First, the usual explanatory note:
I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2018" 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 fourteen 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 fourteen grabbed me at the moment
I assembled the "favorites" program. 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 2018, 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.
Craig Bickhardt: Home for the Harvest (Stone Barn 1010)
This album is the sleeper of the crop, a dozen great songs, mostly co-writes, sung in fine voice
with appropriate, mostly acoustic production. Bickhardt and those he writes with pen highly
poetic lyrics with memorable melodies.
Olivia Chaney: Shelter (Nonesuch567191-2)
Chaney's previous solo album did not prepare me for the depth and power of her songwriting on
this album. She has a style and poise reminiscent of June Tabor, as well as an obvious debt to
traditional English music. The songs are somber and haunting, aided by Chaney’s beguiling voice
and the generally sparse accompaniment. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Colin & Clem
are worth the entire CD, which includes eight other very good songs.
Childsplay with Karan Casey: The Bloom of Youth (self 00261-46759)
Bob Childs, a luthier by trade, crafted the dozen fiddles, viola and pair of cellos on this album.
He also performs along with notable fiddlers Hanneke Cassel, Lissa Schneckenburger and Sam
Amidon, among nine other fiddlers, with Ralph Gordon on bass. Pete Sutherland produced the
album, which explains its perfection and brilliance. The instrumental tunes range from
traditional, to those composed by members of the ensemble, to those composed by other notable
contemporary fiddlers such as Liz Carroll. Karan Casey memorably interprets Andy M. Stewart's
Where Are You Tonight I Wonder, as well as the traditional Sailing Off to Yankeeland,
Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle and the Drum and a song Casey wrote for her mother Lovely Annie.
All impeccably accompanied by the folk orchestra, which includes eight other instruments beyond the
bowed strings. Child’s claims this is the last ensemble recording he will sponsor.
Cathy Fink - Marcy Marxer - Sam Gleaves:
Shout and Shine (Community Music 213)
This treasure chest of a record bursts open with a wide variety of songs from traditional and
original, to Tom Paxton, among other songwriters all performed with verve, spirit, and where
appropriate, gusto. There's whimsy, joy and conscience among the 13 songs. Marxer's voice is
better than ever on If I Were a Blackbird. While Fink and Marxer always have been a great
pair, Gleaves adds a lot with his fiddling and vocals. The album is a true delight.
Reggie Harris: Ready to Go (self 00261-46565)
This is Reggie Harris' first solo CD after performing and recording for 40 years with his
former wife. He leaps from the gate fully formed as a solo artist, vibrant yet nuanced. He's
dynamic, yet subtle. About a dozen friends chipping in instruments and backing vocals
maintain the energy level where appropriate. Most of the songs are original which resonate with the
times, plus a Phil Ochs cover. Some of Harris' songs are political and some highly personal, but
they never forsake musicality for the message. It's only a shame that Reggie Harris waited so
long to produce this very exciting solo CD.
I'm With Her (Sara Watkins – Sarah Jarosz – Aoife O’Donovan):
See You Around (Rounder 1166100317)
This is the pleasing result of three much in demand talented female soloists with a bent to
stretching boundaries. They all play multiple instruments which keeps each song unique and
interesting. They claim joint songwriting credit on the dozen songs, but if you know each of their
individual styles you can detect who exerted the greatest influence on each song. The topics
mainly involve literal and figurative traveling, with titles such as Pangaea, I-89 and
Hundred Miles. Their liberated harmonies are not what you'd expect from a female trio, another
interesting aspect of this recording.
Kathy Kallick Band: Horrible World (Live Oak 620)
There's nothing this quintet can’t do, from lively to slow and loud to soft. The 13 tracks
include Kallick originals, along with a Carter Family cover, hot picking on a Bill Monroe tune
and performances of other tunesmiths. There's humor and contemplation among the songs and some
political references. The band produces an impressive amount of finely played musical
horsepower, led by Kallick's versatile vocals.
