Folk Alley's Best of 2012 - Linda Fahey's Top Picks of the Year
December 21, 2012
Linda Fahey's 15 Folk Alley Faves of 2012
I'll admit a part of me absolutely dreads putting together my "best of" list every year. It's usually pretty easy to come up with 10 favorite albums of the year. But then I'll think of one more that I absolutely love that should be included, and then another, and another... this is pressure, people. So usually the way I end up narrowing down my final list is to ask myself, "What albums from this year will I be reaching for in another 5 years to take on one of those 9 hour road trips between NYS and Ohio? For 2012, it was impossible for me to keep it to 10....so I didn't. Here are 15 of my favorite albums of the year, and the ones I recommend to my friends (in alphabetical order):
Anais Mitchell - Young Man In America, "Dyin' Day"
Black Prairie - A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart, "How Do You Ruin Me"
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West - Our Lady of the Tall Trees "On God's Rocky Shore" (Live On KEXP)
Disclaimer: I love music - almost every kind, but bluegrass music holds a special place for me. I enjoy great instrumental playing, and I love to laugh, so I think my favorites span the gamut between virtuosic and ridiculous. I'll let you sort them out! Here are my faves of the year, in no particular order:
Tony Rice: The Bill Monroe Collection---
This is a compilation of recordings made over a 15-year period, featuring Bill Monroe favorites, played and sung by one of America's favorite bluegrass musicians.
Bill Evans: Good Company ---
Evans teamed up with Tim O'Brien, Laurie Lewis, The Infamous Stringdusters, and many more to present this varied collection of original, traditional and contemporary collaborations. Mostly instrumental, with some great singing too, and a healthy dose of classic Beatles songs.
Liam Fitzgerald and The Rainieros: Last Call!---
Full disclosure: I am a western swing/honky tonk head. I LOVE this album. It's fun, ALL original, and so rhythmic you just can't keep your feet still - and the name - a chip off ol' Mt. Rainier! If I could hire one party band, this would be it.
New Multitudes: Music by Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames. Lyrics by Woody Guthrie. ---
At the invitation of Woody Guthrie's sister Nora, these four musicians set Woody Guthrie's unpublished lyrics to music and recorded them on this EP. To hear Guthrie's lyrics plugged into 21st century arrangements makes one realize how timeless they are, and what a lyrical genius he was. 2012 is the 100th anniversary of Woody's birth, and this is a good way to remember him.
The Foghorn String Band: Outshine the Sun ---
It's funky and fun, and it keeps my feet tappin' - and the picking is great too. A simple album that makes you want to dance. Enough said.
Ricky Skaggs: Music To My Ears ---
Ricky Skaggs is a bluegrass icon, but this album is a little different that previous releases: a little less frenetic, and more lyrical. Nice songs, nicely played by some of the best in the business. I think it's one of his best.
Peter Ostroushko: The Mando Chronicles ---
As a late-year release, this one is easy to overlook. It's only been out a few weeks. This collection of arrangements includes everything from fiddle tune medleys to Duke Ellington hits to a classical march. Starring Peter Ostroushko, with Norman Blake and a few other guest artists.
Hot Steel & Cool Ukelele: Hapa Haole Hit Parade ---
Yes, this is just what the title implies, and it DOES contain the hit single, "Makin' Wicky Wacky Down In Waikiki". If you like that one, you'll love the rest of the album, superbly sung by Erich Sylvester (who also plays uke on the album). One listen, and I was hooked! A must-have for your next luau! Warning: If Hawaiian songs (like, 'When Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop') are not your thing, then run away as fast as you can! You will hate this album.
2012 is almost completely in the rear view mirror which means it's time to take a look back at some of outstanding releases of the year. I'm happy to report, at least from this host's point of view, that the state of the music is good! There are so many obvious choices this year--Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Lumineers, Iris Dement--I decided to limit my list to a few of the releases that might get overlooked. Here they are in alphabetical order:
Kevin Crawford, Carrying the Tune ---
This is just a solid collection of tunes, produced flawlessly and played with virtuosity. Most people know Kevin's work as the flute and whistle player for Lunasa. On this recording he is backed by John Doyle on guitars, Mick Conneely on Bouzouki, and Brian Morrissey thumping the bodhran. You'll find jigs, reels, waltzes, and hornpipes--perfectly arranged for maximum musicality.
