In Memoriam:   Beau Jocque, Doug Sahm

Once again, I put myself through the annual agony/ritual of trying to pick my favorite albums of the year. The hard part is the ranking; various records have ranked higher and lower all year depending on my mood, and I'll let out a little secret -- I only did numeric rankings to create a false sense of drama on my annual "Best of the Year" radio program (shh). So there you have it. It's silly otherwise, so here I'll list them in alphabetical (or beta-alphical) order.

One of the distinctive aspects of this year's list is that a significant portion of the music therein was made by roots and traditional musicians under the age of 18. Hearing these stupendously talented young people making all this great music is thrilling, and assures me that traditional music's future is assured.

As usual, cheating is the name of the game. There were ties, and I don't even bother trying to call it a "Top Ten" anymore. The listing is usually 15 even without the ties (three this year), plus the usual huge pile of honorable mentions. And as usual, you can consider the "top three" being a tie for my favorite, the next batch being a tie for my second favorite, and the honorable mentions being a tie for my third favorite records of the year.

Due to time limitations at the moment, with the holiday frenzy of both Christmas and New Year's upon me, I'm only going to be posting the first two batches so far. I won't have time for the honorable mentions and reissues until next week or so -- please bear with me.

If you like, you can also check out last year's Best of 1998, the Best of 1997, Best of 1996 and the Best of 1995 listings as well.

[] Y'all know that I support independent local record stores, so I recommend that you shop for them there.

However ... if you can't find any of 'em there (or are too lazy to go), get 'em here. We've made it easy for you to buy all these CDs online, through You get to buy 'em easily, online, right here, at a savings of up to 30%. Not too bad of a deal. And to make it even better, if you get 'em here the proceeds help keep this web site going.

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, and now some of the samples are in MP3 format as well. Any record not available through will have ordering information and links.

Okay, let's do this...

The Top Three   It's a three-way tie for my favorite, as usual
The usual disclaimers apply ...

These aren't ranked. They're all great. My "favorite of the year" was interchangeable depending on my mood and what day of the week it is.

All of these albums knocked my socks off this year, and at various points during the year I kept saying, "This is my favorite record of the year." Mix 'em up as you please, but do yourself a favor and get them. I list this batch in beta-alphical order.


ANDERS OSBORNE - Living Room (Shanachie)
You'll believe a Swede can funk.

Okay, bad play on the "Superman" blurb, but to listen to this man write, play and sing, you'd never know he was from Uddevalla, Sweden and not a neighborhood deep inside New Orleans. Anders has been living in the Crescent City for more than 10 years now, and between a roots and jazz background (courtesy of his dad) followed by a decade's steeping in the local music scene, he's as native as anyone by now.

Styles on this record move all over the place, from funk-tinged roots rock to full-on funky New Orleans second line to "cosmic" blues, acoustic folk numbers, and even a little twang. He's a soulful singer, strong songwriter (great lyrics), and this record turned out to be resident in my CD player for a bit longer than most this year, making it up into the top three. Go spend some greasy money and funkify your life with some fine listening from a back-door son of New Orleans.
[Buy this record!]

LA BOTTINE SOURIANTE - Rock 'n Reel/Xième (EMI Hemisphere/Mille Pattes)
If you've been listening to the show this year, or listened to me rant in person or online, this isn't much of a surprise.

La Bottine Souriante, who also came in at #1 two years ago for their live album "en spectacle", are described by Dirty Linen magazine as "the best band in the world." Sometimes I don't think they're exaggerating.

When I first heard them about 15 years ago, I described them (and Québecois traditional music) as "Cajun music and Irish music, fused at the molecular-genetic level." It wasn't just a line paraphrased from "The Fly", it was pretty apt, if a bit simplistic. Now, since the addition of their horn section 10 years ago, La Bottine bring in elements of jazz, and everything from flamenco to Finnish music, into their amazing roots mix that I heard described best as "instant happy music".

This record was first released at the very beginning of this year in Canada only as "Xième", or "Tenth", and just a few weeks before the end of '99 it was finally given a long-deserved major label re-release in the U.S., courtesy of EMI's Hemisphere imprint. The album was retitled "Rock 'n Reel" (not a very good title), and the liner notes and song titles have been translated into English, but other than that it's the same record, note for note. (If you wanna be a diehard collector like me, go to Cheap Thrills Music or directly to Mille Pattes and get a copy of the French-only release.) I'm also hoping that this American release, in keeping with their surging popularity in the States, might see them touring more in the coming year.

The French-Canadian song and tune tradition is well-represented here, plus a collaboration with Finnish composer Arto Järvelä and a beautiful new tune composed by their new fiddle player, André Brunet.

