When it comes to year end lists, few folk albums stand a chance. Between the world-altering power of a hip-hop/soul/jazz fusion record like Kendrick Lamar’s, the star-making ascent of Grimes with Art Angels, or even Adele’s fourth quarter record breaking feat 25, where will we find room for quietly strummed acoustic guitar and shivery harmonies? Here. We will find room here, on a list devoted specifically to the genre. This year was jam-packed with incredible folk work, too, so settle in for a nice discovery session in case you’ve been neglecting your, ahem, roots.
20. Alela Diane & Ryan Francesconi — Cold Moon
As Alela Diane was settling into life as a new mother, Portland folk fixture Ryan Francesconi approached her with a series of tangled guitar melodies and suggested she write to them. The resulting record Cold Moon showcases Diane’s storytelling lyricism and Francesconi’s ability to write acoustic lines that are linear and lush. Cold Moon is a series of slim, prickly tunes that rise and set like the moon itself.
19. Zachary Cale — Duskland
Zachary Cale helms a Brooklyn-based label/collective called All Hands Electric, and he’s released five albums–all save one through that label–prior to Duskland. For this, his sixth release, Cale teamed with Philly folk purveyors No Quarter Records, and has rightfully garnered more attention than ever. Cale is a Louisiana native with a knack for slowly friyng folk songs till they’re sizzle, then pulling the heat away at the last second. Duskland purrs along like an old radiator and smokes like an ember; necessary, latent heat from an ever-renewing source.
18. Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear
Honey bear, oh, honey bear. When Josh Tillman left his gig as Fleet Foxes drummer and dreamed up Father John Misty out of thin air, I was intrigued. When I heard Fear Fun, I was a fan girl. After that beatific, addled crash course in fucked-up folk-rock, no one expected Tillman to fall head over heels and deliver us the romantic romp I Love You, Honeybear. So he did just that. Even when he’s a lovesick puppy, Tillman is able to maintain his sardonic, existential musings and keen sense of the baroque. This album is a magnificent peek inside the head and heart of a man who makes absolutely no effort to hide his idiosyncrasies, flaws, and prejudices. Sure, sometimes you have to wade through his bullshit, but he’s never once bullshitted about who he actually is.
17. Chris Weisman — The Holy Life That’s Coming
Chris Weisman hails from the tiny, idyllic haven of Brattleboro, Vermont, and he doesn’t leave much. That lifestyle gives him plenty of time to fiddle with a four track cassette recorder and concoct off-kilter, waltzing folk songs. The Holy Life That’s Coming is more concerned with our menial life on earth, but in Weisman’s slow, capable hands, every day objects achieve their own eternal glory.
16. James Taylor — Before This World
It’s James motherfucking Taylor, so you can’t really call it a comeback. But damn, if Before This World isn’t a glorious return to form I don’t know what is. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak with Taylor about his new album, and his wisdom and grace in conversation are only eclipsed by what his songwriting contains. In a weird fluke, this record is his first album to debut as a number one album, and it’s full of fluid troubadour folk songs that stack up against any of his classics.
15. This Is The Kit — Bashed Out
The music industry is fueled by chance and politics, but if I could personally dismantle whatever has kept Kate Stables from being a household name, I would. Bashed Out is her third full-length album, and her only release to get any sort of traction. So it goes. Stables is capable of making a banjo sound elegant, of making fungus sound like a beautiful part of the world, and of rendering the way life bashes our hopes into something like a peaceful prayer. Stables and her band fabricate burnished folk songs that spit in your eye, then offer you a handkerchief.
14. Tobias Jesso Jr. — Goon
It’s months later and I’m still mooning over Tobias Jesso Jr.’s debut Goon. Jesso seems like another goofy rocker, until he sits down and pours out doomed and delicate ballads about romantic betrayal so raw they get blood on the floor. Jesso is a Randy Newman for the emo generation, a piano aficionado who dreams of Los Angeles, true love and the existence of magic with the unstoppable, blissful optimism most associated with toddlers. Imagine the sentimentality of “Our House” spread across a whole album of psych-folk dreaminess, complete with guaranteed heartbreak and a fractured ego. (And if that actually made you want to listen, please call me.)
