Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Best Music of 2019, Album of the Year: Woodstock - Back To The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive; Plus My Picks for the Top Ten Starring American Football, Karla Bonoff, The Cranberries, Ronnie Earl, Crystal Gayle, The Japanese House, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Svetlana, and Many More


Mark Goff Photography, Leah Demarco/Allison Goff via AP

2019 was another great year for music. I only say that because I listened to more new releases in 2019 than ever before, I liked more of that new music than ever before, and I had to delete more items than ever before in the preparation of this article.

In today's world of streaming, the music seeker is presented with a seemingly endless array of new music to choose from and it's easier than ever to bite off more than one can chew. The great fear is that for each fabulous discovery (this year's Ronnie Earl album for example), you might be overlooking several more... and you probably are. There is way too much music released every year for any one person or even one publication to have a handle on it all. What's more, if an album doesn't catch the wave of popularity or sales after release, a good record stands a better than even chance that it may disappear and not be heard from again.

So, here is my little snapshot of 2019, the music that moved me. In the final preparation of this article, I was reminded (as if I needed a reminder) why I do this; playing the albums again, all the way through, I didn't want to stop. It was/is a good illustration of the tagline for this blog: Music really does make life better.

Album of the Year: Various Artists - Woodstock - Back To The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive

For the 50th anniversary, they set out to produce the end all and be all box set of the complete festival in chronological order. Included is every set, every stage announcement, literally every bit of tape that had something meaningful on it. Only three songs are omitted: two Hendrix tunes, at the request of the Hendrix estate "for artistic reasons", and one tune by Sha Na Na, due to the tape running out. If you ever recorded a live event, even a radio concert, you'll know the magnitude of this achievement. The producers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair may have grossly underestimated the size of the crowd, rendering the physical facilities inadequate, but they sure did a tremendous job with the documentation of the event. They recorded everything with then-state of the art studio recorders. You can read my complete review here.

The main thing I take away from listening to the complete festival is not only that this box set makes you feel like you are there. The music that you hear is in two basic categories. There are the artists who you know from the movie and its soundtrack album. Disregarding the few sets that might just as well remain in the vault, it is quite amazing to hear the complete sets; to hear the familiar songs in context. I'm talking about the artists who were in the movie such as Richie Havens, the Who (you can now hear the legendary moment when Pete Townsend kicks Abbie Hoffman off the stage), the Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in only their second live gig ever. Sure, you saw them say "we're scared shitless" but truly their very first live set took place the night before. And even though you only saw CSN in the movie, Neil Young was part of the group, hiding from the camera because he did not want to be in the movie. Still, as Bob Lefsetz has pointed out, all of the stuff they played are somehow hardwired into our DNA. It is a real revelation to hear the complete set. The same is true about other artists. Take Santana, who positively wowed the crowd at Woodstock, did not even have a recording contract at the time of their performance, as unlikely as that may sound. The explanation was that Santana was included in Woodstock as a favor to music promoter Bill Graham. The rest, as they say, is history.

The other category of interesting music in this collection are sets by artists whose participation is not even hinted at in the movie. I'm talking about The Band, the Grateful Dead (even though we get a comment from Jerry Garcia in the film), Johnny Winter, Mountain, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, for example.

The Creedence set is especially interesting. Creedence front man, singer, songwriter, and guitarist John Fogerty has memories of Woodstock that seem to be more about what he was feeling rather than the music. Discussing their omission from the movie, Fogerty has cited the usual problems at the festival. He tells the story that Creedence played Woodstock very late at night, and since they followed the Grateful Dead, that the audience he could see from the stage was both naked and asleep. He goes on to say that he saw one guy in the audience holding up a lighter and cheering. Fogerty said that he played the entire set to that guy; at least that's his memory.

In actual fact, Creedence did follow The Dead, and they did in fact take the stage at 12:30 am, which was Saturday night/Sunday morning. Janis Joplin followed. The set by Creedence Clearwater Revival is also released as a stand-alone CD, perhaps as a harbinger of what may come in the future from this archive.

