Apr 24, 2023
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11. Brandi Carlile—In These Silent Days
10. Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall—The Marfa Tapes
Perhaps it is only because of these songwriters’ stellar reputations that we are compelled to pay attention to a release like The Marfa Tapes. But the other side of this is that only special artists like these three could actually write and perform an entire album acoustically, with sounds of wind and fire and cows and planes echoing in the background, and manage to hold our attention simply because of the strength of the songs and the raw emotion and boundless charisma present in the delivery. It’s fair to say that anyone else who tried this would likely be ignored, but not many others could accomplish this with the same beauty and grace that Ingram, Lambert, and Randall have, keeping us listening long after the novelty of the approach has worn off and only the songs and performances remain.
9. Cole Chaney—Mercy
8. Carly Pearce—29: Written in Stone
What a joy to see an album like this emerging from Music Row and to watch Carly Pearce’s deserved success. To call Pearce’s divorce record the best mainstream country album of 2021 would be true but would also be selling the project short; it is simply one of the best country records of the year, no qualifiers. The fact that it came to us from mainstream Nashville only serves to prove that hope still lingers on Sixteenth Avenue.
7. James McMurtry—The Horses and the Hounds
James McMurtry’s songwriting is like that of no other. His prose is vividly rich in detail but composed in such a plainspoken manner that it remains accessible and relatable to us all. There is something uniquely charming about his frankness, something inherently poetic and refreshing in reflecting on all of the world’s hardships and then expressing a problem so mundane as constantly losing one’s glasses. These ruminations constitute some of the best songs of the year, and McMurtry remains one of the most interesting songwriters of his generation.
6. Shane Smith & the Saints—Live from the Desert
5. Margo Cilker—Pohorylle
Margo Cilker’s debut album is a classic case of the sum being better than its parts. There are no lyrical masterpieces and nothing to reinvent the wheel from a musical standpoint. Nevertheless, the simple yet lush arrangements, the production which carefully and thoughtfully enhances each song, Cilker’s excellent capacity for writing melodies and hooks, and the sense of place and general mood surrounding this whole record all come together to make one of the year’s standout albums.
4. Amythyst Kiah—Wary + Strange
3. The Steel Woods—All of Your Stones
2. Charles Wesley Godwin—How the Mighty Fall
Charles Wesley Godwin, through the poetry of his songs and the haunting qualities of his voice, has managed to set Appalachia to music. If Seneca was a perfect encapsulation of the place, then How the Mighty Fall can be called a perfect encapsulation of the region’s people. More than that, it is a commentary on desperation itself, both the circumstances which lead to it and the various lengths to which one will go when faced with it. Artists are often plagued by the idea of the sophomore slump, but Godwin second album is just as exceptional as his first.
Album of the Year: Jason Boland & the Stragglers—The Light Saw Me
The very audacity of the idea, the concept of making a country record about alien abduction and time travel, is proof enough of the innovation of Jason Boland & the Stragglers and should be applauded. But to pull it off so expertly and to somehow craft a story so universal and compelling is another thing entirely. Somehow, this eccentric album is one of the most accessible, engaging records of Boland’s career and demonstrates that country music can still cover new ground in 2021. Boland & the Stragglers prove that even within the confines of traditional country music, artists can still be creative, original, introspective, and forward-thinking.
Dec 10, 2021
As noted in “Transmission Out,” many of us are confronted, at some point in our lives, with the unexplainable. These confrontations can come in the form of religious experiences, visions, or, in our narrator’s case, the life-changing encounter of a mysterious light shining through the trees one night. “I saw the light, but more importantly, the light saw me,” Boland explains in the title track. The narrator is forced to reevaluate his view of the supernatural, and despite his warnings in “A Tornado & the Fool,” no one around him seems to pay attention. Nevertheless, he remains convinced of the things he saw, at once awed and horrified by this new reality, as conveyed in the stirring opener, “Terrifying Nature.”
Our hero, however, is concerned with far more than just convincing us of his encounter with the supernatural. Perhaps most troubling are his observations of modern society. Once he has arrived in the future, he is dismayed to learn that it is not the paradise he had imagined it might be. He comments on the ghosts of people “staring down at their phones” in the atmospheric “Straight Home” and on “Here for You,” he laments the people’s lack of care for the amount of oil they burn. On the same track, he asks himself, “Could humanity be in decline?” The future, it seems, is a lonely, godforsaken place, and this characterization of it by an outsider from the past paints a much starker picture than that which might have been conveyed had Boland chosen to write more directly about these subjects.
