Discover which albums impressed us the most from our 2016 Top 20 list
By Rob Dickens
Well, the title really should read my favourite albums of the year, because who can claim to know what’s “best” for anyone other than themselves? But I have used “Best Of” in the past and I feel drawn to a sense of consistency, a tradition if you like.
Was 2016 the year of the changing of the guard?
The year when debutantes and young tyros strutted their stuff and made us sit up and take heed?
I am looking back on another twelve months where the music business (generally) seems to be incapable of, or lacking financial confidence in, stopping the slide of reduced sales. Where considering a bunch of songs as part of an album still is ‘not-the-thing’. Where there are so many low-fi audio channels at your fingertips – You Tube, social media – not to mention digital sellers requiring registration and then subscriptions. The BIG artists are still BIG but scrape away the glitter and you are left with an industry where confusion seems to reign.
But there is light. If you are a lover of roots music, you know how much great material there is out there, you understand how many different ways you can now get to see favourite and unknown performers live and how intimate the roots side of the business has become. CD signings, music cruises, house concerts, in-record-store performances, smaller venues…they all work in favour of the music tragic.
Changing of the guard? If you read below, you may think that there are more young performers, independent releases and a sense of freshness about the musical landscape. I don’t know about you, but I have had a truly fulfilling year.
As we all know, it’s been the worst year for contemporary music.
So many stars falling from the heaven and plunging into the soil. In fact, since publication date and the first draft of this article, George Michael has passed away.
Bowie and Prince were the biggest to go, both iconic trend setters. One’s departure was staged with grace and precision, the other’s gone in a ill-timed hurry. Leonard Cohen’s passing was perhaps more emotional for some. Cohen’s recent records and live shows were a blessing to us all. We will miss Sharon Jones terribly.
But for me, Guy Clark’s was the hardest with which to cope. A pivotal figure for singer-songwriters everywhere, in a group as illustrious as Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell. Selfishly, I regret deeply never having seen him perform. Each music trip to the US Mid-to-Deep South gave me renewed hope…until now. I was fortunate, however, to see last September two of his closet friends (Steve Earle and Darrell Scott) pay moving tributes to him, two renditions of ‘Desperadoes Waiting For A Train’ which had a significant impact on me and the rest of the audiences.
In Youth There Is Beauty
So much new talent around – there are three or four debuts in this year’s best which is both remarkable and soothing. Some great new/emerging artists with 2016 albums that I could fit into my favourites list include Aoife O’Donovan, Levi Parham, Cody Jinks, Corin Raymond, Luke Winslow-King, Mandolin Orange, Riley Etheridge Jr, Lydia Loveless and Whitehorse.
The Experienced Cow-Hands and Wranglers
Plenty of action from the battle-hardened performers. Andre Williams jumped out at us, Buddy Miller and friends charmed us on the Cayamo boat, Chatham County Line did not quite live up to expectations, The Steep Canyon Rangers had some great moments but not consistent enough throughout, John Prine gave us a loving duets collection, Laura Lewis had a great tribute to Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, Tony Joe White kept us sustained with his fuzzed swamp music, Waco Brothers stirred us up, Neil Young was being, well, prolific as usual (maybe his 2017 live dates being cancelled were due to acute recordingitis!), so was Willie Nelson and, of course The Rolling Stones were there in spades with, finally, a straight-up-and-down blues album. Van, Leonard, Judy Collins, the list goes on.
Where Have All The Bands Gone?
It’s been a highly personal 2016, the year of the singer-songwriter, to be sure. Only three easily classified ‘groups’ feature in this year’s list. Solo artists to the fore.
Of course, no one gets to listen to every new release each year.
I figure there have been between 300 and 400 new issues this year that fit under the slippery ‘roots’ category and therefore, as Marlon Brando told Rod Steiger in On The Waterfront, they ‘could’ve been a contender’. On the influential Nodepression reader’s poll, you would think that would be as comprehensive as you could get, but there’s at least two albums of which I am aware that do not get a mention. One in fact appears in my top twenty below. While admittedly it was given to me by the band at an interview, it is a 2016 release from an outfit that is (brilliantly) making its way with an independent release and it is a surprise that it does not seem to feature anywhere else, to my knowledge.
