Cymru Am Byth: 18 Essential Welsh Albums
Today - March 1st - is St. David's Day, a celebration of Welsh identity.
The strange thing is, though, we're no closer to defining 'Welshness' than we were 100 years ago - it's a country in flux, code-switching and shape-shifting on an hourly basis.
Musically, however, we feel certain in saying that Welsh music - indeed, Welsh culture as a whole - has rarely been so strong, with new generations utilising the tools at their disposal to craft magnificent new aural shapes.
Clash writers have picked out 18 essential Welsh albums (caveat: we're starting at the year 2000) and we've tried to look beyond the big names, blending seminal hits with some deep cuts, too.
As a curious side note: no Welsh artist has won the Mercury... that needs to change.
Dive into our list below and get involved on Twitter.
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Pretty Vicious – Beauty Of Youth
Barely twenty Merthyr Tydfil’s Pretty Vicious had been through a number of highs and lows. A record label bidding war led to a short adventure with Virgin EMI, but the four piece signed to Big Machine/John Varvatos Records and came back strong in 2018.
Lit with anthems, drenched in rapturous riffs, this record offers ferocious tunes like the anthemic 'These Four Walls’, ‘Something Worthwhile’ and the stomping ‘Lost in Lust’. Frontman Brad Griffiths’ vocals on ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ echo AC/DC’s Angus Young’s. Recalling bands like Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks, the punky swagger of ‘Are You Entertained?’ is a frenzy of a tune.
Strangely prophetic knowing that the band split up in 2019, ‘What Could Have Been’ becomes a reminder to focus on what was rather than what’s never going to be. A youthful rock and roll classic, the band’s album should be remembered for its authentic, raw quality. (Susan Hansen)
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James Dean Bradfield - Even In Exile
James Dean Bradfield has always wanted to be the frontman in a band - he thrives on collective insight, on using the energy of those around him to bolster his own intensity.
But then Manic Street Preachers needed to take time out. Eager to scratch the studio itch, he collected some words and lyrics from Patrick Jones - brother of Nicky Wire and a renowned writer under his own steam - and started to focus on the life and legacy of Victor Jara.
An enriching, hugely uplifting experience, 'Even In Exile' is a song cycle about the place where progressive politics and music intertwine, where art can inspire social change, and where purity and goodness in the soul of humanity can be found.
Much more than a side project or carefree solo endeavour, it found Bradfield in full creative flight - a terrific listen, 'Even In Exile' felt incredibly timely amid 2020's strange dystopia. (Robin Murray)
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Boy Azooga – 1, 2 Kung Fu!
A gifted musician and songwriter, Davey Newington’s versatility is as mesmeric as the music he makes. - Multi-faceted and nuanced, his debut record is a playful celebration of style. Constituting a joyous listen from start to finish, influences cited are as wide as rap, heavy metal, indie, jazz, folk and more, truly satisfying a genuine thirst for intelligent and imaginative music solutions.
With songs written over a few years, the Cardiff based artist recruited members of bands like Shoebox Orchestra and Afro Cluster to join him for live performances. Signing to Heavenly Recordings represented an enormous opportunity, and numerous events soon followed including a chance to support Liam Gallagher, an appearance on BBC Two’s Later… with Jools Holland, a European and a US tour, and a session at Seattle’s KEXP.
Catering for melodic and rhythmic variety, ‘Loner Boogie’, ‘Breakfast Epiphany’, ‘Face Behind Her Cigarette’, ‘Hangover Square’ and ‘Jerry’ are infectiously unforgettable. (Susan Hansen)
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Super Furry Animals - Mwng
‘Cool Cymru’ was a momentous era that saw a wave of hip bands including the Manic Street Preachers from Wales take the Millennium by storm, pretty impressive for a territory slightly larger than New Jersey. The Super Furry Animals held a particularly special place in this musical movement, who unlike their counterparts, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Cataonia , possessed an affinity to their native language with a collection of tracks with Welsh lyrics.