Throughout the journey, however, the one thing that seems to remain constant and true, even across the barriers of space and time, is love. The narrator promises that he will always be there for the ones he loves on “Here for You,” as he journeys away from them into the unknown. On “Straight Home,” he is simply looking for a way to reverse this course and return to the world he knew and the people he loves. The cover of Bob Childers’ “Restless Spirits” fits flawlessly into this narrative as well, as if the account of a wandering soul who is strengthened by the vision of his wife in the kitchen so that he can go on another day without her was especially written for the lost, lonesome cowboy of The Light Saw Me.
Sonically, this album contains some of the most engaging material from Jason Boland & the Stragglers in many years. Such a tale as this one is rarely communicated through the medium of country music, but, like all Jason Boland albums, this one is decidedly traditional, with plenty of fiddle and steel to go around. However, The Light Saw Me is also unique in that it captures more of the live feel of a Boland concert, with more extended solos and participation from the Stragglers than what is found on most of their studio albums. The Shooter Jennings influence in the production is evident and welcome as well, adding a darker edge and more of a country rock element to certain tracks. The extended outro of "The Tornado & the Fool” perfectly captures both the chaos of a tornado touching down and the battle raging within our narrator’s mind about the reality of what he has seen. The electric guitar riff on “Terrifying Nature” cannot be described as anything other than catchy, and the atmospheric feel of “Straight Home” enhances the desperation and loneliness conveyed by the lyrics. It is as though Boland, the Stragglers, and Jennings recognized instinctively that in order to draw listeners in, given the subject matter, extra care would need to be taken to ensure the songs were accessible musically, and indeed, that extra care is the intangible thing which elevates this album from a good one to an excellent, rare piece of art.
The endeavor to produce a concept record about alien abduction and time travel is something to be commended in and of itself, and especially the aspiration to render such a record within the scope of country music. Jason Boland & the Stragglers not only succeed in their endeavor, but also manage to deliver an album that is highly accessible, both musically and lyrically. The Light Saw Me is more than the story of a hapless cowboy forcibly being uprooted from his homeland and thrust into an uncertain future; rather, it is the universal, compelling tale of all who have wandered through this life searching for meaning and of the kind of love which, beyond all reason and across oceans of space and time, somehow seems to endure.
The Light Saw Me is available everywhere now.
Dec 6, 2021
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Jan 9, 2015
by Kelcy Salisbury
2014 was a momentous year for me in a lot of ways, personally & professionally. These are the best things that I experienced, discovered, or rediscovered in the past year, in no particular order.
Jason Boland & The Stragglers with Chris Knight live at Joe's on Weed Street.
Joe's has a lot of history in "TX/Red Dirt" music, especially for a venue in Chicago. This past summer I checked 2 firsts off my list: I saw a show at Joe's & I saw Chris Knight. It was everything I'd hoped for & then some. I met Chris Knight - he killed a bunch of people in song - but I'm still here for now.
Ray Wylie Hubbard live was everything I'd hoped for & then some. Ray put on a great show in a really cool room, was gracious enough to put me on his guest list though we'd never met, and was just about the coolest cat to talk to that you'd ever hope to meet. Ray Wylie Hubbard is exactly who you think he is, only better.
I finally started listening to American Aquarium & now I'm sad that Burn, Flicker, Die didn't make it into my best of 2013 list. These guys are going to lead the charge to take back country music right alongside Turnpike Troubadours. They're the truth.
I discovered Fistful Of Beard a few months too late to ever see a live show, which is quite a shame, but they left behind one really good album.
I finally got around to listening to John Fullbright's solo stuff around the time my daughter was born. She's 10 months old & Song For A Child might be her favorite song.
I rediscovered, through my daughter, how much FUN music is supposed to be. She already loves music & she already knows how to find John Fullbright, The Trisha's, Jason Boland & Brandy Clark on my phone whenever she's feeling like an impromptu dance party. Her favorite dancing song is probably Mike Ness (of Social Distortion) covering I Fought The Law, and if you've never seen this child jam out to that song, I feel bad for you.