Well, 2016 is coming to a close. It’s been a tumultuous year for most of us, I am sure; it certainly has been for me. I am not one for emotional goodbyes, but I suppose we do have two traditions to hold sacred: the tradition of deciding what the best “Thing of the Year” is, and the tradition of listing things. Personal feelings aside (or at least, as much as that can be said when I am forced to compare everything I have listened to this year and come out with an overall “victor”), I have done the best of both. Here is the result; I give you my Top 10 (Mostly Folk) Albums of 2016.
10. Wolfe Sunday – Empty Bottles, Broken Bones
I start the list in familiar territory. I have been following Wolfe Sunday since the very beginning, and in 2016 the emerging titan of Essex-based folk-punk has gone from strength to strength. After a successful tour of Eastern Europe last year, Laurence Crow, AKA Wolfe Sunday, has been equally busy in the last twelve months touring around all over the UK and, somehow in the middle of things, finding the time to release this album. In a departure from previous releases, Empty Bottles, Broken Bones sees The Wolfe approaching a more mature “band” sound that veers closer to his punk roots than the experimental folk mixes that we have heard before. The lyrics are still maturely written, displaying wisdom far beyond the artist’s years.
Song to listen to: Go Out to Sea
9. Maz O’Connor – The Longing Kind
Also just making it onto this list, rising slightly ahead of the competition, is the latest offering from Indie-folk singer-songwriter Maz O’Connor. O’Connor has also been busy this year, performing alongside some of the folk scene’s leading lights including Nancy Kerr and Martyn Joseph in the Sweet Liberties project, but her latest release, The Longing Kind is very distinctive in the light of this. Dark lyrical themes are explored alongside catchy pop-y favourites. I still haven’t had the opportunity to check Maz O’Connor out live, but based on this record alone that is something I soon hope to rectify.
Song to listen to: The Greenwood Side
8. Luke Jackson – Tall Tales and Rumours
With his critically-acclaimed latest release, the rising star from Canterbury displays a striking stylistic change whilst cementing his roots, in an album where every song sounds so different from the last that almost every chord will surprise you. Jackson has certainly got the press campaign in order for his latest album; scarcely a day goes by where I don’t see a post about it somewhere on social media; yet, as is unfortunately all too rare these days, the musicianship behind the sleek cover is certainly there, and that is why no list of 2016’s best albums would feel complete to me without giving a mention to the remarkable success-story that is Luke Jackson.
Song to listen to: Aunt Sally
7. Kris Drever – If Wishes Were Horses
With work alongside an array of collaborating musicians taking the lead over the last few years, as well as Drever’s primary project in the experimental Scottish titans that are Lau, it is nice to finally see a new solo release from the folk scene’s favourite Orcadian. Whilst If Wishes Were Horses feels more mainstream and accessible to a general public than previous releases, it houses the same political edge and a mastery of song arranging that made us all take note of Kris Drever a decade ago with his debut solo release. Puritans may dislike the album for its lack of tunes, but the songs that Drever presents are well thought out, and the album makes for an easy listen overall.
Song to listen to: I Didn’t Try Hard Enough
6. Nancy Kerr – Instar
Where would 2016 be without a new release from 2015’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year? Lacking another great album, probably! Whilst I did not feel that it is as noticeable on a first listen as Kerr’s previous solo offering, Sweet Visitor, the smoothly diverse songwriting and a spellbinding live performance on its release tour ensures that Instar is awarded a place on this list. I mean it when I say the songwriting really is diverse: Kerr, with her superb backing band, manages to skip with ease from the borderline rock ballad of Gingerbread to the bansitar playing on Kingdom; the bansitar being an instrument that sounds as if it was invented just to play the songs on this album – and that is fine by me.
Song to listen to: Gingerbread
5. Billy Talent – Afraid of Heights
This is where the mostly enters this list of (Mostly Folk) Albums, as the Canadian punk rockers veer us away from anything that can be considered to be folk, but that is fine; I feel truly sorry for anyone who can consider only one style of music. The four (now five, with Aaron Solowoniuk’s recent MS relapse) Canadians have a lot to live up to; I still consider 2012’s Dead Silence one of my favourite albums of all time, and in my own humble opinion I do not feel that their latest work manages to do this. What it does do, on the other hand, is power through 45 minutes of apt political commentary that is desperately needed in this troubled year. With topics ranging from Donald Trump and gun control to the future of the music industry with online downloads, it is not a light-hearted easy listen. If one takes a moment to reflect on the complex messages behind the lyrics, then some of the more simplistic aspects of the music can be forgiven.
