Growing up, we had an unofficial December tradition in my family – before the presents came, some cleaning up was in order. Out with the old to make room for the new. Inevitably, though, I’d run across something – an action figure, a stuffed animal, or, in my teen years, a book or a shirt, that I’d forgotten about. Rather than consign these finds to the trash can, they took on unexpected importance, as I was able to find renewed enjoyment out of them. Now, in a year full of old-is-new vinyl and virtual concert tickets, I find that I’ve neglected a few of my favorite albums from the early part of the year. The good thing about music, though – there’s no need to throw anything away, as there’s always room for more. Here are four rediscovered releases that stick out.
Lucy Dacus, Historian (March): Disclaimer – I lived in Richmond for eight critical years of my adult life, but nothing as cool as this young Virginian ever happened when I was there. Life is messy in Dacus’ world, including the first break-up song she’s written, “Night Shift”, in which she works the overnight hours to avoid her former lover – “And I’ll never see you again if I can help it.” Somber for most of its six-plus minutes, the song explodes into fuzzy guitar (provided by Jacob Blizard) near the end – perhaps the beginning of the singer moving on? The entire album is filled by a young person experiencing life’s grown-up moments for the first time: life on the road (“Addictions”), disappearing idealism (“Yours and Mine”) and loss being a fact of life (“Historians”). Most folks – of any age – never come fully to grips with these topics, let alone write complicated songs about them, making Dacus’ second album an even more remarkable achievement. And, if this isn’t heavy enough, check out boygenius, the project shared by Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker. And bring tissues.
Erika Wennerstrom, Sweet Unknown (March): As a Heartless Bastards fan from a decade back, I was a bit dubious when I heard that their seminal member was striking out on a solo career, Not to worry, as it turns out. This solo debut, fueled by roadtrips, long hikes and hallucinogenic experimentation, allowed Wennerstrom to write songs of a deeply introspective nature while still celebrating a new personal freedom. The album starts with “Twisted Highway”, a chugging road song looking not at the path ahead or behind, but right where she’s at – “let go of what drags me down and useless information.” The expansive “Extraordinary Love” is all about her (or any of us, really) – “When you’re living your life in constant motion, remember to breathe.” This theme continues throughout the album – you do your best for others after you’ve made sure to take care of yourself. It’s truly thought-provoking, and, not by accident, it’s the best road album of the year.
Brothers Osborne, Port Saint Joe (April): Similar to Eric Church, these guys walk the line between Americana and bro country. The brothers, TJ (the deep baritone) and John (the guitar whiz), grew up in a Maryland fishing town, so their combo of blue collar odes and kickin’-back songs is come by honestly. The band is adept at sliding between genres, be it airy country pop (“A Couple Wrongs Makin’ It Alright), Southern rock (“Drink Like Hank”) or even R&B-tinged country (“A Little Bit Trouble”). The standout, though, is “Shoot Me Straight”, a six-minute jam asking the same from booze and truth – “Make it burn the whole way down” – and featuring an extended instrumental break with bass, keys, and one of the best guitar solos you’ll hear this year. The production is slick, but there’s just enough grit for Americana fans to buy stock in these Brothers.
Lake Street Dive, Free Yourself Up (May): Lake Street Dive has a history of making fun, danceable tunes with melancholy-tinged lyrics. Songwriters Bridget Kearney (bass), Michael Calabrese (drums) and Mike Olson (guitar and the occasional trumpet) give singer Rachel Price the material to showcase her powerful, sultry voice. “Baby, Don’t Leave Me Alone With My Thoughts” shows that the girls can love ‘em and leave ‘em just like the boys, and “Good Kisser” is probably the most sing-along-worthy tune you’ve heard this year. They’re a hard band to categorize, but regardless of genre, their shows are always a great time, and Price remains perhaps the best front woman in the business.