Best of 2009
Since today is the last day we’re collecting lists to determine what the No Depression Community deems the best albums of 2009 and of the decade, I thought the time was ripe to post my own Top 20 of 2009. Ready? In order:
Dave Rawlings Machine – A Friend of a Friend
In a way, it’s unfair that Rawlings dropped this record just a couple weeks ago. It’s most forward in my mind, and I can’t stop listening to it. The instrumentation is impeccable, for one. It’s also a well-rounded folk album which packs in so many different styles of traditional American music, and does so in a way that doesn’t feel like they were checking off a style list. The album sticks to the songs, delivering them in whatever mode and style they call for. And it’s just good – good songs, good players, good energy. It does all the right things. I don’t doubt this will still be one of my favorite records a year from now.
Buddy & Julie Miller – Written in Chalk
What can I say about this one? It’s just a beautiful record. Buddy and Julie make beautiful music together. It’s raw and gritty and true. Also, if I were counting down the year’s best songs, “Chalk” would top the list.
Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Everyone on Earth, it seems, appeared on this record, and every piano Case could find. To call Neko Case’s creative impulses imaginative would be an understatement, but it’s the closest word which comes to mind. Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” is gloriously repurposed here, but the standout moment is the 31-minute loop of crickets at the end. I’m just going to say it…”Marais La Nuit” is one of the most beautiful and ballsy recorded moments on any album this year, if not in recent memory.
Steve Earle – Townes
This is another one where I don’t know what to say. Townes Van Zandt would make almost any contemporary songwriter’s list of the Greatest American Songwriters of All Time (not that I want to open up that can of worms again), so the bar is kind of high for an entire album of covers. He didn’t do Townes impressions, he didn’t overdo the whole reinventing process. A lot of people tackle a single song (usually “Pancho and Lefty”), but Earle went for the golden target. And he hit it.
Sam Baker – Cotton
This record makes me stop everything I’m doing. As such, I don’t listen to it nearly as often as the other records on this list, but that’s my favorite thing about it. Baker’s songwriting is a force in itself. It’s a beautiful album, and it’s a crying shame more people aren’t privy to his work.
Todd Snider – The Excitement Plan
I’ve always had a hard time with Todd Snider. I’ve liked him as a songwriter, have kind of understood what he was reaching for. I’ve liked some of his albums and some of his songs, have sort of enjoyed his live shows. But, The Excitement Plan was the first one that really hit me. It opened a door, you could say. Now, when I go back to his previous albums, I notice a lot more.
Justin Townes Earle – Midnight at the Movies
Back to Best Songs of the Year…I’d include “Mama’s Eyes” on that list. Earle-the-Younger’s songwriting matured dramatically on this album. I remember him telling me at some point that he spends a lot of energy on editing his songs, making sure nothing’s in there that doesn’t need to be there. It comes across. He earned his AMA for Best Emerging Artist.
As I noted in my review of this disc, it was hard to think of it as a solo debut. Watkins was joined by both her former Nickel Creek collaborators, not to mention John Brion, Gillian and Dave, and many other worthy contributors. Still, it made a clear statement about what kind of solo artist Sara Watkins is – one of impeccable taste and judgment, who chooses her music carefully, and who writes thoughtful, sensitive originals. Plus, her cover of Tom Waits’ “Pony” would make that Best Songs list.
Sometymes Why – Your Heart is a Glorious Machine
You don’t have to stop what you’re doing to listen to this album, but it helps. This is a very quiet album, and it sounds nothing like what you might expect from three stringband ladies. Their cover of Concrete Blonde’s “Joey” is almost uncomfortably stirring.
Gregory Alan Isakov – This Empty Northern Hemisphere
This album was probably the most surprising release this year. From its arrestingly melodramatic originals to the impressive cover of Leonard Cohen’s “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” it’s packed with introspective, dreamy melodies and careful, poetic lyrics.
Slaid Cleaves – Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away
Few would argue that Slaid Cleaves is one of the finest songwriters at work these days. His songs are at once simple and accessible, focused on intimate lyricism and understated arrangements.
AA Bondy – When the Devil’s Loose
There seems to be a running theme with this list. Is my taste from 2009 becoming predictable? I seem to like them at once understated and imaginative, intimate and sincere, quiet and stirring. AA Bondy does all these things. He’s another one of contemporary whatever-it-is music’s greatest under-appreciated singer-songwriters.
David Bazan – Curse Your Branches
David Bazan’s fall from grace, or rather the extent to which he’s grappled with his spiritual life, was one of the more told stories in the singer-songwriter world this year. The album resulting from that struggle is his most honest yet – try topping a line like “It’s hard to be a decent human being” with the same level of conflicted sincerity.
Eilen Jewell – Sea of Tears
I love Eilen Jewell’s dark, unexpected vocal affectation. I love the dark alley element to the guitar solos on this album, and how it all feels like a dark and stormy day. Every song is good. That’s all.
Brandi Carlile – Give Up the Ghost
The version of “Pride and Joy” on this album is, granted, something the Carlile and her band can’t do live (because it features a full orchestra, arranged by Paul Buckmaster), but it’s great for a recording. You have to give them credit for stepping far enough from the comfort and reliability of what works onstage to create an album that works as an album. It’s less moody and more sincere than her previous efforts, and shows off all the things Carlile does solidly well – twang, whisper, roar, and rock.
Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers
This is a lovely record, full of surprising lyrical turns and an on-point classic-style country. Muth writes great country songs, period. I listened to this album on heavy rotation this summer, and I don’t doubt I’ll be pulling it back out this winter. Money line: “You’ve got a heart like a bucket full of ice.”
Danny Schmidt – Instead the Forest Rose to Sing
Here’s another remarkable songwriter whose work tends to get far too frequently overlooked. There’s a lot of commentary on economic hardship on this album, but not so much that it turns overtly political or even particularly topical. Schmidt’s gift is for keeping it personal, sticking to the story, and delivering honest melodies.
Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers – The Bear
Stephen Kellogg’s lyrics carry this album for me. Sure the music is fantastic, and the instrumentation is tight. But, when it comes to songs about love, loss, and self-preservation, it’s impossible to beat lines like, “The part of me that can make you smile is the same part that needed to go.”
This is not my favorite Wilco album, by any stretch, but I appreciate it. Not only am I still listening to it at year’s end, but it’s still growing on me with each spin. The Tweedy-Feist duet on “You and I” is a highlight, and I’ve really warmed up to “Wilco (the Song).”
Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
Many Avett Brothers fans may not have expected so many mainstream-palatable songs on I and Love and You. Some may bristle at the expansion of the band’s sound. The Americana-pop quality that’s been mentioned on here before. But, strip away all expectations and take this album at face value: it’s a great bunch of songs. The band is tight, the lyrics are sound and heartbreaking, and the production is admittedly slick. It’s clean, but there’s nothing wrong with clean.