THE YOUNG’UNS have long been an unmissable live act thanks to their heady brew of full-throated harmonies, crackling energy, political passion and easy wit.
The Teesside trio’s fourth album Strangers (Hereteu Records) not only confirms their class as singers and arrangers but catapults Sean Cooney into the front rank of folk songwriters.
In a leap forward for Cooney, all but one of the songs here flow from his pen.
To mark an era of refugee crisis, terrorism and resurgent fascism, the album finds the usually rambunctious trio in uncharacteristically reflective mood, taking as its theme outsiders, wanderers and everyday heroes.
Subjects range from antifascists in the Spanish civil war and at Cable Street to the passengers who foiled a terror attack on a Paris-bound train in 2015.
When Cooney sets his sights high he hits his targets dead on.
It will be a travesty if he doesn’t pick up a Radio 2 Folk Award for one of the two towering standouts.
Be The Man imagines — with heart-stopping precision — standing in the shoes of Matthew Ogston, who resolved to fight homophobia after his fiance killed himself because his family couldn’t accept his sexuality.
And Dark Water is a beautifully understated anthem for our times, the story of Syrian Hesham Modamani and his five-mile swim across the Aegean to escape the horrors back home.
An instant classic on an intensely powerful, essential record.
Findlay Napier is an insurgent talent who grabbed ears as part of the recent Shake the Chains project and his second solo record Glasgow (Cheerygroove Records) is a wonderfully quirky ode to his home town.
Songs from Hamish Imlach, the Blue Nile and Scottish national treasure Michael Marra rub shoulders with Napier’s own compositions as he paints a landscape of red stone tenements, graveyard-lurking goths, drunkards and homeless scavengers.
Napier is a wonderful singer — at times tender, earthy and full-throttle impassioned — and his own hymn to lost Clydeside, There’s More to Building Ships, proves he has rich songwriting talent to match.
Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys were lighting up festival stages over the summer and their second album Pretty Peggy (Navigator Records) thrillingly captures their live verve.
The seven-piece act roam from sea shanties to Appalachian minstrel songs to bawdy mining tales with muscle and electricity. Folk hasn’t rocked this hard since Fairport’s heyday.
About as far away on the folk spectrum as it’s possible to get is the Emily Askew Band’s debut Alchemy (Askew Records), an inspired and thoughtful attempt to bridge the gap between folk and early music, which tends to be the preserve of classical musicians and academics.
Using instruments old and new it breathes new life into ancient songs ranging from Middle English to Latin via Langue d’Oc and from the 13th to the 17th centuries.
An endlessly rich and captivating listen and quite unlike anything you’ll hear in this or most other years.
Finally, it would be criminal not to mention In the Shadow of a Small Mountain (Small Mountain Records), the fruit of a collaboration between Britain’s Sally Barker, formerly of the Poozies, and the US guitar wizard and songwriter Vicki Genfan.
Its warm, low-key storytelling sits somewhere between Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Sandy Denny and is every bit as accomplished as that comparison suggests.