My 2005 list was dominated by established female artists returning to greatness, and this year’s list complements it well, as 2006 is dominated by male artists either reaching new artistic heights or returning to them. Overall, it’s been a good year, not quite as shockingly good as 2005 but filled with great music that I’ll be returning to in the years to come. Be sure to check out Paul’s list below, another collection of great albums that catches some gems from the Texas music scene, along with maintstream releases that received wide distribution.
The Pilgrim: A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson
As good a tribute album as I’ve ever heard, thanks to a combination of excellent source material and interpretations by spiritual successors to the original artist. My personal favorites come from Todd Snider (“Maybe You Heard”), Marshall Chapman (“Jesus Was a Capricorn”) and Kristofferson himself (“Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends.”)
Enjoy the Ride
It doesn’t reach the heights of their solid debut album – trade in Garth Fundis for Byron Gallimore and you’re bound to lose some of your earthiness – but the very best songs here (“Stay”, “One Blue Sky”) show they can break out of the “Something More” groove that most of this album revisits.
Long Trip Alone
I love a good road album, and this is the best one I’ve heard in a long time, capturing all of the contradictions present in how the freedom of the road can be a prison sometimes.
Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing
Urban finally lives up to his promise as a country-rock superstar, with an album that would sound vibrant on pop radio while still fitting comfortably in the country format. It’s as if his talent has finally caught up to his remarkable success.
Byrd never made an album anywhere near this good when he was a chart-topping artist. His voice has fully matured and so has his taste in material, resulting in a refreshingly adult album that reminds us that country music is done best by those who have done some living.
Grace and Gratitude
Few artists who started out in country music have covered as much musical ground as Olivia Newton-John. The nature of her most successful material has kept her from being mentioned in the same breath as a Willie Nelson or an Emmylou Harris, but since recovering from cancer fifteen years ago, she has been making fascinating music, often self-written. This is easily the strongest collection of songs she’s ever composed, a deeply spiritual record that confronts everything from self-doubt to mortality with the grace implied by the title. It’s a shame you have to go to Walgreen’s to find the CD, but it’s worth every penny.
Redefining prolific for a whole new generation, Gill delivers four new albums at one time, each expanding on a style of music that he’s known for but could never fully explore on a single CD. Kudos to Luke Lewis, Gill’s label president, for rewarding both Gill’s talent and his fan’s wallets by green-lighting this ambitious and surprisingly affordable project.
The Little Willies
The Little Willies
I’m a big-tent country music guy. I’m all for rock artists dabbling in the genre and country stars exploring other sides of their musical tastes. Leave it to a New York club band, featuring some chick named Norah Jones, to make one of the purest and most entertaining country albums of the year, showing a respect (and knowledge) of the genre’s history that I suspect would leave many country radio stars in the dust. Jones had already gotten my attention with her heartbreaking covers of Waylon Jennings (“Wurlitzer Prize”) and Dolly Parton (“The Grass is Blue”), and she delivers here, but so do her bandmates, who alternate singing lead. Highlights include “I Gotta Get Drunk”, “It’s Not You, It’s Me” and “Lou Reed”, where the band insists they saw the titular legend cow-tipping late at night in Texas.
American V: A Hundred Highways
Through most of my childhood, Johnny Cash was somebody that my parents listened to, but he didn’t resonate with me at all. Perhaps if “What is Truth” had been on those road trip mix tapes instead of “One Piece at a Time”, I’d have paid more attention to him. As it was, he didn’t become part of my own country catalog until American Recordings, a five-star review in New Country magazine encouraging me to check out the sparsely-produced album. I enjoyed each album in that series until IV, where Cash, aside from “Hurt”, sounded tired and uninspired to me. My expectations were low for V, but the death of his wife and his own impending mortality seemed to renew his artistic fire at the end. I wish we hadn’t lost him while he was still actively recording; V indicates he still had a lot more to say.
Nelson was typically productive this year, releasing two excellent albums: You Don’t Know Me, a solid tribute to songwriter Cindy Walker, and Songbird, a Ryan Adams-produced collection that has Nelson sounding sharp and loose. Nelson’s recent albums have been too ornate at times, but there are no bells and whistles here, just organic presentations of fantastic material like “Sad Songs and Waltzes” and “Back to Earth”, and closing with a melancholy take on “Amazing Grace”.
