It was another fine year for alternative country music. My top two choices are from artists whose releases, strictly speaking, aren’t overtly country, but they’ve still got strong ties. The third is drenched in the “Countrypolitan” sound that alt.country traditionally reviles, but that’s the great thing about genres: their infinitely flexible dialogues. And for those of us who remain Whiskeytown fans, 2002 saw three of that band’s major players with new albums. (See “Whiskeytown Survivor” designators.)
So here’s my baker’s dozen and a few extras.
1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
Despite all the fanfare that accompanied the long-delayed release of this album, it earned the hype. Here Wilco explores the difficulties inherent to communication—any communication—in a sea of sounds that found Jeff Tweedy’s writing becoming increasingly imagistic and the band’s sound even more experimental. Every time I listen to this one, I hear something new.
Standout tracks: “Jesus, Etc.” and Poor Places”.
(One note: Many critics are calling this Tweedy’s masterpiece—and there’s no doubt about what he’s accomplished here. But it’s important to remember that Jay Bennett also contributed significantly to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. After all, he helped make this record before being evicted from Wilco.)
2. Beck, Sea Change (Geffen/Interscope)
Although not as funky or flamboyant as some of Beck’s earlier music, this introspective album finds him exploring the collapse of a relationship. On the surface, the sounds are beautiful, but Beck, being Beck, pounds enough holes in the texture to remind the listener of the pain wrapped in the music. This is my new record for blue days.
Standout tracks: “The Golden Age” and “Lonesome Tears”.
3. Mike Ireland and Holler, Try Again (Ashmont)
This man knows how to write albums. Listening to a Mike Ireland record is like reading a novel, and the musical tensions that pull the narrative along are fascinating. In large part a response to the death of Ireland’s father, this is a deeply moving work from an artist who deserves to be heard more widely.
Standout tracks: “Welcome Back” and “Try Again”.
4. Caitlin Cary, While You Weren’t Looking (Yep Roc)
Finally Caitlin Cary releases an album for all of us desperate to hear what she’s been working (besides the Waltzie EP) since the collapse of Whiskeytown. Her moment in the spotlight is luminous with careful songs and wonderful liner notes. And thanks for the extra disc that finally gave us a studio version of “Battle”.
Standout tracks: “Pony” and “Thick Walls Down”.
5. Ryan Adams, Demolition (Lost Highway)
Although Caitlin Cary struggled to put together her debut album, Adams’ prolific career continues apace (complete with a post-Oscar party pic taken with Elton John and Bob Dylan). Record labels simply can’t release his material fast enough—and there’s more in the can. Most critics loved Heartbreaker and Gold, but to me, this one’s the best thing he’s done solo, pieces of an astonishing career.
Standout tracks: “Starting to Hurt” and “Jesus (Don’t Touch My Baby)”.
6. Jay Bennett and Edward Burch, The Palace at 4 am (Part I) (Undertow)
Bennett and Burch have crafted an album that begs for repeated listenings. This is a textured, insightful album with lots of interesting sonic details. It serves as a reminder of what Jay Bennett brought to Wilco.
Standout tracks: “Talk to me” and “Venus Stopped the Train”.
7. Buddy Miller, Midnight and Lonesome (Hightone)
It’s Buddy Miller—what more is there to say? One again, he brings great blues-based songs, including Julie’s moving “Quecreek Mine”, and great musicianship. Plus, the man’s helping revive the Optigan—you’ve gotta respect that.
Standout tracks: “Water When the Well Is Dry” and “When It Comes to Love”.
8. Florence Dore, Perfect City (Slewfoot)
Dore’s singing and smart songwriting coupled with Roscoe Amble’s production make for an affective combination. This is smart music.
Standout tracks: “Christmas” and “Wintertown (Ode to Kent State, OH)”.
9. Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, Reckless Burning (Burn, Burn, Burn)
Phil Wandscher left Whiskeytown and took his guitar to Seattle where he hooked up with Jesse Sykes to create an atmospheric album with moody guitar, haunting cello and vocals, and wonderfully imagistic lyrics. This one should be heard more widely.
