Favorite Music of the Year, 2016 Edition

As December rolls in, bringing Winter chills, it is time for this blog’s 8th annual favorite albums of the year list.

In perusing my music collection, I’ve collected 31 albums this year spanning 15 genres. My musical tastes run in the Southern Rock to Alternative Country styles, so if this is not to your tastes, you may want to check out some other lists available elsewhere. Of these, 8 stand out as my favorites. Before getting into that list, I want to touch briefly on 3 runners up.

Honorary Mentions:
Drive-By Truckers, American Band; Waco Brothers, Going Down in History; and Steve Earle/Shawn Colvin, Earle and Colvin. These are great albums and in a normal year would have made the final list, but this year had many great albums, read on for my favorites.

8) Hackensaw Boys, Charismo. I classify these guys as roots country but you probably know them as string band music. Long before Mumford and Sons were watering down this style for mass consumption this band from Virginia has been stompin’ and rollickin’. If you like music without frills, the Hackensaw Boys are worth checking out.

7) Whiskey Myers, Mud. The 4th album from this Texas band continues their unique blending of Southern Rock and Red Dirt Country. Like many genre bending bands, Whiskey Myers does not get the acclaim that they deserve.

6) Devil Makes Three, Redemption & Ruin. Eight albums in 14 years and this roots country band is just now getting the attention that they deserve. American Songwriter has a good review of this album.

5) Robbie Fulks, Upland Stories. Robbie Fulks is America’s troubadour, largely unrecognized, but still capturing the ideas of the nation. Rooted firlmly in American folk, it is only the vagaries of the pop country industry that Fulks is not played on every country station from coast to coast.

4) Cody Jinks, I’m Not the Devil. Despite his background in the thrash metal scene, it is Johnny Cash that Jinks channels in his newest release (the third for those counting at home).

3) Blackberry Smoke, Like An Arrow. Blackberry Smoke was on this list last year for a live album, this year they are back with a new release of original music. The voice of Southern Rock with a healthy dose of Americana. How this hard working touring band found the time to record and produce this album is beyond me, but the quality of the music speaks to the work ethic of these guys from Georgia. If you get the chance to see them live, take it, you will  not be disappointed.

2) Billy Bragg/Joe Henry, Shine Light. These two folkies compliment each other to a tee. Singing classic tales of railroads and those who rode them. An instant classic.

  1. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Simpson has been hailed as the saviour of country music. Surely that task is too much for one man, but Simpson has done more than anyone else in a long time. This album was written and recorded for his son who he missed while on tour. See NPR’s review.

If you liked this post, check out my past yearly lists:  2009, 2010, 2011, 20122013, 2014, and 2015.


Top Albums of the Year, 2014 Edition

2014 has turned out to be a great year for (mostly) independent music. This is the 6th annual favorite albums of the year list that I have made on this blog.  This year I’m highlighting 12 albums from this past year that (I believe) stand above the rest.

Before we get too far into this year’s list, here are the lists from 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Below I list my favorite 12 albums from 2014, the band’s name links to their official website. Click play on the video above and continue on.

12) Asylum Street Spankers: The Last Laugh.  This band is a lot of fun, but I almost left them off this list because they broke up back in 2011. This is “new to us” music recorded live at their final performance. (It appears that their website forwards to facebook so I won’t link to it.)

11) Little Buffalo: Little Buffalo. Debut album from this Northern California Roots/Country/Americana/Rock band. I confess to not knowing much about this band, other than the fact that I really like their debut. This album can be streamed from their website in its entirety.

10) Cory Branan: The No Hit Wonder. I first heard of Branan when he joined Bloodshot Records back in 2012, this is his second album with that label, his 4th album overall.  I place his music in the “country rock” category within my collection, but his style is one that transcends country and rock and folk and could just as easily fit in any of them. Twang Nation review.

9) Chuck Mead: Free State Serenade. This former BR-549 front man returns with his 3rd solo album. This one does not fail to impress, a rollicking roll in Mead’s own brand of Americana country.

8) Bap Kennedy: Let’s Start Again. A two disk album of new music from this genre defying singer/songwriter. The artist’s webpage has videos and tracks to stream, well worth checking out!

