The abundance of terrific albums in any year make "Top Ten" lists kinda stupid, but I seem to have gotten myself in the habit of continuing this tradition, so what the hell. Plus, I make tapes of my top "ten" and trade them with several of my friends for theirs, which is fun.
As usual, I cheat shamelessly -- there are three ties, plus lots of honorable mentions (which are kinda like a huge tie for my second, third and fourth favorite records of the year).
If you like, you can also check out last year's Best of 1997, the Best of 1996 and the Best of 1995 listings as well.
We've made it easy for you to buy all these CDs online, through cdnow.com, the world's largest online CD store. You get to buy 'em easily, online, right here, at a savings of up to 30%. Such a deal! And to make it even better, if you get 'em here the proceeds help keep this web site going. Y'all know that I support independent local record stores, so if you can't find any of 'em there (or are too lazy to go), get 'em here. To buy any of the CDs listed below, just click on the [Buy this record!] link at the end of each description. Many of the records listed on CDnow have audio samples on their respective pages, so that you can listen before you buy; you'll need to download the free RealAudio software to listen in. Any record not available through cdnow.com will have ordering information.
Okay, onward ...
Best Reissues and Compilations Everything old is new again.
- VARIOUS ARTISTS - Ruckus Juice And Chitlins: Great Jug Band Recordings of the '20s and '30s (Yazoo)
- My favorite reissue label offers us the winner of "My Favorite Album Title of the Year", a compilation of jug bands remastered from 78s, some of whom recorded in the 20s but had been playing since the turn of the century. [Buy Volume 1 and Volume 2]
- VARIOUS ARTISTS - My Rough And Rowdy Ways: Early American Rural Music - Badmen Ballads And Hellraising Songs, Volumes 1 and 2 (Yazoo)
- More great old ballads from the amazing Yazoo label. This and "Ruckus" would have been my very favorites of the year if not for the series that actually was my favorite. :^)
[Buy Volume 1 and Volume 2]
- ECK ROBERTSON - Old-Time Texas Fiddler (County)
- One of the earliest old-time fiddlers to record. This was a happy discovery in my continuing journey into old-time music. [Buy this record!]
- LOUIE BLUIE - Original Soundtrack (Arhoolie)
- This marvelous album is a soundtrack from a documentary featuring Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, a nonagenarian fiddle, mandolinist and singer who is one of the last remaining performers from the old black string-band era, and he's a living gem. I feel lucky to have gotten the chance to see him perform; get this record, 'cause it's the next best thing. [Buy this record!]
- ROSCOE HOLCOMB - That High Lonesome Sound (Smithsonian/Folkways)
- This is American traditional music as good as it gets. Roscoe was a banjoist and a very powerful unaccompained singer from Kentucky, and influenced not only traditional musicians but people from Bob Dylan to Cordelia's Dad. Essential. [Buy this record!]
- THE HAMMONS FAMILY - The Traditions Of A West Virginia Family And Their Friends (Rounder)
- An amazing 2-CD set with booklet. The Hammonses had a wonderful style to their Appalachian traditional music, and their playing continues to influence people like Dwight Diller and more. Tunes, songs, and stories. [Buy this record!]
- WADE FRUGÉ - Old Style Cajun Music (Arhoolie)
- Wade was a very influential Cajun fiddler who made this, his first recording, at the tender age of 84. I was privileged to see Wade play before he passed away. He's ably accompanied here by Marc and Ann Savoy. [Buy this record!]
- DERVISH - Live in Palma (Kells)
- Well, it isn't a reissue, really ... unless you count the fact that it's 1) live versions of previously released material, and 2) it came out in Ireland last year and is now being issued domestically. They also made the top listing last year without too much effort, and I wanted to give some other folks a shot. This is a blistering two-CD set recorded in Palma, Spain, and showcases the band at the top of their form, just as they're about to metamorphose from a sextet into a septet. Shane McAleer has left the band and is being replaced by two new fiddlers. [Buy this record!]
- DOCK BOGGS - His Folkways Years, 1963-1968 (Smithsonian-Folkways)
- Dock was a banjo player and traditional singer from Kentucky who only recorded 12 songs in the '20s, but they were a mighty powerful dozen. Mike Seeger sought him out in the early 60s and recorded this amazing 2-record set. It's fun to compare his songs that were recorded 40 years apart as well. Old-time music as its best. [Buy this record!]
