Published Jan 01, 20061. Neko Case Blacklisted (Mint)
She lives in Chicago, recorded in the desert, and at any given moment can be found somewhere on the road in North America. But around these parts, where her record label, her two side projects and some of her favourite sidemen are based, Neko Case is Canada's sweetheart.
Over the course of Blacklisted, a homesick and displaced Case wishes she was the moon, stalks a lover, envies affluent "monuments to thieves" (for the record, located in Vancouver's Shaugnhessy neighbourhood), and is haunted (or hunted) by American dreams.
As anyone who has seen the vivacious Case perform will know, she's hardly a reclusive paranoiac, and she hopes the album isn't perceived as an endless bummer. "I just want people to hear the hopefulness in it," she says over a crackly cell phone, while winding down her North American tour. "Although when people talk about how dark it is, they tend to like that. You can't get too mad if someone decides it's something other than you think it is. I don't feel defensive about it. I'm partially the character in all the songs, but I think my personality and that of the record are diametrically opposed. I'm sure I'm a happy, outgoing person because I have an outlet for introspection and sadness and paranoia."
Recorded in Tuscon, Arizona, the album's lyrics are illustrated by haunting desert soundscapes created by the supporting players: Case's tour-mates Jon Rauhouse and Tom Ray, Arizona house band Giant Sand (Howe Gelb, Joey Burns, John Convertino), as well as her roommate Kelly Hogan and her Canadian pals Dallas Good, Brian Connelly, and Mary Margaret O'Hara.
Case insists the main reason she recorded in Arizona was because of engineer Craig Schumacher, not for the external vibe that subconsciously made it to tape. "It was also easier, because Joey, John and Howe live in Tuscon, so we only had to fly in Dallas, Tom and myself, rather than flying all of us to Toronto. The fact that it was 72 degrees outside in the winter doesn't hurt, either. It was nice to be in a place where time moves a little more slowly."
Although Case's first foray into home recording, 2001's EP Canadian Amp, was incredibly successful, she wouldn't trade the social experience of Blacklisted for anything. "Once the artist makes the record, it's done, it's a document of a finished journey. It's a time in your life and you should make sure it's a great time in your life. I will always remember the two or three months we spent making the record and how much fun and rewarding it was. Now, the record is something else to us: it's a live performance, because we're on tour."
Case will spend part of 2003 touring with the New Pornographers when their new album comes out in May, and will ring in the New Year with her friend Carolyn Mark at a Corn Sisters gig in Dawson City. "The Yukon's one of my favourite places in the world and I'll be there with my friend Carolyn," she gushes. "Nothing will be more fun than that!" Michael Barclay
2. Royal City Alone at the Microphone (Three Gut)
Released at the tail end of 2001, this beautifully harrowing modern Canadian classic depicts dreams of deliverance from decay, darkness and "dung in ditches" an ultimate vision of hope as delivered through a filter of filth, bodily fluids and "illness in muddy places/ after which, what forgiveness?" Even without a Canadian tour, it slowly singed its way into our consciousness, spending a record-setting solid half of 2002 on national campus radio charts; it's also thankfully about to get a new, international lease on life. We couldn't ask for better ambassadors of the new, weird Canada. Michael Barclay
3. Cuff the Duke Life Stories For Minimum Wage (Three Gut)
Dark and dreamy country mongrels Cuff the Duke burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere, and already they've arrived. They sing with a wisdom that belies their youth, and play with a passion that ignites country yearnings in the most citified of folks. The album stands up well to obsessive listening, revealing the complexity and intuitive brilliance of their arrangements. Gifted songwriters to boot, the stories they tell spring to life with grace and humour. Helen Spitzer
4. The Sadies Stories Often Told (Outside)
Stories Often Told is a darker album, subject-wise than 2001's Tremendous Efforts was, and more sombre musically too, but its laid-back attitude works in its favour. Recorded at Blue Rodeo's new Toronto studios with guitarist Greg Keelor handling production duties, Stories features sparser arrangements, letting space seep in. This widening of their sonic palate gives the album a more psychedelic feel. The sprawling "In Our Land" features two short instrumentals stitched together by Elevator's Rick White, linked by a Sadies performance and equally tripped out lyrics. Cosmic country indeed. Sean Palmerston
5. The Corb Lund Band Five Dollar Bill (Stony Plain)
