10. Fiddlehaus – Schwartz’ Backyard, 2006
This is as obscure as it gets. Brother and sister duo Shawn and Virginia Schwartz recorded this spectacular set of piano and fiddle tunes in-between Virginia’s appearances with California Celtic band The Town Pants, and it’s some of the best pure musicianship from a couple of unknown musicians you’ll ever hear. Full of sweet, wholesome-sounding dance music, it’s a showcase for Virginia’s wonderful violin playing (and writing) in particular. It’s also the rare group that does both upbeat, major key dances and dark, minor key tunes well, sometimes within the course of the same song, as on “Die Alt Sagemule/Gin & Shonic.”
Standout track: It’s a crime that Virginia Schwartz’ tune “Heidi’s Growl” hasn’t been used as the foundation for some historical epic film already. It sounds like the lost entry of such famed soundtracks as Braveheart or Last of the Mohicans. It’s that good.
9. Jennifer O’Connor – Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars, 2006
Jennifer O’Connor is the type of songwriter who goes perpetually underappreciated because she’s so consistent and low-key. Her music isn’t flashy or complicated, but it’s deep, emotional and soulful in spades. Over the Mountain is burdened by a long title, but it’s a great collection of songs with a definite tinge of beautiful grief on songs such as “Sister” and “Complicated Rhyme.” At other times, O’Connor escapes “folk” entirely, venturing into mild, bouncy indie rock. Her persistently gravelly vocals are her calling card, easy to recognize.
Standout track: “Exeter, Rhode Island” isn’t really representative of the album as a whole, but damn if its jangly guitars aren’t catchy.
8. Bearfoot – Doors and Windows, 2009
Here’s a band that had something great, but just couldn’t manage to keep it together. The members of Bearfoot hailed from Alaska, an unexpected origin for an original, progressive bluegrass unit. And yet their work on Doors and Windows is crisp, refreshing but timeless. Songs such as “Caroline” and “Good in the Kitchen” are great originals, and there’s even an excellent, stripped-down cover of The Beatles “Don’t Let Me Down.” Unfortunately, the band lost lead singer Odessa Jorgensen shortly thereafter. She went on to play violin with a number of prominent indie bands such as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, but putting her in the background was a big loss to the modern bluegrass scene, both as a musician and a vocalist.
Standout track: “Time Is No Medicine” shows what this band was really capable of at its peak. All three of the vocalists contribute great harmonies, and the whole band just gels into a fantastic toe-tapper. The fact that this is the only album featuring this full lineup of musicians is criminal, but it remains a great track from a great album.
7. The Mammals – Born Live, 2001
The Mammals were New York’s greatest resident folk band for a number of years, the scions of several influential folk families. Among others, the band contained Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Pete Seeger’s grandson, and Ruth Ungar, the daughter of famed American fiddler Jay Ungar. This live album captures a great set of pure, unadulterated roots music from early in their career, which nonetheless still features some of the band’s best songs. Even a simple tune such as “Baker’s Waltz” is among the prettiest fiddle waltzes I’ve ever heard. The Mammals seriously need to make a comeback.
Standout track: With no exaggeration, “Four Blue Walls” is one of the most powerful songs I’ve ever heard, a story about a young woman reclaiming her sexual independence after years of abuse. As Ungar sings: “Oh her father, was the only one, who pretends he can’t remember what was done. And her mother, can’t find the strength, to do anything at all but stand and pray.” The song was later given a more high-energy cover by The Duhks, mentioned earlier on this list.
6. David Grisman – Dawg ’90, 1990
The idea of even choosing a single David Grisman album is absurd, as the guy has recorded dozens over the course of a career spanning more than 50 years—and he’s still performing today. The progenitor of so-called “Dawg Music” and one of the world’s greatest mandolin players, Grisman invented a style all his own, fusing traditional bluegrass, American jazz and Latin music in particular. His “David Grisman Quintet” has produced a dozen classic albums, but I’m partial to Dawg ’90, which is solid top to bottom, from the jazzy swing of “Mad Max” to the straight-up Irish influence of “O’banion’s Wake.”
Standout track: A track like “Pupville” owes a hell of a lot to the jazz-folk stylings of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, but elevates their “hot club” sound to the next level. The quintet’s mastery of stringed instruments is truly something to behold. Bands like Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers would not exist today without the David Grisman Quintet.
