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Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Kelly McCartney's Top Picks of the Year
December 18, 2014
Top 10 Picks of 2014 by Kelly McCartney
In a year chock full of truly great records, it's hard to narrow it down to 10 stand-outs. But what's wonderful about the leveling field of music is that newcomers like Jonah Tolchin, Hozier, and Parker Millsap who really deliver the goods can sidle up alongside icons like Ani DiFranco, Rosanne Cash, and Lee Ann Womack at the top of their games, all without missing a beat. Such is the case here as newly discovered and long-time favorites alike jockey for position as some of the Best Albums of 2014.
Ani DiFranco - 'Allergic to Water'
There are two camps within the Ani DiFranco fan base -- those who swear allegiance to her early, more raw works and those who stand devoted to her later, more refined efforts. 'Allergic to Water' falls squarely into the latter's lap as DiFranco, now a mother of two, continues to explore the subtler, quieter realms. She is still brash, still brazen, in terms of the points she's attempting to get across. It's just that she does so in ways that are, at once, more playful and more serious. Gone are the days of boot stomping and guitar thrashing. But, as this album evidences, DiFranco continues to be one of the most thoughtful and innovative singer/songwriters of any generation.
First Aid Kit - 'Stay Gold'
Though Sweden is fast becoming a hotbed for electro-pop music thanks to the work of artists like Lykke Li, Robyn, and Avicii, it is not as overflowing with indie folk. It will be, though, if First Aid Kit is any indicator. Their latest collection, 'Stay Gold,' draws inspiration in both style and substance from Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay." Sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg also take Frost's words as something of a challenge as they make every attempt to capture and hold their own goldest musical hues against an orchestral backdrop that lifts and lilts along with their sweetly soaring vocal harmonies.
Hozier - 'Hozier'
The second of four blues-influenced gents under 25 years of age on the list (along with Tolchin, Millsap, and Ellis), Hozier emerged from Ireland with a bold cut that stopped a lot of people in their tracks with "Take Me to Church." While that is, indeed, a stunning effort, the whole of Hozier's eponymous debut showcases an artist with an impressive grasp on multiple melodic styles and an intuitive knack for intelligent lyrical twists. Bittersweetly recalling the promise of guys like Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith, Hozier will, hopefully, be a more lasting presence. He certainly has the talent.
Jonah Tolchin - 'Clover Lane'
From "Mockingbird" on down, listeners know they are in for quite a ride down 'Clover Lane.' Jonah Tolchin's collection succeeds where neo-retro bands like Mumford & Sons fail because Tolchin is a fan first, a student second, and an artist third. He understands why the Mississippi Delta music speaks to him and he knows how to translate it into his own language. Equal parts crazy barn dance and lazy campfire singalong, 'Clover Lane' moves effortlessly between styles and genres -- from the swampy shuffle of "Hey Baby Blues" to the slow saunter of "Low Life." A truly fantastic album, 'Clover Lane' should easily put Tolchin on the map.
Lee Ann Womack - 'The Way I'm Livin''
For whatever reason, voices that have just a little bit of ache tell a story a whole lot better than those that don't. And, when it comes to country music, Lee Ann Womack has one of the loveliest aches around. She can coax the lonesome out of any tune, and then hold it right where she wants it. That's how, as an interpreter, Womack makes great songs even greater, especially when they flow from the pens of outlier writers like Hayes Carll, Julie Miller, and Bruce Robison. With 'The Way I'm Livin',' she brings her fullest talent to bear and it's something special to behold.
Parker Millsap - 'Parker Millsap'
The first two tracks on Parker Millsap's self-titled release -- the one-two punch of "Old Time Religion" and "Truck Stop Gospel" -- deliver quite a knock-out blow to all who stumble into this debut. A couple cuts later, though, "The Villain" answers a call sent out more than 40 years ago by Tom Waits' "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You." Either way you go, Millsap, who is in his early 20s, knows how to write and deliver a song. And, as potent as this record is, his live performances are even more show stopping, so to speak.
Pieta Brown - 'Paradise Outlaw'
Unlike some of her past efforts, there's nothing urgent or insistent about Pieta Brown's latest turn, 'Paradise Outlaw.' Instead, it's a gorgeously meandering affair that takes its own, sweet time getting where it needs to go. The slow motion unfolding of these songs makes for an immersive listening experience, one that refuses to be anything more than it is. Here, everything feels a little bit muted, a little bit muddled, but never overly so because there's always plenty of room to breathe amidst the sparse arrangements and nuanced production.
