32 best folk music albums of 2015

June 7th, 2015 | by staff
32 best folk music albums of 2015
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The best folk music albums of 2015, regularly updated with picks from culture editor Martin Chilton. You can get more folk and traditional music news and reviews on our Telegraph Folk Music Facebook Page

HARRY HARRIS: SONGS ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE (WILD SOUND RECORDINGS)

The second album from Welsh-born Harry Harris is full of originality. There are interesting songs about the Wild West, opera singer Jenny Lind and Hereford United footballer Ronnie Radford and a marvellous seven-minute story ballad called The Day I Met the King. A delight.

FINDLAY NAPIER: VIP VERY INTERESTING PERSONS (CHERRYGROOVE RECORDS)

The 10 songs on this inventive and engaging album are indeed about interesting people. Scottish musician Findlay Napier (the sweet voice behind the beard) and his co-writer Boo Hewerdine find something telling and wry to say in song about people with amazing life stories: from the pilot named Angel who discovered the water falls in Venezuela, to the Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda, who kept fighting the second world war until he was finally convinced it was over, sometime in the Seventies (something similar happened to Stan Laurel in Block-heads). There is a moving song about country singer George Jones (“what a shame about George”) and the sad tale of a shell-shocked banjo-playing tramp who only ever sung You Are My Sunshine. The melodies are good and the musicianship strong and this all comes together on Hedy Lamarr, a song that captures something of an extraordinary life and reflects on how Lemarr’s scientific expertise (she invented the process that eventually became WiFi) were sacrificed so she could be exploited as a model and actress. The lyrics to the songs are reprinted with lovely illustrations of the VIP subjects from Chris Baldie. An original and engaging treat.

SAM LEE & FRIENDS: THE FADE IN TIME (THE NEST COLLECTIVE RECORDS)

Story-gathering remains a core part of folk music and it’s done exceptionally here by Sam Lee, with a moving treatment of old folk songs, learned from the Travelling community. The exquisite Lovely Molly features the Roundhouse Choir and the arrangements throughout (on an album produced by Arthur Jeffes and Jamie Orchard-Lisle) are deft and powerful. Jeffes, of Penguin Café, plays subtle piano on Moss House. Lee’s deep crooning voice works effectively with the material, never more so than on the short version of Lord Gregory, one of the many songs in which Francesca Ter-Berg (cello) and Flora Curzon (violin) weave magical notes around Lee’s voice. A shout out, too, for excellent percussionist Josh Green. This is a terrific album, full of dignity.

GIGSPANNER: LAYERS OF AGES (GIGSPANNER RECORDS)

Former Steeleye Span fiddler Peter Knight, the man behind Gigspanner, earned a rather wonderful tribute from the late Terry Pratchett, who said: “Peter can spin the world on his bow”. Those words came to mind listening to the magnificent, elegiac, 8mins29secs long version of She Moved Through the Fair. Layers of Ages is produced by Gigspanner and Edward Blakeley, who also contributes bass and banjo on one track. The songs are mostly traditional (there is a fine version of Down by the Salley Gardens, which is based on the WB Yeats poem) including the vocal version of Death and the Lady. There’s a contemporary nod, too, in a vibrant live version of Knight’s own song Louisiana Flack. Guitarist Roger Flack and percussionist Vincent Salzfaas offer wonderful support to Knight on a feast of imaginative music on a band whose name is slang for a bottle-opener.

THE UNTHANKS: MOUNT THE AIR (RABBLE ROUSER RECORDS)

The Unthanks plumb the dark underbelly of the traditional while striding boldly out into wilder musical landscapes.

See Helen Brown’s full review of Mount the Air

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER TIME: CELEBRATING THE MUSIC OF INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (NONESUCH RECORDS)

There are are a few misses on the 34 tracks because the live concert album celebrating the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis is full of variety and classy folk/country, overseen by T Bone Burnett.