5. The Be Good Tanyas – Blue Horse, 2000
Canadian folk trio The Be Good Tanyas bear a superficial resemblance to the previously mentioned Wailin’ Jennys, but in execution they’re much earthier, less prim and precise. Their adaptations of traditional songs such as “Rain and Snow” or “The Coo Coo Bird” on their debut album Blue Horse are wonderfully expressive, stamped with the band’s own personal flair. I find their slurred vocals are a bit of an acquired taste, but the emotion is universal.
Standout track: “The Lakes of Pontchartrain” is a classic, 19th century American ballad about a man falling in love with a beautiful, Louisiana Creole girl, a song that has been covered dozens of times elsewhere. The Tanyas imbue it with a reality and sincerity that make the pure, simplistic lyrics ring true to the torch the narrator is carrying.
4. Tim O’Brien – Red on Blonde, 1996
The only artist to appear on this list twice, I include Red on Blonde because it’s one of the best albums of genre-bending covers I’ve ever heard. O’Brien’s take on the musical catalog of Bob Dylan includes well-known selections such as “Masters of War” and largely forgotten tracks such as “Man Gave Name to all the Animals,” and on every one, O’Brien completely makes it his own.
Standout track: I recently plugged O’Brien’s cover of “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” in a different list, so I’ll mention his adaptation of “The Wicked Messenger” here. It’s another song that sounds utterly natural in this state as a progressive bluegrass song. O’Brien doesn’t just sing a song his own way; he completely overhauls the melody to suit this new instrumentation, and it comes out the other side sounding like something out of 19th century Appalachia.
3. Natalie MacMaster – Yours Truly, 2006
Canada is a big country, and as such it contains several quite distinct styles of fiddle music. MacMaster is the best-known proponent of the Cape Breton fiddle tradition, the daughter of famed player Buddy MacMaster. Noted as both a step dancer and fiddler, she’s been cranking out records for 25 years now, gaining a devoted following along the way. Her style blends traditional Canadian folk music with strong Celtic and American roots influences, all of which show up on Yours Truly. Some of the tracks like “Matt & Natt’s” bring an electric guitar into play, pushing the album into an odd, folk-rock territory. Others, like “Cape Classico,” are some of the best examples of modern fiddling you’ll encounter anywhere.
Standout track: “Volcanic Jig” is the album’s epic opening number, a six-minute journey that starts out innocently before building to a thunderous high that is hard to top. Its eventual eruption near the three-minute mark is absolutely worthy of the song title.
2. Red Tail Ring – Mountain Shout, 2011
This relatively unknown folk duo from Michigan takes their cues from the Scandinavian folk tradition that fiddler Laurel Premo was exposed to in her formative years, applying that background to a variety of folk originals and covers of traditional American roots songs. Mountain Shout is an album of the latter, featuring traditional songs such as “Red Rocking Chair” or the wonderful Child Ballad “Edward.” Both Premo and guitarist Michael Beauchamp have rustic voices that perfectly fit their chosen field—they seem to have been born to perform folk songs for small, intimate audiences.
Standout track: “The Blackest Crow” is a gorgeous American ballad that dates from the Civil War era, a heartbreaking track dedicated to lovers long separated. The poetic nature of its lyrics will make you question the validity of most modern pop music as an art form: “Bright day would turn to night, my love, the elements would mourn; if ever I grew false to you, the seas would rage and burn.”
1. Alela Diane – To Be Still, 2009
The vocals of Alela Diane are like a beautiful web of pristine, crystalline fibers. At times, it seems like they’ll simply have to crack, but there’s an underlying strength there, a sense of resolve and deep, endless sorrow. The Portland songstress has experimented with both bigger and smaller band sounds than on To Be Still, but her middle LP hits the best balance, with minimal strings backing up Diane’s otherworldly voice. Very few artists can send shivers down the spine of a listener with simply a well-placed “woah-oh,” but Diane does on nearly every song, especially on tracks such as “Age Old Blue,” a story dedicated to her sharecropping Scottish ancestors, who “worked the field on borrowed land above the ocean.” Every song is a vocal journey.
Standout track: “White as Diamonds” captures the overall aesthetic of the record, with its romanticized imagery of the natural world and captivating, yodeling chorus from Diane.