My 2011 Top Ten
I always feel a little behind the times, and behind in my listening, but I did manage to find many albums that actually came out this year that made it into my regular rotation. Here they are:
10. Matt Masters, All Western Winners
Masters is an accomplished songwriter who wears the cowboy persona well, despite his urban upbringing and former life as a rocker. Capturing the paradox experienced by ruralites struggling it out in the city, Masters contextualizes classic cowboy tales within the contemporary Canadian urban space. He’s gotten personal on this album too, singing about his grandmother in one song and his wife in others. But that sentimentality is balanced by a brave new voice. No longer a gentle troubadour, Masters is screamin’ through some of those tunes.
9. Wanda Jackson, The Party Ain’t Over
I might not have bought Jackson’s latest even though it’s produced by the man who loves the first ladies of country, Jack White, which promises some interesting listening, but it was a welcome gift. White takes advantage of Jackson’s robust but changing voice, adding effects to counterbalance the more typical arrangements of rockabilly provided by a full band that includes a horn section. It’s nice to hear a reinterpretation of some classics like “Rip It Up” and “Blue Yodel #6”, while others are a little more than that, like the twisted, circus-y waltz on “Busted”.
8. David Baxter, Patina
Aside from Baxter’s great songwriting and production skills, this is just a good album to me because it’s got all the sounds I like. He’s got great lyrics and a nice voice, but he’s also interested in what the whole band is doing, so they are highlighted just as much. Good thing, because there’s some pretty solid playing here, and the approach really reinforces the idea that a song is much more than the lyrics. I wish I heard this more in some of the other songwriters I like.
7. Guy Clark, Songs and Stories
Nice album for me, since I can’t remember Clark playing in Toronto in the near decade that I’ve lived in the city (if he has I was sorely out of the loop). Clark’s classics are interspersed among entertaining stories told by him and his bandmates. He introduces “If I Needed You” with a story of Townes van Zandt’s pet parakeets that he carried in the pockets of his coat. Apparently Townes rolled over one night and wrote the song in his sleep. Yeah, I’ve done that too. Turns out I just wrote down the lyrics to Rick Astley’s “Together Forever.” Anyway. Clark also throws in the song he wrote with Rodney Crowell, “Stuff That Works”. These are nice, gentle, but intricate acoustic arrangements, showcasing the timelessness of his songs.
6. Matt Andersen, Coal Mining Blues
I saw Andersen twice this year, although didn’t quite make it through the first concert in the pouring rain. The live show is enough to convince you that you are a lifelong fan. It’s so rare to see a musician with Andersen’s vocabulary, understanding of his instrument, and charisma onstage. But then you get the records and realize he’s got one more strength: songwriting. Andersen moves deftly through emotional highs and lows, different genres, and varying arrangements on this record. Never a boring listen.
5. Joe Nolan, Goodbye Cinderella
I hate to focus on someone’s young age as a precursor to describing the extraordinariness of their talent, since I spent most of my youth mired in explanations as to why I was younger than everyone else at school, and age just gets annoying and boring after awhile, but Nolan is astoundingly prolific for someone of his age. There. I said it. It doesn’t matter, he could be 82 and listeners would be amazed at his ability to tease out the essence of human angst. But he’s 21, and for someone who has had limited time to absorb all of the influences that he seems to channel, he does it pretty well. Makes me feel like he’s found some magical extra eight hours a day to listen. Or maybe he listens in his sleep. My fave is “Letters to Juliet” for its simplicity and sweetness.
4. Shelby Lynne, Revelation Road
I love everything Lynne does. The latest on her own label, Revelation Road is a nice departure from the cheerful melancholy (seriously) of Just a Little Lovin’, her album of Dusty Springfield covers. Now actually melancholy, Lynne dances around politics, explores Southern culture, and touches on heartache throughout Road. I like that she’s not entirely stuck in a roots style here; she returns to some of the pop/rock arrangements that characterize earlier releases like Love, Shelby, although maybe with a more serious tone this time. “I’ll Hold Your Head” and “Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road” are particularly heartwrenching, and they seem to allude to her own youth. Lynne wrote, played, and produced everything on this album. Wow.
3. Various, Paint It Black: An Alt-Country Tribute to the Rolling Stones
I didn’t give this the greatest review a few weeks ago, but what it has done for me makes it worth putting it this high on my 2011 list. I like all the individual tracks and have liked a lot of the artists on here for a long time, and even enjoy the album overall as a package. I just don’t like it as a package of Rolling Stones covers (which is unfortunately what it is). Never mind that, as I said before, it made me go back to all of the original Stones songs, because the covers served as a reminder of how great that material is. So I’ve been buried in the classics – Sticky Fingers, Beggars Banquet, Exile on Main Street – for the last several weeks. I can’t stop listening to them. And I love that the Stones, in all their messy, iconoclastic rock song creatin’, managed to have such a significant effect on a new generation of country singers.
2. Ian Tyson, From the Stone House
At the other end of the age spectrum is Ian Tyson. Seriously, this man is SEVENTY-EIGHT and still writing the best songs of anyone I’ve heard. Avoiding clichés and well worn lyrical tricks that so many other songwriters fall back on, he sets his songs against evocative atmospheric and instrumental backdrops. Even though his voice has changed, he still seems to have the same range, and the new gravelly tinge lends a bit of a wise-sage authority. Don’t be too fooled by his 50+ years in the biz though – this album, a short EP of five songs, is only available online so far. Stop it, Ian. You were already too cool.
1. Chris Isaak, Beyond the Sun
It’s bad for me to list this as my number one, considering I don’t own it yet. I’ve heard enough clips and the few songs that made it onto youtube, and read enough reviews to know that it’s the only thing I want for Christmas (why I don’t have it yet – I’ve been explicitly instructed not to buy it). I love this man and everything he does. He combines humour, homage, originality in a thoughtful way, acknowledging the importance of the songs without trivializing them in the way that can happen in cover versions. And what a voice. How does he imitate these guys so perfectly but still sound like himself?
I think I also like this album for how it speaks to everything that changed in my life this year, and so, when I think of Beyond the Sun, I will think of 2011.