The Secret Sisters, The Milk Carton Kids, the Punch Brothers and Marcus Mumford (also the associate producer) keep things rolling.

Look out for standout performances from Gillian Welch and Rhiannon Giddens.

See full review of Another Day, Another Time

JOE TOPPING: THE VAGRANT KINGS (FELLSIDE)

There’s a stamp of overall quality on Joe Topping’s album, which ranges across folk, country and even has a touch of New Orleans in I’m Not Gonna Worry. Topping has brought in some quality musicians and Scott Poley’s pedal steel is a delight throughout. Percussionist Jack McCarthy adds clever touches and composer, arranger and producer Steve Parry, who recorded these sessions, is on his usual fine form. I particularly enjoyed the track Cat on a Cold Slate Roof – Topping’s love song to his wife – which features some fittingly lush strings from the Leos Quartet. A strong album with original songwriting, especially Leaves On The Line.

THE DECEMBERISTS: WHAT A TERRIBLE WORLD, WHAT A LOVELY WORLD (ROUGH TRADE RECORDS)

The songs on What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, produced by long-time collaborator Tucker Martine, are more intimate and personal than some of the early Decemberists narrative songs. The band – Chris Funk (guitars), Jenny Conlee (keyboards), Nate Query (bass) and John Moen (drums) – offer instrumental class, as they weave around Meloy’s voice, allowing the lyrics to express their intention and work their magic.

See full review of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

ALTAN: THE WIDENING GYRE (COMPASS RECORDS)

Traditional Irish folk band Altan have been together around 35 years but they have found fresh inspiration in a trip to Nashville and their new album The Widening Gyre is a wonderful mix of Irish and Appalachian music. The title of the album, The Widening Gyre, comes from WB Yeats and one of his poems is given a deft reimagining in White Birds, with Mary Chapin Carpenter singing his verse with her usual aplomb. She is one of many star guests whose skills grace the album, especially Sam Bush, fiddlers Darol Anger and Stuart Duncan and mandolin maestro Tim O’Brien, who sings vocals on The House Carpenter (Gypsy Davy). The slow reel Samhradh, composed by Altan’s founder, fiddle player and vocalist Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, is gorgeous and there is a fine version of the mournful waltz No Ash Will Burn, written by Walt Aldridge. Another highlight is the traditional American song Buffalo Gals (you will know it from films such as High Noon and It’s a Wonderful Life) which is performed as a rouising instrumental with Anger ably supported by Altan’s guitarists Dáithí Sproule and Mark Kelly. This stirring album was produced by Garry West and new accordion player Martin Tourish, fiddler Ciaran Tourish and Ciaran Curran on bouzouki make up the Altan six.

KATHRYN ROBERTS AND SEAN LAKEMAN: TOMORROW WILL FOLLOW TODAY (ISCREAM RECORDS)

Sean Lakeman is a talented and experienced producer and it shows in the assured sound of an album that allows strong songwriting to breathe. The two traditionals are interesting choices. There is a Childs collection ballad called Child Owlet, a tale of murder, betrayal and incest requests, and The Robber Bridegroom. But it is their own songs that are most interesting. 52 Hertz, a clever song about a lonely whale who can’t communicate with his whale buddies, is maudlin enought to make you blubber; and A Song To Live By is a heartfelt advice song from a mother to her young daughters. Kathryn Roberts, who plays flute on the album, uses the family piano in Dartmoor for that track and sings with real sweetness.

See full review of Tomorrow Will Follow Today

TOM KITCHING: INTERLOPER (FELLSIDE RECORDS)

Jigs, hornpipes, Morris tunes and mazurkas played with invention and grace from BBC Young Folk award finalist and fiddler Tom Kitching. He brings in interesting musicians, too, with Marit Fält on låtmandola (a Swedish mandocello), Scotland’s Freya Rae on flute and clarinet and drummer Jim Molyneux. There are guest spots from Andy Cutting and Lisa Watchorn. A very impressive debut.

