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Saturday, December 19, 2015

ROUTES & BRANCHES  
featuring the very best of ameriana, alt.country and roots music
December 12, 2015
Scott Foley

At some point during 2015, I envisioned each of my top five albums to be my very favorite for the year.  Curiously, there was also a time when I felt the same for numbers 21 and 29 ... This is how it works for me.  Some records make an impression over time, while others simply earn their home on my charts upon first listen.  You might have noticed that I announced confidently on my broadcast that my list would be published by Sunday, and that it's not Sunday.  I'd pictured myself working late into the night on capsule reviews for each of my 30 choices, burning the proverbial oil and such.  Instead, I took the less easy way out, for which I tend to opt more often than not, and to reinvent the wheel with each review.  You're welcome (and I'm sorry). 

FAVORITE ALBUMS of 2015

1. John Moreland, High On Tulsa Heat  (Old Omens, 4/20)
Moreland landed at the top of my list for a simple reason.  The songs are masterful from 1 through 10, delivered to stick securely in the ear and the heart for a lifetime.  Moreland writes beautiful, honest and smart lyrics, punches that land hard and true with many many repeated plays.  He's also the most fascinating figure in our kind of music, a self-effacing mountain of a man who seemingly encounters life with his heart wide open while simultaneously coming across as intensely private and impenetrable.  Moreland's songs wouldn't make as much sense delivered by another man, since a good deal of my own response to his music is tangled with watching him perform. More hushed pieces like "Cherokee" or the crushing "You Don't Care For Me Enough To Cry" command rapt attention, while full band projects such as the title cut or "Sad Baptist Rain" are equally hard and vulnerable.  Moreland is a thing of beauty, an enigmatic and exquisite gargoyle creating the kind of music that changes lives. 

2. Chris Stapleton, Traveller  (Mercury, 5/03)
Despite all the CMA and Grammy recognition for the industry veteran's debut solo album, it's an uncommonly satisfying country music collection.  While his beard and long hair have found him branded an outlaw, Stapleton's music is bigger and more genuine than that.  For every drinkin' song like "Whiskey and You" or his deeply soulful cover of George Jones' "Tennessee Whiskey" there is a less formulaic piece like the title cut.  Stapleton's work betrays more blues influence than anything that passes for country today, as well as more bluegrass and rock.  As demonstrated during his celebrated CMA duet with Justin Timberlake (?!), there is a soulful, honeyed growl of a voice behind all that beard.  For a glance at what almost nobody else can do anymore, check out Stapleton's lovely delivery on the heartbreaking "Daddy Doesn't Pray Any More".  As we know, he's been writing hit songs for lesser singers for several years.  Traveller immediately catapults him beyond the level of performers who have commanded the stage for decades. 

3. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free  (Southeastern, 7/16)
In an unexpected episode of reason and good taste, Americans embraced Isbell's 2015 record, sending it to the top of all sorts of charts, including iTunes and Amazon.  This is not because Isbell's songwriting approach has changed since 2013's Southeastern (which earned my nod for album of the year).  On the contrary, Something More Than Free is a companion piece, balancing out the disappointment and disillusionment of its predecessor with just a touch of optimism (but not too much).  There's also a whole lot of looking backwards on these songs, from a sepia toned glimpse of the writer's own mother on "Children Of Children" to a look back at Isbell: the Formative Years on his paean to the early music of Centro-Matic, "To a Band That I Loved".  Despite my fondness for the band, it's my sense that these songs wouldn't have made as much sense played by Drive-by Truckers, whom he left in 2007. 

4. Lucero, All a Man Should Do  (ATO, 9/17)
Based on a recent on air appearance at R&B's home station, the guys from Lucero continue to make bad choices, to drink too much and to make uncommonly good music.  That said, the young romantic punks from earlier records have more or less grown into soul searching romantics.  Lucero's music has evolved as well, from hard spitting alt.country punk to Memphis roots soul replete with horns and barroom piano.  The commonality through it all is the maturing vision of frontman Ben Nichols, who continues to live it all and to sing about it.  While 2012's Women & Work is regarded as the band's musical turning point, I would be quick to include last year's epic double live release which better documents the evolution.  While Nichols' heart was so clearly on his ripped sleeve on those earlier releases, these are much better songs, from the sweet "Baby Don't You Want Me" to the unprecedented Big Star cover which gives All a Man Should Do its title (not to mention playing a key role in the band's inception in the first place).  When it landed on my desk late this summer, I dearly wanted/needed/expected the record to be this good.  

5. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Night Sweats  (Stax, 8/20)
I know, I know.  "SOB" is as overplayed this  year as "Ho Hey" was for the Lumineers a couple years ago.  At its heart, though, distanced from all the hype and mainstream hoo-hah, it's as good a song as you'll find in 2015.  Once the smoke clears and the world discovers the rest of Rateliff's Night Sweats, here's hoping they realize what a quality product they hold in their hands.  Rateliff is such an idiosyncratic singer that even with new, more soulful material he continues to be recognizable as the more acoustic folker from his solo career (to which I hope he'll return periodically).  "Look It Here" is as drivingly insistent as "Shroud".  The strummy "I'd Be Waiting" recalls the understated "Still Trying" from 2013's Falling Faster Than You Can Run.  Overall, however, the character Rateliff plays for Night Sweats is a classic soul belter, and he's more about having fun than reflecting upon his sorry existential plight.  And who can't appreciate that?

6. Yawpers, American Man  (Bloodshot, 10/29)
It's the perfect pairing of artist and label, connecting the edgy and dangerous Colorado trio with Bloodshot Records, the group that is largely responsible for the survival of the alt.country subgenre.  American Man is profane, boozy, reckless and unabashedly flawed in its execution, which makes it all the more satisfying.  And against all odds Nate Cook's songs are smart, even as he seemingly tumbles towards oblivion. Sometimes I wonder what I'm hoping to find / Walking the line between what I want and what's rightfully mine.  Yawpers are as bluesy as they are punk, as much from the garage as they are the roadhouse, as glorious and promising as they are destined for a collision with reality. 

7. American Aquarium, Wolves  (American Aquarium, 2/03)
I'll turn 50 this year, twice as old as the narrator of BJ Barham's "Losing Side Of Twenty-Five".  More and more things remind me of my age these days.  Not so much physical limitations as preferences and gut responses.  There are actually a healthy handful of records on my list this year that address aging and maturity, with Wolves being foremost among them.  There's also a good deal of soul on my picks this year, and that's present in spades here, too.  Songs like "Southern Sadness" or "Ramblin' Ways" offer a prime blend of the personality of Barham's personal vision and the band's just-right accompaniment.  Songs such as "Old North State" come across as such full band gestures that it makes me wonder what Barham's solo album might sound like.  Wolves was one of the first records I heard in 2015, and its South-haunted songs have provided a soundtrack to my year. 

8. Charlie Parr, Stumpjumper  (Red House, 4/27)
Parr is an astoundingly eclectic musical treasure.  He has found equal footing in the worlds of folk, blues, gospel and more experimental acoustic music, and never seems to break a sweat or betray a single disingenuous moment.  Stumpjumper might be as close to an all encompassing career statement as Parr has made to date.  His Red House debut never sells out, while it reaches for a fuller, more accessible way to communicate his muse.  While 2013's I Dreamed I Saw Paul Bunyan might've been more challenging, and his 2010 collaboration with the Black Twig Pickers might've been more cohesive, this new batch of songs beats them all in terms of its sheer reach and prevailing confidence across each of Parr's genres.  

9. Joey Kneiser, The Wildness  (This Is American Music, 11/20)
I've mentioned that the promotional material that accompanied Kneiser's new record a couple weeks ago advised reviewers to reserve a space on their year end lists until they previewed The Wildness.  Rightly so, since it's the Glossary frontman's first solo album to eclipse his bandwork.  Even with the familiar presence of former partner Kelly Kneiser, it's a different beast.  Whereas Glossary traded in more soulful sounds, these new cuts are more aggressive, most alt.country and more personal.  They also seem 100% fleshed out as musical ideas, as opposed to a one-off while the band is on hiatus.  That soul does surface on tracks like "Run Like Hell" or the stirring "To My Younger Self", but the prevailing sound boasts more of a "heartland" spirit as on the title cut or the intimate acoustic "Analog Rain".  

