Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Top 21 Music of 2010

There is so much good music happening today that I just cannot contain my list to a Top 10 or even a Top 20. I had to go with 21. And I love all of the albums so much that I couldn't rank them. So here they are in no particular order, all of them great pieces of art that gave me hours of listening pleasure. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some other great records, so feel free to point them out. But these were the ones that stuck with me the most, and I hope that you’ll check them out…

A perfect Sunday morning record. Patty Griffin’s voice is church.

Come Around Sundown-Kings of Leon

Here’s another one I loved to drive to. The songs “Back Down South” and “Mary” are just as good on the five hundredth play as the first, and I ought to know. Both of these are the kinds of songs that go on my permanent “to-write-to” playlist. In fact, "Back Down South" became one of the central songs on the soundtrack to the novel I'm working on, Evona Darling.

Infinite Arms-Band of Horses

This whole album is like a perfect summer evening. Lovely, and I reserve that word for only the loveliest of things.

Flamingo-Brandon Flowers

The songwriting. The music. The vocals. The background vocals. Did I mention the songwriting? “Hard Enough,” “Crossfire,” “Swallow It,”—hell, practically every song on here—are perfect little gems. “Playing With Fire” goes on my life’s soundtrack.

Crows-Allison Moorer

A perfect record. “Easy in the Summertime” is a perfect song (and my favorite song of the year), and it gives me cold chills every time I listen to it. Especially if you know Moorer’s family history. This is probably Moorer’s best album, and that’s saying a lot since she is one of the best singer-songwriters I know of.

Dear Companion-Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore.

Yes, Ben and Daniel are friends of mine. Yes, I co-wrote the liner notes. But there is no denying that this is the most beautiful record of the year (and one tackling an important topic, too, without ever even hinting at becoming a polemic). The songwriting is top-notch, the picking is unparalleled (DMM can play a guitar the way a creek can make its music over old rocks; Ben Sollee is single-handedly revitalizing the cello’s place in the people’s music), and the album unfolds like a masterful novel.

God Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise-Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs

The best album to drive to this year, hands down. “OId Before Your Time” now takes its place as one of my favorite songs, ever. The other cuts are almost as good.

Sigh No More-Mumford and Sons

Released in England last year but in America in 2010, this one feels like the discovery of the year. The banjo never rocked harder, and those harmonies are flat-out great.

Self-Titled-Courtyard Hounds.

Another great driving album. I love Natalie Maines’s voice but was sort of glad to just hear the other two Dixie Chicks with their more laid-back groove. This is the perfect record for the lake or the beach. “Ain’t No Son” further proves them as the rebels they are.

Talkin to You Talking to Me-The Watson Twins

These Kentucky sisters can out-sing just about anybody, and these songs are arranged with intricate grace. Hands down the most underrated album of the year…everyone should know about the Watson Twins, and this should have been the album that made that happen. I especially love "Harpeth River" and "Modern Man".

Harlem River Blues-Justin Townes Earle

A tour of New York City through alt-country. The title track is perfection. That big chorus behind him especially kills me…they make me picture a big group standing on the banks of the river, as if witnessing a baptism. Lord, it’s good.

Lungs-Florence & The Machine

“Dog Days” is a perfect song, and to see her perform it is a thing of rare beauty. The best thing, though, is that this whole CD hangs in there with just as much strength and dark beauty.

A Friend of A Friend-David Rawlings Machine

The other half of Gillian Welch is one of America’s best modern songwriters. “I Hear Them All” alone could serve as proof of that, and “Bells of Harlem” spells it out in big neon lights. If you ever get a chance to see Rawlings and Welch live, please do it.

Brothers-The Black Keys

Best album for your next dance party, or your next drive, or your next writing session. This one made the Keys go mainstream (not that there’s anything wrong with that, maybe), so I’m hoping that won’t destroy their raw, fearless style. If it does at least we have their masterpiece in BROTHERS. This album also delivered the best video of the year, which you can watch here (although you have to watch an ad first, sorry):

Genuine Negro Jig-Caroline Chocolate Drops

The playing, the singing, the songcatching. This is the best old-time record of the year, which is particularly interesting since they make old-time sound completely new.

Have One On Me-Joanna Newsom

It took me awhile to understand the charms of Joanna Newsom but now I am fully under her spell. She rocks the harp the way Mumford & Sons rock the banjo, but with a whisper instead of a scream.

No Better Than This-John Mellencamp

Mellencamp is one of my all-time favorite artists, and no other rocker has better captured the complexity of being rural. This album is totally different from anything he’s ever done before (partly because it’s (brilliantly) recorded in mono). “Take Time to Dream” is one of his best songs, period.