I absolutely, absolutely love this record. If La Bottine are appearing anywhere within 100 miles of you in 2000 (which I hope they will), it's worth that drive at least. Hear them. See them.
[Buy this record!]

LUKA BLOOM - Salty Heaven (Shanachie)
Man oh man, was this worth the wait.

I was beginning to tear my hair out, wondering when Luka Bloom would put out a new record; his most recent, Turf, came out in 1994. (Sheesh!). Then, Salty Heaven came out in Ireland early in '99, and I, being the God Emperor of Procrastination, didn't get it until about three weeks before Shanachie released it in this country anyway. (Sheesh!)

They say that good things come to those who wait, and a good thing came of this album. Not a weak song on it; in fact, it's a grand set of music by an artist who's stronger than ever, both within and without. The strong songwriting reaches its pinnace on this record with what is perhaps Luka's magnum opus, a hair-raising, emotionally powerful song called "Forgiveness", which should be the anthem of the peace and reconciliation movements in the north of Ireland. As strong as the songs and performances are on the record, as ever Luka is best seen in concert, just himself and his guitars (Rudy and Nora). Don't miss him.
[Buy this record!]

My other favorites of the year   (I gave up trying to call it a "Top Ten")
BATTLEFIELD BAND - Leaving Friday Harbour (Temple)
These guys just don't stop.

The Batties had yet another personnel change last year, losing Alastair Russell and Iain MacDonald and adding Ceolbeg's Davy Steele and Northridge, California-born, Edinburgh-resident piper Mike Katz, and immediately put out a fine album entitled "Rain, Hail or Shine". With all due respect to their extremely talented former members, this may be the best lineup yet. Not long after the new lineup's debut, these busy boys put out this one as well, and it's a winner. It consists mostly of original songs and tunes, with Mike composing some great pipe numbers, and the ever-prolific John McCusker (now a seasoned veteran of the band at the ripe old age of 26) offering a passel of new tunes as well, including the gorgeous title track. Davy Steele's my favorite Scots folk/trad vocalist (in a tie with Andy M. Stewart), and is just as terrific of a songwriter. The last time I heard the Batties play before the record came out, they did a terrific, infectious sing-along called "One More Chorus", which I hoped would be included on their next record. Luckily for us, it was. Alan Reid, their sole remaining founding member, has one original and one traditional song to offer in addition to the band's trademark keyboards (which sound better and better as electronic keyboard technology improves; you'd never think that spiffier technology'd work in a folk band's favor, but it does).
[Buy this record!]

DAVID DOUCET - 1957: Solo Cajun Guitar (Rounder)
The Beausoleil guitarist's second solo album is stripped bare -- guitar, voice and nothing else. This is most certainly not the way you usually hear Cajun music, but David's a pretty unique Cajun musician. His astonishing flatpicking and fingerpicking guitar has been a mainstay of Beausoleil's sound for 25 years (and one of the things that makes their sound so unique), and on this collection he shows you what a talented guitarist he really is. His deep knowledge of Cajun music is what enables him to take melodies usually heard on fiddle and accordion and transpose them to acoustic guitar like no one else could. You'll hear many familiar songs in a completely new light on this record, plus an original or two. If you love acoustic guitar, get this. If you love Cajun music, get this. If you love both ... hoo boy. You'll be well pleased.
[Buy this record!]

Woohoo! Steve Earle realizing his longtime dream of doing an all-original bluegrass album, then getting one of the two best bluegrass bands in the world to back him up? Sounds like heaven on a platter. I've been a big Earle fan for years, and his songs are as great as ever. Del and the band do them justice and then some. Steve has said that the greatest honor he could get for these songs is for them to enter the bluegrass tradition and have other bands to them. Shouldn't be too hard with songs like these. My favorite bluegrass album of the year.
[Buy this record!]

COURTNEY GRANGER - Un Bal Chez Balfa (Rounder)
The Balfa dynasty continues.

Courtney Granger is the great-nephew of Dewey Balfa, and carries on in his great-uncle's fiddle tradition. At the age of 16 he recorded this excellent debut album, and has also become a member of the current musical incarnation of the Balfa family, Balfa Toujours. His fiddle playing, solidly in the Cajun lead and twin fiddle tradition, is superb, and he's a good singer as well. It's people like Courtney, Moïse and Alida who'll keep the tradition alive.
[Buy this record!]

COREY HARRIS - Greens From the Garden (Alligator)
Acoustic blues lives.

Corey's been one of my favorite young acoustic bluesmen for a good while now, and with this album bringing in Caribbean rhythms and cries and New Orleans second-line funk into the mix, he's made the mix irresistable. I loved this record ... and as an extra added bonus, he gives us another new Woody Guthrie song -- "Teabag Blues", for which he wrote music to Woody's lyrics, left over from the "Mermaid Avenue" sessions.
[Buy this record!]

