Here are my picks for the Top 10 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2011 (including reissues). I started with the list of more than 400 albums that landed on my desk over the past year and narrowed it down to a short list of about 35. I’ve been over the short list a bunch of times and came up with several similar – not identical – Top 10 lists. Today’s list is the final one. The order might have been slightly different, and there are several other worthy albums that might have been included, had one of the other lists represented the final choice.
1. Tom Russell – Mesabi (Shout! Factory). There are a couple of distinct, but somehow linked, song-cycles on this album. The first explores the nature of the pursuit of art, the nature of legend, and the rewards and the cruelty of fame. The second is about the back-and-forth exchanges and borderland inter-dependencies of the area around El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. Mesabi is another in Tom Russell’s long series of masterpiece albums – all of them different from each other, all of them layered to reveal more with each hearing.
2. Kate & Anna McGarrigle – Tell My Sister (Nonesuch). An essential 3-CD set that reissues the first two highly acclaimed Kate & Anna McGarrigle albums – Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Dancer With Bruised Knees – along with 21 previously unreleased demos – many of them Kate solo – recorded between 1971 and 1974. The third CD of previously unreleased demos is absolutely wonderful. While most of the songs would end up being recorded on later Kate & Anna albums, there are six songs that have never been released before.
3. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & the Harvest (Acony). It’s been eight years since Gillian Welch’s last album and the wait was rewarded with a superb set of new songs steeped in folk music tradition. The only musicians are Gillian and David Rawlings, her co-writer and long-time partner. The arrangements seem simple but are as deeply complex as the layered songwriting.
4. Stan Rogers – The Very Best of Stan Rogers and Fogarty’s Cove (Fogarty’s Cove/Borealis). The project to remaster and reissue the catalogue of Stan Rogers, arguably Canada’s greatest folk-rooted singer-songwriter, began with The Very Best of Stan Roger, a 16-song overture, and continued with Fogarty’s Cove, his first album. No contemporary songwriter has captured Maritime life as genuinely as Stan did on Fogarty’s Cove.
5. Bruce Cockburn – Small Source of Comfort (True North). Small Source of Comfort is Bruce Cockburn at his most intimate, his most musical, and his most incisive. It quickly assumed its place among my favourites of Bruce’s many albums.
Click here for my full-length review of Small Source of Comfort.
6. Diana Jones – High Atmosphere (Proper American). The third in a series of superb albums that Diana Jones has released since 2006 in which she creates seemingly simple and plainspoken (plain sung, really) songs which draw on the traditions of southern folk music. While the songs and performances may be seemingly simple, they are, in fact, skillfully drawn pieces that weave together timeless melodies with lyrics that are poetic and oblique on some songs and which tell stories and present fully fleshed out characters on others.
7. The Klezmatics – Live at Town Hall (Klezmatics Disc). The Klezmatics, one of the most creative and influential of contemporary klezmer bands, celebrate their 25th anniversary this year with this two-CD set recorded at their 20th anniversary concert in 2006 where the band was joined by a stellar bunch of 26 other guest singers and musicians to play some of the best music from their nine previous albums in what really was a once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza.
8. Bruce Murdoch – Sometimes I Wonder Why the World (Bruce Murdoch). These intimate and intense songs seem to flow like 13 movements in a suite. Mature love and human courage are the dominant themes. New songs from Bruce Murdoch are always to be treasured.
9. Ry Cooder – Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch). Drawing on traditional folk, blues, Mexican and rock motifs, and the influence of Woody Guthrie, Ry Cooder shows how vital contemporary topical songwriting can still be. While the anti-Bush pieces may already seem dated in the Obama era, even they speak to enduring themes of war, peace, honesty and accountability.
10. Carrie Elkin- Call It My Garden (Red House). A mature artist who has obviously developed her song-craft and performance styles, Carrie Elkin’s songs are layered in meaning and seem to reveal more each time I’ve listened to this compelling album.