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Rich Warren's Favorites of 2018


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.