This is a time of looking forward. To the familiar artists that will return. To the new artists that will be discovered. This year, like any other, comes with a wish list. Some albums will never materialise. Others will slightly disappoint. A few will remain life-long friends. Fingers crossed for the latter. In no particular order, apart from alphabetical, my 2018 wish list includes new releases by Alela Diane, Anäis Mitchell, Bill Callahan, Caitlin Harnett, Cat Power, East River Pipe, Field Report, First Aid Kit, Jacob Golden, Jenny Lewis, Jessica Pratt, Jim White, Jonathan Wilson, Laura Veirs, Lewis & Clarke, Pearl Charles, Phosphorescent, Pinegrove, Richard Edwards, The Delines, Vetiver, Wooden Shjips, Wye Oak and the artist formerly known as Young Man.

And yet, there is a special place in the 2018 wish list for a new album by Kramies (pronunciation to be determined). With rumours going back at least a couple of decades, there are unconfirmed reports that an album is finally on its way and that Ireland had some part to play in it. We wait with fingers crossed, though we have learned not to hold our breath. The hard way. In the meantime, here’s a wonderful feature by Shon Cobbs and his Behind The Scenes colleagues from Denver. It features Kramies answering questions and sometimes asking them too. Plus a lot of laughing.

Happy New Year. Surely, 2017 can only be better than 2016. But who knows at the moment? What’s for sure is that music will always be a comfort. In that spirit, highly anticipated 2017 releases include confirmed albums from Elbow, Fleet Foxes, Foxygen, Grandaddy, Grizzly Bear, Horse Thief, Nadia Reid, Nikki Lane, Real Estate, Ryan Adams, The Shins, Son Volt, Strand of Oaks, and Sun Kil Moon. And then there’s always the H-LM wish list. This year, it includes Adrian Crowley, Alela Diane, Anaïs Mitchell, Bill Callahan, David Vandervelde, Feist, Field Report, Fionn Regan, First Aid Kit, Israel Nash, Jason Isbell, Jim White, Laura Veirs, Lewis & Clarke, Noah Gunderson, and Phosphorescent. Mind you, some of these artists were on my wish list this time last year. So, fingers are tightly crossed. Whatever happens, let’s start the new year with some good news. Word is in that Kramies is recording new demos. I can’t wait to hear the end result. In the meantime, here’s Kramies (feat. Jason Lytle) with ‘Clocks Were All Broken’.

This is always a really exciting time. A whole year of new releases to be anticipated. We know there’s material forthcoming from Villagers, Eleanor Friedberger, Andrew Bird, Dylan Leblanc, Shearwater, Tindersticks, Lucinda Williams, Sun Kil Moon, and Damien Jurado. There are also rumours of albums from Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Robert Ellis, and PJ Harvey. That’s a good start. But there’s much more to hope for. Last year, I was really lucky. Right at the top of my 2015 list was music from Elvis Perkins and Sufjan Stevens and both were kind enough to oblige. So, artists, if you are listening, here’s my wish list for 2016 – Bill Callahan, Phosphorescent, Richmond Fontaine, Anais Mitchell, John Vanderslice, Bon Iver, Kathleen Edwards, Kate Bush, Grizzly Bear and/or Department of Eagles, David Vandervelde, Neko Case, Emmy The Great, Ryan Adams, Feist, Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, Fionn Regan, Fleet Foxes, and, of course, Kramies. Do please oblige. In the meantime, here is the great one with his classic ‘Sea Otter Cottage’.

Anaïs Mitchell – Xoa

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It’s an iron law that Deluxe editions of your favourite album are usually a disappointment. The album itself sounds just as fine as ever, but then you already own a copy. You’re buying it for the extras and they’re almost always underwhelming. There might be a nugget here and there. ‘Forget Her’ from Jeff Buckley’s Grace, The Legacy Edition, is one. But in the main they prove the rule that artists are pretty good at recognising their best work the first time around. If it wasn’t good enough then, it probably still isn’t now. Only a few exceptional performers have enough genuinely good material in the vaults and have recorded any truly transformative versions of old songs to make the Deluxe edition worthwhile. Bob Dylan’s Bootleg series. Neil Young’s Archives. And now, Anaïs Mitchell! Xoa is a collection of unreleased songs and reworked versions from previous albums. Ordinarily this would mean a hotchpotch of styles and sounds. Lots of tape hiss and lo-fi demos. But not here. The songs have been newly recorded. There’s just Anaïs with a guitar throughout, but the production values are high and, crucially, consistent across the set. For that reason, it has the feeling of a new album, ebbing and flowing like an original composition. The unreleased tracks are already timeless. Even at first listen, they’re so familiar you’re wondering where you heard them before. Surely this can’t be the first time that ‘Anyway The Wind Blows’ has been released? As for the reworked versions, there are two from both Hymns For The Exiled and The Brightness, one from the Country EP with Rachel Ries, one, the title track, from Young Man In America, and no fewer than four from Hadestown. Unsurprisingly, it’s the latter that are the most revelatory. Listening to her sing Greg Brown’s vocal from ‘Why We Build The Wall’ is nothing short of remarkable. To hear her reprise Justin Vernon’s part on ‘If It’s True’ is simply spellbinding. More that that, they’re a reminder that these are her creations, not theirs. And they’re truly worthy of a Deluxe edition. Xohlm.

