Archive for December, 2011
Because I’m just that much of a music geek, I try every year to put together a list of my 10 favorite albums of the year. Too often, I get bogged down and never actually winnow my list of, say, 23 albums down to 10. Other times, I manage to pick a Top 10 but then never actually finish writing the post, er, announcing them. This year, though, I was disciplined, and my list—of, hey, an actual 10!—is ready for you.
If you’re here, you probably already know that I enjoy country music, especially music on the Americana fringes. But you’d definitely know it after you see the list. It was certainly a good year for Americana.
So, in reverse order, here are my Top 10 albums of 2011.
10. Here We Rest, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s this bar and this cover band, trying to fake their way through ‘Castles Made of Sand.’ That’s one thing I can’t stand.” That’s how the year’s best (really!) song, Jason Isbell’s “Codeine,” begins. The narrator’s complaints go on, culminating in a story about his drug-addicted ex, his broken heart, and, well, beautiful fiddle sounds. I find Isbell’s bluesy vocals almost irresistible, but I’m not resisting—especially when they’re paired with such a well-written, well-structured song. Also highly recommended: “Alabama Pines,” a complicated story of nostalgia for, and alienation from, one’s birthplace.
9. Hayes Carll’s KMAG YOYO (& other American stories) – When I grow up, I want to be a songwriter like Hayes Carll. The title track is written from the point-of-view of a 19-year-old soldier. It’s Carll’s appealing voice, sure, but he’s somehow channeling an entirely different being—a kid caught up in the manic craziness of one of our current wars. The superb “Another Like You,” a duet with Cary Ann Hearst, immediately follows. The back-and-forth between Carll and Hearst—playing two wildly incompatible honky-tonkers who are nevertheless about to hook up—makes me smile every time. And when I get to “Grateful for Christmas,” an earnest appreciation of getting together with aging family, I’m just downright impressed with Carll’s emotional range. So good!
8. Oh Fortune by Dan Mangan – Canada’s Dan Mangan first grabbed my attention with “Robots” (“robots need love, too,” you know?), a quirky, upbeat folk-pop song from his 2009 release Nice, Nice, Very Nice. So when I heard that Mangan’s follow-up was darker and moodier, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. But, oh, I did. With its lush orchestration, moody sounds, and brooding vocals about war and death, Oh Fortune demanded my attention. I’d be hard-pressed to pick just two or three songs to call to your attention; this is really an album that you should consider as a whole. But if you twisted my arm, I’d play the opening (“About as Helpful as You Can Be…”) and closing (“Jeopardy”) cuts for you before pronouncing Oh Fortune a real artistic breakthrough.
7. Gillian Welch’s The Harrow & The Harvest – In the eight years since her last release, Soul Journey, Gillian Welch’s work hasn’t changed all that much. The neo-Appalachian instrumentation, the masterful harmonies (with longtime partner David Rawlings), the strong songwriting—they’re all still there. Thank goodness! Even if I’d forgotten—just a little, I promise—how much we needed Welch, I’m grateful now for this album of small-scale gems. Standouts: “The Way It Will Be” and “The Way the Whole Thing Ends.”
If you’re on Spotify, you can listen here to The Harrow & the Harvest.
6. Blessed by Lucinda Williams – Confession: I’ve been taking Lucinda Williams for granted. I played Blessed at my first opportunity and liked it immediately. But when it came time to pick my favorite albums of the year, I just sort of assumed Blessed wouldn’t make the list. Williams’s best work occurred more than a decade ago, right? Why would it be in this list? Well, as I listened to this year’s contenders again (and again!), I kept nudging Blessed higher and higher. Williams’s voice is as strong as ever, and this is an album of songs, each one full of content and emotion. Blessed deserves to be on the list. I’m particularly drawn to the title track—and, on the other end of the emotional spectrum, “Buttercup,” a song of angry heartbreak.
5. Rip Tide, Beirut – At one time, Beirut was just another way of saying Zach Condon’s name. He was Beirut. But Condon has become a bandleader along the way, and Beirut has become a real band. It’s no ordinary band, of course. It’s a Balkan brass band gone Mariachi. Or vice versa. Or something. Nothing sounds quite like Beirut, anyway—which, of course, means I love it. You’ve surely heard “Santa Fe” by now. If you liked it, you’ll like “East Harlem” and “Vagabond,” too. (P.S. For what it’s worth, the best concert I found myself at in 2011—and I managed to attend a lot of concerts—was Beirut’s. See this band in person.)
On Spotify, listen here to Looping State of Mind.
3. Chief by Eric Church – I’m genuinely surprised that a mainstream country album is so high on my list, but it’s hard to deny the quality of Chief. And I sure won’t. Admittedly, there’s some silly country-music posturing here—ok, we get that Church wants to be an outlaw!—but even the worst of that (maybe on “Keep On,” about a drinker who’s ready to fight for a woman he just met) is done with style and charm. What’s most appealing are the slow songs—of love and respect for staples as diverse as “Jack Daniels” and “Springsteen.” It’s a shame there isn’t more honky-tonk in today’s country music, but at least we fans have Eric Church.
2. Portugal. The Man’s In the Mountain in the Cloud – I’m not really sure why the reviews of Portugal. The Man’s In the Mountain weren’t more consistently positive. Maybe there was some sense that the long-established band’s major-label debut would necessarily have to be inferior or, at least, show telltale signs of selling out. That kind of thinking is hogwash, of course. What matters, anyway, is that In the Mountain contains gorgeous psychedelia, some of the best work ever by the band. And In the Mountain truly holds up as an album, with each track flowing naturally and logically into the next. The album sets a mood right away and sticks with it. I’ve been playing the heck out of it since the summer, and I won’t be stopping anytime soon. Favorite tracks: “So American” and “Senseless.”
1. Indestructible Machine by Lydia Loveless – You probably haven’t heard of Lydia Loveless, and that’s a downright shame. Barely 21, she already sounds like the second coming of Loretta Lynn. Loveless’s songs, anyway, are about the same kinds of things—womanizers, booze, men who won’t take the hint—that Lynn built a career on. But this Loretta Lynn has gone (cow)punk. “Bad Way to Go” starts off the album at breakneck pace, and the album barely lets up for the next 40 minutes. Along the way, there’s a stretch of three songs that, I guarantee, will pretty much take your breath away. Those songs—“How Many Women,” “Jesus Was a Wino,” and “Steve Earle”—are among the year’s absolute best. And the fact that they’re on the same album, one following the other, is stunning. Hands down, Indestructible Machine is the year’s best.
On Spotify, you can listen to Indestructible Machine here.
Honorable mentions: Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass, Brooklyn Rider; Go-Go Boots, Drive-By Truckers; The Party Ain’t Over, Wanda Jackson; Little Red Boots, Lindi Ortega; New History Warfare Vol. 2, Colin Stetson; and Sleep with One Eye Open, Chris Thile & Michael Daves.