Best Music, 2011
All the music you meet here along the music road is music of substance, created by artists who care about the musical conversation with listeners, each other, music, and time. It is, as Emmylou Harris once said, music, not a horse race. Still, it’s good to look back across what been said musically in the last year, and to consider what you might enjoy exploring at this time for giving and receiving. India to Indiana, Donegal to Tennessee, Dumfriesshire to Boston,all these places are on the journey through these best recordings of 2011.
Follow the links in the titles of these recordings for longer reviews and links to places where you will be able to hear bits of the music, as well.
Carrie Newcomer had an unexpected chance to do a musical residency in India. A meeting of her Americana and Indiana background with the life of India forms the substance of her album Everything Is Everywhere.
Matraca Berg often writes the songs which country stars make into chart topping hits. It’s been quite some time -- fourteen years -- since she recorded a solo album of her own. The true to life stories told with poetic vision and sung with grace make The Dreaming Fields more than worth the wait.
John Doyle is one who often works behind the scenes, too, playing guitar with artists including Alison Brown, Cathie Ryan, LIz Carroll and Joan Baez. His deep focus on Irish tradition comes out in his album Shadow and Light through songs he has written himself, and it’s fine to hear this aspect of tradition well carried forward. He is also a master guitar player.
Jennifer Cutting draws on Celtic tradition too, for Song of Solstice. With the the songs she composes and arranges for her Ocean Orchestra, she brings in ideas from Shetland, France, and Ireland as well as Americana and folk rock elements. Exploration and celebration of what is to be learned from the winter season is a focus of this fine gathering of music.
Liz Simmons, Sarah Blair, Ariel Friedman, and Shannon Heaton, the four musicians of the band Long Time Courting, each have strong careers with other musical endeavors. Still, they knew that the music they made together called to them in its own right, too. The result is their debut recording Alternate Routes, a collection of songs and tunes in the Celtic tradition well worth repeated listening.
That’s true of all the recordings in this list, in fact.
It is no mean feat to make a live album which carries the essence of connection with the audience in the moment and reaches listeners to the recording clearly enough to invite repeated listenings. That is what Julie Fowlis has done with Live at Perthsire Amber though. Her songs are in Scottish Gaelic, but if that’s not a language you know, listen anyway: you’ll get the emotions of the songs clearly, and there are notes on the stories of the song in English included.
The lively and engaging song The Wedding Dress, in English, opens T with the Maggies. Many of the songs are in Irish, though. If that’s not your language, do not let that deter you; you’ll understand the stories and the fine harmonies and great playing the four women have to offer. After becoming childhood friends through sharing music in Donegal in Ireland's far northwest, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill, and Moya Brennan each went separate ways into solo careers and work with groups including Altan and Clannad. T With the Maggies is the first time all four have recorded together, and it includes both music from the tradition and songs the women have written.
When she’d include American folk song favorites such as Red River Valley and Shenandoah at her concerts along with her country and Americana hits, Suzy Bogguss saw that everybody loved to sing along -- except the children and young people who didn’t know the words. She decided to make an album to share pieces of this handmade Americana music. Whether you are learning them for the first time or reconnecting with well loved memories. you will likely find yourself joining in with her warm, engaging take on seventeen American classics on American Folk Songbook. These include Froggy Went a-Courting, Banks of the Ohio, and Wayfaring Stranger.
The Unusual Suspects have traditional music on their album Big Like This, too. In their case it comes from the music of Scotland. Under the musical direction of Corrina Hewat and David Milligan, this folk big band, which comprises fiddlers, pipers, accordionists, horn player, drummers, percussionists, harp players and others from across Scotland, turns tradition on its ear while completely respecting too. There’s very fine original music from members of the band along with the traditional music, also. If there’s a person on your list who thinks folk music is stuffy or outdated, any of the recordings here should change his or her ideas on that, but especially this one. It will make a great choice for those who enjoy jazz, as well.
The bright sound of the little fiddle and the dark tones of the big fiddle -- the cello -- are in lively conversation in the hands of Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, respectively, as they travel across the landscapes of Celtic music in Highlander's Farewell. The title track, for example, follows a tune which begins in Scotland and moves across Ireland and over to America, telling its engaging tale all the while.
Emily Smith knows a good bit about travel, as do most professional musicians. Though she often sources material for both songs she writes and songs she seeks out from near her home in the southwest of Scotland, for Traiveller's Joy Smith has taken the traveling aspect of a musician’s life into account as well. There are songs she’s learned on the road as well as ones inspired by her travels.
As you make your own travels this winter season, be they to around the corner or across the world, these recordings will make excellent companions along the road.
you may also wish to see
Music Road: artists of the decade
Music Road: Best Music, 2010
Music Road: holiday gift list: Irish music