I can’t recall so many good releases in one year.
The past two or three years have yielded some mighty albums no doubt, absolutely top-notch releases featuring at the head of my previous lists. But 2015 has proved to be a challenge. The creme de la creme at the top of the 2015 list remains but, compared with past years, the batting goes so deep, it was an enormous challenge for me to fit in twenty only. It is probably fair to say that 2015 saw me get access to more new releases than ever and I suspect that this is a factor in my dilemma.
But fit in a score of the best albums I have managed to do, just!
I have waited to the second last day of the year and have limited my choices that have been clearly released within the confines of the calendar year – accordingly all should have 2015 on the album cover.
So here goes. Let me know what you think.
The Twenty Best New Releases in 2015
20. Things That Can’t Be Undone – Corb Lund
Canadian singer/songwriter Corb Lund released his ninth studio album Things That Can’t Be Undone. It is his first studio release in three years and the new material has a maturity and depth that suggests he has been using the intervening period very wisely.
The acute songwriting and model country rock treatment result in a collection of memorable stories that will be ringing in your head and your heart.
Working with one of the hottest producers around, Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton) at his Nashville studio Low Country Sound, they bunkered in for two weeks, dissecting the songs, rebuilding them and developing the sound and the arrangements they wanted. The players were Lund’s long-time band The Hurtin’ Albertans.
There’s the catchy “Run This Town”. Perhaps best of all, the powerful weariness of “Sadr City” about the Siege of Sadr City, the first major religious violence in Iraq after the U.S. incursion – the last lines of the song are heartbreaking.
Lund’s previous studio album Cabin Fever (2012) was widely acclaimed and provided considerable impetus for his career and profile outside Canada. With Things That Can’t Be Undone, his reputation will be further enhanced.
Key Tracks: “Sadr City”, S Lazy H” and “Sunbeam”
See my full review here.
19. South Athletic Broadway Club – The Bottle Rockets
St. Louis, Missouri band The Bottle Rockets released its twelfth album South Broadway Athletic Club during 2015. A cult band, The Rockets hit the scene in the 1990’s and the eponymous debut (1993) and follow-up, 1995’s The Brooklyn Side, have become landmark releases, having recently been re-issued due to their status.
The band has been harder than most to pigeon-hole. Too fast and loud for country, too rootsy for rock ‘n’ roll. The band, however, has a strong following with many devotees acquired along the band’s journey.
South Broadway Athletic Club sees the quartet (Brian Henneman, Mark Ortmann, John Horton and Keith Voegele) repeat the band’s trademark music – all so effortless, writing about everyday things with the full pull of power roots rock ‘n’ roll.
The album kicks off with “Monday (Everytime I Turn Around)” which is as catchy as all get-out, with everything in place where it should be. “Big Lotsa Love” has engaging wordplay and jangling power guitar. “I Don’t Wanna Know” (nuthin’!) says it all, keep it simple and enjoy the ignorance (John Horton’s guitar is a treat), and “Big Fat Nuthin’” continues the theme, a remedy to extreme exhaustion – ‘my idea of recreation is brain-dead flat-line vegetation’.
For earthly simplicity, the zenith is “Dog,” a defiant and unashamed tribute to a favorite canine: “I love my dog, he’s my dog/ If you don’t love my dog, that’s OK/ I don’t want you to, he’s my dog”. The same feelings emerge about the song itself. “Something Good” is a delight – catchy chorus, nice guitar runs and a Byrds-type aesthetic. My favourite track is “Building Chryslers”, with a wall of power chords, carefully added ingredients to a wonderful wall of sound, combined with a stark tale of taking the cheap option at the car assembly plant. “Smile” (At Me) is a welcome acoustic interlude with Horton’s guitar delicious. Another highlight is the sweet soulful “Ship It On The Frisco” about hopping trains as a child.
At the core of the band and South Broadway Athletic Club is singer/guitarist/lyricist Brian Henneman who meticulously crafts these old-hand experiences and attitudes.
The Bottle Rockets are back in style (this is the band’s first studio album since 2009’s Lean Forward). Gathering more devotees no doubt. You never know, the band might even become hugely popular at this rate!
Key Tracks: “Building Chryslers”, “Monday (Everytime I Turn Around)” and “Something Good”
See my full review here.