WHO HE? IAN CARR AND VARIOUS ARTISTS (REVEAL RECORDS)

Quirky and harmonious, this is full of clever musicianship. The excellent guitar playing from veteran Ian Carr is of a calibre that prompted folk musician Kris Drever (one of the various artists billed on the front of Who He?) to admit: “Everyone pinches Ian’s harmonies and techniques and rhythmic thinking.” Look out for the track The Beans War, a wonderful viola and guitar duet featuring Carr and Maria Jonsson.

ALAN KELLY GANG: THE LAST BELL (BLACKBOX MUSIC)

There’s a real zest to The Last Bell and the Wedding Reels will have you up on your feet. Alan Kelly is his usual vibrant self on the piano accordion and there are fine flute contributions from Steph Geremia. The swinging bouzouki is from producer Manus Lunny and the fiddle is by Alaisdair White. Eddi Reader joins in on vocals on the entertaining The Sleeping Policeman.

THE MOONBEAMS: WATCHING WILDLIFE (MOONBEAM RECORDS)

Fans of very traditional English folk music will find much to enjoy in Watching Wildlife. Singer Jon Avison has a lusty voice and his experiences as a park ranger in the Yorkshire Dales infuse his songwriting with an evocative warmth. I particularly liked Coming Home, a song about people who move to the city but spend their time dreaming of the charms of what they are missing with the glorious natural beauty of the Dales. The band is made up of Mark Fletcher (drums, percussion, whistles; Luke Yates (double bass), Jen Haines (a viola player who teaches piano and violin and works in the music shop in Settle) and Ben Avison (accordion, mandolin, banjo) and they really strut their stuff on the jig Our Time.

MATT McGINN: LATTER DAY SINNER (MATT McGINN MUSIC)

The songs are strong, the singing sweet and it all comes together in a lovely song called Darkest Before The Day. Nashville based Madeline Slatesings and co-writes on some song and John McCullough plays neat piano. The artwork for the album (by Mark Rehill) is lovely, too.

FAIRPORT CONVENTION: MYTHS AND HEROES (MATTY GROOVES)

Fairport Convention have been going for five decades and Myths and Heroes, their first studio album for four years, features a lovely tribute to the band written by their old friend Ralph McTell. It’s all new songs including Chris Leslie’s jolly Love At First Sight, about a girl who dresses up as man to join morris band. It’s not groundbreaking but it is well executed.

JIM CROCE: THE STUDIO ALBUMS COLLECTION (DEMON RECORDS)

Jim Croce was a folk musician from Philadelphia who died at the age of 30 in a plane crash in Louisiana in 1973. He had two No1 hits in America, including the moving song Time in A Bottle, and he is more than a curiosity. A lot of the early albums are archetypal Sixties folk (there’s traces of Dylan and James Taylor) but he was an original talent with a lovely voice. Quentin Tarantino used his song I Got a Name on the soundtrack to Django Unchained. I particularly liked the album of lost recordings and the CD You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, including the memorable track Box #10.

INDIA ELECTRIC CO: THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND ME (SHOELAY MUSIC)

It’s short (35 minutes) and very sweet. From the languid tango styles of Beirut to the snappy opener Lost in Translation, The Girl I Left Behind Me is full of surprises. The India Electric Co are Devon musicians Cole Stacey and Joseph O’Keefe and they are bursting with invention, as on The Thought-Fox, which is inspired by poet Ted Hughes. My Friends Are Rich is a fine, pacy folk song and I Can’t Make You Love Me is a lovely ballad. It’s not traditional folk but it’s a very enjoyable album.

BELLA HARDY: WITH THE DAWN (NOE)

Bella Hardy elegantly smudges the borders of a brass and banjo-driven sound with sophisticated little experiments in rhythm, production and arrangement.

