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Suggested First Purchases of Traditional Irish Music

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Updated: May 28, 2001

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It seems to me there are two ways to go here. You can purchase either (a) one of the classic CDs, or (b) one of the better CD collections of Irish music and get exposed to 12 or more groups for $15 or so. Both ways work, but whatever you do, go out and get one of these albums.

As Good as It Gets:

(The Best of Altan)

Altan. The Best of Altan (Green Linnet, 1996) This is a two CD set for the price of one with some songs from a live 1989 concert included. The drive and passion of the reels, and the haunting beauty of Máiread Ní Mhaonaigh's voice is absolutely stunning. Altan is a collection of terrific musicians who fuse their Donegal style playing together and with musical alchemy produce gold, tune after tune. Altan is the classiest act in traditional Irish music playing today and sets a standard that others can reach for, but not surpass.

(Solas album cover)

Solas-- SOLAS (1996, Shanachie) My favorite album from 1996. This album features: John Williams (concertina & accordion), Winifred Horan (fiddle), John Doyle (acoustic guitar), Seamus Egan (on anything you blow through), the spectacular singing of Karan Casey and great choices in tunes and songs. (Another review of this album.) Any of Solas' three albums will work.

(The Best of the Bothy Band)

The Bothy Band. The Best of the Bothy Band (Green Linnet 1988) -- thought by many to be the best Irish band ever, this album is wonderful. A legendary supergroup with at various times Matt Malloy on flute, Paddy Keenan on uillean pipes, Tommy Peoples or Kevin Burke on fiddle, and the singing of Triona Ní Domhnaill. It is a joy to listen to.

At the End of the Day album cover)

Dervish-- At the End of the Day (Kells Music, 1996) This young group from Sligo is taking the traditional music scene by storm both in Ireland and the U.S. A great group of musicians, they are fronted by the superb young singer Cathy Jordan, and include Liam Kelly, a terrific flute player; Shane McAleer on fiddle; Shane Mitchell on button accordion; Michael Holmes on bozouki, and Brian McDonagh on mandola and guitar. Dervish plays together incredibly well.

Collections of Irish Music:

(20th Anniv. album cover)

Green Linnet - The Twentieth Anniversary Collection (Green Linnet, 1996), a 2 CD set of 38 tracks, more than half of which are Irish, for the price of about $15. This is a "best of the best of" album for the biggest American label in Irish traditional music. This set includes tracks from Altan, Martin Hayes, Déanta, The Bothy Band, and many, many others.
Green Linnet's 1997 Traditional Music of Ireland ("Celtophile Collection" ) album of 13 tracks is not quite a good a bargain, but makes a nice complement showcasing 12 different groups (including two songs by Altan).

(Rough_Irish) The Rough Guide to Irish Folk (World Music Network) The Irish version of this series diverts around many of the biggest names in Irish music, but still brings an interesting selection of 20 songs and tunes from many, very competent musicians who live outside the brightest spotlights, but definitely deserve your notice. The CD features excellent cuts from some of my favorites including tin whistle players extraordinaire Brian Hughes and Seán Ryan, Cherish the Ladies, Dé Danaan, fiddler Paddy Glacknin, Déanta, Jackie Daly, singer Seán Tyrell, and Craobh Rua. The highlight for me was uillean piper Declan Masterson's absolutely ripping an amazing set of reels. Very good liner notes. (Highly Recommended)
(BLASTA!)(cover different on U.S. edition)

BLASTA! - The Irish Traditional Music Special (Gael-Linn 1997). This is a terrific collection of 14 tunes and songs from Ireland's premiere traditional label. Included on this is are tunes from the groups DeDanaan, Clannad, and Buttons and Bows; fiddler Paddy Glacknin, piper Paddy Keenan, a spectacular set of tunes on tin whistle from Mary Bergin, the religious music of Noirin Ni Riain & the monks of Glenstal Abbey, a wild set of tunes with torrid step dancing from Tony MacMahon & Noel Hill, and the singing of Maighread and Triona Ni Dhomnhaill, Delores Keane and Aoife Ni Fhearraigh. A terrific variety of the best of Irish traditional music. (N.B. U.S. CD cover is different)

A Woman's Heart 2 album

A Woman's Heart 2 This is a sequel to AWH 1. Both are very nice collections of songs by contemporary women singers and a non-singer (Sharon Shannon). I happen to like the sequel a little better, but both albums have lots of fans. On the album are many of Ireland's best women singers: Mary Black (3 tunes), Frances Black, Sinead O'Connor, Maura O'Connell, Sinead Lohan and Delores Keane.

