1. The Avett Brothers
: I and Love and You
Longtime fans held their breath when Rick Rubin took the Avett Brothers under his wing. What would the co-head of Columbia Records — a man known for his business savvy, rap-rock production, and resurrection of Johnny Cash — do with a small-time folk trio from North Carolina? The answer is "relatively nothing," as the band's major-label debut continues charting the same musical course as Emotionalism and Mignonette. The Avett Brothers have steadily expanded their reach since 2000, adding elements of pop and hillbilly rock to a country/bluegrass foundation, and they carry on that tradition with I and Love and You, whose songs introduce a newfound emphasis on piano and nuanced arrangements. Working with a major label's budget allows the group to add small flourishes — a cello line here, a keyboard crescendo there — but the resulting music is rarely grand, focusing on textures rather than sheer volume. Scott and Seth Avett share vocals throughout the album, delivering their lyrics in a speak-sing cadence that sounds both tuneful and conversational. Given the opportunities presented here — the ability to flank their melodies with string sections, organ swells, and harmonium — the two devote more focus to slower songs, eschewing the barnburning bouncefests of their previous albums for material that better displays such sonic details. The result is an intimate, poignant album, laced with rich production that enhances, not clouds, the songwriting itself.
2. Derek Trucks Band
: Already Free
For 12 years, the Derek Trucks Band have been issuing records (live and studio) that are long on fire, improvisation, and inspiration. Trucks' own skillful leadership has seamlessly melded rock, blues, jazz, and Eastern Indian modal music in a brew that is uniquely his own. Perhaps this is what makes Already Free both an anomaly and a natural extension of the DTB; if anything, it resembles Delaney & Bonnie's records of the late '60s and early '70s — Home, To Bonnie from Delaney — or the self-titled debuts of Bobby Whitlock and Eric Clapton. There is a homegrown organic looseness to these proceedings that sets the album apart from all of Trucks' previous offerings. Perhaps that's because it was recorded at home — literally in a home studio with the DTB and/or their guests playing live from the floor much of the time. Trucks is still accompanied by his longtime mates: Kofi Burbridge, Todd Smallie, Yonrico Scott, Count Mbutu, and vocalist Mike Mattison. But there are some close friends and family as guests, including — but not limited to — Trucks' wife Susan Tedeschi, Doyle Bramhall II, and a horn section and various rhythm players.
The material is stellar. The covers include an opening reading of Bob Dylan's "Down in the Flood," with the horn section getting down deep into the grittier and bluesier aspects of the tune. It features some brilliant work by Burbridge on the clavinet, Wurlitzer piano, and B-3; Trucks handles monster acoustic and electric slide work and Mattison's vocal is stellar. It all comes off soulfully, authentically, and utterly real. Next is a deeply funky cover of the late Paul Pena's "Something to Make You Happy." Another standout is a gospel-blues reading of the Spooner Oldham-Dan Penn classic "Sweet Inspiration," with an intro that sounds like it came straight from Memphis. Mattison and Tedeschi's vocals don't sound like Delaney & Bonnie's, but they feel like them. The hand percussion laid on top of the rhythm section with Trucks' melodic slide break becomes a third voice as it digs directly into the B-3.
That all said, the originals are solid to boot. Check out the funky Allen Toussaint-esque rhythm backdrop on "Maybe This Time," with a brilliant vocal performance by Bramhall; the savage, gritty, and greasy slide blues of "Don't Miss Me," with its twin guitar interplay; and the raucous house-rocking groove of "Get What You Deserve." Tedeschi takes a lead vocal turn on the deeply moving ballad "Back Where I Started," near the album's end. It was co-written by Trucks with Warren Haynes; only her husband backs her on acoustic guitar and dobro, with a rhythm section. The droning Indian instrument ushers in "I Know," an old R&B shouter associated with Big Maybelle. But Trucks' electric slide, the B-3, the horns, and Mattison's gravelly soul vocal add to its dimension quickly and convincingly. In sum, this is another side of the DTB, but one that feels like a natural extension of the group's live persona. Its careful attention to feel creates a vibe that is altogether missing from the vast majority of recordings made in the last 30 years, yet it sounds timeless — not retro — because of the expert, tasteful nature of the playing and recording. Already Free is not only an excellent entry in the Trucks catalog; it's a stone killer that should be filed with the aforementioned titles, the first two Black Crowes records, the Faces' A Nod Is as Good as a Wink...to a Blind Horse, and Rod Stewart's Mercury material.
