Here are my picks for the ten best CDs of 2009.
1. Annekei - Touch
Listen to Melt
Japan Knows What We Don't; This is Annekei’s third solo album and fourth album overall, all major label releases in Japan. This fine set of mostly Annekei originals will already be familiar to those who have seen her play New York’s Lower East Side over the last few years. Songs like Melt, Chills, and Keep Playing have been real crowd-pleasers. Song for Ida Marie is an especially pretty song that Annekei wrote for her neice who lives in Denmark. Sadly, the presence of Lee Ritenour as guitarist and producer has yet to secure an American release for this beautiful piece of work. In addition to the originals there is a great cover of Van Morrison's Days Like This on which Annekei duets with Will Downing. Ritenour did a superb production job and got the most amazing sound; nice, deep bass, drums that snap, and all the other great sounding instruments leave plenty of space for Annekei's sweet voice.
2. Leslie Mendelson - Swan Feathers
Listen to I Know You Better Than That
Worth the Wait: It took Rykodisc over a year to release this second album by one of New York’s most talented singer-songwriters. This record features the best songwriting, vocals, performance and production you might hope to find. This is one of those rare albums that doesn’t have a bad track on it. Leslie's real forte is writing memorable melodies. In particular the song above, Easy Love, Hit the Spot, and Turn It Over will embed themselves in your head after just a listen or two. The closing song, Goodnight, has such a great soft melody, it sounds like Paul McCartney might have written it, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense. Leslie's longtime friend James Maddock plays the great sounding guitar on this album, Randy Brecker guests on sax. The understated production by Joel Dorn lets each song sound its best.
3. Susan Enan - Plainsong
Listen to Bring On the Wonder
From England to NYC By Way of Northern Ireland: Susan Enan is another great Rockwood find. She hails from England but more recently has called Northern Ireland and New York City home. In 2007, Susan moved back to England to make this, her first full-length album. Susan is as fine a singer-songwriter as they come, and her songs have never sounded better than they do on Plainsong. This was recorded in five different countries, according to her website, with the majority of it recorded at Susan's home studio in Brooklyn.
Susan produced the record herself with an uncluttered production style that leaves plenty of breathing room for her gorgeous voice; all the instruments were recorded with amazing sound quality. This is really a special record because all ten songs are wonderful; there's not a clinker in the bunch. The CD package has beautiful photography, graphics, and quality of materials like what you would expect a major label to use for one of their top artists. But Susan self-released Plainsong, and you can order it from her website. Do it today.
4. Trashcan Sinatras - In the Music
Listen to In the Music
Scotland's Best Export: I've been listening to Scottish singer-songwriter Eddi Reader for many years. In 2003 she recorded a tribute album to Robert Burns, Scottish poet and songwriter (Auld Lang Syne) who lived in the 1700's. All the songs on the tribute album were by Burns except for one. Eddi explained that the premise of including this song was that it represented how the spirit of Burns comes down through the generations to inspire young songwriters. This song she included was called Wild Mountainside, an incredibly beautifully song that was written by her brother, Frank Reader.
Frank is a founding member of the Trashcan Sinatras. Over their 24 year career they have produced five brilliant albums of which In The Music is the latest. That's how I found my way to the Trashcan Sinatras. With no American airplay, at least not in Philadelphia, I was happily surprised to find Philadelphia's Tin Angel completely packed, the two times I've seen them there. The main thing to know about this group is that they write great songs and their records are characterized by lush ear-friendly vocals combined with an instrumental sound that works perfectly with the material.
All the songs on In the Music were written by the Trashcan Sinatras. The song Prisons features guest vocalist Carly Simon; there is also an excellent video. The album was produced by Andy Chase who may be best known for being a singer, songwriter, and musician in the band Ivy with his wife Dominique Durand and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne. This is an album without a bad track on it. Listening to In the Music is a total delight from start to finish. Not all of their albums have been released in the U.S., but American buyers are in for a treat this time. The U.S. release of In the Music comes with a bonus live disc; if you download, Amazon offers the whole package for $8.99. This could be the best nine bucks you spend on music this year.
5. James Maddock - Sunrise on Avenue C
Listen to When the Sun's Out
Rockin' the Rockwood: James Maddock's first music career came with the major label release in 1999 of his first album under the band name Wood. Maddock moved to New York City from his native England some years ago. He has since become a fixture at Rockwood Music Hall--either backing Leslie Mendelson with his vocals and his exquisite acoustic lead guitar, or he’s tearing the place up with his band doing the songs that you can now hear on Sunrise on Avenue C. The anthemic energy and exuberant abandon of When The Sun's Out may remind you of early Springsteen. After the break when he comes back in softly to start the next verse over piano it sounds like something off Born to Run.
