It’s that time of year again: time for end-of-year Best Of lists. Ranking anything in numbered list format is so often either an exercise in futility – the resulting catalogue doomed to be dismissed out-of-hand with a disparaging sneer (and promptly forgotten) – or else a uniquely painful (read: borderline sadistic) way to foment bitterest debate and lasting division among soon-to-be-former friends and readers. It’s a glorious, invigorating exercise. Sadly, many years from now, I will no doubt be remembered to those who knew me with a single line carved in granite for all eternity: he was nothing if not noncommittal. With that in mind, the following are my thoughts on just some of the many releases that have moved me this year, presented in that most non-partisan of orders: alphabetical.
Amarillo, Eyes Still Fixed – The Melbourne duo’s careworn debut LP speaks arrestingly to vastness – of space, of place, of time, of feeling – inhering in the smallest, most immediate of details. Eyes Still Fixed casts a lingering spell with its sparse, earthy arrangements and Jac Tonks’ expressive, ineffably Australian vocal. The track I can’t stop playing: ‘Lemonade’
Katie Brianna, Victim or the Heroine
Brianna’s sophomore outing is the masterwork of a uniquely gifted songsmith, and eloquent proof that Brianna is singularly able to wed a scarred and battered heart to the task of penning and delivering mesmerising songs of experience. Few albums in recent memory have delivered such gentle and engrossing studies in love and loss, identity, uncertainty, and resilience. The track I can’t stop playing: ‘King’
Doug Bruce, Unsung: A Tribute to the Songs of Buddy Bruce
Australia’s foremost exponent of classic, dancehall-ready honkytonk, US ex-pat Doug Bruce has long filled an essential quarter of the local country scene with so many irresistible two-stepping rhythms, hangdog vocals, and intoxicating low-down guitars. The heart and soul of Texas lives and breathes in Bruce’s lovingly rendered reworkings of the songs of late, great uncle Buddy Bruce. It’s a timeless, engrossing tribute to a brilliant musical mind. The track I can’t stop playing: ‘Nothin’ Yet’
William Crighton, William Crighton
Crighton’s eponymous debut is an often darkly compelling study in the unique rhythms and lurking perils of the Australian bush, delivered with rare honesty and stunning reverence. The Riverina-raised singer-songwriter’s unique vision encompasses breathtaking insights into the human condition, our relationships to one another, and the way in which place works to shape our loves, lives and most fraught personal constituencies. It’s a jaw-dropping adjunct to his phenomenal live show. The track I can’t stop playing: ‘Dig Your Mind’
Jonny Fritz, Sweet Creep
‘Did you take a break from drinkin’ and find out you have no friends who aren’t sad, old, brokenhearted, wasted losers in the end?’ asks Jonny Fritz on Sweet Creep opener ‘Are You Thirsty’. Painfully honest, disingenuously irreverent, charged with sweet sadness and stirring irony and charming in his own offbeat, unassuming way, Fritz has long been a cult anti-hero of the weird country set, and Sweet Creep is his most assured work to date. The track I can’t stop playing: ‘I Love Leaving’
Tracy McNeil & The GoodLife, Thieves
Country is a style more often celebrated for its earthiness and down-home textures than for broad, sweeping, cinematic strokes and swathes of nostalgic, quicksilver instrumentation. McNeil and her enviable band achieve the latter effect while retaining the essential storytelling bent of the country greats. Thieves is a glorious dose of short-wave AM brilliance – a dusky reimagining of the classic sounds of the Seventies greats carried by McNeil’s spellbinding voice. The track I can’t stop playing: ‘Blueprint’
Jen Mize, Warnings & Wisdom
Mize’s latest is an immersive study in the sounds and styles that inform the nebulous concept that is Americana, from Appalachian folk to the swampy sounds of the bayou and everything in between. Unmatched for versatility in any style, the Queensland-based, US-born singer-songwriter masterfully inhabits everything from red-clay country-folk storytelling to smouldering blues snarls to the proto-jazz strains of the early 20th Century dancehalls of the American South. It’s a mighty evocative space to inhabit. The track I can’t stop playing: ‘Cuervo’
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Price’s much-anticipated debut on Jack White’s own Third Man Records label is breathtaking: frank, fiery, and demonstrative of the kind of self-possession most of us only dream of. Candid doesn’t even touch it. Beyond which, it’s an album thick with winning mid-century country sounds rendered with a patently loving devotion to craft. The track I can’t stop playing: ‘Four Years of Chances’
