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Trad's perfect ten

Often crossing generational lines, hard-core fans of Irish traditional music continue to purchase CD's with technology-defying persistence, even though overall CD sales for trad have tailed off during this deep, destructive recession in the U.S. and Ireland.

Irish traditional musicians are getting savvier about recording technology and more mindful of recording costs without compromising the quality of performance. Whether on established indie labels or self-issued, the Irish Echo's top ten traditional albums of 2009 prove the undimmed brilliance and resilience of recorded performance during these tumultuous times.

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1. "Pride of New York" by Joanie Madden, Brian Conway, Billy McComiskey, and Brendan Dolan (Compass Records 745222).

Fiddler Brian Conway had the No. 2 trad album of 2008, "Consider the Source," and was named the Irish Echo's Traditional Musician of the Year, and Billy McComiskey had the No. 1 trad album of 2008, "Outside the Box." Flute and whistle player Joanie Madden and pianist Brendan Dolan appear on both those recordings. From this longstanding performance ease with each other came "Pride of New York," an album paying homage to the vibrant legacy of New York's Irish traditional music while establishing the quartet's own distinctive identity. This is the hard core of Big Apple trad: tempo-perfect, deft, tight, melodic, sweeping, and swinging. Every one of the 13 tracks is a standout, from Madden's haunting slow air solo, to Conway's immaculate hornpipe solo, to McComiskey's riveting solo on reels, all backed superbly by Dolan. The album is further distinguished by essays from Paul Keating and Peter Brice, tune notes by Myron Bretholz, and design and artwork by Robert Hakalski. (I wrote for it too.) Hold tight to the reins of this PONY express. It moves with the pulse of memory and the passion of mastery, meriting the rare status of contemporary classic.

2. "The New Broom" by Willie Kelly and Mike Rafferty (self-issued; Larraga Music).

How does Mike Rafferty do it? Now 83 years old, the East Galway-born flutist has made what could well be his finest recording to date, a magnificent collaboration with the much younger, fellow N.J. resident Willie Kelly on fiddle, backed by Mike's son-in-law, Donal Clancy, on guitar and bouzouki. Rafferty and Kelly have known each other since 1982, and their close friendship and deep mutual respect provide rich dividends here. An Irish saying that appears in the CD, "A new broom sweeps clean, but an old one knows the corners," applies to the music made by all three instrumentalists. They play cleanly and thoroughly, and know how to reach into the corners. The trio's performance of such medleys as "Reilly of the White Hill / Martin Wynne's" reels, "Dash to Portobello / The Ladies' Pantalettes" reels (Michael Coleman memorably recorded that last reel in May 1927), and "The Green Fields of Woodford / The Fly in the Porter" jigs is especially captivating. Leaving velocity to NASCAR-minded musicians, Rafferty, Kelly, and Clancy perform at a beautiful, unhurried pace, with just the right temperament, touch, and what can only be called telepathy.

3. "On Common Ground" by Cillian Vallely and Kevin Crawford (self-issued; BallyO Records BOR 001).

Two members of Lunasa, still the best all-instrumental band in Irish trad today, venture out for a duet recording, and it's a dazzler. Born in Birmingham but a resident of Clare since 1989, flute, low whistle, and bodhran player Kevin Crawford and Armagh-born, Woodside, N.Y., resident Cillian Vallely on uilleann pipes and low whistle perform music that's fluid and full-blooded, with a trace of sharpness to avoid any simpering sweetness. Their initial twin low whistle playing on the jigs "The Ivory Flute / Straddle the Donkey / Visit to Ireland" incorporates subtle variations and flourishes to keep the musical pot simmering, and the eventual entry of Vallely's pipes adds to the track's piquancy. The duo maintain a tempo that's dynamic without being too fast or too slow, allowing ample opportunity for embellishment and spontaneity in the service of melody. "On Common Ground" is a pinnacle performance from Cillian Vallely and Kevin Crawford, two uncommonly gifted Irish traditional musicians.

4. "The Incident" by Beoga (Compass Records 744992).

