The Best Folk Albums Of 2016

caitlin-white
Managing Editor, Music
12.27.16

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.

15. Eddi Front, Marina

Eddi Front

Because of timing, money, and the constrains of releasing music independently, the artist behind Eddi Front, Ivana Carrescia, is already making new music under a different name. Her work as Gioia is gorgeous electronic, looped collaborations with Nick Sylvester of Godmode. But despite the gap between when Eddi Front first emerged, back in 2012, and the release of her full-length Marina, this remains one of the year’s most spectral, captivating albums. Carrescia tackles subjects like divorce and karaoke with the same grace, imbuing them with a sense of chilly grief that is at least comforting in its skeletal beauty. Marina is a foggy piano-driven album about heartbreak, moving on, and the pain that sticks around no matter how many years go by. At least, that’s something we all share.

14. Mutual Benefit, Skip A Sinking Stone

Mom + Pop Records

Jordan Lee’s life changed dramatically back in 2013 when his band’s first studio album Love’s Crushing Diamond became one of the most celebrated folk records of the year. Returning three years later after extensive touring, Lee and Mutual Benefit are still very much focused on the defining and shattering power of love on Skip A Sinking Stone. “Love is the loudest of sounds” goes a lyric on one of the album’s early singles and de facto title track, “Skipping Stones,” and the record only continues to build on that sentiment, walking through the different stages of falling for someone, and the so often inevitable process of untangling. Lee narrates this journey with a sense of peacefulness that’s reflected in the waltzing folk collective who support him, and the result is an album that manages to address loss without ever falling into grief itself. Instead, Lee finds hope and beauty, even in the end of something, a feat for any songwriter, much less one who is still so young.

13. Mothers, When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired

Grand Jury

Folk in 2016 began with a bang with the super-charged, silvery debut release from Athens-based band Mothers. The record, called When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired, is full of fierce, fated tracks that fold in on themselves like seashells, and are flecked with glitter and grit. The band is led by Kristine Leschper, who writes the songs that interrogate the human experience with the intensity of a detective on the hunt. Yet, Leschper is never detached, instead thrusting her worst moments into the limelight and letting us decided for ourselves whether she is overreacting, asking for forgiveness, or both. In that way, When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired becomes the perfect tool for your own personal soul-searching. It’s a tough thing to do, but sometimes the exhaustion that comes from moving forward is more fulfilling than any resting on laurels could’ve been.

12. Ryley Walker, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung

Dead Oceans

Ryley Walker is one of the most prolific guitarists and singer-songwriters currently working. Following his Dead Oceans breakout last year, Primrose Green, Walker has since released both another solo album and one collaborative effort, Land Of Plenty was his instrumental guitar record with Bill MacKay that also arrived last year, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung is his newest solo work. For all the ways Primrose Green moved toward jazz and soul, danced with blues and R&B amid the folk-first inclinations, Golden Sings builds on those foundations ten fold. But, instead of lingering in the instrumentation, Walker is using his voice more than ever, and lyrically this record is also a cut above his last release. With this kind of progress, it’s only a matter of time until Walker becomes a household name, assuming the mantle of Van Morrison before him, a folk-jazz-psych songwriter that he so clearly seeks to emulate.

11. Mount Moriah, How To Dance

Merge Records

The alt-folk of this North Carolina trio feels all the more compelling given the battleground their state has become. I wrote extensively about this record earlier this year, and we had the privilege of premiering the video for their title track a couple months ago. The video is an attempt to portray some of what a transgender child might go through as they grapple with their own experience of the world around them, and perceptions of themselves. It is powerful. But, it is only powerful because of the smoky, mournful music that accompanies it. Heather McEntire’s desire to give misfits an anthem has manifested into one of the best records of the year. Sturdy, playful songs of hope and determined ferocity, with no bite but plenty of sting.

