A Letter to Charles Bradley

By Mike Nelson

22 December 2016
Mr. Charles Bradley
PO Box 296
Brooklyn, NY 11216

Mr. Bradley,

I have a story to tell you. It’s not the greatest story, and if you want to take a cynical look at it, it’s of little consequence in the grand scheme of life. That’s how stories tend to be most times anyway, seemingly inconsequential but for the entertainment they provide. This paragraph and the one that follows aren’t really part of the story, they’re just me framing the story in a way that I can both send it to you and have you understand what it is, and also publish it online and have the other “you” (the online reader) understand it just as well.

Maybe you’ll read this yourself, or maybe someone else will open this and share it with you wherever, and however, you may be. And maybe it’ll bring a smile to his or her face just as I hope it will yours. And that’s, in short, the whole reason I’m sharing it. I want it to make your day better. When I saw someone post your address and ask for hope to be sent your way, I took that as a call to arms, but I didn’t quite know what to say. And then it came to me.

I have to tell him about Ricky.

Ricky got to the festival late. It was the last weekend of May, so there was plenty of sunlight and warmth left in the day regardless of what time he arrived, but he was late nonetheless. Why was he late? Ask Ricky. My memory’s not good enough for that, and I didn’t bring my steno to City Hall Plaza that day. Ricky and his wife had a pair of tickets to Boston Calling, and she unfortunately fell ill and couldn’t make it. But Ricky came anyway, even though it was too late to see the best acts of the day. He had tickets. Why not?

Ricky and I were just acquaintances. I’d say after that day we were closer to friends, but leading up to it the only way we were connected was through Instagram. We didn’t even have each other’s phone numbers. When Ricky saw I was at the festival—the moment when I published of a picture of you, Mr. Bradley, on my account—it sparked a conversation on Instagram, and a phone number exchange, and that’s the glamor-less story of how Ricky and I met up at Boston Calling earlier this year.

Because of the low quality of my iPhone, my data, along with all my text messages, has been wiped out multiple times since the festival, otherwise I would go back and see the exact details of what time Ricky arrived, what I said about you, and a slew of other things that have little or nothing to do with this story. If I had to estimate, I’d say Ricky got to the festival either right before or right after Janelle Monae’s performance, which was obviously a spectacle, as it always is (this was my third time seeing her). All I really know about when Ricky arrived was that he was definitely there for the start of the closing act, Disclosure, who came on stage around 9:30 p.m.

Disclosure is a duo of DJs that apparently likes to get on stage and pretend like they’re playing instruments that contribute to the quality of the sounds the audience is hearing (they don’t). They’re DJs. They could just stand on stage and eat pistachios for 90 minutes, and it would sound exactly the same. But instead they sporadically thumped bass guitar strings and a miniature drum kit to give the audience the impression that they did not waste their money to see them (we did). I already had my money’s worth though because I saw Janelle, I saw Vince Staples, I saw you, Mr. Bradley, and I saw Unknown Mortal Orchestra. That was well worth the price of admission for me.

But Ricky couldn’t say that. Ricky missed the best stuff. I told him what it was like to see The Screaming Eagle of Soul—a man in his late 60s who was just now breaking through as a solo act and put every act around him to shame. A man who carries the essence of what it means to put on a performance in the core of his being, so you can never walk away disappointed. The voice, the energy, the moves, the passion—he lays it all out there, I told Ricky. And then, once Ricky was done kicking himself for missing your set, Mr. Bradley, I let him in on a little secret.

A bit later in the night—later than a normal concert time, but not so late that you could get there after the festival—Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires would be putting on another show. It was at The Sinclair, just across the Charles River in Cambridge, no more miles than you could count on your hand. I told Ricky this, and a twinkle in his eye suggested his mind was doing a bit more than just processing that information. He was trying to figure out what to do with it.

