1. Cowboy Junkies, Trinity Revisited: The original Trinity Sessions came out in 1988; I discovered it 2 years later. That record, recorded in
2. Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark: Their rep is as a modern-day, smarter Lynyrd Skynyrd crossed with alt.country. I’d never listened to them before. Now I’m wondering where the hell I’ve been. This is their first record without guitarist Jason Isbell, and I think I’m going to have to go and buy some back catalog (used, of course.) The characters in these songs feel real, flawed, and somehow heroic (or anti-heroic, like the guy with the crustal meth addiction.) And something about the sound of this record keeps evoking the Stones’ Sticky Fingers (and specifically, “Dead Flowers.”) I may be rating it too high, but time will tell. RIYL: Sticky Fingers, Jayhawks, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
3. Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal:
4. She and Him, Volume One: The him is M. Ward; the she is indie cinema’s favorite best friend, Zooey Deschanel. She wrote and sings the songs (although there are two covers; a Beatles and a Smoky Robinson.) Evocative of the light and breezy radio pop of the early and mid-70s (think “Brand New Key”), and if you’re scouring this list for something new to check out, probably the most immediately and universally likable record here. Nice vocal arrangements (remember her singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in Elf?); happy music that suits a weekend morning to a T, and which wouldn’t sound out of place at your local Starbucks, but don’t hold that against them. Check out “This is Not a Test.” I hope there will be a volume 2. RIYL: “Brand New Key,” Dusty
5. Jim Boggia, Misadventures in Stereo: You can pretty well triangulate Jim’s musical DNA by the covers he’s done over the past two years, through podcasts or other one-offs: among others, the Faces (“Debris”), the Kinks (a stellar “Waterloo Sunset," complete with a lesson on the backing vocals), Queen (“Somebody to Love”) and of course the Beatles (“Penny Lane.”) Often thought of as a power popster, but I think he’s somewhere between power pop and singer-songwriter; brilliant melodies (I’m talking, McCartney-brilliant), great vocal arrangements, winning songs, tasteful playing. The record plays to me like a love song to his—and my—record collection, and it will make you long for the days when you cruised around listening to Foghat on the 8-track in your Camaro back in ’74, even if you weren’t born yet. RIYL: CSN, Josh Rouse, the Beatles, the Kinks.
6. Calexico, Carried to Dust: A nice return to form after their 2006 release, Garden Ruin, which went all glossy and pretty and citified. This is back to what they do best… moody, elusive Americana with a heavy dose of Tex-Mex, music that unfolds slowly, breathes, washes over you, makes time slow down. Every instrument that is here, is here for a reason. I love a record that makes a mood. Thanks again to K-dub for turning me on to them. RIYL: Moody Tex-Mex
7. Mudcrutch, Mudcrutch: I wrote about this band here, but that was before the record came out. Mudcrutch was a band of kids from north Florida who’d relocated to LA in the early ‘70s, and were very much in the style of contemporaries the Eagles (Mudcrutcher Tom Leadon’s brother Bernie was in that band) and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and of course the Gram Parsons-era Byrds. After a couple of singles the record company decided they liked the singer, so he moved from bass to rhythm guitar, and the band reformed as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Here, 35 years after the fact, comes their first record. Petty is back on bass, joined by the original Mudcrutch line-up, which features Heartbreakers Mike Campbell (lead guitar) and Benmont Tench (keys). Everyone sings, although of course Petty sings the most. It’s mostly country rock (Petty called it “space age hippie music” in concert), including “Lover of the Bayou,” a Byrds cover. But for me the centerpiece is the nine-minute "Crystal River"—which, Petty said at the Fillmore (the real one, in
8. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Volume 8: Telltale Signs: My own rules generally prohibit the inclusion of an anthology on the year-end list, and really, I’m not sure where to rate this. But most of these songs have never been released, and the thing plays like a cohesive work, and hell, Rolling Stone had it on their list, so I’m putting it on mine. Comprised of outtakes and a couple of rarities, dating from the Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy album in 1989 through 2006’s Modern Times, and just basically one hell of a bluesy root-rock record. This is a 2-CD set, with a collector’s edition 3-CD version running a hundred bucks (of course, some people, I aint condoning this mind you, but some people just bought the 2-CD set and found the elusive third disc on bootleg download sites.) Moody, down-in-the-groove, an alternate history of Dylan over the past two decades in much the same way Springsteen’s Tracks was an alternate history of the E Street Band. RIYL: the real folk blues.
