Best of 2010: 9-7

#9 – Halcyon Times by Jason & The Scorchers

If People. Places. Things. by Drunk on Crutches was my favorite surprise of 2010, then Halcyon Times by Jason & The Scorchers may have been my most anticipated album of the year.  You see, prior to this release, it had been 14 years since an album carried the Scorchers’ name.  Front man Jason Ringenberg had remained active with his solo career and Farmer Jason persona, but most people thought this hugely influential band (The Scorchers were mixing punk and country years before Uncle Tupelo… and they did it in the heart of Nashville) had run its course.  A lifetime achievement award reunited the group in 2008, and this album followed two years later.

Ringenberg and guitarist Warner Hodges are the only two original members involved in this record, but there’s no mistaking this is a Jason & The Scorchers disc.  Ringenberg’s distinctive vocal twang and Hodges’ revved up riffs were always the signature of the band, and both are present in spades on tunes like the album opening “Moonshine Guy/Releasing Celtic Prisoners” and the nostalgic “Golden Days.”  What makes this one really stand out, however, is the sense of maturity present in the album’s quieter moments.  The coal mining anthem “Beat on the Mountain” and the working man’s lament “Mother of Greed” lend a little gravitas to the proceedings.

Jason & The Scorchers: Moonshine Guy/Releasing Celtic Prisoners (Buy Album)

#8 – Little Bird by Kasey Chambers

OK.  I’m cheating a little by including this one (It isn’t the first time).  As is her usual practice, Kasey Chambers has released her new CD Little Bird in her native Australia several months before releasing it in the US.  This strategy gives her the chance to properly tour and promote her album at home (where she is a huge star) before leaving to promote it here.  Because of this, Little Bird will likely bear a 2011 release date when it hits the states, even though I got it from iTunes in September.  Given the impact Chambers’ music has had on my life, I thought I could bend the rules for her.

Musically, Little Bird isn’t quite as rootsy as 2008’s Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson album Rattlin’ Bones (although tracks like “Georgia Brown” come close).  It also isn’t as shiny and polished as 2006’s Carnival (although tracks like the title song come close).  What makes this album so solid is that it marries all of Chambers’ rock, pop, and country influences together in a way that she hasn’t done since Barricades & Brickwalls.  In fact, songs like the guitar driven “This Story” and the mournful “Somewhere” (with Patty Griffin) would have fit in well on that album.  That’s a pretty high compliment in my book.

Kasey Chambers: This Story (Buy Album)

#7 – So Runs the World Away by Josh Ritter

I was first introduced to the music of Idaho’s Josh Ritter through his 2003 album Hello Starling (his third), and have been enthralled by his songs ever since.  “Kathleen” from that album may contain my favorite opening line for a song ever (“All the other girls here are stars./You are the Northern Lights.”), he delivered my favorite album of 2007 (The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter), and now he has provided another strong offering with So Runs the World Away.  With it he proves that he’s one of the strongest songwriters working today.

And songwriting is at the core of what makes this album special.  Ritter tackles some high-concept ideas on a few songs here and pulls them off beautifully.  The mummy love story set to a waltz in “The Curse,” the classic murder ballad character reunion in “Folk Bloodbath,” and the epic maritime tragedy of “Another New World” all take narrative chances and all come out beautifully.  Combine that with songs like the trippy dreamscape of “Change of Time,” the lilting Graceland inspired “Lark,” and the travelogue of “Southern Pacifica,” and you have a particularly well-rounded album.

Josh Ritter: Another New World (Buy Album)

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