2015: The Heart Wants What It Wants

Artist of the Year: Rhiannon Giddens

It has been an invigorating year for me in music:  I saw nearly all of the Mountain Stage performances, a dozen or so festivals from Big Ears in March to Shakori Hills in October, many dozens of stand alone performances and a bunch of operas. What follows are the artists and albums that moved me the most, ones I wanted to play again and again, whether it be in the car, with friends, in a bar, in the kitchen while baking or ideally, the old fashion way, relaxing in front of the stereo, in the dark, martini in hand.

The albums most likely have also been influenced by seeing all of these folks in performance, many multiple times this year, and some dozens of times before. So, perhaps history and familiarity also plays a role, as well as having photographed all but one and written about several. Here then is album of the year, artist of the year, band of the year and a single music performance that was a religious experience. The heart wants what it wants.

Album of the Year:  Amy LaVere & Will Sexton-Hallelujah I’m a Dreamer. Recorded live in the studio in just a couple of days, it combines LaVere’s textured, haunting vocals with Sexton’s sweetly layered guitar work that is pure bliss. LaVere’s swing jazz bass lines along with her lyrics results in a collection of mini-noir movies that are to die for. I cannot recall hearing two artists who are as simpatico as these two. Sexton stretches out, then anticipates LaVere’s vocals and bass lines, and they circle one another, sometimes as if hunter and game, then trading places, point, counterpoint, ultimately coming back together as if for the first time again. Full review here:

Artist of the Year:  Rhiannon Giddens dominated the year just as thoroughly as Jason Isbell did two years ago. She was everywhere, touring the US as well as Europe, a performance at the White House, yet also doing workshops off the beaten path, such as the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins, West Virginia. I will be very surprised if her excellent album Tomorrow Is My Turn is not the consensus pick for album of the year. Nothing happens overnight, Giddens began in opera, turned to traditional and roots, which lead to rebirthing the African-American string band, a Grammy Award, to working on T Bone’s Another Day, Another Time and The New Basement Tapes. Then the surprise Record Store Black Friday EP. Save for Lulu, my musical highlight of the year was her six song set with The Kronos Quartet at the Big Ears Festival. While the two excellent records draw from many sources, when experiencing Ms. Giddens live she becomes a musical force like few others.

Band of the Year: The Honeycutters were everywhere I went this year. If you have noticed this list, five of the ten titles are duos. The Honeycutters also were a duo, but their sound and the depth of Amanda Anne Platt’s songs did not seem fully fleshed out until this album. It’s the type of country music you’d play on the jukebox and take a spin on a red dirt floor, if they were as prevalent today as they once were. Ms. Platt and band are in Loretta, Patsy and any Hank from the 1950s land here. If you want to hear what modern country music would have sounded like had the blandly good looking hunks and babes not taken over, then get this record.

Music Event/Performance of the Year: The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Alban Berg’s Lulu featuring Marlis Petersen. Under the direction of William Kentridge, Petersen’s Lulu is not played so much as a wanton woman who gets her just deserts at the hands of Jack the Ripper, it became a metaphor for Germany in the 1930s, its decadence, its fascist response, and its devastating effects on both those it annihilated and itself. A powerful, one of a kind musical theatre piece. Opera is the original sex, drugs and rock & roll.

The List

1. Amy LaVere & Will Sexton-Hallelujah I’m a Dreamer.

Full review here

2, Rhiannon Giddens-Tomorrow Is My Turn

3. Nellie McKay-My Weekly Reader. 

What can I say that I have not ready said about Ms. McKay already, save for she is the brightest talent of her generation, a cross between Randy Newman, Mose Allison and Blossom Dearie she not only writes witty, catchy tunes but also brings a refreshing approach to the Great American Songbook. This time around, she highlights a six year period of the 1960s, from her Dylanesque take on an otherwise nearly forgettable ‘Red Rubber Ball’ to Richard Farina’s original acid-protest song, ‘Bold Marauder’ she revisits the songs of that era that not a mere nostalgia trip. Instead, she focuses on the strengths of the songs themselves and delves into their hidden and not so hidden depths. Not necessarily light hearted in a subversive way. Full review here:

4. The Honeycutters-Me Oh My

5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell-The Traveling Kind

It’s been over 40 years since I first saw these two in an amusement park in rural West Virginia on a July 4th, but I have never wavered in my admiration. Their dedication and perseverance is all over this record, but also their sheer joy of making music, and cognizant of the gift of being able to do it all these years at such a high level. The title song written with Cory Chisel has just been nominated for a Grammy and fully deserves the award. The album, too.

