Best Albums of 2009

Here’s my list of favorites. What’s on your list?

Buddy and Julie Miller
, “Written in Chalk.”
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, “Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women.”
Caroline Herring, “Golden Apples of the Sun.”
Tom Russell, “Blood and Candle Smoke.”Sam Baker, “Cotton.”
The Refugees, “The Refugees.”
Todd Snider, “The Excitement Plan.”
Wilco, “Wilco.”
Sam Baker, “Cotton.”
Andrew Bird, “Noble Beast.”
Justin Townes Earle, “Midnight at the Movies.”
Grizzly Bear, “Veckatimest.”
Son Volt, “American Central Dust.”
Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, “Here and Now.”

Buddy and Julie Miller – “Written in Chalk” (New West). The chuckle, hand claps, and Larry Campbell’s fiddle that open this record signal that it’s time to stop by the Miller’s front porch and have a little thoughtful conversation about life. Buddy and Julie and a bunch of friends — Gurf Morlix, Robert Plant, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris — sing about hard times with uncommon grit, soul, and grace. This is the sound of much of America today, from the nostalgia of “Ellis County” through “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and on to the harrowing story of “Memphis Jane,” the addict.

Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women – “Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women” (Yep Roc). Just hearing Dave Alvin and the greatly underrated Christy McWilson duet on rousing versions of “California’s Burning” and “Weight of the World” would be enough to make this one worth your scratch. Alvin’s resonant bass and McWilson’s rollicking tenor are a perfect match, among the best pairings in folk/rock. But those are just the top on a disc full of highlights, including a Cajun reworking of The Blasters’ classic “Marie, Marie,” Alvin’s nostalgic trip back to meeting Joe Turner on “Boss of the Blues,” and the appropriately somber “These Times We’re Living In.” Alvin’s has assembled a stellar band, including Cindy Cashdollar playing slide guitar, Laurie Lewis on fiddle, Nina Gerber on electric guitar and Amy Farris. McWilson is present throughout, her aching, emotional vocals matching Alvin note for note.

Caroline Herring – “Golden Apples of the Sun” (Signature Sounds).     There’s a purity, a clarity, and a subtly engaging ambition in Caroline Herring’s fourth disc, “Golden Apples of the Sun,” one of the year’s best singer/songwriter releases. Your first hear it in her voice, an instrument that brings to mind Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Judy Collins in its honest beauty. You hear it, too, in her inner voice, which like Baez, Mitchell, and Collins isn’t content to just sing pretty songs. Herring’s tunes, the half dozen she wrote as well as the covers, are quietly compelling tales. And like so many brilliant works of art, “Golden Apples” reveals its varied pleasures over time and repeated listenings, anchored by Herring’s voice.

Tom Russell — “Blood and Candle Smoke” (Shout Factory). Russell says his latest album is an example of “desert noir” and he thinks we’ve beaten the Americana references to death. Call him an American composer, small c. He’s spent 30 years earning that title, chronicling the fading West and a cast of characters from Muhammad Ali to Mickey Mantle to Picasso. He’s not afraid to match his literary aspirations — there are references to moveable feast, darkness visible, Graham Greene, and a song inspired by a Joan Didion essay here — with his rich, weathered voice. He’s always been a restless artist. “Blood and Candle Smoke” benefits from his searching for the next step, matching him with members of Calexico who lend atmospheric trumpet, keyboards, and a more solid bottom that his past efforts. It’s a richer sonic palette, well suited to the tunes.

The Refugees — “The Refugees’ (Wabuho). What a surprise. Individually, Cindy Bullens, Wendy Waldman, and Deborah Holland have enjoyed solid careers. Bullens was a guitar hero rocker before anyone heard of Joan Jett. Waldman fit comfortably among the California songwriters of the 1970s and has since written hits for Vanessa Williams, Alison Krauss and others. And Holland was merely the voice and songwriter for jazz supergroup Animal Logic with Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke. Here, they take songs recorded solo or written for others and inject stunning harmonies and rootsy arrangements that won’t let go.

