2009 was an interesting year for music. I discovered some great new artists, some of my favorites had new releases, and there seemed to be a bunch of mediocre albums that I gave listens to, but didn’t catch my ear.
Let’s start with my Top 15 of 2009. There were three albums vying heavily for the top spot. I went with my new musical ‘discovery’.
1. Those Darlins – Those Darlins
“If you don’t want a wild one, quit hanging ‘round with me. You knew right from the start that’s my personality. If you can’t handle crazy, then go ahead & leave” – Wild One
I was intrigued the moment I saw this album listed as being ‘cow-punk’. That’s exactly the best way to describe it. It’s a bit old hillbilly, a bit punk, a bit alternative, and great three-part harmonies. It’s kind of Carter Family and Loretta Lynn meet the Murmurs or the Dixie Chicks with a bit of a punk-ish edge.
2. Brandi Carlile – Give up the ghost
“when you’re outside looking in, you belong to someone. And when you feel like giving in, or the coming of the end, like your heart could break in two, someone loves you”. – Looking out
It’s hard to top her previous release, The Story, as I think I had it on ‘repeat’ for over a year, but GUTG is a pretty good follow up. The album begins with looking out, which is kind of in the vein of the Story as it starts a bit soft and melts into a full-blown Brandi rocker. Dreams is the first single released, and is kind of a ‘typical’ mainstream single. One of the album’s highlights is the duet with Elton John on Caroline. If there was no you reminds me of something that would have been sung by Peter, Paul & Mary (including the whistling).
As with most of Brandi’s music, Give up the ghost really highlights the instrumentation, which complements her voice tremendously. Guitar, cello, piano, and harmonies from ‘the Twins’ are each allowed their chance to stand out. While I wouldn’t rate this album better than the Story, it’s certainly a great compilation of songs.
3. Patty Loveless – Mountain Soul II
“She’s an old friend. She’s a good friend. Hair of golden, eyes of saddened. She’s a won’t be long friend, til she’s gone, then leaves you hangin’ in fool’s thin air.” – Fool’s Thin Air
Mountain Soul II is a sequel to Patty’s incredible 2001 album, Mountain Soul. As with most things, sequels have a hard time living up to the originals. That’s somewhat the case with this one. While II is a great album, it still can’t rival the original. It might have helped if she named it something else to give the album its own identity and not incur the comparisons of the first one.
As for the album itself, it contains a great compilation of ‘mountain music’ – with acoustic instruments like mandolin, dobro, fiddle, banjo, etc. The one thing that is continuously highlighted – on both albums – is the wonderful harmonies. If you meld great harmonies with great instrumentation, you know you’re going to have an album that’s included in my Top 5.
The album starts off with an old-style version of John Conlee’s classic, Busted. I like Patty’s version here. I think it actually works better for the song than the original ‘mainstream’ version done by John. Another remake that I enjoy here is Blue Memories, a song that I usually identify with Gail Davies. A few highlights of the album for me are Fool’s thin air, When the last curtain falls, You burned the bridge, and Bramble and the rose.
4. Jack Ingram – Big Dreams & High Hopes
“wishing on stars only when you see ‘em is like asking God for help only when you need it. But, I’m wishing anyway. Yeah, I’m wishing anyway.” – Seeing Stars
There are those semi-mainstream country artists that actually keep me tuning in each time they crank out their next album. Jack Ingram is one of them. With Jack, it’s not just the melodies that keep me hooked, but he’s a great songwriter. There are two featured guests on this album. One is Patty Griffin, who provides splendid harmonies on Seeing Stars. Dierks Bentley joins in on the bar sing-a-long, Barbie Doll. There are a number of highlights on this album. The biggest one being Seeing Stars, followed by King of Wasted Time, In the corner, Barefoot & Crazy, That’s a man, and Not giving up on me. All of them are wonderfully written.
