My Favorite Music of 2013

jasonisbellThere was a time when I spent hours thinking of clever ways to describe the music of the past year. There’s not much need now. A brief description and a video and you can make up your mind whether my taste has soured or not.

So here’s what I listened to the most this year, a year that I thought was the best for new music in a long, long time.

Jason Isbell – Southeastern. This is the sound of a life falling apart and nearly ending and then trying to figure a way back from the darkness. Isbell’s disc is by far the album I listened to the most this year. “Traveling Alone” is simply stunning. “Stockholm” isn’t exactly subtle, speaking of a man trapped and entranced by his captors, whether people or addictions, looking to go home. “Cover Me Up” is the bluntest of confessions and a statement of resolve. “Elephant” will rip out your heart.

Aoife O’Donovan – Fossils. Languid, mellow and so entrancing. O’Donovan sings beautifully and plays with great taste, but don’t ignore the lyrical depth here. Check out the lyrics on “Beekeeper.”

Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In. This is why algorithms will never replace people. I learned about this album from Barry Friedman at Birdland Records when I walked in there one afternoon and he declared I had to have it. As usual, he was right. Rose moves easily from country rock to lounge crooner with a sexy swagger that’s irresistible.

Black Lillies – Runaway Freeway Blues. Last year, it was Shovels and Rope. This year it is the Black Lillies, simply a great alt-country band. Superb stories, the ability to be quiet and rocking. Listen to “The Fall” and try to tell me otherwise.

Kim Richey – Thorn in My Heart.Kim has traveled a lot of ground, geographically and sonically, moving from Nashville to London and back again. This brings her back to the beginnings, the great country songs that got her start in Nashville (we met in the 1990s when she was the centerpiece of a story on songwriters). There’s plenty of heartache here and that’s mighty fine. Check out the duet with Jason Isbell on “Break Away Speed.”

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward. Robbie is in trad country mode here and he pulls it off with deep, reflective grace. He writes about place, about memory, about everyday things. “That’s Where I’m From” is brilliant.

Bill Callahan – Dream River. Callahan is best known as Smog. I didn’t know him until a PR person sent me this dark, stunning, occasionally baffling album. Think of Leonard Cohen meets Tom Waits. At times, Callahan uses his baritone as much to convey sounds and feelings as he does words. Listen to him sing “barroom, barroom” in “Seagull” or “Beer. Thank you” in the opener, “The Sing.”

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.She started out as an alt country chanteuse and now Case’s songs and vocals have become increasingly complex and unpredictable. But this album may also be her most beautiful.

Holly Williams – The Highway. Yes, she has a famous daddy and a famous granddaddy, but this is the third strong solo album from the haunting Holly. She sings of love, of life on the road, and of life’s realizations on this quiet, reflective record.

Chic Gamine – Closer. Four women with incredible voices, one percussionist. For the most part, that’s it on this album which merges doo wop, soul, and girl group pop. I dare you not to love the title cut.

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – “Cheater’s Game.” Robison and Willis, partners in life, finally release a duo disc. Great choice of covers, superb harmonies, rough and smooth.

Garland Jeffreys – Truth Serum. Garland, another North Shore Point House Concerts alum, has typically been a slow writer, leaving years between albums, but he has been on a roll. This is another strong effort, typically mixing rock, pop, reggae, and blues along with social commentary.

Slaid Cleaves – Still Fighting the War.His best album in a list of good ones, affecting, honest.


The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow.I played this once and set it aside only to revisit it months later. This is catchy Americana with stunning harmonies — from a Brooklyn group.

Tim Easton – Not Cool.Easton comes back strong with a retro Sun Records sound.

Greg Trooper – Incident on Willow Street. The man can sing with such emotion. Soulful Americana. He’s been one of my favorite songwriters for a long time.

One of the songs I played a ton wasn’t released in 2013. It was Amanda Shires “When You Need a Train.” It’s darkly brilliant.

My Favorite Albums of 2011

For me, it was a good year for music. I listened to more and liked more than I have in several years.

Here are the albums I listened to and enjoyed the most.

Garland Jeffreys – “The King of In Between”

Jeffreys’ first album in 13 years features his strongest material since 1991’s “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” one of the signature discs of that decade. Jeffreys typically moves easily through rock and roll, reggae, and folk blues as the melodic foundation for his mix of personal history and social commentary.

J.D. Souther – “Natural History”

Souther takes his considerable back catalog, notably songs like “New Kid in Town,” “Sad Cafe,” and “Best of My Love” that were hits for The Eagles, and strips them down to their basics. showcasing his silky voice.

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers — “Starlight Hotel.”

