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.
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.
Pharis & 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.
Tony Furtado Golden
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.
Malcomb 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.
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 makes appearances.
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.”
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.
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.
Gillian Welch The Harrow and 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
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.