Once upon a time, singer/songwriter records involved little more than an artist, a guitar, and some songs. But producers like Dave Cobb, Joe Henry, Gary Paczosa, and John Paul White have taken the form to new heights, adding textures and tones that enhance the music without ever overpowering it. Long story short: These aren't your mama's folk records.
Having a way with words is a gift not all songwriters wield well. Too often, they take the low road of easy emotion and simple sentiment. Amanda Shires runs right past those without looking twice, headed straight for the high hills of poetry with lyrical lines that carve themselves into the hearts of their listeners. iTunes . Amazon.com
Brent Cobb: Shine on Rainy Day (Elektra Records)
One of three Dave Cobb productions to make the cut, Brent Cobb's Shine on Rainy Day takes a similar tack to Andrew Combs' All These Dreams last year, in that it harkens back to the early '70s when country music collided with folk-rock in the music of Glen Campbell, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, and others. It's a stellar set the Cobb cousins have offered up. iTunes . Amazon.com
Chely Wright: I Am the Rain (Painted Red Music Group)
Not all albums stand up to a deep, deep listen, while some get better and better the more you linger inside them. I Am the Rain is a lingerer. On first blush, it's lovely enough. But spend a bit more time with eyes closed and headphones on and its beauty will find its way to you. And what beauty it is. iTunes . Amazon.com
Courtney Marie Andrews: Honest Life (Mama Bird Recordings)
Sometimes a record comes along and captivates your ears within the first few bars. This is one of those times. So much more than just a girl with a guitar, Courtney Marie Andrews has made a virtually flawless LP with Honest Life. Yes, she tips her hat to early Joni Mitchell in a big, big way; but she does so with such grace and gravitas that any comparisons are well-warranted. iTunes . Amazon.com
Dan Layus: Dangerous Things (Plated Records)
Coming out fairly quietly this Fall, Dan Layus's Dangerous Things made a late-stage, dark horse run to get on this list. Nevertheless, it's a worthy entry, showcasing the kind of music Layus has long wanted to make. The wonder of Dangerous Things lies in its sparseness. It is what it is. And what it is is a beautiful, beautiful record. iTunes . Amazon.com
Dylan LeBlanc: Cautionary Tale (Single Lock Records )
This was my first favorite record of 2016 and stood its ground all year to remain tied for the number one spot with two others. Every song on the set is a stunner, as Dylan LeBlanc dives in to deconstruct his demons and set them to music. Addiction, depression, and hard Southern living are the threads running through Cautionary Tale and LeBlanc alternately cuts and ties them as he sees fit. iTunes . Amazon.com
John Paul White: Beulah (Single Lock Records)
If John Paul White has an artistic chip on his shoulder, let's hope it stays there because he has shown us something special with Beulah. There's a dark, almost Southern Gothic vibe to this set. Part of that is embedded in White's plaintive voice. The rest of it comes from the somewhat haunted quality of his writing and production. iTunes . Amazon.com
Lori McKenna: The Bird & the Rifle (CN Records/Thirty Tigers)
A mainstay of the folk circuit for the past 15 years, Lori McKenna has always displayed a rare deftness with detail. And it's wonderful to see her get recognized and rewarded for her gifts on a much bigger stage. The Bird & the Rifle brings together everything folkies have long-loved about McKenna and packages it in a way that a broader audience can also appreciate it - Grammy voters, included. iTunes . Amazon.com
Sara Watkins: Young in All the Wrong Ways (New West Records)
Sara Watkins upped her artistic ante on this release delivering a set of songs that is absolutely mesmerizing. "Like New Year's Day" and "Without a Word," in particular are so beautiful, you'll want to crawl inside them, never to return to normal life ever again. That's just what happens when melody and magic mingle. iTunes . Amazon.com
Sarah Jarosz: Undercurrent (Sugar Hill Records)
The second Grammy nominee on the list, Sarah Jarosz has also taken a big step forward with Undercurrent. And casual fans might well become dedicated followers because of it. This is another case of still waters running very deep, demanding and deserving a little extra effort on the part of listeners who will, in turn, be handsomely rewarded. iTunes . Amazon.com
Posted by Linda Fahey at 10:22 AM
Folk Alley's Best of 2016 - Elena See's Top 10 Albums
Bluegrass, country, rock'n'roll, good old-fashioned folk music - 2016 had it all. I found myself gravitating toward slower, more melancholy music this year...not sure why - the state of the world, maybe. Or maybe that's just what caught my ear at the right time. As always, there was way too much great music to choose just 10 albums...but these are the 10 albums I kept coming back to. Enjoy!
