Best of Neo Folk: playlist, mixtape and commentary

Inspired by a couple of recent releases by Fleet Foxes and Mark Lanegan (the latter already anticipated in a previous post of this blog), I’ve put together a mixtape with the best modern folk songs of the year and I’ve also selected which have been the most interesting publications in this category. Let’s start with the playlist, let it be the background for the following part of this entry!

 

The best Neo Folk album I’ve heard so far in 2017 it’s without any doubt the beautiful The Great Plains by Norwegian singer and songwriter Thomas Dybdahl. The album, released on February 2017, mixes diligently a large number of different musical influences and it manages to balance intimate and reflexive pieces with more energetic tracks. I’ve selected two songs for the playlist: Like Bonnie & Clyde, with beautiful vocals and a catchy guitar-led boogie, and the more delicate Moving Picture. The first song opens the mixtape, the second closes it.

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As anticipated at the beginning of this post, the new work by Mark Lanegan and his bandmates was one of the most waited albums of the last few months. Gargoyle, his 10th solo album, confirms everything good has been told on the American singer-songwriter but shows also the artist consolidating his legacy sound and style without breathing new life into his standard forms. In this respect, the album seems a small step back when compared with the previous work – the more innovative and inspired 2014’s Phantom Radio, which in my opinion is still one of the best “Folktronic” albums of the last years. The song which I selected from Gargoyle to be part of the playlist is the nice Emperor, whose marching rhythm fits very well with the previous track of the playlist.

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Another long-awaited album of 2017 was Crack-Up, the new studio album by American indie folk masters Fleet Foxes, which is the third entry of their discography. The guys from Seattle became extremely popular after their incredible 2008’s self-titled debut album, which is still today one of the most appreciated and innovative indie folk albums ever released in music. Both the two following works (including the last release) didn’t mach the beauty and creativity of their debut (“a landmark in American music — an instant classic” as stated by The Guardian) and their music has become increasingly complex and less immediate. Hidden inside their latest discs, though, we sometimes find small gems that still shine of the light which illuminated the beginning of their career. Kept Woman, the track that I selected for the mixtape, is one of these brilliant pieces.

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British singer-songwriter Laura Marling is nowadays an established figure in folk music, and with her last album Semper Femina she has reached the important achievement of six solo discs, that’s quite impressive considering that she’s only 27 years old. The old times of her “innocent creativity” phase are now lost, the artist has embarked a more ambitious and articulated musical approach which continues to generate, in any case, excellent results. Laura Marling’s last effort is a profound and quite complex exploration of women world and female relationships (but is there someone capable to understand these?). The British musician, however, manages to keep distances from an excessive conceptuality and she instead succeeds in giving iterest and pleasurness to the tracks of the album. The track I selected for the playlist is the beautiful Wild Once, a song which stays in marvellous balance between melancholy and happiness.

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Sun Kil Moon, the folk rock project led by American singer and songwriter Mark Kozelek, released in the recent past a couple of challenging but oustanding albums (Among the Leaves, in 2012, and Benji, in 2014). I was really impressed of these two masterpieces, which still run very often in my music players. From that moment on, unfortunately, Kozelek has decided to embark on an strange path which led most of his songs to become long monologues and boring laments, with no musical excitement. The last album released by the band, Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood, is nothing more than a 130 collection of self-reflective considerations and polemics over today’s life. The album contains a few surprisingly great moments, however, one of which is the song Window Sash Weights that has been included in the mixtape.

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Alt-J, the critically-acclaimed indie rock and folktronic band from Leeds, in UK, have released their third LP, named Relaxer. Alt-J reached an incredible success with their 2012’s debut album An Awesome Wave (Mercury prized) which projected the British rockers among the musical phenomena of the decade. Their following record, This Is All Yours, was seen by many as a step back in their musical evolution and there was quite an expectation to see if the incredible inspiration they showed in the debut album was a unique case or not. Relaxer, unfortunately, doesn’t dissolve the clouds that somehow obscured the brilliance of Alt-J debut: besides some really good songs (including Pleader, which is the excerpt from the album that I put in the mixtape) there are some “really bad” tracks, something that didn’t seem possible to associate to Alt-J in the early years of the band’s activity.

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