Tag Archives: best of

Favorites of 2017 – Music / The Fab Five

27 Dec

I wrote in my first post of this series that my list of favorites wasn’t ranked in any order and/or that I can’t really produce the “5, 4, 3, 2, this is my very favorite” kind of list that most year-end “Best of” lists are. That said, after reviewing my listening habits, my purchasing trends, and my iTunes playlists I can say that these five records probably rise to the top as my favorites of 2017. A couple I listed in previous posts:

David Rawlings, Poor David’s Almanack

Valerie June, The Order of Time

Tyminski, Southern Gothic

Dan Tyminski is best known as the leader of Union Station, Alison Krauss’ band. He’s released solo records before, but Southern Gothic is something different. For an accomplished bluegrass picker, these songs rock. They’re also the kind of songs with catchy tunes that make you not really hear the words until the third or fourth listen and then … they go to a whole other place. This record has a lot to say.

Deb Talan, Lucky Girl

Deb Talan started out as a solo artist, making the rounds of the familiar singer-songwriter spots in Boston and throughout New England. Then she met Steve Talan. They would marry, form the greatly popular duo, The Weepies, and start and raise a family. And then, in 2013-2014, Deb was dealt and dealt with breast cancer. During her treatments, Deb and Steve wrote, produced, and promoted the record Sirens (2015). As I imagine happens to anyone after a life-threatening event, Talan says that after a whirlwind couple of years, she was forced to address some issues and feelings that needed to be expressed personally, i.e. as herself, solo, not part of The Weepies. Lucky Girl is the result. I pre-ordered it and, had it actually been an LP and not a digital recording, I’d have worn it straight out during the first week that I owned it.

Aimee Mann, Mental Illness

Okay! Okay! If you pinned me to the floor until I cried “Uncle!” to give you my favorite of the year, I’d cry, “AIMEE MANN!!” Start to finish, this is a magnificent work from an artist that, if you’re a fan, you expect magnificence. Maybe it was my year, but these songs so resonated with me. I bought the digital copy. I bought the LP. I bought the fun activity cards. This record will stick to my “Tops” list for many, many years to come. I’m sure of it.

So that’s it for my year, in terms of music. I’ll think about books and television next. Still got a few days left (and a few days off) before the New Year. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments.

Favorites of 2017 – Music / Those Who Do Not Disappoint

27 Dec

Part 3 of my Favorites list for the year includes artists I know fairly well and who produced records in 2017 that did not disappoint in the least. You can easily like an artist without liking every one of his/her/their offerings. It happens. But when it comes to these recordings, it didn’t happen for me:

Iron & Wine, Beast Epic

Sam Beam can write a beautiful song, filled with sparse melodies and layered lyrics. His 2009 record, Around the Well, is a favorite in my collection. When I first heard Beast Epic, I thought to myself, “This is just as good.” His label, Sub Pop, makes the entire album available via YouTube. 

Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway

Giddens first caught my attention in her work with the fabulous Carolina Chocolate Drops. As a group, they are an American treasure and a very important link to our country’s musical heritage. As a solo artist, her EP Factory Girlher participation in The New Basement Tapes project, and her work on the soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davisall demonstrate her abilities as both collaborator and singular performer. It’s no wonder she’s a recent recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Award. This is a beautiful and essential recording. Give it a careful listen.

Rodney Crowell, Close Ties

An offering from one of America’s finest songwriters and musicians, Rodney Crowell’sClose Ties, is a wonderful, reflective collection of songs from one who knows full well that he has more years behind him than ahead on the horizon. He shares the experiences and feelings of aging with humor, a little melancholy, and just enough “I’m too old to give a damn” to strike a chord with any of us past a certain age – physically, mentally, or emotionally. And of course, he recruits some of him many amazingly talented friends to accompany him through the songs. “It Ain’t Over Yet” is one of my favorite songs of the year. I’ve listened to it many, many, many times.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound

Whether solo, with his band, or with his wife (an artist who can easily stand on her own), Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell stands comfortably among the greatest of our contemporary singer-songwriters. His music is perfect for any Saturday afternoon or any road trip. It’s just got that kind of “sit back and enjoy it” vibe. 

Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters, self-titled

I first became a fan of The Honeycutters a few years back at MerleFest. They were one of those Asheville, NC treasures you find at such events. Amanda Anne Platt has always been the lead voice of the band, but this year’s record placed her fully front-and-center as they opted to rename themselves, Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters. The name change seems to have given the group a boost, putting them back in touch with the groove of their earlier releases. I was personally delighted. 

Rose Cousins, Natural Conclusion

My favorites list rarely coincides with the lists that I read from music critics or others in the music business, but I notice that I’m not alone in putting Rose Cousins on my “Best of” list this year. I’ve been a fan since seeing her open for Mary Chapin Carpenter in Lowell, MA last summer. She was an incredible performer with terrific stage presence. She is no less the songwriter. This record is tops. And by golly … she’s from Prince Edward Island! What’s not to love about that?!

Ruthie Foster, Joy Comes Back

Another necessity for a difficult year, Ruthie Foster’s, Joy Comes Back could not have come at a better time. Her voice! Her incredible guitar playing! Her absolutely beautiful spirit! They all shine through in these songs. If you ever need a lift, see her live. You will feel better. You will!

Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, Not Dark Yet

I’ve followed Allison Moorer over the years more closely than Shelby Lynne, but the sisters together give us that magical harmony that really only comes from siblings. This collection of covers and one original tune will not disappoint for a long time to come. It was a nice gift from the sisters to their fans. 

The Sweetback Sisters, King of Killing Time

It seems like it took forever for this record to be released, but once out it immediately zoomed to the top of my “repeat” list in my iTunes. One of my absolute favorite live acts, if you live in New England and get the chance to see their annual sing-along Christmas show, treat yourself. With King of Killing Time, the gals (and guys) give us the harmonies and swingin’/stompin’/rockin’ music to love. Woohoooo!! 


Two singles that came out this year that received much play in my iTunes came from Bob Schneider (an artist that I have loved, loved, loved forever) and David Myles (another Canadian jewel). I can’t put them in my favorites list, per se, since they didn’t release full albums, but it doesn’t mean that these aren’t worthy of a shout-out.

Bob Schneider, Lake Michigan

David Myles, Night & Day (will be included in 2018 release, Real Love)

Next post … my five favorites of 2017. A couple I’ve already revealed, but the rest are next.



Favorites of 2017 – Music / New Friends

26 Dec

Part 2 of my favorites list features some folks who were new to me in 2017. They aren’t necessarily novices to the music business, but until this year, I either didn’t know of them or I hadn’t listened much. That all changes now, thanks to these excellent entries.

Valerie June, The Order of Time

I looked up Valerie June after reading about her in an article featuring some of the best female guitar players, past and present. I was smitten from the get-go and “Astral Plane” is probably my very favorite song of the year.

Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, Souvenir

For me, there is no better lyric that sums up much of my feeling of the current state of affairs in the world than Holcomb’s“I don’t know about you, but I like to tell the truth. But the truth seems to change every Tuesday.” “Wild World” is a beautiful song of hope and a reminder of the best of people. It’s the core of a special record that makes my list this year.

Justin Townes Earle, Kids in the Street

Despite the fact that he was born into singer-songwriting royalty, I had paid little attention to Justin Townes Earle until Kids in the Street this year. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I queued up this record for my morning commute. “Maybe a Moment” is one of my top 5 songs of the year and I’ll likely be listening to the younger Earle for years to come.

Caroline Spence, Spades & Roses

I discovered Caroline Spence via an article in a magazine highlighting some “up and coming” folks to seek out. I took the writer’s advice and did such, coming away with a new favorite artist, not only a new favorite record. This woman is one blessed with that gift to be able to write songs that speak well beyond her years. Spence fills a void in my listening left by the sabbatical of Kathleen Edwards these past years. I look forward to more from her in the future.

Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up

Crack-Up is a record with more production happening than I usually prefer, but after hearing a local duo cover some of Fleet Foxes’ songs one night – two guys, two guitars, acoustic music with lovely harmonies – I was intrigued and sought out them out. Crack-Up became a favorite for quiet nights at home; the kind of record you used to put on, sit back, and simply listen to.

The Suitcase Junket, Pile Driver

Each year at the music festival, Freshgrass, I come across some new artists who utterly amaze me. Matt Lorenz, aka The Suitcase Junket, was that artist this past year. His website describes him as an “artist, tinkerer, tunesmith, swamp Yankee, and one-man salvage specialist.” I got to see him perform a second time here in my hometown in a small venue that allowed me to sit right up front, taking in … golly, just the dozens of things he can do at one time. Pile Driver is energizing to listen to, particularly with the volume turned up high! 

Rayna Gellert, Workin’s Too Hard

Around Labor Day, I put together a show around the theme of work and working. Searching out some new additions, I stumbled upon Rayna Gellert. Her lyrics, her playing, her haunting voice… I was immediately drawn in. Workin’s Too Hard is a terrific collection of tunes and Gellert easily a new favorite for me.

Offa Rex, The Queen of Hearts

Not new friends, but a new combination, Offa Rex is the combined effort of the band, The Decemberists, and the English folk singer and multi-instrumentalist, Olivia Chaney. Sometimes projects that sound enticing in mind don’t quite become such in reality. Silly! This is NOT one of those. It delivers as expected and makes my list without much thought.

That’s it for this entry of my new friends and favorites. Stay tuned for some more soon, including what is likely – if I’m forced to say – my favorite record of 2017.

Favorites of 2017 – Music / The Meryl Streeps

25 Dec

Woohoo!! It’s that time of year – the time when all of the “Best of…” lists come out. Ever since I was a kid and loved listening to Casey Kasem count down the “Top 100” each New Year’s Eve (I’d studiously write down each song as he played it), I’ve enjoyed finding and reading these lists. I also enjoy making them, so let’s do it! I’ll start with music. Subsequent posts will cover books, binge-worthy television shows, movies, and more. Check back for them.

I host a radio show every-other Thursday night on WCUW, the community radio station here in Worcester, MA. It’s called, “In the Tradition” and features folk, Americana, and singer-songwriter music. These are the genres that I listen to the most and you’ll see that clearly in most of my picks, though there are a few surprises.

This isn’t a countdown. I have too hard of a time picking any one record (or book, or movie, or…) over every other one. I certainly like some more than others, but this list represents the albums that I most enjoyed in 2017. Overall. I’ll make a stab at my 5 favorites along the way, but it’s basically a “no particular order” list.


As sure as Meryl receives an Oscar nod anytime she takes the screen, there are some musicians that I love so much that all they need to do is put out a record on any given year and it will make my list. Rosanne Cash, Gillian Welch, The Beatles, and these folks:

David Rawlings, Poor David’s Almanack 

David Rawlings and Gillian Welch didn’t release a record under the “Gillian Welch” umbrella this year, but gave us another offering with David leading the vocals. It’s an instant classic and an automatic entry on my list. It’s also one of my top five of the year.

Bruce Cockburn, Bone on Bone

An artist that I have followed longer than any other, I couldn’t have been happier to have new songs from him this year. It’s been a tough year and there are few voices better for tough times than Bruce. (The “Canadian Bruce,” in this instance.)

Catie Curtis, While We’re Here

I have had the blessing of sitting under a tent, looking out over the waters of Maine, and writing snippets of songs with Catie. What can I say? She’s a treasure and this collection of very upbeat tunes is another balm for the times.

Slaid Cleaves, Ghost on the Car Radio

My absolute favorite Mainer living in Texas. A year is never complete for me unless I catch Slaid live during one of his tours homeward to New England. An amazing songwriter. One of the best. And his twang and his yodel melt my heart.

