NPR music reviewer Meredith Ochs shares her picks for the year's best CDs. Ochs is host of Sirius Satellite Radio's "Outlaw Country" channel, a contributing editor for Guitar World magazine and a regular contributor to NPR's All Things Considered. She's also the vocalist and guitarist for the rock band The Damn Lovelys.
Ochs recently appeared on NPR's live, online call-in edition of All Songs Considered to help count down listener's picks for the top ten CDs of 2006.
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins: Rabbit Fur Coat
Rilo Kiley frontwoman (and former child actor) adds Kentucky's harmonizing Watson Twins and ups the '60s soul factor on her solo debut. Lewis' voice bounces from plainspoken to seductive to ebullient with ease, whether she's singing about politics or doing her best Dusty Springfield.
Tom Petty: Highway Companion
I'm a sucker for a road album, especially when it's a melancholy, mid-tempo affair that views the road as more lonely than romantic. Friend and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne produced and co-wrote Highway Companion with an uncharacteristic light hand, allowing all of Petty's easy melodic brilliance to unfold.
Sure, Jim Noir — the mysterious Mancunian in the bowler hat — has practically cut-and-pasted bits of Pet Sounds into his gentle pop pastiche. But this charming man gets an 'A' for effort. After all, it's actually hard to ape the Beach Boys at their most psychedelic, and Noir's cloudlike choruses and clever couplets stoke pop's eternal flame in a most enchanting way. Plus he did it all himself.
Bruce Springsteen: We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
If you're a longtime Boss fan waiting for him to bring the rock, you'll have to wait a little longer. But if you're a working stiff wondering why life sucks when the U.S. economy is supposedly booming, or if you've lost a loved one to war after the declaration of "mission accomplished," Springsteen's tribute to Pete Seeger has arrived at just the right time, along with his 17-piece acoustic ensemble that enlivens these protest songs and standards with Dixieland and gypsy jazz.
The Gourds: Heavy Ornamentals
"Music for the unwashed and well-read" is how this ragtag Austin, Texas ensemble characterizes itself, and their clever (when intelligible) wordplay and responsive string play has inspired legions of ardent fans. After 9 albums, the jig is still not up. The Gourds' hodgepodge of bluegrass, rock, country, zydeco, old timey etc. continues to resemble none of the above, while songs like "Declinometer" exemplify the joyous cacophony of not knowing exactly what to call it.
Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
From art school prankster to punk rock drummer to country belter to New Pornographer, Neko Case has become a formidable musician, songwriter and singer, a workhorse whose voice has grown strong and pliant through constant touring. Case's transient life is reflected in the dozen originals here (one adapted from a traditional), the themes of loneliness and loss echoed by the atmospheric slap back of friends and frequent collaborators The Sadies and Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino. Though she takes a grim view on matters of the heart, Case's sweet ache could glide into a hoop and holler at any moment. And with a voice that versatile, there's always a glimmer of hope.
Johnny Cash: American V: A Hundred Highways
Deeply invested in their respective faith, Johnny Cash and producer Rick Rubin were said to have had a spiritual bond, and it's evident on this fifth chapter of their collaboration. Cash recorded these vocals shortly before he died in 2003, and you can hear the angel of death in his voice on this stark, elegiac work. A collection of spirituals, covers (Ian Tyson, Gordon Lightfoot, Bruce Springsteen) and the last song Cash wrote ("Like the 309"), American V – like all the American recordings — is both reflective of the life of the Man in Black as well as a mighty cap to a legendary career.
Gospel/R&B giant Solomon Burke never really got his due for blending soul and country in the early '60s, and that makes this collection all the more poignant. A homebrewed effort recorded at the house and studio of Nashville guitarist/producer/songwriter Buddy Miller, Burke immerses himself in the holy waters of Music City, singing alongside luminaries such as Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton and covering the likes of George Jones and Tom T. Hall. Burke's voice is almost too big for the room, but the low-key setting provided by ubiquitous country pickers like Kenny Vaughan, Sam Bush and Al Perkins underscores the timelessness of this fascinating character.
The Decemberists: The Crane Wife
Darlings of the indie-pop literati with a trail of quirky, melodic releases, The Decemberists made the leap to a major label this year with a CD that challenges themselves and their fans. Bespectacled ringleader (and master of gently faux-British accented vocals) Colin Meloy leads the collective from their well-established whimsy into Pentangle and prog-rock territory on this song cycle loosely based on an old Japanese parable. Teaming with Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla and producer Tucker Martine, The Decemberists forge arrangements that sweep and break like the dark, churning waters that fuel Meloy's vivid imagination. Though bigger, louder and more electric than their previous efforts, the band still relies on acoustic guitar, lap steel and organ to create songs like the stunningly atmospheric title track.
Various Artists: Eccentric Soul Vol. 7: The Deep City Label
If you plundered every thrift store and garage sale from Maine to Mexico, you still wouldn't amass the treasure trove of soul music compiled by Ken Shipley and his remarkable Numero Group label. All of their releases are gems, but Deep City Soul is spectacular. With a house band that revolved around members of Florida A&M's Incomparable Marching 100 band, the Deep City label churned out early singles by folks like Betty "Clean Up Woman" Wright and set the stage for South Florida's TK Records (home of KC and the Sunshine Band) to have a major impact on the disco era. Groove me!