A Different Kind of Singer-Songwriter

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A Different Kind of Singer-Songwriter

“Singer-songwriter” is a tricky term because its literal meaning is different from its applied meaning. In a literal sense, a singer-songwriter is any artist who performs his or her own compositions. But most people who write and talk about music don’t use the label that way. They wouldn’t call Mick Jagger, Ozzy Osbourne or Prince a singer-songwriter, even though they all sing their own songs.

Most folks use the phrase to describe artists who make their lyrics the focus of a song, with the rhythm and instrumental arrangements relegated to a supporting role. Those supplementary materials can be ambitious and powerful (as on Paul Simon Graceland), or rudimentary and functional (as on John Prine’s debut), but in either case, the lyrics clearly lead the way. The term tells us nothing about the quality of the lyrics or music, but it does describe the sonic balance in the arrangement and the investment in the words.

It’s hard to draw clear lines between singer-songwriter music and other music where the performers write their own material, but it doesn’t really matter. When a writer or fan describes an artist as a “singer-songwriter,” they’re using shorthand to claim that the artist’s arrangements are structured to focus on the lyrics. You can agree or disagree, but you know what the claim is in just two words.

Because Bob Dylan is so powerfully associated with the “singer-songwriter” term, it is often assumed to be part of the country/folk branch of Americana music. And 2016 saw brilliant singer-songwriter albums from such Americana artists as Hayes Carll, Margo Price, Miranda Lambert, Lucinda Williams, Paul Kelly and Brandy Clark. But the year’s most welcome development was the seepage of the singer-songwriter concept into the fields of jazz, R&B, bluegrass, blues, Malian desert-rock and even classical music.

Gregory Porter, the Donny Hathaway-influenced jazz singer, applied the singer-songwriter concept to his album Take Me to the Alley. It’s not just that he pushed the lyrics to the foreground, it’s also that the words were strong enough to justify such a dominant role in the arrangement. Whether he’s describing an adult romance or an allegory about a king visiting the afflicted poor in the alley, the language is as sophisticated as the melodic jumps and altered chords. The same can be said of Red, a similar album by jazz singer Rene Marie.

Also embracing the singer-songwriter legacy of R&B legend Hathaway were old-school soul singers Anthony Hamilton and Pharrell Williams. Hamilton co-wrote some of his What I’m Feelin’ with Americana stalwarts Al Anderson and Darrell Scott, but the singer’s most crucial collaborator was Mark Batson, who helped Hamilton return to the lyric-centric approach of his first two albums.

Hidden Figures is not much of a movie — you can guess every plot turn and every character development from the trailer — but it boasts a magnificent soundtrack from Williams. Working with cast member Janelle Monáe, Donny Hathaway’s daughter Lalah, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige, Williams wrote and sang smart, catchy, word-heavy songs that recall such Curtis Mayfield soundtracks as Super Fly, Claudine, Sparkle and Let’s Do It Again. In fact, Williams sounds so much like Mayfield on the wonderful “Able” that you might doubt which recording you’re hearing.

Billy Bragg and Wilco got an avalanche of press for adapting unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics for the two volumes of Mermaid Avenue. By contrast, Del McCoury, the greatest bluegrass artist born after 1930, got little recognition for pulling off the same feat with the same success on his 2016 album, Del and Woody. Guthrie forged the singer-songwriter template before Dylan was ever born, and McCoury grew up on the same hillbilly music as Guthrie and thus creates the perfect settings for those words.

In recent years, the blues have seemed trapped in a box of clichés about no-good women and good-time drinking. But in 2016, two veteran figures released albums that injected new life into blues lyrics and justified arrangements that put the vocals front and center. Bobby Rush took a witty approach to Southern life on his album Porcupine Meat, while Jimmy “Duck” Holmes evoked the dark side of that life on his album It Is What It Is.

