Dave Soyars' Ten for ‘10

1.         Carolina Chocolate DropsGenuine Negro Jig [Nonesuch]

A lot of folks influenced by the music of the past talk about a living, breathing tradition, but no one else embodies it quite like these young North Carolinans. They’ve long had an affinity for the African-American string-band tradition from which key track Snowden’s Jig emanates (originally appropriated, without credit, from said tradition and advertised via the catch phrase that’s now the sardonic album title). On their new album, though, they’ve also added folk songs of various traditions to their repertoire (singer Rhianna Giddens’ a capella take on the haunting English ballad Reynardine is a jaw-dropper), and, in the case of their wonderful cover of Blu Cantrell’s Hit ‘Em Up Style, a modern R&B song that shows they understand the link between old and new instinctively, with no need to take a novelty approach to prove that music is all linked, and kindred spirits can be found anywhere. The spirit of their music may have been born in the 1920s and 30s, but their take on it is universal. That they have released the best album of the year is a bit of a no-brainer for me, the only question is when is the last time I’ve heard something better? As brand-new recordings go, I have to go back a ways.

2.         Judy CollinsIn My Life [Collector’s Choice]

The only reissue on my list, as it’s such a revelation. You can see my review here, or just trust me and buy yourself a copy. While the rest of the world was electrifying, Ms. Collins managed what is still her most impressive release via her strong roots in the classical music world (via the inventive arrangements by a young Joshua Rifkin), the folk revival from which her popularity sprang, and the musical theater tradition in which many artists of that volatile time were finding a sense of kinship. Above all she was one of the first to take the rather obvious approach of finding the songs that she had an affinity for, then giving the songs, rather than the times, what they demanded. It’s still a staggering achievement in a year (1966) of many.

3.         Isobel Campbell and Mark LaneganHawk [Rounder]

The Nancy and Lee (or Johnny and June without the romantic partnership) of the rocker set may seem a bit of a misfit here, especially considering the aggressiveness of the instrumental and very rocking title track from which I hereby steer traditionalists away. But a growing Americana influence (helped some by Willy Mason, who takes over the male vocals from Lanegan on two songs here), and Lanegan’s voice (with Cash-ian or Cohenish command) should make it of interest to readers. Not to make too much of it, but it also takes a bold swing at the sexism inherent in the assumptions made about mixed duos such as this- Campbell is the producer, arranger and chief writer, and Lanegan primarily the session singer. Not to cheapen his contribution either, as it lends the proceedings a lot of spark, but ex-Belle and Sebastian member Campbell is the architect. And with gentle acoustic guitars pushed against tremeloed electric ones, coloration from cello and soulful backing vocals among other subtle touches, she’s as good as any out there.

4.         Peter Rowan Bluegrass BandLegacy [Compass]

The best record to come from Nashville’s Compass label this year is, for a change, not a Celtic release. Rowan’s been around for years, including singing lead in the Newgrass supergroup Old and in the Way and late 1960s eclectic rockers Seatrain, but this more traditional (musically, anyway) release may be his best yet. It’s not so much the glorious multi-part harmonies, or the guest appearances from the likes of Gillian Welch and Del McCoury, or even the songs, steeped in exploration of the positive and negative sides of familial and community bonds and religious and political zeal, that make this a record unlike any other you’ll hear this or any other year. Rather it’s the combination thereof, along with the bold and direct expression of all sides of the human experience, powerfully rooted in both the past and the present.

5.         Mavis StaplesYou Are Not Alone [Anti]
In a career that stretches over half a century, Staples has rarely strayed from her strengths. Her voice has lost none of its power or solid grounding in both church and secular worlds, or the intensity of feeling that lends itself to a variety of collaboration within an impressive variety of fellow musicians with whom she always manages to form an empathetic relationship. This time it’s Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who to his credit doesn’t self-consciously hippify her, but rather finds the link between her old gospel days and the low-fi roots-rock world that he inhabits. Songs from the gospel tradition, along with several Tweedy originals, plus a glorious version of John Fogerty’s Wrote a Song for Everyone, benefit immensely as a result.

6.         SolasThe Turning Tide [Compass]
It’s surely not faint praise to say Solas, probably the finest American-based Celtic band, is up to more of the same on this new release. Seeing as they long ago took their place as virtuosos in their field, something that even their many personnel changes (leaving fiddler Winifred Horan and multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan as the sole original members) has done nothing to dim. While they are top-flight tunes players, something they show to great effect several times on this release, they have also taken to finding links between the tradition from which they sprang and the best of contemporary songs, which in this case include ones by Josh Ritter, Richard Thompson, and best of all, Bruce Springsteen, whose Ghost of Tom Joad does its (occasionally folkie-leaning himself) composer proud.

7.         BellowheadHedonism [Navigator Records – UK]
Sad that the wildest and maddest of all English folk bands has never really had much of a US audience, and this mostly trad release will probably do nothing to change that. Not quite as good as their last, Matachin, but by no means toned down, this record consists of their usual disembowelings of folk material, performed in a raucous and unrestrained manner complete with folk orchestra and brass band. While many of the tunes, such as New York Girls, Broomfield Hill and the Jacques Brel tune Amsterdam may be familiar, the indelicate arrangements are not, and as always make a glorious noise.

8.         Original Soundtrack - Crazy Heart [New West]
One of the best movies of 2009 is the finest soundtrack album of 2010, with a diverse array of songs including some country hits old and new used as background music, as well as “original” songs by its main character, the likeable but self-destructive Bad Blake. It’s an appropriate tribute to the late Stephen Bruton, whose final songs are found here, and T-Bone Burnett, who is the go-to guy for roots-conscious soundtracking for a reason, but above all to Jeff Bridges, whose justifiably award-winning performance is musical as well as dramatic.

9. and 10.        Johnny FlynnBeen Listening [Thirty Tigers] / Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can [Virgin]
The same West London roots scene which gave us the remarkable commercial success (as well as my #1 of 2009) of Mumford and Sons, has produced two new records from young, immensely talented artists that are still somewhat raw. While neither has yet shown the requisite diversity or vision necessary for a long-term career, they have shown signs that they won’t just rest on their laurels either. Flynn has simultaneously rocked things up and added different orchestral textures to his game, but for the most part the songs are not quite on the same level as 2008s A Larum. Yet there is still no one producing as exciting and organic a combination of American and English roots music and personal exploration.

Marling, on the other hand, while still young and inexperienced (and if her live show of a couple of years ago is any indication, a thoroughly uncomfortable performer) is moving in a more positive musical direction. While there still is a bit of ponderousness and insecurity in her approach, at her best (particularly the haunting, albeit very Dylanesque, The Devil’s Spoke), she is learning how to draw her intensity outward instead of inward.

In short both (as well as Noah and the Whale and the rest of the group of friends, who have toured and played together numerous times in the past few years) are worth keeping an ear to for the proverbial “future developments.”

Dave Soyars is a guitarist, electric bass player, a singer/songwriter, and a print journalist with over fifteen years experience. His column features happenings on the folk and traditional music scene both locally and internationally, with commentary on recordings, as well as live shows, and occasionally films and books. Please feel free to e-mail him at dave@soyars.com