Devon Léger’s Ten Best New Traditional Albums of 2019

Each year, it seems that we get more and more great traditional music coming in from all over the world. 2019 in particular saw some key movement from the Celtic and old-time world, bringing in new, younger groups with refreshingly different perspectives to shake up the traditionalists. It’s no surprise that young artists of color and queer artists swept the finals at Appalachian music’s hallowed Clifftop festival competition this year. It’s an exciting time for these old traditions, with new generations grappling for ways to fit the music into our modern world.

Since Folk Alley’s already covered some of the contenders for Best Trad Album of 2019 that I’d normally have on here – Our Native Daughters, Brighde Chaimbeul, Mavis Staples – I wanted to be sure to cover different artists for my best of list. Check out the list below of the best trad albums of the year to find some new discoveries and be sure to support these artists!

1. Laurel Premo – The Iron Trios

I worked with Michigan fiddler Laurel Premo some time back as a publicist for her band Red Tail Ring, and back then I remarked on their ability to fill musical spaces in the subtlest of ways. She’s just released her new solo album, The Iron Trios, and it’s easily one of the best old-time fiddle albums I’ve heard in ages. She’s still a subtle yet powerful fiddler, but now the focus is more on the pulse of the music, rather than the deep acoustic tones that Red Tail Ring were known for. She’s expanded her musical palette, bringing in electric and acoustic guitar, tapping into the drones and minimalism strangely inherent in the tradition, and crafting a more atmospheric sound around the tunes. The tunes are drawn from traditional sources (popular fiddlers like Manco Sneed, the Stampers, Marcus Martin, but also lesser known ones like African-American Maryland fiddler Will Adam, or Métis fiddler Mike Page, and two sublime tunes written by Premo herself) but take unexpected turns, veering into harmonic territory that’s momentarily surprising before returning back to the source. Old-time fiddling has always been focused on pulsing rhythms, and Premo does more than anyone I’ve heard before to play with those rhythms. Part of this comes from her connection with the guitarists on the album; as she lifts into an arcing pulse, the guitar peaks upwards, pushing the rhythm up like a swell on the ocean. It’s beautiful and powerfully immersive. We’re seeing a moment right now in trad music for albums with next level harmonies and arrangements. Laurel Premo’s new album fits into this world of deep mastery and comes at a time when old-time needs some new ideas and fresh perspectives. Of special note, she’s also developed a 32 page booklet of notes about the tunes and the music that includes hand-drawn transcriptions.

2. Gailanne Amundsen – You’ve Been A Friend To Me

This glorious album flew a bit under the radar in 2019 which is more’s the pity. It’s a tribute to the great songs of the Carter Family from young folk prodigy Gailanne Amundsen, recorded live at the famed Cash Cabin and produced by John Carter Cash himself. You may remember Amundsen from their work some years back in the forward-thinking family band Jubal’s Kin, and I’ve been waiting for a while to hear their solo work. The songs are presented in beautiful arrangements, rich in harmonies, and with a deep feeling for the meaning behind songs. There’s a reason that the Carters were one half of the big bang that started country music as a genre, and Amundsen clearly understands this. Their voice has a plaintiveness and a heaviness as well, two key elements to the best country singing. Listen to the title song “You’ve Been A Friend To Me” and some of the weight of this heavy heavy year begins to slack just the littlest bit. They sing with a clear creek clarity, and their arrangements on the album sound simple, but are cleverly wrought. Amundsen is joined on vocals by another favorite of mine, Ric Robertson, plus Shona Carr, and John Carter Cash himself sings “The Poor Orphan Child.” It’s a sublime album and a great reminder of the deep power inside the Carter Family’s songs and legacy.

3. Le Vent du Nord – Territoires

Québécois super-group Le Vent du Nord is back and superer than ever! With the addition of fiddler/singer André Brunet (one of the best trad fiddlers in the world today), the sound is bigger than ever. Brunet and original fiddler Olo Demers rip through original and traditional tunes with the pumping rhythm of les pieds (Québécois foot percussion) carrying them through. But here the key to Le Vent du Nord is again in the songs. They’re actively reworking and reconstructing the mythos of French Canada, pushing their history to speak to what Québec and French Canada faces today. New original song “Le Pays de Samuel” speaks to this directly. Writing about Canada’s founding father, Samuel de Champlain, Le Vent du Nord says “He wanted to build a bridge between the Indigenous and European nations, beyond the religious wars and ancient dogmas…” It’s a bold sentiment and something that Québec struggles with in some ways, and excels at in others. Along with newly written songs, Le Vent du Nord has also dug up some beautiful old gems including an incredibly rare song about the fall of the Louisbourg miltary fort in Canada, taken from the repertoire of Acadian singer and fiddler Robert Deveaux of Chéticamp in Cape Breton. This album has great depth and impressive power.

