Best Music of 2008
My college roommate, with whom I have stayed in touch although we hardly ever see each other any more, was telling me the other day that he still listens to Nirvana, U2, and Pearl Jam all the time mainly because he hasn’t grown—musically, at least—since we left college way back in the Gulf War era. Now there’s not a thing wrong with any of those groups, but I quickly went about the business of educating him that there was another way, that there was too much great music out there, just waiting for a listen.
In my job as a writer, I travel all over the country, and everywhere I go people ask me things like who my favorite author is (too many to pick, but right now I’d have to say Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather, Lee Smith, Larry Brown, and Louise Erdrich) and what is my favorite song (I have to narrow this down to “Keep On the Sunnyside,” for its complexity and history, for the way it has always been a balm). Since I work for No Depression magazine as a contributing editor, it so happens that every December I get asked about my favorite albums of the year (or “records” as I like to call them, as do people “in the business,” since that’s what they are: recordings) by lots of different publications and groups and people on the street. And if there’s anything I love to talk about, it’s music. But picking a “best of” is hard, man. So instead of doing a top ten or top twenty, I’m just going to talk about my favorite records of the year without ranking them, except for my two favorite ones.
I tried and tried. I really did. But I just could not pick a top favorite record because two of them that were released this year served as constant companions to my ears. If there was any justice in this world (and I’ve pretty much accepted that there just isn’t, at least where art is concerned), then Caroline Herring and Ben Sollee would be among the best-known musicians in the country. I’ll talk at length only about those two artists, and then give the rest of my favorites with only brief comments. Links to performances and interviews are scattered throughout, so I hope you’ll click on those and learn more about these incredible acts.
Caroline Herring’s album Lantana, is an amazing piece of musical work in its songwriting, arrangements, production, and singing. It’s a complete pleasure. On Lantana, Herring is like Flannery O’Connor, Bobbie Gentry, Larry Brown, Loretta Lynn, Gillian Welch, and Lee Smith all rolled into one. The songs on the album all stand on their own as little gems but are also of a bigger whole that creates a landscape of sound and imagery so vivid that playing the album creates much the same effect as opening a great novel: we disappear into that world. Every single song on the album is a beauty, but the true masterpiece is “Paper Gown,” the story of South Carolina’s Susan Smith, who in 1994 drowned both her children by strapping them into their car seats and letting her car roll into John D. Long Lake. She blamed the crime on a black man but finally confessed to the local sheriff. Herring relates the crime in a startling, matter-of-fact manner, interspersing it with insights into Smith’s life (“Long ago I used to be a little girl on my daddy’s knee/dreams lie like diamond rings, babies, and pretty things”) that actually make us see her as a human being despite her monstrous crime. A lesser songwriter would have gone too far and tried to make us feel pity for Smith, or vilified her too much. Herring strikes the perfect balance by simply presenting a story about a person who did “a terrible thing,” as Smith says to the sheriff. Ultimately Smith winds up with “Jesus looking down/at me in this paper gown.” This modern murder ballad is a complete tour-de-force given to us by a driving banjo and Herring’s smooth-yet-never-sweet voice.
The rest of the album is nearly as phenomenal. There’s “Song for Fay,” based on the novel Fay by Larry Brown (one of his best, but also maybe the hardest to live through, especially if you have daughters) wherein an unloved girl travels across the South and warns “Don’t you try and stop me/’til I get where I’m going.” After listening to “Midnight on the Water” you’ll be hard-pressed to ever get that beautiful melody out of your head, or forget that subtle, mournful fiddle solo. “When I Lay My Burden Down” is definitely going on my list of songs to be played at my funeral with its refrain of “I’ll be flying in the darkness/I’ll ride the wind without a sound.” And many of you know that it takes a great song to show up on your funeral song list, now doesn’t it? I could go on and on about this artist, but I’ll sum it up by saying that this one album catapulted her to the top of my favorite musicians list, and I expect she’ll stay there from now on, especially now that I’ve discovered her other two fine albums Wellspring and Twilight. But Lantana is the true keeper, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
How to See by Ben Sollee
Tied for first place is Learning to Bend by Ben Sollee. It’s not just that he’s also a proud Kentuckian, like myself. It’s not that he’s also involved in the fight against mountaintop removal, as am I. It’s just that this album is truly beautiful. Sollee starts it all off with “A Few Honest Words,” a blistering address to George W. Bush (watch the Obama remix here). Despite his blatant stabs at the troubles of the last few years (which also show up in songs like the sarcastic “Bury Me With My Car” and a perfect cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”), the album never becomes a polemic and each song feels like a character study in a book of tight short stories. I recently wrote a review of a live show Sollee did in which I expressed my amazement at his ability to make the cello a part of folk music. To my mind he single-handedly takes it out of the realm of the classical world and brings it to the people (and I know people are going to write in and say Yo Yo Ma already did that, but he popularized the cello by staying within the classical world; Nancy Blake is an amazing "folk cellist," too, but I don't know of anything of hers as "modern" as Sollee's). He can pluck the cello with tenderness, smooth the bow across the strings to pull out a mournful cry, or saw away at the instrument to release the screams that lie within. One day a friend of mine said about Sollee: “He can flat-out make that thang talk.” And that pretty much sums up Sollee’s efforts on the cello.
