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WFMT's Midnight Special Favorites of 2019


First, the usual explanatory note:

I refrain from calling these "The Best of 2019" because the following list is but one listener's biased opinion. I have culled these from the many good recordings that spun in my CD player this year. I'm sure I forgot to include several notable recordings. They say the CD is waning, yet all told, I estimate The Midnight Special received at least 700 new recordings, and I listened to about 300 new recordings, of which about 200 made it into the WFMT library, and about 130 received airplay. I do not include reissues and most compilations among these favorites. As the cut-off date is November 25, some of the newest recordings will not be considered until next year.

Sometimes the mediocrity of new CD releases completely overwhelms me, while at other times I marvel at the creativity and brilliance. There are a dozen favorites this year. It boiled down to being exceptionally discriminating or a list of 30. I probably could have halved these or doubled the number yet again. There was ample good music, but only these twelve grabbed me at the moment I assembled the "favorites" program. 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. In fact, I went back and forth with several recordings.

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 2019, I would play the following. Actually, I have purchased some of them to give to friends for the holidays.

By way of explanation, I have annotated the CDs on the list, arranged alphabetically.

Kora Feder: In Sevens (self 55491-14409)
Feder is the best young singer-songwriter since the young Anais Mitchell. (Not that I predict Feder will go on to write an award winning Broadway musical.) Feder's songs are diverse from a unique take on her grandfather, to love songs, to one of the best anti-gun songs in years, all skillfully written. She also sings them with passion with her heart in each song. She's the best example of talent from someone in her early twenties.

Gathering Sparks (Eve Goldberg & Jane Lewis): All That's Real (Borealis 259)
The seasoned Canadian duo of Goldberg and Lewis compose great songs individually and together as well as deftly interpreting covers. What stands out about this album beyond its good voices with pleasing harmonies is its positive attitude. In an era of depressing songs there are several uplifting songs about politics and love performed with energy, vitality and sincerity. There's a great deal of depth in the material and performance embodied in this album. While Goldberg and Lewis have been singing together for several years and Gathering Sparks was once a trio, their duo has perfectly jelled with this recording.

Rhiannon Giddens with Franceso Turrisi: There Is No Other (Nonesuch 591336-2)
Everything Giddens touches turns to art. She also never duplicates the same kind of material from one album to the next. Jazz pianist, Turrisi, described as a musical alchemist, adds to the chemistry of this recording. Giddens roves from originals to art songs to pop songs to traditional songs as if each was her native language. Turrisi effortlessly flies with her. Some of her originals, such as "He Will See You Through," co-written with her producer Dirk Powell, could easily pass for traditional. Her rendition of "Trees on the Mountains" by Carisle Floyd is arresting in its starkness, narrative and intensity. Giddens is one of America's great musical treasures.

Dave Gunning: Up Against the Sky (Wee House of Music 91046-29109)
Gunning is one of Canada's under-acclaimed singer-songwriters. An attraction of his work is that he writes outside of himself covering a wide array of topics and emotions. His politics are discrete but unmistakable. Many of the songs on this album are co-written with Jamie Robinson, an able partner. "Beyond the Day," co-written with Paul McKenna, truly carries one past this life with the eternal question. The production is just right for each song which keeps an overall "folk" flavor to the album. Gunning's singing convinces the listener he truly enjoys his craft.

Kelly Hunt: Even the Sparrow (Rare Bird 88295-80054)
Hunt is the sleeper of this list. Her album of original songs sounds traditional, but with just a hint of contemporary seasoning. It's mostly just Hunt with her banjo, but it sounds like so much more in its simplicity. Her songs tend toward the personal, but like many true folksongs, sound more encompassing. Hunt is a first-rate songwriter with highly original, poetic lyrics coupled with melodies that intrigue the ear. If you're looking for a new and different singer-songwriter without a band, Hunt is your person.

Joel Mabus: Time & Truth (Fossil 2710)
Mabus probably has made the "favorites" list as much as or more than any other artist. Perhaps that's because his catholic musical tastes run the spectrum of acoustic music accompanied by solid picking on guitar and banjo and a voice as comfortable as your favorite old shoes. Mabus alternates albums between vocals and instrumentals, as well as originals and covers (or traditional). Time & Truth consists of original songs, yet after scores of years of writing, they don't sound derivative of earlier work. He addressed politics head-on, but more tongue-in-cheek, or with convincing earnestness rather than reckless rant. Thus, "Yes Truth" goes straight to the heart. His deep reflection on mortality (and morality) "When All Famous People Are Forgot" blends personal and universal. Mabus is one of those under-appreciated folk artists who continue growing better with age.

