Once again, these don’t purport to be in any objective way the best albums of last year, whatever that means. How, for example, do you realistically compare records by Beyoncé or Harry Styles with those by, just for example, Irish folk singer and experimental soundscaper Ian Lynch or South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, or even those two with each other, other than by way of the money and awards they generate, or don’t, as the case may be? How do you even hear all the records you’d probably love if you could get around to them? Not being part of a music industry that mainly relies on the crushingly obvious for its annual bonus and, despite the fact that the K-pop phenomenon has fleetingly interested me – from a sociological perspective, you understand – and I’ll stand on my sofa and cheer for Korean films like ‘The Host’ all day long, I’ve never really cared what music 13-year-old Korean girls like. And anyway, speaking of Irish folk singers, the pluperfectly wonderful self-titled 1976 album by Andy Irvine and Paul Brady was nominated in the latest Grammys for the liner notes to its 2022 reissue. It didn’t win.
Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
Neither did this album, which was perhaps my favourite, and certainly my most-played, release of the year, but, in a move that, in spite of my inherent distrust of and often disdain for musical awards and their frequently ludicrous categories, made me feel a lot better for loving something that a few influential people also thought was quite good, it was nominated twice, for Best Alternative Album and for Best Alternative Performance. Wet Leg took both. But at least Wet Leg are worth listening to, and you should. By the way, the Grammys got it utterly, completely and unreservedly right this year with Bonnie Raitt’s Just Like That, but of course that caused its own social media storm, and even raised eyebrows and puzzled expressions in the mainstream media. Who on earth is Bonnie Raitt, they wondered, often, embarrassingly for music writers who should have known better, out loud, and don’t they know that Harry Styles, Taylor Swift and Adele, for God’s sake, were also nominated? Or that Justin Bieber’s 2022 nomination needed eleven different songwriters, so how could a 70-something woman write a decent song on her own? Well, for those who are still wondering, Raitt had previously won a dozen Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award just last year. I’m not even that much of a fan but really … .
To get back to Big Thief, five or six years ago my daughter agreed to come along to see Conor Oberst at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, not so much for the once and future Bright Eyes, but for the support act that I didn’t know but that she’d heard on the radio. That support act was Big Thief and, seeing that the fact that Neil Young played before Bob Dylan in Hyde Park in 2019 probably didn’t make him Bob’s support act, and Baaba Maal was more a co-headliner with Burning Spear in New Orleans in 1998, their set remains almost unarguably my all-time favourite by a support band. I loved the songs so much that I was trying to remember pertinent lines while they were still playing so that I could google them during interval and therefore be sure to buy the correct album at the merch table. I bought both, and the next two, which came out within just a few months of each other, and then this one as well. This one’s nearly as long as its title, a double if you buy the vinyl and just over 80 minutes long on CD, so good luck trying to fit it on a Verbatim blank. Adrianne Lenker is a consistently fine songwriter and frequently better than that – I recommend her solo stuff too, quieter and more introspective, almost self-involved, though it undoubtedly is – and the band plays a kind of open-hearted, open-ended indie folk-rock that has little to do with the 1965 Byrds and nothing to do with Fairport Convention but is nevertheless folk-rock for sure. There are no traditional songs and no political sloganeering but there is plenty of acoustic guitar, which seems to be the clincher these days and what caused the world to think that Taylor Swift had become a folk singer when she called an album ‘folklore’, and there’s also accordion and, memorably, guest fiddle. But there are also interludes of Buck Meek’s bracing guitar skronk, which are occasional enough to make them meaningful, and telling, every time. Live, I didn’t much like Meek’s facial contortions but his guitar distortions were one of the things that caused me to fall in love with the band in the first place. His slightly more country-inflected solo albums are worth hearing too, though there wasn’t one last year.
