Best CD's of 2013Best CDs of 2013 Winners

CD Reviews

On this page, you will find reviews of the Best Acoustic CD's of the 1990's.
This is also a little piece of IAP's history

The Indie Acoustic Project began as an effort to give credence to what we thought were the best acoustic CDs of the decade. We gathered the albums, made our selections, and put up a website.

Since then, the Indie Acoustic project has expanded to be a yearly selection of what we consider to be the best CDs of any given year. As such, we ran out of personnel to give detailed reviews- we feel that getting the awards out there is more important.

However, if anyone out there would like to volunteer to write CD reviews of any of the winning CDs, feel free to contact us. As we are an all volunteer organization, we would sure appreciate your help!

jon at indieacoustic.com

Thanks!



The 50 Best Acoustic CDs From 1990-2000: CD Reviews


Alt Rock

1. Nields Gotta Get Over Greta 1996 Razor and Tie. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, harmonica, drums. Gotta Get Over Greta by the Nields is the best hard-driving alt rock release of the decade. With intelligent, quirky lyrics, powerful vocals, a high-energy presentation, and melodies that are contagious and consistently innovative, this disk rocks. Among the best of the bunch are: the title cut (a song about the influence of a childhood friend), Black Dress (a poignant piece about a young woman dating an older married man), the dreamlike All My Pretty Horses, and the folk-pop Bulletproof. Also highly recommended is Play.

2. Rhino 2 Rhino Rhino 2 Rhino 1996 Buyour. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, drums. Among the most interesting rock I've ever heard, Rhino 2 Rhino plays original music that covers a huge swath of stylistic territory from jazz-funk (Beaurigard the Troll) to neo-heavy metal (The Futon Song and The Gospel Truth) to countryish folk rock (Colorado) to reggae-rock (Jeep's Chair) to sea chantey pirate songs (Cap'n Kylbm). This doesn't even count tunes which defy categorization like the truly bizarre Prairie Dog Messiah. In spite of the wide variety of stylistic influences, the CD is nonetheless musically coherent and full of novel themes, unusual arrangements, and catchy tunes. Also recommended is Planeterrarium
.
3. Jason and Alison Woodshed 1994 Whitehouse. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, cello, percussion, drums. Woodshed captures some of the best elements of the Seattle grunge sound--quirky angst-ridden lyrics, catchy pop melodies sung over driving rock rhythms, and unconventional arrangements-while at the same time, developing an extremely appealing sound of its own. The production is simple, generally consisting of Jason Narducy's strong, evocative vocals and acoustic guitar, complimented by cellist Alison Chesley's mysterious, brooding melody lines. Also highly recommended is Whiteout by Jason and Alison's new band Verbow
.
4. Aunt Pat Patoo 1999 IOU. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, keyboards, bagpipes, electric bass, drums. Patoo is an intriguing assortment of songs that are instantly engaging and unforgettable. The group employs a sound that is often reminiscent of Buckingham-Nicks, although each cut is quite different from one another in terms of style and musical texture. For example, Little Brother is a gentle laid-back folk-pop piece, followed by Hard Inside, a piece that has a strong traditional Appalachian feel. Following that is Oscar, an angry, hard-edged electrified rock denunciation of violence in popular culture. In addition to their fine rock tunes, the band's stellar vocal harmonies come shining through on beautiful, hard to categorize pieces like 13th Sign and Gemini. The CD is outstanding, capturing the high-energy performances of the band and its terrific songs.

5. Equation The Lucky Few 2000 Putumayo. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, fiddle, mandolin, keyboards, drums. From start to finish The Lucky Few has a potent driving rock force that, along with Kathryn Roberts' powerful vocals, perfectly underscores the exceptional songs by Sean and Seth Lakeman. Blending together traditional folk instruments (fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar) with electric guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards, the band has created its own captivating alt-rock-folk-pop sound. The songs are memorable, the performances strong, and the disk is outstanding and thoroughly enjoyable.

Celtic

1. Capercaillie Delirium 1991 Green Linnet. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, keyboards, bagpipes, fiddle, percussion, accordion, drums. Masterful musicianship, incredibly beautiful melodies, and the soaring vocals of lead singer Karen Matheson make Delirium the best Celtic CD of the 90s. Whether inspired reworkings of traditional Celtic pieces such as Coisich, a Ruin and Cape Breton Song, or unforgettable originals composition like Servant to the Slave and Rann Na Mona,each song is an outstanding example of Celtic-pop-rock fusion at its best. Also highly recommended are Secret People, Beautiful Wasteland, and Nadurra

2. Wolfstone The Half Tail 1996 Green Linnet. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, bagpipes, fiddle, keyboards, accordion, bouzouki, flute,percussion, whistles, drums. The Half Tail is a fusion of traditional Celtic with modern rock music, combining Celtic melodic sensibilities and instrumentation (bagpipes, penny whistles, fiddle) with a strong rock backbeat. For example, Zeto captures the mournful, mystical feel of the Scottish highlands, then metamorphoses into a thundering minor-key rock piece. From there, it transforms seamlessly into an almost joyful major-key number. On this CD, the changes in mood are as dramatic as a Tarantino flick. For fans of Celtic and rock, this CD puts the best of both worlds onto one disk.

