There is nothing I take more serious then putting my name behind an album as being the best of any calendar year. Unlike some organizations who hand out such things to whoever can sell the most albums or show the most teen spirit, I understand that Albums of the Year set a precedent, and will act like guideposts for future generations to come back and discover the music that came before. That is why after careful consideration, I believe that Justin Townes Earle’s 2009 album Midnight at the Movies is the best album in regards to creativity, quality, and significance.
Justin Townes Earle has done an awesome thing with this album; he has figured out a way to unite all the displaced elements that make up the alternative to mainstream Nashville country, while still staying somewhat accessible to the mainstream folks as well. You might even catch the bluegrass folks nodding their head while listening to it. Folkies like it, and there’s a few tunes blues people can get into. This isn’t just the REAL country album of the year, it is the “Alt-country” album of the year and the “Americana” album of the year. In fact the Americana Music Association nominated it for “Album of the Year,” named Earle “Emerging Artist of the Year” and also nominated him for “Artist of the Year.”
But with all this accessibility, this is still a REAL country album with real country songs. “Poor Fool” is an instant country classic, and songs like “Black Eyed Suzy” and “Halfway to Jackson” are great examples of Earle’s unique approach to country that injects bluegrass and blues elements into neo-traditional textures. “Dirty Rag” is just a simple snippet of Justin with his guitar, highlighting is unique clawhammer banjo-like technique. Who does that kind of thing on albums these days? We need more of that.
“Mamas Eyes” and “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This” remind me that alt-country can be cool, and the title track “Midnight at the Movies,” though hard to call country or really put any label on it, is a masterpiece of perfectly dialed in textures and moods. This album has it all, and is displayed with class and warmth, only using drums and overdubbed instruments when necessary. And Justin was probably helped out in my estimation when I saw him live and he lived up to the album, and when I talked to him that he had interesting things to say.
This album isn’t without faults. I would second guess including a track that talks about “John Henry,” the most worn out name in country music, though I understand where he was trying to go. I’d also say that this album lacks and true, raw moxy that I would like to see from a country album. Justin does unleash a few times, but seems timid to go all the way. A little electrical rawness would possibly have made this album a little more fulfilling for me personally, though admittedly I can’t see where this would be added without feeling out of place.
This is in no way meant to discount Justin’s effort, but this was a down year in regards to REAL country albums, down from last year, and what next year promises to be. Last year this would have not been my top dog, but it still would have been at the top. And I take all elements into consideration. This album is the reason we all love country music, and when I say all, I mean people who would never listen to Hank III because he’s too vulgar, or people like me who’ve never been able to get into Justin’s dad Steve.
In fact I would say that Justin Townes Earle’s legacy now is more closely tied with his other namesake, Townes Van Zandt. In the last few years I have noticed a major resurgence in interest and enthusiasm for Townes, and it comes from all sectors, just like the interest for Justin Townes does. From hellbilly rockers to folk festival freaks to urban hipsters, Townes Van Zandt’s purity of lyricism defies genres and stereotypes and speaks to the inner soul. “Townes” is the glue that binds, and Justin has a running start to doing that name justice.
Midnight at the Movies is from Bloodshot Records.
Stay tuned for albums 2 thru 10.