Bonny Light Horseman – Rolling Golden Holy
Bonny Light Horseman are a vocally gorgeous side project featuring Anaïs Mitchell, a first-rate songwriter whose CV includes a so-called folk-opera that won a bagful of Emmys, Eric D. Johnson of the Fruit Bats, who may have kept the D. in order to distinguish himself from the shreddin’ Texan and thereby avoid being mistakenly invited to Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, and Josh Kaufman, whose many previous collaborations have included the National, Hiss Golden Messenger and the aforementioned Taylor Swift … on the aforementioned ‘folklore’ in fact, and elsewhere. They named themselves after a traditional folk song from the early 19th century when Napoleon Bonaparte was the cause of their woe and they used to sing those traditional folk songs in an indie rock kinda way; their debut is full of them, including the one about Napoleon and their woe. This is the Horseman’s second album and, while the influence of the debut and its musical antecedents are still there, including in the titles of a couple of contemporary compositions named after old folk songs, these are all written by the band members themselves and are good enough for me to hope that the group continues to be more than just an occasional off-season break from the members’ real careers. Mitchell released her own eponymously titled album in 2022 and, though quite different, it also deserves your attention.
Jake Xerxes Fussell – Good and Green Again
Traditional folk songs are Fussell’s métier. His father was a folklorist and he grew up hearing old Southern folk and blues at the source as he accompanied Dad on his field trips. So, when his 2015 debut caught the ear for its authenticity and respect, but also for the fact that it was obviously a contemporary release by someone apparently out of time but totally in love with the music, much of the attraction was that Fussell was quite clearly doing what came naturally, without fuss or unnecessary flourish, but with an enviable level of skill that he somehow disguised by the simplicity of his approach. Over four outstanding albums he has continued to whittle and hone what was already a strikingly impressive craft, and this release might be the best of them. His song choices, influenced no doubt by his attraction to the source material, are often relatively obscure, and when he does try out the well-known stuff, as he does superbly here with versions of Handsome Molly and The Golden Vanity, as the poet said, he rearranges their faces and gives them all another name. For the record, these two become Breast Of Glass and The Golden Willow Tree. The album includes his own compositions for the first time, but there’s no fuss about that either. They’re three finger-picked guitar instrumentals that suit the album’s mood beautifully and a song whose lyrics are comprised entirely of words taken from a traditional hooked rug by an anonymous artist.
Fern Maddie – Ghost Story
Fern Maddie lives in a cabin in the Vermont woods where she writes songs, makes music on various instruments but mainly acoustic guitar and frailed banjo, and tends her goats, and that’s precisely what her fabulous full-length debut ‘Ghost Story’ sounds like … haunting, but also haunted perhaps, by revenants of those who played this music, and sometimes sung these very songs, hundreds of years ago and, quite possibly, have never stopped singing them. Except that it seems unlikely that any of them ever sang the 18th century Scottish song Ca’ The Yowes to the accompaniment of a rudimentary synthesiser and what sounds like a cheap drum machine but could just as easily be a selection of bones. The song was a favourite of Robert Burns who wrote an extra verse for it and I’d like to think he would have approved of Maddie’s take. What I do know is that, for the time being at least, there’s little point in listening to anyone else’s version of Hares On The Mountain now that I’ve heard this one. Dorothy May and Northlands might sound like they come straight from the ‘Penguin Book of English Folk Songs’, but these are Fern Maddie originals who sings that she’s telling ghost stories. You Left This (“in my hands/feet/chest”) is an obvious tribute to her late musician father and a moving explanation of why she does what she does.
In more or less the same musical neighbourhood, Canadian duo Mama’s Broke manages without a hint of square-pegness to incorporate traces of Eastern European fiddle playing into ‘Narrow Line’, a thoroughly arresting album of old time-influenced folk and acoustic country that nevertheless manages to come across as absolutely timeless. That they remind me a lot of the sublime Anna & Elizabeth doesn’t hurt.