And so about two songs into the Disclosure performance, Ricky tapped me and told me he was leaving. He was coming to see you, Mr. Bradley. I not only understood why he was leaving, but I was jealous of Ricky in that moment. Now I was the one figuring out what experience I’d be missing. But I stood pat. Twice in one day was a bit much, I thought at the time. But of course today, knowing the show I stayed to see and imagining the show I missed, I regret that. Because a few hours later Ricky texted me, now that we had each other’s numbers, to say that you put on the greatest concert he had ever seen.

A few weeks back, maybe even a month ago now, I saw someone post through your Facebook account that you were accepting letters from fans while you fight stomach cancer. I don’t need to tell you or anyone else about the loss the music business has suffered this year, and I don’t need to tell you or anyone else how that has affected me, but I can tell you this, Mr. Bradley. In the brief moments when our paths have crossed, you have given me not just entertainment but an experience.

Everyone who has seen you perform knows what I mean, and I’m sure you know as well. You’re different. You’re the best kind of different. You are who you want to be on that stage, and you love it, and everyone can feel that you love it. And that makes you contagious. For a moment, for an hour, for however long the crowd is in your presence we are not just enjoying the show but jealous of the man we watch. And I can’t wait to see that again, on a stage somewhere, anywhere, in 2017. Neither can Ricky.

All my best,

Mike Nelson

Check out more from Mike Nelson on his blog Mostly America. Follow him on Twitter @MostlyAmerica

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Feel-Good Friday: 6 Joshua Radin Songs To Soothe Your Soul

Photo credit: Stephanie Schaefer

Photo credit: Stephanie Schaefer

By Daniel Ford

I wanted to pay forward some advice that singer-songwriting Joshua Radin shared during his appearance at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre this past Wednesday. He said he was really nervous and unsure of himself when he first started touring, and someone told him that he needed to ditch his envy and his fear.

Naturally, he wrote a song about it, fittingly titled, “No Envy No Fear.” The opening lyrics are perfect advice for any troubled creative type.

Some are reaching, few are there/Want to reign from a hero's chair/Some are scared to fly so high/Well this is how we have to try/Have no envy and no fear

Here are nine more songs to help soothe your soul


Key lyrics for writers: They keep talking at me/I can't hear what they're saying/I need somewhere I can go/Underwater is where I'll go

“Brand New Day”

Key lyrics for writers: Most kind of stories/Save the best part for last/And most stories have a hero who finds/You make your past your past


Key lyrics for writers: The rain falls over your face/Drowned in this place too long/Well I know that the sun shines and fights for your day/You hear it say be strong, and let it go....

“My My Love”

Key lyrics for writers: So many moons have come and gone all alone/I heard this song inside me to wait/I was told but now I found a different sound/I hear when you're around me/It's something new because of you/I hope I hear it forever

“Tomorrow Is Gonna Be Better”

Key lyrics for writers: Sometimes it's easier to hit the road/When the world is givin' you a heavy load/But if you stay and face it, I know.../Tomorrow is gonna be better

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Sweet Soul: 10 Amos Lee Songs You Should Add To Your Writing Playlist

Amos Lee at the Boston Opera House on Sept. 9. Photo courtesy of  Amos Lee's Facebook page

Amos Lee at the Boston Opera House on Sept. 9. Photo courtesy of Amos Lee's Facebook page

By Daniel Ford

I wrote large swaths of my novel listening to singer-songwriter Amos Lee, so I was thrilled I got to see him perform live this past weekend at the Boston Opera House. Never before in my concert-going experience has the venue and performer been such a perfect match. Lee’s soulful, distinctive voice boomed throughout the performance, adding even more weight to his deep lyrics and vocals.

He also gave a shout out to all the teacher’s in the crowd (and there were a considerable number). He said he started out as a teacher, playing live mic nights in town while trying to keep his dream of becoming a recording artist alive.

“Teachers should have an appreciation month,” Lee said, to wild applause. “Have the parents teach for a day and they'd say pay those teachers whatever they want.”

For my money, there is no better artist to write to, particularly if you are breaking your main character's heart repeatedly. Here are 10 songs you should add to your writing playlist ASAP.

“Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight”

Key lyrics: But the people on the street/Out on buses or on feet/We all got the same blood flow/Oh, in society/Every dollar got a deed/We all need a place so we can go/And feel over the rainbow.

