This post is all old news. I started writing it back in December 2013 and am just getting around to posting it. Not only is this a belated 2013 list, but these are all recordings that that were created long before 2013. My hope is that, though it is all old news to much of the world, perhaps some of these artists will be new to you. While I am embarrassed to say that I am late to the party with these acts, many of whom are legends, I am willing to swallow my pride and say, “Hey, check this out!” as if they just performed the Superbowl half-time show.
With every passing year comes a deepening realization of ignorance, and that is no exception when it comes to learning about music – I love finding out how little I know and how much I’ve missed. Each year some of my favorite finds are from years past. For some reason this year, probably because I have had to start working on my own act, I have been focusing on charismatic solo acts, artists who have the ability to hold the room alone on the strength of their own voice and instrumental prowess.
Lead Belly– Lead Belly is someone I knew as one of many names in the blues canon, but had never spent time with. This year I inherited some old vinyls from my father-in-law, which included some Lead Belly collections; I couldn’t stop listening and reading about him. He sings like his life depends on it and often plays his gritty twelve string with a mystifying sense of rhythm. It is no wonder he played his way out of jail twice.
Nina Simone– I had listened to her casually before, but really came to love her when I used “I Put a Spell on You” while teaching The Crucible last fall. I literally did a double take the first time I noticed her mimicking the sax solo with her own voice (just after minute 1:40). The breakdown in the middle of “Sinnerman” was what finally took me by the collar and said, “Listen up!” I’ve found that her best recordings are live. She had the whole package as a virtuoso jazz pianist and vocal improviser worthy of a gospel revival. If you are fan of Simone I would love to hear your recommendations. Now, watch this!
Jerry Reed– I’ve been a fan of Jerry Reed for years, but my appreciation continued to grow in 2013. Self taught guitarist, clever story teller, and soulful, funky country boy. He always seems to play with a wink. Now close your eyes and wield your air guitar alongside “Alabama Wild Man”:
Nellie Mckay– Everything about Mckay is polished, perfect, and sugar sweet. She is a classically trained pianist who writes songs that sound like old showtunes. That’s why it is so surprisingly effective when she sings songs that are subversive and ironic. While that is not the case in “Normal as Blueberry Pie“, which is a re-imagining of Doris Day songs, she somehow still maintains her edge with this collection of classic covers. The arrangements are striking in their simplicity and complexity. I love how she often does so much with so little.
Johnny Flynn– Several years ago I came across Johnny Flynn on Andy Whitman’s music blog, Razing the Bar, and loved what I heard from A Larum, but it wasn’t until this past year that finally I picked up my own copies of A Larum and Been Listening. It would be easy to lump him with his fellow British neo-folkies, but I think he also brings something very different to the table. While Mumford and Sons channel Appalachian Americana and Laura Marling brings back the 70s folk scene (major oversimplification, I know), Flynn’s ballads evoke ancient, saltier, Shakespearean strains of storytelling. Something about his confident baritone says, “Gather ’round” and invites his audience to adventures and tragedies of a distinctly British nature.
Leon Redbone– The most noticeable feature of Leon Redbone’s sound is his inebriated, stumbling through the streets of New Orleans vocals. As you can tell from the artists above, I love voices with character, voices that at least sound like they have lived the stories they are singing even if they haven’t. If contrasting helps, most American Idol finalists would be at the opposite end of that spectrum. Redbone, a master jazz and blues guitar player, is a time machine artist, taking his audience at least a half century or more backwards, giving voice to the long dead, as he does to the minstrel show performer Emmett Miller with his cover of “The Ghost of The St. Louis Blues”. I love the strings on this track. (By the way, you may recognize his voice from the movie Elf, where he played Leon the Snowman, poking fun at Burl Ives’ original snowman narrator from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) .