We each chose five albums that you should absolutely own, listen to, learn and love. “Back catalogue” albums will be a regular deal here, as we explore not only new music, but music you may have missed because you were too busy watching Beverly Hills, 90210.
Step Inside This House – Lyle Lovett
This was a hard one for me. I guess I’ll get around to waxing on and on about all of his records eventually, but let’s start here.
I hear a lot of people saying that the last decent country music was made in the 70’s. Hush your infidel mouths! What you mean is that country radio has sucked for a long time. Yeah, that’s sadly all too true. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t good country music out there.
This is Lyle’s 1998 tribute album to other Texas songwriters. [Mimi, you like an album with Texas songs on it? Shocking.–Cricket]
The three songs forming the “Texas Trilogy” (“Train Ride,” “Bosque County Romance,” and “Daybreak”) written by Steven Fromholz are a masterful lament for the vanished rural lifestyle of two generations ago.
“Rollin’ By,” written by Robert Earl Keen, echoes the sense of loss of the previous tracks but applies that to small town West Texas life where everything seems to have stagnated.
“Texas River Song” is by far my favorite song on this album, and one of my favorites ever, honestly. There is a legend that this song was written by a geography teacher. Probably just stolen by someone from someone too ignorant to realize they were being ripped off.
Some of the arrangements on this album are dated, but Lyle’s voice certainly is not. If you don’t love Texas now, buy this album and you will reconsider your position.
Heartbreaker and Gold – Ryan Adams
Ryan is the best example I have ever seen of how buying into your own press can go horribly wrong. These two albums are pure genius. You’ve heard it all before, blah blah blah. If you’re going to own these albums, you probably already do. You might hate this guy without giving him a shot, and if that’s the case, I am here to disabuse you of your hatred. [Disabuse me; I haven’t ever given him a chance outside of Whiskeytown. One of my life goals is to see him fall on his head.–Cricket]
These albums have a lot in common with each other. They are both thematically linked, being about the end of relationships. Heartbreaker is sadder and more wistful; Gold is angry and bitter. They compliment each other, moving through every stage of post-romantic grief.
Ryan and I are solidly divorced now, but these two albums will never be out of my rotation. From the very first time I heard “In My Time of Need” (Heartbreaker) I knew I was in this relationship for life, whether that was consensual on my part or not. This song is a traditional that Ryan wrote himself. A beautiful dirge to the farming life and a long-shared life that is coming to an end through death do us part.
“Call Me On Your Way Back Home” was a companion song to me during a epic break-up in my own life. I used to torture myself with it in the car. Hook this song up for the next time you’re going through that; you won’t hate me for it.
“Damn Sam (I Love a Woman Who Rains)” says a lot about Ryan, a side of him that we’d all get to know a little too well through Blender and Pitchfork, but this was him before all that, and the song is honest in the soul-bearing way that Ryan just kills at (more on this later).
“Come Pick Me Up” is one of my close friend’s all-time favorite songs. She is a music snob of the most rarified variety. She and I both endorse it. That doesn’t happen often. The song is just that phenomenal. (Wait, a second, this was on the Elizabethtown soundtrack? Oh, Ryan, you keep falling, where is the bottom of the abyss, brother, where is it?) The chorus:
I wish you would come pick me up, take me out
Fuck me up
Steal my records
Screw all my friends
They’re all full of shit
With a smile on your face and then do it again.
And the critics hailed freaking Love is Hell as his masterpiece. They are all fired.
Gold is a totally different creature from Heartbreaker on some levels–there’s a more diverse sound, and I assume that has a lot to do with him moving from Bloodshot to Lost Highway, but I think “Come Pick Me Up” sounds like it could easily have been on Gold. As could, maybe, “Oh My Sweet Carolina.”
My current favorite track on Gold is the bonus track “Cannonball Days.” Yeah, I’ve been listening to it long enough that I’ve gone through pretty much every track as my favorite at one time or another. It’s that sort of album. I cry into my G&T out of sorrow there aren’t more like this one. All of the bonus material is fantastic, as a matter of fact. “The Bar is a Beautiful Place” is so Ryan, and if he had abstained from insulting his fans and falling off stages, it could have been just a classic song about drowning your sorrows (whatever those might be), but considering his most recent history, this is a tragic song.
I had given up on alt.country before this album even came out, and the only reason I gave it a go was the friend from above who pretty much shoved it down my throat. “New York, New York” got some radio play around 9/11, and it’s catchy as hell and songs about New York have a certain appeal no matter who does them, but I hardly think this track is representative of the brilliance of the album.