What a revelation. Muth comes out of Seattle, but does country the old fashioned way, backed by pedal steel and telecaster. The songs are smart, funny, and sad. She’s an authentic new voice not to miss.

Tara Nevins – “Wood and Stone”

Nevins’s second solo effort is a stellar collection that moves easily from fiddle music to contemporary folk rock to Cajun. It’s an album that sounds familiar, yet new, not an easy feat. Nevins is joined by a few guests, notably Levon Helm, who pounds the skin on three cuts, Jim Lauderdale, who lends harmonies on the back porch sound of “Snowbird,” and Allison Moorer. Larry Campbell, the multi-instrumentalist genius who has played extensively with Bob Dylan in recent years, produces and lends his string talents all over the place.

The Low Anthem — “Smart Flesh”

The Low Anthem’s (http://www.thelowanthem.com) first major label effort is a haunting masterpiece, a new generation’s “Music From the Big Pink.” Like the mystical alchemy The Band conjured in a West Saugerties, New York, house, the four members of the Low Anthem have created a new sound, turning our expectations of Americana (or Alt Americana, if you will) on its head, partly by using the sonics of the place.

Greg Trooper – “Upside-Down World”

When the Hammond B-3 kicks in to start this album, trailed by Trooper’s resonant, soulful, alt-country vibrato, it’s clear one of America’s best (and underappreciated) songwriters is taking us along for another enchanting ride through a life of bruised relationships, guarded hopes, and interesting characters.

Lori McKenna – “Lorraine”


The image of Lori  McKenna is that of a blue collar housewife sitting at her kitchen table penning songs that somehow find their way onto the albums of country superstars (Faith Hill, Keith Urban). But that doesn’t do justice to the depth, subtlety and honesty of her songs, stripped down to their essence on her largely acoustic solo albums (although this one has strings in just the right places and background vocals from Kim Carnes).  She is the girl who married her high school sweetheart and quickly had babies — five in all. McKenna does the difficult — writing about life, real life, with an unerring eye. It’s all here, the shadowing doubts, the gentle joys, the people we recognize from our lives. McKenna is a staple of the Boston folk scene, but her voice is more heartland than right coast, more open spaces than urban races.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – “Here We Rest.”

Isbell transports us to his native Alabama with all the ups and downs through his stories. This one puts him into the same discussion as Steve Earle and other masterful storytellers.

Lucinda Williams – “Blessed”


For me, this was a return to form for Williams, a record with aching ballads, hard rockers and without the self consciousness of the last few.

Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter – “Marble Son.”


Feedback-drenched psychedelia opens this disc, a harder shot of rock than her last one. Think of it as Americana meets Zeppelin in places. The lyrics are smart and mystical. And then there’s her voice, as alluring, as distinctive as any in music today.

The Civil Wars – “Barton Hollow”


Perhaps the surprise of the year, a quiet, intense, and beautiful melding of voices and talents. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

Wilco – “The Whole Love.”


A return to their ecclectic roots, with the expected twists and turns.

Danny Schmidt — “Man of Many Moons”

This is a smart working-man’s album, poetic and affecting, framed by Schmidt’s singing.

The Smithereens – “2011”


These guys, makers of such great rock and roll in the 1990s, hook up again with producer Don Dixon and lightning strikes twice. It’s all you’d expect from a Smithereens album.

New Music: Greg Trooper, Lori McKenna, and Good Old War

Greg Trooper “Upside-Down Town” (52 Shakes Records).

When the Hammond B-3 kicks in to start this album, trailed by Trooper’s resonant, soulful, alt-country vibrato, it’s clear one of America’s best (and underappreciated) songwriters is taking us along for another enchanting ride through a life of bruised relationships, guarded hopes, and interesting characters.

Trooper, who has worked with Garry Tallent and the legendary Dan Penn as his producers in the past, settles in with Stewart Lerman (Marshall Crenshaw) this time and they’ve assembled the usual fine cast of supporting players, notably Kenneth Blevins (John Hiatt), Dave Jacques (John Prine) and Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton).

As always, the playing is rootsy, tasteful and filled with soulful grooves. But it’s the writing, the journey Trooper is on lately the occupies center stage. He’s well into mid-life. He’s been through Nashville’s wringer and he’s back in Brooklyn now (he started as part of the East Village folkie movement in the 1980’s with Shawn Colvin and others). The songs reflect that journey with both resignation and resolve. “Nobody in the Whole Wide World” challenges a lover (past or present?) to do better. “Dreams Like This,” continues a Trooper theme, a love song, though not a simple one. “Second Wind” is beautiful and affecting, a resolute ballad. “They Call Me Hank” recalls Prine’s “Hello In There” with its unapologetic sadness. “Might Be a Train” evokes Jimmy Rodgers and, what else, country train songs. These songs are so good, you’ll swear you’ve heard them before; the rootsy grooves and Trooper’s warm voice are spellbinding.  If you’re a fan of Dan Penn, John Prine, Rodney Crowell and their peers, you owe it to check out Trooper.