Bands such as Tinariwen, Terakaft and Songhoy Blues have used droning electric guitars and rumbling drums to turn the Saharan folk music of the Tuareg tribe into a haunting music dubbed desert rock. A new Algerian group called Imarhan has shifted the balance of elements in that formula to push the vocals forward. That’s because the words are no longer simple expressions of loyalty to God, tribe and family but more ambiguous expressions of unfulfilled longing. Singer-songwriter music comes to the desert.

Nico Muhly, the famed classical composer who hired Ellis Ludwig-Leone as his assistant before the latter founded the rock band San Fermin, has crafted his own classical/rock fusion album, Confessions, a collaboration with Danish singer/lyricist Teitur Lassen. First performed live in 2008, this haunting piece for 14 baroque instruments and sung/spoken voice was finally released as a recording in 2016. It proves that the singer-songwriter concept is so elastic that it will work even with 17th century court instruments.

Below are the 100 best albums I heard in 2016, ranked in order. I have mixed all genres, new recordings and reissues. There were recordings by Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper and Bon Iver that I wanted to hear but couldn’t track down by my deadline. On the other hand, I did hear the albums by David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Wilco, Dawes and The Lumineers and found them less than enthralling.

1. Van Morrison: It’s Too Late To Stop Now … Volumes II, III, IV & DVD (Exile/Legacy)
2. Hayes Carll: Lovers and Leavers (HWY 87/Thirty Tigers)
3. Beyoncé: Lemonade (Columbia)
4. Lake Street Dive: Side Pony (Nonesuch)
5. Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man)
6. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels: I Long To See You (Blue Note)
7. The Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra: Time/Life (Impulse)
8. The Drive-By: Truckers: American Band (ATO)
9. Miranda Lambert: The Weight of These Wings (RCA)
10. Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense: Moving Still (Pi)
11. Bob Dylan: The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert (Columbia/Legacy)
12. Pharrell Williams: Hidden Figures: The Album (Columbia)
13. Gregory Porter: Take Me to the Alley (Blue Note)
14. NRBQ: High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective (Omnivore)
15. Lucinda Williams: The Ghosts of Highway 20 (20/Thirty Tigers)
16. Christian Scott: Stretch Music (Ropeadope)
17. Paul Kelly: Seven Sonnets and a Song (Cooking Vinyl)
18. The Strumbellas: Hope (Factor/Glassnote)
19. Jimmy Duck Holmes: It Is What It Is (Blue Front)
20. Murray Allen & Carrington Power Trio: Perfection (Motema)
21. Kris Kristofferson: The Complete Monument & Columbia Album Collection (Legacy)
22. Mahalia Jackson: Moving on up a Little Higher (Shanachie/Spirit Feel)
23. Del McCoury: Del and Woody (McCoury)
24. Anthony Hamilton: What I’m Feelin’ (RCA/Cracker Barrel)
25. John Scofield: Country for Old Men (Impulse)
26. Nico Muhly & Teitur: Confessions (Nonesuch)
27. Rene Marie: Sound of Red (Motema)
28. SFJazz Collective: The Music of Michael Jackson and Original Compositions (SFJazz)
29. Jon Dee Graham: Knoxville Skyline (South Central)
30. Bobby Rush: Porcupine Meat (Rounder)
31. Franklin Kiermyer: Closer to the Sun (Mobility)
32. Brandy Clark: Big Day in a Small Town (Warner Bros.)
33. John Adams, Leila Josefowicz and the St. Louis Symphony: Scherazade 2 (Nonesuch)
34. Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up: Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi)
35. Warren Wolf: Convergence (Mack Avenue)
36. The Wood Brothers: Live at the Barn (Honey Jar)
37. Joe Lovano Quartet: Classic! Live at Newport (Blue Note)
