In the meantime that we listen and select the new albums of 2018, let’s continue the roundup of the best works that were published last year. This time it’s the turn of folk, here expanded to include the broader family of songwriters who also engage themselves with pop and rock.
As a foreword, let’s just say that 2017 was not a particularly memorable year for this genre of music, especially because of a large number of albums that – despite the high expectations – didn’t leave the mark that we were expecting at the beginning. Reading the list of artists who published last year (Fleet Foxes, Mark Lanegan, Sun Kil Moon, Robert Plant) we really expected the fireworks. In the end, except for some interesting songs, the records released by these artists have left us quite cold. Fortunately a group of fierce girls intervened to improve the situation, and was relatively easy for them to conquer the top positions of the chart.
COMMON AS LIGHT AND LOVE ARE RED VALLEYS OF BLOOD by Sun Kil Moon
Sun Kil Moon, the folk rock project led by American singer and songwriter Mark Kozelek, released in the recent past a couple of challenging but oustanding albums (Among the Leaves, in 2012, and Benji, in 2014). Many (including myself) were really impressed by these two masterpieces, which presented something really new in the music scene but also a very engaging kind of muisc. From that moment on, unfortunately, Kozelek has decided to embark on an strange path which his songs to become long monologues, leaving most of the music in the background.
The last album released by the band, Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood, is basically a 130 minutes collection of self-reflective considerations and polemics over today’s life. The album contains however a few surprisingly great moments, which allow the disk to find a position in this ranking but – most important – still leave some light for the future of what was one of the most interesting music projects of the recent years.
SEMPER FEMINA by Laura Marling
British singer-songwriter Laura Marling is nowadays an established figure in folk music, and with her last album Semper Femina she has reached the important achievement of six solo albums, that’s quite impressive considering that she’s only 27 years old. Despite the young age, the times of her “innocent creativity” are now lost and she artist has now embarked into a more ambitious and articulated musical approach. With still good results,
Laura Marling’s last effort is a profound and quite complex exploration of women world and also female relationships. Fortunately the British musician managed to keep a certain distance from an excessive conceptuality and she instead succeeded in giving interest and pleasurness to the different tracks of the album.
CARRY FIRE by Robert Plant
Robert Plant, the legendary singer of the rock band Led Zeppelin, is certainly not an artist who has settled on the achievements he reached at the height of his career. And for a musician who was even nominated as the best vocalist of all times, it’s really impressive to see how his indomitable spirit has always led him to continue experimenting, exploring the less accessible corners of rock and folk, with alternate successes.
With this new album, Carry Fire, Robert Plant arrives at the eleventh studio album of his post-Led Zeppelin phase. In this occasion, the relentless journey of this incredible artist has led him to delve into an area of folk which results extremely melancholic and intimate. Plant’s creative and experimental vein didn’t generate the same results in all the songs of the album, but the stylistic coherence of the artist and a couple of particularly successful songs still manage to elevate the disc well above the average level of quality of what we usually hear in this genre of music.
CRACK-UP by Fleet Foxes
Crack-Up is the new studio album by American indie folk masters Fleet Foxes and the third entry of their discography. The guys from Seattle became extremely popular after their incredible 2008’s self-titled debut album, which is still today one of the most appreciated and innovative indie folk albums ever released in music. Both the two following works (including the last release) didn’t mach the beauty and creativity of their debut (“a landmark in American music — an instant classic” as stated by The Guardian) and their music has become increasingly complex and less immediate.
Hidden inside their latest disc we still find a few gems of folk that seem to shine of the same light which illuminated the beginning of their career. As an overall effort, however, the album looks too much as a conceptual work and offers a version of folk that results very little engaging, light years away from the early steps of the band.
GARGOYLE by Mark Lanegan
Gargoyle, the new work by Mark Lanegan and his bandmates, was one of the most waited albums of the last year. Lanegan has built over the years the fame of one of the most interesting singers in the rock and folk scenes, not only for his very particular and fascinating voice but also for the enjoyability and the intensity of his albums, that often feature a wide range of high-level guest stars. In this respect, Gargoyle doesn’t reserve particular surprises: we have a bunch of very nice songs, we have Lanegan’s unique voice, and also many good musicians who have contributed, including Josh Homme (ex-Kyuss and leader of the Queens of the Stone Age), Greg Dulli and Duke Garwood.
