‘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.
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I didn’t listen to everything this year. Neither did you. I have no objective way of knowing that these are (or are not) the 20 best albums released this year. Neither do you. But these are the ones I most loved and most want to spend more time with next year, and who knows, maybe you’ll find something special here too, something you missed but can connect with and find riches in, something off your usual menu that you might come to be thankful for. If that happens even once, the list will be worthwhile. And as always, if any of the musicians drop by, thank you for the work, care, commitment, and creativity represented below.
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John Fullbright, Woodyfest 2011, Okemah, OK
“I have no doubt that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music.” – Jimmy Webb
“[At SXSW], this young Oklahoman’s name was on everybody’s lips.” – American Songwriter
In a graveyard on the north side of the small rural town of Okemah, Oklahoma, where 23-year-old John Fullbright was raised (and still resides) are two tombstones marking the graves of two very different men. One is on the east side of the cemetery; the other on the west. In between the two is where Fullbright says he’d like his own tombstone to be placed. Why? Because the two tombstones bear the names of the two most influential people in his life – his grandpa and Woody Guthrie. It is the subject of a song Fullbright wrote called “Tombstone,” one of the standout tracks on a live recording of a concert he performed three years ago at the Blue Door in Oklahoma City bearing the simple title of Live at the Blue Door. It was not promoted nationally, but it was an attention-getter for those who heard it (it set sales records at the 2009 Woodyfest, the annual folk festival honoring Woody Guthrie), and Fullbright has continued to promote the album through a heavy touring schedule with his shows steadily gaining him a growing fan base one gig at a time.
The recording project was simple – a one-man show with just a voice, a guitar, and a harmonica, but lest you are thinking (like I was) that this by definition spells ‘boring’, think again. I was surprised at the depth and fullness that is generated by this one-man band and captured in the live recording. Thirteen of its 17 tracks are Fullbright’s own compositions, and he writes surprisingly insightful and mature lyrics that belie his youth (he was a mere 21 years old then, but had already become a favorite at outdoor music festivals before he was out of high school). He is able to create quite a sound all by himself, slapping the guitar strings with such fervor that the lack of a drumset is not even noticed, and gives a unique vocal delivery that makes the listener stand up and take notice.
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“To me, it’s bogus that art can only be in museums. The real art is what goes on when people don’t expect it. My idea of a good time is getting in front of an audience and giving them more than they expected. That makes it a worthwhile, fulfilling thing to me.” – David Olney
Townes Van Zandt’s short list of favorite music writers included Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and … his buddy, David Olney. Obviously Olney keeps pretty good company, and deservedly so (except Eric Taylor once said, “Townes must have had a drink or two when he said Olney was up there with Mozart – Olney’s about as good as it gets when it comes to writin’, but he don’t sing like Mozart.”). With a career spanning more than four decades, he’s had time to polish his art to a fine shine. Whether performing blues, jazz, country, or folk ballads, Olney excels in them all – not to mention he can seriously rock. In short, David Olney is one brilliant artist – even if he doesn’t sing like Mozart. I am constantly amazed at what he comes up with next.
His latest venture is a unique series of thematic mini-album EPs on his own Deadbeet Records label, two of which have been released so far. Each EP consists of reinterpretations of some of Olney’s classic catalog tunes combined with brand new songs to create its own unique theme. The series capitalizes on Olney’s special talent for spinning a tale, which has made him one of the most original and impressive storytellers in the music business.
“Something happened. Back there all those centuries ago. Something not easily believed or easily dismissed. Two thousand years of glory and horror, of love and hate, of beauty and violence have only made those long ago events more murky and more enigmatic. But nothing comes of nothing. Something happened. The Stone is an attempt to address those events. From varying points of view (a con man, a donkey, a murderer and a soldier), a story is told. A picture struggles to emerge. Nothing is proved. Nothing is denied.’” (From the CD cover)
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When country/folk-roots singer songwriter Kate Campbell opens her mouth to sing, you definitely know she’s from the Deep South – telltale signs ooze from her every syllable. But this southern bred artist from Mississippi is no country bumpkin. Her inherited country twang is tempered by a polished refinement and beautiful expression that adds irresistible charm to her voice, captivating audiences and drawing them into her southern world which is the birthplace of such notable writers as Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. Kate’s formative years were spent in Sledge, Mississipi during the height of the civil rights movement and much of her music is inspired by her coming-of-age experiences as a young middle-class white girl during those tumultuous times. As the daughter of a Baptist minister, she was exposed to a heavy dose of spiritual singing, having grown up singing hymns out of the Baptist Hymnal that proclaimed a love for God and fellow man at a time and locale where paradoxical community attitudes abounded. She also grew up listening to a melting pot of music on the radio, including country, folk, pop, R&B and southern rock – all played on the same radio station. Her songwriting is a hodge-podge of all these diverse influences. Many of her compositions are autobiographical yet presented in a way that reveals the bigger picture of universal humanity, and her talent for singing her stories is every bit as evident as the talents of the authors previously mentioned whose works she admires and to whom she is often compared. Her CD booklets frequently include some of her favorite quotes from these literary giants and others.