Importantly, there are a handful of albums that I just could not lay my hands on during the year, for whatever reason. Six loftily-lauded collections, that I will gather up throughout the course of 2017, that I cannot include – Amanda Shires – My Piece of Land, case/lang/veirs – case/lang/veirs, Drive-By Truckers – American Band, Dwight Yoakam –Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars, Lori McKenna – The Bird & The Rifle and Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day.
I don’t know about you, but I still have some CDs that I haven’t listened to yet. Some I acquired two, three or maybe even four years ago. These poor unfortunate souls get pushed out by the flood of new releases. If you are going to review a new album, you sooner you get it listened to, written and posted the better! No point in doing it a year later – the label, the publicist and, most importantly, the artist need the immediate bang for the buck when they can maximise record sales, related show tickets and even a boost for the merchandise table.
For music lovers, though, it is not all about the now. It is important to look back and acknowledge great works that we may have missed. Here is a dozen of my favourite albums that I heard during the year with a release date pre-2016. All highly recommended!
Bobby Rush – Down In Louisiana (2012) Deep Rush/Thirty Tigers
Darrell Scott – Long Ride Home (2011) Full Light
Gregory Alan Isakov – This Empty Northern Hemisphere (2009) Suitcase Town Music
Iris Dement – Lifeline (2004) Flariella
J Wagner – The Runaway Kid (2014) Independent
Kevin Gordon – Long Time Gone (2015) Crowville
Kieran Kane & Kevin Welch with Fats Kaplin – You Can’t Save Everybody (2004) Dead Reckoning
Neil Murray – Bring Thunder and Rain (2014) Island Home Music
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol I (1972) Capitol
Scott Cook – One More Time Around (2013) Groove Revival
Todd Snider – Acoustic Hymns & Stoner Fables (2012) Aimless/Thirty Tigers
The Waterboys – An Appointment With Mr Yeats (2011) Proper Music
Looking back over the past, here are the published number one release of past years, just for a bit of perspective:
2016 Chris Stapleton – Traveller
2015 Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
2014 Jason Isbell – Southeastern
Best of 2016
20. The Jayhawks – Paging Mr Proust (Sham Hawks/Thirty Tigers)
The Jayhawks emerged from the Minnesota music scene in the mid 1980’s and gained prominence in the country rock movement. The band produced at least four stunning albums during the 1990’s even riding through the departure of founder and leader Gary Olsen. The shadow of the band (with talented Gary Louris out front) and their output has grown in stature since that time, with several reissues, a duo release between Olsen and Louris, some live material put down on record and, eventually, a well-regarded release Mockingbird Time in 2011.
This year we saw Paging Mr. Proust which was produced by REM’s Peter Buck, Grammy-nominated Tucker Martine and Louris on the Jayhawks‘ newly-minted Sham label.
The great Louris vocals and the ear for catching a great hook are again evident on the new batch of songs and musically there is a healthy gumbo of rock, experimental sounds, pop and psychedelia. Paging Mr Proust sits well with this extraordinary band’s legacy.
Key Tracks: Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces, Ace, Comeback Kids, I’ll Be Your Key
19. The Stray Birds – Magic Fire (Yep Roc Records)
Formed in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 2010, The Stray Birds are Maya de Vitry (vocals, guitar, banjo, fiddle, piano), Oliver Craven (vocals, guitar, resonator, fiddle) and Charles Muench (vocals, bass, banjo).
All classically trained and roots music-raised, the trio has a great, individual sound and the members have spent the last years honing their sound and touring extensively. I have enjoyed their beautiful harmonies and A-grade musicianship live both in Raleigh North Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee.
This follow-up to their excellent 2014 release Best Medicine sees the trio’s sound maturing further. The band teamed up with renowned performer and producer Larry Campbell to record twelve songs in a little barn in upstate New York and what they have concocted is a marvellous collection that is more song-driven than past efforts with strong and uplifting choruses and plenty of musical diversity.
Key Tracks: Shining In The Distance, Fossil, Mississippi Pearl, When I Die
18. Tracy McNeil & The Good Life – Thieves (SlipRail Records)
Tracy McNeil‘s Thieves is her fourth studio release and it is replete with personal, mature and engrossing songs. It comes after memorable highs in 2015 where she toured solo in Canada, supported talented L.A. rock band Dawes and played at AmericanaFest in Nashville TN. All of these events, however, were over-shadowed by the loss of her father, musician Wayne ‘Mac’ McNeil and the album is dedicated to him. The tragedy has led to some cathartic and brilliant writing. McNeil wrote all ten songs on which were penned across three countries.
