Published Feb 01, 20001. Pernice Brothers The World Won't End (Ashmont)
Michael Edwards: Joe Pernice's journey from a Scud Mountain Boy to a Pernice Brother has taken him from joyously miserable to something approximating happy. The heavenly vocals and the uplifting melodies can only be described as gorgeous. A closer listen to the lyrics reveals that Pernice hasn't completely turned his back on doom and gloom. But he's got it under control these days comparisons between love and death are less frequent and The World Won't End is a warm, fuzzy album that just makes you feel good. Don't think of it as a country album, think of it as the best album you've heard all year. Absolute perfection.
Chuck Molgat: Massachusetts maestro Joe Pernice and company yield yet another collection of masterful melodic-pop gems for the ages, even if next to no one seems to notice. With any luck folks will pick up on the unit's brilliant work while the group is still around, rather than waiting to extend posthumous props a la Pernice's terrific band of yore, the Scud Mountain Boys.
Eric Hill: The only way I can describe this album's effect is like a soft old wool sweater: fits just right, keeps you warm, but still lets in the occasional cold blast of air to raise a shiver when you least expect it.
Rob Bolton: Although he's not the happiest guy on earth, Joe Pernice manages to create amazing pop records. Great production, catchy songs and meaningful lyrics.
2. Gillian Welch Time (The Revelator) (Acony/Stony Plain)
Chris Wodskou: Usually overshadowed by alt-country divas like Lucinda Williams, the stalwart Gillian Welch released an epochal album that belied its title this year. That "old-timey" marriage of bluegrass, gospel and Appalachian mountain music echoes across Time (The Revelator), but even when Welch sings in archaic idioms of the assassination of Lincoln or the first time Elvis appeared on television, the effect is more immediate than nostalgic. This album is utterly haunting. Along with collaborator David Rawlings, Welch has made a masterpiece of subtle inflection that the swelling ranks of oversinging divas could learn volumes from. Over the spare backdrop of two acoustic guitars in close dialogue, Welch's flat-mouthed drawl, scorning any vocal tricks, leaves you astonished at its emotional wallop.
Jason Schneider: While some still find her too reverential, the fact is she has yet to write a bad song. The epic "I Dream A Highway" is pure magic.
3. Neko Case Canadian Amp (Ladypilot/Bloodshot)
Michael Barclay: An unassuming home recording of mostly Canadian covers and one new original proved that Case is compelling even when she's not really trying. Perhaps even more so. Mike O'Neill, Cub's Lisa Marr, Sook-Yin Lee, Neil Young, and the Sadies all get the gift of her golden voice. So does Hank Williams "Alone and Forsaken" was also covered this year by Emmylou Harris, but Neko captures the song's desperation perfectly. Now living in Chicago, Neko's still thinking of us, and well shucks, the feeling's pretty mutual.
4. Alejandro Escovedo A Man Under the Influence (Bloodshot)
Eric Thom: Perennial critical favourite Alejandro Escovedo remains a flag bearer for misfortune and despair, while tirelessly driving his brilliant career forward. This year's release promises to forever free him from obscurity's death-grip as this mature artist has clearly turned over a bright new leaf. His emotionally-charged, largely introspective fare runs the gamut from punk-inspired thrash to tender, mournful balladry. Yet Influence finds him spilling over with an inner mirth that translates to buoyant confidence and a rejuvenated spirit. Tracks like "Rosalie" a romantic paean to the lost art of letter writing depict Escovedo as the fragile, incurable knight-errant that he is, while Stonesian gut-rockers like "Castanets" remain as testament to his love of incendiary hot-rod rock. If you were wondering what all the underground noise has been about for all these years and never taken the leap? Start here. Surely this is the record that will finally break him through to the other side.
Jason Schneider: Another emotion-laden outing from one of America's most under-appreciated songwriters.
5. My Morning Jacket At Dawn (Darla)
James Keast: My Morning Jacket's sophomore album At Dawn is where lost souls find solace, as the sun cracks open the whisky-soaked heartache of the night before. Louisville, KY's Jim James is the most welcome voice in American roots music since Uncle Tupelo spawned two of them, the talented child of Neil Young and Gram Parsons, yet possessed with enough heavily reverbed rock'n'roll spirit to side-step the dreaded alt-conundrum. A timeless masterpiece.