How does it alter your own identity when you begin to lose the people who created it? Cash’s stunning exploration of her own emotions and the meaning of her existence in the face of the death of her father is deeply moving; “I Was Watching You” may be the most beautiful reflection on the immortality of love I’ve ever heard, as she imagines her own soul looking down on her parents before she was conceived – “I was watching you from above, ’cause long before life there is love” – and ends by speaking in her late father’s voice, “I’ll be watching you from above; long after life there is love.”
Robison is a plain-spoken poet, able to speak large truths by stringing together the most mundane little details of life. His very best songs on this collection – “Every Once in a While”, “Kitchen Blues” and “Days Go By” – capture the voice of a man who knows his dreams will not come true but hasn’t completely let go of them.
Like Red On a Rose
Age the troubadour of Dierks Bentley’s album twenty years, and he’d probably sound a lot like Alan Jackson does on Like Red On a Rose, a middle-aged romance album that keeps the man and woman who are deeply in love seperated by the road on most of the songs. Producer Alison Krauss calls forward textures and depths of Jackson’s voice that have never been on record before – he sounds as close to Sinatra as a hillbilly star can get.
The Devil You Know
Infused with a raw energy that’s been absent from most of Snider’s recent albums, he has moved away from exploring his own personal demons and looked at the world around him with sober, sympathetic and occasionally furious eyes, particularly on the fiery title track, where he screams, “There’s a war going on that the poor can’t win, helicopters over the house again”, and on “If Tomorrow Never Comes”, where he reveals why he thinks world peace won’t be accomplished any time soon: “If we were all good people, we could work in perfect rhythm. If worms had daggers, birds wouldn’t f**k with them.”
Taking the Long Way
As the title implies, the Chicks took a very long time following up their 2002 masterpiece, Home, and in the very best sense of the phrase, they are beginning to show their age. As excellent as their earlier albums were, there always seemed to be a polite, professional distance between the band and their material. Here, all those lines have been erased, and it’s almost like we’re hearing their real voices for the first time, as they open with a brief history of the band (“The Long Way Around”), and sing about coping with the controversy (“Easy Silence”) before confronting it head-on (“Not Ready to Make Nice”).
After the first three tracks, however, little will remind you about the incident and backlash that turned their “world upside down”. The best of the rest of the album deals with letting go of how you pictured your life would be and dealing with the reality of what it is. “So Hard” captures the Robison sisters’ struggle to conceive naturally: “It felt like a given, something a woman’s born to do. A natural ambition to see a reflection of me and you. I feel so guilty that was a gift I couldn’t give. Could you be happy if life wasn’t how we pictured it?” “Voice Inside My Head”, on the other hand, deals with a woman being haunted by the decision to give up a child because she wasn’t ready to have one. “I want, I need, somehow to believe in the choice I made. Am I better off this way?” is the harrowing bridge, while the second verse contains the promise “I’ll never forget what I’ve given up in you.”
Most chilling, yet still uplifting, is “Silent House”, written for Maines’ grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease, which after asking, “Who do we become without knowing where we started from?”, captures the essential truth that carrying on the life of those who came before them is the ultimate responsibility of the younger generation, which is embraced in the chorus: “I will try to connect all the pieces you left, I will carry it on and let you forget.”
The song also captures a truth about how memories of better times help you cope with the terminal illness of those you love. As a child, you only know your parents and grandparents as strong adults who have always been there; if you’re lucky enough to remain in one home throughout growing up, countless happy memories are created of family gatherings. As you get older, those who gathered around the kitchen table start to disappear, until finally you’re dealing with an actual parent being seriously ill. Walking around that same house that once was filled with the noise of many people celebrating, seeing that it is now empty, not better lyric could capture how it feels to deal with this new reality – “I’ll remember the years when your mind was clear, how the laughter and life filled up this silent house”.
The Chicks had never written an entire album before, and maybe they’ve said everything they need to with the songs on this project, but I suspect that as they continue to age, they’ll want to capture their new experiences in song. I only hope we’re so lucky that they choose to do this. With Taking the Long Way, the Chicks have emerged as my favorite artists, and I can hardly wait to hear what they’ll do next.
Here are some albums that didn’t make my top fifteen of 2006 or don’t quite fit on a country list, but that I enjoyed this year:
Chris Thile, How To Grow a Woman From the Ground
Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris, All the Roadrunning
Willie Nelson, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker
The Wreckers, Stand Still, Look Pretty
The Grascals, Long List of Heartaches
Wynonna, A Classic Christmas
Yusuf, An Other Cup
Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stadium Arcadium
Linda Ronstadt with Ann Savoy, Adieu False Heart