The Greatest Albums of All-Time, 2021 Edition

Our local public radio station, WXPN, is a treasure, and their reader poll to determine the greatest albums of all time was a lot of fun. In the end, it became a bit of a Classic Rock Fest and a little hard to listen to, as the Top 10 albums were played in their entirety. Until then, though, it was just about perfect as the first 1,900 or so albums were one-song-and-done, which gave the whole thing a rollicking speed and serendipity. For this Gen X’er who appreciates Classic Rock but cut my teeth on the music of the ’80s and ’90s before taking a twangy turn in later years, it was a lot of fun.

Take this run from a recent morning (you have to read bottom-to-top to get the sequencing):

#220 – SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR by TEARS FOR FEARS

#221 – VAMPIRE WEEKEND by VAMPIRE WEEKEND

#222 – KATY LIED by STEELY DAN

#223 – LADIES OF THE CANYON by JONI MITCHELL

#224 – ILLMATIC by NAS

#225 – KICK by INXS

#226 – MORRISON HOTEL by THE DOORS

#227 – EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY by ROD STEWART

#228 – VAN HALEN by VAN HALEN

#229 – LIEGE & LIEF by FAIRPORT CONVENTION

#230 – FEAR OF MUSIC by TALKING HEADS

#231 – PETER GABRIEL by PETER GABRIEL

#232 – TALKING BOOK by STEVIE WONDER

#233 – BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME by BOB DYLAN

#234 – MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS by A TRIBE CALLED QUEST

#235 – BLOND by FRANK OCEAN

#236 – INDIGO GIRLS by INDIGO GIRLS

#237 – TURNSTILES by BILLY JOEL

#238 – BEFORE THESE CROWDED STREETS by DAVE MATTHEWS BAND

#239 – DESIRE by BOB DYLAN

#240 – TIME (THE REVELATOR) by GILLIAN WELCH

#241 – SURREALISTIC PILLOW by JEFFERSON AIRPLANE

#242 – MEDDLE by PINK FLOYD

#243 – THE CRANE WIFE by THE DECEMBERISTS

#244 – BOXER by THE NATIONAL

#245 – COME AWAY WITH ME by NORAH JONES

#246 – GOLDEN HOUR by KACEY MUSGRAVES

Twenty-seven songs, over 2-plus hours, that had you singing along, enjoying memories, and marveling at the different ways to make music.

The top of the survey is a bit of a Classic Rockfest — the Beatles will be at #1, Bruce will be #2 or #3 with Born to Run, and the Stones will fill the other spot (editor’s note: I wrote this before the countdown ended and was mostly correct, but it was Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon, not the Stones, at #2), but it’s still been a great week to listen and enjoy our public radio station, even with the fan’s frustrations. (Isbell’s top-ranked album, Southeastern, checked in at #128, between the Pixies’ Doolittle and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. I’m OK with that, but kinda pissed that John Hyatt’s Bring the Family ended up at #431. A travesty!)

And just because all this talk has got me thinking, here are the favorite albums of my adult life, in no particular order:

Bring the Family, John Hyatt

Living with Ghosts, Patty Griffin

Making Movies, Dire Straits

The Rising, Bruce Springsteen

I and Love and You, The Avett Brothers

Southeastern, Jason Isbell

American Band, Drive-By Truckers

Indigo Girls, Indigo Girls

Nevermind, Nirvana

Traveller, Chris Stapleton

Ten, Pearl Jam

Come Away with Me, Norah Jones

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, the Closer

I missed a day for the first time in two weeks on this, so I’m going to accept that I’ve got some blockers the rest of this week and close out my commentary on my pandemic anniversary playlist.

Starting Over, Chris Stapleton

Already a favorite. Stapleton starts off with this neo-country, “Tennessee Whiskey” persona and has proven himself to be one helluva songwriter. This song feels fresh and honest and I love that he partners with his partner, Morgane, as the backing singer. As we move closer to the re-start, this is my theme song.

All in It Together, Mavis Staples

Mavis is foundational music and the fact she just keeps doing it, and preaching it, and singing it, is inspiring. I love that she’s collaborated with Jeff Tweedy, it’s good for both of them, and I saw her at Shoalsfest two Octobers back, and it was apparent how much affection there was between her and Jason Isbell. They get it. We all get it. Mavis is a treasure.

Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, Patterson Hood

The Drive-By Truckers frontman and co-founder brought together Southern rock and blues and punk with this reverence and reckoning of the South in a way that has been potent for two decades now. The Truckers’ 2017 album American Band was The Rising of the Trump era, a howl and a callout for everything going on that allowed it. This song is from a solo album, following his move from Alabama to Oregon, and I enjoy how grounded it is.

