Disclaimer: I don't get to listen to everything that comes out, just stuff I know I want to buy/can afford. I will confess a love (some would say bias) for anything country-tinged or that contains a banjo. If I were a music critic and got tons of CDs for free this list could be a lot larger and much different. Then again, I love these albums so much it wouldn't surprise me if it stayed exactly the same.
Produced by Dan Auerbach, guitarist of The Black Keys, I liked this album so much simply because it introduced me to a great modern bluegrass band with some solid music already under their belt. After listening to their previous two albums, Blind Man Walking and Gravity Is Our Enemy, which are filled with great songs, it's easy to see Letters is a step in a different, though not all that different, direction. The production is much more gritty and raw, which is to be expected with Auerbach, and lends itself to an almost old school Avett Brothers sound. The harmonies are reminiscent of the best in bluegrass but also of Fleet Foxes on a couple tunes, especially "Trash Bag." Coming off the heels of a tour opening for Mumford & Sons and with the recent departure of lead singer Bryan Simpson, it'll be interesting to see what this band does next.
The first song I heard by this band was "In My Arms Instead" from their self-titled album and I've been hooked ever since. If there's another band that can mix country and rock that appeals to the mainstream music fan while maintaining artistic integrity better than this, I don't know of it. Rogers' gravelly voice stands out, and he's able to wrap it around the emotional truth of any song, whether it be heartbreak or humor. He also turns some of the best and most unexpected vocal phrases I've heard. What this band does best, however, is write damn good songs. I'll be listening to this one in the car, windows down, for many summers to come.
DBT is probably my favorite band right now. Crunchy guitars, catchy riffs, great songwriting, dark stories about the South; what more could a guy ask for? This album had to grow on me, as I was a huge fan of their previous album, the epic 19-song Brighter Than Creation's Dark, which I'd discovered not more than a few months before this was released. Whereas Creation's contained Mike Cooley's best songs, I believe To-Do contains Patterson Hood's best: "Daddy Learned To Fly," "Drag the Lake Charlie," (try getting that riff out of your head) and "After the Scene Dies" to name three. Let There Be Rock.
I've worn the hell out of this recording. It's a well-crafted, excellently produced, blast of an album. You've got everything from straight up bluegrass (the rollicking "Rovin' Gambler" featuring Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers) to unexpected covers (a reverent take on "Pride" by U2 featuring the wail of Del McCoury) to songs about miners, a profession deeply interconnected with country and bluegrass music (the beautiful "Down in the Mine"). It's a shame that country radio won't (or at least hasn't yet) played any of the singles enough to climb into the top 20. It says a lot about the powers that be at country radio when they won't play one of their consistent chart-toppers simply because he's decided to do things a little different. Regardless, it's comforting to know that at least there are some artists who've tasted massive mainstream success who are willing to be true to themselves and not constantly cater to the money-grubbing that has become the status quo around them. As a side note, this album contains what is probably my favorite lyric of the year in "Fallin' For You": "Well your blood is red but your soul is black / don't believe I'm a-comin' back / And now I know why the willows weep / the tide is high and the water's deep."
Albums I like from the last year that I didn't really listen to enough to call "favorites":
Sigh No More - Mumford & Sons (love most of the songs and heart-on-your sleeve lyrics, but some of the songs start running together)
The Guitar Song - Jamey Johnson (25 song long double album - damn, that's a lot)
Invented - Jimmy Eat World (every album this band produces is sonically brilliant)
Things That Fly - Infamous Stringdusters (bluegrass is going in exciting directions if these guys have any say about it)