30 Albums of the Year – The Top Ten Share
All right here’s the big ten … not that the ones all the way down to 30 (and beyond, there were some perfectly good albums that got left off) couldn’t hold their own with these, but these were the ones that spoke to me the most and, in most cases, are differentiated by the fact that I think they represent the best work of artists that were already talented and compelling. Not all of these artists have even made an appearance on Texas Music Scene, and some might never, but they’re all essential to modern Texas music in 2011 (and beyond) to these ears.
- Robyn Ludwick – Out of These Blues. A bit overshadowed in the past by a couple of her brothers you might be familiar with (Bruce & Charlie Robison), not to mention more acclaimed Americana females like Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin, this unassuming singer/songwriter broke away from the under-the-radar pack with an album that hits so many sweet spots, raw nerves, and high points of imagery and twangy soul that it rose to the top of the class for many critics and blown-away first-time listeners. It was arguably the grandest record in a year that was full of them, a swampy, soulful cry from the heart that’ll resonate for the rest of her (hopefully lengthy) career.
- Hayes Carll – KMAG YOYO (And Other American Stories). Equal parts goofy and cerebral in the soulfully funny vibe of John Prine and Todd Snider, Carll’s latest not only kicked him up a notch as a Texas-scene headliner but put him in the “best songwriter alive” conversation nationally, at least in the under-50 division. Plugging in some political smarts without a partisan aftertaste wasn’t only an attention-getter, it was in the service of two of the best and most memorable songs of the year (“Another Like You” and the title track). Carll’s no one-trick political pony, though … reference “Hide Me Babe” and “Bye Bye Baby” for some of the finer examples of the modern love ballad.
- The Gourds – Old Mad Joy. I don’t generally like it when other writers use the word “gumbo” to describe a band with rootsy, funky, diversely-influenced style, but dammit if it doesn’t always seem to fit the Gourds. They’ve been the premier purveyors of ecstatically out-there folk rock for the last 15+ years and apparently there’s still plenty of gas in the tank … “Two Sparrows” is a Dylanesque epic, “Drop The Charges” a punk-tinged stomp, “I Want It So Bad” a sunny, shuffling rocker. Even the more middling songs are hardly anything to be ashamed of, and more just a byproduct of how their best material sets the bar so high.
- Owen Temple – Mountain Home. Warm, understated, certainly underrated, and measured in his grasp of detail and subtle emotion, Temple’s latest is maybe his greatest. A better fit than his early days as a Pat Green-ish college cowboy, the gentler acoustic folk approach of his newest is flexible enough to handle a nudge towards subtle funk (“Danger & Good Times”, “Medicine Man”) and eloquent enough to give his best song to date (“Fall In Love Every Night”) room to shine.
- Drew Kennedy – Fresh Water In The Salton Sea. The fact that he co-released it with an original novel of the same name highlights the ambition the still-young veteran of the Texas songwriter scene brought to this project, but (as with any of his recent albums) these songs really speak for themselves. Kennedy’s emotional honesty continues to serve him well, but it’s his knack for detail and a touch of wry wit that allows him to hit up those old themes of heartache, travel, and regret for one more dance with his distinctive baritone drawl.
- Stoney LaRue – Velvet. After about a six-year break from releasing any new studio material, LaRue probably could’ve slapped together just about anything and sold tens of thousands before anyone caught on to the carelessness; instead, he enlisted a sharp and simpatico collaborator in Mando Saenz, who helped him craft some of the best material of his career. The songs, including the Van Morrison-esque swooner “Velvet” and moody ballads “Wiregrass” and “Dresses”, refuse to collapse under the weight of Stoney’s big, resonant tenor, rewarding his fans’ patience with something smart and soulful when just about anything would have done.
- Larry Hooper – Between Here & The Stars. Fading from the scene for a few years in the name of gainful employment and fatherhood, Hooper finally followed up on 2005’s Rust with an even better, more fulsome collection of country-folk that brims with grit and more than a little danger without drifting into easy outlaw clichés. Influences rear their heads (Steve Earle, Fred Eaglesmith, and Reckless Kelly come to mind) but Hooper is one of the rare songwriters that builds on the tradition instead of merely aping it.
- Ben Morris & The Great American Boxcar Chorus – No Fun In Funeral. Don’t let the weighty band name or punny album title throw you; smart but unpretentious, the GABC grinds up a dozen or so genres (stormy post-grunge rock, shambolic country folk, sunny power-pop, etc.) and serves them up winningly. It’s a diverse project not only in influence but in personnel, with Morris’ Boxcar bandmates contributing original material and under-the-radar artists like Claire Domingue and Slim Bawb fleshing out Morris’ imaginative vision with flashes of their own.
- Sunny Sweeney – Concrete. Not content to be the cute little sister of the Texas country scene, Sweeney set her sights on Nashville and, kind of like Miranda Lambert without the brash persona, managed to strike a balance without selling out. She put out an album that was as sonically tight and sumptuous as anything out of Music City but left her East Texas twang intact, as well as her knack for writing and choosing songs that sound like they were written for grown-ups by grown-ups, a welcome rarity when too many in both Nashville and Texas are willing to settle for warmed-over redneck clichés.
- Mark Jungers – More Like A Good Dog Than A Bad Cat – If Jungers was ever writing for the masses, he’s probably said to hell with it by now. His budget’s relatively tight, his approach is stripped-down and his Midwestern twang hasn’t lost any of its bite after over a decade and a half in the Texas Hill Country. He’s also one of the best roots-music songwriters in the world, and on this self-produced, largely-unheard gem he finds a sweet spot between swamp rock and farm-to-market folk for his new crop of lyrical inventions.
Here’s to the start of another great year for our Texas (and, what the hell, Oklahoma) artists, venues, record stores, and (thank ya very much) television shows. Check out the rest of the blog’s Top 30 if you wanna hit the store (online or otherwise) for something great to listen to.