Standout tracks: “Reckless Burning” and “Lullaby”.
10. Heather Myles, Sweet Talk and Good Lies (Rounder)
If Rose Maddox were alive today, she’d love Heather Myles, whose tough, twangy singing and songwriting harken back to her Haggard and Owens roots in the Bakersfield Sound of the Other California, not the glint of Nashville. It’s country music like it should be.
Standout tracks: “The Love You Left Behind” and “Cry Me a River”.
11. Roger Wallace, The Lowdown (Lone Star)
I’ll just come out and say it: I love this guy. Wallace knows his honky tonk and gives it a nice twist. Here’s hoping that the future holds great things for him.
Standout tracks: “The Lowdown” and “Me and Abalina Jane”.
12. Billy Joe Shaver, Freedom’s Child (Compadre)
A friend told me that if Billy Joe Shaver got one-third of the attention Johnny Cash had this year, the world would be a better place, and he’s right. Honesty, thy name is Billy Joe Shaver. Here, Shaver, honest to a fault, explores as range of musical styles while considering the changes that life forces on all of us.
Standout tracks: “Day by Day” and “Deja Blues”.
Et al. - Various Notes
Best Re-release (Other than the re-released Johnny Cash albums on Sony-Legacy)
Uncle Tupelo, 89-93 Anthology (Sony/Legacy)
It’s great to hear all these songs together although the real treat is finally having a studio cut of the band’s cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. I just wish they’d used a version with more banjo.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, The Rising (Columbia)
I’m a long-time fan of the Boss, but this one just didn’t work for me though I understand what he’s trying to do both musically and lyrically. In the end, however, it just drove me to dig out my copy of Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Steve Earle, Jerusalem (E-Squared/Artemis)
Earle has never been shy about his politics—it’s one of the strengths of his music—but I tend to like him better when he’s being more subtly political in songs like “Copperhead Road” or “The Mountain”. That said, “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” just plain rocks!
Worst Country Song
Toby Keith’s “The Angry American”. Talk about someone deserving the boot. . . .
Worst Country Cover
Brooks & Dunn’s version of ZZ Top’s “Rough Boy” from Sharp-Dressed Men: A Tribute to ZZ Top (RCA)
Before this, Colin Raye’s cover of the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” held the title, but this bests (worsts?) that one. Brooks & Dunn are bad; Brooks & Dunn with a Peter Frampton “Do-You-Feel-Like-I-Do” microphone are worse. I get a headache just thinking about it.
Best Country Cover
Dwight Yoakum’s “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” from the same album.
The song starts with some pedal steel against a rock beat; then the bassline hits hard; and finally Pete Anderson’s guitar takes it away. Vintage Dwight.
Jack Ingram’s “Fool” on Electric (Lucky Dog)
I’m still uncertain about the entire album, but I do like this song—a whole lot.
Best Hidden Track
Eddy Shaver’s “Necessary Evil” on Billy Joe Shaver’s Freedom’s Child (Compadre)
In an interview, Billy Joe told me that he recorded the song while Eddy was playing his guitar in the garage one night shortly before his death of an accidental heroin overdose. Stunning and tragic.
Most Desperately Needed Album
Various Artists, The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides (Bloodshot)
Finally, songs for children that aren’t sung by a purple dinosaur, Teletubbies, or Bob the Builder. With The Bottle Let Me Down, Bloodshot brings together some of alt.country’s finest. Standout track: The Cornell Hurd Band’s “Don’t Wipe Your Face on Your Shirt”.
The Album from 2001 I Still Really Love
The Drive-by Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera (Lost Highway)
It’s been over a year, and I still listen to it all the time. In case you haven’t heard it yet, the SRO‘s been re-released on Lost Highway. I adore Patterson Hood! (And will someone please tell me how to get a copy of Killers and Stars, his solo album?)