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Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Jon Nungesser's Top Picks of the Year

December 29, 2014

Top Picks of 2014 by Jon Nungesser

2014, what a year! A vibrant and diverse year for music with releases from First Aid Kit, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Nickel Creek, Rodney Crowell and many more that I don't have time to list here. The list I chose below passed a crucial test for me - am I still playing them in my car's CD player? I got hooked on these albums this year and am finding it hard to give them up. Surely, they will be playing in my car well into 2015!

Passenger Whispers.jpgPassenger - 'Whispers'

Mike Rosenberg aka Passenger ditched the band and went solo for 2012's release 'All the Little Lights' which produced the memorable hit "Let Her Go." Now he is back with 'Whispers' which builds on the last album's momentum. It features strong writing that really comes out in tracks like "Scare Away the Dark", providing a blatantly true look on our modern society.

First Aid Kit Gold 100.jpgFirst Aid Kit - 'Stay Gold'
(Columbia Records)

This album is a bit more amped up sonically for the sisters than their last release, but the addition of an orchestra on tracks like "My Silver Lining" only adds to the haunting vocals and vivid imagery featured in this 10-song set. It's an album that's hard to put down for sure!

Rodrigo y Gabriela.jpegRodrigo y Gabriela - '9 Dead Alive'
(ATO Records)

Flamenco cranked up to 11! That is how I describe the release from this Mexican duo. Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero grew up on a mix of flamenco, jazz, and heavy metal with one of their biggest influences being Metallica. It really should be no wonder this record is pure energy and driving rhythms that would be at home in either a rock stadium or coffee shop.

Nickel Creek Dotted 100.jpgNickel Creek - 'A Dotted Line'

The trio (Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins) reunited for this much-anticipated 2014 release. I had the pleasure of seeing them live this past year on their tour through Cleveland, and I can tell you, they haven't lost a step! This album features tight harmonies that truly complement each other. Take a listen to the track "Destination" to see what I mean.

JTE SIngle Mothers.jpegJustin Townes Earle - 'Single Mothers'
(Vagrant Records)

Back for his fifth studio album, 'Single Mothers' features tracks with a mixture of country-tinged soul as present on the title track and emotional ballads like "Picture In a Drawer." He takes the concerns and problems of the millennial generation and puts them to song - much like his dad did in his.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:50 PM

Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Chris Dudley's Top Picks of the Year

Top Picks of 2014 by Chris Dudley

It's pretty easy to say that we've had some excellent albums 2014. While my tastes are constantly changing, I chose five (okay, six actually) that were my favorites, that I kept going back to more consistently. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of other albums that aren't on this list that could be on any other given day. I chose these albums not only because of how often I listen to them, but because of how they stretch the genre of what we consider folk. All of these albums have songs that we play on Folk Alley, but the albums themselves expand outward into other realms that challenge the listener and that challenge me. Whether it be through production, instrumentation, lyrically, or harmonically, these albums have something in them that have stood out.

Noah Gundersen.jpgNoah Gundersen - 'Ledges'

With its warm and earthy tones, 'Ledges' strips down the songwriting elements to its bare bones. The songs are spacious and allow the lyrics to shine. It seems like a very minimalist setup, but it allows for his words to remain dynamic and carry most of the weight. The lyrics are introspective and evoke those tugging internal conflicts that we experience daily-- the struggle of living without or having baggage that constantly weighs on us. With its tentative moments that slowly bloom and burst into public confessions, 'Ledges' deals a heartfelt punch for those who are living a struggle.

Nickel Creek Dotted 100.jpgNickel Creek - 'A Dotted Line'

What isn't there to be thrilled with in this album? With power that continuously drives, their harmonies and technical excellence is enough to make your ear swoon and beg for more. This album is chalked full of memorable melodies. It's an exceptionally well produced album with musicianship that is articulate and interesting. You can't help but love the fun way it catches you by surprise. I love occasions in the album where the chords are peculiar and the melodies are even a littler stranger. There is enough oddity to challenge you, but enough familiarity to keep grasp of what's going on.

