Well, It’s that time of year… Time to pick our favourite albums of 2015. And you know what, it doesn’t get any easier. There’s just so much great music out there, and it’s been our great privilege to bring lots of it to you each week on Folk Roots Radio. Like last year, most of the albums on this list aren’t a surprise as I raved about them during the year. This time around though I selected a twenty-five album long list, then narrowed it down to the Top 10 you can read about below.
How subjective is this list? Very. I came up with several versions of the Top 10 before I finally nailed it, so lets just agree that the final list could have been a little different – I love all twenty five albums on the long list. I should also mention that I only included albums that I received up until September 30 so if you’re wondering where Free The Honey‘s “Fine Bloom”, Gary & Whit‘s “Matches” and Duane Rutter‘s “Crazy Things” are, they’re likely to appear next year.
It was certainly another great year for music, and I have no doubt that 2016 will be just as fruitful. I look forward to bringing more fine music to you each week on Folk Roots Radio. Thanks again to all the artists who share their music with us. Without you there would be no show. And thanks to all of our listeners, for tuning in each week. Without you, there’d be no reason to do a show. I’d just be sitting at home with my headphones on!
The Top 10
1. Jon Brooks – The Smiling & Beautiful Countryside (2015, Borealis Records)
Jon Brook’s 2012 album ”Delicate Cages” focused on themes of love and fear; and freedom and imprisonment. For the follow up, “The Smiling and Beautiful Countryside”, Jon turned his cynical eye on contemporary North American society in a world gone mad to produce an album of murder ballads the like of which you may never hear again – and one that gives up more and more with each listen. It was easy to make this my favourite album of the year. I should add that Jon is absolutely fabulous live – I saw him three times this year, playing solo – just songs and anecdotes accompanied by his beatbox looping acoustic guitar, and he’s brilliant! It should be on everyone’s wish list to attend a Jon Brooks show. And yes, all the songs on this album are even better live.
2. Catherine MacLellan – The Raven’s Son (2014, Self)
This choice created a bit of a dilemma for me. “The Raven’s Son” was actually an August 2014 release but as I didn’t receive it until later in the year I could not consider it in my Best of 2014 list. Recorded in the woods outside of Woodstock, NY by GRAMMY Award–winning Danny Blume, and produced by longtime musical partner Chris Gauthier, with some fabulous fiddle from Andy Leftwich, the album features gorgeous songs exploring themes of life, death and transformation that showcase the phenomenal songwriting talent that is Catherine MacLellan. That the album took home the Juno for Roots and Traditional album of the year was a given.
3. Ange Hardy – Esteesee (2015, Story Records)
I was introduced to Somerset, England based Ange Hardy’s music through her critically acclaimed 2014 album “The Lament of the Black Sheep” and I heard about the intriguing “Esteesee” project while still in the development phase. An album of songs inspired by the life and work of English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (21 October 1772 – 25 July 1834) – the S.T.C. in the title (pronounced Ess-Tee-See), it could have fallen a little flat, but it delivered everything I’d hoped for – a stellar set of wonderfully arranged songs on a fabulous album that really brings Coleridge to life. And, an unexpected pleasure for a science-orientated child who really disliked English Literature while at school. I should add that I’m a bit of a late bloomer – and this album also made me feel more than a little homesick.
4. Moors and McCumber – Pandemonium (2014, Self)
A rootsy poppy confection stuffed with uplifting songs, great musicianship and fine harmonies… and another one of those pleasant surprises… an album that I knew nothing about before I received it – that became an instant favourite. That the album was produced by Gary Louris – of the Jayhawks – should be enough to encourage you to take the risk and dive in. A fabulous album. You’ll not be disappointed.
5. Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project – Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project (2015, Borealis Records)
For his latest musical adventure, two-time Juno winning banjo player Jayme Stone brought together some of the most-talented folk and roots musicians in North America to re-imagine and re-interpret songs collected by noted folklorist Alan Lomax. Joining Jayme on this exquisitely recorded and packaged album are Grammy-winning singer Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Margaret Glaspy, Moira Smiley, Brittany Haas, Julian Lage, Eli West, and many more. Catching Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project several times was one of the highlights of my festival summer. The good news is that there will be a second volume. I can’t wait.
