So much music and so little time to listen to, and talk about, it all. So let's get right to it.
First up, my two favourite releases of the year:
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Every country has their creative treasures, sometimes lauded, sometimes unknown to the general populace, but no less talented for that. One of Canada's hidden treasures is a man named Ian Tamblyn.
Tamblyn has been documenting the face of Canada for over twenty years now, painting aural landscapes from coast to coast, illuminating in song the lives and the hearts of the people living in them. But the wild places are especially resonant to him, and his songs of the north, and Algonquin Park, are musical touchstones akin to the paintings of great national visual artists such as Tom Thompson.
Tamblyn is also a collector of sounds. Like an artist using found objects for a visual collage, he has gone out into the wild places to record everything from birdsong to the crack and rumble of icebergs, combining them in the studio with his own instrumentation. The result is a series of highly evocative albums, deeply rooted in their wild environments: Over My Head, Magnetic North, and Antarctica.
But industrial landscapes have distinctive sounds and stories as well. In 2005, Tamblyn released a new instrumental album, Machine Works, this time combining his own thoughtful and timeless melodies to the backdrop rhythm and sounds of threshers, windmills, subways, steel mills, trains and highways. Surprisingly, the album finds a tranquil heart at the center of all this man-made "noise," and has a strong, lyrical narrative flow to which the listener will return, time and again.
All of Tamblyn's current catalogue can be ordered world-wide at www.tamblyn.com.
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She's the darling of Britain (winner of the Brit Award for Best Female Singer, with her album a top seller over Christmas), and much of Europe at the moment, and rightly so, because Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall's Eye of the Telescope (Relentless/EMI) was certainly the sleeper of the year.
It took an appearance on Later...with Jools Holland for her star to rise, but what a performance it was. She used a loop pedal to build up an array of beats and vocal accompaniments that, by the end of the piece, made you think there was a whole band on stage with the diminutive performer.
But she has a cracking good live band as well, and I'd highly recommend you take any opportunity to see her. Some performers are born for the stage, radiating a joyful energy that immediately transforms and entirely engages the audience, and she's certainly one of that select few.
The album seems a bit subdued compared to her live shows, but it's no less enjoyable, and the energy can be still be found on tracks like "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" or "Suddenly I See." The stories she tells are personal, yet universal, and I foresee a terrific future for her.
There's a great and apt description of her on the bio of her Web site: "a sparkling new songwriter with Chinese blood, a Scottish heart, great legwarmers and a cool name—'Well, it's got a bit more attitude than Kate which just says farmer's daughter to me.'"
I'm not one to throw around terms like "supergroup," but when you put together a line-up of Sharon Shannon, Michael McGoldrick, and Frankie Gavin, adding in the formidable talents of up-and-comer Jim Murray on guitar, no other word will do. The musicianship is top-notch, as you might expect, but happily there's no showboating on Tunes (The Daisy Label) as can happen when people this talented get together. Instead, the music is played at a tempo to showcase the beauty of the music, in acoustic arrangements that are, if you need a touchstone, somewhat reminiscent of Lúnasa.
God knows I love trad. tunes, but there's something particularly invigorating about a whole album of original material that fits so snugly into the tradition that you wouldn't know the difference unless someone told you. Thomas D'Arcy McGee (www.mcgeemusic.ca) by Frank Cassidy and James Stephens began as the soundtrack they wrote for a play about the journalist-poet and Father of Canadian Confederation who was assassinated in Ottawa in 1868, but the album grew to encompass other material that they had written in a traditional vein. Masters of the whistle, flute and mandolin (Cassidy) and fiddle and mandolin (Stephens), they are joined by a cast of stellar musicians on this album that is a joy from start to finish.
Also on that album is Greg T. Brown, highly skilled on fiddle, button accordion, guitar and too many other instruments to list here. Along with Uillean piper Jeremy Keddy, 2005 saw him release Trees (Prentice Boy Music), an engaging collection of songs and tunes based on the traditions of Ireland, England and Newfoundland.
And just to show that they have no spare time at all, Brown and Stephens are also members of Jiig (along with guitarist Ian Clark and singer Ian Robb) who also released their self-titled disc (www.finestkind.ca) this past year. For his work on the CD, Robb won "Best Singer - Traditional" at the 2005 Canadian Folk Music Awards.
Celtic flute music presents a lovely dichotomy. One considers the instrument to be soft and airy, but good trad. musicians can call up the same punch with it as others might using a fiddle or pipes. Garry Walsh's Uncovered (Ossian) shows off both sides of the coin, but is primarily a CD of great, driving dance music.
Mind you, if it's great Irish fiddle music you crave, look no further than Liz Carroll's collaboration with guitarist John Doyle, In Play (Compass Records). It's the pure drop from start to finish.
Under their band name GiveWay, the four Johnson sisters prove with their sophomore effort Inspired (Greentrax) that the infectious and talented performances of their debut album was no fluke.