Dare To be True-Chely Wright

Chely Wright is aggressive, brave, fearless, strong, and completely revealing in this collection of honesty.

Tears, Lies & Alibis-Shelby Lynne

This is Lynne’s best album since her big breakthrough (I Am Shelby Lynne). “Like a Fool” perfectly captures the confusion and wonder of falling in love and “Family Tree” is a rare –and welcomed—look at being angry at blood. As always, Lynne does her own thing, and her voice has never sounded better than on this CD.

Self-titled-The Secret Sisters

I have to mention this album, although I only truly love half of it. The original are GREAT, but I could have done without all of the covers. although their version of "I've Got a Feeling" is pretty swell. And for some reason T Bone Burnett, the producer, failed to put their best cover—their version of Cash’s “Big River” (with THE Jack White on guitar)—on the album. Love their harmonies and their songwriting.

You Are Not Alone-Mavis Staples

The other album I love to put on during a peaceful Sunday morning. The title track, written by Jeff Tweedy, is especially good, but Staples delivers each song like holy things, which they are.

Interpretations-Bettye LaVette

I fell in love with LaVette when she perform “Love Reign O’er Me” on last year’s Kennedy Center Honors of the Who, so I was very glad when a whole album grew out of that performance. These covers of classics from the British songbook do what covers SHOULD do—reinterpret them through the singer’s own style instead of simply recycling. LaVette puts her on spin on every track, from the Beatles’ under-known “The Word” to Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love.”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Love and Shame

Lots of people have written to tell me that they are very disappointed in me for making my Facebook status “Silas House has never before been ashamed to be a Kentuckian” last night, when election results were coming in. I meant for my status to be intentionally inflammatory and hyperbolic, to properly express my disbelief that someone I find to be a laughable candidate could be elected. Perhaps it was a poor choice of words because now that I look deep into myself, I realize that I am not ashamed to be a Kentuckian.


But in that moment I was, and I cannot deny that. I am not ashamed to be a Kentuckian, but I am embarrassed (and yes, ashamed) that we put someone like Rand Paul into office. I am embarrassed that my state will be represented by Paul for the next SIX years.


I’m embarrassed because of things he has said like this: "I don't think anyone’s going to be missing a hill or two around here,” about mountaintop removal, an issue that is absolutely dividing the Appalachian people and leading to widespread suffering on many fronts. That is simplifying an issue that is near and dear to my heart, as people I know and love are suffering because of MTR (because of loss of jobs, pollution, fear, etc.).


I’m embarrassed because of his close-minded views on equality and education and taxation and so many other things.


I’m embarrassed that a man voted to represent my state is so ignorant of the state’s rich history that he said in a national magazine he had no idea why Harlan County is so famous (it’s because of the bloody coal wars of the 1920s, when Appalachians actually stood up for what they believed in and fought back against big company greed) and went onto say that he did, however, know why Hazard is well-known: because “it’s famous for, like, 'The Dukes of Hazzard'.” That TV show was set in Georgia, not Kentucky and Hazard, Kentucky is a place of dignity and beauty that shouldn’t be reduced by him to being known only because of a television show.


I’m embarrassed because he said this in relation to the Civil Rights Act: "I mean, if you don't trace your ancestry to northern Europe and you're really hungry, if you ask nicely, maybe they'll let you come in. I mean, these are things we can solve without laws and stuff." We actually elected someone who said that. Disgusting. Obviously we couldn’t solve those things without laws, which is why the laws were passed.


I could go on. But I don’t want to talk about all the reasons I’m embarrassed by Rand Paul.


I want to let you know that I believe a person can sometimes be ashamed or embarrassed of a place and also love it without missing a beat. In fact, sometimes I love the place for the same reasons I get frustrated at it. Love is complex. So is shame.

So perhaps I wrote a facebook status in a moment of emotion. And while I might have a second thought about it, I will not apologize for it. Because in that moment, I felt it, I believed it, and that is my right.


Some of you have written to say that as an artist I should keep my political beliefs to myself, to not mix politics and entertainment, to keep my beliefs mysterious so they don’t interfere with my writing. Some of you have written to tell me I should keep my “mouth shut” because it’s none of my business (it is), that I should "shut the hell up" (I won't), that I’ve gotten above my raising (I haven’t), and because I’m wrong (that’s your opinion).


Just because I write fiction doesn’t mean that I don’t have a right to my own opinion, to my own truth.


