Best of 2015: Alabama Records
Call it a cop out or a crutch or cheating – I don’t particularly care. It’s my blog and I do what I want.
I wrote a book this year – The Muscle Shoals Legacy of FAME – which focused on how my hometown evolved from a studio town to a songwriting town to a town that bred some of the best music that is being created in the South. So if I were ever going to take the opportunity to “cheat,” this year allowed me a valid excuse. And that’s great because folks from Alabama made amazing records this year. There are three records on this list that could and have appeared in top tens from the most respected music publications in the country.
10. firekid – Dillon Hodges has been playing music for a while, but the new project, firekid, was unique enough that he attracted major label attention from Atlantic, a label that also discovered Fort Worth’s Leon Bridges this year (the two shared a bill at BottleTree Cafe in the venue’s final weeks back in March).
Dillon uses a GameBoy to create a lot of the sounds in his music, a fascinating mashup of EDM and “Americana.” I think radio had high hopes that “Die For Alabama” would take a firmer hold, but the real lasting tracks are the other two singles: “Magic Mountain” and “Lay By Me.” “Americana Dream” is also a special track. I hope Dillon’s future is a bright one, as this record certainly carved a special place into the Muscle Shoals legacy that he carries on.
9. Grace & Tony – Phantamagoric – Tony White is John Paul White’s brother, and since the Whites are actually from Loretto, Tennesee, this is a slight stretch, but Loretto is “Muscle Shoals.”
And Grace & Tony could likely be accused of taking the Civil Wars model. The Shovels & Rope model. But Grace & Tony do that “thing” with a Southern gothic style not really approached since Drive-By Truckers’ The Dirty South. The duo has had to fund a lot on their own – pressing the record this year with the help of a Pledge Music campaign. But I don’t feel like they’ll be overlooked for long.
8. Anderson East – Delilah – The Athens, Alabama native exploded onto the scene this year, helped by the golden hands of Dave Cobb (Southeastern, Something More Than Free, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Traveller). In fact, East helped line up the tracks on the latter, a record awarded Album of the Year by the CMA’s.
It’s soulful, but it doesn’t feel forced, and while he’s been forced to rely on a few covers early in his career, he’s chosen great ones (“Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em, ‘Forget ‘Em”). East’s biggest battle he’ll wage is between what he is best at and how he fits among his peers – we discovered East because of Cobb and the company that Cobb keeps like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, but Anderson doesn’t particularly fit in that group. And he doesn’t particularly fit among his Athens peers, Alabama Shakes, either. But as long as AAA continues to love him, it won’t matter.
7. The Pollies – Not Here – The Pollies are Jay Burgess, a Greenhill, Alabama native raised in the same rural community as Isbell, Secret Sisters and Chris Tompkins. His backing band has changed a lot, but his songwriting hasn’t. The emotional connection with his voice hasn’t. He hasn’t.
This year, The Pollies made their Single Lock debut, and Thirty Tigers (a distribution company that has also worked with many of Cobb’s clients) aided distribution. It’s a really gorgeous collection of songs aimed at a set that was raised on Drive-By Truckers – filled with heartbreak, but also a little hope. Burgess’s music is the result of a kid that grew up on the Beatles that became aware of what happened in his backyard and what was happening around him as he grew older. Not that that makes the picture clearer for someone unfamiliar, but it’s that.
6. Steeldrivers – Muscle Shoals Recordings – Steeldrivers were fronted by Chris Stapleton, but before this record, he was replaced by Muscle Shoals native Gary Nichols. And Nichols has a lot of the same grit in his voice. He had a solo deal of his own with Mercury several years back, but he had a record shelved and it took his career through some unexpected turns.
Here, his bluegrass band receives help from Isbell, who produced a track for the record which was cut at The Nutthouse in Sheffield. It’s even been given a Grammy nomination for Bluegrass Album of the Year. I’m not sure that anyone could forsee the warm reception the record has received, but it’s very deserved and a great way to dive into the band which frequents the Opry.