Josh Ritter, Gathering

Another fantastic wordsmith, Josh’s latest doesn’t disappoint … though, when does he ever? At least not for me. He paints beautiful images with his songs (and with his prose) and his records often get stuck on auto-repeat on my listening devices.

That’s it for the instant entries. Next up, a few that I listened to over and over and over and over again.

12 Albums of Christmas (Plus 3)

28 Dec

My good friend, Dan McCloskey, has produced a terrific “best of” list of albums for a good number of years now. He does a much better job than I’m about to attempt here, as he offers up his picks a day at a time and gives you a nice overview of why each is a favorite. (Follow Dan at Left Field.)

Me, I’m too lazy for that. In fact, as I tried to make a “best of” list for 2015, I quickly realized how seldom I focus my musical attention on new releases. I tend to either (1) follow the same people for years (thus, if they issued a new record in 2015, it will likely be a favorite of mine), or (2) discover new artists and go back and listen to and/or collect their catalog from whatever years the records came out. Thus, at a loss for making a “best” list, I give to you, instead, a list of records that I purchased this year that were actually released this year. In other words, here are my picks for 2015 music worthy of my hard-earned dollars (in no specific order beyond the list I wrote on a post-it note):


The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, along with a bang-up group of performers,  recorded a selection of songs from the songbook of Stephen Foster, one of America’s most cherished songwriters. I’m not sure how I came across it, but am sure glad that I did. Catch a wonderful video of “Camptown Races” here


My same friend, Dan, introduced me to Kacey Musgraves this year and I became an instant fan. Not only did I grab hold of her 2015 release, Pageant Material, but I also downloaded “Same Trailer, Different Park,” her award-winning release from 2013. Both are just terrific! Enjoy some Biscuits, here


Don’t know the Milk Carton Kids? Shame on you! Amazing songwriters, guitar pickers, and harmonizers. If you’re a fan of a couple of other guys from a few years back, Simon & Garfunkel, or you enjoy the guitar stylings of Dave Rawlings (see below), you’ll like these guys. Monterey is just the latest in a string of wonderful, wonderful records.

Still the King

Without a doubt, one of the highlights of my 2015 was a week in Austin, Texas. I went there for to attend the annual meeting of the Medical Library Association, but stayed several extra days to take in the music. I LOVE Texas swing music and am forever grateful to the band, Asleep at the Wheel, for keeping the music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys alive. They have a regular gig at the Austin airport, but alas, they weren’t playing when I was passing through. One day… Catch Katie Shore and the rest of the band give Wills’ “It’s All Your Fault” a go here

As a bonus, one of my favorite books that I read the past year is Duncan McLean’s, Lone Star Swing. It’s the travel account of a Scot who’s never been outside of his homeland, but loves the music of Bob Wills and when he wins the Somerset Maugham Award for a short story he wrote, he takes his prize money and travels from Orkney, Scotland, to Texas “in search of the extraordinary mix of jazz, blues, country, and mariachi that is Western Swing.” It’s funny and informative at once. I just loved it.

song of the banjo

Not only one of my favorite musicians, but one of my favorite women, Alison Brown is both a virtuoso banjo player and record company founder. I’ve also had the privilege of meeting her a few times and she’s an incredibly approachable, genuine person. Her 2015 release, The Song of the Banjo, on her own, Compass Records, highlights the musicality of the banjo as she puts her own spin on a number of popular tunes. I happened to see her perform in Northampton, MA the day before it was officially released, so my copy is/was literally, hot off the presses! Check out her rendition of Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good,” along with special guest, Jake Shimabukuro, here


Through Jason Isbell, I discovered his talented wife, Amanda Shires, this year. Her latest recording came out in 2013, though. Isbell’s latest came out this year. Like pretty much everything else he’s given us, Something More than Free is a winner. One of our most talented songwriters of today, Isbell continues to provide lyrics of substance that I listen to over and over, pondering all that they mean. The title track is but one example of the good stuff this record brings. 


