The Mandolin Player and The Americana Corner's
Best Recordings of 2015
These are my picks for best recordings for this year. Not all of them have mandolin content, but they are all the best I’ve heard. Some are big name acts and some are rather obscure, but all deserve to be heard. It’s an eclectic mix of styles and genres, but that’s totally in keeping with my tastes. Cheers.
10. Mike Marshall & Caterina Lichtenberg • JS Bach • Adventure Music AM1094-2 [classical // mandolins]
Nearly any recording from Mike Marshall is worth hearing and mandolin transcriptions of Bach’s music has been an interest of his since he began recording. Only lately have other folks, such as Chris Thile, started following his lead in this area. In this album Marshall is joined by Caterina Lichtenberg, a classically-trained mandolinist from Europe and now life-partner of Marshall. Lichtenberg plays mandolin here while Marshall plays mandocello. This combination covers nearly the full tonal range of Bach original orchestrations and sounds luscious and layered. There is a spare quality here that is in keeping with the character of the music. I’ve never heard a better classical mandolin album than this and that’s more than enough for it to earn a place on this list.
9. Moonsville Collective • Heavy Howl • Rock Ridge Music RKM2-61429 [Americana // mandolin]
Firmly in the Americana style, Moonsville Collective is a regional string band from Southern California. Featuring seven members that cover the standard bluegrass ensemble with the addition of drums and electric guitars, this album is made entirely of original songs written by the band. This is a high energy album with spot-on performances and soulful lead vocals from Corey Adams. I’m especially intrigued by their mandolin player, Matt McQueen, who breathes a lot of fresh air into his solos. McQueen is someone to watch out for. Sean Kibler also is quite good on fiddle. I’d never heard this band before this year, but I’ve kept their CD close at hand since getting it. A fun and engaging listen, and you can’t ask for more.
8. The Ragpicker String Band • Del Grosso, Flower & Grosswendt • Yellow Dog Records YDR 2242 [blues // mandolin]
Rich Del Grosso is one of the few mandolin players that works in the blues genre these days, mainly playing a resonator National mandolin. Mary Flowers is a blues guitarist, fluent in finger-picked and slide guitar styles. Martin Grosswendt is another fine blues guitarist and singer. Acoustic blues has faded somewhat away from public tastes, but this album makes a good case for its continuing relevance in today’s culture. The songs run from traditional blues songs to new original songs from Del Grosso and Flowers, and more than a few display a wicked sense of humor. The musicianship is first-rate from everybody here. Flowers and Grosswendt are some of the best blues acoustic guitar players working today and Del Grosso frankly has few peers in his admittedly small niche. He particularly excels in his improvised solos, which are inventive and moving, and his singing really hits the mark. This album is a blast to listen to and that’s as simple as I can put it.
7. Peter Cooper • Depot Light: Songs of Eric Taylor • Red Beet Records RBRCD020 [Americana / country]
For many people, Peter Cooper will be a somewhat unknown name, but Depot Light is his seventh album and it is his best. Cooper used to be the senior music writer for The Tennessean in Nashville and now is a writer-editor for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Cooper is also a very fine singer-songwriter, but in Depot Light, he chose to sing the songs of Eric Taylor, another singer-songwriter from Texas whose songs have been covered by Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. Taylor’s songs are unflinchingly honest about life, giving equal time to everyday moments of bliss and to those of loneliness and despair. Cooper’s voice is well-suited to these nuanced explorations of the human condition. I’ve been a fan of Peter Cooper for quite a few years and I’m glad to see this pairing. It’s damn near perfect.
6. The Steel Wheels • Leave Some Things Behind • Big Ring Records BBR-004 [Americana / bluegrass // mandolin]
I know that for many bluegrass fans, it’s the instrumental fireworks that really speaks to them, but for me, there has to be great singing, too, and I’ve always been a fan of four-part harmony singing. So when you get both of these qualities in one band, that’s really special. When it comes to The Steel Wheels, that’s what you get; great playing and fine singing. Trent Wagler handles the lead vocals and every other member is all in when it comes to the performances. Jay Lapp on mandolin and various guitars, Eric Brubaker on fiddle, and Brian Dickel on bass. All four of these guys are fantastic players, but it’s the soulful performances that really nailed it for me. They all play and sing with total conviction. And not only was their album one of the best recordings this year, but their set at Wintergrass in Bellevue, Washington was one of the best live performances I’ve ever heard. A fantastic group and one to watch.
