This year’s best albums feature Folk Alley library favorites (Darrell Scott, Patty Griffin…) and several newcomers (Nora Jane Struthers, Amelia Curran, Andrew & Noah Van Norstrand). There aren’t many albums here that you could dance to, unless you’re slow dancing with someone close. A quick overview reveals some similarities: Dynamic and stylistic singing, lyrics that express what you struggle to, and melodies which strike you once, and don’t fade with repeated listens. Any one of these would make a nice gift, but if you had only one of each, I wouldn’t give any of them away.
Darrell Scott A Crooked Road
He wrote all the songs, sings all the parts, and he plays guitar, piano, banjo, lap steel, and mandolin. Even if you didn’t know that, these songs are compelling, and his delivery commands your attention.
Nora Jane Struthers Nora Jane Struthers
Good songs, each written on a different topic, and a strong voice. Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton shine behind her, but she shines most of all. Not bad for a former high School English teacher from Brooklyn.
Tim O'Brien Chicken & Egg
Tim lost his father and this album refers to this life changing event several times, either quietly or directly (“I’m not afraid of Dyin”). Again, different sounding songs, and each with a purpose.
Natalie Merchant Leave Your Sleep
Each song was based on a poem Natalie was reading to her children, but this is no gimmick album. Some songs are jazz, some rock, some are old timey, one is Chinese. The list of guests is a Who’s Who.
Andrew and Noah Van Norstrand All the Good Summers
These brothers are in their early 20s, but they’ve been playing since they were little kids, so they are not rookies.
They combined contra dance music with Habib Koite and Sufjan Stevens. VERY interesting…
Patty Griffin Downtown Church
A gospel album, but you’re likely to find it engaging, religious or not, because it’s powerful. All of her friends pushed her to do this and she may finally win a Grammy.
Jack Williams The High Road Home
More of us should know Jack Williams. He can turn a phrase and poke you in the ribs with it. Many songs feature a southern choral response, and many of the voices are his.
Jill Andrews Jill Andrews (EP)
(This was actaully released in 2009, but we didn't discover it until 2010.) One of those voices that makes you stop talking, stop thinking, and start listening. She is sad, but most of us are, and that’s why we need Jill. Formerly of The Everybodyfields.
Joy Kills Sorrow Darkness Sure Becomes This City
A young Boston super group in the making. Newgrass, with Emma Beaton singing in place of the departed Heather Masse.
Mollie O'Brien & Rich Moore Saints & Sinners
This is Mollie’s best. She’s always had the gift of volume, but this album lets her use that voice to the fullest. Songs from Dave Van Ronk, David Francey, Jesse Winchester, Rogers & Hart, & The Beatles are reborn.
Jackson Browne Love is Strange
Recorded in Spain with old partner David Lindley. Jackson sings the non hits that should have been; European friends sing his best known songs for a new twist.
Indigo Girls Staring Down the Brilliant Dream
Acoustic and live, all the favorites are greeted by an enthusiastic audience. It feels good to hear these songs again, and this time around they are stripped down revealing how good they always were.
Cherryholmes Cherryholmes 4, Common Thread
No longer just a family band, Cherryholmes are powerful and experienced. “Tattoo of a Smudge” is Grammy nominated. The group is branching out to cover topics usually avoided in bluegrass, such as depression.
Amelia Curran Hunter, Hunter
Like Jill Andrews above, Amelia Curran has a voice that simply stops you in your tracks. Her words bring you back for more. Check out “The Mistress,” which lets us hear the feelings of the woman you never hear from.
The Steeldrivers Reckless
Last year they were the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year. This year the songs are deeper and better constructed. Powerhouse bluegrass without the clichés.