6. Martha Scanlan- The Shape Of Things Gone Missing, The Shape Of Things To Come

Like the LaVere & Sexton album, Scanlan’s third album is hard to find in a physical form, in part due to it being crowd sourced. The album is the result of five years living and working on a family cattle ranch in Montana. As Ms. Scanlan has said, “I thought I was stepping back from music and writing, but when these songs came together I realized that I have been writing them all along. There’s a beautiful congruence in music and working with cattle and horses- it’s all about the flow, finding the current in things. I was curious about how that would translate in the studio, how the landscape would come through.” Producer and collaborator Jon Neufeld brought in fellow members of The Decemberists and Black Prairie, along with Amy Helm that makes this an album worth the effort to find. But, easy enough to download the digital version.

7. Cecile McLorin Salvant For One to Love

As with Ms. Giddens, Salvant began as a classical singer, then heard the beat of jazz. She has been called the best young jazz singer of her generation. For good reason, it’s true. I did not catch up with her WomanChild album of 2013 until last year. But I made up for lost time by not only tracking down some hard to find European releases but also seeing her on New Year’s Eve last year. Despite what NPR’s review said last month, jazz singing is not weird, not yesterday and not today. Jazz singing has a rich history and tradition for nearly a hundred years. It is, unfortunately, like jazz itself, not as commercially viable as it was in the mid-20th century when every label had a slew of them. It’s an endangered species for sure, all the more reason to go outside your Americana comfort zone. 


8. Zoe & Cloyd-Equinox

Zoe and Cloyd are Natalya Zoe Weinstein and John Cloyd Miller, or two-thirds of Red June. The album features only fiddle and banjo, mandolin, and guitar. They go a step further back in the tradition and while the songs sound traditional, about half the songs are originals. With no more than two instruments on any single track, it sounds as though there were no overdubs, It is a fine mixture of waltzes, gospel tunes, love songs, and one tune about a groundhog in the potato patch. Full review here:

9. Anna & Elizabeth-Anna & Elizabeth

If you have never seen these two with their crankies, do so the first opportunity you have. This was their breakout year, with a Tiny Desk Concert on NPR, this album and a lot of touring. Their embracement of the Appalachian traditions, in music, stories, the land and its people is readably apparent and enthusiastic without overly romanticizing a hard way of life chronicles what may be our last best chance to know and remember a way of living that is quietly growing extinct. I should know, I mined the same southwestern Virginia lands and farms over forty years ago

10. Jesse Milnes & Emily Miller-Deep End Sessions Vol. II

Milnes and Miller have played together for some time in the band The Sweetback Sisters. While having made several other records solo and with others, this their first album by just the two of them. Milnes' fondness of playing the tunes he grew up with in West Virginia and Miller's love of 1950s country music results in a special mix. Milnes leaned to play from some of the state's great fiddlers -- Melvin Wine, Ernie Carpenter, and his own father, Gerry. Miller, meanwhile brings the global experience of growing up as the daughter of world traveling journalists. Both are also well-versed in old timey music. They pay special tribute on the album to Samantha Bumgarner from North Carolina who, as part of a duo, in 1924, became the first women to record country music. Their collaboration pre-dated the Bristol Sessions by three years. The song Milnes and Miller recorded is ‘Roving Gambler,’ the original of which marked the first time anyone had played the banjo clawhammer style. Miller's "Better Years" is as good as anything sung or written by the wonderful Kelly Willis. Her ‘I Got Lucky with You,’ written for Milnes, swings gently in the best of Nashville's tradition. Full review here:

Post Script:

The above ten were the ones I submitted to the magazine at the end of October. I had yet to listen to Dave Rawlings Machine’s excellent Nashville Obsolete and Laurie Anderson’s meditative performance piece on life, love and death, Heart of a Dog, which is also one of my favorite films of the yearI simply forgot Dylan’s Shadows in the Night which I liked a lot. The decision to use the pedal steel as the lead instrument was inspiring; its low moaning fleshed out the underlying melancholy inherent in the songs. On his tour this year these songs not only sounded richer and more lived in, but the sound permeated his performance of his own songs. Outstanding. Nearly 50 years after he first used a pedal steel on a performance, its use here made the album and tour all the more memorable.

Great piece, with several folks I'm not familiar with. 

Couldn't agree more re Rhiannon Giddens.  Am listening to Factory
Girl at the moment, and it's a great addition.  Just last night I was watching some old Transatlantic Sessions DVDs and was thinking how perfect she would be for that series -- only to discover that she has been performing in the TA live sessions in the UK. Hopefully on a new series as well.