3. Maddy Prior Year 1993 Park. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, Uillean pipes, keyboards, whistles, drums. This release by Steeleye Span member Maddy Prior combines the rhythm and feel of the traditional Celtic with some well thought-out modern innovations. From the lilting a cappella Snowdrops to Twa Corbies, a dark, almost Gothic song performed in the style of Renaissance (the 70s art-rock group, not the era), the music is varied and interesting throughout. Oddly enough, one of the best songs is Deep In The Darkest Night, a beautiful non-Celtic love song written by Rick Kemp, and the only one which doesn't seem to be part of the changing seasons theme of this "concept" CD. While some might be taken aback by the bloody themes of a few of the songs, the disk is nonetheless accessible and engaging. Also recommended is Ravenchild

4. Runrig Live at the Celtic Connections 2000 Ridge. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, keyboards, bagpipes, percussion, accordion, violin,drums. With its reliance on electric guitar, electronic keyboards, and drum kit, it's not surprising that Runrig sounds a lot more like a stadium rock band than a Celtic group. However, Runrig uses its high-energy rock rhythms to good effect, converting the band's original Celtic-influenced melodies into full-blown rock anthems. Protect and Survive, one of the group's more popular pieces, is a powerful number that is at once catchy and hard driving. Live at the Celtic Connections 2000 captures the electricity of band's live performances, highlighting some of their best work

5. David Wilkie Cowboy Celtic 1996 Redhouse. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, acoustic and electric bass, mandolin, keyboards, fiddle, whistles, Uilleann pipes. Cowboy Celtic is an excellent example of the transformation of an interesting intellectual exercise into an artistic success. In this case, what David Wilkie has done is to underscore the musical similarities between North American cowboy music and the traditional Celtic melodies from which cowboy music derived. The result is a highly intriguing and musically appealing blend. The songs flow seamlessly from Scotland to the old West and back again. The Trail to Mexico morphs into In the Tap Room which slides into The Banshee--all sounding as if the songs had been intended as seperate movements in a traditional symphony.

Female Singer-Songwriters

1. Suzi Katz Suzi Katz 1991 ESD. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, mandolin, Dobro, percussion, drums. Strong lyrics, interesting arrangements, and powerful, unforgettable songs make Suzi Katz the best female singer- songwriter of the 90s. The songs on her self-titled CD include several moving pieces that recall ways of life lost to nature, war, and the passage of time (Assay Town and The People); bittersweet reminiscences of love (Ile Aye and Just Like Today); and insightful observations of people living at the fringes of society (Michael and Numbers). Also highly recommended is her 1994 release, Three Day Rain.

2. Lynn Patrick Natural Voice Inside 1994 Dakota Ridge. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, bass. Singer-songwriter Lynn Patrick's debut release, Natural Voice Inside, showcases her wistful vocals, catchy songs, and interesting guitar style that often has an instrumental melody line countering the vocal melody. The arrangements are simple but effective, featuring bass and the occasional lead guitar and harmony vocal as the only accompaniment to her fine singing and acoustic guitar work. Her guileless, genuine lyrics, and appealing melodies help to make this a thoroughly engaging release. Also highly recommended is Patrick's 1998 release, Winnie's Guitar, an excellent all-instrumental CD.

3. Gayla Drake Paul Gayla Drake Paul 1995 Ivanhoe Rd. Music. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, drums. Guitarist, singer-songwriter Gayla Drake Paul has added to the ranks of top-flight independent music with the release of her debut self-titled CD. Combining a nicely varied finger-style guitar approach (mainly in DADGAD tuning) and deep, evocative vocals with interesting and memorable songs, she has produced a fine, cohesive recording. Interestingly, two very noticeable influences that show up throughout the recording are Celtic and Brazilian jazz, which compliment each other perfectly.
4. Kate Campbell Songs From the Levee 1995 Compass. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, mandolin, percussion, keyboards, slide guitar, Dobro, viola, accordion, drums. Aside from being one of the best releases by a female singer-songwriter, Songs From The Levee, is also one of the best examples of modern country music in the 90s. With moving impressionist lyrics about life in the South, melancholy melodies, a powerful voice and production that's solid without being overpowering, Campbell and producer Johnny Pierce have put together a disk that captures the rootsy heart of country music. Better yet, it's also thoughtful and intelligent, which is something that can be said about few if any modern Nashville top-40 country recordings.