Ryan Adams 100.jpegRyan Adams - 'Ryan Adams'
(PaxAm Records/Blue Note)

The gritty and raw sounds from 'Ryan Adams' are quick to shake you up. I adore the raspy guitar tone and the crunchy vocals. Every time I listen to this album, I get my "aww yeah" face on. While not quite folk in a traditional sense, the acoustic songs on this album still carry that folk vibe while still maintaining that raucous shadow that you continue to sense. This album makes great driving music. I had "My Wrecking Ball" and "Let Go" on repeat for a while.

First Aid Kit Gold 100.jpgFirst Aid Kit - 'Stay Gold'
(Columbia Records)

This album has a very ethereal sound to it. The drones and sustained sounds definitely have uniqueness to it. The album has largeness to it, and the harmonies are very lush. I enjoy how full and different this album sounds. The enormity of the sound is like an ocean wave. Lilting melodies keep you singing every time. You can get lost in this album, but it still has rhythm to it. I love the way the flutes, strings, organ, and other sustained instruments cradle you along as you move through the songs. A wonderful mix of indie/pop and folk.

Robert Plant.jpgRobert Plant - 'Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar'

The juxtaposition between natural and processed sound in this album is very alluring. I try not to limit my listening to any specific sounds, and albums like this are why I don't. There are so many colorful and contrasting sounds that can paint an enticing and vivid picture. Robert Plant mixes some heavily processed and overdriven drums and synths with the likes of acoustic guitars, banjos, and hurdy gurdy (at least I think it's a hurdy gurdy). It somehow manages to sounds mechanical and organic at the same time. Talk about some avant garde folk.

Honorable Mention:

Henry Girls Louder.jpgThe Henry Girls - 'Louder Than Words'
(Beste! Unterhaltung)

I just simply like this album and the songs. It's a very natural folk sound, and the songs are ones that I happen to press the play button on a lot. I like the feel of the songs on this album, and I just like the harmonized melodies. The songs, even the minor ones, seem bright and make me sway back and forth. At the end of the day, you don't need a complicated or particular reason to like something. Sometimes you just simply like it. I like the songs. It's as simple as that.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:10 PM

Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Barb Heller's Top Picks of the Year

Barb guitar.jpgTop Picks of 2014 by Barb Heller

Disclaimer: I'm a rabid bluegrass fan, so expect my picks to be heavily weight toward that genre. If you don't mind banjos and resophonic guitars, then read on and enjoy! These are in no particular order. Happy 2015!

Claire Lynch Holiday.jpgThe Claire Lynch Band - 'Holiday'
(Thrill Hill Records)

I know it's a bit late to suggest this for holiday listening, but put it on your list for next year! Claire Lynch's voice, and her band's virtuosity put every note in just the right place. They also include a dynamite arrangement of "We Three Kings" that'll put all others to shame.

Tim Stafford.jpegTim Stafford - 'Just To Hear the Whistle Blow'
(Hedge Drive Records)

Tim Stafford plays in the band, Blue Highway - already well known for their great songs, tight delivery and staying power as a working group of artists. Stafford is a poetic, sensitive writer who puts another best foot forward with this collection. My favorite track: "Dimes." It's about finding souvenirs from heaven. This album is a great escape, with fabulous musicianship and top notch songwriting. What more could you want?

Seldom Scene.jpgSeldom Scene - 'Long Time'
(Smithsonian Folkways)

I love the Seldom Scene - then, and now. This is the group's first studio album since 2007. If you've ever liked them, you'll love this latest release.

Special Consensus and Friends Denver.jpgSpecial Consensus & Friends - 'Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver'
(Compass Records)

Even if you were lukewarm about John Denver's music in the 1970s and '80s, you can't help but appreciate these great arrangements of his greatest hits. It's a bluegrass dream lineup: Michael Cleveland, John Cowan, Rob Ickes, Claire Lynch, and many other guests. Alison Brown on double production and banjo detail. Great job all around!