The band took their mother tongue to places the bards of old only dreamed of, with Grammy nominations and world tours while heroically turning down a seven figure offer from Coca Cola to use one of their songs in an advert.
Mwag (pronounced “moong”) saw the bands lead singer Gruff Rhys release over ten Welsh- language songs he’d been in the process of writing since the band’s conception in 1995. Whilst the album doesn’t reach the anthemic heights of previous releases there is a charming grit to the body of work, a stripped back collection of tracks that act as a sonic nod to rock of old. (Josh Crowe)
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MC Mabon - The Hunt For Meaning
There was certainly a musical movement stirring in Wales at the turn of the millennium, MC Mabon was without doubt at the more experimental end of it. The Celtic nation had always had a boundless affinity with the arts and music, but cold rap flows and garage rock chug were certainly newer additions to its cultural canon.
Whilst many might have pre-empted the Welsh embracing hip-hop as cultural perversion, it really did work. Rather than imitating transatlantic inspirations Gruff Meredith, aka MC Mabon lays claim to his own brand of hip hop. The album is delivered with wry vocals and biting lyrics, tracks like 'Fuck You If U Think You’re Cool' are full to the brim in reckless glory, a toothless and smile and nod to the irony of it all. (Josh Crowe)
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Mclusky - My Pain And Sadness Is More Sad And Painful Than Yours
Mclusky’s debut album is an underrated classic. Everything about it is a sheer joy. Which is fitting as opening track ‘Joy’ just comes at you with abrasive guitars and a chip on its shoulder.
While there will always be something delightful about kids with guitars making a racket it’s Mclusky’s lyrics that really do the damage. They are drenched in bile, in jokes the kind of pathos middle aged comedic writers could dream of. “You're moving to the city, 'cos your village is shit”, and “Wash daily, cos everyone's a hero” have always resonated.
The album’s pinnacle moment is the terse ‘She Come In Pieces’. A searing riff explodes from the speakers filled. It grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go until it drops to the floor in an exhausted mess.
This is arguably as good as Mclusky anything they released until they mutated into Future Of The Left. (Nick Roseblade)
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R. Seliog - Megadoze
Electronic maverick R. Seiliog’s second album is an ambient techno marvel. Ambient in that these subtle techno workouts are underpinned with field recordings of nature and the everyday sounds that bleep in when listening to music, rather than some new age/devotional stuff from the 1990s.
The centre-piece of the album is ‘Vitamin Filter. The first half of song gently builds, adding layers of atmospheric electronics and serene basslines and until it breaks. Then everything comes alive with billowing breakbeats. As its elongated outro kicks in, it sets up the second half of the album perfectly, with hazy electronics and oscillating beats.
This is a singular and esoteric collection of songs. It works equally well when played at an obscene volume to people giddy with excitement or for that quiet and reflective cup of tea after a busy day. (Nick Roseblade)
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Llyn Y Cwn - Dinorwic
Looking at the cover of Llyn Y Cwn’s album ‘Dinorwic’ everything you need to know about the album is hiding in plain sight. The picture depicts Dinorwic a former 700-acre slate quarry in Snowdonia. There is a black and white photo of heavy clouds hanging over a mountain range, while a lake barely moves below.
‘Dinorwic’ is filled with slow-moving textures and tones. Some epic, others subtle, but always moving. Each track is named after a different part of the quarry and touches on themes of industrial, and cultural, desolation. Which, sadly, Wales has always known. You can still see the scars of across the Welsh landscape. Like Dinorwic. The album speaks about how history shapes the present, about how its effects can still be felt today.
This album is as powerful, and tender, as any other album on this list. It discusses feelings of national pride and identity and what happens after industry goes. (Nick Roseblade)
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Stereophonics – Scream Above The Sounds
It might not be the obvious choice for all, but 'Scream Above The Sounds' is one of Stereophonics finest albums. The Welsh rock heroes led by Kelly Jones who has one of the best voices in the industry can do very wrong.
