Vic Mensa: What Palestine Taught Me About American Racism

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“For once in my life I didn’t feel like the nigger. As I sat comfortably at a coffee shop, gawking at a group of Israeli soldiers harassing a Palestinian teenager, it was clear who was the nigger. My American passport, ironically, had awarded me a higher position in the social hierarchy of Jerusalem than it did in my hometown of Chicago.”

His debut album The Autobiography is pretty stunning, too.


 

Key findings about U.S. immigrants

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By way of background to what nowadays passes for politics in the United States (or should I say United Shitholes?) of America.

The U.S. foreign-born population reached a record 43.2 million in 2015.  Immigrants today account for 13.4% of the U.S. population, nearly triple the share (4.7%) in 1970. However, today’s immigrant share remains below the record 14.8% share in 1890, when 9.2 million immigrants lived in the U.S.

Useful data from the Pew Research Center.  In snowflake Canada, by way of comparison, the foreign-born population was 20.6% in 2011 Census.  The sky hasn’t fallen yet (and the food choices get better by the year).


 

Sense and sensitivity

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“After the 10th or so person sent me the stunningly silly anti-#MeToo letter signed by Catherine Deneuve and a hundred other French women (the actual authorship of which we’ll get to), informing me that I’d love it because finally someone was standing up for sanity, I considered a form letter response: ‘If the question is whether #MeToo has gone too far or not far enough, the answer is obviously BOTH. Putting yourself on one side or the other is politically obtuse.'”

Thank you Laura Kipnis.  Pissing off all sides, as usual.  Both/and rather than either/or.  Courage, subtlety, and intellect, very well worth the long read.


 

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at 200

my fair lady

But Frankenstein is no memoir. The question it asks, “How far is too far?”, is at the very heart of modernity. The Romantics, Mary among them, “leaned in” to progress … Published early in this classical era of modernity, Mary’s novel still helps us define its terms today. Shorthand for the way we experience ourselves within a world of increasing man-made complexity, “modernity” is both positive and negative, signalling hope for progress as well as our fear of change. Frankenstein identifies the mismatch between human experience and what we are expected to become as technology and science advance.  (Fiona Sampson, on her new book on Mary Shelley).

“It is the migrant, the refugee, and the Muslim that have become the poor lone impossible monsters abhorr’d of our time, the nameless figures of terror against whom we must circle our wagons and strengthen our walls.  It is salutary how quickly Helena’s sympathy for the robots [in Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R.] turns to disgust once she learns they are not “just like me”—once, that is to say, they have been convincingly Othered, cast outside the pale of the League of Humanity.  “Oh, stop!  At least send them out of the room!” she begs.  In this respect R.U.R. is a more pertinent text for our times than Frankenstein, because of its grasp of this dialectic of resemblance and alterity, attraction and repulsion, fascination and fear. We can send them out of the room but the suspicion of their humanity can never be exorcized.  It eternally returns to haunt us, pricking the collective conscience—in the image of a three-year-old Syrian boy in blue shorts and red top lying face down, drowned, on a Greek beach, for instance, or in the blank, uncomprehending face of a black man who cannot believe he lost all his fingers to frostbite while trying to walk from North Dakota to Manitoba.  The more we can’t get them out of our heads, the more we wish they would just go away.  Make it stop!  Do I hear murmurings of a Final Solution?  We have been here before, and it wasn’t in 1816.”  My take on why Shelley’s astonishing novel still matters.


