Americana-rama

Surveying the best country/rock/blues records of the year

Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day (New West)

You wondered what they were gonna do after their 2001 opus Southern Rock Opera, and they deliver a lyrically jolting, musically overpowering masterpiece. Decoration Dayoften wades through the same dark Deep South kudzu but never generates dreaded Dixie Gothic clichés, even if it opens with a song about an incestuous couple.

Calexico, Feast of Wire (Quarterstick)

While prior Calexico records were projects of singer-guitarist Joey Burns, drummer John Convertino, and a bunch of guests, this was the first true band album, and it shows in the consistent accessibility of this Feast. "Close Behind" is another entry in their sounds-like-Morricone canon, while "Pepita" should be on any collection of Magic Buttons: Music to Chew Peyote To.

Los Lonely Boys, Los Lonely Boys (OR Music)

Finally, a bluesy Texas roots rock band that can take the music out of Stevie Ray's shadow. The three West Texas-bred Garza brothers -- guitarist Henry, bassist JoJo, and a drummer whose real name is Ringo -- that compose Los Lonely Boys pay homage to Vaughn, but also to Valens, Hendrix, and Santana. Henry, at 24 the band's eldest member, varies from piercing economy to waging all-out war with the wah-wah pedal. Meanwhile he and Jojo share bilingual lead vocals, but it's when they are joined by Ringo that they truly shine. Their harmonies are so airtight they're positively vacuum-packed.

Little Joe Washington, Houston Guitar Blues (Dialtone)

Of a group of neighbors and contemporaries that once included Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Johnny Copeland, Washington is both the last to record and the last alive. Luckily he's not the least among them as an artist, as this bunkerbuster of a belated debut proves. Every bit as much the character and "real deal" cat as the often-overhyped Fat Possum dudes, he packs more ferocious blues feeling in a few stinging notes than in many artists' whole careers.

The Mavericks, The Mavericks (Sanctuary)

Nashville had a mighty miserable year. There was Toby threatening proctology on the Ay-rabs. There were Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts, the smarmiest twerps on the Row since Billy Gilman. Somehow a few good records like this one got made. The Mavericks' first album since 1998 mixes sunny Latin-infused pop with midnight glitterball slow dances, all delivered with a perfect mix of gloss and grit by the swellingly celestial voice of Raul Malo. (We'll give them a pass on the icky cover of Albert Hammond's "Air That I Breathe.")

Califone, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes (Thrill Jockey)

Former Red Red Meat-man Tim Rutilli's quartet has made another Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-quality album at a tenth of the cost and with a hundredth of the hype. A welding of Appalachia and Silicon Valley funneled through a Chicago rock sensibility, Quicksand sneaks up on you and then kicks your ass.

Iguanas, Plastic Silver 9-Volt Heart (Yep Roc)

Long one of the finest party bands on the Gulf Coast, New Orleans' Iguanas slither out to bask in newfound maturity here with this worthy competitor of such Latin/American fusion projects as Los Super Seven's Canto.Songs like "Mexican Candy" are what the Iguanas are all about these days -- ghettodelic guitar grooves, sex-dripping sax, and sizzling percussion behind dreamlike bilingual lyrics.

Albert Lee, Heartbreak Hill (Sugar Hill)

Albert Lee is, bar none, the finest lead guitarist in country music today. Many can shred, but few bubble like Lee, who positively percolates alongside Vince Gill and Brad Paisley on a cover of Gram Parsons's "Luxury Liner." This is the kind of gorgeous album Nashville can make when there's no concession to the bottom line.

William Elliott Whitmore, Hymns for the Hopeless (Southern)

A tattooed former punk from rural Iowa, Whitmore's gruff mountain laments are delivered in a raspy bass-baritone that sounds like a singing pack of Camel shorties, while his banjo and guitar licks sound like they come from a guy born 80 years before his birth in 1978. Somehow none of it sounds like mere homage -- he comes across more like a peer of Ralph Stanley than a follower.

The Allman Brothers Band, Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival (Epic/Legacy)

A worthy companion to Live at the Fillmore East, this album captures the Allmans near their home turf six months before they made perhaps the finest live rock album of all time. Duane's guitar playing teeters on the edge of being out of control; overall, the band sounds like what heroin feels like. They should hand these things out at methadone clinics.

 
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