10. Steve Gunn, Eyes On The Lines

Matador Records

Initially, Steve Gunn was a name I knew because he was a member of Kurt Vile’s Violators band, and I was a massive Vile fan. But eventually, Gunn’s name kept cropping up in other places. I learned he had work on drone projects, put out his own untitled work on CDRs, and was thrilled when one of my favorite labels, Paradise Of Bachelors, picked him up for a pair of records, Time Off and Way Out Weather. After establishing himself as a solo artist in his own right, Gunn decided to make another change — Eyes On The Lines, his first release for Matador Records, is decidedly noisier than his past work under his own name, which is much more akin to pastoral guitar finger-picking. We talked about his decision to go to eleven, among other things, earlier this year, and Eyes On The Lines remains one of the best records this year to listen to when you’re going through transitions. For many of us, that was quite often in 2016. Gunn has crafted a set of wiry, crackling songs that will spur a change in you, if one isn’t already on the way.

9. Lucy Dacus, No Burden

Matador Records

This record took many people by surprise this year, and after a quiet small release saw wider release in the fall via Matador Records. Dacus is from Richmond, Virginia, and originally was studying for a degree in film before she dropped out to pursue music full-time. Thank god she did, No Burden is a darkly funny, tongue-in-cheek record driven by steely bass lines and her curiously retreating alto, which delivers lines packed with emotional language in an unmistakable deadpan. This record is a lean, sleek debut of spare folk-rock that veers toward dreamy, then jerks right back into sarcasm. It’s the ideal first statement from an artist who is still largely an unknown.

8. Cass McCombs, Mangy Love

Anti- Records

Cass McCombs is the mangiest folk songwriter currently doing the thing, so it seems fitting he embrace that with all his might and name his latest Mangy Love. Know for his reclusive nature and distaste for the music industry game, McCombs has opted to hole up whenever and wherever he can to write meandering, bizarre folk songs that seek to live inside the heads of others, and narrate that experience. I spoke with McCombs earlier this year about his writing process, and collaborating with Angel Olsen. His answers were as cagey as the songs contained on Mangy Love, and both are well worth exploring further.

7. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker

Sony

Ah, the task of writing about an album that assumes a new weight given the sudden death of its creator. You Want It Darker was easily one of the year’s best folk records, but since Cohen’s death has us all revisiting his back catalogue, I have begun to think it’s actually one of the best albums he’s ever done. Cohen’s gravelly voice and ferocious wit make any song he performs a trip, and perhaps like Bowie, he realized he was about to leave us, and Darker would be a welcome relief to fill the ensuing void. These are plummy, velvety songs about desperation, deep love, and leaving things behind.

6. Itasca, Open To Chance

Paradise Of Bachelors

Itasca’s Open To Chance is the first studio album with a band that songwriter Kayla Cohen has released. The mist of Laurel Canyon hangs heavy over this LA-based songwriter’s tentative debut, it’s her first for Paradise Of Bachelors, and I can’t help but note her similarity to another artist on the roster, the Canadian-based, magnificent Weather Station. Both women create stately, waltzing tunes that are infinitely more valuable due to the addition of each woman’s soft, impeccable alto singing voice. In folk, many musicians get away with scratchy, odd, or even markedly bad voices (Dylan, we see you), but one of Cohen’s greatest weapons is how beautiful her voice is, it draws the listener in with ease, and then rescinds, allowing you to refocus on her incredible guitar work, and the rest of the song. Open To Chance will surely continue to resonate well into 2017, and points toward greater heights for this emerging artist.

5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree

Bad Seed Ltd.

The full story of Nick Cave’s latest album couldn’t be told in song, so Cave enlisted his longtime friend, filmmaker Andrew Dominik to capture some of the time his family spent struggling with grief over the tragic death of their teenage son Arthur. While the film is focused around the tunes on the record, Skeleton Tree, and most of these were in some stage of completion prior to his son’s death, it’s impossible to explain the way a loss of this caliber seeps into every crack and corner. So too, Skeleton Tree is one of the most compelling folk records of the year, because it gives grief many faces and many forms, allows an outpouring over a single event to shape shift into characters in countless stories. It is not easy to make a record like this one, but it is so so necessary, and will continue to be necessary to the growth and healing of others for a long time to come.