Nickel Creek Dotted 100.jpgNickel Creek - 'A Dotted Line'

Sometimes it's not the words or the music that catch me. It's the process of transforming great musings into musical art that really impresses me. Nickel Creek seems to have it all: they're great musicians, they know how to write a hit song, and they can also express old sentiments and sounds in new and different ways. This is a very impressive demonstration of what the next generation is growing into.

And here are a few more that shouldn't go unnoticed:

Bob Amos Sunrise.jpgBob Amos - 'Sunrise Blues'

Another great songwriter. Bob Amos has an old soul, and it shines through his songs. For years, Amos was the lead singer for the bluegrass band Front Range. Now he's back in Vermont, forging a new road.

Phil Ledbetter.jpegPhil Leadbetter - 'The Next Move'
(Pinecastle Records)

Leadbetter was voted IBMA's 'Dobro Player of the Year' this fall, and his latest album was released just before the awards were announced. His big heart and friendly nature is eclipsed only by his stellar playing.

Irene Kelley PA Coal.jpegIrene Kelley - 'Pennsylvania Coal'
(Patio Records)

Kelley is a veteran songwriter, and she's put a best foot forward on this collection of originals based on her ancestors' lives in the mines. Well written, beautifully sung, with tasteful production. It's a gem.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 10:55 AM

Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Matt Reilly's Top Picks of the Year

Reilly-WXPN-Headshot-150x150.jpgTop 10 Picks of 2014 by Matt Reilly

You'd think by now I wouldn't get freaked out by having to make end-of-year lists. How do I whittle it down? Am I sure I REALLY like this whole record? What will the neighbors say? So after much wailing, moaning and gnashing of teeth (sort of), here is my list.

Beck Morning Phase 100.jpgBeck - 'Morning Phase'

Sad Beck works for me. Lots of space in these songs to zone out and great for long drives.

First Aid Kit Gold 100.jpgFirst Aid Kit - 'Stay Gold'

On first listen, seems pretty straightforward: Swedish sisters with great harmonies. On repeated listens, there's a whole Nordic underworld full of ice and mystery and refracted sunlight. Or am I just weird?

Israel Nash 100.jpgIsrael Nash - 'Rain Plans'
(Thirty Tigers)

If you're a fan of Neil Young and Crazy Horse you'll dig the new arrival to Central Texas. Sometimes you need a long jahm, mahn.

Ryan Adams 100.jpegRyan Adams - 'Ryan Adams'

Who writes better songs than Ryan Adams? No, Bryan Adams does not.

Shakey Graves 100.jpgShakey Graves - 'And The War Came'

This is a guy we've known about for a long time in Austin. It's great to see him finally breaking out nationally. Great songs and totally relatable.

Spoon.jpgSpoon - 'They Want My Soul'
(Loma Vista)

The best indie rock band going. They never lose that jittery, jagged pop sensibility.

St Vincent.jpegSt. Vincent - 'St. Vincent'

An acolyte of David Byrne, she's making accessible art rock for the 21st century. And she absolutely shreds on guitar.

Sturgill.jpegSturgill Simpson - 'Metamodern Sounds in Country Music'
(High Top Mountain/Loose Music)

He's like Waylon Jennings tripping out. A great melding of straight ahead country and psychedelia.

Tweedy.jpegTweedy - 'Sukierae'
(dBpm Records)

I've always liked Wilco, but they can get irritating. Jeff teaming up with his son Spencer makes for an infinitely listenable record that can be taken anywhere.

WarOnDrugs.jpegThe War on Drugs 'Lost In The Dream'
(Secretly Canadian)

Expansive psych rock from these Philly boys that - weirdly - reminds me of Jackson Browne sometimes.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 10:10 AM

Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Kelly McCartney's Top Picks of the Year

December 18, 2014

K Mac Head shot square 150.jpgTop 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 100.jpgAni 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 Gold 100.jpgFirst 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.jpgHozier - '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.jpgJonah 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.jpgLee 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.

Thumbnail image for Parker Millsap 100.jpgParker 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.jpgPieta 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.jpgRobby 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.jpegRobert 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."

Thumbnail image for Rosanne Cash River and Thread 100.jpgRosanne 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."

