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David Royko Psy.D

Chris Thile – Best Albums of the Year

From 1993 through 2008, I contributed a year-end Best CDs feature to the Chicago Tribune, for which my main "beat" was Bluegrass & Newgrass music. Below are the CDs of Chris Thile’s (and his groups) that made the lists.


#1. Chris Thile: "Leading Off" (Sugar Hill). At 13, mandolinist Chris Thile has already produced an instrumental masterpiece. Sure, he has a mountain of technique, but it is his originality as a player and composer that marks him as a future giant, and that future is not very distant.


#1. Chris Thile: Not All Who Wander Are Lost (Sugar Hill). Mandolinist Chris Thile's third album is a masterpiece so breathtaking, it must be ranked among the 10 best progressive bluegrass instrumental projects of all time. His composing and arranging are at once complex and accessible, his flair for melody equaled by an exceptional gift for improvising, while every track, even the most reflective, is imbued with a joyous sense of celebration. His collaborators, including Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Edgar Meyer, and members of Thile's band Nickel Creek, are the type of like-minded innovators required to do his compositions justice, and are among the very few who are in his class as instrumentalists. Thile, all of 20 years old, has produced one for the ages.


#2. Nickel Creek, "This Side" (Sugar Hill). Are they bluegrass? The same question dogged New Grass Revival 30 years ago, and in the end, who cares? With Chris Thile's mandolin leading the way, Nickel Creek is the new standard for acoustic string music, and "This Side" is as close to a "statement" as the New Acoustic Music scene has produced in a generation.


#2. Mike Marshall and Chris Thile: Into the Cauldron (Sugar Hill). Another album by two mandolin monsters, “Into The Cauldron” could be a roadmap for the instrument’s future. On purely technical terms, Thile’s and Marshall’s only real peers are each other, while their composing and improvising are so intriguing yet soulful as to render this album recommendable as pure music and not simply an orgy for mandolin fanatics.


#1. Chris Thile: "How To Grow a Woman From the Ground" (Sugar Hill). After wandering ever further from bluegrass with Nickel Creek and his own solo albums over the past decade, mandolinist/singer Thile charges back to home base with a modernist bluegrass grand slam. Strutting their stuff with the boss is Thile's cherry-picked crop of like-aged (mid-20s) acoustic virtuosi, including local boys Greg Garrison on bass and Noam Pikelny on banjo.


#2. Punch Brothers: Punch (Nonesuch). Thile and his band of young acoustic string wizards apply abstract lyrics to music as demanding as Newgrass gets. Their breathtaking virtuosity isn't about soloing but complex ensemble unity, with a cumulative power that leaves the listener pleasantly rung out.