His singing is just as good. His voice’s tenderness is put on display in songs like "It's Not Impossible", “I Can’t”, “Bend” (one of my favorite tracks on the album, where he’s briefly joined by Abigail Washburn’s soaring vocals), “I Can’t”, and my favorite song on the record, “Built for This,” a song that absolutely tears me down with its lyrics, Sollee’s passionate delivery, and the cello’s harmonizing with its player. It’s an amazing song on all fronts and if you haven’t heard it, you’ve missed out on one of the best love songs to come down the road in a long while.
Learning to Bend may not show up on a lot of top ten lists this year, but that’s only because Sollee is just beginning to get the attention he deserves. He’s travelled all over the world with his music, but mostly as part of the Sparrow Quartet (with Washburn, Casey Driessen, and Bela Fleck). As great as those performers are, they can’t hold a candle to Sollee’s whole-package status as singer-songwriter-cellist-storyteller.
This is perhaps the thing that most joins Herring and Sollee, their abilities to tell a story. They don’t ever sing at you, they sing to you, for you, and they want to give something to you: a song, a story. I don’t know of two better gifts.
The rest of my list was too hard to rank, so I’m just going to offer them in no particular order:
19-Adele. A pop album wouldn’t normally go on my top fifty, much less my top ten, but this is pop music as it should be, with a whole slew of crowd-pleasing, excellently-produced and perfectly-sung songs. Adele is my new favorite singer, and she’s as fun to watch as she is to listen to. Don’t tell anyone, but I dance in the basement with my daughters to this album all the time. They love it as much as I do. Well, almost.
Coal-Kathy Mattea. I had the privilege of writing the press kit for Mattea’s Grammy-nominated album so I can tell you that not only is Mattea one of the best of the remaining traditional country singers, she’s also one of the best people I know, with a heart the size of her native West Virginia. Every song on here is a thing of rare beauty. When she sings songs like Billy Edd Wheeler's “The Coming of the Roads” you’ll feel like the song has been reborn anew. Other highlights include her covers of Jean Ritchie’s “Blue Diamond Mines” and Hazel Dickens’ “Black Lung.” Anyone who loves Appalachian music has to add this album to their collection.
A Piece of What You Need-Teddy Thompson. Thompson is one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time, hands down. If you don’t know him, then go out and buy every single album he ever made (the best one being Separate Ways, in my opinion). A Piece of What You Need is not on par with his past two albums, but it’s still a great effort, especially with songs like “Can’t Sing Straight” and “In My Arms.”
Rattlin' Bones-Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson. There’s not a bad song on this album by one of my favorite couples. In Australia, Kasey Chambers is one of the most famous and beloved singers in the country. It’s a shame Americans don’t have taste as good as theirs. And her partner (musically and romantically) Shane Nicholson is pretty great, too. They harmonize together perfectly; listening to them sing is like listening to love made into a visceral thing.
Little Wild One-Joan Osborne. Another great Kentuckian, Joan Osborne never fails to sing every song with all of her might. In this paean to her adopted hometown of New York City, she gets all the emotions about that city out in the songs and makes one of her best albums.
Sleepless Nights-Patty Loveless. Another Kentuckian (is this a coincidence, or is it just that people from Kentucky know how to make a good record?). Patty Loveless is the most underrated singer in country music and she delivers some of the best classic country songs here. The standout is the title track, which she sings so perfectly with Vince Gill that you’ll have to shake your head in satisfaction.
