10 Essential Celtic CDs

Earle Hitchner at the Celtic Cafe

Essential Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Galician, Breton, and Cape Breton recordings for your home library.

During the last decade, interest in Celtic music and dance has grown dramatically in the wake of such hugely successful stage spectaculars as Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Also, to the aural delight of moviegoers everywhere, Celtic melodies on authentic instruments have coursed through such blockbuster motion pictures as Braveheart and The Last of the Mohicans. These immensely popular shows and films have helped fuel a worldwide fascination with a culture that has moved from the margins to the mainstream of media.

Need more proof? Recall “The Theme from Harry’s Game” by the Donegal band Clannad that graced a Volkswagen TV commercial some years back.

Consider that pop superstar Sarah McLachlan won a Grammy this year for “I Will Remember You,” a song whose melody is drawn directly from a tune Seamus Egan wrote and recorded in 1990 for a deceased Irish fiddler. Or think of actor John Lithgow’s hilarious impersonation of stepdancer Michael Flatley on the TV sitcom "Third Rock From the Sun".

Celtic culture has arrived, but from where? The 10 CDs listed alphabetically below will give you a sense of the music’s ancient roots and innovative branches. Dating from 1921 to 1997, the tracks on these recordings provide a quick, brisk immersion in the best this highly diverse music has to offer.

But be forewarned: once you dive in, you may never come up for air again.

AS FADAS DE ESTRAÑO NOME, by Milladoiro (Green Linnet GLCD 3118):
The 14 tracks on this album, whose title means “The Fairies With Strange Names,” are taken from two concerts given in 1995 by Milladoiro. Founded at the University of Santiago de Compostela, they are one of the premier bands performing the traditional music of Galicia, a region in northwest Spain that is a Celtic music hotbed. The septet play no fewer than 25 instruments on music that brings a distinct Spanish rhythm to Celtic-flavored melodies further laced with medieval art music. This skillfully crafted coalition of sounds can be heard to exciting effect on the rousing traditional Galician dance tune “Danza de Albarellos.”

THE BOTHY BAND (Mulligan LUN CD 002; Green Linnet GLCD 3011):
From 1974 to 1979, this sextet blazed a musical trail few other Irish bands have come close to duplicating. A quarter century old now yet as fresh as ever, this album debut from 1975 had a seismic impact on younger players of Irish traditional music, who recognized the rock-and-roll rhythmic sensibility of Dónal Lunny playing bouzouki. Flutist Matt Molloy, fiddler Tommy Peoples, and uilleann piper Paddy Keenan were simply unsurpassed on such reels as “Martin Wynne’s/The Longford Tinker.” The crystalline voice of Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill on “Do You Love an Apple?” and other songs could melt stone, while her brother Mícheál’s breathy vocals offered an ideal balance. Neil Young was right: better to burn out than fade away. The Bothy Band burned out, all right, but the heat and light they gave off have never faded away.

MICHAEL COLEMAN, 1891-1945 (Gael-Linn/Viva Voce CEFCD 161):
This Sligo-born fiddler is, without question, the single most important figure in Irish traditional music during the 20th century. His recordings from 1921 to 1936 on this two-CD set showcased phrasing, ornamentation, and tone that raised the standard for all Irish fiddlers, then and now. It is impossible to gauge the musical influence of Coleman, so pervasive and ingrained are his technique and style in the tradition today. These 48 tracks of Coleman’s fiddling, including a classic pair of reels from his November 1934 recording session for Decca, “Bonnie Kate/Jennie’s Chickens,” make clear what Irish music aficionados mean by the terms “pre-Coleman” and “post-Coleman.”

HANDFUL OF EARTH, by Dick Gaughan (Topic TSCD419; Green Linnet GLCD 3062):
Of mixed Scottish-Irish blood (his paternal grandfather was from Ballina, County Mayo), Scotland’s Dick Gaughan has a uniquely expressive, grit-ladened voice and a political temperament perfectly suited to songs of conscience and social activism. Falling solidly in the musical mold of his fellow Scotsman Ewan MacColl, America’s Pete Seeger, and, more recently, England’s Billy Bragg, Gaughan invests songs with every fiber in his being. There’s nothing halfhearted about him or his music, and this flawless album, recorded in 1981, captures Gaughan at the peak of his ability as a singer and guitarist. Many other vocalists, including Mary Black, have recorded Phil Colclough’s moving “Song for Ireland,” but Dick Gaughan’s rendition towers above all. The nine songs and one instrumental on this recording are shattering performances.

JUDIQUE ON THE FLOOR, by Buddy MacMaster (Sea-Cape Music Ltd. ACD-9020):
They say Cape Breton Island in eastern Nova Scotia has more fiddlers per square foot than any other area in the world. Within that high concentration of fiddlers, Hugh Allan “Buddy” MacMaster is a living legend. Wrist-snapped saw strokes in a propulsive style of bowing are a hallmark of Scots-rooted, Cape Breton-style fiddling, and MacMaster is, well, a master at it. This is Buddy’s first full-length album, recorded in April 1989, and it conveys all the energy and excitement he brings to his regular playing for dances in and around his hometown of Judique in Cape Breton. Piano accompaniment is provided by John Morris Rankin, who tragically died in a car accident this past January. Their collaboration reaches a zenith on the momentum-building medley of “King George the Fourth Strathspey/Old King George Strathspey/Old King’s Reel/King’s Reel/Old Traditional Reel.” (See the Celtic Cafe's special feature on Buddy MacMaster by clicking here.)

