The Mandolin Player and The Americana Corner's
Favorite Recordings of 2016
Last year will be remembered for many things: an unprecedented presidential race, staggering losses among well-known and well-loved famous folks (Merle Haggard and David Bowie hit me particularly hard), and the Chicago Cubs ended their 108 year losing streak to win the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. There were also several fine recordings from newcomers and old-timers alike. The following are some of my favorite recordings from 2016. It’s not meant to be a definitive list, but just the ones I really connected to and plan to revisit on a regular basis. So, in no particular order, here they are.
Sara Watkins – young in all the wrong ways – New West Recordings, NW6351 (Americana)
I’ve enjoyed all of Sara Watkins’s solo efforts, especially her first one, but “young in all the wrong ways” seems like the first to capture Watkins as a mature artist. Her songs walk the fine line between real and sentimental with insightful and poignant lyrics, and all are perfectly orchestrated and performed. Her songs and voice are full of sass with more than a little bit of side-eyed humor. At this point, Watkins has grown beyond her bluegrass-pop roots and has fully embraced her own vision as an artist. This recording is as perfect as anything can be. This is the real deal.
Adam Steffey – Here To Stay – Mountain Home Music Company, MH16622 (Bluegrass
Adam Steffey continues to be my favorite bluegrass mandolin player and Here To Stay only reinforces that position. In revisiting his past, Steffey puts down new versions of a few of his best known songs from his past recordings. To fill out the bluegrass line-up, Steffey brings in Barry Bales on bass, Aaron Ramsey on guitar, Jason Davis and Tina Steffey on banjo, and Ron Stewart on fiddle. This is straight-ahead bluegrass of the highest caliber from one of the greatest mandolin players to ever to pick a tune.
Sarah Jarosz – Undercurrent – Sugar Hill Records, SUG-39109-02 (Americana)
Seems like we have a lot of women singer-songwriters at the top of the Americana game right now: Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins, Sierra Hull, and Sara Jarosz. Undercurrent continues Jarosz’s winning track record, displaying in the best possible way her songwriting skills and her flawless performance sensibilities. For her fans that came to her through the mandolin, it seems like she has left that instrument behind in favor of the octave mandolin, acoustic guitar, and even electric guitar. Still, this is a wonderful recording from one of the best artists working today.
The Gloaming - 2 – Real World Records, CDRW212 (Celtic Modern)
The Gloaming is an Irish-American super group that performs traditional Irish music, but interprets it in a thoroughly modern way. The songs are sung in Gaelic by Iarla Ó Lionárd. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh plays the Hardanger d’Amore, which is a 10-string fiddle with 5 played strings and 5 sympathetic strings. Martin Hayes plays the regular fiddle, Dennis Cahill plays guitar, and Thomas Bartlett plays piano. “2” is a lush and stately recording that elevates the source material into art music. Of course, it could be argued that Irish music doesn’t need such “elevation,” but this album is delivered with such passion that it’s hard to argue with the beautifully haunting results.
Sam Bush – storyman – Sugar Hill Records, SUG000II (Americana/Newgrass)
Sam Bush is back with his mix of bluegrass, newgrass, reggae, and blues with “storyman.” Though more known for his mandolin and fiddle playing, I’ve always liked his singing and this album serves up plenty of all three. It’s energetic, heartfelt, and infectious, in all the best ways. Most of the album tracks are songs while two tracks are instrumentals, which are standouts. “Storyman” doesn’t really push Sam Bush is any new directions, it just serves up what Bush does best, and that’s just fine with me.
Choro Das 3 – Impressions – Macolé, 2016 (Choro)
Choro is one of the delights of the music world. Typically, it’s played at a fast pace and is inherently danceable and upbeat. Choro Das 3 is one the best representations of this musical genre that is playing today. They are also a family endeavor made up of the dad Eduardo Meyer on pandeiro and his three daughters Corina on flutes, Elisa on mandolin, tenor banjo, and clarinet, and Lia on guitars. Everyone is playing at a virtuosic level, but Elisa stands out whenever she solos. She is so fluid and facile that she even excels in the duo style of playing. Impressions is music that makes you smile and I never get tired of listening to it.
The David Grisman Sextet (2016) – Acoustic Disc, ACD-50052 (Dawg Music)
David Grisman’s Quintet made their first album in 1976 and forty years later this is their latest iteration of that landmark group. Not surprisingly, Grisman and his band are still capable of producing beautifully written and rendered music. Each member of the group is a virtuoso and with each solo they break new ground in the acoustic music tradition that Grisman himself created. If you are a fan of the Dawg, this one is a no-brainer.
Eric Brace & Peter Cooper – C&O Canal – Red Beet Records, RBR CD021 (Americana)
East Nashville-based singer-songwriters Eric Brace and Peter Cooper have done many projects together, but this time around they decided to perform another folk’s songs as a tribute to their youths growing up in the Washington, D.C. area and hearing the shows at the Birchmere and other clubs in the 70s. Catching acts like the Seldom Scene, Emmylou Harris, Tony Rice, and the Stanley Brothers provided them their early musical education. The C&O Canal features songs from John Starling of the Seldom Scene who provides the title track, along with songs from Emmylou Harris, Alice Gerrard, and Ralph Stanley, among others. Brace and Cooper take turns singing lead, but real magic happens when their voices blend together. Over the years, these two musicians have created recordings that continue to reward the listener with multiple hearings. C&O Canal is no exception. Brace and Cooper are as good and real as you can find.
Time Connell and Eric Skye – June Apple – Half-Diminished Records (Old Time Fiddle Tunes)
The subtitle of this recording tells the listener what to expect from this album: “Traditional Fiddle Tunes for Mandolin and Guitar.” However, it doesn’t tell you the whole story. Most of these tunes are played at a somewhat slower tempo than which they are usually heard. Connell and Skye don’t play them slow exactly, but they leave plenty of breathing space so you can hear the tune and they can play with the timbre of their instruments. In June Apple, it all about tone for these two players. Both Connell and Skye are known for being one-instrument musicians, you really couldn’t tell that by this recording. Their range of tones seem endless and they make it sound like they have an arsenal of instruments to choose from at any given moment and they make it sound so effortless. Bottom line, June Apple is one of those albums that should be considered a classic recording that deserves to be in everyone’s collection. Along with David Grisman and Tony Rice’s Tone Poems and several of John Reischman’s albums, June Apple will stay close at hand, because I can’t see myself ever getting tired of it. While June Apple’s music is traditional, Tim Connell and Eric Skye make it sound fresh and new at every turn. This is a fantastic recording.