Archive for the Top 20 of 2009 Category

Top 20 of 2009: 3-1

Posted in Andrew Bird, Band of Heathens, Bombadil, Top 20 of 2009 on January 9, 2010 by AmericanaPulse
#3 – Tarpits and Canyonlands by Bombadil

The album coming in at number three on the list is one of the most stylistically diverse albums I heard this year… and one of the most fun. The members of Bombadil claim that the core of their sound has its roots in Bolivian folk music. Having never heard any Bolivian folk music before, I’ll have to take their word on this one. It is clear, though, that band culls their influences from a myriad of different sources. When it’s all mixed together, their sound is a whimsical stew that pulls from several ingredients without letting any one flavor overpower the rest.

Whimsical may be the best word to describe this record… but that’s not to suggest that it is in any way childish or immature. It’s quite the opposite. When I first reviewed the album in June, I made mention of how the ebullient music often concealed darker subject matter. The album hooked me immediately with… well… a ton of hooks and a sense of wonder that just isn’t found on many records anymore. This song, “Honeymoon” is one of those tunes that catches you off guard with a catchy beat and lays you flat with lyrics that deal with life once the Honeymoon is over.

Bombadil: Honeymoon (Buy Album)

#2 – One Foot in the Ether by The Band of Heathens

The Band of Heathens are a collective of songwriters from Texas who originally started playing together as part of a songwriter’s night at Momo’s in Austin. Ed Jurdi, Colin Brooks, and Gordy Quist each started out doing solo sets… then occasionally sitting in on each other’s sets… then adding a rhythm section and playing as songwriters in the round. A local music reporter made reference to a group of “heathens” that had started playing regular sets together and a legend was born. The guys have now released two albums as The Band of Heathens, and both can be considered essential listening for fans of intelligent, roots flavored Americana songwriting.

What makes The Band of Heathens so special is the three pronged songwriting force that almost assures the well of tunes will never run dry. The three guys share songwriting credits on this album so it’s difficult to tell exactly who is responsible for what, but it is easy to see a healthy range of styles and sounds on this record. Despite the variety, there is a strong gospel feel to most of this set including the call-and-response of “Shine a Light” and the distorted rodeo gospel of “Golden Calf.” The bottom line is that this album is full of top-notch Texas songwriting and is one of the finest releases of the year.

Band of Heathens: Shine a Light (Buy Album)

#1 – Noble Beast by Andrew Bird

No matter how much I may love his music, I always find it difficult to write about Andrew Bird. His songs just seem infinitely complex and layered, and they don’t really sound much like anything else that I listen to. After watching Andrew play a set at the Bijou Theatre in October (my wife’s anniversary present to me) I became even more convinced of the complexity of his sound. Andrew played guitar and violin. He also sang and whistled and used any number of foot pedals to record and playback loops of various instruments, whistles, and vocal lines.

All of Andrew’s various skills come into play on this album as well. Andrew is a classically trained violinist and quite the impressive whistler. I know it’s an odd combination, but the two play so well together that it’s very easy to forget how strange what you’re listening to actually is. This album is incredibly melodic and infectious, and Andrew’s whistling just seems to burrow into your head and take root. I often find myself whistling one of the melodies from this album when I’m washing the dishes or walking the dog. These songs have imprinted themselves on my brain… and that is why Noble Beast by Andrew Bird is my #1 album of 2009.

Just try to resist the urge to whistle along with this one…

Andrew Bird: Fitz and Dizzyspells (Buy Album)

Top 20 of 2009: 6-4

Posted in Levon Helm, Scott Miller, Shane Nicholson, Top 20 of 2009 on January 5, 2010 by AmericanaPulse

#6 – Electric Dirt by Levon Helm

Levon Helm was a legend long before he revived his solo career in 2007 with the critically acclaimed Dirt Farmer. As a member of The Band in the 60’s and 70’s along with Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson, Levon was responsible for creating some of the most beloved Roots Rock music of all time. His sharp drumming and weathered voice helped to define The Band’s sound and continues to shape his music today. Electric Dirt is Levon’s second album since returning to the music business following a battle with throat cancer.