The album opens with Chance which also has that anthemic quality. Maddock's softer side sounds great on When You Go Quiet and on the title track. Dumbed Down is a fun song with a memorable melody that features a nice electric piano part played by Leslie Mendelson (returning the favor), and the lyrics are about the joys of watching television. The album ends on a beautiful note with the song aptly titled Beautiful. Maddock wrote all the songs on Sunrise on Avenue C, Clark Gayton guested on trombone, and the whole affair was produced by Malcolm Burn. A listen to this record will give you an idea why the Rockwood is always packed whenever he plays.
6. John Fogerty - The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again
Listen to Garden Party feat. Don Henley & Timothy B. Schmidt
An American Icon: I've been listening to John Fogerty ever since one summer day in 1968 when I first heard Suzie-Q by Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio. Fogerty’s run with Creedence was second only to the Beatles in terms of the number of hit singles and albums he had within a five-year period. He has slowed down somewhat in his solo career, but he is still a huge talent and an American icon. After Creedence, Fogerty's first solo project was an album called The Blue Ridge Rangers on which he did nothing but covers of some of his favorite country songs.
Now, 35 years later, Fogerty has revisited the concept and recorded The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again. This time he invited some of his favorite musicians to play with him, plus guest vocals by Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmidt of the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen. Greg Leisz played some really amazing pedal steel guitar on nearly every track, and his excellence was matched song for song by Jason Mowery on fiddle. Fogerty more than holds his own with some nice country style guitar leads. One thing is certain, Fogerty was having the time of his life making this record, and you can partake in the fun just by listening.
7. Rosanne Cash - The List
Listen to I'm Movin' On
Can't-Miss Project: When Rosanne Cash was a teenager, her dad Johnny Cash grew concerned at her lack of knowledge of country music, so he gave her a list of the 100 most essential songs. Rosanne says she was old enough at the time not to throw the list away and she saved it. The list (which Rosanne now describes as the 100 most essential songs of American music) became the basis for her latest album, with all the songs selected from the list. With a great voice like Rosanne's together with some of the best-ever American songwriting, superb production and guitar work by husband John Leventhal, plus some of New York's best musicians, you've got a can't miss project. There are even famous guests like Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen. Rosanne also sings "Girl from the North Country," a song her dad sang as a duet with Bob Dylan on "Nashville Skyline."
8. Kristina Train - Spilt Milk
Listen to Don't Beg For Love
An Enormous Talent: Dave from Direct Current Music and I saw Kristina Train last year at the Living Room and we were blown away by her enormous talent. Kristina was under contract to Blue Note Records at the time but it took until this fall for Spilt Milk, her debut album, to be released. This is a tremendous record; all the songs are originals, mostly written by the team of Kristina, producer Jimmy Hogarth, and arranger E G White. The arrangements are superb, simple, and open when they need to be, but White doesn't hesitate to dress up the songs with strings or break out the horn section to maximum effect.
Which brings me to the matter of Kristina's voice. At times she has a soft, sultry, and southern side to her singing, which works perfectly with the material, and reflects her Georgia upbringing. When she hits the high notes, she has a strength in her voice that is very reminiscent of Dusty Springfield, especially on It's Over Now. Actually, Dusty moments are all over this record; it sounds to me like this is an album that Dusty might have made at this point in time, had she lived. Kristina also plays the violin on Spilt Milk, and she wrote all the string arrangements. This is a solid album of great songs, well sung, played, arranged, and produced. What more could you want.
9. Anuhea - Anuhea
Listen to Here I Go Again
Cool Soul/Pop From Hawaii: It's an unusual thing when an album hits you straight out of the blue and it's actually good; it's extra special when such a record has as high a batting average as this one does. Anuhea was born Rylee Anuheake'alaokalokelani Jenkins on the island of Maui, and she wrote or co-wrote all the songs on this, her debut album. Many of the tracks are straight ahead soul/pop like the above song. She set two of them to a bumpin' reggae beat. Three more have an ear friendly mix of acoustic guitar and keyboards, like the beautifully written I Just Want You Around. There's a track called Barista by Day which might hold some clue to her day job. Her voice is appealingly soulful; the closest comparison would be Joss Stone, but I think Anuhea has better material and her vocals sound natural and effortless.
10. Ruthie Foster - The Truth According to Ruthie Foster
Listen to I Really Love You
I Didn't Know They Still Made Records Like This: Sounding like a cross between Bonnie Raitt and Shemekia Copeland (the name Aretha also comes to mind), Ruthie Foster has made a great blues album that could just as easily pass for a singer-songwriter record. In addition to writing half the songs, Ruthie played both electric and acoustic guitars, and the Wurlitzer electric piano. Robben Ford guests on electric guitar. There's some great sounding slow blues, some full-on blues, some acoustic blues, and even some blues with a reggae beat (play song above). With great songs mixing blues and rock with Ruthie’s super soulful vocals, and excellent musicianship at every position, the awesome old school production may leave you thinking 'I didn’t know they still made records like this.'
