The truth behind my Top 10

I first heard Rosanne Cash’s magnificent The River & The Thread over a year ago, and if I remember correctly, immediately tweeted that even though 2014 was still a ways away, I already had my No. 1 Album of the Year. That it didn’t turn out that way says less about The River & The Thread than it does about my admittedly bogus methodology in choosing Top 10 Albums of the Year.

But really, what does it mean, Album of the Year? The best album of the year? Who’s to say? By what criteria? Or put it this way: Does the Grammy Award for Album of the Year mean that the award winner actually was the best album of the year?

I’ll let you answer that. As for me, and probably others who put these inane lists together, they’re a combination of favorite albums and those by artists that need a break to get heard in the morass of commercially-released and corporate-supported music. In my case, in general, both are the same, with Cash’s being one of the few that has major distribution.

Back when I was at Billboard, we actually included singles, videos, concerts and events in our Top 10 lists, and often went with ties to squeeze in more than 10. Purists would surely call it a cop-out, but I think my late pal, Billboard editor-in-chief Tim White, once crammed in 12 or 13 titles one year.

This year I was tempted to go the tie route more than once, especially because of Rosanne, and particularly because of Carlene Carter.

How ironic that Carlene, who grew up with Rosanne’s father Johnny Cash after he married her mother June Carter, would come out with her own career album just a few months after Rosanne—with Carter Girl kind of being her The List. This presented a huge problem for me in that I wrote the Carter Girl liner notes for my old and dear friend Carlene—but my old and dear friend Rosanne had thanked me a few years ago on a CD compilation. I’m sure they’d both hate me if I copped out and tied them at No. 1, and I was tempted to go the alphabetical route and put Carlene ahead of Rosanne, except that Rosanne’s album was entirely original, while Carlene’s had several beautifully done covers.

Luckily, NRBQ’s Brass Tacks came out, offering me my own plausible out of the sticky situation. Here’s where the wanting to give deserving artists a break part comes in: NRBQ remains perhaps the greatest under-appreciated band in rock ‘n’ roll history. Founded in the late 1960s, it’s still led by Terry Adams, who’s overcome throat cancer and band personnel changes and needs and deserves the recognition that Rosanne and Carlene already have.

But then came Jimmy Liban. A dear friend from Milwaukee, Jimmy is one of the all-time great blues harmonica players/singers/songwriters, but you probably only know that if you’re a blues fan. He was one of the artists I wrote about the most when I started writing in Madison, Wis. in the late ’70s; that he never achieved household name status remains one of my biggest career regrets. When I listened to I Say What I Mean, his first album in decades, produced and recorded by his former guitarist Joel Paterson, it was clear that this had to be my No. 1.

But it could easily have been Cajun country star Jo-El Sonnier’s The Legacy, or Doug Kershaw & Steve Riley’s Face to Face, both magnificent returns to traditional Cajun music form by two of the most important artists in the genre–and my career: I actually became a writer in order to meet Doug at a rock festival in Oshkosh, Wis., having just met Jo-El on my first trip to Nashville. Doug’s then latest album featured Jo-El’s “Cajun Born.” I was a huge fan of both.

That leaves Maura Moynihan’s Bombay Superstar—a Bollywood inspired pop/dance/techno delight; Lake Street Dive’s Bad Self Portraits, which was even better than its auspicious 2010 self-titled debut; and Thompson’s Family, Teddy Thompson’s perfectly realized compilation of new songs and performances by his esteemed family members. Any and all of these Top Nine albums could just as credibly been No. 1 in any other year.

My No. 10, AC/DC’s Rock or Bust, would seem to be the only filler title here, though it’s a most excellent album. But I probably would have replaced it with one of several albums I discovered after making this list originally for the Village Voice, then making another of strictly country/Americana/folk/bluegrass titles for Nashville Scene.

I really hadn’t received or listened to a lot of country-related albums this year, due to having fallen off so many lists in the time since I was with Billboard. Thankfully, the Scene sends along several lists of relevant titles that are eligible for consideration, and I was able to stream Laura Cantrell’s No Way From Here, The Isaacs’ The Living Years, Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line, Jim Lauderdale’s Patchwork River and Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives’ Saturday Night/Sunday Morning—all superb.

At least Joel Paterson was pleased by Rock or Bust.

“Thanks so much, Jim,” he messaged. “And an honor to be on a list with AC/DC!”

Concert Highlights–Carlene Carter at the Cutting Room, 6/12/14

Carlene Carter sang “Me and the Wildwood Rose” midway through her set at the Cutting Room last night. It’s a song from her 1990 album I Fell in Love, which she wrote about traveling as a child with her grandmother, Mother Maybelle Carter, her mother June Carter Cash and aunts Helen and Anita Carter—then billed as Mother Maybelle & the Singing Carter Sisters—and her own little sister, Rosie.

In a big shiny car we’d head down the road
To sing for the miners who brought out the coal
Many a time I slept on the floorboard cold
On a quilt with my little sister
The Wildwood Rose

“It has a lot more meaning for me now that they’ve all passed on,” she said. But with her great new album Carter Girl (I should know. I wrote the liner notes.) she’s taken on the honor and responsibility of continuing the historic Carter Family tradition while adding to it.

She’s focusing on Carter Girl, of course, on her current tour. Accompanied by her longtime guitarist Sean Allen on guitars and lap steel, and on the album’s duets, husband Joe Breen, Carlene played acoustic guitar, autoharp and piano, standout songs from the album including first single “Little Black Train,” “Blackjack David” (Kris Kristofferson sings on the album version), “Troublesome Waters” (Willie Nelson) and her adaptation of the Carter Family’s “Lonesome Valley” (“Lonesome Valley 2003,” with Vince Gill, evoking the passing of her mother and stepfather Johnny Cash).

The Carter Family was further represented by Carlene’s version of “My Dixie Darlin’,” which she had also included in I Fell In Love, and she encored with her own big country hit from that period, “Every Little Thing.”

Speaking of which, she acknowledged that she had “tried all kinds of different things in her career—and I mean that: all kinds of different things!” and hinted at some of them at the start when she announced, “Don’t be scared. I’ve got underwear on tonight! Things do change.”

But her unchanged talent notwithstanding, the laughter turned to tears when she said, also of “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” how she thinks of her departed Carter girls everyday.

“I’m so lucky to still be here and play and be with friends,” she said. “I’m going to start to cry,” she added, and did—then finished, most appropriately and effectively, with the family’s signature hymn “Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By).”