Lori McKenna “Lorraine” (Signature Sounds).

The image of Lori  McKenna is that of a blue collar housewife sitting at her kitchen table penning songs that somehow find their way onto the albums of country superstars (Faith Hill, Keith Urban). But that doesn’t do justice to the depth, subtlety and honesty of her songs, stripped down to their essence on her largely acoustic solo albums (although this one has strings in just the right places and background vocals from Kim Carnes). Yes, McKenna had her shot at the big time with 2007’s major label disc, “Unglamorous,” a stint opening for Hill, and an appearance on “Oprah.” But she seemed uncomfortable glammed up and over produced (or maybe it was just uncomfortable listening and watching that incarnation).

She is the girl who married her high school sweetheart and quickly had babies — five in all. But she’s not a stereotype out of “Mad Me” or “Ms.” McKenna does the difficult — writing about life, real life, with an unerring eye. It’s all here, the shadowing doubts, the gentle joys, the people we recognize from our lives. McKenna is a staple of the Boston folk scene, but her voice is more heartland than right coast, more open spaces than urban races.

Typical is the opener, “The Luxury of Knowing:” Damn it must be easy/Being in love with someone so blind/Cuz – I’ll tell you right now the only thing I really know/ Is that you might change your mind/Any day you could change your mind/You know when I’m coming home/You know when I’m coming to bed.”

There’s not enough space here to list the highlights, which include “Lorraine,” about the bonds between mothers and daughters, “Buy This Town,” an homage to her Stoughton, Massachusetts, home, and “Rocket Science,” a piece of unbearable heartache leavened by McKenna’s typical resolute sweetness. She sings: Love is rocket science/What comes up it must come down/In burning pieces on the ground/We watch it fall/Maybe love is rocket science after all/Not if, but when, you crash and burn/Somehow you survive/But you’ve touched the hem of heaven/For a time you felt alive.”

McKenna is the  Raymond Carver and the Bruce Springsteen of home life, exposing the weak joints, laying out the hard choices and the undying subterranean optimism, and then portraying them in all their contradictions and complications.

Good Old War “Good Old War” (Sargent House).

Oh, the harmonies. This alt folk trio from Pennsylvania is immediately winsome and endearing thanks to their harmonies, which evoke later Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. This is feel-good music with bouncing, catchy melodies and short folk pop songs. But it’s the strength of their songwriting, sometimes wise, sometimes wise-cracking, that keeps you coming back.

The lyrics often are open-ended, asking questions, but leaving the answers up to the listener. They’re about love, of course, but also other big picture concerns you might not expect. On the jaunty “That’s Some Dream,” a perfect piece of folk pop, they note “I’m gonna live, I’m alright. I’m gonna die. It’s alright. I’m ok.”

The group’s name takes portions of each of its members, Keith Goodwin (guitars, keys, vocals), Tim Arnold (drums, accordion, vocals), and Dan Schwartz (guitars, vocals), and the album has three instrumental interludes, “Good,” “Old,” and “War.” At times, they evoke Fleet Foxes, but there’s a different, warmer vibe here. Guster has tapped them to open their current tour. What’s not a surprise is how many of the early reviewers have been surprised by the strength of the opening act.

Greg Trooper’s “The Williamsburg Affair”

Greg Trooper says “The Williamsburg Affair” is the missing link in his recording history. Befitting any missing link, it’s a piece of archaeology, a release of songs recorded in 1995 with his touring band featuring Brooklyn rocker Eric Ambel at the knobs. “I was touring with a band exclusively in those days and writing for that kind of energy,” Trooper says. “I think it informed my future writing as well. I believe my writing has improved since then and that was a stepping stone towards what I do now.”

What he does now is write and release some of the best roots work around, notably his last two studio discs, the infectious “Floating” and the soulful “Make It Through This World.”

But to get here, he went through Williamsburg on his way to Nashville and (metaphorically, at least) Memphis before returning to New York recently. “The Williamsburg Affair” is a snapshot of Trooper’s progress.  There’s none of the assured humor of Trooper’s live show and later work, but there’s an appealing immediacy throughout. And it’s Trooper so there isn’t a dud in the set, including the lone cover of Neil Young’s “Wrecking Ball.”

