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Rich Warren's Past Favorites

 

Rich's favorite Midnight Special CDs of 2008:

First, an explanatory note:
I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2008" 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 a few notable recordings. All told, I estimate The Midnight Special received at least 800 new recordings, and I listened to about 400 new recordings, of which about 200 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 15, some of the newest recordings will not be considered until next year.

Maybe I am becoming jaded or maybe just overwhelmed by mediocrity. There are ten favorites this year. There was good music, but only these 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 2008, 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.

Susie Burke & David Surette: When the Small Birds Sweetly Sing
(Madrina MM104)

An absolutely charming, highly melodic CD from two people who lovingly perform the songs of others rather than writing their own. They've made wonderful choices from the likes of Pierce Pettis, Mark Simos, Pete Sutherland, Jean Ritchie, Pat Donohue, Elmer Beal, and even Stephen Sondheim. The instrumentation and production of this CD is as perfect as it gets. I'd buy this CD just for Burke & Surette's performance of Pat Donohoe's "All My Life." They only issue a new recording about once every seven or eight years, so they enjoy the luxury of making it perfect.

Joe Crookston: Able Baker Charlie & Dog (Milagrito JBJO 78)

Crookston is a weirdly eclectic songwriter and his songs vary widely. They range from inebriated roosters to the building of the runways on Tinian Island in the Pacific for the Enola Gay (which is the title song, the alpha designations for those runways). Crookston's pleasing voice and ample, but appropriate production supports his songs well. Although very simple, "Bird By Bird" is a song that's hard to get out of your head. It took awhile for this album to grow on me, but once I accepted its diversity and unusual topics I realized its greatness.

Kitty Donohoe: Northern Border (Roheen RR007)

Donohoe only records a new album about once every seven years. (More singer-songwriters should follow her lead.) So she whittles it down to her best songs carefully honed. This CD shows impressive attention to detail highlighting memorable songs. Her Irish roots imbue the CD with a strong Celtic flavor aided and abetted by rich acoustic production. She's one of the rare songwriters who composes truly sticky melodies. This is her first CD to include "There Are No Words," perhaps the best song drawn from the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Greg Greenway: Standing on the Side of Love (Face SOH 005)

There's no defining Greenway, he's all over the map in context and style. He's a bit of Jacques Brel, Phil Ochs, and Ray Charles. He also knows how to compose great melodies and complex lyrics to weave into them. He's at home on guitar and piano. The production varies from loud to intimate, but the quality never wavers. His song for his mother "The Weight of Feathers" is worth the entire CD.

Cindy Kallet Ellen Epstein Michael Cicone: Heart Walk (Overall Music OM-3)

Heart Walk is the fruit of the tree of friendship. These longtime friends unite about once a decade to record a CD. Their personal styles widely vary, but when they come together it's a match made in heaven. About half the CD consists of original songs, which are very good and the other half their favorites by other writers. The performance style varies from a cappella harmonies to simple acoustic instrumentation. It's an amazing CD.

Enoch Kent: One More Round (Borealis BCD190)

If you like traditional music, Kent is your man. Raised in Scotland, resident in Canada, the music runs in his blood. I consider him the best traditional interpreter since Ewan MacColl and those are mighty words of praise considering my worship of MacColl. Of course, Kent sneaks in a few originals and a few by other traditional sounding writers, just as MacColl did. His assured voice and absolute love of the music affirm the timelessness of traditional music. And his own closing song, "Crematorium Song" shows his droll sense of humor.

Lowen & Navarro with Phil Parlapiano: Learning to Fall (Red Hen EGG 6)

This poignant CD could be the duo's last after a long and impressive career together. Many of the songs reflect upon or are colored by Eric Lowen's debilitating fatal illness, but none are bathetic or maudlin. While I normally don't choose a "pop" oriented CD as a favorite, this one is so well produced with such strong songs I could not resist. Since Eric no longer plays guitar, talented Parlapiano fills in admirably on a variety of instruments and back-up vocals. This CD richly flows out of the speakers with songs that make you think about life. And you can hum them while doing that thinking.

