From folk-rock to bluegrass, alt.country to singer-songwriters, here's the best folk CDs of 2007.
Bluegrass singer/songwriter/producer/fiddler extraordinaire (and 20-time Grammy winner) Alison Krauss would probably not be the first person I'd think to team up with Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, but then again, Krauss has become quite the master collaborator. On Raising Sand, the pair delves into both artists' genres, while also experimenting with entirely new ground. T Bone Burnett produces.
After 9/11, Suzanne Vega found herself being asked by journalists to describe what was going on in her native New York City. She had the idea of trying to write some songs about it, and that idea eventually blossomed into an entire album. Beauty and Crime is, for the most part, a tribute to Manhattan. With Vega's trademark intelligent, narrative lyrics and intuitive, experimental accompaniment, she managed to make one the best records of her career. Certainly, it's one of the best of 2007.
For the amount of torch songs, sing-alongable numbers, tight musicianship and that can't-get-those-songs-out-of-your-head quality, Brandi Carlile's sophomore effort, The Story makes this list. This CD is one of the highest on Americana radio rotation, and rightfully so. Carlile and crew have some adventurous, heart-wrenching songwriting skills up their sleeves, and I'm sure they'll come out to shine over the course of what will probably be a fairly lengthy career for this band.
Texas-based singer/songwriter Patty Griffin is quite possibly one of the best songwriters working these days. Her incredible tunes on her latest Children Running Through pays tribute to her inner child, as well as her dog, important lessons learned and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. The songs are haunting and beautiful contemporary classics, and the album is an important addition to contemporary folk music.
Eilen Jewell's blend of rockabilly, country and new acoustic Americana impressed contributor John Matthews so much that he recommended this as one of the best discs of the year so far. Her infectiously lonely vocals paired with a fierce command of genre surfing—jazz, country, rock and folk, to name a few—make Jewell's latest effort Letters From Sinners and Strangers an unmissable disc. As Matthews said, "Every song allows the listener breathing room and a chance to interpret. Eilen, a designated soprano, never overstates her vocals and hangs back enough to let each track flow."
Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin are three supremely talented artists in their own right. Together, however, they form an exquisite band. On their latest effort, self-titled Kane, Welch, Kaplin, the trio, joined by Lucas Kane on drums, delivers an album's worth of exceptional understated Americana. Inspired by folk, country and the blues, Kane, Welch, Kaplin draws out some of the fiercest talents of its members, solidifying their place in the contemporary music scene as more of a solid band.
One of the hottest new bands on the bluegrass scene, the Infamous Stringdusters are somewhat of an all-star line-up. Made up of a bunch of young Nashville stars who have played with folks like Dolly Parton and Tim O'Brien, to name a few, the Stringdusters' debut Fork in the Road is one of the shiningest jamgrass efforts so far this year. Not only do they represent well on disc, though, the Stringdusters are not to be missed in their live shows, where each member takes his turn in the spotlight, bringing the house to its knees.
Boston-based singer/songwriter Erin McKeown has explored numerous genres in her career, including pop, electronic, rock, and traditional folk styles. Her latest effort, Sing You Sinners brought all of those styles together nicely, firmly rooted in the whims of American jazz standards like "Paper Moon." McKeown's arrangements are impeccable, leaving the album full of inimitable interpretations of these great classic tunes.
John Prine is one of America's premier folk singer/songwriters, so when he teamed up with master bluegrass tenor Mac Wiseman for an album of Americana standards ("Saginaw, Michigan," et al), we were admittedly a little skeptical. Nonetheless, of course, Prine and Wiseman turned out an exceptional collection of some classic folk standards. Standard Songs For Average People is an unmissable disc, just as John Prine and Mac Wiseman are unmissable in their arrangements, naturally.
On their latest effort, Get on Board!: Underground Railroad and Civil Rights Freedom Songs, Volume 2, Kim and Reggie Harris sing their way through African-American history, from mourning to celebration. Through classic spirituals, gospel and American folk songs, the Harrises, along with a troupe of guest artsts, pay homage to those who came before them with the utmost respect and reverence. Consequently, their work is impeccable and well worth the fourteen songs included here.
The bottom line is that Canon is DiFranco's best effort to date. The handful of songs that have been re-arranged for her new band (Allison Miller on drums, Todd Sickafoose on bass) are exquisitely well-performed, and purposefully presented. Most shining among them is "Overlap," whose new flavor is easily augmented by the jazz skills of the new band, but also realized in the vocal performance—considerably more expressive in its new environment than the original.
It's been a long time coming for this rock and roll vocalist. Her fans have long been looking forward to the day when Wilson would release her solo album. What's remarkable about this disc is that she chose, her first time out, to record some of the great, influential songs of the 20th century, from artists like Elton John to Led Zeppelin, Lucinda Williams and Bob Dylan.