3. Drivin' N' Cryin'
: The Great American Bubble Factory
Prior to the release of 2009's The Great American Bubble Factory, the last time Drivin' n' Cryin' had been heard from on record was a 1999 live album devoted to the band's greatest not-quite-hits. After more than ten years out of the ballpark and with lead singer and songwriter Kevn Kinney devoting most of his time to his solo career, one could be forgiven for imagining Drivin' n' Cryin' were for all practical purposes over and done. But as it happens, The Great American Bubble Factory not only finds the band sounding surprisingly feisty, but filled with a sense of purpose, with most of the songs dealing with the economic and emotional malaise that took hold in America during the last year of the George W. Bush administration. While Kinney and his longtime foil Tim Nielsen allow their quieter side to come forward on songs like "Don't You Know That I Know That You Know?" and "Midwestern Blues," for the most part The Great American Bubble Factory rocks hard, moving with a combination of swagger and populist anger as working folks struggle to stay afloat in a land where jobs are short, credit card debt threatens to swallow everything in sight, and nearly everything that used to be made in America has "Made in China" branded on it. Kinney isn't naïve enough to imagine he knows all the answers to what's ailing America's heart, soul, and wallet, but he knows how to make the issues seem as real as the foreclosed house down the block, and Kinney and Mac Carter whip up a big wall of guitars that gives the songs the grand scale that suits them. Kinney's voice is starting to show its age on these sessions (he had surgery on his vocal cords in 2007 to remove nodes that were affecting his singing), and the cover of the Dictators' "I Stand Tall" suggests that Kinney doesn't quite get the joke, but for a band that was formed in 1985 and has been off the radar for over a decade, Drivin' n' Cryin' sound admirably vital and committed on The Great American Bubble Factory, and this album suggests they might have a great third act in them yet.
4. Son Volt
: American Central Dust
Jay Farrar resurrected Son Volt in 2005 after his solo career seemingly ran out of gas, and the two albums that followed — Okemah and the Melody of Riot and The Search — were the best and most compelling music he'd made since Son Volt's masterful debut Trace in 1995. However, the new albums didn't connect with an especially large audience, and the band was dropped by Sony/BMG; 2009's American Central Dust, the third set from Son Volt 2.0, has been released by the venerable independent roots music label Rounder Records, and while there's little telling if it was dictated by finance or esthetics, the album sounds austere in a way its immediate predecessors did not. Okemah and The Search found Farrar and his new bandmates edging into new musical territory while embracing a bigger studio sound; by comparison, American Central Dust feels more organic and intimate, recalling the simplicity of Trace without delivering the bracing rock & roll of songs like "Drown" or "Route." However, if American Central Dust takes a few steps back in terms of energy and impact, Farrar still sounds thoroughly engaged as both a songwriter and performer, and his band — Chris Masterson on guitars, Mark Spencer on keyboards and steel guitars, Andrew DuPlantis on bass, and Dave Bryson on drums — is tight and sympathetic, finding just the right angle to approach this material. And from the fiery love of "Dynamite," the environmental and economic commentary of "When the Wheels Don't Move," and "Down to the Wire," the tribute to the joys of a good honky tonk in "Jukebox of Steel," and the glimpse into Keith Richards' psyche of "Cocaine and Ashes," Farrar has rarely spoken his mind so clearly in his songs as he does here, and if he still reaches for a spectral feel, his meanings are more clearly felt than ever. American Central Dust doesn't have the feel of a step into new territory the way Son Volt's past two albums did, but it consolidates old strengths and confirms Jay Farrar is still an artist worth caring about 20 years after Uncle Tupelo cut their first album.