5. Rosanne Cash – the list
“Motherless children have a hard time when the mother is gone. Motherless children have a hard time, there’s all that weepin’ and all that cryin’.” – Motherless Children
There are run-of-the-mill cover albums, and then there are cover albums like The List. It’s the story behind this album that actually makes it more than just another cover album. Back in the mid-70s, Rosanne’s father, Johnny Cash, gave her a list of 100 essential country songs. With this album, Rosanne re-works a dozen from that list.
So, what else does an artist do to ensure having a not-so-run-of-the-mill cover album? You include some great guest artists to help you sing them. In this compilation, Bruce Springsteen ads a touch of star power on Sea of Heartbreak. Elvis Costello makes an appearance on Heartaches by the number. Rufus Wainright sings on Silver Wings, and Jeff Tweedy adds his talents to Long black veil. Rosanne’s daughter, Chelsea Crowell, also makes a brief appearance on 500 Miles.
The greatest thing this album does is brings light to some great songs from the golden age of country music for a new generation to hear.
6. Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke – a bitter harvest
“and I’ve been watching through your window, and I’ve been swallowing the rain. Oh I’ve been worried ‘bout tomorrow, ‘cuz everything is gonna change” – This Painful Summer
You know how much I LOVE harmonies, and acoustic harmonies even more. That’s what drew me to this album. Well, that and Wyatt’s deep voice. His voice is kind of like Tex Ritter’s, or maybe some of those western tv show theme songs, like Lorne Greene’s Bonanza. In fact, this album feels like it should be a soundtrack to an old western movie. There’s even some yodeling on Someday I’ll fall. At one point, Crippled farms, reminded me a bit of Pink Floyd’s another brick in the wall.
7. Kelly Clarkson – All I ever wanted
“remember all the things we wanted. Now all the memories, they’re haunted. We were always meant to say goodbye. Even with our fists held high it never would have worked out right, yeah. We were never meant for do or die.” – Already gone
I’m glad that Kelly has found her niche as more ‘rocker girl’ rather than another run-of-the-mill dancey-pop artist. Her voice is allowed to shine much brighter and more powerful this way. The album opens with My life would suck without you – which, as the title suggests, is kind of the standard “don’t leave me, I need you” song, but has a dance-y beat that get stuck in your head. Along with the opening track, Already Gone and Save You are also amongst my favorites.
8. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – speed of life
“Waitin’ for the resurrection. Fire from the ashes & the tears. The resurrection. You know dreams die hard. Dreams die hard around here.” – The Resurrection
You can never go wrong with the boys of Dirt. Harmonicas, mandolins, banjos, great harmonies, and more. Even after all these decades, the music never gets old. And what can I say about this album that hasn’t been said about their music throughout the years? It’s just more of the same great Dirt Band music from beginning to end. They don’t try to make it different because it’s been a winning combination throughout all the years. It’s just like sitting on the porch and having an acoustic jam session.
9. Willie Nelson – Naked Willie
“I just dropped by to see the house I used to live in. I hope that you don’t mind. I won’t stay very long. So long ago someone & I lived here together. And then so suddenly I found myself alone. I couldn’t stand the thought of living here without her. And so I moved away to let my memories die. But my memories outlived my better judgement. This may sound strange to you, but I just thought I’d drop by." – I Just Dropped By
There’s no one more prolific at putting out music than Willie Nelson. With so much Willie music available, you would think it would get old. Yet, I still look forward to all of them. Willie’s voice is still as strong as ever. Yes, the title of this album may conjur up horrifying images, but Naked Willie (the album) is quite a pleasure to listen to. The title refers to Willie singing by himself. While he’s singing by himself, the songs aren’t all his. He has some great covers, like Sunday morning coming down, Johnny one time, and The Party’s over.
After identifying Sunday morning coming down mainly with either Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson, I was a bit hesitant to hear Willie’s version of the song, as it is Willie, after all. I need not have worried. I was pleasantly surprised at how great his version is.
