If, like me, you occasionally find yourself reading the Youtube comments below any so-called classic album, you will have come across, among other highly disturbing facets of humanity, the opinion that ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’. Whether you are a fan of folk, rock, soul, hip-hop, pop or anything else, you will often find yourself in the online company of fellow fans, frequently in the majority, bemoaning the lack of quality or integrity in today’s music and implying that the artists of yesteryear are basically unassailable in their godlike status. Well, 2017 has something to say about that.
For years now the album as an artistic form has been written off by journalists who can’t believe that people who use Twitter can sit still for long enough to listen to an hour of good music. But musicians keep making great LPs and people keep listening to them. In fact, this year has been particularly fertile. Narrowing down a list of albums that fall under the banner of folk music is always going to be tough; narrowing it down to ten in a year as good as this almost impossible. But here goes:
Quite simply, there has been nothing quite like Peasant. This year or ever. A complete sound-world – gentle, earthy, epic, subtle – created with little more than Dawson’s singular voice and expressive guitar playing. The album’s strands weave together to create something akin to a modernist historical novel, or a tapestry created to tell the story of a not-quite-earthly village. An astonishingly realised work of art.
One of the best instrumental guitar albums I’ve heard in a very long time. Despite the lack of words, The Gathering’s themes are timely, dwelling on the social and historical importance of place and landscape. Robert MacFarlane’s liner notes are an added bonus, and the album wears its thematic weight lightly, Hay making his guitar-strings dance like a latter-day John Fahey.
Not Even Happiness is a disarmingly slight thing, but after three or four listens the album’s quiet magic – mostly just Byrne and her guitar – pull you in. There are comparisons to be had with Joni Mitchell, but the delivery is calmer and the themes are bigger and more mysterious. Byrne writes about the possibility of belonging to the mystical geography of the American continent and the still more wondrous landscape of the human heart.
Alex Nielson – drummer and songwriter with the Trembling Bells and contributor to a thousand and one other records across the avant-garde/psych/folk/jazz underworld – went solo for the first time this year, with impressive results. Vermillion channels everything from Dylan’s ‘thin, wild mercury sound’ to proggy psych via country and English folk-rock, but it’s all tied together by Neilson’s idiosyncratic, instantly recognisable songwriting.
What more is there to say about Roberts, one of our most valuable songwriters? Every year brings something new, and it never disappoints. Pangs is a stripped-down set, with the aforementioned Alex Neilson on drums and Stevie Jones on bass, but Roberts’ songs are typically wide-ranging. Surprisingly personal tracks like No Dawn Song sit beside startling evocations of Scotland’s past and future (Pangs) and Jungian folk tales (An Altar In The Glade).
Knapp is one of her finest singers, and on her latest album, she goes beyond simple interpretation of traditional material into a conceptual, season-specific collection of songs that bristle with springtime fecundity. She is unafraid of augmenting ancient songs with modern production techniques, found sounds and unconventional instrumentation, and she does it all with a brightness and an eeriness that borders on the hauntological.
This was another where timeless and modern collided, and caused brilliant sparks to fly. In this case, the modernist, sometimes minimalist instincts of the composers playoff wonderfully against the quirkiness of the arrangements – there are mock string quartets, jazzy moments, devotional chants. One of the most unusual, successful collaborations of the year.
Edinburgh-based Ian Humberstone wrote this album while staying near Ovsthusfossen, a remote Norwegian waterfall, and the result combines his well-honed, cosmopolitan songwriting with chilly, beautiful soundscapes. Humberstone’s voice is a thing of beauty, at once wild and warm.
An inspired collaboration between New England slowcore pioneers Tiger Saw and UK-based vocalist Bree Scanlon, this intimate, glimmering collection of songs sheds light and warmth into dark and dusty corners.
This pair of fiddle-playing brothers from rural Norway take the ancient traditions of their country and shine a modern, often experimental light on them. Expect the unexpected: plucked strings simulating the melting icicles, drones akin to La Monte Young or John Cale, chanted invocations and Electric Prunes-style free-psych weirdness.2017