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Folk Alley's Best of 2011 - Matt Watroba

December 31, 2011

by Matt Watroba, host on M-F 5:00 to 7:00am and noon to 2:00pm (ET).

Thumbnail image for Joe Crookston Darkling.jpgJoe Crookston
Darkling and the Bluebird Jubilee

Well written, well sung, and tastefully arranged songs from an emerging singer songwriter from Upstate New York.

Good Lovelies.jpgGood Lovelies
Let the Rain Fall

Sweet harmonies, sweet songs and overall sweet sounds from this talented young trio from Ontario.

Hot Club of Cowtown.jpgHot Club of Cowtown
What Makes Bob Holler?strong>

Austin's Hot Club of Cowtown, combined with all Bob Wills material. It's on the list!

Laurie Lewis.jpgLaurie Lewis
Skippin' and Flyin'

Without being a straight tribute to Bill Monroe, Laurie's record illuminates how the Father of Bluegrass influenced her -- every step of the way. Beautifully done.

Thumbnail image for Steve Martin Rare Bird.jpgSteve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers
Rare Bird Alert

Is there anything this guy can't do? Not to mention, he found the perfect band to back him up.

Buddy Miller.jpgBuddy Miller
The Majestic Silver Strings

This record is a guitar players dream from beginning to end. Add the vocal performances from Emmylou, Patty Griffin, and Leanne Womack and how could it not make this list?

Thumbnail image for Pharis and Jason_passinglimpse_cover.jpgPharis & Jason Romero
A Passing Glimpse

This Canadian duo was new to me. I'm glad I found them. New songs that sound old and old songs that sound new -- I like that combination.

Tom Russell Mesabi.jpgTom Russell

Simply one of America's great songwriters -- record after record after record.

Danny Schmidt Man of Many Moons.jpgDanny Schmidt
Man of Many Moons

Subtle, poetic beauty from this up and coming Austin writer. Listen over and over.

Dehlia Low ravens and Crows.jpgDehlia Low
Ravens and Crows

Exciting music from a young bluegrass/stringband deeply rooted and carrying on the tradition at the same time. Not only can they play the music - they GET the music.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:26 PM

Folk Alley's Best of 2011 - Barb Heller

December 26, 2011

by Barb Heller, host on M-F 7:00pm to midnight; Sat & Sun 9:00am to 2:00pm (ET)

Sometimes my favorite things even surprise me. This year banjos have caught my ear. It was a great year for new music, and I hope you enjoy these picks even half as much as I have! I hope you'll contribute your suggestions to our favorites list too! Happy New Year everyone, and happy listening.

Gibson Bros.jpgGibson Brothers
Help My Brother

Eric and Leigh Gibson have been singing together since they were kids, and playing bluegrass professionally since they were teens. I've always enjoyed their music, but - unlike many bands - the Gibsons continue to improve their singing, their writing, and their musical arrangements. Their current band lineup is stellar, and their writing is at the top of their game. And... you just can't beat the sound of two blood brothers singing together. They sound like one voice. Every track is solid, original bluegrass. Great listening!

Thumbnail image for Gillian Welch Harrow.jpgGillian Welch
The Harrow and the Harvest

I can't say I love every song on this album, but Gillian Welch is the kind of songwriter that gives me a great sense of musical security. I know the arrangement will be tasteful; that it won't be too wordy (ever!) or too gaudy. Sparse, pointed, not over-dramatic. I don't relate to the subjects of many of her songs, but that doesn't change my admiration for this album. Listening to her music is like looking at an abstract painting, and just enjoying the way the colors work together. Solid writing and really solid arrangements between musicians who work well together.

Kruger Brothers.jpgKruger Brothers
Christmas Magic

I know most of us don't think about Christmas music most of the year, but I have to make mention of this beautiful collection of songs for winter and Christmas. The arrangements run the gamut from jazzy to kitschy to classical. It opens with "The Lights in Our Village", a reflective look back at Christmas in the Swiss countryside of their childhood. It's the single original track on the album (by Uwe Kruger). Then there's Mele Kalikimaka - and (I can hardly believe I'm saying this) you'll even want to sing along! J.S. Bach's "Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring" closes the album (with girls' chorus), with Irving Berlin, Bernard Smith, and Sammy Cahn songs in between. It's my new favorite.