13. Joan Shelley — Over And Even
At this point, it’s probably harder to not have read something I’ve written about Kentucky songwriter Joan Shelley. In case you haven’t try here, here, here, and here. As such, I’ve almost run dry of ways to enumerate the pearly blues of her voice, the crackling force of her guitar, the spry slant of her melodies. Over And Even is the latest release in a series of albums and collaborations that Shelley has been party to, but this one is a gala of the finest order. The legendary Will Oldham and Nathan Salsburg show up, among others, and instead of being eclipsed, Shelley shines brighter when accompanied.
12. Long Beard — Sleepwalker
New Jersey dream-folk trio Long Beard are led Leslie Bear, and there’s few better words to describe their debut album Sleepwalker than that title itself. The record lingers somewhere between the lucid and a permanent reverie, and unlike most rookies, Bear is unafraid to mix long, scattered stretches of blurry white noise with her pointed, personal lyrics. Sleepwalker teaches us in a waking dream that there can be precision in wandering, there can be artfulness in disarray.
11. Ryley Walker — Primrose Green
Primrose Green only came out in March, but Ryley Walker already has another joint album with Bill MacKay out — that’s how prolific this 26-year-old guitar playing chameleon is. Walker’s early, tenuous relationship with noise-punk seems finally severed in favor of acoustic spiraling and the Van Morrison-worship that’s spackled across Primrose Green. But an undercurrent of the rebellion still courses underneath these bucolic melodies. The primrose is known for its ability to thrive early in environments where nothing else can, a worthy analogy for the spirit of Walker’s work.
10. Jessica Pratt — On Your Own Love Again
On Your Own Love Again opened what was destined to be a very lonely year for me, so I can personally attest to its comforting properties. Listening to this album is healing, like a hug or a cup of tea is; it’s outwardly simple but deeply complex when examined further. Pratt has a voice that exists outside of time — and I’m convinced it always has — a scratchy soprano hiccup that floats and fills each song like a gentle ghost. The standout is “Back, Baby,” a reflection on time and loss that listens easy as an old Dylan song. Though there’s plenty of comparisons to be made between Jessica and Bob, she’s far more mystical than he was, even when he tried. And her mysticism comes all on her own.
09. Laura Marling — Short Movie
“I don’t believe this shit,” Laura Marling coos with gruff exasperation, then follows it up: “Now I can’t walk alone.” That single snippet from “Walk Alone” sums up her whole discography. Her signature lyrical barbs are constantly twisting in the light of her voice, glinting through each carefully composed folk songs. At 25 Marling is already a mid-career artist, and Short Movie is her fifth album in seven years. Maybe it’s her age that allows Marling the freedom to imbue folk’s traditional somberness with tart expletives and a fearless sense of self-respect. Short Movie embodies its name, and every song is so detailed it does seem to begin emerging visually. This is as a series of tiny vignettes filled with wild love and searing disdain. She sings about heartbreak with no sadness. Mostly, she can’t believe anyone’d have the nerve. Listening to her, I can’t either.
08. Bill Fay — Who Is The Sender?
Who Is The Sender? is one of the most marvelous albums of the year, yet most people probably don’t have any sort of inkling about who Bill Fay is. Credit where it’s due, I wouldn’t either if my old boss at Stereogum Scott Lapatine hadn’t recommended Fay to me. He’s a British singer-songwriter in his 70s who took forty years off, then released an album in 2012 and followed that with another this year. Who Is The Sender? is stately even when it surges electronic through bursts of organ on “How Little,” or gets political on “War Machine.” The title track takes my breath away every single time; the best investigation of God’s connection to music that anyone this side of St. Augustine has done.
07. Julien Baker — Sprained Ankle
It’s impossible to worry about the future when a 20-year-old college student effortlessly produced one of the best albums of the year. Well, even if it wasn’t effortless the stark effervescence of Sprained Ankle is as gripping as a single candle burning in the dark. Each song flickers, frisson and fear dance in shadows, but Baker herself never wavers. As perfect a debut as I’ve ever heard.
