Here are my picks for the Top 17 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2017. 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 17 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. Note: A couple of these albums were actually released in late-2016 but I only heard them for the first time in January 2017.
1. Various Artists – Woody Guthrie: The Tribute Concerts – Carnegie Hall 1968, Hollywood Bowl 1970 (Bear Family Records). This magnificent set of three CDs and two stunning coffee-table-sized hardcover books document the Woody Guthrie tribute concerts held in 1968 at Carnegie Hall and at the Hollywood Bowl in 1970 featuring such artists as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Richie Havens and others. There are many performances not included in the original LP release and CD reissue and the sequencing has been arranged to reflect the actual concerts rather than a hybrid of the two as on the LPs.
Click here for my full-length review of Woody Guthrie: The Tribute Concerts – Carnegie Hall 1968, Hollywood Bowl 1970.
2. Tom Russell – Folk Hotel (Frontera Records). The songs on Folk Hotel provide more examples of why I’ve long considered Tom Russell to be the finest songwriter of the generation that came after Bob Dylan (the only non-original is a definitive interpretation of Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” sung as a duet with Joe Ely). Tom’s songs are rich with stories and characters that come vividly to life.
3. Various Artists – Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition (Great Smoky Mountain Association). Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition is a compelling 2-CD exploration of traditional folksongs found in the Appalachian Mountains – some of them well-known, some of them more obscure. Likewise some of the artists – including Rosanne Cash, Archie Fisher and Alice Gerrard are well-known and some not, including both contemporary members of traditional singing families and revivalists. Each of the 32 performances – 31 of them previously unreleased and most recorded specifically for this project – on Big Bend Killing is performed with both reverence for tradition and compelling vitality.
4. Various Artists – Tribute to the Travelin’ Lady Rosalie Sorrels (Rosalie Sorrels Tribute). As Eliza Gilkyson writes in the notes to her track on the 4-CD, 44-song Tribute to the Travelin’ Lady Rosalie Sorrels, “Any folksinger of my generation must claim Rosalie Sorrels as a foundational influence.” At least two years in the making, most of the songs were written by Rosalie. A few others were songs from her vast repertoire, two – including Tom Russell’s “Pork Roast and Poetry” – were written in tribute to her, and a couple are original songs by the late Guy Clark and the late Jimmy LaFave that I can easily imagine hearing Rosalie do.
5. Tom Russell – Play One More: The Songs of Ian & Sylvia (True North Records). Ian & Sylvia – Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson – were a huge influence on the young Tom Russell. As a songwriter, Tom has collaborated with both Ian and Sylvia and on Play One More: The Songs of Ian & Sylvia, he offers a remarkable tribute to Ian’s and Sylvia’s songwriting with eight songs from the Ian & Sylvia years (the 1960s and early-‘70s) and two more each from their solo years (including one of Tom’s co-writes with each of them).
6. The Klezmatics – Apikorsim/Heretics (World Village). Apikorsim/Heretics is a return to the kind of progressive Jewish cultural albums the Klezmatics were making in the first half of their now 30-year history: superb material drawn from both traditional sources and their own imaginations matched by brilliant singing and playing. In some ways, it’s an album of contrasts. On the one hand, there are songs which express religious concepts which could be embraced by the most fervently Orthodox Jews. On the other hand, there are songs which celebrate a completely secular lifestyle that rejects all of the restrictions of an Orthodox – or even moderately religious – lifestyle.
7. Jayme Stone – Jayme Stone’s Folklife (Borealis Records). Jayme Stone’s Folklife is the follow-up to Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project. At about 43 minutes and 10 songs it’s a shorter CD than the first one (which had 19 songs and clocked in at 66 minutes). But it’s a tighter, more focused group with nine of the 10 songs featuring the core group of Jayme Stone, Moira Smiley, Joe Phillips and Sumaia Jackson – sometimes augmented by drummer Nick Fraser and/or harmony singers Felicity Williams and Denzel Sinclaire. The other song features Jayme with Dom Flemons and Ron Miles.
8. Too Sad for the Public – Vol. 1 – Oysters Ice Cream Lemonade: American Folk Fantasies Written and Arranged by Dick Connette (StorySound Records). For 20 years, since the release of the first CD by Last Forever, I’ve greatly admired the work of composer/songwriter/producer Dick Connette. Much of the material on Vol. 1 – Oysters Ice Cream Lemonade: American Folk Fantasies Written and Arranged by Dick Connette, his new project – recorded under the group name ‘Too Sad for the Public’ – continues in the vein of Last Forever with original songs based on traditional themes and a couple of fascinating covers of pop songs. The lead vocals are in the capable hands of Suzzy Roche (four songs), Rachelle Garniez (one song), Ana Egge (two songs) and Gabriel Kahane (one song) – and there are also several go-go instrumentals recorded as a tribute to the late Chuck Brown.
