As a weekly and monthly album reviewer for several national publications and websites, including the Weekend Australian and Rhythms magazine, it is incumbent upon me to produce an annual ‘best of’ compilation at this time of the year.
For a habitual list generator, it is a genuine labour of love, and since I receive up to 25 albums a month for appraisal there’s plenty of pondering and prevarication involved in the selection process. Nearly all of these CDs can be filed under the generic header ‘roots music’, which is the style I naturally gravitate towards.
“World” and “Folk” are my specialist areas as a music journo, and fortunately both genres seem to be in vogue at the moment. In Britain, for example, folk music, which was long derided for its beards-and-sandals image, is currently enjoying a huge resurgence in popularity, particularly among the younger generation. Spiraling annual attendances at festivals such as WOMADelaide attests to the pulling power of world music.
There’s evidence to suggest that even the major record labels are beginning to wake up to the fact that these styles of music have a significant following, what retailers refer to as “shelf life”. Signs are that companies such as Sony are, at last, giving up their searches for the next wannabe and Idol in favour of roots oriented musicians.
So, roll of drums and fanfare of trumpets, here’s my TOP 20 WORLD & FOLK ALBUMS OF 2011, in alphabetical order.
If the artists/acts’ names below are unfamiliar to you, check out the links provided. You might be pleasantly surprised!
Afrodiaspora - Susana Baca (Luaka Bop/Planet) The Peruvian standard-bearer for Afro-Andean culture steps outside of her comfort zone with excellent results.
Ashore - June Tabor (Topic/Planet) English folk diva puts her inimitable contralto stamp on a range of maritime-flavoured songs, from traditional epics to contemporary classics.
Band of Brothers - Slava & Leonard Grigoryan and Joseph & James Tawadros (ABC/Universal Music Australia) Two pairs of virtuosic siblings combine their incomparable stringed instrument and percussion skills to create a concept that traverses complex time signatures and rhythms and crosses stylistic boundaries.
Carried In Mind - Jeff Lang (ABC/Universal Music Australia) Slide guitar supremo and his trusty sidemen bond in glorious communion to sculpt multi-dimensional soundscapes with a combination of precision and improvisation.
Cicada - Hazmat Modine (Barbés/Planet) Despite their multi-musical personalities, New York band Hazmat Modine makes surprisingly coherent music, bound together by the blues and inventive arrangements.
Egypt Unveiled - Hossam Ramzy & Phil Thornton (Arc Music/Select) Underpinned by Ramzy’s exquisitely rhythmic and inventive playing on a variety of drums and Thornton’s keyboard and EBow guitar washes, the album showcases the cream of traditional Egyptian players.
El Olvido – Watussi (MGM) Sydney band Watussi’s sound vacillates between classic Santana and Ozomatli’s more modern streetwise mix of Latino and hip-hop, but with an Aussie accent.
Empire & Love - The Imagined Village (ECC/Planet) British folk songs brilliantly updated for the 21st century, with multi-cultural elements and electronic beats. Two members of English folk’s Royal Family, Martin & Eliza Carthy, head the cast list.
Fatou - Fatoumata Diawara (World Circuit/Fuse) Paris-based Malian singer-songwriter nods to compatriots Oumou Sangaré and Rokia Traoré without forfeiting a soupçon of personal integrity or promise.
From Africa With Fury Rise - Seun Kuti (Cartell Music) Recording in Rio and harnessing the production and musical expertise of Brian Eno has given afrobeat prince Seun Kuti’s music as sharp a focus as his words.
Little Stories - Harry James Angus (Vitamin) Sans trumpet, the Cat Empire’s hirsute frontman is revealed as an idiosyncratic and compelling storyteller, in the mould of an embryonic Randy Newman or Tom Waits.
Neptune - Eliza Carthy (HumHum/Planet) Everything is dilated in the English diva’s epic musical mash-up of genres that genuflects more to burlesque and cabaret, classic British prog-rock, world music and US pop, gospel, soul and blues than the folk tradition.
Oi! A Nova Musica - Various Artists (Mais Um Discos) The vibrant and varied nature of 21st century Brazilian music is brilliantly represented in a selection of 40 songs from new wave acts from a wide sweep of regions that extends from the populous states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to the borders of Amazonia.
Purpose + Grace - Martin Simpson (Topic/Planet) English guitar hero returns to trad roots in the company of stellar guests like Richard Thompson, BJ Cole, Andy Cutting, Dick Gaughan, Jon Boden and June Tabor.
Ragged Kingdom - June Tabor & Oysterband (Topic/Planet) The belated follow-up matches 1990’s Freedom And Rain, with Oysterband again lifting Tabor into a realm that invites direct comparison with Sandy Denny’s liaison with Fairport Convention on 1969’s classic Liege & Lief.
Saturnine - Jackie Oates (ECC/Planet) An admirable variety of tempos, rhythms and instrumentation stamps the English singer/fiddle player’s fourth solo album, along with several pieces from Cornwall, a much-neglected part of the Celtic diaspora.
Shadow and Light - John Doyle (Compass/Planet) This stalwart of the US-Irish folk scene and former member of Solas deftly draws on Irish history and folklore from both sides of the Atlantic to prove himself a stellar solo singer-songwriter.
The Reckoning - Steve Tilston (Hubris Records/Planet) The album offers a cornucopia of delights from the veteran English singer-guitarist while genuflecting to the late, great guitarist Davy Graham.
The Road To Damascus Syriana (Real World/Planet) Conceived in London, part-recorded in Syria and produced with due deference to the culture, this road trip represents a veritable Damascene conversion for Count Dubulah (aka Nick Page).
The Woodbine & Ivy Band - The Woodbine & Ivy Band (Proper/Planet) An instant folk-rock classic and this reviewer’s clear-cut album-of-the-year. Eerie, atmospheric and modern, it has distant echoes of Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Steeleye Span and Neil Young's Crazy Horse, features some terrific singing from the likes of Fay Hield, Jackie Oates and Jim Causley and some brilliant arranging and playing from the Manchester, UK-based band.
Tony Hillier’s World Of Music on ABC Far North will resume in late January. Tune in Friday afternoons between 4:45pm and 5:00pm.