I will admit it. At the end of each year, I attempt to come up with a “best-of” list of my own but struggle to identify even a handful. This is partly due to the fact that I am so bad about paying attention to the actual release dates of albums that I will invariably include several recordings that are older than I thought. This time, however, I had no trouble at all. 2012 proved to be a stellar year for releasing good music. Here are my picks for the best of the best, in no particular order:
O’ Be Joyful by Shovels & Rope (Dualtone Music Group). (AMERICANA) Shovels & Rope is Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, a husband-and-wife duo. Their website says they “sing harmony driven folk, rock and country songs using two old guitars, a kick drum, a snare, a few tambourines, harmonicas, and maybe a little keyboard sometimes.” There’s plenty of that on O’ Be Joyful, plus fiddles, banjos, and some wonderful, slightly off-kilter horns that take the genre to a new level (“Hail, Hail,” and “Tickin’ Bomb”). Clanky percussion is prominent on most of the tracks. Songs like “Carnival” demonstrate the duo can dazzle with slow-tempo ballads, too. It’s just quirky enough that it may not be for everyone, but if you like an old-timey country sound with a rockin’ edge to it, this album just might be right up your alley. ( Listen to samples here.)
Little Blue Egg by Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer (Red House Records). (COUNTRY FOLK/AMERICANA) New recordings from folk duo sensation Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer came to an abrupt end in the summer of 2002 when Carter suffered a fatal massive heart attack. Ten years following Carter’s death, we are blessed with a rare new recording from the pair, thanks to the discovery by Grammer of lost tracks that she discovered in a moldy basement. The tracks were found to be in pristine condition and subsequently digitized for Little Blue Egg. The new album contains never-before-heard “new” songs originally recorded between 1997-2002, including fully fleshed out songs that were left off other albums, some late-night living room recordings, reference tracks for multi-artist collaborations, and rare demos. A true folk gem. (Soundclips here.)
Shel by Shel (Moraine Records/Mad King). (CONTEMPORARY FOLK/POP/AMERICANA) Shel is a new four-piece band of sisters from Colorado. Their self-titled debut album was funded entirely by fans through a PledgeMusic project and it is one of the most unique and impressive albums to come out in a long time. The classically-trained sisters play all the instruments and they have written all the songs, with the exception of a killer cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore.” Beautiful harmony with catchy, unique melodies and arrangements. One Ohio newspaper, “Cleveland Plain Dealer,” described their songs as “wonderfully weird and impossible to describe.” I agree. A very different and refreshing winner. (Listen to it on Shel’s website).
Sailor’s Revenge (Limited Edition) by Bap Kennedy (Proper Records). (CONTEMPORARY FOLK/FOLK-ROCK) Some of the best in the music industry appreciate the talents of Irish singer-songwriter, Bap Kennedy, including Van Morrison, Steve Earle and Mark Knopfler, but Kennedy remains largely under the radar to most music listeners for some inexplicable reason. With Sailor’s Revenge, his 8th solo release, Kennedy hits the ball straight out of the park. Produced by Mark Knopfler and recorded in his studio, this double CD limited edition set includes 11 brand new songs plus a bonus CD of Kennedy’s personal favorites from his previous releases plus two previously unreleased tracks. Musician guests include Knopfler, Michael McGoldrick and John McCusker. Get it. (Listen to four of the songs on Soundcloud.)
Are You There by Minnesota (Hymn & Holler Records). (INDIE ROCK) Peter Himmelman has been putting out great music since the late ’70s when he fronted the band, Sussman Lawrence. Through the years, despite a low profile, he has captured the attention of Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, USA Today, NPR, and others. Now Himmelman has teamed up with screenwriter/filmmaker David Hollander, and vocalists Kristin Mooney and Claire Holley under the collective moniker, Minnesota, to release a knockout debut with Are You There. It’s an album generously peppered with a dark-hued Appalachia that sets it apart from most indie rock records. Pure dynamite. (Hear three of the songs from the debut here.)