5. Great Peacock – Making Ghosts – Blount Floyd is an Auburn graduate and a Dothan native, so while the band began making waves in Nashville, I’m fine with owning their Alabama roots.
I’m really proud of the year my friends at This is American Music had, and this was the first huge splash. “Take Me to the Mountain” saw some licensing and some heavy AAA rotation, but “Broken Hearted Fool” was probably my favorite.
What does it sound like? I don’t know. It sounds like a Mexican blanket looks.
4. Donnie Fritts – OMG – John Paul White was tasked with giving Funky Donnie Fritts the record he deserved this year, and it hit every mark that it should have. It’s frail and it’s sincere and it sounds like Donnie. “Memphis Women and Chicken” and “Tuscaloosa 1962” are my favorites here – they’re fun and while their stories are boisterous, their delivery isn’t, which for me, is kind of who Donnie is and what the aim of the project was successful at hitting.
3. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp – Katie Crutchfield is a Birmingham native, despite making a name for herself in Philadelphia. This record rightfully earned a spot at sixth on Spin’s yearend list – a record that took her from “buzz” to opening for heroes like Sleater-Kinney.
I’ve always said that Lee Bains sounds like Birmingham – but in a lot of ways, Katie does, too. There’s this underlying punk rock sensibility about what she’s doing, but it’s in a prettier package (aurally). It sounds like a photo of Five Points with the homeless people just out of frame – unique and beautiful, but with something else going on that you can’t see.
2. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free – This was tough. Because this record may have been better than Southeastern. [rabble rabble rabble]
Jason took what he has done for a decade and approached it with a broader scope and nailed it. He didn’t do anything new here, but he made what he was already doing more accessible for a larger audience. And that’s going to be important when we reflect on his career later on. This collection of songs is really deep, with some of the best being deep, “B-Side” cuts – “Palmetto Rose,” “Hudson Commodore” and “Speed Trap Town.”
This collection ages really well, and longtime fans may not want to give it the chance it deserves because the subject matter has changed. But at this stage, he isn’t trying to impress die hards. He sees that next level, a level that has him headlining Red Rocks for the first time in 2016. And SMTF is the direction toward whatever the level after that may be.
1. Alabama Shakes – Sound and Color – Alabama Shakes were in grave danger of becoming stale. Could they rely on the act? Maybe, but could the act ever allow them to achieve new heights?
On Sound and Color, Alabama Shakes didn’t reinvent the wheel, but they may have perfected it. It’s much bigger – the sound, the scope. It’s a direction, at minimum, that resembles My Morning Jacket and at a generous maximum, can feel like Arcade Fire. It’s the record this band needed to make to rise to a festival headliner, and they did it on just their second effort.
This record edges what Isbell did not because the accomplishment was more profound, but because it was more urgent. The band’s longevity depended on this. And it nailed it.
They may continue to grow faster than they can buy new clothes to fit into comfortably.
1. Spooner Oldham – Pot Luck – Spooner also saw a long overdue effort this year – an older collection of songs, including a medley of hits that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer backed. It’s great to hear his own voice – not his writing partner, Dan Penn’s, or those more familiar artists. I’m really happy, maybe selfishly, that this record happened.
2. Drive-By Truckers – It’s Great to Be Alive! – It seems strange that DBT, which has toured relentlessly for more than 20 years, is just now getting a really proper live release, but they made up for lost time with a mammoth, five disc collection. I’ve seen a lot of Drive-By Truckers shows, and this was a pretty great representation of them all.
3. Fiddleworms – Perfect Storm – Fiddleworms got the band back together in a big way this year – bringing Rob Malone (former guitarist for both their own band and Drive-By Truckers) back and creating their best lineup since Chris Quillen’s death. Lead singer Russell Mefford told me a few times that my book was part of the inspiration for coming together for this new collection, which brought Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie), Donna Jean Godchaux (Grateful Dead), Donnie Fritts and Scott Boyer together to greet its’ release in December. I’m sure he’s just being nice to me – that’s who Russell is – but it damn sure made me feel good. And I’m damn glad this lineup is back together – a band that was a major part of my story of Muscle Shoals from 1980-2000.