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Ed McKeon's Favorite Albums
Of the Last Twenty Years

  Sure, making a list is something of a gimmick, but given the opportunity, most of will dig in and start listing at the slightest suggestion. So it as, after twenty years of "folk" music broadcasting that I cast my memory back and have culled my favorite albums from the last two decades. I started with a list of about 200. I've listened to a lot of music in the last 20 years - and I've heard a lot of great albums. But these, listed here, are the ones I would request be played on the elevator to the afterlife.
  There is no assigned order. No number one album. No statistical evidence that one has been played more than another. I love these albums for a lot of reasons that will continue to share with you over the next couple of months.

Rory McLeod - Footsteps and Heartbeats (Cooking Vinyl)
Rory McLeod is a wandering minstrel of enormous talent. He's literally traveled the world from his home in England, and filtered all his influences into songs and stories that are as rich in detail, as they are memorable in melody. "Footsteps and Heartbeats" was released in 1989. It is a mélange of blues, West African rhythms, mariachi, and English folk and dance hall styles. McLeod's history as a "one-man band" leaks through in his pyrotechnic guitar and harp stylings. And whether he's describing love "I want to kiss till I forget who I am," or political injustice "Between the big thief and the little thief, it's the big thief rules the land, with one hand, he puts a penny in the pot for the poor, and with the other another and a hundred more," he writes with the voice of the common man and woman in his head. Rory lives with his wife Aimee Leonard (formerly bodhran player for Anam) and his son Solly in Scotland. "Footsteps and Heartbeats" along with all of Rory's great albums are available at his website (rorymcleod.com), where you can learn much more about the man and his music. And while we had him visit for a concert several years back, it's been too long since he's visited.

Randy Newman - Land of Dreams (Reprise)
In my mind, Randy Newman ranks in the pantheon of great American songwriters. He absorbed all that came before him in song artistry, and to it, added the sensibilities of one who group up in the era of rock and roll. What results is a man who can write a song as sublimely beautiful as "Marie" or one as absurd as "Davy the Fat Boy" (neither of which is on this particular album). Newman was born into a musical family. Uncles Emil, Lionel and Alfred were recognized film composers, as are his cousins Thomas and David. While Randy began his career as a pop songwriter (one of his first recorded songs was covered by Connecticut's Gene Pitney), but might be best known for his film scores (The Natural, Ragtime, Toy Story and Monster's Inc - for which he won an Oscar). He also received a lot of notoriety for his hit single, "Short People." "Land of Dreams," by his own admittance, is Newman's first intentionally autobiographical album. It combines mixed-up recollections of his childhood visits to his mother's home in New Orleans, and a song about his first day of school ("Four Eyes"). It ranges from the political "Roll With the Punches" which uses his trademark technique of an unreliable narrator (or dramatic monologue - if you're a reader of Robert Browning), to the parody rap of "Masterman and Baby J" (which I think may also be a parody of Christianity!) "Land of Dreams" is not my favorite Randy Newman album (that would be "Sail Away" or "Good Old Boys") but it is my favorite Randy Newman album of the past twenty years. You can read about Randy at randynewman.com, and this record is still available from the original label.

Cindy Lee Berryhill - Whose Gonna Save the World?
I remember first hearing Cindy's song, "Damn I Wish I Was a Man" on a wild Los Angeles compilation called "Radio Tokyo Tapes, Volume 3" (which also featured great cuts from The Balancing Act, The Knitters, Henry Rollins and the Minutemen). So when Rhino Records first began releasing original material, and not just the re-releases and compilations they are so famous for, I was pleased that Cindy Lee Berryhill was amongst the first artists to have a collection produced. "Whose Gonna Save the World" was an eye-opener, at the time it was released in 1987, and returning to it now, it's evident that what was revolutionary then, has aged well. Though she's a child of California, who grew up listening to Buck and Merle, Cindy was living in New York City at the time of the album's release and was one of the founders of the anti-folk movement. I was never quite sure what they were rebelling against, since folk music has always been an underdog (though I know Cindy and the group never liked the folk-kitsch of the Washington Squares, and it was a time that the major labels were courting the likes of Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin and Tracy Chapman), but it's clear that they were melding punk and folk aesthetics, and the result was edgy, wonderful acoustic music, not unlike the kind Woody Guthrie might have made if he were alive in NYC in 1987. The title cut is an autobiographical worry about inheriting the fate of the globe. And "Whatever Works" seems to be a whimsical treatise on the anti-folk movement itself. And while "This Administration" was written in scorn for the Reagan crowd, it could be sung, almost verbatim about Mr. Danger himself, George Bush, and his cronies. Cindy released a few other wonderful albums (Naked Movie Star, Straight Out of Marysville, Garage Orchestra), and now lives in a suburb of San Diego with her husband and son. She teaches guitar, plays out occasionally, and has recorded a new album with her band The Wigbillies, that she's shopping around. You can find a bit about Cindy at her website (cindyleeberryhill.com), where you can hear her new single "When Did Jesus Become a Republican?" but you won't find "Whose Gonna Save the World?" there. Shamefully, it's no longer part of the Rhino catalogue, but Rhino did release a CD version for a short time, and your best to find it is a used music site on the web.

