Here are my picks for the Top 18 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2018. 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 18 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. Bob Dylan – More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14 (Columbia/Legacy). Blood on the Tracks, released in 1975, was one of Bob Dylan’s masterpieces. The single-CD version of More Blood, More Tracks offers the best alternate versions of each of the songs from the original album’s first sessions in New York City – most of which reveal the songs at a deeper level – as well as the outtake “Up to Me.” Completists will revel in the six-CD version which includes every take of every song from the New York sessions and remixed and remastered versions of the songs Dylan re-recorded in Minnesota for the original album.
2. Tom Russell – Old Songs Yet to Sing (Frontera Records). Old Songs Yet to Sing is a reunion album. A reunion of singer-songwriter Tom Russell, virtuoso guitarist Andrew Hardin – and 20 of the songs they played together for 25 or 26 years on the road and in the studio, beginning circa 1980. It’s just the two of them on the record – Tom on lead vocals and guitar and Andy on lead guitar and harmony vocals – and they make these songs, no matter how familiar they may be, sound fresh.
3. Various Artists – Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II (Six Degrees). During the Second World War, ethnomusicologists at the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture set out to preserve the new Yiddish songs documenting the experiences of Jews fighting the Nazis in the Red Army, as well as those working on the home fronts, and songs reporting on such atrocities as the massacre at Babi Yar. For decades the songs were thought lost. However, the lyrics of many were rediscovered in the 1990s. Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II is an extraordinary album – featuring five singers and a group of superb instrumentalists – recorded in Toronto that documents some of those songs.
4. Reggie Harris – Ready to Go (Reggie Harris Music). Reggie Harris released Ready to Go in 2018, his first solo album after many albums as a duo with Kim Harris. Like virtually all of his albums with Kim, this is an inspired and inspiring set filled with much joy, some sorrow and a whole lot of hope.
5. Maggie Roche – Where Do I Come From: Selected Songs (StorySound). Maggie Roche – who lost her battle with cancer on January 21, 2017 at age 65 – was a uniquely gifted songwriter responsible for many of the best songs recorded over the years by The Roches, her trio with younger sisters Terre and Suzzy. The two CDs of Where Do I Come From: Selected Songs include some of Maggie’s songs from albums by The Roches, as well as from duo albums by Maggie & Terre and Maggie & Suzzy, unreleased demos from the early-1970s, and a solo home recording of what was probably her final song,
6. Nefesh Mountain – Beneath the Open Sky (Nefesh Mountain). Although there are a significant number of Jewish virtuoso bluegrass musicians, the genre itself has rarely been a vehicle for specifically Jewish-themed music. But on Beneath the Open Sky, Nefesh Mountain – the husband and wife duo of multi-instrumentalist Eric Lindberg and singer Doni Zasloff – are making Jewish music within a traditional bluegrass framework.
7. Jimmy LaFave – Peace Town (Music Road). Jimmy LaFave – who passed away at age 61 on May 21, 2017 after a battle with spindle cell sarcoma, a cancer of the connective tissues – had a brilliant understanding of where folk music, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country, jazz and popular song all met seamlessly and authentically. In his final year, Jimmy worked tirelessly on Peace Town, an affecting 2-CD set that captures many of the styles and influences that ran through his music.
8. Eliza Gilkyson – Secularia (Red House). On th thoughtful Secularia, Eliza Gilkyson responds to contemporary issues and times with compelling songs of what might be described as secular spiritualism. As well as her original material, Eliza offers “Solitary Singer,” written by her father, Terry Gilkyson, in 1949, and a wonderful duet with the late Jimmy LaFave on the traditional “Down by the Riverside.”
9. Eric Bibb – Global Griot (Stony Plain). On Global Griot, a magnificent 2-CD set, Eric Bibb combines original material and traditional blues and folk songs with influences and instrumentation from music from around the world – particularly West Africa. Among his collaborators are kora player and singer Solo Cissokho and Canadian blues artists Michael Jerome Browne and Harrison Kennedy.