- BEAUSOLEIL - Arc de Triomphe Two-Step (EMI/Blue Note)
- Originally entitled "La Nuit", this was Beausoleil's very first record, made in France in 1976 and never available in the U.S. until now. It bears very little resemblance to the BeauSoleil we know today, but you can see the seeds of its beginning, and hear that this incarnation of BeauSoleil had more in common with Coteau. A must for BeauSoleil fans. [Buy this record!]
The Top Reissues of the Year Tough to pick, but these were my favorites.
- VARIOUS ARTISTS - Les Haricots Sont Pas Sal´s (Cinq Planètes)
- I was amazed that I had never heard of this before. This was a new release from France, of the soundtrack for a film about rural Cajun musicians that was made back in 1972 (!) by a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Bruneau. The film was shot and the soundtrack recorded in Acadia and Evangeline Parishes, and includes such luminaries as The Balfa Brothers, Nathan Abshire, Shirley Bergeron, Freeman Fontenot, Canray Fontenot and more, most of whom are no longer with us. The performances are wonderful, and the CD includes a 28-page booklet in French and English. Stupendous, and astonishing that this stuff has been sitting on a shelf for 25 years.
- VARIOUS ARTISTS - Before the Blues: The Early American Black Music Scene of the '20s and '30s, Volumes 1-3 (Yazoo)
- Another amazing series of records from Yazoo. Three volumes of digitally-restored and remastered music from 78rpm recordings of the music black folks played, quite literally, before the blues -- folk tunes, ballads, modal songs, religious music -- all of which combined in a particularly way to give birth to the blues and the many different kinds of music that subsequently sprung from that. I'd almost have to tie these with the marvelous "Ruckus Juice" and "My Rough and Rowdy Ways" compilations, which were my next-favorites, but this one was three discs instead of two. Arbitrary, I know. Still, this stuff is a revelation. [Buy Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3!]
Honorable Mentions Basically a huge tie for 4th- or 5th-favorite
I wanted to get the page up due to the many requests I've gotten for it ... here's the rest of the best, before we get to the best of the best, and I'll finish the capsule reviews and comments as soon as I have time. In the meantime, enjoy!
Okay, and now ...
- THE YOCKAMO ALL-STARS - Dew Drop Out (Hannibal/Carthage)
- Several top-notch New Orleans jazz, blues and R&B musicians gather for a blast of music that brings us back to the days of the legendary New Orleans music club, the Dew Drop Inn. Yeah you rite. [Buy this record!]
- GILLIAN WELCH - Hell Among the Yearlings (ALMO Sounds)
- Old-sounding music, hearkening back to the days of the traditional and folk music of the last century, with dark modern tales to tell. Acoustic, stark, beautiful. [Buy this record!]
- DOC WATSON, MAC WISEMAN & DEL McCOURY - Mac, Doc and Del (Sugar Hill)
- A dream team of bluegrass and American traditional music. [Buy this record!]
- WALTER "WOLFMAN" WASHINGTON & THE ROADMASTERS - Funk Is In The House (Bullseye Blues and Jazz)
- Powerful funk and blues from one of the Crescent City's premier guitarists. Fonky! [Buy this record!]
- VARIOUS ARTISTS - Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia (Smithsonian/Folkways)
- Along with "Louie Bluie" above, another wonderful portrait this year of a style of music that's rapidly dying out - pre-blues African-American traditional string music. Most of these recordings are recent, and I hope these folks keep playing and passing along their wonderful music for as long as they can. [Buy this record!]
- RALPH STANLEY & FRIENDS - Clinch Mountain Country (Rebel)
- A wonderful 2-CD set of the legendary bluegrass musician with a wide variety of impressive friends, each collaborating on one track: Dwight Yoakam, BR5-49, Bob Dylan, Dwight Yoakam, Allison Krauss, Junior Brown, and a couple dozen more. [Buy this record!]
- SON VOLT - Wide Swing Tremolo (Warner Bros.)
- This one's more upbeat than the last, and rocks a little harder too, hearkening back a little bit more to the old Uncle Tupelo days, but with some sweet acoustic numbers as well, a touch of twang, and Jay Farrar's timeless voice. [Buy this record!]