Robby Hecht - 'Robby Hecht'
On his 2014 eponymous release, Robby Hecht continues to prove the case for himself as a true descendant of the Paul Simon/James Taylor lineage of singer/songwriters. Like those greats, Hecht's contemplative, acoustic tunes search and rescue the hearts and souls of anyone who hears them. One listen to "Feeling It Now" (or "The Sea and the Shore" or "Stars") is like a healing balm, a salve to soothe whatever ails you. So classic is Hecht's voice and craft, it's sometimes hard to tell whether he is covering an old standard or offering a new original.
Robert Ellis - 'The Lights from the Chemical Plant'
So much of what makes 'The Lights from the Chemical Plant' great is between the lines and under the surface, just like in the stories of so many small town lives that fill it. Unlike the artists on mainstream country radio, Robert Ellis doesn't paint with primary colors. He prefers the greys, the browns, and, yes, the blues. Those are the shades that fit the stark, dark tales he tells on this challenging and intimate work. A phrase from the lead track, "Only Lies", captures the album's credo: "Just because a thing's convenient, well that doesn't make it true."
Rosanne Cash - 'The River & the Thread'
On her first set of original songs since 2006's 'Black Cadillac,' Rosanne Cash held nothing back as she journeyed into the geography and history that have shaped her life, her art, her family. It's a heritage that is her own, sure, but it's also a heritage that is also ours. And that point is not lost on Cash. She understands the ties that bind, perhaps more than most, which is why the metaphors on 'The River & the Thread' run deep and wide. The chorus of the opening track lays it out perfectly: "A feather's not a bird. The rain is not the sea. A stone is not a mountain, but a river runs through me."
Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Cindy Howes' Top Picks of the Year
December 16, 2014
Top 10 Picks of 2014 by Cindy Howes
Full disclosure: I love making my yearly best-of list and I love looking at everyone else's. I love the exercise of combing through the year of music; reliving the first emotional moments felt after hearing the perfect song or new favorite artist. Some on my list were no surprise to me: of course I've included Anais Mitchell and First Aid Kit. Those unexpected artists on this list now feel like new friends who kept me company throughout the long year. I hope you agree on some and find some new friends among my favorite albums for 2014 and thank you for the opportunity to throw a spotlight on folk music.
Have a listen to my Top 10 Playlist at Spotify - HERE.
Ben Howard. 'I Forget Where We Were'
On his second full length album, UK singer-songwriter, Ben Howard manages to harness all sorts of emotive power through his striking lyrics and layered guitar work. This sounds is as if Joni Mitchell had joined Genesis and decided to play an electric guitar on her lap.
The Barr Brothers, 'Sleeping Operator'
Montreal's Barr Brothers have returned on a sophomore release that combines magnificent songwriting, psychedelic and world music elements... and oh yeah, they also have a harp. The experimental nature of 'Sleeping Operator' that can make it a challenging listen is redeemed by mostly standout, accessible tracks.
The Early Mays, 'The Early Mays'
(The Early Mays)
Three previously solo performers come together to create beautiful harmonies and folk gems with The Early Mays: Judith Avers, Ellen Gozion and Emily Pinkerton. Thoughtfully created in Pittsburgh, PA, the trio effortlessly bring to life original, traditional and reworked songs while combining the folk music expertise of each May: Appalachia, country and modern.
The Stray Birds, 'Best Medicine'
The Stray Birds were a new discovery for me this year, but one I won't soon forget due to their ability to combine folk tradition with a modern approach. The fact that this album, their second full-length, was recorded live in the studio around one mic is astounding.
Anais Mitchell, 'Xoa'
Anais Mitchell is one of the best writers of her generation. With a brilliant mind and a cool delivery that 100% drives me insane (in the best way), there was no way I wasn't going to love this record. 'Xoa,' which is her signature for her email newsletter, is kind of a reworked, best-of collection (including songs from her folk opera, 'Hadestown'). The album is just Anais and her guitar in the studio, singing and playing these incredible songs, just like it's not a big deal at all.
First Aid Kit, 'Stay Gold'
The first time I heard the Swedish sister-duo, First Aid Kit's 'Stay Gold,' I was sanding the ceiling of my kitchen, covered in dust and wearing a face mask, which is a memory that is forever embedded in my mind. It sounds like someone seriously got their heart broken and is on an adventure, not unlike sanding a ceiling for two hours straight. I'm still astounded how well these young, non-American songwriters, manage to write such great American folk music.
