In Memoriam:
Townes Van Zandt

Yes kids, once again I sit down and force myself to come up with a mere TEN recordings to reflect my very favorites of the year. It's always a pain in the butt to do just ten, and to have to rank them, and I don't know why I do it to myself. Well, 'cause it's kinda fun, I guess. Go figure.

There were LOTS of honorable mentions this year, but most of the albums in the Top Ten were either a big revelation to me in my own musical journey, elicited the strongest emotional reactions, or just plain made me go WOW!

If you want, you can also check out last year's Best of 1995 listing as well.

Okay, here we go ...

Best Reissues

OLD AND IN THE WAY - (Acoustic Disc)
Well, technically not a reissue, since it's being issued for the first time. These live concert tapes from 1973 have never seen the outside of a vault until now, and thank God they have. Outstanding bluegrass from Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements and John Kahn. And there are more to come, woohoo!

DENNIS McGEE, SADY COURVILLE, CANRAY FONTENOT with BEAUSOLEIL - Creole and Cajun Masters (Music of the World)
Made at concerts in New York in 1984, when Dennis was at the tender age of 92, these recordings feature the deans and grandfathers of Cajun fiddle music. Dennis and Sady play music from a time before there were accordions in Cajun music, and still remember Acadian and European tunes. Old-timey doesn't get much better than this.

AMÉDÉE ARDOIN - I'm Never Comin' Back: The Roots of Zydeco (Arhoolie)
Amédée was the first black Creole musician to record, and his mesmerizing voice and accordion playing still influence Cajun and zydeco musicians to this day. Finally, Arhoolie collected scattered sides of 78s from various albums to make one all-Amédée album, and it's a winner.

Honorable Mentions

As usual, we have a multiple-way tie for #11, so I won't even rank these -- my 25 second-favorites of the year. I'll just list 'em in beta-alphical order.

THE V-ROYS - Just Add Ice (E Squared)
Imagine what Graham Parker and the Rumour would sound like if they had grown up in Virginia and Tennesee, and you get a rough idea of what these guys sound like. Extremely fun, and I'm looking forward to seeing them in concert sometime.

VÄRTTINÄ - Kokko (Nonesuch)
Major-label debut from this very successful Finnish band, moving into sort of a folk-pop sound while still remaining true to their roots. The four-part harmonies of the female singers, featuring founders Mari and Sari Kaasinen, are outstanding as ever.

VARIOUS ARTISTS - Rig Rock Deluxe: A Musical Salute to the American Truck Driver (Upstart)
Son Volt, Steve Earle, Kelly Willis, Buck Owens, Don Walser, The Bottle Rockets and many more, doing great covers of great old truck driving songs.

TARIKA SAMMY - Beneath Southern Skies (Shanachie)
I'm a sucker for Malagasy music, and it's great to see Sammy and Tiana back after they mysteriously disappeared from their band's previous incarnation, which was renamed "Tarika" and ended up being fronted by singer Hanitra, when we come to find out that that wasn't the original Tarika Sammy after all, this is. Don't ask. Just be glad that this shimmeringly beautiful acoustic roots music from Madagascar graces our own shores and CD players.

the subdudes - Primitive Streak (High Street)
The swan song from these soulful, electro-acoustic folk-funk rockers from New Orleans and vicinity. This one's a little more rough-edged than their previous ones, but sweet as ever. We'll miss 'em.

BELTON RICHARD - I'm Back (Swallow)
I wasn't sure if we'd ever hear new stuff from Belton (his last name is pronounced in Cajun French as REE-shard), since he's been in retirement for many years ... so I'm very glad to see this album. He's in fine form, as ever, with his smooth vocals and steel-guitar flavored dance-band sound which made him so popular in the 50s and 60s.

THE PICKETTS - Euphonium (Rounder)
Terrific roots band from the Pacific Northwest, who turned in two of the most amazing covers of the year, including The Who's "Baba O'Riley" (a "Gumbo" listener called in and said, "This is the greatest cover I've ever heard!")

JILL OLSON - The Gal Who Would Be King (Eggbert)
Jill was a singer, songwriter and the stand-up bassist with one of my all-time favorite bands, The Movie Stars, which broke up after only two hard-to-find indie albums. She's got a new band together with former Movie Star Michael Montalto, and her delightful charm comes across as ever in this album of rootsy/country/folky-pop songs.