7) Whiskey Myers: Early Morning Shakes. The 3rd album from this Texas based Southern Rock band. While they get most of their attention from the country music scene, they channel everything that makes Southern rock great. The entire album is well worth checking out.

6) Blackberry Smoke: Leave a Scar (Live in North Carolina). A double live disk from the hardest working band in show business. This Southern rock band is a touring band first, as such their albums are few and far between. Having had the opportunity to see them over the summer, I can attest that this album captures some of the vitality of their live shows. They have a new album coming out early next year that I am sorely looking forward to.

5) Bob Wayne: Back to the Camper. If you like your alternative country with attitude, Bob Wayne may be the band for you. This is great story telling with a musical assault that leaves you both exhausted and wanting more. I’ve yet to have the opportunity to see this band live but I imagine that it would be a show to remember.

4) Paul Thorn: Too Blessed to be Stressed. I had never heard of Paul Thorn when I saw him over the Summer, since then I’ve had his music in constant rotation. Like many of the musicians on this list, his music defies easy categorization; but I would call him blues rock with a heavy southern influence. Beyond genres, Thorn is a story teller, and his stories are well worth listening to.

3) Corb Lund: Counterfeit Blues. This is probably Lund’s most approachable album to date. On his past albums this Canadian story teller has had a sparser sound. This album is some of his classics remixed for an American audience and broader appeal.

2) Old 97’s: Most Messed Up. This country rock group from Texas makes repeated entries on my yearly music round-ups. If you’ve listened to their latest album then you know why. I am unsure if there is a band out there that turns a phrase better than this band.

1) Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. I cannot sing the praises of this album (and of Simpson himself) loud enough. A classic country sound with lyrics that are honest and modern in their sensibilities. While it may be a burden too heavy for any man, Simpson may be in the position to save country music from the powers in Nashville (who seem hell bent on taking it to vacuous irrelevance.)

Edit: Cracker just released an album too late to make this list, but it is great. Thier best stuff in some time, Berkeley to Bakersfield…check it out!

Best New Music, 2013 Edition

As has become my custom, it is time for me to list my favorite album releases of the year.  This is the 5th annual listing, and it has been a great year for roots/alt-country music.  This years listing is unique in numerous ways as we have the first heavy metal album on the list, the first EP on the list, and the first re-issue on the list. Read on to see who made the cut.

Per usual, the artist links to their website while the album links to a review by a third party. Without further ado, here is my list of the top 12 albums of 2013.

12. Red Dirt Rangers, Lone Chimney. Red Dirt Country is a sub-genre out of Oklahoma and nobody represents that sound better than the Red Dirt Rangers. This is their first release since 2007 and it was well worth the wait. (Surprisingly there is not a good review easily found of this album…perhaps my next post.)

11. Hank III, Brothers of the 4×4. If you like your alternative country with bark on it, Hank III will not disapoint. This album would have charted higher on this list if the production wasn’t sub-par. Hank III does some of the best music out there, unfortunately being independent has a drawback, lack of an editor. For these reasons Hank III’s album charts lower than expected…still some great music worth listening too.

10. The Dinosaur Truckers, The Dinosaur Truckers. Debut album from this American roots band from Germany hits all of the right notes. Looking forward to more from these guys.

9. Steve Earle, The Low Highway. While being another great release from Steve Earle, there was nothing on this album that jumped out at me and had me playing it over and over, as such it still comes in at number nine.

8. Chris Shiflett & the Dead Peasants, All Hat & No Cattle. This band was new to me this year, but I think this is their 3rd album. It is classic honky tonk with a modern sensibility, the album is mostly covers.

7. Drag the River, Drag the River. Even though they have at least seven albums out, they went with the eponymous name for their lowest release.  It is country rock with a little punk edge to it.

6. Donna the Buffalo, Tonight Tomorrow and Yesterday. String music, zydeco, cajun and other genres come together to make this band the best jam band out there. There is no disappointment with this bands latest release. My only regret is that I have not been able to see them live yet.

5. Old 97s/Merle Haggard, Iron Road. A great collaboration that has finally seen the light of day. Only an EP but the albums title track and The Other Shoe carry it to number 5 on this list. Look for a new album from the Old 97s this next year.