“Touch, Feel, Lose,” “Harder Now That It’s Over,” and “Gonna Make You Love Me” are definitely all in my favorite songs ever jukebox. Ryan manages, on this album and sometimes elsewhere, to not only turn the confessional/story song into true art, but his voice is so exposed and intimate that you walk along with him, empathetic and in need of a drink to kill the hangover from the night before.
Together at the Bluebird Café – Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark & Steve Earle and Train a-Comin’ – Steve Earle
Our love of stripped-down, spontaneous live music isn’t a secret. Together at the Bluebird Café is as close as you can come now to experiencing Townes and Steve together. Hitherto, we’ve been pretty silent about Steve, but this blog is named after one of his songs, so extrapolate what we think about him from that. We have almost as much love for Townes. [Indeed the song we chose is a song Steve wrote about Townes.–Cricket]
The reason that I linked these two albums is that many of the songs overlap. “Tom Ames’ Prayer” and “Mercenary Song” are two of my very favorite Steve songs ever–both story songs, which he is the current standard-bearer for–and Steve covers Townes’ “Tecumseh Valley” on Train A-Comin’ and Townes sings it himself on the live album. His version of this song set against Steve’s really is a small seminar on how vocal inflection can change a song in a fundamental way.
The introduction to “Sirocco’s Pizza” is a classic bumper track. This is Steve live, and if you haven’t ever had that experience, listen to this album and then carry your sad ass to his next show near you.
My favorite track on this album is “Randall Knife.” The fact that it’s a Townes song and not a Steve song might make just about anyone who knows me smack their mama, but, Christ, Townes was a once in a generation kind of man. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him, too. For shame.
Train A-Comin’ is Steve’s most straight-forward country album, heavy on story songs and starring “Goodbye,” probably his most well known song (since it’s been covered over and over again). [You’ve surely heard it even if you don’t know Steve; Emmylou and Chrissie Hynde have both done it.–Cricket]
The first track on this album is a blues number called “Hometown Blues” that shouts out to Thomas Wolfe and Doc Watson in typical Steve fashion before the song even starts. “Won’t nothin’ bring you down like your hometown.” It just gets better from there.
There is nothing bad about this album. Nothing. Every song is tight, well written, and produced in a really clean, understated way. Highlights include the tracks also on Together At the Bluebird Café and “Goodbye.”
I think “Goodbye” is one of the most perfect country love songs every written. It’s about Steve’s ex-wife (one of them, hello, he’s a country singer!), and he does a whole set of songs about her live, mocking himself (there’s a song about a colossal bitch, about someone ripping his heart out, then this one where he says something along the lines of “Now for the truth about it all.”), and that makes the song so much better because it’s obvious he wrote it after working through his anger and frustration. But even without knowing any of that, just for itself, this song is the prototype of the country love song.
It starts off with memory and moves on to self-recrimination. He admits guilt for his actions and regret for never getting a chance to apologize. There’s direct admittance that his behavior was related to substance abuse. He references Mexico and the Gulf. It’s got it all.
But then there’s the part where his vocal phrasing sells this as more than just some Nashville, plastic, cookie-cutter love song. This is about his life, about himself and a woman he misses and how knows he fucked it all up on his own. That’s the kind of 3 a.m. self-awareness we all have. (Live, he plays it on a dobro, too.) I think the succinct lyrics say a whole lot more than the crappy metaphor and analogy in most mainstream music.
“I can’t remember if we said goodbye.” Who has not been there? It doesn’t even have to be a lover, just someone you miss a lot that you know you’ll never see again, or who you know you could call and try to patch it up with but don’t.
There’s a reason the people in the industry cover this over and over. But Steve’s version is the best, because it’s his own life lived.
I Feel Alright – Steve Earle
Picking a single Steve album was, hmm, maybe like choosing between my mom and my sister? Impossible to do. Although in the end I didn’t pick this one because it has “Hard-core Troubadour” on it, but because I think it falls right in the middle between his country stuff and his rock stuff. Steve certainly swings both ways musically, and on any given day I chose a different way that I like best. I Feel Alright covers all the bases.
Obviously “Hard-core Troubadour” is a song I greatly admire. We chose to name our site after it, partly in tribute to ♥Steve ♥, to Townes, and to the idea of hard-core troubadours every where.
Townes was surely one of a kind and Steve salutes the hard life he lived in this song. (“Fort Worth Blues” off El Corazon is also a song for Towne–and one of my all-time favorite Steve songs; perhaps there’s something chemical that happens with music between/about/by these two guys. Whatever it is, I can’t resist it.)
He’s come to make love on your satin sheets
Wake up on your living room floor
He’s the last of the hard-core troubadours.