Click here for my full-length review of Vol. 1 – Oysters Ice Cream Lemonade: American Folk Fantasies Written and Arranged by Dick Connette.
9. Eric Bibb – Migration Blues (Stony Plain Records). Migration Blues, a topical and timely set of songs about the migration of peoples and individuals – from country to country or place to place – is one of the prolific Eric Bibb’s most powerful and compelling collections. This is an intimate recording. In addition to Eric, who variously plays various guitars and six-string banjo, the core musicians are multi-instrumentalist Michael Jerome Browne of Montreal on various banjos, various guitars, fiddle and mandolin; and harmonica master JJ Milteau of France. The three virtuoso musicians – whether all three or two at a time – are a seamless unit.
10. Moore & McGregor – Dream with Me (Ivernia Records). Dream with Me by Moore & McGregor – veteran musicians Wendy Moore (harp, oboe, English horn, pennywhistle, vocals) and Arthur McGregor (guitar, banjo, bodhran, and most of the lead vocals) – is a marvelous debut album of songs and tunes by a duo who have long worked together (often performing kids’ shows as the Celtic Rathskallions) that includes superb original songs by Arthur, traditional Celtic tunes, and several excellent songs drawn from other writers.
11. Orit Shimoni – Songs for My Father (Orit Shimoni). While Israeli-Canadian singer-songwriter Orit Shimoni’s previous albums have primarily been original songs in English, she decided to record an album of the Israeli folksongs she grew up with as a gift for her father on his 70th birthday. Songs for My Father is a lovely, quiet, often thought-provoking collection.
12. Tom Paxton – Boat in the Water (Pax Records). Now 80, legendary folksinger and songwriter Tom Paxton remains a vital artist. On Boat in the Water, Tom offers eight new songs and new versions of five of his classics from the 1960s and ‘70s all delivered from the perspective of wisdom and experience – whether they are songs reflecting his own life or reflecting the lives of characters created from his (and his co-writers’) creative imagination(s).
13. Bruce Cockburn – Bone On Bone (True North). Bone On Bone, Bruce Cockburn’s first new album in more than six years, is a compelling set of personal, often spiritual, songs that touches folk, rock, blues, jazz and gospel bases.
14. Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi – Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train (M.C. Records). On Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train, Guy Davis, one of the finest blues artists of my generation, combines with the excellent Italian harmonica player Fabrizio Poggi for a loving homage to the inspiring folk-blues masters Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Guy and Fabrizio include several of Sonny and Brownie’s original songs and a bunch of other songs drawn from their extensive repertoire.
15. Jim Kweskin – Unjugged (Hornbeam Recordings) On Unjugged, a new album recorded in England, the masterful folk legend Jim Kweskin offers a delightful hour-long set of folk, blues and novelty songs. Even though these are familiar songs, Jim’s interpretations make them all sound fresh. The album’s title refers to the fact that he’s playing without his colleagues from the renowned 1960s-era jug band that bore his name. (In fact, Jim has made many more albums on his own – and in other collaborations – than he did with Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band.)
16. Duke Robillard – Duke Robillard and his Dames of Rhythm (M.C. Records). Of all of Duke Robillard’s many and varied recordings, my favorites are his swing and jazz albums. And the constantly delightful Duke Robillard and his Dames of Rhythm may well be his best swing and jazz album yet. Duke plays acoustic archtop guitar throughout the 15 tracks and sings lead on three songs – and duets with Sunny Crownover (of Sunny and her Joy Boys fame) on another. There are absolutely fantastic rhythm and horn sections (including my old friend Billy Novick on clarinet and alto sax) and most of the lead vocals are handled by rotating cast of extraordinary Dames of Rhythm: the aforementioned Sunny Crownover, Maria Muldaur, Kelley Hunt, Madeleine Peyroux, Catherine Russell, and Elizabeth McGovern.
17. Julian Fauth – The Weak and the Wicked, the Hard and the Strong (Electro-Fi Records) Most of the 14 songs on Toronto-based singer and pianist Julian Fauth’s The Weak and the Wicked, the Hard and the Strong are creatively reimagined versions of well-known blues and folksongs like “John Henry,” “Betty and Dupree,” and even Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
I will be featuring songs from each of these albums when I host the Saturday Morning program on CKCU on Saturday, January 6, 7-10 am. (The program will also be available 24/7 for on-demand streaming after it airs.)