5. Melissa Ferrick Freedom 2000 What Are Records. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, drums. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Melissa Ferrick and collaborator/bassist Marika Tjelios have managed to put together an excellent CD that, while featuring just the two of them (plus drum tracks on a few of the cuts), has the musical intensity of a full-blown rock band. Even though all of the intensely personal songs on the disk are about love, longing for love, and love turned to anger and resentment, they have a strong melodic appeal owing to the strength of Ferrick's high-energy guitar playing, emotional vocal delivery, and solid songwriting.

Male Singer-Songwriters

1. Keola Beamer Wooden Boat 1994 Dancing Cat. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, keyboards, flute, drums. Weaving together smooth baritone vocals, masterful traditional guitar performances, and finely crafted original songs, Keola Beamer has created the best CD of the decade by a male singer-songwriter. The disk flows from the upbeat, calypso rhythms of Hemo Da Kope Bean, to the haunting vocals of Where I Hold You, to the eerie Hawaiian flute in Dancers in the Land of Po, all intertwined with Beamer's excellent Hawaiian slack-key guitar performances. Wooden Boat is a highly successful synthesis of traditional and contemporary styles that accentuates the best qualities of each.

2. Iain Matthews The Dark Ride 1994 Watermelon. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, percussion, mandolin, Dobro, drums. The strength of this CD is Iain Matthews' songwriting: Ballad of Gruene Hall--an excellent example of Texas folk-rock that's catchy and nostalgic without being sappy, and For Better or Worse--the compelling story of a woman (Matthews' wife) who overcame an abusive relationship, are just two of the outstanding cuts on the disk. Guest Artist Contact Sara Hickman, Kris McKay and daughter Darcy Matthews each provide fine vocal harmonies, reminiscent of the old Gram Parsons/ Emmylou Harris collaborations.

3. Electric Bonsai Band I Am Joe's Eyes 1990 Yellowtail. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, steel guitar, clarinet, drums. It's not electric, it's not a band, and there's no Bonsai. The Electric Bonsai Band is actually Andrew Ratshin, founder and songwriter of the legendary folk-rock group, Uncle Bonsai. Clever, ironic lyrics that show a keen perception of the human condition, along with interesting arrangements of well-crafted songs highlight this CD. Wheel of Death, a cynical look at the effects of television on American culture, contrasts nicely with the soul-searching introspection of the title cut. Fans of Uncle Bonsai will not be disappointed.

4. Greg Brown The Poet Game 1994 Red House. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, steel guitar, percussion, keyboards, drums. Best known as the longtime songwriter-in-residence for the oppressively cheerful Prairie Home Companion radio show, Greg Brown has produced a CD that contains surprising doses of angst, cynicism, and even bitterness. Nostalgia does manage to find its way into many of the songs--Brand New '64 Dodge for example, but it's tinged with ironic sadness. The Poet Game is crammed with incisive observations, powerful, sometimes disturbing imagery and some of the decade's best lyrics.

5. Eric Bibb Good Stuff 1998 Earthbeat. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, acoustic and electric bass, bouzouki, mandolin, slide guitar, harmonica, keyboards, banjo, drums. Bibb has the touch--writing simple but magnetic songs, backed by his band's solid, straightforward arrangements and sung in a voice that is as smooth as any this side of Robert Cray. Quite a few blues stylings are captured nicely here: Saucer And Cup showcases Bibb's great delta-bluesy guitar picking, All of My Love has a touch of Zydeco, and A Simple Song is a beautiful pop-folky number. From the Chicago blues sound of Nothin Like You Used To, to the Hawaiian-tinged instrumental, Blacksmith Island, the disk is strong from start to finish, and constitutes some of the best blues of the decade. Also highly recommended is Home to Me.