Lots of you have told me that I shouldn’t have said I was ashamed because I am a “representative of Kentucky.” I am humbled and honored that you think as much, but I also have to point out that a representative of a particular place would be doing that place a disservice by romanticizing it, or by only illuminating what is positive about it. Everywhere I go, I try to tell people that Kentucky is a COMPLEX place. Because people have one of two stereotypes about this place: they think it’s either “beautiful and simple” or “stupid and simple.” The thing you might notice there is that unequivocally ignorant people think that Kentucky is simple, that things move slowly here, that we are not as complex as other people. The thing I zoom in on is their perception of us being stupid and simple and slow. Because we are not a simple people. We’re complex, and that’s what I want people to know. Still, it would be wrong of me to go around saying that everything is perfect in Kentucky, because it’s not. But I believe that no matter where I go people can feel the love I have for this place and its people in the way I talk about it, the way I write about it.


I have been a published writer for almost ten years. In that time I’ve been accused of perpetuating stereotypes and breaking stereotypes. All I’ve ever tried to do is tell the truth about the one little postage-stamp-sized patch of Kentucky land that I know and love, the same piece of land that sometimes perplexes and frustrates me.


Kentucky is beautiful and wonderful because of its diversity and complexity, not in spite of it, and that’s why I wish we had a senator who was celebrating that. Which reminds me, someone last night pointed out that almost half of all Kentuckians—about 45%--voted against Paul. Which means that we are not as single-minded as people might think.


That’s something to be proud of.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

End of Summer Music Playlist

There is so much good music right now that it awaits us like a feast. Here are some of my current favorites. After the jump you'll find embedded videos of some of the songs. Let me know what songs you're listening to these days.

Playlist (in no particular order)

1. Old Before Your Time-Ray LaMontagne
2. Save Some Time To Dream-John Mellencamp
3. Wise Woman-Caroline Herring
4. Evening Kitchen-Band of Horses
5. Golden-My Morning Jacket
6. Sweet Marie-Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee
7. Whispering Sea-Eilen Jewell
8. Holding On-David Gray
9. I Miss You-Courtyard Hounds
10. The Cave-Mumford & Sons
11. Kind-Cheyenne Marie
12. Still-Great Lake Swimmers
13. Smoking From Shooting-My Morning Jacket
14. Swept Away-Avett Brothers
15. Lantern-Josh Ritter
16. Broken-Chely Wright
17. Easy in the Summertime-Allison Moorer
18. Cindy Gal-Carolina Chocolate Drops
19. For the Summer-Ray LaMontagne
20. All Creatures Of Our God and King-Patty Griffin

















Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Recommendations


There are so many mediocre (or downright bad) books, movies, television, and music that it's sometimes hard to remember that there is so much great art being produced these days. So, a list of things I've enjoyed very much recently.

Books

Little Bee by Chris Cleave. This is the most powerful book that I've read in a long while. The plot is so intricate and wonderful that I hate to even describe it for fear of giving something away, so I'll describe it as being about a young Nigerian refugee who is living with a British journalist and the way their relationship is formed and how it blooms into a profound friendship. The novel is about much more than that, and opened my eyes to atrocities being committed around the world that I had absolutely no idea about. I loved Little Bee especially because it is that rare thing: a literary page-turner. The language is precise and beautiful and the pages fly by due to the feverish plot-driven pacing. I can't recommend this book highly enough, although I should tell you that it is not for the faint
-of-heart, despite its sunny cover.

Jonah's Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston. I really did not think that any of Hurston's books could be as beautiful as Their Eyes Were Watching God, but this one comes very, very close. The life story of a man who tries hard to be good then falls victim to his own desires and makes a horrible mistake that marks him forever, this novel is almost Biblical in tone and rhythm (as the title suggests). With a cast of characters I will never forget and sense of place so palpable that I could feel the blistering Alabama sun on the top of my head while reading, Jonah's Gourd Vine is a book that I encourage everyone to read with a pen in hand so you can mark all the amazing passages. The book is full of dialect, which I love, but some people find it hard to read. Get beyond that and you'll find one of the most beautiful novels ever written.


Movies

Winter's Bone. I went into Winter's Bone with some hesitation. I knew that it was set in a rural place and that it involved "tough customers" as we call them, people who are involved in the drug trade and live way up in the head of the holler where they can see the enemy and the law coming. So, when you put rural people and the drug trade together in Hollywood, you usually end up with nothing more than stereotypes. Luckily this is an independent film, directed, written, and produced by people who understand the place and the people. In this movie the rural people refuse to be the victims, especially the main character, played with amazing strength and defiance by a Kentucky actress named Jennifer Lawrence, whose performance is already getting Oscar buzz. Besides the great performances and writing, what I loved most about the movie were perfect little details that showed up in the set design and costumes. There is a beautiful musical centerpiece in the film and it is all so real that it made me feel like I was right at home amongst people I had known all of my life. If you see one movie this summer, make it Winter's Bone. Also not for the faint of heart, and not a date or popcorn movie in any way...I tend to like dark stuff.