Todd Snider — “The Excitement Plan” (Yep Roc). With his latest, Todd Snider takes a big step up into the rare circle of songwriters who can match Randy Newman’s self effacing wit and shrewd social commentary. From the opener, about finding a four-leaf clover (with one leaf missing), “That’s close enough for me,” he sings deadpan. “Must be my lucky day,” he cracks wise.    On “Greencastle Blues,” he opens with just vocals and piano, a nod to Newman. The song was inspired by Snider getting busted for smoking pot a couple of years ago. “Some of this trouble just finds me, most of this trouble I earn,” he sings over pedal steel guitar. “So how do you know when it’s too late, how do you know when it’s too late to learn?” Don Was produced and Greg Leisz lends his considerable picking skills, but the production is wisely low-key, putting Snider’s vocals front and center, gently wrapped in just a little bunting.

Wilco – “Wilco (The Album)” (Nonesuch). On its seventh album, the sometimes gratingly adventurous Wilco dares to color outside expectations and release an excellent roots rock album in the vein of their superb discs. “A.M.” and “Summerteeth.” There’s little of the experimentation of the past decade and that’s just fine, thank you. That doesn’t mean “Wilco” is boring or staid. There’s plenty of interesting forays from the grungy guitar of “Bull Black Nova” to the catchy pop rock duet with Feist on “You and I” to the straight-ahead Sixties rock harmonies George Harrison weeping guitar of “You Never Know.” “I don’t care anymore,” Jeff Tweedy sings again and again, before adding, “But you never know.” In fact, “Wilco” is the one Wilco album of the last decade that holds up to repeated listenings; it’s consistently catchy, challenging, and revealing time after time.

Andrew Bird – “Noble Beast” (Fat Possum). Bird may have earned a reputation as a hyper-literate songwriter who makes folk pop music with his virtuoso violin work over the previous four albums, but on his enchanting latest, it’s his whistling, hand claps, and easy melodies that step to center stage. “Oh No” opens the album with strings, whistling, and Bird’s inviting crooning, setting the stage for the catchy, easygoing listen to follow. Not that Bird is unambitious. Lyrical turns include words like radiolarians, Souverian, plecostomus, Lisboans, and onesies. Songs like “Fitz and Dizzyspells” and “Effigy” showcase his violin playing, but also offer modern roots twists. The environment, lost youth, and war are explored. But even if you don’t get lost in the wordplay, the music –the sound — of “Noble Beast” keeps you engaged. This beast is a charming record deep enough to reward repeated listenings.

Justin Townes Earle  – “Midnight at the Movies” (Bloodshot). Justin Townes Earle’s second album is a remarkably mature, accomplished disc that grows more absorbing with every listen. He’s clearly completed a master’s degree in the American songbook stretching from Tin Pan Alley to Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe to The sound is both modern and throwback. And Earle is ambitious throughout. There’s the stylistic range over 12 tunes and 32 minutes, but also the lyrical depth, a skill for storytelling.

Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey – “Here and Now” (Bar None). The irresistible harmonies of Holsapple and Stamey are wonderful to hear again, nearly two decades after their superb disc, “Mavericks.” “Here and Now” doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it has plenty to offer — great melodies and the expected bright jangle pop sound that carry you along the 14 tunes. It’s one of those breezy summer pop rock records that carry you along effortlessly.

Grizzly Bear – “Veckatimest” (Warp). “Two Weeks” grabbed my by the throat and demanded listening to this record. It was the best pop song I heard all year. And the disc doesn’t disappoint. This is what the Beach Boys would have recorded if they were from Brooklyn.

Sam Baker – “Cotton” (Music Road). Baker is a poet who puts his words to music with spare accompaniment and his gravelly Texas croak. He turned to songwriting after a terrorist bomb blew up near him on a train in Perus two decades ago, leaving him with injuries to his leg and fingers and brain damage, which affects his speech and memory. This is the third in a triology following “Mercy” and “Pretty World.” Like the others, Baker creates compelling vignettes of life, its dilemmas, and scars with simple words. As on the other discs, he mixes in lines from classic American songs giving this and the others an atmospheric and timeless quality. Definitely not easy listening, but

Son Volt – “American Central Dust” (Rounder). Jay Farrar is the latest in a long line of succession from Woody Guthrie. This is a return to the group’s earlier sound, but a step forward with the lyrics, which are simpler, more direct, and more thought provoking. A slow, somber burner worthy of the times

For other best of lists:

No Depression

Pop Matters

The Virginian-Pilot
(FYI: this list claims Bruce Hornsby, Barbra Streisand, and Norah Jones are jazz artists).