Steve’s vocal styling on this lacks the Texas I love to hear from him, but has a breathy, regretful quality that makes me imagine I can hear how much he misses his friend when he sings this song.
“More Than I Can Do” contains my most favorite lyric ever written: “Just because you won’t unlock your door/That don’t mean you don’t love me anymore.” My little sister persists in calling this “the stalker song”–which pretty much sums it up. Still the lost love sung about here, with the idea that you just can’t give up completely rips out my heart.
This album is thick with the theme of being a bad boyfriend who can’t give up and persists relentlessly to try and recover what he knows he’s fucked up, or of a man finally aware of what he’s lost (on “Now She’s Gone,” “Valentine’s Day,” “You’re Still Standing There,” “More Than I Can Do,” and “The Unrepentant,” and even to some extent “Hard-core Troubadour”). Pure Steve. Really, it’s the complete emotional honesty in all of his albums that make him so compelling. He plays the hell out of his guitar. His voice sounds like raw sex. And then he slaps down the lyrics that are so candid, sincere and full of messy humanity. It’s like the perfect musical package. [SIGH. We love you, Steve. There is no denying that.–Mimi]
Road Songs – Townes Van Zandt
I’m always surprised how many people I run across who like country music or singer/songwriters or folk or any of the sub-genres of music we push here at HCT who haven’t heard of Townes. He has more than 20 albums out (many posthumous) and worked actively from about 1967 until his death of a heart attack in 1997. I’m sure you’ll be hearing a lot about him if you stick around these parts. About Townes, our man Steve has reportedly said, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Word, Steve, I’m with ya.
Roadsongs is a cover album. The irony of touting Townes as one of the best songwriters ever and then presenting you with an album of other people’s music is not lost on me. You can hear Townes’ music everywhere (even if you don’t realize it’s his, you do hear it), and he has so many albums to choose from that are his own, I chose this one, because he chose this one. These are the songs that he, a total master of words, chose to sing, so we can find him everywhere in this album. The songs here were recorded all over, over many years and none of them, I think, are lesser than the others. He definitely loved each of these songs and it shows in his performance of them.
Hearing Townes sing “And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave” in “Dead Flowers” (Rolling Stones) is tragic given his own untimely demise. Hearing him sing the song is still great, though, for me, it’s certainly a case of liking the cover even better than the original. [I actually assumed he wrote this and the Stones covered it when I heard him sing it.–Mimi]
There are several great Lightnin’ Hopkins songs on this album, a bit of Bruce Springsteen, the requisite Dylan, and couple great traditionals, including “Texas River Song.” His delivery is 180 degrees from Lyle’s cover of this, but just as wonderful. Like Mimi, this is one of my favorite songs. If perchance you’re trying to woo me, I recommend learning this song and playing outside my window. [HAHAHAHA Woo? Oh, you’re a peach. I’d suggest, folks, bringing her a bottle of Jack.–Mimi]
Honky Tonk Heroes – Waylon Jennings
Clearly, I wanted to torture myself with this top 5 albums exercise. Pick a single Steve album? A single Townes album? A single Waylon album? Yet I actually feel oddly satisfied, like choosing was an accomplishment. Maybe that’s because choosing was such hard work.
I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seat wondering what kind of magic criteria I must have used to choose a single Waylon album. I’ll tell ya, given a choice between pirates, ninjas, and cowboys I always choose cowboys. Given a choice between Waylon albums, I chose cowboys.
Honky Tonk Heroes is cowboy songs, mostly written by Billy Joe Shaver, but really brought home by our man, the outlaw daddy of country music, Waylon. Some of these songs might be more modern cowboy songs than others, but “cowboy” is stamped all over this, like a finely tooled leather belt. And that’s enough for me to say, yeah, if you’re only going to own one Waylon album then own this one.
There isn’t a song on this album that I ever skip when I’m listening to it, but “Omaha, “Ain’t No God in Mexico” and “Ride Me Down Easy” send me over the edge. “Omaha” actually makes me want to go to Nebraska. For real, it’s that good.
Well, pity me I didn’t find
The line in time like a fool
In front of God and everybody
I politely blew my cool.
Yeah, Waylon has so much cowboy cool that singing about losing his cool actually makes him cooler. Though what I really love on “Ain’t No God in Mexico” is the line about how he wouldn’t curse the rain if he’d never felt the sun. [This song is one of my favorites ever, too. When we agree, we agree, that’s for sure. You need to try to review some punk music so people realize we really are different people and not one lunatic, schizophrenic Waylon lover.–Mimi]
Bobby Bare took “Ride Me Down Easy” to number one, and I love Bobby, but given a choice, I always want the Waylon version of a song. Especially if it’s a cowboy song.