The new album from the American singer-songwriter, however, shows the artist consolidating his legacy without breathing new life into the standard forms of folk he established in the last decade. In this respect the album seems a small step back when compared with Lanegan’s previous work – the more innovative and inspired 2014’s Phantom Radio, which in my opinion is still one of the best “Folktronic” albums of the last few years.
POSSIBILITES AT SEA by Blake Hazard
American singer and songwriter Blake Hazard has shown since the early years of her career a musical sensibility that is out of the ordinary, both in her solo works and in the important collaborations where she’s been involved so far, including of course her participation in the indie rock band The Submarines with John Dragonetti, who’s also been her life partner for a few years.
Possibilities at Sea, which is Blake Hazard’s new solo album, is a fantastic and exciting journey in the world of modern folk, with interesting diversions into indie rock and alternative. The record reveals the class and talent of the artist but it’s also one of those albums gifted by that genuine feeling which can result only from many years of playing in small clubs.
LOTTA SEA LICE by Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile
Australian indie rocker Courtney Barnett has joined efforts with American songwriter Kurt Vile to release in 2017 one of the best collaborative albums of the year, named Lotta Sea Lice.
The album succeeds where many musical collaborations fail: the two artists managed in fact to integrate their different compositional approaches and singing techniques and the amalgam resulting from this joint work is ultimately a musical style in itself, complete and well-characterized. A confirmation of this achievement can be recognized by the fact that both the original tracks and the few covers which have been reintepreted by the duo are hard to distinguish from each other
THE GREAT PLAINS by Thomas Dybdahl
Norwegian singer and songwriter Thomas Dybdahl is without any doubt one of the most interesting representative of the neo folk movement. Often compared to Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake for the elegant way with which he touches the themes of love and loss, Dybdahl confirmed all of his skills and sensibility in the new album The Great Plains, which arrives four years after his previous LP, the wonderful What’s Left is Forever.
One of the most interesting features of the music composed by Thomas Dybdahl is the natural way in which he manages to move between relatively energetic pieces to more intimate tracks without ever losing intensity and depth. There are also a number of different influences which are merged into his songs, such as some clear inserts from Americana and indie pop.
Compared to Dybdahl‘s previous works, The Great Plains seems to indulge a little more on warm and nostalgic atmospheres, but in the end we must recognize that the acoustic tracks are the most successful of this very valid album.
I’M NOT YOUR MAN by Marika Hackman
Marika Hackman is a young English singer-songwriter whose debut album, the 2005’s We Slept at Last, showed to the world her talent as singer but also her delicate and atmospheric folk style. Her last recent release, the beautiful I’m Not Your Man, confirmed her ability to mix together traditionally english-folk atmospheres with alternative-rock elements. In my opinion her second album is even more convincing than the debut LP and there are at least 4-5 songs of absolute quality.
The first singles that were shared from the album were more oriented towards the mainstream indie pop (Boyfriend and My Lover Cindy). I’m Not Your Man, however, features also a number of more atmospherical and melodical tracks that in my opinion are among the best things we heard last year.
LIFE, LOVE, FLESH, BLOOD by Imelda May
Life Love Flesh Blood, which is the last full-lenght published by Irish singer and songwriter Imelda May, may be described in a few words as one of the best collection of songs released in 2017, across all genres. In her fifteen years of career, Imelda has earned a strong reputation as one of the best folk and rock singers of our time and this new work further consolidates all the positive things that have been said so far about her.
Initially affirmed with a rockabilly-oriented musical style, Imelda May has slowly shifted towards a peculiar and enjoyable soft rock with the incremental introduction of elements coming from the folk tradition. The last album signs the definitive change in her musical direction and sees the artist engaged with a number of country and folk ballads of absolute value and a few other catchy soft rock tracks which complete the LP. In all the two kinds of song her splendid voice is combined with a particularly intense melodic vein of the music, and the final result is extremely satisfactory.
The album topped the charts of this blog since the day of its release in April of last year, so it’s absolutely no surprise to see Imelda May guiding this ranked list after the conclusion of 2017.