10. Ryan Adams, 1989  (PaxAm, 9/20)
What more should I say in praise of the best Ryan Adams release since '05's Cold Roses?  Have I mentioned that the collaboration shines light on the artistic worth of both Adams and Swift?  Or that 1989 masterfully fits in with the overall progression of Adams' career, that it can simultaneously be a covers tribute and a personal musical statement?  My sense is that Adams' next album of originals will complete the equation, revealing the part Swift's music played in his own evolution as a writer.  He's as divisive and confrontational a figure our kind of music has to offer, but he's never afraid of a spell in the musical sandbox.

11. Spirit Family Reunion, Hands Together  (SFR, 4/13)
I'm a fool for the ramshackle, streetcorner spirit of acts like the Felice Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show or Spirit Family Reunion.  Where more veteran acts might have tightened things up or gone further afield for musical inspiration, SFR remain at the altar of amateurism in all the most positive ways.  Matter of fact, Hands comes across as even looser than their 2012 debut.  You'll enjoy moments of 'grass, blues, folk and gospel, from the driving, reckless 'grass of "Wake Up Rounder" to the sinister country-blues of "Skillet Good and Greasy" or the gospel roots of "How I Long To Take That Ride".  

12. Noah Gundersen, Carry the Ghost  (Dualtone, 8/20)
As previously announced, this was my "grower" of the year, highly heralded when it landed, but only eventually appreciated for its depth.  I'd classify Gundersen's new record along with releases by David Ramirez, Will Johnson or Hip Hatchet, stuff that is quietly, subtly brilliant.  Whether addressing existential doubt or relational tragedy, Gundersen is lyrically laid bare.  Ghost never relies on easy musical gestures to emphasize a moment, but prefers to sit back and allow the listener their own musical discovery.  Rather than play "Slow Dancer" or "Jealous Love" at your next holiday party, put it on once the crowds have cleared and all you have is time.  

13. Tallest Man On Earth, Dark Bird Is Home  (Dead Oceans, 5/11)
I'll mention here that Kristian Matsson's "Sagres" is my choice for song of the year.  Like last year's ubiquitous "Song For Zula" (Phosphorescent), it offers an immediate impact, both anthemic and deeply personal.  Dark Bird boasts a more polished sound than previous TMoE collections, as well as a more fleshed out arrangement and a richer accompaniment.  What remains is Matsson's penchant for (indie-) folk melodies and a prevailing intimacy that makes for an evocative listening experience (plus, frequently indecipherable lyrics). 

14. Lindi Ortega, Faded Gloryville  (Last Gang, 8/06)
Sure, Ortega sings, dresses and writes like a woman from an earlier time, her music is as sharp and relevant as any roots music made today by a man or woman.  I've greeted every album with the expectation that she'll eventually settle into a comfort zone, becoming a stereotype of herself, and have been proven wrong at every turn.  From the title cut to the upbeat "Run Down Neighborhood" or the near perfect "I Ain't the Girl", Gloryville is a rich collection from an artist in her prime. 

15. Kasey Chambers, Wheelbarrow  (Sugar Hill, 7/23)
Since her 1999 debut, The Captain, Chambers has dwelt atop the americana heap as a writer, singer and performer.  Nearly two decades and several albums later, it's my contention that she remains an undervalued resource as a writer.  Like Lindi Ortega, every release overflows with superb, uncompromising work that works equally the bitter and sweet sides of the equation.  Speaking of which, Chambers' stirring duet with Bernard Fanning, "Bittersweet" slays me with every listen (especially when paired with the sweet video).  Alternately, the CD's title cut rocks harder and cuts sharper than anything else in her impressive catalog.  While I considered Chambers' collaborations with her ex Shane Nicholson some of the strongest duet work since Gram and Emmylou, she loses absolutely none of her effectiveness as a solo artist. 

16. Aaron Lee Tasjan, In the Blazes  (First of 3, 10/05)
East Nashville's Tasjan is the curious common thread between Drivin' N Cryin', the New York Dolls and Pat Green, with whom he served time as a bandmember.  To his credit, the songs on his solo debut  sound absolutely nothing like the intersection of those influences.  Instead, songs like "Dangerous Kind" and "Made In America" offer rootsy heartland rock with a dose of sardonic humor a'la James McMurtry.  With a nod towards the blue collar workin' class rock of JC Mellencamp, there is also an element of classic americana in songs such as "ENSAAT".  At the top of the heap is Tasjan's tremendous "Lucinda's Room", which rivals almost any other tune this year. 

