My album of the year (and I judge that by how I still play it on a weekly basis, months after its initial release) is The Sky Didn't Fall (Park), a collaboration between Northumbrian piper and fiddler Kathryn Tickell and harpist Corrina Hewat. The blend of instruments and voices from the Northumbrian and Scottish traditions is sublime, but what really raises the bar for me is "Favourite Place," a collection of reminiscences by Tickell's mother that Tickell narrates over a bed of music.
Often such spoken pieces, while captivating on an initial listen, are what one skips in subsequent listenings as their novelty wears off. But there's something in the combination of spoken voice and music here that has me simply stop whatever I'm doing and pay attention each time the track comes on.
Hewat joined Tickell on a second release this year (Strange But True, Park), but here she's only one of many collaborators that include Andy Sheppard on saxophone, Catriona MacDonald on fiddle, and others on various instruments. It's an adventurous album, and fascinating, but while I like all the tracks individually, the disc as a whole doesn't have the flow I normally associate with a Kathryn Tickell album—no real problem in these times, I suppose, with the proliferation of iPods and their shuffle play setting.
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I was a little surprised when I considered the other most played discs in my house this year, mostly because my tastes don't always run along the same lines as what the music-buying public as a whole has embraced. Because these discs all had a high profile, I'll be brief in describing them.
The Internet, fueling the interest and success of subsequently released debut albums, made stars of two new artists.
Lily Allen was a MySpace darling, blogging heavily and releasing refreshing mix tapes of her own material blended with songs from those who've influenced her. By the time Alright, Still (Regal) came out (with its sweet pop voice and tart, barbed lyrics sung over an infectious bed of ska, hip hop and reggae influenced beats), her fans supported her in droves. It was certainly my album of the summer.
Arctic Monkeys took a different route, uploading tracks on the Web with no disc to back them up. But it did mean that from their earliest gigs, the audience was already singing along to Alex Turner's inspired stories of growing up in the Sheffield suburbs. The album, Whatever People Say That I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino), delivered on the promise of their live shows with edgy tunes that ignore the usual pop conventions of verse-chorus-verse, but are eminently hook-laden.
I don't know what happened with Bob Dylan in the past couple of years, but between his vastly entertaining radio show (Theme Time Radio Hour on XFM), his interview segments in the Scorsese film (No Direction Home, Paramount), numerous books and a new album (Modern Times, Sony), he seems to have reinvented himself once again as an approachable, open artist. Or like the cool uncle who's always pulling out some great old song to play for you. It's true that Modern Times owes a heavy debt to the blues and folk music of the 30's and 40's, but that doesn't mean it's not a great listen.
And speaking of old uncles, if Dylan's turned into the friendly one, Tom Waits remains the slightly cranky relative who lives out by the railroad tracks, capable of great tenderness, sardonic humour and more than a touch of the edgy and weird. His latest 3-CD set (Orphans, Anti-) is an absolute stunner and it's "Long Way Home" is my favourite song of the year. I think Norah Jones agrees, since she's been covering it regularly in concert as she tours her own new disc.
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A number of the big guns in Celtic music all had new releases this year.
Lúnasa proved with Sé (Compass) that they haven't lost their touch as one of the best and most invigorating interpreters of traditional music, while one-time alumni Michael McGoldrick continues to break new ground for the Irish flute with his Wired (Vertical).
Solas celebrated their ten-year anniversary with Reunion: A Decade of Solas (Compass), where they brought together all their members, past and present, for a concert captured on both DVD and CD. Try not to feel a little pang of disappointment that you weren't there when you listen to, or view, the show. But if you prefer studio recordings, Mick McAuley & Winifred Horan took time off from the band to give us Serenade (Compass), a lovely blend of fiddle, guitar, and voice.
Flogging Molly also celebrated an anniversary with the raucous Whiskey on a Sunday (Side One Dummy Records), again with both a DVD and CD. If you don't know the band, it's where punk and Celtic collide.
Another live DVD/CD combo is Téada's invigorating Inné Amárach (Gael Linn). I think all live releases should come in this format. One to take with you in your car or iPod, the other to enjoy in the comfort of your living room.
