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Rich Warren's Favorites of 2015

 

First, an explanatory note:

I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2015" because the following list is but one listener's biased opinion. I have culled these from the many good recordings that crossed my CD player this year. I'm sure I forgot to include several notable recordings. They say the CD is waning, yet all told, I estimate The Midnight Special received at least 1000 new recordings, and I listened to about 500 new recordings, of which about 250 made it into the WFMT library, and about 150 received airplay. I do not include reissues and most compilations among these favorites, although there is a major exception this year. As the cut-off date is November 25, some of the newest recordings will not be considered until next year.

Sometimes the mediocrity completely overwhelms me, while at other times I marvel at the creativity and brilliance. There are ten favorites this year. It boiled down to being exceptionally discriminating or a list of 25. I probably could have halved these or doubled the number yet again. There was ample good music, but only these ten grabbed me. While I thought about these choices long and hard for several weeks, if not most of the year, had I made the list a day earlier or a day later it might have been slightly different.

If a good friend visited from out-of-town with only an hour or two to spare, and asked me to play my favorites from 2015, I would play the following. Actually, I have purchased quantities of several of them to give to friends for the holidays.

By way of explanation, I have annotated the CDs on the list, arranged alphabetically.

Matthew Byrne: Hearts & Heroes self 79444-00525
Matthew Byrne, a young newcomer, hails from remote Newfoundland. The CD is a mixture of traditional and traditional-sounding songs, and a couple of exceptionally beautiful instruments showing of his guitar virtuosity. His interpretations show a respect for and intelligence about the music that makes this album special.

Dave Gunning: Lift Wee House of Music 2015
One of the many top notch singer-songwriters from Canada, another artist from the Maritimes, in this case, Nova Scotia, Gunning collaborates with a wide range of co-writers to sing about an array of topics and subjects that keep this album exceptionally entertaining, from songs with political overtones to old-fashioned love songs cleverly expressed. Gunning also is a fine singer and guitarist and this album will hold your attention from first to last track.

Lori Lieberman: Ready for the Storm Drive On 11511-14
Lori Lieberman's voices remains as gorgeous and expressive as it was 40 years ago, but now is even more nuanced and knowing as it expresses some exceptionally good lyrics and memorable melodies. Although most of the songs are broken-hearted love songs, there are few quite interesting vows and explorations that keep the CD interesting throughout. "Three Days" literally is a heart-stopper. Lieberman co-wrote most of the songs, so each has a slightly different flavor and feel. The production is simple and appropriate, never masking her superb voice.

Jim Malcolm: The Corncrake self 80992-14431
Jim Malcolm is now the dean of performing Scottish folk singers. Unlike many Scots singers, he spends most of his time at home in rural Scotland. His obvious affinity for the music gives this album authenticity, but he never buries the lyrics beneath an exaggerated Scots burr, although the dialect remains intact. As usual, he's chosen mostly traditional and traditional sounding songs to share. Beyond the material, his truly lovely voice proves that traditional singers can be enjoyed for their beauty as well as for keeping the great songs alive. Malcolm was once the lead singer of the popular group Old Blind Dogs and that band has never been quite as good since he left. Meanwhile, he's impressively grown as a solo artist.

Tom Paxton: Redemption Road Pax 010
Tom Paxton creates one amazing album after another. He's been at it for over 50 years. Not all of are equal brilliance, but a good Tom Paxton album surpasses most other singer-songwriters with ease. It's uncertain if this will be Paxton's last album of new material, but he ties up a few loose ends with songs about aging and retiring, as well as one exceptional love song, "Central Square." His sense of humor remains intact with a pair of humorous songs. No Paxton album would be complete without some humor. He also retains his political edge. In other words, this is the full Paxton buffet. However, he ends with "The Parting Glass," perhaps a message to his fans that he is leaving. Thus, this album is worth savoring as an example of the genius who has given us so many great songs.

John Roberts & Debra Cowan: Ballads Long and Short Golden Hind 111
Put together two of the most serious and humorous traditional singers of our time and be prepared for an album that honestly brings to life traditional music with a knowledge of the genre rare in our time. They compliment the traditional songs a few contemporary traditional sounding songs, including one with a definite wink and a nod. John Roberts a long time practitioner of the art of traditional music finally found a new singing partner worth his mettle in Debra Cowan, who possesses a most pleasing voice and love of the music. It's not merely that they do justice to the material on this CD; it's obvious that they enjoy it.

Elaine Romanelli: The Hour Before self 88295-24554
In an era of singer-songwriters with dubious production values, Elaine Romanelli shines like a super nova with just her and her grand pianos. Her utterly haunting performance leads down the mirrored corridors of lost love with highly original reflections and melodies that tug and pull emotions. While normally producers gum up recordings, in this case Si Kahn, mostly known for his labor and political songs, brings Romanelli to her full glory via sparseness. Of all the singer-songwriter recordings received this year, this one most unnerved me with its simultaneous simplicity and complexity.

Tom Russell: The Rose of Roscrae - A Ballad of the West Frontera 9
Tom Russell operates on Daniel Burnham's edict: "Make no small plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood." Picking up where The Man From God Knows Where left off over a decade ago, this magic rollicking, rambling two CD epic includes a score of guest performers, both living, recorded especially for this album and deceased from various audio archives. Thus, the album includes Walt Whitman and Lead Belly along with Maura O'Connell, Guy Clark and Eliza Gilkyson and even the Swiss Yodel Choir of Bern and the Norwegian Wind Ensemble. It ranges from rock to nearly acoustic, with bits of spoken poetry and narration. The original songs are Tom Russell instant classics. This is a mind bending journey through American history and the Irish diaspora best enjoyed with a sip of single- barrel aged bourbon.

Happy Traum: Just for the Love of It Lark's Nest 00261-42584
The title of the album sums it up. Happy Traum, the preeminent guitarist who started during the folk boom and accompanied many great artists, along with several albums with his late brother Artie, sat back, took stock and with a deep, subtle passion recorded an album of his favorite traditional and contemporary songs and instrumentals. Although well on in years, his fingers still do their dance on the guitar as agilely as in his youth and he sings with the experience only years provide. Many older artists attempt to go back and mine gold, but Traum succeeds. He's accompanied by many talented artists including John Sebastian on harmonica; Abby Newton, cello; Martin Simpson, guitar and David Amram, the one-man orchestra.

Joy of Living - A Tribute to Ewan MacColl
Damien Dempsey, Martin Carthy, The Unthanks, Seth Lakeman, Marry Waterson, Jack Steadman & Jamie MacColl, Dick Gaughan, Eliza Carthy, Chaim Tannenbaum, Steve Earle, Jarvis Cocker, Paul Buchanan, Paul Brady, Norma Waterson, Karine Polwart, Martin Simpson, Christy Moore, Billy Bragg, Rufus & Martha Wainwright, Kathryn Williams, David Gray Compass 748572
The contributors to the 21-tracks of this two-CD set read like a who's who of contemporary British folk, along with some surprises such as the Wainwrights and Steve Earle. The songs were selected by Ewan's children from his marriage with Peggy, Neill, Calum and Kitty. They included well known songs, some of which have slipped into the folk tradition, and some of Ewan's lesser known songs. If you're not familiar with Ewan MacColl, a Renaissance man, actor, writer, and singer, this is a fascinating introduction. For Ewan's fans this is a confirmation of the artistry and validity of his work. He would have been much more famous in the U.S., save for his politics that kept him out of this country for a decade or more. MacColl ranks high in the pantheon of traditional and contemporary folk artists and should never be forgotten. This set does him justice.