Published Jan 01, 20061. Jay Farrar Terroir Blues (Artemis)
Jay Farrar's muse has gone from Uncle Tupelo's revolutionary take on traditional American music, to Son Volt's more streamlined country-rock, to now, as a solo artist, an almost abstract expressionism. With Terroir Blues, Farrar's progression has reached its apogee. It's an uncompromisingly personal album, full of spontaneous creations and a general "work-in-progress" vibe. But it also remains true to his vision of a disconnected America; one that still holds on dearly to a history built on surviving hard times.
"That's sort of the way it's always felt around here," Farrar says from his St. Louis home, near his birthplace of Belleville, Illinois. "This part of the country always seems to be struggling with its past and present. It's always finding its place and coming to terms with its relevance."
The same could be said of Farrar's musical approach on this album, as well as his previous solo effort, 2001's Sebastopol, which was essentially a collaboration with the Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd. But, Terroir Blues seems more like a true solo effort, and purposefully challenging in its intent.
"Making this record was a satisfying experience, especially coming off Sebastopol, which was more about building the songs in the studio," he says. "This was more an approach of getting some guys together and recording live as much as possible, then adding things later."
The most prominent add-ons were the interwoven "Space Junk" tape loop segments, not to mention the alternate versions of six songs. It suggests Farrar was deconstructing his creative process. "Apart from the backwards tape stuff, which I've wanted to do for a long time but always seemed to get sidetracked, the only conscious effort to deconstruct things would have been as a reaction to the last album. This one was much more organic from the start."
2. Calexico Feast of Wire (Quarterstick)
After years in service of others as an in-demand rhythm section, Joey Burns and John Convertino have every right to be selfish. With all their energies devoted to this one-time side project, they've come up with a map-melting musical travelogue that fleshes out the great promise of 1998's The Black Light with rich strings, synths, and an even broader palette. Their secret weapon is not the mariachi horns, but the pedal steel work of Lambchop's Paul Niehaus, who elevates this material above the clouds, far from the scorched earth that spawned it.
3. The Jayhawks Rainy Day Music (American)
Jayhawks leader Gary Louris rebounded from the failed large-scale production that was 2000's Smile by scaling things back drastically. Rainy Day Music's shimmering acoustic touches were the perfect complement to Louris's tales of heartbreak. Perhaps the album was too fragile in places, but thankfully Louris seems beyond caring about those things. Records this gorgeous are a rare commodity and are in desperate need these days.
4. Shannon Lyon Wandered (V2)
After wandering around the northern highways and saloons of the great dominion for a considerable time Shannon Lyon took up stakes and sought his destiny elsewhere. Landing in the hash houses, farm houses and theatres of Western Europe the hayseed songwriter has come back home with a career defining record. Wandered is a personal narrative of self-exploration and sinful seduction with old world allure and West Coast hippie spirituality. Fleeting moments of rock'n'roll ecstasy make the graceful acoustic-based songs that dominate the album even brighter gems.
5. Great Lake Swimmers (Weewerk)
Easily the most captivating combination of ghostly vocals, hypnotic songs, and environmental atmospherics since the first two Cowboy Junkies albums. Tony Dekker paints his sketches in stark black and white, using the most basic strokes, and leaves longing, lonely spaces for you to colour in the rest and navigate the paradoxes: feather light, yet humid heavy; comforting yet somewhat creepy; urban disaffection bathed in a sea of starry nights and crickets. Guaranteed to give goose bumps.
6. Emmylou Harris Stumble Into Grace (Nonesuch)
Emmylou Harris continues her rebirth with this spiritual follow-up to the career revitalising Wrecking Ball and Red Dirt Girl, flavouring her Lanois-esque explorations with hints of country, as if her legacy is powerful enough that she need only nod in its direction. She's carried the torch of Gram Parsons' "cosmic American music" for so long, it's merged with her soul. But this white-maned angel never stumbled anywhere; she's moving through her rejuvenated career with the strength and elegance of June Carter and building the late-career momentum of Johnny Cash.
7. Gillian Welch Soul Journey (Stony Plain)
Timeless is a term much abused, but here it rings true. There are moments when you'd be hard pressed to discern the traditional songs from her own, and several are demos or recorded in one take, a smart move following the lush Time (The Revelator). Welch sings her autobiography so nakedly it's too intimate an experience just to listen; the simple songs beg your participation. Put it in the truck's tape deck and drive south.
8. Lucinda Williams A World Without Tears (Lost Highway)
With her third album in five years, this one-time studio perfectionist is positively on a roll. Recorded virtually live with a four-piece band, the approach allows her range to expand on her trademark twang to include a dash of hip-hop and a ton of balls-out rock. Still, the ballads shone through brightest, with "Those Three Days" and "Minneapolis" now among the best she has ever written. Overall it was a departure, but one that is sure to mark a new, energised phase of her career.
9. Be Good Tanyas Chinatown (Nettwerk)
These three musical sirens with voices from above demonstrate that the key to a deliciously timeless album begins and ends with the song. A perfect blend of colourful campfire folk with a touch of gothic blues, and inner-city concrete-sanded country that can groove, sway and spiritually possess. Singer Frazey Ford has a unique and soul-penetrating voice with slight, perfect quirks; it hits a certain tone that can physiologically summon tears even if you're not paying attention to the words.
10. Steve Earle Just an American Boy (E-Squared/Artemis)
Just An American Boy is Earle in his prime: an aging icon whose own hard living has finally surpassed that of the characters he's been singing about for years. With a wealth of personal experience and musical history to draw from, and a growing need to voice his politics in music, Earle's live shows have become rallies for freedom of speech, responsible government and against the death penalty the between-song rants are as important as the songs.