For music lovers, it's always a kick to pick the favorite albums of the year. So much so that it's twice as fun to do it twice—once at the end of June and now in mid-December. All the music mentioned below is an exhilarating and often educational ride on the sonic highway, guaranteed to get those aforementioned music lovers to the other side. The first ten albums chosen in June were Beck, Morning Phase; Carlene Carter, Carter Girl; Rosanne Cash, The River & the Thread; John Fullbright, Songs; Hollis Brown, Gets Loaded; Jimmer, The Would-Be Plans; Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Give the People What They Want; Lake Street Dive, Bad Self Portraits; St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Half the City; The Strypes, Snapshot. What follows are favorites from the second half of 2014. All systems go for 2015, a year full of surprises and, hopefully, happy trails. Here's to it.
Phil Alvin and Dave Alvin, Common Ground. If two brothers were ever meant to reunite and do an album of Big Bill Broonzy songs, it has to be this pair. They grew up together (in bunk beds) listening to blues records, and had their psyches twisted beyond repair once that groove took hold. Through garage bands, world domination with the Blasters (well, almost) and solo careers that run strong like a river, Phil and Dave Alvin have done as much to help keep American music moving as anyone. By grabbing ahold of these great songs, injecting them with the fever and showing everyone how to play blues with true feeling, Downey's finest have done us all a huge favor. Bless 'em both.
The Barr Brothers, Sleeping Operator. For semi-new rock bands who are willing to leave the reservation and refine elements of roots rock in a way that defies description, this outfit is it. Maybe it's because the Barr Brothers have captured a newfound magic that is never too reverential toward the past. Nothing is less invigorating than what's already been heard a time or two too many. No problem of that here. This band shoots for the stars, and gets there every time. Brad Barr is a lead singer for the ages, and everything he does he does very well. The group ventured into Canada to search for their Northern soul, and boy, did they find it. Talk about raising the Barr. Now it's just a matter of time before the masses catch up. When they do, it'll be star time.
Pieta Brown, Paradise Outlaw. Sometimes the veterans, those who toil not quite in the spotlight but never shy away from goodness and greatness and everything else that comes with touching the spirits of fellow humans, find their way forward. Others discover, tell more and there is a culmination of making life work like it should. That is the hope now for Pieta Brown, because she has done the work and moved ever onward into what should be a fine future. These songs point to someone who sees beyond this world but is able to tell us things we might know but not understand. And does it in a way that is utterly gorgeous. "Flowers of Love" opens that window, then Pieta Brown's duet with Amos Lee, "Do You Know?", takes everything into the outdoors. The dozen other songs on what should be Brown's breakthrough are all that good. Endless.
Cherry Glazerr, Haxel Princess. When two high school girls join with the token male 23-year-old guy, how can cranking rock and roll not happen? Don't ask Cherry Glazerr, because happen it does on their debut disc. Boy, does it. They address the affairs of the young heart right on the money, like on "Grilled Cheese," and then turn around and get almost all grown up with "White's Not My Color This Evening." It's usually for certain that when a band is this good this young, come the time the girls turn 20 and enter young womanhood things could really start popping. Fortunately, there's no reason to wait for that happen, because it's happening right now. Guitarist-singer Clem Creevy is already ready for her close-up, and hearing her break out on "All My Friends" is to know there is no turning back. Glazed and amazed.
Bobby Hutcherson, David Sanborn, Joey DeFrancesco featuring Billy Hart, Enjoy the View. The right jazz album can make the world spin in a little livelier cycle, and this one fits that bill completely. Bobby Hutcherson is a vibes player with few equals, always able to make his notes float in the zone. David Sanborn can go blue on a dime, and stay there when he wants. And he sure wants to here. Joey DeFrancesco is a modern Hammond organ player who knows the history of his instrument, but never stops there. And, well, Billy Hart is one of the handful of historical jazz drummers left who plays with the fire of the giants and the heart of a master. Together, they are in sync with the big spirit in the sky, and more than happy to take listeners there with them.
Jim Keller, Heaven Can Wait.Say it fast and then move on: Jim Keller was in Tommy Tutone and co-wrote with Alex Call the chart-busting hit "867-5309/Jenny." Now for more modern news — Keller has continued making music since those early '80s band days, and on this new album has found his proudest moment. The eleven songs, produced to just enough perfection by Hector Castillo and Byron Isaacs, sound like a lost majestic peak at new music, and overflow not only with searing sentiments but also a gravitas missing from so many other 50-somethings' offerings. There is upbeat, there is downbeat and there is all-around beat, but no matter what is going on it will be done with smarts and sophistication and still stay in the street. From the hit-waiting-to-happen "Walk You Home" to "Take Me For a Ride" (with that cool nod to Talking Heads' "Uh Oh Love Comes to Town") and everything else, Jim Keller has discovered the secret sauce and isn't shy about spreading it everywhere. Busting loose could be right around the corner.
