Top 10 Albums, 2005

Earle Hitchner at the Celtic Cafe

Top 10 Traditional Albums of 2005

Music by Lennons, O'Connell and Morrow, McKeons top the list


By Earle Hitchner

[Published on January 25, 2005, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper in New York City. Copyright © Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]

Shortly after coming to the Irish Echo in 1991, I decided to compile an annual top 10 list of Irish traditional recordings that would stubbornly resist the trend to place albums in several, often arbitrary categories. I felt then, as I do now, that such category-crammed lists were thinly veiled attempts to pacify as many musicians, publicists, and record labels as possible by spreading acclaim like cheap margarine. Critics, if they really are critics, should have the courage of their convictions and rank the recordings, no matter how difficult the process and unwieldy the challenge. To me, it's a matter of put up or shut up, and each year I choose to put up for "Ceol" readers.

Every one of these standout albums from 2005, unflinchingly ranked 1 to 10, belongs in your listening library.

(1) WITHIN A MILE OF KILTY, by Ben, Charlie, and Maurice Lennon, Brian Rooney, Seamus Quinn, and John Gordon (Clo Iar-Chonnachta CICD 159)
With a lineup boasting those six fiddlers as well as Ciaran Curran, Noel O'Grady, Frank Kilkelly, and Gabriel McArdle as accompanists, you'd expect the result to be impressive. But an all-star crew (paging Patrick Street) doesn't always create something special, despite the best of intentions. "Within a Mile of Kilty," for which I wrote an essay gratis, exceeds expectations. Beautifully conceived, crafted, and executed, the music spans four decades and taps into the rich loam of tradition thriving in or near the tiny North Leitrim village of Kiltyclogher, nicknamed Kilty. Four of these musicians-Quinn, Curran, McArdle, and Ben Lennon-collaborated 17 years ago on another superb album, "Dog Big and Dog Little," which took its title from the local names for two hills between Kiltyclogher and Fermanagh's Derrygonnelly, where Quinn was born. Hearing that quartet, supplemented by Charlie Lennon on piano, perform "The Girl Who Broke My Heart/Billy Bocker" reels and "The Lonesome Jig/The Tenpenny Bit" recalls the brilliance of the earlier recording. Other tracks showcasing more of the soloing skill of Quinn, Ben and Charlie Lennon, Ben Lennon's 1977 All-Ireland fiddle champion son Maurice (on viola), Brian Rooney, and John Gordon (1928-2002), who's heard on two medleys to which Charlie Lennon tastefully added piano, make this CD something very special. Kilty clout reigned supreme in 2005.

You may have to go as far back as "Noel Hill and Tony Linnane" in 1979 to hear a concertinist and fiddler as tightly meshed as O'Connell and Morrow. From Glin, West Limerick, O'Connell is a former All-Ireland hexagonal-box champion, while Morrow, a fiddler from Carrigallen, Leitrim, is the youngest brother of Dervish fiddler Tom Morrow. Since 1997 they have been an inspired duo in Ireland, and their recording debut here is no less inspired, bristling with slipstream propulsion and often dazzling dexterity. "My Former Wife/Paddy in London/Headwood Crossing" jigs, "The Drunken Sailor" hornpipe, and "Castle Kelly/Devils of Dublin/Hare's Paw" and "Fred Finn's/Larry's Favourite" reels are as good as Irish traditional music gets. Precision and panache abound, and only a hairbreadth predilection for speed over subtlety prevents the CD from becoming a bona fide classic. Even so, every time I play the album, my admiration for it intensifies. With the redoubtable McGlynn laying down an impeccable rhythm on acoustic guitar, O'Connell and Morrow have made a startlingly accomplished, thoroughly riveting album.

(3) THE DUSTY MILLER, by Gay, Conor, and Sean McKeon (self-issued, CDGMCK002)
Far and away, this is the best album of uilleann piping I heard in 2005. "The Dusty Miller" teems with fully harmonized trio piping of irresistible energy and expertise from Dublin's Gay McKeon, a disciple of Leo Rowsome, and Gay's two sons. What makes this recording remarkable is how three distinct, masterful piping styles blend so magnificently, achieving a whole that never loses its grip on the parts. When the three family members perform "Comb Your Hair and Curl It/The Dusty Miller" hop jigs and "Pretty Girls of Mayo/The Jolly Tinker" reels, they almost levitate the listener. Gay playing "The Humours of Carraigholt/The West Wind" reels, Sean playing "Lady Gordon's/Ceo Na gNoc/The Boyne Hunt" reels, and Conor playing "Palm Sunday/I Ne'er Shall Wean Her/Strike the Gay Harp" jigs provide three of nine sterling solos interlacing the 15-track album. As they did for O'Connell and Morrow, Arty McGlynn lends his exquisite acoustic-guitar backing and engineer Paul Gurney adds his knob-twirling touch to the CD. The McKeons need no more power to their elbows. They have it in abundance.