When you listen to the Creedence set you absolutely cannot tell any of the problems that Fogerty remembers that kept him out of the movie. In 1969, Fogerty and his band were at the top of their game. In that one year, Creedence released their second, third and fourth albums: Bayou Country, Green River, and Willy and the Poor Boys. That night at Woodstock Creedence was on fire. John Fogerty was in great voice and his guitar led the band through a magic set that began with "Born on the Bayou" and "Green River". The set was drawn from their first three albums, complete with a 10+ minute version of "Keep On Chooglin'" as their last song. Fogerty's solo on blues harp eventually dissolves into a fiery guitar solo. To hear the cheering at the end of the set suggests that there was plenty of crowd rocking to Creedence. They rewarded that crowd with an over 10 minute version of their first hit, "Suzie Q" for a dynamite encore.

Fun fact: Fogerty says that his Woodstock experience inspired him to write "Who Will Stop The Rain".

The Top Ten (Alphabetically):

American Football – American Football (LP3)
Although American Football is a term they use in Britain to differentiate the  NFL sport from soccer, the group American football is indeed American. LP3 is a gorgeous, compelling record with sparkling guitars, unhurried percussion, and slow and soulful vocals by frontman Mike Kinsella. The three guest vocalists appearing on LP3, Paramore’s Hayley Williams, Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, and Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell, each sound perfect singing the material. Listening to American Football, I am sometimes reminded of Prefab Sprout, but the band I think of the most is The Blue Nile, both British bands. In my live review I mention that most of the audience were probably not even born yet when those two bands were recording their classic albums. I did find it really encouraging that this crowd came to listen. I was thinking that if The Blue Nile's faithful were to hear LP3, they too would love American Football. I know I do.

Karla Bonoff – Carry Me Home
Karla Bonoff's name and songwriting came to prominence when three of her compositions were covered by Linda Ronstadt on her Hasten Down the Wind album (1976). Although Ronstadt did a terrific job with the songs, I am of the belief that no one sings Bonoff's songs better than Karla herself. For this release Bonoff took a slew of her own songs and rerecorded them in a simplified arrangement. Don't call it stripped down, these songs were so well written that they would sound great in any iteration, but the songs on this album are no less rewarding than the originals. In addition to the classics, there are a handful of new originals by Bonoff and her longtime supporting musician Kenny Edwards, now deceased. She also includes a cover of Jackson Browne's "Something Fine", a tune she did for a Browne tribute album in 2015. If you are a music lover, whether or not you are familiar with Bonoff's music, you will want to hear Carry Me Home.

The Cranberries – In the End
The Cranberries recorded their final album after the death of their lead vocalist Dolores O'Riordan who died in early 2018. She and guitarist Noel Hogan had written the eleven songs for this record, long distance. Hogan would write the music and send it to O'Riordan. She then wrote lyrics and added her vocals emailing the completed demos back to Hogan. In a stroke of providence, the last tracks were completed just prior to O'Riordan's tragic death. The band completed and recorded this album using those demo vocals, and the results sound quite good. Their last album in 2017, with its reimagined versions of their classic compositions along with four new ones, all recorded primarily acoustic and with strings, sounded so good that it rekindled my interest in the band. I think that they had a trajectory going in that they kept improving with each new record. In The End continues that trend and we can only guess what the future might have held.

Ronnie Earl – Beyond the Blue Door
The first time I listened to Beyond the Blue Door by Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters, it sounded so good I couldn't quite believe it... So I played it again. Being that this release marks Earl's 26th album, and being that Earl has been a frequent flyer in the top ten of Billboard's Blues Chart, I seriously wondered how I could have missed this guy until now. No matter, this record with styles ranging from blues to soul, with magnificent guitar work and even more exquisite taste, Earl and his band have made perhaps the ultimate blues album. Although he does not sing on the record (Earl did compose, play, produce, and even wrote the liner notes), the vocals are in the very capable hands of Broadcaster Diane Blue (who may remind you of a young Aretha), as well as guest David Bromberg and Earl's frequent collaborator Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Earl also has a number of instrumental guest musicians. You can read all the details in this review by Mike O’Cull in Rock and Blues Muse. There is also an excellent bio about Ronnie Earl on his website. While you read, you'll most assuredly want to stream or buy the album. Even though I love every track on this record, the piece de resistance for me is really "Why Can't We Live Together." The Broadcasters' B-3 sounds superb as do Blue's vocals and Earl's guitar. Beyond the Blue Door is the type of find that makes all this worthwhile.