4. Van Morrison, Keep Me Singing

Exile Productions Ltd.

Did you even know that Van Morrison put out a new album this year? Good thing I’m here to do this for you, because Morrison’s latest Keep Me Singing is a full-fledged, open-hearted record spiked with his signature jazz, gospel and soul. It’s a record about falling in love, and missing those who are gone, and looking underneath the dark curtain of a long life lived for the bright strip of light at the bottom. Morrison is reflecting on his legacy, sure, but he’s also determined to keep adding to it until the very last moment. If he can keep singing like this, at 71, you can get over whatever unrequited love, or lost job, or setback that is currently blocking your happiness. Or hey, if you can’t, there is almost no one better to be unhappy with than Van Morrison. Check out “Every Time I Hear A River” if, like me, you’re spending this holiday season pining over a long lost love. There’s so much company inside misery, especially if you love folk music. Even if your romantic love remains unrequited, there are plenty of fellow lost hearts here to commiserate with, and commiserating can be a form of love in of itself.

3. Big Thief, Masterpiece

Saddle Creek

There’s nothing like a brand new band who blow you out of the water from the very first moment. Masterpiece seemed like a rather arrogant title to me when I first encountered Big Thief, but the truth is, Adrianne Lenker is just telling it like it is. There is so much power in knowing your own worth. On her debut record, Lenker explores lo-fi, skeletal musings and bigger, bolder jams like the title track. But across it all, Lenker and her band have the confidence of a band who know they’re onto something really, really good. What’s there left to do after your first record is a masterpiece? Why, tear it all down and build something entirely different, of course. My money is on the second Big Thief album as the real f*cking game changer. In the meantime, get familiar with this record, you’re going to want to brag deep cuts to your friends in a few months time.

2. Hiss Golden Messenger, Heart Like A Levee

Merge Records

I have so much respect for Hiss Golden Messenger. Eventually, the Sturgill Simpson effect will probably fall into place for MC Taylor and his crew, and I’ll have to begrudgingly share them with newcomers who will assume that Heart Like A Levee — or its follow up — is the debut record from this storied folk group. Now that they’re on Merge Records, that day is bound to come sooner than later, and Heart is certainly an example of how much Taylor and his band have grown as their stages get bigger, and their music becomes better known. But, this is a band so special that sometimes I hope I’m the only who has ever heard of them. Even as they move farther into lush psych-rock territory, Taylor’s knack for honing in on specific, visceral phrasing, “Like A Mirror Loves A Hammer” for example, keeps them firmly entrenched in the realm of folk.

1. Angel Olsen, My Woman

Jagjaguwar

Folk is a feeling, and a strain of being more than it’s an acoustic sound or a fiddle, and for this list I have been striving to reflect that. Angel Olsen’s My Woman is a bleeding edge album that makes a serious play for the electric side of things, and she’s had to fight hard against those who would keep her half-mic’d in a bedroom. Not me — I love the tempestuous, demanding rock of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” the measured, twangy depth of “Heart Shaped Face,” the bleating, desperate psychedelia of “Never Be Mine.” These are much stronger, bigger sentiments than the lo-fi folk of Half Way Home, or even the smoldering Burn Your Fire For No Witness, and they need the extra buttressing of the music to contain Olsen’s steadfast dedication to her own heart.

It feels so good to hear a woman who knows herself so well articulate the devastating letdown that we encounter on a regular basis, and make no attempt at masking just how brutal these situations can be. But the brutality never wins, Olsen rises above by embracing her whole hearted desires and disappointments with a compassion and tenderness that we rarely hear anyone extend toward themselves. By articulating her anger, pain, and sadness, Olsen reclaims the validity of these emotions for the rest of us, and My Woman works like a template for female survival in an uncaring universe. “I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone,” Angel asserts on the final song here, “Pops,” but more than that, she gives us proof that we can live through the death of the dream, and still have something to say.

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