Folk Alley’s Best of 2017 – Cindy Howes’ Top 10

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2017 was a difficult year personally and it didn’t help that the world seemed to be falling in on itself even more than usual. To be honest, it was so dark and hard that I couldn’t listen to music for a while (the volume was down a lot during my radio shows). Eventually, I started to open up to new music again. It was an incredibly painful year, but at the same time, that’s when you need art and beauty the most. The feeling that music gave me as I started coming out on the other side is indescribable and probably not relatable, so for the most part, this list is extremely personal. This music was with me when I was at my lowest. It saved me and I am so grateful.

LISTEN to this playlist on Spotify

Ethan Gruska: ‘Slowmotionary’ (Sire)

Ethan is in The Belle Brigade with his sister and they make peppy indie pop, but this is so different from that. ‘Slowmotionary’ is a beautiful, quiet and sincere record full of cinematic vignettes accompanied by mostly piano and acoustic guitar. It kind of reminds me of 1940’s jazz crooners. The album is a comfort and like an understanding friend that carries you through to better times. iTunes

The Barr Brothers: ‘Queens of the Breakers’ (Secret City)

Based in Montreal and originally from Providence, RI, The Barr Brothers’ mixture of folk, rock and whatever it is that harp player is doing, served as my soundtrack when I felt like I was coming back from the bottom. This record is perfect to accompany a crisp autumn morning walk you’d rather not be taking. “I know it’s hard to see the light when you’re on your knees,” Brad Barr sings on the opening track “Defibrillation.” See this band live; this was the best show I’ve ever seen. No joke. iTunes

Rhiannon Giddens: ‘Freedom Highway’ (Nonesuch)

Last year I read “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi, which is a hard and important book that chronicles 7 generations of two sisters from Ghana. One remained in her homeland and the other was captured into slavery and shipped to America. That devastating book along with Rhiannon Giddens’ second solo record are the clearest depiction of Black American history you could ask for. From slavery, to civil rights, to the current struggle with police brutality, Giddens lays it out like a history lesson. iTunes

Josh Ritter: ‘Gathering’ (Cooking Vinyl)

Something is up with Josh Ritter because he is sounding EPIC on this record. One guess is that his collaborative album with Bob Weir inspired him to make his own wide-open sounding cowboy-style record. Ritter’s writing is busted open and his faithful Royal City Band lays down their sophisticated touches. iTunes

Rose Cousins: ‘Natural Conclusion’ (Old Farm Pony Records)

Your favorite Canadian cousin went to Los Angeles and recorded her latest album with master producer Joe Henry and a gang of top notch musicians (including my favorite drummer Jay Bellerose! “Like Trees” has sick drums!!). It’s nice to hear Rose’s voice against her piano playing. That piano also fully seals the deal on crying your face off to her music. I can’t tell you all the lessons I’ve learned from Rose over the years. Her records are like therapy. ‘Natural Conclusion’ takes what she’s been doing so masterfully for years to the next level. iTunes

Deb Talan: ‘Lucky Girl’ (Nettwerk)

Deb Talan decided that after being in a band (The Weepies) for over a decade, raising three boys and surviving breast cancer, that she needed to do something in order to find herself again. Thankfully (!) that meant her first solo record in 13 years: ‘Lucky Girl.’ Is there a better modern day unknown songwriter out there other than Deb Talan? No. There is not. iTunes

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit: ‘The Nashville Sound’ (Southeastern Records)

The songs called for rock and roll, so Jason Isbell got the band (The 400 Unit) back together for his third release with producer Dave Cobb. On some songs, Isbell writes from the perspective of flawed, yet sympathetic characters. On others, he gets very personal dealing with issues of gender inequality and racism. Through it all, he finds a way to keep his sincerity and humor (where appropriate) on the forefront. iTunes

Son Little: ‘New Magic’ (ANTI-)

Aaron Livingston, known on stage as Son Little, doesn’t really have a genre that he likes to stick to. On his second release, ‘New Magic,’ he has further developed his dark groove among experimental rock, folk and blues. His voice somehow sounds like it’s two voices up against guitar lines that would make Hendrix or Muddy Waters sit up and pay attention. There is something otherworldly about his presentation that is futuristic, but encompasses the past at the same time. iTunes

Laura Cortese & The Dance Cards: ‘California Calling’ (Compass)

Boston-based fiddler Laura Cortese’s first release with her quartet gives the singer-songwriter an edge that existed in her music, but has not seen fruition like this before. Produced by Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Lake Street Dive), Cortese sounds like she is tapping into a new freedom and lightness while still upholding the traditional sound that she has previously mastered. iTunes

Julien Baker: ‘Turn Out The Lights’ (Matador)

Everyone I know is freaking out about Julien Baker and okay fine, I will add my voice to the crowd. She is the real deal: vulnerable, struggling and powerful. Mostly the record centers on the struggle for self-care and explaining her mental illness and addiction to those closest to her. Her beautiful arrangements on electric guitar and piano (a new thing for her!) float alongside devastating lyrics. High points of the record come when her calm even voice suddenly soars to a scream, which is both jarring and affirming that she’s not giving up the fight to be well. iTunes

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