Perhaps the record I most looked forward to in 2015 was Sirens from The Weepies. It’s not only because I’m a big fan and because it had been 5 years since we’d been given a new release, but because Deb Talen spent 2014 battling cancer. Thankfully, she came through and along with musical partner and husband, Steve Tannen, was able to give their fans Sirens. I have a feeling that the track, No Trouble, is a 3-minute summary of their past couple of years. Here’s to them for a happy and healthy 2016!


If I’m stuck on an island and can only have one person to sing songs to me, Shawn Colvin may well be the one I want. She will forever be a favorite artist of mine. Her 2015 release of covers (like her 1994 offering, Cover Girl) gives listeners the treat of her amazing take on another batch of wonderful songs. Her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s, Tougher Than the Rest, is just one she’s picked.


I discovered The Honeycutters at MerleFest a few years back and have been a fan since. I was happy to stumble upon their 2015 release, me oh my, last spring. The Ashville, NC-based group gives listeners great songwriting and a straightforward Americana sound. It’s good music for driving. All You Ever is one good example. 


Individually or in their many varied incarnations (Nickel Creek, Crooked Still, Sometimes Why), I just absolutely love Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins, and Sarah Jarosz. Their get-together-tour, “I’m With Her,” in 2015 produced a little gem in this EP, Crossing Muddy Waters. Sadly, I missed seeing them perform live and can only wish and hope that their act won’t be a one-shot deal. I can also tell you that my first entry for my 2016 list is Aoife’s forthcoming, In the Magic Hour. It’s out on January 22nd and my copy was pre-ordered months ago.


It had been a few years since I listened to Dar Williams and her 2015 record, Emerald, only made me wonder why. She never lets me down when it comes to giving music with meaning and heart. She’s been at this singer-songwriter life a good while now, but she’s not missed a beat. I was happy to have her grace my iPod in the past year.

Nashville Obsolete

Anyone who knows me knows that I can sing pretty much the entire Gillian Welch catalog. She and Dave Rawlings, when they perform as “Gillian Welch,” are simply right at the top of my record collection. Performing as the Dave Rawlings Machine, they gave us Nashville Obsolete in 2015. I admit that I liked 2009’s, A Friend of A Friend a little better, but when they set the bar as high as they do, “a little less” in comparison is hardly a disappointment. Everything is relative and these two don’t ever miss.


Another who rarely, if ever, misses is Patty Griffin. Servant of Love is a 2015 gift from the gifted songwriter and musician. You’ve gotta love a Mainer and I love Patty. This record is one more addition to her expansive catalog of beautifully-crafted songs. Any year that she releases a record is a year that she’ll appear on my “best of” list. 


Another of my favorite Texans (by way of Michigan) is Bob Schneider. The long-time Austin resident, the prolific (as in “write a new song every day”) singer songwriter gave his fans a trilogy this year in the King Kong Suite. Three releases = hours of Schneider greatness. I love this guy. I just love him. There are few true artists like him giving us music today. Seek him out, if he’s unfamiliar to you. A quick YouTube search will leave you with lots to enjoy.


Okay, okay… yes… THE record of the year is on my list, too. I was way late to the Adele party. In fact, when she won a gazillion Grammies for 21, I asked all of my friends on Facebook, “Who is Adele?!” only to be bombarded with questions asking me in any number of ways what rock I’d been hiding under for the past years. Well, I do know now and I did purchase 25 as soon as it was released, and while “Hello” is the first big hit, it’s  “Send My Love (to Your New Lover)” that plays over and over and over again on my iPod. That song is infectious. 


That’s it. That’s my list. If some artists are new to you, I hope you’ll give them a listen. I also hope you’ll share in the comments some of your favorites from 2015. I surely won’t complain about the year’s offerings. There was plenty of enjoyment for me.

Happy New Year, everyone, and thanks for following along throughout 2015!