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I confess to being a skeptic regarding best-of-year lists, though I suspect I am far from alone. The general arbitrariness of the exercise (my own list might look different if you asked me in a different week*) combines with inevitable comparison of apples and oranges (is it really possible to say that a given ambient release is slightly “better” than a given rock album?). What’s more, I usually fail to find my own listening reflected in most published lists (this year I trawled several prominent top 50 and top 100 lists and found almost zero overlap with my own personal list). Adding another may well be simply adding to the futility.
I’m going to go ahead though, largely because of the small chance that as a result someone might discover one of the titles listed below and come to love it. After all, I discovered several of them through the gratefully received recommendations of others. Moreover, each of these releases deserves to be noted on a list somewhere. I make no claim to judge cosmic significance, attribute enduring worth, or arbitrate taste. The following albums are simply 2011 releases that I’ve played many times each and that have left me delighted or fascinated and wanting to keep hearing them in 2012.
[*Addendum – as if purposely to prove this correct, two days after posting this list I discovered the album Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite by FareWell Poetry; had I heard it a week earlier it would have made my top five.]
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This is part of a series on music that has influenced contributors to Music is Good.
I was a bona-fide “grown-up” before I realized there were all kinds of good music hidden away in a vast array of genres I never took the time to investigate. I suppose I am not unique. During our teen years, while some adventurous listeners may follow the beat of their own individual drum, most of us at this stage of life are typically influenced by what the airwaves are playing from the latest top-40 charts. None of the music from that early part of my life was, however, what I would call influential in defining my lasting musical preferences. It was only much later that some albums began to seep into my ears and, in hindsight, I see how they proved to be landmark albums for me – albums which encouraged me to branch out into other genres, and once on that unbeaten path, find all those undiscovered treasures that awaited me. Here’s the ones that did it for me:
I received this CD as a gift from a friend many years ago and, while I had vaguely heard of The Waterboys, I was not at all familiar with their music. From the moment I popped this CD into my player and heard those riotously glorious fiddle notes that open the first song, “Fisherman’s Blues,” I was hooked. This was a sound very different from anything I had been musically exposed to previously. It was my springboard to the discovery of a whole new world of folk-rock with touches of traditional-sounding material by performers outside the U.S., which in turn, led me to more traditional folk tunes recorded by the likes of Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Steeleye Span, etc. Fisherman’s Blues is still a CD I play often.
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This is the first article in a series where Music is Good contributors discuss the albums that have most influenced them musically. They will include some favourites that they play regularly now, but other choices will be music that they rarely listen to anymore, but had a major influence on their musical development at the time.
My selection begins with the Beatles:
The Beatles inevitably had a major influence upon me musically as I was teenager in their early days. For me this is a turning point album moving from the early fairly straight forward recordings that could be replicated on stage to the later studio based albums like Sgt Pepper. To some extent it reflects my growing up as a person alongside the Beatles ‘growing up’ musically. It is still an album I play regularly with many standout tracks for me such as “Dr Robert” and “Got to Get You Into My Life”.
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Photo by John Ramspott
Yes, at some point I referred to the Bluegrass banjo as the “hillbilly continuo.” I could think of no better way of explaining the spray of notes that rolls off the musician’s hands, propelling the music rapidly, but steadily, forward. Indeed, the comparison to the role of the basso continuo in Baroque music would seem to hold. My own prejudices about mountain culture perhaps deserved more scrutiny.
Give Me The Banjo, the documentary that just aired nationally on PBS and can be viewed online, provides more perspective. The banjo is at the middle of a nation’s long struggle to understand both its genius and its divisions. The product of The Banjo Project, a nine-year oral history, the documentary could not come at a more appropriate time, just as the instrument is enjoying a renaissance. Pricier and heavier than the ukulele, the other instrument of the moment, the banjo rings authenticity for a new cosmopolitan generation. It is genuine. It is restless. And as narrator Steve Martin has “banjoked” in the past, it is the sound of happiness.
The documentary begins, luckily for me, with the banjo’s role as a symbol of African-American culture. Giving only a casual explanation of the instrument’s genesis and its refinement by slaves, Sweeney‘s black-faced minstrel sets off a wider discussion about how the banjo was a caricature of African-Americans. No other part of the film better attempts to connect the instrument to social changes and a broader public consumed with understanding its identity. Indeed, the efforts of enthusiasts and scholars to balance the story of racism with the genius of American music makes the beginning sections somewhat explosive.
Sections on Gus Cannon, Charlie Poole, and Pete Seeger connect the banjo to the mobility of Americans in the early 20th century. Gus Cannon’s story is interwoven with interviews with the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons, who helps to make cannon’s jug band blues sound vibrant. This is the film at its most irresistible, feeling both erudite and homespun at the same time. By the time “Walk Right In” becomes a revival hit in the 1960s, it’s hard to see Cannon as anything other than a genius who wrested the black image from the minstrels.
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