15. Jon Dee Graham – Only Dead For a Little While (Strolling Bones / New West)
Only Dead For a Little While is Jon Dee Graham’s first album in seven years. It showcases the Lone Star musician’s sick humor, creative talent, and generous spirit. He literally did die in 2019 but miraculously came back to life. As the title indicates, Graham’s better now. He’s learned his lesson—the existential one—that we’re only on this planet for a short while and that one thing we all have in common is that we all die eventually. “Move over Lazarus,” he croons, “I’ll help you carry your bags.” Coming back to life may not be for everyone and is only temporary. The most potent song on Only Dead For a Little While is Graham’s dark cover of Reverend Gary Davis’ “Death Ain’t Got No Mercy”. The song’s title says it all. – Steve Horowitz
14. Mick Flannery – Goodtime Charlie (Oh Boy Records)
Mick Flannery uses his gravel-edged voice to full effect on his latest album, Goodtime Charlie. He cultivates the nuances of his limits. He’ll sing in an aching falsetto or a booming bass with the same grit in his voice. Flannery isn’t afraid of drama and theatrically presents his music. This is ART, it says, and that’s not a bad thing.
The Irishman pens pleasant melodies with clean and sparse arrangements and an ear for beauty. Much of Goodtime Charlie, Flannery’s eighth and first American release, was conceived, written, and created during COVID-19. There is a sense of loneliness on this record, even in the songs that feature duets with artists. Flannery uses silence or the sound of a lone instrument to create a mood, and it’s mostly a quiet record. – Steve Horowitz
13. Dulcie Taylor – Edges of Silver (Mesa / Bluemoon)
Singer-songwriter Dulcie Taylor’s latest release, the EP Edges of Silver, is a little gem. Each of the five folk-rock/Americana-style songs shimmers with intelligence and sensitivity. Taylor pens literate lyrics and pairs them with catchy pop hooks and nuanced musicianship. Like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Gretchen Peters, and Shawn Colvin, she connects her characters’ personal growth with more significant issues to show the deep connections that happen over time.
Taylor reminds one of the darkness. She knows that clouds obscure the moon behind them. The light may be hidden, but it is still present. This works as a metaphor for the dark days we are living through. The positive elements are still with us. The future promises to be clearer. – Steve Horowitz
12. Angel Olsen – Forever Means (Jagjaguwar)
Angel Olsen‘s Forever Means continues the specific sound of its predecessor. Consisting of four tracks, it draws from the recording sessions for that LP, venturing further into the root system of classic Americana. As the title suggests, it also examines “forever” as a theme. Forever in what sense? Sometimes, it’s about living with the past – former love above all – which can grant contrasting senses of freedom and restraint. “Here it comes no way to stop it now / I’m broken,” she sings with a dose of melancholy, “Down for you like no one else / Like no one else.” These lines, suspended on a drawn melody of piano, saxophone, and organ, are from the opening track, “Nothing’s Free”, a slow dance number that sets the mood. The record provides a coda for Big Time, completing a set of thoughts begun with that album’s recording. It reaffirms her rising status as a worthy successor to esteemed figures like Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Iris DeMent. – Christopher J. Lee
11. Dylan LeBlanc – Coyote (ATO)
Dylan LeBlanc’s fifth album, Coyote, is a concept project about a man living on the edge and doing what it takes to survive in a harsh world. The protagonist finds himself trapped in criminal enterprises and dire situations. The details about his life, circumstances, experiences with Mexican drug cartels, prison, and finding love make a compelling story. LeBlanc sings in the voice of a desperate man. He sounds like one who suffers long after the initial pain is gone. LeBlanc is more interested in depicting what exists than judging it. He offers a picture of a wretched individual and says it is a self-portrait. I hope not for his sake, but this tale reveals that LeBlanc understands what it can take to live in the modern world. – Steve Horowitz
10. Lucinda Williams – Stories From a Rock n Roll Heart (Highway 20 / Thirty Tigers)
Lucinda Williams‘ Stories From a Rock n Roll Heart begins with a look backward and forward with “Let’s Get the Band Back Together”, a rollicking number that brings the good old days into the present. It’s a noisy barroom ballad. Think of Tom Petty and Mudcrutch. The LP ends with “Never Gonna Fade Away”. Like Neil Young, Kurt Cobain, Buddy Holly, and other rockers before her, Williams proclaims allegiance to ROCK. She clearly announces that she’s not going gently into that good night. She may feel burned out, but she still wants to get higher. She refuses to give up without a fight. She’s the same as she ever was, goddamnit. All hail the queen of Americana. – Steve Horowitz
9. Rodney Crowell – The Chicago Sessions (New West)
Rodney Crowell’s The Chicago Sessions was produced by Jeff Tweedy, engineered by Tom Schick, and recorded at the Loft, a 5,000-square-foot third-floor warehouse studio Wilco have used since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s also where recordings from Mavis Staples to Richard Thompson were crafted. As with those and other artists whose albums he’s produced, Tweedy’s method is not to impose his sonic imprint but to allow the artist the space and tools to create their vision. As such, Crowell sounds comfortable, confident, and at ease throughout The Chicago Sessions while gifting us some of his best material in years.
That comfortable confidence is apparent from the start with “Lucky”. Featuring vibrant, driving piano from Catherine Marx, Crowell celebrates making a life with someone who allows him to be himself. “Loving You Is the Only Way to Fly” (co-written with Jedd Hughes and Sarah Buxton), on the other hand, finds the narrator pining and carrying a torch, most likely in vain. Crowell’s influences come to bear on the laid-back groove of “Oh Miss Claudia” by way of fellow Texan Lightnin’ Hopkins and the Everly Brothers. – Michael Elliott