(4) LOCAL GROUND, by Altan (Narada/EMI 70876-19196-2-2)
Perhaps their best recording since the quintessential "Island Angel" CD of 1993, "Local Ground" is a good title for an evident return by Altan to what makes them a perennially outstanding band. Bob Dylan covers and Dolly Parton collaborations are thankfully absent here. The only obvious slice of exotica comes from guest Galician gaita and whistle player Carlos Nunez on two tracks, "The Silver Slipper" and "Is the Big Man Within?/Tilly Finn's Reel." Like Nunez, guests Graham Henderson on keyboards, Donal Lunny on guitar, Jim Higgins on bodhran, Steve Cooney on bass, and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill on piano all stay within the framework of Altan's trademark sound. The synaptic snap and roiling heat of the band's ensemble work in such medleys as "Tommy Peoples/The Road to Cashel/The Repeal of the Union/Richie's Reel" and "The Humours of Castlefin/Nia's Dance/An Duidin" are galvanizing, and Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh's expressive lead singing has never conveyed more tenderness than in "As I Roved Out" and the Irish lullaby "Dun Do Shuil." Toss in a sprightly tune written by Daithi Sproule, "The Roseville," in which Ciaran Curran plays mandolin, and you have a new Altan album covering not just local ground but lot of other fertile turf.

(5) NOTES FROM THE HEART, by Mick, Louise, and Michelle Mulcahy (Clo Iar-Chonnachta CICD 160)
Born in Brosna, North Kerry, and a resident of Abbeyfeale, West Limerick, button accordionist Mick Mulcahy proves the family who plays music together stays together. With daughters Louise on flute and uilleann pipes and Michelle on harp, fiddle, concertina, and piano, Mick previously issued "The Mulcahy Family" in 2000, and this second family outing is every bit as good and arguably more seasoned. The three pay homage to Galway-born, N.J.-resident flutist Mike Rafferty by performing two of his compositions, and Michelle tucks in one of her own tunes, "The Road to Cree." Every instrument heard here bears the unmistakable stamp of an adept. There are no lapses or weaknesses in this album pulsing with power, sensitivity, and buoyant swing. The most tantalizing elements of Sliabh Luachra and Clare traditions merge in their mutual playing, and their respective solos virtually glow. Still in their early 20s, Michelle and Louise display a level of proficiency and tuneful communication belying their youth, while Mick burnishes his reputation as a box player whose skill is comparable to that of Joe Cooley, Sonny Brogan, Tony MacMahon, and Bill Harte, all of whom influenced him.

(6) AN TRAIDISIUN BEO, by Angelina Carberry (self-issued, ReelTrad RTR 002)
"Memories From the Holla" in 2001 and "Angelina Carberry and Martin Quinn" in 2003 were recordings that featured Angelina's beguiling ability on tenor banjo, and this solo CD from 2005 will only bolster the respect for her nimble, lyrical, unhurried, clear-stream playing style. Ireland's spreading neo-trad movement, in which ego-flexing invention takes a backseat to hard-core playing, has not yet taken firm foothold in America, but this recording may become an influential exemplar. Half of the dozen tracks are just banjo and accompaniment, whether John Blake's guitar and piano or Martin Gavin's bodhran. Tunes unfold organically in Carberry's ever-capable hands, with no nosebleed rush to the finish line in such medleys as "Dermot Grogan's Jig/Hardiman's Fancy" and "Finbar Dwyer's/The Dogs Among the Bushes." This spellbinding album of four-string banjo music by Carberry could not be more different in style and effect from the solo albums made by tenor banjoist nonpareil Gerry O'Connor, and yet the two share a deference for the integrity of a melody and for hitting notes fully and cleanly. Each of these virtuosos shows how versatile the instrument can be, and Knocknacarra, Galway's Angelina Carberry also demonstrates that ease isn't the same as easy. Joy flows through everything she plays.