Keep On Smilin’, Wet Willie

Hood, Isbell and Mike Cooley do a great cover of this song to close out a reunion concert at the Shoals Theater in Florence, Ala., in 2016, so I went and found it afterward. I probably should have ended the playlist right here, with this chorus …

Keep on smilin’ through the rain, laughin’ at the pain
Rollin with the changes til the sun comes out again
Keep on smilin’ through the rain, laughin’ at the pain
Rollin with the changes, singin’ this refrain

But I didn’t.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Tears for Fears

I can’t really explain it. It seemed like a way to end. The huge rolling chorus sounds like an ending. So it is.

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, #14, Ruby Falls

To be honest, I don’t know if this one gets you through, or if it pulls you down. It’s the remembrance of Katie Crutchfield, who records as Waxahatchee, of a friend who died of a heroin overdose. She calls this “my song for all people who struggle with that kind of thing.” It’s a beautiful song, and aren’t we all struggling with grief and loss this past year? If we’re lucky, it’s a wanting for purpose, the disconnection from those we love, the desire to make new connections, the realizations and the hopelessness. If we’re unlucky, it’s a person we’re missing. This song hits me right there, and deeper—and because it helps me to name this feeling and this time, it’s a blessing.

A friend posted a pandemic-themed playlist today titled To Make Some Sense of What You’ve Seen, we have a sizable shared space in the Venn diagram of our musical interests (though his is far larger) and the only song shared between his list and mine is this one. That seems unlikely and inevitable.

The gutting turn in Ruby Falls for me is when Crutchfield sings:

Real love don’t follow a straight line
It breaks your neck, it builds you a delicate shrine

Earlier this weekend a friend shared her reflections on everything that had happened in the past year—she lost her mom, she became a grandma, she read 60 books and watched Tiger King, turned 60 and headed into a fourth decade of marriage. At the end she said she drew strength from this from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

What lies before us and behind us is nothing compared to what lies within us.

I’m a Unitarian Universalist and Emerson is one of our north stars. And yet, I don’t think Emerson offers us much in this moment. (I’ve felt like this before.) I wrote back:

Not to argue with Emerson, but the most important thing for me is what lies BETWEEN us. It’s also the thing that has been hardest living in distanced times. Life doesn’t stop, just our ability to connect about it. It’s why it’s been worth it to me to take some modest risks to grab lunch with [her husband/my friend]. Hoping that as the days get longer, and the vaccine gets into more people’s arms, that we all start the Great Re-Connecting. I’m looking forward to it beyond words.

Because I don’t think we can survive this alone. We need each other. And I so appreciated my minister Rev. Lee Paczulla’s message this morning that as we begin to move beyond this awful moment, we forget it at our peril. If you have 20 minutes, scroll 17:30 into the recording of the service.

The clear-eyed world we step into next. The aching friendship that Crutchfield writes about in Ruby Falls. The resilience of return. These are why I hope. These are why I persevere. May we turn toward this new life remembering the imprint of these past 12 months. May we once again reconnect with our loved ones and make new friends, who charm us, love us, and break our hearts.

Full lyrics

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #13, I’d Die for You

Margo Price has the kind of voice and taste that gets you crowned as country music’s next big thing, so it’s a bit of a surprise to see her third album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, is a rock album (with Sturgill Simpson, of all people, as producer). And this is the snarliest song, and one of her best yet.

Here’s what Margo told The Ringer about the song when asked who it was for.

I’m singing it to my husband and my children. There’s just a whirlwind of chaos going on right now, and it feels apocalyptic at times, even before we entered the Upside-Down or whatever this bad episode of Black Mirror is. But it’s like us holding on to each other in a dystopian world that we’re living in. It’s absolutely crazy just to think about what’s changed since I wrote that song, yet everything was all still there with the corruption and the greed and the hate. All of that was still there, but now it just feels like everybody had a chance to pause and digest what was going on.

Full lyrics

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #12, When I Get to Heaven

John Prine’s passing due to COVID-19 is one of the many tragedies of the past year, but Prine had the last laugh with this song, which as an artist was about as charming an F-you to the pandemic as one could imagine. And yet, at the same time, he talks to love and family and all the things that live on with us and beyond us. Here, he talks about what he’ll do in heaven.

