Published Nov 23, 20081. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy Lie Down In the Light (Drag City)
Fifteen years after releasing his first record, Will Oldham continues to compose some of the greatest American folk music of our time. While his profile has had peaks and valleys, Oldham has never disappeared nor diminished; with humility and a sense of purpose, he's steadfastly completed the work most natural to him, instinctually expressing himself with authoritative force and enviable prolificacy. The consistency of Oldham's genius is almost unsettling and, given his remarkable output, some fans can't help but take his work for granted. It would be an outright shame, however, to wilfully ignore albums such as 2006's brooding The Letting Go and its sunnier 2008 follow-up Lie Down in the Light, both artful, majestic works from a master. Lie Down in particular is one of Oldham's most instantly gratifying albums, marrying his bone-cold, cryptic wordplay and hallowed voice with warm, inviting music and an inclusive spirit. At this point in Oldham's public life, is it possible for a record to surprise anyone?
"It seems to have, yeah," Oldham says modestly. "More people have spoken very strongly about this record to me, as I've been out travelling, and even friends who might normally not say anything, or say something polite about a recent record, seem to have gone out of their way to describe their experience with this record, and that's unusual." Recorded in Nashville, the album sounds both homespun and sophisticated with deliberative movement and spontaneity emanating from instrumentation drawn from traditional country music. Whereas The Letting Go was an ornate production, with strings augmenting wintry metaphors about death and isolation, Lie Down in the Light explores loss by celebrating familial dynamics, the joy of teaching, learning, and loving within relationships that leads to spiritual progress, and its generosity clearly resonates with people.
"I'm not sure; it's mystifying to me," Oldham says of the acclaim. "I can only point to things I think are strengths about it but I find as many strengths in other records. To some extent, I can be difficult, cantankerous, or obsessive in many processes in this existence, in recording specifically. My mantra during making the record itself was to give - to yield more often than I would normally yield. Maybe that's gotten on the tape somehow."
2. Elliott Brood Mountain Meadows (Six Shooter)
There's nothing quite like a good punked-up, twanged-out country stomp to get your blood flowing. Dense, conceptual lyrics are offset by exuberant banjo licks and ringing guitar riffs; reverb and jangle reign supreme, bowing only occasionally to the boom and thud of the suitcase they call a bass drum. But for all their distorted guitars and raw, howling vocals, Toronto trio Elliott Brood's songs are also wonderfully melodic and ridiculously catchy.
3. Kathleen Edwards Asking For Flowers (Maple Music)
Stepping out of her Canadian comfort zone and into an L.A. studio with producer Jim Scott and A-list players like Benmont Tench and Greg Liesz certainly paid off. The critically acclaimed (and Polaris nominated) disc is her most lyrically and musically adventurous yet. Sure, the hockey references remain (the hilarious Gretzky/McSorley lyrical conceit on "I Make The Dough, You Get the Glory"), but it's the righteous anger of "Alicia Ross" and "Oil Man's War" that really hit home. Worthy of a bouquet indeed.
4. Drive-By Truckers Brighter Than Creation's Dark (New West)
Despite the departure of one of the band's creative forces, Jason Isbell, primary DBTs Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley picked up the slack to craft another sweeping Southern rock opera. Running the gamut from straight old-time country to the band's patented Skynyrd homages, songs like "The Righteous Path," "That Man I Shot," and "Daddy Needs A Drink" expose with brutal honesty a culture few other bands have the guts to explore, while at the same time making it all seem irresistibly enticing.
5. Justin Rutledge Man Descending (Six Shooter)
If there's an album that knocks the acoustic guitar out of every roots artist's hands this year, it's Justin Rutledge's Man Descending. Aside from combining literary sophistication with stunning lyricism, the Toronto artist has a voice that speaks to your very core. The album's flawless. There's not a song on Man Descending that won't make you weep, gasp or drift outside your body. He'll to be hailed as one of Canada's best songwriters for decades to come.
6. Angela Desveaux Angela Desveaux & the Mighty Ship (Sonic Unyon)
Touring together tightened up Angela Desveaux's band and the strength of the Mighty Ship bolsters her confidence as both a singer and songwriter capable of crafting timeless music with no trace of pretence. Beyond a rich voice that alluringly conveys force and fragility, Desveaux explores relationships and romance with wisdom and tact beyond her years. There are subtle, intimate chances taken on these pop folk arrangements, which belie her country essence, reaffirming Deveaux's place as a bright young beacon on Canada's musical landscape.
7. Luke Doucet Blood's Too Rich (Six Shooter)
Blood's Too Rich is an extended ode to Doucet's beloved White Falcon Gretsch guitar. What an ode it is. This love-in for one man's prized possession is evident throughout the disc's dozen songs and the melodic guitar solos that repeatedly take him and the listener to new sonic sites. From ruminations on the Buckeye State to barstool revelations in upstate New York to a kinship with truck drivers, these songs depict Doucet's days following the highway's white line.
8. Calexico Carried To Dust (Quarterstick)
It's a return to fine Tex-Mex form for Calexico. Although their experiment with straight-ahead rock on 2006's Garden Ruin was a treat, the dusty, cinematic, Southwestern country that fills Carried To Dust is where the band truly sparkles. From the opening track's storm of mariachi-style trumpets, to the moody, organ-laced Spanish-language duet "Inspiracion," to the lush, echoey "House of Valparaiso," the album is bursting with complex, textured and deliciously atmospheric compositions, all topped with the familiar brushed drums and hushed, foreboding vocals.
9. Fred Eaglesmith Tinderbox (Sonic Rendezvous)
Tinderbox burns with such passion, rages with such enthusiasm that you can't help but catch fire. Planes, trains and all things mechanical still intrigue Eaglesmith, but what sets Tinderbox apart from other roots albums this year is its respect for Everyman. Eaglesmith remains the voice of rustic beauty, the poetic eyes of rural communities and the ears for eternity's sacred hopes; he preaches his way out of hardship, and Tinderbox beckons us to follow.
10. NQ Arbuckle XOK (Six Shooter)
The third album from this Toronto troubadour and his band is their strongest yet. NQ (aka Neville Quinlan) has retained some of his barroom bard persona, but there's a wider and more poetic perspective here and a near-cinematic sense of Canada infuses these songs. Many of Quinlan's rootsy peers have a constrained and cerebral approach, making his oft-boisterous vocal and lyrical style a refreshing one. The empathetic production of Luke Doucet and ace instrumentation of his band-mates further the cause.