As I think back on the great music it's been my pleasure to listen to, both in concert and on disc, throughout
this past year, I also find myself lamenting the fact that I've probably missed as much, if not more, simply because
it didn't cross my radar. I mention this as a simple way of emphasizing that it's impossible for any overview such
as this to be definitive. All I, or anyone, can ever offer is a glimpse of the fine recordings that did make it
into our hands. And even then, there simply isn't room to cover them all.
So with that caveat out of the way, here are a few of the highlights of 2004:
I could probably spend my whole word count for this piece talking about Christy Moore's
The Box Set 1964–2004 (Columbia). The importance of this 6–CD collection to the Irish song
tradition can't be stressed enough. Moore was a founding member of both Planxty and Moving Hearts, with a strong
solo career both before and after his work with those bands, and his influence can be seen on pretty much every
performer since, working both in the field and beyond.
Though he's written some fine songs, Moore is best known as an interpreter, recasting both the big traditional
ballads as well as songs by contemporary writers in a new light through his arrangements and heartfelt
renditions. What's especially pleasing about this collection is that, while it does cover the scope of his
career, he didn't simply pick previous versions of the songs and stick them in a new package. All the material
here is taken from other alternate sources: outtakes, B–sides, live & rehearsal recordings, with even a
few intimate pieces recorded in his "shed." An accompanying booklet features his remarks on every song, though
I'd recommend you also pick up a copy of One Voice—My Life in Song (Hodder & Stoughton, 2000) to read
while you listen to the CDs. A comprehensive 280–some pages of song lyrics, anecdotes and photographs, it
makes a perfect companion to this remarkable collection.
Also released this year were CD and DVD versions of Live 2004 (Sony), the Planxty reunion recorded live at
Vicar Street, Dublin, in January and February. I'd recommend the DVD over the CD for the pleasure of actually getting
to see the band playing. It also has three more songs plus some documentaries. However, no matter which version you
get, the concert is brilliant.
All of which segues nicely into...
If you want to know if a band's the real deal, the only way you can do so is by seeing them live. There's simply
too much tweaking that can be done in the studio—it's so prevalent now that I recently saw a disc with a
notice on it reading: "made without the use of pitch correction software." Of course, we're not all lucky enough to
be able to see all the acts we'd like to, which is where live recordings come in. But live records present their own
problems, mostly featuring too much miking of the audience so that you might be listening to a quiet piece, but you
can hear some wag out in the crowd whooping it up.
The best solution is what Lúnasa have done with their latest recording, The Kinnitty Sessions (Compass
Records): invite a select audience into a studio environment, then make the record like it was a concert: no overdubs,
no tweaks, just the music standing on its own with that special buzz that comes from musicians playing live.
If you only buy one Celtic CD this year, make it The Kinnitty Sessions.
Which isn't to say there weren't some other great Irish CDs released this past year. The Sligo band Dervish's
newest CD, Spirit (Compass Records), shows that the band is still at the top of its form. It's been years
since Siobhán Peoples (daughter of esteemed fiddler Tommy Peoples) has released any recorded music, but
Time on Our Hands (www.custysmusic.com), a fiddle/accordion duet CD with box player Murty Ryan, has made the wait worthwhile.
While the Donegal band Clannad haven't broken up, they haven't released anything new in awhile either, so fans
of Moya Brennan's ethereal vocals will be happy to learn that she, at least, has a new recording with Two Horizons
(Decca Records). And speaking of that whole Enya/Loreena McKennitt take on Celtic music, this is probably as good at
time as any to also recommend Beyond the Waves (Festival Distribution) by harpist Sharlene Wallace.
Box player Sharon Shannon's newest CD is Libertango (Compass Records). I don't always see the necessity of loading
up a recording with tons of guest vocalists (it's not like Shannon doesn't have the chops to carry an album on her own), but I
do have to admit that in this case I wouldn't want to have missed Sinéad O'Connor's stunning rendition of the old ballad "Anachie Gordon"
London-born fiddler John Carty returns to the sound of his Connought ancestral heritage with the laid-back sound found
on At It Again (Shanachie); Solas accordionist Mick McAuley showcases his rich tenor voice on At Ocean's Breadth
(Shanachie); and Dublin band Gráda return with The Landing Strip (Compass Records), an outstanding follow-up to 2002's Endeavour.
With her Northumbrian piping (not to mention her fiddling) always such a treat, Kathryn Tickell's Air Dancing
(Park Records) is easily one of my favourite CDs of the year: a rich and satisfying collection of dance tunes and airs. Luka
Bloom's Before Sleep Comes (Bar None Records) is a low-key, but rewarding set of quiet songs that will undoubtedly
have you trolling your local record store for more of his work.
