Maybe this makes me sound like a Grammy delegate or an old, clueless man - but T-Bone Burnett has had quite a great year so far. Dude has been reviving tired acts and producing albums that all in the top-tier of Americana/Country records I've heard in 2010. Good for him, making me excited about roots music again.
It started with the much talked about soundtrack to "Crazy Heart" which suddenly threw Ryan Bingham into the spotlight and showed off a talent that we didn't know Jeff Bridges had. The originals T-Bone produced for the album are almost all excellent and the tracks he threw into the movie and soundtrack with them fit perfectly. Not a great movie, definitely a great soundtrack.
Jeff Bridges - Hold On You
He then went ahead and made Jakob Dylan relevant for the first time since the "One Headlight". Teaming him up with some of the best female vocalists in roots music and stripping the music down to a real minimal level, Jakob finally has music to accompany his voice. Simple, effective. A real surprise. I wanted to dislike "Women + Country" but it happens to be one of those albums that keeps getting better.
Jakob Dylan - Everybody's Hurtin' (Live at WNYC) with backing vocals by Neko Case and Kelly Hogan
One that slipped under my radar somehow was Willie Nelson's "Country Music". Now, if you know me, you know that Willie is probably among the 5-10 people I would consider my favorite musicians and as far as personalities go: he's probably at the very top. The last few years of Willie's music have been hit and miss, often within the same album. Two years ago he put out an "old timey" record with Asleep at the Wheel that was fun but ultimately left me yearning for something different. He put out a terrible reggae inspired record, another tin-pan alley inspired record, etc. He's still great when he's great. but his source material just isn't working - he's not quite in Rod Stewart territory, but sometimes he might get a little close. This album though, with only one of his own songs puts him back into that great 70s era Willie. Obviously it's not as classic as some of those early 70s releases, but by today's standards and the fact that it was cut by Willie Nelson at his age: this is definitely an album that deserves a lot more attention than it's getting. If you like country music and it's history - you should probably find this album.
Willie Nelson - Freight Train Boogie (Delmore Brothers) Live on Letterman
I don't really care for Robert Randolph & The Family Band on record (nor do I really care about them live) but he also produced their latest record which is gathering mixed reviews as those records always do. I didn't like it - you might.
The real surprise of the year and maybe the best of all the records T-Bone has produced this year is "No Better Than This" by none other than John Mellencamp. Yes, the Cougar. Now, Mellencamp has had a comeback lately, Rolling Stone gave his last album like the 5th best of 2008 or 2009. But the thing that is truly cool is that I've never really liked Mellencamp. I respect him, what he stands for, the content of many of his songs - but he just came off as a cornball most of the time. But this album works for one reason: mono. Recorded in mono, with vintage equipment, Burnett makes Mellencamp sound like old folk 78s. It's a novel concept that will turn a lot of people off, but really works for me. The songs are good - the sound is awesome. It's just a lot of fun and suits Mellencamp's voice a lot better than the glossy productions he is usually backed by.
John Mellencamp - Love at First Sight
Lastly, T-Bone has reconnected with up and comer Ryan Bingham and produced the given him the finest, most cohesive album of Bingham's career. I've liked Bingham a lot since he came out a few years ago - "Mescalito" was a bright spot in 2007; a really strong year for country and folk music. His followup "Roadhouse Sun" was a mixed bag, with shades of future genius intespersed with cheesy production and songs that tried a little too hard. But "Junky Star" is his best album yet. It's dark, it's pretty minimal, and Bingham's gravelly voice is always at the front. His backing band is great and the songs have lyrics that quite often shock. It's a solid record and definitely worth a listen.
Ryan Bingham - Making "Junky Star"
So I'm not claiming any of these albums to be among the very best albums of the year, but as I said earlier - they're all good and all have moments of greatness. For a year where I'm not finding nor really looking for much Americana and roots music, T-Bone Burnett has stepped forward to produce some of the strongest work of his production career.
Oh - and there's still an album yet to come out by Elton John & Leon Russell which will be...interesting.