We spent 2009 sorting through piles of folk and Americana releases, revising this list in our heads till the bitter end and failing repeatedly to understand the hype behind the Avett Brothers in the process. While a year of listening brought no shortage of pleasant surprises, our hands-down favorite release of the year was still an album of classic Willie Nelson tunes. Go figure.
It's rare that a tribute album approaches the quality of the source material, rarer still when thesource is Willie Nelson. Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck proves himself a master stylist on To Willie, however, probing the depths of the Red Headed Stranger's catalogue and breathing new life into classic songs like “Walkin'” and “The Party's Over.” In the case of “Reasons to Quit” and Houck's beautiful space-gospel treatment of “Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” it's safe to say he even one-upped the originals. No wonder Willie himself invited the band to play Farm Aid and join him for a little puff-puff-pass on the Honeysuckle Rose.
To Be Still
Singer-songwriter Alela Diane may share a lot of history with her fellow freak-folk brethren (she and Joanna Newsom attended the same Nevada City, California, high school), but she's far more of a classicist than most of her peers, preferring to wrap her gorgeous mountain alto around simple, tightly written Appalachian folk tunes rather than dabble in proggy and more pretentious British variations. The mournful “White as Diamonds” may well be the prettiest song of the year, and it says a lot that the other ten tracks here aren't far behind.
The Low Anthem
Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
The Low Anthem casts a wide net on the reissued Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, incorporatingsinging bowl, pump organ and some lovely clarinet on songs that split the difference between Tom Waits-style barkers (“The Horizon Is a Beltway”), Leonard Cohen-esque ballads (“Ticket Taker”) and quiet, falsetto hymns (“Charlie Darwin”). With a voice that can go from a gravelly bark to a dove-like coo in the space of a few songs, lead singer Ben Knox Miller has us looking forward to whatever he and his talented comrades do in the future.
Justin Townes Earle
Midnight at the Movies
It's hard to believe, but Justin Townes Earle may have shown up his famous dad this year, outdoing Steve's somewhat predictable Townes Van Zandt tribute with this subtle gem of a country record, which owes more to the ghosts of the Grand Ole Opry than anything on Copperhead Road. Songs like “Poor Fool” and the devastating “Mama's Eyes” (“I am my father's son/I've never known when to shut up”) sound classic enough to be cribbed from the Hank Williams songbook, while at the same time maintaining the contemporary sophistication of songwriters like Guy Clark. The fact that he finds the honky-tonk in a Replacements tune (“Can't Hardly Wait”) is just icing on the cake.
Great Lake Swimmers
Great Lake Swimmers frontman Tony Dekker has written his fair share of heartbreaking,reverb-soaked ballads in the past, but Lost Channels finds him and his band also dabbling in Waterboys-style folk rock. What results is the Swimmers' most varied and accessible recording to date, with “Palmistry” and “She Comes to Me in Dreams” upping the tempos ever so slightly between obligatory Dekker tearjerkers like “Concrete Heart.”