Variety and excellence – the two things that have been unwaveringly consistent with the music I’ve been lucky enough write about in 2017. Within the broad spectrum we cover on Folk Radio UK there’s been plenty to celebrate and choosing ten favourites has been a difficult task. The range of styles covered in the list below, though, just helps highlight the diversity that’s there to enjoy. It’s been another great year, and 2018 should be even better.
After seeing violinist Catriona Price and pedal harp player Esther Swift perform their third album live at Celtic Connections (and, like many in the audience, securing myself an early copy at the same time), it seemed a long wait until April, and the chance to share the news about this remarkable album. A bold, unique and enthralling merge of folk and classical influences, Cracks In The Room is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Welsh five-piece Calan had escaped my notice until the release, in 2017, of their fifth album, Solomon. Inspired by a love of Welsh language and folklore, and powered by shed-loads of originality and flair; Calan’s rich, mesmerising music seems to recognise no boundaries. The album’s powerful opener, Kân, sets a high bar, and the rest of the album seems to live up to it effortlessly. Calan deserves far wider recognition than they currently benefit from, and I hope 2018 provides it.
Breda Mayock is an artist, multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter from County Mayo whose background in fine art, the French world music scene and traditional Irish Gaelic has resulted in an ability to craft exquisite songs, and frame them in beautiful, haunting settings. Following on from her eponymous 2015 collaboration with guitarist Steve Cooney, the ethereal Learning Place features soft, sparse arrangements that are, nonetheless, remarkably rich and satisfying. A sombre and, at times, turbulent album that soothes and enthrals.
It would be a strange world indeed if I didn’t have room for some instrumental Scottish trad in my top-ten. Shetland fiddler Ross Couper and Devon guitarist/flautist Tom Oakes have been performing live as a fiddle/guitar duet for almost a decade. Their debut album, Fiddle & Guitar, brings their straight-forward, open performances to the studio in a collection of sets that owes a lot to their empathy, and their ability to compel. Honest, accomplished and above all, thoroughly enjoyable; there’s a very good reason this album was nominated in the 2017 MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards.
This year Midlands acoustic trio Threaded followed their 2015 debut with another perfectly-paced combination of guitar, fiddle and clarinet. From its bright and breezy opening to a conclusion that seems to include highland airs, soft jazz and a perfect finish, Fair Winds and Following Seas leaves you longing for more. It’s rare to find an album that’s so effortlessly uplifting. An absolute joy to listen to.
Another album that was nominated Album of the Year at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards was this remarkable, joyful tribute to Glasgow born piper, whistle player and composer Fraser Shaw. ‘The Islay Sessioneers’ clearly takes great delight in sharing the music of their much-missed mutual friend in a charming, moving and, above all, uplifting album.
Translate is the much-anticipated debut album from Irish collective Jiggy. Since 2015’s video release, King of the Faeries, Jiggy have enjoyed an ever-increasing audience for their heady fusion of Irish trad, world beats and cutting-edge dance grooves. In September this year, their exhilarating video The Silent Place clocked up over 12 million YouTube views. Translate lives up to the promise of a string of video releases, in an exceptional and intoxicating album.
With hints of elemental magic, enchanting string arrangements from Donald Shaw, and the irresistible allure of Julie’s voice, Alterum was bound to make this list. From gentle and beautifully paced bi-lingual Galician song, to stirring orchestrations for Hebridean melodies and puirt à beul with undertones of Indian folk, Julie Fowlis continues to expand her repertoire and her horizons in an album of truly beautiful music.
A long-time favourite of Folk Radio UK, Naomi Bedford has consistently, and productively, refused to acknowledge any boundary between folk and country music. The result is music that entertains, compels, and delights. Naomi’s partner in music and in life, Paul Simmonds, shared the billing for Songs My Ruiner Gave To Me; a simply superb album of deceptive intricacy that can be as dark as it is uplifting, and is utterly fascinating throughout.
It’s great to see a second Welsh album make this year’s list. It’s hardly surprising, though, when musicians of this calibre are involved. The trio of Oliver Wilson-Dickson, Jamie Smith (Jamie Smith’s Mabon) and Dylan Fowler bring peerless sincerity and craft to their work. Dead Man’s Dance continues the captivating exploration of Welsh tradition that started with their 2013 debut, Melody, extending their horizons towards English/Welsh crossovers (Gwilym Bowen Rhys’ fiery, spirited Welsh translation of Santiana) and a perfect balance of traditional and contemporary.