For those who didn’t die of suspense, here are the very best albums of 2009.
10. Dailey & Vincent – Brothers from Different Mothers
There’s harmony and then there’s harmony. As the title of their sophomore set suggests, Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent have voices seemingly made to fit together, and the arrival of another great album so soon after their 2008 debut suggests that they’ve only just begun to reveal the full extent of their gifts to us.
9. Miranda Lambert – Revolution
There’s something about Miranda. It was evident on her debut album, and has only become more so with each succeeding release: She’s an artist. Not just a singer, not just a songwriter, certainly not just a star. An artist, hearkening back to the days when that implied a self-driven, self-aware pursuit of artistry, not just an album for sale on iTunes. What’s exciting isn’t that she’s getting better, which she is: it’s that she seems to be getting better for herself, and inviting us along for the ride almost as an afterthought. Revolution is her best set so far, held back only by an overbearing production style that dulls rather than sharpens Lambert’s edge.
8. Guy Clark – Somedays the Song Writes You
To be frank, a Clark album featuring “Hemingway’s Whiskey,” “The Guitar,” “Maybe I Can Paint Over That,” and “Somedays the Song Writes You” would probably end up in my Top 10 even if the rest of the tracks were dramatic readings of Jimmy Wayne lyrics. That’s how much I like those four songs. Thankfully, the rest of the album is pretty sturdy too, even as a number of subdued songs cause it to sag a bit through the middle.
7. John Fogerty – The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again
Don’t call it crossover. John Fogerty has a better intuitive grasp of country music than most of its stars, and his performances of classics like “Fallin’ Fallin’ Fallin'” and “I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me)” radiate love and appreciation for country music that was hinted at (and sometimes made quite explicit) in his impressive body of work with Credence. Unlike his first Blue Ridge Rangers album from 1973, on which he played and sang every part, this one benefits from the live energy provided by a crack backing band.
6. Gene Watson – A Taste of the Truth
Nobody sings a hurting song better than Gene Watson, and Watson hasn’t found a set of hurting songs this good for quite some time. The cover image finds him apparently miscast as Underwear Boy in Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” video, but the songs are the antithesis of Swift’s rosy portrayal, with Watson positively miserable throughout. It’s for the best, as marital discord, self-deception, and heartbreak have seldom sounded this sweet.
5. Alecia Nugent – Hillbilly Goddess
Where bluegrass and acoustic country meet, there’s a good chance you’ll find a little slice of heaven. There’s also a good chance you’ll find Carl Jackson – the producer behind The Life of a Song (Joey + Rory), Highway of Dreams (Bradley Walker), the Louvin Brothers tribute album, and all three of Nugent’s albums to date, including this one. Three albums in, Jackson and Nugent have worked out all the kinks: she’s singing better than ever, the songs are of consistently high quality, the production frames everything perfectly. At its best – a stunning cover of the Buddy and Julie Miller gem “Don’t Tell Me” – it’s darn near unbeatable.
4. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight at the Movies
Such is Justin Townes Earle’s gift that it seems like these songs have been stuck in my head for much longer than a year – in fact, it seems like they’ve been there all along. This guy is scary good, leaving me practically inarticulate in his wake. For the second year in a row. (The Good Life came in 5th in last year’s ranking, and I couldn’t do a very good job of explaining why back then, either.)
3. Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel – Willie and the Wheel
Somewhere along the way, popular music became less, well, musical – less like good bands, more like creative keystrokes. This western swing album from Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel is as long overdue as it is simply, joyously musical. No record released this year better encapsulates sheer musical celebration.
2. Gretchen Peters & Tom Russell – One to the Heart, One to the Head
Peters and Russell, two of the best country/folk singer-songwriters around, channel their energies into the related field of song-choosing, piecing together uniformly excellent songs from disparate sources so seamlessly that the resulting Southwestern theme album drops nary a hint of its scattered origins. It feels entirely whole, entirely new. As singers, the two artists play off of each other brilliantly, with Peters in particular delivering some of her most stirring vocals to date. This one didn’t attract anywhere near the critical or popular attention it deserved.
1. Todd Snider – The Excitement Plan
A controversial pick for top album of the year? Only to those who mistake Snider’s loosey-goosey style for incompetence and underestimate the difficulty of putting together an album as simultaneously snarky, profound, wry, and heartfelt as this. It’s a delicate balance that few (hero Prine among them) have truly mastered. Every time Snider puts out an album, I think he’s at the peak of his powers. Then he outdoes himself again. The Excitement Plan is one of his sharpest, most dynamic sets yet, and one I’ll be listening to for years to come.