Folk Alley’s Best of 2014 – Barb Heller’s Top Picks of the Year

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Top Picks of 2014 by Barb Heller

Disclaimer: I’m a rabid bluegrass fan, so expect my picks to be heavily weight toward that genre. If you don’t mind banjos and resophonic guitars, then read on and enjoy! These are in no particular order. Happy 2015!

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The Claire Lynch Band – ‘Holiday’
(Thrill Hill Records)

I know it’s a bit late to suggest this for holiday listening, but put it on your list for next year! Claire Lynch’s voice, and her band’s virtuosity put every note in just the right place. They also include a dynamite arrangement of “We Three Kings” that’ll put all others to shame.

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Tim Stafford – ‘Just To Hear the Whistle Blow’
(Hedge Drive Records)

Tim Stafford plays in the band, Blue Highway – already well known for their great songs, tight delivery and staying power as a working group of artists. Stafford is a poetic, sensitive writer who puts another best foot forward with this collection. My favorite track: “Dimes.” It’s about finding souvenirs from heaven. This album is a great escape, with fabulous musicianship and top notch songwriting. What more could you want?

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Seldom Scene – ‘Long Time’
(Smithsonian Folkways)

I love the Seldom Scene – then, and now. This is the group’s first studio album since 2007. If you’ve ever liked them, you’ll love this latest release.

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Special Consensus & Friends – ‘Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver’
(Compass Records)

Even if you were lukewarm about John Denver’s music in the 1970s and ’80s, you can’t help but appreciate these great arrangements of his greatest hits. It’s a bluegrass dream lineup: Michael Cleveland, John Cowan, Rob Ickes, Claire Lynch, and many other guests. Alison Brown on double production and banjo detail. Great job all around!

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Nickel Creek – ‘A Dotted Line’

Sometimes it’s not the words or the music that catch me. It’s the process of transforming great musings into musical art that really impresses me. Nickel Creek seems to have it all: they’re great musicians, they know how to write a hit song, and they can also express old sentiments and sounds in new and different ways. This is a very impressive demonstration of what the next generation is growing into.

And here are a few more that shouldn’t go unnoticed:

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Bob Amos – ‘Sunrise Blues’

Another great songwriter. Bob Amos has an old soul, and it shines through his songs. For years, Amos was the lead singer for the bluegrass band Front Range. Now he’s back in Vermont, forging a new road.

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Phil Leadbetter – ‘The Next Move’
(Pinecastle Records)

Leadbetter was voted IBMA’s ‘Dobro Player of the Year’ this fall, and his latest album was released just before the awards were announced. His big heart and friendly nature is eclipsed only by his stellar playing.

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Irene Kelley – ‘Pennsylvania Coal’
(Patio Records)

Kelley is a veteran songwriter, and she’s put a best foot forward on this collection of originals based on her ancestors’ lives in the mines. Well written, beautifully sung, with tasteful production. It’s a gem.

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