 

Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer – Child Ballads

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It was only a year ago that Anaïs Mitchell delivered her last set of haunting and poignant songs. Then, the focus was America. She told tales of discovery, wonder and loss. The great American novel, or collection of short stories at least, in musical form. This time she has a new singing buddy, Jefferson Hamer, and her focus has shifted across the water to England and Scotland. Together, they’ve recorded a selection of traditional child ballads. Equally haunting and poignant, they’re stories of loss and yet more loss rather than discovery and wonder, but they would seem to be a perfect match both for Anaïs Mitchell’s folky sound and for her lyrical predispositions. So, what went wrong? Well, part of the problem is the subject matter. Previously, when she has transported the themes of innocence, love, and tragedy to new lands, like on Young Man in America, or when she has retold the oldest tales in brand new form, as on Hadestown, the result has been revelatory. The creative act generating new insights into old dilemmas. Here, though, she seems hemmed in by the material. The voice seems inauthentic. The stories are recited rather than reframed. This is a real shame because vocally Mitchell and Hamer are a wonderful match. Bon Iver is a tough act to follow, but Hamer complements Mitchell beautifully. Yet, however lovely they sound, together they seem to somehow rush through the material. An album of dirges would have been unbearable, but sometimes there seems to be no stopping the story. It’s a race to the end. Compare the delivery here with almost any song by The Unthanks. With similar material, including the odd child ballad, The Unthanks communicate the tragedy at the heart of the story with huge and yet restrained emotion. There’s no such feeling here. On paper, Anaïs Mitchell singing classic songs of hope and despair seems like a sure-fire winner. Here, though, the result is surprisingly emotionless. Expect the feeling to return with her next album of original material.

Drowned in Sound review

Uncut review

Guardian review

BBC Music review

Here are my 6th-10th favourite releases of 2012, in no particular order:

Grizzly Bear – Shields

How do you follow an album like Veckatimest? The answer. Don’t record anything for a while and then try to scale things back a little when you do. The strategy worked. Shields wasn’t quite the tour de force of its predecessor, but it still contained some great songs with ‘Sleeping Ute’ probably the best of the lot. Better than that, it contained some sublime moments that only Grizzly Bear can conjure up. When the chorus kicks in on ‘Yet Again’, there’s only one band you can be listening to. There’s no bigger compliment.

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Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America

Anais Mitchell also faced the ‘how do you follow that’ syndrome. Her previous release, Hadestown, was truly unique. With some help from Bon Iver and others, she retold a version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, setting it in Depression-era US. On this album, she reverted to the individual-song format, but more than one told its own story. The title track itself was a version of the Great American Novel. And when the protagonist of ‘Shepherd’ loses his pregnant wife, there’s not a dry eye in the house.

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Band of Horses – Mirage Rock

Band of Horses are bad boys, aren’t they? They have the tattoos, the bad teeth, and they always look like they’ve just got out of bed. So they’re best when they rock out, right? Wrong. It’s when they slow down that they’re at their best. ‘Slow Cruel Hands of Time’ is an old theme, but it’s told beautifully. ‘Long Vows’ and ‘Heartbreak on the 101’ likewise. And why did they ever leave ‘Reilly’s Dream’ off the main album? It’s as good as ‘Detlef Schrempf’ and, to Horseheads, that’s saying something.

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

Swedish AM-friendly country rock. On paper, that’s not a great combination. But, two things make this record stand out. One, the songs are really strong. Two, boy, can these guys sing? The Söderberg sisters make Crosby, Stills and Nash sound like a bunch of old hippies. Oh, hang on. Anyhow, a good rule of thumb is that if a song sound timeless, then it probably is. And the ones on this album sound like they’ve already been around for a very long while.

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Paul Buchanan – Mid Air

Paul Buchanan’s most recent collection of musical pointillism was beautifully executed. Neo-impressionistic pictures of life at its most ordinary, combining to form an experience that was at once melancholy and uplifting. Only the slightest orchestration. Mainly just the singer, a piano, and some affecting melodies. It was as much the delivery of the songs as the songs themselves that made this such a rewarding listen.

Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America

Anais Mitchell’s previous work, Hadestown, was special. Transposing the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to Depression-era America, she kept the poetry of the original and added melody. She was helped by an ensemble that included Bon Iver, playing Orpheus himself. It was magnificent. Totally original. On her new work, Young Man in America, again she gets a little help. This time, though, the songs stand alone. There’s a general theme of birth, children, parenting, death, but no over-arching narrative. Yet still she creates a wonderful, coherent whole. In part, it’s because of the songcraft. She likes to create a tension both musically and lyrically. This was central to Hadestown, but it’s here too. There’s repetition in the songs, but they’re never repetitive. “When he said, when he said he was leaving / I took up the violin. When he said, when he said that my body he’d not miss / I became a sculptress. When he said, when he said that my face he’d soon forget / I became a poet”. For ‘The Shepherd’ she retells another old tale, this time a short story that her father wrote as a young man. She turns it into pure poetry. “Said the shepherd to his wife / ‘The crop of hay is cut and dried. I’ll bale it up and bring it in / Before the coming storm begins’. ‘Go’ she said ‘and beat the storm / And then there is another chore. Today the baby will be born / You’ll take me to the hospital’”. At the risk of giving away the ending, the shepherd’s wife never makes it there. Like Hadestown, Young Man in America is compelling. Somewhat less ambitious. Slightly less orchestration. But just as beautiful.

Anais Mitchell – Official site