Amy LaVere, Runaway Diary. Memphis can always be counted on to up the ante with musicians and bring out their best. Amy LaVere spent her early years in Louisiana and then moved with her family 13 times before she ended up in a punk band in Detroit. From there Nashville called for a minute before she went west to Memphis. As a singer, LaVere can fill the till full of mystery with a voice that comes from a different world. Producer Luther Dickinson never builds solid walls around her, but instead lets a liquid border move and groove with the music. There isn't anyone out there right now like Amy LaVere, and even though she's not a newcomer, this new album feels like the one to build a road to a bright future. Accept no substitute.
The New Basement Tapes, Lost on the River. "Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine / I'm on the pavement thinking about the government..." Bob Dylan warned us almost 50 years ago what was coming, and once the man went up to Woodstock and then down into the Big Pink basement, things were getting somewhat squirrelly. He was writing so many songs and lyrics he didn't know what to do with them, and now 47 years later he gave a notebook full to producer T Bone Burnett and said, "Have at it." Burnett rounded up Elvis Costello, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith, Rhiannon Giddens and Marcus Mumford to add music to the words and, voilá, the New Basement Tapes is born. It probably shouldn't be a surprise just how good the results are, but it sure is anyway. This is music that sounds brand new, born today, and all involved brought their A-game and open receptors to the studio. Twanging from start to end, in or out of the basement.
Jesse Winchester, A Reasonable Amount of Trouble. Such a total heartbreaker to lose someone of Jesse Winchester's stature this year. The Southern man has been making indispensable albums for 44 years, and still showed signs of just hitting his peak on this new release. He left the United States for Canada in the '60s because he didn't agree with the war in Vietnam, and once his debut set of songs hit in 1970, a master was born. The most stunning news, though, is that his new originals are as good as anything he's ever done, right up there with classics like "Yankee Lady," "Biloxi" and "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz." Winchester's voice still seems born of surprise, and his lyrics have the fine eye for details and delight all the great Southern voices show. The album ender, "Just So Much," captures the finality of life better than anything ever done, and should be sung at funerals forever: "So where do I find Him it's never quite clear / I'm dying to find Him and dying's my fear / Is there perfection will there be pain / Will I see Mama and Daddy again / Why won't He tell me what it's about / Give me some answers clear up my doubt / But there is just so much there is only so much / Just so much that the Lord can do / It's true too true." Time-stopping. And so true.
HT Young, More Than We Was. The sneak attack of the year goes to HT Young, someone who ran the streets of Austin and beyond with utter abandon in the '80s when he helmed Tex Thomas and the Dangling Wranglers. Rest assured the band did way more than dangle. Flash forward 30-plus years and Young has hit that point when looking back not only makes sense, it also provides an insight into the eternal in a way nothing else does. He has the same ability to tangle with the intangibles that Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley clearly did, and does it in a way that is all his own. These songs are a permanent pick-me-up, even when some of them sound like they're coming from somewhere near the center of the earth. Always forever.
Song of the Year: Doug Seegers, "Angie's Song." How to even internalize a song that begins "Let me be the one who mails you a note of confidence / While you're laying there in jail / Let me be the one who cries and moans to the hanging judge / Gotta give my baby some bail..." Doug Seegers had a long hard patch in his life, singing on the streets, sometimes sleeping in his car or under a bridge, but all along kept his eye on the sparrow and sought to live in the light. When a Swedish filmmaker put him on television there, he became a star overseas and eventually recorded this song. It's an overpowering ode to courage and faith and, finally, God. It is so real and heartful it makes the knees weak and eyes wet, and anyone who really hears it will never be the same. Seegers says it best: "Let me be the one with his eye on His face / 'Cause he knows God can fix anything / Let me be the one who shares His Love and His grace / Making a joyful noise when I sing / Let me be the one who's finally learning how to hold on tight / I'm still here baby..." That is the sound of the soul turning. Finally.
Reissue of the Year: Grateful Dead, Two from the Vault. How to describe what LSD did to the musicians who were taking rock and roll into the new territory, striking out from three-minute songs and all the other commonplace traditions? The drug erased the entire rule book in one fell swoop, knocked down the door to infinity and invited all to explore a brave new world. It wasn't always easy, because acid could often pull the rug out from under the band and leave them bewildered. But the Grateful Dead were not afraid of falling, and in fact rushed headlong over the edge and into the cosmos.
What they found there is beautifully captured on these four vinyl discs, recorded on August 23-24, 1968 at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium, which had been onetime home to the Academy Awards, among other straight show business soirees. The Dead had other ideas for these two nights, and listening to the music now is to not only relive what once was, but more importantly to know that inner space is a wondrous destination, forever beckoning no matter how it's traversed. Personal note: I turned 18 on the second of these two nights, and while I was half a country away in Houston, once the Grateful Dead found their way to Texas for the first time four months later, the portals of perception would forever be opened.