This album picks up almost exactly where Dirt Farmer left off, and finds Levon covering several classics such as The Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” Randy Newman’s “Kingfish,” and Pops Staples’ “Move Along Train.” Levon covers some new ground as well. The most inspired piece here is “When I Go Away,” a gospel flavored tune written by the album’s producer and fiddle player Larry Campbell. The song is also very representative of the album’s overall sound that blends a bit of soul into Levon’s country framework.

Levon Helm: When I Go Away (Buy Album)

#5 – Familiar Ghosts by Shane Nicholson

Here’s where this list deviates a bit from the one I turned in to The Bird List. Although it was a 2008 release in Shane’s native Australia, and it still hasn’t been issued in the U.S., this album was a big part of my year and needs to be included here. I told the story of how I obtained this album back when I wrote my review of it in August. What I didn’t say was that I started playing the record at WDVX (the only person in the States to do so?) and had several listeners email me to find out how to get a copy (iTunes). One listener even found a way to have a copy imported to him from overseas. I’d say this album is worth the extra effort it might take to find it.

The album is a continuation of the sound found on the collaborative album Shane released last year with his wife Kasey Chambers. The songs are all built around acoustic grooves and float from standard singer/songwriter fare to bluegrass flavored rambles and back. The result is a classic sound that also has a strong footing in the present. There was a time before I became familiar with Shane’s work when I thought he was merely a complimentary player piggybacking off of his wife’s name and acclaim. I no longer hold that belief.

Shane Nicholson: Easy Now (Buy Album)

#4 – For Crying Out Loud by Scott Miller & The Commonwealth

Again, I can’t have a list without putting Scott Miller on it. In fact, this album may even deserve to be higher on the list than it is. I certainly think I listened to it more than anything else this year. I know I played it more than anything else on the air at WDVX. The truth is that Scott is one of my favorite artists, he’s based out of Knoxville, and this site is named for one of his songs. I don’t want to appear too biased by placing him too high on the list. I interviewed Scott about the album when it was released in the Spring, and finally got around to posting my review in the Summer.

As I said in my previous review, don’t believe Scott when he starts the album with the lyric, “I’ve got nothing for you.” It’s just not true. What this album does is illustrate exactly why I love Scott Miller as a songwriter. He can write about both the ridiculous and the sublime and make both work extremely well. “Sin in Indiana” is a song based on Scott’s theory that uptight Midwesterners actually send all of their sin down the Mississippi River where it is released in the people of New Orleans. It features characters with teeth made of limestone and church deacons who hide pornography in cornfields. Ridiculous. It also features “I’m Right Here My Love,” a touching song about a married couple saying goodbye. Sublime. The song I’m sharing here is an older tune that has its origins in Scott’s days with the V-Roys.

Scott Miller & The Commonwealth: Heart in Harm’s Way (Buy Album)

Top 20 of 2009: 9-7

Posted in Buddy and Julie Miller, Neko Case, Those Darlins, Top 20 of 2009 on January 2, 2010 by AmericanaPulse

I’ve fallen a little behind over the Holidays, but I’m going to try to get back on track and get the list finished up soon. We’ll start back today with #9.

#9 – Written in Chalk by Buddy & Julie Miller

Based solely on critical acclaim and awards, this would be the number one album on the list… hands down. Buddy & Julie nearly swept the Americana Music Awards in September. The husband and wife team captured awards for Duo/Group of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year for “Chalk” (with Patty Griffin). Buddy also walked away with the Artist of the Year trophy as a solo prize. I obviously liked the CD when it came out back in the spring, but it was amazing to see just how this thing took off. It was the most played album on Americana Radio this year.

The album is not simply a Buddy and Julie Miller duet project as the title would suggest. They do, however, sing together in a few places… including the wistful “Ellis County” and the lustful “Gasoline & Matches.” There are other collaborations here as well, and they are what makes this album stand apart from Buddy and Julie’s 2001 self titled release (also an Americana Album of the Year winner). Patty Griffin lends her angelic voice to the previously mentioned “Chalk” with Buddy and “Don’t Say Goodbye” with Julie. Emmylou Harris and The McCrary Sisters pop up in a few places too. I’ll share one here with you featuring a duet with Buddy Miller and Robert Plant… two iconic voices.