Rob Bolton: This is down downright spooky stuff, straight out of Kentucky. At times harsh and moody, this album still manages to hold your attention firmly with its unique sound and the powerful voice of Jim James. A grandiose collage of country, pop, blues and rock beautifully soaked in enough reverb to drown yourself in. "The Way That He Sings" is so damn good, hearing it gives me the willies. Diverse, emotional, challenging, and inspired work from talented musicians. It's sad, shocking, and unjust that this album didn't cause a journalistic and/or public fever outside of niche indie-rock circles.
6. Bob Dylan Love and Theft (Columbia)
Michael Johnston: Love and Theft is a triumph for Bob Dylan. His ragged voice delivers lyrics like Louis Armstrong trumpet solos, pushing melodies and rhythms ahead of the beat. Always willing to adapt older song structures, Dylan owes more to Tin Pan Alley than Woody Guthrie these days. Love and Theft is so full of lyrical twists that each successive listen becomes a discovery; with his voice mixed front and centre he often leads the band into exciting territory. Most songs here sound so inspired that they will only, like our man Bob, improve with age.
Jason Schneider: Finally, he has made an original album that sounds so effortlessly timeless, it can immediately take a place aside his influences. A true culmination of 40 years of hard travelling.
7. Sadies Tremendous Efforts (Bloodshot)
Jason Schneider: At times this didn't even seem like their album Greg Keelor's vocal on "Wearin' That Loved On Look" practically overshadows everything else but nothing could completely distract from the Good brothers' thoroughly audacious combination of garage punk and bluegrass. The instrumentals remain head-spinning and their taste in covers remains impeccable; juxtaposing the Gun Club's harrowing "Mother Of Earth" with the psychedelic splendour of the Byrds' "Wasn't Born To Follow" is nothing short of brilliant. Even their evolving original repertoire points to a continually diverse mix of styles. Now if only they could successfully capture their live show on tape but then what would be the point in making such scruffy, yet instantly loveable albums like this?
Roman Sokal: They should have their own variety show, kind of like Hee-Haw except that each show is six hours long.
8. Lucinda Williams Essence (Lost Highway)
Jason Schneider: At first, the simplicity of this record is deceiving. Following the soul-baring majesty of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, the opening mantra "Lonely Girls" seemed lacking. That's until the succeeding ruminations on lost and unrequited love formed a complete picture of desperation where the only solution left was to either "Get Right With God" or get on the "Bus To Baton Rouge." Or perhaps Williams revealed all she needed to in "Blue": "So go to confession/ Whatever gets you through/ You can count your blessings/ I'll just count on blue." With a sparse and sympathetic band backing her trembling vocals, utter sadness never sounded so sweet.
Michael Johnston: Less song-oriented than her previous efforts, and heavy on mood. More heartbreak, more passion and more blues. With a perfectly in-sync back-up band, she reveals emotion slowly and quietly, then gets in your face for the thunderous title track.
9: Greenfield Main Hunting Tips for Everyone (Kelp)
Chuck Molgat: The backwoods wisdom of Jon Bartlett's grandfather supposedly served as the inspiration behind this cleverly written, extremely well executed alt-country concept album the first fully collaborative effort from Jon and Jarrett Bartlett (no relation) since the last disc by the Fredericton pair's lo-fi rec room project Steaming Toolie. Along with a host of talented guest players (most of them culled from Ottawa's rich indie scene), the Bartlett boys get knee deep in bluegrass, rocked up country and sparse Western balladry while instructing listeners on "How To Select A Deer Rifle," "Jump Shooting For Ducks" and "How To Bag Your Turkey." Though hilarious at first blush, the lyrics are rife with metaphor, depending on how deep into the woods you want to go. The disc's underlying humour is a nice antidote to the earnestness that informs so much No Depression output. Even so, at times it's hard to tell whether the artists' tongues are in their cheeks to stifle a laugh or merely to concentrate on drawing a bead.
