It's been 10 years since the last O'Brien and Scott studio recording, six since Bruce Molsky's last project, six since Pete Huttlinger's last album of original material, five for Daily & Vincent (discounting a Statler Brothers' tribute and an album of gospel tunes) and four for Claire Lynch. This year also brought the first ever solo project from John Driskell Hopkins, though he's gained lots of notice as an integral part of the Zac Brown Band.
For fans, all arrived with a sigh and a "What took you so long?" Perhaps it's emblematic of the state of the music industry that releases from influential artists are coming fewer and farther between these days. (I interviewed James Alan Shelton this year, and he noted that he'll probably never release a new album, as there just isn't enough return to warrant the investment of time and resources.) Still, it felt like Christmas came early a few times this year, both in terms of surprise -- who knew that O'Brien and Scott were working on another project? -- and also in terms of quality: There were a few albums released this year that, in time, might well prove to be lasting hallmarks of the musicians' careers, such as the first four on this list.
1. Noam Pikelny - Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe
A track-for-track, in-sequence recreation of one of the most respected recordings in bluegrass music, one that Kenny Baker released in 1976. Strange? Nope. Brilliant.
2. Dailey & Vincent - Brothers of the Highway
Says Vincent, "We wanted to make an album about the joys of a simple way of life and tell stories through descriptive lyrics about friends, family, and love." They did, and it it's their best album to date which, for D&V, is saying something.
3. Bruce Molsky - If It Ain't Here When I Get Back
The freshest old-time music you could ever hope to hear. This is a very important album, given what Molsky brings to the music but also because of how few albums he releases. Definitely a big highlight this year.
4. John Driskell Hopkins & Balsam Range - Daylight
I believe this is his first solo release, and it certainly leaves me wanting more. A strong, confident album.
5. Della Mae - This World Oft Can Be
This album marks a move from the B leagues to the Majors for what is by any measure an extremely capable group of musicians. It also earned them a Grammy nod this year.
6. Cindy Woolf - May
Woolf is an independent artist that vast swaths of the country will likely never hear, which is too bad. This album is confident, layered and heartfelt. It's funny, too.
7. Tim O'Brien & Darrell Scott - Memories and Moments
Quirky, adept, interesting, intelligent and entirely worthwhile. This album was eagerly awaited, and is one of the best things to come along this year.
8. Pete Huttlinger - McGuire's Landing
Huttlinger has resided largely in the shadows, with the bulk of his career spent as a session musician (he has even won an Emmy for scoring a PBS special). His health has been an obstacle, and he is currently awaiting a heart transplant. It's a situation that is far more dire than he lets on, yet through it all -- his heart condition is genetic, one that he has lived with his entire life -- he has still been creating music, all of which comes from a place of stark honesty, musicianship and an awareness of craft. This project literally began when he was in the hospital; Huttlinger vowed to begin working on it when he got up and about. The music is varied, gorgeous and can stand on its own. Still, the project also comes with a long prose piece, a kind of novella, that the pieces illustrate. It's a release that is truly remarkable in every way.
9. Claire Lynch - Dear Sister
Lynch is a great writer and performer, though this album includes a lineup that is a draw in itself, including Mark Schatz and Bryan McDowell. Lynch gives them lots write an essay of elbow room, and the result is less an album than it is an event. If you haven't heard it, you've really missed something.
10. Adam Steffey - New Primitive
The first track opens with a pop-music flourish that you don't typically find on old-time albums. It's a statement that this isn't just another album of traditional tunes. Certainly, it isn't. Steffey looks back in order to look forward. And it's quite a view.