Archive for the Top 10 of ’08 Category

Top 10 of 2008: #1 Real Animal by Alejandro Escovedo

Posted in Alejandro Escovedo, Top 10 of '08 on January 1, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

Happy New Year! The first day of 2009 seems like a perfect time to reveal my favorite album of 2008… Real Animal from Alejandro Escovedo.

Real Animal was the first new release I ever reviewed here after starting the blog in July. It was almost the only thing I was listening to at the time. Alejandro is one of those rare artists who (in my eyes at least) never releases an album that doesn’t immediately become one of my favorites upon the first listen. This one grabbed me from the first powerful riff of the leadoff track, “Always a Friend” and never let go.

Here’s a link to that first review. Please follow the links to purchase this album and treat yourself to a tremendous release from a supremely talented artist. This guy is one of the greats.

Alejandro Escovedo: Always a Friend (Buy Album)
Alejandro Escovedo: Chelsea Hotel ’78 (Buy Album)

P.S. It was just announced last night that Alejandro will be performing at the January installment of Tennessee Shines in Knoxville along with The Duhks, Three Ring Circle, The Lovell Sisters, and Jennifer Nicely.

Top 10 of 2008: #2 Acid Tongue by Jenny Lewis

Posted in jenny lewis, Top 10 of '08, youtube on December 31, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

Well… it’s New Year’s Eve, and here I am in the studio at the radio station waiting to ring in the new year. I figure if I can’t get out and celebrate in style (my buddy Red did give me a glass of champagne)… I might as well get to work on finishing my Top 10 list for the year.

The number two album on this list is the second solo offering from Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. I first tackled this album here back in October, and I love it as much now as I did then. In fact, I’m not sure if there’s much more I could say about the record today that I didn’t say then… so I’ll just ask you to go back and read that one again.

Again… the links in that post are dead… but here are a couple of tracks to get you through.

Jenny Lewis: Acid Tongue (Buy Album)
Jenny Lewis: The Next Messiah (Buy Album)

And just for fun…

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #3 Another Country by Tift Merritt

Posted in Tift Merritt, Top 10 of '08 on December 31, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

The top three albums on my list this year are all discs that I’ve written about at some point earlier this year. Because of that, these last three posts will feature a lot of linking to previous posts… and less new writing. The song links in those posts will dead… but I’ll provide a taste of the albums here in the new space.

2008 was quite a year for Tift Merritt. She released her third studio album, Another Country. She was nominated for “Song of the Year” at the Americana Music Awards. She started her own monthly interview program called The Spark for KTRS radio in Texas. She played two great shows in Knoxville… a solo set on WDVX’s Blue Plate Special in the spring, and a full band show at the Pilot Light in July. Another Country was the fifth-most played album on Americana Radio this year. Tift even got to sing the National Anthem at a campaign stop for President Elect Barack Obama in November.

Heck… this is the sixth time I’ve written about Tift in the last six months. I gave a brief album review here. I also wrote extensively on “Broken” upon it’s nomination for “Song of the Year” and again as one of my most listened to songs on iTunes. In fact, six of the top fifty songs on my iTunes “play count” list come from this album. I think that says more than any more of my words could.

Tift Merritt: Broken (Buy Album)
Tift Merritt: Something to Me (Buy Album)

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #4 Asking for Flowers by Kathleen Edwards

Posted in Kathleen Edwards, Top 10 of '08 on December 30, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

My first exposure to Kathleen Edwards’ 2008 effort, Asking for Flowers, came rather slowly. I heard most of the record one song at a time on her myspace page beginning roughly a month before the album’s release. Kathleen would put up a song… leave it up for a few hours… and then take it back down. Fans were tipped off in advance, but her record label was unaware of her charity.

My wife and I got the chance to talk to Kathleen when she stopped in Knoxville for a performance on WDVX’s Blue Plate Special a few weeks before the album’s proper release date. We mentioned to her that we were enjoying the songs she had shared on the internet. She told us that she had wanted to share some music with the fans to give them a little taste of the album, but she wasn’t telling her label reps what she was doing because she, “didn’t want them to get their panties in a twist.”

And that’s why I love Kathleen Edwards.