Dick Gaughan - A Different Kind of Love Song (Appleseed)
The title, and the title song say it all. Gaughan composed this album, as he says in notes on his excellent, newly-revised website (dickgaughan.co.uk) because, "It was quite clearly time to stop reporting and start participating." As a Scot born of an Irish fiddler father, Gaughan had forged a strong career performing music of the Gaels, both Scots and Irish, and had achieved great acclaim for his work with the Boys of the Lough and previous solo album Handful Of Earth. But this was the time of Reagan and Thatcher, and it was both the height and the end of the Cold War. It's a political album, and while much has changed in the world (explicit references to the Communist scare seem dated), much of the core of the album's ideal is so true that the songs reflect, frighteningly, accurately upon our current world situation. The title cut is a response by Gaughan to those who would have him sing love songs. He explains, that his songs of protest, are, indeed love songs, of a different kind. This album contains a number of amazing originals (including the title cut), some astonishing interpretations of songs by Leon Rosselson (the strangely au courant "Stand Up for Judas"), a revealing re-take of Joe South's "The Games People Play," and a political triptych of Oswald Andrae's "Prisoner 562," Peggy Seeger's "Song of Choice" and Ewan MacColl's "Father's Song," which can still raise gooseflesh in its power. I encourage you to read Gaughan's own notes on the songs, and to explore his just released, "Lucky For Some," on Greentrax. "A Different Kind of Love Song" is available in the U.S. on the superb Appleseed label (appleseedrec.com).

Robbie Fulks - Let's Kill Saturday Night (Geffen)
Consider what happens when someone of immense musical talent and unbending artistic integrity makes their major-label debut. Compromise, comes to mind. Sellout? Eternal aesthetic damnation? Robbie Fulks had a couple of choices. After two superb retro-country, post-ironic triumphs like "Country Love Songs," and "South Mouth" from whence came such classics as "She Took a Lot of Pills and Died," and (for Nashville), "Fuck This Town," he could have stayed the course and been pigeon-holed forever in the consumer's mind as a hip hillbilly. Or he could have succumbed to commercial pressure, and become the nineties version of, say, Kenny Loggins. Instead, he chose to produce the album himself (despite the fact that he had worked successfully with Steve Albini who was known for his work with the Pixies and Nirvana) and released "Let's Kill Saturday Night," which demonstrates Robbie's ability to morph from the above-referenced genius hick, to a soulful balladeer, to a brainy punk rocker, and back to a throwback county renegade. This ability to bounce, chimera-like, betwixt styles, cursed the album. Longtime fans mourned the loss of the insurgent country sound. New listeners couldn't figure out what Fulks was up to. Faux-intellectual critics whined about its lack of organic energy, and lambasted its "slickness." And store clerks couldn't figure out where to file it. It was doubly cursed when the Geffen label disappeared in the midst of a merger and the "marginal" artists were flung hither and yon. I think it's an amazing album. It's haunted me for eight years. I want to poke holes in the roof of my car with my fists when I hear the title cut and the brilliant "Little King," I can't resist the swagger of "You Shouldn't Have," or the searing pain of "Pretty Little Poison." And "Stone River" makes me cry, every time. Fulks is a show-off lyricist, who is always on the money. Can you think of another album that contain even one of these words: auto de fe, Pleistocene, truckled)? And while I love many of his other releases, this one showcases Fulk's brilliance as a songwriter, producer and performer who cannot be easily delineated by facile labels. While Geffen no longer exists to distribute this work of genius, you can find it in used record shops, and the equivalent websites. Robbie's latest album, "Georgia Hard" is on Yep Roc. His own website is robbiefulks.com.