1. Tedeschi Trucks Band: Let Me Get By (Fantasy Records)
As if from a distance, the music starts, slowly getting louder and louder until at last you have no choice but to acknowledge that it's there, in front of you, demanding your attention. That's what "Anyhow," one of the stand out tracks on the Tedeschi Trucks Band's 2016 release Let Me Get By does. This album came out in early 2016 - January - and it's one I've gone back to over and over for the past 11 months. If I had to pick a number one album for the year, this would be it. iTunes . Amazon.com
2. Infamous Stringdusters: Ladies and Gentlemen (Compass Records)
It takes a lot of confidence to stand in the back and let someone else take center stage. Well, a lot of confidence and, in this particular case, a lot of respect. Nashville's Infamous Stringdusters invited some of their favorite female musicians to take center stage for their 2016 release Ladies and Gentlemen. What better way to show off their musicianship and their ability to weave and blend with the vocals of some of folk music's finest? "Old Whiskey Bottle" features Della Mae's Celia Woodsmith. iTunes . Amazon.com
3. The Honeycutters: On the Ropes (Orgainic Records)
2016 was a big year for Asheville, NC based band The Honeycutters. Lots of touring and a new release - On the Ropes. Their 2015 release, Me Oh My, made my best of list last year and so I was really happy they came back again in 2016 with an album that's equally as engaging. And who doesn't love a song about never giving up, never quitting, and never letting anyone keep you down? That's what "On the Ropes" is all about. iTunes . Amazon.com
4. Mavis Staples: Livin' on a High Note (Anti/Epitaph)
If ever there was a musician who deserved the title "living legend," it's the great Mavis Staples. 2016 showed the world that she has a lot left to say and do - "I think about this album as a new beginning in my career," she said when she released Livin' on a High Note. Merrill Garbus of The Tune Yards says she wrote "Action" for Mavis...and also for audiences who might need some inspiration to be brave. iTunes . Amazon.com
5. Richard Shindell: Careless (Amalgamated Balladry)
I've been a Richard Shindell fan for as long as I can remember. There's something warm and cozy about his voice and something almost overly poetic and yet very, very human about his lyrics. In Careless, he pulls no punches, sugarcoats nothing, and puts his own unique spin on topics you already thought you knew about. Nature, for example, seems to take second place to the needs and demands of humanity in "The Deer on the Parkway" and, as Richard Shindell reminds us, that's not necessarily right. iTunes . Amazon.com
6. Dori Freeman: Dori Freeman (Trade Root Music Group)
When Virginia based musician Dori Freeman sent a Facebook message and a video of one of her songs to Teddy Thompson, she wasn't really expecting him to respond...but he did. He told her he liked her sound and the two struck up a correspondence which culminated in Teddy Thompson serving as producer for her 2016 self-titled debut album. Lots of her songs are sad, she says, and "Fine, Fine, Fine" is no different - you feel like you're eavesdropping on an intimate relationship...one that is coming to an end. iTunes . Amazon.com
7. Robert Ellis: Robert Ellis (New West Records)
In any relationship, there are issues that come up and you have to decide whether or not you're going to address them. Do you bring everything into the open? Or do you choose to ignore certain things? It's a question Houston, TX based musician Robert Ellis explores in "Elephant," a song that's almost uncomfortable in its honesty and a song you'll find on his 2016 self-titled release. iTunes . Amazon.com
8. Courtney Marie Andrews: Honest Life (Mama Bird Recording Co)
Expecting the unexpected: that's the overarching theme Courtney Marie Andrews explores on her 2016 release Honest Life. During the years she spent touring as a guitarist and backup singer for a huge roster of musicians, she also developed her own voice as a songwriter and Honest Life gives that voice a chance to shine. "Rookie Dreaming," one of the stand out tracks on the album, is what Andrews describes as "essentially a coming of age song." So, heartbreak, despair, confusion, mourning? Yep, all here. iTunes . Amazon.com
9. Lori McKenna: The Bird and the Rifle (CN Records, Thirty Tigers)
Lori McKenna. You might not be familiar with her name but you're probably familiar with her work. She writes hit songs for some mega superstars in the country and pop music worlds (think: Tim McGraw, Alison Krauss, Little Big Town) and all the while quietly keeps back a few well-chosen gems for herself which she releases every few years. 2016's The Bird and the Rifle is her 10th solo recording and there's not a weak track on the album. "Wreck You" touches ground McKenna is more than familiar with - worrying about a relationship, doubting whether or not it's going to last - but there's nothing tired or boring about it. It's a gorgeous lament. iTunes . Amazon.com
10. Parker Millsap: The Very Last Day (Okrahoma Records/Thirty Tigers)
Oklahoma native Parker Millsap offers some sage advice on his 2016 release The Very Last Day: Whatever life throws at you? Open your arms wide and embrace it. After all, he seems to say, what, if anything, can you actually control? With a gruff blues and gospel tinged voice that sounds much older and wiser than his actual years, a guitar that seems capable of near impossible musical feats and simple words that tell a powerful story, Parker Millsap considers the end of the world...or, in "Pining," the end of a relationship. iTunes . Amazon.com
Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:32 PM
Folk Alley's Best of 2016 - Cindy Howes' Top 10 Albums
2016 was a rollercoaster of a year that ends with many vowing to better themselves and their community and to reach outside of their comfort zones. I wanted to express my desire to be better in my year-end list. I don't think it's out of the question to assume that we want harmony through a unified, diverse and loving world. The best thing I can do is listen to people whose experiences are different than mine. Music is a starting point and this practice definitely includes, but is not limited to folk music, whether it be Kaia Kater, Frank Ocean, Anohni or Mitski. I have been attempting to slow down, buy more records, stay off Facebook and take in the messages these songwriters are sending us. I will be reaching out and looking for faces and experiences that do not look like my own.