Magpie: In This World: Looking Back, Moving Forward (Sliced Bread CDSB75315)

There's always an exception to the rule. While compilations and collections rarely are favorites, this one is so radiant and phenomenal that I have to include it. Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino, who are Magpie, celebrated 35 years of making music together by recording this CD of 16 of their favorite songs from the past 35 years. These are fresh takes, recorded in 2008, of songs they truly love. These performances always match and usually exceed the original recordings. There's a new depth, maturity and inner radiance found in each song. It is a mixture of originals and covers, the latter extremely well chosen. Their originals "Before the Morning" and "Give Light" along with Rachel Bissex's "One Another" and Phil Ochs' "When I'm Gone," are worth twice the price of this CD. (This is a different version of "When I'm Gone" than the closing theme of The Midnight Special.) The instrumentation and its musicianship, harmonies, and of course songs, make this an outstanding recording.

KATHY MATTEA: Coal (Captain Potato 7653260-2)

One of the most gorgeous voices in Nashville put her successful country-folk career on hold to record this CD of conscience and passion. She was raised in coal country and felt the need to give back by making people aware of the struggle and strife through the 11 songs on this CD. Normally coal mining songs are performed by artists with more heart than voice. Mattea sings these songs with heart and voice, making them more accessible to a broader audience. She's chosen some of the best songs of the genre including Jean Ritchie, Utah Phillips, Billy Edd Wheeler, Si Kahn and Hazel Dickens. Mattea is accompanied by some of the best studio musicians in the trade. This is not casual listening, but it is beautiful.

Carrie Newcomer: The Geography of Light (Philo 11671-1253-2)

Newcomer is philosopher, sage, mystic and poet with an alto voice that I would follow to the ends of the earth. She also finally reached the perfect balance of accompaniment/production with her voice. The thoroughly engrossing songs require several listening to see all the light (and dark) within them. Newcomer improves with every CD and her poetry grows more complex and luminous. Or perhaps it's her voice that grows more complex and luminous. There's also a postscript on this CD in her hilarious and timely "Don't Push Send."

Here are some honorable mentions, which, if you caught me on a different day, might have made this list:

Debra Cowan: Fond Desire Farewell (Falling Mountain FM1054

Randall Williams: Praying for Land (Musafir 06)
(Just a note on this one: Incredible voice, outstanding songs, dreadful production.)

Tom May: Blue Roads Red Wine (Waterbug WBG80)


Rich Warren's Favorites of 2009

 

First, an explanatory note:

I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2009" 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 a few notable recordings. All told, I estimate The Midnight Special received at least 800 new recordings, and I listened to about 400 new recordings, of which about 200 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 15, some of the newest recordings will not be considered until next year.

Maybe I am becoming jaded or maybe just overwhelmed by mediocrity. There are eight favorites this year. However, when CDs are great, they are truly great, as evidenced by some of these favorites. There was good music, but only these 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 2009, 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.

Ben Bedford: Land of the Shadows (Hopeful Sky HSR202)

More finely honed than his first CD, he covers a wide range of subjects from a coal mine disaster, Emmett Till, Civil War songs, love songs and heartbreaking historical tales with powerful poetry and better yet, engrossing, memorable melodies.

 

Sylvia Herold & Euphonia: The Old Jawbone (Tuxedo TUXCD928)

If you enjoy variety with a traditional leaning, this CD entertains from start to finish. It includes traditional songs, contemporary songs that sound traditional, and a few off the wall numbers, several accompanied instrumentals all well-played and well sung.

 

Diana Jones: Better Times Will Come (Proper American PRPACD008)

Spare production perfectly frames Jones' unusual and alluring alto voice singing songs that captivate in their subtlety and sincerity. Cracked and Broken is one of the best adult love songs I've ever heard.

 

John McCutcheon: Untold (Appalsongs 2009)

After dozens of albums he's not yet tapped out. McCutcheon reinvents himself as a storyteller on this two-CD set, with one disc of stories accompanied by songs, and the other just songs. The songs are McCutcheon's usual exceptional compositions, but the intriguing and off-beat stories are absolutely involving and enthralling.

