Home Music The 10 best folk albums of 2023 | Folk music

The 10 best folk albums of 2023 | Folk music


10. Tamsin Elliott/Tarek Elazhary – So Far We Have Come

The maqams (melodic modes) of classical Arabic music meet with English folk flourishes in this exploratory project between Bristolian multi-instrumentalist Elliott and Egyptian oud player Elazhary. They bonded in Cairo before the pandemic and their musical connection feels affectingly deep. Sixteen tracks whirl between seductive elegies on an accordion (tuned to achieve microtonality), Playford dances, twitchy field recordings, and pastoral reveries. Accompanying players also add gorgeous touches, including singer Leila El Balouty on Palestinian song Amy Abu El Fanous (The Lantern Bearer) and Daniel Gouly’s interventions on clarinet. Read the full review

9. Hack-Poets Guild – Blackletter Garland

The tangling of the characterful voices of Marry Waterson (brilliantly continuing the legacy of her mother Lal) and Lisa Knapp (architect of 2017 modern folk classic, Till April Is Dead: A Garland of May) was always going to result in something special. Add Nathaniel Mann’s soft delivery and sound design and Gerry Diver’s quivery, cinematic production and this set of broadside ballads grows fresh, sturdy roots in the present day. Intriguing textures like the bed of plucked, bare strings on Cruel Mother and the spectral layering of voices on Laying the Ghost keep on surprising. Read the full review

Hack-Poets Guild.
Something special … Hack-Poets Guild. Photograph: Rosie Reed Gold, Vincente Paredes, and Scott Wicking

8. Various artists – A Collection of Songs in the Traditional & Sean-Nós Style

An electrifying anthology of unfiltered contemporary traditional singing, captured in echoey kitchens and rowdy pub backrooms. Nyahh is one of Ireland’s most exciting small independent labels and this beautifully curated set reminds us of the many talented individuals that bubble up in local scenes who remain under-promoted. The many gorgeous performances include Michael Frank Ó Confhaola’s take on Róisín Dubh, his voice flitting and fluttering like a skittish bird, Thomas McCarthy’s clear storytelling and Nell Ní Chróinín’s joltingly warm Banks of Sullane. Read the full review

7. Brìghde Chaimbeul – Carry Them With Us

A collaboration with avant-garde saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist Colin Stetson, Chaimbeul’s second solo album sees her smallpipes blending bitingly but beautifully with his less muscular than usual but nonetheless magical playing. These arresting, hypnotic compositions explore folkloric tropes like the dark recesses of the childlike imagination and communication with birds. With dissonance often stuttering next to moments of deep beauty, this feels like an album both of its time and out of time.

6. John Francis Flynn – Look Over the Wall, See the Sky

An excitingly singular figure on the Irish music scene, Flynn departs from the ancient atmospheres of his 2021 debut, I Would Not Live Always, to embrace the essential weirdness and cross-genre potential of old songs. Harry Smith anthology staple Mole in the Ground becomes a propulsive, post-rock excursion, carrying shadows of the work of Will Oldham. The Seasons slumbers in a mood of spare, haunted jazz. Within a Mile of Dublin’s playful reel collapses surprisingly, and brilliantly, into anarchic fuzz. So many ideas bristle here.

John Francis Flynn
Anarchic … John Francis Flynn. Photograph: Steve Gullick

5. The Gentle Good – Galargan

Taking folk songs from the National Library of Wales, Gareth Bonello’s genius is to create a deceptively simple soundworld spanning various shades of the blues. He gives these Welsh-language songs Sandy Denny-like moods of dimly lit, humane clarity: dressing them gently with beautiful arrangements on the guitar, piano and cello, his singing voice is precise yet gentle. This album lands like an evergreen classic. Read the full review

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ØXN may be 50% Lankum (singer Radie Peat, and My Bloody Valentine-loving producer John “Spud” Murphy), but their version of deathly, eerie folk has much spikier foundations, rooted in post-punk as well as doom. Katie Kim’s edgy whispered delivery and Eleanor Myler’s feverish drumming give this set extra flavours of threatening vulnerability. Three traditional ballads sit next to originals with unsettling ease: a thrilling Kim composition (The Feast), a cover of Maija Sofia’s retelling of a notorious Irish murder (The Wife of Michael Cleary) and a slow-building, terrifying rout through Scott Walker’s Farmer in the City. Read the full review

ØXN band
Eerie … ØXN. Photograph: Megan Doherty

3. Shirley Collins – Archangel Hill

Beginning with a song that Collins last recorded on 1976’s Amaranth in the dying days of her marriage, the final part of the folk legend’s comeback trilogy feels like a fearless reckoning with her past. Written with her friend Pip Barnes, High and Away turns the story of a tornado – told to Collins by Arkansas ballad singer Almeda Riddle in 1959 – into a new standard, while Oakham Poachers revisits a song Collins performed live in 1982 before she stopped singing for over three decades (the inclusion of a 1980 live recording, Hand on Heart, also reminds us what we missed). A radical, mystery-filled version of Hares on the Mountain, and a performance of a Sussex poem written by her father are also profound. Read the full review

2. Lisa O’Neill – All of This Is Chance

Lisa O’Neill’s fifth album has the roots of Irish music in its loamy textures and ideas but also invents a canvas that feels startlingly new. Beginning by communing with Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh’s famous poem The Great Hunger, O’Neill unpicks the oppression of the rural Irish in stories about the land, human connection, unease and grief in folkloric images. Her ripe lyrics are extraordinary poetry themselves, like these lines in Silver Seed: “Don’t prickle like a holly leaf / So none can taste your berry ‘til blood red ready.” This LP feels like a 21st-century Bright Phoebus, muddy and alive. Read the full review

1. Lankum – False Lankum

Another leap forward for Ireland’s best band, this remarkable album shoulders unsettling epics like Go Dig My Grave next to shimmering emotional balms like Clear Away in the Morning. A continuous suite of songs connected by fuzz and echo-laden fugues gives every member a showcase moment, revealing the group’s magical democracy: Ian Lynch’s vocals and pipes impossibly limber on The New York Trader, Radie Peat iridescent on Newcastle, Cormac Mac Diarmada touching on Lord Abore and Mary Flynn, Daragh Lynch grittily moving on Cyril Tawney’s On a Monday Morning. Then they come together as vocalists and instrumentalists in walls of incredible, fracturing sound, and heavens collide. Read the full review

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