The opening track is remarkably good – the gentle and reflective ‘The Valley’ is an ode to writer’s block, when you’re lacking a spark and looking for inspiration. It was recorded live in just a few takes and has McNeil in fine voice. ‘Middle of The Night’ is gritty alt. country and is another well-crafted song (‘so we burned these wheels right through, like there was nothing else we’d ever want to do’). The single ‘Paradise’ is a catchy Fleetwood Mac/L.A. rock track about the space between strangers and is eminently likable.
The title track is an absolute highlight – it’s quiet but with immense strength. I could spend hours just listening to that song over and over. The pace quickens for ‘White Rose’ which was recorded in two parts – the first was layered in the studio while the outro section was recorded in co-producer Shane O’Mara’s living room.
Key Tracks: The Valley, Paradise, Thieves, White Rose
17. Lucinda Williams – The Ghosts of Highway 20 (Highway 20 Records)
Now, first up I will fess up that I am a big Lucinda Williams fan. Her whole catalogue has pride of place in my living room. Her releases in the early part of her career were spread out, but in recent times have become much more prolific. I was in awe of anything she has done up to the early 2000’s with some of the finest, most passionate writing and delivery I have ever heard. Since World Without Tears (2003) and West (2007), the impossibly high standard has dropped a little for these ears.
A fine return to top form was evidenced in Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone (2014) which was a double disk set, The Ghosts of Highway 20 is another two-disk release. The real heroes here are the band and the production team. Williams’ now long-serving backing outfit Buick 6, together with guitar icons Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz provide a sultry slow sound that is mesmerizing. Most of the songs are paced and spread out, with Williams’ voice low and indistinct, aiming for a heart-felt and stream-of conscience vibe. Some more variety in tempo or contracting the material into a single disk would have helped.
Still, this is Lucinda and what we have here still rates for me as one of the best for 2016
Key Tracks: If My Love Could Kill, Dust, Place In My Heart
16. Kelley McRae – The Wayside (Independent)
Americana songwriter Kelley McRae’s The Wayside (her fifth release) is full of vibrant colours, gentle and intricate melodies and intimate stories.
Actually, what is on display on this sublime and fascinating collection is not a solo work but that of a duo as McRae’s co-writer, guitarist and partner Matt Castelein who is a constant and important presence. McRae has a beautifully clear and resonant voice and Castelein’s harmonies and sublime guitar work add a delicate layer which pervades throughout.
There are many other gems on the album – the urgent and ominous ‘Red Dirt Road’ and the perfectly tender and plaintive ‘Rose’ which provide ample proof of McRae’s vocal and emotional power. The opening ‘Land of the Noonday Sun’ contains the most wrenching harmonies, while the title track is charged and evocative. Actually, there is no weak link here at all and it is easy to get completely absorbed in these evocative traveling songs.
The Wayside is McRae’s fifth release and it is way over time for the world to take more notice of this sparkling performer.
Key Tracks: Land Of The Noonday Sun, If You Need Me, The Wayside, Rare Bird
15. John Paul White – Beulah (Single Lock Records)
John Paul White is most famous perhaps for his role in the duo The Civil Wars (with Joy Williams) which disintegrated unexpectedly at the top of their game. His has earlier solo work to his credit and is a passionate and accomplished musician. Having seen him live last year, I was taken by his beautiful, high vocals and they are in abundance here on Beulah.
How much the tone of this release has to do with the duo’s break-up I do not know but there is an ominous and dark mood throughout. Song titles like ‘Make You Cry’, ‘Hope I Die’, ‘I’ve Been Over This Before’, ‘Hate The Way You Love Me’ and ‘I’ll Get Even’ paint a cloudy picture indeed. There is cathartic beauty here though and the exalted delivery is a perfect counter to the subject matter.
The album was produced by Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) and White, and recorded in Muscle Shoals at the renowned FAME Studios and at White’s own Single Lock Studios, which he founded and runs with Tanner and Will Trapp.
