I think I am going to skip watching the Grammy Awards this Sunday and just watch the good parts–if there are any–on YouTube the next day. So that you can do the same, I’ve listed the best music for grown-ups released last year.
1. RobinElla – Solace for the Lonely (Dualtone) It’s hard to categorize this East Tennessee singer/songwriter whose sound borrows from country, bluegrass, jazz, pop, and rock. But it’s impossible to even hint at the ravishing beauty of her voice. Best track: “Break It Down Baby”
2. Chris Thile – How to Grow a Woman from the Ground (Sugar Hill Records) With nary an amplifier, mandolin virtuoso Thile and his acoustic band rip through music as intense, exciting and beautiful as any rock band could. Highlights include the metamorphosis of The White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” into stone-cold bluegrass and a deconstruction of Bill Monroe’s arrangement of “Brakeman’s Blues.” Best track: A hard, cathartic arrangement of The Strokes’ “Heart in a Cage”
3. Bob Dylan – Modern Times (Sony) No one else could–or would dare try to–pull off a ragged ramble like the ironically named Modern Times. Dylan rummages around his brain and growls out whatever he seems to grab hold of, ending up with lonely, dark and wistful songs packed with Biblical and literary references and countless allusions to folk, blues, gospel, jazz, and country songs. Best track: “Ain’t Walkin’”
4. Ray LaMontagne – Till the Sun Turns Black (RCA) Brother Ray’s debut Trouble was a raw tangle of whispers and shouts from a wounded man and my runner-up for best album of 2004. The follow-up is sparse and brooding, written and sung by a man who has stopped bleeding and only begun to heal. Best track: “Empty”
5. Johnny Cash – American V: A Hundred Highways (American) and Personal File (Sony) The former is the final album Cash recorded with producer Rick Rubin. The latter is made up of 49 songs Cash recorded on solo guitar between 1973 and 1983, which weren’t discovered until after his death. Both are essential Cash at his intimate, inviting best. Best tracks: American V’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” and Personal File’s ““If Jesus Ever Loved a Woman”
6. Ron Sexsmith – Time Being (Ironworks) Eight albums and 13 years out from his classic self-titled debut, Sexsmith still sounds like the sad, quiet kid from high school. But his naïve melancholy wouldn’t still work if he weren’t a truly great songwriter. Best track: “Hands of Time”
7. The Be Good Tanyas – Hello Love (Nettwerk) This female trio from Vancouver mixes originals with covers of Neil Young, Mississippi John Hurt, and Prince, playing loose grooves on banjos, mandolins, fiddles, guitars, and harmonicas . But the narcotic effect of their strange harmonies is what makes them irresistible. Best track: “Ootischenia”
8. James Hand – The Truth Will Set You Free (Rounder) If Hank Williams had lived past 29, hit the gutter and showed up in a Texas honky-tonk 40 years later, he would sound just like James Hand does today. Best track: “Here Lies a Good Old Boy”
9. Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (Island) The Brit singer’s sophomore effort is much grittier than her 2003 debut Frank, but it’s still gorgeous. This is what it would sound like of Quentin Tarantino produced Dusty Springfield on a Motown record. Best track: “Rehab”
10. Darrell Scott – The Invisible Man (Full Light) Everyone in Nashville knows Scott is one of the best musicians and songwriters in town. And he’s also an uncommonly strong and soulful singer of his own ambitious and introspective songs. Best track: “There’s a Stone Around My Belly”
11. Beck – The Information (Interscope) Like a good writer, Beck uses familiar concepts to say new things while avoiding cliché. Producer Nigel Godrich, who was a touch heavy-handed on 2003’s Sea Change, is this time a shrewd editor, and The Information might be Beck’s best in a decade. Best track: “Strange Apparition”
12. Pernice Brothers – Live a Little (Ashmont) Led by superb songwriter Joe Pernice, the Boston group has been making solid records since 1998, but I just discovered them a few months ago. Someone is still making great guitar pop for grown-ups after all. Best track: “High as a Kite”
13. Tom Petty – Highway Companion (American) Petty wins the most aptly named album award, as Petty’s tightly crafted songs and Mike Campbell’s sublime guitar have been my soundtrack for a few long midnight drives the last few months. Best track: “Flirting with Time”
14. Solomon Burke – Nashville (Shout! Factory) The almost-forgotten soul man completes a hat trick of remarkable comeback albums (Don’t Give Up on Me  and Make Do With What You Got ) by lending his regal voice to a set of new and old country music, including duets with Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Gillian Welch. Best track: Welch’s “Valley of Tears”
15. The Black Keys – Magic Potion (Nonesuch) Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are just two white guys from Akron, but their gutbucket guitar/drum combo is a loud, fresh take on the blues-rock concept created by Cream and Led Zeppelin. They also released Chulahoma (Fat Possum) in 2006, a six-song tribute to obscure bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Best track: “Just Got to Be”
16. The Raconteurs – Broken Boy Soldiers (V2) Jack White takes a break from being The White Stripes, forms a band with three buddies in the studio, and makes a really cool psychedelic rock album. Best track: “Steady as She Goes”
17. Vince Gill – These Days (MCA Nashville) Vince Gill’s remarkable talents are remarkable, but much of his pop country work has been underwhelming. This 43 song, 4-CD set isn’t. Gill plays and sings rock, ballads, bluegrass, and various styles of country as well as can be done, with essential roles played by multiple guest stars. Best track: “Son of a Ramblin’ Man,” with Del McCoury.
18. Ralph Stanley – A Distant Land to Roam: Songs of the Carter Family (Columbia/DMZ) The most respected living prophet of mountain music revisits the scared texts of country, bluegrass, and folk. Stanley’s delivery is both solemn and earnest, his voice ancient and majestic. Best track: “Motherless Children”
19. Van Morrison – Pay the Devil (Lost Highway) The Belfast Cowboy’s periodic forays into a genre of music he first heard in his father’s record collection are always fun, if nothing else. So is this batch of less-than-famous country covers. Best track: Rodney Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again,” featuring one of Van’s most moving vocals of the last decade.
20. Madeleine Peyroux – Half the Perfect World (Rounder) Peyroux’s arresting Careless Love (2004) drew comparisons to Billie Holiday, which of course is unfair. But her sweet luxuriant vocals are ideal for creating a languorous, relaxing mood on songs from Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, and Johnny Mercer. Best track: “Everybody’s Talkin’”
– Aaron Keith Harris writes a weekly column on politics and pop culture for the Baltimore Examiner and is a contributing writer for Bluegrass Unlimited. He blogs at ListenToTheLion.com.