Released 20 years after the striking debut ‘Word Gets Around’, the Stereophonics tenth studio album has an impressive selection of tracks such as the gorgeous ‘Caught By The Wind’ , the surging ‘What’s All The Fuss About’ and the fantastic ‘Never Going Down’ which is one of my favourite tracks to hear live. - With just Jones and a piano, the poignant ‘Before Anyone Knew Our Name’ – a tribute to the late Stuart Cable is emotive and endearing in equal measure.
Without a doubt, Stereophonics know how to play to their strengths – think souring choruses and crunching guitars, ‘Scream Above The Sounds’ showcases Kelly Jones’ strength as one of the UK’s best songwriters and is one of the most under rated albums from their sublime back catalogue. (Emma Harrison)
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The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar
Huge walls of noise. Unforgettable guitar riffs. A cloying sense of claustrophobia juxtaposed ambitiously against a boundless sense of space. The debut album from The Joy Formidable was an ambitious prospect to 21-year-old me. Indeed, 10 years and whole host of cynicism later, 'The Big Roar' is a record whose lofty ambitions still hold up.
For some, the band’s richer, more nuanced, more refined later releases might have warranted inclusion over their debut. But as far as sheer energy, aggression and optimism go, it’s impossible to beat.
From its bold choice of opener in the sprawling seven-minute ‘The Everchanging Spectrum Of A Lie’, to the goosebump-raising catharsis of its shimmering conclusion ‘The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade’, 'The Big Roar' was both a fully formed debut, and a colossal statement of intent from not just one of Wales’ most exciting bands of this century, but one of the UK’s. (Dave Beech)
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Kelly Lee Owens - Inner Song
Kelly Lee Owens’ second album was borne from a period of profound introspectiveness, created during what she described as "the hardest three years of (her) life"; the title an homage to free-jazz musician Alan Silva’s 1972 opus.
A multi-genre offering, Owens traversed club-generated trance and techno on ‘Melt!’, woozy trip-hip on ‘Re-Wild’ and glacial dream-pop balladry with ‘L.I.N.E.’. Integrating narration by avant-garde artist and fellow Welshman John Cale on ‘Corner Of My Sky’, Owens’ requiem to manmade disasters and the natural order added objective weight and lyrical profundity to her own experiences.
An elegantly-rendered, cerebral experience, on ‘Inner Song’ Owens asked her listeners to step away from the travails of their lives into her windswept nirvana. (Shahzaib Hussain)
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Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers
25 years on from his disappearance Richey Edwards remains a potent figure in the lives of fans, with the lyricist, wit, and style icon retaining an extraordinary sense of gravitas as the years pass.
To the remaining members of Manic Street Preachers, though, he was a colleague and a friend. It's this background that justified their decision to use Richey's remaining notebooks - handed to bassist and confidante Nicky Wire - as the bedrock for 2009's extraordinary 'Journal For Plague Lovers'.
A stunning experience, it matches some of the band's most striking, visceral music - since 'The Holy Bible' at least - to those words, perhaps the final published sentences fans will gain from Richey's imagination.
While some fans have always rejected the album, it is quite simply one of Manic Street Preachers' bravest moves, and for this writer one of their most rewarding post-2000 listens. (Robin Murray)
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Gruff Rhys - American Interior
Released in 2014 'American Interior' was Gruff Rhys' fourth studio album, a steady stream of creativity that saw the Welsh songwriter confound expectations at every turn.
A song cycle based on a fabled exploration for a 'lost' Welsh speaking tribe of Native Americans, 'American Interior' looked at Welsh identity from a number of different directions - the diasporic expansions, for one, but also the role that stories and storytelling play in the preservation of culture.
As always with Gruff, the melodic verve and lyrical invention are neatly intertwined - a work of real immediacy 'American Interior' was nonetheless hugely complex, a work that stretched out into a book, a film, and even an app.