Buddy & Julie Miller (feat. Robert Plant): What You Gonna Do Leroy? (Buy Album)

#8 – Those Darlins by Those Darlins

What can you say about Those Darlins? The band is fronted by three country gals with a punk rock spirit who go by the names of Jessi, Kelley, and Nikki Darlin (not their real surnames). They are known for raising ruckuses, inciting riots, and causing general chaos whenever and wherever they perform. In fact, their recent tour to support the release of their self titled debut album was called the “Dare America Tour.” During shows they openly encouraged their audiences to abandon all inhibitions and enjoy themselves as much as possible (they talked about it a bit when I interviewed them back in August). This record is about as fun as music can possibly get.

Musically, Those Darlins are a near perfect blend of X and The Carter Family. They even cover the Carter Family’s “Cannonball Blues” on this album. I described them once before as sounding like a female Uncle Tupelo or a slightly unhinged Loretta Lynn. The girls (along with their drummer, Sheriff Lin) have as much fire as Loretta ever did, and their Middle Tennessee roots (they hail from Murfreesboro, TN) lend a certain authenticity to their twang. I don’t know if Loretta ever got drunk and ate an entire chicken, but I like to think that she could have.

Those Darlins: The Whole Damn Thing (Buy Album)

#7 – Middle Cyclone by Neko Case

Neko Case utilized one of my favorite publicity gimmicks of 2009 to promote the release of Middle Cyclone. She made a financial donation to an animal rescue organization called “Best Friends” for every blog that posted the lead single from the album. She garnered a ton of attention for the album (and the single “People Got a Lot of Nerve”), and raised $4,000 for a very worthy cause. Of course, Neko has never needed any gimmicks to get my attention with her music, but I’m glad I was able to help expand her audience a bit with this one.

In what was, at times, a surreal interview with public television personality Tavis Smiley, Neko described this album as being mostly comprised of songs about “love and nature.” Many of the songs here actually do come off as love songs to the natural world. Neko sings of magpies and killer whales… owls and glaciers, and even titles one song “Never Turn You Back on Mother Earth.” The track I’m sharing here is one of those nature tracks as well. In “This Tornado Loves You,” Neko plays the roll of a tornado trying to express itself to a human. Yeah… I don’t really understand it either, but it’s a good song… and a good album.

Neko Case: This Tornado Loves You (Buy Album)

Top 20 of 2009: 12-10

Posted in Brandi Carlile, Camera Obscura, Dave Rawlings Machine, Top 20 of 2009 on December 24, 2009 by AmericanaPulse
#12 – Give Up the Ghost by Brandi Carlile

My wife and I always look forward to a new Brandi Carlile album, and we were right there at the record store on day one waiting for this one. Brandi is one of those artists that I’ve followed since her debut album. I feel like I’ve been along for the ride with her since the start and have watched (and listened to) her grow as an artist with each new release. She takes another leap forward here with Give Up the Ghost, an album I reviewed (along with her entire catalogue) back in November.

As I wrote back then, Brandi covers considerable ground over the course of this album as she easily shifts gears from pop fueled arena rockers to delicate down tempo numbers. Guests Elton John, Amy Ray, Benmont Tench, and Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers all star in various spots on the album. John ‘s appearance especially stands as a highlight on the album as he duets with Brandi on the rollicking piano number “Caroline.” I don’t have permission to share that one, but here’s another of the many standout tracks.

Brandi Carlile: Dying Day (Buy Album)

#11 – Friend of a Friend by The Dave Rawlings Machine

I had a hard time figuring out where exactly to place this one on the list. It probably should be a little higher than it is, but it’s so new (Nov. 17 release date) that I still haven’t fully digested it. My unfamiliarity with the album probably dropped it a few spots. I did, however, see Dave’s Machine in action a couple of weeks ago with Gillian Welch and the OCMS boys. It was one of the finest performances I’ve seen in quite a while and certainly pushed it up the charts a bit. It’s certainly one of the best albums of 2009, but it might become one of my favorite albums of 2010. I stuck it right here in the middle.