The song that started it all. My brothers first saw Amos Lee open for Bob Dylan some time in the mid-2000s, and they got me hooked with this tune. Lee points out in the above video that he wrote the song about his hometown of Philadelphia, but I’ll always think of the first love of my life, New York City, when I hear it. “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight “ was on repeat while I was writing many of the New York scenes in my novel, and I hope some of Lee’s brilliant songwriting and world building seeped into my prose and dialogue.

“Seen It All Before”

Key lyrics: I've seen your tricks/and seen your trade-offs/I've seen your evil ways/I've seen everything/your twisted smile conveys.

Thanks in large part to this song, my main character did see it all, and then some!

“Arms of A Woman”

Key lyrics: I am at ease in the arms of a woman/Although now, most of my days I spend alone/A thousand miles, place I was born/When she wakes me, she takes me back home.

Yes, I’m aware these first three songs are also the first three songs off of Lee’s self-titled 2005 debut album. That’s quite the “Hello!” from a new artist, huh?!

I’m also willing to bet that if my main character Sid Sanford was an actual person, he’d choose this song to define his life.

“Night Train”

Key lyrics: And I'm living in the city/Where the noise, it never stops/Hammers pounding on the pavement/Whistles from traffic cops.

I once ran into a guy I knew in high school on a trip back to New York City via Metro North. He was happy to see me, less because we hadn’t talked to each other in years and more because he had someone to drink with. We took turns taking pulls from a bottle of Jack Daniels as the train lurched its way to the city.

Whenever I hear this song, I think about that night, and all the others I spent riding the rails between my actual home and my adopted one.

“Chill in the Air”

Key lyrics: Well, the morning came like a freight train.

I couldn’t get the above lyric out of my head for a long time. It definitely influenced my revamped prologue and some of the more harrowing moments of my novel. There’s also a hint of optimism in this tune that fights against the darkness.


Key lyrics: I can't even close my eyes now/Between the big fish and ambition, and the lovers/Using words as ammunition/Between the warped planks I've been pacing endless/Impossible dream that I've been chasing

Those lyrics kind of say it all, don’t they? Writing is a motherfucker, and “Violin” perfectly describes the worry, angst, heartache, and desperate hopefulness that fuel the creative process. We’re all just waiting for someone to pull us through.

“What’s Been Going On”

Key lyrics: Those are some of my favorite memories/All of those carefree melodies/While I'm out of here on this raging sea/About to capsize

Again, I thoroughly enjoyed torturing Sid. If we were to have an actual conversation, I’m sure that he’d ask me, “What’s going on?”

“Windows Rolled Down”

Key lyrics: Corn rows have companion feel /This rocky road and this steering wheel/Who do you call to ease your pain/I hope for you to get through this rain

I didn’t realize how many traveling songs Lee pumped out! There’s something about travel and writing that go together. No wonder Amtrak runs that promotion for free rides across the country for aspiring authors.

Anyway, this song reminds me of my brothers. I can imagine us with the windows rolled down headed to our next concert. I hope I did their spirits justice on the page (I also hope that one day they will get to read said pages!).


Key lyrics: Oh I've been waiting up so long/I've been sleeping out so long in the rain/Rain been pouring down/I've been stressing all the time/I can't seem to find/A little piece of mind

Like any good live show, Lee’s Boston Opera performance made me run out and download his new album "Spirit." I haven’t had much time to develop favorites yet, but this one is at the top of the list so far.

“The Man Who Wants You”

Key lyrics: Misty mouth lady, won’t you borrow me tonight/I ain’t having the same one/He did not treat you right/I don’t want you to be untrue/I don’t want you to be untrue/But the truth is, I’m the man who wants you

Always good to end on an upbeat, hoppin’, booty-shaking note on a Monday! Plus, how many music videos feature vinyl being pressed?! 