9. Gary Louris, Vagabonds: Louris, ex-Jayhawk, makes a lovely record that lives somewhere between that band’s alt.country on the one hand, and timeless ‘70s folk rock on the other; the companion piece Acoustic Vagabonds, an EP with acoustic versions of 6 of these songs, underscores the folk-rockiness. This record is a worthy follow-up to the ‘hawks’ 2003 Rainy Day Music, and augers well for the pending Louris/Marc Perlman release Ready for the Flood, due in January and an early contender for the 2009 version of this list. Nicely produced by Chris Robinson (Black Crowes, father of Kate Hudson’s kid) with a winning organic vibe; Robinson will also be on board for Ready for the Flood. RIYL: The Jayhawks, swampy alt.country hold the twang.
10. Lindsey Buckingham, Gift of Screws: Buckingham put out three solo records between 1981 and 2005; now this is his second in three years. We Lindsey fans are wholly unaccustomed to such abundance. 2006’s Under the Skin was all soft and acoustic-like; this one rocks out. The original Gift of Screws was apparently rejected by his record company in the mid-90s, so he raided it to populate the 2003 Fleetwood Mac record Say You Will; this is then the second iteration of Screws. I’m a sucker for that signature plunkety plunkety, thumpety thump sound of his (think “Tusk”) and the brittle, glassy guitars and the hot/cool, passionate vocals. Like all Lindsey B records, this one sounds like a million bucks. RIYL: Fleetwood Mac but not Stevie Nicks, “Tusk,” Go Insane.
11. BoDeans, Still: One of four T-Bone Burnett productions this year that I considered for this list (along with Mellencamp, B.B. King and T-Bone’s own.) Their first album in 1986 (also produced by Burnett) was called Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, a line from the Stones song “Shattered.” The title of this record references the next line of that song: “And STILL surviving on the streets…” Twenty-two years on, Kurt and Sammy continue to tap into the vein of rock’n’roll mined by Springsteen, the Everly Brothers, U2, Chuck Berry, the Stones. Their voices—Kurt’s watery singing, Sammy’s gravely sandpaper voice-- wrap and melt together like honey and scotch, like leather and lace, like a grilled ham and Swiss. There is a simple, earnest truth to their songs that has made growing older with them particularly rewarding. Good work if you can get it, indeed. If there was any justice these guys would be in the rock’n’roll hall of fame. RIYL: Harmonies, simple guitar songs, the idea of rock’n’roll mattering worth a damn in life.
12. The Fireman, Electric Arguments: The Fireman being comprised of Flood, who maybe you know as an in-demand producer (U2, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Killers); and Paul McCartney, who you recall is The Cute One. Unlike their past instrumental recordings, this one has songs on it; Macca plays all the instruments and sings, while Flood, uh, produces. Some have called it McCartney’s best record in years, and while I quite liked last year’s Memory Almost Full, those folks may be right. I tend to like McCartney least when he tries to sound contemporary (as on Chaos and Creation, where he worked with Nigel Goodrich, who produced Beck and Radiohead.) But if you like the Beatles you’ll love “Two Magpies” (I wish my friend Joe could have heard that one.) Meanwhile, some of the tracks are really onto something here, with McCartney soaring jubilantly through Flood’s heady, swooshy textures (“Sing the Changes.”) It sounds, others have said, like he’s having a blast. Song titles include “Light From Your Lighthouse,” “Sun is Shining,” “Dance Till We’re High,” and “Universal Here, Everlasting Now.” Damn if it isn’t uplifting. RIYL: Paul McCartney.
