Here you’ll eventually find my Top Ten Albums lists from as many previous years as I can locate, in descending chronological order:
Top Ten Albums of 2009:
Matt Urmy, New Season Coming (self-released)
Listened to this album more than anything else this year; hence its position at the top. Poetry as music, music as poetry, all with an understated easygoing nature that’s as deceptive as it is beautiful.
The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You (American)
Imagine my surprise when the Avetts’ major label debut leaned farther toward their quieter material than the raucous concert rave-ups that gained them a huge following. Probably a disappointment for some, not for me.
Mayer Hawthorne, A Strange Arrangement (Stones Throw)
White Midwestern guy as silky ‘70 soul singer? Why not, if he’s as good at it as Mayer Hawthorne.
Angela Easterling, Blacktop Road (De L’est)
A pretty voice and poignant songwriter from the upstate surrounds herself with A-list players (Will Kimbrough, Ken Coomer, etc.) and puts out a great alt-country album.
Andy Friedman and the Other Failures, Weary Things (Kindred Rhythm)
Friedman’s weary voice is a perfect companion to his version of country music.
Dead Man’s Bones, Dead Man’s Bones (Anti-)
Normally I run screaming from an actor’s “music” projects, but this one from Ryan Gosling intrigued me from the start, and still does.
Throttlerod, Pig Charmer (Small Stone)
Unrelenting, unyielding, unbelievable hard rock.
Lucero, 1372 Overton Park (Republic)
Lucero’s been putting out the same album for years, but it’s a great one every time.
Tommy Keene, In the Late Bright (Second Motion)
Power-pop never sounded better than Keene, and it still doesn’t.
Miranda Lambert, Revolution (Columbia Nashville)
The anti-Taylor Swift, or just her more experienced big sister?
My Favorite Local Albums 2009
Kenley Young, Standard Candle
Smooth, slick, and sparkling guitar pop.
Magnetic Flowers, What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk AboutA glorious mess of an album, like a train barely able to remain on the tracks.
Haley Dreis, Beautiful To Me
About as perfect a pop recording as any to have come out of Columbia.
American Gun, The Devil’s Right Hand
Mark this as the one where Todd Mathis’ twangier material shines the brightest and truly begins to define this band.
Zach Seibert and the Red Wagon, Learning To Drown
The year’s most pleasant surprise, a sweetly rendered, rough-hewn gem.
Justin Smith and the Folk-Hop Band, World Unknown
Less hop and more rock made this a local radio hit, with good reason.
Treadmill Trackstar, I Belong To Me
File under “Welcome return” and turn up the volume.
The Unawares, Pinkie Greene
Raw, unassuming, yet immediate and melodic.
Hannah Miller, Somewhere In Between
Columbia’s most mesmerizing vocal chords.
Danielle Howle, The Swamp Sessions
Stripped down to just her voice and guitar, Howle still delivers.
Various Artists, Christmas At Red Bank, Vol. 1
Perfect local-centric addition to the holiday music mix, with some great takes on classic carols.
Top Ten Albums of 2008
1.Spring Standards No One Will Know (self-released)
If you’ve seen this band play, their unorthodox percussion (spread out between several members) immediately catches the eyes. The ears, however, are more captivated by the vocal harmonies and counterpoints atop some irrepressibly bouncy acoustic pop tunes.
2. Avett Brothers, Second Gleam (Ramseur)
A second quiet acoustic collection from the North Carolina alt-whatever darlings, is it wrong to say I prefer this to their louder, more raucous club show fare?
3. Raveonettes, Lust Lust Lust (Vice Records)
Postmodern disco rock, or is it post-disco modern rock? Either way it’s cooler than you are and the best goth-punk-disco band since My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult.
4. Jamie Lidell, Jim (Warp)
Classic soul sounds from a contemporary upstart with an ear for the genre’s masters and the ability to translate that into something both timeless and timely.
5. Teddy Thompson, A Piece of What You Need (Verve Forecast)
A smoother songwriter than dad (Richard Thompson, who shows up on a couple songs here), this is more pop even than his previous efforts, and better for it.
6. The Hold Steady, Stay Positive (Vagrant)
The boys from Jersey may be the best mainstream rock band in the country that the mainstream of the country hasn’t really heard of—too bad for them.
7. Drive By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (New West)
The title says it all in this case—bright sunny rockers next to detailed, depressing story-songs, nobody out there today does contemporary southern rock as well, with as much conviction, or with as much spiritual or emotional depth.
8. Danielle Sansone, Two Flowers (self-released)
Children’s music isn’t just for kids, as this family-friendly release proves. Sansone strikes a good balance between flights of imaginative fancy and the solid underpinnings of sophisticated melody on a batch of songs for her youngest fans that shimmer and shine as brightly as anything from Sarah McLachlan or Jenny Lewis.