- SOLAS - The Words That Remain (Shanachie)
- The best Irish traditional band in America, bar none. This is their third effort, very good indeed, with a guest vocal by Iris DeMent. But they were in the top ten the last two years running, and this album, while excellent, didn't really top the other two, so I decided to give some other folks a turn. But if you like Irish music, get it. [Buy this record!]
- STEVE RILEY AND THE MAMOU PLAYBOYS - Bayou Ruler (Rounder)
- Steve takes a big chance here, with a record that's half traditional Cajun and half English-language swamp-pop. Some folks in Louisiana just shook their heads, and on first listening I wondered if Steve really had the voice for this kind of stuff, but after hearing him play it live, I decided that he does, and that I should lighten up! A crowd-pleaser at Jazzfest ... give it a try. [Buy this record!]
- REELTIME - Live It Up (Green Linnet)
- [Buy this record!]
- ANDERS OSBORNE - Live at Tipitina's (Shanachie)
- Finally, the live album his fans have been demanding! A New Orleanian now, he's Swedish by birth but has spent enough time in the Crescent City, listening and playing, that he's a native as far as I'm concerned. Sensual, funky, rockin' soul/funk/R&B/blues, and a tuba instead of a bass. Cool. [Buy this record!]
- MAS MAMONES - Aguagero Y Parranda (Con Cojones)
- Many people forget that New Orleans is really a Caribbean port, its northernmost, and picks up influences from musics of that region as well. This is Cuban music, primarily Cuban jazz, homegrown and played with style, drive and lotsa fun. This band is very popular in New Orleans. The CD is on a local label, so try the link below to mail-order it. [Buy this record from the Louisiana Music Factory]
- DAVID LINDLEY & WALLY INGRAM - Twango Bango Deluxe (Ulftone)
- Pleemhead Extrordinaire! King of Polyester! World's best Jimmy Stewart Impressionist! And an absolute master of anything with strings. David Lindley is a crackup, a character and a treasure. This is his third "solo" album, i.e. not with a band, and has found a new musical partner with percussionist Wally Ingram. Wonderful stuff. You can get the CD via mail-order - write to Mr. Dave at P.O. Box 370, Upland, CA 91785-0370 USA and enclose $15 plus $5 for shipping and packing. It's worth it.
- CHERI KNIGHT - The Northeast Kingdom (E-Squared)
- One of my favorite alt.country albums of the year, the second from this Blood Oranges alumna. [Buy this record!]
- BAP KENNEDY - Domestic Blues (E-Squared)
- Bap is Irish, and used to front a Belfast rock band called Energy Orchard. He's moved to the States, started hanging out with Steve Earle, and picked up some TWANG! This album is terrific, and my other favorite alt.country album of the year. [Buy this record!]
- THE IGUANAS - Sugar Town
- One of my very favorite New Orleans bands, now liberated from evil Major Labels with their first self-release, and a wonderful record it is. Smoky Latin R&B, Tex-Mex flavors and New Orleans grooves, this is music to grab your honey and dance to. [Order from the Louisiana Music Factory]
- BOBBY HICKS - Fiddle Patch (Rounder)
- [Buy this record!]
- THE GIBSON BROTHERS - Another Night of Waiting (Hay Holler)
- One of my two favorite bluegrass albums this year. These guys are from upstate New York, of all places, but you'd never know they weren't from the Blue Grass itself. Sweet harmonies, beautiful and skillful playing ... a more laid-back bluegrass than some of the fiery groups, but these guys have got it nailed. [Buy this record!]
- GALACTIC - Crazyhorse Mongoose (Fog City)
- Funky! These young New Orleans funkmeisters smoke on their sophomore effort, and blend in husky soul and jazz into the mix as well. Another favorite New Orleans live act. [Buy this record!]
- AIMÉ GAGNON - Violoneux d'Origine
- This is an extremely independent release; in fact, from what I can tell, it was released by the artist's children after his death. Gagnon is a traditional fiddler from Québec, and this is a compilation of informal recordings, some made in living rooms and kitchens, from throughout his life. He was a major influence on many of today's Québecois musicians, and I'm really glad this recording was made available. To enquire about buying this CD, email Danielle Gagnon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- ROBBIE FULKS - Let's Kill Saturday Night (Geffen)
- Robbie goes pop? Robbie sells out? Boy, did some of my friends fight over this album. Some liked it, others hated it. I liked it, and although I do prefer his country stuff, I thought it was a solid pop album that still had some twang to it, and lots of it was fun to listen to. I didn't take it as personally as some people did. Listen to some of the samples and see what you think. [Buy this record!]
