Leeann Atherton, Fallen Angel. A somewhat hidden treasure in Austin, Leeann Atherton can walk a lot of different avenues, from soul to rock to country to blues, and come out shining bright wherever she is. Her recent album is a stunner, includes some of the best musicians who call anywhere home, and needs to be heard. This is a woman ready to break out shortly. What a treat.
Joachim Cooder, Over That Road I’m Bound. On a long and winding career, Southern California native Joachim Cooder has put his talents to many styles. From playing in eclectic bands in the 1990s to recording and performing with the Buena Vista Social Club. He’s clearly an inquiring mind, and for this album and the songs of early country music pioneer Uncle Dave Macon the man has hit the bullseye. And features the musician on an electric Mbira. Really. Coodermania is coming.
Elvis Costello, Hey Clockface. While few artists of the past 45 years have equaled Elvis Costello’s prodigious creations, it’s a safe bet to keep the attention span tuned in to whatever his latest achievement is. He will always find a few surprises no matter what his current brainframe is focusing on. This one is a wild ride from musicians recording in different countries, and never fails to turn up the blood pressure and keep the mind racing. Helsinki or else.
Kathleen Edwards, Total Freedom. When you leave the music business and open up a cafe called Quitter’s Coffee, there is no way of telling the future. But listening to Kathleen Edwards’ welcome return to the studio is a cause for anticipation and, soon enough, jubilation. She is one of the truly gifted modern singer-songwriters no matter what genre she gets placed in. With an unforgettable voice and an honest eye, Edwards is leading the way. Canada strikes again.
Joe Ely, Love in the Midst of Mayhem. For someone who started as a part of the outlaw music posse in Austin in the mid-1970s, Joe Ely really only belongs in his own category. He is a renaissance man of the Texas Hill Country now, who can never be put into just one bag. This new album made during the pandemic shutdown ranks among his very best, and captures love, loss and everything in between like no one else can. That’s saying something.
RB Morris, Going Back to the Sky. What happens when a musician is also a poet and isn’t afraid to drift into the clouds for inspiration? RB Morris shows what that sounds like on one of the great album surprises of this year. It’s impossible to really describe what he does, but it’s also mandatory not to miss out. He uses thoughts and feelings to shape a new world. This man has poetry in him. Look up above.
Dan Penn, Living on Mercy. Soul music will never stop, and as long as Dan Penn is on the case it will remain as righteous, real and deeply romantic as it’s ever been. Maybe that’s because he’s one of the humans who helped invent it. From his early songs straight up to today, Penn remains a master songwriter and an endlessly moving singer. He knows where the heart is located, and travels to and from there freely. Have mercy baby.
Margo Price, That’s How Rumors Get Started. There is no way to contain someone with a voice and spirit like this woman. She is filled with the smarts and style to always sound like no one else, and when Margo Price really busts loose it’s like a rocketship to Mars. The best news of all is that now she sounds wide open and free, and isn’t likely to back down from finding her own world to conquer. As always, she is looking for fellow freedom fighters to head into the new frontier with her. Sign up now.
Nathaniel Rateliff, And It’s Still Alright. No matter what happens to Nathaniel Rateliff, he is on a permanent road of greatness. He went through some rough waters to get to his “SOB” hit a few years ago, and then another patch of challenges to stay afloat after. But if anything Rateliff is someone who won’t stop; in fact, he just keeps getting better and better. While this album might have slipped towards the abyss through no fault of its own, he’s at his musical pinnacle right now and still climbing. Everything is alright.
Will Sexton, Don’t Walk the Darkness. There are those who are imbued with a special ability to take what happens to them and then make it into something to share with everyone. Texan Will Sexton started young, around 9 years old to be exact, and kept playing and writing and grooving right up until a heart attack in 2009. But then he came back and was even stronger, relocating to Memphis and hitting the stride he’d always been pointing towards. Recorded with the Iguanas, this album goes the distance and then some in singling out an American hero. Now and forever.
Song of the Year
Jenny Reynolds, “Love & Gasoline.” She might have began her musical quest in Boston, but when Jenny Reynolds got to Austin she found home. “Love and Gasoline” is the kind of song that finds its way into the soul, and then stays there. It’s not instantly clear what it’s about, which is one of the earmarks of all of the best music. It offers hope and at the same time acknowledges the perils of letting love in. And it will live forever. Love, gasoline, greatness.
Reissue of the Year
Lou Reed, NEW YORK. By 1989, rock provocateur Lou Reed had already put out five albums during that decade. All were shining examples of the New Yorker’s mix of defiance and delight. But at the end of the ’80’s increasing urban decay the musician had had enough. He knew he needed to reach down deep and deliver something so undeniable the world would take notice. Reed had found a new edgy label home, Sire Records, and soon completed a 14-song album that felt like an instant classic. NEW YORK quickly set the music world on fire, and the man who had started his career 25 years earlier was now at the zenith of his abilities. The songs, a mix of personal and social exploration, outdid all expectations for Reed. He was at the start of a newfound brilliance, as NEW YORK would go on to become the only gold record Reed would ever receive for sales in the United States. This new box set celebrating that album hits the trifecta with compact discs, vinyl albums and even a cassette, and is such an overwhelming testament to Reed’s power that it can be overwhelming. Besides a remastered edition of the NEW YORK album itself, there are various work tapes and unreleased songs that makes it feel like the collection is a private invitation into Reed’s personal vault. There are also previously unheard live versions of all the album’s songs from various concerts, along with a concert DVD of NEW YORK from 1989 in Montreal. Longtime Rolling Stone writer David Fricke’s eloquent essay is a fascinating look at how one of rock & roll’s all-time classic collections came to be, and why it continues to inspire old and new acolytes alike over 30 years later. Wild side wonders.
Book of the Year
Mike Edison, SYMPATHY FOR THE DRUMMER: WHY CHARLIE WATTS MATTERS. Even if this utterly fascinating book came out near the end of 2019, there is no way it can be overlooked this year. It is such a knocked-out examination of the way the Rolling Stones’ drummer lives in a time of his own that it needs to be understood. Charlie Watts has always been out of step with the glitzy and grizzled rock & roll lifestyle of the world’s greatest rock & roll band. He takes his sartorial and attitudinal cues from the American jazz world’s greats in such a way that he really appears to be shaped by another time completely. And that’s utterly fine, because the way he has been supplying the Stones’ drumming needs the past 60 years is without peer. He has always played exactly what’s needed, but with his own devastating attack. Without Watts, the Rolling Stones wouldn’t swing like trapeze artists in flight. Author Mike Edison understands all this almost beyond human comprehension. He has tuned into the eternal glow of all that the drummer has created, and Edison’s words go way beyond the norm of rock & roll writing. He is such a man possessed that it is impossible not to be moved by all Edison believes. It’s like he’s building a wall of gratitude for what Charlie Watts has given us all these years, while the drummer has shunned the spotlight and stayed locked into his own personal groove of greatness. There are plenty of personal observations in these pages about how this achievement came to be, but in the end it all boils down to the drummer’s deliverance of salvation in every song he’s ever played. There is no question that the Englishman is not only one of a kind, but that there won’t be another. Charlie Watts batters.