#1 Zoe Muth - Zoe Muth & The Lost Highrollers
This was not a difficult choice. The first time I heard Zoe Muth I was flabbergasted. Beautiful lyrics, stripped down accompaniment, and all in a retro country package. When you hear Zoe you can't help but think of the early female legends of country music. But this 30-year-old ain't no country bumpkin, in fact she hails from a Seattle suburb. This is her debut release (which is unbelievable enough). I have a selfish reason for wishing her success: I want her to come out with another album.
#2 Vetiver - Tight Knit
Probably one of the best crossover records I've ever heard. It doesn't matter what your taste in music, I can pretty much guarantee you'll love this disc. My comrades in the Americana world didn't deem it twangy enough for radio play. I think they missed the boat. Vetiver exemplifies a new genre of Folk. One where there's no "cause" to rally around but rather tunes to enjoy. This new style has a very indie-alternative vibe but not to the detriment of its sweet, almost pop qualities. A great album! I dare you not to like it.
#3 Son Volt - American Central Dust
What can I say? Son Volt does it again. Every time they come out with a new album it is incredible, however, this one is near the top. I don't think I can say it bests their 1995 debut Trace, but a close second. I'm usually put-off by political lyrics but for some reason Farrar and this band pull it off without a hint of annoyance. This disc has some beautiful heart tuggers and yet some ass-whoopin' rockers. Great balance, great mix and a joy to listen to from beginning to end.
#4 Danny Barnes - Pizza Box
Talk about a guy who beat to his own drum. Barnes has been doing things his way for a long time. In the early 90's with his band the Bad Livers, he pushed the envelope of what bluegrass could do. In some ways he invented Punkgrass. The band broke-up, he moved from Austin to Seattle and started experimenting with his music. This CD represents everything good from all those wild years. Not experimental at all, Pizza Box is without a bad track. Sometimes rock-n-roll, sometimes country, other times soul, this disc always has a bluegrass backdrop via Barnes banjo and his unmistakable nasal voice. This CD was a huge surprise and worth any lofty praise.
#5 Slaid Cleaves - Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away
After 19 years of recording, Slaid Cleaves finally has his masterpiece. Don't get me wrong, he's penned and composed some of my all-time favorite songs, but this is the first time he's put together an entire CD of incredible tunes. He has always had a way to win your ear and your heart with his beautiful voice and emotional delivery, but with this disc he does it over-and-over. Virtually every Americana person I respect has this CD on their list of favorites for 2009. I, for one, totally understand why.
#6 Red Stick Ramblers - My Suitcase Is Always Packed
An incredible mix of songs: from western swing to zydeco to country all done to absolute perfection. The Ramblers are probably best known for their raucous live shows. After this album that might change. I really don't think I've heard a CD represent so many genres on one disc. Normally bands will flirt with styles, The Ramblers abruptly change as if a new group of musicians picked up the instruments. Not only do they show-off the different musical styles they do each of them unbelievably well - if fact, bordering on perfect.
#7 The Bottle Rockets - Lean Forward
I've never heard a band successfully make the transition from alt-country to rock, until now. For some reason when you strip out the things that make an Americana band (pedal steel, fiddle, banjo, etc) you end up with just another rock band. Not so with The Bottle Rockets. Mandolin and Brian Henneman's voice are about the only twangy elements here, yet the album is the best they've ever done. I read a review that described this CD as "Southern-style meat-and-potatoes rock at its best." I concur.
#8 Justin Townes Earle - Midnight at the Movies
A CD you can put in, press play, and enjoy from beginning to end. Earle has this wonderful 40's country-and-western style, mixed with a slight bluegrass edge and beautiful songwriting. Most everyone else in the Americana business also loved this disc and rightly so. Earle is a awkward, gangly 6'5" bow-tie wearing young man. It's hard to imagine the music that comes out of that frame, but it does and it is spectacular.