4. Black Sabbath, 13. All I can say is wow. I grew up on this band and this album is at least as good as anything they have done since 1974. Produced by Rick Rubin and proof that the man is a genius.

3. The Hackensaw Boys, For the Love of a Friend. This band continues their trend of producing some of the best string music out there. I am glad I got this album digitally becasue I would surely have worn out vinyl by now.

2. Robbie Fulks, Gone Away Backward. Some of the best music that Robbie Fulks has put out, a sparse roots sound, mostly acoustic. I can not get enough of this album.

1. The Bottle Rockets, The Bottle Rockets/The Brooklyn Side (reissue). It is hard to believe The Bottle Rockets are 20 years old. This is a two disc set with 46 songs on it, not bad for $12.95. Most of the bonus material is acoustic demos some featuring the band’s predecessor Chicken Truck and others with backing by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. You can not go wrong with this album…go buy it now. And if you get the chance, see them live.

See my previous lists: 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.

Remember, many reviews have downloadable tracks and the artist sites often offer streaming.

Edit: Oops…I left out Son Volt’s new album. Maybe there was a tie for number 3 or 4?

Son Volt, Honky Tonk.

Favorite Music Releases of 2012

Last year I was about 10 months late with this list, this year I am a month early.  Before I list my favorite 8 releases of 2012, I want to first list a few albums that nearly made the list.  In no particular order here are 5 albums that nearly made my top 8 list for 2012:

And, now, my favorite album releases of 2012.

8) Corb Lund: Cabin Fever. Canada’s favorite acerbic wit has released his most pop friendly album to date.  While straying from his folk roots he has given up none of his biting sarcasm and good time sound.

7) Kid Rock: Rebel Soul.  Detroit’s favorite rapper returns with another pop album.  Two Detroit based post-rap countryish albums made this list, I really enjoy the sound.

6) Ryan Bingham: Tomorrowland.  Bingham returns with another gravelly voiced album chronicling America’s underbelly.  This album seems more electric than his previous albums.

5) Wrinkle Neck Mules: Apprentice to Ghosts.  You can call them Southern rock or roots country, but their sound remains eternal.  Traditional instrumentation with a wholesome plaintive sound.

4) Bob Wayne: Till the Wheels Fall Off.  More Hank III than Hank III, Wayne hits all of the themes of the country outlaw: trucks, exes, and fighting the law.

3) Uncle Kracker: Midnight Special.  Less auto-tuned than his previous album, Kracker hits all of the right notes to make this Detroit post-rapper’s latest album a fun album.

2) Chuck Mead: Back at the Quonset Hut. This ex BR-549 front man returns with his second solo album.  This album is made up of a dozen country and rockabilly standards, a fun album.

1) Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson: Wreck and Ruin.  This is the second collaboration between this Aussie married couple.  Like any great collaboration the result is more than a sum of its parts.  If you like old-timey with modern sensibilities, this album may be for you.

Better Late Than …

So, here it is, mid-August 2012.  What can that mean?  Of course, that means it is time for my favorite music of 2011 list!

I was thinking of writing a review of Corb Lund’s new album, Cabin Fever.  Then I wondered how long it had been since I last reviewed an album on this blog…and it has been awhile.  I was somewhat surprised to note that I had not done my traditional end of year music list last year.  Having done so in both 2009 and 2010, I want to throw something out there to maintain the fledgling tradition.

Of the 26 albums tagged “2011” in my media manager, I pulled my favorite 7, and without further ado:

(I’ve linked the artist name to their web site and the album’s name to a review.)

#7 The Old 97’s: The Grand Theatre Vol. 2

Like 2010’s Vol 1, this album hearkens back to an earlier sound for The Old 97’s.  This is the band that I fell in love with way back in 1996.  Country and Pop is a sound that is hard to successfully straddle, but there is no doubt that the Old 97’s pull it off.

#6 Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Heirloom Music

This album is exactly what the title says, heirloom music.  Culled from the 30s and 40s, this follow up to Come On Back never fails to impress.

#5 The Bottle Rockets: Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening

Country rock with a real down-home feel, this Bottle Rockets acoustic album still manages to bring out some of the raucous live vibe that they seem to imbue into everything that they do.