Television

People sometimes ask me why I love True Blood so much. Well, this season has tested my patience to say the least, yet I still cannot look away. What I love so much about True Blood is that it's about ethics, about doing the right thing. The second season was a constant look at faith and the nature of God. The profound nature of the show is sometimes hidden beneath--and always buffered by--the campiness that it offers. Often I think the show goes farther than I need it to (that whole head-twisting scene? I could've done without that) and I am downright tired of seeing the female characters constantly put in jeopardy but I am sticking with it because in the end it's about Sookie trying her best to be a good person and to protect everyone she loves. It's vulgar and over-the-top and too bloody, sure, but it's also intelligent and addictive. I can't look away (but I still like Big Love better).


Music

Besides the True Blood theme song, which I've posted above, here are some other songs I'm loving this summer. My most recent heavy-rotation playlist:

Albums:
Caroline Herring-Silver Apples of the Moon. This five song EP is a treasure, with a new favorite of mine, "China".
Mumford and Sons-Sigh No More. Every song is great.
Chely Wright-Lifted Off the Ground. This one has to be listened to from beginning to end to fully appreciate.
Sia-We Are Born. Pure pop, but pop done really really well. A great summertime record. Thanks to my daughter for introducing me to this.

Songs
"I Forget It's There"-Lay Low
"Hop High My Lulu Gal"-Dirk Powell




Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Sufferings

President Obama recently toured the Gulf to see firsthand the massive oil spill that has been plaguing us for more than a month now. He also convened a long press conference about the spill. We see coverage of the spill at the top of the news, often accompanied by a live shot of the oil pumping out into the ocean from a camera situated a mile below the surface.

I can’t imagine the president doing a flyover of a mountaintop removal site, or holding a press conference about it. And I’ve certainly never seen a mountain blown up on national television—not even once, much less every morning on the Today show.

Yet I would venture to say that mountaintop removal (MTR) is as devastating as the oil spill in the Gulf.

I don’t mean to compare suffering. What I’m saying is actually the opposite of comparison: they’re equally as bad, yet everyone is outraged about the spill while very few people even know about MTR.

Both the oil spill and MTR are environmental, cultural, economic, and health disasters. Both are devastating an entire way of life.

Every time someone says that more than 100 miles of shoreline has been affected by the oil spill, I want to shout that at least 1, 500 miles of waterways have been lost forever in Appalachia.

Every time I think about the spill I also think of the pollution pumping into our creeks and rivers by way of MTR. I think of all the people in the fishing industry whose jobs are threatened by the spill, and then of all the hard-working Appalachians who can’t find a good-paying job besides the mines because we live in a mono-economy created and fostered by the coal industry. I think of how the spill could affect the Gulf so badly that the region’s fishing industry could be wiped out. Immediately I think of how mountaintop removal is hurting all the industries in Appalachia, particularly timber and tourism. New economy doesn’t want to come into a place that has been turned into a war zone with pollution, constant blasting, and intimidation.

Recently a friend of mine pointed out that “we’re witnessing the death of the Gulf.” It’s a heartbreaking prospect, but one that seems true. As of this writing, we’ve been witnessing that for forty-four days. Our president recently said this about the spill: “Every day that this leak continues is an assault on the people…, their livelihoods, and the natural bounty that belongs to all of us.” Couldn’t he say the same about MTR, which assaults all that we have in common, namely the air and the water, as author and environmentalist Erik Reese has pointed out? We’ve been witnessing the death of the mountains for much, much longer. If you trace it back to when mountaintop removal started, about 30 years ago, that’d be 10, 950 days. A lot more than 44.

Most of the people who live on the Gulf are not wealthy. Those in the fishing industry are much like our underground miners: hard-working, determined, and very proud of their jobs. The big difference is that since the Gulf is not caught up in a mono-economy, we actually have fishermen on the news complaining about the oil companies. Here in Appalachia, miners fear they will lose their jobs and we’ve been taught by the industry that if we say anything at all against coal, we’re downright unpatriotic.

Sadly, the lack of outrage over MTR may boil down to images and quick definitions. It’s easy to turn the spill into a quick sound bite (Oil is pumping into the ocean) and not so easy to do the same with MTR, which is a much more complicated issue; for one thing, it’s hard to convince people that to be against MTR does not mean one is against miners. Most of the MTR opponents count miners as one of the reasons they’re in this fight to begin with.

