In reviewing the music of 2009, I was struck by how good it actually was. My first thought was that no one recording knocked me out as the run away best of the year, but there were so many exceptional ones, it was hard to pick just ten.
Notably clustered at the top of those not picked in the top ten were two instrumental albums; Potato Hole, Booker T's collaboration with Drive-By Truckers & Neil Young, and The Further Adventures of Los Straightjackets, Los Straightjackets. Los Straightjackets continues to master the art of surf guitar rock, and it was great to hear a bunch of new songs and interpretations from Booker T.
Song writing always anchors my favorite music. Robert Earl Keen (The Rose Hotel), Lyle Lovett (Natural Forces) each include covers of other artists, each of them cover a Townes Van Zandt tune, as well as many of their own. Two worthy albums in the continuing careers of a couple of great songwriters. M. Ward (Hold Time), Lucinda Williams (Little Honey), Neko Case (Middle Cyclone) add some great coves to their mostly original albums. Lucinda joining M. Ward on Don Gibson's Oh Lonesome Me, and Neko's version of Don't Forget Me by Harry Nilsson were two of my favorite surprise songs of the year. Their cds were easily in the top twenty.
Diane Birch (Bible Belt), and Eleni Mandell (Artificial Fire), each had multiple songs that were among the best of the year.
For my top ten I look for something strong all the way through. Extra points for those killer songs that demand extra listens, production that lets the light shine true, and those intangibles so hard to define.
1. Levon Helm - Electric Dirt
One of the great voices of rock and roll. He surrounds himself with intuitive musicians, an thoughtful producer, Larry Campbell, who also contributes as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, and great material. Songs that hit the human experience head on.
2. The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You
An album you need to absorb. Involved songs that stretch out on their own. The Avetts seem to be honing their writing, while maintaining their eccentricities. A case of unique simplicity and beauty.
3. Mason Jennings - Blood of Man
The Field is as strong a song as there was in 2009. Jennings' songs bleed. The title is very apt. He sees his words clearly, no buffer to hide behind, these songs tear through any protective layer. It is raw, emotional.
4. Buddy and Julie Miller - Written In Chalk
Julie wrote most the songs, Buddy produced the cd and does much of the singing along with guest vocalist including Robert Plant, Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris. Another case of unprotected emotions. Great collection of fun, bouncy, raw, and deeply touching songs.
5. Allan Toussaint - The Bright Mississippi
Veteran producer, keyboardist, writer, Allan Toussaint, with Joe Henry as producer, makes a landmark recording. Tunes by the likes of Thelonious Monk, Sidney Bichet, Django Reinhardt done with clarity and feel. Recorded live in the studio. Can't beat it.
6. Eilen Jewel - Sea of Tears
Texas swing with a good measure of folk/country/blues, what strikes me most is her song writing and singing. A few well chosen cover songs among her originals bring out the heartbreak with the best of them.
7. Justin Townes Earle - Midnight at the Movies
Swinging through styles effortlessly. Finger-style blues, country blues, ragtime picking, singer-songwriter, songs of family. It's like he grew up surrounded in these traditions, and he probably did. Not a bad song on it.
8. Regina Spektor - Far
Songs as alliteration. She makes her songs sound like the ideas they are. Ruminations on God, lost wallets, birds, chairs, machines, and dance, in a world that does stretch far, wide and deep into space. Melodic, rhythmic, bumpy, meditative.
9. Leonard Cohen - Live In London
Like plucking the plumpest fruit after ripening all season. Sparkling performances of Cohen's classic songs. He's funny, rich, mellow and ragged. The concert/tour of the year captured at the unlikely peak of his career to share with the world.
10. Sarah Jarosz - Song Up In Her Head
Just seventeen when recorded, this recording has "IT". I don't know what "IT"is, but I know it when I hear it. Two alternative covers amid her bluegrass infused originals. Strong instrumental work, she plays multiple instruments, along with stellar guest players including Chris Thile, Abigail Washburn, Jerry Douglas. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.
There they are, from the very young to the well polished gems of age. Classic jazz with hints of New Orleans, alt bluegrass, personal visions captured in song. All in all the year surprised me with how good it was, once I went back and really listened.