Rayna Gellert, Old Light: Songs From My Childhood and Other Gone Worlds ---
Wow. Rayna Gellert has taken, what she calls, an obsession for traditional music and turned it into a shining example of what can happen when a talented young performer draws from the old to create the new, and takes from the new to re-imagine the old. The result is a kind of originality these ears haven't heard in a while. Nathan Salsburg's guitar is present throughout as well as guest appearances by Abigail Washburn, Kai Welch, Scott Miller, and Alice Gerrard.
I Draw Slow, Redhills ---
I think this one took everybody at Folk Alley by surprise this year--especially when we realized that the band wasn't from Virginia. They are, in fact, from Ireland. It makes perfect sense really. Most of the music that settled in the American South migrated from either that part of Europe or from Africa. It's just really exciting to hear the influence once again in the form of well written songs that sound traditional. Once you realize they are from Ireland, you hear that direct influence as well. This is simply a solid band. Oh, and that song "Goldmine" is a gem.
Old Crow Medicine Show, Carry Me Back ---
Given that Old Crow Medicine Show's very existence as a band was under question just a few years back, it was really good to see such a solid and coherent collection of songs emerge in 2012. The quintessential road band, Old Crow continues to be a polished outfit playing well-written new songs with an authentic old-time feel. "Levi," "Carry Me Back to Virginia," "Genevieve," and "Ways of Man" all stand out for me.
Cathie Ryan, Through Wind and Rain ---
I have loved Cathie's singing since her days with Cherish the Ladies. Her solo records have been consistently well written, performed, and produced, but I think she bumps it up another level on Through Wind and Rain. Perhaps it's because she took more of a hand as producer. This one just seems personal. As you might expect, this is a mix of traditional, original and contemporary songs, but you can hear Cathie's heart and soul in every one of them--in the singing, of course, but also in the arrangements. Cathie is backed by a stellar group of musicians led by the amazing John Doyle and Seamus Eagan.
The Steel Wheels, Lay Down, Lay Low ---
Keep your eyes (and ears) on this quartet from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. They can play, they can sing, they can write, and they can perform. I loved their album, Redwing, and I was really hoping for a strong follow-up. Well, I got it. Combining the talents of band members, Trent Wagler, Eric Brubaker, Brian Dickel, and Jay Lapp, Lay Down, Lay Low delivers a high energy mix of modern mountain music with really solid four part harmony. Hear the CD, see them live!
The Waymores, The Waymores ---
There is an exciting trend right now for outstanding solo performers and writers to band together to record and tour. Groups like Brother Sun and the Refugees are good examples of this. The Waymores are from Nashville and they are Don Henry, Sally Barris, and Tom Kimmel--all award- winning, hit songwriters. Not the names you see in bold print on the Billboard Country chart, but the names in parenthesis--the song crafters. But what happens when they get together? Harmony. Harmony of humor, harmony of notes, and harmony of friendship. You can hear it all in this collection of finely crafted and lovingly performed songs.
Various Artists, Mercyland: Hymns For the Rest Of Us ---
I'm kind of a sucker for songs held together by a theme--especially when it's done this well. Mercyland was the brainchild of Nashville songwriter and producer Phil Madeira. He decided to tempt his musical friends into contributing songs that felt spiritual without sounding religious or preachy. I've heard some refer to the genre as "agnostic gospel." Lucky for us, Phil has some talented friends. These talented friends include (among others) Emmylou Harris, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Buddy Miller. The songs and styles are varied, but there is a consistent and pleasing spirit throughout.
Do you ever feel like you're standing in the batting cage...getting ready to swing...and then something goes haywire with the machine? And the baseballs start coming at you without pause, one right after the other, speeding up faster and faster until you just give up and crouch down and cover your head, attempting to avoid getting smacked at 95mph? That's kind of how 2012 went for me - so much music coming my way...and so much of it good that eventually I just gave up and let it all hit me. In no particular order - here are a few of the baseballs - or, I mean, recordings - that really stood out:
Caroline Herring - Camilla --- There is A LOT going on in this recording. I love how Caroline Herring is able to write a song about something complex, heart breaking and incredibly thought provoking - like "Camilla" - and then turn around and write a piece of music that's inspired by something as simple as a little girl chasing fireflies ("Fireflies".)
Compilation - Mercyland-Hymns for the Rest of Us --- Besides the incredible list of musicians who participated on this exquisitely recorded Phil Madeira produced compilation (Emmylou Harris, the Civil Wars, Shawn Mullins, etc., etc.), the concept of an album that connects music and spirituality in a non-organized religion kind of way - well, it's appealing. And that was, I think, the point.
