In which I try to recommend some newly-created albums in a year when I pretty much gave up listening to music completely. The reasons for that will have to wait -- I'm going to write about it at some point, but it's not a priority at the moment and so I'm putting it off -- but suffice it to say that I've never listened to less new music in the course of a year than I did in 2006. And only part of that is because a lot of what I heard just plain wasn't very good.
At any rate, the small list below will be dwarfed by the reissues I'll be posting next -- I listened to far more old music than new, and not just for work-related reasons -- and it's always appropriate to remind readers that if you click most of these links, you'll be taken to Amazon.com, and buying any of these records through this blog causes them to cut me a check, which will bring me a millimeter or two closer to getting out of Berlin. So it's for a good cause.
On to the winners:
Willie Nelson: You Don't Know Me, The Songs of Cindy Walker: Okay, so I'm a classicist. This isn't insurgent country, Americana, or any of that other stuff, it's just plain country music, played by a hand-picked band of stellar old-school pickers steeped in the Nashville and Texas traditions, sung by a great interpreter. Given all the idiotic costumes country music's been forced to wear since it's become the pop genre of choice for suburban 25+-year-old religious females (which is its current demographic), I sometimes need to be reminded that I once loved it. This is the kind of record that reminds me. Walker was a top-quality writer of lyrics, and not half bad with a melody, either, and it's no wonder that so many of the songs here were classics. And good on Willie for being able to get this record out before Ms. Walker passed away this year. I'm tempted to say that even people who don't much like country music will like this, but I underestimate their dislike most of the time. And it does, yes, have steel guitar. Excellent steel guitar.
Charanga Cakewalk: Chicano Zen: Charanga Cakewalk is Michael Ramos, a percussionist I used to see in some of the better Austin bands, and this album is a testament to the anybody-can-make-an-album ethos which has resulted in so very much terrible product being released. Ramos used time off on the road, playing as a hired hand with various outfits, to sketch this stuff on his laptop, after which he took it back to Austin and added a few things, most notably vocals from some of his friends. This is "Americana," in the very best sense of the word, for those of us who don't believe "America" is restricted to the United States. Atmospheric, almost abstract in places, yet also rooted, this is an album I'd like to see do well enough that Michael can make a couple more of them, if he wants to.
Dave Alvin: West of the West: Dave Alvin is grumpy, irascible, passionate about a lot of things that have nothing to do with what he does for a living -- enough like me that I mistrust my own reactions to his records. Not all of this collection of under-known songs by California songwriters is up to his usual high standards -- a doo-wop group doing the Beach Boys' parts on "Surfer Girl" is a notable miscalculation -- but he also manages to remind us of how wonderful John Stewart's "California Bloodlines" is, as well as reminding us that Kevin "Blackie" Farrell, a criminally neglected songwriter I happen to know about because he used to run with the Commander Cody/Asleep At the Wheel crowd and write songs for them, is worthy of further investigation. And anyone who can get me to sit through an entire Jackson Browne song -- and like it -- has definitely still got something going for himself.
Buckwheat Zydeco: Jackpot!: It's been years since I've been to Louisiana, and even longer since I've relaxed with one of those tiny beers in Richard's Club just outside of Eunice, but it appears that zydeco is still a contemporary, living, kind of music. Buckwheat's been one of my favorites -- okay, so I'm a little old-fashioned that way, although I was also a great fan of the late Beau Joque -- ever since I used to see him in Houston's Third Ward at the church dances back in the early '80s. The great thing about Jackpot! is it's not Buck trying to cross over. Been there, done that, didn't, apparently, much like it. Homefolks are forgiving, though, and this is an album for them. Maybe not the best place to start with zydeco if you're not used to it, but for those of us who've been on board a while, a nice enough way to pass a good time.
The Waybacks: From the Pasture to the Future: It's a jam band! It's a bluegrass band! Awww, who cares? As long as the musicianship's this good, the communication between the players so utterly clear, and the songwriting's not obtrusively bad, it's fine with me. A guilty pleasure, and, admittedly, something of a lesser one in terms of number of spins, but I'm pretty sure I'll be going back to this again some more.