Steve Earle - Train A Comin' (Winter Harvest/E-squared)
I saw Steve Earle perform at the Iron Horse about a year before his descent into what he once described as "a four year vacation in the ghetto" and what was, in fact, a serious drug addiction that eventually landed him in jail. That night, I stood in line next to Shawn Colvin, who was dying to hear him. He was a wreck. Barely said a word to the audience. Shrugged his way through a set of songs, stripping them of their greatness with a ragged delivery, and a mindless thump of thumb on his hollow body, serving as an annoying percussion track to his lack of passion for the songs we, in the audience, cared so much about. So the news of his inevitable incarceration, a few years later, was no big surprise. The big surprise was the album he delivered upon his release. Earle had burned a lot of bridges in Nashville, and it was unlikely that anyone was going to front the money needed to produce and distribute an album for someone who was so unreliable (and yet undeniably talented). But the folks at Winter Harvest recognized his artistic greatness, and the need to revive a career he'd left smoldering. Earle's guitars were hanging in pawn shops all over Nashville, and he was missing a few teeth when he appeared in the studio with an incredible set of session men (Peter Rowan, Norman Blake, Roy Huskey, Jr., and some backing vocals by Emmylou Harris, to record the album which would restore his artistic integrity. "Train A Comin," recorded live in the studio, with acoustic instruments reveals the talent, fire and brilliance of Earle, and his songs. Several of the songs here had been floating around the repertoire for years, ("The Mercenary Song" and "Tom Ame's Prayer") but others, like "South Nashville Blues" spoke directly to the recent hardships Earle had suffered. Along with these originals are a few amazing covers of the Beatle's "I'm Looking Through You," and the great pre-reggae hit, "Rivers of Babylon." "Train A Comin'" is now available (in Earle's original sequencing), on Earle's Warner Brothers imprint, E-Squared. Of course, we all know where Earle is these days, married again (seventh time, this time to Alison Moorer), touring this summer with a bluegrass band (measuring his curse words from the stage), and protesting just about everything he finds injustice in (listen to his latest great album, "The Revolution Starts…Now" and find out more about Steve at steveearle.com).

Lucinda Williams - Lucinda Williams (Rough Trade/Koch)
Though many of us consider this the "first" Lucinda Williams album, it was really her third, as we soon found out when this one took off, and her first two recordings (on Smithsonian Folkways - the first, a collection of folk, traditional and blues, and the second, her first collection of originals) were re-released for the coattail effect. For many of us it was the first time we heard the soulful, bluesy, beautiful voice of Lucinda Williams. Or the first time we paid attention. And we couldn't get enough. I originally owned this album on vinyl, released, as it was, in 1988, that year when none of us could decide whether to spend the $300 on a CD player. The album was released by Rough Trade, more famous for their British punk and post-punk releases (in the end a good place for Lucinda), and from start to finish, this album is a searing, gorgeous, soulful affair. Producer Gurf Morlix helped Williams integrate a meaner edge to her previously acoustic approach, and the flame he lit is in evidence from the longing-fuelled opener "I Just Want To See You So Bad," through the duel tributes to Southern (read Louisiana) life, "Big Red Sun Blues" and "Crescent City," (played often on post-Katrina airwaves), to the strong-willed, strong-woman demands of William's first "hit" "Passionate Kisses." The CD re-release, a decade after the original appeared, featured several live cuts of Williams' originals, and some classic blues, initially released as an EP by Rough Trade. These live cuts leave Williams' indelible mark on blues like "He Asked Me For Water," and opened our ears to the haunting pain of songs like "Side of the Road," and "Something About What Happens When We Talk." Of course, Williams has released several amazing, and successful albums since, and earned a reputation as something of a recording prima dona, and a live performer of power, but occasional instability (those of you who saw her at the Warner in Torrington will attest to that). All CD versions of "Lucinda Williams" are out of print, and have become collector's item. Be prepared to pay well beyond the retail price to acquire a copy. Her latest album is a live recording which reveals the passion of those performances. She has a website, of course, lucindawilliams.com, and she owes the world a new record this year.