Noam Pikelny.jpgNoam Pikelny Beat the Devil and Carry A Rail

Noam Pikelny has put together such an enjoyable collection of tunes! There's just enough singing to punctuate the instrumentals, and Aoefe O'Donovan's voice on "Fish and Bird" is beautiful. Tim O'Brien also sings a track on this album. Steve Martin (banjo), Jerry Douglas (dobro) , Chris Thile (mandolin), and Bryan Sutton(guitar) make guest appearances. The tunes are down-home, approachable, and fun. It's a fun listen, and a great travel companion for the car.

Thumbnail image for Steve Martin Rare Bird.jpgSteve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers
Rare Bird Alert

Steve Martin is a VERY funny guy! Even when he's playing the banjo! Great album graphics and liner notes - and great listening. The instrumentals are light-hearted, and the songs are hilarious (like, "Atheists Don't Have No Songs"). Martin is so talented it would be hard to make a choice between his acting and his music. Thankfully, you don't have to. Just get this album. You'll love it.

Tom Waits.jpgTom Waits
Bad As Me

I think I'm just like every other fan of Tom Waits. I hang on every word. I'm transported to every gritty, seedy setting. Every time one of his downtrodden characters shows even a twinkle of good intention, I'm hooked. I love them all. This one's no exception. Musically, Waits has always attracted listeners who appreciate lyrics (sometimes in spite of the music).... and he just keeps up the good work.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 1:06 PM

Folk Alley's Best of 2011 - Jim Blum

December 21, 2011

By Jim Blum, host on M-F, 2 to 7pm; Sat & Sun, 5 to 9am and 7pm to midnight (ET)

First impressions are important, but lasting impressions deserve airplay. The 10 albums that jumped out at me upon first hearing them in 2011, that also made my Top 10 list for the year, were also the albums that I wanted you to hear often. The philosophy from Sarah Jarosz, the profound sadness from Gillian Welch or the Romeros, the chord choices of Joe Crookston, the wit and originality from Steve Martin ---- these are the reasons these albums have depth as well as spark.

Putnam Smith Beekeepers.jpg10) Putnam Smith
We Could Be Beekeepers

Putnam Smith somehow skipped a generation - his. The settings in his songs take you back to an earlier time and the characters are wistful more than they are demanding. Even his instruments are old: fiddle, banjo, cello, and sometimes a piano. From an old fashioned proposal to a mental communication with birds, Putnam raises your eyebrow which opens a door to your heart.

Gillian Welch Harrow.jpg9) Gillian Welch
The Harrow & the Harvest

Recently Gillian Welch and her singing partner David Rawlings had reversed roles - she backed him in the David Rawlings Machine. This album is a return to their original style which broke down barriers between traditional and popular music. Her songs are often dark and mysterious and like many good writers, she begins in the middle of the story and then she MIGHT let you in on what had happened or what might. She sings of misfortune, poor choices, even death; most songs feature their signature two part harmony.

Joe Crookston Darkling.jpg8) Joe Crookston
Darkling and the Bluebird Jubilee

It's been a joy listening to Joe rise from obscurity and hone his craft over the years. He simply sparkles on this album with a basket of songs which are not only thoughtful and poetic, but very melodic. Topics include a Thomas Hardy Poem, Alzheimer's disease, and a man coming to grips with the loss of his wife.

Diana Jones High Atmospher.jpg7) Diana Jones
High Atmosphere

Diana Jones got a late start into the music business, and seemed to be waiting for something or someone to propel her to the next level. That someone may have been Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show) who produced this album and plays several instruments. She sings about expectations, heartbreak, poverty, and neglect - serious stuff, but it's so real that you can't help but be drawn in.

Sarah Jarosz Follow Me Down.jpg6) Sarah Jarosz
Follow Me Down

Not only is Sarah a gifted singer and player, but she writes with the wisdom and insight of someone much older. The fact that she is already a complete performer makes you wonder what lies ahead for us. On this album Jarosz sings about people, attitudes, and there is wonderful observation about what we should accept in ourselves and what we should change called "Floating in the Balance."

Moody Blugrass.jpg5) Moody Bluegrass
TOO Much Love -- A Nashville Celebration of the Moody Blues

Once again David Harvey has assembled a cast of stars to reinvent Moody Blues classics. Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Tim O'Brien and the late Harley Allen all sing leads. Alison Brown, Stuart Duncan, and Andy Hall are three of the star players. What really caps it off is that the original members of the Moody Blues also make appearances.

