The annual Best Albums of the Year List is one of my favorite to compile. Read on for the recordings I liked the most this year.
The Murphy Beds - The Murphy Beds (self-titled)
This album started off great on first listen and then grew on me from there. It is what it is. Song 1 does the same thing as song 10 and every one in between. It goes to that place. Simple, catchy, beautifully played. Has an album feel. One great song after another all the way through. A comforting vibe, the way it was recorded. A duo: just bouzouki, guitar and two voices in harmony. Sounds like songs the hobbits would write and sing.
Dubl Handi - We Are In the Clouds
Happiness. You can't help but smile when listening to Dubl Handi. Who knew banjo and drum could sound so good together? This album has a little bit of studio production, but it only adds to the fun. This is a fresh take on old favorites. A more creative and less affected angle than other young fogies.
The Stray Birds - The Stray Birds (self-titled)
The Stray Birds have taken flight. Three individually talented musicians who have come together to form a band that is both heavy and light, with great songwriting and an authenticity that is true to the vine. If this debut album is any indication, these guys and girl have a bright future. They sure made a fan out of me this year!
Dan Gurney - Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion
This is one of the most sparse albums on the list. Just button accordion with very subtle piano backing. Patient, relaxed, lasting, masterful treatment of tunes. An incredibly palatable recording - captured in one three-hour, somewhat impromptu studio session in Galway in August 2011. It sounds natural, like what Dan Gurney would be playing whether the record button is pressed or not.
Medeski Martin and Wood - Free Magic
For over 20 years now MMW have been a band in full command of the muse; artists and improvisers with a fluid link between creativity and the chops to pull it off. Groove, lift and flow. This live album captures over an hour's worth of the highlights from a 2007 acoustic tour. It summarizes the essence of the gamut of their sound.
We Banjo 3 - Roots of the Banjo Tree
Where else can you hear a trio of Irish tenor banjo players take on old-time tunes like Liberty, Over the Waterfall, Boatman, Poor Liza Jane, Bill Cheatam, Kitchen Girl, John Brown's March and Lost Indian? And where else can you hear Irish tenor banjo used for chording/rhythm and not just single note melody? There's also some trad, some very catchy songs, and an all around level of musical proficiency that is on par with anything else on this list.
The Hot Seats - Feel
The fully-realized, mature sound of The Hot Seats proper captured for the first time on a full length album. They bring a little bit more umph and obliqueness to these old time traditional tunes than your average overalls and banjos ensemble, plus they sport original songs that everyone from your grandchild to your grandmom can love. The Hot Seats sound like a band that knows what they are doing.
Lilt - Onward
There's something about the sound of flute and cittern in Irish music - a warmth of tone that you can't quite get with other combinations of instruments. This is yet another minimal, duo, trad recording born out of a love for the music with skills honed from many a night spent having some tunes with friends and fellow musicians. It's definitely not flashy, and that is what makes it so appealing.
Bela Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio - Across the Imaginary Divide
Bela Fleck (5-string banjo) joins the Marcus Roberts Trio (piano, bass, drums) for a straight-ahead jazz album that comes off as if it were a quartet that has been playing for years, and not just a virtuoso sitting in with an established band. Bela Fleck and Marcus Roberts each brought in material they had written for this project, but it's impossible to distinguish who wrote what. It swings and that's what's important.
The Dust Busters - Old Man Below
The Dust Busters take their music making very seriously. Like method actors getting into character, they do their best to bring to life rural American folk music of the 1920's and 30's - digging up their material from old 78's and field recordings. Stylistic integrity is paramount to the fiddle tunes, ballads, breakdowns, rags, stringband blues, early country and minstrel songs they interpret on Old Man Below.
Honorable mention: Lisa Hannigan - Passenger, Carla Morrison - Dejenme Llorar, Chicago Reel - Chicago Reel, John Cronin and Daithi Kearney - Midleton Rare, Bigfoot - I've Got a Bulldog, Colm Phelan - Full Circle, Aaron Freeman - Marvelous Clouds, The Froggy Mountain Boys - Route 77.