EARLE HITCHNER'S TOP 20 TRADITIONAL ALBUMS OF 2000

The following originally appeared in the Irish Echo, January, 2001

This past year has not been a good one for Irish traditional music. It's not that there hasn't been a wealth of excellent recordings. There has, including the top 20 chosen here.

But the post-"Riverdance" boom for the genre in the mainstream marketplace is essentially over. In recent years the trend has been away from Celtic music, which has lost some commercial clout but still sells solidly, and toward Latin, African, or Afro-Cuban music, which was partly sparked by 1997's acclaimed "Buena Vista Social Club" album and has led to the formation of the Latin Grammy Awards. This market shift has also benefited Celtic bands with a hybrid, exotic sound, such as the Afro Celt Sound System, Sin É, and Kíla.

The apparent slippage in mainstream media consideration of Celtic traditional music hasn't helped matters. USA Today, the New York Observer, the Wall Street Journal, and MTV's Sonicnet.com (the last two of which I write for), for example, have all ignored Celtic traditional releases in their critics' lists of the best albums from 2000.

Of the four popular-music critics (Jon Pareles, Ann Powers, Ben Ratliff, and Neil Strauss) at the New York Times, only Powers slipped an Irish traditional release into her list of 10 "Undeservedly Obscure" albums. At No. 5, she slotted Seán Ó Riada's "Ó Riada's Farewell" (Claddagh/Atlantic), a CD reissue of an LP comprising harpsichord music that was released almost 30 years ago. Does this mean there was no other Irish traditional recording worth noting from the year 2000?

Hardly, as this Irish Echo list of the top 20 Irish traditional albums clearly shows. CD reissues of LPs were not considered, though CDs bringing together scattered vintage material factor strongly among spanking new releases. Worthy of any critic's "best of" list, the following recordings reflect the vitality and virtuosity of Irish traditional music released last year and, in one case, the year before.

1. BAD TURNS AND HORSE-SHOE BENDS, by Harry Bradley (Outlet): Despite many outstanding performances captured on record, this Belfast-based label has chronically suffered from mediocre production often born, frankly, of rushing the process. Here, production is fairly good, while the flute playing of Harry Bradley is utterly sublime and ranks with the finest studio performances in Outlet's history. Accompanied by Davy Graham on mandocello, Séamus O'Kane on bodhrán, and former Déanta member Eóghan O'Brien on guitar and harp, Bradley plays concert, E-flat, F, and marching band flutes with perfectly balanced force and finesse. An unscheduled "hit" two years ago at Donegal's Frankie Kennedy Winter School, where I first saw him perform, this Belfast-born musician has made an astonishingly mature, musically rich solo debut that immediately places him within the front ranks of all Irish flutists alive. It is a magnificent achievement by a talent destined for international recognition.

2. ELIZABETH CROTTY: CONCERTINA MUSIC FROM WEST CLARE (RTÉ Music Ltd.): Born in Gower, near Cooraclare, West Clare, Elizabeth Crotty (1885-1960) was an unflagging supporter of Irish traditional music in general and one of its most skilled concertinists in particular. The pub she and her husband operated in Kilrush was a second home to many musicians, and her own fame rose in the mid-1950s on the strength of RTÉ broadcasts made from it. This 1999 album consists of 31 splendid tracks captured on a mobile recording unit during the last five years of her life. Though in her seventies at the time, Elizabeth Crotty displays a vigor and lissome touch in her playing that would be the envy of musicians half her age.

There are 19 memorable solos here, including her stunning rendition of "The Wind That Shakes the Barley/The Reel With the Beryl." On the remaining tracks she's joined by such fellow legends as fiddlers Paddy Canny, Aggie White, Denis Murphy, and Seán Reid and flutist Mike Preston.

3. THE SONGS OF ELIZABETH CRONIN, edited by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (Four Courts Press, Dublin, Ireland, and distributed in USA by International Specialized Book Services, Inc., 5804 N.E. Hassalo St., Portland, Ore. 97213-3644, 503-287-3093 or 800-944-6190): Piper and broadcaster Séamus Ennis called her the "Queen of Irish Song," and this 332-page trade paperback, in which two compact disks of her singing have been inserted, stands as a towering testament to her importance within Ireland's long vocal tradition. Compiled and edited by her grandson, the book offers a 21-page biography of Elizabeth "Bess" Cronin (1879-1956), followed by 196 songs she sang whose verses have been set down and annotated, often with melodies transcribed beside them. The two CD's contain 59 songs sung by the Macroom, West Cork, vocalist from 1947 to 1955 that were taken from public and private recordings made by Séamus Ennis, Alan Lomax, Jean Ritchie and George Pickow, and Diane Hamilton, among others. This is Irish traditional singing at its most unvarnished and vital.