The Writer’s Guide to Music Archives

Album Review: Frank Ocean's 'Blonde'

By Robert Masiello

Frank Ocean’s long-awaited follow-up to "Channel Orange" is marred by distractions. Its long gestation is a distraction. The visual “teaser” album Endless (which dropped days before the proper album) is a distraction. His tumultuous relationship with record label Def Jam is a distraction. 

And while these distractions do generate well-deserved hype, they also, in a way, detract from the 28-year-old songwriter’s own humanity. Ocean himself acknowledges this on the final track: “Sometimes I feel like I’m a god, but I’m not a god, if I was I don’t know which heaven would have me.” The hype surrounding "Blonde" essentially morphed into a sense of entitlement. Fans didn’t want a new Frank Ocean album, they deserved one. 

Delay after delay, one speculated release date after another, and many cryptic hints later, "Blonde" finally came to fruition. It’s a long, shapeshifting beast that showcases its creator’s many talents. Unlike "Channel Orange," which consisted of songs seemingly written from the perspective of distinct characters, "Blonde" delves deep into Ocean’s own psyche as a songwriter and human being. 

The first track on "Blonde." and a single, “Nikes” is somewhat of a red herring, but still no less than a classic. Ocean’s voice is mechanically altered, as if a vocoder is gripping his lungs. It also contains the album’s most obvious social commentary, while the rest is more confessional in nature. Ocean effortlessly denounces materialism, but the real-gut punch comes when he addresses even darker corners of our country’s political and social climate. “RIP Trayvon, that kid looked just like me,” he eulogizes, his voice warped yet somehow still resigned. It’s the first show-stopping moment on an album littered with them. 

Elsewhere, "Blonde" blossoms with expert song craft, the kind that forces you to pause and rewind 30 seconds to hear certain segments again. “White Ferrari” begins innocuously, until about the two-minute mark, when Ocean’s multi-tracked vocals swell up over a light guitar strum. It builds like a storm as Ocean, in possibly his most moving vocal performance to date, wails “Mind over matter is magic/I do magic,” and the instrumentation becomes chaotic. He could have chosen to ride this wave of distortion and vocal prowess for at least another minute, but instead everything quickly simmers, segueing into a hallucinatory poem recited by Justin Vernon. It’s an interesting trick on Ocean’s part, not quite giving a listener the full climax they expect. But like a true artist, he leaves the listener begging for more.

The 17 tracks here flourish with guest appearances, none of which overshadow Ocean himself. Even Beyonce’s contribution is limited to a few hushed vocal runs on the sublime, dreamy “Pink and White.” Andre 3000 is given the most prominent appearance, and he rips through a verse that’s equal parts yearning and resilient. Sonically, the album features elements of classic rock and psychedelia in ways that recall Miguel’s "Wildheart," although "Blonde" is far more stripped-down and intimate. 

"Blonde" pauses for a few unconventional interludes. The first is “Be Yourself,” which is actually an authentic voicemail from the mother of Ocean’s childhood friend. The speaker advices “Be yourself and know that that’s good enough… Do not consume alcohol, do not smoke marijuana… This is Mom, call me, bye.” A cursory glimpse of the full transcript may lead someone to assume Ocean is mocking this woman, but the reality seems to be that he is expressing a profound respect for her. Her words and guidance are immortalized by including them on this record. Later in the album, French producer SebastiAn reflects upon technology’s influence on modern relationships. 

Even when "Blonde" deals with longing and unrequited love, the lyrics never veer into jealousy or retribution. “Keep a place for me,” goes the chorus of “Self Control,” “I’ll sleep between ya’ll, it’s nothing.” On “Godspeed” he promises another, “You’ll have this place to call home, always.” He could be addressing a lover, an ex, or a family member, and the song’s ambiguity only adds to the overwhelming power of his words. Gospel singer Kim Burrell hovers over the track’s final minute like a ghost, pledging love “until the time we die.” The whole thing could easily come off as hackneyed, but it’s unflinching sincerity elevates it to something more like a prayer than a song.