4. Hard Drive – Random Access Mash

With its madcap memes, and strange flashing neon aesthetic artwork (Dock Boggs meets early 90s Terminator movies), the new album from Hard Drive was one of the albums I was most excited about this year. Not all of the weirdness of bassist Nokosee Fields’ visual art makes it to the music, but this is some hot pumping roots music no matter how you cut it. Hard Drive stick to the path first cut by Foghorn Stringband when they reinvigorated Appalachian old-time back in the early aughts: mix blazing old-time fiddle with 3-finger bluegrass banjo picking and pounding bass, add a super cool visual aesthetic, and play it hard as hell the old way. On fiddle here is the great Tatiana Hargreaves, Nokosee holds down the bass, Steam Machine’s Aaron Tacke is the banjo secret weapon, and guitarist Sonya Badigian picks up the hard-driving old-time guitar accompaniment. Badigian and Hargreaves split the vocals, and the tunes and songs move fluidly between old-time and bluegrass roots. This is essentially a super hot Clifftop jam recorded beautifully by Joel Savoy at his studio in Lafayette, Louisiana, and wow can these folks play! There’s elements of really interesting subversion as well, like Hargreaves’ gender switching of “The Bravest Cowboy” (she’s a cowgirl now!) and the extended Wendy Carlos synth jam at the end of that song. Plus the album opens and closes with a weird life improvement tape that’s pretty cool. More of this please, and let’s get REALLY weird with the next album (autotune please!)

5. Soulsha – Carry It On

Merging West African and Celtic roots music has been done before, but not nearly as often as it should be. Afro-Celt Sound System basically created this idea, and toured the world with it, but it takes an uncommon amount of skill to merge these very different worlds. New Boston band Soulsha have the technical skills and vision to pull it off, and their debut album, Carry It On is a delight from start to finish. Horns blast out over the skirl of the Scottish bagpipes, funk-heavy guitar riffs roiling underneath call-and-response vocals and Senegalese rhythms. Afro-Celt Sound System fused Irish Gaelic sean-nos song with West African song, but Soulsha’s point of departure is perhaps in their focus on bringing funk to the mix. This is dance-heavy music, and must be a blast in Boston halls. Shaped by the bagpipes of American Scottish musician Elias Alexander, the Senegalese griot sabar drumming (and vocals) of Lamine Touré, and Neil Pearlman’s long interest in fusing Afro-Latin and Celtic keyboard rhythms, Soulsha does far more than just place Celtic reels and jigs over W. African beats, they’re arranging each track into a true exchange between the musicians, taking time to pause a Celtic tune to roll into a W. African song, or highlighting funked-out guitar right next to raise-the-rafters group vocals. What a fun album, what a fun band, what a breath of fresh air on the scene.

6. Olav Mjelva & Eli West – Hand to Play

Seattle guitarist Eli West is a thinking man’s musician, weaving art-deco architecture into his guitar and octave mandolin work, and pushing folk accompaniment to creative new places. He’s joined here by Norwegian traditional artist Olav Mjelva of SVER and Nordic Fiddlers Bloc. West, like many touring trad musicians in the US, has had a successful career in Scandinavia and built a strong following, so he’s got a head for the intricate, curling rhythms of the music. Together they dip into traditional tunes from Scandinavia and Appalachia plus great original tunes and West sings traditional and original songs. Mjelva’s hardanger fiddling is a glory on this album, especially on tunes he wrote like “Visa Pisa” or “The Doctor”. There’s such close symbiosis between West and Mjelva that the whole album plays like a deep focus foray into acoustic roots music. It’s lovely!

7. Bryan Bowers Band – Woodland Dream

Bryan Bowers is a folk legend, with a long and storied career as an autoharp master and folk singer. The autoharp’s a humble instrument, too often derided for being “easy” to play. Bowers and others like Appalachian artist Kilby Snow have shown the instrument’s possibilities and inspired others to push forward as well. The new album from the Bryan Bowers Band is a grab-bag of great folk songs, and interestingly what sticks with the listener is the mix of vocal harmonies. Powerful, rich, buoyed by pleasing arrangements, this seems like an album crafted for listening. I hesitate to say that it was crafted for folk music aficionados, but it sure seems like that. There’s a lot of weight to Bowers’ years and experiences in folk music, but he doesn’t flaunt that. He seems content to head up a folk album that makes you believe in the genre again. That’s a pretty good accomplishment!

