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.

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:
Metacritc.
http://www.metacritic.com/music/bests/2009.shtml

No Depression
http://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/the-no-depression-communitys

Pop Matters
http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/117680-best-60-albums-of-2009

The Virginian-Pilot
http://hamptonroads.com/2009/11/gift-guide-best-music-give-holiday
(FYI: this list claims Bruce Hornsby, Barbra Streisand, and Norah Jones are jazz artists).

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CD Reviews of Dave Alvin, Wilco, Todd Snider and Others

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.

The impetus for this disc was the death of Alvin’s buddy, Chris Gaffney, of liver cancer last year. Gaffney had been a key part of Alvin’s rock band, The Guilty Men. Rather than continue without him, Alvin asked Cashdollar to assemble an acoustic backing band for a live show and she came up with an all-female group. It’s hardly surprising the ambitious Alvin has taken another twist in the road. He has fashioned a long and varied career, moving from The Blasters to X to The Knitters and to a solo career that includes reworking his own superb songs repeatedly (and to great effect) as well as covering classic folk songs and even his sublime disc covering California songwriters. He’s matured into a fine singer, a sort of rootsy Leonard Cohen, and his writing is consistently compelling. This may be his best yet.dagwpostergaff

ts_excitementcdTodd 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?”

Most of the tunes are about alright guys down on their luck, unable to figure out what went wrong or how to make it right. “Bring ‘Em Home,” fueled by Snider’s harmonica and Jim Keltner’s drumming, is about a guy who enlisted hoping for something better and now just wants to come home. “Unorganized Crime” tells the story of a hit man so incompetent yet so proud that he wants to turn himself in so everybody knows what he did. For baseball fans, Snider gives us “America’s Favorite Pastime,” the story of Dock Ellis’s LSD-laced pitching performance in 1970. For variety, Snider duets with Loretta Lynn on “Don’t Tempt Me,” a bit of barrelhouse country. The lone cover, Robert Earl Keen’s “Corpus Christi Bay,” fits right in. “If I could live my life all over, it wouldn’t matter anyway,” Snider sings

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. He bids us farewell with “Good Fortune,” a simple wish, but by that time, we’ve had the good fortune to settle in with Snider and his characters for 40 minutes of good, bad times.

Wilco – “Wilco (The Album)” (Nonesuch). On its seventh album, the sometimes gratingly adventurous Wilco dares to color outside expectations and release a superb 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.

Tweedy hasn’t stopped taking a hard look around. “Wake up, we’re here,” he sings on “Country Disappeared,” “It’s so much worse than we feared.”And there are enough musical quirks to fend off fans who think he’s “sold out,”notably on “Bull Black Nova,” which opens with plinking piano and evolves into a swirl of angry guitars, mirroring the lyrics.

“Do you dabble in depression? Is someone twisting a knife in your back?…Wilco will love you baby,” Tweedy sings with a wink on the opening title tune. Tweedy has been through tough times in recent years, kicking another addiction, and it’s a signal that both he and the group, now going on five years in this incarnation, are back on solid ground, ready to lend a shoulder. That assurance — and the strongest batch of songs in years — make this an equal to Wilco’s best.

Elvis Costello — “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane” (Hear Music). With Jim Lauderdale supplying harmonies (and, presumably, corny jokes), Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and T Bone Burnett producing this disc offered loads of promise. On the other hand, it contains four tunes from Costello’s unfinished Hans Christian Andersen opera, remakes of two earlier releases, and a cover of a tune made famous by Bing Crosby. Recorded in Nashville in just a few days, the result is a pleasant but nonessential Costello offering that’s a bit of a mess conceptually shifting gears with neck-wrenching ferocity from tunes inspired by fairy tales to the dark lore of the South. It also finds Costello in full crooning mode, which works better as a changeup than a regular diet.

The best cuts follow a southern theme, among them “Down Among the Wines and Spirits,” originally written for Loretta Lynn, “The Crooked Line,” a duet with Emmylou Harris (no one records in Nashville without inviting her), and the leering romp from Carolina to Massachusetts, “Sulphur to Sugarcane,” the album’s centerpiece written with Burnett. Costello seems to produce a disc per year. Maybe it’s time to slow down and do a little more editing before releasing everything he records.

sm_coverPeter 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.

There are a couple of throw-aways, maybe one song too many about songs, but after all the required dB’s mix tape track was “Amplifier.”  “Widescreen World” has the urgency of a rockin’ beat of a dB’s cut as well as that skewed road trip view. “Early in the Morning,” featuring a gentle Branford Marsalis sax solo, chronicles the sleeping cycle changes as you age. “My Friend the Sun” is a perfect cover choice, an updated version of Family song about new beginnings weathering tough times. “Broken Record” slows things down with a clever idea, likening a romance to a favorite record. There are mature looks at life on “Begin Again,” which would have fit on a Peter Case disc, and “Long Time Coming,” a look back highlighting those close harmonies. “We’ve still got a ways to go,” they sing.

Let’s hope that includes another collaboration in short order. “Here and Now” shows they’re refreshed, their songwriting and singing as catchy as ever.

Jim Morrison has written for The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Wall Street Journal, National Wildlife and numerous other publications. For more about him, go to http://www.jmwriter.com.