Just two months into 2011, the indie releases have been stacking up, with a few cool records from the major labels in there, too. I’m gradually making my way through the pile — and creating playlists as I go. Here’s the first one, led by the appealing singer-songwriter Amos Lee. If you’re an adventurous music fan, you may find something in here you’ll like.
1. “El Camino,” Amos Lee
This laidback singer-songwriter has a knack for infusing some momentum into his ballads. They don’t just drag on and on. In “El Camino,” he hits the road with a sad heart, making this a bittersweet way to lead his new album. As always, his plaintive voice continues to draw me in.
2. “I’ve Been Thinkin’,” Bedhed and Blondy and the Sleepwalkers
This is a pretty song, almost like a letter to a new love. It captures that feeling of falling for someone and how you never quite realized what you were missing. Although the guy isn’t extraordinary, as she points out, she’s just happy she knows his heart. That’s enough, right?
3. “Memories,” Bobby Osborne and Patty Loveless
These two Grand Ole Opry stars effortlessly bring out that lonely bluegrass feeling. Isn’t it strange how such a sad song can sometimes make you so happy? Loveless channels the spirit of her Mountain Soul album, and Osborne remains one of the most expressive vocalists in bluegrass.
4. “Say You Do,” Carey Ott
This Nashville-based singer-songwriter tucked this gem toward the end of his album, but it’s worth excavating. If you beat yourself up trying to determine whether that “I love you” is heartfelt — and even if you deserve to be told — you’ll appreciate this message. The melody is lovely, too.
5. “St. Louis,” Carrie Elkin
This folksinger caught my attention with a neat couplet: “He said, ‘Did you know the arch moves?/I said, ‘No, take me there, I need to be moved.'” With light mandolin flourishes and well-placed harmonies, I imagine that her live performance would sound exactly like this.
6. “I’ll Be There,” Chas Sandford
Sandford co-wrote one of my all-time favorite pop hits, John Waite’s “Missing You.” (OK, Brooks & Dunn did a good version , too.) I can sense that same emotional and musical undercurrent in “I’ll Be There.” In this song, he’s asking his beloved to find comfort and faith in their partnership. With the right artist, this could be a huge country hit.
7. “Work of Fiction,” Chris Pickering
I discovered this upbeat fellow at SXSW a few years ago after he flew in from his native Australia. Since then, he’s been co-writing in Nashville and recorded his latest project in Memphis. This title track boasts a catchy melody and his clever personality is unmistakable.
8. “Crushed,” Dala
This mesmerizing song takes place during a wedding. The two female voices blend beautifully, but I think it’s sung from two perspectives — one is a lonely woman who only knows the groom, the other is the bride sizing up the mystery guest. There’s a Lifetime movie in here somewhere.
9. “Steel Mill,” David Berkeley
This troubadour captures a whole life in just four minutes. Although it’s a new song, it sounds like an old-time folk ballad or a campfire standby. A young man watches his father work his life away, only to find himself doing the same thing — and realizing he can’t imagine the alternative.
10. “Country Clutter,” Dolorean
Now here’s an unflinching breakup song. It’s like everything you wish you could say after you’ve spent every waking hour thinking about it — and they’ve all been waking hours. It’s a painful portrait but as true as it gets. Even the languid arrangement feels like it’s given up.
11. “They Say Everything,” the Gaddabouts
Edie Brickell helms this eclectic new outfit. For me, their album’s high point is this quiet little song. Sure, you’d think you’d be happy to break up with the wrong guy, but this lightly jazzy arrangement and her despondent delivery enhance that desperate feeling of the first night alone.
12. “Timing Is Everything,” Garrett Hedlund
In the dating world, I’ve learned that timing really is everything. So when I heard a bit of this song in Country Strong, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Luckily, the track is now available digitally, and Hedlund’s unpolished performance (as raw songwriter Beau Hutton in the film) suits it perfectly.
13. “Just Another Rider,” Gregg Allman
Here’s a greasy song about getting stuck. Allman has retained that soulful voice on a new, long-awaited solo album, Low Country Blues, but although he’s a Southern rock hero, this is all blues. And when the money’s out, the woman’s gone and a storm’s rolling in, here’s your soundtrack.
14. “Gone Without a Sound,” Jesse Harris
I can’t figure out if this pensive song is about healing or dying. But the message works on both levels — stay strong until you get there. Harris is the Grammy-winning songwriter behind Norah Jones‘ “Don’t Know Why.” If you like the music on that album, this should appeal to you, too.
15. “Same Rain,” the Laws
This married duo has been playing folk and festival gigs for a decade now, and all that travel time has given them ample time to finesse their fine harmonies. This song is a little more downbeat than most of their material, yet I like how they take turns on the verses but blend on the chorus.
16. “The Most,” Lori McKenna
With her willingness to share the insights of her small-town life, I kinda wish Lori McKenna was my next-door neighbor. On “The Most,” she invites listeners in, pointing out details of an ordinary day in the most enlightening way. The nuances in her phrasing pull me in every time.
17. “That’s How Trouble Starts,” Pete Anderson
Something tells me this number was written from experience. A gal hits the town with her girlfriends, looking for a little fun, and then … uh-oh. Anderson will be familiar to country fans for his work as Dwight Yoakam‘s producer and guitarist, but on this record, he sticks to his beloved blues.
18. “Little Runaway,” Ponderosa
This one gets me in motion. Not only does the tempo boast a deep groove but the persistent chorus — “You better run, run, run, you better run” — keeps me focused on my two upcoming half-marathons. Better yet, their Southern-bred roots-rock is ideal afternoon beer-drinking music.
19. “From a Table Away,” Sunny Sweeney
One of my friends told me, “This sounds like ’90s country” — a big compliment because we grew up listening to the women of that era. A traditionalist who sings from the perspective of “the other woman,” Sweeney is stepping into rare territory. It’s my favorite country single right now.
20. “Blame It on the Bluegrass,” Valerie Smith
Whenever you see a skinny, starved-looking banjo player, take a cue from this friendly singer and blame it on the bluegrass. The lively tempo catches your attention first, but it’s the clever lyrics that will keep you coming back. This one is sure to be a festival favorite this summer.