Vance Joy, 'Dream Your Life Away'
Australia is usually a few years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to finding the hip, new music, so it's makes a lot of sense that they would be WAY on top of their own Vance Joy. They were all over his massive hit "Riptide" way before Taylor Swift ever thought to cover it. It's nice to see the U.S. finally catching on. I'm glad to include 'Dream Your Life Away' on my list as it includes some stellar songs lead by Joy's sweet tenor voice, percussive melodies (Xavier Rudd comes to mind) and dynamic build.
Damien Jurado, 'Brothers and Sisters of The Eternal Son'
Folk enigma, Damien Jurado, calls his eleventh album as a sequel to his previous release which centered around a man who disappeared from society to a mysterious place. It kind of sounds like a weird, freaky Wizard of Oz where Dorothy never goes home.
Rose Cousins, 'Stray Birds'
Rose Cousin's latest EP was a beautiful sweet September surprise with covers and a couple of originals. A small, quiet celebration in contrast to it's predecessor, 'We Have Made a Spark.' It was nice to hear Cousins pull back a bit on this release and show off some of her friends songs and tell us about some of her heroes.
Shakey Graves, 'And The War Came'
Austin's Alejandro Rose-Garcia impresses on his second release as the indie-folk act, Shakey Graves. The lead-off track, "Dearly Departed" has become one of the best new Halloween-inspired songs I've heard in years. Rose-Garcia seems out of place in 2014. After listening through 'And Then The War Came,' it's no wonder that these songs were not around for Lomaxes to discover in the early part of the 20th century.
Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Elena See's Top Picks of the Year
Top 10 Picks of 2014 by Elena See
I don't know why I'm still surprised, more than a DECADE after beginning a career in the music radio biz, about the amount of amazing music (in all genres) that comes out each and every year. Without fail - you'll find a new favorite musician, a new favorite band, an unexpected surprise, and, let's be honest, a disappointment or two as well. So, without further adieu, here are just a few (in no particular order) of my unexpected surprises, new favorite bands and new favorite musicians from 2014:
John Mellencamp, 'Plain Spoken'
And the award for shocker of the year...goes to John Mellencamp and 'Plain Spoken.' Not being a huge Mellencamp fan, I was totally surprised by this album. I think the production quality is great and once I took a bit of time and started reading the lyrics, I was able to appreciate Mellencamp and his music on a whole new level. The care he takes with his words! It's...awesome.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, 'Small Town Heroes'
I'm not at all what you'd call "quirky" and so that, naturally, leads me to really appreciate the quirkiness of others. Alynda Lee Segarra, frontwoman of Hurray for the Riff Raff, might be called quirky. But most importantly - she's got something important to say - she has a voice that needs to be heard. And she makes us hear it on this recording. "The Body Electric" is the stand out for me.
Dave/Phil Alvin, 'Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy'
(Yep Roc Records)
More than anything else, I appreciated this record because it marks the coming together, again, of two greats...who wanted nothing more than to set any differences aside and honor a third great, Big Bill Broonzy. Of course, it was wonderful to hear the brothers together again and, at the same time, this recording introduced me to SOOOOOO much more of Big Bill Broonzy's music. Thanks, Alvins!
Carlene Carter, 'Carter Girl'
I am fascinated with this family - what a legacy they left for us to explore and enjoy. Carlene Carter honors the legacy of her family's name with this recording, an album she says she's been waiting to make for years. I think her choice of material was quite inspired - the right mix of familiar tunes and lesser known numbers that give us an exclusive behind the scenes look at growing up as a member of the Carter clan.
John Fullbright, 'Songs'
(Blue Dirt Records)
One of the songs on this recording is called "Happy" and I admit it makes me happy every time I hear it. What IS it about John Fullbright's voice? Gravelly, wiser than his years would lead you to expect...I like this guy from Oklahoma. He's asking some good questions on this album - simple ones, sometimes...but definitely questions that we ALL ask every now and again. It's nice to get HIS perspectives on the answers.
Even if you had the most idyllic childhood anyone could ever imagine, I'd be willing to bet you still might have an opinion or two on how things could have been done differently. Ben Harper and his mother Ellen Harper said they'd always known they were going to make a record together that explores questions of home and family and what it all meant...and in Childhood Home they explore those ideas separately and together, offering a multi-dimensional look at how families really work together.