(7) IN PLAY, by Liz Carroll and John Doyle (Compass 744182)
Two extremely gifted instrumentalists here forgo the usual panoply of guests to create an album drawing solely from what they can generate together. The result is more musicality than heard on dozens of guest-dotted releases. Chicago's Liz Carroll, an All-Ireland senior fiddle champion in 1975, has a vaunted technique to go along with a prodigious output as a composer (21 of the album's 27 tunes are hers). She plays with stunning skill and imagination throughout the CD, and in Dublin-born guitar and bouzouki player John Doyle she has found an accompanist who can match and complement her brilliance. The tight weave of ferocity and finesse in their rendition of "Rolling in the Barrel/The Laurel Tree/O'Rourke's" traditional reels borders on mind-reading, while the haunting beauty of Carroll's "The Island of Woods" and Doyle's "Hunter's Moon" compositions shines through delicate, nuanced playing. Packing plenty of punch in its lean-muscled approach, "In Play" expertly realizes the potential of Carroll and Doyle as a dream duo in trad.

(8) THE FARTHEST WAVE, by Cathie Ryan (Shanachie 78062)
Her fourth solo recording in nine years is also this Detroit-born Irish singer's best. Cathie Ryan has a voice of indisputable magnetism, but in previous solo albums, artifice occasionally displaced artfulness as vocal trills and clutches hammered home emotional points better served by underserving them. This CD breaks free of all that. She sheds any vestige of self-consciousness and mannerism by allowing a song to come to her naturally rather than chasing it down with technique. Nowhere is Ryan's change in vocal course more in evidence than in John Spillane's "The Wild Flowers," a song of deceptive simplicity and uncloying soul that she absolutely claims as her own. Ryan also adroitly conveys the erotic subtext of an old woman pining for "a man who is high in his mettle" in "As the Evening Declines," a Francis Higgins's poem adapted and set to music by her former husband, Dermot Henry. Only the sometimes puerile lyrics of "Be Like the Sea" briefly blemish this superb CD, a revelation in Ryan's solo canon.

(9) BUILLE, by Niall Vallely, Paul Meehan, and Caoimhin Vallely (Vertical CD 071)
Remember what I said about Ireland's neo-trad movement? Well, here's an exception of exceptional merit. With Thoreauvian boldness Buille marches to the beat of a different drummer. In fact, the trio's name in Irish means beat (as well as blow or stroke), and a boundary-pushing musical perspective is what they attempt to deliver on this self-titled debut CD. Comprising 14 melodies written by Niall and two traditional tunes, the album mixes Irish traditional with jazz and classical strains and stylings that collectively refresh the shopworn "hiberno-jazz" category of music. The best realization of a trad-jazz blend on the CD is the medley of "1st of August/2nd of August," Niall Vallely tunes played by him with stirring, almost puckish glee on concertina. If Niall Vallely, brother Caoimhin Vallely on piano, and Paul Meehan on acoustic guitar have not quite hit upon something startlingly new in sound, they have most assuredly raised that sound to a new level of skill, sophistication, and soul worthy of any Irish traditional music devotee's interest.

(10) I WILL IF I CAN, by John Carty (self-issued, Racket RR005)
This is the first post-Shanachie solo CD by Carty, whose prior solo recordings on Clo Iar-Chonnachta and Shanachie established him as one of the most accomplished Irish multi-instrumentalists alive. Born in London to a father from Boyle and a mother from Cashel, John Carty returned to his father's home county to live in the early 1990s, and the music this talented tenor banjoist, fiddler, tenor guitarist, and flutist has recorded since then constitutes an impressive body of work. Accompanied by Alec Finn on bouzouki and guitar, Brian McGrath on piano, and Johnny McDonagh on bodhran, Carty sticks to banjo and tenor guitar here except for the final track where he adds fiddle. His reverence for such past masters as Patsy Tuohy, Michael Coleman, and James Morrison undergirds the medleys "Steam Packet/Kiss the Maid Behind the Barrel," "Galway Hornpipe/Maid in the Cherry Tree," and "The Wreck of the '99/Dem Golden Slippers/Goodbye Mick, Goodbye Pat." The flourishing diaspora of Irish traditional music had no finer exponent than John Carty in London, and the fact that he's "back home" in North Connacht emphasizes how close in sensibility his playing in and out of Ireland was and is. "I Will If I Can" captures him in peak form.

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