Gloryland by Kevin Gordon (Crowville Media). (SOUTHERN ROOTS ROCK) It’s been seven years since we’ve heard anything new from Gordon and Gloryland convinces us it was worth the wait. It’s full of musical stories based on true incidences from Gordon’s growing-up years in the American South. The album works both musically and lyrically, the band is incredibly tight, and Gordon’s lyrics reflect the fact that he holds a master’s in poetry. He has the perfect knack for choosing just the right phraseology and melding it with just the right musical passage for maximum effect. All the songs are noteworthy (there are no fillers), but the song that will probably be remembered most is the 9+-minute opus “Colfax/Step in Time,” a recounting of Gordon’s trip to the nearby town of Colfax as a 7th-grader in the junior high marching band, led by their black bandleader, and the unexpected appearance of Ku Klux Klan members in the crowd. The song is enveloped in an impressive musical aura that captures the drama of the event and transports the listener. Containing elements of southern-drenched rock, blues and folk, the entire CD is spot-on and proves to be Gordon’s best release yet. (Sample it here.)
Resonance by Under The Purple Tree (independent release). (INDIE ROCK) Resonance is the outstanding debut ‘mini-album’ EP from a new female-fronted rock group from Australia that has garnered a lot of local attention “down under” and is destined to become more widely known in the coming year. Under The Purple Tree is singer-songwriter/guitarist Megan Barnes, guitarist/producer Matt Lee, Anthony Lee (bass), and Stephen Barrett (drums). Sir James Shipstone, former managing director for BMG Music Publishing’s Australia/New Zealand branch, frequently collaborates with the group as co-songwriter and serves as a valued mentor. Their style ranges anywhere from head-banging rockers to achingly beautiful songs of emotive themes. What sets this group apart is the beautifully expressive vocals of singer, Megan Barnes, and the band’s use of electronic loops. The EP contains five original compositions showcasing the band’s various styles and one mind-blowing cover of the Beatles classic, “Help!”, which is so impressively original and unlike anything you’ve heard before that it should go down as a classic in its own right. Resonance is the first in a series of mini-album EP’s the group plans to release in the near future, followed by a full-length studio album consisting of additional new material and some “best-of” picks from the mini-albums. Keep your eye out for Under The Purple Tree in 2013. (Hear Resonance on Soundcloud.)
Seinn by Mary Jane Lamond & Wendy MacIsaac (Turtlemusik Records). (CELTIC FOLK) A wonderful album of old traditional and contemporary Cape Breton tunes. It is part toe-tapping jigs and reels featuring MacIsaac’s superb fiddle playing, and part gorgeous Gaelic ballads sung by Lamond, who is well known for her vast knowledge of traditional Cape Breton folk tunes and gorgeous vocals. MacIsaac and Lamond have toured together in the past, but Seinn is their first joint recording venture. A real treat! (Soundclips here.)
Belong by Susan McKeown (Hibernian Music). (CONTEMPORARY FOLK). Irish vocalist Susan McKeown possesses one of the most impressively strong and expressive vocal chords on the planet. She has used this gift to great effect in celtic music, but considering the fact that this Irish lass has spent as much of her life in the U.S. as she has in her homeland, it is no great surprise that she equally wows in the contemporary American folk category. With Belong, a PledgeMusic funded project, McKeown has really outdone herself. Her voice has never sounded better than here. She blends it so well with the musical accompaniment and uses phraseology so impressively that it is as if her voice is not a voice at all, but rather one of the instruments. Guest musicians include Erin McKeown, James Maddock, Declan O’Rourke, Dirk Powell and Ray Santiago. Absolutely stunning. (Soundclips here.)
We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott (Full Lights). (BLUEGRASS/NEWGRASS) Don’t let the title of this album fool you – it would be hard for these guys to sound better. The material on We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This was recorded in 2005 and 2006 when O’Brien and Scott performed two benefit concerts as a fundraising project for the Arthur Morgan School where each had a child attending. They had not toured together for a number of years when they performed the concerts, but the magic is still obvious. O’Brien’s banjo picking, Scott’s guitar picking, and the amazing harmonies the two of them make together, are impressive indeed. The album includes alternate recordings of tracks from their previous album, “Real Time,” plus others never heard before. Filled with one stellar song after another, the album closes with its standout track, “When There’s No One Around/Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” If you think you don’t like bluegrass, give this one a listen (as well as Real Time) – they slap the strings with a fervor that is usually reserved for rock. Word is out that the two plan to release a new recording in 2013. It can’t be soon enough. (Listen to samples here.)