Social Commentary

1. Jez Lowe & the Bad Pennies Parish Notices 1998 Green Linnet. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, acoustic and electric bass, mandolin, bouzouki, hurdy gurdy, accordion, fiddle, saxophone, percussion, whistles, banjo, dulcimer, harmonica, drums. Combining British pub-pop melodies, Celtic folk sensibilities, powerful, biting lyrics, and top-flight musicianship, Jez Lowe has created the decade's best CD of socially conscious music. The first three songs on the disk, Glad Rags Again, Tom-Tom, and Propping illustrate Lowe's ability to incorporate potent social ommentary into beautiful, unrepentantly nostalgic tunes. While Lowe's songs cover a wide range of textures, styles and emotions, they are thoroughly consistent in their high quality. Venerable folk-rocker Richard Thompson calls Lowe "the best songwriter to come out of England in a long time." I agree. Also highly recommended are Jez Lowe's Tenterhooks and Live at the Davey Lamp
.
2. Joel Mabus Promised Land 1994 Fossil. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, fiddle. I'm stepping on the throttle, but I'm still losing power My paychecks come and go just like the chassis on the line The hookers on the street sell their bodies by the hour And I know they like their job about as much as I like mine. --From the song Rivethead Promised Land is an excellent example of progressive populist songwriting that would do Woody Guthrie proud. The songs are simple, heartfelt, and very catchy tributes to ordinary folks, featuring Mabus' vocals accompanied only by his excellent bluesy fingerstyle guitar. Promised Land is a thoughtful portrayal of people's lives in the heartland. Also recommended are Rhyme Schemes and Western Passage
.
3. Leslie Smith These Things Wrapped 1995 Waterbug. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, violin, steel guitar, mandolin, banjo, cello, keyboards, percussion, drums. The songs are profound, the lyrics alternately scathing and compassionate, and the music is exquisite. Smith's soaring vocals forcefully convey the powerful images expressed in the songs. From the potent social commentary of China Cups and Wednesdays Child to the touching Prayers Of Genevieve and Midnight Pirouette to the finely crafted allegory of Boat In A Bottle the lyrics, the melodies, and the music are nothing less than terrific from beginning to end.

4. Annie Humphrey The Heron Smiled 2000 Makoche. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, percussion, keyboards, fiddle, flute, drums. With a vocal delivery reminiscent of Suzanne Vega and songs that alternate between melancholy longing for love and angry denunciations of the treatment and living conditions of Native Americans, Annie Humphrey presents a powerful yet highly appealing CD. The songs, crafted with help from lyricists Carson Gardner, Adrian Liberty, and Anne Dunn, paint vivid portraits of life on the reservation, and the anger, frustration, longing, and sometimes hope felt by people living there.

5. Austin Lounge Lizards Never an Adult Moment 2000 Sugar Hill. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, mandolin, banjo, steel guitar, fiddle, keyboards, accordion, drums. What can you say about a CD containing titles like Forty Years Old and I'm Living in My Mom's Garage, The Illusion Travels by Stock Car (a bizarre take on stock car racing as a deeply intellectual pursuit), and a sarcastic skewering of the American health care system, Rasputin's HMO? Hilarious, insightful (not to mention inciteful), and right on target. Even though the Lizard's main focus is on raucously funny social and political commentary, their musicianship is excellent, most notably on Big Rio Grande River, a perfectly executed parody of traditional cowboy ballads. Also recommended are Small Minds, Highway Cafe of the Damned, Creatures from the Black Saloon, and Employee of the Month.

Instrumental

1. Alison Brown Quartet 1996 Vanguard/Compass. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, banjo, piano, drums. Jazz banjoist Brown has created the best instrumental CD of the nineties by making classical, blues, and jazz passages sound as if the styles were developed specifically for the banjo and masterfully balancing technical prowess with melodic sensitivity. And yes, she even throws in a bit of bluegrass. The disk is nothing short of terrific, blending the various genres into a rich musical tapestry that captures the essence of each while at the same time cultivating entirely new sounds. Quartet has helped to put the much-maligned banjo in danger of gaining acceptance as a "serious" musical instrument.

2. Emory Lester Set Emory Lester Set 1994 Northumberland. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, mandolin, fiddle, keyboards, banjo, drums. The Emory Lester Set is mandolinist Emory Lester's terrific Ontario-based jazz/bluegrass quartet. The group has created a style that blends jazz and bluegrass into an intricate yet completely accessible sound, capturing the best of each while staying true to both. The Set creates innovative and interesting music that takes musical genres to the edges of their frontiers (with some incredible picking thrown in to boot). This CD represents an outstanding example of musical craftsmanship and versatility. Also highly recommended is Pale Rider by Emory Lester.

3. Peppino D'Agostino Venus Over Venice 1995 Mesa/Bluemoon. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, piano, percussion, wood flute, violin, mandolin, drums. While the majority of the Venus Over Venice is focused on guitarist/composer D'Agostino's virtuoso guitar renderings of his melodically appealing compositions, a nice balance is achieved with the inclusion of several pieces that effectively showcase his studio outstanding ensemble (piano, bass, percussion, wood flute, violin and an appearance by mandolinist Mike Marshall). Also included on the disk are a memorable reworking of the 60's classic Walk Away Renee with David Wilcox and Nancy Pettit on vocals, and Ancora un Instante (co-written with Alfredo Morabito), a solo guitar and vocal piece beautifully sung in Italian.

