Best of 2017 - Part 1: Folk/Classical/Soundtrack/Kosmische


Bill MacKay & Ryley Walker – Spider Beetlebee (Drag City)
Beautiful album of bright and bracing guitar instrumentals from this Chicago duo collaboration.

The range of styles spanned over the course of just half an hour is a clue to the open mindedness and sense of adventure of both musicians.

There’s a real sense of the shared joy in playing about the whole piece.

A gorgeous miniature body of work and in many ways perfect music for this time of year.

Laura Cannell – Lines of copper gold (Brawl Records)
Bracing is also a word to describe this blast of overbowed fiddle from Laura Cannell of East Anglia recorded in a semi ruined church from her current album Hunter Huntress Hawker.

Call it early music. Improvised. Experimental.

It is primal and it is stirring.

It feels essential.

Joan Shelley – Even though (No Quarter)
There’s a great pure and simple quality to this cut from Shelley’s s/t 5th album.

And yet deceptively simple.

In particular when she reaches for falsetto in the final 30 seconds to highlight these words –

Yes I can bear you
Yes I can bear it all

It’s the kind of arresting moment to force you to listen back from the beginning again.

The Nightjar – Objects (Pear O' Legs Records)
A sublime debut album of ghostly folk songs capped off with the most extraordinary vocal harmonies from this Bristol band.

You might call it chamber folk except that the songs seem to have more of a connection to outdoors than indoors. The earth even.

Discreet ambient hums. Stand up piano in a reverbed room. The long decay of a deep gong. Simply picked guitars. Field recordings.

A marvellous compelling record.

Richard Osborn – Streets of Laredo, A Pastorale (Tompkins Square)
An absolutely enthralling sort of version of the enduring western tune from the veteran American Primitive artist.

You know something special is happening when a familiar melody takes on whole new significance as it does here when Osborn adds a torrent of open strings to the chorus melody and you find yourself singing along at full volume.

Penny Rimbaud – What passing bells: The war poems of Wilfred Owen (One Little Indian)
A frankly startling album made up of what you might call a jazz trio. (A different brand of jazz trio to your garden variety.)

There’s Rimbaud the co-founder of Crass whose voice is a most effective vehicle for the musical poetry of Wilfred Owen.

Backing that are the considerable talents of Kate Short on cello and Liam Noble on piano.

It’s world weary with a sly sidelong glance at times. The cello thrums and keens. The piano bypasses chords for the most part playing brilliantly off the rhythm of the words in its restless improvisations.

It presents a compelling picture of war in all its banality horror sadness brutality pity but also starkness stillness moments of humanity.

Adrian Crowley – The wish (Chemikal Underground)
On his 8th album a haunting number delivered in Crowley’s wonderful velvet voice which can make men as well as women weak at the knees.

This album was recorded with Thomas Bartlett in New York which adds an extra layer of soundscape than usual. Maybe even intrigue.

A complete success no matter how you cut it.

Mikael Tariverdiev – Olga Sergeevna (OST, Earth Recordings)
The reissue work of Earth Recordings has in recent years produced some startling discoveries.

None more than this inspirational Russian composer.

Never before released in this part of the world this television soundtrack record moves from light and playful to grave and sombre.

Flying over jazz folk and classical forms and treating allcomers with the same open and generous demeanour.

Mica Levi – Vanity (from the soundtrack of the film Jackie, Milan)
Technically released in 2016 but it was late in the year and this year was when it hit home for me.

From an intense and chilling piece of filmmaking, this soundtrack by Mica Levi is a beautiful low key accompaniment.

In particular this track which features an ingenious contrast between the gravity and density of the strings - long and sombre - and the weightlessness of the flute part, the levity even.

The subsequent wrongfooting effect places your emotions in line with your reaction to the film’s main character, caught between admiration at her fortitude, sympathy at her terrible plight (in the spotlight covered in her husband’s blood) and some kind of distaste at her apparent vanity.

A masterful piece of work.

Nicholas Britell – Little’s theme (from the soundtrackof the film Moonlight, Lakeshore Records)
Again a 2016 release technically but let’s allow it as one of the musical highlights of any year.

Piano and hardly there violin are enough to suggest depths of feeling most film music can only dream of.

Plus there’s always something special going on when something so short feels just perfect.

Brona McVittie – Under the pines
Fascinating folk kosmische blend from the County Down native.

