Folk Alley’s Best of 2014 – Elena See’s Top Picks of the Year
Top 10 Picks of 2014 by Elena See
I don’t know why I’m still surprised, more than a DECADE after beginning a career in the music radio biz, about the amount of amazing music (in all genres) that comes out each and every year. Without fail – you’ll find a new favorite musician, a new favorite band, an unexpected surprise, and, let’s be honest, a disappointment or two as well. So, without further adieu, here are just a few (in no particular order) of my unexpected surprises, new favorite bands and new favorite musicians from 2014:
John Mellencamp, ‘Plain Spoken’
And the award for shocker of the year…goes to John Mellencamp and ‘Plain Spoken.’ Not being a huge Mellencamp fan, I was totally surprised by this album. I think the production quality is great and once I took a bit of time and started reading the lyrics, I was able to appreciate Mellencamp and his music on a whole new level. The care he takes with his words! It’s…awesome.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, ‘Small Town Heroes’
I’m not at all what you’d call “quirky” and so that, naturally, leads me to really appreciate the quirkiness of others. Alynda Lee Segarra, frontwoman of Hurray for the Riff Raff, might be called quirky. But most importantly – she’s got something important to say – she has a voice that needs to be heard. And she makes us hear it on this recording. “The Body Electric” is the stand out for me.
Dave/Phil Alvin, ‘Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy’
(Yep Roc Records)
More than anything else, I appreciated this record because it marks the coming together, again, of two greats…who wanted nothing more than to set any differences aside and honor a third great, Big Bill Broonzy. Of course, it was wonderful to hear the brothers together again and, at the same time, this recording introduced me to SOOOOOO much more of Big Bill Broonzy’s music. Thanks, Alvins!
Carlene Carter, ‘Carter Girl’
I am fascinated with this family – what a legacy they left for us to explore and enjoy. Carlene Carter honors the legacy of her family’s name with this recording, an album she says she’s been waiting to make for years. I think her choice of material was quite inspired – the right mix of familiar tunes and lesser known numbers that give us an exclusive behind the scenes look at growing up as a member of the Carter clan.
John Fullbright, ‘Songs’
(Blue Dirt Records)
One of the songs on this recording is called “Happy” and I admit it makes me happy every time I hear it. What IS it about John Fullbright’s voice? Gravelly, wiser than his years would lead you to expect…I like this guy from Oklahoma. He’s asking some good questions on this album – simple ones, sometimes…but definitely questions that we ALL ask every now and again. It’s nice to get HIS perspectives on the answers.
Ben/Ellen Harper, ‘Childhood Home’
Even if you had the most idyllic childhood anyone could ever imagine, I’d be willing to bet you still might have an opinion or two on how things could have been done differently. Ben Harper and his mother Ellen Harper said they’d always known they were going to make a record together that explores questions of home and family and what it all meant…and in Childhood Home they explore those ideas separately and together, offering a multi-dimensional look at how families really work together.
Various, ‘Classic African American Songsters from Smithsonian Folkways’
(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)
Here’s why this recording makes my best of 2014 list: Brownie McGhee. Lead Belly. Mississippi John Hurt. Little Brother Montgomery. Peg Leg Sam. All these amazing musicians I’ve heard of, in passing, but don’t really know…here there are, all together, waiting to be discovered, and ready to make you sit up and say, “Whoa. I want more of this, please.” It’s a great collection, 21 tracks, and it is yet one more reason why I, personally, am grateful for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Shovels and Rope, ‘Swimmin’ Time’
(Dualtone Music Group)
Part of me loves this duo because of their name. Part of me is always just giddily delighted when I hear their harmonies. And then another part just swims in the lyrics they write. I adore how they make even the simplest ideas, questions, and thoughts into veritable poetry…then they back it up with impeccable playing and heart plucking harmonies. Americana’s darlings, they’re sometimes called…yeah. I agree.
Mary Gauthier, ‘Trouble and Love’
I think this is one of the most honest recordings I’ve ever heard. I love it when musicians (talented ones, anyway) use their own lives, their own experiences, their own heartbreaks and troubles as inspiration. Somehow, even though this is intensely personal stuff, Mary Gauthier makes it relevant to ME, to my life. And that lets me appreciate HER in whole new way, while at the same time giving me a unique perspective on things I’ve experienced in my own life.
Red Molly, ‘The Red Album’
I’m a sucker for great harmonies and so, not surprisingly, I’m a big fan of the trio Red Molly. To celebrate 10 years of making music – including a couple of years with a new member – they released The Red Album. Great things are in the future for the group…they made a conscious choice to include more original songs on this album than they’ve ever done before and the result is exciting. A couple of covers, too…including the song that gave them their name, Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”