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Rich Warren's Favorites of 2016

 

First, the usual explanatory note:

I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2016" 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. As the cut-off date is November 25, some of the newest recordings will not be considered until next year.

As an aside, after 200,000 miles on my Toyota Camry I ended up having to choose a new car based on whether it was available with a CD player. I originally chose a Chevy Volt only discover that GM no longer offers CD players with any of its new cars.

Sometimes the mediocrity of new CD releases completely overwhelms me, while at other times I marvel at the creativity and brilliance. There are nine favorites this year. It boiled down to being exceptionally discriminating or a list of 30. I probably could have halved these or doubled the number yet again. There was ample good music, but only these nine 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. In fact, I went back and forth with several recordings.

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 2016, I would play the following. Actually, I have purchased some of them to give to friends for the holidays.

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

Atwater-Donnelly Trio: The World Is Old Tonight (Rabbit Island 1013-2)
Aubrey Atwater and Elwood Donnelly have been making music together for 30 years, quietly ascending to the peak of their craft. They specialize in traditional music with gentle harmonies and appropriately natural, deceptively sophisticated instrumental accompaniment. Their choice of material on this album rates a must hear of traditional music including Willie of Winsbury, The Spanish Lady, I've Been a Foreign Lander, Shule Aroon and others. This is an enchantingly beautiful recording.

The Bills: Trail of Tales (Borealis 239)
This Canadian quintet writes its own material in changing combinations of members and performs it with an eclectic electricity missing from so much contemporary folk. The songs, even the quieter ones, exhibit an innate heartbeat. Topics range from subtle commentary on our contemporary world to a lament for the extinction of elephants, performed with acrobatic harmonies and exquisite, intense musicianship. This is the perfect CD to listen to if you need a pick-me-up.

C. Daniel Boling: These Houses (Berkalin 10021)
Boling represents the troubadour branch of singer-songwriters, with honeyed voice and rich instrumental accompaniment. He sings with righteous anger and gentle caress. Song topics range from PTSD, ancient civilizations of the American southwest, bits of personal reminiscence, personal credo and a moving tribute to the folk greats who preceded and inspired him. Boling addresses all the appropriate ideas with a deeply sincere touch.

Brother Sun: Weights & Wings (self 53701-21522)
Alas, this will be the last recording from Brother Sun as they will disband by the end of 2017. In the meantime, savor the perfect harmonies, exceptional musicianship, powerful songs and tidal energy of Greg Greenway, Joe Jencks, and Pat Wictor. Perhaps it was inevitable that these men could not sustain a trio indefinitely because they are so individually talented. The songs split evening between deeply personal and politically alert along with a harmonious cover of Phil Ochs' When I'm Gone.

Susie Burke & David Surette: Waiting for the Sun (Madrina 106)
Burke & Surette release a new recording just under once a decade, so any release is noteworthy. They both write great songs as well as including a few well-chosen covers. Although there are some introspective songs inspired by their life challenges, most of the songs glow with light and zest. They perform a heartfelt cover of Pete Morton's powerful Another Train. Having worked together for nearly a lifetime, their voices fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and they are pretty handy with instruments as well.

Larry Kaplan: Furthermore (Folk-Legacy 148)
Think of Larry Kaplan as a bit of Gordon Bok and Bob Zentz, but entirely himself. Many of his songs involve the sea, with one about guitar building and a tribute to Francis Child of Child Ballad fame. His tales are captivating with pleasing voice accompanied by excellent musicianship. There's a naturalness and ease here, missing from many recordings, that draws you in to the many fine stories in this recording of mostly original material.

No Fuss and Feathers: Traveling Circus (Roadshow 88295-38349
The title is truth in advertising in that there's a lot of exciting music going on in this recording in songs and sound, with some dazzle and touches of darkness. The three outstanding female harmonies of Catherine Miles, Karyn Oliver and Carolann Solebello, along with the superb musicianship of Jay Mafale. They split the writing responsibilities vocal solos between them so all the songs sound dramatically different. Once again, there's an intensity and commitment that engrosses the listener.

Madeleine Peyroux: Secular Hymns (Impulse 0025437-02)
Madeleine Peyroux turns all the songs on this CD into secular hymns. A widely diverse variety of songs take on a spiritual nature in her incomparable interpretations. Whether a pop standard, a Townes Van Zandt or Sister Rosetta Tharpe song or a traditional African-American spiritual, Peyroux delves deeply into each song and releases its innermost spirit. This album might be considered closer to jazz than folk, but it established Peyroux as one of the foremost interpreters of our time. The arrangements for each song further enhance Peyroux's vision of the song.

Red Tail Ring: Fall Away Blues (EarthWork 00261-44221)
The duo of Michael Beauchamp and Laurel Premo has been coalescing for the past five or six years to achieve the dramatic perfection of Fall Away Blues. Their simultaneously stark and substantial performance of original songs (both share writing responsibilities), original and traditional instrumentals and traditional songs such as Yarrow and Wondrous Love create an involving tapestry predicated on a roots sound with contemporary sensibility. They carefully weave in social concerns in songs such as Shale Town along with pure love songs. Premo's captivating fiddle playing ices the cake, and the title song alone is worth the price of the entire CD.