This year the constant stream of promo CDs was interrupted, so I had to rely on what I could afford to buy to some extent. And since, like most of us, I tend to buy new releases of artists I like, my list is probably weighted accordingly.
1. Chris Thile, How to Grow a Woman from the Ground
This CD doesn’t quite communicate the revolutionary string band music this band is creating—you’ll have to see them live for a full blast of that—but this band is as exciting and genre-busting as the original David Grisman Quintet or JD Crowe’s New South (with Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas). I’m loathe to compare them to the original Blue Grass Boys, Charlie Parker with Dizzy Gillespie, or Hendrix at Monterey Pop, since to do so would throw this paragraph into the hyperbole bin, but the thought has occurred to me. I think you can still almost call this bluegrass, but the interlocking parts are so complex and played with such power and precision, that it’s like no bluegrass you’ve heard before. See this band live and then go home and listen to the CD--closely. What you hear will blow your mind. If it doesn’t, you’re not listening hard enough.
2. Chris Potter, Underground
Chris Potter is probably my favorite instrumentalist at the moment. His apparently inexhaustible store of ideas and flamboyant drive are exhilarating. If I could play a 1/100th of what he’s doing I would be ecstatic. This is a particularly funky example, with an extraordinary band.
3. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife
Folk-art-rock as it should be, with just the right mix of hooks and pretension, and references to trad folksong amid the surrealism.
4. Bill Frisell, Further East/ Further West
A download-only expansion on Frisell’s amazing East/West, which was released in 2005. Frisell is simply the best guitarist in the world. Give him a melody and he’ll think of at least a few hundred ways to play it.
5. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat
I do miss the pop combo aesthetic of Lewis’s band Rilo Kiley, but with this CD Lewis became one of my favorite pop singer-songwriters, with equal weight given to both of those talents.
6. Andrew Hill, Time Lines
Hill’s quintet makes music like the best (unfortunately, rare) conversation, no canned thoughts, everyone listening and contributing—commenting, interrupting, enlarging, digressing. Modern jazz that is truly free.
7. Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Daybreak
I can’t prounounce her name either, but ever since she appeared on Danu’s “The Road Less Traveled” she’s been one of my favorite singers, with a rich, lively, expressive voice and wide-ranging, spot-on choice of material. Unlike a number of traditional Irish singers, when she ventures out of trad waters, she picks great songs, like the Richard Thompson/Tim Finn gem “Persuasion” recorded here.
8. Ralph Towner, Time Line
There is no better solo guitarist on the planet. Towner’s compositions are harmonically rich and melodically surprising, and the fact that he improvises on them in a thematic way is nothing short of astonishing. The continuity and thematic coherence of his music can make it sound a bit new-agey to those who aren’t really paying attention, but as with Thile’s record, close listening will yield rich rewards.
9. Richard Thompson, RT
Just when I thought maybe I had enough Richard Thompson in my collection (ridiculous idea, I know), along comes this box set with 85 amazing tracks I was clearly in need of.
10. The Mammals, Departures
On the band’s third album, old-time and pop influences are perfectly blended to frame Michael Merenda’s political/personal songs.