Key Tracks: What’s So, The Once and Future Queen, Hope I Die, I’ll Get Even
14. The Forlorn Strangers (Independent)
I have seen The Forlorn Strangers perform live, I have listened to their self-titled album intently and I have interviewed the band.
I need no more convincing. I am sold.
The band of five are sort-of based out of Nashville. When I spoke with them in September, their stuff was in storage and they had been on the road for over twelve months. In 2015, they played over 180 shows in over one hundred cities and more than thirty states in the US. All the band members write and the collective is the epitome of a shared ideal of working together which has led to this debut, full-length self-titled release this year. Live, their sharp harmonies, vitality on stage and strong writing are features. This is a tight unit and I was really taken by their common set of values and their mutual regard.
Here we have foot-stomping percussion and soaring family harmonies which capture your soul and put on a smile on your face. Forlorn Strangers was recorded at John Prine’s Nashville studio The Butcher Shoppe, and produced by Grammy winner Phil Madeira.
They night be planning a children’s album next – definitely different.
Key Tracks: Come Back Down, Leave It On The Ground, Cleveland, The Light
13. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man Records)
Margo Price is in demand at the moment. Her debut release is a potent showcase of her mighty voice – a little Loretta, a little Dolly.
It has all the hallmarks of an important release – enough to entice Jack White to sign her up, recorded at the famous Sun Studios and mixed at Ardent Studios, both in Memphis. On the liner notes, Price thanks her husband for agreeing to sell the family car to get the record financed.
It sounds like a group of classic pop country songs, with terrific production values and, over all, Price’s commanding voice.
Emerging no longer an apt phrase I would suggest.
I hope she has been able to get another car.
Key Tracks: Hands Of Time, Tennessee Song, Hurtin’ (On The Bottle), World’s Greatest Loser
12. Robert Ellis – Robert Ellis (New West Records)
Robert Ellis has a distinctive and powerful voice, including an impressive range. His songs are full of images and feelings that are tangible and profound – a consummate singer-songwriter-guitarist.
With this, he has turned the tables, good and proper. Listening to this eleven-song set, it’s hard to think of him in the persona I mentioned before – a man and his guitar. This album is so well crafted, so delicately layered and full of complex arrangements, that I am reminded of the great Paul Simon’s material.
That is not to say that the lyrical content is overshadowed. This is a very personal and reflective statement. Full of melancholy and commentary around the end of Ellis’ marriage. There is the ethereal ‘Amanda Jane’, the strident ‘You’re Not The One’ and the headstrong ‘Elephant’ – “Oh, my heart / It’s torn in two / one half’s on the road and other remains with you.” My favourite, though is the sweeping ‘California’.
The record was self-produced by Ellis at Sugar Hill Studios in his hometown of Houston, TX with engineer Steve Christensen.
Key Tracks: California, The High Road, Elephant, You’re Not The One, It’s Not Ok
11. Sarah Jarosz – Undercurrent (Sugar Hill)
This wunderkind performer has come up with another spell-binding collection.
The fourth studio release from Sarah Jarosz is her first for three years (Build Me Up From Bones).
It is impeccably crafted, not a wayward moment throughout its length. Jarosz’s ethereal voice and the quiet, polished tone make this a treat. All songs were written in part or full by Jarosz, she plays acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin and banjo and receives wonderful musical support from Jedd Hughes, Joey Ryan (Milk Carton Kids), Parker Millsap and Aoife O’Donovan.
Put together with eminent class and beauty.
Key Tracks: Early Morning Light, Green Lights, House Of Mercy, Lost Dog
10. Birds of Chicago – Real Midnight (Five Head Entertainment)
Allison Russell on vocals, banjo, clarinet and J.T. Nero on vocals and guitar are the headlining Birds of Chicago. Previously in the Canadian group Po’ Girl and JT and The Clouds respectively, the couple formed a personal and music alliance around 2012 and Real Midnight is the first recorded project for this pair of gifted songwriters.
The album was produced by none other than Joe Henry and what is presented is an unusual blend of rock, nuanced soul and spinning gospel. The way these elements are combined is a testament to the couple’s varied backgrounds and adds something that is unique. No one I know sounds quite like this. Russell’s clarinet and banjo add another interesting layer to the sounds here – gets include Jay Bellerose and Rhiannon Giddens.
