It’s been a hell of a year here in the Howdyhouse. Our family’s ongoing struggle with chronic illness crowded deeply into our time to listen and create. Even as other, more typical factors, from overwork to mere maintenance, stole our time, the constant threat of hospitalization imbued every moment with a foundational jitter of instability, leaving us largely exhausted, our poetics and prose abandoned, our thoughts too jumbled for paper or screen.
And so if our presence here on the blog has been sparse and sporadic, it’s because too often, in these rare moments of peace, writing lost out to the need for discourse and deep adjustment as our family tried to rebalance.
And if the new, uncertain normal has changed the pace and persistence of our writing, so has it changed our listening, too.
In an uncertain world, humans tend towards comfort; those of us who use music for its cathartic ability to focus and frame our emotion know well the power of the tried-and-true in times of stress and tribulation. And when the familiar solace of the well-played and well-worn is held stalwart against the threat of sinking into the quicksand of the new, with its high potential to run us aground again through its undiscovered poetry and pain, the new and the noteworthy can too easily pass us by.
To come to the table claiming even the most apologetic ownership of any sort of “best of” collection is hubris, indeed, under such circumstances. But all music is a risk, in the end. And we are shielded, too, in a way, by our practice of listening with the critic’s ear. To identify the potential in music is not to play it into the soul just yet; the critic’s task is not so much jaded as it is Heisenbergian, where the observation of music cushions a little distance from the raw core, just enough to decide whether to let it in.
And so, judiciously, carefully, we have listened, in our grief and gratitude. We have have heard the angels singing, and the devils, as they cross our door. We close the year having heard with our hearts, laid bare against the risk that we might fall into something new and sublime, even as we have missed more than we may have found, and chosen to put aside so many.
And if we have fallen, and risen again, it is because there is joyous music being made, and empathy, and pain. And if there is music anew, then it must be revisited, and celebrated, too.
As we wrote last year,
…the larger context makes [our year's end] sets more needful than ever. For as long as music serves as salve and salvation, then we must also accept that the ongoing search for new artists, new collections, and new transformations is part of the human pilgrimage – and that each new discovery serves the soul both spiritually and medicinally.
In this sense, the annual archival sift that prepares us for our end-of-year pursuit is an inherent part of the journey – a recentering, that helps us revisit and recover tribute albums and cover compilations otherwise too easily lost among the detritus of a life lived in chaos. The mere act of listening closely again, and struggling to identify that which transforms the various parameters each song, album, and collection sets for itself to become something new, and wonderful, is worthy, indeed.
We are humbled by the year of solitude and unsteadiness. We are grateful for the songs that came – in the mail, in the air, and by wire – to comfort us in our year of grief and grasping. We are all the better for it, as always and forever, amen.
Our selections are tinged by our lives, of course – as they should be, ever, if we are to be honest with the world, and ourselves. And so, even the final product stands as another testament to the albums and EPs which stayed with us through thick and thin, made all the more glorious for the rocky path we took to get here,
…because it is borne of personal stress and sorrow, the collection that follows comprises not so much of the albums that stuck through us with the year, but a strange combination of the ones we wish we had time to listen to more often, and the ones which we played incessantly, for weeks upon end, when we most needed comfort in the midst of chaos. More than ever, it is incomplete, subjective, and in some ways, accidental; indeed, for the first time, a significant portion of the albums mentioned below went unblogged in the first place – a testament to our corrupted ability to track the release calendars, and attend to the constant mailbag stream.
And so, once again, we begin our yearly two-part series with our annual album and EP-length end-of-year A-side collection, featuring kudos and links to a very subjective set of the very best cover collections and tributes released in 2014 – a pile of strong contenders for future favorites, each one weighed for its ability to outlast the year and to evoke that which we need of our hearts and our minds.
The usual caveats apply: our categories fit the year, as always, and cover the gamut from kidfolk to traditional, with plenty of indiefolk, singer-songwriter fare, and multi-artist tribute albums in the mix. The line between digital release and CD release has faded to invisibility, driving us away from format-specific consideration; the result is a leaner foray into the wilderness, though a glut of tribute albums and a tendency towards genre blur in the mechanism of collection has us dividing several categories in a hopeless attempt to organize our favorites by type. In acknowledgement of our relative radio silence as we shuttled from store to hospital to workplace in the days and weeks since Thanksgiving, and a reluctant nod to the modern trend to treat holiday music as a discrete genre, we’ve even included a favorite Christmas EP on the list, the better to ensure that we remember them dearly next year.
