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 ( 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.

The Record Road Test

There’s a ritual to road trips, whether for work or play. In the days or week before, I run through longtime favorites as well as the current playlist and decide what albums to bring along. I also usually burn a few mixtapes or grab a classic road mixtape or two, discs with titles like “Goofy Sing-Along 2” (yes, there was a 1, and a 3 and a 4) for a long family trip out West, or “Road Tunes 2003,” a classic that features Velocity Girl, Syd Straw, Josh Ritter, Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Adams, Peter Wolf, Dave Alvin and others.

This will be the first of an occasional road-test report of what worked and what didn’t out there on that ribbon of highway, endless skyway.

My road trip last week was an 800-mile, two-day romp along the Blue Ridge Parkway for an assignment. With all that time in the driver’s seat, I needed a stack of discs, some old, some new, taller than the late-summer corn.

After three hours, I turned on to the parkway just as the new one from The Weepies, “Be My Thrill,” was ending, and popped in Darrell Scott’s “A Crooked Road.” I’ve been a fan of Scott’s since his “Aloha from Nashville,” but I’d just gotten “Crooked Road” and I hadn’t heard it. From the first song, the title cut, I was hooked. Not only is it an excellent disc, moving from sparsely instrumented folk to growling rock, but it’s a great road disc. Scott recorded the two-disc set at home and played all the instruments.

In the first verse, he sings:
I walk a crooked road to get where I am going
To get where I am going I must walk a crooked road
And only when I’m looking back I see the straight and narrow
I see the straight and narrow when I walk a crooked road

The Blue Ridge Parkway, of course, is the ultimate crooked road so it was a perfect opener.

When he sang about hikes on the Blue Ridge on the second cut, the wistful “”The Day Before Thanksgiving,” I was hooked. “A Crooked Road” became my companion for much of my undulating ride a while, stop a while tour of the parkway. The disc is a mid-life meditation on family, love, and being on the road. It’s a mile wide and a mile deep with plenty to ponder even as you tap your toe along with Scott’s fluid melodies and voice, which can range from comforting to ragged and raw (notably on the bluesy “Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.”

Scott’s disc was the highlight, but not the only pleasure of the trip. David Olney’s latest, “Dutchman’s Curve,” opens with “Train Wreck,” another of his brilliant story songs and moves through his usual folk, blues, and rock even dipping into a little doo wop.  He’s at my house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts, later this month.

There were a couple of old favorites that reasserted themselves. Lucinda Williams’s Rough Trade debut, “Lucinda Williams,” remains a favorite. I fell easily into what I think is her best songwriting including “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” “Passionate Kisses,” “Big Red Sun Blues,” and “Changed the Locks.” I hadn’t listened to “Lost in the Lonesome Pines” by Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys in years, but it was a perfect fit for the trip. How can you go wrong with Robert Hunter’s lyrics and Lauderdale and Stanley harmonizing?

A pleasant surprise was Ben Sollee’s 2008 disc, “Learning to Bend,” which I’d gotten just before the trip. Sollee is an Appalachian Andrew Bird, an occasionally polemical wit. “A Few Honest Words” is a worthy meditation on democracy and “Bury Me With My Car,” an amusing commentary on American life. “Prettiest Tree on the Mountain” is a keeper for rural road trips. Sollee is classically trained so the instrumentation includes cello, upright bass, and vibes.

I’d had Elizabeth Cook’s “Welder” for some time and, after a few listens, thought she might be a little too sweet-voiced country for me although her lyrics are anything but saccharine. But a few spins on rides through the valley on the southern part of the parkway won me over to her wit, humor and her occasional foray into rock soundscapes.  It’s a very good record (I love the cover of Hem’s “Not California”).

Jackie Greene’s latest, “Till The Light Comes” was a constant companion on my trip through Arkansas in early August and it returned for an encore. It’s an old fashioned ’70s rock and roll record with great harmonies backed by searing guitar work and tasty Hammond organ.  I’d say it’s headed for my Best of 2010 list.

Finally, The Weepies‘ “Be My Thrill” is as catchy a pop record as you’ll find this year. Great harmonies, fine melodies, and solid songwriting although I’m not convinced it’s the right record for a rural road trip.

The mixtapes for the trip didn’t get as much play as usual, but “House Concert 2011,” featured a wish list of folks I’d like to host including Greene, Kevin Welch, Tift Merritt, Graham Parker, Steve Forbert, and Madison Violet (who are booked for May 2011. The other is a regular road trip rotation disc, “Summer Soul 1,” the thing you pop in when you’re flagging. It opens with Billy Price’s version of Graham Parker’s “Hold Back the Night,” segues into Aretha’s “Respect” and then Sam & Dave’s “Hold On! I’m Comin’ ” and does not stop until 24 tracks later with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters” “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go.”