6. Pharis & Jason Romero – A Wanderer I’ll Stay (2015, Borealis Records)
“A Wanderer I’ll Stay” is the latest critically acclaimed album from Pharis & Jason Romero. Featuring some achingly beautiful harmonies, it’s a fabulous collection of songs written a long time ago mixed with others written around the kitchen table in the last year or so. Beautifully recorded and produced by David Travers-Smith in Jason Romero’s banjo workshop in Horsefly BC, you feel like you’re stepping back in time to hear them. A joy from beginning to end.
7. Joy Of Living: A Tribute To Ewan MacColl (2015, Cooking Vinyl / Compass Records)
“Joy of Living” is a new tribute album to the Godfather of the British folk revival – Ewan McColl, a songwriter whose influence extended far beyond the folk world. Featuring a who’s-who of contemporary British and Irish pop, rock and folk, this double album put together by sons Calum and Neil is the perfect primer for those who need to learn more about a great songwriter. Featuring new versions of classics such as “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Dirty Old Town,” “The Shoals of Herring” and “The Joy of Living”, there really are too many highlights to mention – but with a contributor list that includes Paul Brady, Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan, and Rufus & Martha Wainwright with sleeve notes that provide a bit of background on each song, it is deservedly one of the best albums of the year.
8. Glen MacNeil – Where The Heart Remains (2015, Self)
South-Western Ontario singer-songwriter Glen MacNeil released a great debut album, “Where The Heart Remains” this year. Very much a personal testament to love and life, it features ten fine songs, written or co-written by Glen, that focus on life, love and personal relationships, and his Cape Breton roots. Featuring some fabulous musicianship, and beautifully understated production from John Law (of The Laws), it was an instant favourite, and an album that once you start listening to, you need to stay to the end.
9. Guy Davis – Kokomo Kid (2015, M.C. Records)
Kokomo Kidd is the self-produced follow-up to Guy Davis’ hugely successful “Juba Dance” from 2013. The album features some beautifully-crafted and mostly original songs and a few interesting covers including Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay”. Guy’s fabulous acoustic guitar playing and soulful voice are as engaging as ever with support from Charlie Musselwhite, Fabrizio Poggi and Ben Jaffe – it’s truly a joy for the ears.
10. David Storey – Coming Home (2015, Self)
Singer-songwriter David Storey spent 25 years working as a video director and TV director/producer (including co-developing and directing the hit comedy series “Corner Gas”) before returning to his first love – music. If ever there was an album that grew on me during the year, this was the one. I loved it. Nine semi-biographical songs about small town life, relationships, and the life challenges we all face – all delivered with empathy and a wry humour. You may also want to check out the interview and session David recorded with me at the end of the summer. It tells you the back story to many of the great songs on this album. You can find it online HERE.
The Next Fifteen
Matthew Byrne – Hearts & Heroes (2014, Self)
Pete Davies – Long Way Home (2014, Home Roots Music)
Jory Nash – The Many Hats of Jory Nash (2015, Thin Man Records)
The Early Mays (2014, Self)
Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie (2014, Compass Records)
Tia McGraff – Crazy Beautiful (2015, Bandana Records)
The Young Novelists – made us strangers (2015, Self)
Sue Massek – Precious Memories (2015, Strictly Country Records)
The Wife – Mud (2015, Self)
Linda McRae – Shadow Trails (2015, Borealis Records)
James Bruce Moore – Soul’s Journey (2015, Self)
Same Latitude As Rome – Early Days (2015, Self)
Thompson – Family (2014, Fantasy Records/Concord Music Group)
Land of Hope and Fury (2015, Union Music Store)
John McCutcheon – Joe Hill’s Last Will (2015, Appalsongs)
Nicolas & The Iceni (Theme)
Lucy She Rises (Demo)
Roll Right (Pre-release, self)
Sea to Sky
Coming Home (2015, Self) CDN
Wish I Hadn’t
Kokomo Kid (2015, M.C. Records)
The Island Is Where The Heart Remains
Where The Heart Remains (2015, Self) CDN
The Joy Of Living
Joy Of Living: A Tribute To Ewan MacColl (2015, Cooking Vinyl / Compass Records)
Pharis & Jason Romero
The Dying Soldier
A Wanderer I’ll Stay (2015, Borealis Records) CDN
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project
The Lomax Project (2015, Borealis Records) CDN
Moors and McCumber
Pandemonium (2014, Self)
Ange HardyCatherine MacLellan
Beneath The Lindens
The Raven’s Sun (2014, Self) CDN
The Smiling And Beautiful Countryside (2014, Borealis Records) CDN