And then I’m gonna go find my mom and dad
And good old brother Doug
Well I bet him and cousin Jackie are still cuttin’ up a rug

I wanna see all my mama’s sisters
’Cause that’s where all the love starts
I miss ’em all like crazy
Bless their little hearts

Prine has his limits. A lot of his songs sound a lot like his other songs and his voice is his voice, especially after throat cancer stole some range. (My wife has never been able to warm to him.) He wrings about all you can out of three chords. But my god, the guy could write a song and tell a story in a couple minutes (Lake Marie, anyone? Hello in There? ). And I’m glad that Brandi Carlile will honor him at Sunday’s Grammys. His last song, I Remember Everything, is about being the one still here and thinking that in real life, it went the other way, really makes you think. Rest in peace, John. Enjoy the cocktail and that cigarette.

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #11, Tell Me When It’s Over

Back in October, 2019, which seems like a decade ago, Virginia and I went with our friends Majid and Mary to Nashville, then headed south to Florence, Ala., for Shoalsfest, a concert pulled together by Jason Isbell.

Even though it was October, it was 95 degrees and we watched Mavis Staples basically melt in the late afternoon sun. After 45 minutes, she sang herself off stage. As night came, Sheryl Crow took the stage — and she proceeded to remind us that Sheryl Crow is a huge f’ing deal. She blew through a killer set, with somewhere between 6and 10 songs that damn near everyone in the Western Hemisphere can identify immediately.

It’s a long way from 1993, when Virginia and I went to the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., to see John Hiatt, who was supporting Slow Turning, and the opening act was this funky act from California we’d never heard of, until six months later, when we started to recognize these songs on the radio from that night on the Jersey Shore. We’d seen Sheryl Crow before she was Sheryl Crow. She didn’t just blow up after that. For close to a decade, she was HUGE.

Which makes some of her recent decisions so interesting: after some fallow time, to go to Nashville, to do something more rootsy. She did an album, Threads, with lots of folks I like. This song, with Chris Stapleton, is one of my favorites from the album. And after a full year of COVID-19, I am literally ready for someone to tell me that it’s over. That, being this. Enjoy!

The full playlist

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #10, Morning Song

A lot of folks became aware of The Avett Brothers with their almost-perfect album, I and Love and You in … oh my god, 2009. So many great songs. But here’s the thing. Since then, they have created a bunch of spunky and heartbreaking songs, in equal measure. This is one of the latter, with a performance on New Year’s Eve, from a concert that Virginia and I really enjoyed. If you are looking for another tender, beautiful one, try No Hard Feelings.

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #9: Red Wing, Blue Wing

I liked this song, but had never heard of Dead Man Winter and never bothered to learn more. When I decided to include it here, I did some checking in. DMW is actually Trampled by Turtles frontman Dave Simonett, who apparently retreated to a little town in Minnesota to recover from a marriage that didn’t last.

“ ‘Red Wing Blue Wing’ is a small, incomplete snapshot of a year spent living in a small town in southern Minnesota,” he says. “It’s kind of a look at the romanticism of small town life versus the reality of inserting oneself into a fairly settled-in community that isn’t really used to outsiders, so to speak. It has a happy ending, though. By the end of my time there, I genuinely felt like a citizen and had grown to enjoy the place.”

That’s it. I can loll around in the closing organ swell indefinitely. Sometimes I will replay it a time or two in the car for no particular reason than to hear it end again. Go ahead, try it.

The lyrics

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #8: The Chain

It shouldn’t have taken TikTok user Dogg Face to remind everyone that Fleetwood Mac created some of the purest pop-rock ever, and this song is one of their most propulsive. That it got a twangy second life in 2019 from The Highwomen, who have their fingerprints all over this list so far, is a welcome thing, and it’s the 8th song in my playlist Songs to Get Through a Pandemic.

While I like the version recorded for the soundtrack to the movie The Kitchen (no idea if it was good or not), the best take I’ve heard came when the group paid a visit to Howard Stern’s radio show, back when people did such things in person and not via Zoom.

And here’s the studio-recorded version:

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, #7, Hope the High Road

(Photo: Jason Isbell, Feb. 26, 2016, at Beacon Theater, New York City)

We’re a week in to Songs to Get You Through a Pandemic and I’m going to pull in this rocker from my favorite musical act of the past seven years, Jason Isbell. This song is a go-to, not just for the past year, but since it came out in 2017. And all you really need to know is encapsulated here:

Last year was a son of a bitch
For nearly everyone we know
But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch
I’ll meet you up here on the road

So what is the high road?

The short version is this: I am bone tired of political posturing and culture wars. I am exhausted with people looking for a fight. I wish to extend grace and have it extended not just to me, but to everyone. What would that look like? I don’t know, but it starts with people wanting to.