4. Peter Ostroushko Heart of the Heartland 1995 Red House. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, mandolin, fiddle, keyboards, percussion, harmonica, cello. With Heart of the Heartland, composer and Prairie Home refugee Peter Ostroushko has produced an excellent body of music that blends traditional American and European folk styles with classical elements. Though the CD highlights Ostroushko's fiddle and mandolin performances, it is very much a group collaboration, featuring outstanding performances by the band. cellists Sarah Lewis and Cecilia Rossiter. From the Celtic tinged Seattle to the Latin flavored Nicaragua to melancholy pieces such as Dakota Themes and Twilight On The Sangre de Cristos, the tunes are appealing, and although they exhibit a nice variety, form a highly cohesive work.

5. Carolyn Cruso & Robert Almblade Great Blue 1995 Blue Heron. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, hammered dulcimer, flutes, violin, keyboards, harp, percussion. All of the tunes on Great Blue have a strong, brooding Celtic flavor, and showcase the duo's fine understated instrumental work. Cruso's flute and whistle solos perfectly compliment Almblade's hammered dulcimer and guitar rhythms, and do musical justice to the duo's original numbers as well as an excellent interpretation of Doug Berch's Ocean Of Wisdom. Guest musicians Kevin Burke (and others) also turn in some great performances. Also recommended are Transformation, and As Clear a Hue by Carolyn Cruso.

 

World Beat

1. Habib Koite Maya 1999 Putumayo. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, percussion, keyboards, violin, marimba, harmonica, drums. On Maya, Koite's exquisite melodies are sung over signature guitar riffs that are in turn played over a variety of different rhythms and polyrhythms. The result is music that is mysterious, moving, and immediately appealing. The songs are sung primarily in Malian dialect with occasional French and English--and feature layer upon layer of melodies and rhythms (from guitar, keyboards, marimba, bass, violin, and percussion) which combine to form a richly textured mosaic of sound. Each time you listen to this music, you can hear something new. Habib Koite's Maya represents not only the best world beat CD of the decade, but also some of the most interesting music of any type.

2. Tarika D 1999 Green Linnet. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, keyboards, traditional instruments, saxophone, drums. D is a joyful compilation of popular folk-based dance tunes from the group's native Madagascar. The songs, which had originally been released in the 70s and 80s by various musical groups, each represent one of Madagascar's eighteen different ethnic traditions, and often deal with social or political issues. The melodies are very appealing and are nicely accentuated by the group's soaring vocal harmonies. The highly danceable arrangements are also quite intriguing, featuring a very effective combination of western rock instrumentation (guitars, bass, and drums) along with more exotic instruments (tama, marovany, valiha, and kabosy)

3. Lara & Reyes Guitarras Hermanas 1994 S&J/Higher Octave. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, mandolin, ocarina, oud, percussion. Guitarras Hermanas contains a terrific assortment modern guitar music heavily flavored with flamenco and lightly seasoned with Latin jazz. Composers Sergio Lara and Joe Reyes provide not only the hot flamenco guitar licks but also play between them: mandolin, ocarina, oud, and assorted percussion. Although nicely backed by Eric Casillas on timbales and percussion and Greg Norris on bass, the fireworks come from the strong compositions and blazing guitar solos of Lara and Reyes themselves. Also recommended is Two Guitars, One Passion
.
4. Quetzalcoatl Quetzalcoatl 1995 Luna Blanca. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, fiddle, harp,
cuatro, claves, percussion, traditional instruments. This self-titled CD features a wide scope of masterfully performed, brilliantly reworked traditional music from Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico. From the melancholy Amorosa Guajira and La Vaca Mariposa to the raucous El Gusto Federal, the divergent musical textures and ambience of the different traditions come shining through. The beautiful vocal harmonies are complimented by fiddle, harp, cuatro, guitar, bass, and claves, as well as the more exotic quinta huapanguera, jarana, and zapateado (heel percussion).

5. Oscar Lopez Dancing on the Moon Contigo 1994 Redwood Records. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, mandolin, fiddle, percussion, drums. Chilean-born Canadian flamenco guitarist/composer Oscar Lopez traverses the diverse landscape of Latin musical genres and incorporates the melodic essence of each into this impressive musical mosaic. The neo-classical Simple Moments and Guitarras From Heaven contrast nicely with the bossanova touch of Bolero Amor, the haunting Andean sounds of Roots, and the (believe it or not) ragtime feel of Nobody's Perfect. Where the disk really stands out, however, is on the fiery flamenco pieces: Bailando Rumba, Mr. Melody, and Lucia. Lopez' great understated guitar work, substantive melodies and novel rhythmic flourishes help to make this a highly appealing disk for music connoisseurs as well as aspiring guitarists.