MARTIN HAYES & DENNIS CAHILL - Live in Seattle (Green Linnet)
This live album is a long time coming. As much as I've liked Martin Hayes' studio albums, you just don't truly experience his music until you hear it live. Then he has a tendency to, as Éamonn McCann says, "lift the roof from the place!" (Insert Northern Irish accent as appropriate.)

Martin is from east Clare, where he learned the fiddle from older musicians who played in a very regionally distinctive and very lyrical style; he's almost unique among contemporary Irish fiddlers for playing in this style. Dennis Cahill is a Chicago native, son of immigrants from Kerry, and is perhaps the most perfect guitar accompanist I've ever heard. His playing flawlessly complements Martin's, but he's not just in the background -- he's a stellar musician in his own right. Together these two are a powerhouse, and finally there's a record to give you a taste of what they sound like live. The album's centerpiece is an astonishing 28-plus-minute, 11-tune medley that goes from Irish trad to Pachelbel. See them live if you can.
[Buy this record!]

RON KAVANA & THE ALIAS ACOUSTIC BAND - 1798-1998: Irish Songs of Rebellion, Resistance & Reconciliation (Alias)
As those of you who've followed my radio programs for the last 12 years, you know I'm a big fan of Ron Kavana. This Irish singer/songwriter/multi-instrumtalist from Cork is not only a great traditional player but also is perhaps the best musician I know at fusing Irish music with forms of roots music from around the world, from South Africa to New Orleans. He's also a man of strong conviction and conscience, lending his talents for worthy causes -- he played acoustic shows in town squares in Sarajevo when bombs were falling on the days before and after, and has always been a passionate crusader for justice and believer in peace and reconciliation in the north of Ireland.

A year or so ago, Ron approached several record labels in Ireland with the idea for this project, a massive collection tracing the struggle for Irish freedom over the last two centuries, culminating in the struggle for peace and reconciliation. Nobody seemed interested; "Sure, why would we have any interest in doing that?" they said. "Well, fine," said Ron. "I'll put it out meself, then." He did, and guess what ... it became the Number One bestselling folk recording in Britain for the year.

You'll see why when you hear -- songs, poems, spoken word pieces and tunes from 1798 to the present, performed by Ron and a group of friends he got together and calls the Alias Acoustic Band. A must for fans of Irish music.
[Buy this record!]

LÚNASA - Otherworld (Green Linnet)
Their first album was impressive, and their second (the first released domestically in the States) is even more so. This all-instrumental quartet has amazing energy, and features former members of Sharon Shannon's and Donal Lunny's bands. I missed having songs amidst the tunes (I prefer a mix), but for solid, exciting instrumental Irish traditional music, you can't go wrong with this one.
[Buy this record!]

THE OLD 97s - Fight Songs (Elektra)
The 97s might have lost a little bit of the twang, and they might have gone a bit more radio-friendly, but that didn't stop them from putting out a bunch of (mostly) great songs, and my favorite pop album of the year. I could hardly get "Oppenheimer" and "Indefinitely" out of my head all year.
[Buy this record!]

POPCORN BEHAVIOR - Strangest Dream (Popcorn Behavior)
This is another example of how unfair these stupid numeric best-of lists can be. For two weeks, this record was constantly spinning in CD players at home, at work and in the car, and even threatened to be my favorite of the year for a while.

This record is a "soul brother" to the ones listed below by Moïse and Alida Viator, and Courtney Granger -- it's made by very talented, very young musicians. Popcorn Behavior hail from Brattleboro, Vermont, and made a name for themselves in the northeastern folk and contradance community not long after they formed in 1993. Sam and Stefan Amidon (fiddle and percussion, and aged 17 and 14 respectively) are from a folk music family and have been playing practically since they could walk. Sam's an amazing fiddler who knows traditional music intimately (shining especially on Irish tunes) and Stefan provides the group's backbone on dumbek and other hand percussion instruments. The band's other founding member Thomas Bartlett (also 17) is a pianist and composer of amazing maturity. Sometimes you listen to this record, marvel at its maturity and sophistication and want to scream, "My God, they're just a bunch of kids!" They may be that, but they're also seasoned, sensitive, mature and exciting musicians who keep getting better and better with each recording. For this latest recording, they've also added a new member, singer and guiarist Keith Murphy (the only band member who's out of his teens). Together these guys mix their own wonderful compositions with tunes and influences ranging from Ireland to Panamanian jazz to Astor Piazzolla to Tom Waits to South Africa to the Balkans. They've ventured so far away from the sphere of New England folk and contradance that the mind boggles wondering where they'll go next.