13. Lucinda Williams, Little Honey: Ooh, snap! It’s Lu’s curse now that every good record will be “the best since Car Wheels.” But this might be, even though I loved World Without Tears as well. It lets its hair down and rocks. She’s got herself a fella, and whereas last year’s West was all downbeat, dealing with the death of her mother, this one is all, “My boyfriend’s back.” RIYL: alt.country, rock’n’roll, the Shangri-las.
14. Ani DiFranco, Red Letter Year: Wherein Ani has a baby and gets all happy on yo’ ass. “I’ve got myself a new mantra,” she sings; “it goes, ‘don’t forget to have a good time.’” The songs are great—among her best collection of songs ever—but they come off better live with the 4-piece than on record, where the studio seems not to be her friend. (Although I may be punishing the record for how much I dug the shows.) Still, the opening (title) track—on which the protagonist takes mushrooms in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve, and which is bookended by a reprise with a New Orleans band that closes the record—sets the tone for a personal and global exploration. See her live though. RIYL: The Happy Woman Blues, Out of Range.
15. Ollabelle, Before This Time: Surprisingly, this live record doesn’t have the magic that their debut studio record had. But it has Amy Helm and a lovely cover of the Dead’s "Brokedown Palace," and I think it’s better than their second one. RIYL: Cowboy Junkies, Levon Helm, the first Ollabelle record.
16. Todd Rundgren, Arena: Todd did a guitar rock tour with a band in late ’06 and early ’07, and liked that so much he holed up in his closet in Hawaii and recorded this—an entire album of big, stoopid (not the same as stupid), loud, fist-pumping, guitar-driven arena rock. Usually he’s a studio whiz, working out the songs live after the fact (see, 2004’s Liars.) Here, the songs were writ to be played live, and in fact his tour this year—which culminated in a private gig in Philly on New Year’s Eve that we were lucky enough to attend—featured the entire album, played front to back. To my ears, the songs don’t entirely work on the record, not given the way they come alive on stage with the interplay of the band inhabiting them, and the size and scope and force and 3-dimensionality of the live experience. If the record was as good as the show it would rate way higher. As it is, there is more hot guitar playing here from Todd than he’s offered up in years, and I think I’ll pick “Weakness” and “Bardo” as my two favorite tracks. RIYL: AC/DC, “Black Maria,” head banging.
17. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes: I kind of had to put this one on here for hipster cred… Like a lot of new artists I like, the Foxes (5 guys from Seattle) are enamored, a good two generations removed, of the more poppy music of the ‘70s, which is to say, my youth. All harmonies up the yin yang, kind of like CSN meets the Benedictine Monks. Strangely pastoral, lots of layered voices and acoustic guitars. RIYL: CSN, Gregorian chants.
18. Susan Tedeschi, Back to the River: Back to the river indeed. After her last release, which was a departure from her hard blues sound and more of a ‘70s soul record, a la Al Green, she’s back to the deep muddy river of the blues, belting them out like a 250 pound black woman at church (the sight of Susan demurely strolling out at an Allman Brothers show, in sweats and glasses, all soccer mom, then singing like this, continually amuses.) Husband Derek Trucks is on four tracks, and Doyle Bramhall II (from Clapton’s band) makes appearances as well. This is what the studio blues sounds like today. RIYL: A little gospel, a little hot mama in your blues.
19. Matthew Sweet, Sunshine Lies: Poor Matthew Sweet. Like the Cowboy Junkies and Trinity Sessions, he’ll forever carry the weight of Girlfriend, a classic power pop record and one of the best break-up records of all time. Every release is greeted with the expectation of, “Will it be as good as Girlfriend?” And it never is, because there are bands in the rock’n’roll hall of fame who’ve never done a record as good as that one. Sunshine Lies sounded way better to me on the beach in July than it does now—it needs the summer to activate its charms—but this is a rockier record from Sweet and a good one. I’m looking forward to his next collaboration with Susannah Hoffs, wherein they cover songs from the ‘70s. RIYL: the rockin’ side of Sweet.
20. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Cardinalogy: Ryan’s first sober record, and so I’m prepared to give him a little slack; getting sober seems to be the primary theme here, which is probably a one-record detour (and then back, let’s hope, to dysfunctional relationships.) The band sounds great, and there are some great songs here—“Cobwebs” is especially intense when he opens his live shows with it, and “Fix It” could sit next to anything on Easy Tiger. But the second half of the record drags, and given the artist’s high points this decade, it’s hard to call this one of them. But I still love the guy. RIYL: The Band, sobriety.
21. Brian Wilson, Lucky Old Sun: It is easy to criticize Wilson, saying for example that nobody’s home, that he’s a shell of his former self, that he pretends to play the piano while talented acolytes surround him and prop him up. Well, fine. Call this record an homage to Wilson and the Beach Boys, with his shaky but charming vocals over the work of those acolytes. But we’re talking about the people responsible for some great records, like this one and this one and this one.
22. B.B. King, One Kind Favor: Another T-Bone production, and according to many, the best B.B. record in years. Truly amazing that the guy makes so vibrant and compelling a record at the age of 83. Burnett surrounds him with a great combo, including Jim Keltner (drums) and Dr. John (keyboards) and the result is a rootsy, fresh but timeless blues record. Like the Mellencamp record (see below), a meditation on mortality. One criticism: 50+ minutes is too long for a blues record. RIYL: The blues.
23. Sheryl Crow, Detours: I discovered her opening for the BoDeans in 1993 (“All I Wanna Do” wasn’t all over the radio until the summer after.) I bought her first record the next day. It remains, I think inarguably, her best, but she’s managed to carve out a niche as a classic rocker, with Clapton (461 Ocean Boulevard), Neil Young (Harvest) and the Stones (Sticky Fingers) as touchstones, and hell, that stuff is popular. At least it is with people my age… This is, I think, one of her stronger outings since the debut. Some of the lyrics are heavy-handed (a little too much on the spurning boyfriend and the evil administration), but my advice there is, don’t listen to them. Just feel the songs and sway to the rhythm guitars. RIYL: Tuesday Night Music Club, Harvest,
24. John Mellencamp, Life, Death, Love and Freedom: Despite the title, there’s really not a lot of life, love or freedom here. And that leaves the big ol’ dirt nap. Not exactly a Saturday night dance party record. Mellencamp has mortality on his mind, making this record—and not Buddy Guy’s—the logical bookend to B.B. King’s; both are beautifully underplayed, T-Bone Burnett-produced ruminations on creaky old bones and the footsteps of the grim reaper just off in the distance. Honestly I’d rate it way higher if it were more cheerful. But you can like this even if never moved byy this artist before. RIYL: Mortality, Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss.
25. David Byrne and Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today: I have to say right off, not the best work of either collaborator, alone or together. Eno made the music, then Byrne wrote lyrics and melodies and added the vocals; I don’t think they were in the same city once for the recording. It works though, in a sort of disassociated, eerie way. I have a feeling that one day this record will “pop” for me and I’ll wish I rated it near the top of the list. But until it does… RIYL: I’d like to invoke Remain in Light here, but that wouldn’t be fair. Probably more apt: the Eno/Cale collaboration, Wrong Way Up.
I also liked: the live disc that came in the Prince book that my wife got me for Christmas; the Old 97s; Counting Crows (more Sunday mornings than Saturday Nights), Van Morrison; T-Bone Burnett; the Black Crowes (a lot of people rated this one very highly; the addition of Luther Dickenson from the North Mississippi Allstars was a brilliant stroke); and Beck.