 

Peter Mulvey: Letters from a Flying Machine (Signature Sounds SIG2024)

Mulvey tackles storytelling from an entirely different angle than McCutcheon. His stories are in the form of philosophical and instructional letters written on airplanes to his young nephews and nieces, interspersed with his expected complex and interesting songs. His topics range from technology to Bach to the cosmos and are utterly engrossing.

 

Sons Of the Never Wrong: On a Good Day (Waterbug WBG88)

Okay, this isn't the first Sons album I've selected as a favorite, but they space their CDs so far apart that each is a totally new experience from this trio. There's a creativity, freshness, and risk taking missing from nearly all contemporary singer-songwriter recordings. Yet, when they go out on a limb they produce a lot of branches, leaves and musical fruit.

 

Loudon Wainwright III: High Wide & Handsome The Charlie Poole Project (2nd Story 161-003)

Wainwright's always been his own man, like no one else in his over 40 years as a singer-songwriter. In this two-CD set he collides with kindred artist from an earlier era, Charlie Poole, one of the fathers of country music. Wainwright and producer Dick Connette created a fascinating pastiche of songs for which Poole was known, or which Poole should have performed and a few originals that would have been perfect for Poole, ranging from wildly humorous to sentimental.

 

Here are a couple more that deserve your attention and consideration:

Anne Hills: Points of View (Appleseed APRCD1119)

This CD of originals, co-writes, and a Leonard Cohen song for spice, cover a wide range of topics with Hills' expected political consciousness and perceptive lyrics. Her lovely voice has never been better and this is her best release in years.

 

Zoe Mulford: Bonfires (Azalea City ACCD-0906)

The wide variety of song topics, styles and production, along with great singing by Mulford, really works on this CD.

I really wanted to include Jonathan Edwards: Rollin' Along Live in Holland (Strictly Country SCR-68), but discovered it was released in 2008, although we first received it in 2009. In any event, it's a terrific CD.

As far as comedy. . .

David Mitchell & Robert Webb: That Mitchell & Webb Sound, Series Four (BBC Audio)

While the days of Peter Cooke & Dudley Moore, the Establishment and Beyond the Fringe may be in the distant past, Mitchell & Webb come the closest to carrying on the tradition.


Rich Warren's Favorites of 2010

 

First, an explanatory note:

I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2010" 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 a few notable recordings. All told, I estimate The Midnight Special received at least 900 new recordings, and I listened to about 400 new recordings, of which about 150 made it into the WFMT library, and about 140 received airplay. I do not include reissues and most compilations among these favorites. As the cut-off date is November 15, some of the newest recordings will not be considered until next year.

Maybe I am becoming more jaded or maybe just overwhelmed by mediocrity. There are eight favorites this year. There was ample good music, but only these 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 2010, 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.

Cloudstreet: The Circus of Desires (self 06)
This Australian duet of Nicole Murray and John Thompson combines the best of traditional and contemporary with a highly varied repertoire from old English ballads to Australian folk songs and compositions to new English ballads. The originals on this CD sparkle with true originality. Their voices work splendidly together for a lively and engrossing performance.

 

Judy Collins: Paradise (Wildflower 1329)
Frankly, I never thought I'd be including a Judy Collins CD on this list, but Paradise is a superb collection of songs ranging from Over the Rainbow to Ghost Riders in the Sky along with a powerful original about 9/11, Kingdom Come, and the Child ballad Dens of Yarrow. Even more interesting is Collins' duets with Joan Baez on Baez's hit Diamonds and Rust, and with Stephen Stills, her one-time paramour, on Tom Paxton's Last Thing on My Mind. Better still, unlike some of her recent efforts, she's in fine voice with accompaniment that always fits the song.

 

Krista Detor: Chocolate Paper Suites (Tightrope 255 102)
With her mesmerizing smooth and deep as velour alto and wide range of production, Krista Detor could make any song ear engaging. This is the most adventurous recording on my list with a wide range of styles and subjects grouped into suites. The boldness and creativeness of Detor's effort will rivet you. Also on this CD is a remixed, improved version of her amazing song from the Darwin song project Clock of the World.