1. Bon Iver - 22 A Million (Jagjaguwar)
Bon Iver (Justin Vernon) has again reinvented their sound on their third record, but the core of emotional, infectiously heartbreaking melody remains. Vernon uses religious imagery and numerology to convey a study of deep self-exploration. Using samples galore (Paolo Nutini, Stevie Nicks, Fionn Reagan just to name a few), Vernon's experimental and digital approach marvelously captures the human heart on this exceptional album. iTunes . Amazon.com
Song: "33 "GOD""
2. Michael Kiwanuka - Love & Hate (UMGRI Interscope)
Although not an outright folk record, UK singer Michael Kiwanuka's second LP deserves to be set alongside the great soul music songwriter Marvin Gaye. Love & Hate is an epic listen that leaves an impression on the first song (Cold Little Heart) that runs almost 10 minutes. The striking "Black Man in a White World", demands your attention. Sonically, this record lives in that classic 1970's lushly produced soul records, thanks in part to producer Danger Mouse. iTunes . Amazon.com
Super groups make me nervous, so I tamped down my expectations when I heard Neko Case, kd Lang and Laura Veirs were making a record. Well, turns out I'm an idiot. These three monster talents did not call it in. It sounds like they are aiming to make the record of their lives together. Sweeping harmonies, lush production (thank you Tucker Martine) and poignant songwriting make this collaboration one of the top super groups of modern music. iTunes . Amazon.com
Song: "Atomic Number"
4. Aoife O'Donovan - In The Magic Hour (Yep Roc)
Aoife O'Donovan's profile has been rising for over a decade and In The Magic Hour is taking her to the next level. Best known for fronting Crooked Still, O'Donovan's phrasing is her own, but encompasses the best in Olde English and Irish folk of yore. Produced by Tucker Martine (who worked on her last album Fossils), this record has expanded experimentation with a little bit more (good) weirdness not heard from her output previously. It seems as though, no matter how much dissonance Martine tosses in there, Aoife's lead is strong, steady and completely captivating. iTunes . Amazon.com
Song: "The King of All Birds"
5. Mavis Staples - Livin' on a High Note (Anti)
Oh my God, do we need Mavis Staples now! Her spirit, her history, her voice, her energy are all gathered on this beautiful album. Produced by M. Ward (She & Him) it includes songs written specifically for Mavis by a new generation of songwriters. Ben Harper, Valerie June, Neko Case and Justin Vernon are a few of the musicians who have thoughtfully written songs for the legendary Staples, whose lively interpretations make it clear that this great woman has more to say and thank God for that. iTunes . Amazon.com
Song: "High Note"
6. Mark Erelli - For a Song (Mark Erelli)
C'mon! "I am just a Yankee boy/born and bred in Boston" is your record's opening line!? Mark Erelli, I love you. It doesn't get more classic New England folk-nostalgic than Mark Erelli singing about being in Boston, trying to get home Boston or just being reminded you're from Boston. He can do that with his magic voice and songs, which are among some of the finest he's written. Erelli has spent the last six years as a member of Barnstar and playing sideman for Lori McKenna and Paula Cole. The influence of those side projects have pleasantly made themselves in his own music making For a Song his strongest release to date. iTunes . Amazon.com
Song: "For a Song"
7. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker (Columbia)
Leonard Cohen's final album is perfect. Cohen, who died the week of the U.S. Presidential Election, gave us one final gift of morose, haunting and beautiful poetry. His magnificent words are accompanied by sparse instrumentation, which, of course, includes a monk-like choir. Leonard's musician son Adam Cohen produced the album and followed his father's wishes in terms of musical direction. What a hell of a goodbye. iTunes . Amazon.com
Song: "You Want It Darker"
8. Kaia Kater - Nine Pin (Kingswood Records)
Kaia Kater is sharp young woman who creates meaningful folk music with a message. Nine Pin, her second LP, centers on the experience and struggle people of color face daily in North America, both from personal experience and from current events. Her roots lay in the folk music of Canada (she grew up in Toronto) and West Virginia Appalachia where she spent time studying the music of the people. Kater's style is strongly grounded in traditional folk banjo accompanied by her deep beautiful tenor voice. iTunes . Amazon.com
Song: "Paradise Fell"
9. The Lumineers - Cleopatra (Dualtone Music)