5. Levon Helm
: Electric Dirt
In a musical career that has spanned six decades, Levon Helm has made more than a few excellent albums working with other folks — most notably as drummer and vocalist with the Band, as well as backing Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, John Martyn, Rufus Wainwright, and literally dozens of others. But as a solo artist, Helm's record has been considerably spottier, with well-intended disappointments outnumbering genuine successes, so it's good to report that at the age of 69, Helm has found his second wind as a recording artist, cutting two of his most satisfying solo sets in a row. Following 2007's excellent Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt is every bit as impressive and finds him sounding even stronger than he did on that comeback set. Dirt Farmer was Helm's first album after a bout with throat cancer nearly silenced him, and his vocals sounded firmly committed but just a bit strained; two years on, Helm's voice is nearly as supple as it was during his days with the Band, and even when it shows signs of wear and tear, his sense of phrasing and his ability to bring the characters in these songs to life are as good as they've ever been. While Dirt Farmer leaned toward acoustic music in the Appalachian tradition, Electric Dirt aims for a broader and more eclectic sound; "Golden Bird" sounds as if it could have been gleaned from the Harry Smith anthology, but the opening cover of the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed" swings with a solid New Orleans groove like an outtake from the Rock of Ages concerts, a pair of Muddy Waters numbers are subtle but passionate acoustic blues, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" is joyous gospel-infused R&B, and "White Dove" is fervent and heartfelt traditional country. Larry Campbell, who co-produced Dirt Farmer, returned for these sessions, as did most of the same band, bringing a similarly organic touch to the music, and the bigger sound of this album seems to suit everyone involved, with Helm's drumming sounding especially lively and well-grounded. And though Helm only wrote two songs for this album, they're two good ones, especially "Growin' Trade," a tale of an aging farmer who has taken to raising marijuana, and what could easily have been played as a joke is a moving account of one man's conscience as it wrestles with his heritage and love of the land. Not unlike his old buddy Bob Dylan from Time Out of Mind onward, Levon Helm seems to have rediscovered his knack for making great records in what some might have imagined would be the latter days of his career; Electric Dirt sounds fresh, emphatic, and as effective as anything Levon has cut since the mid-'70s, and one can only hope he has a few more discs in him just this good.
6. Neko Case
: Middle Cyclone
Neko Case looks formidable on the cover of Middle Cyclone, brandishing a sword in one hand while crouching low on a muscle car's hood. It's mostly camp, of course — the sort of superwoman image Quentin Tarantino might have used for Death Proof's ad campaign — but it also draws contrast with the songwriter's previous albums, two of which featured moody shots of Case sprawled on the floor, ostensibly knocked out. Middle Cyclone isn't the polar opposite of Blacklisted's downcast Americana; there are still moments of heartbreak on this release, and Case channels the sad cowgirl blues with all the rustic nuance of Patsy Cline. Multiple years in the New Pornographers' employ have considerably brightened her outlook, however, and Middle Cyclone balances its melancholia with some of the most pop-oriented choruses of Case's career. "I'm a man-man-maneater," she asserts during "People Got a Lotta Nerve," a snappy nugget of harmonies and jangled guitar that helps strengthen her Mercury Cougar-riding cover pose. The mammal metaphors continue with "I'm an Animal," where a coed choir supports the melody with a wordless, hooky refrain. Such songs are still rife with earth tones, perhaps preferring the Southern comfort of roots music to the sparkle of Carl Newman's power pop, but their venture into brighter territory is both assured and tuneful.
Of course, Neko Case already explored the animal world with 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and Middle Cyclone devotes more time to weather, nature, and the stormy atmospherics of her backup band. There are few voices as hauntingly beautiful as Case's alto, a siren call fashioned from country's might and pop's melody, and she trains those tones over a number of semi-ballads, from the cinematic "Prison Girls" (a country-noir love letter to someone with "long shadows and gunpowder eyes") to the sparse title track. She does a surprise duet with chirping birds during "Polar Nettles" — a result of the pastoral recording sessions, which took place in a barn — before offering up a cover of Sparks' "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth," which very well may be the album's mission statement. There's still room to tackle love from the perspective of different characters — a man in "Vengeance Is Sleeping," a disbeliever in "The Next Time You Say Forever," a smitten wind vortex in "This Tornado Loves You" — but nature remains at the forefront of Middle Cyclone, whose 14 songs conclude with a half-hour field recording of chirping crickets and frogs. Moody, cinematic, and engaging throughout, Cyclone is another tour de force from Neko Case, if not as immediately arresting as Fox Confessor.