 

Annie Gallup: Weather (Waterbug 0093)
The first year I started picking favorites, Annie Gallup's first CD was on my list. Since then she has musically wandered far and wide searching for the proper expression and setting of her impressive talent. She recorded Weather with a string quartet and it suits her perfectly. Her songs are as sophisticated, intriguing and complex as ever with accompaniment that compliments her distinct vocal style. This is the breakthrough for which Gallup has searched for the past 15 years.

Through an oversight, I forgot to include Annie Gallup on the December 4 program featuring the "Favorites of 2010." Weather will be featured on December 11

 

Tim O'Brien: Chicken & Egg (Howdy Skies 1005)
I've lost track of how many albums Tim O'Brien has recorded, but this one is most certainly a keeper. It's widely diverse, with some great upbeat picking. It jumps from rollicking songs to pensive serious songs and just about everything in between. As is typical with O'Brien, the performance is first rate and highly musical. While the term "Americana" as a musical style has been bowdlerized, O'Brien's work is true Americana, not the pop excuse for it.

 

The Once: The Once (Borealis 205)
This trio came of age in the relatively isolated confines of Newfoundland where they recorded this CD and there's a refreshing honesty and innocence in this performance. Geraldine Hollett's evocative vocals are haunting. Born into a fisherman's family, when she sings of fishermen being lost at sea she puts you on the shore with her waiting for the boat to return. The variety of material ranges from covers of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits to traditional songs, all engrossingly performed. There's some wonderful a cappella singing on this recording.

 

Nora Jane Struthers: Nora Jane Struthers (Blue Pig 1111)
Nora Jane Struthers writes songs that sound like they've been around a couple of hundred years, often based on traditional themes, but they sound breathtakingly contemporary delivered in her richly structured bluegrass/old-timey stringband style. Her melodies are infectious as the sound just carries you away. For a first effort this is impressive.

 

As far as comedy. . .

Tom Chapin & John Forster: Broadsides (Sundance 82148 10242)
It's a real shame it took these two songwriting masters ten years to finally release this CD, although all the songs remain absolutely current and topical. For those who lament the fact that Tom Lehrer hasn't recorded in decades or that Tom Paxton's output has slowed, cease your crying. These are some of the most pointed, clever and downright funny songs that have appeared on CD in ages. They don't skewer a specific political party or viewpoint, but rather the absurdity and foibles of contemporary culture and politics. I've played almost every track on the show, which is rare for a humorous CD.


Rich Warren's Favorites of 2011

 

First, an explanatory note:

I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2011" 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 a few notable recordings. All told, I estimate The Midnight Special received at least 1000 new recordings, and I listened to about 500 new recordings, of which about 200 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 15, some of the newest recordings will not be considered until next year.

Sometimes I am just overwhelmed by mediocrity and at other times marvel at the creativity and talent. There are 14 favorites this year, almost twice the number as last year. I probably could have halved these or doubled the number yet again. There was ample good music, but only these 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.

Unlike in previous years, this year's recordings share the attribute of a high degree of energy and excitement. They deliver an emotional charge.

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 2011, 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.

Brother Sun: Brother Sun (self 53701 21102)
What happens when you unite three of the best male singers in the folk realm who already revel in harmony singing? Brother Sun. While numerous delightful female trios harmonize, few men bond that way these days (unlike the days of the folk revival when they were the norm). Added to great voices, energy and sincerity are worthy compositions in three distinct styles that bring to mind a modern day gospel.

 

Chuck Brodsky: Subtotal Eclipse (chuckbrodsky.com 8024)
Chuck Brodsky consistently delivers good songs on all of his CDs. His two songs about the holocaust, recorded on Holocaust Remembrance Day elevate this recording. Possibly two of the best songs written about the sorrow and tragedy of that unforgivable period of human history. Brodsky also includes some satirical jabs at contemporary society and a few of his arcane and appreciated baseball songs.