18. The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim – Gary Clark Jr.
Reportedly, Texas-based blues man Gary Clark Jr was not as happy as he should have been with his 2012 debut album Blak and Blu. The response the record got however with highly enthusiastic (it was in fact one of my favourites of that year). Clark does have a cross to bear in some ways – some see him as a saviour for the blues, someone who is young, immensely talented and a beacon for taking the genre in an exciting (and some would say, much-needed) new direction.
Either way, his new album The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim was indeed eagerly awaited. From the opening song “The Healing” we know we are hearing something different. Unaccompanied battlefield chanting gives way to a soul power riff with backing moans and Clark’s precise axe work – it’s a powerful introduction.
Throughout the album there’s less guitar hero, more Prince-infused funk with intense rhythms and high register vocals (see “Star” and “Cold Blooded”), Memphis soul (“Our Love” and “BYOB”) and acoustic folk/gospel (“Church”).
It’s a beautiful collection, refreshing and distinctive. Gary Clark Jr is calling the tune, etching his own path and we will all be following it for a while.
Key tracks: “The Healing”, “Hold On” and “Can’t Sleep”
17. Another Day Another Time: Celebrating The Music of Inside Llewyn Davis – Various
Another Day Another Time: Celebrating The Music of “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a live recording from a one-night-only concert at Town Hall in New York in September 2013. The two-disc set was produced by T-Bone Burnett and Joel & Ethan Coen (writer/director/producers of the movie) and features live performances by icons and the cream of rising stars of the folk and Americana scene.
The evening was filmed for a documentary that was broadcast by Showtime, and Nonesuch Records released a live recording of the concert on CD. And what a live event it must have been – Punch Brothers, The Avett Brothers, Joan Baez, Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Lake Street Dive, Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), The Milk Carton Kids, Keb Mo, Marcus Mumford, Conor Oberst, Dave Rawlings Machine, Gillian Welch, Willie Watson (ex-Old Crow Medicine Show), Jack White and others join forces with some of the cast of the movie. Mix this hot-shot group with some of the most evocative traditional songs, material from Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, A. P. Carter, Tom Paxton, Tom T. Hall and Ian Tyson and you have a treasure trove of the best roots music on offer today.
Some personal highlights for me here are “Tumbling Tumbleweed” by Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch’s beautiful renditions of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” and “The Way It Goes”, “New York” (Milk Carton Kids), Oberst’s “Man Named Truth”, “Blues Run The Game” (Meloy), The Avett Brothers’ interesting take on “That’s How I Got To Memphis” and Giddons’s breathtaking “’S iomadh rud tha dhìth orm / Ciamar a nì mi ’n dannsa dìreach”.
It is indeed a celebration and the recording quality is perfect. If you are into folk, new folk, Americana and/or simply the best in the current legion of singer-songwriters, you should add this wonderful release to your collection. It contains the very essence of the best of traditional music while showcasing the marvellous talent of a group of newcomers.
Key tracks: “’S iomadh rud tha dhìth orm / Ciamar a nì mi ’n dannsa dìreach” (Rhiannon Giddens), “The Way It Goes” (Gillian Welch) and “Tumbling Tumbleweed” (Punch Brothers).
See my full review here.
16. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
When I was in the USA for a month, there was plenty of road travel and car radio time and one of the songs I heard the most was “S.O.B.”, a soulful and fiery tale of drink and dependence which took off after a famously passionate performance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.
I wasn’t sure whether the song was one out of the box and, when I acquired Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats‘ self-titled, debut album, there was a little trepidation. I need not have been concerned as there is much to like in the album way beyond that one lead song.
It’s a combustible concoction of gravelly soulful vocals, profound grooves, exploding horns, gritty guitars and rapid-fire handclaps. Don’t let Rateliff’s scruffy appearance fool you. He is informed by vintage soul – Sam Cooke and Otis Redding spring to mind – and it is no coincidence that the record label is none other than Memphis-based, iconic Stax Records.
An album to turn up loud, get to your feet and be ready to be re-born.
Key tracks: “S.O.B.”, “I Need Never Get Old” and “I’d Be Waiting”
15. Salt As Wolves – Jeffrey Focault
In Shakespeare’s Othello, there is a quote ‘salt as wolves in pride’ as a reference for vigour and passion. This is Jeffrey Foucault’s fifth collection of original songs and tenth full-length studio release.