#4 The V-Roys: Sooner or Later

This late 90s alt-country band from Knoxville got back together just long enough to release a compilation album and to do one show.  The album is sounds fresh even though the music is 15 years old.

#3 Great American Taxi: Paradise Lost

Is it alt-country or roadhouse?  Whatever label you put on their music, GAT is pure Americana adrenaline.  Had I done this list in a timely manner this album would have been missing because I just got turned on to GAT this past March; all three of their albums are top notch…well worth checking out.

#2 Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots

The Drive-By Truckers put out two albums in 2011.  One was a compilation and this one is new music.  Not as gritty as some of thier earlier works, this album still serves as the face of modern southern rock.

#1 Bob Wayne: Outlaw Carnie

This is country music with a metal attitude.  Outlaw country has lost its sound becoming just another carcass picked over by Nashville.  Well, Bob Wayne is taking it back, and taking it back big.

Maybe late, but these 7 artists will stand the test of time…check ’em out.

Favorite Music of 2010

As the days grow shorter and 2010 recedes into the rear view, it is time to take a look at my favorite  albums of the year.  Last year I narrowed it down to a top 15 list, this year I narrowed it to 18.  Eighteen is way to many to write up, so I posted a list of the second tier favorites which I posted a few days ago.  This, then, is what remains; my favorite albums of 2010.

8) Happy: Robbie Fulks plays the Music of Michael Jackson (Boondoggle, 3/25/10).  It is no surprise that Robbie Fulks ends up on this list, after all he has been one of my favorites for going on 12 years.  The big surprise is that it is a Michael Jackson tribute.  Yep, Robbie Fulks sings Michael Jackson songs, and they are really good.  This isn’t your typical tribute album, it is more of a re-interpretation; Robbie manages to make the songs his own (Ben is the only straight-up cover).  This album is in line with Fulks’ recent works, not as countrified as his early stuff, yet still shying away from anything that sounds like pop.  The album opens and closes with Goin’ Back to Indiana, the opening song is the country-ist song on the album, here is what No Depression says about the last:

Goin’ back to Goin’ back to Indiana – bringing the music and story full circle, this mixes up track one with samples, loops and voice-overs “back to where I started from” is prominently repeated. It’s a metaphor for the way that Jackson’s life was twisted and distorted from its original innocence into something fascinating but darker (check the slightly discordant minor key loops) and more confusing (From the review of No Depression.)

Robbie obviously admires Jackson as a song writer, and this album really shows it.  Rumors are that this album was meant to be released in 2002, but Jackson’s pedophilia accusations pushed it to the back shelf for a while.  It is always interesting when a singer-songwriter does a cover album, but you can quit holding your breath, this one works.

7) Old 97’s, The Grand Theatre Volume One (New West 10/12/10).  This album makes a single statement, the Old 97’s are back and they are as good as ever.  The Grand Theatre is their best release since 2004’s Drag it Up.  I had the pleasure to see the 97’s back in July in Missouri and can attest that, whether on stage or in studio, the Old 97’s have earned their place on this list.  Rhett Miller’s catchy vocals and well turned phrase hearken back to earlier, less poppy, Old 97’s.  Back in the late 90s these guys introduced me to cow punk with their raw rockin’ Texas sound.  Then in the late oughts they made a few albums, their best commercial successes, which were over produced for my tastes but did give them some pop hits.  While I can’t blame them for seeking success, I whole-heartedly welcome them back.  Highlights of the album include the straight country ballads You Were Born to Be in Battle and Let the Whiskey Take the Reins, the re-working of Dylan’s Desolation Angel into Champaign Illinois, and the rousing crowd pleaser Please Hold on While the Train is Moving.  My favorite song from the album is The Magician, it has classic 97’s caustic wit wrapped in sweet innuendo, the kind of music that makes you want to turn up the stereo and scream the lyrics along with the band.  Enough recordings were made in these sessions that Volume Two is slated for release next year.

“What can I say?  The Old 97’s have been making anger and depression sound fun since 1993.”  –Rhett Miller

6) Jon Lanford and Skull Orchard, Old Devils (Bloodshot 8/24/10).  I gave this album a full review earlier this year.