Ellis Paul: The Storyteller's Suitcase (Rosella 88295-89766
Paul takes a lot of shelf space in our library. He's never released a bad album. The Storyteller's Suitcase is his masterpiece. It far supersedes any single previously released album and it will be hard for him to surpass it in the future. The range of song topics truly amazes and he's created a perfect mix between originals, co-writes and covers. Although Paul is a very talented songwriter, he also shows his remarkable taste in covering songs by others. His songs are highly original such as trying to explain death to his daughter in "The Innocence and the Afterlife," and if that doesn't tug your heartstrings nothing will. The title song beautifully sums up his career and the travails of being a traveling songwriter. Each song garners different production just right for its content.

Son of Town Hall (David Berkeley & Ben Parker): The Adventures of Son of Town Hall (self 43563-11803)
There's no explaining Son of Town Hall. It's a concept, as much as a performance, of two gentlemen paddling a raft across the Atlantic, with songs growing out of that endeavor. They provide a large fold-out mythical explanation along with the album, but it does provide some useful context. At the moment male harmony duos are the rage. Berkeley and Parker can match harmonies and angelic vocal quality with the best of them. Their unusual, highly poetic material, with intricate phrasing sets them apart. Listen to the album and you'll find yourself sharing the raft with them as they sail across waters of enchanting melodies, and sometimes unusual tales, such as "The Man with Two Wives."

Amy Speace: Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne Windbone 00219
Like Ellis Paul, Speace can claim many fine previous recordings, but this one, as with Paul, represents her best work. It takes a songwriting genius to couch a song about the perils and heartache of being a touring musician on the road with "the ghost of Charlemagne." It's used most appropriately in the song. Speace's song about "Kindness" should be mandatory for the world to hear. Her "Ginger Ale and Lorna Dunes" takes a very controversial contemporary topic and transforms it into a wrenchingly personal insight. (I should note that it is not necessarily her experience.) Speace's beautiful, expressive voice has never sounded more beautiful or involved with each song. In addition to strictly original compositions, and a cover, she has some great co-writers with other very talented songwriters including Jon Vezner.

The Trials of Cato: Hide and Hair (self 070000-113104)
William Addison, Robin Jones and Tomos Williams originally from North Wales and Yorkshire, coalesced while in Beirut into a talented, highly original trio performing great vocals and instrumentals. They returned to Great Britain to record this album and win a BBC award for it. Thus, there are Welsh songs along with English, as well as a Lebanese inspired tune. Their political songs are spot on and performed with great impact. Although much of their work sounds traditional, it is mostly original or flawlessly interpreted covers. This is great album fusing traditional sound with original material.

Windborne: Recollections / Revolution (Wand’ring Feet 00261-47946)
Including Windborne is a bit of a cheat, since this "new" release is basically a two CD set of a pair of earlier recent releases in new packaging with a new song or two added. With that said, Jeremy Carter-Gordon, Lynn Rowan, Lauren Breunig, and Will Rowan, are a harmony quartet that will thrill you. Unlike many harmony groups, Windborne spans the globe in material. The first CD is mostly traditional and traditional sounding American and Anglo folksongs, while the second CD contains mostly historical, labor and human rights songs, both traditional, original, and covers. Most of their performance tends to be a cappella, but they do play instruments as well, giving the album a nice variety of sound, texture and topic.

Come On Up to the House - Women Sing Waits (Dualtone 2003)
A dozen female artists came together to salute Tom Waits, he of gravel voice and masculine posture. They grandly succeeded. Among the dozen are such notables as Aimee Mann, Shelby Lynn & Allison Moorer, Patty Griffin, Rosanne Cash, and Iris DeMent. They've selecting some of Waits' best material along with some lesser known songs. Cash steals the show with "Time," but Lynn & Moorer hold their own with "Ol' 55," while the lesser known Wild Reeds perform a wonderful version of Wait's tunefully memorable (it quotes "Waltzing Matilda") "Tom Traubert's Blues." It sounds like an entirely different song in female voice. I should note that the record label, Dualtone, sent us a pre-release promotional copy with no background information on the artists or songs and little further information is available on the company's website.