Crystal Gayle – You Don't Know Me
This list is all over the map, musically speaking. So now we take a hard left into the heart of country music. I've been a fan of Crystal Gayle ever since 1982 when she sang with Tom Waits on his beautiful score for the movie One From the Heart, but somehow I never knew that she is Loretta Lynn's younger sister. Crystal Gayle has another sister named Peggy Sue, no relation to the Buddy Holly song. All three sisters sing together on this album. You Don't Know Me comes about 16 years after Gayle's last album, which was a collection of standards from the Great American Songbook. In her career, Gayle quite often crossed over to the pop chart. The new album dovetails nicely with the last one in that it features a collection of old school country standards. Gayle says that she grew up with these songs and even though they have not been a part of her career (until now), they have been a part of her life all along. When you listen you'll hear Gayle in great voice singing with the absolute cream of Nashville's session musicians. In addition to the gorgeous vocals, the instrumental performances were flawless from the rhythm section to the pedal steel and other guitarists, to the violins (fiddles), to the bluesy Ray Charles' style piano and uncluttered arrangements, with excellent production by Gayle with her son Chris Gatzimos. Martina McBride made a similar album some years ago that I also loved, but I am pleased to say that in all of country music you will not hear a record any better than this.

The Japanese House - Good at Falling
The Japanese House is the name of the group, led by founder, singer, songwriter, and musician Amber Bain. The same thing that caught my ear about her when I saw her play live, really jumps out at you when you play this excellent full-length debut on a good sounding rig. You hear an extraordinary combination of rhythms coming from the drums kit with the most incredible sound quality that gave my subwoofer a workout, and that was before Amber had even opened her mouth. On that opening track, Bain puts her voice through autotune and while, at one time, I might have dismissed such a record, Imogen Heap's groundbreaking Speak for Yourself album taught us one thing, and that is never to say never. Where would "Hide and Seek" be without that autotune effect or maybe that was a harmonizer. No matter, the point is that if we don't get past track one on The Japanese House's Good at Falling, we never get to track two, "Maybe You're the Reason", one of the best tracks that you will hear this year. I just love how her voice combines with the unstoppable guitar riff to both work with and play off the incredible rhythm section. If I didn't know better I'd be tempted to call it the rebirth of progressive rock. Bain weaves her song craft like a pro and this album sounds more like songs that she's been saving, more so than the chronicle of a relationship, which is what this record really is.

Willie Nelson – Ride Me Back Home
Willie Nelson is something of a miracle man. When an artist reaches his mid-eighties the audience knows that there is a possibility if not a probability, that each album might be the last. That fact is not lost on Nelson either. The title track "Ride Me Back Home" is one that celebrates one of Nelson's personal causes having to do with the treatment of horses. To hear Nelson sing it, I would say that the potential double meaning of the lyric is a sweetness that is similarly not lost on Nelson. So even though Nelson's voice on record doesn't begin to betray his octogenarian status, he seems to delight in the topic. The songs go together so seamlessly that you might not know that there are only a few new Nelson originals unless you read the liner notes. On one of those new tunes, "One More Song to Write," you can feel the enjoyment with which Nelson delivers the lyrics. The humor goes tongue-in-check on Mac Davis' "It's Hard to Be Humble", a track that Nelson recorded with his two sons. There are a couple of Guy Clark compositions; Clark's recent passing has seemingly sparked renewed interest in his songwriting. The most obvious cover choice, and perhaps the most unexpected, is Nelson's offering of Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are." That song, that even Joel has eschewed for its supposed sappiness, gets a serious read from Nelson along with the overall lovely instrumental perfection that you find on this record, produced by Buddy Cannon. On this, said to be his sixty-ninth solo album, the tempos are unhurried, the electric guitars blend gorgeously into the pedal steel guitars, with the piano and violins combining to make Ride Me Back Home one of the best country albums that you might ever hear.

Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
With his E Street Band on temporary hiatus, Bruce Springsteen followed up last year's successful Broadway run with a new solo album, Western Stars. Inspired by the Southern California pop rock of the 1970s, the album consists of thirteen new Springsteen originals. The songwriting on Western Stars is every bit as warm and inviting as the vocals and the instrumental performances sound. Make no mistake, this is not a copy of the hits of the 70s. These songs are all Bruce. What you won't hear is any imitation of Burt Bacharach or Glen Campbell, to name two of the project's touchstones. All the material on this record has a sense of place. There are a few anthemic tracks that may easily get stuck in your head, in a good way ("Tucson Train" and "There Goes My Miracle"), and despite the name, "Sleepy Joe's Cafe" is actually about a rave-up and the treatment is as close to a rave-up as it gets on this record. But a majority of Western Stars sound like very personal songs despite a lengthy list of players that include singer-songwriter-producer Jon Brion and one time E Street keyboardist David Sancious. The production always sounds uncluttered; the players are used with purpose, if sparingly. The end result of all this is a record that sounds as great in the car as it does at home. On some albums, there is a key track that once you get it, it unlocks the rest of the record. Western Stars has two such tracks and they may be among Springsteen's finest compositions and these are the last two tracks on the album. "Hello Sunshine" sounds almost like something you might have heard a long time ago but it's so artfully written that it sounds both old and new at the same time. The album concludes with "Moonlight Motel", a gorgeous and delicate melody that contains a finely detailed slice of life story that shows just how far Springsteen has come as a songwriter. Sounding unlike any previous Springsteen album, Western Stars is one of his best and take"s a welcome spot among this year's top ten.
Note: In lieu of a tour, Springsteen co-directed a feature length documentary film. For the film, Springsteen recorded live versions of all thirteen songs with handpicked players and a full orchestra. The live versions are on a soundtrack album and they sound quite close to the originals. In addition, the soundtrack adds a live cover of Glen Campbell's signature song "Rhinestone Cowboy".

Svetlana – Night at the Movies
Svetlana's follow up to her 2016 debut is called Night at the Movies. I still love the debut, A Night at the Speakeasy, about as much as a person can love a record. The new one excels in many of the same ways, the performances (both the vocals and instrumental work), exquisite arrangements by Gil Goldstein and Rob Garcia, and pitch perfect production by Matt Pierson. But what really makes this record special is the unique, and at times eclectic, song selection by Svetlana. Night at the Movies avoids the obvious and the cliche that many collections of movie music give you. The high praise for the arrangers is warranted. Most songs are offered with a combination of pop and jazz that brings out the best in each genre. You can drop the proverbial needle anywhere on this record and hear what I'm talking about. Like her debut, Night at the Movies also features two vocal duets with Wycliffe Gordon. As much as I enjoy Svetlana's pure clear tone and her well considered delivery, these duets really do me in. One other person Svetlana sings with on this record is her daughter Isabel in a sweet version of the classic song "Smile". Smile is something you'll do often as you listen to the fourteen tracks that represent Svetlana's personal history on Night at the Movies.

Various Artists – Joni 75: A Joni Mitchell Birthday Celebration (Live)
On November 6 and 7 of last year the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in Los Angeles hosted two concerts as a tribute and celebration of Joni Mitchell's 75th birthday benefiting the Music Center.  The concert was broadcast on PBS-TV and it is available on DVD as well as CD. The project was conceived by Jorn Weisbrodt, director of the Music Center, according to PBS. The music was produced by Danny Kapilian, and arranged by Brian Blade and Jon Cowherd (who served as co-musical directors for the project). The excellence of the house band and the musical directors can take a great concert to the next level. In this case, the music directors are members of a top drawer jazz ensemble, Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band. Blade, who produced the last two Mitchell albums, together with Cowherd and Chris Thomas (Fellowship bassist) formed the core of the house band. The guest list varied from expected (James Taylor, Graham Nash) to less so (Norah Jones, Seal, Chaka Khan). By accounts of the show, Joni herself made a rare appearance, sitting front and center in a big easy chair. Jones did a gorgeous "Court and Spark" and when Seal sang Joni's revised version of "Both Sides Now" the pure emotion brought the crowd to its feet. "Dreamland was a jazz celebration with Afro and Caribbean influences. The jazz celebration continued on Khan's "Help Me", another highlight. The more I hear Mitchell's "Amelia" the more I think it's up there as perhaps my favorite Joni song and I'm glad to say that Diana Krall does it proud. I could go and mention every track, but you'll just have to listen. The selections, the arrangements, and the performances could not be better.

