PHOTO BY POOKADUBH
By Colleen Taylor
If you’ve been browsing the web recently, you’ve seen memes, gifs, and articles bidding a happy “good riddance” to 2017. But despite these sentiments, it’s worth remembering the musical highlights during what was, for many, a difficult year. Here are my top five picks for best albums of 2017—some lights amidst the storm.
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- Ailie Blunnie, “West to the Evening Sun”
This is my top pick for best debut album and best debut artist in 2017. “West to the Evening Sun” is not just music—it’s poetry too. Listening to these songs is like sitting alone in an archive, reading a collection of letters shared between the closest of friends. There is tragedy, confession, hope, love. Moreover, there is narrative as well as harmonic integrity. Although in life, Blunnie’s roots in Carrick-on-Shannon sometimes felt confining, they have proven a creative boon for her music. Although modern and current, Blunnie’s style is also mythic and timeless. It fees like contemporary pseudo-Cetic Revival—Yeatsian images running through the tracks. This album feels quintessentially Irish but quintessentially original and modern too. Blunnie contributes a special perspective to the Irish music scene, so we can only hope 2017 won’t see the last of her output.
- Cara Dillon, “Wanderer”
“Wanderer” is decidedly different in tenor than Cara Dillon’s previous two albums, “A Thousand Hearts” (2014) and “Hill of Thieves” (2009). In those earlier albums, Dillon’s voice is typically accompanied by a chorus of fiddles, guitars, and flutes, but “Wanderer” scales everything back. The songs feature Dillon and a soft piano backing or single guitar. The result is a more subdued, somber, and simpler sound—one that also allows for a wider emotional range in her vocals. As the album title evinces, “Wanderer” is about being lost and aimless, and particularly, longing for home. The record is in large part an elegy for Derry, Dillon’s home county. Cara Dillon is known for bringing tears to eyes of listeners and audiences everywhere. Her rendition of “There Were Roses” rarely leaves an eye dry. “Wanderer” takes that special ability to move her audience toward deep emotion and longing, and magnifies, elongates it. This album is truly stunning.
- Sharon Shannon, “Sacred Earth”
Sharon Shannon’s 10th studio album did not disappoint this year. “Sacred Earth” is undoubtedly her most adventurous yet. It has traditional, South African, country, Native American, and zydeco styles all swirled together. Some critics have claimed “Sacred Earth” it’s trying to do too many things. But in my opinion, that verdict is unadventurous, even a little close-minded. The sounds of this album run parallel with Shannon’s ethics: she is dedicated to environmental advocacy and protecting the planet. For Shannon, calling the album “Sacred Earth” was her way of going public with these beliefs, with making her music speak for her politics. The album offers a collection of playful tracks that, as cheesy as it sounds, really do make the worldwide sounds of the planet sing together. As a whole, the album is dynamic: it moves from genre to genre, tune to tune, culture to culture in fast, fun sweeps. I liked this album as soon as it came out this past summer, but I truly fell in love with it when I saw Sharon perform live in Boston this November. Her creative musical modge podge took flight—natural, unaffected energy and vision proved Shannon the master accordionist.
- Niall McGuigan, “Awareness”
“Awareness” is the most unique and, perhaps, the bravest on this list. A native of Castleblaney, Monaghan, Niall McGuigan has been working toward his debut album for six years, during which he traveled the world and slowly composed the thirteen tracks for the album. Eastern and South American culture played an important role in his creative self-discovery, particularly Mongolian culture, and those sounds influence the atmosphere of the album. “Awareness,” like McGuigan himself, is deeply existential and philosophical. McGuigan provides a reflective, meditative description of each track on his album—descriptions which offer both background and instruction. On the whole, Mc Guigan’s tracks are pared down and acoustic—just voice and guitar—but that’s what makes them great. The melody and voice are able to stand alone because there is real talent and vision at work in this album. Niall McGuigan’s “Awareness” will take you outside your cultural comfort zone but it’s worth the tri
The Henry Girls.
5. The Henry Girls, “Far Beyond the Stars”
Last but certainly not least, the celebrated sister trio, the Henry Girls, released their third album, entitled “Far Beyond the Stars” back in the beginning of 2017, but it remains one of the year’s best. “Far Beyond the Stars” reflects a desire on the part of the sisters to scale back, to return to the roots of Donegal, folk, and the acoustic joys of a country ballad. It may not be done in as bold a manner as some of their previous work, but this album does an immense amount of creative heavy lifting. The Henry Girls clearly have no interest in making the same album twice. The lyrics have a mysterious preoccupation with the landscape—the lakes, the mountains, the rugged beauty of a place like Donegal. In fact, “Far Beyond the Stars” is their most Irish-sounding yet. There are moments, such as in the song “Ocean of War” or “More Love, More Silence” which remind me directly of the Corrs. What’s more, the title track has a Celtic, new-age cadence, made slightly haunting by the sisters’ perfectly gorgeous harmonization. “Far Beyond the Stars” is one of the best Eirecana (Irish meets Americana) albums of the year, even, at times, tipping over into jazz and ragtime. The album is a tour de force of old time American genres like old country, blues, jazz, and others. Ultimately, though, no matter how far those sounds and styles reach across the globe, the Henry Girls’ roots stay steadfast in Donegal.
This year saw many Irish artists break apart from old patterns, explore global sounds, write internal, reflective lyrics, and try new things. If not a great year for politics, it certainly was for musical creativity. With so many exciting projects like these, no doubt there is more great music to look forward to in 2018.