Angeline Morrison – The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs Of Black British Experience
It seems slightly strange having to explain that the Birmingham where Angeline Morrison, a Black folk singer with a PhD and an academic career, grew up is the one in the English midlands rather than the one in Alabama but, as Morrison, who fell hard for the music of English traditional folk doyenne Shirley Collins at a very young age, discovered, Black artists are almost as rare on the country’s folk scene as folk songs about the Black British experience. On ‘The Sorrow Songs’ she deliberately sets out to tilt that imbalance a little and, to the extent that around a dozen songs, interspersed with five short interludes featuring the kind of glibly racist comments that were once common parlance and that many South African listeners will surely recognise (titles like Some Terrible Habits, Nobody Round Here Likes It and Need Not Apply will illustrate the flavour), can affect so many years of folk music neglect, she succeeds brilliantly. For these, with a brief nod to the music hall and the African American spiritual (if you’ve watched the Peter Jackson series, you’ll know that Morrison’s Go Home and the Beatles’ Get Back share a common political seed if not an obvious musical one) are, purely and simply, English folk songs, whether the subject-matter is the Unknown African Boy (d. 1830), who was washed up on an English shore after the wreck of a slave ship; slaves who were conscripted to fight for Britain in the American War of Independence; the breezy if slightly disturbing Hand Of Fanny Johnson, a housemaid whose employers keep part of her embalmed after she dies; Black John, who makes the garden grow; or the Windrush Generation children who became known as the Silent Twins, the bullying of whom resulted in their never talking to anyone except each other, and their subsequent incarceration in a mental health facility. Musically, Slave No More could as easily have been sung by Waterson: Carthy. Indeed, Eliza Carthy produces as well as singing and playing, and dad Martin reads the epitaph at the end of that song, while one of England’s newer folk stars, Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, a kind of modern-day Peter Bellamy whose ancestry is also part Afro-Caribbean, plays concertina and melodeon that’s as impressive as his name. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of an album like this. Where ‘The Sorrow Songs’ scores particularly well is that it’s also absolutely wonderful to listen to.
Jake Blount – The New Faith
In yet another exceptional release from a current crop of roots musicians that ensures that you simply cannot turn your back for a moment, award-winning banjo player Jake Blount goes down to the river to pray, raps to a fiddle tune and a version of O Death and constructs an album for the Smithsonian Folkways African American Legacy series of what he calls Black folk music from the future utilising a set of traditional spirituals and folk hymns as the backdrop for an Afro-near-futurist tale of a post-climate-catastrophic world. His thrilling mix of blues, gospel, Black string band music and rap in the company of a largish but never overbearing cast that includes, just for example, the outstanding Kaia Kater, generates an energy that’s undeniable and raises a fervent hope that this might be the way religious music will sound down the line. Just as well get ready, he reminds us in the admonition of the old song … you got to die.
Moor Mother – Jazz Codes
Memphis icon Jim Dickinson, producer of Big Star, the Replacements and Giant Sand, musician with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and Ry Cooder, the semi-legendary Mudboy to a once heard, never forgotten bunch of rowdies calling themselves the Neutrons and father of the North Mississippi Allstars, used to tell how, when he was a young boy starting out, he was shown the musical basics by an old guy known as Dishrag who told him he needed to learn the codes. It turned out that Dishrag was actually saying “chords”, but in the process he taught Dickinson the secrets too. I don’t know whether poet, sound artist and Afrofuturist Camae Ayewa, who records as Moor Mother and who calls her brand of the cultural aesthetic and the artistic collective she co-founded to promote it Black Quantum Futurism, knew about Jim Dickinson, but this album, essentially experimental electronic R&B and hip hop if you must find it a category, is as reliant on jazz’s chords as it is on its codes, with lyrical references to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Billie Holiday, ragtime and the Howlin’ Wolf blues finding contemporary expression alongside pianist Jason Moran channelling Mary Lou Williams while saxophonist Keir Neuringer and trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, Ayewa’s collaborators in the avant-garde group Irreversible Entanglements, paint much of a sonically fascinating picture that includes a song called Umzansi featuring Mary Lattimore’s increasingly sought-after harp textures. If the sounds will draw you in, it’s the lyrics, as much poems or thoughts and ideas spoken out loud as the rapping flow you might have been expecting, that will keep you there as Ayewa reconsiders the history and meaning of jazz itself, its social positioning and its politics in the context of past, present and future America.
