Best of 2018: Devon Léger’s Top 10 Trad Albums of the Year

2018 was a banner year for traditional music, fueled in part by new artists coming into the Smithsonian Folkways fold (Dom Flemons, Kaia Kater, Anna & Elizabeth, Lula Wiles), but also by the rise of more next-generation artists across the board, many of whom had refreshingly different takes on their traditions. “Trad” as a genre is ill-defined, but has been used as a term informally for years to tie together a variety of musical traditions, from Appalachian old-time to New England contra dance, Cajun dancehall songs, Scottish fiddle and bagpipes, or foot-tapping French-Canadian music and more. It’s most often used for Irish traditional music, but it’s a useful term for talking about music that has deep roots and the weight of old traditions, and is made my artists who respect where the music comes from as much as they look forward to helping guide it forward. Here’s my top picks for trad albums of 2018 across a variety of different traditions.

Anna & Elizabeth – The Invisible Comes To Us

It seems a no-brainer to me that Anna & Elizabeth’s masterpiece, The Invisible Comes To Us, should take the top spot for Trad Album of the Year. Here are two young performers who’d gone the usual trad route of hours spent in archives uncovering dusty gems to share and learning at the feet of the elders, but more than that they’d gone so deep into the tradition that they’d thought of entirely new ways to contextualize the music. They’ve pioneered a new form of fieldwork, tracing old-time music matrilineally, uncovering the voices of the women who’ve always held the traditions together, but have so often been ignored by folklorists. Their interpretation of archival work is also pioneering. Performing live, they invite up a third member of the band via laptop, and the crackling song of Vermont singer Margaret Shipman tumbles forth, intertwining with their music as a living voice. The effect is no smaller on their LP, and it’s one of many surprising moments that see the duo bring together avant-garde minimalism with Appalachian and New England old-time music. These are two of the pre-eminent ballad singers of their generation, bringing beating life into songs like “John of Hazelgreen.” The most powerful song on the album, “Jeano,” elevates the heart-breaking cry of women across all the ages: “If I were queen of France or still better pope of Rome / I’d have no fighting men abroad nor weeping maids at home. All the world should be at peace / and the right should be the might. I’d have those that made the quarreling / the only ones to fight.” This album will change you. AmazoniTunes

The Furrow Collective – Fathoms

It’s not much exaggeration to call The Furrow Collective a supergroup. The members– Scottish singers Rachel Newton and Alasdair Roberts, and British singers Emily Portman and Lucy Farrell–are each individually recognized as some of the foremost interpreters of UK folk song, and together they’ve achieved something quite glorious: they’ve breathed life back into the songs. Some of these you may have heard before, but it’s like the difference between reading Shakespeare and seeing the play being enacted by master actors. You’ll hear new things in each song, you’ll hear phrases you hadn’t remembered, and you’ll get a bit closer to the clouded meaning behind each. Perhaps in that sense, The Furrow Collective are interpreters of these songs, teasing out their meaning to the listener, moving beyond the standard interpretations to get at the heart of the material. These songs are dark, tragic, sometimes terrifying or murderous, and I think that our comfort with the tradition over the years may have dulled our senses to this. The Furrow Collective help us remember. AmazoniTunes


Dom Flemons – Black Cowboys

American songster Dom Flemons’ new album turns the purest American myth, the cowboy, on its head. Portrayed for decades by white icons like John Wayne, the truth is that there were literally thousands of black cowboys, and not only black, but Native American and Mexican too. If the Western is at the heart of our mythos, it’s shameful that we’ve chosen to seen these characters as primarily whites only up to now. Flemons dips into historical research to honor the black cowboys, and there’s a sense of righteous delight to his singing on the new album. It’s great fun, and hard not to be carried away by his exuberance, but there’s also a key personal aspect to his research. From Arizona originally, this album drew Flemons back to looking at the cowboy and Western culture of his home state. Looking at census records, it could be that up to a quarter of the American cowboys of yore were black, and while you’re shaking your head that you didn’t know that, consider Flemons’ note that “Home on the Range” itself, the best known cowboy song, comes from John Lomax’s notation of a black cowboy’s song. AmazoniTunes

Socalled sings Di Frosh and other Yiddish songs

The mad prince of Jewish hip-hop, Montréal madman Socalled is a genius, an artist that absolutely delights in smashing down walls between musical genres. He’s worked on everything from a puppet show about Jewish gangsters in Montreal, the world’s best klezmer-funk band, a madcap porno, and a hip-hop seder project with the Wu Tang’s Killah Priest. With Di Frosh, he settles very comfortably into the world of Yiddish song. Socalled first came across these songs as a crate digger DJ grabbing vinyl out of dumpsters in Montréal, frequently sampling from them and seeking out elders. Over the years he’s developed a deep love for these musichall influenced Yiddish songs. For Di Frosh, he’s accompanied brilliantly by the Kaiser Quartett from Germany who have some gorgeous melodic refrains, intricate harmonies, and deft fiddling. But it’s Socalled’s obvious joy at throwing himself completely into the songs that makes this album such a joy, and so touching. And like most great Jewish music, there’s a touch of heartbreak beneath. The songs turn dark at times, and there’s something about Yiddish songwriter and Holocaust survivor Arkady Gendler’s “Tsum Shtam” that gets me every time. AmazoniTunes