- FREAKWATER - Springtime (Thrill Jockey)
- My my my, do I like these guys. This is country music almost as pure as it gets, a contemporary band who are direct descendents of the Carter Family, 'cept not named Carter. Most of those Nashville pop-country yahoos only wished they were this good. [Buy this record!]
- FAIRPORT CONVENTION - Who Knows Where The Time Goes? (Green Linnet)
- Still got it after all these years. These denizens of English folk-rock put out a pretty durned good one this year, and include a live track from the annual Fairport Convention reunion concert featuring founding member Richard Thompson. [Buy this record!]
- ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO - More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-1996 (Bloodshot)
- A terrific portrait of Alejandro's recent live material, rocking hard amidst dazzlingly intense acoustic numbers. [Buy this record!]
- RAMBLIN' JACK ELLIOTT - Friends of Mine (Hightone)
- A great album from a legendary folk musician, and his friends are pretty impressive indeed: Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Bob Weir, Peter Rowan, Tom Waits, Guy Clark and more. [Buy this record!]
- DR. JOHN - Anutha Zone (Virgin)
- A smoky, sultry, spooky and wonderful record that makes me think of his "Gris-Gris" era. He's got some pretty atypical sidemen helping him out here, from Paul Weller to a guy from Portishead. Works, though. "Sweet Home New Orleans" alone is worth the price of admission. Yeah you rite, bra. [Buy this record!]
- DWIGHT DILLER - New Plowed Ground: West Virginia Mountain Music (Yew Pine Mountain Music)
- The second self-released CD (after a half-dozen or so cassette-only releases) by this master of the banjo and fiddle from Pocahontas County, West Virginia. He plays and teaches the traditional music of his home, and is one of its finest practitioners. On this record he's joined by his pals from Cordelia's Dad. Call Dwight at (304) 653-4397 to buy this record.
- COWBOY MOUTH - Mercyland (MCA)
- Balls-out, rock 'n roll Americana, celebrating the joy that is life. The Mouth have been going strong for nearly 10 years now, and this record's as strong as the others. Incredibly energy, songwriting from 3 of the 4 members and all sing lead. These guys have so many great songs that making a new record seems effortless -- just pull out a dozen or so more from their repertoire. You simply must see them live. [Buy this record!]
- NEKO CASE AND HER BOYFRIENDS - The Virginian (Bloodshot)
- Neko's debut another favorite alt.country record of mine this year. She's from Virginia via Canada, and makes me wonder what Patsy Cline might sound like fronting a raucous rockabilly band. Fun stuff. [Buy this record!]
- RICHARD BUCKNER - Since (MCA)
- Buckner gets a little more electric this time around, but the acoustic sound is still with him, and his songs are as achingly wonderful as ever. [Buy this record!]
- THE BLUERUNNERS - To the Country (Rounder)
- It's criminal that these guys aren't more famous than they are. Lafayette, Louisiana-based, they're a rock 'n roll band who draw a lot from Cajun and zydeco music, and although the elements are there, they are by no means a Cajun or zydeco band. They blend and move effortlessly between rock, folk, and the aforementioned influences, and make a sound all their own. They're a lot of fun live too, so if they come around, support 'em, see 'em, have fun! [Buy this record!]
- BLUE HIGHWAY - Midnight Storm (Rebel)
- My other favorite bluegrass record of the year. Terrific vocals and terrific playing. [Buy this record!]
- BEAU JOCQUE AND THE ZYDECO HI-ROLLERS - Check It Out, Lock It In, Crank It Up! (Rounder)
- The zydeo powerhouse does it again - this one, as the others, will keep you dancing and sweating into the wee hours. [Buy this record!]
- BATTLEFIELD BAND - Rain, Hail or Shine (Temple)
- I've rarely if ever seen a band that survives so many personnel changes not only intact, but strong as ever if not stronger. The Batties didn't waste any time cutting a new record with their new vocalist Davy Steele (ex-Ceolbeg, replacing Alastair Russell) and new piper Mike Katz. The songwriting and playing are as dazzling as ever. [Buy this record!]
