Here are my picks for the Top 19 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2019. 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 19 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. Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance (Columbia/Legacy). When Leonard Cohen died less than three weeks after You Want It Darker was released in 2016, it was assumed that it was his final work. That album was produced by Adam Cohen, Leonard’s son, himself an accomplished singer-songwriter. As we now know, rough sketches for more songs – essentially Leonard reciting or gently singing his song-poems – were recorded during those sessions. Near the end of his life, Cohen the father tasked Cohen the son with completing the songs. The result is Thanks for the Dance, yet another Leonard Cohen masterwork of nine song-poems, seven of which have musical settings composed or co-composed by Adam.
2. Tom Russell – October in the Railroad Earth (Frontera Records). On several albums over the past two decades, Tom Russell has dedicated himself to brilliant explorations of lost or dimly remembered aspects of American culture. Tom continues that exploration on October in the Railroad Earth, an album Tom describes as “Jack Kerouac meets Johnny Cash in Bakersfield.” From the title song, inspired by the life and writings of Kerouac, through life-on-the-road songs, a corrido based on the death of a Mexican cowboy in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and a poignant true-story song about brothers who went off to war in the Middle East and didn’t really make it home even though they did come home, these songs continue to reinforce my long-held opinion that Tom is the finest songwriter of my generation.
3. SONiA disappear fear – By My Silence (Disappear Records). By My Silence by SONiA disappear fear (Sonia Rutstein) was inspired by such issues as the growing waves of antisemitism witnessed in Europe and North America in recent years and anger over the oppression of refugees and political dissidents. In in “Who I Am,” Sonia, a lesbian, seems to be in dialogues with her mother and with God about her sexuality. Her stunningly beautiful version of “Hatikvah,” sung as a prayer-like meditation, reflects on the feelings of hope at the heart of the Israeli national anthem, and her version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” is one of the best I’ve heard.
4. Susan Werner – NOLA: Susan Werner Goes to New Orleans (Sleeve Dog). New Orleans is one of my favorite music cities and on NOLA: Susan Werner Goes to New Orleans, Susan Werner captures the essence of the city through a set of original songs that reference the city’s history, its music and its food – all performed in arrangements that pay homage to NOLA’s traditional jazz. She caps the set with a jazzy interpretation of the traditional “House of the Rising Sun.”
5. John McCutcheon – To Everyone in All the World: A Celebration of Pete Seeger (Appalsongs). John McCutcheon – who has surely been one of our finest folksingers for decades now – was deeply inspired by Pete Seeger, whom he describes as “a beacon, a mentor, a friend, a musical partner” to him. On To Everyone in all the World: A Celebration of Pete Seeger, John offers a loving and masterful tribute to Pete, released to celebrate the centennial year of his birth, with 15 songs from his repertoire (12 of them written or co-written by Pete), performed in many different styles, many of them featuring stellar guest collaborators.
6. Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi – There is No Other (Nonesuch). On There is No Other, Rhiannon Giddens collaborates with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi on a deep, intense and inspiring set of songs from or inspired by various musical traditions that serve to validate the humanity in all of us. The sounds of Francesco’s instruments – which often suggest European or Middle Eastern influences – blend beautifully with Rhiannon’s voice, banjo and strings.
7. Shelley Posen – Ontario Moon (Well Done Music). Shelley Posen is well known throughout the folk music world as a member of Finest Kind, a mostly-retired Ottawa vocal trio known for its glorious harmonies, and as a versatile singer and songwriter whose work touches many genres. Ontario Moon, his fifth solo album, features a dozen songs uniquely arranged with musicians specifically recruited for the song in question.
8. Archie Fisher & Garnet Rogers – The Best Times After All: live (Snow Goose Songs). Archie Fisher, one of Scotland’s finest folksingers, and Garnet Rogers, one of Canada’s, have collaborated often over the past three decades. On The Best Times After All: live, recorded during four concerts in Ontario in 2018 (including the one I attended in Ottawa), the pair trade songs and, occasionally, verses, and back each other on original songs, folk songs, and songs drawn from several other contemporary writers. Together, Archie and Garnet bring out the best in each other.
9. Our Native Daughters – Songs of Our Native Daughters (Smithsonian Folkways). Our Native Daughters is a collective of four superb African American singers, songwriters and instrumentalists including Rhiannon Giddens and Leyla McCalla, both veterans of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Allison Russell, who grew up in Montreal and is known for her work with Po’ Girl and Birds of Chicago, and Amythyst Kiah. Singing and playing in various combinations, the four run through a program of mostly original songs inspired by African American history, particularly the history of African American women, as well as personal struggles and triumphs.