9. Warm In The Wake, Speak Plainly (self-released)
Jangle-pop from Georgia that doesn’t wear its REM influences on its proverbial sleeve.
10. Anthony David, Acey Deucy (Universal Republic)
Forget that this is a more produced combination of the raw material from his two indie albums and just listen to the man’s voice, a classic R&B concoction that can be smooth as Luther Vandross yet as cutting as Bill Withers. “Words”, the song featuring India Irie, earned a Grammy nomination, and no less than Michelle Obama has David’s songs on her iPod playlist.
Top Local Releases of 2008
Nick Pagliari, Please and Thank You (PalagreenO)
A newcomer to Columbia, Pagliari’s prior experience shows on this tight package of alt-country and power pop tunes.
Hannah Miller, Into The Black (self-released)
The first full length release from this local songwriter combines her spiritual songwriting with some serious pop grooves courtesy of a pro Nashville production.
You, Me, and Us, Beer Can Rebellion (self-released): Punk rock the way it was meant to be—loud, proud, loose, and fast .
The Private Life Of David Reed, Misteps and Miscommunications (Chamberlain)
Former Closer front man’s first solo release, it tones down the band’s pop-rock formula and draws out the emotional core of Reed’s songwriting.
American Gun, The Means and the Machine
The best set of tunes yet from the pens of Donald Merckle and Todd Mathis, Columbia’s best one-two songwriting punch in a single band.
Toro Y Moi, My Touch (Fork and Spoon): One of three separate projects from Heist & the Accomplice member Chaz Bundick in 2008, it’s the loudest and spaciest, drawing Daft Punk comparisons with some funky, unpredictable electronic grooves.
Daylight Hours, How To Make a Mess of Things (self-released): Former Courage Riley front man David Adedokun covers a lot of emotional ground in this first ‘solo’ album; his tender vocals belie real hurt and pain in songs like “The Truth About Girls.”
Marry A Thief, I Am Dying To Outlive You (self-released)
Eric Skelton has an uncanny gift for marrying melody to lyrics that results in the kind of memorable songs on this too-short set.
Daniel Machado, Themes In American Friction (Self-released): Hands down one of the most ambitious rock albums to come out of Columbia in years, and it works beautifully.
Friendly Confines, Remember When ( self-released): I remember a year or so ago when I heard Rob Lindsey was looking for a full band to play with—this is what he found, a sympathetic, rootsy complement to his own unique songs.
1. Betty Lavette, Scene of the Crime: A modern soul classic recorded with the Drive-By Truckers as the backing band. Given the plodding three-guitar stomp of their last album, it comes as a relief to hear them providing the funky soul backdrop to Ms. Lavette’s timeless pipes.
2. Avett Brothers, Emotionalism: Having given old-time music a contemporary kick in the ass, the Avetts can seemingly do no wrong, turning out yet another set of great songs with Appalachian flavor and punk rock energy.
3. Bruce Springsteen, Magic: Okay, maybe the title’s a little disingenuous, but “Paint By Numbers” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. This may be cookie cutter Bruce, with nods to many of his deservedly classic sounds from albums past, but the sheer variety of the tunes makes this a great listen anyway.
4. Arthur Dodge, The Perfect Face: With his band Horsefeathers, Arthur Dodge put out a couple of semi-interesting indie folk-rock albums. On this solo endeavor, he goes **Nebraska** on us, almost, with minimal accompaniment providing maximum impact on a memorable set of songs.
5. Renee & Jeremy, It’s a Big World: Sure, it’s a kid’s record, but Jeremy Toback put out a couple of adult pop/rock albums before settling down, having kids, and finding out that the music he made for his own children might be enjoyable for other little ones, too. Not to mention their parents—this is a nice chill-out record that mom and dad will leave on long after the baby’s asleep.
6. Various Artists, The Song Of America: The most ambitious collection of this year or nearly any other, Nashville songwriter and musician Ed Pettersen was inspired by his mother-in-law Janet Reno (yep, that Janet Reno) to persuade a number of both well-known and obscure talents to render the history of these United States in song form. Over three CDs, the chronology unfolds in surprisingly entertaining ways, making this the hippest history lesson you’ll ever hear.
7. Jason Isbell, Sirens of the Ditch: This ex-Drive By Trucker’s solo debut is full of the kind of heartfelt, emotional treatises he specialized in with that band during his three-album tenure.
8. Joe Henry, Civilians: He may be the go-to new southern soul producer, but Henry still has some musical muscles of his own to flex, as this jazzy, soulful set proves.