17. Andrew Combs, All These Dreams  (Coin, 5/03)
Shows where a great voice, a world class producer and some sharp hooks can get you.  While previous glimpses into Combs' work showed him as a competent contemporary americana writer, Dreams repackages those talents for a more soulful, romantic sound.  Backed by the guys from Steelism, it's my choice for the year's best record in terms of sheer arrangement.  Call it countrypolitan or country-soul, Combs' sound harkens to 70s figures like Glen Campbell or Harry Nilsson, while tapping into Roy Orbison's vein of delicious melancholy.  

18. Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color  (ATO, 4/20)
I've seen quite a few clips of Brittany Howard live, and I feel safe in saying that she's a pretty good singer.  Truth be told, Howard is one of the most captivating frontmen in her entire generation of rockers, with a voice that can burn buildings or melt hearts.  Where 2012's Boys & Girls was a throwback celebration of old fashioned garage rock 'n soul, Sound & Color refuses 100% to retread that theme.  It's as forward looking as its predecessor was retro, coming across like an alien take on the genre.  Her tongue in cheek side project, Thunderbitch, assured fans that Howard still keeps a key to the garage should she need to use it ...

19. Turnpike Troubadours, Turnpike Troubadours  (Bossier City, 9/17)
Thanks to the Troubadours for raising the bar on what's lazily termed Red Dirt music.  Their smart new collection is a logical evolution from the promise of Diamonds & Gasoline and Goodbye Normal Street, offering a pleasing selection that nicely balances intelligence with good old fashioned roots rock.  "The Mercury" rivals old Old 97s rompers for sheer heart, a song that would show up near the top of my favorite songs list (if such a thing existed).  It's only appropriate that the Troubadours cover Rhett Miller's "Doreen" later in the set.  

20. Porter, This Red Mountain  (Porter, 3/09)
Chris Porter's musical restlessness has take him through collaborations with Some Dark Holler, the Pollies, Back Row Baptists and more.  As a solo artist, his talents are loosed to explore a much wider range of dynamics.  Porter is one of those songwriters whose work finds a commonality with literary types like Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry, eloquent story songs that just happen to be set to music.  Pieces like "Angel" or "Natural Disaster" could be translated into short stories or movies.  Musically, Porter demonstrates a strong ear for melody on "Hardest Healin'" or the gorgeous "Harder Stuff".  With John Calvin Abney, Will Johnson and Shonna Tucker aboard for his next record, I've tentatively reserved a spot on 2016's list.  Plus, the record will be called Don't Go Baby It's Gonna Get Weird Without You, which deserves an award in its own right. 

21. Ryan Culwell, Flatlands  (Lightning Rod, 5/03)
From Spring's first glimpse into Culwell's musical portrait of West Texas, it was just a matter of where Flatlands would end up on my year end list.  Songs like "Amarillo" and "I Will Come For You" are haunted by the people and landscape of the writer's home, sounding like wind blowing across barren lives.  Then there are tracks like "Piss Down In My Bones" that echo the gritty blues romps of more celebrated artists like Ray Wylie Hubbard.  Flatlands didn't get a load of press, but there is genuine sentiment beating through every quiet song.  

22. Houndmouth, Little Neon Limelight  (Rough Trade, 3/12)
I do my best to steer clear of pure anything, gravitating towards hybrids that bring together complimentary elements.  More than any other release from 2015, Houndmouth's sophomore record masterfully balanced roots with pop.  Their "Sedona" was one of the true breakout earworms of the music year, an unabashed singalong boasting the group's trademark infectious male/female harmonies.   That said, some of the more enjoyable cuts on Limelight are the junkier rambles such as "15 Years" or "Say It".  With such deep hooks, for me it was the Album That Would Not Go Away. 