Song to listen to: Big Red Gun
4. Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party – Old Adam
We’re entering serious territory now, and entering just on the outside edge of my Top Three is Old Adam. Dr. Fay Hield continues to amaze her audience with captivating and catchy, yet diverse and original, arrangements of traditional British songs. Her all-star band, The Hurricane Party, which includes Sam Sweeney (Bellowhead), Ben Nicholls (Kings of the South Seas), and Rob Harbron (Leveret) amongst others, rounds off the album with some stunning musical ability giving weight to Hield’s edgy singing. The best part, in my opinion, is the lovely fusion of singalong songs we all know such as Long Time Ago to some of the forgotten pieces of the EFDSS’s dusty archives; with these arrangements, even the songs we thought we had forgotten will become sing-around favourites with very little effort.
Song to listen to: Green Gravel
The Top Three
I’ll be honest, some small part of me knew what my top three albums would be before I even gave all the other contenders another listen over. Seasoned folkies will be well aware of all three of them, yet I hope that they are also artists that even those of you who have never so much as seen a rapper dance can easily get into. They are artists that never seem to cease transcending the boundaries of their genre, and innovating their music in ways that make us want to just play the album over again once it has finished. Also, I just really liked all three of them; this is reflected in my song pick – these albums are so good that I couldn’t pick just one song from them to recommend!
The Runners Up:
Will Varley – Kingsdown Sundown
The Changing Room – Picking Up the Pieces
Bellowhead – Live: The Farewell Tour
3. Faustus – Death and Other Animals
Despite knowing of the existence of Faustus previously, and having followed Paul, Saul, and Benji in their various other musical guises, the “bloke folk” trio are not a group that I was overly familiar with before 2016. All of this changed in March, when I was sent to interview and review the band at their Reading show in the South Street Arts Centre. Needless to say, I was more than impressed by their live show, and when I was sent this album as a follow up review I was completely blown away. Whilst others lament a departure from the tune sets that were a previous staple, I wholeheartedly embrace the fantastic songs arranged for this album: 11 tracks that will have you singing and dancing along by the second listen, if not the first!
Songs to listen to: Slaves, False Foxes, Death Goes A Walking
2. Mawkin – Bootleg Series Vol.1
I can already hear some of my readers tutting at the thought of a live album, and a bootleg live album at that (no matter how “official” bootlegs aren’t really bootlegs) being included in my list, but I do hope that once you give it a listen you will agree with me that it is, quite simply, one of the best Live Albums I have ever heard. Seriously, and this is coming from someone who much prefers a Live Album to a studio variant. The band is on top form throughout, performing some fantastic versions of their stunning latest release, The Ties That Bind, alongside a nice number of tune sets that get me dancing along in my kitchen so frequently that I just wish I was at the gig itself. Listen to the album, and make sure you take a look at Mawkin’s 2017 Tour Dates: they are well worth seeing live.
Songs to listen to: I Can Hew, The Frenchy Set, Shanghai Brown
1. Show Of Hands – The Long Way Home
Finally, we hit number one: my favourite album of this year, and it comes from a group who, unsurprisingly, are perhaps my favourite artists of all time. In fact, this album was released so long ago now (January) that I forgot it was even released in 2016, but The Long Way Home is a fantastic display of the West Country’s own “Monsters of Folk” at their very best; judging by the other reviews it has received I am not the only one calling it the best album they have released in years, and they have released some pretty good albums in the last few years to boot. Steve Knightley’s songwriting is as sublime as ever, with some fantastic work from his musical partner Phil Beer complimenting it to cement this as one of my favourite albums of 2016, if not ever. The duo (plus Miranda Sykes as a semi-permanent member on the bass) display a poignant return to their roots, alongside a more mature modern sound that delves into contemporary issues in a way that only Britain’s best songwriting duo (in my own humble opinion) can do.
Songs to listen to: Breme Fell at Hastings, The Old Lych Way, Mesopotamia