Lisa O’Neill, Lori Watson, Trembling Bells, Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy were among the many standout acts in a very distinguished year for the genre
The best folk of 2018 was raw, bloody and brutal. Stick in the Wheel’s Follow Them True (From Here) started the year with an uncompromising take on traditional music, delivering ancient songs such as The Unquiet Grave as if they were emerging from the earth after years of being lost. Experimental flourishes (Nicola Kearey’s vocals treated with Auto-Tune, for example) only added to the uncanny, arresting mood. In November, the band also released an atmospheric mixtape, which is hugely worth checking out.
Lisa O’Neill’s Heard a Long Gone Song (River Lea) went even further. Her resolutely unpretty, belly-deep Irish drawl hymned the decline of industry, depression, and the deaths of young children. Let it submerge you and a modern folk masterpiece emerges, its roots twisting back to records such as Lal and Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus, which has sadly been pulled from sale in recent weeks because of copyright issues. Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy’s warm and wildly varied Anchor (Topic), reminds you how adventurous that family always were and still are.
Other women forged folk forwards this year. Lori Watson’s Yarrow Acoustic Sessions (self-released) marked the arrival of a stunning new talent: her explorations of Scottish songs and poems offer endlessly rewarding listens. You Are Wolf’s inventive concept album about water, Keld (Firecrest), also held many hidden depths, while Olivia Chaney made a bold move away from folk foundations on the gorgeous Shelter (Nonesuch). Let It Calm You Down, from Let the Cards Fall (Real World) by the Breath, was my favourite original ballad of the year, Ríoghnach Connolly’s voice as tender as the grasp of a child’s hand. Jackie Oates’s The Joy of Living (ECC) was quietly devastating in its personal explorations of life and death, while Kitty McFarlane’s Namer of Clouds (Navigator) struck a sweet note for debut folk-influenced singer-songwriters.
Instrumental music was also at its best taking bold turns. Sam Sweeney’s The Unfinished Violin (Island) explored war, while Solasta’s A Cure for the Curious (self-released) introduced a new trio mixing up traditional dances with imaginative arrangements. The year’s best psych-folk is still working well as the winter draws in: the Left Outsides (Cardinal Fuzz) and Trembling Bells (Tin Angel) giving us lusty, spectral lights. And shout-outs to two records I missed, but which I have loved in recent months: Emma Tricca’s St Peter (Dell’Orso), heavy with atmosphere and beauty, and Sam Lee and Peter Wiegold’s extemporisations on folk songs, Van Diemen’s Land (NMC). Modern folk’s bounties keep giving.