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.”
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).