There are the beginnings of his recently soulful forays on “Stronger All the Time” and “These Sunday Nights,” which foreshadows later tunes like “I Love It When She Lies.” Abel Domingues rips through “Paradise,” one of many highlights with searing slide work. The twang that would slip into Trooper’s work more obviously after he moved to Nashville in 1996 shows up on “These Sunday Nights” thanks to Larry Campbell’s pedal steel work.

Not surprisingly given the band and Ambel’s fondness for straight-ahead garage rock,  the sound is more muscular, less adorned, than Trooper’s recent work. Kenneth Blevins, the drummer on several Trooper albums when he’s not hanging with John Hiatt, is ferocious from the opener, “Angel.” Ambel and Dan Zanes provide the guitar muscle on “When You’re Not Here.” “Let’s Pretend” is another in a long line of propulsively rocking love songs.
As usual, there are quieter moments as well. “Quite Like You” can take its place beside “The Lasting Kind.” “21st Century Boy,” a reflective ode to his son, hints at Trooper’s genius for accompaniment featuring Joe Flood’s sighing fiddle work (“21st Century Boy” and “Paradise” make appearances with different arrangements on “Popular Demons”).
“Once I got to Nashville a whole new project emerged with a new label so I figured I’d return to the Ambel produced record shortly afterwards but of course things didn’t go that way,” Trooper says.


The way things went is Trooper became everyone’s favorite songwriter who couldn’t get a break. Yes, Buddy Miller and then Garry Tallent produced albums. Steve Earle took “Little Sister” for “Copperhead Road.” Emmylou came in to sing harmonies. But Trooper has endured one hard luck label after another. He signs, records an album, and the label folds or fails to back him. “Floating” on Sugar Hill Records ended that string and landed Trooper on plenty of “best of” lists in 2005. Then Dan Penn produced the followup, the reflective “Make It Through This World.”


“The road we ride is a little rough, the times we live in are a little tough…these are my shoes, will you walk in them? These are my blues, try avoiding them,” he sings on “21st Century Boy.” Trooper’s road has taken him North, where he began life as Jersey boy. He’s back on the road, telling those stories about being so French, suffering through another shitty Saturday night, and being mistaken for Joe Pantoliano, enduring obscurity.
If songwriters were paid for good reviews and the admiration of peers, Trooper would be on Easy Street. That he’s not doesn’t diminish the power and craft of another stellar set.

For a sample, click here:
“Stronger All The Time.”

The November Play List


“Lucky Break” by Hank Dogs from “Bareback”
“The Dozens,” “Caroline Herring, “Golden Apples of the Sun.”
“These Sunday Nights, “Greg Trooper, “The Williamsburg Affair.”
“The Story I Heard,” Blind Pilot, “3 Rounds & A Sound”
The Guitar,” “Guy Clark, “Somedays the Song Writes You.”
“Decimate,” David Ford, “Songs For the Road.”
“Homecoming (Walter’s Song),” Vienna Teng, “Warm Strangers.”
“It Makes Me Wonder,” Blue Rodeo, “Small Miracles.”
“The Man Behind the Drums,” Robert Earl Keen, “The Rose Hotel.”
“You Can Be the Rain,” Randall Bramblett, “Thin Places.”
“True Colors,” Caroline Herring, “Golden Apples of the Sun.”
“Mississippi River Runnin’ Backwards, Tom Russell, “Blood and Candle Smoke.”
“Kingdom of Days,” Bruce Springsteen, “Working on a Dream.”
“Can’t Hardly Wait,” Justin Townes Earle, “Midnight at the Movies.”
“Stuck in the Middle,” Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Speed of Life.”
“Tales of the Islander,” Caroline Herring, “Golden Apples of the Sun.”
“Beautiful Road,” Kate Taylor, “Beautiful Road.”
“Dance Me To The End of Love (Live),” Leonard Cohen, “Essential.”
“Widescreen World,” Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey, “Here And Now.”
“I Don’t Want A Lover,” Texas, “Southside.”
“French Navy,” Camera Obscura, “My Maudlin Career.”
“Heavy Weather Traffic,” Katydids, “Katydids.”
“Turn On A Dream,” Box Tops, “Ultimate Box Tops.”
“O My Soul,” Big Star, “Big Star – #1 Record.”
“All I Want (Is Everything,” Boo Hewerdine and Darden Smith, “Evidence.”
“The Wolves (Act 1 & 2),” Bon Iver, “For Emma, Forever Ago.”
“The Kid From Spavinaw,” Tom Russell, “Modern Art.”
“Something That I Do,” Robert Earl Keen, “The Rose Hotel.”
“Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays,” The Baseball Project, “Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails.”
“December Skies,” Greg Trooper, “Floating.”
“Going Up The Country,” Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Speed of Life.”
“Standing Still,” Jeff Black, “Mining.”

Caroline Herring’s “Tales of the Islander.”