38. Paul Simon: Stranger to Stranger (Concord)
39. The Rolling Stones: Blue and Lonesome (Interscope/Polydor)
40. Brad Mehldau Trio: Blues and Ballads (Nonesuch)
41. Terry Winch, Michael Winch and Jesse Winch: This Day Too: Music from Irish America (Free Dirt)
42. Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family: Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto)
43. Imarhan: Imarhan (City Slang/Wedge)
44. Alisa Weilerstein & the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Shostakovich Cello Concertos (Decca)
45. Carrie Rodriguez + the Sacred Hearts: Lola (Thirty Tigers)
46. Parker Millsap: The Very Last Day (Okrahoma/Thirty Tigers)
47. Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass: Weary River (Patuxent)
48. Bruce Springsteen: Chapter & Verse (Columbia)
49. Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys: Voyageurs (Riley)
50. Maren Morris: Hero (Columbia)
51. Robbie Fulks: Upland Stories (Bloodshot)
52. Luther Dickinson: Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II (New West)
53. The Pretenders: Alone (BMG)
54. Lydia Loveless: Real (Bloodshot)
55. The Waco Brothers: Going Down in History (Bloodshot)
56. Sonny Rollins: Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4 (Doxy/Okeh)
57. Aaron Lee Tasjan: Silver Tears (New West)
58. Bill Evans: Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest (Resonance)
59. Dave Burrell/Bob Stewart: The Crave (No Business)
60. Frank Catalano Jimmy Chamberlain: God’s Gonna Cut You Down (Ropeadope)
61. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial (Matador)
62. Various Artists: The Savory Collection, Vol. 1: Body and Soul (National Jazz Museum)
63. Joshua Redman & Brad Mehldau: Nearness (Nonesuch)
64. Robert Ellis: Robert Ellis (New West)
65. Julian Lage: Arclight (Mack Avenue)
66. Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub: Meridian Rising (Plowboy)
67. The Earls of Leicester: Rattle & Roar (Rounder)
68. Avishai Cohen: Into the Silence (ECM)
69. Case/Lang/Veirs: Case/Lang/Veirs (Anti-)
70. Los Lobos: Gates of Gold (429)
71. Pat Metheny: The Unity Sessions (Nonesuch)
72. Lucy Dacus: No Burden (Matador)
73. The Mekons: Existentialism (Bloodshot)
74. Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus: The Distance (ECM)
75. Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow: Andando el Tiempo (ECM)
76. Mary Halvorson Octet: A Way with You (Firehouse 12)
77. John Doe: The Westerner (Cool Rock/Thirty Tigers)
78. Alejandro Escovedo: Burn Something Beautiful (Fantasy)
79. Cyrus Chestnut: Natural Essence (HighNote)
80. The Cookers: The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart (Smoke Sessions)
81. Catherine Russell: Harlem on My Mind (Jazz Village)
82. Taylor Ho Bynum: Enter the Plustet (Firehouse 12)
83. Hiss Golden Messenger: Heart Like a Levee (Merge)
84. The Klezmatics: Heretics (World Village Harmonia Mundi)
85. Michael Franti & Spearhead: Soulrocker (Fantasy)
86. Frog Holler: Souvenir (Zobird)
87. Julien Baker: Sprained Ankle (6131)
88. Sarah Vaughan: Live at Rosy’s (Resonance)
89. Cuong Vu Trio: Cuong Vu Meets Pat Metheny (Nonesuch)
90. Matthew Shipp: To Duke (Thirsty Ear)
91. Marchfourth: Magic Number (Marchfourthband.com)
92. Nigel Hall: Ladies and Gentlemen .. Nigel Hall (Feel)
93. Willie Nelson: Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (Legacy)
94. Fantastic Negrito: The Last Days of Oakland (Blackball)
95. Hard Working Americans: Rest in Chaos (Melvin/Thirty Tigers)
96. Lakou Mizik: Wa Di Yo (Cumbancha)
97. Reckless Kelly: Sunset Motel (No Big Deal)
98. Kingsley Flood: Another Other (Kingsley Flood)
99. Jeff Beck: Loud Hailer (Atco)
100. Real String Vocal Quartet: Slacker Ridge (Flower Note)

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