Politics & Policy

25 Keepers

2005's best music.

Continuing a tradition started last year, here are my favorite music releases from the year just passed (hey, it’s still January!):

Solomon Burke–Make Do With What You Got (Shout Factory)

Back in May I wrote about this fine album, the second of Burke’s grand resurgence, and nothing else came along to knock it out of my top spot. With authoritative versions of material from Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and the Band that approach and sometimes equal the originals, this soul shouter cements his place as one of America’s greatest living singers. Best track: “It Makes No Difference.”

Neil Diamond–12 Songs (Columbia)

I never thought I’d be praising a Neil Diamond album, but expert production by Rick Rubin, who produced Johnny Cash’s American recordings, provides a stark backdrop for Diamond’s uncharacteristically spare vocals, which in turn match brooding songs of manhood and mortality. Best track: “Hell Yeah.”

Kings of Leon–Aha Shake Heartbreak (RCA)

Tennessee’s Followill boys (three brothers and their first cousin) are that rarest of things these days: a rock band with an original sound. There are also plenty of wry lyrics, crunchy guitars, tight rhythms and alcohol-soaked vocals. Best track: “Taper Jean Girl.”

Bettye LaVette–I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti)

A cult favorite in R&B circles for years, LaVette is finally getting a wider listen thanks to this dark, hard effort produced by Joe Henry, who likewise helmed Solomon Burke’s 2002 triumph Don’t Give Up On Me. LaVette’s smoky delivery transforms songs by Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Sinead O’Connor, and Fiona Apple. Best track: “Sleep to Dream.”

Blue Highway–Marbletown (Rounder)

With their three great lead singers–Wayne Taylor, Shawn Lane, and Tim Stafford–ace banjo picker Jason Burleson, and Dobro master Rob Ickes firing on all cylinders, it’s no surprise that this versatile bluegrass unit has turned in their seventh great CD of the last decade. Best track: the Mark Knopfler-penned “Marbletown.”

The White Stripes–Get Behind Me Satan (V2)

After producing Loretta Lynn’s 2004 masterpiece, Van Lear Rose, Jack White returns to his two-person band with ex-wife and drummer Meg White. The resulting disc is an adventurous excursion away from their blues and punk roots, and their richest, weirdest album yet. Best track: “Blue Orchid.”

Ralph Stanley–Shine On

(Rebel) With a voice as rugged and majestic as the Virginia hills he calls home, the King of Mountain Soul himself, along with crisp backing from his Clinch Mountain Boys, makes a rich and rewarding album of bluegrass gospel. Best track: “Palms of Victory.”

Sufjan Stevens–Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty)

The second of Stevens’s promised 50-state album series, Illinois is an ambitious, strange, hilarious, and heartbreaking album with an aural palette heavily influenced by Brian Wilson and the folky side of Neil Young. Best track: “Chicago.”

Lee Ann Womack–There’s More Where That Came From (MCA Nashville)

As bad as the Country Music Association’s awards show was (see here), they at least picked the right album of the year: the surprisingly soulful Womack’s unapologetically retro-tinged album of drinkin’ and cheatin’ songs. Best track: “There’s More Where That Came From.”

James Blunt–Back to Bedlam (Atlantic/Custard)

This former British-army captain and Kosovo veteran decided to pursue his long-held dream of a music career after finishing his service, and it paid off with ten gorgeous songs, including the harrowing war commentary “No Bravery,” delivered in his fragile, affecting tenor. Best track: “You’re Beautiful.”

Dwight Yoakam–Blame the Vain (New West)

Contemporary country’s foremost stylist and singer-songwriter is back with a new band and a dozen new songs full of hillbilly swagger, lonesome heartache, and attitude to burn. Best track: “Intentional Heartache.”

Van Morrison–Magic Time

(Geffen) Bruce Springsteen once asked why no one notices that Van puts out a great album every year. Well, this one isn’t quite great by Morrisonian standards, but he’s still one of the best singer-songwriters working today. Best track: “Celtic New Year.”

Robbie Fulks–Georgia Hard (Yep Roc)

With equal parts twang, humor, and heartache, one of alternative country’s sharpest songwriters sings about life on the road and what it means to be “country” with wit and style, recalling Merle Haggard and Roger Miller. Best track: “Georgia Hard.”

David Gray–Life in Slow Motion (ATO)

An apt title for an emotionally intense record that simmers, but never boils over. Gray’s voice is a warm Welsh burr with a pang of misery, and this record’s deep songs and sweeping production out “Coldplay” Coldplay. Best track: “The One I Love.”

Lucinda Williams–Live @ the Fillmore (Lost Highway)

Recorded over an intense three-night stand at San Francisco’s legendary rock venue, one of America’s great songwriters passionately runs through two discs’ worth of her best work. Best track: “Essence.”

Cream–Royal Albert Hall: London 2-3-5-6 2005 (Reprise)

Reuniting after 36 years, the most influential and creative three-man band in history–Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, and Eric Clapton–show they haven’t lost a step, even though they’re each on the far side of sixty. Best track: “Deserted Cities of the Heart.”

Abigail Washburn–Song of the Traveling Daughter (Nettwerk)

After traveling in China, Washburn took up the banjo and began exploring old-time and folk music. The result is a unique debut album with emotive vocals and moving songwriting that should appeal to fans of Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris. Best track: “Rockabye Dixie.”

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver–You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper (Rounder)

For the last quarter century, Lawson has been the most popular bluegrass gospel performer in the business, but on this album he leads his crack band with its peerless harmonies through an entertaining mix of the secular and sacred. Best track: “Love Me As You’d Love the Rain.”

King Wilkie–Tierra del Fuego (Three Feathers)

With this six-song EP, bluegrass music’s best young band suggests that they might just become a great rock band too, without even bothering to set up a drum kit or plug in an amp. Best track: “Wrecking Ball.”

The Biscuit Burners–A Mountain Apart (Indidog)

Fine songwriting and strong picking, especially from resophonic guitarist Billy Cardine, make this a fine example of modern mountain music, but the seductive voices of Shannon Whitworth and Mary Lucey make this album special. Best track: “Ridgeway Backroads.”

Best from the vault

Bob Dylan–No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (The Bootleg Series Vol. 7) (Columbia/Legacy)

Two discs of mostly newly-released work from Dylan’s most creative period.

The Band–A Musical History (Capitol)

An exhaustive aural biography of the four Ontarians and one Arkansan who became the quintessential American band.

Bruce Springsteen–Born to Run: 30th Anniversary 3-Disc Set (Sony)

Augmented by a concert DVD and a making-of-the-album DVD, this remaster of the legendary album is a must-have for any Boss fan.

Charlie Poole and Various Artists–You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music (Columbia/Legacy)

Exquisitely packaged and exhaustively annotated recordings from an original country-outlaw.

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane–At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note)

A recently discovered and perfectly preserved performance by jazz’s two most distinctive stylists.

Aaron Keith Harris writes for Country Music Today and Bluegrass Unlimited and is the author of the blog Listen to the Lion.

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