10. Bonnie Prince Billy Ease Down the Road (Palace)
Eric Hill: If this album were a novel it would be The Unbearable Lightness of Being as written by Cormac McCarthy. Under a musical veil of civility, deep Southern tales of murder, adultery and mayhem lurk. Will Oldham's twisted irony runs through songs like "Just To See My Holly Home," where the narrator's random violence, serial murder, infanticide and cannibalism are punctuated by a bouncy sing-along chorus. In character and topic the album is reminiscent of seminal work by Nick Cave or Tom Waits, but its approach is vastly more subtle. Oldham has a knack for production design: each of songs strengthens the whole of the record; something lacking in most releases these days. Overall it is his best work since Palace's Viva Last Blues and one of the few you could play at a party.
Oh Susanna Sleepy Little Sailor (Square Dog)
Chris Waters: Suzie Ungerleider's best effort to date, Sleepy Little Sailor is musically more accomplished and the lyrics are marked with a bright spark of hope.
Buttless Chaps Death Scenes I II III (Scratch)
Royal City Alone at the Microphone (Three Gut)
Michael Barclay: Sneaking onto the 2001 list at the last possible minute (released November 20!), this will no doubt be one of the most talked-about Canadian releases of 2002. The band is too good, Aaron Riches' lyrics are too uncomfortably endearing, and the production is too colourful for anyone with ears to deny that this is an instant classic.
Beachwood Sparks Once We Were Trees (Sub Pop)
Jon Bartlett: Whew! Someone sure pulled their socks up since their last slab o' plastic.
Michael Burks Make It Rain (Alligator)
Kyp Harness All Her Love (Porter Beach)
Michael Johnston: A romantic collection of songs, less political than his previous work, but just as heartfelt and more accessible. Outstanding accompaniment is turned in by Lewis Melville (pedal steel) and David Matheson (banjo), and old friends Ron Sexsmith, Bob Wiseman and Bob Snider drop by too. A near-flawless record by one of our country's finest.
Chris Knight Pretty Good Guy (Dualtone)
Paul Reddick & The Sidemen Rattlebag (Northern Blues)
Bill Frisell Blues Dream (Elektra)
Michael Johnston: Though likely filed in jazz bins across the world, Frisell's vision encompasses many aspects of Americana: country, blues, folk and the avant-garde. With support from pedal-steel ace Greg Leisz, Frisell is able to push these genres into uncharted waters. Gifted compositions with inspired improvisations.
Drive By Truckers Southern Rock Opera (Soul Dump)
Bill Perry Fire It Up (Blind Pig)
Double Trouble Been A Long Time (Tone Cool)
Fred Eaglesmith Ralph's Last Show (Signature Sounds)
Marshall Crenshaw I've Suffered For My Art Now It's Your Turn (King Biscuit Flower Hour)
North Mississippi All-Stars 51 Phantom (Unitone)
Lester Quitzau So Here We Are (indie)
Blind Boys of Alabama Spirit of the Century (RealWorld)
Jason Schneider: A rare perfect blending of the past and present, and possibly the last that will authentically illuminate how America was before rock and roll.
David Francey Far End of Summer (Laker/Festival)
Michael Johnston: An original Canadian songwriter who avoids cliches, rambling travelogues and over-sentimentalism. Francey's album is a rare treasure, and my favourite traditional folk record of the year.
J.J.Cale Live (Narada)
Court and Spark Bless You (Absolutely Kosher Records)
Michael Edwards: No matter how hard The Court & Spark try to shun the country label, Bless You is a great country record that also pays homage to its folk roots.
Howe Gelb Confluence (Thrill Jockey)
Buddy and Julie Miller s/t (Hightone)
Dawn Tyler Blues Project Ten Dollar Dress (Preservation)
Nick Lowe The Pretender (Yeproc)
Michael Johnston: Lowe walks the road less travelled, and releases a timeless collection of country, lounge, pop and soul tunes.
Luther Wright & the Wrongs Rebuild the Wall (Snakeye)