And there is that dramatic, sickening image that is easily captured (the oil pumping into the ocean) and put on the morning news shows. A camera can’t quite capture the scope of MTR. Even seeing it in person can’t really do it justice. The only way one can truly take in the devastation is to do a fly-over, so the sheer magnitude of it can be realized. Which is another reason why Obama should do a fly-over of Appalachia, the same way he’s done in the Gulf.

The major difference between the spill and MTR is that the spill was a preventable accident, while MTR is not only intentional, but also sanctioned by our government. Those who are trying to stop it are being called things like “greeniacs,” “atheists,” and being compared to Osama Bin Laden by Massey CEO Don Blankenship. T-shirts sold at my local flea market encourage people to “Save a miner’s job: Shoot a tree-hugger.”

I appreciate the attention Obama is paying to the Oil Spill. I especially appreciate that he took time out of his press conference to talk about this being a wake-up call, a time to start thinking about renewable energy. It’s great to hear a president talk about that. I especially appreciate how much better this administration is on the issue than the last one was. We actually have an EPA that is doing something now, such as actually examining permits before rubber-stamping them.

That’s great, but it’s time to do more about it. Obama is doing a lot of great talk but it’s time to start walking the walk.

It’s time to start talking about sustainable jobs for miners who are losing theirs to machines on MTR sites. It’s time to try to salvage these devastated MTR sites into the only thing they’re really usable for now: wind farms. It’s time that legislators started talking to the president about the first renewable energy jobs going to miners.

Most of all, it’s time to see mountaintop removal as being as devastating an environmental disaster as the spill. Because it is.

Notes:

1. Even the coal industry’s own website shows that more than 30,000 miners jobs have been lost in Kentucky alone since the advent of MTR in the late 70s. http://www.coaleducation.org/ky_coal_facts/

2. Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McQuaid has written an excellent overview of how the new EPA has become more effective. http://politifi.com/news/Coal-Baron-Blankenship-Calls-Critics-And--402023.html

3. http://politifi.com/news/Coal-Baron-Blankenship-Calls-Critics-And--402023.html

4. For more on intimidation and the complexities of MTR, see this piece in the Washington Post: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/19/AR2008041900941.html

5. For more on Erik Reese and the assault on the commons (air, water, mountains, etc.), go here: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4809/

Monday, January 4, 2010

Best of 2009: My Picks

Once again, I have two albums as my top album of the year because they are both so masterful that I cannot choose between them: Golden Apples of the Sun by Caroline Herring and Give Up the Ghost by Brandi Carlile. These are the two albums of 2009 that anyone who really loves great music (read: that which is most likely not on contemporary mainstream radio) must buy right now.

Last year Caroline Herring topped my list (in a tie with Ben Sollee’s Learning to Bend) with her album Lantana, a record that I believe to be as packed with as many keen observations about humanity and the Gothic South as the best of Flannery O’Connor or Lucinda Williams. The standout track on that album, “Paper Gown,” a modern murder ballad about Susan Smith, is among the best songs I’ve ever heard in my life. I didn’t think she’d ever be able to outdo herself, but then she goes and records the best album of 2009, and a modern masterpiece: Golden Apples of the Sun.

If there was any justice in this old world (and children, I hate to say it, but there just ain’t, not for true artists) everyone would know that Herring is one of the best contemporary American singer/songwriters. Golden Apples is an album in the true sense of the world: it begs to be listened to as a whole, in one sitting, and it’s magic every step of the way. I don’t know which to brag on first: the songwriting, or the singing, or the fact that Herring manages to pull the whole thing off with little more than her own voice and a couple of guitars (she’s on one, the producer—David “Goody” Goodrich--is on the other).

I always tell my writing students that every good piece of writing begins with both a mystery and a love story. And that every single sentence must be a poem. And that economy is the key to all good writing. And that every character has to have a secret. Herring is a masterful writer, and each of her songs are little mysteries and big love stories, economic and perfect, full of secrets and poetry.

Take a song like “Tales of the Islander,” wherein every single line is a mystery begging to be solved. Even if you don’t do your research and find out that it’s about Gulf Coast folk artist Walter Anderson, a brilliant, troubled artist who eventually left his family and sought out solitude on an island in the Gulf, you still know that it’s a song about the power and joy and pain of being an artist with such heightened senses that the birds call just to him “so deep.”