She’s brash. She’s crass. She’ll drink you under the table. She has a mouth that would make a sailor blush. This is a woman who publishes her music under the Potty Mouth label. The sweetest love song she’s ever written appears on this album. It’s a tender, sincere, acoustic ballad called “Sure as Shit.” She’s anything but dainty and demure. It’s a big part of her charm.

Of course, the other part is her music. On this, her third album, the music sounds better than ever, even though she doesn’t really do anything new musically. Kathleen still wears her Tom Petty and Neil Young influences proudly on her sleeve as she plows through the album’s eleven tracks along with guitarist/husband Colin Cripps and keyboardist/guitarist/friend Jim Bryson along for the ride.

The biggest difference here, and the thing that puts this album over the top, is the emotional depth and breadth of the songwriting. While she’s quick to remind us in “The Cheapest Key” that “F” is still her favorite letter, and her soft side can sometimes be hard to find… Kathleen knows how to convey emotions within her songs.

The title track is written from the perspective of a friend who is trapped in a less than ideal relationship. With every pill, every bill, every threat… you feel the pain of the song’s protagonist. Other songs tackle the subjects of war (“Oil Man’s War”), social injustice (“Oh Canada”), family and death (“Scared at Night”), and the true story of an murdured Canadian teenager (“Alicia Ross”). Each song packs a punch

I had the pleasure of seeing Kathleen Edwards perform twice this year. Once in a stripped down singer/songwriter set with Cripps on The Blue Plate Special and once with her full band at The Mercy Lounge in Nashville. In the quieter set at WDVX, it was the power of her words that drew me in (that was the first time I had really had a chance to listen to “Asking for Flowers” the song). In the more rocking, full-band set in Nashville, I was pinned to the wall by the power of the music.

This album captures both elements of Kathleen’s overall sound quite well.

Kathleen Edwards: The Cheapest Key (Buy Album)
Kathleen Edwards: Asking for Flowers (Buy Album)

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #5 Blame it On Gravity by The Old 97’s

Posted in Old 97's, Top 10 of '08 on December 29, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

With one line from the song, “No Baby I,” Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller sums up quite succinctly what I have long believed to be the band’s motto…

“Strum it on a Telecaster.
Sing it like a train disaster song.”

That formula had always been a winner for the boys from Dallas, and it is a formula that serves them well once again on Blame it On Gravity after a brief departure for 2004’s Drag it Up.

For this record, the band returned home to Dallas for recording sessions with producer Salim Nourallah. They also returned to their classic brand of country tinged rock and roll fuelled by the incendiary guitar work of Ken Bethea and swagger filled vocals from Miller. The music is attacked with such abandon that it could be reminiscent of the “train disaster song” from which the band originally took its name.

The most fire and vigor comes through on the album’s lead single, “Dance with Me.” Bethea serves up a surf-rock riff that would make Dick Dale proud while Miller sings of “flip-flop smiles” and “big blue eyes on vacation.” It’s a song that rates highly on the fun-factor scale, and one that received a lot of play around my house this year.

While that formula of energetic rock and roll guitar riffs and punchy vocals carries most of the album, there are some quieter moments as well. Bass player Murray Hammond takes the lead vocal on the country weeper “Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue.” It’s a song Hammond also wrote. There is a certain twang to Hammond’s voice that lends itself well to a song such as this.

Another quiet moment comes on the Miller fronted “No Baby I.” Miller calls this his favorite song on the record due to the control he was able to exert in the studio. He says it’s the first time that he’s felt himself truly relax, exercise restraint, and not feel like a “spazz.”

The spazz quote came from an interview I did with Rhett Miller when the band came to Knoxville in October. He also told me how proud he and the band were of the record and how excited they were to be out on the road promoting it. The group’s rediscovered energy and excitement came through in their live show… and it comes through on the record as well.

Here are two tracks from the album along with a repost of my interview with Rhett Miller from this fall. In the interview, Miller gives a solo acoustic performance of “No Baby I” and “Question” from 2001’s Satellite Rides.

Old 97’s: Dance with Me (Buy Album)
Old 97’s: Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue (Buy Album)
Interview with Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s (featuring “No Baby I” and “Question”)

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #6 Rattlin’ Bones by Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson

Posted in Kasey Chambers, Shane Nicholson, Top 10 of '08 on December 27, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

We took a day or two off for the Holiday (hope everyone had a good one by the way), and we may take another one here soon, but the Top 10 list will continue. I hope to have all ten posted by Jan. 1. Wish me luck.