North Mississippi Allstars – Set Sail
Jim Dickinson’s boys, guitarist/singer Luther and drummer Cody, have been releasing albums as the core and the only constant members of the North Mississippi Allstars for more than two decades now. Starting out raw and raucous with Luther coming across at his most incendiary as somewhere between Mississippi Fred McDowell and a punkish Duane Allman, they have not only avoided nearly all the 12-bar clichés along the way, concentrating instead for much of the while on the hypnotic drone blues of their Hill Country home, but, unlike so many of their blueswailing colleagues, they have continued to develop, gradually morphing into the funky, swampy, soulful, much less sweaty but still absolutely authentic (which is the title of a closing track that sets out the band’s philosophy – but they didn’t have to explain; their legitimacy shines through) unit that made this record, where the groove transcends any sense of instrumental flash every time, where the grit and potency of the great Memphis soul singer William Bell, now well into his eighties, makes a welcome return on Never Want To Be Kissed, and where the band’s overall relaxed sense of community is expressed in the line, “Life is but a dream when we’re all bumpin’ together and shakin’ tambourines”. On the subject of community, the Allstars have picked up a new bass player along the way in Jesse Williams whose brother Lamar Williams Jr guests as vocalist on about half the songs. Like Luther and Cody’s, Lamar and Jesse’s dad was an important Southern musician, having replaced Berry Oakley on bass in the Allman Brothers Band but, unlike them, they didn’t get to play with him much. Lamar Sr died of lung cancer in his mid-thirties having been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Charlie Musselwhite – Mississippi Son
I first encountered Charlie Musselwhite on one of the first blues albums I ever bought, a 1965 record by John Hammond that also featured three future members of The Band among the backing. He was in the first generation of ’60s Chicago blues revivalists and, with Paul Butterfield, arguably the leading harmonica player among the white guys (though Musselwhite has some Native American ancestry) who were learning directly from the greats. Twenty years ago, I was lucky enough to see him live … twice, once in the Blind Boys of Alabama’s Spirit of the Century band and once with his own group as one of the disappointingly few highlights of the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival. As the title of this, his approximately three-dozenth album over about 55 years, suggests, he was born in Mississippi, albeit outside of the Delta though he now lives in Clarksdale. He’s obviously steeped in the blues and, at the age of 77 when this record was made, has nothing more to prove. Yet he has made the kind of album that most bluesmen who don’t simply use the form as a vehicle for their guitar skills – and, I imagine, many of those as well – would like to make at least once in their lives. Musselwhite has a laid-back, almost conversational singing style that relies on timing and honesty rather than punch and power and that age has made wiser but therefore not withered, and his guitar playing, often acoustic, never goes further than the song absolutely needs. Even his harmonica playing, as wonderful as it can be, is not showy and there’s hardly an unnecessary note or inflection. The occasional backing is just bass and drums, no more. Many of the song choices reflect his stage of life. Alongside several fine originals (Blues Up The River, Blues Gave Me A Ride and When The Frisco Left The Shed stand out) and an instrumental tribute to Big Joe Williams that’s played on one of Joe’s guitars, there are covers of John Lee Hooker and Charlie Patton, but perhaps more pointedly, and poignantly, renowned Texas songwriter Guy Clark’s spoken The Dark (where Guy could “see Ft Worth from here”, Charlie sees Clarksdale), A Voice Foretold from ’80s African-American musical ‘The Gospel At Colonus’ and a perfect blues version of the Stanley Brothers bluegrass classic, Rank Strangers. As Musselwhite sings, the blues tells the truth in a world that’s full of lies.