“The Dozens,” her powerful look at the continuing Civil Rights movement is especially timely and is garnering all kinds of praise. Once listened to, you’ll never get the beautiful melody out of your head. Another favorite of mine on the record is “Abuelita”, which resonates with me in particular because I, too, had a grandmother whose history and heritage had been denied to me. And there there is “A Little Bit of Mercy,” a song that manages to captures the very essence of hope in less than four minutes (and supplies a perfect tambourine that serves as a heartbeat for the song). And the best cover ever of “True Colors,” which was made famous by Cyndi Lauper but is made even more moving in Herring’s capable hands. And her take on “See See Rider” that brings out every bit of emotion in the song that you might have missed before. I could go on and on, and you see where I’m going here: the truth is that I love every single one of the songs on Golden Apples of the Sun (okay, I could have done without another cover of “Long Black Veil,” but her arrangement of it is so great that I’ll forgive it, and it’s grown on me). This is a record by an artist at the height of her game. One listen and you’ll know that Caroline Herring is the real deal, and she’s the singer-songwriter for this generation of people who appreciate real, unadulterated music.

Read my friend Marianne Worthington’s brilliant review of Golden Apples of the Sun in New Southerner, then check out Herring on “All Things Considered" and become a fan on facebook, where you can listen to some of her songs.

Something about the songs Brandi Carlile writes and/or records seem like the soundtrack of my life. It’s as if she and her songwriting partners, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, (affectionately known as “The Twins” by her devoted fans) can look in and see everything that matters. There are so many great songs on this album that I can’t even begin to articulate how much I love them. Each song is a gem that aches with joy and pain and everything in between. Let’s look at just a few of this collection of eleven songs:

Dying Day” manages to capture longing. And that’s a hard, hard thing to capture. If the lyrics don’t kill you, the fiddle will.

Dreams” starts with Brandi’s soft declaration of “I have dreams” and builds to a thundering, screaming declaration of someone ready to go out and start living instead of dreaming. The most beautiful song ever to which you’ll head-bang.

“That Year” is a mystery that will leave you reeling, one of the most heart-breaking songs you’ll ever hear, even before you figure it all out. Anyone who has ever regretted something will relate.

Caroline” sounds like what it feels like to be in love. Again, a hard thing to capture. But she does it. I've heard that this song is actually about Brandi's niece, but I think it can be applied to love in any form.

Oh Dear” is three voices and a ukulele. And it’s magic.

If you ever get the chance to see Brandi live, don't hesitate. Best live show I've ever seen, hands down.

The rest of my favorites of the year, in no particular order, some with anecdotes, some not, all highly recommended:

Scott Miller has written some of my favorite songs (“The Way,” "Angels Dwell," “For Jack Tymon,” “Ciderville Saturday Night,” “Dear Sarah,” “Highland County Boy,” I could go on and on) but he has flat outdone himself with two compositions on his latest record: “I’m Right Here My Love,” a duet with Patty Griffin is one of the most beautiful love dialogues I’ve ever heard, while “Appalachian Refugee” manages to zoom in on the very personal (the death of his wife’s father) and transcend that, becoming a defining song of the Appalachian people, tapping into emotions about our connection to this place and doing nothing short of articulating feelings that have only previously been properly articulated by people like Harriette Arnow, Loretta Lynn, James Still, and Lee Smith.

Hardly anyone knows the record Sea of Tears by Eilen Jewell but everyone should. It’s definitely in my top five favorite albums of the year (although I’m not really ranking anything but the best one, and you see how that went, since I had to chose two as the best). Rooted deeply in a fever pitch moment of the rockabilly-meets-folk-meets-rock of the early 1960s andy yet fully contemporary, Sea of Tears is full of good songs and plays like a beautiful novel when played all the way through. This album is the underdog of the year, and I’m saddened it didn’t get more attention. It deserves it. Give her a listen when you can. My favorite tacks are "Rain Roll In," "Sea of Tears," "Shakin' All Over," and a great Loretta Lynn cover: "Darkest Day."

Dave Rawlings Machine-A Friend of A Friend. A couple years ago, some of my best friends and I rushed over to The Pour Haus (say it out loud), one of the best places in Louisville’s great working-class neighborhood, Germantown, when we heard through the rumor mill that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were strolling around there (lots of whispered cell phone calls were being made about this…and doesn’t the mere fact that the Pour Haus’s clientele so easily recognized two of indie music’s most beloved singer-songwriters make you want to go to this bar?). About the time we got there Gillian and David had taken the stage with nothing more than their voices, their haunted faces, and two guitars. They played for the next two hours and it was total magic, a night that those gathered there still talk about with some amount of awe. For two hours no one moved, not even to buy another drink. In a bar. On a Saturday night. It was mesmerizing, and before long we realized that it was also different from what we were used to. Although Gillian Welch has always been a duo made up of Welch and her partner (on-stage and off), David Rawlings, Rawlings has usually supplied background vocals while Welch took the leads. That night he took the leads and she was there to lend her support. At the end of the show they announced themselves as the Dave Rawlings Machine and we knew that the operations of their duo had been switched. Little did we know that this album would soon follow. The best tracks on it are “The Bells Are Harlem” and “Sweet Tooth.”