And after this murderous pandemic, all I want is solutions. The previous Administration fundamentally did not believe that government should solve problems. It endlessly politicked; it rarely governed. In a crisis, that cost tens and maybe hundreds of thousands of lives. Its economic and immigration priorities can be debated; its basic unseriousness about governing is simply fact.

Yesterday, the new Folks in Charge reported that a record 2.9 million covid vaccine doses were put in peoples’ arms, 20% more than the previous best day. It continued the hard legislative work of getting help to the most vulnerable people in our country. That’s all I want—vaccines in arms, money in vulnerable people’s pockets. If that process ends up spreading the dollars more generously than is needed, I could care less. Money is often thrown around in ways that avoids those who actually need it. For me, this is the high road—solutions that benefit people who need help, which, in the middle of a pandemic that has stretched on for nearly a year, is a whole hell of a lot of us. I am endlessly thankfully that I am not one of those people now, but I’m not that far from having been unemployed. If we can provide some stability in a hard time, let’s do it. Overdo it, even, for a while.

If you want to contribute to figuring out the solution, I’d love to meet you up here on the high road. If you want to thwart aid for fellow humans, argue for arguments’ sake or engage in a political calculus that frustrating substantive action is to your benefit, I don’t have the time for that.

That’s not to say that there can’t be legitimate disagreement over how to help or that government intervention is always best. We can try to optimize the allocation and find the best approaches. But help is needed, and has been too long delayed.

I want to thank Joe Biden for doing what the moment demands—work to end this pandemic and ignore those unserious actors who live in the funhouse of fake discourse. I remain convinced there are more of us—the solutions-minded—than those who want to prove that the Commons can accomplish nothing. But it’s closer than I would have thought, and there are people who are anxious and uncertain where to turn. The high road is calling.

The lyrics:

I used to think that this was my town
What a stupid thing to think
I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown
I myself am on the brink
I used to want to be a real man
I don’t know what that even means
Now I just want you in my arms again
And we can search each other’s dreams

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again

I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues
I’ve sang enough about myself
So if you’re looking for some bad news
You can find it somewhere else
Last year was a son of a bitch
For nearly everyone we know
But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch
I’ll meet you up here on the road

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in

We’ll ride the ship down
Dumping buckets overboard
There can’t be more of them than us
There can’t be more

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in
To a world you want to live in

The full playlist:

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic #6, You Ain’t the Problem

Michael Kiwanuka is a 33-year-old singer from England, and this song is a simple affirmation in a time when isolation can make feeling like you’re failing or faking it hard to shake.

Here’s what he said to the New York Times in 2019, when asked if the song was a pep talk for those who feel rejected.

It was a little, yeah. I was thinking about being an artist and, specifically, how I used to get really self-conscious at festivals. I would see my favorite artists, or people who I thought were really cool and had these things that I aspired to have, and I’d be like “Man, I don’t know how to do that”; or “My songs are like this, but if only they were like that.” I just got really tired of that negative, beat-yourself-up mentality. I started to think, “Screw this, man: There’s nothing wrong with me. Of course I can work on myself and grow, but enough of this self-deprecating attitude. Let me just enjoy this amazing experience of being an artist, and believe in myself, and keep going.”

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, #5, Our Problem

Amanda Shires is a Texas-born singer/songwriter/fiddle player extraordinaire and powerhouse collaborator. Her husband is Americana powerhouse Jason Isbell, who credits her with saving his life (see his song Cover Me Up), and one of her musical lives is as a member of Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit.

But that is selling her very, very short. She has a rich career on her own, with a series of well-received albums. Even more, she was the organizing force behind the alt-country, all-female supergroup The Highwomen (including Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby), mentioned in my Day 2 post. And she has put her values (and herself) out front on several projects, including this song, which gives voice to a woman considering an abortion and the compassion she finds in her friends. It’s apparently drawn from her own experience and cuts to the humanity and heartbreak in the situation. It doesn’t lift me up, but it does ground me, as I am aware that all these everyday struggles that appeared to have been disrupted by the pandemic—oh shit, surprise!—were merely harder to see. Back and as bad as ever.

True to her A-plus networking chops, she’s joined on the song by Cyndi Lauper, Angie Stone, Linda Perry, Nona Hendryx and Peaches, as well as indie hip-hop artist K. Flay and Tennessee-based artists Lilly Hiatt, Morgane Stapleton and Valerie June. Isbell plays guitar on this version of the song, with Sheryl Crow helping out on bass.

If you want to check out Shires on her own, give a listen to When You Need a Train It Never Comes, Eve’s Daughter, Ghost Bird, and My Love (The Storm).

