Following last week's collection of worthy albums released in 2011, there's no reason not to keep pushing that thought and offer another ten new releases and two reissues to try and tie a ribbon around the year. Yes, the Mayan calendar is supposedly running out on December 21, 2012, so it's either time to amp up the volume quick and go for the gusto during the next 12 months as the endsayers are envisioning the finish line, or possibly see the Mayans might have made a few mistakes here and there. Nobody's perfect. Either way, music is the healing force and the perfect antidote to whatever shape your world is in. Rejoice, dear hearts.
Mary Flower, Misery Loves Company. It's not easy being blue. Ask Mary Flower. Maybe that's why she asked 11 different musicians to each join her for a duet, and it makes all the difference in the world. Whether it's Curtis Salgado on harmonica, Colin Linden on guitar or James Mason on violin, the idea itself is a charming way for Flower to find a new road through such a rootsy sound. As a guitarist, she has the instrument covered. As a singer, the Portland, Oregon woman holds her own with anyone. Now it's like she's found the best of all worlds and gets to open up at the same time she zooms in. On "Shake Sugaree" near the end, it's a hallelujah moment when Mary Flower takes herself—and her listeners—home. Beautiful.
James Elkington & Nathan Salsburg, Avos. Guitar duets don't always work. There has to be instant chemistry and a lot of luck to create an entire album of two people sitting next to each other and playing together. Englishman James Elkington and American Nathan Salsburg sound like they were meant to do this, from writing the music, finding two other players, and then performing the 13 songs with such glory. It leaves a breathless feeling from the very first notes, as they both support and push each other to higher levels. They even dub in an ancient sound cylinder from Alan Lomax of Ket Shaman for good luck, direct from the Russian Institute of Literature in Leningrad. The two aren't fooling around. Don't try this at home, but listen frequently. Mesmerizing.
Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire. Sometimes it really does come down to the long distance runners — those musicians who start with such initial promise, make their way to the front of the pack to look like they're going home with all the medals, and then sputter somewhere along the way until even their most ardent followers get confused. Ryan Adams has left a few question marks along the way, but with this year's release he practically levitates to the front of the line again. All these songs shimmer with truth, and also strike deep in the heart with pure strength. The recording itself, surely thanks in part to producer Glyn Johns, is a classic, but it's in the lyrics and vocals that Adams shows how he has found himself once again, and there are very few equals. Stunning.
Samba Toure, Crocodile Blues. As a Malian guitarist, Samba Toure spreads his own glow. Naturally following in the path of the iconic Ali Farka Toure doesn't mean there isn't room for new blood, and that's where these songs get over. Samba Toure spreads blues through everything he touches, but also pulls in all the African elements that run through his hands. Recording during Ramadan couldn't help but put an even heavier spiritual spin on the sessions, and Toure stepped up to meet that challenge. World music is an eternal gift and never fails to inspire. The way these blues extend the borders of what African music is known for is like the true gift that keeps on giving. Hot and cool.
Jon Regen, Revolution. With so many albums finding daylight every year it's not easy for one to create its own world. But that's just what Jon Regen has accomplished. Known for many years as Jimmy Scott's musical director, Regen has been writing originals all along waiting for the right time to spring them on the world. Who knew just how full-formed the results would be? His voice is a pure expression, finding a soulful express lane on songs like "Just Waiting for Now" and "One Part Broken, Two Parts Blue." One foot is solid in the singer-pianist tradition while the other is feeling for new ground. With special guests Andy Summers, Benmont Tench, David McAlmont, and others, the musicality is well-covered. On everything else, Jon Regen has earned the spotlight. Let it shine.
T Bone Burnett Presents the Speaking Clock Revue Live from the Beacon Theatre. With a title almost as long as the album, T Bone Burnett plays the ultimate musical ringmaster and wrangles different friends to throw in for his Speaking Clock Revue. While there's no real unifying thread except that all the participants have their own pull, what does come across is intriguing for its luminosity. Elvis Costello kicks things off with total pizzazz on "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," as the lights on Broadway hit full glow. Ralph Stanley, John Mellencamp, Karen Elson, Jim James, and others twist and turn through a fine evening of song, proving that Burnett really does have a Midas touch when it comes to music. And chances are he even looks good in a top hat. Step right up.