Salt As Wolves is packed with support players with close connections to Foucault. There’s legendary electric guitar player Bo Ramsey (Lucinda Williams, Greg Brown, Pieta Brown), bass player Jeremy Moses Curtis (Booker T), drummer Billy Conway (Morphine) and vocalist Caitlin Canty.
The sound is clean yet rugged, reflecting the fact that the album was cut live to tape in just three days in rural Minnesota. Foucault’s furrowed, earthy drawl hovers over sparing backing arrangements, deftly filling in places but critically leaving plenty of air – room for the songs to flourish. Ramsey has always been a master of economy and nuance and his playing is a perfect complement to Foucault’s alluring lyrics. There’s an experienced and measured restraint here that is easy to embrace.
The songs reflect relationships with family, friends and lovers, almost like epistles. They seek meaning beyond the superficial. They reflect hard-fought insights and wisdom. The stories here are discerning.
Foucault’s rough hewn, lived-in voice opens up “Des Moines” about the unglamorous life on the road, playing to an empty room, driving at midnight with nothing to see. “Rico” has a stomping blues feel with quietly savage guitar.
“Left This Town” is a cruising bottleneck rocker which was recorded on the second take. “I Love You (And You Are A Fool)” is a tender, plaintive and soulful track which reflects a lost, complex relationship. The slithering, crawling “Blues For Jessie Mae” shows the importance of Conway’s drumming contribution, as well as killer slide from Ramsey.
The driving “Slow Talker” is at the centre of this collection (physically and spiritually) and has a striking refrain. “Jesus Will Fix It For You” offers hope for all your troubles. “Oh Mama” is a powerful story of a fractured relationship between a son and mother. “Hurricane Lamp” is yet another highlight:
“Strange Heat And Thunder” is full of dark and foreboding sentiments, while “Paradise” is perfect, showcasing Foucault’s voice and providing some quiet optimism. The closer is a treasure. “Take Your Time” moves along like a summer breeze and is an ideal showcase for all the key ingredients of this delicious mix.
Salt As Wolves is sublimely beautiful. It has plenty of vigour and passion and tragedy. Salt As Wolves indeed!
Key tracks: “Slow Talker”, “Paradise” and “I Love You (And You Are A Fool)”
See my full review here.
14. All Your Favorite Bands – Dawes
The band Dawes seem to be serious bunch, committed to their craft and deep thinkers.
There have been comparisons with classic rock acts such as Jackson Browne and Steely Dan and it is easy to see why here. Meticulous arrangements, judicious use of rise and fall which takes the listener on an emotional roller coaster. There is much to absorb in Taylor Goldsmith’s lyrics and a good deal to admire in the collection presented here.
The title track references the sentiment – may all your favorite bands stay together.’ Goldsmith has said that the band he likes have helped define him and provided enlightenment. Let’s hope this talented outfit stay together for our enlightenment.
Key tracks: “Somewhere Along The Way”, “All Your Favorite Bands” and “I Can’t Think About It Now”
13. Ol’ Glory – JJ Grey & Mofro
It took me a long time to get enough of Ol’ Glory by JJ Grey & Mofro. I kept absorbing the album’s many intricacies and pleasures, hearing something subtlety new to add to my thoughts on this supreme collection.
JJ Grey is a Floridian, Jacksonville in fact. He and his band Mofro make a celebrated, soulful and powerful ensemble and presented us with a sixth studio album in only eight years.
Ol’ Glory continues the themes that run through previous material – a strong sense of place and the dogged pursuit of happiness and contentment. On track one “Everything Is a Song,” the spirituality of his music is perhaps more evident than before. “The Island” is one the album’s two slower songs and shows JJ’s voice to be equally impressive with the delicate and well as with the less restrained material. Then there’s the swaggering hip hop infused “A Night to Remember” and in “Turn Loose” Grey is in fast-rhyme mode in keeping with the song’s title.