Oh, and it’s her birthday.

The lyrics:

Remember Katie White, she jumped the fence that night
She ran away in tears, your sister drank her beer
We were just eighteen, the older girls could be so mean
I was talking just to talk, you were still in shock

And all I could think to say
Is everything’s gonna be okay
It’s gonna be alright
I’m on your side
I’m on your side

Are you feeling well?
Are you gonna tell?
How long have you known?
Did you tell him? Does he know?
You knew there was something wrong
Just a few weeks along
You told him, and he broke it off
And the money won’t cover the cost

And all I could think to say
Is everything’s gonna be okay
It’s gonna be alright
I’m on your side
I’m on your side

No one has to know
The scars won’t even show
At least that’s what I’ve heard
No bigger than a baby bird (no bigger than a baby bird)
No bigger than a baby bird (no bigger than a baby bird)

Do you think God still sees me?
Coming out of this twilight sleep
I’m not sure who I am
Staring into my empty hands

And all I could think to say
Is everything’s gonna be okay
It’s gonna be alright
I’m on your side
I’m on your side

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, #4, The Wayfarer

I know not everyone is all that excited by Bruce’s late career arc, but I love it. There’s a grace he has brought to his later music; I thought Western Skies was brilliant, a new chapter in his American songbook and this song is sly, wise and fun. Not new themes, necessarily, but a mature take on the things that have always preoccupied him. My brother makes a face when I say this, and a friend calls it his “Glen Campbell album.” To which I say, I like (a little) Glen Campbell, and I like people trying new things. I got a kick out of Barry Gibbs’ neo-country re-take on his Bee Gees’ standards, Greenfields, released last year. I’d encourage Bruce to do more of that and less rehashing old songs with the E Street Band. Letter to You isn’t bad, and I’d LOVE to hear him play Ghosts and some of those songs to a jacked-up stadium. It’s just that, as a studio album, I’ve heard him do that before, better.

It’s the same sad story, love and glory goin’ ‘round and ‘round

It’s the same old cliché, a wanderer on his way, slippin’ from town to town

Some find peace here on the sweet streets, the sweet streets of home

Where kindness falls and your heart calls for a permanent place of your own

I’m a wayfarer, baby, I drift from town to town

When everyone’s asleep and the midnight bells sound

My wheels are hissin’ up the highway, spinning ‘round and ‘round

You start out slow in a sweet little bungalow, something two can call home

Then rain comes fallin’, the blues come calling, and you’re left with a heart of stone

Some folks are inspired sitting by the fire, slippers tucked under the bed

But when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head

I’m a wayfarer, baby, I roam from town to town

When everyone’s asleep and the midnight bells sound

My wheels are hissin’ up the highway, spinning ‘round and ‘round

Where are you now, where are you now?

Where are you now?

I’m a wayfarer, baby, I roam from town to town

When everyone’s asleep and the midnight bells sound

My wheels are hissin’ up the highway, spinning ‘round and ‘round

I’m a wayfarer, baby

I’m a wayfarer, baby

I’m a wayfarer, baby (Wayfarer, baby)

I’m a wayfarer, baby (Wayfarer, baby)

I’m a wayfarer, baby (Wayfarer, baby)

I’m a wayfarer, baby (Wayfarer, baby)

I’m a wayfarer, baby (Wayfarer, baby)

I’m a wayfarer, baby (Wayfarer, baby)

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, #3, Texas Sun

This is a road song in a world without road trips, where our collective experience is reflected in words like homebound, locked down and socially distanced. I’ve been on exactly two road trips (definition: a multiday jaunt at least 3 hours away from home by car) in the past year, one last spring to pick up my son when he hiked off the Appalachian Trail near Roanoke, Va., and the other to Maine for a September vacation. I drove fewer than 10,000 miles in 2020, the fewest since I was in college, probably. When I bought a used car in November 2019, one consideration was that it would be fun to drive on the highway. Haha. Nice thought. It has done a great job of sitting in a garage. Even worse, when out of the garage, I think I’ve regressed as a driver. I am a mess in parking lots — skittish and bad at estimating distance behind and around me. I don’t hit anyone. It’s the opposite. I don’t come near anyone if I can help it.

I do wonder if one consequence of this pandemic year is a lessening of the impact of cars in general — culturally, transportationally, environmentally. That’s great news for the planet and I do appreciate that young people are generally much cooler on cars than their parents and grandparents, and the pandemic took many people off the road. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report for the first half of 2020 showed a 17% decrease in miles driven. While numbers increased in the second half of the year, it looks like there was at least a 10% decrease for the year in total. One sad non-consequence: less driving equals fewer accidents, you’d hope, but accidents per driving mile increased about 18% for the year. Apparently, there was more impaired driving, more speeding and less use of seat belts, resulting in more-serious accidents.