Consolers of the Lonley-The Raconteurs. There is no doubt in my mind that Jack White is a damn genius. I said it. And the rest of this band is pretty damn smart, too, if you ask me. Some of the best songs of the year are on here: “Top Yourself,” “Many Shades of Black” (beautifully covered by Adele on a live track you can buy on iTunes), and “Old Enough” (a great new version with Ricky Skaggs and Ashley Monroe has just been released), among others.
Volume One-She and Him. I admit to having a thing for Zooey Deschanel ever since first seeing her in All The Real Girls, and even moreso after she stole the show from Will Ferrell in Elf. Once I heard her singing and songwriting on this album I was even more smitten. Often she sounds like Ronnie Spector (those drums on “I Was Made for You” will definitely remind you of “Be My Baby”) but occasionally she sounds like Rosemary Clooney (another Kentuckian), which makes me like her even more. She's joined by musician M. Ward who does a great job on production and arrangement. This album is pure fun and especially good for road trips and sing-alongs with your daughters.
Mockingbird-Allison Moorer. I do love the ever-classy Miss Moorer, too, and on this album she covers female songwriters, including June Carter ("Ring of Fire"),Gillian Welch (“Revelator”), Joni Mitchell (“Both Sides Now”), and her own sister, Shelby Lynne (“She Knows Where She Goes”). My favorite cut is the title track.
Tennessee Pusher-Old Crow Medicine Show. The highlight here is “Lift Him Up,” a cover of a Blind Alfred Reed song, but I also love the rest of the rowdy set like “Alabama High Test” and “Humdinger” ( which includes one of the best lines of the year: “if you’re not a right-winger then we’ll all have a humdinger”)
Real Animal-Alejandro Escovedo. Great all-around album, especially “Sensitive Boys,” which I’d count as one of Escovedo’s best.
All I Intended to Be-Emmylou Harris. You just can’t ever go wrong buying an album by Emmylou.
Hope for the Hopeless-Brett Drennen. My favorites are “Heaven” and “Ain’t Gonna Lose You.”
Simply Grand-Irma Thomas. Irma Thomas singing with some of the best modern pianists. Can’t beat it.
Life, Death, Love, and Freedom-John Mellencamp. I love that he keeps on keeping on. Mellencamp is underrated and has always stood up for what he believes in. That’s something to respect all in itself.
Gossip in the Grain-Ray Lamontagne. “You Are the Best Thing” is one of my favorite songs of the year for sure. I’m also loving “Meg White,” his ode to Meg of the White Stripes. When he sings “Meg White, you’re alright,” I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always defended her drum-playing skills against all of her critics. Others standouts on here are “Hey Me, Hey Mama” and “Let It Be Me.”
Vampire Weekend-Vampire Weekend. Two or three great little pop songs on here. I first saw them on Saturday Night Live and have liked them ever since, especially the way they join up horns and big strings with their electric guitars.
Little Honey-Lucinda Williams. Williams is starting to get on my nerves, so this wouldn’t go near the top of my favorites list. Whatever happened to great story-songs, Lu? Seems like on her last two or three albums she’s tried to be as sparse as possible with her lyrics and her lyricism has suffered in the wake of that. I’m still hoping she’ll go back to the songwriting perfection of albums like Sweet Old World and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, but I’m not holding my breath. Fame has an ill effect on some people. Still, it was nice to see her being in love on this album. Best track: “Real Love.”
Just a Little Lovin'-Shelby Lynne. It seemed like a great idea: have Shelby Lynne cover Dusty Springfield. But it just went to prove that is awesome a talent as Lynne is, she's no match for Springfield. It might have helped if the songs had been arranged in such a way to shake the classics up a little bit, but for the most part they felt like note-for-note reinditions to me. The production is pretty great, though, so this one definitely makes my list although it hovers around at the bottom.
Mudcrutch-Mudcrutch-If Tom Petty’s on it then I’m going to like it. Especially “A Good Street”.
The Sparrow Quartet-The aforementioned Abigail Washburn, Ben Sollee, Bela Fleck, and Casey Driessen. My favorite: “Strange Things.”
Cardinology-Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. More of the same old thing for the most part, but I do love the song "Born Into A Light."
Still Crooked-Crooked Still. There are a couple of standout tracks on this album by the Massachusetts-based traditionalists.
So there you go. A whole big list of music to look for, to listen to. So if you’ve read this and you’ve checked them out you won’t have to say “there’s no good music out” for a long, long time. At least I hope so.
I'd like to hear what your favorites of the year are, too, so leave a comment and let me know.