If anything has characterised 2015 for me in terms of new albums it’s that we finally saw debuts from some of our favourite artists. So many bands these days are serial EP releasers so it’s great to see the likes of Patrick James, Falls Marlon Williams and more knuckle down and get into the studio. It’s also great to see the return of firm favourites after time away and an explosion of traditional music that pushes boundaries and challenges our perception of what trad music can be.
Coming up with a top 25 list is always a challenge (let alone putting them in some kind of order) but I think what we’ve come up with is a wonderful cross section of all the genres of “folk” music we cover on Timber and Steel – from singer-songwriter to Americana to indie folk to traditional and beyond.
So without further ado here it is – our top 25 albums and EPs from 2015!
1. Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton – Declaration
What a year 2015 has been for traditional music. Maybe it’s just me but it seems like a lot more trad is breaking through at the moment and the icing on the cake this year has been the incredible new album from Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton, Declaration.
This is the duo’s first album in about eight years and their return to the studio has been a welcome one. Once again teaming with producer Luke Plumb, Declaration is loosely themed around traditional music from the female perspective with a few contemporary tracks thrown in for good measure.
The tracks are rich, heartbreaking, emotional and beautiful. So many of the songs deal with pretty heavy themes such as domestic violence (“Bleezin’ Blind Drunk”), false accusations of adultery (“Waly Waly”) and the disintegration of a woman’s public reputation (“Katy Cruel”) and these are conveyed with resonance by Burke and Hazleton. Hearing these two singing together again reminds me of why I fell in love with their harmonies all those years ago.
The two originals on the album – “The Freeze” and “Hearts Of Sorrow” – are two of my favourites and they make me wish Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton were more prolific as songwriters. Maybe one day we’ll get a full album of self penned tracks?
I love how much Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton have matured as performers over the last 15 years. Gone is the rigid need to stick 100% to the tradition and instead we have a fluid take on the material that draws as much from contemporary music as it does from Anglo, Celtic and American music. A simply wonderful album
2. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Touted as the return to Folk Music for Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell is in fact the next step in his musical evolution. Rather than shrugging off the electronic chaos of his recent albums, Stevens has merely toned it down and brought back his acoustic guitar to dive into the complex relationship with his mother following her passing. This album is so raw, so nuanced and deserved of every bit of praise that has been heaped upon it.
3. Fanny Lumsden – Small Town Big Shot
I’ve always predicted big things for Fanny Lumsden ever since I saw her perform at a rooftop bar in Sydney many moons ago. Small Town Big Shot is the album that is currently turning Lumsden from Sydney’s alt-country darling to a favourite of the Australian country scene. The album is full of Fanny Lumsden’s true-to-life accounts of growing up in rural Australia while never straying into the Americanised, dust kicking ideal of country life so often portrayed by Australian country artists. Not to be ignored, Lumsden’s band The Thrillseekers add a rich musical tapestry to her songs and really seem to have gelled as group. Only released in September there’s a lot of life in Small Town Big Shot so we’ll continue to see Fanny Lumsden riding high off it’s ever growing success in 2016.
4. The Paper Kites – twelvefour
The Paper Kites have produced what has to be one of the most interesting concept albums of recent years. twelvefour was written exclusively between the hours of 12am and 4am as frontman Sam Bentley believed this is when people are at their most creative. The result is stunning – a patchwork of eighties electro influences and the band’s trademark indie-folk – and will no doubt go down as a high watermark in their career. twelvefour feels very deliberately structured moving from the straight up electro of “Electric Indigo” and “Relevator Eyes” to more folky numbers in the second half of the album (“A Silent Cause” is a standout for me). I’m interested to see where The Paper Kites take their sound next.
5. Packwood – Autumnal
This year chamber-folk artist Packwood released four seasonally themed EPs as part of his Vertumnus album project. The first of these was Autumnal which has remained my firm favourite through all of the subsequent releases. Gone is Packwood’s trademark sparsely plucked banjo (don’t worry, it returns in later EPs) and instead we get delicately fingerpicked guitar accompanied by choir and chamber orchestra. The songs are delicate and sumptuous and Packwood has really come a long way as a songwriter since his debut. Put on Autumnal, close your eyes and let the world fall away.
6. Laura Marling – Short Movie
We’re now five albums into Laura Marling’s career and her songwriting has never been stronger. On her latest release Short Movie Marling’s songwriting takes on a freeform, Dylan-esque mode only hinted at on previous albums and it takes her into some very ineteresting places. There’s a lot more electric guitar on Short Movie and at times she descends into beat-poet-like spoken word phrases (like on the amazing “Gurdjieff’s Daughter”) yet no one is crying that Marling’s turned her back on her folk roots (like Marling’s old band Mumford & Sons). Instead Short Movie is being praised as an evolution of her sound and while it is miles away from her 2008 debut Alas, I Cannot Swim, both musically and stylistically, this is 100% a Laura Marling album.
