Here are my lists through the year of music from Q1, Q2, Q3 and I haven’t done Q4 yet since I’ve been working on this instead. Everything on those is worth checking out, but these are the ones lingered the longest as we close out the year. You can see my ballot in the No Depression poll (don’t get too hung up on the order, after the first couple its pretty random), and do check out the standings and other ballots. I always turn up some late gems by scouring those lists.
Outside of albums, this was a pretty banner year for live music as I had a three week holiday in the US centred around gigs and festivals. Dave and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones in Sacramento, the first day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco, Randy Newman in Los Angeles including a private performance in the green room, two days on a train (Texas mostly) to Louisiana during which there was no live music but the landscape of a million songs I know by heart, Festivals Acadiens et Creoles and gigs every night for a week in Lafayette (“the new Austin”) and the entire existence of the musical and cultural miracle that is New Orleans. Life’s not so bad, sometimes.
My Favourite Bob Dylan Albums of the Year
There are two entries in the category. Shadows in the Night is a terrific album I listen to a lot and that’s really all I have to say about it – that’s why some folk get their own category, their mere existence is enough to be the best music of the year.
Coming to the 12th Bootleg Series release, The Cutting Edge 1965- 1966 – the first thing to say is that is an offensively awful name. If you are cutting edge, you don’t need to say you are and indeed, you should not. And these sessions were, and therefore why are you instructing me that’s how I should think of them? Just pump the thing out without further comment and bathe the world in its ineffable luminescence. Mic drop that mother.
Here’s my confession, of all the decades Bob Dylan has been releasing professional music, the most lauded, the sixties, is the decade I listen to the least. I listen to Street Legal more than I listen to Blonde on Blonde, the objective relative keenness of their blades be damned. Heck, I listen to live bootlegs of the gospel years more than I listen to anything from the 60s. BS12 has renewed my desire for the 60s. I only have the two disc but will probably have to get the six at some point ….
My Favourite Bruce Springsteen Albums of the Year
The Ties That Bind : The River Collection
In fact, I haven’t heard it yet as it’s officially out today and is still in the mail but let’s not bother with the unbecoming charade of pretending that’s a barrier to knowing it’s brilliant, shall we?
My Favourite Non-Bob Dylan Albums of the Year
Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin – Lost Time
Very fortunate to have seen these guys plus the wonderful Guilty Ones twice this year, once in Sydney touring the Common Ground album and once in October in Sacramento, California with the focus on the new album. The title Lost Time is obviously a reference to the “making up for” the brothers are doing after decades of musical separation but also, to me at least, to the ‘lost time’ of the blues shouters, jump blues, gospel blues and other blues traditions which have fallen by the wayside in the popular imagination. You’ve got the delta blues and the Chicago blues and then what their acolytes of the 60s and 70s made, and a lot of the popular blues styles of the 30s, 40s and 50s don’t fit into that, too urban perhaps or too polished and too popular in their day to have been selected for the canon. (Memo to self: Read Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta again.) This is blues done in sharp three minute increments before all the tedious 12 minute guitar hero shredding came along and ruined the genre. (joking!!!) (mostly)
In a couple of interviews I have read, they’ve sort of dropped broad hints that after two albums of homage to the blues greats and their personal mentors, a third collaboration could be on Dave Alvin originals – a prospect to make a certain sort of person (ps I mean me) hyperventilate with anticipation between now and street date. Not quite a hell has frozen over moment in the Alvin bros winding path, but it’s a bit chilly, bring a jacket. For those not as neck deep into Alvinology as I – they were in one of THE great bands together …
(Buyer’s guide: if you want just one Blasters album, get the live reunion show Trouble Bound.) … and then they weren’t on account of irreconcilable differences and then you can find plenty of Dave quotes from the 80s, 90s and 2000s about how they’ll probably continue to occasionally appear live together but sit down and write 12 songs again for his brother to sing? Yeah nah.
It’s not necessary to know the history to dig these duo albums (it is only necessary to have ears and a beating human heart) but it’s definitely a layer for them what does.
Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow is My Turn
That doco about the concert for the Coen Bros Not-Dave-Van-Ronk flick is weirdly dull except for the Rhiannon Giddens parts “Waterboy” and “‘S iomadh rud tha dhìth orm / Ciamar a nì mi ‘n dannsa dìreach” and she extends that energy and presence to her debut solo album. Interpreting doesn’t get its due so much in our world where the singer-songwriter is czar (including myself, see the rest of this list) but Tomorrow is My Turn feels like that kind of album which kicks off a renewed appreciation for the art. Just relying on her amazing voice to deliver amazing lyrics would give us a very fine album, but she is a performer and she performs with feeling and insight, raising the whole project to the next level.
Joe Pug – Windfall
I will always love Joe’s early work but it’s undeniable Windfall represents a growth. Indeed, a leap. He has retained the literary dexterity of the early songs but has wedded it to a new and generously outward looking emotional depth. In my experience as a humble fan, a lot of songwriters start off wordy as a way to (in part, I’m not saying their not great songs also) showily demonstrate what they can do and as a crutch and as they gain confidence and skill they become in a sense more lyrically straight forward, but pack a lot more human truth into those sparser words. The Killers’ Brandon Flowers had Joe open for him live and latched onto “If Still It Can’t Be Found” (live vid of the two doing it together) which represents a breakthrough of its own. The last time he was in Sydney (too long ago) he played The Vanguard. I guess we won’t be seeing him in those spaces next time.
Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks
I will confess I have always sort of admired Josh Ritter more than loved him. I’ll give any of his albums a listen, but I was sufficiently intrigued by this profile by Stacy Chandler in No Depression to seek out the new album earlier than I might. I love this album. Just 12 songs of a clear vision, cleanly realised. It starts off very Nick Cave which is cool if you are Nick Cave and trips the warning klaxons always on standby in my head if you are not. (You are not.) It’s OK, though! He doesn’t linger there and indeed the whole album is rather bouncy, witty and chockas with moreish melody. The front cover is of Josh in overalls dappled with fresh, colourful paint – working on a building, perhaps, to complement the religious theme of the songs? The bright colours are apt, there are weighty topics here and murder ballads but wrapped in a package which is just so gosh damn listenable.
Shemekia Copeland – Outskirts of Love
Quality blues outing as always from Shemekia. Apart from the rich voice, I always love the personality she injects into her songs – another ‘interpreter’ who knows how to sell a song. I’d like to have a night out with Shemekia, I reckon she’d be a laugh.
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats – self-titled
This album starts and never stops, grabbing you by the scruff of the neck with Rateliff’s liquid bronze voice and band (every other band, please get a horn section) equally affecting on the quiet bits as on the loud bits. I was quite stunned when I first heard it and it’s not been off the rotation ever since. They are coming out for Bluesfest woo hoo.
Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams – self-titled
I knew Larry Campbell well musically as long-time multi-instrumentalist for Dylan and also close association with Levon Helm but I confess I had never given a thought to his matrimonial situation nor whether any such spouse could sing and, if so, how. Yes and, very fucking well it turns out. Because of the Bob connection I would’ve bought this album anyway but it wouldn’t have made this here list if it wasn’t as deeply moving as it is, if it didn’t swing as hard as it does and if it wasn’t so perfectly constructed song to song. Having left Bob’s band a decade ago Larry has made guest appearances with millions of people but probably in the most sustained way with Levon. I was actually watching the Netflix doco on Keith Richards the other day and there was Larry grinning away on the pedal steel in the studio. Teresa Williams also had a successful session career in Nashville. Why since they’ve been married for 25 this should be their first album together I cannot say (other than Bob dragged him around the world half the year and he was never home …) but I can’t imagine it will be their last.
Thunderbitch – self-titled
Yessss, the Alabama Shakes had a great album out this year and I expect their next one will be better, they’re just that kind of band. But for pure enjoyment I am laying down and turning up some Thunderbitch. In a Rolling Stone interview with Brittany recently:
Howard recently played a rare show with that group, appearing on a New York club stage astride a motorcycle, costumed in white face paint, dark shades and a black leather jacket. But don’t ask her to acknowledge her alter ego — she’ll talk about Thunderbitch in the third person only. “I’ve heard of them,” she says with a wicked laugh. “I know they’ve got this singer that dresses up like a ghost, and I know they play rock & roll music.”
So I won’t talk about them much either, but I also know they play rock & roll music for I have heard the album.
