Choosing my favourite albums of 2016 was no easy task. I’ve been lucky enough to review almost fifty albums this year, every one of them special and representative of the amazing breadth of talent in the worldwide folk/acoustic/roots music scene. Narrowing the field down to ten favourites was almost impossible, but you can read about my choices below – in chronological order.
Amy Duncan – Undercurrents
In January 2016 Amy Duncan got things off to a particularly impressive start with her fifth solo album, Undercurrents. Joined by long-term collaborator Fiona Rutherford on harp and produced by Calum Malcolm, the intricate songs and arrangements on Undercurrents seemed open to endless exploration. With Amy’s beguiling vocals and captivating songs, this album has been a constant companion throughout 2016.
Amy’s currently working on her next project, entitled a n t i d o t e. She’s launched a crowd funding campaign on Pledge Music to help fund the recording and release of the album. Read all about that and how to pre-order the album, or even enjoy some unique pledge rewards, on Amy’s web site http://amyduncan.co.uk/
Questio Io – Take A Moment Apart
In March I stumbled across something utterly surprising and totally fascinating. Questio Io write and play a mesmerising fusion of folk and jazz that grew from Glasgow’s live music scene. Led by trombone player Michael Owers the band recorded their debut album, Take A Moment Apart, at Mattie Fould’s Caribou Studios in the Scottish borders. On the surface the album’s jazz pedigree shines through, but the elements of folk, rock and even country in the music simply can’t be ignored. This is a unique and wonderful album.
Hamish Napier – The River
Less than a week after reviewing Take A Moment Apart I was losing myself in the first solo album from multi-instrumentalist/composer Hamish Napier. The River is a series of pieces, written mainly for flute and piano, inspired by Hamish’s life-long relationship with the River Spey. There are myriad voices and moods on this album, a work that can carry you away as easily as the strongest current.
One of the things I’m most looking forward to in 2017 is becoming better acquainted with Hamish’s work, along with fiddler Adam Sutherland, as half of dare-devil folk duo Nae Plans. The pair perform totally un-planned, unrehearsed live music – watch this space!
Rachel Newton – Here’s My Heart Come Take It
Harpist and singer Rachel Newton was recently named Instrumentalist of the Year at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards in Dundee, and no wonder. Her work in the last year includes major new projects from The Shee and The Furrow Collective, and was in addition to her own third solo album, Here’s My Heart Come Take It. This sumptuous album shone a new light on traditional and contemporary songs; presenting Ozark Mountain folk songs as convincing UK ballads and traditional Gaelic song in driving electronic soundscapes. If you missed this release, back in March, do yourself a favour and look it up now.
Afro Celt Sound System – The Source
Following a breath-taking return to the live stage at Celtic Connections in January, Afro Celt Sound System’s updated line-up includes Armagh singer and flautist, Rioghnach Connolly and Gaelic singer, rapper and multi-instrumentalist Griogair Labhruidh. Twenty years since the band’s inception at Real World Studios, The Source retains the familiar grooves and multi-cultural influences while embracing, and celebrating even wider diversity. A hypnotic, soul-stirring and captivating return.
Track Dogs – Serenity Sessions
As spring gave way to an early summer, the timing couldn’t have been better for another unexpected surprise. Madrid-based ex-pats Track Dogs were a new name to me then, but their fourth album, Serenity Sessions, has been a firm favourite ever since. Their lively, melodic music has a strong American/Latin sentiment, a strong sense of fun and an abundance of sunshine.
Jarlath Henderson – Hearts Broken, Heads Turned
The biggest surprise about Uilleann pipe virtuoso Jarlath Henderson‘s debut solo album was that it wasn’t an album of Uilleann pipe, music. Hearts Broken, Heads Turned is Jarlath’s own take on eight traditional songs that hark back to his County Armagh upbringing. While clearly influenced by 1970’s folk heroes like Planxty and Moving Hearts, Jarlath’s skills as an arranger, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist (and, really, you must hear that vocal) provide an entirely new approach to these songs in an album that impresses well beyond expectations.
Robert Doyle – Lig Amach
Dublin guitarist / singer / songwriter Robert Doyle took his time when recording the follow-up to his beautiful debut album, Life In Shadows. Five years on, though, his patience, and persistence, paid off. Lig Amach features the same incredibly impressive fingerstyle guitar but places a stronger, and welcome, emphasis on Robert’s own song writing. There’s also a sense of liberation and honesty in Robert’s vocal style that’s as refreshing as it is compelling. A truly unique, and beautiful album.
The Small Glories – Wondrous Traveler
If Winnipeg duet Small Glories hadn’t been on my playlist constantly since their debut album, Wondrous Traveler, was released; I might have been worried that my top ten would be a solely UK/Ireland list. Wondrous Traveler has, though, been high on my list ever since the first listen. The Small Glories are JD Edwards (JD Edwards Band) and Cara Luft (The Wailin’ Jennys). They make music as if they’ve played together all their lives, and their perfectly matched close harmonies are just one aspect of an open and instinctive combined talent that has produced beautiful, moving, energetic music. Without doubt the best album to make its way across the Atlantic this year.
Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola – Widdershins
There has also been some excellent music making its way across the North Sea; as Norway-based Scottish/Finnish duo Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola succeed in merging Highland fiddle traditions with a Nordic sense of adventure in Widdershins. Sarah-Jane is familiar to UK audiences as one-fourth of the excellent fiddle quartet, Rant. In Widdershins she and guitarist Juhani take the listener on a journey through Highland glens and ice-bound fjords – breath-taking as often as it is soothing. I said it in the review, and I’ll say it again here. Widdershins is an astounding album that deserves wide exposure, and a work for which Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola should be resoundingly praised.
From my own point of view, 2016 has been an exceptional year for music. I can’t wait to see what 2017 brings us!
More coming soon.