In November, I'm pretty sure I heard a large collective gasp of pleasure from every New Age shop in the world when Loreena McKennitt released her first new album in nine years, An Ancient Muse (Quinlan Road). It doesn't break any ground, but it's such a pleasure to hear her voice again, and her distinctive take on world music traditions.
Probably my favourite fiddle album was released late in the year: Matt Pepin's Pass It Down (email@example.com). It's sweet-but-driving fiddle music at its best, with the highlight being the interplay of Pepin's fiddle with Ian Clarke's guitar on the dreamy "Hambo/Waltz."
If you remember me raving last year about the instrumental prowess of James Stephens, he's back in a new band this year, joining flute- and whistle-player Duncan Gillis, Scottish singer Bobby Watt and drummer Rob Graves as Écosse. Their album The Auld Alliance (cdbaby.com/cd/ecosse) is a real treat from start to finish.
Young McGill University student Sarah Burnell won the Canadian Folk Music Award for "Young Performer of the Year." If you want to check out what the fuss is all about with this fiddler, give a listen to her delightful debut Sarah'ndipity (SarahFiddle).
One of the more innovative albums, while still staying firmly in the tradition, is Tripswitch (Compass) with John McSherry on Uillean pipes, and flute & Dónal O'Connor on fiddle. They take their time with the tunes, but the arrangements are muscular and they certainly don't need a vocalist to hold your attention.
If you have an interest in the British folk music tradition but aren't quite sure where to start, you might give Folk Awards 2006 (PMD) a try. It'll give you a quick overview of some of the stalwarts in the field (Richard Thompson, Kate Rusby, Martin Simpson, Barry Dransfield) and some of the new bright lights (Julie Fowlis, Seth Lakeman, Karine Polwart). It's a mix of instrumental and vocal music, traditional and original, performed by artists nominated for the awards.
Or if you've got Johnny Depp on the brain and you need another pirate fix, try Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys (Anti-), probably one of the best collections of pirate songs around. Okay, maybe the only such collection—but even over two CDs, it never gets boring.
Perennial favourites (at least in this household) Thea Gilmore and K.T. Tunstall both had new discs this year. Gilmore's Harpo's Ghost (Sanctuary) is filled with the kind of wonderful stories she's offered up her previous releases, always moody and intimate. Tunstall's Acoustic Extravaganza (Relentless) is a bit of a stop-gap between her hugely successful Eye to the Telescope from last year and her next real studio recording. This one was recorded live over a week or so with her band. It's a bit low-key, but perfect for a quiet Sunday afternoon.
The young turks of bluegrass and old timey music are still going strong. If anything, they've increased their influence and visibility this year. But at the rate the music business turns over artists, some of these young turks are already becoming the old guard:
The Mammals have kept their familiar sound on Departure (Signature Sounds), but now they're including covers of bands like Morphine and Nirvana. The Duhks continue their unique blend of Celtic pop and gospel on Migrations (Sugar Hill). I love how with an instrumental line-up of cello, banjo and stand-up bass, Crooked Still still sound like their souls are in the high lonesome hills on Shaken by a Low Sound (Signature Records).
Both the Wailin' Jennys (Firecracker, Red House) and Be Good Tanyas (Hello Love, Nettwerk Records) have new discs this year. I'll admit that I sometimes get confused between which of these two bands I'm listening to, but I never get tired of hearing their harmonies and laidback acoustic interplay.
And speaking of harmonies, the two female vocalists from The Furnace Mountain Band are sublime on Fly the River (Shepherd's Ford), while their fiddler has a gorgeous tone.
Adrienne Young & Little Sadie return this year with The Art of Virtue (Addie Belle), stringband music with just a whiff of pop in the mix. Jenny Whiteley, on the other hand, shows with Dear (Black Hen Music) that you can stay true to your acoustic and bluegrass roots, but still be meaningful to a contemporary audience.