 

Nonsense and insensitivity

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London’s oldest strip club, the Windmill Theater in Soho, has lost its license after a women’s rights group hired private detectives to gather evidence that the venue broke a ban on physical contact between dancers and clients.  Stacey Clare is a stripper, performance artist, writer, activist and co-founding member of the East London Strippers Collective.  She writes:

“Closing down a venue may feel like a victory to those who champion the abolition of the industry, but taking work away from women relying on it is tantamount to taking food from our mouths. Thousands of girls who otherwise have less value in the wider job market (foreign nationals, single mums, anyone with any sort of disadvantaged background) are turning to stripping and other forms of sex work to survive. According to the English Collective of Prostitutes, record numbers have moved into the sex industry under austerity, which disproportionately affects women, particularly single mothers. In fact, putting women out of work is about the most un-feminist thing possible …

Their [feminist anti-strip club campaigners’] cloak and dagger tactics reveal the kind of attitude women’s rights campaigners have towards us, the women at the centre of this issue – that we, the ‘victims’, cannot be trusted to have a say in the matter so decisions must be made on our behalf, rather than consult with us directly.”

The infernal problem of false consciousness, aka I know what’s good for you better than you do, dear.


 

The English surrealist and documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings explained the intellectual project of his book Pandaemonium as to “present, not describe or analyse” the “imaginative history of the Industrial Revolution … by means of what I call Images.  These are quotations from writings of the period in question … which either in the writing or in the nature of the matter itself or both have revolutionary and symbolic and illuminatory quality.  I mean that they contain in little a whole world—they are the knots in a great net of tangled time and space—the moments at which the situation of humanity is clear—even if only for the flash time of the photographer or the lighting.  

These “snippets” are intended to function in the same way.  Click on the headings to go to the original articles, which are mostly from the mainstream aka fake news media.

 

Three days after I posted my reflections on Trump’s Cabinet, Brexit voters, and Rolling Stone’s top twenty albums of all time on my blog, this appeared on Stereogum.  Another petrifying coincidence.

“The Beatles finish 2017 [sic!] with the top two selling vinyl LPs of the year: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (72,000 — powered in large part by the album’s deluxe anniversary reissue in 2017) and Abbey Road (66,000). The soundtrack Guardians Of The Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is the third biggest with 62,000.”

 

Sgt.Pepper.Faces_

 

trump camp david jan 2018

 

Trump defends his “I am a stable genius” tweet at Camp David, surrounded by loyal toadies.  All white, all but one male, and almost all past retirement age (Paul Ryan was just born old).  And still partying like there’s no tomorrow.

 

Even more behind the times.

I posted this list on Facebook last December as I always do this time of year, but for some reason neglected to post it here.   

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TOP 5

1 Blood Orange—Freetown Sound
2 Beyonce—Lemonade
3 Rolling Stones—Blue and Lonesome
4 Martha Wainwright—Goodnight City
5 Lucinda Williams—The Ghosts of Highway 20

lucinda ghosts

5-10 (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)

Solange Knowles—A Seat at the Table
Conor Oberst—Ruminations
Gillian Welch—Boots No.1 (The Official Revival Bootleg)
Miranda Lambert—The Weight of these Wings
Miles Davis—Freedom Jazz Dance (Bootleg Series Vol. 5)

 

Solange

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Mitski—Puberty 2
Margo Price—Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Drive-by Truckers—American Band
Mavis Staples—Livin’ on a High Note
Kendrick Lamar—Untitled Unmastered

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MOST LISTENED TO ALBUM THIS YEAR (released as box set in 2003 or thereabouts):

The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings of The Miles Davis Quintet January 1965 to June 1968.

CLOSE BUT …

No Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, or Felice Brothers (whose new albums I liked this year) or Neil Young (who got way too preachy for me this time around).

 

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PS

Had I heard Alejandro Escovedo’s Burn Something Beautiful when it was released, late in the year, it would have made my 2016 top ten.  Highly recommended.

burn something beautiful

 

 

Not for the first time, I am behind the times.  Wrapped up in dead operatic sopranos, I managed to miss the entire 1980s.   Probably my most played record this year, bought on a whim at Luke’s Drug Mart in a luxurious triple-gatefold vinyl package, was Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which was released on November 22, 2010.  Kanye may be all kinds of fucked up but I belatedly realize that he’s a musical genius.

