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Top Five for 2015

SOAK, AKA Bridie Monds-Watson.

By Colleen Taylor

Every year on the brink of the New Year, I like to review my favorite albums of the past year. These are my top five 2015 picks that, if you haven’t checked out yet, I’d urge you do before we ring in 2016.

  1. SOAK, “Before We Forgot How to Dream”

SOAK has become a household name for many in Ireland and the UK. At the young age of 19, she has taken the musical industry by storm. From the first time I heard Bridie Monds-Watson, or SOAK, she struck me as the antithetical teen star. Her music is subtle, tragic, raw and stylistically exploratory. “Before We Forgot How to Dream,” her first full-length album, is the culmination of her musical insight. Back in July, Monds-Watson described her album to me like a diary: “It’s a collection of songs I wrote since I was 14,” she said.

The album includes three years of careful work by this young songwriter. The 14 tracks are both youthful and wise simultaneously. She sounds like a young girl singing the music of a well-rehearsed artist at the peak of her career—which, in a way, describes just what SOAK is. “Garden” and “Reckless Behaviour” are some of my favorites. The whole album is a collection of standout alt-folk songs that also reflect SOAK’s own growth since her debut at 14. In this pinnacle album, Monds-Watson’s voice reflects maturation, a mix of smoky verses, high notes and beats. “B a noBody,” the keynote lament of the album, has become an international fan favorite. The album has been so well received that SOAK is now taking it to Australia in just a week’s time. She is starting 2016 off with a demonstration of global fame.

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  1. The Eskies, “After the Sherry Went Round”

Dublin’s The Eskies are a unique group, and their music will be unlike anything else you encounter on the radio. The band has labeled their style “sea soaked Gypsy folk,” but that description doesn’t quite cover it. This band blends modern electro-pop with the most interesting vaudeville-esque inspirations from the past. Their music is the stuff of saloons of the early 20th century. They blend jazz, Italian tarantella, noir, ballroom waltzes, their own Irish influences and seemingly anything else that was lively and interesting in the music halls of old. “After the Sherry Went Round” is their first full-length album and it encompasses all these eclectic sounds, beats and genres in 13 enigmatic tracks. No matter what your taste, you have to admit, this is an album that stands out from the crowd. The Eskies are hot and getting hotter, and I encourage your giving them a listen. “After the Sherry Went Round” is a spicy melting pot, conjuring the thrill of centuries-old parties brought back to life.

  1. The Whileaways, “Saltwater Kisses”

One of my favorite Eirecana bands (a genre of Irish bands playing Americana music), The Whileaways, released their sophomore album this year. I fell in love with this trio after hearing them at Whelan’s in Dublin two years ago, and their self-titled first album quickly became one of the “most played” on my iTunes. Now the Whileaways (Noriana Kennedy, Noelie McDonnell, and Nicola Joyce) have a sophomore album release for their fans, entitled “Saltwater Kisses.” After a short hiatus, the band’s return to the recording studio doesn’t disappoint. It reflects an array of music simultaneously traditional and inventive, inflecting the old balladeer tradition with modernized rootsy flare. “Saltwater Kisses” showcases this band’s musical penchant: perfected simplicity. The songs avoid superfluous ornamentation and let the harmonies and instruments speak for themselves, showcasing each one of this trio’s natural talent. In particular, “She Waits” and “Wake Up Sleepyhead” are some of the best on the album. With “Saltwater Kisses,” the band sounds even more polished than they did in their debut record. This time round, the Whileaways add even more sophistication to their harmonies and collaborations.

  1. Ashley Davis with John Doyle, “The Christmas Session

This album came just in the nick of time. This project has been a long time coming for Ashley Davis, and she solicited guitar champion John Doyle to complete her dream of a popular seasonal album. “The Christmas Sessions” returns to the season’s canonical “chestnut” songs without going backward. Old favorites sound new again with Davis and Doyle’s creative ornamentation. It includes a new favorite too: an original Christmas song by Davis. Writing a catchy new Christmas tune is no easy task, but Davis meets expectations with “Light My Tree,” one of the self-professed funniest songs she’s ever written. The song encapsulates the 1940s jazz-swing legacy of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” offering a wink-worthy Christmas metaphor of its own. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Let It Snow” are other stand-outs on the record, the latter offering a peppy, folksy jazz version of the lyrics we all know. Although ostensibly venturing outside the two musicians’ creative comfort zone with modern, jazz, and pop genres, both artists maintain their respective signatures as singer and guitarist throughout the entirety of the album. Doyle’s guitar works as a capable duet partner for Davis’s exquisite, unique singing voice for a truly accomplished partnership.

  1. Kate Rusby, “The Frost Is All Over”

I suppose it’s a bit strange to have two Christmas albums on my list for the whole of the year, but the music must speak for itself. The year 2015 was at its best right at the very end. Rusby’s latest album will be familiar to any regular readers because I reviewed it just last week. But if any album deserves an encore, it’s this one. No one can bring joy and energy to a folk song like Kate Rusby, which makes her the perfect singer for this time of year, or for any rainy day. You will not be able to get through the first few songs without tapping your toes, nodding your head, and catching this album’s infectious cheer. That said, “The Frost is All Over” isn’t solely a felicitous collection of jingles. As with all Rusby’s works, there is real profundity and complexity to this album. Her original song “The Frost Is All Over” is a gorgeously melancholic ballad that captures the quiet solitude of a frosty country morning. As a whole, “The Frost Is All Over” is a complex, animated, eclectic folk album, and it can double as both a secular folk and a Christmas album. It encompasses and exceeds both musical roles. It’s a few days past Christmas now and Rusby’s “The Christmas Goose” remains one of the most frequent recent plays in my music library. I have a feeling it’ll still be there come February. I propose taking Rusby’s “The Frost Is All Over” with you into the new year.