5) Eleven Hundred Springs , This Crazy Life (Smith 2/2/10).  This Crazy Life marks the 10th album from EHS and these Texas stalwarts show no sign of slowing down.  I’ve heard these guys described as acoustic music with a rock n roll attitude, they continue to live up to that description.  Songs like Great American Trainwreck and Honky Tonk Angels are instant classic roadhouse rock.  The lilting I’m in a Mellow Mood paints a picture as good as any paint splattered artist, with the song almost oozing lemonade in its conveyance of a hot summer (maybe stoned) day.  High on the Town and Straight to Bed are out right rockers with Straight to Bed being upbeat in tone as well as message.  Read Nine Bullet‘s take on these long haired tattooed hippy freaks from Dallas.  I’ve been following these guys since 2004’s Bandwagon and know that as good as this album is, it is even better to see them live.  These guys know how to have fun and engage an audience and every show is guaranteed to be a blast.

4) Gretchen Wilson, I Got Your Country Right Here (Redneck 3/30/10).  This album is pure country, it is in turns rousing, trite, flamboyant, hard driving, and earnest; sometimes all 5 at once.  It is, in effect, country the way it was meant to sound.  The song Work Hard Play Harder is an anthem for every working class woman and proved to be a popular single.  Other songs illustrate the working class nature of this album, such as the political Blue Collar Done Turn Red and Trucker Man (masterful slide guitar!).  This is Wilson’s first release since getting out from under Sony and it shows that she has no intention of settling into Nashville smaltz pop.  As she sings on Outlaws and Renegades:

Well, just the other day I was driving down the road
Listening to the stuff coming out of Music Row
I didn’t recognise a single song or none of the names
But it didn’t really matter cause they all seem to sound the same

Where’s all the outlaws and renegades?
Lord knows I miss those days
When they said what they thought
And what they thought was what was on your mind

Outlaw country is alive and well and has an excellent proponent in Gretchen Wilson.

3) Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses, Junky Star (Lost Highway 8/31/10).  Last year Bingham released Roadhouse Son which made number 2 on my yearly list.  This year he again rises into the top three albums, a testament to his depth of lyrics and musical abilities.  The album opens with a harmoica and tells you exactly what to expect.  The opening song, The Poet, is about sleeping on Santa Monica Pier with the homeless, the vagrants, and the junkies; there is a level of feeling to the song that speaks loudly.  The album varies from raspy ballads such as Yesterday’s Blues and full on band assaults on such songs as Depression.  The entire album is dark, with characters seemingly out of luck and desperate.  Bingham earns a place in a long and valued tradition, taking his place amongst Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Steve Earle, and others.  I have no way of knowing what demons are eating Bingham, but he manages to channel them into his music and the result is some of the sparsest, ragged music out there.  Pop Matters describes the album like this:

The record’s best songs also tell the best stories: “Hallelujah”, one of the album’s most polished melodies, is told from the point of view of a murdered man who is caught between worlds, realizing that his faith in heaven was misplaced but who can’t return to his earthly loved one either. “Yesterday’s Blues” is a Nebraska-style folk ballad, the album’s most direct love song. The title cut is a story of a farmer’s plight—a story Bingham knows first hand—but one that takes a tragic turn into murder and addiction: “I borrowed a quarter for a call to the other side/Told God that the whole damn world was waiting around to die”. The album’s best tune is “Depression”, finding the narrator getting out of some bullshit town or another that’s going down in flames, reaching the album’s most powerful moment: “I’d rather lay down in a pine box/than to sell my heart to a fuckin’ wasteland.”

Bingham earns a special level of respect for not making a pop album.  Bingham wrote the song The Weary Kind for the movie Crazy Heart which charted and earned him a Golden Globe, an Academy Award, and Song of the Year at the AMA.  He could have been forgiven for coming out with a pop album to build on his success, but he didn’t, and for that he has earned my respect.

2) Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do (ATO 3/16/10).  This marks the Truckers 10th album in 11 years, despite their somewhat fluid line up, this rocking southern band may be the hardest working group in show business.  This album show cases what the band does best, gritty character sketches laid out on a foundation of guitar rock, and no one does it better.  The album opens darkly with Daddy Learned to Fly a hard driving song about a young boy whose father had recently died.  This is followed up with Birthday Boy, a tale of misadventure with a prostitute.  Of the 13 songs on this album (50 minutes, short for a DBT release) fully half a dozen could be mistaken for classic DBT, and that is a good thing.  You Got Another features  vocals by Shonna Tucker, a rare treat.    The album ends on a slower note The Flying Wallendas and Eyes Like Glue, the latter a father giving advice to his son and trying to prepare him that he (the father) is just a man.

Lyrically the album closes where it opened, typical for a DBT album as they still believe in The Album as art format. They hearken back to a day when The Album was the work, the songs were incidental to the whole, and to judge a song without the context of The Album was heresy. Now most albums are just collections of songs, with The Album a casualty of consumptive vapidity run amok.  (Rumor is that DBT recorded two albums and that we can expect another release as early as February!)

1) Backyard Tire Fire, Good To Be (Kelsey Street, 2/16/10).  It is hard to believe that I just discovered this band in January and by March I was listening to little else.  The only way that I can describe them is to say that Backyard Tire Fire would be the progeny if ZZ Top mated with the Bottle Rockets.  The most recent release is catchy and raw southern rock.  The album opens with Roadsong #39, an instant road trip classic.  The song A Thousand Gigs Ago will also make its way onto many road trip mixes.  Musically this is one of BTFs best releases, but lyrically some of the songs seem a little on the thin side.  But even these filler songs will have you singing along while bopping to the music.  Hell and Back and Good To Be are my favorite songs on the album, with Piss and Moan being a sure crowd pleaser.

The album ends with the slow, almost dirge, Once Upon a Time.

2010 was a great year for small label music and these albums and artists are just a small slice of it, focusing on Americana and its derivatives, there are whole other worlds out there to discover and play in.

What music did you discover in 2010?  What artists, songs, or albums did you feel had something to say to you?

Looking forward with eager eyes to 2011.

10 Best Albums of 2010 (That Didn’t Make My Top 8 List)

As is my end of year wont, I did a parsing of the music that had spoken to me this past 12 months.  Last year I did a top 15 list, this year I thought I would take a different tack.  This list of 10 albums are my favorites that didn’t quite make the cut.  I like all of them a lot and they are here because I could not bring myself to discard them from the list.  For this list I am only listing and linking, I will do a more expansive post on the top 8 that should be posted later this month.

In alphabetical order, these are 10 albums  that I really enjoyed this past year.  (keep in mind that most artists let you stream music from their home page)

Adam Carroll, Hard Times.  This Texas singer songwriter returns with another great album.  Nobody sings such plaintive originals as this Texas troubadour.

Casey Neill, Goodbye to the Rank and File. Portland’s finest folk artist returns with another stellar release.

Hank Williams III, Rebel Within.  There is little doubt that this young man is carrying the ghost of his grandfather with him , this album is pure unadulterated honky tonk.

Johnny Cash, American VI Ain’t No Grave.  The only dead guy to make the cut.  If you enjoyed the rest of the AR series, then you will enjoy this one.

Justin Townes Earle, Harlem River Blues.  JT made last year’s list and another release brings him into this year’s list.  This youngster has a bright path before him.

The Sadies, Darker Circles.  It is hard to believe this is their 13th album, it sounds so fresh.

Shooter Jennings, Black Ribbons.  A great concept album, made with Stephen King.  A welcome departure from Jennings’ usual Southern Romp Rock.

The Steeldrivers, Reckless.  The sophomore release from this roots country band, well worth a listen.

US Rails, US Rails.  The only debut album on this list, here is hoping for many more from these  performers. I won’t hold the fact that their domain redirects to MySpace, but I won’t link to it either.

Various, Twistable, Turnable Man: Tribute to Shel Silverstein.  Big names, great songs, the lack of feeling drags this album down, still worth a listen.

These 10 albums from 2010 shows that independent music is still some of the best stuff out there.  Coming soon, maybe as early as this weekend, maybe after Thanksgiving, I will post more expansively on my favorite 8 albums released during this past year.

Here are The Sadies performing postcards…