Nicole Atkins, Goodnight Rhonda Lee. When a singer finally finds the ultimate sweet spot in what they do, and then gathers the kind of musicians and writers to help them bring it all home, that's when classic albums get made. Nicole Atkins has finally done that. She's been a lot of other artists' favorite for several years, working her way from New Jersey to North Carolina and then New York. Along the way she recorded several albums and sang with what seems like every great band in America. And then wrote several of the very best songs this year with artists like Chris Isaak, Louise Goffin, and others. On this wandering course Atkins also found herself in Ft. Worth, Texas and working with producers Niles City Sound, which is where she hit the jackpot. In the studio everyone delivered the kind of magic that Dusty Springfield did in Memphis 50 years ago, and before it was over a modern knockout had been made. Now that Nicole Atkins has done that, look for her in 2018 to become a benchmark of what can happen when the human soul opens up and finds its wings. The real thing.
Dan Auerbach, Waiting on a Song. Not by any stretch of the airwaves is Dan Auerbach's recent winning album the Black Keys but only with a different drummer. Instead, it's such a full-fledged autonomous accomplishment that it's like a brand new artist has arrived. Auerbach collected some extremely serious Southern musicians, brought in a few co-writers, including the unbeatable Pat McLaughlin, to shape a brand new sound for himself and then jacked up the fun factor in the studio to let all involved hit the monkey nerve in just the right places. In the process, the world has what sounds like an unknown artist on its hands, one who has arrived fresh and full of fire. This is the kind of album that would decimate the competition in a blindfold test, and lead the way to a glorious parade to new promises. Dan Auerbach is known for his unrelenting strive for the best, whether it's building a studio or producing other artists. Here, he's taken those abilities and applied them to himself. Hallelujah for all.
Robert Finley, Goin' Platinum. Talk about a life of left turns and, finally, finding the circle of love, Robert Finley has gone from gospel singer, carpenter, helicopter technician, losing most of his eyesight, street-singing bluesman and now a full-on soul shouting prodigal son. He has come to right where he belongs, in the studio with Dan Auerbach and shining like the bright light he's always been. It's like life has thrown him curveballs, sliders and even a few spitters, but Finley has never gone down swinging. Instead, he leans back, gathers the kind of voice that sometimes appears to be gone for good, and delivers a sound from so deep inside that it guarantees absolution and ultimate release. Fortunately, Auerbach and his associates have harvested the perfect songs for the Louisiana-born Finley to arrive at the mountaintop and show the world this is music that will never die. In fact, it's ready again for its spotlight and this is the right person to put it there. Platinum or bust.
Jake Xerxes Fussell, What in the Natural World. How is it that a mostly-unknown musician can conjure nine songs that walk the tightrope between being down to earth and heaven sent, and while the masses haven't really heard them but they've entered the slipstream of modern life in a way that will reverberate forever? It's almost like a magic card trick, except Jake Xerxes Fussell doesn't need tricks. He is a stunning player who can take previous cultures and sculpt them into modern masterpieces. Even better, there is no way to really explain how he does it. But on songs like "Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine," "Furniture Man" and "Billy Button," a different era grasps the present and turns it into something eternal. Fussell is flying far under the radar right now, and who knows, that might be just where he likes it. Still, the country needs to hear his music right now. There is a calming essence to what he does, while he also challenges everyone to reach up a little bit higher to be the best they can be. Do not delay.
JD McPherson, Undivided Heart & Soul. It's next to impossible these days for a band tagged rockabilly to break through. Lord knows JD McPherson fought the good fight and tried. But in switching record labels and adding some more current flourishes to his sound, it just might be time for McPherson to finally find the following he deserves. New songs like "Desperate Love" and "Lucky for Penny" have some sonic elements that show he's on a path that could actually take him to the toppermost of the poppermost in due time. JD McPherson himself is a serious singer, one who knows his way around several styles of music. He's also got an eye for the visual (he's his own art director) and a sense of history that goes way beyond the competition. Hopefully this time around he gets the acclaim he's earned over the past decade and America can add another name to the list of inspired innovators in what too often is seen as a small sect. Turn it up.
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. It's probably not that easy being Willie Nelson's son when it comes to establishing your own world. Since there's no way to compete, starting over is likely the best route. Lukas Nelson has made other albums, but his recent self-titled release finally shows just how much he has to offer. The music veers all over the road, from crunching rock to country-tinged anthems to what could be a new contribution to the Great American Songbook. Nelson's voice, obviously, can edge towards his father's, but he also has the ability to establish his own sound as he gets older. Not to be forgotten is just how inspired a guitar player the young man is. It's no accident that Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real now stand as Neil Young's onstage compadres. This is the year the young Texas/Hawaii-living hybrid comes into his own, which means the next few decades could easily belong to him. Blue skies ahead.