Another unequivocal example of a brilliant release which came about via crowd funding. Viva the music-loving masses.
Key Tracks: Remember Wild Horses, Real Midnight, Sparrow
9. Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (Mama Bird Recording)
Listen to the voice. It’s stunning.
What a self-assured debut from another of the new generation of women shaking up the business. Washington State Americana songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews has settled in a rural town after years of touring solo and with pop bands (she started touring at the tender age of sixteen), pining for simplicity and reflection. Honest Life mixes country, Americana and new-folk indie-folk and provides a wonderful platform for Andrews who sounds a lot like Joni Mitchell at times. I am not just talking about the voice either. The songwriting maturity is clear to see. The first songs were written in Belgium, they paint pictures about suffering from homesickness and a sense of belonging.
The album has been praised by just about everyone – Rolling Stone, No Depression, Paste, American Songwriter and NPR, to name a few. We all can’t be wrong!
Andrews produced the entire record herself at Litho Studios in Seattle
Key Tracks: Rookie Dreaming, Not The End, Let The Good One Go, Honest Life
8. Kaia Kater – Nine Pin (Kingwood Records)
It is stripped back and measured, but Kaia Kater has a lot to say.
Her second album Nine Pin delves into issues faced by African-Americans today and reflects on her own heritage duality. Born of African-Caribbean descent in Québec, she has deep ties both to Canadian folk and Appalachian music through her time spent in West Virginia. Only twenty-three years of age, her voice is rich and low, part Rhiannon Giddens and part Nina Simone and, armed with just a banjo, she speaks with quiet authority.
Recorded (amazingly) in just one day in Toronto, the album was produced by both Kater and Canadian artist Chris Bartos. That is some achievement and, given the quality of what is on offer on Nine Pin, is a certain indicator of her singular vision.
The opening track is a scene-stealer – ‘Saint Elizabeth’ is a personal journey with mature vocals and the song intensifies beautifully with cutting electric guitar and trumpet. Caleb Hamilton’s trumpet again is striking in the hard-hitting ‘Little Pink’. There is the wistful and lightning-quick ‘Passing’, while ‘Paradise Fell’ touches on the Black Lives Matter movement, as it does on the defiant ‘Rising Down’. I saw her perform live at the AmericanaFestival this year and she did not disappoint, a vibrant new voice for these troubled times.
Key Tracks: Saint Elizabeth, Little Pink, Rising Down, Passing, Paradise Fell
7. Robbie Fulks – Upland Stories (Bloodshot Records)
This is Robbie Fulks‘ ninth album. Upland Stories continues his tremendous form streak of recent years. Fulks has always been a rich and resounding singer and a writer with more than average insight and humour. The new release continues the trend, with plenty of philosophy and mindfulness as he explores novelist James Agee and his trek to Alabama in 1936 (which led to his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men). The album also features stories around the “upland” parts of Virginia and North Carolina where Fulks grew up).
‘Never Come Home’ has a sober, baritone melody about a sick man spending his final days in a hostile small town, while ‘Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals’ is full of regret about lost opportunities. The banjo-laden ‘America is a Hard Religion’ is a whooping old-time song that is hard to ignore with lines like – “not just anyone can enter”, “trials to test our hearts”, “some never do surrender”. There’s also ‘The Miracle’ with its jazz overlay and profound perception.
He’s folk, bluegrass and traditional in style. He’s articulate, edgy and incisive in word.
Key Tracks: Alabama At Night, Never Come Home, America Is A Hard Religion, The Miracle, Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals’
6. His Golden Messenger – Heart Like A Levee (Merge Records)
M.C. Taylor is the creative hub of Hiss Golden Messenger. He produced the album (his sixth) with Bradley Cook and wrote all the songs which cover profoundly a range of emotions – life on the road, returning home, having to be away to support his family, honesty, doubt and faith. The listening experience is intense and bittersweet (it is not all doom and gloom) and it is like you are watching a cleansing experience, an initiation and coming through the other side a better person for the experience.
There’s a lovely duet with Tift Merritt on ‘Happy Day (Sister, My Sister)’ and the pulsating ‘Like A Mirror Loves A Hammer’ is worth the purchase price alone.
