H.R. Gertner’s “High Rank” End of Year Top Ten Albums Review for 2019, with Playlist

Reviews

I reviewed just over 50 albums for Americana Highways since July. The following represents my favorite records out of those 50 reviews: record of the year, top ten after that, and all the rest listed for reference. Scroll to the bottom for playlist.

Record of the Year: Darrin Bradbury’s Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs was the best record I reviewed this year by far; reread my review of Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs here:  REVIEW: Darrin Bradbury’s “Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs” is the Record America Needs Now

1. Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs by Darrin Bradbury

Darrin Bradbury’s Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs, the singer-songwriter’s Anti- Records debut, pulls no punches on its dissection of daily life in American, but Bradbury tempers his cutting insights with a humor and wit, laughing at the absurdity that abounds at every turn. Packing 11 songs into 26 minutes, Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs wastes no time getting to the heart of each song. Like radio hits of old for the most part the songs here fall under the three minute mark. Although closers to a typical punk record length, this collection of songs feels complete; all fluff gone, only gold left. As Bradbury says, “This album is a still life of a still life, it’s the conversations you have with yourself in the morning over coffee, it’s intended to be the soundtrack of a day filled with nothing in particular and everything all at the same time REVIEW: Darrin Bradbury’s “Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs”; is the Record America Needs Now

Top Ten Beyond Talking Dogs

2. Goodnight and Good Luck by The 40 Acre Mule

Released on State Fair Records, 40 Acre Mule’s Good Night and Good Luck welcomes the listener to the party with the grit and muscle of You Better Run. Guitar, organ, and saxophone battle through a stomp rock haze of smoke and sweat. Lead singer J. Isaiah Evans’s howl evokes the frantic energy of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion as he sings, “you’d better run, and try to hide, I got…a loaded 45, heaven help you, if I find your ass alive.” Dark tales follow on “16 Days and Shake Hands with The Devil,” a jailhouse rocker and a sax driven rave-up. “I just can’t do right since my baby done me wrong”; simple heartfelt lyrics whose meaning is imbued with the emotion of a blistering guitar attack populate 16 Days. 40 Acre Mule is J. Isaiah Evans (guitar & vocals), Robert Anderson (drums), Tim Cooper (bass), Chris Evetts (baritone sax & percussion), and John Pedigo (guitar & vocals). This quintet blends country, soul, and blues seamlessly in a self-described Rhythm & Blues Outfit. Following a map drawn by Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Ray Charles, 40 Acre Mule put their own twist on these well-worn roads.  REVIEW: The 40 Acre Mule’s “Good Night & Good Luck” is Heartfelt Stomp Rock

3. Is It The Kiss by Anna Egge

Ana Egge’s Is It the Kiss lets subtle references to country hits of yesteryear set the stage for record ahead “turning rhinestones into diamonds…dim lights and a bunch of friends, thick smoke on the stage again”; minimal instrumentation and a backroad lilt place Egge solidly within this tradition. The instrumentation through the record is top form and unexpected at times. In addition to the typical guitars, bass, piano honky-tonk setup on “Cocaine Cowboys,” the album opener, flute, bass clarinet, trombone, flugabone, trumpet, pedal steel, violin, and pump organ make appearances throughout the record. REVIEW: Ana Egge’s “Is It the Kiss” Is Backroad Lilting Country

4. I Made a Place by Bonnie Prince Billy

I Made a Place builds on the foundation laid by Billy’s album teaser singles released this fall, “At the Back of the Pit’ and “In Good Faith” where buoyant instrumentation dances with whimsically melancholy lyrics. Curiously, and true to BPB form, neither of these tracks appear on I Made a Place, in their place are 13 completely new tracks brimming with a dichotomatic mix of joy and sorrow, triumph and failure. In other words, I Made a Place is full of common Bonnie Prince Billy themes that are at once intimately personal yet universal to the human struggle twisted into contagious couplets. REVIEW: Bonnie Prince Billy’s “I Made a Place” is Buoyant Instrumentation Dancing with Melancholy

5. Ma by Devendra Banhart

Ma, Devendra Banhart’s third release on Nonesuch Records, jettisons the artificial sounds that have driven his recent work in favor of a return to natural, “human-made”, sounds. Strings, woodwinds, brass, and keyboards build upon Banhart’s vocal and guitar to create an inviting collection examining the nature of motherhood. English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese all make an appearance in a series of songs in which emotion carries the day when language fades into the background.   REVIEW: Devendra Banhart’s “Ma” is a Return to Natural Sounds

6. Mixtape Vol. 1 by Jesse Dayton

10 covers, songs you know and songs you don’t but should, in Dayton’s hands are simultaneously as familiar as an old friend and as fresh as first love. Dayton succeeds where many lesser artists fail with cover material simultaneously leaving listeners with the desire to hear the original versions as well as more Jesse Dayton records. Dayton’s east Texan rich baritone speaks with authority and welcomes in strangers in equal measure.  REVIEW: Jesse Dayton’s “Mixtape Volume 1” Will Have You Singing Along

