Hamilton — Soundtrack
In 2015 one New Yorker dominates the national stage by promising to wall America off from Spanish-speaking migrants. At the same time, another New Yorker, the son of Spanish-speaking migrants, commands the Broadway stage by singing the praises of our nation’s earliest newcomers. Who does America belong to, and who is an American? Donald Trump and Lin-Manuel Miranda, 2015’s most compelling showmen, provide wildly different answers to standing-room audiences on a nightly basis.
Miranda celebrates the American Revolution as a multicultural uprising that belongs to every citizen regardless of color or birthplace. The immigrant is his American archetype—“just like my country/young, scrappy, and hungry.” “Immigrants. We get the job done,” one character says. The Hamilton soundtrack embodies this inclusive vision, broadly drawing upon Broadway’s oldest traditions and updating them with hip-hop rhymes and street corner doo wop. The ballads are tear-jerking and brilliantly sung, and the cabinet battles fought “8 Mile” style between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
Next year, as Hamilton prepares to open across the country, Trump prepares to face voters in the early primary states. One wonders if their paths will cross.
Kathryn Joseph – Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled
Kathryn Joseph, 40, decided to make an album following the death of her newborn son. Bones, recorded in just 10 days, is the result: an overwhelming, grief-strewn collection of songs, one of the most compellingly powerful of the last decade.
Stark, immediate, and unadorned, Joseph evokes Kristin Hersh and PJ Harvey. Her lyrics are raw—tales of blood, and bones, and dead animals—but her melodies are gorgeous; lullabies to the departed composed and performed on piano. More wept than sung, Bones is a reminder that heartbreak can produce the most beautiful art.
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
In fairy tales, the power of love can conjure the dead. For broken-up rock bands it’s usually money that prompts resurrection—flannel-wearing 50-year-olds cashing in on nostalgia, touring behind increasingly tired greatest-hit sets. Sleater-Kinney’s reunion after a 10-year hiatus was decidedly different: No Cities to Love is a declaration of creative urgency that stands alongside their very best work—fierce, urgent, melodic, and angular in equal measure. During the band’s original 12-year run, Sleater-Kinney’s fan base was never massive, but no group has ever had a more passionate following. As much a movement as a band, Sleater-Kinney stood at the center of a community dedicated to removing barriers between performer and audience. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein sing “We win, we lose, only together do we break the rules,” and “It’s not the new wave, it’s just you and me” as both statement of intent and promise.
Alabama Shakes – Sound and Color
Alabama Shakes’ 2012 debut album, Boys and Girls, was a fairly straight ahead exercise in R&B nostalgia, given power and weight by Brittany Howard’s clarion vocals. It would have been easy to replicate the formula of Boys and Girls—it’s been working for 50 years, after all; but sophomore effort Sound and Color is a decidedly different affair. Painted outside the lines with broad strokes, the songs take unexpected turns, challenging expectation and assumption, zigging where they should zag, the band playing against type. Howard’s voice—one of the best in contemporary music—is subtler, less American Idol, more after midnight. Guitars crash in unexpected places, keyboards wiggle through cracks in meandering melodies, some songs sound like they were recorded in a garage, others on a string-laden soundstage. The result is an album that remains rooted, but not stuck; a collection of songs that nods to tradition while focusing ahead.
Andy Shauf — Bearer of Bad News
Like a cross between Raymond Carver and Eliott Smith, singer/songwriter Andy Shauf bears the bad news about his Saskatchewan home in a soft, confessional tenor like this: “This past winter was the coldest in years/it’s hard to explain if you’ve never lived here/but it locks your doors and starts your mind/thinking in circles just to pass the time/and breaks your weary heart.” Shauf’s small town is populated by sleepless men, adulterous couples, drug addiction, violence, and friends trying to escape it all. Bleak stuff made light by orchestrated clarinet, violin, piano, and guitar.
Florence and the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Bold, brassy, and buoyant even when singing about wrecked ships, Florence Welch and her Machine delivered an album that debuted at the top of both the U.S. and U.K. Billboard charts this past summer. Welch’s commercial success is a testament to her ability to straddle pop and rock, convention and alternative. As the title suggests, this is indeed a big album; punctuated by horns, propelled by strings, driven by broad melodic hooks, and centered on Welch’s soaring, dramatic voice. Welch has a gift for excess, a skill for stretching three syllable words into six. Like a collection of Bond theme songs, in all the best ways.
Los Hijos de la Montana – Los Hijos de la Montana
The Latin Playboys were an avant offshoot of Los Lobos; what the band might have sounded like if all their records were made at 3 a.m. and convention was thrown out the recording room window. Los Hijos de la Montana is an album in that vein, produced by Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin, and featuring Portland’s Y La Bomba frontwoman Luz Mendoza and Mexican mambo impresario Sergio Mendoza, a sometime Calexico sideman. The result: a cinematic take on traditional Mexican music, updated with modern flourishes. Horns and accordions accompany Luz Mendoza; her voice powerful, deep, and compelling in both Spanish or English, and on both sides of the border.