Overall, though, we’re as proud as ever to present Cover Lay Down’s annual compilation of the Year’s Best Coverfolk Collections: over thirty favorite albums and EPs, arranged into categories much like those which we would use were we in the habit of ranking and rating. Enjoy, click links to purchase and pursue, and be sure to come back in the next few days for our B-side collection of the best one-shot singles and deep cut coverage of the year.
COVER LAY DOWN PRESENTS:
THE YEAR’S BEST TRIBUTES AND COVER COLLECTIONS, 2014
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists, folk/roots):
Dead Man’s Town: a Tribute to Born In The U.S.A.
It was a prolific year for multi-artist tribute albums – a welcome sigh of relief after last year’s relatively light field, and a strong counterweight to the modern tendency towards coverage in singleton and videographic form. In response, we’ve split our usual bread-and-butter category, giving separate consideration to albums targeted towards the folkworld on one hand, and tributes which run a larger gamut, but include ample folk offerings among the mix, on the other.
This divergence serves our purpose; as we’ll see both below and in tomorrow’s list of the best single covers of 2014, some of the best folkiest cuts from tribute albums this year made their presence known alongside grungecovers, alt-rockers, and pop crooners. But with a field this broad, it was also inevitable that we’d encounter a few missteps, and any number of halflings, trying as always to straddle the Adult Contemporary line with a clean mix of folkforms, light pop, and gentle rock, but in the end, leaving us spent and empty.
Sadly, both cases apply to Looking Into You, a long-awaited tribute to Jackson Browne which got a full documentary feature on NPR upon its release early in the year. A sprawling double-disc encompassing a veritable who’s who of artists familiar to the folk-and-more tribute album circuit (among them Marc Cohn, Lyle Lovett, Joan Osborne, and Keb’ Mo’) raised our expectations for this record – and it’s certainly listenable enough, if you like their style. But therein lies our complaint: too many artists on Looking Into You barely check in with a set of easygoing, unhurried coverage that doesn’t so much reinterpret Browne’s potent songbook as merely translate it into the native sounds of these famous artists on a quick and noncommittal dip into the studio. A few exceptions, including a strong country showing from siblings Sean and Sara Watkins and a powerful Great Pretender from Lucinda Williams, keep the record on the shelf – but as is so often the case, we are left waiting for the definitive tribute to a songwriter long overdue for such recognition.
Similar disappointment accompanied the arrival of Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, a Joe Henry produced album which features a set of artists rotating through a shared studio as they revisit Cash’s potent album-length narrative of the Native American people and their plight. The Gillian Welch-led tracks are good, if typical of her slow, syrupy work; the remainder, from Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, and the Milk Carton Kids, are a drag; though others, including Cover Me, have included the album high on their own end of year lists, it says what it needs to, I guess, that I haven’t picked up the album again since its initial release.
But there were triumphs closer to the heart of the folkworld, too. Our dark horse pick of the litter is Dead Man’s Town, a Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA; the album made the blogrounds early, thanks to a stunner of a title track from Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, but the deeper cuts are strong, too, with an alt-countryfolk lineup of Blitzen Trapper, Joe Pug, Low, Justin Townes Earle, Nicole Atkins and more putting their hearts on the line. The songs are transformed and deconstructed, as they should be, and more haunting than not, all without losing the everyman despair of the originals; the resulting set is quite diverse, yet consistent and clean, raw and real, driving and driven, and highly recommended for the alt and no depression folkfan.
Although its origin as a kickstarter reward for a film celebrating the life of early folk revivalist and folklorist Shirley Collins gave it a relatively soft release, Collins tribute Shirley Inspired is absolutely worth the pounds, with generally unknown-to-us tradfolk revivalists turning in spare, almost proto-folk covers of the traditional songbook Shirley carried and reshaped into modernity, revealing along the way a thriving new cachet of artists previously under our radar. Recently featured Chris Smither tribute Link Of Chain comes in high on our list after repeated listening, too, thanks to “a masterful treatment with few low points and little sameness” from Mark Erelli, Jeffrey Foucault, Tim O’Brien, Aoife O’Donovan, Loudon Wainwright III, Mary Gauthier, and other names on the circuit.
And although we struggled with it the first few times we listened to it, The Empress Of The Blues, an all-female Bessie Smith tribute from tribute-driven label Reimagine Music that pairs a broad set of indiefolk voices with a songbook that has stood the test of time, comes in close, with kudos for an unsettling ride through an often unsettling canon. Though a few tracks are jarring (skip Haley Bonar’s screeching hard rock foray into Send Me to The ‘Lectric Chair, and Tim & Adam’s Depeche Mode-era Jelly Roll), the vast majority of the songs here are gorgeous and beautifully broken, fragmented and frequently bare, each one bobbing to the surface as the album winds through its sequence; in the hands of Tift Merritt, Dawn Landes, Jesca Hoop, and other folk favorites, the blues have never been so sharp, so strange, or so humbling.