- DAVE BARTHOLOMEW - New Orleans Big Beat (Landslide)
- One of the architects of New Orleans R&B (and therefore rock 'n roll as well), Dave was part of the genius behind giants like Fats Domino and Lloyd Price, co-writing many of the songs and doing all the charts and arrangements. This is his first new album in years, and it's a knockout. He also gives the City of New Orleans an instant anthem for Jazzfest with the song "Jazzfest Time In New Orleans" ... c'mon now, let me year you scream! A monumental record in New Orleans music. [Buy this record!]
- BAD LIVERS - Industry & Thrift (Sugar Hill)
- These guys is wacky! This latest release is a fun evolution from their punk-bluegrass past, keeping that and heading into more rock and jazz flavored numbers, and toying with klezmer as well. [Buy this record!]
- CHRIS ARDOIN & DOUBLE CLUTCHIN' - Turn the Page (Rounder)
- Chris and his brother Sean are fourth-generation Ardoin musicians, and they do Amédée proud. One of the best young contemporary zydeco bands, they have a driving beat, a fresh sound (not just imitating Boozoo or Beau Jocque like so many others), and Chris' playing gets better and better. I just wish they'd sing in French more. [Buy this record!]
- DAVE ALVIN - Blackjack David (Hightone)
- A terrific record, my favorite Dave Alvin solo album of all. He reaches further toward the folk tradition with the title track, and his new songs are American roots music at its finest. [Buy this record!]
- JOHNNY ADAMS - Man of My Word (Rounder)
- I can't believe this is going to be the last one. Johnny was one of the greatest voices in New Orleans music, and in music in general. He sang soul, R&B and gospel music with equal mastery, and reached the depths of your soul. He passed away last year of cancer, which he was fighting even as he recorded this brilliant album. What a way to go. [Buy this record!]
The Top "15" 18 really, 'cause I cheat
- 15. GENO DELAFOSE AND FRENCH ROCKIN' BOOGIE - La Chanson Perdue (Rounder)
- This gets the nod for my favorite zydeco album of the year. Chris Ardoin's was really good, but Geno sings in French more, and to me that's important. I think that the presence of members of Balfa Toujours on this as well as the other top Cajun/Creole releases of the year is not coincidental. [Buy this record!]
- 14. BALFA TOUJOURS - La Pointe (Rounder)
- Balfa Toujours continue the formidable Balfa legacy, plus how can you go wrong when Dirk Powell marries into the family? Wonderful, lively traditional Cajun music, beautifully and passionately played, with a deep respect for the tradition that will carry it through well into the new century. [Buy this record!]
- (tie) ALPHONSE "BOIS-SEC" ARDOIN with BALFA TOUJOURS - Allons Danser (Rounder)
- 82-year-old Creole singer and accordionist Bois-Sec Ardoin made his first record in over 20 years with Balfa Toujours backing him up, and the result is magical -- old, old music inspiring and influencing young musicians of the current and next generation. [Buy this record!]
The two best Cajun (and Creole) releases of the year.
- 13. MARY JANE LAMOND - Suas E! (BMG)
- A Gaelic singer from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. She sings from an almost 200-year-old tradition of unaccompanied Gaelic singing in Cape Breton, but sets these songs in instrumental arrangements that compliment them beautifully, fully respecting the tradition and not detracting from it in the least. She's got a gorgeous voice, too. [Buy this record!]
- 12. GREG TROOPER - Popular Demons (Koch)
- This was the find of the year. I had never heard of Greg Trooper, even though this was his third album, until my friend Steve Gardner of WXDU, Durham NC, turned me on to it. He's a wonderful country singer/songwriter, and to add icing to the cake, the album was produced by another of my favorite country artists, Buddy Miller. [Buy this record!]
- 11. THE HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN - Swingin' Stampede (Hightone)
- If Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club of France grew up in Texas listening to Bob Wills, they'd sound like this. Western swing and hot string-band jazz ... and a LOT of fun. They bring in a fair amount of old-time fiddling as well as modern jazz touches, and have a guest-fiddler appearance from Johnny Gimble, to boot. A blast. [Buy this record!]