Rosanne Cash-The List. Usually cover records are snorefests to me, but this is Rosanne, man! I especially love her and Rufus Wainwright doing “Silver Wings,” and her version of “Sea of Heartbreak” (with help from Springsteen) trumps the original.

Another record that flew completely under the radar is one of the year’s best: Your Heart Is A Glorious Machine by Sometymes Why is definitely worth checking out, especially “Aphrodisiholic” (seen here at my very favorite place to hear live music in NYC, Banjo Jim’s), definitely among my most-played songs of the year.

This summer I had the great pleasure of seeing my friend Ben Sollee playing at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens. I went to take my daughters to see him and had no inkling that his opening act, The Black Lillies, would become one of my favorite bands. And their album Whiskey Angel has become one of my favorites of the year, too. I love the sharp songwriting and the tight harmonies between Cruz Contreras and Leah Gardner. A couple people I trust most about music can’t seem to get on the Black Lillies bandwagon, so they may not be for everyone reading this, but I think they’re great. I especially love “Where the Black Lillies Grow,” “Cruel,” and “Little Darlin’”. Here they are at that Knoxville performance, competing against the masses of cicadas in the trees above them, but winning:

I loved the movie Once because it was a working class musical, something rare and special indeed. But I suppose the bigger reason I love it is because it featured Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, collectively known by their band name of The Swell Season. Their harmonies are perfection, and Strict Joy is full of them. Best tracks: Low Rising,” “I Have Loved You Wrong,” and the haunting “Fantasy Man.”

Say what you want about Scarlett Johnnson’s vocals, but I think she sounds great on her collaboration with Pete Yorn on Break Up. This album is upbeat and rough and smooth, sad and pretty. I have played it over and over and over again. My favorite tracks are “Relator,” “Wear and Tear,” and especially “I Don’t Know What to Do.”

Somehow this album is the most fun of the year while also being serious.

Langhorne Slim’s “Be Set Free” is his best album to date and although I loved songs from previous year (“Worries” and “In the Moonlight”), this album provides his best song yet, “I Love You, But Goodbye.”

I love Jim James from My Morning Jacket, here called Yim Yames (as on his EP Tribute To), and he’s the best thing about Monsters of Folk, especially his lead vocal on “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)”.

Seems like forever ago that it came out (it was way back in March 2009, and a lot has happened since then) but Buddy and Julie Miller’s Written in Chalk is still one of the best records of the year, and of their career. “Hush, Sorrow” is also one of their best songs, ever. They’re two of the nicest people in the business, and two of the best.

It seems like everyone I know really loved The Avett Brother’s I and Love and You, so I won’t say much about it except to say that I had the honor of working with the Avetts way back in 2001 when nobody knew who they were. My publicists at the time were amazing (hats off to you, Craig Popelars and Shelly Goodin, who not only worked very hard but also had excellent taste in music) and they often booked musical acts to play with me at booksignings while I was on the road. It worked really well because it drew in people that may not have come out to readings otherwise, and made for a good time. On that one tour I did gigs with people like Tift Merrit, Caitlin Cary (formerly of Whiskeytown), Tim O’Brien, and Scott Miller. One of my first booksignings was in Asheville, NC, at Malaprop’s, and The Avett Brothers played before my reading. They were very nice and gracious even though they had just that minute driven into North Carolina from a long trip out West. They were still figuring out who they were musically but there was no doubt that they already had a huge following (although lots of them were those faux-poor kids who sometimes hang out on the streets of Asheville with their self-torn Lucky jeans, unwashed hair, Birkenstocks, and sleeping bags rolled up on their backs. Note to them: it’s not cool to act poor if you’re not since there are plenty of real poor people in the world, so stop being jerks) and it was clear that they were budding musical geniuses who did something I had certainly never seen before: head-bang while playing banjoes. It was pretty awesome, I must say, and so is I and Love and You

.

Yes, I loved Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone. No, I don’t know what I want to say about it except that I have strange feelings about it: when I’m listening to it, I love it. When I’m not listening to it, I forget it exists. I don’t know what that means, but there you have it.