David Wilkie & Cowboy Celtic save you the trouble of programming a mash-up of jigs & reels and old cowboy tunes with their all-instrumental, 10th anniversary outing on The Saloon Sessions (Centerfire Music).
Featuring Scottish fiddler Catriona MacDonald, along with past and present members of bands such as The Peatbog Faeries, Wolfstone, Boys of the Lough, and Tabache, the seven-fiddlers band of Blazin' Fiddles gave us yet another marvelous collection of tunes with Magnificent Seven (www.blazin-fiddles.com).
Island cultures tend to be insular, making them places where, even in this day and age, change comes slower. Because of this, Canada's Newfoundland remains a source for some of the purer renditions of songs brought over by Irish and British settlers, as you can find on Pamela Morgan's lovely Ancestral Songs (Amber Music). Morgan, for those of you with short memories, was once the voice of Figgy Duff.
Speaking of voices, while April Verch doesn't have the strongest (it's more Nanci Griffith, than, say, Dolores Keane), and she does sing on a couple of tracks of her new CD Take Me Back (Rounder), it's her fiddle playing that continues to delight and charm, and that's certainly the case here.
Forget Eliza Carthy's formidable lineage (she's the daughter of Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy) as she's long since come into her own. On Rough Music (Topic) she moves away from the original material of her last album Angilcana to once again explore the English tradition. Accompanied by the Ratcatchers, this is as good a collection of British traditional music as you're going to get this year.
Part documentary, part mix-album, part museum exhibit, Tom Russell's Hotwalker (Hightone Records) is a fascinating and unapologetic look back at growing up during the Beat era in California, exploring the work of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey and others through their writings, Russell's music and the remembrances of Little Jack Horton, a midway carnie who Russell claims died a few months after recording his parts. (In truth, Horton is all Russell, with his voice speeded up a little in the production process.) This is a brilliant album, one you have to listen to from start to finish instead of picking out cuts—something of an alien concept in this day of the fifteen second soundbite. But trust me. It's worth it.
Brock Zeman continues to release CDs at an alarming rate—his latest self-titled album with his band the Dirty Hands (www.brockzeman.com) is his third in the past year and a half. But the prolific output is justified when the material is as good as this is. For touchstones, think of a combination of Steve Earle's story-telling ability and Townes Van Zandt's wry humour.
But more doesn't always mean better. Ryan Adams had three releases this year, but only 29 (Lost Highway), the ex-Whiskeytowner's third disc, has the great songs and sound we've come to expect from him.
String band music never sounded so harmoniously good as it does on She Waits for Night (Rounder), the newest release from the all-woman band Uncle Earl. This year also saw their banjoist Abigail Washburn release a haunting bare-bones solo release, Song of the Traveling Daughter (Nettwerk).
It's hard to say where to file the Duhks newest self-titled release (Sugarhill, 2005) with its mix of Celtic and American tunes, Latin rhythms, old-timey songs, and gospel harmonies. Best just to push the rug aside and make a dance floor in your living room when you put them on.
If you're worried about the state of the world, but don't feel you have a voice to articulate your feelings, James McMurtry is there for you with Childish Things (Compadre). The standout track is "We Can't Make It Here", one of the best, hard-eyed looks at the state of the union since Iris Dement's "Wasteland of the Free" (from her 1996 CD The Way I Should).
Love Me Like the Roses (www.divinemaggees.com) by the fiddle and guitar duo the Divine Maggees is a punky mix of great songs, playing and harmonies. Think of an Indigo Girls for these contemporary times of ours.
If you were wondering whatever happened to Matthew Ryan, he hasn't disappeared from the recording scene. 2005 saw him in a band setting with Strays Don't Sleep, and their self-titled CD (One Little Indian) fills the gap nicely between his last and his next solo recordings.
More sweet harmonies can be found on the Peasall Sisters' Home to You (Dualtone Music Group). You might remember them from their turn in O Brother Where Art Thou, but this is much better.
As Broken Social Scene go on to conquer the world, sometime member Jason Collett has released Idols of Exile (Arts & Crafts). With his lyrics and phrasing on this disc, he reminds us what a terrific singer and storyteller he is in his own right.
And if Sara Evans's Real Fine Place (RCA) isn't enough sweet old country for you, might I recommend you try Shelly Fairchild's debut album Ride (Sony)?
There must be something in the Texas water that gives us the unconventional fiction of a Joe Lansdale or a Lewis Shiner, and the dark story songs of musicians such as Ray Wylie Hubbard. With a contemporary crunch, his Delirium Tremolos (Philo) mines the vein of storytelling that originated in pioneers of the music such as Hank Williams, Sr.
One of tragedies of North American history is the treatment of the Lakota Sioux, whose Pine Ridge Reservation remains one of the most impoverished zones in the U.S. Marty Stuart tells their story on Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota (Superlatone) with respect, heart, and great music.