4. THE ROAD FROM CONNEMARA, by Joe Heaney (Topic/Cló Iar-Chonnachta Teo): Carna, Galway-born Joe Heaney (1919-1984) was the consummate master of sean-nós, or "old style," singing, an unaccompanied vocal style that's rhythmic, ornamented, and intimate. What this two-CD release of previously unissued material provides is wonderful songs and engaging comments and anecdotes by the sean-nós singer that deepen the appreciation of his art. The 39 tracks were culled from interviews conducted with Heaney in 1964 by husband-and-wife folksingers Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger at their home in England. Completing the package is a 59-page booklet, detailing the life and music of a sean-nós singer unsurpassed in influence. Favorite track: "Cúnnla," both for Heaney's impressive singing and for the droll remarks he makes at beginning and end.

5. LÁMH AR LÁMH (Mater Misericordiae Hospital, c/o John Daly, Postgraduate Medical Ctr., 52 Eccles St., Dublin 7, Ireland, e-mail: music@mater.ie): The "many hands" involved in this double CD make for long, thoroughly enjoyable work--all in an effort to raise funds for colon cancer research at Mater Misericordiae Hospital in North Dublin. This is a prime example of a great cause inspiring great music, 35 tracks recorded expressly for the project under the guidance of fiddler Antóin Mac Gabhann. The first CD includes two sterling selections each by the trio of Chieftains' fiddler Seán Keane, uilleann piper Liam O'Flynn, and guitarist Arty McGlynn, and by the duo of concertinist Noel Hill and keyboardist Brian McGrath. The second CD captures the essence of the house dance--in this case, inside the Ashbourne, Meath, home of Bernie and Antóin Mac Gabhann on April 1, 2000. The exciting dance music and pounding set-dance steps virtually put you there, and the singing of "An Tlolrach Mór" by 15-year-old Nollaig Ní Laoire and "Blackwaterside" by Solas's Deirdre Scanlan, and the lilting of Cavan's Séamus Fay, are just as exceptional.

6. LOST IN THE LOOP, by Liz Carroll (Green Linnet): To some un-Q-tipped ears, I suppose, this album comes across as the sound of Solas (Win Horan, John Doyle, and producer Seamus Egan) with Liz Carroll front and center on fiddle. It's not. But even if it were, so what? Wisely heeding her own muse, Carroll wanted to open up and expand the sound of this recording, which comes a dozen years after her last, spare solo effort for Green Linnet, and she succeeds beautifully. The high standard of creativity and musicianship offered by three Solas members (plus Zan McLeod, Michael Aharon, Altan's Dáithí Sproule, and frequent Solas sidemen Chico Huff and John Anthony) is a marvelous complement--and compliment--to the high standard of Irish fiddling by Carroll. This Chicagoan has a bowing technique second to none, as her blazing fiddling on "The Silver Spear/The Earl's Chair/The Musical Priest" proves, while her playing of "Letter to Peter Pan," one of 13 tunes she wrote and recorded here, reveals a soulful simplicity. With this recording, Liz Carroll is firmly back in the loop. Purchase in the US.

7. THE HOUR BEFORE DAWN, by Solas (Shanachie): Some armchair doomsaying greeted this fourth studio recording by Solas, their first without celebrated lead singer Karan Casey. No such musical collapse occurred. If anything, the band made bolder strides, punching up the percussion and rhythm, assaying tighter, more intricate arrangements, and covering "I Will Remember You," a monster hit song for Sarah McLachlan that was co-written by Solas's Seamus Egan. New lead vocalist Deirdre Scanlan nimbly avoids the pitfall of difference for difference's sake while bringing a freshness to that song and the traditional "Bruach na Carraige Baine." The band's trademark fire on dance tunes still blazes, especially on "The New Custom House/The Flavor of the Month/The Tinker's Daughter/Dogs Among the Bushes/Pinch of Snuff." Win Horan's fiddling on the Norwegian slow air "A Little Child" is a performance that renders words useless, as any great instrumental should do. The album's lone bad stumble is "A Miner's Life," sung by John Doyle. Purchase in the US.