Read Helen Brown’s full review of With the Dawn

THE F SPOT: FEMMES FATALES (FOLKSTOCK RECORDS)

It is reported that only 13 per cent of songs registered with the Performing Right Society are by women songwriters. Which makes The F Spot both a statement of intent and a welcome piece of music. There are 10 songs by 10 different ‘femmes fatales’ and they are of a consistently high standard, whether from a trailblazer such as Peggy Seeger (Don’t You Know How Lucky You Are) or a young London student called Kaity Rae (It Is). I liked the anti-war song from Norfolk’s Marina Florance but there is much to enjoy in a variety of styles and approaches from Daria Kulesh, Fay Brotherhood, Minnie Birch and Zoë Wren. All the tracks are produced by Lauren Deakin Davies (except for Seeger’s, which was produced by Calum MacColl) and there is an original album artwork from Amy Pettingill.

Particular mentions for Kelly Oliver’s folk-rock inspired Keilan Are You Coming, Maz O’Connor’s impressive Mississippi Woman and Roxanne de Bastion’s lovely singing on Butterfly. The album is from progressive British label Folkstock.

BALLAD OF CROWS: BALLAD OF CROWS

Another example of a worthy album funded via a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, Ballad of Crows – singer/songwriter Steve Crawford, guitarist/mandolinist Pete Coutts and German multi-instrumentalist Sascha ‘Salossi’ Loss – is full of deft harmonies and fine melodies. Guests include whistle player Ali Hutton and fiddler Jonny Hardie and original songs such as Closing Eyes blend seamlessly with good covers, of Tom Petty’s American Girl and Tim O’Brien’s Brother Wind. A strong album.

BRENDAN McCAULEY: THE McCARTNEYS OF PENNYBURN 1865-1912 (COPPERPLATE)

Irish traditional musician Brendan McAuley is well known around the folk scene and this talented multi-instrumentalist has fashioned a very enjoyable and sweet concept album about his ancestors, which is dedicated to his grandmother Kathleen Griffith (the last McCartney of Pennyburn). McAuley, featured on Uileann pipes, flutes, Anglo concertina, tenor banjo, Bazzouki, mandolin, keyboards and whistles, plays and sings on 11 tracks, nine of which he has composed, including the splendid The Men Of Arranmore.

MERRY HELL: THE GHOST IN OUR HOUSE AND OTHER STORIES (MRS CASEY RECORDS)

There’s a real exuberance to The Ghost In Our House and Other Stories, the third album from Merry Hell. The Wigan-based band (The core members are the three Kettle brothers, who were previously members of The Tansads) are joined by Neil McCartney and guest Gordon Giltrap, who contributes some excellent guitar to John and Virginia Kettle’s touching ballad Leave A Light On. Human Communion is more vibrant folk-pop while Old Soldier is a highlight. An enjoyable romp.

PAUL BRADY: THE VICAR STREET SESSIONS, VOL1 (PROPER RECORDS)

A 13-track live performance from 1981 in which the wonderful Irish singer-songwriter Paul Brady is joined by a brilliant line-up of guests that includes Dire Straits former frontman Mark Knopfler, Sinead O’Conner and Bonnie Raitt. Look out for a rousing duet on Irish Heartbeat with Van Morrison. An excellent find from the archives.

FABIAN HOLLAND: A DAY LIKE TOMORROW (ROOKSMERE RECORDS)

Fabian Holland is a skilful guitarist and he brings a sureness of touch to Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 song Nobody’s Fault But Mine that is very impressive. A more modern subject is his own Four Inch Screen, a witty take on the modern craze for recording rather than experiencing an event. Spring is a jolly romp, Morning Mist a lovely instrumental and Welcome to the Magic Show is another example of interesting songwriting. No problems for Holland with the supposedly ‘difficult’ second album.