10. Ken Tizzard – A Good Dog is Lost: A Collection of Ron Hynes Songs (Ken Tizzard). Ron Hynes – who lost his battle with cancer on November 19, 2015 at age 64 – was, as I noted in a review of one of his albums, “without question, one of Canada’s greatest singer-songwriters – a writer whose genius can be found in decades worth of great songs.” On A Good Dog is Lost: A Collection of Ron Hynes Songs, Ken Tizzard, who once worked as a backup musician for Ron, offers excellent, affecting versions of some of those songs.
11. Maria Muldaur – Don’t You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blu Lu Barker (The Last Music Company). Maria Muldaur went to New Orleans to record Don’t You Feel My Leg, a terrific tribute to legendary NOLA blues singer Blue Lu Barker. The album overflows with clever, sexy songs, Maria’s great singing and infectious arrangements featuring some of the Crescent City’s best traditional jazz musicians.
12. El Coyote – El Coyote (El Coyote). El Coyote brings together three terrific Montreal singer-songwriters – Angela Desveaux, Katie Moore and Michelle Tompkins – and some equally terrific backup musicians for a set of great country-tinged songs. The three principals trade songs round-robin style with the other two singers providing angelic harmonies.
13. Lucy Kaplansky – Everyday Street (Lucy Kaplansky). On Everyday Street, her first solo album in six years, Lucy Kaplansky gives us seven of her original songs – co-written with her husband Richard Litvin – that celebrate such topics as friendship, love, her daughter and her dog. She also gives us a lovely traditional folk song and fine versions of songs by Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Nanci Griffith.
14. Orit Shimoni – Lost and Found on the Road to Nowhere (Orit Shimoni). Orit Shimoni seems to spend almost all of her time moving from city to city, country to country and continent to continent playing concerts and prolifically writing and recording songs that muse on love and loneliness, everyday incidents, inspirational songwriters and childhood memories.
15. Rory Block – A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith (Stony Plain). On her latest tribute album, Rory Block turns her attention to Bessie Smith, one of the greatest of the classic blues singers of the 1920s and ‘30s. While Smith recorded with pianists and other jazz musicians, Rory has arranged these songs in her own country blues style for vocals and guitar, sometimes overdubbing more guitar parts, bass, homemade percussion and harmony vocals herself. So, while the songs are familiar from Smith’s versions, Rory makes them her own – with her powerful guitar playing and soulful singing.
16. Kate Campbell – Damn Sure Blue (Large River Music). Kate Campbell’s songs continue to provide deep insight into the people of the American Deep South and how it has changed – or has been too slow to change – in the wake of the civil rights movement. As well as her own songs, Kate also interprets songs by the likes of Peter LaFarge and Johnny Cash.
17. Vince Halfhide – Vince Halfhide (Vince Halfhide) Master guitarist Vince Halfhide is a veteran Ottawa musician. I’ve often seen him as an MVP sideman for several different artists. I’ve also seen him on occasion playing solo and quickly came to appreciate that he’s a fine singer-songwriter himself. I’ve long hoped that he’d release a CD that I can enjoy and share on the radio. With the eponymously named Vince Halfhide, Vince has delivered that CD – a fine collection of 12 well-crafted original songs mostly in folk and acoustic blues veins.
18. The LYNNeS – Heartbreak Songs for the Radio (The LYNNeS) Two of Ottawa’s finest singer-songwriters, Lynn Miles and Lynne Hanson, began co-writing songs when Lynne hired Lynn to produce one of her albums. While both continue to pursue solo careers, they have also begun to receive much acclaim for their duo performances as The LYNNeS and for this debut album – the recipient of Canadian Folk Music Awards for Ensemble of the Year and English Songwriter(s) of the Year.
I will be featuring songs from each of these albums when I host the Saturday Morning program on CKCU on Saturday, January 5, 7-10 am (EST). (The program will also be available 24/7 for on-demand streaming after it airs.)
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