It has come to that time of the year where we pause and reflect upon the changes that have happened in the music industry over the past year. It has been another tumultuous year internationally, with several scandals hitting former stars and yet more shocking deaths of some of the greats. The sudden losses of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington hit the mainstream music industry hard; with tributes pouring in from around the world. More recently, Tom Petty and now Malcolm Young have also passed, reminding us that even iconic figures share in mortality. However, it has not all been sadness, as 2017 has also been a fairly great year for new musical releases. Even within the confines of the UK folk scene and the artists that I usually write about, narrowing down a list of my favourites was difficult; but I think I’ve managed to come up with a list of ten (mostly folk) releases that can all be commended for their ambition, their depth and scope, and most of all some sheer musical ingenuity.
I’ll open up with the three very worthy honourable mentions that very nearly made the list:
The Brighton Line – Matt Quinn
One More Light – Linkin Park
Pretty Peggy – Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys
And now, onto the list!
10. Seekers and Finders – Gogol Bordello
The international gypsy punk circus that is Gogol Bordello just make it onto the list with their “Seekers and Finders”, an album that follows some of the more mature metaphysical questions they have explored on more recent releases. However, with this newest album, the band seems to have dropped some of the more interesting elements of gypsy and Eastern European music in favour of a more overproduced rock and roll sound. Notably, the accordion and violin that have led past hits are a lot lower in the mix compared to a distorted electric guitar. More importantly: almost the entire album is in English, something which has never been seen on a Gogol Bordello record previously. My complaints aside though, it is still a relatively enjoyable listen that manages to encapsulate all of the eccentric fun that Gogol Bordello pull off so well, even if it is an album that you have to listen to a few times for it to grow on you.
Song to listen to: Did It All
9. Verging On The Perpendicular – Dan Walsh
Whilst a full album of banjo playing might just be some folks’ idea of hell, Dan Walsh’s solo release manages to sound surprisingly fresh, innovative, and entertaining the whole way through. To someone who generally prefers songs to tunes, the tune sets on the album actually avoid becoming too repetitive as they showcase a variety of playing styles; all of them virtuosic. What really surprised me about this album though were the songs. I had only ever seen Walsh play previously as a member of the Urban Folk Quartet, and so I had simply no idea that he was such a gifted songwriter as well. Whether it is the highly singable “Want What You Don’t Have”, the breakneck “Leave This Land”, or my personal favourite: the highly amusing “Going To The USA”, about everything that can go wrong with an international tour, Verging on the Perpendicular is an album that really showcases what Walsh can do from every angle.
Song to listen to: Going To The USA
8. Wild & Wicked Youth – Kim Lowings and The Greenwood
A highly anticipated release from one of the folk scene’s fastest rising stars, the new album from Kim Lowings and her backing band, The Greenwood, is a testament to just how far she has come in the past few years. Her voice flutters flawlessly between slow beautiful ballads, and more upbeat fun songs making for a varied album that is a joy to listen to. The packaging itself is lovely, and the music itself is a pleasant mixture of traditional and self-penned songs, all of which are very singable.
Song to listen to: Away Ye Merry Lasses
7. Afterglow – Jon Boden
The former Bellowhead frontman returns with yet another big band to wow the country with more impressive instrumentation and delightful songwriting, all set against the backdrop of continuing the post-apocalyptic theme of his previous solo release, Songs from the Floodplain. Though just because it is a big band containing three (including Boden himself) former Bellowhead members, audiences should not go in expecting the same big folk sound. It has the more refined feel of his previous solo work, with a gentler musical arrangement that makes it less danceable but no less listenable. It also has less of a “folky” sound, at times branching out into the makings more of a pop album, which is ambitious; yet Boden’s distinctive style of songwriting is clearly there throughout.
Song to listen to: All the Stars are Coming Out Tonight
6. Wolfe Sunday – Wolfe Sunday
Stepping away from the “one man; one guitar” sound that has dominated previous releases, Wolfe Sunday’s third album in as many years introduces listeners to a far more mature style of songwriting, backed up by a fully functional rock and roll backing band. The majority of the album is a slightly cynical, very tongue-in-cheek self-reflection of the past few years of Wolfe Sunday’s career, with titles like “I Spend More Time At Service Stations Than On Stage”; yet other tracks such as the very brave (for a punk album) acapella tribute to his folk roots, “Lets Start A Fire” show a far more tender side to the young musician. Whilst the backing band does admittedly make some of the songs sound a little too similar to each other, a great ability to move between all areas of rock music is demonstrated with songs such as the hard-hitting “English Water”, and the fantastically bluesy “The Barstool Brawler’s Son”, proving once and for all that Wolfe Sunday is an act to look out for when his extensive touring schedule brings him near you.