Key Tracks: Heart Like A Levee, Like A Mirror Loves A Hammer, Cracked Windshield, Ace Of Cups Hung Low Band
5. Aaron Lee Tasjan – Silver Tears (New West Records)
Aaron Lee Tasjan has played with The New York Dolls and founded the glam rock band Semi Precious Weapons. The influences now of this Nashville resident are leaning more to country rock and that is the case with this, his second release, Silver Tears (although live Tasjan with a band can do some mean T Rex style boogies). Having said that, this young emerging star is no straight down the line story-teller, there is plenty of off-beat humour, irreverence and wry observations which add to the attraction of Tasjan as a performer.
Silver Tears was produced by Eli Thomson (Father John Misty’s band) and features a band composed of Thomson, David Vandervelde, Frank Lenz, Dan Bailey, Max Hart (Guster) and Charlie Peterson. While calling East Nashville home, Tasjan recorded the entirety of the record in Southern California at Elliott Smith’s former studio New Monkey in Van Nuys, as well as Sonikwire Studios in Irvine, and Club Casino in Huntington Beach.
“Romantically, I had the idea of Tom Petty in the studio, jamming, trying to capture different feels and see where the day was,” Tasjan reveals. “I wanted it to be live, to have that intensity that draws people in.”
Key Tracks: Little Movies, Memphis Rain, Ready To Die, Where The Road Begins and Ends
4. Hayes Carll – Lovers and Leavers (Highway 87/Thirty Tigers)
This is an intimate collection of ten tracks from Texan Hayes Carll who continues to grow a sphere of influence among devotees. Lovers and Leavers expands on his latest two acclaimed releases – Trouble In Mind (2008) and KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (2011). So it’s been five years that we have had to wait for only his fifth release. It’s been worth it and the title says it all as he has moved away from his ramshackle hell-raising themes in the past to more serious topics, such as those referred to in the album’s title.
Joe Henry (again) is at the production desk for this one and the small band of musicians used (Jay Bellerose, Tyler Chester, Eric Heywood and David Piltch) create some dramatic magic. The touch is light but that suits the material just fine. The vocals and, especially the WORDS, are in the spotlight and the tasteful playing never gets in the way.
Carll c0-creates some marvellous story-telling here. Jim Lauderdale, Darrell Scott, Will Hoge, Paul Cauthen, Jack Ingram, Allison Moorer and JD Souther are just some of the creative collaborators and, as you would imagine, the material is stunning.
Key Tracks: Sake Of The Song, The Love That We Need, Love Don’t Let Me Down, Magic Kid
3. Dori Freeman – Dori Freeman (Free Dirt Records)
I’m just going to quote what I said in my review way back in February. My opinion hasn’t changed except to confirm that this release has stayed with me all year and I find it beguiling still.
Twenty-four year old Dori Freeman’s debut album is a spell-binder. Her voice is as pure and defining as you could possibly imagine – it commands the air around you.
Freeman comes from the tiny but very important music town of Galax, Virginia. It lies along The Crooked Road music heritage trail in the Appalachians and, among other things, hosts the annual Old Fiddler’s Convention which has been going for around eighty years. There’s a deep vein of music running through the generations here with families of musicians dating back a hundred years.
Freeman‘s record was crowd funded and she approached Teddy Thompson via Facebook to ask him to produce the record. Amazingly, to her, he accepted and pulled off was is one of the most well-crafted production experiences of the year. It’s crammed full of achingly beautiful originals and demonstrates a surprising maturity. Freeman’s voice has immense range and subtlety and I can almost imagine her singing Ulysses by James Joyce backwards and it would still sound enchanting!
Plenty of musical variety here – straight-up country, unaccompanied gorgeous gospel, Western swing, neo-folk, doo-wop and soul. The album was recorded over only three days in New York City.
Dori Freeman’s arrival is a blessing for us all.
Key Tracks: You Say, Where I Stood, Go On Lovin’, Lullaby
2. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth (Atlantic Records)
Sturgill Simpson is in the vanguard of a new frontier of alt. country and his career trajectory continues to soar. The new album is another gear shift from his past two releases, as if he does not want to get us (or himself) too settled.