9. Johnny Irion, Ex Tempore: The ex-Columbian went solo while the missus, Sarah Lee Guthrie, was having their second child this year. Building on the fuller band sound of their duo album **Explorations**, Irion takes the inevitable Neil Young comparisons and twists them around a set of tender loving tunes that celebrate kids, neighborhood life, and other
10. Paolo Nutini: Big dumb pop music hasn’t been done this addictively since Eddie Money. This one had surprising staying power throughout the year, sounding as fresh as it did the first time even as track after track hit radio and even the local mall’s Muzak.
1. Magnetic Flowers, Presents Pasts and Futures: Gloriously ramshackle and yet meticulously arranged at the same time, this is my favorite local band since the late, great Petrillo Relents.
2. Ellie Laveer, This Place: Simply an exquisitely beautiful voice, Laveer’s a songbird with some serious wings, as these songs take flight with crisp, professional production that knows enough to not get in her way.
3. Death Becomes Even The Maiden, The Arrangement EP: I’m still shaking my head in amazement that these guys are local, given the fact that they combine everything I love about Mission Of Burma, Band Of Susans, and the Jesus Lizard into one band.
4. Josh Roberts, My War Cry Is Amor: With Captain Easy a distant memory, Roberts’ current band really establishes their own identity on this one, and Roberts himself is snarly and raging enough to earn the Neil Young comparisons he inevitably gets.
5. Sunshone Still, Ten Cent American Novels: An ambitious historical concept album might not sound like it would make for enjoyable listening, but there are several songs in this musical novel that demand repeat listens.
6. Lundy EP: Not sure if this was an official “release” or just something for them to give away at shows, but this brief set of original tunes served as a reminder that Brent Lundy can still write songs as catchy as the covers his band ends up playing at most of their gigs.
7. The Decade, Read Between the Lines: These youngsters put on an energetic live show, supported by the kind of hook-filled tunes that give pop-punk back its good name.
8. Loch Ness Johnny, Evil Shenanigans: Our own rowdy band of Celtic rockers–who said you have to be from Ireland to have an Irish fiddle player in your band? Extra points for their second Velvet Underground cover.
9. Analog Moon, Live Studio Sessions: Their music seems to evoke the 1970s for me, and the lengthy jams on this disc support that Steely Dan/Traffic point of view.
10. Crash Cadillac, “We Are The Gamecocks” CD Single: Gamecocks fans are a dedicated bunch, and even though the season kinda sucked this year, this local hard rock band came up with a fun way to commemorate what could have been.
1. Elizabeth Mitchell, You Are My Little Bird (Smithsonian Folkways)
2. Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia)
3. Danielle Howle, Thank You, Mark (Valley)
4. John Legend, Once Again (Sony)
5. The Avett Brothers, The Gleam (Ramseur)
6. Sunny Sweeney, Heartbreakers Hall of Fame (self-released)
7. Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways (Lost Highway)
8. Mastodon, Blood Mountain (Reprise)
9. Vince Gill, These Days (MCA Nashville)
10. Josh Ritter, The Animal Years (V2)
1. Marty Stuart and His Superlatives, Soul’s Chapel (Dualtone): Deep gospel soul from the torchbearer for classic country music. Stuart is finally making the albums he wants to, and it shows.
2. Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, Exploration (New West): this husband and wife collaboration took their updated folk tendencies and added on a layer of rock ‘n’ roll to come up with something new for both of them.
3. Betty Lavette, I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise (Anti): Lost soul singer returns like a prodigal grandmother, showing Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey how real R&B ought to sound.
4. Jack Williams, Laughing In The Face Of The Blues (Wind River): Unsung South Carolina itinerant folk singer Williams dug deep into his own family history to come up with his most affecting set of songs to date.
5. Mary Gauthier, Mercy Now (Lost Highway): Raw, honest to the core, this is the real stuff here, and Gauthier’s, “I Drink,” would be my song of the year if I were making a list of those, too.
6. Cherrryholmes, Cherryholmes (Skaggs Family): This family bluegrass act built their reputation on high energy live shows and won the IBMA’s Entertainer Of the Year award this year over such luminaries as the Del McCoury Band.
7. Iron & Wine and Calexico, In the Reins EP (Overcoat): An intriguing combination of the high-minded romantic folk of Sam Beam with the southwestern rock of Calexico that works even better than it ought to.
8. Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell, Begonias (Yep Roc): Two sweet voices wrapped in some very traditional-sounding country and pop tunes. This won’t make anyone forget George and Tammy, or Cary and Cockrell’s own work, but it is a welcome treat from two talented tunesmiths.
9. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (French Kiss): Not sure if this one’s as good as their debut, but the band’s punk-Springsteen stance still hits all the right rock ‘n’ roll touchstones for me, in a year when the actual Bruce offered up a disappointing new album of his own.
10. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: For once, believe the hype. This internet-spread phenomenon of a previously unknown indie band is so goofy it’s great, so retro it sounds brand new, and it’s darn near impossible to listen to without grinning ear-to-ear.
Best Of 2000
Slaid Cleaves, Broke Down (Rounder): A singer-songwriter with a folkie flair for the story song and simple, memorable tunes. A stunning album, full of the kind of songs that will bring tears even on repeated listens.
Bill Mallonee And Vigilantes Of Love, Audible Sigh(Compass): Proof that rock music made from a Christian perspective doesn’t have to cater to the latest pop trends, VOL have been making great folk-rock masterpieces for a decade—this is arguably their best yet.
Jim Roll, Lunette (New West): With production from Silos founder Walter Salas-Humara, the comparisons to that band’s early records are easy to make, but Roll has the quality songs to make the familiar sounds worthwhile. Big city folk for city folks.
Joseph Arthur, Come To Where I’m From (EMD/Real World): For his sophomore album, this Peter Gabriel discovery delves deep into the funkier corners of his folk and world music influences, emerging as some kind of holy trinity combination of David Bowie, Nick Drake, and Peter Gabriel.
Outkast, Stankonia: Rap’s Mothership has arrived, and it carries the badass mofos of southern rap to new heights of funky lunacy. The single, “Mrs. Jackson,” only hints at the groove this group latches onto. If only all rap was this inventive, and innovative.
Alison Moorer, The Hardest Part(Universal/MCA Nashville): Probably the best country album on a major label this year, and worth it for the Lonesome Bob cameo vocal on “Next Time,” alone. Moorer takes the southern soul influences she shares with sister Shelby Lynne and takes it to the country side.
Shelby Lynne, I Am Shelby Lynne(Universal/ Island): Leaving the country music to her sister Alison, Lynne revealed her true self on this liberating disc, the best gutsy girl-soul since Dusty Springfield left Memphis.
Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker (Bloodshot): Without his band Whiskeytown around, Adams turns out a very Dylan-esque solo disc with suitably odd parenthetical titles. No extra emphasis is necessary for these gently rocking tunes, though.
Teddy Thompson, Teddy Thompson(EMD/Virgin): Dad Richard is renowned more for his guitar playing than the many fine songs he has penned, but son Teddy appears ready to spearhead a one-man (two, if one counts Rufus Wainwright) resurgence of the sweet-voiced 70’s singer-songwriter. In the grand romantic tradition of Harry Nilsson, this Teddy bears watching.
Chico Cesar, Chico Cesar (Putumayo): From the music-rich country of Brazil, this oddball artist takes back the samba influences that David Byrne borrowed for a while and adds Talking Heads style bouncy pop and reggae to the mix for a genre-mixing good time.
SC Top Ten
(Self-released unless noted)
Sol Divers, Tall Pines Motel: A blast from start to finish, singer/guitarist Jayce Tromsness injects his raw rock n’ boogie with a punk-like energy on this disc, sounding like a southern rock counterpart to the Gun Club/Dream Syndicate sound from early 80’s California.
Silers Bald, Silers Bald: If I were still Presbyterian, I’d say this band was predestined to become the saviors of Christian rock. Since nothing is certain in life or the music business, I’ll settle for noting that this band doesn’t fall into the usual trap of imitating some secular rock trend, instead carving out an acoustic pop masterpiece all their own.
Throttlerod, Eastbound And Down (Underdogma): A heaping slab of biker metal that takes the so-called “Stoner rock,” approach and piles on the riffs in a fashion that recalls both Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” and Cream’s “White Room.”
Elliott And The Untouchables, Both Ends Burnin’: World-class blues from these classy players. Elliott New and his crew have mastered a swinging jump-blues sound that tips its hat to the masters while managing to sound fresh and contemporary.
Robert Kendrick, Lonesome And Low-Fi: A low-tech gem from a singer-songwriter whose backwoods twang is not easily digested while sitting over a coffee cup.
Cravin’ Melon, The Great Procrastinator: Greenville’s finest manage to salvage their post-major label year with their best album to date. A primer on how to craft melodic guitar pop without pretensions.
Dezeray’s Hammer, Mortified: As in, some major label dude will be mortified he didn’t sign them last year. This album sounds like it should be blasting from every modern rock radio station in the country already.
Elaine Townsend, Redemption: A welcome return for a long absent singer-songwriter. Her smartest move was surrounding herself with the accomplished musicians in the band she assembled for this live performance.
The Verna Cannon, Movie Star Faces: An understated gem that revels in the languid tones of vocalist Molly Ledford and the measured playing of the band.
Blinding Sol, Stealing Redsunshine: From the remains of Shades Of Grey, guitarist Spencer Rush proves he can come up with some pretty colorful Dave Matthews-style pop all on his own.