: 1372 Overton Park
1372 Overton Park might be Lucero's major-label debut, but the Memphis-based band retains all of their rough-and-tumble indie charms. Gruff-voiced frontman Ben Nichols still sings about people with dead-end lives: the type of characters whose "heroes are the losing kind." But Nichols definitely finds ways to make these troubled souls compelling. The disc starts off with a powerful quartet of hard-rockin' tunes about hard-livin' folks. The album opener "Smoke" plays like a darker version of "Born to Run." Instead of kids holding onto some hope that they can escape to something better, the couple in "Smoke" are two pretty hopeless people "running out of time" and looking to "just get out alive." The Replacements-ish "What Are You Willing to Lose?" talks about trying to persevere when you're "going down in flames." It also introduces Nichols' backhanded sense of romance when the protagonist tries to win over a girl with an "I'd try to make you hate me just to try and make you mine" approach. "Sounds of the City" offers a slightly more upbeat attitude to romance. The album's most rousing track finds Nichols sweet-talking a girl ("all these streets lead me always back to you.") although he really just needs "something to believe (to) take away the pain." He slides back toward a more nihilistic point of view in "Can't Feel a Thing," which contains the great anti-romantic line: "She asked me if I loved her and I showed her my tattoo."
As if it hasn't been evident on earlier efforts, this disc demonstrates how Lucero, along with bands like the Hold Steady and Marah, blend together Replacements raucousness and Springsteen streetwise storytelling, and create something both familiar yet also unique. Throughout the album, Nichols spins colorful tales of lost youths ("The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo") and downtown desperadoes ("Johnny Davis") that are vividly detailed. He is also very capable at dialing down the mischievous misadventures and expressing some truly honest emotions. The album's second half is highlighted by these quieter numbers. The bittersweet love song "Goodbye Again" ranks up there with the work of Warren Zevon, as Nichols essays a tumultuous relationship where the man isn't strong enough to cut ties with a girl whom he knows isn't good for him. "Darken My Door" and "Hey Darlin' Do You Gamble" are two twangy tunes that again pick up Nichols' less-than-sunny view of love and relationships. In both "love" songs, the protagonist pleads for a girl to "take a chance on" him, and that love is more of a gamble than a sure thing. While the disc begins with a blast of "Smoke," it concludes more contemplatively with "Mom," a moving ode to a mom that's both an apologia and a thank you. Nichols' ability to bring a realness to the characters in his wild, rocking story-songs, as well as his lower-key, more intimate tunes, goes a long way in making these songs connect with the listener.
Although Nichols' lyrics and vocals draw obvious attention, the rest of band contributes mightily to creating this marvelous album. Brian Venable serves up powerful riffs and his Southern rock stylings propel the funky "Sixes and Sevens." Rick Steff fills out the band's sound wonderfully whether he's playing organ or piano, and the rhythm section (drummer Roy Berry and bassist John C. Stubblefield) particularly helps to pull the unruly rockers together. Producer Ted Hutt keeps the band's sound loose but focused, and the use of horns (arranged by Memphis' own Jim Spake) also serves to enhance the songs' energy, while also more deeply rooting the music in the band's hometown sound. Lucero's scruffily sublime major-league debut won't disappoint their faithful fans and should help spread the word about this underrated band. With its captivating set of beer-stained rockers and heartfelt ballads, 1372 Overton Park offers a triumphant example of gritty, sweaty, all-American music.
8. Justin Townes Earle
: Midnight at the Movies
"I am my father's son/ I've never known when to shut up/I ain't foolin' no one/I am my father's son." These words lead off the fourth song on Justin Townes Earle's second album, Midnight at the Movies, and given that many people still know him as the son of iconic singer/songwriter Steve Earle, it's a brave and startling statement. But at the same time, much like his 2008 debut The Good Life, Earle's second album works because he seems determined not be his father's son; the tone and the feel of this music owes precious little to the family line, and Earle sounds appreciably more relaxed, confident, and in control here than he did on his fine debut. Earle's music has one toe tangled in hillbilly tradition on the folk ballad pastiche "They Killed John Henry," the uptempo string band number "Black Eyed Suzy," and the honky tonk swing of "Poor Fool," but he can write about love and life with a clear and unaffected eye that's effortlessly timeless. The title song is a musical snapshot that gets its Nighthawks details just right, "Someday I'll Be Forgiven for This" and "Here We Go Again" are painfully intimate examinations of what can happen between people who care for each other, and while "Poor Fool" and "Walk Out" sound jaunty, they have a weight behind them that's telling. And while Earle doesn't sound like a guy who should be covering the Replacements, his version of "Can't Hardly Wait" finds a sweet heartache at the core that Paul Westerberg was afraid to show in his recording. Midnight at the Movies plays more like a subtle step forward for Justin Townes Earle than a quantum leap, but if the The Good Life suggested he was a talent to watch, this record confirms that he's a new writer to be reckoned with who doesn't need to trade on his family name.
9. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
During his time with the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell always sported the least grizzled voice of the bunch, a surprisingly radio-ready baritone that sounded smoother than Patterson Hood's sandpaper croon and more streamlined than Mike Cooley's twang. That voice carries more weight in Isbell's solo material, where melody and lyrics are emphasized over the swaggering guitar onslaughts of his previous group. Credited to Isbell and his new backing band, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit finds the songwriter reprising the same formula showcased on 2007's Sirens of the Ditch: a mix of Southern rock and rootsy, melancholic country-soul that manages to both elevate and commiserate during its 52 minutes. The result may be fairly similar to Sirens' sound, but 400 Unit marks Isbell's final move away from the Truckers, whose influence permeated Sirens in its production (helmed by Patterson Hood) and host of backing musicians (including Shonna Tucker, DBT's bassist and Isbell's former wife). Instead, Isbell and his four bandmates close the studio doors to outside help, allowing several horn players to pepper "No Choice in the Matter" with brassy soul but chiefly controlling the album themselves. The result is a smart and tasteful record that sees Isbell training his songwriting eye on subjects of wartime romance, memory, and dead-end small towns. There are rock songs here — including "Soldiers Get Strange" and "Good," both of which seem to take more influence from Tom Petty than Lynyrd Skynyrd — but Isbell sounds most comfortable with the midtempo numbers, from the subdued shuffle of "Sunburn" (sample lyric: "I never meant to get bored with you but I never meant to stay") to the instrumental strains of "Coda." "I saw her in Roosevelt Springs, where time doesn't touch anything," he sings in "Cigarettes and Wine," a seven-minute homage to a bartender who takes in downtrodden men and selflessly suffers their despondence. Just barely out of his twenties, he writes with the well-worn weariness of someone twice his age, but Isbell's youth nevertheless breathes energy into a formula that's been revisited by many Southern-born songwriters before.
10. Dave Rawlings Machine
: Friend of a Friend
Ironically, the most telling line on Dave Rawlings' first album as a frontman comes from one of the few tracks he didn't write. On his version of the Bright Eyes song Method Acting, imagine a more direct explanation of A Friend of a Friend's genesis. Singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer Rawlings has worked with Bright Eyes and Old Crow Medicine Show in the past, and members of both bands return the favor by appearing here, but of course he's best-known for being Gillian Welch's musical foil throughout her career. After a decade-and-a-half spent as the shadowy figure in the background, chiming in with those reedy harmonies and concise guitar licks on demand, Rawlings is long overdue for this solo debut. While he has hidden light under a proverbial bushel, he hasn't been concealing any unexpected predilections — the overall approach here is pretty much in line with that of the albums he's made with Welch, which makes sense, considering that he was the producer on half of those. The biggest difference is a slightly more expanded sonic palette, a result of Rawlings bringing his aforementioned buddies on board, in addition to Tom Petty's ivory-tickler Benmont Tench and of course, longtime singing partner Welch. But even though a string section pops up on a couple of tunes, A Friend of a Friend is essentially a low-key, acoustic-based Americana outing that feels more like a 21st century version of the early-‘70s Laurel Canyon cowboy aesthetic than anything else. The old, new, borrowed and blue song selection is balanced to present a quintessential picture of where Rawlings is coming from; he tackles Ryan Adams and Old Crow tunes he co-wrote, covers cohorts Bright Eyes as well as inspirations Neil Young and Jesse Fuller, and rounds things out with a batch of new Rawlings/Welch compositions. And while he doesn't exactly adopt an in-your-face approach to the leading-man role, preferring to become part of the powerful collective he's assembled, Rawlings proves himself fully capable of taking the reins and leading this horse wherever he wants it to go.
BLUES ALBUM OF THE YEARSeasick Steve
: Man From Another Time
COMEBACK ALBUM OF THE YEARDrivin' N' Cryin'
: The Great American Bubble Factory
COVERS ALBUM OF THE YEARRosanne Cash
: The List
INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM OF THE YEARBooker T. Jones
: Potato Hole
HONORABLE MENTIONS:Corb Lund
: Losin' Lately GamblerTom Russell
: Blood And Candle SmokeBen Nichols
: Last Pale Light In the WestSteve Earle
I'd love to read your comments and see your Top Ten lists!