If they're this good at 17, what'll they be like at 21? 25? 30? Egad.

This album is self-released; to the best of my knowledge, it's not available in stores. You can mail-order the CD directly from the group at their web page.

DIRK POWELL - Hand Me Down (Rounder)
We have a year to be thankful for when we get not one, but two great Dirk Powell albums.

This record is a superb mix of old-time and Appalachian songs and tunes, the true American traditional music. Jim Miller (of Donna the Buffalo) handles most of the vocals, with a few gorgeous and haunting songs sung by Ginny Hawker as well. Dirk plays fiddle as well as the old minstrel-style banjo, tuned somewhat lower than modern banjos and typical of the early 19th Century banjo sound. The tunes and songs are fast and slow, using different instruments, with humorous or sad lyrics -- this is NOT an album that "all sounds the same", a frequent criticism from people who simply don't know or understand the music. Get to know this music, and you'll be grateful.
[Buy this record!]

DIRK POWELL, TIM O'BRIEN & JOHN HERRMANN - Songs from the Mountain (Howdy Skies)
The other Dirk Powell album of the year is a set of mostly traditional (with a few originals in the traditional style) fiddle and banjo tunes, songs and hymns referred to either directly or indirectly in Charles Frazier's monumental novel Cold Mountain, set during the Civil War. This was the popular music of the time, and a perfect accompaniment to reading the novel. These are also the perfect people to be doing this -- between Dirk plus "The Sly and Robbie of Old-Time Music" (as Frank Hoppe calls Tim and John), you can't go wrong. (I understand that Anthony Minghella will be doing the film adaptation of the novel; he'd better get these guys to do the music.) Read the book, and listen.
[Buy this record!]

PAUL "LIL BUCK" SINEGAL - The Buck Starts Here (NYNO)
A long-overdue debut from the man whose fiery guitar backed the pulsing zydeco of Clifton Chenier (and later on, Rockin' Dopsie) for many many years. On his debut solo album, produced by Allen Toussaint, he proves that he's a great bluesman, and much more than the world's greatest zydeco guitarist. This one generated phone calls from listeners every time I played it on the air. See why.
[Buy this record!]

HELENA TRIPLETT - Green Are The Woods (West Virginia Commission on the Arts)
At the 1997 Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia, I attended a ballad singing workshop. When the moderator asked if anyone in the workshop had any ballads they wanted to share, a delicately-featured, almost timid young woman stepped forward. She opened her mouth and began to sing ... and we were all transfixed. Some of us were in tears by the time she finished.

We immediately went to talk to her after the workshop ended. Turned out her name was Helena Triplett, and she was not from rural West Virginia, as we had assumed -- she's originally from New Zealand, of all places. She married a young West Virginia fiddler named Jimmy Triplett (of whom we were fans), and they now live in Elkins, W.V. I was hoping to hear her sing again the following year, but there was no ballad workshop offered, and we didn't see or hear her around the subsequent festival. Fortunately, at the '99 Clifftop fest, I saw someone putting an album out for sale that he described as having been released "yesterday". It was Helena's debut, and I grabbed it so fast I think I startled the guy.

This is a stunning collection of mostly unaccompanied ballads, an art form that's in danger of passing into history. Helena assures us that this won't happen as long as she's around. She knows these songs intimately -- their histories, the stories they tell, the nuances of the notes and the power of the words. She's accompanied by her husband Jimmy on fiddle and plays a few fine banjo tunes here and there, but this album is driven by the power of her voice.

The album was produced by the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, and you can order it directly from the artist: 232-1/2 Elm Street, Elkins, WV 26241; telephone (304) 636-3935.

MOÏSE & ALIDA VIATOR - Mo Belle Créole (Acadiana Records)
This record knocked my socks off, and is another reason why making a numerically-ranked list like this can be so egregiously stupid. It is by far the best Cajun/Creole release of the year.

Moïse and Alida are 18 and 15, respectively, and come from a renowned family of violin makers. You'd expect just about everyone in such a family to be musical, but who knew that these kids would come out of nowhere with such prodigious talent? Besides interpreting traditional Cajun and Creole songs beautifully, they write new songs that fit squarely into the tradition, and they sing the hell out of 'em, too.

They even take on a zydeco song by the late Beau Jocque; "Brave kids", I said, when I saw the song listed in the notes. Then I heard it, heard 'em tear it up, and couldn't say much else but "Wow!". But perhaps the biggest "wow" was for what might be my favorite track on the album, a marvelous rendition of the old Creole jazz number "Salut Dame", which I first heard from Papa Don Vappie's Creole Jazz Serenaders in New Orleans. Expect great things from these two in the years to come.
[Order this record from Moïse & Alida!]

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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)