- 10. BOURQUE, BERNARD ET LEPAGE - (Borealis)
- I was hoping for a new La Bottine Souriante album this year, but didn't get one (however, there's a new one out this week!). But fortunately I got this album in the mail a couple of months ago, was relatively unfamiliar with the artists, put it on and loved it. It wasn't as immediate as La Bottine, and I realized that this was because it was more traditional in its arrangements. But it confirmed one thing for me -- I love all Québecois traditional music. It's import-only and difficult to find outside of Canada, so use the link below to order it. [Order this record directly from the label via mail-order.]
- 9. KÍLA - Tóg É Go Bóg É (Key Records)
- Kíla were mind-boggling, making their U.S. debut at the S.F. Celtic Festival last year. They have traditional Irish instrumentation -- pipes, fiddles, flues, etc. -- but they all trade off on various percussion instruments, sing their mostly Irish-language songs in a style that sometimes seems to range from chanting to rapping, weave in Gypsy rhythms into their melodies (all original compositions). Sometimes delicate, sometimes fierce, sometimes tribal. I've never heard anything like these guys. This album is import-only and difficult to find outside of Ireland, so ... [Order this CD directly from the band's web site]
- (tie) DONAL LUNNY - Coolfin (Metro Blue)
- Donal Lunny, formerly of Planxty, The Bothy Band and Moving Hearts (Jaysis!), plus a veritable guru of Irish music over the last 20 years, made his first album in 11 years with a fantastic new band, and took Irish music, both traditional and original, into similar new polyrhythmic areas, with guest vocals by mainstays of Irish traditional singing like Tríona and Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill, and a song by Hungarian traditional singer Márta Sebéstyén woven into Irish and Moldavian tunes. This one started off sneaking up on me quietly and ended up knocking me on my butt. [Buy this record!]
- 8. JONES AND LEVA - Journey Home (Rounder)
- One of my two favorite country albums of the year. It's almost an old-time album, except all the songs are original compositions. Beautiful country ballads, upbeat Cajun-inflected numbers, plus gospel songs and their trademark harmonies. I loved this record. [Buy this record!]
- 7. LOS SUPER SEVEN (BMG/RCA)
- Los Super Seven are sort of a side project of Los Lobos members David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, along with Latin music luminaries like Flaco Jiménez, Freddy Fender (né Baldemar Huerta), Rick Treviño, Rubén Ramos, and Joe Ely. It's an album of mostly traditional Mexican-American music that most of these guys grew up listening to and loving. It's obvious from one listening that they really love this music, and play it with alma y corazón. [Buy this record!]
- (tie) CONJUNTO JARDÍN - Nuevo Son Jarocho (Trova)
- Conjunto Jardín are a new group formed by Libby and Cindy Harding, who in the past had been involved with Word of Mouth and Huayucaltia, and specialize in music they also grew up listening to -- the jarocho music of the state of Veracruz in Mexico. It's my favorite style of Mexican traditional music, but I never seemed to get to hear as much of it as I like. This album fell in my lap -- a listener insisted on sending it to me gratis, 'cause "you just have to hear this!" He was right. This is wonderful, sparkling traditional music played with gusto, verve and joy. [Email the label, Trova Records, for ordering information]
- 6. THE HARRY SMITH CONNECTION - A Live Tribute to the Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian/Folkways)
- I'm still blown away by "The Anthology", and hardly a week goes by where I don't play at least one track from it on my shift. The live tribute album is a heartening demonstration of how traditional music lives on. And it's nice to finally get "official" recordings of those Tweedy tracks, too. There are two dreadful tracks on this record (you'll know which ones), but the others more than make up for them. [Buy this record!]
- 5. RED MEAT - 13 (Ranchero)
- My favorite country album of the year. This is Red Meat's second album, full of great songs, great singing, and a bang-up production job by Dave Alvin. Three-fifths of one of my favorite-ever local bands, The Movie Stars, are in this band, along with singer/guitarist/songwriter Scott Young, who does the lion's share of the writing, and their incomparable singer, Mr. Smelley Kelley. High-cholesterol honky-tonk at its best. [Buy this record!]