“Brave Lil’ Fighter” is a soulful epic, a visceral, soaring masterpiece. Somewhere along its impressive length the trumpet takes it to a higher, surreal plane, causing the hairs on your neck to stand at attention, ready to run around the block. “Home In The Sky” showcases Grey’s dominant and heartfelt vocals, while “Hold On Tight” is a creeping, über-funky wah wah number. “Tic Tac Toe” is another showcase of a slow burning vibe eating into your head, a story of fear and courage. The title track “Ol’ Glory” is uplifting and undeniable – command-and-response chanting, get on your knees and feel it!!
Ol’ Glory was recorded at Retrophonics Studio in Saint Augustine FL where Grey has recorded many times.
I think I might put it on again…
Key tracks: “Brave Lil’ Fighter”, “Ol’ Glory” and “Light A Candle”
See my full review here.
12. Servant Of Love – Patty Griffin
Acclaimed singer songwriter Patty Griffin released her ninth studio album during the year. Based in Austin Texas, Griffin the songwriter has been recognised through faithful covers of her songs by Emmylou Harris, The Dixie Chicks, Joan Baez and Bette Midler.
Griffin the singer and performer has been acclaimed as a Grammy-award winner (Best Gospel Album for 2010’s Downtown Church) and a 2007 dual Americana award winner (Best Album – Children Running Through – and Best Artist). To my way of thinking, she has delivered, over almost twenty years, a catalogue that is among the most consistently rewarding that I’ve heard from anyone over that period.
Thirteen tracks are contained within Servant of Love which provide further proof (if that was actually required any more) that Griffin’s creative freedom remains unfettered (the album is under her own independent label PGM via Thirty Tigers).
The music here is defiantly diverse. An artist like Patty Griffin is consummate evidence that classic music genres do not apply much anymore. What we have here is just about everything, and its all glorious – Van Morrison stream-of-consciousness reflections, jazz and lounge, blues, passionate soul, growling guitar, love ballads, a little middle eastern mysticism, and delicate folk.
Servant Of Love is not as accessible immediately as some of her earlier material. It takes a few listens to unlock some of the poeticism, but it is well worth the effort. There’s more embellishment here than in many of Griffin’s past outings. All tracks brim with intense feelings, engaging patterns and textures, all carefully assembled, all featuring one of the best voices in American music today.
Another important statement from an adept and fearless artist.
Key tracks: “Rider Of Days”, “You Never Asked Me” and “250,000 Miles”.
See my full review here.
11. Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions – Robert Earl Keen
Robert Earl Keen is a roots music troubadour with enormous standing and credibility, and with Happy Prisoner – The Bluegrass Sessions he implements a vision to make a notable collection of outstanding bluegrass songs. His emotive leather-worn voice and an acute music sensibility shine here. He has a wonderful group of musicians, such as Danny Barnes and Sara Watkins and three legendary special guests – Lyle Lovett, Natalie Maines and Peter Rowan.
Songs include “Walls Of Time” (Rowan and Bill Monroe), “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” (Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs), “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (Richard Thompson), “Footprints In The Snow” (Monroe), “99 Years For One Dark Day” (Jesse Fuller), “East Virginia Blues” (A. P. Carter), “Poor Ellen Smith” and “Wayfaring Stranger” (traditional), “Long Black Veil” (Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkins), “This World Is Not My Home” (made famous by Jim Reeves), “White Dove” (Carter Stanley) and “Old Home Place” (recorded originally by The Dillards).
The result is a beautifully blended delight which sounds like everyone was in the room at the same time and nailed each song in the first or second take.
Key Tracks: “99 Years For One Dark Day”, “East Virginia Blues” and “T For Texas”
10. Angeleno – Sam Outlaw
With that voice, the hat and those looks, Sam Outlaw could be a straight-up mainline Big Country Star. He could be wowing the Nashville scene, starring at the Grand Ol’ Opry, working up to headlining that city’s Bridgestone Arena.
He could sing about beer, trucks and gals, finding love and, better still for songwriting inspiration, when love walked out the door. He could buy a ranch and ride horses. Game over. Success.
But that ain’t the story so far.
Sam Outlaw (he was born Sam Morgan, Outlaw is his mother’s maiden name) is from southern California (San Diego) and grew up on a diet of his parents’ wide music tastes, West Coast country, soaking up the Bakersfield sound and 1970’s pop. As he prepared to self-produce his first-full length album, his drummer Joachim Cooder played some rough demos for his father, legendary guitarist, musicologist and producer Ry Cooder.
