I grapple a lot with so-called "top ten lists." For me, they're usually a self-indulgent snapshot of a moment in time, and I'm never entirely comfortable with judging artists of any stripe anyhow. But what the hell -- everyone else is doing it, right? Here's my top ten list of 2009 -- listed in no particular order.
Plain and simple, Levon makes me happy. You can't listen to this guy without wanting to shake it just a little bit. Very few musicians have managed to remain as timely and as talented as this guy over the span of nearly half a century. The guy's managed to score two Grammies, too (but don't hold that against him).
Band of Heathens - One Foot in the Ether
To me, these guys are the heir apparent to Levon Helm's old group, The Band. They're an ensemble group of skilled musicians whose talented playing is matched only by their incisive songwriting. I've yet to see these cats live, but they're at the top of my list.
Miranda Lambert - Revolution
Ok, let's get it out of the way upfront. She's terribly hot and more than a little dangerous looking. But if she's got the musical chops to back it up, then so much the better. Despite getting her foot in the door through some insipid reality TV show, and in spite of living deep behind enemy lines in Na$hville, she puts out smart music. And the girl isn't afraid to rock, either. Her interpretation of John Prine's That's the Way that the World Goes 'Round stuns me every time I hear it.
Charlie Robison - Beautiful Day
This effort sticks with me, since writing about it some months back. It feels deeply personal, yet almost anyone can relate to what he's communicating. Beauty, forged through agony.
Patterson Hood - Murdering Oscar
The DBT frontman cut this album during the time that his daughter Ava was born, and to me, his songs showa lot of emotional maturity -- as well as frustration -- that fatherhood tends to invoke. It's also the first album that he cuts a few tracks with his dad, including my personal favorite, I Understand Now, a nice admission that maybe dad's advice wasn't all bad.
The Bottle Rockets - Lean Forward
I've said it once and I'll say it again: the boys from Festus, Missouri don't get the credit that they're due. You mean a consortium of 30 top alt-country/americana blogs doesn't even mention them on their best-of Bird List? Shame on them! To call them America's Best Bar Band is doing them a disservice. These guys can do it all, and they show it once again on Lean Forward.
Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses - Roadhouse Sun
Another disc that only gets better with time. This kid has a bright, bright future. Bingham's also really got me looking forward to watching "Crazy Heart" on the big screen -- for which he penned the theme song, The Weary Kind. Could we be looking at a Kris Kristofferson starter kit here??
Uncle Lucius - Pick Your Head Up
I've only been listening to Uncle Lucius for a couple of weeks, but this Austin quartet feels like the heir apparent to the Black Crowes. Straightforward rock, liberally seasoned with blues and soul. Whiskey-stained vocals, a horns section, and moog organs... what's not to like?
Cross Canadian Ragweed - Happiness and All the Other Things
Seriously, am I the only one to put this on a list? And what does that mean? It either means it's not that great of an album, or that the alt-twang politburo has decided they're no longer a part of the club. It's not their greatest effort by any stretch, but with songs like 51 Pieces, To Find My Love, and Pretty Lady, it's far from a clunker.
Todd Snider - The Excitement Plan
By his own admission, Snider sings that, "I'm broke as the Ten Commandments, and sometimes I'm harder to follow," and I'd have to agree. The guy is brilliant, but sometimes, for some reason, I find him hard to listen to. Maybe it's because there's complexity in nearly everything he writes. This one is vintage Snider, with thoughtful, yet quirky lyrics. Who else could pull off putting a song about uh, recycling ("Doll Face") on the same album as "America's Favorite Pastime," a song about the no-hitter pitched by Doc Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1970 while he was on acid?
So that's my year in review. And I'll be honest, it was a lot more difficult to put together a top ten list than I had anticipated.
Artist to watch in 2010: Pinto Bennett. That's because Reckless Kelly is working up a tribute to this famous Motel Cowboy. It's not easy to find his stuff, but it's worth the effort. I can't wait to see how RK interprets one of their godfathers. It's going to be a great 2010, isn't it?