Top 10 Albums, 2004

Earle Hitchner at the Celtic Cafe

Top 10 Traditional Albums of 2004

Boston Trio, Galway Flutist Lead List for 2004 Self-issued albums claim seven of top 10 trad spots


By Earle Hitchner

[Published on January 19, 2005, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper in New York City. Copyright © Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]

What trad trends emerged in 2004?

A disturbing one is groups of considerable instrumental prowess who insist on showcasing mediocre vocals. "Live in Kyteler's Inn, Kilkenny, Ireland" by the Carlow-based trio Caladh, "Last Night's Fun" by the England-based Irish trio Sherburn, Bartley & Scott, and "Open the Door for 3" by the Cork-based trio Nuada all suffer from lackluster singing. Comprising fiddler Jeremy Spencer, button accordionist Padraig King, and singer, banjoist, and mandolinist Dáithí Kearney, Nuada has an especially impressive instrumental lineup and could become an international force--if they can solve the middling vocals. Another disturbing trend: Irish traditional music has fallen farther below the radar of those who nominate albums for Grammys. None of the currently nominated CDs come from Irish trad or folk acts. Recordings by U2, Van Morrison, Moya Brennan, and Elvis Costello are among this year's Irish-related Grammy hopefuls.

Still another troubling trend is the costs and challenges of overseas acts touring America. One stateside agency representing several Irish traditional acts posted this on its website: "The dollar vs. the pound, and even against the euro and--can you believe it?--even the Canadian dollar, sucks right now.... When you are paid in U.S. dollars and then have to cash them into pounds or euros upon return from tour, that relates to losing one-fourth to one-third of your income.... For fans that paid $15 or $20 for tickets for the last tour and who are now asked to pay $18 or $25, please understand that there is a good reason behind this."

A more encouraging development is the steady rise in the number of self-issued, do-it-yourself albums. The majority of the top recordings from 2004 chosen here and in next week's "Ceol" column were not issued by major commercial or established indie labels. In fact, most of the CDs I received for review last year were self-issued. This is no longer a trend. It's become the norm.

Regarding my annual Irish Echo list of the top traditional albums, a musician in Ireland confided to me: "You realize only one comes away happy."

Maybe a No. 1 ranking for a CD is the only way to bring a smile to the musician or musicians who made it. In an age when every music magazine seems to be concocting excuses to create lists of the top 100 (recall my chiding of Rolling Stone magazine), the cachet of cracking any list has been watered down.

But as a critic who takes his responsibility seriously, I deplore cop-out lists, the kind where someone's top 10 picks are actually 10 No. 1 picks in arbitrary, narrowly defined categories. If you're going to make a top 10 list, summon the courage to rank the albums 1 through 10.

Courage, however, doesn't make the rankings any easier to do. This year I've compiled a top 30 list, rather than my usual top 20, because there were so many superior recordings in 2004. I could not comfortably consign albums ranked 21-30 to an honorable-mention cluster.

The top 10 recordings of 2004 follow. Along with the Irish Echo's Traditional Artist of the Year, albums ranked 11-30 will appear in next week's "Ceol" column. Every one of the 30 belongs in your CD player.

(1) THE BOSTON EDGE, by Joe Derrane, Séamus Connolly, and John McGann (Mapleshade 10332; Those who gushed over "Ireland's Harvest," an album by Derrane, Frankie Gavin, and Brian McGrath in 2002, seemed more dazzled by the idea of the partnership (Gavin worshipers are legion) than its actual realization on CD. It was a very good, not great, album marred by sonic imbalance, a couple of odd tune choices, and too much let's-wing-it jousting. Emphatically superior to that album is "The Boston Edge," where the tightness of Derrane's button accordion, Connolly's fiddle, and McGann's guitar and mandolin playing clearly stems from proper rehearsing and occasional gigging together. The meticulous care with which the trio have mapped out their music allows them the freedom to improvise or ornament confidently while holding fast to the melody. Virtuosity and vitality run neck and neck right from the memorable opening track, "The Curragh Races/The Skylark/The Reconciliation." There's no letdown in taste or touch anywhere, and each instrumentalist shines within the teamwork of the trio. What a knockout CD debut by three of Boston's finest.

