First, an explanatory note:
I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2014" because the following list is but one listener's biased opinion. I have culled these from the many good recordings that crossed my CD player this year. I'm sure I forgot to include a few notable recordings. All told, I estimate The Midnight Special received at least 1000 new recordings, and I listened to about 500 new recordings, of which about 250 made it into the WFMT library, and about 150 received airplay. I do not include reissues and most compilations among these favorites. As the cut-off date is November 15, some of the newest recordings will not be considered until next year.
Sometimes the mediocrity just overwhelms me while at other times I marvel at the creativity and talent. There are a mere eight favorites this year. It boiled down to being exceptionally discriminating or a list of 25. I probably could have halved these or doubled the number yet again. There was ample good music, but only these eight grabbed me. While I thought about these choices long and hard for several weeks, if not most of the year, had I made the list a day earlier or a day later it might have been slightly different.
If a good friend visited from out-of-town with only an hour or two to spare, and asked me to play my favorites from 2014, I would play the following. Actually, I have purchased quantities of several of them to give to friends for the holidays.
By way of explanation, I have annotated the CDs on the list, arranged alphabetically.
Vance Gilbert: Bad Dog Buffet Disimye 008
This CD encapsulates Vance Gilbert's genre-bending style from highly original humor to straight-to-the heart sorrow delivered with simple folky to busy pop production. He's all over the musical map with humorous songs about seasonal employment for reindeer, dismantling of marriage among other topics to sensitive songs of love and loss. His wide vocal range and expressiveness covers it all. This is one of his best balanced projects between his zany humor and heartfelt serious ballads. Gilbert entertains, a property missing from many, if not most releases.
Grace Griffith: Passing Through Blix Street 10108
Grace Griffith has suffered from Parkinson's disease for well over a decade. She was at her height of ability and success when confronted with the diagnosis. She refused to fall silent and worked for several years on this aptly named final album. (She lives, but probably will not record again.) Her voice remains as beautiful as ever and she has surrounded herself with talented accompanists. They include: Al Petteway, guitar; Sue Richards, Celtic Harp; Marcy Marxer, guitar, flute, percussion; and background vocals by Cary Creed, Lynn Hollyfield and Jody Marshall. The CD includes three previously unreleased older tracks, and a mesmerizing reprise from an early album of Betsy Rose's "Water, Fire, and Smoke." Griffith shares traditional songs along with compositions by Emmy Lou Harris, Tom Prasada-Rao, Rick Kemp, Julian of Norwich as set to music by Sydney Carter and many others. Some tracks are fully, but gently produced and others leave the beauty of her voice unadorned.
Here I quote her album notes: "Soon after that 2006 (final) concert, Griffith underwent a radical surgery called deep brain stimulation (via implanted electrodes) in hopes of regaining some of her lost abilities and quelling some of the disabling symptoms of Parkinson's. Because this was an experimental procedure, there was potential risk to her voice but in the end it was not affected. She had to be awake for the operation" Marxer recounts, "but the improvement was incredible, because before that she was barely able to walk and talk. It gave Grace her voice back."
Louise Mosrie: Lay It Down Zoe Cat 002
Louise Mosrie may well be the brightest young folk-oriented artist to emerge from Nashville in many a year. On her second release her pure, expressive voice delivers the songs with the perfect balance of expressiveness and direction. Better still, the exquisite, very low key production keeps Mosrie's voice out front and shining. This is Mosrie with a few well chosen, subtle accompanists. A pleasing aspect of this CD is its ideal mix of personal songs and songs outside of Mosrie's own life, such as a song set in the Civil War and one about a young girl leaving home for the larger world in 1920 and coming to grief. In my book, Mosrie's song "Singing My Heart Out" alone is worth buying this CD.
Carrie Newcomer: A Permeable Life Available Light 02
What can I say about Carrie Newcomer that I have not said in past years? That her lovely alto voice would bring glory to singing Google search results making you want to search endlessly? With "A Permeable Life" Newcomer continues her ever deepening spiritual journey of intriguing, moving and enlightening poetic songs. As with her past few CDs, she commands a firm balance between her voice and the accompanying production, creating a textured, sometimes lush bed for her voice. "A Permeable Life" is not merely listening to a CD, it is a passage. However, as she has with recent releases, Newcomer concludes with a rollickingly humorous song about our contemporary world.
Jim Photoglo: Halls of My Heart Grifftone 76481-10205
In a way, Jim Photoglo might be favorably compared as a male Carrie Newcomer. His smooth, engaging tenor voice glides through the mostly reflective and spiritual songs on this CD like a swallow in a spring breeze. There's a pleasing hint of Dan Fogelberg in his style. The songs take on different stages of life and ultimately the joy of life. There are songs for his son, which reflect on Photoglo's relationship with his own father. There's a tribute to America's melting pot of immigrants and a great a cappella song that's a paean to great soul singers. Another attribute is that Photoglo is a very in-demand musician in Nashville and he brilliantly plays a variety of instruments on this CD.
Shelley Posen: Roseberry Road Well Done 04
Shelly Posen maintains a solo career and also is one-third of the superb harmony trio Finest Kind. His delightful sense of humor comes through in half the songs on this recording whether they are about food, one of his favorite topics, camping, or canoeing, which also seems to be a passion. However, his serious songs are powerful and arresting, leaving you contemplating them long after the last note fades. The folk-oriented production is just right for Posen's pleasing voice and he creates a warm sitting-around-the-campfire vibe. When I hear complaints about they don't record folk albums like they 'usta,' I'd hand them Roseberry Road, even though there are no genuine folksongs on the CD.
We're About 9: Future Pilot self 00261-39744
I'd call We're About 9" a metaphysical trio. Just so you're not confused, they really exist as three mortal souls, Brian Gundersdoft, Katie Graybeal and Pat Klink. No one writes ethereally down-to-earth songs like member Gundersdorf, and he wrote nearly all the songs on this CD. Even if ethereally down-to-earth sounds like an oxymoron. They are at once mundane and spiritual, with a twist of clever, subtle humor spun into the thread. For example, a song about a drive from Boston to Baltimore becomes the roadmap of life. The songs are exceptionally poetic propelled by sensuous, intoxicating melodies, performed with equally sensuous harmonies. The voices and songs soar and dart both in sound and topic. The songs take several listenings to fully grasp the intent, but like a very fine wine, once you discover the complexity you'll understand and remember.
And a special mention:
Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures 1949-2013 Harbinger 3002
One rule of "Favorites" for a year is that they be new recordings of new and recent material. This 53-song, two-CD set of a vast array of Harnick's work covers 64 years. Many of the recordings were found in the proverbial closet or on the back shelves of studios. Many are co-writes, some with Harnick's long time songwriting partner Jerry Bock. There are several songs written for "Fiddler on the Roof" but never used in the show. There are recent recordings, such as one by Audra McDonald, along with very early solos by Harnick. You hear his voice solo, in duos and trios, as well as his songs covered by others who have recorded his work. The topics range from humor and satire, to serious and profound. He's the author of the popular The Merry Minuet often heard on The Midnight Special, along with a dozen other whimsical songs. Some of the tracks truly were rescued from oblivion and sound like it, while others are full high fidelity. Very rarely does such a compendium appear of unreleased or obscurely released material of a songwriting genius who can be considered part of the Great American Songbook. Incidentally, 90-year old Harnick continues alive and vital.