THROUGH THE LENS: Year-End Review – The Best of Everything
Our Native Daughters - AmericanaFest Red Carpet - Photo by Amos Perrine
It’s been an outstanding year not only for live roots music, but also for albums. It’s also ironic that even as album sales overall continue their steep decline, there have been so many outstanding albums released in what, until recently, had been considered a niche genre. It seems like more and more mainstream publications are taking notice.
Now comes another list, an artificial construct that I used to abhor. But over the years I’ve let go of that indiscriminate notion. Now I look at lists as the beginning of a conversation, an opportunity to discover some overlooked gems, a re-evaluation of some that perhaps had been too readily dismissed, and a time to luxuriate in what we’ve come to love, savoring the year before it slips away.
As in years past, my list will primarily be in alphabetical order, and I’ll add some brief impressions along the way. Photos follow, as always.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Our Native Daughters – Songs of Our Native Daughters
There is nothing I can think of that more aptly describes this album than a quote from acclaimed Irish author Iris Murdoch: “Only the very greatest art invigorates without consoling.”
Aldous Harding – Designer
Harding’s music is more about the traveling than the destination, inviting the listener to explore the journey’s emotional and intellectual terrains; if you need a conclusion, you can choose your own.
Amy LaVere – Painting Blue
There’s a sensuous saunter to LaVere’s bass lines, around which Will Sexton’s guitar glides, circling, hawk-like. Together they ebb and flow, ultimately reining the other back in, like lovers falling into each other’s arms.
Andrew Adkins – Who I Am
This no Hillbilly Elegy; it’s a master storyteller’s tales of everyday life in Appalachia today.
Buddy & Julie Miller – Breakdown on 20th Avenue South
It was worth the wait. As was the 392-mile drive to Nashville to see the album release show that was Julie’s first public performance since the Millers’ New Year’s Eve gig in New York over 15 years before. I was at that one as well.
Charlie Faye & The Fayettes – The Whole Shebang
I never cottoned much to “girl groups” in my formative years, but as Dylan wrote, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
Dori Freeman – Every Single Star
Freeman is the dark at the edge of the wood: Her straightforward, nonchalant manner belies the emotional turmoil that’s tucked into her songs. Some might call it therapy, I call it it grace.
Eilen Jewell – Gypsy
As its title might suggest, on this album the Queen of the Minor Key downshifts into somewhat of a country blues mode as she roams the backroads of passion with a wild, fertile desire.
Joan Shelley – Like the River Loves the Sea
Shelley’s music reminds me of these last lines in an e.e. cummings poem: “the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses, nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”
Karen & The Sorrows – Guaranteed Broken Heart
This stellar album should put mainstream Americana/country on notice that Queer Country has arrived. There’s more in one of Pittelman’s songs than all of Lower Broadway could muster in a year. It’s the purest country I’ve heard in a long time.
Kelsey Waldon – White Noise/White Lines
There’s more than a bit of hillbilly zen going on in Waldon’s music, verifiably fresh yet has that lived-in feel. Or maybe it’s the patina of a decade of one-nighters, waking up one morning to find you’re the belle of the ball.
Lula Wiles – What Will We Do
There are a lot of trios out there, many of which are better known, but the organic nature of this album keeps me going back time and again. Its sheer joy is overwhelming. I even find myself dancing sometimes.
Luther Dickinson & the Sisters of the Strawberry Moon – Solstice
Collaboration is on the rise, and none is better curated than this Mississippi All-Star using his considerable talents in support of other considerable talents, such as Amy LaVere, Allison Russell, and Amy Helm.
Michaela Anne – Desert Dove
There’s a shimmer to Anne’s countrypolitan sound; it’s as though she’s pulled into a roadhouse somewhere in the Southwest at twilight, her songs being stories she’s imagined while watching people dancing, canoodling, or laughing just a little too loud.
Molly Tuttle – When You’re Ready
Bluegrass never heard anyone quite like Tuttle before, or this pulsating, near-mystical album that demonstrates that her songwriting is equal to her considerable guitar chops.
Patty Griffin – Patty Griffin
Griffin has been so good for so many years that far too many have taken her excellent work for granted. I don’t, nor should you.
Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi – there is no Other
When I’m at death’s door, I want to hear Giddens singing “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.”
Yola – Walk Through Fire
Those of us who religiously followed Yola from one Nashville backyard to another knew this album would be astounding; even more so when she rewardingly weaved the British ’70s into her firebrand country soul sound.
JAZZ, BLUES, TRADITIONAL, COMPILATION, GOSPEL, LIVE, & CHRISTMAS ALBUMS
Catherine Russell – Alone Together
My highlight of the year was Russell paying homage to Jimmy Scott when she performed his favorite song, “When Did You Leave Heaven.” My heart stood still.
Mindi Abair & the Boneshakers – No Good Deed
This album is to the blues as Springsteen’s Born to Run is to rock & roll.
Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert – When the Sun Goes Down
Kane & Gellert bring a fervent interior dialogue to traditional music that also has a certain romantic je ne sais quoi.
Various Artists – Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots
This insurgent collection by 22 Chicago artists makes you want to ramble down some lost highways of your own.
Emily Duff – Hallelujah Hello
Anyone who could can liken heaven to to a diner where there’s hot grits, biscuits, ham, gravy, and coffee all day can count me in.
Sam Baker – Horses & Stars
Live, with just a guitar backing his hoarse, clipped vocals, Baker’s songs are hymns to the forgotten, the broken, and the discarded who bear the scars of having the weight of the world thrust upon them.
Loose Cattle – Seasonal Affective Disorder
If Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts characters were members of a punky alt-country band, then this what Christmas would sound like at Charlie Brown’s house.
Nellie McKay – Bagatelles
This is how I love McKay the most, taking on the Great American Songbook solo, accompanying herself on piano and ukulele.
J.P. Harris –Why Don’t We Duet in the Road (Again)
Harris lends his chameleon talents to a second set of classic country and folk duets, with Elizabeth Cook, Erin Rae, Miss Tess, and Malin Pettersen.
Motel Mirrors – Gotta Lotta Rhythm
The inclusion of “Funnel of Love,” long a staple of Amy LaVere’s live shows, alone is worth the price of admission.
Chely Wright – Revival
Andy Warhol said, “They say time changes things, but actually you have to change them yourself.” Wright has done just that, and her music is as vibrant as ever.
Bronwen Exter – Never Invited You
In a whispery, smoky voice reminiscent of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, Exter’s songs are like swimming in a dreamy Lynchian landscape.
Various Artists – Bakersfield Sound
If you think Bakersfield begins and ends with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, think again. This 10-CD set, with a 224-page hardcover book, will make you realize how rich that scene was, and how it continues to inspire and reverberate in today’s music.
Hank Williams – The Complete Health & Happiness Recordings
In my home Williams was God. I relish the live recordings being released these past few years.
The Dave Rawlings Machine – Nashville Obsolete
As extraordinary as his two previous releases were, this one, which could be viewed as a metaphor for the city we have lost, is the pièce de résistance, in all its analog glory.
Todd Snider – East Nashville Skyline
Fifteen years ago the CD version of this album gave us the persona known as Todd Snider, and none of us has ever been the same since.
Wayne Hancock – Man of the Road
The gem of the King of Modern Honky-tonk’s first vinyl anything is a live version of his signature song, “Thunderstorms and Neon Signs.”
Robbie Fulks – Country Love Songs
Be like Robbie: like every kind of music, be it loud, be it fast, or be it funky, but mostly like country.
Now, the photos.