Why I Love What I Love: 30 Favorite Recordings, 2000-2009 (Part I)
30. Gillian Welch
Time (The Revelator) (2001)
Proof– as much as any other album released in the last ten years– of the power of simple things, Time is an album of stark modesty, and, paradoxically, of bewildering complexity. It’s a primitive recording of a sophisticated set of songs: There’s nothing here but Welch singing and playing acoustic guitar, her partner Dave Rawlings plucking alongside her, no embellishments or studio tricks to be found– but using that most basic of palettes, Welch creates a remarkable masterpiece of little, interlocking parts. The songs weave history, both cultural and personal, around reflections on passion, work for the sake of work, the beauty of creation– a monument to the triumph of artmaking, of hard work on its own terms. And the album proves its own point: Few recorded moments send a chill down my spine like the moment when the audience bursts into applause during the disc’s lone live recording, a rousing affirmation of the ability of these simple gifts to dazzle us still.
29. Bettye LaVette
The Scene of the Crime (2007)
You could almost accuse her of plagiarism. You see, Bettye LaVette only wrote one of the ten songs here– the rest, pilfered from the likes of Willie Nelson and Elton John– but make no mistake: These are her songs, and they tell her story. The Scene of the Crime is an exemplary soul album in the grand tradition of interpretive singing, LaVette inhabiting these songs like a fine actor and digging deep into their hearts until she finds the truth of her own story within them. And it’s a good story, too, one of artistic and commercial frustration and a survivor’s spirit, told here in scenes of heartbreak and humor, jealousy and choices and, in the end, triumph. That’s the Bettye LaVette story, and this just might be its climax. Add to all that the fact that, in one of the decade’s greatest casting coups, she hijacked the Drive-by Truckers as the tricked-out engine for her ferociously unhinged performances; and, that she pulls her material not only from the proper soul tradition, but from pop and rock and country as well, proving that “soul” is just a matter of heart and inflection. All things considered, I’d say that adds up to one of the decade’s most inspired acts of theft.
28. Over the Rhine
Films for Radio (2001)
Sellouts! What could have been one of the gaudiest cash-ins of the decade is instead one of its bravest experiments and most assured triumphs. Armed, for the first time, with a semi-major record deal and an expanded budget to match, Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist– musicians known for their folksy intimacy and their acoustic slow-burners– dressed up their sound in a dazzling array of studio hues. A typical Over the Rhine song is built around a piano, an acoustic guitar, perhaps a drum kit and an upright bass; this one has loops. It has electronic effects and full-band arrangements that at times sound like the work of a small orchestra. And it works. Rather than corrupt the duo’s trademark intimacy, these studio effects enhance it. These are prayers, confessions, and interior monologues, dressed up like the big radio singles they really deserve to be. It’s a dynamite pop album, and it’s a lesson learned: Linford and Karin know what they’re doing.
27. Buddy and Julie Miller
Buddy and Julie Miller (2001)
An album that was, along with Emmylou Harris’ mid-90s classic Wrecking Ball, a sort of gateway drug for me, Buddy and Julie Miller is an album that makes country converts out of folks who swore they’d never go for the twangy stuff. Resistance is futile: The Millers’ first official collaborative album is jubilant, energetic, and, by turns, sorrowful and seductive. It’s clear that these two were made for each other; Buddy’s rough-hewn country grit and Julie’s gospel-laced pop work in perfect harmony, creating an album made up of the very best kind of sentimentality, one that speaks to both the heartache and the giddy joy of romantic love, alternating between teary-eyed ballads and strutting, flirtatious rock and roll. All the important things in life are here– passion for one’s spouse, for music, for Jesus– and it’s little wonder that this spirited, home-made labor of love has only made its way into my stereo more and more since I tied the knot myself.
26. Bruce Springsteen
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)
The more devout E-Street fans may not care to admit it, but it’s this album– not the more studied Magic, not the more solemn The Rising— that marked Bruce’s true new-milenium return to the loose spontaneity and ramshackle glory of his early days. Simply put, this album rocks harder and with more abandon than any other Springsteenr recorded this decade, but that’s only half of its appeal. The Seeger Sessions— an all-covers album culled from tracks that are decades, in some cases centuries old– is a rousing celebration of the resiliance of folk music. The songs may be dusty relics, but here Springsteen transforms them; this set, all at once, a killer party album; one of the most timely and elegant political protests of the Bush years; and a stirring affirmation of genuine Christian hope. Not bad for an album that should have been little more than a museum piece. I can think of no closer kindred spirit than the rowdy majesty of The Basement Tapes; of course, that album made up its own myths while this one toys with the old ones, but if that makes it less iconic, it doesn’t make it any less impressive.
25. Solomon Burke
Don’t Give Up on Me (2002)
In 2002, Solomon Burke– once crowned the king of rock and soul, in what seemed like another lifetime– was in need of a comeback. And in the hands of a lesser collaborator, that might have meant gaudy production, unseemly and illogical celebrity cameos from younger performers, songs guaranteed to draw crowds but failing to surprise. Thankfully, his collaborator was Joe Henry, a mostly-untested producer who earned his stripes and laid the foundation for his esteemed reputation here, simply by realizing that the key to a great comeback– the key to a great record— is great songs, a great singer, and production that gives them plenty of room to cast their spell. And that’s what this is: An almost minimalist backing leaves the spotlight on Burke, who chews on his words like a great thespian and belts it like a man a quarter his age, performing original material contributed by little-known songwriters like Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Tom Waits. It’s a timeless formula for winning music, and to this day it stands as a potent lesson in just what exactly makes music soulful.