Friday, December 05, 2014

Best Music 2014

Music is about story, told through words and notes, rhythm and harmony and tone and timbre and all these things together. It is about journeys real and spiritual and imaginary. It is about connection, conversation, exploration, discovery, and trust. Take a listen to this music, the best music of 2014.

Music is conversation: conversation between artist and audience, between musicians, between those who listen and think and create music all along the way from early idea to performance to recording. Matt and Shannon Heaton decided to focus on conversation as dialogue in the songs they chose and created for the album Tell You in Earnest You will find songs from the Celtic tradition adjusted a bit, contemporary covers, a very funny original piece with an ideas from the tradition as its spark. There’s a song with a motorbike in it and a song from Thailand. Murder ballads to love songs, stories told in, well, conversation, it’s a fine project well worth your listening for the stories alone. You’ll also enjoy fine singing and great harmony work, as well as Matt’s skill on guitar and Shannon’s on flute.

Nicola Benedetti is a classical violinist, a musician in demand by concert halls across the world for her art. A musician who loves challenging herself, she is known for her mastery of music from Shostakovich to Taverner to film composer Korngold. Benendetti is also a Scot. While her musical path took her in a different direction than the jigs and reels and ballads and Burns songs of her native country, she’s always loved them.Homecoming, A Scottish Fantasy finds Benedetti pairing the Scottish Fantasy of Max Bruch -- a classical piece which draws on tunes of Scotland’s tradition and which gives the subtitle to the album -- with sets of music from Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns and tunes by iconic fiddle player James Scott Skinner along with a set of Gaelic puirt a beul and tunes, music by contemporary Scottish folk musician Phil Cunningham, a ballad from the Gaelic tradition, and to close things out, the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond. Benedetti is not alone in her journey: for the Bruch and other sections she is joined by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The folk music finds her joining up with talented players including Phil Cunningham on accordion, Aly Bain on fiddle, Eamon Doorley on bouzouki, Duncan Chisholm on fiddle, Tony Byrne on guitar, James Macintosh on percussion, Michael McGoldrick on flute, Ewan Vernal on double bass, and Julie Fowlis on vocals and whistles. Every bit of it is brilliantly done, a true exploration of the music and of musicians joining together to add colors and ideas in service of tradition and collaboration. “This album comes from a very deep. personal place,” Benedetti has said, and that passion shows through clearly in service to the music.

The idea of being present to what moves you and calls your attention -- those things that led Benedetti to choose that sort of project -- are very present in Carrie Newcomer’s most recent recording A Permeable Life as well. Newcomer is a poet of the American heartland, drawing on the landscapes and stories of her native Indiana as well as what she brings of those to her world wide travels with her music. “Finding the sacred in the every day, that is one of the themes that draws me,” Newcomer says, “that, and being present, really present in each moment. On this album, too, there’s the idea of thresholds.” You will find those ideas spun out in the moment of bringing a cup of water to a friend, in the many meanings left by an empty chair, in thoughts on a rainy afternoon spent putting up dill beans and spiced peach jam, in a promise made on shifting light of an autumn morning, in connections and hope found in a night drive home through along a snowy road. Newcomer knows what she’s talking about; she knows how to ask good questions; she has a poet’s sense of image, and a thoughtful, beautiful way of singing as well.

Julie Fowlis also has the gift of telling story and making connection through the tools of music. I her case there’s an added element: she sings most often in Scottish Gaelic, a language that’s not widely spoken even in Scotland. Fowlis grew up with it the Outer Hebrides, and found herself increasingly drawn to learning the stories people who spoke this language told. Her interest and her passion, and her understanding come through on Gach Sgeul / Every Story. There are tunes for dance, stories of legend, work songs, traveling songs, songs of connection and kinship and place. You’ll understand, even if you do not understand the words. Fowlis is joined on the album by members of her regular touring band Eamon Doorley, Tony Byrne, and Duncan Chisholm, as well as guests including Donald Shaw and Sarah-Jane Summers.

Cara Dillon also knows well how to express story in song. Her album A Thousand Hearts includes a range of songs in English and Irish that consider aspects of love and connection. from sadness to laughter to romance to questions to trust. There are songs from the tradition -- Dillon is from Northern Ireland -- as well as contemporary pieces. Her voice anchors and guides a team of talented backing musicians to illuminate stories including The Shores of Lough Bran, My Donald, and Bright Morning Star.

