Hundreds of albums crossed my desk in 2005, but now that the music onslaught has slowed down, here are a dozen discs I'll keep around in 2006.
Jeff Black, Tin Lily (Dualtone)
As singer-songwriter projects go, this intriguing album does everything right: quality production, passionate vocals and songwriting with depth and meaning. The restless and committed alike will appreciate lines like, "You say you don't want to tie me down/So what's with all these ropes and chains?" Nashville is lucky to have him.
Alison Brown, Stolen Moments (Compass)
Listening to this beautiful and eclectic album, it suddenly hits you, "That's a banjo?!" A onetime member of Alison Krauss & Union Station, Brown has since ventured into solo albums and running Compass Records with her husband, bass player Garry West. That's Mary Chapin Carpenter popping up unexpectedly on the last track.
David Allan Coe, For the Soul and for the Mind Demos of '71-'74 (Coe Pop)
One of the wildest characters ever to emerge in Nashville, Coe offers a quieter side of his artistry on this incredible collection of early material. The title track vividly describes a song swap with Harlan, Kris and Billy Joe, and it's as if they kindly saved you a seat. Coe's attention to detail in the lyrics is striking. In this acoustic context, he sounds killer, too.
Todd Fritsch, Todd Fritsch (Diamond Music Group)
While most independent country albums sound stale -- from relying on what worked in the 1990s -- Fritsch's self-titled release sounds as contemporary as anything on the major labels these days. "Small Town Radio" will hit home for rural country fans, and the remake of Mel Street's "Walk Softly on the Bridges" is a treat. A satisfying effort.
Johnny Hickman, Palmhenge (Campstove)
Formerly of rock band Cracker, Hickman takes a stab at alt.country. "Little Tom" is one of the darkest narratives this year, rock or otherwise. Sure, he has some fun with the twang -- outsiders love to do that -- but it's likely that he kids because he loves. You can't fake an appreciation for country and have it come across this successfully.
Fern Jones, The Glory Road (Numero Group)
What a peculiar and wonderful reissue from the late '50s. A honky-tonk girl singer who wound up as the wife of a Pentecostal preacher, Jones comes across like "Patsy on Jesus," as she's vividly described in the insightful liner notes. Session players include Hank Garland and Floyd Cramer, but it's her sassy, yet sacred, singing that will blow your mind.
Darrell McCall, Old Memories and Wine (Heart of Texas)
When people casually say how they hate "country western" music, this is probably what they're talking about: characters with endless back luck, pedal steel that will make you sob, twin fiddles that will make you weep some more and a baritone voice that drips with pity. Ditch the naysayers and serve me another round. This is Texas honky-tonk at its finest.
Delbert McClinton, Cost of Living (New West)
McClinton has long been one of Nashville's most distinctive vocalists, but his songwriting truly shines here. He channels Gladys Knight ("Your Memory, Me and the Blues") and Marty Robbins ("Down Into Mexico") but still keeps things greasy with his own growl. If he comes to your town for a concert, you won't complain if he focuses on the new stuff.
Michelle Shocked, Got No Strings (Mighty Sound)
An unexpected delight. On this album of classic Disney tunes, Shocked sings superbly and the songs are obviously memorable, but the clincher is the purity of the arrangements. The fiddle, lap steel, upright bass, guitar and banjo are all crisp, never once interfering with the playful mood. If the kids in the back seat need new music, give a little whistle.
Tanya Tucker, Live at Billy Bob's (Smith Music Group)
Longtime country fans know there's more to Tucker than her outrageous personality. In fact, listening to this concert album may bring back a lot of memories -- and not just for "the old-timers out there like me," as she refers to them. With 16 hits and minimal chatter, you'll wish you'd been hangin' in at this famous Fort Worth country bar, too.
Gene Watson, Then & Now (Koch Nashville)
A country mainstay in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Watson's rich baritone could never be mistaken for anything but country. Here, he revisits his favorite album cuts with sterling new renditions. I'd love to hear Alan Jackson, Joe Nichols or Blake Shelton give these a second wind. For classic honky-tonk, try "The Jukebox Played Along."
Lucinda Williams, Live at the Fillmore (Lost Highway)
Williams can destroy with just an acoustic guitar, but with this heavy and impressive band behind her, she's unstoppable. "Are You Down" especially thrives on the sweat of the Fillmore crowd, making it her most seductive performance on record. No wonder the audience is so turned on. Luckily the crowd noise enhances -- rather than ruins -- the vibe.