I'm a little in awe of Brock Zeman—not because he's so prolific, because lots of artists are prolific (just consider Ryan Adams with thirty-some new albums available on the Web under various names this past year). No, it's that these story songs of his are so good. It doesn't matter if they're slow heartbreakers or acoustic rave-ups. This year he has a new band, the Dirty Hands, and a terrific new CD, Welcome Home Ivy Jane (Busted Flat Records).
Serena Ryder got a record deal with EMI on the strength of her songwriting, so what does she do? She turns in If Your Memory Serves You Well (EMI), an album of mostly covers. But it doesn't matter. She's a fine songwriter, but she's a flat out great singer.
And speaking of albums of cover songs, who would have thought that Bruce Springsteen could do such a fine job on the early Americana songbook with his recent album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Sony)? It's a joyous collection of songs, though some of them carry a real lyric bite. The album's good, but from video clips I've seen, this is a line-up you really need to see live if you can.
One of my happiest discoveries from the festival scene last summer was Rachelle van Zanten. Her debut Back to Francois (Festival Distribution) showcases her great voice, songwriting and slide guitar playing.
Norah Jones has flirted with country music on her popular CDs from Blue Note, but the part she plays in the Little Willies self-titled CD (Milking Bull Records) show she has the chops for a country album proper. And if you live in the New York City area, or plan to visit, you might be able to catch her playing out in her punk persona as a member of El Madmo.
And since we're talking about travelling, let me recommend an art gallery to you if you're ever in Austin, Texas: Yard Dog on Congress Avenue. The last time I was there I got to see a show by Jon Langford and picked up the catalogue for it, Nashville Radio: Art, Words, and Music (Verse Chorus Press) that includes a CD of stripped down songs, The Nashville Radio Companion Earwig, that perfectly compliment his art. Check out www.yarddog.com for more information on it and other great shows.
I'd never heard of the German acoustic country band Texas Lightning before, but I've been thoroughly enjoying their stringband take on old pop classics such as "Like a Virgin," "Walk on the Wild Side," "Norwegian Wood," and so many others. The album's called Meanwhile, Back at the Golden Ranch (X-Cell), and if you enjoyed Robinella's bluegrassy take on the song "Fame...What a Feeling" (from No Saint, No Prize, Sony), you'll probably like this as well.
The two founding members of Calexico used to be the rhythm section for Howe Gelb's Giant Sand. They're a six-piece now and their new CD Garden Ruin (Quarter Stick) is a friendly entry into their world of mariachi meets garage band twang meets sensitive singer-songwriter. Meanwhile, Howe Gelb has found himself a new backup group on his latest release 'Sno Angel Like You (Thrill Jockey) that includes the Ottawa, Canada-based gospel choir Voices of Praise. If you've never tried Gelb before, this wonderful CD is definitely the place to start.
I'd thought we'd lost Linda Ronstadt to big bands and mariachi orchestras, but here she is back with us, this time in the company of Cajun musician Ann Savoy on Adieu False Heart (Vanguard) with a stripped-down acoustic sound and an inspired song selection.
I'm running out of room, and there's still a wealth of Americana that I haven't touched on yet, so here are a few quick shout outs—album titles, but no descriptions—of releases that I know you'll like: Dave Alvin's West of the West (Yep Roc Records), Tom Russell's Love & Fear and the Who's Gonna Build Your Wall? EP (both on Hightone), John Gorka's Writing in the Margins (Red House), Neko Case's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-), Joshua Radin's We Were Here (Sony), Wanda Jackson's I Remember Elvis (Cleopatra), Todd Snider's The Devil You Know (New Door Records), Amy Millan's Honey from the Tombs (Access Music), and Janis Ian's Folk Is the New Black (Cooking Vinyl).
And last but not least, a couple of discs with direct connections to the genre. Joe Lansdale's daughter Kasey has a terrific debut that came out this year: No More Rain (www.kaseylansdale.com). I'm reminded of Tanya Tucker or LeAnn Rimes—not because she sounds like either, but because, like them when they first began to release music, she's a young woman with a very mature voice: deep, rich and country. Killer album.
And then there's Some Other Place (Bagel & Rat) by Whisperado featuring the impeccable guitar playing of Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen-Hayden.
