It’s been a staggeringly good year for quality releases, both from artists making their debut, established names and those returning after a time away. I could have made this list twice as long and still agonised over exclusions, but here, in alphabetical order, are those at the pinnacle of my list of those reviewed on Folk Radio UK, with some honourable mentions for those without whom…
Following on from his live album, Nation’s fourth album is a masterpiece of political fire and emotional power, not to mention exemplary guitar work, that stands proudly beside those of his prime influence, Bruce Cockburn, the title track and the studio version of The Dying of Democracy, both inspired by the Athens protests, are particular highlights, and he sneaks in a clever U2 inspirational nod with With Or Without Me too.
The Canadian’s among my top 5 favourite contemporary female vocalists and her eighth album is yet another triumph, built around infectious folk-rock melodies and tackling such subjects as depression but always reaching for the light and the power to move forward.
Another terrific tremulous voice, now calling Nashville her home, the Virginia-born Americana singer-songwriter called her sophomore release an album about “dissatisfaction and hunger”, but, again with an emphasis on striving to do and be better than you are. Echoes of Petty and Springsteen chime throughout, the latter especially so on the achingly personal Southern accident about being a child of a broken marriage.
A highlight of the 2017 Moseley Folk Festival, this, her sixth album, proved the breakthrough she’s been working towards, a reflective coming of age confessional informed by life on the road and heartbreak sung in a voice that recalls the shivering magic of early Emmylou.
One of my platinum-plated favourites of the year, driven by ringing guitars, heavyweight punch melodies, rousing chorus hooks and influences that draw as much on southern rock as on country, this was designed to be blasted out from the car stereo at full power, but with moments equally attuned to those hushed moments of silent heartbreak. I saw her play live twice this year, both solo and with a full band, and she’s dynamite.
Hailing from my neck of the woods, the third, and quite possibly the last, of the loosely conceptual albums from husband and wife team Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish, again built around troubled relationships and paying tribute to the classic male and female country duos this introduced country soul flavours and horns into the mix to knockout effect. If they were from Nashville, they’d have American country radio beating down their door.
The follow up to Soundtrack to a Ghost Story documenting a haunted Kentucky mansion’s Civil War history, this reunited, among others, Ben Glover, Neil Hubbard, Gretchen Peters, Kris Donegan and Will Kimbrough for a collection of songs not just inspired by, but also written and recorded in the ancient caves and tunnels beneath the Italian town of Osimo, exploring the nature and mysteries of faith, death, transformation and spirituality. With a mix of Americana, work song, bluegrass, folk and even monastic elements, it’s a stunningly evocative work.
The year saw a spate of protest albums, prime among which was this from the West Country’s answer to Martyn Joseph. Featuring just Reg and his acoustic guitar, it traced themes of social injustice and oppression with songs drawn from both true-life tragedies but also stories of defiance and hope, ranging from victims of the benefits system and political refugees to those giving their lives in the fight against fascism and unsung heroes of the NHS.
Accompanied by acoustic guitar and harmonica, Canadian songstress Cameron conjures the halcyon days of the late 60s folk scene of Greenwich Village, the likes of Prine, Dylan and van Zandt high on her list of influences. Drawing on both observation and personal experience, her songs of love, loss and hope go beyond mere homage and vicarious nostalgia to create something magical.
The second album from Kami Thompson and Pretenders/Pogues guitarist husband James Walbourne easily matches their outstanding debut, again revealing the folk-rock DNA Thompson’s inherited from parents Richard and Linda. Another album veined with protest themes, notably the dismantling of the country’s heritage, emigration, austerity Britain and the title track’s swipe at me-ism, it builds on its inherited musical legacy with confidence and style.
In many ways, this generation’s Coope, Boyes & Simpson with their unaccompanied singing entwined with instrumentation, the trio draws on traditional folk and true stories for this protest-driven album with topics rooted in the country’s history and heritage. Ranging from a lament for a lost England and the siege of Cable Street to celebrations of charity workers, everyday heroes and the refugees and emigrants who, like M&S co-founder Michael Marks, helped make this country great, it makes a solid claim to being the folk album of the year.
Ange Hardy: Bring Back Home; Sam Baker: Land of Doubt; Cunning Folk: Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground; Jack Rutter: Hills; Jason Eady: Jason Eady; Kim Lowings and the Greenwood: Wild & Wicked Youth; Norrie McCulloch: Bare Along the Branches; Fleetwood Cave: People Like Us.