5. Marsha Ambrosius – Friends & Lovers
In 2011 Adele kept this R&B singer-songwriter from debuting at #1 on the big chart; this year “Run” stopped at #13 on adult R&B. A Slate article I wrote a couple months ago explained the obstacles facing these women. But maybe the adult R&B chart is Ambrosius’ natural home anyway: the stretch from “Shoes” to the Charlie Wilson duet “Spend My Time with You” delineates a vision domestic tranquility that doesn’t start with cooking breakfast but doesn’t end with looking for misplaced clothes and toiletries.
4. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’
“Chances Are”? “When I Come Around?” “Not Forgotten You”? In the days of cassettes I’d find them on interstate gas stations, cheapo Roger Whittaker and Ronnie Milsap and Anne Murray comps boasting titles as generic. But the comparison ends. For a while the Neil Young cover (“Out on the Weekend”) was the standout; nothing at the level of Call Me Crazy‘s “The Bees” and “Solitary Thinkin‘,” or a random selection from 2005’s classic There’s More Where That Came From. Several plays later, “Send It on Down,” “Tomorrow Night in Baltimore,” and especially “Don’t Listen to the Wind” reveal themselves as some of the toughest songs in Lee Ann Womack’s career, thanks to producer Frank Lidell’s precise arrangements — the kind of album where a pedal steel whine here, a drum brush there (Matt Chamberlain!), and a harmony on choruses needing one mean the difference between K-tel and career best.
3. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
What I wrote: “Wedded to a genre perfected in the mid eighties whose stratification of noise scraped off confessional goo, [Laura Jane] Grace is determined to keep on churning, determined to prove that restlessness and joy can co-exist, and wisdom lies in letting the tangle be.” The impatient tempos and punishing chords bespeak the bullshit called “closure,” and so do the nonsensical titles and flawed, hollow self-production. In other words, Grace holds fast to her adolescent youth to make sense of the person she’s becoming — or realizing. Also: the songs are catchy.
2. Babyface & Toni Braxton – Love, Marriage & Divorce
If R&B still had its nineties reach, I would claim this album as clear-eyed and sad a portrait of a marriage as Shoot Out the Lights, Avalon, and Here, My Dear. Its strength is in the delicacy of feeling expressed by the performers: Babyface, weighing each verse carefully, plays a cad without a shred of fatuousness; Braxton, following the advice of acting coach Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie and not showing her anger like a second-rate actress, gives as good as she gets (and she cheated too). Get the extended version for “Let’s Do It,” shuffling like vintage Stargate circa 2006 (with the most apt ooh-oohs since Ne-Yo’s “Sexy Love”), where they pledge to one more time, one last night, for the memories of what they had at front, and most of all, for the sex that they they may never have again.
1. Miranda Lambert – Platinum
The first time in ages I follow consensus, and for a while Babyface-Braxton presented a temptation as irresistible as the young thing whom ‘face eyes in the bar; but Miranda Lambert’s fifth album was such a indelible concatenation of strengths and experiences that every time I played it I was thrilled. After several years as a kind of Peter Paul Rubens of Texas encouraging Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley, Kacey Musgraves, and Brandy Clark, she spends an hour playing with expectations of womanhood. “Automatic” still makes me shiver: years writing about fleeing podunk towns and she still gets soft at the thought of land lines, yuck. But “Okie from Muskogee” was part of Merle Haggard’s legacy too; I expect him to be the putative rebel with the reactionary side, though, not Lambert. In June, I wrote: “Flanked by [Ashley] Monroe and Angaleena Presley, she redresses the limits of what Nashville pro songwriting imposes on men — that women must figure as evocatory totems for nights drinkin’ by the swimmin’ hole, wrapped in as much gauze as Jessica Lange in All That Jazz. On her own albums Lambert leads studio hands comprised of men, and if she can smoke and drink as much and as well as she claims, then absorbing their platitudes about women is the devil’s bargain.” But as much as R&B women performers in country have to learn, as Ann Powers wrote about Beyonce, to find “commonalities between the role of the pop performer, whose commercially driven mandate is to stimulate desire, and the feminist thinker, who seeks to illuminate how desire is shaped by sexist stereotypes, including the idea that women are primarily sexual.” I also wrote that Platinum is the best she can do. Wrong. She’s going to do better.