LUKE JACKSON: THIS FAMILY TREE (FIRST TAKE RECORDS)

A narrative runs through This Family Tree and characters weave in an out of the tales of emotional struggle. There are changes of pace and mood to the music (the Motown feel of Is It Me? contrasts with the sweet folk melody of the lovely track Caitlin) on a captivating seven song album. Andy Sharps on bass and Conor Downs on drums provide strong support and Luke Jackson’s singing, guitar playing and songwriting is growing in confidence and depth. A very good album from a musician who is still only 20.

THE CHANGING ROOM: BEHIND THE LACE (THE CHANGINGROOM)

The song Hal-An-Tow must be a good one for live concerts, because it’s bursting with energy and verve. There is traditional folk material (“maidens fair” come out to play) and lovely harmony vocals throughout from Sam Kelly and singer-songwriter Tanya Brittain on this debut album from the Cornwall-based The Changing Room. I’ll Give You My Voice is beguiling, especially the deft interplay between the singing and the fiddle and whistle added by guest musician John McCusker. Another highlight is A River Runs Between (about the social divide of Looe), a song which encapsulates the wonderful harmony between the two main musicians, and which also has the charm of contributions from harpist Jennifer Crook and the Polperro Fishermen Choir. Behind the Lace will ensnare folk fans.

NATALIE MacMASTER AND DONNELL LEAHY: ONE (LINUS ENTERTAINMENT)

There are polkas, reels and jigs from Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy in the married couple’s first full recording as a duo. One is produced by Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper) and features some dazzling music from the fiddle virtuosos. Hector The Hero is absolutely gorgeous and mournful.

THE BARKER BAND: THE LAND WE HOLD DEAR (BB RECORDS)

Twins Jake and Sam Barker wrote the moving Don’t Fear The End in honour of their late father and inspiration Lenny. Jake (vocals, banjo, mandolin) and Sam (vocals, banjo, mandolin, guitar) are joined by singer Nella Johnson, bass player Tom Wright, drummer Ru Shreeve and fiddle player Simon Cohen on an enjoyable album that features zestful fast folk (Cry Cry Cry) and sweet ballads (Follow Old Love Around).

OLIVIA CHANEY: THE LONGEST RIVER (NONESUCH)

There’s a real grace about The Longest River, the debut album from self-taught multi-instrumentalist Olivia Chaney. The 33-year-old was born in Florence but grew up in the UK and graduated from the Royal Academy of Music. Her folk background came from her family, and her father’s versions of Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch songs. The production on the album is sparse and deft – rarely featuring more than guitar and piano – and sits well with her clear and almost Sixties-like lilting folk voice. Highlights include the traditional False Bride, Henry Purcell’s There’s Not a Swain, the traditional False Bride and her own compositions Imperfections and The King’s Horses.

BARRULE: MANANNAN’S CLOAK (EASY ON THE RECORDS)

Isle of Man trio Barrule – Jamie Smith (accordion), Tomás Callister (fiddle) and Adam Rhodes (bouzouki) – really fly on The Laxey Reels, one of the standout tracks on the enjoyable Manannan’s Cloak. The fiddle playing on Graih Foalsey (False Love) is a delight and the band show their sweeping instrumental skills on Kinnoul. Songs are also sung in English and Manx Gaelic on this exuberant 10-song album.

ANTHONY TONER: MILES & WEATHER (DOZENS OF COUSINS)

Belfast singer-songwriter Anthony Toner was a journalist for 17 years and the years of working part-time as a guitarist and singer in a dance band have paid off because this is a musician who knows his trade. His storytelling songs are wry and lyrical, he sings well and adds real warmth in his acoustic, electric, lap steel and dobro guitar playing. Miles & Weather deals with relationships and connection (and disconnection) and opens in sparkling form with Bless the Road. Conversation with a Hurricane is excellent and Great Big World is a sweet tribute to a Seventies childhood. The album was produced by bassist Clive Culbertson, with Curtis Bradley on drums. It’s no wonder Toner’s reputation is growing.

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