The Top Thirty: Numbers 11 - 30 (alphabetically).

Big Band of Brothers – A Jazz Celebration of the Allman Brothers Band
In real life the concept sounds way better than it looks in print. It doesn't hurt that the arrangements and production are top notch, or that the singers and soloists are spot on.

Sheryl Crow – Threads
On her supposed "final" album, Crow goes out with a bang bringing a veritable gaggle of guest artists such as Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples who are so good that it suggests the three of them should make a whole album together. The cover of "Beware of Darkness" with Eric Clapton, not only speaks to the power of George Harrison's songwriting, but it helps make a strong case (along with the other sixteen songs on Threads) that Crow is too good to hang it up now.

Rodney Crowell – TEXAS
Rodney Crowell's star has been on the rise ever since his singer-songwriter career began back in the 1970s, and now finds himself one of Nashville's most in demand music producers. So much so that when word surfaced that he was recording a new album focused on his Texas roots, artists lined up to play with him resulting in one of the finest records of 2019.

Dido – Still on My Mind
One thing that I love about Dido's fifth album Still on My Mind is that the simple production always keeps her voice way on top of all of the other elements of the songs. The upshot of all this is that the focus is on Dido's songwriting skill and you can clearly hear her voice, her personality, and the very changes that make these Dido songs.

Steve Hackett – At The Edge Of Light
Lest anyone think that Hackett is stuck in the past with his Genesis Revisited projects, let me assure you that Steve Hackett is one of the finest progressive artists who has been writing and producing new music ever since the glory days of Genesis (1970s). Hackett is a guitar giant, using his prodigious skills to advance his compositions on At The Edge Of Light, which could suggest where a Hackett-led Genesis might be now. 

Steve Hackett – Genesis Revisited Band & Orchestra: Live
This package is the Genesis Revisited show on CD and Blu-ray video, played by Steve Hackett, his band, guests including his brother John, along with the Heart of England Orchestra, recorded last year at the Royal Festival Hall. With a best ever integration of orchestra and rock band, some of this material has never sounded better and the end result is a delightful, always surprising set that takes you straight back to 1976. 

Hatchie – Keepsake
Keepsake is the debut full length album by Hatchie, the group name for Harriet Pilbeam, an exciting new artist whose website invites you to  "Step inside her mind; a dreamy landscape where cascading synths, jangling guitars, propulsive rhythms and white noise undulate beneath irresistible pop melodies." What sets this apart for me is the appeal of Pilbeam's lyricism, the quality of her voice and the fact that she can front a full fledged rock band without getting lost in the mix. 

Joe Henry – The Gospel According to Water
Although not a household name, Joe Henry is held in the highest regard by music fans and musicians who know. The diagnosis he received last year of Stage 4 prostate cancer is not addressed directly on his latest release, it is a quiet acoustic record that is as intimate and contemplative as it gets.

Trevor Horn – Trevor Horn Reimagines The Eighties (feat. The Sarm Orchestra)
The music of the eighties is better than you think, and on his latest Trevor Horn turns his attention to the eighties producing a covers album with British flair to spare. If the first three tracks don't knock you out then forget about the rest of the record, but I found them irresistible. These covers are so good they make you fondly recall the originals and even though we've heard "Dancing in the Dark" a million times, Gabrielle Aplin slows it down and gives it new life.

Janiva Magness – Change in the Weather: Janiva Magness Sings John Fogerty
Although she sometimes classifies as Americana or soul, Janiva Magness is known primarily as a blues artist with at least a dozen albums to her credit. On her tribute to John Fogerty, Magness does a smart set that includes both Credence Clearwater classics and Fogerty solo tunes with a joyous guitar excellence, and I can't help but feel that this record has a musical gravitas that so many Fogerty covers lack.