NORTHAMPTON HARMONY - The Hookes' Regular Sing (HazMat)
A revelation. Half of this band is in Cordelia's Dad, going even more traditional with an entire album of a cappella shape note singing, a once-dying style of folk/hymn singing that's seeing a big resurgence in New England and vicinity thanks to people like Tim and Cath and Peter, and lots of just plain folks who like to sing.

BOB MOULD - Bob Mould (Ryko)
Well, you know me ... Bob can pretty much do no wrong. He plays every note of every instrument on this album, wrote, sang and produced. Great songs and great singing. I ran out of words to praise his stuff long ago.

ASHLEY MacISAAC - Hi TM, How Are You Today? (A&M)
Very talented young Celtic fiddler from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. He started off firmly in the Cape Breton tradition, but after a visit to New York took off in some wild directions, appalling many traditionalists back home. Great fun stuff. Now all he needs to do is stop getting himself into trouble in interviews!

LOS LOBOS - Colossal Head (Slash/Warner Bros.)
More dark and funky than their earlier stuff, with aspects of the sound nodding toward David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez' involvement with The Latin Playboys, but still a fitting progression from Kiko.

JERRY GARCIA AND DAVID GRISMAN - Shady Grove (Acoustic Disc)
First in a series of recordings made by Jerry and David in the five years preceding Jerry's death, with each record concentrating on one style of music. This one's the folk/trad one, and it's gorgeous.

GALACTIC - Coolin' Off (Fog City Records)
Top-notch debut release from the leaders of the next generation of New Orleans funk bands.

THE FREIGHT HOPPERS - Where'd You Come From, Where'd You Go? (Rounder)
This one, to be honest, didn't get into the Top 10 because of the flip of a coin. I know I wanted to include one old-time album and I had two big favorites this year, and Dirk Powell won the toss ... oh well. Marvelously energetic bluegrass and old-time stuff.

STEVE EARLE - I Feel Alright (E Squared)
Steve tears it up in his follow up to last year's superb Train A'Coming, which was a hard act to follow.

Douglas is the master of the Dobro guitar, and Rowan has been delighting us with his songs for years. Why it took them this long to collaborate is beyond me. Great stuff.

GENO DELAFOSE - That's What I'm Talkin' About! (Rounder)
Sophomore release from Geno, who cut his teeth in his late father John's zydeco band since he was nine years old. He solidifies his sound, stretching out a bit (there's a neat Los Lobos cover in here), and he makes us feel confident that there will be great, French-Creole based zydeco around for a long time.

COWBOY MOUTH - Are You With Me? (MCA)
This terrific album would have been a Top 10 selection had I not already known most of the songs, and had they not been released on other previous indie Mouth albums. Balls-out rock 'n roll with plenty of folk and country touches, three lead singers and songwriters, great hooks and harmonies and enough energy in once concert to power a small city for a month.

CORDELIA'S DAD - road kill (Scenescof)
A mostly live, all-electric, and often blistering album from these guys, and quite a contrast to last year's release Comet. This will be their last electric release under this name; for their electric material, they've now got a separate band called Io, even though it's still Tim, Cath and Peter. The three of them have permanently added fiddler Laura Risk to the Cordelia's Dad membership, and from now on CD will concentrate solely on acoustic traditional material. This one might not be easy to find, but it's available via mail-order and at their web site linked above.

CAFÉ TACUBA - Avalanche de Exitos (WEA Latina)
A short but punchy release from this Mexico City-based rock en Español group, this time covering songs by artists they admire, in an "avalanche of hits". The traditional Mexican arrangement of Juan Luis Guerra's terrific merengue song "Ojalá Que Llueva Café" alone is worth the price of the album.

BLACK 47 - Green Suede Shoes (Tim Kerr/Mercury)
A solid release from the Irish/hip-hoppy/dancehall reggae/clanging guitared lads who've been packing 'em in to Paddy Reilly's in New York for years. Not too much new ground covered hear, but we're always glad to hear more from Larry Kirwan, Chris Byrne and company.

BATTLEFIELD BAND - Threads (Temple)
Technically a late '95 release, but I didn't even see it anywhere until '96, so it counts. Their songwriting and tunewriting is as strong as ever, and John McCusker gets more mind-bogglingly better with every album. The Batties are also great fun live, so check 'em out on their next tour. Also honorably mentionable is John McCusker's self-titled solo album on Temple, also out in '96.

BALFA TOUJOURS - Deux Voyages (Rounder)
This is why Top 10 lists piss me off sometimes, that I couldn't squeeze 'em all in, and end up flipping coins. Oh well, maybe next year I'll have more ties. Their third release, as good as ever, proudly keeping the Balfa family tradition alive -- Dewey, Rodney and Will are smiling. Also featuring old-time musician Dirk Powell on accordion, fiddle, bass and vocals -- he became a back-door Cajun when he married Christine Balfa.

