I listen to tons of music, and do my best to stay current. But let’s face it, the world is turning pretty fast and there’s a lot of stuff being released out there. Even the fanatics among us just can’t get to everything. It would be irresponsible of me to create a “Best Of 2009” list – I just haven’t heard it all. So instead, I’m happy to offer up a list of favorites from 2009, followed by a short list of duds that had my ears running for cover.
Raves and Faves
Brandi Carlile – Give Up The Ghost My favorite CD of the year. Heartfelt lyrics and great melodies, beautifully played and sung by one of our powerful new voices. Brandi just keeps getting better and better.
Willie Nile – House Of A Thousand Guitars Another rockin’ release by one of our most criminally undernoticed singer/songwriters. The spirit of rock and roll burns bright in his poet’s heart. The title track and “Give Me Tomorrow” were two of my favorite songs of the year.
The Avett Brothers – I And Love And You The Brothers’ major label debut, and it’s a doozy. Elements of The Band, bluegrass, power pop – you name it, it’s all in there, and it’s all good, really good.
Neko Case – Middle Cyclone Probably Neko’s most accessible release (song structure-wise) since her debut. Great songs sung in that unbelievable voice. But we coulda done without the 30 minute field recording at the end. (She’s a little freaky-scary, but it adds to the allure.)
Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers – Songs In The Night A blast out of Oklahoma – this is great alt-country led by Samantha’s distinct voice. You can feel the dust and the dirt that went into these songs.
U2 – No Line On The Horizon Well worth the hype, another great release from Bono and the band. Some transcendent stuff here, most notably “Magnificent,” and “Moment Of Surrender.”
Monsters Of Folk The Traveling Wilburys, updated for the oughties. M. Ward, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis (of Conor’s band Bright Eyes) gave us an album showcasing their respective buckets of talent. This one was lots of fun – you could hear the joy of good friends making music in just about every track.
Diane Birch – Bible Belt If Carole King and Elton John had a love child, she would be Diane Birch. Piano-driven songs that hearken back to the seventies, this CD marked the arrival of a major new talent.
Elvis Perkins In Dearland Songs of love, loss, and longing. If it weren’t for the out-of-place (and nearly unlistenable) “I’ll Be Arriving” right in the middle of the disc, this would be one for the ages.
Gina Villalobos – Days On Their Side Another under-appreciated singer/songwriter, Gina toils away in near obscurity out in Southern California. With a world weary voice backed by electric, acoustic, and pedal steel guitars, she makes transcendent music that will have you believing that rock and roll can never die.
Eli “Paperboy” Reed and the True Loves – Roll With You A shot of blue-eyed soul, straight up, no chaser. Eli and the True Loves wail away – this one will have you jumpin’ from start to finish.
Shannon McNally – Coldwater Shannon marches to her own drummer and follows her muse. After an acclaimed debut on Capitol, she walked away from the label when they wanted her to change the follow-up because it initially wasn’t “pop” enough. She’s wrangled and rambled down the road ever since, releasing records here and there. This one is available through download only at CD-Baby and it’s chock full of southern-fried greasy greatness. Worth seeking out.
Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi An album of jazz standards from the guy who practically wrote the book on New Orleans R&B. This is timeless music, beautifully played.
James Maddock – Sunrise on Avenue C The singer/songwriter behind Wood’s Songs From Stamford Hill resurfaces ten years later and delivers a set of pop-rock gems – cityscapes and slices of life sung and played with passion and precision. James’ melodies get in your head and they don’t leave.
Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At The Movies Sophomore effort from Steve’s son, this one proves that Justin is a distinct artist in his own right. His easy-going delivery invites the listener in to sit a spell and spend some time with the characters who inhabit this set of terrific songs.
Jill Sobule – California Years Jill has released a handful of terrific albums since the mid-90’s success of her novelty hit – the original “I Kissed A Girl.” (Note to Katy Perry – Nice try, but you didn’t even come close to the genius of Jill.) California Years is another winning set that showcases her formidable songwriting skills, mixing equal parts of heartbreak and hilarity. “Where Is Bobby Gentry?” will leave you howling.
Rosanne Cash – The List This one’s a no-brainer. Culled from a list of essential country songs her father gave her, Rosanne delivers twelve timeless classics with the understated grace that has become her trademark. Long may you run.
Top of the Flops
St. Vincent – Actor This one made a lot of “Best of 2009” lists. Quite frankly, I just don’t get it. Annie Clark’s (a/k/a St. Vincent’s) voice is pleasant enough, but I listened to this a couple of times and to me there’s really nothing memorable here.
Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love I loved The Crane Wife, and was eagerly looking forward to this release. But the prog-rock bombast here sounds like overkill to me. Let’s hope they dial it back a bit on their next one.
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest One of several buzz-bands named after some sort of animal, this release came with so much hype and received so many accolades, I couldn’t wait to hear it. Turns out I should’ve waited. Tuneless fodder for navel-gazers only.
Steve Earle – Townes I recognize the songwriting genius of Townes Van Zandt, but I’ve never really been able to enjoy his music. Always manages to bring me down. Being a huge fan of Steve Earle, I was looking forward to this release, thinking ol’ Steve might be able to spice things up a bit. After a couple of listens, all I can say is that I recognize the songwriting genius of Townes Van Zandt, but I’ve never really been able to enjoy his music.
Bruce Springsteen – Working On A Dream I can write for days about my disappointment over this CD. A life-long Springsteen fan, I look forward to each release with eager anticipation. I was filled with high hopes when Amazon previewed the video for “My Lucky Day,” imagining how Bruce would raise the roof with it in his live shows. (Saw him twice on the latest tour, and he didn’t play it – oh well.) “The Wrestler” is also terrific, but after these two tracks, things slide downhill pretty quickly. Sonically, there are some interesting touches, but the mediocre tunes on this dud are stylistically all over the place. And to make matters worse, it contains two of the worst pieces of writing Springsteen has ever recorded. “Queen Of The Supermarket” is atrocious, and the lyrics on “Surprise, Surprise” could have been written by one of his kids during a kindergarten composition exercise. This is Springsteen, for chrissakes! To add insult to injury, Rolling Stone gave this piece of mess five stars. (They also gave Adam Lambert a cover story last year – oh, how the mighty have fallen.)