John Moreland – High on Tulsa Heat
There is/was an instagram account @cheerupjohnmoreland dedicated to elevating the mood of the Oklahoma native based on the tragic nature of his songs and his sombre stagecraft, but it’s last post was five months ago so perhaps some album buzz and tours opening for Jason Isbell and Patty Griffin is enough happy-making for one troubadour. Moreland has a strong and crisp voice which cracks slightly on the emotional notes and his layered lyrics invite close and repeated listening to give up their depth.
Jerry Lawson – Just a Mortal Man
We are in a fertile period for soul or neo-soul or retro-soul (or just plain old good music). Leon Bridges and Nigel Hall to name two with really good albums this year. The Alabama Shakes of course. Following in their sizable wake, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Con Brio, Sister Sparrow and St Paul and the Broken Bones are blowing the roof off with an exciting new era of rock ‘n’ soul. But I’m here to say my favourite soul album of the year is most low-key and by far the oldest performer. I first heard of Jerry Lawson when he was interviewed on Otis Gibbs’ Thank You For Giving a Damn podcast (everyone interested in any of the music on this list should listen to every one of his podcasts) and he came across so beautifully and had such great stories of a life on the edges of fame in showbiz that I had to get the album. I was also intrigued by the fact it was produced and released by Nashville stalwarts Eric Brace and Peter Cooper on their Red Beet label.
Lawson was lead singer of a well known acapella group The Persuasions who opened for and played with a dazzling list of soul, blues and r&b stars (hence the great stories) back when acapella groups did that but at age 71 this is his first solo album.
His voice is a chalky silver smoke rising from the material accumulated of decades of living and the song selection has really made full use of the life and SOUL of that voice.
Tom Russell – Rose of Roscrae See my longish piece here.
Jason Isbell – Something More than Free
You can’t write Blood on the Tracks twice, and so this is not Southeastern. But Desire? Yeah, I’ll go there.
Gretchen Peters – Blackbird
There’s a bunch of famous people on this album but honestly I didn’t know until I’d listened to it about four dozen times (the curse of the digital age – no liner notes) because those famous folks can be there but they are always the least interesting thing about a Gretchen Peters song. She is and has been a metronome tick tocking out quality. Very good, layered production on this one supports the songs well.
The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers – Heavenly Fire
Non-ironic holy rolling with an earnest combi van full of jesus freaks in the Californian desert circa 1974 kind of way about it. It’s just … really catchy.
Chris Stapleton – Traveller
After bubbling along with lotsa praise in the Americana world, he and this album really exploded (and launched a thousand think pieces and #hottakes) with wins in the major categories of the Country Music Awards, beating out such luminaries as … uh, whoever all those other bros who get nominated for CMAs are. Stapleton is sort of an insider-outsider, making the kind of country that has not darkened the door of mainstream country radio for yonks but also having had a major career writing mainstream hits for the stars that do fill up the dead air between the ads. So, Nashville Inc likes him but still, it was astonishing. Country ‘n’ soul which can soar to anthemic heights of the title track but retains a singer-songwriter’s album core. The below song is a Stapleton composition which was on a 2007 Tim McGraw record – that’s not a totally terrible version but not in the same universe as the reclamation.
Pop Staples – Don’t Lose This
Posthumous albums (especially that occur 15 years post) are a dicey proposition for a lot of reasons – meddling the artist wouldn’t have wanted, not enough meddling the artist would have benefited from, a sense of why bother or a whiff of filthy lucre, estate squabbles and ambiguous motives. From where I sit as a humble listener, there is none of that here. It’s produced by Jeff Tweedy with an admirably light hand and just the right amount of Staples daughters. It’s basically perfect as a document, I would say and I’m glad Pops’ unique gospel-blues guitar style is front and centre. Let’s not lose this, OK?
Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart
Dwight is reeling back the years in more ways than one.
For a start, check out the official video for “Liar” which features a narrative cold open – a technique I haven’t seen on a music video since 1990. To be fair, that was probably the last time I watched Rage so it’s true to say I haven’t kept up with trends in music videos. But it seems pretty retro – as still an essential music delivery system, we were all about music videos being art and having a story and whatnot back then.
Also, Dwight’s wearing double denim on the Sunset strip.
Also, Dwight looks younger than Ed Sheeran.
I reckon this is his best album since Population Me, a jangly west coast country rock collection with particular gems in “Dreams of Clay” and a chugging garagey cover of “Man of Constant Sorrow.”