AFRO-CELT SOUND SYSTEM - Volume 1, Sound Magic (Real World)
Irish and African musicians meet and meld minds and music in this tasty album that brings together two of my favorite kinds of music. Hot stuff in Ireland last year, and there's more to come.


10. ALTAN - Blackwater (Virgin)
For a while, we weren't sure if Altan would survive the death of flutist and founding member (and husband of singer/fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh) Frankie Kennedy, but they all knew that Frankie would have wanted them to go on. Accordionist Dermot Byrne had joined the band not long before Frankie passed, and he steps into the forefront of Altan's sound in this trimphant major-label debut. Alternately energetic and relaxed, always beautiful, and with Mairéad's ever-gorgeous vocals, Altan assures us they aren't going anywhere ... and as Mairéad says, "Frankie's still with us."
(tie) GOLDEN SMOG - Down by the Old Mainstream (Ryko)
This album was tons of fun. Two former Jayhawks, one Wilco'er, one Soul Asylumer, one Run Westy Runner and more, these guys adopted goofy names and did a bunch of roots rock songs that ranged from loud to sloppy to stupid to quietly gorgeous, and the whole thing's just a blast. I'm sorry I didn't get to see them play live.

9. DIRK POWELL - If I Go Ten Thousand Miles (Rounder)
I have to thank my friend Steve Gardner for starting to get me into American traditional "old-time" music. There's tons of it out there, and it's been slow going, but I got a huge jump-start by knowing Dirk and his music from his marriage to Christine Balfa and his subsequent association with Balfa Toujours. I only knew him as a Cajun musician, but this is where he came from. Beautiful stuff, with Dirk on fiddle and banjo and a great singer named Jim Miller doing the songs. Essential.

8. THE IGUANAS - Superball (Margaritaville/Island)
Dark, funky R&B combined at the molecular-genetic level with Mexican traditional music, and all filtered through a New Orleans groove, and that's The Iguanas, possibly the most popular band in New Orleans along with Cowboy Mouth. They're a little darker-sounding on this, their third release, but one listen and you'll know why this band packs the clubs and bars at every single hometown gig, and why an eightysomething Mexican lady in New Orleans has coined a new Spanish verb which means "to go out and see The Iguanas" ... 'cause you keep going over and over.

7. VARIOUS ARTISTS - Resting Place of the Mists: New Valiha and Marovany Music from Madagascar (Shanachie)
The beauty of this album is almost beyond description ... you just have to hear it. The valiha (pronounced va-LEE) is perhaps the signature national instrument of Madagascar -- a 3 - 4 foot long bamboo tube, with strings around its circumference. Its sound is like a harp and a kora and a mandolin all rolled into one, but even that description doesn't cut it. There are solo valiha players here, al the way up to a valiha orchestra, and it's all fantastic stuff. Malagasy traditional music is the most unique in all of African music, and you owe it to yourself to seek out and find it. All the great releases of the past few years on Shanachie make it much easier than it used to be, so go for it.
(tie) RICHARD THOMPSON - You? Me? Us? (Capitol)
Richard Thompson's songs are like old friends, even when new; after listening to some of the songs on this double CD, I felt as if I had known them for years. There's not much to say about RT that hasn't already been said, so I'll just say ... buy this record.

6. DAVID LINDLEY AND HANI NASER - Playing Even Better: Official Bootleg #2 (Pleemhead)
Also officially a '95 release, but it didn't see the light of my CD player until '96, and since Mr. Dave doesn't deal with big labels anymore, this one's not easy to get unless you get it directly from him at gigs or via mail order, or in a very few selected record shops. Going beyond even his first stunning acoustic duo release with hand percussionist Naser, Lindley's playing just carries you off. He's a master of almost anything with strings, and the predominant instruments here are his collection of Weissenborn slide guitars, made in Hawaii in the '30s, with hollow necks that resonate for days ("These things eat Dobros for LUNCH!", Mr. Dave says). There are mandolins and this Turkish banjo-thing that he plays with a cello bow, and a Malagasy valiha tune transcribed onto the bouzouki, and Mr. Dave's wicked humor going through it all -- what do you expect from a guy who records Friz Fuller songs and starts this album with a song called "Jimmy Hoffa Memorial Building Blues"?