There’s a hush and a strangeness about the arrangement that would remind you of Colleen a little.

The interlocking harp arpeggios (can we say harpeggios?). Meditative trumpet and flute diversions. An ambient electronic bed that seems to simulate a field recording of a forest scene.

It’s an intriguing and progressive mix and bodes well for the upcoming album in 2018.

Seti The First – The wolves of Summerland (Paper Palace Records)
A second album of thrilling instrumentals from the Dublin-based duo of Kevin Murphy and Thomas Haugh, whose first album Melting cavalry still stands as one of the best instrumental albums of this century (at least).

Listening back now there’s a distinct rock feel from the first note. An attack. A crash. An insistence.

You’ll also find chamber pop. Dreamy reveries. Morricone-esque swirls.

Cello and percussion by the way. That’s mostly what’s involved.

Simply a monumental musical group.

Various Artists – The Food of Love Project (Autolycus Records)
Invigorating collection of folk treatments of songs either featured or referenced in the plays of William Shakespeare put together to mark the Shakespeare Jubilee in 2016.

This track by Alasdair Roberts is the one that gets me every time.

Courtly is the word.

Matthew Bourne – Isotach (Leaf)
Sublime album of stillness and space.

Piano and cello is all that’s involved for the most part...

...well that and the essential element of the room in which it was recorded (in Bourne’s home in the north of England).

The space.

Long cello bows.

Hanging piano notes.

Plus of course the unbeatable touch of Mr Bourne.

Classical music (if you wish) with a wonderful feel and buckets of heart.

A beautiful record.

Julie Byrne – Follow my voice (from the album Not even happiness, Basin Rock Records)
Another brilliantly deceptive folk strummer from New York but sounding like the middle of nowhere.

A hush not a rush.

The lines of swells and pauses filled only by acoustic strums and her voice and distant strings singing in the wind.

A beautiful thing in this murky world.

Tenniscoats – Tomas Azrahi (from the album Music Exists 3, Alien Transistor)
Beguiling naive pop (or avant pops as they have called it in the past) with brass and reed from the Japanese duo.

Piano trumpet and a clarinet take most of the load making gorgeous circling patterns.

Saya Ueno’s vocal is the cherry leading the melody where the other instruments follow.

Sometimes simple things are the most beautful.

And affecting.

Track 9 in this playlist

Yorkston Thorne Khan – Samant saarang/Just a bloke (Domino Records)
Another marvellous record from YTK this year and the pleasure of seeing them live in my hometown.

This was one of the highlights that night.

The blues conjured with an acoustic guitar a double bass and a sarangi.

The sarangi a blur of fingers and a keening yearning tone to it you sometimes get from a steel guitar or some other times from a fiddle.

Suhail Khan’s feet tucked under him with the sarangi in his lap perched on a table covered with a rug.

It’s good to know that this band is out in the world.

Mind Over Mirrors – Glossolaliac (Paradise of Bachelors)
Churning dark edged kosmische from Jaime Fennelly and friends.

There’s a pleasing synergy between electronic and organic as the female voices of Haley Fohr (Circuit des Yeux) and Janet Beveridge Bean (Eleventh Dream Day) swap places with the pulsing synths and rhythmic fiddle.

Meditational. Trancelike. Adventurous. With a minimalist sway that’s satisfyingly cathartic.

Golden Retriever – Pelagic tremor (from the album Rotations, Thrill Jockey)
Sublime ambient ruminations from the Portland duo.

A river of sound gathering in string surges.

Gradually the analog synths and clarinet take hold gorgeously. Long reedy swells capped by twinkles of keys.

It has a power and an energy to it.

It’s a kind of catharsis.

Colleen – November (from the album A flame my love, a frequency, Thrill Jockey)
A stop you in your tracks miniature.

Raindrop cascades of modular synth pulse and breathe.

It’s not so much a melody as an ecstatic cosmic burst of emotion.

James Elkington – Wading the vapours (Paradise of Bachelors)
Sublime acoustic guitar tune with a lightness to its step set against a weighty cello part and puttering double bass.

Also it’s about drinkers going home from the pub and that’s a topic that should feature in every year end list.

Various Artists - Lessons (Front & Follow)
A wonderful collection to mark 10 years of this treasure of a label.

The beguiling loops and samples of Sone Institute building guitar slides and phrases with birdsong and electronic pulses


the gorgeous delicate cello touch of Andy Nice

are just two of the many highlights.


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