Here are my picks for the Top 15 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2015. As in past years, I started with the list of hundreds of 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 several times over the past couple of weeks and came up with several similar – not identical – Top 15 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. Tom Russell – The Rose of Roscrae: A Ballad of the West (Frontera). Expanding on the forms Tom Russell developed in The Man from God Knows Where and Hotwalker, The Rose of Roscrae, running two-and-a-half hours on two CDs, is perhaps his most ambitious work yet: a folk opera whose plot, although fictional, incorporates ideas and experiences drawn from a number of historical figures and from Tom’s real life sister-in-law who spent decades running a ranch on her own. In addition to Tom, the cast includes an amazing collection of guest singers and musicians and borrowed voices.
2. Eric Bibb & JJ Milteau – Lead Belly’s Gold (Stony Plain). Lead Belly’s recordings from the 1930s and ‘40s, and his repertoire – songs that he wrote and traditional songs that he adapted – have been cornerstones of the folk and blues revivals from the 1930s to the present. On Lead Belly’s Gold, the always inspired and inspiring singer and guitarist Eric Bibb teams with French harmonica player Jean-Jacques (JJ) Milteau for a magnificent collection of 13 songs from Lead Belly’s repertoire and three original songs written and sung from what they imagine to be Lead Belly’s perspective.
3. David Amram – This Land (Newport Classics). On This Land, David Amram conducts the Colorado Symphony Orchestra on two of his compositions: “This Land: Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie” and “Theme and Variations on Red River Valley for Flute and Strings,” beautiful pieces that combine folk and classical music. On the main piece, David uses Woody Guthrie’s melody from “This Land is Your Land” as the starting point to chronicle some of Woody’s travels – and the folks he encountered – from his childhood in Oklahoma through his last creative years in New York City. The variations – there are six major parts – use both “This Land is Your Land” and David’s own melodies that flow organically from Woody’s.
4. Tom Paxton – Redemption Road (Pax). The songs on Redemption Road, as on so many albums Tom Paxton has released over the past half-century, all quickly feel like old friends. There are songs that will make you smile, some that might bring a tear to the eye, and more than a few that will make you think and remember (even if your memories might not be the same as Tom’s or Tom’s characters).
5. Dave Van Ronk – Hear Me Howl (RockBeat). The late, very great Dave Van Ronk was one of the most influential and eclectic artists of the Greenwich Village folk scene and this 1964 concert on two CDs shows why. Although I’ve listened to all of Dave’s albums from those days countless times, and have Dave’s studio (and live) versions of almost all of these songs – in fact, multiple versions of some of them – it’s still a treat to hear this never-before-released concert recording.
6. Martin Grosswendt – Pay Day! (Martin Grosswendt). Payday! by Martin Grosswendt, only his third solo album in about 40 years, is the work of a masterful singer and musician who performs songs drawn from the great blues legends – and from several contemporary songwriters, including himself – with a deep-from-the-well authenticity and intensity that is rarely achieved by contemporary interpreters.
7. Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project – Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project (Borealis). For his most ambitious project yet, Canadian banjo master Jayme Stone has surrounded himself with a stellar cast of singers and musicians – among them Tim O’Brien, Margaret Glaspy, Moira Smiley, Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Eli West, and Drew Gonsalves – who reinterpret and reimagine 19 songs and tunes collected by legendary folklorist Alan Lomax (1915-2002). Released to celebrate the centennial of Lomax’s birth, it is an extraordinary collection at once timeless, traditional and utterly contemporary.
8. The Brothers Nazaroff – The Happy Prince (Smithsonian Folkways). More than six decades after Folkways released Jewish Freilach Songs, the only album the relatively obscure Nathan “The Prince” Nazaroff, some of today’s most accomplished klezmer musicians gathered as The Brothers Nazaroff to record The Happy Prince, a joyous tribute album to him that takes Nazaroff’s exuberance, energy and enthusiasm to a new level.
9. Happy Traum – Just for the Love of It (Lark’s Nest Music). On Just for the Love of It, Happy Traum shows impeccable taste in choosing a program of great traditional folk and blues songs, or contemporary songs written in the tradition, and even better taste in the way he arranges them with both reverence for his sources and the originality of his always creative fingerpicking guitar and warm singing. He also surrounds himself – track to track – with just the right set of supporting musicians for each song and arrangement.
10. John McCutcheon – Joe Hill’s Last Will (Appalsongs). Joe Hill (1879-1915) is a legendary figure in the history of folk music and the labor movement. The Wobbly labor organizer and songwriter was framed on a murder charge and executed at age 36 on November 19, 1915. To mark the centennial of Hill’s death, John McCutcheon offers an outstanding collection of Joe Hill songs. Although they date from a century and more ago and are essentially topical songs, most – particularly with John’s infectious and creative arrangements – seem relevant to the (economic) times we’re living in now.
Click here for my full-length review of Joe Hill’s Last Will.
11. Last Forever – Acres of Diamonds (StorySound). Last Forever – producer, composer and arranger Dick Connette and singer Sonya Cohen – specialized in wonderfully reimagined folksongs and new, but seemingly timeless, compositions of Dick’s. Every time I’ve listened Acres of Diamonds, I’ve discovered something new in the music, the lyrics, the strikingly original arrangements, the beautiful singing, or the totality of it all. Sadly, Sonya died of cancer on October 9, a week before Acres of Diamonds was released. She was just 50 years old.
12. Guy Davis – Kokomo Kidd (M.C.). Guy Davis, one of the premiere interpreters of traditional acoustic blues and one of the songwriters whose in-the-tradition work keeps the genre vital and alive in modern times, is in fine form on Kokomo Kidd, a set of original and borrowed material that includes at least a couple of terrific surprises.
13. Michael Jerome Browne – Sliding Delta (Borealis). On Sliding Delta, Michael Jerome Browne returns to the kind of early blues that first inspired him and it’s a stunning selection of songs drawn from African American blues legends who were all gone by the time he got started four decades ago. Except for the final track on which he’s joined by Eric Bibb, this is a purely solo album featuring Michael’s vocals and instrumental virtuosity – mostly on guitar but occasionally on banjo or mandolin or with added racked harp.
14. Ian Tyson – Carnero Vaquero (Stony Plain). Ian Tyson’s voice – familiar from those great Ian & Sylvia albums of the 1960s and early-‘70s and from so many great solo albums in the decades since – is in back in fine form on Carnero Vaquero, a terrific collection that includes six new songs written or co-written by Ian, one of this country’s finest songwriters for more than a half-century. Ian recorded the album on his ranch in Alberta with his working band and they know just what to do with these songs. At 81, he sounds as great as ever.
15. Jane Voss & Hoyle Osborne – Never No More Blues (Ripple). Never No More Blues by Jane Voss (most lead vocals and guitar) and Hoyle Osborne (piano, guitar and vocals) with some stellar back-up musicians is an absolutely sublime set of songs and tunes dating from the early days of classic blues, jazz, ragtime and country music – many of them showing the extent to which musical styles and influences were already blending in the early decades of the last century.