With it being St. David’s Day, why not celebrate a country that has been punching above its weight, pound for pound, when it comes to music. Although Wales only has a population of just over three million people, the proud natives of the country have never been too far out of the musical vicinity and remains a country that can swing with anywhere else in Europe.
Music is the beating heart of Wales. It’s one of the most closely associated things about the fine nation, along with their penchant for rugby, a hard day’s drinking and finishing off the session with something to sober you up from down Cardiff’s famous Chippy Lane.
There’s a cliched look at Wales from a-far, one which plays on hyperbole to characterise the average Welsh person, but one thing that can’t be disputed is the importance of music in knitting the country together.
Tom Jones perfectly summarised the change in the culture of Wales over the last half a century and how music is one ingredient that hasn’t disappeared but only grown in prominence. “I think Wales is starting to lose its image as a coal mining country. But I know for a fact that people now know Wales as the Land of Song – they know people love to sing. So music is the thing people think about now when they think of Wales.”
He isn’t wrong. As Jones says, music is what most outsiders first think of when they look at Wales and in this feature, we will be looking at exactly why that is by celebrating seven of the most essential acts to have made it out of Cymru. Although these artists all come from different eras, one thing that brings them together is their pride in their Welshness.
Let’s take a look, below.
The best Welsh artists of all time
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci are a legendary cult band. Although the group disbanded back in May 2006, they retain an undying fanbase who love their fusion of psychedelia, folk and alt-rock. Heady and emotive, their work was consistently refreshing over the ‘90s and ‘00s when mainstream rock was primarily concerned with drivel. Formed in Carmarthen in 1991, they were lumped in as part of the Cool Cymru movement, although the only thing that tied them to the scene was the fact they were Welsh. The way they sang in Welsh and English remains brilliant, and it created a mystical aura, instilling their music with a timeless feel.
Their 1992 debut album Patio, was described by Welsh hero, John Cale as his “favourite album ever”, which clearly reflects the kind of listeners they attracted with their captivating work. Fusing the work of Kevin Ayers with elements of Belle and Sebastian, it’s now the 16th year that we’ve been awaiting their return.
The Joy Formidable
The Joy Formidable make a strong claim for being the most underrated Welsh musical artist of all time. When they first broke onto the scene towards the end of the ‘00s, the trio captivated audiences with their blend of shoegaze, post-punk and dream pop. Fronted by the enigmatic Ritzy Brian, they’re capable of providing some punishing soundscapes, as many of their live sets show.
In many ways, they’re everything you want from a guitar band. There are pounding basslines, big riffs, emotive elements, and hooky earworms that have you pressing repeat after almost every song. They’re so good that in 2011 after they dropped ‘Whirring’, ex-Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman, Dave Grohl, took to Twitter to personally thank the band for writing the song of the year. He wrote: “I would like to personally thank The Joy Formidable for writing the song of the year “Whirring”. xxx Dave”.
Funeral for a Friend
Let’s be honest, many of you probably didn’t expect to see post-hardcore outfit Funeral for a Friend on this list, however, it would have been a travesty if they didn’t make the cut. Incredibly influential in the British post-hardcore scene, their 2003 debut album Casually Dressed & Deep in Conversation, set the standard for all emo-leaning albums moving forward, and they remain lauded to this day. There was a time when you’d see them on nearly every major festival lineup, owing to the sheer number of bangers they had.
Whether it be ‘Juneau’, ‘Streetcar’ or ‘Into Oblivion’, they have many classics, and whilst you may think their music slightly dated, I personally argue that it holds up a lot better than many of their sweep-fringed peers. To not see them on the lineup for this year’s When We Were Young festival in Nevada is genuinely shocking. Combining the sounds of Deftones, Iron Maiden and Glassjaw, there’s a lot to love about Funeral for a Friend. Be prepared to mosh once again.
Manic Street Preachers
Manic Street Preachers was first formed in 1986, and their story is one of the most remarkable in the world of rock. The group have released thirteen studio albums so far and survived their inspirational member Richey Edwards going missing in 1995 when the Manics were at the height of their fame. To lose a vital member of the band in such tragic circumstances could have derailed any band, but, somehow, the Manics continued and, over 25-years on, are still making important records.