The best traditional band to emerge from Ireland this century, Beoga means "lively" in Irish, and that they are. The addition in 2005 of Limerick-born singer and fiddler Niamh Dunne, daughter of uilleann piper Mickey Dunne, was a stroke of inspiration for the founding, formidable, all-instrumental quartet of Liam Bradley on keyboards, Damien McKee and Sean Og Graham on button accordions, and Eamon Murray on bodhran. This is Beoga's third album, full of heady playing, tangy exotic touches, and impish wit. The standout song sung by Dunne is "Strange Things," originally composed as "Strange Things Happening Every Day" by gospel-soul pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-73), who had a hit with it in 1944. Beoga draws much of its repertoire from tunes penned by band members, especially Graham, who contributed the reels "Three Seats Magoo" (McKee's nickname is Magoo) and the titular "The Incident."

5. "Double Play" by Liz Carroll and John Doyle (Compass Records 745022).

Nominated for a Grammy, "Double Play" is the second formal duet album by fiddler Liz Carroll and guitar and bouzouki player and singer John Doyle. They are one of the world's most accomplished Irish traditional duos, and this is their finest CD yet. It features 14 tunes from the prolific pen of Carroll, and Doyle's growth as a composer himself and as a singer is obvious. Never before have I heard Carroll play with such combined ferocity, finesse, and invention, all matched by Doyle.

6. "If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews" by Mick Moloney (Compass Records 745252).

No one is more knowledgeable and discerning about vintage Irish Americana than Mick Moloney, and this CD testifies to his ongoing exquisite excavation of 19th and early 20th century song artifacts into which he breathes imaginative new life. From "Far from the Shamrock Shore" in 2002, to the towering achievement of "McNally's Row of Flats" in 2006, to "If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews," encompassing songs from vaudeville and early Tin Pan Alley, Limerick-born Mick Moloney has reminded us in America of the musical trove we hastily overlook. The title song is a deceptive hoot, conveying through humor a serious observation about multi-ethnic cooperation. Posterity will undoubtedly place a very high value on this labor of love by Moloney. We should prize and enjoy it right now.

7. "Ceolmhar" by Holly Geraghty and Jonathan Roche (self-issued; CMPCD01).

Since 2001, Ballindine, Mayo, concertinist and harper Holly Geraghty and Brosna, Kerry, button accordionist Jonathan Roche have played together simply because they enjoy it. Out of that most natural of musical affinities comes "Ceolmhar," a self-issued recording whose title reflects the spirit of their playing: tuneful. Their music gives the impression of being easy, which is the hardest of all effects to convey, and every one of the 14 tracks on this CD showcases the pleasure each has in performing. Eight of the tunes were written by Geraghty, who reveals signs of becoming a composer of lasting impact. This young Irish duo bursts with talent.

8. "Casadh na Taoide" by Liadan (self-issued; LN0002).

Out of the Irish traditional music incubator of the University of Limerick's Irish World Academy of Music and Dance came the motivation to form Liadan in spring 2004. The sextet's self-titled debut album in 2006 stamped them as a band to watch, and "Casadh na Taoide" displays even more polish and poise than their first CD. The lineup replacement of flutist and vocalist Sarah Jane Woods with singer and flute and whistle player Catherine Clohessy has injected greater spark in the group's overall performance, guaranteeing that Liadan's reputation will continue to climb.

9. "Reelin' in Tradition" by Mick, Louise, and Michelle Mulcahy (Clo Iar-Chonnachta CICD 180).

It's not fair. No three family members should have the abundance of musical talent that Mick, Louise, and Michelle Mulcahy of Abbeyfeale, West Limerick, have. On this, their third album together ("The Mulcahy Family" and "Notes From the Heart" came out in 2000 and 2005, respectively), the Brosna, North Kerry-born Mick Mulcahy on C#/D, B/C, D/D#, C/C#, and D button accordions joins daughter Lucille on uilleann pipes and D and E-flat flutes and daughter Michelle on harp, concertina, fiddle, and piano for a largely familiar repertoire that's freshly and impressively played.

10. "Dublin Made Me" by Liam O'Connor and Sean McKeon (Na Piobairi Uilleann NPU CD 017).

The fiddling of O'Connor and the piping of McKeon are breathtaking here. Their often stunning symmetry flirts with overreaching only to remind us of how utterly in control they are. The duo stands solidly on a precipice where individual risk and mutual support vie for attention, yet not once do these musicians let ego dictate execution or technique overwhelm balance. This is an outstanding duet debut by former TG4 Young Traditional Musician of the Year winners, who are helping to remake and reassert the musical traditions of Dublin.

Next week: Trad Artist of the Year, albums 11-30, best tunebooks, and best archival releases, led by the late Eddie Clarke's monumental, four-CD "Unheard."