Rosanne Cash has a story of journeys to tell on her recording The River & The Thread. A family connection -- the restoration of her father’s house by Arkansas State University -- drew Cash, long resident in New York, back to the south, to travels through Alabama, Mississippi, and back to Memphis where she was born. In her songs onThe River & The Thread there are people and places, stories and melodies, as haunting and as true, as real and as imagined as you may find along the deep back roads of the American south, in the past and yet today. The Long Way Home, Tell Heaven, Money Road: with titles like that, you know you have to listen. Along the way, Cash will take you on travels through words and through music, paying respect to the sources while adding her own visions. Listen...

It’s a hard road, but it fits your shoes
Son of rhythm, brother of the blues...

Lizzy Hoyt draws on landscape and family in her music, as well. In her case that’s the landscape of Alberta, in western Canada, and of Ireland, from whence her family came. An award winning songwriter, step dancer, and player of fiddle, harp, and mandolin, Hoyt focuses these talents in New Lady On the Prairie with a title song which honors the journey of emigration her great aunt made. There’s the fast paced song from French Canada, V’la l’bon vent, and from the Celtic tradition The , and original pieces which stand up alongside these. Hoyt is a singer of clarity and precision who brings these tunes to vibrant life, as she does with fiddle tunes including the original piece Jubilee Reel as well. She also takes on the often overworked song Danny Boy, giving it an understated treatment that well serves the song and adds her own stamp to it. Joining Hoyt are several musicians whose names will be familiar if you have walked the music road here before including John Reischman, Christine Hanson, and Jeremiah McDade.

The stories Christine Albert has to tell on Everything's Beautiful Now are ones of loss, change, hope, and resilience. The title track takes its words and them from things Christine’s mother in law spoke of to her in her last hours. Reflecting on this, and on other losses of friends and family in recent years. Albert has written and chosen a group of songs that recognizes pain in such changes as well as the joy and hope that come along the way through them. Austin, Texas based Albert has a a warm, inviting way with singing as well as writing: all these together make the recording one that reveals more to reflect on and enjoy with each listening.

Tony Duncan and Darrin Yazzie come from the west, too -- the southwest, of the United States. They are of the First Peoples, Apache and Navajo respectively. Tony plays flutes and Darrin is a guitarist. Drawing on Native stories and legends, the landscapes of the southwest, the rhythms and moves Tony experiences as a traditional hoop dancer, and the lives of their families for inspiration, for Singing Lights they have created a dozen pieces of instrumental music which invites both engagement and contemplation. Coyote, Dances, Singing Lights, Together We Danced, Sedona Sunrise, Nakai (Whippoorwill), Where the Wind Blows: the title themselves offer an invitation to enter this dialogue among flute, guitar, landscape, and spirit.

Engagement and contemplation are two aspects of what Hanneke Cassel offers on her album Dot the Dragons Eyes as well. Her instrument is the fiddle, and her style is that of Scotland with touches of Cape Breton and Americana now and then -- a thoroughly respectful and focused and original take on Scottish tradition, you might say. Time in China with her music led her to compose and name the title track; there’s a set of tunes from the tradition, a tunes dedicated to young people she met in Kenya, and all manner of other creative takes on the traditions of Scotland’s fiddle heritage, including The Captain, Jig for Christina, The Marathon (for Boston), and Lissa and Corey/The Sunrise.

You might guess from title of Claire Lynch’s album Holiday! that is has a seasonal winter theme. That is so, but odds are you’ll want to keep it playing at other times of year too. Lynch’s graceful, gentle yet strong soprano is a natural fit to give holiday chestnuts including Home for the Holidays, White Christmas, and Scarlet Ribbons a fresh sparkle, and this time out her band members step forward to sing lead on two songs as well, to good effect --check out Snow Day and the Hanukah song In the Window. Lynch is a gifted songwriter as well, and that talent plays in to Holiday! also. Rooted in bluegrass but equally at home in folk, swing, and country, Claire Lynch and her band offer a gathering of songs which may well become a seasonal classic.