Nine of their thirteen studio albums have charted in the top-five in the UK charts, making them one of the most successful alternative bands of the last few decades. Their Welshness is something that they have always embraced. In 2016, they recorded the track ‘Together, Stronger’ ahead of Wales’ Euro 2016 campaign, which became the country’s unofficial national anthem.
Kelly Lee Owens
Kelly Lee Owens is one of the finest electronic artists that Britain has seen over the last decade. Last year she released the follow-up to her much-adored 2017 self-titled debut begins infectiously with a reimagining of Radiohead song ‘Arpeggi’ from In Rainbows. From there, the sonic journey that Inner Song takes the listener on is wild and feels like the truest form of escapism. In 2020, it was a crucial moment of reprieve, a blissful escape from the world.
Inner Song sees Owens grow the courage to sing on the album, and this development to her artistry has paid off immensely. The record sees Owens find her voice in both a literal and figurative sense. The collaboration with The Velvet Underground’s John Cale on ‘Corner Of My Sky’ is another highlight which sees two Welsh icons collide. Owens has created this immersive world that makes her a mercurial talent of the most inviting calibre, and her career is only going to flourish further.
John Cale is an understated artist. His role in The Velvet Underground saw Cale become one of the most prolific forces for alt-pop greatness and pushed the musical boundaries into a whole new sphere. Whilst he is viewed as one of the kings of New York cool, Cale was born and raised in Garnant, Wales, which developed him into the man he is today.
Cale’s upbringing in Wales was far from perfect due to his family life, and he always felt like an outsider, which wasn’t helped by the fact that his mother banned him from speaking English in the home, meaning that he couldn’t communicate with his father. He always dreamt of escaping from Garnant, and you don’t get places much more polar opposite to the small Carmarthenshire town than the hustle and bustle of New York City. Even though his early years in Wales were painful, Cale still regularly comes home and shares a bond with the country that’s impossible to shake.
Super Furry Animals
Super Furry Animals are one of the essential bands from the Britpop era. Whilst they never got the fame or riches of an Oasis or Blur, they were of more significance in the eyes of thousands. The Gruff Rhys led outfit, who are currently on hiatus since 2016, formed in 1993 and became a stalwart of Creation Records in the mid to late 90s when the label was the place to be in British music.
The band found themselves lumped in, initially, with the rest of the emerging bands that rose to prominence throughout the days of Britpop. However, after a couple of albums, it became clear that the Furry’s were much more than your typical indie band. They fused all these different sub-genres and styles to create a vast expansive pallet of sounds that deservedly made them one of Britain’s most acclaimed groups.
Tom Jones is single-handily one of the first things that come to mind when Wales is brought up in any conversation, and he’s been waving the Welsh flag profusely in the public eye for close to half a century. Whilst Jones would even admit that his career has had its fair share of peaks and troughs, right now, he’s releasing music that’s as fascinating as anything he’s done before.
Jones thrived in the swinging sixties and became a star that has reinvented himself on numerous occasions. The Welshman is one of the first real superstars of music and has always embraced his home country whenever he has had the opportunity to do so. His repertoire speaks for itself, and Jones is placed firmly in the pantheon of greats of British music.
Catfish and The Bottlemen
Over the last decade, Catfish and The Bottlemen have made the arduous journey from playing car parks outside Arctic Monkeys gigs in arenas to selling out those very same venues they would travel to in a bid to find potential fans of their band.
Their journey has been slow and steady, but now they have seemingly reached the destination. Whilst their success isn’t down to them reinventing the wheel musically, there’s no denying that they put on one hell of a live show that has helped elevate the Llandudno natives and explains why they are headlining Reading & Leeds this summer. They’ve released three albums, which have all landed in the top ten and have become one of the prosperous British guitar bands since they launched their debut album, The Balcony, in 2014.
Of course, we couldn’t even begin to think about a list of Wales’ greatest artists without paying special mention to Dame Shirley Bassey. Arguably the country’s greatest female vocalist of all time, Bassey’s contribution to music stretches far beyond her music and has raised her status to that of a mythical goddess.
Starting her career in the early fifties, Bassey soon became a powerhouse performer in the sixties, representing a slice of Black British culture for the first time. Though she enjoyed some success beforehand, it was her singing of the title song of James Bond’s Goldfinger that truly put Bassey on the map. Since then she has continually gained admirers for her impressive lungs and ability to make anything she sings sound like butter.