 

Ann Hampton Callaway & Liz Callaway: Boom! Live at Birdland (PS Classics 1199)
This is not a folk album, but full fledged cabaret with a wide range of material from the Beatles to Richard Harris to Carly Simon to Joni Mitchell to Bob Dylan to Carole King. The Callaway sisters, who possess great voices, interpret each song with a totally different arrangement in this live concert recording. They shape, mold and caress each song making it their own. The most luminous moment is Ann's performance of Joni Mitchell's A Case of You.

 

Pete Coe: Backbone (Backshift 57)
I'll go out on a limb to say that no contemporary performer brings as much electricity (in an emotional, not instrumental, sense) to traditional music. He turns every ballad he sings into a riveting, relevant tale. He also admittedly takes liberty with most of the ballads either to flesh out their stories or update them for current sensibilities, as well as tweaking the melodies to further grab the ear. He's chosen a diverse range of ballads and songs, including a Bob Zentz song, and brings them to life like no one else. (This recording was released in 2010, but received in 2011.)

 

Joe Crookston: Darkling & the BlueBird Jubilee (Milagrito 62011)
Joe Crookston's songs are dark, but hopeful. He always lights a candle at the end of the tunnel. His poetically powerful songs are quirky, but accessible. The Nazarene, based on his childhood, is spellbinding and engrossing. Crookston is among the ranks of today's best songwriters. He keeps the production simple on this recording so as to never obscure the songs.

 

Kate MacLeod & Kat Eggleston: Lost and Found (Waterbug 100)
This is the second time these friends have teamed up for a recording and their choice of material is superior to their first time around. They captivate with their loose harmonies and their outstanding musicianship with MacLeod playing fiddle and Eggleston playing guitar. They offer a harvest of terrific songs, originals, traditional songs, and covers, varied between vocals and instrumentals. Their covers of Andrew Calhoun's "The Living & the Breathing Wind" and Jean Ritchie's "None But One" justify the entire recording, and this is not to pale the rest of the performances.

 

Peter Mayer: Heaven Below (Blue Boat 1209)
Peter Mayer writes some of the most spiritual songs among contemporary songwriters, but he does not clobber the listener with "the message," and he stays away from common religious tropes. Instead, his poetry raises the spirit with elegance and grace. He visits a variety of subjects with keen vision and also a sense of humor.

 

Pete Morton: Economy (Anson 100)
Pete Morton is becoming an elder statesman among contemporary singer-songwriters. He carries on the broadside tradition with most of his songs incorporating a political message. He cleverly weaves his message into brightly colored images, a bit of whimsy, and sometimes a deceptively lively tempo where the social consciousness romps by before you're aware he's reached you. Some songs are slow and serious, but these help flesh out Morton's view of social justice and equality. His song "When We Sing Together" sums up everything and should become an anthem. (This recording was released in 2010, but received in 2011.)

 

Tom Russell: Mesabi (Shout Factory 826663-12775)
Tom Russell specializes in writing about the underside of America and the nightmares of the American dream. He chooses characters on the periphery of our consciousness, former and faded Hollywood icons, for example, to exemplify the human condition. Irony is Russell's best friend. He also focuses on the troubles of the US - Mexican borderlands and its unique culture unknown to most Americans. His voice conveys the power of a rolling prairie thunderstorm and his instrumentation strikes like lightning.

 

Spuyten Duyvil: New Amsterdam (self 85767 55749)
I remember tossing a cherry bomb into a lake when I was a kid. That's how Spuyten Duyvil affected me when I first heard them and this CD conveys that shock and excitement. Great original writing by member Mark Miller along with a traditional tune and one by Libba Cotton, and outstanding vocals from Beth Kaufman blast this group into the stratosphere. The basically acoustic octet rocks without running up the electric bill. They are so refreshingly original there's no way to describe them in a few words.

 

Steele the Show a compilation of songs by Davy Steele by his peers. (Greentrax 358)
I normally avoid compilations, but this one is compelling with performances by Andy M. Stewart, Dick Gaughan, Ian McCalman, Karine Polwart, Kate Rusby, Sally Barker, Siobhan Miller and others of the songs of one of Scotland's greatest songwriters Davy Steele. The voices, the songs and the settings are glorious.