Gregory Porter, Nat "King" Cole and Me. In the rarefied air of the best jazz vocalists, it isn't uncommon to feel that person could sing anything and still deliver the goods. Gregory Porter is at that point in his career, but the beauty of this man is that he takes so much care to make each album mean more than just his incomparable voice. For this set, Porter zeroed in on the music of Nat "King" Cole, and goes so far inside it he comes out the other side. There is such an overwhelming feeling of empathy that Gregory Porter displays for Cole's signature songs it is instantly obvious why he chose Cole. The singer loves the man. It takes a lot too make "Mona Lisa," "Nature Boy" and, yes, "The Christmas Song" come to new life today, but with Gregory Porter that is no problem at all. He walks into the words, lets the London Studio Orchestra support his every move and then steps back to let greatness descend over the atmosphere. Instant audio bliss.
Jimmie Vaughan Trio featuring Mike Flanigin, Live at C-Boy's. Sometimes it's the music that comes out of the ground that really gets the job done. Guitarist Jimmie Vaughan has been a national treasure going on 50 years. He never raises his hand to move the spotlight his way, or jumps up and down to make sure people notice. But his blues guitar playing is now without peer. Watch him onstage with the heaviest players alive, and it's him they're deferring to as he zeroes in on the absolute essence of how music like this is supposed to sound. His ability to strip everything even remotely superfluous out of his playing feels like he's hit the zen zone of what blues really is: music to help its fans live through the day and night. This live album recorded at a corner bar in South Austin is such an irresistible summation of Jimmie Vaughan's life well-lived that it almost feels illegal. Who knew human beings were allowed to feel this good. Wear it out.
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding. Philadelphia has always been a music maelstrom, from early rock & roll to soul music and right on through to The War on Drugs. Adam Granduciel, the main man in this band, might have relocated recently to Los Angeles, but Philadelphia will always be a huge influence in how the outfit sounds. In terms of today's rock, The War on Drugs are kings of blending hefty undercurrents of ennui and longing into an addictive swirl of melodies and lyrics that might hide in mystery but never fail to deliver an emotional grandeur. It's not always clear how the group does it, but that's surely part of the allure of what they do. Granduciel, who first formed the group with Kurt Vile, functions better as the sole captain of his crew, and with this year's release makes clear he has his sights set on the highest of highs and will stop at nothing to get there. One of the beauties of music that defies easy logic is just how powerful it can grow over time. The War on Drugs might never be totally transparent, but in so many ways this year the war was won. Just say yes.
Leanne Womack, The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone. To zero in on what real really is, singer Lee Ann Womack went back to Texas, Houston to be exact, and went for it. She found one of the original shrines of the Lone Star state's recording studios and came up with a handful of original songs added to some timeless classics, and was able to ring the big bell over and over on this astounding album. Maybe that's because no one was looking, or possibly she made sure the clocks were slowed down to crawl, or who knows, it could just be Womack's time had come to welcome revelation to her repertoire. Either way, the results captured on these 14 songs now get to live forever in gratitude to their makers. Without doubt magic was invited into the room and allowed to take over the proceedings, ensuring whenever music lovers are looking for chillbumps of all sizes, they'll know where to go. All the glory.
Reissue of the Year: Arthur Alexander. At the start of the 1970s one of soul music's earliest and most unsung heroes slipped into Nashville, gathered a handful of the most experienced players alive and proceeded to record an album that would show just how soul could extend itself beyond all barriers and flood the heart with compassion and goodness. The fact that so few people heard it then isn't so much a tragedy but rather a chance for redemption to come 45 years later. Alexander, creator of such early hits as "You Better Move On," "Anna" and so many more, was looking for a left turn from what had come before. He heard a different sound in his tingling head, one where black music and white music collided in a symphony of love. He was writing songs that stripped down feelings to their deepest core, and then sang them like a man possessed of otherworldly passion. "It Hurts to Want It So Bad," "Burning Love," "Rainbow Road" and "In the Middle of It All" still stand as recordings of unbeatable wisdom and warmth, and can sometimes be too much to bear. At other moments, Arthur Alexander opens up the landscape of humanity in such a way that the vista is endless. Go with him.
Best Song: Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, "Call on God." There is no doubt something is wrong. America not only feels like the levels of fear and hatred are heading for the ultra zone, but the whole world seems out of step. Some see the apocalypse; others see an ideal moment for a power grab. Sharon Jones surely felt it was time to call on God. She knew she was dying, and also knew she wasn't alone. Above all, Jones believed there was no other choice but to put in a collect call to the Lord and ask for solace. In times like these, that is often the only thing that seems like an answer. As Sharon Jones sings this ultimate song, likely one of the last she ever recorded, there is an overwhelming sense of completion to a life well spent. There aren't many artists that get to grab the spotlight in the second half of their life, much less one who was able to share the essence of her soul right until the very last note she sang. This is a woman who never backed down, and in her last days on earth very likely looked up. Follow her gaze.