[I also want to put in a word for “Because You Asked Me To,” which is one of about ten love songs that doesn’t make me puke.–Mimi]
Blacklisted – Neko Case
Here’s a conversation I have approximately 76 times a week–
Me: …we cover non-mainstream country music, alternative country, all varieties of Americana…
Everyone in the world: Neko Case? Your site is about Neko Case?
Me: *shakes with rage* No, there’s lots of other artists covering that same territory. [Who can sing and not feel like a cheese grater on my soul, too. Oy, I can’t stand her voice.–Mimi]
But I do truly love Neko–and not just because she’s from my neck of the woods–but because her voice drills down deep inside me and lifts little broken pieces of my soul out and offers them to the stars. Yep. She’s grown a lot as a song writer during her career and improves with each album, but Blacklisted remains my favorite of hers.
I wonder how many mathematicians it would take to try and calculate how many times I could listen to “Deep Red Bells” before I got sick of it? I wonder if I could even live that long? “Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag/Past empty lots and early graves.” Well, Neko, if it doesn’t it certainly feels like it has, and thank you for finding the words to describe the way it feels. [In the great tradition of Leonard Cohen, someone should cover her songs to make them listenable.–Mimi]
Overall I think this album is maybe more modern country folk than alt.country (however one is defining that anymore). Some of the songs have a bluesy, almost R&B, old time nightclub feeling to them (most notably “Look For Me” and Aretha’s ”Runnin’ Out Of Fools”).
“I Wish I was the Moon” is in the top 50 songs of my life. I want to never be without the option to listen to this at any time I want.
There is so much melancholy in “Pretty Girls” and an undercurrent of “please learn from my mistake” in the lines “Don’t let them tell you you’re nothing/Don’t let them break your hearts too.” I have no idea if you have to have survived the gauntlet of growing up a girl surrounded by girls to really feel this song, or if it’s universal, but from my (female) perspective it’s damn fine song.
The most country song on this album is “Stinging Velvet” and if I didn’t excessively love the rest of the album, I would certainly wish for more songs like this, though perhaps only because I’m almost as much of a sucker for slide guitar as Mimi is.
Trace – Son Volt
Yeah, I pretty much assume if you’re reading this blog, that you probably own this album. But then maybe not, maybe you missed it when it came out, or you were too cool for it back then or something? If so, you should totally pick it up now.
One of the reasons Trace works so well is that it meanders through country, folk, and rock in a seamless blend. Yes, right, everyone s doing that sort of thing now. But when it was first sprouting up, neatly labeled alt.country it was new and different and wholly welcome. While everyone else was first experimenting with this sound, Jay Farrar was clearly already perfecting it.
I’ve read over and over that this is a break-up album, albeit about the demise of Uncle Tupelo and not over a woman. And while I’m sure there’s much truth to that, I suspect the themes on this album come from a dozen sources, much in the way the music itself draws from so many genres.
The wistfulness on “Route” tastes like regret and longing. Clearly this is a song about transition, rather than lost love, but the emotions aren’t so different, and you can feel the painful tug of it in the song. “Ten Second News” feels much the same, though in different tone, another key, alternate memories.
“Drown” and “Loose String” are currently my favorite tracks on here, but I’ve listened to it enough that I cycle through favorites and couldn’t ever be called upon to choose just one. “Too Early” though, completely sums up why I love the music I do (including this album): “Like to hear your story told/With a two-step beat and rhyme/Could be Tennessee or Texas/On and on, that road winds.” Yeah, baby, just like that.
[I’ve always felt really bitter about how famous Wilco is and how people even know Uncle Tupelo, but for unknown reasons, Son Volt never got the same kind of love. Have y’all learned your lesson now that Jeff Tweedy is a giant asshole and overrated?
My favorite songs from Trace are “Live Free” (“Someday we’ll be together/Farther south than the train line/The Delta mud will be there/We’re just living this way/Because we know no other”–I just had to stop myself from quoting the entire song. To be somewhat melodramatic, this song changed my life. I was young, gimme a break.), “Tear Stained Eye” (“Like the man said, rode hard and put away wet/Throw away the bad news/and put it to rest/If learning is living/and the truth is a state of mind”), and “Drown” (“Happenstance is falling through the cracks each day/Too close now to change it/Fool’s gold is lighter anyway”). I think this album and Grace by Jeff Buckley were all I listened to for a couple years.–Mimi]
[I’m amused reading through this—we picked our top 5 without any discussion between the two of us. We just said “here are mine” and then laughed at us both picking Steve and Townes and pinning down some of the same songs to love. I guess there is a reason we are doing this thing together.–Cricket]