No Sheer Will of Force by Smokey Brights (independent release). (INDIE FOLK/ROCK/POP) This is the first in a series of limited run 45’s the group plans to release. Hailing from Seattle, Smokey Brights describe their music as “warm vintage, pop savvy, yet slightly wry rock music. The kind that streams from the boombox all day at your uncle’s barbecue, or crackles through the AM radio on an all night drive through some expansive American highway.” No Sheer Will of Force contains only 2 songs, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in quality. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long for the release of the 2nd in the series. (Listen to it on Soundcloud.)
Crowsfeet & Greyskull by Keri Latimer (independent release). (CONTEMPORARY FOLK/SINGER-SONGWRITER). This is the debut solo album by Keri Latimer, who is part of the Canadian folk/Americana group, Nathan, a group I wrote extensively about in a previous MiG review. Acoustic Guitar describes Crowsfeet & Greyskull as “..infectious alt-country noir, fractured folk-swing and surreal songwriting.” It possesses the same irresistible sweet quirkiness that Nathan’s records have, but it is mellower and, dare I say, perhaps more impressive than Latimer’s works with Nathan. The whole album has such a captivating ambiance which washes over the listener that it can take repeated listens for the lyrics to soak in, which add even more enjoyment once they penetrate the ears. With intriguing song titles such as “Crowsfeet & Greyskull” and “Mud and Slobber” (based on e.e. cummings’ poem, ‘Spring Omnipotent Goddess Thou’), this album contains intelligent and well-written lyrics and some of the best of the best singer-songwriter folk music. You will want to hear it again and again… and then again. Absolutely mesmerizing. Listen to it, or better yet, download it free/nyop here.
The Weight of Glory by Heath McNease (independent release). (INDIE FOLK/SINGER-SONGWRITER/ACOUSTIC) McNease is more known as a hip-hop rapper than a singer-songwriter, but The Weight of Glory proves he is impresesive in this genre. Each of the album’s twelve tracks are named after one of C.S. Lewis’ books, except for one which is named after one of the Narnia characters. Lewis is perhaps the greatest writer on the big questions of life since Augustine, and musically capturing the spirit of such daunting works can be challenging. McNease beautifully pulls it off. Each song perfectly captures the essence of Lewis’ books, reflecting McNease’s own personal struggles in a way that anyone who has ever questioned ‘why’ will relate to. This is a beautifully done album. You can get it free/nyop at Bandcamp.
Body of Evidence (Box Set) by David Olney (Deadbeet Records). (CONTEMPORARY FOLK/AMERICANA) Body of Evidence is a trilogy of mini-album EP’s that Olney released over the past year and consists of the individual EP’s Film Noir, The Stone, and Robbery, Murder. Olney is frequently touted as one of the best storytellers in music history and this set lives up to the hype. It is unique and captivating ‘art for the ears,’ as I described in my detailed review of Film Noir and The Stone. The final installment, Robbery, Murder, re-tells R&B/rock ‘n’ roll legend Chuck Willis’ story of Betty and Dupree from different angles and interweaves it with another darker love story about a rich mill owner and his unfaithful wife. Both stories are full of surprises. Each EP in the series can be purchased separately and stand in their own right, but Olney’s literary musical genius is fully realized in how he has brought all three together under the umbrella of a common theme ingeniously titled Body of Evidence. A one-of-a-kind production. Don’t miss it. (Listen to songs from the series (and more) here).
Travelin’ Machine by The Ragbirds (independent release). (FOLK ROCK/FUSION). This latest album from the multi-faceted folk rock group, The Ragbirds, is aptly named. Its tracklist will take you on a musical tour across the globe with the band’s unique sound, described by Wikipedia as “gypsy, middle eastern, Americana, rock and Latin influences, all stirred with a Celtic bow.” The Ragbirds is a five-piece band led by classically-trained violinist and singer, Erin Zindle. Instruments include fiddle, mandolin, congas, guitars, banjo, accordion and djembe. The entire album is pleasant, with Zindle’s soft and smooth voice setting the tone, but the strength of the album lies in the last five tracks, beginning with “Moribayassa (I’ll Fly Away)”, a unique and memorable interpretation of the traditional gospel song featuring an African moribayassa beat that is prominent throughout. The tempo picks up for the last minute of the song, when solo conga drums hypnotically bang it out. (The African moribayassa has a fascinating history, by the way, which can be read here.) “Moribayassa” is followed by the equally strong “Tomorrow River” and “Acrobats.” (Listen to sound samples here).