And last, but certainly not least, we have a group of young musicians from British Columbia called the Coquitlam
Celtic Ensemble with their debut release, Dusty Windowsill (www.coquitlamcelticensemble.com). For a touchstone,
you might think of that big group feel that the Chieftains get sometimes, although there are also many pieces with
smaller combinations of instruments.
First up in this section, a book rather than a recording. Shirley Collins doesn't have the best voice in British folk
music, but she has that indefinable something that still makes a singer great and has shown that talent to fine effect in
such classics as Anthems in Eden (1969, with her sister Dolly) and No Roses (1971, with the Albion Country
Band). It turns out she's a fine writer, too.
America Over the Water (SAF Publishing) chronicles her involvement in the late fifties accompanying Alan Lomax
in America's Deep South, collecting and taping songs, mixing those experiences with her memories of growing up in post-war
Hastings, England. It's an utterly fascinating book, complete with many photographs, that should appeal to anyone with an
interest in traditional music from either side of the water.
The one box set I really wanted to talk about in this section was Sandy Denny's A Boxful of Treasures, a 5-CD
set with booklet from Fledgling, one of the best re-issue companies around, certainly rivaling Germany's Bear Family Records
or Rhino in the States. Unfortunately, I never actually got my hands on a copy. But from the list of contents I've seen,
and the reviews I've read, it appears that someone has finally put together the definitive collection by one of the greatest
British singers ever. Especially intriguing is the fifth CD which is a collection of home recordings.
Hopefully, it'll show up in my local CD shop soon.
But there were other fine recordings this year, in particular the inimitable Kate Rusby who graced us with
Underneath the Stars, another lovely collection of mostly traditional material, and also her utterly charming concert
DVD, Live from Leeds (Wea), that really makes you feel as though you were a part of the audience.
With her smoky voice and smart, melancholic songs, Polly Paulusma's Scissors In My Pocket (One Little Indian)
showcases one of the finest singer-songwriters to emerge from Britain in awhile. But I have to admit that my favourite
is Thea Gilmore, and she had two releases this year: Loft Music (Hungry Dog), a collection of cover songs,
and Songs from the Gutter (Hungry Dog), featuring her own material, songs of sharp social observation, delivered with heart and soul.
Sometimes all an old song needs is a new setting for us to see that it's still relevant. Or at least that seems to be the
theory behind a couple of releases from the past year. On Tangle Eye's Alan Lomax's Southern Journey Remixed (Zoe Records),
producers Scott Billington and Steve Reynolds take the original a capella songs collected by Lomax and build backing tracks
behind them, utilizing everything from acoustic instruments to programmed beats and loops. It sounds deliciously old and fresh at the same time.
On Rock Island (Little Monster), Bethany Yarrow (daughter of Peter Yarrow from Peter, Paul & Mary) opts to
redo the lead vocal parts on the old ballads as well, singing them against a bed of instrumentation ranging from banjos and
dulcimers to programmed beats and the sampled ghosts of some old trad. singers. I don't know how it will sound in ten years
time, but right now it makes for a delightful mix of the contemporary and the traditional, and will no doubt draw some of its
listeners back to the source material.
Of course, sometimes songs don't need anything more than straightforward renditions, as on much of Roger McGuinn's latest
collection, Limited Edition (April First Productions), a mix of trad. ballads, original songs, and covers, one highlight
being his take on George Harrison's "If I Needed Someone." Greg Brown also takes a low-key approach
Honey in the Lion's Head (Trailer Records) with just the addition of a few tasteful backing instruments behind that rich voice of his.
Old timey and string band music appears to be making a real comeback with young bands producing high energy music that's
faithful to the spirit of the old tunes, but played with a modern sensibility on their acoustic instruments. A couple of prime
examples from the past year are Rock That Babe by Mammals (Signature Records), and Livin' Reeltime, Thinkin' Old Time
by Reeltime Travelers (Sci Fidelity Records).
While you could never consider them even remotely a trad. band, L.A.'s Concrete Blonde often has a mythic slant to their
music, singing about ghosts and vampires and other things that go bump in the night. On Mojave (Eleven Thirty) the
band leaves the city streets to wander in the desert badlands with songs of animal people and the spirits that inhabit the
great open spaces. It's a perfect companion to their collaboration with Los Illegales a few years ago, featuring a looser,
sprawl of sound and a few spoken stories.