7. William Fitzsimmons – Pittsburgh
In his ode to his recently passed Grandmother and her home town of Pittsburgh, William Fitzsimmons has created a delicate, beautiful piece of magic. This is his first self-produced album since 2006’s Goodnight and it does feel markedly different from his recent releases – the production is not a slave to his voice and guitar, instead it sits more comfortably as part of each song. At only seven tracks long Pittsburgh leaves you warm and fuzzy and wanting more.
8. Patrick James – Outlier
It seems like 2015 saw a lot of long time favourite Timber and Steel artists finally got around to releasing their debut album – and one of the debuts we were most excited about was from Patrick James. Over the course of a bunch of EPs Patrick James has refined his James Taylor-esque folk songs and Outlier is the culmination of years of solid songwriting. The production on Outlier makes the most of James’ unique voice and elevates his solo singer-songwriter roots into a rich, luscious landscape.
9. Mumford & Sons – Wilder Mind
With all of the attention on Mumford & Sons “ditching the banjo” and turning their back on folk music when Wilder Mind came out very little attention was paid to the album itself. Which is a shame because it’s another solid outing for the boys. If you push through the electric guitars and drums you discover that Wilder Mind is unmistakably a Mumford record with big choruses, melodies dripping with four part harmonies and festival ready lyrical hooks. And anyone who has seen Mumford & Sons this year will know they have in no way ditched the banjo – Wilder Mind sits perfectly within their entire catalogue.
10. Falls – Omaha
It took Falls moving to LA 18 months ago (and dropping the “The”) to produce their gorgeous debut album Omaha. Falls have expanded their two-voices-and-a-guitar sound to an almost orchestral level, but at the forefront is still their lyrically driven melodies and beautiful harmonies. I’m actually really impressed that all of the tracks on Omaha having seen them perform almost exclusively from their Hollywood EP before their big move Stateside. Now we just need a national Australian tour off the back of the album!
11. Tolka – One House
The stunning result of trad band Tolka’s trip to Belfast last year to write and record a new album – one of the tightest trad bands in the country.
12. Boy & Bear – Limit of Love
Boy & Bear return with a 70s vibe and a bunch of new tracks that saw the band collaborating on the songwriting duties.
11. The Staves – If I Was
The Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) production on The Staves’ debut elevates their sound from simple three part harmonies to full blown indie-folk goodness.
12. The East Pointers – Secret Victory
The result of writing sessions on their summer tour of Australia, The East Pointers have written 10 original tracks that sound as if they’ve been ripped directly from the tradition.
13. The Milk Carton Kids – Monterey
Monterey is the closest The Milk Carton Kids have come to capturing their mesmerising live show on record – this is something special.
14. Dougal Adams, Ado Barker & Ben Stephenson – The Freewheeler
Instead of complaining that it’s been too long between albums for Trouble in the Kitchen get your trad fix with the debut album from Dougal Adams, Ado Barker & Ben Stephenson.
15. Ruby Boots – Solitude
The Perth songstress has nailed down an amazing band and has produced one of the best alt-country albums of the last few years.
16. Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow Is My Turn
In her debut solo album Rhiannon Giddens has built on the trad and old time of her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and spun it into something new and very exciting.
17. Marlon Williams – Marlon Williams
With a voice that has reduced grown men and women to tears, there’s a lot to love about Marlon Williams’ debut record – this man is taking country music back to its roots and winning fans every step of the way.
18. Various – Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis
The folk and Americana industry’s best come together for a night of music inspired by the 60s folk scene and to a lesser extent the Cohen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis.
19. Matt Bauer – Dream’s End
On his latest album Matt Bauer has upped the production stakes, forgoing his normally sparse folk songs and the result is wonderful.
20. Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues
I think it’s time to stop referring to Punch Brothers as “bluegrass” or “nu-grass” or anything at all – with The Phosphorescent Blues they have proven they are undefinable.
21. Mustered Courage – White Lies and Melodies
Mustered Courage have always been the most polished bluegrass band in Australia but they’ve upped the ante with their new album adding a pop sheen to their sound.
22. Shane Nicholson – Hell Breaks Loose
The godfather of the Australian Americana scene released one of the year’s best country albums – all heartbreak and whisky and everything that’s good about this kind of music.
23. The Decemberists – What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
A welcome return to the studio from The Decemberists to follow up their amazing 2011 album The King Is Dead – a little less folk, a little more rock and all sorts of goodness.
24. Josh Pyke – But For All These Shrinking Hearts
Australia’s premiere troubadour delivers yet another stunning album with his trademark wry lyrics and hooky melodies.
25. Emmy The Great – S
Emmy The Great slides into electro music while maintaining the folk-inspired melodies she’s become known for.