In June, twelve albums were featured on Bentley's Bandstand as my favorite releases of the first half of 2011. It was a highly subjective collection, as it should be, and included Gregg Allman, Low Country Blues; Charles Bradley, No Time for Dreaming; Mamadou Diabate, Courage; Exene, The Excitement of Maybe; Mark "Pocket" Goldberg, Off the Alleyway; Larry Goldings, In My Room; Garland Jeffreys, The King of In Between; k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Band, Sing It Loud; Jessica Lea Mayfield, Tell Me; Middle Brother; Tracy Nelson, Victim of the Blues; and Semi-Twang, Wages of Sin.
Now it's time to pick another dozen albums that really hit the monkey nerve and make life twang. There was a lot of amazing music recorded this year, and maybe even one or two more to come before those 2011 calendars get tossed. Here's hoping December is a happy month for all, and the holiday season gets good and groovy real quick.
Tom Waits, Bad As Me. The poster child of bohemians everywhere returns in outstanding form, mixing up herky-jerky rhythms with soul-stabbing ballads. Waits' voice remains a tortured treasure in itself, and his take on life is enough to make that chimp jump off their chain immediately. Long may he do the sideways boogie.
Pieta Brown, Mercury. If any one album had the glow of quiet greatness around it in 2011, this is it. Brown's voice is a warm revelation, one that can start as a whisper but turns into the spiritual. Recorded fast outside of Nashville, in a just universe this woman would be a household word. She can bring unbelievers to their knees in one verse, and show the path out of darkness. Keep hoping.
Tommy Stinson, One Man Mutiny. His first job was bass player in the Replacements starting when Stinson was only 12 years old, where he went on to help make that band what was once rightly called "the last best band of the '80s." After that he recorded solo albums and got a day job in Guns 'N Roses. This new album fulfills all of the Minneapolis man's promise, and then some. And "Come to Hide" ranks right up there with the 'Mats all-timer "Here Comes a Regular." Really.
Jimmie Vaughan featuring Lou Ann Barton, Plays More Blues, Ballads & Favorites. The reigning King of the rootsy Stratocaster extends the power of last year's collection and finds enough mojo in some of the South's strongest 45s that the word retro never even enters into it. Vaughan is making magic out of memories, and making them sound brand new. Add Miss Lou Ann Barton to the vocal mix and the King has found his obvious Queen.
Wilco, The Whole Love. America's great band just keeps getting better, unfraid to color outside the lines and mess with musical boundaries like the inmates have taken over the asylum. In a way they have, because a decade ago Wilco had the nerve to tell the corporate powers where to go, and ever since have done it all their way. Now they started their own label, and the dozen songs here veer from inside creations to one or two outre delights. No one, still, does it better.
Lucinda Williams, Blessed. Stop the presses: Williams made her first video, done for the song "Copenhagen," and it is as inventive as would be expected of the First Lady of singer-songwriters. Refusing to break in the stare of steep odds and life's challenges, she has always played the long game and come out a winner. The smile underneath it all warms the heart and ups the ante to keep on pushing.
Deer Tick, Divine Providence. The Middle Brother album with Deer Tick's John McCauley earlier this year gave an inkling of what could be, but his band's full set knocks down the doors and busts out the windows. McCauley, a behavior problem from the beginning, stakes a claim for band of the year and serves notice that law enforcement everywhere should be on the alert. Lock up the teenagers and take away their car keys immediately.
Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin'. It's not easy to steal Mick Jagger's thunder, but that's just what Raphael Saadiq did on the Grammy Awards last year when he threw down the gauntlet and showed what soul music has been missing for far too long. That would be deep-pocket beats and sassy footwork, topped by a guitar that won't quit. Add on Saadiq's saavy vocals and an ear for rhythm and blues royalty and the fuse is lit for the real boogaloo.
Nick Lowe, The Old Magic. It's not possible not to love Nick Lowe. He's got an English class that never gets in the way of his rock and roll heart. Not to mention a way with words that makes him the eny of lyricists everywhere. He's been making some of the best music of his life the last few years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Even with the sound of loneliness throbbing through these songs there is always a beacon of light shining just down the road. Plus he knows a great cover song when he hears one, always a huge plus for someone possessed by such spirit.
Brigitte DeMeyer, Rose of Jericho. Sometimes a stranger knocks on the door and there is no way not to open it and invite them in. Maybe it's the sound of their voice, or possibly just the look in their eye. But DeMeyer has all that and more. Her songs come from the earth, and almost always reach the heavens, and she sings with such feeling it's tempting to offer a hand. In the end, though, it's the strength of faith and love that save the day--as always--and point to a future in a better place. Follow her there.
Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong. Sophomore efforts can be a bitch. Writers spend the first part of their lives preparing the debut, and then are expected to come right back with something equally brilliant. For Dawes that doesn't seem to be a problem. Singer-songwriter Taylor Goldsmith is in the throes of something beyond the normal, and to see him make his way through the pop minefield with his shine intact is a marvel unto itself. "A Little Bit of Everything" could be the theme song for the times, right on time.
Ollabelle, Neon Blue Bird. Out of the mist of old, old Woodstock comes Ollabelle, with a fine pedigree in singer Amy Helm, daughter of The Band's Levon, and a sound of inspired musicians playing an intriguing mix of moving originals and coveted covers. They have the beauty of music buried so far inside them that everything they touch turns golden. Bless their lovely stars as the music of the spheres comes down to the ground.
Reissue of the Year: Sir Douglas Quintet, The Mono Singles '68-'72. An airtight case could be made for Sir Douglas Sahm being the father of Americana music. On his first album, released in 1965, he featured songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Leadbelly, rhythm & blues bad boy Andre Williams, backwoods romps and blasting rock & roll including the hits "She's About a Mover" and "The Rains Came." These singles, 11 A&B sides that started in 1968, show someone who refused to settle down. He chased a serpentine course of sonic delights wherever it led him, and hit such peaks that Bob Dylan and Brian Jones led his first fan club. Sign up now for the magical musical trip of the ages.
Song of the Year: Gary Clark Jr., "Bright Lights." Everyone always asks who's the new Jimi Hendrix going to be, of where is the next Stevie Ray Vaughan? The answer, of course, is there won't be one. Nobody can scale the heights each pushed themselves to. But there is Gary Clark Jr., a young Austin singer-guitarist who surely has the holy ghost churning within. Listening to "Bright Lights," which first came out almost two years ago on his own homegrown label, the sky turns red and then blasts into a multi-hued blend of gorgeous colors before turning dark and threatening. Clark covers the waterfront, and the world stands before him. Watch him walk.