I don't get to mention a lot of CDs in this column because it's hard to keep up with them all, but also because of the delay in the release of some World music in North America. Here are three discs that came in too late for last year's essay, but you really shouldn't miss them:
My favourite is by the Spanish singer and actress Nieves Rebolledo Vila, better known in musical circles as Bebe. Her debut CD Pafuera Telarañas (EMI Spain) is an intoxicating blend of Latin and ska rhythms, DJ scratches and flamenco flourishes, while her vivacious singing ranges from sensual ballads and a capella interludes to raspy rockers and streetwise vocal tricks. It's a busy album at times, but also a slow burner, and a year after I picked up a copy, I have yet to tire of it.
In comparison, Chambao's Pokito a Poko (Sony BMG Latin) is a bit calmer, an impeccable fusion of flamenco and chillout, while Si*Sé's More Shine (Fuerte Records) has a wonderful romantic vibe on its bed of Latin and soul beats; it's like walking through a northern barrio, but with a hot tropical sun overhead.
This year's releases include Cibelle's The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves (Six Degrees) on which the singer continues to be adventurous, with a mix of Portuguese and English lyrics, guests such as Devendra Banhart and Seu George (he of the David Bowie covers fame from the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Hollywood), and even a cover of a Tom Waits song. CéU's self-titled CD (Lcl Records) is rooted in the samba of her native Brazil, but her silky vocals are showcased here on a bed of rhythm that owes as much to dancehall, jazz and reggae.
There seems to be a growing trend to mixing Latin and Celtic flavours. Salsa Celtica continue to do so with great success on their latest CD El Camino (Discos Léon), but my favourite this year was El Sueño de Morfeo's self-titled album (Warner Latina) with its hint of Celtic pipes and fiddles lifting above the Latin grooves.
Their name might translate into "Brown Sugar," but on Bailando Con Lola (EMI) Azúcar Moreno's flamenco-tinged pop has too much edge to be dismissed as sweet. Juana Molina has come a long way since her days as a comedic actress on Argentinean TV. Her new album Son (Domino) is edgy and unpredictable, but always entertaining.
Lila Downs's La Cantina (Narada) is a loving tribute to Mexican canciones rancheros, and features a heady mix of heartfelt ballads, norteño grooves, spoken verse and even a rap; Flaco Jimenz guests on accordion. Once you get past the novelty of a flamenco version of "Stairway to Heaven" on Rodrigo y Gabriela's self-titled CD (Ato), you'll find an album of killer Spanish guitar.
Badi Asaad's Wonderland (Deutsche Grammophon) is an album of mostly cover versions of songs by artists such as Asian Dub Foundation, the Eurythmics and Tori Amos, all held together by a captivating voice and Asaad's superb guitar work. Soraya's Gold (Hip-O) is a 2-CD career retrospective from the late singer that reminds us of just how much she'll be missed.
On her third album, My Own Way Home (Rainbow), the Catalan singer Beth offers up mostly English songs, and proves to be a gifted vocalist and songwriter no matter what language she uses.
While Ojos de Brujo's Techarí (Six Degrees) flirts with hip hop and punk rhythms, the band still has its roots in the flamenco tradition and singer Maria Abad's voice continues to soar above the music with the raw fervor of the Gypsies of old. Amparanoia's La Vida te Da (Wrasse) features their trademark blend of high energy guitars and Amparo Sánchez's distinctive vocals as the band takes on a blend of rhumba and reggae, spiced with Mexican and West African flourishes.
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs's Hola Chau (Sony) features CD and DVD versions of one of the band's last concerts, this one recorded live in the Obras Sanitarias Stadium in Buenos Aires in September of 2000. It's a great collection of their hits that also serves as an excellent introduction to the band.
Maná's Amar Es Combatir (Warner Latina) is a swaggering collection of arena-rock. It's the Mexican band's first album in four years, and one of their best. The self-titled CD (Sub Pop) from Brazil's Cansei de Ser Sexy's is a club favourite in the UK with its mesmerizing dance rhythms and sensual lyrics. Loe's Lady Reggaetton (EMI) with its infectious mix of rap and dancehall proves this popular style has moved beyond its Jamaican origins.