Birds Fly South by The Mastersons (New West). (AMERICANA). This the debut album from husband-and-wife duo, Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore. Masterson formerly played in the bands of Jack Ingram, Son Volt, and Bobby Bare Jr., among others, and Whitmore has worked with Regina Spektor, Susan Gibson, Kelly Willis, Diana Ross, Will Hoge and others. As a duo, the pair has frequently toured with Steve Earle. Each is an impressive solo performer, but when the two come together, they really shine. New West’s website describes Birds Fly South as “an album with soul and groove and teeth and not an ounce of schmaltz. Like the Jayhawks or Buddy & Julie Miller, it exists in an expansive territory that encompasses rock, pop, blues and country.” The comparison to the Jayhawks is a good one – on my first listen of this album, I was reminded of how great I felt the first time I heard “Hollywood Town Hall.” Thoroughly enjoyable. Listen and/or download for free two of the tracks from Bandcamp.
Camilla by Caroline Herring (Signature Sounds). (CONTEMPORARY FOLK BLUES) Camilla has been described as a ‘career-defining’ record for folk singer Caroline Herring, and it is easy to see why. It is a beautiful southern-drenched folk album consisting of heart-wrenching, memorable songs of historical people who endured and conquered extreme adversity, as well as a couple of traditional tunes with new arrangements by Herring. Herring plays acoustic guitar and is backed up vocally by such luminaries as Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Claire Holley and Kathryn Roberts. Fats Kaplin contributes pedal steel, fiddle, mandolin and banjo. A slow-tempo southern folk masterpiece, Camilla will take you on an emotional ride that is not soon forgotten. Sample it here.
Signs & Signifiers by J.D. McPherson (Rounder). (ROCKABILLY, ’50’s ROCK/R&B) The inclusion of this album in 2012’s ‘best of’ list may be a little bit of a cheat since it was released on a smaller label in 2011 before being picked up by Rounder in 2012 for a wider distribution, but this record is too good to leave out on a mere technicality. Country singer, Eric Church, describes it as “…very stripped down and refreshing… You feel like you just walked into a burger joint in 1955 and expect it to have hot rods outside.” There have been numerous artists who have delved into the ‘retro’ sound, but no one as deeply nor as exclusively as McPherson has done. While putting all your eggs into one retro basket can be risky business, McPherson pulls it off beautifully. He doesn’t just repeat what’s been done before, but rather adds his own stamp that makes this music relevant in the 21st century. If you can listen to this whole album and remain still, you had better check your pulse. (Sound samples here.)
Redhills by I Draw Slow (Pinecastle). (BLUEGRASS/NEWGRASS) Upon listening to this album, one would easily conclude that the five musicians who make up I Draw Slow are straight from the American Appalachian mountains, but this group hails from Dublin, Ireland. Wonderfully melding elements of Irish traditional music with modern Americana, I Draw Slow has gained lots of attention in their homeland over the past couple of years, but 2012 saw their horizons widen when the group signed a contract with the U.S. label Pinecastle after its CEO saw the video of one of Redhills’ tracks (“Goldmine”) on YouTube. “Goldmine” is, indeed, a most impressive song, but so are all the songs on this album. The band has played to audiences in the U.K., Germany, Denmark and Belgium, and began their U.S. tour last year with a performance with the legendary Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. The British press has described I Draw Slow as “American top league equivalents” that will “blow the opposition away.” ‘Tis true! Listen to some of the songs, including “Goldmine,” here.
The Great Despiser by Joe Pug (Lightning Rod Records). (AMERICANA/SINGER-SONGWRITER) Joe Pug has steadily gained a loyal fan base through the wise and successful marketing strategy of giving away his music to anyone who would listen back when no one had ever heard of him. He still is not nearly as widely known as he deserves to be, but most who have heard him are hard and fast, loyal fans. His lyrics are intelligent and thought-provoking, wrapped up in a musical aura that will get inside a listener’s head and take up residence. The Great Despiser showcases Joe Pug better than ever before. Guest musicians include Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Langhorne Slim) on piano, organ and marimba, and The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. If you aren’t familiar with Joe Pugg, you owe it to yourself to check out this album (sound samples here). Also check out his earlier releases – you can still get free downloads of a previous EP and a five-song sampler on his website.
Kezzie Baker lives in the heartland of America and if there’s one thing she likes better than listening to all kinds of music, it’s talking about it. There are just way too many truly great artists that never receive the notoriety they deserve. She tries to do what she can to change that by spreading the word around to anybody who will listen.
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