The most carefully (and repeatedly) listened to music in our household this year was undoubtedly the 3-CD set Miles Davis Quintet Live in Europe 1967.   This is because of our very discerning standard poodle Luci, who would listen to Miles every night if she could.

luci appreciating miles

 


 

These are my top ten albums that were actually released for the first time in 2017.  In no particular order after #3.

  1.  Celebrate Ornette!

Lovingly put together by Denardo Coleman, who made his debut at the age of ten drumming on Dad’s 1967 Blue Note album The Empty Foxhole (Charlie Haden played bass), this lavish box set of 3 CDs, 2 DVDs and four vinyl LPs contains all the music from the June 2014 “Celebrate Ornette” tribute concert at the Prospect Park in Brooklyn and the memorial service for Coleman on June 20, 2015 in Riverside Church in Manhattan.  In what turned out to be his last public performance, Ornette himself opened the Brooklyn show with “Ramblin'” and “OC Turnaround.”

Others performing at “Celebrate Ornette” included saxophonists Henry Threadgill, Branford Marsalis, David Murray, Joe Lovano, and Ravi Coltrane; trumpeter Wallace Roney Jr; guitarists James Blood Ulmer, Thurston Moore, and Nels Cline; keyboardists Geri Allen and Bruce Hornsby; the Patti Smith Group; bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers;  the “Ornette Reverb Quartet” made up of Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, Bill Laswell, and Stewart Hurwood; and the Master Musicians of Jajouka.  The celebrations ended with a 20-minute rendition of Ornette’s “Lonely Woman” by Geri Allen, Lovano, Marsalis, Coltrane, Murray, Roney, and the Denardo Vibe house band.

Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, Ravi Coltrane, Henry Threadgill, David Murray, Joe Lovano, Geri Allen, Jack DeJohnette and the Prime Time Band were among those who gave Ornette a rousing harmolodic send-off at the Riverside Church a year later.

Sadly, Geri Allen herself passed away this year at the untimely age of 60.  It is a great loss to music. Her 1988 album Études, with Charlie Haden on bass and Paul Motian on drums, opens with one of the loveliest renditions of Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” ever recorded.

Yoke-Sum and I felt privileged to have helped crowdfund this glorious memorial to the Texan with the white plastic horn who forever changed the shape of jazz to come—while never forsaking its roots in the blues.

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2.  Kendrick Lamar Damn.  Insidious and hypnotic.  Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?

3.  Lucinda Williams This Sweet Old World

You think you know these songs until you don’t.  The queen of alt country—or whatever else you want to call it—has not just re-recorded her 1992 album, she has reinvented it.  Every last note of every song makes you realise (again) that Lucinda Williams is one of the greatest songwriters alive today.  The voice is cracked and worn, but it wears so very well.  Like Mr Dylan, Lu’s a great singer.  One for the ages.  Favorite tracks: all of them.

4.  Ambrose Akinmusire A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard

Two hours of wildly inventive, genre-bending music from a fabulously imaginative trumpeter.  A worthy addition to all those other great “Live at the Village Vanguard” recordings from way back when … John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Joe Lovano.  Not to forget Geri Allen.

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5.  Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile Lotta Sea Lice

Who could resist such laid-back lyrical quirkiness, not to mention the mesmerizing guitar work?  Eagerly awaiting Ms Barnett’s next solo album.  Favorite track: Blue Cheese.

6.  Vic Mensa The Autobiography

The shape of rap to come?  Sure it’s an uneven album, but as a debut it’s a compelling statement of intent.  Try the devastating Heaven on Earth.