8. THE FIDDLE MUSIC OF DONEGAL, VOL. 3 (Cairdeas): During the first October weekend of 1999, inside the Highlands Hotel run by the Boyle family in Glenties, Donegal, the session among musicians was at full throttle after the wedding reception for Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Dermot Byrne. That night, I thought I may have heard the greatest unsung fiddler in Ireland perform, Derry-born Dermot McLaughlin, a self-effacing musician who earns his living as an arts officer in Dublin. I was not alone in my assessment of McLaughlin's skill, which graces the first five tracks on this album. It's the third installment in a superb recording series produced by Rab Cherry and sponsored by Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí, an organization founded in the early 1980s to nurture Donegal fiddling. Metal fiddles once occupied an important place in Donegal's musical culture, and hearing McLaughlin play a tin fiddle made in the 1930s by Glencolmcille fiddler Mickey "The Miner" Byrne on "The Wedding Jig" is a rare treat. Recorded live in the summers of 1997 and 1999, the album showcases six talented fiddlers steeped in the Donegal style: McLaughlin, John Byrne, Derek McGinley, Matthew McGranahan, and the father-son tandem of Jimmy and Peter Campbell.

9. SAFFRON AND BLUE, by Manus McGuire (Green Linnet): If music is the universal language, then Manus McGuire speaks fluently in many traditional tongues on his long-awaited first solo recording. This Offaly-born, Sligo-raised, Clare-based fiddler plays the French-Canadian quadrille "Le Vingt-Quatre de Juin" with a lively square-dance swing, and in "The Methlick Style/Bobby Tulloch's Reel/Rhoda's Bon Hoga," he and Shetland fiddler Trevor Hunter take the listener on a marvelous mood progression from ruminative to rousing. Nine of the tunes are Manus's own, and the one he wrote for his wife, "Genevieve's Waltz," radiates romance and is a compelling argument for why he and his older brother, Séamus, have been "accused of bringing the waltz back into favor in Irish music" (Manus's words). There's also a stunning tribute by Manus, "Billy Brocker's/Tom Ward's Downfall/The Torn Jacket/The Liffey Banks/Lucy Campbell," to all the great Sligo fiddlers inspiring him. Using subtle, tightly detailed ornamentation and impeccably clean rhythm, he has fashioned a solo album that speaks volumes. Purchase in the US.

10. ANOTHER SKY, by Altan (Virgin/Narada World): Commercial concessions? That question dogged this new Altan recording, heavily skewed toward songs (8 of 13 album tracks) and featuring such non-trad guests as Bonnie Raitt and Jerry Douglas. Was all of that done to make the album more promotable in the mainstream marketplace? Who cares? The only question that matters is whether the music holds up and meets the lofty standard Altan has always set for itself, and that it surely does.

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh's lovely voice on eight songs is an eminently pleasurable experience, though the band's rendition of "Girl From the North Country," a song from Bob Dylan's "Freewheelin'" days in 1963, is a misstep. But even when they use the non-trad licks of Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar (one track) and Jerry Douglas on dobro (two tracks), they're carefully blended into the mix, not shoehorned in. The Irish traditional instrumental sound of Altan is as rigorously hard-core as ever, abetted by bodhrán player Jimmy Higgins on two medleys of reels and a set of jigs. "Another Sky," though not as magnetic as some of Altan's previous albums, captures one of Ireland's most accomplished bands in estimable form. Purchase in the US here.

11. THE COLEMAN ARCHIVE, VOL. 1 (Coleman Heritage Centre, Gurteen, Co. Sligo): The centre's first release of archival music, informally recorded by mostly South Sligo performers, lacks a studio sheen. But the passion and dedication of the musicians easily overcome the rough production quality of these 34 tracks. Two fascinating rarities are "Martin Wynne's No. 1," a reel written and played by longtime New York resident fiddler Martin Wynne (1916-1998), and a slip jig performed not on fiddle but on tenor banjo by Larry Redican (1908-1975), member of the famed New York Céilí Band.

12. FONNCHAOI, by Verena Commins and Julie Langan (self-issued): Out of the heady session atmosphere of a past Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy in Miltown Malbay, Clare, emerged this fortuitous partnership. Button accordionist Verena Commins and fiddler Julie Langan have graced Galway City's session scene for some time now, and the musical communication between the two, honed through regular playing in pubs, translates into studio performances of breathtaking tightness and deliciously sly invention.

13. THE MULCAHY FAMILY (Shanachie): Fluid family music out of Abbeyfeale, West Limerick, with Mick Mulcahy on button accordion and concertina joined by his daughters: 16-year-old Michelle on button accordion, harp, and concertina, and 18-year-old Louise on uilleann pipes and flute. Purchase in the US.

