Here are my choices for the five best albums of the year so far.
1. Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
Listen to "Wrecking Ball"
It Takes a Village, Baby: The death of Clarence Clemons left a giant hole in Bruce Springsteen's music, both compositionally and in performance. The resulting expansion of the E Street Band was felt both on the road and on his latest album, Wrecking Ball. The loss of keyboard player Danny Federici a few years ago also contributed to the new personnel. On the Wrecking Ball tour, early on in each concert Bruce introduces the new horn section, the violinist, and the backup singers, saying "To do what we came here to do tonight, it takes a village baby."
Long story short, Wrecking Ball works both on record and live, like no other Springsteen album since 1987's Tunnel of Love. Bruce made such compelling music on his first seven studio albums, that as each succeeding album grew more issue oriented, the songs became more and more like folk songs. The genius of Wrecking Ball is that for the first time Bruce has incorporated the issues that he cares deeply about, into music that is compelling like the old days. We've seen Bruce live many times over the years, but now, forty years on in his career, he's never been better than he is on the Wrecking Ball tour. Read our live reviews here and here.
2. Shayna Zaid and the Catch - Lighthouse
Listen to - "Morning Sun"
A Work of Uncommon Beauty: Shayna Zaid has, over the past few years, assembled an amazingly talented band and together they have worked tirelessly on their music, both on stage and in the studio. The results of all that work are evident on Lighthouse, her first full length American album. The songwriting on Lighthouse is a collaboration between Shayna and the Catch that excels on every track.
Shayna's voice is deep, soulful, and beautiful. The album is almost entirely acoustic with the sound of the band being the combination of acoustic guitar and violin or acoustic guitar and mandolin. This is a work of uncommon beauty; you won't find another singer that sounds anything like Shayna and you won't hear another band that sounds remotely like The Catch. This is a totally original record that is a perfect delight for the ears as well as the heart. Read the complete review.
3. Kirsten Proffit - My Devotion
Listen to "Flood and Fire".
Not Your Father's Pop/Rock: For her second album, Kirsten Profit co-produced with Michael Woodrum using mostly acoustic instrumentation for a warm, rich, multi-layered sound that is positively brilliant. You can tell as soon as you drop the proverbial needle onto track one and feel the presence and texture of the acoustic guitar, then the mandolin confirms that something very special is going on here; My Devotion is not your father's pop/rock.
My Devotion is, for the most part, about love. Kirsten comes at it from almost every angle, set to some of the most tuneful songwriting you could ever want to hear. The title works on several levels. There is the devotion of love, there is Kirsten's devotion to her craft of being a singer, songwriter, and musician, and finally it is a tribute to her grandfather, whose World War Two plane (pictured on the cover) was nicknamed, "My Devotion". This record succeeds joyfully, by all three measures. Read the complete review.
4. Melody Gardot - The Absence
Listen to "If I Tell You I Love You"
Philly to Paris to Rio: When we last heard from Melody Gardot, it was 2009, she had just released her second album, and she was enjoying life as an ex-patriate Parisian. In the last three years, she's done a little traveling and The Absence finds her in places like the beaches of Brazil and the deserts of Morocco outside Marrakesh, as well as cities like Lisbon and Buenos Aires, that beat with the pulse of calypso, samba, tango, and bossa nova, and where the music and culture spill out onto the streets at night.
The prospect of Melody doing bossa nova would have been enticing enough, but along with the Brazilian music, there are African and Spanish influences as well, making this record a soft sensual mix. The Absence was masterfully produced by Heitor Pereira, resulting in an album that is relaxing, romantic, and exotic, all filtered through Melody's exquisite songwriting. This album is a real treat and it reveals its pleasures slowly. Watch the "Amalia" video.
5. Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur
Listen to "Mint"
Her Best Album Yet: We've liked Kathleen Edwards' voice, ever since her 2003 debut, Failer, which did well behind the exceptional "Six O'Clock News" and "Hockey Skates", but otherwise uneven songwriting on that record didn't get any better on her second or third albums. So this year's Voyageur came as a complete and happy surprise, loaded as it is, with great songs. Everything about this record is superb, from the songwriting to the vocals and musician performances, to the production.
In 2011, there was a seismic shift in Kathleen's personal life. It would be overly simplistic to draw a conclusion as to causality, but Kathleen divorced her long-time collaborator/husband and paired off with Justin Vernon, otherwise known as Bon Iver, who produced and played on Voyageur. Bon Iver had his own critical, artistic, and commercial breakthrough in 2011. The fact of the matter is that we had a hard time choosing a song to stream because they're all so damn good.