Various, 'Classic African American Songsters from Smithsonian Folkways'
(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)
Here's why this recording makes my best of 2014 list: Brownie McGhee. Lead Belly. Mississippi John Hurt. Little Brother Montgomery. Peg Leg Sam. All these amazing musicians I've heard of, in passing, but don't really know...here there are, all together, waiting to be discovered, and ready to make you sit up and say, "Whoa. I want more of this, please." It's a great collection, 21 tracks, and it is yet one more reason why I, personally, am grateful for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Shovels and Rope, 'Swimmin' Time'
(Dualtone Music Group)
Part of me loves this duo because of their name. Part of me is always just giddily delighted when I hear their harmonies. And then another part just swims in the lyrics they write. I adore how they make even the simplest ideas, questions, and thoughts into veritable poetry...then they back it up with impeccable playing and heart plucking harmonies. Americana's darlings, they're sometimes called...yeah. I agree.
Mary Gauthier, 'Trouble and Love'
I think this is one of the most honest recordings I've ever heard. I love it when musicians (talented ones, anyway) use their own lives, their own experiences, their own heartbreaks and troubles as inspiration. Somehow, even though this is intensely personal stuff, Mary Gauthier makes it relevant to ME, to my life. And that lets me appreciate HER in whole new way, while at the same time giving me a unique perspective on things I've experienced in my own life.
Red Molly, 'The Red Album'
I'm a sucker for great harmonies and so, not surprisingly, I'm a big fan of the trio Red Molly. To celebrate 10 years of making music - including a couple of years with a new member - they released The Red Album. Great things are in the future for the group...they made a conscious choice to include more original songs on this album than they've ever done before and the result is exciting. A couple of covers, too...including the song that gave them their name, Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."
Video Premiere: Lee Ann Womack, "The Way I'm Livin'" (Live)
December 9, 2014
by Kelly McCartney
A lot has been said (and written) about the bro-country trend of late. It's had a good run, to be sure, but trucks and beer and girls in too-short shorts can only get you so far. At some point, you need more than that. To borrow from Wade Bowen's "Songs about Trucks": "Whatever happened to a feeling bad song? Lost the best damn woman that you ever had song? It's all four-wheel drives and jacked-up tires rollin' out of them speakers. But for a trip down memory lane tonight I need something a little deeper."
Whatever did happen to all those feeling bad songs that went a little deeper? Well, they are still there. To find them, you just have to flip to the other side of the country music coin -- the women. Artists like Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, and Kacey Musgraves are, indeed, writing some really good feeling bad songs, full of depth and resonance, consequence and soulfulness. And that's where we find Lee Ann Womack with her newest release, 'The Way I'm Livin'. Like the records of Clark, Monroe, and Musgraves, 'The Way I'm Livin' is "not your kids' country music," Womack notes. "This is grown-up country music."
Not surprisingly, the album's title track feels like the natural heart of the set, in both style and substance. The cut tells the tale of a tortured soul, one that's made a deal with the devil in the form of the bottle. Womack explains, "We hear so many songs about drinking -- and we have for years in country music -- but this is a song that's not about, 'Hey, let's party. Let's have a good time. Let's drink.' This is a song about, 'I might have a problem here.'"
Womack's producer and husband, Frank Liddell, admires her willingness to broach that very tenuous topic, and others, on the album. "The pain and the darkness of some of these songs is not negative," Liddell says. "I see these themes as part of everybody's life. She's just addressing them, where a lot of artists won't." To support the twinge and twang of Womack's sympathetic, but potent vocal testimony, Liddell lays the song down on a dirty, outlaw-style sonic bed that feels just urgent enough to demand attention.
By the last verse of the song, the singer is resolved, but not necessarily redeemed: "On the day I die, when they lay me down, I know where my soul is bound. And don't you cry, and don't you weep 'cause it's too late to rescue me. If you see the devil coming your way, get down on your knees and start to pray."
Womack understands the challenge inherent in the song because she has seen it in the everyday lives and struggles of those around her. She says, "The juxtaposition between the sin and the redemption... When you grow up in a small town in east Texas, it's like Saturday night and Sunday morning. That's the way people live. I mean, that is it."
2014 was an outstanding year for great folk, roots and Americana music! Everything from debut and breakout albums by new artists on the scene, to brilliant masterpieces from some of our favorite songwriters, and everything in between.
Folk Alley wants to know YOUR Top 10 Favorite Albums of the Year.