The opening track ‘Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)’ is a tender love song for his first-born son, with a quieter introduction before an emotional crescendo and stretched regret about the time spent away from him. The soulful horns from The Dap-Kings adds great depth here. ‘Breakers Roar’ (“keep pulling me farther from shore”) is a slow ballad featuring Dan Dugmore’s poignant pedal steel, while ‘Keep It Between The Lines’ features pointed and direct advice about avoiding numerous pitfalls and staying out of trouble. The wizardry of Simpson’s regular guitarist Luar Joamets shines like a beacon and The Dap-Kings’ muscular horns add a great groove. There’s a quick segue into ‘Sea Stories’, a descriptive nautical yarn about going from port to port “seeing damn near the whole damn world from the inside of a bar”. Yet, despite the ups and downs of the seafarers’ life, it “beats dying for lies in a politician’s war”.
As has been his custom to date, the new release features a cover – Kurt Cobain’s ‘In Bloom’ which builds slowly into a wall of brass, with Simpson adding fresh insight to this Nirvana classic. ‘Brace for Impact (Live a Little)’ is an epic. While well over five minutes long, it only has two verses and a chorus. But what it lacks in lyrics, it makes up for with a driving rock groove, embellished with an irresistible hard keyboard lick and an outro of subtlety and grace, as if all the players are jamming live.
‘Call To Arms’ closes off proceedings as bagpipes give way to a quick rock shuffle and strident anti-war sentiment, with a blistering and escalating slide guitar. By the end, there’s a layer of horns, adding amazingly further to this all-in and inspired arrangement (which are a feature of the entire record). It flies, it spits, “the bullshit’s got to gooooo!!”
As well as penning all eight original songs and producing the record, Simpson co-arranged the horns, plays acoustic, twelve string guitars and moog synthesizer.
Simpson’s relationship with country music is more tenuous by the record, such is his quest for diversity and boldness. His stature as one of the brightest singer/songwriter/performers with an intensity and attitude continue to grow even further.
Key Tracks: Welcome To Earth (Pollywog), Keep It Between The Lines, Brace For Impact (Live A Little), Call To Arms
1.Darrell Scott – The Couchville Sessions (Full Light Records)
My undying favourite! Scott lives on the Cumberland Plateau, outside of Nashville, and he manages a sustainable lifestyle, growing his own food and reducing his energy imprint on the earth to a minimum. His music somehow reflects that purity of living and is imbued in everything he does, be it solo projects, collaborations with Tim O’Brien and others, penning songs for numerous artists such as Mary Gauthier, Keb Mo’ and Hayes Carll (see above) and as a key member in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy.
The musicians (‘masters’ according to Scott) gathered together for this recording are a hand-picked group of virtuosos including acclaimed Englishman Danny Thompson on bass, percussionist Kenny Malone, steel guitarist Dan Dunmore and Bill Payne (Little Feat/The Doobie Brothers) on piano and organ. Special guest appearances include Peter Rowan, John Cowan, and a rare narration by Guy Clark. This actually happened back in 2001 and 2002 and happily has seen the light of day finally. Mostly Scott originals, mixed with a few well-crafted covers of Hank Williams, James Taylor, Johnny Cash, and Townes Van Zandt.
Scott tackles weighty issues but presents them with light, colour and hope – mortality in the gripping ‘It’s Another Day’ (“to live and die”), end of a relationship in ‘It’s Time To Go Away’, and depression in Taylor’s “Another Grey Morning” (James Taylor). You also have the celebration of music and collaboration in ‘Down To The River’ (“and we won’t give a damn if it’s rock or country or blues!”), the soulful and stunning ‘Waiting For The Clothes To Get Clean’, the wonderfully jaunty Cash song ‘Big River’, the passionate ‘Love Is The Reason’, the languid tribute to Williams’ dark ‘Ramblin’ Man’, the delicate ballad ‘It’s About Time’ and the rolling ‘Moonlight Midnight’
Fearless, unapologetic and fulfilling. Most tracks were performed live. Scott’s captivating vocals, his guitar prowess, the ‘masters’ playing in the room with him and the presence of other ‘masters’ via their songs which are given a re-birth. A perfect collaboration.
Key Tracks: Down To The River, Waiting For The Clothes To Get Clean, Big River, Another Grey Morning
Discover which albums impressed us the most from our 2016 Top 20 list