Laura Cortese, on her third album recorded with The Dance Cards, has finally got the groove she’s been working to achieve with her string ensemble. Bitter Better lives in the type of rhythm that inspires movement. Working with producer Sam Kassirer, Cortese and he created beats using stringed instruments that enrapture songs about surviving crisis and finding strength through loss.
Song: “Treat You Better”
William Prince, a member of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, grew up with the influence of his father’s gospel music, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and a deep love of connecting with family. Sadly, right before his debut album came out, his father passed away. He also ended a serious relationship with the woman who would give birth to his son. All of those major life events certainly impacted the writing for his latest album, Reliever. Through hard circumstances, Will kept the faith and hope for a better time. This led him to be more vulnerable in his writing and in many ways put him on the path toward healing.
The trio of Anais Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman put a refreshing spin on folk tradition with Bonny Light Horseman. The vocals of Mitchell and Johnson simultaneously transport you to a whimsical past while grounding you in the emotional present. Each song is a gift filled with uplifting layers of hope and optimism despite the music’s dark content.
Song: “Deep in Love”
Everytime I put this record on, it takes my breath away. The quality of Ashton’s sardonic songwriting, groove-filled claw hammer banjo and spot-on vocals is a knock-out. After listening to this record, I immediately went into his back catalog with Fish + Bird and with Courtney Hartman. Something is magic about that Taylor Ashton!
After loving Lori McKenna for over 20 years, I have landed on my favorite record of hers (aside from her stripped down debut!) and it’s her latest, The Balladeer. Her songwriting has always been out of this world, but producer Dave Cobb has found the special sauce that makes them shine with all their potential. The title track gets me every time, but check out “When You’re My Age” and “Marie,” an ode to her older sister that makes me cry even trying to talk about it.
Song: “The Balladeer”
With a musical palette inspired by Sufjan Stevens, Anjimile’s Giver Taker quickly grabs you and does not let go until it’s thrilling conclusion. Particularly with the song “Maker,” you hang on every word:
“I’m not just a boy, I’m a man
I’m not just a man, I’m a god
I’m not just a god, I’m a maker”
His story is just as arresting as the music: a trans artist of color originally from Texas and now living in Boston. I’m excited to see what this exciting young artist will produce in the future.
What a tender-hearted Rose Cousin’s album we have in Bravado. Our favorite Canadian cousin has worked to interject her incredible sense of humor (“The Benefits of Being Alone), brought a sense of community to life on tape (“The Return (Love Comes Back)”,) and has made me cry about her dad, my dad and your dad (“The Swimmer (To Be An Old Man)”.) Also, I am loving the prevalence of her baritone ukulele playing on the record.
Song: “The Return (Love Comes Back)”
Mike and Ruth Merenda are back recording as The Mammals once again and it is the best Mammals album to date. The pair have written amazing songs with the spirit of Pete Seeger and the heart of a rock record. The band is living up to their new tagline:
“Too Folk For the Rock Show, Too Rock For the Folk Show.”
Song: “Radio Signal”
Raye Zaragoza is a Japanese-American, Mexican, Indigenous woman who grew up thinking that the only way to be beautiful was to be white. Now having overcome societal obstacles. She has grown into a sharp activist writer who plainly, but brilliantly writes songs expressing that BIPOC women have the right to exist, pursue happiness and freedom.
Song: “They Say”
Big hair. Big sound. Big personality. And big feelings is New Zealand-by-way-of-Canada’s Tami Neilson. As a part of her family’s Neilson Family band, Tami’s been performing and touring since she was a young kid. Her voice, humor and clever writing carry her latest album, CHICKABOOM! Tami’s rockabilly music, personality and laugh are all at once rowdy, sweet, and unforgettable. How can you not love that beehive!?
Song: “Ten Tonne Truck”
Favorite discovery of 2020
The Galway (Ireland) singer-songwriter Niamh Regan writes songs you can get lost in. It’s that kind of lost that you don’t mind being in because you have time to find your way again. Her voice feels like a friend that reminds you to take time for yourself. The album Hemet gives a sense of awe that you might get from nature or from a very good cup of coffee early in the morning.
Song: “How About That Coffee?”