A Latin/Mariachi flavour often shows up in Calexico's recordings like this year's EP releases, Convict Pool
(Quarter Stick) and Black Heart (EMI), a pair of excellent stop gaps until the next album. But the really good news
is the release of a DVD concert, World Drifts In (Live at the Barbican London) (Wea) featuring the core group sharing
the stage with a full Mariachi band. The music is invigorating and magical, and I also recommend the bonus material with
features on the origin of Mariachi music and fascinating documentaries on the band's last tour.
If Calexico's story songs are a little oblique, that's not the case with this last handful of artists: on Ashgrove
(Yep Roc Records), the Blaster's alumni Dave Alvin returns to his roots, telling stories of his youth; Tom Russell
explores the American West and Southwest on Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs (Hightone); Kevin Welch & Kieran Kane sing
of monsters in the Jersey Pine Barrens, and small town hustlers and lovers from everywhere, on You Can't Save Everybody
(Compass Records); and Brock Zeman, a masterful new young songwriter whose songs range from contemporary Americana
to stories that feel like old traditionals, debuted this year with not one, but two excellent new CDs,
Cold Winter Comes Back and Songs from the Mud (brockzeman.com).
I'm not a Spanish speaker, but I love the sound of the language and get stories from the songs even when I don't know
what they're actually talking about. A real Latin favourite that hasn't been off the stereo all year is Alevosía
(Universal Latino) by Mexican rap artist Mala Rodríguez.
Two infectious recordings are Amparanoia's Rebeldía con Alegría (EMI), featuring frontwoman Amparo Sánchez's
acoustic guitar and strong vocals played against a backdrop of urban beats and a mix of flamenco, Cuban salsa and Brazilian
tropicalia, and Street Signs (Concord Records), the latest from the L.A. music collective Ozomatli with its joyous
mix of Latin rhythms, rap, and Bollywood strings.
A little quieter are Una Sangre (One Blood) (Narada) by Lila Downs which has everything from inspired reworkings
of "La Bamba" and "La Cucaracha" to songs reminiscent of her work on the Frida soundtrack, and Verde (Universal),
on which Brazilian guitarist Badi Assad sings as much as she plays, and proves to be equally as adept at both.
Fans of Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi Trilogy, or at least the music that plays backdrop to those films, will
appreciate Mexico and Mariachis (Milan Records). But you don't have to be a movie buff to appreciate these songs,
some from the soundtracks, some inspired by them, nor the DVD bonus disc that provides background and insight into the
involvement of artists such as Los Lobos and Tito & Tarantula, as well as concert footage of Rodriguez playing on stage with the latter.
And speaking of Los Lobos, they released two new recordings this year: The Ride (Hollywood Records), on
which they duet with everyone from Dave Alvin and Tom Waits, to Elvis Costello and Mavis Staples, and somehow manage to
never lose their own identity, and Ride This: The Covers EP (Hollywood Records) on which they cover a number of
songs by those aforementioned collaborators. I've never gone wrong with a Los Lobos album and I doubt you will either.
Lastly, a quick mention of President Alien (Razor & Tie) by Yerba Buena, yet another successful mix of dance
grooves, hip hop, Afro-beat and Latin salsa rhythms that makes for a compelling and addictive debut CD. And coming from
a more commercial front, Live & Off the Record (Sony), is an entertaining CD/DVD combo chronicling
Shakira's 2003 Tour of the Mongoose with live video footage from the tour as well as a documentary
Born in Algeria, raised in France, Rachid Taha has been delivering an intoxicating blend of punk-rock and Algerian
rai music since the early nineties. The stand-out track on Tékitoi (Wrasse), or at least the most immediately
successful, is the Arab-language cover of the Clash hit, retitled "Rock El Casbah," but look a little deeper into the
album and you'll find it's only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the man's charismatic talent.
The Traditional Crossroads label has come out with two welcome reissues from the 60's: How to Make Your Husband
a Sultan and Alla-Turca by Özel Türkbas. Packaged with Türkbas' original belly-dance instructions,
the music on these discs sounds as fresh and invigorating as anything being recorded today. With Egypt (Nonesuch),
Youssou N'Dour's voice soars on a CD dedicated to the Sufi brotherhoods of Senegal, with excellent backing by an Egyptian
string orchestra and various Sengalese instrumentalists.
If you're looking for an introduction to the contribution of Gypsy musicians to jazz, you don't need to go
further than the stunning Mémoires: Memories of Django (Le Chant du Monde) by Angelo Debarre & Tchavolo Schmitt. Meanwhile,
Marie Daulne has taken Zap Mama from its roots as an a cappella women's group to a contemporary fusion of hip hop, R&B and
African roots. The highly successful results can be found on Ancestry in Progress (Luaka Bop).