Americana

1. Judith Edelman Only Sun 1998 Compass. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, mandolin, fiddle, Dobro, drums. With Only Sun, Judith Edelman has established herself as one of American finest songwriters. These are songs that really sneak up on you--beautiful melodies that serve to reinforce the powerful, bitter truths of the masterfully written lyrics. Every cut is moving, and executed with finesse by Edelman's top-flight band. This disk combines bluegrass instrumentation (guitar, fiddle, dobro, mandolin, bass) with intelligent, memorable songs to create a highly appealing pop- bluegrass hybrid which helps to make Only Sun the best Americana CD of the decade. Also highly recommended are Perfect World and Drama Queen.

2. Paul Kamm & Eleanore MacDonald Game of Dances 1994 Freewheel. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass. Kamm and MacDonald are among the least-known folkies on the scene, and most undeservedly so. Relying almost entirely on a single guitar, soaring vocal harmonies, and the considerable strength of Paul's exquisite melodies, Game of Dances is a work of music that is unforgettable and elegant in its simplicity. The tunes are all truly beautiful and tend to have a lilting, Celtic quality that compliments the mystical imagery of the lyrics. Also highly recommended are Unbroken Chain, Into the Clouds, and Fields of Elysian.

3. Three Twins Trinkets 2000 Sleeping Elephant. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, accordion, keyboards, percussion, drums. Three Twins is the latest name for former Subdudes member John Magnie's excellent new band. Their sound is difficult to pin down--it has the feel of a cross between 50s R&B, 60s soul, and 70s country--spiced up with a touch of New Orleans jazz thrown in for good measure. The songs have a strong pop feel, with the trio singing terrific three part harmonies over the simple but effective backing of guitar, bass, drums, and accordion on these incredibly catchy pieces. In another era, Trinkets would have been played on radio stations coast to coast. Now, the only way to hear these great tunes is either to go to Colorado and catch Three Twins live, or track down the CD on the net.

4. Toni Price Hey 1995 Antone's/Discovery. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, keyboards, mandolin, slide guitar, fiddle, drums. Toni Price's Hey is a terrific combination of Texas country, blues and roots rock, sung with passion and finesse by Price. Most of the tunes were written by Nashville songwriter Gwil Owen, and have a welcome variety of styles and textures. From the outstanding country-ish melodies of Misty Moonlight and Tumbleweed (the best tunes on the disk), to the bluesy title cut, to the down home New York City 23rd Of July, the music is catchy, the performances are strong, and the disk is a great overall work of country-flavored folk rock
.
5. Robert Earl Keen Gringo Honeymoon 1994 Sugar Hill. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, acoustic and electric bass, percussion, fiddle, steel and slide guitar, keyboards, drums. Robert Earl Keen's Gringo Honeymoon is what country music ought to sound like--moody and sometimes melancholy, with heartfelt lyrics. Songs like The Raven and the Coyote and Tom Ames' Prayer evoke images of the Southwest as it once might have been. Others portray much less romantic and more familiar images of Texas: pawning your shotgun to buy an old PA for the big gig, trying to remember how you're related to various kin folk, Mom and Dad drunk at the family Christmas party. The arrangements are tight, the backup musicians (all 17 or so of them) work well together, and the musical styles are varied but cohesive. Also recommended is No Kinda Dancer.

Folk Rock

1. Donna the Buffalo Positive Friction 2000 Sugar Hill. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, fiddle, keyboards, mandolin, drums. Powerful, infectious tunes with insightful socially conscious lyrics, an innovative blend of country, rock, folk, and reggae; plus a solid driving backbeat all conspire to make Positive Friction the best folk-rock CD of the decade. The band's musical diversity works well: although they have achieved their own sound, every song is distinctive and strong in its own right. For example, fiddler Tara Nevins' Yonder, an outstanding country-rocker that puts a new spin on European settlement of North America, contrasts nicely with the reggae-flavored title cut written by guitarist Jeb Puryear, which in turn compliments the Nanci Griffith-esque No Place Like the Right Time. This disk is folk-rock at its best. Also highly recommended is Rockin in the Weary Land
.
2. Druha Trava Starodavny Svet 1994 Venkow/Sugar Hill. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, fiddle, Dobro, saxophone, banjo, acoustic and electric bass, drums. Incorporating just about every conceivable style even remotely related to country roots music, Druha Trava has created an incredibly innovative work that combines virtuoso musicianship with unusual and widely varied arrangements. Some of the songs are bluesy rock ballads, some are bluegrass, some are hybrids--all are outstanding. In addition to standard bluegrass instruments, the group seamlessly blends electric guitar, keyboards, drums and sax into a country-bluegrass-rock amalgam that is as technically adventurous as it is melodically memorable
.
3. Sally Taylor Apt. # 6s 2000 Blue Elbow/What Are Records. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, keyboards, horns, electric bass, drums. Sally Taylor's Apt. # 6s is a folk-rock-pop triumph that stands on equal musical footing with the best music produced by her legendary folk-pop folks, James Taylor and Carly Simon. The disk starts out with a couple of extremely catchy tunes--the enigmatic All This Time and relationship angst-themed Split Decisions--and continues until the end of the disk with one after another of Taylor's accessible, outstanding folk-pop pieces. Backed by a solid rock ensemble (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, harmony vocals, and the occasional horns), the arrangements are simple but effective, highlighting Taylor's great songwriting.

