Here is part two (out of four) of the best records of 2019. As I said before, it’s been an unusually good year, and it’s an unusually long and diverse list. There are new works from old favorites and new favorites from new discoveries. I tried to cover as many bases as I could
1. Ghosteen – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave continues to explore an emotional landscape of grief and hope, grappling with the death of his son and how, in the aftermath of a life-changing tragedy, to move forward as an artist. It is both depressing and as bracing as a dive into frozen water.
There’s a huge amount of competition when it comes to bright electropop, but Maggie Rogers made a strong impression with her debut. Featuring catchy hooks, smart writing and the singer’s image of earthy glamour, it’s a record that feels very now.
Like a lot of fans, I’d just about given up hope that Jack White would bring The Raconteurs back together. But here they are, and it sounds like no time has passed. Except for being, of course, a little bit older and wiser, it’s the same folksy roots rock than we expect from a Third Man product.
Every year, thousands of records are released by artists all over the world that never connect with audiences outside their own local niche. But every once in a while an artist emerges who transcends genre. Mdou Moctar, of Niger, combines Taureg and Berber musical traditions with psychedelic rock reminiscent of Hendrix and Santana, making a melting-pot of an album with global appeal.
The Cranberries were one of the definitive alternative rock bands of the 90’s, but in the decades since, they had largely been forgotten. It took the death of singer Dolores O’Riordan to get them back in the spotlight, and this posthumous album is a reminder of why they should, by all rights, have stayed popular.
The Lion King remake may have been an exercise in gratuitous CGI, but bringing Beyonce on board was the best decision the Disney studio ever made. Bey’s companion album couldn’t be further away from the schlocky show tunes Elton John and Tim Rice cooked up in 1994. Leaning on uptempo Afropop, it showcases messages of positivity, courage and empowerment that are accessible enough for kiddos who loved the movie and sophisticated enough for adults who love Beyonce.
After a short hiatus, Marina Diamandis dropped the “Diamonds” from her stage name, and moved in new, more intimate direction. Ditching the high-fructose pop she became famous for, Marina focuses on the songwriting chops she never got enough credit for. This record may not be uptempo enough for Froot lovers, but fans will recognize a more mature version of the vulnerable/witty singer, and will luxuriate in her amazing vocals.
I love it when huge pop stars follow up their huge successes with something totally unexpected. Sia had a very great couple of years, and she followed up her string of hits by forming a supergroup with Labrinth and Diplo. Like the best supergroups it brings out the best in the supers. It’s the irreverent, fun, one-off album that keeps superstars from taking themselves too seriously.
I have never listened to Tindersticks before and have now idea who they are or what they’ve been doing, though they’ve apparently been doing it since 1991. But I stumbled across this record in my research, and loved its eccentricity and romanticism.
Not much among this year’s album releases excites me more than the long-awaited return of The Raconteurs. Jack White is always at his best when he brings together a strong team of collaborators, and with the Raconteurs, he’s got not only great collaborators, but also great mates. It has been 11 years since their last album together. A lot has changed in a lot of ways, obviously. Not least, as White himself pointed out, is that everybody’s a lot older now. The wonder boy is a middle-aged man now, and has to live not only with his personal failings but also the collective failure of his generation. It is right on point and right on time to release a song with “I’m not dead yet” as a refrain. That’s about as bushy-tailed as any of us can expect to get nowadays. Well, at least we have The Raconteurs still producing the feelsy blues-rock they’re known for as if no time had elapsed, though there may be more songs about depression and maybe not as many hooky melodies as there were in 2006. And the thing about blues and blues-based music, is that it’s always been about depression and spiritual reckoning. That’s why it keeps on coming around.
Will the Raconteurs ever record together again? It looks like the answer is no. Because Jack White forms and unforms bands the way some people cycle in and out of relationships. No sooner has one project off the ground, it’s on to the next one. Jack White is a promiscuous collaborator, and that’s what’s made his career so interesting. I haven’t checked out his latest solo record yet, but I’m excited about it. I’ve been told it’s an entirely new direction. In the meantime, we can look back on past triumphs, like the two Raconteurs albums. They’re as solid as they day they were pressed.
Well, there’s one kind of blues I’ve never had to have. All the other kinds, yes, this one, no. Ahahahaha haha ha *weeping* “Always play to win, always seem to lose” is very true, though. Terry Reid was on it when he wrote that. Reid is one of those underrated talents who never quite got off the sidelines and into the spotlight, but some of his songs have had lives of their own. This one has been around the block. Marianne Faithfull recorded it in 1971, for an album that wouldn’t be released until the mid-80’s. Faithfull was dead on her feet in 1971, and she sounded it, but her song choice couldn’t be more apropos. She lived the blues. Every shade of the blues. However much I love her interpretation of things, in this case, I think it’s a little wobbly. There’s really only one definitive take of this song, and no, it’s not the original. The Raconteurs took it and blew it up. That’s likely where you’ve heard it, and you probably didn’t know it’s not a Jack White original. White is a great songwriter, of course, but he’s a great interpreter too, and when he does a cover, it’s always both unexpected and totally perfect. This duet with Brendan Benson is that, and one of the Raconteurs’ highlights.
This sounds like a ramshackle bar band drunkenly signing off an hour after last call. Complete with a ‘goodnight’ at the end. That’s exactly the point of The Raconteurs, and all part of Jack White’s vision of highly contrived authenticity. That’s not a knock; few people follow their vision as wholeheartedly as Jack White does. But bending the world to your vision is, of course, a contrivance, and Jack White is not an old troubadour crossing county lines in a painted wagon. He’s facing, like many before him, the conundrum of how authentic an artist he can be now that he’s a millionaire entrepreneur. Nine years ago that wasn’t as much of a pressing question, though. Nine years ago it was all “Let’s throw together a band and dress like we deserted the Confederate army and play a bunch of shows until we make our fingers bleed and/or get bored and move on to the next fun project!”
Remember this? I’m not hearing any news of a Raconteurs reunion, and honestly, they’d kind of slipped my mind. They’re the homely middle child of Jack White projects. Not as seminal as The White Stripes, nor as electrifying as The Dead Weather. The latter benefits from the charisma and sex appeal of Alison Mosshart. It takes a gale force personality to balance out Jack White’s, and that’s where The Raconteurs fall short. They never fell short musically, to be sure. But the mild mannered Brendan Benson and gnomic Jack Lawrence just aren’t charismatic enough to be more than sidemen, and any Jack White project is necessarily a cult of personality. Cult of personality is what makes rock stardom possible, and it exists independently from musicianship. Some thrive for decades on nothing but ‘It factor’; some make great artistic achievements without an ounce of ‘It’. A select few have both in spades. Jack White – being both – is more dynamic when he has someone equally as strong bounce off of. And while there’s no questioning the musical rapport of the Raconteurs, for the audience, it’s simply more compelling to witness the chemistry he has with has with his frontwoman and his ‘sister’ wife. So, then, the middle child effect, making a truly great project appear as the less interesting project.
Who says brass sections are not rock’n’roll? Everything is rock’n’roll in the hands of proper rock stars. This particular brass section is very badass, and really adds to the drama. The Raconteurs are a very intense group, especially onstage, but here the drama is almost campy. It’s not a joke, but it is exaggerated. The trumpet flourishes just make everything so much more flamboyant. Yet still absolutely badass, of course. BTW, if proper rock stars aren’t your thing, there’s a lovely toothless version by Adele that may be more your speed.