Like Björk's Médulla, French singer Camille's Le Fil (Virgin) is almost entirely put together with vocals, including a soft vocal hum/drone that runs the entire length of the recording (like "the thread" of its title). This is her second solo album, following her stint with Nouvelle Vogue on a cover album of bossa nova versions of New Wave songs. And speaking of Björk-influenced artists, Emilie Simon's Végétal (Umvd) also fits the bill with its avante garde arrangements and Simon's adventurous vocal stylings.
I'm not a huge fan of the Putumayo series of compilations, mainly because their choice of material is often too simplistic and they charge way too much for what are just compilations. That said, Putumayo Presents: Paris is an excellent introduction to the new smoky cabaret revival of French chanson and will undoubtedly have you running off to pick up full-length CDs by many of the artists featured on it.
Algerian singer Nadiya's self-titled CD (Sony) is a tall cool glass of French R&B with a touch of rap, played out over a bed of Euro-tinged rhythms. Also from Algeria, the phenomenal Rachid Taha has a new album, Diwan 2 (Wrasse) on which he continues to make topical statements, delivered against a backdrop of Arabic rhythms and driving guitars. Think The Clash meets the Middle East.
Leaving the safety of her band Oi Va Voi, Sophie Solomon's violin shines on Poison Sweet Madeira (Decca), a heady mix of her native Russian background with everything from Gypsy traditions to North African rhythms. The album features vocals by Richard Hawley, KT Tunstall and Ralph Fiennes, but Solomon could play on her own without any backing and still shine.
Johnny Clegg's One Life (Marabi) is a bit of a return to form for the South African artist with his infectious rhythms and hooks, and a dash of his signature Zulu chanting. Thievery Corporation's Version (Rmxs) features remixes from the band's catalogue that so reinvent some of the material that they could be considered entirely new songs.
While Natacha Atlas's Mishmaoul (Beggars UK/Ada) has a very hip, contemporary sound, its flavoured with everything from bossa novas to North African casbah sounds. Atlas is one of the first of the World Music divas and she shows no signs of letting go of her crown anytime soon.
Ziggy Marley's Love Is My Religion (Xiii Bis) is his second album since leaving the Melody Makers. With simple, heartfelt lyrics, a growing studio acumen, and a willingness to experiment with his beloved reggae, the younger Marley is proving to be as exceptional an artist as was his father.
Ndidi Onukwulu's No, I Never (Jericho Beach) is ostensibly blues, but bubbling under those twelve-bars are talking drums and enough juju guitar work to make King Sunny Adé proud. The nine-piece African Guitar Summit feature five African guitarists blending soukous and highlife rhythms on their second disc, African Guitar Summit 2 (CBC).
We lost the African guitarist Ali Farka Touré last year, but his final, posthumous album Savane (Nonesuch) is nothing short of a masterpiece.
With the talented Bill Laswell in the producer's chair Matisyahu's Youth (Sony) steps beyond the easy description of Hasidic beatbox/reggae to make a seamless meld of Talmudic teachings and Jamaican rhythms.
On Miero (Real World), fresh from their stint of producing music for the stage version of The Lord of the Rings, Värttinä offer up their tenth album featuring their signature vocal harmonies, blended with accordions, bouzoukis, and yes, even a drum kit. But with this band, you always come back to the voices, and the singing here, in Finnish, is always sublime.
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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:
If you'd like a monthly newsletter of Americana reviews, you should sign up for the Village Records newsletter at www.villagerecords.com. And for one more commercial site that provides excellent band/album information (and is probably the happiest shopping experience you'll have on the Web), point your browser to www.cdbaby.com.
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 every issue; sometimes also a DVD sampler), Sing Out!, Riddim (with CD sampler), No Depression, Rock'n'Reel (with CD Sampler) 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.
Remember to have fun with the music you listen to. And just because someone else likes something you don't, or vice versa, it doesn't mean either of you is wrong. It just means that tastes are different.
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Special thanks, once again, 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: Twentieth Annual Collection (2007).)