4. Mojo Nixon Sock Ray Blue 1999 Shanachie. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, keyboards, drums. Alt-rock bad boy Mojo Nixon rocks and rants his way through Sock Ray Blue with caustic social commentary and raucous rockabilly rhythms, making this CD at once danceable and outrageously funny. To get an idea of what he's up to, consider the titles of the songs: Disney Is the Enemy, I Don't Want No Cybersex, and Drunk Divorced Floozy (a tribute to Princess Diana). Then consider his lyrics: "If it was a real Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame they'd have a drug ATM," [about cybersex] "Baby forget the internet--let's just go to the park and pet," and from Redneck Rampage "My family tree is a stump...huntin down sheep to molest." Except for the surprisingly sensitive When Did I Become My Dad, Mojo and his band The Toadliquors rock out and rage against conformity and hypocrisy with boundless energy and an outrageous sense of humor.

5. Free Hot Lunch Eat This 1990 Flying Fish. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, mandolin, fiddle, drums. Eat This is a live recording that effectively captures the rowdy, fun-loving music of the great folk-rock trio Free Hot Lunch. Relying on superb three-part harmonies, FHL plays engaging songs that range from the beautiful and touching Home of the Whales to the surreal Sidewalks on Parade to the hilarious Sex in a Volcano. Eat This is a great collection of diverse music that's memorable and lots of fun. Also recommended are Wa Ha Music, Free Hot Lunch, (on New Sound Planet records) and Penguin Love.

 

Multi-Genre

1. Curandero Curandero 1995 Silver Wave. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, tablas, percussion. Curandero, the debut CD by flamenco guitarist Miguel Espinoza in collaboration with tabla player Ty Burhoe, is nothing short of spectacular, successfully fusing fiery, passionate Spanish rhythms with the exotic voicings of the Indian tabla. From the somewhat traditional flamenco approaches of La Tormenta to more risky improv pieces like Intuitive Plane, the disk is accessible but never predictable. The virtuoso performances by Espinoza, Burhoe, and bassist Kirwan Brown are exceptional, and help to make Curandero the decade's best multi-genre CD. Also highly recommended is Aras.

2. Rosina de Pereira Anueit (release date not available) Revolum. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, traditional instruments, percussion, keyboards, accordion, drums. Anueit is a fascinating mixture of Breton-Celtic and Southern European traditional influences combined with modern pop and folk-rock, all sung entirely in Provencal (a dialect of Southern France). The instrumentation is equally diverse, ranging from the expected (acoustic guitar, bass and accordion), to the unexpected (tablas, lute, kalimba and Tibetan bells). From there, it's on to the REALLY unexpected: rebec, vielle, rebab, cornemuse, balafon, tama, udu m'bwata, wood box, "water instruments," and my personal favorite, the zarb. (You just don't hear a lot of good zarb solos these days.) Replete with many exotic instrumental interludes, Anueit ranges from the brooding Celtic-rock L'ernha, to the exquisitely anthemic Se Canta, to Som Som-La Nena, a beautiful and eccentric lullaby. The result is an outstanding CD featuring a terrific amalgam of styles and textures.

3. Mugar Kabily-Touseg 1998 Tempo Maker. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, electric bass, flutes, keyboards, traditional instruments, percussion, bagpipes, drums. Kabily-Touseg is a novel and thoroughly successful cross-pollination of traditional and original Celtic-rock with traditional and original North African Berber music. Haunting North African flute pieces blend seamlessly into Celtic flute tunes, Berber drumming transforms into Celtic rhythms, traditional Celtic tunes are played with Berber flutes, reed instruments, chanting, and drums; traditional Berber pieces are played with tin whistle, fiddle, and bodhran; bagpipes play over Berber chants; and eerie North African trilling accompanies Celtic pieces. Eventually, all converge into an inspiring new hybrid featuring enchanting melodies and superb musicianship that bring out the best of both traditions
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4. Joe Craven Camptown 1996 Acorn Music. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic guitar, acoustic and electric bass, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, keyboards, whistles, percussion, harp, hammered dulcimer, accordion, drums. This CD has resurrected traditional Celtic and North American standards and transformed them into new and almost unrecognizable tunes by means of some wildly creative restylings. For example, the traditional Soldier's Joy becomes a danceable Afro-pop piece, Turkey In The Straw becomes a gypsy swing number a la Django Reinhardt, and the Irish fiddle classic Little Beggar Man (renamed The Fez Of Abu) is transformed into an inspired and convincing Middle-Eastern work. Several other traditional melodies end up with new Japanese, Cuban, Jamaican, Indian, Brazilian, and Australian aboriginal passports. Craven and his terrific, versatile group of musicians help to make this disk an acoustic classic.