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Highly Recommended Albums:



Altan. Save your time and buy all their albums now. Sooner or later, you will get them all. Before the band formed officially, Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh and Frankie Kennedy, both from Donegal, released two classic duet albums which remain among my all-time favorites: Ceol Aduaidh (1983) and an album simply called Altan (1987) (pictured). The expanded band "Altan" went on to record: Horse With a Heart (1988), The Red Crow (1990), Harvest Storm (1992), and Island Angel (1993). Three of these won INDIE awards as Celtic traditional album of the year. (These are all on the Green Linnet label.) The drive and passion of the reels, the passionate flute playing of Frankie Kennedy, and the haunting beauty of Máiread Ní Mhaonaigh's voice are stunning. Tragically, Frankie, one of the great musicians of the century, died of cancer in 1994. At his urging, the band has gone on.
   Altan is a totally class act. Great on their albums and awesome in performance, as they have been for more than a decade. Mairéad has become one very best fiddlers in Ireland, and a superb ambassador for the Donegal style of fiddling. Recently they have switched to a new label, Virgin Records and have two new albums out-- Blackwater (1996) and Runaway Sunday (1997). As I said, get all their albums, I'd just recommend starting at the beginning.

(Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers)

Solas-- This group includes five incredibly strong individual musicians who are just starting to play together: John Williams (a fabulous concertina & accordion player), Winifred Horan (fiddle), John Doyle (a superb rhythm guitar player), Seamus Egan (on anything you blow through), and Karan Casey (a truly wonderful singer). They have three albums out: Solas (1996, Shanachie) mentioned above (link to a detailed review), Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers (1997, Shanachie #78010) (pictured at left, an excellent sequel to their debut), and The words that remain (Shanachie 78023, 1998) which the readers of Irish Music magazine voted the Album of the Year.

(No Matter How Wet...)

Craobh Rua-- No Matter How Cold & Wet You Are As Long As You're Warm and Dry (Lochshore Records) This relatively new group from northern Ireland is one of my favorites. It consists of Mark Donnelly on uillean pipes and whistles, Jim Byrne on guitar, mandola and vocals, Michael Cassidy on fiddles and viola, and Brian Connoly on banjo, mandonlin and Bodhran. Great singing in English and Irish and high energy instrumentals. Their other albums, The More thats Said the Less the Better (1992) and Soh it is (1997), are excellent, although this one's my favorite.

(Water from the Well)

The Chieftains -- Water from the Well (BMG, 2000). This is a CD of the music that many thought the Chieftains had forgotten how to play. A purely traditional Irish album. Like the other Chieftain albums, there are guests, but the guests are from within the tradition this time (Altan, Kilfenora Ceilidh Band members, many local players). The playing is impeccable, many tunes recorded live, dancers stepping away. (Highly recommended)

(Whisper of a Secret)

Déanta-- Whisper of a Secret (1997, Green Linnet). This, the third album from this group, shows them emerging from the realm of precocious young musicians into one of Ireland's best young traditional groups. The highlight of the album is Mary Dillon's gorgeous singing.

(Lunasa album)

Lúnasa -- Lúnasa (1998 Grapevine Records) This is a very, very nice instrumental album. The group is Sean Smyth on fiddle and Swayne whistle, John McSherry on uillean pipes and low whistle, Mike McGoldrick on flute and low whistle, Donogh Hennessey on guitar, and Trevor Hutchinson (of the Sharon Shannon band) on double bass. This tends to give the group a more woodwind/pipes sound than the typical guitar/fiddle dominated Irish group. And a very nice sound it is. The arrangements are intelligent and really show the instruments off against each other well. The playing is terrific

The tunes on the album are mainly Irish, but there is a klezmer tune, a (French) Breton air and one set of Cape Breton tunes. There is a wonderful pipe solo of "Colonel Frazer". Several tracks were recorded live at Matt Malloy's pub in Westport, Ireland. A review in Irish Music magazine compared the band favorably to the legendary Bothy Band. I wouldn't go that far, but this is an excellent album that warrants a lot of repeat listening.