 

Abigail Washburn: City of Refuge (Foreign Children 20286 15465)
Abigail Washburn is a certifiable genius. Her worldview departs from all other singer-songwriters mixing Appalachian string band with traditional Chinese music, cleverly crafted political songs and unusual love songs. Washburn started as a flash banjo player and still exhibits that talent here, but she fleshes out the fresh and unique sound with impressive array of instruments. The concluding a cappella "Bright Morning Stars" is a delicious dessert after varied multi-course banquet.

 

Susan Werner: Kicking the Beehive (Sleeve Dog 84501 42863)
Perhaps the title answers the question about how Susan Werner creates a superb CD in a different genre from her previous releases without missing a beat. Werner is one of the best singer-songwriters creating today, both as a singer and a writer. With Kicking the Beehive she returns to her contemporary singer-songwriter persona (after CDs of covers, contemporary agnostic gospel and original new American songbook). The songs on Kicking run the gamut from flat out rock love songs to soulful reflections on current issues of our society. Werner never is hesitant to kick the beehive, which is why no matter what style she chooses there's buzz and honey and she can sting with a song.

 

Randall Williams: Einstein's Dreams (Musafir 07)
In a flight of fancy, Randall Williams set Alan Lightman's book of prose poems contemplating physics, Einstein's Dreams to music. Lightman dissects relativity and Williams adds light with his music creating a constant of intellectual revelation and delight. Williams possesses one of the finest male voices among contemporary singer-songwriters which makes this unique endeavor ever the more pleasing.

Here are three other recordings worthy of interest:

Bettysoo & Doug Cox: Lie to Me (Borderline Talent 001)
Joel Mabus: American Anonymous (Fossil 2111)
Heather Styka: Lifeboats for Atlantis (Kite Stripe 02)


Rich Warren's Favorites of 2012

 

I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2012" 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 a few notable recordings. All told, I estimate The Midnight Special received at least 1000 new recordings, and I listened to about 500 new recordings, of which about 200 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 15, some of the newest recordings will not be considered until next year.

Sometimes I am just overwhelmed by mediocrity and at other times marvel at the creativity and talent. There are a mere eight 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 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 2012, 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.

Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem: Some Bright Morning (Signature Sounds 2076)
This quartet of exceptionally talented and vastly different musicians coalesces around Rani Arbo, of fine voice and fluid fiddling. The tone of the CD varies between bluesy and string band. They even cover a Bruce Springsteen song. The diversity of material and sounds on this CD keeps it fresh and entertaining from beginning to end, augmented by soul and energy.

 

Gordon Bok: Because You Asked (Timberhead 18)
Gordon's enchanting baritone is growing frayed around the edges, but his honesty and spirit inhabit every song. Most on this CD are requests from over the years, such as his very much beloved Turning Toward the Morning, and several he hasn't previously recorded. The rustic production consists mainly for Gordon's resounding guitar and a large group of his friends and musical compatriots, which he calls "The January Men and Then Some." This recording is the equivalent of putting on your deerskin fleece slippers on a chilly morning and sitting by the fire.

 

Anne Hills: The Things I Notice Now (Appleseed 1133)
Normally tribute CDs leave me cold, because only exceptional artists can cover songs better than their composers and an album of covers wearies me if the artist brings nothing new to the table. That said, Anne fully understands every nuance and intention of Tom Paxton, while bringing her own insights to his music. Her voice sounds as lovely as ever. It also sounds more involved than ever. Tom himself joins her on a trio of tracks. The CD is flawlessly produced by Anne's long time friend and producer Scott Petito, who also plays keyboards. For the most part Anne has chosen Tom's lesser performed songs, another change from most tribute CDs. The real showstopper is the last track, Every Time which is just Anne with Scott's piano. That one track is a recording for the ages and reason enough to buy the entire CD.

