Family Matters

'DJ Ami', photo by mr oji, from

A well-rounded musical background is crucial -- otherwise, you could end up like a friend of mine, who had never heard Jimmy Soul's "If You Wanna Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life", and so felt lost during some hand-clapping good times at the bar last weekend.

A letter to my new niece, Maya Eve Rubenstein:

Dear Maya,

So you made it to the party, an eight-pound, one-ounce bundle of joy that, come the day I hold you in my arms, I'm deathly afraid of dropping. It's still hard for me to believe that I'm an uncle, or that my brother, who I'm convinced still has some Hammer pants stashed away in his closet, is a father. But as all the pictures in my email make perfectly clear, this is very real. So I understand that I have some responsibilities here...and I'm not talking about diaper changing, which I'm pretty sure I'm going to refuse to do.

Your parents, for all their great qualities, aren't exactly the most musically up-to-date folks, so it's up to me to make sure you get the proper information -- the dos and don'ts, if you will. Since I live halfway across the country, I couldn't make it back to Boston to broadcast some developmentally beneficial tunes into the womb (plus, your mother probably wouldn't have appreciated the headphones clamped onto her belly). So I'll have to impart these lessons in another way. The following are some things I've learned over my 25 years, which hopefully you can begin to apply as soon as you can read them (in what I imagine will be a vastly different musical world from the one I grew up in). I would save 'em for my own kids, but as your worried grandmother can tell you, there's no certainty I'll ever be able to support a family. So here goes:

Play a musical instrument. More than one, if you can. Start early and don't quit, like I did with the trumpet. And definitely don't pretend to get serious, have your parents buy you an expensive saxophone, and then quit, like your father. You won't be able to pick it up later, I promise. Few people become virtuosos in their 20s; you're more likely to get really annoyed when you can barely play "Chopsticks". Right now, I'm picturing you as a jazz guitarist blessed with some serious pipes, but I'm not gonna pin that one on you just yet. Better that you make your own choices -- and if, during your music education, you happen to come across my old teacher Mr. Spencer, go ahead and punch him in the diaphragm for me. He can take it.

Let your parents take you to your first concert. Even though I've already told you that Mom and Dad need some help in this area, it'll be worth it for the story you tell later (yes, even if it's the Fray). I mean, how cool is it that my first concert was one of Roy Orbison's last shows, also featuring the Beach Boys with John Stamos on drums? You just can't buy this type of memory.

Try to accept, if not embrace, the inevitable gap between your parents' music choices and your own. Though I may not have always wanted to listen to Oldies 103.3 on every car trip during my formative years, I was glad I did later on. A well-rounded musical background is crucial; otherwise, you could end up like a friend of mine, who had never heard Jimmy Soul's "If You Wanna Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life", and so felt lost during some hand-clapping good times at the bar last weekend.

That reminds me: learn all the words to "Sweet Caroline" and "Dirty Water" as soon as possible. You will be the most popular toddler at Fenway Park. If your parents don't take you there soon, give me a call and I'll head home.

Don’t let your parents pick all your music, of course. Explore on your own, and don't be afraid to try new things. With all the mash-ups these days, there'll probably just be one huge genre by the time you're my age, but do your best to seek out as many of the multi-hyphenated subsets as you can. It's probably overly optimistic to think that there will still be record stores around in the next decade or two, but however you find music, try to do it randomly every once in awhile. There's nothing like stumbling upon a gem after an hour of wandering through the stacks (or shuffling through the database on your surgically-implanted microchip).

When you do know what you want, don't hesitate. Back when I was eight, I spent a week or two yearning for a cassette single of Dino's "Romeo" (don't try to find it). When I finally had the money and got a ride to the store, I decided I was too embarrassed to buy it, with all those people standing around, silently judging me. As if anyone shopping at Strawberries cared what anyone else bought. On the way home, I confessed what I'd really wanted, but by then it was too late. So listen to what you want, and don't worry what anyone else thinks about it. They probably don't think about it at all. But remember to temper your expectations; "Romeo" got old, fast.

As for what to buy, I can't, and won't, tell you. Well, I do suggest that you save some money for when NOW! That's What I Call Music No. 133 comes out. In general, though, don't make any hard and fast rules when it comes to music, because I promise, you will break them all. No matter what you think, you probably do like country music and Broadway shows. And you may claim to hate mainstream rap, but it's gonna be hard to resist when it comes on at the next school dance.

Photo from Al.Vox.Com

By the way, dance. At concerts, at parties, wherever. You're lucky, you're a girl -- you probably have natural rhythm. Even if you don't, trust me: you'll be much happier in the middle of the crowd than standing by the wall making bitter jokes. There was a time, somewhere between Bar Mitzvah parties and frat parties, when I forgot how to have fun. Don't make the same mistake. Stay open to any new experiences, because you never know what's going to strike the right chord.

At the same time, don't spread yourself too thin. There's something to be said for a little bit of single-minded obsession. Find a band or musician you absolutely love, and commit yourself for awhile...get every EP, learn every song lyric, read every book you can. Go on about their virtues to your friends. No matter what else happens, this kind of love will stick with you. Plus, you'll get that sense of superiority that only comes from true fanhood. Just don't get too upset when "your" band betrays you by licensing their songs for a car commercial (there's no such thing as selling out, anyway) or getting into some legal scrapes that send them tumbling off that pedestal. It's bound to happen.

I envy you,'ve got a clean slate (and you didn't even have to sit through a few hours of Yom Kippur services to get it). I promise, I won't try too hard to be the "cool" uncle, or attempt to turn you into a cooler kid than I was. I trust that you can make your own decisions, and you don't really need me to guide you along the way. I will insist on one thing, though:

Stay the heck away from R. Kelly.


Uncle Ben

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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