10. Bob Dylan – Travelin’ Thru: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 15, 1967-1969 (Columbia/Legacy). This three-CD set documents music recorded by Bob Dylan in Nashville between 1967 and ’69 and includes outtakes and alternate versions from John Wesley Harding – still one of my favorite Dylan albums – and Nashville Skyline, as well as the complete sessions with Johnny Cash (which takes up all of the second CD and part of the third), the audio from Dylan’s appearance on the Johnny Cash TV show, and four songs recorded with bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs.
11. Ian & Sylvia – The Lost Tapes (Stony Plain). Ian Tyson had a weekly TV show in Canada from 1970 until 1975 and Sylvia Tyson was on the show often. Recently, Sylvia rediscovered a trove of live tapes from that era and worked with producer Danny Greenspoon to assemble The Lost Tapes, a wonderful two-CD collection. The first CD is mostly Ian & Sylvia classics and the second includes their versions of songs drawn from various country, folk and blues sources. This album is a nice reminder of the historic importance of Ian & Sylvia to folk music and to the emergence of country rock.
12. Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva & Company – Indecent: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Yellow Sound Label). Central to the Broadway production of “Indecent” is the musical score created by violinist Lisa Gutkin, well known in klezmer music circles as a member of the Klezmatics, and accordionist-pianist Aaron Halva. While a few of the pieces in the score are familiar, most of the numbers were composed by Lisa and Aaron specifically for the show. You don’t really have to know the plot of the play to appreciate this music. Whether instrumentals featuring the band or songs with vocals by the production’s actors, the music will appeal to anyone who loves traditional klezmer or Yiddish theatre music.
13. Daniel Kahn with Vanya Zhuk – Bulat Blues (Oriente Musik). On Bulat Blues, singer Daniel Kahn, who is well known on the klezmer scene as leader of Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird, collaborates with Russian seven-string guitarist Vanya Zhuk on Daniel’s translations of songs written by Bulat Okudzhava, whose songs “come from his experiences as a soldier, pacifist, poet and novelist of the Second World War.” I was not previously familiar with Okudzhava so this album was one of my great revelations of the year.
14. Aviva Chernick – La Serena (Aviva Chernick) Singing primarily in the Judeo-Spanish language Ladino, but also in Hebrew and, briefly, in English, Toronto-based singer Aviva Chernick’s new album, La Serena, is an exquisite exploration of Sephardic songs. The CD booklet includes English-language translations of each of the song so that the meaning of the lyrics enhances the music and the enthralling sound of Aviva’s voice.
15. Durham County Poets – Hand Me Down Blues (Durham County Poets). The Durham County Poets, based in the Chateauguay Valley south of Montreal, whose music I’ve enjoyed since their first album, keep getting better and better. On Hand Me Down Blues, they zone in on the blues and, mixing original material with some excellent covers, have recorded one of the finest blues albums of the year.
16. Michael Jerome Browne – That’s Where It’s At (Borealis). On That’s Where It’s At, Michael Jerome Browne, one of Canada’s finest and most versatile acoustic blues artists – actually a master of many traditional roots styles – mostly turns his attention to the soul side of R&B, with some original material (co-written with B.A. Markus) and well-chosen covers from the likes of Stevie Wonder and Sam Cooke. It’s a stripped-down production with Michael on guitars, harmonica and banjo, and drummer John McColgan on five songs and cameos by vocalists Harrison Kennedy, Eric Bibb and Roxanne Potvin.
17. Michael Peter Smith – Fifteen Songs from Moby Dick (Michael Peter Smith). This is a fascinating project from Michael Peter Smith, whose songs include such classics as “The Dutchman” and “Spoon River.” Taking words directly from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Michael has crafted 15 songs, each of which stands on its own merits but which flow together to create a narrative of sorts.
18. Bruce Cockburn – Crowing Ignites (True North) Instrumentals have always been an important component of Bruce Cockburn’s music and not for the first time he’s released a masterful album of original compositions for acoustic guitar drawing stylistically from gospel, blues, Celtic and other folk and roots forms. There is a meditative, spiritual feel to several of the pieces.
19. Windborne – Recollections/Revolutions (Wand’ring Feet) Windborne’s two-CD set, Recollections/Revolutions, is a lovely collection of traditional and contemporary folk songs arranged in four-part harmonies with many of the songs performed a cappella and many of them reflecting on issues of social justice. The first CD, apparently, was originally released in 2015, but it was new to me.
I will be featuring songs from each of these albums when I host the Saturday Morning program on CKCU on Saturday, January 4, 7-10 am. (The program will also be available 24/7 for on-demand streaming after it airs.)
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