14. OISÍN MAC DIARMADA, BRIAN FITZGERALD, and MICHEÁL Ó RUANAIGH (Cló Iar-Chonnachta): A marvelous serving of youth, featuring 1999's All-Ireland senior fiddle champion, Clare-born Mac Diarmada, with Limerick-born Fitzgerald, the All-Ireland senior banjo titlist in 1997, and Monaghan native Ó Ruanaigh on harp. Fiddle, tenor banjo, and harp are an uncommon blend, but the closely observed, refreshingly unfrenetic playing here may make the combination more common in the future.

15. WITH EVERY BREATH, by John Wynne (UPROS Music): "Martin Wynne's Nos. 1, 2, and 3," three popular reels penned by and titled after the late Sligo-born fiddler, are given full-bodied expression by Roscommon flutist John Wynne (no relation) with the help of fiddler Terry Crehan and guitarist Paul Doyle. A founding member of the band Providence, Wynne, who now lives in Clare, was inspired and instructed by two of Roscommon's finest, Kilrooskey flutist Patsy Hanley and Ballinagare fiddler Paddy Ryan, so his Connacht roots show throughout this winning solo debut.

16. THE MCDONAGHS OF BALLINAFAD AND FRIENDS (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann): "The McDonaghs had a wonderful drive and heart in their music," said John Wynne. These 37 tracks testify to that. Paddy McDonagh (1902-1985) played flute and tin whistle, Michael Joe McDonagh (1904-1988) played fiddle, and Larry McDonagh (1911-1984) played flute and fiddle, but only the latter two are heard here. This is gloriously unfussy pure-drop playing by a pair of bachelor brothers from South Sligo, joined at times by friends Tommy Flynn (fiddle), Michael Daly (flute), Paddy Ryan (fiddle), and Tom Harte (bodhrán).

17. THINK BEFORE YOU THINK, by Danú (Shanachie): The septet's youth--all under age 30--has created the impression they're newly sprung. In fact, the band began to take form back in 1995 with Brendan McCarthy, Donnchadh Gough, Daire Bracken, and Dónal Clancy, all good friends in Waterford. Since then, the lineup has changed twice, and the present group--Tom and Eamonn Doorley, Brendan McCarthy, Noel Ryan, Donnchadh Gough, Ciarán Ó Gealbháin, and U.S.-born Jesse Smith--has crafted an album substantially better than the band's self-titled maiden effort in 1997. You don't have to think before thinking Danú is one of the most exciting Irish traditional outfits out there. Purchase in the US.

18. A PIPER'S DREAM, by Brian McNamara (Drumlin): In 1998, "Leitrim's Hidden Treasure," an album by the talented McNamara family of Aughavas, finished No. 4 in the Irish Echo's top 10 list. Uilleann piper Brian McNamara, who produced and performed on that 1998 release, adds further luster to the family name with this solo debut. It's full of tasty tunes played with elegant, egoless dexterity and a respectful appreciation of history. The backing by his sister Deirdre on concertina, Michael Rooney on harp, and Jens Kommnick on guitar leaves the focus where it belongs--on Brian's pristine piping.

19. A RAKE OF REELS, by John Nolan (JN): The first American ever to win the All-Ireland senior button accordion championship (1982), John Nolan plays Irish traditional dance music with churning power and lift. Nowhere is that more evident than on the title track, an 11-reel, 12-minute-plus tour de force, where he at times displays nimble, spare touches with his bass hand as he drives the melody ahead with his right. He's also a fine composer, as "The Boogie Reel," "The Twisted Bellows," and "A Tune for Mary" all confirm.

20. TO HELL WITH THE BEGRUDGERS, by Séamus Tansey and Jim McKillop (Sound): A musician not suffering from shyness, Séamus Tansey made a few enemies in Ireland with his 1999 book, "The Bardic Apostles of Innisfree." In it the Sligo-born flutist cast some living Irish musicians in an unflattering light and castigated outside musical influences on the Irish tradition, describing such efforts to "copulate and mongrelize with every culture under the sun" as "bulls--t." But Tansey's reputation for truculent opinions shouldn't color an estimation of how inventively he plays the flute here with Jim McKillop, a gifted fiddler from Cushendall, Antrim, who won the All-Ireland senior title in 1976. Accompanied by former Boys of the Lough keyboardist John Coakley, the pair are in fine fettle throughout, performing in a hearty, hard-core style broken only by the synthesizer backing on three slow airs.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS IN 2000

Best children's recording: "Seal Maiden" (Music for Little People), featuring former Solas member Karan Casey singing and narrating, plus Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Niall Vallely, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Michael McGoldrick, Dezi Donnelly, Mick Daly, Mel Mercier, Martin Hayes, and Dennis Cahill.

