The Chieftains are everybody's standard traditional Irish band, but my favorite album of theirs is the very nontraditional Santiago, when they go down to Spain and Cuba to record with local musicians. I imagine that a lot of people would find their collaborations amusing – for example, Long Black Veil with Mick Jagger, which is pretty good. Especially moving is The Lowlands of Holland, sung by Natalie Merchant as a widow whose husband was forcibly conscripted into the military:
I will wear no stays around my waistYou probably don't need me to tell you about the Pogues, who are probably my favorite band of all time. I also like Shane MacGowan's Popes album, The Snake – the title track is a spectacular addition to the tradition, as so many of his songs are.
No combs all in my hair
I will wear no scarf around my neck
for to save my beauty fair
And never will I marry
Not until the day I die
Since these four winds and these stormy seas
came between my love and I
The best versions of Roddy McCorley and Nancy Whiskey that I've heard are on there as well. (I don't like his solo album, The Crock of Gold – it's in his period of utter personal decay, and it sounds like they shoved a sheet of paper with a song into his hand and all he knew was that his next bottle of whiskey depended on mumbling the words along to the peppy musical backing.)
As far as the old-school folk songs go, the group I started out with was the Clancy Brothers. I take their version of Whiskey in the Jar to be definitive and awesome. The song was covered by Metallica, bizarrely enough, and Metallica made silly lyrical choices. You can't change the girl's name from “Jenny” to “Molly” – it has to rhyme with “penny”! My favorite song to sing in the whole wide world is Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile, which I do just like the Clancy Brothers except with the 2nd and 3rd verses reversed – I like putting the boisterous verse about how Grainne Mhaol and her thousand warriors will kick English ass before the thoughtful verse about how the narrator would be happy to live only one more week if only he could see Grainne Mhaol come over the sea with her thousand warriors and kick English ass. Anyway, that's how the Harvard Celtic Society, who got me into all this stuff, passed it down to me.
I can't stand the oversynthified musical backing on a lot of Sinead O'Connor's 80s pop stuff, but Sean Nos Nua, her little-known Irish traditional album, is lovely. She does wonderful heartfelt versions of I'll Tell Me Ma and The Parting Glass, plus a fiery Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile.
Her Mantle So Green tells the story any Irish folk song lover will know, about the guy who hits on a girl, and she's still waiting for a guy lost in war or at sea, and he knows something about what happened to the guy, and I won't spoil the ending for you if you haven't heard it before. I don't know what Baidin Fheilimi is about but it's good too. I could do without the interminable Lord Baker duet, but the album is excellent overall. (Sinead also has a reggae album, Throw Down Your Arms, and while some of it comes off as a bit silly, there are some good tracks, especially Curly Locks.)
Among my favorite lesser known bands is Silly Wizard, fronted by Andy M. Stewart. Their most consistent album is Caledonia's Hardy Sons. It ends with The Broome O' the Cowdenknowes, a mournful song from a lad who's been banished from Scotland for getting too close to a girl whose politically powerful dad wanted her to marry someone else. I don't know what to make of The Ferryland Sealer – a cheerful song about killing seals for their pelts. The instrumentals are very good, though, and Monymusk Lads tells a story with a biting insight about class prejudices and romance, though you'll need to look up the lyrics to get through the Scots dialect.
Songs about hopeless love are a big part of the Silly Wizard oeuvre. On their other albums, I love this verse from Wi' My Dog and Gun, about the all-too-practical woman the narrator meets in the forest:
I said, “Fair maid, if you wed a farmerAlso make sure you hear the Loch Tay Boat Song, the best of many songs I've heard about the red-haired girl who breaks your heart.
You'll be tied for life to one plot of land
I'm a roving Johnny, if you gang wi' me
You will have no ties, so give me your hand”
Mary Dillon of Deanta won national singing competitions with her crystal-clear voice and delicious accent. The songwriting on a bunch of her original stuff is kind of schlocky, but when she does a good traditional song like The Lakes of Pontchartrain, the results can be spectacular.
I also recommend Deanta's version of Eleanor Plunkett, an instrumental composed by the blind 17th century harper Turlough O'Carolan. More than anything else I've ever heard, this song can make you stop feeling angry. Let the soothing melody absorb you, and you'll get this calming perspective on anything upsetting. (On a totally different note, another good song for dispelling anger is I Touch Myself by the Divinyls, because it prevents anyone from taking anything seriously. I played it in sophomore year when my roommates looked like they were about to come to blows in a messy fight about a girl who was present at the time and crying. Nobody could sustain their anger and violence was averted.)
Scotsman Sean Connery described Karen Matheson of Capercaillie as having "a throat surely touched by the hand of God." I like Capercaillie's traditional songs best, particularly the ones in Scots Gaelic and the instrumentals. Am Buachaille Ban, a simple song from a lovelorn girl who wishes a handsome shepherd would notice her, is one of my favorites. I think I've heard a couple versions of Fear a Bhata by them as well, and all are good. It's a beautiful song written by a woman from Tong wishing the fisherman she loved from Uig would come back and marry her. (I don't expect you to know where Tong and Uig are, I just find the names a little funny. They're on the Isle of Lewis in northwest Scotland.)
Caledonia's Hardy Sons by Silly Wizard, which I mentioned above, has an excellent version with the verses translated into English.
Also, this dude on YouTube has one hell of a voice. Anyway, that should the Celtic folk fans on this blog going for a while. Let me know in comments if there's anything you think I should check out!