Song to listen to: Damage Control
5. A Coat Worth Wearing – Neil McSweeney
Yet another album that really grew on me after my initial listen brings us into the top five; A Coat Worth Wearing showcases a darker side to McSweeney as he delves into explorations of the macabre. Backed up by some of the finest musicians the folk scene has to offer, including Lucy Farrell (violin, saw, backing vocals), Matt Boulter (electric guitar), and BBC Radio 2 Musician of the Year 2015 Sam Sweeney (violin, drums), the album is a work of art that one really has to listen to closely to appreciate. Slower songs such as the lead single, “Land of Cockaigne” and the beautiful “Waving Not Drowning” contrast well to some of the heavier numbers, such as the angry protest of “Forlorn Hope” and the spectacular closer of “The Call”, which makes for a well-rounded album from one of the UK’s best kept secrets. McSweeney performs it well live too, capturing the audience’s hearts and minds with a strong performance whether he is with the band or completely on his own.
Song to listen to: Strangers of Maresfield Gardens
4. Dominion – Melrose Quartet
As Sheffield’s own super-group, Nancy Kerr, James Fagan, Jess Arrowsmith, and Richard Arrowsmith deliver a brilliant album of folk songs and tunes both well-known and obscure. There is a huge amount of variety on this album so that everything sounds completely fresh with almost no repetition to be heard. From powerful acapella ballads to delightful tune sets, “Dominion” showcases that it is possible to create an album that is a surprising joy to listen to with simple instrumentation and a minimal amount of extra production; what you see (or hear) is what you get, and this is incredibly effective. As well as some highly enjoyable arrangements of traditional material, the album also contains some brilliant songwriting, particularly from Jess Arrowsmith, and the title track is a tour-de-force of a traditional ballad with potent new words from James Fagan and the folk scene’s national treasure, Martin Carthy.
Song to listen to: Dominion of the Sword
3. In the Passing Light of Day – Pain of Salvation
We enter the top three with what is definitely the least folky album on this list, but one that is arguably the most touching. In 2014 shortly after the release of their last album, the band’s driving force, Daniel Gildenlow, was hospitalised with a serious flesh-eating bacteria and brought to the edge of death. Miraculously, after a lengthy period in hospital, he fought through the illness and made a full recovery; to watch him leap around the stage today, one would never believe that he was on his deathbed just two years ago. In the Passing Light of Day is the story of Gildenlow’s ordeal, as he lays his heart on the table to recount his experience. Co-written with Sign frontman Ragnar Zolberg, the album takes us through all the emotions of one lying in a hospital bed, now knowing whether they will live or die, culminating with the title track, an epic 15 minute tribute to Gildenlow’s wife helping him through the experience. In the Passing Light of Day may be considerably more heavy musically than Pain of Salvation’s previous “Road Salt” albums, but by no means does that make it any less of a truly one of a kind listening experience.
Songs to listen to: Meaningless, If This Is the End, The Passing Light of Day
2. Long Lost Home – Daria Kulesh
Another concept album, though one of a slightly different nature, Daria Kulesh’s latest solo release away from Kara takes us across Europe to the western tip of Asia in the Caucus Mountains. There, in the Russian-administered Republic of Ingushetia, Kulesh takes us on a journey back in time to the days of her grandmother’s youth, and the drastic political changes brought to the region by the Stalinist regime. With tales of romance and displacement, Kulesh intricately weaves a delicate picture of her own long lost home, expertly fusing elements of Central Asian, Russian, and Western European folk musics together to create a remarkable work of art that will captivate the listener with both joy and sorrow, as well as an acute sense of wonderlust for Ingushetia itself.
Songs to listen to: The Moon And The Pilot, Safely Wed, Amanat
1. Big Machine – Eliza Carthy and The Wayward Band
Sliding somewhat predictably (at least to anyone I have DJ’d for in the past year) into first place, my album of the year for 2017 is none other than Eliza Carthy’s Big Machine. A spectacular return to form from the undisputed queen of the British folk scene, Carthy brings together musicians from some of the most beloved folk bands in the country, including Bellowhead, Faustus, Edward II, The Furrow Collective, and Mawkin, for this phenomenal genre-defying masterpiece. Elements of pop, rock, cabaret, jazz, and even hip hop are thrown into the mix for a relentless voyage into the unknown; with Carthy’s unique vocals and powerful fiddle playing at the helm. Yet, even more hard-line folk fans will not be alienated by Carthy’s impressive songwriting and arranging abilities, with tracks such as “Devil in the Woman”, “The Fitter’s Song”, and “Great Grey Back” sounding like reworked and jazzed-up versions of songs that could be sung at any pub singing session. Almost twelve months later, I stand by the comment I made when Big Machine was released; that Eliza Carthy and The Wayward Band, as one of the most innovative and original bands the folk scene has seen since the formation of Bellowhead, truly are the sound of folk to come.
Songs to listen to: You Know Me, The Sea, Epitaph