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Rich Warren's Favorites of 2017


First, the usual explanatory note:

I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2017" because the following list is but one listener's biased opinion. I have culled these from the many good recordings that spun in 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.

Sometimes the mediocrity of new CD releases completely overwhelms me, while at other times I marvel at the creativity and brilliance. There are twelve 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 twelve 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 2017, 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.

Jennifer Cutting's Ocean Orchestra with vocalists Lisa Moscatiello, John Roberts, Polly Bolton and Steve Winick: Waves (SunSign 2017)
Cutting is a superb songwriter with a strong traditional bent who plays keyboards and accordions on this recording and leaves most of the singing to the glorious voice of Lisa Moscatiello, who rarely records on her own. The album mixes originals and traditional songs in arrangements spanning simple traditional to full out Fairport Convention-style rock. Cutting mesmerizes with her original songs and the sonic ambience enchants the ear.

Bjarte Eike with Barokkoslistene and The Alehouse Boys, featuring Thomas Guthrie, vocals: The Alehouse Sessions
(Rubicon 1017)
This is another recording the defies categorization - Richard Dyer-Bennet meets Philip Glass? Eike who is the artistic director and first violinist of the ensemble leads the group in novel arrangements of mostly traditional tunes in songs, but in versions that startle and then seduce the ear. There's a very high level of musicianship and concert-style singing. Yet on the sea shanties there's a delightful cognitive dissonance between the refined, trained voice of Guthrie and the guttural grunts of the ensemble. Guthrie also is an actor and he brings that to his performance. The tunes feature a professional level of musicianship based on a string quartet with guitars, charango, harmonium, harpsichord, and light percussion. The soundscape is moody and engrossing.

Rhiannon Giddens: Freedom Highway (Nonesuch 558805-2)
This may be the most politically significant recording among the favorites. Giddens poignantly and powerfully addresses slavery as well as giving musical voice to "black lives matter" without being preachy. She has authored or co-authored most of the well-crafted songs on the CD and they range from simple production to full rock. Giddens sings with a strong, pleasing voice that carries every nuance of her message and while that message may be painful to the mind it rewards the ear. Giddens has grown into one of the most important young artists of the past decade.

Joe Jencks: Poets, Philosophers, Workers & Wanderers (Turtle Bear 050117-1)
The title says it all, covering the gamut in 15 tracks of lengthy, involving songs. Jencks wisely includes five covers along with his ten originals. (He provides a new melody and arrangement for "Solidarity Forever.") The covers include songs from Jack Hardy, Kat Eggleston, Phil Ochs and Jon Brooks. The topics range from highly political to deeply personal, from historical to contemporary. No matter what the subject, Jencks honeyed, effective Irish tenor and absolutely perfect, textured, varied arrangements make this CD a thoughtful and pleasurable delight from tracks one through fifteen. He's joined by a raft of friends including Reggie Harris, Harpeth Rising, Tret Fure, Edie Carey, Heather Styka, Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock and others. It is by far the best work Jencks has recorded thus far. He considerately includes a thick lyric book with song annotations. There's a message here, which is songs of social conscience can be a pleasant listening experience while conveying their message. Jencks captures the heart and mind.

Joel Mabus: Different Hymnals (Fossil 2517)
Mabus selects a different framework and motif for each album he records. His knowledge of music runs exceptionally broad and deep. Different Hymnals covers shades of faith from near agnostic to devout. The album is highly spiritual, but not particularly religious. Although it includes a few Christian hymns, it is not a Christian album. The spiritual songs suit nearly any faith. He includes originals, rewrites of traditional hymns and even a lengthy Child ballad imbued with spiritual/moral overtones. An outstanding guitarist, Mabus also mixes instrumentals with songs. Mabus connects all of these fourteen songs with the message that shared faith of whatever religion can bring us closer together and that peace is the ultimate goal.

Alastair Moock: Alastair Moock (Moockshake 00261-45458)
Although he targeted an early album at adults, for quite awhile Moock focused on entertaining children. This is his first serious adult recording in many a year. He endows many of the songs with an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek tone, including his very well crafted Let's Make It Great about the current political situation. Most of the songs progress up a ladder of hope and aspiration, beginning with Dream and ending with Almost There. The modest production fosters Moock's clever and complex lyrics. Overall, Moock reemerges as the best new, old singer-songwriter on the scene.

Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts (Nonesuch 558638-2)
This is a mash-up between the well-established American progressive rock group The Decemberists and British classical-folk vocalist Olivia Chaney. It is something of an impromptu project, which shows around the edges, but it's the best contemporary rock treatment of traditional music since Steeleye Span. Like Steeleye, they are not afraid to rock out and add a bit of distortion to the mix and like Steeleye's Maddy Prior, Chaney is a an excellent vocalist. In addition to mostly traditional songs, they include songs by Ewan MacColl and Lal Waterson, two giants of the British folk scene. Any respectful treatment of traditional music bringing it into the contemporary world rates highly in my book.

Heather Pierson Acoustic Trio: Singin' (Vessel 010)
Pierson joins forces with talented bassist Shawn Nadeau and gifted multi-instrumentalist Davy Strutevant, who plays fiddle cornet, dobro, mandolin, guitar, and banjo as well as providing worthy harmony vocals. The album title provides the key, Singin'. Pierson's full, versatile, fluid voice combines maturity with freshness. She knows how to work her way around and through a song. While she penned most of the songs on this CD, for reference points she includes Dark as a Dungeon and (I'm) Confessin' (That I Love You). The songs range from bluesy to ragtime to straight-up contemporary singer-songwriter as Pierson, who plays guitar and piano, easily leaps between styles.

Tom Russell: Folk Hotel (Frontera 11)
When Russell is 110 years old (hoping he lives another 40 years) he'll more than likely still be recording albums worthy of your attention. He's both rustic and ahead of his time. His well ridden voice is like good leather, comfortably broken in while showing a bit of wear, and authentic. His songs tell stories of his life, the lives of others (such as Dylan Thomas) and lives that live only in his imagination. Just to keep things "real" he throws in a cover of Bob Dylan's Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues sung with Joe Ely. He also harmonizes with Eliza Gilkyson and Mark Hallman on this recording. As always, his songs are chiseled, polished, and further etched to give them edges that glint in the ear. They always contain a dark, sometimes sardonic nature beneath the surface. But each story compels you to listen.

Claudia Schmidt: Hark the Dark (Reflections of Winter) (Pragmavision 00261-46122)
Schmidt rarely records thematic albums, but this one revolves around the winter solstice. It's a montage of well-chosen covers along with five originals artfully performed with exceptionally appropriate production for each song from the jazzy I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, by Irving Berlin to Peter Mayer's brooding, deep, poetic My Soul. Other song contributors among the many include Joel Mabus and David Stoddard. Schmidt's voice is the main attraction, more beautiful than ever with interpretative abilities only maturity can provide. Buy it now so you can enjoy it "in season."

Sons of the Never Wrong: Song of the Sons (Waterbug 129)
Leave it to this boundary bending trio to just keep exploring and growing better. Bruce Roper, Sue Demel and Deborah Lader celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Sons this year (they premiered on WFMT). They claim the songs on this CD were influenced by Beethoven and they drop a few hints here and there. But overall, the album's dozen songs are like a velvet bag of differently colored gem stones which they perform like a bright light shining through these gems. There's no accurate way to describe the Sons in performance other than to listen.

The Wailin' Jennys: Fifteen/15 (Red House 305)
While the Sons are celebrating a quarter century, the Jennys are celebrating 15, having survived two personnel changes and come out even better. Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody and Heather Masse chose nine covers representing some of their favorite songs, from traditional to Tom Petty, Jane Siberry, Paul Simon, Dolly Parton, Patty Griffin, Warren Zevon and others. Then they set to work arranging and harmonizing, delivering what sound like new songs in sensational harmonies worthy of an angel choir. How refreshing a trio of accomplished songwriters can look past their own compositions to create new beauty from the work of others.

Come From Away (orig. Broadcast cast) by Irene Sankoff and David Hein (The Musical Company 00001)
2017 will be remembered as a great year for new Broadway shows. Come From Away may not have garnered the Tony for best new show, but I've rarely heard a more moving and involving show. This ain't your grandparents Rodgers & Hammerstein. Unlike many shows, few songs stand on their own, since the show is based on a true event and is uniquely staged with each cast member playing dual roles. Come From Away retells the tale of the 38 commercial airliners that were diverted to and ground at Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001 and how that townspeople cared for the passengers and crews. It's an amazing, distressing and ultimately heartwarming tale. Multiple listenings fail to dull the sorrow and joy in this show.