7.  Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit The Nashville Sound

Doug Jones is not the only good thing to come out of Alabama this year.  With the ironically-titled The Nashville Sound, Isbell (who performed free on behalf of Jones) maintains the high standards set by his last two albums Southeastern and Something More than Free.  A great singer-songwriter (with a great band too in the 400 Unit—it’s nice to see them credited).  Can’t get out of my head: Anxiety

8.  Neil Young Hitchhiker

More gold dust from Neil’s ever-generous vault, this time an acoustic studio album, just Neil and his guitar, recorded in a single night on August 11, 1976 and not released until now.  There is a haunting, melancholic quality to these old–new songs, in which Neil hangs out with Pocohontas and Marlon Brando, Big John’s been drinking since the river took Emmylou, and even Richard Nixon has got soul.  Favorite track: Powderfinger

9.  Alice Coltrane The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda

I’m not a religious man, but then nor was Leoš Janáček (“No believer, no old man”), and he wrote the Glagolitic Mass.  Sublime.

10.  Colter Wall Colter Wall

Straight outta Saskatchewan.  Canadian country.  Gotta hear Colter, y’all.

 


 

Honorable mentions

Margo Price  All American Made

Chris Stapleton  From a Room 1 + 2

Conor Oberst  Salutations (with the Felice Brothers as his backing band)

Tyler Childers  Purgatory

Blue Note All Stars  Our Point of View   Another in a legendary series of great albums, this time with young guns Robert Glasper on keyboards, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone, Lionel Loueke on guitar, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums.  Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter add old mastery.

Steve Earle, Ian Felice, Mavis Staples, the Rural Alberta Advantage, and Angaleena Presley all released very good albums this year and the BBC dropped the nostalgia bomb of the Rolling Stones On Air performances from 1963-5.   Great to cook to and played many times over already.  They didn’t make the cut.  We live in tough times.

 

lucinda williams sweet old world

 

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Actually, my real album of the year was Butch Hancock’s The Wind’s Dominion, which was recorded back in 1979. I heard it for the first time only this year, after stumbling across an old vinyl copy in Reckless Records in Soho (London) and I couldn’t stop playing it.

I first came across Butch Hancock as one of the legendary West Texas band the Flatlanders along with Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmour, three high school buddies from Buddy Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, TX who headed to Austin to escape Jesus and Prohibition. Ely later toured with the Clash. We saw Joe touring with Terry Allen and Ryan Bingham at the New York City Winery a few years back, hunted down Jimmie Dale performing at Lucy’s Fried Chicken at SXSW 2014, and saw Butch hosting the annual Townes Van Zandt celebration at the Cactus Café in the Texas Union building at UT the same year.

Butch sang “The wind’s dominion” at Alejandro Escovedo’s “United Sounds of Austin” at the ACL Moody Theater on January 11, 2014. Joe Ely, Lucinda Williams, Rosie Flores, Terry Allen, Kimmie Rhodes, and “the situation we know as Roky Erickson” were among the many other contributors to an evening that showed why Austin bills itself as the world capital of live music.

“The Wind’s Dominion” album has been called “the West Texas Blonde on Blonde.” Enough said.

Unfortunately Hancock’s surreal masterpiece (check “Mario y Maria [cryin’ statues/spittin’ images]” or “Long road to Asia Minor”) can’t be included in my albums of the year because the qualification is that the album has to have been released—though not necessarily recorded—for the first time in 2015.  So here goes.  They’re all very good indeed.

 

 The top ten

1  Courtney Barnett—Sometimes I sit and think and sometimes I just sit

2  Benjamin Clementine—At least for now

3   Jason Isbell—Something more than free

4   Pops Staples—Don’t lose this

5   Bob Dylan—Shadows in the night

6   Titus Andronicus—The most lamentable tragedy

7   Kacey Musgraves—Pageant material

8   Ashley Monroe—The blade

9   Shovels and Rope—Busted jukebox volume 1

10   Sleater-Kinney—No cities to love

 

Honorable mentions

Keith Richards—Crosseyed heart

Iris Dement—The trackless woods

Drive By Truckers—Great to be alive!

 Neil Young and Bluenote Café

Kamasi Washington—The epic

 

Hors de concours

Bob Dylan—The cutting edge 1965-1966

 

  1. Bob Dylan and the Band The Basement Tapes (complete)

The comic book and me, just us, we caught the bus. Recorded in 1967, released for the first time this year without cleanups or overdubs and in full. I bought Great White Wonder—the first bootleg—when it came out in 1969, read Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic/Old Weird America years later, have been waiting for this for far too long. Wins by a country mile.