Upon first listen, "Blonde" hardly feels like a radical album. It’s too aurally pleasant, and too introverted. It is at times political, though hardly radical in that sense. Even Ocean’s much-publicized bisexuality hardly feels radical anymore. But "Blonde" is radical in its commitment to love. Throughout the course of the album, Ocean expands upon his love of music, romantic love, love for himself, love for his mother, love for a black child whose life was taken too soon.

Uncertainty and doubt are explored with a certain gracefulness utterly lacking in most modern pop. He is warm and empathetic at a time when icy detachment is more fashionable. And in a world that constantly feels like it’s breaking apart at the seams, it’s hard to imagine an album more important than this one.

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Get On Up: 5 Songs to Make You Smile While You Work

Photo courtesy of  Grammerly

Photo courtesy of Grammerly

By Daniel Ford

During our recent podcast at Brookline Booksmith with a foursome of horror authors, Sean Tuohy asked an intriguing question:

Can writers talk about happy things?

Sure, authors spend a lot of time torturing main characters—both emotionally and physically—but they must be able to unplug and enjoy things like a bouquet of puppies or a surprisingly warm review from The New York Times, right?

To find the answer to Sean’s question, I compiled five songs that just might melt your brooding writer façade. Feel free to add your own happy tunes in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

“Take It Slow” by The Mallett Brothers Band

Key lyrics: You can't slow down/You can't sit still/But the morning comes like they always will/When the sun comes up you gotta fill that cup /And your flat tire runs on the ground/And you're getting real low cause you're hanging round/Baby, can't you see/You gotta let it be

Maybe those pages kicked your ass today. Maybe you got some bad news from a literary agent or publisher. Maybe you’re screaming at your blinking cursor as if it’s the root cause of all your subpar ideas.

Your motor may always be running, but you can’t let it overheat. Take The Mallett Brothers Band’s advice: Take it slow for a couple minutes and “just let it slide.”

“Hold On” by Alabama Shakes

Key lyrics: You got to come on up/You got to hold on.

When Brittany Howard tells you to get on up, you do it!

“You Make Me Feel So Young” by Frank Sinatra

Key lyrics: The moment that you speak/I wanna go play hide-and-seek/I wanna go and bounce the moon/Just like a toy balloon

Obligatory Frank Sinatra song. But seriously, you can’t feel anything but young, fresh, and in love when you listen to this tune. You’ll also want to run through the park like Phoebe from “Friends.”

“This Magic Moment” by The Drifters

Key lyrics: Sweeter than wine/Softer than the summer night/Everything I want I have/Whenever I hold you tight

Yeah, I know, this song is used every time the boy finds the girl, kisses the girl, or wins the girl in any movie or television show set in the 1960s. You know why? Because this song never fucking gets old. You’d have to be heartless to find any fault with it. Plus, Michael “Squints” Palledorous…

“How Bad We Need Each Other” by Marc Scibilia

Key lyrics: You know I can get so high on myself sometimes/I keep on drifting a million miles from this planet/But what a shame it would be to look back on our life/And realize that I've taken you and me for granted/Not gonna do it now

Boy, do we badly need the sentiments found in Marc Scibilia’s exuberant, hopeful lyrics or what? The world is a mess, which is all the more reason we should find ways to stick together and stay positive rather than shrink from the gruesome news and divide ourselves.   

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Album Review: Radiohead’s 'A Moon Shaped Pool'

By Robert Masiello

On May 1, Radiohead gradually erased their online presence. For any other band, this probably would have been seen as a hackneyed attempt to generate buzz. But disappearance has always been Radiohead’s favorite trick. Live performances are known to end with the band exiting stage one by one. Songs with titles such as “How to Disappear Completely” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” are longtime fan favorites. So Radiohead’s Internet blackout wasn’t some desperate attempt at pseudo-profundity; it was their way of letting fans know that new music was imminent.

And sure enough, the band shortly thereafter dropped their ninth studio album, “A Moon Shaped Pool.” Undoubtedly, the album is among Radiohead’s finest achievements. It contains some of the most conventionally beautiful and melodic music they’ve ever released, while still offering the kind of genre-bending experimentation Radiohead is known for. It’s a gentler, more focused album than 2011’s “The King of Limbs” and less overtly electronic than what we’ve come to expect from them.