Nellie McKay – Bagatelles
Nellie McKay's Bagatelles, with its eight tunes clocking in at about 17 minutes, seems like a continuation of her last album Sister Orchid (2018). Again, the arrangements could not be simpler, just voice and ukulele for the most part. She does songs such as "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Da" and "Accentuate the Positive" with that clear, sweet, and tuneful delivery that makes McKay's recordings such a delight.

Keb' Mo' - Oklahoma
Known primarily as a bluesman, Keb' Mo' has enjoyed a 25 year career as a singer, musician and songwriter, possessed of a super charismatic and comfortable voice as well as earning four Grammy Awards. His latest album Oklahoma, with ten new original compositions, includes an appearance by Rosanne Cash on "Put A Woman in Charge" and a duet with his wife on one of the prettiest songs I've ever heard, "Beautiful Music", to close the album.  

Van Morrison - Three Chords and the Truth
At age 74, Van Morrison's latest prolific period shows no sign of slowing down, with the wonderfully named Three Chords and the Truth representing his sixth album in four years. Instead of continuing his exploration of blues and jazz, his latest is filled with 14 songs in search of that elusive "truth", but the one thing they all have in common is the excellence of Morrison's songwriting and production.

Anna Nalick – The Blackest Crow
For her fourth full length release, Anna Nalick picked cover songs from the last hundred years including songs like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", "Waterloo Sunset", and ends the record quite nicely with "As Time Goes By". A project like this really shines the spotlight on great songwriting, and even among these twelve examples Buddy Holly's "True Love Ways" stands out. What makes this album special are the simple acoustic arrangements of guitar, bass and drums, sometimes accompanied by an expressive violin, perhaps reminiscent of Madeleine Peyroux's last, Secular Hymns.

Pure Bathing Culture – Night Pass
On their first album, Pure Bathing Culture struck me as a band who had cut their teeth on 70's progressive rock, kind of next generation progressive. Now independent, they are still going strong on their third album Night Pass, lead by multi-instrumentalist Daniel Hindman with vocals handled quite nicely by Sarah Versprille.

The Rails – Cancel the Sun
Calling The Rails the next Richard and Linda Thompson may be apt on some songs, but would ultimately sell them short. The Rails, lead by the husband and wife team of Kami Thompson and James Walbourne, literally fills their third album Cancel the Sun with their usual mix of smart songwriting, tight performances, and quality production.

Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis – Beautiful Lie
The first thing that took my breath away was the sound of this record as I thought to myself, "Why can't all records sound like this?" The tone of the acoustic guitar was just perfect, and when the voice came in it sounded so natural like I was right there with them in the room. The liner notes tell us that Robison produced it himself at his Texas studio, recorded the old fashioned way on analog tape "with no digital shenanigans". Oh, and by the way, the music is awesome, too, on this fourth album by Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison.

The Waterboys – Where The Action Is (Deluxe)
Mike Scott may not be as old as Van Morrison, but his recent period of music making is no less prolific, with Where The Action Is representing his third Waterboys' album since 2015. This is all over the map from the rip-roaring rock of the opening track to traditional fare from Robert Burns and Kenneth Grahame; there's even a dynamite song that shares its title with The Waterboys' last album, "Out of All This Blue". No matter what the style, Where The Action Is finds Mike Scott and The Waterboys solidly at the top of their game.

Trisha Yearwood – Every Girl
Nashville might be the last bastion of publishing houses with songwriters under contract, placing (selling) songs for artists to record, and no one sounds better singing other people's songs than Trisha Yearwood. On her fourteenth album Every Girl, you'll find fourteen excellent compositions by the likes of Lucie Silvas, Karla Bonoff ("Home"), Ashley McBryde, and Gretchen Peters ("The Matador"), just to name a few, and all the performances, the guest artists, arrangements, and the production are similarly top rate.

Trisha Yearwood – Let's Be Frank
Originally a private release in late 2018 for Williams Sonoma, Trisha Yearwood's Sinatra tribute album was released wide early this year. Yearwood went to the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood to record it using Sinatra's microphone in his classic studio along with a 55-piece orchestra, all impeccably arranged and produced by Vincent Mendoza and Don Was, respectively. Let's Be Frank sounds a little different from the many such albums in that it doesn't rely so much on the familiar Sinatra chestnuts. There's a handful of standards such as "Witchcraft", "Come Fly With Me", and "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)", but along with these are some gems that may be lesser known. There is even one new original penned by Yearwood with Garth Brooks, her husband.

