1. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Here We Rest [Lightning Rod]
Thank God Jason Isbell left the Drive-By Truckers or we would never have this, the finest album of 2011. Where to start? How about the killer cover of Candi Staton’s classic Heart On A String? The rootsy Alabama Pines? The sing-along chorus of Codeine? The devastating Stopping By? The dude can do no wrong.
2. The Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots [ATO]
When I first heard the title, I knew this one was going to be a good one. One of the most consistent bands of the last 15 years is on a post-Jason Isbell tear. Nobody writes stories like these guys. Patterson Hoods vocals are perfect. The South rocks. Mercy Buckets rules. Nothing was catchier than the cover of Eddie Hinton’s Everybody Needs Love in 2011. They’ll survive the departure of Shonna Tucker, too. Patterson and Mike are clearly the Mick and Keef at work here.
3. Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong [ATO]
In the beginning, people kept comparing Dawes to CSNY and the whole Laurel Canyon scene, but that had more to do with geography than sound. These guys are closer to the Band fronted by Jackson Browne. Their second great album in a row. Go ahead, drink the Kool-Aid.
4. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest [Acony]
I don’t have to sell you on Gillian Welch. You already love her. Her and Dave Rawlings’ performance at the Brown Theatre this year was spellbinding. So is this album. Tennessee, Hard Times, Down Along This Dixie Line, Dark Turn Of Mind – all standards that could have been written 100 years ago. Mesmerizing.
5. Diana Jones – High Atmosphere [Proper American]
Wow. You must get to know Diana Jones. She was totally unknown to me until this album arrived and I fell in love instantly. She’s the real deal in the way that Iris DeMent is the real deal. Simply and effectively produced (and played on) by Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, this set blew me away and announced the arrival of a major singing and songwriting star.
6. The Black Lillies – 100 Miles Of Wreckage [Attack Monkey]
Out of the ashes of Robinella & the CC String Band and the Everybodyfields comes the Black Lillies. Cruz Contreras fronts this unit from Knoxville and takes the mantle of Knoxville’s finest from the late, great V-roys. Solid writing, toe tappers and heartbreakers alike, and a great live band. I can’t wait for the next one.
7. Richard Buckner – Our Blood [Merge]
This is Buckner’s first album since 2006, and the first Buckner album in many years to have that Buckner sound that his cult following loves so much. There are stories about a lost laptop that required him to do this album twice. Whatever happened, you sure can’t argue with the results. I have a feeling that Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes are fans, but Buckner’s better than both of those bands. No one sounds like this, and that’s a good thing.
8. Hayes Carll – KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) [Lost Highway]
What separates Hayes Carll from a lot of other Americana hell raisers are the tender, poignant songs like Chances Are and Bye Bye Baby. KMAG YOYO gets all the press, but it may be the worst song on here, an updated Dylan rewrite. Look deeper for the real rewards.
9. Lucinda Williams – Blessed [Lost Highway]
It would be easy to take Lucinda Williams for granted. After all, she’s settled into an album every-other-year pattern and always manages to sound like Lucinda Williams. But look closer, and you’ll see that a song like Born To Be Loved is stunning. Simple, a timeless message, easy to sing and play, and the hardest kind of song to write.
10. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire [Pax-Am/Capitol]
I love the fact that Ryan Adams is taking the Neil Young career path and making music that strikes his fancy at any given moment. But, like Neil, there are a few things that he unquestioningly does best. Whiskeytown is Harvest and Rock n’ Roll is Crazy Horse, am I right? This is Ryan at his ghostly, pedal steel best.
11. Matraca Berg – The Dreaming Fields [Dualtone]
An accomplished songwriter who writes hit after hit for Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, and Deana Carter, Matraca hadn’t made an album of her own in 12 years. This one is stunning. No wonder Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter jumped on You And Tequila and are riding it all the way to the Grammys.
12. Merle Haggard – Working In Tennessee [Hag/Vanguard]
The greatest songwriter that ever lived (you heard me) keeps on delivering the high points on his latest album. The first half of this record is damn near perfect. What I Hate is a tour de force, my song of the year. When he brings the family, however, the album loses momentum. Son Ben is a fine guitarist, but when you’re duetting with Willie Nelson on a remake of Workin’ Man Blues, we’d all rather hear Willie take Ben’s verses. And while I’m sure your wife Theresa is a wonderful person, we don’t need to hear her, um, sing anymore.
13. Dave Alvin – Eleven Eleven [Yep Roc]
Dave Alvin’s accomplishments as a singer and songwriter have now officially equaled his status as a hotshot guitarist. A standard-bearer of the Americana genre, he continues to write beautiful and dirty sketches of great American characters with a bluesy burn that feels so bad in a good way. Somebody, anybody, please bring this man to Louisville for a show!
14. Tom Waits – Bad As Me [Anti-]
Is Tom Waits really Americana? Yes, of course he is. He’s more Americana than any other genre, so don’t fight it and get on board. Talking At The Same Time is a great American commentary and Back In The Crowd will break your heart.
15. Rod Picott – Welding Burns [Welding Rod]
This former construction worker is a house concert favorite in this region and writes some hard-hitting songs about blue-collar life that will resonate with Fred Eaglesmith and Steve Earle fans. He perfects it on this, his 5th album, with the song 410.
16. Whitehorse – Whitehorse [Six Shooter]
Based on this, the Canadian husband and wife duo of Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet should have joined forces years ago. I can’t listen to this without thinking of Buddy & Julie Miller’s Gasoline And Matches. Plus, a truly smoldering cover of Springsteen’s I’m On Fire done as a duo! More, please.
17. Eilen Jewell – Queen Of The Minor Key [Signature Sounds]
This Idaho girl now based in Boston has a crack band that can play any style. It’s hard to sound both retro and vibrant, but they pull it off with some of the cleanest production you’ll hear on record. She has a cool, detached vocal delivery wrapped in a tight rockabilly sound that’ll get your toes tapping.
18. Malcolm Holcombe – To Drink The Rain [Music Road]
Malcolm has an unorthodox finger-picking style that keeps your interest with unexpected notes and insightful lyrics about a life lived hard and the lessons learned from it. Equal parts gravel and grace and a captivating live performer.
19. John Hiatt – Dirty Jeans And Mudslide Hymns [New West]
I run hot and cold on John Hiatt, one of Indiana’s favorite sons. On some albums he seems to be going through the motions and spouting cliches. This is not one of those. Echoes of Hiatt’s best work (Bring The Family, Slow Turning) are frequent enough to put this one in the keeper category.
20. Owen Temple – Mountain Home [El Paisano]
On this Austin, TX songwriter’s 6th album, he sings about dusty Texas towns and the sometimes dark characters who live there (at least in his mind). Features some tasty playing by Charlie Sexton.