(1) Ellyn Maybe: Rodeo for the Sheepish (Hen House Studios). I heard half of the long, quietly mesmerizing “City Streets” on the radio—what was this? A woman with a poem, with music and a sung chorus not behind her but circling her, and the poem neither exactly recited nor sung, but spoken with such a lilt, in a voice so full of miserabilist pride—at forty, a woman is still getting high-school insults tossed at her (“Hey Mars girl,” a man shouts on the street, “get off the Earth”)—that it’s music in and of itself. There is no bottom to Maybe’s inventiveness, to her adoption of Nirvana’s Oh well whatever never mind as an artistic tool, to a confidence that allows her to toss off a bedrock statement on the American character (“There are people / who know the cuckoo is the state bird / of most states of mind”) in a throwaway voice so that its humor hits you not as a joke but as an echo. There is nothing like this album except for the real life it maps.
(2) Train: “Hey, Soul Sister” (Sony). A perfect fan’s letter, with the high, light sound of someone madly in love with the idea of being in love. You can see the singer dancing in circles in his bedroom, waving his arms in the air. Could the soul sister who inspired this record make one half as good?
(3) Lady Gaga: “Bad Romance” (Interscope). When she turns Love into Lahv, lahv, lahv, as if she could care less, the inhuman edge of this semiological construct—the performer, not the song—can open up a hole in your soul. When it feels as if Kiki and Herb are smiling down at her from the heights of their “Total Eclipse of the Heart” she’s Robert Plant, lost in communion with the ancestors, like Medusa or Gene Vincent.
(4) Keri Hilson: “Knock You Down,” featuring Kanye West and Ne-Yo (Interscope). The swirl.
(5) Carolina Chocolate Drops: Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch). “Fragments of humble and cryptic work songs appeared,” Constance Rourke wrote of how the voice of the slave made its way into blackface minstrelsy before the Civil War. “Defeat could be heard in the occasional minor key.” In the hands of this string-band trio, taking up “Genuine Negro Jig,” popularized by Dan Emmett in the 1840s, you can hear that sense of defeat stretched so far from the ordinary facts of life that it begins to turn into what was hiding in Rourke’s choice of the word cryptic: into resistance, or, if not that, escape. And when Justin Robinson’s autoharp surfaces a few songs later, in “Kissin’ and Cussin’,” which takes off from Rabbit Brown’s 1927 “James Alley Blues,” the aura of the uncanny—of time travel as a version of walking out your front door—is almost as strong.
(6) Handsome Family: “Jenny Jenkins,” on Face a Frowning World: An E. C. Ball Memorial Album (Tompkins Square). Aren’t tribute albums terrible? This one, celebrating a traditional Virginia singer who died in 1978, features mostly bland vocals and the happy-golucky accompaniment by the Health & Happiness Family Gospel Band, which might as well be Hippie Heaven circa 1971. In that house, it feels as if the Handsome Family, picking a children’s nonsense song off the floor—Will you, I won’t, Will you, I won’t—came in through a window. Asking the questions, Brett Sparks sounds like a preacher trying to save a child from perdition; throwing them back in his face, or rather over his shoulder, at a horizon only she can see, Rennie Sparks sounds like a talking goth doll.
(7) Who Do You Love, directed by Jerry Zaks (Alexander/ Mitchell Productions). In the 1930s, two Jewish Chicago boys, Leonard and Phil Chess, hear a black street singer going off about motherfucker this and mother fucker that, and they walk off playing with the word, almost chanting it, trying to catch the man’s inflection, because somehow it just sounds so good, feels so good: “What does this mean?” one kid says to the other. The second movie in two years about Chess Records, this one tells the story from 1946, when the Chess brothers decided to open a blues club, to 1955, when Bo Diddley arrived to change the tune. Partly because of the short time span, it’s a chamber piece compared to Cadillac Records, a shapeless movie that never got off the ground. This has so much movement it’s like one long gasp, and yet its dynamics are always controlled, its scenes intense, its humor snapping, its pain ugly and ineradicable, its flair for the startling moment unending. The performances are never showy; each actor seems to be searching for his or her center of gravity, and when they find it, the movie comes out of itself: when at the beginning and the end Robert Randolph as Bo Diddley serves up the title song, his white socks flashing like stars and his feet moving too fast to credit, it’s like a dream of the birth of rock ’n’ roll come true. David Oyelowo as Muddy Waters is a well of dignity: “You know that ain’t no good to me,” he says without embarrassment when Chi McBride as the songwriter Willie Dixon hands him a lyric sheet. Megalyn Ann Echikunwoke’s Ivy Mills, a fictionalized version of Etta James, is nothing as a singer; as a woman looking Leonard Chess in the face, seeing right through him but wanting what she sees, she is as much will as fear. Alessandro Nivola’s Leonard Chess is a businessman first and last, but he’s also still trying to figure out what motherfucker means. “Dix is my mentor,” Leonard Chess says at one point to Muddy Waters, who wonders why Willie Dixon is always looking over the boss’s shoulder, but who has no idea what mentor means. “I am his guide to the exotic Negro world,” Dixon says, honey dripping from his mouth.
8) Tommy James with Martin Fitzpatrick: Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells (Scribner). Nice kid from Ohio walks into the big time in New York in 1966 and then the door slams behind him. He doesn’t mind, because “Hanky Panky” goes to number one on Roulette, his music gets better, and he’s almost never out of the top ten. In 1968 he campaigns for Hubert Humphrey (who tells James his secret plan to end the Vietnam War), and then the vice president of the United States writes the liner notes to Crimson and Clover—and if the Jewish gangster running his career is owned by the Genovese family, isn’t that what America’s all about? “He saw the world as a crime family,” James says of Morris Levy, whom he clearly loved. “And most of the time he was right.” Maybe it all goes back to the folk process, to the way Tommy James and the Shondells, teenagers in Dayton, found “Hanky Panky” in the first place—the song traveling from the “B-side of a record nobody ever heard” to James’s friends the Spinners’ Sunday-afternoon show to a rehearsal where all any of the Shondells could remember was “My baby does the hanky panky” and they had to make up their own words. “We were actually doing an imitation of the Spinners’ imitation, and who knew how far the chain stretched?” Was that really any different from Morris Levy putting his name on your songs?
(9) Martin Amis: The Pregnant Widow (Knopf ). Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking, or why this novelist’s best days may be ahead of him: “As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out, and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing.… Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty- one, and fiftytwo. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past.
(10) James Wolcott, “A Certain Acoustic Quality in the Air” (VF.com, March 3). On the street, with the temperature in New York not yet reaching into the low 40s, Wolcott was struck by a sense less of déjà vu than of rightness, “reminding me of something, but what?— what? Then the picture liquidly surfaced in my brain like a print in a developing tray. It’s like the album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan out there today!… I wouldn’t be surprised if I turned the corner and saw Bob and Suze Rotolo, arm in arm, stepping out of folk history and heading my way.” Summed up as a weather report, and they should all be so suggestive: “Early Bob Dylan Album Cover, with a chance of precipitation.