Best of 2013

(for KDHX)

This has felt like the official year of “well, it’s about time!” recordings. There seemed to be so many albums from really top flight players who haven’t released anything in, literally, years. In all cases, it was worth the wait.

It’s been ten years since the last O’Brien and Scott studio recording, six since Bruce Molsky’s last project, six since Pete Huttlinger’s last album of original material, five for Daily and Vincent (discounting a Statler’s Brothers tribute and an album of gospel tunes) and four for Claire Lynch. This year also brought the first ever solo project from John Driskell Hopkins, though he’s gained lots of notice as an integral part of the Zac Brown Band.

For fans, all arrived with a sigh and a “what took you so long?” Perhaps it’s emblematic of the state of the music industry that releases are coming fewer and further between these days. (I interviewed  James Alan Shelton this year, and he noted that he’ll probably never release a new album, as there just isn’t enough return to warrant the investment of time and resources.) Still, it felt like Christmas came early a few times this year, both in terms of surprise—who knew that O’Brien and Scott were working on another project?—and also in terms of quality: There were a few albums released this year that, in time, might well prove to be lasting hallmarks of the musicians’ careers, such as the first four on this list.

Noam Pikelny, “Noam Pikelney plays Kenny Baker plays Bill Monroe”
A track-for-track, in sequence recreation of one of the most respected recordings in bluegrass music, one that Kenny Baker released in 1976. Strange? Nope. Brilliant.

Dailey and Vincent, “Brothers of the Highway”
Says Vincent, “We wanted to make an album about the joys of a simple way of life and tell stories through descriptive lyrics about friends, family, and love.” They did, and it it’s there best album to date which, for D&V, is saying something.

Bruce Molsky, “If it ain’t here when I get back”
The freshest old-time music you could ever hope to hear.  This is a very important album, given what Molsky brings to the music but also because of how few albums he releases. Definitely, a big highlight this year.

John Driskell Hopkins and Balsam Range, “Daylight”
A really nice mix from a musician from Zac Brown’s Band. I believe this is his first solo release, and certainly leaves us wanting more.

Della Mae, “This World Oft Can Be”
This album marks a move from the B league to the Majors for what is by any measure an extremely capable group of musicians. It also earned them a Grammy nod this year.

Cindy Woolf, “May”
She is an independent artist that vast swaths of the country will never hear, which is too bad. This album is confident, layered, and heartfelt. It’s funny, too.

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, “Moments and Memories”
Quirky, adept, interesting, intelligent and entirely worthwhile. This album was eagerly awaited, and is one of the best things to come along this year.

Pete Huttlinger, “McGuire’s Landing”
Huttlinger has resided largely in the shadows, with the bulk of his career spent as a session musician (he has even won an Emmy for scoring a PBS special). His health has been an obstacle, and is currently awaiting a heart transplant. It’s a situation that is far more dire than he lets on, yet through it all—his heart condition is genetic and one that he has lived with his entire life—he has still be creating music, all of which comes a place of stark honesty, musicianship, and an awareness of craft. This project literally began when he was in the hospital, vowing to begin work on it when he got up and about. The music is varied, gorgeous, and can stand on it’s own. Still, the project also comes with a long prose piece, a kind of novella, that the pieces illustrate. It’s a release that is truly remarkable in every way.

Claire Lynch, “Dear Sister”
Lynch is a great writer and presenter, though this album includes a line-up that is a draw in itself, including Mark Shatz and Bryan McDowell. Lynch gives them lots of elbow room, and the result is less an album than it is an event. If you haven’t heard it, you’ve really missed something.

Adam Steffey, “New Primitive”
The first track opens with a pop music flourish that you don’t typically find on old time albums. It’s a statement that this isn’t just another album of traditional tunes. Certainly, it isn’t. Steffey looks back in order to look forward. And it’s quite a view.


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