The Best Folk Albums Of 2016

12.27.16 5 months ago

Merge Records

Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. So, despite the rap-specific list — where ranking is still next to godliness — we’ve opted to leave the albums that appeared on the overall best list off the genre-specific lists. But even for rap, some albums made the cut for their impact on the that sphere without cracking the best of list. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it is meant to highlight the best work in this genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.

20. Frankie Cosmos, Next Thing

Bayonet Records

Next Thing is a singular step forward from an artist who refuses to be put in a box, or put anywhere, really. It’s hard to characterize Frankie as folk because her music is so pop-focused in a totally lighthearted way, but it’s also easy to fold her into a genre whose most crucial element has always focused on the difficult poetry of bodies and landscapes. On Next Thing Frankie, aka Greta Kline, unearths buried treasure and constructs skyscrapers of emotion centered around the city that raised her, and the expansive world she’s discovered since. But she is sharpest and most at home when it comes to matters of the heart, happily trying to “Embody” her best self, but generous enough to let herself be “Sinister.” Never has a songwriter so earnest been so unscathed by how the world may react to this true-hearted honesty, and we could use more surefooted music like that in 2016.

19. Lambchop, FLOTUS

Merge Records

Whether it’s the weird voice modulator effects, or the gorgeously strummed, wandering melodies, in another universe Lambchop’s FLOTUS would be album of the year. Turns out Bon Iver isn’t the only one dabbling in the glitchy world of folk-infused electronic ballads, which might be the perfect way to describe most of the songs on this album, which is not an ode to Michelle Obama or her predecessors but an acronym that stands for For Love Often Turns Us Still. Considering this band has been making music for well over twenty years, it’s not surprising that this record resonates the way it does, but what is more compelling is how Kurt Wagner has managed to let the world, the sound of his music, and even his band’s lineup, shift around him, without sacrificing any of his provocative, zenned out poetic temper. FLOTUS is a record that should be in a museum dedicated to what the year of 2016 sounded and felt like — blissed out electronica that billows on melodies more akin to memories than anything else. The obsession with time alone slots this record in the folk wheelhouse.

18. Your Friend, Gumption

Domino Records

Your Friend is the project of Taryn Miller, and though she doesn’t use traditionally folk instrumentation, the mood and feeling of this album is perfectly aligned with a pastoral, reflective tradition. As I listened to it throughout the year, I often found myself slotting it alongside other songs and artists who work in a mostly acoustic milieu, so it made most sense to me to include it here. Gumption, unlike the name’s suggestion, is quiet and reflective, but bravery often unfolds that way, too. Miller grew up in Kansas, and ended up creating her debut EP Jekyll/Hyde in 2014 with prize money she won from a battle of the band competition. The brief release immediately caught the attention of Domino Records, who re-released the EP and this year’s debut full-length. Similar to an act like Grouper or Yowler, Miller builds textures and harmonies to create tracks that leave emotional impressions more than linear ones. Gumption‘s footprint is that of an introspective artist with a gorgeous palette learning to paint the world as colorfully as she sees it. Subdued, synthy folk songs with wilderness at their heart.

17. Woods, City Sun Eater In The River Of Light

Woodsist

The psych-folk collective fronted by Jeremy Earl has done more than release nine albums of memerizing music, they’ve also created an entire community and support system through their Woodsist label. And despite the band’s longevity, City Sun Eater In The River Of Light was still a step forward for them; they managed to incorporate new rhythms are lushness into their tried-and-true Americana roots. Read my full review of the record from earlier this year here.

16. Aldous Harding, Aldous Harding

Flying Nun

Technically this album is a re-release, so it’s been overlooked a bit this year, but Aldous Harding is too delicate and elegant a record to go unnoticed. The New Zealand singer-songwriter has worked with various American artists who have well-established presence here, including Perfume Genius, Eleanor Friedberger and Mutual Benefit, but listening to her solo work, it’s clear that Harding was not meant to be a backup singer, nor a collaborator waiting in the wings. Her songwriting is supple and sure, her melodies are traditionally folk, but updated with strange twists that make the songs bizarre and beautiful. Clearly, Harding is a songwriter in the folk space to watch, and her willowy, weird self-titled debut only cements that.

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