By Colleen Taylor
Historically speaking, 2016 had many ups and downs, but musically speaking, 2016 was full of highlights. Here are my five favorite albums released this year.
“Matching Sweaters,” at No. 5, is measuring up to be one of my favorite Gaelic Storm albums yet, containing some of the best traditional sets in their entire oeuvre. It is more exploratory as well, involving some bluegrass and roots influences that add a real flare to their traditional music. The musical multiculturalism in “Matching Sweaters” is helping Gaelic Storm branch out from the Irish-American sector, but this energetic album also proves they’ll always be steadfast figures at Irish music festivals.
“Line ‘em Up,” No. 4, is Shilelagh Law’s sixth and most creatively ambitious album. It’s their first entirely original record; each song is an original SL composition. “Line ‘em Up” captures that quintessential New York Irish sound, as well as the band members’ own personal neighborhood narrative as well. “How Are You Keeping?,” one of my favorite songs on the album, participates in the Irish love ballad genre, but it’s also an individual narrative that thinks about change, time, and lost loves. As always with Shilelagh Law, this album dances between the traditional and the playful.
The much-anticipated “At Swim,” my No. 3, was Lisa Hannigan’s first release in five years, and it didn’t disappoint. In her third album, Hannigan takes her exquisite, ethereal voice in a completely new and darker direction. The songs delve into difficult and existential issues, like prayer, death, and funeral rituals. Hannigan’s vocals have dropped an entire octave for this album, and the melancholia pulls at the soul. At the end of the day, a critic can only do so much linguistic explanation of “At Swim.” Hannigan’s album is truly a holistic piece of art that must be heard to be appreciated.
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I have not stopped listening to Kate Rusby’s “Life in a Paper Boat” since it was released a few months ago. “Life in a Paper Boat,” at No. 2 in the best of 2016 list, represents a perfect synthesis of all of Rusby’s merits—her voice, her innovation, her traditionalism, and her attention to the female perspective in folk tradition. Rusby’s voice and lyrics in this album reach otherworldly realms, accomplishing a futuristic and medieval atmosphere simultaneously. She mixes traditional acoustic instruments with mystic echoes, dramatic percussion, and Celtic themes. Each Rusby record is a new conception, a work of art entirely unique from the last, and “Life in a Paper Boat” is no exception.
When it came to composing this 2016 list, there was no question as to who the winner would be. “Grace & Glory” marks the High Kings’ most ambitious album yet—a pronounced departure from their traditional Irish roots. Here, they venture more boldly into the country and Americana genres that, up until now, they had only dabbled in. What distinguishes “Grace & Glory,” what makes it a crucial turning point for the band’s career, is that we can no longer think of the High Kings as the next generation of Clancys, Fureys and Dunphy. This time, the foursome have moved well beyond their paternal influences and forged their own trademark. These incredible songs evince the cultural benefits of the constant interchange across the Atlantic: the High Kings pay equal tribute to the Irish and American songs that have made them who they are. “Grace and Glory” sounds truly original, fresh, modern, and, most importantly, absolutely Kingly. You can’t go into the new year not having listened to this one.