8. Hanz Araki – At Our Next Meeting

I’ve argued for hours with ethnomusicologists about whether or not traditional Irish American music has its own sound and if it’s different from the trad music in Ireland. It’s a hard question to answer, but flutist, whistle player, and singer Hanz Araki makes one of the best cases in my mind for an American bent to the Irish tradition. Raised in Seattle, Hanz grew up around both Irish trad and the classical Japanese shakuhachi music of his father. He’s a sixth-generation hereditary master of this end-blown flute, and has long been a bridge between Northwest Irish music and Japan, bringing musicians over to Japan for tours. Some of the shakuhachi’s careful concentration of tone and powerfully deliberate phrasing makes its way into his Irish flute playing and I’ve long considered him one of the best Irish flute players in the US. He’s a brilliant vocalist as well with a cool, clear voice that I never tire of hearing. He’s a master interpreter of the Irish tradition, and a humble master at that. His new solo album, At Our Next Meeting, is his first in five years, and comes after a move from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, where he joined New England Irish bands like The Press Gang and Josephine County. Produced and engineered by Donogh Hennessey of renowned Irish band Lúnasa, Hanz returns to his subtle and lovely interpretations of traditional songs (both old and new–his cover of David Francey’s “Saints and Sinners” is a highlight) and tears through some reels and jigs with a command of acoustic tone that befits his talents. Good to have you back, Hanz!

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9. Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert – When the Sun Goes Down

It’s hard not to be a bit jealous of Rayna Gellert. Not only is she one of the pre-eminent old-time fiddlers of her generation, with her versions of tunes being stamped into tradition by successive younger generations, she’s also a wonderful singer with a voice tinged with the slightest hints of sadness and hope. And then, just when you think she has it all, she turns into one of the most subtle and intelligent of songwriters. Her previous albums of original songs effortlessly married old-time tropes and lyrics with deeply thoughtful overarching concepts. Her 2012 album Old Light is a masterpiece of American roots songwriting, using old traditions cleverly to build an album-wide statement about the force of human memory. Gellert’s new album brings her back to her songwriting partnership with Kieran Kane, a noted and influential American songwriter for the past thirty odd years. It’s an interesting combination that actually uplifts both their songwriting. Again, the sepia-tinge of old folk songs leaks into everything here and in the most lovely ways. Highlight track “Ain’t Got Jesus” reads like an old hymn, but hits like new. This album should be pointing the way for a lot of traditional artists today to move forward in new directions.

10. [TIE] Lankum – The Livelong Day and Benedicte Maurseth’s self-titled album

For the past five years or more, there’s been a small movement to examine the drone elements of traditional music. Some of this comes from Appalachian groups like House and Land and Nathan Bowles, some from Irihs groups like The Gloaming and This Is How We Fly, and others from anarchist neo-folk bands like Blackbird Raum and Cinder Well. Each of these two albums was a great representative of this new trend in 2019.

Lankum – The Livelong Day

This band of Dublin-based Irish trad artists has been a much buzzed-about act in trad circles for the past couple albums. They hew to long, creepy ballads, mostly taken from obscure sources. And they have their own unique heritage to draw from. Coming out of a family of Dublin folk musicians, they’ve been able to bring forth elements of Dublin’s Irish traditions that I hadn’t heard before, like market songs. On their new album, The Livelong Day, they push back a bit to a re-examination of some of the classics of the Irish tradition like “The Dark Eyed Gypsy” (kind of a problematic song) or “The Wild Rover” or Irish tune “The Pride of Petravore.” Each track gets the Lankum treatment though, rich in acoustic drones, drenched in deep tone, and marked by brittle vocals that notch up tension. With this album and their help on the outstanding Brighde Chaimbeul piping album this year, Lankum’s draw has proven to be the drone landscapes they build into their music. Their music comes and goes like a tide, it doesn’t flow like a river. It swells and ebbs and sounds beguilingly natural.

[TIE] 10. Benedicte Maurseth

Norwegian hardangfele (hardanger fiddle) player Benedicte Maurseth has been playing this instrument since she was just a kid, and she has a deep mastery of the music. The album draws from traditional tunes, taken from the playing of elder fiddlers, and it’s beautiful and quite haunting. But it’s also a deep exploration of tone and technique. The hardanger fiddle has a remarkable sound to begin with, thanks to its four extra sympathetic strings that ring in harmony and run under the bridge of the fiddle. Maurseth’s instrument sounds glorious and rich and full, but she also is pushing the instrument’s sound in critical and compelling ways. She overpulls the bow to send a note into harmonics, a plaintive wail calling into the woods. She pulses and flows the bow through a long series of drones like a creek flows along its bed, cutting into peat. The album is atmospheric in a sense, and strikingly visual. It’s the kind of album you’ll want to put on and listen to deeply.

Ten more great trad albums released in 2019:

Riley Baugus – Little Black Train’s A-Coming

Alexis Chartrand & Nicolas Babineau – un beau ptit son

Leo Rondeau – Right on Time

Jake Xerxes Fussel – The River St. Johns

The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys – Toil, Tears & Trouble

Josienne Clarke – In All Weather

Rachel Sermanni – So It Turns

Xabi Aburruzaga – Bost

Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett

Lakou Mizik – HaitiaNola

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