5. 9 Horses • Perfectus Herald • Sunnyside [classical / jazz / folk // mandolin]
Bold, inventive, soulful, effervescent. Perfectus Herald is a stellar recording from a collective of musicians that are worthy of notice. 9 Horses is made up of Joe Brent on 10-string mandolin (made by Brian Dean), Sara Caswell on violin and Hardanger d’amore (a Scandinavian violin with extra resonating drone strings), Shawn Conley on bass, and Ben Wittman on percussion. The music is all original and written by Joe Brent and it flows back and forth touching on classical and jazz and folk and Middle Eastern and many other influences. The closest match in sound and approach might be some of Edgar Meyer’s mixed genre work, but there is an infectious joy here that is all his own. As a mandolin player and composer, Brent is someone special to remember and the same goes for Sara Caswell, whose violin playing straddles the delightful line between classical and jazz. This album is perfect.
4. Jerry Lawson • Just a Mortal Man • Red Beet Records RBR CD019 [R&B]
When it comes to uniquely American music, our country gets credit for inventing jazz, but there are many other musical genres that are just as American in nature. Genres like country, bluegrass, rock ‘n roll, blues, and rhythm and blues are key to our identity as a nation. So listening to Jerry Lawson on Just a Mortal Man is a glimpse into some of these American genres of music and Lawson is a master performer of R&B songs. He sings with utter conviction and raw power that leaves the listener completely in awe. Lawson truly is one of the American greats and this album is unforgettable.
3. Punch Brothers • The Phosphorescent Blues • Nonesuch Records 546377-2 [chambergrass // mandolin]
With a group like the Punch Brothers and a player like Chris Thile, it’s hard to predict when they will reach their apex. Since they are all relatively young and have seemingly limitless potential, how far will they go? How far will they push the boundaries of acoustic music and in what directions will they take it? Despite the incredible musicianship from all the players, this group still feels like it is Chris Thile’s way of trying out new ideas and techniques for the mandolin. But working with a producer like T Bone Burnett is a great way for them to pursue new technical challenges while maximizing the emotional core of their performances. The Phosphorescent Blues is amazing, bold, and heartfelt at the same time, and is one of the best albums so far for this band.
2. Della Mae • Della Mae • Rounder Records 11661-36378-02 [Americana / bluegrass // mandolin]
While keeping the bluegrass ensemble instrumentation intact, Della Mae swings away from a strictly bluegrass repertoire and takes on a more encompassing Americana approach to their songs in their self-titled second album for Rounder Records. This record comes across as more confident, centered, and balanced than their previous efforts, as fine as they were. Celia Woodsmith again shows off her massive vocal chops and the rest of the band really steps up their game. Especially, Jenni Lyn Gardner’s mandolin playing is fabulous. This is music to get excited about and this is a group to pay close attention to. There might be more traditional sounding bluegrass bands out there, but there aren’t any better bands playing today than Della Mae and this album is proof of that.
1. Rhiannon Giddens • Tomorrow Is My Turn • Nonesuch Records 541708-2 [Americana / country / blues / Celtic / etc.]
In her other venue, Rhiannon Giddens sings and plays obscure songs from African American history and culture with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but this is her first solo recording and in Tomorrow Is My Turn, she chose to honor all the past women performers who have inspired her (of course, Dolly Parton is far from “past”). Giddens’ classically trained voice is placed front and center in these songs, and it is a voice for the ages. Giddens alters and colors her voice to fit the song, making each one a perfect rendering. Like the Punch Brothers recording in this list, Giddens’ producer is T Bone Burnett, and it shows in the careful orchestrations and hard-hitting emotions of each track. Rhiannon Giddens’ Tomorrow Is My Turn is my pick for best album of the year.