Albums of 2007: vintage year, gem of a winner
October 23, 2007
Martin Simpson pictured by David Angel
James Keelaghan from his official site
Rachel Unthank by Northern Sky
November is not even upon us, but I have decided to present an early list of my albums of 2007.
It is possible that something may yet come along to challenge my verdict.
But I would be astonished if the remaining two months of the year, rarely the most active period for important new releases as opposed to Christmas target material, produced a serious rival for Salut! Live’s folk album of the year.
Martin Simpson take a bow.
When Prodigal Son appeared, I said only something quite exceptional would shake my conviction that this was a record that was unlikely to be bettered. And so it has proved, despite a stream of compelling CDs from James Keelaghan, Lau, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset………the list goes on, and you will see it in full if you bear with me.
You will also discover the reason why Kate Rusby is denied her rightful No 2 slot and has to make do with a special award.
This has been a vintage year for folk. But never forget one golden rule: what you see here is intended as a guide, not an instruction. If you already know you share my tastes, or think you do, all but one of the albums listed can be bought at knockdown prices from my record shelf Salut! Listens in the sidebar to your right (or from the artist's own site in Talitha MacKenzie's case). I will find suitable prizes for the best three Comments* posted at Salut! Live and identifying releases you think I have overlooked.
So, in descending order, I nominate the following as my 2007 Top Ten:
*** 1 *** Martin Simpson Prodigal Son (Topic)
A work of stunning beauty. The title track, a brutally honest but affectionate song about his father, crowns a magnificent all-round performance embracing slide guitar blues, Americana and the glories of traditional British balladry.
* 2 James Keelaghan A Few Simple Verses (Fellside)
In 2000, I amazed Bob Fox by making Dreams Never Leave You my album of the year. My original review was entirely positive, but hardly amounted to rapturous acclaim. The record simply grew and grew on me until it was utterly irresistible. But for the peerless exploits of Martin Simpson, Keelaghan might have repeated the process. Singing with Danu, he turns these “few simple verses" into gold. If prospecting for the nuggets took me a while, that is my problem. Worth having for the rousing rendition of Jack Haggerty alone.
* 3 Rachel Unthank and The Winterset The Bairns (EMI/Rabble Rouser)
Kate Rusby has famously said folk music is not for everyone and this album, though a masterpiece, provides all the back-up proof she needs. The discerning listener must play his or her part, devoting the serious attention the record demands, but is rewarded by what I have called “a work of towering quality”
* 4 Jez Lowe Jack Common's Anthem (Tantobie Records)The people at Proper Distribution suggested that I was the chief culprit in a syndrome I myself had identified – treating Lowe as an unrivalled observer of north-eastern working-class life but failing to recognise his broader scope. That is not completely true, even though I am a great admirer of his ability to chronicle northern life. But let me say louldy and clearly that with songs inspired by Yeats and Heaney, this album shows the impressive depth of one England's finest contemporary songwriters.
* 5 Linda ThompsonVersatile Heart (Universal)
Peerless contemporary folk rubs shoulders with English chanson and country. Thompson packs such expression and emotion into her voice that the rare condition limiting her work makes this album, like Unfashionably Late before it, something of a national treasure.
* 6 Lau Lightweights and Gentlemen (Reveal)
Martin Green, Kris Drever and Aidan O'Rourke are authoritative, enterprising musicians who sidestep traditional sources in favour of their own powerful tunes. The music veers off at all sorts of exuberant tangents, always underpinned by outstanding technical command. At least one friend will not forgive me for omitting Drever’s solo album from this list – but his uncommonly strong and expressive voice is heard here, too.
* 7 Simon Mayor and the Mandolinquents Dance of the Comedians (Acoustics)
A live album that makes you cross that you were not in the audience. The playing is scintillating, Mayor’s between-songs patter reveals the liveliest of wits and Hilary James’s singing is a genuine treat.
* 8 Maggie Holland Bones (Weekend Beatnik)
Very English in the best possible sense. These are not songs for Simon Cowell, because they address subjects from the weighty (the futility of war in Iraq) to the mundane (a Hampshire gardener’s pottering), but they burst with intelligence, sensitivity and charm.