  1. Paul Bley, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins Live at the Hilcrest Club 1958

Charlie Haden passed this year. I’ve spent hours listening to this album (and a lot more Ornette), a real find, #241 of 500 vinyl copies. The set was recorded live in LA a few months before Something Else! and The Shape of Jazz to Come hit the streets. Fond memories of Wesley Dean, a bottle of Bulleit, and a long Texas afternoon.

  1. Drive-by Truckers English Oceans (with a side of Black Ice Verité)

Likely their best album since Jason Isbell left. Saw them play much of the album live at Stubbs in Austin under the warm Texas night sky. On our way back to the UK we drove to Atlanta via Memphis, Nashville, and Athens, GA, where DBT recorded Black Ice Verité at the 40 Watt Club. That night Athens and the south got hit with its worse ice storm in decades, hence the name.

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  1. Lucinda Williams Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

Her best since god knows when: Essence, Car Wheels, Rough Trade, depending on your taste. The voice has years in it, the words are slurry, the band is tight and the music tough. This album distills the south like Bulleit does. We saw her at Stubbs too. She rocked.

  1. Gary Clark Jnr Live

Jimi Hendrix reborn. One Austin boy we didn’t get to see, to my enormous regret. There’s still time.

   6.  Neil Young A Letter Home

Neil got a lot of flak for this set cut in a 1940s recording booth in Jack White’s Third Man Records studio in Nashville. When I’m in the mood I find the record unbearably affecting—especially Neil’s cover of Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death.” Maybe its the scratchiness of the recording and that thin quavering high tenor, maybe it was seeing Neil rocking the free world with Crazy Horse in Hyde Park later in the summer, or maybe it’s just that we made it there—to Third Man Records—this year as well.

   7.   Willie Nelson Band of Brothers

Actually I haven’t heard the full album yet. But it’s on order (we’re waiting for the vinyl) and we did hear Willie debut the title track when we helped him celebrate his 81st with about 5000 others at his annual birthday bash at the Backyard at Bee Cave, just outside Austin, Texas. Outlaw country. Nobody tells me what to do.

   8.  Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

The chutzpah is justified. A great lyricist. Woke up today decided to kill my ego.

   9.   Karen O Crush Songs

Quirky, edgy and utterly unexpected.

  10.  Dave Douglas and Uri Caine Present Joys

I love both these artists, together or apart.  Douglas plays on Caine’s sublime reworking of Mahler, Primal Light.  His Charms of the Night Sky brings back another fondly remembered American roadtrip, and the Blum House where we stayed in Polymath Park in rural Pennsylvania.

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And some honorable mentions:

The Felice Brothers Favorite Waitress

Saint Paul and the Broken Bones Half the City

Johnny Winter Live Bootleg Special Edition (Record Store Day vinyl—I suspect his last record)

Micah P. Hinson and the Nothing

The New Basement Tapes (Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James, Marcus Mumford) Lost on the River.

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This year I seem to have been buying a lot of old stuff, much of it on vinyl, filling in gaps.  Stuff newly discovered like Arc Angels (1992), stuff long forgotten, like how good Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves (1974) was, reissues like (for the first time on vinyl) the Mountain Goats’ inimitable All Hail West Texas (2002).  Jason Isbell’s Live in Alabama just missed the cut because it was issued in November 2012 though I only discovered it this year.  I’ve listened to it a lot.

But of albums first released (though not always recorded) in 2013, here’s my top ten:

1.  Caitlin Rose, The Stand-in

Saw her for the second time in April at the Ruby Lounge in Manchester.  Lovely, clean, clear voice.  Great live performer.  Smart songs, more 50s/60s retro-pop than alt or any other kind of country, Nashville’s hippest.  This album has given me so much pleasure this year, mostly while cooking.