Gretchen Peters - Hello Cruel World --- Gretchen Peters said this recording is her "most close-to-the-bone work," a collection of songs she wrote during a time of personal challenges and heartbreaks. For the listener, it is a body of music that is incredibly honest, touching, sorrowful and triumphant all at the same time. Who can resist lyrics like "I'm a ticking clock, a losing bet/a girl without a safety net/I'm a cause for some concern..." ?
Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac - Seinn --- Music from a couple of Cape Breton music legends? Yes please. Seinn is the first collaboration between two long time friends who share a love of the musical traditions of Nova Scotia. It's an album created by a couple of virtuosos and it's a real delight from beginning to end - traditional and original music blending wonderfully together.
Rose Cousins - We Have Made a Spark --- This recording didn't catch my eye right away...so I was a little late on the Rose Cousins train. But I'm glad I caught it. Cousins has a way of writing lyrics that make you think she's either speaking directly to you or she somehow has tapped into your own brain and pulled out your biggest fears, insecurities, joys, etc., etc., etc. It's almost scary.
The Lumineers - The Lumineers --- This was the big one of the year, I think. And I admit - I turned my nose up at first, prejudiced by all the good press it got. But then I actually listened to it. And listened again. And again. And blushed, ashamed that I'd made such a quick judgment. This duo-turned-trio has something to offer to anyone who cares to listen - songs about love and happiness, about sorrow and loss, conveyed by talented musicians who really seem to care about what they're doing.
Steep Canyon Rangers - Nobody Knows You --- What's there to say? Great bluegrass music. Great musicians. Great production value. Etc. Etc. Etc. It's just ... great.
Folk Alley's Best of 2012 - Jim Blum's Top Picks of the Year
December 17, 2012
Jim Blum's Top Picks of 2012
Some new albums jump out at you, others grow on you. The following collection represents my observations after sampling hundreds of submissions over the year. Though Folk Alley's mission is to provide a healthy mix of many styles, these selections were based on individual merit only. In most cases, multiple songs from each release were chosen for rotation (an obvious indicator). Other factors included originality, technique, poetry, arrangement, performance, and frankly, flair. These are my picks for 2012, in order.
1) I Draw Slow - 'Redhills' --- Kind of bizarre name, but this group doesn't need to do make anything up to draw attention to them. Most obviously defined as an old time string band, I Draw Slow is all acoustic, 5 pieces, but unlike most string bands most of the songs are original. Lead by siblings Dave (guitar) and Louise (voice) Holden, this album is engaging, beautiful, and consistent from start to finish. Believe it or not, though they sound like they're from North Carolina, they are from Ireland.
2) The Honeycutters - 'When Bitter Met Sweet' --- From Asheville, singer Amanda Anne Platt leads the way with songs of regret, challenge, and new found hope. If you see the full band live they might sound a bit country rock at times, but most of this album isn't honky tonk, it's acoustic - perhaps "folk-tonk." Check out "For Eleanora," a lament for a great singer despite poor circumstances. Peter James's guitar playing is subtle and full of taste throughout.
3) Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson - 'Wreck and Ruin' --- This should be no surprise; the Australian duo's 2008 release 'Rattlin' Bones' was the #1 album that year. You should have both. Though Kasey has found success with pop and rock, these recordings with her husband are banjo and fiddle driven, and despite growing up listening to American country legends in the Australian outback, these songs are original, and you'll soon be singing along with them.
4) Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem - 'Some Bright Morning' --- Fiddler and singer Rani Arbo recovered fully from a cancer which could have robbed her life, and the gifts keep on coming. "Miami Moon" is a delightful celebration of a love gone right; "Bridges" makes us think twice about things in life we believe are permanent. This is not the first group to interpret Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Crossing The Bar," but no one gives it more meaning.
5) Darrell Scott - 'Long Road Home' --- There are few legitimate triple threats, but Darrell Scott is a monster singer, writer, and session player on multiple instruments. These songs cover a range of emotions, from "No Use Living For Today" to "You're Everything I wanted Love to Be." He brought in several legends for this recording: Hargus "Pig" Robbins on piano, Lloyd Green on pedal steel, and Charlie McCoy and Mickey Raphael on harmonicas.
6) Nels Andrews - 'Scrimshaw' --- Where has this guy been hiding? In the library, maybe. Andrews is based in Brooklyn and was a New Folk Finalist at Kerrville. These songs are thoughtful, deeply poetic, and real catchy. The full band arrangements are varied to keep things interesting and have the right energy to invite you in and convince you to stay. The whole album is solid and should attract younger listeners through the indie groove, while not disappointing the veteran listener who demands depth.