That said, I miss traveling, I miss the road. More than flying, I want to go on a serious road trip when that becomes a thing again.

Oh yeah, the song …

Texas musicians Khruangbin & neo-soul singer Leon Bridges really got the vibe on this one. I could listen to Bridges sing all day. I first heard him about 7 years back when he had a song Better Man on his debut album. At Men’s Health, we had a book called The Better Man Project that came out about the same time, and there was some talk about seeing if we could somehow do something to bring together the two. Sadly, didn’t happen. Bridges hasn’t recorded as much as I’d like and I’m hopeful he’ll release something soon. For now, this suffices.

This is what Bridges had to say about the song:

“I feel like this song is the perfect marriage of country, soul, and R&B. And historically, artists have incorporated elements of country music — like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Joe Tex — so it was important to keep the spirit of that. This song really captures the mood of cruising Texas highways and taking it all in while the sun sets.”

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, #2, Hold On

As we come up on the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to share some of the music that has helped me through the year, with post a quick bit about one song each day in March. So here goes …

#2, Hold On, Yola

I first heard Yola when she sang with the alt-country, all-female supergroup The Highwomen on the title song of their debut record, which came out in 2019. Last summer a friend passed along “Hold On” and it became my resilience anthem for COVID times. Coming full circle, Yola is backed on this song by several of the Highwomen (Brandi Carlisle and Natalie Hemby, with Sheryl Crow and Morgane Stapleton, who will show up with her husband later in this list, as well). My church does contemporary music, from the Beatles to Frank Turner to Jimmy Eat World, and if we’re not singing “Hold On” by next summer, in-person or especially if we’re still remote, I will be shocked.

Mama said to me

Hold on

You gotta be wise

Hold on

Your momentary dreams

Can be gone

Water through your fingers you can’t hold

Baby hold on to the things you love

Show me who it is you are

Never let that feeling go

Let it show

Mama said to me

Stave on

No matter what they tell you girl

Stave on

Everyone that seems alright

Has a soul that’s hurting deep inside

So baby hold on to the things you love

Show me who it is you are

Never let that feeling go

Let it show

Mama said to me

Hold on

You gotta be wise

Hold on

Your momentary dreams

Can be gone

Water through your fingers you can’t hold

So hold on

Mama said to me

Hold on

You gotta be wise

Hold on

Your momentary dreams

Can be gone

Water through your fingers you can’t hold

So hold on

Songs to Get Through a Pandemic, #1, Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town

As we come up on the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to share some of the music that has helped me through the year. I’m going to post a quick bit about one song each day in March. So here goes …

Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam is a favorite and this performance is a reminder that music can be communal — just hearing 40,000 fans singing along in Chicago in, I think, 2017. And the song, about a chance encounter that stirs up memories and feelings is so spot-on during this time when tragedy plays out in the most mundane and banal ways. It’s been not a thunderclap of loss or even a hundred deaths by a thousand cuts. Instead it is loss and disconnection played out over seemingly unending groundhog days.

You can find yourself asking, What happens when the only rituals of modern life are performed at home or on screen? Answer: We can get so tangled in the jumble that we strangle ourselves in frustration.

And against that backdrop, this song, about the recognition, compromises and realities of loss … it seems like as good a place to start as any. Tomorrow, #2.

Having trouble with the lyrics, here you go:

I seem to recognize your face

Haunting familiar, yet I can’t seem to place it

Cannot find the candle of thought to light your name

Lifetimes are catching up with me

All these changes taking place

I wish I’d seen the place

But no one’s ever taken me

Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away

Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away

I swear I recognize your breath

Memories, like fingerprints, are slowly raising

Me you wouldn’t recall for I’m not my former

It’s hard when you’re stuck upon the shelf

I changed by not changing at all

Small town predicts my fate

Perhaps that’s what no one wants to see

I just want to scream, “Hello

My god, its been so long, never dreamed you’d return

But now here you are and here I am”

Hearts and thoughts they fade away

Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away

Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away

Hearts and thoughts they fade away

Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away

Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away

Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away

Hearts and thoughts they fade…

Home and the High Road

Jason Isbell is one of my bellwethers. He sings the things I’m feeling before I can put them in words.

Take, for instance, his new single “Hope the High Road.” It’s my new theme song. And not just because I enjoy just about everything the former Drive-By Trucker has done the past four years. No, he has tapped into the rich vein of my hopefulness.