KERZH BA’N’ DANS, by Skolvan (Keltia Musique KMCD 16):
“Come to the Dance” is how this album’s title loosely translates, and no group from Brittany in the northwest corner of France performs the music of festou noz--late-night Breton dances that can last well into the morning hours--with more panache and punch than this quartet. Bombarde (oboe-like instrument) and biniou (one-droned bagpipe) combine with diatonic accordion, fiddle, piano, and guitar on gavottes, polkas, and ronds displaying a truly impressive touch. Formed in 1984 by music teachers from the Conservatoire Régional de Musique et de Danse Traditionnelle de Bretagne, Skolvan features top-flight members from other Breton bands, such as Youenn Le Bihan from Gwerz and Gilles Le Bigot from Kornog. Skolvan’s creativity especially shines on “Trip to Skye,” a tune composed by Irish button accordionist John Whelan, in which the group quickens the tempo Breton-style and inserts a tantalizing fiddle bridge.

PLANXTY (Shanachie 79009):
Returning to Ireland in 1971 from a five-year stay in England, singer Christy Moore made Prosperous, a solo album named after the County Kildare town in which it was recorded. Among the musicians joining him in the studio were Dónal Lunny, Liam O’Flynn, and Andy Irvine, and those four formed Planxty that same year. The quartet’s recording debut in 1972, affectionately referred to ever after as “the black album,” shook the cobwebs from conventional Irish ballad singing and rote instrumental playing, giving new life to each through more traditional and accomplished settings. In the early 1970s, this lineup put an indelible stamp on Ireland’s musical tradition. “Raggle Taggle Gypsy/Tabhair Dom Do Lámh,” pairing a traditional song with an old harp tune, illustrates how groundbreaking the musical efforts of this band were.

SEAL SONG, by Ossian (Iona IRCD002):
Lead vocalist Billy Ross had departed, and his replacement, Tony Cuffe, previously a member of Alba and Jock Tamson’s Bairns, made his Ossian recording debut with this 1981 release. Glasgow-based Ossian had already been together for five years before Cuffe joined, but with this album the quartet embarked on a phase of development that still reverberates in Scottish traditional music today. The arrangements are stunning--not from a blaring energy some Scots bands resort to, but from an intricate, incremental layering of instrumentation that is absolutely breathtaking. Of all the great Scottish groups from the ’70s and ’80s (Silly Wizard, Battlefield Band, Tannahill Weavers, Kentigern), Ossian was arguably the most visionary and soulful. The lineup of Cuffe, Billy and the late George Jackson, and John Martin left us with “A Fisherman’s Song for Attracting Seals/Lieutenant McGuire/Walking the Floor” and other performances whose luster is undimmed by time or fashion’s tide.

SEIDIR DDOE, by Plethyn (Sain SCD 2083):
Large ensemble choral singing is what Wales is best known for musically around the globe. But this principality lying along Britain’s southwestern shore also has a proud Celtic tradition of much smaller, tight-knit bands performing native instrumentals and folk songs. Among the finest is Plethyn. From Powys in mid-Wales, this trio have been together for 25 years and are celebrated for close vocal harmonies laid over a spare instrumental mix of guitar, mandolin, tin whistle, and concertina. Linda Healy and Roy Griffiths, who are brother and sister, and their friend John Gittins have pioneered a more intimate singing style based on the Plygain choral tradition. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Plethyn’s a cappella rendition of the Welsh traditional song “Cainc Yr Aradwr” (“The Ploughboy’s Song”) from their outstanding 1994 album, Seidir Ddoe (“Yesterday’s Cider”).

SO MANY PARTINGS, by Silly Wizard (Shanachie 79016):
Seatbelts fastened? Good, because the uptempo music on this 1979 recording is the Scottish tradition at its most potent and visceral. Portabello-born brothers Johnny and Phil Cunningham were perhaps the best fiddle-piano accordion tandem in Scotland at the time, and the rhythm of bassist Martin Hadden and guitarist Gordon Jones was solid yet supple enough to allow free-flowing exchanges between the Cunninghams. Balancing the high-charging instrumentals and complementing the more tender tune of “Miss Catherine Brosnan” is the riveting voice of Andy M. Stewart on such poignant Scots traditional songs as “The Valley of Strathmore.”

Highlight of highlights, however, is “Donald McGillavry/O’Neill’s Cavalry March,” a call-to-arms Jacobite song that the band linked to an equally searing martial tune. Both are guaranteed to get your blood rising.

In his Ceol column in the Irish Echo, Earle Hitchner's Best Traditional CD lists are eagerly awaited every year. Continue below to review some of the lists from recent years.

Author: Earle Hitcher



Copyright © 2001 by Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved.
Published at Sonicnet.com on June 6, 2000. Reprinted by permission of the author.