We’ll start back in at #6 with Rattlin Bones’ by Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson.

Like R.E.M.’s entry at #10 (and the entry coming after this one), Kasey Chambers’ latest album came as a welcome surprise and a bit of a comeback. I’ve written here before about how Kasey served as my “gateway drug” into the world of Americana music by introducing me to several artists who now rank among my favorites. It’s no surprise then, that Kasey quickly became one of my favorite artists within the genre as well.

With that said, however, her last two offerings (Wayward Angel and Carnival) have left me feeling a little flat. Both albums certainly had their high points and songs that I would place among her best. But, in places, both albums also felt as though Kasey was actively trying to create that one crossover song that would help her reach the same level of success on mainstream American radio that she already enjoys in her native Australia. There was a sheen and polish that I wasn’t used to hearing. It didn’t have the same grit as the music I fell in love with on Barricades and Brickwalls.

For this album, Kasey returned to her roots by returning to the very roots of country music. She sat down with her husband, songwriter Shane Nicholson, and the two of them wrote 14 heartbreaking country ballads. Then, armed with mostly acoustic instruments, the duo recorded a set of duets so achingly beautiful they would make George Jones and Tammy Wynette cry.

Kasey and Shane’s voices sound great together. Like a couple who have been singing together on and off stage for years… they know the ins and outs of each other’s voices… and it shows. And, as is Chambers family tradition, the album is a true family affair. Kasey’s brother Nash serves as producer while her father Bill plays throughout. Kasey’s mother is credited with the album’s photography, and one of the Chambers’ children makes a brief cameo appearance at the end. It recalls the days before Kasey went solo and the Chambers family recorded together as The Dead Ringer Band.

This record is a perfect blending of bluegrass picking with classic country twang performed under the guiding hand of The Carter Family to create a timeless album that sounds right at home here in the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee. You’d never suspect that it came from the Nullarbor Plains of the Australian Outback.

Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: Rattlin’ Bones (Buy Album)
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: The Devil’s Inside My Head (Buy Album)

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #7 Blood’s Too Rich by Luke Doucet and White Falcon

Posted in Luke Doucet, Top 10 of '08 on December 24, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

Like She and Him, Luke Doucet is an artist who I heard for the first time in 2008. But unlike She and Him, Doucet’s ’08 release is not his first… far from it in fact. Blood’s Too Rich is his fourth solo release, and he’s been making music in his native Canada since the mid-nineties. Doucet is probably best known for his gig as a guitar player in Sarah McLaughlin’s band, but I first found him through his association with another Canadian songstress.

Doucet played some dates with Kathleen Edwards this spring when she was touring in support of her own 2008 release, Asking for Flowers (stay tuned for that one later in the countdown). I started seeing Doucet’s name in connection with Edwards, and then started seeing live mp3’s of the two of them popping up on line. Eventually, I found a recording of Edwards and Doucet performing cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” at a show in San Francisco. My curiosity was triggered enough for me to give Doucet’s music a try.

I found a copy of Blood’s Too Rich at the radio station and gave it a spin. The opening track, “Long Haul Driver,” is a variation on the classic country idiom of the Truck Driving Song. While the lazy strums that power the song do provide a rootsy flavor, it’s Doucet’s sparsely placed lead electric playing that gives the song its definition.

The opening track is followed by the title cut and the album’s highlight. “Blood’s Too Rich” is a muscular tune that provides instant ear candy and again finds the delicate balance between an acoustic base and bold electric flourishes. It’s one of my favorite tracks of the year.

Other highlights include a rollicking cover of The Cure’s “The Lovecats,” and an ode to a late member of The Band on “The Day Rick Danko Died,” and the slow burning album closer “Bombs Away.” All in all, probably my favorite previously established artist who I discovered in 2008. I will be keeping an eye out for some of Doucet’s previous recordings.