“Burn the Witch” was the first track released from “A Moon Shaped Pool,” and, like many of the songs on this album, it has existed on their live set list for quite some time. It’s a skittish, anxious thing, with piercing strings and ominous lyrics that read like a disaster plan. As a band, Radiohead has always sounded decidedly futuristic, one step ahead of everyone else both sonically and politically. But “Burn the Witch” is immediate and anguished. The song isn’t a warning; it’s a reflection of our present state.

It’s worth mentioning that the tracks on “A Moon Shaped Pool” are sequenced alphabetically. As such, the frantic “Burn the Witch” segues somewhat unexpectedly into the languid, sublime “Daydreaming.” It’s a disarmingly personal song that seems to reflect on Yorke’s separation from longtime partner Rachel Owen. The piano swells and simmers, never lapsing into ambient wallpaper, but never quite climaxing either. Yorke’s warped, backwards vocals swallow the song during the coda, lamenting “half of my life… half of my life…” (a possible reference to his 23-year relationship). It’s exquisite and shattering. 

Most of “A Moon Shaped Pool” continues with this plaintive, hypnotic mood. But it’s easy to get lost in the album’s beauty and lose sight of the cryptic lyrics and queasy atmospherics. The middle-third in particular spirals into a sort of paranoid nausea, with references such as “a spacecraft blocking out the sky,” and, “a wreck of mankind.” Like all the best works of art, this album makes the intimate feel universal, and vice-versa. When Yorke sings, “I am doing no harm as my world comes crashing down,” it feels both political and personal.

Despite being renowned for their forward thinking and experimentation, Radiohead have always been at their most breathtaking when they go right for the gut. This holds true on this album. “Glass Eyes” picks up where “Daydreaming” left off, a devastating lullaby that begs for connectedness and love in a world of “concrete grey faces.” The production is transcendent, sounding almost as if the piano were recorded underwater, both muted and visceral.

For an album so consistently magnificent, Radiohead somehow managed to leave the most memorable moment for the end. Closer “True Love Waits” was first performed live about 20 years ago, and has remained a favorite of fans since then. Despite its universal love and acclaim, the band never gave it a proper studio recording, with Yorke stating they couldn’t get it quite right. Finally, it rests at the conclusion of “A Moon Shaped Pool,” having transitioned from an acoustic guitar strummer to a divine piano ballad. “Just don’t leave,” Yorke pleads, his voice sitting at the top of the mix, stark and creaking. It’s an overwhelmingly beautiful portrait of anxiety, describing how desperately we attempt to cling to moments of joy and love. Considering its long gestation, it’s arguably the crowning moment of Radiohead’s career, and closes out what may be the most affecting album you hear all year.

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Writing Angry: 7 Songs to Ignite the Flame

By Daniel Ford and Dave Pezza

As you can see from the above photo, Stephanie Schaefer correctly points out that I have more angst in my little finger than she does in her entire body (Dave Pezza also adds a deep quote about the writing life).

On days like today, when even the street signs feel like extended middle fingers, that angst can propel my writing so I’m able to pump out stories like “343” or “Cherry on Top.”

In that spirit, Pezza and I compiled a list of songs that should add a little fire to your words.

“The Pretender” by The Foo Fighters

Lyrics for writers: “The page is out of print/We are not permanent/We're temporary, temporary/Same old story”

Daniel: Let’s. Go.

“Thin Line” by HoneyHoney

Lyrics for writers: Some days I try hard/To watch my mouth/To say the right things But the wrong just slip right out”

Daniel: Not all anger is a raging hot volcano of cursing and spitting. Sometimes it simmers just below the surface like a dollar bill stuffed in your waistline by a hammy fist attached to a sweaty meathead (I’m assuming). HoneyHoney is a band that never fails to warm your boiler to just the right temperature.

“Heart of the City” by Jay Z

Lyrics for writers: “Ain't no love, in the heart of the city/I said where's the love?/Ain't no love, in the heart of town”

Daniel: Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Sometimes you need a little New York City swagger in your life when the world isn’t breaking your way. I’d also recommend everything on “The Black Album.” I’d also be 150% less angry if I had a quarter of Jay Z’s money.   