(Skara Brae album cover)

Skara Brae -- Skara Brae (Gael-Linn 1998). It is not often that a debut (and only) album made in a single afternoon in a studio is re-released 28 years later as a major event by a prestigous label. Micheál Ó Dhomhnaill, his two sisters Tríona and Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill, and Dáithí Sproule made a splash when they released this album, indicating their later musical contributions. Micheál and Tríona went on to play wih the Bothy Band; Dáithí still plays with Altan, and Maighread's album Gan Dhá Phingin Spré (Gael Linn 1990) is described immodestly by the label as "the high point of recorded Irish music in the 1990s"! This is largely a collection of Gaelic songs from Donegal, with a few instrumentals. A distinguishing feature of the group is the lovely harmony singing of all four members on interesting arrangements of voices, two guitars and an electric clavinet. This is a lovely, gentle album with good liner notes. Recommended, and not just for those interested in the beginning of traditional musical revival.

Órla and the Gasmen -- Minding Mice at Crossroads (1998, Gas Men MUSIC). San Francisco's own wonderful singer Orla Morrison and her trusty, and very hot band (Vinnie on flute and whistles, Cormac on bodhran, Vincie on mandolin, Dana on fiddle, Richard on guitar, Jimmy on octave mandolin, Colin on fiddle, and Kenny on banjo. 8 songs from the irrepressible and wonderful Orla, and 10 hot tunes from the lads and Dana. Check out their WWW site for sound samples and details about how to order your own copy. (Highly recommended)



A Woman's Heart 2 album

A Woman's Heart 2 This is a sequel to AWH 1. Both are very nice collections of songs by contemporary women singers and a non-singer (Sharon Shannon). I happen to like the sequel a little better, but both albums have lots of fans. On the album are many of Ireland's best women singers: Mary Black (3 tunes), Frances Black, Sinead O'Connor, Maura O'Connell, Sinead Lohan and Delores Keane.

Songlines album

Solas former lead singer Karan Casey has a solo album, Songlines (1997, Shanachie). Casey may be the finest Irish woman singer today. Accompanied on this album by many of her friends from Solas, this is a superb album.

(Blackbirds and thrushes) Niamh Parsons - Blackbirds & Thrushes (Green Linnet, 1999). For those waiting for an entirely traditional album from this very fine Irish singer, your day has come. Niamh is a superb practitioner of traditional sean nos singing, as you may have noticed from her singing with Arcady and her two previous albums. Here, it is more of the pure drop, most of the 12 songs (10 in English, 2 in Gaelic) done a capella or with a minimun amount of very tasteful accompaniment that never overshadows the singing. Higlights are Niamh's glorious version of "The Water is Wide" with terrific piano accompaniment by Seamus Brett--it give me goosebumps--and the Gaelic song "Fear a Bhata". Extensive liner notes with full lyrics. (Highly recommended)
(Time for Touching Home) The Black Family - Time for Touching Home - (1989 Dara Records). I was slow to stumble onto this album. Francis, Shay, Michael, Martin and Mary are some of the finest solo singers in Ireland. But it is their harmonies that make this album so special. My favorite on this is a terrific a capella version of "Peat Bog Soldiers".


(Live in Seattle)

Martin Hayes. His latest album, Live in Seattle, (reviewed on the new CDs page) is much more like his live performances. The earlier albums are rich food indeed for the soul (although some find they are an acquired taste), but his latest is a tremendous crowd-pleaser.

(In Full Spate album cover)

Paddy Glacknin-- Rabharta Ceoil/In Full Spate (Gael-Linn 1991) A truly fine fiddler from Donegal who has been an inspiration to many other Irish musicians. This is a superb album.


(Na Keen Affair album cover)

Paddy Keenan -- Na Keen Affair (Hot Conya Records, 1997). The Irish uillean ("elbow") pipes have a much softer and pleasant sound than the Scottish highland pipes, and they have become a signature instrument of Irish traditional music. Very, very hard to play, the uillean pipes are not for dilettante musicians. Paddy Keenan, original member of the legendary Bothy Band, shows off this instrument at its best. This new album is spectacular, and includes a couple of beautiful airs on low whistles. Paddy combines nearly unbelievable virtuosity on the pipes with a rare musical gift, and the combination is as good as Irish music gets.

(The Leitrim Thrush album cover)

Neil Mulligan-- The Leitrim Trush (Spring Records, N. Ireland, 1997). Voted "Best Traditional Album of 1997" by the readers of Irish Music magazine. Mulligan's playing is masterful, and quite different than Keenan's and has an intense, Gaelic flavor to it, much like the playing of his mentor Seamus Ennis. Mulligan's phrasing is heavily influenced by his interest in sean nós singing. For those not already addicted to uillean piping, be warned this album makes no concessions to commercial pop sensibilities. Excellent liner notes. For those not familiar with the exotic intonations and tunes of traditional uillean piping, this album may seem like a Guinness with a bit of peat added for texture!

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