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Great Albums at the Bottom of the List

William Elliott Whitmore's "Radium Death" is among the best albums you might have missed this year.

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?

Yes, it's always instructive and surprising to see what's winning and what's not in lists like this.  We all have our tastes and biases, and thank God we're not all the same.

Take Melody Gardot's Currency of Man.  I like Gardot a lot, and one of my most memorable concerts ever was hers.  I like this recording, although in my view it's not her best.  But does she even belong on this list?  We're in eccentric jazz singer territory here, hardly roots.  And there she is, in the top 200, way ahead of a roots masterpiece like Jayme Stone's Lomax Project. Baffling.

More in line with the apparent expectations of the throng is Whitehorse's Leave No Bridge Unburned.  A roots-rocking extravaganza, loud and in your face, with good looking front people (Luke Doucet and Melissa McLelland, a spousal pair made for roots success), and really quality music.  Way down the list, inexplicably.  Maybe it's because they're Canadian.

Veteran Elana James has a great new recording, Black Beauty, and while it's perhaps not her best it has one of the best and most evocative songs I've heard about the cost of choosing a musical life:

Harvey Wade and a woman in pearls passed around pictures of their pretty little girls. “Didn’t you hear? Didn’t you know? The music stopped a long time ago.”

...

My first boyfriend and his beautiful wife, I’m playin’ their town next Saturday night. Did I wait too long, travelin’ along? Did the music stop? I still hear the song, I still hear the song.

And they said, “We’re so proud, we’re so pleased. We’re so glad that you’re livin’ your dream. We’re so proud. We’re so pleased, we’re so glad that you’re livin’ your dream, livin’ your dream.”

I put this record on my list, after much dithering, partly because of a certain "long term excellence" sense, but because it so perfectly captures the "carrying on in an excellent way" theme. But I'm clearly a minority.

One of my top ten is very low on the list - Jerry Lawson's Just a Mortal Man. I'd never heard of him until he was on Otis Gibbs' podcast and was so entertaining I soought out the album.  There is a lot of great "retro soul" for lack of a better term around at the moment, but this was the album I kept returning to most (other than Nathaniel Rateliff's).  There is a great warmth and personality to it.

Sarah Morris "Ordinary Things" was a recent surprise. Playing the Twin Cities clubs, this northwoods songstress was announced this month a NewSong finalist which brings a Lincoln Center performance in January. Upbeat vocals and quite adept at blurring the genre lines.
Ocean Carolina "Maudlin Days" is the sophomore longplayer from the North Carolina native who crafts his music in NYC.
Pony Boy showcased at AmericanaFest, on the roots rock side of things with sultry haunting vocals. A mental pallet cleaners after many sets of pedal steel, fiddle and mandolin in a row. ("Blue Gold")
Haynes Boys: the Uncle Tupelo of central Ohio, the 4-man lineup, which includes folk/Americana musician Tim Easton, remastered the original self-titled album to vinyl this year. For those who are country punk enthusiasts and didn't make it to Columbus for the band reunion at #CommFest and shows at Ace of Cups and Dick's Den, you missed out. So many forces make another reunion, much less a sophomore album ever probable. Gems: "New Franklin County Woman," the in-your-face "One Last Question" and "Jackie" - a love song of sorts, Tim's jackolatern orange VW bus crunched by the the city of Columbus while the band was busking in Europe. Parked a little too close to a fire hydrant.

My #1 album is currently at #220 on ND's poll, so hopefully that's sufficiently "bottom of the list" to qualify.  Ike Reilly's 'Born On Fire' is the latest in a string of fine albums, from 2009's 'Hard Luck Stories' (still my fave Reilly album) back to 2001's 'Salesmen & Racists'.  A wordy, occasionally profane but literate songwriter in a half-early-Springsteen-half-early-Dylan kind of way, he tends to favor scruffy songs about down-and-outer's and life's losers, but there's frequently a fair bit of humor, and even joy, in his songs, and in his rock/r&b/pop/punk/blues stew of a delivery.  'Born On Fire' is no exception with highlights like "Upper Mississippi River Valley Girl", "A Job Like That", and "Two Weeks a Work, One Night a Love".  And "Paradise Lane" (featuring Tom Morello) makes for a fine album closer of a tune.

Garry