The fourth full-length effort from Bon Iver feels like a culminating statement that bridges the different elements found on the Justin Vernon-led project’s three previous albums. Sonically, Vernon has evolved far beyond the artist in wintry isolation who created the trend-setting predominantly acoustic debut “For Emma, Forever Ago” more than a decade ago. He bloomed into majestic folk-rock on his outfit’s 2011-released self-titled effort and went deep into the electronic wilderness on 2016’s “22, A Million.” Bits and pieces of that past work are all present on “i,i,” and it all comes together here with warm and communal cohesiveness. Joined by a bevy of well-integrated special guests, including Bruce Hornsby, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, Moses Sumney, James Blake, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and members of the National, Vernon has crafted some of his most intensely uplifting songs to date—punctuated by the fiercely emotional four-track run of “Holyfields,” “Hey, Ma,” “U (Man Like)” and “Nameem.”
“Forever Turned Around”
In this age of fast-paced digital chaos, Whitney’s music is a patient breath of fresh air. The gratification comes when you have a chance to pause and take it in. Analog warmth emanates immediately in the first notes of “Giving Up,” the soulful meandering opener of the Chicago group’s second album, “Forever Turned Around,” and when drummer/singer Julien Ehrlich starts to sing in his gentle falsetto it feels like an invitation to relax, slow your thoughts, and ponder what ails you in front of a sunset, rather than the glow of a screen. The effort—full of airy 70s rock callbacks shaded by organic R&B and jazz influences—is cozier and more laid back than the band’s lauded debut, “Light Upon the Lake.” That feel partially comes from the somber longing in the lyrics of standouts like “Valleys (My Love).” But the band also has chops: Bursts of fun spontaneity, in particular the head-bobbing horn-and-guitar instrumental funk jam “Rhododendron,” break up the pensive moments.
While many were hoping for a new Alabama Shakes record this year, the frontwoman and guitarist of the soul-driven Southern garage-roots band had other ideas. Howard’s first solo record is an extremely bold and dynamic release from an artist clearly intent on avoiding complacency. “Jaime” is named after Howard’s late sister, who died of cancer as a teenager, but the album doesn’t dwell on past pain. Howard instead looks forward, sonically and personally, celebrating the beauty of everyday simple things in the sparkling, atmospheric R&B of “Stay High” and diving into futuristic funk in the empowering “13th Century Metal.” In the latter she uses spoken word among a hard-hitting industrial groove, declaring, “Every day I am alive I am given the opportunity to become that which I admire most of others. I am nonviolent. I am a master student and my spirit will never be stomped out.”
“Between the Country”
Sorrow and strife seem to be around every corner for the struggling small-town folks in Ian Noe’s vivid story-songs. The main character in “Barbara’s Song” sends out a farewell to his love before a tragic coal train crash, and the addict in “Junk Town” is just “trying to chase away those cold-sweat fears.” Noe, a burgeoning tunesmith from rural Kentucky who sings with a commandingly stark Southern drawl, has a keen eye for dark details, observing angst in his native Appalachia and channeling it into startlingly authentic folk revivalism. He anchors his excellent debut album— produced by Nashville studio ace Dave Cobb—with engaging hard-luck tales, delivered with powerful retro simplicity reminiscent of early John Prine while also incorporating some of the vintage jangle of early-electric Dylan and the Byrds. He’s turning his honest view of troubled times into music that’s too great to ignore.
Conceptually based on the Highwaymen—the 80s-formed outlaw supergroup featuring Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson— the Highwomen brings together four of the most important female voices in the current country and Americana landscape for a collaboration that challenges the status quo of inequality in Nashville and well beyond. Featuring Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby, the collective bucks twangy conventions with poignant perspectives and plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor. The latter shines bright in “Redesigning Women,” which features stereotype-stomping lines like “running the world like we’re cleaning up the kitchen.” The true stunner is album opener “The Highwomen,” a remake of Jimmy Webb’s classic theme song “The Highwaymen,” which offers a message of survival after a history lesson of oppression. It cements why this album will be appreciated for generations.
Big Thief, “U.F.O.F.”
Dori Freeman, “every single star”
Wilco, “Ode to Joy”
Fruit Bats, “Gold Past Life”
Joan Shelley, “Like the River Loves the Sea”