Malcomb Holcombe.jpg4) Malcolm Holcombe
To Drink the Rain

He may a gravelly voice, but boy can Malcolm Holcombe prod you into thinking harder about your next decision. He comes from a tough background, but has channeled that experience into a gritty John Prine-like style. Drinking the rain seems impossible to do but Holcombe seems ready to try. Jared Tyler backs him dobro and Luke Bula plays fiddle. You can tell they are listening to the words.

Tony Furtado Golden.jpg3) Tony Furtado

Tony Furtado first came on the scene as a banjo player in a bluegrass band, but now plays a dozen instruments and writes with the savvy of a Buddhist Monk. He sings of quiet places which offer retreat. He suggests acceptance when it's time to give up. In "Angels We Know" he reminds us that when we lose a dear friend we most certainly gain a personal angel. His arrangements captivate you and invite you to listen over and over.

Pharis and Jason_passinglimpse_cover.jpg2) Pharis and Jason Romero
A Passing Glimpse

The Romero's offer us a period album featuring mostly new songs which sound like beautiful old ballads. Both are featured on guitar, or Jason will play one of the banjos he has hand crafted. Pharis's delivery offers great range and she has great command of that range. She sings of a woman worried that her husband will lose interest as she ages. She sings of farmers working hard only to be rewarded with more struggle. This album begs you to play it for every friend who comes over.

Steve Martin Rare Bird.jpg1) Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers
Rare Bird Alert

If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be choosing a Steve Martin album as the best folk release for 2011, I probably wouldn't have believed you. But this album has it all: stories, pathos, harmony, instrumental skill, originality, and of course, humor. Steve met the band on a fishing trip (singer Woody Platt is a guide) and the rest is history. There are double banjo instrumentals, serious tearjerkers, and surprise guests (The Dixie Chicks and Paul McCartney). I thought the bluegrass version of King Tut was the showstopper until I heard "Atheists Don't Have No Songs." Oh my. The fact that Steve knows the music elevates this album from being a novelty to being #1

Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:59 AM

Folk Alley's Best of 2011 - Elena See

December 17, 2011

2011 was another outstanding year for new music, and just like the diverse music you hear on Folk Alley, our hosts and staff have wide ranging tastes as well. We love it all - everything from contemporary singer/songwriters, Americana, Celtic, Bluegrass & Old-Time, World Music, and more. Over the next week we'll share our individual hosts and staff Top Picks for 2011 with you. First up - Elena See!

by Elena See, host on M-F 7:00am to Noon; Sat & Sun Midnight-5:00am (ET)

Seems like every year there's more and more...and more music that's being released! So it's hard to stay on top of things and it's also hard to pick just one or two or ten favorites. But here we go:

AKUS Paper Airplane CD cover.jpgAlison Krauss & Union Station
Paper Airplane

If I had to pick one favorite for 2011 - this would be it. And it almost didn't happen! The five musicians - Jerry Douglas, Dan Tyminski, Ron Block, and Barry Bales, with Krauss on lead vocal and fiddle - got started on the new album...and then stopped. But after a visit to songwriter Robert Lee Castleman, they got things rolling again and the result was, according to Krauss, an album that represents "a trying time that has to end."

Jeff Black Through the Mystic copy.jpgJeff Black
Plow Through the Mystic

I was so excited for this recording! And - and this never happens - my expectations were blown out of the water. Plow Through the Mystic was better than I could have imagined. Jeff Black is just great at creating stories, using harmonies to masterful effect, and writing lyrics that, for some reason, just hit me right in the heart. Sigh. It's a keeper

Lori McKenna Lorainne.jpgLori McKenna

My first exposure to Lori McKenna was with her country-esque Unglamorous from a few years back. And I liked it a lot. But this album - it's an amazing collection of stories that really showcases McKenna's ability to create songs from intensely personal experiences. What's great about Lorraine is that while the experiences might be personal, McKenna is able to make them relate to anyone who cares to listen. Care to listen!

Lucinda Williams Blessed CD.jpgLucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams decided to look at things different with this recording, her 10th studio recording. "I'm branching out and learning how to write about other things besides unrequited love," she said. "There's other stuff to write about." Other stuff than unrequited love and lust and loss and heartbreak, that is. Blessed is really kind of a balance - "Hey," she seems to say, "life isn't happy or sad or angry or depressed. It's all of those things wrapped up in one. Let's take it as it is."