Honey Honey, Billy Jack. Susan Santo and Ben Jaffe are Honey Honey, and as sweet as that name might sound, there is darkness on the edge of town. Opening song "Angel of Death" lets that black cat out of the bag real quick, and opens the door for a wild ride through Los Angeles. Whether it's getting lost in Echo Park or finding bliss the Santa Monica Mountains, this duo is positively fearless. Before putting them too far into the Americana bag, this music spreads outside the country to other lands just on sheer emotion. The one to watch in 2012, auld lang syne and all.
Chris Pierce, Looking for the Spark. If any artist deserved to find a spark this year it's Chris Pierce. He made a soul album that breaks every convention there is to break, and did it without asking for favor one. His voice carries the conviction of someone who realizes how hard the road is going to be, but pushes ahead because there is no alternative. Pierce overcame a hearing problem to find his voice, and writes songs that seem to come from a place we all want to go but can't quite get there. This man gets there and then some. Along the way he records Bill Withers' "Hope She'll Be Happier" just to show he knows we can all use a helping hand. Listen and lend one now, for him and us.
T Bird and the Breaks, Never Get Out of This Funk Alive. Like any good street jam album, the quality of the music goes up with the frequency of the mention of fried chicken. T Bird and the Breaks are strutting in high cotton, because they work in the bird word on several occasions, but never gratuitously. These not-so-mellow fellows get on the good foot right out of the chute, and never lighten up. Consider the opening song: "I Gets My Boogie On." Right there they show they've not afraid to mess with the English language, and show that even with advanced degrees these are boogie brothers of the highest order. LIterally. Follow them through 15 songs, including Tom Waits' "The Clap Hands Song," and ending with "Monkey in a Tree," and learn how evolution really works. Darwin is smiling.
Ruff Kutt Blues Band, Mill Block Blues. Just when the blues feels like it's hitting mighty close to fumes a new idea comes through. The Cotton Mill block was in a small town in northern Texas, on the other side of the proverbial tracks. The Ruff Kutt Blues Band's James Goode wrote a suite of songs about growing up in the Mill Block area, and enlisted a power block of blues players to bring them to vivid life. Guitarist-producer Anson Funderburgh burns these tunes to the core, as he always does, and is joined by such other vets as Hash Brown on harmonica, Shurhonda Kemp on vocals, Ron Jones on sax and several other stellar names. It's their togetherness that really matters, though, as they all pitch in to tell the story of a very special place and time in Texas. The going might have gotten rough, but the people used the blues to find their way. Amen.
Frank Sinatra, Sinatra: Best of the Best. "Best of" collections can be tricky business. To semi-quote Bill Clinton: it all depends on what is meant by the word "best." But in this case, Frank Sinatra's catalogue really is filtered through a fine-tooth comb to come up with the toppermost of the poppermost, starting with 1953's "I've Got the World on a String." The Capitol and Reprise releases get cherry-picked with perfect acumen for, yes, the ultimate 23-song Best Of. Even with minor quibbles it's hard to imagine one disc delighting so many. For fun the two-disc version includes a long out-of-print Seattle concert that veers widely in song selection but shows just why Ol' Blue Eyes, onstage at least, always had perfect vision. Bravo.
The Louvin Brothers, Satan Is Real. When country music adjusts the mixture of gospel music into the end result, look out. There is something almost spooky about those high lonesome voices turning the light of the Lord on some of the more human shenanigans going on around the earth. When those voices belong to Ira and Charlie Louvin, it's all over but the shouting. This album set hair on end when it was released in the '50s, and for some zealots has never been equaled. Losing Ira at a young age, Charlie Louvin went on to become an elder statesman of country until his death a year ago. Listening to the devil get his due isn't for the faint-hearted though. Luckily, there's a companion disc of favorite Louvin Brothers songs as picked by contemporary artists, and a good trip it is to hear so many of these genre-defining songs sitting on one disc. Yee haw forever.