Here are my picks for the Top 10 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2023. As in past years, I started with the list of hundreds of new albums that I listened to 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 10 lists. 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. Any new albums that arrive between now and the end of the year will be considered for my 2024 list.
1. Payadora Tango Ensemble – Silent Tears: The Last Yiddish Tango (Six Degrees). The powerful songs on Silent Tears: The Last Yiddish Tango are based on testimonies, poems and other writings from women in Toronto who survived sexual violence and other forms of torture at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. Masterfully played by the musicians of the Payadora Tango Ensemble – Rebekah Wolkstein, Drew Jurecka, Robert Horvath and Joseph Phillips – the songs are brought to life by singers Aviva Chernick, Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk, Lenka Lichtenberg and Marta Kosiorek.
2. Daniel Kahn & Jake Shulman-Ment – The Building and Other Songs (Oriente Musik). Most of the songs on The Building and Other Songs by Daniel Kahn & Jake Shulman-Ment are Daniel’s Yiddish-language versions of great songs written by the likes of Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton, and Tom Waits. However, these are not simply translations from English to Yiddish. By reading the Yiddish to English translations in the CD booklet, it is quickly evident that Daniel has fully re-imagined each of the songs in ways that are both faithful to the original versions and that take the songs in entirely new directions.
3. Tom Paxton & John McCutcheon – Together (Appalseed Productions). During the pandemic, Tom Paxton, one of folk music’s greatest singer-songwriters since the early-1960s, and John McCutcheon, one of folk music’s greatest singer-songwriters since the mid-1970s, got together on Zoom to write songs. Together – mostly duets and a few solo performances – has 14 of their best songs. The songs range from inspiring (“Ukrainian Now,” “Letters from Joe”), to humorous (“Same Old Crap”), to insightful (“Invisible Man”) and poignant (“Christmas in the Desert”).
4. Sylvia Tyson – At the End of the Day (Stony Plain). In a long and distinguished career, Sylvia Tyson has given us so many memorable songs as a member of Ian & Sylvia and Quartette and as an important solo artist. Now, at 83, Sylvia has decided to retire from making records and is bowing out with At the End of the Day, one of the finest, if not the finest of her solo albums. With shades of folk, country and cabaret music, these finely crafted songs are beautifully sung by Sylvia and beautifully arranged and produced by my old pal Danny Greenspoon.
5. Eliza Gilkyson – Home (Realiza). On Home, Eliza Gilkyson offers a lovely set of songs – some of which offer various approaches to the meaning of home. For example, “True North” views home through the prism of mature love, while in “Man in the Bottle,” Eliza recalls home through the memories of her father, the songwriter and folksinger Terry Gilkyson. Other highlights include “Sunflowers,” a song of solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and duets with Robert Earl Keen and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
6. Too Sad for the Public – Vol. 2 – Yet and Still: Traditional American Folk Song-Stirring by Dick Connette (StorySound). I’ve long admired how composer Dick Connette has re-imagined songs from traditional folk music sources (as well as creating some songs of his own inspired by folk traditions) – first with Last Forever, his duo with the late Sonya Cohen, and more recently with Too Sad for the Public, an ensemble whose membership grows and contracts depending on the needs of the song. Several tracks are steeped in traditional New Orleans jazz, another of my favorite genres. Several fine singers – Ana Egge, Chaim Tannenbaum, Rayna Gellert – help bring the songs to life.
7, Taj Mahal – Savoy (Stony Plain). From 1926 until 1958, the Savoy Ballroom was a major music venue in Harlem, a place where the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald and countless other jazz and blues performed. On Savoy, Taj Mahal offers a joyous tribute to the music of that era (as Holger Peterson points out in the liner notes, all but one of the songs would likely have been heard at the Savoy).
8. Cat Power – Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert (Domino). Although it was actually recorded at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, a few days before he got to the Royal Albert Hall, Bob Dylan’s Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert is, arguably, the most essential of Dylan’s many live albums. The seven solo acoustic songs are the work of a master and the eight electric songs rock hard with a group that would later become The Band. On this tribute, Cat Power went to the Royal Albert Hall and recreated the legendary 1966 concert: the same solo acoustic songs and the same electric band songs, all in their original order. Cat Power beautifully nails the acoustic songs and I think I like her more subtle versions of the electric band songs even more than Dylan’s.
9. David Francey – The Breath Between (Laker Music). David Francey was already in his 40s in the 1990s when he emerged seemingly out of nowhere – actually from Ayer’s Cliff, a small town in the Eastern Townships of Quebec – as one of Canada’s finest singer-songwriters. Now based in Elphin, an equally small town in Eastern Ontario, David has continued to maintain the highest of standards in his songwriting and performing. Among the highlights on The Breath Between are ”Two Shadows,” a beautiful love song, “Narrow Boats,” a duet with Terra Spencer, that captures a wistful moment on the banks of the Thames in England, and “This Morning,” a tribute to John Prine featuring the always delightful playing of Dave Clarke, the guitar virtuoso who brought many of David’s early songs to life 25 or so years ago.
10. Michael Jerome Browne – Gettin’ Together (Borealis/Stony Plain). As the album title, Gettin’ Together, suggests, most of the songs feature Michael Jerome Browne, long one of Canada’s finest interpreters of almost any kind of traditional blues and folk styles, getting together with a bunch of collaborators ranging from Stephen Barry, the leader of the great Montreal blues band that Michael played in before emerging as a solo artist, to Eric Bibb, the contemporary blues legend that Michael frequently works with on tour, to peers like Colin Linden, Tielhard Frost, John McColgan and Mary Flower, and renowned legends like Happy Traum, John Sebastian and Harrison Kennedy.
I will be featuring songs from each of these albums on Stranger Songs, Tuesday December 5, 3:30-5 pm (ET), on CKCU. The program is now available 24/7 for on-demand streaming at this link.