Monday, December 8, 2014

Top 14 for 2014

Here are my picks for the Top 14 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2014 (including reissues). As in past years, 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 30. I’ve been over the short list a bunch of times and came up with several similar – not identical – Top 14 lists. As I’m about to take a break from blogging until January, 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. Jesse Winchester – A Reasonable Amount of Trouble (Appleseed). My late friend Jesse Winchester wrote most of these songs in the wake of his first bout with cancer and finished recording the album just a few weeks before he passed away after the cancer returned. As I noted in the Montreal Gazette, there is a sense of mortality to many of the songs and the “album ends with ‘Just So Much,’ a beautiful and deeply affecting reflection on faith in God, on love, and on coming to terms with approaching death. A sad but perfect finale to a brilliant songwriting career.”

Click here for my full-length review of A Reasonable Amount of Trouble.

2. Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete (Columbia/Legacy). The most mythologized bootleg recordings of all time are finally released in their (more or less) complete form in a beautifully packaged 6-CD set. Old folk, country, blues and rock ‘n’ roll songs, covers of songs written by contemporary peers like Ian Tyson, Utah Phillips and Johnny Cash, lead into early versions of many Dylan classics and obscurities. As I noted, it is “endlessly fascinating” and “a great addition to the old weird Americana that is so much a part of what folk music is.”

3. Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems (Columbia). As I noted, “it occurs to me as I’ve listened and re-listened to the songs on Popular Problems that it is Leonard the poet as much as Leonard the songwriter that we’re listening to. Many of them are sung in a way that suggests recitation as much as singing and some of them have musical accompaniments that bolster the singing/recitation with pulse or heartbeat rather than melody… Popular Problems is yet another compelling masterwork. These are songs I fully expect will continue to reveal more layers of meaning with every hearing.”

4. Dave Van Ronk – Live in Monterey (Omnivore). The late, great Dave Van Ronk was at the peak of his form when this unreleased-until-this-year set was recorded in 1998. The set list includes many songs from the standard Dave Van Ronk canon but ends with a beautiful version of Ian Tyson’s classic “Four Strong Winds.” Dave recorded “Four Strong Winds” on To All My Friends in Far-Flung Places, but I don’t recall ever hearing him do it live.

5. Tom Russell – Midway to Bayamon (Frontera). A collection of rarities recorded between 1982 and 1992, most of them are from a pair of cassette-only releases from 1985 and 1987, as well as several demos, 45s and unreleased live cuts. An essential set by the artist I regard as the finest songwriter of my generation.

Also noteworthy are two other Tom Russell compilations released this year: Tonight We Ride: The Tom Russell Cowboy Anthology (Frontera) and The Western Years (RockBeat).

6. Eric Bibb – Blues People (Stony Plain). “As I’ve said before, Eric Bibb is one of the most inspired and inspiring of contemporary blues (and folk) artists. Blues People is yet another offering from the prolific singer, guitarist and songwriter that reinforces that opinion… There is a concept to Blues People as its songs – 11 of which were written or co-written by Eric while four were drawn from other sources – capture snippets of the lives of musicians who have played blues over the past century or so and place them in the context of the times and changing times in which they’ve lived.”

7. Garnet Rogers – Summer’s End (Snow Goose Songs). “Seven years on from his last album, and after years of thinking he was done with recording, Garnet Rogers has released Summer’s End, a collection of beautiful heartrending songs about memory, grief, hope and love… A quietly subdued tour de force.”

8. Catherine Russell – Bring It Back (Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi). Another in a series of great albums by my favorite present-day jazz singer. Catherine Russell fully understands the roots of early jazz and classic blues while bringing a contemporary sensibility and swing to her performances. On Bring It Back, Cat draws on such sources as Duke Ellington, Ida Cox, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday and her father, Luis Russell.

9. Various Artists – Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie (Compass).

Jean Ritchie, who turned 92 today (December 8), is one of the great links between traditional Appalachian folksongs and contemporary folk-rooted songwriting. “On the two CDs of Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie, a remarkable group of artists – some very famous, some relatively unknown – pay tribute to Jean’s legacy with loving, joyous performances of 37 songs, many of them Jean’s own songs, others traditional folk songs from her repertoire.”

10. Chris Smither – Still on the Levee: A 50 Year Retrospective (Signature Sounds). Chris Smither “is one of those musicians who has continued to mature and become more compelling with time and on Still on the Levee, a superb 2-CD set, he returned to [his hometown of] New Orleans to re-imagine and reinterpret 24 songs” he’s written over the course of his 50-year career.

11. John Gorka – Bright Side of Down (Red House). John Gorka writes and sings beautifully crafted songs that capture the lives, feelings and turning seasons of real, believable people. Along with 11 of his own songs on Bright Side of Down, John also includes a lovely version of the late Bill Morrissey’s “She’s That Kind of Mystery.”

12. Anne Hills – Tracks (Hand & Heart Music). “On the appropriately named Tracks, Anne Hills turns her beautiful voice and highly skilled songwriter’s pen to songs about trains and people whose lives are affected by them. Like almost all of Anne’s solo albums and her many collaborative efforts, Tracks – with nine of Anne’s songs and four well-chosen covers – is filled with gorgeous singing and seemingly simple yet elegantly perfect acoustic arrangements.”

13. Shari Ulrich – Everywhere I Go (Borealis). A lovely and lovingly-produced collection of songs that deal perceptively with themes of nature, love, loss, and life’s choices. Having heard just about all of Shari Ulrich’s group and solo work dating back to the ‘70s, I think Everywhere I Go represents her best work yet.

14. Notre Dame de Grass – That’s How the Music Begins (Notre Dame de Grass). With That’s How the Music Begins, Notre Dame de Grass, the finest pure-bluegrass band to ever come out of Montreal, offers “a textbook example of everything a traditional bluegrass fan would want in an album. There’s some excellent original material, some traditional standards, some outstanding instrumentals, and some gospel, all played and sung within the standard bluegrass instrumentation and vocal styles defined by Bill Monroe and other first-generation bluegrassers like the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs.”

--Mike Regenstreif

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