I can never stop at just ten, so here's five more.
11. Elizabeth and the Catapult - Taller Children
Listen to Right Next to You
Quirky Charm: After several years of playing New York clubs like Rockwood Music Hall, The Living Room, and Joe's Pub, and often playing to capacity crowds, Elizabeth and the Catapult got their big break and signed with Verve Forecast. Taller Children is their major label debut. The album begins with Momma's Boy which has all the quirky charm that their New York faithful have come to know and love (if you want a girl to be your mother, go find another, go find another one). All the songs on Taller Children are originals and feature the signature songwriting of Elizabeth Ziman and band, as well as Elizabeth's appealing voice. Right Next to You and Golden Ink are especially beautiful and memorable songs. Speaking of memorable, I saw these guys play Joe's Pub on Halloween last year and they all came out in costumes from the movie A Clockwork Orange; that's a performance I'll not soon forget.
12. Mindy Smith - Stupid Love
Listen to What Went Wrong
Heartbreak Hotel: Someone must have really stomped on Mindy Smith's heart. Bad. Stupid Love is Mindy's fourth album and every song on it seems to deal with the aftermath of a relationship gone bad. Mindy has a great voice that sounds extra good set against the musical arrangements that characterize all of her albums. On the first song, What Went Wrong, the vocal and the music sounds happy enough to disguise the subject matter unless you are paying attention to the lyrics. Many a great song has been inspired by heartbreak, just as Joni Mitchell. Mindy closes the album with three great songs that are universal enough to transcend her personal situation. All the rest of the tracks detail the sorrow and what comes after. Mindy wrote or co-wrote all the songs and she also produced the record.
Mindy sang a nice duet with Vince Gill on True Love of Mine; she also had guest vocal help from Susan Ashton, Amy Grant, Madi Diaz, Leigh Nash, and Kate York. Mindy's last album, My Holiday, is one of the best records I've ever heard. It's the quality of her originals that take this set way beyond the level of a great Christmas album. The breakup that fueled Stupid Love prevents the songwriting from reaching the heights of her last, but I want to mention the iTunes bonus track which lifts the mood to conclude the album very nicely; it's a super well done cover of Fleetwood Mac's Little Lies.
13. Malene Mortensen - Date With a Dream
Listen to All I Want
Quality Jazz/Pop From Denmark: Malene Mortensen is a Danish singer-songwriter who works with some of Denmark's best jazz musicians on this, her debut album. Six of the album's eleven tracks are originals, co-written by Malene and her band. The rest are covers like the Joni Mitchell song above; some are standards like At Last and Take Five in which you get to hear the lyrics to this famous instrumental. Malene has a very appealing voice; she doesn't sound like anyone else in particular but at times she reminds me of Annekei (also Danish), at other times Chrissi Poland, and at still other times, Holly Palmer. These are three singers I hold in high regard, so this is high praise indeed. The music on Date With A Dream is quality slow piano jazz with vocals. I am in debt to my friend Lee in the U.K. for sending this.
14. Melody Gardot - My One & Only Thrill
Listen to Baby I'm a Fool
Have Soundtrack, Need Movie: All the glossy glamour and elegant strings on Melody Gardot’s major label debut marks a significant change of direction from the simple, direct, and beautiful songwriting that made her first album, Worrisome Heart, so utterly compelling. There is a trace of her earlier songwriting here; the new album opens with Baby I'm a Fool which she's been doing in her live set for the past several years. Melody has a way with words: Baby I'm a fool who thinks it's cool to fall in love, and it's all wrapped up in a pretty melody. I can't think of anyone I'd rather hear sing to me in French, and Melody does so beautifully on Les Etoile.
The majority of the tracks on this record are smoky bar, clinking glass, slow jazz/pop that sounds like it might be a soundtrack for a film noir, all ready for someone to make the movie. The album ends with maybe the most unusual version of Over the Rainbow that you'll ever hear. There's a samba beat, trumpet, and Melody takes some liberties with the melody. Long-time listeners may lament that star producer Larry Klein relegated Melody’s world-class jazz band to the sidelines. Universal has spent the last two years making Melody a star in England and Europe. Melody describes herself as an expatriate living in Paris. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving Philly local.
15. Ann Courtney & the Late Bloomers - Crocodile
Listen to Don't Be a Fading Bruise
Ann Courtney is the Rockwood bartender who also fronts a really cool band. The Late Bloomers may look like your average neighborhood bar band but their musicianship is way above average. Ann writes deep multilayered songs that reveal their charms gradually as you get to know them. They rock with a fine edge. Ann plays electric guitar with a smoldering slow burn that underscores the intensity of the songs. ACLB have been around for a long time and this is their very long-awaited first full-length record, and one not to be missed.