10. Jill Sobule – California Years
“went to the desert on a mission to have a vision or write a song. I left real early, I left my cell phone. I took the Prius, it gets good mileage. Something’s gonna happen to change my world”. - - “wild horses, hawks circling, Gram Parsons inspiration. Big cactus, coyotes… something’s gonna happen to change my world” – Palm Springs
How can you go wrong with an album when there’s a song titled, Where is Bobbie Gentry? Of course, the song has a bit of an ode to Billie Joe feel to it. This album gets off to a great start with what is probably my favorite song from this compilation, palm springs, which is what the above lyrics are from. As the title of the album suggests, most of the songs have a bit of a California tie-in lyrically. The album ends on a comical note with the donor song, as she sings the names of the people who helped make the album – “these are some of the people who gave me money to make this record so I said I’d sing their names. There’s….” Now THAT’S something new!!
11. Miranda Lambert – Revolution
“I ain’t the kind you take home to mama. I ain’t the kind to wear no ring. Somehow I always get stronger when I’m on my second drink. Even though I hate to admit it, sometimes I smoke cigarettes. Christian folks say I should quit it. I just smile and say ‘God Bless’. ‘Cuz I heard Jesus, he’d drink wine, and I’d bet we’d get along just fine. He could calm the storm and heal the blind, and I’d bet he’d understand a heart like mine.” – Heart like mine
Miranda Lambert is one of those enigmas for me. The music is the usual boring mainstream country, but yet she keeps it enough on the ‘country’ side to keep me listening. This album has a number of high points – including White Liar, Heart Like Mine, Me & Your Cigarettes, and Airstream Song.
12. Indigo Girls – poseidon & the bitter bug (3-24-09)
“Every day that you get up and force your cards, Playing your story in fits and starts. You take your prospects and your pickaxe and you trudge down to the stream. And you bloody your hands digging for your dream.” – Digging for your dream
This album is everything that you’d expect from the duo of Amy Ray & Emily Saliers. The best part of this collection is the second disc, which features acoustic versions of the songs from the first disc. Of the two, that’s the cd that I usually listen to the most.
13. Holly Williams – here with me
“so paint a picture of my memory to hold on to. Just remember I was the one that you belonged to. My heart is pouring out here in this song. Like a song without an ending, I hold on.” – I Hold On
As the daughter of Hank Williams, Jr, Holly has a lot of history to contend with. She handles it well and takes her own style. Yes, some of the songs address her family, (like Mama) but she doesn’t seem to exploit the legacy. Without Jesus Here With Me highlights the 2006 car crash that nearly killed her and her sister, yet she admits right from the start of the song, “I don’t talk to him that much. I know I never pray enough. I don’t know where I would be without Jesus here with me.” The best way to describe Holly’s writing style is “honest”, and that’s quite refreshing to hear. An interesting coincidence – Holly’s album was released on the same day as her dad’s.
14. John Mayer – Battle Studies
“clouds of sulfur in the air. Bombs are falling everywhere. It’s heartbreak warfare. Once you wanted to begin, no one really ever wins in heartbreak warfare. If you want more love, why don’t you say so?” – Hearbreak warfare
I guess I was quite surprised that I enjoyed this album. There have only been a few JM songs that I’ve enjoyed through the years – one being Waitin on the World to Change, which he sang on an episode of CSI. Right from the opening track, Heartbreak Warfare, this album seemed to keep me intrigued and I didn’t impatiently search for the ‘next track’ button. I was actually tapping my fingers and toes to the beats. All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye would be my favorite track on this album. It almost reminded me of Seals & Crofts, or something on that order.
- - Brigitte Demeyer – red river flower
“How many times must I say goodbye til I’m through, til I’m through? How many lies did you tell & I never knew, never knew? How many why’s must I ask myself? How my skies must I up & sail.” – without you
While this isn’t Brigitte’s first album, this is the first one that I actually heard. It seems to be a bit of a menagerie of styles – some pop, a bit of blues, a little swing, and even a bit of rockabilly on without you. Most of this album was recorded live in Nashville with everyone playing together. It’s great to know that concept still exists.
Coming soon... look for my full 2009 album reviews.