Josh Rennie-Hynes, Furthermore
Rennie-Hynes’ second outing thrills with feeling. Gentle, soulful, and impeccably rendered at every turn, it’s a transporting experience, evoking shafts of sunlight illuminating gauzy motes of dust, canfields in the rain, and a battered vehicle buffeted by the strange wind of an unfamiliar town. Furthermore is songcraft at its masterful best. The track I can’t stop playing: ‘Where Do I Go’
Jason Walker, All-Night Ghost Town
Stalwart Sydney songsmith Jason Walker brings so much hard-gotten experience to bear on this mesmerising debut. It’s an album thick with the kind of pitch-perfect heartworn country textures that are a lifetime in the learning, mastering, and crafting. Walker is the consummate country crooner, storyteller and player, and All-Night Ghost Town is one of the year’s landmark alt. country releases. The track I can’t stop playing: ‘Poison’
The Weeping Willows, Before Darkness Comes A-Callin’
Melbourne duo The Weeping Willows return with a stirring glimpse behind the veil and into the shadier depths of the soul. Banjo, fiddle, mandolin and plaintive cowboy strumming score a stark yet invigorating message delivered in exquisite vocal harmony: behind every cloud…is another, darker cloud. It’s every bit as engrossing as that sounds. The track I can’t stop playing: ‘The Pale Rider’
As far as gigs are concerned, the silly season has plenty. Rooty Hill RSL hosts Aleyce Simmonds (album launch) on 4 February and The Sunny Cowgirls on 10 March, while the venue’s weekly Total Country Sundays fixture continues to draw some big name acts, hosting Rory Ellis on 20 November, Cam & Stu on 4 December, and Rose Carleo on 18 December.
In the Inner West, Marrickville’s Camelot Lounge has Sydney favourites Green Mohair Suits (album launch) on 25 November, before Buck Loner Revue take to Newtown’s Union Hotel on 27 November. Newtown Social Club hosts Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift on 11 December and Eilen Jewell and Jason Walker on 22 November.
The ever-reliable Petersham Bowling Club has Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley (USA) on 21 November, while Canterbury Hurlstone Park RSL’s regular Canterbury Country fixture stages its Christmas in the Country showcase on 8 December, featuring Donna Fisk, Baylou, and Ross McGregor plus hosts Bob Howe and Nicki Gillis with the Hillbilly Heaven Band, before the venue hosts its Tamworth Recovery Party on 9 February.
The incomparable Ryan Adams is at the Enmore Theatre on 6 December, with support from Sydney’s own Emma Swift, while The Basement hosts inimitable local country supergroup Spin Drifters on 23 November, 7 December and 11 January, Hayley Jensen and Kirsty Lee Akers on 27 November, Steve Poltz (USA) on 17 December, Monty Cotton’s A Boy Named Cash Johnny Cash tribute show on 27 December, and Hat Fitz & Cara on 28 January.
That Red Head is at Marrickville’s LazyBones Lounge on 6 December, as are roots chameleons Spines on 9 December, and Gene Deer and Stormcellar on 13 January. Leadbelly in Newtown has Nicole Brophy on 3 December, That Red Head on 16 December and Elwood Myre Band on 22 December.
Down south and beachside, Cronulla’s Brass Monkey has Craig Woodward & The Lonely Dogs and Shelly Fitzpatrick on 22 January, Daniel Thompson and Stuie French’s Johnny Cash: The Concert on 11 February, and Jackie Dee (album launch) on 19 February.
Up north, 8 December finds the peerless Kevin Bennett & The Flood at Lizotte’s Newcastle, before Steve Poltz calls into the venue on 13 December, Diesel on 16, 17 and 18 December, Hat Fitz & Cara on 19 January, Psycho Zydeco’s Summer Cajun Hoedown on 20 January, Kev Carmody on 24 January, Russell Morris on 28 and 29 January, Aleyce Simmonds on 5 February, Kaylens Rain on 12 February, Lyn Bowtell & Southern Steel and Beth Brown on 17 February, and Beccy Cole on 26 February.
And for those not drawn into a spiraling pit of mud-slinging in the comments sections attending the season’s countless Best of 2016 lists, the burgeoning summer warmth compels frequent excursions to favourite Convict Capital haunts including Marrickville Bowling Club, Redfern’s Bearded Tit, and Marrickville’s Gasoline Pony.
Until next year! Brace yourselves: end-of-year Best Of lists are coming.
As always, if you have a gig to plug or an axe to grind, please feel free to get in touch with the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.