Posted by Linda Fahey at 11:45 AM

Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Linda Fahey's Top Picks of the Year

December 17, 2014

Thumbnail image for Linda Fahey Jarret photo square.jpgTop 10 Picks of 2014 by Linda Fahey

SO MANY favorites in Folk and Americana this year. Yikes. Where to begin? Who do I leave off? Here's my attempt at narrowing it down to my Top 10!

For the full write-up on each of these (thank you Kelly McCartney!), visit NPR Music - HERE.

Amelia Curran 100.jpgAmelia Curran - 'They Promised You Mercy'
(Six Shooter Records)

Bela and Abby 100.jpgBela Fleck & Abigail Washburn - 'Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn'
(Rounder Records)

Dom Flemons Prospect Hill 100.jpgDom Flemons - 'Prospect Hill'
(Music Maker)

The Duhks 100.jpgThe Duhks - 'Beyond the Blue'
(Compass Records)

First Aid Kit Gold 100.jpgFirst Aid Kit - 'Stay Gold'

HFTRR album 125.jpgHurray for the Riff Raff - 'Small Town Heroes'
(ATO Records)

Nickel Creek Dotted 100.jpgNickel Creek - 'A Dotted Line'

Parker Millsap 100.jpgParker Millsap - 'Parker Millsap'
(Okrahoma Records/Thirty Tigers)

Rosanne Cash River and Thread 100.jpgRosanne Cash - 'The River & the Thread'
(Blue Note/Universal)

Steve Dawson Rattlesnake Cage 100.jpgSteve Dawson - 'Rattlesnake Cage'
(Black Hen Music)

Posted by Linda Fahey at 11:03 PM

Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Cindy Howes' Top Picks of the Year

December 16, 2014

Chowes-square crop .jpgTop 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 100.jpgBen Howard. 'I Forget Where We Were'
(Island Records)

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.

Barr Brothers 100.jpgThe Barr Brothers, 'Sleeping Operator'
(Secret City)

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.

Early Mays 100.jpgThe 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.

Stray Birds Best 100.jpgThe Stray Birds, 'Best Medicine'
(Yep Roc)

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 Xoa 100.jpgAnais Mitchell, 'Xoa'
(Wilderland Records)

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 Gold 100.jpgFirst 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 100.jpgVance 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 100.jpgDamien Jurado, 'Brothers and Sisters of The Eternal Son'
(Secretly Canadian)

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 100.jpgRose Cousins, 'Stray Birds'
Rose Cousins)

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 100.jpgShakey 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.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:20 PM

Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Elena See's Top Picks of the Year

Thumbnail image for elena see 1 square crop 250.jpgTop 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:

Mellencamp 125.jpgJohn 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.

HFTRR album 125.jpgHurray for the Riff Raff, 'Small Town Heroes'
(ATO Records)

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 Phill Alvin 125.jpgDave/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 125.jpgCarlene Carter, 'Carter Girl'
(Rounder Records)

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 125.jpgJohn 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.

Ben Ellen Harper Home 125.jpgBen/Ellen Harper, 'Childhood Home'
(Prestige Folklore)

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.

Smithsonian African American Songsters 125.jpgVarious, '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 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 Rope Swimmin 125.jpgShovels 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 Love 125.jpgMary Gauthier, 'Trouble and Love'
(CD Baby)

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 Red 125.jpgRed Molly, 'The Red Album'
(CD Baby)

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."

Posted by Linda Fahey at 11:45 AM | Comments (1)

Video Premiere: Lee Ann Womack, "The Way I'm Livin'" (Live)

December 9, 2014

leeannwomack_wide-1ea0c52e4b5b875e57ca7f578972b94f481edeef-s700-c85.jpgby 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."

Posted by Linda Fahey at 7:54 PM

Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Listener Poll

December 3, 2014

Best of 2014 Listener Poll page 250x 250.jpgVOTE!! Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Listener Poll

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.


Posted by Linda Fahey at 10:41 AM | Comments (2)

Video Premiere: Indigo Girls - Backstage at the Greek, "Elizabeth"

December 1, 2014

Indigo Girls.jpgPremiere: 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.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:38 PM

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