As with what feels like every year for the last decade, I’ve listened to very few new albums this year.
1. Joshua Ray Walker: What Is It Even? (7/10)
Up and coming neo-traditionalist country singer Joshua Ray Walker’s fourth album in four years is his first covers record. The theme is pop hits made famous by female artists, but Walker does delve into pure country for covers of hits by LeAnn Rimes and Dolly Parton. Primarily he tackles classic pop hits by the likes of Whitney Houston and Sinead O’Connor, as well as more contemporary fare from Lizzo, Beyonce and Sia. (He also tackles Regina Spektor’s “Samson,” which wasn’t really a hit in the traditional sense.) Though the arrangements sometimes stray outside of neo-traditional country, such as with the horns on “Cuz I Love You ” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” Walker’s voice is pure country and that plus the pedal steel places it firmly in the tradition. Walker’s powerful voice (complete with yodel) commands on every song, and he claims them all as his own; he manages the difficult feat of honouring the definitive hit version of each song, but also sounding unmistakably himself and unmistakably country.
2. Wilco: Cousin (7/10)
A bit of a return to form for Wilco, in my opinion, but that’s probably because I have been so underwhelmed by so many of their albums from the last decade or so. Read my review of Cousin.
3. Joe Policastro Trio: Ceremony (7/10)
The latest JPT album is more of the usual stuff but I like their sound and I like their covers. Read my review of Ceremony.
4. Brad Mehldau: Your Mother Should Know (7/10)
Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays the Beatles is a live album of (almost entirely) Beatles covers performed on solo piano. The pianist is Amsterdam-based American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, who we last saw here at Cover Me recording an album with Chris Thile. Melhdau isn’t reinventing the wheel with any of these performances, but they are fun and clearly labors of love.
The Your Mother Should Know song selection is quite interesting: two tracks from the Beatles’ least well-regarded album, Magical Mystery Tour, but only two of their most famous songs (and only one of their biggest hit singles). The songs come from only about six of their albums: Please Please Me, Revolver, Beatles for Sale, Rubber Soul, Abbey Road and the aforementioned Magical Mystery Tour. It’s a curious selection, you might even say idiosyncratic. Especially given how those albums come from entirely different eras of the Beatles’ career (including their very first and very last albums). There are three tracks from Revolver, and two tracks from a couple of the others mentioned; my guess is that Mehldau’s basing the selection entirely on his own personal feelings about these songs. The weirdest inclusion is, of course, the David Bowie song at the end. The press I read said this had something to do with showing the Beatles’ influence on future performers, but I have no idea why one arbitrary Bowie cut is supposed to do that. It’s an odd choice, to say the least.
But Melhdau makes it sound all of a piece. I prefer the three longest covers, which get the most inventive and harmonically interesting. (I think “Baby’s in Black” is probably the most transformative.) The songs he takes less time on tend to sound recognizable the whole way through. Those lean towards the fun side of things, rather than feeling as if they are truly great jazz.
But all of the songs are full of energy and the occasional fun play on the melody. This is hardly the kind of album that makes you rethink the music being covered. (Though that does happen once or twice on the longer covers.) But, as a fan of both the Beatles and jazz solo piano, I find it very enjoyable.Written for Cover Me
5. Seven)Suns: One of Us is the Killer (7/10)
A string quartet version of the second best album by my favourite mathcore band (who have reunited to play some shows in 2024, just not in Canada). Read my review of One of Us is the Killer.
6. The Mars Volta: Que Dios te maldiga mi corazon (6/10)
The acoustic version of their self-titled veer into sophistipop is better than original but it’s a low bar. Read my review of Que Dios te maldiga mi corazon.
7. Various Artists: Dead Formats Vol. 2 (5/10)
A totally fine collection of covers, with a few standouts but too many that are too similar. No real thematic consistency. I wrote the below for Cover Me where it was selected as the #22 best tribute/cover album of 2023:
Pure Noise Records’ second volume of (primarily) indie rock and alternative covers is just as fun as their first edition (which was our 16th best covers album of 2022). 15 artists tackle 15 tracks, as far back in time as Elton John from the ’70s, and there are a few tracks from the ’80s and ’90s, but most are covers from the aughts. Most of the covers are straightforward, high energy performances filtered through the lens of pop punk, but a few really stand out stylistically. Less Than Jake really lean into the vaguely Caribbean air of The Kinks’ “Come Dancing,” going full ska. Lavalove appear to treat Nirvana’s “Lithium” as pop punk, but then, on the bridges, they get really playful, alternately vamping and then embracing an aesthetic similar to Nirvana at their nosiest. Mint Green slow down Incubus’ “Drive” and though they don’t deviate much from the arrangement, the female harmonies stand out from the rest of the collection. (The Linkin Park and Slipknot covers also stand out, but only because they are faithful and the only nu-metal covers here.)
Shows I went to in 2023:
As with the last few years, I’m including concerts I went to because I listen to so few new albums.
Not a concert but it was live music.
The new version of The Bad Plus, without a pianist, was a very different experience.
After waiting over two decades, I finally got to see Mr. Bungle live and, um, it was fine.
I enjoyed myself more than I thought, especially in the second set. They played quite a while for their ages. Pretty polished band.