Folk Alley’s Best of 2012 – Jim Blum’s Top Picks of the Year

Jim Blum’s Top Picks of 2012

Some new albums jump out at you, others grow on you. The following collection represents my observations after sampling hundreds of submissions over the year. Though Folk Alley’s mission is to provide a healthy mix of many styles, these selections were based on individual merit only. In most cases, multiple songs from each release were chosen for rotation (an obvious indicator). Other factors included originality, technique, poetry, arrangement, performance, and frankly, flair. These are my picks for 2012, in order.

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1) I Draw Slow – ‘Redhills’ — Kind of bizarre name, but this group doesn’t need to do make anything up to draw attention to them. Most obviously defined as an old time string band, I Draw Slow is all acoustic, 5 pieces, but unlike most string bands most of the songs are original. Lead by siblings Dave (guitar) and Louise (voice) Holden, this album is engaging, beautiful, and consistent from start to finish. Believe it or not, though they sound like they’re from North Carolina, they are from Ireland.

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2) The Honeycutters – ‘When Bitter Met Sweet’ — From Asheville, singer Amanda Anne Platt leads the way with songs of regret, challenge, and new found hope. If you see the full band live they might sound a bit country rock at times, but most of this album isn’t honky tonk, it’s acoustic – perhaps “folk-tonk.” Check out “For Eleanora,” a lament for a great singer despite poor circumstances. Peter James’s guitar playing is subtle and full of taste throughout.

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3) Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson – ‘Wreck and Ruin’ — This should be no surprise; the Australian duo’s 2008 release ‘Rattlin’ Bones’ was the #1 album that year. You should have both. Though Kasey has found success with pop and rock, these recordings with her husband are banjo and fiddle driven, and despite growing up listening to American country legends in the Australian outback, these songs are original, and you’ll soon be singing along with them.

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4) Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem – ‘Some Bright Morning’ — Fiddler and singer Rani Arbo recovered fully from a cancer which could have robbed her life, and the gifts keep on coming. “Miami Moon” is a delightful celebration of a love gone right; “Bridges” makes us think twice about things in life we believe are permanent. This is not the first group to interpret Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing The Bar,” but no one gives it more meaning.

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5) Darrell Scott – ‘Long Road Home’ — There are few legitimate triple threats, but Darrell Scott is a monster singer, writer, and session player on multiple instruments. These songs cover a range of emotions, from “No Use Living For Today” to “You’re Everything I wanted Love to Be.” He brought in several legends for this recording: Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano, Lloyd Green on pedal steel, and Charlie McCoy and Mickey Raphael on harmonicas.

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6) Nels Andrews – ‘Scrimshaw’ — Where has this guy been hiding? In the library, maybe. Andrews is based in Brooklyn and was a New Folk Finalist at Kerrville. These songs are thoughtful, deeply poetic, and real catchy. The full band arrangements are varied to keep things interesting and have the right energy to invite you in and convince you to stay. The whole album is solid and should attract younger listeners through the indie groove, while not disappointing the veteran listener who demands depth.

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7) Mariel Vandersteel – ‘Hickory’ — This fiddler performed at a recent Folk Alliance conference with Putnam Smith in an old timey setting, with the Celtic roots quartet Annalivia, and then during her own showcase she played brilliantly on a Norwegian Hardanger Fiddle. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mariel can play well in any folk style, all with joy, and this album will prove it. David Grisman’s son Sam Grisman plays bass. All instrumental.

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8) 100 Mile House – ‘Hollow Ponds’ — From Edmonton, Alberta, this group is led by husband and wife Peter Stone and Denise MacKay. The songs are dreamy and soft spoken, but by no means dull. Listen for themes of escape or second chances. You’ll catch yourself wondering why we continue to wish for things we can’t have. Multi instrumentalist Scott Zubot fills out the sound nicely. (2011 release)

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9) Steep Canyon Rangers – ‘Nobody Knows You’ — Though they back up Steve Martin on tour, The Steeps can hold their own as live performances and all of their CDs demonstrate. Some might label them traditional, but they’ve given us a whole batch of new songs which do not cover tired themes. “Rescue Me” is a cry for help; “Between Midnight and Dawn” is for those on hold; “Open Country” is a joyous realization of the freedom of the road. Woody Platt sings, and Nicky Sanders on fiddle may be Scotty Stoneman reincarnated.

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10) Chatham County Line – ‘Sight and Sound’ — This is the third band from North Carolina in this top ten list (The Honeycutters and The Steep Canyon Rangers are the other two.) ‘Sight and Sound’ is a live album with most of the chatter cut out. Though some of their popular songs are included, they smartly add many songs not previously recorded. Chatham County Line presents one of our best examples of ensemble playing – these guys really are on the same page – showing that rehearsal counts. The overall live energy was captured and this “feels” like “Old And In The Way” from 35 years ago.

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