Happy holidays, everybody! I’m back with my personal top ten albums of the year, a list that took a stupid-long time to put together but is very nice to have done. All I would say as a note is that I like all of these albums very much and don’t think the rankings should be scrutinized to death, because my tastes certainly change frequently enough.
Okay, you get it. Let’s do this. Va-VOOM!
Dailey and Vincent, Dailey and Vincent
I typically lean progressive in my bluegrass tastes, but there’s simply no arguing with this dynamic twosome, whose debut finds them ripping into a straight-ahead traditional style with such crazy-polished singing, playing and writing that they practically become the new standard. Excellent.
Kathy Mattea, Coal
Confession: I wasn’t quite sure how to take this one. Although I like Kathy Mattea’s voice and generally love concept albums, I had trouble getting into this set of mining-related songs as a whole, which may be because I personally have trouble digesting so many bare-bones story songs in one sitting, or may be because the album itself becomes a bit monotonous after a while. It’s kind of hard to say, and I finally decided that it’s just the sort of thing I personally have to be in the right mood for. Objectively speaking, though, I think what Mattea and producer Marty Stuart have achieved here is easily one of the most fully realized artistic expressions of 2008, and it’s pretty hard to gripe about on a song-by-song or sonic basis. So #9 feels about right for me.
Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof
Randy Rogers, Wade Bowen and Cody Canada take note: Reckless Kelly’s latest set showcases just how tersely effective the whole “country-nodding Texas rock” shtick can be when you pay the same attention to developing compelling lyrical ideas that you do to ‘tude (and I say that with love, because I enjoy work from all of the acts mentioned above). Bonus points for the year’s best album cover.
Hal Ketchum, Father Time
I’ve never heard a country album that sounds quite like this one. The compositional influences range from flamenco to funky gospel to traditional country, the arrangements are warmly acoustic and gently percussive, Ketchum has now fully embraced the airy quality in his voice, and some of his lyrics here are nothing short of poetic. The result is a batch of songs which sound so effortless at times that they literally seem to float over you like wind – and that’s before you even realize how deep some of them go. Just take a listen; it’s wild.
Jim Lauderdale & The Dream Players, Honey Songs
You could forgive Jim Lauderdale if he showed signs of wear on Honey Songs, his fourth release in a span of 18 months. Instead, he’s produced yet another fresh package, this time by cherry-picking the best parts of rock ‘n’ roll’s roots and throwing ‘em into his ever-sharp traditional songwriting blender.
His tunes have never been more perfectly framed, either, which you can attribute to the aptly-named “Dream Players,” a droolworthy backing line-up consisting of guitarist James Burton and drummer Ron Tutt (both Elvis Presley vets), pianist Glen D. Hardin and pedal steeler Al Perkins (both renowned session players), and bassist Garry Tallent (of Springsteen’s E. Street Band), not to mention Emmylou Harris, Kelly Hogan, Patty Loveless and Buddy Miller on vocals. If it’s been a while since you heard an instrumental part that sounded like it was actually written to complement its song, rather than just create sound, check out the melancholy electric/steel duet in the intro to “Borrow Some Summertime.”
Peter Cooper, Mission Door
The debut moonlighting effort from music journalist Cooper seems to occupy its own special little place in the music world. It’s a place where life’s little moments seem to spill accidentally into song, where nothing is overstated in some strained attempt to make an impact because the simple truth provides impact enough. Mission Door feels like a completely personal work from start to finish, and yet its storytelling is vivid and nuanced enough to tease out the sort of universal relevance you’re probably more used to having spoon-fed to you if you’re a regular radio listener.
Of course, it’s a bit shady to call it all “country” – “detail-oriented folk with tastefully prominent steel guitar” might be more appropriate in a lot of spots – but the Tom T. Hall and Kris Kristofferson storytelling traditions Cooper professes to follow (and does, ably) places it close enough for the purposes of this list. I really like all of the albums I’ve cited here, but this is the only one I take something new from each and every time I listen. I can’t recommend it enough.
Ralph Stanley II, This One is Two
Nothing but one great, bluegrass-flavored traditional country tune after another, all with effectively plain performances by Stanley. If that sounds like your kind of thing, you’re probably gonna like it. If not, you probably won’t. Pretty straightforward.
Justin Townes Earle, The Good Life
It’s hard to believe this is supposed to be a debut album. Earle’s mastery of classic American song styles is staggering, this set of tunes is nicely balanced in melodic and lyrical variety, and he’s already found producers who know how to capture the historical savvy of his stuff without making him sound dated. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones
Song-for-song, I think it’s one of the one of the strongest albums I’ve ever heard. Chambers and Nicholson have brilliantly synthesized Appalachian folk, bluegrass, traditional country, and Fleetwood Mac-ish acoustic pop for a collection of songs which are uniformly catchy, lyrically potent (if sometimes overly abstract), and gorgeously arranged. It doesn’t quite hang together as a cohesive album for me, which is why it’s ranked where it is, but no album I heard in 2008 has more would-be classics per capita.
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
It’s easy to love That Lonesome Song for what it’s not. With mainstream country at what could well be an all-time artistic low, with fans and even some de facto music critics blissfully unaware of where the genre came from musically, with radio recycling the same five life-affirming themes over and over and record labels playing exclusively to earn radio’s favor, it’s tempting to canonize Johnson’s latest offering just for being so damn counter-cultural, for daring to sound negative or mention “cocaine and a whore” or express sentimentality without smashing through the the fourth wall to manipulate the easy listener.
But That Lonesome Song is much more than a collection of tasteful avoidances; it is an album’s album, a set of songs which are strong on their own but combine to illustrate something much greater. Over the course of his fourteen tracks, Johnson embodies a character who seems to endure lingering sadness in seemingly every aspect of his life, who searches for its antidote in drugs and relationships and humor and vacations and passive-agressive revenge and the past and the future, all to no discernible avail. You could interpret the album’s final moment, the Here-I-Am-World “Between Jennings and Jones,” as Johnson’s last, beautifully inconclusive answer to himself: he finds release from his demons through country music. Country music would do well to use him similarly.