‘Best of’ year-end lists are very subjective, being subject to the individual musical tastes of the compiler and my list, of course, is no different. Thus, the albums I have named (in no particular order) are simply the newly released ones that I enjoyed listening to the most during 2014.
Love and Gravity – Mary Fahl: This newest album by Mary Fahl recalls the glory days of her now defunct group October Project and excels them. Fahl’s rich contralto voice sounds as good as ever with no fillers here. Each track is a treasure, but a few standouts warrant special mention. It is hard to imagine a siren more spellbinding than in the song, “Siren,” and Fahl’s cover of “Both Sides Now” sounds like the song was written especially for her, infusing it with a deep emotional introspection I never appreciated before (not to take away from Collins’ timeless original). Then there is the beautiful memorial, “The Dawning of the Day,” written for the fallen firefighter heroes of 9/11. This is a stunning album from start to finish.
Amser – Fernhill: Some years back, reading Eliza Carthy’s unabashed gushing in praise of the new (to me) Welsh folk group, Fernhill, prompted me to listen to the 2000 release, Whilia, and it left me speechless. That album became the standard by which I measure all other Fernhill albums and Amser measures up pretty well. Whilia’s lineup consisted of lead singer Julie Murphy accompanied by Ceri Rhys Matthews on guitar and flute, and Andy Cutting’s prominent (and vital) button accordion. Amser includes Tomos Williams on trumpet and Christine Cooper on fiddle and vocals. I found this newest release so gorgeous, I was surprised that it was only after I listened to the whole album that I noticed the absence of the button accordion which I considered essential to the band’s sound. No matter. This is truly stunning music, segueing from one beautiful melody into another, and another, and then back again that leaves the listener breathless. The song, “Boat,” is a particularly good example of this.
Angelorum – James Apollo: This one grabbed me right from the start and kept my attention throughout. Apparently I’m not alone. Apollo is steadily gaining attention, having been invited to tour with Lord Huron since Angelorum’s release. The album’s 9 tracks are a mixture of indie rock songs and slower tempo ones and there really isn’t a dud anywhere and it is a heckuva good indie rock album. Give the track, “Spinnin” or “White Line” a listen and see for yourself. It has been reported that Leon Russell is currently working with Apollo on a yet untitled 2015 release, and I’m definitely going to be watching for that!
Last of the Outlaws – Railroad Earth: Railroad Earth is a rootsy Americana newgrass band with folk/roots-rock/celtic leanings who have consistently put out great records since releasing their debut in 2001. Live shows have earned them a reputation as champion of the bluegrass jam for their spontaneous improvisations which have, for the most part, been absent in their studio recordings. Last of the Outlaws changes that. With only 2 of the 10 tracks less than 5 minutes in length, the new album provides plenty of wide open spaces for the band to romp around and sounds very close to their live performances. The core and highlight of the album are two back-to-back lengthy songs that together form a 20+ minute opus with segueing sections patterned after movements of the requiem mass that shift from rock guitar licks to whispering piano and everything in between, including horns, string section, and penny whistle. A true masterpiece.
A Little Redemption – Danni Nicholls: This album made its debut in the U.K. in 2013 but wasn’t released in the U.S. until 2014. Q Magazine describes it as “slipping effortlessly between smoky soul, folk-pop and heart-wrenching alt-country, all in a rich voice somewhere between Ms [Emmylou] Harris and Alison Krauss.” I found Nicholls’ voice somewhat reminiscent of Norah Jones, but whether Jones, Harris or Krauss, Nicholls carves her own niche and is no wannabe. The opening track, “First Cuckoo of Spring,” is one of the many highlights and was featured in the latest season premier episode of Sons of Anarchy, which should give her more very well-deserved U.S. exposure. I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.
Family – Thompson: The opening track begins with a plaintive Teddy Thompson singing a simple song about family: “My father is one of the greatest to ever step on a stage/My mother has the most beautiful voice in the world/And I am betwixt and between/Sean Lennon, you know what I mean/Born to the manor, never quite clamoring free/But it’s family…it’s family.” And what a family it is! Teddy managed to get his estranged parents, legends Richard and Linda Thompson, together (along with a few other extended family members) to help out with his new recording project and the results are impressive. This is not a polished album and it lacks cohesiveness, but the sum of the individual parts makes for such an endearing listen that I found myself coming back to play this one over and over again during the past year. A most bittersweet, unforgettable and touching recording.
Arc Iris – Arc Iris: “Arc Iris is the orchestral pop project of Jocie Adams, a former core member of The Low Anthem…The band includes a collective of 4 musicians plus Jocie with additional players frequently joining to expand the sound further to create their wild exploration of all kinds of musical styles – jazz, prog rock, blues, country, folk, and classical styles.” So says Amazon’s editorial review which prompted me to give this album a listen. Its style is not dissimilar to some of Kate Bush’s albums. I found it “unusual” and not particularly to my liking at first and intended to quit listening but it soon got its hooks in me and I ended up playing the entire album. What kept me listening were the constant little surprises that keep popping up everywhere (a byproduct of that “wild exploration” the Amazon review talked about). It is completely unconventional and works incredibly well. By album’s end, I had to admit this is a brilliant recording. Wonderfully, refreshingly different.
Still on the Levee – Chris Smither: This is a 2 CD set released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Smither’s career and includes newly recorded versions of 25 of his best songs. Guest musicians include Allen Toussaint, Loudon Wainwright, Kris Delmhorst, and the band Morphine. I loved this album immediately and it just seems to get better every time I play it.