7. Family Picnic by Johnny Dowd

Zoom in close to a rose bush and all you see is thorns. Although twisted and hidden beauty still exists within the plant. Welcome to the music of Johnny Dowd in all its thorny beauty. For over thirty years Dowd has been taken the unexpected path, an iconoclast with few mates. Family Picnic, Dowd’s 2019 release, finds Johnny tilling the soil of unrequited love, murder, and characters struggling to live a twisted American dream. As Dowd sings album closer Thomas Dorsey, “I sing songs of lust and depravity, that’s the only kind of songs come out of me.” Electronic beats, keyboard flourish, and what Johnny deems “ice-cream chords” drive a record composed of waltzes, shuffles, and boom-chuck rhythms. Dowd shifts between his bent-but-not-broke singing voice and a spoken word approach that succeeds where lesser artist would be chastised for “trying to rap”.   REVIEW: Johnny Dowd’s “Family Picnic”

8. Fires for the Cold by Jonah Tolchin

Somehow by putting his struggles on display, bearing his worries for all to witness, Tolchin brings consolation to his audience – the cold, the hungry, the striving. With Fires for the Cold, Jonah Tolchin holds a mirror up to America’s face reflecting the trials, tribulations, and general zeitgeists of our times. As the first Buddhist noble truth states, “all life is suffering”; instead of giving into the void, Tolchin’s reflections remind us to stoke our inner fires against the cold.  REVIEW: Jonah Tolchin’s “Fires for the Cold” Brings Comfort Through Despair

9. The Valley by Charley Crockett

On The Valley Charley Crockett jettisons the Louisiana in his sound and fully embraces his inner Texas. Gone are the trumpet and accordion replaced by fiddle and pedal steel. With the exception of a few tracks that steal a sensibility, energy, and a saxophone or organ from Motown, Crockett sounds kin to the Western swingers of old, especially on title track, The Valley, and 10,000 Acres. If you’re wondering who is carrying Hank Williams torch on down that lonesome highway, wonder no more – the answer is Charley Crockett. REVIEW: Charley Crockett’s “The Valley” Embraces His Inner Texas

10. Thanks for the Dance by Leonard Cohen

Like much of Cohen’s work Thanks for the Dance dwells on themes of human pain and the struggle toward transcendence in the midst of life’s mundanity. Cohen’s voice carries the weight of time in every graveled turn; its authority and wisdom growing from its near brokenness. Accompaniment throughout maintains a strict adherence to sparse and traditionally Cohen arrangement at once orchestral and simply performed. The result is “a Leonard Cohen” album that builds upon and respects not only his lyrical prowess, but his musicality as well. There’s a lived-in-ness and authenticity to this collection of songs that lesser artists never achieve in their prime, much less when the end of life is so knowingly near.  REVIEW: Leonard Cohen’s “Thanks for the Dance” is Must-Have

Everything Else Reviewed in 2019 (in order of publication)

Not a bad one in the bunch!

1. Brad Sanzenbacher – Dying Old Flower

2. William Lawrence – Slow Dancing on a High Wire

3. Penny & Sparrow – Finch

4. Ben Davis Jr. – Suthernahia

5. Seth James – Good Life

6. Fionn Regan – Cala

7. Bob Bradshaw – Queen of the West

8. Geraint Watkins – Rush of Blood

9. Terri Hendrix – Who is Ann?

10. Vetiver – Up On High

11. Hiss Golden Messenger – Terms of Surrender

12. Jesse Malin – Sunset Kids

13. Ideal Man by Andrew Combs

14. Big Best Friend – Recent Thunder

15. The Minks – Light and Sweet

16. Wet Tuna – Water Weird

17. Pieta Brown – Freeway

18. Old Crow Medicine Show – Live at the Ryman

19. Horace Holloway – Tin Foil Stars

20. Gabriel Birnbaum – Not Alone

21. Jason Hawk Harris – Love & The Dark

22. Joel Paterson – Let It Be Guitar!

23. Bloodshot Records 25th Anniversary – Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots

24. Wayne Hancock – Bloodshot Early Years

25. Scott H. Biram – Sold Out to the Devil

26. Robbie Fulks – 16

27. Christine Smith – Meet Me on the Far Side of a Star

28. Carolyn Sills – Return to El Paso

29. June Star – The Late Spring

30. Andy Aylward – Sometimes Rain

31. If You’re Going to the City – A Tribute to Mose Allison

32. Elkhorn – The Storm Sessions

33. Come on up to the House – Women Sing Waits

34. Rue Snider – Pete’s Candy Store, Pt. 1

35. Nicholas David – Yesterday’s Gone

36. Ethel Mae Bourque – Chansons de La Campange

37. Kevin Daniel – Things I Don’t See

38. For a Better Life – a fundraiser for Immigrant Families

39. John Byrne Band – A Shiver in the Sky

40. Buffalo Jones – Standing By

41. Michael Ducett – Lacher Prise

 

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