For me 2016 was the year where the singer-songwriter reigned supreme and where the more experimental edges of the folk genres got my attention. I’m actually surprised there’s not a lot more bluegrass and Americana music on this list given that’s been my focus over the last few years, but I think this is a pretty nice collection of what’s been on high rotation in the Timber and Steel bullpen throughout 2016.
As always it’s hard to pick just 25 albums and no doubt your favourite hasn’t made this list. But as always there’s a few more “best of” lists to come this week so stay tunes.
So without further ado here are Timber and Steel’s top albums of 2016.
1. Foy Vance – The Wild Swan
From the opening blues of “Noam Chomsky Is A Soft Revolution” through the rootsy folk of “She Burns” to the sixties folk of “Fire It Up (The Silver Spear)” The Wild Swan is a simply cracking album from Northern Irish troubadour Foy Vance.
Never one to be confined by expectation The Wild Swan takes you on a journey through blues, soul, Americana, folk and more, with Vance deftly weaving everything together in a single coherent piece of joy. I love how individual each and every song is while still having enough of a through line that the album is utterly listenable from start to finish.
I’ve been across Foy Vance for some time now but the lead single from this album, “She Burns”, was my way into his music. The Wild Swan was the perfect soundtrack for a driving holiday I took in New Zealand earlier in the year, rolling with the landscape and sinking deep into my bones.
Almost every track is a standout but “She Burns” and “Bangor Town” are the tracks I keep coming back to. The Wild Swan has turned me into a life-long Foy Vance fan – I can’t wait to see what comes next.
2. Burrows – Burrows
I didn’t realise this when I first heard it but I’ve been waiting for Burrows’ self titled album for about three years. I saw Sam King perform at the 2013 National Folk Festival and fell in love with his delicate folk music. Little did I know that that appearance would be the beginning of the Burrows project and that their debut album would become a firm favourite this year. King’s voice, the beautiful harmonies from the rest of the band, the understated instrumentation all come together to build an amazing piece of art. Standout track is without a doubt “Falling Apart”.
3. The Company – Six & Five
Six & Five is a thoroughly modern bluegrass album from a local band at the top of their game. This is bluegrass without the play-as-fast-as-you-can gimmickry so many modern bluegrassers rely on. Instead this is solid songwriting backed by some of the best musicians in the country. “Another Season”, “Six and Five” and “Androids” are all standout tracks but to be honest my list of favourites changes on every listen. And can I just say that I think Michael Patrick has my favourite bluegrass voice in Australia.
4. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Part of me expected the new Bon Iver album would be an extension of the cinematic indie-folk of 2011’s self-titled opus. So when 22, A Million landed I was more than a little blindsided – but in a wonderful way. All glitches, samples, electronics and overdubs, the album is completely immersive and a giant leap forward for Justin Vernon. At the heart of it all is Vernon’s unique voice and some pretty amazing songwriting which stands up regardless of the beeps and bops.
5. Melody Pool – Deep Dark Savage Heart
Melody Pool delivers an amazingly red raw new album dealing with her own experiences of depression and mental illness. The songwriting is mature and complex and requires the listener to engage, not passively sit by as the music washes over you. I’ve picked Pool as an artist to watch for many years now and I feel with Deep Dark Savage Heart she’s delivering completely on her potential. Just listen to “Black Dog” or “Love, She Loves Me” and try not to fall for Melody Pool.
6. William Fitzsimmons – Charleroi: Pittsburgh, Volume 2
Pittsburgh was easily one of my favourite albums of 2015 so when William Fitzsimmonsfollowed it up with a mini-album featuring a bunch of unreleased tracks from the same recording session earlier this year I was a very happy man. Fitzsimmons’ beautiful, melancholic songs draw you in and keep you captivated. I love his hushed vocal style – this is definitely lean in music.
7. One Up, Two Down – A Day On The Quay
Two of Australia’s most talented folk musicians – George Jackson and Daniel Watkins – join forces with American bassist Andrew Small for this wonderful mini album from the beginning of this year. Stuffed full of amazing instrumentals like “Kansas City Railroad Blues” and “The Ways Of The World”, it’s actually the traditional song “Bury Me Not On The Lone Praire” that keeps me returning to A Day On The Quay again and again.
8. Radical Face – The Family Tree: The Leaves
The final chapter of Radical Face’s The Family Tree series is a triumphant bookend to an amazing project. The album is full to the brim with Radical Face’s trademark layered vocals, finger-picked guitars and soundscapes making this a unique indie-folk experience. The rumour is that Radical Face will be changing stylistic direction now that The Family Tree is done so I can recommend immersing yourself in this album before getting ready for his next adventure.
9. Paul Kelly – Seven Sonnets & A Song
Pairing Paul Kelly with The Bard is absolutely inspired. For the most part Seven Sonnets & A Song sees Kelly flex is folk muscles when adapting the sonnets into songs and the results are lovely. The two singles – “Sonnet 18” and “Sonnet 73” – are by far my favourite tracks on the album with the latter featuring beautiful backing vocals from Sweet Jean’s Alice Keath. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – this album is pure magic.
10. Seth Lakeman feat. Wildwood Kin – Ballads Of The Broken Few
Teaming with up-and-coming trio Wildwood Kin was a stroke of genius for Seth Lakeman’s new album Ballads Of The Broken Few. Their three-part harmonies elevate Lakeman’s classic folk sound to something more. I’ve been a fan of Seth Lakeman since I saw him on his last Australian tour and I can honestly say this is my favourite album of his to date – and that is one 100% down to the collaboration with Wildwood Kin. As always Lakeman is able to draw on the tradition to inspire his music while still creating something that is wonderfully modern.
12. Mumford & Sons with Baaba Maal, The Very Best & Beatenberg – Johannesburg
The combination of Mumford & Sons’ big nu-folk sound with afro-beats and electronic music makes this one of the most joyful releases of the year.
13. Gregory Alan Isakov – Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony
While the songs may not be new, the arrangements with the Colorado Symphony give Gregory Alan Isakov’s beautiful music a wonderful depth.
15. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry – Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry dive into the American songbook for their Railway themed album – I especially love their version of “Midnight Special”.
16. Passenger – Young As The Morning Old As The Sea
Passenger once again demonstrates why he’s one of the best folk singer-songwriters in the world with the release of Young As The Morning Old As The Sea.
20. Imogen Clark – Love & Lovely Lies
One of the hardest working singer-songwriters in Sydney releases a debut to be proud of, paving the way for bigger things to come.
23. The Weeping Willows – Before Darkness Comes A-Callin’
The Melbourne based duo deliver a heady mix of folk, bluegrass and classic country in their best release yet – no wonder they’ve been nominated for four Golden Guitars
24. James Kenyon – Imagine You Are Driving
Australia’s most under-rated singer-songwriter delivers a stunning new album that is making the local industry sit up and take notice.