Abigail Washburn City of Refuge.jpgAbigail Washburn
City of Refuge

City of Refuge showcases Washburn's lyrics and voice more than her previous recordings. She's convincing as someone who won't back down (and who definitely isn't "going down with the rest of you" on "Burn Through.") And she sparkles in the role of a troubled soul trying to figure things out in "Last Train."

Matraca Berg.jpgMatraca Berg
The Dreaming Field

I just love the strength of character that exists behind this recording. Matraca Berg waited until SHE was ready before heading into the recording studio...again. After decades of writing for some of the best known singers in the country and Americana world, she finally ventured into the recording studio for herself - something like 14 years after she did it for the first time. The Dreaming Field is an album of stories well worth the wait.

Pat Donohue Nobody's Fault.jpgPat Donohue
Nobody's Fault

I don't think Pat Donohue has ever released a recording that WASN'T great. The Minnesota based guitarist and singer is called the "whiz of the pickin' biz" and he proves that he's up to that title with his latest effort, Nobody's Fault. It's a collection of original tunes, along with a few classics. Perfect.

James Lee and Cliff All Wood and Doors.jpgJames Lee Stanley & Cliff Eberhardt
All Wood and Doors

Two great musicians teaming up to re-create twelve classic rock 'n' roll songs? Great idea. And even greater execution by James Lee Stanley and Cliff Eberhardt. They both kind of wondered what twelve classics would have sounded like, whether or not they would have been as powerful, had they been performed by folkies. And so...they tried it. The result is thoughtful and interesting...and great fun to listen to.

Ry Cooder.jpgRy Cooder
Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down

It's folk music at its best and most folky - Ry Cooder is telling stories, true, but he's also targeting what he sees as serious problems and issues in 21st century America - greedy banks, big business and land barons who don't pay much attention to the regular folks. He's drawing attention to these serious issues and he has managed to create a vastly interesting musical soundscape while he does it.

Emmylou Harris Hard Bargin.jpgEmmylou Harris
Hard Bargin

Folk, country and a little rock 'n' roll. Those musical styles - and a few more - are almost always present in Emmylou Harris's recordings and Hard Bargain is no exception. With this recording, another collection of intimate stories and personal recollections, she presents these musical styles in her own words - as a songwriter - and in the words of others she regards as inspirations, and even more importantly, friends.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:33 AM

Review: Mighty Popo ~ Gakondo

December 12, 2011

Mighty Popo.jpgby Jim Blum,

Mighty Popo
(Borealis Records)

Those of us at Folk Alley are proud to salute modern songwriters, legends, roots & blues, bluegrass, Celtic, and zydeco. Also in the mix is world music (at least that's what it's nicknamed on our side of the ocean). We are pleased that our audience embraces music which at first may be present an unfamiliar sound. All of the styles we play, as apparently disparate as they may be, have lots in common: technique, style, creativity, and energy, to name a few. Our latest offering is from The Mighty Popo.

Popo is Rwandan, but was born in a Burundian refugee camp. It is hard for most of us to comprehend what it would be like growing up in a world of violence, even genocide. It is just as hard to believe that people in such a state of despair could have dreams, create friendships, and play music. Yet that is exactly what Popo and his family did.

Jacques "Popo" Murigande calls his music world blues. He plays a handmade gourd guitar. His bandmates are featured on cajon, tama, & congas, and his guests include Doug Cox on slide guitar and John Reischman on mandolin. Popo met these two in Western Canada where he now lives. This is his first acoustic album and all of the songs are written in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda's only indigenous language.

"Gakondo" means origins or tradition, and it will become evident to you despite the language barrier that Popo loves Rwanda. The landscape sounds beautiful and is very hilly. Murigande is fascinated by the music of the Batwa, Bahutu, and Batusi, especially where the different styles intersect. The title song traces his family history from his immediate family all the way back to his ancestors.

"Urugendo" details the beauty he has seen in all of his travels. Popo feels fortunate that he has been able to live in Africa and Canada, and feels a debt of gratitude to his Mother for "bringing me to this earth to experience the beauty,"

The album's final song may be the easiest to latch on to as it features instruments with which our ears are most familiar. The mandolin and slide guitar fit well with the African instruments, and the song is full of joy. The rhythm and the singing style come from south western Rwanda, bordering the Congo.

Gakondo is an album in tribute the ancient songs and poems of Rwanda. In searching out his personal musical history, Popo has opened a door for all of us. If you like music from Africa and prefer singing this album is recommended.

Posted by Jim Blum at 1:53 PM

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