23. Hip Hatchet, Hold You Like a Harness  (Hip Hatchet, 4/13)
Portander Philippe Bronchtein and co. have created a masterpiece of restraint and deeply confessional lyricism.  Like Isbell or Moreland, Hip Hatchet can drop a line that breaks hearts: Man I can't commit for shit / But damn can I act and pretend.  The real victory of Hold You, however, is the way that these self deprecating bombs are juxtaposed with the careful, tender acoustic arrangements.  Slowly but surely I'm losing sight / Of what it is that I do, a line embedded in a sweet waltz wrapped in pedal steel.  Far as I'm concerned, it's the perfect definition of romanticism.  

24. Deslondes, Deslondes  (New West, 6/04)
Sam Doores and company built the Deslondes in New Orleans, driven by the dream of a five-piece where every member could write, sing and play.   The first recorded moments from the resulting project are indeed eclectic, loosely rambling and soulful.  Far from coming across as disorienting, the grab bag of genres and perspectives fulfills like an informal gathering of talented friends in the round.  Like Spirit Family Reunion (see above), The Deslondes can do roots, rock and soul with the spirit of musical veterans. 

25. Willy Tea Taylor, Knuckleball  Prime  (Blackwing, 10/22)
I heard Willy Tea's new record coming long before its release.  Folks online praised Taylor as a writer who had earned an opportunity for wider exposure.   He comes across as an artist with deep roots in classical writers like John Prine and Guy Clark, a pure storyteller.  What's more, producer Michael Witcher creates such a tasteful and relevant setting for Taylor's songs, surrounding him with real talent without burying the rough edges of these gems. 

26. Ryan Bingham, Fear and Saturday Night  (Axster Bingham, 1/20)
Good news is that Bingham has seemingly recovered from 2012's messy Tomorrowland.  The earliest album on this list finds one of our more worthy writers returning to form while incorporating some of his previous record's more angry and aggressive moments.  "Broken Heart Tattoos" and the Sahm-esque "Adventures Of You and Me" deserve a space on a future Best Of collection, while the title cut fulfills those of us who have patience for the more subtle moments.  While Tomorrowland had me concerned, Fear assures Bingham a place in my top 10 americana writers.  I'm sure he'll add that accolade to his resume ...

27. William Elliott Whitmore, Radium Death  (Anti, 3/26)
Whitmore's early records traded in some truly dark and downbeat stuff (see album titles such as The Day the End Finally Came, or family pleasers like Hymns For the Hopeless).  It wasn't necessarily disappointing to meet him this year and to find him a genuinely friendly and well adjusted gentleman.  It did serve, however, to fill out a more nuanced musical picture that's been expanding with more recent releases.   Radium Death was largely reviewed as the record where Whitmore let the band in the studio.  There are certainly louder sounds than he's previously made, though I appreciate it as healthy evidence of an artist pushing against his established reputation.  Plus, "Healing To Do" features one of the most productive primal screams in recent music history. 

28. Great Peacock, Making Ghosts  (This Is American Music, 5/11)
I expected Good Things from this Nashville cosmic country duo upon hearing their 2013 debut EP.  Aside from raising the national sale of ponchos, Blount Floyd and Andrew Nelson launched into their first full length with a collection that honors their roots while injecting the tradition with a perfect dose of the unexpected.  Songs such as the title cut and "Broken Hearted Fool" are built on some of the year's sharpest hooks.  

29. Leon Bridges, Coming Home  (Columbia, 6/18)
I bubbled over with enthusiasm upon hearing the first sounds from this Dallas phenom's debut.  The mainstream music media followed suit, and largely crowned Bridges the savior of all things soulful.  Time will tell if he uses his talents for good, or if he simply relaxes to be the next Keb Mo.  My own hopes were bolstered in September with the release of Coming Home to Texas, a collection of remixes built in conjunction with rappers and producers from Bridges' home state and beyond.  We don't need him to reinvent the wheel, but some smart risks going forward might be just the thing to keep him from being just another retro novelty.  

30. James McMurtry, Complicated Game  (Complicated Game, 2/24)
Though I've never been the biggest fan, I recognize that over the space of about a dozen releases he's definitely earned a place among the americana songwriting pantheon.  His last couple records have focused on politics over songcraft.  After a seven year silence, he returned this year with his strongest collection since St. Mary of the Woods.  


... ready for you 2016.  What'cha got for me?

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