Songlines Best Albums of 2017

Posted on November 23rd, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .

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Songlines’ editors Jo Frost and Simon Broughton select their favourite albums of 2017

Jo Frost and Simon Broughton have handpicked their ten favourite albums of the year from over 700 featured reviews. Below you will find their choices for this year’s greatest albums, accompanied by the original Songlines reviews, but be sure to pick up a copy of the new issue (January/February 2018, #134), on sale December 8, for a full rundown.

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ribbons

Justin Adams featuring Anneli Drecker

Ribbons

(Wayward)

From his solo debut with 2001’s Desert Road through to his production work with Tinariwen, collaborations with Robert Plant and Lo’Jo and his fine series of albums with Gambian griot Juldeh Camara, there’s not much on Justin Adams’ well-travelled CV that hasn’t earned the Songlines stamp of approval. Inspired by the work of visual artists such as Joan Miró and Jackson Pollock, Ribbons is an endlessly captivating set of ‘sound paintings’ that eschew conventional rock dynamics in favour of slowly shifting abstract patterns in which Adams’ filigree guitar is filtered through a prism of loping Tinariwen grooves, Steve Reich pulses, Gnawa trance rhythms and droning raga loops. Anneli Drecker, whom Adams met more than 20 years ago when they were both part of Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart, is best known as the singer with Norwegian dream-poppers Bel Canto and Röyksopp. Currently researching a PhD on ancient and traditional singing styles at Tromsø’s Arctic University, she adds texture to the canvas with wordless vocals that evoke Björk at her most audacious and draw on global influences from Native American chants to Tuvan throat singing. Another pleasingly bold adventure. Nigel Williamson

 

aurelio

Aurelio

Darandi

(Real World)

With their lilting, soulful melodies, drums and guitars, the paranda songs of the Garifuna people are one of the world’s great musical traditions. Their unique blend of African, Caribbean and Latin influences reflects the extraordinary history of a people who can trace their ancestry back to the African slaves who escaped from a shipwreck to intermarry with the Arawak people of St Vincent, and who now live along the Caribbean coast of Central America. Since the death of the great Andy Palacio, it has been left to his former colleague Aurelio Martinez to promote this glorious, compelling music on the international stage. His fourth solo album is something of a magnificent curiosity. It’s a ‘Greatest Hits’ set – a selection of the most popular songs in his live shows, including nine that appeared on his earlier albums. And it’s also his answer to a live album, though it wasn’t recorded on stage but live at the Real World studios, soon after he made a tremendous appearance at WOMAD last year. Backed by his own guitar, two large Garifuna drums, bass, and twanging electric guitar from Guayo Cedeño, he treats songs such as ‘Dondo’, the charming ‘Laru Beya’ or the more slow and pained-sounding ‘Dugu’ to a thrilling, compelling work-over. Well worth checking out, even if you own all his earlier albums. Robin Denselow

 

Hawaii-To-Calcutta

Debashish Bhattacharya

Hawaii to Calcutta: A Tribute to Tau Moe

(Riverboat Records)

Bhattacharya is an extraordinary musician. He may be best known for inventing the slide guitars that allow him to play Indian ragas, but he has eclectic taste, as he shows with this tribute to the Hawaiian guitarist Tau Moe. It’s not as strange a project as it may first seem, for Tau Moe spent several years in India, where he taught and worked with local musicians. One of his students was a close friend of Bhattacharya’s childhood guitar teacher, and Bhattacharya first started playing on a Hawaiian steel guitar, when he was just three years old. Years later he travelled to Hawaii to perform with Tau Moe. This tribute set mixes Hawaiian favourites popularised by Tau Moe with new compositions by Bhattacharya. There are Indian influences and trademark rapid-fire guitar solos on the opening ‘Playful Melina on Diamond Head’, but the real delights are his treatment of the slow and charming Hawaiian favourites ‘Meeting by Waikiki’ or the melodic and sentimental ‘Aloha ’Oe’, along with the swinging and jazzy ‘Kaua I Ka Huahua’i (Hawaiian War Chant)’, on which he is joined by ukulele star Benny Chong. Hawaii to Calcutta: A Tribute to Tau Moe is a charming, virtuoso set. Robin Denselow