Martin Hayes Quartet – The Blue Room

What’s surprising about Martin Hayes’ recent work is not how adventurous it is, but actually how traditional and simple it is. He’s working with powerfully experimental artists now, like Thomas Bartlett and Iarla Ó Lionáird in The Gloaming, or bass clarinetist Doug Wieselman and guitarist Dennis Cahill in the Martin Hayes Quartet, but his fiddling remains steadfast at the heart of these works, attuned to the tune first and foremost, never losing sight of the melody. In Irish traditional music, the tune is king, and where it once drove the dancers, now it drives the listener, as each instrumentalist unfolds their own variations and ornamentations upon it. With his new ensemble, the Martin Hayes Quartet, his fiddling is elevated by the dense, interlocking arrangements of the other musicians. The bass clarinet in particular provides a powerful sense of propulsion behind his fiddling. But it’s still Hayes and his inimitable sense of the tune that holds it all together. A master chef, or a master artist, can take very familiar elements and meld them into something rare and wonderful. That’s what Hayes has learned how to do, and I don’t think I’ll tire of it. AmazoniTunes

Genticorum – Avant l’Orage

French-Canadian trio Genticorum are back and in fine form after founding member Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand left to tour with his wife Mélisande and their électrotrad project. Ontario native, Nicholas Williams takes his place, keeping the trio again focused on fiddle, flute, and guitar (plus some extra accordions). All the best parts of French-Canadian tradition are here: the pounding beat of les pieds (seated foot percussion), the crystalline vocals on old French peasant songs full of fire and brimstone, the twang of la guimbarde (jaw’s harp), the pumping syncopation of Québec’s dance fiddling, and the mellifluous melodies. It’s good to have you back, boys! Bandcamp


The Outside Track – Rise Up

The last time I checked in with pan-Atlantic supergroup The Outside Track, I was thinking them as a more general Celtic band, fusing the blazing intensity of Cape Breton music (Mairi Rankin’s fiddle) with a broader Scottish sound (Ailie Robertson’s harp), but there’s more Irish to their music now and it’s an interesting change. Dropping their new album, Rise Up, in the last month of the year, it sounds like they’re channeling those great Irish bands of yore like De Dannan or Dervish, bands where putting together a bunch of master musicians in a small, tight performance place pressure cooks a powerhouse of an album. The new album’s got everything you could ask for from a great Celtic band: beautiful Irish singing, crushing DADGAD guitar work, swells of accordion, amazing fiddling, and rapid fire harp playing. It’s a blast of an album! AmazoniTunes

The High Seas, The High Seas

The Irish concertina is a double sided, hexagonal accordion that plays different notes on the push and pull of the bellows. The result is a bit like wrestling a little hedgehog in your hands, though it sounds quite a lot better! Irish concertina player Caitlín Nic Gabhann is one of the best young players on this instrument, and I’ve been delighted before by her nimble playing. She’s less about the flash and more about drawing out the most beautiful tones from her instrument. The High Seas is her new trio, bringing her concertina playing together with Donegal fiddler Ciarán Ó Maonaigh and singer and bouzouki player Cathal Ó Curráin. They play with great love and care, each uplifting the other. BandcampCDBaby


Evie Ladin – Riding the Rooster

Appalachian old-time music is an inherently communal tradition, thriving off late night jam sessions and tunes between friends at campgrounds and festivals across the country. It’s a welcoming and wonderful scene that fuels endless inspiration for artists across different traditions today. Acclaimed banjo player and square dance caller Evie Ladin’s new album is a celebration of that spirit. Each track is a session between her and one of her favorite fiddlers, each exploring the fiddle and banjo interplay that’s at the heart of the music. Ladin’s roster of fiddlers is gender-balanced, diverse, and multi-generational, but together they also have brought a nicely varied selection of tunes, from eerie cross-tuned mountain tunes to racing square dance tunes and slow and stately melodies. There’s a lovely informality to the album, making this more like a compilation of field recordings of fine evenings spent with some great fiddlers. AmazoniTunes


Belen Escobedo – Panfilo’s Güera

The quintessential sound of Tejano (Texas Mexican) traditional music is the accordion and the bajo sexto (a large type of double-stringed guitar). The fiddle, though predominant in many other surrounding traditions, has never seemed to play much of a role in Tejano folk. Then along comes Texas fiddler Belen Escobedo. Resurrecting a virtually lost tradition of Tejano fiddling, she’s heir to a rich heritage of old tunes and songs, some learned from the whistling of her grandfather. I think she’s the only fiddler in Texas conjunto music (the most prominent form of Tejano folk music), and her playing is a wonder. Beautiful, stately, beguiling, mercurial, a bit rough around the edges, charming. This is all you could ask for in trad music in 2018. A newly discovered artist that makes us rethink what we knew about a tradition. AmazoniTunes


Ten More Great Trad Albums from 2018:

Lúnasa – Cas

Le Vent du Nord & De Temps Antan – Notre Album Solo

Patrik Ahlberg – Gitarrlåtar

Fru Skagerrak – Ankerdram

Ross Holmes – Not Very Good at Winning

Blake Miller & the Old Fashioned Aces – Quelle Belle Journée

Steam Machine – Stream Machine

Bobby Britt – Alaya

Kittel & Co. – Whorls

Rafe Stefanini & David Bragger – Holy Smoke!

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