Years ago I used to scan other critics' best-of lists and make sure I heard their choices and labored over which discs were truly groundbreaking. At some point I realized that my real favorite albums, the one I'd still love in a decade, were simply the ones I listened to the most in any given year.
My list has become more local (my top five are all local artists), but it's as honest a list as I can make. These are albums I'll still love when I'm in that retirement home.
1. "Some Stories," Kevin Abernathy (www.kevinabernathymusic.com)
Kevin Abernathy's "Some Stories" is one of the best collections of songs to ever come out of Knoxville — and with songwriting greats stretching from Don Gibson, Arthur Q. Smith and Dolly Parton to RB Morris, Scott Miller and Todd Steed, that's saying something.
Abernathy's songs are tight, powerful and unforgettable. And the deft production on this album, with great playing from Abernathy and some of Knoxville's best musicians, lets you appreciate every word. Over the course of nearly a year, each song on it has been my favorite at some point.
2. "Still Wanna Fight," Mic Harrison & the High Score (www.micharrison.com)
In his partnership with the High Score, Mic Harrison is the frontman in one of the best and hardest-working acts Knoxville has ever seen. He's also a songwriter of the first order with a knack for classic pop hooks and a honky tonk vibe that makes you feel good down to your toes. However, behind the good time are often songs that are deeper than you imagined. "Still Wanna Fight" is the best place yet to appreciate why you need to pay close attention.
Don't take this guy for granted. He's the real deal.
3. "Wand Ambition," LiL iFFy (www.wandcore.bandcamp.com)
Senryu leader Wil Wright has another new project called Weird Miracle that could just as easily describe this project. With LiL iFFy's sophomore release (available for free download) what once seemed like a joke (foul-mouthed gangsta rap blended with Harry Potter themes) becomes serious art with Wright's real life blended with wizard fantasy. The song "Sorted Affair" is a knock-out single, even if you weren't picking up on the Potter references. LiL iFFy musical partner DJ Tom Ato is a master at finding samples and laying down terrific foundations.
By the time the album reaches its emotional climax, you'll likely believe "The Magic Is Alive," too.
4. "Modern Victims," The Lonetones (www.thelonetones.com)
Think of the Lonetones as spiritual kin to Wilco or the Byrds. Led by husband and wife team and lead singer-songwriters Sean McCullough and Steph Gunnoe, The Lonetones are folky, a little rock and are constantly finding new and gorgeous sounds and expanding their horizons. The leaders' songs and vocals are contrasts that blend into something amazing.
5. "Wayfarin' Stranger," Con Hunley (www.conhunley.com)
I'd rather hear Con Hunley sing than just about anybody on earth.
Since his country hit-making days he's become a deeper and better vocalist. He's known as a country performer, but he's truly a white soul singer — who owes a lot more to Ray Charles than any country great. This collection of gospel-themed songs goes from rafter-shaking spiritual to subtle acoustic to the stark title cut that is so beautiful that it can bring you to tears. Don't miss it.
6. Mischievous Moon," Jill Barber (www.jillbarber.com)
Jill Barber is a welcome return to classic pop singer. Like Norah Jones many years ago, Barber goes for the heart of the song rather than revel in vocal gymnastics. She and this album are great.
7. "Who's Gonna Teach You How to Live?," Jordan Hull (www.jordanhull.com)
Dayton, Ohio, native Jordan Hull jumps genres and eras on this terrific collection of songs. He's one of the best undiscovered songwriters on the scene. One listen and you'll understand why.
8. "Old Light," Rayna Gellert (www.raynagellert.com)
As creepy as it is beautiful, Rayna Gellert presents original songs about memory (and its loss) along with folk songs remembered from childhood.
It's deep, dark and easy to love.
8. "Older Than My Old Man Now," Loudon Wainwright III (www.lw3.com)
Every aspiring songwriter should study Loudon Wainwright III. No one else can handle such serious subjects as death and aging with such uncomfortable humor and such skill. On this disc, Wainwright enlists his family (some posthumously) to deliver one of his best works.
10. "In the Dusk of Everything," Matthew Ryan (www.matthewryanonline.com)
Matthew Ryan can write some of the most heartbreakingly sad songs you're likely hear and this set is no exception. The instrumental is simple and, at times, the words are almost whispered. Listen close. You won't be disappointed.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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