The opener “Who Do You Think You Are?” sets the scene for what ensues, with Outlaw’s voice prominent and all other ingredients set perfectly around it. The track has easy mariachi horns and plenty of charm. “Keep It Interesting” lopes along gracefully, canny pedal steel, violin and guitar interloping. The twanging honky tonker is as country as you’ll get on this collection, wrongs have been done, but there’s a sharp plot twist.
“Love Her For A While” is an ethereal homespun pleasure, while on the title track, the alluring story unfolds of a child whose soul and future is reflected in his eyes.
“Country Love Song” tells of the struggles of work and the doubt-riddled decision of leaving a woman behind. The dangling electric guitar riff is simple but immaculate. It’s a particular favourite of mine, as is the beautifully distressing “Ghost Town” about the loss of his mother.
There’s more honky tonk, as well as alcohol-soaked wit in “Jesus Take The Wheel (And Drive Me To A Bar)” – Jesus is his designated driver, giving him the freedom for more than a few drinks at his favourite watering holes.
“It Might Kill Me” sounds breezy but at its core are some dark heartbreaking lyrics. “Old Fashioned” ups the ante even further, a slow chanter with exquisite harmonies and arrangements, soulful and caressing. So sublime. So emotional.
Sam Outlaw has a lot going for him. Talented singer and songwriter. A fan in Ry Cooder who guides this project with a subtlety and delicacy that is a pleasure to behold. Angeleno is an outstanding debut. I imagine that it will feature in my top twenty releases of the year (watch this space).
By the way, I’m thrilled that Outlaw isn’t a highly successful Country Star.
Key tracks: “Ghost Town”, “Country Love Song” and “Keep It Interesting”
Full review available here.
9. Mother’s Not Feeling Herself Today – Suzannah Espie
It is not an inconsiderable thing to go public on your experiences of post-natal depression, leaving yourself wide open to unwanted and unfair judgements (or worse, pity!). There is the courage to revisit painful memories in such a profound way that adequately convey the depths of your emotion at the time. Then there’s the artistry to develop an album of songs that are engrossing and engaging without too much bleakness.
Mother’s Not Feeling Herself Today by Melbourne country songstress Suzannah Espie is a wonderful musical document. It will give you shivers, it will provide insights and it will give you hope. The songs are beautifully composed and heartfelt.
Brave and brilliant.
Key Tracks: “If I Knew”, “I Wish I Had A Sister” and “What Would You Say”
8. The Phosphorescent Blues – Punch Brothers
Punch Brothers love to mix it up and pursue the band members’ many musical interests – jam grass, folk, chamber grass, classical, indie rock and vocal harmony material. Their musicianship is audacious but remains true to the vastly diverse material and its heritage. The Phosphorescent Blues is the band’s fifth album and has uber-producer T Bone Burnett at the helm.
The music on The Phosphorescent Blues reflects frustrations with the encroach of technology – texting, sharing in a virtual world, oblivious to the real world around them. The back cover of the album pictures all members together, uncommunicative, staring at their phones, faces ghostly (ghastly?) illuminated by the screens.
The first track “Familiarity” makes you stand to attention, its themes and insights around people and technology captivating during its substantial length (over ten minutes). The arrangements are complex and ever-changing but accessible. “Julep” is a joy reflection of a life well lived.
The evocative “I Blew It Off” has chamber-like strings and Beach Boy harmonies and stridently deals with coping with ’21st century stress’. “Magnet” is a driving tale which deals with relationship issues with a Devo-like riff and jauntiness, rising to a king tide at the end. “My Oh My” showcases Thile’s vocals and suggests taking a deep breath and looking at the natural beauty around us “’cause we can’t listen to…everyone”. The musical interlude here is a triumph – the interplay and the subtlety a joy to the ears. “Boll Weevil” is more traditional fare, a nod to the land, the honor and simplicity of farm life and its traditions. “Forever” is a delightful lullaby, containing a soothing vibe while “Between 1st and A” is a beautifully-constructed love piece. “Little Light” again returns to the theme and problems of technological distractions. The two instrumentals referred to above add a delightful balance to the collection.