John McCutcheon: Ghost Light (Appalsongs 2018)
It's hard not to fall in love with a McCutcheon recording, especially as he ages. Every new song
takes on the burnish and patina of wisdom expressed in the poetry of life. McCutcheon
includes a dozen new originals, plus his setting of a Woody Guthrie poem When My Fight for Life
is Over. McCutcheon writes about the ghosts of his father and long passed friends and his very
much alive granddaughter. He returns to the collapse of small town America and the issues we
face today without being as overtly political as in some of his recordings. Ghost Light is
another winner from one of the premier folk musicians and songwriters on the current scene.
Audra McDonald with the New York Philharmonic: Sing Happy (Decca 0028495-02)
Audra McDonald does justice to every song she sings. With one uproarious exception, The Face
Book Song, every other of the 21 songs on this CD comes from a Broadway show, sometimes an
obscure show. Her taste is impeccable. Furthermore, this is the extremely rare pop recording
by a vocalist with orchestra where the voice flawlessly balances with the instruments. You never
miss an inflection or overtone from McDonald's voice, while still hearing the rich sound of one
of America's premier orchestras. This is an armchair special where you just want to sink in and
let the music carry you.
Lori McKenna: The Tree (CN 36140)
This hard edged recording often veers into rock production, but Lori McKenna and the songwriters
with which she collaborates spin such intensely poetic and moving tales that it would be hard not
to include this recording as a "favorite." The CD contains eleven mostly outstanding songs strongly
delivered by McKenna. Fortunately, the best songs, such as The Lot Behind St. Mary's have
the least production. Previous McKenna albums blasted out the songs, this one achieves just the right balance.
Jim & Susie Malcolm: Spring Will Follow On (Beltane 112)
You can't help but fall in love with real traditional music when performed by Jim Malcolm.
With the death of Andy M. Stewart, few would argue he may have the most beautiful traditional
male singing voice in Scotland. On this recording he unveils his secret weapon, the lovely voice of
his wife, Susie. While she has sung the occasional harmony with him before, this is their
first joint album and it is a splendid collaboration. Of the dozen songs, ten are
traditional, one is by Robert Burns and original lyrics to one traditional tune. The songs which
run the gamut from epic tales, lively romps, and mournful ballads, show the diversity of Scots
traditional music. This CD makes a perfect introduction to traditional music if you have not
previously explored this essential music from which the current folk and singer-songwriter
tradition developed. Malcolm also courteously supplies the lyrics, lest you not understand
some of the Scottish dialect.
Kathy Mattea: Pretty Bird (Captain Potato 89277)
Lots of vocalists sing with pretty voices, but few know how to slip inside a song and make it
real as well as Mattea. One of her advantages is that she is not a songwriter. She enjoys the
luxury of choosing songs she wishes to explore and taking the listener on a journey. This is
about as diverse of a collection as he’s released ranging from Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billy Joe
to Mary Gauthier's Mercy Now to Peter Mayer's Holy Now. She includes a cabaret teaser
Chocolate on My Tongue, Hazel Dicken's Pretty Bird, and the traditional He Moves Through the
Fair, (which she adapted to fit her female viewpoint). After her beautiful, but monochromatic
albums about coal mining and her West Virginia roots, Pretty Bird is a rainbow of Mattea's artistry.
John Prine: The Tree of Forgiveness (Oh Boy 046)
I will admit I've never been a great John Prine fan. After his first few albums I lost interest.
But The Tree of Forgiveness returns Prine to his best. This possibly may be because he
co-wrote most of the ten songs. There's a sparkle and freshness here that reminds one of why he is
a great songwriter, and yes, performer. He ranges from whimsical to pointed, from imaginary to
visionary. The accompaniment suits his style perfectly. The clever lyrics of some of the songs are Prine at his best.
Carolann Solebello: Shiver (Elizabeth 014)
Carolann Solebello may be the best kept secret in the world of singer-songwriters. She left the
trio Red Molly just when it was becoming famous. She possesses one of the best voices in the
singer-songwriter world with vocal body and spot-on intonation. She's also matured into a
first-rate songwriter. Her topics range from finding her muse to Bastille Day in New York,
to the deeply personal question and request Listen. A great deal of credit for the glory of
this album must be given to her producer Joe Iadanza. Thanks to Iadanza, Solebello finally
delivers an album where her voice stars and the accompaniment is just that. Everything just falls
into place on this recording which vaults Solebello into the upper echelong of singer-songwriters.