovely duet “Are You Sure.”

 Musgraves who sings, plays and writes, is a bonafide country musician, and more. She makes the kind of music that people who “hate” country music might like if they listened more closely. Her debut album and its even stronger follow-up Pageant Material place her beside country rebels like Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, k.d. lang, K.T. Oslin, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, and the Dixie Chicks.  They are boundary breakers who pushed expectations of women in country to the limit before transcending the genre entirely. Musgraves is too early in her career to leap towards pop or to become a “roots” musician which is what usually happens with country outsiders. I hope she sticks with country because she represents a vital sign of life for the genre that genuine rebels have a place; they offer something to aspire to for other musicians. Pop music periodically drowns itself in a sea of interchangeable conformists who generate immediate hits but fade from memory. When you listen to Kacey Musgraves’s clever songs you can’t unhear them.