“My Least Favorite Life” by Lera Lynn

Lyrics for writers: This is my least favorite life/The one where I am out of my mind/The one where you are just out of reach/The one where I stay and you fly”

Dave: Sneaky angry. You can hear her anger bubbling under the surface of the eerie timbre of her guitar and voice, making you shiver and clench fists all in one breathe that is humid with epinephrine.

“Arsonist’s Lullabye” by Hozier

Lyrics for writers: “All you have is your fire/And the place you need to reach/Don't you ever tame your demons/But always keep them on a leash”

Daniel: As you can tell by now, we’re fans of the slow burn. Doesn’t mean you can’t use a blowtorch (to your prose, people, stay of the news) while you’re stewing in your own fury.

“Respect” by Otis Redding

Lyrics for writers: “And I'm about to, just give you all of my money/And all I'm asking, hey/A little respect when I come home, hey, hey.”

Daniel: Sure, Otis is smiling while he sings “Respect” but, man, he sounds like a man who had to watch “House Hunters International” one too many times. 

“Powderfinger” by Neil Young

Lyrics for writers: All of them. It’s a David Joy story waiting to happen.

Daniel: Red means run, son.

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The Top 10 Albums of 2015

By Robert Masiello

Another year races by, another onslaught of fantastic music releases to keep up with. In a world that appears to be “going to shit,” as a dear friend put it so eloquently last month, it only seems fitting that many of the year’s very best albums are somewhat tortured and unpredictable.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, with pop music finding new saviors in Grimes and Carley Rae Jepsen.

The following selection represents a peek of what the year had to offer, but is by no means comprehensive. More importantly, this is not a ranked list. It is incomprehensible to rank high quality music, particularly across genres. How could it be argued that the year’s best techno release is somehow “better” than one of the superb folk offerings?

That being said, Writer’s Bone presents to you the 10 Best Albums of 2015:

“Art Angels” by Grimes

Tumblr kids lost their shit when Grimes released “Visions” in 2012, a set of ethereal, handcrafted electronic pop tracks that needed no big-name collaborators to gain traction. At that point, I didn’t quite get Grimes. I respected her, but “Visions” didn’t resonate with me the way it did with others. As such, when it was finally revealed that she was releasing a follow up, I couldn’t buy into the hype. Factor in a pre-release video that basically encompassed everything I found irritating about her, as well as the promise of “alter-egos” and diss tracks on the new album, and I never even intended to give “Art Angels” a listen. Fortunately, I came around. This is a maniacal, subversive, thrilling, infectious beast of an album. Entirely self-produced, this isn’t the sound of Grimes selling out; it’s the sound of a songwriting force to be reckoned with. Best of all, it’s not a cynical or ironic take on pop music. It just slays.

“Vulnicura” by Bjork

While nothing that Bjork puts her name on could be considered bad, it’s safe to say that her releases over the past 10 years didn’t quite measure up to her classics such as “Homogenic” and “Vespertine.” Fortunately that changes with “Vulnicura,” a devastating breakup album that could not have been made by anyone else. This album chronicles her failed marriage to Matthew Barney with mesmerizing arrangements, soaring vocals, and searing lyrics. This may be Bjork’s “complete heartbreak album,” as she explained in an interview, but she never plays the victim. “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions,” she seethes in the stunning centerpiece “Black Lake.” Distinctive producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak lend a haunting electronic soundscape to several tracks, but this is Bjork’s work, and she’s never overshadowed by their input.

“A Year With 13 Moons” by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma

“A Year With 13 Moons” is a stunning foil to “Vulnicura.” Both are “breakup albums,” but whereas “Vulnicura” is propelled by Bjork’s dynamic voice and painstaking lyrical details, “A Year With 13 Moons” lacks both words and voice. Not quite ambient and not quite shoegaze, these 16 tracks represent the gradual disintegration of a relationship, capturing moments of romance, longing, and disappointment along the way.