Luke Doucet: Long Haul Driver (Buy Album)
Luke Doucet: Blood’s Too Rich (Buy Album)

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #8 – Volume One by She & Him

Posted in She and Him, Top 10 of '08 on December 24, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

She and Him is a late addition to this year’s list, as I really only started spending a lot of time with this disc over the last month or so. Once I did get into the album, however, I simply could not get Volume One out of my head (still can’t). This is a very refreshing album that brings a little bit of folk flavored 60’s pop into the 21st Century. Paste Magazine recently declared this their album of the year.

The story of She and Him is almost as interesting as the music itself.

“She” is actress Zooey Deschanel, who is probably best known (to me at least) for her role as Jovie in the 2003 holiday movie Elf alongside Will Farrell. Viewers actually got a preview of Deschanel’s voice in that movie when she and Farrell dueted on the Christmas classic, “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

“Him” is musician M. Ward, who is mostly known for his own brand of moody and atmospheric folk-tinged indie-rock. Ward has released six solo albums and has recorded with Bright Eyes, Norah Jones, Jenny Lewis, and Jolie Holland among others. While I’ve been aware of M. Ward for some time… I will ashamedly admit to not being overly familiar with his solo career. I welcome any recommendations or links in the comments.

The duo met while working on the 2007 film, The Go-Getter. The director asked Deschanel, who starred in the film, to perform a duet with Ward, who had signed on as the soundtrack director. They recorded a stunning cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “When I Get to the Border.” Later on, the pair reconvened, began working on some of Deschanel’s original material, and created some of the sweetest sounds of 2008.

After listening to the album for the first time, I was surprised to find that Deschanel had written the majority of the tunes herself. The songs were so sweet and instantly familiar, that I was sure I had heard most of them before. As it turns out though, the record contains only two covers, Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and The Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better,” and one co-write with Phantom Planet front man (and fellow actor) Jason Schwartzman. The rest is all Deschanel.

An album like this featuring a pair of such unlikely collaborators may seem like a bit of a novelty… especially given the often horrendous results of previous actor turned musician projects. Unlike those typical vanity projects, this is a fully realized album driven by Deschanel’s heavenly vocals and guided by Ward’s accomplished production. And while the duo have both returned to their day jobs (Deschanel currently stars in Yes Man with Jim Carrey, and Ward plans to release a new solo disc, Hold Time, in February of ’09), plans for Volume Two have been discussed. I’ll be waiting.

She and Him: Why Do You Let Me Stay Here (Buy Album)
She and Him: Sweet Darlin’ (Buy Album)

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #9 The Steeldrivers by The Steeldrivers

Posted in The Steeldrivers, Top 10 of '08 on December 23, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

Like R.E.M. before them at #10, there is a bit of a sentimental factor behind my inclusion of The Steeldrivers on this list. But, like R.E.M. before them, The Steeldrivers are also on the list based on their own merits after making my favorite bluegrass album of the year. Others seemed to agree with me… as the album was nominated for an Americana Music Award, three International Bluegrass Music Awards, and a Grammy this year.

The story of The Steeldrivers is this. A pair of Nashville songwriters, Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson found themselves writing a lot of really great bluegrass songs, then turning those songs over to music row and watching them be turned into mainstream country hits for other artists. Eventually the obvious question could no longer be ignored… why not form a killer bluegrass band and record those same songs themselves?

Stapleton grabbed his guitar. Henderson picked up his mandolin. The two then assembled a very talented group of Nashville veterans to help flesh out their sound. Fiddler Tammy Rogers (Buddy Miller, Kieran Kane, Wynona), banjo picker Richard Bailey (Jim Lauderdale, David Olney, Vassar Clements), and bass player Mike Fleming (Kevin Welch, Joy Lynn White) signed up, and the band was born.

The true stars of this band, though, are songwriters Henderson and Stapleton. Henderson has played and recorded with giants from every corner of the music world including Mark Knopfler, Guy Clark, Bo Diddley, Lucinda Williams, and Sting… just to name a few. His songs have been recorded by the likes of Solomon Burke, Randy Travis, Patty Loveless, Marty Stuart, and The Dixie Chicks.

