Here’s a baker’s dozen roundup of CDs to complement holiday turkey and treats
Dawes - Nothing Is Wrong (ATO)
Dawes, on its second album, is drawing many new fans primarily through the song “Time Spent In Los Angeles.” The group’s vocal approach occasionally recalls Jackson Browne, who appears on the album. Also, the influence of Browne’s former guitarist David Lindley’s guitar sound is evident throughout the album. The group, led by two brothers, backed-up Robbie Robertson on a handful of television appearances with talk of a possible tour. This is easily one of the best albums of the year.
Wilco - The Whole Love (dBpm)
Once again Wilco declares its independence and flees a major record company for its own label. While Nonesuch seemed a sympathetic home for the group, change and independence seem to be the hallmarks of one of the best American bands on the scene today. In their uncompromising musical stand, unpredictability and respect for its audience, the group carries the torch high passed on from groups like R.E.M. Weird, fun, melodic and filled with all kinds of rhythms, The Whole Love may be the band’s best album.
The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time (Rounder)
Fans of the Jayhawks can hardly believe their luck: after eight long years the group makes its triumphant return. The group’s gorgeous harmonies, midwestern twang and more than ever well-crafted compositions make this an album to treasure. In the context of American music, the Jayhawks are to The Byrds what Uncle Tupelo is to Buffalo Springfield.
Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire (Pax Am)
Adams released two albums last year (and three in 2005), but seems like he is about to begin a new phase in his career with the production, engineering and mixing assistance of Glyn Johns. Ashes & Fire is an album of happiness and deep reflection. It’s about a man who came through the fire and found peace. There is still no solo artist in music today more prolific and who writes better songs than Adams. It’s hard to say if this is Adams best album, but it’s certainly the most enjoyable to listen to.
John Hiatt - Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns (New West)
It’s hard to believe John Hiatt first released an album in 1974, with many phases, brushes with stardom and projects that were somewhat out of the singer-songwriter genre. At this point in his career, he’s become an artist incapable of making a bad album and in fact is someone whose is vastly underrated. Like the album it references (Mudslide Slim and the New Horizon), this release places the songs in very distinct times and places, mixing rootsy singer-songwriter reflection and southern twang. John Hiatt is one those legends without a big audience but one who just get better with age.
Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road (Everso)
After her tribute to Dusty Springfield in 2008 on Verve, Shelby Lynne started her own record company and released a stripped-down love chronicle Tears, Lies and Alibis as well as a holiday album Merry Christmas, in 2010. While both of those albums were solid releases to get her label off the ground, this new one can stand alongside her best work and may be her most personal and accessible release to date. On this CD Lynne went for a more fleshed-out sound. Surprisingly, she wrote all the songs, played all the instruments, did all the singing and produced the album herself. Lynne proves again what a truly rare talent she is.
Ollabelle - Neon Blue Bird (Thirty Tigers)
With Levon Helm’s daughter Amy, Ollabelle has always made likeable roots music. The album has just the right production touch to make the music more than simply a roots outing. Now, on its third album the group tapped a songwriting vein producing the best crop of songs it ever recorded, resulting in its best album and one that should finally propel the band into the big leagues.
Rachel Yamagata - Chesapeake (Frankenfish)
After two albums on two different major labels, Rachel Yamagata takes the indie route on her first full album in three years. A truly gifted singer-songwriter, she sounds relaxed and grounded on this superior collection of songs. The music reflects a languid, embracing glow, like the beginning of a love on a summer vacation. Yamagata possesses the ability to write and sing songs of effortlessness and may blossom more naturally away from the unforgiving spotlight of major label expectations.
All of You - Colbie Caillat (Universal Republic)
Through three albums, Colbie Caillat continues to make sunny folk-pop that’s irresistible. She is able to write light-hearted and joyous love songs without sounding saccharine or juvenile. Her newest is even more confident and bold. Her music reminds listeners of the potent pop L.A. sound that flourished in 1970s. This is an artist who is so young and who is so talented that she should be around for a long time to come.
Pieta Brown - Mercury (Red House Records)
The daughter of Greg Brown, Pieta Brown quietly releases superb albums that mix great songs with a rootsy yet inviting approach. Brown co-produced the album with Bo Ramsey (one of the most underrated producers in music today) and continues to refine her sound. By slowly building a following on her own terms, Brown is emerging as an artist poised to break through to a larger audience.
Mat Kearney - Young Love (Aware/Universal Republic)
Like Amos Lee, Matt Nathanson and a few other artists, Mat Kearney is exploding after years of toiling on the singer-songwriter scene. While “Hey Mama” has become a hit, there are plenty of other tracks here destined for the charts. Kearney is one of those rare artists who can balance being a singer-songwriter and employing modern instrumental and production techniques.
Brett Dennen - Lover Boy (Dualtone)
Brett Dennan, like Mat Kearney, figured out how to maintain his personal style as a singer-songwriter with songs like “Comeback Kid” and Sydney” becoming big hits. Without abandoning his quirky sound or vocal style, Dennen is now writing songs that are so upbeat and fun that one can’t resist his musical charms.
NEEDTOBREATHE - The Reckoning (Atlantic)
Yet another band with brothers, NEEDTOBREATHE possesses an anthemic, country-inflected, big rock sound. While rock radio formats continue to disappear, great rock bands keep emerging in such large numbers, eventually a groundswell of support should reverse the tide. While the group doesn’t exactly sound like either Bruce Springsteen or U2 it makes the kind of grand musical sound that is perfect for arenas filled with passionate fans.