Perusing the stack of releases so far this year (and playing a bit of catch-up from 2005), some of the most compelling new albums are from female artists. Here, in alphabetical order, are 10 women with something to say.
Brandi Carlile (Red Ink/Columbia)
Listening to this debut, I am reminded of how John Mayer started his buzz in the adult alternative format before exploding into the amphitheaters. The same could happen to Carlile, a young newcomer from Washington state. She has a knack for pop melodies, sings like a non-diva and writes with her guard down. Definitely keep an eye on her.
Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol)
A poetic record that doesn't shy away from grief and humanity, Black Cadillac slips beneath the skin immediately. And when the trumpet rings out on the title track (a la "Ring of Fire"), it's impossible to be unmoved. Reminiscent of Springsteen's The Rising, Cash matches heavy lyrics with dense production, and the risk pays off.
Sarah Harmer, I'm a Mountain (Cold Snap/Zoe)
At first listen, I feared Harmer had gotten all mushy. (She has always excelled at writing about disillusionment.) However, with a folk frame of mind, she offers two of the most romantic country songs in recent memory, "The Ring" and "I Am Aglow." Throw in a cover of Dolly Parton's "Will He Be Waiting for Me," and we have a winner.
Hem, No Word From Tom (Waveland)
On this beautiful and soothing disc, the New York band gathers five years' worth of outtakes, covers, demos, live recordings and rarities for a surprisingly cohesive effort. Sally Ellyson's dreamy vocals are effortless and inspired on "Rainy Night in Georgia," "Crazy Arms" and a splendid, heartbreaking version of "Tennessee Waltz."
Bettye LaVette, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise
Now 60, LaVette blasts her way through sharp-edged songs from proud, spirited women like Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton and Lucinda Williams, as well as Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann and Sinead O'Connor. When she fiercely delivers Joan Armatrading's anthem "Down to Zero," you almost expect to dodge the nails spitting out of the stereo.
Lynn Miles, Love Sweet Love (Red House)
Miles always makes it seem that you're almost there -- whether it's love or traveling or just finding something good. And her warm alto persuades you to believe everything she says. Anybody who has visited Casinos El Camino bar in downtown Austin, Texas, on a slow and lonely night will have no problem envisioning the album's closing scene.
Alecia Nugent, A Little Girl ... A Big Four-Lane (Rounder)
Although I've met Nugent several times, I don't know her folks -- but after hearing "Letter From Home," I feel like I do. As the lyrics attest, they're proud of their daughter, and for good reason. On her second disc, the Louisiana native has matured into a stronger, more expressive singer. If you enjoy the mellower side of bluegrass, check her out.
Robinella, Solace for the Lonely (Dualtone)
Robinella's musical vision is still perfectly suited to acoustic arrangements, but on this album, she sidesteps bluegrass for more of a chanteuse vibe. Fear not -- her gliding soprano will still stop you in your tracks. Uncork a bottle of red wine, feed your lover some smooth, dark chocolate, and give this album a spin. See what happens.
Rosie Thomas, If Songs Could Be Held (Sub Pop)
Her songs could hardly be more brutally sad, but somehow, her voice never wavers. Even when she's trying to figure out what love is, she practically shrugs and figures it may always be that way. (Sigh.) With her powerful lyrics and lovely melodies, a subtle-yet-strong singer like Trisha Yearwood or Julie Roberts could dig right in.
Joy Lynn White, One More Time (Thortch)
White has a tremble in her alto that can leave a listener hanging on to every word -- and that's a credit to her strong songwriting skills too. "Looking for You Looking for Me" will satisfy singles who lead full lives but still believe love is not out of the question. If the Dixie Chicks ever boot Natalie, White could easily hold her own at the microphone.