The most important lyric to me (heck, it’s the title of the song):

Wherever you are, I hope the high road leads you home again.

Because where I am is, I have reached an accommodation with the election and its inevitable consequences—that there is and likely will continue for some time to be a President Trump. And he is going to be able to do some things I disapprove of—denigrate science, facts, and many people, especially vulnerable people. But he can be opposed. He can be held accountable. He can be constrained by values of compassion and hope. And maybe, maybe, as his governing faction splinters and fights among itself, he can be lured to less-pain-filled policy (if policy is even the right word for the product of his actions).

Personally, I can protect my sanity and my sense of humor. These last few weeks I have been silly more than I can remember in months. I count this a huge victory, as I think that part of the political strategy of these first 100 days was to overwhelm dissent with a barrage of mean-tempered executive actions and make people like me despair.

Well, I am not despairing. I am called to engage with and protect those who are most vulnerable AND engage with those who thought Trump was their only option, especially my friends, as they’re easier to grab a beer with than people in Kentucky. I don’t want to argue, because I don’t think arguing accomplishes anything. I don’t want to present an ideological alternative, because ideology is apparently at low ebb. What I want is to ask all people what home means to them, and invite them to consider how to make home a reality for everyone.

For me, home is:

  • safe
  • sustaining
  • warm
  • where I’m known
  • forgiving
  • accountable
  • a refuge

What is home to you? I’d love to read others’ replies below.

I think it’s possible we can walk this high road home together, at least those who choose to. And I have a glimmer of hope that our president can see that following this high road might give him the broader-based approval he so obviously wants. I wouldn’t go to Vegas and put money down on it, but hope isn’t a calculation.

And if we continue on the current track, I will grind it out and fight like heck for the values of liberty, compassion, and truth that are foundational to my home and to the motivators of our country’s best moments.

Which brings me back to Isbell and his song, which gave voice to my intentions:

So if you’re looking for some bad news
You can find it somewhere else

Last year was a son of a bitch
For nearly everyone we know
But I ain’t fighting with you down in a ditch
I’ll meet you up here on the road

A Father-Son Talk With Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell is my favorite singer/songwriter. Has been for about two years now, since the release of his album Southeastern. So I was super-excited to have a chance to speak with him last month for an article about Father’s Day, fathers and sons. Isbell has a song in which he recounts the advice his dad gave him as the 21-year-old Isbell set off on the road with the hard-livin’ band Drive-By Truckers. (Here’s a very funny story about the song.)

The discussion morphed into a lot of other directions, including what saved his life and why he thinks checklists are a bad idea. Here is a transcript of our discussion, with my parts paraphrased (sorry, I didn’t need it for the article, so I didn’t transcribe my parts).

What happened when you shared “Outfit” with your dad for the first time?

I was probably 21 or 22, and it was one of the first songs I’d written after I’d first gone on the road with the Drive-By Truckers. It would have been late 2001 or early 2002. I brought a guitar on over and sat down and played it for him. I believe that’s what happened. Probably because we didn’t have a recording of it. You know, he liked it a lot. He has a good sense of humor and he understands what parts of that song are serious and what parts aren’t. And even the parts that aren’t are in tribute to the kind of person he is.

He’s a good listener, so he knew exactly what I was talking about when I sang it for him.

Continue reading “A Father-Son Talk With Jason Isbell”

When You Can’t Stop Listening

I’ve been totally engrossed in Jason Isbell’s new album, Southeastern. This happens to me occasionally. Here are the albums I can think of that had the deepest hold on me at some point in my (now long) life:

Eagles, Greatest Hits Vol 1. Back in the ’80s, I had a Sony portable CD player that I took with me whenever I drove the Datsun 710 wagon that had been my mom’s until she handed it off for the kids’ use (the kids, at that point, being me). It didn’t plug into anything; it just sat on the passenger’s seat and played through its tiny, tinny speakers. And the Eagles was what I played while driving around—all day, every day, for months. Take It Easy … Lyin’ Eyes, Desperado, all those Henley/Frey tunes. It ends with The Best of My Love. There was no shuffle back in those days, so it always ended with Best of My Love. Then I started over again. God, I loved the Eagles. There are few things in life like listening to Don Henley sing.

Dire Straits, Making Movies. I’d always been kinda intrigued by Mark Knoppler’s group, but I was a bit of a miser and I didn’t like to, you know, part with my money. For anything. So it was a big step when I bought this—and fell helplessly, hopelessly in love. If it wasn’t for there being so few songs (7, and I didn’t like the last one, Les Boys), it was just about perfect. The first four are still 20 minutes of rock-n-roll heaven (Tunnel of Love, Skateaway, Romeo and Juliet, Espresso Love).