“Grind” by DJ Richard

No, perhaps the world didn’t need another icy, bleary-eyed techno record. But if it’s good as this, we’ll take it. It’s 2:00 a.m., and you just stepped out of the club. Your eyes adjust to the streetlights. You’ve sent your ex a text you’ll most definitely regret in the morning. Your cab driver is quiet, and the only sound is a cold rain against the windshield. Your life has never felt more cinematic than this exact moment. This is the soundtrack. As far as techno goes, Grind won’t necessarily light up the dance floor, but it will accompany you in the afterhours. 

“Carrie & Lowell” by Sufjan Stevens

I had lost hope in Sufjan Stevens. Of course, like every other sensitive teen of the 00’s, his seminal album Illinois provided a wistful soundtrack to my high school experience. But after the overblown, misguided mess that was 2010’s “The Age of Adz,” I had no interest in his output going forward. Then this year, he dropped the delicate, masterful Carrie & Lowell, a poignant examination of his troubled relationship with his late mother. The album tackles big themes—grief, neglect, suicide, lapsed Christianity—with grace and wisdom. Rather ironic that, in detailing the collapse of his faith, Sufjan crafted his most spiritual album to date.

“Wildheart” by Miguel

Imagine if Lenny Kravitz and Bruno Mars recorded an album together. Now imagine if it didn’t suck. I know that’s a tall order, but it’s the only way I can begin to describe “Wildheart.” Miguel’s comeback somehow fuses R&B, funk, and dad rock into a breezy, hook-filled album that sounds like little else. Tackling a variety of subject matter, from fleeting relationships (“Leaves”) to igniting a party (“Waves”), Miguel is flawless throughout. Better yet, “Wildheart” is devoid of the misogyny and tastelessness that continues to plague neo-R&B artists like The Weeknd.

“E*MO*TION” by Carley Rae Jepsen

The woman behind 2012’s inescapable “Call Me Maybe” released a sublime pop album this year and…no one bought it. The singles flopped. Pop radio ignored her. Please tell me what’s going on here. In a world where smut like “Cheerleader” and “Rude” become number one hits, the impeccably executed songs of “E*MO*TION” have gone largely unheard. It’s a shame, because Jepsen is smart, talented, and just the right amount of weird. Whether she’s falling in love, falling out of love, or cruising for a hookup, the music is catchy, charming, and quirky from start to finish.

“Frozen Niagara Falls” by Prurient

Little can be said about this massive double-album, which sits at the intersection of electronic music and black metal, it simply must be experienced. “Frozen Niagara Falls” features tortured vocals, blitzkriegs of noise, and harsh static; it’s not for the faint of heart. And yet, for all its nihilism and despair, it’s perhaps Prurient’s most accessible work yet. The album’s narrative focuses on New York City, painting it mostly as an unforgiving, dystopian world. But for all its bleakness, the core of this album nearly begs for human connection. “The East River isn’t romantic anymore you know / that’s where the suicides go,” he mutters on “Greenpoint,” one of the few moments where his words come through with clarity.

“Platform” by Holly Herndon

One could conceivably write a thesis about “Platform,” so trying to interpret it in 100 or so words feels unjust. This album is many things. It’s a series of electronic compositions that celebrate the human voice. It’s an unhinged critique of capitalism. It’s an ode to technology. It’s a warning. It’s a masterpiece.

“M3LL155X” by FKA Twigs

No one is making music like FKA Twigs right now. No other artist possesses her clarity of vision, her focus, her sultriness, or her strength. Last year’s “LP1” dazzled, but her “M3LL155X” (pronounced “Melissa”) EP from this year is somehow even stronger. Equal parts terrifying, mesmerizing, and beautiful, “M3LL155X” showcases FKA Twigs’ most complex, enthralling songwriting to date. “In Time” probably has the most Top 40 potential of any song she’s released, sounding like a darker, more lush Rihanna track. But while Rihanna often sounds like she’s being brash for the sake of being brash, FKA Twigs’ songs are far more confident and elegant.

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