06. Sea Lion — Desolate Stars
Desolate Stars is a slurry record full of static and desire. It runs hot and cold like a feverish chill. Consider, cherish the sea breeze stunner “Room,” the drenched-sweat desolation of “Plains,” and the final, flashing conviction of “Desolate Star.” If the beach could talk back to us about every torrid love affair and every tender moment it’s contained, those stories would sound like Desolate Stars. In that way, it feels like Sea Lion has become our translator; these songs hum like a language our mostly liquid bodies respond to intuitively.
05. Patty Griffin — Servant Of Love
Patty Griffin is a case study in determination. Griffin is true grit through and through, a crackling, resilient songwriter who never lets her natural toughness dry her out. Instead, Griffin stays supple and soft, writing songs that positively radiate grace like Servant Of Loves’s title track, or the aching wanderlust of “Rider Of Days.” Griffin’s peacefulness is defiant in its own right, and proof that quiet county zen can is just as radical as any ferocious protest.
04. Joanna Newsom — Divers
If it won’t be written plainly anywhere else, let me state it here for you: Joanna Newsom is a genius. We are not worthy of the lush, serpentine songs that she summons to earth from some unknown height. Whether or not you struggle with the pitch of her voice… is a personal problem. That voice, too, is an instrument that seems barely possible; a feat of fate and choice that will continue to puzzle and please me on every listen. Divers is her finest album, a monumental, high-altitude collection of folk music so strategic it circles back around toward magical. But this is no spell. It’s muscle and brain, strengthened, and growing ever stronger.
03. Little Wings — Explains
If Kyle Field and Josh Tillman are two sides of the same coin, Field is tails. He’s the still-obscure madcap found poet who won’t stop getting better. Explains is one in a long string of equally strange, fascinating albums, and his first for the absolutely essential folk label Woodsist. Field is the Richard Brautigan of folk music, a man who disguises wisdom in nonsense so thoroughly that you begin to wonder which is which.
02. The Weather Station — Loyalty
Tamara Lindeman is a Canadian folk singer who writes gentle songs that scan more like marginalia a wise reader left on a poem than poems themselves. They are sumptuous enough to recall the sweeping, gilded discography of Joni Mitchell, but only the laziest listener would draw that comparison based solely on nationality and gender. No, Tamara is more her own woman than any I’ve had the opportunity to interview, and her music is air-tight, like a study in the art of inverse, or an experiment with passion’s ability to remain austere. Explorations of love aren’t limited strictly to romance, either, but encompass friendships with other women on “Like Sisters” and “Shy Women”–two of the album’s standouts–or parse artistic admiration on “Tapes” and “Life’s Work.” On all of these, the album’s title comes through as a guiding principle, not quite commandment as much as personal chosen tenet. Lindeman’s work reminds us that sometimes the quietest voice is the one most worth listening to, the slowest moments might be the most brilliant, and the most valuable qualities are not visible to the naked eye.
01. The Staves — If I Was
There is a fierceness that is gentle. There is a wildness that is sweet, a grief that is loving. Or if there isn’t, then The Staves are such a hypnotizing force that their sophomore album If I Was has rendered those possibilities definite. Not for nothing have the voices of women been mythically associated with the ability to bend listeners to their will; the three Staveley-Taylor sisters seem to possess the power to alter the course of the universe. Except, nearly every track here is a brooding plea of helplessness blues. They relate injustices of the highest order, like a queen caught in a mud puddle, a generous goddess betrayed by a corrupt mortal. Ironically, Justin Vernon quietly shows up to portray the opposite here, a man enacting good as a force behind the curtain. He orchestrates the magic of these three women without ever stepping into the spotlight, happy to be the vase to their bouquet. So, they bloom bright and fast across eleven songs of devastation, happy to help you hold your pain in tempestuous visions like “Blood I Bled,” or the horror movie loneliness of “The Shining,” or the society side-eyeing “Teeth White.” Instead of making their songs timeless, The Staves made songs that feel like our time. That’s a risk few folk artists are capable of pulling off at all, yet these women have done it victoriously. If you let grief sink its teeth into your heart, if you really let go and give in, eventually, grief loses the grip. You realize not even the scars can hurt you. That realization on “Sadness Don’t Own Me” closes the album with a triumph, sealing off all that love-death like a shovel full of dirt. It is not gone, but it is behind you. You are still here. Stop dwelling in possibilities. There is a love that is ready for you, if you are fierce and gentle. If you are wild and sweet enough to try again. If you will.