 

Kathy Mattea: Calling Me Home (Sugar Hill 4086)
This very folk oriented recording focuses on songs of, from and about Kathy's childhood home, West Virginia. She's chosen superb songs by Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, Jean Ritchie, Si Kahn, Laurie Lewis and other great writers and applies her glorious voice to bringing them to life. Kathy earns a great deal of respect in my book for choosing worthy songs by others to which to apply her great vocal talents rather than filling a CD with original mediocre material. The sparse, low-key production of this recording perfectly compliments Kathy's voice.

 

Sally Rogers & Claudia Schmidt: Evidence of Happiness (self 00261 35207)
I waited decades for this recording and it was worth the wait. The title alone spells out the joy of this CD. Sally and Claudia prove after a long friendship they remain as attune to each other as always. The verve and spontaneity of this recording sparkles as does the sheer talent of these friends. They mix a variety of memorable originals, about an equal number by each of them, along with a quartet of covers. Sally's eternal rewrite of an old hymn, Love Will Guide Us finally is available on CD.

 

Cathie Ryan: Through the Wind and Rain (Mo Leanbh 001)
Cathie's never recorded a bad CD. Rather she keeps recording better and better CDs, and Through the Wind and Rain is the pinnacle of her art. Although there are a few traditional songs on the album in original arrangements, all the songs sound traditional. Ryan co-wrote several of the songs as well as including superb covers of Kate Rusby and others. Assisting are such famous names as John Doyle, Seamus Egan, Scott Petito, Leslie Ritter, Aoife O'Donovan, Phil Cunningham, Gerry O'Beirne, Michael Goldrick, Niall Vallely and John McCusker. How's that for an all-star lineup? On every track Cathie's enchanting voice and superior interpretive abilities shine through. I also appreciate that unlike many performers, Cathie spaces her CDs years apart.

 

Sons of the Never Wrong: King Fisher King (Waterbug 107)
You might wonder why I choose nearly every new Sons release as a favorite. Well, they already begin at a high level of creativity and entertainment and build from there. The beauty of King Fisher King is that although the Sons retain a recognizable sound, every CD is totally inventive, innovative and fresh. I'm also enjoying the evolution of more shared and collaborative songwriting among the trio in more different styles. The Sons raise the bar with songs and performances on this CD confirming that the genre of contemporary singer-songwriters glows brightly with a promising future. Oh, and what fun as well.

 

Steve Turner: Rim of the Wheel (The Tradition Bearers 1104)
Traditional music lives! Steve shines as one of a handful of performers not merely continuing traditional music, but keeping it very much live. His deep, thoughtful interpretations really take you into the ballad. In addition there are a pair wondrous songs by Paul Metsers and a few other worthy contemporary songs. Steve accompanies himself on concertina and cittern. Notables such as Martin Carthy (one of the other great living traditional singers and guitarists) on guitar and Oliver Knight on electric guitar provide icing on the cake. (That most tastefully employed electric guitar is infrequent and subdued.) There is little as gripping as a traditional ballad well delivered, and Steve delivers better than UPS.


Rich Warren's Favorites of 2013

 

First, an explanatory note:

I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2013" 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 a few notable recordings. 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 15, some of the newest recordings will not be considered until next year.

Sometimes I am just overwhelmed by mediocrity and at other times marvel at the creativity and talent. There are a mere eight 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 eight 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 2013, 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.

Sam Baker: Say Grace self, no#
Sam Baker may be the songwriter of the year. I reacted to this CD the same way as when I first heard John Prine. Not that Baker is like Prine, per se, but he definitely follows a different path than most songwriters. His songs contain a quirky raw honesty without apology. Some listeners may even be offended by a few of the songs, but at the same time marvel at the way Baker expresses himself. He obliquely touches on politics with his cleverly crafted songs that burrow deep in the human condition.

 

Childsplay: As the Crow Flies self 006
All the string instruments of this large ensemble were built by Bob Child, thus the name Childsplay. Liz Carroll superbly produced the CD as well as composing some of the tunes, and filled the rest with a variety of traditional and original tunes and songs by some of the musicians on the recording. Lissa Schneckenburger beautifully sings the vocals, making traditional songs entirely her own, as well as fiddling, while fiddler Hanneke Cassel performs many of the impressive fiddle solos and wrote some incredibly beautiful tunes, such as The Last Alleluia.