Here, Rawlings takes over the spotlight from his long time musical collaborator Welch and seizes the opportunity to shine on his own. It’s about time. Rawlings is one of the most talented musicians working in any genre today, and it’s great to see him step out of the shadows so everyone else can see what a few of us have known for a long time. I think my wife’s jaw is still somewhere on the floor after seeing his rendition of Old Crow’s “I Hear Them All” (a song he co-wrote). She left the show comparing him to Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. That’s about the highest praise she can give.

Dave Rawlings Machine: I Hear Them All (Buy Album)

#10 – My Maudlin Career by Camera Obscura

The story of how my wife and I came to discover this album is somewhat interesting. I heard the song “French Navy” on NPR’s All Songs Considered Podcast and left my wife a voice mail telling her about this amazing new song I had to heard. I just didn’t tell her the name of the artist or the song. Later that same day, she left me a voice mail to tell me about an amazing new song she and just heard on her XM Radio. When we both got home from work that day, we discovered we had both been talking about the same song.

Of course, we went out and bought the CD almost immediately after that and were immediately enthralled by the “Wall of Sound” meets lo-fi production and the enchanting voice of lead singer Tracyanne Campbell. The album is bursting with infectious hooks and several nods to that classic 60’s girl group sound. Despite the nods to the past, the whole thing is also infused with a modern indie vibe that grounds the album in the present. I know I’ve shared the video with you once before, but I’m going to give you a taste of “French Navy” one more time. It may be my favorite track of the year.

Camera Obscura: French Navy (Buy Album)

Top 20 of 2009: 15-13

Posted in Boca Chica, Jill Andrews, Todd Snider, Top 20 of 2009 on December 21, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

#15 – Jill Andrews EP by Jill Andrews

2009 was really a big year for Knoxville’s Jill Andrews. Her long time band the everybodyfields split up, she became a mother for the first time, and she released her first ever solo project. Jill’s self titled EP was released in October and reads as a deeply personal record that stands up to any of her previous work with the everybodyfields. When I asked her in November how it felt to have a record that bore her name after spending so long as part of a group, she described the feeling as, “pretty much the best thing ever.”

She’s not too far off in her assessment. In my initial review of the album, I mentioned the raw emotions that are on display throughout the album as Jill deals with the dissolution of her previous band. It must have been quite cathartic to get those feelings out of her head and on to a record. She has every right to be proud and excited about this release… it’s certainly “Worth Keeping.”

Jill Andrews: Worth Keeping (Buy Album)

#14 – The Excitement Plan by Todd Snider

I didn’t review Todd Snider’s The Excitement Plan when it came out, but I did give everyone a chance to listen to the album early with a handy widget from Todd’s website (you can still listen to clips of four songs from the album there). I also celebrated Todd Snider day (a holiday of my own invention) back in May when he visited for a couple of shows at WDVX. Todd played brief solo sets on the Blue Plate Special and Tennessee Shines. I left both sets in awe of his easy sense of humor and, of course, his music.

Both of Todd’s assets are in fine form here. He will make you smile with his rant against the music industry in “Money, Compliments, Publicity (Song Number Ten) and with “Don’t Tempt Me,” a classic country cheating song he cowrote with Loretta Lynn. Todd takes an introspective turn on “Greencastle Blues” when he examines his own troubled past with a mix of helplessness and ownership of his mistakes. Todd sings, “Some of this trouble just finds me/Most of this trouble I earn.” It’s an honest assessment of his career, and it serves as a window into Todd’s past and his present.

