My apologies for adding to the deluge of year-end lists, but here are the country albums I’ve enjoyed most in 2009. In keeping with the guidelines in my Transparent Suspense-Building Ploys for Bloggers handbook, I’ll do numbers 20 through 11 today and have you come back for the top 10 tomorrow, if you don’t die of anticipation first.
20. George Strait – Twang
Not the best Strait album (not even the best recent Strait album), but a special one in his catalog for the twists introduced – he does some writing, sings in Spanish, and sings an old “El Paso” style story song written by his son – and the new life they bring to what is by now a very old and familiar formula. Read my review here.
19. Newfound Road – Same Old Place
He may be fronting a crack bluegrass band, but baritone Tim Shelton can very obviously wrap his pipes around any sort of material you throw at him. His accomplished performances here – which sometimes suggest Monroe and Haggard in equal measure – are a pleasure to behold, elevating an otherwise solid contemporary bluegrass outing into the company of the very best 2009 had to offer.
18. Holly Williams – Here With Me
Sometimes AC, sometimes country, always smart and believable. It’s like a character study of a tough-minded woman navigating complications of love and legacy. Songs like “Mama” and “Three Days in Bed” rank among the best of 2009 in any genre, and make up for occasional weak spots elsewhere.
17. Eric Church – Carolina
If you can get past Church’s tough guy shtick, you’ll discover some real talent. As much as I like pointing out the irony of poseur Church questioning other people’s cred on “Lotta Boot Left to Fill,” there’s little question that the guy can write and deliver a fine country song when he gets out of his own way. This is one of the records I’ve come back to the most over the course of the year, ever since I reviewed it for The 9513 back in March.
16. Jason Eady – When the Money’s All Gone
The last discovery to make it into my Top 20, it leapfrogged some of the more established competition with an addictive, tuneful country-gospel-blues fusion and Eady’s hypnotic manner of storytelling. This one’s still growing on me, so I suspect it might have ranked even higher if I had picked up on it earlier.
15. J.B. Beverley & the Wayward Drifters – Watch America Roll By
Songs about getting the blues from no-good women, hitting the road (or hopping a freight), and successfully outrunning everything but your own damn pride have seldom sounded as good – or as alive – as they do in the capable hands of Virginia-based honky tonk outfit J.B. Beverley and the Wayward Drifters. Who says you can’t have new fun with old subject matter? Read my The 9513 review here.
14. Sara Watkins – Sara Watkins
Like her earlier work with Nickel Creek, Sara Watkins’ solo debut is a smartly hybrid affair, only with more classic country influence and less experimental noodling than you might expect. The musicianship is great and the songs cover an intriguing range, from Tom Waits’ “Pony” to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time,” but the real star is that voice, tough and soft and gritty and ethereal in all the right ways.
13. Devil Makes Three – Do Wrong Right
This old-time acoustic party band is unstoppable when the tempo is up, still pretty darn good when the tempo is down. After a couple studio efforts that lacked the spark of their live shows, this feels like their breakthrough album. It didn’t get the attention it deserved, but I’m still listening. I raved about it in this post.
12. Patty Loveless – Mountain Soul II
A delightful album that never quite manages to overcome its ‘sequel stank’ and come into its own as a crowning moment in Loveless’ storied catalog. A completely worthwhile but ultimately non-essential continuation of her groundbreaking 2001 album, I wanted to rate it higher but couldn’t justify the move. Sorry, Patty.
11. Kris Kristofferson – Closer to the Bone
Like Cash before him, Kristofferson is the voice of age and wisdom, working on his own late career resurgence with a worthy successor to 2006′s This Old Road. He may not sing pretty, but he sings true, imbuing these songs with every ounce of his humanity. If you want to know what beats in the heart of Kristofferson, this is it. He’s writing and singing so intimately as to obliterate the barrier between man and music – closer to the bone, indeed.