Stapleton is the youngest member of the group… and his time in Nashville the shortest. His list of credits, however, is easily as impressive as any of his bandmates. He’s recorded with Lee Ann Womack and Gary Allan, and has had his songs recorded by Womack, Tim McGraw, and Brooks and Dunn. He even has two number one country singles to his credit in Josh Turner’s “Your Man” and Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted Nothing More.” Most importantly, Chris Stapleton is one of my oldest friends and someone I couldn’t be more proud of. He chased a dream he’s held for almost as long as I’ve known him, and he caught it.

In addition to co-writing every song on the album, Stapleton also plays guitar and sings lead vocals. If you’ll pardon the cliche… his voice is by far his strongest instrument. The Steeldrivers’ website describes his voice as being able to turn from “sandpaper to silk” in the course of any given song. When really turned loose, as in songs like “Blue Side of the Mountain” and “If it Hadn’t Been for Love,” there is a power behind his voice that few can rival. There is a natural growl in his performance that fits perfectly with the band’s sound and lends a genuine sense of realism to the down and out characters in the songs. Stapleton sings about murderers, scoundrels, inmates, and fugitives… and breathes life into them all.

You can say I’m biased in this choice by including my friend on my list… but I know plenty of strangers who have become enamored with this album as well. It has more than earned it’s place.

The Steeldrivers: If it Hadn’t Been for Love (Buy Album)
The Steeldrivers: Blue Side of the Mountain (Buy Album)

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #10 – Accelerate by R.E.M.

Posted in R.E.M., Top 10 of '08 on December 22, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

I know it’s a tad late to be just starting my Top 10 list for the year, but I’ve been a little extra busy at work lately (retail + Christmas = awful), shopping, trying to fill in a few extra shifts at the station, and working on a few extra projects. Blogging has been on the back burner for a bit.

Now, however, it is time without further ado to lay out my Top 10 favorite albums of 2008. We start at the end of the list with #10…

Accelerate from R.E.M.

This album is a bit of a nostalgia pick as R.E.M. has always been my favorite band. On their last couple of records, however, I didn’t feel the same sort of connection to the music that I did with their earlier albums. With this one, the connection is back. I’ve already listened to this album more than any R.E.M. effort since 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

Sometime early this year, I first heard the debut single from this record, “Supernatural Superserious,” and knew immediately that Accelerate would be different. For the first time since original drummer Bill Berry left the band, the group’s energy was back. The sense of fun was back in the music. Most importantly, the supporting vocals of bass player Mike Mills’ were back. Mills’ harmony vocals were always one of my favorite parts of the R.E.M. sound, and they’ve been severely lacking over the last decade. I am more than happy to have them back.

Mills’ biggest contribution comes on the track “Man Sized Wreath.” That song actually features a bit of the old school R.E.M. staple that I like to call the “call and answer” chorus in which Mills echoes the vocals of lead singer Michael Stipe instead of just providing harmony. On this track, just like the old days, I can often be found singing along with Mills’ vocals instead of Stipe’s. This is also the song that provides the most unlikely of R.E.M. lyrics… “Kick it out on the dance floor like you just don’t care.” Somehow, it seems to work.

Other standout tracks include the politically charged “Hollow Man” and the album closer “I’m Gonna DJ.” Both tracks provide a workout for lead guitarist Peter Buck (as do most songs on the raucous album), and the latter recalls the band’s 1987 hit “It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine)” with visions of a party at the apocalypse.

It seems the primary focus of this record was to strip away some of the sheen and polish and experimentation of their other post-millennial work, and just create a gritty rock and roll record echoing back to the early days when R.E.M. was little more than a punk influenced rock band playing clubs and frat parties back in Athens. In that effort, they largely succeed by keeping the songs short (five of the albums eleven tracks clock in at less than three minutes in length) and raw (Buck’s guitars have a fire that hasn’t been heard since 1994’s Monster).

In short, this is easily my favorite R.E.M. album in over a decade. That alone is enough to merit inclusion on this list. When I saw the group perform in Atlanta this summer (my wife bought me tickets for my birthday), my opinion of the album was only strengthened. The band (all in or near their 50’s) filled the stage with as much energy and passion for the music as I had seen in quite some time. That let me know that the initial feeling I got from the album wasn’t just an act… R.E.M. was having fun again, and it showed.

R.E.M.: Supernatural Superserious (Buy Album)
R.E.M.: Man Sized Wreath (Buy Album)