Best concert: Fiddler Dezi Donnelly at Manhattan's Blarney Star on Sept. 22 (despite ill-suited guitar support from Tyrone's Eamon McElholm). Runners-up: Liz Carroll and John Doyle at Pequot Library Hall, Southport, Conn., on May 14; the Chieftains and Los Lobos at Prudential Hall, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, N.J., on June 27; Moving Cloud at Towne Crier Cafe, 130 Rte. 22, Pawling., N.Y., on Aug. 27; Solas and Buddy and Julie Miller at Bottom Line, N.Y.C., on Sept. 16; and the Windbags at the Turning Point, Piermont, N.Y., on Sept. 17.

Best outdoor Irish festival in U.S.: Washington Irish Festival, Montgomery County Fairgrounds, Gaithersburg, Md., Sept. 2-3.

Best radio program and host: "A Thousand Welcomes," presented by Kathleen Biggins on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 12 noon EST on WFUV-FM, 90.7, a National Public Radio affiliate based in the Bronx, N.Y. Her program has been a Saturday morning fixture since October 1987, bringing traditional music of high quality and up-to-the-minute news of regional events to its devoted listeners. Biggins's congenial personality and discerning taste make this show go.

Best "greatest hits" compilation: "Journey: The Best of Dónal Lunny" (double CD on Hummingbird; released in U.S. on Jan. 23 by Rounder). Runners-up: De Dannan's "How the West Was Won" (another double CD on Hummingbird, grandfathered in from 1999) and the Poozies' "Raise Your Head--A Retrospective" (Compass).

Best non-Irish CD with Irish music on it: Steve Earle's "Transcendental Blues" (E Squared/Artemis), recently nominated for a Grammy as best contemporary folk album. "Steve's Last Ramble" and "The Galway Girl" are shot through with Irish traditional instrumentation, led by Clare-born accordionist Sharon Shannon, who included the second Earle song on her own solo recording, "The Diamond Mountain Sessions" (Grapevine). Purchase Transcendental Blues in the US.

Runner-up: Richard Shindell's "Somewhere Near Paterson" (RSR/Signature), which ably employed Siobhan Egan and Cherish the Ladies' Joanie Madden in the song "Spring" and its spirited coda, "Summer Reel."

Most accomplished young talent: Fiddler Patrick Mangan from Brooklyn, N.Y., and pianist Thomas Bartlett from Westminster, Vt., who now resides in New York City. Both have extraordinary chops, fertile ideas, and driving curiosity. What a treat to watch them grow.

Most enjoyably perverse (or perversely enjoyable) album: Bill Laswell's "Emerald Aether/Shape Shifting" (Shanachie), all remixes of previously recorded music by Solas, Jerry O'Sullivan, Matt Molloy, Karan Casey, and Cathie Ryan. A gonzo gotcha exercise by Laswell, who earlier gave Miles Davis, Bob Marley, and Sting the same knob-twirling treatment.

Special remastering kudos: Dublin's Harry Bradshaw, a perennial, and Rochester's Ted McGraw, whose careful work can be heard on "The Great Céilí Bands, Vol. 1" (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann).

Most intriguing idea not quite fleshed out yet: Dublin-born jazz guitarist David O'Rourke's attempt to bridge jazz and Irish traditional music. The concerts he gave at Manhattan's Jazz Standard last May featured bassist Peter Washington, drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Fintan O'Neill, percussionist Steve Kroon, violinist Regina Carter, flutist Joanie Madden, concertinist Niall Vallely, fiddler Marie Reilly, button accordionist Martin Reilly, and uilleann piper Paddy Keenan. With more rehearsal to integrate the different styles and instruments, O'Rourke's self-described "Celtic Jazz Collective" could find that elusive firm footing between genres.


Copyright 2001 by Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted at the Celtic Cafe by permission of Earle Hitchner. Article originally appeared in January 2001 issue of The Irish Echo. Besides The Irish Echo, Earle Hitchner has also contributed articles and reviews to Billboard, Details, Irish Music, New Choices, Wall Street Journal and The Oxford American magazines. Earle has written liner notes for over 40 recordings, including 1999's Grammy-nominated "The Celtic Album" by the Boston Pops Orchestra. In 1999, he wrote six essays for the widely praised reference book "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music," co-published by Cork University Press and New York University Press. He also consulted on four film documentaries of Irish traditional music broadcast on public television.

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