To round out our week of “best of” lists our illustrious Editor in Chief Gareth Hugh Evans once again whittles down the ton of releases that crossed his ears this year to pick his 25 favourite tracks of 2016.
We’re going to get out of the way and let Gareth throw some music your way – enjoy!
1. Foy Vance – “She Burns”
Irish singer-songwriter Foy Vance has always been on my radar but when he released his album The Wild Swan earlier this year I was floored. The standout track, I think most people would agree, is the wonderful “She Burns”, with its pizzicato guitar, slow build percussion and choral backing vocals. Foy Vance is a singer-songwriter at the top of his game.
2. One Up, Two Down – “Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie”
It seems almost unfair that I would choose a traditional song as my favourite from a band that are not only accomplished songwriters in their own right but also amazing musicians whose instrumental tracks are incredibly special. But I challenge you to listen to Dan Watkins singing “Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie” and not melt into a puddle. His voice and guitar, combined with George Jackson and Andrew Small’s long bowed fiddle and bass, turn this cowboy ballad into something more. Simply beautiful.
3. Burrows – “Falling Apart”
When I saw Burrows play at this year’s Summer Hill Folk Festival I was floored. Every song they played was a piece of harmonic brilliance, enhanced by the acoustics of the Summer Hill Church. When they came around to “Falling Apart” I murmured “that’s the song” – and I still maintain that this track is near perfect. I love Sam King’s understated vocals and the harmonies in the chorus are just divine.
4. Eagle & The Wolf – “Mama, Son and the Holy Ghost”
The pairing of Kris Morris’ dirty blues and roots with Sarah Humphreys’ big folk voice, “Mama, Son and the Holy Ghost” was the perfect introduction to Eagle & The Wolf. Individually Kris Morris and Sarah Humphreys are firm favourites of Timber and Steel but Eagle & The Wolf is greater than the sum of its parts and “Mama, Son and the Holy Ghost” is the epitome of their collaboration. This is rootsy blues done right – all crunchy guitars, clipped percussion and keyboard and big, bluesy voices.
5. Bon Iver – “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”
With its glitchy opening, distorted Mahalia Jackson samples, saxaphone solos and weird lyrics it would appear on the surface that Justin Vernon has well and truly moved on from the acoustic folk of For Emma, Forever Ago and embraced the more electronic elements of the self-titled Bon Iver. But at its core “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is still classic Bon Iver with Vernon’s double-tracked, falsetto voice coming through loud and clear. Strip back all the beeps and bops and “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” could sit alongside any of the classic Bon Iver folk tracks.
6. Melody Pool – “Love, She Loves Me”
Since first seeing Melody Pool perform at the Gulgong Folk Festival back in 2013 I’ve been predicting big things for her. To say that her new album Deep Dark Savage Heart was highly anticipated in the Timber and Steel bullpen is an understatement and when it dropped earlier this year it was on solid repeat for ages. “Love, She Loves Me” is definitely a standout track on the album (although “Black Dog” is a close second), perfectly demonstrating Pool’s skill as a songwriter and singer. What a voice!
7. Rowena Wise – “Then We Met”
Rowena Wise owns the quirky indie-folk genre this year this this wonderfully catchy track from her 2016 self titled album. I love the twisted, bluesy finger-picked riff throughout this track and that chorus is a definite ear worm. I’ve been watching Rowena Wise cloesly since she launched a serious solo career and it’s songs like “Then We Met” that will see her successfully straddle the folk and indie worlds in the coming years
8. Matthew and the Atlas – “Elijah”
I love Matt Hegarty’s voice. “Elijah” is probably the most stripped back, acoustic track on Matthew and the Atlas’ latest album Temple and is easily my favourite as well. I love the finger-picked guitar over the swelling piano and orchestral elements and the subtle backing vocals. But most of all I love Matt Hegarty’s voice – I just can’t get passed that.
9. Paul Kelly feat. Alice Keath – “Sonnet 73”
To be honest I could have chosen any of the tracks from Paul Kelly’s marvelous album Shakespeare inspired Seven Sonnets And A Song. The reason I finally settled on “Sonnet 73” is two fold: Firstly it has a wonderful, folk-country feel with Kelly’s strummed acoustic guitar over a plucked pedal steel; And second the backing vocals from Alice Keath (Sweet Jean) are pitch perfect. Who knew you could improve on The Bard?
10. Seth Lakeman feat. Wildwood Kin – “Meet Me In The Twilight”
More than any other song on this list “Meet Me In The Twilight” gets lodged in my head and refuses to leave. Lakeman’s percussive guitar work coupled with an instantly singable (or yellable) chorus are what makes this song so catchy. Wildwood Kin add an extra level of sophistication to this track as well as the rest of Lakeman’s album Ballads of the Broken Few. I have a feeling that this track would be amazing to see live and have the crowd foot stomping and singing along.
11. Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal, The Very Best, Beatenberg – “Wona”
This collaboration between Mumford & Sons, Senegalese musician Baaba Maal, Swedish-Malawian electronic band The Very Best and South African afro-beat masters Beatenberg is just pure joy. All afro-beat goodness and nu-folk bombast, you can’t help but smile when listening to “Wona”, it’s such a breath of fresh air. I know that liking Mumford & Sons is definitely no longer “cool” but when they’re collaborating and producing music like this then you’ll still find me first in line for their next release.
12. James Kenyon – “The Motorbike Song”
I feel like James Kenyon might be one of the most underrated singer-songwriters in Australia right now. Songs like “The Motorbike Song”, with its rootsy groove and Paul Kelly-esque lyrical style, should see Kenyon a firm favourite amongst music lovers everywhere. I also have to give props to the wonderful video from Ed Bracey – it even makes Melbourne’s Docklands look stunning.
