Great Albums at the Bottom of the List
This week, we're hitting the halfway mark in voting for our annual year-end readers poll. (You can vote through Dec. 30 here.) I've been running this poll for seven years now and have always marveled at the diversity of sound and style that winds up comprising the ND community's Top 50 albums of the year, when all is said and done. In fact, most of us spend so much time focusing on the top of the list that the albums further down in the voting tend to get overlooked.
Over the weekend, out of curiousity, I looked on the final page of the current standings, which could also be called the Bottom 50 Roots Music Albums of 2015. What I found included some of my personal favorite albums of the year -- including Kristin Andreassen's solo disc, which had me and a number of other critics swooning. I also saw an entry from another critics' darling, William Elliott Whitmore, plus Ana Egge's collaboration with the Stray Birds (which got some attention from community contributors and columnists alike on this site), and a handful of other excellent albums from lesser-known but just as talented musicians.
On the one hand, it can be disappointing to see so much amazing music get so little attention. On the other hand, it seems an opportunity for me to play Santa and bring some of these artists' fine work to your attention.
I'm not lobbying for you to add these releases to your list. Any self-respecting critic must admit that what constitutes "good music" is completely subjective and what resonates for me may not resonate for you. Besides, good music deserves your time and attention. Any music worth its weight is going to grow on you and seep into your subconscious over days and weeks and months, until you realize its become a part of you; until it's directing you in some small way -- whether through the lyric that comes to mind when you need it most, or the melody that presents itself when you need to take a deep breath before you proceed.
All of these artists' work has done that for me, and all of them are in our "bottom 50" as of this writing. So, in no particular order, here are a few of my picks from the "bottom."
Kristin Andreassen - Gondolier
Andreassen's melodies are so easy and smooth on this disc, it's like she just wrote down what the breeze was blowing in. She's an old-time player with some solid street cred, and she's gathered together a crew of likeminded folks to do new things with old things. Witness the tune below, which plays on the old "Crawdad Song" -- flipping tradition around on its head.
When handled right, music can hold a mirror to us all, to show us how we use the tools we've been handed. People in the past already figured certain things out. If we start with what they handed down to us, we can improve the world, as long as we take the time to be honest about what they got right and what they got wrong. That's true with almost everything, of course, but music has a way of spelling it out so simply.
"You get a line and I'll get a pole" is a lyric that distills how easy and worthwhile it can be to accomplish something together, if we each do our part. While Andreassen may have been toying with a creative challenge there, the song she landed on takes that "corny old song" (her line) and turns it into something that feels very current on "Simmon."
It also brings summer blowing back in, if you shut your eyes and let it.
What's great about this album is that "Simmon" is just one of its ten songs. I fixate on it because it nails the balance of old and new in the most obvious way, but Andreassen's got a knack for that, and nuance too. Trust me, if you sit with it a while the rest of the album just might seep in like a quick summer rain that seems to come and go out of nowhere.
Claire Holley - Time in the Middle
Right off the bat, you notice Holley's voice. It's clear and blue and a straight shot, but there's breath in it too. It's like watching an arrow shoot through the sky as you hear the air part around it.
To boot, the music is sparse. Sometimes, when artists go that route, there's a sense that they recorded more and then stripped away. But this album feels like they started with Holley's insanely good vocals and then built up the instruments incrementally, stopping just short of full support. The result feels like Holley just balancing atop a point. It's almost too precarious, but not quite. The result is that the songs stand on their own -- they realize their own strength. And, if you listen to the lyrics, that's what they're about anyway.
This album needs you to stop what you're doing, to let go, and listen. A good new year's resolution, perhaps.
William Elliott Whitmore - Radium Death
Speaking of sparseness, Whitmore is a tremendous songwriter, probably best known for his sparse folk albums that are focused heavily on his vocals and songwriting. This time around, however, he came ready to rock and roll. It's a little disorienting at first, to be honest, but once you settle into the notion that an artist's job is to express themselves however works best for what they're trying to say, the disc opens up, the music grabs you by the throat, and you're pulled into the thick of it all.
This disc is thick in social commentary, which is not the same thing as a political statement. Though lyrics like those on the track below -- "Times can change and I hope that I can too / this world is strange / I guess we've all got some healing to do" -- might feel vaguely political, they're still coming from Whitmore, whose music has always poked at his lived truths. As a lifelong farm boy who found his way to punk rock, it'd be difficult for him to separate from these ideas far enough to call them anything but social and personal.
And, in case you think I'm reaching too far in avoiding calling this a political statement, just tune into Whitmore's scream at the end of this song. There's far more personal demons letting lose in that wail than can be witnessed from anything any politician says, for better or worse.
Ana Egge - Bright Shadow
Egge has been one of my personal favorites for a number of years, and this new album is just plain lovely. She was backed this time around by the Stray Birds, whose harmonies are warm and cozy.
Bright Shadow is an easy album to fall in love with -- there's a lot of depth if you have the time and energy to slow down and listen closely, but it also plays well if you just want some good music to set a mood.
The South Carolina Broadcasters - Tell Me Truly
Most of the albums I'm listing here are of the singer-songwriter ilk, but this South Carolina Broadcasters album walks the line between old-time and straight-up bluegrass. The Broadcasters pull the finest bits out of each for a sound that sets them apart on the bluegrass scene.
I have no allegiance to trad bluegrass, personally, much as I occationally enjoy it. I tend to appreciate much more the new wave of jazz and classical exploration on bluegrass instruments (see my long feature about Punch Brothers and I'm With Her from this year's issue of ND in print).
To my ears, much of trad-style bluegrass sounds like the same idea that was once groundbreaking getting rehashed and re-rehashed and re-rehashed again until all of the innovation and imagination has been sucked out. Then, occasionally, out of that flat and persistent fog, comes a band that tackles tradition in such a way that you feel their very current, present personalities leaping out of the speakers or the stage. I get that from the South Carolina Broadcasters and maybe you will too, if this floats your boat.
In the interest of discovery, what have you loved this year, that others seem to have missed?