BY BILL BENTLEY
The idea of making a list of the year’s best albums is always an exciting prospect, even if everyone’s taste is so subjective it should really be called their favorite albums of the year. There is no way to listen to even a fraction of the music released, so it’s more fun to find what hits the monkey nerve hardest, and leave it at that. Happy holidays and have fun. More to come.
Wilco, Wilco (The Album), (Nonesuch)
Great rock bands are treasures, and it’s easy to expect them to always deliver. But even better, it’s a thrill when they change courses to offer up surprises. Wilco’s latest goes back to the future in a way that makes it clear they rule the rock roost in America right now, and have grown in breathtaking ways over the past decade. Jeff Tweedy is a man of many faces. The way he initially came in the back door after leaving Uncle Tupelo–probably knowing he had knockout drops inside him–is a sneak attack for the history books. Who’s going to save us? Wilco will.
Lissa Hattersley, How I Spent My Summer Vacation, (Kimbark Road)
Without discovering an unknown gem, any given year feels a bit like a dud. In 2009 Lissa Hattersley’s album was so undercover even the hometown crowd in Austin might have missed it. That would be a real shame, because this lady will lull you into happiness and then turn around to send you spinning toward the hills. She may have started in Greezy Wheels, one of the early hippie-country hybrids, but her heart has always been out in the open air. The swing noir of her songs goes deep quick, and Hattersley’s voice is an absolute gem precisely because she doesn’t have to ask. She knows.
Geoff Muldaur, Texas Sheiks, (Tradition & Moderne)
Richard Thompson said it best: “There are three great white blues singers, and two of them are Geoff Muldaur.” The East Coast native had an early rootsy rebirth, and in the early ‘60s tapped into an inner voice that has never let him down. From the Jim Kweskin Jug band to Paul Butterfield’s Better Days with plenty of time for solo albums and duets with once-wife Maria Muldaur, this man has crossed the tightrope unscathed. His guitar playing conjures up the ghosts of heroes past without ever sounding dated, and he sings with spirit of the skies. These songs, made with the late string king Stephen Bruton, shine with such unpretentious wonder that each feels like a small miracle.
Dawes, North Hills, (ATO)
From the wilds of Laurel Canyon, the Los Angeles combo wins debut of the year award. Dawes has a timeless sound that could have come from any of the past forty years and been right at home. They capture the forlornness of Southern California nights, when the sweeping rush of the freeways is offset by the empty feel of the streets. It’s the dichotomy that drives the citizens there crazy, and explains everyone from the Doors and Mothers of Invention onward. But don’t forget, The Band’s second album was recorded in the Hollywood Hills. So there.
Beth McKee, I’m That Way, (BMR)
One of the great American songwriters is Louisiana’s Bobby Charles. His first hit was “See You Later Alligator” in the ‘50s, and he then went on to write “Walking to New Orleans,” “But I Do,” “Tennessee Blues” and a footlocker full of others. In certain circles, just mentioning his name causes the pros to smile and shake their heads. Singer Beth McKee decided to do a whole album of Charles’ chestnuts, and she should be given her own annual crawfish boil in Lafayette for those fine efforts. There is such an easeful joy in all these songs, even the sad ones, it feels like the sun, the moon and the herbs all lined up in McKee’s favor. With a kicking band and voice to call down the stars, Bobby Charles’ originals might have met their match here and shown why Bob Dylan wrote the liner notes on his last album. For real.
Staff Benda Bilili, Tres Tres Fort (Crammed Discs)
From the Congo this band gives power to those who have none, and a voice to those who are usually not heard. The musicians, many paraplegic and homeless, ride large homemade tricycles, recorded their album on a Macintosh computer plugged via extension chord into a restaurant’s electrical outlet and exist in a twilight world between notoriety and being invisible. That they are becoming heard and seen is a miracle of music we should all be thankful for. The group’s mix of African, soul and reggae influences has caused a minor sensation wherever they are heard, and at a time when the pop world is going gaga over Lady Gaga, Staff Benda Bilili gives hopes in the goodness of humankind, and that just maybe the turning tide in our world is heading in a divine direction.
John Fogerty, The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again, (Verve-Forecast)
It’s hard to know what to leave out, but if anyone understands the true essence of minimalism, it is John Fogerty. He built one of the greatest bands in American history on the idea that if it feels like it’s unnecessary it likely is, and has continued on that road ever since. For this tip of the Gibson he gathered a handful of songs he loves and a few friendly musicians, and then stayed out of the way of letting the magic happen. He opens things with a John Prine song and proceeds to take it all the way to the end of the line. Sometimes making things sound easy is the hardest accomplishment of all, and this would be the man to know.
James Hand, Shadow On The Ground, (Rounder)
Country music, at its best, should scare you. The way it can boil life down to the most elemental emotions reminds us why it’s often called “the white man’s blues.” To try and find that power in Nashville today feels like some kind of cruel joke. James Hand, so far off the beaten path there is no path, puts the big fear in us without even trying. His voice is convict clean, filed down to an essence that barely exists anymore. If Hank Williams were still alive, he’d have his arm around Hand while he gave him his last guitar.
Jesse Winchester, Love’s Filling Station, (Appleseed)
Partly chosen for nightmare nostalgia. Winchester’s first album still plays on a constant tape loop in the mind, haunting these days and serving as constant reminder how it felt to first find yourself, and how far off you really were forty years ago. In 1970 he defined something sweet and startling with feelings that have remained at the top of the chillbumper chart. The Southern man has never wavered from his gracious greatness, strikes the heart so deeply a call to the cardiologist is in order. Stat!
Rickie Lee Jones, Balm In Gilead, (Fantasy)
The album cover is an out of focus photograph of the artist as ghost, and in some ways that’s the role this inspired singer has been playing these past 30 years. She comes into the world, makes a big mess of our emotions and disappears for different stretches of time. Only to do it again and again. What is now obvious is that she is a survivor with the kind of vision that doesn’t really exist anymore. There is music here that will make it hard to breath because of its new beauty, and some that seems like you’ve been listening to it all your life. There are few alive who can do this, and we should honor this woman who can. Rickie Lee Jones has paid for our sins, and by sharing her music with us now she once again serves up salvation with a tear and a smile. No other.
Song of the Year: The Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You” (American)
A prayer worth hearing forever. Need we say more?
Bill Bentley is a writer, musician, publicist, record producer and A&R director. He once played drums with Lightnin’ Hopkins. For more reviews and music news, go to www.sonicboomers.com