13. Michael Kiwanuka – “Black Man In A White World”
Michael Kiwanuka has always deftly woven together elements of folk, gospel, blues and old-school R&B and his single “Black Man In A White World” is the epitome of that sound. I love the gospel clapping accompanying the disco-like string stabs and R&B guitar. This could well have come straight out of the 70s – one of those songs that sound immediately timeless.
14. Fanny Lumsden – “Land of Gold”
At the time of writing Fanny Lumsden had been nominated for an ARIA award, has 4 Golden Guitar nominations and has gone to number one on the Country Music Channel charts twice. Incredible work for a singer-songwriter from the Riverina. One of those top charting songs is the nostalgic “Land of Gold”, a deceptively simple storytelling song with a big heart that has quickly become one of my favourite Fanny tracks ever. Whether she’s playing with a full band or with just her bassist Dan, “Land of Gold” always pops live. I really love this song.
15. Passenger feat. All Our Exes Live in Texas & Luke Thompson – “Caravan (Live)”
It’s a bit cheeky choosing a live version of a track that’s seven years old as one of my favourites of 2016 but this video has been on serious high rotation since it was posted earlier this year. When you take possibly my favourite Passenger track of all time and throw a collaboration between All Our Exes Live in Texas and Luke Thompson into the mix you strike pure gold. Just listen to those harmonies on the choruses – magic stuff.
16. Imogen Clark – “You’ll only Break My Heart”
Imogen Clark has had a pretty big year built on the bedrock of her debut album Love & Lovely Lies and its two lead singles “Take Me For A Ride” and “You’ll only Break My Heart”. The latter is Clark’s most mature offering to date, making the most of her big voice and lyric driven song writing. I’m not sure why Imogen Clark gets lumped into the Country crowd – to my ears her music is straight up acoustic pop – but regardless of the genre “You’ll only Break My Heart” heralds big things to come from the Sydney singer-songwriter.
17. Ariela Jacobs – “Lost”
The way that Ariela Jacobs plays with melody and syncopation on “Lost” is so intriguing. The rhythmic, unpredictable verses give way to simple 4/4 choruses and then a middle eight that just launches itself at you and takes you by surprise. This song is all about Jacobs’ voice with the accompaniment – simple piano chords for the most part – taking a back seat to her lyrics. This track is powerful and vulnerable all at the same time.
18. Sian Evans – “Cold Feet”
I got to meet Sian Evans at the National Folk Festival this year where she got me to act as roadie for her as she rushed to one of her gigs. She’s spent much of 2016 carving out a solo career for herself after her work with The Rusty Datsuns and part of that has involved developing her own distinct sound. The result is the single “Cold Feat” which has a pop sensibility with a heart of folk.
19. The Weeping Willows – “River of Gold”
The Weeping Willows embrace their bluegrass side with their huge single “River of Gold”. I love Andrew Wrigglesworth flat picking guitar on this song, accentuated with a subtle banjo over the entire track. And then of course there’s the harmonies between Wrigglesworth and Laura Coates which The Weeping Willows are renowned for.
20. Gretta Ray – “Unexpected Feeling”
Triple J Unearthed High winner Gretta Ray has quite rightly had a massive year with high rotation on the national broadcaster and lots of love from the music press. Her track “Unexpected Feeling” is such a joy to listen to – and to be honest when I first heard it I had no idea that Ray was still in high school. There’s a definite maturity in her songwriting and I just love her guitar work on this track.
21. Sam Newton – “Hold You Down”
The Americana vibes of “Hold You Down” coupled with Sam Newton’s sweet, unassuming voice make this track instantly attractive. I love the way you can’t help but tap your toe along with the brushed snare drum and thumping bass. The production on this track really pulls it all together – it could well have been a straight up acoustic song but the addition of drums, bass and trembling electric guitar turn the song into something more.
22. William Fitzsimmons – “Hear Your Heart”
I was so happy that William Fitzsimmons released his mini album Charleroi: Pittsburgh Vol. 2 this year (as well as a live album) because it meant more songs like “Hear Your Heart” out in the world. Rolling fingerpicking, hushed vocals, sad subject matter – this is William Fitzsimmons in a nutshell and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
23. Laura Marling – “Soothing”
I don’t know why I was surprised when we got a new Laura Marling song this year – she’s been insanely prolific throughout her relatively short career having released five albums in the last eight years. “Soothing” is the first taste from her upcoming seventh album Semper Femina and it sees Marling depart from her usual acoustic guitar driven songwriting with a bass and percussion loop that wouldn’t be out of place on a Radiohead release. This track also sees Marling’s first foray into directing on the accompanying video (that is borderline NSFW so maybe wait until you get home to play this one).
24. The Campervan Dancers – “Slow Down Butterfly”
From what I understand “Slow Down Butterfly” was gestating for quite a while before Sydney duo The Campervan Dancers launched it at the beginning of the year. This is a track that tumbles over itself with vocals, samples, instrumentation popping up all over the place. I love the injection of chaos into what could have just been a standard piece of indie-folk pop. Let’s hope there’s more gestating where this came from.
25. Emmy The Great – “Algorithm”
My need to squeeze Emmy The Great’s recent output into the genre of “folk” so that I can justify posting it on Timber and Steel continues with “Algorithm”. The first Emmy The Great song in a while to contain a decent amount of acoustic guitar, “Algorithm” is a lovely example of the direction Emmy The Great’s songwriting has taken recently – more obscure, more pop but still with her fragile voice front and centre.