5. Charming Hostess Eat 1998 Vaccination. INSTRUMENTATION: Acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, saxophone, flute, fiddle, drums. Charming Hostess has the oddest combination of sounds I've ever heard on a recording. Imagine a pared-down version of the Bulgarian Women's Chorus backed by a punk band and you'll be in the neighborhood. The songs are an amazingly diverse assortment of originals, along with rocked-up versions of traditional Bulgarian, Jewish, Gospel, Hungarian, African-American, and Turkish folk songs. One song is a beautiful and intricately arranged chorale, the next a thrash guitar, discordant vocal assault. Yet others are combinations of the two. What makes this CD work so well is the combination of the band's precision high-energy performances, aesthetically appealing songs, and the adventurous intricacy of the group's unconventional arrangements.

OTHER GREAT MUSIC

Jenny Allen Something to Say 1991 Strange Pagan. Beautiful vocals, good original pop-folk songs.
Terry Allen Lubbock on Everything 1995 Sugar Hill. Interesting songs, some very funny, some truly bizarre.
Anam Riptide 1998 Green Linnet. First-rate Celtic pop rock.
The Barftones Meet the Barftones 1997 Farm Mechanic Music. Twisted, distorted, anti music. Very weird, very interesting.
Bigfoot & the Prehistoric Dogs Shake Hands With Gonga 1997 El Cat. Great retro 70s style rock and folk rock.
Celtic Elvis The Rise and Fall of Practically Everything 1989 Heavy Mental Terrific social commentary, catchy songs, soaring harmonies.
Steve Clark Big Banned Music 1985 (self produced) Steve Clark. This Offer Void 1991 (self produced) Both of these recordings by Steve Clark feature outstanding social and political satire.
Ronnie Dawson More Bad Habits 1999 Yep Roc. Great retro rockabilly.
Fairport Convention Jewel in the Crown 1995 Green Linnet. Good Celtic rock.
Great Big Sea Rant & Roar 1998 Sire. The music of Newfoundland done as pop rock. Very tight, very good.
Paul Griffin Diamond Heart 1997 (self produced). Some very catchy and memorable original songs.
Guardabarranco Si Buscabas 1985 Redwood. Beautiful Latin original folk-pop pieces.
Hedningarna The Heathen's Fire 1996 Silence/ Sony. Wild, energetic, exotic Swedish Celtic music.
John McVey Jigsaw 2000 Native Language. Excellent original songs.
Ellen Klaver Daughter of the Earth 1986 (self produced). Pretty Appalachian and Latin-based original music, strong social commentary.
Cor Mutsers & Patrick Van Gerven If Only We Could Sing 1998 Strictly Country. Great guitar and Dobro instrumentals.
Kelly Joe Phelps Shine Eyed Mister Zen 1999 Rykodisk. Excellent original bluesy folk.
Jon Sirkis Songs for Kelly 1994 Boulder Folk. Folk rock and social commentary. No comment from me as I'm biased, but the critics seemed to like it.
Spirit of the West Labour Day 1988 Flying Fish/ Rounder. Outstanding, energetic original Celtic rock. A classic.
Peter Stokes Songs from the Pit 1997 Farm Mechanic Music. Strong, moving, highly personal original songs.
The Tahitian Choir Rapa Iti 1992 Triloka. Exotic, extremely interesting traditional songs from the South Pacific.
Noe Venable No Curses Here 1998 Intuition, Songline/tonefield. Very catchy, brooding originals.
Verbow White Out 2000 Sony. Great hard-edged, folk-based rock.
Yolocamba I Ta Cara o Cruz 1988 Flying Fish/ Rounder. Also, Yolocamba I Ta's Songs for the Revolutionary Homeland 1981 Flying Fish/ Rounder. Both CDs by Yolocamba I Ta feature powerful Latin folk rock, beautiful melodies, and interesting arrangements.

Also highly recommended:

Dissidenten Sahara Electric 1988 Shanachie/Exil
Druha Trava Czechmate 1999 Compass
Honeydogs Here's Luck 1999 Palm
Jez Lowe Live at the Davey Lamp 2000 Tantobie
Maddy Prior Ravenchild 1998 Park

 


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