With Calexico, and guitarist Charlie Sexton, as house band, the latest CD by Los Super Seven, Heard it on the X (Telarc), is a loving tribute to the mix of country, norteño and R&B that filled the Texas airwaves in the early years of the "X" border radio stations. Featuring vocals by the likes of Ruben Ramos, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett and Delbert McClinton, this is great music by any standards.
And speaking of Calexico, they had another collaboration this year, backing up Sam Beam's singing on the album In the Reins (Overcoat Recordings), which they then followed up with an extensive Calexico/Iron & Wine tour. Enjoyable as these outings are, I'm eager for them to get back into the studio to do what they do best: their own music. Their new album, Garden Ruin (Quarter Stick), will be out as you read this, and you might also be interested in drummer John Convertino's Ragland (Sommerweg), a collection of piano and rhythm soundscapes based on a mood that seems to have grown out of his desert roots.
Ry Cooder gives us a tribute as well with Chávez Ravine (Nonesuch/Perro Verde), invoking a meditation on the spirit of a lost East L.A. Latino neighbourhood that was razed to build Dodger Stadium. With a helping hand from the likes of Flaco Jimenez and Lalo Guerrero, the result is a satisfying blend of conjunto and R&B, corrido and folk music.
A hit on London dance floors early in the year, Tammy Garcia's Mexico City EP (www.karmadownload.com) is a heady mix of flamenco vocals, Spanish guitars and bass heavy dancehall beats that will have you up and moving no matter where you happen to be when you hear it.
From the notes of a Portuguese guitar that open the album, to Mariza's astonishing vocal control, Transparente (EMI) delights from start to finish. There's a reason she's considered the best new voice in Fado music today, and you only need to listen to this album to understand why.
Shakira gave us a pair of albums this year, the Spanish language Fijación Oral Vol. 1 and the English Oral Fixation Vol. 2 (both on Sony). While I still prefer her Spanish singing, I have to admit I'm warming to the English. Whichever you choose, the music and performance remains a treat.
Continuing with the multi-cultural gumbo of their previous albums, Ozomatli's Live at the Fillmore (Concord) proves that they've got the chops to make it work just as well when they're away from a studio setting.
The classic trio backup on Segundo (WEA Latina), Maria Rita's sophomore release, seems a throwback to the classic recordings of her mother Elis Regina, but while Rita looks to the past, this Brazilian offers us music that's upbeat, jazzy, and cool, and very suited for a contemporary audience.
With Bill Bourne in the producer's chair, as well as providing some back up instrumentation and vocals, Eivør Pålsdottir's Eivør (12 Tónar) is a lovely, guitar-oriented album of Pålsdottir's original songs, highly accessible even though many of the songs aren't in English. Delicate with a bite.
Stepping away from using music as a tool for palliative care, Ann Mortifee gives us Into the Heart of the Sangoma (Bongo Beat), her first album in ten years. It's a musical journey back to her South African homeland to explore the wisdom and visions of the Sangoma, the shaman of the Zulu nation, featuring a mix of theatric and indiginous approaches.
Ry Cooder shows up to play a little guitar and Kawai piano on In the Heart of the Moon (Nonesuch), but the show really belongs to Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté on guitar and the harp-like kora, respectively. This is a gorgeous, reflective album, recorded live in Mali.
It takes a little while to grow on you, but Susheela Raman's Music for Crocodiles (EMI) is worth the effort. The songs have a singer-songwriter structure, and many of them are in English this time out, but the musical palette, which includes an Indian string trio, places it firmly in the World music section.
Bedouin Soundclash's Sounding a Mosaic (SideOneDummy Records) isn't quite the punk-sounding rave-up you might think from the band's name, but rather an infectious collection of reggae and ska that will have you slow-grooving on the dancefloor.
Mesk Elil (Wrasse) by Souad Massi is a dreamy confection of French chanson, flamenco and various African traditions, all held together by her delicate guitar playing and sensuous voice.
Swedish and Celtic traditions meet in the music of Swåp and their fourth album Du Da (Northside) and remind us how closely related the music of those traditions are.
And finally, there's Gogol Bordello with their most recent CD Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike (SideOneDummy Records), a mad, bouncing collage of hip hop, punk, and Gypsy music to dance you off into the night.
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I always hate ending these columns because I know that they're so incomplete. Inevitably, I'll have forgotten something I really wanted to mention. Sometimes, I just run out of room, or I simply wasn't able to get my hands on a listening copy.
The only redress for that is for you to have a look at some of these Web sites that carry timely reviews and news, and do some exploring on your own:
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!, Riddim (with CD sampler), No Depression, 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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Special thanks to Cat Eldridge of Green man Review, and Ian & James Boyd of Compact Music, for helping to provide music in preparation of this essay.
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(This column first appeared in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Nineteenth Annual Collection (2006).)