The Top Fifty: Numbers 31 - 50 (alphabetically)..

Hamish Anderson - Out of My Head
An unexpected find, superb song writing, excellent production, and lots of guitar!

India.Arie – Worthy
India.Arie's excellent seventh album is a love album with a side of empowerment.

the bird and the bee – Interpreting the Masters, Volume 2: (A Tribute to Van Halen)
Great fun with vocals by Inara George (daughter of Lowell) that are sweet and stylized, with backing by Greg Kurstin that is a shade ballsier than you might expect.

Mary Black – Orchestrated
One of our most celebrated Celtic vocalists, Mary Black took eleven of her favorite songs (including ones written by Richard Thompson and Dougie MacLean) and recorded them with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, arranged and conducted by Brian Byrne; it's all lovely but she had me at the first track, a cover of Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going".

Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance
More tracks to treasure from Leonard Cohen on Thanks for the Dance, recorded by his son Adam, during the weeks leading up to his passing.

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell
It's always a pleasure to spend time with her thoughts and her rich music, and it's not just because they both use the phrase "I'm your man" that I ask, could Lana Del Ray be the next generation's Leonard Cohen?

Juliana Hatfield - Weird
On her seventeenth solo album, Juliana Hatfield treats us to a light (sounding) romp through her psyche.

Chrissie Hynde – Valve Bone Woe
The always fantastic Chrissie Hynde this time fronts a jazz ensemble, sounding exceedingly good covering pop/rock and jazz standards.

Booker T. Jones – Note By Note
The keyboard wizard and longtime Stax songwriter recorded new versions of selected tracks from his epic career; it sounds so good that you will wish it was a double album.

Durand Jones & The Indications – American Love Call
Listening to this, you really can't tell whether it's a great lost classic soul record from the 60s or something completely new, which it actually is - a most impressive second album.

Little Steven – Summer Of Sorcery
Steven Van Zandt is perhaps the most improved lead vocalist I've heard, and on this 3rd release during his current E-Street Band hiatus (including the live one), has produced a set of true rock and soul gems.

Mandolin Orange – Tides of a Teardrop
With a great sounding yet gentle record with superlative guitar work, Mandolin Orange has released music as good as its name is clever.

Reba McEntire – Stronger Than The Truth
When Reba started you didn't have to call it "old school country" because it was the only school, and on this release she not only brings all the fiddle and pedal steel players, but her voice sounds as young as it ever did.

Ronnie Milsap – The Duets
Ronnie Milsap recorded new versions of a great batch of his number one country songs, each with a guest vocalist, mostly A-list singers like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson or my current favorite country duet featuring Milsap and Kacey Musgraves.

The O'Jays - The Last Word
The venerable sixty year old soul band makes its final record and shows that they still have it.

Original Broadway Cast Of Ain't Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
This record is lots of fun with a Broadway cast that is so good at impersonating not only the Temptations but the other Motown artists of the time, that it blurs the line between excellent cover/tribute band and Broadway.

Runaway June - Blue Roses
This charming country record is chock full of terrific vocals and songs that should've been huge.

Catherine Russell – Alone Together
The Grammy winning vocalist delivers her seventh album, which sounds every bit as terrific as her amazing voice; a true gem.

Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits
This can't miss concept includes all top drawer talent such as Amy Mann, the sister duo of Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, Phoebe Bridgers, Roseann Cash and many more singing twelve dynamite Tom Waits compositions, and although it includes some of Waits' best known songs, it barely scratches the surface of his songwriting talent.

Various Artists – If You're Going To The City: A Tribute To Mose Allison
This Mose Allison Tribute will hopefully expose his extraordinary jazz and blues career to a new generations of listeners with performances by the likes of Taj Mahal (a definitive "Your Mind Is On Vacation"), Jackson Browne (a superb version of "If You Live"). Bonnie Raitt (amazing live recording of "Everybody's Crying Mercy") and many more artists such as Chrissie Hynde, Charlie Musselwhite, Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, etc.; fifteen tracks in all.