Video Premiere: Indigo Girls - Backstage at the Greek, "Elizabeth"
December 1, 2014
Premiere: Indigo Girls - Backstage at the Greek, "Elizabeth"
By Kelly McCartney
Over the past couple of months, the Indigo Girls have released the first seven videos in an eight-part series filmed backstage at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles this summer. Those pieces have found Amy Ray and Emily Saliers discussing their personal best songs ("Share the Moon" and "She's Saving Me," respectively), performing with Joan Baez ("Our Deliverance" and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright"), and sharing their collaboration process. For the final installment, the Girls premiere a new song, "Elizabeth," which is slated to appear on the album they just last week finished recording in Nashville with producer Jordan Brooke Hamlin.
Saliers introduces the tune saying that she had originally thought it would go on the solo record she's been working on with Lyris Hung, but decided it was more of an Indigo Girls' cut, after all. Explaining the autobiographical sketch of some time she spent in New Orleans with the song's titular character, Saliers jokes, "Elizabeth, are you out there? I don't do Facebook. I just write songs."
Firm release dates for both projects have yet to be set, but look for the new Indigo Girls' record in February of 2015 with Saliers' solo set coming later in the year.
Over the past five years, The Once has been quietly making a name for themselves in their native Canada. The Newfoundland-based band has collected a trio of Canadian Folk Music Awards, been named Newfoundland & Labrador Art Council's Artist of the Year, earned a Juno nomination for best Roots/Traditional album, and just recently won the 2014 MusicNL Award for Group of the Year and The Telegram Folk/Roots Recording of the Year.
On August 5, 2014, the trio (Geraldine Hollett, Andrew Dale and Phil Churchill) released 'Departures' - their first album on Nettwerk Records. The songs themselves often touch upon a sense of departure - whether it is in a tribute to someone who has died ("The Town Where You Lived"), a tale of murder ("The Nameless Murderess"), a tune about leaving someone (the breakup ode "Fool For You"), or a song such as, "All the Hours" - an on-the-road love letter to a loved one left behind.
As Geraldine introduces, "Here is a video we shot on a day off in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC this past September. The song is about being away from home and feeling disconnected to the people that love you the most. The ones that are waiting for you to return. The special few that you bare your soul to. Sometimes the best thing to do when you feel that lost is to just go on home."
The Once are currently on their first ever world tour as support for Passenger. See them live!
Folk Alley is excited to welcome Cindy Howes to our esteemed team of Folk Alley hosts!
Starting today (10/13) you'll hear Cindy every Monday - Friday from 2:00 - 7:00pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from midnight to 5:00am EASTERN.
"From the day my parents bought me a radio on my 12th birthday, I listened to it pretty much all-the-time-every-day. I'm not quite sure what made me think this as a 6th grader, but I decided being a DJ was what I was going to do. I made it my mission to join the high school's radio club and broadcasted my first show in September of my freshman year. Staying close to home, I ran and hosted WERS' morning folk program at Emerson College in Boston. My affinity for folk music flourished in the city's rich music scene. If I wasn't at the radio station, I'd be at Club Passim soaking in as much live music as I could. I have fond memories of being snuck in through the back of 21+ clubs and being given a band member's wrist band, so I could stay and watch. This desire to be around Boston folk music continued after college, when I was lucky enough to fall in with one of the most talented music communities in the country. Concerts from people like Mark Erelli, Rose Cousins, Peter Mulvey and Anais Mitchell were weekly occurrences. In 2007, after working at several Boston stations (Triple A, AM News, folk and NPR News), I was hired as the Morning Mix host at WYEP in Pittsburgh, PA. I am honored to be a part of the Folk Alley team, where I'm able to combine my passion for radio and folk music once again!"
Alice Gerrard started her career as one-half of the groundbreaking, hugely influential duo Hazel & Alice (with the late Hazel Dickens) around a half-century ago. It was a time when musicians from all over the country were discovering the traditional songs of places they'd never even been to. Not only was the mid-20th century folk boom about turning on to different areas of American life, but it was sort of like learning the language of people you'd previously thought were so different from you.
"Boll Weevil" was one of those songs - popularized by the legendary Leadbelly, then picked up and performed by Brook Benton (who had a pop hit with it in the 1960s. On her new album, Follow the Music (due out September 30th on Tompkins Square Records), Gerrard performs "Boll Weevil" in true folk fashion, delivering it straight-forward, over the old-timey fiddle, backed by members of Hiss Golden Messenger and Megafun. The result is not so much the delving into a time capsule as it is a vivacious, modern performance to remind us of from whence American folk music came.