You're going to have a hard time finding this, so send Mr. Dave $17 (make the check or money order out to him) and he'll send you a CD -- Pleemhead Action Central, P. O. Box 1342, Claremont, CA 91711-1342. Tel (909) 625-7999.

5. HORACE TRAHAN - Ossun Blues (Swallow)
Horace Trahan made this record when he was 18 years old, and on it he sounds like a 60-year-old man. In traditional Cajun music, there is hardly higher praise. This is Cajun music in its purest form, in a style directly descended from the great Nathan Abshire. Horace also composes new songs that fit right into the tradition, and with musicians like him, the future of Cajun music is assured.

4. WILCO - Being There (Reprise)
Wilco break out of the "insurgent country/No Depression" pigeonhole and stretch themselves quite a bit on this excellent and surprising double CD, while still keeping more than enough of the acoustic and country influence to keep the old fans happy while rounding up new ones. The songs on this album remind us of groups ranging from Rod Stewart and the Faces to the Grateful Dead, even; and many of them take a look at the life of the musician on the road. It didn't take me long to fall in love with this album. Wilco triumphs.

The Top Three

All these albums have been #1 for me, my favorite of the year, at one time or another. The order of the top three could vary at any time according to my mood, and they have. This is how I ranked them when I sat down and thought about putting the list together for my "Best of '96" show on January 5, 1997. The day before or the day after might have produced another ranking. Just do yourself a favor and get them all.

3. ALIAS RON KAVANA - Galway to Graceland (Alias)
I waited for years for Kavana to finally release another album with his band, and the wait was more than worth it. The range of styles is as you would expect from Ron Kavana -- he blends roots music styles effortlessly, and it never sounds contrived. There's an Irish basis to most of it, but you'll find everything from traditional Irish songs and tunes to Cajun tunes, electric blues, rock 'n roll, sweet waltzes, and lots of his great sense of musical humour as well as the lovely cover of Richard Thompson's great song as the title track. Absolutely superb. Read a full review at the above link, which includes mail-ordering information -- it might not be easy to find.

2. BEAU JOCQUE AND THE ZYDECO HI-ROLLERS - Gonna Take You Downtown (Rounder)
When you listen to Beau Jocque's music, particularly when listening to it performed live, you don't know whether to just let your jaw drop, or to just not waste any time doing that and just dancing. He started out as a Boozoo Chavis-influenced new zydeco artists with some great grooves, but like a monster in a '50s sci-fi movie, the groove has grown to monstrous proportions and threatens to take over the world.

This is one of the world's premier dance bands, and it's not the mindless, soulless, electronic thumpathumpa crapola that passes for dance "music" in most dance clubs ... this is the shit, the bomb, the music that makes you have to walk a half-mile or more to Richard's Club when he plays, 'cause you can't get a parking spot any closer. He maintains his links with the tradition by continuing to sing many songs in French, covering traditional and classic songs (while making them thoroughly his own), but his never-ending, mind-boggling grooves are completely unique.

Nobody sounds like Beau Jocque. Good thing ... if there were two of him I don't think I could survive it. But I'd die happy.

1. SOLAS - Solas (Shanachie)
This album, from its first seconds, completely knocked me on my butt. I have not heard an Irish traditional band with this much fire, energy and talent since I first heard The Bothy Band many years ago.

They're all young, cute and hideously talented. It's truly an ensemble -- there's no grandstanding or preeminent member, although its most well-known member is probably the great multi-instrumentalist Séamus Egan, who recorded his first album at 15 after winning all-Ireland championships at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉeireann on four instruments. (I was watching Egan perform at a folk festival a few years back, along with the guy who was giving me Irish flute lessons at the time. He had been playing for years and years, and he was boggling at Egan, comparing him to Matt Molloy even at that age ... after a while, the only comment he could manage was to murmur, "JAYsis, Mary and Joseph!" Egan was 18 at the time.)

The album was produced by Scottish accordion whiz, Celtic music production guru and former Silly Wizard member Phil Cunningham, and I daresay this is the best record he has ever produced. Egan plays no less than eight instruments. Williams is an all-Ireland champion on the accordion and concertina, and guitarist Doyle is a veteran of Egan's days with The Chanting House. The instrumentals threaten to burst your stereo into flames, the slow tunes are achingly beautiful, and the vocals in Irish and English by Karan Casey are "crystalline", a very apt description from Earle Hitchener's liner notes. The sound is fresh and innovative, never stale and repetetive of the styles of previous bands, and they threaten to become the next Irish music supergroup, perhaps as The Bothy Band was in their day. That this band has emerged from America makes it even more amazing.

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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)