I wish that I could say Patty Loveless’s Mountain Soul II was as good as the first one, but the thing is that it’s just too bluegrassy for my taste (I love mountain music but am not so keen on bluegrass…sorry to although those bluegrass-lovers out there). However, Patty’s latest does supply the best song she’s ever written, the moving and powerful “Children of Abraham,” and a masterful reworking of the classic “Busted,” which can be seen as a commentary on the current state of coal-mining as well as the 60s version of it.

The soundtrack for the documentary Appalachia is really good, even if it isn’t one of my favorite albums of the year. But one of it’s tracks, “Susanna Gal,” by Clack Mountain (featuring the great, great vocals of Karly Dawn Higgins, whose voice is what these mountains sound like) is definitely one of my favorite recordings of the year.

I normally don’t put pop records on my list, just because they get enough attention as it is, but there were some great ones this year, and I’ll just mention the ones I love best. Regina Spektor’s Far is a meditation on God and religion, and it’s full of great songs, especially "Laughing With". I loved U2’ No Line on the Horizon, especially “White As Snow,” which is one of their best songs ever, as far as I’m concerned. Norah Jones hasn’t made a bad album as far as I’m concerned, but The Fall is among her best, especially the song “You’ve Ruined Me,” which has ruined me, it’s so good. And I know some of my friends are going to give me a hard time over this, but I just have to tell you that I can’t imagine what this year would have been like without The Music of Glee, so I’m going to go ahead and say that the albums Glee 1 and 2 were being continuously played at my house and in my car, mainly because they’re the two records that my daughters and I can always agree on. I love the show and it’s a lot of fun to introduce my girls to great pop songs of the olden days (and some contemporary ones I wouldn’t know otherwise) by way of these soundtracks. Our favorite ones to sing along with: “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” “Bust Your Windows,” and “Don’t Stop Believing.”

I’m sure there are some great ones I’ve forgotten, but these are the ones that come immediately to mind, so they must be my favorites. There’s you some good music to listen to. Even if you don’t go straight and buy it, at least give it a listen, and just think of all the great music coming soon, including Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore’s amazing, important record Dear Companion, coming out in February and produced by Yim Yames. Be on the lookout.

Since we're on the subject of the Best of 2009, I'll go ahead and briefly mention my favorite movies of the year, too:

Up. The best movie of the year. No other film moved me so deeply or made me laugh so hard. No other film better understands dogs and old people, either. It's a beauty on every level.

Bright Star. Jane Campion's underlooked and intimate look at the love between Keats and Fanny Brawne is filmed like a poem. I loved every single thing about it.

The Last Station. This film, about the last days of Tolstoy, is funny and charming, lush and beautiful. Helen Mirren shines, as always, and Christopher Plummer is great, too, but the big surprise to me was James McAvoy, who has never been better.

Precious. Lots of people I know said they didn't want to see this because it looks like too much of a downer, but it is anything but. It's hard to watch, but full of hope.

Avatar. I'm still torn on some of the political undertones of the film but overall I thought it was a cinematic feast (I never thought I'd actually say a phrase like "cinematic feast" in all seriousness, but it was). And I give it extra points for being one of the few blockbusters ever that has garnered hours-long discussions.

Whip It. Drew Barrymore's directorial debut wasn't a huge hit but it was one of my favorites of the year. Funny and sweet, with a great message for young women (or anybody) about being your own hero. Also managed to portray rural America in a dignified way, which is something that is very rare for Hollywood movies.

Adventureland was funny and smart and reminded me of what it was like to be a teenager in the late 1980s. "Nice pipe, grandpa!"

I loved Sunshine Cleaning, especially the performances of Emily Blunt and Amy Adams, two of my favorite actresses.

State of Play was an insightful, timely look at the demise of the newspaper industry.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was beautifully filmed and the actors continue to make me endeared to the characters.

Nine. Not a great musical, and Daniel Day-Lewis didn't work for me, but all of the women are amazing, especially Sophia Loren, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, and Fergie. A totally enjoyable couple of hours, even if it won't stick with me forever.

Other movies from the year that look great, but that I haven't seen yet are An Education, Crazy Heart, Young Victoria, A Single Man, The Road, Broken Embraces, and The Hurt Locker. Most overrated movies of the year: Up in the Air (Vera Fermiga was great and some scenes (the whole Miami section of the movie was great) couldn't make up for a movie that was smarmy and not as smart as it thought it was) and Public Enemy (Marion Cotillard was the only good thing about that...how could the director of such a great movie as Manhunter turn the story of Dillinger into such a vulgar and uninteresting thing...my mind was boggled that it was just a bunch of men running around delighting in killing people; it was disgusting).