 

James Keelaghan: History - The First 25 Years Borealis 222
Normally, my rules forbid choosing a compilation or reissue for a favorite of the year, but if there ever was a worthy exception, this 18 song retrospective by Keelaghan is it. First, Keelaghan is one of the greatest singer-songwriters in the folk tradition living today. Period. Not to mention a splendid voice with which to sing his songs. While many artists err or take poor advice as to which songs to include on a "best of" retrospective, Kelo hits the nail on the head. What makes this more unusual is an accompanying DVD that includes his concert introductions to each song and explanations about them, but not a video of the actual song. The audio recording of each, which includes Kiri's Piano, Cold Missouri Waters, Captain Torres (which seems to have been remixed so the lyrics are much clearer) and McConnville's, stand alone. This really is a "must have" CD.

 

Old Man Luedecke: Tender Is the Night True North 569
First, Luedecke is not an old man, he's somewhere around 30. He is something of a cross between the young Loudon Wainwright and Ralph Stanley. He borrows traditional and contemporary song titles for his original songs, tips his hat to the original and off he goes. The album sounds vaguely old-timey, with a contemporary tilt. I greatly appreciate off-beat, highly original artists and Luedecke fills the bill.

 

Audra McDonald: Go Back Home Nonesuch 517766-2
This is not a folk album; it falls in the intriguing vortex of cabaret, concert, lieder and pop. The reason I chose it goes beyond McDonald's glorious voice. She's a superb interpreter and her selection of songs involving and captivating. I'll Be Here by Adam Gwon is worth the entire CD, but Married Love by Michael John LaChiusa also is worth the journey. There are many better known songwriters represented and a few familiar songs as well.

 

Mist Covered Mountains: This Distant Shore self, no#
This all-too-short CD snuck up on me. The vocals are good, but not outstanding, the musicianship is skilled, but not extraordinary, however, the sum is greater than the parts. Perhaps it's because this trio chose eight rather extraordinary songs (although I felt cheated there were not more). Including only one completely original song (and a few original additions to another song or two), Mist Covered Mountains covers songs by Archie Fisher, John Gorka, Richard Berman and a handful of traditional songs, including a lovely version of Fear an Bhata and The Parting Glass with a new verse or two. All in all it's a delightful CD from leftfield. Why, the group doesn't even have its own Website.

 

Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer: Child Ballads Wilderland 002
No originals here, except that this is a highly original CD. Mitchell & Hamer fix their sights on the great canon of English and Scottish Popular Ballads as compiled and researched by Francis Child in the 19th century. Popular ballads at that time are what we call traditional or roots now, and Childs collection probably is the greatest in the English language. Mitchell & Hamer chose seven of these great ballads to brilliantly interpret, picking and choosing from the many variants of each ballad collected by Child to assemble a cohesive story. They then bring the songs to an enchanting and contemporary sensibility without altering the lyrics or "jazzing" them up. They provide convincingly sincere vocals with a most pleasing uncluttered accompaniment. I love these great old ballads and this is the best interpretation of them I've heard in many a year. My only complaint is that the CD should contain a few more ballads. After all, they are free of royalties.

 

Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line: Carnival Blue Pig 2222
Struthers fuses old-time bluegrass with contemporary singer-songwriter into a beguiling amalgam of influences that still seem at home under the bluegrass umbrella. Her well crafted lyrics cover a wide range of topics and their poetry sneaks up on the listener, while her melodies are pure ear candy. This is the kind of CD you can put in the player and hit "repeat" without growing bored.

 

Honorable mention:

Amy Speace: How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat Wind Bone 59709-60466
Speace ought to win an award for the best title of the year, but these also are the best songs she's written or co-written, all inspired in some way by William Shakespeare. Her assured voice brings the songs to life and takes you on an compelling voyage.

Laura Smith: Everything Is Moving Borealis 224
After a long hiatus Laura Smith returns in better voice than ever, with her smoky alto fully caressing and illuminating ten songs ranging from traditional to original to covers, and like with Mist Covered Mountains above, Smith has exceptionally well chosen her material.