The Lumineers are not a college-bro band. They were just as surprised as everyone when their "Ho Hey" song ended up being a big radio hit for the Denver based folk band. Cleopatra serves as a reaction to that success by showcasing the depth and seriously smart side of the band. Who better to guide them into the world of deep dark feelings than Simone Felice (formerly of The Felice Brothers)? Felice, who produced the album, has almost died at least twice and it often reflects in his work. The Lumineers signature hooks and snappy percussion still shines through on the first few songs. The second half proves to be mostly Wesley Schultz playing solo acoustic with just touches of Jeremiah Fraites' percussion. iTunes . Amazon.com
10. Andrew Bird - Are You Serious (Loma Vista)
My most re-visited album of 2016 is Andrew Bird's first traditional pop release since 2012. This is Andrew Bird post-marriage, post-child and post-spouse-living-though-cancer, which is a lot to process, so it takes a lot of listens to soak in. Luckily, at least for an Andrew Bird record, it's easy to digest and this a musician who is not always so straightforward. This record changes every time you put it on: the lyrics pop, the strings pluck and sway and the beats are sweet where they need to be. I don't want the smart and experimental Andrew Bird to make such an easy record every time, but it feels so good when he does. iTunes . Amazon.com
When you leave home at 16 to pursue music, there's no denying that it's a calling even more than it is a career. Such is the case for Courtney Marie Andrews who has spent the past 10 years touring with Damien Jurado and Jimmy Eat World, while also making records of her own. Back in August, Andrews released her sixth album, Honest Life, which is a captivating collection of Laurel Canyon-era folk. Self-produced, the set stacks vocals and plumbs depths in order to get where it needs to go which is right to the heart of the matter... and the listener.
Kelly McCartney: This record feels rather much like a rite of passage -- you stepping away from old, bad habits and into a more solid sense of self. Is that about right?
Courtney Marie Andrews: Honest Life is a record about striving to be your best person, in spite of life's circumstances. It's about finding peace with your flaws and the flaws of the world, and not letting those flaws define you. It's truly a record about acceptance, and realizing that life's not a linear line, but a crooked highway.
Quite a few of your songs are very cinematic, lyrically, in the scenes that they set. Are you a visual writer? Do you watch an image of the story play out as you write?
I'm definitely a visual writer. I'm a film photography hobbyist and, in every sense, I'm always dreaming different lines, depending on where I am. Imagery and words blend naturally for me. I'm always striving to connect a feeling to a story, so it feels more human and relatable. You can write a line like "I loved him," but there's not weight to that until you give that line life. Where did you love him? Why? What's the point? That's where visual lines and imagery come in.
One of the most striking aspects of your songs is how you use your phrasing to make things fit, rather than filler words. "Table for One" has some great examples of that, like the way you draw out "Ohio." Is that a conscious engagement on your part? Are there singers you admire with a similar approach?
That's probably a skill I subconsciously developed over time. I've done some time at the figurative school of songwriting -- the school you never stop attending -- and studied the best: Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Joni Mitchell. I owe it to those songs. They almost never have filler.
Obviously, you're getting lots of (much-deserved) comparisons to early Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris. There certainly seem to be quite a few winks and nods in that direction -- the vocal stack near the end of "Put the Fire Out," for one. But nothing you do comes off as the act of a hackneyed copycat. What's the secret to honoring without stealing?
Those comparisons are both such an honor, and both those women have taught me so much. There's no secret other than that, at the end of the day, I strive to be my own artist and I'm not going to try and fail to emulate another's career because I have my own story to write that's unique and different. It all comes back to owning your own story and not drawing career and life comparisons to others, no matter how great they are.
In what ways does having been a support player make you a better band leader, singer, and producer?
Playing with other groups has given me great confidence as my own performer. It's also taught me about respect and love. Respect yourself to make the right decisions within a group, and respect others. They are your roommates, family, co-workers, and friends, and you spend ALL your time with them, so treat them with love, support, and respect. Also, it's taught me a lot about the business side of things, which I've never been the best at. But I've learned to let that go, and just try to TCB.