#9 Trevor Alguire - Thirty Year Run
Maybe because his Canadian, maybe because of distribution, maybe because they're all on crack: I don't know why no one else in this country took notice of this incredible CD. A joy from beginning to end with some amazing tunes. Nice mix of twang and rock, superb songwriting, perfect accompaniment a wonderful CD that any Americana fan would love to have in their collection.
#10 The Panderers - Mucho Diggo
This is my definition of fun music. This Indiana based trio with Appalachian roots combines the most unlikely musical styles. From hip-hop, to Johnny Cash, to rock, to folk and its all dance-able and extremely catchy. A great mood-altering disc: in a bad mood? Put on The Panderers and watch your happy-feet take over.
#11 Wrinkle Neck Mules - Let the Lead Fly
Whiskey-infused rock meets bluegrass. That's the only way I can describe this music. This CD is full of incredible songs including the quintessential drinkin'/fightin' title track Let The Led Fly. If you like your Americana raw and rowdy this is a great CD for you.
#12 Dexateens - Singlewide
These Alabama lads used to crank up their sound via three lead guitarist and plenty of young Southern-rock attitude. I loved it. Now they've matured and so has their music. Amazingly I like this toned down Dexateens more than the old (maybe because I also had to grow-up). This CD has little in common with their earlier sound but, oh, what a disc. Love that they have a "new" sound but still have the Southern sensibility.
#13 Paul Burch - Still Your Man
Burch combines so many styles he's impossible to pigeon hole. My favorite on this disc, The Ballad of Henry & Jimmy, sounds like a Irish folksong. Another sounds like 50's pop, another sounds like a Spanish love song, another, like Bob Will's style swing. This is a CD I'd play for guests coming over for dinner and, with equal thought of appreciation, for my senior citizen parents.
#14 Bap Kennedy - Howl On
Americana via Ireland. Born in Belfast, Kennedy is no stranger to my playlists, but this is the first CD he wrote and recorded in his native land. The disc has the interesting perspective of Kennedy's childhood looking at and longing for the American dream. Great songs with Kennedy's superb delivery, a wonderful CD with a Hendrix cover to boot.
#15 Eilen Jewell - Sea of Tears
Movies have "period pieces," I think we can steal that phrase to describe this CD as a '60's period piece. A departure from her earlier work (which, by the way, was all fantastic), this CD makes my list because there's not a bad song on it. It's a DJ's dream: nothing to play? Throw in Jewell's new disc and press play. No matter where the disc starts it'll be a great tune.
#16 Catherine MacLellan - Water in the Ground
Another Canadian that I didn't see on anyone's "best of" list. Surprising because the good tunes on this CD (and there are many) are melt-your-heart beautiful. MacLellan might be too folk for some, but for Tupelo Honey - a match made in heaven.
#17 Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses - Roadhouse Sun
This disc didn't make it as far up my list as most Americana DJ's but that doesn't mean I didn't like it. In fact, it's a superb CD, it's just that I liked some other albums more. Bingham shows no sign of slowing down after his amazing 2007 release Mescalito. His rodeo background gives him license to write country infused songs and perform them any way he likes. In this case, some with loud guitar heavy rock, others with a touching grace.
#18 Derek Hoke - Goodbye Rock N Roll
This CD represents a trend I've been seeing coming out of Nashville. A new "country" sound that infuses rockabilly, 50's pop, and 60's style country/western. Hoke's bandmate Chris Scruggs has a similar sounding disc out this year, but Hoke's fires on all cylinders. Cute songs, interesting style: every tune on this CD is a joy to spin.
#19 Bearfoot - Doors and Windows
Originally from Alaska, this bluegrass group of young talented musicians, has what for me is one of the best discs of the year. Great covers, great original tunes all done within' a newgrass framework. Yet you don't have to enjoy that sound to love this disc. It's such a pretty sound they create I think anyone would appreciate their music.
#20 Tim Easton - Porcupine
Hardly a newcomer, Easton has a real gem on his hands with this new release. Interesting song writing, lots of different styles, all with a folk-rock essence to them that periodically turns to pure rock. It's the quantity of exceptional tunes that has this disc in my "best of" list.