 

kapela

Kapela Maliszów

Wiejski Dżez

(Unzipped Fly)

Wiejski Dżez (Village Jazz) is a music rooted in vanishing traditions, reconnecting the here-and-now with the going, going, gone. It’s the fire of their improvisations that makes this music of tradition as relevant and contemporary as a broadband connection…

Read the full review of this album in Songlines #134, on sale from December 8

 

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Lau

Decade: The Best of Lau 2007-2017

(Lau Scotland)

How can one possibly put together a compilation of the most exciting, musically adventurous trio in British folk without leaving out some of their classic recordings? Well, this is a brave attempt, partly curated by the band themselves, and with the exception of one track (an exhilarating 14-minute version of ‘The Lang Set’, recorded in 2011, four years after it first appeared on their debut album), it follows a strict chronological order. It starts with tracks from their first release Lightweights & Gentlemen in 2007, and ends with two songs from their fourth and latest offering The Bell That Never Rang, two years ago. Lau’s Orcadian singer and guitarist Kris Drever dominated at this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (winning Folk Singer of the Year and Best Original Track) so it’s perhaps to be expected that the set starts not with a trademark freewheeling instrumental, but with a song – his gently exquisite treatment of ‘Unquiet Grave’. Then come the instrumentals, ‘Hinba’ and ‘Gallowhill’ as a reminder of the remarkable, tight interplay between Drever’s guitar with Martin Green’s accordion and Aidan O’Rourke’s fiddle, and their thrilling ability to improvise. Later tracks provide a reminder of how electronica entered the Lau mix on the Race the Loser album in 2012. Magnificent stuff. Robin Denselow

 

baobab

Orchestra Baobab

Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng

(World Circuit)

Despite the title, the first album from the legendary Senegalese dance band in a decade is not a tribute album in the usual sense. Instead, it is a set of mostly new songs that simply carry a heartfelt dedication on the cover to original vocalist Dieng, who died in November 2016 after singing with the group in every phase of its career since the early 70s. It would be crass to say he’s not missed, but one of Baobab’s strengths was that they have always boasted several lead vocalists and the sturdy voices of founder members Balla Sidibé and Rudy Gomis and the presence of Dieng’s son Alpha cover his loss without skipping a beat, while guest vocalists Cheikh Lô and Thione Seck (who left Baobab to go solo in 1979) provide further sinuous vocal variation. The rock-steady Afro-Cuban rhythms and sweetly lyrical brass arrangements also remain reassuringly familiar. Yet there have been changes. For the first time, a kora has a permanent place in the line-up, the dreamy cascades of notes from Abdouleye Cissoko taking centre stage in the classic Baobab shuffle on tracks such as ‘Fayinkounko’ and ‘Magnokoputo’, plus the acoustic ‘Mariama’, which sounds quite unlike anything else in the Baobab canon. To an extent, the kora fills the substantial gap left by veteran guitarist Barthélémy Attisso, who has returned to his law practice in Togo. His replacement, René Sowatche, a young guitarist from Benin, makes some spirited contributions, despite being very much a junior partner in the enterprise. It’s good to have them back. Nigel Williamson

 

polwart

Karine Polwart

A Pocket of Wind Resistance

(Hudson Records)

From the first note to the final, pulsing heartbeat, this is not merely an album of songs but a full 57-minute composite of music, field recording, song and spoken word. The results are devastatingly powerful…

Read the full review of this album in Songlines #134, on sale from December 8

 

sangare

Oumou Sangaré

Mogoya

(No Format!)