Todd Snider: Greencastle Blues (Buy Album)

#13 – Lace Up Your Workboots by Boca Chica

Although I bear a slight grudge against the city of Pittsburgh right now after the Steelers late win over the Packers yesterday, I would be remiss if I didn’t give praise here to the Pittsburgh based collective Boca Chica. I was very happy to find this one in my inbox this fall. On Lace Up Your Workboots, songwriter and vocalist Hallie Pritts leads her expansive ensemble cast through ten finely crafted folk flavored tunes that draw influences from all over the musical spectrum.

“Shake Your Party Dress” owes a heavy debt to Fleetwood Mac while other tracks draw from Neil Young, Gillian Welch… even Andrew Bird. It’s folk music with a bit of an experimental edge that also somehow stays true to the core of the original form. Here’s a track called “Valentine” that builds nicely from a quiet acoustic strum into a fully fleshed out symphony of strings, snares, synths, keys, and vocal harmonies. It’s quite captivating.

Boca Chica: Valentine (Buy Album)

Special bonus Boca Chica Holiday track from Indiecater Records Christmas sampler…

Boca Chica: Snow Angels (Buy Album)

Top 20 of 2009: 18-16

Posted in Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Madison Violet, Sarah Borges, Top 20 of 2009 on December 18, 2009 by AmericanaPulse
#18 – No Fool for Trying by Madison Violet

Madison Violet was one of my favorite new discoveries of 2009. I was completely unaware of the duo from Canada when their No Fool for Trying album showed up on Reviewshine’s website (another one of my favorite things of 2009). It was one of the first albums I received and reviewed through Reviewshine, and I’m glad I took the time to give this one a listen… it’s easily one of my favorite folk records of the year. In fact, they were recently named Vocal Group of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

This album is full of lush harmonies and beautifully heartbreaking lyrics that create the perfect album to listen to during a relaxing evening at home. This is the third album for Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIssac as Madison Violet, and the first to draw so heavily from acoustic folk and bluegrass influences. It’s a direction I hope they continue to follow.

Madison Violet: No Fool for Trying (Buy Album)

#17 – Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

I noticed this album back when it was first released in February, but I didn’t truly come to appreciate it until I went back to listen to it again before the Americana Honors and Awards. I’ve said here several times that Jason was my favorite member of The Drive-By Truckers during his time with the group. Of course, when he was with the Truckers, only two or three of his songs would make each album. Now that he’s on his own with two solo albums under his belt, Jason has really had the chance to grow and expand his sound.

This album finds Jason building on the southern rock sound that has been at the core of most of his previous work and adding a bit of country soul. The guiding hand of Lynyrd Skynyrd is still present, but there’s something extra here that elevates this album over his previous effort Sirens of the Ditch. Jason’s backing players, The 400 Unit provide a fine framework for his lyrics with keys present nearly throughout the album and drums mixed way up in the front. A promising second effort for this amazingly gifted songwriter.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit: The Blue (Buy Album)

#16 – The Stars Are Out by Sarah Borges & The Broken Singles

I was very open on this site about my process of growing to like this album. I started with excitement, moved on to trepidation, experienced some slight disappointment, and finally took a step back and learned to enjoy it. I had read some early reviews and and heard one overly polished track before the album was released. I let that color my expectations and taint my initial perception of the record. I shouldn’t have.

Once I took the time to regroup and listen to the album again with fresh ears, however, I was able to appreciate the album for what it is. Some of the country flavors from her previous work has been replaced in spots by a harder rock edge and a Joan Jett like energy on several tracks. That edge is present on several tracks including the Borges originals “Do it for Free” and “I’ll Show You How.” It also shows up on her cover of Any Trouble’s 1980’s Brit rock tune “Yesterday’s Love.”
Sarah Borges & The Broken Singles: Yesterday’s Love (Buy Album)

Top 20 of 2009: 21-19

Posted in Charlie Robison, Porterdavis, Samantha Crain, Top 20 of 2009 on December 15, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

My decade list has been posted. The Bird List has been compiled. Now it’s time to look back at this year’s new releases and attempt to list my favorite albums of 2009.

It’s important to note that these are my favorite albums and not necessarily a critical review of the best of the year. There’s a lot of stuff out there that I didn’t hear this year, a lot of things I enjoyed but didn’t earn favorite status, and a few critical darlings that just flat didn’t do it for me. This is simply a list of the 20 albums that I enjoyed the most this year and the ones I kept coming back to.

