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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”