Billy Bragg & Wilco - Mermaid Avenue (Electra)
You probably know the story of this album. Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, and director of his archives, had a pile of Woody's song lyrics without melodies. She heard Billy Bragg's music and decided he was just the musician to bring them back to life as songs. For his part, Bragg, not a little nervous about his role as Woody's collaborator, and a bit reluctant as a Brit to be held solely responsible for such an American treasure, enlisted one of his favorite American bands, Wilco, to help. The rest, as they say, is history. "Mermaid Avenue," is proof of Woody's greatness as a lyricist, though the album swings from inane ("Walt Whitman's Niece") to the silly ("Hoodoo Voodoo") to the simple and lovely ("One By One"). In the end, though they performed together on several cuts, Bragg and the boys from Wilco did not have a totally congenial aesthetic journey. As the documentary ("Man In the Sand") aptly demonstrates. Because of the raw feeling engendered by the writing and recording process, the anticipated Mermaid Avenue tour of Billy Bragg and Wilco never materialized. Billy Bragg and Wilco met on stage once to perform material from the album, at the Fleadh on Randall's Island in NYC (you can see the performance in "Man In the Sand"), and I feel lucky to have been there. All musicians seemed to be enjoying the performance. Bragg went out with his band the Blokes with a Mermaid Avenue tour, and both Bragg and Wilco have continued to play numbers from the album in live sets. So much of the Guthrie material was recorded that a second volume of Mermaid Avenue tunes was released. By the way, Mermaid Avenue was the street where the Guthrie family lived on Coney Island. Internet access to the musicians is at billybragg.co.uk and wilcoworld.net.

Michael Fracasso - Love and Trust (Dejadisc)
Driving of a family vacation through the Northern California foothills on stomach churning switchbacks, I was somehow able to tear my hands from the steering wheel to scan the signals making it to the car stereo, when a lovely male tenor voice filled the car. After the first song finished, the next began, and on the music went on, song by song, through what appeared to be an entire album. The songs were folky and leaned toward old country western themes, and the voice seemed to make vague references to Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison. When the last song faded, the first song began again. And the next day when we piled into the car, we found the station, and the album was still playing. By the end of the day we were able to sing some of the choruses, but we had no idea who the artist was. Nor could we figure out what station we were listening to. It turns out, that the station was a new one, broadcasting a single CD over and over to "reserve" the bandwith on the airwaves. The album, and the voice, and the songs haunted me. I'd find myself singing, "the thing about you…" and "Wake up, George…" and being totally frustrated that I didn't know the artist's name, nor could I find any information (this was way before the days of Google, or any other search engines for that matter). About a year later, a sample copy of a magazine I was writing for arrived in the mail. It was one of the first magazines to include a CD. I popped the CD into the player, and heard that voice, and one of the songs from that trip. As you have by now guessed, it was Michael Fracasso, and the album was "Love and Trust." It wasn't the first recording Fracasso had ever made, but it was the first since his arrival in Austin. Fracasso, originally from Ohio, had spent time on the singer-songwriter scene in the East Village (in fact, one of his earliest recordings is on the Cornelia Street Co-op album released years before). "Love and Trust" was his debut as a Texas singer-songwriter. His live performances in the "Live Music Capital of the World" had captivated the town, and he was one of the first artists to be chosen to record for Austin's now-defunct Dejadisc. Fracasso's songs are equal parts fragility and magic. They soar and swoop and do all the things good songs should, referencing everything from Flannery O'Connor ("Wise Blood") to Let's Make A Deal ("Door Number Three") and parsing heartbreak, love and death. Some of the songs from the album were recently re-released on a very worthwhile "Retrospective" (Texas Music Group), at the same time Fracasso's latest "World In A Drop of Water" was released.
Find out more at michaelfracasso.com.

Keep listening to the show, Wednesday mornings 6am to 9am
as I keep presenting my top picks. Happy listening!

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