7) Mariel Vandersteel - 'Hickory' --- This fiddler performed at a recent Folk Alliance conference with Putnam Smith in an old timey setting, with the Celtic roots quartet Annalivia, and then during her own showcase she played brilliantly on a Norwegian Hardanger Fiddle. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mariel can play well in any folk style, all with joy, and this album will prove it. David Grisman's son Sam Grisman plays bass. All instrumental.
8) 100 Mile House - 'Hollow Ponds' --- From Edmonton, Alberta, this group is led by husband and wife Peter Stone and Denise MacKay. The songs are dreamy and soft spoken, but by no means dull. Listen for themes of escape or second chances. You'll catch yourself wondering why we continue to wish for things we can't have. Multi instrumentalist Scott Zubot fills out the sound nicely. (2011 release)
9) Steep Canyon Rangers - 'Nobody Knows You' --- Though they back up Steve Martin on tour, The Steeps can hold their own as live performances and all of their CDs demonstrate. Some might label them traditional, but they've given us a whole batch of new songs which do not cover tired themes. "Rescue Me" is a cry for help; "Between Midnight and Dawn" is for those on hold; "Open Country" is a joyous realization of the freedom of the road. Woody Platt sings, and Nicky Sanders on fiddle may be Scotty Stoneman reincarnated.
10) Chatham County Line - 'Sight and Sound' --- This is the third band from North Carolina in this top ten list (The Honeycutters and The Steep Canyon Rangers are the other two.) 'Sight and Sound' is a live album with most of the chatter cut out. Though some of their popular songs are included, they smartly add many songs not previously recorded. Chatham County Line presents one of our best examples of ensemble playing - these guys really are on the same page - showing that rehearsal counts. The overall live energy was captured and this "feels" like "Old And In The Way" from 35 years ago.
My co-workers get a little annoyed when I start playing Christmas music mid-November - but I don't mind. That's about the time that the new holiday CDs start rolling in to Folk Alley and we need to start adding songs to our playlist if we're going to have new content for seasonal shows. I usually am on the front lines as the submissions pile up, because music has always been a part of my Christmas celebrations - from my earliest days with my arms wrapped around The Kingston Trio's Last Month of the Year and numerous Firestone Tire compilations to my dedicated seasonal CD wallet that lives in my car from Thanksgiving to the end of December.
Here is a sample of some new holiday CDs that may soon become part of your annual celebrations:
Sufjan Stevens: Silver & Gold - If I like Christmas music, Sufjan Stevens bathes in it and eats it every meal. I admire the guts and gumption it takes to assemble a collection with 58 tracks (it's a massive package, with five CDs, a poster and temporary tattoos). To build his collection there are plenty of originals, along with beloved favorites, and instrumentation running from classical guitar and violin to Theremin.
Various: Holidays Rule - Every year, Starbucks sells a holiday CD - "I'll take a grande decaf latte and some Christmas spirit!" This year's collection on the Hear Music label (which can also be purchased at other outlets) is a mix of indie artists and music perfect for Folk Alley, including great contributions from The Civil Wars, the Punch Brothers, The Head and the Heart, Andrew Bird and some guy named Sir Paul McCartney.
The Sweetback Sisters: Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular - Really, any holiday CD that includes "Hark, the Herald Angles Sing" as if it was sung by cats, is most-likely going into heavy rotation on my Christmas playlist. The album mixes harmonies, rock-a-billy instrumentation and an appropriate sense of seasonal whimsy for what I'll be playing - and singing along with - to get into the holiday spirit as I wrap my Christmas presents.
Tracey Thorn: Tinsel and Lights - I brought this album to the table. I've loved Thorn since her days with Everything But The Girl. The songs on this seasonal CD lean more towards the thoughtful (and sometimes, even sad) side of winter. Listening to her cover of Joni Mitchell's "River" does NOT make me want to visit Canada in December, but her voice is so rich and beautiful, the collection is a lovely counterpoint to more treacle fair.
The Jay Ungar & Molly Mason Family Band: A Fiddler's Holiday - With the addition of Jay's daughter Ruth and her husband, Mike Merenda (both of The Mammals), the Ungars are turning into an old-fashioned family folk band specializing in haunting instrumentals. This CD is a mix of traditional songs for the season from a new PBS special and features the University of Mary Washington's Philharmonic Orchestra as a super-sized back-up band.
Willie Nelson: The Classic Christmas Album - Following in the footsteps of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, everyone's favorite crooner, Willie Nelson, adds his voice to some of the most-treasured songs in the Christmas canon. And, the result is a lovely CD filled with heartfelt vocals and pared-back arrangements that will make the perfect holiday soundtrack and are sure to make this album a family favorite for years to come.