The search continues... (Robin Murray)
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Goldie Lookin Chain - Greatest Hits
It's to the enormous chagrin of many a new Welsh MC that the only reference point the London based media seemingly have for Cymru hip-hop is Goldie Lookin Chain. That being said, GLC's ubiquitous comedy rap shouldn't be ignored for its often misguided appearance in album reviews - virtually everything on 'Greatest Hits' is absolute genius.
Production wise it's a loving echo of Golden Age Hip-hop, while lyrically it contains a mixture the crass and the profane, all intermingled with more South East Wales in-jokes that you can shake a stick at.
All the bangers are here - 'Guns Don't Kill People Rappers Do' is present and correct - and it's sheer, straight-down-the-line entertainment from Newport's finest. (Robin Murray)
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Gwenno - Y Dydd Olaf
Activist, songwriter, and former Pipette Gwenno cut her solo teeth across a dizzying four EP run, before releasing the dystopian, Welsh language science fiction full length 'Y Dydd Olaf' in 2014.
A wonderfully imaginative record, it fuses the work of cult Welsh speculative fiction author Owain Owain with her own creativity, matching synth pop lullabies to field recordings.
A beguiling song cycle that focusses on social upheaval and the requirement of direct action for progressive change, 'Y Dydd Olaf' is a record of contradictions - brilliantly immediate while boasting a dense array of complexity, it's an incredible achievement, one that marked Gwenno out as one of the most original artists at work in Wales today. (Robin Murray)
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Los Campesinos! - Romance Is Boring
Picking your favourite Los Campesinos! album is next to impossible. After all, who would you leave out? From the spindly charm of their debut to novelistic elements that adorned 2017's 'Sick Scenes', each occupies a singular universe.
If we literally had to pick, however, then 2010's bruising, ultra-revealing 'Romance Is Boring' would win the day. With producer John Goodmanson at the helm and the band battle-hardened by near-constant touring, Los Campesinos! give it their all on a (we're calling it) career high record, one that arrives soaked in emotion and personal revelation.
Ideas are dense, and the approach multi-faceted - songs like 'Plan A' may feel abrupt, but the density of information imparted is truly breathtaking. With more about-turns than a Scalextric kit, 'Romance Is Boring' is gripping from first second to last. (Robin Murray)
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Cate Le Bon - Reward
High doses of intricacy and complexity are contained on ‘Reward’. It is a record that signals an attempt to find and hold on to meaning in life. Intimate and personal, it is also one where mumbling is the order of the day, and where a lack of clarity is desired, intended and legit.
But permeating the record from beginning to end is the complexity. Expressed through a number of contradictions in songs such as ‘Mother’s Mother’s Magazines’ tackling the idea of “being around a lot of really fed up women”, the track stands in stark contrast to the measured sadness of ‘Home to You’. Also playing with surrealist imagery, polarized effects are created between the biting, tongue-in-cheek nature of ‘Sad Nudes’ and the flowing ease of ‘Magnificent Gestures’, a song that combines rumbling saxophone tones and trippy Ska influences. The sensation is delirious, but clever and effective. The mood is rectified on ‘You Don’t Love Me’ with its clarity and in-your-face lyrics.
Alternating somewhere in a grey zone land of ambiguity, between dream and reality, there is an adaptability and it manifests itself in sparks of humour or deep sincerity, and between cynicism and vulnerability. The effects are profound. (Susan Hansen)
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future of the left - Travels With Myself And Another
Clash could just list its favourite tracks hereand say how they make me feel packing in my job and running away to the Outer Hebrides, but that wouldn’t really do the album justice. ‘Travels With Myself And Another’ contains enough visceral thrills to keep the biggest noise addict happy, but the songs hint at much more than that.
Grappling with the dilemma of defining the modern British male, it never quite finds an answer yet never shies away from the problem, leaving questions that linger for hours, or days. Of course there is a simpler way to enjoy this album – just buy a copy, and PLAY IT FUCKING LOUD.
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