* 9 June Tabor: Apples (Topic)
Dark, brooding ballads offset by lighter songs with great tunes and – not always a Tabor virtue - instant appeal. The singing and arrangements are, as ever, faultless.
* 10 Talitha MacKenzie Indian Summer** (Sonas Multimedia)
Amazing Grace in Cherokee, a powerful defence of the jailed Lakotan militant Leonard Peltier and the autobiographical chatter of Family Tree shine through the new offering from an Edinburgh-based American driven by an explorer’s fascination with languages and culture.
Fairport Convention Liege and Lief Deluxe Edition (Universal)
The magic of 1968, and one of the finest albums of any genre of all time, recreated and enhanced with up-to-the-minute studio tricks.
Compilation of the year
Various Artists The Imagined Village (EMI)
Valuable, exciting project reflecting modern Britain by introducing ethnic variations to the folk tradition. Martin and Eliza Carthy join a mixed line-up with Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, Sheila Chandra, Benjamin Zephaniah and Trans-Global Underground among their collaborators).
Box set of the year Dave Pegg A Box of Pegg's (Woodworm)
Superbly packaged chronicle quaintly chooses a cribbage theme (each of the four albums is named after a score in the game) represents an appropriate tribute to the ace Fairport bassman's first 60 years - 44 years of them spent in the music business.
The one that got away Kate Rusby Awkward Annie (Pure).
My obvious runner-up as Folk Album of 2007 - no little achievement given that she also makes a brief but important contribution to Martin Simpson's album. This, I believe, is Rusby at the peak of her powers. But I had to disqualify myself from listing it because of a clear conflict of interest: I was commissioned to write about it for her website.
* My decision - up to and including the usual quiet burial no one bothers to respond! - is, as usual, final as is the nature of any prizes awarded.
** Talitha MacKenzie's album Indian Summer is not listed at Amazon. I have amended the link so that you can buy it directly from her own site. Fot the time being, the reference in my record shelf, Salut! Listens, still takes you to one of her earlier albums available at Amazon
What people like is all a matter of opinion, but when I've heard Rachel Unthank on the radio she sounds out of tune and not in control of her voice. She doesn't impress. As for Liege and Lief - after 40 years I still don't see what the fuss is about with Fairport Convention. I just don't get this excitement about rock bands doing folk music badly. (All that drumming is so unnecessary).
Posted by: Jim | October 28, 2007 at 01:52 PM
....wouldn't life be duller if people didn't have opinions? But that's two of my choices you don't like, Jim. What about people you think don't do folk badly or, more to the point, have done it particularly well?
Posted by: Colin Randall | October 28, 2007 at 03:15 PM
Who do it well? - most of those in your Salut! Greats section for a start, especially those from the North East. Others I like are Karen Casey, Cherish the Ladies (though they were better with Aoife Clancy), Dolores Keane, Niamh Parsons, Maddy Prior (time for a new Silly Sisters CD), Coope Boyes and Simpson, Session A9 and lots of song-less bands - eg Buille, Chris Stout Quintet. Not all have new CDs this year to be considered for your top 10.
Posted by: Jim | October 31, 2007 at 04:06 PM
Hate to be another downer here, but I have to agree with Jim's specific criticism of Rachel Unthank & group -- everytime I hear them on the BBC folk shows, I say, "Can't anybody here hold a pitch?" I don't consider myself a vocal critic, and this is not a common reaction for me.
I didn't buy a lot of folk CDs this year. I'd put Bella Hardy forward, but her album has come out so late in the year that maybe she'll get consideration next year. I got Tim Van Eyken's STIFFS ETC. album in 2007 after seeing him live, and that was exceptional.
As for reissues: again, I'm probably behind, but for me the glory of the year was BGO's issue of the three Five Hand Reel albums with Dick Gaughan, in one set. Those had been out of print for nearly 30 years. LIEGE AND LIEF is all well and good, but I haven't been convinced that the 2007 issue is a big sonic upgrade from the 2004(?) remastering.
Posted by: Ken Josenhans | November 13, 2007 at 07:56 AM