Five Dollar Bill sustains Corb Lund's band's old-time acoustic feel, penetrated with colourful lyrical wit and high-octane progressive arrangements, gingerly warmed by the prairie whine of Dan Dugmore's steel guitar, Tammy Rogers' fiddle and Darcy Phillips' piano. Whether it's the innocent waltz of "Short Native Grasses (Prairies of Alberta)," the elegant ballad of an untrusting wild horse on "She Won't Come to Me," the fast-talkin' outlaw shuffle of "Expectation and the Blues" or the hard drinkin', no regrettin' "Time to Switch to Whiskey," Lund's six-shooter never misses the bull's eye. Furthermore it is Lund's uniquely Canadian, and even Western Canadian perspective, that gives his narratives so much vitality and originality. Without picking up an electric guitar and siding with the alt-country camp, Corb Lund has relied on his clever songwriting and confident ingenuity to make country music lawless again. Brent Hagerman
6. Kasey Chambers Barricades & Brickwalls (Warner)
If Kasey Chambers' The Captain took the Western world by storm, Barricades & Brickwalls seals the deal. A blend of Lucinda meets the Carters, she embodies all the characteristics that seem lost on Nashville: a slightly imperfect outpouring of honest emotion steeped in absolute purity and simplicity. Credit her out-of-the-ordinary upbringing in the comparative wilds of Australia's bleakly beautiful Nullarbor Plain ("no trees"), hunting and perfecting her musical relationship with her nomadic family, the Dead Ringer Band. Father Bill (vocals, guitars, lap steel), and brother Nash (production) figure prominently in her career, while cameos by Buddy Miller, Paul (the heart of Australia) Kelly, Lucinda Williams and Aussie guitarist Dave Steel don't hurt. Nor do songs as powerfully seductive as "Nullarbor Song", the old-tyme twangy "A Little Bit Lonesome" and the infectious "Not Pretty Enough." Kasey's the real deal and this "take no prisoners" classic is further testament to her potential. Eric Thom
7. Linda Thompson Fashionably Late (Rounder)
Thompson's absence from the music business since her separation from former husband Richard in 1982 created a huge void in the folk-rock world. The grace and beauty displayed on this return only accentuates what a loss it has been. Now with their son Teddy as her chief collaborator, her confidence is at an all-time high. Without her ex, Thompson manages to retain the menacing undercurrents that made albums like I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Pour Down Like Silver so powerful. The darkness comes out most movingly in "The Banks Of The Clyde," a modern folk tale of a young woman gone astray, and closer "Dear Old Man Of Mine," which reads like the final nail in the coffin for her relationship with Richard. Yet, as with her previous work, the music is exceptionally dynamic, with Teddy displaying his father's gift for tasteful guitar accompaniment throughout. The wait was far too long, but worth every minute. Jason Schneider
8. The Bottle Rockets Songs of Sahm (Bloodshot)
It's a bit of a shame that this album of covers is the Bottle Rockets' best work, but no other band could have done a better tribute to the original acid cowboy, the late Doug Sahm. Although Sahm's life never possessed the romance of Gram Parsons, his work was just as important in tearing down boundaries between rock, country, and the unique sounds of Texas he absorbed at an early age. He also possessed the wary eye of a willing outsider, taking in the cultural upheavals of his surroundings, something that Rockets leader Brian Henneman clearly possesses too. Although Sahm would occasionally lash out when he noticed hypocrisy, as with "You Can't Hide A Redneck (Underneath The Hippy Hair)," (done with perfect venom here), most often he worked to preserve his Lone Star State Of Mind, which still makes songs like "Be Real" and "Mendocino" timelessly breezy. Henneman has taken many tips from Sahm's work; with all luck, the Rockets will be better off now. Jason Schneider
9. Fred Eaglesmith Falling Stars and Broken Hearts (A Major Label)
Fred Eaglesmith may seem austere and blue collar but he can temper a broken heart or harness a captive spirit in a three-minute country rock song with surgical precision. Falling Stars finds Eaglesmith's band retooled and his pen as sharp as ever. Greatly influenced by the psychedelic country and more crooners like Hank Williams, the outspoken bard set out to write his most alternative to Nashville country album yet. Falling Stars hinges on a folk-style eye for a pithy story, but is brimming with twang, rusty trucks, and pretty girls worth dancing on bars for. This is quintessential Eaglesmith, filled with extraordinary songs about ordinary people. Brent Hagerman
10. Steve Earle Jerusalem (Artemis)
In a genre that is denigrated and stereotyped as reactionary, Steve Earle continues takes a stand for what he believes no matter how unpopular. This is particularly significant in post-September 11th America. Earle, who is more akin to Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen, stands alone as alt-country's elder statesman with Jerusalem. Like that holy city, Earle draws diametrically opposed audiences: both upscale political sympathisers and the dusty country fans can bask in the knowledge that country and compassion can coexist. Jerusalem beautifully demonstrates that the spirit and future of the nation depends it. Carol Harrison