The Phosphorescent Blues is bold. It is a body of work that is incredible in every distinct element – thematically, songwriting, vocals, arrangements, production and, above all, the musical dexterity of this imperious quintet. Every moment devoted to the album will unveil something new and enchanting.
I saw Punch Brothers live again in 2015 – it blew me away.
Key Tracks: “Familiarity”, “Julep” and “My Oh My”
See my full review here.
7. High On Tulsa Heat – John Moreland
John Moreland is a songwriter. His songs are not overly embellished – the emphasis is about the words, the emotions and images therein painted.
I witnessed an interview with him this year. He mentioned he writes songs while watching TV – during the advertisements! Surely this cannot be the case. The songs on High On Tulsa Heat are so intense, so insightful, so deep. I am reminded of Bruce Springsteen‘s stark classic Nebraska.
These are sad songs, some even grim, portraying the view of an outsider with a razor sharp clarity which may provide useful to the listener depending on your state of mind.
One of my most poignant images of the year was Moreland slowly trudging off the stage in Fayetteville Arkansas, carrying his guitar like it was a ukelele, head down, baseball cap pulled down as low as possible over his eyes. There was a standing ovation from the crowd. I know Moreland didn’t look up once as he exited and I wonder whether he was even aware of the depth of warmth being directed toward him.
Key tracks: “Cherokee”, “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars” and “You Don’t Care Enough For Me To Cry”
6. Blackbirds – Gretchen Peters
Gretchen Peters’ February 2015 release Blackbirds is an outstanding achievement.
The artistry is impeccable. The songwriting draws you in as there is so much emotion and well-articulated insights in these stories. Over its eleven tracks, there are plenty of references to ageing and death, as a result of Peters having experienced three funerals and a wedding in just one week.
Co-produced with Doug Lancio and Barry Walsh and recorded in Nashville, the album features some supporting heavy-hitters – Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimbrough, Kim Richey, and Suzy Bogguss.
It all sounds rather gloomy, but it is not. There is a delicacy and an empathy here, with a multitude of sharp observations. Peters was inducted into the prestigious Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014 and on Blackbirds the reasons for that accolade are abundantly clear. A towering collection.
Key tracks: “When All You Got Is A Hammer”, “Blackbirds” and “When You Comin’ Home”
See my full review here.
5. A Fool To Care – Boz Scaggs
A Fool To Care by Boz Scaggs starts off well enough – workmanlike versions of “Rich Woman” and “I’m A Fool To Care” – but then it takes off, soaring high among the clouds. “Hell To Pay” is a mighty enjoyable shuffle with Bonnie Raitt, the late night barroom samba of “Last Tango On 16th Street” to the delicately tender “There’s A Storm A’comin'”. At this stage I swear this can’t get any better, but it does! “I’m So Proud” is so beautifully complete, it can move you to tears. And on it goes.
Following on from his excellent Memphis album of 2013, A Fool To Care takes us on another magical musical tour – New Orleans, Nashville, , Chicago and the Mississippi Delta.
Two-thirds a covers album, it highlights some of the greatest American music ever made. It is stylish and impeccable.
Key Tracks: “I’m So Proud”, “I Want To See You” and “Love Don’t Love Nobody”
4. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell‘s Southeastern was my favourite album of 2013. It is in fact one of my most loved albums of the past decade. A deeply personal statement of addiction and redemptive love It was, I thought, going to be a big, nay impossible, act to follow.
But he has done it. Something More Than Free is a quieter collection than its predecessor, but it is just as real and gripping. It is not just about surviving past demons, there is something more than that – redemption and hope.
Sharp captivating observations about humanity abound. Isbell has taken the mantle of one of the most creative and profound roots artists on the planet.
Key tracks: “24 Frames”, “Children Of Children” and “Something More Than Free”
3. What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World – The Decemberists
Is it the ringing, distinctive voice of Colin Meloy? Is it the uniquely sophisticated and wry lyrics – ‘terminally fey’? Is it the sheer talent and communion of the members of The Decemberists who have proven so successful at side projects? Is the classic song construction and catchy choruses that won’t let go?
Maybe all the above.
