Top Ten 2009

By Dave Soyars

1. Mumford and Sons - Sigh No More (Universal International)

I tried so hard to find something better than this, but eventually I had to resign myself to seeing this ragtag group of young folkie West Londoners at the top. I saw them earlier this year at the Hotel Café, opening for the holder of my #1 spot for 2008, Johnny Flynn. They were better than Flynn, in fact- more seasoned performers and more comfortable on a stage. People on other continents have told me they're sick to death of the single, Little Lion Man, which they've heard to distraction. There's a good reason for that, mind you- romantic regret, aggressive banjo and a few F-bombs are a perfect, if sideways, recipe for pop success- but I really didn't want what could end up being a novelty one-hit wonder at the top of my list. So I listened to the entire record, figured I'd find a good reason to sink them to a lower spot, or leave them off entirely. I found instead a diverse collection of songs, heavy on the youthful angst but wise enough to know where a bit of traditional riff or rhythm or Pogues-ish intensity might help to serve it. In the end it may not be a great record (we'll see what happens next), but I can't think of a better one. So number one it is.

2. Mick Moloney- If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews (Compass)

The sequel to 2006's wonderful McNally's Row of Flats, this likewise celebrates the growing influence of musical theater in a part of Manhattan that would later become Tin Pan Alley. This time Moloney examines the collaboration between two immigrant groups that helped define New York music in the late 18th and early 19th century. Moloney is an academic, but the musical performances are anything but-joyful and spirited, featuring spirited backing from New York old-timers Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks and the best of a crop of Irish musicians currently residing in the US, including master guitarist John Doyle.

3. Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara - Tell No Lies (Real World)

I'm as wary of these worldbeat/crossover deals as the next guy, but this one's refreshingly free of preciousness about it. Adams has played with Robert Plant and Jah Wobble, among others, and Camara, a virtuoso of the Gambian riti (one-stringed violin) is also an excellent singer and songwriter and not adverse to a bit of cross-cultural jamming. It's the kind of thing Adams does very well, and sits somewhere between Bo Diddley, surf music and the West African tradition without announcing itself in gigantic capital letters like much of this stuff does. And, while it's intense and moving, it's also a great deal of fun.

4. Martin Simpson - True Stories (Topic, dist. by Compass)

Simpson's always been a hell of a guitar player, and has been recording for decades, so it's a bit of a surprise that he's waited so long to make his best record, but he's put it all together nicely for this one. Perhaps it's because Simpson, a sensitive collaborator on other people's records, has concentrated on letting others support the stories he wants to tell. Said stories range from familiar traditional ones, like Sir Patrick Spens to some sensitive originals, some vocal and some instrumental, with accompaniment ranging from none to mini folk orchestra. It all feels like what he was born to do, particularly Will Atkinson, a touching autobiographical song about his childhood introduction to music via the harmonica player of the title.

5. Leonard Cohen - Live in London (Sony)

This is one case where you can call it a comeback. It matters little to me that this live set from halfway around the world is more or less identical to the one I saw months later. Same corny jokes, same band, even, with one or two exceptions, the same songs in the same order. And his voice, never typically "pretty" to begin with, has lost a few notes of range. And yet what other 70+ year old performers are putting on energetic, passionate three hour shows of great song after great song from a catalog unequalled in modern music (and yes, that includes the guy in the number ten slot)? If this is his last tour ever (and it's still going, last I heard), he's going out like a warrior. Words like "triumphant" and "heroic," cliché though they be, are fully appropriate.

6. Buddy and Julie Miller - Written in Chalk (New West Records)

Buddy's another guy that's been around for a while- mainly as a Nashville session guitar whiz- but his appearance on last year's Grammy-winning record by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss gave him the biggest audience he's ever had. He and wife Julie have certainly done the most with the opportunity. I wish Buddy were a great songwriter instead of merely a good one, but that said the sexual tension between Julie's alluring voice and Buddy's world-weary one is undeniable.

7. Tony McManus - The Maker's Mark (Compass)

A record that does something that's never been done before to my knowledge, a collaboration between a guitarist and guitar makers- stunning Scottish guitarist McManus, in a collaboration with Dream Guitars of Ashville, NC plays a series of traditional tunes on guitars made by different guitar makers. A novel idea without being a novelty recording, not just because McManus is a stunning guitar player, but because he's a genius at matching tune to guitar, bringing out the unique qualities in both guitar and song in every case. It's every guitar player's fantasy too, so cheers to him for being the first to make it happen. Hopefully it'll inspire others.

8. Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey - Here and Now (Bar None)

1991's Mavericks was the last time these long-time collaborators (originally in influential power-poppers the DBs) worked together. No, it's not as good as that classic record (few things in life are), but it's similar, albeit a bit more electric and rocking, despite the presence of the lovely acoustic instruments on the cover (which do appear, albeit in a cameo role). Just like the 1960s and 70s recordings of the Everly Brothers, probably their biggest influence, it's rich in great songwriting, harmony, and spirit.

9. Liz Carroll and John Doyle - Double Play (Compass)

No accident that the Compass label appears here several times, either as label or distributor, having basically saved Irish music in the US, between taking over the venerable catalog of Green Linnet, and distributing the best Irish labels to Celtophilic Americans. As usual you can hardly go wrong with any of their traditional Celtic releases, but Liz (born in Chicago) and John (born in Dublin but currently residing in North Carolina) have the year's best, featuring another generous helping of Carroll's original tunes, which have already started to make their way, as they usually do, into Irish pub sessions worldwide, and Doyle's usual stunning guitar playing, which often sounds like it must be two (or even three) guitarists playing at once.

10. Bob Dylan - Together Through Life (Columbia)

No, it's not as sharp as most of his last several, and yes, that Christmas record is as every bit as bad as I thought it would be. But it's nice to hear Dylan, as the only slightly younger Neil Young is now doing, just chalking up his career as having pleased enough people that he can now dedicate the rest of it to doing as he pleases. Can't say he doesn't deserve it. It's a much more fun record than the last few as well, perhaps short on recognitions of mortality or celebrations of the American song catalog, but long on relaxed groove and smoky nightclub feel. And as a bonus David Hidalgo's all over it, so it's the closest we'll get to a Los Lobos record this year.