Best Of 2008: Americana

Americana columnist Robert Baird picks his favorites of the year: Calexico (pictured), Drive-By Truckers, Catfish Haven, Bonnie Prince Billy and more.

CALEXICO Carried To Dust [Quarterstick]
First, drummer John Covertino and wiz-kid bassist Joey Burns were the rhythm section of Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand. Then they broke loose and became a low-key group that specialized in spooky, all-instrumental spaghetti Western explorations. Finally, there’s been an astonishing run of the last three records (Feast Of Wire, Garden Ruin and Carried To Dust), on which Calexico has morphed into a La Frontera-tinged folk/rock/pop guitar band with an accomplished singer. Dust guests Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Doug McCombs (Tortoise) and Pieta Brown add spice, but it’s the songwriting and Burns’ voice that continue to amaze. Like the endless desert sky, there are no limits for this duo. [casadecalexico.com]

BON IVER For Emma, Forever Ago [Jagjaguwar]
Forgive me for jumping on this now deathlessly overhyped bandwagon. Hey, the hooks are undeniable. Eerie and orchid-like, this hothouse flower from a frigid cabin in the Wisconsin woods is a wonder. The only problem is that mass zealotry can be so boring. [boniver.org]

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS Brighter Than Creation’s Dark [New West]
Three may have been a crowd. Exit guitarist Jason Isbell, and not surprisingly, Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood step up. The songwriting, full of indelible character studies, seems to be a tug-of-war between the competing desires of home and hearth and the night-wolf allure of drinkin’ and whorin’ like good old boys. Slightly less furious than past efforts, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is straight-ahead guitar/drum/bass roar. On every record the Truckers grow; now the question is into what? [drivebytruckers.com]

BONNIE PRINCE BILLY Lie Down In The Light [Drag City]
Yes, Will Oldham’s whole mysterious, in-the-shadows folkbuddha thing has grown tiresome. And no, he’s not the prophet he once played in a film. But Oldham has got a hold of something serious, and on this large group record he continues to make music that is his own. There are lots of influences here but no slips showing. Mark Nevers’ careful production is steady, and Lie Down In The Light sounds more mountain music-like than his last few. Being elusive means your crowd gets it and the rest don’t. Or won’t. For those that do, the cragginess can be winsome and strong. [dragcity.com]

LUCINDA WILLIAMS Little Honey [Lost Highway]
EMMYLOU HARRIS
All I Intended To Be [Nonesuch]
Clash of the Left of Music Row goddesses: Williams’ Little Honey is psychologically sunnier and rocks harder, while Harris’ usual mix of impeccably chosen covers is effortlessly radiant. Age can be a beautiful thing.

JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE The Good Life [Bloodshot]
He doesn’t sound much like his dad, which is the most important thing you can say at this point about Steve Earle’s firstborn, Justin. He started out straight-ahead honky tonk (as far from dad as he could get), but on his second record, Justin is inching back toward an intersection of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and, OK, his cranky old man. [bloodshotrecords.com]

POLK MILLER & HIS OLD SOUTH QUARTETTE Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette [Tompkins Square]
He was white and a Confederate army veteran. His harmony singers were black. It was the generation after the Civil War. Needless to say, singer Miller eventually had to give it up because of prejudice, but for a time, even Mark Twain thought Miller and his group were “originally and utterly American.” This idiosyncratic reissue collects transfers of Edison wax cylinders from 1909 and 78-r.p.m. recordings from 1928. “The Laughing Song” features a chorus that’s … laughed. [tompkinssq.com]

CATFISH HAVEN Devastator [Secretly Canadian]
They went to sleep as Catfish Haven and woke up as a cross between Grand Funk Railroad and the Daptones. These boys grew up quickly, as their music is now funky (“Set In Stone”) and rockin’ (“Invitation To Love”). While most trios feel obliged to make a racket, these boys aren’t scared of open space or drama. Catfish Haven is a long way from the Missouri trailer park it’s named after. [catfishhaven.com]

JAMES JACKSON TOTH Waiting In Vain [Rykodisc]
This is a quiet record that slipped by almost unnoticed. The Tennessee-based Toth (Wooden Wand) can get too populist for his own good, and whoever mixed this record needs to have their ears tuned (voices never need to be this big and this far forward), but there’s a semblance of Jagger and Bowie here that leavens his honky-tonk leanings. On tunes such as the swaying, twangy “Poison Oak,” Toth catches something powerful. [jamesjacksontoth.com]

—Robert Baird

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