Jerry Douglas delved deep into the roots of Americana, country, and folk with his project called Earls of Leicester. It is a tribute of sorts to bluegrass icons Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, done by a dream team band of American roots musicians comprising Tim O’Brien, Charlie Cushman, Shawn Camp, Barry Bales, and Douglas. “Flatt and Scruggs were the major influence on me when I was growing up,” Douglas says. “I was around seven year old when I first saw them... It had a huge impact on me. I remember the warmth of the auditorium, I remember the smell of the popcorn, I remember the outfits they were wearing. It’s all very vivid to me, and it’s still influencing me fifty years later.” The band takes on fourteen classics from the Flatt and Scruggs songbag, some well known, some a bit less well remembered, and infuse each of them with new energy and timeless respect for tradition. They also make a showcase as do Benedetti and friends, above, for the varied ways top notch musicians with their own careers can collaborate to brilliant effect.

Kyle Carey names the music she does Gaelic Americana. On her album North Star she draws on the American folk songbag for style with her song Casey Jones Whistle Blow, a song of dreams for a better day, and a slightly eerie song connecting Ireland and the American west and immigration called Wind Through Casper. Northern Lights, North Star, Winter Fever, June Day -- many of Carey’s original songs have to do with change, and coming to terms with that. She holds a storyteller’s line and gift in the singing of these as well as the writing, leaving space of the listener to make his or her own way into the stories. There’s also a fine cover of Across the Great Divide, and a lovely take on Sios Dhan an Abhainn/ Down to the River to Pray which Carey sings in Scottish Gaelic. Musicians who support Carey on the project include many whose names will be know if you walked along the music road before, among them Seamus Eagan, Katie McNally, and Natalie Haas.

Emily Smith is a musician who connects present day and tradition in her work as well. She is from the southwest of Scotland, and often chooses and writes songs with a connection to her home ground. Smith finds that this deep connection to landscape and history sparks ideas as she follows her career as an internationally touring musician, as well. For her album Echoes she has chosen songs ranging from the traditional ballads My Darling Boy and The Twa Sisters to the contemporary song John o’ Dreams. Jamie McClennan, Kris Drever, and Jerry Dougals are among those who sit in with Smith, whose warm, inviting voice and gift for phrasing draw the listener in to the journey.

The Alt is a project of John Doyle, Eamon O’Leary, and Nuala Kennedy each have more than enough to do with other musical involvements, but the three decided they really liked what they came up with when played together, too, and this recording is a result. It is quite a bit like sitting in on a session of an evening with three very talented and creative friends. Each of them sings, Doyle plays guitar, mandola, and bouzouki, O’Leary plays guitar and bouzouki, and Kennedy plays whistles and flutes. It’s an inviting combination of talents, well matched and met as they move among murder ballads, love songs, quiet tunes and lively ones, fine trading of lead voicing and graceful support on harmonies, through track including. The Geese in the Bog/Covering the Ground, One Morning in May, and Lovely Nancy.

Song and story, connection and conversation through music, have been part of Mary Black’s life since she was growing up in Dublin, long before she became internationally respected for her fine voice and fine song selection. You’ll find out more about that background should you read her memoir, for whichDown the Crooked Road (The Soundtrack) is, as it says a soundtrack -- of sorts. It’s a generous eighteen tracks, including many songs you may know well and several you may not have thought of for a time. As Black herself mentions it would not have been possible to include all the songs she mentioned in the book in one album, so if you know her work well, it is interesting to see what she did choose. If you are not familiar with Mary Black, this could be an excellent starting point, and certainly it makes a fine companion to reading the book. Among the songs included are Faith in Fate, Past the Point of Rescue, Colcannon (with the Black Family), Carolina Rua, I Live Not Where I Love, and Who Knows Where the Time Goes.

You could consider Chris Smither’s two disc set Still on the Levee a soundtrack of sorts, too: the twenty four track project is issued to celebrate Smither’s five decades of a life in music as a songwriters and touring musician. Long resident in New England, he returned to his native New Orleans to record new versions of some of his favorite songs. Fifty years on the road or not, Smither is in fine voice and guitar (and his trademark tapping foot) as he travels through Leave the Light On, Song About Rosalie, Another Way to Find You, and other selections that weave blues, folk, American, and country into stories that show why artists including Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris have chosen to cover his songs and sing them nightly on the road. Smither does too: fifty years on, he can still be found playing his music from Portland to Boston, from Amsterdam to London. It’s a story well told, and still in the telling.

Note: some of these artists and albums you have met here before along the music road; others you will meet in future. Most of the links here take you Amazon US or UK, where, in most cases, you will be able to hear excerpts from the music. Music Road is an Amazon affiliate: if you purchase anything on your visit after following one of these links, your price does not increase but Music Road will receive a small commission, which helps keep this small business going. Thank you for that!

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