[9 December 2008]
America’s hyper-obsession with youth has taken over the music charts. This is especially true if you are female. At 18, Taylor Swift has already conquered country and is headed for crossover success. Pop artists like Hilary Duff, Kellie Pickler, Rihanna, and Miley Cryus have become mega-stars as teenagers, while UK singers Joss Stone, Adele, Duffy, Estelle, and others have come from the retro R&B wing and have had a great success on the pop scene as well. There are literally scores of other teenage girls and women in their early 20s who have rocketed their way to the top during the past year. The adage in the music industry now is that if a woman doesn’t have a hit by the time she’s 22 years old, she should probably look for another career.
That’s obviously a load of blarney. There are a multitude of great female artists making great music who are more than twice that age. These women are not on a comeback, have not matured or ripened, or whatever other cliché one might use. For the most part, they have had consistently strong careers full of wonderful recordings and have kept on making great records. Their discs have appeared on various national top ten lists for decades and in all likelihood will continue to do so.
Below is a list of the top ten albums by women 45 years and older. These records range in styles and genres, which suggests that no matter what field a female musician enters, she can continue to grow and thrive. These discs are among the best these women have ever made. That is no mean feat as these musicians are recognized as leaders in their fields with a strong repertoire. Following is a list of other such women who have also released notable records this year. De gustibus non disputandum est.
This may be Sam Phillips’ 11th studio album, but it’s the first one that she’s self-produced. The disc reveals her eclectic pop sensibilities in a mysterious, incandescent way. Sometimes she invokes the spirit of the Beatles (“My Career in Chemistry”) and other times she digs into gospel (“Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”); but no matter what muse she conjures, the music seems taken out of the blue sky and the storm clouds and finds itself transformed into some ethereal place where we all live and listen for signs and wonders. There’s a delicacy to the whole project with the tensile properties of stainless steel.
John Baez established herself early on as someone whose ears were as golden as her voice. She was able to appreciate quality songwriting and add a personal touch to her covers that made the songs distinctively hers. This time she offers selections from established artists like Steve Earle (who produced the disc), Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello, along with lesser known yet impeccable talents like Patty Griffin, Eliza Gilkyson, and Thea Gilmore. Baez offers passionate renditions of their songs that share a common theme of existing at the corner of where the personal meets the political.
3The soulful timbre of Bonnie Bramlett’s voice has been noted by other great artists for decades. Her career as a musician and actress have led her to a variety of endeavors, but her latest release shows that she hasn’t lost her touch. She can turn Steven Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” into a gospel number just by slowing it down and accentuating each syllable. The real standout track here is here version of Steven Conn’s “Beautiful”. Bramlett wrings every ounce of emotion out of the words simply by holding back the tears and the screams while eloquently letting the words and the music speak. Her rendition of the song is guaranteed to break your heart.
One could have guessed never to count out the daughter of June Carter Cash (and Johnny Cash’s stepdaughter) just because she encountered some adversity in her life. As the title says, she’s come back stronger on this hard-drivin’ album of heartfelt music. She sings about lessons learned the hard way, but she’s far from bitter. “Why Be Blue” as she succinctly puts it on one cut. Carter knows she’s still cool. While the music scene has radically changed since her early days as a country punk chanteuse, Carter still has the attitude and the chops, and she knows how to use them.
The year 2008 might seem too modern for a concept album about coal mining, but Kathy Mattea knows better. In these energy hungry days where millions of dollars in public relations money gets spent promoting clean coal, Mattea reminds us of the difficult life of coal miners through forthright and passionate versions of classic songs by Merle Travis, Hazel Dickens, and Jean Ritchie as well as lesser known tunes that ring as clear and loud as John Henry’s hammer. Marty Stuart’s production lets Mattea’s voice tell the stories in a loud, clear voice that expresses survival in a world where pain has found a home.
Aimee Mann is back to writing and singing short, sharp, satirical ditties about life in these United States. But this is no Readers Digest version of humor. Mann looks at the dark side of having too much money but not enough to live, too much time yet not enough to do what one wants, and too much knowledge but not enough sense to find peace of mind. Her voice operates like a scalpel. She cuts the listener while sweetly offering details and entrails that make a person squirm with self-awareness, like bumping one’s funny bone a too hard against something pointed and solid.
Phoebe Snow never completely left the music business, but she did put her career on hold to care for her brain-damaged daughter. Sadly, Snow’s daughter has died. The singer hasn’t forgotten her. Her daughter’s spirit surrounds Snow’s performances compiled here from a two-night show in Woodstock, NY. Snow sings some of her old hits, some newer tunes, and a few classic covers using all of her multi-octave range. No one in pop can hit the high notes like Snow, nor can anyone else manage to make the lyrics laugh and giggle in time in the same way.
Can this really be Emmylou Harris’s 21st studio album on a major label? Her work ethic is only rivaled by her talents and concern for the world in which we live. She covers some outlaw classics by Billy Joe Shaver and Merle Haggard, some contemporary female songwriters like Patty Griffin and Tracy Chapman, and also shows off her own songwriting abilities on the stunning “Sailing Around the Room” (inspired by the Terry Schiavo case) and “How She Could Sing the Wildwood Flower” (based on A.P. and Sara Carter’s marriage). These last two songs were cowritten by two other women deserving of praise, Kate and Anna McGarrigle.
This female trio took a 30-year hiatus before getting back together, but Patti Labelle has certainly kept busy while Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash still know how to sing. To be honest, the disc is more Patti and company than a full collaboration, but the three of them do have chemistry together. They voices soar, especially on the standout track, “The Truth Will Set You Free”, but all of the cuts have strong merits. The trio sings about love, civil rights, the state of the world, and even offer up a straight cover of Cole Porter’s classic “Miss Otis Regrets” with energy and a wry intelligence.
The Argentinean songstress has a sound all her own. She chirps and croons in rhythmic ways that create an atmosphere that is simultaneously ancient and modern. Is this folk based traditional music with a kick or the latest techno with Spanish accents? Who knows and who cares? The most important thing is that Molina creates a world of her own that captures listeners and takes them on journeys that transcend international boundaries. There’s something hypnotic happening here as one’s consciousness expands simply through the act of hearing simple musical elements.
While these ten albums are the best ones released by women over 45 this year, the names of 11 others who also made fine albums this year should also be noted: Rory Block, Mavis Staples, Patty Loveless, Eliza Gilkyson, Carly Simon, Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton, Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, Patti Smith, and Grace Jones. No doubt many of these women’s albums will show up on other best of lists this year.