I See Hawks In L.A.: California Country: I have no idea who these guys are, but I suspect I'd enjoy seeing them live. Once again, California and Americana, but with a weird overlay of darkness that's perfectly expressed by the nighttime gas station on the cover. They're a bit of a throwback -- I could see them as some tangential Byrds spinoff that I'd have to use one of Pete Frame's family trees to decipher, but that's not a bad thing at all. I might try to rustle up their previous record next time I'm in the States. They're that interesting.
Hazmat Modine: Bahamut: Again, not a perfect record, but an interesting one without a doubt. Two amplified harmonicas, a tuba player, drummer, guitarist, and trumpet player. Oh, and the occasional Tuvan throat singing. There are lots of things you could say about this if all you wanted to do is crack wise -- the Delta Blues goes to Mars, world music from another world -- but although the eclecticism wears over the course of an album that's a bit longer than it absolutely needs to be, the elements which are brought together are approached without too much reverence, but a lot of respect, if that makes sense to you. Another outfit I'd like to see live, but maybe only for one set.
Pet Shop Boys: Fundamental: Whut th'?!? Sorry, but there'd be more stuff like this on this list if I'd been exposed to it. I love pop, and I love smart people, and there's certainly no doubt in my mind that Neil Tennant shares my sentiments. Tennant's at his best when he's pissed off or downcast, at least to my taste, and I'd like to see another songwriter this year who came up with something as wrenching as "I Made My Excuses and Left," or as nuanced as "Twentieth Century." You may think you've outgrown this sort of thing, or you may only know the PSB through "Go West" or the campy like, but this is the other side of the picture. The nearly all-black cover is quite appropriate. As (heh) is the shocking pink disc inside.
Jon Dee Graham: Full: No-brainer: Jon Dee Graham puts out an album, it winds up here at the end of the appropriate year. Yeah, it's not as good as his last one, and I'd have been shocked if it had been because then it'd be tempting to think he wasn't human. It's not as boisterous, not as wide-open personal, and yet it's still him because nobody else in the world writes songs like this. I'm looking forward to seeing him in Texas (or maybe over here, since he does well in Holland), and I'm sure he'll make better and lesser records for years to come.
Jon Hardy and the Public: Observances: Another no-brainer, from a guy who I think -- and I seem to be the only person in the world who's aware of his existence -- is one of America's great songwriters. You can't even get his stuff on Amazon (although you can on eMusic), but you can get it from his website. As with Jon Dee's album, this ep isn't quite as good as his debut album, but I suspect he's been frustrated by lack of gigs and lack of opportunity to record, and I've been dragging my heels on getting some music he asked for to him, so I'm guilty, too. But maybe this year his application to SXSW will come through and someone else will figure out what I hear in this guy's writing and playing and he'll get to make another full-length album and maybe even tour outside of St. Louis. He's too good to get lost in the torrent of mediocrity, but man, swimming that stream is tough.
Alejandro Escovedo: The Boxing Mirror: Possibly the only album out of all of these which'll show up on anyone else's list, this, I suspect, fulfills a long-time dream of Al's: to make a John Cale record. I know, the sensitive chronicler of the Mexican-American family and the bittersweet edges of love gained and lost and the guy who screamed "They say FEAR is a man's best FRIEND!" seem one hell of an odd couple, but Al's been doing Cale's "Amsterdam" pretty much ever since he broke up the True Believers, and we should never forget that he's had a nasty, loud, hard-rocking side to him since he started. Yes, the story this year has been his remarkable uphill climb from almost dying from Hepatitis C, but for me the news has been this wonderful Cale-produced bunch of songs, with Al letting Cale run riot in the studio and keeping up with him every step of the way. Now, Al, about doing one with Oontah...
So that's it. Pretty anemic, huh? Mind you, I stand behind every one of those choices, and there were a lot of albums that hit the toss stack, but I'd have liked more rawk, more British stuff, more variety last year. Ah, well, there's always this year. If I get around to listening to anything, that is.