One of the best parts of this job is finding new music in my mailbox on a regular basis. But the fun turns into work at the end of the year, when I wade back through all of that music and try to come up with my top picks of the year. That requires many difficult decisions.
This year, especially, the choices were angst-inducing. That’s a good thing for bluegrass listeners, because it means there was plenty of great music released through the year. But for me? I could easily have filled out a Top 20 or Top 25, and still left out some terrific projects. Picking, as I did, my 12 favorites for 2014, was extremely difficult, but that’s why they pay me the big bucks.
So, here goes, with the usual reminder that this list is entirely subjective. Your mileage may vary. Feel free to note your favorites in the comment section.
1. Becky Buller – ‘Tween Earth and Sky I can’t stop listening to this wonderful solo project. It has everything you could ask for: Top-notch picking, sophisticated songwriting and superb vocals. If this one isn’t in your collection, rectify the oversight at once.
2. Balsam Range – Five The output from Buddy Melton and company just keeps getting better over time. To my ear, the band’s fifth record is the best of a solid portfolio. Need convincing? Give a listen to Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold).
3. Seldom Scene – Long Time Yes, you’ve heard versions of most of these songs on earlier recordings from this long-running band. But these takes are clean and fresh and worth repeat plays. Is there any better vocal trio than Dudley Connell, Lou Reid and Fred Travers? On a specific song, perhaps, but not over an entire body of work.
4. Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen – Cold Spell There might not be a tighter instrumental quartet on the circuit right now. This Grammy-nominated CD includes all the evidence needed to make that judgment. Solivan’s vocals are icing on the cake.
5. Lonesome River Band – Turn On a Dime The band’s first original project after a stretch of reworking past hits for it’s Chronology trilogy was well worth the wait. You’ll find no filler here.
6. Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper – On Down the Line The record’s first single, Fiddlin’ Joe by Mark (Brink) Brinkman, might as well have been called Fiddlin’ Mike. The former child prodigy keeps the throttle wide open on every song. Fasten your seat belt and enjoy the ride.
7. Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes – Three Bells This all-dobro masterpiece was started as a tribute to Auldridge. By the time it was released, Auldridge was gone and the record became a memorial. I can’t say it any better than John Lawless put it in his Bluegrass Today review: “Three Bells will be the standard to which all other dobro records will be compared for some time.”
8. Infamous Stringdusters – Let It Go These guys continue to push the envelope as they occupy the space between bluegrass and jam band. This one is fueled by strong songwriting, especially Where The River Runs Cold, with lyrics by band member Jeremy Garrett and prolific writer Jon Weisberger.
9. Blue Highway – The Game The band’s 10th studio album is one of its strongest. It’s hard to pick a favorite song because they’re all solid. It’s also hard to pick a favorite singer because any one of the vocalists could easily front his own band.
10. Dave Adkins – Nothing to Lose Pike County Jail has been on the charts for months, but there’s a lot more to this record than the single. Adkins has the biggest voice in bluegrass now that Chris Stapleton isn’t touring, and he uses it with great impact here.
11. Detour – Going Nowhere Fast Don’t be fooled by the CD’s title. This Michigan-based band is going places in a hurry. The main reason: Missy Armstrong is the best bluegrass singing woman not named Claire Lynch or Dale Ann Bradley.
12. Irene Kelley – Pennsylvania Coal Kelley owes most of the accolades she has received in bluegrass circles to her role as a songwriter. But her warm, soothing voice on this solo project keeps the record in regular rotation in my CD player and leaves me eager to hear what she’ll offer next.
That’s my list. I’m eager to see yours.