Matt Watroba’s “Best of 2013” – by Matt Watroba, FolkAlley.com
Where did the year go? It seems like just yesterday I was making a list just like this one. As you might imagine, I listen to my fair share of music. What follows are some of my personal favorites from 2013. I usually just list them in alphabetical order, but this year one recording really stood out for me. I will list it first–the rest will be in alphabetical order.
1. Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer
This ambitious project seemed to fall naturally into the laps of these two talented musicians. Anais and Jefferson took these old gems and brought them lovingly into the 21st century. They tell these stories like they were born to it. The images are stark, sometimes wonderfully bizarre, and the arrangements are simple yet still extremely musical–just like they were intended to be. Not only do Jefferson Hamer and Anais Mitchell get it, they figured out a way to communicate the power of these old, traditional songs to a new audience–insuring that they might just live for a few hundred more years. This was my favorite recording of 2013.
2 . Guy Clark
My Favorite Picture of You
Not only is Guy Clark the songwriter’s songwriter, he’s the songwriter’s Energizer Bunny–he just keeps going and going–he also just keeps getting better. Battling health issues and grief over the loss of his life- partner Susanna, this collection of songs is a reminder of how art, and songs in particular, can lift us up and give us perspective on issues like, well, failing health and grief. It doesn’t stop there though. Guy surrounds himself with friends who also happen to be some of the best musicians and writers in the country. The result is yet another collection of Guy Clark material to treasure for years to come.
3. Outside Track
Another stellar collection from one of the world’s top Celtic bands. The quintet comes by the genre honestly with roots in Scotland, Ireland and Cape Breton. On Flash Company, they take the very best of tradition and infuse it with a contemporary energy and drive that is just plain fun to hear. This is a mix of tunes and songs any fan of Celtic music will enjoy.
4. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison
Kelly and Bruce have been singing together for a couple of decades and, with the release of Cheater’s Game, they have earned a place next to some of the great country duos of all time. Johnny and June, George and Tammy, Conway and Loretta–you get the idea. This record just has the sound. It has the songs as well. Mixed in with the excellent writing by Bruce Robison are songs from Razzy Bailey, Don Williams, Dave Alvin, Robert Earl Keen and more. The result isn’t a throwback–it’s a fresh look at the future of this time-tested, delightfully entertaining genre.
5. Pharis & Jason Romero
Long Gone Out West Blues
Making beautiful music and beautiful instruments in the wilds of Western Canada, Pharis and Jason have done it again with this collection of traditional and original material. You can really tell they spend a lot of time listening to the old 78’s and then carefully making the songs their own. You can also hear the influence of the old music in the songs they write. Long Gone Out West Blues makes two really good records in a row from this talented duo.
I love a well thought out concept record–especially in the hands of master musicians and writers. Shamrock City tells the story of Irish immigration surrounding Seamus Eagan’s Great-Great Uncle, Michael Conway. The songs are great, the playing is as good as it gets, and they feature several guest musicians like Rhiannon Giddens and Aoife O’Donovan. This is one of those rare recordings that will sound fresh for many years to come.
Worth a mention…
7. Dave Van Ronk
Down In Washington Square: The Smithsonian Collection
The music has been around awhile, but this 2013 collection was long overdue. The genius of Van Ronk as a guitarist, writer, performer and interpreter shines through on every track of this 3-CD celebration of the mayor of MacDougal Street. Between this, and the upcoming Cohen Brothers film loosely based on Dave’s writings, perhaps this musical icon will get more of the recognition he deserves.