A Thank-You Note for a Year of Moving Music

While I’ve often struggled to find the enduring value of year-end lists of music, I’ve now come to think of such lists as thank-you notes to the artists whose music and lyrics have brightened my days, lifted me out of despair or agony, brought me joy when I least expected it, made me cry with four bars of a song, gave me hope that music still has the power to heal and transform, and filled me with love for life.

I grew up listening to soul (not Motown, but Muscle Shoals and Stax), rock, blues, and gospel, and I continue to be moved by the straight-from-the-heart grittiness of that music, and my albums of the year speak straight from the soul with the soulfulness of any tune by William Bell or Carla Thomas. These are the ten albums that I have played over and over this year — and have learned many of the songs from the albums to play at my own gigs — and am happy to say “thank you” to these artists for this music.

  1. Southern Avenue, Southern Avenue
  2. Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, Contraband Love
  3. Ruthie Foster, Joy Comes Back
  4. Nora Jane Struthers, Champion
  5. Lee Ann Womack, The Lonely, the Lonesome, and the Gone
  6. Lilly Hiatt, Trinity Lane
  7. Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Faster & Farther
  8. Rodney Crowell, Close Ties
  9. Don Bryant, Don’t Give Up on Love
  10. Gregg Allman, Southern Blood

This year, as in recent years, women’s voices continue to be the strongest and most moving in roots and country music, despite radio’s persistent refusal to play these artists’ music. Rhiannon Giddens, Valerie June, Mavis Staples, and Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne delivered some of this year’s most memorable music. Here are several other albums by women stood out this year, though they didn’t get nearly as much attention as they should have.

Emily Duff’s Maybe in the Morning clothes its plainspoken truth about the difficulties of love and life in a straight-from-the-soul rocking vibe that won’t allow you to sit still. The sultry, deep soul growl of Chi Coltrane meets the lightning blues guitar of Alvin Lee on the title track. Duff turns her heart loose on these songs, turning every musical style she touches into a gift.

Wendy Colonna is a soul singer, and she delivers hard-hitting truths about loss, anguish, and love on her new album, No Moment but Now. Colonna’s just-right way with a phrase strikes right to the heart in songs like “I Will Take You In,” a beautiful anthem about the power of selflessness and love that could easily be a song of resistance in hateful times.

Amilia K Spicer’s Wow and Flutter delivers songs of quiet and subtle beauty. Spicer’s often spare musical arrangements complement her rich vocals, and songs such as “This Town,” “Lightning,” and “Train Wreck” capture the heart’s longing for place and for the certainty of love, even while admitting the uncertainty of love.

Rebekah Long returns with her sophomore album, Run Away, produced by Donna Ulisse. Long’s sure-handed way with songwriting jumps off the record from the first track, “Georgia Bound” (written with Ulisse and her husband, Rick Stanley), and “I’ve Seen the Light,” a tune with a classic feel and playfully heartfelt lyrics. Her duet with her late husband, Ben Speer, “Lay Your Isaac Down,” is a moving tribute to her love for him and to his greatness.

Donna Ulisse continues to deliver some of the best songwriting in bluegrass music today. Her new album, Breakin’ Easy, is full of tunes that shiver with anguish (“Drive This Cold Out of Me”), pray for deliverance (“Where My Mind Can Find Some Rest”), embrace lost love (“A Little Past Lonely”), and celebrate the beauty of love (“We’ve Got This Love Figured Out”).

In 2016 Gina Clowes became a member of Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. This year, she released her solo album, True Colors, an apt title for tunes by a superlative banjo player who showcases the vast range of her picking and songwriting ability on slow ballads such as “Looking for Sunshine” and fast-paced, complex tunes such as “Taylors Creek.”

Danielia Cotton is a powerhouse soul singer whose songs on her new album, The Mystery of Me, reveal some of her own struggles over the past few years. Songs such as “Bullets” plumb her anguish, even as they embrace a spark of hope, and “Forgive Me” is a powerful gospel soul song in which the singer admits shortcomings but acknowledges that with forgiveness she can move forward with hope for a new day.

Here are a few others that deserve to be heard more:

AJ Lee, AJ Lee

Amanda Anne Platt & the HoneyCutters, Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters

Amanda Cook, Deep Water

Carly Pearce, Every Little Thing

Cindy Lee Berryhill, The Adventurist

Gina Sicilia, Tug of War

Heather Newman, Burn Me Alive

Rachel Baiman, Shame

Shannon McNally, Black Irish

Sunny Sweeney, Trophy

Southern Avenue was my perfromers/perfromance of the year in the "Through The Lens" column. Fantastic band and really nice folks.

So glad to see Rebeka Long and Donna Ulisse on your list. Each of them is a favorite of ours and in combination, dynamite!