The last time this reviewer interviewed Oumou Sangaré was in January 2009. She was about to release the album Seya and the date sticks in the mind for it was the day of Barack Obama’s first inauguration. It was only her fourth album in a 20-year career and we’ve had to wait eight years for the follow-up. In that time the White House has received a scary new incumbent and Oumou has moved to a new label, after spending her entire career on World Circuit. The long absence and change of scenery seem to have done her a power of good. Mogoya remains rooted in the rich musical heritage of the Wassoulou region from which she hails. But this is also Oumou as we’ve never quite heard her before, for alongside the traditional African kamelengoni (lute) and calabash percussion, the sound is augmented by rock guitars, keyboards and synths, while Tony Allen guests on drums on the funky ‘Yere Faga’. This subtle but striking makeover comes courtesy of Swedish producer Andreas Unge and the crack French team of Vincent Taurelle, Ludovic Bruni and Vincent Taeger. Amid all the innovations, their smartest move of all, though, is to emphasise the raw power of Oumou’s voice to create perhaps her funkiest album to date. Nigel Williamson

 

saz-iso

Saz’iso

At Least Wave Your Handkerchief at Me: The Joys and Sorrows of Southern Albanian Song

(Glitterbeat)

This is a journey into the mountains of southern Albania with producer Joe Boyd and engineer Jerry Boys. Boyd and co-producers Edit Pula and Andrea Goertler have assembled the eight-piece band drawing on the beautiful arabesques of saze, whose instrumental mix of clarinet, violin and lute originated in the 19th century, but whose vocal style, combining at least two melodic lines, is as old as the hills. That sense of deep soul and the intertwining of East and West, of the ancient with the tempered scale, will suffuse the whole of your journey through this album. Singers Donika Pecallari and Adrianna Thanou sculpt thrilling harmonies with the contrasting timbres of their voices, while the violin of Aurel Qirjo and the weeping clarinet of Telando Feto, a village music teacher, are equally compelling. Shepherds, flutes, flocks, bandits, the yearning heart, the rebel yell – the songs’ subjects are as old and tough as the mountains, but the sweetness and ache in the telling is fresh as milk. When the singers rest, the emotive kaba – the ‘Albanian blues’ – speaks just as powerfully through passages of melancholic improvisation. This is a superb introduction to a mysterious, little-known culture on Europe and Asia’s borders. This album is your visa, passport, local currency and point of contact. Tim Cumming

 

kronos

Trio da Kali & Kronos Quartet

Ladilikan

(World Circuit)

This album is a sublime meeting of two superb chamber groups. On the one hand there is San Francisco’s string quartet Kronos, who’ve been exploring music around the world for 40 years; on the other, the relatively young Trio da Kali, featuring top musicians on Mali’s oldest instruments – the voice, the balafon (xylophone) and ngoni (lute). The trio, put together by Lucy Durán and supported by the Aga Khan Music Initiative, come from the sort of lineage that only Mali can provide: singer Hawa Diabaté is daughter of the great griot singer Kassé Mady Diabaté; bass ngoni player Mamadou Kouyaté is the eldest son of ngoni maestro Bassekou Kouyaté; and Lassana Diabaté is probably the country’s leading balafon player (and also composes most of the music). The opener ‘Tita’ has Trio da Kali taking the lead in a song of advice, with light quartet accompaniment until about three minutes in, when they respond with a great emotional outburst. In the upbeat ‘Lila Bambo’, the delicate counterpoint of balafon and strings is superb, thanks to arranger Jacob Garchik. When Kronos leader David Harrington first heard Hawa Diabaté, he says she immediately reminded him of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The most arresting track is ‘God Shall Wipe All Tears Away’, a Jackson song translated into Bamana, with the quartet imitating a church organ. The title-track is also a Mahalia Jackson melody, but with Malian lyrics about practicing what you preach, condemning Islamists praying and then murdering, as happened in Timbuktu. With its bluesy balafon solos and powerful fusion of two great traditions – the Malian, dating back to the 13th century, the string quartet dating back to the 18th – this record shows just how innovative, meaningful and musically satisfying such meetings can be. Simon Broughton

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