Patty Griffin, Living With Ghosts. I still can’t tell you why I picked this up, in 1997, but from the first gangly guitar chords of Moses, I was hooked—and have been ever since by Griffin. This album is so spare—it  is essentially her demo tapes and just voice and guitar (which she strums into submission, basically)—that it hits you like a ton of bricks. Every Little Bit, Poor Man’s House, Sweet Lorraine are just the most beautiful, awful songs you can imagine. I’ve played this album, end to end, about 2,000 times. Virginia still finds Griffin’s warble a bit of a test, but she’s survived 17 years of it.

The Doors, LA Woman. I was a huge Doors fan as a teen, and this was the most played of the bunch. Strongest, bluesiest, with lots of throwaways-with-great-hooks (The WASP, Been Down So Long, Crawling King Snake) plus two all-time greats, the title song and Riders on the Storm. The Doors haven’t held up particularly well over time, I don’t listen to this full-through like I do many of the others, but it reminds me of a time and a posture in my life (that I don’t really miss much).

U2, Rattle and Hum. The Joshua Tree is about the start of my adult musical sensibility, but Rattle and Hum got even more playing time becauseit was about the best live album ever. You got all the Joshua faves, plus Desire, Angel of Harlem, All Along the Watchtower, When Love Comes to Town, and Helter Skelter. I still want to cry when the chorus pipes up in I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Played for about 3 weeks straight in my Acura Integra while sports editor at the Del State News in Dover, Del., in 1988.

John Hiatt, Bring the Family. Maybe my favorite album ever. Picked this up while working my first job, in Dover, Del., after reading a story on the AP wire about Hiatt. My tastes were not particularly twangy at that time, but the songwriting, Ry Cooder’s production and Hiatt’s voice wowed me in a way that I’ve never quite experienced again. Not a bad song in the bunch, with highlights being Have a Little Faith in Me (still regret this not being my first dance with Virginia at our wedding), Alone in the Dark, Thing Called Love, Your Dad Did, and Learning How to Love You. I really enjoyed the album after this, Slow Turning, but there’s something about Family, which hits my soft spot for redemptive efforts by talented, twangy storytellers (see next).

Jason Isbell, Southeastern. I read a profile of Isbell in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, but I wasn’t expecting anything great when I found the album on Spotify. I knew Isbell remotely from his Drive-By Truckers work, but the Truckers were very  hit-and-miss for me. I listened to Relatively Easy and found it a jangly charmer. But nothing prepared me for my head-over-heels infatuation when I listened to the whole album. The songs unwind like Southern short stories. Elephant is a deft, unsparing account of a friend’s bout with cancer. Live Oak is a true-crime-story head-shrink classic. The rest are simply great. It’s a tour de force I haven’t yet been able to move past. As with Hiatt, Isbell’s newly sober and seems to sit on a ridgeline where he can clearly see the bad ol’ days and the sun rising on the horizon.

What are your can’t-stop-listening favorite albums? Add in comments below. Or reply on Twitter/Facebook.

My favorite albums

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Driving home from Emmaus, I started thinking about the best albums released since I started to care about music – at least the ones I liked the most. And here’s my Top 5:

1. U2, The Joshua Tree: Having gone to a Catholic high school in the mid-’80s, U2 are my boys: passionate, earnest, arena rock that still holds up.

2. John Hiatt, Bring The Family. Hiatt’s best album, and gosh, just one of those, “man, he killed it” albums as he rebounded from an alcohol problem and his wife’s suicide. “Have a Little in Me” should have been my wedding song, but I was too addled to figure it out. Slow Turning, his next album, was similarly great, and he has receded as his circumstances have improved, but god, by the time you get to Learning How to Love You, you have the feeling he’s gonna turn out alright.

3. Ryan Adams, Gold. More often than not, just great songwriting. La Cienega Just Smiled, the Rescue Blues, When the Stars Go Blue and New York New York is a great, great foursome.

4. Bruce Springsteen, Live 1975-1985. So much great music on 3 CDs. I don’t know where to start, and I won’t.

5. U2, Rattle and Hum. From I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For through Pride (In The Name of Love), has there ever been a better live album sequence? I don’t think so.

Honorable mention: Patty Griffin, Living with Ghosts. John Hiatt, Slow Turning. Damian Rice, O. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman. Shelby Lynne, This is Shelby Lynne.

OK, so have it. What are your favorites?