A couple of notes before we get into it…

I’m doing 20 instead of ten this year because that’s the size of the list I came up with for The Bird List (A collective effort by 30 Americana and Roots bloggers to create a master list of the most essential albums of 2009). In fact, this list will have 21 albums because it includes one album that was not on my entry for The Bird List. This album’s inclusion on the list is based on my bending of the definition of “2009” in order to make it fit. I’ll tell you more when we get to that spot.

The write ups for each album will also be a bit shorter than last year. I’ve already written about most of the albums on this list at least once this year. Where I can, I’ll provide links to the original posts as I progress through the list. The mp3 links in the original posts will be inactive, but I will provide active mp3 links for each album in the new posts.

Ok… Let’s get started…

#21. Porterdavis by Porterdavis

I was first introduced to this trio from Austin this summer when they sent me a copy of their self-titled studio debut produced by the wonderful Gurf Morlix. When I noticed they were headed to Knoxville in September to play the Blue Plate Special and a few other shows, I gave the album a few spins and really came to like what I heard.

The band had a unique sound that was built around the vocals and guitars of lead singer Daniel Barrett and filled out nicely by Simon Wallace on harmonica and Mike Meadows on the Black Swan Drum (an instrument of his own invention). Simon’s harmonica heavily ties the band’s sound to the blues while also taking some cues from folk and alternative country. The lead track on the album, “Smack You Back,” showcases all of this while also dropping some lyrical references to classic rock. Here’s the studio version of the track along with another version played live at the WDVX studios when the guys visited with me in September. You can also listen to their entire visit here.

Porterdavis: Smack You Back (Buy Album)
Porterdavis: Smack You Back (Live @ WDVX) (Buy Album)

#20. Beautiful Day by Charlie Robison

My original review of this album was one of the first posts removed by the blog police this summer, but that won’t stop me from including it here as one of my favorites of 2009.

As I said previously, Charlie has always been my favorite of the two Robison brothers. This album goes a long way toward explaining why. Charlie always seemed to have a bit more of an edge than his brother Burce, and that shows through clearly here on songs like “Yellow Blues” and “Nothin’ Better to Do.” Charlie’s music has always seemed a little more carefree and wild than his brother’s.

That’s why it’s so striking that the true successes of this album come when Charlie lets his more vulnerable side shine through. He recorded this album in the aftermath of his divorce from long time wife Emily Erwin of the Dixie Chicks. The heartbreak is palpable in the pleading “Reconsider” and the mournful “Down Again.” But he refuses to give in to the failures of the past, and instead turns his eyes to the future on tracks like “Feeling Good.” Despite the emotional scar at the center of the album, Charlie never seems defeated by the circumstances of his life. He sees the Beautiful Day on the other side of his pain and lets the light shine through.

Charlie Robison: Beautiful Day (Buy Album)

#19. Songs in the Night by Samantha Crain & The Midnight Shivers

Samantha Crain is a young songwriter from Oklahoma who turned a lot of heads this year with her full length debut Songs in the Night. On this release, Samantha displays a mature songwriting style and manages to create her own individual sound while still allowing each song to have a life and feel of its own. She is able to convincingly pull off the subdued “Long Divison” just as easily as the up tempo “Devil’s in Boston.”

Samantha appeared on Tennessee Shines in October and also visited me in the studio before the show. She played a couple of songs for me in the studio and shared a great story about how an email to the Avett Brothers helped to jump start her career. It was great to have such a promising young artist in the studio to share her story and her music. As much as her songs spoke to me on the album, it was amazing to have her share them with me one on one in the WDVX studio. Here voice is truly a unique instrument and one I was glad to have the opportunity to experience up close. You can listen to my entire interview with Samantha Crain here and check out a studio track and a live performance below.

Samantha Crain & The Midnight Shivers: Songs in the Night (Buy Album)
Samantha Crain: Get the Fever Out (Live @ WDVX) (Buy Album)