The Year’s Best Mixed Genre Tribute Album (multiple artists):
I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson
Though disappointment accompanied the arrival of the inevitable few – see above, and don’t get me started on this year’s crop of Dylan tributes – happily, a set of other, stronger halfling also-rans lent compensatory coverage to our lives, each one too alternative, grunge, or elsewise to be counted truly folk, each one nonetheless strong across the genres, and inclusive of a number of songs acoustic, broken down, or otherwise folk by our broad definition.
I Saved Latin!, a tribute to the seminal soundtracks of Wes Anderson films, tops our new mixed-genre category this year, adding a solid chapter to a label founded on using coverage and tribute to tout a familiar, predominantly female stable of artists along the spectrum from punk to folk. Covering a curator rather than a musician is unusual, though it’s not the first time American Laundromat Records has dug into the realm of soundtracks for their tribute fodder, but although Anderson’s film soundtracks (The Royal Tennenbaums, Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom) pull from a vast set of classic rock and pop, they have a common tonality, and as we’ve seen on previous tributes to Neil Young and The Smiths, the label’s curation and solicitation are among the best in the business. In the end, it works: potent cuts from label stalwarts Juliana Hatfield, Sara Lov, William Fitzsimmons, Matt Pond and Kristin Hersh delve into aural atmospheres that, like Anderson’s trademark cinematography, wrap the world in gauze before poking it into your rib cage.
The two-disc Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell collection is strong and subtle, digging deep into the works of a lesser known avant-garde composer, electronic musician, and cellist as it yaws from uptempo indie music to true-blue indiefolk; the artists come from a similarly experimental and iconoclastic slice of the modern music world, and though most take an appropriately mixed-media approach to his catalog, cuts from Jose Gonzalez, Sam Amidon, Sufjan Stevens, Phosphorescent, Glen Hansard and Devendra Banhart reveal just why Russell is worth revisiting from the folkier side. Posthumous Jason Molina tribute Farewell Transmission comes in right on the line, sprawling and heavy with indie and altcountry submissions, and an inner core of rough-cut players paying due and diligent respect to a lost soul. And though a few lesser-known bands on the collection seem less than confident about their choices, This Is The Town: A Tribute to Nilsson, Vol. 1 pays mostly apt and playful homage to the versatility of the songwriter’s songwriter, kicking off with a barrelhouse from Langhorne Slim and a sweet latin lilt from Dawn Landes, moving on to hybrid coverage from Tracy Bonham, Willy Mason, and more.
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist):
Mark Erelli, Milltowns and Joseph Arthur, Lou (tie)
Choosing favorites in the realm of single-artist tribute albums is a far easier task than culling the herd of producer-curated album and artist tributes; the narrowminded pursuit and focus it takes for a single artist to dedicate an entire album to a single peer or predecessor keeps the field lean.
But if the sheer investment required to record a tribute album on one’s own keeps the pool shallow, the same dedication almost always springs from strong emotion, priming the pump for potency. Milltowns, Mark Erelli’s 2014 kickstarter-driven tribute to Bill Morrissey, proves the rule, and why it matters: originally recorded in-home, and adorned and produced later with his friends in the Boston folk scene, the well-chosen collection pays powerful homage to a beloved hard-living Fast Folk-era staple of the singer-songwriter circuit, evoking both the mentorship that Erelli received from Morrissey himself, and the prescience and intimacy that lives on in his songs.
Lou, Joseph Arthur’s posthumous tribute to Lou Reed, is a friend-to-friend affirmation as understated as its name, with slow upright piano and hoarse vocals evoking Reed’s loss and redemptive vision gorgeously. Similar fire, though with a harder edge that befits the former members of The Blasters, fuels Common Ground, a roots rock tribute to early folkblues master Big Bill Broonzy from siblings Dave and Phil Alvin, which got due recognition from critics upon release but seems to have been forgotten in many end-of-year lists. And way on the other end of the folk tradition, on Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, prolific neo-traditionalist and self-proclaimed “professional whistler” Andrew Bird seems more curious about plumbing and making palatable the weird power of the songbook of husband and wife Americana duo The Handsome Family than anything – and he does so quite adeptly and tenderly, though it’s hard to deny the songs he has chosen for the album have power of their own. Taken together, the quartet of albums comprise a survey in influence that proffers better explanation of the folk process and why it matters than we could ever put into words.