- 4. THE FREIGHT HOPPERS - Waiting on the Gravy Train (Rounder)
- My favorite old-time album of the year. These guys play with incredible energy, fire, drive, and respect for the tradition. They're based in North Carolina, and I've had the privilege of seeing them a few times in various settings - performance, jam sessions, and as the house band for a square dance. Absolutely wonderfulstuff, and a must for anyone interested in oldtime, Appalachian and traditional American music. [Buy this record!]
The Top Three It's a three-way tie for my favorite, as usual
The usual disclaimers apply ...
Ignore the numbers if you can. They're all great. They're even interchangeable in ranking depending on my mood and what day of the week it is.
In many years the truly arbitrary numbering/ranking has been more or less loosely based upon the frequency with which the particular album got stuck into my CD player. That's the case for numbers 3 and 2, but this year the Number One album was a last-minute surprise. It leapt into the top position not only because of musicality, but also its importance and a tremendous amount of sentimental value and appreciation.
- 3. CORDELIA'S DAD - Spine (Appleseed)
- Truly powerful traditional American music, passionately sung and played. This one was not as immediately accessible to me as Comet was a few years ago, but continued listening to this record was more and more rewarding. Shape note harmonies, bawdy songs over a century and a half old, dark ballads, rousing Sacred Harp hymns and fiddle tunes from the Ozarks to Québec, featuring the incredibly powerful singing of Tim Eriksen (although Cath Oss does a terrific, breathy lead vocal on the sly little sex-romp ballad "Knife"). Dazzling music. [Buy this record!]
- 2. BILLY BRAGG AND WILCO - Mermaid Avenue (Reprise)
- I think we all know the story by now - Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora contacted Billy Bragg as the proper person to set music to sets of hundreds of lyrics she had uncovered, to which the tunes had been lost, or never composed. Billy got the American roots-rock band Wilco to back him up, and the result is one of my very favorite records of the year. Some of these songs are decades old, but are as fresh, vital and timely as if they were written today; in fact, Billy only half-jokingly refers to Woody as "my new songwriting partner" during live performances. The songs vary wildly in style as well, but all of 'em are true to the vision of their legendary lyricist.
Woody woulda been proud. [Buy this record!]
- 1. MEDICINE SHOW, VOL. 1: Live at Grant Street Dancehall (Acadiana Arts Council)
- This is a prime example of why I don't make "Best of" lists until after the year is completely over. This CD was released in Louisiana in local music shops and via mail-order on December 10, and I didn't get it until I was home for Christmas.
Dr. Tommy Comeaux was one of the world's premier Cajun musicians. He played mandolin, guitar, dobro and bass, and was in *three* amazing Cajun bands -- BeauSoleil, Coteau and The Basin Brothers. He was also a composer, was in a popular Lafayette bluegrass band, The Clickin' Chickens, a folk band called Native Sons, and also had played in blues/slide guitarist Sonny Landreth's band, too. He did all this as well as being Chief of Pathology of Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Lafayette. He was a terrific human being, and was also Michael Doucet's best friend since childhood.
In November of 1997, he was riding his bicycle on a country road (he was an avid cyclist and athlete) when a driver coming the other way suffered a seizure and crossed the center line; Tommy was killed instantly.
It was a huge shock for his family and friends, as well as the music community of Lafayette, and by Thanksgiving his friends began planning a tribute concert and fundraiser. A fund was started to establish an endowed chair in traditional music at USL, a position to be awarded on a three-year basis to eminent scholars and musicians. A concert was organized at Grant St. Dance Hall in Lafayette, featuring all of the bands Tommy had played with, and lots more friends. It was held on December 26, 1997, lasted seven amazing hours ... and I was there.
This record hit me on a variety of levels. Not only is it a terrific CD of bluegrass, folk, blues and Cajun music, not only is it important for what it's trying to achieve for the endowed chair ... but it got to me on a really emotional level. I didn't know Tommy well, but had met him -- he performed live on my shift along with the rest of BeauSoleil several years ago -- and always respected his amazing musicianship. That concert was fantastic, and a very emotional experience for everyone performing and attending.
The record isn't without its flaws, but all of this combined made it my Number One album of 1998.
You can get it (and I recommend it highly) by sending $17.50 to The Dr. Tommy Comeaux Endowed Fund for Traditional Music, c/o Acadiana Arts Council, P.O. Box 53762, Lafayette, LA 70505, or by following this link.
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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)