The Decemberists‘ What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World starts off with the epic “The Singer Addresses His Audience”which signposts what is to follow. Fourteen tracks and fifty three minutes of brilliance. This is The Decemberists‘ sixth studio album and the first in four years (since The King Is Dead), indicating that there has been a considerable development period for this release, which to my way of thinking is the band’s best yet (which is saying something!).
Of all the twenty albums in this list, choosing only three essential tracks for What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World was the most difficult task of all.
Key tracks: “Lake Song”, “Cavalry Captain” and “Till The Water’s All Gone”
2. Nashville Obsolete – Dave Rawlings Machine
Dave Rawlings has always been there on Gillian Welch records, that majestic, sinuous and unique guitar style becoming an essential ingredient into a string of wonderful and landmark Welch albums. While Welch’s output has slowed a little in recent years (one record since 2003), Dave Rawlings Machine has emerged as if to fill in some of the dead air. The Machine’s A Friend Of A Friend was released to much acclaim in 2009 and now along comes Nashville Obsolete, out the same week that the couple received a Americana Association Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting.
Nashville Obsolete marks the seventh studio album on which Welch and Rawlings have collaborated together in their acclaimed two-decade-long creative partnership. The new album was produced by Rawlings, and also features some highly-credentialed supporting players – Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers) on bass, Willie Watson on vocals and guitar and guest appearances from Brittany Haas (fiddle) and Jordan Tice (mandolin).
Nashville Obsolete has a different feel than the previous Machine album. It’s fuller, more epic in scale. Only seven tracks, but five of them are over five minutes long. Rawling’s individualistic guitar work is still a feature but not quite so dominant due to the presence of strings, mandolin and seemingly longer stories to convey. There’s also more maturity in Rawlings’ vocals.
The opening track “The Weekend” is a case in point, with its full set of strings, vivid characters and catchy, yearning harmonies on offer. The aforementioned “Short Haired Woman Blues” is a master work – starting off with a riff straight out of a classic Animals’ song or a haunting Morricone melody, a slow and passionate story unfolds, with plenty of tempo changes to keep it fascinating. The Rawlings guitar solo here is transcendent, like an acoustic version of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” and his playing escalates, along with the swell of the string orchestra. The musical vibe in “The Trip” could pass for a track off Bob Dylan’s “Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid” and, with the song clocking in at just under eleven minutes, you can immerse yourself in its elegant beauty unconditionally.
“Bodysnatchers” is creepy, evil tales of The Mississippi River and the goings-on in the river towns, with Rawlings’ voice showing plenty of emotion and range. “The Last Pharaoh” and “Candy” are the most traditional-sounding songs on the collection, with Rawlings’ guitar and the duo’s vocals a delight. “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)” is another lengthy and interesting song.
In the past, Welch and Rawlings have managed to achieve a sustained level of excellence (a la Lucinda Williams) that not that many artists can match. Nashville Obsolete not only maintains that artistic vision, it enables their standing in the musical community to go up a notch.
Key tracks “Short Haired Woman blues”, “The Weekend” and “The Trip”
See my full review here.
1.Traveller – Chris Stapleton
I still recall the time I heard Chris Stapleton’s voice.
I had read very good reviews about a band called The SteelDrivers and accordingly had purchased the band’s 2012 album Hammer Down. In front of that outfit was a voice that was gravelly and soulful at the same time – equal measures of menacing growl and plaintive plea. The power and delicacy made me sit up and take notice.
Until now, he has made an even bigger name as a writer of hits for others – four #1 country hits with songs penned for George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker and Josh Turner. He has also fronted a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Somewhere along the line, he decided to record a debut solo album and so we have Traveller. It has so far garnered three Country Music Awards and four Grammy nominations (I assume the fact that he is considered a country performer can largely be attributed to his songwriter success in the past, I guess, but he is as far away from Big Country as Jason Isbell).
Looking like a cross between a young Charlie Daniels and a Hell’s Angel, his voice has been described as the best in Nashville. Now, as you know, Nashville is a music town – a business, recording and live performer epicentre where every waitress seems to be a budding songwriter and/or performer. It is the mainstay of Big Country Music, has a strong Americana and bluegrass presence and a touch of just about every other Southern music genre. You can imagine the number and quality of singers there.
Best singer in Nashville? Damn right, he is.
Key tracks: “Sometimes I Cry”, “Outlaw State Of Mind” and “Was It 26”