So It Is With Us – Horse Feathers: One of the best folk rock albums I’ve heard in a long while. I was previously unfamiliar with Horse Feathers, but apparently their previous albums evoke a more pessimistic and sad feeling. I found the new release generally sounds upbeat. Apparently it is the group’s first album that includes percussion, a change that was made at the very brink of bandleader Justin Ringle’s decision to hang it all up. The whole album is one big dreamy mellow jam.
Tracks – Anne Hills: This is an album built around the theme of trains. I love folk singer, Anne Hills, but an album where every single song is about a train dampened my enthusiasm a little at first, but this is truly one of the outstanding albums of the year. The whole album moves in a very appealing rhythm reminiscent of a rolling train. I was afraid all the songs would sound alike, but there is much variety including both original compositions and old folk standards. Among the many highlights are a cover of “City of New Orleans,” the very humorous “Train to Morrow” (which made me laugh out loud), and the gorgeous “Pullman Porter’s Christmas.” Anne says on her website, ” I’m riding the rails that go back in history but also carry me forward … climb on board.” Good advice. I’m glad I did.
Nothing Can Bring Back the Time – Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker: Tastefully elegant symphonic arrangements are prominent on this beautiful new release. Clarke and Walker continue to wow us with their talents on multiple instruments and Clarke’s heart-skipping lilting voice is, as always, a real show-stopper. There is a unique version of “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” here which is the best I’ve heard, and the closing “Water and Wine” – a slow, moving song quietly punctuated with piano and sweeping symphonics – brings this classy, refined album to a very satisfying close. Chamber folk doesn’t get any better than this.
Lullaby and…the Ceaseless Roar – Robert Plant: Plant is back home from America but the musical influences of his days with Krauss and Griffin are still evident even as he continues to push the envelope a little further into new territories. In this writer’s opinion, this is one of his best efforts yet.
When the Deal Goes Down – David Olney: I’ve been a die-hard Olney fan for years. I just don’t understand how such a talented musician and showman can remain generally under the radar for all these years. Mainstream has ignored him, although a whole lot of mainstream artists have covered his songs and made huge hits from them. But if you really want the real deal, give Olney a listen. I raved about Olney shamelessly in a previous review, so I won’t re-hash it all here. Suffice it to say that When the Deal Goes Down is probably the best recording of Olney’s entire career.
Vena Portae – Vena Portae: This is the debut album from a side project of Australian singer Emily Barker, who regularly performs with her full time band, The Red Clay Halo. The side project is a threesome which she describes as a Swedish/Anglo/Aussie collaboration with Swedish producer-engineer-multi-instrumentalist Ruben Engzell, and English theatre maker-songwriter Dom Coyote. Jesper Jonsson, also from Sweden, appears on the record, as well. Emily’s work with The Red Clay Halo has a spark that consistently ignites all their recordings (2013’s Dear River made my desert island list), whereas the music of Vena Portae is necessarily a little more pared down and intimate sounding. It is lovely, though, and Barker’s vocals are as impressive as ever. This is a very, very fine debut album.
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn – Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn: A full album of nothing but two people playing banjos and some vocals might raise some serious skepticism in many listeners, but those who take the plunge anyway will be surprised to find that this recording sounds like a whole lot more. This is achieved by the use of seven different kinds of banjos, ranging from small ukulele types to larger baritone banjos that help serve as a bass line. Fleck and Washburn ingenuously bring in various influences including blues, African beats, old-time folk, and even an adaptation of a Béla Bartok classical composition. The album is much more than what might be expected from such a limited lineup. Very rewarding.
Vagabond – Eddi Reader: There are few singers with a more beautiful voice than Reader’s, and with John McCusker, Karen Matheson, Declan O’Rourke and Boo Hewerdine in the lineup, you know you’re in for a treat. There are no disappointments here. It is easily one of the most impressive recordings of the decade in my book.
Resolution Road – Easton Stagger Phillips: This album is from a collective made up of three musicians who each have successful musical careers as individuals – Tim Easton, Leeroy Stagger, and Evan Phillips. It is a very catchy alt country/roots rock album with hooks a plenty and incredible harmonies. This one demands repeat playing and is thoroughly enjoyable.
Dharma Blues – Peter Rowan: This has been getting rave reviews and no wonder. Peter Rowan has been a top-notch musician since his early days under the tutelage of the father of bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe, but Rowan is so much more than a bluegrass icon. He is constantly evolving and Dharma Blues is one of the best albums of his career so far. Eastern influences are all stirred up with elements of rock, folk, blues, country, gospel, and bluegrass. This is an album that should appeal to a large audience, not just bluegrass aficionados.
Lost in the Dream – War on Drugs: It almost seems blasphemous to put this album towards the bottom of a ‘best-of’ list since it holds the #1 spot of almost all the ‘best of 2014’ lists of every indie/rock/folk related website out there, but (really) this list is in no particular order. I will admit I put off listening to this one for a long time. I don’t know – maybe it’s the band name, but it just didn’t appeal to me. All the hoop-la finally got my curiosity up, though. And it really is that good.
When the Day is on the Turn – Dallahan: Here we have a rollicking blast from a new band just launched a year ago. This is Dallahan’s debut album and it features original music as well as traditional Irish tunes and songs. The majority of the tracks are instrumentals, with vocals on five of the 12 (counting the bonus track) that range from mournful laments to toe-tapping reels. It is easy to see why they earned an Emerging Excellence Award from Help Musicians UK and were recently nominated for Best Up and Coming Artist of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards 2014.
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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