(2) SPEED 78, by Mike Rafferty (Larraga MOR 1302; Ballinakill, East Galway-born flute and uilleann pipes player Mike Rafferty belies his age, 78, on this long-awaited solo album. Lending fine support are his daughter Mary on button accordion, her husband, Dónal Clancy, on guitar and bouzouki, Willie Kelly on fiddle, Felix Dolan on piano, and Joe Madden on button accordion. The music is beautifully paced and gracefully played, with all the soulfulness for which Mike Rafferty is well known. Those qualities especially come to the fore in four unaccompanied flute solos by Mike. They also surface in Mike and Mary's pipes-accordion duet in "Queen of the Rushes/Fr. John's Jubilee" jigs and in their flute-button accordion playing during the second jig of "Kevin Moloney's/The Scotsman Over the Border." The 22 tracks include five spoken-word stories from Mike Rafferty that only add to the album's natural appeal. If you're unmoved by this solo CD, have a doctor check your hearing. Or pulse.

(3) THE KILMORE FANCY, by Catherine and John McEvoy with Felix Dolan (Cat. No. Lagore 001; no website contact): This is the pure drop in Connacht and especially North Roscommon-South Sligo instrumental music, known for its rhythmic flow with plenty of rolls and other ornamentation. There's a tantalizing bite at times to Catherine McEvoy's phrasing on flute, while her older brother John occasionally relies on quick stops in his fiddling to pique interest. The reels "Low Road to Glin/Ceol na gCeartan," the jigs "Paddy Fahy's/Henchey's Delight," and the reels "Man of the House/Gan Ainm" are full servings of the siblings' impeccable tone, phrasing, and pacing. Supplying a steady, supple piano rhythm is Felix Dolan, who also accompanied Catherine McEvoy on "Traditional Flute Music in the Sligo-Roscommon Style," her splendid solo CD in 1996. "The Kilmore Fancy" is a tribute to the Irish traditional music diaspora: Catherine and John McEvoy were born in Birmingham, England, and Felix Dolan was born in the Bronx, N.Y.

(4) O'SULLIVAN MEETS O'FARRELL, by Jerry O'Sullivan (Jerry O'Sullivan Music; Every aspect of this third solo CD from New York uilleann piper Jerry O'Sullivan is commendable: the playing, tune choices, and 29-page insert booklet. If the 18th-century tune collector and uilleann piper O'Farrell were alive today, he'd beam from ear to ear over how well fellow piper O'Sullivan has served his work. Of the more than 400 tunes published by O'Farrell between 1804 and 1810, 27 have been retrieved and revitalized by O'Sullivan, who performs them unaccompanied on D-pitched uilleann pipes. It's the most important modern documentation of O'Farrell's work to date. That fact alone would elevate O'Sullivan's CD above other piping releases in 2004. But his dexterity on chanter, regulators, and drones, coupled with the pleasure and imagination he invests in each melody, makes "O'Sullivan Meets O'Farrell" something altogether special.

(5) THE KINNITTY SESSIONS, by Lúnasa (Compass 743772; Lúnasa's previous album, "Redwood," finished No. 6 in the Irish Echo's top 10 list for 2003 and closed out the band's fractious relationship, which eventually went public, with Green Linnet Records in Danbury, Conn. Now on Nashville's Compass Records, Lúnasa recorded in December 2003 inside Kinnitty Castle near Slieve Bloom Mountains in Offaly. They performed in front of a live audience, yet there's no crowd sound on the CD. Band introductions, stage patter, and audience clapping were removed out of concern that Irish radio might be put off by them. Whatever the rationale, Lúnasa's new CD conveys the crispness and intricate layering of the studio with the energy and liberating spirit of a concert. That's no mean feat. The quintet are at their edgy best here, taking chances, igniting off each other, and enjoying the craic.

(6) NO PLACE LIKE HOME, by Gerry O'Connor (Myriad Media MMCD002; Born in Garrykennedy, Tipperary, and now living in Dublin, Gerry O'Connor took a little flak last year over what some thought was an over-the-top comment made by me for the back of this album: "Even if Earl Scruggs and Béla Fleck switched from five-string to four-string banjo, I'm still not sure they could ever match the magic of Gerry O'Connor on the instrument." I stand by that assertion, and here's the proof: a magnificent third solo CD (O'Connor's "Time to Time" came out in 1991, "Myriad" in 1998) from the best tenor banjoist ever to play Irish traditional music. Possessed of a towering technique, O'Connor slightly downplays the dazzle on banjo in order to heighten more the innate beauty of the melodies, including three he composed. Nevertheless, his picking remains potent and precise. "Iniscealtra/Town Teine/Ormond Sound," reels written by his former mentor, legendary Tipperary button accordionist Paddy O'Brien, display O'Connor's unique gift for exquisite detail and inventive ornamentation. And his down-in-the-holler renditions of "Billy in the Lowground/The Temperance Reel," where he adds his fiddle to the second tune, would give any bluegrasser a run for his money.