The Year’s Best Covers Album (multiple artists):
Decoration Day, Vol. 3
Label-driven cover sets abound in our survey of multi-artist covers albums, as always, with each clustered around a premise that justifies its existence – for what better way to celebrate the world of coverage than by bringing thematic focus to a single set of coverage from a finite set of well-respected craftspersons. But surprisingly, once we skim out those albums which primarily pay tribute to the tradition (see The Year’s Best Traditional Album below), and put aside the multi-genre Wes Anderson tribute mentioned above, the strongest contenders in this category come with a similar genre drift past folk into bordering territory on the genre map – reminding us, if nothing else, that folk is increasingly seen an attitude and style in the marketplace, not some isolated genre to be held close by discrete folk labels or producers.
Kudos and recommendations for the roots set belong to this year’s 20th anniversary stable-covers-stable 2-disc roundup from barroom punk-slash-roots label Bloodshot Records, with Shakey Graves, Samantha Crain, The Handsome Family, Superchunk, and Hiss Golden Messenger covering their favorite songs from the Bloodshot archives; hipsters might prefer Sweetheart 2014, this year’s especially strong Valentine’s Day sampler from Starbucks, which includes a quirky collection of gems from Blake Mills, Fiona Apple, and Beck, plus a Phosphorescent cover previously blogged. Decoration Day, Vol. 3, just a hair too big at 8 tracks to count as an EP, earns our respect and top honors by a nose with tracks that range from honest folk to all-out rootsy soul from Mason Jar Music, the NYC-based label that brought us 2012′s amazing collection of watershed covers in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. And although some of its artists are a bit too twee for our taste, the vast majority of the tracks on The Cover Up, a collection of acoustic pop transformations of recent Top 40 radio covers from a selection of rising stars and amateurs, make the collection worth savoring into 2015 and beyond.
The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist):
Couer de Pirate, Trauma
It was a light year here, too, surprisingly – with most favorites barely folk, though several came in folk enough for our year’s end roundup. And so if the gentle, layered folkpop piano and harmonies strains of Trauma, from Cœur de Pirate, the solo project of singer Béatrice Martin, win the day, it’s primarily because Echolalia, the psychedelic duo project from two members of local heroes Winterpills, is a bit too electric to truly top a folkblog’s list.
But Trauma is no also-ran: released way back in January, the fragile collection, recorded as a soundtrack for last season’s run of a Canadian TV show of the same name, is chilled and perfect for a snowy day inside, turning tracks from Bon Iver, Amy Winehouse, The McGarrigle Sisters, and more into something soft and divine. Runners up honors go to Durham singer-songwriter Jon Shain’s Reupholstered, whose diverse set of covers – a “quirky list” of pop tunes from the last 75 years chosen entirely by producer Jackson Hall – has a rugged beauty of its own: raw, frank, earnest and endearing.
The Year’s Best Covers EP:
Holy Moly & The Crackers, Lilly
Although true-blue tribute EPs were scarce as robins in winter this year, several artists continued the trend of releasing tiny EP-length covers collections. Here, again, the theme drives the game: UK-based hoedown-meets-psychedelic folk band Holy Moly and the Crackers mine the tradition in Lilly, a “re-imagining” of three traditional folk/blues songs that “evokes eras of whiskey and guns on modern punk folk steroids” even as they turn up a more brassy, world-beat Americana than most. And Emily Barker and Red Clay Halo, in a delightful coda recorded especially for Record Store Day in April, come through in spades with Songs Beneath The River, a short, sweet coverset paying quite gentle yet eminently loving tribute to four songs that influenced the creation of their most recent full-length.
The Year’s Best Mostly Covers EP:
Last year, we had enough traditional EPs to watch a category rise and fall; this year, three separate artists released EP-length discs which featured originals and coverage alike, though covers came in as a bare majority, leaving us with a new category: the “mostly covers” set.
All three of the contenders are worthy of repeated listening. Topping our list is one of our favorite young bands of the last few years, local hoot-and-holler Americana quintet Parsonsfield (formerly Poor Old Shine), with Afterparty, a loose and often raucous exploration of a few traditional numbers, a doo-wop deconstruction on Huey Lewis hit The Power Of Love, and catchy sing-along original Anita Loving that captures the cheerful energy of their live shows.
Close runners-up honors go to Stray Birds, a mostly-covers EP from Halifax fave singer-songwriter and frequent Boston folk-scene cross-the-border sidewoman Rose Cousins, who turns to slow moods, slide guitars, and keyboards to great effect on songs from “heroes and friends” Mark Erelli, Lori McKenna, Gordon Lightfoot, Tina Turner, and a pair of her own. And we’re still enamored of the beautiful vocals and strings on the debut self-titled EP from young bluegrass duo Molly Tuttle and John Mailander, who we blogged about last winter after word of mouth drove us to their amazing side stage set at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.