Afro-Celts founder Simon Emmerson has teamed up with DJ Phil Meadley to give us The Outernationalists present
Ethnomixicology (Six Degrees), a mix-CD of West African rhythms and contemporary beats. On a similar note, Thievery
Corporation's The Outernational Sound (EsL Music), their follow-up to 2002's infectious The Richest Man in Babylon,
have Rob Garza and Eric Hilton putting together a mash-up of everything from Kingston reggae sounds and Afro-beats, to
Brazilian jazz and funky rhythms. It gets a little busy, but it will keep the dance floor hopping.
On Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101 (Koch Records), the Fugee's Wyclef Jean returns to his Haitian roots with a
multi-language discourse set against a musical background that's even more diverse, blending reggae and raga, South African
township music and American R&B and blues. True Love (Mushroom) features Toots & the Metals playing their own
brand of reggae with an all-star support cast (not that Toots needs them) of Ben Harper, Keith Richards, No Doubt, Ryan Adams,
Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and others.
Tri Continental, made up solo artists Madagascar Slim, Lester Quitzau and Bill Bourne, return with a fourth album,
Drifting (Tradition & Moderne). Like the Lúnasa CD mentioned above, this was recorded live in the studio in front
of an invited audience, and the music—a mix of blues and Worldbeat—has that live groove you can only get from
a live recording. Madagascar Slim also shows up on African Guitar Summit (CBC Records) a collection by Canadian artists
of African origin highlighting the give and take of musical traditions between Africa and the West, while Lester Quitzau lends his
inspired guitar playing and voice to Mae Moore's Oh, My! (Poetical License), trading songs and guitar licks on some of the best music of her career.
Italian singer Pietra Montecorvino's latest is Napoli Mediterranea (L'Empreinte Digitale), an album of Neapolitan
music featuring her voice and the sound of the oud against a backing of Mediterranean-styled rhythmic percussion. On
Solen (GO') the duo of Karen & Helene give us traditional Danish songs in new arrangements. Selwa (Six Degrees)
features the chants and songs of Tibetan Buddhist nun Chöying Drolma and the guitar playing of Steve Tibbetts against a
backdrop of acoustic percussion.
Led by sax and flute player, Seta, Introducing Vakoka: The Malagasy All-Stars (World Music Network) brings
together thirteen top musicians from Madagascar collaborating on songs featuring many of the island's unique
instruments. From China, we have the Twelve Girls Band's Eastern Energy (Platia Entertainment) using Chinese versions
of bamboo flutes, hammered dulcimers and zithers to perform a selection of classical, pop and traditional songs.
Solace (Independent Release) by Xavier Rudd is the new surf music, but it's about as far from the Beach
Boys as you can imagine. For one thing, Rudd is a one man band. When you see him in concert, the Australian native can
be heard simultaneously playing a stomp box, lap slide guitar and a didgeridoo. For another, the music, while certainly
espousing a sense of good will and fun, has a strong focus on spiritual, environmental and Aboriginal concerns.
Taima (Full Spin) is made up of Inuk singer Elisapie Isaac and Quebec guitarist Alain Auger. The group's
name translates to "Enough! It's over...let's move on," and the band explores the relationship between Inuit people
and whites. Lucie Idlout also explores race issues on E5–770: My Mother's Name (Arbor Records), but hers is
a tougher approach, perhaps because the title of her latest album refers to the Canadian government's one-time practice of
giving Inuit people a disc number to identify them, rather than using their names.
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Lastly, while treading a little further off the track than might be my mandate with this wrap up of the year's
music, let me leave you with a recommendation for the recent reissue The Complete Seven Steps (Columbia) by Miles Davis. Everyone
always seems to cite A Kind of Blue as the Miles Davis album, and it's certainly a wonderful recording, but the
original Seven Steps is a personal favourite of mine, and this 6–CD set collecting the whole recording session as
well as a couple of live concerts from the same period is stellar jazz that will never get old. When you listen to the studio
sessions, you wonder how they were ever able to edit them down to the length of one vinyl record all those years ago.
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If you're looking for more than an annual fix of the sorts of music discussed above, I'd like to recommend a few Web sites that carry timely reviews and news:
Or if you prefer the written page, check out your local newsstand for copies of fRoots (two issues per year carry fabulous CD samplers), Global Rhythm (each issue includes a sampler CD), Songlines (also has a CD sampler), Paste (with CD sampler; subscribers also get a DVD sampler), Sing Out!, and Dirty Linen.
While I know there are lots of other great albums out there, I don't have the budget to try everything. But my ears are always open to new sounds. So, if you'd like to bring something to my attention for next year's essay, you can send it to me c/o P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1G 3V2.
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(This column first appeared in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eighteenth Annual Collection (2005).)