(7) MELODIC JOURNEYS, by James Kelly (James Kelly Music JKM0147; A musician in Ireland whose opinion I respect a great deal calls this a "reference album," implying that players and listeners alike will continue to revisit it in the future. I'd add the phrase "statement album," because Dublin-born James Kelly surely makes a statement here about what a fiddle without accompaniment can accomplish in the right hands. A master of interpretation and variations, he plays on this CD with a deceptively relaxed virtuosity, silvery tone, lovely phrasing, unerring, unrushed tempo, profound respect for past masters, and deep-dwelling emotion that unfolds gracefully rather than gushes out. His style draws on finesse, not flash. "If you're a chef in a kitchen with a rack of 200 spices," he told me in an interview, "you don't reach for every single spice for your dish. The same is true for music: it becomes inedible." There's nothing "inedible" about this album. It's tasteful and tasty in repertoire, clear and confident in vision, and supremely skilled in execution.

(8) THE THING ITSELF, by Maeve Donnelly and Peadar O'Loughlin (Claddagh CCF36CD; It's been a real treat listening to the shared recording projects in recent years of Abbey, East Galway-born fiddler Maeve Donnelly, Kilmaley, West Clare-born flutist and fiddler Peadar O'Loughlin, and Dublin-born uilleann pipes, flute, and whistle player Ronan Browne. All three instrumentalists clearly enjoyed each other's company on "Touch Me If You Dare," a CD in 2002 by Browne and O'Loughlin that featured Donnelly as a guest. On "The Thing Itself," Donnelly and O'Loughlin, with Browne as a guest, surpass that previous recording's pleasure quotient. Backed again by Clare pianist Geraldine Cotter, their music is rapturously right, shot through with expertise, heart, care, close communication, and exemplary tempo. Reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas, and flings flow so beautifully on this CD that they inspired Clare-born fiddler Séamus Connolly, who won four Oireachtas duet titles with O'Loughlin, to say: "It's a celebration of music of days past, yet so new, so refreshing, and so stimulating." Amen.

(9) UNDER THE DIAMOND, by the Kane Sisters (Dawros Music DM002; Fiddlers from Dawros, near Letterfrack, Galway, Liz and Yvonne Kane are living proof that talent can be nurtured inside or outside the realm of competition. Liz Kane has won the All-Ireland senior fiddle championship (1995), the Fiddler of Dooney competition, and the Fiddler of Oriel competition twice. Yvonne Kane preferred to hone her skill away from competitive pressures. Each is an outstanding fiddler, as Liz's solo on "Farewell to Miltown/The Wheels of the World" and Yvonne's solo on "Red Tom of the Hills/Fahy's" attest. East Galway and South Sligo styles ripple through their music, including tunes from Kilconnell's Paddy Fahy and Killavil's Fred Finn. "Under the Diamond" is as stirring as the Kanes' superb duet debut in 2002, "The Well Tempered Bow."

(10) PATRICK KELLY FROM CREE (PKFC 001; no website contact): Four tapes recorded of fiddler Patrick Kelly (1905-1976) in his home during the mid-1960s are the source for this CD of 24 tracks comprising single tunes only. What's astonishing is that they presumably do not capture the Cree, West Clare, fiddler at his peak, which would have been in the 1930s and early 1940s when he wasn't recorded, according to Cooraclare musician Séamus MacMathúna. Even so, Patrick Kelly's playing on this CD is spellbinding. His bowing is assured, accurate, well-paced, rhythmic, and expertly ornamented (listen to his rendition of "The Mason's Apron"), traits typical of the period when fiddlers often played for house dances in the rural west of Ireland. Some of Patrick Kelly's fiddling has been included on past recordings, but this CD, devised and issued by his family, will undoubtedly be the one to which scholars and fans return.

Two reliable sources for albums listed in this week's and next week's "Ceol" are Custy's Traditional Music Shop, Francis St., Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland, (phone) 011-353-65-68-21727, (e-mail) custys.ennis @ eircom dot net,, and Ossian USA, 118 Beck Rd., Loudon, NH 03307, (phone) 603-783-4383, (e-mail) info @ ossianusa dot com,

Author: Earle Hitchner