The Year’s Best Traditional Folk Album:
RUNA, Current Affairs
Sam Amdion is always a strong shower in this category; it goes without saying that this year’s release, Lily O, was well-received, and well worth the wait, not hardly because in both sound and songchoice it hews closer to the old than ever, eschewing his popwanderings of previous years to stick firmly to the long-form tradition, filtered through Amidon’s familiar stew of creaky shapenote and oldtimey forms.
But Amidon had plenty of competition in 2014, from all corners of the traditional world. Our favorites include two irish and celtic influenced folk supergroups, The Alt and RUNA, and of all of them, the self-titled album from The Alt is perhaps the most traditional, too, with an evocative songbook of irish fiddle tunes and ancient numbers played out masterfully by veteran virtuosos John Doyle, Eamon O’Leary, and Nuala Kennedy. Meanwhile, our preference for singer-songwriter fare tips our sails towards RUNA’s Current Affairs, which is heavy on traditional numbers (including several right out of the Child Ballads), but with a few songs pulled from a more modern tradition; their glee and respect are apparent in every track, and their transformation of Amos Lee’s Black River into a joyful irish lullaby is nothing short of a miracle.
On this side of the pond, as we predicted in July, Old Crow Medicine Show bandleader Willie Watson’s solo foray into the American folk tradition matches the field, with its “delicate, spare series of covers and traditional songs, stripped down to the raw and intimate essentials of one man, one instrument, and a voice that evokes a hundred years of source material from the blues and folk canons.” And finally, although they’re still an opening act in our favorite folk clubs, we’re quite proud to recommend uber-local tradfolk trio The Ephemeral Stringband, whose sidewalk shows in Amherst and Northampton had my kids enthralled, and whose new 2014 album Land of Rest with fiddler Tatiana Heargraves is a tight, restrained collection of true-blue old-time banjo, guitar, and mando-driven country music and shapenote gospel tunes so true, you can hear the front porch swing in the breeze.
The Year’s Best Kidfolk Album:
Zee Avi, Nightlight
Now that our kids are nine and twelve, respectively, we see less of the kidfolk canon than ever. But two early releases in 2014 nonetheless stick in our memory, justifying the continuation of a longstanding Cover Lay Down tradition that honors the softer sets, recorded with the smaller listener in mind.
Of these, Nightlight, from Zee Avi, is jazzy and dear, a tiny nine-track gem driven by uke and sweet voice, with inspired song choices from Disney to Lou Reed bringing a smoky sound to the darkened room. And although its purity as a covers album narrowly justifies Nightlight’s top-tier status, let us not forget ‘Til The Morning: Lullabies and Songs of Comfort from singer-songwriter mothers Edie Carey and Sarah Sample: the album, which includes a short set of originals alongside soft, duly comforting takes on Wilco’s Guthrie, the Dixie Chicks, Townes Van Zandt, and Peggy Lee, plus a small handful of traditional lullabies, won our hearts, and the Gold Medal from this year’s Parent’s Choice Awards.
The Year’s Best Holiday EP:
Robinson & Rohe, The Longest Winter
Sure, the holidays are over; the new year impends; indeed, we come to you much later than usual this year, with but hours before the calendar turns. But our absence on these pages over the last month gave us little time to celebrate two amazing Christmas releases that may well linger long past the thaw – both of them harbingers of upcoming projects that we dare not forget.
And so we close our look back at the best of the year with a reminiscence of December, and two very special EP-length sets: a five-piece Wintery Songs In Eleventy Part Harmony EP from songwriter/singers and string players Jennifer Kimball, Laura Cortese, Rose Polenzani, Rose Cousins, Valerie Thompson, Jenna Moynihan, and more of our favorite Boston folkscenesters, put forth in a hand-crafted small batch to fund a holiday full-length to come in 2015, and The Longest Winter, a stunner of a set from new discoveries Robinson & Rohe, who we’re proud to announce will grace our own intimate Unity House Concerts stage in Springfield, MA on January 17.
There’s nothing to sample from the first of these, since the CD is truly a fundraiser ($25 nets you both the EP and a guarantee of the future full-length), and most folks won’t buy holiday music after the holiday; as such, I’ve left these off the download, since I know how weird it is to hit Christmas music in the middle of a mix. But with a week to go before the twelfth day of Christmas, and beauty in every carefully arranged note, there’s ample time for one more glass of nog.
(from The Longest Winter, 2014)
Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.
And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of favorite 2014 covers otherwise unblogged.