2.  Jason Isbell, Southeastern

Saw him at the Mohawk in Austin, a warm warm night, just a couple songs in the Pettyfest (with Amanda Shires, Ruby Amanfu, Norah Jones, Jakob Dylan, the Whigs, Charlie Sexton, Doyle Bramhall II and all).  But we drove through Muscle Shoals and Florence, Alabama, where he was raised, toured the Fame studios where he recorded “Cigarettes and Wine,” on the leisurely road from Atlanta to Austin.  He always could write (“Outfit,” “Decoration Day,” TVA”), it’s just he’s so grown up now.  “Elephant” is a heartbreaker.

3.  Sam Baker, Say Grace

He digs ditches in Austin.  Just discovered this self-produced album thanks to Rolling Stone’s Top 10 Country list.  You can buy it at his website from his sister-in-law.  It’s not country, it’s indescribable.  Ivory and amber, turpentine and lace.  Now I know what “a Canadian” is, in Texas.  (Hint: it’s to do with the weather.) We had one last week.  Going to see him on Sunday at the Strange Brew Cafe.

4.  Bob Dylan, Another Self Portrait

Guess I’ve mellowed since Bob’s first Self Portrait album, when I thought the same as Greil Marcus (“What kind of shit is this?”).  Greil wrote the revisionist sleeve-notes for this collection of alternates and outtakes.  My partner Yoke-Sum calls this the Suburban Bob.  Some lovely touches (“Pretty Saro”), but best (on the deluxe version) is the whole 1969 Isle of White concert with the Band.  I WAS THERE.

5.  Rolling Stones, Sweet Summer Sun

In 1969, what a year, the Stones played Hyde Park.  I WAS THERE.  On the evidence of this set, they were tighter in 2013.  A fabulous performance.  Later in 1969, the Stones cut “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” at 3614 Jackson Highway, the burlap palace in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

6.  Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer, Different Park

Another belated discovery from the Rolling Stone Top Ten Country list.  So many talented young songwriters out there right now.  I think I might end up liking Kacey almost as much as I do Caitlin, which is saying something.

7.  Inside Llewyn Davies (various artists)

I shouldn’t like this—Justin Timberlake and one of the saccharine Mumfords—but I do.  When Yoke-Sum streamed this on NPR I nearly fell out of my seat.  I knew most every word to most every song.  It choked me up.  The explanation is that I WAS THERE.  Not in the Village, but the Medway Folk Club, circa 1963-4, where I saw Tom Paxton sing “The last thing on my mind”—and Arlo Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack, Peggy Seeger, Bert Jansch, Ewan MacColl, and many more.  I can taste the time.  Can’t wait for the movie.

8.  Françoise Hardy, L’amour fou

If Dylan and Mick and Keith can still do it, why not Françoise?  I WAS THERE, too—thirteen and longing.  The nod to André Breton is a bonus.  We bought an original 45 of “Tous les garçons et les filles” at one of those stalls by the Seine for 15 Euros this summer.  That clean, clear voice reminds me of Caitlin Rose.

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francoise hardy l'amour fou

9.  Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You

A masterful artist, a catch you by the throat title song.  Guy’s wife Susanna (“L.A. Freeway”) died last year.  Unbearably sad album.

10.  Beyonce, Beyonce

Good Texas girl.  Like half the world I downloaded this on iTunes today.  ‘Nuff said.

1 Bob Dylan Tempest

Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

2 Neil Young Psychedelic Pill

3 Iris DeMent Sing the Delta

4 Alejandro Escovedo Big Station

5 Jay Farrar Will Johnson Anders Parker Jim James New Multitudes

6 Justin Townes Earle Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now

7 Jimbo Mathus Blue Light EP

8 Patterson Hood Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance

9 Willie Nelson Heroes

and instead of a #10 I’m going to cheat and list two old tour souvenirs released on record for the first time in 2012:

Rolling Stones Some Girls Live in Texas 1978

Neil Young A Treasure